The Irrationalism of Rational Thought

Can someone who rejects God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture be consistently rational? Cornelius Van Til, a 20th century Christian apologist and theologian, frequently demonstrated the inherent irrationalism of all non-Biblical worldviews. One of his students, John Frame, has applied this insight to many of the major philosophical thinkers and movements of western civilization, showing how at the heart of their attempts to be rational lies irrationalism (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology). If Christianity is right in claiming that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, this makes sense: if this world is created, administrated, and interpreted by an all-knowing and ever-present Creator, every truth and correct interpretation of the world will have reference to Him. Without Yahweh as a reference point, consistency would be impossible, thus the irrationalism at the heart of all our attempts to be rational. Here I want to outline how this insight applies to the two forms of reasoning we all regularly use, inductive reasoning (concluding truths or hypothesis from observed data) and deductive reasoning (the use of deductive logic, e.g., all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal).

 

Inductive reasoning can give no certainty within an open or unknown system: only exhaustive knowledge allows the possibility of true knowledge. In its pure form, it is inherently contradictory in this sense. To assert knowledge of anything, an inductivist must assume that he knows everything—that all the data is available to him. For example, any theory works from the known data and theorizes, giving predications, but can be contradicted by any fact. If I theorize the impossibility of a resurrection, the occurrence of a resurrection demands reconsideration of all the facts that led to that conclusion. If the universe is to a great extent unexplored, then there is a wealth of unknown data that could contradict any inductively based belief—it only takes one case of an effect not following a cause to cast doubt on all causality (tradition teaches that John the Revelator survived being placed in boiling oil: the effect should have been death, what other effects should we then doubt?). An inductivist (e.g., empiricist) desiring to live rationally must first, then, irrationally disregard all possibly contradictory data, such as miracles (which is to argue in a circle).  Furthermore, to provide any knowledge, inductive reasoning must be built on a foundation, with deductive reasoning, of certainty. Only certain knowledge, a solid foundation, grounds the possibility of inductive reasoning or deductive logic. Inductive reasoning relies upon the certainty of extra mental existence, causality, individual existence, trustworthy senses, and the correspondence between mental impression and extra-mental being.  All inductive reasoning relies on the certainty of these truths, yet cannot establish them.

Deductive reasoning requires the truth of at least initial premises (via either innate knowledge or inductive verification) and the validity of logic—which presumes a whole worldview necessary to support it (mind, rationality, consistency). The certainty of the initial premises, as with inductive reasoning, presumes upon exhaustive knowledge—that there is nothing that could possibly disprove or provide an exemption to the premise. Is unbiblical reasoning, therefore, really rational? To gain knowledge through reason, the unbiblical worldview first assumes without a reason a rational universe, causality, the existence of others, the existence of self, and the correspondence between thought and reality, and then it postulates a naturalistic open system—no one has exhaustive knowledge, there is no transcendent being—and thus destroys the very possibility of useable knowledge.

 

Consider two examples, David Hume and Descartes. The most consistent of empiricists, David Hume has had a profound influence lasting far beyond his death. Yet, even Hume could not provide a rationally satisfactory system of thought. To make his radical empiricism work, Hume had to postulate so-called ‘natural beliefs.’ Natural beliefs are those beliefs that man cannot deny and therefore he is not obligated to deny even if he is lacking any proof. These then become the foundational beliefs by which his empiricism functions. To qualify as such, a belief must be undeniable: examples are the existence of self and others and the reliability of perceptions. He defends these as ‘natural beliefs’ because they cannot be demonstrated in any way. So, those beliefs most foundational to Hume’s epistemology—to human experience—are rationally unfounded, without any support.[1] The center, then, of Hume’s attempt at rational thought, his empiricism, is pure irrationalism—beliefs that must be assumed without any evidence. Even his criterion for natural beliefs is arbitrary: how does one know, on an empiricist system, that such beliefs are universal, undeniable? what sense impression supports this universal negative? what experience does Hume have of universal belief? Furthermore, what sense impression leads to the postulation of this criterion?

Descartes, on the other hand, attempts to establish all truth through deductive reasoning. Yet, he runs into very similar problems. His primary axiom, that belief from which he deduces all else is “I think therefore I am.” Here he finds certainty in the immediate, undeniable, impression of self-existence. He then attempts to prove from this starting point of self-existence the existence of God and, from there, everything else. Yet to move beyond the self, Descartes had to introduce irrationalism into his system. His reasoning for God rests upon deductive logic, presuming on the existence and validity of reason, and knowledge of all the terms within his syllogism (what does ‘god’ mean? where does he learn this meaning? what do ‘is,’ ‘exists,’ and ‘self’ mean?). These are unprovable assumptions: Descartes had to assume they were valid before he could engage in any reasoning, before he could come to any conclusion beyond his own self-existence. The irrationalism at the heart of his attempt is even clearer when one examines just what his famous cogito—“I think therefore I am”—achieves. “I” and “am” here have no definite value, and can have no definite value on Descartes epistemology. He claims to have established as a certain principle the existence of self, yet he is unable to explain what self is. There is the undeniable impression of thought, of self-awareness, but whether this is the self-awareness of a bee, a computer program, a robot, a human being, or a black hole is unknowable. The self he has proved is, without the knowledge of anything else, a hopeless postulate: what good does it do to know that ‘the self’ exists, with no knowledge of what that means or the ability to prove anything beyond “I am.” Rationalism, with Descartes, yields only hopeless irrationalism—the knowledge of bare self or the irrational assumption of reason and exhaustive knowledge necessary to deductively prove with certainty any other truth.[2]


[1] Knowledge must be able to be traced back to sense impression: none of these ideas can be traced back to such impressions, so they cannot be knowledge.

[2] Thanks to James Hooks for a helpful discussion and clarification on Decartes argument.

Unless You Believed in Vain

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses false teaching in the Corinthian church and challenges the church on their doubt concerning the resurrection: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17). Yet, those who proffer this passage to substantiate the necessity of history for faith fail to see that this same passage—and a plethora of others—demand the same conclusion concerning Scripture. That is, I believe Paul would contend that if Scripture is not God’s Word—and thus trustworthy, inerrant, and authoritative—our faith is in vain. That is a bold claim, but it seems to me to be necessary.

Why doesn’t Paul say this? For Paul, and for the New Testament Church (and the Jews in fact), the doctrine of Scripture was never at stake—the binding authority of God’s revelation was not in doubt: what was in doubt, at various times, was the interpretation of the Old Testament (Paul’s debates with the Jews) or the authenticity of Paul’s preaching as God’s revelation (is Paul a genuine apostle?). In this passage, Paul combats the rejection of a future resurrection with three arguments, all appeals to the message he has preached. First, he begins by asking how they can doubt the future resurrection if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead—he points out the contradiction between this belief they are toying with and the preaching they received. He then brings out further the problem here in two ways: the ministry of Paul and the faith of the people are both at stake if this is true. The risen Christ is the essence of Paul’s preaching: if there is no resurrection, Jesus has not been raised and his preaching is futile (14). This of course brings out a bigger problem: if Christ has not been raised, then their faith futile, they are still in their sins—the message offering salvation is bogus.

 

What does this have to do with Scripture? The New Testament Scriptures are the content of the teaching and preaching of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles. It is, for us, the equivalent of the preaching that the Corinthians’ doubt calls into question. We could then deduce that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, the teaching of Scripture is futile: this is attested in our context. All Scripture concerns Jesus and the Gospel, and he was raised “in accordance with the Scriptures” (4): if He was not raised, than the Old Testament was wrong, the message of Scripture is wrong. What is the point of a book that testifies to reconciliation to and enjoyment of God through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God who was never actually raised? So if Christ was not raised from the dead, we can say that Scripture is futile—it fails to testify to the truth and cannot achieve its goals. But I would contend, and believe Paul would as well, that this goes the other way around as well.

What would happen if Scripture could be broken (contra John 10:35)? What would that say about our faith and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? What if Scripture was not authoritative, trustworthy, or inerrant? (If this is in doubt, read the appendix The Co-inherence of Authority, Trustworthiness, and Inerrancy.) Authority, Trustworthiness, and Inerrancy are all interrelated—what is authoritative must be trustworthy and inerrant, what is inerrant is implicitly authoritative on whatever it speaks; if it is trustworthy it has authority and is free from error. What does this have to do with 1 Corinthians 15? I contend that if Scripture is not authoritative, trustworthy, and inerrant, your faith is futile. How do we get here from what Paul is saying? His whole point rests not on the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that Jesus was raised from the dead and that this has the utmost significance. Stay with me here; it matters that Christ was raised, not Lazarus. Paul cannot make this same point by arguing “if Lazarus was not raised from the dead….” This is obvious, but this means that the significance of Christ’s death was not merely the historical fact that a man was raised from the dead, not even that a man named Jesus was raised from the dead. The significance of the resurrection was that the Christ was crucified for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead in accordance with Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The Corinthian’s belief that there is no future resurrection was so dangerous because it threatened to utterly destroy the Gospel (3-11) and the hope that believers have because of that Gospel (20-49). Their rejection of the final resurrection called into question the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, if it did not happen, would undermine the entire Christian faith. The falsity of this fact would destroy the Christian faith because of the meaning it carries, meaning given to it only by Scripture.

If we were told that Jesus was raised from the dead, yet were not told that He was the eternal son of God incarnate, what good would this do for us: if the resurrection of Lazarus is not the point on which our faith stands our falls, why would the resurrection of this unexplained Jesus be any different? If we were not told that He was crucified for our sins and that His resurrection was for our justification—that He died and was raised for our sins—His resurrection would not mean much, would it? The resurrection is so important because “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The resurrection is so important because if Christ was not raised, there would be no final resurrection—of which His resurrection was the first fruit—and all the trials Christians go through in this life would be meaningless (1 Cor. 15:19-23). If we did not know from the Old Testament who God was, and what He demanded from His creation, there would be no reason for the salvation Christ’s resurrection ensured. We could go on and on and on: every point of the Christian faith feeds into our understanding of the resurrection, our interpretation of it. If we did not have this teaching, this pattern of doctrine, as taught in Scripture, then the resurrection would be meaningless!

 

Historical facts need an interpretation to be meaningful, for their significance to be known: Christ’s resurrection was first interpreted by Him to His apostles, and then—by the Holy Spirit—the apostles interpreted it for God’s people. This all important interpretation of the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is only found in Scripture.[1] What, then, is the point of this? If Christ was not raised from the dead, after having died for our sins, and so ensured for us a right verdict before God, ushered in the new creation, and defeated death itself, then our faith would be in vain. But how, in the first place, do we know Christ was raised from the dead? In the end, the truth of the resurrection relies on Scripture: Scripture gives us God’s testimony to it, along with the written testimony of the eyewitnesses and their attestation to other witnesses (e.g., 1 Cor. 15).  All our historical arguments, those seeking to validate these claims on modern criteria, rely on this data. If Scripture were not a trustworthy witness, then we would have no reason to suspect that Jesus was historically raised from the dead (the historical arguments rely on demonstrating, on modern criteria, the trustworthiness of the witnesses recorded by Scripture).

Most importantly, the all-important interpretation of the resurrection relies on Scripture being a trustworthy interpreter. We are given God’s interpretation of a historical fact: if God’s word elsewhere admits error, how can we have the utmost certainty required to found our hope here? One may argue, of course, that though Scripture is true here, it is not necessarily true everywhere—what is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. Yet, if all of Scripture is God’s word, and various parts are in error, this at least admits that the whole is not inerrant—with no guarantee as to which parts are not. On these grounds, our historical arguments cannot just substantiate further what is already attested to with unfailing authority, but have the sole responsibility of proving the resurrection as a fact—the burden of proof falls fully on these arguments. This follows for all of Scripture: if one part can be in error, than it is no longer a self-authenticating authority, all its parts are subject to testing against known authorities. This makes human reason the ultimate subjective measure of truth—what is true is what I can determine with my mind to be true. On these grounds, the more Scripture is “shown” to be in error, the less weight its own testimony would carry. If the word of the Creator requires at every point the authentication of the creature, one would begin to question whether what they had was actually the word of the Creator: “12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things” (John 3:12)? When it comes to something, like the interpretation of the resurrection—where direct external verification is impossible—what foundation do we have for certainty? The only way to trust that this interpretation is correct is to argue that the whole of Scripture is trustworthy, authoritative, and inerrant, therefore each part is so. If the parts may err, then we have no possibility of certainty here, where it matters most. If we doubt Jesus on the earthly, testable facts, how can we not help but doubt Him on the heavenly, unverifiable facts? What becomes of God’s authority if it is subject to the authority of His creation? Where else will we turn to authenticate our interpretation of the resurrection? There is nowhere else to turn. If we cannot trust Him about earthly things, how can we be sure He speaks with truth about heavenly things?

 

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sin. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:17-18). Everything rests on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because of what it means—what He has accomplished through it. If Scripture is not authoritative, trustworthy, and inerrant, then there is no hope to know for sure the meaning of the resurrection, even if we can convince ourselves that it happened. Therefore, I would argue, “If Scripture is not the Inspired Word of God, with the authority and trustworthiness implied therein, our faith is futile.” If I cannot trust Scripture on its own God-derived authority, if it must answer to the authority of autonomous human reason as it wrestles with experience and raw data, if it requires external verification, how sure is my foundation? Every new discovery may, then, call into question my foundational beliefs, the source of my hope, the assurance of resurrection life. Can I really know without a doubt, on such a foundation, that I will stand before God in the Day of Judgment justified by my faith in Jesus Christ?


[1] What about tradition? Tradition is built on the foundation of Scripture—confessedly turns to it for authority and derives its teachings (however imperfectly) therefrom. If the foundation is removed, then this interpretation follows its source.

TOWARDS AN EVANGELICAL HERMENEUTIC: A CRITIQUE OF THE CHICAGO STATEMENT ON HERMEUTICS (1982)

I recently posted another one of my papers on Academia.edu:

In this paper, the I engage with the articles of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics to show where the statement makes positive contributions to a viable Evangelical hermeneutic and where its formulations need to be refined. The paper was written for a class on Hermeneutics and Criticism at Regent College, limiting the disscussion in varius areas an necessitating interaction with a specific body of sources.

You can download or read it here

Reflections on Scripture

A few years ago, I came across an article from a pastor in the States decrying evangelical Christians as bibliolaters, that is, he suggested that our talk of “inerrancy” and “authority” turned us away from God to the writings of man. For him, it was okay to speak of encountering God in the Bible, but to suggest that the Bible in any substantial way embodied God’s authority was idolatry! Today, in a book by a supposedly Evangelical author, I read that it is not necessary to believe that the Bible is inerrant, that what it records corresponds to reality and does not contain error; if we affirm that the resurrection happened, we are good. What is going on here? Is our doctrine of the Word of God really idolatrous? Is confessing the Scriptures as God’s authoritative revelation unnecessary for the Christian—really just damaging fundamentalism? I suspect—actually, on the authority of the God’s Word, I know—that there is some false teaching floating about.

The suggestion that confessing the Bible to be God’s errorless and authoritative words for us equals idolatry is ridiculous. Picture with me a feudal kingdom; a king rules over all the local villages and they owe him their allegiance. In a world before TV, the king’s orders would go out by heralds and letters; if the king’s subjects received a letter from their king and rejected it—claiming that because it wasn’t spoken by him in their presence it cannot be free from error nor authoritative—, how do you think the king would respond? He would surely slaughter them. In the Old Testament, God’s people—from the peasants to the kings—repeatedly rejected God’s word spoken by His messengers; what was His response? He brought upon them drought, famine, destruction, and exile. By any reckoning, we don’t give the Word of God the attention and pride of place that it deserves. If it is God’s very words, then it will, of course, be inerrant—for He is completely true (cf. Psalm 31:5, John 17:17, Psalm 119:160, 2 Sam. 7:28). If Scripture is breathed out from God’s mouth, i.e. spoken by Him (2 Tim. 3:16), then surely it carries authority—because my bosses words have left his mouth, should I disobey them, what if they come in an email? In Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, a chapter dedicated to the Word of God, God speaks through the Psalmist about Scripture in a way that reveals how we fail to give Scripture the honor due it.

24Your testimonies are my delight,
They are my counselors
25My soul clings to the dust;
give me life according to your word!

37Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.

40Behold, I long for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life!

43And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,
for my hope is in your rules

47For I find my delight in your commandments which I love
48I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love,
and I will meditate on your statutes.

57The LORD is my portion
I promise to keep your words

62At midnight I rise to praise you,
because of your righteous rules.

92If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.

105Your word is a lamp unto my feet
And a light to my path.

143Trouble and anguish have found me out,
But your commandments are my delight.

160The sum of your word is truth,
And every one of your righteous rules endures forever.
161Princes persecute me without cause,
but my heart stands in awe of your words.
162I rejoice at your word
like one who finds great spoil.

172Let my tongue sing of Your word,
For all Your commandments are righteousness.

174I long for Your salvation, O LORD,
And Your law is my delight.

Then there is Psalm 56,

3When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
4In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?

Far from idolatry, Evangelicals often neglect the weight God places on His own words; may it not be so for us.

Things you never hear about the Puritans; they really valued a wife

Some quotes by the Puritans on marriage and a wife:

“The wife is ordained for man: like a little Zoar, a city of refuge to fly to in all his troubles: and there is no peace comparable unto her but the peace of conscience.”

“Women are creatures without which there is no comfortable Living for man…. They are a sort of Blasphemers then who despise and decry them, and call them a necessary Evil, for they are a necessary Good.”

“There is no society more near, more entire, more needful, more kindly, more delightful, more comfortable, more constant, more continual, than the society of man and wife, the main root, source, and original of all other societies.”

“A good wife being… The best Companion in Wealth; The fittest and readiest Assistant in worke; The greatest comfort in crosses and griefes;… And the greatest Grace and Honour that can be, to him that hath her.”

“It is a mercy to have a faithful friend that loveth you entirely…to whom you may open your mind and communicate your affairs…. And it is a mercy to have so near a friend to be a helper to your soul and…to stir up in you the grace of God.”

“God the first Institutor of marriage, gave the wife unto the husband, to bee, not his servant, but his helper, counsellor and comforter.”

All quoted in A Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer (1990); page  262

“Consider what …

“Consider what ways, what companies, what opportunities, what studies, what business, what conditions, have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to your distempers, and set yourself heedfully against them all. Men will do this with respect unto their bodily infirmities and distempers. The seasons, the diet, the air that have proved offensive shall be avoided. Are the things of the soul of less importance? Know that he that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin.”
– John Owen