28 June 2011

(Less) tersely put: omniscience and certainty revisited

by Dan Phillips

In crafting my maiden-voyage post for this series, I had a number of things in mind. Some ended up reading my mind (poor souls) pretty well, while other nascent thoughts were left on the dusty shelves. To save you a click, here it was:
To profess certainty, non-Christians must feign omniscience.

Christians begin with the confession that they (1) do not possess omniscience, but (2) are by grace confidants of the only one who does possess it.

Thus Christians alone not only can be, but are obliged to be, humbly certain.
The first thought touches on what I might call the "Far Side of Neptune" argument.

Just think of all the "scientific" theories in all of human history that have died horrible deaths in the light of new discoveries. The positions were always held with great confidence right up to the moment they had to be abandoned...and sometimes even afterwards. One new fact, or one new set of facts, provoked a paradigm-shift, however eventual and reluctant.

So, how many facts are there, in the universe, total? More than ten? More than a trillion? More than ten decazillion, cubed? Of course, we could never even guess the number — let alone their nature — of all facts.

That being the case, who can say with certitude that one fact, existing only ten miles under the surface of the far side of Neptune, and only within an eight-inch radius, would not change everything we think we know about... any given subject? One can scoff, he can dismiss, he can bluff... but he can't answer that question. He cannot honestly say that he knows for a certainty, one way or the other, that some fact not yet in evidence would not constitute a transformative, revolutionary revelation.

Yet nobody lives with such uncertainties. Nobody speaks exclusively in the subjective mood. We love the indicative, even more than we should.

So we announce that (say) evolution is an undeniable fact, that the world is X-zillion years old, that homosexuality is not a chosen behavior, that the unborn are not human, that this or that is right or wrong. We speak as if from a perspective of not only omniscience, but omnisapience; as if we both possessed and understood all facts... even though neither is true.

Yet someone has to keep pointing out the emperor's illusory garb: unless the speaker has an infinite grasp of both the identity and the meaning/significance of every last fact in the universe, he has no right to speak with certainty.

Yet the unbeliever regularly does so speak. He does not possess omniscience. He merely feigns it. His intent is to cow opposition (and quiet his own conscience [Rom. 1:18ff.]) by a show of bravado. As we have seen, the tactic often works in the short run.

A second idea lurked under the surface: "Thus Christians alone not only can be, but are obliged to be, humbly certain." The Christian, insofar as he actually practices the faith he professes, necessarily affirms the inerrancy of Scripture as the very word of God. In so doing, he claims to possess a revelation from the only one who actually does know and understand absolutely everything that exists, since He is the Creator of absolutely everything that  exists.

Ironically, however, there are those who (A) claim to be Christian, but (B) choose to feign uncertainty on unpopular issues where the Bible is pretty clear.

Return to the subject of homosexuality. The Bible really is univocal on that particular behavior (e.g. Rom. 1:26-28; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). As it is on wifely submission (e.g. Eph. 5:22, 24). Or the exclusivity of Christ and His Gospel (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). Or the reality of eternal conscious torment of the lost in Hell (Matt. 25:41, 46).

These are not murky penumbras, but clear doctrines. Not that a devoted opponent cannot fabricate some murk; it is axiomatic that great distance from the Word necessarily creates greater murkiness (Isa. 8:20). Any clear statement can be smudged... including this one. But the professed believer who adopts a pose of tentativeness on such issues is in the precise-reverse position of the unbeliever who adopts the pose of certitude.

Because (to allude to another terse post that could have been developed further), if God actually has spoken, everything changes.

In sum: the person who denies God's revelation is obliged to speak uncertainly about everything; the person who affirms God's revelation is obliged to speak certainly about some things (Amos 3:8; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29; 1 Cor. 9:16).

The strange thing is that one so often sees the exact reverse.

Dan Phillips's signature


SandMan said...

Without faith it is impossible to please God.
So, the one who has no faith in God displeases Him by declaring (with certainty) that God is untrue.
And the one who claims to have faith displeases God by refusing to declare (with certainty) that God is true.

Steve Drake said...

""Thus Christians alone not only can be, but are obliged to be, humbly certain"

Yes, Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended', The American Vision Press & Covenant Media Press, 2008, "what we must endeavor to do as apologists is to demonstrate that without Christian presuppositions there is no intelligible use of facts and logic; that human knowledge and interpretation fail instantly. We are contesting the grounds on which the skeptic stands, showing that only within the context of the Christian worldview could he know anything at all. We are arguing that the skeptic's epistemology and corresponding metaphysic not only prevent him from coming to Christ, but they prevent him (if held consistently) from coming to any knowledge whatsoever."

Robert said...

Good post. We should definitely stand firm where the Word of God makes things clear. The main problems I have seen Christians (including myself)struggling with are the fear of man, lack of Bible knowledge, and lack of faith. And these are areas where all people need growth and more maturity. I say all people because Christians and unbelievers both need this...including myself. I've started back at reading Institutes of the Christian Religion and exercising our faith is something that Calvin really hammers on a good bit. And for good reason...if we're Christians and have the assurances that God has laid out for us in the Bible, then we should be living for Him while putting all of our trust in Him. May God increase our faith and help us to stand firm in His Word.

donsands said...

Jesus of Nazerath surely did live, and was born 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. He was executed on a Roman cross. He then was buried, but 3 days later He rose from death.

I have had atheist friends agree right along with this, until we get to the "rose from the dead" part. Then they say, "That's impossible."

Then there are millions of people who say they believe Jesus rose from the dead, like I used to before I was born again. I believed it as a part of Catholicism. But I wasn't taking it seriously.
I do now. I hope I would die for this truth; the Gospel truth.

Thanks for a great post as usual. It's always good solid meat here at TeamPyro to makes us think and reflect, and hopefully grow in grace and understanding.

Scooter said...

I like this. Scientific theory is just that; humanity best attempt to understand some aspect of the universe. A good thing, yet when God is abandoned something must replace him as an object of worship. It's like human beings need something that they can point to with certainty.

One thing came to mind: Some of the people who speak with certainty about uncertain things remind me of spiritual charlatans. They need to mask their uncertainty with hype and zeal. "This new revelation/discovery will change everything about Christianity/science!"

DJP said...

Scooter, like this:

Man who knows 0000000000001% of what can be known, and misunderstands most of that: I think Theory A

God (who knows and understands all): Wrong. B is the way to go.

Man (etc.): nah, can't be that.

Scooter said...

Ahh, thanks Dan. I was getting off topic.

One of these days I'll make a useful contribution around here... :-)

Rob said...

If the Christian affirms God's revelation and is obliged to speak certainly about some things, then why is it seldom-to-never that pastors speak from the pulpit about God's revelation to the Apostle Paul in I Cor. 11 for women to wear head coverings, an instruction tied to the creation order?

Or does that obligation not qualify? God made this command clear - so why is a command like this routinely dodged?

Anonymous said...

Amen! Happy to see I'm not the only nut in the peanut gallery.

Maybe you'll find this as useful as I did... I quite frankly stumbled onto it a few years ago:



Once I get done digging through all the stuff I think I'm going to go find van till's stuff and see what all the spilled ink and angst is over..

Now if only the church would realize that they have the only sure grounds to speak from in the revelation and ACT like it...

Wamalo said...

Rob, that's definitely what Paul asserts. But then pastors should also tell men not to cover their heads when praying and to send all the young men in church to get a haircut. Perhaps you could specify how short it should be in order to adhere to 1 Cor 11:14.

word verification: imbut

Christopher said...

As a non-believer, I don't think that I know everything about the universe (if anything!). I do not claim that God does not exist, because that would require a degree of certainty. However, I think I can say that it is highly unlikely for His existence.

If anything, I think the belief in God requires a huge degree of certainty. Yet, this problem can never be addressed because it is shrouded in the concept of FAITH, which exists out of the domain of REASON or RATIONALITY.

I didn't come here to argue because it is simply IMPOSSIBLE to have any substantial conversation about faith (which is the whole point of it anyways). I just find it interesting when I find Christians who seek to ridicule atheists for their intellectual arrogance. I'm not trying to say that Atheists are not arrogant, but rather we should teach them how to use Faith appropriately.

Just imagine:

Christian: How can you possibly deny the existence of God with so much certainty?

Atheist: Well, I simply must have Faith that God does not exist.

Mike Riccardi said...

The problem with your conception of faith, Christopher, is that you can't seem to allow for the category of a reasonable faith. Rather, you conflate "reasonable" and "rationalistic."

I'd venture to guess that many of my brethren here agree, as I do, with Jonathan Edwards when he says that faith must be grounded upon a reasonable conviction. He explains, "By a reasonable conviction I mean a conviction founded on real evidence, or upon that which is good reason, or just ground of conviction."

While this might surprise you, Christopher, (Biblical) Christians don't think we should simply blindly accept certain things and pat ourselves on the back for being "faithful." That's more a willful naivete than anything.

The question is, where does that "real evidence" come from? What qualifies as "real evidence"? The rationalist will demand that it accords with "reason" as defined by Enlightenment naturalism.

The Christian stands upon the reality that the Gospel itself as revealed in Scripture is its own self-authenticatingly glorious evidence. Edwards said, "The gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a begging for its evidence, so much as some think: it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself."

An absolutely holy God desires to communicate His glory to, and enjoy fellowship with, fallen, sinful, rebellious, undeserving men. And though He is under no obligation to do anything for them but bring upon them the just punishment that their offense deserves, in His love He sent Jesus to live the life you should have lived and to die the death that you will rightfully die. The penalty that sin demanded was paid by Christ, our substitute. God proved it by raising Him from the dead three days later. And if you trust in the merit of Christ's sacrifice alone for your acceptance before this holy God -- wonder of wonders! -- He'll accept you for His own Son's sake.

The glory of that reality is so compelling for those with eyes to see, that there is no more objectively compelling evidence conceivable for it.

Would you repent of your sin and turn to Christ?

Christopher said...

I think this notion of reasonable conviction/faith is problematic. In order to examine this issue, I think it is important distinguish what Martin Luther refered to as magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. Put simply, the magisterial use of reason occurs when reason reigns supreme over the gospel like a magistrate and judges it based on argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In addition, when a problem emerges between the witness of the Holy Spirit and any truth based in argument and evidence, then the ministerial use of reason mandates that the former (witness to the Holy Spirit) will take precedence over the latter (evidence).

This idea of the precedence of the ministerial use of reason is echoed through the field of Christain apologetics today including the work of John Piper. "Therefore, human reason -- the use of the mind to learn and explain and defend the facts of the gospel -- plays an indispensable but not the decisive role in the awakening and establishing of saving faith."

This value of "ministerial reason" is the fundamental difference between philosophical inquiry and Christian apologetics. However, the use of ministerial reason becomes problematic when it not only seeks to prove that one can rationally believe in Christianity, but also in its claim that it is irrational NOT to accept it. Since the magisterial use of reason is declared invalid, then it is impossible to use reason to convince Christians that their theology is wrong because using arguments and evidence will always be overruled by faith.

In accordance with the belief that the witness of the Holy Spirit is the existential trump card, it is impossible to avoid falling into relativistic subjectivism which refers to the idea that one faith is as good as any other. Chris Hallquist goes on to say that " if no arguments or evidence could ever (even in principle) persuade a Christian that his religious beliefs are false, then a Muslim or a Hindu could take a similar position vis-à-vis his religious beliefs. To avoid 'relativistic subjectivism,' it seems, all that a Christian can (and would) say is that Christianity is true and all other alternatives to it are false, pure and simple. There is nowhere for genuine dialogue between Christians and non-Christians about religious issues to go, it would seem."

So it seems as though, Mike, that while you assert that your belief is based in reason, the truth is that your faith alone is more than enough evidence for your Christian beliefs. I think you have to admit it is simply impossible for any skeptic to use reason to convince you that your theology (which includes your view of reason itself) is wrong. In other words, even if you realized all of your arguments for Christianity are unsound and there were clear rational objections to it, you must admit that your faith alone doesn't require any objective, compelling, or conceivable evidence for it.

The real point I'm trying to make is that even if you were presented with serious and compelling arguments against Christianity, you would nevertheless continue to accept those Christian beliefs.

DJP said...

Not the most disappointing meta ever, by far, but I clearly missed the target I was aiming for. Ah well, I get two whacks a week. I can always try again from another angle, DV.

And you know I will.

Mike Riccardi said...

That was actually one of the more cogent things an atheist has ever said to me in such a venue. So thanks for that.

But your conclusion simply states that you're confident I'll continue to refuse to accept your presuppositions and worldview, but instead subscribe to the one that corresponds to reality. It's true, but it's obvious.

Also, there's a difference between having faith in my faith and having faith in Christ. You seem to attribute to me/us the latter, but it's the former that's on target.

I don't think you've adequately dealt with what I said here:

"The question is, where does that 'real evidence' come from? What qualifies as 'real evidence'? The rationalist will demand that it accords with 'reason' as defined by Enlightenment naturalism.

The Christian stands upon the reality that the Gospel itself as revealed in Scripture is its own self-authenticatingly glorious evidence."

Mike Riccardi said...

Also, there's a difference between having faith in my faith and having faith in Christ. You seem to attribute to me/us the latter, but it's the former that's on target.

I'm an idiot. Mixed em up.

You seem to attribute to us the former: having faith in our faith. But it's the latter: our faith is in Christ.

trogdor said...

What is worse when it comes to clearly-revealed truth, to be squishy or to be silent?

Anonymous said...

"If anything, I think the belief in God requires a huge degree of certainty. Yet, this problem can never be addressed because it is shrouded in the concept of FAITH, which exists out of the domain of REASON or RATIONALITY."

Pardon, but reason and rationality stand upon faith; they are basic presuppositions which cannot be accepted on anything *but* faith.
It is not even possible to think coherently without faith, because in order to do so you must exercise logic (rationality, reason) - and logic cannot be proven.

It is irrational to try and condemn someone for exercising faith, especially when you yourself are basing your own beliefs upon faith.

What do Christians have faith in? We have faith in the inworking of the holy spirit that confirms that yes, Jesus as revealed in the bible only really did live and do all the things attributed to him in the bible, and thus we have faith in Jesus's work on our behalf alone for our salvation; and we also believe on the word of the third person of God that the bible is his word to mankind, without any error in what it teaches.

(yes, brothers, I suspect I got that somewhat out of order. But I think it gets the basic idea on the table)

Jim Pemberton said...

Most people are not so rational as they pretend to be. People who deny God do so with conviction because they must reassure themselves. Too many people who affirm God get wish-washy because they are not well-discipled and lack a measure of faith that would give them a greater boldness in their testimony.