The Explanation of Knowledge and the Act of Knowing

Everything has an explanation.

Contingent things have explanations independent of themselves. God is His own “explanation” because He is necessary Being. An explanation is that which accounts for the existence of something or the description of the precondition(s) for a particular state of affairs. Rocks have explanations; shirts have explanations; tables have explanations; coffee has an explanation; every human person has an explanation.

Human knowledge has an explanation.

How do we account for the able-ness of the human to know himself and the things around him? The Christian’s simple answer is, “God.” God is the ultimate explanation for why and how humans are able to know anything. This explanation, however, is to be made distinct from the human’s act of knowing. There is the explanation of knowledge, and then there is the actual reality, or existence, of knowledge. These are two distinct categories which are, nonetheless, interrelated.

The former category would fall under ontology. The question, “What accounts for your knowledge?” is an ontological question. It deals with the explanation for the existence of something (i.e. knowledge). The statement, “I know God,” is an epistemic claim, the truth of which depends on the answer to the above ontological question. The fact, “I know God,” is made possible by the antecedent reality that God is. So there is this distinction between ontology and epistemology; the explanation for knowledge and the actual act of knowing.

Now, it is easy to conflate these two things. For example, we can fall into the trap of understanding the explanation in terms of our actually knowing and ascending to what that explanation is. But, this is simply to confuse ontology with epistemology. Just because something is doesn’t necessarily mean that something is actually known by the knower. In the case of Christian theism, God is known by all people. Sinners, however, suppress the truth about God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-20).

It would, at this point, be easy to say that since God accounts for our knowing we must, therefore, know God before we know anything else (even ourselves). But, the priority of being and the priority of knowing can be different from one another. I do not have to know the cause of the storm in order for an explanation of the storm to exist. Furthermore, I could know the explanation for storms before I knew any particular storm. I could also know a storm before I knew the particular explanation for that storm. So, being and knowing are different.

With respects to Christianity, we know ourselves and we know God. The question arises as to what the priority is. Do we know ourselves first or do we know God first? Well, in one sense, I can say we know both simultaneously. We are conscious of ourselves and God at the exact same time. In another sense, I must say we know ourselves first (because we are the knower), and then we know God. This would be a logical priority in our knowing.

We must know ourselves first because to be aware of our knowing the Creator, we must first be self-aware. Some have concerns about this order because making God secondary to something else doesn’t sound right, in almost any context. But, in all truth, it’s not wrong to say God comes logically after our self-awareness when speaking of the knowledge situation. It would be wrong do say that God isn’t the first cause of all things. It would be wrong to say God is not the sustainer of all contingent reality. In other words, it would be wrong to err when it comes to God’s ontological status as self-existent Being. God is back of the universe. He accounts for all that which exists, including our knowledge.

But when it comes to the actual content of creaturely knowledge, knowledge of self comes before knowledge of God even though God is the sustainer of our knowledge, the very precondition to our knowing (anything).

There are various problems that arise when we confuse knowing with being. For example, if we confuse knowing with being in terms of theology, why stop there? We could also link our knowledge to, say, existence en toto. It would then be the case that our knowing would affect the constitution of reality. Reality would be dependent on our knowledge of. We, in that sense, would be the cause or creators of the “real” world.

We must make a very careful distinction between these very helpful categories, knowledge and being.

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