Mr. White, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Black X

When Mr. Black objects against Mr. White that unconditional surrender to the authority of Scripture is irrational, then Mr. Grey nods approval and says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic. When the Bible speaks of God’s sovereign election of some men to salvation this must mean something that fits in with his “rational nature.” When Mr. Black objects to Mr. White that unconditional surrender to Scripture is rationalistic, then Mr. Grey again nods approval and says that, of course, genuine human personality has a perfect right to test the content of Scripture by experience. When the Bible speaks of God controlling by his counsel whatsoever comes to pass, this must mean something that fits in with man’s “freedom.” God created man and gave man a share in his own freedom; men therefore participate in his being.

For instance, when we say that we should presuppose the authority of Scripture, this is often called fideism. That is incorrect, of course. It is often over-simplified in order to indict opponents, but definitions like “the doctrine that knowledge depends on faith or revelation”, while superficially damaging, are insufficient, upon further study. Plantinga defines the term as the “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth”, and says further that a fideist  “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious” and who “may go on to disparage and denigrate reason.”[1] What this fails to account for is the Reformed doctrine of faith as a supernatural gift – and the corresponding gift of a renewed mind in the regenerate man. We are not presupposing a contentless, reasonless faith – a faith which is opposed to reason. We are presupposing the Triune God of Scripture – a Scripture full of content, which fully engages the mind and presupposes a reasoned understanding of that content. We presuppose the triune God, yes – but the Triune God of Scripture. That is where we start, and that is the content which we presuppose. It is not ultimately irrational. Faith is not presented as in opposition to reason, or rather than reason – but reason, as well as faith, is subject to God, who grants both, and who grounds both in Himself.

Scripture’s authority is not a matter of irrationality – it is a matter of listening to the creator of logic, in whose image we are created. The created logic we employ has its model in God. As Reformed believers, we believe that Scripture is selfattesting. We also believe Scripture is sufficient. Any Christian is likely to tell you that the Scripture is authoritative – the issue at hand specifically above – that it is inspired, and inerrant – but the Reformed doctrine of sufficiency goes past even those elements of Sola Scriptura.

The London Baptist Confession puts it this way:

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience[2]

Notice: knowledge, faith and obedience. The connection I made earlier between faith and reason is hardly unique when it is clearly present in a confessional document from 1689, is it? it explains further, in a later article:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture[3]

Also note what it says about authority:

although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.[4]

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.[5]

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.[6]

The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.[LNCF I.10[/ref]

I’m sure you are seeing the pattern here, no? The standard of authority we find here is hardly one which could be considered irrational – nor can our position be considered something unChristian! It is, quite simply, the natural, historic position of Reformed believers to hold. In fact, it can be quite easily argued that to hold any contrary position entails a compromise in the sufficiency of Scripture! If, as Scripture tells us, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds – that we are being conformed to the image of Christ – then not only our faith is a supernatural gift, but the restoration of our faculties to conform to His image is part of the regenerative work of the Spirit. Faith is a complement to our reason, not in opposition to it.

Notice Van Til’s play here. The initial objection is that the authority of Scripture as self-attesting, because it is the Word of God, and therefore sufficient, is first irrational. Mr. Grey sagely nods, and affirms man’s right to “test” Scripture by means of logic – as if that authority is in opposition.  Mr. Grey does this to avoid the charge of fideism, as we are so often encouraged to do. His response, when presented with the doctrine of election, is to make the typical Arminian play and subject election to man’s libertarian freedom, not God’s. However, the following charge is just as problematic for Mr. Grey! If we are to test the Scripture by means of logic – if logic can bring a conviction of Scripture at the bench of man’s reason – is this not rationalistic?

Remember, in our last post – dealing with only the paragraph prior, the section was subtitled “The Authority of Scripture” (and this is the subtitle for the section we covered from VII to the aforementioned IX).  As we here enter the section subtitled “Proofs for the Existence of God”, the same issue of authority is in play! Nothing has changed. If Mr. Grey gives in from one direction, he is hit from the opposite direction. If the subject wasn’t so important, I would be afraid of belaboring it – but it stands repeating, as often as necessary. The opposite charge can be made just as easily as the other – if Christian doctrine holds that Scripture is rational, why then is it not rationalistic, especially given the highly rationalistic reply given by Mr. Grey?

The way to deal with these twinned accusations is to recognize that the unbeliever is himself embroiled in an irrational/rational dialectic – which we have also discussed in the past 3 posts! Van Til did not bring this up for no reason. It was intentional. Mr. Black is designed to show us that the indictments he raises against Christian belief – especially Mr. Grey’s brand of Christianity, are actually self-indictments.  Mr. Black is the one suffering from irrationalism and rationalism – in equal and opposite measures – and his objections demonstrate this. Insofar as Mr. Grey panders to them, he will himself be captured in them as well. When confronted with charges of irrationalism, Mr. Grey retreats to rationalism – when confronted with charges of rationalism, he retreats to irrationalism.

But what of natural or general revelation? Here surely there can be no difference, you say, between the requirements of Mr. White and Mr. Grey. Here there is no law and no promise; here there are only the facts of nature. How can you speak of any requirement at all with respect to them? Here surely Mr. White can forget his “five points of Calvinism” and join Mr. Grey in taking Mr. Black through the picture gallery of this world, pointing out its beauties to him so that with them he will spontaneously exclaim, “The whole chorus of nature raises one hymn to the praise of its Creator.”

This is where the rubber meets the road – especially when it comes to criticisms of Van Til and his method. What does it matter, when it comes to objectively true facts, such as the wonders of creation? Can’t we just agree to let bygones be bygones, and stand shoulder to shoulder with our evidentialist and classicalist brethren at this point? After all, these are the facts! Ah, says the voice in the back of Mr. White’s mind – what is the meaning of those facts? Are any of us neutral, when we examine them? Surely not – and as we will see, none of us are neutral – and neither should you be!

Let us think of Mr. White as trying hard to forget his “five points.” “Surely,” he says to himself, “there can be nothing wrong with joining Mr. Grey in showing Mr. Black the wonders of God’s creation. We believe in the same God, do we not? Both of us want to show Mr. Black the facts of creation so that he, too, will believe in God. When Mr. Black says, ‘I see no meaning in all I have seen, and I continue, just as I was, confused and dismayed,’ Mr. Grey and I can together take him to the Mt. Wilson observatory so he may see the starry heavens above. Surely the source of knowledge for the natural sciences is the Book of Nature which is given to everyone. Do not the Scriptures themselves teach that there is a light in nature which cannot be, and is not, transmitted through the spectacles of the Word? If this were not so, how could the Scriptures say of those who have only the light of nature that they are without excuse?”

After all, what does Calvinism have to do with astronomy, he tells himself? Mr. Black doesn’t see meaning in what he is shown! What is this! Even the “light of nature” is insufficient to give him understanding! But, thinks Mr. White – they leave him without excuse! This is true – but he should have remembered the words of the Confession(s).

[A]lthough the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.[7] The “light of nature” – “and the works of creation and providence” – do manifest God’s goodness, wisdom, and power – but are sufficient only to convict – to leave them without excuse – NOT “to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.” They are instruments of judgment, not for the provision of sufficient knowledge! Using the “light of nature” as something it was not intended for is a recipe for failure – and Mr. White has strayed from his own confession at this point.

It is also sometimes argued that for apologetic purposes, the “light of nature”, etc is sufficient – but at that point, I question whether we have the same definition of “apologetic purposes” – and further, “sufficient for what”? Yes, it is sufficient to render men inexcusable. That is not at issue, or disputed here, in any way.  Van Til here affirms this, as do all of our confessions. So, to what purpose are we at odds over? For what, other than what we have already stated is the case, is “the light of nature” sufficient for, if not for rendering men “without excuse”? At this point, it miht be helpful to reference the work here, on Romans 1 – no one is disputing that men know God, or that He makes himself known thereby. The question is, “how does the unbeliever get to saving knowledge, except by the regenerative power of the Spirit, by the preaching of the Word?” Again, I doubt any (Reformed) critic would disagree with us that this is the sole means by which saving knowledge is gained. So, what is at issue, really?

So the three men, Mr. White, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Black, go here and there and everywhere. Mr. White and Mr. Grey agree to share the expense. Mr. Black is their guest.

They go first to the Mt. Wilson observatory to see the starry skies above. “How wonderful, how grand!” exclaims Mr. Grey. Then to the marvels of the telescope they add those of the microscope. They circle the globe to see “the wonders of the world.” They listen to the astronauts speaking down to the earth from the vicinity of the moon. There is no end to the “exhibits” and Mr. Black shows signs of weariness. So they sit down on the beach. Will not Mr. Black now sign on the dotted line?

All of this is wonderful – but again, according to the confessions – none of this is sufficient save to convict. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. God’s glory is shown in His justice as well as in His mercy. So, this should set up for a sermon – for exegesis, right? Once you have presented the Creator, whose holiness has been sinned against, whose existence is plain – there must be the Gospel. Not further rationalistic pleas, or probabilistic maybes – but the Gospel. Is that what is presented to Mr. Black? Nope. That is what the issue is, here. That is what Van Til is critical of. Not that they showed him the wonders of God’s creation – but the reason for which they did so – and the purpose to which it was put.

As they wait for the answer, Mr. Grey spies a watch someone has lost. Holding it in his hand he says to Mr. Black: “Look around the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions, to a degree beyond that which human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which forces admiration from all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance, of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble one another. The Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work, which he has executed.

Aside from the all-too-convenient “lost a watch” here – the theology proper here is frightful. I don’t care how immense the grandeur is – did you just seriously imply that the mind of God was proportional to it? As in, within time and space? C’mon, Mr. Grey!

“Now, Mr. Black, I don’t want to put undue pressure on you. You know your own needs in your own business. But I think that as a rational being you owe it to yourself to join the theistic party. Isn’t it highly probable that there is a God?

Yes, he does want to put “undue pressure” – that was the point of the exercise – and the people you’re talking to aren’t idiots. Treat them like they are, and you deserve the answer you get.

“Join the theistic party” – seriously? All that, for “join the theistic party!” Unbelievable. We laugh, we scoff, we think it is funny – but this sort of argumentation is commonplace. My less academic friends are going to say this is pompous – and they’d be right. My more academic friends will say “this is amateur hour” – and they’ll be right, too. The way that you are taught to argue by the proponents of these methodologies assumes a certain level of acumen – but fails to reach the philosophical heights to truly deal with an informed critic, for the most part. The way these arguments are presented, they are dealing almost exclusively in their stomping grounds – and they are quite often better in that territory than any of us are. Speaking as a layman, with lots of blue-collar friends – this is pretentious drivel. Speaking as someone who has studied apologetics for years, and read a wide swathe of the academic-level literature on the subject – this is derivative dreck – and probably just about right, for an “educated” apologist speaking to an “educated” unbeliever, from my experience.

Then, the kicker – “isn’t it highly probable that…” – he started with this, and he’s been teed up on for multiple conversations about it. Go back and read through the previous encounters again, if you don’t believe me. Then, he tops it off with the “A God” stuff that he’s *also* been lambasted for, by Mr. Black!  What does he expect is going to happen now? Oh, but he’s not done.

I’m not now asking you to become a Christian. We take things one step at a time. I’m only speaking of the Book of Nature. Of course, if there is a God, and if this God should have a Son and if this Son should also reveal himself, it is not likely to be more difficult for you to believe in him than it is now to believe in the Father. But just now I am only asking you to admit that there is a great accumulation of evidence of the sort that any scientist or philosopher must admit to be valid for the existence of a God back of and above this world. You see this watch. Isn’t it highly probable that a power higher than itself has made it? You know the purpose of a watch. Isn’t it highly probable that the wonderful contrivances of nature serve the purposes of God? [8] Looking back we are naturally led to a God who is the cause of this world; looking forward we think of a God who has a purpose with this world. So far as we can observe the course and constitution of the universe there is, I think, no difficulty on your own adopted principles, against belief in God. Why not become a theist? You do want to be on the winning side, don’t you? Well, the Gallup poll of the universe indicates a tendency toward the final victory of theism.”

There are so many cringy things in here, it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll just go in order. If you’re not asking someone to be a Christian, what are you asking them to be? A different sort of unbeliever? This was from far before Antony Flew’s time, but he’s a recent, infamous example of the failure of this approach.  It did Flew no eternal good whatsoever to convert to deism – and, in fact, he stated that “I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.”[9] His “conversion” was nothing of the sort. He acknowledged part of what every man knows. The Creator of all things exists, and we are guilty before Him. He didn’t acknowledge all of this (despite knowing it and suppressing that truth in unrighteousness) – and even if he had acknowledged the entirety of the preceding, it would still have been sufficient only to condemn. This was hailed as some sort of vindication of incrementalist approaches at the time. Antony Flew died in his sins. If we were to take Mr. Grey’s approach – we would also be inviting people to die in their sins.

You cannot divorce natural revelation from supernatural at this point, then expect it to not be a bait and switch later, when you try to unify them once again. What you win them with is what you win them to. Mr. Grey doesn’t believe in “a God” – why is he arguing for one? In what possible way is this not a bait and switch? This is a rotten salesman’s tactic, not a Christian doctrine – and not a Christian practice, either! That book has content. Redact it all you want, but don’t call it God’s Book of Nature after you get done snipping out the offensive parts.

The next part is what makes us, as presuppers, the most upset, when we see it from putatively Christian apologists. Do you believe all of that is only an if? If not, why argue as if that was the case? You don’t believe merely that (at least, I hope you don’t!) – so why does your argument assume something opposed to what you yourself believe? Further – if you’re not asking him to be a Christian – why even bring this up about the Son, His self-revelation – and that a God is actually the Father? Because it’s an obvious bait and switch, and you’re asking him to suspend disbelief, and arbitrarily forget everything that is integral to the nature of the God to believe in a God; as a result, you have to purposely distance yourself from the Christian theology you profess (to Christians) to believe! Is this what we are called to, brothers? Not in the least.

Further, it’s very much the case that it’s more difficult to believe in the antithesis of what the natural man will accept. What you are asking him to accept is a devolved version of what he already knows to be true, already suppresses in unrighteousness, and is already aware that he is condemned thereby! Every man knows the true God – that He created the universe (including himself), and therefore has standards of duty and moral behavior of which he stands in dereliction – standards he stands guilty of violating. That he is a sinner, and unable to rectify his state before God. It is not highly probable that the “wonderful contrivances of nature serve the purposes of God” – it is certain, and known as such by the individual to whom he is speaking. Mr. Grey isn’t “only” asking Mr. Black to “admit” to a limited set of conclusions, and no more. He’s really asking Mr. Black to admit to an artificially limited (and dare I say it – arbitrary) set of conclusions that he might thereby use those admissions in further argumentation, along similar lines. Assuming Mr. Black is an idiot seems to be Mr. Grey’s modus operandi.  He doesn’t want Mr. Black to really believe in “a God” any more than he himself believes in “a God” – he wants Mr. Black to go along with the script, so he can kick it into the next phase. For all the complaining that our evidentialist and classicalist friends do about Sye’s “scripts” – they do the same thing. Seemingly, it isn’t scriptedness that is the real problem, in their eyes – but that the “script” doesn’t meet with their approval.

“Looking back, we are” not “naturally led to a God” – Scripture does not say that “a God” is known – or is understood. The referent is directly and specifically personal.

“[S]ince the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” – it twice uses αὐτοῦ – a personal pronoun. It isn’t a God – but the God – the God whom they know. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” The silly plea at the end can go unmentioned, as self-refuting. (Lest some think it’s over the top – I’ve heard nearly its duplicate before, and many others like it.)

The universal knowledge of God (which we have talked about at some length elsewhere on this site) makes this presentation something for which, as we will see in the next sections, Mr. White cringes from – and rightly so. You can’t pair this sort of incrementalism with a thoroughgoing Reformed Theology. That is, however, the way we are taught to argue about the *existence* of God by the practitioners of these methodologies – where we wouldn’t argue that way elsewhere.

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  1. [1]87, “Reason and Belief in God,” in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (eds.), Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
  2. [2]LBCF I.1
  3. [3]LBCF I.6
  4. [4]LBCF I.1
  5. [5]LBCF I.4
  6. [6]LBCF I.5
  7. [7]LBCF/WCF I.1 – the LBCF has an additional statement prior to this; “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience,”
  8. [8]Ed. footnote 48: The notion that a watch implies a watchmaker was set forth by William Paley and has become a common approach to the design argument, or teleological argument, for the existence of God.
  9. [9]https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/antony-flew-considers-godsort-of-369.html – feel free to peruse the rest of his comments on the subject.

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