Belief and Authority


Knowing: What, How, and Why (3)

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” John 4:19, 20

The cornerstone of all knowing

The woman at the well of Sychar was not a philosopher. Indeed, it is not likely she had ever given much thought to the question of what we can know, and how and why.

But in her comment to Jesus she exposed two aspects of the cornerstone of all knowing, a cornerstone which, while of different shape and construction, provides the defining form for every system of knowing and every worldview.

Knowing, as this woman seems to have understood, is a matter of belief and authority. It is precisely because beliefs vary so widely, and people look to so many different authorities for what they claim to know, that human history has witnessed such a wide range of different worldviews.

In order to understand what we know and how and why we may know it, we must consider the foundational beliefs and the authorities which support our worldview, our system of knowing and its contents.

Knowing and believing

“All men do their thinking on the basis of a position accepted by faith.”[i] This observation is no less valid for its having been made by a Christian theologian. Philosophers and epistemologists from various camps agree with Van Til by insisting that, in a most fundamental sense, the problem of knowing reduces to the question of how we justify what we believe or what we think and claim to know.[ii]

Even the materialist must agree that his entire framework of thinking, everything he claims to know, is constructed according to a cornerstone which includes the belief that the material world and its material interactions and processes are the ultimate and only realties. He may quibble about the nature of such belief, for example, compared with that of a devoutly religious person,[iii] but, because he cannot know all things exhaustively by first-hand experience, he must agree that the belief that the world is of a certain nature and composition governs his outlook and worldview.

The materialist rejects belief in God, not because the non-existence of God has been or ever could be proven (except, of course, to one’s personal satisfaction). Rather, belief in the non-existence of God corresponds to the materialist’s experience and suits his outlook, understanding, and agenda – just as belief in God corresponds to the experience and suits the outlook, understanding, and agenda of the committed theist.

The materialist may believe that the evidence supporting his most basic assumption is compelling, and that the framework he has erected upon that assumption comports well with the world as we experience it. However, the committed theist will make exactly the same assertions for his own most basic assumption – that of the existence of God – and the framework of thought it supports.

At bottom, one or the other of these two assumptions – the existence or non-existence of God – serves as a crucial component of the cornerstone for all knowing. Van Til explains the implications of this ultimate choice: “If your faith is not one which has God in Christ speaking infallibly in Scripture for its object, then your faith is in man as autonomous. All of one’s reasoning is controlled by either of these presuppositions.”

Knowing and authorities

The idea that what we claim to know amounts ultimately to a faith conviction implies a number of associated ideas. The most important of these is the idea of authority. Because all knowing is rooted in belief – or, shall we say, beliefs – and because no beliefs can be finally proven (only to one’s individual satisfaction), then all beliefs and, hence, all knowing will trace back to some authority or authorities on which one ultimately relies for his worldview.

The woman at the well appealed to her Samaritan forebears for her beliefs, just as – she assumed – Jesus relied on His Jewish ancestors for His own worldview. All knowing reduces to what we believe and from whom we have learned those beliefs.

For the Christian, the Bible is our primary authority, as received in its original manuscripts and interpreted and understood by the community of faith throughout the ages. Contrary to the dismissive claims of some, Christians do not exercise “blind faith” in the literal Word of God. Rather, they exercise informed and disciplined faith in that Word, according to its literary genre and purpose, and the rules of sound interpretation, and within the framework of a community of understanding which dates back thousands of years.

The materialist may not like the idea of authority as a component of knowing (Carl Sagan: “Arguments from authority are worthless.”). However, nothing in his worldview, and certainly none of his scientific endeavors, could make sense or cohere apart from such deference. The rigorous process of arriving at scientific truth is, in many ways, a labor involving consistency in research and the manipulation and interpretation of factual data according to accepted tenets of the scientific community – for example, in submitting the results of research to a juried journal. Scientific articles are supported by documentation, the authors of which have also cited documentation, in order to demonstrate the consistency of their arguments with the views and findings of recognized authorities.

In the realm of materialism a kind of “canon” of authorities is acknowledged which parallels the canon of Scripture to which Christians defer. Names like Bacon, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and many others make up the various “books” within that canon, albeit not equally, and not always completely or consistently. These, in turn, have given rise to various “schools of prophets” within the materialist camp who build on the teachings of their authorities and seek to extend the materialist worldview into every area of life.

It’s not hard to see how authority relates to the matter of faith as the cornerstone of all knowing. A child, for example, accepts the food proffered by his parent because he recognizes, if only implicitly, the parent’s authority, an authority grounded in loving care, attention, and provision. The child believes he can eat what his mother puts before him because he knows – believes, based on experience – that she is a reliable authority on questions of food, and that she loves him and has his best interests at heart.

In a similar way, students accept the authority of teachers to explain the mysteries of learning to them and then to assess the extent to which they have understood those mysteries, and to confirm or correct them accordingly. The reader of Scripture accepts the authority of able interpreters of the Bible to help him understand its message, whole and part; and the aspiring Ph.D. student accepts the paradigm of science as the framework within which she must operate in order to make her contribution to the body of knowledge.

Approaching the problem of knowing

In order, therefore, to discuss the problem of knowing, as we have defined it, it is necessary, first of all, to explain the foundational convictions, held as a matter of faith, which give guidance to all our thinking and knowing, and, in the second place, to put forth the primary authorities we intend to follow in developing and living our worldview.

Those who advocate a framework of knowledge and a system of knowing must be upfront, from the beginning and at all times, concerning which of the two cornerstone convictions serves as their starting-point, and who are the authorities to whom they defer in their thinking. Moreover, they must be prepared for that cornerstone – those beliefs and authorities – to be subjected to rigorous analysis, so that the degree of its reliability as a shaper of worldviews might be fully known and assessed.

It is not enough, in other words, for the Christian to snort, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Rather, he must be willing to have his understanding of and conclusions about what the Bible teaches examined in the light of his own framework of belief. And, unless he intends to rely solely on his own authority as an interpreter of Scripture, he must be prepared for the authorities to which he defers to be subjected to that same rigorous analysis. Further, he must be able to demonstrate how his view of the Bible coheres within itself, is consistent with accepted tenets of logical thought, and actually works to explain the nature and workings of the world.

And what is true for the Christian is true for all claimants to knowledge. For real discussion and dialog to ensue about the problem of knowing, all parties must be willing to begin at the beginning, and to put forth their most foundational beliefs and most trusted authorities, if only as a backdrop for further ongoing conversation.

[i] Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), pp. 128, 129.  
[ii] Cf. David L. Wolfe, Epistemology: The Justification of Belief (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 15; A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (London: Penguin Books, 1990), pp. 31-35; and Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006).  
[iii] Cf. Robert L. Park, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 5ff.

Next steps

As a Christian, you believe the Bible to be the Word of God. How have you come to that belief? On what authorities do you rely to assure you that your belief is valid? Discuss this question with some Christian friends.


For more insight to this topic, order the book, The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires, from our online store. You might also like to read the article, “How to Know When You Know, And How to Know When You Don’t Know,” by T. M. Moore.



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