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Oliphint on Thomistic A Posteriori Knowledge of God

Van Til’s disciple K. Scott Oliphint has been arguing for years that a rejection of scholastic, classical apologetics entails a rejection of classical theism as well. He says “much of systematic theology that’s done, especially in theology proper, needs a complete revision and re-write.” Oliphint himself has started such a re-write of theology proper. Pushing back against these revisions, and rightly defending classical theism, many reformed have regretfully felt the need to affirm Thomistic, classical apologetics as well. I do not believe that is necessary in order to affirm classical theism.

It is important to recognize that Oliphint sees deductive reasoning itself as Thomistic natural theology. When someone defends the doctrine of divine impassibility by stating “The Scripture speaks in such a way as to require viewing certain texts literally and others metaphorically or anthropopathically; otherwise we are left with seemingly contradictory propositions respecting the doctrine of God (cf. John 1:18 with Exod 33:23),” Oliphint objects that requiring Scriptural propositions to be non-contradictory is to impose Thomistic natural theology on Scripture. We should not seek to logically reconcile Scripture but should instead allow Scripture to limit our logic/reason.

So what is really a debate about the role of logic in the interpretation of Scripture has instead become a debate over Thomism vs presuppositionalism, regretfully (note that Oliphint has helpfully suggested that Van Til’s apologetic be called “Covenantal” rather than Presuppositional in order to distinguish his idiosyncratic view from other presuppositionalists).

Having said all of that, I actually found Oliphint’s recent 2-part lecture on Thomistic apologetics to be helpful insofar as it lays out Thomas’ a posteriori view of natural theology. Here are PDFs [1 and 2].

Implicit Knowledge

First, knowledge of God is not self-evident to men. All men possess implicit knowledge of God’s likeness, but it is very vague, general, ambiguous, and confused. We desire happiness (our “beatitude”), therefore we desire God.

“For man knows God naturally in the same way as he desires Him naturally. Now man desires Him naturally in so far as he naturally desires happiness, which is a likeness of the divine goodness. Hence it does not follow that God considered in Himself is naturally known to man, but that His likeness is.”

Natural Reason

To really have knowledge of God, we must observe the world around us and make various logical deductions until we arrive at who God is. This is known as a posteriori knowledge.

“Wherefore [because this implicit knowledge is vague] man must needs come by reasoning to know God in the likenesses to Him which he discovers in God’s effects.”

From Sense Experience

Thomas was not a fan of anything a priori. Knowledge was always and only gleaned by way of the senses…

[Rom 1:19] “Our natural knowledge begins from sense. Hence our natural knowledge can go as far as it can be led by sensible things, but our mind cannot be led by sense so far as to see the essence of God, because the sensible effects of God do not equal the power of God as their cause. Hence from the knowledge of sensible things, the whole power of God cannot be known, nor therefore can His essence be seen. But because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God whether he exists and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him.”

So Thomas’ understanding of Romans 1:19 is that Paul is speaking of the possibility of the human intellect, that is, natural reason, of itself to be able to demonstrate and conclude for the knowledge of God [based on sense experience].

Prove God’s Existence

“[T]here are certain things to which even natural reason can attain. For instance, that God is, that God is one, and others like these. Which even the philosophers proved demonstratively of God, being guided by the light of natural reason.”

So you can see in Thomas there’s no ambiguity in what he’s doing here and there’s no ambiguity in what he means by natural reason because he says his example is the philosophers did this – they demonstratively did this.

An Alternative

There was some precedence in the history of the church for the possibility of the beginning of a reformation in this area… John of Damascus, for example, argued that Romans 1 teaches that the knowledge of God is implanted in all men. Thomas is aware of that. What does he say about it? He cites John of Damascus in his argument against the self-evidence of God.

Objection 1. It seems that the existence of God is self-evident. Now those things are said to be self-evident to us the knowledge of which is naturally implanted in us, as we can see in regard to first principles. But as Damascene says (De Fid. Orth. i . 1, 3), the knowledge of God is naturally implanted in all. Therefore the existence of God is self-evident.

Reply Obj. 1. To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude. For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him. This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.

So he’s rejecting what John of Damascus has set forth because he cannot imagine a situation in which the proposition “God exists” is known by us in a way that the terms are self-evident.

Comments

[A] problem with Thomas is, if it is the case that the Logos has been revealing who God is from the beginning [John 1] such that we all know God, by virtue of being in the image of God, then guess what? The existence of God is self-evident to us – utterly so – and that’s what we suppress.

I completely agree with Oliphint here. The knowledge of God is not something arrived at as the result of contemplation of creation (wisdom). Rather, knowledge of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). And everyone, even infants – not simply those who rationally reflect upon nature – possess knowledge of God and what he requires of us. (I disagree with Oliphint that this knowledge is not propositional. I believe it is.)

This is not a new idea. These two epistemologies have wrestled against each other for centuries.

Arnobius asks, “What man is there who has not begun the first day of his nativity with this principle; in whom is it not inborn, fixed, almost even impressed upon him, implanted in him while still in the bosom of his mother?” (Stirling)

 

In the early chapters of his De fide orthodoxa, the Eastern Christian Father John of Damascus claims that human beings possess a naturally implanted knowledge of God’s existence. The Patristic tradition from which the Damascene draws his ideas emphasizes the ambiguity of this claim.

On the one hand, there are sources that treat such knowledge as naturally implanted propositional content. “God exists” is a proposition that governs our actions prior to any inferences we make about the world. On the other hand, there are sources that consider naturally implanted knowledge of God’s existence to be the conclusion of an innate inferential capacity. “God exists” is a proposition we arrive at posterior to our knowledge of the world.

“John of Damascus and the Naturally Implanted Knowledge of God’s Existence in Bonaventure and Aquinas” – Joseph Steineger

Augustine is a pre-eminent representative of the implanted, immediate, self-evident view, while Aquinas is a pre-eminent representative of aquired, mediate, a posteriori empiricism.

Augustine of Hippo stands unrivaled as the brilliant exponent of the Christian thesis that the knowledge of God and of other selves and the world of nature is not merely inferential. Whatever else is contributory to the content of human cognition, this knowledge involves a direct and immediate noesis because of the unique constitution of the human mind. Knowledge of God is no mere induction from the finite and nondivine, but is directly and intuitively given in human experience. However much knowledge of the self and of the physical world may be expounded by inference, it is brackted always by a primal antecedent relationship to the spiritual world which makes man’s knowledge possible and holds him in intuitive correlation with God, the cosmos, and other selves.

God, Revelation, and Authority – Carl F. H. Henry

Calvin followed Augustine in this regard.

The knowledge of God is given in the very same act by which we know self… That the knowledge of God is innate (I. iii. 3), naturally engraved on the hearts of men (I. iv. 4), and so a part of their very constitution as men (I. iii. 1), that it is a matter of instinct (I. iii. 1, I. iv. 2), and every man is self-taught it from his birth (I. iii. 3), Calvin is thoroughly assured.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God B. B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge followed Calvin and Augustine.

Those who are unwilling to admit that the idea of God is innate as given in the very constitution of man, generally hold that it is a necessary, or, at least, a natural deduction of reason. Sometimes it is represented as the last and highest generalization of science. As the law of gravitation is assumed to account for a large class of the phenomena of the universe, and as it not only does account for them, but must be assumed in order to understand them;so the existence of an intelligent first cause is assumed to account for the existence of the universe itself, and for all its phenomena. But as such generalizations are possible only for cultivated minds, this theory of the origin of the idea of God, cannot account for belief in his existence in the minds of all men, even the least educated… We do not thus reason ourselves into the belief that there is a God; and it is very obvious that it is not by such a process of ratiocination, simple as it is, that the mass of the people are brought to this conclusion… Adam believed in God the moment he was created, for the same reason that he believed in the external world. His religious nature, unclouded and undefiled, apprehended the one with the same confidence that his senses apprehended the other.

Theology Proper, “The Knowledge of God is not due to a Process of Reasoning” – Charles Hodge

Kuyper likewise.

Adam possessed in himself, apart from the cosmos, everything that was necessary to have knowledge of God. Undoubtedly many things concerning God were manifest to him in the cosmos also; without sin a great deal of God would have become manifest to him from his fellow-men; and through the process of his development, in connection with the cosmos, he would have obtained an ever richer revelation of God. But apart from all this acquired knowledge of God, he had in himself the capacity to draw knowledge of God from what had been revealed, as well as a rich revelation from which to draw that knowledge. Our older theologians called these two together the “concreate knowledge of God”; and correctly so, because here there was no logical activity which led to this knowledge of God, but this knowledge of God coincided with man’s own self-knowledge. This knowledge of God was given eo ipso in his own self-consciousness; it was not given as discursive knowledge, but as the immediate content of selfconsciousness… [I]n this clear and immediate self-knowledge there was, without any further action of the logos in us, an equally immediate knowledge of God, the consciousness of which, from that very image itself, accompanied him who had been created in the image of God. Thus the first man lived in an innate knowledge of God, which was not yet understood, and much less expressed in words, just as our human heart in its first unfoldings has a knowledge of ideals, which, however, we are unable to explain or give a form to. Calvin called this the seed of religion (semen religionis), by which he indicated that this innate knowledge of God is an ineradicable property of human nature, a spiritual eye in us, the lens of which may be dimmed, but always so that the lens, and consequently the eye, remains.

pg 186-187, Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology

See also Kuyper’s The Natural Knowledge of God

It would be a mistake to assume Thomism is simply the historic Christian view.

Richard Muller

Oliphint’s selections from Muller are very interesting. I hope to get my hands on a copy to read in full.

“A generalized or pagan natural theology, according to the reformers, was not merely limited to non-saving knowledge of God. It was also bound in idolatry.”

The interpretation of that is that the theistic proofs, when done by one who is not regenerate, produces and idol – is bound by idolatry…

“This view, the problem of knowledge, is the single most important contribution of the early reformed writiers to the theological prolegomena of orthodox protestantism. Indeed, it is the doctrinal issue that most forcibly presses the protestant scholastics toward the modification of the medeival models for theological prolegomena.”

Conclusion

Thomism is merely one of the epistemologies offered in church history. There are good reasons to doubt that it is biblical. Instead, consideration should be given to the belief that general revelation is innate, propositional revelation implanted in every heart prior to any experience in the world – and that this latter view is more consistent with the reformed belief in the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. Oliphint has helped lay out these differences, even if his particular Van Tillian perspective is not to be embraced.

 

See also:

  1. November 25, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    general revelation is innate, propositional revelation implanted in every heart prior to any experienice.

    I am open to that thesis, provided it is accompanied with the recognition that even our catalog of innate propositions is corrupted by sin. But if granted, I am not sure of its payout; if the unregenerate is corrupted, then he is unaware that his absence of belief is a product of sin. What then is this distinction expressing for us to understand better?

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    • November 25, 2017 at 8:10 pm

      Yes, of course sin ruins it all. Fallen man suppresses that truth that he knows. But this suppression is better understood in terms of innate general revelation, rather than knowledge of God being something fallen man somehow successfully arrives at.

      The distinction is expressing the self-authenticating nature of God’s revelation. Knowledge of God is immediately revealed to man. Knowledge of God is not something that man uses his own judgment to arrive at. It is presupposed. It is the starting point. The same is true of special revelation. It is self-authenticating. Man does not judge Scripture and determine that it is the Word of God. It simply is the Word of God and we recognize it as such when our sinful heart is moved out of the way. Lots of other implications, but that is at least one.

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  2. ladangvu
    November 27, 2017 at 3:40 am

    Hi! What do you agree and disagree with Oliphint ? As far as I know he is maybe the most polemic vantilian that I heard about, a lot of thomists critic his thoughts, either for being vantilian or for misreading and misunderstanding Aquinas.

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    • November 27, 2017 at 9:35 am

      I disagree with a lot (most) of what Oliphint has to say. (See here for an elaboration https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/the-silent-shift-on-7-1/ ) I disagree with his rejection of logic in the interpretation of Scripture. I disagree with his modified theism. I disagree with his rejection of propositional revelation. I agree with him specifically in what I point out in this post: all men know God by way of innate, immediate revelation implanted in their heart/mind – not by way of deductive proofs from sensory experience of the world.

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      • ladangvu
        November 29, 2017 at 9:21 am

        Ok, his view on accomodation seems weird to me. Concerning the style I prefer Bahnsen. Yes, i agree too, it seems to me that revelation is immediate (i liked a lot Bahnsen’s explanation of this view in his “Van Til’s apologetics”).

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  3. markmcculley
    November 27, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    John the Frame, the polemicist—When I began teaching theology at Westminster Seminary in 1968, my first elective course was “The Aseity of God.” Van Til, despite his disdain for scholasticism in general, was a strong advocate of divine aseity, what he called “the self-contained God.”5 In my course, I drew on Van Til, Bavinck, and the Reformed tradition. But I noted that despite the fact that many Reformed theologians considered divine aseity to be a central doctrine, few of them had developed any credible biblical basis for it. Given sola Scriptura, this seemed to me to be a serious lack, and so I spend much of the course trying to develop the doctrine from explicit biblical teaching. So I was pleased that Dolezal referred in his defense of aseity to 1 Kings 8:27, Acts 17:23-28, Rom. 11:35-36, passages I also stressed in my elective course.
    https://frame-poythress.org/scholasticism-for-evangelicals-thoughts-on-all-that-is-in-god-by-james-dolezal/

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  4. markmcculley
    December 1, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    Frame writes: “Of course Dolezal confesses that there is ‘something true’ about these doctrines of the faith.” Frame takes the phrase “something true” out of its context and uses it to suggest that Dolezal denies the literal incarnation, virgin birth, suffering, and death of Christ. Dolezal, however, is not discussing “these doctrines” (the incarnation, virgin birth, suffering, and death of Christ) when he uses the phrase “something true.” Frame’s comment is, therefore, extremely misleading. https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/2017/11/unlatched-theism-an-examination-of-john-frames-response-to-all-that-is-in-god/

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