In this post I will attempt to describe the rationale behind the Protestant Epistemic Model as defined here: https://www.facebook.com/mike.c.manea/posts/10209012143645528.
I. A basic theory of knowledge
Let’s start by imagining for a second that atheists are correct: that there is no God/Supernatural and we somehow managed to get here via natural processes. Essentially, the only knowledge gathering tools we have at our disposal are our reason and our senses and, we are on our own to make sense of our existence.
Through rational inquiry we can hypothesize possibilities, follow those possibilities through to their logical conclusion and try to determine what probability there is for each of those possibilities. Through empirical enquiry we can use our senses to study the world, we can create tools that extend our senses (ex. a telescope), we can develop models and test them against experimental data etc.
However, both these methods are extremely limited. Even with the best tools available, our access to the totality of knowledge is minimal. Our reasoning as well, when it comes to questions that go beyond what we can study directly, relies on premises/presuppositions that cannot be proven. All in all, the only reasonable position we can take in this godless scenario is one of extreme epistemic humility; we know very little and even that which we think we know could turn out to be wrong.
Let’s now assume however that a God does exist. This introduces several additional possibilities:
1) It is of course still possible that this God might choose not to interfere with human knowledge gathering and thus, we would be pretty much in the same situation as if there was no God.
2) God might create us in such a way that our reason and senses are somehow calibrated to lead us to the correct conclusions and therefore we can have a higher degree of confidence in the knowledge gathered.
3) God might become involved with the human knowledge gathering project and imperceptibly lead us along towards the truth.
4) A fourth possibility however, one hinted at in Scripture, is that while God did create our knowledge gathering mechanisms, they have been marred by sin and are therefore unreliable. God doesn’t interfere with humanity’s attempts to figure things out on their own and thus, these attempts carry the same epistemic uncertainty they would under the atheistic model above. Instead, to bring to us a knowledge of truth, God steps into our reality and communicates this truth directly.
Thus, essentially, everything we think we know through philosophy, tradition, culture, science, etc. is ‘man-made’ and relatively unreliable. The only part of our knowledge gathering process that transcends those limitations is that knowledge communicated to us directly by God. Placed side by side, the divinely obtained knowledge cannot be judged or evaluated by anything we think we know via man-obtained knowledge since, by definition, the latter is intrinsically less reliable.
Basically, each of these is an epistemic hypothesis that is just as valid and likely to be correct as the other hypotheses. God can choose to go with any of these approaches as this is entirely at His discretion and there is no way for us to deduce a priori which one God will use. What we need to do instead is to develop each hypothesis and test it against the available data.
II. How God Communicates
Since here I’m only focusing on better explaining the rationale of the Protestant Epistemic Model, I will skip several steps and just focus directly on the fourth option above. Also, I will assume that the means by which God chooses to communicate this knowledge is via the collection of books known as the canon of Scripture. None the less, even among those who agree that God communicates through the Scripture, there are several theories regarding how God does this:
1) Imprint Inspiration (made up label) – Under classical theism, the timeless God imprints divine knowledge directly into the prophet’s immaterial soul and the prophet transcribes it exactly. The prophet’s contribution to scripture is thus inerrant.
2) Verbal Inspiration – God basically dictates the information to the prophet and the prophet just writes it down exactly (similar to the Muslim view of the Koran). This also leads to an inerrant view of Scripture.
Most evangelicals today subscribe to one of these views, something that leads to unfortunate difficulties in interpretation. I make the argument that Protestants/Evangelicals need to abandon these views of inspiration for several reasons:
a. The views are not natural; they are not usual methods of communication and would require some type of scriptural proof to adopt, proof that isn’t available.
b. The views don’t line up with the Scriptural data as prophets often communicate the same information in different ways on different occasions, something that would not occur with Inerrancy.
c. The views block supporters from interacting intelligently with scientific and critical scholarship leading to anti-science/anti-intellectualism stances that lead to fanaticism.
3) Nugget Inspiration (made up label) – At the other end of the spectrum, this view claims that God provides a nugget of truth to the prophet, some bit of information that He wishes to communicate, but then God steps back and gives the prophet freedom to get very creative in how he communicates that truth nugget. The prophet has license to embellish the message, to attach a bunch of his own thoughts and opinions to it, just as long as the nugget itself gets communicated as well.
Of all of the above options, we can dismiss number 3 from the start. The reason being that the selection of which part of this content is the actual truth nugget, as opposed to the man-made stuff, either becomes completely arbitrary, or, another 3rd-party authoritative interpreter must exist that is capable of accurately differentiating the truth nugget from the rest. Because this approach either makes God-given knowledge just as unreliable as other types of knowledge or sets up a higher authority than the Bible, it is not compatible with the Protestant Epistemic Model, and, since that’s what we’re focusing on here, it can be ignored.
Many people set up a false dichotomy between Imprint/Verbal (Inerrant) Inspiration and Nugget inspiration. They argue that by not adopting one approach, they are at risk of absorbing all the problems inherent in the other approach. However, there is another better possibility:
4) Cognitive Inspiration – God communicates with the prophet in the same way people communicate with each other via their rational faculties and the prophet then finds ways to communicate that information on to us. The prophet’s intention here is to communicate the message as accurately as possible not adding or subtracting anything, but they are still subject to human error as would be any other messenger. If unintentional error is introduced, God either ignores it, if it is insignificant, or tells the prophet to correct it. This view is therefore not inerrant, but still allows for the relatively accurate transfer of information. The possibility of error is made up for by building theology on multiple data points and not a single passage.
To further illustrate the cognitive theory, suppose I tell my kid to go tell his cousin that dinner will be ready in 5 minutes. The kid goes and tells him, ‘dad said to come down in 5 minutes.’ Even though the kid used completely different language, the message was communicated accurately. If the kid accidentally says 10 minutes instead of 5, there would still be no real breakdown in communication as the error is negligible. A major error, like saying instead 5 hours, would need to be corrected (2 Sam. 7).
This view allows for minor errors and discrepancies in Scripture, it allows for editorial modifications and literary borrowing, it resolves many issues of authorship, but still maintains a high degree of accuracy. The Nugget Inspiration view is definitionally incompatible with the Protestant Epistemic Model while the Imprint/Verbal Inspiration view is just bad and should be discarded.