Epistemology and the Fall (Updated)
I’m getting a trickle of questions about Jesus’ behavior, enough to start an outline, but most of them are rather late in His ministry. For the next chapter of our book it seems obvious to discuss biographical background and some childhood stuff. I’d like to see a couple of puzzles regarding the first portion of His ministry, if you have any.
Meanwhile, I got one question which didn’t seem to fit in the scope of our book, so I’m going to address it here. It falls under the epistemological differences between the West and the Bible.
To restate the question:
Most people don’t struggle too hard with the idea human nature is fallen, but that the whole natural world is fallen is tough to understand. Did nature somehow sin?
Answer: No, nature did not sin, but it was under Adam’s authority to some degree. His fall pulled the natural world under his curse.
The question arises from a particularly Western assumption. Most of us are aware of the analytical approach to discovery. Broadly, it consists of sampling human experience in this world, collating the data, and building logical categories to organize that data.
Anyone who has ever taken a college course in philosophy has probably heard the discussion of Plato’s reasoning on what defines the concept of “chair” or some other common physical object. The question is not one of semantics, but the idea behind the word. What is the essence of chair-ness? What differentiates it from other objects with a similar purpose? Upon such a pursuit hangs more important questions, such as: What is the nature of virtue? It follows such a mind would ask what was the nature of the Fall.
From the Greek philosophers we get this question of being and the essence or nature of a thing or concept. It’s no surprise Westerners then want to understand the nature and essence of the natural world as a whole. That humanity is broken is just about painfully obvious to almost everyone, but most Westerners instinctively doubt the intellect is fallen, too. So the remedies range all over the map within the realm of Western reasoning. The natural world would seem by Western assumption as exempt, but the Bible refers to that brokenness including some aspect or elements of nature itself.
Hebrew epistemology does not emphasize the analytical approach to all things. While aware of that approach, it’s not the default. The primary question of a Hebrew mind is: What is required of me? Most questions and issues are approached in terms of how it is experienced. Western logic presumes an ultimate objective truth, something existing independently. We have to figure out the content of that truth. This image of truth is completely missing from Hebrew reasoning, in the sense all things depend on God. Whatever it is we want to make of truth, it is of necessity a reflection of God’s Person. All truth is God’s truth, and anything contradicting His revelation must be a lie.
Where does that leave us? Paul approaches the Fall in the natural world most closely in Romans 8. In the 20th verse he mentions how Creation was “subjected to futility.” There is nothing in Creation at fault here — it didn’t go willingly. Something in the nature of Creation was forced by the God to participate in the curse of the Fall. A primary curse of the Fall is the constraints of time and space. That is, the existence of space and time as limiting factors in human experience is not part of our divine design, because the symbolic language of the Bible makes it pretty clear God and Eternity suffer none of that. Space and time present no constraints on God and His divine will, yet we are so deeply wedded to it, we are not even equipped to process that concept very far. I wonder how God could subject us to that constraint without forcing some portion of Creation under that it.
Obviously, the concept of Creation includes more than our part here under the Fall. However, we don’t experience any other part because it requires dying. At some point, Christ will return and remake all things. The portion of Creation we experience here will be ended, removed and replaced. Again, it’s beyond our comprehension, but it’s a standing promise. Thus, it’s probably more accurate to say the natural world is subjected to this futility, this fallen existence. It most certainly includes all we can know directly; we have to take the existence of another plane, a Spirit Domain, on faith. God created that, too, but it’s not fallen.
I mentioned the difficulty we have with this because Western epistemology asserts all existence is unitary. While there may be things and beings we cannot detect with our human senses, our logic assumes it is sufficient to yield knowledge of all things and nothing exists which is outside our logic. Keep in mind, Aristotle said this in so many words, and Aristotle was acquainted with Hebrew Scripture and philosophy. His description of a single unitary universe is a blunt rejection of what Hebrew scholars taught right there in his own city. Our Western intellectual assumptions about reality make no room for placing our known universe inside of a bubble of lesser reality, with distinct starting and end points. We have a hard time processing the idea there is a Spirit Realm which is wholly separate, and superior to this one. Taking such ideas on faith, without an awareness of the differences in epistemology, leaves you struggling to believe against the grain of all your mental reflexes.
Addenda: I hope my readers understand something important here. By no means am I suggesting you can’t live your life according to whatever epistemology best suits you. I fully understand my brain and temperament naturally runs along Hebrew lines, and Hebrew epistemology strikes me as totally natural, as if I were pre-wired to use it. I also understand most people are not that way. The reason so many rabbis embraced it during the Period of Silence was because it seemed more natural to them at the time. And it’s no secret computers would have been unlikely without a Western epistemology, along with a jillion other technological advancements. Somebody has to think that way, at least part of the time. It’s between you and God how you use or don’t use any particular epistemology — and there are more than two. What I do assert without discussion is you cannot hope to understand Scripture adequately without accounting for the difference between the Aristotelian West and the Biblical ANE Hebrew. God revealed Himself, by His own firm choice, within Hebrew epistemology. If you don’t take this issue seriously, you can’t claim to take God seriously, at least in terms of trying to understand His imperatives on your life.