Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A quick note on a quick note

Sean Gerety quotes this passage from John Robbins:

Knowledge is always true. One cannot know that 2 + 2 = 5. Opinions may be true or false. Ignorance is neither true nor false. What distinguishes a true opinion from knowledge is an account of that opinion: It is giving reasons. [Michael] Sudduth dared me to provide any passage of Scripture that so defines knowledge. It seems to me that there are many. For example, “Be ready to give a reason….” “To the Law and to the testimony: If they speak not according to that Word, there is no light in them.” “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” All, not some. Hidden, not available to discovery by men. The Scripture is both the content and the account on knowledge.


There are several problems with this argument:

1.Robbins cites a mathematical equation as a paradigm-case of knowledge. However, he didn’t get that example from Scripture. Although Scripture uses some numbers, it contains no formal equations. And even if it did contain a few equations, that would only be a tiny sampling of the infinite number of mathematical equations. Hence:

i) Robbins is using an extra scriptural example to illustrate Scripturalism.

ii) Robbins is using induction to illustrate Scripturalism. It’s not as if Robbins is acquainted with the infinite totality of mathematical equations.

2.Apropos (1), Robbins is also using mathematical truth as a paradigm-case of necessary truths or universal truths. But Scripture doesn’t teach that mathematical truths are necessary truths or unnecessary truths. Scripture is entirely silent on that issue. As far as Scripture is concerned, most mathematical truths might as well be contingent truths.

Although I think you can mount a good argument for the necessity and universality of mathematical truths, that’s not an argument that Robbins derived from Scripture.

3.Robbins also quotes some English translations of the Bible. But that creates a problem for Scripturalism:

i) Did Robbins derive his knowledge of the English language from reading the English Bible?

Didn’t Robbins acquire his basic command of the English language from being raised by English-speaking parents? And wasn’t that supplemented by hearing other English speakers and reading other English writers?

ii) Incidentally, does Gerety think we actually know a language? Given the empirical process involved in learning a language, wouldn’t our fluency rank as opinion or ignorance rather than knowledge?

But, in that case, our mastery of the English Bible (or any other Bible) would rank as opinion or ignorance rather than knowledge.

4.In his attempt to Scripturally define knowledge as opinion with an account, he alludes to 1 Pet 3:15. However,

i) This appeal is equivocal. There is more to the Clarkian definition of knowledge than giving an account or giving a reason for your opinion. It has to be the kind of reason or kind of account that falls within the strictures of a Clarkian epistemology. Not just any account will do. Only a certain type of account is permissible.

ii) Apropos 1 Pet 3:15, how did NT Christians account for their faith?

a) One method was their appeal to eyewitness testimony. Yet Gerety recently assured us that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

b) Another method was their appeal to the OT scriptures.

But that assumes an empirical knowledge of the OT scriptures. For example, hearing them read aloud in the synagogue (Acts 15:21).

iii) Elsewhere, Gerety quotes Gary Crampton’s claim that the word of God “is communicated by God directly and immediately to the minds of men.”


But in that event, why would a Christian ever need to share his faith with an unbeliever? In that event, it would be up to God, and God alone, to evangelize the unbeliever by uploading his word into the mind of the unbeliever.

5.Robbins also alludes to Isa 8:20. However,

i) Isa 8:20 doesn’t restrict all knowledge to the Bible. In context, this is dealing with knowledge of the future. V20 stands in contrast to necromancy (v19). Isaiah’s point is that whatever is knowable about the future is to be found in God’s revelation regarding the future.

That, however, doesn’t restrict all knowledge to Scripture. In the nature of the case, our senses don’t convey to us a knowledge of the future. Our senses can only sense what is present to the senses. We don’t perceive the future because we don’t occupy the future.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t sense the present or remember the past.

ii) Isa 8:20 is, itself, a sensory object. This is a written record of a little speech which the prophet Isaiah delivered to his audience. It presupposes the ability of a listener to learn a truth by hearing the spoken word. It also presupposes the ability of a reader to learn a truth by consulting the written record of the spoken word.

iii) Moreover, Isa refers his audience to spoken and written words: Isaiah “is attesting that a better alternative is available in the true words of God contained in the testimonies and laws (oral and written instructions) God gave the nation,” G. Smith, Isaiah 1–39 (Broadman 2007), 231.

So Isa 8:20 is a sensory object which, in turn, refers the audience to other sensory objects.

iv) Apropos (iii), in referring his audience to both “testimonies” and “laws,” Isaiah doesn’t limit himself to the Scriptures. The “testimonies” are oral communications.

6.Robbins alludes to Col 2:3.

i) Keep in mind that this verse is contained in a letter which Paul wrote to the Christians of Colossae. His letter was meant to be read aloud in church. This method of teaching presupposes the possibility of sense-knowledge.

ii) It was written in Greek. That presupposes a knowledge of the Greek language. Something his audience picked up by living among among Greek speakers. Apart from the possibility of sense-knowledge, this would not be a reliable means of teaching his audience.

iii) It’s ironic to see a Calvinist (Robbins) resort to Arminian hermeneutics (“all, not some”).

iv) Robbins rips 2:3 out of context. In context, the contrast between what is hidden and what is revealed refers back to 1:26, where it denotes the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles (cf. Rom 16:25; Eph 1:9; 3:6; 6:19).

So this is not about knowledge in general. Rather, it’s specific to the knowledge of the Gospel, including the place of the Gentiles in God’s redemptive plan.

Notice how often Clarkians indulge in perfunctory prooftexting without making any effort to exegete their proftexts.

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