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 force 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

Beauty

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

of

a mere empirical

apperception of

You.

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

thinker

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

I’m an Unbeliever

Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that Christians are all atheists of sorts. We are atheists with respect to Zeus, Thor, Marduk, and a whole host of other gods. At that point he likes to quote Stephen Roberts to the effect that he just believes in one less god than we do. One of the main points of this observation is that once you realize how silly believing in Zeus is, you’ll realize the silliness of believing in Jesus. Cute.

The other point I see being made is that the atheism/theism debate is about belief in a certain proposition: does God exist. The theist does and the atheist just doesn’t. There’s just a proposition’s difference between them and the theist is the one who has to justify his acceptance of said proposition. The problem is that this picture is too simple. Rarely do we simply “disbelieve” in something. Atheist’s minds do not have a blank space where the “theism” belief supposedly resides in the mind of the believer. No, it is filled–with something else. It’s not just believing in Christianity or disbelieving it. It’s believing something else instead.

See, in a sense, we all live by creeds.  A creed is a summary statement that encapsulates our deepest-held, foundational beliefs about reality and the world. We all have them, even if we’ve never made them explicit. Put another way, sociologists tell us that we tell ourselves stories, understand ourselves at very deep levels as actors in some drama, starting with the small, personal ones like “I am Derek, son of Arliett and Tino, born such and such, grew up in so and so, now married, living in Orange, and working towards future X”.  This is a short narrative understanding of myself. We usually fit these into broader narrative understandings such as Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, or Christianity that tell us big-picture stories about who we are, how we got here, and where were going. It’s inevitable.

Because of this, we are all living according to alternative creeds. The Christian recites the Apostles’ Creed, but she doesn’t do so in a vacuum. Rather, she does so in contrast with the other creeds on offer. It is those creeds which I find incredible and in particular, the dominant, competing creed that has been offered up as a substitute–that of the Enlightenment.

A Unbelievable Creed

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen’s delightful essay outlining his journey from atheism to Christianity, Quam Dilecta has a very helpful description of the creed of the Enlightenment.

There is, I believe, an identifiable and cohesive historical phenomenon that named itself the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and which, although it long ago abandoned the name, still exists. Like the Church, it does not speak with one voice. Like the Church, it has no central government. Like the Church, it is made up of many groups some of which heartily detest many of the others–some of which, indeed, regard themselves as its sole true representatives and all others who claim to be its representatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the Church, it has a creed, although, unlike the Church’s creeds, its creed has never received an official formulation. But that is a minor point. Its creed can be written down, and here it is:

There is no God. There is, in fact, nothing besides the physical cosmos that science investigates. Human beings, since they are a part of this cosmos, are physical things and therefore do not survive death. Human beings are, in fact, animals among other animals, and differ from other animals only in being more complex. Like other animals, they are a product of uncaring and unconscious physical processes that did not have them, or anything else, in mind. There is, therefore, nothing external to humanity that is capable of conferring meaning or purpose on human existence. In the end, the only evil is pain and the only good is pleasure. The only purpose of morality and politics is the minimization of pain and the maximization of pleasure. Human beings, however, have an unfortunate tendency to wish to deny these facts and to believe comforting myths according to which they have an eternal purpose. This irrational component in the psyches of most human beings–it is the great good fortune of the species that there are a few strong-minded progressives who can see through the comforting myths–encourages the confidence-game called religion. Religions invent complicated and arbitrary moral codes and fantastic future rewards and punishments in order to consolidate their own power. Fortunately, they are gradually but steadily being exposed as frauds by the progress of science (which was invented by strong-minded progressives), and they will gradually disappear through the agency of scientific education and enlightened journalism.”

Van Inwagen goes on to concede that there are various Enlightenment denominations (Marxist, Positivist, New Atheist) who would object that he’s left something crucial out. At its core though, this complex is central to all of them.

It is this creed that I find myself unable to subscribe to for a number of reasons too large to expound here. I will simply point out that any sort of optimism about the human condition in light of the history of the 20th Century has always struck me as farcical. The idea that science and reason (whatever that last term actually means) can actually deliver anything close to a utopia, or even a decent place to live is a fairy tale. Studying almost entirely secular moral philosophy in college had the interesting effect of convincing me that prospects of finding any sort of viable, normative moral system connected with naturalism, (ie. absent the divine, or a transcendent order), is similarly risible. Once again, I commend Van Inwagen’s essay, the second half of which is devoted to showing why he finds this creed untenable.

Where am I going with this? 

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I never find Christianity difficult and hard to accept. It has moral codes that are uncomfortable, both because they are personally hard to follow, as well as because they are socially unacceptable. Reading the Bible is weird sometimes. I mean, really? Bears? (2 Kings 2:23-25) I look out at the world filled with evil and horror, and even though I’ve read a lot of good answers on the subject, it’s still hard to stomach that God is good while he allows these things. I could go on for a while listing the difficulties. I’m sure you have a number of your own.

Still, when I look to the alternatives I find that while Christianity is tough sometimes, the competing options on offer are just impossible to swallow. At those times, I feel like Winston Churchill when speaking of democracy in the House of Commons:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Please don’t misunderstand me–I think there are good, positive reasons to believe in Jesus. I have to admit though, one of the main ones is the fact I find the other options simply unbelievable.

Update and clarification: There apparently has been some confusion as to the point of his post. Please do not take this as a denigration of either reason or science. As a Christian I believe as humans made in the Image of the Creator God have been endowed with reason and given an impulse towards the exploration and study of nature. Rather, it is a rejection of a rationalism and scientism. Those are two different things. I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of the deliverances of reason and the advances of science while recognizing their limits and the dangers of misunderstanding their role and function in human life.

No Such Thing as a Dumb Question?

I must confess that I’ve always thought the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a dumb or bad question” to be a bit silly.  Admittedly, patience with ignorance has not historically been a strength of mine. In high school I was that guy who would groan audibly at silly answers given by my classmates at times.  I blame this almost entirely on my arrogance.  (Occasionally it was probably merited, but that’s no excuse.) Still, arrogance aside, I always could think of a number of questions that were foolish to ask given any situation.

Now, I’ve mellowed a bit since my high school days, become more aware of my own intellectual failings, and expanded my definition of what counts as a good question, especially in a teaching situation where I myself have come to use the phrase to encourage those shy students. And yet, I still find myself wincing a bit when I hear that phrase uttered or when I come across a  particularly silly question.

Which brings me to Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins is a Big Silly

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trekking through the New Atheist canon in preparation for an upcoming teaching series. First it was Harris, then it was Hitchens, and now I’ve finally made it to Dawkins. I was unsurprisingly unimpressed by the first two given that there really wasn’t much in the way of an actual refutation of Christianity or even theistic belief forthcoming. Well, unless you count some unhelpful platitudes about reason and faith. I came to Dawkins’ God Delusion though, expecting a bit more since he, among the 4 Horsemen, has the reputation of being most interested in giving serious arguments against God’s existence. I can’t say I was expecting much in light of some criticisms I’d read beforehand. Still, looking at the table of contents and noting that it includes a decent-length chapter on the traditional proofs for the existence of God, I allowed myself to be somewhat hopeful.  “Maybe it’s not all that bad. Maybe it’s not as painful as they say.”

I won’t bore you with all of the details of that 35-page train wreck except to say that my forehead was a nice bright pink at the end of the ordeal given the frequent face-palming I was doing. There were many delightful turns of phrases, misleading but amusing analogies, arrogant snark enough to last for months, and questions on par with “Could God make a martini so big that even HE couldn’t drink it? Ha! He’s not omnipotent!”

It was beautiful.

The one piece that irked me most was what he touted as the most damning response possible to the argument from design. The design argument is something like:

  1. Where there is design, there must be a designer.
  2. The universe exhibits unmistakable signs of complexity and design. (Insert various examples from physics, biology, the existence of salsa)
  3. The conclusion is that there must be a universal designer.

Now, what is Dawkins’ grand damning response to this? “Who made God?” (109, a question which apparently occurs to all “thinking people”) and “Who designed the designer?” (158) I swear, I am not making this up.

This, as you can tell, is what got me thinking about silly questions. For a 5-year old or even a 15-year old to ask, “Well, who made God?” is fine; nothing dumb or illegitimate about that. For an Oxford professor to trumpet this as his damning argument against God’s existence is just sad.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s got to be more to it than that.” And, in a sense, you’d be right. Dawkins has an argument here. In fact, this is his grand argument against God’s existence. As he puts it, “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” His point is that a being that can create something complex like the universe, would have to be incredibly complex: at least as complex as the universe itself. The more complex something is, the less likely it is. In which case, whatever created the universe would have to be extraordinarily complex, and therefore even more improbable which is why God probably doesn’t exist.

If that weren’t bad enough, apparently, the whole exercise is silly because in any case, since the whole point of the argument from design is to explain complexity or statistical improbability, introducing a statistically improbable, complex being to explain complexity explains nothing. (158)

This can sound convincing at the surface level. To explain why this actually isn’t, I’d like to call in an expert witness: Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga lays the Hammer down

You’ll be hearing about Alvin Plantinga from time to time on this blog. Suffice it to say for now that he is probably THE SINGLE-MOST BRILLIANT ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER ALIVE. In his very humorous and instructive review of Dawkins’ book, he points out a number of problems with this argument. I’m only going to excerpt a couple, but you’ll want to go read the whole thing.

First, Plantinga points out that Dawkins is confused as to what it means to speak about complexity with regards to God:

Now suppose we return to Dawkins’ argument for the claim that theism is monumentally improbable. As you recall, the reason Dawkins gives is that God would have to be enormously complex, and hence enormously improbable (“God, or any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable”). What can be said for this argument?

Not much. First, is God complex? According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like. Some of the discussions of divine simplicity get pretty complicated, not to say arcane. (It isn’t only Catholic theology that declares God simple; according to the Belgic Confession, a splendid expression of Reformed Christianity, God is “a single and simple spiritual being.”) So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.  More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’ own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn’t have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.

Translation: First, by definition, both those of classical theology and Dawkins’ own definition as laid out elsewhere, God is not a complex being. Given that God is a simple, spiritual being God does not demonstrate physical complexity or design in a way that allows Dawkins’ question to even make sense. Therefore, Dawkins’ argument fails.

The next part is where he shows how Dawkins’ question completely misses the point and responds to his idea that introducing God as an explanation for complexity explains nothing:

In The Blind Watchmaker, he considers the claim that since the self-replicating machinery of life is required for natural selection to work, God must have jump-started the whole evolutionary process by specially creating life in the first place—by specially creating the original replicating machinery of DNA and protein that makes natural selection possible. Dawkins retorts as follows:

“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity… . But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… . To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer…”

Here there is much to say, but I’ll say only a bit of it. First, suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover machine-like objects that look and work just like tractors; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet who built those tractors.” A first-year philosophy student on our expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are.” No doubt we’d tell him that a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two. For of course it is perfectly sensible, in that context, to explain the existence of those tractors in terms of intelligent life, even though (as we can concede for the moment) that intelligent life would have to be at least as complex as the tractors. The point is we aren’t trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, and we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general; we are only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it (those tractors). And (unless you are trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity) it is perfectly proper to explain one manifestation of organized complexity in terms of another. Similarly, in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life. So even if (contrary to fact, as I see it) God himself displays organized complexity, we would be perfectly sensible in explaining the existence of terrestrial life in terms of divine activity.

Translation: We are not trying to explain organized complexity in general. The argument from design is dealing with one instance of complexity: the universe. As an explanation for that, a universal mind like God’s works even when granting complexity, (which we’ve already seen is unnecessary).

Conclusion

Now, we’ve seen why this question “Who designed the designer?” and Dawkins’ further elaboration of it into an argument against God’s existence is confused and a bit silly. The thing that makes it truly silly though, is the arrogance with which he wields it. In the mouth of a truly inquiring child, teenager, or even adult, it is perfectly legitimate question that can be answered honestly and without any condescension or arrogance. In fact, most answers should be given that way. In the mouth of a snarky professor who should know better, it becomes very silly indeed, and is safely ignored as a serious threat to belief in God.

To wrap up here are a few things to keep clear:

  1. Apparently a Ph.D. in biology doesn’t do much for your philosophical chops. So, next time you hear a biologist or a chemist pronouncing confidently on philosophic and theological issues beyond the remit of their chosen discipline, remember: they’re only scientists, not philosophers. That doesn’t mean you should listen and weigh what they say, but it also means you should take it with a grain of salt.
  2. None of this necessarily proves that the design argument “works.” It just means that Dawkins’ response to it doesn’t. Nobody needs to get freaked out by the question, “Who designed the designer?”
  3. At the same time, if you’re a believer, realize that there are legitimately thoughtful atheists who have good questions and serious doubts who should be taken seriously and lovingly answered. Pointing out the silly things that one of them has written should not cause us to think they’re all that silly and smug.

Disclaimer- I’d just like to point out that even though I’ve called attention to some intellectual problems with Mr. Dawkins’ arguments, this in no way denies his prodigious abilities as a biologist or is meant to imply that I consider myself smarter than him. Consider it an exercise in God using the foolish to shame the wise. (1 Cor 1:27) Or rather, God using the foolish (me), using the wise (Plantinga), to shame the wise (Dawkins.)

Recommended resources:

1. Go read the whole review by Plantinga that I linked above.
2. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga is his definitive work on the problem of theistic belief, science, and naturalism. I highly recommend this work.
3. A Shot of Faith to the Head: How to Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes is Plantinga’s awesomeness written for everybody. I’ll be reviewing this book soon.

Is it Really Bad if God Brings Something Good out of it? C.S. Lewis, Joseph, and Moral Judgments

“Is it really a bad thing if God does something good with it?” You may have heard this kind of question before. Maybe in a discussion after your philosophy 101 class, or a Bible study, or in a coffee shop, the issue of God and evil comes up. How can God still be good and powerful given the amount of evil and suffering we see in the world? Copious amounts of ink have been spilt on the subject and numerous answers have been given. I’m not going to attempt anything so bold as to hazard a definitive answer but I do want to clarify a couple of important points to keep straight in our thinking about this issue.

Good Enough Reasons and the Problem of Naming Evil

One point that commonly made is that it is possible for God to still be good and powerful and allow all the evil we see in the world, if he has a morally justifiable reason to such as avoiding a greater evil, or bringing about an outweighing moral good. For instance, I’m morally justified in allowing my child to suffer pain while getting vaccination shots because it will prevent some later, horrible disease. In fact, at that point, I’m just justified in purposing the pain, because it is outweighed by the good of avoiding the disease. This is somewhat common-sensical, and leaving aside some issues related to God’s power, you could see the way that the principle could apply to God. God can still be good and powerful, yet allow for some good purpose even if it’s one that only He can understand. (The epistemological issue is an important one, but I’ll deal with that in another post on another day.)

This is the point that the title question is appealing to. God is justified in allowing something we think is evil because of the good that comes from it or that evil that it avoids. But, the question actually goes a bit further and says, “Well, in fact, that instance of suffering and evil, wasn’t really evil because of the good result that came from it. Maybe it’s just that evil is just a good that is misunderstood?” Is that right, though?

It is because of seemingly natural questions like these that some worry about appealing to some higher “plan.” They fear that it impermissibly justifies evil and makes moral language ambiguous. In other words, if that crime was really part of God’s plan that he used to bring about some greater good, are we allowed to call it evil? Is suffering really bad? If that’s the case, then doesn’t that remove moral responsibility and render us unable and name evil as evil since it is “justified”? In light of this, they would want to say that, in fact, all we can morally say is that there is no good reason for much of the evil that we see in the world. All we know is that God hates it, will end it someday, and make everything better.

But that seems troubling as well because if we can’t say that God had a good reason for allowing an evil, that leaves us back where we started with God allowing evil for no good reason at all.

Is there a way forward from this?

C.S. Lewis on Simple Good, Simple Evil, and Complex Good

There are a great many issues to consider here, but C.S. Lewis has a great little passage in his work devoted to the problem of suffering and evil, The Problem of Painthat begins to address the issue. He’s discussing whether Christians should seek suffering because so often it is linked to spiritual growth and moral goodness. In it he says:

I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) The simple good descending from God, (2) The simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted; suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse - though by mercy it may save – those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. 

So we see it is possible to speak of simple good, simple evil, God’s redemptive work, and the complex good that follows from God’s redemptive work. It is possible for both God and humans to be at work in one and the same events event, be able to speaking meaningfully of human evil while still affirming God’s goodness in that particular event. Sounds good Clive, but is it biblical?

Joseph: A Biblical Paradigm

There are a number of events in biblical history which God speaks of as evil on the part of humans, yet part of a broader, good divine plan; the story of Joseph is often used as a paradigm for this way of thinking. In the story, he is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is wrongfully imprisoned by his Egyptian slave-master, left in jail for many years, but through a providential chain of events is elevated to a position of power in Egypt before a time of great famine. This then enables him years later to provide food for his family that had initially sold him into slavery as well as provide for the entire nation of Egypt. Eventually, from that family, comes the Messiah, the savior of the world. In an encounter with his brothers years later he realizes that they fear for their lives from him. Even years after forgiving them and treating them well, they still worry that he might be holding a grudge against him for their evil. Joseph calms their fears by assuring them he knows that although they did what they did for evil intentions, God intended for good. (Gen. 50:20)

So, in the one affirmation we see him affirm that being sold into slavery by your own brothers is evil. Being wrongfully imprisoned is evil. At the same time, being in the right place, at the right time to avert disaster for a nation and one’s own family is good. But the humanly-intended evil and the divinely-intended good were being accomplished side by side in the same events! Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again in Scripture, whether in the prophets or the preaching of the early church in Acts. Lewis is on firm, biblical ground here.

Conclusions

So let’s put this together: First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.

At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently,  with respect to God.  In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.

Admittedly, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of an answer to one of the many questions within a much broader issue. Still, I think can help us keep a couple of points clear that ought not be confused whenever we are trying to think about or discuss the issue of evil and suffering from a biblical perspective.

In all things Soli Deo Gloria.

Progressive God-Talk, Reformed Theological Method, The Doctrine of Analogy, and God’s Grace in our Knowledge

(Warning: this is a mildly dense one. If you haven’t had coffee yet, you might want to grab some, then come back. Also, it might seem dry at first, but there’s a punch-line you don’t want to miss.)

Progressive God-Talk

A few days ago, progressive author and blogger, Tony Jones threw down a challenge to his fellow progressive bloggers to start actually saying something substantive about God, “Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God”, because they seem to  “have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”

I don’t have a lot to say on the subject of liberal God-talk at this point, except that its been interesting to watch as it unfolds (or the way it doesn’t.) My hope is that more liberal/progressives do post substantive pieces of theology so that a real discussion of the nature and character of God can ensue.

One thing I do have something to say about is the topic of Reformed God-talk, and the attitude that those of us who engage in theology out of the Reformed tradition should take towards the conversation that’s happening right now amongst the progressives. To do that, though, I’m gonna call in a little help.

Reformed Theological Method (Or how Reformedish people go about thinking about God)

A while back I read a great article by Michael Horton on the Reformed theological method in conversation with Open Theism that will be helpful to our conversation. In it he deals with the common charge made that the Reformed scholastics were too dependent on “Hellenistic” thought or Greek speculative, systematizing which distorted the true, “dynamic”, biblical portrait of God. Leaving aside the problem that many who lodge this charge are guilty of the genetic fallacy, Horton shows that, in fact, “Contrary to popular caricature, Reformed scholasticism championed an anti-speculative and anti-rationalistic theological method based on the Creator-creature distinction.” He quotes Francis Turretin as representative of the tradition when he says,

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded
simply as God in himself . . . , but as revealed . . . Nor is he to be considered
exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas
Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of
him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God 
(i.e.,
covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word) . . .

Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics
and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God
not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature; but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation . . . For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.

So, theology treats, not of God in general, but of God as he has given himself to us in Christ and in the history of Israel as attested to in the Scriptures. This straight from the mouth of Turretin, the Reformed Aquinas and the grand-daddy of all post-Reformation dogmaticians.

Horton then outlines then expands on 4 important distinctions that flow from the Creator/creature distinction that give Reformed theology its particular shape (transcendence and immanence, hidden/revealed , eternal decree/temporal execution, and archetypal/ectypal knowledge). We don’t have space to go into all of them here, but the final one, the archetypal/ectypal knowledge distinction is important for us. This distinction teaches that God’s knowledge is archetypal and primary, while our knowledge is ectypal and dependent on God’s. Horton writes that:

It is the epistemological corollary of the ontological Creator-creature distinction. Although it had been a category in medieval system, Protestant dogmatics gave particular attention to this distinction and made it essential to their method. Just as God is not merely greater in degree (“supreme being”), but in a class by himself (“life in himself,” John 5:26), his knowledge of himself and everything else is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from that of creatures…affirmation of this distinction is essential if we are to maintain with Scripture that no one has ever known the mind of the Lord (Rom 11:34, where the context is predestination), that his thoughts are far above our thoughts (Isa 55:8), and that he is “above” and we are “below” (Eccl 5:2)—if, in other words, we are to truly affirm the Creator-creature distinction.”

So, the idea is that because there is a radical gap in reality between God and ourselves–he is necessary, infinite, transcendent, etc. and we are contingent, finite, bound–there is also a radical gap in our knowledge. In the same way that God’s reality is at a higher level than ours and sustains ours, the same is true of our knowledge. It’s not just that we know less stuff, but that we know the stuff we do in a lesser way than God does.  This is not to say that we don’t have true knowledge, any more than to say that we are not real, simply because we’re not on the same ontological playing field as God, but that our knowledge is at a lower level than God does and is.

The Doctrine of Analogy (“God is…”)

With this distinction in hand, our discussion brings us to the doctrine of analogy, which has a long history both in Catholic and Protestant theology. I’d explain it, but here’s Horton again:

All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.

This is a useful doctrine for many reasons, but as Horton points out, it both acknowledges human finitude unlike rationalistic, univocal approaches to God-talk, as well as gives a place for real knowledge of God unlike modern, skeptical, equivocal approaches God.

Calvin’s Lisp, or God’s Grace in our Knowledge

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, aside from the fact that it’s just important for theology as a discipline, it’s important for our own theology as a part of life. It’s very easy for theology types to get really puffed up when it comes to their “knowledge” of God and his ways. Paul had to administer many a 1st Century beat-down over this in the church in Corinth. (cf. 1 Cor 1-4) What all of this points to is that this should not be so for Christians, especially for those who claim to be Reformed. Listen to Horton again:

“Thus, Calvin and the Reformed do not use analogy as a fall-back strategy when they find something that does not fit their system. Rather, it is the warp and woof of their covenantal approach, a necessary implication of the Creator-creature relationship as they understand it. All of God’s self-revelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God’s “lisping” or speaking “baby-talk” in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God’s transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.”

All of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. It’s not just that we find out about a gracious God when we hear the Gospel, but that our hearing the Gospel at all is an act of grace! Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love. For the Reformed, it should be grace all the way down to your epistemology.

This is why it makes no sense at all for us to boast, or pride ourselves as better than others because of our ability to say and believe true things of God or on our theological systems and tradition. These are good things; they’re great. They’re a rich resource. They can be a great blessing. They can be all of these things, but the one thing they cannot be, must not be, is a source of arrogance or pride. Instead  every truth we utter or find in one of our dogmatics should be a reminder of God’s grace, not our own awesomeness.

So, if you’re cruising around the blogosphere, or just in life, reading people or hearing people talk about God in what you find to be silly fumbling, or inadequate ways, your first instinct should not be to look on condescendingly or pridefully, but remember God’s condescension that made your knowledge possible. When you get that point, maybe, just maybe you can engage in a loving, humble conversation about God and his truth with those whom you disagree.