I recently bought Mike Bird’s Evangelical Theology. It has been a marvelous read so far, but when I read the section entitled “Traditional Proofs for the Existence of God (pp 180-183)” I was left a bit frustrated. Now, please take the following comments with the understanding that the book, over all, has been edifying. I especially appreciate Bird’s attempt to make the gospel message itself (as described in the New Testament) the focal point of each traditional loci of theology. So it looks like this, “How does the gospel inform the doctrine of the church and how do traditional understandings of this doctrine illuminate the gospel.” It’s a very helpful approach.
Enough gushing. Here’s why I was frustrated in outline format:
The Ontological Argument
Bird notes on page 180, concerning the ontological argument, “One cannot help but get the impression that the ontological argument is little more than a game of words with “God.” But, his homeboy, Alvin Plantinga notes that the argument is actually not all that bad. His version of the argument runs thus (Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, 108):
It is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness.
So there is a possible being that in some world W has maximal greatness.
A being has maximal greatness in a given world only if it has maximal excellence in every world.
A being has maximal excellence in a given world only if it has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection in that world.
This version of the argument, which I take exception to for other reasons, is a restatement of Anselm’s argument in modal terms. It clearly isn’t a word game. Even Anselm’s statement of the argument which Bird uses is very abbreviated. He mentions Aquinas’ objection to the argument and it is pretty good, but ultimately, Bird’s own objection is not the same. Aquinas didn’t see it as a word game, but rather, he bought into Aristotle’s metaphysical presupposition that all knowledge must come from the senses. Incidentally, Aquinas’ forth way is actually very, very similar to the Ontological argument, but does not fail for the same reasons because of sensible gradations within reality.
Bird’s understanding of the Cosmological argument is fairly standard, though he narrows it all down to the Kalam version which has been revived most recently by William Lane Craig. His main objection to the argument is “Establishing…a first cause is one thing. To demonstrate that this first cause is God, a personal God, or even the God of Jesus Christ is quite another thing (Bird 181).” It is another thing, but that doesn’t make the effort worthless. Not only is it not worthless, but Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles spends pages after page establishing why a first cause does have the attributes of the God of revelation.
Imagine if I objected to his historical Jesus work by saying, “Establishing that Matthew’s gospel was written by a Jewish believer in Jesus is one thing, but demonstrating that his sources were accurate is quite another.” The same could be said in geometry, “Demonstrating that a triangle’s angles add up to 180 degrees is one thing, but demonstrating that the squares of a right triangle’s legs add up to the square of the hypotenuse is another.” I would argue that the if you can demonstrate a first cause as a matter of logical necessity, along with other aspects of Aquinas’ arguments, and then establish the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event then the first cause must be the Father of Jesus Christ or more robustly, the Triune God.
The Teleological Argument
Bird, is again, wide of the mark here too (Bird, 182) This is an important one exactly because of certain debates raging today. He gives the full text of Aquinas’ summary of the argument in the Summa Theologica, but he then equates it with the argument of Paley, whose precis he also quotes. Both quotes are the quotes in William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith. Craig and Bird are both brilliant (as were Paley and Aquinas), but the arguments are only similar to one another on the surface. They are not the same argument. One of them is based upon the appearance of design to the mind of those familiar with design (Paley). On the other hand, Aquinas’ argument is actually about the very nature of causality (which most of the five ways are). Aquinas elsewhere argues about the importance of Aristotle’s four causes for understanding nature (see http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/DePrincNaturae.htm ). The “final cause” is the form of causality that refers to the finality towards which things, events, and existence tends. Aquinas argues that the existence of “if-then” or efficient/instrumental causality depends upon the existence of end goal causality and that since all of nature (intelligent and non-intelligent) tends towards goals/ends, then it can be said that God directs things towards their ends. This is not the same as saying “God made complicated things.” It is the argument that even the most complicated things have natural explanations precisely because an intelligence, nay an intelligent Being, directs these natural things towards their end. This is a common mistake. There may be something to Paley’s argument in the end, but it is not Aquinas’. I, personally, am and have been skeptical of it, but if it turns out to be true, my skepticism is what must give way to the truth. Thomist and Greek Orthodox folks alike have pointed out the error of equating the arguments (Edward Feser, Christopher Martin, Brian Davies, and David Bentley Hart come to mind).
The Moral Argument
Bird gets this pretty much right on the head (Bird, 183). If ethics is to be a science (in the sense of a body of knowledge) then it must postulate a divine law maker. The moral argument is more nuanced than that and it has wonderful rhetorical force as well as dialectic rigor in its best forms. Bird utilized Kant and Lewis’ version of the argument. I take that as wise.
Mike Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. Zondervan 2013.
Edward Feser, Between Aristotle and Paley: Aquinas’ Fifth Way (Nova et Vetera, English Edition,Vol. 11, No. 3, 2013), 707-4.
Edward Feser, Thomas Aquinas (a Beginner’s Guide) One World Books, 2009.
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss Yale, 2013.
Christopher Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity Oxford University Press 1974.
Davis, Stephen T.Publication Information:In God, Reason & Theistic Proofs.Edinburgh, [Scotland] : Edinburgh University Press. 1997
Recently I’ve discovered Dr. Feser whose understanding of Aquinas is actually context based rather than based on caricatures. See his article Between Aristotle and Paley: Aquinas’ Fifth Way (Nova et Vetera, English Edition,Vol. 11, No. 3, 2013), 707-4. My comments will mirror his own, though they are a bit different. I hope the deficiencies in my brief presentation are taken as evidence I studied Feser’s article with my own understanding of the difference between Paley and Aquinas, not as deficiencies within his presentation. Anyhow, Bird should read his article. It is, as they say in Australia, “Gucci.”