Over Christmas my brother-in-law, who is a fellow pastor, wanted to have a conversation about approaches to God – specifically as it related to epistemology (how we know what we know).

Although we both went to the same Bible college more then 20 years ago, our paths have headed in different directions and our hope was to compare notes and see where some common ground might be found for future conversations about ministry and christian spirituality.

 I thought it would be fun to throw out my initial schematic here and ask for some help in refining / overhauling it. 

I started with 4 basic historic approaches and then added a layer where each of the 4 approaches had 2 directions. Each approach has the possibility of starting with the notion of ‘god’ and then working out to the concept or starting with the concept and working toward the notion of god.


 4 Approaches pic

  •  Ethics has been a popular approach in the past. It is not as popular after the events of the 20th century (WWII, global pluralism and post-modern theory being 3 reasons why).

The problem here seems to be that starting with ‘god’ does not inherently result in clear ethics. In fact, those who have attempted to take the ethics approach often run into the problem that the two don’t necessarily equate. It is obvious that those who believe in ‘god’ are not more ethical than those who don’t believe in that same god or any god for that matter.

To make matters worse, starting with ethics (the outside-in direction) has a tough time getting all the way to ‘god’ by trying to equate ethics with evidence that there is a god. While you can see that the ethics and belief in god may have some overlap, it is not the most efficient of effective approach and thus it has fallen out of favor.

  • Revelation is a tried-and-true approach historically. Protestants of almost every stripe love this approach. From fundamentalist to fans of Karl Barth feast on a steady diet of the revelation approach.

That God reveals god’s-self in creation, in history, in scripture and in experience is a staple of the christian religion. The problem is that there is often a gap. If you start with what is revealed you might not make it all the way to God… and likewise, if you start with God it can be tough to make it all the way out to what is revealed. The problems come in things like Biblical (historic) criticism, modern science and the pesky pluralism of the post-colonial era.

  • Reductive approaches are perhaps the post problematic. We are haunted in late modernity by this shadow of foundationalism. As we are all aware, the scientific reductionism of the New Atheists is just the flip-side of the coin from fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. If you start out there, you never make it in to God. If you start with God, you never make it all the way out there.

This approach has left us with a nasty enlightenment hangover and many (if not most) people are weary of the contentious and often combative result of this attempt of making your way in the world.

  • Linguistic approaches (I include the hermeneutical crowd in this) seem to me the most promising in the 21st century. The problem, however, is that they can often be so different from classic or historic approaches that the uninitiated have a difficult time even recognizing them as the same christianity one is trying to engage.

Take for instance the much debated sentences of Jack Caputo. What does it even mean that God does not exist but that God insists? Is god just a concept of our highest good? And how does one fend off the Feuerbach critique that religion is nothing more than a human projection by talking about ‘language games’?

Does god ontologically exist or not? Is the linguistic approach just a fancy way of skirting the tricky questions about what we can know beyond the physical world? Most importantly, for the epistemology question that we were originally attempting to get setup, how do you even more forward if linguistics/hermeneutics are your preferred entry point?

So that is my “4 Approaches – 2 Directions” schematic. It lead to a fruitful conversation even while it clearly needed some adjustments.

I would welcome your thoughts, questions, concerns, revisions, suggestions and innovations. 

p.s. I’m going to start linking to the Kindle version of Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms at the bottom of posts like this. It is only $5 and it is so helpful new readers of this blog.

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