God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Two
Knowing God Without Arguments:
The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology – Alvin Plantinga
In his essay,[i] Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) sets out the essentials of an approach to religious knowledge that has come to be known as Reformed Epistemology. Plantinga notes that the tradition of natural theology, which seeks to prove God’s existence based on evident premises to any thinking person, has often met with resistance in Christianity’s Reformed (or Calvinistic) branch.
Not only have the Reformed Christians felt that the arguments of natural theology are insufficient as a basis for religious belief, but they have considered the whole idea of basing belief on arguments to be misguided. It is not to say, however, that their belief in God is irrational. On the contrary, Reformed Christians have typically held that belief in God is a correctly fundamental belief that is not held based on any other belief and does not need to be justified in terms of other beliefs – or arguments. The Reformed objection to natural theology, unformed and inchoate as it is, may be seen as a rejection of classical foundationalism. As the Reformed thinker sees things, being self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses is not a necessary condition of proper basically. He goes on to add that belief in God is properly basic. He is not thereby committed, even in the absence of a general criterion of proper basicality, to suppose that just any or nearly any belief-belief in the Great Pumpkin, for example, is properly basic.
Experience, Proper Basically, and Belief in God – Robert Pargetter[ii]
Robert Pargetter (b. 1944) agrees with Plantinga that many theists believe in God in a “basic” way, grounding this belief in inexperience rather than supporting it with other beliefs they hold. But is such a belief properly fundamental, so it is reasonable to hold one’s belief this way? That depends on effective “defeaters” for theistic belief-other propositions the believer accepts, or ought to accept, that provide compelling reasons for rejecting the experientially based belief in God.
Pargetter examines several potential defeaters to see whether they make a fundamental belief in God unreasonable. He illuminates his discussion by pointing out the analogies between a properly fundamental belief in God and a belief in “the Force” by characters in the popular Star Wars film series. He summarised that the claim of proper Basicality for belief in God, grounded in experience, will depend ultimately on reliable persons having such experiences in circumstances that do not undermine their reliability. For the resulting systems of beliefs to fare well on holistic evaluation for rationality. The rationality of those who do not share these experiences in accepting such beliefs based on testimony will similarly depend on the holistic evaluation of the rationality of their resulting systems of beliefs.
The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist – William Hasker[iii]
Philip Quinn (1940-2004) grants that belief in God can have a justification or warrant based directly on experience, as described by Plantinga. But is this justification sufficient by itself to make belief in God rational for well-informed contemporary adults? Plantinga thinks the answer to this is yes, but Quinn disagrees. He contends that for most well-informed theists in our culture, there are “defeaters” for theistic belief (notably, the problem of evil and “projective” psychological explanations of religious belief) that outweigh the warrant provided by religious experience.
For such persons, an additional positive case, in the form of some natural theology, is needed if their belief in God is rational. William Hasker (b. 1935) summarizes and assesses this disagreement between Quinn and Plantinga. Hasker concludes that Quinn is more nearly correct than Plantinga, but he agrees that both Quinn and Plantinga are winners – as are all the rest that have benefitted from their exchange. Much work remains to be done in clarifying the nature, scope, and force of the non-inferential justification of religious belief by experience. In so far as our faith is crucially rooted in historical narratives, there is philosophical work (as well as historical work) to clarify the nature, credibility, and evidential force of those narratives.
The Five Proofs of God – Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae[iv]
St. Thomas Aquinas was the greatest philosopher-theologian of the Middle Ages. In his monumental Summa Theologiae,[v] he proved God’s existence in five ways, based on Aristotelian principles.
In the first Proof, Aquinas argues that since some things move, and whatever moves is caused to move by something other than itself, then either the chain of movers goes back infinitely far (which is impossible) or else there is a first, unmoved, mover, an original source of motion – and this is God. Aquinas then argues that this sequence cannot continue back ad infinitum; it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, which is moved by nothing else – and this everyone thinks of as God.
The second Proof, which is very like the first in structure, takes the fact that some things are caused as its premise and reasons to the conclusion that to account for this (since the chain of causes cannot stretch back forever)[vi] we must ultimately arrive at a first (uncaused) cause, which is God.
The third Proof (sometimes called the Proof) from the world’s contingency starts from the fact that some things come into being and pass away and are hence contingent (they can either be or not be) as opposed to necessary. But everything was like this, Aquinas argues: then, at some time in the past, nothing whatever would have existed (the logic of this is obscure: why should there not always be a time when at least some contingent things exist, even though each of them is capable of ceasing to be?). At all events, Aquinas proceeds to reason that to explain why there is anything at all; we must eventually posit a necessary being in the strong sense of something which ‘is necessary for its own right’ or ‘necessary of itself’ (per se necessarium), and this is God.
The fourth Proof starts from the degrees of perfection found in the world; for things to be more or less good or have more or less being than others, there must ultimately be a supreme entity that is the source of all being and goodness; this is God. One might object that degrees of goodness imply something relatively or comparatively pre-eminent, not that there is a wholly supreme divine source of goodness. Here Aquinas seems to rely on a framework inherited from Plato, according to which ordinary objects which are good, or beautiful, or whatever, owe their (limited) possession of these properties to the existence of a pure form in which they participate in, or reflect – a form which is itself perfectly good or beautiful.
Finally, the fifth Proof (often known as the ‘teleological argument,’ from the Greek telos, meaning ‘end’ or ‘goal’): Aquinas starts from the fact that even non-conscious objects often operate for the sake of some end or tend towards some goal. Such teleological behavior could not be manifested by things that lack awareness unless an intelligent being directed them – ‘and this we call God.’
The Character of God:
The Incommunicable Attributes of God are those attributes God does not share or communicate with others. Examples of incommunicable attributes are God’s eternity (God has existed for all eternity.
But human beings have not; unchangeableness (God does not change, but human beings do); omnipresence (God is everywhere, but all other created beings are present only in one place at one time). These attributes are better defined as attributes of God that are less shared by humans. Not one of God’s incommunicable attributes is complete without some likeness in the character of human beings.
Human beings do not change completely, for some aspects of human characters remain unchanged: individual identities and personality traits. Similarly, Human beings are subject to the limitations of time. However, there is some reflection of God’s eternity because the human soul lives forever to enjoy eternal life or eternal punishment. God’s incommunicable attributes are perhaps the most easily misunderstood because they represent aspects of God’s character that are least familiar to the human experience. The Incommunicable Attributes of God are:
1. Independence: (God does not need any of His creations for anything, yet all must glorify him and bring him joy). This attribute of God is, at times, called his self-existence or his aseity.
2. Unchangeableness: (God is unchanging in His being, perfections, purposes, and promises. Yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations.)[vii] This attribute of God is also called God’s immutability.
3. Eternity: (God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time). This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of God’s infinity with respect to time.
4. Omnipresence: Just as God is unlimited or infinite concerning time, God is unlimited concerning space. God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.
5. Unity: (God is not divided into parts, yet we see God’s different attributes emphasized at different times. This attribute of God is also called God’s simplicity, using simple in the less common sense of “not complex” or “not composed of parts.”
The Communicable Attributes of God are those attributes God shares or communicate with others. Examples of Communicable Attributes of God: Love (God is Love, and human beings can love as well), Knowledge (God knows, and human beings can know as well; Mercy (God is merciful, and human beings can be merciful too), and Justice (God is Just and human beings can be just).
Wayne Grudem divided God’s “Communicable” attributes in his Systematic Theology book [viii] into five major categories, with individual attributes listed under each category as follows:
Attributes describing God’s Being
- Knowledge (or Omniscience)
- Truthfulness (and Faithfulness)
- Mercy (Grace, Patience)
- Peace (or Order)
- Righteousness (or Justice)
Attributes of Purpose
- Omnipotence (or Power and Sovereignty)
- [i] Philosophy of Religion, fifth edition-Selected Readings, edited by Michael Peterson et al., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 207-215
- [ii] Philosophy of Religion, 217
- [iii] Philosophy of Religion, 223
- [iv] John Cottingham, Western Philosophy: An Anthology, 2nd ed., Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2008, 348
- [v] From Summa Theologiae (1266-73), Part 1, question 2, article 3. Translation by John Cottingham
- [vi] Aquinas reasons that ‘if anyone cause is taken away, the effect will also be absent. Hence if there were no first item in the series, there would be no intermediate items.’ It seems unfair since the defender of an infinite backward chain is not, as it were, ‘taking away the first item, but merely denying that if we trace the chain backward, it would ever terminate. Elsewhere, however, Aquinas concedes that we cannot prove that the world ever had a beginning, so it seems he has no logical objection to an infinite backward chain. So his point here may hinge on each effect’s dependence on its cause: for causation to operate at all, such a chain of dependent items requires an independent (uncaused) cause.
[vii] The four keywords (being, perfections, purposes, promise) used are taken from Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939, 1941), 58. Cited in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015), 163
[viii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015), 186