Saturday, June 04, 2011

Which God?

Suppose Anselm's ontological argument worked.  Suppose it could be demonstrated, using nothing but commonly available logic, that there must exist a being greater than which nothing could be thought - and that we agreed that this is the being which all call 'God'.  Suppose - and a valid ontological argument would yield this result - the existence of such a being were shown to be necessary.

Is this the God of the Bible?

We could ask, is the being described to be identified with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Is the being described that same being which is revealed by Jesus Christ?

Let me sharpen it up a little.  Suppose we accept that the God we know from Scripture - the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ, and who makes himself known to us in the testimony of the prophets and apostles - could be described as the most perfect being imaginable.  Would the converse be true?  Could the most perfect being imaginable be described as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

I believe the answer is firmly 'no'.  In fact, the two 'Gods' being spoken of here have nothing in common.  The God of the ontological argument is perfect - but what does this mean in the abstract?  Would it include dying in agony on a cross under the curse of God?  Could it mean that?  When we start from Christ, and then say that God is perfect, that word has content - and the content is Jesus.  (Which is just to say, that word is the Word).  But if we start from the 'God' of the ontological argument, we start from an empty being - an abstraction, a general and not a particular god - not God.

We are not, then, dealing with another source of knowledge of God which could be coordinated with Jesus Christ; we are dealing with an idol.  And the same could be said of any purported knowledge of God apart from Christ.  (This could even be said of knowledge derived from Scripture!  John 5:39, in context).

Might not this flight into the abstract and general god be the last defence of humanity against the actual God - the God who interferes with my life and my rule over my own world?  Might not theism be the last line of defence against Christ?


  1. Dan, I'm going to have to dare to disagree. Although I suspect I'm foolish to do so.

    Firstly, and least importantly, if I remember correctly Anselm does identify the end point of his ontological argument with the Trinity, and then through Cur Deus Homo works through to the cross. All by pure reason! You may disagree with his logic, but he believes you can do it.

    More importantly, I think Barth's argument (which, correct me if I'm wrong, I see you leaning heavily on), is partly right and partly wrong. It is a mistake to think that classic natural theology and Barth's approach are the only choices. I believe that the Lutheran critiques hold true and that a proper distinction and ordering of law and Gospel, lead to a third way you may wish to explore. Combining the strengths of both classic natural theology and Barth, but keeping the surprise of the Gospel, affirming common grace, and taking the focus off us and our knowledge and shifting it to God and his acts.

    So much more could be said but I don't have the knowledge or the time. I don't have anywhere I can particularly point you towards either, as I only know fragments.

    You could try Wingren (e.g. this article). Or best of all read some wonderful Oswald Bayer - you'd love him (although natural theology is not one of his main subjects).

    Alt I'm got a few very fragmentary thoughts/quotes on my blog: here, here, here and here.

  2. Hi Dan, thought you might enjoy this.

  3. Dave,

    Thanks for the comment. I think I can despatch the lesser of your two points fairly swiftly - I should probably have added a qualifier to the original post, to the effect that I don't think Anselm is doing what he has usually been interpreted as doing in the Proslogion. That is to say, I don't think he's doing natural theology at all. The main clue is that the whole work is framed as a prayer. Faith seeking understanding, and all that. So I actually don't think the great man himself is using his ontological argument this way, and my critique isn't really directed at him.

    Although his argument still doesn't work.

    On the more important point, I don't think I can offer any apologies. I think Luther is wrong about law and gospel, or at least I think he barely sees the main role that law plays in Scripture. This deserves a post in itself, and I may write that post some day. But it's great to underline the connection between soteriology and epistemology here; how we think in one area should affect the way we think in the other. I'll need to explore a little more (I'm not very familiar with much post-Luther Lutheranism; wherever I have encountered it, I come away feeling decidedly Reformed!), so thanks for the pointers.

    I would say, I don't think you can combine the best of natural theology and the best of Barth - they don't start at the same point, and the don't go in the same direction. If natural theology is possible, we have to ditch Barth. Obviously, that would be okay *if* natural theology were possible... But, at the end of the day, nein.

  4. Michael,

    This is basically Plantinga, isn't it? I seem to remember reading it a while back. I think this version of the argument is still just 'defining something into existence', and I just don't think that works. I also take issue with the use of 'possible worlds' - despite the claims made, I think the argument slides between seeing these as purely argumentative constructs and real existences. Moreover, I'm not sure we can postulate 'possible worlds' containing or not containing God - I just don't think God can be ranged with other things in this way. Finally, to say that a maximally great being must be loving and therefore multipersonal is just to define greatness in a contentious way.

    I suppose the biggest issues, though, would be: can this maximally great being be identified with the God of the Bible? Not convinced, myself - or at least, if it was, it would be an arbitrary move. And secondly, if such an argument works, why is there not even a sniff of it in Scripture?

  5. Just musing on your last comment, Dan. Defining something into existence is the realm of mathematics, not theology (though pure mathematicians are not so concerned with 'existence'). There is a place for playing with abstract concepts, and it actually relies on there being a correspondence between our way of thinking (what is logical, consistent, reasoned, beautiful) and how the world works. Thus the pure mathmo plays around with what he thinks of as 'invented' concepts, and later it is 'discovered' that those concepts appear in, or describe, natural or man-made systems, so are useful in ruling the world fruitfully. So we are used to the idea that 'defining concepts into existence' works - all because our minds reflect the Logos who made the universe.

    So although our reason reflects Christ in its very working, we shouldn't expect to be able to use human logic to define the Logos into existence, because use of our logic assumes our conclusion from its very beginning.

    Or to think mathematically, if we intend to argue that our consistent system is incomplete without God, we cannot prove it from within the system. You give the theological fail - I'll give the logical fail.

    Secondarily, and experientially, I've never been convinced by the argument because it doesn't work universally, and to my mind, all true theology should be universal. So to assume that existence is better than non-existence would be strongly contested by our Buddhist friends: it strikes me as a Western Modern sort of assumption. But there may be a place for appealing to the truth people are suppressing - more focussed on desires and how we live inconsistently with our confessions of unbelief, than on logical persuasion from shared assumptions. But this appeal would come from (assume, proclaim) the nature of God as revealed in Christ.

  6. "But this appeal would come from (assume, proclaim) the nature of God as revealed in Christ."

    Right, and as soon as that is there I'm happy.

    Interesting point about assuming existence is good - I wonder whether that isn't a Christian presupposition that's been left behind in the Western mindset. In fact, natural theology as a whole probably only appeals to that mindset (in so far as it still has any appeal) - and I wonder whether that isn't just because it is a poor echo of the Christianity which still lurks at the edges of our culture.

    But anyway, revelation. Hurrah!

  7. Dan, thanks for your response.
    Keep in mind that I'm not necessarily an advocate of the onto, or even of natural theology, I'm just exploring the arguments at this point!
    I don't think it's fair to say that this is just defining God into existence, it's more of a move from possibility to necessity. A necessary being exists in all possible worlds, so if it is possible for it to exist, then it must exist. This is then applied to the Greatest Conceivable Being.

    Whilst it might not be intrinsically wedded to the God of the Bible, surely it does point people to the God of the Bible.
    For example, if someone asks me why I'm a Christian, I say because of Jesus. He is the divine Son of God and he proved it by rising from death.
    When the sceptic asks for evidence for that and I give it (Peter's sermon in acts 2 takes a similar approach, 'We are all witnesses of it'), the sceptic's response is all to familiar. "I have never seen any evidence for a divine being's existence. As a result, the chances of Jesus resurrecting after death are so minuscule that it would literally be more rational to believe ANY naturalistic hypothesis, no matter absurd it might seem, than it would be to believe that a man was risen from the dead."
    To that person, could we not say that, "Well we have good reasons for believing in God. Fine-tuning of the universe, the existence of objective good and evil, argument from contingency, cosmological argument, onto etc" Given those arguments and background information, the resurrection becomes much more plausible and provides strong evidence for the God of the Bible. Once the person then accepts Christ with these stumbling blocks removed, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit becomes a self-authenticating confirmation of the fact of Jesus rising from the dead.

    Equally, if I say I am a Christian because God has revealed himself to me in the Bible, then a sceptic will say that it is so intrinsically implausible for numerous different reasons that a divine being exists at all that there is no way they could believe that it is therefore inspired by a divine being. From there you can show there are good reasons for believing that a divine being exists with all the necessary characteristics, which render Bible being God's word much more probable. With the obstacle out the way, the sceptic can now read the scriptures and have God reveal himself to them through his word, which then- again- becomes a self-authenticating transformation.

    So I guess the argument would be, yes you cannot come to know God (as 'know' in genesis 4:1) through natural theology, but you can know that he exists from looking at the world, otherwise Psalm 19:1 would false surely? And proponents would argue that whilst it is very limited, it does help to remove intellectual obstacles for sceptics. So, they'd argue, whilst special revelation absolutely is the only way we can KNOW God, it's not the only way we can know ABOUT God. For that, God also uses general revelation.

    What would you say to that? I realise that was pretty long-winded so I apologise about that ;P
    So do you take a pressupositionalist views or a fideist view?

  8. Typooos.
    * Presuppositionalist view

  9. Hi Dan,

    I gathered some quotes and thoughts for you.

    The role of the law, and indeed your definition of the law is of course fundamental. Barth's reversing of the order of law and Gospel is a key indicator that he is seeing theology very differently from Luther (or a lot of the Reformed).

    You say "I don't think you can combine the best of natural theology and the best of Barth - they don't start at the same point, and the don't go in the same direction." and I think that is important. But why then decide that you need to chuck one of the other?

    Death and life, law and Gospel do point in very different directions but we find that actually they relate and have a storied relationship of different priorities, and so we believe (although we cannot understand) that they come together in Christ, God and the future.

    Its hard to express because I don't really know my onions enough, but I hope you get some of my drift.

  10. Also just noticed a comment you made on Luther and law/gospel.
    Would definitely be interested to hear your thoughts on that, as well as where I could read a good critique of Luther's position.
    Glen over at CTT was explaining some of what he thought about it a few days ago, even to the point of saying Pursuit of Holiness by Bridges advocated a kind of 'legalism'.
    Certainly opened my eyes to the Luther-type perspective, can't say I buy it though.
    Anything that seems to say, "You know as Christians, we should be trying to obey God's commands" is apparently legalistic. I've always thought legalism was more to do with justification being on the basis of law rather than grace, not about making any positive statements about God's commands whatsoever.

  11. Michael,

    Have a flick through some other stuff I've written about natural theology. Essentially, I don't think any of the philosophical arguments for God work, and more importantly I note that none of them was of sufficient centrality to the faith to make it into Holy Scripture... I'm not a presup, and I don't think I'm a fideist, although many will feel that the latter especially accurately describes my position. Essentially, I think the gospel is God's apologetic, and Jesus is God's evidence - and I'm happy to go along with just that.

    (I've not written particularly about Psalm 19, but other passages often cited as including a natural theology are dealt with here and here. As you can, it's something of a hobby horse of mine).

    On the law/gospel stuff, I probably will write something shortly. Watch this space.

  12. Dave,

    To say that Barth reverses the order of law and gospel is somewhat to beg the question, wouldn't you say? Thanks for the link, I'll investigate when I have five minutes. I am planning to outline some of my own thoughts on the subject in the near future - look forward to further interaction...

  13. Fair cop, I suppose I did beg the question.

    I'll look forward to your thoughts.

  14. Thanks for your response, Daniel. I will read through all of those and have a good think!

    One superficial concern I would have is that I'm not sure I know of many theologians in church history or at the moment who hold to the same view. Do you align yourself with any particular theologian/camp on this issue?
    And therefore are all the people who do try and give reasons/arguments for why they believe, evidence for the resurrection etc, completely wrong for doing so, with only this one view the correct one? Or would you just say that such are not particularly useful?

    I guess the main thing I would say is that the Holy Spirit uses means. Ultimately even explaining the Gospel to someone does nothing unless the Holy Spirit is removing the scales from their eyes. And I think it would be disingenuous to say that all of those who came to faith by first hearing the rationality of it (one example being McGrath) are all deluded (though I don't think you'd quite say that anyway). Just as loving each other is one way for people to come to know about God (john 13), isn't it the case that the Holy Spirit can also use our reasons (1 peter 3:15) to draw people to God?
    Ultimately, faith comes only from hearing the Gospel yes, but in order to get to that point I would argue (at this point anyway) that the Holy Spirit uses many means. As Greg Koukl says, without the Spirit nothing works, but with the Spirit many things work.

    But as I said, I am genuinely open to changing my mind!

  15. Michael,

    A few comments: I think evidence for the resurrection is a whole different thing to natural theology - I'd embrace what N.T. Wright is doing in his huge book on that subject, for example. The chief difference is that we're talking in this instance about God's work in history, and therefore necessarily about the real, revealed God.

    On the theologians thing, pop down to the theology faculty library and have a skim through Karl Barth's little book 'Natural Theology' to see roughly where I'm coming from.

    On means: yes, but what sort of means are described in Scripture?

    And finally, God is very gracious. When I look at some of the motives and arguments which finally drove me to embrace the gospel, I think many of them were deeply flawed. I'm grateful that this doesn't have to invalidate my deep sense at the time that God was working through these things! But the fact that God graciously works through many things doesn't relieve us of the responsibility to carefully listen to him about the right and normative source of true knowledge of God, which is what I'm trying to do here.

    More to be said, I'm sure - it's a debate which has been going on for ages, and I don't suppose we'll resolve it here...

  16. Haha yes I guess you're right about that; sorry for my elementary objections. I have never read Barth to be honest so I'm quite ignorant when it comes to that. I appreciate your comments, that clears things up a little bit more.
    Random q- is it just me or do Brits seems to talk about Barth a lot more than American theologians and bloggers do? Conservative reformed people in the U.S. have the puritans and the reformers as their biggest influencers outside the Bible but I rarely ever hear a mention of Barth from them.
    But as I said, I'm way out of my depth on this one so I'm just gonna have to check him out over the summer.

    Might come back again when I do so and fire some more questions if that's ok!