Thoughts on Epistemology, Method, and Telescopes

 by Matthew L. Halsted

When I was working on my master’s thesis, I spent time studying the link between two motifs that occurred in Paul’s letter to the Romans: the glory of God and justification by faith.  I wanted to ask the question, What was the link, in Paul’s mind, between these two? Forcing myself to go back to square one, I asked a second (and a far more important) question: “How might one go about discovering what Paul, in writing to the Romans, thought about the link between the glory of God and justification?”     

When we start to ask questions like this second one, we immediately begin asking questions not about theology per se, but about theological method.  Asking the question, How might one discover what Paul was saying? is a much different question than merely asking What did Paul say? So what should one’s method be in thinking about not just the topic of God’s glory and justification, but any biblical topic?  My research has helped me grow in my love for Scripture by considering this very subject, namely, the subject of hermeneutical methodology.

That’s when I read through N.T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God.1 In his book, Wright contrasts two very different, yet profoundly influential, approaches to epistemology, namely, what he labels “Positivism” and “Phenomenalism.”  He disagrees with these two approaches, objecting first to the positivist position, saying,

“The positivist believes that there are some things at least about which we can have definite knowledge. There are some things that are simply ‘objectively’ true, that is, some things about which we can have, and actually do have, solid and unquestionable knowledge.  These are things which can be tested ‘empirically’, that is, by observing, measuring, etc. within the physical world.  Taking this to its logical conclusion, things that cannot be tested in this way cannot be spoken of without talking some sort of nonsense. Though this view has been largely abandoned by philosophers, it has had a long run for its money in other spheres, not least those of the physical sciences.  Despite the great strides in self-awareness that have come about through (for instance) sociology of knowledge, not to mention philosophy of science itself, one still meets some scientists (and many non-scientists who talk about science) who believe that what science does is simply to look objectively at things that are there.. The obverse of this belief is that, where positivism cannot utter its shrill certainties, all that is left is subjectivity or relativity.  The much-discussed contemporary phenomenon of cultural and theological relativism is itself in this sense simply the dark side of positivism.” (pp. 32-33)

Wright wants to make the point that when we go with “post-Enlightenment positivism,” we operate under the wrong assumption of thinking that we can “know things straight” (p. 33).  The idea behind this type of positivism is that people (who, on a daily basis, observe events, read historical accounts, interact with objects, etc.,) have direct access to the things of the world (i.e., objects, events, etc.,).  And, according to the positivists, since we have direct access to “things,” we can then test them empirically, and thus arrive at “definite knowledge” (p.32). Wright calls this “naive realism” (p. 33).  And yet further, when one adopts this positivistic epistemology, one inevitably goes down the road to relativism (p. 33).  After all, if definite knowledge can only be found in those things which can be directly (and objectively) observed and thus be “testable,” then what do we do with things like beauty, art, faith, theology, and the most basic questions about God?  Of course, the only option would be to leave “faith-questions” in the “private, personal realm” of life.  Therefore, a divide between science proper (=definite, sure knowledge) and “faith-questions” (=outside the realm of definite knowledge) becomes the unfortunate result.  

The big problem in all of this, Wright notes, is that the positivist fails to recognize his own presuppositions.  That is, he naively thinks he can have unmediated contact to the thing being observed, read, or analyzed.  Wright puts it this way: “If knowing something is like looking through a telescope, a simplistic positivist might imagine that he is simply looking at the object, forgetting for the moment the fact that he is looking through lenses” (p. 35). This fact is important when one goes to analyze things like historical events, or in the Christian’s case, biblical texts. Each one of us observes and analyzes things through our own set of “lenses.”  That is, we all observe events and read texts with a set of presuppositions. Our worldview is “the grid through which humans perceive reality,” says Wright (p. 38).  And so, when we approach a biblical text, and if we fail to recognize our own presuppositions, “traditions, expectations, anxieties” (p.36), we risk “losing the text” for what we want it to say. So in the very end, our set of unspoken assumptions must be taken into account if we are to shape a viable and fair hermeneutic.  But, in our quest for a viable method, we cannot afford to focus so much on our assumptions that we forget that there are such things as real events and that true meaning can be found.

This leads us to the opposite end of the epistemological spectrum, namely, what Wright calls phenomenalism (p. 34). Where the positivists are overly confident in their epistemology, the phenomenalists fall into pessimism (p. 34). Using Wright’s analogy of a telescope once more, where the positivists fail to recognize they are looking at an object through lenses, phenomenalists fail to see the object for the lenses. The phenomenalists, then, can only be sure of their own perceptions, not the thing perceived. So instead of speaking with any certainty about the chair in the middle of the room, the phenomenalist would merely speak of how he perceives the chair: hard, wooden object, brownish colorings, padded on the back and bottom side, useful for sitting, etc. But he cannot see the chair because all he can know for sure are his own perceptions of the object. He cannot speak with any certainty of a “chair.”  

Both positivism and phenomenalism  each have their own difficulties.  Going back to the telescope analogy, the positivist must account for the fact that he is looking at an object through a set of lenses. If he fails to do so, then he risks seeing a distorted object if his lenses happen to be scratched. That is to say, his view of the object risks looking skewed if he doesn’t realize that it isn’t the object with the “scratch,” but rather his lens, thus failing to gain an accurate picture of the thing being observed. Likewise, phenomenalists ought to realize that their own approach remains untenable because it cannot account for what is really “out there” in the world, folding in on itself as self-defeating relativism and subjectivism. Phenomenalism offers very little “knowledge,” one might suppose. As an alternative to these two approaches, Wright proposes “a form of critical realism” (p. 35).  He continues:  

“This [critical realism] is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).  This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower” (p. 35).

That last sentence is important: “Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower.”  The reason why we must affirm that “knowledge is never independent of the knower is simply because there is no such thing as a “‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ observer…there is no such thing as the detached observer (p. 36).” Nobody can observe anything “objectively.” No one can have a “god’s-eye view” of reality (except God, of course).  Thus, in accounting for what constitutes as knowledge for fallible humans, one must take into consideration that, while the thing known exists independently of the knower, our knowledge of the thing “is never itself independent of the knower” (p. 35). Otherwise, we risk slipping back into the failed positivism of the past, and hence be forced to embrace a “secular-sacred” dichotomy, where only the physical things of the world can be given the status of “knowable” (an untenable position to hold, since most people assume that knowledge is not something confined exclusively to the physical world–what, after all, would come of morality?). But a critical-realist method can, arguably, account for our knowing those things that concern matters of faith. There is something to be known about God through faith, through love. Contrary to what the Enlightenment thinkers have taught us, it is possible to know things apart from scientific methodology (Hans-Georg Gadamer said so much in his magnum opus, Truth and Method).

On another note, it must be said that every good exegete, likewise, must take into account the Bible’s own story, its own assumptions and worldview. We must recognize our own hermeneutical lenses through which we read Scripture. The goal, mind you, is not to rid ourselves from our own presuppositions and assumptions (that would be a nonsensical task, on par with saying you were able to witness the sun rise without viewing it from some angle or vantage point). What one must do, rather, is recognize one’s own worldview and allow it to engage in an active dialogue with the worldview of Scripture. The tendency of the modern reader is to force upon Scripture our own worldview, and in the process, fail to recognize that Scripture, too, was written from some author’s own perspective and worldview.

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  1. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).