Continuing Comments (July 1st, 2005)
(Aquascum, aquascumSPAMMENOT at gmail dot com)
Table of Contents:
“Taking Time to Refute Cheung”
“Man’s Innate Knowledge” (1)
“Man’s Innate Knowledge” (2)
“Encouragement to Readers”
“Invincibility, Irrefutability, and Infallibility”
On June 27th, 2005, I posted my “Response to Vincent Cheung” and “How Mt 24:32 Refutes Scripturalism”. Since then, Cheung has posted several entries to his blog (<http://www.vincentcheung.com>). In this document I make some comments in relation to these entries.
However, before I begin, let me clarify why I think something like my original Response was needed. As blogger Steve Hays puts it:
Cheung is unwittingly positioning his followers for the fall. If they think that his epistemology is an “irrefutable” answer to the best that the unbelieving world has to array against the Christian faith, then they are living in a hall of mirrors. If they were to try his arguments out on a philosophy major, they’d run out of ammo in a hurry and be left utterly defenseless.
I think this is exactly right. In fact, the above is one of the major motivations I had in writing the original Response. I didn’t write it to persuade Cheung, or to goad a reply out of him. As I make plain in the opening paragraphs, I wrote it primarily for my fellow Christians who might be considering Cheung’s apologetic approach. He really is setting up his readers for a fall, because any reasonably reflective unbeliever can refute Scripturalism fairly easily. The claims of Scripturalism are neither contained in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture, and therefore any Scripturalist has a good reason for rejecting Scripturalism.
There is an exchange, of sorts, between Gordon Clark and George Mavrodes on the Trinity Foundation website, about Scripturalism. Unfortunately, Mavrodes doesn’t make the self-referential incoherence issue front and center. (Plantinga would do that for classical foundationalism, about fifteen years later.) Essentially, many critiques of Scripturalism and its attendant doctrines don’t pay close attention to the self-referential incoherence issue, and that's why it looms large in my critique.
Just for the record, in my Response I document my claims not only with reference to Cheung’s “Ultimate Questions,” but also with reference to his “Systematic Theology,” “Presuppositional Confrontations,” “Apologetics in Conversation,” and “The Light of Our Minds” (as well as various blog entries). I disagree with significant theses he presents in all of those works. (Searching on those titles in my Response will reveal specific page and even paragraph references.) I’ve focused on UQ in the sense that most of my quotes are from that work (after all, Cheung advertises it as his “system of apologetics”), but I’ve read through all of these other works, and at times quote them as well.
Finally, from what I can tell, there’s little difference between Vincent Cheung and Gordon Clark when it comes to apologetics or theology. At the very least, my fellow Christians should be made aware that Cheung’s view (especially his Scripturalism, and his rejection of empirical knowledge) is not the only position taken by the Reformed community (indeed, it is an extreme minority position). Reformed contrasts to Clark and/or Cheung can be found in various materials by Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, Greg Bahnsen, and Ronald Nash. (And for more general contrasts in terms of epistemology, these can be found in the books Mr. Hays mentions at the end of <http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2005/06/solitaire.html>.)
And now, on to comments about Cheung’s recent blog entries.
“Taking Time to Refute Cheung”
The above entry consists of over 2300 words (i.e., five single-spaced pages) devoted to explaining why Cheung doesn’t have the time to respond to recent criticisms. To be sure, I agree with Cheung that it is “humanly impossible to do so many things,” but why spend so much time to convince others that you have no time to interact with criticisms? As one commentator put it:
I say the following sincerely, and not at all saracastically: It sure would’ve been nice had Cheung spent the time and effort he took to write his non-response to instead respond to at least one of Aquascum’s points. Cheung’s non-response probably could’ve been summed up in a couple of sentences, or a paragraph at most, and he could’ve spent the remainder of the post attempting to interact with Aquascum. Pity.
Of course, I agree. Perhaps in the future there will be a more substantive reply from Cheung.
Cheung does say that this particular blog “entry is not directed against anyone in particular, but this is just to explain my perspective and limitation, and to show that I am not trying to ignore or avoid you when I can’t give you the attention that you want.” I of course take him at his word. But is it not profitless, and a waste of time, to speculate on the inward motivations of one’s critics? In the same entry, Cheung says:
Thus many of the people who contact me to ask questions or to challenge me to debates assume that I specialize in apologetics, as if this is what I spend most of my time on, although my materials in this area is just one part of my biblical teaching ministry. Perhaps this is a testament to the strength of the method taught in those books, that both the unbelievers who oppose the Christian faith and the believers who disagree with the approach feel so threatened that they exert so much futile effort to refute them.
Cheung assumes that believers who disagree with his approach take the time to refute it because they “feel so threatened” by Cheung’s approach. Well, if Cheung would like to make the case for this, he can go right ahead. But again, I find it extremely odd to spend precious time speculating about the motives of one’s detractors, rather than directly responding to their arguments. Is this the example we should be setting for other believers?
Again, Cheung says:
It is not my fault if your own unbiblical methods and doctrines are so feeble that I managed to trample all over them even by accident (as if stepping on an ant while on a leisurely Sunday stroll with my wife), and utterly embarrassed you by destroying your school of thought before the whole world. Don’t get so worked up over me; I never meant to outdo you in apologetics without even trying. I am just minding my own business and teaching the Bible — it’s your own fault for being so weak and irrational.
On the one hand, Cheung says that paragraphs like the above are not “directed against anyone in particular.” So who, then, is he addressing in the above? If no one in particular, then is Cheung actually directing such sarcasm against every critic in general? And is such sarcasm against fellow believers, not for the sake of the gospel but rather on behalf of one’s apologetic method, really warranted? I suppose I could have taken space in my 41 page Response to get sarcastic about Cheung, or speculate on his inward motives, but of course you’ll find none of that there. Why unnecessarily alienate the very Christians you are seeking to persuade?
In the same blog entry, Cheung responds to one of his critics:
I did skim a lot of it, and slowly read several specific places. And based on this limited reading of your essay, I would have to say that, although you have indeed spent more time composing a refutation (again, for this I commend you), it is not essentially better than any of the other refutations that people have already attempted. That is, there are misunderstandings, misrepresentations, fallacious reasonings, failures to provide your own positive construction (only by which you can assert a negative refutation), etc.
Again, is not this way of proceeding extremely odd? Cheung takes the time to “slowly read several specific places” in the critique presented to him, but he apparently doesn’t have the time to specifically identify any of the “misunderstandings, misrepresentations, fallacious reasonings,” etc. which he claims to find in the critique. And he informs his readers of this in a 2300-word blog entry which explains why he doesn’t have the time to respond to critics! I’ll leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions here.
Finally, Cheung says:
My advice to anyone who has read an attempted refutation of my works is to just read my works AGAIN — slowly and carefully. You will see that in all cases, my response is already there, either by explicit argument, or by necessary implication.
I have a better piece of advice: develop specific responses to the criticisms given, rather than direct others to the very pieces of writings which have already been criticized.
“Man’s Innate Knowledge” (1)
In the above entry, Cheung makes a veiled reference to my recent critique:
Some people have failed to note this distinction in my writings (or mistakenly think that I have failed to make this distinction in my writings), so that they falsely accused me of being incoherent on this point (that is, as if I deny intuition and then appeal to it anyway). Rather, in my system of theology and apologetics, (if not for the fact that Scripture teaches it) we can throw out man’s innate knowledge altogether and it will remain essentially unaffected (although some practical adjustments will be needed), since it does not depend on man’s innate knowledge.
As far as I can tell, no one on the Internet has made this claim about Cheung, except me J
Now, the notion that:
 Cheung is incoherent because he denies the authority of intuition and then appeals to it anyway
… is argued at length in section 2 of my Response.
Whether or not Cheung is actually referring to me here, it is quite easy to point out that what he posts in the blog entry above goes no distance in responding to my arguments. Sure, Cheung can claim that he doesn’t “appeal” to intuition as a means of justifying his apologetic system. He can claim that his “system of theology and apologetics… does not depend on man’s innate knowledge” (such as various intuitions). The problem is that Cheung cannot make good on those claims.
As I argue in my Response, Cheung avails himself of intuition again and again, in defining, articulating, and applying his apologetic system. We can see this in several ways.
First, the very definition of Scripturalism is an appeal to intuition. According to Cheung, knowledge consists of “only what is directly stated in Scripture and what is validly deducible from Scripture.” Unfortunately, the notion that valid deduction is a knowledge-preserving and knowledge-extending form of inference is a notion that is neither a proposition of Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture. I’m sure Cheung firmly believes that valid deduction has this relation to knowledge. Indeed, I think Cheung is correct in this belief. It’s just that Scripturalism doesn’t license this belief for him. Rather, its best (and I would say only) defense is intuition. Again, Cheung is free to disagree here, but we’d need to see the arguments. Why does Cheung believe that valid deduction preserves and extends knowledge, if this claim is not so much as taught in or validly deducible from Scripture? So, unfortunately, Cheung’s “system of theology and apologetics” does “depend on man’s innate knowledge.” Cheung is relying on innate knowledge about the authority of deduction, and its relation to knowledge, in the very construction of that system.
Second, in section 2.3 of my Response, I document several cases where Cheung relies on intuition. He relies on intuition to define (1) the extent of our innate knowledge, (2) the law of non-contradiction, and (3) the requirements for a first principle of a worldview. (He also relies on inductive considerations in order to show how the Christian worldview ‘solves’ various philosophical and ethical challenges.)
Third, in section 3 of my Response, I document Cheung’s commitment to a couple of non-revelational constraints on knowledge: infallibilism and internalism. Cheung repeatedly applies these constraints as a means of ruling out the authority of intuition and induction, apparently unaware that these constraints are themselves intuitions about knowledge upon which he relies. They are certainly not propositions of Scripture nor validly deducible from propositions of Scripture. Ironically, Cheung employs intuition as means of rejecting the authority of intuition.
I conclude, then, that Cheung’s recent claim that “some people have… falsely accused me of being incoherent on this point” is just that, a claim. Why Cheung takes the time to maintain this claim, while declining to respond to the specific arguments recently given to him in support of , is anyone’s guess.
“Man’s Innate Knowledge” (2)
Another reason the above entry is interesting because it can be employed in a good defense of natural theology.
After all, according to Cheung, man innately knows propositions about God. Given Scripturalism, all knowledge is of propositions contained in Scripture or what is validly deducible from propositions of Scripture. Therefore, man’s innate knowledge of God, since it is knowledge, must fall into one or the other of those two categories.
But then, according to Cheung’s initial definition of knowledge, whatever is validly deducible from that innate knowledge is itself knowledge. What this means is that we can gain further knowledge of God by means of, at the very least, valid deduction from our innate knowledge of God. This is natural theology.
The conundrum for Cheung is that, by defining knowledge in Scripturalist fashion, all knowledge is of equal authority, whether it is explicitly derived from Scripture or known innately. As long as, in the end, it is either knowledge of Scriptural propositions or of propositions validly deducible from Scriptural propositions, it qualifies as genuine knowledge. So why can’t we deductively build a system of theology from our innate knowledge of God (contra Cheung’s blog entry above)? According to Scripturalism, it would still be knowledge, and just as much knowledge as any other form of knowledge.
Yes, Cheung claims (in the above blog entry) that “there is insufficient content, clarity, and objectivity” in “our innate knowledge of God” for it to “be the first principle of the biblical worldview.” But how does he know this? Is that claim (about the nature of our innate knowledge, and its relation to worldviews) a proposition of Scripture or validly deducible from propositions of Scripture? I’m afraid not. So Cheung can only avoid a total rationalism about building a system of theology (in which there is no explicit reference to special revelation), by embracing non-revelational intuitions about the nature of our innate knowledge. That is, he must reject his Scripturalism.
“Encouragement to Readers”
The above blog entry makes mention of “several fairly public criticisms (from several different people) against me that came out this month.” Interestingly enough, Cheung again declines the opportunity to spend at least a few of his nearly 600 words on responding to even a single criticism of his apologetic approach.
Cheung tells his readers that:
Moreover, I am assured by the fact that these critics are, to put it mildly, not very smart, and so I need not fear that they will stop stirring up interest for my materials and sending new readers my way.
Is it Cheung’s regular practice to question the intelligence of his fellow Christians, and that in a public forum? Is it not odd in the extreme to dismiss your recent critics as unintelligent, while failing to type out a response to even a single criticism those critics have made?
Again, Cheung writes:
Now, after this brief report on the effects of these criticisms, I might not say anything about them for a while. I still think that the critics might finally catch on and stop what they are doing if I gloat too much about this. So from now on, I will try to keep quiet about all of this and just let them do their job. But I am mentioning this now to let you know what is happening, and so that you will not be dismayed but rather rejoice whenever you come across the typically inaccurate and incompetent criticisms of my works. I am reaching a number of people that I have never reached before.
So far, Cheung has dismissed his recent critics as “not very smart,” and characterized their criticisms as “inaccurate” and “incompetent”. But notice what Cheung has not done:
He has not responded to a single criticism.
Indeed, he has spent thousands of words explaining why he doesn’t have time to respond to any criticisms. Rather, he “gloats” over the idea that unanswered criticisms work to his benefit. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this package of ‘responses’ from Cheung actually performs a meaningful service to his readers.
“Invincibility, Irrefutability, and Infallibility”
In the above blog entry, Cheung says things like the following:
 “I have stopped making some of my earliest materials available because they contain errors.” Indeed, “these old materials contained a number of deficiencies and errors.”
 “I have improved and have written better materials to replace them.”
 Therefore, “I hold myself to a very high standard.”
 Therefore, the above “tends to confirm my credibility rather than to undermine it.”
 Therefore, “this goes to show that I am willing to admit my mistakes, even to the point of pulling materials off the shelves and then publicly discussing it.”
 “I never claimed invincibility or irrefutability for these old materials.”
 “I do claim that a number of things that I have written are invincible and irrefutable.” Indeed, “I claim that I am invincible and irrefutable on certain points.”
Several things can be said about the above.
First, notice that none of - is a proposition of Scripture nor validly deducible from propositions of Scripture. They are, in effect, empirical, historical, and non-canonical claims about Vincent Cheung. Thus, given Cheung’s Scripturalism, no one can know any of -, not even Cheung himself. On what basis, then, does he ask his readers to accept -?
Perhaps Cheung believes that - is opinion, rather than knowledge. But then what distinguishes Cheung’s opinions from any other opinion out there, such as “my pink unicorn loves me”? Why should we accept the former and not the latter, if they are all opinion and not knowledge? What makes the difference here?
This of course is a general problem with Cheung’s writings. Read just about any blog entry at random. It will be filled with propositions neither contained in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture. Given Scripturalism, on what basis are Cheung’s readers supposed to accept these opinions?
Second, as is especially clear from , Cheung is making an inductive argument for his own credibility. That is, he explicitly says that his practice of correcting his old errors confirms his credibility. So Cheung is appealing to past historical particulars in order to ground a conclusion. But as I noted in my Response, Cheung rejects induction as a source of knowledge; on Cheung’s view, “induction is always a formal fallacy” (“Ultimate Questions,” p. 20, 40). So how can this inductive procedure “show” anything? Why is Cheung availing himself of a method of argument which he denies to others, and indeed proclaims is wholly fallacious?
Third, notice the difference between  and . Some of Cheung’s past materials were refutable (indeed, they “contained a number of… errors”). But Cheung claims that at least some of his present material is irrefutable. Not only does he claim in  above that “a number of things that I have written are invincible and irrefutable,” but he speaks quite generally of his present works in the following fashion: “I have confidence in my products — they are accurate and irrefutable” (cf. <http://www.vincentcheung.com/2005/06/22/but-where-is-the-refutation/>).
So here is the question: given that Cheung has been refutable in the past, how does he know that his material is irrefutable in the present?
This is, of course, precisely the argument which Cheung makes against empirical knowledge. If our senses have deceived us in the past (producing errors), then we have no right to trust any of our sensations in the present. But if this argument is sound, then so is its parallel: if Cheung’s works have deceived us in the past (producing errors), then we have no right to trust any of Cheung’s works in the present.
In reply, Cheung might say that, “Insofar as some propositions contained in my works just are propositions contained in Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture, it follows that those portions of my works are irrefutable.” But of course this requires Cheung to know that propositions in his works have the status of being contained in Scripture or being validly deducible from Scripture. And certainly that is neither contained in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture.
In other words, Cheung is making a meta-epistemological claim. He is claiming that his present works have a particular epistemic status; he is claiming that they are irrefutable. But how does Cheung know this? Is the proposition “many of Vincent Cheung’s written works are irrefutable” either a proposition of Scripture or validly deducible from Scripture? Presumably, Cheung can’t even make a valid inference from the Scriptures to his own existence, much less to the epistemic status of his written works. For there simply is no reference to Vincent Cheung in the Bible, much less to his written works.
So how, exactly, does Cheung know that his material is irrefutable in the present (in contrast to the past)? And if he can’t know this, why is he claiming this, and indeed asking his readers to accept it throughout this blog entry?
At points Cheung tries to make a fundamental distinction among statements contained in his works:
Now, other than my positions on the core issues, I admit that certain statements in my books could be wrong. But I have never claimed to be infallible, only that my method of apologetics is invincible (it will always defeat the opponent) and irrefutable (it cannot be defeated by any opponent). And it is invincible and irrefutable because it is biblical and rational. This is still true even if certain non-essential statements in my books are mistaken. Again, a general invincibility and irrefutability is very different from infallibility or absolute perfection, and I have never claimed to be infallible.
Notice Cheung’s distinction between “certain non-essential statements in my books” (which could be “mistaken”) and his “method of apologetics” (which is “invincible” and “irrefutable”). But of course his “method of apologetics” just is a series of statements he makes in his books. How then does Cheung know that those statements constitute an “irrefutable” position? Since Cheung has been in error in the past, then he ought to admit that he can be in error in the present.
The irony is that Cheung appeals to his activity of correcting his past errors as supplying premises for an inductive argument which “confirms” his own “credibility,” all the while failing to notice that it is that same activity which supplies premises for an inductive argument which undermines his own credibility. The more one corrects one’s errors, the more one reveals that he regularly writes errors. Indeed, if an inductive argument is to work at all, then what we must conclude from Cheung’s past activity of correcting his errors is not that he is presently irrefutable, but that he is committed to correcting his errors in the present. How a commitment to correct one’s present errors entails one’s present irrefutability, is anyone’s guess.
The above confusions lead Cheung to make bizarre claims like the following:
It is with this same mindset, and the same willing to admit error, that I insist that there is no possibility that my present apologetic method (among other things) can be defeated or refuted, either by reason or by revelation.
For the rest of my life, there is zero possibility that I will change my mind regarding these points.
How can an insistence “that there is no possibility that my present apologetic method… can be defeated or refuted, either by reason or by revelation” possibly be construed as a “mindset” and a “willingness” to admit error?! Is it not the precise opposite? Is someone who says “there is zero possibility that I will change my mind” really someone who is willing to admit error? I’ll leave it to Cheung’s readers to sort this one out.
The fundamental problem with Cheung’s stance is that when he says things like the following:
I come off strong because, at the risk of being misinterpreted as arrogant, I wish to impart my confidence toward the Scripture to people.
… he fails to note a crucial distinction between Scripture and his interpretation of Scripture. I have no doubt that Cheung is confident in the Scriptures. He is to be commended for this. But it is illegitimate for Cheung to transfer this confidence to his own interpretation of Scripture. As a Reformed Protestant, Cheung should be among the first to concede the fallibility of his own interpretations of Scripture.