What Christmas Is Really About: Part 3(b) – Knowledge and True Belief

What Christmas Is Really About: Part 3(b) – Knowledge and True Belief December 26, 2022

In the last article in this series on Christmas, I wrote about some longstanding philosophical dilemmas and how Christianity, if true, might resolve them. If the incarnation of Jesus Christ, His atoning sacrifice on the cross, and His Resurrection actually occurred, then Christianity provides an answer to these puzzles of human existence. In the last post, I specifically addressed the philosophical problem of “the one and the many.” This is an age-old metaphysical enigma for which Christianity has a concrete answer. I gave reasons to think that the Christian claim that God is triune, and that there is a body of Christ, the Church, are the concrete realities that satisfy the conditions for a truly unified plurality of beings.

In this post, I want to present another philosophical problem, the problem of knowledge and true belief, and argue that here too Christianity provides a satisfying answer to this ancient dilemma.

Puzzle #2: The Problem of Knowledge and True Belief

Throughout the history of philosophy there have been essentially two broad theories of knowledge. These two theories have been in constant competition with each other. The first of these ideas about knowledge was most profoundly articulated by Plato in his allegory of the cave. According to Plato, and all later idealists, knowledge is something that is grasped by the intellect. For Plato, this grasping was something like a recollecting of innate knowledge of eternal and unchanging forms of reality.

Regardless of exactly how Plato thought the process of coming to true belief about reality worked, the main point to draw out here, is that reality exists in an external realm of forms. Everything we see or sense outside the forms are mere copies–ephemeral  shadows of that which is truly real. This realm of forms, or ideas, could be grasped and the true nature of things known, if man properly employed a certain process of reasoning. Plato called this process the dialectic. Through an orderly process of asking questions and trying to give answers, also known as the Socratic method, one could recall the truth about the eternal forms. In this way, one could attain knowledge.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, rejected Plato’s idea of the forms existing in an eternal, unchanging realm. Lowering the forms from their elevated status, Aristotle conceived of the forms as inhering directly in particular objects. To perceive a particular object properly was to see its form, or essence (ousia). Either way, for both Plato and Aristotle, the essence of reality was to be grasped or discovered through careful analysis and stringent, intellectual enterprise.

As such, any claim to knowledge could, through the proper use of reason, be investigated and adjudicated as either true or false. In the most basic sense of this approach to knowledge, any claim about the world was a genuine claim about it. This is regardless of whether it turned out to be true or false. The conclusion of the matter being that there really are some true claims about the world, as well as some false claims about it. These could, in theory, be known once all rational investigations were complete.

The alternative to this approach to knowledge, was that of the ancient sophists. Sophistry, unlike dialectic, was not interested in making claims aimed at truth or the way things really are. Sophists had already decided that truth was not knowable. Some sophists were more moderate skeptics, assuming that perhaps truth could become knowable. Others were more radical, assuming that truth was simply unknowable. Nevertheless, for the Sophists, any claims about the world were made for some reason other than to articulate a truth about the world. Truth claims were merely a facade, a mask, for some ulterior purpose or hidden intent.

For ancient sophists, arguing “truth” was seen as a type of rhetorical game. Argument was a skill to be practiced just like the boxer or wrestler practices their skill to defeat an opponent in combat. Perhaps for some sophists, like the boxer or wrestler, this might result in financial gain or social prestige. For others, perhaps, it was merely for enjoyment. This is worth noting, since one of the obvious results of skepticism about truth was replacing the search for truth with the search for pleasure (what eventual became known as “hedonism”).

Many modern day approaches to knowledge are sophist in nature. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, asserted that all knowledge claims are, at bottom, power claims (see The Gay Science, § 109-111). Whoever can convince the greatest number of people that their “truth” claims are the right ones, i.e., that their description of reality is the most “accurate,” can gain power over those convinced. We see this kind of sophistry practiced most powerfully today by those who adopt some form of Critical Theory.

According to critical theorist, it is not truth that matters, but the way truth claims function sociologically that matter. On these social theories of knowledge, knowledge is not something grasped by the intellect through a process of discovery. Instead knowledge is a product of the will, which itself is a product of one’s social conditions and the resultant psychological make-up of the person claiming to know. Knowledge claims, therefore, are, at bottom, assertions made about “reality.” The ulterior motive for making knowledge claims is inherently political, and, therefore, aimed at changing or gaining control over social processes.

In sum, on the classical view, claims to knowledge are genuine claims aimed at saying something actual about the world, and that one genuinely believes to be true. On the alternative, critical theory view, knowledge claims are products of the human will or psyche, which itself has been formed by various historical, economic and social conditions to believe what it does. The first view is usually associated with more particular theories of truth and knowledge, normally called the “correspondence theory” of truth and “foundationalism” with regard to true belief. The latter view has no real theory of truth or sense of why beliefs need to be justified at all. Truth and true belief are secondary notions on the latter view, since the latter view presupposes a form of skepticism.

For those who have been paying attention, there is a profound war in Western culture right now between these two views. It is war that plays out daily before our eyes: in our classrooms, board rooms, sports arenas and our legal chambers. One should be aware, moreover, that the losers in this war will not go unpunished. In fact, punishments for being on the wrong side of this epistemic divide are already being meted out.

The Christian Answer: Revelation and True Sight

Is knowledge of reality discovered, or do we create “knowledge” merely to preserve or attain social advantage? Christianity offers an absolute alternative to both. According to the Christian doctrine of revelation, knowledge is not gained merely by the rational scrutiny of the realm of the world’s objects. True, some particular data might be gained through the empirical investigation of natural objects, or the rational deliberations of the mind. However, reason alone does not suffice to give us any deep knowledge of things. Unless reason is supplemented by some other power or potency, it will never grasp the essence of a thing, or the true meaning of things.

Alternatively, the Christian doctrine of revelation refutes the idea that knowledge is merely a human construct. “Knowledge” is not a body of political or poetic rhetoric. It is not something generated by man’s instinctive will for ulterior motives than knowing truth (survival, power, etc.). Of course, this also does not mean that we do not invent terms and concepts meant to communicate truth. We do invent languages, both verbal and pictorial, to express true things. And yes, that capacity to invent can be misused and lead to real abuse. Thus, while we possess an incredible capacity to create, a capacity we share with our Creator, unless our will and emotions are supplemented by some other power or potency, what they create will inevitably lead to both error and harm.

The answer to both the problem of rational investigation and willful creation is, therefore, revelation.

The Christian alternative of revelation knowledge suggests that knowledge is neither entirely discovered nor constructed. Instead, knowledge is given. God, the Creator of all things, reveals or discloses truth about Himself and His world to humanity. God endows us with the capacity to either acknowledge what is given, or to reject it as a given. According to St. Paul, that choice lies within the will of men, whose tendency is to “suppress” truth in “unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18-32). This being the case, we have a natural aversion to reality, not a predisposition toward it. That natural aversion to truth and knowledge must change, if we are to grasp the deeper things of life.

Four Sources of Divine Knowledge

According to the Christian revelation claim, knowledge is given in four, distinct ways by God: three objective and one subjective. First, God give us true knowledge of reality through the natural universe– the created order. The Psalmist writes,

The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.

Psalm 19:1-2

Since the early modern period and the increased emphasis on the natural sciences, empirical investigation has further confirmed the incredible handiwork of God, both in the macroscopic (the fine-tuning of the physical constants of the universe) and the microscopic (the biological complexity of life). Thus, nature is one source of knowledge of God. But, without grace, nature will be inevitably misinterpreted by corrupted human minds.

Second, God reveals Himself objectively through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I discussed the incarnation as both a theological event and a historical moment in the previous two posts. This is, in fact, God’s fullest revelation. For in Christ, the fulness of God was made manifest to the world (Col 2:9). Of course, to those devoid of special grace, this is the most detestable and distasteful revelation possible. Only now are we starting to openly witness the true hatred of this revelation in formerly Christian countries like Canada and the United States.

Thirdly, God reveals truth to us through the written word of the Bible. It should be noted, that the Bible is not what authenticates the words of the Bible. To say that is to make a circular argument. What authenticates the words of the Bible is the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, having been proven to be the living God through His Resurrection from the dead, affirmed both the writings of the Old Testament as given by God and as pointing to Himself (Matt 5:18-19; Jn 10:35, 16:12-15; Luke 24:27, 44-49). He also personally chose apostles (Mk 3:13-19; Matt 10:40) to write down words of testimony about Himself and His work in the world (Jn 14:19-25). Upon receiving the power of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, this is exactly what the apostles did (Acts 2 & 9). And this is, very roughly articulated, how God gave verbally inspired knowledge of divine things to human beings.

Finally, knowledge is given directly to the human knower through an interpersonal and subjective process. The way these objective sources of divine knowledge: nature, the incarnate Christ and the written Word of God are made known to the individual, is through a direct communication by the Holy Spirit to the regenerate mind of the believer. The Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” opens the mind to divine knowledge. This is knowledge which cannot be discerned through purely rational investigation, nor constructed through the natural powers of the human imagination.

The reason why true knowledge can only come from God, is because man in his arrogance and sinfulness can neither properly evaluate objective reality, nor construct a representation of reality that matches the real or that does any real good for mankind. Man’s powers of discernment and analysis and imagination and creation are too weak and too corrupt for either. Thus, it is only through revelation and personal acquaintance with God that can truth be attained.

Conclusion: All Truth is of God

In sum, true belief is more like true “sight” about what is real. Or, as the popular dictum goes, “seeing is believing.” The Psalmist, foreshadowing the incarnation of Christ, said one must “taste and see” the “goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 34:8). In turn, Jesus said that to know Him one must “eat of His body” and “drink of His blood” and that “whoever had seen Him, Had seen God” (Jn 6:22-59). If Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life,” then to see Jesus for Who He is, is to know the Truth.

In this way, Christianity solves the philosophical problem of knowledge and true belief. For true knowledge is not a set of eternal, yet impersonal and causally inert forms. Nor is true knowledge a rational grasping of particular, concrete essences. True knowledge is the eternal, personal and causally efficacious God, Who has created a world of intelligible things giving us grace to understand them. As such, we can speak truthfully of things so long as God graces us with the capacity to do so and we willingly respond to that grace. Because all creation is God’s creation, meaning the creative work of the God the Father through the Son, there is an innate interconnection between the human subject and all other created objects. The human being and all other beings share the property of being created by God.

Wolfhart Pannenberg elucidates this capacity to know and speak truth in virtue of our relationship to God and to the rest of His creation:

On the basis of the biblical view of spirit and consciousness, we could answer that the possibility of grasping reality external to ourselves with our consciousness is founded in the fact that the Spirit [i.e. Holy Spirit] in which we participate is also the origin of all life external to us, the origin of all the different forms of created reality. Something of the sort may underlie the curious statement in the Yahwist story of Creation that the ‘name’ of every living creature was to be whatever the human being called it (Gen 2:19). If we recall that, for the archaic mind, the name of a thing is not something external to it but contains the nature of the thing itself, it becomes clear that this biblical passage says nothing less then that the human being, because of his participation in the divine Spirit, is capable of grasping the nature of things.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature, 2008. 113-114.

True knowledge must come from the originator of all things. Thus, all truth is of God and all true knowledge comes from Him.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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