Paradigms for Knowing God

February 2, 2011 — Leave a comment


[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]

The Christian Faith is split up into 6 parts:

  • Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology
  • God Who Lives
  • God Who Creates
  • God Who Rescues
  • God Who Reigns in Grace
  • God Who Reigns in Glory

As you might notice, these divisions more or less follow traditional systematic theology categories, although without all the -logy language. The first part we’re working through now consists of chapters on general philosophical concerns, defining the shape and scope of theology, outlining the source of theology, and then two chapters related to the doctrine of Scripture.

The first chapter is titled, “Dissonant Dramas: Paradigms for Knowing God and the World,” and breaks out into the following headings:

  • Dissonant Dramas: The Nature of Reality
  • A Covenantal Account of “Meeting a Stranger”
  • Epistemology: Knowing God

In categorizing opposing worldviews, Horton uses the categories from Paul Tillich’s writings of “overcoming estrangement” (covering pantheistic and panentheistic worldviews) and “meeting a stranger” (covering the biblical worldview) He adds a third called “the stranger we never meet” to categorize atheism and deism (the latter of which almost inevitably leads to the former).

Alfred North Whitehead once commented that the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. The first chapter of The Christian Faith is essentially the same thing. Painting in fairly broad strokes, Horton sketches out a framekwork to begin discussing theology. This framework starts with the widest horizon capable of framing theological knowledge: metaphysics. In this way it is a pre-Enlightenment approach since everyone since Descartes has more or less started with epistemology first.

For Horton though, epistemology follows ontology (metaphysics, pg. 47).  As part of this program, he lays out the various ontological models and does a pretty good job demonstrating that whether you pick pantheism, deism, atheism, or panentheism, they are all essentially monistic (or univocal, each positing only one kind of reality). The biblical model on the other hand starts with a Creator-creature distinction (pg. 41).

Laying out the biblical model for ontology, Horton then proceeds to epistemology, for as he says, “Our theory of how we know anything depends on what we think there is to be known” (pg. 47). While from a certain perspective this appears to be true, it is more accurate to say that epistemology and metaphysics are interdependent and you really cannot proceed to investigate one without the other. We could just as easily say “our theory of what there is to be known depends on how we think we are capable of knowing.”

I think it is a better move to do as Horton has done and start with God and the Creator-creature distinction before then proceeding to examine epistemology and then method of theology. However, the interdependence of the two means you cannot really start with one without at least assuming (i.e. having presuppositions) something about the other.

All that aside, the rest of chapter 1 is in sketchbook of the various attempts to reconcile God’s incomprehensible majesty (i.e. transcendence) and his condescending goodness (i.e. immanence). He also enters into a discussion of how our knowledge is analogical, rather than univocal or equivocal to God’s. The distinction is extremely helpful in developing a Christian epistemology, but Horton’s treatment of it could have been a bit clearer.

He mentions Van Til in passing but would have done well to exposit some of his writings on the topic (as he should have done likewise on pg. 78 in reference to rationalism essentially being irrationalistic). In reference to dealing with God’s transcendence and immanence, I thought he should have used Frame’s square from his own theology teacher John Frame, but for whatever reason he said many similar things as Frame would have, but without the clarity that usually comes in Frame’s writings.

Beyond these discussions, we then get a whirlwind tour of western philosophy tracing the influence of Platonic dualism and the enthronement of the self in the place in God. He necessarily had to pick and choose thinkers to highlight and exposit and I think he did a good job for such a necessarily general treatment of the flow of western thought. It was particularly helpful to illustrate his earlier point about visual vs aural metaphors (pg. 49). By pg. 79 when you reach the end, you are more or less painfully aware of the clashing cacauphony of voices. This sets the stage nicely for chapter 2, which we’ll pick up tomorrow.


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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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