Christianity And Its Factual Defense
The following is the unedited unabridged Chapter Four from “Christian Theistic Evidences”
by Cornelius Van Til
From the discussion in the preceding chapters we conclude that if we seek to defend the Christian religion by an “appeal to the facts of experience” in accord with the current scientific method, we shall have to adulterate Christianity beyond recognition. The Christianity defended by Bishop Butler was not a full-fledged Christianity. It was a Christianity neatly trimmed down to the needs of a method that was based upon non-Christian assumptions. And what was true of Butler is largely true of English-American evidences and apologetics in general.
This situation places us before a dilemma. It seems that if we wish to be “scientific” in our methodology we cannot defend a full Christianity, while if we wish to defend a full-fledged Christianity we cannot be “scientific.” If this dilemma be a true dilemma we cannot but make the choice for a full-fledged Christianity.
If at this point our opponents smile and intimate that Christianity is, therefore, according to our own notion of it, simply a matter of irrational choice, we need not worry too greatly. For if the dilemma mentioned above be a true dilemma, it follows that our opponents as well as ourselves have chosen a position. We have chosen to follow full-fledged Christianity at all costs, while they have chosen to follow the “scientific method” at all costs.
Yet there is even so a basic difference between the two choices that are made. The choice we have made, we claim, is based upon the fact that we have first been chosen of God, while the choice our opponents have made, they claim, is made entirely by themselves.
Still further we have become aware of the fact that we are chosen of God only after accepting the truth of Christianity from the Bible. Thus the Bible appears at the outset to us as the absolute authority by which we seek to interpret life.
From the point of view of our opponents, our position is by this time hopeless. How can there be any rational arguments with those who have substituted the position of authority for that of reason? So, for instance, Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel, in their book, An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, divide the various methods of interpreting life as follows: First there is the method of tenacity. That means that we simply hold on to our beliefs that we have been taught in our childhood, because we do not have the mental energy to look into new hypotheses. Then there is the method of authority. Of course, they say, there is a legitimate appeal to authority. When we wish to know what diet or exercise will relieve certain distressing physical symptoms we ask the doctor. But this authority is only relatively final. We always reserve the right to modify the findings of the expert. But there is, he says, a second and objectionable kind of authority. Such an authority “invests some sources with infallibility and finality and invokes some external force to give sanction to their decisions.” 1 He adds: “The aim of this method, unanimity and stability of belief, cannot be achieved so long as authorities differ. Buddhists do not accept the authority of the Christians, just as the latter reject the authority of Mohamet and the Koran.” 2 Thirdly, there is the method of intuition. But what people once believed on intuition, as they thought, has since been proved to be mistaken in many cases. There remains then the method of science of reflective inquiry. It alone is free from caprice and willfulness. The other methods, so far from leading us to certainty, lead us into an irrational interpretation of life. On the other hand, the method of reflective inquiry, “which takes advantage of the objective connections in the world around us, should be found reasonable not because of its appeal to the idiosyncracies of a selected few individuals, but because it can be tested repeatedly and by all men.” 3
This modern statement of the requirements of scientific methodology, so far from turning us back, can only establish us in our determination not to hide anything of our belief that Christianity is, for better or for worse, a religion of authority. In fact, it alone is a religion of authority. The other “religions of authority” teach a relative authority, an authority that is, after all, subject to the final judgment of man. We cannot develop this point here. Suffice to intimate that we do not wish to hide the fact that in the last analysis we make every thought captive to the obedience of the revelation of God as it has come to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
It should be interjected at this point that when we say that we do not hide the fact that we submit to absolute authority, this does not imply that we must always and in every instance bring in the discussion of authority at the outset of every argument with those we seek to win for Christianity. This may frequently be omitted, if only we ourselves do not fall into the temptation of thinking that we can stand on neutral ground with those who hold to a non-Christian position.
What it implies, to say that Christianity is the religion of authority, may be learned if we now turn to a consideration of the teaching of Scripture on some of the points at issue between Christians and non-Christians.
Fundamental to all the differences between Christians and non-Christians is the conception of God that both parties entertain. If we search the Scriptures to see what sort of God it holds before us, it does not take long to see that as the Bible itself comes to us with authority, so the God that speaks from it is a sovereign God. The God of the Bible existed as the self-sufficient Being before the world was. We are told that he exists as the Triune God. That is, there are three persons in the ontological Trinity, which are equally ultimate in the Godhead. God needed nothing beside himself in order to be conscious of himself. His affirmation of himself was internally complete.
Accordingly, when God did freely create something beside himself, this something, the universe, could never become a correlative to himself. Least of all could man, who was one of the creatures of God, develop principles of interpretation or a method of reflective inquiry that could interpret life correctly without the presupposition of God. Every fact and every law in the created universe is brought into existence by God’s creation. Every fact and every law in the created universe continues to exist by virtue of the providence of God. Every fact and every law in the created universe accomplishes what it does accomplish by virtue of the plan or purpose of God. God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, through his Son Jesus Christ.
The full implication of these matters will appear when we contrast this position with the current conception of the scientific method. For the moment we wish to state the Christian principles of interpretation broadly. If we take the Scripture doctrines of God, of creation, of providence, and of the plan of God, we observe that we have a Christian philosophy of fact and a Christian methodology that is squarely opposed to the current philosophy of fact and the current scientific methodology. Scripture teaches that every fact in the universe exists and operates by virtue of the plan of God. There are no brute facts for God. As to his own being, fact and interpretation are co-extensive. There are no hidden unexplored possibilities in God. And as to the universe, God’s interpretation logically precedes the denotation and the connotation of all facts of which it consists.
In contrast to this, the current philosophy of fact and of method takes for granted the ultimacy of brute facts. This point was involved even in the idealist conception of logic as we have traced it in the previous chapter. If any God is discovered by the current scientific method, it is invariably a God who, as the internally complete self-conscious being, is set over against a universe in which there are irrational facts, and the two are then made correlative to one another. It is taken for granted by the current scientific method that there is a realm that is truly known to man, even though God be not taken into the picture. Or even if it be admitted that we perhaps need a God for the interpretation of life, we need him only as a help to ourselves. We might compare this point of view to the attitude taken by science when a new planet appears upon the horizon. When a new planet is discovered, scientists can explain the movement of the heavenly bodies somewhat better than they could before. This new planet is only one force among many that influence the behavior of the heavenly bodies. And the new planet not only influences other planets, but is itself influenced in turn by the other planets which are on a par with itself as to their originality of existence.
Before developing these matters further, we may observe that the second aspect of biblical teaching concerns the question of sin and redemption. Here again it is the sovereign God who meets us. When man fell into sin, God, the triune God, graciously provided redemption for his people. He was sovereign in that he needed not to have given redemption to any, and he is sovereign in that he does not give it to all. This work of redemption on the part of God reveals itself in this world in supernatural form. Miracle is at the heart of Christianity. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, are but the central cycle of the larger circle of redemptive works that have proceeded from it.
As to the purpose of redemption, it was both restorative and supplementive. The miracle of redemption graciously dropped into the center of history by God, the creator of history, spreads its influence till it reaches the very circumference of the universe. There is no fact not affected for good or for evil by the redemptive work of Christ. And this includes the acceptance or non-acceptance of redemption. “He that is not for me is against me.”
The consequence of this position is that here too we meet with the same basic alternative between Christian and non-Christian methodology. As Christians we hold it to be impossible to interpret any fact without a basic falsification unless it be regarded in its relation to God the Creator and to Christ the Redeemer. On the other hand, the current methodology takes for granted that at best redemption is one among several independent facts that must be taken into consideration when we interpret facts. For us there can be no true interpretation of facts without miracle; for our opponents, miracle is at best a somewhat unruly fact.
Thus Christian theism stands before us as a unit. It offers to men the conception of God the Creator and Redeemer as the ultimate category of interpretation of every fact of the world. It claims that no fact is intelligible unless seen in relation to central creating-redeeming activity of God as Creator and Redeemer.
That this implies a reversal of the method employed by Butler and the others whom we have discussed in the previous chapters is apparent. We do not offer Christianity to men apologetically, admitting that their interpretation of life is right as far as it goes. In particular, we do not accept the “appeal to facts” as a common meeting place between believers and unbelievers. Christianity does not thus need to take shelter under the roof of “known facts.” It rather offers itself as a roof to facts if they would be known. Christianity does not need to take shelter under the roof of a scientific method independent of itself. It rather offers itself as a roof to methods that would be scientific.
The Scientific Ideal
We turn now to a discussion of the general difference between a truly Christian and the current scientific method by contrasting them on certain definite points. The first point to note is that of the scientific ideal. By the scientific ideal we mean the goal which science has set for itself. This goal of science is that of complete comprehension. Science, as we are told, must work with this ideal before it. We quote the words of Cohen on this point: “A completed rational system having nothing outside of it nor any possible alternative to it, is both presupposed and beyond the actual attainment of any one moment. It coincides in part with the Bradleyan Absolute, but it is an ideal limit rather than an actual experience. Unrealized possibilities are within it precisely to the extent that it contains endless time.” 4
This statement of Cohen’s presents fairly well the common notion of the scientific ideal. If we seek to evaluate this ideal from the Christian point of view, we note that it wipes out the basic distinction between the Creator and the creature. In this it is based upon the suppositions of all non-Christian philosophy. Speaking more particularly, there are two objections to this scientific ideal. As it does not make a difference between God and man, it does not allow that God has “already reached” that scientific ideal. Or rather, it does not allow that all facts exist by virtue of their previous interpretation by God. In the second place, the scientific ideal does not realize that it is illegitimate for a creature to set before itself the notion of comprehending all existence. To do so is to set before itself the being of God as penetrable to the mind of man, inasmuch as he is part of “existence.” This would be to deny the incomprehensibility of God. For man to set before himself the ideal of absolute knowledge is to set God aside as the one who has created the universe and its laws. It would be to absolutize the law of non-contradiction and set it above God.
It may be profitable to develop this criticism of the absolute ideal of science more fully by indicating what is meant by the fact that it is in modern times called a limiting concept. The absolute ideal is said to be a limit toward which man must strive. This notion of a limiting concept has had its first modern expression in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant used this idea of a limiting, or regulative, concept in contrast to the notion of a constitutive concept. He said that we cannot actually by the employment of the categories of the understanding prove the existence of God. Yet we cannot do without the notion of God entirely. We need the notion of God as a correlative to the phenomenal universe. Human thought is itself constitutive. For that reason God’s thought cannot be constitutive. Yet human thought is not comprehensive. For that reason it needs the notion of God as an ideal, as a limit toward which man must strive.
It is difficult to think of a greater contrast than that between this Kantian limiting concept and the notion of God as the constitutive creator and interpreter of the facts of the universe. The latter thinks of man as self-determinative and God-determinative. The latter interprets reality in terms of God. The former interprets reality in terms of man.
The idea of the modern limiting concept involves the notion of pure contingency. The conception of brute fact underlies this ideal. There may always be new facts that may show our interpretations of previously “known” facts to have been mistaken. This fact that science does not look for objective certainty is the counterpart of the fact that it strives for complete comprehension. In the quotation given above, Cohen spoke of “unrealized possibilities” within the very Absolute that he says we need as an ideal. It is on account of these “unrealized possibilities” that the scientific ideal is said to be a limiting concept. The similarity between this position and that of the idealist logicians appears clearly if we recall that idealists are insistent on the need of an absolute but are equally insistent on the need of novelty for the absolute.
Cohen himself expresses the idea that science presupposes contingency. By contingency he does not mean merely contingency for us as human beings. He means contingency for God as well as for man. “To hold seriously to the popular dictum that everything is connected with everything else would make the scientific search for determinate connection meaningless.” 5 Again he adds: “This uneliminable character of contingency is but the logical expression of the metaphysical fact of individuality. There is no universe without a plurality of elements, of atoms, of moments of time, etc. It is a blind hostility to pluralism, a preference for a lazy monism wherein all distinctions and differences are swallowed up, that leads to blatant panlogism from which all contingency is banished. But the latter attempt defeats itself. In the end the universe of existence has the particular character which it has and not some other; and contingency is not removed by being funded in the conception of the whole universe or made into the essential character of reason itself.” 6
It is apparent from this passage that the Christian notion of God as the ultimate interpretative category of experience is thus set aside. As Christians we hold that there would be no explanation of any fact unless all facts were already interpreted by God. Cohen would call this a blind panlogism, that has denied one aspect of reality, namely, its contingency, and has therefore made interpretation of fact impossible.
The same point may be expressed again by saying that for us as Christians the triune God of Scripture is the completely self-determinate experience on which we depend for the determinate character of our experience. On the other hand, for Cohen God is indeterminate in order that our experience may be determinate. As Christians we think of God as having a complete plan for the universe. All things happen in relation to that plan. There is indeterminacy for us, but there is no indeterminacy for God. In contrast with this, Cohen expresses himself in these words:
The total universe is by definition never actually complete in any moment of time, and the principle of causality means that something occupying a given position in time and space can be determined only by something else also occupying a definite position in space and enduring over a definite time-interval. This is not to deny the determinateness of the physical universe in its distributive sense, i.e., in the sense that each thing in it is determinate. But the absolute collective whole is—at least from the point of view of the scientific method—undetermined by anything outside of it, nor can the absolutely total universe be said to have any definite character such that from it we can infer that some particular entity has one rather than another determinate trait. Attempts to characterize the universe as a whole, as one (not many), continuous (not discontinuous), conscious or purposive, and the like, all involve a stretching of the ordinary use of words to include their opposites, and from this only confusion rather than determination can result.
We may put this in a different form by saying that scientific determinism is concerned with the definite character of things rather than with their brute existence. Rational scientific investigation is not concerned with the mystery of creation whereby existence may have come into being out of the void. 7
A little later, Cohen adds,
A metaphysic of scientific method is, then, concerned with the nature of a world in which the result of scientific investigation is always subject to contingency and error, but also to the possibility of self-correction according to an invariable ideal. 8
From this interpretation of the metaphysics of the scientific method by Cohen, it appears again what is meant by saying that the scientific ideal is a limiting concept, and also what is meant by saying that all knowledge is only probable knowledge. For Christianity, God’s thought is constitutive. By God’s thoughts the facts of the universe come into existence. We are, in contrast to Cohen, deeply concerned about the origin of facts. There is no contingency for God, and therefore no probability for God. There is contingency for us and therefore probability for us. But the probable character of our knowledge presupposes the certainty and comprehensiveness of God’s knowledge. We may be uncertain as to whether a particular statement of physical law be correct. But this simply indicates that the knowledge of human beings can never be comprehensive. It never implies a basic scepticism. Then too there are certain facts of which we have absolutely certain, even though not comprehensive, interpretations. We are certain of God’s existence. We are certain that the universe was created by God. We are certain that man fell into sin by eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree. We are certain that Christ died and rose again and sits at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come again to judge the quick and the dead. Our uncertainty about such matters is not based on an ultimate irrationalism. In this, exactly, is it distinguished from the uncertainty of modern scientific methodology. Scientific methodology as we know it in the literature of the day and as it has been developed out of the history of philosophy and science, presupposes an ultimate Chance back of the universe. It could not do otherwise, inasmuch as it thinks that it deals with brute or uninterpreted facts. “Science” thinks it deals with a stream of time out of which the absolutely novel proceeds constantly. “Eternity may thus be viewed,” says Cohen, “as a limit or ordering principle of a series of expanding vistas.” 9 For that reason God can never be thought of as the final or ultimate cause of anything. Cohen says that since reality is in the last analysis indeterminate at the edges, it has no meaning to say that reality as a whole or anything beyond reality as a whole is the cause of any particular thing in this universe. He holds that there may be rational connections between various phenomena in the universe, but that it is unintelligible to speak of God as creating or being the cause of anything in this world.
The current scientific method presupposes the notion of bare possibility. Christianity, on the other hand, presupposes the absolute actuality of God. This difference implies a life and death struggle. The question is simply upon what presupposition does life have significance, or, otherwise stated, upon which presupposition is intelligent predication possible? On which presupposition can there be any knowledge of facts? Only by thus challenging the modern “scientific method” can Christianity be defended. This ought to be plain from the fact just mentioned, that according to the scientific method God can in no sense be said to be the cause of the world or of any specific thing in the world. It is fatal to try to prove the existence of God by the “scientific method” and by the “appeal to facts” if, as Cohen asserts, the scientific method itself is based upon a presupposition which excludes God. That the “scientific method” is not neutral ought to be apparent from what Cohen says about it. Scientific method does, to be sure, begin with the facts, but it begins with brute facts. It insists that facts are and must remain brute facts for God and man alike.
If there should remain any doubt that the scientific method as commonly understood is exclusive of Christianity, we may continue our discussion of it a bit further.
The Non-Existence Of Any Fact
What we have said thus far about the scientific method as described by Cohen, would seem to indicate at first blush that, according to it, any sort of fact might be thought of as existing. This is frequently expressed by saying that we can intelligently think of the non-existence of any fact. In the Dialogues on Natural Religionby Hume, even Cleanthes, the defender of Christianity, took this to be the foundation of all sound reasoning. If this be applied to God as well as to man, it signifies that God is not a necessary being. Now it is perfectly true that the existence of a necessary being cannot be proved if one, with Cleanthes, begins with brute fact. But this exactly shows the fatal character of beginning with brute facts. God as the absolutely necessary self-identifying being must be presupposed as the possibility of intelligent predication of “contingent facts.” The “scientific method” begins by assuming that all facts, God as well as other facts, are contingent facts.
The Theoretical Relevancy Of Any Hypothesis
For the consistent application of the “scientific method” it is necessary to hold that any sort of fact can exist. Corresponding to this claim that any sort of fact may be held to exist, is the notion that theoretically any sort of hypothesis is, to begin with, legitimate and relevant. It is not supposed that practically any hypotheses may legitimately be offered. It is not claimed that in practice any theory is as good as any other. It is taken for granted that we may discover a certain tendence in nature. In practice we must limit ourselves in the offering of such hypotheses as are consistent with that tendency. Nevertheless it remains true that, to begin with, any hypothesis is virtually asserted to be as relevant as any other.
Over against this contention that theoretically any hypothesis is as relevant as any other, we place the Christian position which says that no hypotheses which exclude the necessary self-existence of the triune God of Scripture can be relevant to any group of facts. There is only one absolutely true explanation of every fact and of every group of facts in the universe. God has this absolutely true explanation of every fact. Accordingly, the various hypotheses that are to be relevant to the explanation of phenomena must be consistent with this fundamental presupposition. God’s self-existence is the presupposition of the relevancy of any hypothesis. If one should seek to explain the claim of the disciples of Jesus that their Master’s body was raised from the tomb by offering the hypothesis of hallucination, we reply that the hypothesis is irrelevant. Our further study of the factual evidence in the matter is no more than a corroboration of our assertion of the irrelevancy of such an hypothesis. If one offers the hypothesis of biological evolution as the explanation of man’s appearance on the earth, we reply that the hypothesis is irrelevant. Our further study of the factual material is no more than a corroboration of our assertion of the irrelevancy of this hypothesis.
The Test Of Relevancy
To allow the theoretical relevancy of any sort of hypothesis is to imply that the relevancy of hypotheses must be tested by an appeal to brute facts. That Cohen thinks of the appeal to brute facts as the way in which the relevancy of hypotheses must be determined, may be learned from the following words:
In thus emphasizing the role of reason in scientific method we do not minimize the appeal to experiment and observation, but make the latter more significant. The appeal to experience is thus involved throughout: first as the matrix in which inquiry arises (as that which suggests question), and then as that on which all theories must be tested. We start always with general assumptions and with contingent or empirical data. By no amount of reasoning can we altogether eliminate all contingency from our world. Moreover, pure speculation alone will not enable us to get a determinate picture of the existing world. We must eliminate some of the conflicting possibilities, and this can be brought about only by experiment and observation. The fact that two or more hypotheses are logically possible means that none of them involves self-contradiction. They cannot be eliminated by logic or pure mathematics alone. Experiment or observation of crucial cases is needed for such elimination. When an hypothesis is first suggested we try to see whether it will explain the known facts. But we generally need new situations to determine whether its explanatory power is superior to that of other hypotheses. 10
It is important to see the exact point at issue here. The Christian position is certainly not opposed to experimentation and observation. As Christians we may make various hypotheses in explanation of certain phenomena. But these various hypotheses will always be in accord with the presupposition of God as the ultimate explanation of all things. Our hypotheses will always be subordinate to the notion of God as the complete interpreter of all facts, and if we make our hypotheses about facts subordinate to this God, it follows that there are no brute facts to which we can appeal in corroboration of our hypotheses. We appeal to facts, but never to brute facts. We appeal to God-interpreted facts. This is simply another way of saying that we try to discover whether our hypothesis is really in accord with God’s interpretation of facts. The ultimate test for the relevancy of our hypotheses is therefore their correspondence with God’s interpretation of facts. True human interpretation is implication into God’s interpretation.
In contrast to this, the ordinary scientific method seeks to determine the relevancy of hypotheses by an appeal to brute facts. An ultimate chance is assumed as the matrix of facts. Then the chance collocation of facts is taken as the rational tendency among these brute facts. And the relevancy of an hypothesis is determined by its correspondence to this “rational tendency” in things. Thus the circle is complete. We start with brute fact and we end with brute fact. We presuppose chance as God, and therefore conclude that the God of Christianity cannot exist.
Challenging The “Scientific Method”
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance for Christians of seeing the difference between their position and the current scientific method on the three points that we have considered. A Christian cannot allow the legitimacy of the ideal of complete comprehension. That this ideal is made, a limiting rather than a constitutive concept does not improve matters, but, if possible, makes them worse. It clearly implies that God as creative and constitutive of reality and of true human interpretation is, from the outset, excluded. It implies the elevation of chance to the place of God. Secondly, Christians cannot consistently allow the theoretical relevancy of every sort of hypothesis. This too implies an elevation of chance to the place of God. In the third place, Christians cannot allow the appeal to brute facts as a test of the relevancy of hypotheses. Once more this implies the elevation of chance to the position of God.
There is, accordingly, but one thing that Christians can do. They must challenge the legitimacy of the scientific methodology as based upon an assumed metaphysic of chance. The traditional method of the defense of Christianity has not done this. It has toyed with the idea of neutrality. Accordingly, it was and is willing to allow the legitimacy of the current scientific ideal, the legitimacy of the notion that theoretically any hypothesis is relevant to any group of facts, and the notion that an appeal to brute facts is the test of the relevancy of any hypothesis. This attitude has been fatal. It has made possible the proof of nothing but a finite God, and of a Christianity that is cut after a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic pattern.
Sometimes men seem to have sensed something of this issue. So, for instance, the argument for miracles and their possibility has sometimes been taken out of the domain of physical experiment and placed exclusively in the domain of history. It is assumed that modern physical theory is correct in its method. But it is argued that by physical experiment no known law can be discovered which should make for the a priori impossibility of miracle. The reason for this is that scientific experiment in physics must always end in a margin of error. With the most refined instruments we cannot escape this margin of error. Accordingly, an experimenter, after he has taken a large number of experiments, must take what he thinks is the average result of his experiments. This involves a choice on his part. The scientist can never be wholly passive in scientific experiment. It is unavoidable that he should exercise his choice at some point of the process. Thus an element of uncertainty comes into the picture. The average any scientist has hit upon may not be representative of any particular fact. It follows that one cannot be certain that the resurrection of Christ or the raising of Lazarus has not taken place. We may therefore safely turn to history to see if the testimony for such miracles is reasonably sufficient. And if we find that it is, we may believe in the occurrence of miracles.
Is this sort of reasoning in defense of the miraculous valid and useful? We cannot think so. Suppose that we did go to history and discovered from history that the evidence for the truth of the story that an axehead floated upon the water is sufficient. It is difficult to see how modern physical theory, which accepts experiment as the test of relevancy of an hypothesis, could allow for the possibility of such a fact. If a million experiments were taken with axes thrown into the water, such axe heads would sink each time. There would be no margin of error allowing for the entrance of subjective interpretation. All “known facts” would flatly contradict the notion of the floating axe. Accordingly the “hypothesis” that God made the axe head of the Old Testament story to float would have to be discarded.
But even if we could for a moment forget the consideration just advanced; suppose we did somehow find room to allow for the floating axe head as something that has happened. In that case the floating axe head would still be nothing but a brute fact for which we have so far found no explanation. It would simply be a strange event. It would not be true that by a miraculous power of God the axe head was made to float. Thus it has profited us nothing to seek escape from the field of physics into that of history. If we allow the legitimacy of the current scientific method anywhere, we are at the mercy of our opponents.
The Practical Exclusion Of The Christian “Hypothesis”
That the wolf of scientific method intends to feed on the lamb of Christianity can be learned from a consistent application of that method to the concept of miracle. We have already indicated that for the follower of the “scientific method” miracles can be thought of as nothing but strange events. To this we should now add that the Christian concept of miracle is sometimes definitely and clearly rejected simply by the application of the scientific method. We quote from William Adams Brown to prove this point. Speaking of the intellectual difficulties involved in the acceptance of miracle, he says:
Let us take the intellectual difficulty first. To establish the occurrence of a miracle, whether in the thirteenth century, or in the sixteenth century, or in the seventeenth, it was necessary to show that the event in question was incapable of being explained by natural law. This, though difficult, would not be impossible provided one knew just what was meant by ‘nature’ and what events were explicable by natural law. But today we are no longer sure that we know where to place the exact boundaries of natural law. Natural law is only our name for certain recurrent sequences in the order of the occurrence of phenomena. Nature is not an independent power over against God which acts as a cause among causes. Nature is that part of the totality of things which admits of classification according to principles which embody the results of an analysis of past experience. To prove that an event is a miracle in the sense in which Aquinas or Calvin believed in miracle, it would be necessary not merely to show that it had not yet been possible to assign it its place in the observed sequence, but that it never would be possible to do so in the future, which manifestly cannot be done.
Many modern opponents of miracle are content to rest their case at this point. They do not deny the possibility of miracles, but only the possibility of proving that any particular event is a miracle. Take any of the miracles of the past, the virgin birth, the raising of Lazarus, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Suppose that you can prove that these events happened just as they are claimed to have happened. What have you accomplished? You have shown that our previous view of the limits of the possible needs to be enlarged, that our former generalizations were too narrow and need revision; that problems cluster about the origin of life and its renewal of which we had not hitherto been aware. But the one thing which you have not shown, which indeed you cannot show, is that a miracle has happened; for that is to confess that these problems are inherently insoluble, which cannot be determined until all possible tests have been made.
What, moreover, shall we say of these events, formerly deemed miracles in the technical sense, which today many scientists believe can be brought under law? For example, the miracles of healing or of demonic possession? We find analogous phenomena at the present day which seem to belong in the same category, such as the healings of Christian Science, or the exorcism of Christian missionaries in China. Must we therefore admit that the religious significance of the biblical stories has been impaired and the evidential value of the events they record has been disproved? Suck conclusion would inevitably follow if the older methods of proof were correct. But modern defenders of miracle are not willing to admit that this is the case. The religious significance of the Biblical miracles, they tell us, is not impaired by any progress which we may have made towards a scientific understanding of their antecedents, for the very simple reason that the quality which gives them their significance for religion lies in a region to which the methods of science cannot penetrate. 11
When reading such a passage we may well ask what has become of the boasted neutrality of the scientific method. But we knew it was not neutral. We are not surprised to find the negation of everything specifically Christian grow naturally out of a consistent application of the “scientific method.” If we adopt the “scientific method” we must allow that it is quite possible that at some future date all the miracles recorded in the Bible, not excluding the resurrection of Christ, may be explained by natural laws. We should admit the ideal of complete comprehension of all facts under one principle of explanation that is open to the mind of man. There can then be no God whose mind is essentially higher than human minds. Such a God would have a plan of his own that he would carry out. This plan of God would not be open for inspection to human visitors. For that reason it cannot be tolerated by the “scientific method.”
If we should ask what sort of explanation it would be that science would give of miracles, we may listen to Bernhard Bavinck, in his book, Science and God. Bavinck discusses the question of miracles in the following words: “It is a complete error to attempt now to uphold belief in miracle, in the ordinary sense of the word, by basing it upon the purely statistical character of natural laws.” 12
What does Bavinck mean when he says we cannot defend miracle by appealing to the purely statistical character of laws? He means that all facts are brute facts, and that therefore we cannot predict anything with certainty about any fact. We must therefore use the method of sampling. We must take samples out of the mass of facts about us. These samples are to be representative of the nature of the mass of facts we are seeking to interpret. But we must assume these samples to be representative. We take for granted that other uninvestigated facts will be like the sample we have been able to study. We can never be sure that this will be the case in any individual instance. There may be some very strange instances. So there may conceivably be some physical phenomena that do not fit into what we think of as the law of nature. On this point Bavinck says:
Let us take the example we have cited from Perrin and the tile. When this falls off a roof, there is a possibility every 101,010 years that chance unevenness in the distribution of molecular pressure may give it a considerable impulse sideways, and thus, for example, divert it from the head of a passer-by which it would otherwise have struck, if its fall had taken place according to the normal (that is to say average) law of falling bodies. But if the argument is put forward in theological quarters that the possibility of a miracle is thus proved, the result would be only to damage theology’s own case. For in the first place as we have seen, the probability is so small that it may be regarded as practically identical with impossibility. If one such tile had fallen every second since the beginning of the history of man, no noticeable fraction of the time would have passed which, according to Perrin, that would be necessary for the case to occur. And secondly, even if such an immeasurably small possibility should actually once be realized, there would again be a second, almost equally great, improbability that it should happen just at the very moment when the passer-by, who was to be ‘providentially’ protected, was under that particular roof.
Similar considerations apply, for example, to the walking of Peter on the water, which is naturally also imaginable as the result of unequal molecular pressure, but even less probable, and other miracles. Hence the theological world cannot be too strongly warned against attempting to make capital in this way out of the new discoveries. 13
A little further Bavinck adds, “The new physics now hands this whole cosmos over to pure chance, with its statistical laws. This might seem to be fundamentally less in keeping with our belief in an omnipotent, and above all an eternally wise God, than the old point of view.” 14 This warning of Bavinck should surely be taken to heart by orthodox defenders of Christianity. If we appeal to the margin of error and to the statistical character of natural laws in order to point out that science itself can allow for miracle, we jump for safety from the burning ship of determinism into the sea of indeterminism. Death will pursue us in either case. A scientific method that is based upon a metaphysic of chance must seek to destroy the Christian position which is based upon the metaphysic of God as the self-attesting self-conscious being with a comprehensive plan for all reality.
The Christian “Hypothesis” Said To Be Irrelevant
We have now seen that the “scientific ideal” is a forest fire that stops for nothing. Neutrality is, to be sure, spoken of and even lauded. But it is not put into practice. The same holds true for the question of the relevancy of hypothesis. Cohen claims that theoretically any hypothesis is relevant. But of course in practice we must exclude some hypotheses. Which kind of hypotheses does Cohen think we ought to exclude? The answer is plain. Such hypotheses must be excluded as would involve the truth of Christianity. Speaking of Rationalism, Naturalism, and Supernaturalism, Cohen says:
It is frequently asserted that the principle of scientific method cannot rule out in advance the possibility of any fact, no matter how strange or miraculous. This is true to the extent that science, as a method of extending our knowledge, must not let accepted views prevent us from discovering new facts that may seem to contradict our previous views. Actually, however, certain types of explanation cannot be admitted within the body of scientific knowledge. Any attempt, for instance, to explain physical phenomena as directly due to providence or disembodied spirits is incompatible with the principle of rational determinism. For the nature of these entities is not sufficiently determinate to enable us to deduce definite experimental consequences from them. The Will of Providence, for example, will explain everything whether it happens one way or another. Hence, no experiment can possibly overthrow it. An hypothesis, however, which we cannot possibly refute cannot possibly be experimentally verified.
In thus ruling out ghostly, magical, or other supernatural influence, it would seem that scientific method impoverishes our view of the world. It is well, however, to remember that a world where no possibility is excluded is a world of chaos, about which no definite assertion can be made. Any world containing some order necessarily involves the elimination of certain abstract or ungrounded possibilities such as fill the minds of the insane. 15
It appears that the philosophy of chance on which Cohen himself builds the whole idea of scientific method cannot allow the concept of God as an absolutely rational being. We do not wonder that it cannot. To allow the concept of God would be to destroy the “scientific method.” It was claimed that theoretically any hypothesis is permissible. The “hypothesis” of God is, however, excluded at the outset. And what are the bases for excluding the idea of God? It is expressed very pointedly when Cohen says that the idea of providence for instance “will explain everything whether it happens one way or another.” Is this true? As Christians we hold that the doctrine of God’s plan or providence does indeed explain everything. But we also hold that it is because of this very providence that things happen just as they do and not otherwise. In other words, we hold that the charge here made against Christianity must be returned to those who make it. It is only if we start with a philosophy of chance that things may happen any way at all. There is then no rationality at all.
Appeal To Brute Facts As The Test Of The Relevance Of Hypotheses
It is a cause for rejoicing that matters are put thus plainly by Cohen. Christians ought to be able to see from his statements, we well as from those of Brown and Bavinck given above, that they cannot defend the teachings of Christianity by the use of the “scientific method.” The final test applied by Cohen when he is sorting his hypotheses as to their relevancy is the appeal to brute facts as they are supposed to be known by man apart from God. By this method of appeal to brute facts, it is found that the hypothesis of God as it appears in the doctrine of providence cannot even be considered relevant. Speaking of this matter of appeal to fact in order to test the relevancy of hypotheses Cohen and Nagel say: “The hypothesis that the universe is shrinking in such a fashion that all lengths contract in the same ratio is empirically meaningless if it can have no consequences that are verifiable. In the same way the hypotheses that belief in a Providence is a stronger force making for righteous living than concern for one’s fellow man can have no verifiable consequences unless we can assign an experimental process for measuring the relative strength of the ‘forces’ involved.” 16
We shall not pursue this question further. There will be occasion to point out more fully when, e.g., we discuss the method of the psychology of religion schools how this principle is applied. If one realizes that such experiences as regeneration and faith as well as external miracles such as the resurrection of Christ are, as far as science is concerned, simply awaiting the day of their explanation by natural law, be it statistical law, one ought to give up, once for all, the hope of establishing the truth of Christianity by the “scientific method.” The procedure of the current scientific method is well illustrated by the sample Edwin G. Conklin gives of it in his article in the book, Has Science Discovered God?, edited by Edward H. Cotton. First Conklin tells us there can be no real conflict between science and religion. They ought to be good friends, for they operate in different spheres. “What is back of evolution no one knows.” 17 That is the idea of neutrality. It sounds very good. It would seem then that theoretically any hypothesis might be deemed relevant. Yet it soon appears that the Christian hypothesis is not considered to be relevant. Conklin says: “No longer is it possible to think that man was created perfect in body, mind, or morals, or that in physical form he is the image of God. No longer is it possible to think of God as ‘the Good Man’ or the Devil as ‘the Bad Man.’ ” 18 Thus the Christian “hypothesis” is excluded as irrelevant. It is not long before Conklin positively asserts that the non-Christian concept of Chance must be accepted. “Undoubtedly chance has played a large part in the evolution of worlds and of organisms, but I cannot believe that it has played the only part.” 19 To begin with, Conklin tells us that no one knows. Secondly, in effect, he tells us as Christians, “But you are wrong.” Thirdly he adds, in effect, “I as an evolutionist and believer in chance am right.” No one knows, but you are wrong and I am right; this is typical of the current scientific method.
We do not wish to suggest that there is intentional fraud in this matter. It only points to the actual exigency of scientific methodology. It cannot proceed differently. Nor does our criticism imply that we are not very appreciative of the great accomplishments of scientists who are not Christians. We readily allow that non-Christian science has done a great work and brought to light much truth. But this truth which science has discovered is in spite of and not because of its fundamental assumption of a chance universe. Non-Christian science has worked with the borrowed capital of Christian theism, and for that reason alone has been able to bring to light much truth.
To illustrate our attitude to modern science and its methodology we call to mind the story of Solomon and the Phoenicians. Solomon wished to build a temple unto the Covenant God. Did he ask those who were not of the covenant and did not know the God of the covenant to make a blueprint for him? No, he got his blueprint from God. The timbers were to be laid in accordance with this blueprint. The timbers had to be fitted into the place made for them by this blueprint. Perhaps it took some of the builders a good while before they found the proper place for each timber. Perhaps they had various hypotheses as to just where this or that particular timber would fit. But they never doubted the ultimacy of the blueprint itself. They offered no hypotheses that they did not think to be in accord with the blueprint. They did not appeal to brute timbers in order to test the relevancy of the blueprint. They knew the facts would somehow have to fit in with the blueprint.
But did this attitude of the builders of Solomon’s temple imply that there was nothing useful to do for those who were not of the covenant? Not at all. The Phoenicians were employed as laborers to cut the timber. These Phoenicians were even recognized as being far more skillful than the covenant people in fashioning and trimming the timbers. They might even build temples of their own with the timber they cut. Such temples might resemble the appearance of Solomon’s temple. Yet they would be nothing but temples reared to idols. Therefore these temples would sooner or later fall to the ground. Solomon knew this very well. He used the Phoenicians as his servants, not as his architects.
Something similar to this should be our attitude to science. We gladly recognize the detail work of many scientists as being highly valuable. We gladly recognize the fact that “science” has brought to light many details. But we cannot use modern scientists and their method as the architects of our structure of Christian interpretation. We deny the legitimacy of the ideal of science; we deny its principle with respect to the relevancy of hypotheses; and we deny the legitimacy of its appeal to brute facts. We challenge its whole procedure. Instead we offer the God and the Christ of the Bible as the concrete universal in relation to which all facts have meaning. We maintain that there can be no facts but Christian-theistic facts. We then go to the “facts,” the phenomena of experience, and find again and again that if we seek to interpret any “fact” on a non-Christian hypothesis it turns out to be a brute fact, and brute facts are unintelligible.