Friday, March 26, 2010

Two Lessons from John Owen: I - The Trinity

John Owen’s short work A Brief Declaration of the Doctrine of the Trinity and also of the Person and Satisfaction of Christ, published in 1668-9, (in Works, II) at a time when Dr Owen and his wife Mary were resident in the home in Stoke Newington of the former Cromwellian General, Charles Fleetwood, and his wife Mary Hartnopp, the widow of Sir Edward Hartnopp. Owen was busy with others such as Baxter and Manton in devising ways of forming dissenting unity and presenting a united bid for toleration to the King. He had no pastorate at this time, but following the Declaration of Indulgence in 1671 limited toleration was granted, though not because the nonconformists were united, for they were not. Owen was for a short time after this the pastor of a small congregation which fairly quickly combined with the recently-deceased Joseph Caryl’s larger one. The membership of Owen’s congregation is a roll call of the upper crust of the former Puritan establishment; no doubt considering themselves a Puritan government in waiting, just in case the Lord in his providence turned the tide. But of course they waited in vain. The tide never turned. Owen died in 1683.

In the work of Owen’s that we are about to consider he has his eye on another strand of what proved to be a cause of the Puritan eclipse, on the rise of theological rationalism on the one hand, and on Biblicism on the other. Theological rationalism, in the form of Quakerism and Socinianism, with its intolerance of revealed mystery, and the Biblicism of the Socinians and of the Cambridge Platonists, which otherwise did not have much in common. The Cambridge Platonists, such as Benjamin Whichcote, the Westminster Divine Anthony Tuckney’s pupil, stressed the fallibility of human reasoning about Scripture and were contemptuous both of those who promoted unity of a confessional kind – for were not confessions mere human products? - and who also promoted doctrinal and practical preaching. For does not preaching go beyond Scripture, the preacher using his own fallible words? So the Cambridge Platonists held that Protestants should unite around the very words of Scripture alone, and the use of ‘right reason’ to establish fundamentals, such as the exisence of God and of moral obligation, and regard any interpretations of Scripture, in the form of confessions or in preaching, as necessarily secondary, inferior and fallible, the mere expression of opinion. This puts a rather different gloss on William Chillingworth’s famous saying that ‘The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible is the religion of Protestants’, though Chillingworth was not himself a Cambridge Platonist.

In this work Owen was, in effect, concerned to deny this Cambridge Platonist position, though he does not mention them by name, but there is except one reference to ‘right reason’, preferring to lambast the Socinians. He sets himself to walk a tight-rope by upholding the place of theological reasoningwhile denying the authority of human reason in religion. But the tide of anti-Puritanism that flowed as the result of the combined pull of Quakerism, Socinianism (or Unitarianism) and of Cambridge Platonism, was irresistible. Puritanism as a theological movement was swept away. Baxter’s church building in Kidderminster is Unitarian to this day, as are several of those that were not completely obliterated, and in the early eighteenth-century the Anglican Establishment became largely Unitarian and deistic, as exemplified for example by the case of William Whiston, the translator of the Works of Josephus.

In what must have been happier days for Owen, he wrote one in defence of the orthodox account of Christ’s atonement, A Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653) and then a major work against Socinianism, Vindiciae Evangelicae, (1655) . The first was written at the command of the Long Parliament, and dedicated to 'His Highness', and the second was also dedicated to the same man, ‘His Illustrious Highness, Oliver Cromwell’. And as we shall see, Owen was a Trinitarian theologian through and through By 1669, a doubtless chastened Owen wrote this short work, as he tells us on its title page, ‘accommodated to the capacity of such as may be in danger to be seduced’. Not a work of scholastic Puritan divinity, but of pastoral counsel. And, as I shall try to show, a work of value for us.

The Trinity

Owen regarded the Trinitarian character of God to be a plainly revealed mystery, and fundamental to the development of true religion. The work of redemption and reconciliation is intrinsically Trinitarian, and appreciation of this enriches our understanding and walk with God. This can be seen, inter alia, in a number of Owen’s works, most elaborately in his Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Fellowship and Consolation (1657) The emphasis is the same in this smaller work. Understanding and teaching the doctrine of the Trinity is vital so that ‘faith may be increased, strengthened, and confirmed against temptations and oppositions of Satan, and men of corrupt minds; and that we may be distinctly directed unto, and encouraged in, the obedience unto, and worship of God, that are required of us.’ (378)

The book deals with the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and Christ’s satisfaction. The whole thing comes to about 70 pages, with an Appendix. In this short talk I shall be concerned only with the first half, focussing on what I believe Owen can teach us, or remind us, about our understanding of the revelation of God the Holy Trinity.

Some have said that in the present-day the consciousness of the doctrine of the Trinity is not as great as it should be in evangelical churches; that there is a hesitancy over it in our worship, and in our theologising. It is marginalised, or at least it is not in the front of our minds. If so, this may be because it is thought that the Trinitarian character of God is something of an appendage. God is one, yes, and that is clear and straightforward to grasp, but he is also three persons, and that is more complex. We may even think that the very formulation of the doctrine is a sullying of the pure word of God by the intrusion of ‘Greek thought’. But Owen reminds us that we are called by Scripture to worship ‘the only true God’, God in three persons.

My aim is to draw attention to the two main features of how Owen understands the doctrine of the Trinity in relation to Holy Scripture, and secondly to emphasise one consequence of this.

The Trinity and Scripture

Owen’s main idea is to show that God is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each having distinct, mutual relations, is not an imposition on Scripture, or a theory about God, a ‘model’ of God as we are fond of saying these days, but it is found plainly in Scripture. Scripture itself is both clear and sufficient in the matter. The Scriptural portrayal of God's oneness and threeness is not misty, ambiguous, or vague. Its ‘express’ data are our basic datum. So the theological formulation of the Trinity in terms of the divine essence and a trinity of persons is not a clarification, much less an explanation, of the mystery of the Trinity. So what is it?

Before attempting to answer that question, let us see how Owen treats the Scripture. We are to begin with its plain assertions. It is our ultimate source of information about the Godhead, and our last line of defence. It sets forth a Trinitarian God. In our theological thinking ‘We produce divine revelations or testimonies, wherein faith may safely rest and acquiesce, that God is one; that this one God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost; so that the Father is God, so also is the Son, and the Holy Ghost’. (380) We start with the text. We do not first engage ourselves in terms such as ‘Trinity’, ‘substance’, ‘persons’, ‘properties’ and the like. We engage with Scripture. Owen's approach is a clear affirmation of the sufficiency and especially of the clarity of Scripture on the matter. I suspect that our commitment to Scripture is nowadays more cautious.

And so Owen begins to assemble some of the biblical data which (he tells us) ‘he suddenly repeated as they came into his mind’.

First, God is one: ‘Hear, O Israel; the LORD our God is one LORD’, Deut. 6.4., (and Isa. 44, 6, 8 etc.)
Secondly, the Father is God. (Owen does not stay long on this, as this is admitted by his opponents)
Thirdly, that Jesus Christ is God, the eternal Son of God.
Owen quotes texts of two sorts. First, those Old Testament texts which are applied to Christ in the New Testament. So Ps, 45.6 ‘Thy Throne, O God, is for ever and ever’ is applied to Christ in Hebrews 1.8.; Ps. 110.1. ‘The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand’ which is applied to Christ by himself, Matt.22.44. And so on.
Secondly, New Testament assertions in their own right: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Matt. 16.16); John 1.1-3 ‘’And the Word was God’ v.14 ‘And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father’; John 10.30 ‘I and my Father are one’. ‘Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God’. (Phil. 2.6) And so on.

About these and many other such data Owen says ‘For my part, I do not see in any thing, but that the testimonies given to the Godhead of Christ, the eternal Son of God, are every way as clear and unquestionable as those are which testify to the being of God, or that there is any God at all’. (386) And in conclusion of his treatment of the biblical data for the deity of the Son he says, ‘It appeareth, then, that there is a full, sufficient revelation made in the Scripture of the eternal Deity of the Son of God; and that he is so, as is the Father also’. (397)

Finally the deity of the Holy Spirit. Such texts as ‘Baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’ (Matt. 28.19). And Acts. 20.28, ‘over which the holy Ghost hath made you overseers’; ‘As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them' (Acts 13.2), and so on.

Owen goes on (I summarise) to conclude that the Holy Ghost is distinctly called God; he is an intelligent, voluntary, divine agent; he knows, and works, he may be resisted and trusted, so that the Holy Ghost is a distinct divine person, and not merely the power or virtue of God or of any creature. He has divine rank, he is given the names of God and the properties of God are attributed to him, and so on. (401-2)

And these three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one. Yet they are distinct, each having properties not possessed by the others.

So ‘There is nothing more fully expressed in the Scripture than this sacred truth, that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; which are divine, distincti, intelligent, voluntary omnipotent principles of operation and working: which whosoever thinks himself obliged to believe the Scripture must believe’. (406)

In establishing these conclusions from Scripture there is a process of induction used, gathering the evidence, letting it speak for itself. But this process is not, at the same time, unthinking proof-texting. For example, Owen considers the context of the texts he cites. This is most apparent where, in the case of the data proving the deity of the Son, he notes that certain expressions in the New Testament are applications of Old Testament teaching. He recognises the relationship of the Testaments, and the way in which the language of the Psalms and the prophecies is taken by Christ to apply to himself, and by others to refer to Christ. So there is induction, but it is an inductive process that itself involves interpretation and some prior understanding of the scope of Scripture.

So that is that, quite straightforward. But then what when this plain teaching of Scripture is assaulted? Then the church has employed other expressions to ‘further declare’ what is ‘necessarily included’ in the doctrine of God. God is one. In what respect is he one? Answer: in respect of his nature, being, substance or essence, ‘His eternal power and godhead’, (Rom. 1.20) (407) So this nature or substance of God is the one nature or substance of the three - Father, Son, and Spirit. (407) Each fully possesses it. So the distinctions that Scripture draws between the three cannot be distinctions between gods: otherwise we must conclude that since there are three persons there must also be three gods; and we become committed to a form of polytheism.

What then are these further expressions? We need the term ‘person’ or some equivalent term to denote the threeness. What is their weight, their value? To answer this we shall look in the next posting on what Owen says about Scripture is relation to our reason and to the explication of doctrine. Owen moves from induction to deduction.

Two Approaches to the Incarnation

Here’s a question for you: Is the Incarnation the start of a battle whose outcome is uncertain until victory is achieved? Or is it an act of unparalleled condescension, the successful outcome of which is certain from the beginning? I reckon that the answer to that question is important for an understanding of other features of the Incarnation.

Incarnation as military conflict

Here’s the contrast put in rather different terms. On the ‘battle’ understanding of the Incarnation, the Logos takes on human nature and he enters into conflict with the forces of sin an evil. The question is: will he win out despite his handicap? On this view an important part of what makes Gethsemane a drama is the uncertainty of the outcome. Not simply that the outcome is certain but that the onlookers don’t know what that outcome will be, but that it is uncertain for the chief participants, particularly for the God-man himself. Will Christ win out over the demonic forces of evil arrayed against him? On this view, by an unimaginably deep and rich exercise of spiritual power he did prevail, and triumphed over the forces of darkness, making show of them openly. He led a host of captives and gave gifts to men. (Eph.4;8) He is the head of a triumphal procession. (2 Cor. 2.14) So he ‘won’ our salvation, battling against the odds, taking the risks where the outcome was in doubt, and so, once victorious, he is adorned with the conqueror’s crown, and so was able to merit redemption for us. The ‘yet without sin’ of Hebrews tells us that he could have sinned, but that so great was his resolve that he won through. And so he is praiseworthy: the Father put all things under the feet of Christ. Alternatively, the Cross was a military risk that ended as a tragedy in which Christ became the victim of circumstances which suddenly and unexpectedly was reversed as the chains of death were burst apart.

Initially, there might seem to be something to be said for such a view. For as we can see, martial terminology, and the terminology of victory, are ascribed to Christ in the New Testament. He is the captain of our salvation, he has a Victor’s procession, he triumphed over the forces of darkness. He destroyed the one who has the power of death (Heb.2 .14) He resisted unto death. ‘Now is the judgment of this world, now will the ruler of this world be cast’ (John 12.31) This is violent language, to be sure, but is it the language of a victory that could have gone either way until it was finally achieved?

Incarnation as Condescension

When we look closer at that language, we see that Christ’s conquering is achieved through a kind of passivity, through suffering, through renunciation and dedication to the will of his Father. When tempted into physical combat he resists, he scorns weapons, and rebukes his follower Peter, commanding him to put his sword away. He could have called legions of angels to defeat the forces. He won a victory, to be sure, and he triumphantly led a host to the enjoyment of it, but this is a victory in which ends and means were perfectly suited, in which the victory was secured by a resistance to temptation and sin that was total.

Our modern use of ‘condescension’ is unfortunate, for it suggests the unwilling lowering to one person to the level of another, a ‘patronising manner’ as the Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it. A person who has such a manner is generally unpleasant. No mere human being ought to think of himself sufficiently elevated above another to have it in him to ‘condescend’ to the other, and so such a manner is never warranted. But in the case of the Logos the lowering was far from unwilling or grudging, and the distance to be travelled was much greater. He humbled himself. Our Creator, filled with kindness and grace, veiled his glory, emptying himself without in any way losing or abandoning that glory, the glory of deity. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. In identifying with us, God gave himself in union with human nature.

Apart from the never-to-be forgotten fact that the Incarnation was an act of the eternal Logos veiling himself in our flesh, and not a an act of a man becoming divine, I offer two or three lines of evidence is support of the condescension view: no doubt there are more.

First, there is the evidence of the synoptic gospels, that as Jesus’ self-understanding grows and unfolds, as, say, in the Gospel of Mark, what he comes to understand is that Christ knew of his fate, and of the success of his ministry, from the beginning.

And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things…and be rejected by the elders…..and after three days rise again (Mark, 9.30-1)

There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see. kingdom of God after it has come with power. (9.1)

And thy will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. (10.34)

But after I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee. (14.29)

Secondly, the primary emphasis of the New Testament in its depiction of the Incarnation is that it was a humbling. The key text here is Phillipians 2, as we have already noticed.

Thirdly, the NT, particularly the Letter to the Hebrews, sees the Passion in terms of suffering endurance. But there is never any doubt as to the outcome. Christ, whose sovereignty and impeccability are essential to him, is praiseworthy for his coming down. His victory is never in doubt, but what is astonishing is the manner of it, involving incarnation, humbling, denial, passivity, the need to resist the taunts and the intended seductions of sinful men. The temptation is the temptation to fight fire with fire. It is certainly not the temptation which takes its force from any possibility that the God-man might sin. He suffered, being tempted, tested. But what he was tempted to do was not to sin in the sense of break the law, but to sin by deviating from his calling. He endured face to face opposition, made all the more insulting because of his intrinsic dignity as very God.

The Hebrew Christians, to whom these words were addressed, were tempted to deviate from their calling as Christians to return to Judaism. The writer of Hebrews responds: you have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. It makes much better sense of the temptability of the Saviour as taught in this Letter to suppose that temptation and sin refer specifically to the temptation that the Jewish Christians were liable to; to apostatise from the Gospel, not to endure to the end. (The warnings against other sins, such as the failure to love the brethren, to be unfaithful in marriage, to be covetous, not to submit to lawful authority, and so on, are dealt with in Chapter 13, after the main argument has been completed, in a rather summary way, and without hardly a reference to the majestic argument of the body of the Letter.)

The writer shows that they have a Saviour who was tempted in all points like as we are, men and devils tried to him by offering him other alternatives. It was the very suggestion that was the trial, the test. It is not that Christ was tempted with every manner of sin, exactly as we are, but that we was tried by the repeated suggestion that he might abandon his calling in precisely the same kind of ways as Christians are tempted to abandon their callings to be the people of God. In his case, the very suggestion was a temptation. The ‘time of need’ (4.6) is precisely the time when the Hebrew Christians needed the grace to persevere: Jesus could give it, because he did endure, and so he can sympathise with persecuted Christians in their need. He ‘could have been saved from death’ (5.7) by his Father, but himself chose to suffer death, not deviating from the work that his Father had given him to do. He is a priest for ever, (not appointed as such after his suffering and death, but before it), and so, undergirded by the oath of God, he was able to guarantee a better covenant (7.17). He is not a mere temporary priest, an Aaronic priest, but the guarantor of salvation, one able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by him. Such a one was holy, blameless, set apart from sinners, (7.26)

Jesus endured the cross, the opposition of sinful men, despising the shame. He offered himself through the eternal spirit. Through him we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken (12. 28), an enduring city (13.13) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever. (13. 8) There is no suggestion anywhere in Hebrews, as far as I can tell, that Jesus might in any respect have failed what he had set out to do.

What, then, of the ‘yet without sin’? Could Christ have sinned? Which means, could he have failed? Could he have disobeyed his heavenly Father? The type of answer which says that he could have thinks that it is of the essence of temptation that the one tempted is liable to fail, or to fall. But tempting is testing, and the testing of Christ consisted in his summoning of resistance to the seductions of the tempters which he had never experienced before. He had to endure these affronts to his holy character. He learned obedience to his Father’s will by the things that he suffered from his mockers who hurled at him the taunts that he should fail. His testing lay in having to be in the company of, and to endure, the sheer wickedness of such enticements.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology

From time to time we have noted in Helm’s Deep the welcome tendency in certain contemporary scholars of Reformed theology to reinstate the idea of the natural. There is a renewed interest in natural law, for example, by writers such as Stephen Grablis and David VanDrunen and others, (even ch. 8 and 12 of John Calvin’s Ideas and ch. 10 of Calvin at the Centre make a modest contribution.) And some have rediscovered the presence of natural theology in the Westminster standards. The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate, 2009) by Michael Sudduth, which is written from an avowed Reformed standpoint, may be regarded as being part of that wave. The author may not (perhaps) think of it as such, for the book is completely free of anxieties about, and admiration for, the scepticism and relativism of ‘post-modernity’. For that alone the reader may be heartily thankful.

He takes his starting point from the title of a well-known lecture of Alvin Plantinga’s, ‘The Reformed Objection the Natural Theology’ as well as the way in which natural theology has been dismissed and discounted in much twentieth century reformed theology, from Karl Barth and G.C. Berkouwer to Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til and Robert Reymond. He finds some antecedents of this position in the neo-Calvinism of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper. I think it is fair to say that Plantinga’s title does not do justice to his own present position regarding natural theology.

Sudduth makes a basic distinction between natural religion and natural theology. Natural religion is immediate, intuitive and innate in character, whereas natural theology is discursive and argumentative. Reformed attitudes to natural theology have typically seen them as drawing out the implied features of natural religion.

There may be bad natural theological arguments. No doubt there are. But one bad argument does not ruin all the arguments in the barrel. Sudduth is concerned with defending the project of natural theology against objections to it from some in the Reformed orbit, though not supporting every last thing that natural theologians have said. A second distinction is between the knowledge of God and acquiring true beliefs about God.

The great merit of Sudduth’s book is its conceptual sophistication; the distinction between natural religion and natural theology is treated in an exemplary way. This is a work both of technical philosophy and of the history of theology, particularly of aspects of the relation between theology and philosophy. He seeks to reinstate natural theology in Reformed Theology after what has been (it is to be hoped) its temporary eclipse through the Barthian-Van Tilian work of the 20th century. His main thesis is that natural theology, discursive argumentation for the existence and nature of God is not inconsistent with the Reformed emphasis of the universality of the sensus divinitatis, nor even of the noetic effects of sin. For the sensus does not exclude natural theology, since the Reformed tradition from Calvin onwards has been it as the articulation of and the filling out and correcting of the results of the sensus. And the noetic effects of sin do not provide a substantive obejction to natural theology, since the Reformed see this as a project of the Christian church, not of 'natural reason', and makes modest claims for it even in apologetics.

There is a second issue - the place and function of natural theology in a theological and apologetic system. Since the Enlightenment we have been taught that sound arguments of natural theology are necessary for establishing the rationality of religious belief, belief in the existence of God. Only then is theology proper entitled to get going. But this was never the mainstream Reformed view, even after the Enlightenment, though it found favour with some. Sudduth notes (though he is not the only person to do so) that while natural theology may have an apologetic function it is basically a case of faith seeking understanding. After all it is worth noting that even in Thomas Aquinas, his Five Ways occur in his Summa Theologiae as an integral part of the setting forth of the sum of theology, presupposing the Christian revelation, and not as a necessary prolegomenon to the Christian theological enterprise itself.

I think that it is fair to say that the historical evidence presented in the book is considered with the purpose of supporting Sudduth’s trajectory, of defending the integrity of the view of Reformed defenders of natural theology, the main purpose of the book. Nevertheless the historical survey is full of interest to historians of Reformed theology from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and Sudduth appeals to a wide range of data particularly of the nineteenth century. There are some old favourites, but some new faces too. Sudduth is not simply arguing an historical thesis, being content to set that record straight. But he seeks to vindicate that historical position afresh. To this end it seems to me that his treatment of the relation between Scripture and natural theology is one of the best features in the book.

But for others maybe the best part of the book will be the Part on The Logic of Theistic Arguments. Here the author discusses the objection that the proofs deliver only the God of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has no difficulty in demonstrating that such theology may pick out essential features of the living God while not others; they may refer to the true God while not telling us all that Scripture says about him. where Sudduth discusses various Reformed objections to the very idea at length. What is interesting about this I that luminaires of yesteryear such as Gordon H. Clark, Edward J Carnell and Van Til employ the sceptical arguments of Hume and Kant to argue that because certain arguments are not formally valid they are of no use. They are of use, argues Sudduth, in the case where one is attempting to provide a cumulative for the reasonableness of theism. I was pleased to see that in Sudduth’s estimation my old friend Charles Hodge was among those who used them in this very way. In fact, I think that it is fair to aay that Charlie gets a pretty clean sheet from Sudduth when it comes to understanding the nature and place of such arguments in theology and apologetics. (Incidentally, the book is notably free of any of the usual stuff about the influence of the Enlightenment on Hodge and co. though the influence of the Enlightenment is noted from time to time).

No doubt Sudduth has not written the last word on this topic. But it is hard to see how any one writing on it in future can fail to benefit from what he has provided here.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Three Grades of Presuppositional Involvement

One of the standard objections made by Reformed people to natural theology invokes ‘presuppositionalism’. Extremes may meet; and they meet here. At least some presuppositionalists think (or thought) of Karl Barth as having propounded a ‘new modernism’. Nevertheless they, every bit as much as Barth, shun natural theology on theological grounds. In my experience invoking 'presuppositionalism' is the cue for a dense fog to descend and for confusion to reign, My aim in this short post is to try to apply a little de-mister by distinguishing three kinds of presuppositionalism. I shall deliberately not attempt to pin any one of the three onto anyone. This is to prevent libel action and is, moreover, based upon the principle ‘If the cap fits then wear it’. That these three variations on the theme of ‘presuppositionalism’ are not routinely distinguished by the purveyors of ‘presuppositionalism’ is, I find, a vexing matter.

The fashionable grade

First, the fashionable and obviously true sense of ‘presupposition’. This goes as follows: we all have presuppositions, the non-Christian as well as the Christian, the Islamist, the Mormon, the secularist, and Uncle Tom Cobbly and All. Another word for ‘presupposition’ in this sense would be ‘premise’ or ’assumption’. So we start our arguments, all of them, from premises, or from assumptions, things we take for granted. An assumption may simply be that, an assumption, taken to be true for the sake of the argument. But it may also be something that the arguer holds to be true. We all have such assumptions, from the least of us unto the greatest, matters which we take to be true and which form the basis of other claims that we make. Besides, we all have agendas too. The correct and manly thing to do is to confess and acknowledge our presuppositions or assumptions, the fact that you have yours and I have mine. Then, this having been done, we may freely acknowledge that we are on a level playing field. No longer is there a suspicion of ‘objectivity’; for we come clean and out our premises out in the open air. (Bear in mind that having a presupposition in this sense is not the same thing as possessing a motive.)

There is in this sense, a level playing field. But a level playing field of what? Of relativism? Not necessarily, for one thing that is often forgotten in this litany of presuppositions is that it is possible to eliminate bias (that’s another word we may use). Not to eliminate all bias, but a good deal of it. We may, if we wish, wallow in relativism or on subjectivism. But on the other hand we may choose not to, and choose instead to do our best to eliminate bias or subjectivity by checking, testing, having second thoughts, consulting experts, by consulting the historical record, and so on, and on. I think that when presuppositionalism first reared its head in conservative, confessional, theological circles, it did so in a world that was rather naive about the fact that presuppositions have proved to be as rampant as they have. Or maybe the world has changed in the meantime. Anyhow, presuppositionalism in this sense has become prominent; a fashionable, contemporary, post-modern thing to chatter about. Presupposition = narrative = world view.

The Theological Grade

Secondly, there is what I shall call the theological sense of ‘presupposition’. Traditionally, this has gone under a differ guise, the principle that Holy Scripture is both necessary and sufficient for all matters to do with faith and life. Some nowadays shamelessly call this ‘theological foundationalism’ or ‘Christian foundationalism’ and that is indeed what it is. And, as far as the use of ‘foundationalism’ is concerned, none the worse for that. Our faith is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. And if people wish to say that Scripture is where nowadays we find that first primitive and authentic deposit of our faith, then who are we to complain?

All clear? But just a further word, if I may. Ask yourself the question, ‘Foundational for what?’ Foundational for Christian discipleship is one thing. Is Scripture theologically foundational for that? Clearly not. A person may be a disciple while not knowing even whether there be such a thing as Holy Scripture. Remember the thief on the cross. And the hymn 'There is life for a look at the Crucified One'. Is Scripture foundational theologically? (Something that the dying thief did not have much time to practice). Yes indeed, that’s the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency coming into play again: a canon, a foundation, a supreme authority. Are there other, lesser authorities? Yes indeed. The councils, the confessions, the fathers, the puritans. But one supreme theological fountainhead and touchstone – Holy Scripture.

The hard line grade

Then, finally there is what I shall call hard line or high road presuppositionalism. Here the key phrase is ‘Only by…’ So we hear ‘Only by presupposing the infallible or inerrant Scriptures shall we demonstrate the irrationality of all non-scriptural positions’ (or some variant of this). It’s the ‘only by’ that is of interest, along with the bold claim that is made for acting in this ‘only by’ way.

There is something very wrong here. It is not the boldness of the claim, nor the circularity of it, but the rashness of it. I invite you to listen in to this exchange.

Think of the Bible, for a moment. There it is, on the table. Er.. No, sorry, it’s on the chair. That’s what we are presupposing? Are you sure it’s the Bible on the chair? I could have sworn a few minutes ago that it was Gulliver’s Travels. No, it’s not the Travels, it’s the Bible. See! Would you open it, please? But what I’ve opened seems to be in English, all the way through. I thought that the Bible is partly Hebrew, partly Greek. Oh, it’s an English translation of the Bible. Fair enough. How do we know it’s an English translation? Accurate?

A number of things are going on in this rather roughly-constructed bit of dialogue. There is a recognition that the Holy Bible is a material object, like a table or a chair or Gulliver's Travels, though with the added complication (if it’s an English Bible) that it is a translation of the original versions of its 66 books. When we take up the Bible, come to understand some of it, come to trust its promises and to fear its threatenings, we must use our senses and our minds to help us to do this. The Bible is not a Platonic reality, even when we refer to it as the ‘Word of God’. It is not free from the vagaries and perils of sense-experience, something which has immediately descended from heaven and entered immediately into our souls. So we need to be able to trust our sense experience, and (if we are of a philosophical turn of mind) to have a reason to trust our senses, and similarly with our intellects.

But where do we get these reasons that we have to justify trusting our senses and intellect? I think that this is what bothers the hard-line presuppositionalists, and rashly leads them into vicious circularity. To their ‘Only if we presuppose the Bible…’ I think that a person may at this point reasonably retort, 'Which Bible?' It is only possible consistently to presuppose the Bible once it has been correctly identified, and its sentences and clauses in some measure understood. But to accomplish these tasks we need to trust our senses and our minds, that is, to trust them without first presupposing the Bible, but to do this in order to presuppose the Bible in all matters theological. In a word, we need an epistemology, or the rudiments of one. (Just as we need a metaphysics, though that’s a different story.)

The hard-line presuppositionalist may say; but if the Bible’s account of things is true we each of us have reliable senses and intellects in virtue of us being created in the image of God and upheld by the undeserved goodness of God despite our fallenness. Yes, indeed. But to play that card at this point is a mistake. It is to confuse the order of being with the order of knowing. It is true that reliable senses are part of the vestige of the image of God in us, but in the order of knowing, at the stage when we are identifying the Bible and readings its pages, we don’t know that yet. We know that only when we have opened our Bibles, understood them and believed what they say, and so far we have not reached that stage. We only reach that stage if we first trust our senses and our minds. Perhaps we could, by a leap of faith, believe that the book on the chair is God’s word, and we could by another leap trust our senses and intellect, read the Bible, and by a third leap of faith trust its promises and tremble at its threatenings. That would be five star fideism, to be sure. Perhaps we may do all that. But I cannot imagine that hard-line presuppositonalists would find much comfort in the fideistic briar-patch that this Herculean effort would land them in.

But if we need an epistemology, and cannot, without circularity, draw it from the Bible, where do we obtain it? How is an epistemology to be had? Maybe here we have another presupposition of the hard-line presuppositonalist. In order to get going and to be thoroughly biblical in doing so we need to be equipped with a fully biblical epistemology. For only in possessing and using a fully biblical epistemology will we be consistently biblical. Only then will the sufficiency of Scripture be accorded its due.

Well, I believe that we should hold this presupposition up to the light of day, as well. No doubt, or perhaps, there is a true and properly human epistemology, God’s epistemology for humans. If so, we don’t possess it, not at least in the way that we possess God’s way of salvation for humans. What we do possess are various alternative epistemologies, and combinations thereof. There are Stoic and Platonic and Aristotelian and Rationalist and Empiricist and….epistemologies. Part of the genius of Reformed theology, until the bug of hardline presuppositionalism and other kindred ills began to bite, was its eclectic philosophical spirit. We find this in a fountainhead such as Calvin, and more generally among the Reformed Orthodox, and Richard Muller in particular has pointed out. We find it also in today’s ‘Reformed’ epistemologists. Plantinga and Wolterstorff draw from Calvin and Thomas Reid and Roderick Chisholm and Alvin Goldman, to look no further, in order to articulate an epistemology which is (as far as I can see) consistent with Reformed theology and which provides reason for trusting our senses and intellects as we reach for that book ‘The Bible’.

There are various ways of articulating and defending our sensory and intellectual capacities in their role as gatherers of reliable information about the world around us. None of these is ‘biblical’ in any direct sense, of course. We cannot lift an epistemology off the pages of Scripture as we can lift a doctrine of justification off them. The epistemologies that have been used, in the history of Christianity, are at odds with each other, though parts of one are not necessarily at odds with parts of others. What matters is that we have reasons that support our belief in the reliability (though not the infallibility, of course) of our epistemological equipment. This will be sufficient to identify a book as the Bible, and to read and understand some, if not all, of what it contains. And then we are in business.

Charles Hodge, The Enlightenment and Natural Theology

Charles Hodge is routinely demonised because of the allegedly Enlightenment character of his theology: it is propositional, foundationalist, purely cerebral, objectivist, etc. After a careful reading – or simply a reading – of the first 17 pages of his Systematic Theology most of these claims vanish like the morning mist. And those that don’t, such as the charge of objectivism, serve to save the gospel.

This post notes another piece of evidence against the Enlightenment charge. One feature of Enlightenment thought was and is its rationalism. And one way in which that rationalism is expressed in religion is in an attitude to proving of the existence of God. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, formulating and accepting the cogency of some proof or other of God’s existence came to be regarded as a necessary condition of regarding theology as an enterprise fit for intelligent men and women. If no proofs, then no theology. One might expect Charles Hodge, seriously infected as he allegedly was by the Enlightenment virus, to have taken this line. No proofs, no theology. First it is necessary to start with the proofs. If they are cogent, proceed; if none of them is cogent, then one might as well zip up the theological bags.

But – once again – Charles Hodge fails to fit the Enlightenment stereotype, as I shall now try to show. However, to be persuaded of this fact it is necessary to engage in the unusual scholarly pursuit of reading, in this case reading some more of Hodge. Otherwise the current evangelical climate is such that there is the danger that one might simply dream up some new fantasy about him.

The First Reading

So, we shall need to read; but there is some relief. For one thing, the scholar of Charles Hodge does not have to read very far, and as we shall see he does not have to read very much. Immediately after the first 17 pages of his Systematic Theology, which his critics usually focus upon (though usually without bothering to read them), is Chapter II – Theology. Turning to page 21-6, we find Hodge discussing the nature of natural theology, and avoiding two extremes, that natural theology is useless, and that it is sufficient, for true religion. (I. 21-6) Having provided an assessment of the importance of natural theology, the meaning of ‘nature’, the scope of natural theological arguments, and so on, (21-4), Hodge appeals to Scripture to provide an argument for natural theology. (Although he had previously briefly appealed to man’s being made in the image of God. (22)) He appeals to the Psalms, to Acts 14 and 17, to Romans 1. In other words, natural theology is possible and desirable because Scripture warrants it. Scripture informs us of certain facts that the natural theologian can use in the construction of arguments for the existence of God.

Of course, this is a complete reversal of the Enlightenment ordering of things. For Hodge the warrant for natural theology is not simply that clever men have thought up these arguments, or that they ‘work’, or that they must work in order for belief in God to be rational, but that Scripture endorses them. The Enlightenment procedure is: first the proofs, then theology. Hodge’s procedure is; first Scripture, its theological teaching, and then the proofs, an aspect of that theological teaching. (Some people worry that natural theology and natural law undermine the sufficiency of Scripture. But it's clear that Charles Hodge was not worried, not at least about this).

The Second Reading

Let’s move on, to Chapter 1 of Part I of Systematic Theology. Here Hodge has a fairly lengthy discussion of the innateness of the knowledge of God. (So, more page turning, I’m afraid.) Scripture teaches us of that there is a natural knowledge of God, which is well-nigh universal, and innate. (Hodge obviously has Rom.1 in mind, though while reference to this passage is made (I. 195) it is not made central to the discussion). While Hodge uses words such as ‘intuition’, he clearly has in view what Calvin earlier called the universal sensus divinitatis, spoiled by the Fall, but not eradicated by it.

According to Hodge our minds possess various intuitions - of sense, of the intellect, of the moral sense, and (what is particularly of interest here, of course) of God. Such knowledge is both universal, and necessary; that is, it is not simply a matter of fact that all people have a sense of God, but that such a sense is part of the constitution of human beings. This is the ‘general sense of a Being on whom we are dependent, and to whom we are responsible…. This sense of dependence and accountability to a being higher than themselves exists in the minds of all men’ (195). This may, through the benefit of special revelation, and careful reflection, be refined to ‘the Christian sense’ of the word ‘God’, as in the ‘sublime idea’ that ‘God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’. (I. 194) Hodge then expands on the idea of the universality and especially the necessity of this belief. He is particularly emphatic on the point that such a belief is not the result of a process of reasoning, though such processes can confirm and develop it, or the result of tradition. The belief as it stands is thus highly dispositional in character, a disposition which can be developed and fostered by the study of Scripture, and also by proofs for the existence of God.

Hodge makes a number of points here: that the knowledge of God is a matter of the understanding, not of the reason; that proofs of God have as their aim to show what the being of God is – ‘that He is a personal Being, self-conscious, intelligent, moral. All this may lie inclosed in the primary intuition, but it needs to be brought out and established’. (202) He concludes the discussion by asserting that the various proofs of the existence of God complement each other and so are intended to have a cumulative effect, one argument proving one aspect of God’s character, another argument a further aspect, and so on.

So, what does all this show? I shall conclude by underlining three points.

First, that Hodge endorses the ‘common proofs’ of God’s existence and believes that they have real value. Its benefits are to be understood as expansions, clarifications, and articulations of a prior common, necessary, human intuition, an innate understanding that there is a God to whom we are responsible, an intuition to which Scripture testifies, in Romans 1 and elsewhere. Second, our belief in the existence of God does not therefore depend on the success of such proofs, but such proofs as are cogent arise out of this prior intuition. As Michael Sudduth has shown in his recent book, (The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, (Ashgate, 2009)), Hodge is here part of a Reformed tradition going back through such as Turretin to Calvin and others. So, finally, Hodge has no objection to natural theology as such, though he does object to the rationalistic strategy for using such theology as developed by the Enlightenment.