Within epistemology, there are two broadly large camps that divide different views of what exactly knowledge is, especially as it pertains to epistemic justification. On the one hand, you have the traditional epistemic internalism that posits that knowledge is justified in virtue of specific perceptions, beliefs, etc. For example, to be justified in believing that person A is sitting in the library at table T (guess where I am currently writing this at the moment!), one would need to have specific cognitive access to some perception, testimony, etc. that functions as good evidence for that belief. However, if these specific types of evidence are not actively a part of one’s mental states and/or memory in forming one’s judgment, then one is not justified to believe as one does. In short, epistemic internalism makes justification contingent on a person’s own perspective. On the other hand, epistemic externalism is primarily defined by the reject of this basic premise, but allow that some conditions for justification of belief may fall outside of a person’s awareness.
While this is a very rough summary, I want to present an approximate theological reflection on this based upon 1 Corinthians 8. In that passage, I would make the argument that Paul is best understood as addressing a brand of thinking and conventions about knowledge that were largely influenced by Stoic philosophy.1 In a sense, Paul is addressing two types of ‘epistemologies’ (even though epistmeology was not separate disciple but was a part of philosophical field of discourse) that an best be described as differing in terms of internalism and externalism, except rather than addressing an issue that would fit under our idea of epistemic justification, Paul addresses knowledge in terms of its truth beairng properties.
On the one hand, there was the concern by some Corinthians to pursue knowledge/γνῶσις. Roughly speaking, one might consider this question of knowledge being influenced by Stoicism. One piece of evidence in favor of this idea is that 1 Corinthians 8 may be consider to be roughly divided into three parts that correspond to the Stoic philosophical domains of Stoicism: logic, physics, and ethics in vss. 1-3, 4-6, and 7-13 respectively. For Stoicism, one pursue wisdom and became a sage by beginning to understand the world as it is and then using that knowledge to direct one’s actions in according to the physical nature of the universe. At least for some stoics, logic helped you to understand the physical nature of the cosmos, which then directed one’s ethical actions.
One pursued this knowledge through what were known as impression, roughly approximate to our own sense of perceptions, that were stamped onto the soul (though the soul was a corporal body for the Stoics and not immaterial). However, the person moving towards wisdom would avoid rashly assenting to any belief based upon a specific impression, but they would eventually move towards wisdom through rightly reasoning through all their impressions. In a sense, Stoic could not claim to have the knowledge that gave them wisdom apart from these impression, which would essentially make them fall under the label of epistemic internalists.
However, Paul warns against this basic account of knowledge for one basic reason: it fails to adequately understand and know God and other people. While it has been awfully tempted to see Paul discourse about being known by God and being concerned about one’s effect on other people as a simply relational and ethical rejoinder to this Stoic epistemology, Paul’s point is a bit broader than that. Firstly, in talk about the “weak” believers, Paul mentions their perceptions of those people who know (vs. 10). The effect of this is to suggest there is a perception that those who have “knowledge” do not have, which Paul then explains this perception of the “weak” seeing fellow believers eating in temples ends up ruining their faith. This is more than simply just saying be considerate of others. Paul seems to be subverting the “epistemic ideology” that the sort of knowledge that leads to virtue and righteousness is that of an isolated individual who makes sense of the whole world on their own.
This becomes more evident with a little closer attention to what Paul means when he means when he says “anyone who loves God is known by him.” We might be tempted to turn this into a matter of relationship and intimacy, as if Paul is engage in sort of an equivocation on the idea of knowledge. While knowledge can certainly be used in the context of intimacy in Genesis, this interpretation would miss the intellectual significance of Paul’s flipping of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8.1-3. For the Stoics, only sages truly possessed knowledge, whereas everyone else was making progress towards this state of affairs. Vs. 2 plays off of this notion, reminding the Corinthians that they should not be at the stage of a sage yet as any good Stoic would. Where the real twist occurs, however, is why they are not yet at the sage? Because it is God who knows people, which is a reversal of the Stoic concern that people should know about the cosmos, including the divine. Yet, not only flipping the role of humans knowing God on its head to God knowing humans, one inferred meaning within the matrix of Stoic conventions about wisdom is that God is the sage who has wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 1.30-31 and 2.6-16).
Paul’s point: one should be more focus on the fact that it is God who knows and is wise than we should be concerned about what we know about God. This isn’t to deny the pursuit of truth in a much less lofty sense, but that believers should not become epistemically isolated individuals whose γνῶσις is formed based upon their own acquisition of wisdom, but that there is a fundamentally open nature to the process of learning that always makes γνῶσις about something that believers don’t quite grasp and have. Otherwise, one will harm others through one’s puffed up self-confidence and sin against others and Christ by being resistant to their concerns. Hence, Paul mentions that those who have “knowledge” that eat at temples are hurting those whom Christ died for: those who have knowledge are oblivious to Christ’s own attitude of love and service towards the “weak.”
At stake here, then, is something we can label as an epistemic externalism. That knowledge is not something possessed within the mental capacities of a single, isolated individual person. There is always something that stands outside of us, ungrasped by us, even on our best of days with the highest peak intellectual power and learning at our disposal, whether it be other people or God. And, speaking as one who has experienced the breakdown with excruciating consequences, always trying to take into account what everyone else thinks or knows so that one can become independent of others is something our brains are just not meant to do, as we have only one brain with one mind that can not possibly comprehend even a medium degree of understand of other minds while always keeping our ownself mentally intact.
Notice what Paul does not say: he does not say you should be more focused on understanding what God thinks or become even more focused on trying to understand how other perceive you. Our modern age would say “you are ignorant, so listen a bit more and try to empathize and understand.” While noble, that is not the implication of Paul’s argument. His simple point is to break down the resistance, one might even say hardness, by seeking to be one who possesses knowledge. Paul’s language is not about trying to extend our empathy and understanding even further outward to the point that we may begin to risk losing our entire sense of self in the process, but simply not being hardened to what is true that is outside of ourselves, whether it be from God or others, in virtue of the pursuit of γνῶσις.
Put differently, our pursuit of knowledge in the most grand and philosophical sense of the term (I am not referring to acts of learning that we can call ‘knowledge’ in less rigorous, more informal sense) makes us hardened to thinking and acting based upon what can be understood from God and others. For instance, it has been demonstrated that empathic thinking inhibits analytic thinking and vice versa.2 The active, unrelenting pursuit of knowledge in this grandest sense can lead us to become increasingly and permanently entrenched in the analytic mode of thinking, making us resistant to other modes of thinking that are more responsive engagement with others.3
This might then suggest that our truth and love are somehow at odds with each other. However, it is here where I think a concept of ‘truth externalism’ comes into play. Put basically, there are things that we can come to believe and understood about life that are truth, but what these truths do is recalibrate our thinking, feeling, acting, etc. to be in concert with other person or impersonal state of affairs.
As I am most familiar about this from the perspective of an epistemology of love, allow me to illustrate this by what I am sure my few regular readers are accustomed from me by now: a reference to dating and love.4 Imagine a two people who have been going out for a few months. Then, one day one of them says to the other “I love you.” What happens at that moment?
If one were to try to “propositionalize” this into some understanding of truth, as much as this might seem to miss point, how might we interpret this phrase? One way to approach it could be to say that this expression represents the proposition that there are a certain state of affairs in the person saying “I love you” where they possess some sort of enduring affect, positive regard, etc. But, if I were to offer that to someone as an account of what happened, it would somehow seem to be false, even if it seemed true in a sense. Something more is happening there. Using J.L. Austin’s understanding of speech acts, those words do not just have a locutionary effect of denoting something about the person’s feelings, but also have a perlocutionary effect of attempted to do something to the other person. The statement “I love you” would not just convey to the other person “They have a deep, enduring positive feelings for me” but it would do something further: depending on how it was received, positively or negatively, it might dramatically alter how the recipient of those words acted and responded. The way the other person would not begin to respond to the other person would change: it might transform their positive feelings into love. Beyond that, it would change their overall perceptions of their significant other beyond simple the specific state of affairs and how they are inclined to relate and respond to them in the future. While the language doesn’t adequately describe what happens with love, the phrase “I love you” can function as a recalibrating response.
One can say, then, that the truth that comes from “I love you” is not just a representation of the person’s feelings, but also a change in the recipient would engage with the person in the future. Both representation and recalibration are taking place in this example of truth.
The problem is, however, is that the internalist sense of knowledge that has undergirded Western philosophy and thinking since at least Descartes, if not sooner, is that truth is to be primarily understood in terms of a representation of a state of affairs. Some belief or idea is true only in virtue of how it adequately corresponds to some state of affairs external to the person. This is part of the reason that talking about the ‘truth’ of “I love you” might feel to miss the point. For most of us, we have a primarily representational view of truth.
However, if we move towards an externalist understanding of knowledge and truth, then knowledge and truth is not what they are simply in virtue of some representation we have. For instance, knowledge in an externalist conception is some belief that is reliable. In a similar vein, we can suggest that truth in an externalist sense of something that in virtue of our comprehension recalibrates the way we respond in line with some deeply held values. Put simply, truth as recalibration transforms the way we think, feel, and act so as to allow us to more reliably and effectively realize what we value, long for, and seek.
It is important to say here, however, that I am not setting representation and recalibration against each other as opposing theories of truth. In some ways, I think this is the fatal error of Western theology, whereas a propositional/representational view became the de facto reality of orthodox theology, whereas progressive, but perhaps more aptly called protest, theologies could be said to have an understanding of religious truth that in understood more so in terms of the way it calibrates and forms us, but without any real concern for representation. The end result of a foundationless formation that moves with the blowing of the societal wins as there is not basic conviction that anchors their “recalibration.”
What I am suggesting is that representation and recalibration go together in our understanding of truth. The best example I can give of this is not the example of “I love you,” as moving as that might be, but the call of God as discussed in 1 Corinthians. While Paul does provide sufficient information to analyze his discourse into the distinctions I am making between representation and recalibration, we can imagine both being at play here.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 1.26, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they had previously been called (τὴν κλῆσιν). Paul goes on to recount the call of the Corinthians in 2.1-5. There, something happened in which the people began to put their trust (ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν) in God and His power, rather than the wisdom of human. What we could say is that the call of God was en event that fundamentally recalibrated the intellectual and ethical (the two components of wisdom) orientation towards God. However, the event of hte Corinthian’s calling was not just simply a recalibrating event, but Paul says it occurred by the conjunction of Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified and the demonstration of the Holy Spirit. Both of these events could be considered to provide some sort of truth content in terms of representation of God’s actions in Christ and His benevolent intentions on behalf of humanity.
In other words, the call of God may be considered to contain within it the truth both in terms of some sort of theological and/or ethical representation and also in terms of recalibration. However, while I may be able to analyze this in terms of my abstract cognitive apparatus for making sense of truth, it does not mean we can split the reality of God’s call into representation and recalibration. That would be to either reify the abstract concepts or to misattribute the the mental effects and processes that correspond to representation and recalibration onto the act of God. So I offer these concepts not so much as a direct comment about theological reality, but rather a way of trying to break the hardness that intellectual endeavors for knowledge can create in oneself, which has been more true of myself than anyone else I know.
This can be similarly applied to the way we read the rest of the Scriptures. For instance, when we read “God is spirit/πνεῦμα” in John 4.24, is Jesus saying something that fits within a ontological represent of God or a concept that would recalibrate our relationship to God? Both, as Jesus says “Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” which could be say to cover both cognitive understand and the way people are engaged and respond to God.5 Jesus’ expression of God’s nature as πνεῦμα is intended to both convey a question of fact as to where God the Father is to be worshiped and an anticipatory recalibration as to how worship should be done when the hour comes.
Or, consider the Pauline doctrine of theological justification (not to be confused with epistemic justification). Justification simultaneously speaks of the state of the sinner who trust in God in the eyes of God and recalibration of the person that brings them into way of relationship to God that will transform them into the very thing God has called them as part a new creation word of “Let there be righteousness.” Without truth as calibration, justification becomes simply an idea of representing our status before God that we can then use and marshal for all sort of other personal and social agendas.
The perpetual danger is that we are tempted to split the two up as a result of the intellectual tradition of the West culminated in the Enlightenment and the counter-response of Romanticism. We may be inclined to intuitively think of God’s truth, Scripture, etc. as representative some doctrinal facts or recalibrating of some deep emotional life, for instance. Taking representation while relegating recalibration makes love wax cold (I would know); taking recalibration with little regard for representation creates the form of godliness without its power.
In summary then, perhaps we need a broader concept of what truth is. If however, truth (ἀλήθεια) in the New Testament can be understood as a comprehension of what is faithful and reliable in terms of sources, such as Jesus is a source of salvation, wisdom, etc., rather than propositions, then truth can be said to be both representative in providing an account of where to find specifics good, values, etc. like life, redemption, wisdom, etc., and recalibrating in adjusting the way we respond to the source we believe to be true in terms of trustworthy and reliable. In that sense, saying truth is a person, that is Christ, brings a whole new light to what the possible significance of truth is from the perspective of the Christian way of life.
- See Timothy Brookins Corinthians Wisdom, Stoic Philosophy, and the Ancient Economy on the probably influence on Stoicism on the Corinthians.
- Of course, the vice versa is true, but Paul does not address it here and that goes beyond the scope of this blog post.
- For those who wonder why, to be straightforward, thinking through it is a way I can unravel some mess in my own life.
- Although, it would be a mistake to think that spirit corresponds strictly speaking to recalibration and truth to representative truth. It is not likely that Jesus and the authors of the NT in general use ἀλήθεια in the same primary sense that “truth” is conventionally used for. My intuition is that ἀλήθεια is closer to a sense of comprehension of what is reliable and trustworthy, placing it to somewhere between my scale of representation and recalibration. I will speak more to this in the moment