Thursday, July 07, 2005

"Biblical" rationalism is incoherent

<< But the principle can be deduced from Scripture. The Bible teaches that God is infallible, that the Bible is his infallible revelation, that God controls all things, that man is fallible, that man’s sensations and intuitions are fallible, etc., etc. — put them together, and BAM, you have Scripturalism. >>

If this is true, then Cheung should be able to arrange these propositions into a formal logical argument such that the conclusion follows by strict implication from the major and minor premises.

Says Cheung: ”An inference is valid only if you can write it out as a syllogism and show that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises.”

In addition, how does Cheung know what the Bible teaches? He posits occasionalism as his mechanism. And he claims to deduce occasionalism from Scripture.

Ah, but herein lies a vicious circle. Unless he already knows, apart from Scripture, that Scripture is an object of knowledge, how can he ever know that the Bible is his source of information?

Likewise, unless he already knows that occasionalism is true, how can he ever know that this is the true mechanism which puts his mind in contact with the propositions of Scripture?

You see, for Cheung, Scripture is like a safe. Occasionalism is the combination. But there’s one little snag: the combination is locked away in the safe.

Cheung is telling us that he gets the combination (occasionalism) from the safe. But he can only open the safe if he already has the combination in hand.

How does he know that occasionalism is the correct combination to open the safe if the combination is written on a piece of paper inside the safe?

So this is his dilemma: if he can open the safe without knowing in advance what’s inside, then his knowledge is not limited to what’s inside the safe.

But if he can’t open the safe without knowing in advance what is inside, and if the contents of the safe are his only source of knowledge, then he can’t know anything at all.

So, you see, Cheung is cheating. He is tactically assuming an insider’s knowledge which he, as an outsider, can never enjoy. That's his secret fudge-factor.

<< It is amusing to me that some presuppositionalists have been so passionately arguing against my anti-empiricism that it is as if they are now defending empiricism, and in a manner that often contradicts what they would say when they argue against evidentialism in apologetics. >>

How does Cheung happen to know that his critics are presuppositionalists? Did he deduce this from Scripture?


  1. Good comments, Steve. I just submitted a reply for the aquascum page. Wish I had seen these first; the safe/combination dilemma is a great analogy.

    My reply should be appearing on the aquasum page tomorrow. I here summarize Vincent Cheung’s second reply to me, and my response. Cheung essentially claims three things:

    [VC1] I ‘beg the question’ against him because I assume that Scripturalism is false because it is not true.

    [VC2] I claim that Scripturalism cannot be deduced from Scripture, when it is easy to provide such a deduction, indeed in a single paragraph.

    [VC3] Empiricism can be easily defeated, even in its allegedly ‘biblical’ versions, and it certainly cannot be used to defeat Cheung’s ‘anti-empiricism’.

    In reply, I say:

    [AS1] I have never assumed that Scripturalism is false. Rather, what I argue is that *whether Scripturalism is true or false*, it is unknowable and is unjustified opinion at best. This follows not from the assumption that Scripturalism *is* false, but simply from the content of the Scripturalist claim about knowledge

    [AS2] Cheung’s attempt to validly deduce Scripturalism from Scripture is a miserable failure, crucially relying as it does on a non-revelational epistemological principle (infallibilism about knowledge).

    [AS3] Cheung’s analysis of empiricism relies on not one but *two* non-revelational epistemological principles (infallibilism and internalism), thus revealing the radical incoherence of Cheung’s ‘Scripturalist package’ as a foundation for apologetics.

  2. The second reply, referred to above, is available at:

    Or, you can just type in 'aquascum' in Google, and hit "I'm feeling lucky" :-)

  3. In addition to all of the other points which have been made, there is the following. Cheung writes:

    "Finally, consider this. If they claim that one must use physical sensations to read the Bible, and that, in some sense, the words of the Bible are conveyed to the mind through the physical sensations themselves, and if they also admit that sensations are fallible, then whether or not the Bible is infallible immediately becomes irrelevant to them, since they can never have an infallible Bible in practice. This is because the Bible in effect will only be as reliable to them as their sensations."

    The question is: how does Cheung deal with textual criticism? Is he one of those "inerrant TR" guys? Cheung believes that only the propositions of Scripture and their valid deductions constitute knowledge. But there are thousands of manuscripts of Scripture. While the differences between these manuscripts should not be exaggerated, the fact of the matter is that there are differences. How does Cheung propose to assess the worth of various manuscripts?

    I suppose that, given Cheung's occasionalism, he could just say: "It doesn't matter if the manuscript I read contains errors or additions. God causes my belief in Scriptural propositions *on the occasion of* my reading of even erroneous manuscripts." But then it doesn't much matter *what* you read. God can give me knowledge of biblical propositions on the occasion of reading John Paul Sartre ;-)

  4. Just another thought. Cheung writes:

    "But the principle can be deduced from Scripture. The Bible teaches that God is infallible, that the Bible is his infallible revelation, that God controls all things, that man is fallible, that man's sensations and intuitions are fallible, etc., etc. - put them together, and BAM, you have Scripturalism."

    It's the "put them together, and BAM" part that just leaves me in stitches. As Steve Hays reminds us, for Cheung, "an inference is valid only if you can write it out as a syllogism and show that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises." So the above is the "BAM" version of valid deduction!

    For more on this style of 'reasoning', check out:

  5. Indeed, as far as Cheung is concerned, Playboy magazine could supply the incidental occasion for the transmission of Biblical propositions.

    For that matter, would it not be more economical, on Cheung's view, to eliminate the Bible altogether? What's the material difference between occasionalism and direct, private revelation?

  6. Cheung's scripturalism reminds me of a quote from Pascal, in Pensees 582.

    "We make an idol of truth itself; for truth apart from charity is not God, but His image and idol, which we must neither love nor worship; and still less must we love or worship its opposite, namely, falsehood."

    Even Calvin notes this recondite concept of our knowledge of God and of ourselves.

    "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone." (Institutes I:1)

    Would it be to eastern to say we can know God in ourselves, only if we learn to know know ourselves in God ?

  7. Hi Mark,

    I'm not sure I see the applicability of the Pascal quote. My problem with Cheung isn't with the fact that he pursues "truth apart from charity". I'm not sure I'm willing to render that judgment. Rather, my problem is with the fact that he defines knowledge in such a way that the first principle of his Christian worldview is both unknowable and unjustified opinion at best.

    However, I think Calvin is quite right in saying that knowledge of God and of ourselves is inextricably linked. (John Frame makes much of this point in his _Doctrine of the Knowledge of God_.) Given this, it's difficult to see how a Scripturalist could know *anything* about himself, since he can't so much as know that he exists, much less that he exemplifies a particular property or character trait.

    And this, in turn, opens Scripturalists up to a form of gnosticism. Scripturalists can find no positive epistemic status for propositions which are neither in Scripture nor validly deducible from Scripture. It's all "unjustified opinion at best". Thus, there's simply no reason to consult these other propositions for any kind of guidance whatsoever, on any topic. So why *not* disparage every kind of empirical inquiry, since it gets us "unjustified opinion at best"?

    Cheung will disagree, since he says that sense perception of the world can provide the occasion of us *remembering* Scriptural propositions. But again, that cuts out *the vast majority* of what we believe by way of sense perception. So the difference between this and the full-blown gnostic rejection of the world is pretty negligible.

  8. I have to wonder about a man (if he is one) who hides behind an alias and is afraid to put his name to his work, including the many “deep philosophic critiques” he posts on the web. Aside from his near total ignorance of the Scripturalism of Gordon Clark, many of his comments, including the one above, reveal more of an aversion to the truths of Scripture and the Westminister Confession than anything relevant to Scripturalism. Consider the “other propositions” Scum would have us inquire as presumably additional sources of truth and knowledge completely apart from Scripture. The WCF 1.2 states that the Scriptures were “given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.” I would have thought faith and life pretty much covered everything, but maybe Scum has some additional application? Disbelief and death perhaps? As homework he should be forced to look up all the references from where this doctrine is drawn then explain to the Christian what other sources of knowledge he should consult apart from Scripture for “guidance.” Additionally, God through Isaiah commands us; “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” To the careful reader, Isaiah is of course chastising those who would make similar claims as this particular version of pond scum.

    OTOH I can see Scum’s appeal when I consider 2Tim 4:3. Van Tilians and like minded dialecticians need all the reassurance they can get.

    Sean Gerety