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Pascal

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Often we use our imagination as a means of temporary escape from the pressures of life. We dream of an ideal world in which we are free from pain, suffering, and even death. But Ponce de Leon never did find the fountain of youth, and no one has been able to get back to Eden. It seems our thoughts of a better life are now only a cause of frustration and misery. Dr. Sproul teaches us about Pascal’s answer to the problem of our greatest misery.

From the series: The Consequences of Ideas

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    All Truth Is God’s Truth

  2. article

    Not According to Man

  3. article

    The Anatomy of Doubt

All Truth Is God’s Truth

R.C. Sproul

Few books I have read have made a lasting impression on my mind and thought. One of them I read over fifty years ago. The title of the book was The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, and it made a lasting impression upon me because it clearly set forth the importance of understanding that all scientific theories presuppose certain philosophical premises. The philosophical premises that are the underpinning of scientific inquiry are often taken for granted and never given even a cursory exploration. But in a time when fierce debate rages between science and theology, it is important that we step back and ask questions about the pre-scientific theoretical foundations for the whole enterprise of knowledge.

The word science means “knowledge.” We tend to have a restricted view of the word as if knowledge only applies to the realm of empirical investigation. Besides material knowledge, we also have to take into account formal truth. In this regard we must consider mathematics as a genuine science, because math in its formal dimension yields real knowledge. In fact, if we look at the history of scientific progress, we see that the engine that has driven new breakthroughs and brought to bear new paradigms has more often than not been the engine of formal mathematics. But it is astonishing to see how frequently people engaged in material scientific research glibly pass over the philosophical presuppositions of their own work.

In Carl Sagan’s famous book entitled Cosmos, based on his television series of the same title, he makes the following statement: “Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things.” In this seemingly harmless definition of the entire structure of Sagan’s work, he assumes that the universe under investigation by science is a cosmos rather than a chaos. He speaks of cosmos “implying a deep interconnectedness of all things.” This is the grand presupposition of scientific inquiry, namely, that the universe we are seeking to know is coherent. There is an implied deep and profound interconnectedness of all things. The alternative to cosmos, as Sagan has indicated, is chaos. If the universe is at root chaotic, then the whole scientific enterprise collapses. If the universe is chaotic and disconnected, then no knowledge is possible at all. Even discreet bits of atomic data cannot be understood within the framework of utter chaos, so the presupposition of a coherent, rational order of all things is the screaming presupposition of scientists.

This idea of an assumed coherency has its roots in ancient philosophical inquiry. Ancient Greeks, for example, sought ultimate reality. They sought a foundational principle for unity that would make sense out of diversity. This ultimate unity is what the science of theology provides. The science of theology provides the necessary presupposition for modern science. This is precisely the point that led prominent philosopher Antony Flew to his conversion from atheism to deism — namely, the essential necessity of a coherent foundation to reality to make any knowledge possible. This ultimate coherency cannot be provided by the contingency of this world. It requires a transcendent order.

In the Middle Ages, a crisis ensued in the realm of philosophy with the revival of what Muslim thinkers called “integral Aristotelianism.” In their attempt to achieve a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and Muslim theology, these thinkers produced a concept called the “double-truth theory.” The double-truth theory argued that what was true in religion could be false in science, and what was true in science could at the same time be false in religion. To translate that into contemporary categories, it would go something like this: As a Christian, one could believe that the universe came into being through the purposive act of a divine Creator while at the same time believing that the universe emerged gratuitously as a cosmic accident. These two truths examined by logic would appear to be contradictory. Nevertheless, the double-truth theory would say that truth is contradictory, and one could hold these contradictory ideas at the same time. This kind of intellectual schizophrenia rules the day in our own time where people think that God had nothing to do with the formation of the cosmos from Monday to Saturday only to become creationists on Sunday, failing to see that the two concepts are utterly irreconcilable.

At this point, the question is raised, “Well, does logic really count in our attempt to understand reality?” Again, if we’re going to assume coherency and cosmos, logic has to count not just for something but for everything. Thomas Aquinas responded to the Aristotelianism of the medieval Muslim philosophers by replacing double truths with the concept of mixed articles, distinguishing nature and grace (not dividing them, as many of his critics allege). Aquinas said that there are certain truths that can be known through special revelation that are not discerned from investigation of the natural world, while at the same time there are certain truths learned from the study of nature that are not found, for example, in the Bible. One does not find the circulatory system of the human body clearly set forth in Scripture. What Aquinas was saying was that there are certain truths that are mixed articles, truths that can be known either from the Bible or by a study of nature. Among those mixed articles, he included the knowledge of the existence of a Creator.

The fundamental point, of course, that Aquinas was arguing, in agreement with his famous predecessor, Augustine, was that all truth is God’s truth, and that all truth meets at the top. If science contradicts religion, or if religion contradicts science, at least one of them must be wrong. There have been times in history where the scientific community has corrected not the Bible but poor interpretations of the Bible, as we saw in the Galileo scandal. On the other hand, biblical revelation can act as intellectual brakes upon scientific theories that are groundless. In any case, if knowledge is possible, what Sagan assumed must continue to be assumed — namely, that for truth to be known, for science to be possible, there must be a coherent reality that we are seeking to know.

Not According to Man

Terry Johnson

My high school-aged children attend a secular prep school. The process of deciding to educate them there was long and difficult. They spent their lower and middle school years in Christian schools and home school. But in the end, all factors considered, the prep school seemed to us the best choice. Among the many challenges that have come our way as a result have been regular contact with people of other religious persuasions, Christian and non-Christian. Evangelicals are few and far between.

For the most part our children have stood tall, rising above the moral and spiritual milieu that pervades the place and have received a begrudged admiration from adults and peers alike. But among the recurring points of tension for the Johnson family is one we might call (as it has been labeled) “the scandal of particularity.” Why are you conservative Protestants so dogmatic? we are asked incredulously. Why do you think it’s your way or no way? Do you think you’re the only ones who are right? That you’re the only ones who will go to heaven? Do you think everyone who doesn’t believe like you do will go to hell?

No doubt about it, it is difficult to be a John 14:6 Christian in a culture awash in moral and religious relativism. When the chief virtue of a civilization is “acceptance” of others; when “diversity” is its goal and pluralism its public philosophy, a religion that preaches “Jesus only” and “one way” is a misfit. Who but rednecks and bigots could make such claims? Talk about politically incorrect. Arrests for hate speech may be in order before long. 

I’m fairly confident that if I were creating a religion today it would be “open,” “tolerant,” and “accepting” of all other points of view. We Bible-thumpers want to fit in like everybody else. Who doesn’t want to swim with the easy, downstream currents of relativism and avoid conflict? 

However, we have trouble convincing others of the fact that we didn’t create Christianity. It was given. God made it what it is. As the apostle Paul puts it, our gospel is “not man’s gospel,” or as one scholar puts it, not “man devised, of human origin.” This means that Paul did not receive it from others, nor did he make it up (see Gal. 1:11).

In defending himself Paul makes a crucial point for us today. Where did he get his gospel? He did not invent it. He did not receive it by human tradition. He received it by revelation, not from a human source. He received it “by means of” a direct “revelation” from Jesus Christ. And so it was for all of the apostles. Christianity is a revealed, supernatural religion.

One would have thought that it were of the essence of religion that one receives it, one joins it, one enters into its tradition with its givenness. Religion, one would have thought, has to do with God, and so with things eternal and permanent. God, being God, doesn’t change, nor does His truth. God doesn’t negotiate truth, since truth, if it is truth, is unchanging. Or so one would have thought. But no, today all religions and gods bow before the god of relativism. Homage must be paid. A place at the table is granted only to those religions that will recognize: “Relativism is Lord.” All other of one’s traditions, ceremonies, rituals, and teachings may be retained but for this one concession. Just add this one clause to one’s confession: “in the end, all religions are the same.”

This, however, we cannot do. Why? Because Christianity is “not man’s gospel.” If it were, then our problems with our pluralistic world would be over. Every few years we could issue a new version: Gospelsoft ’08 (with apologies to Microsoft). We could take the pulse of the culture, delete offending words and concepts, add new features that appeal to our generation, and re-market our message. This, after all, is the sensible way to sell religion. Go with the times. Opinions, tastes, and fashions change. Go with them. Pragmatism works.

But, our gospel is not according to men. Is this to be regretted? No, not at all. It is to be embraced. If Christianity could be altered according to the shifting winds of human fashion, its value would depreciate beyond visibility. The worth of Christian teaching is directly related to its permanence, which in turn is directly dependent upon its divine origin. Christianity is unalterably true and forever relevant only because it is from God.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Who am I to argue with definite articles? Why would I want to? If Jesus says He is “the way,” not a way, then it must be so. If Jesus is who we believe Him to be, it must be that what He said was true when He said it, true a thousand years later, and true today. Though this absolutism annoys our unbelieving and differently-believing neighbors, it is the foundation of our confidence and joy. If Christianity were according to man, it would offer poor solace. Because it is not according to man, but “through a revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is forever relevant, true, and certain.

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.

Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

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