What Role Does Epistemology Play in Theological Method?

In Christian theology, an exegetical interpretation of the biblical texts (and the study of various hermeneutical theories) is vital to the very the nature, task, and purpose of theology itself. However, both exegesis and theology is dependent on a theologian’s overall epistemology. Thus, epistemology is, essentially, the foundation of every theological method.

From a methodological perspective, epistemology attempts to answer what exactly theologians are doing when they attempt to know something and what exactly do they know when they do it. However, depending on one’s theory or philosophy of epistemology (e.g. foundationalist vs. postfoundationalist), the answer to each of these questions is significantly different. For instance, the theologian’s task involves gathering relevant data (scriptural and otherwise) for research and investigation of a particular doctrine regarding the nature and actions of God. Yet this data requires interpretation in order to comprehend its meaning and significance.

Whereas a foundationalist epistemology may attempt to understand information according to its historical-grammatical context and authorial intent (believing there is only one meaning and, therefore, only one proper interpretation), a postfoundationalist epistemology will likely approach the material in a dialectical manner, emphasizing the socio-political and cultural conditioning of both the author and the reader. In either case, one’s epistemology dictates how a person will view and interpret the relevant theological data, as well as the kinds of concepts used to express and appropriate theological meaning (such as with symbols, narratives, and metaphors).

Likewise, epistemology also influences how theologians catalogue source material. In other words, while all (or most) Christian theologians recognize the authority of Scripture and (to some extent) church tradition, how they understand and employ the concept of authority differs. For example, a foundationalist epistemology may view Scripture’s authority as ultimate, presuming both the Bible’s divine origin and infallible (even inerrant) quality. This type of epistemology tends to result in a theological method that attempts to extract all the relevant data on a particular subject in order to articulate, expound, systematize, communicate, and (finally) apply propositional truth-claims about God that are universally valid for all people at all times.

A postfoundationalist epistemology, on the other hand, may recognize the existential and dialectical nature of Scripture’s content as authoritative, believing that Scripture’s infallible quality rests solely in the divine’s accommodation to particular human cultures, languages, and conceptual frameworks. This type of epistemology tends to result in a theological method that emphasizes the historical and experiential situatedness of biblical truth-claims, which in turn provides justification for accommodating doctrine to local cultures according to their contemporary socio-political and linguistic situation.

Epistemology’s role in theological method also establishes which sources ought to be consulted, as well as which of those sources (if any) should submit to the other reference material. More rationalistic epistemologies will prioritize the use of logical argumentation, demanding that all theological pronouncements cohere to autonomous reason, whereas more fideistic epistemologies will prioritize the use of denominational, creedal, and revelatory information (sometimes to the deliberate exclusion of reason). A purely naturalistic epistemology, which may view theology solely as a scholastic discipline, will prioritize the use of social-scientific models, which then creates a method that is ultimately etic in its approach, etiological in its purposes, and critical in its conclusions.

Ultimately, the role epistemology plays in theological method is in how theologians come to believe something to be true when they set out to study God or engage in a discourse about the divine. It shapes how they identify, categorize, value, and interpret different theological sources, as well as shapes the amount of certitude placed on the “knowledge” obtained from these sources. Epistemology impacts the very foundation of methodological approaches to theology, oftentimes presenting a distinction between so-called “scientific knowledge” and metaphysical speculation. Epistemology’s role in theological method helps theologians articulate to what extent and by what criteria doctrinal pronouncements should cohere with different epistemic sources.

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