Thursday, September 06, 2007

The argument from prophecy

For some odd reason, the argument from prophecy has been advanced as sufficient proof for Scriptural inspiration (as opposed to mere confirmation of an existing, justified belief in inspiration). Given that is the case, I must have been inspired. I said "I'm sure I'll be called anti-Scripture and all that." Hays saith, "Prejean is too contemptuous of Scripture to acquaint himself with Scripture" and "I would add that Jason [Engwer] and I have had many rounds with Prejean in the past, so the substantiation for my charge is quite extensive." Bridges saith, "if that's true, then, yes, that makes him contemptous of Scripture, for he is using something other than Scripture for an interpretive grid and then imposing that on the text." Evidently, had I claimed that God told me that these things would happen, I would have proved my own inspiration.

Or we might simply point out that the argument from prophecy doesn't actually prove anything absent an explanation of why the prophecy is true, which assumes one's theory of divine revelation from the beginning. It doesn't provide a source of the belief or a ground of belief in knowledge; it simply provides confirmation of an existing belief. In the case of my accurate statement about the future, I had good reason grounded in my knowledge of human habit to think what I did (although I wasn't absolutely certain), and reality proceeded according to those expectations, confirming my previous knowledge and judgment. Likewise with prophecy: the reason it bolsters one's conviction in Scriptural authority is that one already has a reason to accept Scriptural authority.

The arguments for my supposed contempt for Scripture are no better supported than the arguments for Scriptural authority in the first place:

For example if Prejean is correct, then this has serious consequences for inerrancy. If he rejects inspiration on the notion that it involves God "coopting the will," then that's a problem - and by the way that's a problem for libertarian action theory as a whole, for, if God makes men "robots" if we don't have libertarian freedom, then men were "robots" when Scripture was inspired. If you reject nonlibertarian freedom on such grounds, then you ultimately will reject inerrancy.

Note the implicit (and gratuitous) assumption that if men are free, they will necessarily err. I believe that when natural operations are properly oriented to their supernatural end, there is no possibility of error, just as there is no possibility of sins for the saints in Heaven. That's not a matter of determination, in the sense of the natural faculty being overridden or used as an instrument, but a matter of correct natural function. That is the Catholic understanding of grace and freedom as well. The author preserves his full natural integrity in his action; he does what he does freely. God simply enables Him to this supernatural purpose, which the author freely performs. In that sense, both the human author and God are authors, but each in their respective order.

Prejean's grid for interpreting Scripture is natural theology - which version, we don't know, because he won't tell us - but if that's true, then, yes, that makes him contemptous of Scripture, for he is using something other than Scripture for an interpretive grid and then imposing that on the text.

The version that involves the law of non-contradiction (i.e., no thing is both in being and in non-being in the same respect at the same time). As I said, if that is a problematic position from which to interpret Scripture, then I find it hard to understand how any rational person can avoid being contemptuous of Scripture.

So, on that model, we can have faith in what God does, but not testimony about what He does. Since Scripture is that testimony, we can only conclude that he doesn't believe we can believe Scripture. Only the raw events, and not the record of the events, is an object of faith in his view.

For someone who criticizes people for jumping into the middle of a series, Bridges is not doing very well himself. I never said that we can't have faith in testimony about what God does. What I said is that testimony can't be the proximate object of faith. In other words, that can't be the starting point for your knowledge. Once you have faith in some proximate object, then you can believe other things based on the starting point, because your faith is grounded in certain knowledge. For example, if I know that God is omnibenevolent from natural theology, and I witness a certain sign that people are acting as God through faith, then I can draw certain conclusions about the veracity of revelation and the like. But unless you have a proximate object, your knowledge of inspiration, etc., is ungrounded. It's illogical to have faith in divine inspiration unless you have actually seen God do something in a way that provides information about inspiration. All knowledge is from experience or logical relation to experience.

And, yes, that is, ironically, precisely what you hear from theological liberals and the Neo-Orthodox - both of which have a low view of Scripture.

Indeed, and why? Because they reject natural theology, and they vest their entire faith in purely human action (witnessing, in Barth's case; even vaguer ideas for postliberals like Milbank). I consider Barth an excellent Protestant theologian, but his irrational hostility to natural theology prevents him from actually attaining what he seeks: Christ Himself as the object of faith. By contrast, I have an extremely high view of Scripture. Indeed, I think it has supernatural powers of divine operation to those with faith well beyond the reach of its human authors, which is why I consider it to be pregnant with meaning that the GHM simply disregards. In my view, Scripture is not even its own limiting principle, but only what meaning can be realized in Scripture by the faith of the Church.

But I don't START with the authority of Scripture, which is logically and ontologically absurd. Rather, I must have certain knowledge of Scripture's authority from some other basis before I can make an argument from Scripture. That's why I am disinclined to make Scriptural arguments to people who are making pure arguments from authority from Scripture. Given that you don't have a rational basis for faith in Scripture in the first place, it would simply be exploiting a mistake. Moreover, most of the exegetical errors result from depending on bad metaphysics anyway, but those are unlikely to be uncovered absent a critical metaphysical evaluation (which is what Perry Robinson keeps trying to get y'all to do).

Ultimately, what I have never seen is a Protestant justification of Scriptural authority from certain knowledge of first principles. Those sorts of proofs abound among the Scholastics and the Fathers, but they are entirely lacking in the viciously circular arguments of anti-Catholics. It's an extremely simple task: state a coherent basis for certainly knowing that the Scripture is the Word of God based on some ontologically valid theory of knowledge. Is that so hard?


At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just don't know...

You wrote:
"State a coherent basis for certainly knowing that the Scripture is the Word of God based on some ontologically valid theory of knowledge. Is that so hard?"

Um... Yes?

Seriously, I am not sure how I would even begin to answer this if I were a magisterial Protestant (philosophically), much less a Reformed presuppositionalist, as it seems RPism seems not to deal with these types of ideas much... relegating them to the thoughts of atheists (who have no basis for anything and borrow everything). So their approach with what you write here seems to always boil down to you are asking something only an atheist should be asking... and you are then relegated to irrelevance as if you have been shown to be a fool.

I don't buy that.

I try to be sympathetic, but I simply cannot see how someone coming from a RPist perspective could honestly deal with what you are saying here.

Whatever answer that could be mustered would almost HAVE to be self-referentially incoherent exegetically and just plain presupposed without proper the proper justification you are asking for philosophically.

Still trying to be sympathetic, but...


At 11:32 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

So their approach with what you write here seems to always boil down to you are asking something only an atheist should be asking... and you are then relegated to irrelevance as if you have been shown to be a fool.

Certainly. And my point is that their entire presuppositional approach is going to be viewed as idiocy by most Catholic Thomists (or Scotists or Suarezians or maybe even Ockhamists), so they're basically conceding that they can't mount an argument against anyone trained in Catholic philosophy. That suffices for me: if they can't construct such an argument, then no reasonable Catholic should believe them.

Likewise, if their view by definition can't provide a philosophical justification, that's not my problem. It simply shows that rational people are going to dismiss their claims as fideistic. The Thomist view is highly critical of what claims can and can't be called rational and the fact that someone makes a gratuitous claim of rational basis doesn't actually demonstrate one.

I'm just trying to point out what they would have to do to even have a hope of answering the Catholic position. They haven't done it.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger David Waltz said...

Hi Jonathan,

Some great posts the last few days! Just a few minutes ago, I ordered a book that caught my eye, and I am wondering if you have read it:

Now,. a couple of quick questions: while reading through your posts, your primary criticisms seem to be directed at Reformed presuppositional apologetics/epistemology, as such, I am asking myself if many (any) of these same criticisms could be leveled against the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga?

My next question is: do you think Plantinga’s epistemology is consistent with a full-blown version of the Reformed faith (as opposed to a ‘diet-Coke’/pick-and-choose form)?

Grace and peace,


At 1:45 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Personally, I think they could be deployed against Reformed epistemology itself, because I think they go right to the heart of what counts as a "properly basic belief." If a properly basic belief is restricted solely to the kind of belief grounded in certain knowledge that can be accepted as true even before it is entirely analyzed, then the belief that God is speaking interiorly to you would not qualify as a properly basic belief, because there is no external object of knowledge. If that's the case, then the PBB standard fails even as a rational defense against the charge of fideism. Indeed, I think the argument can be rightly deployed against any belief relying on the "witness of the Holy Spirit" or sensus divinatis in the Calvinist sense, meaning that it probably works as against any form of Reformed belief relying on these sorts of justifications.

The book you cited is one that I understand to make a case against the Reformed epistemology denial of natural theology, which more or less turns on the same dubious theory of knowledge (a properly basic belief "from nowhere," so to speak, and ungrounded in natural reason). I haven't read it, but I have read about the Catholic response to the Reformed epistemology critique of natural theology, and my opinion was that Catholics got the better of it. I'll be happy to read your report on the book to see if it coincides with my impression.

With those two (presuppositionalism and Reformed epistemology) out of the way, it seems obvious to me that any evidential appeal to justify the authority of Scripture is doomed to failure from the get-go. First, it automatically licenses agnosticism, because it is always reasonable to withhold judgment on any merely probable belief absent actual knowledge. One has to admit that, while it may be reasonable to have one's belief, it is just as reasonable to judge that one doesn't know enough to be certain. Second, the reliability of methods ultimately has to be justified from first principles and experience as well. What comes out of that is that one has no certain basis on which to judge claims in which one has no relevant experience, so one has no basis to make judgments on matters like resurrection of the dead or divine authorship so as to provide a rational justification for belief. We can judge mundane claims of human authorship probably, because we know human authorship quite directly, but our judgments of conformity to reality have no basis in things that we do not ourselves know. Consequently, it would be irrational (and fideistic) to make a claim of certainty in such an area, not to mention immoral as a matter of natural theology to give God's due to what one does not know to be God on the basis of mere opinion.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

It probably shouldn't be overlooked that for Evangelicals the argument from prophecy is one of a class of evidentialist arguments that have been concocted within an Enlightenment framework, using Enlightenment standards, for purposes of answering Enlightenment attacks upon Christianity.

The problem is not in trying to answer Enlightenment attacks, but in accepting Enlightenment standards of evaluation in the first place and trying to construct counterarguments about "facts" on the basis of ontological and epistemological assumptions that are corrosive to faith. (E.g., treating inspired Scripture just like any other piece of literature, supposedly because "objective" inquiry then reveals its inspired status). That problem, using the Enlightenment to try to beat the Enlightenment, is something that Reformed Epistemology--whatever you think its flaws are--is trying to get around.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

We can judge mundane claims of human authorship probably, because we know human authorship quite directly,

It's funny you said this. Hemingway was used as an example of how I could be reasonably sure of a books author compared with how I could be reasonably sure of the bibles author. Insinuating that we don't need tradition, because an appeal to trdition is circular.

I hope I summed that up right.


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