Friday, July 09, 2004

Early Protestant Hostility Towards Science (Revised and Expanded)

By Dave Armstrong (7-9-04)

[I have incorporated some remarks I originally made in the comments, and removed a supposed remark by Calvin which could not be verified.]

Accustomed as we are to hearing about the Catholic Church and Galileo, it isn't often realized or recognized that classical "Reformational" Protestantism, generally speaking, was out and out hostile to the burgeoning scientific discoveries and endeavors of its time. No thoughtful and honest Catholic denies that the Catholic Church, too, had a less than perfect record of positive regard for modern science in its infancy in the 16th and 17th centuries (most notably with the Galileo case - which Pope John Paul II has recently acknowledged). The point of this essay, however, is to show that Protestantism has often, if not always, been guilty of the same shortcomings for which the Catholic Church is constantly harangued. In other words, one should not notice the speck in another's eye while neglecting the "log" in one's own eye! It's high time to balance the "historical scales" a bit on this topic. With that intention, and no malice, the following historical information is offered for reflection:

Will Durant, the noted (non-Catholic) historian, summarized: "Luther rejected the Copernican astronomy . . . Calvin had little use for science; Knox none." (1)

Luther vs. Copernicus

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), a devout Catholic (one of his degrees was in Church canon law), originated the heliocentric theory in astronomy, in which the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. This new theory in particular provides fascinating insight into Protestantism's view of science, since it arrived roughly simultaneously with the Protestant Revolution. Thomas Kuhn, in his important book, The Copernican Revolution, notes Luther's reaction to Copernicus:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us (Joshua 10:13) that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.(2)

Luther's Cohort Philip Melanchthon Rejects Copernicus, Accepts Astrology

Some think it a distinguished achievement to construct such a crazy thing as that Prussian astronomer who moves the earth and fixes the sun. Verily, wise rulers should tame the unrestraint of men's minds. (3)

Certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves . . . Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it . . . The earth can be nowhere if not in the centre of the universe. (4)

Meanwhile, Melanchthon (considered the father of German liberal arts education and one of the more "humanist" and rational-minded Reformers) thought superstition and astrology more worthwhile:

One of the most curious features of Melanchthon's character . . . was his morbid tendency to superstition. For example, at the time of the Diet of Augsburg he wrote that several prodigious portents seemed to favour the success of Lutheranism: the bursting of the Tiber's banks, the prolonged labour of a mule, the birth of a two-headed calf were all signs which suggested Rome's ruin. By contrast, when his daughter fell ill, Melanchthon was filled with terror by the unfavourable aspect of Mars. He never did anything without consulting astrologers. (5)

Melanchthon changed the date of Luther's birth to give him a more propitious horoscope, and begged him not to travel under a new moon. (6)

Calvin's Hostility to Copernicus and Science

There is not a single indication that the reformer was at all interested in the scientific discoveries . . . for example, the findings of Copernicus in 1530 . . . of which Calvin was still ignorant in 1560. (7)

Calvin's Academy of Geneva, which he founded in 1559, provided:

. . . a most thorough education . . . but not the natural sciences, "diabolica scientia," whose study Calvin regarded with fear as "imprudent curiosity and rashness." (8)

Calvin answered Copernicus with a line from Psalm 93:1: "The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved." (9)

Examples of Catholic Acceptance & Protestant Dismissal, of Science

Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon led in citing Scripture against Copernicus and in urging the repression of Copernicans . . . Protestants . . . provided the first effective institutionalized opposition . . . For sixty years after Copernicus' death there was little Catholic counterpart for the Protestant opposition to Copernicanism . . . The Church itself was silent . . . Copernicus himself had been a cleric and a reputable one . . . His book was dedicated to the Pope (10), and among the friends who urged him to publish it were a Catholic bishop and a Cardinal. During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the Church had not imposed cosmological conformity on its members . . .

Before the De Revolutionibus the Church had spawned even more revolutionary cosmological concepts without theological convulsions. In the fifteenth century the eminent cardinal and papal legate Nicholas of Cusa had propounded a radical Neoplatonic cosmology . . . Though he portrayed the earth as a moving star, like the sun and the other stars, and though his works were widely read and had great influence, he was not condemned or even criticized by his Church. (11)

A young Lutheran scholar, Rheticus, left his chair of mathematics at Wittenberg . . . to work with Copernicus . . . A summary of Copernicus' findings was released and it met with tremendous hostility from Protestant theologians; there was no such general hostility from Catholics. Rheticus was barred from returning to his post at Wittenberg. At the insistence of Clement VII (12), the material was expanded into the great work of Copernicus' career, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres . . . . Copernicus' work on the heliocentric theory would not have been completed had not Churchmen urged him on. (13)

Johann Kepler (1571-1630), a German Protestant astronomer, was, in 1607, prevented from printing an article on comets by the Saxon theologians (14). Perhaps this type of antipathy to science was one reason why Kepler, two years earlier, "praised 'the wisdom and prudence of the Roman Church' for its public encouragement of scientific research." (15)

The Encyclopedia Britannnica reiterates the above:

Lectures on the principles [of the Heliocentric theory] . . . were given [by Copernicus] in Rome in 1533 before Pope Clement VII, who approved, and a formal request to publish was made to Copernicus in 1536 . . . His pupil and disciple Georg Joachim Rhaticus . . . was permitted [in 1540] to take the completed manuscript to Nurnberg, Germany, for printing. Because of opposition from Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other reformers, Rhaticus left Nurnberg and went to Leipzig . . . (16)

Andrew D. White, in a massively-researched two-volume work on the relationship of science and Christianity (17), makes several shocking observations with regard to the outlook of Protestantism in this respect:

Eminent authorities . . . like Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Vincent of Beauvais, felt obliged to accept the doctrine of the earth's sphericity, and as we approach the modern period we find its truth acknowledged by the vast majority of thinking men. The Reformation did not at first yield fully to this better theory . . . Even Zwingli . . . held to the opinion . . . that a great firmament, or floor, separated the heavens from the earth; that above it were the waters and angels, and below it the earth and man . . .

[the author also states that Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon rejected the sphericity of the earth]

All branches of the Protestant Church - Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican - vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture; and, at a later period, the Puritans showed the same tendency . . . Turretin, Calvin's famous successor, even after Kepler and Newton had virtually completed the theory of Copernicus and Galileo, put forth his compendium of theology, in which he proved, from a multitude of scriptural texts, that the heavens, sun, and moon move about the earth, which stands still in the centre. In England we see similar theological efforts, even after they had become evidently futile . . . Dr. John Owen [1616-83], so famous in the annals of Puritanism, declared the Copernican system a "delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture"; and even John Wesley [who also - like Melanchthon - indulged in superstition] declared the new ideas to "tend toward infidelity" . . . The people of Nuremburg, a Protestant stronghold, caused a medal to be struck with inscriptions ridiculing the philosopher with his theory . . .

John Owen declared that Newton's discoveries were "built on fallible phenomena and advanced by many arbitrary presumptions against evident testimonies of Scripture" . . . John Wesley . . . while giving up the Ptolemaic theory and accepting in a general way the Copernican, . . . suspect[ed] the demonstrations of Newton . . . In Germany even Leibnitz [Lutheran philosopher, 1646-1716] attacked the Newtonian theory of gravitation on theological grounds . . . In Germany, especially in the Protestant part of it, the war was even more bitter, and it lasted through the first half of the eighteenth century. Eminent Lutheran doctors of divinity flooded the country with treatises to prove that the Copernican theory could not be reconciled with Scripture. In the theological seminaries and in many of the universities where clerical influence was strong they seemed to sweep all before them . . .

Luther . . . in one of his Advent sermons . . . said, "The heathen write that the comet may arise from natural causes, but God creates not one that does not foretoken a sure calamity." Again he said, "Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God's wrath." And sometimes, . . . he declared them works of the devil, and declaimed against them as "harlot stars." Melanchthon, too, in various letters refers to comets as heralds of Heaven's wrath, classing them, with evil conjunctions of the planets and abortive births, amongst the "signs" referred to in Scripture. Zwingli, boldest of the greater Reformers in shaking off traditional beliefs, could not shake off this, and insisted that the comet of 1531 betokened calamity . . .

In 1873 was published in St. Louis, at the publishing house of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri, a work entitled Astronomische Unterredung, the author being well known as a late president of a Lutheran Teachers' Seminary. No attack on the whole system of astronomy could be more bitter . . .: "The entire Holy Scripture settles the question that the earth is the principal body of the universe, that it stands fixed" . . . The author then goes on to show from Scripture the folly, not only of Copernicus and Newton, but of a long line of great astronomers in more recent times . . .

Nothing is more unjust than to cast especial blame for all this resistance to science upon the Roman Church. The Protestant Church . . . has been more blameworthy . . . The direct influence of the Reformation was at first unfavourable to scientific progress . . . There is much reason to believe that the fetters upon scientific thought were closer under the strict interpretation of Scripture by the early Protestants than they had been under the older Church.

Non-Catholics Whitehead and Harnack Praise Catholic Scientific Thought

Professor Whitehead . . . insists that the Middle Ages "formed one long training of the intellect of Europe in the sense of order." It was the medieval theologians, he tells us, who were responsible for "the faith in the possibility of science." . . . Harnack (18), the Liberal Protestant, was no friend of Catholicism, and yet Harnack writes:

Scholasticism is simply nothing else but scientific thought . . . The science of the Middle Ages gives practical proof of eagerness in thinking and exhibits an energy in subjecting all that is real and valuable to thought to which we can perhaps find no parallel in any other age. (19)

Additional Material

Steve Jackson, a Lutheran (LCMS) wrote:

I don't think most experts consider Will Durant to be a particularly serious historian & many have questioned his use of sources. Also, A.D. White was anti-Christian and his book was used by, among others, [Bertrand] Russell in his inaccurate history of philosophy . . . Here is a more balanced discussion of the Luther, Calvin & Copernicus issue.

Interesting article. Thanks, Steve. Here is a portion:

. . . 1971, when a French scholar noticed that in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, Calvin denounced those "who will say that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that shifts and turns." Here, however, Calvin neither mentioned Copernicus by name, nor did he invoke any Scripture against heliocentrism itself.

I see; so Calvin denounces heliocentrism and the rotation and movement of the earth and speaks out of ignorance, but he gets off the hook to some extent, according to this guy and Christianity Today, because he didn't use Scripture to support his ignorance and failed to mention Copernicus.

But the latter might be explained by Copernican scholar Edward Rosen, who — so the article informs us —, "concluded that Calvin had never heard of Copernicus, let alone critiqued him."

This is highly impressive, too. Calvin had never heard of Copernicus? Doesn't that establish almost beyond doubt that he had a less-than-adequate knowledge of science (and might correctly be deemed to be opposed to science?)? Yet he deigns (in his usual self-appointed dogmatism) to denounce those who do . . . I find all this highly instructive and more evidence of my overall thesis, so I heartily thank Steve for the additional information.

One must see Calvin's wider remarks about heliocentrists, to get the full effect (the CT article conveniently clipped out much of this). Calvin maintained that those who assert that "the earth moves and turns" . . . [are] motivated by "a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;" possessed by the devil, they aimed "to pervert the order of nature."

(See: Sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians, 677, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma; Oxford Univ. Press, 1988; A. 72)

Fortunately, this major (Protestant) biography of Calvin didn't try to hide (or inadvertently overlook) any of these highly embarrassing facts. Calvin, typically, cannot stop with mere disagreement; he has to pontificate on the motivations of such wicked people (heliocentrists) and imply that the devil is behind all such idle speculation. Of course, it is not unusual at all for the "Reformers" to dogmatize about that which they know little or nothing about.

In his Dedicatory to his commentary on Genesis, Calvin writes:

We indeed are not ignorant, that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the center.

The translator's footnote 30 for this passage informs us:

The erroneous system of natural philosophy which had prevailed for ages was but just giving way to sounder views, at the time when Calvin wrote. Copernicus, in the close of the preceding century, had begun to suspect the current opinions on the subject; but the fear of being misunderstood and ridiculed caused him to withhold for some time the discoveries he was making; and it was not till 1543, a few hours before his death, that he himself saw a copy of his own published work. Up to that period, the earth had been regarded as the center of the system, and the whole heavens were supposed to revolve around it.

Calvin wrote his commentary here in 1554.

In his commentary on Genesis 8:22, he states:

. . . Peter speaks of the old world as having perished in the deluge, [2 Peter 3:6.] Moreover, the deluge had been an interruption of the order of nature. For the revolutions of the sun and moon had ceased . . .

Calvin is even more explicit elsewhere:

The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion — no disturbance in the harmony of their motion. The sun, though varying its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in all their wandering, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God's hand? By what means could it [i.e., the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it? Accordingly the particle, aph, denoting emphasis, is introduced — YEA, he hath established it.

(Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 93, verse 1, translated by James Anderson; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949, Vol. 4, p. 7)

The case of Martin Luther is (also as usual) more fun and humorous than that of Calvin. In the Internet article, "Luther and Science," by Donald H. Kobe, a professor of physics (See: http://www.phys.u…), the author utilizing astonishing obscurantism, in trying to minimize the embarrassment by Luther's remarks about Copernicus and astronomy. First he provides background to one of the notorious Luther statements:

The famous (or infamous) remark of Luther was made in 1539. In the spring of that year, Georg Joachim Rheticus, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wittenberg, was granted a leave to visit Nicolaus Copernicus in Frauenberg, Poland to learn more about his new theory that the earth and planets revolve about the sun. At that time not very much was known about the new theory, except from hearsay. The purpose of Rheticus’s trip must have prompted discussion among the faculty and students of Wittenberg, especially in Luther's home.

Anthony Lauterbach, who dined with the Luthers, quotes the conversation pertaining to Copernicus as follows:

There was mention of a certain astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. [Luther remarked] "So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth [Jos. 10:12]."

To put this remark in perspective, it was made four years before the publication of Copernicus's book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Thus, if Luther is to be excused because of the earliness of the date of his silly remark, what of Calvin, who spoke his nonsense in 1554, eleven years after the publication of Copernicus' work?

Kobe then attempts to minimize Luther's name-calling:

Even if Luther had called Copernicus, who was not mentioned by name, a fool, that would have been a rather mild epithet coming from Luther.

One can only smile at that! He also contradicts himself, giving two disparate accounts of how Luther views on astrology relative to astronomy. First:

Luther accepted astronomy as a science, but rejected astrology as a superstition because it cannot be confirmed by demonstration. Astrology, according to Luther, is idolatry and violates the first commandment. He was both amused and distressed by Melanchthon's interest in astrology, a belief system that was widely accepted at the time.

But then in his interpretation of the Luther utterance above, he writes:

The use of the word "astrologer" in the introductory remarks should not necessarily be interpreted as disparaging, since at that time the terms "astrologer" and "astronomer" were often used more or less synonymously.

So Luther thinks astrology is idolatry, superstition, and a violation of the first commandment, yet when he applies it to heliocentrists (particularly, by strong implication, Copernicus), it is likely merely a synonym for astronomy. I submit that this is an incoherent and implausible explanation.

This is classic Protestant polemical sophistry (I dealt with a lot of that in the area of biblical commentary and exegesis, in my latest book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants, to be released later this month by Sophia Institute Press). Protestants too often do the same with regard to unfortunate events in their own history. But despite the obfuscation and spin present, the author commendably admits outright:

Luther saw that Copernicus's view was indeed a revolutionary one. He could not accept it because it was contrary to his common sense and his interpretation of the Bible.

Philip Melanchthon, Luther's associate and successor, was equally hostile to Copernicus:

It is true that in the first edition of his Elements of Physics published in 1549, Melanchthon wrote [43]

But some dare say, either because of the love of novelties or in order to appear ingenious, that the earth moves, and contend that neither the eighth sphere nor the sun moves while they assign other movement to the celestial spheres and place the earth among the stars. The joke is not new. There is a book by Archimedes … in which he reports that Aristarchus of Samos defended this paradox, that the sun remains fixed and the earth turns around the sun. And although clever workers investigate many questions to give expression to their ingenuity, the young should know it is not decent to defend such absurd opinions publicly, nor is it honest or a good example.

This passage was most likely first written in 1545. After the publication of his book, Melanchthon had ameliorated his views on Copernicus. Thus in the 1550 edition, he omitted such phrases as "the love of novelties" and "the joke is not new," and showed a more favorable attitude towards heliocentrism as a mathematical hypothesis [44].

Notes for Kobe article:

43] Quoted by Moran, loc. cit.[Bruce T. Moran, "The Universe of Philip Melanchthon: Criticism and Use of the Copernican Theory," Comitatus 4 (1973): 1-23], pp. 13-14.
[44] Moran, loc. cit., p. 14.

So Melanchthon must be understood and we must have compassion on his fathomless imbecility on this issue because, well, he removed his gratuitous phrases of "love of novelties" and "joke" in later editions. This coming from a man enthralled with astrology!: something even Luther could readily see the folly and wickedness of; and from one considered one of the more enlightened and humanistic of the "Reformers."


1. Durant, Will, The Reformation, (vol.6 of 10-vol. The Story of Civilization, 1967), New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, 849.
2. Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution, New York: Vintage Books, 1959, l91 / Luther quote from Table Talk (ed. William Hazlitt, London, 1884), 69 (June 4, 1539).
3. In Kesten, Hermann, Copernicus and His World, New York: 1945, 309 / Letter of October 16, 1541. From Durant, ibid., 859.
4. Kuhn, ibid., l91 / Melanchthon quote from Initia Doctrinae Physicae, (Elements of Physics), 1549.
5. Daniel-Rops, Henri, The Protestant Reformation, vol. 2, tr. Audrey Butler, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961, 315.
6. Durant, ibid., 851.
7. Daniel-Rops, ibid., 163.
8. Ibid., 199.
9. Durant, ibid., 858.
10. Pope Paul III (1534-49), who urged him to publish his new findings, and accepted the dedication.
11. Kuhn, ibid., l96-197.
12. Pope Clement VII reigned from 1523 to 1534.
13. Wheeler, Mark, "Nicolaus Copernicus," This Rock, January, 1991, 20-21.
14. Janssen, Johannes, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 vols., tr. A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 (orig. 1891), vol. 14, 506-507.
15. Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, New York: All Saints Press, rev. ed., 1962, 223.
16. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985 ed., vol. 16, 815.
17. White, Andrew D., A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology, New York: George Brazilier, 1955 (orig. 1895), vol. I: 97, 126-128, 148-149, 155, 182, 150-151, 168, 212.
18. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a philosopher and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) a theologian and Church historian.
19. Lunn, Arnold, Now I See, London: Sheed & Ward, 1944, 127.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Response to an Orthodox Critic Concerning My Supposed Ignorance of Orthodoxy and Illegitimate Apologetic Methodology

By Dave Armstrong (7-7-04)

[Orthodox] Perry Robinson's words will be in blue; the words of Christopher Jones (a former Orthodox who is now a Lutheran) will be in red.

Note: I had to slightly modify some remarks since both Perry and I thought Christopher was Orthodox at first.

* * * * *

Hi Perry,

Note that I apologized for the word “fudge.” There is such a thing as graciously accepting an apology. Secondly, you interpreted that as me calling you a liar, but that was neither my intention nor the necessary definition of the term. In my dictionary, the first definition is “empty, foolish talk; nonsense.” Another given is “to make or put together dishonestly or carelessly; fake.” Even part of that one is not necessarily an accusation of dishonesty or “lying.” A third definition given is “to refuse to commit oneself or give a direct answer; hedge.” This was what I had in mind. You can either believe that or not, but it was my intention. And I have apologized for it (not that I think much of the comment you made which brought out my observation).

I noted that the way you seem to treat Orthodox theology and Orthodox people speaks of something else other than admiration.

I carefully noted what it is I dislike. If that is not enough for you, I can’t do anything else. Your attitude towards Catholicism is far more hostile than mine “against” Orthodoxy (as I will demonstrate below with your own words), so this is a bit silly coming from you.

Sure you may be sincere, but just not consistent.

Good. Likewise with you.

My point was that you had encountered popular views expressed by Orthodox but it doesn’t follow that those views are Orthodox views.

Of course not. But on the other hand, if a certain attitude is widespread (at least on the Internet, which – granted – does not represent the whole at all), then at some point it seems to me that one is entitled to draw some causal inferences from that. Many Calvinists, e.g., are anti-Catholic, whereas the majority of Protestants are not. So it is fair to ask why this is; to delve into Calvinist thought, theology, and history to determine why the anti-Catholic motif has become so prominent. Likewise with Orthodox. And indeed we find that many converts to Orthodoxy from anti-Catholic Protestantism bring this prejudice right along with them.

Hence you are wrong to impute them to Orthodoxy.

In the sense I have just described above, it is perfectly proper, I think, but I agree that generalization is always a tricky business.

Just like someone going off of what the nonsense that most Catholics spew.

We all have our liberals, don’t we (and our “traditionalists")? I oppose both poles, and am interested in orthodoxy within each tradition, not distortions of and dissent from same.

I generally have a good grasp of Roman theology and most Catholics I know, though there are plenty who do, wouldn’t know it if it bit them in the rear.

I agree. Don’t you think I am well aware of that, as a Catholic apologist?

If its not legit for prots to generalize about Catholics from hearsay, why is it legit for you to do so about Orthodox?

It isn’t; I agree, but I vigorously deny that this is what I have been doing. More on this below, as I reply to Christopher.

I didn’t accuse you of ethno-racism. I noted that that is what you had come into contact with and that if you spent some time and effort you would see that there is a lot more to Orthodoxy than that nonsense.

Fair enough. Thank you. I’m still looking. To be fair to the Orthodox, I should state that I am disgusted with the state of Internet discussion generally-speaking. I tried for some seven years looking for a decent forum and finally gave up. I have become just as disgusted with Catholic forums (both the liberals and “traditionalists") as with Protestant ones, or the Orthodox correspondents I have met. So I think a lot of it has to do with the medium itself. I have found, to my delight, that the blog community offers a substantially higher level of discourse and thought (this very blog is a prime example).

That said, I still have had plenty of negative encounters with Orthodox. I could name several who are not ignoramuses: they are quite well-educated and versed in Orthodoxy and Orthodox folks here would likely recognize their names. But I won’t do that because it would only cause more controversy. In any event, it is not the case that I have talked to ignorant fringe wackos and draw my conclusions from that. Unless those who are in ROCOR are placed in that undesirable category.

Now onto Christoper Jones’ remarks:

It’s not “defensive” to respond to an ad-hominem attack.

I deny that it was. As far as I am concerned, I was sticking to the ideas that Perry expressed. But I could see how it might be considered borderline.

To be “defensive” is to respond as if one had been attacked when there has been no attack; to defend oneself from actual attack is not defensive.

Again, one has to look at my actual argument. I would characterize it as an intellectual disdain, not a personal one.

Your original attack on Perry - not just the word “fudge,” but the whole thing, with its elaborate and eloquent attribution of views which Perry did not express, and its guilt-by-association with all the other Orthodox on the internet with whom you have disagreed “a million times before” - was inexcusable. And you continue to write as if the issue were the attitude, rather than the ideas, of the Orthodox.

I don’t think the prevalence of such attitudes can be quite so easily dismissed. Several commenters here (including Pontificator in his initial post, which cited an Orthodox person) have noted the same general tendency of anti-westernism among the Orthodox. There is something to this. I may have expressed myself in a dumb and/or offensive way. That is my own fault and responsibility. But it doesn’t follow from that, that the general problem here noted by several does not exist.

I recommend that you participate in these discussions when you are prepared to engage the ideas of Orthodoxy with respect, when you have read and understood some of the works of serious Orthodox theologians like Lossky, Ware, Farrell, Meyendorff, Zizioulas, and Khomiakhov.

Okay; now here is where you speak out of ignorance, because you don’t know what I have read or studied, or who I have talked to in my now eight years of almost-constant Internet dialogue. Perry asked the same thing on my blog. I answered, but it wasn’t good enough for him. Perhaps it is for you. Here is that exchange:
Since you are writing a book on Orthodoxy, what works from Orthodox writers have you consulted or plan to consult?

The book will be like most of mine: strictly laymen’s apologetics: trying to help people work through the issues of comparing and contrasting the two communions. In this case, it will often be based on many many dialogues I had with Orthodox. As for citing folks, I used Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Church, a lot; also I have read and/or cited / compiled information from books such as, e.g.:

Peter E. Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox
Stanley S. Harakas, The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers
Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy
John Meyendorff, editor, The Primacy of Peter

I also utilize material from Fr. Seraphim Rose (several books in my library, and Frank Schaeffer’s The Christian Activist magazine.

I have heard Fr. Thomas Hopko, Franky Schaeffer, and Fr. Gillquist speak, and have had an Orthodox priest in my house for one of my ecumenical discussion groups. I also cite many Eastern fathers.
Now, you see that I read and utilize at least two of the books by people you recommended: Ware and Meyendorff.
Well I don’t take those works to be much use, except for Meyendorff and Schmemman’s and those are of somewhat limited value.
So Perry thinks Kallistos Ware is not “much use” and Meyendorff and Schmemann “somewhat limited.” Thus even you and he (in criticizing my knowledge of Orthodoxy) cannot agree as to what sources I should read in my studies. You call them “serious Orthodox theologians” but Perry thinks they are of little use and he described these elsewhere as merely “popular” works. So how can I decide even who to read in order to get a good grasp of Orthodoxy? And of course, this has long been a frustration in my dealings with Orthodox themselves.

Daniel Jones then asked Perry: “When do you believe Rome lost her orders, and for what doctrinal basis did she lose them?” Perry replied: “Basically false doctrine and cutting herself off from the Church.”

Gee whiz. That really sounds like Perry admires Catholicism more than I admire Orthodoxy, doesn’t it? I would never in a million years say such a thing about the Orthodox. Perry continued, having rejected my list of books about Orthodoxy:
I think the approach you are taking is as reliable as taking what your average Catholic thinks of Catholicism as representative of Catholicism. Hardly profitable or representative of Catholicism. This is why it is better to consult standard works, representative texts and authoritative declarations. To the extent that you rely on the God-knows-what opinions and views expressed by God-knows-who and on God-knows-what basis on the Internet the book strikes me as worthless to furthering dialog or actually engaging Orthodoxy. You won’t be engaging Orthodoxy.

If you take your book to be a corrective of false views that certain Orthodox people popularly express, the best way to do that is to get at what Orthodoxy actually teaches and not looking at what is popularly expressed by whatever loud mouth happens to cross your path.
Again, now we are back to determining what one should read to understand Orthodoxy. Christopher Jones (though a former Orthodox, so his opinion may not count for much in their eyes) likes Ware and Meyendorff. Perry Robinson does not. Now how does an outsider Catholic like myself choose between the two, and on what basis? But whatever Perry thinks of these various Orthodox (or reputed Orthodox) writers, it is not the case that my information and opinion on Orthodoxy is based solely on dealing with loose cannons on the Internet who know little about that which they speak.

Both of you are dead wrong about that, and quite presumptuous to make these charges when you clearly do not know what you are talking about in my case.

Later Perry condescended:
It might help to first figure out what other people actually believe before constructing arguments against their positions. I suppose though just limiting yourself to popular works will lend itself to those kinds of mistakes.
And so on and so forth . . .

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.

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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 . . .