Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Bible: Where Do We Start?

“You have to start with the Bible.”

The foregoing is typically meant as a pious statement about one’s commitment to the authority of biblical instruction. If you accept the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God, then the notion of “starting with the Bible” seems to follow necessarily. It seems one cannot, at least as an Evangelical Christian, deny this statement as it applies to faith and, by extension, all of life. When questions arise concerning church practice (“should we worship on Saturday or Sunday?”)  or doctrine (“did Christ die for all sinners or only certain sinners?”) it seems that only the Bible alone can decide these matters. Further, when it comes to matters of life, such as divorce and remarriage, childrearing, or entertainment choice, the first and final word on the matter is the Bible. This position would hold that most of man’s problems arise by not starting decision procedures with biblical consultation. As I see it, this notion points to the famous Reformation Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). My aim in this post is to discuss some reasons why this line of thinking is problematic.

We are immediately faced with the question of what “starting with the Bible” actually means. The more unreflective answer is that it means the Bible is authoritative for Christian life and practice. The things prohibited in the Bible should not be done and the things prescribed in the Bible should be done. True enough. But that does not really help us with the underlying issues. It does not help us understand exactly what the Bible wants us to do. Moreover, the Bible does not provide a comprehensive and systematically organized doctrinal list, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. Of course, the Bible is written in human language, to be understood by people of all different cultures and languages, across wide-ranging geography and time. Communication requires a sender and a receiver. God inspired the biblical writing through an individual person, and the individual person wrote in their language and according to their personality (the apostle Paul, anyone?). People read the words of God on paper or listen to them as they are spoken. We understand they express propositions that are objectively true. Yet, how does this come about?

Communication is possible because humans are rational beings, capable of understanding language and concepts. Before a person can understand the Bible, they must know the meaning of words and have the ability to grasp abstract ideas. An example of an abstraction is “tree.” To understand that an oak is a tree and a walnut is a tree is to understand the concept of "tree," and how “tree” applies to numerous diverse and differentiated objects. If man was not a rational being, endowed with a will and intellect, God could not communicate nor have any relationship with us. It seems unavoidable that certain things must be in place before God can meaningfully speak to us. We can only understand higher level things because we understand those that are more basic.

The first words in the Bible are “In the beginning God…” Christians believe this is true. But if a person had no idea who or what God is, did not have a notion of God, apprehend the idea of “beginning,” or had a defective concept of God, etc. then the words of Genesis 1:1, and the rest of Scripture, would make little sense, either taken in whole or part. When we interpret the Bible, we must explicate certain criteria that govern such interpretation. These criteria are sometimes called “prolegomena.” Examples of this are a monotheism, a God who speaks and acts, and so forth. It is important to note that the Bible does not make a list of prolegomena for us to examine. When we organize and reconcile biblical passages, we rely on logic and reason. We do not question our reasoning faculties when systematizing Scripture. To do so would undermine the entire enterprise, as we would be relegated to skepticism. 

Some Christians hold the view that the unredeemed cannot successfully understand the Scriptures or understand them in a meaningful way. Nor can the unregenerate truly understand God or things that are about God. The sin of Adam has so infected every aspect of man that, prior to being non-volitionally born-again, he cannot truly seek to know about God (or the Bible). The impenitent man willfully suppresses the truth. On this rationale, it is hard to avoid the claim that the atheist cannot understand Scripture. Of course, this is clearly false. There are plenty of atheists who can read and grasp the words and concepts within the Bible, in some cases better than Christians. What the atheist does not accept is that what they are reading is true. And, of course, they cannot believe it is true because they are unbelievers. If they were believers, they would immediately see the truth of divine revelation, or so this view would hold. If they really understood the Bible, they would accept it. At least this position is encompassed in the view of Christians sometimes called “presuppositional.”

There are a few problems with this view that I have not yet been able to successfully resolve. The first is the implication that God endows the regenerate with a truth-rendering interpretative framework. What might explain this implication as the role of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit Himself shows the believer the truth of God’s Word. Yet, without resorting to occasionalism, the empirical evidence works strongly against this view. Certainly, believers can be mistaken in their interpretation. We see widespread disparity even among the original expositors of Sola Scriptura. Therefore, we must say that the reasoning faculties of the believer are still fallible. What is the difference, then, between an unbeliever and a believer in this category? Perhaps just that the believer desires to know the Word of God. But this does not mean that He will actually succeed in grasping it or making a coherent doctrine and staking out a sound position. Unless occasionalism is true, then it seems God desires some cooperation on the role of the believer in understanding the Bible. The believer has to do some work, learn Hebrew, Greek, systematize it, and the like. But if the believer has fallible reasoning and the unbeliever also has fallible reason, then where is the material difference? Can we really make a distinction in the type of rational fallibility? Is not the whole notion of sin-tainted reason bound up with the notion of fallibility? The answer cannot be because the unbeliever merely suppresses the truth. 

As I understand it, the presuppositional position will affirm the unbeliever can successfully use reason in non-biblical/spiritual activities (such as science) in much the same or identical way as a believer. Yet, granting that the regenerate person is indeed changed in a substantial way (viz his relation to God), there is still no sound basis for the radical bifurcation of reasoning faculties in the believer and unbeliever. It is only by systematizing certain Reformed doctrines that one can arrive at this conclusion. However, such doctrinal compilation itself is done with admittedly fallible human reason. And the myriad systematics available within the Reformed tradition attest to variation in result. What grounds are there for thinking any superiority in the reasoning faculty itself between the regenerate and the unregenerate? Unless one presupposing the truth of their doctrine (distinct itself from presupposing the truth the Bible), I do not see how such a view can be sustained. From this, it follows that a prolegomena incorporating man’s ability to know God (Yahweh, the One and Only) exists and certain divine attributes are predicable of Him in the absence of Scripture is defensible.

One rebuttal to this conclusion is that such a prolegomena will not lead one to the Triune God of Scripture because it ends up (or starts biblical interpretation) in disputed abstractions, posits a “god of the philosophers,” and so on. I think such a response is a red-herring. It should be noted that one hears this in more of an apologetic setting versus a backdrop of biblical prolegomena. In any event, the reconciliation of biblical theism with what is knowable via unaided reason does not even present a gap to traverse when properly done. The same divine attributes found in the Bible agree with those found via unaided reason. That this cannot be one and the same being is a demonstrably strange conclusion. One exploring and describing God via His effects in creation does not seek to fully explicate God as is done within the Bible. Rather, he seeks to demonstrate in another way what the Scriptures brightly illuminate.

Another issue I see with the “starting with the Bible” position is that it implies that knowledge of God’s specifically revealed truth and salvific belief are necessarily connected. That is, one cannot truly understand the Bible without affirming it as true. I alluded to this notion above. Is it really impossible for an unbeliever to know and yet reject what the Bible claims? Perhaps the answer is “yes” for those who affirm certain soteriological distinctives. However, it is difficult to see how this actually works out. A person can certainly know something is true, such as that smoking is bad for them, and yet act contrary to this knowledge. A person can also know what the Bible says and teaches, and still withhold belief. They can know exactly what the Bible says about God and salvation and remain unconvinced of its truth and/or still withhold assent. Likewise, I can understand Buddhism in a comprehensive manner yet still reject it as false. Many Christians clearly understand Islam, the teachings and life of Mohammed, and still boldly proclaim the truth of Christianity (which is, at its core, antithetical to Islam).

Something that often gets lost in this matter is that the Scriptures tell us that believing in God is not enough for salvation. “Even the demons believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). Given this, I cannot see how it is problematic for any view of Christian soteriology (and attending systematic) to affirm that an unbeliever can know about God’s existence via reasoning from what is observed in the created order, and also a great deal about God, yet still not be redeemed. Many in the presuppositional camp will readily say that man knows the truth about God, yet suppresses this; the sinner knows it but does not admit it. But this brings up a thorny issue. They would have to say that man knows God because God has planted the idea in man as an image bearer, but this would effectively import an idealist epistemology; man knows and thinks about ideas, not things. The result ends up burying us in the post-Cartesian debate of arranging ideas, subjective perceptualism, and futilely trying to connect ideas in the mind to things in the world. Without idealism, the only playable game left is realism. Yet, if realism is true, then the only way the impenitent man can know about God in the first place is by inferring and reasoning from effect to cause, which is the method starkly opposed by the presuppositionalist. I cannot see a way out for the presuppositionalist here; he must deny idealism and affirm that man can, in fact, know God from the light of natural reason by observing God's effects in creation. But if he denies this and embraces idealism, he must explain how the suppressed truth about God is actually knowable. I will leave further explication of this dilemma for another time. 

Returning to an issue raised above, the Bible requires interpretation. Does “starting with the Bible” help at all? Let examine how this might be. We sometimes hear things like “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” If this is taken to mean that many passages in Scripture help explain or contextualize others, then there are no prima facie issues. But does “starting with the Bible” actually give us a means of understanding passages so that we might successfully compare them to others for intra-textual reference? Antecedently, what interpretative method should we utilize? The historical-grammatical? Does the Bible actually say “thou shalt use the historical-grammatical method unless the text is allegorical, metaphorical, etc.?” And how do we know when a text is allegorical or hyperbolical? We read the text and ask what it means. We then seek a way to anchor word, symbol, and conceptual connection. This should not be understood as “going outside” the Bible here; one is not importing meaning or words into the text.

When we read certain texts that seem to interpret other texts in the historical-grammatical way, we still must make a meta-decision about this move. Why does such a method make sense when others do not? Again, the Bible does not tell us specifically. We must resort to those pesky reasoning faculties once again. Further, what about the many passages which describe God in contradictory ways? How do we adjudicate which ones are metaphorical and which ones are literal? For example, does God change? We must first know what change is and why it would be problematic to predicate change in God before we can rightly divide the relevant biblical texts. Does God have physical arms and legs? If not, how is it that we determine that John 4:24 is speaking literally about God’s nature and Deuteronomy 4:34 is speaking metaphorically? Clearly, we must bring something to the Scriptures in order to properly interpret them. We cannot derive a method of interpretation from the text we are trying to interpret. Such rationale would lead to a self-undermining vertigo.

It has been said that “we can either start with the Word of God or man’s word.” Such a statement seems well-intentioned, but badly misses the point. The latter of the disjunct is a straw-man. I have never heard it said that we should start with “man’s word.” The dichotomy so presented implies that not “starting with God’s word” is tantamount to idolatry and can only lead us astray. Thus, rejecting a presuppositional or covenantal approach is wrongheaded. Still, I wonder how such a statement is even informed. Does one find that in the Bible? If not, then on what grounds does the proponent base it? Clearly, it came about by means of some faculty which allowed the adjudication of various claims and came up with that one as a truth proposition. Yet, how is this not “starting with man’s word?”, at least in terms of how this phrase is bandied about in a frequently derogatory manner.  

I find myself continually thinking the “starting with the Bible” view is a “heads I win, tails you lose” position. If you dispute it, you somehow deny the power of God to speak through special revelation; you somehow elevate man’s word above God’s (whatever that means). If you affirm it, you stand on the sacred ground of the Protestant Reformers in upholding Sola Scriptura; you are a pious Christian. Those in the Reformed camp will typically couch their presuppositional or covenantal view within their overall systematic. I think that such a position is self-defeating.

The Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. And we know this because God reveals Himself in ways that allow us to first know truth, so we can then know that God’s word is true. The Bible is written in human language, requiring a rational and intellectual framework for understanding. This rational (please note, not rationalist) framework is the means by which the Bible is intelligible to man. We must interpret the Scriptures, and we have the tools to correctly do that. We are born with these tools, and the stain of sin does not delete them, even if it does reduce their efficacy and aim in use. If we affirm that the only way we know something is true is because it is in the Bible (or because of the Bible), then we lose the objective ground by which to claim the Bible itself is true. And the Christian certainly affirms that the Bible is true for both the believer and unbeliever. The Christian holds that the events of the Exodus, Exile, Crucifixion, Resurrection, the early church, and countless other things, are historical facts. This would mean that they are accessible, in principle, to anyone. Why a person would voluntarily walk away from a methodology that upholds the integrity of these claims is puzzling.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Because...Why? Making Causal Inquiry Interesting

Causation has long engendered deep and passionate discussion. This springs from our innate desire to know. We want to know why and how things are the way we observe them. Why do unimpeded objects always fall back toward earth when we throw them up in the air? Why does the universe exist? What explains variation and complexity in biological species? Why does my child think it a crime against humanity to sleep at night? Countless other questions could be raised as examples. But is causation interesting in itself? Metaphysicians certainly think so. Few others, including philosophers, take much notice. I think most people give perhaps only a passing thought to causes because they unreflectively accept a very narrow, and highly problematic, view of causation. They take temporally sequenced events as a de facto explanation of causes. Not only is this position untenable, it is (worse) completely uninteresting. In what follows, I will offer a few brief thoughts on why this is the case.

When most people think of A causing B, they think that A moved B from point 1 to point 2. Or that A made B from a collection of raw materials, so A caused B. Or, if B regularly follows A, then A is the most likely cause of B. Causation is typically bound up with some type of temporal succession of events. Ceteris paribus, if C is always observed to follow B, and B follows A, A is thought of as the probable cause of C.

The preceding description of causality is precisely what David Hume had in his gunsights. Such events, loose and separate, as it were, cannot really tell us anything. We cannot empirically observe “causal powers” and we have no logical contradiction in B not following A (no matter how regularly it does), so causality is committed to the flames. Sure, we could say that A caused B, but there is no state of affairs where A is causing anything, whether it is B, bicycles, or bananas.

If we buy into the strictly temporal/sequential view of causality, then it is very difficult to demonstrate why Hume is wrong. Sure, his conclusions might be intuitively absurd. But, as Hume would no doubt rebut, “so what?” Intuition does not falsify his position nor establish causality (so understood). Other responses to Hume, such as appealing to possible worlds, counterfactuals, and so forth do not, it seems to me, really get at the heart of Hume’s argument. In the end, I think it is very difficult to respond to the portly Scotsman without appealing to an Aristotelian conception of nature and causes. Most contemporary philosophers will not make this move and will largely leave causation neglected in the corner of a dark room. The Stagirite looms outside, not being invited to the party at all.

The most interesting questions, such as why and how, are answerable on Aristotle’s view. And satisfyingly so. We seek explanations and we find them. Take a very simple example; my tan floor tile. Not much interesting about that, right? But what if we started with a few questions that we could ask about anything in our daily experience? Like why is the floor tile here? Am I the cause of the floor tile under my foot? After all, six months ago, I bought it from the store, mixed the mortar, cut, and laid the tile on the floor. Yet, on an Aristotelian view of causation, it really cannot be wholly said that what I did previously is the cause of the tile under my foot.

We could perhaps say that I was the cause of the tile getting where it is at a time in the past. But why is it here right now? Why does it keep the qualities it has, like color, size, weight? If we really think about it, there are myriad other factors involved, such as the subfloor, house foundation, earth, and all the other laws of physics that must hold constant for the floor tile to be under my foot at any given moment. The reason the tile is under my foot right now is not explainable in any interesting way by the fact that I transported and laid it. Nor does the metaphysical interest lie with the tile manufacturer. When we are concerned about causality, the less relevant thing is the preceding event in time. This is because the prior temporal event does not really answer the basic metaphysical questions we are after. We want to know why this and not something else. The floor tile could, in principle, not be under my foot right now (even if it was in the prior second). We even might put something like this back to Hume. In any event, the temporal sequence might be metaphysically interesting in some way to us, such as understanding the process by which one might lay floor tile, or how floor tile is made and successfully transported. Yet there would be underlying metaphysical questions for each of these events that would necessarily force us into a deeper inquiry.

What if we just stopped at the manufacturing of the floor tile? Is there anything about this that assures it will stay the same shape and color on the way to my house? Here, again, we could resort quickly to various laws of physics and chemistry. But, what about those? Surely these physical laws and chemical compounds held constant during each moment of my journey. At any moment of investigation along the way, I would have the same question. Why this, and not that? Aristotle gives us answers. Formal, material, efficient, and final causes each represent actualized potentials. Thus, we can understand the cause(s) of the floor tile in a multifaceted way. We need not stop with a sequence of events. Such a sequence is accidental to the tile itself as it stands (or is stood upon) right now.

If we are only focused on causality in terms of temporal events, then we will ultimately lack sufficient explanation for anything. To take another example, as I look out into my front yard, I see my son’s Big Wheel. I could say the cause of the Big Wheel in my front yard is that my son left it there yesterday afternoon. Maybe I could press on and ask how the Big Wheel got to my son. And then we could talk about the plant, factory, workers, shipping, etc. Ultimately, we would just be explaining each thing by appealing to the prior event ad infinitum. However, this does not really tell us much. Why not ask why the Big Wheel exists as it does? Why does the Big Wheel not spontaneously melt or turn into a pumpkin? Why not ask why the Big Wheel does not collapse into non-being? These are metaphysically interesting questions. Such questions help us understand reality.

We can explain the existence of the floor tile or the Big Wheel in Aristotelian causal terms in a layered analysis, going so far as we desire in hierarchically ordered causes until terminating in Pure Act. Or, we can stop with a more basic, coherent, and robust understanding of the physical object; existing as a substance with various accidents, having a certain a form, material, efficient, and final cause(s). In any event, we can have a deep metaphysical conversation starting with the simplest objects. I am not aware of another system from which such a fruitful discussion can spring forth. This is especially true of efficient causality, which should be conceived as much more than the mere bringing forth of something from one state to another as most artifactual examples entail. This is, of course, one of the many benefits Aquinas brings in his Aristotelian-grounded philosophy and not an incidental reason why one should consider moving beyond thinking of causes merely in temporally sequenced terms.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Is Life Without God Absurd?

Does it really make sense to say that, in the absence of God, life is ultimately meaningless? Prominent Christian philosophers and apologists have made this argument, such as William Lane Craig and Francis Schaefer. Noted atheist philosophers, such as Kai Neilson, and others (e.g. Sartre) have more or less come down on this side of the fence as well. I agree that, without God, there is no real point to anything, though I have admittedly often struggled with specifically how this is the case. The finitude, frailty, and struggle of human life and the eventual energy equilibrium in the universe are powerful truths, but still seem to lack probative force insofar as they are incorporated into the argumentation. All things considered, I think at least one factor that could be better drawn out in this discussion is teleology. I will try to sketch out what I mean by this and how it is relevant to the conversation.

The absurdity of life without God is, of course, not a positive argument for God’s existence. It shows the stark implications of atheism. It shows the depths one is willing to go when addressing the big questions of life. Many atheists will bite the bullet and admit there is no point, no meaning, no purpose in life. Humans and the universe are just happy accidents and that is all. The theist usually takes pain showing the inconsistency in this position; atheism is not a livable worldview. The committed atheist, in this case, acts as if life has meaning. Such inconsistency between thought and action seems to betray internal incoherence. How can it make sense to live and think in such a radically bifurcated manner? Of course, many atheists take another tack, where they try to reconcile ultimate meaning in life without God.

Much is made in the context of this dialogue about meaning or purpose. The atheist might respond that the theist is using such terms in a wholly disagreeable way. The theist seems to be asserting that meaning comes only via extrinsic teleology. That is, meaning and purpose come from having it imposed from the outside by a personal, rational agent. Without meaning given to something, it cannot really have meaning in the objective sense. For example, the purpose of a watch is to tell time, and this purpose is given to the watch by the artificer (designing and arranging the components just-so). Although a simple example, we might say there is meaning in the existence of the watch (or the watch is intelligible) because it was intentionally conceived, forged, and shaped by a rational agent to do something. Similarly, there is meaning in human life because it comes about by a divine Artificer. The best way to cash out meaning is appealing to something given from the outside. If meaning comes from the thing itself, like if man “makes his own meaning”, then we do not ultimately have objective meaning, and thus meaning becomes equivocal. Self-determined meaning would lead to widespread disparity, which would admit of no principled adjudication.

The atheist might retort that life, from simple to complex, has been demonstrated to come about by wholly natural processes. Thus, grounding terms like meaning and purpose in extrinsic teleology does not get the job done no matter how much we want it to be the case. The atheist could hold that meaning can only really be descriptive terms about life and its processes, as given by science or philosophy. Or perhaps there is no problem with grounding meaning in human nature, however transient that might be. Since all we can work with is what we are, the purpose of human existence could be flourishing or minimizing pain. Man defining his own meaning in this context is unproblematic. Yet, the impasse over how to ground meaning is crucial. What gets lost in the conversation about absurdity in the absence of God is the teleological conception from which one is working. How theists conceive and insert teleology into the dialogue has great import.

The more prevalent notion of extrinsic teleology can be juxtaposed against intrinsic teleology (or finality). Instead of teleology being imposed from the outside, intrinsic teleology holds that natural things have an inherent tendency toward certain ends. Natural things have essences (or natures) and are ultimately intelligible in light of their final causes. The essence of a tree incorporates the tendency to grow upward, produce seeds, and so forth. That even inanimate things, like stones, almost always “act” in certain ways is evidence of finality. The regularity we observe in everyday life exists because the essences of natural substances are aimed at specific things. Without finality “baked” into what something is, any given thing would not really be that thing. A grizzly bear that started performing quantum mechanics and flying through the air would not be a grizzly bear, it would be something else. The essence of a grizzly bear incorporates tendencies to eat fish, walk on the ground, and possibly scare quantum physicists camping in Alaska.

There is a key distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic teleology. On extrinsic teleology, things do not have ends unless they receive it somehow as an addition or modification from an outside agent. The stone or tree do not evidence teleology when taken in themselves. Rather, on extrinsic teleology, when we observe what we take to be intricate complexity or functionality, we infer that these traits could not arise from the individual components and infer an intelligent artificer or designer as the best explanation. This is one reason why evolutionary theory remains a proverbial thorn in the extrinsic teleologist’s side. The evolutionary theorist has a competing explanatory mechanism for at least biological complexity, so the inference to an extrinsically imposed arrangement or process is unnecessary.

If extrinsic teleology is the only game in town, it is understandable how one could feel rationally vindicated in outright denial. For, if I can reject that arrangements or the existence of certain complex natural things (or processes) infer outside agency, then I can arrive at the conclusion that there is no genuinely objective meaning or purpose for them. No matter how improbable, the default option for many is that things just exist as they are by accident.

One way to address this potential impasse is that meaning must be first taken to exist within individual things themselves. Even the most inanimate objects have purpose and meaning insofar as they exhibit a tendency to certain ends that could not obtain in the absence of being continually directed toward those ends by an outside agency. No arrangement, complexity, or intricate inter-part relationship is necessary to understand it. A world full of stones would be more than sufficient to establish meaning and purpose in the most important and relevant sense. When we ask the question “why does the stone exist as it does, or for what reason?”, intrinsic finality/teleology provides an answer and the beginning of an interesting path of inquiry. Extrinsic finality cannot start here, which I find problematic.

Without intrinsic finality, nothing would be intelligible. We cannot say what something is without saying what it does. “That for the sake of which,” as Aristotle said, is the governing factor in our understanding of things. Aquinas called final causality “the cause of causes.” Things have meaning in themselves by virtue of the final causes exhibited in their very nature. This does not mean anything like “man can make his own meaning.” Quite the opposite. The purpose of man is bound up in what man is; a rational being acting that inherently acts toward what he judges as good. Man, as man, cannot not act; he is a being-in-act. And man cannot act outside the bounds of His own nature. He cannot fly, shed an exoskeleton, or ruminate. Likewise, man cannot be essentially irrational or essentially incorporeal.

As I see it, the appeal to meaning and purpose is very basic. Without the direction of an agent, even the simplest individual things could not, in principle, tend toward, or almost always obtain, certain ends. This is how Aquinas argues in his fifth way (ST 1.2.3). This is not a “design inference.” Rather, this notion is bound up with the nature of things as they are intelligible to us, by which we even reason and arrange our thoughts. To deny that things have natures is to deny our ability to speak about them in a meaningful way. And to accept that they have natures is to import final causes. The reality of intrinsic final causality means that there is an inherent end for all existent objects, no matter their accidental arrangement. If we deny final causes intrinsic to what things are, then we can only ultimately appeal to meaning via some type of composite arrangement or autonomously improbably complexity. Such a move actually threatens objective purpose because purpose is only inferred in the “design” versus the very existence of things as they are.

We could fare much better than to base our understanding of objective purpose on extrinsic teleology. On the other hand, if intrinsic final causality forms the basis of our understanding, then we can see the issue of the absurdity of life without God loses steam. Purpose (in life) is implicit in raising the problem. We cannot observe the world and conclude there is no purpose or ultimate meaning because we presuppose it when raising the question. Our observations and reckoning of experience rest upon final causality. And final causality is only possible on theism.

It does appear that both the extrinsic and intrinsic teleologist argues for meaning imposed from the outside, viz. God. This is true only a very limited sense. Both agree that God is the “cause”, for lack of a better term, of teleology. But the conception of teleology is radically different. The extrinsic conception is focused on the design and inference, where things themselves exhibit no finality until God acts upon them in a manifest way (such as the human eye). The intrinsic conception begins with the very nature or essence of the object itself, finding it only understandable by incorporating the end that the thing tends to do (or move toward) within its very definition. Atheistic appeals to evolution do not have the same force against intrinsic finality as against extrinsic finality. For, even the most basic thing exhibits finality in its very nature, whether animate or inanimate. The extrinsic teleologist struggles when appealing to animate life in the face of well-articulated evolutionary theory and has little in the way of appeal to inanimate things (stones, water, etc.).

Whether life is absurd without God depends a great deal on how meaning and purpose are understood. I think that an objective basis for meaning, and an ultimate answer to the question, can be most successfully addressed by a robust notion of intrinsic final causality. Extrinsic final causality is how teleology (goal-directedness) is most commonly understood, but this view has several shortcomings when addressing the question of purpose in life without God.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Importance of God as Unchanging

Two common questions are often asked about God. Does God change? Can God change? These might seem to be identical, but they are not. The latter is antecedent to the former. If God cannot change, then He does not. But if God can change, then maybe He wills not to change. The classical theistic tradition affirms that God cannot change. It is not that He does not change by decree of His will. Instead, classical theists hold that it is impossible in principle for God to change. The very nature of God is unchanging. We say that God is immutable. Other theistic traditions deny or significantly modify this notion in some way. For example, process theology holds that God undergoes change, gains knowledge, and so forth. 

I argue that holding to divine immutability is vitally important to a proper conception of God. Without a proper conception of God, we cannot do well in representing Him to the world. This negatively affects our evangelism and discipleship. If the foundation of our faith rests upon that which is changeable, then it does not rest on what should be understood as 'God'. Our faith will eventually crack under the pressure of time. Many errors in doctrine develop from a mistaken concept of God. The LDS belief system is a case study in this regard, where God (YHWH) is a literal father of humanity and is/was seen in physical form (see Change is a primary predication of physical, spatially-extended things. One who understands God as immutable would have to reject the LDS conception of God. They might be talking about something else, but certainly not the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

Divine immutability is challenged on both biblical and philosophical grounds. Many passages in the Bible describe God as changing (Gen. 6:6, Ex. 4:14, Amos 7:3, etc.). And it seems that if God cannot change, then we must accept a rigid determinism, salvation would be non-sensical, God could not be all-loving, and many other problems of coherence in divine attributes. Yet, the Bible also says that God does not change (Malachi 3:6, Psalm 90:2). The classical theistic tradition has defended divine immutability from a robust metaphysical standpoint, starting with objects of everyday experience, reasoning to God, then progressing from God's pure actuality, simplicity, aseity, and necessity. Natural theology provides a means of successfully exegeting biblical passages that refer to God and His activity in anthropomorphic ways. 

I think much of the opposition to divine immutability comes from a deep desire to make God like us. This might spring from either good or bad motivation. A good motivation would be genuinely wanting to know God more intimately, thinking that we can only relate to something that is just like we are. A bad motivation would be wanton idolatry, shrinking God so that we can put Him alongside (or behind) the other objects of our thought. In any event, the result is the erroneous reduction of God to that which we can fully comprehend. We must avoid this at all costs.

Think of what it would mean for God to change. For the sake of simplicity, we might understand change via consulting the Aristotelian categories (sans substance). Here is a convenient breakdown from Dr. Taylor Marshall:

  • Quantity (“how much”). This is the extension of an object and may be either discrete or continuous. Further, its parts may or may not have relative positions to each other.
  • Quality (“of what kind or quality”). This is a determination which characterizes the nature of an object.
  • Relation (“toward something”). This is the way in which one object may be related to another.
  • Place (“where”). Position in relation to the surrounding environment.
  • Time (“when”). Position in relation to the course of events.
  • Position (“to lie”). The examples Aristotle gives indicate that he meant a condition of rest resulting from an action: ‘Lying’, ‘sitting’.
  • State or habitus (to have”). The examples Aristotle gives indicate that he meant a condition of rest resulting from an affection (i.e. being acted on): ‘shod’, ‘armed’. The term is, however, frequently taken to mean the determination arising from the physical accouterments of an object: one’s shoes, one’s arms, etc. Traditionally, this category is also called a habitus (from Latin habere, “to have”).
  • Action (“to make” or “to do”). The production of change in some other object.
  • Affection ( “to suffer” or “to undergo”).

To say that a substance (even the divine substance) undergoes change, we would have to predicate at least one of the above about God. Should we think that God changes in any of the above respects? Maybe at the very least, we should think God changes with regard to action. After all, the Bible does teach that God created the universe. Creation seems like it would be an action.  

Yet, for God to change in any of the categorical aspects would mean that God would have the potential to undergo such change. If God has any potential whatsoever, He would not be God. Potential to change in God would mean that there is something beyond or outside of God that could fulfill or actualize this potential. God would then not exist a se (in Himself). Further, we would be forced to seek a first cause in any hierarchically ordered series (such as any contingent thing existing at any moment). 

I am not pretending these, the principles on which divine immutability on classical theism are developed, are not contentious metaphysical notions. They certainly are. However, we are forced to ask about the implications of any given view of God. What happens if we deny immutability? Some would take this as a "bogey-man" question. This rejoinder is that we do not need to necessarily think anything bad would result if God could change. Again, maybe He can change but just wills not to. Such a rebuttal misses the point. What is it about God by which one predicates the potential to change? It is just this thing, whatever it might be, that the classical theist objects to regarding conception of God. Further, how is it that we arrive at immutability in the first place? Since we find disparate notions in Scripture in this regard, God has given us the capacity for natural theology to buttress our understanding. What is the natural theological method that leads one to think God can change? Should we think such a method is sound and systematically coherent? If not, then why should we trust the outputs? 

When we think about God, we must humble ourselves. This can very difficult for us as prideful and puffed up people. I think that the proper humility demands our acquiescence to the divine mystery. God, in His Essence, is not comprehensively knowable by us. This is ok! It is good for us to grow in our knowledge of Him as we eternally enjoy Him. We will never, we can never, plumb the depths of God.