Christian Epistemology and Church History

One’s epistemology, or method of ascertaining the truth, is the foundation stone of all understanding. Not only is our epistemology the foundation of our own personal understanding, it is the foundation of culture. Culture, in turn, is decisive force in human history. It is through culture that the Christ is either corporately resisted or corporately welcomed, and it is therefore culture to which God’s hand of divine government ultimately responds. If history turns on our corporate method of obtaining truth, then the crux of any engagement must strike at the root of this tree.

There are several basic methods of discerning the truth, and many systems which can be built upon those methods. Much thought has been given to the various epistemological systems of the secular world, however, comparatively little attention has been given to the variety which exists, and has existed, within Christianity itself throughout the course of history. The key components of Christian epistemology have been tradition, authority, Spirit, and Scripture. The weight given to one of these factors has been largely decisive not just in events, but in the very context in which the events occur. The following are some brief reflections on the evolution of church epistemology.


The Beginning
The Early Church for obvious reason placed a high value on tradition. Christ’s advent had been recent and the canon of Scripture had not yet occurred. Moreover, there was no unified church government, or even a method for communicating and enforcing one. With the coming of Constantine, the nature of the church fundamentally changed. Central authority was now both possible and enforceable. Moreover, it was politically desirable. As this unholy union of church and state solidified, the church became increasingly reliant on authority. The stage was set for the medieval church which defined truth not based on Scripture, but on the expediencies of an increasingly corrupt church leadership


The Reformation
What Martin Luther challenged which fundamentally threatened the Catholic church was it’s epistemology. Faced with the choice between Church authority and Scripture, Luther, through an epic personal struggle, chose Scripture, and in so doing opened the flood gates of truth. Church authority now must be subject to Scripture, not vice versa. The ensuing centuries saw the outworking of this view. The gospel tide swept the northern European nations and the gospel truth sank deep into their cultures.


Human Agency
John Wesley sowed the seeds of a new transformation by emphasizing the agency of man in determining what is true. The Puritan understanding, which was the great citadel of Reformation thought, had tended to emphasize the Providential or Sovereign hand of God. The unintended side effect of this stress was to unduly embrace the negative circumstances in life as God, rather than Satan. Wesley’s stress on the responsibility of man ultimately led to the natural conclusion that man has more control over his circumstances and experience of God that it might appear. A fervent pursuit of God would create a fervent response by God.


A New Pentecost
Wesley’s idea ultimately culminated in the Pentecostal movement, which, when viewed in the context of all preceding history must be understood as a dramatic shift. The holiness movement had hungered for a “deeper life”, but Pentecostalism brought in a deeper experience. The reality of God demonstrated by the supernatural working of God in Pentecostalism ushered in an understanding of reality in which the person of the Holy Spirit was to become essential in determining the truth. Within this new Pentecostal context several movements would arise which would each bring into focus key elements which had been lacking in reformation epistemology. While each of these movements suffered from fatal flaws, they also each brought in missing elements in God’s truth.

The Latter Rain movement in the 1950’s extended upon this idea and released a new hermeneutical system to the church which would unlock the rationalistic foundation which had undergirded the Reformation church for over four hundred years. It revived the typological interpretation of Scripture, as well as emphasizing the reality of modern day Spirit inspired prophetic revelation of Scripture truth.

The Word of Faith movement in the 1970’s extended upon both Wesley’s idea of man’s agency, as well as the Fundamentalist idea of The Word of God, and brought into focus the dominion which God intended for his Children. In a totally separate context, God used Francis Schaeffer to reinspire a new generation of Christians to reconsider the totality of God’s truth, thus provide a target for this newly appreciated dominion. Not only would the force of the believer’s authority be on the spiritual, but it would be on the natural, on the society.

At the exact same time, God used the Shepherding Movement to address an imbalanced emphasis on the individual which had been latent in the Reformation understanding of truth. The Reformation had emphasized Scripture almost to the exclusion of all other sources of truth, thereby effectively atomizing the entire Protestant civilization. People existed in isolated spheres because the foundation of their society was the value that truth must be obtained personally and only personally. Church doctrine was always at risk, because it was never intentionally passed onward.


Where We Stand
Every arm chair church historian has a different view of the position of the Church as we enter the 21st century, but I believe history clearly shows a dramatic acceleration in the work of God. More happened in the first 400 years after the reformation as happened in the preceding 1500 years, and perhaps more happened in the 20th century as in both of these. From an epistemological point of view the 20th century could be seen as having lain the foundations of a new era of victory and triumph for the 21st century church because the church at large had a more total foundation-addressing each of these essential methods of obtaining truth.

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