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God of the Bible vs. God of Philosophy

A Message by R.C. Sproul

There is so much about God that is beyond our comprehension. But does this make God unknowable? If not, is it possible that some of the philosophers caught a glimpse of our Creator? Continuing this series of "Defending Your Faith," Dr. Sproul explores the possibility of there being any resemblance between the God revealed in the Bible and what the philosophers have discovered in nature.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Twilight of the Idols

  2. devotional

    Philosophy and Superstition

  3. article

    The Anatomy of Doubt

Twilight of the Idols

R.C. Sproul

The nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for his declaration that “God is dead.” That brief dictum does not give the whole story. According to Nietzsche, the cause of the Deity’s demise was compassion. He said, “God is dead; He died of pity.” But before the God who was the God of Judeo-Christianity perished, Nietzsche said that there were a multitude of deities who existed, such as those who resided on Mount Olympus. That is, at one time there was a plurality of gods. All of the rest of the gods perished when one day the Jewish God, Yahweh, stood up in their assembly and said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Hearing this, according to Nietzsche’s satirical summary, all of the rest of the gods and goddesses died. They died of laughter.

In our day, where pluralism reigns in the culture, there is as much satirical hostility to the idea of one God as there was in Nietzsche’s satire. But today, that repugnance to monotheism is not a laughing matter. In the culture of pluralism, the chief virtue is toleration, which is the notion that all religious views are to be tolerated, all political views are to be tolerated. The only thing that cannot be tolerated is a claim to exclusivity. There is a built-in, inherent antipathy towards all claims of exclusivity. To say that there is one God is repulsive to the pluralists. To say that one God has not revealed Himself by a plurality of avatars in history is also repugnant. A single God with an only begotten Son is a deity who adds insult to injury by claiming an exclusive Son. There cannot be only one Mediator between man and God. There must be many according to pluralists today. It is equally a truism among pluralists that if there is one way to God, there must be many ways to God, and certainly it cannot be accepted that there is only one way. The exclusive claims of Christianity in terms of God, in terms of Christ, in terms of salvation, cannot live in peaceful coexistence with pluralists. 

Beyond the question of the existence of God and of His Son, and of a singular way of salvation, there is also a rejection of any claim to having or possessing an exclusive source of divine revelation. At the time of the Reformation, the so-called solas of the Reformation were asserted. It was said that justification is by faith alone (sola fide), that it is through Christ alone (solus Christus), that it is through grace alone (sola gratia), and that it is for God’s glory alone (soli Deo gloria). But perhaps most repugnant to the modern pluralist is the exclusive claim of sola Scriptura. The idea of sola Scriptura is that there is only one written source of divine revelation, which can never be placed on a parallel status with confessional statements, creeds, or the traditions of the church. Scripture alone has the authority to bind the conscience precisely because only Scripture is the written revelation of almighty God. The implications of sola Scriptura for pluralism are many. Not the least of them is this: It carries a fundamental denial of the revelatory character of all other religious books. An advocate of sola Scriptura does not believe that God’s revealed Word is found in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon, the Bible and in the Koran, the Bible and in the Upanishads, the Bible and in the Bhagavad Gita; rather, the Christian faith stands on the singular and exclusive claim that the Bible and the Bible alone is God’s written word.

The motto of the United States is e pluribus unum. However, since the rise of the ideology of pluralism, the real Unum of that motto has been ripped from its foundation. What drives pluralism is the philosophical antecedent of relativism. All truth is relative; therefore, no one idea or source can be seen as having any kind of supremacy. Built into our law system is the idea of the equal toleration under the law of all religions. It is a short step in people’s thinking from equal toleration under the law to equal validity. The principle that all religions should be treated equally under the law and have equal rights does not carry with it the necessary inference that therefore all religions are valid. Even a cursory, comparative examination of the world’s religions reveals points of radical contradiction among them, and unless one is prepared to affirm the equal truth of contradictories, one must not be able to embrace this fallacious assumption. 

Sadly, with a philosophy of relativism and a philosophy of pluralism, the science of logic doesn’t matter. Logic is escorted to the door and is firmly booted out of the house onto the street. There is no room for logic in any system of pluralism and relativism. Indeed, it’s a misnomer to call either a system, because it is the idea of a consistent, coherent view of truth that is unacceptable to the pluralist. The fact that people reject exclusive claims to truth does not invalidate those claims. It is the Christian’s duty to hold firm to the uniqueness of God and of His Christ and not compromise with the advocates of pluralism.  

Philosophy and Superstition

The city of Athens was the seat of Greek philosophy. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had lived and taught there. Before them Thales, Anaximander, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and many others had practiced philosophy there. Each was seeking the one ultimate principle of which all things were supposedly composed. Thales believed that ultimately, everything is water, while in a more sophisticated way, Plato and Aristotle claimed that ultimately, everything is "being."

By focusing on this one ultimate aspect of reality, the philosophers were pushing against the worship of particular things like idols. In time, however, idolatry returned even stronger than before. After all, if everything in the world is a piece of the Ultimate, then everything is divine to some degree. Things that have more "being" are more divine, and so for our own good we had better worship them. Eventually, Athens, the city of philosophy, also became the city of idols. Greek philosophy led straight to superstition.

The Bible has very little admiration for Greek philosophy, though unfortunately, many in the history of the Christian church have not shared the Bible's viewpoint. Paul was not impressed by what he saw in Athens. He was distressed. He did not say, "Athens, at last! The home of the wonderful philosophers Plato and Parmenides." He did not try to meld the Gospel to the thinking of Aristotle. Instead, he confronted the Athenians head-on.

The philosophers in Athens at this time were organized into two groups. The Epicureans argued that men should seek pleasure, and that the best way to do that is to live moderately. The Stoics argued that men should seek independence and self-sufficiency, and suppress their desires. Both groups were continually seeking new things, the Epicureans because of their quest for new pleasures, and the Stoics because of curiosity about nature. Thus, when Paul arrived in their midst with a strange new teaching, they rapidly brought him to the Council of the Areopagus, which supervised the religions and foreign gods in Athens. They wanted to hear about this new "manifestation of being."

The Anatomy of Doubt

R.C. Sproul

Spiritus sanctus non est skepticus—"The Holy Spirit is not a skeptic." So Luther rebuked Erasmus of Rotterdam for his expressed disdain for making sure assertions. Luther roared, "The making of assertions is the very mark of the Christian. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. Away now, with the skeptics!"

Doubt is the hallmark of the skeptic. The skeptic dares to doubt the indubitable. Even demonstrable proof fails to persuade him. The skeptic dwells on Mt. Olympus, far aloof from the struggles of mortals who care to pursue truth.

But doubt has other faces. It is the assailant of the faithful striking fear into the hearts of the hopeful. Like Edith Bunker, doubt nags the soul. It asks "Are you sure?" Then, "Are you sure you're sure?"

Still doubt can appear as a servant of truth. Indeed it is the champion of truth when it wields its sword against what is properly dubious. It is a citadel against credulity. Authentic doubt has the power to sort out and clarify the difference between the certain and the uncertain, the genuine and the spurious.

Consider Descartes. In his search for certainty, for clear and distinct ideas, he employed the application of a rigorous and systematic doubt process. He endeavored to doubt everything he could possibly doubt. He doubted what he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears. He realized that our senses can and do often deceive us. He doubted authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, knowing that recognized authorities can be wrong. He would submit to no fides implicitum claimed by any human being or institution. Biographies usually declare that Descartes was a Frenchman but his works reveal that he was surely born in Missouri.

Descartes doubted everything he could possibly doubt until he reached the point where he realized there was one thing he couldn't doubt. He could not doubt that he was doubting. To doubt that he was doubting was to prove that he was doubting. No doubt about it.

From that premise of indubitable doubt, Descartes appealed to the formal certainty yielded by the laws of immediate inference. Using impeccable deduction he concluded that to be doubting required that he be thinking, since thought is a necessary condition for doubting. From there it was a short step to his famous axiom, cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am."

At last Descartes arrived at certainty, the assurance of his own personal existence. This was, of course, before Hume attacked causality and Kant argued that the self belongs to the unknowable noumenal realm that requires a "transcendental apperception" (whatever that is) to affirm at all. One wonders how Descartes would have responded to Hume and Kant had he lived long enough to deal with them. I have no doubt that the man of doubt would have prevailed.

There were clearly unstated assumptions lurking beneath the surface of Descartes' logic. Indeed there was logic itself. To conclude that to doubt doubt is to prove doubt is a conclusion born of logic. It assumes the validity of the law of non-contradiction. If the law of non-contradiction is not a valid and necessary law of thought, then one could argue (irrationally to be sure) that doubt can be doubt and not be doubt at the same time and in the same relationship.

The second assumption was the validity of the law of causality (which, in the final analysis, is merely an extension of the law of non-contradiction). Descartes could not doubt that an effect not merely may, but must have an antecedent cause. Doubt, by logicial necessity, requires a doubter, even as thought requires a thinker. This is nothing more than arguing that action of any kind cannot proceed from non-being. Hume's skepticism of causality was cogent insofar as he brilliantly displayed the difficulty of assigning a particular cause to a particular effect or event. But not even Hume was able to repeal the law of causality itself. It is one thing to doubt what the cause of a particular effect is, it is quite another to argue that the effect may have no cause at all. This is the fundamental error countless thinkers have made since Hume. I once read a critical review of Classical Apologetics in which the able and thoroughly Christian reviewer observed, "The problem with Sproul is that he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of an uncaused effect."

I wrote to my reviewing collegue and pleaded guilty to the charge. Mea culpa. I do refuse to acknowledge even the most remote possibility of an uncaused effect. I have the same obstreperous stubbornness for circles that are not round and for married bachelors. I asked my friend to cite but one example, real or theoretical, of an uncaused effect and I would repent in dust and ashes. I'm still waiting for his reply. If he reads this perhaps it will jog his memory and induce him either to deliver the goods or admit his glaring error.

I certainly allow for uncaused being, namely God, but not for uncaused effects. An uncaused effect is an oxymoron, a veritable contradiction in terms, a statement patently and analytically false, which Descartes could refute in his Dutch oven without the benefit of empirical testing.

So how does this affect the Christian in his struggle with the doubts that assail faith? The content of Christianity, in all its parts, cannot be reduced simplistically to Cartesian syllogisms. The lesson we learn from Descartes is this: when assailed by doubt, it is time to search diligently for first principles that are certain. We build upon the foundation of what is sure. This affects the whole structure of apologetics. It is a matter of order. It seems astonishing to the lay person that anybody would go to the extremes Descartes insisted simply to discover that he existed. What could be more self-evident to a conscious being than one's own self-consciousness? But Descartes was not on a fool's errand. In a world of sophisticated skepticism, Descartes sought certainty for something that could serve as a foundation for much, much more. He moved from the certitude of self-consciousness to the certitude of the existence of God, no small matter for the doubt-ridden believer. Descartes and others like him understood that to prove the existence of God is prior to affirming the trustworthiness of Scripture and the birth and work of the person of Christ. Once it is certain that God exists and reveals Himself in Scripture, there is ground for a legitimate fides implicitum.

But the order of the process to destroy doubt is crucial. For example, the miracles of the Bible cannot and were never designed to prove the existence of God. The very possibility of a miracle requires that there first be a God who can empower it. In other words, it is not the Bible that proves the existence of God, it is God who through miracle attests that the Bible is His word. Thus proven, to believe the Bible implicitly is a virtue. To believe it gratuitously is not.

The most important certainty we can ever have is the foundational certainty of the existence of God. It is this matter that prompted Edwards to declare: "Nothing is more certain than that there must be an unmade and unlimited being" (Miscellany #1340).

On this bedrock of certainty rests the promises of that unmade, unlimited Being. On these promises we rest our faith. Doubting served Descartes well, but Edwards knew that ultimately, it is dubious to doubt the indubitable.

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