ApologeticsA Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith
Frame’s Final Response
by John Frame
First, thanks to Michael Martin for the civility and thoughtfulness with which he has carried on the discussion. I must move on to other things, but I have enjoyed the exchange. Thanks also to all of you who have patiently waded through these posts. If any of you want to discuss these matters further, please feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com.
Martin proposes as the definition of miracle most Christians hold: "although God caused and sustains natural laws, sometimes God by-passes natural laws and directly causes events in the natural world." He is perplexed as to whether I would accept this definition.
That depends on what you mean by "natural laws." If we mean
(1) the ultimate rules governing events in the natural world,
then I would say God never violates natural laws. The reason is that natural law, on this definition, is nothing less than his own plan for creation. On the other hand, if "natural laws" are
(2) generally accepted human judgments (scientific or otherwise) as to how things work and what is likely to happen,
(3) God’s usual ways of governing the world
then God does violate natural laws.
Now when some people talk about natural laws, they seem to have a fourth concept in mind, something like
(4) the basic causal order of nature.
I gather they want to distinguish this from (1), because they don’t want to identify it with the will of God. Rather they see it as something intermediate between God’s will and the actual course of nature. It is as if God created into the world a sort of mechanism by which things normally happen. Occasionally he will bypass this and work "directly," as Martin says.
They also want to distinguish this from (2), because (2) is essentially subjective. The scientist is the one who tries to ascertain what the natural law is, and scientists are not interested in surveying people’s "judgments" or "expectations," not even those of other scientists. And they distinguish this from (3), because that too seems subjective: it is closely linked to God’s own intentions, which the scientist cannot read directly.
My own view of (4): I’m not convinced that there are any natural laws in that sense. I have no reason to believe that God rules the universe through the mediation of some such structure rather than directly. Certainly the biblical writers do not assume any such structure. Their language, rather, suggests that God "directly" brings about the thunderstorms, the harvests, the rising and falling of dynasties, etc. And certainly biblical writers do not identify events as miracles by comparing them with events proceeding from natural laws so defined. They just didn’t have that concept of natural law in their intellectual vocabulary. Even if we assume that such a law-structure exists, one could not make many confident statements about that structure in an age before the development of modern science. Indeed, it would take an almost divine knowledge to define that law-order with any precision and then to judge what events are violations of it. (Martin has stated this difficulty well in previous posts.) Certainly people claiming to have experienced miracles have never claimed any such knowledge.
Granted, some theologians have defined miracles in terms of something like (4), but I think those theologians are misguided. They have not understood the difficulty of identifying miracles under this definition; they have not understood how far this definition is from that assumed in Scripture; and they have not understood how metaphysically problematic such a law-structure is.
Martin thinks that this definition is the traditional Christian one. Well, as I said, I don’t find it in Scripture; nor is it found in Augustine. Some Christians speak of "natural law," but really have in mind (2) or (3) rather than (4). Under the influence of Aristotelian cosmology and later of modern science a number of theologians have adopted something like (4), but that has never gone unquestioned. In my own theological tradition, Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield presupposed (4), but Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd strongly rejected it.
So I prefer to say that miracles are unusual events in which God reveals himself with remarkable vividness. He reveals himself everywhere (Rom. 1:18-21, Psm. 19), but in miracle he provides a spectacular demonstration of his presence. Obviously to be a miracle in this sense, an event would have to violate natural laws in senses (2) and (3). It would not violate natural laws in sense (1). If there are natural laws in sense (4), miracles may sometimes violate them, sometimes not. But a "violation of natural law" in sense (4) should not be part of the definition of miracle; the concept is just too problematic.
How does God reveal himself in miracles? Not, as Martin supposes, by providing evidence that the event is contrary to the law-structure of the universe (natural law (4)). But by graciously opening people’s hearts to perceive him in the event. (Notice that in the Bible many who witness miracles do not come to believe. God illumines whom he will.)
What is "wonderful" about miracles? I think that (2) expresses it best. Miracles go dramatically against our expectations. As such, they remind us vividly that God rules the world and they draw our attention to his revelation, which always accompanies the miracle.
So when Martin argues that violations of natural law in sense (4) are incompatible with science, that doesn’t bother me too much, since I am not sure that there are any natural laws in this sense to violate, and since, in any case, that question is irrelevant to my concept of miracle. But just for the record, I am still not convinced of Martin’s argument here. Even granting the existence of natural laws in sense (4), I’m not persuaded that these laws can never be violated, or that science must assume their inviolability. Again, science presupposes relative uniformity, but not absolute uniformity.
Martin thinks that I have claimed that God’s existence is logically necessary, without offering any justification for saying it. He thinks that assertion is wrong and not accepted by many Christian thinkers.
Actually I didn’t say that God’s existence was logically necessary, only that God was a necessarily existent being; that is, that he exists in all possible worlds. There are various kinds of necessity other than logical necessity. But there is, of course, a significant relationship between God and logic. For in every possible world, logic also exists, and in every possible world, logic is based on God’s character. So, if God doesn’t exist, logic doesn’t either, and all is chaos.
But even if you don’t presuppose that logic is based on God’s character, what happens when you deny the existence of a necessarily existent being? ANY necessarily existent being? What would the world be like without the number six? It is impossible to say, because there is no possible world without the number six. So if there is no number six, everything is askew. Meaning and rationality are lost. Same, I think, if you deny God.
Martin smells the ontological argument in all of this, which is not too surprising. But many who have rejected the ontological argument have accepted God’s necessary existence, such as Thomas Aquinas and his many followers. In fact, contrary to Martin, the necessary existence of God is almost universally accepted by theistic theologians and philosophers.
What is the ground for saying that God necessarily exists? Scriptural emphases: God is the creator of all, so he has no cause; he is not dependent on anything other than himself (so he is non-contingent); he is the "living" God.
We should also keep in mind that TAG (as, e.g., in Bahnsen’s formulation) asserts another relationship between God and logic: theism can account for the universality and necessity of logic, while nontheistic accounts cannot.
Remember, though, where the burden of proof lies in this discussion. Martin is trying to use his TANG to disprove the existence of God. To do that in the current context, he must show that logic cannot be based on God’s character. He has tried to do that by arguing that if logic is based on God’s character it will be contingent. I have replied, no, logic is necessary, because God’s existence and character is necessary. At this point, he can renew his attack only by showing that God’s character and existence cannot be necessary. It is not enough to show that the necessary existence of God is controversial. He must show that God cannot exist necessarily.
Martin says that on my view "One cannot deny the existence of God and affirm objective morality because it is inconsistent to deny the existence of God." "In other words," he adds, Frame’s "views on morality are based on (3): the logical necessity of the existence of God."
Well, that’s part of it, and I replied to Martin’s arguments about that above. I would also argue (as in TAG) that an impersonal source of morality can never obligate. The source of moral obligation must be personal, and therefore morality presupposes God.
But, as in the discussion of logic, we may have lost our perspective on the larger discussion. I am not obligated to prove that the existence of God is necessary for objective morality. Rather, Martin is required to prove that the existence of God is incompatible with objective morality. We discussed his arguments for this thesis in previous posts. He adds nothing new here.
CONFLICTING RELIGIOUS CLAIMS
Martin summarizes, "Frame maintains that the truth of Christian revelation is shown by historical investigation while I maintain that historical evidence for the truth of Christianity is very weak."
Well, yes, that has been the nature of our discussion up to this point. Of course, more can be said: (1) If TAG establishes the existence of a singular personal absolute, then that conclusion rules out most all religious claims except those based on the Old and New Testaments, since this is the only revelation consistent with the conclusion of TAG. (2) Since Christianity, Judaism, Islam (yes, even Islam), Mormonism, etc. all claim allegiance to the Scriptures (with some additions and subtractions), the argument between these religious claims will be largely exegetical.
But of course (1) is a negative argument, and Martin is not wrong to ask for a positive one as well, before he even enters the discussion in (2). It is at this point that we enter the historical debate.
But of course our standards of historical possibility and evidence must not be those of David Hume, D. F. Strauss, Rudolf Bultmann, or Norman Perrin. They must be standards that are consistent with a theistic view of the world. So we must assume that miracles (see the above discussion of the definition of miracle) are possible, that God is capable of illuminating minds to properly receive and interpret revelation, that such events as incarnation and resurrection are highly probable on the basis of previous revelation, etc. These are not, I think, the methodological norms that Martin employs in his critique of biblical history.
CONFLICTING INTERPRETATIONS OF SCRIPTURAL MORALITY
I should not have said that the death penalty was generally accepted until a hundred years ago. Martin is right that there has been a pacifist tradition for some centuries. My mind just went on hold at that point. I apologize to pacifist readers. I still maintain, however, that there has been a pre-1800 Christian consensus concerning the other issues, abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, and social drinking, which Martin mentioned last time. And I do continue to maintain that Scripture gives clear answers to these issues, and also about the death penalty (pacifists notwithstanding).
Martin asks, "With respect to the morality of war Frame seems to admit that referring to Scripture is a problematic way of coming to a correct answer. However, on Frame’s view what other ways are there? I thought one received moral guidance only from the revealed word of God which in this case is unavailable. If extra Scriptural ways are available, why are they not also available to non-believers? "
Reply: Developing a biblical ethic is problematic in different ways. (1) For one thing, it requires some hermeneutical (interpretative) skills, and not everybody is equally adept at that. (2) Further, some extra-biblical knowledge is required. Scripture is a sufficient source of moral principles, but of course we have the responsibility of applying those principles to present circumstances. So the Christian moral syllogism goes like this:
Premise one: a Biblical principle
Premise two: statement of a current situation
Conclusion: application of the principle to the situation
Murder is wrong.
Abortion is murder.
Therefore, abortion is wrong.
People can agree on the authority of Scripture, while disagreeing about the "current situation."
(3) People can also differ in spiritual discernment. John 3:5: "Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
So there are a number of factors entering into the development of a biblical ethic, and each of these can lead to disputes. There are both biblical and extra-biblical factors to be considered; of course the extra-biblical factors must be addressed from biblical presuppositions. Nevertheless, a high degree of agreement has been achieved.
Martin enlarges the list of ethical problems that he doubts can be resolved biblically: "Many of the moral problems of contemporary life are not discussed explicitly in Scripture and any inferences from Scripture is often problematic. Consider, for example, the moral issues connected with privacy, free speech, reproductive technology, psychotherapy, democracy, genetic engineering, and the environment." He also mentions the differences among Christians as to the specific application of the death penalty.
I agree these are difficult. I have lectured on several of these, and others have been addressed by other Christian writers and teachers. Again, the situation is that Scripture gives us broad principles (the Ten Commandments, plus some more specific teachings), and God gives us the responsibility of applying those principles to specific situations. Norm, situation, conclusion. It isn’t always easy to reach definitive conclusions, though often it is, in my view. But without the authoritative norm, we’d really be at sea. That’s one great advantage of biblical ethics: a revealed authoritative norm. That norm does not eliminate the need for additional reasoning. But without that norm, the additional reasoning won’t get anywhere.
On the death penalty, by the way, I tend to see the biblical death penalties generally as maximums rather than minimums. Adultery is not always to be punished by death. In most cases other than murder, it is possible for one condemned to death to redeem his/her life, and there is room for flexibility by the judges. I would also argue that the death penalty for blasphemy does not apply outside the Israelite theocracy. But I realize there are different views of these things.
Of course all ethical systems recognize questions that are difficult to resolve. The advantage of Christian ethics is the authoritative norm, as I indicated, and also an adequate motivation for ethical behavior: not to earn one’s salvation, but as a grateful response for God’s gift of forgiveness in Christ. Apart from this norm and this motivation, I’m convinced that ethics is pointless.