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date: 23 April 2019

Introduction: The Epistemology of Theology

Abstract and Keywords

It has been commonplace in epistemology to give careful attention not just to epistemology as a general enterprise but also to explore in detail the epistemology of particular academic disciplines. The level of scholarly engagement within and around epistemology and theology has grown sufficiently to permit and justify a volume on the epistemology of theology. As a result, this Handbook provides a critical and constructive investigation of appropriate epistemic concepts and theories in or related to theology. It focuses on standard epistemic concepts that are usually thought of as questions about norms and sources of theology (e.g. reason, experience, tradition, scripture, revelation) and on some general epistemic concepts that can be related to theology (e.g. wisdom, understanding, virtue, evidence, testimony, scepticism, disagreement). However, no uniform epistemological or theological approaches are synonymous with the epistemology of theology. Instead, this Handbook includes a broad range of perspectives and methodological assumptions.

Keywords: pistemology of theology, epistemic concepts, contemporary epistemology, epistemic fit, norms and sources, the canonical heritage

It has been commonplace in epistemology to give careful attention not just to the subject itself as a general enterprise but also to explore in detail the epistemology of particular academic disciplines. The epistemology of science, for example, has received the lion’s share of interest; but attention has also been given to mathematics, history, aesthetics, and ethics. The crucial warrant for these later developments goes back to Aristotle’s insistence on what we might call a principle of epistemic fit (EN 1.3 in Crisp 2000: 5). We should fit our epistemic evaluations in an appropriate way to the subject matter under investigation. As a result, we do not expect historical claims to be evaluated by the kind of arguments that would apply to mathematics and the natural sciences. Surprisingly—given the attention directed to theological claims and the wealth of materials in both theology and philosophy—this principle has not been systematically explored in the case of theology.

To be sure, we acknowledge that this Aristotelian epistemic principle, like most epistemic principles, is contested. Epistemologists have naturally wanted a generic epistemology that would work across the board, regardless of subject matter. There have been plenty of epistemologists who have shared this goal even when it comes to theology. We have no desire to exclude this option and readily welcome its proponents to the table. Yet we are not persuaded that Aristotle is wrong and therefore consider it entirely appropriate to proceed on the assumption that his insight is both correct and fruitful. Those who disagree simply need to be aware that this is the framework we think appropriate; they are welcome to make their case on the other side; we simply hope our work will still be of interest to them and will provoke an illuminating response. For now we think that the principle of epistemic fit creates space for the work that follows.

In this volume, we intend to remove the aforementioned lacuna by providing an orderly, constructive investigation of the epistemology of theology. By epistemology of (p. 2) theology, we mean a critical enquiry of appropriate epistemic concepts and theories in or related to theology. This involves examining and articulating what counts as appropriate epistemic evaluation in theology. The wide-ranging nature of this kind of enquiry can be seen in the following distinction. On the one hand, this volume focuses on standard epistemic concepts that are usually thought of as questions about norms and sources of theology (e.g. reason; experience; tradition; scripture; revelation). On the other hand, it explores some general epistemic concepts that can be related to theology (e.g. wisdom; understanding; virtue; evidence; testimony; scepticism; disagreement).

We believe that the time is ripe in both philosophy and theology for such an undertaking. There is a great need for the development of this new conversation that will take its natural place in the intersection of theology and epistemology. Accordingly, we seek in this volume to spell out how the epistemology of theology, as a new subdiscipline, attends more fully to the epistemological issues that arise in the course of doing Christian theology.

Carving out the Epistemology of Theology

The time for unpacking and fleshing out the contours of the epistemology of theology is propitious. On the one hand, the whole field of epistemology has been revolutionized over the last fifty years. One fruitful and refreshing feature of recent work in epistemology is the expansion of its topics (see Alston 2005; Goldman and Whitcomb 2011; Greco and Turri 2012; Haddock, Millar, and Pritchard 2010; and Kvanvig 2005). The landscape includes, but is not limited to, developing accounts of knowledge, rationality, justification, warrant, understanding, wisdom, the intellectual virtues, and the social dimensions of cognition (e.g. testimony; trust; authority). Along these lines, some have already shown how different theological topics can be addressed in light of these recent developments in epistemology (e.g. Abraham 1990, 1998, 2006; Alston 1991, 1999; Greco 2009, 2012; Mavrodes 1988; Mitchell 1973, 1994; Moser 2008; Plantinga 2000; Swinburne 2005; Wainwright 1995, 2016; Wolterstorff 1995; and Zagzebski 2012). More importantly, these projects have paved the way for fuller theological appropriation and for moving ahead with the task of carving out the landscape of the epistemology of theology. As a result, the boundaries between philosophy and theology have been traversed in productive ways. This creates space for constructive work in epistemology as it crops up within theology.

On the other hand, there are signs that some theologians are ready to participate in the development of the epistemology of theology. They have become aware of the role of epistemological assumptions in their own work, and are clearly ready to see epistemological issues as constitutive of their own work, in that they cannot avoid questions about the intellectual status of their claims about God (e.g. Abraham 1998, 2006; Aquino 2004; Coakley 2009; and Marshall 2000). Moreover, there is a wealth of material to draw (p. 3) on in both earlier and more recent discussions within theology. Theologians have their own proposals to bring to the feast; they do not have to wait on the crumbs that fall from the philosophers’ table. Given the extraordinary diversity (or chaos) within theology at present, it is clear that beginning students are acutely aware of the need to sort through how to adjudicate the rival options in a responsible manner. They cannot really do so without getting into the epistemology of theology.

We strive to make it clear in this volume that the Christian tradition encourages, rather than inhibits, the pursuit of epistemological questions. Along these lines, recent work in epistemology can help theologians make the relevant distinctions and alert them to epistemic components in the Christian tradition that have been ignored, neglected, or not formulated adequately. For example, some recent work in virtue epistemology may help identify epistemic materials in the canonical heritage that stress the importance of the proper function of cognitive faculties, conversion, volitional openness, and transformation for knowledge of God. Also, ‘ongoing work on the nature of perception may throw invaluable light on ways of thinking about perception of the divine’ (Abraham 1998: 478; see also Gavrilyuk and Coakley 2012). When the epistemic proposals, insights, and suggestions embedded in the canonical heritage of the Christian tradition are brought to light, we hope that other theologians and philosophers will join us in pursuing these matters carefully, rigorously, and thoroughly.

A project of this sort requires the development of an illuminating map of the terrain. Given that this is uncharted territory we simply have to strike out as best as we can, hoping that our initial efforts can be radically improved as we proceed and as others join the work. We do have, for example, a good sense of what the well-developed field of epistemology consists of, and so we are not reinventing the wheel here. We can also scout out other subdisciplines within epistemology; say, the epistemology of science, where there is a wealth of material. However, the gains from general epistemology have to be handled with care. There are generic considerations that cut across subject matter (e.g. perception; memory; and inference) but the epistemology of history differs prima facie from the epistemology of science precisely because the former deals with human action and the latter with the natural world. Likewise, we should expect that the subject matter of theology would make a significant difference in how we pursue appropriate epistemological insights.

Accordingly, we recognize that the standard epistemological topics that show up within theology are relatively easy to identify. We are all familiar with debates within theology in and around, say, natural theology, divine revelation, the nature and function of scripture, religious experience, and the rationality of Christian belief. However, there is a readiness in some circles to reduce this wealth of material to a discussion of the epistemic status of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The crucial problem here is that composing the list of what constitutes the epistemology of theology proper is like watching an amateur musician playing an accordion: it expands and contracts without much rhyme or reason. Consequently, we intend to track the desiderata our intuitions pick out as broadly relevant to the epistemology of theology.

(p. 4) In this regard, we can legitimately begin to classify this material as best as we know how, starting with conventional wisdom (in both philosophy and theology) and with what comes naturally to us. In time we will be able to see whether we can improve on our initial efforts. Certainly we can hope to introduce some order into our initial efforts at providing a systematic map of the terrain. Even then we should relax. The aim is not to introduce some kind of rigid system, imposed on the data. Instead, the aim is to make progress in the epistemology of theology and to find ways to teach it that will be fruitful and liberating to those puzzled by epistemological issues. Order is important if we are to achieve this or that end; but it remains here a means to the ends of better understanding and better teaching.

The Scope and Structure of the Volume

The Handbook is divided into four parts. Part I focuses on some of the epistemic concepts that have been traditionally employed in theology, such as knowledge of God (Ch. 1), revelation and scripture (Ch. 2), reason and faith (Ch.3), experience (Ch. 4), and tradition (Ch. 8). However, it also includes concepts that have not received sufficient epistemological attention in theology, such as saints (Ch. 5), authority (Chs 6 and 10), ecclesial practices (Ch. 9), the inner witness of the Spirit (Ch. 7), spiritual formation, and discernment (Ch. 10). Part II takes up some concepts that have received significant attention in contemporary epistemology and can be related to theology, such as understanding (Ch. 11), wisdom (Ch. 12), testimony (Ch. 13), virtue (Ch. 14), evidence (Ch. 15), foundationalism (Ch. 16), realism/anti-realism (Ch. 17), scepticism (Ch. 18), and disagreement (Ch. 19). Part III offers some samplings from the Christian tradition and accordingly seeks to unpack and develop the relevant epistemological issues and insights in these writers, as well as pointing out the challenges of connecting insights from contemporary epistemology with the subject of theology proper, namely, God (Chs 20–36). The aim here is not to offer comprehensive coverage of the Christian tradition. As a result, the samplings include Paul the Apostle (Ch. 20), Origen (Ch. 21), Augustine (Ch. 22), Maximus the Confessor (Ch. 23), Symeon the New Theologian (Ch. 24), Anselm (Ch. 25), Aquinas (Ch. 26), John Duns Scotus (Ch. 27), Richard Hooker (Ch. 28), Teresa of Ávila (Ch. 29), John Wesley (Ch. 30), Jonathan Edwards (Ch. 31), Friedrich Schleiermacher (Ch. 32), Søren Kierkegaard (Ch. 33), John Henry Newman (Ch. 34), Karl Barth (Ch. 35), and Hans Urs von Balthasar (Ch. 36). Part IV identifies five emerging areas that warrant further epistemological attention and development: liberation theology (Ch. 37), continental philosophy (Ch. 38), modern Orthodox writers (Ch. 39), feminism (Ch. 40), and Pentecostalism (Ch. 41).

The chapters in this volume explore how the various topics, figures, and emerging conversations can be reconceived and addressed in light of recent developments in epistemology. Along these lines, each chapter: (1) provides an analysis of the crucial moves, positions, and debates; (2) identifies and spells out the relevant epistemic considerations; (p. 5) and (3) offers recommendations of how inquiry into the particular topic might more fruitfully be pursued. Though the Handbook is interested in the current fields of epistemology and theology, it is not a survey of modern theological and epistemological trends. Rather, the aim is to identify and spell out the relevant epistemic considerations for the theological topics at hand.


We are convinced that the level of scholarly engagement within and around epistemology and theology has grown sufficiently to permit and justify a volume of this sort. In this respect, the volume seeks to match the best scholars in epistemology and theology with the subject matter in hand. However, no uniform epistemological and theological approaches are synonymous with the epistemology of theology. The volume, in fact, reflects a broad range of perspectives and methodological assumptions. The hope is that the intersection of these disciplines will prompt greater work on, attention to, and development of the relevant themes.


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