Treading Through the Tenets: Of Metaphysics and Marriage

Scott Oliphint
Tenet 6: Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ, see that truth for what it is.

This month we look at the man-ward side of God's natural revelation, which means, what we do with what God is doing. Last month, we saw the God-ward side of that revelation. God is, always and everywhere, from the time of our existence into eternity future, making himself known to all people, at all times. Note carefully: God is the actor here, and not we ourselves. God is the one revealing, and ensuring that his revelation gets through to every creature. There is no possibility of getting an "F" on the "Knowing God" exam on judgment day. There is no possibility that the knowledge that God reveals is in any way false. The sober and substantial truth of the matter is that all people, by virtue of being image-bearers of God, begin their existence as knowers of God, because knowers of creation. This has massive theological, and epistemological, implications for every person. Christians, and philosophers, would do well to tuck this truth away in their bag of necessities and have it handy to pull out each and every day, first thing in the morning. This is the way to begin to interpret ourselves, and the world around us. Because God is actively revealing himself, that revelation hits its mark every time. We know because he reveals; it's that simple.

But it's also that complex. Even though God is the one revealing, and even though his revelation always and everywhere gets through to the mind and soul of man, and even though there is no possibility that what we know is false, we are the ones who know, and who are responsible for what we do with the knowledge that God gives. And once we -- sinners in the hands of an angry God -- get a hold of that true and perfect knowledge, we inevitably muck it up. We distort it, we pervert it, we subvert it, we contravene it, we deny it, we contradict it, we hate it, we will always refuse to acknowledge it. We do all of this, if and while we remain in Adam. We do this, in other words, as covenant-breakers.

To be a covenant-breaker is to be in a relationship to the Triune God. It is not a happy relationship. It is characterized by God's wrath (Rom. 1:18; Eph. 2:1-3). But it is a relationship. It carries with it all the marks of a relationship -- responsibility, accountability, interaction, mutual knowledge. Because of Adam, in other words, we remain in opposition to the God whom we know and to whom we owe allegiance. This is part of Paul's point in Romans 5:12-21. In that passage, Paul, writing under the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit, establishes the fact that "by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners" (Rom. 5:19). This is the case because God appointed Adam, who is a type of Christ (Rom. 5:14), to be the first covenant head of all mankind. 

(Since the historicity of Adam seems to be front and center again in some discussions, this is a good place to recognize how non-sensical, literally, it is to deny Adam's historical existence. Once that existence is denied, the entirety of the gospel, as Paul lays it out in Romans 5, makes no sense; it is no longer applicable. The gospel, without an historical, covenant head, must be reconfigured beyond Scriptural recognition. To deny Adam as a historical figure means to deny Christ as an historical figure, according to Paul's logic. If one would try to salvage the gospel while denying Adam's historical existence as the first man and covenant head, the only other option is to assert that Paul is wrong, in which case one joins the chorus of Satan (Gen. 3:1ff.) and his minions in an outright and hubristic denial of God and his authority).

Because of the sin of the one man, we are born as suppressors of the truth that God reveals. We are born with a determined bent against what God says, in nature and in his Word. In other words, God reveals himself to all people everywhere in order that all people everywhere might give him honor and thanks (Rom. 1:21). Instead, we take that knowledge that he gives through creation, we (normally) "accept" the facts given, but we suppress the One of whom every fact speaks, and to whom every fact points. 

In that way, we willfully and pridefully distort every fact that we claim to know. We can describe those facts, we can name them and talk about their relationship to other facts. But we have no ultimate rationale for the facts, for their true meaning or for their relations. We persistently hold down the knowledge that we have of the Creator and Sustainer of each and every fact. In other words, the reason we are meant to know the facts of this world is so that we can know them as God's facts, and subdue them to that end (Gen. 1:28). Instead, we convince ourselves that they are our facts, to be understood and interpreted, first of all, by us. This is nothing but sinful and willful suppression, and we won't get away with it in the end. But we don't get away with it in the present either. When we suppress the reason and the foundation of every fact in the world, including the world itself, things become muddled and meaningless. A couple of examples might make this clearer.

Peter van Inwagen, a notable and brilliant philosopher in his own right, decided to write a book on metaphysics. In that book, which, spurning all creativity, he entitled, Metaphysics, he makes a startling concession. In a book designed to help beginning philosophy students work through one of the most important categories of philosophy, van Inwagen, in a moment of frank honesty, states, with frustration, that, in the span of four thousand years, there is no one metaphysical theory that has won the philosophical day. He contrasts metaphysical theories with the body of knowledge presently available in geology (just to use one example), and he notes:
In the end we must confess that we have no idea why there is no established body of metaphysical results. It cannot be denied that this is a fact, however, and the beginning student of metaphysics should keep this fact and its implications in mind. One of its implications is that the author of this book [not] in a position in relation to you that is like the position of the author of [a] geology... All of these people will be the masters of a certain body of knowledge, and, on many matters, if you disagree with them you will simply be wrong. In metaphysics, however, you are perfectly free to disagree with anything the acknowledged experts say - other than their assertions about what philosophers have said in the past or are saying at present.(1)
Even if some philosophers choose to take van Inwagen to task on this admission, the fact of the matter is that his statement can be argued with integrity, and with facts to back it up. Even after a few millennia, there remains no established body of metaphysical results to which a philosophy student can point. And van Inwagen confesses to have "no idea why" there is nothing available for a philosopher who wants to begin his metaphysical pursuits.

Here's a suggestion: metaphysics purports to ask as to the nature of ultimate reality. It is a discipline that wants to understand, explain and describe how and why things are as they are. In its long and losing history, however, it routinely and consistently attempts to understand such ultimate things and questions without first recognizing that the only way to get at the answers is if God has spoken about, in and through them. Our knowledge of things has to be grounded in what God has said about them or we simply cannot understand them properly. So, at least in some quarters, metaphysics is either ignored altogether or is completely redefined.

But the problem of holding down the knowledge of God, and of what he requires (Rom. 1:32), is not only, or even mainly, a problem for philosophy. It is a problem that manifests itself in every walk of life. One example, by now painfully familiar to every Christian, is the current discussions about marriage. In Romans 1, Paul first uses the example of homosexuality as a blatant and obvious illustration of what happens when people suppress God's revelation such that God's wrath is its consequence. The argument is that suppression of the knowledge of God will result in behavior that goes against the nature of things. It is "the nature of things," in other words, that tell us something about the nature of God (since God reveals himself through those things). 

So the reason why "marriage" takes on brand new meanings and definitions is because God's clear revelation is suppressed, and that persistent and prideful suppression leads to actions that display that wrath of God in all of its ugly, unnatural perversion. As with metaphysics so also with marriage: when the definition and meaning is not grounded in the revelation of God, but rather suppressed, they will soon turn into the opposite of themselves, so that the words come to mean nothing. van Inwagen complains that, even with its millennia-long history, metaphysics has not established anything. Marriage, on the other hand, understood as a covenant between one man and one woman, has a long and consistent history. But in both cases, they dissolve into thin air with nothing left but the words because the truth of God is suppressed in unrighteousness.

The only solution to these problems is in the revelation of the gospel. Only when God's natural revelation is sufficiently supplemented by his special revelation will metaphysics and marriage find their proper path. By the grace of God, those who are "sons of Adam" must be extricated from their wicked and perverse family and planted firmly into the family of God, in Christ. Metaphysics, marriage and the entire menagerie of God's creation can only be understood for what they are when God's revelation provides the content of their meaning. Apart from that, the wrath of God, as a response to our sinful suppression, will continue to shine its light on the darkness of our empty activities, making it obvious that they contain nothing but the polluted air of our foolish imagination.
Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

1. Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics, Second ed., Dimensions of Philosophy Series (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002), 12. Even with respect to "their assertions," van Inwagen notes that the best that can be done is to get the actual words right, and then pick the best argument as to the interpretation of those words.