Monday, December 28, 2015

Dawson Bethric and Sensus Divinitatus

I am going to deliver analysis once more concerning an article posted some time ago by Dawson Bethric over at Incinerating Presuppositionalism. The article calls into question the concept of sensus divinitatis. Surprisingly, Bethric authors a blog designed to refute presuppositional apologetics while at the same time admitting near complete unawareness of this basic concept that lies at the heart of a reformed Christian’s epistemology. I find it extraordinary that Bethric has read very much of Van Til, Clark, Bahnsen, Plantinga and Frame without confronting the concept of sensus divinitatis.

Does Romans 1:20 contradict itself?
Before we get into the epistemological components of my analysis, I need to address Bethric’s charge that Romans 1:20 contains a contradiction. Dawson thinks that Paul’s usage of the words aoratos with the word kathoraō create a contradiction. After all, how can one “clearly see” what is invisible? What Bethric does not clearly see himself is what Paul is doing with his use of language. It is something we all do. How often have you asked someone if “they can see the solution to that problem?” How many times have you, after arriving at an understanding of something or intending to communicate to someone that you understand a concept have you used the phrase “I see” to communicate that you understand? Bethric’s objection here is either dishonest or ignorant. I will allow him the courtesy of selecting which it is. Paul is clearly not talking about sensory perception in Romans 1:20. He is referencing what philosopher’s call a priori knowledge. We see this in v. 19 where Paul says, dioti to gnōston tou theou phaneron estin en autois. For that which is known of God is conspicuous, open, manifest, clear, obvious, evident.
Additionally, the Greek word kathoraō is being used in an intellectual sense just in the same manner as I used “see” in the previous paragraph. Louw-Nida includes “to learn about,” BDAG, “also of inward seeing,” and finally, NIDNTTE, “In addition to its usual lit. sense “to see [physically, with one’s own eye],” the vb. is often used of intellectual or spiritual perception (e.g., 1 Sam 12:17) and of what one experiences or suffers.” The lexical data clearly contradicts Bethric’s disingenuous attempt to impose a contradiction in Scripture where one does not exist. At minimum, this places Bethric’s credibility and integrity into serious doubt.

Does Romans 1:19-25 Posit A Priori Knowledge or A Posteriori Knowledge?
To answer this question, we have to pay strict attention to the objects of knowledge Paul discusses in Romans 1:19-21. In v. 19 Paul tells uses the phrase “that which is known about God.” Notice that Paul is assuming that men, all men, possess knowledge of God. This knowledge, moreover, is clear, obvious, conspicuous. Then in v. 20 the object of knowledge shifts to God’s attributes. And we know things about God’s attributes, which are invisible, by looking at creation. We can know that God is very intelligent, very power, and a master designer. We know that God is a caring God by the way nature is put together. Now, we come to v. 21 which clearly brings us back to knowledge of God Himself. “Although they knew God” is the phrase Paul employs. This isn’t knowledge about God, His attributes, etc. This is “knowing God.” They knew God, says Paul. To answer Bethric’s charge, we can safely say that Romans 1 covers not a priori knowledge or a posteriori knowledge, it deals with both. We are born knowing that God exists. We are born knowing that when we behold the universe, we see and understand clearly the invisible attributes of God it communicates.

Can a Self-Deceived Person Know they are Deceived?
“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Self-deception is a very dark behavior and made possible only because of the curse. The antithesis is chilling. Man knows God, and he deceives himself into not knowing God at the same time and in the same sense. I am not going to take the time to get into the psychological nuances of self-deception. First, those nuances are beyond the scope of this blog. Second, the sort of self-deception we are talking about is primarily spiritual in nature. The noetic effects of sin are such that man’s cognitive faculties are just as affected by by the fall as his will and emotions. James 1:22 uses the expression paralogizomenoi heautous. Liddell gives us a range on paralogizomenoi as follows: reason falsely, use fallacies, draw a false inference, mislead by fallacious reasoning, disguise, deception, fraud, etc. The use of the reflexive pronoun stresses that all this false reasoning and deception is self-initiated and self-inflicted. The concept of self-deception is not new in Christian circles even if Bethric has never heard of it before now and even if he does not like it very much. Nevertheless, it is also the case that not only do the noetic effects of sin cause man to deceive himself, he is also blinded by the god of this world so that he does not see the light of the gospel. (2 Cor. 4:4) Top to bottom, the unbeliever’s cognitive ability to see the truth and his volition desire for the truth have been radically impeded by his own desire for autonomy and his rebellious attitude toward His Creator.

Is Christian Theism a Product of the Imagination?
If we grant Bethric’s method for claiming that all theism is simply a product of human imagination, it is easy to see how we might slide down that slope directly into solipsism. Solipsism is the view that the only thing I can know is my own internal world. And if we move in that direction, Bethric’s own Objectivism must also bow the knee. We could play this game into an infinite regress where Bethric claims our belief that God exists is in our imagination and we respond by saying it is only in Bethric’s imagination that our beliefs are in our imagination. Back and forth we could go into an infinite quibble. There are far too many facts supporting Christianity for it to be chalked up to the imagination, facts that are anchored in history and archeology. To claim that Christianity is merely the product of human imagination is little more than philosophical rhetoric, a claim without an argument. Bethric has paid attention to Ayn Rand’s use of rhetoric. He employs it frequently when he doesn’t have an argument, thinking it will compensate for his lack of analysis. So, the claim that Christianity is a product of the imagination is empty rhetoric and should be promptly dismissed.

Is the Sensus Divinitatis a Christian Rescuing Device?
I once said to Bethric that he did not understand Presuppositionalism because he did not understand biblical Christianity and therefore, he should refrain from criticizing what he does not understand. Here, Bethric has proven my point. If you do not understand the principle in the sensus divinitatis, then you do not understand Christianity. Bethric does not understand the principle in the sensus divinitatis. Therefore, Bethric does not understand Christianity. Moreover, if you do not understand Christianity, you do not understand presuppositionalism. Bethric does not understand Christianity. Therefore, Bethric does not understand presuppositionalism.
/ ~A

John Calvin writes, “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.” [Institutes] This is the classic statement of the reformed doctrine that affirms that the knowledge of God is implanted in the conscience of all men. Calvin is simply restating what Paul stated in Romans 1 and 2. All men know their Creator.

It seems to me that Bethric is here insisting that we establish our epistemology, a distinctly Christian epistemology, upon a non-Christian concept of the universe. Bethric’s complaint against the sensus divinitatis comes down to the fact that it is not a principle that fits within his system. Van Til points this out when he writes, “They forget that a Christian conception of God demands a Christian conception of the universe.” And surely a Christian conception of God demands a Christian conception of man, and of how human predication is possible in the first place. If Bethric is going to demonstrate that the Christian concept of the sensus divinitatis is unreasonable, he will have to provide an argument as to why he thinks so. To refer to how apologists have used it in exchanges with him, as he does, is not an argument against the concept. To attempt to classify the sensus divinitatis as one more natural human faculty for knowing will not do. Once again, Bethric shows his ignorance of biblical Christianity in general and reformed theology in particular. Yet, he is supposed to be a trusted and reliable resource to help people “incinerate” presuppositional apologetics. To compare physical perception with spiritual perception simply will not do. Christianity is a supernatural belief system. It holds to a two-level view of reality. Bethric continues to want to force Christian claims into his view of the world and then offer criticism of those views. What Bethric must do is begin with Christianity’s views and show how, on its own beliefs, it is a contradictory system. So far, Bethric hasn’t even attempted to do this from what I can see.

Is Natural Revelation Sufficient for Culpability?
Bethric criticizes the apostle Paul’s statement, eis to einai autous anapologētous. The Greek word anapologētous essentially means without an apologetic, without a defense. In other words, Paul is saying that the unbeliever has no defense, no excuse, no warrant for their refusal to submit to God. Bethric then walks us through his criteria for what is necessary in order for people in this category to be deemed culpable on such a level. Bethric continues his appeal to empirical criteria, to properly functioning faculties, etc. Everything must be working just right in order for this to be the case. But Bethric’s argument fails on a number of fronts. Suppose I am driving along in the desert. Support I am out in a sports car in the middle of nowhere and I decide to take her up to 100 mph. What happens when the officer pulls me over and I claim that there were no stop signs along the way telling me the speed limit and therefore, I am not responsible and should not get a citation? How many examples like this could we multiply one upon the other? All men know, for some strange reason, that they could be better. They know, morally speaking even, that they have committed sin, wrong if you prefer. We come back to Romans 2:14-16, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.”

The real problem with Bethric’s claim is that he invokes what he thinks are his own absolutes. Bethric prefers his own moral standards, his own autonomous reason, his own rules for evidence, justification, and argumentation. But Christian Scripture resists such finite irrationalism. In the same way we see that 2+2 = 4, we see that creation = God.

In summary, Romans 1:20 contains no contradictions; our knowledge of God is a priori, but also a posteriori and all men are without excuse in their suppression of this knowledge of God and to be clear, all men, including Bethric do suppress it. Christian theism is not a product of the imagination unless one wants to end up in solipsism. The sensus divinitatis is not a rescuing device for Christian theism and anyone making such absurd claims only indicate their lack of integrity or their complete ignorance of Christianity. Finally, God has provided all men everywhere with knowledge of Himself so that they are culpable for their unbelief. Their rejection of God is unjustified and without warrant.

I will do another review of Bethric's site, but as you can see, Bethric's objections to Christianity are not very creative, and they certainly are not unique. Why he calls his blog incinerating presuppositionalism seems more like a tactic or strategy to attract traffic. There is nothing there as far as I can tell that stands out as interesting in terms of posing unique challenges to the presuppositional method to defending the faith.


  1. Very interesting; I must admit I have made the mistake of identifying the sensus divinitatus as a hypothetical sensory organ (material or spiritual) by which man acquires information about God. I did think - perhaps mistakenly - that this was a fairly common view in presuppositional apologetics, as I thought the point was to anchor human perception and reason in direct apprehension of metaphysical facts by allowing 'direct' perception of God.

    Your view re a priori knowledge seems more nuanced, but also harder to understand; are you suggesting that man is born with certain ideas 'pre-programmed', so to speak?

    The issue is, of course, that many of the things posited as the 'content' of the s.d. are quite advanced; sin, responsibility, the existence of third parties (namely, God), and these must exist in the human mind before much more basic concepts have been formed (Isaiah 8:4 seems a pretty formidable obstacle unless one argues it only means knowledge of how to speak).

    One would presumably need to 'grow into' this knowledge to realise one already possessed it (a useful justification for an age of accountability if one believed Scripture demanded such).

    My concern would be - is it possible to tell the difference between a universe where you implicitly know God exists but have chosen to delude yourself otherwise and a universe where no such implicit knowledge exists? I would guess not, as if you could, it would imply that the first place you should look to decide if the Bible was true was within (shades of Eastern meditation!) to try and catch glimpses of 'true reality'.

    1. I take the position that the human person is such that he is designed to function in a very specific manner. The basis of this functionality is expressed in Scripture as bĕṣalmēnû kidmûtēnû. It translates as God creating man “in our image and according to our likeness.” Now, from an epistemic point of view, I believe Plantinga had a good argument for knowledge (warrant) and it traversed along these same lines with some points of departure here and there. The gist of it is that humans are designed to know certain things in a way that is consistent with the nature of the objects of knowledge. And that capability, assuming it is functioning properly, is also designed to move along a particular path of development in due course. There is more to it than that, but good enough for a com box reply I think.

      Concerning the possibility of telling the difference, I cannot see how it would be possible to tell the difference without either knowing or not suffering from the self-inflicted delusion in the first place. It is an interesting question though.


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