The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson (TGC Review)

age of atheistsPeter Watson. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 640 pp. $35.00.

After Plato’s allegory of the cave, Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman is probably the most famous in all of Western philosophy; indeed, the Madman’s declaration “God is dead and we have killed him” has probably penetrated its consciousness at a far deeper level. Nietzsche asked an intellectual culture still living off the borrowed values of a Christianity it no longer professed: “How do we live in a world that has lost its central conceptual, moral, existential focus? What do we make of meaning now that we know God doesn’t exist?”

Through two major works, Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that in the wake of Nietzsche the onslaught of scientism, rationalism, and secularism has thinned out the moral world we moderns inhabit. As a subtraction story secularism disenchants the world, emptying our sense of transcendence and pushing us into an “immanent frame” of living that’s inevitably hollow and existentially impoverished. Other secular thinkers such as Luc Ferry and Ronald Dworkin have, in their own ways, joined Taylor in this judgment.

In The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God Peter Watson hopes to change the narrative by pushing back on Taylor’s impoverishment thesis. In this massive and thoroughly entrancing work of intellectual and cultural history, the prolific London-based author aims to recount hitherto-untold drama of the multifarious and rather “thick” ways we’ve tried to “live without God” ever since we discovered his death about 120 years ago.

You can read the rest of my review of this fabulous book over here at The Gospel Coalition

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist? (Engaging KJV Pt. 3)

This is the third entry in my series “Engaging Kevin J. Vanhoozer”, devoted to Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. You can read part 1, and part 2.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Fabulous beard. Horrible philosophy.

Oliver Crisp’s entry “Remythologizing, Projection, and Belief: A Reply to Vanhoozer,” is almost entirely focused with the methodological component of Vanhoozer’s project. Leaving aside the material proposals about the doctrine of God, Crisp analyzes what he sees to be a major gap in Vanhoozer’s armor, threatening to undercut his whole project: namely, his epistemology.

Projection Issues – One of Vanhoozer’s main foils in Remythologizing Theology is Ludwig Feuerbach, whose main claim was that all of Christian theology is just anthropology, or our best thoughts about ourselves projected onto the screen of eternity. Crisp summarizes:

Belief in God, on this view, is simply the reification of certain notions we have about ourselves, the projection onto the clouds of a father-like entity that is no more real than any other figment of human imagination. (pg. 32)

He then formalizes it in good analytic fashion, into what he calls the “Problem of Projection (PP)”:

(PP) Christian theological language about God is disguised language about the needs of human beings: such language reifies cherished human religious thought, values, beliefs. (pg. 33)

Vanhoozer’s remythologizing approach (which I’ve summarized here) is proposed as an answer to the problem by returning to the text as God’s own self-presentation, or Divine self-projection through Word and Spirit, as given us in God’s speech to us in Scripture. Theology in this view is a responsive, dialogical reality, attending to the story (mythos) of the Theo-Drama, not a monological mythology of our own making.

Crisp Anxieties – All that’s fine and well says Crisp, but there’s a hitch. Who’s to say all of this isn’t just another story? (pg. 33) Why should the Feuerbachian or the modern theologian buy this account? In other words, where’s the epistemology to to match it? All of this just seems to assume a view about God and Scripture, without an account of why we should accept scripture as God’s speech. Crisp takes us through a brief tour of Vanhoozer’s epistemological comments in other works, especially The Drama of Doctrine (DoD), to set up his problem (and solution.)

When it comes to epistemology, Vanhoozer has described himself as a postfoundationalist and an aspectival realist. Instead of coherentism’s metaphor of an interconnecting web of knowledge and foundationalism’s structure metaphor, with certain core, stable beliefs holding up the whole, Vanhoozer’s aspectival realism offers us a map. It is a framework of interpretation through which we see the world; it must be coherent, as well as have some connection to reality if it is to work, is admittedly limited, and yet it is testable, refinable, and correctable on the basis of new insights and information.

And yet, Crisp says, Vanhoozer’s a bit of a “theological magpie”, taking bits and pieces of various frameworks and piecing them together as they fit his own project. So, along with the map, in DoD Vanhoozer seems to adopt some of Alvin Plantinga’s reliablist account of knowledge even though it is a moderate form of foundationalism.

plantinga 4

Your thought has been judged and found wanting.

For those without knowledge of Plantinga’s account (which I favor heavily) Crisp explains:

On this way of thinking, what we believe is innocent until proven guilty. Such beliefs are formed by epistemic mechanisms that function according to a design plan aimed at truth. In his earlier work Vanhoozer even flirts with the Plantinga-inspired notion of properly basic beliefs.10 These are beliefs that are (a) noninferential, that is, not held on the basis of other beliefs from which they are inferred, and (b) justified or warranted, that is, formed in an epistemically responsible manner. (pg. 36)

Here’s where things get interesting. Crisp says this would be great, except that it seems Vanhoozer has dropped this line of thinking in RT because “proper basicality is embedded in a foundational epistemology” that he likely rejects as a postfoundationalist. In any case, he doesn’t mention it in the later work.

This becomes problematic in RT because, well, let me just let Crisp explain again:

Much of the work in this most recent volume involves the spinning out of his particular peroration on the claim that Scripture is the vehicle for divine discourse. But with so much riding on this claim, it is strange that he does not do more to shore up its apparent vulnerability. For, absent the notion of properly basic beliefs, it is not clear (to this reader, at least!) how he can ground the assertion that his hermeneutical framework, and his theological myth, is more likely to be closer to the truth of the matter than the frameworks and myths of his interlocutors. He has not provided an adequate means by which we can adjudicate whether his canon-linguistic approach to doctrine, or his more recent remythologizing approach to theology, is closer to the truth than either Bultmann or Feuerbach. (pg. 37)

In other words, Vanhoozer hasn’t given us a compelling epistemological reason to accept his picture over the others on offer. For someone who doesn’t accept fideism, the truth, or justification question is still up in the air. Along with another proposal derived from the material content of the faith, Crisp suggest that Vanhoozer’s Projection Problem could be cleared up with a heavy dose of Plantinga’s modest foundationalist epistemology, properly basic beliefs and all. It’s a good epistemology, it fits with the project, and Crisp even helpfully tells a little story about how all of this can work together:

What he can say is this. Although we cannot guarantee that we have the absolute truth of the matter, we can be sure that our hermeneutical framework, that is, the framework of canon-linguistic remythologized theology, provides some purchase on the truth, sufficient for us to be confident that it provides a theological myth or story more complete and more accurate than that of Bultmann or Feuerbach. Granted there is no “view from nowhere”—not even the canonical-linguistic view—from which to survey the epistemological landscape and make judgments about it. Nevertheless, what Vanhoozer provides is both internally coherent and a good fit with the biblical material, wherein (as he puts it) we find the mighty speech acts of God. Because our cognitive and linguistic faculties work according to a design-plan aimed at truth, we can move beyond perspectivalism to aspectivalism. That is, we can have some confidence that our theologically attuned hermeneutical frameworks give us the truth of the matter, or near enough, at least some (most?) of the time. Furthermore, because we are fashioned according to a design plan we can know certain things about God because he has designed us to be receptive to him. (pg. 36)

So what does Vanhoozer have to say about all of this?

Vanhoozer’s Confession – As it turns out, it’s all been a happy confusion since he basically agrees. Says Vanhoozer:

Crisp has to ask if I am still a “five-point Alvinist,” because Alvin Plantinga is an epistemological foundationalist while I appear to hold to some kind of postfoundationalism. The problem here is semantic, and can be fairly easily cleared up (I take full responsibility for any misunderstanding). The simple explanation is that I accepted Plantinga’s objections to classical foundationalism, and his proposed positive alternative. Plantinga argues that it is rationally acceptable (warranted) to believe in the existence of God without evidence, proof, or even argument (because belief in God is “properly basic”). Initially, this seemed to be a kind of Calvinist post-foundationalism. In retrospect, however, I acknowledge that Plantinga prefers to describe his Reformed epistemology as a version of foundationalism. Understood in Plantinga’s way, then, I too am happy to call myself a “modest” or “chastened” foundationalist. And I am therefore delighted to accept Crisp’s proposal that belief in Scripture as normative is a properly basic belief (I say as much in Is There a Meaning in this Text?), especially if this lets me escape, Houdini-like, from the Problem of Projection.  (pg. 78)

As you can imagine, I’m grateful to Crisp for squeezing this clear confession of Plantingan faith out of Vanhoozer. I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a Plantinga fan, so I read Crisp’s account with great interest as I’d had thoughts along the same line.  I’d actually always sort of blended Plantinga and Vanhoozer together in my head hoping that it made sense, so it’s nice to get confirmation and a little constructive clarity from Crisp and Vanhoozer himself.

So, for those who are wondering, yes, one can be Vanhoozerian and a Five-Point Alvinist. All is right in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer’s 10 Theses On “Remythologizing” in Plain(er) English

remthologizingOne of the great things about college ministry is that I’m often forced to think through whether I actually understand all the nerdy, academic theology I read. Exhibit A: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is easily one of my top 5 nerdy, theological texts I own. I’ve read it twice and constantly find myself coming back to it, even though it’s not something I’d teach a college Bible study through. Well, just last week I happened to mention the text around one my college students and she immediately wanted to know what “remythologizing” was.

Welp. I mean, when someone asks you about Vanhoozer, what are you supposed to do? Ignore it?

That launched us into an hour-long discussion explaining the difference between systematic theology and biblical theology, Bultmann and demythologizing, the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics that Vanhoozer calls “first theology” and so much more. (She asked very good questions.) In the middle of this crash course, I ended up talking through Vanhoozer’s “10 Theses on Remythologizing.” Inspired by Lewis’ dictum that, if you can’t put it in common English, you probably don’t know it, I attempted to translate the theses into normal-person speak for my intelligent, but non-expert student.

Given that not many people have read this very important text yet–and it is very important text, one of the most important in the last 20 years probably–I figured I’d attempt a command performance of the on the spot translation summary act I did for my student the other night, only in print, and maybe not as dumb. Maybe. I’ll essentially be trying to translate Vanhoozer’s own elaborations on the theses, in plain(er), Rishmawy-language.

Ten Theses On Remythologizing
Briefly, in many ways Vanhoozer’s project is kind of a counter-point to Bultmann’s program of ‘demythologization’ that de-storifed (mythos is story) the Gospels into timeless existential truths. In contrast, Vanhoozer’s aim is to take seriously the shape and form of the story of Scripture as God’s own communication to us of Who he is, while also avoiding Feuerbach’s notion that all god-talk is simply human projections of our best attributes onto the screen of eternity. So Vanhoozer puts forward his own program of “remythologizing” that he initially summarizes in these ten theses.

One key term to know is “theodrama”, which simply smashes “theos” and “drama” together in order to speak of the divine actions in redemptive history (God doing stuff in the story of the Bible). When Vanhoozer says, “theodramatic”, basically it means “having to do with God doing and saying stuff in the Bible.”

The italicized quotations are his, and again, the rest is my attempt at translation:

1. “Remythologizing is not a “fall back into myth” but a spring forward into metaphysics.” (27) This is not about mythologizing the text, taking us back to all-too-human gods of myth, but taking seriously the mythos, the plotof the biblical storyline to see what it reveals to us about the nature of God and the world. What must the God who acts in this story be like in order to do and say the kinds of things we see in the biblical narrative. To do that, we have to pay attention to the narrative very closely.

2. “Remythologizing means recovering the “who” of biblical discourse.” (28) At it’s heart, remythologizing is a project focused on the main character of the drama, God, who presents himself to us in the Scriptures through Word and Spirit. What attributes and characteristics does this God show himself to have in light of what he says about himself?

3. “Remythologizing means attending to the triune “who” of communicative action.” (28) Remythologizing is necessarily trinitarian theology because the one doing the saying in the narrative is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or, Father, Word, & Breath). That will shape the way we understand God’s self-communication.

4. “Remythologizing conceives the God–world relation in primarily communicative rather than causal terms.” (28) Instead of more classical categories like ‘causality’, which has some more physicalist connotations, Vanhoozer wants to rethink God’s relation to the world on the analogy of communication. The God of Scripture is a speaking God who brings us the world into being through speech and saves it through his Word. That should shape the way we conceive things.

5. “Remythologizing means rethinking metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics alike in theodramatic terms.” (29)  Instead of trying to shove the story of the Gospel into some pre-made grid like modern science, history, or secular metaphysics, Vanhoozer wants us to do things the other way around. Instead, the story of the Gospel is the criterion by which we judge all else. In fact, it generates its own metaphysical categories around God’s communication made flesh, Jesus Christ.

6. “Remythologizing means faith seeking, and demonstrating, theodramatic understanding through fitting participation in the triune communicative action.” (29) Theology is not a neutral affair. To understand God’s actions in Christ truly, there is an active element. I must be trying to situate myself within the story appropriately for this work to be properly undertaken. (This was a tough one.)

7. “Remythologizing means taking Christ, together with the Spirit-breathed canon that the living Word commissions, as the chief means of God’s self-presentation and communication.” (29) “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” ( Heb. 1:1–2). Remythologizing pays attention both to the grand story of Scripture and the Incarnation at the center, as well as the various genres, modes, and methods God has used within it to communicate himself to us. In fact, the Scriptures not only report God’s communication, but are, in fact, part of the action.

8. “Remythologizing is a form of biblical reasoning, a matter of thinking about the subject matter along the various forms of biblical discourse that present it.” (29) It’s not a matter of thinking or reading the Bible, but thoughtfully paying attention to the way the Bible teaches us to think. For instance, paying attention to the particular way a metaphor is used to communicate truth as opposed to a straightforward syllogism.

9. “Remythologizing means attending to biblical polyphony and recognizing the dialogical nature of theodramatic testimony and theological truth.” (30) God isn’t a boring communicator and the subject matter is too grand to be captured in simple fashion. Vanhoozer’s project is about paying attention to all the different ways and means, as well as angles (history, eschatology, ontology) and perspectives (divine, human, powers) from which the truth is communicated in order to “do justice” to the diverse voices in Scripture. Remythologizing shouldn’t result in flat theology.

10. “In sum, remythologizing is best defined in contrast to demythologizing as a type of first theology.” (30) First theology is how your doctrine of God, Scripture, and hermeneutics all play into one another. Remythologizing is Vanhoozer’s proposal for how that all should go together in light of the triune God’s communicating activity in the theodrama of Scripture.

Of course, Vanhoozer does much more than just put forward a methodology in this work. He shows you what he means by all of this in the process of doing some real theology involving close reading of texts, addressing issues in the doctrine of God in like the Creator/creature relationship as well as God’s impassibility, developing a doctrine of the Trinity along the lines of communicative categories, and bridging the gap between Thomism and Barthianism.  Among other things.

The long and the short of it, though, is that remythologizing is a renewed program of thinking about God on the basis of what God has said and done in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit. In many ways, it’s simply a retooling, a new articulation of a very old approach. Of course, as Pascal says, “Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better.”

Vanhoozer plays the ball quite well in our postmodern context and theologians of all stripes would do well to learn from this master theological re-arranger.

Soli Deo Gloria

Common? High? Pop? What Kind of Culture Is It? (With Some Help From Roger Scruton)

The notion of ‘culture’ has fascinated me ever since I first got my hands on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he lays out his vision for engaging Western culture for the Gospel. It was around the time that the whole emergent church thing was still a thing and it seemed like everyone was talking about the shift to “postmodern” culture and what that meant. In middle of that conversation I started to realize that ‘culture’ was an important issue for evangelism, discipleship, and just ministry in general.

As I went on to read more about the issue, I found that almost everybody in the theological literature agrees that if you’re going to do ministry, then you have to understand cultural context you’re set in. Whether it’s modern culture, postmodern culture, indigenous cultures, or church cultures, ‘culture’ is everywhere and ever-so-important. Of course, this raises the issue of what exactly we mean by the term ‘culture’.

Seems like something we ought to have nailed down if we’re going to be talking about it so much.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

Now I’ve had my own working definition of it for some time. The problem I’ve found is that, depending on the publication, author, or discipline you’re reading, everybody seems to have their own definition of it, many which seem to be at odds with each other.

This is why I was so pleased when I found that in first pages of his insightful little work Modern Culture, Roger Scruton helpfully lays out three different senses of the term ‘culture’ that are typically used today:

  • Common – The first is what might be called ‘common’ culture. It takes its cues from Herder, whose notion of kultur indicated the unique spirit of a nation or people as opposed to zivilization which could be shared with various other nations. This, apparently, was taken up and developed by the German romantics who pointed to the idea that culture is what shapes and is found in the various songs, art, traditions of a nation. In this view, it is what is common to all the people in a nation or tribe. This means that nobody, “however ill-educated, is deprived of culture, since culture and social membership is the same idea.” (pg. 1) It is this interpretation that most of the early anthropologists and sociologists of our day work with.
  • High – The second is what might be called ‘high’ culture and takes its roots in a more classical understanding that is linked to the idea of culture as cultivation and virtue. It is not common to all, but must be acquired through education, which usually requires some intellect, as well as leisure and resources for study. To have culture on this view is the province of the few and the well-educated. It comes with a knowledge of the broad literary canon, an appreciation of the right sorts of music and the arts. Culture, in this view, is a sort of moral-technical expertise. This idea has been championed by literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, and later by T.S. Eliot, and of course, Scruton himself. In fact, the book as a whole should be seen as a defense of high culture. (pp. 1-2)
  • Pop- Scruton says that a third sort of culture has emerged recently from the battles between the two. As we noted, the idea of common culture is usually attached to a tribe or a nation, a set, identifiable grouping of people whose culture can be identified and is generally shared. One of main characteristics of the modern/postmodern world which we inhabit is the breakdown of the various tribes associated with ‘traditional society.’ (pg. 2) There are no uncontested practices, thought patterns, songs, and narratives which can be appealed to without a sense of irony. That being said, humans still have need for a sort of solid and stable identity-shaping environment just as the traditional societies gave. It is in this situation that what might be termed ‘popular’ culture emerges, as a sort of tertium quid, a third thing, both like and unlike both of the prior conceptions. Pop culture is the province of ‘cultural studies’ programs in college and is thought of by its defenders as an equally valid ‘culture of the people’. Essentially pop culture is what’s involved when the notion of high culture as something that is a feature of “choice, taste, and leisure” in the sense of cultivation is merged with the common such as pop art and entertainment.  (pp. 2-3) As Scruton notes, “Any activity or artefact is considered cultural, if it is an identity-forming product of social interaction.” (pg. 3)

Of course, Scruton looks upon this last development with dismay, and, as mentioned earlier, in the rest of the work will launch a defense of high culture against any relativistic, postmodern deconstructions, or anti-elitist protests of the equal validity of popular culture.That doesn’t concern me at this point.

For Christians and ministers of the Gospel in particular, there are a number of theses I would like to simply list for reflection, without much additional comment.

  1. While these categories are not air-tight, uncontested, or always easily-distinguishable, it’s good to have some baseline working definitions to think with, especially when you’re reading about cultural engagement. It’s helpful to know what your author is dealing with because prescriptions for one category don’t always carry into the others.
  2. Christians should be engaged with culture at all levels. Common, high, or pop, there is no level or layer that can be ignored by ministers of the Gospel. Anything that is forming our people for good or ill, is our concern.
  3. Accordingly, effective ministers will become students of the common culture of the communities they inhabit.
  4. Depending on the type of congregation, or minister, they should also try be serious, not merely cursory, students of both the high and pop culture that our people draw on for their social-identity construction. (I emphasize ‘try’ because pastors have a lot on their plate already.)
  5. Preaching that both affirms and critiques in light of the Gospel needs to be alert to both the unconsciously formative, and consciously chosen elements of cultural formation. Sometimes it is the common cultural assumptions that are most difficult to expose, simply because they are assumptions.

As always, there’s more to say, but I don’t want to say it right now, so maybe I’ll say it later. Or maybe you should say it in the comments. Knock yourself out.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

So one day when I was really bored in my modern philosophy class, a not infrequent occurrence, I wrote a poem using only Kantian terminology which I found, and still find, to be ridiculous. I presented it as a token of my affection to my TA at the time. She said I used all the terms properly, which I took as a victory. I present it to you now because it’s my blog and why not?

Depending on the response, more ridiculous poetry might follow. I have a classic one about neutering a dog and another about ties. My college years were fecund with creative rapture. Also, I had an intro to poetry writing class.

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The a priori concepts

which allow

Intuitions of your


to be given to me

through sensibility

are more precious to me

than all

Other conceptions

of Metaphysical Reality.

I (taken as the thinking self)

would give up all other

a posteriori intuitions

for the possibility


a mere empirical

apperception of


“Out with Philosophy! Just Preach the Gospel!” Or Something Like That


Looks like he’s philosophizing. STOP THAT!

For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!

Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:

There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:

  1.  This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
  2. The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
  3. The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
  4. In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
  5. Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
  6. Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
  7. Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
  8. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

-D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15

Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

Will I Eat Pancakes Next Tuesday? A Thought or Two on Open Theism

“Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday.”

Question: Is this statement true or false?

“Are you serious, Derek?”

Well, it seems like it has to be one or the other doesn’t it? I can’t both eat pancakes and not eat pancakes on Tuesday, (considering the whole 24 hour period as Tuesday.)

“Sure, but really? Pancakes? Why are we talking about pancakes?”

Seems like a dumb question, but in fact, it’s connected a much bigger issue: What does God know and when does he know it?

Open Theism and the Future

According to some theologians, Open Theists, there are some things that God doesn’t know that we typically imagine that God knows. For instance, he apparently doesn’t know large chunks of the future. Now there are a number of ways that Open Theists can arrive at this conclusion, but for some of them this thought is supported by the idea that future doesn’t exist. Like Greg Boyd, they hold that while God is “omniscient”, all-knowing, his knowledge does not extend to large segments of what will happen in the future because they aren’t settled yet. Some parts, like the parts where God has already figured out, “Well about that time I’m gonna save the world, and in two years I’ll eat Chinese food”, he knows. Also, he knows that the weather will work in about 25 years because that’s just kinda rolling out from what’s going on now. He can reliably infer that. Still, the chunks that have to do with us making decisions certainly don’t because that part’s not “settled”–I haven’t made that choice yet. Due to this, God does not have “exhaustive foreknowledge” of the whole of the future. This is not a knock on God though, because it is impossible to know that part of the future given its non-existence. For them, it’s kind of like him not being able to make a married bachelor–it’s a logical contradiction. According to them, the issue then isn’t God’s knowledge, but with the nature of the future. God simply cannot know the future exhaustively because it’s not there to be known.

No biggie.

Is this really the case, though? Now, there are a number of issues that might be discussed with respect to Open Theism be they theological, philosophical, biblical, pastoral, etc. because Open Theists forward reasons for taking their view in all of these areas. Now, I’ll just come clean and say that I think the view, in all of its forms, is seriously deficient on all counts and have never found it even remotely appealing–and that was before I was Reformedish. Also, as I noted, there is a variety amongst them. This post won’t deal with every type. I can’t go into the various issues today without this being way too long. I simply want to make a few small points in this little post on this one claim: that God doesn’t foreknow significant chunks of the future because it’s not there to be known.

Is that Right? Does it Follow?

Theories of Time The assertion that the future does not exist for God to know assumes one of two possible theories about time. (Really, there are a number of formulations of each and the literature is complex and dense.) The first is called A-theory and it basically says that there is an objective present, that NOW is what exists–temporal becoming is objective. There are at least two families of this view. Some theorists think that the present and the past “exist”, and others hold that only the present moment exists. On both, the future does not exist yet. The second theory, B-theory, also has a few versions but holds something along the lines that what we call “past”, “present”, and “future” objectively exist on something like a line. In a sense, the future is “already” there.

I raise this point not because I think A-theory is wrong. I don’t. In fact, I haven’t landed anywhere on this point. I do so just to point out that there are a number of options here. One could adopt B-theory and avoid this whole issue. Plenty of philosophers and theologians do. But let’s assume A-theory. Does it immediately follow that God can’t know the future because it’s not there? I don’t think so.

How Does God Know That? For in addition to holding a particular view of time, this type of Open Theism also takes a particular view of God’s way of knowing. William Lane Craig points out that are at least two ways of thinking about God’s way of knowing, two pictures of the way God comes to possess knowledge. (The Only Wise God, pg. 121) The first is the empiricist or perceptualist picture. On this view God comes to have knowledge about the world either by immediate perception or causal inference. In a sense, God knows things about the world by “seeing it”, or inferring it based on what he “sees.” If there’s nothing there for him to see, then he can’t know it. This is the basic picture that underlies Boyd’s form of Open Theism.

But Craig points out that this isn’t the only way to think of God’s knowledge of the world. One could think of it in a rationalist or conceptualist fashion. On this view, God simply possesses knowledge of all true statements. In our own experience, much of our knowledge about the world does not come by way of perception or inference. We simply know it immediately, innately. For instance, we know that other minds exist, even if just looking at other humans and animals or argumentation alone cannot prove that they’re not just robots or mindless automata, programmed to function the way we do. We know they’re not, but we can’t prove it and direct perception doesn’t gives us that knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Philosophers have tried. It’s really stinkin’ hard.) In any case, a belief about the world like that, is kind of like the conceptual furniture that comes with our minds. We don’t come to know it, we just know it.

In the same way, on a conceptualist view of God’s knowledge of the world we might think that God knows only and all true statements about the world. If there are true statements to be known about the future (even those about human decisions), then he knows those, which would be foreknowledge. Now, there are a number of ways to think about just how God happens to possess this innate knowledge of the world (cf. Molinism, God’s decree, etc.). I won’t go into them, but it is at the very least possible to think of God’s knowledge of the world in this fashion.  If it is possible, then it does not immediately follow that God couldn’t foreknow the future, even on the A-theory of time. If there are true statements about the future, God could know them without the future “being there.”

Is the Future True?

This brings us back to the issue of whether or not I will eat pancakes on Tuesday. In order for the Open Theist’s objection to work, you have to deny that future-tense statements are either true or false. The main (if not only) objection against it is something along the lines of, “The future doesn’t exist, therefore there is nothing for future-tense statements to correspond to.” But as Craig points out, this is idea is based on a confused view of the correspondence theory of truth. (pp. 55-60)

On the classic correspondence view, “It is raining outside” is true, if and only if, it is the case that it is raining outside. It must be made clear though, that “the correspondence theory does not mean that the things or events which a true statement is about must exist.” (pg. 56) This is true only of present-tense statements. It’s obviously not true of past-tense statements like, “Obama won the election in 2008.” All that is required for their truth is that they have been the case so that the present-tense statement “Obama is winning the election” is true at some point. In the same way, for future-tense statements, “Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday”, all that is required for their truth is that the event will exist. At that time the present-tense version of the statement will be true.

A future-tense statement is true if things turn out the way it asserts, and false if it doesn’t. This is pretty common-sense stuff. In fact, Craig goes on to list good reasons for thinking that future-tense statements are true.

1. “The same facts that make present- and past-tense statements true or false also make future-tense statements true or false.” (pg. 58) The point is that it is difficult to distinguish, “It will snow tomorrow” stated May 20 from, “It snowed yesterday” stated May 22. The same event makes both true. Craig asks, “If ‘it is raining today’ is now true, how could ‘it will rain tomorrow’ not have been true yesterday?”

2. “If future-tense statements are not true, then neither are past-tense statements.” (pg. 58) If future-tense statements are neither true or false because their corresponding realities are not there, then neither are past-tense statements because they realities they speak to no longer exist. That’s silly to think, though. By the same logic then, it is silly to think that future-tense statements have no truth-value.

3. “Tenseless statements are always true or false.” (pg. 59) You can make any statement tenseless. “The Allies invaded Normandy” can be rendered tenseless by adding a date, “on June 6, 1944 the Allies invade Normandy.” There’s some loss of meaning, but it’s essentially the same content in a tenseless statement. The point is that tenseless statements are always true or false. It’s either always true that the Allies invade on June 6, 1944, or it’s not. And if the tenseless statement is true, then so is the tensed version addressing the same realities. Therefore, past- and future-tensed statements corresponding with the tenseless ones will be true. Beyond that, tenseless statements are always true or false. If that’s the case, then before June 6, that tenseless statement was true, in which case the tensed version was also true, in which case if God knows all truths, he has foreknowledge. To recap, “Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday” can be rendered tenseless by transforming it to “On Tuesday October 9th, Derek eats pancakes.” That statement is either true or false, in which case the future-tense version is true or false. If God knows that truth he has foreknowledge.

4. “The denial of the truth or falsity of future-tense statements leads to absurd consequences.” (pp. 59-60) So, for instance, if future-tense statements are neither true or false, then the statement “Mitt Romney either will or will not win the 2012 presidential election” would not be true. This is a compound of two future-tense statements, “Mitt Romney will win the 2012 election” and “Mitt Romney will not win the 2012 election.” But, if future-tense statements are neither true nor false, then neither or these statements, nor their compound is true or false. But that is absurd because those two options exhaust the logical possibilities. He either will or he won’t win. Even more, we can’t even say that a statement like “Romney will and will not win the 2012 election” is false because that’s another compound of two future-tense statements. But that’s a self-contradiction that seems manifestly untrue. But on this view, you can’t say that.

For these reasons it seems safe to say that future-tense statements have truth values. If future-tense statements can be true or false, even ones that have to do with human decisions, like me eating pancakes next Tuesday and Romney winning the election, then it follows that God can have knowledge of them which constitutes foreknowledge.

How ‘Bout Dem Pancakes?

So, just because I haven’t made them yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is ignorant as to my future breakfast choices. Now, to be sure, this isn’t a definitive statement on the foreknowledge issue. Far from it. Open Theists have plenty of other arguments at their disposal, (although, again, I think they have been handled multiple times over), and even this short treatment of this one issue is incomplete. Still, I think we’ve seen here that even if we grant that the future doesn’t exist yet, it by no means necessarily follows that God cannot have exhaustive foreknowledge of it. That idea rests on a confused idea of the nature of truth, and an unnecessary picture of God’s knowledge. In fact, I think given the fact that future-tense statements can be true or false, we’ve even gained some reasons to think that God does have knowledge of them, in which case the denial of God’s foreknowledge because of one picture of the nature of the future is a bit hasty.

And that’s all I really wanted to show today.

Soli Deo Gloria