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Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 1: Epistemology and Worldview)

By Jonathan Pruitt 


Humanity can have some moral knowledge without encountering the written Word of God. People throughout the world know that the proposition, “it always wrong to torture children for fun” is true. The Bible itself says that at least some moral knowledge is available through general revelation (Romans 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is deficient in several ways and requires the Bible for completion. I will argue that though there is natural moral knowledge, that it is deficient in its scope and authority and that the Bible, as the written Word of God, meets the conditions required for moral knowledge. And finally, I will specify how the Bible supplements the moral knowledge available through general revelation. My suggestion is that the Bible confirms what is properly known by nature and “pure’ reason, it corrects moral misunderstandings in moral knowledge, and it calls humanity to go beyond what can be naturally known to a complete vision of the moral life in Christ. The moral knowledge available in the Bible has the power it does precisely because it is the written Word of God under Jesus Christ for he is Lord and thus has the power to impose upon us moral duties and because as man he reveals, enacts, and makes possible eudaimonia or the good life. So why is the Bible necessary to compete our knowledge of the human good and human moral obligations?

Epistemology and Moral Knowledge

Though this question seems straightforward, it raises difficult and complex issues in epistemology. The question assumes that the Bible is a source of a particular kind of knowledge, moral knowledge, and that it is a superior source than any other available to humankind. This claim is controversial because many doubt the Bible’s credibility as a source of knowledge in general (the claim is that it is merely the work of men or that is has been severely compromised in its transmission), but many more doubt that adopting the ethics of the Bible would count as a gain in human moral knowledge. For example, Peter Enns argues that the morality of the Old Testament does not reflect the will of a good God, but merely adapts the “accepted cultural norms of the day.”[1] The Bible teaches a Bronze Age ethic which should be discarded in light of human moral progress. Not only is the Bible merely the work of men, it is the work of morally unenlightened ones; that is the idea. I will return to assess this claim later, but Enns’ view serves as an important and popular foil for the thesis I am proposing. What sort of argument can be given to support the idea that the Bible is a source of moral knowledge? Here the work of Karl Barth will provide some illumination.

Karl Barth argued that the “The Bible is the Word of God.”[2] Often, Barth is interpreted as meaning that the Bible becomes the Word of God only when God elects to use it as it is proclaimed in the Church. Further, the Bible itself does not communicate the Word of God, but rather, it is merely the vehicle by which divine encounter occurs (a view called “occasionalism”). However, John Morrison suggests that this view fundamentally misunderstands Barth. According to Morrison, Barth holds that the Word of God “always has the character of an event, and Scripture thus ‘becomes’ in/as an event.”[3] The “event” is God’s decision to speak in and through the Bible; this speaking is the result of divine decision and is “ever present.”[4] It is in this way that Barth identifies the Bible with the Word of God. But why should we think Barth’s account is correct?

Barth does not think that the veracity of the Bible can be established on the basis of authority external to it. Man does not grasp the Bible, “the Bible has grasped at man.”[5] What Barth is proposing is a Trinitarian worldview where God the Father speaks through his Son, the Word, and this Word is applied or realized by the power of the Holy Spirit. Man is a finite and limited creature and so knowledge of God comes only by divine grace. If this worldview is assumed, it does not make sense to try to establish the authority and veracity of the Bible as the Word of God on the basis on anything outside of the Bible.[6] Any endeavor like this would be contradictory to Barth’s view. More specifically, Barth’s answer to the question of how can know that the Bible is the Word of God is that he can know this because it is actually the case: “The possibility of revelation is actually to be read off from its reality in Jesus Christ. Therefore at bottom the individual explanation to which we now proceed can be only a reading and exegesis of this reality.”[7]

A superficial reading of Barth might lead to his dismissal as a fideist, but this would be a mistake. Showing why this would be a mistake will require the defense of another contentious thesis: all epistemological positions are inherently theological. If, for example, we adopt a view like Cartesian foundationalism, then we have made certain assumptions that have theological significance. Anthropologically, we have made assumptions about the kinds of things we are, along with the limits of our cognitive powers, and our relation to the world. Cosmologically, we have assumed that world is the sort place that is knowable and comprehensible, even if the comprehensibility extends only to our own thoughts. Morally, we have assumed that we have certain intellectual duties that must be fulfilled, namely we must establish all our beliefs on the basis of what can be deductively ascertained from within the mind of a human individual. In other words, epistemological methods imply a worldview or a view about ultimate reality and human nature. This is perhaps why Calvin argues that “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”[8] These issues are inherently theological and so one cannot help but beg the question for a worldview to some extent. Considering this, Barth should not be understood as a fideist, but as person who takes seriously the connection of epistemology and worldview. Barth has an honesty and clarity about his assumptions and their implications that few alternative views could claim.

But if epistemology and worldview share this deep connection, then how can we discern what account of our moral knowledge is correct in light of the challenges coming from scholars like Peter Enns? What I propose, then, is that the way to determine whether the Bible is necessary to complete our knowledge of the good and the right, is to apply two kinds of tests. First, is the worldview which claims to account for moral knowledge internally coherent? Does it make any assumptions that conflict with each other or its conclusions? Second, what account of moral knowledge best explains our most deeply held moral intuitions? If, for example, we find that the biblical vision of shalom more deeply resonates with us than Aristotle’s vision of the polis, then that is a reason to think that the biblical account is more likely the correct one.

[1] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation : Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Kindle location 601.

[2] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 513.

[3] John Douglas Morrison, Has God Said?, The Evangelical Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick, 2006). 155.

[4] Ibid. 156.

[5] Barth. 110.

[6]Though this does not mean that one could not confirm the veracity of the Bible in other ways. The point is that the Bible has its own authority as a source of knowledge; its has this authority both ontologically and epistemically. Ontologically, that authority cannot be supplemented by anything else. Epistemically, nothing else is required, but arguments that corroborate the Bible would be appropriate.

[7] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,2), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 31.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Christian Classics Ethereal Library 1845). Chapter 1, section 1.


Image: “Grandma’s Bible” by Andrew Seaman. CC License. 

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