An Unjustified Punt to Mystery

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

May 13, 2019

C. Michael Patton, in a recent blog, claimed to do some “math” and concluded that there are five great mysteries in Christian theology. While I am fine with an occasional appeal to mystery regarding a few topics, Christians often punt to mystery far too quickly. If we “punt to mystery” too quickly, we can sometimes give the impression that Christianity is nonsensical.

For example, imagine a football team only gaining a total of seven yards after the second down — three yards short of attaining a new set of downs. Although there are two plays left at the team’s disposal to get a new set of downs, instead the offense trots off the field to be replaced by the punting crew. In disbelief, you watch the punter kick the ball to the opposing football team. If this happened even once, the coach would have some explaining to do. If this happened regularly, the coach might get fired because of his nonsensical play-calling!

With that said, Coach Patton is sometimes justified in punting to mystery, but sometimes not. Consider these five punts to “Team Mystery” one at a time:

1. Creation out of nothing (ex nihilo): 

How did God create being out of non-being? Being transcendent in relation to the universe (above all time, space, and matter), the reason for God’s being is necessary (hence why we often call him the “necessary being”), so his existence does not require a cause-and-effect answer. Yet where did he get the “stuff” to create all that there is? It could not have come from himself, as that would place him in our universe of time, space, and matter. Then we would just be looking for the really real God. The same is true if the “stuff” was outside himself. All that there is must have come from nothing as a rational and philosophical necessity. All other options are formally absurd. While creation out of nothing is not formally absurd, it is a great mystery or paradox.

I believe Coach Patton is justified in punting to mystery in this instance. He notes that there is no formal or logical fallacy. Indeed, several arguments deductively conclude the necessary existence of God, and many others point that way. For example, the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (otherwise known as the Contingency Argument), demonstrates the necessary existence of God.

Moreover, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, shows that the cause of the space-time universe must possess certain properties. Consider the rational inferences that logically follow from the deductive conclusion of the Kalam:

The cause of all space, time, and nature must be spaceless, timeless, and other than nature (supernatural). Moreover, the cause of the universe must be enormously powerful to create an entire universe from nothing (I cannot think of anything that would require more power).

Additionally, not only did the cause of the universe have to have been apart from time and space, it also must have had the ability—the power—to spontaneously bring the world into existence without anything causing it to do so—because then, whatever the cause of the cause was would be the cause. But since this cause exists outside of anything physical, temporal, or material, none of these things could logically cause or force this ultimate cause to do anything. Therefore, this ultimate cause seems to have its own volition or libertarian freedom. Apart from anything abstract (which would be causally impotent anyway), only an unembodied mind (or soul) could logically transcend space-time and all nature.

Think about this: persons are the only type of things that could possibly possess immaterial minds with free will (which is supported by the Freethinking Argument); therefore, we can decipher that the cause of the universe was a personal being. If the cause of the universe is personal, then it is at least possible that “It” can have a personal relationship with other personal beings. You and I are personal beings. Therefore, it is possible that you and I can have a personal relationship with the cause of the universe. No special revelation or biblical data required!

Now, although the Kalam concludes that the universe has a cause, and we know from the rational inferences that the cause of the universe has specific properties, we have no idea exactly how a supernatural being caused all nature to begin existing. We have the evidence for a supernatural cause of nature, we just don’t know how God did it.

Just as there are good reasons to believe God is omniscient, I have no idea how God knows the truth-value to all propositions. Similarly, just as there are good reason to believe God created a universe from nothing, I have no idea how God pulled this off either. But not knowing HOW something happens does not negate the evidence that something happened.

Back to Patton: I am fine with his call to “punt” in this situation because we are pinning “team mystery” back on their 1 yard line — and our defense is stacked!

To reiterate and clarify, Coach Patton has noted that although we have evidence of a timeless (sans creation), eternal, beginningless, spaceless, immaterial, enormously powerful, volitional, and personal creator of all things scientifically testable, we have no idea as to how this Cause of the universe caused the universe to exist. If the “how” is what this punt is based on, then I say, “good call, coach!”

Let’s move on to our football team’s second possession:

2. The Trinity: 

We believe in one God who eternally exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This would only be a formal contradiction if we said we believed that God was three Gods and one God or if we said we believed he was three persons and one person. But to say that the Trinity is one God in three persons is not a formal contradiction, but a mystery.

In the past, when I found myself in similar situations, I used to make this same call for the punting team to come onto the field. These days, however, I am going to keep my offense on the field to keep pressing forward. This is because I do not think the Trinity is as “mysterious” as most people conclude.

Much of this is because of my study of the nature of the immaterial soul (in the image of God) and substance dualism. It is not hard for me to conceive that I do not have a soul. Rather, I am a soul, who has a body and can — and will — survive the death of my body. One day I will get a new glorified body. With this in mind it is coherent to state that I am one soul with one set of cognitive faculties. I can conceive of this without problem.

If this is no problem, then it is coherent to state that God is one soul with three sets of cognitive faculties. What’s the big deal?

While most analogies of the Trinity fail, I believe William Lane Craig offers an illustration that, while “controversial,” it helps us comprehend the nature of what is described above. What is the controversy? The “problem” here is that Christians trying to explain the Trinity are appealing to Greek mythology and also comparing God to a dog. But if one can get past these issues, then some vital concepts become illuminated.

Cerberus is the three-headed guard dog who protects the gates of Hades in Greek mythology. The three heads of the dog must cooperate quite nicely to be an effective guard dog. Now, the concept of a three headed dog is conceivable. Several years ago, when my son was still in elementary school, he found a snake in our yard — a snake with TWO HEADS! He caught it and brought it for me to see with my own eyes. Here is the point: if two-headed snakes actually exist, then a three-headed dog is possible.

With Cerberus in mind, if Hercules was bitten by the dog, would he exclaim: “Ouch! Cerberus bit me!,” or “Ouch! One of Cerberus’ heads bit me!” Either exclamation would make sense.

Moreover, since Cerberus is a dog-like creature, Cerberus is canine. Each of Cerberus’ heads are also canine because they are parts of Cerberus. If Cerberus is a rational thinking thing, then Cerberus would have three minds (or sets of cognitive faculties). All three of the heads could utter, “I think that…”

Now, suppose that Hercules slays Cerberus by stabbing him through the heart (also suppose that substance dualism applies to Cerberus for the sake of this thought experiment). Now Cerberus exists apart from the canine body as an immaterial being. However, it is conceivable to think of Cerberus (since he is ONE dog) as existing as one immaterial “soul substance” apart from the body. It is also conceivable to think that this one “soul substance” possesses three sets of cognitive faculties (persons). If this is the case, then we have one immaterial substance and three persons.

If it is even conceivable regarding Cerberus the dog, it is definitely not a problem for a maximally great God. The concept of the Trinity makes logical and coherent sense, and thus, I am going to keep my offense on the field.

Let’s move on to our football team’s third possession:

3. The Hypostatic Union: 

We believe that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, is fully God and fully man (at least since the time that he became man). We don’t believe that he is fifty percent God and fifty percent man, or even ninety/ten. Christ is everything that God is and has eternally, even in the incarnation, shared in the full divinity of the one God, yet he is everything that man is forevermore. Whereas the Trinity is one nature with three persons, Christ is one person with two natures. This is indeed a mystery, but has no earmarks of a formal contradiction.

Once again, just as I see no need to appeal to mystery regarding The Trinity, I also do not think it is necessary to punt to Team Mystery regarding the Hypostatic Union and the Incarnation of Christ. Substance dualism provides the answer and movies like Avatar help clarify. For example, after viewing Avatar, how would one answer this question:

Can Jake Sulley run?

The correct response would be to get further clarification and ask “What do you mean by that?” After all, Jake is both fully human and fully alien. That it to say, the person known as Jake Sulley is one person who has both a full human nature and a full giant blue smurf nature. Jake’s human body is crippled and in a wheel chair. Jake’s giant blue alien body is quite athletic. So, the answer to the above question is “It depends.”

As an alien, in his giant blue smurf body, Jake Sulley can run quite fast! However, Jake’s human body cannot run at all.

Just as Jake became the “incarnated savior of the aliens,” Jesus became the savior of mankind. With the help of Avatar, we can begin to make sense of the Hypostatic Union (James Cameron basically ripped off the Bible, but in doing so he provided an awesome analogy). If a popular movie allows the conceivability of an incarnation where one person can fully possess two different natures, then the incarnation of Christ seems to be possibly “explainable.” Thus, once again, the offense can go for it on fourth and inches. No need to punt to mystery!

Let’s move on to our football team’s fourth possession:

4. Scripture: 

We believe the Bible is fully inspired of God, yet fully written by man. God did not put the writers of Scripture in a trance and direct their hand in the writing of Scripture (often referred to as “mechanical dictation”), but he fully utilized their personality, circumstances, writing style, and mood in producing the Scriptures. Another way to put it is that the Scriptures are the product of the will of God and the will of man. Mystery? Yes. Contradiction? No.

A coach who understands the complexities of the Molinism offense would never punt to mystery in these freedom permitting circumstances!

As a former youth pastor, I know that many people (of all ages) struggle with the idea of the Bible being both written by God and man simultaneously. That is to say, if “every word is God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) then how can any word in the scriptures really be from a human author? At face value, this seems to be a logical contradiction.

Molinism solves the problem! The doctrine of verbal inspiration of Scripture is logically coherent when considering God’s omniscient middle knowledge and omnipotence. Since God knew with omniscient certainty that Paul, for example, given his circumstances, would freely write epistles which God would validate as his authoritative word to man, God was able to create a world placing Paul in these specific scenarios where he knew with certainty what Paul would freely write. As Coach William Lane Craig notes,

“[God created] a world containing just those circumstances and persons such that the authors of Scripture would freely compose their respective writings, which God intended to be His gracious Word to us.”

Therefore, with a middle knowledge view of God’s providence in mind, the Bible is the verbal and plenary word of God written freely by men. Molinism is the only view that can make logical sense of this theological truth.

God created a world in which He knew how biblical authors would freely choose to write. The question is raised: “What makes the words in the Bible written freely by human authors any different from the words God knew Richard Dawkins would freely write in The God Delusion?” The answer is found in the resurrection of Jesus.

Think about it: if God raised Jesus from the dead, we seem to have a divine stamp of approval regarding everything that Jesus claimed and taught. This raises another question: “What did Jesus teach?” It is important to note that Jesus not only taught out of the Old Testament (if it’s good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me), but he also gave his stamp of approval on the “law and prophets” (Matt. 5:18). Moreover, a case can be made that the resurrection validates the teachings of Jesus’ hand-picked apostles (Luke 6:12-16; Acts 9:15) who wrote or provided the information found in the books and letters of the New Testament which had yet to be written.

If the resurrected Jesus possessed counterfactual knowledge, then it is no problem for Jesus to give his divine stamp of approval on what he knew the apostles would/will freely write in the circumstances they had been placed.

Given the abundance of multiple and early attestation of the Gospels, we have high degrees of historical certainty when it comes to knowing what Jesus taught. Therefore, one has good reason to trust that the New Testament — which is based on thousands of early copies of the original Greek manuscripts — is not only trustworthy, but the authoritative Word of God.

Consider the following argument:

(1) God raising Jesus from the dead validates the teachings of Christ and His hand-picked apostles who would freely author the New Testament (since God possesses perfect counterfactual knowledge).

(2) The New Testament was freely written by Jesus’ hand-picked apostles or those who knew them.

(3) The text of the Bible is pure enough.

(4) In the New Testament, Jesus gave His stamp of approval on the Old Testament.

(5) Given 1-3, we have good reason to regard the New Testament as trustworthy and authoritative and, given 4, we have a good reason for regarding the Old Testament as trustworthy and authoritative.

Bottom line: Molinism provides a powerful foundation to affirm the New Testament (and thus the entire Bible) as the inspired and authoritative Word of God! This is the case because this model appeals to both the libertarian freedom of human authors and God’s counterfactual knowledge of what free human authors would freely write.

Our offense can stay on the field and continue marching toward the end zone! The punter needs to stay on the sidelines.

Let’s move on to our football team’s final possession:

5. Human Responsibility and Divine Sovereignty: 

God is sovereign over the entire world, bringing about his will in everything. He does as he pleases in heaven and on earth. There is not a maverick molecule in all the universe. He even sovereignly predestined people to salvation before they were born, while passing over all others. Yet man is fully responsible for all his actions. There will be a judgment of the unrighteous one day in which God will hold people responsible for their rejection of Christ. How could there be a judgment if people were doing only what they were predestined to do? I don’t know. But I do know that they are truly responsible for their actions and rejection of God.  This is a mystery beyond any human ability to solve, yet not a contradiction.

Speak for yourself, Coach Patton! The coach who is a Molinist (as opposed to coaches committed to calling plays based on other views of God’s sovereignty) has no problem scoring touchdowns when faced against this defensive scheme. This is because Molinism does not merely affirm, but logically explains HOW, God is sovereign over all and predestines all, without causally determining all. This leaves much elbow room for human libertarian freedom and genuine responsibility.

This “mystery” was solved centuries ago. Consider the words of Luis de Molina (the founder of “the Middle Knowledge view”) regarding the exhaustive sovereignty of God:

“Thus, the leaf hanging from the tree does not fall, nor does either of the two sparrows sold for a farthing fall to the ground, nor does anything else whatever happen without God’s providence and will either intending it as a particular or permitting it as a particular” (Disputation 53, part 3, 17).

The coach who knows that if God is both omnipotent and omniscient (eternally without beginning), also knows that God has the power to create free creatures and knows how they would freely choose if He creates them. Thus, God can plan and create a world suffused with free and genuinely responsible agents whom He knows would freely choose to act according to plan (See Human Freedom & the Self-Imposed Limits of God).

It is vital to note that the Molinist coach and the Calvinist coach both affirm exhaustive predestination. The Molinist coach simply points out that predestination and determinism are philosophically two different concepts that ought not be conflated. This allows the Molinist coach to score theological touchdowns with ease, while Calvinist coaches must punt the ball away.

Consider the words of Guillame Bignon when applying this point to the Problem of Moral Evil:

[Molinism] is better-off than Calvinism to answer the atheist argument from evil against God’s existence. I do affirm that. . .  the libertarian has a resource against the problem of evil that the compatibilist cannot use. That of course doesn’t mean that [Molinism] is overall better, only that it’s more useful at rejecting the problem of evil. It’s a strength of Arminianism I recognize (A Response to Kevin Timpe).

This “strength” allows the Molinist coach to manhandle the defense of “Team Evil,” who the rest of the league is petrified of meeting on the field.

Conclusion

Coach Patton asks: “Are there more than these? Most certainly. But in theology, these are the biggies.”

I agree that these are “the biggies,” but as I have shown, these “biggies” are actually not that “big.” If these “biggies” comprise the opposing defensive line, then team Molinism is going to run up the score on the way to another championship!

Coach Patton ends with a great point and says, “If you are not comfortable with some mystery, you are in the wrong faith.” To put this into football terms: “If you are not comfortable with ever punting the football, then you should not be playing football.” I agree with Patton on that score, but disagree regarding when a punt to mystery is warranted. Christianity is true, and because it is true, it will always be logically coherent. Sometimes it might take a couple thousand years to logically connect many of the theological dots on the coach’s clipboard.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


Notes

The Cerberus and Avatar analogies, and nearly all of the information above, can be found in The Defense Never Rests: A Workbook for Budding Apologists, by William Lane Craig and Joseph Tang.

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim is currently enrolled at North-West University pursuing his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics, history, and biblical data.

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