Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 16 (June 1964): 54-58.

On the basis of a review of the main historical and contemporary approaches to the problem of Christian knowledge, a fresh approach is suggested which makes use of the insights of contemporary logical empiricism. The thesis is that IF (1) experience is defined broadly,

The problem of knowledge is perhaps the most ancient and most central of all of man's theoretical problems. This is especially true for the person who claims to have knowledge by means of his relation to God, Christ, and the Church. What sort of knowledge is Christian knowledge? How is it obtained? How is it verified? It is the purpose of this study to suggest an approach to these questions which will (1) clear up many of the difficulties and confusions that have arisen in connection with the more traditional approaches, (2) reckon with the most recent developments in epistemological theory, and (3) be consistent with a sound interpretation of relevant passages of scripture. It hardly needs to be added that in a paper of this size many important references and statements must go unsubstantiated (5).


This paper is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at the 1963 annual meeting of The American Scientific Affiliation, under the title "A Theory of Christian Knowledge."

The traditional methods of dealing with the problem of Christian knowledge have nearly all focussed on the relationship between reason and revelation (6). The most dominant position during the period of the early church fathers was expressed by Tertullian in the words often translated, "God has spoken, we no longer need to think," and "I believe because it is absurd." This position maintained that revelation is a substitute for reason. In some ways Luther could be said to have returned to this point of view. During Augustine's time and later, an effort was made to synthesize revel-

Jerry H. Gill is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Seattle Pacific College.

ation and reason. Thus we have Augustine's and Anselm's motto, "I believe in order to understand." These
men viewed faith and revelation as the conditions upon which knowledge depends. It is often argued that Calvin also took this approach to the problem.

With the rediscovery of the philosophy of Aristotle, some Moslem thinkers, namely Averroes and Avicenna,
endeavored to work out a position which held revelation to be subordinate to reason. Those who were sophisticated and learned could come to a knowledge of religious truth by reason, while those who were unlearned could come by faith in revelation. For obvious reasons this position was never dominant in Christian
philosophy, but it did create a good deal of tension within the church. This tension was released by Thomas Aquinas who proposed that revelation be viewed as separate and distinct from reason. Each was said to have its function, and no problems would arise if these functions were kept in mind. Reason can supply a knowledge that edge of who God is. This latter knowledge was really a form of faith, since, according to Aquinas, a person can not "know" and "believe" the same thing at the same time.

In some ways modern methods of dealing with the possibility of Christian knowledge. problem of Christian knowledge are similar to the traditional methods, but there are distinct differences as well. The modern scene is dominated by three main approaches, Christian rationalism, Christian existentialism, and Christian pragmatism. Christian rationalism is, in some respects, a hold-over from the view of Aquinas, and thus is found in the Neo-Thomistic thought of Roman Catholics, such as Etienne Gilson. In addition it is found in the writings of the majority of fundamentalist theologians. This form of rationalism took shape during the early part of this century
in order to combat the subjectivism of liberalism. John Gerstner's book, Reasons for the Faith (4), is a
contemporary expression of the position. The main concern of those who take this approach is to provide a
basis for Christian knowledge which is objectively certain. Such certainty can only be obtained, however,
by means of logical validity based upon true premises; and thus these thinkers focus upon the traditional
proofs of God's existence, which supposedly begin with self-evident premises.

Christian existentialism bears certain resemblances to the position of Tertullian and Luther, as well as to the approach outlined in the writings of Pascal. Its contemporary formulation and popularity, however, are the results of the life and thought of Soren Kierkegaard. In many ways the works of Paul Tillich and Rudolph Bultmann can be classified as contemporary expressions of this position. The foundation of this point of view is a thorough appreciation for the subjective-predicament of each individual's existence. Such an appreciation leads to a disdain for any and all attempts to provide an objective basis for Christian knowledge. God and Christ can be known only by means of a subjective, total commitment of the individual person. Thus subjective certitude is substituted for objective certainty, and Christian knowledge is said to rest on faith alone. Tillich's The Dynamics of Faith (10) is a clear presentation of this view.

Christian pragmatism not only exhibits some of the characteristics of the traditional Augustinian-Calvinistic approach, but it has much in common with Christian existentialism as well. In some ways it is best understood as an attempt to develop a synthesis between these two strains of thought. Men like Reinhold Niebuhr and William Hordern have too much respect for reason and traditional theology to be thoroughgoing existentialists; but at the same time they have too much respect for the uncertainties of life and the necessity of faith to be thorough-going rationalists. For these reasons, such thinkers prefer to think of faith as the pre-rational framework through which the individual comes to have Christian knowledge. With regard to the verification of Christian knowledge within this framework of faith, these thinkers focus on the personal and social effectiveness of Christianity. Taking the Christian perspective results in "newness of life," and this verifies the Christian claim. Thus this position is best termed "Christian pragmatism." Hordern's book, The Case for New Reformation Theology (7), is devoted primarily to the explication of this point of view.


Each of the foregoing positions has its strengths and weaknesses; this fact seems to construct an empasse which threatens the very possibility of ever developing a sound theory of Christian knowledge. To this writer's way of thinking, however, there is little to be gained from the reworking and/or synthesizing of the standard approaches. What is needed is a fresh approach. It is the thesis of this study that such an approach can be obtained by redefining the key concepts involved in light of the insights of contemporary logical empiricism. It is to be granted that many of the exponents of Logical Empiricism, such as A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (2), have carried the position to extremes in denying the possibility of any sort of Christian knowledge. This denial, however, only obtains when one insists on interpreting Christian language and knowledge as forms of metaphysical speculation. That such an interpretation is not necessary will be made clear presently.

The basic insight of logical empiricism, which was originally suggested by Hume, is the division of all possible knowledge into one of two categories, logical or empirical. Logical knowledge depends upon the consistency or validity of the relationships between the terms and/or propositions in an argument or theory. If the propositions are consistent with the original definitions and the rules of inference, they are said to be "true." Such knowledge is classified as necessary and admits of no exceptions. Mathematics is an obvious example of this type of knowledge. Once the quantitative and qualitative symbols have been defined, all else follows necessarily. Once a proposition has been proved by this method, it needs no other substantiation and remains valid, within its own system, for all time. It is, of course, true that such a rigid distinction between necessary and empirical knowledge can only be maintained within a rigidly defined context of stipulative definition (8).

This type of knowledge has the advantage of being necessary and objectively certain, but it also has the disadvantage of being devoid of information about the world of experience. All logical knowledge is simply knowledge about the definitions and rules for the use of symbols; since such definitions and rules are stipulative in nature, this knowledge is only about how we use symbols. In other words, it tells us nothing about what is the case in experience, but only that if, for example, A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then A is larger than C. Whether or not A is, in fact, larger than B, or whether there are any such entities as A and B, is, logically speaking, quite beside the point.

Empirical knowledge, on the other hand, is the classification given to those propositions which do make assertions about what, in fact, is the case, and whose assertions correspond to experience. This type of knowledge depends, therefore, upon the relation between the propositions or beliefs of a theory and the facts of experience as revealed by evidence. Although a certain amount of logical consistency is required, the distinctive nature of empirical knowledge is found in its use of evidence obtained by means of observation and induction. Empirical knowledge is the quality of a proposition or theory which, on the basis of past experience, makes inductive inferences or predictions about future experience that turn out to be correct. Obviously, all of our knowledge about the physical world comes under this heading. Moreover, a good deal, if not all, of our personal and social knowledge is to be classified as being of this type. It is true, however, that such knowledge is much less formalized than is scientific knowledge of the physical world. It is, of course, important not to confuse the classification of kinds of knowledge with a description of the psychological processes involved in either logical or scientific discovery and/or creativity.

This type of knowledge has the advantage of being about experience, and is, therefore, not empty. Unfortunately, it also has the disadvantage of never being able to provide objective certainty. Logical deduction guarantees certainty at the price of emptiness, while empirical induction guarantees content at the price of probability. No empirical knowledge can ever be certain for the simple reason that all the evidence is never in. Knowledge of the past depends upon a wide variety of evidence, such as memory and documents, and thus can only be confirmed to varying degrees of probability. In the same way, knowledge of the future depends upon such factors as the accuracy of past observations and the assumption that the future will be like the past; consequently it too can only be confirmed to varying degrees of probability. Indeed, the assumption that the future will be like the past can only be justified pragmatically as the best rule of procedure. The fact that we live, invent, and to a large extent predict our experience makes it clear that probabilities are sufficient. Certainty is both impossible and unnecessary with respect to knowledge about experience.

For our present study, one of the most important corollaries of the foregoing distinction between logical and empirical knowledge is the delineation of two distinct functions of human reasonj the creative and the evaluative (11). The creative function of reason has to do with the ability to create new relations between the factors of experience and is closely related to imagination and speculation. This ability, especially as expressed in artistic and scientific creativity, gives rise to an unending creation of possible perspectives and insights into human experience. The evaluative function of reason has to do with the testing of human language and thought with respect to both logical and experiential consistency. Thus it involves both deduction and induction, and it leads to both necessary and empirical knowledge.

The intellectually mature man will endeavor to maintain a balance of tension between these two functions. Creative reason must be held in check by logic and experience, while evaluative reason must be challenged to consider wholly new ways of conceiving of and having experience. To ignore evaluative reason is to repeat the mistake of idealistic subjectivism, and to ignore creative reason is to become bound to a narrow, rationalistic positivism. Logical empiricism, rightly employed, distinguishes the two kinds of knowledge and reason in order to allow each to perform its function without the burdens of confusion and name-calling.


Now, with the history of the problem and the insights of contemporary empiricism in mind, we are ready to sketch the main points of a fresh approach to the question of Christian knowledge. This will be done by redefining four concepts which are central to epistemological theory in general and to religious epistemology in particular. It is hoped that the main drive of this suggested approach will reveal itself as these definitions are given. Some other authors express a similar approach3.

First, let us consider the concept of experience. It is clear that Christian claims to truth are not to be classified as logical in the sense outlined above. That is, they do not claim to be true on the basis of a priori definition. Rather, since they make factual, emotional, and ethical assertions about human experience, they are to be classified as empirical in nature. In other words, they are capable of being confirmed or disconfirmed, depending on the nature of the evidence as given by experience. It is common knowledge that empiricists often define "experience" exclusively in terms of the evidence of the five senses. This is clearly out of keeping with the original modern empiricists, Locke and Hume, since they made room for what they called "ideas of reflection," which were obtained by the introspection of one's mental and emotional states. Moreover, such a narrow definition of experience obviously leaves out the all-important existential aspect of experience. There are emotional, moral, and social factors which form a basic part of man's experience and which need, therefore, to be considered when one is developing a sound theory of knowledge and truth.

By way of example, it is this author's contention that many, if not most, of the teachings of Jesus are to be interpreted as psychological, ethical, and sociological hypotheses about which way of life actually fulfills the life of man. Jesus maintained that the life motivated by love will obtain the most from existence and contribute the most to it. Moreover, Jesus' statements about the next life are to be taken as predictions about people's experiences after death.

In view of the foregoing factors, this writer suggests that the concept of experience be broadened to include existential as well as sensory evidence. Such a redefinition not only provides a more sound basis for the development of an adequate theory of knowledge; it also provides a way of relating Christian knowledge to human experience and truth. Ian Ramsey's conception of "disclosure" goes a long way toward anchoring Christian experience in a broadly defined empiricism9. By grounding Christian knowledge in experience one preserves its relevancy, and makes it open to evidential confirmation as well. To classify Christian knowledge as anything except "experiential" is to cut it off from all confirmation and truth-value. Such a grounding also makes it possible for the Christian claim to be disconfirmed. However, this is as it should be, since the concept of truth is meaningless apart from the possibility for error. Moreover, that which is true need not be afraid of an examination of the evidence.

Second, the concept of revelation needs defining. Historically, and on the contemporary scene as well, there exists a tension between two main conceptions of divine revelation. On the one hand, there is the view that defines revelation as the providing of propositional information which would otherwise remain unknowable to mankind. This approach focuses on the content of revelation to the exclusion of its form, and thus it is often guilty of equating systematic theology and creedal statements with revelation. On the other hand, there is the view that defines revelation in terms of mystical experience and/or existential encounter, which provide new psychological perspective and ethical dynamic. This approach focuses on the form of revelation to the eiclusion of any content, and thus it is often reducible to a subjective irrationalism.

This writer suggests that revelation be redefined as the activity of God in the existential and historical experience of mankind. That is to say, God reveals his nature and love to all men by means of their physical, moral, and social situation (Romans 1 and 2), and to many men by means of the history of Israel, the Christian Church, and the person of Jesus Christ. Clearly, such activity can never be completely revealed nor understood apart from its being interpreted by those who are involved, or "on the spot," in such activity. Thus the Bible is both a record and an interpretation of these acts or events. This interpretation will naturally influence both the form and content of the revelation; thus both must receive equal attention in the contemporary interpretation of revelation. This definition not only mediates between the two main conceptions of revelation outlined above, but it is in harmony with the experiential approach to knowledge and truth as well. In addition, this conception of revelation is in harmony with the recent emphasis on Biblical theology and archeology (1).Third, some attention must be given to the concept of reason. Earlier we made a distinction between at least two functions of reason, namely the creative and the evaluative. Each was said to have its value in the life of man as long as each fulfills its proper function. It is the creative aspect of reason that the empiricist fears because it is so often misused. The classical rationalists used it to provide the content of their knowledge and consequently began by assuming, in their self-evident premises, what they claimed to prove in their conclusions. In truth, the content of knowledge ought to be supplied by experience and tested by the evaluative function of reason. The creative function of reason may provide new perspectives and structural possibilities, but it is unable to provide the content of, or serve as the test for, knowledge.

This is the basic position expressed by Paul in I Corinthians 1 and 2, where he contrasts human and divine wisdom. It will be noted that Paul uses human reasoning (in the evaluative sense) to argue against human wisdom (in the creative sense). Such a procedure would be completely meaningless apart from the distinction of functions stressed earlier. It is to be noted further that Paul refers to both of the entities which he is contrasting as "wisdom." What is being contrasted is not the nature of these two wisdoms, but rather their content and source. Human wisdom has man's creative reason as its source and his own ideas as content, while Divine Wisdom has God as its source and the fact and power of the gospel as content. Thus the evaluative function of man's reason does not stand in opposition to God's revelation and wisdom. It is simply the framework by means of which man is enabled to distinguish between truth and error. God implies this when He adapts Himself to man's experience in order to communicate with him. This is one of the implications of calling Christ "the Word of God," since the attempt to communicate implies that the listener has the ability to understand.

Fourth and last, let us direct our attention to the concept of faith. Rather than define faith as rational assent to certain propositions or as an irrational "leap in the dark" (i la Kierkegaard), the position of Christian empikicism as outlined in this study would define faith as "the honest, comprehensive, and appropriate response of an individual to the evidence of his own experience." By "honest" is meant an attitude of sincere, existential concern to know and do the truth. "Comprehensive" implies a commitment that involves one's total being. An "appropriate" response is one that is consonant with the implications of that which is believed, both in terms of attitudes and activities. In regard to Christian faith this latter would involve both trust and obedience. Such a definition of faith combines the objectivity of a rational approach with the element of risk found in an existential approach, while avoiding the "certainty fixation" and factual emptiness of the former and the irrational subjectivism of the latter.

These four definitions might be summarized in the following manner: The content of Christian knowledge is revealed by God through his activity in the existential and historical experience of mankind, especially in the person and work of Christ; the truth of Christian knowledge is confirmed as probable by an honest and rational evaluation of the evidence of experience; the acceptance of Christian knowledge involves a comprehensive commitment of one's entire being to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, and it results in attitudes and activities which are consistent with those expressed by Jesus Christ.

On the basis of the foregoing discussion, it can be seen that the theory of Christian knowledge presented here clears up many of the difficulties inherent in the traditional approaches, and that it is consistent with the insights of contemporary epistemology. That this theory is in harmony with Biblical epistemology can be seen from a consideration of two relevant passages of scripture. In John 20:30,31 it is maintained that the special activities of Jesus Christ were accomplished and recorded in order to provide a basis for the belief that Jesus was the unique son of God and that this belief will result in a new type of life. Here one can see the objective evidence, the response of faith, and the appropriate results spoken about in the above discussion. Similarly in Luke 7:18-23, when Jesus is asked by John's disciples whether or not he is the Messiah, he replies, in essence, "Honestly examine the evidence of your own and others' experience for yourself, and draw your own conclusion." Jesus here implies that the evidence is available in experience, is adequate for belief, and is to be evaluated by each individual on logical, empirical, and pragmatic grounds.

The question of whether or not the evidence of experience confirms Christianity is beyond the scope of this study. The Christian claim is that it does. The theory of Christian knowledge set forth in this study provides a framework which makes such a claim meaningful.


1. Albright, W. F., "Return to Biblical Theology" The Christian Century, Nov. 19, 1958; Bright, John, A History of Israel, Westminster, 1959; and Wright, G. E., God Who Acts, SCM Press, 1952.

2. Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth and Logic, Dover, 1946.

3. Carnell, E. J., Christian Commitment, Macmillan, 1957, and Hick, John, Philosophy of Religion, Prentice-Hall, 1963 .

4. Gerstner, John, Reasons for the Faith, Harper, 1960.

5. Gill, J. H., "The Possibility of Apologetics," The Scottish Journal of Theology; Vol. 16, 2, June 1963. (This article treats the issues more thoroughly.)

6. Gilson, Etienne, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, Charles Scribner's, 1938 .

7. Hordern, William, The Case for New Reformation Theology,
Westminster, 1959.

8. Pasch, A., Experience and the Analytic, Chicago University Press, 1958, and Quine, W. V., From a Logical Point of View, Harvard University Press, 1953. Both of these authors delineate the contextual limitations and values of this distinction. 9. Ramsey, 1. T., Religious Language, Macmillan, 1957.

10. Tillich, Paul, The Dynamics of Faith, Harper Torchbooks, 1957.

11. Wieman, H. N., "A Religious Naturalist Looks at Reinhold Niebuhr," in Reinhold Niebuhr, His Religious, Social and Political Thought, edited by Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall, Macmillan, 1956. This distinction is very clearly set forth by H. N. Wieman.