Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

Religion And Truth

Sophists: the original religious pluralists

…if in virtue of its nature all religion includes some kind of cognition and in its doctrine posits the reality of its object, it automatically falls under the heading of truth or untruth. Religion is never the product of feeling or fantasy alone; if that were the case, it would attach only an aesthetic value to its representations. But every religion is convinced of the reality and truth of its representations and cannot exist without this conviction. Accordingly and in fact everyone applies the categories of “true” and “false” to religions. Even the most “presuppositionless” philosopher of religion does not believe in the truth of the gods of the nations, however much he appreciates the religious disposition that comes to expression in it, and speaks, for example, of intellectualism, mythical sentimentalism, moralism, as well as of the pathological phenomena that contrast with sound and vital religion. The religions, accordingly, are far from viewing themselves as indifferent with respect to each other; they do not think they form a graduated series from the lower to the higher, but each in turn presents itself as true over against every other religion as untrue. Frederick the Great may say, and a philosopher of religion may say after him: “In my realm every citizen is free to be saved in his own fashion,” but the religions themselves have a very different view of this matter. And they cannot do otherwise: what one religion posits as true is disregarded by another. If Christ is the one sent by the Father, then Mohammed is not. If the Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is correct, that of the Reformation is in error. One who thinks and speaks otherwise and calls all religions equally true or equally false, in principle takes the position of the sophists who saw man as the measure of all things. [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1, 249]

Mysticism And Scholasticism

As Bavinck compares scholasticism and mysticism in the middle ages, I can’t help but see parallels to modern denominational differences. I wonder if it is possible to ever hold these two mentalities together. I certainly hope it is.

We are thus led to a distinction between orthodox and pantheistic mysticism. The former, it must be said, though not opposed to scholasticism, was, however, distinct from it–in the first place, in method. Following Aristotle’s analytic method, scholasticism attempted by reasoning to ascend from finite things to God. Mysticism followed the synthetic method of Plato and attempted to gain insight into the truths of faith from the perspective of the higher view that the soul attained by grace. Second, there was a distinction in origin. Above all, scholasticism originated form Aristotle’s writings becoming know and had Lombard’s Sentences as its object. Mysticism, on the other hand, originated especially as the works of Pseudo-Dionysius–which in the West were read in Erigena’s translation–found acceptance. Finally, there was a difference in essence. (more…)

Plus Ça Change

plus c'est la même chose

In the earliest period pagan authorities limited themselves to persecution, or to hatred and mockery, as expressed by Tacitus and Lucian in his Peregrinus Proteus. But in time the pagan world had to take account of Christianity and began to attack it scientifically. Heinrich Kellner, in his Hellenismus und Christenthum, describing the intellectual reaction of ancient paganism to Christianity, points out its kinship with present-day opposition to Christianity. The main scientific opponents were Celsus, Porphyry, Fronto the friend of Aurelius, and later Julian [the "Apostate"] who, as is evident from Cyril’s refutation entitled Against Julian, wrote a book against Christians. All the arguments later advanced against Christianity can already be found in these writers–arguments, for example, against the authenticity and truth of many Bible books (the Pentateuch, Daniel, and the Gospels) and against revelation and miracles in general; arguments against an assortment of dogmas such as the incarnation, satisfaction, forgiveness, the resurrection, and eternal punishment; arguments also against norms of morality such as asceticism, contempt of the world, and lack of refinement; and, finally, slanderous accusations of worshiping an ass’s head, and of committing child murder, adultery, and all sorts of immorality. [Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol 1., 121-122]

Missional Systematic Theology

In his Systematic Theology, Robert Jenson quips: “Recent clamor for ‘contextual’ theology is of course empty, there never having been any other kind.” (ST 1.ix) As exhibit “A” for this point, consider Bavinck’s explanation for the current structure of systematic theologies:

In earlier centuries faith was more robust, and the question Why do I believe? Rarely came up. The foundations seemed so secure that to examine them was totally unnecessary; all available energy was devoted to the erection of the edifice itself. But today it is, above all, the philosophical underpinnings of dogmatics that are under fire; not some isolated doctrine but the very possibility of dogmatics is being questioned. The human ability to know is restricted to the visible world, and revelation is considered impossible. In addition, Holy Scripture is being robbed of its divine authority by historical criticism and even the warrant for and value of religion is being seriously disputed. Consequently, and partly caused by all this, religious life today is dramatically less vigorous than before. It must be granted that there is much movement in the domain of religion, but there is little genuinely religious life. Faith is no longer sure of itself; even among believers there is much doubt and uncertainty. The childlike and simultaneously heroic statement “I believe” is seldom heard and has given way to the doubts of criticism… . When religious life is vital, people speak “as those having authority,” not “as the scribes,” and the words “I know whom I believe” trip from the lips of believers. In a critical time like our own, however, there is uncertainty, above all, about the foundations, about the source of knowledge, method, and evidence of faith. For that reason the formal part is still regarded as the most important division of dogmatics. An entire apologetics tends to precede the dogmatics proper. [Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1., 106]

In other words, systematic theology is intrinsically missional: it has taken as its starting point dialogue with the world. Whether dogmaticians ought to have done this is certainly disputable, but one can hardly fault them for not speaking to “felt needs”.

In Defense Of Scholastic Theology

Bavinck comments on Biblical Theology and scholastic theology:

Only within the communion of the saints can the length and breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended (Eph. 3:18). Add to this that the proponents of this school [Biblical Theology] forget that the Christian faith is universal; it can and must enter into all forms and conditions. They oppose grace to nature in a hostile fashion and do not sufficiently take account of the incarnation of the Word. For just as the Son of God became truly human, so also God’s thoughts, incorporated in Scripture, become flesh and blood in the human consciousness. Dogmatics is and ought to be divine thought totally entered into and absorbed in our human consciousness, freely and independently expressed in our language, in its essence the fruit of centuries, in its form contemporary… . Accordingly, the contrast often made between biblical theology and dogmatics, as though one reproduced the content of Scripture while the other restated the dogmas of the church, is false. The sole aim of dogmatics is to set forth the thoughts of God that he has laid down in Holy Scripture. But it does this as it ought to, in a scholarly fashion, in a scholarly form, and in accordance with a scholarly method. In that sense, Reformed scholars in earlier centuries defended the validity of so-called scholastic theology (theologia scholastica). They had no objections whatever to the idea of presenting revealed truth also in a simpler form under the name of positive theology, catechetics, and so forth. But they utterly opposed the notion that the two differed in content; what distinguished them was merely a difference in form and method. By taking this position they, on the one hand, as firmly as possible maintained the unity and bond between faith and theology, church and school. On the other hand, they also held high the scientific character of theology. However high and wonderful the thoughts of God might be, they were not aphorisms but constituted an organic unity, a systematic whole, that could also be thought through and cast in a scientific form. Scripture itself prompts this theological labor when everywhere it lays the strongest emphasis, not on abstract cognition, but on doctrine and truth, knowledge and wisdom. [vol. 1, 83-84]

Thomism Vs. Libertarianism

Murray Rothbard, the consummate anarcho-capitalist

Edward Feser is a contemporary proponent of Thomistic philosophy and theology who writes online here and here, primarily. I’ve grown increasingly to enjoy just about everything he writes (my disagreements with him are predictable, along Protestant/Catholic lines on various subjects). One interesting aspect of Feser’s work to me in particular is that before becoming a strong Thomist, he used to be a libertarian, and has written works in that movement. However, because of his shift, he has since abandoned that school of thought. In an article written last year, he replied to one libertarian, Walter Block, and two points in the article were especially persuasive to me. Because of them, I have lost a great deal of sympathy for the libertarian political vision. Here are the comments:

3. Another problem is that I now see that it is false to say that external resources start out with no one having any claim over them—not because we all somehow have an equal claim over them (as “left-libertarians” hold), but rather because (as traditional natural law theory holds) such resources have a divinely appointed end, namely the sustenance of human existence. Hence each human being has a right at least to access to the use of the earth’s resources. This does not entail that everyone must have an equal share of the earth’s resources, or even that everyone must have ownership of part of them; hence it does not entail a general redistribution of wealth. Indeed, traditional natural law theory entails very strong private property rights and holds that some degree of inequality is part of the natural order. At the same time, it also entails that property rights can never be so strong that it would be in principle unjust to redistribute even a small part of the surplus of the wealthy to aid those who are starving. Natural law theory condemns both socialism and libertarianism alike. …

5. It is similarly pointless to appeal, as is sometimes done, to a “non-aggression axiom” to ground either libertarianism in general or self-ownership in particular, for what counts as “aggression” depends on what rights we have. In particular, if you take X from me without my consent, what you’ve done is “aggression” only if I had a right to X in the first place. (A thief is not a victim of “aggression” if you forcibly take away from him the TV set he stole from you.) So, we need first to develop a theory of rights before we can determine either what aggression is or what self-ownership amounts to. To try to build a theory of rights on either a non-aggression principle or the thesis of self-ownership has things backwards. [262n3,5]

After summarizing a particular powerful thought experiment expressing the intuition that self-ownership implies more than many libertarians think it does, he add this:

These sorts of considerations have led the libertarian philosopher Eric Mack to propose that in order to respect people’s rights of selfownership in a substantive way, we need to endorse what he calls a selfownership proviso on the use of one’s property. His argument is complex and nuanced, and he illustrates the problem with many further examples that every libertarian rights theorist needs to study carefully; I do not claim to be doing justice to his views here. But the basic point is that the thesis of self-ownership cannot have serious moral force unless it guarantees that no one can use his property in a way that effectively nullifies the ability of others to bring to bear on external resources the world-interactive powers that they possess by virtue of being self-owners. Such a proviso is, in Mack’s view, perfectly consistent with the strong private property rights and firm rejection of egalitarian redistribution that are the hallmark of libertarianism of the type associated with Nozick and Rothbard. But it rules out the possibility of holding that a purely formal respect for self-ownership is all that libertarianism requires. [264-265]

The God Of Paul And The Philosophers

Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the God of Israel, gives some background to some of the formulae used of God in Paul’s letters (e.g., in Romans 11 and 1 Corinthians 8):

It is true that there are some non-Jewish Hellenistic parallels to the formulation which relates ‘all things’ (ta panta) to God by a variety of prepositions. The best examples are in Pseudo-Aristotle, Mund. 6 (ek theo panta kai dia theou sunesteke); Marcus Aurelius, Medit. 4.3 (ek sou panta, en soi panta, eis se panta); and Asclepius 34 (omnia enim ab eo et in ipso et per ipsum). The point of such formulae is that they describe God as the cause of all things, indicating the various types of causation (as standardly recognized in ancient philosophy) which are appropriate to God’s relation to the world by means of the various prepositions: i.e. efficient causation (ek), instrumental causation (dia or en), and final causation (eis). But such formulae would very clearly be congenial to Jewish usage, since Jews were, in any case, very much in the habit of describing God as the Creator of ‘all things’. Josephus (B.J. 5.218), without the use of the prepositions, says much the same as the non-Jewish Hellenistic formulations: ‘all things are from God and for God (tou theou panta kai to theo)’. Philo explicitly takes up the standard philosophical set of types of causation, and applies to God’s relation to the world the three which can be so applied: God himself is the efficient cause (‘by whom [huph' hou] it was made’), his Word is the instrumental cause (‘by means of which [di' hou] it was made’), and the final cause (‘on account of which [di' ho]‘) is ‘the display of the goodness of the Creator’ (Cher. 127). In Hebrews 2:10, God is final and instrumental cause of his creation: the one ‘on account of whom (di’ hon) are all things and through whom (di’ hou) are all things’.

We can, therefore, be confident that Paul’s formulation — ‘from him and through him and to him [are] all things’ — is neither original to Paul nor borrowed directly from non-Jewish sources, but was known to him as a Jewish description precisely of God’s unique relationship to all other reality. [214-215]

Plantinga, Nash-Marshall, And Anselm On Divine Simplicity


Alvin Plantinga’s response to the classic doctrine of divine simplicity is seminal in contemporary philosophy of religion literature. The basic argument is that God cannot be identical with his properties, because properties are impersonal, and God is a person. Siobhan Nash-Marshall (pdf) elaborates more on Plantinga’s argument here:

Plantinga takes properties necessarily to be univocal and invariant features of reality. This can be seen not just in his first objection to the doctrine of divine simplicity, the “substantial difficulty,” in which he claims that it is an “obvious fact” that God has several properties, since “he has both power and mercifulness … neither of which is identical to the other.” It is also plain in the third objection when he claims that it is “obviously absurd” to claim that two properties can be identical.

Now, God’s being just can only be necessarily distinct from his being merciful (as Plantinga claims they must), if only if justice and mercy are necessarily univocal and invariant features of reality: that is, if the properties “just” and “merciful” must exist in the same way in all of those substances, individual things, or non-abstract things in which they are instantiated. If it is necessarily true that “power and mercifulness … [are never] identical.” For if properties were not necessarily univocal and invariant features of reality—if they could exist in different ways in the different non-abstract individual things in which they are instantiated—then it would by no means be said that two properties which can in some instantiations be distinct properties, are necessarily distinct properties in all of their instantiations. [p. 9]

In response, she notes that the presuppositions of Plantinga’s argument would be utterly rejected by those theologians who held to the doctrine, using Anselm in particular as an example:

Saint Anselm’s response to this question would have been an unequivocal no. In Monologion XVI he indicates that properties can, and must in the case of man and God, vary in accordance with their instantiation [that is, ~ (p – 3)]. Man, he claims in that chapter, can be just, and God is unquestionably just, but this fact, he would have thought, does not entail that “justice” as it is instantiated in man and “justice” as it is instantiated in God are one and the same invariant property. Indeed, man’s “just” is nothing but his “possessing justice:” “For since a man cannot be justice but can have justice, a just man is not understood to be a man who is justice but to be a man who has justice.”35 God’s “being just,” on the other hand, is nothing but his being identical to justice: “So since the Supreme Nature is not properly said to have justice but rather to be justice, then when [this Nature] is said to be just, it is properly understood to be [a Nature] which is justice rather than to be [a Nature] which has justice.”36 Thus, were “justice” as it is instantiated in man and God to be one and the same property, man’s instantiating “justice” would be his instantiating Godness. This would not just have sounded absurd to Saint Anselm. He would have thought it blasphemous.

As the argument indicates, the belief that properties are invariant features of reality is not the only one of Plantinga’s beliefs concerning properties which Saint Anselm rejects. In Monologion XVI, as he had previously in Monologion VI, Saint Anselm flatly denies (p – 2) that properties are logically and ontologically prior to their instantiations. “Justice,” he claims, might perhaps not be quid sit summa natura [“what God is”], but a property distinct from God. After all, one might think that “for whatever is just is just through justice.”37 This would, of course, entail that “[t]herefore, the Supreme Nature is just only through justice.”38 But this thought, Anselm quickly adds: “But this [view] is contrary to the truth which we have already seen: viz., that—whether good or great or existing—what [the Supreme Nature] is, it is completely through itself and not through something other [than itself].39 Thus, he concludes, justice cannot be a property distinct from God. That is, it cannot be a property which is logically and ontologically prior to God. [pp. 11-12]

The doctrine of divine simplicity is easily one of the most misunderstood and maligned positions in discussions of the doctrine of God today. One cannot help but think that a little charity applied to thinkers of the past might have made it clear that simplicity could not be as stupid as many contemporary philosophers have made it out to be.

The “Current” State Of Presbyterian Confessionalism

In a lengthy footnote, Lowrie expresses his disappointment with de jure divino presbyterians:

The chief fault is the total lack of perspective in the statement of the Christian faith, the lack of any formal distinction between propositions which are articles of faith, and those which can only be matters of belief or opinion. It is not affirmed here that all the propositions of the creed… have been accounted of equal importance with the most fundamental truths of theology; but in so far as they are legally enjoined as articles of faith they are placed precisely upon a par, –unless it could be claimed that the 1st and 2d articles are by position more important than, for instance, the 31st. The old confessions are still generally retained;–among the British and American Presbyterians it is the Westminster Confession, with slight alterations. But their significance has been essentially changed; partly by law, and partly by usage. By law the terms of subscription have been altered from explicit adherence to every article, to acceptance of the system of doctrine as a whole. There is no formal criterion to determine what belongs essentially to the system and what does not. Is the doctrine of Church organization an essential part of the Calvinistic system? Or is the doctrine of the verbal inerrancy of the Scripture? It is left for the presbyteries to decide in each individual case. Of so little avail is the legal definition of faith! By usage subscription to the confession is now required only of officers—including the lay elders. The faith which is essential for the admission of lay persons to the Church is not formally defined: it is left to the decision of the individual congregation, represented by the session. This state of affairs is broadly characteristic of all the greater Presbyterian bodies. [54n14]

I may soon post some of the further developments in my thoughts about the “essentials”, but suffice it to say, I am more appreciative now of Lowrie’s comments than I was a few years ago.

On Speaking With An Authoritative Tone Of Voice

Evangelicals in recent years have been grappling with the question of humility and it’s relation to the claims that Christianity makes about the world. This has been pressed partly because of the increased awareness of the existence of other religions, and because of the doctrine of hell, and has been made into a central issue with the rise of the emergent/ing church. Around a century ago, Bavinck addressed some of these issues head on, in a way that I think is profoundly helpful and correct:

Naturally, in this reproduction of the content of revelation, a danger exists on many levels of making mistakes and falling into error. This fact should predispose the dogmatician, like every practitioner of science, to modesty. The confession of the church and in even greater measure the dogmatics of an individual person, is fallible, subject to Scripture, and never to be put on a level with it. It does not coincide with the truth laid down in Scripture. Faith, or better, the faithful intellect, occupies an intermediate position between Scripture and dogmatics. Still, by comparison with the other practitioners of science, the dogmatician is favorably situated. He may and can, as Kaftan puts it, to some extent speak in an absolute tone of voice. A dogma is a faith-proposition that claims to be true and demands universal recognition, and dogmatics is a normative science that prescribes what we must believe. But dogma and dogmatics cannot on their own authority and in their own name strike that absolute tone of voice but only because and insofar as they rest on the authority of God and can appeal to a “God has said it.” The weakness of dogmatics consists precisely in the fact that the discipline itself has so little faith in this “God has spoken.” According to Kaftan, this is completely correct: The contempt in which dogmatics is held today is rooted in the fact that it has forgotten its own task and given up its own unique character. And therefore he also, correctly, believes that precisely as science and in order to regain its honor as a science, dogmatics cannot do better than again become what it ought to be. It must again become a normative science, bravely and boldly avow the authority principle, and speak in an absolute tone of voice. Provided this tone of voice is solely derived from the content of the revelation that it is the dogmatician’s aim to interpret and is struck only insofar as he explicates this content, it is not in conflict with the demands of modesty. For both the absolute tone of voice and the modesty find their unity in the faith that must guide and animate the dogmatician from beginning to end in all his labor. By that faith he subjects himself to the revelation of God and is organically connected with the church of all believers. Whereas today, with the help of a little psychology and some philosophy of religion, everyone establishes his own dogma, it is a privilege and an honor for the Christian dogmatician to position himself in the faith and by doing this to articulate his submission to the Word of God and his participation in the fellowship of the church of all ages. [Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1., 45-46]