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[Common Places]: Reading Notes: Theological Epistemology

Categories Common Places

Open book on wooden deckOne feature that will appear regularly this year will be a monthly series entitled Reading Notes. In these posts, editors and contributors will lead readers to significant literature related thematically to our other ongoing series. This month Kevin Vanhoozer introduces classical and contemporary literature related to theological epistemology as a fitting conclusion to our engagement of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project (see here).


Epistemology studies the nature, method, sources, and norms of knowledge. Theological epistemology thinks on these things in relation to the knowledge of God. The qualifier “theological” highlights a key question: is the knowledge of God a mere subset of other kinds of knowledge (i.e., general epistemology), or does theological epistemology refer to a way of knowing God, and perhaps other things as well, informed from the start by particular theological concerns, in which case it becomes an instance of “special” epistemology (as in Esther L. Meek’s Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology)? Three considerations favor this latter option: first, theology privileges particular sources of knowledge, not simply reason and experience but also Scripture and tradition; second, theology emphasizes the necessity of God’s own self-revelation and, thus, the gift-like nature of our knowledge of God; third, as Aristotle knew, the subject matter must in some measure dictate the manner in which it is known.

Augustine’s dense treatise On the Trinity makes several bold moves in the direction of a properly theological epistemology, one that spells out the epistemological significance of particular doctrinal topics. Augustine’s analysis of the Trinity allows him to provide a distinct (and surprising) theological understanding of the “subject” and “object” of knowledge: the knowing human subject becomes the object of God’s self-revelation; the “object” of knowledge, God, is known and loved through God (i.e., in Christ through the Holy Spirit). In Augustine’s theological epistemology, then, God is the ultimate knowing subject who shares his self-knowledge with the human knowing subject/object via a personal (i.e., covenantal) relation, namely, the Holy Spirit as bond of love.

Augustine also explores the epistemological consequences of sin: if the goal of knowledge of God is the vision of the triune God, the Spirit needs to convert resistant hearts. Love and knowledge therefore go hand in hand, for knowing God is ultimately a matter of interpersonal communion. (Augustine got there long before the postmodern call to connect knowledge of God with love of others, as in Justin Thacker’s Postmodernism and the Ethics of Theological Knowledge.) A valuable secondary source is Luigi Gioia’s The Theological Epistemology of Augustine’s De Trinitate, which will be even more helpful when OUP releases it in paperback this August.

The Reformed tradition is an important shaft in the mine of theological epistemology that has repeatedly struck gold. Calvin begins the Institutes of the Christian Religion with his celebrated thesis associating the knowledge of God and self-knowledge. (George Ille pursues this pairing in his Between Vision and Obedience: Rethinking Theological Epistemology, tracing a view of rationality that follows the drama of God’s engagement with the world.) The first two books of the Institutes deal with the knowledge of God the creator and God the redeemer respectively, and Calvin proceeds quickly from the created and fallen status of our knowledge of God to what truly interests him, namely, the corrective lens of Scripture as an instrument of the Spirit’s illumining testimony. Interested readers might also consult B. B. Warfield’s 1909 essay, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” or the more recent monographs by Edward Dowey (Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology) and/or T. H. L. Parker (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Study in the Theology of John Calvin).

Two more recent Reformed treatments deserve mention. John Frame follows Calvin in making the knowledge of God a theme in its own right in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. This book treats the traditional loci of epistemology—objects, justification, and methods of knowledge—under the rubric of God’s covenant lordship. He also one-ups Calvin in suggesting that knowledge of God, self, and world are interdependent, and in a sense identical (a signature move of Frame’s tri-perspectivalism). Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief displays the rigor for which he is rightly celebrated as an analytic philosopher yet employs the distinctly theological notion of testimony given by the Holy Spirit (a distilled version of the argument is available in Plantinga’s much shorter Knowledge and Christian Belief). Mats Wahlberg’s Revelation as Testimony similarly argues that knowledge of God is mainly testimonial, and that God himself, Word and Spirit, is the author of this testimony.

No survey of theological epistemology would be complete without mentioning Karl Barth, whose Church Dogmatics I/1 and Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum pursue with a theological vengeance Aristotle’s insight about the manner of knowing approximating the subject matter to be known: God makes God known through God. This is theological epistemology all the way down. Martin Westerholm’s The Ordering of the Christian Mind: Karl Barth and Theological Rationality offers a penetrating analysis of theological reasoning, in particular, how human creatures come to know the truth of their Creator without reducing God to the level of other objects in creation (i.e., idols) by taking the standpoint not of an autonomous knowing subject but, rather, of an eschatological subject made new in Christ. It repays careful study, as does Kevin Diller’s Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response, a state-of-the-art discussion that weds Barth’s view of revelation with Plantinga’s view of basic beliefs. The result: a “theo-foundationalist” approach in which the Spirit enables our capacity to know the Father through the Son. This is a theological epistemology that (in this reviewer’s opinion) also retrieves something very much like Augustine’s original insight that human knowledge is a matter of right participation in the triune economy of self-communication.

Theological epistemology is not something one does “before” doing theology. It is not a method for knowing God but a way of thinking about methods of knowing in light of God’s triune self-revelation. John Webster’s The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason shines further light on these matters.

Let me conclude by alerting interested parties to the forthcoming publication of William J. Abraham and Frederick D. Aquino, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology. This promises to be a comprehensive survey of general and special (i.e., theologically distinct) epistemic concepts, historical figures, and contemporary approaches to the question of how we know God—in short, a potential game-changer whose aim is to establish the epistemology of theology as a new sub-discipline in its own right.


Kevin J. Vanhoozer is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received his PhD from Cambridge University and is the author of ten books, including Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine and Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Reading Notes, offers annotated bibliographic suggestions regarding classical and contemporary works in systematic theology.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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