Saturday, April 29, 2017

God Speaking Audibly

“I would believe in God if ___ happened.”

This notion is sometimes raised by skeptics when answering the question of what evidence they would require to affirm that God exists. It seems to go along with the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” assertion. I have even heard skeptics say “if God spoke audibly to me, then I would believe He exists.” This is, of course, a very sophomoric statement.

If the skeptic hears a voice saying “I am God, believe in me,” they would immediately doubt it was anything other than a natural anomaly. The skeptic's job is to explain away any possible sign of God by means necessary. In the case of an audible voice, perhaps it was a hallucination or some previously unobserved aspect of nature. The voice certainly could not be God because “God exists” is not a live option for the skeptic. If the skeptic will not accept any logical or metaphysical demonstration that God exists, they will not accept anything in the way of a sign or wonder.

It is only if a metaphysical demonstration of God’s existence is at least possible that the skeptic could even have something by which to reconcile an audible voice from the heavens (or whatever other signs they may want). In any event, the reality is that if the skeptic is being genuinely skeptical, there is never enough evidence to demonstrate anything out of their existing paradigm. Asking for a 'sign', an audible sign or a  molecule with "made by God' stamped on it would never suffice. That is why the request by the skeptic for God to 'show Himself' is fool's talk.

Thoughts on Discussing the Trinity and Incarnation

The Trinity and Incarnation are two of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. These doctrines are probably the most mysterious, and also the most difficult to properly explain to unbelievers and skeptics. First, it must be stated that because a doctrine is mysterious does not mean it is unintelligible or contradictory. A mystery is something affirmed by faith that cannot be fully comprehended by finite minds. When the Christian believes something by faith, they believe based on testimony, and this testimonial basis is rationally justifiable. Mystery does not contradict, but it does go beyond, or is not subject to nor arrived at by, purely logical demonstration.

It should go without saying that Christians must be Biblically informed on why they hold the doctrine of the Trinity. A shallow faith is one not explored for oneself within the page of Scripture. Given this, what Christians affirm of the Trinity is as follows:

  1.         The Father is God.
  2.          The Son is God.
  3.          The Holy Spirit is God.
  4.          The Father is not the Son.
  5.           The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
  6.           The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  7.       There is exactly one God.
There is much more that could be said (and volumes have already been written) on why and how Christians affirm the Trinitarian doctrine. But, given the above, there are at least three common points of attack on the Trinity leveled by skeptics. Each one is taken in turn below.

The Trinity is incomprehensible (so it must be false)

Simply because something is complicated or difficult to understand does not mean it is untrue. Trinitarian skeptics (ex. Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses) frequently make this very fundamental mistake. The reasoning goes as follows:  “a Trinitarian God is ‘more complicated’ than a Unitarian God, therefore the Trinity must be false.” The full argument seems to look something like this:
  1. A Trinitarian God is complicated.
  2. Complicated things are less likely to be true than simpler things.
  3. Therefore a Trinitarian God does not exist.
In syllogism form, the weakness of the argument is apparent in P2. It is unlikely anybody will agree that complicated things are a priori not true. Further, there are plenty of examples where the existence of something complicated is accepted as true.  One example that immediately comes to mind is biological activity within humans at the cellular level. The physical sciences have shown that what man used to think was quite simple is actually a very complex arrangement of microscopic machines that have certain functions and processes. A rational mind should not deny as true something because it is not easily understood. Such thinking would void the entire enterprise of science, and probably any other venture of human thought.

The doctrine of the Trinity was created/developed under suspicious circumstances.

Trinitarian skeptics will point to the Council of Nicaea or other church councils as evidence that the Trinity was created under sketchy circumstances. The reasoning goes that if a doctrine is developed under such circumstances, it must be rejected. The argument in syllogism form seems to be:
  1. The Trinity was developed under sketchy circumstances
  2. Anything developed under sketchy circumstances is false
  3. Therefore the Trinity is false.
Premise 2 is clearly false. This premise seems to beget a  type of genetic fallacy. How a person comes to believe something does not have any bearing on whether the belief is true. Such would be the same as arguing that religion R is false because person A only believes religion R because their parents were of religion R. But the question is just whether R is true or false. 

Premise 1 should also be closely examined. The skeptic wants to argue that the motives of those arranging or involved in the church councils were not to develop Biblical doctrine, but were politically or otherwise motivated. And so a sound historiographical approach must be used in evaluating whether there was any ‘suspicious circumstances’ at the church councils which would have effectively prevented proper Biblical doctrine from being expounded. If Constantine was a pagan and he arranged the council, does that mean the entire council was beholden to develop a certain desired doctrinal outcome? And what might that doctrinal outcome be?  

Further, even if there were suspicious circumstances, does this mean that the doctrines expounded or defended are false? Certainly not. Christians can look to the Scriptures themselves and see if any errors were made by the councils. To say that a church council decision has clouded the judgment of any Christian looking for the Trinity in the Scriptures is bad argumentation. The Christian could simply reply that the egg salad sandwich the skeptic had for lunch is clouding the skeptic’s judgment.
Similar responses can be made to the claim that the Trinity was developed based on pagan deities with three heads and the like. There is just no reason to think that because there were pagan deities with three heads or ancient images on cave walls of triangles that the Trinity is based on mythology. It is easily demonstrable that the creedal affirmations of the Trinity stand in no causal relationship with paganism. One need look no further than what the pagans affirmed and what the images (likely) meant versus what Christians believe. The difference is stark and irrefutable.

 The Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament

Since Christians accept the full canon of Scripture (at least with regard to 66 books, with all due respect to non-Protestant churches), including 27 New Testament books, this objection is quite weak. A common hermeneutical approach is what is called the ‘progressive revelation’ of Scripture. As time advances, God reveals more and more of His will, commands, character. Moses had more revelation from God than did Abraham, and the Jews at the time of Christ had more revelation than did Moses as many prophets had come and spoken from God since Moses. Those who accept the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures – Moses/Law, Prophets, Writings) must work very hard to deny progressive revelation. It should be noted that progressive revelation should not be thought of as God changing, but simply God revealing more of who He is. 

Given the teachings and sayings of Christ Himself, as well as the authoritative writings of the Apostles, denying the Trinity based on its apparent absence in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) is not tenable. It is also quite debatable whether the doctrine of the Trinity is, in fact, absent from the Old Testament. The Messianic Psalms, for example (Psalm 22:22, 45:6-7, 110:1) seem to present at least the basic sketches of Messiah’s Deity. Quite simply, if Christ was who He claimed to be and the Apostles were authentic, then the full disclosure of God’s Tri-unity in the New Testament alone is not problematic.

The skeptic is certainly allowed to object to the Trinity based on other grounds. The skeptic could approach from the side of bad hermeneutic and say the Christian has wholly misunderstood the Scriptures referring to the Deity of Christ and the Deity of the Holy Spirit.  The skeptic can also argue that it is just impossible for the Trinitarian affirmations to be coherent (many have, in fact, argued this). The skeptic may argue along these lines that it is metaphysically impossible for God to be one in essence and three in person. But these approaches require deeper and properly constructed argumentation. The three, and I would argue most often used, objections discussed above have no force against the Christian.   

Scientism and Miracles

Skeptical Argument

If God is going to interact with the physical world, as is claimed when he performs miracles, he could then be detected by science. But if there is no physical way to detect God, then how could we possibly know about Him outside the want or desire for this to be true?

Possible Reply

The first thing to note is the claim that God ‘interacts’ in the physical world. The classical theist rejects this on grounds that God is continually acting in the world by divine conservation. There is no contingent thing that exists at any time which is not given its act of existence by God. And this conclusion is demonstrated from metaphysical inquiry, reasoning from the sensible to the supersensible. God is not necessarily doing more in the world when a miraculous event occurs then He is at any other time.

The second thing to note is the claim that, if a miracle is performed, it could be detected by science. The rationale here seems to be that miracles occur in the physical world and anything that happens in the physical world is reducible to scientific observation. I think this misses the mark for several reasons. First, miracles are by nature infrequently occurring and unique. There is no intrinsic repeatability or controlled environment with which miracles could be studied with the rigors demanded by science to the extent that the claimant would be satisfied.  Further, even if they could be, what would be observed in a laboratory miracle situation is simply the effect. The cause of a miracle is supernatural, as this is just what a miracle is. Thus, while the effect (miracle) is observed, the cause is not. Science comes up with a blank as to the cause of the miracle because the cause of the miracles is not within the realm of inquiry.

At this point, the skeptic thinks the theist is simply offering a gap argument along the lines of “I do not know the cause of X, therefore God must be the cause of X.” And then usually something like the scientific revolution is shown in contrast beliefs across the world to illuminate the foolishness of people thinking God or gods cause certain phenomena when certain phenomena are perfectly explainable by science. It is not demons possessing a person to make them sick, they simply have a virus. And so forth.

But the skeptic must be in tune with the claim the theist is actually making about miracles. The theist is not making a gap argument when he says miracles are possible, and at least some miracles have occurred. The theist is stating that, in certain instances, God acts in particular ways, sometimes through particular individuals, for particular reasons. If God exists, then He is constantly acting in the world by upholding every single existing thing in it. And, if God exists, it is the case that His effects are known and visible; and these effects may be known and visible in ways that are non-normative.

What seems to underlie the above claim against miracles is an a priori commitment to scientism. This is the belief that only the physical scientific disciplines can deliver true knowledge about the world. Much has been written on this subject, and I will not rehash this issue right now. The only thing that I will say is that the claim of scientism is not often defended in the philosophy of religion by atheists/agnostics. Some philosophers of science might defend variations of this position, but, in its purist sense, scientism hearkens back to strands of logical positivism, a la Carnap, Ayer, and friends which are notoriously difficult to defend.

The skeptical claim against miracles we are considering also begs the question against the theist and possibly creates a straw-man. The argument seems to imply “if God exists, He should be detectable by science. God is not detectable by science. Therefore, God does not exist.” But the theist makes the explicit claim that God is not physical. Since the domain of science, at least the ‘hard’ sciences advocated by the skeptic (note the implicit emphasis on empirical observation, testing, etc.), is physical, there is a complete disconnect from what the theist is arguing. Here the skeptic essentially denies God’s existence because God is non-physical. But the very nature of God is non-physical, and this is indeed what the theist claims. Nothing the theist says should lead one to think that God should be detectable by scientific methodology employed in the physical sciences.

There is not much to say regarding the claim about knowing God by our desire for Him to be real. This claim has been played out from Marx to Freud. And the conflation of metaphysical and epistemological claims is palpable. I tend to condense this down to the claim that God only has cognitional being or is a being of reason. This is to say that God exists in the same way hobbits and Star Wars characters do; they exist in the mind of existent beings but do not have their own independent acts of existence. Thus the skeptic claims that God only exists in the minds of theists, by their own acts of will or desire. And the only supposed way out of this conundrum for the theist would be if God was subject to verification of the physical sciences.

But the theist claims that God is Existence, is Pure Act, Being Itself. And this is a distinctly metaphysical claim. It is impossible that God exist within the existential act of another being. It is God who gives the act of existence to the finite being who discursively reasons from effect to cause. 

Divine Hiddenness and Miracles

Why doesn’t God show Himself more? Why don’t we see miracles today like we did in biblical times? These are deep and interesting questions that gesture toward the problem of divine hiddenness. The problem of divine hiddenness amounts to the fact that many people think God should make His existence more obvious. How He should specifically do so varies from person to person. It is not clear from those typically raising this objection whether an audible voice should be heard, cloud writings, or specific types of medical or physical miracles. Maybe it would be all of these things. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once said “Not enough evidence!” when asked what He would say to God if he (Russell) met Him (God).

The atheistic argument is that, because God’s existence is not more manifest, one might justifiably doubt Him. Further, it seems that the biblical accounts are full of divine action in the world and there is a dearth of such action now. Why did God stop acting miraculously in the world? Wouldn’t it make more sense for God to continually show people that He is there and acting in the world as He did in the days of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus? Miracles, events in the space/time universe that are supernatural, would seem to be concrete and irrefutable proof that God exists. Maybe if Bertrand Russell had seen a man instantly healed of leprosy before his eyes he would have considered it sufficient evidence of a theistic miracle (I have my doubts).  

Since the scope here is small, I will only explore a certain aspect of the problem of divine hiddenness; though I believe the implications could be drawn out much further. The brief point I want to sketch is that miracles are not a particularly manifest proof of God’s existence. If more miracles occurred, there would not be any marked increase in belief in God. 

For the classical theist, God is not hidden in any kind of problematic way. His effects are constantly observed. Hebrews 1:3 tells us that He “upholds the universe by the word of His power.” In Acts 17:28, the apostle Paul says “In Him we live and move and have our being.” It is believed by scholars that Paul is quoting Epimenides of Crete, yet the apostle endorses such a view of God as correct. Both Scripture and unaided reason show that the evidence for God is immediately evident to any rational person because God is causing all things to exist at any moment in which they do. This is the doctrine of divine conservation, also sometimes called causality. God is the First Cause of the universe because He gives existence to all things that are.

Everything but existence itself (God) stands in potency to its act of existing. That is, everything but God is always contingent upon God. There are no exceptions to this and there is no ‘existential inertia’; God is not the ‘watch winder’ and spectator, dabbling His finger here and there into creation as He sees fit. The exact opposite must be the case if there is anything at all. God conserves every contingent thing, always, in the most fundamental way. Anything but God could cease to exist at any time (God cannot cease to exist because such an action would involve actualizing a potency in God. But God, as Pure Act, has no potentiality; there is no potency to actualize in God.  Everything else but God has potency to at least non-existence, and so necessarily receives its act of existing from God).

Thus, any effect in the world, a car, a pencil, a molecule, etc. is manifest evidence for God. The fact that any contingent thing exists serves as the beginning point of a demonstration for God’s existence. If God did not exist, then nothing at all could. From this it follows that miracles are not a particularly special evidence for God. In fact, without a notion of God, the notion of a miracle would be altogether nonsensical. It seems that a coherent notion of God is explanatorily prior to a miraculous event,and others have made this very case. It should not be thought that man has a notion of God and a miraculous event confirms that notion. Rather, the reasoning from effect to cause from the most common things in creation are, again, evidence for a sustaining existential cause. It is only from this framework can a miracle be understood as revelatory and intelligible.

It is only the ‘watchmaker’ view of God that can allow one to think that He only acts in creation (after it is made) by miracles. This view of God sees the elegant design of the ‘watch’ as pointing to God and the occurrence of miracles as further proof that God cares to act in creation after He initiates and shapes it. If God is seen as a distant observer of creation, or a as programming the machine and then letting it go, then miraculous events are perhaps needed to truly affirm theism (as opposed to deism).

For the classical theist, the absence of biblical-type miracles in the post-apostolic era is not any kind of evidential problem for God. The fact is God is not hidden at all. His effects are manifest at every moment, and so His conservation of such effects is manifest. It should be noted the Divine Essence itself is not experienced by man in its absolute fullness. One need only consider Isaiah 6:1-7 to understand that, even within a vision, the holiest man in Israel fell completely apart when glimpsing the presence of God. God, in His grace and mercy, allows man to experience Him in ways that befit the Creator/creature relationship.

Yet, despite this, man still demands to have a god that he can completely comprehend, to have a god that is small and pocket sized. This god fits man much better than One that is holy, infinite, and incomprehensible. Because God is incomprehensible, some think that He is not able to be apprehended. But this is not the case. Man can know that God is, and know some things about Him, through divine revelation and natural reason. Further, God can be known in an intimate way by man through Jesus Christ, the God-man.

Because miracles are not per se evidential proof for God does not mean that they have no value. Their value is great in the context of God’s revelatory purposes. Miracles are not necessary ‘special’ acts of God in the world in the sense that God was not acting, and now is acting when Moses parts the Red Sea, or Jesus feeds 5,000 people. Miracles are meant to teach us something, to authenticate the teachings and words of a prophet. Miracles deliver knowledge to man about God, His nature, and His desire for us. I think it would be beneficial if we would understand and focus on communicating miracles in this context.