RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE(1)

Understanding God's Purpose

       The patterns set in motion by biblical religion make the question of religious knowledge of the utmost importance. In essence, mortals have been brought into a state of potential. Everything has been primed in advance: human beings can collaborate with God, to match human actions with God's intention. It is possible to feel the momentum of this idea building; in the biblical outlook individuals can make the decision to let their wills act in unison with that of God, they can stand ready to live in accordance with the whole purpose of history. But how do they do so? How do they know if their actions are correct? How do they know what God's intentions are?

       In trying to answer these questions, the biblical approach begins with a word of caution: no one is ever able to know God completely. No mortal can "become God" in the same sense as can the mystic. No one can claim, "I am God." At best, a human being can only gather information about God, collect insights into the workings of God in history, and on this basis construct what is believed to be a close approximation to God's will. But there is always room for error. Humankind is fallible; anyone can make honest mistakes, they can misjudge. There are, however, two things working in one’s favor: God's steadfast nature and desire to have that fellowship brought about. There is no method that guarantees perfect religious knowledge; individuals must act on trust. Consequently, the first step to such knowledge is the sincere desire and decision to understand God, no matter how imperfect that understanding may be.

Rational and Emotional Understanding

       The quality of knowledge of God is both rational and emotional. It is a full response to the character and person of God. The mystic must reject reason as a reliable approach to religious knowledge. (S)he asserts that his/her personal revelation into the mysteries of ultimate reality transcend rational modes of thought; they cannot be described or explained. Enlightenment, therefore, remains a singular experience.

       In biblical religion, however, there is room for a rational approach to God, because humans cannot know God except through the information gathered. Nothing can be known about God in advance. In discussing this issue, Cherbonnier explains:

        Knowledge of such a God, like knowledge of any other person, would depend upon what he said and did. It would thus satisfy the requirement …. (that) it would be radically empirical, even experimental. For knowledge of a person's words and deeds is obtained, not by abstract deduction, but altogether a posteriori.(2)

(1) See “Biblical Metaphysic and Christian Philosophy” in the Cherbonnier subsite; this essay is first in the bibliography for O. “. Piper’s “Knowledge” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. See also “Mystical vs. Biblical Symbolism” and “The Theology of the Word of God.”

(2) Cherbonnier, "The Word of God" (in H. N. Wieman), p. 272, in the Cherbonnier subsite.


       God is personal, a Someone, not a something; the Creator is anthropomorphic. And, just as with mortals, God’s personality is evident in action. It is pieced together by the observer on the basis of what God does. To clarify this point further, one might imagine that two strangers are brought into a room. “A” has no knowledge of “B.” “A” can only observe “B’s” actions and guess about “B’s” nature. “B,” however, knows a great deal about “A.” “B” has been fully briefed on “A’s” habits, background, beliefs, and personality. Such is the case with human beings and God in biblical philosophy. God has an intention; the complete nature of that intention is unknown, since God chooses to not be fully known; but there are clues. One can assume that God has placed trust in mankind by creating persons with the freedom to act.

       Any conclusions one can make about God are products of observation and intuition. They are based on knowledge after the fact (a posteriori). Consequently, human reason becomes an important device in helping mortals sift through the evidence to understand God. Moreover, the biblical narratives are a long chronicle of God's activities in history; the Bible pays so much attention to history because it records God's decisive acts that give humanity some clues about God’s nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bible is essentially an historical document.(3) By piecing together the actions of God, one can begin to interpret God’s intentions. The relationship, therefore, between history as a series of events and knowledge about God is a significant aspect of biblical philosophy. Cherbonnier makes this point very explicit when he states:

        Knowledge of persons, of course, can never be attained by the methods of science and philosophy alone. In fact, if the person chooses to "clam up," it can be attained by no method at all. It is always dependent upon his own initiative. And this is all that is meant by revelation; one free agent voluntarily discloses something of himself to another by his words and deeds; that is, through particular, historical events. To say that the Bible is the revelation of God is simply to say that it records the words and mighty acts by which he made himself known to a particular people at times and places of his own choosing.(4)

Such divine self-disclosures are not “news from nowhere” or “performative utterances” about an ontologically Wholly Other or “Pure Spirituality.”(5)

Drawing Judgment

(3) This is not to propose that every word in the Bible reports an historical event. Truth-bearing myth and legend are among the literary forms in the Bible. Nonetheless, within a biblical (Semitic) perspective, one can make many literal statements about God - without exhausting the magnificence of any Divine activity or attribute. (See “God,” the first section of this series.)

(4) Cherbonnier, "Is There A Biblical Metaphysic?", p. 465, in the Cherbonnier subsite.

(5) See W. H. Walsh, Metaphysics (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1963) (reprinted in 1991 by Gregg Revivals, distributed in the United States by Ashgate, Brookfield, VT); Walsh proposes that metaphysical statements are not meaningful for any claim to a degree of truth; instead, their theological function is to offer one metaphysical alternative among many supersensible beliefs. In that biblical metaphysics is grounded in the “Wholly Hither” (Nolan’s humor) Walsh’s objections to religious discourse do not apply. See also D. M. Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement; a Philosophical Study of Everyday Language with Special Reference to the Christian Use of language About God as Creator (London: SCM, 1963). Using Austin’s insights, Evans reduces theological language to what it does. Biblical thought claims instead to be truth.


       The biblical view admittedly uses human reason as the groundwork for gaining religious knowledge. It also accepts knowledge based on informed faith. Because the human understanding of God is incomplete, mankind cannot make finalized assertions about God’s character or intention. After the process of observing God's actions in history, however, certain key ideas and patterns appear. God acts with consistency; the Creator does not betray mankind or work to negate human freedom. God does not take back what has been given, even if it appears to be misused.(6) From this evidence, people can make tentative judgments about God. Like a jury, individuals must come to terms with God; they must make a decision. It is impossible to know with absolute objectivity what occurred, although there are witnesses and testimony and information. To preserve human freedom, God never acts in overwhelming ways that compel belief. Moreover, because God is personal, there is always a dynamic quality that prevents one from saying, "Yes, I know God completely." In making a decision, therefore, one enters into what can be called informed faith. It is a difference between "I think" and "I believe." That distinction is often subtle and refined. It is certainly difficult; but in allowing room for both, biblical religion maintains the position that the essence of human life is in relation: relation to oneself, to others, and to God.

       In using the image of a jury, the importance of decision-making is brought into focus as a part of religious knowledge. In the biblical view, it is impossible for a person touched by God's acts to abstain from the balloting. Abstention is judgment by default. Although biblical religion is open to questions of interpretation, it asserts that religious knowledge can only be gained through active, conscious effort. It is possible, of course, for people to ignore God's disclosures willingly, to block them out or let them remain dormant. Hence, the biblical references to those "who have ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see."

Knowledge Means Action

       There is a strong emphasis in biblical thought to actualize what is potential, to act on what has been seen or heard. A connection therefore exists between the information available in religious knowledge and how that information is used in practice. The two must be taken together. The nature of understanding God's intention is so constructed that it forces people into action; some response, even a negative one, is required by understanding God's role in history. Unlike the perennial system, where spiritual disciplines precede unitive knowledge, biblical religion calls for the one unified movement of knowledge and action. It makes the search for truth practical. Whatever one understands to be God's intention, one must try to fulfill that purpose in one's own life. The recognition of God's purpose, therefore, involves mankind. Instead of forcing human beings out of the finite world, God's purpose increases their interaction with it.

The Word

       The unique image of God found in biblical religion has a direct bearing on the idea of religious

(6) Dr. Cherbonnier once said in a class that God's greatest gift to humanity is the capacity to sin; that is, God has endowed mortals with the freedom to choose, and God will never override human freedom, even if is employed in utter opposition to God's will. Thus, the Hitlers make their demonic choices alongside the Schweitzers.


knowledge. As previously noted, biblical religious knowledge is a posteriori. However, in accepting God as Someone, biblical philosophy allows one important factor: communication. The evidence left by God in history is intentional. It directs mankind toward fulfilling the larger purpose which God wills.

       God is able, then, to interject his Word directly into the flow of time; he is not silent or impassive. The figure of the prophets is therefore built around the Word of God. They are the agents through which God discloses directly to people. Communication passes from God to chosen persons, and from them to others. This implies that there is a system of checks and balances that prevents individuals from acting out of ignorance, and it makes it even more difficult to avoid an encounter with God. The image of the Hebrew prophet is of one who stands over and against the idolatrous movement of history, one who declares that human freedom has been misused, that the wrong choice has been made. Biblical religion recognizes that wrong judgments can be corrected, and that God can intercede to help people shift direction.

Interpreting the Word

       Although God manifests himself in both actions and words that do not fully reveal God's complex nature, they do provide a clear indication of his purpose/intentions for humanity. There are elements in perennial philosophy that assert that the knowledge of God can be broken down into two categories: God as revealed, and God as he is in himself. Biblical philosophy rejects this notion. It is another way of dividing reality into two realms, to propose one god-figure for this world, and maintain the reality of God for the higher realm. This shifts God's nature to fit the definitions imposed by the perennial concept of the Absolute. It does, however, raise an issue which is pertinent to religious knowledge. If it is accepted that one-to-one contact between man and God is not likely, then any communication is secondary. This implies that religious knowledge is primarily a matter of interpretation. For example, if two individuals are watching a third person go through some action, they might each "see" the action differently. It is possible, then, for knowledge of God to be distorted through this process.

       Biblical religion maintains that there is a constant truth in which God operates; human interpretation of that truth may vary, but the real truth remains unchanged.(7) The same claim can be made by perennial philosophers. The difference, however, is that while “truth” can be discovered by the mystic, it always remains external to the finite world. The static truth of perennial philosophy may go misunderstood, since it has no power to speak for itself; the only source of real information is the mystic who claims to have experienced it. But if two mystics disagree, the whole process becomes even more subjective and impossible to resolve.

       It is much more probable that the biblical God's truth will be revealed to mankind, because the lines of communication are already established. It can be stated that the goal of the biblical philosopher is to clarify and help that process mature, to sort through the evidence, both in word and act, and then to bring human interpretation into harmony with the will of God.(8)

(7) See Catherine Brekus, “Christian History” in the “All Handouts” subsite. Dr. Brekus notes the reluctance of many historians to point to specific events as indications of God’s acts.

(8) The following items in “All Handouts” are relevant to explorations of religious knowledge: “Beyond Certitude” (McBrien), “BLIK” (Nolan), “Facts and Their Interpretation” (McBrien), “Philosophical Pluralism” (Dilley). These essays support directly or indirectly the view that “right heartedness” and an open mind are necessary to perceive God’s revelations all the more reason for the community of faith, not individuals, to risk judgments as to which claims are truly revelatory. This writer submits that faithful atheists would not discern God’s actions, even if experienced first-hand in the Exodus or the Resurrection of Jesus; their hearts and minds maintain a “blik” that would prevent such discernment. An underlying and most important factor is this: believers in the biblical God are persuaded that their own common blik is not only adequate, but true. Thus, an element of trust is inevitable, whether by atheists in their bliks, or by theists in their bliks and in God. As the Creeds say, “I believe in.....” (not “I know with godlike certainty that......”)


       In no case, however, is history to be trivialized or judged beyond reach in any meaningful sense as one attempts to comprehend, even partially, God’s self-disclosures. To dismiss the possibility of knowing history at all is to deny any meaningful knowledge of God’s acts. The Exodus and the Resurrection could be written off as human invention; historical agnosticism would place the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament totally in the realm of creative literature and the religious imagination. If this were to be the case, libraries could, and probably should, replace gathering places for worship. Biblical theism could be relegated to the status of all other created gods. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus - if anyone admitted to their existence at all - would become mythological figures - perhaps among the traditional “330 million” Hindu gods that point to a fuzzy, transcendent “Pure Spirituality.” Or, perhaps, some sort of deism – inferred from observations of nature - could satisfy human needs for an unnamed Supreme Intelligence. If the Bible is assumed to be ahistorical, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lose all claim to authentic religious knowledge (except for the mystical claims of the Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, and Sufism - all of which are examples of perennial rather than biblical philosophy).

Bernhard W. Anderson’s comments are most helpful:

        The biblical story of God’s revelation to Israel is based – in some degree – on real events that happened in the experience of an ancient people. This has to be affirmed even though we can not settle such questions as “What happened at the Reed Sea?” … The Bible presents a realistic narrative, rooted in concrete experiences, not one that is completely spun out of the imagination. Therefore, the theologian has to reckon with the activity of God in the world, echoing the fundamental concern of George Ernest Wright’s famous monograph, God Who Acts. In this view, religious language does not “create” reality, as in so-called postmodern linguistic theory, but is a “response to the reality of divine activity” in the world.9

       Mind and Heart. Our focus in this exploration is on the philosophical, on “biblical philosophy.” Religious knowledge in a more comprehensive sense considers not just the mind, but also the heart. In the Bible knowledge of God is personalized further through prayer and worship, wherein persons “know” God in intimate, faithful fellowship. Knowing who the true God is through the Creator’s mighty acts (i.e., the covenant tradition), faith communities bond in responsive love to God through many forms of individual prayer and corporate worship. More than inner glows and quietude achieved by means of meditative techniques, the faithful praise, give thanks, confess, petition, and so on, to Yahweh, God of all. Thus, religious knowledge in the biblical sense is both of the heart and of the mind, a response of the whole person

9 Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, p. 54.


to God’s love.