A pastor friend sent me this question:
Should Christians read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?
My answer is: yes, read everything. Let me explain why. Aristotle points out something we can all know: our choices are aimed at ends. Some of these ends are intermediate meaning they are aimed at another end. There is a highest or final end. This is called the good. Aristotle tells us happiness is the good. For Aristotle, happiness is not an inner feeling but the condition of living well.
I have found myself in debates with Thomists who are looking to retrieve aspects of his theology in the combat against open theists and those who make God changeable. When I have suggested that Aquinas does not get us to theism with his natural theology because he does not think we can use reason to show that the universe had a beginning, the standard response is that I have not read Aquinas and don’t understand him. When I quote Aquinas as saying natural reason cannot show that the universe had a beginning, the response surprised me. Rather than acknowledging that perhaps Aquinas is not as strong on natural theology as others (Augustine and Hodge both think we can show that the universe had a beginning), I get a reply that astounds me.
Replying to a video by Richard Muller about John Owen and Reason
Mins 1-10 and then 53 to end are directly relevant here.
There’s lots of good stuff here, especially about the history of theology and the details of John Owen. I’m glad to see Owen and Muller rejecting the Platonic theory of knowledge. I appreciate that he says unbelievers are given truths but do not respect them as such, meaning they don’t believe them (rather than saying everyone knows), thus avoiding the problem of akrasia. He does good work on arguing against the skepticism behind some forms of tolerance and defending our ability to use reason to know religious truths. My reflections are meant to be constructive to encourage brothers to greater consistency so they have a more piercing witness against unbelief.
John 1:18: No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. I appreciate Carl referring…
This is an excellent contribution that will delight students of natural theology. It raises all the right questions that will be highlighted here. Natural theology is the systemized study of general revelation. We can and should study general revelation. That also means we should refrain from settling for unsound arguments that claim to support natural theology. We may find ourselves spending as much time weeding out such arguments as we do giving sound arguments. In this new book on natural theology based on lectures from Vos, J.V. Fesko gives us a 52-page introduction that takes us through an overview of Christian thinking about natural theology. From there, we turn to 93 pages of lecture notes from Vos. Fesko explains many of the standard problems about reason and faith in natural theology: does it get us past generic theism, how can reason operate after the fall, what is its relationship to scripture, and does everyone know God? But perhaps most importantly, he helps indicate a number of ambiguities that plague the discussion about natural theology and result in unsound arguments which tarnish nature theology as an endeavor.
Anderson’s stated aim in this work is to defend what he calls ‘The Principle of Clarity’. In his own words, ‘this principle states that if the failure to know God (unbelief) is inexcusable (culpable ignorance), then it must be clear (readily knowable) that God exists’ (2). Anderson also asserts that he aims to establish that The Principle of Clarity is, necessarily, ‘a presupposition to the redemptive claims of Christianity’ (20).
Anderson holds that Christianity teaches that unbelief is culpable ignorance; indeed, he goes so far as to claim that this is Christianity’s ‘central truth’ (201). Moreover, he claims that Christianity teaches that unbelievers need redemption precisely because they are guilty for their unbelief (3). According to Anderson, unbelief is ‘… the central sin for which Christ died’ (2), ‘… the sin that results in all other kinds of sin, … the “root sin”, … “the original sin”, … “the first sin”’ (42). And he claims that ‘if it is true that unbelief is inexcusable, and justice demands payment for wrong, then the suffering and death of Christ … can be understood’ (79).
The thesis of this book is that Christianity teaches that it is inexcusable not to believe in God, and that this fact entails that God’s existence is clear; for ‘Clarity is required for inexcusability’ (p. 2). Further, it is not enough to be ‘personally certain or persuaded that God exists’; there must be objective certainty (p. 4). So the central theme is ‘the principle of clarity’, clarity meaning ‘the impossibility of the alternative’ (p. 139). Anderson puts his claim very strongly: ‘maximal responsibility requires maximal clarity, and Historic Christianity claims that there is a maximal responsibility to believe in God, so it must prove that there is maximal clarity concerning God’s existence’ (pp. 57–58, italics in original).
This is a remarkable thesis. For while many are personally certain that God exists, only some philosophers, those who believe that they have an absolute proof of God’s existence, can attain to the clarity that consists in being aware of the impossibility of the alternative. It would seem that, according to Anderson, the rest of us, the large majority, are left in inexcusable sin. This will even include himself, for by the end of the book he has not produced the proof required for absolute clarity.
As you know, Lydia McGrew is one of the sharpest Christian philosophers today. Her recent work is a robust defense of the New Testament against evangelicals rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) higher criticism and relying on literary devices to fictionalize portions of the New Testament. Lydia and I have agreed on much but have also had some vigorous discussions. Here is one of them.
The context is a post of mine comparing the Materialist positing uncaused events and the Libertarian positing uncaused events. It then focused on if Libertarianism believes in uncaused events and if we can be independent the way God is or if we are always dependent because we, unlike God, had a beginning. This specific post came in the context of a few posts by me about Libertarians maintaining that a free will is uncaused. Some Libertarians commented that I am “straw-manning” (verb form of the straw man fallacy) them and they claimed no Libertarians believed the will is uncaused (at least in part). Here we see that Libertarians do indeed believe that and also believe that the human agent is not dependent. This confirms my original comparison in the post. The Christian tells the Materialist that there are no uncaused events and so the universe had a cause because the universe had a beginning. The same Christian then says that the problem of evil is solved by a free will, and a free will (which has a beginning) is at least partly uncaused.
David Haines is helping to reinvigorate the study of natural theology with two new books. Without Excuse and Natural Theology call us to think deeply on this most important subject. The covers of both of these books play with the contrast of light and dark. A light shining in the darkness. The cover for Natural Theology adds in the boat tossed in stormy waves. This reminds of us the disciples and “oh you of little faith, do you still not understand?” When we think about light and darkness the impression can be that we are doing the best we can but are left in darkness and tossed in a storm. But the truth of this imagery is that the darkness is self imposed and the storm is due to our own lack of understanding. The light of the glory of God shines clearly all around and yet we imagine ourselves without a revelation of God. We excuse the Greek and Roman philosophers for their unbelief because we imagine them doing their best with what they had rather than denying what was clearly revealed all around them.
Having studied and worked on natural theology for the last 25 years I have always been amazed at the general neglect of this subject. The tendency has been toward either evidentialism or presuppositionalism. My research and books have all engaged natural theology as I hoped to see the field infused with more energy and attention. Perhaps this is finally happening. Two new books by David Haines address this subject. Together they make a case for the Aristotelian/Thomist approach to natural theology against the presuppositional approach represented by VanTil.
Natural Theology is a historical work that looks to defend Christian engagement in natural theology from critics like Barth or VanTil. It correctly points to the rich history of Christian work in natural theology. It also highlights the many mixtures of error with non-Christian philosophers that have resulted. If the basic truth is that general revelation clearly reveals the eternal power and divine nature of God so that unbelief is without excuse, then 1) the Christian must be able to give the arguments that show these truths about God and 2) the Christian should be able to demonstrate how the wisdom of this world in Plato or Aristotle evinces culpable ignorance and is without excuse in unbelief about God. Far from doing all that can be done in natural theology without scripture, these philosophers came short on the first things and are indicted in their failure to know what is clear about God from general revelation. The following is a reflective engagement with these two books and the clarity of general revelation. The main topic is to highlight that, whatever useful arguments Aristotle gave, he fundamentally came short in the knowledge of God available in general revelation and he directed his followers away from the works of God.
I get asked: “What type of philosopher are you?” Well, I’m not
1. A classical philosopher. I’m sympathetic to the big questions this school asks. But the best of these denied the eternal power of God and instead set up a system where God is co-eternal and our highest good is an otherworldly beatific vision.