Theory Of Knowledge

An effective follower of Jesus Christ must understand how a human being comes to know the realities of God, man, good and evil, and the things and events of this world. Christians attempt to strengthen faith in individuals under their ministry as faith is neither accidental nor blind. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Therefore, faith is grounded in the Bible and discovered through the preaching and teaching of it. Faith is a gift built upon the knowledge of God and his word.

Fallen humans are spiritually blind from discerning the necessary knowledge which leads to saving repentance and saving faith. Because of the ongoing struggle with sin even born-again believers remain blind to many deep truths tendered by God through His word, thus hindering them from Christian repentance towards godly wisdom. Nevertheless, this study will look at a human being's ability to acquire knowledge, the importance of that knowledge, and how God uses that knowledge to lead a person to the cross of Jesus Christ.


The study of the theory of knowledge is called epistemology (Gr. episteme, knowledge + logos, theory). It is one of the two main branches of philosophy, with the other branch being ontology (the theory of being). Epistemology is neither logic nor psychology, but the systematic study of the nature, sources, and validity of knowledge (Hunnex, 1986, p.3).

John Frame says that epistemology should be taken in perspective. He says it is a system of theories which leads one to doubt even the most fundamental of beliefs. He insists that epistemological theories must respect the Christian's fundamental beliefs and build on them (DKG, 1987, p.106). With that in mind, extravagant epistemological theories will not be detailed, but pertinent applications of it will be explained and used when deemed helpful.


Defining the term knowledge is the most difficult assignment of this study. All philosophers and theologians seem to have their own definitions for the term. For a taste of what they say about knowledge, take a rationalist like Plato who says there are two general realms of knowledge: first, the non-natural realm of eternal ideal forms (ideas) that are transcendent, unchanging, perfect, and intelligible with certainty; secondly, the natural realm of ordinary sensations and particular things that are temporal, changing, unstable, unintelligible, and uncertain. He says the first type is true, being grasped by the intellect, and the second type is the realm of becoming, grasped by our fallible senses.

He says that for knowledge to be true knowledge it must be unerring, certain, infallible, perfect, precise, and absolute. He concludes that true knowledge, as opposed to the illusory knowledge of the senses, is derived from an awareness of the eternal forms (Angeles, 1992, p.158). Later rationalists have supposedly built upon Plato, but they will not be considered because Plato's definition is most useful to this study.

The empiricist John Locke claims that all knowledge is the perception of simple and complex ideas and of their relationships. He says there are three kinds of knowledge: intuitive, i.e. knowledge of our own existence, knowledge that we think, etc; demonstrative, i.e. knowledge of God's existence, knowledge of moral principles, etc; and, sensitive, i.e. knowledge of the existence of specific, particular things external to us.

Another empiricist, Immanuel Kant, says that all knowledge is related to experience, but not all knowledge is derived from experience. That which is experienced must conform to fundamental structures of thought if it is to be intelligible (Angeles, 1992, p.157).

Christian presuppositionalists assume the authority of God over and above all potential knowledge, i.e. without God there is no knowledge at all. Potential knowledge, verified by Scripture, then becomes true knowledge. False information such as "a cow jumped over the moon," non-biblical ideas and predictions, and so-called brute facts are not considered knowledge at all.

Further, presuppositionalists assume that all factual data is interpreted. John Frame elaborates, "We must insist also that human interpretation is involved in any knowledge of facts. We have no knowledge of facts devoid of human interpretation, for knowing itself is interpretation. We have no access to reality apart from our interpretive faculties" (1987, p.71).

Knowledge such as mathematical formulas, scientific laws and theories, non-spiritual propositions, vain trivial facts of society and the like will only be considered to help explain the theory of knowing. Knowledge, for this study, will be held accountable to experience or reason and God's word. With a better understanding of what knowledge is, it is time to consider the different ways by which a man can acquire true knowledge.

Sources of Knowledge

Upon conception human beings begin to acquire knowledge. A baby knows that when his tummy growls he needs to swallow something to satisfy it. He quickly learns that when he cries milk will be provided. Throughout his lifetime he will gather knowledge in order to survive, earn a living, raise a family, and enjoy his earthly life. He will develop many moral, ethical, and religious beliefs which will form his worldview.

There are many ways to acquire knowledge, some are universally accepted, and some are contested. A look at the possible ways of gaining knowledge is interesting, and especially informative for this study. In one sense, it can be safely said that there are at least two types of knowledge: a priori and a posteriori.

A priori knowledge is seen in the example of the baby above - when he felt his tummy hurt, he knew he needed food. When given an opportunity to nurse, he knew he should take advantage of it to satisfy his need. He knew that, not through sense experience, but innately - it was self-evident, albeit private knowledge.

A good definition for a priori knowledge is "knowledge derived from the function of reason without reference to sense experience" (Angeles, 1992, p.159). A priori knowledge is rational, verifiable real knowledge.

A posteriori knowledge can also be seen in the example above. The baby discovered that his cries were leading to nursing opportunities, so when he felt a tummy pain he would cry for his mother. He learned that through sense experience. A posteriori knowledge is empirical, subjective, real knowledge.

A similar way knowledge has been delineated is by these three aspects: rationalism, empiricism, and subjectivism. John Frame views philosophically-based rationalism as a false theory of knowledge. He says their chief concern is certainty which is not based on Scripture. By trying to explain everything without a biblical basis it would naturally lead to skepticism and eventually irrationalism, thereby defeating its own purpose. He ends by saying, "The idolatrous quest for exhaustive human knowledge always leads to emptiness, skepticism, and ignorance" (1987, p.114).

Concerning philosophically-based empiricism, Frame says it falls short for the same reason as rationalism - the blatant disregard of Scripture. The empirical method actually rules out the claims to know God, thereby leaving empiricism out of a Christian philosophical system (1987, p.119).

Frame has good things to say about subjectivism because of the logical nature of its arguments to persuade individuals. However, the subjectivist avoids responsibility to anything outside of himself, leaving himself as lord of his life. God's laws and His facts cannot be avoided, though, so the subjectivist is running from God in futility (1987, p.121). Frame keeps the Christian on the right path by avoiding the snares of human answers to philosophical questions (Colossians 2:8-10).


Returning back to the original discussion of potential sources of knowledge, it should not be surprising that some empiricists deny a priori knowledge. Paul Moser says, "Typically, empiricists deny a priori knowledge and try to explain away the appearance as not being a priori."

One example of a priori knowledge is innatism which is defined as, "Ideas that are present in the mind at birth" (Angeles, 1992, p.136). Rationalists offer many effective arguments for innatism, with very strong evidences coming in the fields of mathematics and linguistics. It is also regarded as certain knowledge because it cannot be refuted by sense experience (Moser, Mulder, & Trout, 1998, p.104).

Actually, a priori truths are considered proofs of reason, i.e. self-evident knowledge which is imposed on reality so that reality can be organized, understood, and coped with (Angeles, 1992, p.159). Strong evidence for this type of knowledge is found in the animal kingdom. Animals of all types know how to do many things without being taught, such as nurse, migrate, build distinct homes for themselves, etc. Humans would be even more likely to have prescience such as this. Innatism is definitely a source of knowledge.


Closely related to innatism is intuitive knowledge. Intuition has been regarded as a true and certain source of knowledge by some (Henri Bergson 1859-1941), but is it knowledge in that it can meet the significant standard of evidence? Norman Geisler says, "The knower has some kind of direct contact with what is known, that is, with the object of belief . . . it may be a kind of intuition, . . . our beliefs about reality do not have their source in sense data or the like, but through our immediate contact with the known" (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980, p.106). This is to say that intuition is the power to have direct knowledge of something without the use of reason.

Additionally, it is instinctive knowledge without the use of the sensory organs, ordinary experience, or reason (Angeles, 1992, p.149). The problem lies in the justification of the purported truth. Those who hold this view say that mere awareness of the contact with objects is the only justification needed. It is self-authenticating, and it needs no justification outside of the experience of knowing the object (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980, p.107).

Intuition is extremely subjective and very fallible in nature because it is not grounded in anything. There is also a form called phenomenology, which is similar, but the experience is said to be justified through the consciousness (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980, p.108). Of course, it is only justifiable to the beholder and sometimes called private knowledge, suggesting that the "truth" should remain there. Therefore, intuition is not a source of knowledge to the working mind, but a gut feeling of something that has been shaped by previous experience or reasoning.

Common Sense

Similar in nature to intuition is common sense. Common sense is best explained as the action of a man who instinctively does the wisest action at the correct moment it is called for. He would not first observe the situation, step back and intellectually reason through all the alternatives, and then perform the most prudent rational action.

Weigel and Madden say the man with common sense is a realist who has a great deal of metaphysical intuition, and he reasons without ever having examined the role of limits of reason. His framework for knowledge is found in the empirical world. This type of person is one we would all like to have around, but his view of knowledge is too practical, and a bit too shallow (Weigel & Madden, 1961, p.46). He does not seek absolute truth.

Common sense once said that the world was flat; a hundred and forty years ago it said an iron ship would sink. Common sense is not open to new formulations of experience and of metaphysical intuition. The common sense of a man is pragmatic and wise in the field of ethics, but as for a source of knowledge it lacks any kind of value (Weigel & Madden, 1961, p.47). Common sense undoubtedly relies on previous knowledge recalled for prudent decisions in certain situations; therefore, it cannot be considered a source of knowledge.


Yet another idea for a source of knowledge is that of memory. Robert Audi breaks memory down into three different modes: memory, remembering, and recalling. He says there are three things to be accounted for by a theory of memory: first, remembering of events, things, and propositions; second, recalling those items; and finally, memory as the capacity in virtue of which remembering and recalling occur (Audi, 1998, p.58). He goes on to say that memory is a caused event. A thing perceived in the past is recollected at any time the individual chooses.

Paul Moser adds that a memory consists of two topics: the subject and the object. This promotes mistakes because of the possibility of incorrectly identifying one or the other. Another obstacle for memory is its vulnerability to suggestion. Tests have concluded that mere bits of misinformation added to an event a person is asked to recall greatly reduces the accuracy of the memory (1998, p.113). Memory actually has its origin in the empirical, thereby voiding its use as a source of knowledge. But God uses memory in a marvelous way in the life of a person he is calling into His kingdom - this will be revealed later in the study.


Thomas Reid had much to say about the possibility of testimony being a source of knowledge, "The wise Author of nature hath implanted in the human mind a propensity to rely upon human testimony before we can give a reason for doing so. This, indeed, puts our judgment almost entirely in the hands of those who are about us in the first period of life" (cited in: Audi, 1998, p.146).

In other words, throughout one's childhood a great deal of knowledge comes through the act of testimony. A person's entire life can revolve around the fact that much of what he learns comes from other people.

Many people regard testimony so highly they believe almost everything of what people say - one need only look at the problem of neighborhood gossip to understand that. Testimony has shamefully been a highly neglected area of epistemology throughout history.

The idea behind testimony is that of authority, or an individual or group considered to have valid knowledge. This is because authority offers benefits that are derived by others who specialize in an area in which it is impractical for one to study. In order for us to exist in harmony, we must rely on the authoritative testimony of others (Coady, 1992, p.53). Types of testimony include non-evidential historical and religious testimonies, i.e., your birth, salvation claim, etc, but one must carefully discern knowledge which enters through this avenue.

Divine Revelation

One more possibility exists for a source of knowledge: divine revelation. Norman Geisler defines divine revelation as, "a supernatural disclosure by God of truth which could not be discovered by the unaided powers of human reason" (1980, p.255). This knowledge can come through Scripture reading, preaching, witnessing, viewing nature, dreams, internal witness by the Spirit, and by an innate imprinting on the heart. Christians confidently affirm this source of knowledge by their experience with the Creator.

Summary of Chapter One - Epistemology

In summary, every person gains knowledge through innatism, testimony, Christian rationalism, Christian empiricism, and divine revelation. But if traced back to their beginnings, all would find origination in divine revelation. These are the ways foreordained by God for a man to obtain facts and interpret the information. Keep these sources of knowledge in mind as we understand how a natural man thinks. The better a Christian understands the mind of a natural man the more effective he will be in witnessing to him.

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