Thanks to one of my good friends, I’ve been immersed in the world of philosophy for some time now. Philosophy, huh? Woof. Sounds like a good way to replace sleeping pills to me. *Yawn* Yet I’ve actually come to value philosophy… in service of theology of course. I guess you could say Colossians 2:8 is no longer my favorite verse to snidely quote to my friend. Now, most of my philosophical reading relates to the philosophy of religion and epistemology. Two big concepts that were essentially meaningless to me before being pushed into reading the likes of Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff and beyond (my apologies to those who will remain nameless). Two big concepts that might be meaningless to you. If that’s the case, begin where I was told to start. Here. Read that 3 times. Like I did in order to understand it – some of us are slow. Now you’re up to speed. Somewhat.
But what does all of this have to do with anything? Why am I bringing it up? Why am I subjecting you to such torturous reading? Because. While the two aforementioned heavyweights are generally credited with what is termed “Reformed Epistemology” – a.k.a. the theory of knowing that is supposed to fall in line with Calvin – this topic is easily undesirable to learn or read about for the common person. Make the P1 + P2 logic STOP!!! But there is good news. I believe there is a “preacher’s” version of Reformed Epistemology that pre-dates the contemporary renaissance. Someone who made the claims of these top notch philosophers in normal people terminology and intended to practice it. But who would make such a claim? This guy is certainly not known as a philosopher. Hooray for us normal people! But he certainly is in the Reformed tradition. Who might that be? Charles Haddon Spurgeon. That’s not the first guy that came to your mind, is it? I didn’t think so. But let’s take a gander anyway to see what he says and how it might modify and make sense of contemporary “Reformed Epistemology.” Go ahead and put your thinking caps on.
In his Lectures to My Students, he goes on at length about the role of the Holy Spirit and personal experience that shapes knowledge. Here is a lengthy quote:
Unbelievers ask for phenomena. The old business doctrine of Gradgrind has entered into religion, and the skeptic cries, “What I want is facts.” These are our facts: let us not forget to use them. A skeptic challenges me with this remark, “I cannot pin my faith to a book or a history; I want to see present facts.” My reply is, “You cannot see them, because your eyes are blinded; but the facts are there nonetheless. Those of us who have eyes see marvelous things, though you do not.” If he ridicules my assertion, I am not astonished. I expected him to do so, and should have been very much surprised if he had not done so; but I demand respect to my own position as a witness to facts, and I turn upon the objector with the enquiry – “What right have you to deny my evidence? If I were a blind man, and were told by you that you possessed a faculty called sight, I should be unreasonable if I railed at you as a conceited enthusiast. All you have a right to say is – that you know nothing about it, but you are not authorized to call us all liars or dupes. You may join with revilers of old and declare the spiritual man is mad, but that does not disprove his statements.
This. This is Reformed Epistemology in a nutshell (at least according to my limited knowledge). It may be somewhat simplistic and underdeveloped but it is contains the core principles of Reformed Epistemology. Spurgeon essentially claims two major things. First, he claims that the unbeliever lacks the ability to have knowledge of God – only God can provide that. It is the standard Reformed argument that some do not believe because God must reveal himself for anyone to be able to actually know – they are all dead in sin first. Second, he claims that the unbeliever has no right to deny his personal evidence – his existential experience with the Holy Spirit – his facts. He has no basis to destroy the claim of belief in God because he has no evidence to the contrary. Spurgeon, therefore, places the role of the Holy Spirit as central to knowing. He is the grounding principle for all our knowing and we need not look elsewhere to find support or justification for our beliefs. He does not deny the potential positive benefit of other arguments but finds the existential work of the Holy Spirit to be primary and not “defeatable” by the skeptic. He does not claim that faith and reason conflict, either. Faith could be seen as the gateway to a renewed understanding.
This shapes our evangelism and apologetics a great deal. Gone is the traditional necessity of arguments. In is the centrality of the Holy Spirit and his work. The believer need not reason from various proofs but can stand firmly on the internal testimony of the Spirit in his own life. The Spirit counts as a properly basic epistemic right and the unbeliever cannot know spiritual things without the Spirit. Therefore, when evangelizing, we should primarily center on the gospel and pray for God to work – trusting him to bring faith – rather than constructing vast arguments or using deceptive manipulation techniques. We need not place the burden of conversion on our own shoulders – we are mere messengers.
Philosophy isn’t so bad after all, is it? Maybe it does serve some use in the normal Christian life.