The Johannine epistemology
David R. Bickel
April 2, 2005
What is epistemology? Why does epistemology matter?
Epistemology is the study of what constitutes knowledge, of how we know what we know, and of how to form justified or warranted beliefs. For example, philosophers specializing in epistemology consider the conditions under which one may reasonably believe that what she sees is in fact the way he perceives it. This is not useless speculation, but serves the purpose of determining reliable ways to believe what is true and to doubt what is false. Epistemology is especially pertinent to evaluating and developing methods of testing scientific hypotheses. Major contributions to scientific epistemology have been made not only by philosophers of science concerned with formulating methods or premises that have had past success in discerning truth, but also by statisticians concerned with the use of probability theory to make valid inferences from limited experimental data. While these advances are valuable, scientists often make discoveries without wondering how they know what they know. This need not cast doubt on scientific knowledge, as a requirement for second-order knowledge to ratify first-order knowledge would also cast doubt on any knowledge we had from the use of our senses before we thought about why we may rely on them. Professor Alston noted one source of the mistaken idea that one must know the basis for a belief before he may justifiably believe it: a confusion between justifying a belief in the sense of defending it and being justified to believe it (p. 71); such second-order knowledge would be needed in the former case, but not in the latter.
Similarly, the fact that one holds religious beliefs without considering whether those beliefs are justified does not necessarily imply they are not justified. However, the recognition that people of different religions have incompatible religious beliefs presents the problem of determining which religious beliefs are true and which are false. For example, the belief that no infinite, personal Being exists is incompatible with the core belief of monotheistic religions.
Many epistemological problems confronted the infant church. How did the earliest Christians know their beliefs about Jesus were justified? How did they know their religious convictions were true in spite of the fact that most of those considered wise could not be persuaded of them? The New Testament author who called himself the Elder (2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1), perhaps more than any other first-century Christian writer, was concerned with epistemology. He wrote his account of the gospel so that his readers would believe that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:31). He wrote his first letter to the Ephesian church so that her members could know that they have eternal life through faith in Jesus, in spite of the unbelief of those who withdrew from the church (1 John 5:13). In that letter, the Elder employed a simple epistemological argument: if it is reasonable to form beliefs based on the testimony of men, it is much more reasonable to form beliefs based on the testimony of God (1 John 5:6-10). He took for granted the fact that every normal adult forms at least some beliefs on testimony; some epistemologists observe that most of our beliefs about the external world are based on the testimony of others, not on our first-hand experience. (Even those agnostics who claim that such knowledge is impossible lead functional lives because they act on many beliefs they hold on the basis of testimony.) The Elder pointed out the inconsistency of believing human witnesses while doubting the Spirit who testified that Jesus Christ came by water and blood. Although he used that argument to encourage those who were already members of the church, in his Gospel he presented the testimony of God so that others would also come to Christian faith. He appealed not only to the testimony of God, which those outside the church could see as subjective, but also to the testimony of human eye-witnesses.
Corroborating testimonies of the fourth Gospel
The Elder documented many first-hand testimonies of supernatural events that he believed demonstrated the truth of Jesus' message:
The baptizer witnessed that Jesus was the Son of God on the basis of having seen the Spirit descend on him (John 1:7-34; 3:25-30).
Many believed in Jesus because a repentant woman testified that he told her everything she did, but believed more because they heard him (4:39-42).
The man born blind from birth bore witness that Jesus healed him (9:8-41).
Those who saw the resurrection of Jesus' friend Lazarus testified (12:17).
Realizing that many of his readers would not have access to those eye-witnesses, the Elder presented his Gospel as an account of the miraculous signs he saw with his own eyes (John 19:34-35; 20:30-31; cf. 21:24-25 and 1 John 1:1-3).
However valuable he regarded human testimony, the Elder presented the testimony of God himself as an even more certain foundation for faith: the divine Father, the divine Son, and the divine Spirit each bore witness of the same truths:
As the one from heaven, Jesus bore witness of the heavenly things he had seen, and whoever receives his testimony seals that God is true (John 1:18; 3:11, 31-36; 7:7); no one could bring contrary witness, but everyone of the truth receives Jesus' witness, hearing his voice (18:23, 37). Since those born only of flesh can only know earthly things, one must be born of God to know heavenly things, especially that Jesus is God's unique Son (Neyrey on 1:12 and 3:1-17, 31).
The testimony of Jesus alone would be insufficient, but he also had the witness of the baptizer and, more importantly, of the Father through Jesus' works and the Scriptures (5:30-47; 10:25). It is not that the testimony of Jesus is false, but that with the testimony of his Father, there are "two or more witnesses" (8:13-18).
The Holy Spirit would bear witness of Jesus after his ascension (15:26; cf. 3:5-8).
Implications for believing the Christian message
Whether or not John the son of Zebedee is the "Elder" who wrote the fourth Gospel, Gunnar Østenstad's analysis of its literary structure indicates that 1:19-21:24 was the artistically arranged composition of a talented author who claimed to write as an eyewitness. Not obviated by divine testimony, such human testimony corroborates the historical occurrences of the events constituting the basis of Christianity. Consistently, Professor Alston (p. 306) spoke of the necessity of multiple supports for the faith of a Christian who wonders whether her religious beliefs can be justified by her perception of God alone:
But then, perhaps inspired by contemporary work in epistemology, she has a new idea. Perhaps it is a mistake to look for a foundation of one's faith that stands infallible, indubitable, and incorrigible, in no need of support from any other source. Perhaps no system of belief can be grounded in that way... Thus in order to answer the claim that one's putative experience of God is this-worldly only, one can appeal to the witness of others who are more advanced in the Christian life, to the revelation of God in His historical acts, and to general philosophical reasons for believing that God as construed in Christianity does exist and rules his creation. Though each of these considerations can itself be doubted and though no single strand is sufficient to keep the faith secure, when combined into a rope they have enough strength to do the job.
While the research of epistemologists can further our understanding of what it would take to justify a given belief about God or the world, one does not need to be a professor of philosophy to grasp the epistemological argument of the Elder (1 John 5:9-11). As mentioned above, he pointed out the irrationality of believing facts on the basis of human testimony, while at the same time distrusting God's testimony. Indeed, a large part of our knowledge is not from first-hand experience, but is acquired on the basis of what others say. Those who would say that beliefs based on God's word are unreliable because reliable beliefs must be formed only on the basis of strict deductive logic and sensory experience have a flawed epistemology since even they formed many of their beliefs about the world by accepting the words of others as accurate. The only real questions would then be whether or not God actually bore witness and, if so, whether he bore true or false witness. However, the Elder did not even recognize the former as an honest question: he asserted that whoever did not believe the message that eternal life comes through the Son of God tacitly accuses God of lying. The implication is that those who hear but do not believe the Christian message know on some level that God has testified to its truth, and yet would rather believe God was a liar than accept his testimony. In contrast, the Elder affirmed that those who believe the words of Jesus acknowledges that God is true (John 3:31-34). That unbelief does not result from a lack of epistemological training or from a lack of evidence, but from an unwillingness to accept the trustworthiness of God, was also implicit in the Elder's account of Jesus' words: those who do not believe in the Son of God do not want to come to him, lest their wicked deeds be exposed (3:17-20). And yet he warned that such wishful thinking would give way to horror: "an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" (5:28-29). In that trial, the judges who had rejected reliable testimony will themselves receive the guilty verdict (Neyrey on 3:18-21).
Alston, W. P. (1993) Perceiving God: the Epistemology of Religious Experience, Cornell University Press: Ithica
Mlakuzhyil, G. (1987) The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel, Analecta Biblica 117, Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico: Rome
Neyrey, J. H. (1981) "John III—A debate over Johannine epistemology and christology," Novum Testamentum 23 (2), 115-127
Østenstad, G. (1991) "The Structure of the Fourth Gospel: Can it be Defined Objectively?" Studia Theologica 45, 33-55
Polanyi, M. (1974) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, University of Chicago Press: Chicago
Stott, J. R. W. (1990) The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, W. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids