On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.


Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought. 

The Hurt-Feelings Fallacy

The internet made me abreast of an informal fallacy which I have dubbed:

The Hurt-Feelings Fallacy

When a premise and/or conclusion of an argument hurts somebody’s feelings or hypothetically could do so in the future, then the argument is problematic. Because of this, the conclusion and the premises are all false. Similarly, if the corollaries of the argument could cause hurt-feelings then the whole argument is false. Also, and most important of all, if the person making the argument has or potentially could stimulate hurt-feelings, then all of the arguments that person makes are totally false.

This is a pernicious fallacy and one which is difficult not to commit. For instance:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Could be responded to thus:

I do not want to die, that hurts my feelings. That argument is unsafe.

Also, one could say,

If I accept the records about Socrates, then I might have to consider the historicity of the Bible, but the Bible hurts my feelings.

This fallacy has allowed me to disprove almost everything. My favorite example is this:

You have disagreed with me. You have given me hurt-feelings, therefore your whole ideology is wrong. Also, you are not a person.

Happy nihilism!

In real life, many people do think that the hurt-feelings fallacy is a real refutation of hard to accept truths or uncomfortable arguments. This is absurd. Hopefully this silly song will cheer you up!


Two Types of Honesty

There are two types of honesty:

  1. Frankness: Saying what you think/feel is true, simply. When one is being frank, you could speak complete untruths (objectively speaking) while still being honest.
  2. Scientific Accuracy: This mode of honesty is intentionally humble in the sense that you say what you think could provide evidence for, qualify what you mean, and admit which elements of what you say are unclear to you.

Each mode seems to have its weaknesses and is more appealing to those of certain personalities and occupations.

Arthur Whimbey on Intelligence as a skill

Arthur Whimbey’s definition of intelligence:

“Intelligence in an attentional/processing skill used in analyzing and mentally reconstructing relations. The distinguishing feature of this skill is breaking down complex relations (or problems) into small steps that can be dealt with fully. The major components of the skill are extensive search and careful apprehension of all details relevant to the relation; thorough utilization of all available information including prior knowledge; accurate comparisons; and sequential, step-by-step analysis and construction.”Arthur Whimbey, Intelligence can be Taught (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1975), 120.

Whimbey saw intelligence as a generalized skill.

Here are two more insights from the book.

  1. Low-aptitude students have a tendency to approach problems passively. This is a habit, not a permanent state of their brain. He notes two problems: they use “one-shot thinking rather than extended, sequential construction of understanding; and second, there is a willingness to allow gaps of knowledge to exist…” (pp 55).
    This attitude leads to more frustration when they see other students “get it” and they don’t. The problem is that these students do not have a habit of thinking about problems. The solution is, apparently, to give them examples of thinking through problems out loud then ask them to imitate with the same problem and then with similar ones.
  2. Many students who cannot read well (this is back in 1975) simply were not taught using a phonics based approach (73-74). They cannot “decode” symbols into sounds. This is bad. They assume that since they have not seen the word (a sight-words approach) that they do not know how it sounds. This too, is a problem that can be fixed. I have heard otherwise intelligent adults with no reading disabilities struggle to read words with three or four syllables. This, in my estimation, can be traced to either a lack of phonics training or poor enforcement of phonics skills over time. If a young person gets away with parroting and faking at reading for just one year (which is easy to do in a class full of kids) then they could be perpetually behind.

Simplify Complex Problems Like Descartes

Ever Feel Stupid?

Many of us wish we were smarter than we are. Rene Descartes even felt this way:  

“For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory…I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been my singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit me to reach.”

So, though he felt less clever than many others, he was able, by his estimation to increase in knowledge and mental ability over time because of a method of thinking which he came upon at a young age. And while we shouldn’t fool ourselves, his IQ has apparently been estimated to be around 162, his methods may yet help us. He made important contributions to philosophy, intellectual method, (for better or for worse) to anthropology with his dualism, and to theological proofs. Even Hume claimed to be convinced by Descartes’ proofs of God’s existence.

The Method

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Descartes really did improve his mind with his method. Don’t we sometimes face relationship problems, philosophical questions, difficult assignments, or some other such issue that makes us freeze or look for distractions? Descartes did too, but he used this method:

  1. The first [rule] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.
  2. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
  3. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.
  4. And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.1

A Paraphrase

Did you get that?

Here’s my paraphrase:

  1. Start with what you know. Ask these questions, “What do I know? What can I figure out? What is the problem I am facing? What facts are present? What knowledge do I have that is less certain?”
  2. Break the problem down into smaller pieces. For example, when trying to solve a relationship problem find answers to questions like, “How do I feel? Is this feeling based on selfishness or a genuine offense? Do I need to apologize for anything? Who wronged me? What did they do?” In a mathematics problem break the problem down into smaller steps. Try to discover which equations apply through trial and error, find out precisely which unknowns/variables you must discover, look at mathematical expressions in terms of discrete steps like in the classical order of operations (PEMDAS). 
  3. Then start solving it. Answer from the simplest and easiest questions first. Then move toward the hardest and most complex synthesized answers. Just because you do not know the solution to a problem does not mean that it is not available. 
  4. Through the whole process, take notes. Write everything down, the human mind is fallible, forgetful, and is jogged quickly by lists, diagrams, and graphical representations. Write what you know, write the smaller problems and questions, write the solutions to them and the steps, then finally bring it all to a conclusion. 

Good philosophy is the art of asking and answering the biggest and smallest questions of our existence. 


1Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Electronic Edition), 2.7

Dialectic: The Second Art of the Trivium

Introduction: What is dialectic? What is logic?

The second liberal art is logic or dialectic. Dialectic typically refers to the practice of precise discussion, using a question and answer format with facts or apparent facts, to explain or get at the truth. It has another, less academic, use I’ll explain later. Logic is a more narrow term, referring to the form of correct argument rather than the whole process. In classical school literature, you’ll see the two words used interchangeably (I will as well), this has classical precedent. For instance, the stoics tended to use the word logic to refer to argument, monologue, persuasion, theory, and several other domains. The best definition for logic/dialectic is the art of reasoning for the purpose of discovering or demonstrating the truth. And so logic involves the study of the forms of argument as well as specific arguments. But why study dialectic? Isn’t it easier to just go with gut feelings or go a long to get along?

Dialectic Protects Us From Pathological Thinking

An alarming trend in education today is the reinforcement of pathological thinking patterns by professors who will not expose students to material that is challenging to their worldview (if the worldview is of a certain sort, anyhow). Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explain this ugly trend:

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.


But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Notice the claim in bold. Our dominate institutions of knowledge and reasoning are training young people to be threatened by claims which contradict their beliefs. Put more simply, people are learning to be offended by disagreement. One of the primary reasons to learn logic is that it can train us to distance ourselves from our beliefs and the claims of others and to ask whether or not they are supported by evidence or at least coherent with one another.

Logic Trains Us in Virtue

Another reason to learn logic is that logic is training in virtue. Dallas Willard explains that:

[Logic] requires the will to be logical, and then certain personal qualities that make it possible and actual: qualities such as freedom from distraction, focused attention on the meanings or ideas involved in talk and thought, devotion to truth, and willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads via logical relations. All of this in turn makes significant demands upon moral character. Not just on points such as resoluteness and courage, though those are required. A practicing hypocrite, for example, will not find a friend in logic, nor will liars, thieves, murderers and adulterers. They will be constantly alert to appearances and inferences that may logically implicate them in their wrong actions. Thus the literary and cinematic genre of mysteries is unthinkable without play on logical relations.


Those devoted to defending certain pet assumptions or practices come what may will also have to protect themselves from logic. All of this i, I believe, commonly recognized by thoughtful people. Less well understood is the fact that one can be logical only if one is committed to being logical as a fundamental value. One is not logical by chance, any more than one just happens to be moral. And, indeed, logical consistency is a significant factor in moral character. That is part of the reason why in an age that attacks morality, as ours does, the logical will also be demoted or set aside–as it now is.

Again, note the bold. Willard claims that since being logical requires that one be devoted to truth, free from distraction, and concerned with meaning, that those who only want to defend pet ideas will find no friend in logic. And we live in a world wherein people seem to have no plan to examine their lives as Socrates recommended. I’ve known Christians, atheists, democrats, republicans, logic professors, men, women, adults, and children who approach life in this unexamined way.

Of course, I’m not quite making an argument here. But I will:

  1. True beliefs are good and false beliefs are bad.
  2. Logic helps us reject false beliefs are discover true ones.
  3. Therefore, logic helps us discover what is good.

The steps in the argument above would be readily accepted by most.

Further Reflections

In short, logic or dialectic is the skill of thinking things through. There are several varieties. Logic can be taught in a symbolic or mathematical form or a propositional (sentence based) form. Similarly, logical reasoning can be divided up in terms of the form taken in the reasoning. One can utilize deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. These can simplified in this way:

  1. Deductive reasoning is reasoning such that true statements are arranged in such a way as to yield a necessarily (this means it cannot be any other way) true conclusion.
  2. Inductive reasoning is based on probabilities or what may or is likely or unlikely to be the case.

Either of these logical forms requires that you have three things in order to have a complete syllogism (a series of statements leading to a conclusion):

  1. Premises – these are the starting facts of a syllogism.
  2. Inferences – these are statements moving beyond any of the individual premises by relating them to one another or moving beyond them in a way which follows the rules of thought (to be discussed later).
  3. Conclusion – this is the final inference in the series.

An example might look something like this:

  1. The sum of the angle measurements in a triangle is 180 degrees. (Premise: Statement)
  2. Therefore, the sum of the angle measurements of two triangles is 360 degrees. (Premise: Inference from point 1)
  3. All quadrilaterals can be divided into exactly two triangles.
  4. Therefore, the sum of the angles in a quadrilateral is 360 degree. (Conclusion: inference from statements 1, 2, and 3).

Though a comprehensive overview of logical reasoning is not possible in a blog post, I do want to mention arguing by analogy. Argument by analogy is looking at a known relationship, such as that between water and its constituent elements: hydrogen and oxygen and generalizing a principle from this relationship and using it to make a provisional inference concerning an unknown relationship:

  1. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. (Original Case)
  2. Other liquids, like alcohol, are similar to water. (Similar Case)
  3. Therefore, they are may be made up of still more simple elements. (Provisional Inference)

Argument by analogy is most commonly used to form conjectures in mathematics and hypothesis in science. It is a very common form of argument in the human sciences and in courtrooms. It is especially handy in automotive repair and medical experiments (mice respond this way, therefore human beings may as well). A good example of religious and philosophical argument by analogy is The Analogy of Religion by Joseph Butler.

Therapeutic Dialectic

I mentioned earlier that dialectic has explicit uses for monologue, namely arguing with emotions, impulses, and impressions so that your intellect can aim your will toward what is good or healthy. Martha Nussbaum quotes Epicurus making this point:

Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul (Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, 13).

Argument/dialectic was considered to be the primary tool to be used in moral development across the philosophical school of the ancient world. Pierre Hadot saw dialectic and rhetoric as method of discussion and controlling your self-talk:

The means employed are the rhetorical and dialectical techniques of persuasion, the attempts at mastering one’s inner dialogue, and mental concentration. In all philosophical schools, the goal pursued in these exercises is self-realization and improve­ment. (Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucalt, 102-103)

Logic/dialectic is a tool for pursuing moral and personal excellence. It allows you to see which impulses contradict your goals, which controlling thoughts are actually false, and which choices more appropriately set you on the path to goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Summarizing the Benefits of Learning Logic/Dialectic

  1. Logic trains us to have mental resilience.
  2. Learning logic trains us to find the truth in any discipline. It functions as the foundation of everything from jurisprudence and forensic science to chemistry and mathematics.
  3. Learning logic helps us to question authority. This is crucially important in our era, when truth is essentially equated with “what authorities say.”
  4. Logic enables temperance (the virtue of responding rightly to our passions/feelings).
  5. Learning logic can help you to discover small hypocrisies in your life wherein your actions do not match up with the apparent truths you accept.
  6. Learning logic can help you to deal with difficult people.
  7. Learning logic can help you become a more effective writer by helping you to avoid contradiction and to write paragraphs in a sequence which flows from premise to conclusion or from assumptions to application and so-on.

Resources for Learning Logic:

  1. Online Tools:
    1. Lander Logic Page
      Here you’ll find example and exercises to practice.
    2. Khan Academy
      There are free exercises and videos in the critical thinking section to which I’ve linked.
    3. Any number of old logic text books available at books.google.com for free.
  2. Books
    1. Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft
    2. The Logic of Real Arguments by Alec Fischer
      I’ve used excerpts from this in my logic class. It mostly inspired me to have my students get out of logic textbooks and into actual arguments on subjects of human interest..