The Structure of Knowledge
by Patrick Henry Reardon
The purpose of these remarks is to inquire what sort of guidance theology may give us with respect to choosing a philosophy. More specifically, I want to take the highest knowledge available to man, the knowledge of God, as a starting point for investigating how the human mind should go about pursuing other and lower forms of knowledge.
It is probably best that I declare that my approach to this inquiry will be entirely apophatic. I entertain no serious hope that theology will tell us which brand of philosophy is best. I will be content, rather, if we can discover, on theological grounds, those kinds of philosophy we Christians would do well to avoid.
And I do this in the interest of ecumenical understanding, for I have long been persuaded that the historical divisions among Christians, especially in the West, often have as much to do with philosophy as with theology. Therefore, in looking at “the divisions we must sustain,” my own critical interest will be directed to various schools of philosophy.
I take it as obvious that philosophy, if left to its own devices, will ultimately prove deceptive, for the simple reason that the thoughts of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth. In this respect it is surely significant that the only time the word philosophy appears in the New Testament, it is coupled with the expression “empty deception” (Col. 2:8). Nonetheless, in asserting that philosophy, left to its own lights, will finally prove deceptive, we should not imagine that all forms of philosophy are equally deceptive, and theology will have performed an adequate service to philosophy if it can indicate which philosophical paths are especially deceptive.
But why start with theology? Quite simply because I believe that all things, including human beings and human knowledge, are best understood only in their fully developed and perfect state. All of us presuppose, for example, that the proper and defining qualities of sycamore trees are better ascertained by examining sycamore trees in their maturity, not in their seed stage. In the case of sycamore trees we presume, in other words, that knowing the “last things,” in this case the eschata sykaminon (“the last things of sycamore trees”), is more helpful than knowing the first things. Even in botany, that is, eschatology is more informative than etiology.
In the case of human beings and human knowledge, I appeal to the Christian thesis that man is created in order to know, love, and worship God. To assert that the knowledge of the true God is the proper goal of human existence, and that the human mind has been constructed precisely for this knowledge of God, seems necessarily to imply that the proper place to investigate the properties and qualities of human knowledge, with regard to any matter whatsoever, is to begin with man’s knowledge of God. My inquiry, then, is inspired by the same persuasion that prompted G. K. Chesterton to write: “Wherever men are still theological there is still some chance of their being logical.” To learn how man should go about knowing anything else, then, I will commence by inquiring how man knows God.
In short, we should begin, not at the beginning, but at the end. We should start with eschatology. We should commence with “the fullness of time.” It is this “fullness of time,” which fulfills all things within time, that must serve to interpret everything human, including philosophy. Exactly what, then, has occurred “in the fullness of time”? As it happens this very question is addressed explicitly in Holy Scripture, and it is there that I propose to start our inquiry—The Epistle to the Galatians 4:4–6:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, that he might redeem those under the Law, that we might receive sonship. And because you are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba,” “Father.”
Not least among the striking features of this text is the apostle’s use of exactly the same verb to speak of the sending forth of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. In each case he says, “exsapesteilen ho Theos”—“God sent forth his Son. . . . God sent forth the Spirit of his Son.” This is a summary of how we know God: We know him because he has revealed himself by his sending forth of his Son and Holy Spirit.
This text of Galatians speaks of the sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit as two realities subject to distinction. In thus distinguishing them, Holy Scripture justifies our investigating each of them in distinctive (though not separate nor separable) ways. Let us, then, speak of each distinctly.
God Sent Forth His Son
We may begin where the Bible does, with God’s revelation through his Son. How should we describe this revelation? Two adjectives that come to mind are empirical and historical.
In investigating the empirical aspect of God’s sending forth of his Son, we can hardly do better than to start with the Johannine literature. This theme’s most graphic text is found at the beginning of the First Epistle of John:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you. . . . (1:1–3).
In this passage we are impressed by the sustained repetition of verbs expressing the sense experience of the Incarnation: heard, seen, looked upon, handled, manifested, seen, manifested, seen, heard. Later in the same epistle John proclaims, “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world” (4:14).
This sensual dimension of the Incarnation is likewise characteristic of the Johannine Gospel. Thus, the Lord says to the Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). And to the man healed of his blindness, “You have both seen him, and it is he who is speaking with you” (9:37). And to the citizens of Jerusalem, “ He who sees me sees him who sent me” (12:45). And to the apostle, “Have I been with you so long, and you have not known me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). All these lines illustrate the principle stated early in the Gospel of John: “No man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten God (monogenes Theos), who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him (ekeinos exsegesato)” (1:18).
Thus, in his incarnate Person, the Son is the living exegesis of the Father. The Lord must tell his enemies, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (8:19). So much is this the case, that no man has access to the Father except through the Son. On the other hand, God does not have, nor has God ever had, any relationship to this world except through his Son. Even in Creation, “all things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (1:3).
This Johannine accent on the empirical experience of the Father’s revelation in his Son justifies our speaking of the Incarnation as the divine entrance into the historical, categorical order. Theologically we may describe it as God’s unanswerable vindication of man’s empirical faculties that operate within the classical categories of where, when, quantity, quality, and so forth. Specifically, John’s emphasis on the visual, the auditory, and the tactile prompts us to speak of God’s fleshly intrusion into space.
When we speak of the historical, categorical order, however, we must regard more than the senses operating in space. We must also consider the memory operating within time. Those who saw the Son, heard him, and touched him did so, not only within the limiting confines of human space, but also in the living context of human time.
The Son did not reveal the Father to just anyone, after all. He made his revelation to the Jews, who had been especially prepared, during many centuries, for precisely that revelation. It was God’s historical, categorical revelation in his Son that brought that historical pedagogy of Israel to its defining fulfillment. According to the opening words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the defining truth of that history is the truth revealed in the Son “in the last of these days”—“ep’ eschatou ton hemeron touton”—“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to our fathers through the prophets, has in the last of these days, spoken to us by a Son, whom he has appointed heir of everything.” God’s revelation in his Son is inseparable from time, the experience of before and after, of tense and becoming.
The Synoptic Gospels contain a dominical parable that stands in striking parallel to this opening verse of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I cite it in the Gospel of Mark, where the Lord describes God’s activity in Old Testament history as that of a man sending his servants to the keepers of his vineyard, so that they might hand over the fruit of the vineyard. “Last of all,” says the text, “He sent his beloved Son”—“huion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton.” This Son is recognized, even by the wicked vine-keepers, to be the “Heir”(12:6f), the same word used in the foregoing passage from Hebrews. In both of these texts, history is interpreted solely with respect to eschatology, and eschatology is defined by God’s revelation in his Son.
In summary, in the revelation in his Son, God transforms the knowability of the empirical, historical, categorical order, and all of God’s speaking in history is determined by, and to be interpreted with reference to, his revelation in the Son. From the very first time that he uttered a human word, God started to become incarnate. By speaking this word in history, God transforms the knowable structure and content of history.
God Sent Forth the Spirit
We come now to God’s revelation to us in the Holy Spirit. For the purpose of this inquiry, it is neither possible nor necessary to examine this theme in all its amplitude, for Holy Scripture tells a good many things about the mission of the Holy Spirit. I propose, rather, to consider the mission under one aspect only. Namely—the Holy Spirit’s transformation of man’s knowledge, a theme developed in both the Pauline and Johannine sources of the New Testament.
We may begin with St. Paul, who addresses this matter in the Epistle to the Romans, in a passage strikingly similar to the Galatians text that we have already seen: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, by whom we cry out ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself bears joint witness to our spirit that we are children of God” (8:15f). We observe in this text that the Holy Spirit bears witness, not only to who God is, but also to who we are—not only to God as Father, but also to us as his children. The Holy Spirit testifies, not only that something is so, but also that Someone is such-and-such in regard to us, and we in regard to him. It is the personal knowledge of the relationship between God and ourselves. We now know God, because we now stand in a different relationship to God as his children.
Likewise in the Corinthian literature, St. Paul speaks of the wisdom conferred by the Holy Spirit. Thus, of those things that the eye has not seen and the ear has not heard, he says, “God has revealed them to us through his Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. . . . Even so, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches . . .” (1 Cor. 2:9–13).
This instruction of the Holy Spirit is directed to the person and activity of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that gives “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), so that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same icon from glory to glory, as by the Lord of the Spirit (apo kyriou pneumatos)” (3:18). This is the meaning of Paul’s assertion that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). The Holy Spirit not only tells us to proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” he also grants us the vision to see the glory of that lordship. We proclaim only what we see.
Of this witness given us by the Holy Spirit St. Paul had already written in the very first chapter of the earliest of his epistles: “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit, and in complete certainty (plerophoria polle)” (1 Thess. 1:5). In context, this expression descriptive of Christian knowledge, “plerophoria polle,” is contrasted with “in word only.” That is to say, this “complete certainty” in the Holy Spirit is not described as information about but as knowledge of. It is not merely referential; it is real, not only notional. It is not merely nominal (“in word only”). It consists, not simply in discerning the meaning of the words proclaimed, but in perceiving the truth of that meaning. It is not simply an assent to what is declared, but the reality of what is perceived. “Plerophoria polle” is the knowledge of the truth of the gospel. It is not nominal information about, but real knowledge of, the true God.
A later text in the Pauline corpus perhaps renders this meaning of “complete certainty” even clearer. In Colossians 2:2 the apostle speaks of our attaining to “all wealth of the certainty of the understanding, the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Before going on to look at the treatment of this theme in St. John, we may take note of another early use of the word plerophoria, the certainty given by the Holy Spirit, in a disciple of St. Paul, St. Clement of Rome. I cite this text as a very early exegesis of Pauline theology. About the year 95, Clement, writing to the church at Corinth, used both the pertinent noun and the passive participle of its cognate verb in a single sentence: “The apostles, having received their orders and filled with certainty (plerophorethentes) through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and entrusted with the Word of God, went forth with the certainty of the Holy Spirit (meta plerophorias pneumatos hagiou), preaching the good news that God’s Kingdom was to come” (Ad Corinthios 42.3). What is perhaps most striking about this text is that the “certainty” of the apostles is described as being conferred both outwardly and inwardly. That is to say, this plerophoria is related to two orders of knowledge, to both the categorical, empirical order—in the historical event of the resurrection of Christ—and the internal order of immediate perception—the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are the two dimensions of the knowledge of God with which we are concerned. These are the two inseparable aspects of the gospel, the sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit.
We come now to this same theme—the knowledge given by the Holy Spirit—in the writings of the Apostle John. It is in John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of truth” (14:17), who will teach us all things (14:26). In John’s First Epistle, likewise, we are told, of God, that “by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given to us” (3:24). And again, “By this we know that we abide in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4:13). This Holy Spirit, the inner witness to God’s people, is described by John as the Anointing. He writes: “You have an Anointing from the Holy One, and you all know” (2:20). And again, “But the Anointing that you have received from him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as his Anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and just as he has taught you, abide in him” (2:27).
Lest we misunderstand this text, I submit that there are two comments to be made about John’s teaching on this immediate witness of the Holy Spirit. First, it should not be taken as an affirmation of the individual conscience. In every instance where John refers to Christians being taught by the Holy Spirit, the nouns and verbs are invariably plural. That is to say, it is the Church, the worshipping and confessing body of true believers, that receives the Anointing. For this reason, it is always possible for an individual Christian to be deceived with respect to the witness of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, John’s First Epistle deals explicitly with that possibility.
Consequently, and second, individual claims made as manifestations of this Anointing are to be put to the test. Thus John tells us, “Try the spirits to see whether they be of God” (4:1). In this respect there is, in particular, a doctrinal test, because the inner, immediate knowledge conferred by the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the external, historical knowledge transmitted through the proclamation of the gospel. This testing of the spirits, then, has a specific reference to the linear tradition of the apostolic witness. Thus, John writes, “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (4:2f). That is to say, John recognizes no independent spiritual knowledge of God separable from his revelation in the historical Jesus Christ.
Though the Holy Spirit blows where he wills, he is not a free-floating spirit. He is the “Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19; cf. Rom. 8:9). His true presence can be discerned precisely by what he causes us to know, and prompts us to affirm, with respect to the Son and to the Father who sent that Son. Namely, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3), and “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). These are the two essential affirmations of the Holy Spirit. This Anointing has relatively little to say of himself, but in him we know “there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him” (1 Cor. 8:6). The Holy Sprit thus points the believer in two directions: toward the earthly, empirical, external realm of historical activity, where Jesus Christ “was delivered up for our offenses and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25), and toward the inner and eternal realm of transcendent mystery, where the Father abides in the unapproachable light.
Now, on the basis of the foregoing reflections about man’s knowledge of the true God, are there any directions indicated about what sorts of philosophy we should avoid? We do not have to respond to this question in full detail. Just a brief mention of certain schools of philosophy, with even the faintest recognition of what they hold, is sufficient grounds for discerning their incompatibility with the truth we know in Christ. For example, I submit that Christians should spontaneously reject postmodernism’s radical divorce of narrative from truth. And, apart from seminary professors, most Christians normally do.
Similarly, we would promptly repudiate Darwinian evolutionism, Marxist dialectical materialism, the naturalism of Bertrand Russell, the New Age anthropology of Carlos Casteñada, Aldous Huxley’s Western revival of Hindu monism, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, the pragmatism of John Dewey, the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, B. F. Skinner’s denial of freedom and dignity, the nihilism of Kafka and Ionesco, and so on. We can probably all think of Christians who have, from time to time, dabbled in such experiments, but we are justified in suspecting that philosophies like these will not be taken seriously by a sufficient number of ordinary Christians so as to undermine the gospel itself.
I do make bold to suggest, nonetheless, there are other, more serious philosophical approaches that can undermine the gospel, and I propose to mention three of them somewhat more at length. I do so because of an impression that these three kinds of philosophy have already, in fact, found a cozy home in the thinking of some Christians who are insufficiently critical of their implications. In the interest of charity toward some of those brethren from whom I am separated, I offer the following criticisms as my affirmation of “the differences we must sustain.”
First, among the brands of philosophy against which divine revelation should put us on guard are those characterized by an overly restrictive and diminished epistemology. Much of contemporary philosophy is encumbered by two crushing and unnecessary burdens. The first burden is an excessive preoccupation with epistemic process, to the detriment of understanding. Philosophers have spent so much time and energy examining the motion and refining the shape of the hammer, so to speak, that they have apparently lost all interest in driving the nails. There is nothing more useless than a hammer with an inferiority complex. Step by step, modern man has now reached the end of that cul-de-sac down which he began wandering almost four centuries ago, becoming less and less concerned about what he knows and progressively more preoccupied with how he knows it.
The second burden is what I will call modern epistemology’s reductionist impulse. Instead of inquiring, “How much can I know?”, contemporary man seems to be asking, “How little can I know?” This reductionist impulse has arrived at a severe and obvious crisis in recent years. The sustained, relentless application of doubt has just about run its course, and while it may be said that now there is nothing left to call into question, it also seems that there is nothing left to affirm.
We believers, who by divine revelation know God in faith, also realize that doubt is corrosive of faith. Now if doubt corrodes the highest and most secure form of knowledge, the knowledge of God, then doubt will most surely corrode every other and lower form of knowledge. A Christian will strongly suspect, then, that the cause of knowledge is not well served by ever-greater refinements of doubt.
I submit that the villain here is René Descartes, who commenced modern man’s tiresome epistemological journey by reducing the starting point of certainty to that famous line which he took to be an irrefutable inference, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Employing the processes of reason, which he also took to be irrefutable, Descartes then proceeded to build his entire philosophical edifice on that single foundation by which he had demonstrated his existence through reflection on his act of thought. He thus introduced into philosophy, as though it were a sort of theorem, the policy of systematic doubt, thereby arriving at an alleged irreducible nub of absolutely irrefragable truth. In his formula, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes fancied that he had discovered the one certainty not subject to the corrosion of doubt.
Poor Descartes, who thought his foundational adage so secure. By contemporary standards, we recognize that in the art of doubt Descartes was a piker. Whereas he used reason to establish the existence of the self, it was not long before Hume would appeal to reason to cast doubt on the self, and Kant would soon enough employ reason to cast doubt on reason. And if any certainties were still left, Nietzsche came along to finish them off.
As a result, many of our contemporaries have foresworn the quest of truth, for which they have substituted a pursuit of “meaning.” Having proceeded from modern to postmodern, from Descartes to Derrida, philosophy now finds itself with nowhere else to go along the same path. It should be obvious at this late hour that relentless, systematic reductionist epistemology is already ending in utter solipsism and radical subjectivity.
Among some Christians, this substitution of subjective meaning for objective truth has already gone to seed. My counsel to such folk is to “get with” the gospel program and to place in the human mind that same level of confidence shown by the God who made the human mind. Indeed, they must start trying to love God with their whole mind, as we have been commanded. In other words, we Christians should stop worrying about the mule going blind, and start loading the wagon.
The Web of Belief
A second brand of philosophy against which divine revelation should put us on guard is what goes by the name “web of belief,” in which all knowledge of the truth is interpreted as, and thus reduced to, a mere correspondence between the mind and reality. This appeal to a “web of belief,” an expression I believe we owe to Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000), recognizes only a noetic correspondence with facts, no “truths of being.” The only objects that man can know are—to borrow the expression of Joe Friday—“just the facts, ma’am.” The only basis of truth is the mind’s congruity with fact.
Or, to employ the distinction and terminology of Gottfried Leibniz, this “web of belief” philosophy asserts that the mind can discover truths of existence, but it cannot perceive truths of being. It can recognize contingent facts, but it cannot directly discern their internal meaning, because the mind has no direct access to Logos. Man’s mind can recognize existence, but it cannot know essence.
In theological terms, this means that I can discover that Christ died, but I cannot know that he died to redeem me from my sins. I may even prove that Christ arose again from the dead, but I cannot know that he rose again for my justification. According to the “web of belief,” such matters as atonement and justification remain as external to me as the historical events that cause them. Atonement and justification are no longer internally accessible, and all truths of revelation are reduced to propositions that remain external to my assent. Revelation is no longer related to the structure of being.
This theory is called the “propositional” view of divine revelation, in which both the historical facts and the meaning of those facts remain external to the believer. According to this interpretation, God has revealed certain propositional statements to which the mind must assent, on purely external authority, whether that authority be the prophetic word inerrantly inscribed in Holy Scripture or the ecclesiastical word defined by an infallible magisterium. It is surely significant that many of those who hold such a view of revelation also hold to a theory of external justification and merely forensic atonement.
I submit, however, that such a perspective is not that of Holy Scripture. God’s revelation to us in his Son and Holy Spirit asserts man’s capacity for real knowledge, as distinct from mere notional information and correct opinion. If our theological knowledge in faith is real knowledge and not simply conceptual correspondence—if St. Thomas Aquinas was right when he said, “actus credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem”; “the act of the believer does not terminate in the proposition but in the reality”—if this is so, then how much more is it so of lesser matters. If in faith man’s mind has been transformed and elevated by the Holy Spirit to know God himself, there is no reason to deny that man can know other things in themselves.
To know the truth, then, is really to know the truth, not simply to hold to certain ideas that “correspond to” the truth. To know the truth is an act formally different from holding opinions and beliefs that happen to be correct. To know the truth is to have one’s mind shaped by real form, rei forma; it is something quite other than venturing an accurate and well-informed guess about reality. Real knowledge, therefore, is not some kind of inwardly symmetric and coherent web of basic beliefs that “correspond” to reality in varying degrees of probability. To know the truth is to have one’s mind contoured by the shape of being. That which makes a res to be a res is its forma, its morphe, and to know that res is to have one’s mind shaped by that same form. Thus, real knowledge, the knowledge of reality, is not correspondence but communion. To know is to become one with the truth, co-gnosco.
In this matter how have we fallen so far from convictions that were obvious to our distant ancestors in the faith? I submit that the villain here is Immanuel Kant, for whom thought consisted in the mental organization of sense experience. According to Kant no “thing in itself,” no res in se, no Ding an sich can be known. I beg to make my own the following analysis of Kantian philosophy by Norman L. Geisler:
Lost in [Kant’s] model of the knowing process was the ability to know reality. If Kant was right, we know how we know, but we no longer really know. . . . [T]he net epistemological gain was the ultimate ontological loss. . . . What is left is the thing-to-me, which is appearance but not reality. Thus, Kant’s view ends in epistemological agnosticism.
The Loss of the Logos
Finally, a third brand of philosophy against which divine revelation should put us on guard is, I submit, the nominalism that appeared in the eleventh century, at exactly the time when the Eastern and Western churches became divided. The villain in this case is John Roscelinus. Since Roman Catholics, after his condemnation at the Council of Soissons in 1092, had the good sense to burn most of his writings, we are obliged mainly to rely on secondary sources to study Roscelinus, which is often enough the case in the history of philosophy. And surely it is significant that the sharpest contemporary critic of Roscelinus was that most real of Realist philosophers, St. Anselm of Canterbury, himself the author of that most real of Realist demonstrations, the Ontological Argument.
Logic itself, Roscelinus believed, is a “name” game, involving only the critical juxtaposition of conventional verbal symbols. Universal concepts exist only in our thought, he contended, and solely for the purpose of organizing our thought. Universals themselves are no more substantial than the air with which we speak them. They are the mere products of our thought, with no foundation outside of our thought.
We do well to examine the implications of this thesis with respect to knowledge, because it affects also the processes of reason itself. Let us recall that classical logic recognizes four kinds of syllogistic reasoning: the categorical syllogism, the disjunctive syllogism, the hypothetical syllogism, and the dilemma. Now, of these four types of deduction-based double premises, three are entirely functional: the hypothetical, the disjunctive, and the dilemma. That is to say, if properly constructed, these lead to valid inferences, but they require no noetic content. They actually say nothing beyond themselves. The disjunctive syllogism is founded on an “either/or,” the hypothetical syllogism is based on an “if,” and the dilemma simply combines hypothesis and disjunction. Each of these three syllogisms is, so to speak, pure process, and one observes that each is entirely tentative in its structure: “either/or,” “if,” and a combination of “either/or” and “if.” While each, if properly constructed, is valid, the truth content of such inferences depends entirely on the facticity of empirically known fact, or what Leibniz calls “truths of existence.” They represent solely the mind’s orderly arrangement of facts. They make no reference to what Leibniz calls “truths of essence”; they stand independent of any consideration of being. They are activities of logic set loose from noetic reference. These arguments are logic with no necessary relationship to Logos. By themselves and in conjunction with the empirical faculties, these arguments can deal with the relationship between facts, but without reference to knowable being.
The only rational exposition that refers to a general state of ontology is the categorical syllogism. This is the only deductive process with a universal reference. The categorical syllogism is the only act of reason dependent on what Leibniz calls “truths of essence.” It is the only form of deduction that appeals to truth as such, veritas in se, the only form of argument founded on the recognition of a general state of truth. The categorical syllogism has a responsibility, not only to logic, then, but to Logos.
For this reason, every valid categorical syllogism requires a universal term in at least one of its premises. Thus, Roscelinus’s denial of universals effectively dissolved the only real relationship between the processes of logic and the structure and nature of reality. Ironically, his reasoning on the point was perfect: Since all valid inferences of categorical logic require recourse to at least one universal concept, and since no universal concept corresponds to an ontological reality, it logically follows that logic ultimately has no relationship whatsoever to reality. What could be more logical? From this point on, the only possible knowledge available to the human mind is ultimately based on empirical evidence, and empirical evidence alone never provides absolute certainty, either with regard to facts or to the significance of facts. The human mind thus has no access to that eternal Logos that holds all things together and confers truth on whatever is true.
I think it is very significant that in contemporary predicate logic, since the time of George Boole (1815–1864), the categorical syllogism has been absorbed into the hypothetical syllogism, so that category functions only as a form of hypothesis. This development, I think, has at least the merit of recognizing the present condition of philosophy, which is best described by such adjectives as experimental, provisional, tentative, and makeshift. Indeed, philosophy’s current state is perhaps well summed up by the three forms of argument that are still left to it: hypothesis, disjunction, and dilemma.
By reason of this total divorce of logic from the Logos, we find already in Roscelinus the substance of those notions characteristic of nominalism, ideas that are with us still and have certainly had their consequences. Nominalism’s denial of the mind’s ability to know anything real above itself quickly led to the disrepute of metaphysics and eventually cut the ground from under everything else to which metaphysics gives rise, such as the prescriptive authority of inherited language, the anchoring of the moral imagination, and the defining validation of law. I have argued elsewhere that
Nominalism also produced modern materialism. Nothing so turned Western man’s thoughts back to the things of earth than this sudden persuasion of his being unable to grasp anything higher. The denial of man’s ability to perceive transcendent, intellectual realities above himself guaranteed that the Western mind would thenceforth turn ever more completely toward the only reality that remained, physical reality, the world of matter. (“Materialism and the Abdication of Intellect,” Epiphany, 1997)
I submit that a conscience formed by the gospel will abhor such notions. How can it be that we who know the just God are possessed of minds incapable of discerning the essence of justice? How is it possible that we to whom have been revealed “all riches of the certainty of the understanding, the knowledge of the mystery of God, . . . all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” are natively unable to apprehend universal truths?
Even among Christians, this distrust of man’s ability to apprehend universal truths has led to some strange developments in recent times. For example, it has forced several eminent contemporary Christian apologists (such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Clark Pinnock, J. W. Montgomery, and Gary Habermas) to attempt what—as far as I can tell—no early Christian apologist would ever have thought of attempting. Namely, to appeal to the Resurrection of Christ as a major argument for Theism. This approach, I submit, is a massive departure from the thought of St. Paul, who argued for Theism, not from the Resurrection of Christ, but from the principle of causality with respect to the created world. In other words, St. Paul appealed to metaphysics, and it is apparently their distrust in metaphysics that prompts some modern apologists not to follow Paul in this regard. Similarly, another prominent apologist, Alvin Plantinga, treats the Ontological Argument as though it were an argument from probability. This is quite remarkable. Probability is something measurable; it pertains to quantity. The Ontological Argument, however, is a deductive argument, which is either valid or invalid. Validity is a question of quality, not quantity. There is nothing measurable about it.
The universal claims of the Christian revelation rest on the assumption that the God revealed in his Son and his Holy Spirit is the only true God. There is only one God, the Father with his Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, we Christians are deeply persuaded that God has no relations with this world except through his Son and in his Holy Spirit. In the creation of the world and in all his dealings with it, God has never once acted except through his Son and in his Holy Spirit. The created order and the order of history are related to God only through his Son and in his Holy Spirit. Man has no other access to the true God, and the true God has no other access to man. The revelation of the Holy Trinity is not some new way of God’s dealing with the world. It is the eschatological manifestation of how God has always dealt with the world. According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons, even when God framed man at creation, his eternal Word and his Holy Spirit were the two hands that gave shape to the new creature (Adversus Haereses 5.1.3; 5.5.1; 5.28.1).
First, God’s sending of his Son is the definitive vindication of man’s empirical, categorical knowledge of nature and history. If we believe—as Christian doctrine teaches—that human beings were formed by God for the sole purpose of their incorporation into Christ—to share by grace in that relationship to God which belongs to the Son by nature—it would seem logically to follow that man’s knowing faculties were formed, from the beginning, in order to know the incarnate Son by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. In other words, since Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, is man’s sole access to the knowledge of God, and since man was created in order to know God, then it must be the case that the human mind was constructed ultimately, eschatologically, to receive the knowledge of Christ. Man’s eyes were crafted that they might gaze upon the King in his beauty. His ears were shaped to hear the words, “Come, ye blessed of my Father.” His very fingers were formed that he might “know the place of the nails.”
Second, God’s sending of his Holy Spirit is the vindication of man’s aspiration toward the transcendent mystery that overshadows all his thought. The Spirit’s transformation of man’s quest for the eternal is the revealed assurance that the metaphysical allure in our hearts is not an illusion. The gift of God’s Holy Spirit asserts that the denigration of metaphysics is a demonic insult to the dignity of the human mind and the all-wise God who made it. In this, as in all matters pertinent to knowledge, the Holy Spirit is our Parakletos, who encourages our every perception of truth; he is our Advocate, our defender against the false accusers of human thought.
Thus, from the very beginning and throughout all of history, God’s Son and Holy Spirit have been mysteriously present to the human mind and heart. Man’s every act of knowing has been some faint response to the mysterious presence of God’s Son and Holy Spirit. The Father’s revelation through his Son and Holy Spirit vindicate man’s innate sense that meaning underlies matter, that essence sustains existence, that nature and history are supposed to say something, that eternal truth is humanly knowable.
This paper was originally presented at the Touchstone conference, “Christian Unity & the Divisions We Must Sustain,” in November 2001 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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