Theistic Arguments: Now and Then

I have benefited greatly from the array of arguments for God’s existence that apologists have used over the years, including the cosmological, teleological, and moral. In fact, I did my Master’s thesis at Ole Miss on William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument. I thought then as I still think today that the argument is sound. What is more, not only have I benefited from these arguments, I have taught them in my apologetics courses and have used them in debates.

With my increasing understanding of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (particularly his metaphysics), my focus and emphasis has changed over the years vis-à-vis the theistic arguments as reflected in the fact that, for the subject of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Arkansas I wrote on Aquinas’s “Second Way” (the second of his famous “Five Ways”)—his efficient causality argument for God’s existence.

I am in no way repudiating the more standard arguments as they are commonly found in contemporary (i.e., now) popular apologetics. I have, however, grown quite sympathetic to the opinion of the philosopher Joseph Owens when he said “Other arguments may vividly suggest the existence of God, press it home eloquently to human consideration, and for most people provide much greater spiritual and religious aid than difficult metaphysical demonstrations. But on the philosophical level these arguments are open to rebuttal and refutation, for they are not philosophically cogent.” [Joseph Owens, “Aquinas and the Five Ways,” Monist 58 (Jan. 1974): 16-35. The quotation is on p. 33.]

What might Owens mean by these words? Consider certain versions of the more commonly found theistic arguments. The Kalam cosmological argument says that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Since the universe began to exist (instead of having existed from eternity) then the universe has a cause of its coming into existence. Arguments for the beginning of the universe go back for centuries. While in the past these arguments have focused on mathematical issues such as the possibility of traversing an actual infinite length of time in the past, in their contemporary popular forms, these Kalam type of arguments marshal scientific data to demonstrate that universe has not always existed. Such scientific data include the big bang theory, the expansion of the universe, and the second law of thermodynamics.

Other types of theistic arguments have to do with the design of the universe. Again, in making such arguments, contemporary apologists often marshal scientific data showing features both of the universe and within the universe such as fine tuning (making biological life possible), information theory (indicating intelligent design of biological life), and irreducible complexity (indicating intelligent intervention in the history of life in contradistinction to the random mutation and natural selection of Darwinism).

Such arguments certainly enjoy a number of strengths. They appeal to common sense notions such as something can only begin to exist by being caused and the notion that anything that exhibits evidence of sufficient design is caused by intelligence. What is more, these arguments appeal to data from contemporary science with all its social, etc., clout.

It would seem, however, that these arguments also exhibit certain weaknesses (if ‘weaknesses’ is too strong of a term, perhaps ‘limits’ or ‘challenges’ might be more fitting). First, certain aspects of the science are disputed. To be sure, the fact that aspects of a given argument are disputed is not necessarily in itself a weakness. In this instance, what I am thinking is that because the science is disputed at certain points, the arguments are harder to defend for someone who is not scientifically adroit. While I am all in favor of a scientist (or someone sufficiently knowledgeable in the data) giving these scientifically rich arguments, being myself largely a secondary or tertiary source on the science, I am more comfortable giving philosophically based arguments.

Second, many of these arguments fail (in and of themselves) to demonstrate that the cause or designer of the universe still exists. What seems to follow, strictly speaking, is that the cause existed at the time it caused the universe to come into existence or at the time it instilled design into the universe. It says nothing (without further argument) as to whether the cause still exists now. Of course, apologists who marshal such arguments do not intend to leave the issue there. Many are aware that further argument is called for in answering the “Dawkinesque” Who-Created-God-or-Who-Designed-the-Designer objections. It would seem to me, however, that any attempt to shore up these arguments cannot but delve more and more into the realm of the philosophical.

Third, from a strictly Thomistic perspective, these arguments do not demonstrate that the cause or the designer of the universe is God. In other words, they do not (in and of themselves) demonstrate that the cause or designer of the universe has the attributes of classical theism.  Now this might not be a problem for those apologists who deny certain of these attributes. Not all evangelical apologists agree that God is simple, immutable, impassible, or certain other of these classical attributes. This is especially true of those evangelical apologists who come to the question of God from an analytic philosophical perspective.

It remains, nevertheless, that these classical attributes have found their most robust defense in the context of the philosophy that has arisen in the Ancient Greek thought of Plato and Aristotle, and which has been incorporated and expanded upon in the Christian thinking of Augustine, Aquinas, and others. Just what are the contours of at least one of these classical (i.e, then) theistic arguments is something to which I will direct my attention in a later blog.


On Colin Brown and Philosophy

Recently, some friends of mine, in an email exchange, mentioned Colin Brown’s book Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1968). I like Brown’s Philosophy and the Christian Faith except for the part about philosophy! In my (perhaps not so) humble and modest opinion, he is wrong on a number of crucial points. For the sake of intellectual stimulation among my nearly one dozen readers, I thought I’d post my thoughts I sent back to my email friends. To be sure, I broach a number of philosophical points, many of which demand explanation and defending. Still, I wanted to throw these observations and criticisms out to my readers.

On p. 25, Brown says

“But the originality of Aquinas lies less in any new insights of his own than in his capacity to produce a brilliant synthesis of previous thinking.”

Gasp! This could not be more wrong, even if you disagree with that new insight that Aquinas did bring. Aquinas’s use of his notion of existence taken together with his use of the essence/existence distinction leading to his conclusion that God is ispum esse subsistens—substantial existence itself (whatever all this means) are virtually inestimable in their originality as well as their profundity. This is true even if one suggests that Aquinas’s notion of existence was influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius (which he seems clearly to have been), by the Liber de Causis (which, again, he seems clearly to have been), and other neo-Platonic antecedents, and that his notion of the essence/existence distinction was inspired Avicenna’s Metaphysics. So I’m not suggesting that such notions entirely arose ex nihlo in Aquinas’s thinking. But how he pressed these notions in service in his philosophy seems unprecedented. By way of self-promotion, I’m giving a paper at the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting this November (2016) in San Antonio titled “Aquinas on Existence and the Essence/Existence Distinction.”

On p. 26, Brown characterizes Aquinas’s theistic arguments as a “false step.” Granted that Christians of different stripes differ as to the soundness of certain theistic arguments, Brown’s rejection of theistic arguments and natural theology is global and stems from his quasi-presuppositional approach (which I, not surprisingly, reject). To be sure, Brown does have his criticisms of Van Til. As such, he is clearly not a straightforward Presuppositionalist. Perhaps he could be characterized more of a fideist when he says

“But the existence of God is not a matter or rational deduction. Rather it is a profound inner intuition that makes us aware of God and of the relation of the created order to him.” (p. 250, emphasis added)

I cannot let it slip by that, as for the classical tradition from Aristotle through Aquinas, the theistic arguments WERE NOT a matter of “rational deduction.” This, too, is an all-too-common misunderstanding of the nature of these argument (if not also a misunderstanding of the nature of deduction). They were, instead, metaphysical demonstrations. There is a difference.

On. p. 27 he says, regarding the Unmoved Mover argument (Aquinas’s “First Way” in his Summa Theologiae I, 2, 3 which is taken from Aristotle Physics VII, 1, 241a24),

“But on closer inspection certain gaps and flaws become visible. The very least of these is the objection that, in the case of the Unmoved Mover, the argument leans heavily upon an outdated, Aristotelian pre-scientific view of the world.”

This is a very common mistake made by non-philosophers, to wit, the failure to distinguish a metaphysical point on the one hand and the physical illustration utilized to make that metaphysical point on the other. Because (perhaps rightly) one rejects the physics of Aristotle as false, it does not follow that Aristotle’s metaphysical point is also false. All one would need to do (if, indeed, a given metaphysical point is true) is to change the illustration with a different physical illustration. This distinction is deftly made by Edward Feser in his lecture “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not Natural Science” given at the Science and Faith Conference, available for viewing on You Tube at and which I highly recommend.

On p. 28, when examining whether an argument for a cause of the world and an argument for a designer of the world are pointing to the same being, he says

“It is true that the Christian belief in God as the Creator means that he is the ultimate cause and designer of the universe. But this is an article of faith based on an awareness of God over against ourselves – not a rational deduction to be drawn by those capable of following certain arguments.”

But Brown’s analysis (which becomes more evident as he develops his thought in the next few pages) is faulty precisely because he isolates Aquinas’s Five Ways from the arguments that Aquinas goes on to give right after his Five Ways. It would be like criticizing a detective by saying that the detective’s conclusion about who the murderer is fails, yet the critic has only looked at what the detective said about the footprints and has ignored what the detective went on to say (in the same context) about the finger prints, the gun shot residue, the eyewitnesses testimony, the video surveillance footage, and the confession by the murderer. To proclaim that the footprints do not warrant the conclusion about who the murderer is, is to display an embarrassing ignorance of the detective’s entire case. This is what Brown has done. Even if it turns out that Aquinas’s case for God’s existence and attributes does not carry, it is certainly not for the reasons that Brown advances.

On. p. 28 he says

“The conclusion of the argument (that there must be an uncaused cause or an undersigned designer, etc.) denies one of the argument’s initial premises (that nothing can cause or design itself).”

Goodness! Am I reading this right? Brown thinks the statement “There is an uncaused cause” denies the statement “Nothing can cause itself”? Can Brown not see that the claim that there is an uncaused cause is not contradicted by the claim that there cannot be a self-caused cause?

On. p. 272, he says

“The traditional rationalistic [nota bene] arguments for the existence of God will not hold water. … It brings no honour to God to resort to dubious arguments in his defense!”

Not surprisingly, I disagree. One might try to defend Brown’s statement by pointing out the qualifier ‘rationalistic’ (hence my ‘nota bene’) as if Brown was distinguishing the classical arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas from the “rationalistic” arguments of Descartes or Leibniz. But later on Brown refers to the “classical debates of thinkers such as Descartes and Kant.” Oh my! The arguments of Descartes and Kant were anything BUT classical debates in the relevant sense regarding the theistic arguments. They rejected the categories of Plato and Aristotle at the most crucial points, especially as exemplified in the thinking of Aquinas. Am I being uncharitable here? Could it be that Brown is not characterizing Descartes and Kant as classical, but instead is saying that the debate subject (i.e., the existence of God) to which Descartes and Kant direct themselves is a “classical debate”? Even so, granted that the subject of God’s existence is the “classical debate” to which Brown is referring, the content of that debate when treated by Descartes or Kant is anything but classical, being, as it is, free from most of the metaphysics of Aristotle.

I’ll end with this; with perhaps the most self-serving criticism I have of Brown’s thinking. On. p. 287 he says

“A good case could be made out for saying that there is no such subject today as philosophy. It is not a subject in its own right, such as chemistry, English history, or modern languages. In the nature of the case it has no autonomous subject-matter.”

In this he reminds me of A. J. Ayer and his Language, Truth, and Logic. For a relatively modest response to Ayer on this and other points (and this is more of the self-serving part), I might suggest my article “On the Function of Philosophy” Christian Apologetics Journal 7, No. 2 (Fall 2008): 57-82. More aggressive defenses of the fact that philosophy indeed does have its own subject matter are readily available like Henry Babcock Veatch’s Two Logics: The Conflict Between Classical and Neo-Analytic Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969). In my opinion, once one understands exactly what it is that philosophy is uniquely equipped to examine, he is well on his way to seeing exactly what it is that commends the classical tradition (or, more to the point, Thomism) above contemporary analytic philosophy. The up-side of all this for me is that it spurs me on even more to finish my book tentatively titled Defending the Handmaid: How Theology Needs Philosophy. It’s coming along ever so slowly.

Paul’s Use of ‘seed’ in Gal. 3:16

A Guest Posting by Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.

Discussing Paul’s use of the word ‘seed’ (sperma) in Gal. 3:16 with reference to God’s promises to Abraham as we find them in Genesis, Peter Enns states:

The theology Paul expresses here is true regardless of his appeal to the flexibility of the collective noun zera’. In other words, Paul’s theology does not depend on his taking zera’ as a singular in Galatians 3:16 and then as a plural in verse 29. Nevertheless, Paul’s handling of the OT promises betrays an exegetical approach that would be deemed inappropriate by contemporary conventions, but hardly so for ancient, Second Temple standards. The fact that zera’ clearly means multiple, innumerable offspring in Genesis is not Paul’s point of departure; it is not what controls Paul’s exegesis. His concern, rather, is to drive home a controlling theological point, namely, Christ’s death and resurrection breaks down ethnic, social, and gender hostilities (v. 28). And he drives this point home through a particularly creative handling of his Scripture, one that seizes on the grammatical flexibility of a collective noun.1

One wonders how an interpreter can conclude that Paul’s theology expresses truth if the interpreter has altered the meaning of the text of the original promises given to Abraham by God. It is certainly true that in the OT passage quoted by Enns, Gen. 13:14–16, the term ‘seed’ (zera’) is used as a collective singular. With reference to passages that use this term relating God’s covenant with Abraham—these are Gen. 12:7; 13:15, 16; 15:3; 15:5; 15:13; 15:18; 16:10; 17:7–10; 17:12; 17:19; 21:12–13; 22:17–18; 24:7—there are three instances in which pronouns are used to refer to the term ‘seed.’ In two of these instances, plural pronouns are used to refer to the term ‘seed’ (See Table #1). However, in Gen. 22:17 a singular pronominal suffix is used to refer to the seed that will “inherit the gate of his enemies.”

Table #1: Seed Passages

Plural Pronouns “And He said to Abram, ‘You will certainly know that a sojourner will be your seed in a land not theirs [lāhem lit. “to them”] and they will serve them [wa’ abādûm], and they will afflict them [‘ithām] four hundred years’” (Gen. 15:13).
Plural Pronouns “‘7And I will establish My covenant betwee Me and you and between your seed after you to their generations [ledōrōthām] for a covenant forever to be to you God and your seed after you. 8And I will give to you and to your seed after you land of your sojournings all the land of Canaan for the possession forever, and I will be to them [lāhem] God.’ 9And God said to Abraham, ‘And to you My covenant you will keep, you and your seed after you to their generations [ledōrōthām]. 10This, My covenant which you all will keep between Me and between you all and between your seed after you to be circumcised to you all every male.’” (Gen. 17:7–10).
Singular Pronoun “‘17For I will certainly bless you and I will certainly multiply your seed as stars of the heavens and as sand which upon the lip of the sea, and your seed will inherit gate of his enemies [‘ōybâw].’” (Gen. 22:17).

As Enns observes, “Paul does not identify precisely the OT passage to which he is referring,” yet Enns goes on to assume, “there is no doubt that he is alluding to the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis that his seed would be too numerous to count and that the land of Canaan would be given to them.”2 But, considering the fact that there is a perfectly good instance in Gen. 22:17 in which the term ‘seed’ is a singular term, by virtue of the singular pronominal suffix on the word ‘enemies,’ why should we assume that Paul has in mind those passages in which the text clearly indicates that the term ‘seed’ is used as a collective singular? Given that the OT passages use plural pronouns and a singular pronoun in at least one instance to refer to the term ‘seed,’ it makes perfect sense for Paul also to use the term ‘seed’ in these two senses in his argument in Galatians. The Seed (singular) Who will inherit the gates of His enemies can certainly have been in the mind of Paul to refer to Christ, while Paul could have had other passages in mind when he refers to the seed (plural). In fact, it would also make sense that Paul, assuming he had Gen. 22:17 in mind, would have emphasized that the term ‘seed’ is in fact a singular term indicated by the singular, referring, pronominal suffix. This would have been a necessary observation for Paul to make for his readers in order to distinguish this singular instance from those instances in which the term ‘seed’ is used as a collective singular.

At the conclusion of his discussion on Paul’s use of the Galatians passage, Enns asserts:

What is “proper” exegesis for Paul is determined by his time, not ours, and this recognition must factor into any contemporary discussion of how we explain the NT use of the OT (and subsequently how we are to be faithful to an apostolic model). The fact that such an exegetical maneuver would not be persuasive today (and in my opinion should not be reproduced, a point to which we will return in the conclusion) should not dissuade us from making the necessary observation that Paul’s handling of Scripture here in Galatians 3:15–29 is a function of his Second Temple context. Our first task is to understand what Paul is doing. Only on the basis of this understanding can we proceed to discuss what it means for us today.3

What is “proper” exegesis in Paul’s time may certainly have had an influence on Paul, but proper exegesis of any time and in any culture must also be governed by the nature of truth and logic, part of what we refer to as the first principles of thought and being. Modern interpreters are not imposing upon Paul’s time an anachronistic standard of truth and logic in communication. These principles are timeless and universal. These principles were discovered, described, and expounded by Aristotle several hundred years before Paul’s day. Irrespective of the fact that Aristotle’s culture was quite different than Paul’s, truth and logic are the same for all. Modern interpreters cannot accept an exegetical method simply because it was accepted in an ancient and/or in a different culture. Any exegetical method, ancient or modern, must be evaluated in terms of the universal and timeless principles of truth and logic. Enns wants to accept the manipulation of the text simply because it was common practice in the time of Paul:

But from an exegetical point of view, what Paul’s exegesis here in Galatians shares with ancient interpreters is a creative handling of grammatical ambiguities/flexibilities. In fact, the type of exegetical move displayed here by Paul is far too common a phenomenon to document in the space provided here, other than to say it is a staple of, for example, Qumran exegesis and rabbinic interpretation. What a word means in its context does not necessarily trump what it could mean with a bit of prodding.

Such a phenomenon is often referred to as “atomistic” exegesis, meaning particular words or phrases are looked at in isolation, without being informed by the immediate or broader contexts and thus more open to manipulation. Again, it is not the case that these early interpreters did not know what they were doing. Rather, such techniques were simply accepted means of handling texts.4

But surely no modern biblical interpreter can or should accept an exegetical technique that manipulates the text simply because “such techniques were simply accepted means of handling texts.” Should not modern interpreters hold to the first principles of thought and being in evaluating the techniques that were accepted in other ages and cultures?

Additionally, Enns’ argument seems to lead to the conclusion that the modern interpreter should not reject the interpretive techniques of any biblical interpreters employing the accepted means of handling texts in any other age or culture. So, this would seem to say that we should not reject the allegorical techniques of Origen since his exegetical method was “determined by his time, not ours.” What about the exegetical conclusions of the Gnostics? Were not their techniques also determined by their times, not ours? If the modern interpreter cannot judge the techniques of other interpreters who were employing the techniques of their own times, then whose exegetical conclusions should be accept? Unless there are some universally true principles of interpretation that are true for all times and cultures, there seems to be no means of adjudicating between conflicting exegetical conclusions that have been produced by the techniques that were “simply accepted means of handling texts” in other times and cultures.

There also seems to be a self-referential problem with Enns’ assertions about the importance of the historical dimension of the hermeneutical practices of the NT authors. He says, “If we neglect this vital historical dimension [i.e., the significance of Second Temple literature], we run the risk of assuming universal normativity of our own culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations.”5 However, is not Enns himself assuming a universal normativity of his own culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations when he interprets the historical and cultural dimension of the hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature? How does he know what were the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature unless he read and interpreted these pieces of literature? And, how would he come to discover what were the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature? He certainly could not have interpreted Second Temple literature employing their own culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations before he learned this from these very pieces of literature. But, what hermeneutical expectations did he use to interpret Second Temple literature so as to come to learn their hermeneutical expectations? Since he could not have known the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature before discovering these in Second Temple literature, he must have employed some other set of hermeneutical expectations by which to interpret Second Temple literature in order to discover their culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations. The only set of hermeneutical expectations available to him before he learned of the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature were hermeneutical expectations that were not the hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature. It seems to follow then that there must have been some universally normative hermeneutical expectations that allowed him to enter into the study of Second Temple literature by which he could come to learn about their culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations. This seems to indicate that Enns’ reluctance to allow for universally normative hermeneutical expectations is flatly self-defeating. Without some normative hermeneutical expectations, it would not be possible for Enns’, or anyone else, to come to learn about the hermeneutical expectations of any other cultural group.

I’m sure this brief argument would not convince Enns, or perhaps many others for that matter. However, it at least calls into question Enns’ use of the Galatians passage as support for his view of the use of the OT by NT authors.

© 2016 Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages
Southern Evangelical Seminary

1 Peter Enns, “Fuller Meaning, Single Goal,” in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, eds. Kenneth Berding and Johathan Lunde (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 183.

2 Ibid., 181.

3 Ibid., 185.

4 Ibid., 184.

5 Ibid., 172.

Metaphysics and Formal Logic, Again: A Rejoinder to W. Paul Franks

Professor Paul Franks has graciously responded to my post regarding an issue between us about the logic of a syllogism by Norman L. Geisler found in Geisler’s book If God, Why Evil? My post was in response to Professor Franks’ original post where Franks argues that Geisler’s syllogism, when rendered in a formal logical schema, commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent. (The reader should note that Professor Franks is not necessarily denying the truth of Geisler’s conclusion. He is only challenging Continue reading

Metaphysics and Formal Logic

I find formal logic very interesting and powerful. I have enjoyed the times I’ve been able to teach it in my courses and have benefited from it numerous times in analyzing the validity of arguments. But as a Thomist who is an enthusiast of Henry Babcock Veatch and others, I’ve come to see more and more the shortcomings that the Continue reading

Do We Have Moral Obligations to Future Generations?

There’s a thought I’ve mulled over now and again for some time and I wondered what anyone else might think about this issue. What better time to write on it than “Back to the Future Day”— the day in the future that Marty McFly went to in the movie Back to the Future II. (I realize that “Back to the Future Day” is Oct. 21, 2015 and that I’m posting this on Oct. 20, 2015, but (perhaps ironically to some) I’m anticipating what my writing today might have on the readers tomorrow.)  Continue reading

Critical Thinking: So Often Ignored, It’s a Sin: A Few Thoughts on Kurt Eichenwald’s “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin.”

There are already a number of substantive refutations of the Newsweek article “The Bible-So Misunderstood, It’s a Sin” by Kurt Eichenwald (01.02.2015 – 01.09.2015), pp. 24-41. Indeed, Eichenwald’s points were already deftly refuted even before he put pen to paper. But if one’s sources are limited (either deliberately or through no fault of one’s own), then perhaps it is not surprising that Eichenwald would make some of the mistaken observations he made. However, I thought I would weigh in on just a few points I have yet to see in other analyses. I have my brother, Tom Howe, to thank for some of these insights.

First, Eichenwald uses the hackneyed example of how certain  Continue reading