Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

Fesko on Natural Law and Epistemology

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019) is a call for the reformed Church to return to the concept of natural law. Fesko’s concern, above all, is that we have some common ground on which to dialogue with non-believers. His book is academic and clearly very well-researched and yet fairly accessible.

My own interest in this series is in developing a reformed apporach to education. Though this is not Fesko’s topic, his book is very much about what we know and how we know it (epistemology) which means that there is a lot here which applies on some level to education.

The Argument behind Reforming Apologetics

In Reforming Apologetics, Fesko defines and presents natural law, shows the position of earlier reformers, and discusses common objections or misunderstandings. I am only going to skim the surface of all this. For a more thorough treatment including the applications for apologetics, you should pick up Fesko’s book for yourself.

It is commonly accepted in reformed circles that God reveals Himself to us through two sources, also called the two books of revelation. The Scriptures are God’s special revelation and reveal His particular will as relates it to salvation. Natural law comes under the heading of God’s general revelation. The question Fesko addresses is what can be known through natural law apart from special revelation and if, indeed, those who are bereft of God’s special revelation can truly know anything at all.

It is Fesko’s thesis that there was a profound shift in how we view natural law that occured in the 19th century. Under the influence of non-Christian philsophies, Christian thinkers came to believe that there must be one central dogma undergirding all thought. The result was a consolidation of Christian thought but also a denigration of God’s second book. Cornelius Van Til more than any other single theologian seems to exemplify this new approach for Fesko and it is against Van Tilianism that he sets himself.

I will admit at this point that in my study of reformed approaches to education, I was initially quite influneced by Van Til. The uniformity and centralization of doctrine which he advocates and which Fesko here argues against is quite attractive. Perhaps the biggest point I took from Van Til was that, because there is one correct, reformed world view , one lens through which we view reality, that we need to have a distinctly reformed approach to education. In all honesty, if this is not true — if we do not need a refomed approach to education, then this series which I have been working on for something like a year and half is useless. [1]

Natural Law and Westminster

When the Westminster divines addressed the question of what natural man can know of God, they spoke of “the light of nature” under which heading they included three catergories: “(1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation” (p. 13). “Natural law” here is used to refer to those common notions concerning good and evil which are written in men’s hearts (p. 19) and which we may call his conscience. It is by natural law that even non-believing, unsaved rulers may make just laws.

Fesko, with his focus on apologetics, is concerned with the common notions of natural law and spends some time discussing whether these notions still exist in a post-Fall world and what the effect of the Fall has been.

For our purposes, the second and third categories, human reason and God’s revelation in creation, are of greater interest. My contention has been that in education we place before the child, even the unregenerate child [2], God’s general revelation. In doing so, our hope and expectation is that he will recognize and respond to the good and true and beautiful things which are to be found there. Whether he is able to do respond in this way is of profound importance. If he is not able to do so, he is essentially uneducable.

In answering this question, we must consider (2) above: human reason. It is our reason through which we discern and accept the things of God. This faculty, like all our faculties, is fallen and corrupted. Note that it is not God’s revelation which is corrupted in any way but our ability to recognize and respond to it.

Natural Law in Calvin

Fesko’s main point in discussing Calvin’s take on natural law is to show that he has been misrepresented by the Van Tilians. Along the way, he brings out a couple of interesting points for our discussion.

“Although God is invisible, humans can know him in his works of creation . . . The world is ‘a mirror or representation'” (p. 57). Thus creation reflects its Creator who may be known by it. The human heart is also a kind of microcosm reflecting the Creator. After the Fall, this natural knowledge is not itself corrupted but human beings suppress it (p. 65).

With regard to the natural revelation available to man in Creation, Calvin believed that there were two kinds of intelligence, that of heavenly things and that of earthly things. “Earthly things address the present life, which includes policy, economics, mechanical arts, and liberal studies. Heavenly things pertain to true righteousness and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom . . .  In fact, Calvin believed that when Christians read ‘profane authors,’ they could still marvel at the admirable gifts provided by their Creator in spite of their fallen condition” (p. 66). Van Til specifically rejected this distinction, arguing that the unregenerate are just as blind in earthly as in spiritual matters.

Van Til on World View

“Worldview” has certainly become a buzz word in Christian circles. Did you ever wonder why this term has become so pervasive? Fesko gives us an answer. It lies in something called Historic Worldview Theology (HWT). HWT’s origins can be traced to Immanuel Kant; Andrew Kuyper expresses it in a less radical form, but it is Cornelius Van Til again who is its major proponent.

Simply put, HWT divides the world into two clear groups: God’s people and not God’s people. Everyone has a worldview through which they interpret reality, and there is only one correct, bibilical worldview. This view is comprehansive in that it covers all areas of knowledge. Those who are not God’s people are not capable of viewing the world correctly and so they are incapabale of correct judgments in any area. Because Scripture provides the one right worldview, it comes to be elevated above God’s book, general revelation. Antithesis is the word of the day. Just as you must be God’s or not God’s, so everything, every area of knowledge, must be viewed either from the right perspective or the wrong one. There is no point of contact between the two (pp. 98ff).

“By claiming that only by the testimony of the Holy Spirit and regenration can people rightly access general human knowledge,  . . . Van Til blurred the distinction between general and special revelation and the general and special operations of the Holy Spirit” (p. 114).

For Van Til and the proponents of HWT, a practical consequence is that we must not take ideas from pagan (or otherwise unbiblical) traditions. Ideas come with philosophical baggage and so their human origins are critical (p. 107).  As there is one comprehensive way in which to view reality, so there is one correct, Christian way to view every subject from art to math to history.

Fesko, against Van Til, argues that all humanity shares a common base of knowledge. Because “all ideas ontologically originate from God,” it does not matter through which culture they first come to us (p. 122). “Believers and nonbelievers have commonly shared knowledge, which makes communication and dialogue possible” (p. 123) though, he acknowledges, nonbelievers often “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (p. 120).

There are two kinds of people: Those who believe in dualism and those who don’t

For Van Til unity is the word of the day — there is one God, one truth, one correct world view. [3] Van Til and those who follow him reject the idea that Jerusalem has anything to do with Athens. Any point of contact is seen as a compromise. Because God is One, all else must be one. Anything that goes against this view is termed dualism and thereby dismissed.

In countering this argument, Fesko spends some time talking about different kinds of dualism. There is some value in this, but my inclination is that behind it all there is a very basic human tendency to rank or prefer things. We cannot for long hold two things on an equal footing. We are finite creatures and we cannot serve two masters. If we have body and soul as two distinct parts, we will indulge the one and deprive the other. Whatever we say in theory, in practice we are always emphasizing one thing over another. God gives us two sources of revelation. Those who look too much to the one (think the Transcendentalist emphasis on nature) denigrate the other. So Van Til may go too far in emphasizing special revelation at the expense of general revelation. His error is one of over-emphasis and Fesko’s book provides a necessary correction, pulling the church back in the other direction.

Some things are good and some are bad, but just as God has given us both soul and body and called them good (Genesis 1:31), so He has given us special and general revelation. They each have their own role and purpose, but they are designed to work together, not to be in opposition to one anothetr.  This is largely Fesko’s point: that a bifurcation does not need to become a dualism. That is, something can have two parts without those parts being opposed to one another. His criticism of Van Til would be that Van Til assumes any distinction is a dualism and therefore rejects it and argues instead for a unified view. The problem with this for apologetics is that it leaves to common ground; the believer has nothing in common with the unbeliever and so there can be no dialogue between them.

Another thread which plays into the equation is an idea which Fesko traces back to Kant: that there needs to be one central dogma, one over-arching theological principle. “The problem,” Fesko says, “is that the system of doctrine contained within the Scriptures cannot be distilled to one principle from which the whole is deduced or argued” (p. 182). I agree with Fesko here; it seems quite clear that our theology is not a simple one which may be boiled down to one principle. This is why we have big thick books entitled “Systematic Theology.” One does not have to look far to see the errors which creep in when we try to emphaisze one principle to the exclusion of others. Take the person who says “I just follow Jesus” or “All I know is God is love.” These theologies are too simplistic; they treat God as a one-dimensional figure who can be contained in a few words and they do not account for the whole of His self-revelation to us. Often the principle expounded is a good one, but it cannot stand in isolation and they very quickly become very bad theology.

I am by no means an expert in this area, but my inclination is to come down somewhere between Van Til and Fesko. In truth, I don’t see quite as much distinction between them as Fesko seems to be arguing for. Whether natural law exists post-Fall is a live question and a good one. Fesko argues that we humans do still have imprinted in us some innate knowledge of the law of God. I tend to agree with him here, while acknowledging (as he does also) that we do a mighty good job of suppressing this knowledge. [4]

The Roman Catholic position is that human reason is not corrupted by the Fall. As reformed people who believe in total depravity, we cannot accept that position. The question remains — to what extent are fallen, unregenerate people able to discern God’s general revelation (which includes both natural law and His revelation in His Creation)? Van Til certainly takes a more extreme position, but, as we will see below when we discuss Fesko on epistemology, they are not so far apart as they may seem.

What Can Be Known

All things are under the dominion of God. This is what we mean when we say — as I have frequently — that there is no sacred and secular but that “all truth is God’s truth.”  God, as Fesko says, is the author of both common grace and special grace (p. 181). Whatever the two things we are considering — body and soul, special and general revelation, common and special grace — in each case they are both created by God and both are used by Him for the same ultimate end. The problem is when we make a dualism of them by saying that, simply because there are two things, one must be better and the other worse. I am not expert on Van Til and Fesko may be right about his influences and the origins of his ideas, but when I read him sayng that there is no sacred versus secular, I take him to mean that all areas of knowledge point to God and serve the same ends, and this I would agree with. Fesko himself says as much when tells us that “if everything owes its existence to God, then correlatively, God must provide the principum cognoscendi (foundation of knowing, or cognitive foundation) for all knowledge. The only reason we know anything is because God has chosen to reveal it” (p. 206). Everything we can know ultimately traces its origins back to God. The earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1). It is His footstool (Isa. 66:1). It is a cosmic temple (p. 196). As such, it bears the character of its Creator.

The main issue for Fesko seems to boil down to: Do we emphasize the unity to such an extent that we end up excluding non-believers from any conversation? Is there any common ground on which all people can speak? As his concern is apologetics, this is a key question. If we have no common ground, then there is really nothing we can say to non-believers and the Great Commission is essentially null and void.

The question is not so very different when it comes to education. Many of the Christian educators we have looked at gear their approach to the children of believers only. This avoids the problems Van Til’s approach generates — we don’t need to worry about common ground or figure out what a non-believer can know because we exclude them from the outset. The problem is that it is unrealistic. There are non-believers out there and we should want to reach them and there is a pretty good chance that we are going to get that opportunity in our schools and churches and even in our homes (perhaps with foster children or the children of friends and family who may not be believers). Even if it were not so, any philosophy of education which was only applicable to Christian children would be inadequate as a statement of what education is and how it works.

So the question we have to wrestle with is one of epistemology: What can we — both believers and non-believers– know and how do we know it?

The Problem of Epistemology

The final chapter of Reforming Apologetics tackles epistemology. Knowing, Fesko tells us, is ultimately about trust in authority (p. 195). Often we know because we are told (whether by books or people), but even when we rely for knowledge on ourselves — our own senses and experiences and deductions — there is a level of authority and trust which comes into play. We must have confidence that what we see and small and hear and think is real.

Biblical knowing also entails a response and the response it demands is one of submission and obedience. It is wisdom, not merely head knowldge. To forget is to disobey (p. 199). Knowledge like this is not inert but changes the knower (p. 201).

Fesko makes a helpful distinction when he contrasts epistemology in the pre- and post-Fall worlds. For Adam and Eve in the garden, the Creation spoke clearly about its Creator and their ability to ingest that knowledge was unhampered. In the post-Fall world, the message of Creation is unchanged, but our epistemological abilities are fallen (p. 202). Citing Turretin, he tells us that: “Given the absence of the noetic effects of sin in a prefall world, natural and special revelation worked in tandem . . .  reason functioned perfectly, which means that natural and special revelation were equally accessible” (p. 203). But now our reason is corrupted and we “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).

So we return again to the question of what an unregenerate person can know.  The primary argument that Fesko is making is that the knowledge of God is still out there, available and uncorrupted, in both human hearts and in creation. And “humans still use reason, albeait, corrupted by sin, to access and interpret the world around them” (p. 207). In their corrpution, people do not recognize God’s authority and they do not submit but there is still some level on which they can know.

Here Fesko again places himself in oppostion to Van Til who argues that human knowledge is impossible without the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (p. 207) [5]. Fesko says that, though fallen man is unable to grasp spiritual things (p. 208), “human faculties still function sufficiently well for a number of purposes” (p. 210). Quoting Calvin, he points to the musical inventions of the sons of Cain. Thus Christians may appreciate the knowledge and creativity of unbelieveers. They are not “utterly devoid of truth” but they use God’s gifts for “their own selfish pleasure” (p. 211).  Unregenerate reason can rightly deduce that 2+2=4 but will fail to “rightly evaluate the ultimate significance of . . . the truth of a mathematical formulation” (p. 213). To Fesko, the danger in an approach like Van Til’s, is that it “casts an unintended but nevertheless real shadow of contempt on God’s natural gifts, which he has abundantly given to the world, even to the apostate line of Cain” (p. 217).

On the last couple of pages of his book, Fesko gives us two statements which, while not necessarily in conflict, do exhibit a kind of tension. On one hand he says that “nowhere in the New Testament do we find language touting the superiority of Christian knowledge, claiming that Christians understand math or science better than unbelievers” (p. 218). On the other hand, “Christians know the right motivational foundation and teleological goal of all knowledge” (p. 219). The tension here is one I tried to address in some earlier posts (see here and here). On the one hand, there is very real knowledge that comes to us through non-believers. A common analogy is that of plundering the Egyptians, the idea being that those outside God’s people have a few good treasures that we can take from them and make our own. I find this image is a bit dismissive. It does not acknowldge the depth of knowledge that we may find. But, conversely, we must also say that because Christianity provides the only true view of the world, that it can and should produce better scholarship. That Christians are no longer known for scholarship is a great tragedy.

The limits of human knowledge (apart from faith) are going to be different for different fields of study. This is something which Frank Gaebelein addressed. Some areas are most objective than others. Our knowledge of those most concerned with God and man — theology certainly, and anthropology and psychology — tend to be the most corrupted, pure math the least so. But as no aspect of our nature is untouched by the corruption of the Fall, so no area of knowledge is untouched. Even for those in the process of being sanctified, our knowledge in this life will never be what it could have been in the pre-Fall world.


Reforming Apologetics is certainly well worth a read. It is not the eaisest book (though also not the hardest) but your time will be well-invested if you choose to tackle it. Fesko begins with the Westminster divines’ list of the three elements that comprise what they call natural light — the natural law implanted in men’s hearts, general revelation, and human reason. Becase it relates to apologetics which is not my area of study, I have not delved much into the arguments for continuing natural law. Whether there is any remnant of God’s law in the hearts of even unbelievers would be a major dividing line between Fesko and his opponents (Van Til among them). Fesko makes a good historical case that this is what the church has believed. His over-riding concern is to show that there is still a common ground, a point of conatct between believers and nonbelievere so that we can engage in apologetics in a meaningful way.

My own concern is education. Though it is not a topic Fesko addresses directly, there are many points of overlap. Foremost among these is the epistemological one: what can fallen humanity know and how do they know it? I found his discussion quite helpful. I am not sure I would go as far as Fesko, but his critique of Van Til has been quite helpful in that it highlights some underlying ideas. Fesko’s work was also quite useful in helping me to ask the right questions, particularly in distinguishing between what can be known (general revelation which is uncorrupted) and how we know it (through our now fallen reason) and in contrasting humanity’s ability to know in the pre-Fall and post-Fall worlds. I am going to offer a list of conclusions that I think we can now reach with regard to knowledge and epistemology but as these go a bit beyond Fesko’s book, I will save them for a separate post.

Until then,


[1] I will add, in my defense, that I am also quite enamored of what Herman Bavinck has to say relating to edution. Bavinck Fesko places on the other side of the natural law debate.

[2] My concern is, and has always been, to frame a philosophy of education which is applicable to any child, whether he has professed faith and/or is a covenant child or whether he shows no signs (yet) of being among the elect.

[3] In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church holds to a nature-grace dualism. The upside of this view is that is allows them to engage non-believers because there is a common ground (p. 162).

[4] Fesko goes farther than I am confortable with when he says that “if all knowledge of God were destroyed, humanity would cease to exist because there would be nothing left of God’s image” (p. 205). There are a few leaps in logic here. It is a pet peeve of mine that every writer seems to identify the image of God in man with whatever his subject matter is. For Fesko, it is the natural knowledge which is planted in even fallen men’s hearts. In 4000 years (going back to the time of Moses) we still have no definitive statement on what the image of God in man is. Fesko’s equating it with the law of God as it is written in men’s hearts is not the worst identification I have heard but neither is it clear that it is the correct way to define the image of God. He goes even a step further when he says that man would cease to exist of this image were to disappear from him. I find this illogical; animals don’t bear the image of God yet they still exist.

[5] I have not read as much Van Til as Fesko probably has, but, as I quoted him in this earlier post, I found that Van Til does acknowledge the cultural and intellectual contributions of non-believers:

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, p.91)


Two Views of Knowing

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) James S. Taylor presents two ways of knowing which may be called poetic knowledge and scientific knowledge. Taylor’s object is to define and argue for the former, which has been largely forgotten in modern society, so his presentation is not unbaised. I found the contrast between the two quite helpful, however, so I would like to present both here for your consideration.


It is important to understand before we begin that while these are different models of knowing, they are not mutually exclusive. Taylor argues for a return to poetic knowledge but he acknowledges a place for other kinds of knowing as well, including scientific knowledge.

Ultimately, my goal is to present a biblical epistemology (theory of knowing). My purpose today is to present these two views so that we can begin to define the questions we need to ask in constructing our epistemology. I am not advocating for one or the other nor do I think either is the ideal.

Two Approaches to Knowing

Taylor traces the kind of knowing which he calls poetic knowledge back to the ancient Greeks (and indeed finds it in ancient China as well; p. 17) and through the Middle Ages. The beginning of the end for this theory of knowing is the age of the Renaissance and Reformation. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is a feature of the modern age, so much so that it has become the only acceptable way of knowing in our day and age. It is a method which we apply to every area of knowledge, whether it is well-suited to that area or not.

For Taylor, poetic knowledge is foundational. It is used by young children and must always come first. While scientific knowledge is rational and analytical, poetic knowledge is pre-rational (p. 26) and non-analytical (p. 5).

A poetic theory of knowing says that we can know about things which are outside of us through our senses and emotions. In this statement alone there are a couple of assumptions which we may take for granted but which are worth highlighting: Poetic knowledge assumes there is something outside us to know and it assumes that we can accurately know about those things through the medium of our senses and emotions.

Poetic knowledge is emotional in two senses. On one hand, it says that we can know a thing through our emotions. On the other, it requires a degree of intimacy with the thing that is known. Taylor alludes frequently to an incident from Charles Dickens’ book Hard Times in which the young girl who has grown up with horses is chastised by her teacher for not knowing the taxonomic facts about them (see pp. 7ff). Her classmate can recite these facts but it is the girl who truly knows horses. It is a knowledge which started perhaps with one horse but through intimacy with that creature, she has built a knowledge which is intuitive. The boy who knows the facts need not ever have seen a horse. His knowledge is all in his head but he has no feeling for the horse.

If the object of our knowing is not so close at hand, we may still have a sympathetic knowledge of it. Taylor also uses the word connatural for this (p. 64). It is a knowing which takes us inside a thing (p. 9). Because poetic knowledge always begins with an interest, it is enjoyable, passive and leisurely (p. 10) and never laborious.

Poetic knowledge is natural to the child. His play shows a kind of poetic knowing in which he enters into a thing, whether it be a cowboy or a princess. This kind of learning through imitation which the the child does naturally produces poetic knowledges which may also be said to be a playful kind of knowing (pp. 15, 41). Poetic knowledge is thus imaginative. It is driven by images (p. 53) and not by words (p. 134). Even at higher levels, books are few (p. 178).

Unity is a major theme in the theory of poetic knowledge. The thing known is unified rather than being broken down into its parts. All aspects of the man are involved; he uses not just his mind but his senses which correspond to his physical body, his emotions, and his will (pp. 41, 166). And there is a uniting of the two, the knower and the known, as one enters into the object of his knowledge (p. 63). For Thomas Aquinas to know something is to have possession of it; for Augustine to know a thing is to love it (p. 62).

The goal of poetic knowledge may be expressed in various ways. Thomas Aquinas spoke of “disinterested pleasure” by which be meant that the end is enjoyment of the thing known for its own sake without utilitarian ends (pp. 40-41). For Aristotle and Socrates, the goal of education was virtue or good character which came from the love of beauty and goodness itself (pp. 19, 21). For Augustine the end is to see the greater beauty and perfection that the object of our knowing points to and ultimately the contemplation of God (p. 28). The common ground here is perhaps that beauty and goodness when known in one area awaken and teach so that they are recognized in other areas as well (pp. 38, 106). Henri Charlier, a French writer whose main emphasis is on education through craftsmanship, “sees, in the craft of, say, carpentry, a self-perfecting of the student” (p. 127). Robert Carlson, onetime profesor at the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas (the subject of chapter 6), speaks of the goal as humanizing the student through the development of the powers within him: his senses, memory, and imagination (p. 145).  Taylor himself speaks frequently of love as the goal and of friendship between the teacher and student (p. 180).

Scientific knowledge is knowledge about things (p. 6). It does not take us inside the thing. Its tendency is to take the thing apart. It deconstructs and dissects. It is not leisurely but involves work (pp. 14, 72). It is active (p. 20). Poetic knowledge discovers but scientific knowledge proves (p. 64). Indeed, what it means to know is a major issue for scientific knowledge which demands an absolute certainty. It begins from a place of doubt which questions everything (p. 72). An interest in the subject matter is at best an unnecessary add-on and is certainly not essential to the process.

The scientific approach traces its roots to Descartes and his questioning of all that came before. He assumes nothing which is not proven to a mathematical certainty. One’s emotions and even one’s senses are left aside. Deduction and reason are the only tools to be used (p. 89). Proof is demanded for everything, whether it needs proof or not (p. 96).

Whereas the poetic approach assumed a world outside ourselves which can be known, the scientific approach does not even assume this. Descartes famously assumed only his own mind (“I think therefore I am”; pp. 92, 94).

John Dewey, who followed in Descartes’ intellectual footsteps, has been the major influence on American education since 1900. Dewey sees all reality as being in a state of flux, of constant change. Everything is subject to its environment and all learning is through experimentation (p. 98). Dewey takes what was for Descartes a method and turns it into a process, a process which is used in all areas of learning (p. 102). In Taylor’s words:

“What links Descartes and Dewey is their trust in scientific methods of thought, shortcuts really, and that they both, in different ways, either call into question where thought begins (for Descartes, in the mind alone), or that the objects of thought are constructed by the mind only as a result of inquiry, as with Dewey.” (p. 101)

The goal of education in the scientific system is harder to discern. Descartes sets out to prove what can be proved, while assuming nothing. For Dewey the end seems to be to serve the ever-changing process and to fit the child to his evolving environment. I use the world “evolving” very deliberately here as there is clearly a mindset shaped by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The ends are not clear, for in truth there is no end point to be reached, but a loosely-defined “progress” is the goal.

The Analysis

Taylor does a lot of the work of critiquing the scientific mode for us, and many of the charges are easy to make — It reduces man to an intellect and discounts his emotional and physical nature. It assumes nothing outside of itself. It demands proof of things which are inherently unprovable. Its foundation is doubt.  It tends to break down what is known and provides no big picture for understanding the world. It deconstructs the known and disintegrates the knower. It dehumanizes. It has no absolute good and no definitive goal.

But inspite of all this we must recognize that the scientific approach to knowing arose out of some very real critiques of what came before. The modern scientific approach, like the Reformation, was a reaction to the medieval world. It questioned what it was told and it said that man, even an individual layman, was able to use his intellect to arrive at truth, to experiment and to know the world outside himself. Clearly Descartes and those after him went too far, denying any absolute truth outside themselves. But the instinct to experiment was a good, even a Christian one, built upon the assumption that our world is rational and knowable. Taylor is dismissive of the scientific means, but as any child who takes apart a clock knows, sometimes looking inside a thing and seeing how it works gives us a greater appreciation of it and increases our sense of wonder.

If the scientific assumes too little, the poetic tends to accept too much. Poetic knowledge breeds subjectivity. Though Taylor says grand things about the whole person the truth is that poetic knowledge is, as he admits, pre-rational. One’s intellect is at best subsidiary in the process. Poetic knowledge assumes a fixed reality outside of us, but that reality is known through very subjective and fallible means — our senses and emotions. If my poetic knowledge tells me one thing and yours tells you the opposite, there is no way to adjudicate between them.

Taylor does address the charge of subjectivity. He does this primarily by defining subjectivity — Truth is subjective if it has meaning to its observer (the subject).  Objective truth is objective because it is the same for everyone, or indeed the same whether it is observed or not. Quoting Andrew Louth, he says that objective truth has no meaning because there is no engagement with it and no one would lay down his life for it. (pp. 72-73). This to my mind does not answer the issue which Taylor himself raises when he says that “at this level of [poetic] knowledge we could be mistaken about the goodness or badness of the thing known” (p. 68). There is no way to say poetic knowledge is right or wrong “whether the knower be a bright poet or a small child, the scholar or the learning disabled person” (p. 68).

From a Christian viewpoint, we would say that Taylor’s poetic knowledge does not take into account the fallenness of man. It assumes that what we get through our senses and emotions is true and good (p. 49). On the flip side, the scientific approach does the same thing with our rational abilities — it assumes they will always lead us to truth.

The emphasis on images over words also adds to the subjectivity. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the fact is that words are able to convey meaning a lot more precisely than pictures are. When God chose to reveal Himself to men, He very deliberately did not use an image and His enduring message to us is His written Word.

While I do not know Taylor’s religious beliefs, he clearly does not come from a reformed tradition but seems rather to be anti-reformed. He says that the “narrow and harsh aspects of Calvinism” (and a Calvinism-like movement within Catholicism known as Jansenism) led to a suspicion of “the transcendentals of beauty and goodness” and a “denial of  the human being’s powers to naturally, freely know and love God” (p. 108). The latter part of this sentence I think is fairly accurate — I will say as a Calvinist that I do disbelieve man’s natural ability to know and love God on his own apart from saving grace. But I think Taylor misunderstands and misrepresents Calvin if he sees in him a denial of transcendant truth and beauty. [1]

If we accept that there is a world outside of ourselves to be known, we must ask how we are to relate to that world. For Taylor, the answer is: passively. He sees the world as a things to be known but not manipulated by us. Scientific knowledge, he charges, seeks to dominate but poetic knowledge only to enjoy.  Poetry (quoting John Henry Newman) “‘demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet . . . ‘” (p. 36). Reality for Taylor is a companion and it is arrogance to seek to dominate it (p. 105; cf. p. 169). I need not tell you that this is not the biblical view of man’s relationship to and responsibility for Creation. To have mastery over the created world is not at odds with loving it or the Creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-30 would make no sense to us as Christians.

To believe in a truth outside of ourselves is ultimately a religious position. We must account in some way for what it out there. Poetic knowledge assumes that there is not just something out there but that that something has positive qualities like goodness and beauty (p. 57). It goes beyond that even and assumes that there is meaning and power and a kind of unity to the good and the beautiful. Taylor speaks often of transcendence (p. 13). For some, like Augustine, these beliefs are put within a system which believes in God and points to God and there is a coherence to them (pp. 28ff). But without some sort of overarching religious belief, there are a lot of loose ends here. There is nothing that defines goodness. Goodness is assumed but there is no mention of its opposite — If good is out there, is evil there too? And if so, how do we discern between them? How do we know that what we know is the good? Are there things that are evil and shouldn’t be known? And above all, where does the meaning to it all come from? Why is there transcendence? I do think one could hold to a kind of Christian poetic knowledge (as Augustine does) but the view presented here by Taylor is not given a specific religious basis and this leaves it adrift. There are no answers to the big questions.

The Questions

I hope that it has been helpful to look at these two ideas of knowing to see what issues they address and how they do so. My goal is not for us to adopt one or the other of these but to go back to the Scriptures and to develop a biblical epistemology.   I’d like to close today by listing some of the questions which any theory of knowing must answer:

  • Where does truth reside? Is there something outside of us which is knowable or do we begin inside and work outward?
  • Is there absolute objective truth apart from the subjective knower? Is there one truth for all people?
  • How do we know what we know? What parts of us are involved in that process — our senses, emotions, intellect? Can we trust the evidence these give us? How do the various aspects of our nature relate to one another?  If they come into conflict, how do we decide what to believe? Can they be wrong? From a Christian perspective, what is the impact of man’s fallenness on his ability to know?
  • How does knowledge come to us? Do we trust the knowledge of previous generations? Can we learn from other people? Does knowledge require direct and/or intimate contact with the thing known? Is it hands-on? What is the value of words versus images? Are there better and worse modes of knowing?
  • What does it mean to know something? Is knowledge absolute certainty? Is it just a preponderance of the evidence? Can we know something “intuitively”?
  • Is knowledge knowing about or is it more than that? Does knowledge require intimacy, relationship, love?
  • What is the purpose of knowledge? Do we have utilitarian ends? Relational ends? Is knowledge in and of itself valuable?
  • Are there things we shouldn’t know?


[1] Later, disparaging Puritans and Jansenists, Taylor also presents a skewed view of what biblical love is that shows he does not understand the Christian message (p. 173).