Tertullian's Paradox; Insufficiency of both Reason & Scripture; C.S. Lewis & John Calvin; Victor Reppert & Paul Manata

The less people know about some things the more they argue over them. And what do Victor Reppert (of the blog Dangerous Idea) and Paul Manata (of the blog Triablogue) actually "know" about the things they are discussing -- things that constitute some of the most heavily discussed and unresolved debates throughout centuries of Christian theology and philosophy?

In this case Paul (the Calvinist) and Vic (the C.S.Lewis-ian/Arminian) toss at each other grandiose concepts and words that have a core of incomprehensibility not only in and of themselves, but also in the different ways different thinkers have conceived of them relating to one another:

God / nature
omniscience / free will
predestination / free will
divine goodness / human goodness (or lack thereof w/ exception of "common grace")

Both Vic and Paul remain "certain" that any incomprehensibilities in each case accord with their religious/philosophical words and definitions to a far greater degree than the words and definitions of the other fellow's alternate system of explanation.

All of which reminded me of something Bernard Williams, a Christian philosopher, wrote in his essay, "Tertullian's Paradox":

"If the Christian faith is true, it must be partly incomprehensible. But if it is partly incomprehensible, it is difficult to see what it is for it to be true..."

He continued...

"It follows further... that it is difficult to characterise the difference between belief and unbelief [especially, I might add, in the sense of believing--or not believing--in philosophical & biblical explanatory systems propounded by other Christians--E.T.B.]."

Read on as I fan the flames and even explain how arguments from both Catholic and Protestant thinkers over the centuries, when combined, have helped create more agnostics...

There are (and have been) so many differences between Christians in matters of theology, philosophy, liturgy, spiritual regimes, buzz words, and other practices, that Christianity ought to be called "Christianities," a term preferred by some scholars. In fact a spectrum of systems exist for interpreting the Bible and for determining it's authority on various matters, and even further diversity exists in respect to interpreting the history of competing Christian dogmas and traditions over the centuries -- in order to determine what authority each holds -- and in order to "find God's will."

No doubt the hunt for "God's will" via interpreting holy books, dogmas, and traditions is endless and exhausting which explains why so many Christians feel relieved to leave such a hunt up to their pastor, or up to the Sunday School lessons their church receives in booklets sent from their parent institution, or up to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, or up to the living patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox church, or up to the guy with the weird haircut hawking "holy hankies" on TV.

I know it's exhausting because I tried and sought and prayed and read and read and continue to read up on the topic. So let's pour more oil on the fire of Vic and Paul's dialogue, and start by asking them both why they aren't Catholic? It's the single biggest Christian Church in the world. Nearly as big as all Protestant denominations combined. And it has what it calls "apostolic authority" going back to an apostle whom Jesus himself picked as a rock of faith to whom things on heaven and earth would be loosed, and they say that apostle picked others, etc. And here's the kicker, Catholics continue to use every reasonable, rational and historical argument in order to deny something near and dear to every Protestant, the sufficiency and perspicacity of Scripture. Instead of such a belief, Catholics teach that...


...which is also one of the things that Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society, concluded last year before converting to Catholicism and leaving the presidency of that Protestant organization. Judging by his conversion (as well as that of Cardinal Newman's during the Victorian era which stunned England) Catholic critiques of the Protestant belief in "Sola Scriptura," are handy at helping to raise questions in the minds of conservative Protestants. Arguments between Catholics and Protestants on this matter even resemble the ones between freethinkers and conservative Protestants over the question of biblical inerrancy, and may help some Protestants grow a bit more moderate, even a bit more agnostic. See these articles for instance:

Ecclesiastical Authority in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition
by James Roger Black, Ph.D. in "Ancient Religions of the Eastern Mediterranean"

The headings in Dr. Black's paper include:

"Scripture alone is not a sufficient guide to faith and practice...
"Scripture is not self-defining...
"Scripture is not self-authenticating...
"Scripture is not self-interpreting...

"The Reformation principle of 'sola scriptura' -- i.e., reliance on 'Scripture alone' -- is not taught in Scripture itself, was not held by the early Church...

"The commonly cited biblical proofs of sola scriptura do not actually teach what they are alleged to teach...

"Both Jesus and the Apostles made use of -- and even appealed to the authority of -- the oral traditions, deuterocanonical and extracanonical writings, and varying textual recensions of their day."

See Black's article for the examples he cites beneath each heading. And see Dave Armstrong's articles as well:

Quick Ten-Step Refutation of Sola Scriptura

The Perspicuity ("Clearness") of Scripture

The Old Testament, the Ancient Jews, and Sola Scriptura

Are All the Biblical Books "Self-Attesting" and Self-Evidently Inspired?

Or check out this book: Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura ed., Robert A. Sungenis

Naturally if "Sola Scriptura" fails then Protestant's will be forced to recognize or at least look into Catholic claims of divinely-directed growth of dogma and traditions, not to mention centuries of miraculous and visionary experiences.

And here's where it beomes PROTESTANTISM'S turn to aid in leading more people toward greater agnosticism. Protestants over the centuries have gone through each miraculous tale propounded by the Catholic church with a fine-tooth comb and found them wanting. On the miracles reported to have taken place in the early church Rev. Dr. Conyers Middleton (18th century British Anglican clergyman, Cambridge graduate and author) says, regarding the early church fathers who reported them:

"I have shown by many indisputable facts, that the ancient fathers, by whose authority that delusion was originally imposed (that miracles existed in the early church), and has ever since been supported, were extremely credulous and superstitious; possessed with strong prejudices and enthusiastic zeal, in favour, not only of Christianity in general, but of every particular doctrine, which a wild imagination could ingraft upon it; and scrupling no art or means, by which they might propagate the same principles. In short; they they were of a character, from which nothing could be expected, that was candid and impartial; nothing but what a weak or crafty understanding could supply, towards confirming those prejudices, with which they happened to be possessed; especially where religion was the subject, which above all other motives, strengthens every bias, and inflames every passion of the human mind." [Conyers Middleton (1749), A FREE INQUIRY INTO THE MIRACULOUS POWERS WHICH ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE SUBSISTED IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH FROM THE EARLIEST AGES THROUGH SEVERAL SUCCESSIVE CENTURIES. Reprinted (1967). New York: Garland Publishing. Preface, pp. 21-22.]

Then in the 19th century one can read the Protestant theologian (and father of modern inerrancy), B. B. Warfield, to see how he debunked Catholic miracles and resurrection stories in his famous work, COUNTERFEIT MIRACLES. Which just goes to show, as Dr. Robert M. Price (an ex-fundamentalist Protestant), wrote, "The zeal and ingenuity of conservative evangelical scholars in dismantling the miracles of rival Christian groups (and exploding rival interpretations of Scripture used to support such miracles), is worthy of the most skeptical gospel critic."

In the 20th century after the worldwide rise of Pentecostalism, the conservative Protestant, George W. Peters, dismantled stories of "resurrections" that allegedly took place in the 1970s during the Pentecostal revival in the Phillipines. His book was titled, INDONESIA REVIVAL: FOCUS ON TIMOR(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), Chapter 4, "The Miracle Phenomena of the Revival," pp. 57-85. Other conservative Protestants have dismantled claims of miracles allegedly performed by Pentecostal televangelist Benny Hinn, including his claim, now withdrawn, that he had "raised someone to life."

This brings us to a Catholic book by Father Albert J. Hebert S.M., RAISED FROM THE DEAD: TRUE STORIES OF 400 RESURRECTION MIRACLES. Father Hebert claims many resurrection miracles have been performed by Roman Catholic saints. Naturally Protestants like Middleton, Warfield, and Peters are not going to simply allow Catholics to believe that their Church has a preponderance of resurrection miracles vouchsafed by God. They are going to question whether any such myriad of miracles ever took place, using every possible reason, rationalization or inkling of doubt in their minds.

But then one must ask how those same Protestants, so willing to employ every reason and rationalization at their disposal to deny Catholic miracles -- chalking them up to gullibility, blindness, folk tales, myths, legends, or the result of living in ignorant and superstitious times -- expect modern day people to believe every last miracle in the Bible instead?

On what historical grounds can the miracles of Protestantism's "enemy," the Catholic Church, be rejected without also rejecting or at least questioning heartily those found in the N.T.? If Father Hebert is correct then the miracles he enumerates serve as evidence of God's approval of the Roman Catholic Church's status as true church of God. And the miracles Father Hebert documents happened much more recently than those reported in the Gospels, and they are reported by people about whom we know more than is known about the Gospel writers. So what do we really know of the anonymous writers of the Gospels that assures us that they would not make use of whatever stories or pious legends were being spread about by others living in such a superstitious era?

CATHOLICISM critiques the sufficiency of Scripture,
PROTESTANTISM critiques other Christian's beliefs in the movement of the spirit within their church (which was the Catholic church for centuries).

And that's but one reason why I remain agnostic concerning such matters. *smile* For a few others read,
If It Wasn't For Agnosticism I Would Know WHAT to Believe,
Agnosticism: Reasons to Leave Christianity

( Edward T. Babinski )


Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

I must say that it is with smug satisfaction that I observe competing forms of "Christians" debate various aspects of their theology -- especially considering that such debate necessarily weakens the "faith" of those with an inkling of freethought coursing through their veins.

I would absolutly love it if we could find a particular topic on which the atheists and/or agnostics have a specific stance, yet on which each of the Harveys, Hinmans, Jasons, Rachels, Marys, Dans, and whatever other apologists I've missed, would each disagree (and I apologize if I've misclassified any of you).

That is, a topic whose thesis would be at odds with all of their competing forms of Christianity. A topic which we could start and merely observe as it reaches critical mass, or act as injected tritium ions if we choose.

I don't know if there is such a topic, of even one which would be good enough for jazz, but it sure would be entertaining, and not a little educational at the same time.


normajean said...

What’s the point of arguing when there are no truths? ;)

Jeffrey Amos said...

I'm currently on the fence between agnostic theism (a god exists, I don't know what it's like) and evangelical Christianity. This posts nails one of the primary reasons I'm tipping agnostic. It's rather like a joke I heard a while ago (and which I am, of course, doctoring):

Jack is accused of borrowing John's pot and returning it cracked, so John sues. The defense produces four witnesses who all attest to Jack's innocence. But the prosecution cross-examines the witnesses to produce the following four stories:

1. Jack never borrowed the pot.
2. The pot was already cracked when Jack borrowed it.
3. The pot is was not cracked when it was returned.
4. There is no pot.

The defense persists that while the witnesses disagree on the details, we have four different witnesses who agree with the underlying idea: Jack is innocent.

Each of the four stories is believed by three members of the jury. They pontificate over technicalities for a while, but quickly tire. Eventually, they just decide that many different paths lead to the same one truth, so they acquit Jack unanimously.

Jac said...


If I heard 4 different excuses for why Jack is supposed to be innocent, I'm more likely to think he's guilty. At least three of the four witnesses are lying or they just don't know what they're talking about.

Edwardtbabinski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi Normajean,

You asked what's the "point" of arguing if there's no truth?

But I think you're presupposing that it's easy for anyone and everyone to agree on what "the Truth" is with a capital "T." Would you instead be willing to admit that truths can exist with simply a small case "t"s, and that a lot more of us can agree on what those might be?

It's true for instance that many people who leave church, religion, for agnosticism or atheism simply move on to non-church matters in their lives rather than argue over Scriptures or God or philosophical matters.

A longer reply might begin by asking... Do you breath? Do you hunger? Do you desire shelter and warmth? Once those basic needs are met there is an intellectual hunger as well, and there's always a need for social discourse as well, and that leads to agreements and disagreements. And I doubt anyone can cease speaking about whatever it is they have studied for lengthy periods in their lives.

But let's says there's no absolutely firm "point" to life, and instead, living life is simply its own reward and/or punishment depending on how one's life is going. In terms of "one's life" that may sound selfish but there's also more to being a "self" than one realizes, since it's difficult to avoid thinking in terms of things larger than one's own life, including contemplating the lives of those around us and the future of our species. We each have to learn language and culture from those who lived before us. We are defined by others and then we grow to a place where we help define others, even help direct our species's future. And many people find pleasure in such thoughts.

As an agnostic I hope there is some point. But even if it's just a matter of being a member of a social species, it's difficult for most of us to avoid being born, breathing, breeding, interacting, agreeing, disagreeing, discussing whatever is discussable, including many things that are imaginary.

That's life.

While others claim to have found absolute truth and answers. And that's life for them. Though I suspect such folks hold so tightly to their particular religious doctines and dogmas because they too have uncertainties.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi Stan, I think there's already plenty of Christians out there debunking each other's Scriptural viewpoints. Both Zondervan and Intervarsity continue adding to their "viewpoints" series (that begin with the title, "Two Views On... Three Views On... Four Views On... even Five Views On...). So there are a variety of beliefs and biblical interpretations among Christians. Check out the series via amazon.com searches using the publisher's names, and the "Views On" titles I suggested.

A number of very active Christian bloggers have debated each other, either Protestant vs. Protestant o or Catholic vs. Protestant. Check out the blogs of Dave Armstrong, Catholic apologist, Victor Reppert, Anglican?, Steve Hays & Paul Manata, Calvinist Reformed. Though even J.P. Holding, a moderate Evangelical when it comes to "hell," but an inerrantist in most other matters, has gotten into it with two Reformed apologists, James White and Steve Hays. Personally, I'd like to see Holding vs. Armstrong on Catholicism vs. Protestantism. *smile*

Jeffrey Amos said...


I absolutely agree. I guess my satirical defense was convincing enough that you thought I was serious...