Comments in this recent discussion of apologetic methodologies by Liberty University professor Gary Habermas led me to find a paper he wrote on the topic, making the same claims back in 2002. Habermas is a well-known evidentialist and he defends his views in a faculty research paper entitled “Greg Bahnsen, John Warwick Montgomery, and Evidential Apologetics.” When it comes to presuppositionalists, however, I find some of his comments not only not compelling, but underwhelming and unfortunate in various ways. By considering some of his claims against us, I believe we can learn a few things about the nature, and thus the strengths and/or weaknesses, of the two positions.
I would thank Dr. Habermas, therefore, for presenting material that gives opening to an important discussion. We can be assured that this discussion would have happened earlier had either 1) Greg L. Bahnsen still been alive in 2002, or 2) I had seen this paper earlier than I did. But here we are.
My critiques will be simple and somewhat repetitive: Harbemas has made way too much of presuppositionalists’ references to evidences, and he has misread, or misunderstood, much of what he has presented on their behalf. I think, further, that there are reasons for this. Despite claims as to a “converging nature” between methodologies, there are reasons why the distance between evidentialism and presuppositionalism (both properly understood) is actually quite great: they come from irreconcilable theological positions. As long as each is consistent with their theological presuppositions (and they are not, always), the difference between the methodologies will always be night and day.
It’s simple: a consistent Arminian cannot develop a presuppositionalist method, and a consistent Reformed theologian can develop nothing else. In fact, the more consistent Arminians will remain with their Arminianism, the more they will develop evidentialistic and probabilistic arguments and methods. More importantly for this article, the more they are consistent, they seem less able even to understand and represent what presuppositionalists teach.
Presuppositionalists and Evidences
Among the more troubling instances of this in Habermas’s paper are in the section “Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Method and Positive Apologetics.” By “positive apologetics” here, Habermas means arguments proving the Christian claims as opposed to mere critiques of the unbelievers’ positions. And it is clear that for Habermas, positive arguments are inseparable from historical and empirical evidences. For this is the troubling aspect of this section, as he opens:
One major concern that clearly emerges from reading published works from the Van Tillian presuppositional school of thought is that they seldom even attempt to develop positive evidences for Christian theism. A simply amazing phenomena here is that, while they clearly acknowledge the need to do so, they very rarely ever attempt it. [Emphasis added.]
The emphasized statement above is an exaggeration based on a fairly shallow misreading of presuppositional authors. The misreadings follow like this:
For example, Van Til acknowledges that he thinks it is important to “engage in historical apologetics.” But he explains that he does not do so because his colleagues in his seminary “are doing it better than I could do it.” Still, he adds a few suggestions on how such an effort should be done.
Habermas then adds Bahnsen also as a witness in his favor:
Bahnsen acknowledges Van Til’s approval of historical evidences, listing some of Van Til’s caveats about doing so. Likewise, Bahnsen himself endorses historical evidences.
The irony here is that in the contexts of the references, both Van Til and Bahnsen are expounding why the evidentialist method is incorrect, why evidentialists have misrepresented or misunderstood what Van Til and Bahnsen are saying, and what the proper, limited role of evidences really is. Their point is that while evidences may have a place, they are not only not sufficient, but they can only be useful within a framework that presupposes the truth claims of the Christian God of the Bible. Nothing else will do, but will in fact concede the argument to the unbeliever. As such, evidence are highly limited and subject to the presuppositional argument, but moreover, evidentialism can never be a valid apologetic. And the irony is, of course, that now Habermas is doing exactly the same thing as the previous evidentialist critics. Let’s look at it:
Van Til’s response to J. Oliver Buswell
The Van Til reference appears in his book Defense of the Faith, particularly in a section that is responding to a long critique by J. Oliver Buswell.1 On page 194, Van Til objects that Buswell had “not, for all the length of your article, anywhere given a connect picture of my argument.” He then proceeds to lay out a few basic, foundational differences between presuppositionalism and the traditional method. These include four points, the last of which is, “(d) Implied in the previous points is the fact that I do not artificially separate induction from deduction, or reasoning about the facts of nature in a priori analytical fashion about the nature of human-consciousness.”2
It is under this point that Van Til goes on to make the claim Habermas references:
I would therefore engage in historical apologetics. (I do not personally do a great deal of this because my colleagues in the other departments of the Seminary in which I teach are doing it better than I could do it.)
The problem is that Habermas stops here, does not consider what comes either before or after these words, and draws his own conclusion that presuppositionalists “have all commended positive evidences.” But this is hardly the extent of the point Van Til was making—a point which renders this conclusion unwarranted. Just read what Van Til says immediately in the next sentences:
Every bit of historical investigation, whether it be in the directly Biblical field, archaeology, or in general history, is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer’s philosophy of fact. A really fruitful historical apologetic argues that every fact is and must be such as proves the truth of the Christian theistic position.3
You can see, then, that Van Til’s alleged commendation of historical evidences actually demands the presuppositional method first, and the challenge be given to the unbeliever’s presuppositions.
And again, irony has it that in the immediately-following paragraph, Van Til reminds the reader that he is correcting precisely such misrepresentation as Habermas has engaged in:
A fair presentation of my method of approach should certainly have included these basic elements that underlie everything else.
Further, Van Til makes clear that nothing at all is to be presented to the unbeliever apart from the presupposition that the God of the Bible must exist before any fact can be intelligible to begin with. This, also, is in the immediately-following paragraphs:
Shall we in the interest of a point of contact admit that man can interpret anything correctly if he virtually leaves God out of the picture? Shall we who wish to prove that nothing can be explained without God first admit some things at least can be explained without him? On the contrary we shall show that all explanations without God are futile. Only when we do this do we appeal to that knowledge of God within men which they seek to suppress. This is what I mean by presupposing God for the purpose of intelligent predication.4
It is clear, therefore, that Van Til was hardly giving some naked commendation of the use of evidences, and he was certainly nowhere near giving a nod to evidentialism. The comments, I repeat, could in no way be leveraged as any kind of support for Habermas’s method. Instead, they are classic Van Tillian refutations of that method, which can be found throughout his writings in many places. One of the best and clearest of these is found in his small pamphlet on Paul at Athens:
Are we really anxious to preach Jesus and the resurrection and the living God to men? Do we want to ask all men everywhere to repent and to see in the resurrection the evidence of their own eternal condemnation unless they do repent?
Then we must surely do what Paul did, tear our garments when men would weave our message into the systems of thought which men have themselves devised. We must set the message of the cross into the framework into which Paul set it. If we do not do so, then we are not really and fully preaching Jesus and the resurrection. The facts of Jesus and the resurrection are what they are only in the framework of the doctrines of creation, providence and the consummation of history in the final judgment. No man has found this framework unless he has been converted from the other framework through the very fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus as applied to him by the Holy Spirit and His regenerating power. It takes the fact of the resurrection to see its proper framework and it takes the framework to the see the fact of the resurrection; the two are accepted on the authority of the Scripture alone and by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Half-way measures therefore will not suffice; the only method that will suffice is that of challenge of wisdom of the world by the wisdom of God.5
Van Til’s references to evidences, therefore, are for the purpose of putting evidences in their place, and for invalidating any method of evidentialism. To read him any other way is to misread him.
Bahnsen’s critique of John Warrick Montgomery
The same problem exists with Habermas’s claim that Bahnsen “endorses historical evidences.” Here two citations from the paper in question make the context clear. Bahnsen did in fact list Van Til’s references to evidences, but note that he did so in order to show that the evidentialist John W. Montgomery had not acknowledged Van Til’s point that such evidences were pointless without the presuppositional argument in place first:
[W]hat Montgomery (via his parable) wants to make of the quotations from Van Til on pages 380–381 is that, by avoiding an inductive or factual apologetic, Van Til’s position loses the objectivity of evidence and the fruitfulness of argumentation. That this does not do justice to Van Til will be clear to anyone who will bother to read the context from which Montgomery takes his quotations. . . .
Van Til makes a point that “Every bit of historical investigation…is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position”, and he affirms that the falsifying interpretations of the facts by the unbeliever is not something unavoidable which the sinner cannot help doing: “…it is evident that by the sinner’s epistemological reaction I mean his reaction as an ethically responsible creature of God.” As before Van Til asserts of the non-Christian that “they oppose God’s revelation everywhere. They do not want to see the facts of nature for what they are”; and yet he also says further, “It is asked what person is consistent with his own principles. Well I have consistently argued that no one is and that least of all the non-Christian is…Neither do I forget that no man is actually fully consistent in working according to these assumptions.” Montgomery has simply not taken all the factors into account when he selects certain quotations from Van Til; those quotations must be understood in their context. When they are, it is manifest that they cannot be used as raw material for the type of parable Montgomery contrives. Van Til’s assertions, properly read in context, certainly do not lead to the outlook of Montgomery’s parable – which is precisely why it is deficient as a critique of Van Til’s position. It has nothing to do with Van Til’s position, despite the misleading appearance created by tendentious proof texting of Van Til’s publications. Indeed, the problems which are evident in the parable (to whomever they may apply) are themselves vanquished by Van Til’s teachings in the very places from which Montgomery quotes him!
Bahnsen more fully rounds out the refutation in the place Habermas alleges he “endorses historical evidences.” Bahnsen wrote,
The effectiveness of the evidence is felt by the believer because he is thinking within the context of revelational presuppositions, but the historical evidences are insufficient in themselves (even theoretically) to change the unbeliever’s mind because his thinking is guided by apostate presuppositions. If the non-Christian’s presuppositions are granted, then he has adequate reason to reject a simple historical apologetic built up from inductive evidences; this is why our apologetic to the unregenerate must be made up of stronger material. However, we do not neglect the historical evidences; they do have their use for the Christian. He uses them to edify other believers and to give honest answers to detail questions from critics. In neither case though should he talk endlessly about facts and more facts without discussing the philosophy of fact or presuppositions which render the facts meaningful. Therefore, understanding the relation between evidence and presuppositions, the presuppositional apologist does endorse the proper use of evidence. We insist that Christian faith, anchored in God, deals with the area of fact which is open to scientific treatment.
Therefore, you can see that Bahnsen’s endorsement is only of the “proper” use of evidence which can only take place within the presuppositional argument. This means that unless the method is fully presuppositional, evidential arguments are not valid. Worse, not only are they not valid, they actually do the reverse of apologetics: they give the unbeliever an adequate excuse to reject them, and an excuse is the one thing Scripture says that unbelieving mankind does not have (Rom. 1). Why would any Christian endorse a method that leaves an adequate excuse on the table?
Now Habermas has read these responses of Van Til and Bahnsen that clarified these points in the context of presuppositionalism refuting evidentialism. Yet, Habermas picks around the arguments Van Til and Bahnsen make in order to glean what he thinks are a couple admissions and endorsements of evidences on their part. But they are not really what he wants. They are instead just as strong an indictment of evidentialism as any other aspect of presuppositionalist writings, and one aimed directly at the fallacy of evidentialism as a method. In the case of Bahnsen’s critique of Montgomery, it was this very paper which Habermas was aiming to refute. Yet he does not even take into account the point Bahnsen was making in discussing evidences in that context.
The Arminian Vacuum
Space is growing precious in this already too long article, so perhaps I can flesh these points out more fully later. Suffice it merely to state here that there are an awful lot of assumption being made upon the foundations of fallacy. One appears to me to be an unspoken equivocation between any reference to “evidence” and an endorsement for “evidentialism.”
Beyond that, however, is the problem evidentialism tends to breed, and that is the belief that evidences take such preeminence that without them you have little to no apologetic at all. By placing them within a framework that delimits their usefulness, it is received as if you have entirely rejected any apologetic appeal to the unbeliever. This is not, of course, openly stated anywhere, but a kind of presumption is apparent in places.
This type of thinking is not difficult to demonstrate in Habermas’s paper. For example, he criticizes Bahnsen for arguing that in offering up Isaac, Abraham’s faith was presuppositional, not founded upon “empirical probability or inductive reasoning.” Habermas’s response to this is revealing: “Abraham was the recipient of many inductively-derived data. Even in this case, then, his faith was not produced in a vacuum!” [Emphasis added.]
While we could take time to go through the examples of what Habermas considers the “inductively derived data” which helped “produce” Abraham’s faith, that is not the point here. I want you to see how central, almost messianic, of a role evidence actually plays for the evidentialist. Without evidences being central, Habermas implies, faith would otherwise be “produced in a vacuum.”
The implications of this characterization are enormous, and frightful. This statement means that either we have evidences, or we have nothing—a “vacuum.” It means that the source of faith is either evidences or it is nothing. In other words, from this evidentialist’s view, there is no possibility of faith except from evidence.
Apart from the obvious false dichotomy, this statement exposes the compromise with humanism that lies at the heart of all non-presuppositional methods. It completely ignores the argument that the source of all facts (evidence) in the universe as well as all faith in the universe is the Creator himself. Thus, a faith that is produced without the direct contact of relevant historical evidences is in essence exactly the same as faith produced while observing those evidences: it is produced by God, and nothing else. And faith that is produced in correlation with evidences should never be said to be “produced” by evidences, for it is produced by the only source of both fact and faith, that is, God.
Even to suggest the possibility of a “vacuum” is also to miss the point of presuppositional arguments altogether. The question is never one of evidence or no evidence. Evidence is always all around us, and Romans makes clear that that evidence points to God, the unbeliever knows it, and it is unmistakably clear. The question is about interpretation of the evidence, for the unbeliever actively suppresses that which is abundant, inescapable, clear, and known. The problem is not in the want of evidence; it is in the suppression of it. The gift of faith is the only thing that can end this suppression and thus amend the individual’s interpretation of the evidence. Thus, faith has the leverage over fact. This means that the apologetic endeavor must focus upon challenging the unbeliever’s philosophy of fact rather than loading him up with additional facts.
Ironically, this is the exact point Bahnsen is making in his section on Abraham’s faith. It appears to be a point Habermas did not catch. Bahnsen writes:
Genuine resurrection faith according to the word of God is not staked on inductive validation, for even when the resurrected Lord appeared to His eleven disciples, “some doubted”. Indeed the spiritual condition of man is such that “if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one should rise from the dead.” Resurrection faith is a matter of presuppositional submission to the authoritative word of God. When Christ met two travelers on the road to Emmaus and found them doubtful of the resurrection, rather than offering them compelling empirical evidence (by causing them to recognize Him) He rebuked them for being slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken; He made their hearts burn within them by expounding to them the scripture. If men will not begin by acknowledging the truth of God’s authoritative revelation, an empirical resurrection will not bring them belief. This is the plain teaching of Scripture. The example of resurrection faith is found, not in doubting Thomas, but in Abraham, the father of the faithful. Against all empirical probability or inductive reasoning Abraham offered up his only begotten son, “accounting that God is able to raise men up even from the dead” [see Heb. 11:19]; the nature of Abraham’s faith was an ability to believe against hope but according to what God had spoken, being fully assured that God was able to perform what he had promised. Such faith cannot be produced in a sinner’s hardened heart by inductive argumentation; it must be a gift from God—not self-glorifying, intellectual works of man. “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”; “faith is … a conviction of things not seen.” Therefore, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” said Christ to Thomas. Resurrection faith begins with a presupposition about God’s ability to raise men even from the dead—as it did with Abraham—not with inductive proofs. Hence our apologetic should begin, as did Paul’s, with a question of presuppositions: “Why is it judged incredible by you that God should raise the dead?” It must be rooted in the authoritative revelation of God, “saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses did say should come” because if men will not hear Moses and the prophets neither will they believe the most compelling, factual demonstration!
Amen. And Amen.
The humanism inherent in the system
Indeed, Habermas actually acknowledges the point Bahnsen argues, but he does so in passing as a rhetorical question intended to be a criticism of presuppositionalism. He asks, “Could it be that certain Reformed theological commitments are responsible for this lack of positive apologetics? Might not treasured theological and/or biblical stances be placed above evidential ones?” The fallacy of this lies in what it seems to be blind to, yet forms the basis of evidentialism. Just ask the question in the reverse: Are you suggesting that evidential stances ought to be placed above those of the Bible? If so (and the implication seems to be “yes”), then you have adopted the worldview of the humanist and at the very least given the unbeliever a valid justification for why he rejects miracles, resurrections, God, and the supernatural in general.
As I ponder the implications of this, I can’t help thinking of Habermas’s life-long (it seems) interaction with atheist Antony Flew. They once even debated the historical evidence for the resurrection. The evidential method was on full display. Flew, being a man intensely interested in science and evidence, you would think this method would be perfect. By all accounts, he was an honest thinker who did not fear to go wherever the evidence leads.
Low and behold, near the end of his life, Flew announced a major shift in his thinking. After much thought, and after much following of the arguments to their logical ends no matter what, Flew had come to believe in God. Boom!
Except there was a catch. Amidst many articles and even books written about the conversion of this famous atheist to theism, there stood out one major problem. Flew had only accepted the fact the information in the universe appeared to necessitate a designer. He had converted therefore only to deism.
And what is “deism.” Deism is the belief that some intelligent source created the world, but only like a watchmaker creates a watch: wound it up, and then left it to run on its own. There is no providence. There is no relationship with this God. There are no miracles. There is no salvation or redemption, etc. Only an impersonal, and now fully absent, abstract watchmaker. This is hardly even theism. It is what I call practical atheism, for it gives the atheist a solution to the origins questions, yet leaves him free to live however he likes, free of any Divine Authority. On paper, it’s theism. In practice, it’s atheism.
Indeed, in all the fanfare among Christian and other publications that followed with a kind of oblivious triumph, Flew continued repeated to state that he had not accepted Christianity, did not believe in miracles, etc.
Congratulations, evidentialism. Your crowning achievement of the modern era has been to convert an atheist into a practical atheist who still openly denounced Christ.
Now, I don’t mean to lay this failure itself personally at the feet of Habermas, as if his methods and actions alone are at fault for the non-conversion of Flew and the unwarranted fanfare among Christians that followed. The point here is that the only crucially important aspect of the apologetic encounter is not the evidence, but the fact that the fallen man already knows the full truth of the evidence clearly and yet is suppressing it. Unless this aspect is addressed and challenged from the outset, the appeal to evidences it little more than futile, and indeed may be completely counterproductive.
The evidentialist here displays an all-consuming obsession with evidence with a nearly messianic role in apologetics. This obsession, I believe, leads not only to the type of misreading and misrepresentations of presuppositionalism we have seen above, but also to a cavalier neglect of the weight of the great critiques it has leveled against evidentialism.
As I read Habermas’s paper, I see him projecting this obsession onto the alleged support Van Til and Bahnsen gave to evidences. Not only are the writings misread, they grow more exaggerated as the paper itself goes along. Thus we see alleged presuppositional capitulation to evidences go from alleged “acknowledgement” to “endorses” then to “critical need,” then to an admission that evidences are “biblical” and “ought to be pursued.” By the end of the paper, Habermas is actually claiming that for presuppositionalists, evidences “are deemed to be crucially important” [emphasis added]. This escalating rhetoric is not only not borne out by presuppositionalist writings, it is, as seen above, positively refuted.
Evidences are only meaningful within the framework of a presuppositional argument, and this must be established before endless chatting with unbelievers about evidences. Far from suggesting any endorsement of the evidentialist method, this single proposition alone is enough to contradict it fully. Disagree with presuppositionalists if you like, but don’t suggest their view of evidences gives any support to the evidentialist method. Acknowledging this would prepare the way for the real discussion that needs to happen, and then, maybe, some proper “converging” can start to take place.
I recently returned to a seminary text on the doctrine of God looking for a particular concept I thought I remembered was there. I turned up empty on that, but was rewarded with some great insights on an explicitly Reformed doctrine of God and its ramifications for both apologetics and the Christian life. From Gerald Bray:1
Human strivings and natural theology fail because their starting point is too weak to be able to carry them through to the end. Disillusioned people will not be able to rediscover God by looking around them, not even by reading the Bible or contemplating the figure of Jesus. Of course these things are valuable and necessary, but belief in the existence of God is dependent not on them, but on a conviction in the heart which only the Holy Spirit can produce. From the beginning, Christianity has been a proclamation, not a thesis supported by various theological arguments. . . .
Traditionalists may resurrect the proofs for the existence of God, modified in order to respond to the arguments raised against them, and in the right climate, they may attract the disillusioned to a form of neo-conservatism. Their attempts to rescue God from oblivion may strike us as courageous, irrelevant or disastrous, according to our point of view, but in terms of results, they are best described as pathetic. The God of the Bible can be known and experienced only in the way in which he has decreed. At the end of the day, the proofs of God’s existence offered by natural theology are unconvincing, except to those who have already surrendered their lives to him who is the way, the truth and the life, and experienced for themselves that peace of God which passes all our natural understanding [pp. 108–109].
And on the scope of revelation and the Christian life:
The wisdom of God is thorough and co-extensive with his plan and creation. There is nothing which escapes his attention, and our lives are entirely in his hands (Matt. 6:25–29; Rom. 8:28). As believers who are privileged to share in God’s wisdom, it is our duty to understand how it applies to every area of our lives, not just to the so-called “spiritual” aspects. Christians are frequently in danger of forgetting that commonsense is a divine gift, which needs to be used to the glory of God as much as the more spectacular gifts. Failure to do this often produces a lack of realism in Christian circles which may even prompt believers to rely on “prayer” as an escape from serious responsibility. The fact that this abdication of our sonship is cloaked in piety does not make it better—rather the reverse .
Amen! It would be great if more studies of the foundations of theology included at least basic acknowledgments such as these. It would be even better if such works were then to develop various applications of those things for which Christian maturity calls. (More on this tomorrow.)
- Gerald Bray, The Doctrine Of God, Contours of Christian Theology, ed. Gerald Bray (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).(↩)
[From the author’s book, Manifested in the Flesh]
The natural does not ascend to the divine or the supernatural. The bridge is gulfed only by revelation and by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Salvation therefore is not by man nor by means of man’s politics, or by any other effort of man.
[E]ven now those barbarians who have an innate savagery of manners, while they still sacrifice to the idols of their country, are mad against one another, and cannot endure to be a single hour without weapons:but when they hear the teaching of Christ, straightway instead of fighting they turn to husbandry, and instead of arming their hands with weapons they raise them in prayer.
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. (Matthew 28:18)
The fact that the Son of God was manifested in the flesh has far reaching implications. The basic formula of Christ as fully God and fully man extends to the way we understand religion and salvation personally and collectively. God speaks to us through the Mediator, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5-6, Heb. 1:1-2), the Word made flesh, and through the written Word of the Scriptures. Any attempt by any individual or group of individuals to present some other path, revelation, method of relating to God, or means of salvation, necessarily rejects the truth of God and replaces it with the religion of fallen man—a false incarnation.
The End of Mysticism
Since Christ is both fully man and fully God, a correct understanding of His Incarnation corrects errors on two fronts: those who would diminish His deity and those who would deny his true humanity. The former run into the error of seeing Christ as only a man: a special man, perhaps, but only a man, nonetheless, and therefore, unable to save man from depravity. The opposite error is the subject of my book: the denial of Christ’s humanity. This scenario reduces Christ to a phantom of human imagination. He may be a “god,” but since this god has no historical manifestation, then he suffers the fate of all the gods of human history: he is relegated to mythology. More importantly, since this alleged god cannot reveal himself in history, then it is left to man—each individual man—to define this god as they like.
This “personal Jesus” view is simply another version of what has always been known as “mysticism.” Mysticism is the belief that one only needs to know God through their own inward witness, and not through an objective revelation such as the Scriptures and the Incarnation of Christ. The problem with mysticism is that once the Scriptures and Christ’s perfect humanity have been set aside, the resulting images of God begin to look more and more like the people who make them. Talk of Christ as an historical reality ceases, and talk of “What Christ means to me” grows more popular. Mysticism reduces God to a spirit only, and denies that He has ever entered history in a defining way. Thus the defining is left to the individual; and, as a result, every man creates his own god and his own rules.
Late Oxford professor O. C. Quick explains the dangers of such unguided mysticism. He begins,
We need a guide along the path who is familiar also with the surrounding country. We are on the edge of an abyss, the moment we emphasize the reality of the inner communion with God in such a way that God Himself begins to be represented simply as an inward presence pervading human life or the life the world as a whole.
He continues, exposing the relativistic nature of mysticism:
It is well to assert that the Word of God is very nigh to us, in our mouth and in our hearts, and that He Himself is closer to us than our own bodies. Yet it is fatally easy to pass from that assertion to the thought that we are ourselves divine, that to vex ourselves over sins and limitations is a waste of energy, that all we have to do is realize how great and good we may be—and forthwith the mists of our doubts and the shadows of our failures will vanish in the new light shed by the revelation of our own higher and diviner self.
Notice that the elements which mysticism partakes of parallel those of the mystery religions: exclusive knowledge (of self), enlightenment, and man as divine. All of this becomes a logical option to man the minute we forget that Christ came as the full and perfect revelation of both God and man. The lust to touch God purely through personal inward reflection denies that God has already descended to man, and died in his place.
Mysticism does preserve the all-important spiritual side of religion—that God can and does reveal Himself in a very real way through individual experience and inward witness. But as far as it pursues a direct line to God to the exclusion of Christ’s very real historical manifestation in the flesh, mysticism denies the truth rather than preserves it. In such a case,
we cannot escape the practical result, that the centre of gravity in our religion shifts from our Lord to our own souls. . . . It will be to our own experiences, our own feelings, our own achievements, that we shall turn in our search for communion with God. We shall judge Christ by them, instead of judging them by Christ. The last stage will be reached when we regard the Godhead Itself as no more than an experience of our own; and just when we think we have scaled heaven itself, we shall in reality have done no more than drag down with us into the pit where we have fallen a god of our own imagination. For our religion will be self-centered, and nothing can draw us, out of the morass save the divine compassion of the Savior we have misunderstood.
This “practical result” is the great sin of our era—relativism—and it lies behind the re-emergence of mystery religions, new age movements, self-help-style Church movements, Oprah-book-club-style “spirituality,” and modern Gnostic-like movements that promise that the way to God is found through personal knowledge or personal experience.
The Incarnation of Christ signals the bankruptcy of all pretended mysticism. In order that man have a truer understanding of the nature of God than that available through his own feelings, the Son of God descended and manifested Himself in the flesh. He thereby revealed God perfectly to men, revealed man perfectly to man, and represented man perfectly to God. No individual or organized group of individuals can pretend to have any greater personal experience of God than the simple person of Jesus Christ as revealed in history and, especially now, in the Scriptures. The minutest deviation from the definitive revelation of Jesus Christ is an error of the human heart, and a false path to God.
A recurring theme of modern man is emancipation or liberty. In many of the wars and revolutions of the modern period, the rallying cry involved some notion of freedom or independence. Yet we still have a world of oppression, war, and debt—and these grow as we speak. This is because all modern revolutions have been political at heart, and not ethical. They have aimed to rearrange the conditions of society rather than to renew the hearts of men. Where man seeks to achieve any level of goodness apart from the true revelation of God and man in Jesus Christ, the effort will devolve into some form of coercion or chaos.
Nietzsche’s attempt at replacing Christ with a “higher man” provided following generations with plenty of intellectual ammunition with which to assault Christian liberty. Under the plan of elevating man to a status where he could truly enjoy life, Nietzsche set in motion the wheels of the war machines of human avarice. He, in a sense, saw this coming. He knew that the overthrow of traditional values, which he saw as lies (funny that someone engaging in a war on morality would worry about lies), would mean the end of human peace. He writes,
For when truth enters into a fight with the lies of millennia, we shall have upheavals, a convulsion of earthquakes, a moving of mountains and valleys, the like of which has never been dreamed of. The concept of politics will have merged entirely with a war of spirits; all power structures of the old society will have been exploded—all of them are based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth.
This being first published in 1908, the astute observer will note that history has proven Nietzsche correct in this regard. The war against Christianity has indeed been disastrous on all fronts. This is the inevitable result when man—collective man, governmental man, tyrannous man, machine-gun, tank, helicopter, nuclear missile-armed man—does not submit to a higher divine law, but sets his own law and agenda.
Against all the failures of man, Christ has revealed the true path to human liberty: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-2). The foundation of human liberty is found in following Christ, the living Word of God. Thus, a proper understanding of Christ becomes all too important for social order. By understanding Christ alone as truly divine and yet fully man, entered into history, we deny that either divinity or true humanity can be found in mere human institutions. No individual and no institution—State, school, or church—can claim ultimate authority in the earth. Christ rules all of heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18), and His Incarnation makes this possible. Where mysticism leaves open the question of God to each individual—of who shall be God incarnate, or who represents God—Christianity claims that Christ is God Incarnate and He represents God. If man answers the question for himself, then some collective agent of man will eventually triumph. It will be either the power of the mob, or the power of a tyrannical state. There will be a higher man, but he will likely be in a black suit with a tax invoice, or in a blue suit with handcuffs and a gun. The State becomes the ultimate representative of man, the highest appeal in the earth, and therefore an incarnate deity. It takes on a messianic role, claiming to provide for the welfare and safety of its people. Men become subjects to the care of the State, rather than free men under God. God provided a way out of human tyranny in the Incarnation of Christ: no State has a legitimate claim to ultimate authority, because Christ is the true King of kings in the earth.
True freedom can only be found in the shadow of God’s wings. Likewise, true safety, welfare and salvation. All of the things that modern man desires, but denies in principle through his self-centered humanism and mysticism, God has provided through Jesus and His teachings. Only when the State bows beneath the rule of the King of kings will men begin again to experience a free society; for only when the power of both individual and collective man is checked by the ethical rule of law will man be free from the haunt of his tyrannous fellows. The Incarnation lays the foundation of this liberty, for only there is man seen as a new creature, able to follow God’s ethics, and only there is God manifest in history so that no other ruler has ultimate authority in the earth.
We must not follow a man-made god, but rather the One true God-made-man. We must not allow human imagination to intrude upon the “express image” of God in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God meets the needs of human salvation and godliness at all levels (2 Pet. 1:3). It exposes the easiness of a mere “inner” spirituality as spiritual laziness and self-centeredness, in that Christ truly manifested in the flesh in history. Thus the mystic must deal with the historical revelation of God before and ever above his own feelings. As well, the Incarnation denies tyranny and demands that all civil rulers reign justly beneath the Prince of the Kings of the earth (Ps. 2:10-12; Matt. 28:18; Rev. 1:5-6). The law of God is revealed as the path of order and peace in the earth, and the lust to rule on the part of mere men is checked by the rule of Christ on earth. If we truly mean it when we pray, “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), then we must take the true understanding of Christ as fully God and fully man, and apply that truth to all of life.
Rousas John Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Farifax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978 (1968)), 67.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, LII.2-3. In The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. IV. ed. Philip Schaff (Albany, OR: AGES Software, 1997), 338-9.
Oliver Chase Quick, Essays on Orthodoxy (London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd., 1916), Chapter II. http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/quick/essays/02.htm , as of August 14, 2006.
Oliver Chase Quick, Essays on Orthodoxy (London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd., 1916), Chapter II. http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/quick/essays/02.htm , as of August 14, 2006.
Oliver Chase Quick, Essays on Orthodoxy (London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd., 1916), Chapter II. http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/quick/essays/02.htm , as of August 14, 2006.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I am a Destiny,” 1, tr. Walter Kaufmann. In On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kauffman (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 327.
See Rousas John Rushdoony, The Foundation of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978 (1968)), 63-82.
Atheists, materialists, and evolutionists are cranking out books trying to come up with ways that can account for morality. I have a shelf-full of them. Their first problem is that they assume there is such a “thing” as ethics. That morality is real. Let me be clear. I am not saying that atheists are immoral. They do moral things and act in moral ways but only in terms of a foreign worldview called Christianity. Atheists have to borrow what they concede is a moral worldview because materialism knows nothing of morality. At the atomic and molecular level, there is no such thing as morality. Billions and trillions of molecules that have no morality don’t suddenly become moral because they’re in the shape of what we call human beings.
Modern-day biology has become materialistically reductionistic, subject only to “physics and chemistry”
“Modern biology has arrived at two major principles that are supported by so much interlocking evidence as to rank as virtual laws of nature. The first is that all biological elements and processes are ultimately obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. The second principle is that all life has evolved by random mutation and natural selection.”1
There is no room for sentiment, morality, or any of the poetic graces in life.
My point, which I’ve made numerous times, is that atheists can’t account for the justification of a universal moral code so that evolved entities are obligated to follow it. The operating assumptions of atheism make such a code impossible to locate, identify, and enforce at the cosmic level.
For example, Richard Dawkins states the position well: “Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that dimply do not make evolutionary sense.” In the same chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes, “I think ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably.”2 To push his case further along, Dawkins offers a fitting analogy of his view:
The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness.
If you want to get an idea of what Dawkins is describing, consider the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that took place between two Chicago criminal gangs: the South Side Italian gang led by Al Capone and the North Side Irish gang led by George “Bugs” Moran. The shooters had the selfish genes. Their goal was to survive at all costs and to keep their selfish-gene boss happy. Given what Dawkins claims for evolutionary development, did the killers do anything morally wrong?
Some of Dawkins’ fellow evolutionists are uncomfortable with the way their popular high priest states his views. For example, Scott M. James writes the following in his book An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics:
And yet, when we step back and observe ourselves, there is something about Dawkins story that doesn’t make sense. For if he’s correct, then people would never have an interest in doing the right thing (never mind knowing what the right thing to do is); people would never admire virtue, rise up against injustice, or sacrifice their own welfare to benefit strangers. If human beings are ruthlessly selfish at the core, then we should find unintelligible Adam Smith’s observation that man possesses capacities “which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
James’ use of Adam Smith is interesting since Smith was neither an atheist nor an evolutionist. Smith believed in God and a moral universe that was reflective of God’s character. A man who pursues his own interest in economic exchanges is in reality “led by an invisible hand,” so that [b]y pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”3
Smith’s “invisible hand” is the hand of “Providence.” In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith points out that acting in a virtuous way has social benefits by way of cooperation “with the Deity.”
But by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind, and may therefore be said, in some sense, to co-operate with the Deity, and to advance as far as in our power the plan of Providence. By acting other ways, on the contrary, we seem to obstruct, in some measure, the scheme which the Author of nature has established for the happiness and perfection of the world, and to declare ourselves, if I may say so, in some measure the enemies of God. Hence we are naturally encouraged to hope for his extraordinary favour and reward in the one case, and to dread his vengeance and punishment in the other.
Adam Smith believed in a moral universe because he believed that God set the moral standards for behavior.
If there is no God, then there is no morality that has to be obeyed. There may be behaviors that an atheist claims are moral or immoral, but there is no ultimate judge that says so, either on this side of the grave or on the other side.
Given atheistic assumptions about the origin of the universe and evolution from molecule to man, will there be any difference at death between the most moral person and the most immoral person other than the obituaries that are written about them by the living? Both will turn to dust, and not a single molecule of their dusty remains will be treated any differently based on how they lived.
In 1991, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a convicted-murderer’s death sentence because the justices ruled that the defendant deserved a resentencing hearing because the prosecutor improperly quoted the Bible in his closing arguments.4
Karl S. Chambers was convicted of fatally beating 70-year-old Anna May Morris while robbing her of her Social Security money. District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert told the jurors, “Karl Chambers has taken a life. As the Bible says, ‘And the murderer shall be put to death.’”5 Why is murder wrong? Why is murder punished by evolved beings? Other “animals” aren’t punished for murdering other animals.
If there is no God, there are no absolute rules. Survival of the fittest prevails. We got to this place, says an evolutionists like Dawkins, by a series of bloody and violent struggles. Given the assumptions of evolution, not only was quoting the Bible during the sentencing hearing improper, but so was the conviction. If I, as a consistent evolutionist, were defending Mr. Chambers during his resentencing hearing based on the ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, my line of argument would have gone something like this:
Defense Counsel (DC): Mr. Chambers, did you go to public school?
Chambers: Yes, sir.
DC: Did you have a class in biology?
Chambers: Yes, sir.
DC: Were you taught that man evolved over long periods of time and that the strongest organisms survived over the weaker ones?
Chambers: Yes, sir.
DC: Did you learn that these were the natural and positive consequences of evolution?
Chambers: Yes, sir.
DC: Were you taught the Bible in public school?
Chambers: No, sir! It was not permitted.
DC (to the jury): Ladies and Gentlemen. You spent your hard-earned tax dollars educating this young man. It’s been said that our students are not learning what they’ve been taught. Now we find out that when a person does master his lessons, we put him on trial. You are here today because some strong ancestor eliminated a weaker ancestor somewhere along the evolutionary tree. We are proud of our evolutionary heritage. Look how far we’ve come due to the elimination of so-called “weak links.” How can Mr. Chambers be faulted when he followed the evolutionary tradition he learned in school? In addition, you heard the prosecuting attorney in the first trial tell us, “As the Bible says, ‘And the murderer shall be put to death.’” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overturned Mr. Chambers’ death sentence because the prosecutor quoted from the Bible. The same Bible that says that a “murderer shall be put to death” also states that murder is wrong. If the Bible is inadmissible in the one case, specifying punishment, then it ought to be inadmissible in the other case, specifying what constitutes a crime.
In the 1925 “Scope’s Trial,” the defendant, John Scopes, taught from an approved school textbook that was written by George Hunter with the title A Civic Biology by George Hunter.6 The book is not so much a scientific defense of Darwinism but a rehearsal of “Darwinism’s social implications. In particular, chapter seventeen discusses the application to human society of ‘the laws of selection’ and approves the eugenic policies and scientific racism common in the United States at the time.” (Scopes, a substitute teacher planted by the ACLU to test Tennessee’s anti-evolution law, was teaching his students from chapter seventeen.)
“Hunter believed that it would be criminal to hand down ‘handicaps’ to the next generation and regarded families with a history of tuberculosis, epilepsy and feeblemindedness as ‘parasitic on society.’ The remedy, according to Hunter, is to prevent breeding.”7 Here’s how Hunter put it:
If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.8
Evolution validated the eugenics movement by giving it scientific legitimacy. The same was true about entrenched ideas concerning race.9 “Hunter believed that the most evolved of the ‘races of man’ is that of ‘the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America,’ which is ‘the highest type of all.’”10
Atheists will swear up and down that they are just as moral as theists. I would say that as atheists, operating with atheist presuppositions, they are neither moral nor immoral. They are nothing more than biological action figures. Their behavior has no consequential moral meaning because it is nothing more than a physical reaction, a by-product of chemical reactions and electricity.
- Edward O. Wilson, Let’s Accept the Fault Line between Faith and Science, USA Today (January 15, 2006). The evolutionist cannot account for the existence of biological elements and the laws of physics and chemistry. Why are there laws(↩)
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), chap. 1.(↩)
- The material on Adam Smith is taken from Jerry Bowyer, God and the Economists, Forbes (August 17, 2011).(↩)
- The Marietta Daily Journal (November 9, 1991), 6A.(↩)
- Court Rejects Bible, The Atlanta Journal (November 16, 1991), E6.(↩)
- Philip J. Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity & Civilization (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 54.(↩)
- Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity, 54-55.(↩)
- George W. Hunter, A Civic Biology (New York: American Book, 1914), 263. Quoted in Sampson, 6 Modern Myths, 55.(↩)
- Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. The full title of Darwin’s book was On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Racism is not the same as bigotry or “prejudice.(↩)
- Sampson, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity, 55.(↩)