Father Abraham and The Epistemology of Exodus

August 7th, 2017 by

William (Billy) Abraham, in my opinion, is one of the fathers of analytic theology. He was doing theology in an analytic key years before analytic theology was named “analytic theology.” Thus, getting the opportunity to hear Billy present his paper, “The Challenge of Unbelief and Skepticism in the book of Exodus” at the Torah from Heaven conference, was a real pleasure. Abraham argued that the book of Exodus provides epistemic clues that explain the shift from unbelief to faith, from skepticism to deep commitment. In doing so, Abraham made a compelling case for the possibility of doing philosophy from the Hebrew Bible.

According to Abraham, one crucial passage in Exodus that gives its reader clues as to how to think about the shift from unbelief to faith is Exodus 9:13-17.

13 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 14 For this time I will send all my plagues upon you yourself, and upon your officials, and upon your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth17 You are still exalting yourself against my people, and will not let them go. 18 Tomorrow at this time I will cause the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. (NRSV. Italics added for emphasis.)

 Abraham calls this “a sobering depiction of a deity who will providentially use the rebellion of human agents to further his own ends.” The result is that Israel saw the work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. And they feared the LORD and believed in the LORD (Exodus 18:1, 10). However, an initial grounding of the knowledge of the LORD in his actions is not enough; there needs to be a sustaining of that knowledge into the future. How does the sustaining of that knowledge happen? According to Abraham, one way is verbal testimony. Through the singing of songs and verbal reports, testimony about what God has done at the Red Sea is preserved. Abraham mentions a second way: liturgical practices and worship. Liturgical acts are not empty practices; they are not mere religious duties. They are epistemologically significant. Religious rituals and other liturgical acts, “provide the opportunity for personal and corporate encounter with the divine that prevents past [verbal] testimony from descending into mere tradition with no meaning for the present.”

Let us take stock. Abraham argues that according to Exodus, God’s actions in the past are the grounds for knowledge about God. Verbal testimony and liturgical practices are the manner of sustaining the initial knowledge about God. When the Israelites’ faith in God is shaken, e.g.,. by suffering or trauma, verbal testimony and liturgical practices are meant to shore up their faith. It seems to me that this is a plausible epistemological reading of Exodus. So what contribution does this reading of exodus make to the field of philosophy? Let me make two suggestions.

 Abraham’s reading of Exodus provides fodder for current research in the growing field of the philosophical study of liturgy. Two important philosophical studies of liturgy have recently been published. Terence Cuneo’s Ritualized Faith and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s The God We Worship were published in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Dru Johnson’s Epistemology and Biblical Theology: From the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel is due out later this summer. Others who are doing work in this field of philosophy might want to draw from the sort of work that Abraham did in this essay.

Abraham’s work in this paper is an example of the type of work from which philosophers of religion can draw when reflecting upon religious experience and divine revelation. Until recently, philosophy has failed to recognize recent work on religious experience and divine revelation from other fields. Thankfully this is beginning to change. For example, one might think of Notre Dame’s “The Experience Project.” (http://the-experience-project.org/) This project draws from new work being done in religious studies, theology, and the social sciences for the sake of philosophical reflection about religious experiences. What Abraham provides in his paper is an example of how Biblical Theology might make a contribution to the sort of project that is being undertaken at Notre Dame and other philosophy departments.

Although Abraham’s essay is merely a sketch of an epistemology that shows up in the book of Exodus, it seems to me that it is a sketch that one shouldn’t toss into a conference folder and forget about. That is because this sketch shows us what could happen if philosophers were to take the work of Biblical Theologians seriously.

In the next blog, we will continue engaging with the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible. We will take a look at what happens when a Hebraic account of truth meets Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theology.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.

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