Paul Moser’s Gethsemane Epistemology

Lately I have been reading Paul Moser’s The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. The main argument of the book seems to be that: If there is a God then 1) we could expect that God to act in severe or strict ways and 2) we could expect life to be severe.

As he develops this argument Moser unfolds his religious epistemology, what he calls a “volitional epistemology.”

Here is what Moser says:

Before a God worthy of worship, however, our epistemology must be inherently volitional and not merely intellectual. It must be an epistemology of Gethsemane that can accommodate divine corrective reciprocity inwardly at the level of the human will. Arguably, humans should expect to need God’s direct and specific evidential help, via divine self-revelation, in their coming to know God. This fits with the position of traditional monotheism that God is sui generis in perfect moral character and thus without true substitutes regarding a source for firsthand evidence.

He calls it “volitional epistemology.” I want to call it “Gethsemane Epistemology.” It is the religious epistemology based off of entering into a volitional struggle with God. In other words one can only know God as one struggles to carry out God’s will. This sort of epistemology is best exemplified in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus struggles to say “your will be done.”

All of this sort of seems strange right? Can’t we come to know about God through proofs, through nature, through reading scripture? In one sense yes, we can come to know about a being called God in this way; but ultimately we cannot know God apart from being in a relationship with him, and that entails doing God’s will.

We cannot know God apart from doing God’s will. (John 7:7 & 8:31-32)

Moser makes an argument for this claim, its not found in any one spot in this book, but its weaved throughout it. Roughly here is what I take the argument to be:

Definition: “God refers” to a being, that if it existed, would be maximally worthy of worship.

  1. If God exists, then God would be personal.
  2. If x is personal, one can only know x through personal modes of knowing.
  3. God exists.

Therefore: One can only know God through personal modes of knowing.

Everything in his argument hinges on the second premise. If you don’t believer that premise, the the argument falls apart.

So what is the upshot of this “Gethsemane Epistemology?” Its that we shouldn’t expect to know God simply through non-personal modes of knowing i.e. naturalistic or quasi-scientific premises. In other words you can’t know God simply through a bunch of premises in a propositional argument. One cannot simply think or reason one’s way into God’s presence. What would be required to know God is some sort of personal experience with him – this would include something like the Gethsemane experience, where one is forced to decide whether or not one will cooperate with God’s will. After all, what is more relational than cooperation towards a shared purpose? (In this case, atonement for all of humanity.)


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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