Sample Debate Between a Humanist and Covenantal Apologist

Sample Debate Between a Humanist and Covenantal Apologist

by K. Scott Oliphint

A sample exchange between a humanist (H) and a covenantal apologist (CA)

H: So humanism, I think, is the best expression of modern science. It’s the scientific outlook, using the rigorous methods of the scientific inquiry in order to test hypotheses about nature.

CA: Well, I agree that scientific inquiry is important. Science depends on certain universal laws. One of those laws is that every event, everything that comes to be, has a cause.

H: Okay. Then I suspect you want to say, “The universe has a cause,” and I take it that you would say that God caused the universe. My question then is, if every event has a cause, what caused God?

CA: The problem with that question is that it seeks to turn a scientific law into one that must be universally applied to all that exists. That use of the law is no part of what I have affirmed. I have affirmed the law of causality as a scientific law, not as a law that applies to all that exists. Everything that comes to be has a cause . . . that’s the principle. The universe came to be, and therefore the universe has a cause. Now, if God always existed, he didn’t “come to be” . . .

H: He did not come to be. I see . . .

CA: . . . He doesn’t need a cause.

H: . . . Well, you’re defining the situation. You’re assuming your case by definition. How do you know that God did not come to be? How do you know that?

CA: I know that in the same way that I know that the law of cause and effect, with all of its regularity, itself presupposes a God who is faithful to his covenant promises. This God has made clear, since the time of Noah, that “seedtime and harvest, summer and winter” will continue until history is no more. It is only on that basis that you can engage in the “scientific inquiry” that you so cherish.

H: But how do you know that God did not come to be?

CA: I know that in the same way that I know that the law of cause and effect obtains in this world. Because Christian theism alone can account for such things by way of what God has revealed to me in his infallible revelation.

H: Wait a minute. I thought we were discussing science here. On what basis do you purport to bring into our discussion a reference to God’s revelation? By definition you’re defining . . . you’re trying to define what you want to prove.

CA: The “on what basis” question is a good one, and one that we both should address. Let’s think of it this way. Suppose we agree that the universe includes the totality of what we are able to sense. Included in that totality would be time and space.

But now what has to be the case if we are going to posit a “cause” of the universe? That “cause” could not be in time and space, because then it would be as much a part of the universe as you and I are, and could not then cause it to be. So whatever “cause” of the universe there is would have to transcend the universe itself, including time and space.
So if there is a cause to the universe, it cannot be bound by time or space. It must, in that case, be both eternal and infinite.

H: Okay. I’ll grant your point.32 If there is a cause to the universe, it must transcend time and space and therefore not be temporal or bound by space, but must be both eternal and infinite.

But now, I must say, you’ve backed yourself into an inescapable and irrational corner. You want to posit one that is not bound by time or space—one who is both eternal and infinite. But there can be no explanation given for something such as an “eternal” cause or an “infinite” beginning. How can it be that the One that you want to posit as the first cause is eternal, when the very definition of a cause-effect relationship necessarily includes a temporal sequence of cause and effect?

By definition, the effect must come after the cause; the universe is the effect, you say, but that effect is temporal and finite, while the cause is supposed to transcend both categories. You have no way to relate your eternal and infinite cause to the temporal and finite universe. By definition, there can be no connection between the two if it is knowledge we’re after; there is no bridge between the eternal and the temporal. Surely Immanuel Kant has taught us at least this much, hasn’t he?

One more point of irrationality before you respond. You tell me that this first cause that you think exists has revealed things to you. By definition that means that he (or it) is active in time and space. He speaks, which implies a temporal sequence. He speaks to you (and I suppose you would say to Moses, to Paul, et al.) and that requires that he be located somewhere.

And now we’re back to the same problem. The One that you think caused the universe is actually active in the temporal and finite universe. He is a part of the contingencies for which you posit an explanation. This surely makes no rational sense.

CA: You are right to challenge me on the relationship of the universe (time and space) to eternity. And you are correct to note that the One that I claim to be eternal actually reveals himself in space and time.

In response to these objections, we need to think about the crux of Christianity itself. You surely know that Christianity is called Chris­tianity because it has its focus in Jesus Christ. Perhaps unknown to you is the fact that the church, both Roman and Protestant, on the basis of God’s revelation, has affirmed, since Christ came, that he is one person, the second person of the Trinity, and that he took on a human nature even while he remained who he is—the eternal Son of God.

In response to your objection, then, Christianity has always held that God, since he freely chose to create, condescended to his creation, supremely in the person of his Son. In that condescension, God remains who he is as eternal and infinite, even while he takes on properties by which he interacts, in time and space, with us.

This is the warp and woof of God’s entire interaction with his creation in history. It is an interaction with the eternal, infinite God, but a God who has come down to relate to his human creatures. That relationship places obligations on us all. We are to repent of our blindness and believe in Christ.

H: Hold it! Now you’ve really crossed the boundary of our purported scientific discussion. You’ve come squarely and explicitly to the topic of your own religious commitment. And whatever else you want to say about it, that is not science! Not only that, but you are asking me to believe something—that Christ was both God and man—that is impossible for me to categorize in my own mind, as I suspect it’s impossible for you or anyone else. How can I believe in such an absurdity?

CA: Let me address your second point first. If I have as my basic foundation for knowledge the truth that is given in God’s revelation, then that revelation controls what and how I think about things. It controls the fact that God’s command to “subdue the earth,” given at creation, assumes that human beings can know and develop the myriad aspects and potentialities of the world.

It also controls how I must think about God and about his relation to creation. What that means, in part, is that, since I am a creature, I will never have exhaustive knowledge of anything—not of creation or any part of it, and certainly not of God. So since my knowledge will always be limited, and since it is based on God’s own revelation, I can both trust all that God says, and also realize that my knowledge and understanding are limited by my own creaturely and sinful status.

Your first point, however, brings up an interesting discussion. You have claimed, throughout our dialog, to be “scientific,” adhering only to “scientific inquiry” in what you affirm. And yet, you also want to claim that everything around us came about by some unguided, random process of evolution. My question to you is this: What scientific inquiry have you engaged in that has affirmed, empirically, that there is no one guiding the processes of the universe? Can you show me the evidential foundation for random, unguided evolution?

You cannot, of course. And the reason you cannot is because your commitment to an unguided process of evolution is every bit as “religious” as my commitment to Christ. It is an attitude not of science, but of faith that causes you to affirm that the universe is unguided. Not only so, but the faith that affirms such things is itself blind and unguided. It has no foundation, and it contains no knowledge. It is simply posited.

But now you have an irrationality problem. You commit to a discipline—science—that itself cannot move one inch toward progress unless it depends on and trusts universal laws. The very foundation of experiments and the testing of hypotheses assumes these laws. Without them, anything you inspect and any context in which it is inspected would be chaos. The germ might mutate immediately into a car, or the planet in the telescope might suddenly turn into a cosmic candy bar. If the world is, as you want to assume, unguided, then there is no foundation left for your “scientific inquiry” to be conducted. 33 It can only be conducted because of the Christian theistic principles that I hold.

Your scientific theory is in deep need of something that will guarantee the presence and predictability of events in the world. Chris­tianity provides that guarantee. Your unguided naturalism has no way to do that.

H: I’m afraid you’ve gotten me all wrong. I don’t believe for a minute that the events in the universe are all unguided. As a matter of fact, I am committed to the opposite conclusion. My friend Sam Harris has written a masterful exposition of the myth of free will. 34 And the reason that free will is a myth, Harris and I understand as committed scientists, is that all that happens is the product of a materially determined process. Since everything that happens, happens according to that process, there can be no real choice for human beings. We, too, are simply products of the processes of our material make-up. Science can continue apace because reality is so marvelously and determinatively predictable. It moves inexorably as it is materially determined to move.

CA: Well, my scientific friend, it appears that you and I have just engaged in a monumental waste of time and resources. Let me apologize for that.

H: What do you mean “waste of time”? I have been busy trying to convince you to see things my way, and you have been busy doing the opposite. I thought, at least, that our debate was worthwhile.

CA: Worthwhile? How could that be? If I am materially predetermined to believe what I believe, and you are as well, then what we believe is simply a product of our material selves. We have no choice at all about what we believe; and why we believe what we do makes no sense to discuss at all, since the “why” is embedded in our predetermined matter.

It seems to me that you have gotten yourself into an intellectual bind. If the universe is unguided, then what you think about science is nothing more than a random figment of your own imagination. In that case, science cannot ground or found its own enterprise; the best it can do, as David Hume showed us centuries ago, is depend on some kind of subjective “habit.” And a habit is no way to try to uncover the mysteries of the universe; because it is subjective, it has no bearing on whether or not the universe is knowable or predictable. For that, something much stronger is needed. What’s needed is actual predictability. And that comes only in Christian theism.

If, on the other hand, your friend Sam Harris is right, then all the things you and I have discussed—science, religion, predictability, etc.—are also just figments of our imagination. They are not in any way the products of our own decision making. Your humanism is exactly the same as my Christian theism. They both are produced by our material composition. And if that is the case, there is nothing left for us to talk about. Our respective beliefs are little different than the fizzy head of a draught beer; they’re just a matter of materially determined characteristics.

So, I leave you with this thought. Neither unguided naturalism nor predetermined physicalism can give you what you want; neither can give you a way to be committed, as you are, to “scientific inquiry” as your starting point for knowledge. Only Christian theism can give you that. Only in Christian theism can science begin and thrive. Without Christian theism, your commitment to science is nothing more than a meaningless, purposeless noise. Like your own existence, it makes no sense whatsoever; either it is an unguided, chaotic datum, or it does what it was predetermined to do. In either case, there can be no real meaning ascribed to it.

But if God has created the universe and has come down to act in and for his creation, and if he has condescended in his Son to remedy the problem of those who are committed to opposing him, then it will only be repentance and trust in Christ that will allow for a proper view of the world, “scientific inquiry,” and ourselves.

Obviously, this discussion could have gone in any number of directions and could have taken turns and twists that were not explored here. That is to be expected. There is not one, or one kind, of way to respond to this kind of objection. Hopefully, however, enough has been given to show a possible way in which a proper, covenantal response could be employed, a way in which the gospel becomes a central part of an apologetic response.

We have attempted to show in this chapter how and why the notion of proof is, at best, tenuous. It is not a useful way to discuss apologetics if our goal in a Christian defense is to set Christianity forth as the only viable option. But we dare not simply end with a negative “not proof” conclusion. In the next chapter, we will present the positive case for persuasion as the proper mode of a covenantal apologetic. That chapter, then, is central to all that we have thus far argued and will be crucial for what we discuss in chapters 5–7.


Excerpt from Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith by K. Scott Oliphint