Friday, May 15, 2015

The Ontological Argument and Its Use for Believers

Much has been written about the validity of the ontological argument[1] as a traditional “proof” for the existence of God, but not as much has been written on the ontological argument’s effect on the believer. Anselm sought to construct an argument such that the very idea of God—known to all mankind—would be sufficient to show that God exists. However, what is often lost in contemporary analytic philosophy is that Anselm’s work came within the context of a prayer that functioned as a devotional to God. This paper will examine a summary of positions regarding the ontological argument and its usefulness for believers and argue that the ontological argument (OA) can be applied to life and ministry. Crucially, this paper will argue that the ontological argument should strengthen believers’ faith as well as lead them to adoration and worship of God.

Summary of Positions
It is not the case that all people view the OA the same way, however. For example, J. Howard Sobel, a philosopher of religion, does not think that the OA has much value at all. Now it must be pointed out that the OA starts with the concept of a being than which none greater can be conceived (or the maximally great being, MGB for short). This MGB can be supposed to exist only in the mind as an idea. However, suppose one considered another type of being—a being that had all of the same properties as MGB but also existed in reality. This being would be better than MGB (existing only in the mind), since it is better to exist in the mind and reality than it is to exist in the mind alone. Thus, this MGB is the correct conception. However, it follows from this analysis that MGB exists in reality, and thus one has a rough sketch of Anselm’s OA.
            Sobel grants that the key insight of Anselmian-type OAs is that if God’s existence is even possible, then it is necessary. However, he argues that it may be that even if God’s existence appears to be a consistent idea, it may be impossible to have God in reality anyway (in short, the argument is invalid somewhere). He writes, “It may, when all is said, be contrary to reason to accept that a necessarily existent, essentially perfect being is a possibility, even if the idea of such a being is consistent.”[2]
            The main problem for Sobel is in fact epistemological. This is because he is not making a claim that God’s existence is actually impossible. On Sobel’s view, it could be that God exists necessarily, just as the Christian claims. However, his claim is that Christians are unjustified in making the move from the consistency of the idea of God to the actuality of his existence.
            Because of this, Sobel thinks there is no benefit for theists (Christian believers, in the case of this paper) with respect to the OA. He claims, “There is we should say nothing for theism in Anselm’s marvelous Proslogion II argument or in its Hartshorne/Plantinga modern update”[3] (emphasis in original). In other words, the Christian is not able to use anything within this argument for any reason; it is utterly bankrupt.
            Another, similar view concerns Graham Oppy. Oppy is a prominent philosopher of religion who is also an atheist. In his book Arguing about Gods, he focuses on the OA in particular for a chapter-length treatment. Oppy argues that there are formulations of the argument that seem valid, but that make the defender of the OA committed to principles that he would never believe otherwise. For an example, Oppy argues that if you understand the concept behind the “smallest existent Martian” in your understanding, then you would not think you should be committed to believing in Martians. However, he believes that this parody argument is precisely parallel to Anselm’s OA, so that if one is successful, so is the other.[4]
            The main difference between Sobel and Oppy is that the former is willing to discuss the impossibility of God (even in the face of reasoning about God being consistent). The latter thinks that the reasoning of the OA proves too much, so that whether or not God exists and in what modality (necessary or contingent) is irrelevant. What they have in common is that the OA, in their view, does nothing for the believer except show how they do not have justification for their Christian beliefs.

The Ontological Argument as Strengthening Believers’ Faith
If God is even possible, then he exists. This amazing insight came from Anselm in the eleventh century. The OA has already been explained as about the MGB, or the being than which none greater can be conceived.
This had an amazing corollary for Anselm. He wrote, “And certainly this being so truly exists that it cannot be even thought not to exist.”[5] This is because of what we might call great-making properties, or properties that it is better for a being to have than not to have. Anselm believed a great-making property was the property of being such that one cannot be thought not to exist. If that is the case, then there is a being that cannot even be thought not to exist, and this is the MGB.[6]
The upshot of this strategy is that it strengthens believers’ faith on its own merits. If one receives criticism about belief in God because God’s existence is highly improbable given the amount and kinds of evil in the world, this normally powerful rhetorical strategy can fall flat. This is because if God’s existence is even possible, then he must exist! Accordingly, this means the probability of God’s existence is, in reality, either 0 or 1. The Christian can be justified in holding his faith in God and what he will do by recognizing God’s necessary existence.
Next, the idea of God as MGB strengthening Christians receives biblical support. Anselm himself provides some of this basis when he quotes Psalm 79:4 and 78:9.[7] Psalm 78:7 states, “That they should put their confidence in God and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments” (NASB). God is considered to be mighty and to have done great things for His people in this psalm. The response of God’s people to God’s greatness entails a kind of confidence placed solely in the being and person of God himself.
2 Chronicles 6:14 states in part, “He said, ‘O LORD, the God of Israel, there is no god like You in heaven or on earth” (NASB). This is Solomon’s prayer to God, expressing his confidence and trust that God is the greatest being that there is, and no god compares to Him. While it does not explicitly refer to God as the MGB, it is reasonable to claim that the idea of God as MGB is at least supported by the biblical text.
Finally, it gives confidence to the belief that God is necessary for all other being and life. David S. Hogg wrote much concerning Anselm, his theology, and his OA. He agrees that one of the main reasons that Anselm wrote was to show that God is necessary for all other life. He claims, “Anselm was hoping to demonstrate ‘that God truly exists, and that he is the greatest good who depends on nothing else, and on whom all things depend in order to exist and exist well, and whatever else we believe about the divine substance.’”[8]
There is simply something about God—and that concept of God specifically—that leads one to recognize all else depends on Him. Nothing can or does exist without God’s bringing it into existence at some time. According to Alvin Plantinga, Anselm did not seek to prove God’s existence to someone (or even himself) as much as he was trying to bring to light all of God’s various and glorious attributes in one argument or discussion. This is why Anselm’s famous phrase “faith seeking understanding” is used.[9]
Plantinga also focuses on common formulations of the OA with God’s necessary existence in concert with his other attributes. If God’s omnipotence is logically necessary, it entails that his existence is as well. If that is true, then it could not be the case that God merely happens to exist: instead, he must exist. As such, God is the ground of all being (if any beings come into existence posterior to God, they are contingent beings, dependent upon God).[10]
This confidence in God’s necessary existence extends even to parodies of the OA. Yujin Nagasawa writes of what he calls the “Devil parody” to the OA. This argument claims that if the OA is sound, then the worst of all possible beings (the “Devil”) is possible; however, most people do not think that the worst possible being actually exists (this includes even Christians, who do not think that the Devil is simply God’s equal and opposite). Thus, there must be something wrong with the OA. Nagasawa combats this by arguing that the argument is not quite formed correctly, and when it is so formed, it just is an example of the OA. If that is the case, the Devil parody cannot even get off the ground.[11] Nagasawa is careful to argue that the OA is about theories of “greatness and has nothing to do with effective evilness,” which is what the anti-OA needs to get off the ground.[12] The point of all of this is that if the OA survives even strong objections to it, then one’s confidence in God’s existence can grow in a personal way. This is not the only remarkable outcome of the believer and the OA.

The Ontological Argument as Leading to Adoration and Worship
The OA leads also naturally to adoration and worship of God by the believer. Adoration and worship is something for which humans were explicitly created, to further God’s glory (cf. Rev. 4:11). If this is so, then anything that inherently leads to more worship of God should be thought of as a positive contribution to Christian life. Anselm’s entire point in writing the Proslogion was to give a prayer and devotional to God. The atheist Fool represented in the work was simply one who overheard Anselm’s prayer.[13]
            Anselm’s mission was to have a “theme of seeking God” and to recognize “God as the one who enlightens men’s eyes,” according to Ian Logan.[14] For Anselm, the whole of life was to be devoted to God, who alone was in charge of the universe and its inhabitants. To God alone belonged devotion, worship, adoration, and praise.
            However, even this devotion, on its own, was not enough to sustain Anselm. Logan argues that Anselm feared that God was absent. Thus, this prayer and meditation, which consisted in “faith seeking understanding,” resulted in this one unifying argument.[15] This devotion to God served as a way for Anselm to have God near in worship and adoration.
            In addition to Anselm as a historical witness to the use of the OA in worship and adoration, the biblical witness can be used to understand the OA with respect to worship as well. The first passage to be considered is Romans 11:33-36. This passage claims, in part, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! . . .To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (NASB). This passage speaks to the omniscience of God, which is surely an attribute of MGB, and links it to praise and worship of God.
            The next passage to be considered is Genesis 1:1, which is God’s claim to have created everything in both the heavens and the earth. This biblical witness informs us that, just like MGB, God created all, and everything derives its existence from him. This means that what can be called “perfect being theology” (of the MGB) fits in well underneath a Christian theological framework, and Christians worship God for his creation.
            Third, Matthew 19:26 speaks of God’s attribute of omnipotence. This records Jesus speaking, and he says, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (NASB). Even though this is verse is not intended to be representative of a Western contemporary analytic philosophical textbook, it nonetheless remains that if there is a task to be done or a power to be exemplified, the Christian God is able to exercise that power. As Plantinga argued earlier, omnipotence is plausibly an attribute of the MGB, and Christians praise and adore God for his wonderful works.
            Finally, the attribute of omnibenevolence shall be considered. Isaiah 45:22 records God speaking through Isaiah concerning the nations: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other” (NASB). This shows the God of the Old Testament, who is Jesus’ Father, loves all (i.e., is omnibenevolent), and always has. When Christians utilize the OA and compare it with Scripture, it naturally leads to devotion, praise, and adoration to God, both for who he is and what he has done.

With this said, there are two applications that will be provided. First, there will be an application to life. The application is that Christians ought to reflect on God’s goodness and his attributes in general on a regular basis. This should perhaps be done during prayer and Bible reading as part of a regular study habit. How can Christians praise God truly if they do not also understand who he is? It is his attributes that show Christians who he really is.
            Paul Helm spells this out when he writes, “He is a participant in the Christian way of life . . .what God does is congruent with what God is.”[16] God is the most perfect being. He is not only the most perfect being there is, but he is in fact the most perfect being there could possibly be. For this, Christians ought to be most thankful and awe-struck in their daily devotions to God.
            This should also result in a great combat weapon to use against the temptations of the enemy or of our own flesh to live life without God. R. A. Herrera delves into some of the motivations of Anselm’s writing the OA. He writes that Anselm’s attempt to find this argument itself was viewed as “diabolical” as a temptation, and that his final understanding of God as the Supreme Good is what helped him through.[17] Thus, when Christians are tempted in life, the OA reminds them that the MGB, which is the Christian God, is the most perfect being in righteousness and true holiness (cf. Eph. 4:24).
            Second, an application can be made from the OA to ministry. This application is that believers can be trained in apologetics concerning arguments for God’s existence as expressions of worship. They can use the OA to fulfill the Great Commandment of Matthew 22:37 in loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength.
            Stephen Evans captures this intuition when he writes that God may “use reason as one of the channels for His grace to draw people.”[18] Training Christians through both programmatic discipleship (in terms of Sunday school or even Bible institutes) and organic discipleship (Christians “doing life” together in fellowship and edification/instruction) can only grow stronger when Christians recognize the truth of how great God truly is.

This paper explained the ontological argument (OA), surveying two differing positions of Sobel and Oppy. After that, the OA was shown to strengthen believers in their faith and lead them to worship and adoration of God. Finally, two applications of the use of the OA for believers were made; one for life in daily devotions, and one was made for ministry in building up and training effective and faithful disciples in the local church context. The ontological argument should strengthen believers’ faith as well as lead them to adoration and worship of God.

Anselm. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (eds). New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Evans, Stephen C. “Apologetics in a New Key: Relieving Protestant Anxieties over Natural Theology,” in The Logic of Rational Theism: Exploratory Essays, William Lane Craig and Mark S. McLeod (eds.). Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990, 65-75.

Helm, Paul. Faith & Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Herrera, R.A. Anselm’s Proslogion: An Introduction. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.

Hogg, David S. Anselm of Canterbury: The Beauty of Theology. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Logan, Ian. Reading Anselm’s Proslogion. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

Matthews, Gareth B, and Lynne Rudder Baker. “The Ontological Argument Simplified,” in Analysis, Vol. 70, No. 2 (April 2010:), 210-11.

Nagasawa, Yujin. “The Ontological Argument and the Devil,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 238 (January 2010:), 72-91.

Oppy, Graham. Arguing about Gods. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Plantinga, Alvin (ed.). The Ontological Argument from St. Anselm to Contemporary Philosophers. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1965.

Sobel, Jordan Howard. Logic and Theism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[1] I will hereafter refer to the ontological argument as if there were only one. On the contrary, there are, like most of the traditional proofs of God’s existence, several such arguments that share an a priori method of reasoning to a necessary being; these one can stipulate make up an “argument family.” I will utilize a few different ontological arguments within this paper where particular applications come.

[2] Jordan Howard Sobel, Logic and Theism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 97.

[3] Ibid., 98.

[4] Graham Oppy, Arguing about Gods (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 93.

[5] Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (eds.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 88.

[6] Ibid. This method of reducing suppositions to absurdity (supposing God’s non-existence leading to absurd conclusions) is very powerful. If one can show that to reject God is to embrace absurdity, one has done a very good job indeed.

[7] Ibid., 86.

[8] David S. Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury: The Beauty of Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 90.

[9] Alvin Plantinga, The Ontological Argument from St. Anselm to Contemporary Philosophers (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1965), 3.

[10] Ibid., 162-63.

[11] Yujin Nagasawa, “The Ontological Argument and the Devil,” in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 238 (January 2010:), 72-73.

[12] Ibid., 81.

[13] Gareth B. Matthews and Lynne Rudder Baker “The Ontological Argument Simplified,” in Analysis, Vol. 70, No. 2 (April 2010:), 211.

[14] Ian Logan, Reading Anselm’s Proslogion (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 88-89.

[15] Ibid., 89.

[16] Paul Helm, Faith & Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 105.

[17] R. A. Herrera, Anselm’s Proslogion: An Introduction (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979), 15.

[18] C. Stephen Evans, “Apologetics in a New Key: Relieving Protestant Anxieties over Natural Theology,” in The Logic of Rational Theism: Exploratory Essays, William Lane Craig and Mark S. McLeod (eds.) (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 68.

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