Obedience as Epistemology
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16).
“Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).
Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. How do we gather information? Observation? Genetic encoding? Testimony? How do we know that the earth revolves around the sun? Scientists have observed the earth’s revolution. How do babies learn how to walk and talk? They are programmed with the information necessary to begin learning those tasks. How do we know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? Through revelation. Obviously, we weren’t there on the third day, so we didn’t observe the resurrection. People aren’t born into the world with the instinctual belief that Jesus, once dead, was raised to life. We had to be told. How were we told? We learned about Jesus’ resurrection through Scripture, through the testimony of our forebears in the faith. We have been presented with claims about who Jesus was, and we are forced to make decisions based on those claims.
Now, Enlightenment rationality says that, epistemologically, the way to make those decisions is to weigh the evidence of those claims in a reasonable manner. Did the disciples observe the resurrection? Were the disciples trustworthy? How were their claims received by those to whom they were immediately addressed? The bottom line is: Can you marshal enough rational evidence to support the claim that Jesus was raised? After weighing the arguments, if you find them to be more true than not, you make a decision to believe.
Much of Christian apologetics (the discipline concerned with the defense of the faith) has as its aim the compilation of rational arguments for everything from the existence of God to a literal seven day creation. What people need to make better decisions, so the thinking goes, is more information. And while it is true that often more information gives us better ground upon which to base decisions, it is not true that we could make every decision if only we were given enough information. It is possible to put off making any decision, because one is holding out for more information. It is a fallacy to think that is necessary or possible (or even desirable, for that matter) to have all the information one needs to make every decision.
The church has played into this whole Enlightenment epistemology by trying to convince people to believe before they commit. We seem to think that if we could just find better arguments, we could win the world. If Bonhoeffer is right, however, it is impossible to believe—even if you have all the evidence in the world—prior to committing yourself. Bonhoeffer went on to write: “You can only know it and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”
How can you be sure Jesus was raised from the dead, or that the Christian life is the goal toward which life is directed? Until you’re willing to postpone your need to have it all worked out before you commit, you can’t.