How Mt 24:32 Refutes Scripturalism

(Aquascum, aquascumSPAMMENOT at gmail dot com)


Table of Contents:



(1) Review

(2) Unspecified reference to propositions

(3) The linguistic phenomenon of ‘indexicals’

(4) When did Jesus’ hearers know?

(5) What did Jesus’ hearers know?

(6) Conclusion

(7) Appendix





In my initial, broad-ranging “Response to Vincent Cheung” (cf. <>), I noted Cheung’s claim – essential to his Scripturalist epistemology – that propositions which are not “directly stated in Scripture” or “validly deducible from Scripture” are propositions which “amount to unjustified opinion at best”. (Cheung makes this claim on p. 43 of “Ultimate Questions”.) I identified this claim as the Scripturalist Exclusion Principle, or SEP.


As I pointed out, in critiquing this element of Scripturalism it is sufficient to point out that SEP is neither a proposition of Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture. Since this essential element of Scripturalism cannot satisfy Scripturalism’s own definition of knowledge, Scripturalism is self-referentially incoherent. If Scripturalism were true, we’d have reason to reject Scripturalism, simply in virtue of the above reflections.


In that initial Response, however, I went further by saying that there were Scriptures which imply the falsity of SEP. In other words, Scripture positively teaches that human beings have knowledge of propositions which are neither directly stated in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture. I want to make a more detailed case for this from one passage of Scripture, and then briefly interact with some of Cheung’s blog comments on this verse.



(1) Review


The text is Mt 24:32: “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”


In my initial Response, I noted three things with respect to this passage. First, according to this text, the individuals Jesus is addressing get their ginwskw, or knowledge, of the seasons by way of observing the trees, not by way of reading their Bibles. God himself says that they have knowledge of propositions, even though these propositions are not contained in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture. Thus, it looks like Mt 24:32 refutes Scripturalism.


Second, I noted that:


In “Presuppositional Confrontations,” Cheung says, “The Bible includes infallible testimonies about what some people have perceived by the senses, and it is biblical infallibility that we respect” (p. 70). Well, yes. But we only “respect” biblical infallibility when we believe what the infallible Bible is claiming, and what is being claimed here is that at least some knowledge is of propositions not contained in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture.


Third, I noted that:


Cheung’s appeal to occasionalism won’t do as a defense of the defects of Scripturalism at this point, since such occasionalism is a departure from Scripturalism, involving as it does divine illumination unto belief in a proposition neither contained in nor validly deducible from Scripture. More on this, later.


This was a reference to my discussion of Cheung’s occasionalism, in section (4) of that document.


Finally, after making these points in my original Response, I noted a possible response Cheung could make to my usage of Mt 24:32, namely:


At this point, Cheung may point out that, as a matter of fact, the propositions referred to in these texts are in Scripture, by virtue of being recorded in these texts, and that therefore these texts cannot possibly be a refutation of Scripturalism. But that would be to miss the point. What these texts are claiming is that these individuals had knowledge of propositions quite apart from finding them or validly deducing them from the propositions of Scripture, since the Scripture in question had not so much as been written yet. The fact that the propositions in question are in the texts is, as it were, incidental to the main claim being made from these texts, and not destructive of it. To refuse to reckon with the fact that God himself declares that these individuals had knowledge apart from the Scripturalist way, would be fatuous.


It might be, however, that Cheung would insist that his Scripturalism does not require individuals to get their knowledge by reflecting on Scripture. Rather, all that is needed to satisfy his Scripturalism is that (1) the individuals in question were caused by God to believe a proposition, and (2) the proposition believed is either contained in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture. Scripturalism does not in addition claim that (3) the occasion of the individual’s belief was their reflection upon Scripture. Thus, Scripturalism is consistent with Mt 24:32 after all.


Notice that if this is to be taken seriously, it is yet another reason to abandon the internalist constraint upon knowledge so characteristic of Cheung’s apologetic approach. (I discussed this constraint at length in my original Response.) For if unbelievers get knowledge simply from divine illumination, quite apart from interaction with Scripture, then of course they don’t need to assume a Christian worldview in order to have knowledge. As long as various processes are taking place in their life, such as the production of beliefs in them by God himself, then they have knowledge, even if they aren’t so much as aware of those processes, much less acknowledge them, much less espouse their truth as part of a “worldview”. But I digress.


Similarly, the spirit of this reply seems to bend over backwards to deny what looks like an obvious implication of Mt 24:32, namely, that what caused the beliefs of Jesus’ hearers was their empirical observations of the fig tree. On Cheung’s view, empirical observations are never a cause of belief, only an “occasion” for God to produce a belief. But this view is clearly at odds with other texts of Scripture. For instance, as I noted in section 4.2 of my original Response, according to Jn 20:29, Jesus says that Thomas believed in him because he had seen Jesus: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Even though we know (on the basis of other texts of Scripture) that God was the primary cause, there was a secondary cause of Thomas’ belief, namely, his seeing of Jesus. If this is the case, then God is not the immediate cause of every human belief. Rather, empirical observations can be the cause (and not just the “occasion” of) various beliefs. Jesus does not say “Because God has caused your belief” but rather “Because you have seen me”. The problem with Cheung’s occasionalism, on Scripturalist grounds, is that it reads into the Scripture that which is not there (God is the immediate cause of every belief), while denying of the Scripture that which is there (empirical observations can be the cause of belief). But again, I digress.


My real point here is to say that the possible Cheungian reply in the last cited paragraph above was already anticipated in my original Response. And that is to simply deny that the propositions Jesus said they knew, are indeed propositions found in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture. Here were my initial thoughts on the matter:


There is also the delicate matter of whether the propositions said to be known in Mt 24:32 are actually contained in Mt 24:32! After all, Jesus is speaking of a general truth, namely, that his hearers “know that summer is near” whenever the fig tree appears a certain way. Presumably, then, which proposition the words “summer is near” expresses depends upon its circumstances of utterance, in particular, the temporal relation of the speaker or thinker to a particular time of year, such that the reference of “is near” is fixed. And surely those propositions (which are the ones Jesus said they knew), are not “validly deducible” from this text of Scripture, lacking as it does the relevant circumstances of utterance year after year and case after case, which alone can pick out the particular propositions they knew.


In the rest of this document, I’d like to expand on the above reply, and make a more thorough argument that the propositions Jesus said his hearers knew, are neither contained in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture.



(2) Unspecified reference to propositions


Involved in this reply is the acknowledgement of a feature of language that is intuitively obvious to us, a feature we use every day: the phenomenon of relatively unspecified reference. One way to illustrate the significance of this phenomenon is to see how it undermines a theory of truth which is popular today, namely, the redundancy theory of truth. The redundancy theory says that we can eliminate truth as a genuine property. As one advocate puts it, “‘It is true that Caesar was murdered’ means no more than that Caesar was murdered, and ‘It is false that Caesar was murdered’ means that Caesar was not murdered” (cf. F. P. Ramsey, ‘Facts and Propositions,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. VII (1927). Excerpted in Truth, ed. George Pitcher (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), pp. 16-17.) Assertions that p is true are just assertions that p, nothing more.


Ramsey’s initial example is of a fairly well-specified that-clause, “that Caesar was murdered”. It is immediately obvious what is the proposition being referred to. But the problem with the redundancy theory is that there are contexts in which it seems unable to capture what we want to say, unless we reintroduce truth as a property after all. For consider unspecified that-clauses. Ramsey himself gives an example: “He is always right.” Ramsey says this means “that the propositions he asserts are always true, and there does not seem to be any way of expressing this without using the word ‘true’” (ibid., p. 17). Ramsey’s proposed solution is to quantify here: “For all p, if he asserts p, p is true.” And since “the propositional function p is true is simply the same as p,” presumably we can rewrite this as “For all p, if he asserts p, then p.” Thus, the redundancy theory of truth is vindicated.


The problem with Ramsey’s solution is clear enough. As A. C. Grayling puts it, the last occurrence of ‘p’ in “For all p, if he asserts p, then p” must “be regarded as an ellipsis of ‘p is true’ for it to be sufficiently sentence-like to serve as the conditional’s consequent. And if so, ‘is true’ is not redundant after all” (p. 162 of An Introduction to Philosophical Logic, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997); authors R. C. Walker, Susan Haack, and Mark Sainsbury make similar points in their own works).



(3) The linguistic phenomenon of ‘indexicals’


Again, my interest here is not to refute the redundancy theory of truth, but to illustrate the phenomenon of unspecified that-clauses or, more generally, unspecified reference to propositions.  Now, one key way the phenomenon of unspecified reference to propositions takes place is by way of indexicals. Indexicals (whether temporal, spatial, or personal) always have their reference determined by the context of utterance, and thus which proposition gets expressed by sentences which use indexicals is determined by that context of utterance as well. One and the same sentence can pick out different propositions on different occasions, if the indexical(s) contained within it have different references on those different occasions.


The sentence “summer is near” employs what is known as a temporal indexical. That is, the words “is near,” to have any reference at all, make reference to a particular time, namely, the time at which the proposition expressed by the sentence which uses the words, is being considered or believed. And so which proposition is being expressed by the sentence in question depends upon the temporal context of utterance or belief. Presumably, in the fall, no one knows that “summer is near,” for the proposition which the sentence “summer is near” expresses when that sentence is used in the fall is that summer is near to the present time, namely the fall. And since that proposition is false, no one can know it.


Likewise, which proposition is expressed by the sentence, “I am now typing,” depends upon its time of use, or context of utterance. Presumably, when uttered by a person when writing an email, the sentence expresses a different proposition than when uttered by the same person when playing tennis. The claim is a claim about the present time, where the present time is picked out by the context of utterance. (Ditto for the reference of the word ‘I’, which is often referred to as a personal indexical. “I am typing” makes a different claim – i.e., expresses a different proposition – when uttered by John Smith than when uttered by Susie Jones, even if they both happen to be typing. Ditto, as well, for spatial indexicals, such as “here” or “there”. Their reference too depends upon the context of utterance.)



(4) When did Jesus’ hearers know?


We are now in a position to make my main point. Consider again Jesus’ claim about his hearers: “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” What are they said to know, and when do they know it? Let’s begin with the second question, for Jesus explicitly answers it. It is “when its [i.e., the fig tree’s] branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves,” that they “know that summer is near”. So this is not knowledge always had by everybody. Rather, it is knowledge had on particular occasions, namely, when the fig tree is in a particular state (and, presumably, when Jesus’ hearers observe the state of the fig tree, such that this observation causes or occasions the associated belief about the seasons).


But, of course, the reason why “summer is near” is not always known by Jesus’ hearers, but is instead only known at particular times, is that what the sentence “summer is near” expresses is a different claim on different occasions. That is, different propositions are being expressed by this sentence at different times of year. During winter, “summer is near” expresses the proposition that “summer is near to the present time, namely winter,” and, of course, no one knows that, for even if they believed it, it wouldn’t be true. But during the latter part of spring, perhaps, “summer is near” expresses the proposition that “summer is near to the present time, namely, the end of spring,” and, of course, many people can know that proposition, for obviously it is true.


Again, when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” and some deluded false messiah says, “I am the light of the world,” they are making different claims (that is, expressing different propositions), because the reference of the “I” in each sentence differs, because of (obvious) differences in the context of utterance. This single sentence expresses two different propositions on two different occasions, and one of these propositions is true and the other is false. Likewise, whenever Jesus’ hearers know that “summer is near,” the proposition they know involves a claim about the time when they believe it, namely, that summer is near to that time. If believed in the spring of 27 A.D., for instance, what is being believed is that summer is near to that time. If believed in 2005, presumably, a different proposition is being believed.



(5) What did Jesus’ hearers know?


So (to return to the two questions we need to ask of this text), what do they know, according to Jesus? Well, Jesus is here stating a general truth: whenever X happens, then they know Y. Since it is a general truth, it is instanced in their experience many, many times (notice that the verb tense of “putting” forth leaves and “knowing” summer is near is the present, not the aorist). Jesus does not say, “when the fig tree did such-and-such on a particular date in history, then you knew such-and-such on that date.” Rather, he is asserting a general truth: whenever X happens, then they also know Y. But what is the Y which is known? Well, that is determined by the time of knowledge, and the time of knowledge is not specified by Jesus. Jesus here refers to an entire class of propositions, but doesn’t tell us what they are in particular.


So here is the challenge for Cheung: given that, on any occasion of knowing that “summer is near,” the proposition which is known involves reference to the time of knowledge, how is that proposition either contained in Scripture or validly deducible in Scripture? The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what were the specific times during the year when, on the occasion of observing the fig tree, the related proposition was believed. Indeed, we’re not even sure which year in history Jesus spoke these words. So the propositions said to be known by Jesus’ hearers are neither contained in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture, though of course Jesus makes relatively unspecified reference to them, by means of a temporal indexical.


These observations not only refute Scripturalism, but are sufficient to refute a well-known defensive strategy employed by Scripturalists. When any Scriptural example of allegedly empirical knowledge is brought to their attention, they repeatedly trot out a number of claims: (1) the text doesn’t say that empirical observation caused their belief; (2) the text is compatible with saying that God caused their belief on the occasion of their empirical observations; (3) since the critic is appealing to a verse of Scripture, it is obvious that the proposition known is in Scripture after all. Therefore, the text adduced against Scripturalism doesn’t refute Scripturalism at all.


What I have been laboring at length to show is that (3) cannot be applied to Mt 24:32. As a matter of fact, the proposition (actually, propositions) said to be known by Jesus’ hearers are not in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture. The phenomenon of knowing that summer is near, whether caused or at least occasioned by empirical observation of a fig tree, entails knowledge of a whole host of propositions not validly deducible from “summer is near”. Rather, the propositions known on these various occasions involve reference to specific times experienced by the knowers. The propositions known are not known throughout the year, because they are not true throughout the year. And the reason they are not true throughout the year is because they are different propositions, some of which are true at some times, others of which are true at other times. And unfortunately, lacking as we do knowledge of those times when Jesus’ hearers observed the state of the fig tree and had the associated knowledge about coming seasons, we lack knowledge of which propositions, in particular, they knew. Nevertheless, we have Jesus’ testimony: they knew the propositions in question.



(6) Conclusion


Cheung is of course free to reject all of my reasoning above, although I think doing so will involve massive confusion when it comes to discerning which propositions are in Scripture, for the elementary distinctions I’ve noted above are crucial in ironing out the linguistic ambiguity of many Scriptural passages. Indeed, if someone is going to make the “propositions” of Scripture to be the cornerstone of his epistemology, it would be a good thing to have a robust theory of propositions, especially their relation to specific features of language. Otherwise, there will be quite a bit of confusion over which propositions are contained or asserted in Scripture. But at the very least, he ought to tell us which propositions are said to be known by Jesus’ hearers, and whether these propositions are found in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture. We can then test his Scripturalism by Scripture, searching to see if indeed the propositions have the status Cheung says they have. As far as I can tell, they don’t.



(7) Appendix


The reader can find some of Cheung’s comments on Mt 24:32 at <>, under comment 13. An inquirer had posted the following challenge to Cheung:


I would still need that verse refuted for as it stands: the Lord of Glory has told us that “when you SEE the fig tree you KNOW that summer is near.”


Let’s look at Cheung’s response. First, he says:


Right. When you see a mirage, there must be water (or whatever you see). Hallucinations never happen. Nonsense.


It is fallacious to infer from this verse a simplistic “I see, therefore I know” epistemology. Otherwise, it would be impossible to make a mistake, so that when I SEE water, I KNOW that there is water, and that it must not be a mirage.


Notice that Cheung’s reply presupposes the infallibilist constraint on knowledge (discussed at length in my original Response). On Cheung’s view, if someone claims that empirical observations give someone knowledge, they must also be claiming that “hallucinations never happen” and that it is “impossible to make a mistake.” But of course, that is Cheung’s infallibilist constraint on knowledge. What is he doing imposing it upon his inquirer?


Second, he says:


Does Tom want to prove that sensations are in fact infallible? I am guessing that he does not. But then how can the verse that he quotes allow for mistakes in sensation, if Jesus is approving sensation itself instead of making an infallible judgment about the sensation (of seeing the fig tree)?


Notice again the infallibilist constraint upon knowledge, which Cheung pins on “Tom”. What is a Scripturalist doing assuming a condition of knowledge that is neither contained in nor validly deducible from Scripture?


Third, Cheung says:


I affirm the words of Jesus in the verse, not the sensation of the Pharisees (of seeing the fig tree). But if Tom, on the basis of this verse, directly affirms the sensation of the Pharisees, then how can he reject other sensations or inferences from sensations?


Well, if Cheung “affirms the words of Jesus in the verse,” then he affirms that Jesus’ hearers knew propositions neither contained in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture (or so I say, on the basis of the reasoning presented in the rest of this document). In addition, notice how Cheung once again foists his non-revelational, rationalist intuitions about knowledge on “Tom”. If “Tom” “directly affirms the sensation of” Jesus’ hearers (in other words, if he affirms that they get knowledge by their sensations), then he cannot “reject other sensations or inferences from sensations.” But of course, that only follows if the infallibilist constraint on knowledge is true, and Cheung has given us no reason to believe this. On Cheung’s view, if you hold that the senses even give us knowledge one time, then you must hold that they must give us knowledge all of the time, and therefore you cannot “reject other sensations or inferences from sensations.” The problem with this reductio, as with so many of Cheung’s reductios, is that it makes use of an unbiblical rationalism about knowledge. Cheung must abandon his Scripturalism, in order to defend it.


-- Aquascum