Empiricism and 1 John 1:1-3

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

In debates on epistemology, or how knowledge is obtained, our text is often cited to support empiricism, or the view that sensations are basically reliable, and that knowledge is obtained or derived from our sensations. If the substance and the veracity of the gospel are dependent on the eyewitness testimony of the apostles, then the denial of the reliability of sensations is also a denial of the reliability of apostolic preaching, and thus a denial of the reliability of Scripture.

The argument backfires. The Bible contains many examples demonstrating that the senses are fallible and unreliable. Elisha, by the power of God, exploited this and won a battle against the Moabites (2 Kings 3:22-23). Then, that time when God spoke from heaven in reply to Jesus’ prayer, some in the crowd thought that it was thunder, and others thought that it was an angel (John 12:28-29). The Bible’s own claim is that it is true because God himself breathed out the words – it is a product of divine inspiration. When an eyewitness testimony that is recorded in the Bible is said to be true, it is known to be true not because it is an eyewitness testimony, but because the Holy Spirit testifies that this particular sensation or testimony is true.

Thus the claim that the Bible itself is dependent on the reliability of sensations because it refers to eyewitness testimony turns inspiration on its head, and is in fact a denial of inspiration. The matter is serious. Those who advance or support such an argument has sinned against the Holy Spirit. Let them stop debating epistemology, but offer repentance with great fear and sincere mourning.

This is a broad answer to any argument that appeals to accounts of sensations in the Bible as support for the reliability of sensations. But when one appeals to our text to assert such an argument, the implication is even more alarming.

Consider the interpretation that the empiricist must give to this passage in order for an appeal to it to be relevant to his position. On the basis of this text, it would be irrelevant for him to assert merely that sensations happen, or that John saw something, touched something, sensed something. Rather, for an appeal to this text to be relevant to his position, the empiricist must assert, on the basis of this text, that John’s seeing has something to do with knowing what he saw, and that John’s touching has something to do with knowing what he touched. What did John see? What did John touch? The Word of Life, which the Bible and all Christians affirm to be God, to be divine.

The trouble is that God has always insisted that he is invisible and without form (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15; 1 Timothy 1:16-17). Therefore, to assert that a person can see the body of Jesus, and by this seeing detect or infer that Jesus is the very Word of Life, even “that which was from the beginning” (v. 1), amounts to a denial of the spirituality and transcendence of God. And to deny the spirituality and transcendence of God is not only a rejection of the entire religion of the Bible, but it also makes nonsense of the incarnation itself (if the Word was already non-spiritual and non-transcendent, how was it an incarnation to possess a body?), which is the very thing that John tries to defend in his letter.

Therefore, an appeal to the passage to support empiricism is at the same time a repudiation of the Christian religion, and of one’s confession in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. It suggests something very sinister in the person. It is blasphemy and spiritual suicide. If the argument is taken seriously, we must conclude that the person is not a Christian. Exercising the patience of Christ, we should accept that someone like this may just be stupid and careless, and is unaware of his blasphemy. After all, if he is a competent thinker, he would not support empiricism.

To the empiricist, to the one who affirms that sensations are reliable and that knowledge can come from sensations, we plead, “Please, if you must hold to this false and absurd philosophy, if you must deceive yourself and others, at least do not blaspheme the divine essence, and do not deny the nature of God and the deity of Christ, lest you perish in hellfire with the reprobates.” If he insists that the text endorses the reliability of sensations even after the implications have been explained to him, he should be tried before the church and excommunicated.

The true interpretation of the passage is simple, and obvious from its language. If by seeing and touching, you cannot even tell if I am a plumber or a preacher, how can you tell by your senses that a man is the incarnate Word of Life, the Eternal One? John does not say that he learned that Jesus was the Word by seeing and touching him, but he says that what he saw and what he touched was the Word. He is telling his reader what it was that he saw and touched, and not that he learned what it was that he saw and touched by his seeing and touching.

Suppose I say, “That man I just shook hands with at church was the governor.” I would not intend to suggest that I could tell that he was the governor by shaking hands with him. I would only be telling you who it was that I shook hands with, that the governor was at church, that I was in close proximity to him, and had a direct encounter with him. Likewise, John does not say that he inferred that Jesus was the Word by seeing and touching the body of his incarnation, but he says that what he saw and touched happened to be the Word, to be God himself. The reason that he makes a point of this is to defend the incarnation, that it really happened: “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2-3). He does this without denying the nature of God, and without making a complete fool of himself.

The Word, Jesus Christ, who is God, came in the flesh to save his people, so that by believing in him, we will have fellowship with him and with the Father. To have faith in him is more than to acknowledge his name as a mere sound or symbol, but to grasp and affirm the nature of his person and his work. It is necessary to confess his deity, his spiritual and transcendent essence. He was God in the flesh, and because he was God, one could not tell that he was God by sensations associated with his flesh. For this reason, the empiricist’s appeal to our text implies a complete rejection of the Christian faith. Rather than winning the debate on epistemology, he has lost the confession of faith that is necessary for salvation.