Epistemology in general is the study of knowledge: what is knowledge, what do we know and how do we know it. In a Christian context the question specializes to: what do we know of God and how do we know it. In the Christian sphere this question moves from an arcane branch of philosophy to a central tenet of faith usually called revelation. This shift occurs because the Bible shows that the Revelation of God is required for salvation and that salvation results in further revelation. In what follows I shall attempt to define some of the terms usually used in this context and show how sending helps resolve some of the questions.
Within religion there are two contrasting poles of thought regarding the knowledge we have of God: either that it is transcendent or that it is immanent. The transcendent position holds that God is an entirely separate remote deity or set of deities that we can know about but not really experience directly. In contrast immanence suggests that deity is so incorporated with our experience of it that it is actually our experience of deity that 'creates' it.
It may be argued that these two poles can be united to produce what has been described an existential ontological theism. This mouthful describes the relatively simple notion that the entities of God and man may be entirely separate as the transcendent model suggests and yet they can experience each other as the immanent model suggests provided some mechanism is established to bridge the gap between them.
The bridging mechanism required by existential ontological theism is described by the biblical language of sending. God acts upon the earth by sending providence, judgment and salvation. Sometimes this involves a human intermediary in purest form it involved the sending of the son of God. Regardless of the medium used however the point is that we can experience a God who is separate from us because He sends things that we can experience within our own reality.
If religious epistemology can be characterized as the study of what we can know about God then ontology is the study of how we can know God Himself. It is perhaps more correct to say the study of God as a being and how He relates to ourselves as beings. Some have attempted this study from an entirely philosophical perspective but it is probably more practical and effective to view it experientially. How can man know God?
At one level to ask the question: "How can man know God?" is to miss the point. Christian's have the indwelling Spirit. Our faith is based upon living experience not upon dry intellectualism. At another level however the Word of God is provided so that we may know God better through vicarious experience. We may have experienced God in our lives but we can also see how he behaved in the lives of many others in different circumstances. Put simply we can know God by watching his actions.
Of course the statement that we can know God through observing and understanding His actions immediately takes us back to the concept of sending. Whilst Adam and Eve did see God directly He was on a mission at the time: one of judgment and salvation. Moses experienced God directly but for the majority of Israel the experience of God was through the sending of Moses. Pharaoh's experience of God was through the sending of judgment. The Israelites later got a greater understanding of the character of God when he sent plagues among them.
There is another element of sending which may also impinge upon the distinction between transcendent and immanent epistemology. Man was made in the image of God. The fall and following judgment took from man the image of God that was within him. The sending of Salvation is a prerequisite to our transformation into His image. Thus as we progress in Christian truth, and as we experience Christ in other believers, we should increase our knowledge of God Himself.
Of course the ultimate ontological study of God is Christ. He stated that to see Him is to see the Father. He is the ultimate way that man has ever experienced God and He is the pathway through which our own revelation occurs. Again we are told that Christ was sent into the World so that this could occur.
In summary we may say that epistemologically God sends into His creation so that we may have knowledge about God. Ontologically we may say that God sends into His creations so that we may have knowledge of God.
If epistemology describes what can be known and ontology describes who can be known then Esthetics describes who or what can be appreciated. Biblically the concept of esthetics, or at least positive esthetics, is expressed through the notion of beauty. Within western culture beauty and sexuality are often closely associated. Therefore the very concept of esthetics runs counter to the beliefs of many conservative biblical Christians. The following aims to draw out some of the biblical concepts expressed through the notion of beauty.
The first point to note is that beauty of form is a positive biblical concept. It is true that Hebrew art does not present the same study of physical beauty as other cultures but that is almost certainly because of the prohibition against idolatry. It written and spoken form the appreciation of physical beauty was present. Examples are the description of Rachel, David, Absalom, Tamar and Esther. The Song of Solomon is also a length and explicit celebration of physical beauty.
However the Bible also contains beauty of function. Thus the restoration of God's people is described as beautiful. Interestingly beauty of function is sometimes stressed even when it directly contradicts standard concepts of beauty of form. Thus Hosea likened a productive person as having the beauty of an Olive tree. Olive trees are usually fairly gnarled and wrinkled; yet they are fruitful and essential to the Israeli economy.
This duality of meaning renders passages such as Isa 64:11 "Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee" rather intriguing. Whilst beautiful could refer to some of the ornamentation of the temple it could also be referring to the beauty of being somewhere that God could be praised.
Beauty is further qualified when applied to God. Beauty becomes almost synonymous with holiness. The King James often displays this relationship through the expression the 'beauty of holiness'. Some other translations modify this expression to 'majesty'. The concept however remains intact. The essentially holy nature of God Himself has or should have a desirable quality.
This three fold biblical meaning of beauty helps to explain some seeming biblical contradictions. Thus Isa 53:2 states that Christ would have no form or beauty that we should desire Him. Yet Christ stated (John 12:32) that if He be lifted up from the ground he would draw all men unto him. The point of course is that at the crucifixion He had been stripped of all physical beauty and yet the beauty of holiness shone all the more because of it.
Using the preceding definition of beauty then we may define the beauty both of the sending vision and of the sending task. We see first that a sending from God is perceived as beautiful because of the purpose or function of the sending. The fact that God is communicating is of high functional value and therefore the communication may be viewed as beautiful. A strong scripture example of this is Jerusalem. Whilst it may have some physical beauty the high place to which it is exalted (eg Ps 48:1-2) is almost certainly because it has been chosen as a witness from God.
To a Christian the task of spreading the Good News is beautiful both because of the function but also because of the associated holiness of the task. Proverbs tells us:
"Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country" We see a simile of the beauty that good news can bring. In Isa 52:7 we hear the famous declaration: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings". In this we see that the beauty is imputed both to the message and to the messenger. If we are set apart to preach the gospel then we are holy and are considered beautiful.
The lesson from esthetics is this: esthetics strikes at the heart of what man desires. The Bible makes quite clear that there are at least three ways that man can be appealed to. When we are sent on the business of God we must be careful and confident that we are using the right form of appeal to correctly convey the message of God.
Christian ethics is based upon relationships. First and foremost Christian ethics is based upon the relationship between God and man. Whilst we may view the law as transcendent truth the fact is that when the Ten Commandments were introduced they were heralded with "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt..." We therefore see that whilst a creator God could chose to interact with mankind on the basis of axiom he chooses instead to act based upon experience and relationship.
Biblically interpersonal relationships are considered to have a divine element. Thus when David murdered Uriah he was still deemed to have sinned against God. The Lord stated that ministering to others was akin to ministering to Him. The explanation given for this correlation is that each person either is a child of God or has the potential to be one. Thus any action we take with or against another human being is an action with or against one of God's children.
The flip side of the same argument is that epistemological and ontological considerations should enforce our need for a Godly ethic. Put another way as Christian's have been sent into the World and as people's knowledge about God and knowledge of God is generated from their experiences of those things that God sends to them then our behavior directly impinges upon the world's perception of God.
Again it must be stressed that this is not just a philosophical discussion. The knowledge that people have about and of God is not simply a matter of sociologic interest. As stated earlier the revelation of God should lead to salvation and salvation leads to further revelation of God. If the revelation of God that someone receives is skewed or marred by the inadequacy of the transmission media (us) then it may well not result in salvation.
One final point to note in closing upon the topic of ethics is that God's choice to reveal Himself to the world through our actions is based upon grace not ability. We are not to consider ourselves as the crowning achievement of creation. Rather we are the worms that God chose by grace and which by grace He is allowing to participate in His sending missions. If our native worth contributes anything to the sending message at all it is merely that God really has no standards with regards to who He will save in grace.