The Westminster Confession and the Epistemic Turn
In the history of ideas, not all differences are of equal importance. Differences can be categorized within the three areas of philosophy: epistemology—how do I know?, metaphysics—what is real? and ethics—what ought I to do? Differences at the level of epistemology play a foundational role in how we understand the meaning and implications to follow as they pertain to metaphysics and ethics. Epistemic differences have altered the course of ideas in a way that other differences have not. In Ancient Greece, the polytheistic Homeric worldview came into conflict with the Presocratic worldview. Differences among those two views ranged in metaphysics (polytheism vs. materialism) and in ethics (divine command theory vs. man as the measure of all things). Yet the fundamental disagreement that lay at the heart of their contention was located in epistemology: the difference between opinion/appearance (doxa) and reality/truth (aletheia). The Homeric worldview relied on testimony and tradition while the Presocratic worldview sought to distinguish between what seems and what is. The bridge between one and the other requires rational justification (logos). One can say that the most fundamental difference between the Homeric and the Presocratic views lies in epistemology. All subsequent disputes—regarding the nature of the gods, the underlying nature of reality (arche), or the goal of human life—rest upon the epistemic differences.
It is likewise in regards to Socrates/Plato (SP) and Aristotle. There is a wide range of issues where differences exist between the SP and Aristotle. In ethics, SP believed that knowledge is a necessary and sufficient condition for good action; if one knew the truth one would act upon it. Aristotle stipulated akrasia, where, while knowing what is good, one may do what is evil because of the weakness of the will. In political theory, Plato argued for a political system rooted in knowledge of the good and reality (Allegory of the Cave). Aristotle instead argued for the supremacy of the polis as the medium by which the perfectibility of virtue through habituation can be attained. Plato emphasized knowledge while Aristotle emphasized virtue in action. Although these are significant disagreements in ethics and political theory, they are of lesser importance to the history of ideas than their disagreements regarding epistemology, specifically the ontological status of reason. SP affirmed that rational justification came through the logos, that reality conformed to the logos and that the logos applied to the life of the mind and to reality. Aristotle departed from the ontological status of reason to allow room for the opening up of the intellect through the senses. Since this dispute arose, there has followed a long history of divergent views rooted in SP’s rationalism vs. Aristotle’s empiricism.
Other prominent examples of epistemic problems that have altered subsequent intellectual history can be given as further illustration. René Descartes questioned the Scholastic belief that articles of theological dogma must be adopted first and then proven by the process of dialectics. Instead, Descartes gave birth to modern philosophy by raising the hyperbolic doubt, i.e., by launching the quest for true and universal knowledge to be attained through the use of reason alone (rationalism - reason used as a source of truth instead of a test for meaning). The quest for certainty apart from the received body of knowledge was launched and the world was changed permanently. Another example is David Hume’s turn to empiricism (all knowledge comes from the senses), which compelled Emmanuel Kant to formulate a response that undermined the entirety of the modern philosophical project by denying the ontological nature of reason. More examples could be given, yet those listed suffice to note the preeminent importance of epistemology over metaphysics, ethics, or for that matter, aesthetics.
In theology, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) represents the high-water mark of historic Christianity. In it, one sees the consummate wisdom and insight passed down in the history of the Church, through the cumulative work of the pastors and teachers, expressed in creeds and councils embodying the principle of much discussion. The most thoughtful responses to the challenges of the Reformation and Medieval Catholicism were given in the WCF and its Catechisms. Since the WCF’s formulation, the Christian Church has been further divided, for many of the WCF’s insights were neglected and overlooked over time. Some departed at the issue of the sacraments (e.g., Baptists), others at the issues of soteriology (e.g., Arminianism), and others abandoned the Regulative Principle for the Normative Principle of worship (e.g., Lutherans). Although these topics are important in their theological contexts, none are as important as the ones connected with epistemology. The WCF and its Catechisms provided the epistemic framework to answer the challenges of the modern world since the Enlightenment. The rise of skepticism and fideism in the church since 1648 until the present has only proliferated, even though the framework to answer those objections was succinctly and compellingly stated in the Westminster Standards (WCF and Catechisms). The WCF affirms the clarity of general revelation (GR) and the inexcusability of unbelief (WCF1.1). The WCF affirmed that it is objectively clear that God exists, that His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen in the created order, that all human beings are responsible to know God and make God known, and that the failure to do so leaves mankind without an excuse for not knowing. Since we have access to the knowledge of God by means of His acts of creation and providence through GR, and we have access to redemptive history through Special Revelation (SR), we are all the more accountable for the cumulative revelation. This revelation is discernible through the use of reason (the light of nature and the use of good and necessary consequences—1.1, 1.6). These insights compounded provide both the content of the revelation and the means to understand it. It is at this level that subsequent creeds and confessions departed at the most fundamental level—at the epistemological level.
Most relevant for its historical proximity and close alignment is the London Baptist Confession of 1689. It retained much of the WCF yet proceeded to replace two significant epistemic statements. One deals with the relation between GR and SR and the other speaks about the use of reason in interpreting Scriptures. The WCF 1.1 famously begins by affirming the clarity of general revelation and proceeds to explain the need for Scriptures to provide knowledge of God’s will in redemption. The WCF moves from GR to SR, thus setting the context for the need for redemption from the failure to know God in the created order. The Baptist Confession reverses the order and gives an implied primacy to SR over GR. The changed statement reads as follows: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable” (BC1.1). This change reverses the logical and historical order acknowledged in the WCF. This move marks the tendency in theology, since the WCF, to appeal to SR as the more reliable source of knowledge which by implication is seen as more clear and more certain than GR. As the challenges of the modern world mount, the Church will increasingly appeal to SR for its answers, yet that comes at the cost of neglecting GR and the clarity of God’s existence contained therein.
The second statement regards the use of reason to interpret SR. The original statement in the WCF reads as follows: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF1.6, author’s emphasis). It was changed into the following: “The whole counsel of God concerning everything essential for his own glory and man’s salvation, faith, and life is either explicitly stated or by necessary inference contained in the Holy Scriptures.” (BC 1.6, author’s emphasis). The change from “good and necessary consequences” to “necessary inference” restrains the interpretation to a more literal and textual basis. The larger and broader context of GR in which Scripture is given is set aside for an SR context exclusively. Good and necessary consequences is an application of presuppositional thinking. In it, the less basic ideas are interpreted in light of the more basic ones. In the context of hermeneutics, the context of GR is logically and historically prior to SR and therefore it is presupposed in the content transmitted in SR. As such, it must not be excluded.
The setting aside of the clarity of general revelation as the primary context for hermeneutics, and the narrowing of the use of reason through good and necessary consequences to what is necessarily contained in SR, left Christianity unable to respond to the most pressing challenges from the Secular Enlightenment:
1) Is it clear that God exists? If so, is there objective proof apart from appeal to the Scriptures?
2) Is faith justifiable through reason or is it contrary to rationality (is it fideism)?
3) How can the attributes of God be compatible with the existence of evil?
4) Is there a need for Scriptures?
5) Is the good the knowledge of God through understanding of the created order or is it attained in a future disembodied state in the form of a beatific vision?
The Christian church has, in large measure, failed to answer these questions. As a result, its witness has been diminished and it has relinquished its educational role to the modern educational system. The departure from the affirmation of the clarity of general revelation and the use of reason through good and necessary consequences has left the church epistemologically unable to produce sound arguments to expose the pretensions of knowledge raised against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
Thinking is presuppositional. Ideas are arranged in a system of thought. Departure from foundational ideas at the epistemological level has lasting consequences that can only be overcome by rectifying the error. If the Church is to be salt and light it must be able to answer the demands of the modern world by affirming the clarity of God’s existence, the inexcusability of unbelief, and the critical use of reason—through the use of good and necessary consequences—to test and interpret the content of GR and SR. Without repentance to rectify the epistemic turn taken after the WCF, the witness of the Church will grow increasingly irrelevant to the modern and postmodern worlds. A proper rectification of epistemic priorities is needed to rebuild and strengthen the foundations of the faith, silence objections through proofs, and expose the darkness through the light of reason. May the naming of the epistemic turn be a step in the right direction to restore GR and the use of reason to their proper roles in hermeneutics and apologetics.
See Herman, Arthur’s The Cave and The Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.
For further information regarding Kant’s effect on subsequent thought, see: “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault” by Stephen R. Hicks.
Consult The Logos Papers #16 for a summary of the cumulative work attained through the Historic Christian Faith.
Consult Arguing About Gods by Graham Oppy for a systematic critique of the theistic arguments.
Consult Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century by James C. Livingston.