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

Introduction
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.

Example

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. 

A Reconsideration of God’s Impassibility

When I was in seminary, I abandoned the doctrine of divine impassibility. For readers who do not know, divine impassibility is the doctrine that God is not affected by creation. It sounds weird at first because in the Bible, God answers prayer, gets involved with Israel, and shows wrath against sin.

The reason this doctrine was so important to the early church is that they had the idea that if God changes from one state to another, then God is no longer the source of all being(s). Why? Because God is becoming something else (changing) and therefore not the source of all being. If God is not the source of all being because God is pure ‘being’, then he isn’t divine.

I had decided that any doctrine which claims that God cannot suffer paints a monstrous truth about God: that God is uninterested in the well-being of his creatures. The problem is that I had misunderstood what the early church meant by this idea. I had thought that since the ancient Greeks saw God as impassible, the early Christian converts from Gentile nations just adopted the idea from Greek philosophy without realizing that it cannot be found in the Old Testament. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the idea might be a necessary corollary to some other Christian truth.

A couple of years ago, I spent several months revisiting the ancient arguments for God’s existence based upon the nature of cause and effect, gradations of goodness in human experience, the existence of consciousness, and the nature of logic and mathematics. All of these arguments entail a God upon whom all things aside from God depend for existence. This means that God must be ‘being itself’, thus God is never in any ultimate sense, becoming anything. God is not, by definition, going from one state to another. Of course, this realization forced me to think much more carefully about how I interpreted certain Old Testament passages about God’s emotions. C.S. Lewis mentions this difficulty in Letter to Malcolm, when he observes that the Old Testament authors take no pains to protect any sort of doctrine of divine impassibility from the notion of a stormily emotional Jehovah (51-52).

There is a sense in which what I am saying does not really matter. One can be a Christian without bothering to figure any of this out. Paul’s standard for Christian conversion is rather meager  by many confessional standards (or robust since it requires obedience to Jesus): confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10).

But if you go on thinking about the nature of emotions, particularly in their physical manifestation in human beings, they require a physical/chemical reaction to the environment. God has no environment, if anything, God is the environment in which all space-time has its being. Thus either the Biblical revelation about God’s interaction with creation is wrong or it is given by way of analogy.

The Bible, since it is God’s revelation to the church, requires us to deny the first part of the disjunctive premise, thus God’s revelation appears to be given in Scripture, in some measure, by analogy. But there are certain events in Scripture that are considered ultimate as revelations of God’s nature. For instance, Paul understands the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a revelation of the fact that God is loving toward weak and ungodly sinners and enemies (Romans 5:1-11).

Here is a rough outline of the premises and conclusion of an argument for God’s impassibility:

  1. The world made up of things which change.
  2. Things which change, by definition, depend upon causes to change.
  3. God is the cause of the whole world, and therefore not the world.
  4. God depends upon nothing for God’s being.
  5. God is unchanging or impassible.

This may seem opaque. That’s okay, I’m trying to avoid too much philosophical language. But the big idea (God’s unchangeability) can be summarized this way:

  1. God is unchanging, Scripture teaches this (Malachi 3:6, James 1:27) in moments of explicit teaching. Reason dictates that it is so as well.
  2. God is love. Scripture teaches this as well (Romans 5:5-11, 1 John 4:8-16).
  3. Love is a positive perfection of God, God need not change to be loving and caring.
  4. Wrath, sadness, anger, etc are privations of mercy, bliss, and harmony. God suffers no privation, therefore these words in Scripture are analogies about God’s works in creation that correspond to human experience.
  5. Thus, God is, regardless of the state of the creation, unalterably loving.

God’s Love and God’s Impassibility

David Bentley Hart argued in his essay, No Shadow of Turning that God’s impassibility is precisely the guarantee that God’s love is God’s being. Love is not a state from which God could capriciously move or worse, be influenced to move from. As compelling as the idea of a God who suffers with creation can be, it seems that a stronger hope and certainly a more scriptural and reasonable one is that the terrors of creation do not alter God at all, but rather await their sure defeat in space time by God’s own indestructible love and power.

The Incarnation and God’s Impassibility

It it indeed the case as a part of God’s work when the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, the Son of God suffered as a man. Paul Gavriluk argues in chapter two of his book The Suffering of the Impassible God,

…by calling the Christian God impassible the Fathers sought to distance God the creator from the gods of mythology. In this debate the major goal was to rule out popular pagan modes of imaging the divine realm as unworthy of the Christian God. Second, the Fathers viewed impassibility as compatible with select emotionally coloured characteristics, e.g., love, mercy, and compassion.

Many Christians see the revelation of God in Christ as a revelation that God could suffer and change. But in more ancient times this revelation showed what God was like all along despite the piecemeal and partial (Hebrews 1:1-2) revelation which was given in the Old Testament. The revelation of God in Christ is that God is love rather than capricious like the pagan gods or the forces of nature.

God is unchangeably loving. The Trinity, remains the same even as my own religious state of mind wavers, my character changes (for better or worse), the creation groans, and the gospel is preached well or poorly. God the Father, who sends the Son for our salvation, and who upon the enthronement of his Son sends us the Holy Spirit ever remains love and loving. God is goodness. Thus, though the church and humanity are commanded to imitate God’s love (and indeed my nature would flourish should I choose to do so as I am created in his image), his interest in the final salvation of humanity neither waxes nor wanes depending upon this or that congregation’s spiritual temperature (Peterson, Long Obedence, 44).

Notes:

My Translation of Romans 5:1-11

For Christ, while we were weak, at the appropriate time, died on behalf of the ungodly. You see, with difficulty somebody would die on behalf of a righteous man, indeed, on behalf of a good man somebody might even dare to die. Now God demonstrates his own love for us this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Therefore (more so really), having been declared righteous in the present by his blood, will we be saved by him from the wrath. For if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (more so, having already been reconciled), we will be saved by his life. Now, not only this, but we are boasting all the while in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.

Aquinas on God’s Joy

Again. Joy and delight are a kind of repose of the will in the object of its willing. Now God is supremely at rest in Himself, Who is the principal object of His will, as finding all sufficiency in Himself. Therefore by His will He rejoices and delights supremely in Himself. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 190.

Aquinas on God’s Love

For it belongs properly to the nature of love that the lover wills the good of the beloved. Now God wills His own and others’ good, as stated above. Accordingly then God loves both Himself and other things.
Again. True love requires one to will another’s good as one’s own. For a thing whose good one wills merely as conducive to another’s good, is loved accidentally: thus he who wills wine to be preserved that he may drink it, or who loves a man that he may be useful or pleasing to him, loves the wine or the man accidentally, but himself properly speaking. Now God loves each thing’s good as its own, since He wills each thing to be in as much as it is good in itself: although He directs one to the profit of another. God therefore truly loves both Himself and other things.
Moreover. Since everything naturally wills or desires its own good in its own way, if the nature of love is that the lover will or desire the good of the beloved, it follows that the lover is referred to the beloved as to a thing that is in a way one with him. Wherefore it appears that the proper notion of love consists in the affection of one tending to another as one with himself in some way: for which reason Dionysius describes love as a unitive force. Hence the greater the thing that makes the lover one with the beloved, the more intense is the love: for we love those more who are united to us by the origin of birth, or by frequent companionship, than those who are merely united to us by the bond of human nature. Again, the more the cause of union is deeply seated in the lover, the stronger the love: wherefore sometimes a love that is caused by a passion becomes more intense than a love arising from natural origin or from some habit, although it is more liable to be transitory. Now the cause of all things being united to God, namely His goodness, which all things reflect, is exceeding great and deeply seated in God, since Himself is His own goodness.2 Wherefore in God not only is there true love, but also most perfect and most abiding love. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 191–192.

What is Love?


Edward Feser wrote an excellent article about what love is. In it he quoted Thomas Aquinas:

As the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 4), “to love is to wish good to someone.”  Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good.  Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good.

Love, in the sense which Christian doctrine typically means, is exactly what Aquinas quoted from Aristotle, “to wish good to someone.” For Aquinas and Aristotle, “wish” is better understood as “intend.” Love is a movement of the will, not a passion nor a feeling. In the case of loving other people as a Christian this makes sense. To love your neighbor is to intend to give him the goods he needs to flourish (to have success and happiness now and in eternity): companionship, knowledge, assistance, mercy, protection, prayer, etc.

But what does it mean to love God in this sense? Some people, like John Piper, would say that to love God means to have certain feelings about God. But on the analogy of love for human beings, we can love our enemies even if our feelings toward them are quite hateful. Acts of love would be much harder, as positive emotions are a great aid to positive action, but they would nevertheless be possible. And the Bible has several psalms, clearly written as actions of love toward God, but which express intensely negative emotions toward God.

So how do we “wish good to someone” with regard to God? Here is my most basic answer: to love God is to act to further God’s purposes in creation. While God is goodness itself and therefore cannot increase/decrease in goodness, God’s purposes in creation are meant to have progressive fulfillment. For instance, God commanded humanity to tend the garden. God made the garden, but there was further work to be done.

There is Biblical evidence in favor of what I’ve inferred from Aristotle’s definition of love: Jesus said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.(Joh 14:21)” For Jesus the categories of “those who love me” and “those who have and keep my commandments” are convertable. And elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that he glorified God by doing the deeds he was sent to do (17:4) and that he sends his disciples as the Father sent him (20:21). So, to love God is to act in line with his purposes or to obey his commands. This, of course, will include positive feelings. A significant consideration is this: Is it superior to obey a command of Jesus in the face of severe temptation and emotional resistance or in a state of deep and motivating affection for Jesus?*

Here is where things become interesting. Can our love for God be unrequited? We all know that our love for other people can. But in the case of God, the answer is no. Why? Because Jesus tells his disciples that “You are my friends if you do what I tell you. (John 15:14)” While our love for peers, children, parents, enemies, and so-on can be unrequited. There is no such thing as unrequited love for friends, for if the love is unreturned there is no friendship. In our relationship with God, our acts to further his purposes, include simultaneous action by the Holy Spirit on our behalf.

Finally, it is important to note that for the Christian, God’s purposes are primarily contained in the teaching of Jesus. To love God is to put the teachings of Jesus, rightly understood, into practice.

A corollary is that one might say that the highest form of self-love is to obey Jesus, as this would obtain the highest benefit for ourselfs if the gospel message is true.

To simplify the explanation above:

  1. To love is to wish to benefit another.
  2. To benefit God is to wish to further his purposes.
  3. To further God’s purposes is to obey Jesus’ teachings.
  4. To obey Jesus’ teachings is to live in friendship with God.

A final thought

I think that correctly understanding love as a matter of the will can help people who struggle with depression to realize that they do, in fact, love God. Also, as Feser mentions in his post, “…if love is thought to be essentially about having certain pleasant feelings, then the quest for love naturally comes to be understood as essentially a matter of finding someone who will generate in oneself pleasant feelings of the sort in question, and showing love to others comes to be understood as essentially a matter of generating in them pleasant feelings of the sort in question. [author’s italics]” Thus, in the case of loving God two errors can occur: to love God is to give myself good feelings about God or upon realizing how impossible this is to do consistently, to give up on the idea of positive emotions in relation to doing God’s will. Also, understanding love as intending the good of others assumes that there is such a thing a objective good that reliably benefits other people. The modern obsession with feelings (which are obviously good, important, and natural) leads of a sort of nihilism with regard to love. If it’s always loving to generate positive feelings in ourselves and in others, then because our quite plastic grey matter can learn to find positive emotions from all sorts of disordered events, can lead us to consider the most dastardly things loving.

*I think that it’s a trick question. If one has love as a virtue (good habit), then it will ‘come easy’ but individual deeds do not lose their value for being done in a state of temptation, depression, melancholy, or even momentary resentment.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Apologetics

In De Rationibus Fidei, St. Thomas explains how best to go about arguing with those who do not identify as Christians:

First of all I wish to warn you that in disputations with unbelievers about articles of the Faith, you should not try to prove the Faith by necessary reasons. This would belittle the sublimity of the Faith, whose truth exceeds not only human minds but also those of angels; we believe in them only because they are revealed by God.

Yet whatever come from the Supreme Truth cannot be false, and what is not false cannot be repudiated by any necessary reason. Just as our Faith cannot be proved by necessary reasons, because it exceeds the human mind, so because of its truth it cannot be refuted by any necessary reason. So any Christian disputing about the articles of the Faith should not try to prove the Faith, but defend the Faith. Thus blessed Peter (1 Pet 3:15) did not say: “Always have your proof”, but “your answer ready,” so that reason can show that what the Catholic Faith holds is not false.

Aquinas means some very specific things by “articles of faith.” For instance, God’s existence for him was a matter of rational demonstration. But the Trinity or the Atonement were matters of “the Faith” meaning that they were revealed by God and not things which could have been determined by mere investigation or deduction from first principles. Aquinas doesn’t mean, “some things you just take on faith [belief for no reason].” He means that certain articles of the faith aren’t to be proved in discussing Christianity with those who do not adhere to it, but rather to be defended against charges of falsehood. Far from being baptized Aristotle, Aquinas here claims that the revelation of God, though perfectly reasonable, is within the purview of reason to be examined once revealed though not within the purview of reason to be proven or discovered.

Mike Bird and the Arguments for God’s Existence

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:

  1. 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):

    1. It is possible that there be a being that has maximal greatness.

    2. So there is a possible being that in some world W has maximal greatness.

    3. A being has maximal greatness in a given world only if it has maximal excellence in every world.

    4. 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.

  2. The Cosmological

    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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.”