There is a long history of Christian philosophy drawing a distinction between knowledge gained from rational/empirical sources and knowledge from divine revelation. It seems Tertullian was one of the earliest authors supporting this idea, followed later by Locke, Martin Luther, Calvin, and more recently, Swinburne.

The common theme is that there are different sources of knowledge (divine, natural), and some authors even say when the two conflict, the rational one must go. It varies by author, but there is also some kind of reflective equilibrium that occurs, that divine revelation is only actually knowledge if it doesn't contradict other existing divine and rational knowledge.

But I think asserting that there is some source of knowledge outside of the rational means that "anything goes."

How then is it possible to justify divine knowledge with consistency (a consistent belief system)?

† I am not as familiar with other religious philosophies, other examples are welcome.

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    The debate is quite old; see Galileo's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina : regarding the contradiction between emerging Copernican astronomy and Biblical text, "Galileo adopts an Augustinian perspective. In the Letter he references Augustine of Hippo’s work De Genesi ad Litteram, which calls for either a compromise between literal translation of scripture and astronomy or an allegorical standpoint, which could resolve future astronomical conflicts arising that could jeopardize the validity of the Bible." Oct 19 '18 at 15:03
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    @BurnsBA I don't mind keeping the logic tag here, but just to explain my rationale: This isn't really a question about logic, or about any logical notion. (It's not a question about consistency either.) Logical notions such as consistency, validity, soundness, etc., come up in almost every philosophical question. But that alone doesn't make them questions about logic. Just another intuition: I don't think you would expect experts in logic (as opposed to, say, experts in philosophy of religion) to be able to answer this question.
    – Eliran
    Oct 19 '18 at 16:28
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    @EliranH, agreed. For example, paraconsistent logics exist: plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-paraconsistent . The mere requirement that something be consistent is neither sufficient nor necessary for discussion around it to qualify as a topic in logic.
    – Paul Ross
    Oct 19 '18 at 22:40
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    @BurnsBA, as per the tag description here: ( philosophy.stackexchange.com/tags/logic/info ), logic is about formal deductive systems of reasoning. This is not aimed at a formal deductive system, so it is inappropriate for the logic tag.
    – Paul Ross
    Oct 19 '18 at 22:46

Anthony Bolos addresses the question of whether divine revelation or more generally religious belief is rational by presenting three positions on the subject:

  1. "evidentialism (the view that religious belief must be supported by evidence in order to be rational)"
  2. "fideism (the view that religious belief is not rational, but that we have non-epistemic reasons for believing)"
  3. reformed epistemology claiming "that religious belief can be rational without any appeal to evidence or argument"

Bolos summarizes these three positions from the perspective of reformed epistemology:

Reformed epistemologists, unlike fideists, hold that religious belief is rational, but unlike the evidentialist, they deny that this rationality is due to the beliefs being based upon evidence.

Reformed epistemology provides an answer to the question asked by the OP:

How then is it possible to justify divine knowledge with consistency (a consistent belief system)?

This suggests that the OP may be tempted to support evidentialism.

A person who supports fideism may not object, but would value their beliefs based on faith regardless how irrational the evidentialist thinks they might be. This is a defensive position.

The reformed epistemologists, however, go on the offense. They reject the privileged position evidetialists reserve for themselves and claim that the fideist's religious belief is "on par with other beliefs that we take to be rational".

They do this in two general ways according to Bolos:

  1. The first is to argue that there is no way to successfully formulate the charge that religious belief is in some way epistemically defective if it is lacking support by evidence or argument.
  2. The second way is to offer a description of what it means for a belief to be rational, and to suggest ways that religious beliefs might in fact be meeting these requirements.

As an example of how such arguments might be presented Bolos quotes Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Faith and Rationality, p 90:

Belief in the existence of God is in the same boat as belief in other minds, the past, and perceptual objects; in each case God has so constructed us that in the right circumstances we form the belief in question. But then the belief that there is such a person as God is as much among the deliverances of reason as other beliefs.

In summary to attempt to answer the OP's question there is room to doubt that the evidentialist is in a privileged position that cannot be challenged. Belief in other minds is one way to challenge that position.

For a further development of this see Anthony Bolos' article "Reformed Epistemology" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Anthony Bolos, "Reformed Epistemology", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/ref-epis/

  • Can Thomists hold "reformed epistemology"? Oct 19 '18 at 22:00
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    @elliotsvensson I don't see why not. Although the "reformed" is motivated by Calvin's "sensus divinitatis", which is a kind of evidence, this should apply to other Christians besides Calvinists or even non-Christian religious groups. It is more of a logical challenge to evidentialists. Thomists, however, may provide other arguments of their own. Oct 19 '18 at 22:12
  • Ok, thanks for this answer, it's given me something to think about. I'm not sure this really answers my question, but I think I need to better refine what I'm trying to ask, and this has some good input for that.
    – BurnsBA
    Oct 20 '18 at 12:19
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    @BurnsBA, for my take please see this answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/51175/31780 Oct 20 '18 at 12:40

Suppose you have a backyard garden, and you also go to a corner market for things you cannot grow yourself. (For the purposes of this metaphor, your garden is rationality, and the market is divine revelation. The produce is ideas, concepts, beliefs and facts.)

The advantage of your backyard garden is you choose what to plant there, you can grow your own food, and you know where it comes from, and how it grew. But there may also be useful things you could never produce there, no matter how much work you put in. The fact that you have two different sources you are drawing from doesn't mean "anything goes." The only things you can get from the corner market are what they stock. (It's worth noting here that one thing people claim to get from the market is "new seeds" that then can be planted in that rational garden.)

Whether or not this metaphor works for you may depend on whether you think the market actually exists. If you think the market is purely imaginary, then you won't accept that it has any valid boundaries (or really, that anything valid can be said about it at all). Conversely, perhaps what you're really interested in is not how concepts are produced, but how they are justified. But the assumption that rationality is the only legitimate source of justification is not itself rationally justifiable.

  • I think this answer follows in the tradition of "separate spheres" or the more recent "Non-overlapping magisteria". I suppose that is fine, but in order to be completely separate from the rational/empirical world, you're left with nothing of practical value (i.e., Russell's teapot, but nothing more). Otherwise you're back to my original question, that arbitrarily changing your (rational) foundation results in an inconsistent system.
    – BurnsBA
    Oct 20 '18 at 12:11
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    @BurnsBA Your objection relies on assumptions that aren't detailed in your original question. 1) "completely separate" --you didn't specify that, you said "different source." One river can have two different sources. 2) "arbitrary changes" -- no theist would agree that the changes are arbitrary. The idea that divine revelation is "arbitrary" already assumes that it is spurious. Oct 20 '18 at 16:51
  • 'Divine revelation' is explained in esoteric religion as a realisation of truth. The idea that a God sends a revelation to us from Heaven would be a way of speaking, Plotinus advises that when we read the mystics we should preface their words with 'It is as if...' But the exoteric religions take this language and interpret it literally. One has to dig deeper for the real meaning or the scriptures and teachings will appear just as naive as our interpretation of them. .
    – user20253
    Dec 22 '18 at 10:49
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    If I go to the corner market, I can carry what I get back in my hands, and anyone else can see it. That isn't the case with divine revelations. Dec 26 '18 at 23:46
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    @DavidThornley That is unfair. It isn't true of scientific knowledge, or other less blatant forms of rational thought either -- either way, you need an entire underlying context to discern the value of what you 'bring home'.
    – user9166
    Dec 27 '18 at 0:03

A sort of answer, after doing some research. This is from a book about epistemology, in a chapter discussing Kuhn and Wittgenstein. The question I think I wanted to ask is outlined as follows, discussing scientific paradigms:

Rival paradigms vie for the allegiance of the scientific community, the stakes being the future course of inquiry. Paradigm disagreements, Kuhn maintains, cannot be rationally adjudicated, for the canons of rationality are themselves in dispute. Standards of evidence, relevance, fruitfulness, and the like, determine what counts as justification within a paradigm. They vindicate particular scientific judgments if the paradigm's adequacy is presupposed. But since they presuppose the paradigm, they cannot justify it; nor can they vindicate particular findings when the paradigm's adequacy is in doubt. [1]

The point is, your participation is judged by the "rules of the game." You're a good scientist if you practice good science. Good theories follow established norms and practices. The author goes on to expand on the above (referencing Wittgenstein) to larger systems, not just science.

So this is a foundational problem, and it's not just limited to the philosophy of science. There are multiple incommensurable systems, that are self-contained in a specific kind of way (this is why I had the 'relativism' tag before someone edited it out).

But this also answers my question -- or provides one possible answer. There are multiple foundation paradigms, the practitioners follow a set of "rules" (in the sense of Wittgenstein's language games), and that's that. A bad analogy, because it introduces a teleology where this is none, is that in the same way there is Galileon physics and Einsteinian physics, there is a rational belief system and a religious belief system. There might be similarities, but the two are talking about different things. It's just not comparable.

Of course, there are other problems with that ...

[1] Catheine Z. Elgin, Considered Judgment, Princeton University Press 1996, p 84.


“A fertile soil for the origin and persistence of beliefs and ideas about a self, soul, God, or any other form of absolute entity, is misinterpreted meditative experience occuring in devotional rapture or mystical trance. Such experience is generally interpreted by the mystic or theologian as the revelation of a God, or union with some divine principle, or the manifestation of our true and eternal self. Such interpretations are conceived and accepted all the more readily since such meditative experience so greatly transcends the average level of consciousness that the contemplative is readily tempted to connect it with deity or some other eternal principle. The overwhelming impact of such meditative experience on the mind will produce a strong conviction of its reality and superiority; and this strong feeling of assurance will be extended to the theological or speculative interpretation too. In that way these interpretations will obtain a strong hold on the mind; for they are imagined to correspond with actual, irrefutable experience, when in fact they are only superimpositions on the latter.”

Abhidhamma Studies The Venerable Nyanaponika Thera Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time


Suppose I have a divine revelation and see some truth. As far as I'm concerned, this is what I saw in the revelation, and isn't a case of "anything goes". (I could be wrong about what I saw, but I can be wrong about physical things as well.) This is part of a rational belief system for me.

Now, I walk up to you and tell you the truth I've perceived. Another guy walks up to you and tells you something he just made up. How are you going to tell the difference? You know that two different people have told you things you can't empirically verify. Maybe one of us did have a revelation and the other has a brain tumor. Fitting all of this into a rational belief system is difficult for you, maybe impossible.

If you take all the truths people tell you, by selecting them you can make up a rational belief system. This may mean prioritizing truths by your opinion of the people telling them, or looking for truths that lots of people say. It's not going to be an exact science, but you can come up with something. Of course, there's no guarantee that anyone else will go through the same evidence and come up with the same belief system.

My conclusion is that it's individually possible to have a rational belief system with divine revelation, but that there are potentially insuperable obstacles in establishing a group belief. As support for this, consider that over half the population is seriously wrong on questions of religion (Christianity and Islam together are a majority, but neither is individually).

  • +1 for establishing a (new?) clear rational basis for individual salvation in Christian theology. Dec 27 '18 at 0:36

I prefer to refer to 'belief'. Since knowledge is necessarily true, and all truths are consistent, I can't see how logically there could be an inconsistency between rational and revealed knowledge. Also I always thought that the proper response to revelation is faith. We believe on faith, not from knowledge, that X has been revealed and X is true.

Those points aside ...

Because beliefs have two or more sources doesn't mean that they - the beliefs - conflict. When they do, I suppose the primacy of revelation could be grounded on the infallibility of revelation as the Word of God. What God reveals cannot be wrong or false but what we imperfectly rational epistemic agents take to be rational and true may be wrong or false and very often is.

This is not my view; I am simply scouting conceptual possibilities. I think it is a weakness in the 'What God reveals cannot be wrong or false' view that while it may be true, even definitionally true, it does not entail that we imperfect epistemic agents understand and interpret revelation correctly.

  • How far would you go in recategorizing other knowledge as belief? Things you learn from Wikipedia? Things you learn in a textbook? Things you learn from parents? Things you have come up with deductively / inductively but haven't yet had the chance to test? Dec 27 '18 at 15:12
  • I did not recategorise knowledge as belief. I switched to belief on the conceptual grounds that, whether we have knowledge or not, kinds of knowledge cannot conflict because what we know, if we know anything, is true, and all truths are mutually consistent. Belief seemed more apt when dealing, as the question does, with conflict.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 27 '18 at 15:21
  • I didn't get that the question dealt with conflict, other than the conflict between "all my thoughts must be formed the same way" and "there are two sources of thoughts". Dec 27 '18 at 15:24
  • 'when the two conflict' : GLT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 27 '18 at 15:25
  • Oh, ha ha, got it... yes that's it. Dec 27 '18 at 15:30

The biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has great points to make, and discussed them with Sam Harris. As I remember the gist of it, in the old testament era, the prophets made predictions and other statements, if the predictions came true, the prophet got accepted as real and their prophecies and other statements largely became cannon. For the new testament, pentacost was the key bit of theology to support the steering of the church by the apostles.

It is hard for us to understand the biblical-era view of the world, sense of cause and effect, and animism of the world. A good example of the power of revelation is I think found in understanding Moses and the plagues of Egypt - each plague showing the greater power of Yahweh over a particular god of the Egyptian pantheon. You have phenomena demanding an explanation (plagues), and neccessarily interpreted as some kind of judgement. A prophet suceeds in creating a narrative, weaving in their predictions with these (free us or else), and using them to point in a direction that gives them power or authority. Another example of this kind of narrative domination was the capture of the ark of the covenant.

Christianity and Islam as I understand it say the book is closed on revelation (until a second coming at least, for Christianity). For Judaism, I have heard there is a framework of interpretation that there were different eras of human development like there are of a human. In the early days God spoke directly to prophets, like infancy. Then indirectly to prophets, like childhood. And now we are in a mature era, it must be through us, we are responsible, and the time of close supervision has gone. Something like that.

The process of reform within a religion is key to understanding it, and I think should be taught as foundational elements when learning about it. Church councils, schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and rabbinic argumentation. The precise doctrinal details of these in a given sect have major, long term implications not just for where the sect will go, but where it can go.

Now, it's easy to look at religions and laugh. Many do dismiss all this. But, it is crucial to societies' survival and health, that we find ways for one generation to leave living messages, meaningful snapshots of their dilemmas and struggles, that future generations can imaginatively enter in to. Without roots in the past, we become atomised, dislocated, and societies unravel.

"Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him." "Religion is broader than the idea of gods and spirits and must not be defined exclusively in those terms." "Sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects." "If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion." - Durkheim

Durkheim points out that our concept of the definition of the word religion is very modern, and mainly founded in a discourse of demarcating science. In terms of their social role, religions have always been about social cohesion - as discussed here. Durkheim discusses how this is achieved through sacredness, the setting apart of things, by what we make taboo or put beyond question. It is easy to say, nothing should be. But consider ideals like free speech, or habeus corpus. We make various caveats on these, but it is a hard-won battle-wearied nous which tells us, however convenient it might be to abandon them in a given moment, in the long run the costs will be too high. Making ideas like these sacred, generates a kind of social immune response to violating them. Perhaps without this kind of behaviour, we do not have any society, nothing that unifies a group.

I don't defend divine revelation in the modern era. But know it's based on ancient circuits. Any unprecidently huge disaster will be interpreted as a kind of judgement, the ethics around it scrutinised, and some kind of moral explanation demanded. We engage with the world this way, as we engage with other people, imagining them into beings behind external phenomena. The 'winning' narrative may not be dispassionate cause and effect. And inevitably, science struggles with unrepeatable events and limited evidence from people who already made up their minds. Scientific method itself has to be kept alive as a narrative, and used creatively to explain things relationally, not just a set of mechanical tools. If it cannot maintain narrative domination, a different kind of story will be told. We should learn from the past to understand this, not simply sweep away religious history and ideas as old hat.


From the POV of Wittgenstein, (and modern Unitarians) these two kinds of knowledge are parts of different language games (logos and mythos). If they were to conflict, it would be because someone lifted rules out of one game and applied them in another, which is cheating.

The vast majority of people in complex religions that have existed for millennia simply do not believe dogma in the same way they believe the explanations of science, or the way they believe the evening news. The believe them in a way proper to religious information, in a way bracketed by tradition and mined for guidance. People discussing religious revelations do not ask whether they concord with physics, they discuss whether they contradict other dogmatic guidance.

Galileo was not persecuted for contravening Ptolemaic Astronomy, he was persecuted for suggesting that either the Pope should care more about physics, or he was stupid. Basically, he was heretical in putting these two forms of knowledge too close together.

To mix these two spheres is magical thinking, the idea that doctrine is expressed directly in physics and spiritual effort can control objective reality. To obliterate one with the other is just vengeful nonsense.

What is left if you take the science out of dogma is not Russel's teapot. What is left is a basis for moral discussion and framing that is not just the echo of something dead, and that is not too abstruse for ordinary people to speak from.

Every discussion of purpose and moral worth is based in some humanism. Humanism is informed by mythologies, and it cannot be otherwise. You can choose your current science as the context for a new religion, but it will quickly be out of date. Then the insights coalesced in the religion will be threatened by the fact that the science has moved on, unless you simply realize that the framing is not the message.


The other answers here don't seem to take into account what kinds of things divine revelations tend to actually be. The vast majority of them are directives, be that "Don't kill innocent people." or "Take over these three countries.", "Marry only one person.", "Don't have these three specific kinds of gay sex." or "Always carry a comb." How do those 'mean anything goes?'.

How would you rationally decide whether or not to have the kinds of sex banned (because there are plenty), or whether it is silly or essential for some guys to always know where they can get ahold of a comb (even though nobody can see their hair)? How can such a directive contradict other knowledge? So why focus on that possibility as the central question?

Some of the rest of them appear to be facts, but are wholly untestable "Mary died a Virgin." "I am Led to accomplish X and Way will be open." "Jesus (or The Last Imam) will come back some day and save us." "We will be the last generation born to our people." These might somehow contradict scientific knowledge or common sense, but they intend to do so.

Things like Creationism, the Platonic layout of the solar system, numerological prophesies like Millennialism and other major traditional clashes with science or common sense that can be proven wrong have not been divine revelations. They have significance because other stories are embedded in traditions that assume them, and the context has attached significance to them. Reiterations of them are not the kind of revelations that many traditions tend to accord the honor of trumping rational observations. The 'factual' content is arbitrary and untraceable, so the disproof is always open to doubt. And once it is interpreted and communicated, and the originator is dead, the content and interpretation are open to doubt. [Even the most ardent fundamentalist has to admit that some deductions from scriptural content involve more arrogance than inspiration. (The televangelist in the Christal Spire didn't die.) That is a totally different argument.]

What this kind of 'knowledge' does is provide markers of a faith tradition, and the sacrifice involved or the judgment evaded provides a cognitive dissonance tradeoff that solidifies tribal identity. That value may very well always trump behaving rationally. Because tribal solidarity itself is rational: it creates more effective placebos, it makes people less neurotic, it creates boundaries between nations that can never be expanded by war, and it does a few other things we could really use in the modern world, as our modern attempts at tribal solidarity seem to be failing as badly as our attempts to do away with it.

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