Monday, July 05, 2004

Discussion With a Reformed Protestant (Catholic) on Art, Early Protestantism, and Catholic Corruption (w/ Kevin Johnson)

By Dave Armstrong (7-5-04)

Kevin's words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for an (as always) amiable and well-stated expression of your perspective. Your reply gets into broad, general areas that require long discussions in and of themselves, but I will respond to the things that are a bit more specific.

Before I counter-reply, let me note for readers (since you are so keen on context), that the main (immediate) reason I did my last post chronicling Reformed iconoclasm was because it seemed to me that you wanted to shuffle the responsibility for most of that off onto the "Anabaptist" or "radical reformers," rather than (as you call it) the "classical Reformation." Thus, you wrote:
Many times this was the work of the radical wing of the Reformation—the Anabaptists and not classical Protestants.
I think we can safely say now (in light of all the documentation I produced -- if indeed it was even necessary) that this is a significant oversimplification. It is quite clear that iconoclasm was mainstream Reformed thought. I didn't even mention Beza or Bucer, who were both overtly iconoclastic and perhaps (judging by some tidbits of information I gleaned while doing my research) directly involved in riots of that sort.

As far as my present knowledge goes, I view Calvin's role in this as highly analogous to Luther's with regard to the Peasants' Revolt of 1525. He (i.e., Luther) didn't directly call for violence or condone it; yet much of his inflammatory teaching and rhetoric against Rome made such actions arguably inevitable among the less-sophisticated masses. We are responsible for what we say, which is why the apostle James warned, "let not many teach."

I argued this at length in a paper devoted to that topic. So if I were to delve into it in even more depth, studying Calvin himself concerning this matter, I suspect that would be my position as to his responsibility (it is now, as much as I know about it). One need only look at the subsequent development of art, imagery, symbolism, architecture, in Reformed circles to see what effect Calvin's teaching had (as the primary figure in the movement).

Just look at the Puritans, for heaven's sake, who would have banned Shakespeare if they had had their way. Calvin had no use even for organs (again, I thank God -- as a serious amateur musician and classical music devotee -- that Bach was born in Lutheran Germany). So this need not even be argued, or any more time taken up to belabor the obvious.

The main thing I was trying to get across (the idiocy and wrongness of iconoclasm) you agree with, so we need not beat that dead horse. I objected to your argument that this was mostly "radical reformers" doing this stuff, and that a lion's share of the blame must be laid on the Catholic Church's doorstep. That was our disagreement, as I saw it.

I continue to strongly disagree with your contention in that regard, simply because the artistic, visual, and iconic element of spirituality was something the Catholic Church "got right" -- even from a current Protestant perspective. Not one Protestant in a hundred today (I dare say) would try to disparage or tear down Chartres Cathedral. Its beauty, profundity, and sublimity is patently obvious. But Calvin and many of his followers quite likely would have (and in fact, did do this to many beautiful places of worship) take an axe to its altar, statuary, and stained glass. And this was my point.

If Protestants expect Catholics to look honestly at the "skeletons" in their closet, then they need to look at their own. That is, in fact, almost always my reason for presenting this sort of historical material. I want all Christians to be aware of ALL Christian history, whether good or bad, and to honestly face and accept it. The so-called "Protestant Reformation" was not a bunch of super-pious, goody-two-shoes holy men going around restoring the gospel which had been lost. Many Protestant historians, in fact, readily admit that the motivations were even primarily political, not spiritual.

Stealing hundreds of churches and convents and abolishing the worship which had been going on continuously for 1500 years is
not just some harmless, pious "reform." As I said, we all have our skeletons, and it is high time that Protestants better understand the full dynamics of what occurred in the 16th century, and why Catholics were compelled to fight for their most treasured beliefs, practices, and possessions (all of which -- where they differed from Protestants -- would have been annihilated, had Luther, Calvin and more radical "reformers" had their way).

----- sermon mode off. Thank you for listening. :-) -----

The reason my comments are important is because you have lifted the comments of Reformers and scholars of their activities and writings out of the original historical context and did not really address the full reasons behind them doing what they did.

One can only do so much in any given paper. This seems to be the Reformed Catholic mantra lately: always complaining about lack of "historical context." But I think it is an ultimately unrealistic demand. Papers (even most books) are devoted to limited subject matter. I was writing about iconoclasm. In such a treatment, I can't possibly get into every jot and tittle of Catholic corruption, as that is a different subject. Most people today understand (and I assume this) that iconoclasm is both wrong and wrongheaded. That is apparent and self-evident. So I don't really see the need to attach blame for these activities on the Catholic Church, when they were not the ones encouraging iconoclasm at all.

I suppose you could argue that "idolatry had become so bad that who can blame the 'reformers' for getting extreme and smashing all images whatsoever?", etc., etc., but that is, of course, yet another entirely distinct topic to be dealt with. My view would not be nearly as "cynical" or "critical" as yours. Protestants who (like Calvin) are inclined to view the Mass as an abomination and blasphemy, etc., will see things one way and we will differ fundamentally with them. For Calvin, the Mass is an abomination, blasphemy, idolatry, and sacrilege, that robs the very cross of Christ of its power, and makes a mockery of it. For us, it is the most sublime, moving, powerful, life-giving worship possible, short of being in heaven with Jesus, or having met and worshiped Him while He walked the earth. We view it as being present at Calvary; quite the opposite of any kind of idolatry.

In other words, if we want to talk "corruption," Calvin locates it right smack dab in our central act of worship. Thus, the discussion on corruption inevitably becomes one of theology (and historical theology, and development), by the nature of the case. This is precisely why I have been challenging reformed Catholics as of late to face up to the implications of historical views concerning the Holy Eucharist (since you want to claim historical continuity with what came before), which (if you want historical -- or liturgical -- context), also includes adoration, the sacrifice of the Mass, and some notion of conversion of the elements into the literal Body and Blood of Christ. There is no middle ground. But reformed Catholics are notably, markedly non-committal or of ambiguous mind concerning the sacrifice of the Mass. I asked one such person if he thought it was idolatry and he said "I don't know." What do you think, Kevin? Are you courageous enough to address that crucial question head on? :-)

It's not that what you are saying is illogical or that you've offered an argument that can't be made. It's simply that there is more to interpreting history than placing blame on the initial group of people committing the acts that you have been criticizing.

Again, one can always play the game of multiple causation. Who caused what? As far as I am concerned, iconoclasm offers a classic example of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." That particular extreme, might, I suppose, be blamed (on some logical plane) on those on the opposing side, but essential blame lies with the one who does it. For example, when more liberal and secular elements of American society succeeded in establishing a strict (blatantly unconstitutional) separation of church and state, including removal of prayer and the Ten Commandments from public schools, was that their fault for being historically-ignorant and dim-witted about the history of church-state interaction for the previous 300 years? Or was it more so or equally the fault of the Christians who perhaps committed some excesses when these things were permitted, alienating Jews or atheists or the occasional Muslim or Hindu?

Clearly the former. This is another baby/bathwater scenario. The fact remains that Calvin's theology (and much of Protestant theology, generally) lends itself to an iconoclasm, or at least a radical minimizing of symbolism and imagery, by its very nature -- being "Word"-based. Protestant altars oftentimes consist of a stand with an open Bible on it, or not even that: just a place for a pastor to place his sermon notes. The Word predominates. It's like the first part of the Catholic Mass without the second. This is why many Reformed Churches didn't even offer communion every Sunday. Obviously, it wasn't considered central to worship if it didn't occur but once a month. The sermon was the overwhelming emphasis.

In my opinion, you have over-simplified the matter especially because even now you still refuse to admit that the corruptions of Rome and her hierarchy had anything at all to do with the later actions of the Reformers and others who did endorse a sort of iconoclasm.

You are the one who has oversimplified, as I think I am demonstrating. I never denied all responsibility of Rome altogether. But in the present case, I am saying that iconoclasm cannot be laid at our door because we never espoused it. It was always a corruption of the East and of Protestantism. Rome never fell into that stupidity. At best, you can claim that we were guilty of rampant idolatry:
1. Catholics worshiped statues.

2. This dishonors Christ and is idolatry.

3. Therefore, it is perfectly right and proper to tear the statues down for the sake of souls and Christian truth.
The fallacy here is obvious. Even you agree that statues are not inevitably and necessarily idolatrous. But this was the reasoning of the Calvinist iconoclasts. Stained glass was wrong. Organs were improper in worship. Altars were idolatrous because the blasphemous sacrifice of the Mass took place on them, and the only altar now (post-Calvary) is in heaven, etc. Even crucifixes and crosses are evil (in many examples I gave yesterday, the mobs went after them, too). So again, the discussion necessarily descends into a discussion of things like:
1) what exactly is idolatry?,

2) Are all images necessarily idolatrous and graven images -- even those of our Lord Jesus, crosses, and crucifixes?,

3) Are the Sacrifice of the Mass and transubstantiation and adoration of the consecrated host all idolatrous by the nature of the case?,

4) Does stained glass and iconography aid or hinder worship?,

5) Is a clapboard, plain white church more conducive to reverence and worship than Chartres Cathedral?
It's all ultimately theological in nature. That's why I say the discussion must deal with all those sorts of issues, because this is what Calvin himself would argue: Catholic worship is by nature and essence blasphemous and idolatrous; therefore it is not wrong to abolish it or destroy the churches which foster and perpetuate it (by the sanctioned governmental authorities, of course, but still destroy them if at all possible).

In other words, you are providing all of us with an anachronistic and overly simplistic look at historical events without really explaining the why of the matter--or at least providing us with any sort of view that is something other than a full presentation of how one Roman Catholic might look at the matter.

I believe I am doing so now, in far more depth than you have dealt with it (I dare say -- look at all the historical material I produced in my last post -- whereas you provide nothing but your own bald opinions), and at much greater length. I'll discuss this stuff with you till we're both blue in the face, but I need you and your reformed catholic comrades to give straight answers to very important questions. I've been waiting over a week now for replies from both you and Josh, that you promised to give me, concerning Calvin's eucharistic theology (actually, weeks or months in some cases, where discussions end quite prematurely, just as they were possibly getting somewhere). Now we're off on another tangent.

I'm not sure you're willing to deal with all the facts.

Readers can judge that. They see what I write (and ask) and what you write. They see me answering all your questions in depth and you often passing over many of mine. Since you want to insinuate that I am the one unwilling to deal with facts, I must say this.

For example, you quote Kuyper briefly but you miss him crediting Christianity being of "invaluable significance to the development of art" as well as questioning the validity of blaming Calvin or his followers for devaluing art. You can quote Kuyper but you didn't really deal with the full force of what he said.

This gets old. No one deals with every jot and tittle of context of all that they cite. As I have said before, Internet link technology allows readers to go read all the context they wish. I provided that link. That's a lot different from citing books that most readers do not have available. So this is an empty complaint. Furthermore, I included several remarks that let Calvin off the hook (you overlook that entirely). I suspected that I would have to point this out, since the same charges would be made. Here are some of those:
Calvin himself did not support iconoclastic violence, but many of his associates and followers did (further reading: C.M.N. Eire, War Against the Idols [Cambridge, 1986]).

(Paul Corby Finney -- who looks to be a non-Catholic historian)

. . . For all of Calvin’s influence on the Protestant movement, however, he was not its sole opinion-leader, nor can its early history be written exclusively from Genevan sources, no matter how strong a pull they exercise because of their exceptional richness and accessibility. The fact that Calvin and the Genevan-trained ministers denounced or sought to remove pastors whose preaching encouraged unsanctioned iconoclasm demonstrates that some French ministers endorsed removing the ‘idols’ without tarrying for the magistrate.

(Philip Benedict, also, I believe, a non-Catholic)
You want more context? There it is: it was already there. But you overlook it and go on to make the same tired charge. I was being as fair as I could be to Calvin, just as I am with Luther in my papers dealing with him. I give him every benefit of the doubt and judgment of charity that I can. But some historical facts are undesirable and cannot be glossed over, no matter how charitable and unassuming we wish to be. You are quick to admit that early Protestants were not perfect men. Yet whenever one of us Catholics agrees with that and gets specific, then all of a sudden we haven't provided enough "context" and don't want to deal with all the facts.

C'mon. You can do better than that, and I think you know me better than that by now. You are familiar with folks who ignore facts, and they are on your own Protestant side (though not reformed catholics). You know who I am talking about. I need not mention them. The difference between their attitude to history and discussion compared to my own could not be any different than it is.

. . . to the extent that art was devalued during the Reformation or even after those who unjustly devalued it should be blamed.

Good for you. But then why are we having this discussion? Why am I spending 3-4 hours of my time on a would-be holiday to belabor the obvious? I submit that it is because you wished to (or seemed to wish to) place more blame on the Catholic Church than the early Protestants in your first response, and you sought to shift blame away from Calvin and the mainstream Reformed movement onto the radical Protestants. This is not historically-accurate; sorry. I am the one who brought a ton of historical documentation to the table. All you have given thus far are a bunch of claims. But you are not (as far as I know) an historian. I cited folks who are.

But, the historical context is bigger than that and the stakes are higher than merely leveling criticism at those who are immediately responsible.

I need not keep answering this. The discussion of corruption in the Church is one which needs to take place on its own. I have no problem with acknowledging any corruption. As an old pastor of mine used to say: "original sin is, of all Christian doctrines, the most obvious, just by observing human beings." But for the "reformers," much of what they thought was a "corruption" was simply Catholic doctrines that they no longer held.

And to be fair, Dave, I think you are glossing over some of the terribly corrupt behavior of the Church prior to the Reformation by merely labeling it "mostly sexual and power-play stuff". In point of fact the Church was so corrupt that even when popes, such as Adrian VI, tried to reform the Church they miserably failed. In Pope Adrian's case for example the indulgences offered by previous popes were done through payment plans that lasted several years and it was impossible for Adrian to alter such obviously absurd agreements without huge consequences to the Church.

Case in point: indulgences is another huge discussion that is multifaceted itself. I can tell you, as a Catholic apologist, that not one Protestant in 200 has ever correctly explained back to me what the Catholic Church thinks an indulgence is. I highly doubt that you would be the exception (with all due respect). The first responsibility in any critique is at least accurately understanding and describing the viewpoint we are disagreeing with. That is Argument 0101.

To minimize this sort of corruption is not really dealing with the history of the matter and while it is convenient to criticize Protestants where criticism is due it certainly rings hollow when on the flip side you as a Roman Catholic are seemingly unwilling to face the stark reality and severity of the ecclesiastical corruption of the time.

On what basis do you conclude this? You are obviously unfamiliar with my writing regarding this topic. I have always freely admitted the widespread nature of Catholic corruption prior to Luther. I don't know any Catholic who would not do so. I agree with Karl Adam's view about medieval Catholic corruption. The following is from the first draft of my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, written in 1991 (um, that is 13 years ago):
Catholics today (more so than formerly) freely admit that the Church in Luther's time sorely needed reforming. The eminent German Catholic theologian Karl Adam, in his book The Roots of the Reformation (translated by Cecily Hastings, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1951 [portion of One and Holy, 1948] ), devotes nearly a third of its space to "weakness in the Church." He states that "the Renaissance Popes seem to have carried out in their own lives that cult of idolatrous humanism, demonic ambition and unrestrained sensuality" (p. 14). He quotes the words of Pope Adrian VI (1522-23), who in turn cited St. Bernard: "Vice has grown so much a matter of course that those who are stained with it are no longer aware of the stink of sin" (p. 20). He is quite frank and descriptive of other abuses:
The majority of this clerical proletariat had neither the intellectual nor the moral capacity to so much as guess the profundity of the questions raised by Luther . . . In this waste of clerical corruption it was impossible for the Spirit of our Lord to penetrate into the people . . .

There was no sacramental impulse towards an interiorizing and deepening of religion. So the attention of the faithful was directed towards externals . . . This hideous simoniacal abuse of indulgences corrupted true piety . . . indulgences were perverted to a blasphemous haggling with God. Night fell on the German Church . . . (pp. 22-26)
The whole of Europe could not have been turned upside down by the Reformation if there wasn't any real significant corruption.

I agree, but this proves no more than saying that Lenin's revolution in Russia improved what came before (and all agree that Czarist Russia was quite corrupt), or that the French Revolution improved the previous state of affairs (and all agree that the French monarchy and aristocracy were corrupt). I agree with Louis Bouyer: he holds that there were many positive, Catholic elements in "Reformation" thought which were praiseworthy and entirely good. But these were already present in catholic tradition (albeit poorly understood in many cases). In other words, the best of what the "Reformers" offered was already Catholic and had to merely be regained or re-emphasized, but the negative elements in Protestantism have been troublesome internally ever since (doctrinal relativism, sectarianism, anti-sacramentalism, anti-sacerdotalism, etc.).

Some day I'd like to see an entry by you and others that details out much of that corruption so that we can get to both sides of the story.

I have no problem with that, but my custom is to cite historians. They do, however, have a bias on both sides, to the extent that they have theological views which color their analysis.

But, back to art. The corruption of the Church is relevant to the Protestants' devaluing of art for several reasons: 1) If we grant your case concerning the nature of the Roman Catholic Church being the Church, then the ones who bear the larger responsibility for what happened during the Reformation are the very leaders in power at the time,

This is fallacious as well. That would be like saying that Arianism is the fault of Nicene Trinitarianism, or that Monophysitism was the fault of Chalcedonian Christology, or that Donatism and Montanism were the fault of those (including Calvin) who taught that the wheat and the tares were both in the Church. There is a sense of secondary cause, but when people do stupid stuff they are ultimately to blame themselves. This is true of all of us individually. We'll all stand before God one day and give account, and God won't settle for any of the customary human blameshifting.

2) You will forgive me for pointing this out I hope but it is no accident that the most corrupt periods of the Church also saw some of the greatest accomplishments in art. We should be asking ourselves why that is the case,

For the same reason that Richard Wagner was a scoundrel, liar, and cheat, but wrote, in my opinion, some of the most magnificent music of all time. This is the nature of the beast. Beauty (like truth) stands on its own, apart from the righteousness of those who create or financially support it.

and 3) Historically speaking, if there had been no corruption (morally or doctrinally), there would have been no Reformation. I don't see how you can deny this.

The Church always needs to be reformed. My argument here is: "what precisely is reform, and what is revolution? At what point is the line crossed?"

This does not deny the culpability of those who unjustly devalued art during the Reformation but it instead points to the fact that something, perhaps many things were wrong in the Church just prior to the Reformation and because the Church failed to correct what was ailing her, the Reformation took shape.

Okay, Kevin, I'll call your "bluff" (since you want to press this): what exactly do you think the Church should have done in order to prevent the excessive and extreme Protestant reaction of iconoclasm? You tell me. Not hire Michelangelo and Raphael? After all, Michelangelo's David is clearly an idol, right? The Pieta is even more so, since it depicts (GASP!) Mary as a goddess-figure. Right?

I do know one thing, Dave. The Church, whether Protestant or Catholic, is full of men. And men are not always doing the right things. And usually from what I see these days (and historically) often they are not interested in doing what is right for whatever reason. I do think that the Protestants, like their Roman brothers, have many things to 'fess up about and change. I do think we need to work harder to remove the shackles of our own almost ethnic prejudices from how we view the Reformation to how we view our Roman Catholic brothers--and certainly in terms of how we view art.

Amen! Thank you for this.

And, I wouldn't be interacting with you if I didn't feel there was some value in what you are saying.

Good, and likewise. I wouldn't spend all this time, either, if I didn't feel that way about your opinions.

The Protestant Church needs the flesh-and-blood reality of the Christian faith that it lost when she separated from her Catholic brothers during the Reformation. We could use a few statues to actually remind us that the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and even the Christ child himself were real.

Not to worry. You still have your statues of Luther and Calvin and John Knox here and there. :-)

We could use more churches that reflect the beauty and glory of the Sistine Chapel or the Cathedral at Chartres--a beauty and glory that as far as I am concerned is simply undeniable. We could use painters and other artists who are able to magnificently tell the stories of the Christian faith in a way that doctrine can't. These are things that, understood properly, could strengthen the Church and specifically strengthen who we are as Protestants.

Magnificently stated. I would, of course, have said exactly the same when I was Protestant. I loved all those things then as you do now. Francis Schaeffer was one person who helped me admire that artistic Christian heritage.

But on the flip side and one point the Reformers made--it is no good to think that these things are useful at all if there is no change of life based on the all-powerful work of the Holy Spirit through Christ our Lord, no purity in doctrine and in living (in fact, quite the opposite), and a reliance on the mere trappings of religion that marked the Church prior to the Reformation.

I agree wholeheartedly. I merely hasten to add that I would say this was the widespread practice; not necessarily the doctrine that the Church held. We were never dogmatically Pelagian or even semi-Pelagian. But in practice, many people certainly were, including even several of the prominent nominalist theologians, who had lost the classic Augustinian, Thomist doctrine of grace, and sola gratia. And as the iconoclasts went too far with regard to imagery, so Luther went too far in his soteriology, in reaction (so we would say), though we certainly understand the dynamics and sincerity of his passion for the doctrine of grace, given all that was going on at the time. Louis Bouyer and Karl Adam both freely and joyfully admit this.

The connection is simple. There needs to be a connection between the outworking of our faith in art and the actual reality of repentance and faith in Christ.

Absolutely! Amen! Preach it, brother!

To the degree that many Reformers eschewed the art of the high middle ages is directly due to the fact that there was the outward appearance of great faith in the Church through her works of art and other external trappings, but all along there was this hypocritical corruption, moral failure, and an overt reliance on what men accomplished for their salvation rather than what Christ accomplished.

To the extent that that was occurring in individuals or being falsely taught by teachers, I agree. But then the proper response is to restore the true doctrine, not invent new ones that were never held (not even by Augustine), and to teach a proper interpretation and use of images (teach about what idolatry is and isn't); not smash the images. In other words, you and I can agree on a lot of the corruption, but disagree somewhat as to the cure, and whether Protestant doctrine was indeed a reform which hearkened back to earlier purity, or a revolution in many respects, which overthrew precedent in an unacceptable way.

In some sense, the men of the Reformation linked those works of art quite rightly with the bedrock hypocrisy of those priests and bishops of the time and rightly so. It is no wonder, from this point of view, why they emphasized a faith quite apart from things such as art. Taking the next logical step and devaluing art was a mistake, in my opinion and certainly some during the Reformation made this mistake more severely than others (the Anabaptists come to mind).

Human beings, unfortunately, tend to go to extremes, in reaction. I've often noted this, in many areas of life, not just theology.

I am thankful we live in a day when such things can be examined again, when art can be valued and used in the Church in a way that pleases Christ and recognizes the gifts and talents He gives his Church through art, and where we can discuss these issues a bit apart from the heated rhetoric of past ages.

Yes; good point. Me, too. I think this is a most helpful discussion for both sides to engage in.

Here is what you will get from me, Dave. Men are men. Christ is God and He is working through His Church to call men to Him. I pray that all would answer His call even if some don't, be they Protestant or Catholic. Yes, Protestants have made mistakes and have sinned and have been hypocritical over the centuries and we lament that on our side as much as we lament the fact that it happens or has happened in Roman Catholicism. It has been given to us today to stand as others historically have stood--before our God and repent when we err as well as obey His commandments through Christ and by His Spirit. We can do no less if we are to be called Christian.

Yes. Again, I agree 100%, and eloquently stated.

. . . The Reformers were men, not gods. They had foibles, they made mistakes, they didn't always do the right things. We have no problems admitting this . . .

Well, sorry; it sure looks like you did in this case, by your unsuccessful attempt to distance Calvin and "classical Protestantism" from the bulk of the iconoclasm which occurred. Let's face it: the Anabaptists never had enough power, pure and simple, to do much more than local damage (and most of them were peaceful and anti-institutional and culturally-withdrawn, anyway). The Protestant power was held by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans. The Lutherans eschewed iconoclasm. Calvinists accepted it, and so they acted upon their convictions.

The Anglicans and later Puritans also did, in England, and we see the results: all images were banned in churches (in 1550, by law); plays were forbidden, etc. Note that in both cases, it was a resort to force: stealing and plundering and smashing, or gaining political power and quickly making such things unlawful. But so what? This doesn't make it right just because it becomes legal, any more than legal slavery or legal abortion are right.

and to the extent you point out these things, more power to you as long as they are historically accurate.

Hey, that's MUCH more than I have heard from many many of your friends! Good for you. History is what it is . . . an elementary truth. And we can learn from history. I hope we can all agree on that.

But, I hope you will note (and maybe someday you can blog about it) the positive contributions of the Reformers because if anything you must admit that they transformed European and Western society in ways that even they didn't conceive of when they worked to change the Church for the better.

In some ways, yes, absolutely. God works with anyone who sincerely seeks to serve Him. But of course, as a Catholic, you'll understand that I don't think any positive change comes from what I believe to be false doctrine. Whatever good Protestantism does has to come from truth. If it is true, then we already believe it (so I hold in faith, as a good Catholic).

What I have always said about Protestantism is that you guys (and I was one of you for 13 years as a committed evangelical missionary and apologist and pro-life activist) often excel Catholics in practice and in purity of life and morals. The obvious examples are Bible study, and probably prayer as well. I've noted this many many times. Protestants have done tons of good work, whether it be more basic apologetics or cultural transformation (the Schaeffer / Colson wing of "Christ as Lord of all of life") or pro-life activities, or a host of other things. What is true and good is that, whoever does it. I can acknowledge all this wonderful stuff, while maintaining a Catholic critique of doctrines which I feel diverge from Catholicism and historic Christianity.

And though I suppose you may disagree with me here, they did change the Church (and society at large) for the better.

I will simply appeal to the above paragraph. I think individual Protestants (e.g., Wesley, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, various missionaries, etc.) have and continue to do lots and lots of great things for the Kingdom. Institutionally, however, the record is not so glowing or praiseworthy.

Just think about it...without the Reformation, the Council of Trent would never have happened. :)

That's correct. And without Arianism and Monophysitism, the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon would never have happened. It is always the corruptions which produce better developments. :-) Do you wish to pursue this analogy? LOL

You do see the Council of Trent as a positive development in Catholicism, don't you? :)

Yep, just as I see ecumenical Protestants like you thankfully reacting against the empty-headed anti-Catholicism of many of your Protestant brethren, and (here's the controversy again) that of Luther and Calvin themselves.

Thanks for the discussion!

In Him,


Friday, June 25, 2004

The Ontological Argument for God's Existence: A Discussion With Philosophy Grad Student Patrick

By Dave Armstrong (6-25-04)

Patrick is a Catholic graduate student in philosophy. He wrote to me, asking if I would like to discuss the Ontological Argument, which is one of the classic theistic arguments (for God's existence), first developed by St. Anselm. He was replying to my section of my paper (most of it was a compilation of philosophers' writing): "The Ontological Argument for God's Existence: 'A concept greater than which first meets the eye'". His words will be in blue. When portions of my earlier paper are cited, they will be indented.

Readers who want to understand and follow this discussion are strongly urged to read the original paper, or at least sections I and VII, which are Alvin Plantinga's argument, and my own amateur version, which is largely an apologist's additional commentary on, and "elaboration" (if I may call it that without presumption) of Plantinga's far more nuanced and solid statement. I will read both those sections right now to refresh my memory. I can barely keep up with this highly abstract and philosophically technical discussion myself, and told Patrick in an e-mail that he would "kick my butt" if we were to discuss this. But I always love a challenge, and make no pretense to having philosophical training beyond what I actually have (some eight classes and much informal acquaintance with various types of philosophy). I am here to learn as much as teach, with this one. Thanks to Patrick for being willing to discuss this fascinating topic.

* * * * *

June 18, 2004

A Reply to Armstrong on the Ontological Argument

I’m a regular reader of your excellent website; I find your writings on apologetics to be, as a rule, very well done. I have learned a lot from them myself, and I have recommended your work to many other people.

Thanks very much for your kind words, and the plugs! I appreciate it.

For some reason, I hadn’t read your work in philosophical theology until recently, though, and when I read your discussion of the ontological argument (henceforth, “OA”), I discovered some weaknesses that I wanted to bring to your attention.

Cool! I hope to learn a lot from you. This is the subject to do that, because it has traditionally not been one of my favorite theistic arguments. I'm very fond of the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments.

It seems to me that the most important oversight in your treatment of the OA is that you don’t take cognizance of the fact that arguments are powerful: they can teach you new things, but they can also make you stupider.

Interesting way to put it. I shall like to see how you "unpack" this.

It’s pretty obvious how an argument can teach you something. So leave that aside. Here’s how an argument can make you stupider. You look at the premises, and find that you believe them all to be true: indeed, you would (for the moment) claim that you know them to be true. You look at the argument’s structure, and find that it is deductively valid. But now you think really hard about the conclusion and find that you are unwilling to believe it. You reject the conclusion. But you’re not an illogical person: you recognize that the argument is valid, so you grant that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Since you grant that the argument is valid, but you deny that the conclusion is true, you must reject one of the premises, even though initially you believed them all. So you pick the one(s) to go, and you now believe less than you started out believing.

There are lots of unproven or inadequately established premises of arguments. I can readily see that. In fact, I would say that the self-evident nature of premises is perhaps the most difficult part of the process of logical argumentation.

Well, what if you’re wrong in your denial of the conclusion? What if the conclusion is true, and what if the premise you have now come to reject is also true? In that case, you started out the process knowing more than you ended up knowing. You started out with a piece of knowledge that you now have lost.

How to get to any knowledge in the first place is the fascinating thing. I love that intersection between logic and epistemology.

Now, let’s bring that point to bear on the OA. We will cover a lot of ground on this point, but remember that in the long run, we’re going to be coming back to whether the OA can make you stupider.

Before we get into that, I would say that the last thing I would ever say about OA is that it makes one "stupider." One is enriched by even following the logical steps involved. It's a real brain teaser. Even if it doesn't totally succeed (and I agree with Alvin Plantinga that it ultimately doesn't, in terms of proving God's existence -- I don't think any one argument does that), it is good and fun to ponder he logic involved and the deeper implications of it. That's what I got, anyway, out of studying it what little I did, in putting together my paper.

Take a nice simple version of the argument. The complicated one you discuss in your paper doesn’t actually say anything more than is said in the following:
1. God is possible.
2. Therefore, God exists.
I suppose so. But there are many logically sound steps in-between these which make OA a far more serious philosophical argument than this simplistic presentation would suggest at first glance (wouldn't you agree?).

Let’s interpret the first premise carefully, since there’s a lot packed in there. Let’s start with the meaning of “possible.” There is some controversy about the best way to approach this issue. Putting it very roughly: some people think that an object is possible because it exists in at least one possible world. (I will usually refer to “possible worlds” as p-worlds, for short.) Others think that an object exists in at least one p-world because it is possible. I believe the latter—I am a non-reductivist about modality (as is Plantinga).

The relationship between "existence" and "possibility" in both these scenarios is unclear to me. In my philosophical naivete, and in layman's terms, I would say that something is possible if it is rationally conceivable without an immediate contradiction or absurdity resulting (or not logically impossible). In other words, if it is intelligibly thinkable and not contrary to logic itself. Whether it in fact exists is (in my thinking) a separate question. I doubt that I used the right terms, but if you understand what I mean by this, is it a decent, defensible opinion to have?

This dispute between the non-reductivists and their foes, the (you guessed it) reductivists, is not relevant to our discussion here. I mention it only to note that the dispute exists. For our purposes, we need to take note of the following: whatever the order of explanation, if an object possibly exists, then it exists in at least one possible world. To say that “X is possible” is to say, then, that “X exists in at least one p-world.”

Again, I am reluctant to link the word "exist" with "possible." For me (again, in layman's terms), existence is tied up with actuality, not mere possibility.

(As an aside—you wrote that Plantinga asked the atheist to grant only that God is possible in some p-world. That’s not right. To say that God is possible is to say that God exists in some p-world. But p-worlds are not actual; they’re just possible. That’s why they’re called p-worlds. So Plantinga is still not asking the atheist to grant that God actually exists anywhere.)

Yes, I understand that. I would prefer to say that "God possibly exists in actuality" rather than "God exists is p-world 473." I always want to tie such speculation in with actuality.

Here we must make a vital distinction between metaphysical and epistemic possibility. I might ask you “is there life in outer space?” And you might answer, “I don’t know: it’s possible.” That answer is not about metaphysical possibility. You are not saying “there is some possible world where there is life in outer space.” What you are saying, rather, is “For all I know, there could (actually) be life out there.” You don’t know the actual answer—it’s an open question to you—but it seems like it could be so. This is epistemic possibility, and it has nothing to do with the ontological argument.

Okay. It looks like I confused that. I was, then, discussing epistemic possibility.

Take another example: I ask, a day after the big game, “Did the Pistons win Game Five?” You say, “Well, I had to shut it off in the third quarter, so I don’t know. They were behind by five when I turned it off, but they were on a run—I’d say it’s quite possible that they won.” That’s epistemic possibility, again. You aren’t speculating about how things could possibly be. You’re speculating about how things really are, in a case where you don’t know. Take this kind of possibility and chuck it aside. It will only confuse us, and it’s not related at all to the OA.

I'm not sure one can totally separate it at every level from OA. I like the way Charles Hartshorne described St. Anselm's argument:
One way to put Anselm's contention is this:
A. "Divinity exists" is, though not without difficulty, or without severe qualifications, conceivable by the human mind;

B. "Divinity does not exist" is strictly inconceivable (in a more than verbal sense) by any mind, being either self-contradictory or meaningless.
Thus the usual symmetry between the conceivability of existence and that of nonexistence is here upset in favor of existence. Taking this as the Anselmian position, refutation must consist in showing either that divine existence and divine nonexistence are alike conceivable, or that divine existence is inconceivable. These two ways of upsetting the asserted asymmetry, though obviously incompatible, are very commonly confused, and this is one of several defects which disfigure this prolonged controversy . . .

. . . His nonexistence must be unknowable absolutely. For, one who knows cannot know nonentity only, he must know something positive . . . divine nonexistence is unknowable absolutely, whether by divine or nondivine cognition. By contrast, divine existence is conceivably knowable, both by God Himself and also by any nondivine cognition able to connect effects with their universal Cause (not to mention able to understand the Ontological Proof). I conclude that the asymmetry to which Anselm points is quite real, and that on this main issue he is essentially correct, and his critics essentially mistaken. It is true, like it or not, that divinity, differing in this from all ordinary properties, cannot be conceived (relative to possible knowledge) unless as existent.
The kind of possibility that we’re interested in has to do with how things could be, and how things have to be. For example, could 2+2=5? No—it’s impossible. Could Ringo Starr have been a guitarist instead of a drummer? Sure—that’s possible. (Not epistemically possible: we agree that in fact, Ringo is a drummer. ) Could Ringo have been a dung beetle? Umm—that’s a tougher question. I doubt it. I think any human being is essentially a human being. (Meaning that if Ringo—or any of us humans—exist at all, we must exist as humans.) But I admit to not being absolutely sure about this. Here, then, I don’t know the answer. But we’re still talking about metaphysical possibility: we agree that Ringo, in fact, is not a dung beetle, but, rather, a Beatle. What we wonder is whether he could have been a dung beetle. And we might ask that very same question this way: “is there a possible world where Ringo is a dung beetle?” We might not know the answer. Similarly, we could ask about the above mathematical example this way: “is there a possible world where 2+2=5?” Here, we do know the answer: no.

One very helpful way to think about metaphysical possibility is to ask “could God bring it about that…?” So, is it metaphysically possible that 2+2=5? No—even God can’t make it the case that 2+2=5. But is it metaphysically possible that Ringo is a guitarist? Of course! God could easily have brought it about that Ringo became a guitarist instead of a drummer. Is it metaphysically possible that Ringo be a dung beetle? Here, again, I think not. God can obviously make dung beetles, but it’s not clear that he could have made a world where Ringo—that very person—was a dung beetle. (Kafkaesque imaginary scenarios don’t help here. What we imagine in the Metamorphosis is Gregor Samsa taking on the bodily appearance of a bug, not a p-world where he is just a regular old bug, born of bug parents, with a bug’s consciousness, and so forth).

We must also avoid getting hung up on so-called “accidental necessity,” according to which things that have already happened are now necessary even though it used to be that they could have gone otherwise. One might think it is accidentally necessary that I am a father, since now even God cannot make it the case that I never had children. That’s all true, but it’s irrelevant to the kind of modality that we’re concerned with. Even though God cannot now make it the case that, in fact, I never had children, it is still metaphysically possible that I never had children. That is, there are p-worlds where I never had children. There have to be such p-worlds, for there are, presumably, lots of p-words where I don’t exist at all. God didn’t have to create me in the first place: nothing about me is metaphysically necessary. (Note that even if I am essentially a human being, as I said perhaps Ringo is, that doesn’t mean that it is metaphysically necessary that I am a human being. If it were metaphysically necessary that I am a human being, then it would be metaphysically necessary that I exist, for I cannot be a human being if I do not exist. However, if I am essentially a human being, then it is necessary only that if I exist, then I am a human being. And this is a very different thing.)

Alright. That makes sense. Of course, God's unique properties, by definition, are the key and essence of OA and why it succeeds at all.

So I hope there’s some clarity now about the kind of metaphysical possibility we’re interested in. Now, we must next turn to the question of what’s a p-world? This, too, is a disputed question. David Lewis—a reductivist, for what it’s worth—believed that p-worlds are real, concrete universes like ours, only spatio-temporally isolated from ours. They’re not like the other worlds in the Narnia stories, which you can travel to by magic. They’re also not like the worlds in the alternate universe hypotheses in contemporary physics. They’re completely “apart” from ours. Lewis’s view is not widely accepted.

It doesn't strike me as very plausible or likely.

Plantinga’s view is rather different. To Plantinga, a p-world is a maximal consistent proposition. It’s a complete way things could have been, described down to its smallest detail.

I like this much better because it resonates with the notion of Providence (and possible Plantinga borrowed from that notion a bit?). I know that is not strictly philosophical, but then I am not speaking strictly from a philosophical perspective, so I can say it! :-)

So there’s a p-world where I’m wearing a different color shirt than I am, in fact, wearing, but where everything else is exactly like it is in the actual world. However, that world isn’t really a world like ours, it is really just a complete, maximal description of a world—a world that does not actually exist (and never will). You might do well to think of p-worlds as thoughts in the mind of God: they are ways he could have created things, if he had chosen to. There is no p-world where 2+2=5, because even God could not make a world where that was true. But there are p-worlds where I do not exist, and where I am president of the US, and perhaps even where I am a gallant talking mouse. There is a p-world for every way things could possibly have gone.

Yes, I agree. This also is similar to the theological concept of God's middle knowledge, or scientia media (I am a Molinist, and accept this, insofar as I understand it).

Since I exist only contingently, I exist only in some of these p-worlds. There are lots of ways things could have gone such that I never have come to exist. My grandfather could easily have been killed in WWII, for example. Or humans could have never been created. Or God could have chosen not to create anything at all. And so forth. If, however, something exists necessarily, then there is no possible way things could have gone such that it not exist. If God is a necessary being, then it is not possible for God not to exist.

Yes, but the trick, of course, is convincing the atheist that:
1) There is such a thing that we know as "God."


2) This "God" is a self-existent, necessarily-existing Being.
And if it’s not possible for God not to exist, then there is no possible world where he fails to exist. Things just couldn’t have gone that way. (Note, then, that thinking of p-worlds as “ways God could have made things go” is slightly misleading, since God doesn’t create Himself, yet he exists in all p-worlds. But God couldn’t have made things go such that he doesn’t exist: His own existence lies beyond his will, and is necessarily included in every possible way things go. This is just a minor complication which can, for the most part, be ignored. Incidentally, at this point, I am invoking God as a heuristic device: it doesn’t beg the question against the atheist to say “it’s helpful to think of p-worlds as ways God could have made things go.” The atheist can ponder that mental picture to learn something about the nature of possible worlds, even without for one moment pretending there’s anything to this whole “God” thing.)

Yes. Though in my experience (including dealing with more than one atheist philosopher or philosophy major / grad student) they are quite predisposed against doing even that. They are every bit as dogmatic (I think, irrationally so) as they claim theists are about our beliefs that God does exist, and what He is like.

OK, so remember, from a few pages back, that we’re trying to get straight on the first premise of the simple OA. That premise is “God is possible.” We should be OK now with “possible.” The premise, then, is claiming simply that there is a p-world where God exists: in at least one way things could possibly have gone, God is there.

But what does it mean to say “God is possible”? God is that being than which greater cannot be conceived. Part of what it is to be God is to be a necessary being. Imagine a really great being, loving, powerful, knowledgeable—but a being that could be killed. That might be a really great being to have as a friend. But it’s not God. (Here, of course, complications having to do with the Incarnation are left aside.) This is a conceptual matter. By “God,” I just mean, in part, a necessary being. So to say that God is possible is, in part, to say that it is possible for a necessary being to exist.

Okay, I follow you. That was what I had in mind in my argument.

Again, there’s nothing question-begging about this. I am not saying that God exists: I am simply clarifying my terms. The OA is an argument that purports to prove that something exists: namely, God. Well, what is this “God” the argument is trying to establish the existence of? Simply the greatest conceivable being. That’s what the OA seeks to prove the existence of. Perhaps there are other, competing notions of God out there. But that’s a sociological issue. Who cares if there are other notions of God out there? I’ve got a notion in hand here—greatest conceivable being—and I think it’s a pretty important notion. If such a thing could be shown to exist, that would be A Big Deal. So that’s the notion I’m using. I’m not saying such a thing exists, at this point. First, I simply say—here’s the notion I’m working with. Next, I simply say—that kind of thing is possible. Nothing dubious about any of this. (Of course, some might object that it is not possible, or that we couldn’t hope to know if it is possible: but those are not objections to the use of the notion. They’re objections to the soundness of the argument, or the knowability of its premise.)

I don't think OA proves God's existence, so I want to make it clear what I think it accomplishes. I agree with Plantinga that it shows that theism is equally as rational and plausible as atheism. I think that about several of the best theistic arguments, considered individually. It is the cumulative evidence and plausibility of all taken together which I feel makes theism practically compelling, if not logically so, in strict terms. This has been my opinion for many years now, and I haven't changed much in that regard.

So what premise one tells us is that there is a possible world where a necessary being exists. What does that mean? What it is to be necessary is to exist in all possible worlds. So, in that possible world where God exists, it is the case that God exists in all possible worlds. In that world, God not only exists, but exists necessarily—in that world, it is not possible for God to fail to exist.

But what is possible does not vary from world to world. Things are either possible or not possible. Similarly, what is necessary does not vary from world to world. Things are either necessary or not necessary. This is a vital point, and you seem to waffle a little bit on it, apparently endorsing the notion that possible worlds are not “accessible” from one another.

I think whatever confusion here arises from my use of the concept of epistemic possibility and the distinction between "contingently possible in actuality" and "logically possible in p-worlds," etc. I know I am probably not using the terms with precision (I'm very conscious of that, especially in dealing with a trained philosophical mind such as yours), but hopefully you can follow what my reasoning is, whether I am expressing it poorly or not. I am very much the empiricist and always want to talk about actual realities, and this is why I never liked OA nearly as much as the more empirical arguments.

But if you deny accessibility, then the OA simply fails. Fortunately, there is no good reason to deny accessibility, and every reason to believe in it. It just seems obvious that if X is possible, then it really is possible no matter what. One way to conceptualize metaphysical possibility, as I said above, is by asking, “could God bring it about that…” But obviously, God’s power does not change from world to world. Even if he hadn’t created angels—even in a p-world where angels do not exist at all—angels are still possible. God could have created them. (As an interesting aside: when great scholastics like Suarez talk about possibility and necessity, they don’t talk about p-worlds. Rather, they talk about what God could do by the “absolute power.” I tend to think they were getting at just this point.) Possibility and necessity are invariable across worlds.

If you are talking about logical possibility, yes. I agree.

So, premise one tells us that in one possible world, God exists—and exists necessarily. But if he exists necessarily in that world, that means he exists in all possible worlds. But guess what—the actual world is one of the possible worlds. And that means God exists in the actual world. (The “actual world” is, just like any other p-world, a maximal consistent proposition: it happens to correctly describe every single detail in the universe. So the actual world is not the universe—it’s a complete and true description of it. But part of the description is “God exists,” and the description is true. So from knowing that God exists in the actual world, we can infer that God exists.)

But how do we absolutely know that He exists, using only philosophy and not revelation? :-) I don't think it is possible -- not by philosophy alone. I do think, however, that we can achieve practical certainty by virtue of other kinds of knowledge, including supernatural.

So if premise one is true, it is not possible that God not exist. That means the argument is valid. Is premise one true? Yes, I think so.


But now we come back to the point with which I opened this section: my criticism of your account of the OA. If someone is deeply committed to atheism, he might simply say that because he knows that God does not in fact exist, he can learn from the OA that God is not possible.

And I would immediately ask him (being the Socratic in method that I am), "how do you know that God does not in fact exist?" And in trying to prove that "knowledge" he would run into all kinds of absurdities and inadequate claims that make it very difficult for him to be dogmatic about his atheism, and to claim that it is more rational and plausible than theism.

Look, that’s a very simple argument to make. The OA proves that if God is possible, then he exists. But if one denies the conclusion: if one claims that God does not exist, then one has to conclude that God is not possible.

But they have to show us why they reject the conclusion in the first place, and how the logic of OA fails. They need to show us, particularly, why the premise is false. Methinks that would be quite difficult to do.

That might be what you “learn” from the OA, for you might approach it this way: “of course God is possible: who could hope to prove he’s impossible? I’m not saying anything about what could possibly be the case: I’m just saying that in fact God does not exist. In the actual world, there’s no such thing as God.” If that’s your approach, then your first encounter with the OA will force you to either (1) change your mind about God’s actual existence, or (2) change your mind about God’s existence being possible. If you pick (1), that’s great. You’ve learned something—something vitally important. If, however, you pick (2), them you’ve just given up a piece of knowledge. You’ve become dumber.

Yes, but not (i.e., #2) because of OA; because of illogical and non-coherent atheist reasoning.

But, to be fair, many people find the argument from evil pretty impressive. They might think that the argument from evil shows that God does not exist.

I think it is the strongest argument against Christianity, and have believed this for a long time also.

The argument from evil, incidentally, doesn’t show that God is impossible, for it relies on the premise that evil exists. But it is a merely contingent truth that evil exists: in a world without evil, you could not run the argument from evil. So a person in this position might endorse exactly the line of thought I mentioned last paragraph—and it wouldn’t exactly be unreasonable dogmatism. It would just reflect on the force of the argument from evil. At any rate, all of this is to say that there are indeed grounds available to the atheist to deny the sheer possibility of God’s existence.

Yes; I think they fail, but I agree that there are halfway-reasonable grounds, at least prima facie. I don't think all atheists think the way they do because they are terrible people, utterly illogical, or because they are consciously rebelling against God. I do think sin affects reasoning in profound ways, however, as a general rule of thumb.

This leads me to a brief discussion of another area where I think you make a mistake. You appear to conflate conceivability, imaginability and possibility, and I think this conflation leads you to some trouble.

Yes, because I was not being technically precise in my use of those terms. I trusted that my meaning would be more clear in context, but that doesn't cut it for trained minds, because they will always note the imprecision of terminology.

You write, for example, that theists should be willing to grant that a world without God is possible. But to grant this is to fall into disaster. If there is a p-world without God, then God is impossible: this is simply the reverse of the OA. Theists absolutely cannot grant that there are any p-worlds without God.

I disagree, because, again, I am almost always concentrating on actual worlds. There is a possible actual world, such that God (the necessary being) does not exist. That is conceivable by a theist without for a moment being accepted as true. One can argue this for the sake of argument, without adopting it, just like any other proposition. I don't think this is a disaster at all; it is simply how reasoning works.

If we disallow all contrary propositions as even possible or conceivable under all conceivable circumstances, it seems to me that we make it very difficult to engage in the reasoning process. And we in fact do the same thing we often accuse the atheists of: we conclude that a state of affairs is absolutely impossible. We can't blame them for concluding this about God and then turn around and refuse to allow any conceivable possibility of an atheist universe. So yes, a theist and a Christian, by definition, and in one obvious sense, cannot deny that God exists, but they can step out of their own views for a second and conceive of an atheist world. If not, then we cannot (it seems to me) fully conceive of an atheist's argument, and we should not expect them to conceive of ours. We would and should, then, simply stop talking with them, as it would be literally meaningless and incomprehensible.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to say that when atheists talk about a world without God, they are just making meaningless noises.

That's right. But that is a far lesser "methodological concession" than the above.

Let me reproduce a bit of your paper here, so that I can reply in a little detail:
(anti-A2) No such thing as God exists, and no such thing can possibly exist in any possible, imaginable, conceivable universe.

Now, if that is true, then why is the topic of God and theism so prominent in philosophy? If indeed theism were as silly and foolish as belief in fairy tales, leprechauns, unicorns, mermaids, centaurs, or other fanciful, absurd mythologies, why does the question continue to occupy great minds (both in favor of theism, and opposed to it?). One doesn't devote any time to sheer nonsense: Alice-in-Wonderland worlds or linguistic gibberish, such as:

$#%&^%&^%foolishness#$#@#&^&()*&_(^GH%^<><>FD786IVbunkUVR(&VB^$E)+=??"FT _-_-_-_-V*TOUV&^RCV%&)*---hooey----}}{}|||||||(&^$%#@!)(@j@u@n@k@+-+-!:-)x:;\

No one (with three brain cells) seriously considers as any possibility that the earth is flat, or that the moon is made of green cheese. If the notion of God is in that kind of immediately dismissible category, then it is quite strange that rational, thoughtful, intelligent people devote so much time and energy to it. Therefore, the rational person must (given all these considerations) grant the bare possibility of God in another possible world, and this is all that premise A of the argument requires.
But your concerns here do not follow from (anti-A2). The atheist can easily grant that there are imaginable universes that include God: that we can talk meaningfully about things divine. (Not every atheist is a positivist!) But imaginability does not entail possibility. We can tell ourselves all kinds of stories without thinking them possibly true. I could write a science fiction story in which the cosmology is that the universe sprang into existence all by itself. That’s not just nonsense on the order of the string of letters and symbols in the quotation from your paper. But it is, nevertheless, impossible. Indeed, anyone who wishes to endorse a cosmological argument in any form must claim that it is impossible. If it’s possible that the universe simply have sprung into existence out of nothing, or that it be self-caused, then the cosmological argument simply cannot be successful.

I was (I think it is clear in context) putting the stress on "conceivable" and "imaginable" and, as you noted earlier, confusing those notions with "possibility." I was dealing mainly with the sort of atheist I have often dealt with, who think of God and Christianity in just these terms: as the intellectual equivalents of Santa Claus or the moon made of green cheese. Granted, that is not dealing strictly with OA, but it is dealing with certain widespread predispositions and prejudices.

Here’s another example where impossibility doesn’t equal nonsense. “Goldbach’s Conjecture” (going by memory here—I might have this wrong) is that every even number is the sum of two primes. Now, this conjecture, if true, is necessarily true. And, if it is false, it is necessarily false. At present, the Conjecture remains a conjecture—it has neither been proved nor disproved. But mathematicians are, I believe, working on it. Let us pretend that the Conjecture is, in fact, false. So the claim that “every even number is the sum of two primes” is necessarily false. But it is not nonsense. It makes perfect sense. It’s just not true. Indeed, genuine nonsense, of the kind in your random string of letters and symbols above, does not even bear a truth value: it makes no claim at all, and can be neither true nor false. The very fact that an atheist will assign a truth value—“necessarily false”—to the claim that “God exists,” shows that the atheist denies that claim is sheer nonsense.

Okay, but many seem to almost approach that negative view.

Now, as I alluded to just above, there are positivists (or, at least, there were positivists) who would claim that “God exists” is sheer nonsense.

Well, then those are the types I have too often run across.

And they would be disgusted at the proliferation of internet discussion groups about God, since all such talk is entirely meaningless.

The ones I have met often say that and then proceed to talk about it: an irony I have always richly appreciated. :-)

But that positivist position is wildly implausible. (Not to mention self-defeating: the “verifiability criterion of meaning,” according to which sentences are meaningful only if they can be empirically verified, is not itself empirically verifiable, and, thus either false or nonsensical. But leave that aside.)

I totally agree.

But most contemporary atheists have, I think, moved past the phase of trying to say that God-talk is all just nonsense, and have come to the phase where they think it is just all false.

That's an improvement. A good sign!

But once you arrive at a point where the claim is simply that theism is necessarily false, then the philosophical discussion of theism begins to make sense. There are theists out there who contend, with astounding rigor of argumentation, that their position is indeed philosophically defensible. The cosmological and ontological arguments (among others) have been with us for a long time. In addition to this, more recent work in religious epistemology has gone far towards undermining the claim of atheists to have the “default” position, or the atheist contention that belief in God is simply unjustifiable by means other than argument, or what have you.

That's the truly exciting stuff. Some of what I have read of Alston is along those lines (I met him briefly, once).

So there is a longstanding tradition of careful theistic argumentation which atheists, when they bother to try to defend their position, have to take into account: they can see that theism is not in the same “immediately dismissible” category as the claim that the moon is made of green cheese, or that the earth is flat.

Good for them.

Further, though, people do take some pains to convince certain people that the earth is round: they take pains to teach children this fact. Children, of course, would make the obvious assumption that the earth is flat, if the question were put to them. They have to be taught to ignore the way things appear, and think instead of a much bigger picture. Similarly, we might take pains to instruct people in a remote tribe who assume themselves to be living on a flat surface. These folks, by accident of birth, have never been instructed in the truth about the earth’s shape, and we might see fit to try to teach them. The kind of people we wouldn’t try to teach would be educated Americans who know all the evidence, but construct bizarre conspiracy theories to try to explain that evidence away. However, atheists might see certain educated Americans who were raised in the backwards tribes of the Bible belt as just in need of instruction about the non-existence of God as they would see the folks raised in remote tribes are in need of instruction about the roundness of the earth. That is, they might pity their theistic upbringing, and try to bring some light to the benighted.


So even if the atheist thinks that belief in God is epistemically on par with belief in leprechauns, he might take some pains to help some poor idiot see that God does not exist—especially since believers in God, unlike believers in leprechauns—actually still exert considerable (and pernicious, from the perspective of many atheists) political pull in our culture.

Some few lower themselves to such a pitiable state in order to enlighten us "dark ages" types.

So in saying that God’s existence is impossible, the atheist does not commit himself to saying that the claim “God exists” is nonsense; nor does he commit himself to saying that believers in God are not to be bothered with at all. He might grant that believers have interesting (though, ultimately, not compelling) philosophical support for their view. Or, he might deny that, but nevertheless want to try to convince theists of the error of their ways either out of pity, or out of something like a politicized desire to keep down the number of theists.

I think this is good to understand. Thanks.

I think that having said what I’ve now said, I’ve come to the end of my comments on your discussion of the ontological argument. Initially, this paper was about twice as long, because it began with a long discussion about what counts as a “proof.” You seemed to agree with Plantinga’s view—I think that view is false. Perhaps at some point I will send along that bit, if you’re interested, and we can chat about it.

I hope we will continue this on the blog. One round is certainly not enough for such a rich, challenging subject. Plantinga contended only that OA makes theism as rational as atheism; he did not claim that it proved God's existence. This is very much my own position. If you are of the opinion that Plantinga thinks OA proved God's existence, to my knowledge that is not his claim. But chances are you know more about it than I do.

Thanks for the opportunity to write, and my best wishes for the success of your ministry.

Thank you! It was my great pleasure, indeed, to interact with you. I hope we continue, and best wishes for your philosophical studies. I am excited to see any solid Christian enter the philosophical field. The more the merrier . . .

Monday, June 21, 2004

Martin Luther Refutes Zwingli and Other Deniers of the Real Presence

From my book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Sophia Institute Press: 2004)

. . . [Martin Luther] believed in the Real Presence, although he denied transubstantiation and rejected the Sacrifice of the Mass. Luther (according to his nominalistic, anti-Scholastic leanings) didn’t want to speculate about metaphysics and how the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ. He simply believed in the miracles of the literal presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood “alongside” the bread and wine (consubstantiation). In this respect, his position was similar to the Eastern Orthodox one.

It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills. Before I would drink mere wine with the Enthusiasts, I would rather have pure blood with the Pope.

(Early 1520s; in Althaus, 376; LW, 37, 317)

The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our body.

(in Althaus, 398; LW, 37, 71 ff.)

Protestantism’s founders vary in their interpretation of this verse and in their Eucharistic theology. John Calvin’s “mystical” view of the Eucharist is complex and not quickly summarized or refuted. Ulrich Zwingli (the Protestant “Reformer” of Zurich) held to a symbolic view, on the other hand, which seems to have prevailed among many evangelical Protestants today. We shall concentrate on the exegetical and logical weakness of Zwingli’s arguments in this chapter. He wrote about this passage:

In the words: “This is my body,” the word “this” means the bread, and the word “body” the body which is put to death for us. Therefore the word “is” cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body and cannot be . . . “This is my body,” means, “The bread signifies my body,” or “is a figure of my body.”

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 225)

Yet Martin Luther refutes this line of thinking, using the very same scriptures:

[T]his word of Luke and Paul is clearer than sunlight and more overpowering than thunder. First, no one can deny that he speaks of the cup, since he says, “This is the cup.” Secondly, he calls it the cup of the new testament. This is overwhelming, for it could not be a new testament by means and on account of wine alone.

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 217)

In that same work, Luther makes a fascinating argument that a purely symbolic Eucharist turns the sacrament into a futile work of man rather than a grace and blessing from God:

He thinks one does not see that out of the word of Christ he makes a pure commandment and law which accomplishes nothing more than to tell and bid us to remember and acknowledge him. Furthermore, he makes this acknowledgment nothing else than a work that we do, while we receive nothing else than bread and wine.

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 206)

Martin Luther rebukes the symbolic view of the Eucharist, held by most evangelicals today:

[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, “This is my body” – distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language – we must embrace them with faith . . . not as hairsplitting sophistry dictates but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after him and hold to them.

(Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; in Althaus, 390)

[John 6]

Zwingli offers us an example of early Protestant “symbolist” reasoning:

There can be no doubt that only the spirit can give life to the soul. For how could the physical flesh either nourish or give life to the soul?

. . . with his own words Christ teaches us that everything which he says concerning the eating of flesh or bread has to be understood in terms of believing . . . . this passage tells us that the carnal eating of Christ’s flesh and blood profiteth nothing, and you have introduced such a carnal eating into the sacrament . . .

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 206-207, 210-211)

Martin Luther, however, expounded the text otherwise. Preaching on John 6, he stated:

All right! There we have it! This is clear, plain, and unconcealed: “I am speaking of My flesh and blood.”

. . . There we have the flat statement which cannot be interpreted in any other way than that there is no life, but death alone, apart from His flesh and blood if these are neglected or despised. How is it possible to distort this text? . . . You must note these words and this text with the utmost diligence . . . It can neither speciously be interpreted nor avoided and evaded.

(Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW, 23, 133-135)

Luther’s eucharistic theology was not identical to Catholic theology, but it was far closer than to the symbolic view. To reiterate: he thought that Jesus’ Body and Blood were present “alongside” the bread and wine (consubstantiation) after consecration. So Jesus was really there, but the bread and wine were there, too (whereas in Catholic theology, they cease to remain bread and wine after consecration).

1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

This verse again allows us to observe in a nutshell, traditional Protestant controversies in their own ranks. Catholics interpret it in a literal way, but Protestants differ amongst themselves. Zwingli special pleads in his interpretation of the passage:

[W]hen you offer thanks with the cup and the bread, eating and drinking together, you signify thereby that you are one body and one bread, namely, the body which is the Church of Christ, . . .

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 237)

But Martin Luther again ably refutes this specious interpretation, and offers us a unique insight into a Protestant exegete who had every motivation to disagree with the Catholic Church’s interpretation, but in the end was forced by the text to accept its straightforward meaning:

I confess that if Karlstadt, or anyone else, could have convinced me five years ago that only bread and wine were in the sacrament he would have done me a great service. At that time I suffered such severe conflicts and inner strife and torment that I would gladly have been delivered from them. I realized that at this point I could best resist the papacy . . . But I am a captive and cannot free myself. The text is too powerfully present, and will not allow itself to be torn from its meaning by mere verbiage.

(Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit, 1524; LW, 68)

For Luther, the passage is quite compelling:

Even if we had no other passage than this we could sufficiently strengthen all consciences and sufficiently overcome all adversaries . . .

. . . He could not have spoken more clearly and strongly . . .

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 177, 181)

Luther thinks the realist, concrete, non-symbolic nature of the verse is obvious, to the point where he seems to be aggravated (the three-time repetition of “it is”) that others can’t see what is so clear:

. . . The bread which is broken or distributed piece by piece is the participation in the body of Christ. It is, it is, it is, he says, the participation in the body of Christ. Wherein does the participation in the body of Christ consist? It cannot be anything else than that as each takes a part of the broken bread he takes therewith the body of Christ . . .

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 178)
1 Corinthians 11:27-30: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

Again, many Protestants today have lost the sacramental outlook of Martin Luther (and to a lesser extent, even of John Calvin). Baptist apologist James White provides a contemporary version of Zwinglian symbolism:

Participation in the Supper is meant to be a memorial (not a sacrifice) of the death of Christ, not the carefree and impious party it had become at Corinth.

(White, 175)

Martin Luther would have a great problem with such reasoning, and in refuting it, he closely approximates what a Catholic response would be. He argues that it is pointless for St. Paul to speak of “sin” here (“profaning” in the text) if Jesus “is not present in the eating of the bread” and that “the nature and character of the sentence requires” this “clear” interpretation. Luther sums up his exegetical argument:

It is not sound reasoning arbitrarily to associate the sin which St. Paul attributes to eating with remembrance of Christ, of which Paul does not speak. For he does not say, “Who unworthily holds the Lord in remembrance,” but “Who unworthily eats and drinks.”

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 183-184)

I prefer what is often called the “superstition” of Martin Luther, St. Augustine, and the Fathers of the Church, as it seems to be far and away the most natural reading of all these texts. Augustine wrote:

[I]t is the Body of the Lord and the Blood of the Lord even in those to whom the Apostle said: "whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself.”

(Baptism, 5, 8, 9; in Jurgens, III, 68)

The eucharistic “Catholic verses” are some of the most important in the entire Catholic exegetical and apologetic “arsenal.” It can be shown (and I think I have done so) that Protestants are trying to skirt around the edges of them, special plead, eisegete (reading their own prior biases into texts) and improperly denying the straightforward literal reading. This is odd, given the usual Protestant acknowledgment that Scripture is to be interpreted literally unless there are clear indications in the text otherwise.

These passages are so compelling that they played a crucial role in producing a near-unanimous patristic viewpoint of acceptance of the real presence in the Eucharist. Several major Protestant Church historians and experts on history of Christian doctrine note this (for example, Otto W. Heick, Williston Walker, Philip Schaff, Jaroslav Pelikan, Carl Volz). The historical facts cannot be denied. They are unarguable. As just one representative statement, I cite J.N.D. Kelly, perhaps the most-cited patristics scholar:

One could multiply texts like these which show Augustine taking for granted the traditional identification of the elements with the sacred body and blood. There can be no doubt that he shared the realism held by almost all of his contemporaries and predecessors.

(Kelly, 447)

Catholics need not be shy in defending transubstantiation or the real presence. The biblical evidence is very strong, and so is the history of the beliefs of the early Christians on this score. We have nothing to fear, and we can decisively win this battle of “competing eucharistic theologies” on the field of Scripture and history alike.


Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Bromiley, G.W., editor and translator, Zwingli and Bullinger, (The Library of Christian Classics series), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.

Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, three volumes, 1979.

Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, revised edition of 1978.

Luther, Martin, Luther's Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.

White, James R., The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996.