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The Christian’s foundation for all knowledge

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Note: This article is part of the ‘Principles Project,’ a list of principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird a Christian view of economics, liberty, and virtue. Click here to read the introduction and other posts in this series.

The Principle: #2 — God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge.

The Explanation: “Christianity,” as Charles Colson once claimed, “is the explanation for everything.” As Tom Gilson explains, “Of course [Colson] did not mean that everything is explained in the Bible, but that the Bible reveals the framework of truth overarching all of reality. To think otherwise is to think other than Christianly.”

To say that God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge is to claim that Scripture must be the underlying basis or principle through which facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education are ultimately interpreted. This is the basis for “thinking Christianly.”

The claims of Christianity, as revealed in the Bible, help us to interpret “everything”, i.e., all of reality. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Christians should therefore interpret such areas of life as politics, economics, and other fields of social thought through the lens of Scripture.

But how do we do that? Here are three basic principles that should guide us in this process:

Recognize that social thought is rooted in religious belief — A belief is a religious belief, as philosopher Roy Clouser usefully defines the term, provided that: 1) It is a belief in something(s) or other as divine, or (2) It is a belief concerning how humans come to stand in relation to the divine.

Different traditions, religions, and belief systems may disagree about what or who has divine status, but they all agree that something has such a status. A theist, for instance, will say that the divine is God while a materialist will claim that matter is what fills the category of divine. Therefore, if we examine our theories in enough detail, we discover that at a deeper level we’re not agreeing on what the object is that we’re talking about. Our explanations and theories about social phenomena will vary depending on what is presupposed as the ultimate explainer. And the ultimate explainer can only be the reality that has divine status.

Even those who might quibble with the novel definition cannot deny that this is a universal set of beliefs. Whether the subject is Yahweh, Zeus, the Great Pumpkin, or the physical cosmos, everyone has a belief about the “divine” and man’s relation to such an entity. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, as Bob Dylan said, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

This is not to say that the only worthy theories are those produced by Christians. In his infinite wisdom, God saw fit to spread the gifts of reason and science among all of the mankind. But as generally useful as common grace might be, it can only carry us so far. We need Scripture to help us clearly interpret social thought.

Recognize that without the Bible as the foundation, knowledge becomes reductionist — Whereas the Christian believes that all aspects of reality (physical, social, biological, spatial, physical, etc.) are dependent upon God’s sustaining power and can therefore be interdependent, the unregenerate thinker will eventually claim that one aspect of reality is identical with or depends on another.

Examine any theory from the social or natural sciences that were later discredited and you will find a common thread: they all reduce at least one aspect of reality to another and treat one aspect as primary. The problem with this, as Clouser notes, is that it assigns some part of creation the role of lawgiver to creation. (A prime example is how Marxism attributes “modes of production” as the ultimate cause of all social change.) Because the non-theist denies a role for a self-existent creator and sustainer, they must invoke some aspect of creation to perform those essential functions.

When Christians do not ground social thought in Scripture, we tend to fall for one of these reductionist beliefs. It’s similar to a point made by John Maynard Keynes: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Recognize that the Bible provides rules for making rules — The process of founding social thought on the Bible is not as straightforward as we might wish. We cannot merely turn to Scripture to determine what political or economic policies to adopt, for the Bible is not an encyclopedia of social science theory (see principle #2C). Instead, we more often find objective principles for living that we must apply to our own subjective context.

This is similar to the way judges apply legal principles to individual cases. As Jonathan Leeman says in his book, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age:

When it comes to thinking about politics, the Bible is less like a book of case law and more like a constitution. A constitution does not provide a country with the rules of daily life. It provides rules for making the rules. The Bible does not tell us what to do on trade policy, carbon dioxide emissions, and public education. But it does tell us that whatever we do in these domains will be measured by the principles of righteousness and justice explicitly established in the Bible.

Even when we agree on the “rules for making rules” there will be room for disagreement among Christians about how to apply and interpret them. But we should work to ensure that our policy preferences are truly rooted in the Bible and not just “baptized” with religious language to make them more palatable.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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