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Oliphint on Thomistic A Posteriori Knowledge of God

November 24, 2017 7 comments

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:

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DG Hart on General Revelation

October 1, 2015 5 comments

One of the things that got me going a little bit was the idea that we need to interpret natural law or general revelation through the lends of Scripture, the spectacles of Scripture. That would also seem to fit with the idea of the importance of regeneration because not everyone would interpret Scripture well apart from regeneration. So its the regenerate that need to interpret or understand general revelation or natural law.

And in my mind, I am just struck by how much, I think I said this in the first round, there are authors who are remarkably gifted at interpreting natural law or general revelation. And so much wiser than most Christians whom I read. And part of that has to do with how much time they spend thinking about general revelation and its structures, its categories, its givenness, in a way that oftentimes Christians don’t. And I think Christians don’t for good reasons because oftentimes they’re more inclined to read the Scripture than nature.

Now, there would be Christian scientists who would read nature more than the average Christian, or artists who might read parts of nature more than the average Christian. But still, when it comes down to on average, it seems more Christians are inclined to interpret Scripture or go to Scripture as their norm for their lives, and not look at general revelation. But that means that the people that don’t go to Scripture and are looking at general revelation all the time kinda have a leg up on Christians in their capacity to understand, at least how general revelation works, and if they’re theists, how that, in some ways, reflects God, or the creator.

http://reformedforum.org/ctc124/

If your doctrine of general revelation leads you to say what Hart just said, you need to go back to square one and re-assess what general revelation is. No unregenerate pagan has a “leg up” on the Christian reading Scripture, in terms of understanding God’s revelation.

First, general revelation does not contain anything that is not more clearly revealed in Scripture. That’s why Calvin said:

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly…

Let the reader then remember, that I am not now treating of the covenant by which God adopted the children of Abraham, or of that branch of doctrine by which, as founded in Christ, believers have, properly speaking, been in all ages separated from the profane heathen. I am only showing that it is necessary to apply to Scripture, in order to learn the sure marks which distinguish God, as the Creator of the world, from the whole herd of fictitious gods. We shall afterward, in due course, consider the work of Redemption. In the meantime, though we shall adduce many passages from the New Testament, and some also from the Law and the Prophets, in which express mention is made of Christ, the only object will be to show that God, the Maker of the world, is manifested to us in Scripture, and his true character expounded, so as to save us from wandering up and down, as in a labyrinth, in search of some doubtful deity…

Therefore, while it becomes man seriously to employ his eyes in considering the works of God, since a place has been assigned him in this most glorious theatre that he may be a spectator of them, his special duty is to give ear to the Word, that he may the better profit.69 Hence it is not strange that those who are born in darkness become more and more hardened in their stupidity; because the vast majority instead of confining themselves within due bounds by listening with docility to the Word, exult in their own vanity. If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture. Hence, the first step in true knowledge is taken, when we reverently embrace the testimony which God has been pleased therein to give of himself. For not only does faith, full and perfect faith, but all correct knowledge of God, originate in obedience…

For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent every now and then on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men. It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the inefficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we, too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God;—we must go, I say, to the Word, where the character of God, drawn from his works is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved Judgment, but by the standard of eternal truth. If, as I lately said, we turn aside from it, how great soever the speed with which we move, we shall never reach the goal, because we are off the course.

Institutes 1.6 THE NEED OF SCRIPTURE, AS A GUIDE AND TEACHER, IN COMING TO GOD AS A CREATOR.

Second, the scientific process is not, in any way, general revelation. John Byl explains:

In the traditional evangelical view general revelation consists of God’s self-revelation: the invisible character of God is made known through His works of creation and providence (e.g., Rom. 1:20). Thus general revelation is considered to be quite distinct from nature, which is merely one of the means by which general revelation is mediated…

The term “revelation” carries the connotation that the knowledge which is revealed goes beyond our mere observations of nature. It implies that through the visible workings of nature certain invisible characteristics of nature are made manifest. We must then ask precisely what the contents of such revealed knowledge are and how it may be acquired.

In the case of God’s self-revelation, the step from the visible creation to the invisible God is made largely via the rudimentary knowledge of God that has been naturally implanted in the human mind…

The notion that God has revealed truth in two books, Scripture and nature, has been advocated as a means of reconciling science and Scripture from the beginning of the scientific revolution. And from the beginning it has been abused… Historically, the doctrine of the two books has frequently led to a demise in biblical authority.

General Revelation and Evangelicalism

Finally, general revelation does not consist of trees and ants and stars. General revelation is propositional revelation of God and what He requires of man revealed innately within man. Prior to the fall, it was as readily present in man’s mind as the words you are reading now are in your mind. Starting with this innate knowledge of God, man could look out upon creation and see His creator reflected in it. But he does not start with creation. He starts with God already revealed within his mind.

Natural or general revelation is self-authenticating because it is the revelation of the Creator to the creature made in his image… Romans 1:18-32… asserts that such revelation leaves men without excuse because it actually imparts to them a certain knowledge of God. By it that which is known about God is made evident in them and to them. His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen and understood by men… Let it be clear what the force of the testimony of Scripture is. It is not that men may know God; nor that they potentially know God and will come to know him if they will use their reason aright. It is not that men by natural revelation have a certain vague notion of some undefined deity. It is rather that men are immediately confronted with a clear and unavoidable revelation of the true and living God.

Samuel Waldron, Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith, p. 38-42

Charles Hodge:

That this opposition is wicked because inexcusable on the plea of ignorance, is proved in this and the following verses. They wickedly oppose the truth, because the knowledge of God is manifest among them. Agreeably to this explanation, this verse is connected with the immediately preceding clause. It may however refer to the general sentiment of Romans 1:18. God will punish the impiety and unrighteousness of men, because he has made himself known to them. The former method is to be preferred as more in accordance with the apostle’s manner and more consistent with the context, inasmuch as he goes on to prove that the impiety of the heathen is inexcusable.

Since that which may be known of God, is manifest in them.
This version is not in accordance with the meaning of γνωστόν which always in the Bible means, what is known, not what may be known. Besides, the English version seems to imply too much; for the apostle does not mean to say that everything that may be known concerning God was revealed to the heathen, but simply that they had such a knowledge of him as rendered their impiety inexcusable. We findγνωστός used the sense of γνωτός, known, Acts 1:19; Acts 2:14; Acts 15:18; γνωστὰ ἀπ ̓ αἰῶνός ἐστι τῷ θεῷ πάντα τὰ ἔργα αὺτοῦ; and often elsewhere. Hence τὸ γνωστόν is = γνῶσις, as in Genesis 2:9, γνωστὸν τοῦ καλοῦ καὶ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

The knowledge of God does not mean simply a knowledge that there is a God, but, as appears from what follows, a knowledge of his nature and attributes, his eternal power and Godhead, Romans 1:20, and his justice, Romans 1:32.

φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς, may be rendered, either is manifest among them, or in them. If the former translation be adopted, it is not to be understood as declaring that certain men, the Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Stoics, as Grotius says, had this knowledge; but that it was a common revelation, accessible, manifest to all. In them, however, here more properly means, in their minds. “In ipsorum animis,” says Beza, “quia haec Dei notitia recondita est in intimis mentis penetralibus, ut, velint nolint idololatriae, quoties sese adhibent in consilium, toties a seipsis redarguantur.” It is not of a mere external revelation of which the apostle is speaking, but of that evidence of the being and perfections of God which every man has in the constitution of his own nature, and in virtue of which he is competent to apprehend the manifestations of God in his works. For God hath revealed to them, viz., the knowledge of himself. This knowledge is a revelation; it is the manifestation of God in his works, and in the constitution of our nature. “Quod dicit,” says Calvin, “Deum manifestasse, sensus est, ideo conditum esse hominem, ut spectator sit fabriae mundi; ideo datos ei oculos, ut intuitu tam pulchrae imaginis, ad auctorem ipsum feratur.” God therefore has never left himself without a witness. His existence and perfections have ever been so manifested that his rational creatures are bound to acknowledge and worship him as the true and only God.

This correct understanding of general revelation explains how all men, even if they are not scientists or philosophers engaging in complicated supposed theistic proofs, are inexcusable before God. Infants, those who are blind, and those who are mentally impaired – that is, those whose interaction with nature is hindered – are just as equally inexcusable because their knowledge of God is implanted in their heart at conception. It is not derived from nature.

Gordon Clark sums it up “[O]ne may note that nobody can recognize a flower as God’s handiwork, unless he has a prior knowledge of God. As Calvin said, the knowledge of God is the first knowledge a person has. It is innate; not derived from experience.”

And therefore, no, the unregenerate pagan does not have a “leg up” on the Christian in understanding God’s revelation because that revelation starts in his heart, and because of the fall “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” So we need the spectacles of Scripture, and regeneration to properly use the spectacles, if we are to know anything of God’s revelation.

I recommend John Robbins’ MP3 series Thinking Biblically (Collection 7), particularly Knowledge of God.

Innate Propositional Revelation

July 30, 2010 4 comments

In light of Anne Rice’s announcement that she “has left Christianity,” I re-read an old Trinity Foundation article analyzing the reasoning behind the Whitehorse Inn’s decision to interview Rice and give her an entire program to talk about her “return to Christianity” from atheism (even though she returned to Roman Catholicism, not Christianity). The Whitehorse Inn: Nonsense on Tap

Anyways, I read the following quote and it amazes me how many people I have come across that don’t understand this. Some people actually think that Romans 1 is talking about trees and stars.

Furthermore, Christ lights, John 1:9 says, echoing Romans 1 and 2, the mind of every man who comes into the world. This is the Biblical doctrine of general revelation. It is a denial of the pagan Aristotelian-Thomist-evidentialist-empiricist theory. The mind of every man, who is the image of God, is informed by the mind of Christ. So even if he is blind and cannot see the heavens, he has an innate idea of God. This information is innate, not learned by sensation. It makes man the image of God, and it makes all men inexcusable. It is these innate ideas that all sinners suppress in their zeal to escape God. One of the ways philosophers and theologians suppress these innate ideas is by inventing “proofs” for the existence of God derived from observation. (The pagan Aristotle is the godfather of all such proofs.) The gods they so “prove” are not the God of the Bible; they are idols – inventions of their sinful minds. If the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God were valid, they would disprove Christianity, for the gods they prove are not the God of the Bible. They are an illustration of the philosophers’ desire to escape the God of the Bible.

The Bible does not begin with any proof of the existence of God; it begins with God. Nor does the Bible contain any argument attempting to prove the existence of God from what Rosenthal calls “general revelation.” Such a proof is logically impossible and theologically reprehensible. Truth cannot be derived form anything non-propositional. Unless one starts with truth, with propositional revelation, one can never arrive at any truth. Unless one starts with Scripture, God will remain merely a suppressed idea.