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Reading Scripture Philosophically? A Study of John 20:24-29

Thomas feeling the wound on Jesus' side

The image above is of a painting called The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Painted in 1601-1602 by the famous Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas beautifully illustrates the words of John 20:27 (NASB):

"Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, 'Place your finger here, and see My hands; and take your hand and put it into My side; and do not continue in disbelief, but be a believer.'"

Having touched the risen Lord, Thomas abandoned his initial unbelief and proclaimed, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28)! The painting portrays in a stark realism the tangibility of that moment when Thomas reached out, having seen Jesus brutally executed, and felt the living body and warmth of His Lord. Not only that, but also the scars of the wounds that He had received, which were still present, even though Jesus had been raised from the dead. You can see on Thomas's face his utter bewilderment and amazement. Jesus had been raised from the dead, and now everything would be different.

From the beginning of the Christian faith, the reality of Christ has always been grounded on experience. In contemporary evangelicalism, much emphasis is placed on one's testimony, which is the story of one's conversion to Christianity. Typically, a testimony includes an encounter with God in Christ that transforms the person into a Christ-follower, affecting everything about him or her. I have told my own testimony on this blog. The practice of telling one's testimony as a way of showing others the way to Christ goes all the way back to Augustine in his book, Confessions, and a recent example can be found in C.S. Lewis's book, Surprised by Joy.

But in another important sense, the Christian faith is grounded on the experience of the apostles. Having seen the risen Lord, the apostles were commissioned by Jesus to go out and make more disciples. Matthew 28:16-20, which is called the Great Commission, is the record of Jesus sending the disciples out to "make disciples of all the nations" (v. 19). Having experienced appearances of Jesus, risen from the dead, they could now recount that experience in their presentation of the gospel, thereby persuading others to believe in Christ for salvation. Thus, in the book of Acts, which is Luke's record of the ministry of the apostles in the beginning of the Christian church's history, we find apostles like Peter referring to their experiences as evidence that Jesus is the Christ and Son of the living God.

Experience, then, has always been seen as a strong evidential basis for believing the claims of the Christian faith, namely, that Jesus is who He claimed to be, died, and rose from the dead for our salvation, that we may have the forgiveness of sins and peace and reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. But how are we to think of this experience and how it provides an evidential basis for believing in Jesus Christ? Answering this question will quickly take us into philosophical territories that some Christians might find troubling or even objectionable.

During the Spring 2022 semester here at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I took a class in analytic theology, which is an emerging field in theology that applies insights and tools from analytic philosophy in the construction of a theological framework. Analytic theology is a controversial field at the cutting edge of theological thought, and some Christians think that to even apply philosophical tools and terms to theology is improper. In that class, my final paper was a critique of the project of formulating a particular epistemological framework, called "postfoundationalism," to Christian theology. Instead of adopting a postfoundationalist epistemology, I argued that Christians ought to adopt what I called "generic Christian foundationalism" as a more theologically acceptable alternative.

The thesis of that paper is not as important for this blog post as what I found as I was researching and writing the paper. In that paper, in a single footnote, I suggested that John 20:24-29 could be more plausibly interpreted according to generic Christian foundationalism rather than postfoundationalism. This, for me, opened a can of worms, so to speak. It raised what, to me as a Christian philosopher, appeared to be a significant question: Can Scripture be read and interpreted philosophically?

This is a fascinating question about which there is much discussion and disagreement among Christians, both historically and today. For instance, writing in about the third century A.D., the church father, Tertullian, made this famous statement (Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 7):

"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

The cities are clearly symbolic for two ways of thought: one philosophical and one biblical. In the context surrounding this question, Tertullian contrasts the complex philosophical systems of Greco-Roman philosophy, which had served to corrupt Christian witness by inviting unbiblical claims into Christian theology, with the simplicity of the faith delivered to us by the apostles. In fact, just below this question, Tertullian is much clearer in this opposition (emphasis is mine):

"Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides."

Consider how starkly Tertullian draws this contrast. He is not vague in the slightest. For him, Christians should not engage in any speculation beyond the claims of the "rule of faith" (e.g., what one can find in the Apostles' Creed). For this reason, Tertullian is often cited as an example of a anti-philosophical Christian thinker.

Other Christian thinkers have thought of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy differently. For instance, Justin Martyr represents a quite favorable view of philosophy from the church fathers, as is demonstrated by his Dialogue with Trypho. In this work, Justin Martyr attempts to convince a Jew, named Trypho, to adopt Christianity, in part, by sharing his conversion story. Justin had adopted Platonism as a young man and assumed through it to have become wise. Later, however, having adopted Christianity, he considers himself to have found the true philosophy. Consider this statement from Chapter VIII of his letter:

"When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher."

Justin evidently sees the Christian faith as one philosophy among many in the Greco-Roman world. Thus, he concerns himself in the Dialogue with showing Trypho that the Christian faith is the only true and satisfying philosophy. (Note that in the Greco-Roman world of Justin's time, "philosophy" denoted a way of living the good life, rather than mere speculative theory. It also contained a good dose of speculative theory, nonetheless.) Other examples of favorableness toward philosophy abound in the history of the church, from Boethius to Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, and others.

Today, Christians tend to divide along these lines concerning the place of philosophy in our Christian faith. Some consider it to be an indispensable part of being a Christian, especially in the formulation of the Christian worldview (consider the philosophical richness of the ecumenical councils, such as the Nicene and other creeds). Others consider any philosophy to be an encroachment on the Christian worldview, something from the outside that improperly influences it, especially toward heresy. Evangelicals, especially, are wary of philosophy because they see it as diminishing the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Thus, in order to consider whether Scripture can be read philosophically, we must also consider the central position of Scripture in the Christian understanding of reality - not just our salvation, but everything else.

This post will be divided into three parts. First, I will discuss two views on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and how these views affect our understanding of the relationship between the Christian faith and philosophy. Second, I will analyze John 20:24-29 and consider whether it can be read as providing support for a position in contemporary epistemology called foundationalism. Third, in the conclusion, I will consider whether reading Scripture philosophically counts as a form of eisegesis. My main thesis is that, with limitations, Scripture can be read philosophically, as long as its proper place in formulating the Christian worldview is affirmed and maintained.

Two Views on the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture

For the sake of space, I must restrict this section to a brief discussion of what I covered in much more detail in a recent post titled, "Does Critical Race Theory Undermine the Sufficiency of Scripture?" If you want a more thorough treatment of this topic, I encourage you to look there. Though closely connected, the authority and sufficiency of Scripture denote two distinct claims about the Scripture's role in the Christian faith. Only by distinguishing these claims about Scripture can we, I would contend, understand properly its role in formulating a comprehensive Christian worldview (i.e., a worldview that takes into account all human knowledge and the data of all other fields of inquiry).

The authority of Scripture defines its central role in the life of the Christian. Because Scripture is inspired by God, its trustworthiness and truthfulness are guaranteed. Thus, human beings are held responsible for affirming what Scripture states is true. For Bible-affirming Christians, no other source has this place in their lives. Scripture is absolutely authoritative.

The sufficiency of Scripture defines its ability to deliver the truth to us on certain topics necessary for our salvation. Some readers will notice that this (somewhat crude) definition is limited in its scope. Not every proposition is necessary for salvation. Thus, there are some topics on which Scripture will not be sufficient, at least in the same way as it is on matters pertaining to human salvation. Though some Christians might initially balk at this claim, consider the fact that Scripture is not a calculus textbook. To trust in it to deliver to one truths about calculus is simply to misuse it. Reading a calculus textbook to learn about calculus, likewise, is not an abandonment of the sufficiency of Scripture. This is described as the proper domain of Scripture, that is, the domain of human knowledge over which it is sufficient. In the post mentioned above, I provided a more complete definition of the sufficiency of Scripture:

"The sufficiency of Scripture is the doctrine that the Word of God, which was inspired by God, is sufficient for all that mankind needs to know in order to know, love, honor, and serve God, including everything that mankind needs to know for salvation."

Two important qualifiers can be found in this definition. First, this definition entails that Scripture is not sufficient over every area of inquiry in the same way. It has a proper domain over which it is most directly sufficient, and to use it to gain knowledge outside of its domain (at the expense of other sources) would be to misuse it. Second, this definition entails that Scripture tells us what we need to know for salvation, not everything we could know, even within its proper domain. There is still mystery to be found in God's revelation, things God saw fit not to reveal in full, even if we'd like to know it.

For the sake of simplicity, I'll sum up Scripture's proper domain using the term, the Christian worldview. Scripture delivers to us everything that we need to know about the core of the Christian worldview. This includes everything needed to know, love, honor, and serve God. With this in mind, I presented two models for understanding how the content of Scripture is related to other things we might want to know - but things outside Scripture's proper domain. The first model is what I call the "Disconnected Islands Model":

The Disconnected Islands Model
Disconnected Islands Model

The Disconnected Islands Model isolates the content of Scripture from other areas of inquiry by viewing it in such a narrow way that it lacks relevance in those areas. Of course, Scripture will play a role in theology and practical matters, but it doesn't inform the humanities, science, or mathematics. Some Christians support this model as a way of avoiding some of the potentially troubling implications of, for instance, modern science; by making Scripture's domain narrow, one can reduce the chance that the data of other fields causes any doubts about its truth or reliability. Other Christians support this model as a way of ensuring the sufficiency of Scripture; if Scripture's domain is narrow, then Scripture is unaffected by the irrelevencies of these other domains. The downside is a severe lack of integration. Christians end up with a tunnel-vision kind of Christian faith that doesn't interact with the rest of reality as God made it. Rather, I support a different model, which I call the "Web Model":

The Web Model
Web Model

This model has lines connecting the proper domain of Scripture (in red) with other fields of inquiry (in blue). These lines represent the influence of Scripture on those areas of inquiry. The Web Model follows the evangelical axiom that "all truth is God's truth." That is, all of reality was created by God, and all truth reflects Him in some way because He is truth. For supporters of the Web Model, Scripture is authoritative in at least two senses. First, it is directly authoritative over its proper domain. That is, it is both sufficient and necessary for giving us all that we need to know for salvation and the core of the Christian worldview. Nothing else is necessary for this. The most unlearned person can be saved by knowing Scripture alone.

Second, Scripture is indirectly authoritative over other areas of inquiry, which lie outside its proper domain. This, of course, is oversimplistic as it stands. Of the other areas of inquiry, we will find areas over which Scripture has much direct authority (e.g., practical matters and theology) and areas over which Scripture seems to have little direct authority (e.g., calculus).

Scripture, however, has a central area of authority and influence on this model in two important ways. First, it is such that, where it has direct authority in matters pertaining to other areas of inquiry, it establishes those claims that Christians must believe. In psychology, for instance, psychological approaches that deny the reality of objective moral failure in favor of mere conditioning for accounting for human behavior is "off limits" for the Bible-believing Christians. Scripture clearly affirms that our evil-doing is volitional as a result of the effects of sin and the flesh, not a mere result of conditioning. Likewise, in philosophy, a postmodern stance, which denies the objectivity of truth, is "off limits," since Scripture clearly affirms that certain statements are objectively true and others objectively false.

Second, Scripture is such that it is the standard by which Christians are to judge whether their inquiries in other fields are on the right track. If my reasoning as a philosopher leads me to a claim that I discover is unbiblical, I must reject that claim, even if it seems that my reasoning was valid. Thus, on the Web Model, the authority of Scripture extends to every field of inquiry. Thus, it has relevance in those fields and is central to our formulation of a cohesive Christian worldview.

How does all of this affect our understanding of Scripture and philosophy? Tackling this topic in any detail is a challenging task because it takes us into the complexities of church history and the influences of the surrounding cultures in which Christians were converted. Historically, there has always been a degree of interaction between Christianity and philosophy. It cannot be missed in the ecumenical creeds of the Christian faith, which define orthodox belief for hundreds of millions of followers of Christ. Those formulations of Christian doctrine are inextricably linked to philosophical systems and concepts dominant in their day. Yet, at the same time, from the very beginning there have been Christians, like Tertullian, who argued (from a kind of appeal to the sufficiency of Scripture) that Scripture and philosophy have nothing in common and that one should not affect the other, lest we enter into heresy. Therefore, my comments must be brief here.

In short, opposition to any kind of interaction between Scripture and philosophy seem to me to be based on the Disconnected Islands Model, rather than the Web Model. Exemplars of both can be found in abundance in the history of the church. For the Disconnected Web Model, one can consider Tertullian and the Radical Reformers during the Reformation. For the Web Model, starting especially with Augustine, one can consider Thomas Aquinas (perhaps the greatest exemplar of this model), as well as many of the greats of Medieval Catholic theology (e.g., Anselm of Canterbury).

I support the Web Model because I believe it to be more consistent with the Christian doctrine of creation. Everything that exists other than God has God for its source of being and purpose. If this is true, then we discover something about God when we discover new species of animals, subatomic particles like quarks, the laws with which He made the universe, and the complex and elegant mathematical structure by which it operates. The Web Model allows us both the freedom to inquire into these subjects and the assurance of Scripture as our guide and foundation as we do so. Since "all truth is God's truth," the Christian can rejoice when truth is found in any field and see these discovies as opportunities to praise God the Creator. Likewise, when troubling data come in, data which seems at odds with biblica teaching, then the Web Model provides for us a way to address these troubling data without stubbornly sticking our heads in the sand. Scripture remains the foundational source for us, but we are free to discover all of God's truth.

Some might object at this point by citing Colossians 2:8 (NASB):

"See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception in accordance with human tradition, in accordance with the elementary principles of the world, rather than in accordance with Christ."

The text seems unambiguous for sure. Avoid philosophy. Here, however, it must be stressed that, if philosophy is understood in a broad sense to denote a kind of approach to the good life (the meaning it carried in the world in which Paul wrote this verse), then the Christian faith is a kind of philosophy. It spells out the good life and the means to achieving it. In context, then, Paul is objecting to the Greco-Roman philosohical systems, such as Stoicism or Platonism, in fashion in his day, as they present contrary systems that rely on "elementary principles," rather than Christ. That is, their foundation is created reality, rather than the Creator. The Christian faith, then, is the true philosophy grounded in the Creator who has revealed Himself through His divine incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In a sea of contrary alternatives, Jesus Christ is our proper foundation. In this sense, Paul is not rejecting the act of philosophizing (that is, contemplating the nature and being of the world, the meaning of knowledge, etc.) as such; rather, he rejects any philosophizing grounded in the wrong foundation. However, with the right foundation in Christ, we can come to truth and keep it in its proper place.

Therefore, my claim is that the authority and sufficiency of Scripture should not be a deterrent to pursuing philosophical study. Rather, Scripture should be the authoritative and sufficient basis on which we philosophize rightly. With the Web Model, we can see how this is to be done. Much of what we study in philosophy outside the proper domain of Scripture. Little, if anything, in Scripture is said about the existence of universals, validity of modus ponens, truth of trope nominalism, existence of abstract objects, how to resolve the internalism-externalism debate in epistemology, etc. But this does not mean that Scripture is irrelevant in these fields. Rather, careful Christian philosophers will find that Scripture remains relevant at every level of philosophical inquiry.

Its relevance lies in that its content has philosophical implications. This can be seen especially in the negative sense. For instance, Scripture assumes a view of truth that precludes any relativistic understanding of truth. It is because of the truth of its claims that every human being is held accountable for trusting in the Lord on their basis. The positive sense is more difficult. Can Scripture be shown to have established a philosophical claim or theory as more plausible? That is the question to which we now turn in studying John 20:24-29.

A Case Study for Reading Scripture Philosophically

John 20:24-29

Before we get into the text, I must discuss the context in which we will study it. As noted at the beginning of this post, I became interested in the question of reading Scripture philosophically as a result of a paper I had written in a class. In that paper, I was exploring a turn away from foundationalism as an epistemological theory among American theologians and some philosophers in the late 20th century. This move away from foundationalism was part of a larger move away from certain commitments of Enlightenment thought among these thinkers.

But first, what is foundationalism? Foundationalism in epistemology can be traced back to Aristotle in his Posterior Analytics, where he claims that beliefs must terminate in some foundation so as to avoid a vicious infinite regress of beliefs. In the field, this is called the regress problem, and it is the primary motivation behind foundationalism.

To understand the regress problem in epistemology, imagine that you are in need of a loan from the bank, so you go to Bank A. Bank A agrees to offer you the loan but notifies you that the only way it can get you the money is by taking out a loan from Bank B. Bank B agrees to loan the money to Bank A, but Bank B must get the money by taking out a loan from Bank C. This process goes on an on infnitely, meaning that you never get the loan that you need. In order for you to get the money that you need, someone in the chain must have the sufficient funds to provide the money that you need, or you won't get it.

With the regress problem, you don't need money. Rather, you need justification, or the grounds on which you have a right to hold a belief. We typically and most naturally think of justification in terms of evidence; you have the right to hold Belief A because of Belief B. But, if Belief B must be justified because of another belief (as evidence would require), then you must justifiably believe some Belief C that justifies holding Belief B. But if Belief C requires evidence, then you must hold Belief D, and so on infinitely. Without some belief at the bottom of the chain that doesn't require justification from another belief, my Belief A cannot be justified. In fact, the regress problem entails that no belief whatsoever can be justified if every belief must be justified on the basis of some other belief. In epistemology, a belief whose justification comes from another belief is said to be justified inferentially. In other words, if the regress problem holds true, then the requirement of inferential justification for all beliefs to be justified entails that no belief can be justified. If the only way to get money is by taking out a loan, then no one has any money.

During and after the Enligtenment (roughly during the 18th and 19th centuries), some philosophers, such as Rene Descartes and John Locke, recognized this problem and posited that some beliefs are justified non-inferentially, that is, without any appeal to evidence. For these philosophers, these non-inferentially-justified beliefs were the "foundation" on which all our beliefs were justified. They are, in other words, the start of the inferential chain of beliefs. And, since these non-inferentially-justified beliefs provided evidence for all other beliefs, those beliefs could be justified as well (as long, of course, as the believing subject inferred rationally from one belief to the next). You might have already noticed that this way of describing beliefs has a structural metaphor (hence, the name "foundationalism"). In time, much ink would be spilled over the content of that foundation.

As it is, all of this is well and good, but there soon emerged a problem: how can we tell which beliefs are non-inferentially-justified? For those who would come to later be called classical foundationalists, experience was commonly cited as a source for non-inferentially-justified beliefs. These philosophers came to be known as the empiricists and included titanic figures such as John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Experience seemed to them to be a good candidate for the class of non-inferentially-justified beliefs because experience is often incorrigible (that is, it cannot fail to be true) and results immediately in beliefs.

Take a moment to look around you in the room in which you're reading this sentence. What do you see? Focus on one object. When you focus on that object, what do you notice about it? What is its shape, color, and the like? Notice that you have just formed beliefs about that object, but was this belief formed on the basis of a process of inference? Did you propose an argument for those beliefs and reach them via reason? Of course not! You looked at the object and took yourself to be seeing it with all of its obvious properties. If you were asked to prove that the object exists using an argument, could you do it? You might answer, "Of course it exists; I can see it," but this won't do as an argument for the existence of that object because the argument is circular. You must assume that the object exists for you to have seen it (rather than some hallucination). The empiricists noticed this difficulty with experience and therefore distinguished between the object that exists (if it does) and the sense impressions (also called sense-data or Ideas) that we take to be properties of the object that we experience. This meant, however, that we couldn't rationally take for granted many of the beliefs we hold about objects, including their existence and how they relate to one another (e.g., cause and effect). For this reason, classical foundationalism led to skepticism. The foundation was too narrow to support many beliefs. In time, this led to skepticism about many other claims, such as the claim that God exists or that there are objectively true moral claims.

The skeptical implications of classical foundationalism are a serious problem and have resulted in significant shifts in the field in the last 70 years or so. Some have opted for rejecting foundationalism altogether, but I believe that this is a mistake. Recall that foundationalism, at its core, is motivated by the regress problem. If the regress problem holds true (as I believe it does), then any epistemological theory that includes only inferentially-justified beliefs will entail that no beliefs are justified. Thus, it seems better to find some way to avoid the problems with classical foundationalism while retaining a foundationalist theory (in order to avoid the regress problem). I want to consider whether John 20:24-29 can be read to in any way support this approach in epistemology.

Now, let's consider the passage. Here is the context. The disciples have just encountered the risen Lord, except for Thomas. They tell him that they've seen Jesus risen from the dead, but he stubbornly refuses to believe it. Here is the passage in full below (NASB):

"24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, who was called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples were saying to him, 'We have seen the Lord!' But he said to them, 'Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.' 26 Eight days later His disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, 'Peace be to you.' 27 Then He said to Thomas, 'Place your finger here, and see My hands; and take your hand and put it into My side; and do not continue in disbelief, but be a believer.' 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!' 29 Jesus said to him, 'Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'"

Have you ever heard someone say, "I won't believe it until I see it"? This statement constitutes a refusal to believe that some claim is true unless the person considering the claim perceives whatever it is that confirms the claim. Imagine if someone came to you and said, "I have just seen the Loch Ness Monster!" You might respond by saying that you wouldn't believe that this person had seen the Loch Ness Monster unless you saw the monster yourself. In other words, you are rejecting the testimony of another, arguing implicitly that it is not sufficient. You must experience it for yourself.

In effect, this is what Thomas does in this passage. We will examine the passage verse by verse in order to see that this is true.

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, who was called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples were saying to him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." The other disciples, who had seen the risen Lord, report their experience to Thomas in the form of a testimony, but he refuses to believe it. Rather, Thomas asserts implicitly that this testimony is not enough; he must also experience an appearance of the risen Lord. The detail with which he describes what he must experience to believe that Jesus is risen is graphic; he must see the imprint of the nails on Jesus' hands and the scar of the spear on His side (v. 25). Thomas's stubbornness is stark. He completely refuses to believe the testimony of the disciples.

26 Eight days later His disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, "Peace be to you." 27 Then He said to Thomas, "Place your finger here, and see My hands; and take your hand and put it into My side; and do not continue in disbelief, but be a believer." In these verses, Jesus answers Thomas's unbelief with grace and mercy. He answers Thomas's assertion by appearing to the disciples behind closed doors. He focuses on Thomas, telling him to touch His wounds to so that He can be assured that what the disciples said was true. He had risen from the dead.

28 Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed." This is perhaps the most shocking and fascinating section of the text. Thomas responds by confessing that Jesus is His Lord and God (boldly affirming the deity of Jesus). In other words, Thomas had spoken the truth. He has believed that Jesus had risen from the dead as a result of his personal experience of Jesus' resurrection.

Surprisingly, Jesus does not respond by commending Thomas for his faith. Rather, he gently admonishes him. In verse 29, Jesus asks the question, "Because you have seen Me, have you now believed?" This rhetorical question suggests that Thomas ought to have believed in Jesus already, evidently on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of the disciples.

Then Jesus makes a surprising claim: "Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed" (v. 29). Few verses have drawn the ire of so-called rationalists more virulently than this one. In my interactions with skpetics, I have often heard this verse cited as an example of the irrationality of faith. How could Jesus have required Thomas to believe in His physical resurrection on the basis of someone else's testimony?

Indeed, even among Christians, this verse raises considerable confusion. I've seen some Christians (mistakenly) claim that Thomas's unbelief was reasonable. The problem, of course, is that, if Thomas's unbelief was reasonable, then anyone today could claim that it is unreasonable to believe on the basis of the testimony of the disciples. In fact, I've heard at least one atheist friend of mine say that she would not believe in Jesus' resurrection unless He comes to her personally! If Thomas's unbelief is reasonable, then so is this friend's unbelief.

Jesus' point, however, is that Thomas's unbelief was unreasonable. We often believe on the basis of the testimony of others when we surmise that the testimony is reliable. Tom's friend, Jerry, tells him that he had seen a car accident on the way to work. Should Tom believe Jerry's testimony? If Jerry is a generally reliable and trustworthy person (i.e., someone who doesn't lie, someone who can be trusted to accurately relate his experiences, someone with a reliable memory, etc.), then Tom has no reason to disbelieve Jerry. If, however, Tom knows that Jerry is a compulsive liar whose tends to fabricate dramatic events in order to make himself seem more interesting, Tom will not believe Jerry's testimony, as long as Tom is rational. Tom may require more evidence, such as a video recording or a news story, to believe that there had been a car accident along Jerry's route to work.

Similarly, Thomas had no reason to believe that the disciples, men with whom he had lived and ministered for three years with Jesus, would fabricate this story. To do so, in the process making themselves look crazy and putting their lives in danger among the Jews and Romans who had crucified Jesus, would itself be unreasonable. Thomas knew that their testimony was likely to be reliable, yet he disbelieves. Even though Jesus accommodates his unbelief out of His patience and grace, He rebukes Thomas's unbelief as unreasonable. In doing so, Jesus affirms the rationality of believing in the testimony of the disciples, which we have in the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. The Bible provides evidence for believing in Jesus.

Notice that it is impossible to properly understand the text without getting into epistemology. The question, implicitly raised by Jesus, concerns whether it is reasonable to believe that Jesus had raised from the dead on the basis of testimony, without having had an encounter with the risen Lord yourself. That is an epistemological question by definition. The question, which I want to raise, is this: does this text provide implicit support for a foundationalist approach to epistemology?

Note that the question concerns biblical support for foundationalism simpliciter, not classical foundationalism. Many Christians scholars have (rightly, I contend) rejected classical foundationalism because of its skeptical implications. Rather, foundationalism simpliciter is based on the claim that the regress problem in epistemology is, in fact, a problem. Thus, two kinds of beliefs exist: inferentially-justified beliefs and non-inferentially-justified beliefs. A non-foundationalist theory rejects this distinction, affirming only inferentially-justified beliefs.

Note as well that the question above asks whether the text provides implicit support for foundationalism. Clearly, this text does not provide explicit support for foundationalism. Likewise, technical issues in epistemology is arguably outside the Bible's proper domain. The Bible is not an epistemology textbook. Nonetheless, according to the Web Model, the Bible is authoritative over all fields of discourse. If the Bible provides implicit support for foundationalism, Christian philosophers should want to know that. In essence, we're asking whether the Bible gives any authoritative indications of what view we ought to hold on this issue. Though we cannot reasonably ask for explicit affirmations or negations, we can ask for implicit affirmations or negations.

So, how are we to answer this question? Two considerations are relevant here. First, it is evident that the text gives no answer to the regress problem one way or another. Though Christian philosophers would love authoritative answers to these kinds of questions, that isn't what the Bible is for. So, it would be wrong to claim that the text, even implicitly, has anything to say about the regress problem. Second, rather, we want to ask whether the text affirms that there is a different in kind between certain beliefs. Here, it is fascinating that Thomas refuses to believe in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of testimonial evidence. Testimony is an inferential basis for justification. If I believe that Bigfoot exists on the basis of testimony, then I believe that Bigfoot exists because someone else claims to have seen Bigfoot, and I believe that this claim is probably true. Thus, my belief that someone else has seen Bigfoot provides evidential support for the claim that Bigfoot exists (to the delight of my father-in-law). Thomas's rejection of the testimony of the disciples is an implicit rejection of the ostensible evidential support of their testimony. In effect, he believes that their testimony is not sufficient on its own to justify the belief that Jesus had raised from the dead.

What would justify forming such a belief, if not testimony? We tend to assume that immediate experience is a stronger basis for forming a belief. Hence, we say, "I won't believe it unless I see it." In effect, in v. 25, this is what Thomas says. So, at least implicitly, Thomas denies the inferential basis (i.e., in testimony) for forming the belief that Jesus has risen from the dead and asserts that he will not believe in the resurrection unless he experiences the risen Lord directly (i.e., non-inferentially). It seems, then, that Thomas assumes that an inferential basis is insufficient for believing that Jesus has risen from the dead. Perhaps most fascinating, then, is Jesus' response. Contrary to the interpretation that Jesus is affirming the unreasonableness of faith, Jesus actually affirms that the inferential basis of testimony is sufficient for reasonable belief in Jesus' resurrection. Thomas was wrong epistemically to refuse to believe based on the disciples' testimony.

It seems, then, that John 20:24-29 might provide at least implicit support for epistemic foundationalism. One question remains, however: have we derived this philosophical theory from the text of Scripture or imposed it onto Scripture? I will explore this question in my concluding section.

Conclusion: Exegesis or Eisegesis?

Central to the study of Scripture is the study of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of the art of interpretation, namely, the interpretation of texts. Though space doesn't permit me to discuss hermeneutics in detail, suffice it to say that I've written this post under the following assumption: the goal of rightly interpreting a text is to understand the author's original intent as mediated through the text. This is important because it has implications for our discussion of reading Scripture philosophically.

If authorial intent is central to properly interpreting a text, then hermeneutics, practiced rightly, is a process of discovery, not invention. That is, we study a text and apply the tools of hermeneutics in order to discover its meaning. We do not invent meaning from our interaction with the text as individuals (which is the focus of reader-response theory). Thus, two concepts will help us consider the text we've taken as our case study. The first is exegesis: deriving our interpretation of a text from the text and context in which the text was written and transmitted. The second is eisegesis: the imposition of something outside the text, such as our own meaning or theories, onto the text. If the goal of hermeneutics is as is described above, then we should practice exegesis and avoid eisegesis.

Some will read what's written above and call it a practice of eisegesis; they will claim that we've simply imposed foundationalism onto the text, rather than deriving it from the text. This is an obvious danger of reading Scripture philosophically. Many of the most destructive heresies in the history of the church (e.g., gnosticism) developed out of an imposition of extra-biblical categories and theories (e.g., Platonic philosophy) onto the text of Scripture. On the other hand, again, some of the most important thinkers in the history of the church have found philosophical categories fruitful for explicating the Christian worldview and understanding Scripture systematically. Some have claimed that to recognize philosophical categories in Scripture in any sense is improper, but it seems inevitable that some biblical ideas overlap with philosophical ideas. Where do we go from here?

I suspect that the answer can be found in carefully considering the view of Scripture presented above with the view of hermeneutics assumed above. If the Web Model is true, then Scripture remains authoritative and relevant to the whole of human inquiry. Thus, we should study Scripture with an eye toward its implications in philosophy, just as much as any field. If the goal of hermeneutics is to understand the author's original intent as mediated through a text, then we should study Scripture in order to discover the authors' (both human and divine) intent. This means that we should avoid attributing to the author's purposes what the author did not intend to convey through a text while, at the same time, understanding that the divine origin of Scripture makes it foundational for the formulation of the Christian worldview in a holistic, comprehensive way.

The upshot of this for our case study is twofold. First, John 20:24-29 is not intended to say anything about whether foundationalism is true. This is quite obvious. John was not a philosopher, much less a contemporary epistemologist concerned with contemporary philosophical questions and debates. Second, while John 20:24-29 is not intended to say anything about whether foundationalism is true, its content, along with all of Scripture, is foundational for the formulation of the Christian worldview. This is true because this passage has a divine, as well as human, origin. And, as we've seen, this text clearly deals with epistemology in its content. One may even be able to say that this purpose of this text is to make an epistemological claim (i.e., that the testimony of the disciples is a sufficient basis for justified belief in the resurrection of Jesus), even if that claim isn't about foundationalism. Even so, this text arguably provides explicit support for that philosophical claim.

Bringing all of this together, I land on this answer to whether John 20:24-29 provides implicit support for foundationalism: if foundationalism is assumed, it makes good sense of the epistemological elements of John 20:24-29, even if John 20:24-29 does not say anything explicit about whether foundationalism is true. In other words, foundationalism coheres well with the text and makes good sense of the competing epistemological assertions made by Thomas and Jesus. This answer, understood in the context of what we've said about the authority of Scripture and the goal of hermeneutics, neither violates the sufficiency and authority of Scripture nor is guilty of eisegesis. Thus, it seems to me that studying the text as part of the formulation and defense of a Christian form of foundationalism is not problematic.

If one can read the text in our case study philosophically, then one can read Scripture in this way. In this post, I've tried to show that Scripture can be read philosophically, as long as two issues are clarified in order to avoid certain dangers of reading Scripture philosophically. Those issues were the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and biblical hermeneutics. Once these issues are clarified, then it is possible and acceptable to read Scripture philosophically. Christian philosophers, however, should engage in this process carefully and critically, with an eye toward the dangers of reading Scripture in this way historically.

That's it for a long and complex post! When I first shared with others that I would be writing this post, I got a mixed response (even from my wife!). There was an understandable concern that I would make a mistake highlighted in this post. This response was welcome, as it informed much of what I wanted to address in this post. It is also the reason why this post became lengthier as I considered all of the facets of the question for myself. My hope is that I've suggested a plausible answer to the question of reading Scripture philosophically while avoiding the many dangers of doing so. Another hope is that those who are more skeptical about reading Scripture philosophically would see in this post a way of doing so well and properly. If I've gotten anything wrong, I want brothers and sisters in Christ to let me know!

That being said, feel free to interact! Please reach out by commenting on this post or contacting me directly via social media or email. Like and share it with others so that others can benefit from this blog and so that the Kingdom may be bolstered and advanced for God's glory. Thank you for reading!


These resources were vital to my study of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and have continued to inform my thoughts on these topics, even I did not cite them directly here. I commend them to you for your edification.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. "The Sufficiency of Scripture: A Critical and Constructive Account."

Journal of Psychology and Theology 49, no. 3 (2021): 218-234.

Yarnell III, Malcolm B. and David S. Dockery. "The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture: An

Introduction." In The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture, edited by Adam W.

Greenway and David S. Dockery, 1-19. Fort Worth, TX: Seminary Hill Press, 2022.


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