Sunday, July 03, 2005

Scripturalism as Neo-Deism

In what follows I have changed the name of my theological opponent to “Genchu”; it is nobody’s real name. The main point of this essays is not about him or me, but about some general pointers on apologetics and debate.

I will focus on just one particular claim of Genchu’s: to wit:

<< Romans 1 says that this innate knowledge contains information about God’s attributes, such as eternity and power, and it is specific enough to condemn all idolatry and even something like homosexuality. Then, Romans 2 says that the moral laws have been written in the minds of men, and this information is full and specific enough to either condemn or excuse many of their daily actions. This is a lot of specific information! Thus the innate knowledge is indeed full enough to exclude all non-Christian ideas of God, and all non-Christian concepts of morality. >>

Now, Genchu claims to be a Calvinist, which commits him to the Reformed rule of faith, i.e., sola Scriptura.

Indeed, Genchu goes beyond traditional Calvinism by claiming to adhere to an especially strong version of sola Scriptura which goes by the name of Scripturalism.

As Genchu defines Scripturalism,

<< Scripture is the first principle of the Christian worldview, so that true knowledge consists of only what is directly stated in Scripture and what is validly deducible from Scripture. >>

So let us, then, take Genchu at his word and apply his own criterion to his prooftexting.

Does Rom 1 “directly state” that all men enjoy an “innate” knowledge of God? Obviously not.

Is the proposition of “innate” knowledge validly deducible from Rom 1? Not that I can see.

“Innate” knowledge would be a form of knowledge which is inborn and owes nothing to any relation between the subject and the external world.

Is that the sort of knowledge which Rom 1 attributes to the human mind? No. Rom 1 says that this knowledge comes from the outside—from the external world.

So how is Genchu’s appeal to Rom 1 consistent with his Scripturalism?

Perhaps he would gloss Rom 1 in the following way:

<< First, observation stimulates the mind to recall what God has already placed into it. Second, observation stimulates the mind to intuit what the logos immediately conveys to it on the occasion of the observation, often about what the person is observing. In both cases, no information comes from the act of observation itself. >>

If so, this only relocates the original question. Does Rom 1 “directly state” that “observation stimulates the mind to recall what God has already placed into it”? No.

Does Rom 1 “directly state” that “observation stimulates the mind to intuit what the logos immediately conveys to it on the occasion of the observation, often about what the person is observing”? No.

Are either or both of these propositions validly deducible from Rom 1? Hard to see how. How is either occasionalism or illuminationism validly deducible from the wording of Rom 1?

Perhaps Genchu would say that illuminationism is validly deducible from Jn 1:9. I’ve already argued that this is exegetically unsustainable—an argument which Genchu has chosen to ignore rather than rebut.

But, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that this is so. How does it follow, as a matter of valid inference, that if Jn 1:9 is talking about illuminationism, then Rom 1:19ff. must be talking about the same thing? This is a complete non-sequitur.

There is, for example, nothing in Rom 1 to preclude the possibility or probability that Paul regards the natural knowledge of God as an inductive inference from the external world.

How, from a strictly exegetical standpoint, would Genchu propose to block that interpretation?

It simply won’t do for Genchu to fall back on philosophical objections to empiricism, for even if these were compelling in their own right, they violate his stated rule of faith, according to which the interpretation of Rom 1 ought to be confined to what is either “directly stated” in the sacred text or else “validly deducible” from the text. To exclude exegetical options on the basis of such extraneous philosophical objections would violate his own rule of faith.

Or suppose, instead of inductive inference, we substitute deductive inference. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean in this context, but let’s play along for the sake of argument.

If the subject is “intuiting” the existence of God from the external world, then he is arriving at the knowledge of God by a process—a process of intuition, in which event it isn’t innate knowledge, but only becomes knowledge by process of intuition from an external object.

And this is not the same as intuiting truths from Scripture. Rather, this is the case of intuiting truths from nature.

Now, Genchu might object by contending that the external world is not an object of knowledge or even a means of knowledge, but only supplies the occasion for intuition to “recall” its innate noetic endowment.

But this won’t do, either. For unless there were something familiar about the external object which triggered a sense of recognition as the mind compared the external object with its inner representation, there would be nothing in the external object to “remind” the subject of what he already knew, at some subliminal level.

Moreover, occasionalism is contrary to Genchu’s definition of innate knowledge:

<< Man is born with an innate knowledge of God, so that apart from any experience. >>

But even if we put an occasionalist spin on Rom 1, what God has already placed in the mind requires an external stimulus to activate the memory and turn this innate noetic endowment into knowledge proper. Hence, experience does supply a necessary condition for the knowledge of God.

This is confirmed by a further constraint which Genchu places on knowledge. For him, knowledge, in order to count as knowledge, must be self-conscious knowledge, and not merely tacit knowledge:

<< No one can think or speak without assuming and using biblical premises that provide the precondition of intelligibility. >>

So, according to Genchu’s criterion, innate knowledge doesn’t count as genuine knowledge until an additional condition is met, which is the conjunction between the innate noetic endowment and the experience of a suitable external stimulus.

So much for Rom 1. What about Rom 2?

Genchu simply assumes a popular interpretation of Rom 2 without attempting to ruling out rival interpretations.

If we take Rom 2:14-15 to refer to all mankind, then, as Cranfield puts it, we must understand the phrase “kai Helleni” to mean that “some pagan Gentiles do in fact, on the basis of a natural moral law, fulfill God’s law’s demands,” The Epistle to the Romans (T&T Clark 1982), 1:155.

Now that may be excellent Pelagian theology, but since Genchu identifies himself as a Calvinist, we rather doubt that he could embrace this exegetical option with an abundance of enthusiasm.

And Cranfield rightly rejects it as “hardly compatible with 3:9,20,23,” ibid. 156. Instead, he takes it as a shorthand expression for “Gentiles Christians, on analogy with Rom 11:13 & 15:9.

By way of supporting argument, he then points out that the phrase “gramaton en tais kardias auton” is “a deliberate reminiscence of Jer 31[LXX: 38]:33”. This rules out its application to the heathen since it has reference to “God’s eschatological promises [which] were already beginning to be fulfilled through the gospel in the lives of believes, both Jews and Gentiles,” ibid. 158-59. He also draws attention to Paul’s use of Jer 31 elsewhere (1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:2-3,6-14; 6:16) to corroborate his interpretation.

In addition, consider the supporting argument offered by N. T. Wright:


“Physei” comes in the middle of the clause: “for when nations not having Torah by nature do the things of Torah”). “By nature” could, grammatically, go either way, in Greek as in that English translation. It could modify “having Torah” instead of “doing the things of Torah.”…Paul’s point would then be an obvious one: that Gentiles do not, by nature—that is, by origin and parentage—possess the Torah. This is exactly the sense that Paul gives to phusis thirteen verses later when, making an almost identical point, he describes Gentiles Christians as “the by-nature uncircumcision that fulfills the Torah”). “Nature” cannot here refer to something that is common, innate, to all humans. Jews, too, are born uncircumcised; that is, in that sense, their “natural” state. It must refer to Gentiles humanity as opposed to Jewish (cf. Gal 2:15). I suggest that this is so for 2:14 as well.

The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon Press 2002), 10:441-442.


Now, to make good on his sweeping assertions, Genchu needs to show that the alternative interpretation offered by Wright and Cranfield is not validly deducible from the text, or else is somehow inferior to his preferred interpretation.

In addition, the internalization of the law is not apart from a knowledge of the written word. To the contrary, it is mediated by a knowledge of the new covenant. So this verse is hardly a prooftext for Augustinian illumination. Rather, it presupposes special revelation and special grace, not natural revelation and common grace.

Innate knowledge is nowhere in view. Rather, the knowledge in view is acquired knowledge.

By ripping Jn 1:9 and Rom 2:15 from their redemptive settings, Genchu is unwittingly repristinating the heretical epistemology of English Deism, according to which the Gospel was merely the republication of natural religion, a la Tindal’s “Christianity as Old as the Creation.”

Yes, he may bring up his occasionalism once again. But where does Paul expllicate 2:14-15 with reference to occasionalism? Is this directly stated in 2:14-15 or validly deducible therefrom?

It is scarcely asking too much of Genchu, who not only affirms sola Scriptura, but what he regards as an even more rigorous and consistent version of the Reformed rule of faith, known as Scripturalism, to offer some painstaking exegesis of his Scriptural prooftexts.

Let us see if he is true to his own word. More importantly, let us see if he is true to the word of God.


  1. If Cheung spent as much time in dialogue with those who have criticized him, perhaps we all might learn something. Instead, he has spent just about every other post...stating (in a lot of words) that he is not going to interact with the criticism.

    Did everyone catch the Clintonese on the word "smart" from his latest post Stategy in Ministry:

    "If I may take another quick jab at them, this is another reason why I say they are not very smart. Nobody will remember what they write a few weeks or months down the line. Shall we give them a year or even a decade of relevance? But my strategically produced writings will probably continue to shape minds even after my death and beyond this generation."

    So, those who have criticized Cheung are not smart, and the reason being is that their material will not last. It's not that they don't know what they're talking about!

  2. Good guess, Xeno. Yes, if I had just one systematic theology to take with me on the proverbial desert island, it would be Turretin. He leaves few stones unturned.

  3. Richard Gamble is coming out with a 3 volume ST called The Whole Counsel of God.

    I gather there are a couple of NT theologies coming soon.

  4. Excellent post, Steve. Your point that the concept of "innate knowledge" cannot be validly deduced from Ro 1 is a devastating one. I wish I had thought of it :-)

    There's nothing of significance to reply to in Cheung's recent blog entry, "Strategy in Ministry", so I don't plan on producing another document for that one. Once again he's declined to offer any sort of substantive reply to *any* of the criticisms mounted against his views. No one's asking Cheung to be exhaustive, or to derail his "ministry priorities". But surely he could manage to say *something* substantive in reply to at least *one* of the main arguments against his position.

    As for the future, I intend the "Aquascum" page to be a resource for inquirers about the fallacies of Scripturalism, and related doctrines. And as long as Cheung never bothers to offer a significant reply, I think the page will always be "up to date" in its usefulness, don't you? :-) Indeed, since I spend most of my written work in producing *arguments* (rather than, say, talking about myself), there's really only one way Cheung could make my page outdated and irrelevant: actually provide a cogent reply to the arguments.

  5. It also seems to me that this idea of scripturalism is an extension of gnosticism. Do you think that is possible ? ?

  6. Mark,

    I don't know. To be sure, Scripturalism involves a denial of empirical knowledge. So, at best, interaction with the world (occasionalistically, of course, not causally :-) only gives rise to a remembrance of Scriptural propositions we already know, and not knowledge of any propositions not found in or deducible from Scripture. So, for instance, scientific inquiry about the world, to the extent that it doesn't center on Scriptural propositions, can only give us "unjustified opinion, at best". Whether this is a theme in gnosticism, I don't know.

    Likewise, Scripturalism places at the center of its worldview, as its "first principle," a far-reaching epistemological claim that has never been confessed by any significant branch of the Christian church (the restriction of all knowledge to Scriptural propositions alone, and what is validly deducible from them). So, the one claim that unites all Scripturalists is a claim no significant body of Christians have confessed in the entire history of the church. Again, whether this bears some formal similarities to gnosticism, I don't know. But both of these implications are fairly troubling from the standpoint of historic Christianity.

    BTW, it's extremely easy to show that Scripturalism, and Cheung's version of occasionalism at least, is in conflict with the Westminster Confession of Faith, since the latter document affirms both "the light of nature" and God's use of "second causes" or "means".

  7. Xenophon wrote:

    "A thought is as material as a stone, just a more refined level of material."

    OK, I'll bite. Why should anyone believe such a thing?

  8. Xenophon,

    Your entire reply is about people's *bodies*. But that wasn't what my question was about. To repeat, you said something about *thoughts*:

    "A thought is as material as a stone, just a more refined level of material."

    Why should anyone believe such a thing? (i.e., that thoughts are as material as stones)

  9. Xenophon,

    "Aquascum, look up the word 'analogy'."

    I'm not clear on how knowing the *definition of the word* 'analogy' will *provide support for the claim* that "a thought is as material as a stone". And the latter is what I'm looking for. A dictionary isn't a substitute for specific arguments for specific claims.

    "And, unless you're an adherent of biological determinism you really shouldn't have a problem with thinking in terms of scale and hierarchy regarding materiality."

    My problem, in case it wasn't clear, was with thinking in terms of materiality regarding thoughts.

    "And, by the way, your pedagogic interrogating here falls down due the fact that it's obvious you've just been hit with something new for you. Perhaps pause and ponder."

    Interesting. Someone asks you a simple question about one of your claims (namely, why we should believe it), and your reply is that the questioner is struggling "with something new". Wouldn't it be simpler to just *answer the question*?

    "My burden is not to 'prove' to you that thought is material any more than I need to prove to you that faith exists..."

    So your answer, in effect, is that you have no idea why we should think that "a thought is as material as a stone". (I infer this from the fact that you have so far declined to provide such a reason, even when directly asked.) Interesting.

    "What you need to recognize is the fact that your secular dichotomy between 'materialism' and 'idealism' is not Biblical, and it's a stumbling block..."

    Excuse me, but where did I so much as *refer to* either 'materialism' or 'idealism' on this comments page, much less *endorse them*, much less pose a *secular dichotomy* between them?

    It's not just that your accusation is wrong; it's wrong three times over.

    "And while you're at it why don't you stop running away from that Owen quote I posted maybe...?"

    I'm sorry, but did the Owen quote address any claim made by anyone at any time? If so, perhaps you could point this out for us. I don't ordinarily waste my time commenting on citations that don't appear relevant to the current discussion. The ball's in your court, I'm afraid.

  10. Xenophon,

    "Aquascum, you're self-justifying your annoyance in the response you gave."

    Do you often take the guise of the Holy Spirit, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart? Or is this just your day job? ;-)

    "You don't want to be seen to be in the category I described,"

    What exactly is the *argument* that *I* am in the "category" you "described"? Could you fulfill this simple request? At this point you seem long on claim and short on argument.

    "... yet you don't want to recognize what I described to begin with..."

    Interesting. You know what my "wants" are. What else do you know about my inward cognitive states? ;-)

    "... so you demand I prove something that can't be proven with sensual evidence any more than faith can be proven with sensual evidence;"

    Earth to Xeno: all I 'demanded' is that you give us *some reason* (it doesn't have to be 'sensual evidence') to accept your claim that "a thought is as material as a stone". As far as I can tell, a request to support your claim is wholly legitimate. Otherwise, why should anyone believe what you say?

    "... yet I did give you an analogy -- drawn from the Bible."

    Huh? The nature of Jesus' resurrection body is evidence for the claim that a thought is as material as a stone? What does Jesus' resurrection body have to do with the nature of thoughts?

    "You waved that off as if it was irrelevant to my point, when it was directly relevant, hence I said 'look up the word analogy'."

    As far as I can tell, Jesus' resurrection body *is* wholly irrelevant to the nature of thoughts. If you think there's a connection here, *spell it out*.

  11. Xenophon:

    "When I say thought is as material as a stone, yet just a more refined level of materiality, I am basically saying thought is thought."


    "The Old Man in you can't recognize that which will be the death of the Old Man in you..."

    The first comment is nonsensical while the second is abusive. Interestingly enough, these two themes occur throughout your comments on this blog.

    I'm not sure why I bothered to interact with you in the first place. Goodbye! :-)