How Dangerous Can An Argument for God Be? – Addressing fideistic concerns
June 12, 2010 § 5 Comments
Translation of the draft of a rebuttal to a published response, by Jos Quist, to my newspaper article ‘A Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God.’ The rebuttal was published in the Reformatorische Dagblad, a conservative newspaper in the Netherlands.
by Josh DeKeijzer
In his response of Friday May 28th, Jos Quist claims that proofs for the existence of God are dangerous, because, among other things, they give a false presentation of the facts, lead to unbiblical conclusions, are refutable and incorrectly appeal to humankind’s reasoning capacities tainted as they are by sin. In the best case scenario they lead to a wrong image of God. These allegations, if true, would knock the foundation from under much apologetic argumentation. I would like to take the opportunity to respond to these allegations, giving attention to both the specific subject of the cosmological argument and more general considerations on the possibility of proofs for God’s existence.
Let’s start with the latter. One important condition in the eyes of Christians for the use of proofs for God’s existence is a biblical basis for what is called natural theology. Theology may be described as a systematic reflection on what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture. When we speak about natural theology, we refer with it to what is visible and recognizable about God without Scripture. The basic assumption here is that the God who reveals himself in Scripture has also left a reflection of his character and greatness in his creation. And indeed, Scripture confirms this in many places. The clearest passage perhaps is Romans 1:19-20 were Paul says that people have no excuse for not believing in God, because what is knowable about God, i.e. his eternal power and divinity, can be understood by reason. The Bible therefore emphasizes the possibility of natural theology and therefore proofs for the existence of God like the cosmological argument. That does not mean however that this acknowledgement of God comes automatically. Humankind’s reason, after all, is ruled by a sinful nature. Yet the effects of reasonable reflection on the world are such that as far as Paul is concerned there is no excuse possible.
In all of this it is useful to make two important distinctions. In the first place we need to distinguish between intellectual assent and saving faith. Somebody may agree with a proof for the existence of God, but she will still have to make a step of surrender to and trust in the saving work of Christ. Cognitively something may have changed, but in the end it is the relationship with God that counts. However the flip-side is true as well: there cannot be true saving faith without intellectual agreement with certain truths. A second distinction must be made between proof and argument. For a long time the word proof has been in vogue, but what is really meant is argument. The one who does apologetics needs to do so in humility and acknowledgment of the limitation of one’s own knowledge and ability. In the face of today’s pluralism it is therefore appropriate to speak of arguments instead of proofs. People are not impressed by proofs, but are usually willing to listen to a good argument.
We have already listened to Paul to provide us with a biblical basis for natural theology. But why is that same Paul saying that God has chosen ‘the foolishness of preaching’ above the wisdom of the Greeks and the signs of the Jews? Doesn’t that seem to exclude good argumentation? What Paul really means is that God ignores the craving of certain people to see miraculous events or who delight in esoteric (i.e. secret) wisdom. The gospel is simple and demands a step of faith. That Paul does not mean to reject valid arguments for that gospel, becomes clear when we see him in action on Mars Hill (Acts 17). In his speech Paul makes use of apologetic arguments. He refers to an altar for the unknown God and uses Greek philosophy to arrive at the conclusion that God is not be found in an image but rather is to be seen as the Almighty Creator Who calls people to obedience.
The cosmological argument revisited
Discussing the cosmological argument for God, Jos Quist claims that the scientific proof supporting it is rather thin and that scientists are not sure how to interpret things. I think this is not a correct portrayal of the facts. Is is true that all kinds of models have been suggested to avoid an absolute beginning of the universe. Those models however should be regarded as ill-conceived solutions to avoid that unpleasant conclusion. In his Reasonable Faith Bill Craig considers all these models and shows that they’re either inconsistent or unable to solve any real problem. It is telling that atheist Daniel Dennett writes that the universe created itself ex nihilo (from nothing) and then goes on to say that if it wasn’t out of nothing, it was “of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006, 244) This is a strange choice of words for what apparently is a greater problem than many initially thought.
The problem is that there has to be a beginning somewhere. Somewhere there needs to be a first cause. Quist’s argument is that one is also required to say the same thing about God: what has caused God? This, however, is understanding neither the problem nor the solution. The problem is that (a) everything needs a cause and (b) that an infinite chain of events to the past cannot exist. There is then only one solution: a beginning that itself does not know a beginning. And that is what Christians say about God.
Does the Big Bang theory conflict with Genesis? Maybe it does with the literalist interpretation of Jos Quist and an entire school of thought that feels that especially where Genesis is concerned we need to take everything literally as it is written. But the reality is that we don’t do this with so many other passages in Scripture. In fact we should aim at an interpretation that approaches the original intention of the writer as closely as possible. In the case of Genesis 1-2 it might well be that the writer did not intend a literal interpretation. A beautiful example of how an interpretation of Genesis that is faithful to the Bible can lead to entirely different conclusions is found in the fascinating book by John Walton The Lost World of Genesis One in which he interprets the various elements of Genesis 1 functionally. The acts of creation assign function to objects.
It only serves to glorify God when our apologetic arguments reach their target and help to make an individual’s heart receptive for the marvelous convicting work of the Holy Spirit so that the Living God is able to reveal and prove Himself. It remains a mystery how the Spirit accomplishes this and which role arguments exactly play in this. Apologetics needs to be done in the knowledge that all is grace: both the argument as well as the convicting. When one uses arguments in that dependability of God, one may know to be safeguarded against wrong conceptions of God. (Such misconceptions are from all times and circumstances anyways. Even within our own evangelical circles we need to be weary of that.)
How dangerous can an argument for God’s existence be? Hopefully dangerous enough to make people restless and make them think about what really matters in life.