14 August 2007

assurance and epistemology

I was teaching an upper level epistemology course this past spring term, and found myself wondering sometimes if discussions of assurance of salvation intersect in some interesting ways with discussions in epistemology between "internalists" and "externalists" about justification of belief.

The following are some thoughts on that topic, mostly of an exploratory nature, not designed to settle matters, but to think about how issues in contemporary epistemology might illuminate and intersect with issues of faith.

Briefly, the difference between "internalists" and "externalists" is this.

Internalists about epistemic justification say something to the effect that:
[I] S is justified in believing that p, if and only if S has some kind of cognitive access to the adequacy of the grounds for S's belief that p.
The definition of internalism can come in weaker or stronger forms. [I] is fairly weak. More strongly, S might not only need access to the grounds of S's belief, but S might also need to justifiably believe that the grounds for believing that p are adequate.

So, for instance, on an internalist view, for S to justifiably believe that there's a tree outside her window, not only must S have an experience of the tree as outside the window, S must also be aware that this experience is the basis of her belief and, furthermore, that such an experience is an adequate basis for her belief.

Strong forms of internalism tend to run into difficulties of infinite regress, but even weaker forms seem to run up against the difficulty (among others) that, in our experience it is often the case that we don't recall just why we believe certain things we're quite sure we know.

At any rate, in epistemological internalism the bottom line is some kind of introspective awareness of or access to the reasons why a belief has justification.

Externalists about epistemic justification say something to the effect that:
[E] S is justified in believing that p, if and only if S's belief that p is the output of a reliable process of belief-formation and there are no conditions that would override that reliability.
There are a variety of ways of tweaking externalist definitions of justification, but [E] is fairy typical. In particular, it is tricky spelling out precisely what counts as "reliability."

Returning to the previous example, on an externalist view, S justifiably believes that there's a tree outside her window if her belief is the outcome of reliable sense perception, correct functioning of concepts about tree-identification, and there are no conditions in place (e.g., ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs) that would undermine or override this reliability.

It doesn't matter so much whether or not S is aware of any or all these things but simply that they are, in fact, in place. Thus, in epistemological externalism the bottom line is the proper functioning some kind of actually reliable belief-formation process.

We can apply these epistemological issues to questions of assurance of salvation.

Let's say that "assurance of salvation" is a belief to the effect that "Jesus Christ is my Savior and, in him, I have salvation." Personal assurance, I assume, is not merely a generalized belief that "Jesus saves" or "Any who come to Christ in faith will not be cast out." Rather, it is the belief that Jesus is Savior for me. Thus, assurance is more like believing "I see the tree outside my window" than it is believing merely that "There are such things as trees."

Now, given the distinction between epistemic internalism and externalism, we can construct two different sorts of accounts of how such assurance works.

In both cases assurance is grounded upon looking to Christ as he is presented to faith in the promises of the Gospel, held out to us in word and sacrament. "Faith" in the case of assurance is like "seeing" in the case of the tree outside of the window - it is the means by which the reality is apprehended and a condition under which confidence in the truth of the reality is possible.

We can imagine cases of improperly seeing (mistaking a mural of a tree for a real tree, looking out windows while under the influence of drugs, daydreaming, wishful thinking, etc.) where the experience that may seem like "seeing" turns out to be only an analogue of real seeing (and in some cases, a pretty shoddy and second-rate imitation of seeing). Likewise, we can imagine cases of improperly exercising faith (temporary faith, hypocrisy, false hope, presumption, etc.) where the experience that may seem like "faith" turns out to be only an analogue of true, saving faith.

Now, an epistemologist more inclined towards internalism about epistemic justification might parse out assurance of salvation in the following way: It is not enough simply to receive and rest upon Christ by a true, saving faith in order to be assured of salvation. Rather, it is also necessary that one be aware that assurance is only rightly grounded upon a true, saving faith and, moreover, one must have access to the fact that one's faith is actually of the true, saving variety and not some lesser analogue of faith.

On the other hand, an epistemologist more inclined towards externalism about epistemic justification might parse out assurance of salvation in the following way: True, saving faith is an outcome of election in Christ and the effectual call of the Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word of the Gospel. As such, it receives and rests upon Christ and, in doing so, is an infallibly reliable kind of assurance-formation. One need not be aware that one's faith is true, saving faith in order to be assured, but only that it is in fact the case that one's faith is of that kind.

With regard to other supporting means of assurance (e.g., the testimony of the Spirit, evidence of grace in the fruit of faith), these would play out in different ways on different approaches.

For the internalist, these supporting means provide the evidence that one's faith is actually of the true, saving variety. Having this evidence is a necessary step in arriving at assurance since assurance requires access to the fact of one's faith being true and saving.

For the externalist, these supporting means provide evidence that there are no overriding conditions present and thus, by pushing aside items that might undermine such assurance, bolster an assurance already formed by faith itself. Moreover, they serve as further processes of assurance-formation, supplemental to faith itself and are rightly countenanced from within the exercise of faith.

With regard to hypocrites, temporary believers, and so forth, the possibility of false assurance (what the Westminster Confession calls "false hopes and carnal presumptions") would similarly play out in different ways on different approaches.

For the internalist, the possibility of false assurance would seem to be somewhat problematic, since one would need to have a good reason for not thinking that one's assurance is of the false variety. Thus a project of assessing the Spirit's testimony, evaluating evidences of grace, and so forth would seem to be part and parcel of becoming aware of the true, saving nature of one's faith and thus would be a condition for obtaining assurance.

For the externalist, the possibility of false assurance could also prove problematic but in a somewhat different way. Since false assurance eventually cannot sustain itself, considered over time temporary faith and hypocrisy do not consistently mimic true, saving faith and thus do not undermine its reliability in assurance-formation.

In other areas of life, some people may make mistakes about sense perception or judgments of character, but these mistakes not undermine the reliability of sense perception or character judgment globally. "Seeing a tree," after all, when a product of misperception is only analogous to and not univocal with "seeing a tree" in a case of actual perception. Likewise, the possibility of false assurance, does not necessarily undermine the reliability of faith and, even when faith-like, only proves analogous to and not univocal with saving faith.

Moreover, while ongoing patterns of sin, vehement temptation, times of spiritual darkness, and so forth might provide sufficient reasons to undermine assurance, apart from the presence of these experiences, there is no reason for faith to doubt its own assurance. While evidences of grace, the Spirit's testimony, and so forth provide further reliable assurances, they are secondary to the assurance that results from faith itself receiving and resting upon Christ as he is presented to faith.

As a philosopher, I'm inclined towards epistemological externalism even apart from the question of assurance. When applied to issues of assurance, moreover, I find it a more felicitous approach that, at least to my mind, is more in keeping with biblical data.

I think both approaches are consistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith's teachings on assurance and doubt that the Westminster Divines intended to settle detailed issues of epistemology. The Westminster Confession everywhere presents assurance as the assurance of faith, underscoring that it is a function of faith's own receiving and resting upon Christ. Thus, in the chapter on saving faith, it speaks of such faith "growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith."

Moreover, with regard to good works, the Confession says that such works are "the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers...strengthen their assurance," suggesting that assurance is not initially obtained by countenancing the evidence of faith's reality, but is obtained by faith itself, apart from works, though works serve to strengthen that already existing assurance of faith.

If one is an externalist, then the question "how do I know that my faith is true faith" is a distinct question from "how can I be assured of salvation," since the necessity of discerning the genuineness of faith is not built into the structure of assurance. Such discernment is not ordinarily a requirement of assurance any more than discerning the genuineness of sense perception is a requirement for knowing there's a tree outside my window.

Of course, there are contexts in which such questions can be raised (and sometimes rightly so), but it seems to me that they are questions about the reliability of one's means of assurance rather than questions about assurance itself.

In a more extensive discussion I'd want to place my comments on epistemic justification in the context of the doxastic practice approach to epistemology that operates in terms of the cultivation of epistemic virtue (in which faith and its analogues, as a theological virtue, have a central role, something akin to Aristotle's observation that knowledge begins in wonder - and not Cartesian doubts, I might add).

I'm also fairly persuaded by Wittgensteinian sorts of considerations about practices of knowing, how raising doubts already presupposes particular language games, and how all this is rooted in a life-world. That's barely a thumbnail sketch of my wider epistemological proclivities, but it'll have to do for the present context.

It is also the case that someone hell-bent on skepticism isn't going to rescued from that by any particular epistemological approach. After all, even if we could agree on accounts of what reliability consists in (and I say "accounts" because I very much doubt that there's any one uniquely correct account that spans across all contexts and practices), actually showing that a specific doxastic practice is in fact reliable will necessarily involve epistemic (though not vicious) circularity.

Still, I think these sorts of epistemological considerations have bearing on how one approaches the question of assurance of salvation and prove a useful theological and philosophical exercise.