Triablogue and Natural Theology

Worldly Wisdom in Modern Christian Apologetics and I Corinthians 1-3

Recently, Triablogue reviewed Blackwell’s Companion to Natural Theology, giving it a positive nod. I usually agree with the views expressed by the men at Triablogue. However, in this case, I happen to have a completely different perspective on the subject of natural theology and its usefulness in presenting the gospel. What is the best approach from a biblical perspective? What does the Bible teach concerning how Christians should share their faith? Are we free to select whatever method suits our personal style and tastes?

The question of natural theology is more than just an epistemological question. To be sure, it has epistemological implications and these implications are expansive. However, the question of natural theology is a theological question, and all theological questions are questions that necessarily involve divine revelation. When the Church relocates theological questions such as this to the field of philosophy, she unwittingly leaves behind her only source for discovering truthful answers to the questions she asks. Yes, she gains academic respect in the scholarly community, who would otherwise accuse her of being anti-intellectual. However, the cost of academic respectability of godless scholars is far greater than the Church should be willing to pay.

“Natural theology deals with what can be known about the existence (see Cosmological Argument; Kalam Cosmological Argument) and nature of God by natural reason (see Revelation, General), apart from any supernatural revelation (see Revelation, Special). According to classical Christian theists (see Theism), such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), all of the essential metaphysical attributes of God can be known by natural reason. This includes God’s aseity, simplicity, immutability, eternality, simplicity, unity, infinity, and morality.”[1]

In other words, unaided natural reason can, without any special grace from God, accurately know and understand God. Hence, if we know how to command the use of human reason in just the right way, we may be able to bring unregenerate men to a place where they actually hold to the same knowledge of God as believers do in many respects. Using this proposition about human reason, Christian leaders have invented sophisticated philosophical arguments in an attempt to persuade unbelievers of the truthfulness of God’s existence. As time has progressed, these arguments have become multifarious and highly intricate. The target of these arguments is the intellectual, the atheist, the scientist, the philosopher, usually, the highly educated. By highly educated, I mean they have devoted serious time to the materials, the arguments, and to formulating a more formal and structured position around theism and they can usually articulate that position very well.

Here is the excerpt from Steve Hayes at Triablogue that reflects, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in how we think about Christian apologetics: However, I think it would often be a mistake for a Christian to imagine that this equips him to go on the offensive and pick fights or do battle with unbelievers. In debate, a specialist usually has an advantage over a nonspecialist. He can argue circles around the nonspecialist. Even though the specialist may be dead wrong, he can do a snow job on the nonspecialist. An atheist who’s a clever young philosophy major has a lot of strategies at his disposal to deflect a popularized version of the AFR. If Joe Six-pack Christian gets into an argument with an unbeliever like that, he may well lose the argument, not because he’s wrong, but because he lacks the sophistication to field the counterarguments. And that experience could disillusion him. That might shake his faith. Leave him worse off than before. So we need to make sure the nonspecialist has reasonable expectations about what a popularized theistic proof can accomplish.

It seems clear that Steve is endorsing a method of apologetics that embraces natural theology along with the idea that we can and should explore various ways to reason with unbelievers in order to persuade them to accept Christianity. I say Christianity over Theism because we are not charged with proving the existence of a god, which is theism. We are tasked with preaching the gospel to an unbelieving world. One could legitimately ask if we are even tasked with the duty to debate the existence of God with skeptics and atheists. What does Scripture have to say about unregenerate human reason? There are two texts that I think we should look at briefly. You, on the other hand, if you are interested in apologetics and methods, should spend a great deal of time in Romans 1-3 and 1 Corinthians 1-3. Read them over and over until you understand Paul’s thoughts around unregenerate human reasoning and its limitations.

First and foremost, human reason is not ethically neutral. That is to say, human reason did not escape the curse. Like every other part of the human, the curse of sin has devastated the human intellect. The ethical component of sin reaches all the way to the intellect, the emotions, and the will. Nothing was protected from the curse of the fall. Paul informs us in Romans 8:7-8 that the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Space prohibits a more detailed treatment of these verses, but take them at face value for there is nothing in the text that would give us cause to take them any other way. The idea that human reason is somehow unaffected by the curse of sin is anchored in humanistic philosophy, not biblical theology. Unregenerate thinking has a proclivity to do violence to the truth of God, to God Himself by distorting His image into one that is tolerable, acceptable, or by completely vanishing Him from existence. This condition of the intellect persists so long as the intellect remains unregenerate.

The second issue is how Paul frames this up in Romans 1. The first issue is that men do possess the truth. God has given it to them. However, these unregenerate receptors of truth engage in a twisting, perversion, and suppression of that truth. In other words, the unregenerate intellect does something strange to the truth about God that it receives. It distorts it. It puts the CD into the stereo and then turns the music up so loud that what is on the CD is not what is coming out of the speakers, sort of. It is the same band, the same notes, but the message has been changed by the receptor. The receptor knows there is a band playing instruments. The receptor knows that “something” must have went into the project to produce this music. But because the receptor is a sworn enemy of the band, it intentionally distorts the music. This analogy doesn’t carry us far enough in the theological discussion because not only is the act of perverting natural revelation an act of the will, it is an unavoidable one. The will does what the mind thinks is best (Edwards). And the mind is hostile. Hence the will is held hostage to the mind, always. Therefore, it is unable to do those things because the mind is in a state of war against God. The only way to change the will is to change the mind. Repentance is changing the mind, not in the sense of swapping out ideas. It is a new mind altogether. That is how we change our mind about Christ, about God, about divine truth. We require a new mind! Scripture calls it a new heart!

In Romans 1, Paul says, they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. He says, that which is known about God is evident within them. He says, God made it (the knowledge of God) evident to them. Paul says that God’s attributes have been clearly seen (not clearly expressed). Paul said God’s attributes have been understood through what has been made. Paul says that even though they knew God they did not honor Him as God. Rather, they have become futile in their speculations.

Now, this seems like more than enough to me to conclude that human reason is not neutral. From this text we can deduce that all men have received the truth and that they have and do suppress it. We can say that the truth about God is known by unregenerate men and that it is clearly and easily known. They already know some truth about God. The language does not say that God’s creation clearly expresses His attributes so that men should know which is what one commenter says at Triablogue. Paul uses the passive voice, telling us they are seen and understood. This fact, Paul tells us, leaves them without excuse. They are culpable.

Now, I want to play a game. I want to assume that Paul isn’t telling us that men know, but that they have enough evidence in creation and conscience that they should know. The AFR approach would say that men are just reasoning wrongly and if we help them spot the flaws in how they are thinking, we will win them over. In order to hold that view, they must interpret Romans 1 as I have presumed in this paragraph. Or, at a minimum, they cannot interpret it as I do which is expressed above. Even if Romans one is not saying that all men know and see, and understand the truth about God, it does not follow that we should spend our time constructing these sophisticated philosophical arguments. Why not? Well, at a minimum Paul is saying that what they have already, without any additional material, without any additional evidence, without any additional arguments, is sufficient. It is enough! Creation and conscience is enough to produce culpability. I do not interpret Paul in this way, but even for those who do, they still cannot overcome the obstacle before them. God says He has given them enough in creation and conscience. Therefore, to respond to every intellectual obstacle an unbeliever can think up for why they don’t want to believe in God is, in my opinion, not the best way for Christians and especially Christian leaders to spend their time.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, at least the one we have in the canon, Paul deals with worldly wisdom and the gospel a lot. He says something very interesting in 1:17, essentially, Paul says that God did not send him to proclaim, present, or preach the gospel with cleverness of speech so that the cross would not be voided. In other words, repurposing how we present the message could void the cross! How else can we account for the hina clause that follows? This text should scream out to us that not only is what we proclaim significant, but how we proclaim the message is serious business. The possibility of voiding the cross by using clever (sohia) words is portentous to say the least. Only  sinful human arrogance would treat it otherwise.

Next Paul informs us that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The gospel is moronic to unbelievers. The Greek word for foolishness is where we get our English word moron. To one who is lost, the gospel, the true gospel is absolutely foolish. This begs the question of whether or not we are aiming rightly when we aim to employ tactics like AFR in order to interact with unbelievers. The NT seems to know absolutely nothing of it. All throughout the NT, we witness presentations and are instructed to present Jesus, present the good news, present the gospel, to proclaim the truth of the resurrected Savior. Paul goes on to tell us that God warns us that he will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever. So much for philosophy! God has promised to destroy the cognoscente. He has set them aside, preferring instead a foolish message, delivered with a foolish method, mostly to foolish people, the simple, the common.

Paul asks the Corinthians: where is the philosopher, where is the lawyer, where is the rhetorician? Look around! God has made the wise to be foolish. He has shamed that which men prized, honored and exalted. And this absolutely drives us insane, even in the Church. One commenter, in my quote of 1 Cor. 1:18 accused me of being an anti-intellectual. Of course I went to “goodreads” where he says he writes a lot of book reviews to see what “kind” of books he reads and reviews. I noticed there was not a single solitary book on godly living, sanctification, love, service, or anything else related to Christian praxis. They were predominantly philosophical, theological and with some logic. The point is that we can turn the intellect into an idol. And with many of these apologetic methods in Christianity, that is all too often the attraction. It was for me until God slowly had to pound that out of me with one trial after another, forcing me to run to the text time and again until my thick-head and prideful heart started to get it.

Paul says this world did not come to God through its wisdom. That seems entirely contrary to natural theology’s view that they can. Paul says God was pleased to save the world through the foolishness of the message preached. God intentionally has not elected many philosophers, lawyers, or rhetoricians. We need to let that sink in. He chose mostly the base, the simple, and the foolish with a few of the others sprinkled in for purposes known only to Himself. Look at Athens. Such a large city in Paul’s day, yet, not a single letter addressing a church there.

Paul says the gospel is a scandal for the Jew and moronic to the Gentile. Why then does AFR think that the gospel can be turned into a message of intellectual respectability from skeptics, philosophers, and academicians the world over? Paul apparently did not think this of the gospel. He readily admitted that what he presented would be considered laughable to the unbeliever. He goes on again to point out that God has deliberately not chosen many philosophers, nor many politicians, nor many of the well-breed so to speak. Paul says that God has deliberately not chosen many philosophers, politicians, or wealthy to be among His ranks. Perhaps it is no accident that most of the skeptics, critics, cynics and those aggressively seeking to destroy theism come from these very ranks. Have we ever given this much thought? Perhaps we can do a better job at connecting these dots.

God chose the foolish things to shame these wise men, and the weak and poor to shame the powerful and the rich and He did it on purpose. Paul tells us that his preaching does not rest in human reasoning, in philosophical acumen, but rather in the power of God. Notice how Paul contrasts worldly philosophy with the genuine gospel, the presentation of the good news? This helps us avoid a misplaced faith. Faith in human reason, in our ability to defend the truths of Christianity from the standpoint of human reason and worldly philosophies is indeed a dangerous thing. It is very harmful to Christians to imply that they need these sophisticated complex and often convoluted arguments in order to be able to be a good representative of Christ and His Church. When they fail, because their faith is in human reason and philosophy, they are tempted to think the message may not be true after all.

Jesus Himself gave us instructions of how to deal with those who reject our message and mock us and our Savior. To the disciples He said they were to shake the dust off their feet if the city rejected the message. Paul, after being rejected city after city by the Jews, turned to the Gentiles. Even for those within the Christian community, we are not to wrangle with them without end. There is a clear end to the corrections. Paul issues numerous warnings in the pastorals about this. One such warning to Timothy is found in 2 Tim. 2:14. “The content of the warning includes an appeal to avoid “quarreling about words.” This wrong emphasis can lead to aimless word splitting. “In the end disputing about words seeks not the victory of truth but the victory of the speaker.”2  This word splitting involved useless verbal quibbling, but it did not focus on the aims of Christianity.”[2]

I recognize the legitimacy of contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We have a duty to propagate Christian truth in the public square and with as many individuals as we can. Paul was equipped to preach the gospel to the Jews. He debated with them often. But his approach was not open for a variety of methods. An occasional quote of a pagan writer should not be construed as wholesale acceptance of ungodly philosophical methods. To argue to the contrary does more to reveal bias than it does anything else. There is simply no exegetical basis upon which to make that case.

What then should we do in terms of equipping individual Christians to share the gospel with unbelievers and handle objections? We start with setting expectations. A solid theological foundation should serve to help folks understand that unbelievers are going to reject the message and perhaps argue to the contrary. Their authority is autonomous human reason, science, philosophy, etc. The Christian’s authority is Scripture. For them, knowledge comes through experience mostly, while for the Christian all knowledge is revelational.

Christians must be trained to articulate a succinct presentation of the gospel. God saves His elect through the foolishness of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing the word of God, not complex philosophical proofs for the existence of God. Moreover, what we are interested in is the gospel. We desire to see men saved. And if that is true, and all that is needed is the gospel, why would we dedicate an abhorrent amount of time to an area that does not produce salvation. That approach is more about winning an argument, a debate, a verbal battle, intellectual pugilism, than it is about simple gospel truth.

I was basically accused of being an anti-intellectual because I was silly enough to say that preaching the gospel was enough. Either Scripture is sufficient for evangelism and soul-winning or it is not. You cannot have it both ways. All I ask is that you be man enough to say what you mean, rather than wrangle over words. Either we believe the gospel saves those whom God has chosen, or we believe there is more to winning souls than living and preaching Christ!

The entire first two chapters of 1 Corinthians speaks to this issue. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. [3]

 What I am not saying is that 'reason' is useless in preaching the gospel. God is a rational being and He created us to be rational beings. I am also not saying that every part of Scripture and Theology are equally simple. I can attest that Hebrew and Greek exegesis involve issues like textual criticism, syntax, morphology, literary devices, a theology of hermeneutics (interpretive paradigm) and much more. These things can be difficult and complex. However, the basic manner in which God saves souls and propagates the gospel is not complex and Scripture testifies to this in more than one place. Scripture was not written for the philosopher, the lawyer, or the debater, or even the academician in order to provide fodder for debate. It was written for the Christian community so that it could work to transform us into the image of Christ. If we miss that, well then, we are missing everything and in our attempt to attain a most impressive intellectual prowess, I would suggest that we have become fools.





[1] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 282.
[2] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, vol. 34, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 214.
[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 2:14–16.


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