Knowledge and Testimony

We propose, rather, that reliance on testimony is fundamental to knowing about reality in general – as fundamental as perception, memory, inference, and so on. (Provan, Long, Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.)

knowingThis book is easily the best thing that I’ve read so far at college. It starts with a literature review of the current state of thinking in the area of Biblical History. Not the most engaging way to draw in the general reader but I was impressed with the rigor and quality of the writing style, as well as a sense of authorial humility that isn’t often found in modern work (we are far to casual with our use of the personal pronoun in scholarly writing – probably cause everyone’s been blogging).

The authors then turn to a brief history of historiography in general, looking at the rise of the ‘scientific’ method in historiography and its effects on our belief in what we can know of the past. After showing the great failure of the ‘scientific’ approach, not merely in history but in the broad question of ‘how we know’, the authors state that what is needed is a brand new approach to epistemology. At this point I would expect the next sentence to read something like, “but we don’t have time for that now”. Generally when you’re meant to be writing a history of Israel, you don’t just decide to go off on a tangent which involves the fundamental questions of human knowledge.
But I was wonderfully disappointed…
Instead the authors turn to the idea of Testimony, that is, belief in the witness of others, as a fundamental element of knowing anything at all. This bears serious thinking about.
In favour is the fact that our actual experience of life bears this out, as children we rely on the words of our parents, as adults, the vast majority of things that we claim to know are really things we have learned from others. We rely on testimony. We are not (and never were) islands of dispassionate, empirical investigation. Our knowledge is the weaving together of testimonies about our world.
Against the theory is the fact that testimony is a complex concept. There are any number of more basic concepts that need to be explained which lie behind testimony – right down to the mechanics of communication and truth.
But just maybe, this analytical emphasis (the breaking down of complexities) is what got us into trouble with our theories of knowledge in the first place. We don’t think from the simple to the complex. In our experience, Complex ideas don’t rest on simple ones (though they do have this logical relation). Rather, our complex and simple ideas are received, and then perceived to be such through their relationship to each other within the whole structure of our knowledge.

Now, I can see through my screen that you’ve glazed over. (sorry Trisho).
What it boils down to is this: we sometimes feel that if the sole basis for believing something is because we’ve been told, we’re on shaky ground. That’s what might be called ‘blind faith’. Our ‘scientific’ world view tells us that this kind of knowing should be subordinate to ‘real’ knowledge – the kind tested by experiment and experience. But the truth is: trusting another person’s story is fundamental to knowing anything – there isn’t a knowledge more ‘real’ than this.
This is a profound insight when it comes to our thinking about the Bible as the story of the human witnesses to the revealing of God. They tell us their testimony, and we trust their testimony. This is not a secondary, weak, kind of knowledge.

It’s fundamental to what it means to be Human and to know.


3 thoughts on “Knowledge and Testimony

  1. Gosh darn it Dan, here I was this morning thinking about categorisation (something I actually know something about), communication, and knowledge just this morning. I was pondering our difficulties with communication as humans given the subjective nature of the way categorisation works in our brains. I was even considering writing a blog post about it. And now I find that you've beaten me to it once again.

    I was even going to be witty and cynical.

    Ah well, perhaps I can still write something about the 'mechanics of communication and truth.' It may even help me pin down this PhD chapter I'm trying to knock over.

    My petty jealousies of your intellectual prowess aside, I find the idea of testimony as the basis of epistemology compelling. I've heard a few critiques of epistemology showing the short-comings of the modern and post-modern views. But so far, Christian thinkers don't really seem to have come up with a comprehensive alternative. This has important implications for apologetics.

    Currently, one common apologetic standard seems to follow a History + C.S. Lewis approach (I've used it myself):

    1. We assume historical investigation is a valid way of knowing something.
    2. Since the gospels are historical documents, we can investigate them from a historical perspective.
    3. This presents us with a Jesus who is paradoxical: he said many wise things, and did many nice things, yet he claimed to be God incarnate, and many people claim he rose from the dead.
    4. This means Jesus was either Liar (improbable), Lunatic (equally improbable), or Lord (still hard to believe, but the best option).

    If we question historical investigation as a valid way of knowing, then the whole construct falls down. Jesus can be dismissed as a myth, or simply a narrative construct used by The Establishment to maintain its power over people. So it seems that Provan et al.'s decision to work on epistemology of Testimony is a very good one.

    You are right though, the mechanics do warrant further investigation.


  2. I'd be fascintated to read your thoughts on the mechanics of categorisation and knowledge/truth. If you'd be willing, I'd love to reproduce all or part of what ever you write here as a way of fleshing out the series.

    Regarding apologetics:
    I'm a little disenchanted with the whole apologetic enterprise for reasons that will be apparent in other posts. I have more thinking to do on the subject…
    However, I know for a fact that I have used the exact argument that you sketched out above. And I agree, it all depends on the validity of historical knowledge.
    Apologetics aside, the questions for Christians run deep – it is not merely 'how can we demonstrate the rationality and credibility of our claims about Jesus', rather, testimony is the fundamental form of our knowledge of God. God testifies about himself to us and by doing so gives us knowledge of himself. This gives rise to 2 questions:
    1st. Is testimony (in general) a valid knowledge? (we've been arguing that it is, more than that it is foundational to knowledge.)
    2nd. Is this testimony trustworthy? Even if we accept the validity of testimony-as-knowledge, we are not so naive as to think that all testimony gives knowledge of the truth. There are lying witnesses. Knowledge-as-testimony doesn't side-step the issues of truth. The Apologetic questions aren't really solved, just shuffled about…

    hmm, I think I've perplexed myself…


  3. What do you mean when you say "I’m a little disenchanted with the whole apologetic enterprise for reasons that will be apparent in other posts"? Perhaps I'm not reading between the lines clearly enough, and need everything spelled out for me. You mention that you have more thinking to do on the subject, so I guess I will have to wait until you do so and write it down.

    I am writing down some thoughts on categorisation, communication difficulties and knowledge. I hope to publish them on my blog first as a series of posts. It will be way too long to put in a single entry.


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