A Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith

A Third Response to Martin

by John Frame


MARTIN: If all events are "miracles," as Frame suggests, then miracles are not unique and remarkable. A miracle, in the sense relevant to my discussion, is an event that can only be explained by supernatural intervention, that is where there is a supernatural cause operating directly on the event in question.

FRAME: It was Martin’s decision to define miracle as an event "which can only be explained in terms of divine intervention." I took "intervention" to mean causality: a miracle is an event which has God as its cause. But in that sense, on my view, all events are miracles. Perhaps I misinterpreted M., or perhaps he did not express himself clearly.

However, now he wants to take "intervention" somewhat differently, to refer to a situation "where there is a supernatural cause operating directly on the event in question." But I’m not sure what this means either. Does this mean that the feeding of the 5000 is not a miracle, since in that event Christ did not work "directly" but rather through the means of loaves and fishes? Or is the point that whatever secondary causes existed, nothing would have happened unless there were also an exertion of divine energy? I presume that since M. wants to stay close to our common sense understanding of miracles he has the second concept in mind. But again that implies for me that all events are miracles, for nothing can happen without an exertion of divine energy (we call it "providence"). The second causes cannot operate unless God works in them and with them.

But perhaps Martin’s more serious point is that "If all events are ‘miracles,…’ then miracles are not unique and remarkable." Now so far we have been discussing Martin’s definition of miracle. Notice that I have argued that on __Martin’s__ definition, every event in miracle. I haven’t presented my own definition. Now I will: it is "an event which serves as an extraordinary revelation of God."

Obviously, on this definition, miracles are unique and remarkable, so Martin’s present objection fails. On this definition, the uniqueness of miracle is not in its causal origin. (All events are caused by God, and in all events there is a "direct" divine action.) Rather the uniqueness of miracle is epistemological. By their unusual nature, miracles shake us up, contradict our expectations, draw our attention to what God is doing. It is not that miracles are necessary for human beings to be persuaded of God’s revelation; Scripture testifies otherwise. Miracles are an additional push toward the knowledge of God.

The persuasiveness of miracle is not, as Martin supposes (e.g. in footnote 1), in some argument that shows that "only God" could have caused the miracle as opposed to other events which could have nondivine causes. Rather, miracle is a vehicle of revelation (a "sign," Greek __semeion__) which is especially vivid. In the Bible, some who see miracles come to believe; others’ hearts are hardened.

Of course, according to Scripture, everything is revelatory (Psm. 19:1ff, Rom. 1:18ff). But miracles are especially vivid. There is no sharp line between miracle and providence. The difference is a difference in degree.

The implications for science: nature is __basically__ uniform, because God has ordained a basic uniformity (cf. Gen. 8:22). Without him, there is no basis for assuming any uniformity (TAG). There are exceptions to this uniformity, because God is after all a person and, like human persons, works according to his personal intentions, not according to rigid patterns. Such irregularities mean that scientists must be humble enough to claim something less than absolute universality for their formulations of natural laws. But I think that should not be too high a price for them to pay, since the alternative is no basis for science at all.


MARTIN: I argued that if logic is dependent on God, logical principles are contingent. But they are not. Frame’s counter is that logic is an intrinsic part of God’s nature and thus logic is necessary since God does not change.

FRAME: More than that: logic is necessary, because God’s being is necessary, and logic is an aspect (attribute) of God’s Being.

MARTIN: But how is one to understand this idea? It seems to imply that if God did not exist, there would be no logic and this, in turn, would mean that if God did not exist, the law of contradiction would not hold.

FRAME: The situation is even more desperate. If God, a necessarily existent being, doesn’t exist, what exactly does follow? That is an odd question. Martin is asking what the world would be like if we postulate that in it a certain necessarily existent being does not exist. That’s like (not exactly like, of course) asking what the world would be like if 2 + 2 did not equal 4, or if triangles could have four sides, or if a paper could be both blue and red all over. Or what if Being itself, the real world, did not exist? What would the resultant "nothing" be like? Parmenides thought that was a meaningless question: "nothingness" cannot "be" anything. It cannot be "like" anything.

So my point is not that if God doesn’t exist the law of noncontradiction will fail. Rather: it does not even make any sense even to talk about a world in which God doesn’t exist. With such a supposition, we cannot deduce either the presence or absence of logic. I grant, of course, that with such a supposition it is more natural to talk about an absence of logic, so Martin isn’t entirely wrong. But he needs to see the radicalness of a transcendental theism.

MARTIN: Not only is there no reason to maintain this [that God is a necessary condition of logic -JF] , there seems to be good reason to reject it. Unless the ontological argument that God exists by definition is is valid– and I know of no good reason to accept any version of the ontological argument–there is nothing incoherent about denying the existence of God.[2] But it is incoherent to deny the law of contradiction.

FRAME: Of course there is more to be said for the ontological argument. Even among contemporary philosophers, some are more favorably disposed toward it than Martin is. But I won’t get into that here. I only want to point out that whether or not the ontological argument can be made persuasive to an unbeliever, it is clearly valid within the Christian worldview. Christians believe that God is the necessary condition of all rational thinking, just as I above described God as the necessary condition of natural uniformity. To deny that such a necessary condition exists while engaging in supposedly meaningful discourse is to contradict oneself.

So again Martin says something that is true on __his__ presuppositions, but not on the presuppositions of those he is arguing against. That is to beg the question.

To summarize where our discussion is at this point: If TAG is sound, then it is incoherent to deny the existence of God. In our present exchange, Martin is not attacking TAG directly, but is trying to counter it with his TANG. My reply is that if TAG is sound, then TANG is not. Therefore, if Martin is to establish the soundness of TANG, he must first refute TAG directly. At the relevant points in the argument where such refutation is required, Martin instead resorts to rough-hewn intuitions: OF COURSE there is nothing incoherent about denying the existence of God! But that’s what our debate is about. What is obvious here to Martin is obvious only on his own presuppositions, and those are here in question.

MARTIN: Indeed, Frame admits that there is no inconsistency in denying that God exists and affirming the law of contradiction "in regard to these two statements taken in themselves." But then he goes on the claim that logic (L) cannot exist without God (G). I find these two claims incoherent. If L and not G are not inconsistent, how can L not exist without G? The phrase "in regard to these two statements taken in themselves" does not in any way dispel the incoherence.

FRAME: I didn’t think I’d have to explain this point to a philosopher. There are many statements which are consistent with one another "taken in themselves" which become inconsistent when a larger context is supplied. Example: (1) "Bill has a pet named Rusty," (2) "Bill does not have a dog." Given only those two sentences, no logician could show any inconsistency between them. But add (3) "Bill’s pet Rusty is a dog," and you have an inconsistent set. But if you like you can forget my line about the "statements in themselves." That doesn’t add anything to the argument. I was just trying to empathize a bit with those who think it obvious that there is no contradiction here. But of course in the most serious sense I maintain that there is a contradiction here. For once the relevant context is supplied, there certainly is a contradiction.


MARTIN: I argued that objective morality cannot be based on Christianity since morality is based on God’s arbitrary decision. Frame tries to combat this point by a theory of morality which is similar to his theory of logic. Moral goodness is an intrinsic part of God’s nature, he says, and is thus unchanging and absolute. Again how is one to understandd this suggestion? The only way I can understand it is that if God did not exist, objective morality would be impossible. Indeed, if Frame’s idea were true, it would be incoherent to deny the existence of God and affirm objective morality. But, as far as I can see, there is nothing incoherent about this. For example, one is not being incoherent if one says: God does not exist but cruelty is objectively bad.

FRAME: Here my reply is the same as in the case of logic, above: (1) Martin is begging the question by merely asserting a conclusion from his own presuppositions, one which theists should not grant. (2) The incoherence appears in the "larger context" of these assertions: "objective badness" has no meaning in an impersonal universe devoid of normative purpose.

MARTIN: Moreover, in addition to there being no need to postulate God in order to make objective moral judgments, such postulation invites moral skepticism. If I criticize Jones for being cruel, the criticism might well be correct even if God does not exist.

FRAME: Again, note that Martin is begging the very question at issue.

MARTIN: Why have I justified my judgment only if I go on to add "Kindness is an intrinsic part of God’s nature?" Indeed, moral skeptics would be less impressed by the theological addition than by the original claim.

FRAME: Why should we be interested in what does and does not impress moral skeptics? That is irrelevant to the question of whether they are right or wrong.

MARTIN: The theological addition invites the reply, "Why should I believe that this God exists?

FRAME: And the answer is TAG. Again, Martin is assuming that TAG is unsound, which he hasn’t shown. Note again my formal point: one must show TAG is unsound before one can show that TANG is sound.

MARTIN: It seems much more likely that cruelty is wrong than that there is a God with such intrinsic properties.

FRAME: "Seems much more likely" here appears to be a description of nonbelieving psychology. Again, why should that be of interest? And, of course, I disagree. I believe that God is clearly revealed, so that his existence is not at all unlikely (Rom. 1:19ff).

MARTIN: And in any case, why should this theological fact — assuming it is fact–provide any additional support for the original claim?

FRAME: Because the theological fact is the only possible basis of objective ethical norms (TAG).


MARTIN: How does Frame deal with conflicting claims of divine revelation? Frame maintains that there is good historical reason to prefer Christian over Islam and, consequently, Christian moral principles over Muslim ones. (Presumably Frame would also have to claim that there is good historical reason to dismiss Judaism’s rejection of the NT and the Church of the Latter Day Saints’ acceptance of the Book of Mormon and, consequently, good reason to dismiss any conflicting moral principles that are derived from Judaism or the Book of Mormon.) But to base his case on historical evidence for Christianity is a weak foundation indeed for the objectivity of Christian ethics. As I showed in The Case Against Christianity the major doctrines of Christianty — the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation — rest on little solid historical evidence. I do not dismiss Christian apologetics in a couple of sentence, as Frame claims. On the contrary, I argued for the falsehood of Christianity at great length.

FRAME: Sure. And I’ve argued for its truth at great length. But my time now is limited, and in any case we both have to be somewhat concise in an online discussion. Unless Martin proposes a thorough examination of all the evidences in this present dialogue, then he should leave these questions open, or at least be content to discuss them, as I have, in broad, methodological terms.

Remember, however, that I am not trying to establish the objectivity of Christianity from historical evidence alone. There is both a posteriori and a priori, both fact and value, both historical science and historical methodology. Scripture gives us historical evidence, but it also gives us authoritative methods for handling and evaluating that evidence. So we are not left alone facing a whirlwind of unidentified brute facts, as in Hume, Lessing, Kant, and many modern philosophies of history. Methods of dealing with history are themselves religiously and philosophically problematic. That may account for the fact that the evidence seems very weak to Martin, but very strong to me.


FRAME: Same here.

MARTIN: Appealing to the two thousand year history of Christian theology hardly supports Frame’s case. A cursory glance at the controversies within Christian theology must surely banish any illusions of the objective nature of Christian belief and of the moral doctrines which rest upon them. Although Christians may agree that an appeal to historical evidence should be used to reconcile their differences, such appeals have hardly been effective. The many sectarian and denominational squabbles, the numerous heresies, the schisms within the major churches show that any objectivity associated with Christian belief is illusive. [illustrative? -JF] Yes, there has been some agreement among Christians. But how does agreement on the Nicene Creed, for example, help to reconcile differences among Christians over, among other things, the morality of the death penalty, war, abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, private property, social drinking, and gambling? Frame points out that there have been conflicts in philosophy and science. Whatever the rational status of philosophy, theology can only be compared to science to theology’s disadvantage. One obvious difference is that scientific controversies are not settled by appeals to claims about miraculous events occurring two thousand years ago. In any case, the question is not whether other disciplines are free from controversy but whether a Christian foundation of morality is objective. Enough has been said to cast doubt that it is.

FRAME: Martin seems to be conceding my point about philosophy at least! At least in the sense that "silence gives consent." As for science, I think Thomas Kuhn’s writings indicate that science has often shown denominational squabbles very similar to those in the church, although it has also gone through periods of consensus on some established principles, as has Christian theology on the doctrine of the Trinity since 381.

But obviously the question of truth doesn’t turn on how much disagreement there is in a particular field. A is A, no matter how many people dispute it. I’ll give Martin that point in relation to philosophy if he’ll give it to me in relation to theology.

I will make a few comments about the ethical disagreements he cites, namely "the morality of the death penalty, war, abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, private property, social drinking, and gambling."

(1) On the death penalty, abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, and social drinking, the Christian church has actually been very unified until the last hundred years. What happened then was the advent of theological liberalism which questioned scriptural authority and tried to reconstruct Christian ethics to agree with secular movements. That, in my estimation, was not a rift within Christianity, but an invasion of non-Christian thinking into the church. The rift was not between Christian and Christian, but between Christian and non-Christian ideas. If one takes the Bible as his ethical authority he cannot seriously doubt what it teaches about the death penalty (yes), abortion (no), premarital sex (no), homosexuality (no) and social drinking (yes).

(2) Christians have disagreed about war, mainly because the New Testament says very little about it, and the church has been unclear about the relevance of Old Testament teaching (Israel’s holy wars) to current government policy. That is just a hard issue. I think I can give an answer, but I won’t try to do it here.

(3) The issue of private property is controversial because the idea of state control of means of production is fairly recent. I think most serious Bible-believing Christians (as opposed to the liberals mentioned above) believe in private property, because Scripture values inheritance, prohibits theft, and assigns to the state no legitimate rights over the property of the nation it governs.

(4) Gambling also has not been discussed much historically. Some fundamentalists have taken absolute stands against it (and against social drinking) without, in my view, any adequate biblical basis, because of the social problems connected with the practice. I think that as the matter receives more discussion, the church will come to consensus.

In brief, the evidence does not refute my view that the Bible provides consistent and reliable guidance in ethics. The disagreements within the Christian community are not as great as Martin supposes, and those disagreements are often the result of alien, non-biblical principles being brought into the Christian community.

Of course, to reach ethical conclusions from the Bible, one must read it responsibly, just as one must think responsibly in science or philosophy or any other discipline.

Reformed Theology and Apologetics
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