A Four-Case Defense of the Authorial Model of Divine Providence

I’m pleased to report that my paper “A Four-Case Defense of the Authorial Model of Divine Providence” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Analytic Theology.

Abstract: Some advocates of the doctrine of meticulous (“risk-free”) divine providence, in response to the charge that such a strong view of divine providence makes God the “author of evil,” have appealed to an authorial model according to which the relationship of God to his creation is analogous to that of a human author and his or her literary creation. This response appears vulnerable to the objection that there is a critical disanalogy between the two kinds of authorship: in the case of divine authorship, unlike that of human authorship, the story is intentionally actualized, and thus the divine author is morally culpable for the evils written into that story. Call this the “actuality objection.” In this paper, I develop a four-case defense of the authorial model that aims to neutralize the actuality objection. I also respond to five objections to the authorial model and my defense of it.

A preprint version is available here.

An Epistemological Argument Against Naturalism

Consider the following epistemological argument against Naturalism (as defined below):

  1. If Naturalism is true, then all factual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of facts) is acquired empirically.
  2. Knowledge of necessary facts cannot be acquired empirically.
  3. We have some knowledge of necessary facts.
  4. Therefore, Naturalism is not true.

The insights behind the argument aren’t original to me, but the formulation is mine. Before I defend the three premises, let me clarify the key terms used in the argument.

Naturalism refers to the ontological thesis that only natural things exist, that is, things that exist spatiotemporally and can be described according to our best physical theories. On this definition, Naturalism is roughly equivalent to physicalism, the view that the fundamental ‘stuff’ of reality is physical and whatever exists can be accounted for (in principle) in terms of physical reality (physical particles, physical forces, etc.).1

Factual knowledge refers to knowledge of facts about the world; specifically, facts about an external world that exists independently of our minds. Factual knowledge is distinct from (1) analytical knowledge (i.e., knowledge of logical or conceptual truths, such as that a triangle is a polygon) and (2) knowledge of internal mental states (e.g., that I am currently experiencing pain). A simple example of factual knowledge would be that there are, at this present moment, more than two turtles in Turtle Pond.

Empirically means by way of sense experience or observation, that is, by means of our sensory organs (the standard five senses or any others we might have that operate on a similar basis).

Necessary facts are facts about what must be the case, as opposed to what merely is the case or could be the case. To know a necessary fact is to know not merely that something actually is the case, but also that it could not possibly have failed to be the case. Knowledge of necessary facts is a species of factual knowledge (as defined above).

Now, back to the argument. I think it’s fairly clear that the argument is logically valid: the conclusion follows from the three premises. If premises 2 and 3 are true, it follows that some factual knowledge is not acquired empirically, in which case — by modus tollens from premise 1 — Naturalism is not true.

So why think that the premises are true? Consider each in turn.

  1. The physicalism could be reductive or non-reductive; I don’t think it makes a difference to the argument. Some self-professed naturalists hold to a more liberal ontology, e.g., allowing for sets or abstract mathematical objects. Whether those more liberal versions of naturalism are vulnerable to this argument is an open question that I won’t address here.

The Best Defenders and Defenses of Atheism?

Who are the best defenders of atheism? Where can one find the strongest defenses of atheism?

I get asked those questions from time to time, and they’re good questions, so I’m going to offer my own answers (for what they’re worth) in this post.

First, however, a few observations and caveats. For the last couple of decades, Christian apologists have tended to focus on the so-called New Atheists, most notably the “Four Horsemen” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. There’s good sense in that. Among proponents of atheism, those writers receive the most attention from the public and media, whether or not they deserve it. They’re the loudest, most entertaining, most provocative, and most influential voices for the atheist cause in the public square. They’ve had a significant impact in promoting anti-religious skepticism and turning people away from Christianity. I continue to hear stories of ‘ex-Christians’ who say that reading The God Delusion or God Is Not Great shook their faith “to the core” and eventually destroyed it. I’m always taken aback by such reports, because I’ve read those books too, and there’s precious little in the way of serious and substantive argument in them. (Dennett is the most intellectually serious of the Four Horsemen, but he doesn’t so much argue for atheism as just take it for granted.)

But here’s the thing: the New Atheists are hardly the best and the brightest of contemporary atheists (despite Dennett’s unironic attempt to self-advertise as “the brights”). Their criticisms of religious beliefs do need to be refuted, of course, but as I’ve said before, that’s low-hanging fruit. The most sophisticated and formidable arguments in defense of atheism, and specifically for naturalism, come from academic philosophers, particularly those who specialize in philosophy of religion. They’re trained in logic and critical thinking. They’ve studied the scholarly literature. They’re well-versed in the arguments for and against the existence of God, both classical and contemporary. They actually know what they’re talking about.

Did Cornelius Van Til Coin the Term “Transcendental Argument”?

A transcendental argument, simply defined, is an argument purporting to demonstrate that some X (such as a particular concept, belief, or state of affairs) is a necessary precondition of some undeniable feature of human cognition (e.g., that we have orderly experiences or make judgments). At least, that is the conventional understanding of the term today. But who was the first to use the term in that sense?

Surprisingly, it might have been Cornelius Van Til.

I’m currently working on a monograph on Van Til’s transcendental argument for God (more precisely, for Christian theism). Preparatory research has required me to review everything Van Til says, explicitly or implicitly, about transcendental argumentation across his corpus, and to take a deep dive into the contemporary literature on transcendental arguments. In the process, I discovered something quite interesting.

Suggested Readings on Epistemology

I was recently asked to suggest reading lists on (1) epistemology in general, (2) religious epistemology, and (3) Reformed presuppositional/Van Tilian/Framean epistemology. Here’s my response, in case it’s useful for other folk. Obviously these are just start-up lists, and there may be better introductory texts/articles that I haven’t come across. (Registered users, feel free to make further recommendations in the comments.)

I think the following books should get you up to speed on contemporary epistemology in general (and religious epistemology more specifically):

  • Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (3rd ed.)
  • Ernest Sosa et al, eds., Epistemology: An Anthology (2nd ed.)
  • Matthias Steup et al, eds., Contemporary Debates in Epistemology (2nd ed.)
  • William Alston, Perceiving God
  • Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, Warrant and Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief
  • Richard Swinburne, Epistemic Justification
  • John M. DePoe & Tyler McNabb, eds., Debating Christian Religious Epistemology

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has many helpful articles on topics in epistemology, but start with these:

Kelly James Clark’s article “Religious Epistemology” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good overview of the contemporary landscape (along with a helpful bibliography).

On Reformed presuppositional/Van Tilian/Framean epistemology, I recommend the following for starters:

Van Til & the Use of Evidence

Van Til & the Use of EvidenceThom Notaro’s excellent little book, Van Til & the Use of Evidence, has been out of print for years. However, Thom holds the copyright and has generously granted permission for me to make a scanned copy of the book available for free download. Enjoy!

Van Til & the Use of Evidence (with cover) (3.5 MB)

Van Til & the Use of Evidence (without cover) (3.2 MB)

The advantage of the “without cover” version (other than the smaller size) is that the PDF page numbers correspond exactly to the book page numbers.

Both versions are searchable (big thanks to Fred Zaspel and Michael Riley).

Van Til and Analytic Philosophy

An essay written for a forthcoming collection of essays “in the Van Til tradition.”

The main thesis: While Van Til was rightly critical of the early forms of analytic philosophy (Moore, Russell, etc.), there is no inherent conflict between Van Tilian philosophy and contemporary analytic philosophy; in fact, there are significant points of affinity or complementarity. Thus, “analytic Van Tilianism” is not a contradiction in terms, but rather a project worth pursuing.

A Muslim Defends His Worldview

What's Your Worldview?I was gratified to receive the following message via the Contact form:

Sir, I’m a Muslim, and I’ve read the Islam section in your book What’s Your Worldview. However, to say the least, I haven’t found any of the objections therein to be tenable:

He goes on to give brief responses to two of the “objections” I raised. (In the book, I really presented them only as food for thought, as prompts for readers to think more critically about the Islamic worldview. But still, it’s fair to call them objections.) In this post, I’ll reproduce the relevant sections from What’s Your Worldview? along with his responses, and then reply to them. (In the quotations from WYW, I’ve omitted the endnotes, most of which provide references to verses in the Quran.)

Objection #1

From WYW, pp. 65-66:

One of the central teachings of Islam is that there will be a final day of judgment. On that day, all of our words and deeds will be weighed in the balance of divine justice. Those who have believed in Allah and lived good enough lives will be rewarded with pleasures in paradise, while the rest will be punished with torments in hell.

Muslims don’t think that you have to live an absolutely perfect life to enter paradise. They insist that Allah is compassionate and merciful, and can forgive the sins of those who believe in him and love him (though no one should ever presume upon Allah’s forgiveness). However, there seems to be a tension within Islam between the justice and the mercy of Allah. If justice is to be satisfied, every violation of the law should receive its just penalty. Therefore, an absolutely perfect judge would ensure that no crime goes unpunished. According to Islam, however, Allah simply chooses to overlook some people’s sins. How, then, can he be an absolutely perfect judge? Does Allah consistently uphold his own just laws? The problem for Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it has no doctrine of atonement that could explain how God could forgive human sins without violating his own principles of justice.

Our Muslim friend responds:

1. “First, anyone who acts unjustly towards any person or being would fall short of being perfectly good. So, if there are cases in which God needs to prioritize being just over being, say, forgiving, God’s perfect goodness requires him to do what is just in that case. Second, justice reflects the balance and harmony between God’s moral attributes. Hence, the cases in which God deems it more appropriate to be forgiving over treating people as they deserve, He concedes justice and acts mercifully. However, in those cases, justice is at work in a different way, as God judges it to be more harmonious or appropriate to be forgiving over doing what justice––in its first sense––requires to do.” – Seyma Yazici: Is God perfectly good in Islam?

John Murray on the Christian State

Some readers will be aware that I have criticized the Two Kingdoms (2K) view of Christianity and culture in a few places. In 2019, I gave a lecture in which I argued that three distinctive tenets of a Reformed worldview (a biblical revelational epistemology, the absoluteness of God, and the lordship of Christ) point us away from a “Two Kingdoms” paradigm and toward a “One Kingdom with Different Administrations” paradigm — basically a Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” paradigm but expressed in terms of Christ’s kingship.

John MurrayBrandon Smith, archival editor at Westminster Magazine, recently brought to my attention a 1943 article by John Murray entitled “The Christian World Order” (originally published in The Presbyterian Guardian).1 Murray is best known for his deeply exegetical approach to systematic theology, with a particular focus on Christology and soteriology, and not often as someone who pronounced on matters of political theory and contemporary cultural engagement. But in this remarkably forthright and lucid article, Murray sets forth an indisputably Kuyperian vision of the three societal institutions of family, church, and state. The entire article is worth your time, but I was particularly struck by the section on the state, which makes essentially the same argument I made in my 2019 lecture, albeit with Murray’s characteristic elegance and economy of words. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing that section here (but read the whole thing).

Everything below the line is from Murray’s article, although I’ve emboldened parts of the text for emphasis.2

  1. The article can also be found in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 1: The Claims of Truth (Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), pp. 356-66.
  2. Note that Murray’s position should not be confused with “Christian nationalism” as the term is commonly used today (whether by its defenders or its detractors). There is nothing ‘nationalist’ about Murray’s view of the state.

Greg Welty on Alvin Plantinga

Greg Welty’s book Alvin Plantinga hits the bookstore shelves today. I’m sure you’re dying to hear what I think about it, so here’s my endorsement:

Alvin Plantinga by Greg WeltyAlvin Plantinga is one of the titans of contemporary Christian philosophy and it would be almost unforgivable to omit him from P&R’s Great Thinkers series. His writings over the course of a six-decade career combine an astonishing degree of creativity with rigorous analytical precision, a delightful sense of humor, and a refreshingly uncomplicated Christian piety. Until now, there has existed no reliable introduction to Plantinga’s work that I could enthusiastically recommend to students, pastors, and other interested readers. That deficiency is now remedied with the publication of Greg Welty’s Alvin Plantinga, a superlative addition to an already excellent series. As a seasoned teacher-scholar with advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and a firm commitment to confessional Reformed doctrine, Dr. Welty was the ideal person to write this book. In a concise and eminently readable style, Welty clearly explains Plantinga’s major contributions and argues that, despite Plantinga’s own deviations from the Reformed tradition at points, his most valuable contributions can be comfortably accommodated by that tradition. I would never suggest reading only one book on Plantinga, but if it must be one, make it this one.

If you want to find out a bit more about the book and its distinctive contributions, I recommend this interview with the author.

The book is available from the publisher at a significant discount right now ($10.39 instead of $15.99). So what are you waiting for? Go order a copy!