Why Hume Matters

The following excerpt is taken from David Hume by James N. Anderson (ISBN 978-1-62995-279-6) with permission from P&R Publishing Co, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, NJ 08865 (www.prpbooks.com).


Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile runs from the Queen’s residence at Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle. At the corner where the Royal Mile intersects with the Mound, there stands a statue of a seated man. Occasionally seen wearing a traffic cone on his head, courtesy of exuberant and inebriated students, he nevertheless sits in dignified fashion, clothed in a toga and with a book perched on his knee. Every day thousands of people pass by him, but only a small minority of them are aware of the impact that he—or rather, the historical figure he depicts—has had on the culture in which they live and breathe.

Philosophy students at the University of Edinburgh are more aware of his significance, not least because their lectures are held in a building named in his honor: the David Hume Tower. In many ways, Hume is viewed as a heroic figure, not only for the School of Philosophy, but also for the university as a whole—both the humanities and the sciences—representing, as he does, the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume’s significance was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Sunday Times in 1999, which awarded him the title “Greatest Scot of the Millennium,” edging out his close friend, the economist Adam Smith.

David HumeHume’s impact on Western civilization can scarcely be overstated. Traces of his thought can be detected in almost every aspect of our culture today. It was Hume’s writings that famously roused Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and motivated his “Copernican revolution,” which in large measure set the epistemological agenda for the next two centuries. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that without Hume, there would have been no Kant; and without Kant, no Hegel; and without Hegel, no Marx. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the pioneer of Protestant liberalism, propounded his new understanding of Christianity as grounded in religious experience, rather than verbal divine revelation, in response to the critiques put forward by Hume and Kant. Hume’s influential objections to natural theology (arguments for the existence and attributes of God based on natural reason) and to claims of miracles (such as the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus) may have been more responsible for the subsequent decline of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world than anything else. One often encounters today the received wisdom that revealed religion has never recovered from the “double hammer blow” of Hume and Kant.

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David Hume (Great Thinkers)

David Hume (Great Thinkers)My contribution to P&R’s Great Thinkers series has now been published. You can find more details on P&R’s website, including a sample chapter.

You can also read (or listen to) an interview about the book with Fred Zaspel at Books At a Glance.

I’ll be posting some excerpts from the book on my blog later this week, but for now here’s the publisher’s blurb and the table of contents:

David Hume (1711–1776)

Through his pursuit of a naturalistic grounding for morality and his forceful critique of supernaturalism, Scottish philosopher David Hume significantly undermined confidence in orthodox Christianity.

Professor, minister, and philosopher James Anderson summarizes the major points of Hume’s thought and offers a critical assessment from a distinctively Reformed perspective. He shows that Hume’s arguments, far from refuting the Christian worldview, indirectly support that worldview by exposing the self-defeating implications of naturalism. Deepen your understanding of this immensely influential thinker, and you will be better able to engage with today’s secular challenges to faith.

  • Series Introduction
  • Foreword by W. Andrew Hoffecker
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Why Hume Matters
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Hume’s Life and Works
  • 2. Hume’s Philosophical Project
    • Three Distinctives of the Project
    • A Two-Phase Project
    • Hume’s Theory of the Mind
    • A New Account of Causation
    • Philosophy Psychologized
  • 3. Hume’s Naturalistic Ethics
    • Against Moral Rationalism
    • Against Self-Interest Theories
    • Hume’s Moral Theory
    • A New Account of Justice
  • 4. Hume’s Religious Skepticism
    • Religion Naturalized
    • Hume’s Critique of Natural Theology
    • Hume’s Argument against Miracles
    • Was Hume an Atheist?
  • 5. Hume’s Continuing Relevance
    • The Kantian Turn
    • Utilitarianism
    • Logical Positivism and Scientism
    • Naturalized Epistemology
    • The Evidentialist Challenge
  • 6. A Reformed Assessment of Hume’s Thought
    • Was Hume a Great Thinker?
    • The Presumption of Naturalism
    • The Presumption of Autonomy
    • Internal Problems
    • The Specter of Solipsism
    • A Matter of Taste
  • 7. A Reformed Response to Hume’s Religious Skepticism
    • Defusing the Evidentialist Challenge
    • Natural Theology Ex-Humed
    • In Defense of Miracles
  • 8. Hume and Christian Apologetics
    • The Skeptical Sinkhole of Empiricism
    • The Problem of Induction
    • A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument
  • Epilogue: The Humean Predicament
  • Glossary
  • Recommended Reading
  • Index of Subjects and Names

Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

I recently received the following inquiry about an alleged problem for Calvinism:

This problem is explained in a new book I’ve been reading, The Challenges of Divine Determinism, by Peter Furlong (a theist who’s agnostic about the reality of divine determinism). Furlong calls this problem the problem of contrition, which lies in the observation that (to put the basic point briefly and crudely) in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did, and so one’s will must be in some sense aligned against God’s to repent. Of course no Christian wants his will to oppose God’s.

A very interesting challenge! Some thoughts in response (bearing in mind that I haven’t read Furlong’s book):

1. Calvinists routinely distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will.1 The first concerns God’s eternal decree, which infallibly comes to pass, while the second reflects God’s commands for mankind as an expression of his holiness. Thus, God willed preceptively that Joseph’s brothers would not sin against him, but he willed decretively that they would do so (hence Gen. 50:20). As such, we should clarify that when we say “and so God willed one to sin,” we’re speaking specifically of God’s decretive will. There’s no opposition to God’s preceptive will implied here; on the contrary, the reason we wish we hadn’t sinned is precisely because our sins are contrary to God’s preceptive will!

The Repentant St. Peter (Goya)2. Having drawn this distinction, we can be more precise about the challenge posed. The alleged problem is that in order to be truly contrite, one must wish that God had decreed otherwise than he did in fact decree. But why exactly is this problematic? Would so wishing imply that God made some kind of mistake in decreeing as he did? Would it imply that God shouldn’t have decreed what he did? That doesn’t follow at all, as far as I can see. Presumably God could have decreed otherwise than he did (i.e., God had alternatives open to him; nothing necessitated what he actually decreed) and if God had decreed otherwise, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.2 Wishing that God had decreed otherwise needn’t imply any deficiency on God’s part (e.g., that God could have decreed something better than what he actually decreed).

3. It strikes me that if there is a problem here, it isn’t a problem merely for contrition but for any counterfactual wishing. Suppose my favored candidate loses the election and I think to myself, “I really wish Jones had won.” If God decreed that Jones would lose, my wishing that Jones had won implies that I wish God had decreed otherwise! So if there really is a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with contrition per se.

4. What’s more, if this is a problem, it isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. Molinists also hold that God has an infallible decree, albeit one conditioned by God’s middle knowledge. So if a Molinist truly wishes that he hadn’t sinned, he is also wishing that God had decreed otherwise (specifically, that God had “weakly actualized” some other “feasible world,” some possible world in which he doesn’t commit the sin in question).

5. Christ’s wrestling in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-44) may be instructive here. Surely in some sense Jesus wished that his Father’s will were otherwise, otherwise his prayers in the garden make little sense. Jesus knew perfectly well that it was his Father’s settled will for him to go to the cross, but he still desired that things be otherwise. Was this a wrongful desire on Jesus’s part? Surely not! (Note that one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to appreciate this point.)

Obviously I don’t offer this as an example of contrition, only as a case of someone non-sinfully wishing that God had willed otherwise. Of course, Christ obediently subordinated his (entirely understandable) desire not to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the will of his Father. In the end, Christ’s overriding wish was to do his Father’s will. (Praise God!) But that doesn’t mean his other desires weren’t genuine desires.

6. Reflecting on it further, I’m not sure this is even a strictly theological problem, because one can formulate non-theological versions of the problem of contrition. Suppose a young man has premarital sex with his girlfriend. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter whom the man loves dearly. In fact, the couple decide to get married and raise the girl together. Later on, the man experiences a religious conversion and becomes convicted that premarital sex is morally wrong. Should he sincerely wish that he hadn’t engaged in premarital sex? In some sense, yes. But if he hadn’t done what he did, his daughter would never have been born. So is he implicitly wishing that his daughter had never been born? Presumably not!

This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have wishes with logically inconsistent implications (or alternatively, to coherently wish for what isn’t possible). I think it is, although a defense of that claim will have to wait for another occasion. The only point I’m making is that the problem of contrition, if a problem at all, isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. It can be turned into a problem for everyone. Conversely, if it isn’t really a problem in general, there’s no reason to think it’s a problem for Calvinists in particular.


  1. For a robust exegetical defense of the distinction, see this classic article by John Piper.
  2. It’s true that some Calvinists have taken a necessitarian position with respect to God’s decree, but that isn’t an essential tenet of Calvinism simpliciter.

Craig’s Modal Critique of Harris’s Moral Landscape

In 2011, the University of Notre Dame hosted a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether morality depends on God. I think it’s fair to say Craig won the debate inasmuch as he gave respectable arguments for his position and against Harris’s, and his opponent failed to engage seriously with those arguments. Harris seemed unable to stick to the topic of the debate, and was reduced to railing against the moral beliefs of religious people (as if that were relevant to the metaethical claims under debate).

Anyway, I thought it would be worth highlighting one of the arguments Craig leveled against the position Harris stakes out in his book The Moral Landscape. By way of background, the twofold aim of Harris’s book is to show (1) that morality doesn’t depend on God or anything else supernatural, and (2) that science can provide us with answers to moral questions, at least in principle. The central plank of Harris’s position is that moral goodness — i.e., whatever it is we should be aiming for when we seek to act morally — should be defined in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures.”1 This claim serves as Harris’s response to G. E. Moore’s “open question argument” against moral naturalism. Moore famously argued that whenever someone tries to define goodness in terms of some natural phenomenon X (e.g., pleasure) it always remains an open question whether X really is good (or, alternatively, whether an act that brings about X really is a good act). If it makes sense to pose such a question, then X can’t be identical to goodness. There must be a logical gap between X and goodness.

Harris writes:

If we define “good” as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s “open question argument” really does stop. While I agree with Moore that it is reasonable to ask whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is “good,” it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is “good.” It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is “good,” is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being.2

Harris thus wants to identify moral goodness with either the well-being of conscious creatures or whatever “supports” such well-being. (Note that when Harris uses the term “good” in the quote above, he’s speaking about moral goodness. That’s the subject of his book, after all.)

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  1. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, 2010, pp. 1, 11.
  2. Ibid., p. 12.

LGBs Are Kissing T Goodbye

A few months back I wrote on the incoherence of LGBT where I argued the following:

Either (1) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are tied to physical form, in which case the concept of sexual orientation (LGB) is intelligible but the ideology of transgenderism (T) is indefensible, or (2) ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not tied to physical form, in which case the concept of sexual orientation (LGB) is no longer intelligible. […]

So it seems to me that those who embrace the term LGBT face a formidable challenge: provide definitions of L, G, B, and T that both (1) satisfy the demands of transgender ideology and (2) comport with the conventional meanings of L, G, and B.

Daniel Moody drew my attention this week to an article in Quillette by a gay author, Brad Polumbo, suggesting that it’s time for ‘LGB’ and ‘T’ to go their separate ways:

The growing rift between increasingly radicalized transgender-rights activists and the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) communities has finally come out into the open. This week, Europe’s biggest LGBT-rights organization, the London-based Stonewall charity, was publicly accused of subordinating LGB rights to the group’s increasingly single-minded goal of replacing sex with gender as a marker of identity. As Helen Joyce recently wrote in Standpoint, “Stonewall went all in for gender self-ID. Its online glossary now describes biological sex as ‘assigned at birth’ (presumably by a midwife with a Hogwarts-style Sorting Hat). ‘Gay’ and ‘lesbian’ now mean same-gender, not same-sex, attraction. ‘Transphobia’ is the ‘fear or dislike of someone based on the fact that they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.’ At a stroke, anyone who declares themselves exclusively attracted to people of the same sex has become a bigot.”

As a gay man who lives in the United States, I have no direct stake in Britain’s intra-LGBT politics. (“LGB/T” might now be a more apt term.) But I am surprised that it has taken this long for such a formal breach to occur. The same pressures have been building everywhere, and it was only a matter of time before someone acted on them.

His argument is very similar to mine (bold added):

Gays, lesbians and bisexuals all have something obvious in common: same-sex attraction. This is an alternative sexual orientation that, to some extent at least, shapes our experiences and alters our life outcomes. We typically identify with our biological sex—and in fact, sometimes have spent many years feeling trapped by it. To be gay is to understand that sex is set at birth. My sexual attraction, likewise, is based on hard-wired factors beyond my control.

Transgenderism is a separate concept. While homosexuality leads to obvious differences in real-life behavior, transgenderism offers a categorial [sic] redefinition of what it means to be a man or a woman. As Joyce describes it, a “gender identity” is a quasi-spiritual concept—almost like a soul—that is “something between an internal essence, knowable only to its possessor, and stereotypically masculine or feminine appearance and behavior.”

(See also Daniel Moody’s much earlier observations about the fundamental incompatibility of LGB and T.)

The British author Douglas Murray — also a gay man — makes essentially the same argument as Polumbo in his new book The Madness of Crowds (surely one of the most important books published this year). Murray contends that “the LGBT community” is mostly a fictional construct, and necessarily so. (In fact, Murray suggests it’s an exaggeration even to speak of an LGB community.) Perhaps we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the so-called LGBT movement. Certainly we’re going to see this LGB-vs-T argument articulated more frequently as ‘traditionalist’ LGBs try to cut themselves loose from the cultural suicide-bombers of the transgender movement.

To my mind, the interesting question isn’t why LGB and T are initiating divorce proceedings. That’s easily answered. The real puzzle is why they ever got hitched in the first place.

No less perplexing is that fact that some quarters of evangelicalism are caving into LGBT ideology just as it’s beginning to break apart. (The same can be said of those evangelicals who are currently pleading with us to make our peace with Darwinism.) William Ralph Inge surely had it right: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

Reforming Apologetics (Worldview)

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Summary of Chapter 5

The main aim of chapter 5 of Reforming Apologetics is to criticize “historic worldview theory” (HWT) and the significant role it has played (according to the author) in the development of Van Tilian apologetics. The adoption of HWT is an obstacle to using “the book of nature” in apologetics, and for that very reason it needs to be challenged.

As Dr. Fesko defines it, HWT is

a very distinct idea that begins with nineteenth-century German idealism and includes the following characteristics: (1) the rejection of a common doctrine of humanity, (2) a single principle from which one deduces a worldview, (3) an exhaustive systematic explanation of reality, and (4) the incommensurability of competing worldviews. These aspects of HWT create an inhospitable environment for the historic Reformed appeal to the book of nature. The increased use of HWT is inversely proportional to the decreased use of the book of nature. (p. 98)

Fesko identifies several specific problems with HWT. First, it is “contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures because it rejects a common doctrine of humanity”; in other words, it rejects the biblical teaching that all people share common notions in virtue of bearing the image of God. Second, HWT claims that “a worldview must present an exhaustive explanation of the world,” but the Bible doesn’t do that. According to the Reformed faith, Scripture “does not address all things” but “gives only principles for life in general” (p. 98). In the hands of Van Tilian apologists, HWT implies that the Bible “exhaustively explains all reality” and “must be the only foundation for all knowledge” (p. 99).

Dr. Fesko proposes to make his case by (1) reviewing the historical origins of HWT, (2) explaining how Van Til’s employment of HWT led to his rejection of common notions, (3) surveying the impact of Van Til’s use of HWT on the Reformed community, (4) making “a brief scriptural case for common notions,” and (5) refuting the claim that the Bible “offers an exhaustive view of the world” (p. 99).

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A Conversation with Christopher Watkin

What do you call an interview where the interviewer and interviewee switch places halfway through? A ‘switcherview’ perhaps?

Whatever you call it, I recently did one with Christopher Watkin in which we talked for nearly two hours about P&R’s Great Thinkers series.  Chris has already contributed volumes on Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He’s presently working on a third volume, this time on Gilles Deleuze. My own contribution to the series, a critical engagement with the thought of David Hume, will be published in early December (but I’ll take no offense if you feel led to pre-order it).

Chris and I had about as much fun as two Reformed philosophy geeks could have discussing Derrida, Foucault, and Hume. We talked about why these thinkers are important today, what challenges they present to Christians, and how Christians can interact critically but responsibly with their work.

Chris is a fellow Brit who is currently posted at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where he teaches and researches in the field of French Studies. Not only has he written books on several great thinkers, he’s a gifted thinker himself with a wide range of philosophical and theological interests. Check out his personal website and his other website Thinking Through the Bible to find out more about his work. You can also follow him on Twitter if you’re that way inclined.

Here’s the full conversation:

You can also find some smaller snippets on Chris’s YouTube channel.

Secular Indulgences

The Telegraph reports:

Sir Elton John by his own admission counted Princess Diana as “one of my dearest friends” and famously and movingly sang at her funeral.

On Monday, the rock star leapt to the defence of her youngest son, in an attempt to shield the Duke of Sussex and his wife from “relentless and untrue assassinations” amid allegations of hypocrisy over private jet flights taken by the couple.

Harry and Meghan

In putting a metaphorical arm around the Duke and Duchess, Sir Elton disclosed that he had paid for Prince Harry and his wife to fly on a private jet to his home in the south of France. He said Prince Harry, his wife and their son Archie needed the “safety and tranquillity” offered by his palatial villa on the French Riviera.

Sir Elton insisted he and his husband David Furnish had made “an appropriate contribution” to a company that specialises in offsetting carbon emissions. The flights, said Sir Elton, were as a consequence carbon neutral.

So we’re all square then! One might even sum things up in a little rhyme:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The A-list celebs can spread their wings.

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Reforming Apologetics (Thomas Aquinas)

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Summary of Chapter 4

The burden of the fourth chapter of Reforming Apologetics is to argue that Van Til’s critique of Thomas Aquinas is inaccurate and unfair to the medieval theologian. While there are some problematic elements in Aquinas’s theology, Dr. Fesko concedes, it would be a mistake to dismiss Aquinas’s system in toto as a compromise with pagan thought, as Van Til asks us to do. Thus, we should not consider inherently problematic the appeals to Aquinas made by the later Reformed scholastic theologians.

Fesko summarizes the content of the chapter thus:

Here I will argue that Van Til and many of his students have misread Aquinas on the relationship between faith and reason as well as his use of Aristotelian philosophy. The chapter therefore first sets forth Van Til’s claims about Aquinas. Then it explores what Aquinas actually said. Third, it offers analysis as to why Van Til misreads Aquinas. Van Til’s most serious error, I believe, is that he reads Aquinas largely through secondary sources rather than carefully engaging Aquinas’s works. Such a methodology naturally skews his interpretation. Hence, this chapter focuses exclusively on Aquinas, not the subsequent Thomist tradition. … The chapter then concludes with some observations about Aquinas and Reformed theology and apologetics. (p. 72)

Van Til on Aquinas

Dr. Fesko summarizes “five main charges” that Van Til levels against “Thomas and the Roman Catholic position” in his book Christian Apologetics:

1. Aquinas follows Aristotle by speaking of being and then introducing the distinction between the divine and created beings. Aquinas does not begin with the doctrine of the ontological Trinity.

2. Roman Catholics try to prove the existence of God by employing the method of Aristotle to show that God’s existence is in accord with the principles of logic.

3. By appealing to the common ground of reason, Roman Catholics arise at the existence of a god through theistic proofs, and this god accords with the presuppositions of natural reason but not the God of the Bible.

4. Natural humankind are said to possess natural revelation and to correctly interpret it; there is no need for supernatural revelation to correct natural humankind’s (fallen) interpretation of natural revelation.

5. There are two Aquinases: Thomas the theologian and Thomas the philosopher. Thomas the philosopher appeals to and employs autonomous reason, and Thomas the theologian appeals to Scripture, but Thomas “the theologian need not at all ask St. Thomas the autonomous philosopher to reverse his decisions on the fundamental question about the existence of God.”

In summary, Van Til maintains that Aquinas has let the infection of Greek autonomous reason into the fortress of faith, and reason has taken over. Reason is the foundation on which Aquinas tries to build his system of doctrine and thus his apologetic methodology. (pp. 73-74)

In a footnote, Dr. Fesko references six other works “where Van Til makes similar claims.” He also cites Greg Bahnsen’s criticisms of the apologetics of E. J. Carnell and Francis Schaeffer as an example of the subsequent influence of Van Til’s critique of Aquinas.

What Aquinas Really Said

In this section, Dr. Fesko seeks to show that Van Til and his followers have misunderstood the roles that reason and the Five Ways play in Aquinas’s theology. The critics claim that “Aquinas constructs a rational foundation upon which he then builds his theological system. The system rests on autonomous reason rather than special revelation, or Scripture.” (p. 74)

As Fesko sees it, the issue boils down to this:

The chief question here is, Did the proofs ever serve as the primary ground for Thomas’s system, a rational stepladder that begins with reason and then rises to revelation? Quite simply, the answer is no. (p. 74)

Fesko argues that Aquinas “never advanced the proofs as a rational foundation for his system of theology.” On the contrary, the proofs function “only on the presupposition of faith and the authority of Scripture.” The proofs aren’t necessary for faith; rather, they seek only to show that faith isn’t contrary to reason but in accord with it. Some of the claims of the Christian faith, such as the existence of God, can be demonstrated by natural reason. However, those truths necessary for salvation can only be known by divine revelation.

For Aquinas, then, reason is merely “an assistant or handmaid (ancilla) to faith. Reason answers objections and clarifies revealed truths.” (p. 77)

Fesko proceeds to summarize Aquinas’s five famous proofs of the existence of God, noting that he prefaces these demonstrations with an appeal to Scripture (Romans 1:20 and Exodus 3:14) as support for his approach. Aquinas’s preferred method is to argue from effect to cause (i.e., from creation to Creator).

Fesko asks us to observe two things about the proofs. First, “they are probable demonstrations rather than incontrovertible proofs.” Second, Aquinas “does not intend them to serve as a rational foundation for faith”; the proofs are only meant to show that “the claims of Christianity are rational and even demonstrable, which means that Christians and non-Christians can enter into a genuine dialogue about God’s existence.” (p. 80)

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