God-centered Epistemology

Well, I’m pretty stoked right now about a meeting I had on Monday. The church offered me an opportunity to preach my second sermon on Sunday the 11th, week after next. The passage is 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5. It’s a passage I’ve thought about for a while now, long before I knew I would preach it; even before I knew the church was going to work through the book of First Corinthians.

Partly, this was because of one of my classes last semester. I took Feminist Theory and Practice. A large part of the class was dedicated to questions of knowledge and epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. I think the first chapter of 1 Corinthians lays out Paul’s epistemology.
In theological circles these days, there is a lot of talk about knowledge and epistemology. Likewise in the academy. Everyone is arguing about epistemology. There are camps. Words like Modernity and Postmodernism are flying around like crazy. Feminists are taking issue with both camps and staking out strategic epistemologies in order to empower a rigorous feminist activism. These issues of knowledge are incredibly hotly debated territory these days.

In this first chapter of First Corinthians, Paul mounts an epistemological attack against both the Greek thinking of his day and also against his fellow Jews who are critical of the message God has entrusted to him. If we understand the epistemological claims Paul is making, then we will see that his argument takes all the power out of many of the unsettling doubts that face many Christians in our contemporary culture.

Postmodernists position themselves in opposition to a number of ideas that were almost universally accepted and nearly unquestioned in the modern era. Be this as it may, there are ideas which are almost universally accepted and nearly unquestioned by both philosophical camps. These ideas were equally unquestioned by Greek philosophers in Paul’s time and this is where Paul takes aim in the opening chapter of this book If we understand the power of what he’s saying, we’ll have a means not only to confidently believe, but to proclaim his Gospel effectively and powerfully.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t begin his letter by explaining the reasons or rationale which led him to believe in the message he’s proclaiming. For him, reasons and rationale don’t seem to be the basis for his knowledge at all. He claims, quite on the contrary that his message is foolishness. It isn’t the sort of thing for which rationale and reasons are easily mustered. It doesn’t lend itself to philosophical argumentation, and on the face of it it isn’t terribly plausible.

Paul’s argument is that he doesn’t believe the Gospel because it’s plausible; it isn’t. On the contrary, he believes it because God laid hold of him and called him. Because of this calling, the Gospel impacted his life with power when he encountered it. It’s foolishness to the Greeks and a cause of stumbling to the Jews, but to those who are called it is the power and wisdom of God.

If we believe the gospel because of its plausibility, then we’re in the position of explaining why everyone else in the world believes all sorts of other things that are plausible to them. If we were raised in India, Hinduism would likely seem very plausible. If we were raised in a Saudi Arabian family, Islam would likely seem very plausible to us. How is it that every religion claims to be right? Is it plausible that they are all simply wrong? What do we do in our proclamation of the Gospel when folks simply don’t find it plausible? Are we smarter than they are? Are we just better acquainted with the relevant facts? What of those folks who are unquestionably smarter than us and better acquainted with the facts? Certainly this is a situation not uncommon for many college students who follow Jesus.

Paul’s answer to all of this is that if we think the Gospel is about relevant facts, rationales, arguments and plausibility then we have misunderstood it. It is about the power of God. He doesn’t believe the Gospel, and neither should we, because it’s plausible or because of arguments and rationales. We should believe it because we can do nothing else. When Paul was running from the Gospel, fighting it with every power at his disposal, God laid hold of him. When he was running from God, God chased him down, caught him, called Paul his own and began changing Paul’s heart and mind. Paul believes because he can do no other, and for him the Gospel is the power to effect this change. It is the power to make him into a believer, follower, worshipper of God. It is the power of salvation. It is the power and wisdom of God. Paul couldn’t escape it if he wanted to.

Likewise we, when we were enemies to God were reconciled to Him by the power of His Gospel, if indeed we are His. We can’t escape God or His Gospel even if we wanted to. He has the power to make us wanters of Him. He is at work in us both to will and to work according to His good pleasure. Where we were slaves to sin we are now slaves to Him, and He will have obedience. “I will put my Spirit within them and cause them to obey my statutes.”

If we see belief in this way, then not only is the power removed from the sense that in our contemporary pluralist society any truth claim is arbitrary, but also we are empowered to proclaim the Gospel authoritatively without being taken aback or shamed by its implausibility. We are proclaiming it not because it is plausible, but because it is God’s power of salvation to those whom He has called. We can be unsurprised that some find in foolish or offensive, and also courageous in proclaiming it for the sake of those who God has called and who will experience God’s power through its proclamation.

Our message then is not that a Hindu, a Muslim, an agnostic, or our college professor, has believed fallacious arguments, or has not been smart enough, or has not been well enough acquainted with the facts. Our message is that God is calling people to Himself, and will reveal Himself to those whom He has called. Our message is that He accomplishes this practically through the proclamation of this implausible message itself. Christ died under Pontius Pilate, was buried, rose on the third day, and those who are made believers will also be made partakers of the power of His resurrection. Let those hear who have ears to hear, and let those see who have eyes to see.

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