One of the guys at “Choosing Hats” (~ahem ~ the *second* best Presuppositionalist website on the internet), has been reading John Gill.  And as is the case with most who read Gill, Nextor has become excited about the breadth of Reformed theology found therein.

He’s focused on the “unity” of God, meaning, in short, how the classical attributes of God are logically derived from each other.  Consider, for example, that God’s infinity leads (necessarily) to His omnipresence.  From Nextor:

“God is infinite: God is without bounds, immeasurable, uncontained and without limits. This necessitates two further attributes: Omnipresence and Eternity. Why? Because God is both unbound and without limits in everything, which includes both space and time.”

Of interest to presuppositionalists is how Van Til was the master of drawing these sorts of theological conclusions and applying them in apologetic contexts.  Van Til’s disciples, like Nextor, have run with this practice.1  Consider Dr. Oliphint:

“If we affirm that God is essentially a perfect Being (one who lacks nothing), if we affirm his character is a se, then it cannot be that he is in any way essentially limited by anything outside of himself, since to be limited would by definition be a lack; it would be a constraint placed on God by something else, be it space or time or human choices.” ~ “God With Us” pg. 16

While these moves are fairly uncontroversial, at least in Reformed and classical circles, the presuppositionalist should be aware of a few criticisms he might encounter if he offers these arguments “in the wild”.2 In this post, I’d like to focus on a more philosophical criticism Nextor might face when presenting John Gill to an audience of academics.

In philosophy, there is a debate between so-called “realists” and “anti-realists”.

Usually, the debate pertains to morality – one is either a “realist” about the existence of extra-mental moral norms, or one is an anti-realist about them.  But the distinction also applies to many other domains of discourse.  For instance, there are “realists” about science who believe scientific propositions are made true or false by extra-mental states of affairs, and there are scientific “anti-realists” who don’t.

In our case, we can speak about a general sort of “theological realism” vs. a general sort of “theological anti-realism”, where statements about God are made true or false (says the realist) by actual states of affairs about God, and where the theological anti-realists say otherwise.  In other words, realists in the “domain” of theology hold that truths about God are independent of our thoughts about God; the anti-realists would say that truths about God depend, in some way or other, on our thoughts about Him.

The knee-jerk reaction for Christians is to take the “realist” position (or at least, some form of quasi-realism), and while this has historically been the case, the realist position is being challenged.3  But if we take the theological realist position, a problem appears to crop up for us when talking about God’s attributes (or, when predicating attributes to God).

It seems that when we predicate, say, “personhood” to ourselves (when we say:  “I am a person”) we are not doing the same thing as when we predicate “personhood” to God.  Saying “God is a person” cannot mean the same thing as saying “I am a person”, because, given God’s simplicity, it would be impossible to apply properties to Him.4

In the latest edition of the Journal of Analytic Theology, there’s an essay by John A. Keller where he attempts to show that theological anti-realism is on much weaker footing than is often thought.  If successful, his article would be a valuable resource for those of us who feel obligated to theological realism.

Keller offers an interesting solution to the problem of linguistic clarity within the theological domain of discourse.  Realists, says Keller, should be interested in linguistic transparency – the grammatical names and predicates in the theological domain, should be genuine names and predicates.  If not – then we might end up being anti-realists parading as realists because we say we believe “God exists” for instance, and that the proposition “God exists” is made true or false by mind-independent states of affairs, but if we mean something entirely different by “God” or “exists” than what is normally meant, then we’re no longer considering if God, as Christians take Him to be, exists independent of minds.  So we’re possibly right back into anti-realism.  From Keller:

“An…important element of the traditional conception of realism about a domain of discourse dis the idea that language in dis transparent, in the sense articulate above: that grammatical names and predicates are genuine names and predicates, where a “genuine” name or predicate is a name or predicate that functions semantically like names and predicates outside of d.”

But again – if we stick to this sort of linguistic transparency then it seems that we will have to be anti-realists about God after all.

An atheist might challenge Nextor, suggesting that if he holds to the classic divine attributes (especially simplicity and aseity), he would have to give up theological realism.  When Nextor says “God is a person”, he cannot mean God literally is a person since that would imply He is has parts.  So whatever the sentence “God is a person” might mean, it does *not* mean the same thing as the sentence “Nextor is a person”.  The type of personhood predicated to Nextor, and that predicated to God, are two different things.

But here, Keller offers helpful analysis.

“…there is a superficial incompatibility: if God does not have properties in the way that other substances do, then predicating, say, personhood of God must involve something very different than predicating it of me.  But it is not clear that we should count adherents of Simplicity as anti-realists either.  The two doctrines can perhaps be reconciled by denying that ordinary predications require there to be an object /property pair such that the object is the subject, the property is expressed by the predicate, and the subject instantiates the property.  Such a move would not be as ad hoc as it might first appear, once we notice that we can make grammatical predications of things that do not exist (‘Santa Claus is fat’, that shadow is moving quickly’) and we can use grammatical predicates (or predicative expressions) that do not express properties.”

If we habitually predicate properties to non-existent objects, and if we habitually use “predicative expressions” that do not express real properties, then there’s no reason we cannot apply the same habitual practices to God.

We can think of many “grammatical predications” that are meaningful, but nevertheless, do not express properties.  Keller gives the following example:

The car “is moving”.

Here, we’re predicating “is movingness” to the car.

But does “moving” exist as an object in the world?  Of course not.  You can’t smell “moving”; you can’t taste “moving”.  So, when we predicate “movingness” to the car, we’re offering a “grammatical predication” that is meaningful, but does not express properties that exist in the actual world.

Given this flexibility in our language, there’s no reason (as Keller notes) that we cannot both retain grammatical transparency in our language about God, while also holding to the classical doctrines (like Simplicity)

Good luck / providence to Nextor…

1. Additionally, see John Frame’s article “Divine Aseity and Apologetics” which should be required reading for all Presuppositionalists. Also consider Nathan Shannon’s excellent Van Tillian attempt to explain the relationship of God’s attributes to Creation here

2. Objections to these lines of inference come from many directions, both within the Christian community and without. On page 16 of “God With Us” Dr. Oliphint warns that if “one presupposes libertarian freedom for man, then God must necessarily be limited in some way”. Outside the church, we’re more likely to hear objections from atheists attempting to demonstrate that the various attributes contradict each other in some way.

3. The book “Realism and Anti-Realism” edited by William Alston is probably the best introduction to the debate from a Christian perspective. The contributing authors are all realists or quasi realists. For a defense of a form of quasi realism, see David Leech Anderson’s article therein, entitled: “Why God is Not a Semantic Realist”. Additionally, John A Keller, in his article on theological anti-realism, notes that, in general, the continental philosophical tradition has been largely anti-realist and that contemporary theological schools, being influenced by continental philosophy, have tended towards anti-realism.

4. Alvin Plantinga argues this way in his essay “Does God Have a Nature?” Also, John A Keller mentions it in his article on theological anti-realism, linked to above. For a refutation of Plantinga’s critique of Simplicity, see Dr. Oliphint’s “God With Us” page 67. Also, see Dolezal’s “God Without Parts” which is a book-length defense of the doctrine from a Van Tillian perspective. Additionally, Dr. Oliphint recommends Frederik Gerrit Immink’s essay “Divine Simplicity = De Eenvoud Gods” as a detailed analysis and critique of Plantinga’s view of Simplicity.


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