NOTE: Again, remember that these are exam answers - unpolished and unedited, and with no resources at hand. I had 80 minutes for each essay. This particular essay required me to delve into the field of epistemology, which is still new and challenging to me. It's also much more personal and 'stream-of-consciousness' rather than analytical. Hope you enjoy it!
QUESTION 1. As you look past the Ph.D., how might you understand the next step you should take? With what warrant will you choose to move to a new place or stay in the area, undertake one form of employment and not another, etc.? Will this be a matter of internal justification, external justification, or both?
Thirteen and a half years ago, God called me into full-time vocational ministry, making it clear that He desired for me to prepare for and enter the pastorate. Three and a half years ago, God began prompting me to go back to the school to pursue a Ph.D. in order to enter into a teaching ministry for the glory of His kingdom. Eighteen months ago, my family moved more than 3300 kilometers (2000 miles), from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Louisville, Kentucky, and I began doctoral studies.
I. Entering the Great Unknown
In many ways, coming to Southern Seminary was entering the great unknown. We had never lived outside of Edmonton, never traveled to the continental United States (although we quite enjoyed our honeymoon in Hawaii). I am a settler by nature, preferring to put down deep roots in a community rather than to move to a new place and form new relationships and connections.
However, as we anticipate completing doctoral studies, and consider ‘what comes next’, we have considerably more existential angst. We know that the next stage in our life will be, to an even greater degree, entering the great unknown. We know whom we have believed, and we know that He is able to fulfill His purposes for our lives. We know that He will be with us, directing our path, as we seek to be faithful to the mission He has given us. But we have absolutely no idea what the next stage in life will be. The vision we have is of returning to Canada to teach in a college/university/seminary setting, while also serving the church by bringing apologetic conferences, workshops, seminars, sermons, and Sunday school classes to local congregations. But we have no idea whether that vision will be fulfilled (immediately or eventually); we have no idea where we will move, no idea what type of job I will pursue/receive.
However, there are several spiritual and epistemological principles and foundations upon which we will employ as we enter into the great existential unknown. The spiritual principles and foundations are centered upon our living relationship with the Triune God, and are absolutely essential. However, they will not be the primary focus of this essay. Rather, I will focus on our epistemological pursuit of knowing God’s purpose and calling, and considering the justification that we will have for our next stage. First, I will consider the nature of God’s will. I will argue that we must distinguish God’s sovereign (and unalterable) will from His moral will. Moreover, I will insist that rather than speaking of God’s will for my life, we must more properly speak of God’s intentions or calling for my life. Second, I will discuss how we seek to know what God’s intentions for our lives are. I will argue in favor of the Blackaby’s traditional ‘specific-intentional’ approach to discerning God’s will, while insisting that the insights of Garry Friesen’s ‘wisdom’ approach is essential as well. Third, I will consider the issue of warrant and justification for our future endeavors – how will we know that this is God’s will? I will argue that (1) we are warranted in confidence that we are living according to God’s intentions if we are operating epistemologically in the context of a healthy relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; (2) we obtain internal justification for our knowledge that we are following God’s intentions by the ‘cognitive rest’ or ‘peace’ that we experience; and (3) we receive external justification for our knowledge that we are following God’s intentions by a post-operative evaluation of our decision-making process in the light of consequent events and experiences [that is, hindsight and reflection]. In each of these aspects, I will emphasize Jay Wood’s notion of epistemological virtue – that we seek to live and make decisions in an epistemologically virtuous manner.
II. Does God Have a Specific Will For Your Life?
In How Then Shall We Choose?, three views of ‘decision making and the will of God’ are considered – Henry and Richard Blackaby’s ‘traditional’ or ‘specific-will’ approach; Garry Friesen’s ‘wisdom’ approach; and Smith’s ‘relational’ approach. A fundamental question must be asked of the Blackaby’s approach – namely, does God truly have a specific will for your life and daily decisions? Friesen insists that God does not, and supports his argument biblically. There is absolutely no biblical evidence, according to Friesen, that allows us to identify a specific will of God for our personal lives. Rather, the biblical differentiation is between God’s sovereign (or unalterable) will, and His moral will. God’s sovereign will reflects His eternal decrees, which are unchanging and unchangeable. God’s moral will reflects the holiness of His nature and character, and can be further separated into His effective (prescriptive) moral will and His permissive moral will. That is, in some cases God causes His moral will to be actualized, while in other situations God permits His moral will to be violated. Thus, for example, God permits Adam and Eve to fall into moral sin and rebellion – the fall of mankind is not a reflection of God’s holy (pure, sinless) nature and character, but is rather a violation of it, but nonetheless the fall is within God’s will, as He permits it to occur.
In no way, however, does the biblical discussion of God’s will speak of God’s particular or specific will for individual human beings. God’s will is an expression of His being, His nature, His character, and His eternal decrees. Thus, when we speak of God’s interaction with individual human beings, we should not speak of God’s will for their lives, but rather of God’s purposes, intentions, or calling upon individuals. When God reveals Himself to Abraham, then, God does not tell Abraham, “This is my will for your life;” rather, God calls Abraham out of Ur and into Canaan. Similarly, when God reveals Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, he does not tell Paul, “This is my will for your life,” but rather calls Paul to a life of evangelistic ministry and reveals His divine purposes for Paul’s life and ministry. Thus, the Blackabys are certainly correct in insisting that God has and reveals a specific intention or calling for specific people; but they would be well-advised to speak in terms of intention rather than in terms of will.
III. How Will We Know God’s Intentions For Our Future?
I have argued that God does have specific intentions for us, and I sincerely believe that God has a purpose or plan for what my family will do when I have finished Ph.D. studies here in Louisville. But how do we identify it? How do we know what God’s intentions for our lives are? As a pastor in Edmonton, it was not an uncommon experience to have a young adult (or teen, or older adult) come and ask how they are supposed to know what God wants them to do with their life! As Christians, we desire to honor and glorify God in everything that we do. We want to live in the center of His will; we certainly do not want to embark on an educational or career path that will prevent us from fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives. So how do we identify God’s intentions for us?
A. The Blackaby Approach
Fundamentally, I am in accordance with the Blackabys’ approach – we must seek to learn what God desires of us, and God is faithful in communicating to us His intentions. A little over a month ago, I had an interesting conversation with a very intelligent friend here at the seminary. He insisted that God no longer speaks audibly and personally to Christians today – that God’s self-revelation in written Scripture is sufficient, and that personal communication between God and His people no longer occurs. I am convinced that my friend is wrong, based partly on the testimony of other Christians, partly on my own experience, and partly on my understanding of God and the nature of His covenant-relationship with us. Many Christians throughout the ages have testified to God’s direct communication with them. In my own life, I have experienced God’s direct communication on two occasions, both times of significant decision – once when God audibly called me to the pastoral ministry, the other when God audibly authorized me to quit working at the bank I served during seminary in the 1990s. I can no more deny God’s direct, personal communication than I can deny the trans-national verbal conversation that I had with my parents over the weekend. I know it’s possible, because I have personally experienced it. Furthermore, however, I would insist that God dwells within His children in the form of the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit is the source of God’s communication with us. And the nature of God’s relationship with us is such that continued communication between God and His children should rather be expected than rejected.
The Blackaby model is built upon the foundation of such personal communication between God and His people. The Blackaby’s insist that believers must be radically open to receiving God’s intentions and purposes in their lives. The sources of God’s communication with His people is summarized by the Blackabys: (1) Scripture; (2) prayer; (3) fellowship; and (4) circumstances. I would suggest that Frame’s tri-perspectival approach to theology and epistemology is helpful in summarizing the means by which God conveys His intentions, purposes, and calling for our lives. (1) The normative approach – God speaks authoritatively through His Word, guiding and directing our life accordingly. For example, since God has commanded us to not commit adultery, it will be fairly clear that God desires me to reject the impending offer to star in pornographic movies when I graduate. (2) The situational approach – God speaks into our particular context through the circumstances that we find ourselves in. For example, as I pray and seek employment opportunities in the world of higher education after graduation, an unexpected job offer from a little-known Bible college in Lincoln, Nebraska could very well be God speaking to me through circumstances. (3) The existential approach – God speaks into our lives directly through interactive prayer and the voice of the Holy Spirit, and also through His people within the community of faith. For example, when I was in my final year of my Bachelor’s degree, seeking to understand God’s intention for my next step in life, God spoke audibly to me as I prayed for direction – “I want you to be a pastor.” It was clear, and I had to conclude that someone was crazy – either myself (for thinking I heard God speak to me), or God (for thinking that I ought to be a pastor). Or, again, the prompting to return to school to pursue a Ph.D. came from God speaking through other Christians – members of my ordination committee in the spring of 2006, and a trusted mentor in university ministry later that same year. Thus, I would insist that God communicates His intentions to His people normatively, through Scripture, situationally, through the circumstances He sovereignly ordains, and existentially, through prayer and other believers.
This raises two issues that identify regularly-perceived weaknesses in the Blackabys’ traditional approach to discerning God’s intentions for our lives. On the one hand, it is argued that much of life is ‘mundane,’ and not the subject of God’s communication with us. On the other hand, it is argued that we are not intended to sit around waiting for God to speak to us before we step out into action.
Both perceived weaknesses are valid concerns, but can be addressed and accommodated within the Blackaby approach, particularly by acknowledging and adopting the insights provided by Friesen’s wisdom approach to discerning God’s purposes. Friesen argues that God desires us to be more assertive and bold in our approach to His intentions. He begins by insisting that: “Where God has commanded, we must obey.” Thus, again, I must decline to accept jobs that require me to engage in sinful behavior and activities. But he proceeds: “Where God has not commanded, God has granted us both the freedom and the wisdom to choose.” Friesen’s approach, in many ways, is like that of my friend who denies God’s continuing personal communication with His children. God has spoken authoritatively in Scripture, and what Scripture commands, we are to obey. However, the vast majority of life is an application in wisdom of Scriptural commands – in those areas, we have both the freedom and the wisdom to choose how to live. Thus, God does not command whether I should remain in the States or return to Canada after graduation – He permits me to choose. God does not ordain whether I ought to accept hypothetical job offers from Orlando, Tuktuyuktuk, or Edmonton – I have the freedom and wisdom to choose.
First off, I must insist that I think Friesen is fundamentally wrong in such assertions. It may well be that God has commanded which of those three job offers I am to accept, but if I adopt (strictly) his wisdom approach, I won’t even consider the job offers from Orlando or Tuktuyuktuk after receiving the offer in Edmonton – I will ‘wisely’ and ‘freely’ choose to go back to my hometown to teach. If, however, I adopt (as I insist we ought to) a Blackaby openness to hearing God communicate His intentions to us, normatively through Scripture, situationally through circumstances, and existentially through prayer and the fellowship of believers, then God may well indicate that I am to accept the job offer in Orlando, despite the hellishly hot and humid climate I would have to endure thereby (not to mention the distance from all family and existing friends). Thus, I must remain open to hearing God speak and communicate His distinct, direct, personal intentions for my life and ministry; I cannot solely adopt Friesen’s wisdom approach to decision-making and the will of God.
Nonetheless, I must also admit that Friesen’s approach has a lot of wisdom, and needs to be applied as a supplement or corrective to the Blackaby approach. God may well convey a direct intention to my post-Ph.D. direction; on the other hand, God may not communicate directly what He desires for me to do. Indeed, God made it clear existentially that He intended for me to return to school and pursue a Ph.D.; however, He did not speak directly (normatively, situationally, or existentially) telling me that I was to come to Southern Seminary in Louisville. Rather, we applied prudential wisdom in considering the options. Yes, we asked God to tells us what He wanted us to do, we asked Him to show me where to study; but clear direction did not come. Instead, as we proceeded to investigate academic options, it gradually became clear that it ‘made sense’ to come to Southern – it was cheaper (as a Canadian Southern Baptist) to come here than to study at most other seminaries; I was able to pursue my primary academic interests (major in Apologetics, minor in World Religions [and Philosophy]); the size and atmosphere of Louisville is more similar to Edmonton than other potential cities (Fort Worth, Wake Forest) I could have studied in; the institutional Calvinism would be challenging and sharpening for an avowed non-Calvinist. One could argue that God was speaking situationally, through circumstances that He brought our way, in directing us to the appropriate school; but it certainly did not feel that way. We experienced the decision making process much more as an exercise of wisdom in accordance with what God had previously revealed to us. And we expect that the next step in our life journey may well be the same – God may not reveal clearly and absolutely what He intends for us to do after graduation, but rather will ask us to exercise wisdom in ascertaining the right road to go down.
Friesen and Smith also criticize the Blackaby approach for its tendency to induce passive Christian decision-making. Erwin McManus (pastor at Mosaic, in California), shares a story of a friend who graduated from seminary, but after two or three years had not yet accepted a pastoral position, despite having been offered several. The friend insisted that he did not have absolute certainty that God wanted him to accept any of those positions, and that he did not want to take a job that was not God’s specific will for his life. McManus responded, in some frustration, that his friend simply needed to step out and “Do something; anything; something good, something in accordance with God’s revealed will in Scripture.” Sitting around waiting for God to reveal His precise intention can lead to paralysis and inactivity. I think this criticism has great merit, and reveals that the Blackaby’s perhaps overestimate the frequency with which God reveals a specific plan for a specific individual. I agree with Friesen that the vast majority of life is governed by ‘mundane wisdom.’ The Blackaby’s note the necessity of applying wisdom in many of life’s decisions (cereal for breakfast, choice of clothes, etc); but Friesen’s point is that it is mundanity that is paradigmatic, not God’s revelation of specific intentions. I suspect that Friesen is correct; although I also fear that Friesen overextends himself and denies the applicability of seeking God’s specific intentions altogether.
Nonetheless, Friesen’s ‘wise’ advice reminds me not to sit on my haunches after completing my Ph.D., waiting for God to reveal the next step in His grand plan for my life. Rather, I am to conduct myself with: (a) a radical openness to hearing God give me direct intentions for my future; but also (b) a willingness to weigh options, compare possibilities, and exercise Christian wisdom in ascertaining God’s intentions for my future.
IV. How Do We Know That We Know God’s Intentions?
In epistemology, the primary question is not, “What do we know?”, but rather, “How do we know that we know?” With regards to my future direction, the epistemological question is therefore not, “What are God’s intentions for me?”, but rather, “How will I know that this is God’s intention for me?”
A. Plantinga’s Warrant
Traditionally, knowledge has been considered to be ‘justified true belief.’ To truly know something, we need more than mere belief that something is so. That belief must also be true; that is, it must correspond to how things are in the real world. Furthermore, we must have justification for that belief – our true belief must be grounded in rational faculties or operations.
Alvin Plantinga supplements this traditional conception of justified true belief with his notion of ‘warrant’. Plantinga’s warrant implies that we have justified true belief when our cognitive faculties are working properly (as they are supposed to), within a macro- and micro-environment which is conducive to their proper operation.
From a Christian perspective, looking towards future ministry after completion of my Ph.D., Plantingian warrant has considerable appeal and application. Along with the Blackaby’s, I confess that God has specific intentions for our lives which He desires to communicate to us. Hence, I must be epistemologically open to receiving God’s direction and purpose. Furthermore, along with Friesen, I acknowledge that God does not always communicate directly or personally with us, but often gives us both the freedom and the wisdom to choose our path in accordance with His revealed moral will. Hence, I must be epistemologically aware of what God condones, commands, and condemns. Finally, along with Smith, I insist that our decisions are to be made from within the context of an intimate relationship with the Triune God. Hence, a conducive environment for my decision-making faculties to operate within requires spiritual discipline and development. Thus, whatever path I ultimately go down after Ph.D. studies, I will warrant for that decision if and only if: (a) I have been open to receiving God’s specific intentions (and if such intentions have been conveyed, I faithfully obey them); (b) in the event that God has not directly communicated His intentions, I have exercised prudence and wisdom in choosing the correct path; (c) within the context of a vibrant relationship with my Lord and Savior. All three aspects of my decision-making process are essential to obtaining warrant for my future decision.
B. Frame’s ‘Cognitive Rest’ (Blackabyan ‘Peace’)
Once that decision is made, however, how will I know that it was the right one? How will I have the knowledge that this is, indeed, God’s intention for my future? Plantinga’s notion of warrant, though extremely helpful, is incomplete, as it allows us to have warrant for a belief even when we do not realize that we have warrant for it. In this case, however, I want not merely to have ‘Warranted Christian Belief,’ I desire to know that I have warranted belief that this is God’s purpose for my life.
John Frame speaks, in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, but more fully in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, about the notion of ‘cognitive rest’. Old-school evidentialism, as epitomized by William Clifford’s evidentialist thesis (“It is wrong for everyone, anywhere, at any time, to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence.”) insists that we have to exhaust every possible objection, research every possible option to the utmost of our ability, before we can conclude anything confidently. [Of course, Clifford’s evidentialist maxim fails to live up to its own standards, as there is no sufficient evidence that we ought to embrace his maxim, so we could legitimately ignore it. Nonetheless …] Frame disagrees. He acknowledges that there are limits to what we can realistically investigate. We cannot have exhaustive knowledge of everything. We cannot satisfy every doubt or question that we will ever have, about anything! Indeed, when we prepared to come back to school and move to the States, there were unanswered questions: “What if I am rejected from the program? Will I be able to do it? How are our kids going to adjust? Are we going to go bankrupt?” We didn’t have answers to all of those questions. But we did have ‘cognitive rest’, which Frame defines as the place we come to when, having investigated things fairly thoroughly, we find ourselves no longer needing to look into it, but rather at ease with the conclusion we have reached. We were confident that we knew God intended for us to move to Louisville. The Blackaby’s, I believe, are speaking of the same thing when they talk about being “at peace” with a decision. Perhaps we do not know why God desires this of us at a particular point in time, but we have peace that this is indeed God’s intentions for us. The Blackaby’s share several stories of having such peace (or cognitive rest) in the midst of decisions that seemed questionable or unlikely at the time.
C. Wood’s ‘Virtuous Epistemology’ and Justification
Jay Wood, in Becoming Epistemologically Virtuous, has a lengthy discussion of justification in knowledge. He examines the traditional differentiation between internal and external justification, and concludes that both are essential, and can be incorporated within a virtuous epistemology.
Internal justification for knowledge understands epistemology primarily in terms of deontology, or duty / responsibility. Justification stems from having exercised our rational capacities in a responsible and truth-seeking manner. Internalists are generally either foundationalists or coherentists – the first arguing that justification stems from having our beliefs founded upon properly basic beliefs, the second arguing that justification stems from have our beliefs cohere with our overall noetic structure. Externalists, on the other hand, understand epistemological justification to stem from the results of the epistemological process. Our beliefs are justified insofar as they result in attainment of the truth. Externalists are generally reliabilists, and emphasize the general reliability of our epistemological faculties.
Wood argues that the internal/external debate regarding justification cannot be satisfactorily settled simply because both are essential to justified true belief. First, there is an unmistakeable need for internal justification. If we have not conducted ourselves with epistemological virtue, then our beliefs are not justified. There are rational duties and responsibilities that we have; for example, we have a prima facie duty to trust our sensory inputs, and a prima facie responsibility to accept the validity of human testimony (after all, we know next to nothing absent of the input of other rational human agents). Second, there is a need to external justification as well. Our beliefs can only be justified if they cohere with the way things are.
With regards to my post-Ph.D. future, both internal and external justification will be critical. International justification will be the result of Plantinga’s type of warrant (discussed above at the end of that section). I will justified in believing that this is God’s intention for my future based on my self-reflective confidence that I have conducted my epistemological inquiries faithfully and rationally. External justification, however, will only be available after the fact. External justification implies that I will be justified in believing that this is God’s intention if and only if, in fact, this is God’s intention. Thus, external justification will not be available immediately upon graduation, or even immediately upon accepting (or pursuing) a job offer. Rather, it will be the result of hindsight reflection.
This is not unusual, however; indeed, I would argue that external justification for our knowledge is typically only available after the fact (as hindsight or post-reflection). For example, when I graduated in 2000 and sought a pastoral position, there were many options that did not work out. Three churches interviewed and candidated me, and subsequently extended a call, inviting me to come as their pastor. We did not have ‘cognitive rest’ about any of those three churches, and regretfully declined. Three other churches interviewed and candidated me, and we were extremely excited about the prospect of serving in those churches. We have not just cognitive ‘rest’, we had cognitive enthusiasm! However, those churches had no such cognitive rest; they declined to offer a call. Eventually, I was interviewed at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church; then I candidated at the church. We had cognitive rest; so did they. They called me as English Pastor, and I began ministry there in July 2001 – more than a full year after my graduation. During the year-long process of seeking a pastoral position, seeking God’s intention for our ministry, we did not have external justification for our actions or beliefs. We believed that God did not want us to accept a call to three specific churches; but we had little in the way of external justification for that belief. Afterward, however, the external justification was very apparent in a variety of ways. Each of our three children has had significant health issues requiring regular visits to specialists – much more accessible within the urban ministry context of ECBC than the isolated rural contexts I had received previous calls to (and where my heart desired to serve). Two of our children were emergency deliveries, and may not have made it in a rural context. Given our later calling back to school, and future academic ministry, the urban Edmonton context, and especially my involvement in campus ministry there, was a necessary part of the process. Throughout the past eight years, events and reflection has provided external justification for our original belief that God intended us to serve at ECBC. We already had internal justification – having been open to God’s calling, sought His will earnestly, and conducted ourselves with due diligence and responsibility. The external justification was only available later.
It will be the same when I complete Ph.D. studies. When we take the next step into whatever ministry God intends, we will initially have the internal justification of knowing that we exercise our epistemological virtue in making a decision in deference to God’s intentions. However, we will not have external justification until later, when we can see how God worked in and through the circumstances He brought us into. Again, I emphasize that I believe this is normative – we cannot have external justification without a degree of separation from the belief or action or decision in question.