Monday, September 29, 2014

Mailbag: Natural Theology and Atheism

Jonathan writes, “Hi Randy :). Having dealt with a lot of Presuppositionalists in my spare time, one common objection that I hear to arguments from natural theology is that these arguments are unnecessary since Romans 1 teaches that everyone already knows that God exists. My question is whether or not you agree with this assessment.”

There’s a certain sense in which I agree with the claim that everyone already knows that God exists, but no, I do not agree with using that as an assessment of natural theology. Romans 1 is fundamentally about the Gospel, and Paul delves into an excursus (as is often his custom) to describe the need for the Gospel. In v. 18 he speaks of those who “suppress the truth.” This is going to be crucial for an understanding of “know.” In v. 19, the Bible says God has made knowledge of him evident to them. He then also references creation as mediating this knowledge (v. 20). But notice something interesting in vs. 21 and 28: that knowledge they have is suppressed, and they don’t like to retain God in their knowledge. As such, their understanding is “darkened” and they now have a “depraved” mind. Rom. 2:14-15 speaks of Gentiles’ conscience either accusing or else excusing (or alternatively “defending”) them.

Paul’s point in Romans 1 is that their knowledge is suppressed and is meant to condemn. Thus, I totally don’t understand any objection that says, “Everyone already knows God exists,” since it means nothing like, “Everyone already has knowledge sufficient for the acceptance of the Gospel, so natural theology is redundant.” How bizarre! The arguments of natural theology can be viewed as evangelistic, albeit on an intellectual level, when given to unbelievers. Why think that because they have sufficient knowledge so that suppression is culpable, we shouldn’t make any further effort? Is culpable unbelief the goal of natural theology? Surely not!

Now it’s worth asking if every atheist is therefore a lying, dishonest person, or else functioning poorly according to their design plan. I’m sure that some of them are dishonest, and I’m sure that some of them might be functioning poorly, but I’ve got no way of knowing what kind of percentages those might run us. As a matter of charity, it might be best not to presume these things. So how might we make sense of this? Well, it seems to me that this suppression could come as more or less a psychological side effect of living as though the Creator does not exist: worshipping the creation (look at the borderline-religious obsession that the culture at large superficially has with science), not having a thankful attitude toward God, idol worship (whether explicit or implicit), sexual immorality, sinful behavior, etc. Any one or all of these could be sufficient for such a side effect as this. And then, it’s quite easy to see how someone might come to doubt, intellectually, the existence of God. After all, most all of us, including myself, have to fight the psychological temptation to agree/disagree with someone based on whether I like the person enough (or dislike them enough). You like the person, you find ways to defend them. You hold that a position is immoral and think people who do that are bad, then you find that a good friend engages in this behavior—suddenly, you come to doubt that it is bad. No intellectual change in the information or argument took place; instead, a psychological side effect brought about a change in one’s knowledge. If the knowledge previously held was strong enough, there could even be a suppression of that knowledge for the sake of psychology. I’m sure no atheist will take kindly to what I’ve said here, though I do think it’s closer to correct than to say that all of them are consciously lying.

Finally, and to wrap it all up, it seems the critique of natural theology in Romans 1 both is not taught by the passage and seems utterly bizarre. The point of natural theology is not to condemn the unbeliever, but to utilize all of the evangelistic tools in our arsenal, intellectual, emotional, and volitional, in hopes that the unbeliever will respond to the work of the Spirit in his heart and mind. What could be wrong with that?!

This also seems like a good place to provide a link to a podcast covering some of these same issues. In it, William Lane Craig refers to me as “Andy Everist,” probably because Stephen Law originally did. Here’s the link!

No comments:

Post a Comment

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