Friday, November 11, 2005

From Douglas Groothuis, "On Jesus" (Wadsworth, 2003), chapter 5

Jesus' Epistemology: Character and Knowledge of God

In recent years, philosophers have begun to rediscover the role of moral character in epistemology. Philosophers still rightly ask what makes beliefs qualify as knowledge (truth plus justification or warrant), but more philosophers are now asking what makes believers good candidates for knowledge. What qualities best suit a person for attaining knowledge? What traits taint a person’s capacity to know what ought to be known? This is called virtue epistemology; it has a long pedigree going back to Aquinas and Augustine in the Western tradition. Intellectual virtues have classically included qualities such as patience, tenacity, humility, studiousness, and honest truth-seeking. Vices to be avoided include impatience, gullibility, pride, vain curiosity, and intellectual apathy.[i]

There is a strong emphasis on character—both virtue and vice—
in Jesus’ epistemology, which is closely intertwined with his teachings on ethics and the knowledge of God. He not only gives arguments and tells parables, he calls people to intellectual rectitude and sobriety. Jesus’ familiar moral teaching about the dangers of judgmentalism contains an epistemological element easily overlooked.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).

This passage is often taken out of context to forbid all moral evaluation, as if Jesus were a relativist. But Jesus has something else in mind: a clear-sighted self-evaluation and a proper evaluation of others based on objective standards. Jesus stipulates that all moral judgments relate to the self as much as to the other. Therefore, when one judges others, one is implicitly bringing oneself under the same judgment. One will be measured by the same measurement one employs. In light of that, a person needs first to search her or his own being for any moral impurities and seriously address them (“take the plank out of your own eye”). Only then is one in a good epistemological and ethical position to evaluate another, to “see clearly” the speck in someone else’s eye.

If one fails to evaluate oneself by one’s own standard, one cannot rightly discern the moral status of others. In other words, proper moral evaluation requires a knowledge of the self, and allows no special pleading. The hypocrite is not only morally deficient, but epistemologically off-base as well. By failing to be subjectively attentive to one’s conscience, one fails to discern moral realities objectively. Thus people will often condemn others overly because they ignore or obscure their own transgressions.

Jesus gives further incentive to evaluate situations justly—that is, to be virtuous knowers—when he warns that people will be held accountable before God for every word they utter. Their judgments issue from their character, and their character will affect their destiny.

Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in them. But I tell you that people will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:35-37).

Jesus sometimes deemed the character of his hearers as interfering with their ability to know and apply the truth of his words and actions. In a quarrel over his own identity, Jesus accused his hearers of not understanding their own Scriptures or the testimony that John the Baptist gave on Jesus’ behalf. Nor did they have “the love of God in their hearts.”

I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if others come in their own names, you will accept them. How can you believe [in me] if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:43-44).

One might think this is an ad hominem fallacy. Jesus is attacking the person, not the argument. But Jesus does not replace an argument with a negative assessment of character; rather, he explains their inability to believe in him according to their over-concern with social status, which precluded their seeking truth. Giving more evidence or arguments does not serve Jesus’ purpose here; instead, he ferrets out their character defect and its epistemological consequences.

While Jesus warns of vices that keep people from understanding his message, he also lauds certain virtues as conducive to spiritual knowledge, as when he says, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:16-17). A willingness to conform one’s will to God’s will is a requirement for discerning Jesus’ authority in relation to “the Father”—a key to understanding Jesus’ identity. He makes a comparable, though broader, statement in the Sermon on the Mount concerning persistence in seeking.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

He similarly ties the knowledge that leads to freedom to whether or not one will be his disciple: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Fidelity to Jesus leads to knowledge that liberates.

Yet in several cases, Jesus refuses to grant a sign or answer an argument because his hearers would not learn anything from such a response. They are not seeking truth, but resisting it. So he does not owe it to them. When pressed for a miraculous sign on demand, Jesus demurs and accuses his audience of being spiritually unfaithful (Matthew 16:1-4). A sign would have had no beneficial effect. Similarly, when Jesus is questioned as to his authority, he says he will answer only if his questioners say whether they take John the Baptist’s activity to be from heaven or merely human. This sets up a dilemma from which they cannot escape. If they say John’s authority is from God, Jesus will ask why they didn’t follow John. If they say John’s authority is only human, the crowds who rightly accept John as a prophet will reject them. “So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Then he said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things’” (Matthew 21:23-27). Jesus smoked out their presuppositions and forced a dilemma instead of providing an answer they would not have accepted anyway. In so doing, he uncovered their bad character that hindered their knowing.

[i] See Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

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