The Gospel and Epistemic Dilemma

by | Sep 20, 2018 | Adult Christian Learning | 0 comments

In John 7:17 Jesus made an incredibly controversial claim that is directly related to both the gospel and one’s ability to possess true knowledge of it. He said, If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The context of Jesus’ claim came on the heels of his assertiveness to stand up in the Temple and teach others. The Jews were astonished and asked a very logical question: How is it that this man has an education when he has never been formally or even informally trained? Good question. Where does Jesus’ knowledge come from? This brings us to what would prove to be controversial in Jesus’ day and no less controversial in our own. Jesus claimed that his teaching was not his own. It belonged to the one who sent him. Who sent him? In John 3:17 Jesus claims that God sent him. So, the ‘him’ in this context must refer to God the Father. Now, let’s follow the argument. The Jews are evaluating Jesus’ teaching. Is it true, or is it false? Should a rational person believe the claims of Christ or should they reject them?

Jesus answered the Jews’ question with a simple but deeply provocative claim: The condition that must be met, the criterion for knowing whether or not Jesus’ teaching was from God is having a will that is aligned with God’s will. The necessary condition for knowing the truth about Jesus’ claim is having a will, or desire, to carry out God’s will and desires. In other words, a heart for God is necessary if one wants to know the truth about Jesus’ claim. The only way to possess true knowledge about Christ is to have a regenerated heart. For, you see, the condition of the natural man is hostile to the things of God. Paul said that those who are in the flesh are hostile to the law of God (Rom 8:6-8). He said that the natural man cannot understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). He also said that Satan has blinded the minds of those who do not believe the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Jesus himself said that the reason the Jews did not receive his words is because they are not able to do so (John 8:43). This raises a serious epistemic problem for Christians where the gospel, evangelism, and apologetics are concerned. If you must believe the gospel in order to be saved, shouldn’t you at least know what it is? And isn’t it the case that men should evaluate claims to determine if they are true before accepting them? Shouldn’t the Christian gospel be submitted to the bar of human reason like any other claim to truth if we are to determine whether or not it is worth believing? Isn’t this the point of Christian apologetics? In short, no, God’s word is never subjected to creaturely evaluation where it’s integrity or authority is concerned. Asking the question, “Has God said” where God has spoken is always a very hazardous practice.

When one examines the word euangelion in the lexicons they discover that it means “God’s good news to humans.” The word gospel appears 101x in the NASB. Of those 101x, 81x it is used with the verb preached. Another 8x it is used with the word proclaim. Finally, it is used with the word believe in 6 of those cases. The gospel then is something that is preached, proclaimed, and believed according to the overwhelming evidence of the New Testament. The gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, it is proclaimed, and it is believed. To contend that the gospel is more than this is to introduce a definition of the gospel that is foreign to the teachings of the New Testament. This raises the question of content. What is the content of the gospel that is to be preached, proclaimed, and believed?

It is worth mentioning that the word euangelion also appears in the LXX at 2 Samuel 4:10 where one of the warriors thought he was bringing Saul’s death as a report of good news. The LXX translates the Hebrew bĕśōrâ to euangelion. The Hebrew word bĕśōrâ appears only 6x in the Hebrew text. It means to bring news, glad tidings, to announce, to receive good news. Hence, the sense of bĕśōrâ and euangelion is the publishing of news or good news, an announcement or proclamation of some event or some occurrence. The idea of doing something is bound up in the words euangelion or bĕśōrâ is without any warrant whatsoever. The gospel is statement of fact that something has happened. The gospel is a claim. It is a claim that one asserts and one that must either be believed or rejected.

One of the most concise statements on the content of the gospel is found in 1 Cor. 15:1-4. The Apostle Paul says, For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. The content of the gospel that was preached by the Apostles then is simply this: that Jesus is the Christ who died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures. This is the gospel of the kingdom that shall be preached and proclaimed until Christ returns. This is the message that shaped classic evangelicalism and that sets classic evangelicals apart from every other branch of Protestantism. Indeed, this is the good news that is the gospel. The good news is the Jesus is the Christ, he died for our sins, was buried, and raised again on the third day. That is the content of the gospel that is to be believed or rejected.

If the gospel is a claim or an assertion to be believed, the question that one will naturally ask is whether or not belief in this claim or assertion is justified or warranted. What is our epistemic warrant for our belief that the claim made by the gospel is actually true? What evidence can be brought forth that will convince the unbeliever that the gospel is actually true and should be believed? The theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of propositions and beliefs. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality, and probability. Loosely speaking, justification is the reason that someone holds a belief. (Theory of justification, n.d.) The idea is that one should only continue to hold to a belief if they have grounds or evidence or good reason for doing so. Usually, the criteria for what qualifies as grounds, evidence, or good reason are employed using methodological naturalism. The notion that such criteria would be insufficient to evaluate Christian belief is usually met with intense opposition and ruled out as extreme subjectivism from the start. What is a Christian to do?

For starters, I think William J. Abraham is onto something when he says that our epistemic obligations are person-relative. Whether or not an individual is warranted in believing a claim is dependent, to a large degree, on the reasons the individual might have for holding the belief. This brings us to the question of warrant. Alvin Plantinga, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame focuses on the issue of warrant rather than justification. In Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga explains it this way: A belief B has warrant for S if and only if the relevant segments are functioning properly in a cognitive environment sufficiently similar to that for which S’s faculties are designed; and the modules of the design plan governing the production of B are (1) aimed at truth, and (2) such that here is a high objective probability that a belief formed in according with those modules is true; and the more firmly S believes B the more warrant B has for S.

According to Jesus and Paul, unbelievers have a serious problem where warrant and the gospel is concerned. According to Christianity’s own teachings, teachings that are derived from Scripture, an unbeliever is incapable of understanding, knowing, and believing the gospel in his or her unregenerate state. If we take Plantinga’s idea of warrant and couple that with the Scripture’s teaching on the noetic effects of sin, we have an epistemic dilemma where the gospel is concerned or, so it would appear. The specific issue is that the unbeliever’s cognitive faculties are not functioning as designed. Jesus said that one must desire what God desires if they are to understand his teachings. Paul said the natural man cannot understand the things of God. Since this is a necessary condition of warrant, it follows that the unbeliever is unable to possess warrant for believing the gospel. Something has to happen to the cognitive faculties before true belief and true warrant is possible.

The believer is seized by divine truth. The Word of God is not evaluated and embraced by the Christian. The Christian believes the gospel and knows the gospel because of the internal testimony or instigation of the Holy Spirit. The Christian’s knowledge of the gospel is not borne out of methodological naturalism. Instead, John states it clearly: But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. And then again, But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. The gospel is a supernatural message from top to bottom. Understanding and believing the gospel takes the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. God writes his law on the hearts of those who embrace the gospel.

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