"Getting to God" – Thomistic Misconceptions of Van Tilian Presuppositionalism (Updated)

David Gadbois from Green Baggins wrote the following in a comment on Fides, Ratio, et Mysterium:

I’m definitely in the camp that doesn’t believe that Christianity is transcendentally necessary. I think the VanTilian presuppositionalists overreached in trying to make Christianity, as a package deal, into a transcendental necessity. The various transcendental arguments that have been offered really only get you as far as God’s existence, a personal and just God, not [sic] doubt, but really nothing beyond what is revealed in general revelation. God’s acts of redemption in time and space, as recorded in special revelation, were free acts of God (not necessary), the 2nd Person of the Trinity did not have to become incarnate, become crucified under Pontius Pilate, and raised [sic] on the 3rd day for our justification. That is certainly our only hope, but how could God’s free acts be necessary pre-conditions for knowledge?

The first two sentences of the comment are merely autobiographical. I will skip them to interact with the rest of the paragraph. It is puzzling to read about transcendental arguments that “get you as far as God’s existence.” The reason this statement is puzzling is that David has only a sentence earlier identified his targets as “VanTilian presuppositionalists [Emphasis mine.].” Exactly what is it that he is taking Van Tilians to have presupposed? If they presuppose the existence of God, then why is there any talk of “getting to God” in the first place? David appears to be ascribing a Thomistic approach to Van Tilianism. But we are not Thomists!

It is further suggested that transcendental arguments only get us to “a personal and just God…nothing beyond what is revealed in general revelation.” Of course, if Van Tilian presuppositionalists presuppose the Word of God as any true Reformed Christian does, then there is no difficulty. We are already here! Moreover, the existing, personal, just God who is known through general revelation is the God of Christian Scripture. This is not to say that everything which can be known of God is known through general revelation. We all understand this, and the Van Tilian program is vindicated at this point as well. We are, after all, arguing for the necessity of divine revelation. It is the means by which we may come to know God, ourselves, and the world more fully as we ought to know them.

David next offers a false dichotomy: the free acts of God or necessity. Is God not free in necessarily doing what is right, rather than wrong? (1 John 1.5) Is He not free in necessarily truthing, and never lying? (Titus 1.2) God is necessary. If God is necessary then why not suppose that “what is possible (or necessary or impossible) is the same in all worlds because God is necessarily the same and determinative of everything else?” (Parrish, God and Necessity, 12) Greater theologians than David and I have suggested similar schemes (Calvin, Edwards, Turretin). Did Christ Jesus have to die if He was to save a people for Himself? Grudem seems to think so. (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569) Cur Deus Homo?

Indeed I often struggle to find the alleged prima facie problems with some of the claims regarding necessity that we as Christians want to make. Surely we want to make some type of necessity claims, do we not? Why propose that necessities necessarily interfere with God’s freedom? I understand that there are dangers here. There is, for example, Barthian actualism (which pertains to God’s nature, not His freedom per se), or (according to Helm) Edwardsian panentheism, but these are errors we know to avoid, and are errors which are no less problematic than affirming that some theologically neutral and abstract notion of possibility “sits back of God” making the decisions, as it were, as to what God or anyone or anything else can or cannot do. Is logical possibility not popularly predicated upon S5, and if so, is not S5 contingent upon the Creator of all that exists apart from Himself? Can the non-theist account for the popular S5? We have a great deal of work to do in this area, but the “ick” factor on the part of theologians and philosophers alike in coming to the subject of modal logic is tremendously unhelpful to this end. In any event, one need not affirm some alleged modal problem in order to affirm transcendental necessity. There are different types of necessity. Transcendental necessity is not the same thing as, for example, logical necessity.

Finally we are asked, “how could God’s free acts be necessary pre-conditions for knowledge?” I am not entirely sure what is meant by this question, but I will attempt to answer it by way of an example. If God did not freely create everything, besides Himself, that exists, then we would not exist. If we did not exist, then we could not have knowledge. God’s free act of creation is a necessary precondition for the possibility of our knowledge.

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UPDATE:

Paul Manata has written some brief remarks concerning this post here. His comments pertain to the paragraph on the free acts of God and necessity and make some helpful distinctions. While I did intend to throw some of the issues concerning God’s relationship to necessity (N1 and N2) out for discussion I did not intend this to be the main focus of the post. I will only mention here that discussions concerning N2 generally stem from N1, at least as I have seen the case argued. So for example Manata suggests that, “Just because God always does good does not imply there’s only one good act he could do in any set of circumstances. Perhaps there’s multiple goods to choose from.” Yet will not God choose the “best” of multiple goods in this scenario? And why will He do so? Because of His nature? But this is N1, and so God necessarily and freely (using Manata’s description) decrees a particular good. We are back to the collapse. (Or so the argument goes.) See my post above for the dangers here. My point is only that there is, I believe, more room for developing (I do not mean between Paul and I) our understanding of the relationship between God and necessity. I fear being too quickly or overly dismissive concerning the “arguments” of either side, but then, Paul is much better read than I am in this area (and I suspect that’s a tremendous understatement).

But consider conditional necessity, “That is, given certain prior conditions, then certain consequences are necessary on those conditions. So, while the incarnation may have been necessary given the fall and God’s desire to save, this wouldn’t imply that the incarnation was necessary. God was free to create, allow the fall, and then save. But once he decided to do these things, then this required other actions on behalf of God. Thus some actions are conditionally necessary on prior actions, but it wouldn’t follow that the prior actions are necessary.”

Certainly, and making the relevant substitutions, we can see that the same can be the case with respect to knowledge, which is to say that given knowledge, perhaps, “the 2nd Person of the Trinity did […] have to become incarnate, become crucified under Pontius Pilate, and [be] raised on the 3rd day for our justification.” If we take this to be an instance of conditional necessity analogous to the statements quoted above then we can still affirm along with David that, “God’s acts of redemption in time and space, as recorded in special revelation, were free acts of God (not necessary).”

So, for example, RubeRad asks, “Wouldn’t it be simpler to just point to the big fat IF in CLB’s question? Yes, Jesus did have to die, IF He was to save a people for Himself. But did he have to save a people for Himself?

Note also Murray affirms the necessity of Christ’s death for atonement in the beginning of Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, which is not to say that he insists on the necessity of atonement.”

But isn’t RubeRad missing the analogy with transcendental necessity here? For example, “Yes, Jesus did have to die, IF He was to [make knowledge possible]. But did he have to [make knowledge possible]?” Well, no, He did not. Hence God was still free in RubeRad’s understanding. The potential objection that one can more easily see a connection between the death of Christ and salvation than one can see a connection between the death of Christ and knowledge is quite beside the point, which is that the Van Tilian need not say anything more than the theologian affirming conditional necessity here affirms. Manata points out that this is irrelevant to his concerns in his original post on necessity which David was responding too, and that’s fine, though I do not think it is irrelevant to David’s concerns. I simply think that the implicit concern in what these gentlemen are saying concerning Van Tilian presuppositionalism and modal collapse is slightly off, particular Van Tilians who would argue such a position aside (which is what Manata was originally attempting to address and bring clarity to, and the reader needs to understand that). There could be problems, yes, but modal collapse is not some central tenet or necessary logical consequence of Van Tilian presuppositionalism that I know of, at least not anymore than it is of many other positions outside of Van Tilian presuppositionalism.

I should mention that I certainly do not mean to drag Paul into any sort of debate here. I think we mostly agree, and I am thankful for him addressing the post.


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“Christianity is Necessary” Part 2 « Fides, Ratio, et Mysterium

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