My reading about Augustine’s (and others’) thought and practice regarding the relation of faith and reason brings to mind questions of epistemology (theories of how we know what we know). For people in the Western world, the dominant epistemology espoused and revered is the scientific method. It’s practically canonized in our cultural worldview. If a subject (or an aspect of that subject) can’t be known through scientific observation and experimentation, then that subject (or aspect of the subject) is deemed unknowable. At the least, we hold beliefs about the subject very tentatively. While our knowledge of the world that we inhabit has increased dramatically through use of the scientific method, its pre-eminence in our minds is misplaced. As Peter Kreeft (a Catholic professor of philosophy at Boston College) has pointed out, we cannot even subject the scientific method to itself for observation and experimentation. Instead, we begin by placing faith in the scientific method as a valid way of gaining knowledge. United Methodists also have a “canonized” epistemology: Albert Outler’s “Wesleyan” quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It has gone through revisions (compare the 1988 Book of Discipline with the 1972 edition) and has attracted proponents and critics concerning (a) whether or not it accurately represents Wesley’s epistemology, and (b) whether or not it is a useful or reliable tool for working through theological/ethical issues.
While not taking up a full debate over the epistemological value of the scientific method or of Outler’s quadrilateral, I’d like to suggest that the bedrock Christian epistemology is Divine Revelation. The Scriptures are acknowledged as such because of a belief that they are/contain, in one or another way of reckoning it, Divine Revelation. Many of the books of the bible claim, explicitly or implicitly, to be products of Divine Revelation (“Thus saith the Lord…”, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) and the Church has received them as such.
God’s self-revelation is a humble epistemology (way of knowing) because it readily admits that we “see in a glass dimly” and are in the dark about the truth of things. We agree that our knowledge of God is not dependent upon our discovery of him, but fully upon his showing himself to us. Yet it is an empowering epistemology at the same time. God has revealed himself through creation, calling of Abraham, Hebrew Exodus, ancient Israel, and supremely in Jesus of Nazareth. On this foundation, we are privileged to have been included among those who have received God’s self-revelation–the community of people who have heard God’s calling and experienced his deliverance.
The reliability of other epistemologies, whether they be tea leaves, casting lots, the scientific method or Outler’s quadrilateral, must always be judged upon how well they take into account what we know on account of God’s gracious self-revelation.