Paul Manata Reviews Michael Sudduth’s "The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology"

Paul Manata has written another one of his excellent reviews. Though I have already read the book, I have been hoping that he would review Michael Sudduth’s The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology and Manata has not disappointed. The book is rather expensive and has much to say that many of those who object to Natural Theology are not going to want to hear. Thus I do not look forward to many people reading the work even though they should. In light of this the review is especially helpful. You may find it here.

A few quick comments –

Those who object that Cornelius Van Til is not even mentioned – much less his work discussed – in “relevant, peer reviewed, etc.” philosophical work are mistaken. Sudduth’s book (Dec 09) is just one of the reasons why. Sudduth was a member of the Van Til List and thus privy to discussions of Van Til and Bahnsen which no doubt had some influence on his work (which he had already started during his time on the VT List). Sudduth’s work on the subject his book is about has appeared in his dissertation and journal articles.

Manata writes, “Much of the arguments against the logic of theistic arguments were employed by Reformed thinkers who rested on the tired objections of Hume and Kant. However, there still remains the more savvy objections by the likes of a Sobel or an Oppy. Reformed thinkers who find natural theology (B) troublesome will eventually appeal to this more steely material.”

While the objections from Hume and Kant are “oldies,” they are still “goodies.” When I picked up Sudduth’s book for a paper on the classic theistic proofs I began at the back of the book where Sudduth presents a cosmological style argument while interacting with Hume. Now, certainly I am biased here, as those who know me a bit better know that Hume is my favorite philosopher and I have spent a pretty decent amount of time with him. However, I did not find Sudduth’s argument or replies to Hume the least bit compelling. The same old “tired objections” received what appeared to me to be the same old tired responses from Sudduth. Perhaps the readers are missing something from Sudduth’s time studying under Swinburne that is assumed in some of Sudduth’s work but not made explicit. Speculation aside, when I read the book in its entirety Sudduth’s program made much better sense. Still, not only do I think that Reformed thinkers will eventually appeal to Sobel or Oppy’s objections (and why haven’t they already done so?), but they may still appeal to Hume and Kant once Sudduth’s categorization is properly understood so that the objections are not misapplied.

Manata continues, “Some Reformed objectors to natural theology (B), or at least objectors to the status quo, may feel their concerns have not been considered.” Indeed they have not been considered. Specifically, Bahnsen’s five objections which summarize his interpretation of Van Til on the subject of natural theology in general as it pertains to the classic theistic proofs in particular are, with one exception, not explicitly addressed. Additionally, I would argue that where Van Til’s objection is addressed it is done so based upon a misunderstanding of the portion of text which is actually quoted from Van Til (very briefly, Van Til did not believe that classic theistic proofs entail that people may not be held responsible before God, but rather that people have an excuse given the classic theistic proofs). Further, I would argue that Bahnsen’s five objections (noting the aforementioned exception) are not implicitly addressed by Sudduth’s work either. Finally, I am not convinced that the majority of people understand natural theology as Sudduth does in terms of its dogmatic function as opposed to its alleged pre-dogmatic and apologetic functions. Perhaps I am missing something, but Hume would likely chuckle given the opportunity and point out that he is happy with the claim that his objections are inconsistent with Christian theism and Reformed theology. So much the worse for the latter!

Manata very insightfully concludes, “Sudduth’s book seemed to suggest (and this is also hinted at in Paul Helm’s review of Sudduth’s book) that Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen were against natural theology.”

But given his dogmatic model, would he not consider them natural theologians? Sure, they rejected a lot of natural theology arguments (while also claiming that there were valid formulations of those arguments), but they had their own arguments for the faith. Given the dogmatic model, would not Van Til and Greg Bahnsen qualify as natural theologians, perhaps just objecting to pre-dogmatic models? (In private conversation Sudduth let me know that he did admit this in a prior draft of the book but had to cut it for the final draft.)

This sentiment plagued me throughout my reading of the book. While popular caricatures of Van Til and Bahnsen are completely refuted by the material in Sudduth’s book, I am not convinced that either Van Til or Bahnsen would disagree with much of what Sudduth has written. (Please do not misunderstand – I am not saying that Sudduth has caricatured Van Til or Bahnsen.)

What about TAG? It is not to be understood as serving the pre-dogmatic function. Many of the current objections against it appear to me to be based on this mistake. It should be pointed out that TAG does not necessarily serve the dogmatic function either. Van Til’s understanding of the relationship between faith and reason as set over against that of the Thomist contains much which would need to be worked out for a thorough explanation of TAG in light of Sudduth’s categories.

I would encourage working carefully through Paul Manata’s review and either loaning or purchasing Sudduth’s book. While I do not foresee any responses to Sudduth’s book from within either the Reformed community or the Van Tillian community for many, many years to come (if ever), I may be wrong. However, no such response will ever come about if Van Tillians are not taking the time to read those who have raised objections and other relevant considerations pertaining to epistemology and apologetics.

Thanks again to Paul Manata.

HT: ZaoThanatoo


10 Comments

PM

“Thanks again to Paul Manata.”

You’re welcome 🙂

PM

“Perhaps I am missing something, but Hume would likely chuckle given the opportunity and point out that he is happy with the claim that his objections are inconsistent with Christian theism and Reformed theology. So much the worse for the latter!”

I think what you’re missing is that Sudduth isn’t critiquing Hume and Kant in the objection you’re referring too. He’s critiquing the *Reformed appeal* to Hume and Kant. This is similar to Bahnsen critiquing everything under the sun for not being “Christian.” For example, Bahnsen will critique a Christian for holding to mind/body dualism because this is to assume *Greek* thought. Van Til critiques Thomas for his reliance on and baptizing of *Aristotle*, saying that this wasn’t specifically *Christian*. So on this specific point, that’s how I think SUdduth meant to be taken.

Mike

One problem for Hume was he stultified himself as he sawed off the epistemic branch he tried to sit on: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” His own aforementioned assertions fail his own test. Additionally his notions regarding causation and induction within his skeptical worldview are self-impaling.

Sudduth’s book is costly but a fine asset for the contemporary apologist. Manata’s review is very helpful and instructive.

Shotgun

Holy cow, you guys weren’t joking when you said Sudduth’s book is expensive!

I think I’ll wait a few months and try to get it used.

Shotgun

By the way…if there is a response to Suddoth’s book, I hope it comes from within the Theonomist community.

PM

“By the way…if there is a response to Suddoth’s book, I hope it comes from within the Theonomist community.’

Sudduth’s book isn’t a book on ethics . . .

Agreus

“One problem for Hume was he stultified himself as he sawed off the epistemic branch he tried to sit on…”

The point Hume was trying to make is that matters of the divine, such as statements about God, are not “matters of fact” and hence attempts to prove the existence of God are really just a play on words. This makes any a priori arguments for the existence of God meaningless. I don’t think Hume’s point here is self-stultifying.

mike

Hume asserted: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
Hume’s own assertion lacks that which it declares necessary to avoid the flames. Thus he stultifies himself.

Agreus

I think Hume is simply saying that a priori proofs of “matter of fact” statements, such as “God exists.” are essentially meaningless because a priori proofs tell us nothing about the real world. Statements concerning matters of fact are known a posteriori via emperical evidence. He is not presenting his assertion as an a priori proof of a matter of fact and hence I don’t see how he stultifies himself.

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