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Drange-Wilson Debate: Wilson’s First Rebuttal


Dr. Drange began his Argument from Confusion (AC) by noting that Christians differ among themselves. This is certainly true, and I am afraid I shall have to begin by providing him with yet another example of it. Fortunately for my case, this particular disagreement among Christians provides an answer to his Argument from Nonbelief (ANB).

In brief, the ANB says that if the God of Christians existed He would surely have done far more than He has done to save lost humanity. He seems to have declared His desire to do so, and since He is supposed to be omnipotent, His failure to do anything significant to bring about universal or near-universal salvation for mankind would appear to be an argument that He is actually not there. For if He were there, would He not act on the basis of His declared intentions?

Now one of the intramural disagreements that is present within the Christian faith is the debate between the Reformed (sometimes called Calvinists) on the one hand, and Arminians on the other. Arminians hold that God loves all men equally, and that He desires all men distributively (that is, each and every man) to be saved. Calvinists hold that God loves only the elect redemptively, and that He passes by those who were not predestined to salvation. I am a Calvinist, and this leaves me in the odd position of agreeing with the force of ANB. But as a Christian I am afraid it only has limited force.

Clearly, the ANB as an atheistical torpedo (AT) hits the Arminian understanding of the Christian faith squarely amidships. I have to confess that, as far as I am concerned, it presents a formidable challenge to those Christians who hold to the premises outlined by Dr. Drange. I cannot imagine how an Arminian Christian would answer the challenge he presents. But at the same time, the argument does not topple the truth of Christianity; it only topples a particular understanding of Christianity. A significant, historical wing of the Church would flatly deny certain key premises upon which the argument rests. Far from providing an argument against Christianity, it actually provides an argument against adopting Arminianism because, the Calvinist could argue, Arminianism is incapable of defending the faith at this point.

But Dr. Drange does more than simply argue from a general consensus of Christians. He argues from the Bible to show that the God of Scripture loves all men distributively. But immediately, the Calvinist finds himself on familiar ground. Many of the texts mentioned by Dr. Drange are classical texts in the Calvinist/Arminian debate. He cites 1 Timothy 2:4, for example. God wants “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The Greek word for “all” here is “pas”, which in this context can be accurately translated either as “all men” (distributively), or as “all kinds of men.” Because that passage begins with a reference to all kinds of men (1 Tim. 2:1-2), verse four cannot be lifted from its context to mean each and every man. Calvinists submit to the authority of Scripture, and so they consistently and cogently argue that while some texts appear to teach a universal distributive love, the teaching of the whole Bible is against this supposition. The texts which appear to contradict this superficially are in general quite easily answered. The literature on this is simply immense, and the Reformed wing, while not accustomed to arguing these points with atheists, can effectively argue all these points nonetheless.

For another example, Dr. Drange appeals to those passages in which God commands all men to repent and believe, indicating that He must desire them to do so. The Calvinist simply replies that this only means that God requires them to do so, and nothing more. Dr. Drange also appeals to the love of God for humanity, but again, this misses every Calvinist target. The Calvinist Christian is quite willing to say that unregenerate man is by nature an object of wrath, and that God hates those who live in their wickedness.

The sum of all this is to say that for the ANB to be a compelling case against the Christian faith, it would have to have to work equally well against all recognized forms of the Christian faith. It would not do, for instance, to say that Christianity must be wrong because Christians do not baptize infants. This would not work because a large section of the Church does in fact baptize infants. In the same way, the ANB is an argument against a particular understanding of God within Christianity, not an argument against the whole. And thus it fails.

And now, to the argument from confusion (AC). I would like to divide Dr. Drange’s argument here into two portions, and deal with them separately. The first portion has to do with the disagreements among Christians, and the confusion which exists among them to a large degree.

It is certainly clear that not every sect of Christianity can be correct. And the fact that we have so many of them is certainly an embarrassment to the Church. But how does it constitute an argument against the truth of the faith itself? If we take one hundred copies of one book, and give them to one hundred different people, who take them into one hundred different rooms, read them through, and emerge with one hundred variant interpretations, we certainly have a problem. But where is the problem? The book only says one thing. Where is the variable? Clearly it is within the people, and not within the book. This would be an argument, and a strong one, against trusting human wisdom, but hardly an argument against any truths the book itself contained.

Dr. Drange seeks to make this part of the AC work by appealing to what God would certainly desire for all Christians if He did in fact exist. He says, for example, that God would “prevent Christians from becoming confused in their beliefs about his nature and system of governance in ways that have importance to their lives and that interfere with them coming to love him.” This would have more force than it does if the confusion to which he points were an everlasting condition — if Baptists and Presbyterians were destined to continue their doctrinal struggles on the other side of the Jordan. But all Christians affirm that our current troubles, confusions, disagreements, etc. are not permanent, and that God has promised to bring His Church into a final and glorious unity. The fact that He does not do so instantaneously may displease Dr. Drange, but surely God has good reasons for the delay. We can see a dim reflection of this kind of wisdom on a human level. As a parent, I have often let my children make their own mistakes as an important part of bringing them up to maturity. The basic problem with this portion of the AC is that it all depends upon Dr. Drange arbitrarily determining what God would have to want to do on this point if He existed. And so this part of the argument is not at all compelling.

The second part of the AC is more to the point, and this is the portion where Dr. Drange makes the claim that the Bible is self-contradictory, unclear, and erroneous. The charge of self-contradiction and error is a serious challenge, but until he brings particulars forward, the charge can be met with a simple denial. And so I assert that the Bible does not contain self-contradictory statements, or “errors.” It is true that the Bible is not always clear to us, but that takes us back to the problem mentioned above, which is our ignorance and instability.

Related to this, he points to debates about manuscript authority, and canonicity, which involve the additional issue of Church authority. When Christians affirm the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, the question from unbelievers, “Which Bible?”, is an entirely reasonable one. The historic answer given by the Protestant faith (and I believe the Church has the authority and responsibility to give this answer) is that the Bible contains 66 books, Genesis to Revelation, and that only one manuscript tradition for each Testament is contains the canonical text. The modern plethora of translations, and competing claims of alternative readings, are not the result of the Church wielding her authority, but rather represent a usurpation of this authority by academia and big business. If Dr. Drange’s challenge helps to hasten the day when the modern Church will reassume her authority to recognize and defend the one text of the Bible, I for one will be very grateful. But in the meantime, the fact that Rupert Murdoch has become a Biblemonger does not constitute an argument against the truth of Christianity.

And so we see above my answers to the two arguments presented by Dr. Drange. But just so that we might keep our eye on the ball, allow me to conclude by reiterating my central point made in my first installment. We are well into our debate, and we should see this is more than a little bit like my Ranger pick-up quarreling with me over the existence of Henry Ford.

Too many theists treat their faith in God as a customer in a paint store might. The neutral base color is supplemented by the clerk until the shopper gets the hue he likes. In a similar way, many think of the concept God as something that can be supplemented in various sectarian ways, giving the worshiper Allah, or Zeus, or whomever. This approach I believe to be inconsistent with the revelation God has given of Himself in Scripture. He has not revealed the category Deity, and then offered to fill the job for us. Rather, He has revealed Himself. As the great prophet Isaiah stated, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. There is no searching of His understanding” (Is. 40:28).

Remember that reason, or logic, has preconditions. After reading his first installment, it is quite apparent to me that Dr. Drange and I agree on this point — that is, that the authority of reason is inescapable. No one can successfully escape the claims of rationality. Those who deny reason must appeal to the authority of reason in order to deny it. If someone were to challenge the authority of reason, and we were to ask them why they did so, they would say, “Because . . .” , followed by an argument. They would not say that “ice cream has no bones and the higher they fly the much.”

But the inescapability of reason does not mean that reason is self-attesting, or self-authenticating. Our experience of reason is limited; we can only generalize by induction which reason itself tells us is logically risky. How then, can we say that reason is universally authoritative?

This bring us to the next question, which is, “What are the necessary preconditions for this state of binding reason?” We cannot dispute that reason is this way, but reason enables us to ask why it is this way. And we should be able to determine the kind of circumstances which would keep reason from being this way. If we were to imagine, for example, a universe in which all was chaos, and reason was non-existent, would that universe have a God, or no God? Certainly, there would be no God. But then what distinguishes it from the universe the atheist believes himself to inhabit?

It is important to note that I am not seeking to argue to a particular conclusion, but rather I am seeking to identify the assumptions from which everyone inescapably reasons. Put another way, I am not seeking to argue to God as the conclusion. I am seeking to show that God is the inescapable Premise, the necessary foundation from which all argument proceeds. His existence does not depend upon our reason; our reason depends upon His existence. As was well said centuries ago — credo ut intelligam. “I believe that I might understand.”

We live in a shared house, Dr. Drange and I, and we agree that the walls are plumb, the floors are level. P cannot equal not P, and squares are not non-squares. In this figure, picture the straight walls as emblematic of reason. So here is the thought experiment I would like to suggest. What kind of foundation is a necessary precondition for straight walls? Suppose two men, living in the house, agreed that straight walls were all around them. One of them, however, suggested that the foundation was made of jello. Why not? Or perhaps he said that no foundation was necessary, and that straight walls were self-evident, and self-attesting. The reason this cannot work is that the assumed preconditions are utterly inconsistent with the assumed results. The non-existent foundation cannot hold up an existent house. If we postulate that there is no God, and seek to understand the straightness of our walls, we quickly discover nonsense at every turn.

One final point. The laws of logic are a portion of the spiritual world. Before Dr. Drange can use them, he must show that they are a part of the only universe he acknowledges to have existence. This is, of course, an impossible task. How much does modus ponens weigh? What color is the fallacy of the undistributed middle?

What should our conclusion be then? A reminder: what are the necessary preconditions for trust in the authority of reason? The answer of the Christian is not one of an impersonal philosophical construct, but rather an offering of thanksgiving to our Father, who sent His Son to die for sinners. “Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When God brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad” (Ps. 53:6).

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