Conservative Christian Theism and the Argument from Non-Obviousness

Here's an argument I'm toying with. Note: it's very rough -- lots of cleaning up to do, qualifications to make, etc. At this point, I just want to get the basic point on the table and (hopefully) get some feedback.

Some apologists today describe the epistemic force of the case for theism in very modest terms: Christians are within their epistemic rights in believing in God. This sort of view allows that while it can be reasonable to be a theist, it can also be reasonable to be a non-theist.[1]

Apologists who make these sorts of claims are often conservative Christians -- people who believe that, e.g., Paul's epistles are accurately recorded in the New Testament. However, I'm not sure I see how these two views can fit together coherently. For Paul seems to have thought that it's not possible for a normal adult to be a rational non-theist. In fact, he seems to think that such non-belief is only possible by illicitly suppressing the truth about what one knows about God. Here are some of Paul's words in Romans 1: 18-23:

"18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Thus, from the passage above, it seems that Paul thinks that non-believers suppress the obvious truth about an evident God, and that the obviousness of the existence and nature of God is seen through the Creation. And if that's right, then it seems that the cost of the humble claims apologists make about the evidence for theism is holding a view that entails that Paul was wrong: what Paul says in the epistle to the Romans is false. It seems to me, then, that apologists have a choice: (i) defend the claim that the evidence makes the existence and nature of a theistic God evident, or (ii) reject conservative Christianity.

Start with the first option. Taking this route requires apologists to defend the view that the existence and nature of God can not just be seen, but clearly seen (as Paul says in Romans), such that if some don't believe, then they are illicitly suppressing the truth about God. But that's a tough pill to swallow. For even among the Christian philosophers who think the evidence for theism isn't too shabby, few think the evidence is that strong.

The other alternative is to say that Paul was wrong, and that what he said in Romans is false.[2] But again, that's a hard pill to swallow for a conservative Christian. In fact, that seems to be incompatible with conservative Christianity: at a minimum, they have to reject a doctrine taught by the apostle Paul.

In short, it appears that a common contemporary apologetic stance about the evidence for theism is incompatible with conservative Christianity, and that this leads to a dilemma: either the apologist must hold onto Paul's teaching and strengthen their claim about the clarity and strength of the evidence for theism, or retain their modest claim about the evidence and reject Paul's teaching about it. But the former requires holding an implausible view about the strength of the evidence, and the latter requires saying that Paul's teaching in Romans is false. I'm not sure the apologist will be happy with either horn of this dilemma.

In fact, it appears that one can take the argument further and state it as an argument against conservative Christian theism:

1. Either the existence and nature of God are clearly seen through the creation or the apostle Paul was wrong.
2. The existence and nature of God are not clearly seen through the creation (it's possible to survey the evidence for theism, and yet rationally disbelieve, or at least suspend judgement).
3. Therefore, the apostle Paul was wrong. (from 1 and 2)
4. If the apostle Paul was wrong, then conservative Christian theism is false.
5. Therefore, conservative Christian theism is false. (from 3 and 4)

This argument is stronger than the standard argument from divine hiddenness. For the latter is open to the Skeptical Theist reply that for all we know, God has reasons for remaining hidden, and these reasons are beyond our ability to grasp. But on the current argument, the NT seems to leave no room for this, as the NT seems to commit the conservative believer to the thesis that in fact God is not hidden; the evidence for his existence is not only seen, but clearly seen.
[1] Of course, such a view is compatible with the view that the evidence for theism is much stronger than that. However, as I will argue below, conservative Christians are committed to the stronger, latter sort of view qua conservative Christians.
[2] For simplicity's sake, I leave out the disjunct that the New Testament inaccurately reports what Paul said on the matter, as that option also entails that conservative Christian theism is false.


Mike Almeida said...

Thus, from the passage above, it seems that Paul believes non-believers suppress the obvious truth about an evident God.

But it isn't clear that Paul is speaking about ALL non-believers, at least not in the quoted passage. He writes,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men [which men?, all non-believers? some non-believers?all non-believers who suppress the truth?] who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

That aside, maybe non-belief alone is not sufficient to suppress the truth. Maybe he is talking about those who expressly deny God's existence or promulgate atheistic views to others.

Ron said...

Further in that epistle to the Romans Paul says, "So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened." (1:20-21)

Since humanity has been around for a while this 'darkened' state has been around for quite some time. We know that polytheism, animism, and such have been much more popular in the history of religion than monotheism, until quite recently. Their is evidence (here I am referring to Eliade's The Sacred and Profane) that behind the ancient polytheisms was a basic monotheism. If this is true then Paul is right that God's existence and our moral responsibility to him were plainly known. It isn't anymore though and hasn't been for some time now.

What do you think of this response to the dilemma you pose?

atimetorend said...

"For even among the Christian philosophers who think the evidence for theism isn't too shabby, few think the evidence is that strong."

But so many apologists and lay people defending the faith of conservative Christianity are not philosophers, and so it is relatively easy for them to toss out that the truth of conservative Christianity is plain for all to see, such as there is not excuse for unbelief.

So this verse becomes yet another feather in the hat of apologists who are aiming to bolster the faith of those who already believe and will readily say "Amen" to the verses from Romans.

That said, and knowing you already are aware of all that, I think you have a good point. That, along with the hiddeness of God, shoots down conservative Christianity quite soundly to me. It is funny to see apologists argue it, as though proving general theism itself is adequate to prove conservative Christianity. I guess it is a stepping stone on that path for them.

Reuben said...

I agree. As Doc Bill Craig has written in his book, "perhaps Pascal was right in saying that God had given evidence sufficiently clear for those with an open heart, but sufficiently vague so as to not compel those whose hearts are closed." This is a far cry from "for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them" (v. 19, ESV).

Also, contra Mr. Almeida, I find that a plain reading of the text lends itself to be understood as passing a sweeping judgment upon the swath of humankind. According to the ESV (which my hermeneutics teacher instructed every student to purchase), "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." Note the comma after "men," which significantly alters the reading as compared to without it.

Wes said...

It does look like you've identified two incompatible beliefs that a lot of conservative Christians appear to hold (at least, I know a lot of conservative Christians who believe both of these). Whether or not the interpretation you've identified is necessarily the only one a conservative Christian could hold seems to be the important point.

If the interpretation truly is up-for-grabs, I wonder if the best you can do is conclude that the interpretation you've given (and many Christians believe) is false (i.e. given the truth of your 2nd premise).

PatrickMefford said...

In this quasi-philosophical discussion the word "gnontes" connotes an inceptive, speculative sort of information about God that Paul thinks the heathen could not help but have.

I think the context of the passage is clear. Paul is speaking of all Pagans in history up to his time.

exapologist said...

Thanks for your helpful comments, all!

So it looks as though a key revision involves justification that I have the interpretation right. My suspicions are with Reuben, Atimetorend, and Paddy Jive that the interepretation is correct.

Yes, a Christian can take the route your suggesting. However, it comes at the steep price of offering some reason or reasons that show why a theistic God obviously exists. I suspect that will be hard to do!


Pastor Tom said...

Wouldn't Plantinga argue that the non-theist may be justified in holding their beliefs (as justification is such an easy thing to obtain) while still not possessing knowledge (due to their cognitive machinery not properly functioning, perhaps due to ignoring the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis?) Thus while they may be justified in this weaker sense, they are not justified in the strong sense that Paul would probably be using. In other words, they may be justified (who isn't? We can be justified in believing many wildly false and improbable beliefs on Plantinga's account), but they are still rationally/spiritually culpable.

Further, Paul elsewhere teaches that spiritual forces are interfering with our decisions (2 Cor. 4:4; 10:3-5). Although the rational choice (whilst properly functioning) would be belief in God, people can get so entangled so as to not recognize the truth even though it is plain (to the properly functioning person).

Even further, Paul's theology clearly state that spiritual truths are discerned spiritually--in some sense we must be open to God to receive the instruction of his Spirit, and God will truly hide himself from those who are corrupt (Rom 8:5-8; cf. Ps 18:26). He is morally justified in doing this due to his perfect knowledge of the conditions of our hearts; it seems reasonable to suppose that he would not hide himself from someone who would truly repent and follow him if he revealed himself in such a way. But to those who have turned away from God, he gives them the desires of their heart by darkening their minds and keeping himself hidden (which seems to be the best interpretation of the later section of Romans 1, i.e. given them over to an unsound mind, etc.).

One may object that the above is absurd, etc., but such arguments would only matter if the believer were arguing for these views from a perspective devoid of Scriptural backup. The argument you offered sought to show incompatibility between two beliefs of the inerrantist. To counter this argument, he need merely show that these two beliefs can be held in some compatible way (no matter how absurd the reasons seem to a non-theistic observer). Further, given that the inerrantist sees Scripture as the primary source of knowledge and revelation, and considering that the whole of Scripture seems to teach along the above lines, the inerrantist need have no problem holding that non-theists are rationally justified in some Plantingian way while still being false and morally culpable for not responding in the appropriate way to an obvious truth that would be obvious to them had they not rejected God and his revelation (i.e. had they been properly functioning).

Further, I don't think the suggestions that beliefs and reasons are based on or influenced by non-doxastic factors is itself absurd. Kuhn seems to have pretty clearly shown that, and Plantinga's account of justification makes use of a spiritual, non-doxastic sort of rational faculty in the sensus divinitatis. The non-theist probably disagrees with Plantinga's account, but that doesn't matter; all the theist has to do to shut down this argument is show that s/he has the resources to reconcile these two beliefs.

What do you think? I'm interested in hearing replies. Sorry that this isn't laid out well conceptually; it's bed time. :) My intent isn't to publish a journal entry, but merely to put some thoughts out there for dialogue.

Pastor Tom said...

Also, some methodological considerations:

1) According to conservative exegesis you must at least a) Interpret Paul in light of all his writings (this is obviously true and is the basis of any type of literary criticism), and b) Interpret Paul in light of all Scripture (this is more controversial a claim and can be reasonably rejected by the non-theist, and even a theist without the further assumption that all Scripture is ultimately the work of one author. With this assumption, the conclusion will naturally follow when joined with strand a, above--interpret the one author in light of all the author's works).

2) The principle of charity. We have an obligation to assign to each person maximal non-contradictory beliefs. If one rejects interpreting Paul's statements in light of his other statements based on exegetical/literary critical grounds (why would you), it's harder to get around this principle of charity for it seems to be a backbone of all of our theorizing about other minds, meaning, language, etc.

The reason I bring this up is because Paul's theology on the epistemology of unbelievers is more complex than a simple reading of Romans 1; we must examine such other passages as I chose above. Without going into a detailed study, it seems he has two components that must be reconciled--the obviousness to properly functioning individuals, and the blindness of improperly functioning individuals. We've got to give justice to both.

Again, the non-conservative may object to Paul's or the conservative Christian's conclusion, but that doesn't matter. At this stage all the conservative has to do to disarm this argument is show that there is a way for them to reasonably hold both beliefs--obviousness of God and inerrancy of Scripture.

So I don't think you can get this argument off the ground without a detailed study of Paul's theology of the epistemological situation of unbelievers. Even then, I don't think there's much hope as there seems to be enough ambiguity in the passages to admit of several different philosophical/exegetical interpretations and the conservative can always claim that inerrancy and obviousness are not contradictory on interpretation X.

Thanks for the post; I'm really enjoying the blog!

T said...

Really enjoying the discussion here...and I do think that it's not fair to try to second-guess Paul's writing without comparing it to his other writings. I also would say that Paul often seems contradictory, but I would guess it's more our modern problem of translation and understanding. Look at the passages some use to support predestination. I, who don't really consider myself a conservative Christian, would say that to certain extent one can be confronted by any truth and still not believe. I do think that where the comma is or not, Paul seems to be alluding to those who once had a child-like understanding of a Creator-god. But believing in monotheism may or may not mean a belief in God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or maybe it does, as long one is focusing on the Creator-singular. I do think that nature as an indicator to a Creator (and a law that's been written on the hearts of ALL men?) and therefore the Abrahamic God and Jesus is incompatible with conservative Christianity...but again they'll claim to believe anything so long as they can boast they believe in the inerrancy of scripture.

My two cents anyways.

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