Bruce has more to say about Christian epistemology in his latest post, titled Should Christians hand-over their eternal salvation to… historians? Romantic Christianity at the cutting-edge.
He is wrestling with one of the two foundational issues of the Protestant Reformation: How do we know Christian truth? Who or what is the ultimate authority and source of our knowledge of Christian truth?
This is not just a historic, Reformation-era issue. Because contemporary times are characterized by the catastrophic failure of so many of society’s authorities, many, many people are wrestling with this vital question. Bruce is like the canary in the coal mine.
As in my pervious post on this topic, my comments are left-justified, and Bruce’s words and Scriptural quotations are block-quoted.
At the cutting-edge of experienced-life –
The Church = What (some) Historians Say.
All claims of knowledge reduce to intuition/s; but for traditionalist Christians, the baseline intuition is that The Truth is a matter of history; and history is known through the work of ‘historians’ – broadly conceived.
No, truth is a matter of What Really Happened. But What Really Happened is not available for us to inspect directly. We must rely on secondary sources.
But we do not believe these secondary sources just because they say so. They must make a persuasive case, based on generally accepted modes of reasoning and the common experience of their likely readers.
For example. Christian teachers should point to the written Word of God, the Bible. They must point to the actual words used, along with their conventionally accepted meanings. Sometimes the full meaning cannot be known without additional, specialized knowledge, such as the unique nuances of meaning possessed by the original Greek or Hebrew words, or by the unique cultural customs of ancient times to which the text of Scripture refers or alludes.
But in all cases, the meaning is a matter of publicly-available knowledge (even if highly specialized knowledge.)
Whenever a Christian makes a statement about the past, about what happened, and how things were (for example in the life of Jesus or The Church – whichever he adheres-to); in practice the implication is that ‘history’ defines truth.
How can we know this history?
Well, if we regard the church as primary, then in some sense we are saying that true knowledge of history lies outside our-selves. That we cannot be a Christian (or, at least, not properly) without this historical knowledge…
You cannot be a proper Christian without knowing What Really Happened, which includes What Jesus Really Taught.
This knowledge is mediated to us by “historians,” but the historians do not have authority. When they function correctly, they act much like scientists. [I mean real scientists, not contemporary “trust-the-science!” scientists.] They are like scientists in that their only authority is to testify to a truth that they did not control and that is in principle accessible to anyone with the requisite background knowledge and skills. “Replicability” is the technical term.
Christianity is indeed an historical faith, intrinsically – based on Jesus making interventions in reality at some historical point.
For the Christian this history is true. Yet true by what account, by what authority?
Too often this is understood to mean that being a Christian means accepting the authority of (one or another bunch of) historians – as primary.
Thus Christians put themselves in the position of being at the mercy of ‘historians’ (including scholars of many stripes – historical linguists, archaeologists, translators and editors, theological interpreters (the modern informing us about, and interpreting, the ancients) etc.
This sort of thing is not unique to Christianity. Virtually all of our knowledge is mediated to us through experts. [Real experts, that is. Not the “trust-the-experts!” experts.] But this knowledge is in principle accessible to us, if we had the requisite background knowledge and skills, or if we were in position to witness what they observed.
The point is, religious knowledge of what Jesus did and said is not “mystical” knowledge, accessible only to an elite. If Jesus really did and said what the Gospels say He did and said, it was accessible to everybody at the time. So our challenge is to decide if the existing record convinces us.
Yes, in some senses it could be a fake. But the more you know about it the less likely this seems. [Here I merely summarize a vast ocean of apologetics in order to stick to the point.] And this issue can never be avoided. Everything “could be a fake.” But if it is important to you, you study it and then you go where the evidence points.
According to church-primary Christianity; that which Christians are called upon to believe and the ways they are called upon to live, are rooted in historical work… yet are we really so confident about handing over our immortal souls to historians?
I Am Not! I am not at all confident about handing over my eternal salvation to the work of historians and other scholars.
Why should I accept one selected and specifically interpreted set of historical statements, upon which to base my mortal life and resurrection – when there are so many and contradictory statements of history?
Everything important has contradictory accounts. So you roll up your sleeves, start studying the evidence and what people – – including the learned – – say about it, and when you have enough evidence you make your decision. Consider a sample of what Scripture says about this:
John 16:12, 13:
[Jesus speaking] I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth [the Holy Spirit], comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
The Spirit of Truth always operates with the Scriptures, clarifying them and bringing the individual to trust what they say. He does not put extra-scriptural ideas into our minds:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
2 Timothy 3:16,17
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
1 Thessalonians 5:19—21:
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.
To answer my own question: I would only accept a particular version of history when it has been validated at the deepest and most enduring level by what could be called intuition: when my deepest-possible, sustained reflection on the matter tells me that this particular history is true: even if not 100% true in every possible respect – that it is true in the ways that matter.
What this means is that faith rests ultimately upon such intuitions – and therefore does Not rest upon any external source of knowledge. External knowledge must be checked against intuition. In different language: our faith needs to be confirmed by ‘personal revelation’ – as the Mormons term it.
“Faith… ultimately…does Not rest upon any external source of knowledge.” But without external information you are trapped in your own subjective world. External knowledge is necessary.
“External knowledge must be checked against intuition.” Yes. But the reverse is also true since intuition, like all forms of knowing, can be wrong. See my post Presuppositional Apologetics: Using intuition to Discover Truth and Defend Christendom and America.
Intuition is a balance. Reality is outside of us (except for our inner states, which are the one inner part of reality), but we must generate and accept true knowledge of outside reality inside ourselves.
Such intuition is an ongoing process, which never ends in this mortal life; which is why our faith is a living and renewing thing – or else it dies.
Agreed, if “intuition” is understood correctly.
But having reached the insight that our faith rests upon this internal knowing – this personal revelation; then we may further recognize that this internal knowing is not restricted to confirming externally-derived information.
When our personal revelations have confirmed that we are sons and daughters of God, and that the ascension of Jesus Christ made possible our communing and consultation of The Holy Ghost for knowledge and guidance…
Then we may realize that intuition (in this sense) may be a primary source of Christian knowledge and guidance – independent of external sources: independent of churches.
But not independent of God’s Word (the Bible), which God intends to be the tool that rescues and shapes us. And God superintended the written record of His Word so that it is understandable to us.
And this insight and affirmation is (more-or-less) Romantic Christianity. It amounts to the personal revelation that we ought not to handover our external salvation to ‘historians’ and their like.
To live (unconsciously, spontaneously) by external guidance was natural and necessary in the past, in many civilizations – but it is nowadays neither necessary: nor indeed possible.
Modern Men cannot do what ancient Men universally did – and our choice is therefore between denial and acknowledgement of how we actually do live (when at our best): as autonomous agents, as choosing consciousnesses; guided by intuitions from our own divinity and the Holy Ghost…
Bruce acknowledges that, as he puts it, “living by external guidance” was natural and necessary in the past. But man’s fundamental condition has not changed. It has always been the case that some external guidance is sound, some is not. It will always be the case that we must seek inner confirmation of outer reality.
We can only know such intuitions for our-selves – from our-selves – and in our actual circumstances; and these may guide us to a particular denomination and church; to particular persons and books and statements, and what we ought to think/say/do – Or Not, as the case may be.
The aim being to bring us to affiliate with God and creation in the spiritual war; aiming after mortal death to follow Jesus Christ to resurrected life in Heaven.
We can by such means – and at the cutting-edge of actually being-experienced life – learn those churches, teachings, ‘histories’ which are in-accord-with truth, and help these aims – and learn to detect and reject those which are not.
I agree. “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”
Note added concerning Mormonism – a case study of personal revelation:
The Book of Mormon was published in 1830. According to the scholarship of Terryl Givens; the BoM is broadly highly compatible with the Bible. Its production functioned mainly as a sign that new Christian revelations were being made by God, via a new prophet. But the BoM has one theological innovation, which is that individuals ought to seek personal revelations to confirm all significant and foundational Christian claims.
I believe the traditional Mormon term for this personal revelation is a “burning in the bosom.”
For example the BoM itself served as an instrument of conversion. The missionary would ask an individual to read the book, then seek personal revelation as to its truth. If revelation confirmed the truth of the BoM, then this was (pretty much) sufficient for baptism – which might follow immediately or very soon. This process has striking similarities with the almost instant conversions described in the Gospels, and Acts of the Apostles – such as the Ethiopian Eunuch.
But the explicit insistence on a need for personal revelation was new, and foundational of the new denomination.
Traditional Christianity has always required, not personal revelation, but personal belief that it is true, based on the individual’s mental assent to the testimonies of those who knew the truth, followed by personal trust in Jesus.
Yet, the scope of personal revelation was soon limited explicitly by top-down CJCLDS rulings; because low level church members were claiming major revelations about many and fundamental whole-church matters, and these were leading to schism and disruption. By revelation of the prophet Joseph Smith; the scope of revelation then became hierarchically limited, especially in relationship to church order, official theology, doctrine, practices etc. Only church officials were allowed valid revelations in accordance with the scope of their office; up to the church President (the prophet) who was the only person allowed fundamental and church-wide revelations.
This meant that henceforth the Mormon church assumed primary authority over all fundamental matters, and that the church’s teaching on all vital matters must be regarded as a unit; either to be accepted as a whole, or else rejected – but nobody had the right to pick and choose, modify, or add-to that unified body of mandatory beliefs.
Traditional Christianity rejects personal revelation. The faith has been delivered once and for all. Jude 1:3:
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
However necessary to the survival of the church were such hierarchical limitations on the scope of revelation; the validity of such limitation on the scope of personal revelation is itself subject to the need for confirmation by personal revelation. And that personal revelation may lead to the rejection of such limitations – and instead lead to the potential validity of personal revelations up-to and including fundamental matters of theology, doctrines, life-practices etc.
In a nutshell, if personal revelations of unlimited scope are allowed to all Mormon believers; this will lead to the destruction of top-down church authority. The Mormon Church (CJCLDS) would then become regarded in an expedient fashion, as being more or less helpful to theosis and salvation (in terms of its teachings and practices), and itself subject to the imperatives of personal revelation.
This is my own attitude to Mormonism. I regard the BoM as true, and Joseph Smith as a real prophet, and Mormon theology and metaphysics as a major breakthrough (and revelation) in world historical terms. Yet I am not, and never have been, a CJCLDS member, nor have I ever attended services nor placed myself under church authority (indeed, I have attended selected Church of England services, and support some of these particular congregations).
What I get from Mormonism is the ultimate validity and necessity of personal revelation – and I do not accept (for myself) the pragmatic necessity or primacy of ‘official’ revelations from the leadership. In other words, I see myself as having accepted, and benefitted from, Joseph Smith’s original revelations concerning the primacy of personal revelations – without the later-added institutional restrictions.
That this is a timely and correct course of action seems to be confirmed by the ongoing ‘convergence’ of the CJCLDS with several of the purposively-evil strategies of the global totalitarian establishment. In short, the Mormon church has already ceased to be a Christian church overall, and is engaged in its own further and further self-destruction by alliance with the demonic side in the spiritual war of this-world.
If this is correct, then those who continue to maintain their own inability to have general, church-wide, unlimited personal revelations will be led into greater convergence, and more extreme and active alliance with Satan.
This is one example of why the matter of personal revelation/ intuition/ direct-knowing/ heart-thinking – that is, of Romantic Christianity – is of such urgent importance.
“Personal revelations up-to and including fundamental matters of theology, doctrines, life-practices etc” are not needed if God has delivered the faith once and for all. And His Word says that He has. Personal revelation is not needed. Personal discernment is needed.