Confusing Being & Knowledge

“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

–Colossians 2:1-3

Some have made the claim that the presuppositionalist confuses the epistemological question (how do we know?) and the ontological question (what do we know?). Dr. Edgar Singer once suggested in his Notes on Experience and Reflection that Christians ought to drop the ontological question altogether and focus only on the epistemological one. On the other hand, some have argued we should drop the epistemological question and focus only on the ontological one. Still, some have thought that we confuse the two in some sort of category error.

A Clash of Worldviews

First, it must be understood that the language used here and in other literature, such as Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith, is paganistic philosophical language which has been used for centuries. The reason this language has come to be used in our apologetic is for the purposes of speaking the language of the opponent. This is a biblical concept (1 Cor 9:22). How else are our opponents to understand us? They do not speak biblical theological language. But just because we use this language does not mean we carry the same definitions over from their pagan origins. No, these terms are being used in the context of a Christian theistic worldview.

That said, a Christian ontology and a Christian epistemology are going to be different than a secular philosophical rendition of them. When we speak of ontology, we presuppose the existence of a Christian God whose very being is absolute. All wisdom and knowledge is found in Him. When we speak of epistemology, concerning the reference point for how we know things, God is the ultimate constitutive source of all knowledge. In other words, God is the reason anyone, believer or unbeliever, is able to know anything at all. He is the precondition of intelligibility. So then there is indeed a distinction between the Christian versions of epistemology and ontology, but there is not a separation.

Therefore, Christian epistemology and ontology fundamentally clash with secular versions of the two, not necessarily formally, but in principle. This is true for broader categories as well. Christian theology, philosophy and science clash with a secular understanding of them, in principle.

One Over The Other

Above, I hope to have corrected the claim that Christians conflate epistemology and ontology. But how do we deal with the claims that we ought not present one or the other? After all, some have claimed that we should discuss ontology but not epistemology, and some have suggested that we deal with epistemology and not ontology.

With respects to ontology, the Christian apologist cannot present the Christian worldview as found in Scripture if we do not present the God of Scripture. In other words, who God is is paramount to our faith and what it is, and what we are defending. By saying, as Singer implied, that the question of knowledge and being are independent of one another, and that knowledge ought to be discussed but not being, we are forced to exclude an answer concerning the question of knowledge itself since all knowledge originates in God. Van Til writes:

Is this position of Dr. Singer tenable? Suppose it is true, for argument’s sake, that such a being as we have described God to be, does actually exist. Would not such a God have the right to speak to us with authority? Are we not, by saying that the question of knowledge is independent of the question of being, excluding one possible answer to the question of knowledge itself?

This secular desire for the question of being and question of knowledge to be separated is not possible for the Christian apologist if we are to remain consistent with the Scriptures. If God is who He says He is, we cannot isolate these two categories away from each other. We can make a distinction, but we cannot bring ourselves to an all out separation.

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:1-3).

Some have said that we should keep the battlefield of ontology and surrender the battlefield of epistemology. But upon further analysis, this too is ridiculous from a biblical perspective. When we ask, “what do we know?” we are immediately confronted with the question, “how do we know what we know?” In light of the Christian version of epistemology and ontology, that is, if God is who Scripture says He is, both of these questions are intimately involved with one another and the answers to both are found in God Himself. If all knowledge is found in God, and all that knowledge is true knowledge, and furthermore, if how we can know things is by virtue of who God is, we must involve both questions in our apologetic discussions, but we cannot separate the two, or drop one as over against the other.

Ending Thoughts

I have heard three suggestions. 1) Presuppositionalists conflate being (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology); 2) Presuppositionalists should drop ontology and focus on epistemology (Singer); and 3) Presuppositionalists should drop epistemology to discuss ontology.

Hopefully it can be seen above how all three of these suggestions undermine a biblical understanding of both categories. In fact, they all three undermine who Scripture says God is. Moreover, as Christians, we are not to play along with the world’s definitions of these terms as if they are universally neutral or binding. We need to bear in mind that the development of such terms within the sphere of secular philosophy has taken place under a unique set of ungodly presuppositions.

Some of those are the ultimacy of the human mind, the notion of comprehensive knowledge, and an assumption of the existence of brute fact. By virtue of all three of these assumptions which underly secular science and philosophy, the notion of the Christian God is not even able to be suggested. That is, the Lord of glory is excluded at the outset of pagan thought.

This is something which needs to be addressed throughout the course of our apologetic to the unbeliever. We need to make known that they are in fact, in advance, excluding the Christian God.

Additional Links:

Van Til’s Apologetic, by Dr. greg Bahnsen


Co-founder, editor, and contributor of The Reformed Collective. He is a member and pastoral intern at Word of Life Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO. He has co-coordinated the evangelism ministry at Grace Bible Church in San Diego, CA. At present he is pursuing a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M. Div. He currently resides in Overland Park, KS with his wife, Christina.

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