This is another post that draws from Brian Morley’s Mapping Apologetics. It is not my official review, though. For my official review, I’ll probably make a few comments, then link to my posts about the book.
Although this particular post is not my official review, it will talk about a central theme in Morley’s book: the question of whether, when, and how human beings are responsible to God. With so many religious and philosophical options out there, are people actually accountable to the God of the Bible? Can a loving and just God legitimately judge people over whether they believe in him and follow his standards? Is there even enough evidence that the biblical God is real?
Romans 1:18-21 is relevant to this topic. It states (in the KJV): “(18)For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; (19) Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. (20) For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: (21) Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”
A question that is discussed in Morley’s book is what exactly this passage means. In what way does God’s creation make people responsible for believing in God, while making disbelief in God inexcusable?
Christian apologists have different ideas about this. Alvin Plantinga believes that human beings have within themselves some sense of the divine, and that this sense can be activated when they are beholding the beauty and the majesty of God’s creation. William Lane Craig, however, thinks that Paul is saying that one can look at creation and infer or reason from it that there is a God. Craig notes that Romans 1:18-21 appears to be based on Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-9, and that there “inferential thinking is clearly in view” (Morley’s words on page 232, in discussing Craig’s view). Craig emphasizes the cosmological and the teleological arguments for the existence of God, and a key asset to Morley’s book is his description of Craig’s arguments against those who try to account for the beginning and order of the universe (if they acknowledge those things) apart from God.
I do not know or remember how a presuppositionalist apologist would interpret Romans 1. Something that I like about presuppositionalists is that they argue that facts by themselves cannot communicate a Christian or theistic message, for different people can interpret facts in different ways, based on their presuppositions. Yet, presuppositionalists still believe that people are responsible before God. Why?
One reason is that, for presuppositionalists, rationality is not possible without the Reformed God and a belief in him. One has a choice, for many presuppositionalists: either one believes in the Reformed God, or one has no basis at all for being rational. That, for them, is a reason to believe in the Reformed God! Morley repeats this throughout the book in discussing presuppositonalists and other apologists’ interaction with their views, and I still do not entirely understand this claim. I get that they are saying that God and a belief in God provide a sense of order and interrelationship among facts that a non-theistic belief in chance does not—-that a belief in the Reformed God who plans everything that exists and happens places facts into a story or a coherent system, both of which are essential to rationality. I guess that my problem is that I do not think that belief in the Reformed God is necessary for a person to be rational or to notice order or interconnections. Perhaps one could appeal to the existence of the Reformed God—-or something or someone supernatural—-to account for why the cosmos is orderly or facts are interconnected, but one can notice those things without believing in a Reformed God, without having that particular presupposition. Moreover, I would question that God has to cause every single thing for there to be rationality; God may cause things, but every single thing? Presuppositionalist Cornelius Van Til acknowledged that non-believers can be rational, but he contends that they are ripping off rationality from Reformed Christianity.
Writing out this view makes presuppositionalism appear a little bit more sensible to me than it did when I read about it; still, there is something missing, either in the view, or in my understanding of it. Some may read my comments and think that I am saying that presuppositionalists argue that God needed to create the universe for it to be rational and orderly, but that is not what I am saying. Presuppositionalists seem to me to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from those who employ the cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence—-though Morley does present exceptions, such as John Frame. Rather, what presuppositionalists seem to be saying is that, in order to have any basis to be rational and to see the universe as an orderly place with interconnections, one has to believe in a God who consciously and with purpose plans everything in it. Apart from a belief in God, you have a bunch of bare facts that lack purpose, coherence, or interconnection. Clear as mud?
I should note, before I go on to the next reason that some presuppositionalists believe people are accountable to God, that presuppositionalists are not the only ones who think that a bare fact by itself does not communicate the Christian message or theism. Morley talks about a division among the Christian apologists who appeal to arguments and evidence—-the types who are not on the same side as presuppositionalists. Some believe that Christian apologists can legitimately make the conventional classic apologetic arguments for Jesus’ resurrection, and that can win people to faith; others, by contrast, believe that apologists should argue for the existence of God first and present miracles as a possibility, then make the arguments for Jesus’ resurrection. The latter contend that Jesus’ resurrection by itself does not prove the truth of Christianity, that, without the context provided by arguments for the existence of God, one could understandably see Jesus’ resurrection as a fluke. I do appreciate this point, for it does get on my nerves when certain apologists act as if their “evidence” for the resurrection of Jesus validates all of Christianity—-some (not all) go so far as to say that, because Jesus believed in biblical inerrancy and rose from the dead, that means biblical inerrancy is true. Personally, I do not think that the Bible’s problems vanish because people may have found an empty tomb or seen a vision. What I would ask is what the bridge would be between the cosmological and teleological arguments and the arguments for Jesus’ resurrection. More than one thinker discussed in the book acknowledges that the cosmological and teleological arguments do not demonstrate the existence of the Christian God, specifically, but just a God.
Back, though, to why presuppositionalists think that we are accountable before God. Greg Bahnsen, as I understood him, said that people have some intuitive sense that the Bible is true when they hear it, even though that sense has been marred by sin. I used that in witnessing to a skeptic years ago: “The Bible is true, and you know it is true.” He thought I was being condescending and dismissive of his arguments for skepticism, and I was. That, by the way, leads me to raise another important issue that comes up in Morley’s book. For presuppositionalists, we cannot have a situation in which people sit back and evaluate evidence for Christianity, then decide for themselves whether it is true, as if they are the king or queen. Rather, the situation is that people are confronted with the truth of God’s word, and they either submit or rebel! If they rebel, then they are sinning and deserve divine wrath! John Warwick Montgomery is not a presuppositionalist—-he is one of those apologists who thinks that facts can point to Christianity or theism—-but he has a similar insight to the presuppositionalists here, only it is consistent with his evidentialist approach: facts speak, whereas interpretations can easily become subject to self-serving bias, and so people need to be accountable to facts. Presuppositionalists and Montgomery both want to take humans off the throne so that they will be subject to God, but they differ on what approach is conducive to that.
I want to say something else before I close. A lot of times, Christian apologists seem to think that those who do not believe in Christianity are trying to avoid being accountable to God—-that their rejection of God is primarily for moral or spiritual reasons, whereas intellectual reasons are a mere cloak. There may be something to that, depending on the case: I don’t believe it is true of everyone, especially those who wanted to be Christian but left the faith because their doubt became unbelief. In any case, I think that blaming atheists or non-believers for their unbelief splashes cold water on them and does little to attract them to God. Rather than just saying, “Oh, you’re just being rebellious,” why not emphasize the love of God, and even demonstrate the love of God rather than being obsessed with winning debates? There were some apologists in Morley’s book who advocated a compassionate approach—-one of them appealed to Paul Vitz’s study about how many prominent atheists may have had absent fathers (which I am not saying is true) and said that Christians should keep that in mind in reaching out to atheists; another said that Christianity meets the needs of the human heart. I remember an Adventist meeting where the preacher said that God is not one to be afraid of, but one to be a friend of. Why not give atheists bread, instead of a stone (Matthew 7:9)? But doesn’t Paul splash cold water on people in Romans 1, when he says that people are without excuse when it comes to their responsibility to worship God? Maybe, but he does not leave his message there; he goes on to proclaim the love and grace of God.
UPDATE: This is not my official review, but I should probably mention that I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.