Different Ways of Knowing in the Biblical Narrative

“We walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).”

Delved into a new book called Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error by Dru Johnson. Thus far it has been a compelling look at how the world of the Biblical text understands knowledge and how that relates to different forms of knowing that we find in our world today. It starts by posing the following question:

“The Christian Scriptures could be theologically described as beginning and ending with an epistemological outlook. The first episode of humanity’s activity centers on the knowledge of good and evil. The final stage of humanity is pictured by Jeremiah as a universally prophetic and knowing society: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jer 31:34). What happens to knowledge in between?”

It then goes on to establish the following aim,

” The goal of this book is to lay the groundwork for a biblical theology of knowledge–how knowledge is broached, described, and how error is rectified within the texts of the Protestant Christian canon. Essentially, this study is meant to be a pry-bar, a tool to open the lid on the neglected idea that Christian Scripture might be developing robust descriptions of knowing that can direct us today. Proper knowing as it occurs in the Scriptures means that there are better and worse ways to know.”

What Johnson underscores early on is the idea that knowing is not merely limited to pragmatic forms of knowledge relating to functional and material processes and realities. As he writes,

“As we follow the story and language of knowing and error, knowing looks more like a process than a mechanism that yields a product called knowledge.”

He provides two early examples from the Pentateuch:
“YHWH wants for Abraham to “know for sure” (ידע תדע) that his promises to him will come true (Gen 15:13). At first glance, it appears that “Abram knows that YHWH’s promises are veracious” accurately reflects something about Abram’s knowledge according to the narrative. However, we will find that defining this scene in terms of propositions alone cannot reflect Abram’s knowledge sufficiently…

Adam comes to know that the woman is his proper mate and states his discernment as a matter of fact, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . .”7 But it was the man’s ability to see that this was his mate that is constitutive of his knowledge and we are interested in how that seeing is honed. Moreover, the object of knowing is often God himself and thus what is meant to be known still lies outside the perspective of the reader (e.g., Exod 29:46). What could it possibly mean, after all, that Israel could know YHWH as her God, or that the man and the woman knew that they were naked?8 These could mean many things, none of which would be entirely plain objects called “knowledge” to us.”

Here he locates knowing within covenant terms.
“Even where “knowing that” is stated in the biblical texts, it is often stated in terms that are explicitly covenantal or resemble covenantal relationship… So “knowing that” is contingent upon knowing-in-covenant-relationship.”

Now, to be sure, this is not simply citing the sort of covenantal concerns that we find in reformed circles where knowing is attached to faith and is seen as something imputed through God’s regenerating work. What Johnson is getting at more closely is participationist theology, which is what i personally adhere to. It speaks to the idea that God has and is doing a work in the world, and that knowing directly relates to particpating in the reality of this work. What is true about God’s work becomes something we then intimately know and hope in through relationship.

To bring it back to 2 Corinthians 5:7, we walk by (faithfulness), and not by sight. The phrase not by sight is often used to denote some sense of blind “belief”, a purely pragmatic form of knowing, when in fact seen and faithfulness actually conote two different ways of knowing, one that is centered on participation in the new reality God’s work brings about in the world (the earthly tent of 2 corinthians 5) rather than mere knowledge of its claim. This is made obvious by verse 8 and 9, which move to attach faithfulness directly to matters of participation in the Kingdom of God (the eternal house of chapter 5).

As Johnoson writes,
“The Scriptures appear most concerned that people know what it’s like to be a knower primarily as an obeyer of YHWH and Jesus respectively. Knowing appears as a skill, figuring out to whom we should listen, where we should look, and how we should understand what is being said… It seems that we need both the descriptive and prescriptive view of knowing. The Christian Scriptures give us both: the way knowing is supposed to work and how it actually works. Further, the Scriptures describe in detail how the attempt to know goes horrifically wrong.”

If you are interested in participationist theology, Michael Gorman penned one of the seminal works on the subject in The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement, or Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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