The Futility of the Apologetic Appeal to “Revelation”
For example, Jonathan declares that “Christian epistemology” is:
an epistemology based upon the foundation of divine revelation from the omniscient, omnipotent, infallible source of all knowledge.
Believers typically do not make it very clear what they mean by this, but rather aim to give the impression that they are beneficiaries of some specially bestowed knowledge transmitted directly into their minds from an infallible supernatural source. In actuality, this is just a term they use to conceal the utter secondhandedness of what they claim as knowledge.
When pressed on the matter, believers today typically do not say they are receiving new knowledge from the Christian god from fresh revelations being directly transmitted specifically to their minds. We of course could test this: ask them to tell you what you had for breakfast yesterday and watch the excuses fly. Rather, they usually designate two categories of revelation:
(1) “general revelation”: According to Bahnsen (Pushing the Antithesis, p. 276):
General revelation is the doctrine that God reveals himself in nature. This form of revelation is directed to all men (thus it is called “general” revelation). Though God’s revelation in nature does not show man the way of salvation, the Trinitarian nature of God, and many other such divine truths, it does show that God exists, that he is powerful, and that man is responsible to him.
The doctrine of general revelation teaches that God reveals Himself in the created order (nature). It is that creational revelation which addresses man as man (the creaturely image of God, Gen. 1:26; 9:6). It reveals God’s existence (Rom. 1:20), glory (Ps. 19:1), power (Rom. 1:20), holiness (2:14-16), and wrath (1:18). This revelation is undeniably known by man, thus rendering him morally accountable to God (1:20; 2:1).
Several times Bahnsen makes reference to Romans 1:20, a verse commonly cited by presuppositionalists in particular. Romans 1:20 states (ASV):
For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse
Accordingly, Romans 1:20 essentially says that that which is “unseen… is seen plainly.” How can something that is “seen plainly” also be “unseen”?
So I’m convinced that we have a contradiction here: when we look out at the world, we do not “plainly see” attributes of something that are “invisible” or “unseen.”
Suppose the Christian claims that this means, when we look out at the world, we see “evidence” of the Christian god. But this too is deeply and insuperably problematic. For when I look out at the world, I see things that are natural, material, finite and corruptible. But as I ask in my blog entry Is Human Experience Evidence of the Christian God?:
How does that which is natural, material, finite and corruptible serve as evidence of that which is supernatural, immaterial, infinite and incorruptible? In other words, how does A serve as evidence of non-A?
How does something serve as evidence of that which completely contradicts it?
Thus the doctrine of “general revelation” seems to be thoroughly problematic and unnecessary.
(2) “special revelation”: According to Bahnsen (Pushing the Antithesis, p. 280):
Special revelation is that disclosure that is given to God’s people (hence, it is “special”). It comes from God only by means of direct, personal, verbal (or visual) communication, either through special, prophetically endowed messengers or through the written record of those messengers.
God reveals himself directly and propositionally to the mind of man in Scripture. Special revelation is that disclosure that is given to God’s people (hence, it is “special”). It comes from God by means of direct, personal, or verbal (or visual) communication, either through special, prophetically endowed messengers or through the written record of those messengers.
The question boils down to: if the believer were instructed by his god to kill, would he obey his god, or would he disobey it?
Believers might come back with the claim that their god would never provide such an instruction. But how does the believer, not being the Christian god, know this? Citing the 10 commandments’ prohibition against killing rests on numerous unargued assumptions. For example, Christians typically take this commandment to be a prohibition against killing other human beings. But on Christianity’s terms, it may be the case a demon appears to be human but is really a demon, and the Christian god wants the believer to destroy it. Moreover, Acts 5 has Peter curse a woman to death. In fact, that woman was a member of the church!
Calling this episode in Acts “a pericope altogether repulsive to modern sentiment, the more so because the penalty is implemented by one who, at Mk. 14:66-71 and its parallel in Matthew, had committed the greater crime of denying his master with curses, G. A. Wells has to say (Can We Trust the New Testament?, p. 78):
The fate of Ananias and Sapphira shows the church to be a realm of holiness which kills unholy people who lay hands on it… The story also conflicts with the generalization of [Acts] 2:44 that “all that believed… had all things in common”; for the couple were reproached on the ground that they should have handed over all the money from the sale of their goods or none at all, as the surrender was voluntary. The sharing of possessions was obviously not a feature of first-century Christianity as a whole. Paul’s letters show that it was not established in his congregations; and Luke intended it only as an illustration of the ideal uniqueness of the very earliest days, not as a norm for his own time. He himself shows that it did not last, for when at [Acts] 11:29 the disciples decide to send relief to the brethren in Judea, “there is no longer any suggestion of pooling capital… The Christians are engaging in business and some at least were prospering - euporeito, had plenty (Barrett[, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Volume 1],p. 565).
It must be emphasized that the doctrine of “revelation,” intended as it is to substantiate the notion that infallible knowledge has been directly communicated to certain chosen individuals from a supernatural source such that they can be certain that they are not wrong, does not in the final analysis alleviate the individual of epistemological labor. Since human beings do have the capacity to err in spite of claims to having received revelations, and since human beings do have the ability to imagine, the individual claiming to have received a “revelation” would still need to determine whether any particular content he claims to be revelatory in nature was in fact a revelation from the Christian god. How does one know that he’s received a supernatural revelation? How does he identify that some content in his mind was revealed to him supernaturally as opposed to acquired through some more mundane means (such as the operation of reason, or simply something he heard someone saying)? How does the believer rule out the possibility that he has confused something he himself has imagined with what he calls “revelation”? To simply dismiss this possibility gives away the game: he would at this point be claiming in effect that he himself is infallible, thus putting himself on equal footing with the god he claims to worship.
Moreover, given Christianity’s affirmation of the existence of supernatural beings other than the Christian god – e.g., demons, devils, fallen angels, etc., the individual would also need to determine that what he calls a “revelation” is not actually a supernatural deception masquerading as a “divine revelation.” (I have discussed the notion of supernatural deception previously; see especially my blog entries Cognitive Reliability vs. Supernatural Deception and A Reply to Michael: Further Thoughts on the Issue of Supernatural Deception.) But so far as I can tell in my reading of “Scripture,” the bible provides no systematic, objective guidance whatsoever on how to make such determinations. We should not be surprised by the fact that apologists do not draw attention to what must be accepted as a possibility on Christianity’s premises, that they have been supernaturally deceived. It is clear that early Christians wrestled with this problem themselves, but the only “solution” ever given is that individuals simply need to put their faith in some leader, still very much human, who claims to have it all right – e.g., an “apostle,” a pastor, a bishop, a pope, etc.
Next, we need to ask what kind of “knowledge” the believer claims to have received in this “direct, personal, or verbal (or visual)” disclosure from his god. Is it useful knowledge that we can apply down here on earth, such as when the next natural disaster is going to strike a major urban area or the solution to some complicated engineering project? Can the believer even tell you what you had for breakfast yesterday? Obviously, such claims to knowledge would be testable. But the “disclosures” which Christian believers claim to have received are typically not of this sort. In fact, I’ve never encountered a Christian who has claimed to receive this sort of knowledge from his god. On the contrary, the “knowledge” which Christians typically claim to receive from their god via “revelation” is always some sort of otherworldly content that has no objective value whatsoever, such as that his god is real, that it endorses the contents of the sacred storybook (which itself has no value for rational individuals living on earth), etc. Many apologists pretend to have received “knowledge” of some philosophical value by means of “revelation,” but this always turns out either to be more chicanery or at any rate indiscriminate, secondhand acceptance of content they picked up from other human beings.
In fact, it is precisely in the area of theological doctrine that believers routinely conflict, and yet this is the kind of “knowledge” that believers say has been “revealed” to them from a supernatural source.
Examining the biblical record, the “revealed knowledge” its authors claimed to have seems to fall into two general categories: the course of human history (either past or future – e.g., the fall in the Garden of Eden, or eschatological fantasies about the violent demise of humanity), and what is expected of human beings (e.g., obedience to commandments, self-sacrifice, abandonment of worldly values, dietary codes, circumcision, intellectual resignation, etc.). The content of the “revealed knowledge” that we find in the bible is of no scientific significance; for example, we will not learn from the bible what the melting point of copper is, the distance to the moon, how to construct an internal combustion engine, the presence of microorganisms in the body, surgical techniques, how to determine which plants contain properties that can combat cancer, etc. The “disclosures” from supernatural sources never seem to have any value for those who intend to live right here on the earth that the supernatural deity itself is said to have created.
In terms of philosophy, the “disclosure” found in the Old and New Testaments provide nothing of value. It does not inform us of the nature of consciousness and the proper relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects; indeed, it continually blurs this distinction throughout primarily because its own authors were ignorant on such matters themselves. It does not present any theory of concepts such that we can learn from it how the human mind forms concepts, how new units should be integrated once we have formed concepts, how measurement plays a role in concept-formation, how to properly define concepts once they’ve been formed. It provides no analysis of the nature of perception and its relationship to conceptual knowledge. It provides no explanation of the nature of values and their relationship to human life. It provides no theory of individual rights; slavery, we’re told, is “perfectly biblical,” and much in the bible can be cited to confirm this. It provides no guidance on how to systematically apply reason to specific areas of study, such as biology, botany, geology, physics, etc., in order to discover the nature of the facts involved in the world in which we live. It does not explain how scientists should conduct experiments to test their hypotheses. Given what we do find and what we do not find in the bible, it can be safely said that its authors were completely ignorant on these and other important philosophical and scientific matters.
In terms of theological matters, as mentioned above, the situation is no better. Since the dawn of Christianity, debates over “right doctrine” on virtually every teaching of the church have raged without cease and without clear resolution. Even a cursory examination of the history of Christianity shows how the fragmentation unfolding at an exponential rate since its inception can be traced to its tattered doctrinal beginnings. Everything from the doctrine of salvation to the observance of the Mosaic laws, from the nature of the resurrected body to predestination, from circumcision to unclean foods, from fellowship with unbelievers to marriage and divorce, etc., etc., are points of contention for the early believers, as documented in the New Testament itself. The apostle Paul’s many letters were written specifically with the intention of settling disputes, which were already raging in his day, even though his efforts seem to have done more harm than good (for those disputes have morphed and proliferated accordingly ever since). The NT writers never make mention of a “trinity,” and their treatment of the relationship between the Christian god, Jesus and the “holy ghost” is as vague as it is inconsistent. The bible’s authors seem to have been given “disclosures” which are not only harrowingly incomplete, but also ultimately incompatible with one another.
So when believers cite “revelation” as their “epistemology,” they are not talking about some defined, systematic method of discovering and validating knowledge which they personally perform by gathering facts, carefully examining and identifying them, determining their nature, looking at other relevant facts to confirm their findings, checking for error, etc. Ultimately, they really mean simply believing what they read in the bible, what they’ve been told by church leadership, guided as it must be by human interpretation, and the emotional and imaginative indulgences which they’ve allowed to seduce their minds (e.g., “I looked at the stars of the night heaven and knew that it must have all been made by God!”). There really is no epistemology to speak of here at all. It is fantasy mixed with the insistent stipulation that was is really only imaginary is “the Truth.”
There are many dead give-aways to the fact that this is all fraudulent artifice, but one which believers cannot get around is the fact that there is such wide disagreement among believers on so many teachings in Christianity. Just go to Triablogue and skim through the blog entries there. Remember the Spy vs. Spy feature in the old Mad Magazines? Well, there you will find Believer vs. Believer. If there’s a supernatural being out there personally revealing knowledge to believers, why are they constantly in such wide and contentious disagreement with each other? If we’re talking merely about an ancient text written by human beings living in a pre-rational, pre-scientific culture steeped in mysticism (e.g., formalized superstition) and unable to clearly distinguish between the real and the imaginary, then such wide variations in interpretation are what we can expect from those who champion these writings as if they were some kind of cosmically bestowed “Truth.” Either way, to call this “epistemology” is to trample the concept in mud.
As for inductive vs. deductive, what Jonathan is trying to say here is that his belief that Christianity is true (a la presuppositional apologetics) is not based upon an analysis performed on each and every competing worldview and eliminating them from consideration due to the discovery of defects in each, thereby leading to the conclusion that Christianity, as the last one standing, is therefore the only true worldview. Jonathan is saying that this is not his method. (Of course, what he has in mind here is a process of elimination, not induction; induction builds to the general from the specific, but a process of elimination begins with a general and then weeds out specifics to arrive at a specific.) Rather, he’s saying he got this “truth” from “revelation” (essentially, believing what he’s been told – cf. John Frame: “In the final analysis we must believe Scripture on its own say-so” - Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 14). In this way he’s claiming general knowledge (e.g., “all non-Christian worldviews are false”) apart from induction. This is the stuff of faith – essentially believing that something is true because he wants it to be true (cf. Mike Licona: “I want it to be true”) – and in his mind it allows him to dismiss all non-Christian worldviews without ever examining them. In this way the appeal to “revelation” demonstrates itself as an attempt to find some shortcut to certainty.
If “revelation” is involved here, it is what the believer reveals about his own assessment of knowledge and his character as a thinker: he’s essentially saying that whatever it is he believes as part of his worldview is not something he has learned by means of applying a rational process. Bahnsen tells us that “without the Christian worldview ‘reason’ itself becomes arbitrary or meaningless – becomes unintelligible” (Always Ready, p. 196). This can only mean that one must accept Christianity first, before applying reason in order to determine whether or not any of it is true – “belief precedes understanding” (Ibid., p. 50), which means: according to Christianity, one must believe before he understands what he believes. For example, we are supposed to believe, apart from reason, that an act of consciousness produced the universe and that Jesus was born of a virgin. Only later, after swallowing the totality of Christianity (per the approved interpretations) is one allowed to “reason,” and then only in conformity with preset faith commitments which cannot be violated or obviated, and thus man’s mind must be kept on a tight leash for “reason seeks to distort, not affirm, the truth” (Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 83).
Regarding proof, Frame states (op cit. pp. 66-67):
One who requires proof may be doing it out of ungodly arrogance, or he may be thereby admitting that he has not lived in a godly environment and has taken counsel from fools. God’s norm for us is that we live and raise our children in such a way that proof will be unnecessary… it is possible to go beyond these general recommendations and produce specific arguments for God’s existence. A wise man does not really need these; they are for fools.
I know that 2 + 2 = 4. I don’t know this inductively because I have examined all possible answers to the question ‘what is 2 + 2?’. I know it deductively through other methods.
Perhaps more to the point, we might ask: Where did Jonathan get the concept ‘2’? If he says “by revelation,” we saw above that this is strictly anti-rational. Moreover, it indicates (“reveals”) that he has no theory of concepts to explain how he forms and makes use of concepts. And in fact, Christianity has no theory of concepts. By contrast, the objective theory of concepts provides an analysis of how measurement is integral to conceptualization and points out that measurement is already taking place at the level of perception – i.e., at a pre-conceptual level of awareness. When we see two objects, for example, we are perceiving them, and their sizes in relation to one another is self-evident. For example, if we see a beach ball and a tennis ball, it is perceptually self-evident that the former is larger than the latter. This is a form of measurement; it begins in perception – i.e., by looking outward at the world of facts as opposed to looking inward at the contents of our wishes or imagination (where “revelation” ultimately comes from). The subsequent process of abstraction enables us to form concepts of numbers.
Now, if someone came up to me with a twenty page paper, with hundreds of equations, big long explanations and proofs, and at the end it appeared that they have proved 2 + 2 = 17, well, I know that they are wrong.
I know that Christianity is true via divine revelation.
If one accepts as true something another person claims on his mere say-so, as Frame stipulates, he cannot know whether or not what he has accepted as truth is really true or not. He has forfeited the opportunity to know anything in exchange for the ability to repeat something he himself doesn’t really understand.
It’s based upon the revelation of God which He has made evident to me in such a way that I can know it, and can’t be wrong about it.
Thus we can safely conclude that the apologetic appeal to "revelation" is hopelessly futile. It is strictly anti-rational, it raises epistemological conundrums which it cannot untangle, and given the fact that anyone can claim that their imaginative indulgences have their basis in supernatural revelation, such appeals inevitably lead to contradictions.
I'm glad these aren't my problems.
by Dawson Bethrick