Epistemology is the study of knowledge and seeks to answer the question of how we can have knowledge and certainty. Metaphysics is the study of reality and responds to questions regarding whether there is anything beyond the physical or natural.
While I have often spoken of these two as interdependent, I have also been outspoken regarding the priority of epistemology over metaphysics in the context of fields of inquiry. Some might conclude from that prioritization that I am a foundationalist.
Foundationalism is a theory of epistemic justification (particularly espoused by Aristotle, and later, Descartes) that demands that beliefs must be warranted, or based on some foundation (in contrast to, for example, coherentism, which simply requires that a belief be coherent with a set of other coherently fitting beliefs in order to be justified).
In prioritizing epistemology over metaphysics as a field of inquiry, I am not drawing a foundationalist conclusion, but I am carefully qualifying the context of that prioritization. Clearly, if we are considering the realm of reality, or asking about what actually exists, then metaphysics comes first. Reality comes before the questioning of that reality. What exists, exists, and whether it is questioned or not has no bearing at all on its existence. So, in the realm of what actually is, metaphysics comes first.
However, in the context of human inquiry, we are seeking to understand what actually is. Metaphysics cannot come first in this context, because we have to have a reason to prefer one explanation over another. This is not to draw a foundationalist conclusion, for example, that the existence of God must be justified in order to be true. On the contrary. God’s existence has nothing to do with whether or not He can be explained or whether or not His existence is warranted. He either exists or He doesn’t. But human inquiry in this area is the pursuit of understanding what is true. Does He exist or doesn’t He? Various epistemological models justify their conclusions in different ways. Humean empiricism says He doesn’t exist because He has not been (and presumably cannot be) sensed. Cartesian rationalism reasons to His existence from the first assumption that He doesn’t exist. But the Biblical model describes the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7, 9:10).
Consequently, the Biblical epistemology assumes the Biblical God’s existence at the outset and works from that premise. That He exists comes first – that is the metaphysical actuality. Metaphysically speaking, that I understand He exists comes after. But how I come to understand He exists is the epistemological question that I must first answer before I can support the metaphysical supposition and know whether or not that supposition is certain or correct.
Metaphysics (the reality) comes first in actuality, but epistemology (how we can answer the question of what is reality) comes first in inquiry. Before I can derive answers in any field of inquiry, I must have some basis for preferring some answers over others. That is the epistemological question. My preferring some answers over others has no bearing on the actual legitimacy of those answers, but is an important reflection on the source of authority upon which I rely. For a Biblicist, that source of authority is the Bible. According to the Bible, that God exists is the metaphysical reality (Gen 1:1) – and that comes first in the realm of actuality. At the same time, the Bible also asserts epistemic truth regarding how we can have knowledge and certainty – by the fear of (right perspective of and response to) the Lord (Prov 1:7, 9:10). The epistemic proposition is simply that knowledge begins with the acknowledgment of Him. For the purposes of our inquiry, we are given, as first principle, the means whereby we can have certainty of knowledge. In other words, in the realm of the human pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, the epistemic question comes first (how can we have wisdom and knowledge?), and is answered with metaphysical reality (by the fear of the Lord).