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Knowledge by Ritual
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Knowledge by Ritual

A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology

by Dru Johnson

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What do rituals have to do with knowledge? Knowledge by Ritual examines the epistemological role of rites in Christian Scripture. By putting biblical rituals in conversation with philosophical and scientific views of knowledge, Johnson argues that knowing is a skilled adeptness in both the biblical literature and scientific enterprise. If rituals are a way of thinking in community akin to scientific communities, then the biblical emphasis on rites that lead to knowledge cannot be ignored. Practicing a rite to know occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible. YHWH answers Abram’s skepticism—"How shall I know that I will possess the land?"—with a ritual intended to make him know (Gen 15:7–21). The recurring rites of Sabbath (Exod 31:13) and dwelling in a Sukkah (Lev 23:43) direct Israel toward discernment of an event's enduring significance. Likewise, building stone memorials aims at the knowledge of generations to come (Josh 4:6).

Though the New Testament appropriates the Torah rites through strategic re-employment, the primary questions of sacramental theology have often presumed that rites are symbolically encoded. Hence, understanding sacraments has sometimes been reduced to decoding the symbols of the rite. Knowledge by Ritual argues that the rites of Israel, as portrayed in the biblical texts, disposed Israelites to recognize something they could not have seen apart from their participation. By examining the epistemological function of rituals, Johnson's monograph gives readers a new set of questions to explore both the sacraments of Israel and contemporary sacramental theology.

Product Details

Publisher: Eisenbrauns
Publication date: 2016
Bibliographic info: Pp. xx+289
Language(s): English


Cover: Paper
Trim Size: 6 x 9 inches



"Epistemology and ritual are rarely considered together. They are often opposed ('mindless ritual'), and ritual is more often associated with belief than with knowledge. At best, ritual is understood as an expression of knowledge that has been arrived at by other means. Dru Johnson doesn't think these positions do justice to either ritual or epistemology. In Knowledge by Ritual, he argues that human knowledge is 'ritualed.' Ritualed knowledge isn't some bizarre mystical form of knowledge but a central feature of scientific learning, modernity's paradigm of knowledge acquisition...All this helps to close the supposed gap between scientific and religious knowledge, since knowledge-by-ritual is also a key feature of biblical knowing."—Peter Leithart on First Things, web exclusives

Knowledge by Ritual is an excellent example of interdisciplinary research that yields fresh and at times provocative suggestions. Johnson provides a unique contribution to the study of ritual in the HB and NT by drawing on texts beyond the cult and by demonstrating the epistemological function and theological character of ritual. Finally, Knowledge by Ritual offers new vantage points from which to investigate depictions of embodied and ritualized practices in biblical literature and sacramental theologies.—Benjamin S. Davis, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Bulletin of Biblical Research 26 (2016): 557–58

Knowledge by Ritual offers a robust and coherent biblical epistemology. With ample examples, philosophical support, and even some pictures, Johnson shows how knowledge of God in Scripture is inextricably "ritualed." We cannot know apart from the embodied practices in which we engage, and the trusted authorities to whom we listen. He also demonstrates that ritualed knowing is no mere marginal subject for the biblical writers, but is of central concern. I can't not see it as I now read the Bible.—Matthew Lynch, Westminster Theological Centre, OnScript Podcast.

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