Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Gospel Coalition's Claim that Due to Human Sinfulness Truth Is Not Truly Knowable at All (Part 1)

      In this post, I examine Phillips' claim that “humans may not be able to know the truth truly” because of the effects of sin on the mind (pp. 14-15). About this, Phillips says: “When we add the problem of sin [to that of finitude—jnp], humans are no longer able to know truth truly at all.” Again, the answer at least in part to this problem, according to Phillips, is that Jesus Christ “sends the Holy Spirit to animate the spirits of sinful men and women to know and believe the truth.” He then adds, “Thus, in the same passage where Paul directly states that sinful humans cannot know truth, he reveals that God’s Holy Spirit solves this problem by giving new life to undeserving sinners: ‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world,’ Paul explains, ‘but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God’ (1 Cor. 2:12).”[1] As indicated already, Phillips’ point seems to be that even before sin humans (as finite) had a problem with knowing truth and after sin things are much, much worse.

     Again, we are faced with the self-contradictory nature of such claims. What are we to make of a statement that sinful humans do not know truth truly at all? Aren’t we all sinful humans? Then, can we know the truth truly that we cannot know truth truly at all? And, if we can know it to be true—we, though finite and sinful—then, it isn’t true, because we—though finite and sinful—know at least one truth, namely, that sinful humans cannot know truth truly at all. Besides this, do we not commonly observe that unregenerate people can know truth generally (scientists, farmers, physicians, teachers, business executives, engineers, architects, builders and construction workers, etc.)?
     Consequently, again, the question which serves as title to Phillips' booklet, Can We Know the Truth?, is answered, but this time there is more than skepticism expressed about the innate quality of human knowing or capacity for truth; it is a categorical statement that humans cannot know truth (implication: cannot know anything reliably or verifiably). Or, as Phillips says elsewhere, “With the postmoderns we are skeptical that finite, fallible humans are the agents of truth, though we insist that truth is real and that we can know it.”[2] What it means to be skeptical that humans are “the agents of truth” would seem to entail, at a minimum, serious doubts that humans can either have truth or convey it to others.

     Admittedly, in this quotation Phillips also adds, “though we insist that truth is real and that we can know it.” Frankly, I am not sure what Phillips means by his qualification here. Whatever he means, to avoid contradiction, he must mean something different from the proposition which precedes it. If he is contradicting himself, he would seem to be saying something like this: “With the postmoderns we don’t believe humans can know and be carriers for truth, though we insist that truth is real and knowable such that humans indeed can know and be carriers for truth.” So, to avoid such a blatant contradiction, I offer an alternative. Phillips may mean by his qualification something like this: “though we insist that truth is real [that is, truth exists or is actually there—jnp] and that we can know it” [that is, we can know it in some imperfect, non-verifiable, and yet coherent or meaningful sense—jnp]. (This is how many of the modern philosophers think about truth.) I offer this possible reading because skepticism about humans as agents of truth (what Phillips says before the “though”) is, of course, inseparable from skepticism about the ability of humans to have or know truth.  

     What is the origin of Phillips’ skepticism about truth, particularly, for finite, fallen humans? Though Scripture is enlisted for its support, again, I don’t believe that it derives from or has any firm grounding in a faithful exegesis of Scripture. I will make a case for this last statement in a moment but for now I wish to point out that as far as I can tell (and as I’ve been saying) Phillips’ account of knowing originates with modern philosophy (Descartes and his successors), in spite of the fact that on certain points (such as, its reliance on autonomous reason) he is so critical of the same.

     Moreover, what Phillips’ adoption of certain skeptical tenets of modern philosophy accomplishes is not without a certain appeal, especially for Reformed theology. For instance, it seems to provide the doctrine of original sin greater depth, even as making us as humans bereft of knowledge or truth in general. Consequently, when God’s regenerating Spirit in Christ meets that need, it seems that greater glory is given to God. That is, the grace of God makes possible, in this case, not just an internal and subjective principle of righteousness (Rom. 8:2, 11) but also, of knowledge itself.

     However, with this philosophical “enhancement” of biblical doctrine, what Scripture portrays as a hamartological problem (that is, a problem of sin—which requires a certain level of knowledge as Romans 1-3 explicitly makes clear) tends to become an epistemological problem. Whereas the Law of God as truth (what is not presented in Scripture as a problem for knowledge—indeed works only successfully as reliable knowledge) closes every mouth, imprisons or shuts everyone up under sin (Rom. 3:19; Gal. 3:22), this new or different law put into place with the aid of philosophy, on the other hand, closes every mouth, etc., under a state of unknowing. Consequently, there is, understandably and commensurate with this change, an alteration in approach to evangelizing the lost: what comes to the foreground to meet mankind’s greatest need becomes not so much (or primarily) the Savior as a way of knowing (a Christian view of truth) which includes the Savior. This means as Christians we are, in effect, saying to the world: “Yes, we agree with you that truth is relative; however, it is relative only to our more coherent view of things as Christians, since our view of things comes from the Holy Spirit who regenerates us to know truth, generally, and the truth of the gospel, particularly.”

     There are also other significant problems. If what we presuppose radically conditions knowledge such that those with unbelieving presuppositions basically don’t know anything and if it is only through accepting Christian presuppositions through regeneration by the Holy Spirit that one can in this life know things (including Jesus as Lord), then why is it that Christians are not markedly smarter and more successful in the various fields of learning and vocation than the unregenerate? Furthermore, how is it (as Scripture tells us) that unbelievers in their unregenerate state will at the coming of Christ know things sufficiently well to mourn, bow the knee to Jesus, and confess him as Lord? And, again, how do the demons—certainly not regenerate—know and confess Jesus as the Son of God? In sum, neither the unregenerate nor demons are regenerate such that they can, on Phillips’ account, have “a Christian view of truth,” and yet both categories of beings in the end seem to know, non-savingly and eternally, a lot of things including the truth of all truths, namely, that Jesus is Lord.

     Then there is also this problem: if everyone because of finitude is “subjective,” “partial,” and selective in what they know of truth (with all the problems already noted with that proposal) and, because of sin’s effect on the mind, unable to know truth truly at all, then how would someone so errant in their ability to know be able to reliably read and understand the Bible to learn of Jesus?[3] If the answer to that is, what was just stated, namely, that the Holy Spirit supernaturally animates and imparts to them such understanding, are there no natural aspects or requirements to that process—such as, people who are physically alive (able to see and hear), dealing with physical words on the page, mentally understanding the words themselves?[4]

     What is, admittedly, confusing about this syncretism of Christian or Reformed theology with modern epistemology is that it sounds critical (as it does in Phillips) of the very philosophy it has adopted. And, indeed, the Christian or Reformed view of sin and regeneration by the Spirit in Christ serves as a strong rebuke to that philosophy, particularly, as rational, God-denying, independent, and autonomous. However, in this case, it does not reject modern philosophy’s basic theory of knowledge itself, specifically, that truth is subjective or relative in nature. This has, apparently, been adopted or imported (with little to no fanfare) as an important insight from philosophy.

     Returning now to the Scriptural support Phillips employs for his view that sinful humans cannot know truth, what does Paul mean when he says “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them” (1 Cor. 2:14)? Or, again, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12)? It is clear that in the context of 1 Corinthians chapters one and two, Paul is contrasting the wisdom of this age with the wisdom of God in Christ which he and the other apostles by the Spirit were making known to others. He is also saying something about the spiritual nature of the apostolic instruction and how the sinful nature of man (whether regenerate or unregenerate) does not “accept” or “understand” these things. He says in 1 Cor. 2:13, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” A bit later, Paul will say to the saints at Corinth (those he is addressing), “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). Putting all this together, if what Paul meant by 1 Cor. 2:14’s “natural” (non-spiritual) man—his non-acceptance or understanding of the things of the Spirit, his counting such as “folly”—is that such a one, generally, does not or cannot know truth in general, as Phillips maintains, then when Paul says to the Corinthian saints, “I could not address you as spiritual people” but as “infants,” does that mean he is saying to them, “Generally, you have not known—or do not, cannot know truth”? Is that Paul’s point? Is he not rather teaching these Corinthian saints that the wisdom of God in Christ is not something relished or spiritually understood by the flesh (again, whether in unbelievers or believers) but only by the Spirit? I suggest that Paul is not saying that sinful humans are unable to have knowledge (things like: at what temperature water boils, the law of gravity, 2+2=4, etc.); rather, he intends a spiritual knowledge, acceptance, and understanding of things revealed to us by God in Christ through the apostles.

     On this point, Phillips also enlists Rom. 1:18, which speaks globally of how sinful people “suppress the truth” that God exists, a truth evident in the design and wonder of creation itself. What Phillips needs from this verse is support for his claim that sinful humans “are no longer able to know truth truly at all” (p. 14), in contrast to the always partial and selective knowledge of truth which, he says, characterizes human finitude in its innocence. However, what Paul is talking about is the suppression of what people know—what has been “clearly perceived,” “because God has shown it to them” such that “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-21). When someone does not know something at all (Phillips’ claim), he cannot suppress or hold it down; there is nothing, in that case, to be suppressed. Also, if the sinful people of Rom. 1:18-21 (as Phillips interprets this passage) know nothing at all, then they are not “without excuse” but have a legitimate excuse to plead, namely, ignorance—that is, they did not know anything, including the knowledge that might be derived from creation that God exists.
     To elaborate, suppose we identify three levels of seeing necessary for the level of understanding in Christ God wants us to have. The first level is physical seeing; the second, mental seeing; and the third, spiritual seeing. Without physical seeing, which, let’s say, stands for sensory perception in general, there would not be mental seeing (understanding or knowledge gained through the physical senses). Without mental seeing (understanding or knowledge which takes place internally), there would not be spiritual seeing (a spiritual understanding of the things of the Spirit). So there is a tri-level structure in place for us who are in Christ in order “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). Importantly, all three levels are essential and even have a kind of founding order among them; that is, without a certain level of integrity or reliability both in physical and mental seeing, there would not be integrity or reliability in seeing by the Spirit as offered in Christ. My point is that God does not bypass those two common sense or natural levels of seeing in the process of giving us spiritual sight or understanding by the regenerating power of the Spirit. For instance, when Scripture says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), this involves both physical hearing (what is included in physical seeing as sensory perception) and mental hearing (what is included in mental seeing as understanding or knowledge). If someone hears the gospel in a foreign language, that person experiences physical hearing without mental hearing or understanding (1 Cor. 12:14, 16). Also, someone may hear the gospel in their own language, such that both a first (physical) and second (mental) level of seeing occur and yet not experience the third level (spiritual) seeing necessary for salvation. This is because regeneration by the Spirit in Christ (receiving new eyes and ears spiritually) is necessary before that can happen. But I wish to emphasize, again, that in the latter case, a person may be seeing just fine at the first two levels of this tri-structure for knowing (may, physically hear and intellectually understand the gospel) and yet not experience what someone born again means when they sing these words from Amazing Grace, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

     In his sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Jonathan Edwards recognizes the important role for what I am calling physical and mental seeing in relation to spiritual illumination:

It is not intended that the natural faculties are not made use of in it. The natural faculties are the subject of this light: and they are the subject in such a manner, that they are not merely passive, but active in it; the acts and exercises of man’s understanding are concerned and made use of in it. God, in letting in this light into the soul, deals with man according to his nature, or as a rational creature; and makes use of his human faculties.

And, of course, my argument is that a certain integrity for these “natural” or “human” faculties (with respect to everyday reality) is critical—even foundational in an important sense—to the successful reception of the Christ of Scripture as the truth.

     Hence, we cannot, in the manner of the philosophers and contrary to Scripture, (1) charge these faculties with innate or inherent errancy, (2) appeal to the Spirit of truth to somehow save us from these artificially created, philosophical problems, and then (3) go our way trusting that somehow the truth of the gospel will nonetheless be as strong, liberating, and sound as God intended for it to be.   

     Now in this tri-level structure of knowing (as just implied), where philosophy and the Bible identify problems of knowing is quite different. Based on its mind-body dualism, modern philosophy locates the problems for knowing with the first (physical) and second (mental) level of seeing. The Bible locates the problems for knowing at the third level of spiritual seeing. Having said that, we could also add that philosophy does not address (or, for the most part, even recognize) the spiritual seeing or understanding with which the Bible is concerned. And, we might also add, that the Bible (with its assumption of more of an interrelationship between the mind and body) does not recognize any special problems (of the sort with which philosophy is concerned) associated with the first two levels of physical and mental seeing.  

     How does all this apply to the discussion at hand? As just indicated, most modern philosophers in lock-step with Descartes’ mind-body dualism and subjectivism, believe that there are problems for knowledge at the first and second level of mental seeing. And, as I’ve been saying, those who are Reformed (like TGC represented by Phillips) tend to uncritically accept as well as integrate these problems into Reformed theology, whether as explicating human finitude or the effects of sin on the mind. Put differently, both these philosophers and Christians, in general, posit a certain blindness pertaining to truth. But what certain Christian Reformed theologians and leaders have done is conflate the blindness Scripture speaks about with the blindness the modern philosophers have invented.

     John Calvin dealt with a similar view that had crept into the church in his time. How he responded to it is instructive:

To charge the intellect with perpetual blindness so as to leave it no intelligence of any description whatever, is repugnant not only to the Word of God, but to common experience.[5]      

 To translate this into the present discussion, a claim that there is a second level blindness (with respect to mental or intellectual seeing) common to mankind is repugnant to the Word of God means, obviously, that it is contrary to what Scripture teaches. That is, the Bible simply does not recognize such but assumes, for its purposes, that people are generally able to know truth in an ordinary sense. The same is true for our common experience: even skeptical philosophers most of the time and the rest of us all of the time know that in real life there are things that are objectively true and things that are objectively false, that knowing the difference between the two is fundamental to our well being, and that, by God’s common grace, we as humans may indeed know reliably quite a lot about many things in general.

     On this score, surely no one would charge Calvin with being insufficiently Reformed or not adequately believing in original sin or, especially, not taking into account the effects of sin on the mind. However, the question is whether these effects are understood as problems for knowing and truth in general, as proposed, for example, by the philosophers, or as spiritual problems (distinct from philosophical ones) for knowing God. That is, spiritual blindness—being blind to who God is and what he is saying to us in Christ—is not the same as a mental blindness defined as skeptical problems for knowing introduced by philosophers. This holds true, importantly, even though such blindness seems to be a convenient point at which to integrate or merge philosophy with Christianity or Reformed theology. Obviously, it also does not mean or imply literal blindess (pertaining to physical seeing), nor mental blindness (pertaining to mental seeing or general comprehension). For instance (and to state the obvious), Paul was not telling the Corinthian saints (1 Cor. 2:14) that they could not physically see the epistle he had written them, nor was he saying that because they were not “spiritual” that they could not mentally (intellectually) see or understand what he had written. He was saying, as already indicated, that they were not mature enough to receive, appreciate, or relate to the spiritual things Paul wished to say to them (1 Cor. 3:1-4).  

     Now the version of Christian theology integrated with philosophy that I have been addressing employs philosophy’s problems for knowing, even conflates them with the third level or biblical problem of knowing (spiritual seeing). Because this mix of Christian/Reformed theology and philosophy has adopted, as I’ve been suggesting, the problems for knowing introduced by modern philosophy’s mind-body dualism, it construes the remedy provided in the gospel and by regeneration through the Spirit as primarily an epistemological remedy (with everything else about the grace of God—such as, forgiveness of sins, the imputed righteousness of Christ, eternal life, etc.—following from that). Whereas Descartes takes refuge in a bodiless and worldless, thinking ego as his foundational certainty and from which he builds his edifice for knowledge, this mix of Christianity and philosophy finds its foundation for knowledge, spiritually, in a subjective regeneration of the heart which connects us with the only one (or so they claim) who has objective, true knowledge, which is, God himself as revealed in Scripture. However, in thus bypassing the natural, human faculties (what Scripture never does) this approach for knowing truth (both initially and continually) gets entangled in problems such as: without these faculties how does one know, in the first place, what Scripture says such that one can become regenerate or trust in Christ? Do the body and mind—with a certain level of functional integrity—have no place in that process? And are the body and mind without a participating role somehow for us as Christians who desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pe. 3:18)?

     Now this inversion is not far from what Descartes himself proposed, except, of course, that Descartes made no attempt to introduce regeneration (spiritual seeing) and God’s Word as foundational for knowledge. Descartes has the ego (mental seeing) as a disembodied, thinking being serving as that foundation. On the other hand, the syncretism of Christianity and philosophy I’ve been considering attempts to make God—through a subjective regeneration—the foundation of knowledge, somehow bypassing the body and mind or natural and rational faculties (due to finitude and sin) in their possible role for knowledge. The problem is that Descartes is at least doing something theoretically plausible as an account of knowledge. On the other hand, the Christian-philosophical mixture I’ve been considering has not only no basis in Scripture but also no viable explanation for the role of the body and mind in relation to God as the foundation for knowledge. That is, God is obviously transcendent or external to the subjective ego; hence, one has to get outside oneself somehow (or, rather, be reached by God from the outside). How does this happen altogether without the senses (physical seeing) and intelligence (mental seeing), even if we acknowledge its supernatural source?

     Addressing a concern similar to this helps explain why Edwards in the sermon mentioned earlier makes it clear that the natural and rational faculties are not bypassed when one is spiritually illuminated in Christ with the revelation of God. His account of regeneration is that it is a change, renewal, or dynamic “sense of the heart” or “due apprehension” as to the reality, excellence, and sublimity of the spiritual things of God in Christ. And, with our earlier consideration of 1 Corinthians 2:12-13, I have no doubt but that Edwards would explain that text in the same manner, denying that this divinely imparted principle of the Spirit for knowledge somehow sidesteps or replaces our natural faculties or reason. He would say that this principle removes hindrances and prejudices from those faculties, while unflinchingly stating, “Reason indeed is necessary in order to it.” 
     Now if one requires proof that I am not misrepresenting the view under consideration, that is, that this Reformed approach to epistemology inverts my proposed tri-level structure for knowing, one may consider, for instance, what our dear brother and popularizer of presupposition - alism John Frame says, after presenting his argument that “these faculties” (of the unregenerate — and notice that he is locating the fault in the faculties themselves and not just a sinful misuse of such) “are not suited to serve as ultimate judges of anything.” Having stated that, however, Frame seems to recognize that this presents a problem. Notice the objection he includes as a reasonable response to this problem and what he says in response:

After all, do we not rely on our human senses and reasons to understand and distinguish the Words of God?...By way of reply...Scripture says there is a difference between God’s Words and ours, and it implies that we are able to discern that difference and to judge our words by God’s. Even if we cannot answer the objection, therefore, we must believe (on blind faith if nothing else) that it can be answered, if we are to believe in biblical authority at all.[6]     

Frame continues from there, somewhat incoherently, in my opinion, to affirm that God reveals himself through the means of the human senses and reason without explaining how this is consistent with his prior statement that the faculties themselves have innate problems due to sin. That is, he does not tell us by what self-critical, objective criteria fallen minds can differentiate human from divine thoughts—even while seeking to honor biblical authority. He also seems to conflate the human ability to know things (the capacity for wisdom) with what has been done with that ability (what the world counts as wisdom), as if, human words, wisdom, or comprehension itself among the unregenerate are always and only radically, sinfully different from God, even to the point of being useless for knowing God in any sense (what I know, if put in those terms, Frame does not believe). However that may be, what I wish to emphasize here is the obvious problem Frame has with clearly accounting for the role our natural and rational faculties (the first two levels of my tri-structure for knowing) in receiving God’s Word. Why is that? And why do we find no such difficulty, as Frame defines it, in Scripture somewhere? Furthermore, if on such an important question, a thoughtful, wise, and seasoned presuppositionalist of the stature of John Frame has to play— even if only for the uncomfortable moment—the “blind faith” card, should that not in itself make us pause and perhaps reconsider whether our account of knowing is truly biblical or consistent with our “common experience” (as Calvin says)? 

     If this problem for knowing at the first (physical seeing) and second (mental seeing) levels are philosophical in origin and foreign to Scripture (as I’ve been suggesting), then what is the effect of sin on the mind? Though this isn’t the context for an extended discussion on this point, I will say that I believe sin’s effect on the mind concerns not whether we can know things in general (again, reflective of what happens at the first two levels) but, rather, what we do with what we know (that is, a third level issue). Dutch Reformed Anthony Hoekema, formerly a Systematic Theology professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, in a work entitled Created in God's Image argues that the structural aspects of God's image in humanity were retained after the Fall—viz., our reason, moral sensitivity, and capacity for relationships. Hoekema states that these structural aspects are employed in a corrupt manner but remain intact in their integrity. In other words, the effect of the Fall on the mind in terms of human rationality is such that there is not a breakdown (or defectiveness) in the mental structure of rationality itself but rather a misuse or perversion of such for sin.

     For example, one could use a ball point pen to write or to stab a person; the structural and mechanical integrity of the pen as an object remains the same either way but how it is used is quite different in that case. So also, with respect to knowing (I reiterate), it is not a question of whether we can know things in general (such as the problems for knowing one finds in Plato, Descartes, Kant, etc.) but what we do with what we know that reflects the effects of sin on the mind.

     To my mind, this seems to account well for all that Scripture teaches about sin in relation to the mind. It also explains problems I mentioned earlier, such as, why people who have heard the gospel are accountable to God for not obeying it, since they could not disobey something they could not understand in any sense (see 2 Thess. 1:8; Rom. 1:19-20; Jn. 15:22-25). Or, it accounts for why, in our common experience, people who are not regenerate can be just as knowledgeable in various professions and fields of learning (if not more) than the regenerate. Or, put differently, it accounts for why regenerate Christians, who supposedly have by regeneration the only conditions to know anything, are not by that fact necessarily assured to exceed the unregenerate in knowledge with respect to all these professions and fields of learning.

[1] Can We Know the Truth?, pp.14-15.
[2] Can We Know the Truth?, p. 12.
[3] I recall a Christian philosophy major, highly intelligent, who told me one day that she was arriving at the conclusion that she didn’t know anything but that Jesus is her Lord and Savior. Perhaps, I failed her, but it seemed too sacred a sentiment for her. I couldn’t bring myself to reply: “Then how do you know Jesus is your Lord and Savior?”
[4] In TGC’s “Confessional Statement” (at their website), section 2 on “Revelation,” after declaring the full authority and sufficiency of Scripture as God’s Word, TGC writes: “We confess that both our finitude and our sinfulness preclude the possibility of knowing God’s truth exhaustively, but we affirm that, enlightened by the Spirit of God, we can know God’s revealed truth truly.” What seems to be missing here is any indication that the content of Scripture is itself a reliably knowable, objective standard as truth—particularly, a standard by which Christians may sufficiently know God’s will and mind or better: what Paul calls, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Why is it that, when talking about Scripture, there is, on the one hand, a disclaimor about “knowing God’s truth exhaustively” (who claims that?) due to finitude and sin and, on the other, there is the vague promise of the Holy Spirit who somehow fixes things by revealing God’s “truth truly”? Nowhere, however, is there a clear statement about how we know objectively what Scripture says sufficiently to be assured that our faith and practice as Christians is according to God’s Word. 
[5] Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 2, chapter 2, section 12.
[6] From John Frame’s online article, “Presuppositional Apologetics: An Introduction” (Part 1 of 2: “Introduction and Creation”).

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