Samuel V. Adams in The Reality of God and Historical Method has a section on “Paul’s Epistemology”. Epistemology is the philosophical attempt to answer the question of how we know what we know. The idea of Paul’s epistemology struck me as very odd. But I did a web search and found some other articles on the topic.
The reason this topic seemed odd to me is that Paul was a community founder and letter writer who didn’t do strict philosophical reflection. Paul certainly thought he knew something–something astoundingly important. But he knew it because God had revealed it to him in at least one appearance of the risen Christ. He also may have counted other visions and ecstatic experiences as revelations. But my understanding of epistemology is that it is about general human knowledge. In other words, it is about how people in general can know things.
Did Paul really think that other people could know things the same way he did? I, who have never experienced an appearance of the risen Christ and who would write off a vision or ecstatic experience as subjective and not as revelatory, do not know things the way Paul did.
The emphasis on epistemology in modern philosophy seems to me unhealthy. Descartes wanted to know how he could know his own existence. So he came up with “I think, therefore I am” –as though he existed as an isolated thinking individual unconnected to a mass of other bodies and minds. Gabriel Marcel was more on target with his “I participate, therefore I am.” In other words, knowledge is given with life and involvement.
But the way we know is the point Adams wants to bring up over against N. T. Wright. Wright has an epistemology based on critical realism. Adams wants to do a Paul-based critique of Wright’s method of knowing things, especially historical things. This is fair because Adams can quote Wright as saying in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God that central to Paul’s thought is “an epistemological revolution” (p. 242).
Adams agrees with this emphasis, but thinks it does not go far enough. Epistemology is not just at the heart of Paul’s theology, it totally determines Paul’s theology.
Adams says that Wright derives from Paul an “epistemology of love.” As best I understand it, this means first that God knows us perfectly and loves us. Secondly, it means that when we come to know this through Christ our reality changes.
Adams thinks Wright’s idea that our existing reality is renewed is too tame a way to put it. For Adams the new creation in Christ does not just renew our view of existing reality, it completely transforms it.
So the argument between them seems to be about Paul’s idea of “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15). Wright thinks it builds on something old. Adams sees it as a totally new reality. Adams says that for Wright God gives us new information on top of old in Christ. Adams thinks the new utterly remakes the old.
For history this means that Wright has a place to seethe previous history of God, especially with Israel, as revelatory. For Adams the only revelation is in Christ. This enables us to reinterpret history, but it does not allow for that history to give us anything independent of Christ.
Frankly I still don’t get Adams’ viewpoint. Paul based his idea of a new creation on Isaiah 65:17 where the context is the end of the Babylonian exile (Isaiah 43:19). New creation is an exaggerated way of referring to a new historical situation.
Adams does not believe in revelation in history. Adams and Wright both think Paul’s thought comes from an “epistemological revolution”. I doubt this. It puts too much emphasis on knowledge. Mystery religions and Gnosticism were into special ways of knowing. But was Paul?
I do believe that God reveals himself in history (and creation) in a way that Adams would not like. Maybe Wright would not like it either. But I will have to defend myself in another post.