B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Book Review: What Is The Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

Introduction
What is the gospel? Greg Gilbert provides an answer across eight brief chapters in his book entitled after that question. Writing for 9Marks Ministries, Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church. In this work he attempts to define the gospel as briefly, but still thoroughly, as possible.

Summary
The author begins with Scripture, foregoing a mere lexical word search on “gospel,” moving directly to the Pauline presentation of the gospel in Romans 1-4. This produces a gospel which can be reduced to (at bare minimum) four categories: God, man, Christ, response. While not all of these four categories need to be explicit in a gospel presentation (for the apostles’ teaching was never so formulaic or reductionistic), none can be completely absent either, without being less than the gospel of God.

These categories are briefly surveyed in the initial chapter then each receives further development and elaboration in its own ensuing chapter. God’s sovereign role as the righteous Creator is the fundamental building block for all of reality and for relationship to him. Man is created morally good, but rebels against God’s authority and sinfully severs the relationship between Creator and creature. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Jesus Christ the Savior is God incarnate and comes to endure penal substitutionary atonement in behalf of fallen, sinful humankind – suffering the penalty for our sin and exchanging it for the reward which his perfect obedience merited. This is grace, and humanity will respond to that grace in faith and repentance or in persistent sinful rebellion.

Three further chapters help to elaborate upon some of the implications of the gospel. Gilbert discusses the relationship between the gospel of the cross and the kingdom of Christ, showing that one’s response to the gospel is evidenced in one’s membership in the kingdom, particularly its current outpost in this world: the church. He then helpfully disambiguates several ideas which are often confused with the gospel and explains how the power of the gospel works in believers’ lives to produce obedience rather than license.

Critical Evaluation
In evaluating What is the Gospel? three strengths and three weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, as well as questions which may remain for readers upon completion of the book.

Strengths
This book presents much strength and will be useful in multiple teaching and witnessing contexts. Three strengths of this book include: condensed brevity, clear and helpful illustrations, and practical usefulness.

Condensed brevity. What is the Gospel? presents a brief, book-length argument for the centrality of the cross of Christ, with its many implications, as the beating heart of the gospel. The author does not merely cite a variety of biblical texts as proof for his theological conclusions, but persuasively, penetratingly argues for the incomparability of the cross of Christ. Eventually, language simply fails to supply adequate adjectives to fully describe the importance of the cross.

The initial four chapters effectively draw the reader in to the fundamental structures of the gospel. It would be difficult to remove any one of the four planks supporting Gilbert’s gospel presentation without losing an essential piece of the biblical portrayal of God in relationship with sinful man, saving us from his own wrath, and our necessary response to this good news.

The author clearly has strengths in distilling complex truths into simple (though not simplistic) language, developing helpful literary structures, from the sentence to the discourse level. He writes winsome, thought-provoking, evocative sentences which fit well within the entire discourse. It was a pleasure to follow such a focused, consistent argument on a single, vital subject.

Clear and helpful illustrations. The author has clearly studied and thought deeply on the subject of the gospel of Christ. Quotations and illustrations throughout the book were generally illuminating and strengthened the overall logic of the author’s arguments and their rhetorical force.

The illustrations also provided the sorts of strength which good stories and analogies always give: connection to the audience, practically and experientially relating sometimes abstract ideas to concrete realities, and providing food for further thought (not to mention being fun to read). Particularly enjoyable were the illustrations that many people view God as an “unscrupulous janitor” who merely sweeps sins under the carpet (42) and the idea that most people hold that human nature is basically pure, like perfect quartz covered in mud, rather than shot through with filth (54). The story of his son jumping into his arms at the pool (72) was also an apt analogy for his points on Christian living by faith.

Practical usefulness. The book is eminently readable and does not require a strong theological background to understand the points being discussed. Any issues raised are helpfully explained before being discussed, so the book does not require one to be a scholar in order to understand it. The book may often lead readers to worship the Lord after being reminded of the importance and the greatness of the gospel in fresh and vivid ways. It will also be a valuable resource for quotation in evangelistic sermon preparation and delivery. It is a book which will be useful to new believers, new church members, as well as the unconverted (I’ve given away a copy or two to unbelieving co-workers who expressed interest).

The most helpful section of the book may have been the discussion of “confusing sin with sins” (53-54). Oftentimes this can be an obstacle to someone’s understanding of the full-orbed teaching of the gospel regarding sin. The gospel doesn’t tell us “nobody’s perfect,” meaning that we all make mistakes but God loves us anyway. The gospel says we commit sins because we are sinners all the way down to our very nature and this state and behavior deserve the wrath of God.

Weaknesses
It is difficult to discern any truly problematic weaknesses in the actual content of this book. Gilbert’s presentation is spot-on in many ways. Given the helpfulness of its directness and overall brevity, I hesitate to critique the book simply for not including portions on certain subjects germane, though not central, to the definition of the gospel. However, I see no better alternative. Three weaknesses of this book include: very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel, no mention of baptism as part of human response, and very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. To reiterate, these are relatively minor criticisms in light of the overall helpfulness of this work.

Very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel. This point is understandably left at the level of implication, noting the scope of the book and publishing space limitations, etc. However, given our current context in the West it may have already become necessary to explain the difference between the gospel and religious moralism. Tim Keller has often raised this point in his teaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Too often the true gospel is mistakenly reduced to some merely religious effort at making people more moral in some way, shape or form (better parents, better students, better citizens, better sex lives, etc.). The gospel needs to be helpfully and clearly distinguished from these sorts of misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Gilbert does not explicitly do so, which may prove problematic for some readers.

No mention of baptism as part of human response. Again, this may not be a necessary point in a book which is intended to purely answer the question “what is the gospel?” However, baptism is one of the first faithfully obedient acts which a believer takes and is one of the most significant events in a gospel-believer’s life. It also deeply signifies and symbolizes the gospel as portrayed in the Scripture and as experienced by the believer. It is requisite for church membership, and one might have expected at least a sentence or two on the subject, possibly in the chapter on human response or on the kingdom of Christ.

However, given some of the on-going disagreements even among confessional Protestants regarding the subject (credobaptism vs. paedobaptism vs. Lutheran baptismal regeneration, etc.) and the historical controversies surrounding the subject (Catholic baptismal regeneration, Anabaptists, persecution of dissenters on the subject, etc.) it may have been too deep a topic to delve into without quickly getting in over one’s head (pun intended) and straying too far away from the subject under discussion, the gospel.

Very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. It may be easy for certain readers to understand Gilbert’s impulse to move immediately to the first section of a Pauline epistle when attempting to concisely, biblically define the gospel. However, he may be preaching to the choir with reference to such readers. There are four Gospels in the New Testament. Why not begin with one of them? The reader who might ask such a question only receives Gilbert’s provisional suggestion that the best approach to defining the gospel would be accomplished “by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. “ (27)

But why choose Romans 1-4 rather than James 2:14-16 or John 20:21 or a whole host of other places where the earliest Christians said things about Jesus? Clearly, Gilbert believes this passage most directly serves the purpose of defining the gospel, but there are some prior theological and methodological issues which drive him to that conclusion. Not all of those issues can be discussed, again, in such a brief volume, but it might have been helpful for some readers to understand more of Gilbert’s reasoning for beginning where he does in this regard.

Conclusion
After reading this book, many will be spurred on to further questions about the depth and riches of the gospel, as well as other implications surrounding the gospel and the Christian life. Particularly, readers may be left with questions about the relationship between the law of God and the gospel, which isn’t explicitly discussed. Readers will be grateful for Gilbert’s discussion of the absolute necessity of “pointing to Christ” on judgment day (82-83) as an ineluctable part of the gospel, but may be left with lingering questions about the commands of God and how to live as a Christian. Many other books have been written on those subjects and hopefully Gilbert’s book leads many readers on to pursue greater knowledge of God and His word.

Does God Exist? A Debate (6): Atheist Conclusion, Dan Courtney

(Dan Courtney is the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. He lives near Rochester, NY with his wife, and has been active in the atheist community for several years. Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)

Dan’s Closing Statement

First, I want to thank Ben for participating in this debate. He has intelligently and articulately presented his position, and done an admirable job of expressing difficult concepts. Despite our fundamentally different perspectives, I hope that he has found this exchange beneficial.

Burden of proof

The weak versus strong atheism distinction is used by Ben throughout the debate. However, in the conclusion Ben takes a turn deep into ad hominem territory, by concluding that those who characterize atheism, in the broader sense, as a lack of belief in a deity have somehow done a disservice to atheism because “…this definition has the unfortunate consequence of downgrading atheists, in this regard, to the same noetic level as shellfish or a Chevy Lumina: they all lack a belief in God.” This bit of sarcasm is apparently an attempt to embarrass me into accepting an unwarranted burden of proof.
Ben is at least in good company in this burden shifting, as apologists such as Dr. William Lane Craig also spend considerable effort trying to place the burden of proof on the atheist. While the theist does not usually deny their burden in establishing the existence of God, they have good rhetorical reasons to place the burden of establishing non-existence on the atheist’s shoulders. In short, once the atheist accepts the burden, the theist can engage in a series of retreats for which the atheist is obliged to pursue ad infinitum. Take, for example, the analogy I gave to a commenter on this blog earlier in this exchange:

A man comes up to us and tells us that he met a man that is over 200 years old, is over 10 feet tall, and can stop the wind with his thoughts. Do you believe him? Since this is well outside of our experience, I would want some evidence before I even entertain the idea. When I ask to see the 200 year old man I’m told that I can’t be taken to him, and in fact I can’t be told where he is.

Is my disbelief/unbelief/lack of belief (whatever you want to call it) reasonable? Do I need to demonstrate that such a man does not exist to reasonably reject the claim? How would I prove this man does not exist? No matter where I look, there will always be some place unexplored.

Also consider the scenario playing out in court rooms all over:

In a court of law the jury is charged with determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant, right? Wrong. The jury’s one and only task is to determine whether the prosecutor has presented sufficient evidence to establish guilt. The verdict is either guilty or not-guilty. The defense attorney does not need to establish Innocence, but only that the evidence to convict is insufficient. So the defense merely needs to show that the prosecutor’s conclusion of guilt does not reasonably follow from his argument. If the defense does this, then in every sense, they have won the case.

Anderson by proxy

I was glad to see that Ben sought clarification from Dr. Anderson about my claim that Dr. Anderson’s own line of reasoning led him to the conclusion that “sin is intrinsically irrational”. But far from refuting my claim, this clarification simply reinforces the gaping hole in the Calvinist conception of the first sin. We could sum up the Calvinist dilemma as follows:

Premise 1: A sinning agent is one that freely chooses sin.
Premise 2: Adam did not freely choose sin.
Conclusion: Adam is not a sinning agent.

The first premise seems obvious enough, and follows from the concept of an agent as one that initiates an action of their own accord. The second premise is directly from Dr. Anderson’s paper Calvisinism and the First Sin, in which Dr. Anderson excludes Adam from freely choosing sin, “Surely to say that God foreordained the fall goes no way toward explaining why unfallen Adam would freely choose to sin.” “At this point I must confess that further answers escape me.” The conclusion logically follows from these premises. If Dr. Anderson is to assert that the Calvinist doctrine of original sin is rational, then he is must show how either the above premises or the conclusion is flawed.

To be fair Dr. Anderson states that Adam did sin, but he is unable to establish that Adam chose to sin, much less that Adam should be morally culpable for that sin. Indeed, the only one to have had a choice in the matter was God, whom Dr. Anderson implicates when he writes, “Calvinists can affirm that there is a sufficient ultimate explanation for Adam’s sin: God decreed it.” But according to Calvinist doctrine God is incapable of sin, and thus He is excluded from moral culpability.

So Dr. Anderson’s conclusion, “sin is intrinsically irrational”, applies both to Adam (as Dr. Anderson asserts), and to the Calvinist concept of sin itself. For Adam, sinning would be irrational because, as Dr. Anderson argues, Adam would not “freely choose to sin.” And the concept is irrational because there is no logical bridge between a morally perfect God and Adams sin. Nor is there a logical connection between Adam sinning and his moral culpability, or to Mankind’s subsequent culpability.

Meaningless meanings

Ben contends that by pointing out contradictions in his definition of God, I am merely battling straw men. I am, according to Ben, “working without any familiarity with these terms in their theological senses.” This reminds me of an answer I received from a Catholic apologist when I asked him for evidence that the communion wafer transubstantiates into the body of Christ. He said that I wouldn’t find any physical evidence, but that there was theological evidence. How this is better than imaginary evidence isn’t clear.

Like theological evidence, “theological senses” or meanings apparently have a magical quality that make then indiscernible to non-theists. When I challenged Ben on “divine incomprehensibility”, it appeared that he was providing a translation of this theological term into non-theological language when he expressed it as “unknowable”. But perhaps this is not a translation, because Ben also disagrees with my understanding of “unknowable” as something that cannot be known. Maybe we could have both saved a lot of time if we had agreed to conduct the debate in English instead of some unfathomable theological variation thereof.

Getting personal

In repeating his definition of a person, “a rational, self-conscious entity”, Ben is being more than a little disingenuous. Ben is arguing for more than “a rational, self-conscious entity”; he’s arguing for a host of attributes wrapped up in an immaterial transcendent mind. It is these other attributes, which Ben insists belong to a “person”, that are not shared by our common understanding of the term. This minimalist definition of a person is akin to defining anything that is alive as a dog, and then insisting that the growth clinging to the underside of a rock is a dog. But just like “dog” conveys more information than just being alive, “person” conveys more information than simply “a rational, self-conscious entity”.

It’s perfectly understandable, however, that Christians would want to claim that God is “personal”. Humans are social animals, and we have evolved sophisticated means for interacting with other humans. In fact, human interactions have dominated our lives to the degree that we relate to non-humans in very human-like terms. Referring to God as “Him” or “Lord” or as a “person” may be a natural inclination, but it is simply a metaphor for reality itself. Calling God a “person” may have symbolic significance, but it is no more justified in real terms than calling Mother Nature or Father Time “persons”.

In Closing

As with any debate, changing the other person’s mind, or even getting them to acknowledge a contradiction in their position is not the goal. The goal is to present issues to readers on both sides (or no side) that challenges their current view and assists in furthering their understanding of the world. Whatever you, as the reader, take away from this debate, I hope that you have benefitted from contemplating these issues.

In reviewing our exchanges, it seems clear that I have established that the theist has the clear burden of proof when claiming that a god exists. Not only has this burden not been met, but the definition of God that was presented is laden with contradictions and meaningless assertions such that we have not even established what God is supposed to be, much less whether such a thing exists.

Does God Exist? A Debate (5): Christian Conclusion, B.C. Askins

This post contains my final rebuttal and conclusion. Dan will have the last post.

Weak atheism
I pointed out in my initial rebuttal that Dan undermines his own credibility when he demonstrates that he doesn’t understand Christianity, such as when he conflates theological terms with their non-theological senses (i.e. equivocating between general uses of the term “incomprehensibility” and the specific definition of “divine incomprehensibility”). Ironically, Dan’s latest response reveals that he doesn’t really understand atheism either, thoroughly undermining himself and his views. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with the common distinction between “strong atheism” and “weak atheism.” Whether Dan realizes it or not, his opening statement represents negative/weak/soft atheism. Positive/strong/hard atheism would present an argument for the non-existence of God; Dan presents no such argument. To be clear, I referred to Dan’s position as “weak atheism” because that’s what his position is called within the taxonomy of various non-theistic viewpoints; however, I did not “imply that [his] position is consequently weak.” I explicitly stated that it is weak then demonstrated its numerous weaknesses.

[Note for readers: weak atheism is far more common than strong atheism these days, probably due in some part to the contributions of village atheist popularizers like Dick Dawkins and Chris Hitchens (among others), who characterize atheism as “the absence of belief” in divinity. They are well within their rights to define their own position, but this definition has the unfortunate consequence of downgrading atheists, in this regard, to the same noetic level as shellfish or a Chevy Lumina: they all lack a belief in God.]

Debate Topic: Does God Exist?
Dan asserts, “Not only is it not necessary, it is not possible to prove that such a God does not exist.” For whatever reason, Dan turns his guns on strong atheism here for a moment, asserting that position is neither necessary nor even possible (a rather strong modal claim which he does not even attempt to substantiate). After nonchalantly waving aside his half of the burden of proof, he also dismisses an entire group of his fellow atheists then moves ahead with the debate as though nothing happened. It reminds me of Monty Python’s famous Black Knight, except all of Dan’s wounds are self-inflicted in this instance.

Recall that the subject of the debate is the question: “Does God exist?” My answer is “yes,” and I presented a pair of arguments to support my affirmation along with two arguments against atheism; Dan’s answer is “no,” but he has not presented a single argument in defense of his denial. Instead, he has used an altogether-too-common tactic of trying to shift the burden of proof entirely to me. At a tactical level, Dan has not even entered the debate. Yet he seems utterly unaware of this. He doesn’t understand Christianity—he repeatedly argues with straw men, even after being corrected. He doesn’t understand atheism—even the most basic nomenclature associated with his own position eludes him. He could have saved himself a lot of time by just typing “Nuh uh” as his latest response and left it at that. He presents no arguments (meaning “premises implying conclusions”) and merely persists in assertively asserting his own assertions.

Since Dan hasn’t presented much new material in his response, rather than engaging in a painfully iterative summary of our exchange (i.e. I said x, then Dan said y, then I said z and critiqued y, then Dan re-asserted y, so I reiterate x and z and my critique of y, scratch, woof, yawn, etc.), I’ll just provide some criticisms not yet mentioned and briefly point out issues already addressed.

Russell’s teapot
Dan’s repeatedly referenced reason for adopting weak atheism is “Russell’s teapot.” This is a reference to a passing illustration in philosopher Bertrand Russell’s unpublished article “Is There a God?” For those interested, here is the salient section of that article:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”

First, all sides can acknowledge that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. There is no evidence for Russell’s celestial teapot, but this alone does not disprove its existence. For someone to conclude that Russell’s teapot doesn’t exist merely because there isn’t evidence for its existence is to argue from ignorance (an informal fallacy). Rather, although Russell does not mention this, it is positive evidence for its non-existence which leads us to conclude the celestial teapot does not exist, such as that NASA (or the Russian space program) never sent a teapot into orbit, matter doesn’t self-organize into celestial ceramic china, etc. Either Russell argues from ignorance or he conveniently omits the positive evidence which leads him to believe in the teapot’s non-existence.

Second, Russell presents some category confusion in the analogy. The celestial teapot is causally, explanatorily, epistemically, morally, transcendentally irrelevant; on the other hand, God is posited as the necessary condition for each of those categories. This confuses the category distinctions between Creator and creature. The dilemma is that the atheist wants to say that God is just as irrelevant as the teapot—however, he must establish this point before the analogy holds. But if he could establish this independently then the analogy would be superfluous. It’s rhetorical sleight of hand. Russell’s illustration suggests that God is irrelevant by referring to an analogy which rests upon an unknown, unarticulated argument that God is irrelevant. In other words, he’s arguing for a conclusion without a premise or an inference via an imaginative fairy tale about a flying teapot.

Methodologically, this approach also commits what Greg Bahnsen referred to (in his debate with Gordon Stein) as the crackers in the pantry fallacy:

“We might ask, ‘Is there a box of crackers in the pantry?’ And we know how we would go about answering that question. But that is a far, far cry from the way we go about answering questions determining the reality of say, barometric pressure, quasars, gravitational attraction, elasticity, radioactivity, natural laws, names, grammar, numbers, the university itself that you’re now at, past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of thought, political obligations, individual identity over time, causation, memories, dreams, or even love or beauty. In such cases, one does not do anything like walk to the pantry and look inside for the crackers. There are thousands of existence or factual questions, and they are not at all answered in the same way in each case.”

Russell assumes (possibly due in some part to his “logical atomism”) that the methodology for discerning the existence of a celestial tea pot is the same as for discerning the existence of God. But, as I argued in my opening statement, the question of the existence of God has its own transcendental methodological concerns, analogous in many ways to proving the existence of space and time (note: actual space and time, not a mere model of space-time).

So Dan’s reason for abdicating his half of the burden of proof in our debate is (at worst) based upon an argument from ignorance or (at best) category confusion and a flawed methodology.

Coherent Definitions
Dan has asserted and re-asserted that the definition of God “fails to meet the standard of coherence.” When given the opportunity to substantiate his claims, he roasts a straw man to the ground. Our debate (and Dan’s YouTube channel) is covered with a thick layer of the burnt remains of straw men. Here’s a humble suggestion for how Dan might increase the credibility of his position in the future: read, properly interpret, then cite a reputable systematic theology text’s definition of one of these terms, then imply a contradiction from that definition—rather than supplying your own blatantly self-contradictory definition then implying a contradiction from it just by repeating it sarcastically. All of Dan’s purported contradictions in Christian theology are pre-empted by an introductory familiarity with Christian doctrine. When he persists in his equivocal use of “incomprehensibility” he does so to the further detriment of his own credibility.

Then he raises other purported examples of contradictions in Christianity, such as that God “not clearing the guilty” contradicts “forgiving iniquity.” A cursory familiarity with doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement, double imputation, and union with Christ preempt such simplistic contradiction proposals. He gives a series of rhetorical questions on why “living” and “immutable” are incompatible attributes, but all he demonstrates is that he’s working without any familiarity with these terms in their theological senses. Until Dan decides to become familiar with Christian theology his critiques will remain a superficial example of anti-preaching to the a-theological choir.

Dan’s “Axioms”
Dan happily clarified that he uses the term “axiom” to refer to “a necessary truth foundational to subsequent knowledge claims.” Since this definition was already criticized in my initial response, I won’t say much here. As I said before, when someone calls a philosophical proposition an “axiom” he is usually deceptively attempting to borrow credibility from mathematical terminology while persuading someone to accept his beliefs as necessarily true without any argument for doing so. It’s more of the same equivocation and rhetorical sleight of hand already discussed.

Reification Reiterated
I’ve decided to coin a term for Dan’s particular approach to criticism: reificatomania. As I’ve already said, Dan sees fallacious reification everywhere. When I refer to an abstraction, such as a number or logical rule, as a mental object Dan believes this is “reification in broad daylight.” I’m not attributing anything other than mere existence to abstract ideas; ideas exist as ideas, thoughts as thoughts, abstractions as abstractions. Existence isn’t a concrete quality like color or density.

Dan says, “Numbers are not real, existent entities, but rather mental constructs used to model the behavior we observe in reality.” Do “mental constructs” exist? If so, then he commits his own idiosyncratic version of the reification fallacy. If these “mental constructs” do not exist, then what could they be and what’s the point in referencing them?

Existence could only be a concrete attribute according to a particular sort of materialism; but Dan will need to justify his materialism (if he is a materialist) before he can establish his peculiar application of the reification fallacy. But Dan hasn’t even made it clear if he is a materialist, much less whether he can justify that position. This is just another example of the question-begging which I mentioned in my initial response. You can’t refute immaterialism by reference to materialism; it is fallaciously circular.

Definition of Personality
My definition of person is “a rational, self-conscious entity.” Dan objects and says that human beings are “in virtually every sense, not persons per Ben’s definition.” While Dan may have placed his own status as a “rational, self-conscious entity” into some doubt by his performance in this debate, human beings as a class clearly fit well within my definition.

My definition doesn’t include physicality as an essential aspect of personality. Dan disagrees. Pointing to the fact of his disagreement could be the basis for proposing a debate like the one we’re already having, but it does not provide any substance to the debate we’re currently conducting. Again, Dan would need to substantiate his reasons for disagreement to even begin to enter this debate—but it’s a little late in the game for that, I’m afraid.

Self-Dissolving Solvents
I’ve already pointed out some of the absurdities entailed by Dan’s position regarding the non-existence of numbers and truth and logic apart from the existence of human brains. Simply, a proposition about the future can’t be true today, but non-true at the point in the future to which the proposition refers; that is completely absurd—as demonstrated by the global brain death reductio.

It’s also noteworthy that his position begs the question against mine. He asserts, “However, if tomorrow there are no brains, neither the question, or the numbers involved, would be conceptualized.” This assumes that God’s mind does not exist in order to assert that God’s mind does not exist. Dan’s position on the existence of God, numbers, logic, and truth is a philosophical solvent which dissolves itself.

Epistemology
I raised the question of how Dan proposes to bridge the subject-object gap. He wants to treat logic, math, and truth (at least) as purely subjective matters, but still wishes to maintain that there is some objective reality out there—math and logic and truth are just models of this reality, but by what does Dan transcend both subject and object in order to even draw this distinction in the first place? We don’t know because, apparently, Dan doesn’t know.

He weakly asserts, “It’s not a contradiction to have an objective reality exist while only being able to experience it subjectively.” But how does Dan know this is not a contradiction? He asserts there is an objective reality out there, but that all of math, science, reasoning, and experience are locked up in a purely subjective realm, with no bridge between the two. He doesn’t provide any answers, but does lamely footnote himself as having “debunked [the core of presuppositionalist argument] at some length in other writings.” If it’s anything like the so-called “debunking” we’ve observed in this debate, you’ll have to pardon me if I find this form of self-referential footnoting unpersuasive.

The Metaphor of Misinterpretation
I pointed out that Dan clearly misinterpreted James Anderson’s paper “Calvinism and the First Sin.” Again, Dan asserts I am mistaken. Unfortunately, his interpretation is remarkably wrong. I can’t even begin to understand how he draws his conclusions on this point. This interaction could be spread out metaphorically across our entire debate. I argue for a point—Dan declares that he disagrees—I demonstrate Dan is wrong—Dan reiterates his disagreement.

I emailed Dr. Anderson and asked him to adjudicate between our interpretations of his paper. He replied to me, “You’re basically correct about what I said. My point is that from the perspective of the sinning agent, the act of sin is irrational. It cannot be rational to sin. Thus one cannot identify reasons for which Adam sinned. That this is what I meant can be confirmed from the references in the footnote. I’m certainly not claiming that the Christian doctrine of sin is intrinsically irrational (or any other Christian doctrine for that matter)… Dan apparently thinks that I’ve openly conceded that Calvinism is irrational, which couldn’t be further from the truth… He seems to assume that any appeal to mystery is irrational. But he doesn’t argue the point. And as you know, I wrote an entire book arguing the very opposite!” [Note for readers: James’ book, which I hyperlinked, is one of my absolute favorite works of philosophical theology. For what it’s worth, I don’t recommend many books without reservation, but this is one exception.]

Hopefully this clarifies things for Dan and he will openly forsake his misreading of Anderson’s paper (and correct or retract his errant YouTube video which is based upon the same error).

Conclusion
I’d like to thank Dan for taking the time to engage in this debate and I wish him the best in the future. (To be clear, by “I wish him the best” I mean I hope he someday repents of his atheism and turns to Christ to redeem him, epistemology and all.)

As I said in my opening statement, my belief in God is basic and intuitive. Dan simply hasn’t given me any reasons to doubt my intuitions on this subject (or any subject, for that matter).

I also stated in my opener, “On the question of the existence of God, either atheists are radically self-deceived or theists are… One of us is colossally wrong.”  I suggest Dan’s half of our exchange has convincingly demonstrated my assertion to be true:

Dan believes proving the non-existence of God is impossible—yet persists in believing in God’s non-existence; he refuses to accept standard theological definitions, even when corrected; he’s unfamiliar with the basic taxonomy of his own position; he equivocated frequently; he engaged in fallacious reasoning, including ipse dixitism and petitio principii; his position on abstract objects entails absurdity and self-contradiction; he places himself on the horns of a dilemma with his idiosyncratic application of the reification fallacy; when questioned, he doesn’t even attempt to provide an answer to a fundamental epistemic issue, i.e. the subject-object problem; his philosophy is difficult to discern, but it resembles a sort of diluted logical positivism—a thoroughly debunked view, left on the philosophical ash heap by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and P.F. Strawson (among others) some fifty years ago; finally, he has refused correction on his tortuously obtuse reading of Dr. Anderson’s paper.

In other words, he is “colossally wrong.”

Dan, the last word is yours. Use it wisely. With great power there must also come—great  responsibility!

Does God Exist? A Debate (4): Initial Atheist Rebuttal, Dan Courtney

(Dan Courtney is the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. He lives near Rochester, NY with his wife, and has been active in the atheist community for several years. Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)

In my opening statement I pointed out that the burden of proof for the existence of the Christian conception of God falls squarely on the person making the positive claim. Not only is it not necessary, but it is not possible to prove that such a God does not exist. Ben refers to this position as “weak atheism”, and implies that my position is consequently weak. I prefer to let the reader decide which of us is in the stronger position.

In the famous “Russell’s teapot”, the philosopher Bertrand Russell points out that it is not possible to disprove the existence of a teapot orbiting between the Earth and Mars, but that accepting the idea without evidence is not rational. In this case the teapot is at least a coherent concept. But with Ben’s definition of God, he fails to meet the standard of coherence, and thus we are not even in a position to consider what might constitute evidence.

More importantly, in response to my contention that his belief in the Christian God is irrational, Ben writes, “we are debating about the existence of God, not the mere rational status of my beliefs. All of my beliefs in this regard could be “fatally flawed” and that would not prove anything with respect to the subject of the debate.” It seems the point of any debate is to show that your opponent’s position is not rationally supported, while your own is rationally sound. If Ben is not interested in demonstrating the “mere rational status” of his beliefs, then it’s hard to imagine why I, or anyone else, would take his arguments seriously.

I also stated that according to the definition of God that Ben is using, “incomprehensible” stood out. It was stated that I was equivocating on this concept when I suggested that I could simply agree and claim victory. I don’t see how agreeing with this particular attribute is equivocating, but Ben provided a clarification of the term anyway; “divine incomprehensibility refers to the doctrine that God cannot be fully comprehended and is unknowable apart from self-revelation.” Assuming that Ben is not providing to us, through his argument, a “self-revelation”, then I am not dissuaded from agreeing with him that God is “unknowable”. Yet Christians of all stripes will continue to make arguments in an attempt to show that we can somehow know the unknowable. If, in Ben’s opinion, I’ve set the bar too low in this debate, then certainly he’s not only set the bar impossibly high, but he’s conceded that he cannot reach it.

If it isn’t obvious that “incomprehensible”, as a characteristic of the very thing that is being defined, doesn’t contradict the idea of a definition, then perhaps another example will help. Let’s take “forgiving iniquity” on one hand, and “who will by no means clear the guilty” on the other. If forgiveness is to mean anything, then clearly it must mean absolving one of guilt in some sense. Or how about “living’ and “immutable”? In what sense can a changeless entity said to be alive? If an entity does not grow, or learn, or age, or reproduce, then calling it ‘living’ becomes a meaningless assertion. And if it is thought that God is an immaterial mind such that growing, et al, doesn’t apply, then what about thoughts? What is the purpose of thoughts if not to conceptualize new relationships and thus increase knowledge? But new knowledge is a change in the state of one’s knowledge, which contradicts God’s supposed immutable nature, not to mention his supposed omniscience. As with virtually every proposed characteristic of God, the characteristic is immediately negated by a subsequent characteristic. The proposed definition of God is an impressive list of terms that says absolutely nothing.

As with other Transcendental Arguments for God (TAG), the TAG-M (mathematics) version relies on an intentional conflation of reality with the models used to represent reality. Whether it’s the use of mathematics or the traditional reference to the laws of logic, the error is the same. In Ben’s original argument he referred to the “mathematical universe”, and calls numbers “mental objects”. Mathematics is useful because it mirrors the consistency that we observe in reality. But we are not observing “mental objects” within some parallel “mathematical universe”. Numbers are not real, existent entities, but rather mental constructs used to model the behavior we observe in reality. The use of the term “object” is an equivocation designed to blur the distinction between an abstract concept and the reality to which it refers. Once the distinction is realized, the TAG (and TAG-M) argument collapses.

I was also accused of failing to substantiate my claim of reification on Ben’s part. As Ben points out, reification is the false assigning of concreteness to an abstraction. But this is exactly the point when Ben calls numbers mental objects. Ben wishes to confer independent existence (real, existent entities) to mental abstractions. In this sense, concepts are granted existence status equivalent to physical objects, and the only remaining question is in what kind of mind to store them. This is reification in broad daylight.

To see how Ben continues to confuse the abstract from the real, consider this question he poses in his first response; “If everything with a brain woke up dead tomorrow, how much would 2+2 equal?” The key here is that Ben is asking the question today, when brains are available to ask and answer the question. He and the reader can conceive of the question and the numbers involved. However, if tomorrow there are no brains, neither the question, or the numbers involved, would be conceptualized. The answer is, as far as we know, that the underlying reality which we model with numbers will survive the death of all brains, but the mathematical model that we use to represent that reality will cease with our brains.

The Anderson-Welty argument (TAG meets Ontological), commits the same error as TAG-M. The arguments states that “propositions are real entities”, but then fails to distinguish propositions from the reality to which they refer. The error is only compounded by trying to bridge the flawed TAG argument, as the premise, to the ontological argument, which has problems of its own.

I’m happy to clarify my use of the term axiom in my opening statement. I am using the term to mean a necessary truth foundational to subsequent knowledge claims. So when I refer to Einstein’s use of axioms, I am not referring to the mathematical principles used to derive his equations, but the foundations of rational thought.

Ben accuses me of viciously circular question begging when I state that he “wants the attribute of a person without the physical baggage that comes with it.” Ben is claiming an immaterial transcendent mind as a person. I’m fine if he wants to define persons this way, but what are we going to call the 7 billion or so people here on earth? We are physical, temporal, imperfect animals. We are, in virtually every sense, not persons per Ben’s definition. If Ben did not want the association of God with the hominids formerly known as persons, then I apologize.

Under the heading of “Subjectivism incompatible with realism” Ben wonders out loud how I can be a “subjectivist-realist”, which he states is a contradiction. I think Ben would agree that there is an objective reality that we engage through our subjective experience. It’s not a contradiction to have an objective reality exist while only being able to experience it subjectively. The implied question here is “How can we justify our knowledge of objective reality?” Positing a “divine self-revelation” as some way of justifying the objective reality is the core of the Presuppositionalist argument, and one that I have debunked at some length in other writings. But suffice it to say that positing objective knowledge of an objective reality through the subjective experience of “self-revelation” doesn’t get you there.

On Ben’s point of clarification about Dr. Anderson’s paper Calvinism and the First Sin, he is mistaken in asserting that Dr. Anderson’s conclusion that “sin is intrinsically irrational” only referred to the act of sinning as being irrational. I’ve just finished a video review of Dr. Anderson’s paper (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5hrTkrd1JI&feature=share&list=UUiVyaC3sQ1puw3Qj9Ccx2xw – where you can also find a link to the full paper in the notes) and his conclusion is in the context of trying, and failing, to find a rational path to explain why Adam sinned without God being morally culpable. The conclusion “sin is intrinsically irrational” refers directly to Dr. Anderson’s inability to provide a rational explanation for the Calvinist doctrine of original sin, and not to any individual act of “sinning”.

On the subject of sin, I’m provided with a small sermon at the end of Ben’s response, in which he implies that I’m a sinful, “irrational God-hater”. No doubt I’m not completely rational in all my pursuits, but I’ve tried to use my best understanding of logic to construct a view of reality that is as accurate as possible. As we see with Dr. Anderson’s paper noted above, some do not constrain their views of reality to the same standard, and indeed even embrace the “mystery” of irrationality. If Ben’s embracing of “reason in Jesus Christ” means jettisoning reason when it conflicts with his religious doctrine, then I think I’ll stick with my “sinful” ways.

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