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Epistemology and Philosophy of Language in John’s Gospel

June 19, 2015

John says he wrote his Gospel ‘so that you may believe’. The basis of this hoped-for belief is Jesus’ teaching and miracles—or ‘signs’, as John calls miracles. In philosophical terms we could say that John’s Gospel is about ‘evidential spiritual epistemology’—coming to knowledge of God through the evidences of Jesus’ power as a teacher and as a worker of miracles.

Of course, John has nothing to say about scientific method, which may lead us to infer that he had nothing to say about our ability to understand the universe or anything therein. Yet two verses in his gospel may have significant implications for those of us interested in matters of contemporary science and epistemology (how we gain knowledge).

John 1:1 opens with these well-known words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. The Greek word translated as ‘Word’ is, of course, logos. Using ‘Word’ as the translation for logos has become an ingrained convention among translators, and not without good reason—it is simple yet evocative, and is probably as good a single-word translation as any of the other possibility. However, we tend to forget that logos is polysemic, that its meaning in classical and koine Greek can be rendered into English by various other words as well, such as reason, opinion, account, and, as Grahame Hunter (Professor of Philosophy, University of Ottawa) has pointed out, intelligibility. Despite our proclivity to translate logos as Word, this polysemy was no doubt part of John’s semantic awareness. Hunter suggests that we read John 1:1 replacing ‘Word’ with each of the various other candidate words in English, to give us a fuller understanding of the scope and power of this verse. Here is how John 1:1 reads with logos as intelligibility: ‘In the beginning was the Intelligibility, and the Intelligibility was with God, and the Intelligibility was God’.

This is highly suggestive. If God is Intelligibility, then God is the source of intelligibility. Assuming that intelligibility involves two sides (‘able to be understood’ and ‘capable of understanding’), then on this reading of John 1:1, humanity, as the image of God, reflects both aspects—humanity is capable of understanding and of being understood.

This helps us address a couple questions. One is the old question, Why is the universe intelligible? That is, Why are we able to understand the universe? Alvin Plantinga has offered his well-known argument that evolution denies naturalism (materialism, atheism) because evolution is not built to give us the remarkable capacities we have, such as the levels of math and knowledge we have to understand physics and the universe; rather, evolution just gives us levels of knowledge we need for survival and reproduction. Thus the probability of evolution giving humans such reliable cognitive faculties is low, thus the fact that we have reliable cognitive faculties requires another explanation, namely God’s involvement in our cognitional formation. However, I believe this argument has been successfully refuted by those who say that the evolution of human intelligence for survival and reproduction has produced brains capacities that are capable of extrapolating their intelligence capacities beyond just survival and reproduction.

Nonetheless, I would contend that this evolved capacity for intelligence (intelligibility-capacity) was one of the qualities (along with love) intended by God to emerge from the initial conditions and physical-chemical processes of the universe. Thus the universe and our world are intelligible because intelligibility—both ‘able to be known’ and ‘able to know’—is part of God’s creative, evolutionary plan. Consequently, scientific method as naturalistic is not a repudiation of Theism, as Materialists often claim, but simply the application of our God-intended and God-reflecting evolutionarily-evolved intelligibility capacities. In effect, John 1:1 provides a theological explanation and justification for scientific enquiry: we are just using the brains God gave us…through evolution.

Second, in John 14:6 Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth (alethea), and the life’. In contemporary philosophy (well, Anglo-American) truth is a property of propositions. In terms of ‘truth’, does this verse mean then that Jesus is somehow a single fundamental proposition, perhaps a super-propositional truth which gathers into itself all other real and potential propositional truths? Such a proposal is nonsense—a person cannot be a proposition any more than a person can be a hamburger or a calculus equation. However, if both Jesus and propositions can be labelled as ‘true’ then there must be some common property that Jesus and propositions share—but what would that be? I suggest it is the quality of ‘faithfulness’ or ‘trustworthiness’. This makes an ontological connection between the nature of God and the nature of propositions—indeed, more broadly, with the nature of communication: propositions and communications which are true reflect the reliability and trustworthiness of God. Put another way, as God is a communicator (communicates with humans), the ability to communicate is part of being made in the image of God (an often-overlooked quality of the imago dei). That is, verbal communication, including both literal propositions and figurative language, is creationally founded in this property of God, namely being trustworthy or reliable. The truth-conditions of propositions (whatever one may say about their physical or metaphysical status) reflect the character of God.

Now we can combine these two portions of John’s Gospel into a powerful ‘theology of epistemology’ (doctrine of knowledge), namely that the natural world (including the universe, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, and human personhood) is intelligible to us because creation, including we humans, reflects the Intelligibility of God; and further, that when language is truthful, it is truthful by virtue of being reliable or trustworthy, reflecting these same characteristics of God. The world has been made by God to be intelligible, and our language about that world is true when it is reliable and trustworthy. Furthermore, the same applies to God, for God too is intelligible (to an extent adequate for relational purposes), and so our language about God—or anything else, for that matter—is true when it is reliable and trustworthy.

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