A Hamster Wheel Floating

A Hamster Wheel Floating

We have been dealing with a well-worn objection to Covenantal apologetics. As we have seen, the objection goes back, at least, to the time of the Reformation. It is an objection that Roman Catholics used against those who would hold to the Reformed view of Sola Scriptura. In modern discussions, it has become an objection of Arminian theology against a Reformed view of God's (special and general) revelation. Thus, it is an objection that presupposes a neutral notion of reason, such that reason is thought to supply the universal foundation for any and every rational theory of knowledge. Such a presupposition, we have attempted to show, is at home only within an Arminian or Romanist theology; Reformed theology cannot affirm it.

Readers that have persevered to this point will recognize that this article is our third, and last, installment dealing with this specific objection. This third response will require some thinking, as it requires discussion of a technical point or two. But, this should come as no surprise when the objection has to do with the relationship of ontology (reality) to epistemology (knowledge) in apologetics. Since it is possible(!) that the objection itself may have faded from view, it is worth repeating one more time:
While [the Covenantal and Classical approaches to apologetics] appear to agree ontologically, they differ epistemologically. Both are in accord on the necessity of the Christian view of God being the ontological ground for all meaning and truth (what). However, one would have to agree with the Classical view that how we know this is true [sic]. Here it seems that some sort of rational argument is needed epistemologically to establish one view over the other. In the final analysis, the Presuppositionalist has not successfully refuted the charge that it confuses epistemology and ontology.[1]
As we saw last month, this objection is anything but clear. We can assume, though, that it wants to ascribe a foundational status to reason, when it comes to epistemology. The objector agrees that God is the ontological foundation of all that exists (what Christian could disagree with that?), but he thinks a Reformed apologetic confuses, or perhaps conflates, ontology and epistemology. The objection could be stated this way: "Though God is the foundation of all that exists, he cannot be the foundation of knowledge. Since we can only know God by way of reason, reason must be the foundation of knowledge of God." 

Part of the problem with this concept of reason is that it is notoriously difficult to define, exactly, what reason is. Whatever it is, we can affirm that there is no such thing as reason without a reasoner. So, minimally, reason is a person thinking and seeking to know something. If this is true, wouldn't it make a difference whether the person is regenerate or unregenerate?

As we have discussed previously, principia (i.e., foundations) are crucial to any proper affirmation of reality and of epistemology. Principia were set forth, in the history of thought generally, and of theology more specifically, as those beginning points, indemonstrable in themselves, out of and by which one could affirm, think about and know reality. In that sense, principia are foundational to everything else that is, and that we could know and acknowledge.

In the Protestant tradition, the notion of principium was adapted from philosophical discussions in order to underline the importance of foundational starting points with respect to existence and knowledge.[2] Thus, necessary for any understanding of reality and of knowledge was, first, a principium essendi (foundation of existence) and then, secondly, a principium cognoscendi (foundation of knowledge). The principium essendi was that which provided the rationale for existence itself. It was that without which the thing to be known would not exist. Of course, in theology this is the Triune God himself, and the objection above acknowledges agreement on this (ontological) point. Given the principium essendi, the principium cognoscendi is that foundation, or "starting point," for knowledge, which itself depends on, even while it is inextricably linked to, the principium essendi. This "link" seems to be where the point of disagreement is focused. A Covenantal approach would see the link as unbreakable, a classical approach would see the link as in need of some (rational) glue to bring the two together.

So what should we think about the "starting point" for knowledge? In so-called "classical" approaches to apologetics, the starting point is thought to be "reason," which is assumed to be the same for both Christian and non-Christian. In a Covenantal (Reformed) approach to knowledge, since man is finite and dependent, and since reason is radically affected by sin, the foundation of knowledge must be God's (general and special) revelation, not reason. But don't we need reason (as well as the senses) in order to see and affirm God's revelation? Wouldn't this make "reason" the starting point for us all? Not according to our Protestant forebears:
In theology, the foundation (principium) is twofold: of being and of knowing (Essendi et Cognoscendi), namely, that by which it is and that by which it is known; the former establishes or presents the knowable object (lit., the knowable thing and the object); the latter brings forth knowledge and gives form to the subject: the former is God, and the latter is the word of God himself, as is manifestly expressed and indicated in holy Scripture.[3] 
This quotation affirms the two principia for theology. An important point to recognize here is that "starting point" does not refer to whether or not people think, affirm and know certain things. Rather, the apologetic (and epistemological) question is upon what basis can people think, affirm and know things. The ontological foundation for knowing is God. As the quote above affirms as well, the epistemological foundation is the Word of God. 

If we are thinking of epistemology more generally, however, we can also recognize that all of reality is a revelation of God; it is what it is because it is God revealing. That is, the world just is God revealing himself, through creation, to and within every person that exists. If we think of the problem of epistemology in terms of attempting to understand the "link" between the subject (the person) and the object (the thing known), we can recognize that it is God himself who "links" the person to the world, by way of God's ongoing, constant, ever-present, self-attesting and self-sufficient revealing activity. (We should note here that no theory of epistemology has ever been able satisfactorily to "link" subject and object. This should not be surprising, since any epistemological theory that refuses to acknowledge God at the outset is doomed to failure).

This Protestant (Reformed) principle of the ever-present, universal and effectual revelation of God is in conflict with Arminian approaches to reason. The Reformed approach assumes that reason is dependent and limited, receiving what it does because God is giving it in his universal, general revelation; it also assumes that it is deeply flawed by sin. It is unable to "stand on its own." It needs a foundation. What this means is that knowledge, or reason, must be grounded in something else. It cannot have or find its ground within itself.

Maybe a brief, biblical example here will help. When Paul was at Athens speaking to the philosophers and Athenians present on Mars Hill, he told them all that it was in God that they lived, and moved and had their being (Acts 17:28). If this is true (and it is), then there are some sweeping and universal implications for epistemology for every person. What Paul is saying to these philosophers is that they are guilty of using their reason and their senses to deny the very one who gives them life, breath, and all things, including their knowledge and senses! In other words, reason and the senses do not just operate on their own, autonomously, in every person. Instead, those who use their reason and senses and ignore the very One who is giving them knowledge and experiences, are, as a matter of fact, utterly irrational. Every thought they think, every decision they make, every fact they acknowledge includes the culpable denial of the God in whom they think, decide and experience the world. The Giver of life is the Giver of thoughts and facts as well. To think otherwise is deny the "real world;" it is to take what God gives, at every moment, and to refuse the Giver.

In other words, with respect to the principia, knowledge (cognoscendi) is grounded in the nature of (ultimate) reality itself (essendi). The two stand together, and cannot be separated. It might be interesting to note that this link between the nature of reality and knowledge is found even before the Reformation in (at least some of the works of) Thomas Aquinas. 

In order to argue for a necessary link between reality and knowledge, Thomas first argues for a foundation to knowledge (principium cognoscendi). According to Thomas, "demonstration," by which he means syllogistic reasoning, must "proceed from principles (principia) that are immediate either straightway or through middles."[4]  It is necessary, therefore, for the reasoning process that the knowledge we have rest on knowledge that is foundational, and foundational knowledge is immediate, in that it is not acquired by demonstration.

Immediate propositions, according to Thomas, are those which are known by virtue of themselves, and not by virtue of any inference. Thus, immediate propositions are stronger than mediate, and are known with more certainty. Immediate propositions are not simply epistemic grounds for other, mediate, propositions, but, even more importantly, they are propositions which themselves are grounded ontologically. So, says Scott MacDonald (about Aquinas' view), "Immediate propositions...actually being known by virtue of themselves requires that one be acquainted with the facts expressed by those propositions which requires that one conceive the terms of those propositions."[5]  In other words, one of the key elements necessary for a proposition to be immediate is that there be a particular structure of reality. What propositions are immediate depends on the nature of the world.

Knowing something, therefore, depends on the basic structure of the world. Thomas affirms a necessary and direct link between what we know and the nature reality. This links knowledge not simply to the notion of epistemology per se, but knowledge requires, for its justification, a metaphysical structure such that facts, natures and their constituents, and the relationships between them, are known, and known immediately. This is contrary to virtually any current understanding of reason, especially that which is held in a classical approach to apologetics. Reason, as supposed by classical approaches to apologetics, with a nod to Immanuel Kant, will allow for no intrusion of metaphysics. So, according to MacDonald,
When [Aquinas] claims that the first principles of demonstration must be immediate and indemonstrable, he is claiming that they must express metaphysically immediate propositions and not just propositions that are epistemically basic and unprovable for some particular epistemic subject.[6]
If MacDonald is right, Aquinas' view recognizes that there can be no foundation for reason unless there is, at the same time, a recognition of the foundation for reality itself. A precondition for knowing must be a proper understanding of the nature of reality. From the vantage point of human beings, therefore, the two principia are two sides of the same coin. One cannot properly be affirmed without the other. It is the nature of the world, therefore, that gives us a foundation for a proper view, and use, of reason. 

Reason itself needs a place on which to stand; while it can be used without acknowledging its foundation, its use can never be justified without affirming its proper place. That place is creation. Until we recognize that all of our reasoning, all of our knowledge, all of our experiences of the world have their ontological and epistemological foundation in God himself, our reasoning and experiences are vain and futile. Whatever truth we do gain from them, we gain only because we continue to "live, move and have our being" in God. But if we refuse to acknowledge that truth, we'll forever be trapped in our own culpable futility. Like a hamster wheel floating in the air, we might still think we're making real progress, but, when it comes to rationality, it's all a viciously circular illusion.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013), 172. We use this article as representative of a (so-called) "Classical" approach to apologetics. It is not so much the author that we have in view here, but the apologetic approach to which the author and many others adhere.
[2] The "starting point" does not refer to that which we first use in our thinking and living, but as the foundation upon which our thinking and living must rest. A "starting point," then, is a precondition for knowledge, and highlights the proper way that we're meant to use our thinking and living in the first place.

[3] Muller is quoting Hoornbeeck here in Richard A. Muller, PRRD 1: Prolegomena, p.298.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Posterior Analytics, p.17.

[5] Scott MacDonald, "Theory of Knowledge," in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.172.
[6] Ibid, 170.