Monday, August 30, 2010

Light by Revelation

The following is my submission for the 2010 Trinity Foundation essay contest about [the subjects contained in] Gordon Clark's book, Religion, Reason, and Revelation:

Tolerance, not clarity or truth, is the driving force behind modern culture’s philosophy of religion. In its anxiousness to defend man’s allegedly inherent right to believe whatever he wants, society has gradually ceded to the individual the right to be categorized however he wants such that one’s ability to discern the extent of that category can only become more and more muddled over time. One example of this fact is that, despite texts like James 1:26-27, it is not uncommon for one to hear present-day evangelists declare that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” Religion is just one word which has been so abstracted from its original context – to the end that it can be adapted to fallen man’s perversions of God’s revelation – that its present meaning is as unintelligible as it is unrecognizable. Instead of acquiescing to this most absurd understanding of ecumenism, one ought to rebuke this trend by following Gordon Clark’s method of demonstrating that Christian – particularly, Calvinistic – presuppositions alone succeed in promoting epistemological coherency.

Those who claim religion is a genus can use two methods, each with its own set of shortcomings, to differentiate religion from irreligion: the psychological and the comparative. The psychological method places emphasis on one’s experiences by seeking to demarcate religion according to various personality traits or emotions. The principal obstacle which complicates this objective is that any examination of another’s allegedly religious experiences is necessarily shallow and second-hand in nature. Any claim to have found a necessary correlation between an emotion and religious experience entails this hidden assumption and is therefore subject to this criticism. On the other hand, the comparative method aims to sidestep this difficulty by defining religion according to like [intellectual] beliefs; however, as soon as one begins the process of selecting which beliefs should be regarded as religious, the prejudicial nature of such an endeavor is directly implicated. More seriously, the meaning of that which is selected as a consolidating principle – since it is intended to unify different faiths – must be unacceptably weak with respect to the respective contexts of each particular faith. God, salvation, and sin are concepts which have as many different meanings to different people as religion itself does, so the problem of defining religion is actually compounded when identifying consolidating principles. This process is repeated ad nauseam until one finally discovers that every belief could be religious.

If no method exists by which to differentiate a religious belief from an irreligious one, religion is meaningless. “When finally the opponent is reduced to silence and we can get in a word edgewise, we present the word of God and pray that God cause him to believe” [1]. Providentially, God has provided man with the requisite answer to progress in the philosophy of religion: true religion consists in abstaining from worldly pollutions by obedience to God’s revealed precepts (James 1:26-27). The essence of religion is not emotional, so its content is not vague. Any passing resemblance between Christianity and other philosophies stems from the fact that the latter has borrowed from some part of the former to and for its own blasphemous use. Over time, the number of divergent systems has increased and, as one would expect, the intelligibility of religion has proportionally decreased.

Amidst this intellectual anarchy, Christians must maintain that it is “by faith we understand…” (Hebrews 11:3). Faith, though, is never dichotomized with reason by the authors of God’s word, for it is not, as some presume, blindly subjective. In opposition to fideists such as Kierkegaard and Brunner, both of whom promoted [the subjective] “how” one believes over [the objective] “what” one believes, the apostles exhorted believers to grow in knowledge as well as – or perhaps more precisely, unto – grace (Colossians 1:10, 2 Peter 3:18); in fact, their letters were written for that very purpose (1 John 5:13, 20). Biblical faith is [understanding and] assent to the propositions of Scripture, especially the gospel. The crucifixion cannot be foolishness to those who assent to the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:23), so assent to a proposition suffices as a definition of the general use of belief or faith in Scripture. Adding “trust” as an element of faith either is redundant, leads to the sort of subjective notion of faith which has created so much doubt regarding one’s assurance of salvation, or can even capitulate one to acceptance of faith as a work (cf. Romans 4:5).

Not only is a correct understanding of faith in God’s revelation compatible with the exercise of logical principles, a careful study of Hebrews 11:3 clarifies the relationship between the two: for men, the former is a precondition for the latter. In the same way divine revelation ontologically presupposes God but can epistemologically be used as a premise by which one deduces God, so too can our understanding of and assent to Scripture be historically prior to our ability to cogently justify, by Scripture, our beliefs. The secularist or “classical apologist” may object to the epistemological necessity of divine revelation, but for one to claim to know any proposition is true presupposes either that he knows its truth is not contingent or, if it is, that he knows that upon which the veracity of the proposition is contingent. This implies two things. Firstly, either this person is omniscient or has acquired his knowledge from another person who is omniscient, as he would be required to know the relation between a proposition and anything upon which the veracity of the proposition might be predicated – including respective contingencies – which in turn implies knowledge of everything. Secondly, either this person is infinitely knowledgeable or has acquired his knowledge from another person whose knowledge is infinite, as there are infinitely many possible relations one might posit between the proposition in question and everything else imaginable. Thus, one is only able to avoid self-defeating skepticism by believing in an omniscient, infinitely knowledgeable, revealed being. Everyone is accountable for providing an answer to the fundamental question of knowledge. From solipsistic rationalists to ignorant skeptics, equivocating Aquinians to question-begging empiricists, the reason those who follow these and other non-Christian systems think fallaciously is the same reason they cannot be sated: their beliefs are not founded upon God’s revealed word.

In order for Scripture to function as the basis of knowledge, however, it must contain satisfactory answers to relevant epistemological questions. If, for example, Scripture does not even allude to divine inspiration, infallibility, perspicuity, or canonicity, then anyone who speculates that Scripture is divinely inspired et. al. does so arbitrarily and evinces that Scripturalism is a self-defeating epistemological position. Of course, anyone with a passing acquaintance with Christianity knows the self-attesting nature of Scripture (John 10:1-35, 17:17;2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 5:11-6:1; 2 Peter 1:3, 20-21; 1 John 4:4-6); however, for Scripture to be the ground of knowledge also presupposes that it provides an account of the means by which one knows that which God has revealed. Deducing [from Scripture] the historical process by which one comes to accept the axiom of revelation is as important as recognizing that such a deduction cannot circularly function as a premise by which the axiom of revelation becomes, oxymoronically, a conclusion. Rather, a Scriptural explanation of the means of knowledge serves to confirm the logical consistency of [other] Scriptural claims and anticipates reductio ad absurdum argumentation. It is with this in mind that Clark discusses the relation between Scripture and language.

Since a Scripturalist’s theory of language or communication cannot be isolated from Scripture, it is necessary to appeal to God’s vessels of revelation to explain from whence – or rather, from whom – all man’s knowledge originates. Jesus, John, and Paul answer in unison: the epistemological Logos (Matthew 16:17, John 1:9, 3:27, 1 Corinthians 4:7). Because men have been created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and have retained it even after the Fall (James 3:9), Christians are able to explain how men are able to communicate with an eternal God: He has created us with an innate knowledge of Himself, knowledge that becomes fully realized on the occasion of experience (Romans 1:18-32). Language, the expression of logical thought, is the means by which the divine Logos has perspicuously and thoroughly manifested Himself, but because fallen men are fallible – indeed, totally depraved – they suppress rather than justify what they know (John 3:19-20). In another sense, then, men cannot know God until they have been regenerated, for only by the imbuement of a new nature is one able to perceive the gospel, not as foolishness, but as God’s wisdom and power (1 Corinthians 1:23-24); that is, God’s revelation, though understandable to all men without exception, is subject to the irrationality of unregenerate man. A Scripturally sound theory of language does not guarantee its persuasiveness, for only monergistic regeneration can ensure men will respond to it logically (John 1:13, 1 John 5:1).

Therefore, despite an absence of their own sound theory of language – let alone a correlatively sound epistemic foundations – unregenerates have raised several objections to the biblical philosophy of language, some of which Clark has elsewhere addressed: for concise rebuttals to the dictation objection, [beliefs grounded in] empiricism, assertions that religious language is entirely metaphorical, the idea that Scripture merely contains rather than comprises God’s word, and the rejection of metaphysical truth, see Speculations Hammered: The Word of Truth, Asserted and Vindicated [2]. There is one criticism of Scripturalism which pertains to the practicality and purpose of dialogue that is worthy of some consideration. The argument is as follows: given that Scripture is the source of knowledge, men could not know whether or not they are truly communicating with other men, because that has not been revealed in Scripture. While this may be true, as an objection, the reasoning misses the mark, for it is merely assumed that one must know that he is communicating with other men in order the purpose of language to be realized. Because the point of epistemic discussion is not so much to justify of one's beliefs to others as it is to sharpen oneself, that realizing problems with and gaining insights to various epistemologies (including one's own) may be introduced through the medium of opinion as an instrument for critical thinking nevertheless exhibits the sufficiency of Scripture. After all, one's opinion is – as is everything else – a product of God’s purposive decree. Hence, when a question comes to mind through the medium of alleged dialogue, one always ought to turn to God's word for the answer. Even if the question did not truly proceed from another person, one may still grow in grace and knowledge of God by acting upon his belief so that he is yet enabled to glorify in His sufficiency, which is man’s chief end.

Whether or not one is, upon acting on his belief, able to effect a particular outcome, it is not difficult to understand that one chooses what he most strongly desires. Determining why or if one ought to choose is seemingly more complex. As has been shown, however, one’s answers to such questions cannot be displaced from his epistemological beliefs; thus, reasons why biblically grounded ethical convictions are rational and others’ are not become immediately apparent. The Bible alone comprises God’s extant, propositionally revealed word to men, so any statements – ethical or otherwise – which are mutually exclusive with this revelation must be false. Clark’s brief explanation of Christian ethics, then, is apropos.

In contrast to Euthyphro, the relationship between God and good is analogous to the relationship between a carried thing and he who carries it, for both good and a carried thing are determined according to their respective relations rather than some intrinsic, undefined, meaningless property. Succinctly: “Not only is God the governor and judge [of good and evil]; prior to this he is the legislator” [3]. Neither God’s revelation of what is good nor His decree that men are responsible for obeying His precepts is arbitrary, for in the same way God’s declaration of what is good reflects His own eternal nature, God’s declaration that men are responsible for obeying His law reflects their created natures. That God sovereignly made men for His own ends and glory functions as the very means by which Paul substantiates, in Romans, his claim that men are responsible (Romans 9:19-21). In the absence of a Creator-creation distinction, moral dogmatism is irrational. A dictator may desire to heedlessly enforce his ideas, but he can never possess the divine prerogative. Only a sovereign Creator can universalize His moral precepts to those whom He has created for that purpose, and this God has done by the full, sovereign, and authoritative disclosure of His holy nature and law in Scripture.

Alternative attempts to solve the is-ought problem are as diverse as they are futile. Some epistemological systems are too restrictive to be able to adequately account for morality; empiricists, for example, cannot logically infer an ought-statement from observation of the physical world. Some philosophies ignore critical ethical dilemmas – such as the issue of suicide or the viability of retributive justice – without warrant. Still others, like Objectivism, compound these errors. As has been shown, however, what all philosophies not founded upon divine revelation have in common is that none of them are unable to justify any knowledge claim, let alone one specifically moral. Revelation is as much a precondition for [ethical] knowledge as is divine sovereignty: “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). Nevertheless, it is instructive to read the way in whichClark thoroughly assesses the errors of Utilitarianism and Instrumentalism.

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which defines good along a spectrum. A choice which causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is said to be the greatest good, and a choice which causes the greatest pain to the greatest number of people is said to be the greatest evil. This understanding of good and evil leads to arbitrariness and irrationality. As a form of consequentialism, choices made by Utilitarians are, incredibly, prospectively a-moral; since one cannot know the future consequences of his choice, the choice must be made arbitrarily. Possibilities of future consequences also suggest that the moral value of any choice is subject to change at any instant. Even [relatively] simple knowledge of all the ways in which a past choice has affected present reality is itself a problem, because one would need to be omniscient to know his calculations are both accurate and exhaustive. Yet another problem with Utilitarianism is that in order to judge the comparative “goodness” of one’s choice, one would need to know counter-factuals; ironically, such is only possible by divine revelation. There are still more complications when one considers, within a Utilitarian framework, whether or not one individual’s pleasure could qualitatively exceed the sum pleasure of many, whether or not it is proper to state minorities possess rights, and whether or not utilitarianism can escape the demerits of empiricism, inductivism, and subjectivism. Given the extremely relativistic and flawed nature of Utilitarianism, one may well believe the demise of Utilitarianism would maximize the pleasure of those who sincerely desire to be moral.

In a generation which has placed a premium on science, it is unsurprising that John Dewey’s atheistic Instrumentalism is popular. Instrumentalism generally proposes that a set of ethical principles should be appropriated according to its utility within a scientific context. In addition to problems inherent in secular philosophy, there are problems particular to Instrumentalism which demonstrate it to be an unsound ethical theory. Firstly, science can, at best, answer how things function, not if or why they should function. Secondly, Instrumentalism too leads to moral arbitrariness, for it teaches that there is no intrinsic value or good: just as a proposition which has no grounding axiom leads to infinite regress, that instrumental goods are means without ends indicates no Instrumentalist can offer a grounding reason why one should do anything, thus exposing the emptiness of Dewey’s lip service to intelligence as “the sole ultimate resource of mankind in ever field whatsoever.” Even if one who believes in moral norms is as self-deceived as Dewey asserts, one wonders if Dewey contradictorily thinks one never ought to be self-deceived, especially when considered along side the logical ends of Instrumentalism.

All things considered, it is indeed good that secular ethics has no epistemic support. Divergently, the prima facie stability of Christian ethics yet begs questions which suppose, at least for the sake of argument, that God does indeed impose moral law. Deism, dystheism, open theism, and polytheism are among some of the biblically compromised solutions variously proffered by professing Christians to the so-called “problem of evil,” each seemingly predicated upon the assumption that a personal, good, omniscient, and omnipotent God would not allow evil to occur. Others have argued that evil is metaphysically non-existent by asserting that sin is simply the choosing of a lower good over against a higher good, although that too fails because it does not explain why God positively decreed events He knew would be counter-factually worse for man (e.g. Mark 14:21, Acts 1:16-20, 4:26-28).

The most well-known response to the problem of evil is the “free will defense,” which teaches that “a man faced with incompatible courses of action is able to choose any one as well as the other” [4]. Its advocates argue that God’s respect for man’s free will alleviates God of any blameworthiness for allowing evil. Despite its favor, free will is both unbiblical and, even if it were biblical, unable to supply one with satisfactory explanatory power for the existence of evil. Firstly, free will as such implies a capacity to choose apart from extrinsic antecedent causation – including God’s will – in which case God’s knowledge is extrinsically contingent; given that God created and sustains all other things (Colossians 1:16-17), it is contradictory to simultaneously affirm free will and God’s eternal omniscience (Isaiah 40:14), for that upon which God’s knowledge would be contingent would be temporal. Secondly, one who believes man’s will is free must explicate the means by which one comes to desire anything if not by [divinely] extrinsic causation. The biblical account of the depravity of fallen man provides a practical case in which free will is an impossibility, for fallen man is, by nature, incapable of choosing to please God (Ephesians 2:1-5, Romans 8:7-9). Man cannot autonomously choose to desire to obey God; such desire is given at God’s discretion by regeneration (John 1:12-13, 6:44). In any case, free will would itself be insufficient to unravel why God decided to create reprobate men, men He [somehow] knew would sin and refuse to believe unto salvation.

In light of the unbiblical or self-defeating nature of so many theodicies, one might be tempted to conclude that the problem of evil is insoluble for Christians. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that the historically enduring esteem of the problem of evil amongst non-Christians is largely indebted to the dearth of challenges to the non-Christians’ understanding of God’s goodness and omnipotency. The problem of evil is purportedly an internal critique of Christianity. If the Christian God does not harmonize with the atheist's arbitrary and subjective moral perception, why should the Christian suppose that to be a problem? Smuggling non-Christian concepts into the argument – concepts which they use to profane God’s character – can lead nothing more than an inept attack on a straw man. Confusion can only be avoided by providing clear definitions of key terms.

For example, that the maximization of the manifestation of God’s glory to His people requires that He decree evil as well as good in no way contradicts His omnipotence, for Christians understand omnipotence to be an extrinsically unconditioned capacity to do anything [logically possible and] consistent with one’s nature. God cannot lie, not because His nature or choices are extrinsically contingent, but because such is inconsistent with His nature; similarly, because God is logical, cannot make “square circles,” a phrase devoid of conceptual meaning. Indeed, God cannot deny Himself, and as a failure to uphold His glory would constitute a contravention of His nature – specifically, His righteousness (Romans 9:14-23, cf. 3:25-26) – God’s choices are [solely] determined by His nature. While man’s obligation is to obey God’s law, God’s self-obligation is to effect a reality in which He will be maximally glorified by the full revelation of His excellence: His wisdom and power, wrath and mercy, justice and compassion (Romans 9, Ephesians 3). The non-Christian can contend – but not substantiate – that a counter-factual world would more greatly manifest God’s glory.

This is precisely what Reformed Theology teaches. God is the ultimate cause of all things because Scripture affirms God causes all things according to His good pleasure [for His glory] (Job 23:13-14; Psalm 115:3, 135:6; Isaiah 46:10-11; Lamentations 3:38; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11). He is active in effecting that which He desires, and everything that occurs is so according to His desire. While God can use instrumentalities or “second causes” to achieve His purposes as well as direct efficiency – God is never the immediate cause of sin, so one should not find James 1:13 to be mutually exclusive with determinism – the ultimate or first cause of all things stems from God’s direct, efficient, and determinative purpose. The extent of God’s proactive determination is borne out in specific cases as well as general testimony (Deuteronomy 2:30; 1 Kings 22:19-23; Psalm 105:25; Isaiah 10:5-15, 19:17; John 12:37-40; Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). He blinds, hardens, determines, directs, and turns the wills of His creatures, not passively responds to them; He knows counter-factuals because He knows what He would have caused had He decreed events differently. The burden of proof is upon he who contends that this God who has, astonishingly, an actual purpose for evil cannot be good to show, by Christian presuppositions, why God cannot be good. To whom is God responsible? What law has He transgressed?

Advocates of the free will defense may object that man cannot be faulted for his choosing that which he was predetermined to choose. They also sometimes caricature men in a deterministic world-view as puppets. This method of argument is question-begging and poisoning-the-well. There is no self-evident reason that one who has broken a law is excused from law-breaking because he was unable to do otherwise. Additionally, Scripture teaches that men, in relation to God, are pots, axes, and other instruments God may use as He pleases. What, then, besides emotion, could be the underlying objection laced in the puppet analogy? In fact, God is actually much more sovereign over mankind than a puppeteer is over his puppet. God controls everything men do, whereas a puppeteer is confined by strings and joints. God made men as they are: creatures with minds, wills, emotions, intellects, feelings, and other privileges to which puppets are not privy. Even so, men are not “forced” to will, as that would be a contradiction in terms. Rather, insofar as man always chooses in accordance with his most strongest desire, and insofar as God determines our desires (directly or indirectly), our will is determined and yet voluntary. It is certainly we who choose, feel, think, and act – and yet it is all in accordance with God’s determinative purpose. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:36).


[1] Clark and His Critics, The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark, Volume 7 (page 240).


[3] Christian Philosophy, The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark, Volume 4 (page 231).

[4] Christian Philosophy, The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark, Volume 4 (page 244).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Molinism


Firstly, Molinism is an attempt to resolve tension between God's sovereignty and man's allegedly free [extrinsically, antecedently uncaused] will. Essentially, it is the position that, because God is omniscient, He knows what His creatures will "freely" choose in any hypothetical circumstance. Molinists call these hypotheticals "possible worlds." From these possible worlds, God has "sovereignly" chosen to effect one. The Molinist's contention is that God's choice to effect this possible world was unconditional - so God was in control ("sovereign") - yet, because this possible world is one in which we have "freely" chosen (given the circumstances), there is no mutual exclusivity between God's sovereignty and man's allegedly free will.

Secondly, Molinism is an attempt to resolve tension between God's omniscience and man's allegedly free [extrinsically, antecedently uncaused] will. Matthew 11 is a passage in which Jesus reveals that He knows what would have happened in a different possible world. Molinists attempt to reconcile that fact with God's knowledge by distinguishing between types of God's knowledge:

1. Necessary knowledge - knowledge of what must be (e.g. self-knowledge)
2. Middle knowledge - knowledge of what would be (e.g. possible worlds)
3. Free knowledge - knowledge of what is (e.g. the actual world)

Middle knowledge includes knowledge of what men freely choose and is the type of knowledge about which I spoke in the first paragraph, the one by which God was able to execute His sovereignty. This is thought to be sufficient explanation as to how God's omniscience is compatible with man's allegedly free will.


The primary problem with Molinism pertains to how God's omniscience can harmonize with alleged creaturely freedom.

The difference between God's alleged "types" of knowledge is logical. Free knowledge, for example, is logically dependent on middle knowledge, for God could not know what "is" without knowing what "could be." The problem is that Molinists provide no explanation as to how God possesses knowledge of what men would freely choose; that is, how does God know what "would be"? They beg the very question which is in need of answering, i.e. how God knows what men will freely choose. Steve Hays summarized this dilemma as follows:

What is a possible world? What is a possible agent?

Here I’m puzzled by the position of Craig, Plantinga, et al. They treat possible persons as a given. Given possible persons, with determinate character
traits, God chooses which world to instantiate in light of what possible agents would do in different possible worlds. He chooses the possible world which achieves his objective.

But it’s unclear to me how Craig, Plantinga, et al. account for the given. How do possible persons subsist, with determinate character traits, such that God’s choice is responsive the free choices?

To me, the only logical way to embed this notion, consistent with libertarianism, is to go the route of Richard Creel. There’s a platonic plenum which is populated by possible agents in possible worlds. This exists independently of the divine nature or will. It’s like a mail order catalogue from which God can make his selection.

But, of course, the notion of a coeternal, self-subsistent plenum, alongside God, is profoundly heretical. It’s also metaphysically bizarre. What is the plenum? Is the plenum a mind-like entity?

Molinists essentially treat middle knowledge as a brute fact. However, how God knows what men would "freely" choose in a hypothetical situation is not dissimilar to the question regarding how God knew what I have actually chosen with alleged free will. If God doesn't cause our choice (directly or indirectly), God's knowledge (whether of the actual or a possible world) must itself be predicated on our [temporal] will, in which case God is not eternally omniscient.

In fact, the only thing Molinists present which remotely resembles an argument is that middle knowledge is the only position compatible with God's knowledge of counter-factuals. But consistent Calvinism provides a more cogent answer to the issue: God ultimately causes all things, so He knows counter-factuals because He knows what would have happened had He ultimately caused events other than as He actually has.