Even casual readers of my blog will have picked up on my skepticism of religion. To be sure, I have not arrived at my atheism lightly; I was raised in a Christian household and for much of my childhood my father was a Presbyterian pastor. I grew up sitting in the pews, those of my father’s church and others. I made the decision to stop going to church and strike out on my own spiritual path around the age of 15, much to the dismay of some members of my family. Though they have always been supportive of who I am and [moderately] respectful of my decision to leave the church, I often entertain criticism for my atheism. But I have the great fortune of having a loving and supportive family, and despite our differing beliefs they have never made me feel like an outcast or, perhaps more appropriately, a goat among sheep. For this and other reasons, whenever I visit family and am invited to church I make an effort to attend. I do so out of love for my family, and am respectful regarding my differing convictions. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about them here…
This past Sunday I sat in on a Bible study and morning service at a Presbyterian church in the tip of the Bible Belt. I found the sermon to be interesting, but only because it was so typically problematic for Christian authority and ideology. I’d like to first present the pastor’s main point from the Christian perspective and then discuss the unaddressed issues in the passages and doctrines he underscored during the service.
The primary scripture reading for the sermon was Luke 11:37-54, wherein Jesus responds to the Pharisees and Lawyers who invite him to dine at their table. Refusing to partake in outward purifications, Jesus casts “woes” upon the Pharisees first and the Lawyers second. I won’t discuss the scripture passage in detail, as you can read it yourself in the link above. However, the pastor wanted to highlight the message in this passage that too often Christians neglect inner spiritual purity and believe that outward actions and ablutions make up for or hide inner sins. This is certainly an aspect of the passage. But I believe the larger, and more problematic aspects of this passage deal with problems of authority, sin, and punishment.
The pastor opened his sermon by saying that this passage troubled him greatly, and made him very nervous. While he did not say so, I assumed he was referring to the harsher judgement God will pass on leaders of the faith due to their elevated status in the Christian community as religious authorities (James 1:3). But he did not mention this passage. Nor did he mention the issue of authority presented in Luke. Which issue? Oh, just that the Pharisees pollute believers without their knowledge, and the Lawyers hamper believers in achieving salvation, all without their knowledge:
In chastising the Pharisees in Luke 11:44, Jesus says “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” At the time, the pastor said, Jews considered contact with the dead and with graves to be a polluting influence, and one that required cleansing to be seen as pure in the eyes of the Lord. By comparing the Pharisees to these unmarked graves, Jesus is apparently saying that the Pharisees are corrupting and misleading true believers.
As for the Lawyers, scholars of the Jewish laws, Jesus says in Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” Not only does Jesus rebuke the lawyers earlier in the passage for adding to the (presumably spiritual) burdens of the people and taking none for themselves, but in this passage he underscores how the actions of the lawyers have a very real and hindering effect on the spiritual progression of believers.
But the pastor did not mention James 1:3. He did not harken back to the Protestant roots of the Presbyterian tradition and encourage the congregation to question spiritual authority, to drink deep the words in the Bible over the words from the pulpit. Rather, he simply counseled that God requires us to tithe from our heart and soul, not just from our coffers. Further, feft unaddressed and lurking is the inherent tension in Presbyterianism between God’s utter sovereignty (affirmed in the service’s prayer), the influence of spiritual leaders, and the damning weight of sin. Growing up in a Presbyterian household, I often heard Romans 9:14-23 paraphrased:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…
God’s sovereignty is such that he can at once harden Pharaoh’s heart and then put to death the first born of every Egyptian family as punishment for Pharaoh’s actions. He can close the eyes of some and cast them into eternal damnation, while opening the eyes of others at his whim. And the those stewards of his inerrant word, the modern day Pharisees and Lawyers, can mislead those in the pews without their knowledge either knowingly or unknowingly.
So how shall we be damned? By God’s will, or by the error of those in authority? The former is simply the latter one step removed. I think it a piteous consolation prize that false teachers would be judged more harshly than others; for what harsher judgement exists than to be damned to eternal punishment without trial, to be held accountable for that which is inescapable? John M. Frame defines apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, as giving “reason for our hope.” But what hope do those who are not in God’s favor have?
I recently learned that John Hick has passed away at the age of 90. I have been holding on to this piece for quite some time, as I feel I haven’t quite said what I want to say, or am not saying it quite as succinctly as I would like. Regardless, I would like to post this in memory of John Hick, with whom I have almost always disagreed but always enjoyed reading nevertheless. As always, please feel free to offer your critiques and comments, especially since I view this as a fairly rough piece.
John Hick begins his explication of the Irenaean Theodicy by briefly summarizing and simultaneously discounting the Augustinian approach. I shall not spend much more time than Hick does in defining the Augustinian approach, and the only reason I do so at all is to offer a companion against which Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy might be compared as divergent from traditional Christian theodicy. In short, the Augustinian model follows a traditional Christian viewpoint of creation and the fall of man. It postulates that men (and angels) were created as perfect, free, and finite beings who fell from perfection as a consequence of their misuse of freedom. Hick states that, “the Augustinian approach…hinges upon the idea of the fall as the origin of moral evil, which has in turn brought about the almost universal carnage of nature.” An integral piece of Augustinian Theodicy inherent in thinkers all the way from St. Augustine to Alvin Platinga is the free-will defense against the Problem of Evil. This defense chiefly rests upon the idea that God’s creation was entirely perfect and yet man and angels chose to sin of their own free choice, which resulted in the evil that we now see present in the fallen world. Read more…
In common parlance the phrase “it is in my nature to ______” generally holds the connotation that the action is faultless, since the subject cannot possibly be held responsible for its own nature. The same would seem to hold for inevitable actions that derive from nature. At issue in this post is Augustine’s concept of ‘nature’, which encompasses a vague set of variables that are seemingly in flux. This creates several problems when considering the concepts of original sin, free will, and punishment. Specifically I believe that Augustine fails to define nature adequately and thereby leaves his interpretation open to a certain set of criticisms, which I will enumerate. First I will briefly outline Augustine’s argument surrounding the origin of sin in a free will, and the role that nature plays in his argument. From there I will offer an interpretation of our nature and will contrary to Augustine’s, namely that it is a fault of our nature to be mutable and thus it is unjust to punish the inevitable corruption. Drawing a contrast between these two viewpoints, I will show how neither option is consistent with his writings and thus neither is preferable. Read more…
I have previously written on some common misconceptions regarding determinism and its implications, spurred by a post over at what is now Reasons for God, a Christian apologist blog. While updating a redirected hyperlink, I noticed a post that had previously escaped my attention. Entitled, “Atheism and the Denial of Freedom” which posits that atheists, due to the nature of their beliefs, cannot in good faith (no pun intended) believe in free will. In this post I would like to once again correct a specious argument that unfairly saddles atheists with a belief in determinism.
I should first like to take to task the manner in which the author stacks his conclusions. I will ignore the particular definition of atheism the author utilizes, as it does not truly matter in this instance, and instead highlight the problematic nature of the assumptions he makes. This argument demonstrates not only the sophomoric approach applied, but also a failure to understand the robust discussion concerning the metaphysics of the universe that continues to this day in professional philosophy.
Today marks the Clergy Project going public. Sponsored in part by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Dan Barker and other members facilitate the group, which offers an intellectual shelter for those members of the clergy in various organized religions who are now inclined toward atheism, or at least seek to cut their ties with religion in some sense. Some have already left the ministry, but many are trapped; with families to support, bills to pay, and no marketable skills or means to gain them, the ministry has proven incredibly difficult to abandon for those who are so inclined. Many, too, risk losing their families, friends, homes, and their only stable source of income.
The Clergy Project seeks to make public the difficulties these individuals face, and to open up what began as a private, invitation-only support group to a wider audience in the hope of reaching those who may have thought they were alone in their intellectual growth. I have the great fortune of knowing an active member in the Clergy Project, and we had discussed the Project prior to it opening up to the public (though there have been several small news reports surrounding it in the past). We spoke one evening about the problem many Clergy Project members face with respect to personal integrity. Many must hide their true beliefs from their families or risk alientating themselves from their loved ones, and must often preach or counsel based on beliefs they no longer hold. This becomes especially poignant when no end is in sight, and no like-minded individuals are available for support. How can you respect yourself if you profess to believe that which you do not believe, and must live in accordance with principles you no longer adhere to? In this way the Clergy Project offers a glimmer of hope for the spiritually marooned. This is no guerilla war against evangelical Christianity – it is a Humanist project to the core if ever there was one. The Clergy Project is not so much about faith as it is about humanity, not so much about religion as it is about people.
I encourage all those who are interested to visit the website, read some of the testimonials, and, most of all, spread the word. While the project may reinforce the beliefs of the non-religious, it does all the more for those behind the pulpit or in the pew who have neither the means nor the momentum to leave.*EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Dennett is not a sponsor of the site, but was involved in the initial study that resulted in the formation of the group.*
For those who are so inclined, and even more so for those who are not.
“Humans are strongly biased to interpret unclear evidence as being caused consciously by an agent, almost always a humanlike agent. This cognitive ability to attribute agency to abstract sights or sounds may have helped our distant ancestors survive, allowing them to detect and evade enemies. It kept them alert, attentive toward possible danger. Better to jump at shadows than risk something or someone jumping at you.
This ability was adaptive, so therefore it is natural for us to assume the presence of unseen beings and to believe that such beings can influence our lives. It is equally natual to assume that such a being, if asked, can alter or affect what happens to us. Asking easily becomes praying…As social beings with these adaptations, we are now set up for belief in a divine attachment figure. We can attribute agency to it, transfer some of our early-life emotions to it, and as a result can believe that such a being desires to interact with us.”
A full review of this great book can be found here.
As promised, though much later than intended, this post represents Part I in a series concerning presuppositional apologetics as employed by Christian theologians. In this installment I shall focus on the claim made by John M. Frame in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God* that the basic reasoning behind the presuppositional approach is not a circular argument and is a valid argumentation form. By way of this treatment I shall also introduce why Frame and other such apologists believe this form of argumentation appears illogical to non-Christians.
What is ‘Apologetics’?
According to Frame, one of the leading Calvinist theologians, apologetics of any type focuses primarily on one of three approaches: proof, defense, and offense, though any complete apologetics will include all three. In the first, the defender of faith attempts to offer proof in support of her position which might persuade the interlocutor to concede a key point or accept a theory on faith altogether. In the second, the defender of faith seeks merely to provide a reasoned account for why she is justified, through reason or faith, in holding a given position or belief. Finally, a defender of faith assuming an offensive approach attempts to actively discredit contrary evidence in order to strengthen the case for the given claim.
Regardless of the approach, it is important to note that Frame views the purpose of apologetics as twofold; to at once offer a public recognition of Christ as the son of God and the Christian faith, as well as to offer “a reason for [Christian] hope.” What I would like to discuss here is one of the prominent theories, especially among Presbyterian forms of Christianity, viz. ‘Presuppositional Apologetics.’ This form of apologetics has gained notoriety after the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson were published and also featured in the film Collision: Hitchens vs. Wilson.
Presuppositionalism might best be described as biting the apologetics bullet. In this form of apologetics, the defender attempts to ‘even the playing field’ by way of bypassing arguments stemming from literary/textual criticism, logical issues in theology, or questions of evidentiary or historical nature. This is accomplished in a two-fold manner. First, as the name entails, the apologist uses Scripture as the measure by which all evidences and arguments must be evaluated, even (and especially, it seems) at the cost of sound argumentation and cogent lines of reasoning. Frame, and by extension any presuppositionalist, claims that all philosophies presuppose the primacy of one element or another, be it reason or existential experience, etc. This is the second means by which presuppositional apologetics seeks to undercut common methods of rational discourse, i.e. by alleging that even a rationalist is presupposing some measure or another. This would not necessarily be problematic, except that it is assumed all presuppositions are inherently equal in their epistemological or evaluator weight:
“Every philosophy must use its own standards in proving its conclusions; otherwise, it is simply inconsistent. Those who believe that human reason is the ultimate authority (rationalists) must presuppose the authority of reason in their arguments for rationalism. Those who believe in the ultimacy of sense experience must presuppose it in arguing for their philosophy (empiricism)…The point is that when one is arguing for an ultimate criterion, whether Scripture, the Koran, human reason, sensation, or whatever, one must use criteria compatible with that conclusion. If that is circularity, then everybody is guilty of circularity.”
Frame seeks to claim that any philosophical approach creates for itself standards by which it can then compare all considerations and premises. This form of apologetics seeks to argue that Christians are just as justified in claiming Scripture as the measure by which any claims may be justified and any premises evaluated. Before I explain why this is intellectual sleight of hand of the subtlest degree, it is worth examining the line of reasoning Frame utilizes to come to the conclusion that the Bible commands Christians to presuppose its truth (though even a few passing theological encounters should confirm for any philosopher that Christians rarely require an answer any more developed than a passage claiming to be the word of God.) I reproduce it here in its entirety in order to demonstrate the stretch that is required:
“’Lord’ in Scripture refers to the head of a covenant relationship. In that relationship, the Lord dictates to his covenant servants the way they are to live and promises them blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. He also tells them of the blessings that he has already given to them – his ‘unmerited favor,’ or grace , which is to motivate their obedience. Without words of grace, law, and promise, there is no lordship. To recognize the Lord is to believe and obey his words above the words of anyone else. And to obey the Lord’s words in that way is to accept them as one’s ultimate presuppositions.”
So, believing the Scripture to command that it must be treated as the ultimate presupposition, Frame contends that Christians are just as justified (if not infinitely more so) in accepting Scripture as a presupposition as any other philosophical system is in setting its own criteria for evaluation. In one sense, Frame is correct. As Richard Taylor once wrote, we must always start somewhere, even if we are to later return and revise the foundation of our inquiry. And certainly the creation of any new philosophical approach entails a re-imagining or reworking of the way we traditionally consider the world and evaluate our data. Regardless, presupposing the truth of Scripture is far different from presupposing the primacy of an evaluative tool. This is because reason and empiricism, to use Frame’s examples, are methods of evaluation – we utilize the spirit of these methods to evaluate premises. For example, in a rationalist approach, if a conclusion does not follow from its premises then the argument is fallacious. If, in an empiricist approach, we cannot experience a phenomenon, it cannot be confirmed. Rationalism and Empiricism are methodologies, whereas Scripture is not; it is itself a set of premises. What Frame has done, in the contortioned passage quoted above, is stretch the premises of the Bible to resemble a sort of methodology rather than series of claims.
Furthermore, even if we do treat Scripture as a methodology, it is certainly not a properly basic one. To use the Law of Identity as an example, A = A can be seen to be properly basic in that the world and its contents would quite literally be meaningless if it were not true. Rationalism goes so far as to posit that this law must be true in all possible worlds – for who can imagine a world in which objects are not what they are? Presuppositionalism makes use of such logical laws but only after creating a barrier which they cannot transgress, and so such a presupposition depends upon other presuppositions to function. Conversely, it is quite easy to conceive of a world in which Scripture is not true, and, further, doing so does not result in logical contradictions or absurdities. Additionally, Frame also makes use of logical and reasoning to confirm Christianity or other arguments but only after he has presupposed the truth of Scripture, which again is a premise and not a methodology. So, in short, Frame is merely claiming the truth of a premise and ignoring its irrationality or circular argumentation. Defending against the claim that a world can be imagined in which God does not exist, Cornelius Van Til originated what is known as the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God.
Van Til and the Transcendental Argument: God as Ground
On the one hand, the defender attempts to demonstrate that the existence of God is logically necessary for an atheistic as well as theistic worldview. On the other, the defender builds upon the alleged logical necessity of God by claiming that any argument not stemming from divine revelation is therefore not a valid argument, since it attempts to argue against God by excluding Him from His own created system, i.e. the world, the Bible, natural law, etc. Cornelius Van Til calls this phenomenon “borrowed capital” since the non-believer is allegedly using the knowledge of causality or reason, given to her by God, to argue against the existence of God. Now, prima facie this move may appear sound; for, if a defender can demonstrate that God is logically necessary for any rational worldview, then this opens the door to then argue for the validity of scripture.
However, a cursory examination of this approach shows these are two very different and ultimately unrelated claims, since philosophical arguments for the existence of God most often stem from the use of logic and rational reasoning, whereas any (non-circular) argument for or against the validity of scripture must necessarily address textual criticism concerns, logical problems, and evidentiary attacks. So, while it might be the case that God is logically necessary, this necessity offers no support for or against the truth of any scripture over and above that which confirms any qualities which must necessarily be attributed to God.
It is certainly worth noting that Frame does not accept Van Til’s Transcendental Argument because, while he agrees with the premise, the argument requires the use of additional arguments i.e. teleological, etc. to be sufficiently persuasive. It is puzzling that Frame at once recognizes that Van Til is merely postulating the truth of a premise without an argument despite having done so himself. Skipping the reiterations by Frame that all human beings are born with a knowledge of God’s existence and that creation also serves to demonstrate God’s existence (for, undefended, these are baseless claims), Frame does offer an explanation for why the circular reasoning of Presuppositional Apologetics lacks persuasive force for non-Christians.
Noetic Effects of Sin
Based on a theoretical concept popularized by Cornelius Van Til, the ‘noetic effect of sin’ is an attempt to explain or justify why non-Christians are unswayed by arguments based on Scripture and deny God’s existence. In short, the noetic effect of sin is a degradation or erosion of the cognitive powers of nonbelievers due to being born in sin or living in sin. By this account, reason, logic, and understanding all suffer in the non-believer, and the only hope of restoration lies in affirming Scripture and Jesus as Christ. Frame also subscribes to this theory. In one passage, Frame writes, “When sinners try to gain knowledge without the fear of the Lord, that knowledge is distorted (Rom. 1:21-25; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5). This is not to say that every sentence they utter is false. It is to say that their basic worldview is twisted and unreliable. Their most serious epistemological mistake is, typically, to assert their own autonomy: to make themselves, or something other than the biblical God, the final standard of truth and right. So rationalistic philosophy declares human reason to be the final standard.”
And in yet another passage, Frame claims that the noetic effect of sin is so great that nonbelievers (those who suppress their knowledge of God’s existence) are, in fact, irrational: “One might note that this process of suppression is not rational, therefore nonbelievers do not fall under the definition of ‘rational persons’ in the proposed definition of proof. Then that definition is of no apologetic significance. For the whole point of apologetics is to present the truth to unbelievers. The question, then becomes: How should we present the truth to nonrational persons? What constitutes a proof in the apologetics situation?” I will write that out again for disbelieving readers – Frame claims that it is irrational for rationalists to ‘presuppose’ rationality as the ultimate means of evaluation. As mentioned earlier, the contributing factors to this position are that of (1) the supremacy of the Scripture as a ground for all knowledge and (2) the inherent knowledge all human beings possesses regarding the existence and nature of the Judeo-Christian God.
A Circle’s a Circle, No Matter How Small
All of this notwithstanding, Frame seemingly admits that his argument is circular and attempts to mitigate this by differentiating between narrowly and broadly circular arguments. A narrowly circular argument is, to use Frame’s example, “The Bible is the Word of God because it is the Word of God.” Frame goes on to say regarding this argument that, “There is a profound truth vividly displayed in this narrow argument, namely that there is no higher authority than Scripture by which Scripture may be judged.” So, Frame believes such arguments are valid because they speak to a truth about the world (despite being invalid tautologies).
Recognizing that such arguments hold almost zero persuasive force outside of the isolated Christian community, Frame suggests utilizing a more broadly (but still) circular argument: “We may overcome those disadvantages to some extent by moving to a broader circular argument. That broader circular argument says, ‘The Bible is the Word of God because of various evidences,’ and then it specifies those evidences. Now the argument is still circular in a sense, because the apologist chooses, evaluates, and formulates these evidences in ways controlled by Scripture.” And so there we have it.
While Frame and other presuppositional apologists are correct in pointing out that any philosophical system must necessarily utilize some methodology as a means of evaluation, they are grossly mistaken in believing that Scripture stands on equal footing with rationalism et al as a viable and valid methodology. For, upon even a cursory examination, it can be seen that Scripture is nothing more than an aggregation of premises that demand to precede logic, but then attempt to utilize its very laws after the fact. In this way, I agree with Frame that his argumentation is both narrowly and broadly circular, but I believe it is far more questionable as to whether such assertions hold up against more rigorous and basic philosophical methodologies the way he claims.
*In a weak but well-meaning attempt to stymie the flow of potential plagiarizers, I have opted not to include full bibliographical citation in this post. If you would like this information, please feel free to e-mail me or request it in the comment section below and I will contact you.