Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Find all the posts here.

Our mini-series Reformed Thinkers on Education continues with a wonderful little pamphlet from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The Approach to Truth: Scientific and Religious (London: Tyndale Press, 1967) tackles the topic of epistemology — what we know and how we know it — head on. 

Lloyd-Jones is addressing a question of his day, and of ours: How are scientific and religious truth related?  He begins by describing the scientific approach and how it came to be. Its origins he traces to Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. What these two had in common was a belief that “the truth is manifest” (p. 6) and that we humans are able to know it through experimentation and the use of our reason and intellect. 

This was not an entirely bad idea. There is something inherently Christian in the belief that the universe is orderly and knowable, and there was quite a flowering of learning that came from this period. There was a downside to all this, however. As we have seen previously, the scientific method was applied to everything, whether it was appropriate to do so or not. In addition, the emphasis was on man’s abilities — his reason, his knowledge. This led to a kind of optimism. We humans came to expect that in no time we would bring everything under our dominion (in a bad way). No field of knowledge would be unknown to us. There was a belief in certainty which, I have to say, I feel a little nostalgic for in today’s world (though it was a mistaken belief). In this world, religion, with often un-demonstrable tenets, was seen as outmoded, something we had evolved past.

This view lasted a while, but eventually there came a crisis. The scientific mindset depends so much on what is known, on what can be proven and is sure. But the bedrock of all understanding, Newtonian physics, was replaced by Einstein’s theories. Things that were sure no longer seemed sure. Though Lloyd-Jones saw a was able to report on the beginning of this counter-trend, we see it all the more clearly. It is no longer just that man is evolving but that truth itself is evolving, which means that there is no fixed truth. The old, scientific idea said that man can use experimentation to knowing everything; the new theory says that we can know nothing. 

Having described the scientific mindset, Lloyd-Jones goes on to delineate its (errant) assumptions. First and foremost is that it depended on the abilities of man. It exalted the power of his reason but it also saw knowledge, that which can be known, as a comprehensible body.

In contrast, the Christian view starts by saying that knowledge is outside of man, with God, and that man can never know more than a sliver of it. Nor is all knowledge of the scientific kind which is obtained through one’s senses and through experiments. It is only by first acknowledging that he is incapable of knowing that man can even begin to know. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” the Proverbs tell us. Though Lloyd-Jones does not cite this verse specifically, he seems to connect this fear with humility: “Man has got to submit himself to revelation. For truth is a mystery, and if man would have any knowledge of it, he must submit in humility, and in reverence” (p. 22). And again: “The biblical teaching is that truth is not partially but entirely revelation, and that I must submit myself to it” (p. 24).

Lloyd-Jones here seems to be saying that it is only Christians who can truly know. We must be lifted to revelation (p. 25). Only after the Holy Spirit has worked on our minds can we begin to reason rightly (p. 24).

This reminds me of what Charlotte Mason calls the Way of Reason.  She argues that we do not reason our way to right ideas but that we have ideas first and then we use our reason to support what we have already accepted and let into our minds. The world is full of people who seemingly solid, reasonable arguments for very wrong positions. The practical application for her is that we must be very careful what ideas we let into our minds. Lloyd-Jones seems to be saying something similar. It is the Holy Spirit who opens our minds and then reason, rightly guided, is able to work. Behind both is the belief that our reason — like all of our nature — is fallen. Left to its own devices it is more likely to lead us astray than to guide us on right paths. 

If you are able to get ahold of this work, I highly recommend The Approach to Truth: Scientific and Religious. I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones is right on target. If there is any flaw, it is that the world since his time has changed so that truth today is considered even more relative than perhaps he could have imagined. But he shows us how we got here and what the alternative, Christian view should be. 



One response to this post.

  1. […] The Fall has corrupted man’s reason by which he accesses and evaluates this knowledge.  In this life at least, man’s reason is imperfect and incomplete. (Lloyd-Jones on Epistemology) […]


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