Tom Gilson

Three Ways of Knowing

Thinking Christian
Thinking Christian
Three Ways of Knowing

How can we know Christianity is true? As I shared with Seaford Baptist Church last Sunday, we can know (among many other ways)…

  • By the Holy Spirit’s confirmation
  • By the evidence of history
  • By the sense that Christianity makes

My notes (PDF) are attached.

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28 thoughts on “Three Ways of Knowing

  1. The anti science sentiments from the audience really saddens me. Very interesting talk though. Will be googling a bunch of stuff this weekend.

  2. It’s likely that none of PZ’s groupies will rush in to argue against this topic because they know it’s true. I’m specifically talking about the various ways of knowing something is true.

  3. Regarding the evidence of history, suppose two rather ordinary, yet contradictory, claims are made about an event. Suppose also that 5 people give testimony in support of claim A, while 20 people give testimony in support of claim B.

    Is it reasonable to conclude that claim B is what probably really happened? Most people, I think, would say yes. If you disagree, why?

    Do the rules change when it comes to conflicting events separated by time? In other words, claim A has 5 supporters in the year 2011 and claim B has 20 supporters in the year 2012 – does the thinking change?

    In all of this I am assuming there is no conclusive physical evidence for either claim.

  4. What does it mean to say Christianity “makes sense”? One of the ways I am convinced Christianity is not true, is because it makes no intelligible sense, that I can see.

    And where it makes the least amount of sense, actually has to do with one of its central dogmas – the resurrection and the atonement.

    Reviewing the various atonement theories and arguments for and against them (penal substitution, satisfaction theory, etc) really opened my eyes up to just how bizarre Christianity is, and how it really swims against everything we commonly believe about ethics, love, and justice.

    A lot gets swept under the rug by the phrase, “He died for our sins”, and most Christians don’t really think about it much. But there’s a need for an explanation there (that actually makes sense), and I don’t think there will ever be one forthcoming.

  5. Ugh: re the lecture recording — the carbon-14 discussion at the end was a total mess, around 52:30. Carbon-14 only works between 0-50,000 years, it’s impossible to get a million-year date. You need other isotopes with longer half-lives for older dates. It would be nice if the questioner had learned that from Creation Magazine, or if Tom had been able to correct her.

  6. No, I listened to some of it (didn’t realize it was so long) and looked through the power-point. Will probably make it through if I have some time later. Is there a point of interest pertaining to my post in there?

  7. Nick, thanks for finding a way to criticize me for making the point that actually needed making. You’re awfully hard to please, you know?

  8. Christianity is not what we think about ethics, love, justice, etc, but what Goddeclares those things to be.

    Isaiah says it well (Isaiah 40:13-14, NASB)

    13Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
    Or as His counselor has informed Him?

    14With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
    And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
    And informed Him of the way of understanding?

    and Isaiah 55:6-11

    6Seek the LORD while He may be found;
    Call upon Him while He is near.

    7Let the wicked forsake his way
    And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
    And let him return to the LORD,
    And He will have compassion on him,
    And to our God,
    For He will abundantly pardon.

    8“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.

    9“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    So are My ways higher than your ways
    And My thoughts than your thoughts.

    10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    And do not return there without watering the earth
    And making it bear and sprout,
    And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;

    11So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
    It will not return to Me empty,
    Without accomplishing what I desire,
    And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it

    @Tom – sorry for including the actual text, but as I sincerely doubt that d actually takes the time to read the automatic hyperlinks, let alone the ‘more’ links to see them in context….

    Theories about how God redeems people through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, are fallible and finite human attempts to articulate a very profound eternal reality. Even Paul, writing under the auspices of the Holy Spirit, declares (Romans 11:33-36, where he refers back to Isaiah)

    33Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

    and in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

    For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

    19For it is written,

    20Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

    26For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29so that no man may boast before God. 30But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.”

    The New Testament writers talk about why God did what He did, what it accomplished for us, and how we can obtain it, and what we need to do once we have it.
    The requirement for obtaining it is trust, taking God at His word and acting on it – God offers a relationship based on love and trust and faith. It is the Spirit of God Who convicts a person of sin and the need for repentance and forgiveness, convinces that person of the truth of Christ’s accomplishment, and confirms that the person has, in fact, become redeemed and adopted into God’s family, and begins the life-long learning process of growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Hebrews 11:1 says Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen

    The Greek word translated as ‘assurance’ is hupostatis, or hypostasis, a word used in ancient Greek papyrii from the 1st century in property transactions to indicate ‘title-deed’

    see here

    hypóstasis(from 5259 /hypó, “under” and 2476 /hístēmi, “to stand”) – properly, (to possess) standing under a guaranteed agreement (“title-deed”); (figuratively) “title” to a promise or property, i.e. a legitimate claim (because it literally is, “under a legal-standing”) – entitling someone to what is guaranteed under the particular agreement.

    This is not some theory for Christians – it is our life, and it is the relationship we have been given. It would be nice to know how it all works. We will have an eternity to come to understand all that God has done for us. We actually do give it a lot of thought, and prayer – on how to live it, how to apply it.

    You are on the outside looking in, d.
    You are standing out in the freezing cold looking at people who are inside being warmed by the fire burning in the hearth, and refusing to come inside yourself because those people can’t fully articulate a theory of combustion or radiative heat transfer.

  9. Victoria,

    You just (in a really long way) said Christianity (or this one particular aspect) doesn’t actually make sense (to us at least), but trust in God anyways, which is quite a different bullet point from Tom’s, illustrating a way of knowing: “Christianity makes sense”.

  10. @d,
    There is a difference between “makes sense” and “what we would be inclined to think left to our own devices”.

  11. d,

    What does it mean to say Christianity “makes sense”? One of the ways I am convinced Christianity is not true, is because it makes no intelligible sense, that I can see.

    It makes a lot of sense to me. Most importantly, it makes sense of people. Most philosophies seek to blame our problems on outside forces. Gnuism is one example, as they seek to blame all our problems on “religion.” Christianity accurately diagnoses the problem – it’s within each one of us. It makes sense that humans would ignore the real source of our problems and point their fingers elsewhere.

    And where it makes the least amount of sense, actually has to do with one of its central dogmas – the resurrection and the atonement.

    It makes lots of sense to me. Human beings are incapable of saving themselves because the problem lies within. If there is a God, and if there is salvation, it must be given as an act of love and mercy.

  12. @d As usual, you see what you want to see.

    No…what I said amounts to ‘Christianity makes sense through the witness of the Spirit of God’. To understand it, one must live it. This is experiential knowledge. This is how we know.

    Intellectually, we will never exhaust the depths of what God accomplished through Jesus Christ on our behalf – it will take an eternity to comprehend it all.

    I said

    The New Testament writers talk about why God did what He did, what it accomplished for us, and how we can obtain it, and what we need to do once we have it.
    The requirement for obtaining it is trust, taking God at His word and acting on it – God offers a relationship based on love and trust and faith. It is the Spirit of God Who convicts a person of sin and the need for repentance and forgiveness, convinces that person of the truth of Christ’s accomplishment, and confirms that the person has, in fact, become redeemed and adopted into God’s family, and begins the life-long learning process of growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    It actually makes sense that because the chasm between a Holy God and sinful man is so great, we cannot redeem ourselves. We are spiritually dead and have no way of making ourselves alive. It makes sense that if we are to have any hope of being redeemed, that God would have to do it for us – He would have to reach across the chasm and bring us across. But, because He is altogether righteous and the Judge of all the earth, He cannot simply ignore sin and let it go. Sinful humans that we are, we don’t like to hear that, so we say ‘It makes no sense’; the deceiver, that serpent, doesn’t want us to hear it and believe it either, so he tells us lies and blinds our minds. If there is a spiritual battle going on behind the scenes (a rebellion, a civil war), then it makes sense that we need the help of the Spirit of God to enable us to see and hear and understand.
    It makes sense that if God wants a relationship with us, one based on love, that it must be freely given on our part – love cannot be coerced, only wooed. It makes sense that faith and trust are His requirements.

    The Cross and the Resurrection are where God’s love, mercy, grace and justice meet. They are the means by which God grants forgiveness and the new spiritual life. .

    As I said elsewhere, Christianity is presented to us in such a way as to separate those who would love God from those who would hate Him. Too bad for you that you are (currently) among the latter.

  13. @d:

    A lot gets swept under the rug by the phrase, “He died for our sins”, and most Christians don’t really think about it much.

    Oh Joy of Joys; how blessed are we to have you here to set us straight, you who have devoted much time, thought and reading to the matter, and by the sheer power of your reasoning abilities have come to the conclusion that Christianity makes little to no sense at all. Thanks for sharing with us the produce of your wit.

  14. You’re right, d. Most Christians don’t think about that as much as we should. If we kept it more in mind we might practice our beliefs more consistently.

    If you’re going to count noses of those who really think about it much, that’s the level on which that analysis works. The more Christians who think about things like the cross, the more Christians who act accordingly, with love, gratefulness, prayer, and worship.

    But I don’t think that was your point, even though it would have been a valid one.

    Instead it seems that your point was, since not a lot of Christians think about it much, therefore something there poses a problem for the truth of Christianity. I invite you to think about that a little (not much, just a little). Does your conclusion follow from your premise?

    Sometimes I think the whole world of atheists should spend just 90 minutes in a good seminary library. I would ask them to go in prepared with their own ending to this sentence: “Christians wouldn’t be such idiots if they would only spend a few minutes thinking about ….” With that in mind, I would invite them to find the shelf (or two or three or four or more) where Christians have done hours and hours of thinking, and have done so (other than questions raised by recent developments in geopolitics, technology, etc.) for century upon century, and have even done so in the light of conflicting and difficult questions, about that very topic we’ve “never thought about.”

    It would be entertaining to discover how many of said atheists could keep up with the use of evidence and logic in those volumes.

  15. @G. Rodrigues
    I wonder just how d knows the relative proportions of Christians who have and have not thought about it. I wonder how he knows what each Christian actually thinks about anyway? If nothing else, d is a master of the sweeping generalization fallacy as well as the non-representative sampling fallacy

  16. Many atheists don’t want to discover or learn. Many just want to throw stones, run away, and then return with more stones. Many only have a litany of questions without any need to know the answer.

  17. @Tom, G. Rodrigues
    d only sees head knowledge – I don’t think he understands heart knowledge.
    I think d is referring to these so-called theories of how Christianity is supposed to work.

  18. I’d like to come back to d’s portrayal of those ‘various atonement theories’.

    I had previously said that
    The Cross and the Resurrection are where God’s love, grace, mercy and justice come together.

    To add: this did not take place in a vacuum, but within the context of God’s revelation of Himself and His plans in the Jewish Scriptures (or the first covenant). The Cross is to be seen as the reality behind the Jewish sacrificial system.

    Each of these aspects represents a facet of what was accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, and the spiritual transaction(s) that took place between God the Father and God the Son, on our behalf.
    These facets are inseparable, and any particular theory, to the extent that it emphasizes one over the others, is going to be incomplete and may distort the full significance of the atonement.

    From the Eerdmans New Bible Dictionary, in its entry on ‘atonement’

    The New Testament writers, writing from different standpoints and different emphases, give us a number of facets of the atonement. There is no repetition of a stereotyped line of teaching. Each writes as he sees. Some saw more and more deeply than others. But they did not see something different. In what follows we shall consider first of all what might be termed the common basic teachings about the atonement, and then some of the information we owe to one or other New Testament theologians….
    a. It reveals God’s love for men (humans)…
    b. The sacrificial aspects of Christ’s death…
    c. The representatitive nature of Christ’s death..
    d. Substitution taught in the New Testament
    (That Christ died as our substitute, a ransom: 1 Timothy 2:6)

    [I didn’t fill in the detailed text, for reasons of brevity 🙂 ]
    The dictionary entry goes on to refer the reader to the entries for ‘Expiation’, ‘Forgiveness’, ‘Propitiation’, ‘Reconciliation’, ‘Redeemer’, ‘Sacrifice’.

    From the online Bible Encyclopedia, I’ll just paste in the relevant portion that illustrates the issues in trying to produce a systematic theology of the atonement:

    How Shall We Understand the Atonement?

    When we come to systematize the teaching concerning the Atonement we find, as in all doctrine, that definite system is not offered us in the New Testament, but all system, if it is to have any value for Christianity, must find its materials and principles in the New Testament. Proceeding in this way some features may be stated positively and finally, while others must be presented interrogatively, recognizing that interpretations may differ.

    (1) An initial consideration is that the Atonement originates with God who “was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19), and whose love gave Jesus to redeem sinful men (John 3:16 Romans 5:8, etc.). In all atonement in Old Testament and New Testament the initiative is of God who not only devises and reveals the way to reconciliation, but by means of angels, prophets, priests and ultimately His only begotten Son applies the means of atonement and persuades men to accept the proffered reconciliation. Nothing in the speculation concerning the Atonement can be more false to its true nature than making a breach between God and His Christ in their attitude toward sinful men.

    (2) It follows that atonement is fundamental in the nature of God in His relations to men, and that redemption is in the heart of God’s dealing in history. The “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8 the King James Version and the English Revised Version; compare Revelation 5:5-7) is the interpreter of the seven-sealed book of God’s providence in history. In Jesus we behold the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

    (3) The question will arise in the analysis of the doctrine: How does the death of Christ save us? No specific answer has ever been generally satisfactory. We have numerous theories of the Atonement. We have already intimated that the answer to this question will depend upon our idea of the nature of God, the nature of sin, the content of salvation, the nature of man, and our idea of Satan and evil spirits. We ought at once to dismiss all merely quantitative and commercial conceptions of exchange of merit. There is no longer any question that the doctrines of imputation, both of Adam’s sin and of Christ’s righteousness, were overwrought and applied by the early theologians with a fatal exclusiveness, without warrant in the Word of God. On the other hand no theory can hold much weight that presupposes that sin is a thing of light consequence in the nature of man and in the economy of God. Unless one is prepared to resist unto blood striving against sin (Hebrews 12:2-4), he cannot know the meaning of the Christ. Again, it may be said that the notion that the death of Christ is to be considered apart from His life, eternal and incarnate life, as the atoning work, is far too narrow to express the teaching of the Bible and far too shallow to meet the demands of an ethical conscience.

    It would serve clearness if we reminded ourselves that the question of how in the Atonement may involve various elements. We may inquire: (a) for the ground on which God may righteously receive the sinner; (b) for the means by which God places the restoration within the reach of the sinner; (c) for the influence by which the sinner is persuaded to accept the reconciliation; (d) for the attitude or exercise of the sinner toward God in Christ wherein he actually enters the state of restored union with God. The various theories have seemed to be exclusive, or at least mutually antagonistic, largely because they have taken partial views of the whole subject and have emphasized some one feature of the whole content. All serious theories partly express the truth and all together are inadequate fully to declare how the Daystar from on high doth guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:79).

    (4) Another question over which theologians have sorely vexed themselves and each other concerns the extent of the Atonement, whether it is available for all men or only for certain particular, elect ones. That controversy may now be passed by. It is no longer possible to read the Bible and suppose that God relates himself sympathetically with only a part of the race. All segregated passages of Scripture formerly employed in support of such a view have now taken their place in the progressive self-interpretation of God to men through Christ who is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). No man cometh unto the Father but by Him (John 14:6): but whosoever does thus call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Joel 2:32 Acts 2:21).

    The interested reader can see the full reference here:

    My analogy of the warmth of the fire and trying to explain it was lacking. It’s not that it was a case of not being able to articulate various theories, but that there are so many facets to it:
    – combustion
    – radiative heat transfer
    – convective heat transfer
    – the kinetic theory of gases
    – physiological responses (both sensory and physical changes)
    Not only that, some theories put forth may be incorrect (eg, if someone proposes a phlogiston theory of heat).

    The point is, regardless of what one may or may not understand about fire and how it warms us, it does warm us, and the sensible thing to do is to come in out of the cold and get warm.

    d, you seem to think of these conflicting theories of the atonement as mutually exclusive, when there is another option that you may not have considered.

    Christians know that the Cross and the Resurrection are the means by which God brings us into His eternal kingdom; there are many facets as to how it all works, but the sensible person will come in out of the cold and get warm first

  19. Tom,

    That wasn’t quite my point. Even if most Christians don’t understand X about Christianity, that says nothing about Christianity’s truth.

    I did point out that most Christians probably don’t understand the difficulties in explaining the atonement, nor really seek those explanations out in depth. Perhaps if more did, more would find the answers available less than satisfying, and /might/ doubt the sense and/or truth of Christianity. But that’s besides the point.

    My main point was that, even the most knowledgable Christians have failed to make sense of the atonement (from my point of view, anyway), and that is one reason why I don’t think Christianity actually makes sense (according to one meaning of the word “sense”). The various atonement theories I have examined, seem quite /senseless/, to put it mildly.

    Now maybe “sense” can encompass more than adequate explanation or conceptual coherence, and say something about the nature of one’s experience while “living” the philosophy, even when explanations for X,Y and Z are not forthcoming or particularly good. That sounds more to Victoria’s sort of thinking, but I don’t think it works well either. Given that so many people are able to “make sense” of mutually exclusive worldviews by appealing to that kind of experiential “sense”, that kind of personal experience just isn’t credible or reliable. There’s good reason to doubt it, even if one “feels warmed by the fire”. Not to mention, a great many peoples experience don’t lead them to be “warmed by the fire”, and the only recourse for Victoria’s sort of thinking in those cases is the awful, ad hoc “well, they just didn’t do it right” response.

  20. @Tom Gilson:

    I have to confess I am eagerly awaiting for your response to d. He has posed a vast insurmountable problem for you and frankly I do not see a way out. He said and I quote:

    My main point was that, even the most knowledgable Christians have failed to make sense of the atonement (from my point of view, anyway), and that is one reason why I don’t think Christianity actually makes sense (according to one meaning of the word “sense”). The various atonement theories I have examined, seem quite /senseless/, to put it mildly.

    d has examined and, after what I can only imagine must have been vast and laborious efforts, now announces to the world with all the earnest and pompous seriousness that the matter and d’s scholarship prompts, that it is all quite senseless. Reasons? Zero. Arguments? None. Actually, he even makes a parenthetical remark “from my point of view, anyway”. It is a mere opinion, you see. I think you are in a pretty pickle, my friend (hope you do not mind the familiar tone): how to respond to a mere, unargued opinion? My mind reels at the thought of this herculean task you have at hands.

  21. G. Rodrigues,

    Cute post, though I can’t figure out why you think so little of opinions. Surely, you have plenty.

  22. d
    Multi-faceted is not the same as mutually exclusive. Man-made theories are not the same thing as God’s revealed truths, even when they are about those revealed truths. Did you not even pay attention to what I had written?

    There are profound mysteries in Christianity, things that we will simply not be able to resolve. They appear paradoxical to us – nevertheless we affirm their truths, knowing that to the Mind of God, these things have a resolution.

    It’s not ad hoc, either, to say that someone might never have been truly a member of God’s adopted family, a genuine believer.

    See the parable of the sower and the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:1-30, for example (and d, for once why don’t you actually read these links that we provide and thoughtfully consider them).
    Of course, this is a matter of the heart, and only God knows the true heart of a person, so I would be hesitant to make this statement about someone I did not know personally and really well. There may be extenuating circumstances that cause a person to walk away from God – difficult trials of life where it seems that God has failed them, a (secret) lifestyle that is contrary to Christian morality and ethics (aka sin), etc.

    However, we have all met people who claim Christianity as their belief system, and yet completely deny core Biblical Christian teachings and don’t understand even the basic truths – it is legitimate for us to wonder if they have truly been filled with the Spirit of God and have been redeemed, not because we stand in judgement, but in concern.

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