Mostly sparked by debates regarding evolution, I have become curious what epistemological positions exist in Catholicism.

I understand the doctrinal priority of biblical texts, so from a Christian point of view they take precedence over scientific ideas in case they clash. Once those central texts are accepted as revelation, this seems to be internally consistent to me.

My question is with regard to which specific methods are used to arrive at the conclusion that the central texts are divinely revealed. Usually talks about this are filled with words like "logical", "rational", or other terms of a similar nature. What I never saw is a description of what constitutes logical or rational methods, how they are derived, how they lead to acceptance of what Christianity considers revelation, and how they disqualify the validity of other methods in case of conflicting results. Also, how do those same methods applied to the claims of other religions lead to rejection of those claims while leading to acceptance of a Christian position?

I am interested in the epistemological methods that the school(s) of theology that exist(s) within Catholicism use(s) to arrive at the conclusion that the bible is revelation, which seem to me to be necessarily a priori to biblical texts, or in other words: they cannot come from commandments within the texts.

(I posted the same question with regard to Islam on islam.se. Strictly speaking I am interested in the epistemological positions of all major Christian traditions, but have been advised to focus on one.)

  • Welcome! This is a good question, but it's not a good fit here for two reasons – the definition of "orthodox" is a matter of opinion, and there are numerous epistemological positions. If you are able to clarify what you mean by "orthodox," perhaps limiting it to a particular tradition (such as Catholicism or Evangelical inerrancy) this may be answerable here. When you get a chance, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel is protesting Jul 18 '16 at 13:43
  • @Nathaniel Edited, thanks for the advice. – G. Bach Jul 18 '16 at 20:45
  • Why are you excluding Protestants from orthodoxy? – curiousdannii Jul 18 '16 at 21:31
  • I'm not going to discuss my reasons for that. If that is a reason for people not to answer my question, I can take out the phrase "orthodoxy" from my question. – G. Bach Jul 18 '16 at 21:47
  • What you are asking is well worth knowing and therefore a good question. However, I think you will simply have to split this question so that it is not too broad for this site. In one question, you could ask what are Catholic teachings on this, in another ask what are Lutheran teachings and so on - although in practice you will probably have an adequate consensus from just 2 or 3 questions. – Dick Harfield Jul 18 '16 at 21:53

There is actually an encyclical devoted almost entirely to this topic, St. John Paul II’s Fides et ratio, published in 1998.

In that encyclical, John Paul sets down some essential principles for reconciling the truths known through natural reason alone (reason unaided by faith) and revealed truths (those that can only be known though faith).

These principles can be summarized as follows:

  • There is never a conflict between truths known through natural reason alone (hereafter, I will refer to these as “truths of reason”) and truths that require revelation by God (hereafter referred to as “revealed truths”). If something is true, then it can never contradict another truth, whether revealed or not. All truth, in the end, comes from the Holy Spirit. (That is the gist of numbers 36-42; this idea is also the topic of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, from Vatican I.)
  • Although the Church does not endorse particular philosophical schools (including epistemological schools), the Church can say that those philosophies that fail to go beyond mere appearances, and do not seek their foundation, are not adequate tools for understanding the Faith (no 83). (The Pope is probably thinking of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his followers, who famously denied the knowability of the “noumenon,” or “thing-in-itself”. He is not saying that Kant has nothing good to contribute, but that agnosticism of the kind proposed by Kant is not helpful for understanding revealed truths.)
  • The Church should support the contribution of the empirical sciences. On the other hand, it should be recognized that the method employed by these sciences is not the only way to have access to the truth (nos. 83 and 88). Nor is there any fundamental contradiction between what the Faith teaches and what science proposes (no. 88). (Hence, as an example, if biology finds that all life forms have evolved ultimately from a single species, well and good; the perceived differences between this theory and what the Book of Genesis seems to propose can easily be overcome by understanding that the author of Genesis was not attempting to write a scientific treatise on the origin of species, nor are any of the truths actually asserted by Genesis in any way contradicted by the theory of evolution.)
  • The empirical sciences, philosophy, and theology—although all legitimate sources of truth—operate based on different principles and using different methods (no. 92). For example, the empirical sciences generally use the hypothetical-deductive method; philosophy (at least the kind advocated by the Pope) uses a method that deduces causes based on the observed effects (no. 83); theology begins with the truths that God has revealed and uses reason to draw out the logical conclusions (that is the gist of Chapter II, nos 16-20).

More à propos the O.P.’s particular questions:

Regarding the reliability (or inerrancy) of the Scriptures, the epistemological path is as follows: canonicity -> inspiration -> inerrancy. At the end of the day, the reliability of the Scriptures is a truth of faith, not a truth of reason. Although the Scriptures can be submitted to tests proposed by the modern sciences, those sciences cannot “prove,” as one proves a mathematical theorem, that the Scriptures are reliable. Rather, this truth depends epistemologically on revelation from God, which in turn, is mediated by the Church (which is to say, we have access to the truths revealed by God thanks to the Church, who has the authority to teach those truths).

The way the Church has shown the reliability of the Scriptures is by affirming their canonicity. In the fourth and fifth centuries, in various places but most notably in Carthage and Rome, synods of bishops sifted through the evidence and chose all those works, and only those works, that could be considered inspired by the Holy Spirit. Their criteria were (1) fidelity to accepted Catholic doctrine (2) continuous use in liturgical celebrations (3) for the New Testament, traceability to the authority of an Apostle. The lists produced in the synods of Carthage and Rome are identical in substance with the 73 books of the Catholic Bible. (These can by found in the Enchiridion Symbolorum edited by Denzinger and Hünnermann.) The canon was not, however, definitively or solemnly “closed” until the Council of Trent (in response to changes in the canon proposed by Protestant reformers).

Canonicity, or inclusion in the Canon of Scripture, is the Church’s judgment that a particular work is inspired—which means, essentially, that the Holy Spirit is to be understood as the primary author. If God is the primary author, it follows that everything affirmed as true by the human author (and the whole problem of exegesis hinges on what the author actually meant to affirm) must be considered as affirmed by God—hence, true. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] nos. 105-108.)

That is the epistemological path that the Church proposes for the Scriptures, and if an epistemological school is to be compatible with the Catholic Faith, then it must fall within these parameters.

(One sees immediately, for instance, that Kantian agnosticism will make the passage from canonicity to inspiration very difficult. On the other hand, Platonic-inspired theories of knowledge based on recollection or the Augustinian_rationes seminales_, as well as Aristotle’s more experience-based approach, could be made to work.)

In fact, substantially the same epistemological path is to be used for any revealed truth: the Church has the authority to interpret (but not invent!) the truths revealed to it by God (keeping in mind that the definitive revelation was given in the person of Jesus Christ, and that there is no more “public” revelation beyond him, and nothing fundamental to be added to the deposit of faith after the age of the Apostles). These constitute the so-called deposit of faith (CCC no. 84), entrusted to the Church, especially to the Apostles and their successors the bishops. What the Church, through her teaching office, or Magisterium, after consulting the Scriptures and also the Church’s constant tradition, affirms to be an article of faith, the faithful are bound to believe with divine and catholic faith. (An excellent summary of how faithful Catholics are bound believe various Church teachings can be found by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s commentary on the profession of faith required in various situations.)

In conclusion: the Church gives full liberty to adopt any epistemological theory, so long as it does not clearly deny the very possibility of gaining access to revealed truth.

  • That was quite interesting, thank you; but I'm not sure it answered my question. While your answer shows that the Church has a position that is aimed at making sure that any person following it has beliefs consistent with Catholicism, it doesn't really address how to arrive at accepting Catholicism, or weigh the arguments for accepting Catholicism against those for accepting any other position. – G. Bach Jul 26 '16 at 21:40
  • Maybe my question wasn't phrased explicitly enough; what I'm looking for is methods from without the religion that lead to its acceptance (and are accepted by the religion), not ones from within the religion that guarantee consistency. It seems to me the latter are necessary for anyone to be able to look at the world and remain in the religion without having to live with a contradiction, and the former are necessary to be convinced by the teachings of the religion. – G. Bach Jul 26 '16 at 21:40
  • @G.Bach, I guess my point is, the Church would not divide methods in quite the way you describe. Methods for knowing the truth are either natural (that is, they make use of reason unaided by faith) or supernatural (that is, they start of with truths of the faith). Both are perfectly valid. The former is the purview of both empirical science and philosophy; the latter is the purview of theology. In and of itself, natural reason (which also comes from God)—i.e., the pursuit of knowledge that does not require faith—leads to and is consistent with the Faith.... – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 27 '16 at 4:31
  • @G.Bach I guess I should mention that, for the Church, “faith” specifically means “supernatural knowledge of God and of those truths revealed by him.” (“Supernatural” means that our unaided reason is incapable of reaching it; that is, God needs to infuse a virtue into the soul of the believer, that enables his reason to know God and assent to whatever God proposes for belief.) So, for instance, unbaptized persons (who are not actively learning about Christianity) do not yet have the gift of faith, although their reason is ready for that gift, if they seek it. – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 27 '16 at 4:39
  • @G.Bach If your question is, “How does (say) a Buddhist come to know that what the Catholic Church proposes for belief is true?” then the “methods” are as varied as the persons who make this step. However, such a person (1) might notice logical inconsistencies in his own system of beliefs; (2) might feel that his current system does not satisfy his deepest longings and begin to seek elsewhere; (3) might notice the logical consistency of the Catholic Faith and notice that the data from other sciences point in the direction of that Faith; (4) experience that the Faith satisfies his longings. – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 27 '16 at 4:48

As I understand your question, it deals with the identification of the medium of divine Revelation. I will divide my answer in two parts, providing some broader context in the first.

Stages and structure of the medium of divine Revelation

In the case of "sealed" views of divine Revelation, such as those held by Jews, Christians and Muslims, i.e. of a divine Revelation that has been fully completed in the past, the medium of Revelation which must be identified includes two stages:

  • the original medium through which God has revealed in the past, and

  • the proximate medium that currently holds the "deposit" of what God has revealed through the original medium and, in some views, provides authoritative identification and interpretation of that Revelation.

Regarding the original medium, and focusing on the "ultimate" such medium, Jews, Christians and Muslims identify it with Moses, Jesus Christ and his Apostles, and Mohammed respectively.

Regarding the proximate medium, there are two main views on its structure:

A. It is a book plus a tradition, both interpreted by a divinely assisted and authoritative magisterium, which is the belief held by Rabbinic Jews and Roman Catholics/Eastern Orthodox.

B. It is just a book, which is the belief held by Karaite Jews, Christian Protestants and Quranist Muslims.

The views of the main denominations of Islam, i.e. Sunni and Twelver Shia, seem to be intermediate between these two, as they recognize the Quran and also the oral traditions about Mohammed (hadith), which were eventually written down in collections of books, different for each denomination.

In the Catholic Church, the doctrine of the proximate medium of Revelation was stated magisterially first by the Ecumenical Council of Trent and then by the Ecumenical Council Vatican I, in its Dogmatic Constitution "Dei Filius", which quotes Trent:

"Furthermore, this supernatural revelation, according to the faith of the universal Church, declared by the holy Synod of Trent, is contained "in the written books and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand" [Council of Trent]." (ch. 2 "On Revelation")

"For the doctrine of faith, which God has revealed, has not been proposed as a philosophical invention to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully guarded and infallibly declared (fideliter custodienda et infallibiliter declaranda)." (ch. 4 "On faith and reason")

Identification of the medium of divine Revelation

Clearly the "strict" definition of faith, e.g. by the Ecumenical Council Vatican I in its Dogmatic Constitution "Dei Filius", ch. 3 "On faith":

"The Catholic Church professes that this faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, is a supernatural virtue, by means of which, with the inspiration and assistance of the grace of God, we believe that the things revealed by Him are true, not because the intrinsic truth of the things has been perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived."

cannot apply to the identification of the medium of divine Revelation, lest the epistemic situation be circular, as a person should have to identify M as the medium through which God reveals by an assent to the truth that "God reveals through M" based on the authority of God who revealed (through M) said truth (i.e. that He reveals through M)! Thus, the medium of divine Revelation must be rationally identified, based on its motives of credibility.

"Dei Filius", in line with its quoted teaching on the proximate medium of divine Revelation, states clearly that only the Catholic Church exhibits real motives of credibility of being such a medium:

"And, that we may be able to satisfy the obligation of embracing the true faith and of constantly persevering in it, God, through his only-begotten Son, has instituted the Church, and has bestowed on it manifest notes of that institution, so that it may be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher (custos et magistra) of the revealed word. For to the Catholic Church alone belong all those things, so many and so marvelous, which have been divinely established for the evident credibility of the Christian faith. Moreover, the Church by itself, because of its marvelous propagation, its exceptional holiness, and its inexhaustible fruitfulness in all that is good, because of its Catholic unity and invincible stability, is a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefutable evidence (testimonium) of its own divine mission." (ch. 3 "On faith")


Addendum: A podcast of a lecture on the motives of credibility mentioned in the last quote from Constitution Dei Filius by Dr. Lawrence Feingold, Associate Professor of Philosophy & Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri, is available here:


The handout provided at the lecture is available as a pdf file here:


  • "Thus, the medium of divine Revelation must be rationally identified, based on its motives of credibility." The methods to do this that are used by people who arrive at Christianity being true are what I'm interested in; unfortunately your answer does not address those methods. – G. Bach Jul 21 '16 at 6:50
  • I've just edited my answer to provide a link to a detailed exposition of the motives of credibility. – Johannes Jul 21 '16 at 16:42
  • Thank you for that - I won't have a chance to read those until Monday, but I will make sure to review it before the bounty period expires. For the sake of a self-contained answer, would you consider including a summary of the material? – G. Bach Jul 21 '16 at 17:30
  • I looked at the material, and it doesn't seem to address methods, instead it proposes data that the author considers to be evidence for the Catholic position. What I'm looking for are methods to evaluate data; for example, prophecy appears in all major religions, so a method is necessary to determine which of them, if any, are convincing. – G. Bach Jul 26 '16 at 21:22

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