Monday, February 17, 2014

Peeping Thomists, Classical Foundationalism, and Classical Apologetics

 Thinking Critically & Biblically about the Foundations of Christian Theism

Is belief in God intellectually irresponsible, irrational, and philosophically rash? It seems inescapably true that no belief should be acknowledged as true belief or genuine knowledge unless it is accompanied by sufficient evidence. This raises several questions about the nature of knowledge, true belief, and the notion of sufficient evidence. Much has been made over the difference between belief that God exists and belief in God. Plantinga writes, “So belief in God must be distinguished from the belief that God exists.” I am not convinced that Plantinga is not guilty of overstating the case.

When Christian theism speaks about belief in God, it speaks about belief in a very specific personal being. Christian theism speaks of the self-contained triune God of the Christian Scripture. This is the God that created all that exists. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. He is the God that became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is Lord of heaven and earth, maker of all things and the giver of life. When Christian theism speaks about belief in God, this is the God it has in mind. It follows then that statements about belief in God are statements encompassing existential beliefs. Christian theism is not satisfied to hold God out as a meagre idea or concept. Christianity is not merely a noetic structure by which to organize and make sense of one’s experience. Christian theism is the only rational worldview available to humanity. The other worldview, specifically, the non-Christian worldview is reduced to absurdity when it is subjected to an internal critique of its propositions. This is true regardless of whether or not the non-Christian worldview comes in the form of a militant atheism or a false religion such as Islam.

The issue I am discussing belongs to the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. This branch deals with our theory of knowledge. What does it mean to know something about reality? When we say we know something, we mean, as Halverson says, (1) it is actually the case, (2) we believe that it is actually the case, and (3) we have reasonable grounds for believing it is actually the case. [Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, 26] The controversy enters at point 3. I may state the case as it actually is. I may even believe the case as it actually is. But unless I have reasonable grounds for believing the case as it actually is, it cannot be said that I possess true knowledge. My belief may be a lucky guess or based on bad reasoning with the right answer. The controversy in epistemology between Christians, Non-Christians, and various schools of apologetics concerns “reasonable ground.” This is the age-old philosophical problem of the criterion. What do we mean by reasonable ground?

“Many philosophers have endorsed the idea that the strength of one’s belief ought always to be proportional to the strength of the evidence for that belief.” [Plantinga, Reason and Rationality, 24] Many Christian apologists have embraced a variety of these concepts from enlightenment and contemporary philosophies and integrated them into gospel proclamation and Christian apologetics. The problem with the approach at hand is located in the phrase “strength of the evidence.” W.K. Clifford wrote, “To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” [W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, 183] Of course it would be irresponsible if we did not inquire what sort of evidence could be offered up for this belief. And this is the heartbeat of the issue. Beliefs are supported by evidence, which is based on other beliefs, which are themselves supported by evidence and so on and so forth. The chain of beliefs, sooner or later inevitably attaches to some belief that requires no evidence for its support. This leads us to the question, what is the sort of belief that requires no evidence? For unless we land upon this ground, we never land at all. Skepticism carries the day in light of this infinite regress. Where do beliefs begin? What is the origin of human knowledge? Where is the fountainhead of human predication? How is it possible for inquiry to exist if we are not able to locate the source of human knowledge?

Should we, as Anthony Flew once said, begin the discussion without the assumption of God? Is it ever ethically proper for a Christian theist to pretend, for argument’s sake, that God does not exist? Alvin Plantinga thinks we can and should: “the debate cannot start from the assumption that God exists.” [Plantinga, Reason and Rationality, 26] Is such an assumption necessary to the proclamation and defense of the gospel? Is such an assumption necessary for the defense of Christian theism? Classical apologists answer in the affirmative. I am convinced by Scripture alone that no Christian ever has to submit to this kind of demand. Regrettably, in the name of being rational, and in the name of credibility, and in the name of respectability, classical apologetics, the predominant form of evangelical apologetics, makes such concessions. For the remainder of this post, I will explore why such concessions are not only unnecessary, but actually weaken the Christian apologetic and potentially compromise the gospel. At a minimum, the rationalism that seeps into the discussion brings with it an array of unnecessary confusion because of the glaring inconsistencies it has with sound biblical theology.

Now, the direction in which I am heading is that of classical foundationalism. Thomism is best understood as a version of classical foundationalism. It denies that belief in God is properly basic. “The existence of God, furthermore, is not among the propositions that are properly basic; hence a person is rational in accepting theistic belief only if he has evidence for it.” [Plantinga, Faith and Rationality, 48] Now, foundationalism establishes norms for what qualifies as rational. It is a system that imposes rules and standards around what justifies belief. Any belief that fails to live up to these standards ought to be rejected as irrational. Hence, one can see that sufficient evidence as defined by Thomism or classical foundationalism serves as the ultimate authority for justified true belief. And this standard is unhesitatingly directed toward belief in the existence of God. Such theistic beliefs should only be accepted if they pass the bar of human reason.

As Plantinga points out, classical foundationalism is best understood in comparison with a noetic structure. A noetic structure is a way in which the human mind organizes experience to make sense out of the world. Within that structure there are basic beliefs and non-basic beliefs. Non-basic beliefs are accepted on basic beliefs. Any non-basic belief that does not follow from basic beliefs is deemed irrational. Hence, since belief that God exists is deemed a non-basic belief, it must be tested and shown to follow from some basic belief. According to Aquinas, scientific knowledge of the existence and immateriality, unity, simplicity, and perfection of God is possible. It is possible because, following Aristotle, scientific knowledge is self-evident or basic. Hence, from these basic beliefs, we can know that God exists. In case it is not obvious, we are moving now toward natural theology.

Classical foundationalism then, says that belief in God is not properly basic because the proposition that God exists is not self-evident, or evident to the senses or incorrigible. In other words, belief that God exists is arrived at from other more basic beliefs. Now, we may agree for argument’s sake that properly basic beliefs are beliefs that are self-evident, or evident to the senses or incorrigible. But as Plantinga points out, why do we have to accept the belief that these and only these types of beliefs are properly basic? I have to ask if such a belief itself is self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible. I must confess that I cannot see how it is. From this fact, it seems to me that classical foundationalism rests upon flimsy grounds itself. In other words, it seems to me that classical foundationalism runs the risk of being what Plantinga calls, self-referentially incoherent. We presuppositionalists would say that it is reduced to absurdity when it is subjected to an internal critique.

This is precisely where the conflict between Aristotelian Philosophy collides with Reformed Theology and where Classical Apologetics crashes into Presuppositional Apologetics. The former has embraced a rationalistic epistemology while the latter has adopted a revelational epistemology. Contrary to Norman Geisler’s view that it is impossible for authority to serve as our ultimate criterion for knowledge, Reformed theology affirms that the only way to know God is by way of an ultimate standard that is thoroughly revelational in nature. Geisler contends this is impossible because “it is always possible to ask why we should believe any authority.” [Geisler, Introduction to Philosophy, 105] Paul assured us that just because we could answer back to God that did not mean it is wise to do so. (Rom. 9) I think it is good to remind the reader at this time about the promise of the serpent in the garden. Satan’s assertion was that man could know reality just as God knows reality, independently, self-sufficiently. This was in fact the promise of Satan. Satan promised man he could attain knowledge independently from God.

The reformed theologian approaches epistemology, not with Aristotle’s Metaphysics in his hand, but with a Bible. Bavinck says, “Instead, “implanted theology” was viewed as a natural fitness and inclination implanted in the human mind, enabling it to attain to knowledge of God “apart from any discursive thought and reasoning of the mind,” and to back up this knowledge with an incontrovertibly certain testimony.” [Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, 66] Human knowledge is, according to Scripture, revelational in nature. Moreover, according to Scripture, man does not have to go looking for God. By all accounts, God comes to man as soon as the capacity for rational thought arrives. With reason there is God. When the mind is ready to reason, God is. I think it right to say that God is the one conditioning the mind, preparing each mind for the process of rational thought. Rather than coming in at the end of some reasoning process or scientific or historical investigation, knowledge of God is there from the very beginning.

“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.” [Calvin, Institutes, Vol. I, 43] The source of human knowledge is God alone. The method by which mean know is revelational in nature. “But the knowledge of the deity is immutably in all because there is no nation so barbarous upon whom this persuasion of deity does not rest.” [Turretin, Institutes, Vol. I, 7]

Classical Foundationalism and Thomism following it, along with Classical Apologetics, require the existence of uninterpreted brute facts and the possibility of neutrality in order to build their system. Scripture denies that facts can exist apart from their status as being created by God for God’s purpose. Moreover, such facts must be interpreted according to God’s pre-interpretation of them. Any other view of knowledge collides head-on with biblical revelation. “No fact in the world can be interpreted truly except it be seen as created by God.” [Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 18-22] The entire enterprise then of Classical Foundationalism collapses not only from within but from without, and with it, classical apologetics. If there are no brute facts from the start, then it seems impossible for the foundation to form at all. We all should remember the words of our Lord when he said he that is not with me is against me. Hence, the notion of neutrality is more than a little naïve given Scripture’s description of man as a hostile enemy of God. Neutrality turns out to be another misguided philosophical conjecture that adds little value to the discussion.

In conclusion then, since God is the source of human knowledge and since it is the fear of God that leads to knowledge, God must be seen as the necessary precondition for human predication. The argument is summed up in the form of Modus Tollens, “If human predication, then God. There is no God. Therefore, there is no human predication.” From this argument if we see that even the attempt to deny God presupposes His existence. The minute we begin predication, God is presupposed. This is because God is the necessary precondition for all experience. We show this by demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary.

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