Two Erroneous Epistemological Distinctions

In The Word of God and the Mind of Man, Ronald Nash contends for the existence of both propositional revelation and “personal revelation.” Though to this idea of “personal revelation” Nash gives various other terms—including “encounter” and “event”—nowhere does he provide a definition. What he means then by “personal revelation”is impossible to know. It is clear though that for Nash “personal revelation” is not propositional. He writes, “some divine revelation assumes forms that are not propositional.” (p. 45)

But to contend for a “revelation” that is of something other than propositions is an error. Since revelation is a revealing of knowledge, and knowledge is only of propositions (since only propositions can be known), then revelation is, by definition, of propositions; true propositions.

To distinguish “personal revelation” as something other than “propositional revelation” is to contend for non-propositional revelation. But since knowledge is only of propositions, to reveal or to know a non-propositional revelation is to reveal a “non-propositional proposition”—a contradiction in terms.

Nash exclaims,“Orthodoxy contends that the ultimate object of revelation is God, not just some truth about God.” (p. 46) But what is it to know God other than to know some truth about God? How these differ Nash does not explain.

The epistemological theory of Gordon Clark makes better sense. That is, it makes sense. While Clark does not address, so far as I know, the supposed distinction between “knowing God” and “knowing some truth about God” what his response would be is fairly clear from some other examples in his writings. I contend that Clark would not recognize Nash’s distinction as valid. “Knowing God” can only mean knowing some truth or truths about God because only truths—true propositions—can be known.

Now, the “other examples” are of Clark’s repeated denial of a distinction between “believing a message” and “believing in a person.” For Clark “believing in a person” can only mean to believe the message that person says. Since only propositions can be believed in, the only way to make sense of “believing in a person” is to equate it with “believing their words” or “believing their message.”

Just as Clark denies a distinction between “belief in a person” and “belief in the person’s message” so he would deny a distinction between “knowing God” and “knowing some truth about God.” And the reason for the denial is the same in each instance—only propositions can believed or known.

Clark’s denial of the distinction between “belief in a person” and “belief in the person’s message” is a regular theme in his writings. And, I think, it is an important point to grasp. Therefore, as I’ve read through his books I’ve collected his statements on this point:

Mark 1:15 commands us to “believe in the Gospel.” Some people make a distinction between believing a written account believing in a person. This verse undermines such a distinction. Really, when one believes in a person, he believes the words the person speaks—he believes in his promises and his asserted ability to perform. This is what is meant by saying that we trust a person. – Today’s Evangelism, p. 34.

It is wrong to make a sharp separation between the truth of a proposition and a ‘real’ man. The latter depends on the former. He tells the truth.” – First John” p. 61.

What does believing in his name mean? Westcott says, and I quote with approval, ‘it is equivalent to believe as true the message which the name conveys.’ – First John, p. 117-118

Of course Jesus is the living Word of God. We do not for a moment deny it. Of course God has in these last days revealed himself to us in his Son. But if the person of Christ is divorced from what Jesus of Nazareth said, and if the person of Christ is divorced from what God said about him through the apostles, how can we know what Christ has done for us? A mere encounter would leave the terms regeneration, imputation, and justification meaningless. Indeed, if there were no intelligible speech or thought, we could never know whether an encounter was an encounter with Christ the Son of God or whether it was Kierkegaard’s encounter with an idol. The very identification of Jesus as the Son of God cannot possibly be made without intelligible thought. Knowledge by acquaintance, in the anti-intellectual sense of encounter, Begegnung, or Erlebnis, will result in no religion other than some emotional entertainment. Theology there cannot be. – God’s Hammer, Revealed Religion.

There is no antithesis between believing Jesus as a person and believing what he says.” – The Johannine Logos, p. 71.

In literary usage one may say that one believes a person; but this means that one believes what the person says. The immediate and proper object of belief or faith is a truth (or falsehood), a meaning, the intellectual content of some words; and this intellectual content is in logic called a proposition.– The Johannine Logos, p. 72.

To believe a person means precisely to believe what he says. – The Johannine Logos, p. 73.

2 thoughts on “Two Erroneous Epistemological Distinctions”

  1. Thx very much Doug. Very helpful collation of Clark and contrast with Nash. The point is argued well.

  2. Pingback: Notes on Ronald H. Nash’s lecture series, “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought” | A Place for Thoughts

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