In What Ways is God the Foundation for all Knowledge?

According to a Christian worldview, God is the foundation of all knowledge simply because God is the ultimate foundation for everything in the most general sense. God is a maximally perfect being and therefore is perfect in knowledge: God knows infallibly and comprehensively every truth that there is to know (Ps. 139:1–16; Isa. 44:6–7; Isa: 46:8–11; Heb. 4:13). Furthermore, God is the creator and sustainer of everything else, including human beings and any other creatures (e.g., angels) who have the capacity for knowledge (Gen. 1:1, 27; Heb. 1:1–3; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11). In other words, our knowledge—like everything else we possess—is a gift from God, and all human knowledge is derivative of divine knowledge. As it has often been said, we have been created by God “to think God’s thoughts after him.” Although from our perspective we regularly discover “new truths” and extend our collective knowledge, human knowledge is never truly original in any absolute sense, but only reflective and reconstructive of God’s knowledge (and even then, in a very limited fashion).


Thus, we might say, the Christian worldview affirms a “revelational epistemology”: all human knowledge is ultimately dependent upon divine revelation. Put simply, we can know truth only because God has revealed truth to us—about himself, about ourselves, and about the world around us (scientific truths, historical truths, and so forth). Christian theologians have often distinguished between two basic forms of divine revelation:


1. Natural or general revelation, available to all human beings through the natural order of creation and the image of God in human nature. (Gen. 1:26-27; Ps. 19:1–6; Acts 14:15–17; Rom. 1:19–20; Rom. 2:14–15)

2. Supernatural or special revelation (“the word of God” or “the word of the Lord”) given to specific individuals or groups at various times in history through divinely appointed prophets and divinely inspired scriptures (Deut. 18:15–19; Deut. 30:11–14; Ps. 19:7–11; Ps. 119:105; Eph. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 1:1–2; 2 Pet. 1:16–21).


For the Christian, these two forms of revelation are complementary, and thus we should rely on both together as mutually dependent sources of knowledge. Indeed, even non-Christians who do not acknowledge the God of the Bible are nevertheless unwittingly dependent on divine revelation for their knowledge of the world, just as they depend on God for their very life and existence (Acts 17:24–28; Rom. 11:36).


Everything stated above about the relationship between God and human knowledge has been drawn from Scripture, and thus will be accepted only by those who already recognize the authority of Scripture. Even so, one can also argue philosophically, without direct appeal to the Bible, for the idea that all human knowledge depends upon God. In what follows, I’ll outline two such arguments.


Consider first that knowledge depends on truth. One can only know the truth if there is a truth to know! But what is a truth? A truth is simply a true proposition, where a proposition is an entity that represents how things are in the world. Propositions can be expressed in language (e.g., written on a page or spoken as audible words) but the propositions themselves are independent of human language, because one and the same proposition can be expressed in multiple languages (e.g., “The sky is blue” and “El cielo es azul” express one and the same proposition). Propositions are real, but they are not physical things. In fact, it turns out that propositions have the same kind of features as thoughts. But propositions cannot be merely human thoughts because there are truths (i.e., true propositions) that are independent of human beings (e.g., logical truths, mathematical truths, and truths about the physical laws of the cosmos). Indeed, had humans never existed, there would still be innumerable truths about the world—including the truth that humans don’t exist! But if propositions are not human thoughts, whose thoughts could they be? One answer immediately suggests itself: God’s thoughts. Since God is a transcendent, immaterial, infinite, eternal, necessarily existent being, the mind of God is perfectly suited to serve as the metaphysical ground of all truths. For this reason, a number of Christian philosophers have followed the lead of St. Augustine (354–430) in arguing that truths are ultimately just divine thoughts. On this view, it is not merely the case that whatever God believes is true; rather, truth just is whatever God believes. Thus, human knowledge entails “thinking God’s thoughts after him” in the deepest sense.


There are other ways to defend the claim that human knowledge depends on God. For example, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has defended an analysis of knowledge according to which a true belief counts as knowledge only if it is produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties. However, as Plantinga points out, the notion of “proper function” implies some kind of “design plan” for our cognitive faculties, which in turn implies a designer of those cognitive faculties. Obviously, this account of knowledge fits far better with a theistic worldview than a naturalistic worldview, since if naturalism were true, our cognitive faculties would not be the product of design or purpose in any literal sense. (Naturalism is essentially the view that only the physical universe exists and that all living organisms, including human beings, are the unintended outcome of mindless, undirected evolutionary processes.)


When we reflect on the remarkably powerful intellectual faculties that we possess, and the wide range of complex, high-level knowledge we have been able to acquire about ourselves and the universe we inhabit, it’s hard to see how these features and accomplishments could be credited to naturalistic evolutionary processes that are geared exclusively towards biological survival and reproduction. (Cockroaches survive and reproduce remarkably effectively without the capacity to compose symphonies or solve quadratic equations.) On the other hand, if there is a God who created us in his image, and if truth itself is an attribute of God, then it is not at all surprising that we would have the capacities for reason and knowledge that we do in fact have: a capacity not only to know ourselves and the created world around us, but above all to know the Creator himself.

 

James N. Anderson, Ph.D. is Carl W. McMurray Professor of Theology and Philosophy and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, his scholarly interests primarily lie in philosophical theology, religious epistemology, Cornelius Van Til, and Christian apologetics.


Professor Anderson's Recommended Further Reading on the Topic:

Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000)


James N. Anderson, “Truth, Error, and Knowing,” The Gospel Coalition.


James N. Anderson & Greg Welty, “The Lord of Noncontradiction: An Argument for God from Logic,” Philosophia Christi 13:2 (2011).