How Can We Know That We Know What We Know?

Here is a quick summary of some of N.T. Wright’s epistemological proposal in his 1992 The New Testament and the People of God. The excerpts below are fairly standard stuff in evangelicalism now, I’d say, but I found all of it quite helpful. After this material Wright gets a little more controversial with his proposals about the importance of story.

This is all part of Part 2, “Tools for the Task”: “A fresh examination of what a contemporary Christian literary, historical, and theological project might look like.”

Wright says we’ve got to examine our presuppositions. “The problems which we encounter in the study of literature, history and theology all belong together. Each reflects, in the way appropriate to its own area, the basic shape of the problem of knowledge itself.” 31We can’t just default to positivism or phenomenalism.

  • Positivists assume that “they know things ‘straight’,” that they “have instant access to raw data about which they simply make true propositions on the basis of sense-experience. Since it is obvious that not all human knowledge is of this type, the sorts of knowledge that break the mould are downgraded: classically, within positivism this century, metaphysics and theology come in for this treatment. Since they do not admit of verification, they become belief, not knowledge…. There are some things…for which we have (in principle) a god’s-eye view, and others for which all we have are prejudices and whims.” 33 Such a view “accords well with the prevailing Western worldview which gives pre-eminent value to scientific knowing and technological control and power while relativizing the intangible values and belief-systems of human society.” 33
  • Phenomenalism says that “the only thing of which I can really be sure when confronted by things in (what seems to be) the external world are my own sense-data.” 34

Wright proposes “critical realism.” “This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).” 35

Three things critical realism takes account of in the process of knowing:

  1. “The observer is looking from one point of view, and one only.”
  2. All humans inevitably and naturally interpret the information received from their senses through a grid of expectations, memories, stories, psychological states, and so on.” This is the concept of worldview, a little more involved than point-of-view.
  3. Where I stand and the (metaphorical) lenses through which I look have a great deal to do with the communities to which I belong…. Every human community shares and cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations, anxieties.” 36 (emphasis mine)

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

Leave a Reply