Reply to George I. Mavrodes

The critique by Professor Mavrodes, reflecting the techniques of the school of Analysis, is exceptionally penetrating. The way it develops makes it a pleasure to read; and in Parts III and IV it comes to grips with the most important, or, if anyone wish, the weakest part of my position.

The techniques of Analysis, however, have their disadvantages. Some of the volumes inspired by this school impress me as trivial pedantry. And while Mavrodes is not to be accused of triviality – far from it – there is nonetheless a certain clanking of the machinery.

This distracting noise presents a problem as to how or even whether to reply. In Parts I and II a series of objections is brought forward; at the end of each it is admitted that the objection does not apply, or, at least that a plausible adjustment can be made. Strictly speaking therefore, no reply is required; but since in these Parts there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that plays a later role, it will contribute to the main discussion to point this out.

In Part I we read that the Axiom “can be written on the back of a calling card.” A bit later the author says, “The Axiom contains no information whatever as to the specific content of the Bible.” And because of this Mavrodes concludes that no useful information can be deduced from it. Doubtless it is in this connection that he twice complains that “Not a single example is given anywhere of the deduction of any theorem.”

Of course, in What Do Presbyterians Believe?, I have indicated (without using standard-form categorical syllogisms) the deduction of various doctrines from Scriptural statements. What Mavrodes seems to mean, however, is that I have not deduced the several verses from the Axiom.

This criticism, so it seems to me, proceeds on the assumption that the “Bible” is just a word – a sound in the air, to use a nominalistic phrase. Apparently Mavrodes thinks that I would be better off technically if I made every verse a separate axiom. To me this seems like more machinery, which can be obviated by referring to them all under one name, the Bible.

Similarly, the proposition “Everything God says is true,” need be a separate axiom, only if “God” too is just a word. But if the word has a meaning, the Biblical meaning, then it is analytically certain that everything God says is true. Indeed Mavrodes acknowledges this in his immediate discussion; and that is why these initial criticisms cannot be taken seriously.

At the end of Part I is an argument alleged to show that the Axiom is useless. I am not sure I understand it. It seems to say that since P5 tautologically implies P5, it is useless to contend that P1 P4 P5 imply P5. My reply is that although P5 implies P5, this implication does not show that P5 is true. David was prime minister of Babylon implies that David was prime minister of Babylon. This too is a tautologically valid inference. But without the Axiom it cannot be shown that P5 is true.

Despite my impression that Part I clanks, and that its earlier segments are often cancelled by later emendations, there are two acknowledgments I wish to make here. First, it is quite possible that Mavrodes, with his especial competence in these lines, can teach me something about mathematical elegance. Some machinery is necessary; and it is quite likely that in my hurry to get somewhere, I have not sufficiently streamlined my engine. In recognizing that axiomatization is an ideal, actualized in no Systematic Theology, not even in Turretin, I may not have paid sufficient attention to its realization at the start.

Second, I acknowledge that my reply to Part I does not sufficiently discuss the content of Scripture and the canon of the Bible. These more substantial questions, both in the critique and in the reply, come later.

Now, Part II continues with the theme of axiomatization; and, I must say, some clanking seems to continue also. If I am not mistaken, the argument is that axiomatization is trivial and is so easy that a child or a machine can succeed. The reason given is that any random list of propositions can be axiomatized in an indefinite number of ways.

This is not convincing. Suppose we make the following list: David was King of Israel; hydrogen is a chemical element; and Jim likes peanuts. With these as axioms what can be deduced? Granted, Jim likes peanuts implies that Jim likes peanuts; but, point one, there is no explicit assertion that the axiom is true, and the implication remains valid even when the proposition is false; and, point two, nothing in addition to the three axioms can be deduced, for no two of them imply anything.

If, following the suggestion of the critique, we assert “David was King implies that Jim likes peanuts,” we may get more theorems than on the previous scheme; but here the axioms have become absurd (if the words retain their ordinary meanings), and as before the theorems are only the axioms over again.

In such a random list of axioms and therefore in the theorems that repeat them, there is no distinction between axiom and theorem; nor is there a distinction between theorem and theorem. If such a set of random propositions can be axiomatized in an indefinite number of ways, then either or both of two consequences follow: each proposition implies each other, so that they are all equivalent in meaning, for which reason justification and sanctification are synonymous; and, since any doctrine can be axiomatic, the doctrine of the Trinity could be no more basic to the limited atonement than the principle of Presbyterian government is basic to the eternal decree.

Another flaw in Mavrodes? easy and trivial axiomatization, or perhaps the same flaw in different words, comes to the surface in his statement, “If Christian doctrine is true, as I believe it is, then there are indefinitely many sets of true axioms which entail it.” This statement appears false to me, at least on the assumptions that Christian doctrine means all thirty-three chapters of the Westminster Confession, that these many propositions are not identical in meaning, and that the word entail is a synonym for imply. On these conditions I would like to know some of the indefinite number of axioms that imply the first chapter of the Confession. To simplify: The Axiom (Scripture is the word of God) implies that David was King; but how can David’s being King imply that all Scripture is true?

That “easy axiomatization” is irrelevant to the argument and ignores the meaning of the propositions (N.B. the difference between a declarative sentence and a proposition is that the latter is the meaning of the former) is again clear when we read, “Suppose that I believe some proposition B. However, instead of putting B forward on its own merits, whatever these may be, I deduce it from A with a flourish of logic.” Take this quotation in conjunction with three sentences a page earlier. “Furthermore, the methods of axiomatization which I have suggested . . . have an additional interesting feature. If all of the original propositions are true, then all of the axioms are true also. In that case the deduction of theorems from axioms will be a deduction of truths from truths.”

This appeal to a proposition’s “own merits” and the truth of original propositions – original in the sense of being true quite independently of any subsequent axiomatization – fails to take into consideration the first Wheaton lecture, in which I arrive at what Holmes so felicitously calls “unmitigated pessimism” and “an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards secular thought.” On what merits, other than the Axiom, could one assert justification by faith or the return of our Lord? One must press Mavrodes to show how he establishes the truth of any original propositions. It is only by ignoring the epistemological problem that such an objection can be raised. The paragraphs in question therefore proceed on a supposition contrary to fact. The argument seems to be: since an easy and trivial axiom taken at random “cannot serve by itself to distinguish true propositions from false ones,” then neither can the Axiom. This fallacy is embedded in the objection because, as I understand it, all meaning is excluded from the propositions and only nominalistic words remain.

But then – and here is the embarrassment – the objection was not seriously intended. Between the paragraphs quoted (enforced the more a page later where a different type of axiomatization is discussed) there is inserted an acknowledgment that this is all machinery with “an almost unbelievably weak sense of ‘system,’ a sense so weak that no collection of propositions, no matter how random, can possibly fail to be a system…[in] a hyper-attenuated sense.” My efforts to reply then must resemble taking an interplanetary rocket to get to the other side of town.

In the more serious discussion of system, there is only one point on which comment is necessary. Talking of constraint (b) (viz., “that the axioms should have more intuitive appeal, should be more ‘obviously? true or ‘self-evident? than the theorems”), Mavrodes says, “Is there any reason to suppose that the Axiom…is nearly so ‘obvious,’ or so likely to be accepted, as, e.g., that there is a God?” He then points out that many more people believe that David was King than that the Axiom is true.

This objection rests on a psychological sense of what is obvious rather than on a logical sense of the “self-evident,” if such a term must be used. In a similar vein the objection continues by noting that the Axiom has not proved noticeably resistant to the erosion of doubt.

Such remarks on psychology, including the confusions characteristic of college students, are as irrelevant as they are true. The point at issue is not whether somebody believes that David was King; the question is, How can we know that David was King? No secular historiography (as I hope to show in a future volume) can validly give us that proposition. Nor can secular or empirical epistemologies give us the Atonement. In answer to the question how we may know these things we can reply only that God has so revealed them. One sentence in the objection (unintentionally no doubt) reinforces my position. Mavrodes notes, “It is a common tactic of Christianity’s opponents to direct some of their first and most effective attacks against the Axiom.” In this tactic, so it seems to me, there is a satanic wisdom that passes by derivative propositions and fixes on the very basis of Christianity. These opponents know or perhaps dimly but rightly surmise that if they can destroy the foundation, nothing remains.

Mavrodes gives the impression that he wishes to deduce several propositions from a different foundation. Near the end of Part II he has this syllogism: “God ordained that David should be a King of Israel; God brings to pass whatever he ordains; therefore David was a King of Israel.” To which syllogism he appends the remark “This axiom set [the two premises] does not include Clark’s Axiom…making no reference at all to the Bible.” So? There would indeed have been no reference to the Bible, had he argued: Nebuchadnezzar ordained David to be King; whatever Nebuchadnezzar ordains comes to pass. But where else than in the Bible can we get the information that God ordained David? Once again, if the foundation be removed, nothing of Christianity remains.

Part III of the critique faces a major problem squarely. Here useless machinery is left behind. The substantial question is how do we know the contents of the Bible. If Louis XIV or my wife could be replaced with an imposter twin, then maybe the Bible in my hand is a cunningly devised substitute. Mavrodes lays this on rather heavily, and I am glad that he does. So few people are willing to give the point any serious attention. He also mentions, and I wish he had discussed, solipsism; there are also the skeptical arguments of Carneades and Aenesidemus; and as well Descartes’ omnipotent deceptive demon. In fact, until these arguments are successfully circumvented, no one has a firm basis on which to object to my general position. If anyone tries to avoid this material and, relying on common opinion, charges me with paradoxes, he has failed to grasp even the first point.

With great reluctance, for I sincerely admire the considerable talent of my present opponent, I must point out that he has not met the issue when he says, “Sense experience is required for the derivation of such [Biblical] beliefs,” and “every consistent epistemology which assigns a role to the Bible…must assign a role of equal scope and in precisely the same area to sense perception.” To make such assertions presupposes satisfactory answers to Aenesidemus and Descartes’ demon. Can it be shown that an imposter twin is impossible? Can we be sure that we have not overlooked a “not” in the sentence? There are even greater empirical scandals than these. How can one prove the reliability of memory? Any test designed to show which memory is true and which is mistaken presupposes that a previous memory is true – and this is the point in question. In large measure the psychological force of my position derives from the impossibility of empiricism.

No one in the history of philosophy has made a more determined effort than Aristotle to build knowledge on sensation. Surely Locke is no better; and contemporary phenomenalism with its experience that is neither mental nor physical is as meaningless and unverifiable as Spinoza's substance that is both. It was for this reason that the first Wheaton lecture used Aristotle as the exponent of empiricism. Therefore until my destructive analysis of Aristotle (in the first Wheaton Lecture and in Thales to Dewey) is overturned, an appeal to sensation is a petitio principii.

Part IV of the critique discusses Revelation and The Westminster Principle. Its thesis is double: first, that my position differs from that of the Confession; and, second, that the Confession is self-contradictory. Both of these points I shall contest.

Mavrodes alleges three differences between my position and that of the Confession. The first is that I have but one Axiom, while the Confession has several thousand. My reply to Part I sufficiently covers this point and nothing further is needed.

The second alleged difference is that I deduce all possible knowledge from Scripture, where as the Confession limits its claims to “religious” knowledge. What the vague, undefined word religious means, I do not know. Are principles of church government religious propositions? Is “David was King,” religious knowledge or some other kind? What about the distance of three score furlongs between Jerusalem and Emmaus? The Confession indicates that the Scripture gives us history, geography, chronology, politics, and “all things necessary for his glory.” This phrase covers all human actions because whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, we must do all to the glory of God. The Confession therefore does not limit its sphere of knowledge to a narrow “religious” area, distinct from other areas of action. Nor have I gone beyond the Confession’s very ample applications.

The third difference, viz., that the Confession does not use the word axiomatization, needs no reply other than to note the phrase “good and necessary consequence.” What Mavrodes means when he says, “nor is the principle generally recommended as providing for a ‘systematization?,” I do not know. The historic ordination vows by which a candidate for the ministry expresses his adherence to the Confession includes the question, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” Contrasted with the five or six disjointed beliefs of fundamentalist churches, the Westminster Confession is very highly systematized.

The second half of Part IV’s thesis is that the Confession is self-contradictory. Its principle forbids its procedure. The alleged failure leads Mavrodes to the conclusion that “there must be a source of theological knowledge other than that which the Principle recognizes.” In other words, Christian Theology must be a mixture of Biblical and non-biblical propositions. The example chosen of a non-Biblical proposition is the identification of the canon. The Confession lists the sixty-six books, but no statements in the Bible imply this list. “Yet we are presumably to believe that the Westminster divines found it possible to deduce the complete canonical list of sixty-six books from these six verses [the references appended] ‘by good and necessary consequence!’ I do not believe it.” After specifying some of the usual considerations relative to the establishment of the canon, Mavrodes concludes, “We may, of course, decide to accept the list and to reject the Principle.”

Mavrodes briefly alludes to detailed difficulties in the problem of the canon. He could have mentioned others, and I have no interest in minimizing them. He also chiefly and rightly insists on the importance of the canon, for if “Romans and Isaiah were not canonical, while Tobit and 2 Maccabees were, then [our] faith and practice might also be somewhat altered.” Then, repeating the objection he says, “The Westminster Principle, then, makes the question of canonicity crucial, and simultaneously makes it unanswerable.”

With commendable perceptiveness Mavrodes notices that Abraham also poses the same unanswerable question: “How did Abraham know that it was God who called him to Mt. Moriah, rather than the devil?” But though Mavrodes candidly admits that he cannot answer, an answer is required. Carnell once tried to answer it by appealing to anticipatory ideas of decency; but rather clearly such ideas would have led Abraham to conclude that the command to sacrifice Isaac came from Satan.

Mavrodes still further generalizes the question: “How [do] we come to know God?” This question too, as it includes its subsidiary forms, is one to be emphasized. Until a theologian has answered this question, he has no ground for objection to any view. He may express dissatisfaction with the Westminster principle; he may say, “I just don’t believe it”; but he can have no logical reasons or well-based objections. Dissatisfaction, if it occurs, should rather be directed against failure to answer these questions. To sit speechless cannot be accepted as our goal. Those who discuss religious problems, whether they are Calvinists or humanists, must be pressed to explain how God can be known – or, in the latter case, how values can be known when there is no God. The battle is between views or answers; the battle is not between a view and silence.

Now, as it appears, I have a view to propose. It is the Westminster Principle, or the Axiom, for I believe they are identical. This Principle, so my argument runs, does not founder on the contradiction Mavrodes indicated. Recall that he set in opposition the Principle that all truth must be deduced from Scripture and a list of canonical books for which no verses can be cited. This seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the Confession.

There are two reasons why this seems to be a misunderstanding. In the earlier part of this reply, I argued that Mavrodes treated the Axiom as if the Bible were a mere word without content. Obviously from a word, nothing can be inferred. But such a nominalistic procedure is clearly not intended. Similarly, the Confession, when it ‘says that all things necessary for the glory of God can be deduced from Scripture, does not use Scripture as an empty word. The Confession goes further, as I did not, and defines what it means by Scripture. The canonical list therefore is not a theorem deduced from the Axiom; it is a part of the Axiom itself in that it is the definition of its chief term. Hence the related objections fall away.

Although this seems to be sufficient to answer Mavrodes’ logical difficulties, there is a second point necessary to remove some lingering dissatisfaction. Mention has been made of Abraham and his conviction that God, not Satan, was speaking. This is essentially similar to the conviction that the Bible is the word of God and not the lying words of the devil.

Relative to this matter, the Confession makes a statement Professor Mavrodes did not quote. I urge my readers to consider it carefully, for it indicates how one comes to believe that the Bible is the word of God, or, in more technical language, how one comes to adopt the Axiom. Chapter one, section five says: “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture [though today many people would pay no attention to any Church, particularly to those who believe the Bible]; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts [each of which the humanists contest],…are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.”

It may not be amiss at this point to expand the historical reference. The Westminster Confession is not the only Reformation creed, nor is it alone in this assertion. Permit therefore one or two additional citations.

The Belgic Confession (A.D. 1561) after mentioning the sixty-six books, continues in Article V,
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical…believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling [les choses adviennent qui y sont prédites].

Perhaps someone might interpret the last sentence of this Article as inconsistent with the testimony of the Spirit. But even on this interpretation, which is not a necessary one, it is clear that the identity of the canon does not rest on a barely discernible, indeed a hypothetical Jewish council. The Reformation thus escaped the frustration of historicism.

The French Confession of Faith (A.D. 1559) also says, “We know these books to be canonical…not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books….”

The statements of these creeds mean that adherence to Scripture is not a deduction from sensory experience, neither is it the result of anticipations of decency, nor even of archaeological confirmation. Confidence in Scripture is the result of the inward working of the Holy Ghost. Note particularly that this illumination of the Spirit is not an additional revelation. He does not give us any additional information. He does not witness to our spirits, but with our spirits (Romans 8:16), and here explicitly by and with the word (compare Can 1 Trust My Bible, chapter one, “How May I Know the Bible is Inspired,” Moody Press, 1963).

This too is how Abraham knew it was God and not Satan who commanded him to kill Isaac. Anticipations of decency, religious experience, joy, pain, and crisis, which Professor Mavrodes goes on to mention, would all have suggested that the command to kill Isaac came from Satan. Similarly Edwin A. Burtt in Types of Religious Philosophy argues that Christ advocated an immoral labor and economic theory, and on other grounds too experience shows that Christ is inferior to modern ideals. When such humanists are convinced also that the Bible is historically inaccurate and is full of contradictions, it is clear that “the consent of the parts and the heavenliness of the matter” cannot be made into convincing arguments. Neither argument nor (what is the same thing) preaching can produce faith. Faith is the immediate result of regeneration. God changes our minds and causes us to believe.

This work of the Holy Spirit does not occur without preaching and argument. Though belief is caused by the Holy Spirit alone, the content of the belief is presented by human messengers. Abstractly God might have used some other method of propagating the Gospel; to say this is the way it is done is not to limit God’s power – it merely describes his method.

This method, which becomes the method of the preacher, needs one final clarification before the concluding paragraph is reached. The difficulties with the canon are well known; destructive criticism is our daily enemy; archaeology gives us cause for rejoicing. But if we depend on the testimony of the Spirit, can we discuss these details with non-Christians, or must we ignore the objections? Does not Reformed theology cut the lines of communication?

To which my reply is: Let us use as much archaeological evidence as we can find. Let us go into great detail on J, E, D, and P. We shall discuss the presence of camels in Egypt in 2000 B.C., and the hypothetical council of Jamnia. But our arguments will be entirely ad hominem. We shall show that the principles our opponents use destroy their own conclusions; that their critical procedures on Genesis cannot be applied to Homer’s Iliad; that their historiography ruins Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The argument is ad hominem and elenctic. When finally the opponent is reduced to silence and we can get in a word edgewise, we present the word of God and pray that God cause him to believe.

Mavrodes says he is dissatisfied with this Calvinistic position. As an alternative he draws a picture of “a net, which is attached to God at many points all around its circumference.” I do not like illustrations. How can God have many points around the circumference of a net? Illustrations invariably deceive.

Presumably Mavrodes means that knowledge is acquired in many ways. Some knowledge comes from sensation, some from mystical experience, some from joy and pain, and perhaps in many other ways.

If, now, Calvinism is disappointing to my esteemed critic, this eclecticism is disappointing to me. After the meticulous logical analysis in the first two Parts, an analysis that raises hopes for a more logical and more consistent alternative, the conclusion abandons epistemology. Knowledge, instead of being unitary or specifically one, is divided into disparate areas so that one name, Knowledge, is no longer appropriate to them all. This is not an alternative position. It is not a position at all; and its epistemological failure only enhances the attractiveness of the Westminster Confession.