When I entered college, my first year, I remember a conversation between myself and my roommate, who was a junior at that time. We discussed the difference between belief and knowledge. He argued that we know nothing, we simply believe things to be. This wholesale denial of the existence of knowledge disturbed me for quite a while and I eventually set aside the nagging uncertainty and maintained my attachment to true knowledge without having any basis for it.
Most of us would confess that we share this same perspective of knowledge. We cannot accept the idea that all knowledge devolve to subjective belief. We know that we know, we just don’t know how. We can survive with this mindset for a long time. I didn’t put together a foundation for knowledge until I went to seminary.
The question of knowledge interrupted the philosophical world in the eighteenth century. Three bright lights of philosophical thought challenged the previously accepted assumption of knowledge. Rene Descartes (1596-1650; living in France/Netherlands/Sweeden) began the discussion by requiring knowledge to have an undeniable foundation. He claimed that man could doubt everything except the doubting doubter. This led him to the conclusion, cogito ergo sum, “I think therefor, I am.” From the self, all knowledge proceeded.
David Hume (1711-1776; from Scotland) refuted Descartes by claiming that all sensory perceptions could not be relied upon to correlate to any conclusions of knowledge. Using billiard balls, he claimed that the perception of one ball striking another and the second ball’s motion could not support a conclusion of cause and effect. Though Descartes may have given us a basis for knowledge within our minds, Hume denied that it could ever produce knowledge of anything outside the mind.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804; from Germany/Prussia) understood Hume’s problem and attempted to show the manner by which true knowledge could proceed from the mind to things other than the mind. He suggested that the categories of the mind correlate to the elements outside the mind giving people a connection between the mind and other things, the basis for true knowledge.
The modern understanding of knowledge draws from none of these thinkers of the past. Rather it develops from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900; from Germany). Nietzsche refuted Kant’s theory of knowledge without suggesting another. He originated the extreme skepticism that the world adopts. There is no knowledge, merely belief. These beliefs compete for dominance and no one is better than another. Those who advocate for a certain worldview strive for dominance and the mightiest advocate wins.
Nietzsche understood the problem that Descartes, Hume, and Kant failed to comprehend. Any logical assumption of connection between the mind to things other than the mind is a mind conclusion. Your mind has no self-created justification for assuming anything about things other than the mind. Something other than the mind, undeniable by the mind, must supply the connection between the mind and other things in order to found the justification for true knowledge of things other than the mind.
What can provide the mind with this foundation? Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987; from Netherlands/USA) suggested what I consider the best foundation for true knowledge. He proposed that the revelation of God who created the world provided a certain connection between the mind of man and other things, including God. Think of this question, “If God created the world, how better can we truly know all things but by Him showing truth to us?” Genesis 1 provides the story of creation segmented into six statements from God. God speaks the world into existence.
This creates the connection between man's mind and reality. God created the human mind and all other reality. We claim that He created our mind in such a way to understand reality outside the mind. He also revealed in His word, against misunderstanding, the way to properly understand His creation.
Since we understand that the only source of knowledge comes from the revelation of God. Though the early reformers used the term sola scriptura, they meant that only scripture could define Christianity. We can extend this to understand that only the Bible can found knowledge and determine the way we ought to live and think in this world. Not merely Christianity, but all life operates as the revelation of God describes.
To understand the force of sola scriptura, we must retain this fundamental concept that true knowledge is only defensible by the revelation of God. Thus, God alone must the the author and definer of His revelation. Man cannot exercise an authoritative role in the development of the scriptures if it is to support true knowledge. The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this principle well. “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” (WCF 1.4) Let’s see how this affects our conception of the Bible.
The Bible contains 66 books divided into the Old and New Testaments. The construction of the Bible in this way comes from a topic we call “canon”. Decisions about canon break down into two concepts. One view of canon argues that some human agency determines the canon. The other asserts that God alone determines the canon and mankind accepts it. The principle discussed above forces us to agree with the second view of canon. The church does not decide which books ought to be in the Bible. We receive the books that God has clearly revealed to be His word. It is God’s word. No human defines that word. We merely receive it.
Sola scriptura, means what it says. Only scripture provides the revelation from God. Mankind relies upon it alone to determine knowledge and understanding of the world. It teaches us the nature of God, man, and reality. It may not teach exhaustively on every issue reality demands, but it provides the only framework for the proper and correct operation of human beings in the world. We might write other documents to explain how to understand and apply scripture, but the final and only foundation for such knowledge is the Bible. It is the supreme and only judge in controversies regarding religion and knowledge of reality.
Sola scriptura does not deny the other revelation of God. Theologians subdivide revelation into special and general. Special revelation equals the Bible. It provides the lenses through which we survey and understand general revelation. General revelation originates from the speaking God who spoke the world into being. This revelation we receive by general sense experience of reality. The Bible gives us the connection point between our minds and the truth in reality. Thus, we can receive general revelation seen with special revelation as truth, knowable truth. With the lenses of scripture, we can look at general revelation and draw true conclusions about the nature of reality and develop accurate methods of dealing with reality.
In the development of discernment, the principle of sola scriptura governs everything else. It provides the foundation for knowledge. It directs our attention the the word of God as the way to accurately understand reality. It provides the lens through which we can truthfully see the world. In order to discern correctly, we must begin with the principle that the word of God must govern life. Only then can we begin to build effective skills of discernment.