Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Theologians and Philosophical Thought

I have read previously of Christian theologians who are fairly ignorant of Christian and theistic philosophy and its impact upon doctrine and teaching on God. I had heard these theologians did not understand philosophical argumentation and frequently committed logical errors. I considered this to be a mild exaggeration. While I had read some minor theologians who did not, the majority of the ones I read seemed quite capable of rational philosophical discourse. However, I finally read a theologian who discussed the classic arguments for God’s existence in a bizarre fashion.

Gerald Bray discussed the ontological, cosmological, moral, and teleological arguments in his book. In each section he thoroughly misunderstood large portions of the arguments and/or what constitutes good objections to them. I believe this is largely due to a lack of philosophical familiarity and training.

First, he discussed the ontological argument by defining God as the “greatest conceivable being” (GCB). Bray rightly asks the question of what is meant by “greatest?” Apparently for him, this “greatest” property can be applied to just anything and in any respect. So it is because of this he asks, “What about forms of greatness which are conceived along lines which are incompatible with the being of God?”[1] For this he has in mind being the greatest conceivable thief, or something of that nature. I’m sure Anselm’s response would be that it is greater not to be a thief than to be a thief, precisely because it is greater to be morally good than not (and we agree thievery is morally bad). Hence, it’s just an error of conflation to think the GCB entails being the greatest of every conceivable property.

A worse error crops up when he says about the difficulty of conceiving the greatest of something, “it will always be possible to conceive of something greater than the maximum.”[2] This is simply not so, for if one thinks of something greater than the maximum of which he previously thought, then what he previously thought was not the maximum. Further, Bray seems to be thinking in terms of pure quantitative greatness, not metaphysical greatness. For a clear counterexample, think of the being who is morally perfect and could not sin. By definition this is the maximum. What does Bray think exceeds this?

Next, he discussed the cosmological argument. He examines Aquinas’ form of it (and labels it something else as well). He assumes the old line of “who created God?” is a good objection.[3] The whole point of the argument is an explanatory stopping point that did not come into being; asking how it came into being uncaused simply presupposes that definition (and one of the argument’s premises) to be false!

Third, he discussed the teleological argument. With this argument, he decided it may have a flaw in that some proponents may be inclined to deny miracles. This is because the argument appeals to the natural order of things and design.[4] The problem is it is just logically fallacious to infer that if some undesired consequence takes place, the argument is unsound. It is not the case that if some proponents of the teleological argument hold an irrelevant but false belief then that argument should be discarded, or even considered to have a flaw.

Finally, he takes aim at the moral argument. He lists several “problems,” including: the fact that people disagree on what constitutes good moral behavior, Christian theism contains apparently contradictory moral commands, moral obligations constitute a form of legalism, objective morality is a pagan concept, and that God chooses what is moral.[5] The first two objections are actually epistemological, not ontological. They seek to explore knowing moral obligations and values, not the foundation on which those values exist. Hence, it is a category error. How we come to know moral values or what obligations we believe we have are irrelevant to whether or not we have them at all.

As for moral obligations constituting a form of legalism opposed to Christianity, this also seems based on confusion. Biblically, legalism was the idea that one would be closer to God salvifically (or be more sanctified) by adhering to a specific code. Moral obligations are not necessarily purported to be any such thing. They merely constitute something we owe to God, something Bray interestingly affirms later on.[6]

The objections concerning morality being a pagan concept and God’s choosing of what is moral seem equally confused. The first objection seems to argue implicitly for antinomianism—the view that there is no moral law whatsoever. While Bray does not call himself an antinomian, his view of objective morality is clear: there is no such thing, it is a pagan invention. Couple this claim with the immediately prior objection of legalism, and we see antinomianism in everything but name. However, he tips his hand toward theological voluntarism by suggesting what is moral is whatever God commands. But this statement coupled with a lack of an objective standard of morality just makes “good” and “bad” void of any real meaning.

Why then ought we to obey God? It’s not because we are comporting with goodness. It rather is a “might-makes-right” mentality that states we obey God because it’s good, and it’s good because he says it’s good, and he can say it’s good because no one can stop him. Holiness, goodness, righteousness, all lose objective value—not because they are found in God, but because they are rather subject to his whim, as opposed to his nature.

Theologians ought to study basic reasoning and philosophy, if only so that they may be made aware of the benefits of natural theology. Aside from not being able to interact effectively with the arguments, he thinks that natural theology’s efforts are “perhaps best described as pathetic.”[7] Such ignorance ought not to be among Christian theologians.

                [1] Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 68.

                [2] Ibid.

                [3] Ibid., 70. Interestingly, he later contends God is uncaused and nothing accounts for his being (p. 82), so that this objection disappears, again by definition.

                [4] Ibid., 71.

                [5] Ibid., 72-74.

                [6] Ibid., 74.

                [7] Ibid., 109.
All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.


  1. I'd suspect that Bray's mishandling of basic issues pertaining to so-called Anselm's "ontological argument" stem from reading only glosses on Anselm, since Anselm himself addresses each of the points you raise in criticism.

    Gaunilo, Anselm's first critic, conflates Anselm's formulation "that than which nothing greater can be thought" with "supreme" or "greatest" -- and Anselm explicitly takes him to task on that, telling Gaunilo that the line of argumentation doesn't work the same for both.

    Anselm does consider God to be the greatest conceivable being, to be sure -- but he specifies at many points in his works just what properties (or rather divine attributes -- since God does not have properties like justice but rather is justice, supremely so) could admit of the sort of relevant greatness -- "those things which the more one is, the better the thing is," paraphrasing loosely from the Monologion, "like justice, wisdom, etc."

    You're entirely right to make the distinction here between a merely quantitative and thus potentially limitless conceivable greatness and a metaphysical greatness -- which attains its limit in a perfection (ultimately an incomprehensible one for Anselm)

    You're also entirely right to point out that thievery -- or any sinful condition -- will not be something that can be maximally great for Anselm --- precisely because it's not great at all. Anselm uses the example of a robber or thief as part of his analysis of "great" and "good" precisely to this end early on in Monologion, then revisits the issue of sinfulness in terms of power and impotence in Proslogion.

  2. Thank you for your insight, GB! I did not recall that Anselm used the thief imagery; that certainly is ironic! I really would like to read more about the Anselmian formulation, especially the second one, as it is less prone to error than I had been led to believe. I also very much appreciate Plantinga's formulation with possible worlds analysis.


Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!