Some Philosophical Motivation for Bible Study

A while ago I was reading through Geisler and Feinberg’s ‘Introduction to Philosophy’.

At a certain point in the book they deal with the legitimacy inductive reasoning (viz., reasoning from the part to the whole, from the the particulars to the general). I began to think about the way that this relates to the study of Scripture.

Something that is vital in regards to the epistemology (theory of the way that we might arrive at truth /knowledge) of inductive argument is the following: an inductively reasoned conclusion can only be as sure as the percentage of particulars that have been examined in the reasoning process.

E.g., If only 90% of the facts of an investigation have been examined, then while the conclusion might indeed be 90% probable, it can in no way be seen as absolutely certain. Even further, if there are an unknown amount of particulars (as is often the case in many different investigations) this will obviously weaken the general conclusion even further.

As human beings we have severe limits to our knowledge. For this reason, not many things can be determined with absolute certainty. That said, inductive reasoning yet remains an incredibly helpful tool. This so, precisely due to the sense of accurate probability it can yield. Indeed, for this reason, inductively argued probabilities form the major part of most modern scientific reasoning. [Side note: contrary to popular belief, scientific conclusions are not absolute, unless ALL the particulars can be / have been examined].

Now, with that in mind, consider the wonder of God’s plan in revealing Himself (the infinite God / a God of infinite particulars) in and through the Logos (Jesus Christ – a finite man) definitively spoken of and pointed to in the logos (Scripture). Of course, the implications of this are profound in many different ways. One point, however, is the way that this relates to the study of Scripture itself.

Think about it: when we talk about an inductive method of Bible study, we are really talking about knowing the otherwise unknowable! That is to say, we can come to dogmatic absolutes about the truth of God, because God Himself has divinely and perfectly revealed everything that we need to know, in order for us to truly know Him!

In many ways, this makes the Bible one of the principle objects of pure scientific study. The canon is closed. In a sense, then, all the particulars can be found. This is why we have ‘dogmatics’ in theology. Systematic theology is essentially the process of coming to an understanding of the major doctrines of the Bible through the means of inductive reasoning. Also, because of the analogy of Scripture (i.e., the bible’s unified inspiration and non-contradictory nature) any sound exegetical conclusion one part is authoritative at every part. I.e., An inductive study of any a single book, chapter, or verse essentially reveals a total truth; a truth that can stand in light of the whole.

Amazing, right? What a worthy academic discipline to give our lives to!

Twinkle, Twinkle, Simple Faith?

Every now and again I speak to believers who don’t enjoy the notion of Christian theology one little bit. Their faith, you see, is a simple faith. Theology? Well that just confuses people! “Forget all the boring and complex doctrine”, they say, “I just want to love Jesus…that’s all”.

But, one only has to ask, which Jesus is it that they ‘just want to love’? And of course, to answer a question like that, one needs very complex and and precise doctrine. And while being able to properly identify the Jesus whom we love does absolutely nothing to take away from the simplicity of our faith (viz., our complete and utter trust in the person of Christ), the same cannot be said for those who do not know their theology. Not only do they end up in great danger of heresy, but their faith becomes simplistic – not simple.

The following story (from Mark Dever’s “Message of the Old Testament”) serves to illustrate well that this is something which cannot be commended;

“George Buttrick… was [from 1927 to 1954] pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. One week he had been off on a speaking engagement and was flying back to New York City. On the plane he had a pad and a pencil and he was making some notes for next Sunday’s sermon. The man seated next to him was eyeing him with curiosity. Finally, the curiosity got the best of him, and so he said to Buttrick, ‘I hate to disturb you—you’re obviously working hard on something—but what in the world are you working on?’

“‘Oh, I’m a Presbyterian minister,’ said Buttrick. ‘I’m working on my sermon for Sunday.’

“‘Oh, religion,’ said the man. ‘I don’t like to get all caught up in the in’s and out’s and complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule, that’s my religion.’

“‘I see,’ said Buttrick. ‘And what do you do?’

“‘I’m an astronomer. I teach at the university.’

“‘Oh, yes,’ said Buttrick. ‘Astronomy—I don’t like to get all caught up in the in’s and out’s and complexities of astronomy. Twinkle, twinkle little star, that’s my astronomy.’”

Ontology and the Importance of Philosophy

Ontology is an area in the study if theology that has a profound overlap with the study of philosophy. At the end of the day, however, it is a philosophical category. In this regard, it forms a case-study in showing the importance of the study of philosophy, along with theology, and to give careful consideration to the importance of philosophical thinking throughout the ages.

Ontology is the study of reality; the study of being. It seeks to answer some of the most important questions that we could ever ask: “What is reality? What is being?”. Without question, these are deeply intimidating ideas. Also, they might seem too high and lofty for our average down-to-earth lives. However, if we fail to wrestle with these ideas, at least at a basic level, it will harm our ability to have a cohesive worldview, not to mention a strong starting point for our understanding of God and theology.

One of my favourite books on Systematic Theology is written by Michael Horton, called “The Christian Faith” (he also wrote an excellent layman’s version called “Pilgrim Theology”). One of the reasons that it is among my favourite presentations of Christian doctrine is because of the way that he starts. He acknowledges the need to begin with ontology, and from that starting point, to build toward an epistemology (study/theory of knowing). We must start with the big questions: How do we understand God’s being? How do we understand our own being?

Think about the way that we sometimes browse backwards through photos on Facebook or Instagram; good memories from years ago. Aside appreciating the occasion itself, one of the things that often happens is that we notice how much we, or another person in the photograph has changed. And this is indeed, true. We have changed. The reality is that not only are we older than before, but we are not the same person that we were. This is true for everyone, all the time. This is in fact a profound ontological reality.

You never simply ‘are’. You are always ‘becoming’. Only God ‘is’. Indeed, this is nothing less than the ontological essence of his ‘God-ness’. To ‘be’, is to be God. While everything else is growing and changing and learning, God simply ‘is’. He was never ‘not’. He never learns anything new. He always has perfect knowledge. What a mind-blowing reality!

But it is not only theologians and philosophers that think these sorts of thoughts. It’s one of the first things that the most profound of philosophers — little children — ask their parents not very long after they enter into a state of consciousness. We all remember experiencing these questions ourselves; “Mommy, who made God?” The answer is that no one made God. God is uncreated. God ‘is’. He exists in a pure state of being. And unlike God, everyone and everything else is in a state of becoming.

In this we see a good example of the importance of the study of ontology, both in terms of philosophical and theological categories. A right understanding of ontology, or the nature of reality presents a wide-lense starting point for any truly Christian theology: a distinction of creator and creature. It’s not difficult to see that if this is not properly in place, and properly thought through, we will quickly go off course.

Imagine if we failed to define the God-ness of God in this way? We might be lead to think that God is growing or changing in the same way that we are, such as is often presented by teachers of open-willed theism. On the other hand you might be led to believe that man, given long enough, could himself become like God. These are dangerous ideas. And it is only through a study of this philosophical category that we will come to see the ways that these ideas not only misrepresent the Scripture, but also the very nature of reality itself.