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Category Archives: Apologetics
The topic of moral values comes up often in Christian apologetics. For example, Christians will argue that atheists cannot account for moral values or that the moral relativism associated with postmodernism is somehow self-defeating. I’ve noticed that in such discussions there’s often confusion (usually on the part of the non-Christian, but not always) about what we mean when we speak of ‘moral values’. Indeed, the term is often used equivocally, without recognizing that there are at least two meaningful ways in which we can talk about ‘moral values’. My purpose in this post is to explicitly distinguish these two senses and illustrate why it’s so important to keep the distinction clear in apologetic discussions.
There are different ways of drawing the distinction, but here I propose simply to distinguish between Subjective Moral Values (SMVs) and Objective Moral Values (OMVs). Subjective Moral Values are moral values subjectively held by an individual person. For example, we might say that Ben has different moral values than Lisa, if Ben holds to Christian sexual ethics while Lisa does not. Thus Ben values (in a moral sense) certain sexual behaviors differently than Lisa. He makes different moral value judgments about premarital sex, polyamory, etc. Clearly there’s a relativity to this kind of moral value: SMVs are relative to subjects (i.e., the subjects who engage in moral valuation) and thus can vary from person to person.
Now contrast SMVs with OMVs. Objective Moral Values are non-subjective moral norms, i.e., moral norms that are independent of subjective factors (beliefs, convictions, preferences, feelings, etc.). OMVs are moral norms that hold regardless of whether anyone knows, believes, or recognizes them as such. People may disagree about what the OMVs actually are, but the vast majority of people take for granted (at least in practice) that there are OMVs. I think most people would recognize parental care for infants as an objective moral norm. Parents ought to care for their infant children. Even if every human being became infected with a virus which caused a kind of moral insanity, such that everyone became convinced that parents ought to neglect and abuse their children, it would still be objectively the case that parents ought to care for their children. Such a virus would disrupt our SMVs, but OMVs would be unchanged. Indeed, OMVs couldn’t be affected by a mind-altering virus, precisely because OMVs are by nature non-subjective; they’re independent of subjective mental states.
So why is the distinction between SMVs and OMVs important in Christian apologetics? Let me give two illustrations.
Earlier this year I received the following thoughtful question from DG (as I will refer to him) about the argument for God from logic, which I quote in full:
In his essay [in Beyond the Control of God?] Professor Welty points out that in TCR [Theistic Conceptual Realism] “objectivity is secured by there being just one omniscient and necessarily existent person whose thoughts are uniquely identified as AOs.” But how do we get to this one from within the confines of a TCR approach alone? And in “The Lord of Non-Contradiction” you and Professor Welty state: “If the laws of logic are necessarily existent thoughts, they can only be the thoughts of a necessarily existent mind.” Here we go from plural thoughts to a singular mind as we do in the conclusion: “But if there are necessarily existent thoughts, there must be a necessarily existent mind; and if there is a necessarily existent mind, there must be a necessarily existent person.” But why not minds or persons? In note 31, you partially address my concern: “It might be objected that the necessary existence of certain thoughts entails only that, necessarily, some minds exist. Presumably the objector envisages a scenario in which every possible world contains one or more contingent minds, and those minds necessarily produce certain thoughts (among which are the laws of logic). Since those thoughts are produced in every possible world, they enjoy necessary existence.” You then show how this option fails and I agree. But what excludes many necessary beings each of which sustain some necessary truths? This is certainly ontologically extravagant and, as Adams notes in his book on Leibniz (p. 181), perhaps we can simply appeal to Ockham’s Razor to deduce one mind. But he adds, and I agree, that “a more rigorous argument would be desirable”.
At first I thought we could, as Quentin Smith suggests in his essay “The Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence”, claim that the actual world is an infinite conjunction of all true propositions and that such a proposition, following conceptualism, could only be an accusative of one omniscient mind. But to claim there is such an infinite conjunctive proposition that needs a mind to account for it, given the view that propositions are mental effects, seems to assume there is an infinite mind who is thinking the infinite conjunction. Thus the addition of the actual world in the argument appears to beg the question.
I also considered Leibniz’s argument that without one divine mind we can’t account for how necessary truths “can be combined, any one to any one, because any two propositions can be connected to prove a new one”. But here we also seem to presuppose one mind sustaining the infinite conjunction of necessary truths that we discover in our finite combinations. Pruss, in his discussion of Leibniz’s approach, brings in a possible worlds option by pointing out that “the idea of a possible world will contain the ideas of all other possible worlds since at that world it will be true that they are possible” (Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds, 207). But wouldn’t we need one omniscient mind intending the world ensemble that is supposed to help us infer there is one omniscient mind thinking the ensemble?
I suppose we could appeal to a premise that states it is impossible for there to be a necessarily existing mind different from God. But this doesn’t seem persuasive to me at the moment.
As I understand it, the objection can be boiled down to this. Even granting that we’ve shown that necessary truths (such the laws of logic) presuppose a necessarily existent mind, it doesn’t follow that these truths are grounded in only one such mind. As DG puts it:
But what excludes many necessary beings each of which sustain some necessary truths?
An obvious first move would be to appeal to the principle of parsimony. We should not multiply entities beyond necessity. If necessary truths need to be grounded in a necessarily existent mind, then one such mind will suffice. There’s no explanatory need for further minds. But I also agree that “a more rigorous argument would be desirable,” so what follows is a preliminary sketch of one.
You might know that P&R have been publishing new editions of Cornelius Van Til’s major works. You might also know that those new editions have introductions and explanatory notes by WTS professors William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint.
You might not know, however, that a couple of Edgar’s introductory essays are fully contained in the free samples of those books available on the Westminster Bookstore website:
Check them out!
I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week. On opening it up, I fell upon the dedication “In Memoriam” to Douglas Adams, accompanied by the following quotation (presumably from Adams):
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.
Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way. Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.
So a more fitting question would be:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?
To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”
In fact, an even more probing question would be:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?
But that doesn’t sound nearly so witty, which I guess goes to show that cleverness and profundity don’t always coincide.
Overall it was one of the better theist-atheist debates I’ve encountered, and I would recommend watching it. The two opponents were intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, experienced, and focused on the issues. I’m not going to evaluate all the arguments in the debate or make a judgment about who ‘won’ the debate (it depends which criteria you apply). I’m just going to make some very general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.
One criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that its advocates rarely if ever offer serious arguments for their distinctive claims (e.g., the claim that our ability to reason presupposes the existence of God). The criticism is overstated, but there is a measure of truth to it. I count myself a presuppositionalist, but I’ve been frustrated in the past by presuppositionalists who seem to imagine that declaring what Van Til’s “transcendental argument” purports to demonstrate is tantamount to actually making that demonstration. Simply asserting that “without God you can’t prove anything at all” or that “your very ability to reason presupposes the existence of God” does nothing whatsoever to explain why those weighty assertions should be believed. Likewise for the failure of non-Christians to answer questions asking them to account for their ability to reason, to know truths about the world, to make meaningful moral judgments, etc., in terms of their own worldviews. Questions cannot substitute for arguments, no matter how pointed those questions may be.
So it’s important for presuppositionalists to present arguments in support of their claims, and to ensure their critics are aware of those arguments so that they can be critically evaluated. In that spirit, I thought it would be useful to gather in one place my own presuppositional arguments, as well as my attempts to explain or reconstruct the arguments of other presuppositionalists:
- If Knowledge Then God (2005) — a paper in which I summarize Van Til’s transcendental argument (actually multiple versions of it) and contrast it with the theistic arguments of Alvin Plantinga.
- The Theistic Preconditions of Knowledge (2006) — an argument that human knowledge presupposes the existence of God.
- Presuppositionalism and Frame’s Epistemology (2009) — an essay on John Frame’s distinctive contributions to epistemology and apologetics, in which I sketch out (in the final section) a triperspectival presuppositional critique of naturalism.
- The Lord of Non-Contradiction (2011) — an article (co-authored with Greg Welty) which argues for the existence of God from the laws of logic.
- In Defense of the Argument for God from Logic (2013) — our responses to several critiques of the argument in the previous article.
- Antitheism Presupposes Theism (2011) — a defense of Van Til’s provocative claim, which extends the argument for God from logic into an argument for God from any belief stance (including agnosticism).
- Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism (2016) — the outline of an argument to the effect that atheism cannot account for objective rationality.
In addition, my book Why Should I Believe Christianity? offers a broadly presuppositional (and evidential!) case for the biblical Christian worldview.
The following article was published in the Christian Research Journal 39:5 (2016). Thanks to CRI for permission to post it here.
How Do You Know That the Bible Is God’s Word?
If you’re a regular reader of the Christian Research Journal, I suspect that question immediately prompts you to think of arguments and evidences for the divine inspiration of the Bible. Take, for example, the fulfilled biblical prophecies, the astonishing consistency and unity of the Bible’s message despite having many human authors over hundreds of years, and the testimony of Jesus, who confirmed His claim to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead.
Those would be good thoughts, but there’s a problem with answering the question in that way. If a Christian’s knowledge that the Bible is God’s Word depends on being able to marshal various arguments and evidences, then surely only a small minority of Christians actually know that the Bible is God’s Word. The majority of Christians may believe it, but they don’t know it, simply because they’re not familiar with these apologetic evidences. They’ve never been asked to justify their beliefs in that way, and they wouldn’t know how to do it if they were asked.
Obviously it would be very unfortunate if it turned out that most Christians don’t actually know that Christianity is true. It also seems quite implausible. Take my late grandmother, for example. Her Christian faith towered over mine. Should I conclude that I knew something she didn’t — namely, that the Bible she built her life on is indeed God’s Word — because she wasn’t able to marshal arguments and evidences in the way that I can?
Good question! I offer my answer, over eight chapters and a couple of hundred pages, in the second volume of the recently launched Christian Focus series, The Big Ten: Critical Questions Answered. The new book — ingeniously titled Why Should I Believe Christianity? — is basically an introductory exposition and defense of the biblical Christian worldview, but with some distinctive features (on which, see below). In this post, I’ll summarize the content of the book for anyone who might be interested to read it or give it to a non-Christian friend.
Chapter 1 (“Why Believe?”) considers the general question, Why should I believe anything at all? Simply put: we should believe something if it’s true, and we generally determine whether something is true by way of reasons (which can take different forms). We should aim to have beliefs that are objectively true, rather than beliefs that are (say) comfortable, desirable, or fashionable. The chapter also briefly addresses the epistemological cul-de-sacs of relativism and skepticism.
Chapter 2 (“The Big Picture”) seeks to explain why Christianity should be evaluated as an entire worldview: as a comprehensive, integrated, self-contained, self-defining perspective on everything that exists and matters to us. I explain what a worldview is, why worldviews matter, why only one worldview can be true, and how we can apply four ‘tests’ for evaluating worldviews in order to identify that one true worldview.
Chapter 3 (“Christianity as a Worldview”) sets out a summary of the Christian worldview along familiar lines: God, creation, mankind, fall, revelation, salvation, and consummation (“the final chapter”). One of my aims here is to explain the biblical worldview in ‘ordinary’ language (as far as that’s possible!) and in a way that communicates the internal coherence of that worldview.
Chapter 4 (“God is There”) makes a case for the central tenet of the Christian worldview — the existence of the personal creator God of the Bible — based on six features of our everyday lives that we all take for granted: existence, values, morality, reason, mind, and science. I also suggest that while God’s existence can be demonstrated through reasoned arguments, such arguments aren’t necessary in order to know that God exists, because his existence is plainly evident from his creation (Romans 1:19-20).
Chapter 5 (“God is Not Silent”) contends that if a personal creator God exists then he would speak to us, and that God has in fact spoken to us through the prophetic scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. (You’ll have to get the book to find out how I make that argument!) Along the way I explain why, when it comes to divinely inspired scriptures, we should favor the Christian view over the alternative views of Judaism and Islam. I close out the chapter with an appeal to the ‘expert’ testimony of Jesus.
Chapter 6 (“God With Us”) focuses on the true identity of Jesus. Here I make a fairly traditional case for the deity of Christ, appealing primarily to his own testimony and that of his disciples, but also drawing on other confirming evidences. One feature of the argument is that it connects the incarnation with the other tenets of a Christian worldview, highlighting again its inner coherence. The chapter finishes by addressing a common objection, namely, that a divine incarnation is logically impossible and therefore can be dismissed regardless of the supposed evidence.
Chapter 7 (“Defying Death”) explains why Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ and how that essential article of the Christian faith fits into the broader biblical worldview. After dealing with some common objections to miracles, I argue that it’s reasonable to believe in the resurrection and unreasonable to accept any of the various naturalistic alternatives.
Chapter 8 (“What Now?”) ties together the various threads of argument in the preceding chapters and leaves the unbeliever with a challenge: If not Christianity, then what? There must be some worldview that corresponds to reality and makes sense of our experiences of the world. If it isn’t the Christian worldview, which worldview is it? There’s certainly a fence between Christianity and its competitors, but it isn’t one you can sit on.