In this recent monograph, Dru Johnson has taken up an interesting and important project—that of exploring how epistemic concerns are portrayed in Scripture with the end of laying “the groundwork for a biblical theology of knowledge” (p. xv). Interestingly, in order to do that, the author focuses particular attention on clear cases in Scripture of error in the process of coming to know. He is interested in errors that occur when the characters are initially positioned well to acquire knowledge, yet they fail in the process in some obvious way that leads to failure to know or grasp what they should have. His justification for this approach seems to be that patent cases of error clarify and illuminate the proper process of coming to know that is exemplified in cases in which the process is carried out properly and successfully.
In the first chapter, Johnson attempts to clarify the kind of error that he will be scrutinizing in the biblical texts and the method he will be using in this investigation. Chapters 2–5 are where he does most of the work of tracing out the biblical portrayal of coming to know, focusing especially on Genesis 2 and 3 (chapters 2 and 3 respectively), as well as selected narrative passages elsewhere in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Old Testament (chapter 4) and three of the New Testament Gospels (chapter 5). What emerges very early is a pattern of human knowledge acquisition that involves dependent listening to and following the instructions of an authoritative guide. Failure to listen to the right guide results in a derailment of the process of discovery.
Of particular interest is the author’s take on the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. Rather than taking the primary error of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 to be their desire for autonomy, Johnson maintains that the text puts the emphasis on their voluntary shifting of their trust from the voice of God through Adam to the voice of the serpent. Failure to listen to the correct voice becomes a recurrent theme in the history of God’s people as that history unfolds in the Scriptures.
Chapter 6 is devoted to an attempt to establish the claim that Michael Polanyi’s epistemology of science is commensurable with the biblical epistemology that the author has laid out in the previous chapters, with the end of showing that this biblical epistemology is not restricted to religious epistemology, but applies to all knowledge. In this chapter, Johnson integrates a cursory but insightful consideration of Old Testament wisdom literature and New Testament epistolary with respect to epistemological concerns.
In chapters 7 and 8, Johnson considers contemporary analytic epistemology and the relatively new analytic theology movement respectively. He concludes that analytic epistemology as represented by the four particular sorts of theories he surveys (the traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief, naturalized epistemology, virtue epistemology, and Reformed epistemology) is unduly narrow, fails to capture the epistemology that is derived from the biblical narrative, and is thus not serviceable to theology. His brief examination of analytic theology in the light of a concise and focused survey of current biblical scholarship concerning knowing in Scripture and his own consideration of epistemologically significant biblical texts in previous chapters leads to the strong suggestion that analytic theology is ill-conceived given the pervasiveness of the phenomenological depiction of the epistemic process throughout the Bible. Such a challenge to the project of analytic theology is not surprising given the author’s conclusion concerning analytic epistemology in the previous chapter.
The final chapter is a reflection on some of the significant implications of the author’s findings in this study for the work of theology, preaching, teaching, discipling, and counseling. Particularly significant is Johnson’s emphasis on accountability within the church for the epistemological aspects of all these activities and on the necessity of participation in the life of Christian discipleship for knowing. In drawing the study to a close, Johnson relates the most significant feature of the biblical epistemology that he has developed to church life:
Counseling, discipleship, and even the application portion of preaching all share this as common: humans need someone outside of themselves to guide them. . . . [E]pistemological process in Scripture envisions a community of people who counsel, disciple, and coach one another because they cannot know themselves, each other, or God well without such external help. (p. 218)
I found Johnson’s case for the general pattern of the process of acquiring theological knowledge based on his biblical-theological investigation appealing and generally convincing (though not in all the details). Less convincing was his case in chapter 6 for his claim that the biblical pattern that he had identified is generalizable to cover all knowing. While there is continuity between the epistemological theory that Johnson draws from Scripture and Polanyi’s epistemology of science, it is far from obvious that either is broad enough to cover all that must be covered in a general theory of knowledge. The author seems to hold the dubious assumption that scientific knowing is paradigmatic for all knowing.
Regretfully, though I found Johnson’s work to be valuable for provoking thought and for its insight into some epistemologically significant biblical passages, I must report that it was a frustrating read on multiple levels. Unfortunately, the book is littered with writing errors (e.g., typos, missing words, grammatical errors, etc.) and infelicitous word choices. There are instances of redundancy, the most bothersome of which is on pp. 124–25, where there are two paragraphs (separated by a third) that cover pretty much the same ground, adumbrating what will follow in the remainder of the chapter. Furthermore, there are crucial junctures where the author’s thinking is insufficiently developed or not clearly articulated, making it difficult or impossible to follow and evaluate his reasoning. For example, he frequently asserts that knowing is a process, not a state, yet fails to give an adequate reason for thinking so. As far as I can tell, the only argument he gives for the claim that biblical knowing is a process rather than a state is in chapter 2 in a section entitled “Is the man’s knowledge instantaneous?” (pp. 31–33). Johnson is considering the depiction of Adam’s coming to know his proper mate under God’s guidance, a process that begins with God’s having Adam name the animals. His argument is found in three successive paragraphs:
But in Genesis 2, man comes to know by enacting a process, through indwelled participation. By indwelled participation, we mean that if something can be known in Genesis 2, it appears to be divulged through performing some action. Because this act of knowing is a process, it is inherently bound in place and history, not the metaphysical abstractions of space and time, which appear as inextricable features of creaturely knowing. Participation in the act of knowing ends in discrete points of illumination, of revelation: Such as “Eureka!” . . . Enacting the process appears to create an expectation that something will be revealed. It involves a longing for a settlement, which means that knowing involves an initial conflict that seeks resolution. . . .
. . . Because he is embodied, knowing has an analogical facet so that man can know that he is on a path to knowing his proper mate. The man is aware that he is on the way to knowing his proper mate (“But for the man, he did not find a fit helper for himself,” 2:20b) and embodying the process. . . .
Awareness that one is on a path to knowing speaks to the non-stative nature of knowledge: that it is ripe with hope and expectation that must come to fruition in some recognizable way. This awareness of one’s location within the epistemological process renders confidence that one is moving towards the goal, which is knowing. (pp. 32–33)
We should note three things briefly about this argument. First, while the narrative might well lead the reader to the expectation that Adam is on a path of discovery leading to the revelation of his proper mate, it doesn’t seem at all clear from the text that Adam is aware that he is. Maybe he is; maybe he isn’t. Second, and more importantly, what Johnson notes about the “epistemological process” is perfectly consistent with Adam’s coming to know, where knowing is a state rather than a process. The argument is a non sequitur. Third, we see here an example of a recurrent inconsistency. In the excerpt above, Johnson construes knowing as the end or goal of the process rather than as the process itself. This is quite consistent with the claim that knowing is a state. Oddly, throughout the book, even where Johnson asserts that knowing is a process rather than a state, he continually reverts to the language of “coming to know.” This suggests that the real concern in Scripture is with the process of acquiring knowledge rather than with depicting knowledge itself as a process, the author’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
Finally, I should note that there is a troublesome carelessness in Johnson’s critique of analytic epistemology that will make it unlikely to convince any epistemologist of that ilk. For example, his discussion of the nature and epistemological role of propositions on pp. 155–66 is hopelessly confused. At different times, he confuses propositions variously with affirmations, beliefs, and states of affairs. At other times, it isn’t at all clear what he has in mind when he uses the term “proposition.” At one point, he claims that “there is no informational content to a proposition” (p. 160), clearly failing to recognize the view held by many analytic philosophers that a proposition is the informational content of a declarative sentence as well as of certain speech acts (e.g., assertions, denials) and propositional attitudes (e.g., beliefs, hopes, and doubts).
Furthermore, the author misconstrues analytic epistemology’s project of seeking an adequate analysis of the concept of propositional knowledge. I’ll cite just three examples. We get a sense that something is askew in his representation of analytic epistemology early in the discussion in the following obscure sentence: “So too, the broadness of epistemological reality, biblical or otherwise, cannot be explained by a narrow study of propositions in predicate relationships as if they represent and can generalize to the entanglement of broad realities . . .” (p. 155). A clearer example can be found in the author’s discussion of the traditional analysis of knowledge as justified true belief (which he calls “TAK”): “Like other epistemological models TAK vests itself in the notion that knowledge is fundamentally analyzable through propositional examination. Because of that vesting in propositional analysis, the TAK has little flexibility to engage the breadth of reality to be known” (p. 169).
This reviewer is no friend of “TAK.” However, it should be clear to anyone who is acquainted with analytic epistemology that propositional examination or analysis is not generally taken by proponents of TAK (or of any other form of analytic epistemology, for that matter) to be a key component of knowledge. Similarly, after considering what he takes to be the four main kinds of analytic theory of knowledge, the author writes: “In these four models, knowledge is primarily concerned with reconciling our rationality by propositional analysis and so we find them fundamentally wanting” (p. 179). As far as I can tell, this claim (if it even makes sense) does not aptly apply to any instance of the four kinds of analytic epistemology that Johnson canvases since none of them takes propositional analysis to be a necessary condition for knowing.
Of course, analysis of knowledge is not the only project of analytic epistemologists, though one might get that impression reading Johnson’s treatment. Moreover, this project is not necessarily at odds with the biblical depiction of how we acquire theological knowledge since the latter is concerned with the process of coming to know, not with what knowledge is essentially. As Johnson himself notes, in analyzing the concept of knowledge analytic epistemologists “are doing something distinctly different from what we see in Scripture” (p. 180). They are concerned to answer two different questions. But it doesn’t follow that there is a conflict. It would have been better, perhaps, to have considered how analytic philosophers are treating the question of knowledge acquisition rather than how they have treated the question of the nature of knowledge.
There is much more to say, but we must conclude. In short, while Johnson’s project is one of great importance, and I applaud his effort, the book went to press prematurely.