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.
Def Common notions (English and Scottish common sense): Truths that man is predisposed to believe upon activation by experience. Truths about God and morality. They are immediate, and given the nature of the inbred principle, they cannot be otherwise. They are like intuitions. Common notions of God arise from apprehending order. The problem is 1) design arguments do not get us to God, 2) we beg the question if we say God made us to believe in him when we see order and order proves God is real-the fundamental circular reasoning in Alvin Plantinga.
How do we know these common notions 1) are there for all, 2) are accurate. 1. Obviously, we haven’t asked every person, so this is not an empirical claim. It is a claim about how God created us. But then that means it cannot be used as part of a proof for God’s existence without circular reasoning. There may indeed be common notions due to how God made us, but we need to show God exists (and we can) without relying on common notions and falling into a circle. 2. That we have a common notion of, say, God’s existence doesn’t mean it is accurate. We have to add that God made us that way; thus, we can trust common notions, which then gets us into circular reasoning. Perhaps these common notions are due to evolutionary adaptation or are part of our karmic suffering under illusion, or our cultural-psychological development given our historical situation, etc. When he said they could not be otherwise, he said this is due to how we were made which begs the question. We need to show they cannot be otherwise by showing the opposite leads to a contradiction, such as calling what is not God (something that had a beginning) our God (what had no beginning)—this is the error described in Romans 1:21-23.
Why it matters: the challenge of modernity to the Reformation has been that foundational beliefs, such as belief in God, are mere assertions and cannot be shown to be true. This challenge says that each religion has its own “common notions,” and there is no reason to accept one more than another. The challenge says that there are simple fallacies at work among those who believe in God, for example, begging the question (I know God is real bc of common notions, and we have common notions bc God made us that way).
Second why it matters: the Gospel’s call to repent cannot be fallacious. We call to repent of unbelief which is without excuse. So the Gospel is not circular: repent, why?, your unbelief, but why should I believe?, God made you that way. Instead, repent, why?, your unbelief, but why should I believe?, your unbelief is self-contradictory and so without excuse (claiming to be wise, you are a fool). So it isn’t “you’re in sin because you know these things,” it is “you’re in sin which is unbelief,” culpable ignorance of what you could have known by reason.
The problem begins with an inadequate definition of Reason. Muller begins with intuitions and propositions about God and the world. But more basic than that is Reason as the laws of thought. We use reason to form concepts such as “eternal” and “not eternal,” “beginning,” and “no beginning.” That doesn’t yet tell us what is real. The way we get to the impossibility of the contrary is by actually showing it leads to a contradiction (we are using the law of non-contradiction), not by asserting it cannot be otherwise due to how we were made. So we can use reason to critically evaluate the possible beliefs about what is eternal and show which of them leads to a contradiction. I believe what we are left with is God defined in WSC #4, not merely an uncaused cause or designer or moral governor. This use of reason doesn’t beg the question by appealing to intuitions created in us by God. It is true that God made us to use reason and know him, but we aren’t appealing to that as a premise in our argument.
Historically, what happened after Owen is that challenges to belief in God were raised, and they require greater awareness and consistency in our response. These challenges force us to be critical thinkers. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Owen because he lived before these challenges (although everyone at any time should know not to beg the question). But it means we cannot simply go back to quoting people. We need to know what happened since. God permitted those challenges for a purpose of cleansing where our thought process was not tight enough, and we could know God with more clarity. This is why I recommend Hodge’s systematics because he does know of these challenges and answers them. But even so, Hodge is almost two centuries back, and much has been raised up against the knowledge of God since then that we need to address.
As Owen affirms, we can use reason to know God and to determine the truth of religious beliefs. The skepticism underlying modern pluralism is false and should be exposed. But we can go further in explaining the most basic use of reason and how to show it is clear God exists. It is good for us to recognize when there has been circular reasoning and to fix it. We can show that it is clear God exists so that unbelief is without excuse. Let’s learn to do it.