Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Can Epistemology Be Saved?

April 7th, 2009

by Paul Pardi, IBD Faculty and Speaker, Secretary-Treasurer of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and member of the American Philosophical Association and Society of Christian Philosophers

Much has been written in recent years on the topic of faith and reason. In most of these works one will find a clear dichotomy between epistemology in general and religious epistemology. Much of the time one is reading a defense of the rationality of religious knowledge vis-à-vis a developed, broader system of epistemology. In this post-enlightenment age, rarely will one find an epistemology that presents the act of knowledge in a context of pre-established theism (or Christian theism) where theism serves as the ground for all knowledge whatever.

Perhaps rightly so. For in discussions of religious epistemology, it is not knowledge of the world one is seeking to establish (that is usually a given and specific claims to knowledge of objects of the world tend to be used as a clear cases of knowledge) but rather it is claims to knowledge of the objects of religion that are under scrutiny. Most of us have little problem with reason. Rather it is faith we are seeking to bolster and show that it is indeed reasonable. What would be the epistemological advantage of showing reason to be faithful? However, could such an approach be developed where a system of knowledge was developed out of Christian philosophy of the world? Would such an approach solve any problems that plague theories of knowledge (and solve more problems than it creates)? This paper will take up those two questions and look at an attempt to answer them.[1]

As stated above, in more recent discussions of Christian epistemology, reason is set up as the standard against which the claims of theism are judged. In a later chapter in Philosophy of Religion entitled “Faith and Reason”, William Rowe writes, “The central question that has occupied our attention since the first chapter is whether there are rational grounds supporting the basic claims of theistic religions.”[2] Similarly Geivett and Sweetman note, “The question of whether or not it is rational to believe in the existence of God is one of the most important of all human concerns. . . . However, it has proved difficult to decide the issue of the rationality of belief in God, and philosophers have debated it from the beginning of time without producing any clear-cut or decisive solution which has come to be generally accepted.”[3] In chapter one of his Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig states, “Before presenting a case for Christianity, we must come to grips with some very fundamental questions about the nature and relationship of faith and reason. Exactly how do we know Christianity is true?”[4]

The view towards faith and reason represented by these statements is one of the reasons, I believe, why modern theistic philosophy has seen such a boon in apologetics—the discipline of “defending the faith.”[5] Defending it against what? Against the inroads of modern, post-enlightenment “reason”, upon the modern Weltanschauung. Certainly this is a noble and necessary endeavor.

What options have theistic philosophers taken in developing this defense? There seems to be two approaches that have been traversed in modern history. The first is to accept the enlightenment view of rationality (at least in a broad sense) and try to demonstrate that Christianity is rational on these grounds. This approach falls under the rubric of what many have called the Thomistic approach to apologetics.[6] It also has been characterized under the broader category of natural theology (or natural theologizing if one wishes to see it as applying the principles of a natural theology). The other, under the general aegis of Reformed thought, has sought to broaden the boundaries of what it means to be rational and in so doing demonstrate that analysis of belief in God may actually aid in defining what rationality is.[7]

The latter approach has been viewed by many academics as more auspicious and is gaining a wider and wider hearing among Christian thinkers. Even so, Reformed epistemologists are not trying to redefine the classical view of what is deemed as rational, but are trying to broaden what might be included within that idea. Certainly this is the view of Mark McLeod in his book Rationality and Theistic Belief. He evaluates the epistemologies of Plantinga and Alston characterizing their basic premises essentially as parity theses. By this he means to say that both Plantinga and Alston are attempting to explain the rationality of theistic belief by arguing “that certain beliefs about God are just as rational as beliefs about perceived physical objects.” [8] If McLeod is right, then these Reformed epistemologists see perception (or some phenomenological analogue) as paradigmatic of rational belief against which religious belief can be compared and, finally, to which it can be equated.

Though McLeod rejects these Reformed approaches he does not reject the idea of grounding the rationality of theism via parity with non-religious modes of belief formation. For after thoroughly examining and criticizing Plantinga and Alston, McLeod develops his own “New Parity Thesis” (which is an amalgam of Reidian epistemology and holistic coherentism) and argues that religious belief is justified in the same way as beliefs about persons as unique individuals. What is noteworthy about McLeod’s characterization of Plantinga and Alston, and McLeod’s own position is that the rationality of religious belief is being formulated in terms of some other generally accepted rational belief (or mode of belief formation) and not vice versa. It may not be natural theology pure and simple but it is certainly a not too distant relative.

There is a third option, however, that is available to the theist. This third approach attempts to tear down the enlightenment view of reason altogether and erect in its place an approach to reason that places knowledge of God and His word at its center. This view has come largely out of the Dutch Reformed[9] churches developing from the thought of Abraham Kuyper (though its proponents argue that it had a much earlier origin[10]). This approach has had a much narrower hearing in the Christian academic community due to (I believe) its lack of systemization and its decidedly apologetic approach. It does however represent what I believe to be a largely clandestine view in many conservative evangelical churches and seminaries and represents the most developed view of an approach to a thoroughly Christianized epistemology qua Christian epistemology as I will define it.

Perhaps the question of an exhaustive epistemology based on religious constraints is actually penultimate. The prior question may have to do with the extensibility of religion as a comprehensive philosophy of the world and life. If it is so extensible the idea of a thoroughly religious epistemology isn’t so far off. Opinions vary as to the intellectual viability of such a project. Some see the task being hindered by enlightenment thought and if we can shed our enlightenment fetters, the doors are open for a comprehensive philosophy based in religion (the way it used to be). For instance Evans and Westphal write, “Maybe religious knowledge looks dubious because we have the wrong idea about what it is to know something and how we know what we know. In the last thirty years there has been a marked resurgence of Christian Philosophy, and this suspicion has developed into a full-fledged assault on Enlightenment epistemologies and those philosophies of religion which rests on them.”[11] Even though they appear to be open to the idea of a “new Christian view of the world,” the bifurcation between religious and non-religious epistemology is clearly present throughout the papers in their book.

In evaluating the Reformed answer to the epistemological question, Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger draw some observations about the viability of what they call a “common philosophical rationality” based on religion. “It does seem that in deciding [whether religious experience grounds religious belief], an important role is played by one’s willingness (or unwillingness, as the case may be) to give up the goal of a ‘universal method’ for reaching philosophical agreement and to accept that the different starting points and belief-commitments of philosophers may give rise to disagreements that are not decidable by means of a common philosophical rationality.”[12] They go on to conclude that the prospects for a religious epistemology whose application goes beyond the objects of religion alone are probably rather nil.

It appears that religious epistemologies are developed in order to vouchsafe specific religious truth claims. However it seems to me that the development of broader epistemologies that begin with Christianity as a philosophical foundation is motivated by other concerns as well. As mentioned above, a Christianized epistemology may serve as an heuristic for general epistemological problems vouchsafing not only religious beliefs but any beliefs whatever. Further, there may be theological motivations . One may, for instance, wish to preserve the absolute sovereignty of God by completely removing man from the act of knowing. [13] This might best be done in an epistemological system that is driven either by God’s nature or His will.

There is an important distinction between evaluating knowledge claims (which would be normative epistemology) and evaluating systems that evaluate knowledge claims (what we might call meta-epistemology). This paper is engaging in the latter type of evaluation and will seek to determine the viability of a system of epistemology. In order to evaluate whether or not a Christianized epistemology solves any of the problems that plague attempts to develop a comprehensive theory of knowledge, the problems themselves must be defined. What an adequate epistemology must do is a difficult question in and of itself.[14]

What would a Christian epistemology look like? Obviously such an approach would have to be theistic. It would have to explain both events of belief formation and doxastic justification in terms of an ontology of knowledge that includes an explanation of the noetic relation between mind and world in terms of the creative act of God. Also it would have to include Christian revelation within the scheme. The latter is important for a Christian epistemology, as it is revelation that distinguishes a general theism from Christian theism.

Specifically, I believe a fully christianized epistemology might have the following features. (1) It would explicate the justification (on the standard JTB account) conditions for all knowledge whatever. That is, its range of discussion will not be limited to religious knowledge alone.[15] (2) The justification conditions for knowledge would include an act of God that causes a given belief to come to be known. I will not specify at this point whether the causal relation needs to be efficient or final. However a fundamental tenet of Christianity is that God is not creator only but sustainer as well.[16] (3) Christian revelation somehow would serve as a standard by which the truth-value for all belief is measured. (4) Full or complete justification of beliefs (knowledge) would be attainable only by those who stand in some personal relationship with God.[17]

These features are derived in part from the Christian belief that not only did God create man,[18] but He did so with the capacity to know Him. That is, man was created with a specific teleology: to enter into a personal relationship with God. Further, such a capacity, when not exercised leaves man incomplete.[19] A Christian epistemology then might include this noetic capacity insofar as it seeks to explain the conditions under which knowledge is possible.

This precisely is the project of Cornelius Van Til. Instead of asking what one can know about religious matters based upon a non-religious view of knowledge, he asks what one can know of the world based on certain “religious” truths. The rest of this paper will examine Van Til’s approach to this question. One may ask, “Why Van Til?” I have chosen Van Til not because I believe his position to be the most clearly defined and presented, nor even because I hold him to be the most adequate representative of this particular position (in fact I lean the other way on both accounts). I have chosen to examine his view for the following three reasons.

First Van Til’s epistemology represents what I believe to be the approach taken by many in (especially) conservative Christian churches at least in the west. The Christian scripture is the epistemological starting point of faith for many believers though most churchgoers do not usually understand the importance of that. Second, though Van Til’s writings are not popular outside of certain Reformed circles, he has had considerable influence on the evangelical church at large through his students, most notably Francis Schaeffer and Greg Bahnsen. Third, Van Til, has done specific work in the area of epistemology relating to theistic belief as an epistemologist and more importantly believed that the appeal to scripture was not only important for religious knowledge but for all knowledge. This relates directly to the project at hand.

Essential Van Til

My analysis of Van Til will be an attempt to draw out key characteristics of his view of knowledge as it might apply to a thoroughly Christian philosophy of the world. I cannot, in this short paper, hope to answer objections to his position (nor would I be qualified to do so). I can, however, attempt to build a framework that is representative of the key ideas of Van Til. My hope is that in constructing this framework I will be to provide enough insight into this view such that its viability (and potential for further development) can be fully appreciated.

As a starting point, I will lay out what I see as essential ideas in Van Til’s approach. Let F stand for any fact whatever. Let B stand for the self-attesting Christian revelation or Scripture. If we assert also that for any F,

(1) F sustains a relation R to B such that B interprets F

then S knows F just in case

(2) S believes F

(3) S presupposes God’s existence

(4) S stands in some relation R*­ to R such that R completes F for S.

These four propositions capture the essence, I think, of Van Til’s epistemology. As mentioned earlier, his approach uses the language of metaphysics but he attempts to draw epistemological conclusions. Can the system based on these propositions form an adequate basis for understanding what knowledge is? To answer this we will have to carefully examine each of the above propositions then look at how they relate to one another to form Van Til’s approach to Christian epistemology.

Before examining the propositions, a word must be said about how this analysis relates to what is going on in epistemology as a discipline. Much of contemporary epistemology is concerned with addressing the ambiguity that exists regarding the third condition of the standard, tripartite view of knowledge. Namely, epistemologists are seeking to provide insight into that feature that turns true belief into knowledge. Historically, the study has concentrated on the justification condition though of late some epistemologists have replace justification with some other condition. In any case, examining that feature (whatever it is) will be important in our study of Van Til. More specifically, we will have to surface from Van Til’s view that feature (or those features) that justifies or warrants Christian belief.[20]

There are a couple of features that can be surfaced immediately about the set of propositions I have laid out. The first is that knowledge on this view is structured in terms of entities and relations that obtain between them. That is, when certain relations obtain between a person and some object, the person knows that object. Second this system relies heavily on Christian revelation. This is important to notice for our present purpose, as it is the Bible (insofar as it the logos of Christ) that defines Christianity qua Christianity. If Van Til’s system did not include the Bible in a fundamental way, it would be questionable whether or not it could be called a Christian epistemology. Third the set attempts to define all knowledge, not just “religious knowledge.” In fact, Van Til held that knowledge of anything in the world had to be understood in terms of Christian theism. For him, the claims of Christianity were “truer” than anything else one could know and so in some sense grounds all knowledge. Because of this, knowledge of the world could be defined only in terms of Christian theism. The following will examine the set of propositions in light of these considerations.

Presuppositions

Van Til’s system has been called presuppositional. If that label is accurate (and I believe it is) one would expect presuppositions to be at the core of his system and (3) satisfies this expectation. Van Til’s use and meaning of the term “presupposition” is somewhat varied.[21] Essentially, the notion of presuppositions appear to include both a cognitive element—an entity of some sort which is the direct object[22] of some noetic function—and a relational element.[23] I think, then, presuppositions can best be understood in terms of objects and relations. Each of these must be taken in turn.

Taking the former idea first, the objects of knowledge for Van Til are facts. Relating this to the concept of presuppositions, Van Til develops the idea that there is a fact (or are facts) upon which all other facts depend for their existence. For Van Til this has ontological as well as epistemological implications. Ontologically this means that certain facts cannot exist independently but are dependent upon other facts for their existence (ostensibly this would include their coming to be and their continuing to be). More to the point, Van Til believes that no fact can exist unless the fact stands in an ontological dependency relation to a single fact: the fact that God exists (FG).[24] This latter fact however does not stand in a dependency relation to anything else. To use modal language, God’s existence is a necessary fact without which any other fact could exist. This ontological map is implied (if not explicitly stated) in Van Til’s use of presuppositions.[25]

Facts

To understand this better, we must digress and look briefly at how the notion of facts function within Van Til’s epistemological system. Since facts are the objects of knowledge then when a subject knows (or believes) a thing it is a fact that he knows. Although a systematic presentation of the nature of facts is hard to find in Van Til, they appear to have the following features: (a) they are extra-mental entities, (b) they are not propositional in nature,[26] (c) they can be apprehended by the mind, (d) they must be interpreted to be known, (e) facts, in some sense, just are objects and states of affairs (O/SA) and are not to be distinguished from them.[27] Essentially facts appear to be the objects and states of affairs that make up the world. All physical objects are facts as are states of affairs and metaphysical objects.

This description, however, does not really explain matters. The problem arises in the way Van Til employs the use of facts in his system. Facts appear to have properties that would differentiate them from objects and states of affairs (and vice versa). For example, (d) indicates that facts are apprehended by the mind meaning that facts are the objects of comprehension. But certainly when one comprehends the existence of a tree, one does not have a physical tree in one’s mind (imagine the headache that would cause!). Yet Van Til wants to avoid saying that a fact is a proposition or some other entity of that sort. Given this, the best I can say is that facts appear to be some property or properties of objects and states of affairs that relate to the mind in some way. Thus facts are not separated ontologically from these entities yet they do not necessarily encompass every property of these entities. This ultimately may be an inaccurate rendering of Van Til’s idea but will have to suffice as a working definition for our purposes.

To round out this ontological picuture, Van Til holds that God created man with the capacity to know the world around him and he created the world with properties such that man’s noetic structure is able to cognitively “fit” with those properties.[28] He writes, “God has created the human mind. In this human mind God has laid the laws of thought according to which it is to operate. In the facts of science God has laid the laws of being according to which they function. In other words the impress of God’s plan is upon his whole creation.”[29] God’s design of both the human mind and the world allows for the possibility of knowledge. Further, God must aid in interpreting what man apprehends through this mind-world interaction. “If the Christian position with respect to creation, that is, with respect to the idea of both the subject and the object of human knowledge is true, there is and must be objective knowledge. In that case the world of objects was made in order that the subject of knowledge, namely man, should interpret it under God.”[30]

Facts and Interpretation

This statement by Van Til brings to the surface another very important aspect about facts: facts must be interpreted to be known. This is the relational side of presuppositions. That is, facts are not “brute” but stand in relations to other facts and stand in ultimate relations to the plan of God. If one attempts to know facts apart from these relations, she is attempting to do the impossible.[31] There are no non-interpreted facts of science for example. Every thing that science discovers as a fact relates in some way both to the other facts of the world and to the plan of God. To know these facts truly, these relations must be a part of the epistemic process.

To reiterate, the human mind has functions and properties that allow man to know in this way. For Van Til, this cognitive fit is part and parcel of the human design. With this, Van Til’s approach avoids (at least on the surface) much of the sticky epistemological problems that plague many systems (such as objectively validating the correspondence relation between thought and world). If this relation is built into the cognitive structure of humans and God created the world with properties that immediately “interface” with that structure, the need for sense datum or idealist theories is done away. With this background, (3) can be modified as follows,

(3¢) S presupposes God’s existence when S stands in some relation R* to FG.

A presupposition then includes a fact (I might add of a certain class) and the relation one sustains to that fact. As Frame points out, a helpful analog to this idea is the notion of a priori knowledge where the latter consists of knowledge that is not experientially based. Van Til’s notion of presuppositions takes this idea much further. For him, presuppositions are necessary for any sort of knowledge whatever. Beyond this, the relation between subject and this presupposition does in fact obtain for all persons.[32] Without this relation no one could know[33] anything. Again the presupposition to which all subjects must necessarily be related is the fact of God’s existence. We now must explore this relation a bit further.

The Presupposition Relation

The first condition for knowledge, then, is that the subject presupposes the existence of God in terms of the relations described above. However, the epistemological significance of this relation has not been addressed. It seems at least prima facie false to say, for instance, that a person cannot know that Mount Rainier exists unless that person first believes the presupposition that God exists. Further, it is not at all clear what kind of a relation R* is. In order to address these problems, it will be necessary to introduce some key terms and distinctions that Van Til employs.

Denotation and Connotation

Van Til makes a critical distinction between the denotation and the connotation of a fact. Crudely, the denotation of a fact is its “thatness” and the connotation of a fact is its “whatness.”[34] These two terms specify the range of the relation that obtains between fact and subject. More specifically they designate the degree to which a subject is related to the object of knowledge. The denotation of a fact is, simply, the finite existence of that fact as it is grasped by the subject. What is denoted by a fact is nothing more than the prima facie properties and relations that can be predicated of the fact itself. It may be accurate to say that the denotation of a fact is those features that can be pre-reflectively apprehended of it. To say that the cat is on the mat is to say nothing more than that a cat exists, a mat exists and that the cat stands in an on top of relation to the mat. However there are much more to facts than mere denotation. Van Til brings out these further features in his idea of connotation.

The connotation of a fact is all that is entailed by a comprehensive predication of that fact. This involves understanding all the facts that can be predicated of that initial fact. The cat, for instance, not only exists, but it is a living thing, it has x number of physical properties, it is of such and such a breed, it didn’t come into existence yesterday, etc. There may be innumerable other facts that can be predicated of any given fact. The point is that what is connoted by a fact includes every other fact that can be predicated of that fact.

In employing the concept of connotation, Van Til seems to emphasize the idea of implication not fullness. What I mean by this is that Van Til was not trying to say that one had to have exhaustive knowledge of some fact before he could know that fact but that one had to understand that all facts imply an ultimate ground for their existence. I believe, then, there is an important distinction to be made between what Van Til meant by connotation and how he actually used the term in his system. The former is much richer yet the latter more easily employed from a practical point of view.

With this distinction in mind can we provide an answer to the question of the type and nature of R*? The answer does not come readily. If the relation is epistemic, (that is, if the person must know this presupposition in the connotative sense in order to know any other thing) we are involved in a vicious circle.[35] For how does one come to know F­G without first being in this epistemic relation? If the relation is not epistemic, how does it do any work in so far as it is functioning as a means by which F­­G enters into the noetic structure of a person as an item of knowledge? A fuller answer to this will have to be deferred until later. At this point, it may be sufficient to say that this relation is epistemic but in a special sort of way.

It seems that for Van Til there is a special subclass of beliefs that are justified on the basis of the means by which they were formed.[36] The closest analog may be the notion of basic beliefs (however the pool of what might be considered basic for Van Til is much smaller than that of most later Reformed thinkers). Provisionally I will use the term awareness[37] to refer this idea. Greater detail on how this awareness functions epistemically will be explicated below.

With this background we can return to our initial proposition and expand upon the idea of the relation that obtains between S and FG (the fundamental presupposition). S presupposes God’s existence just in case,

(5) ­God created S with an awareness of Himself.
and
(6) The awareness S has of God is validated by B.

What Van Til is attempting to do is bring his entire theology and philosophy into the knowledge event by collapsing ontology and epistemology into a unified whole. A key idea in this attempt is that of the nature of man as a being created by God. For only if God created man could he stand in a direct epistemic relation to the fact of God’s existence.

As mentioned above, Van Til emphasizes the unity of man within the “epistemically compatible” environment (i.e., the natural world) within which God created him. “God has created the human mind. In this human mind God has laid the laws of thought according to which it is to operate.”[38] The former idea is not fully expressed in (5) however. (5) would have to provide insight into what the awareness of God entails as well as how God’s creation of S relates to this awareness.

(5¢) God created S with a noetic faculty that is immediately aware of God’s existence such that S pre-reflectively believes the fact “God exists” is true.

With (5¢) not only is God designing the noetic faculty of man to be able to receive a belief about His existence, He somehow is causing man to have the very belief itself. Notice also that this belief is not limited to believers. This is not a belief that is somehow “inserted” at the time of salvation. By including the phrase “pre-reflective” I intend to bring in the idea that this assent to God’s existence is present in the noetic structure of all persons. Thus atheism would be learned and theism would be the normal, “default” position epistemically.

(5¢) is too strong however. It is not the case that everyone who reflects on the question, “Does God exist?” answers it positively and Van Til did not want to argue for that.[39] However what is true, Van Til argued, is that no one can consistently deny that God exists and affirm any other fact. Any attempt to do so leaves one with epistemic gaps or holes that cannot be filled with any other fact except the fact that God exists.

Intension

Here is where Van Til’s usage of denotation and connotation come to full play. By using these terms as he does, he indicates that knowledge is, in some sense, degreed. One can know fully or partially (one recalls Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13:12). How connotation functions in this context is not to explain how one might know any given fact but how one is aware that God exists. That is, knowledge of God’s existence is directly related to one’s ability to fully know any given fact. (I will use the term intension for this property and will explain intension more fully below.) (5¢) can be modified to account for this lack of fullness knowledge of a fact can have.

(5¢¢) God created S with a noetic faculty that is immediately aware of God’s existence such that S’s belief in F is underintended for S when not based upon FG.

(5¢¢) locates S’s awareness of Go

The Death of God, Truth, Morality, and Man

February 28th, 1998

by Dr. Phil Fernandes,
President of the Institute of Biblical Defense,
Pastor of Trinity Bible Fellowship,
and Adjunct Instructor of Apologetics for Cascade Bible College

presented at Multnomah Bible College, February 28, 1998
at the Northwest regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society

As the twentieth century comes to a close, we must properly diagnose the disease that has caused the unprecedented wars, bloodshed, and genocide which this century has experienced. In this paper I will discuss the prophetic insights of the German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the prognostication of Christian thinkers C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, concerning the future of Western civilization. I will show that the nineteenth century’s death of God has led to the twentieth century’s death of both universal truth and absolute moral values, and that this in turn will lead to the death of man in the twenty-first century if the tide is not reversed.

NIETZSCHE: PROPHET FOR THE 20TH CENTURY

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) proclaimed that “God is dead.”1 By this he meant that the Christian world view was no longer the dominant influence on the the thought of Western culture. Nietzsche reasoned that mankind had once created God through wishful thinking, but the nineteenth century man intellectually matured to the point where he rejected God’s existence.2 Intellectuals throughout the world were embracing atheism as their world view, and the ideas of these intellectuals were beginning to influence the common people throughout Western civilization. According to Nietzsche, scientific and technological advances had made belief in God untenable.

But Nietzsche saw a contradiction in the thought of these intellectuals. Though he agreed with their atheism, he rejected their acceptance of traditional moral values. Nietzsche argued that, since God is dead, traditional values have died with Him.3 If the God of the Bible does not exist, reasoned Nietzsche, then the moral values taught in the Bible should have no hold over mankind.

Nietzsche viewed existence as a struggle and redefined the good as “the will to power.”4 This was a logical outgrowth of his acceptance of the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Nietzsche called for a group of “supermen” to arise with the boldness to create their own values.5 He proposed that, through their will to power, these “supermen” replace the “soft values” of Christianity with what he called “hard values.” Nietzsche believed that the “soft values” of Christianity (self-control, sympathy, love for enemies, human equality, mercy, humility, dependence on God, etc.) were stifling human creativity and progress; these values encouraged mediocrity. But the “hard values” of the supermen (self-assertion, daring creativity, passion, total independence, desire for conquest, etc.) greatly enhance creativity.6 Nietzsche considered the soft values a slave morality, and the hard values a master morality, and he promoted the latter.

Nietzsche rejected the idea of universal, unchanging truths. He viewed truths as mere human creations, as metaphors mistaken for objective reality.7 Therefore, Nietzsche showed that, since God is dead, universal truth, like absolute moral values, is dead as well.

Nietzsche predicted that the twentieth century man would come of age. By this he meant that the atheist of the twentieth century would realize the consequences of living in a world without God, for without God there are no absolute moral values. Man is free to play God and create his own morality. Because of this, prophesied Nietzsche, the twentieth century would be the bloodiest century in human history.8 Still, Nietzsche was optimistic, for man could create his own meaning, truth, and morality. Set free from belief in a non-existent God, man could excel like never before. Nietzsche viewed the changes that would occur as man becoming more than man (the superman or overman), rather than man becoming less than man.

Nietzsche was the forerunner of postmodernism. A key aspect of modernism was its confidence that, through reason, man could find absolute truth and morality. Postmodernism rejects this confidence in human reason. All claims to having found absolute truth and morality are viewed by postmodernists as mere creations of the human mind.9

The history of the twentieth century has proven Nietzsche’s basic thesis correct. Western culture’s abandonment of the Christian world view has led to a denial of both universal truth and absolute moral values. The twentieth century has proven to be the bloodiest century in human history.10 Hence, the Christian thinker must object to the optimism of Nietzsche. The death of God is not a step forward for man; it is a step backward—a dangerous step backward. If God is dead, then man is dead as well.

The comments of Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft are worth noting:

One need not share Nietzsche’s atheism to agree with his historical, not theological, dictum that “God is dead”—i.e., that faith in God is dead as a functional center for Western civilization, that we are now a planet detached from its sun. One need not share Nietzsche’s refusal of morality and natural law to agree with his observation that Western man is increasingly denying morality and natural law; that we are well on our way to the Brave New World.11

C. S. LEWIS: THE ABOLITION OF MAN

The nineteenth century brought the death of God to Western culture. The twentieth century brought the death of truth and morality to Western culture. Two twentieth century Christian thinkers, C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), argued that the death of man will follow, unless of course man repents.

A Christian thinker should not be content with rightly analyzing and critiquing current ideas. A true thinker should also attempt to foresee the probable future consequences of ideas. In this way, a Christian thinker performs the role of a watchman by warning his listeners of future dangers (Ezekiel 33:1-9). C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer had the courage to fulfill this role.

Lewis, in his prophetic work The Abolition of Man, critiqued an English textbook, written in the 1940’s, which was designed for school children. Lewis found that more than English was being taught in this book, for the authors rejected objective truth and traditional values and proclaimed a type of moral relativism.12 Lewis expressed concern for two reasons. First, the children who read this textbook would be easy prey to its false teachings.13 Second, this would lead to a culture built on moral relativism and the rejection of objective truth, something that, according to Lewis, has not existed in the history of mankind.14

Lewis not only refuted the fallacious views of the authors, but also predicted the future consequences of this type of education. He argued that teaching of this sort would produce a race of “men without chests.”15 By this he meant men without consciences. According to Lewis, this would mean an entirely “new species” of man and “the abolition of man.”16

Lewis argued that the practical result of such education would be “the destruction of the society which accepts it.”17 The rejection of all values leaves man free to recreate himself and his values.18 When this power is placed into the hands of those who rule, their subjects will be totally at their mercy.

Lewis also saw in this rejection of traditional values a new purpose for science. In a sense, science is like magic in that both science and magic represent man’s attempted “conquest of nature.” However, science will become an instrument through which a few hundreds of men will rule billions of men,19 for in man’s conquest of nature, human nature will be the last aspect of nature to surrender to man.20 Science will be used by future rulers to suppress the freedoms of the masses.

Lewis refers to the future rulers as “the man-moulders of the new age” or the “Conditioners.”21 It will be the job of the Conditioners to produce the rules, not to obey the rules.22 The Conditioners (i.e., Nietzsche’s supermen) will boldly create the laws the conditioned must obey. The role of education will become the production of artificial values which will serve the purposes of the Conditioners.23 The Conditioners, through their Nietzschean “will to power” and motivated by the thirst to satisfy their own desires, will create their own new values and then force these “values” on the masses.24

According to Lewis, the rejection of traditional values and objective truth will lead to the same mentality in future rulers as that of “the Nazi rulers of Germany.”25 Traditional values will be replaced by the arbitrary wills of the few who rule over the billions,26 and this will “abolish man” and bring about “the world of post-humanity.”27

SCHAEFFER: THE POST-CHRISTIAN ERA & THE DEATH OF MAN

Francis Schaeffer proclaimed that Western culture is now in a “post-Christian era.” By this he meant the same thing Nietzsche meant when he declared “God is dead.” Schaeffer was saying that the Christian world view was no longer the dominant presupposition of Western culture. Now, a secular humanistic view of reality permeates the thought of the West.28 Due to this change in world view, modern man has fallen below what Schaeffer called “the line of despair.”29 Schaeffer meant that, by throwing the God of the Bible out of the equation, modern man, left to himself and without divine revelation, could not find absolute truth and eventually gave up his search for it. According to Schaeffer, modern man no longer thinks in terms of antithesis (i.e., the law of noncontradiction); he now views truth as relative. And, since he believes there are no absolutes, modern man has rejected universal moral laws and has embraced moral relativism.

Schaeffer wrote concerning America, “our society now functions with no fixed ethics,” and “a small group of people decide arbitrarily what, from their viewpoint, is for the good of society at that precise moment and they make it law.”30 Schaeffer compares this present climate of arbitrary lawmaking to the fall of the Roman Empire. The finite gods of Rome where not sufficient to give a base in law for moral absolutes; therefore, the Roman laws were lax and promoted self-interest rather than social harmony. This eventually led to a state of social anarchy as violence and promiscuity spread throughout the empire. To keep order, the Roman Empire had to become increasingly more authoritative. Due to Rome’s oppressive control over its people, few Romans believed their culture was worth saving when the barbarian invasions began.31 Schaeffer saw that America, like ancient Rome, had turned to arbitrary laws which have led to an increase in crime and promiscuity, which in turn has led to ever-increasing government control. Schaeffer stated this principle as follows:

The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for the cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality, it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being.32

Schaeffer also noted that most American leaders no longer consider themselves subject to God’s laws. They often view themselves as answerable to no one. They do not acknowledge “inalienable rights” given to each individual by God. Instead, American leaders play God by distributing “rights” to individuals and by making their own arbitrary laws. Schaeffer quotes William Penn who said, “If we are not governed by God, then we will be ruled by tyrants.”33

Schaeffer saw the 1973 legalization of abortion as a by-product of man playing God by legislating arbitrary laws and by the few forcing their will on the many.34 But, according to Schaeffer, this is just the beginning, for once human life has been devalued at one stage (i.e., the pre-birth stage), then no human life is safe. Abortion will lead to infanticide (the murdering of babies already born) and euthanasia (so called “mercy-killing”).35 Christianity teaches that human life is sacred because man was created in God’s image, but now that modern man has rejected the Christian world view (the death of God), the death of man will follow (unless modern man repents) and man will be treated as non-man. Schaeffer documents the erosion of respect for human life in the statements of Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick. These two scientists, after winning the Nobel Prize for cracking the genetic code, publicly recommended that we should terminate the lives of infants, three days old and younger, if they do not meet our expectations.36

In his response to behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner’s book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Schaeffer argued that Western culture’s rejection of God, truth, and God’s moral laws will lead to the death of man. Written in 1971, Skinner’s book proposed a “utopian” society ruled by a small group of intellectual elitists who control the environment and genetic makeup of the masses. Schaeffer stated, “We are on the verge of the largest revolution the world has ever known—the control and shaping of men through the abuse of genetic knowledge, and chemical and psychological conditioning.”37 Schaeffer referred to Skinner’s utopian proposals as “the death of man,”38 and wrote concerning Skinner’s low view of C. S. Lewis:

Twice Skinner specifically attacked C. S. Lewis. Why? Because he is a Christian and writes in the tradition of the literatures of freedom and dignity. You will notice that he does not attack the evangelical church, probably because he doesn’t think it’s a threat to him. Unhappily, he is largely right about this. Many of us are too sleepy to be a threat in the battle of tomorrow. But he understands that a man like C. S. Lewis, who writes literature which stirs men, is indeed a threat.39

Schaeffer understood not only the failure of secular humanism, but he also realized that Eastern pantheism offered no escape from the death of man. Only a return to the Christian world view could save the West from the death of man. He stated:

Society can have no stability on this Eastern world-view or its present Western counterpart. It just does not work. And so one finds a gravitation toward some form of authoritarian government, an individual tyrant or group of tyrants who takes the reins of power and rule. And the freedoms, the sorts of freedoms we have enjoyed in the West, are lost. We are, then, brought back to our starting point. The inhumanities and the growing loss of freedoms in the West are the result of a world-view which has no place for “people.” Modern humanistic materialism is an impersonal system. The East is no different. Both begin and end with impersonality.40

Schaeffer called upon evangelicals to sound the alarm, warning the church and society to repent, for the death of man is approaching:

Learning from the mistakes of the past, let us raise a testimony that may still turn both the churches and society around—for the salvation of souls, the building of God’s people, and at least the slowing down of the slide toward a totally humanistic society and an authoritarian suppressive state.41

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Nietzsche wrote that Western culture’s rejection of God would inevitably lead to the rejection of absolute truth and universal moral values. Allan Bloom confirmed that this has indeed been the case when he began his epic book The Closing of the American Mind with these words: “There is something a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”42 Still, Nietzsche wrongly believed that this rejection of truth and morality would improve humanity by ushering in the “overman.”

Lewis and Schaeffer agreed with Nietzsche’s death of God, truth, and morality hypothesis, but, since they were Christians, they argued that this would not be an advancement for man. Instead, this would bring about the death of man. Though I believe that Lewis overstated his case by asserting that the death of man would create a “new species,” I agree that, apart from Western culture’s repentance, some type of death of man is inevitable. Man is presently being treated as non-man throughout the world (i.e., abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, religious persecution, genocide, violent crimes, etc.), and this trend will continue to increase apart from a return to the Christian world view.

As I see it, the death of man will involve spiritual, social, and psychological aspects. The death of man will be characterized by man being further alienated from God (the lost becoming harder to reach with the gospel), from others (mankind becoming more and more depersonalized), and from himself (the light of man’s moral conscience and his thirst for God will be dimmed). People, especially those in positions of authority, will treat other people as less than human. Man’s love for man will grow cold.

To prevent, or at least slow down, the death of man, Christian thinkers must defend the reality of God, absolute truth, absolute moral values, as well as the dignity of man and the sanctity of human life. Still, we must do more than refute current ideologies; we must also proclaim to a complacent church and world where those ideas will take us in the twenty-first century if we refuse to repent. Like Lewis and Schaeffer, we must resist the temptation to pick dates for Christ’s return or dogmatically declare that these are the last days, for we do not see the future with certainty—maybe Western culture will repent. Therefore, like Lewis, Schaeffer, and the Old Testament prophets, we must call our culture to repent. We must tell our generation that the nineteenth century gave us the death of God, and the twentieth century gave us the death of truth and morality. Without widespread repentance, the twenty-first century will bring the death of man. Just as the removal of God from our schools has all but destroyed our public school system, the removal of God from the reigning ideas of Western culture will surely destroy our civilization. The death of God will ultimately lead to the death of man, if we do not turn back to the God of the Bible. Unless trends are reversed and the Christian world view is restored as the dominant perspective in Western culture, the twenty-first century will surpass the twentieth century in tyranny, violence, and ungodliness.

Though only God knows if we are actually in the final days, the words of our Savior warn us that someday the death of man will come:

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come. . . . for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short (Matthew 24:14, 21-22).

ENDNOTES

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 124, 447.

2 Ibid., 143, 198.

3 Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 408.

4 The Portable Nietzsche, 570.

5 Geisler and Feinberg, 408.

6 Ian P. McGreal, ed. Great Thinkers of the Western World (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 409-410.

7 Portable Nietzsche, 46-47.

8 Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. VII (New York: Doubleday, 1963), 405-406.

9 Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 83.

10 R. J. Rummel, Lethal Politics (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xi. Rummel estimates that, in the twentieth century alone, just under 120 million people have been killed by their own governments during times of peace. (This does not include the millions of unborn babies who were aborted in this century.)

11 Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 107.

12 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Collier Books, 1947), 23.

13 Ibid., 16-17.

14 Ibid., 28-29.

15 Ibid., 34.

16 Ibid., 77.

17 Ibid., 39.

18 Ibid., 62-63.

19 Ibid., 69, 71.

20 Ibid., 72.

21 Ibid., 73-74.

22 Ibid., 74.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 78, 84.

25 Ibid., 85.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 85-86.

28 Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1981), 17-18.

29 Francis Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, vol. I (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1982), 8-11.

30 Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 48.

31 Schaeffer, Complete Works, vol. V, 85-89.

32 Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, 29-30.

33 Ibid., 32-34.

34 Ibid., 49.

35 Schaeffer, Complete Works, vol. V, 317. see also vol. IV, 374.

36 Ibid., vol. V, 319-320.

37 Ibid., vol. I, 381.

38 Ibid., 383.

39 Ibid., 382-383.

40 Ibid., vol. V, 381.

41 Ibid., vol. IV, 364.

42 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25.

Miracles

May 25th, 1997

by Dr. Phil Fernandes
A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved

Christianity is a religion based in history. The claims, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth occurred in history. For this reason, historical apologetics (to be discussed in Part Six) is of great importance. If one can prove that Jesus really did rise from the dead in history, then one will have gone a long way towards establishing Christianity as the true religion. However, before an apologist can engage in presenting historical evidences for the resurrection of Christ, he must first answer the philosophical objections against the possibility of miracles. If miracles are by definition impossible, then it makes no sense to look into history to see if Jesus really rose from the dead.

The strongest philosophical argumentation against miracles came from the pens of Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and David Hume (1711-1776). Spinoza was a pantheist.1 He believed in an impersonal god that was identical to the universe. He reasoned that an impersonal god could not choose to perform miracles. Whatever an impersonal god does, it must do by necessity. Spinoza believed that nature necessarily operates in a uniform manner. Therefore, he argued that the laws of nature cannot be violated. Since miracles would be violations of the laws of nature, they are impossible.2

David Hume was a deist. He believed that after God created the universe, He no longer involved Himself with His creation. Hume reasoned that miracles, if they occur, are very rare events. On the other hand, the laws of nature describe repeatable, everyday occurrences. Hume argued that the wise man will always base his beliefs on the highest degree of probability. Since the laws of nature have a high degree of probability while a miracle is improbable, Hume considered the evidence against miracles always greater than the evidence for miracles. Therefore, according to Hume, the wise man will always reject the proposed miracle.3

RESPONSE TO SPINOZA

Spinoza argued that miracles are impossible. Several things should be mentioned in refutation of Spinoza’s argument. Though it is true that a pantheistic god cannot choose to perform a miracle (a pantheistic god is impersonal and, therefore, cannot choose anything), there is strong evidence that a pantheistic god does not exist.4 As the cosmological argument has shown, a theistic God exists.5 A theistic God is a personal God, and a personal God can choose to perform miracles.

Second, Spinoza’s premise that the laws of nature can never be violated is suspect. The laws of nature are descriptive; they are not prescriptive. In other words, the laws of nature describe the way nature usually acts. The laws of nature do not prescribe how nature must act.6

Third, Spinoza’s definition of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature is objectionable. It is possible that miracles do not violate the laws of nature; they merely supersede the laws of nature. C. S. Lewis argued along these lines.7

Fourth, if God created the universe, then the laws of nature are subject to Him. God can choose to suspend or violate (depending on how one defines a miracle) the laws of nature any time He wishes. In short, Spinoza has failed to show that miracles are impossible.

RESPONSE TO HUME

Hume, unlike Spinoza, did not argue for the impossibility of miracles. Instead, he argued that miracles were so unlikely that the evidence against them will always be greater than the evidence for them. Hume argued that miracles are improbable, and that the wise man will only believe that which is probable. Hence, the wise man will never accept evidence for a miracle.8

The Christian apologist can respond to Hume’s reasoning in the following manner. Just because usual events (the laws of nature) occur more often does not mean that the wise man will never believe that an unusual event (a miracle) has occurred.9 The wise man should not a priori rule out the possibility of miracles. The wise man will examine the evidence for or against a miracle claim, and base his judgment on the evidence. Since there were over 500 witnesses who claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), a wise man would not reject the miracle of the resurrection merely because all other men have remained dead. It seems that a wise man would examine a miracle claim if there are reliable eyewitnesses. If there is no good reason to reject the testimony of reliable eyewitnesses, it seems that a wise man would accept their testimony that a miracle has occurred.

CONCLUSION

Some people will not accept any event unless it has a natural cause. Therefore, they reject miracles because they have a supernatural Cause (God).10 But, the cosmological argument has shown that the universe itself needs a supernatural Cause (God). Therefore, if there is a God who created the universe, then He would have no problem intervening in His universe by supernaturally working miracles within it. A person cannot rule out miracles simply because his world view does not allow them. If his or world view is weak (such as pantheism and deism), then he has weak reasons for rejecting miracles. If, on the other hand, a person has strong evidence for his world view (such as theism), and that world view is consistent with the reality of miracles, then he has strong reasons for believing that miracles are possible.

This chapter has only shown that miracles are possible. A later section of this work deals with historical apologetics. At that point, evidence will be examined to see whether miracles have occurred or not. Philosophical argumentation can only show that miracles are possible. Historical evidences must be utilized to determine if an alleged miracle (such as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead) has in fact occurred.

ENDNOTES

1 Norman L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 18.

2 Ibid., 15.

3 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1955), 117-141.

4 see article on Failure of Other Non-Theistic Worldviews.

5 see article on the Cosmological Argument.

6 Terry L. Miethe, ed. Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 18.

7 C. S. Lewis, Miracles, 59-60.

8 Geisler, 23-28.

9 Ibid., 27-31.

10 Ibid., 50-51.