Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.


Reformed Robotics

Mechanical ManSome people within the Reformed world feel that the only way to validate faith is to denigrate reason. If philosophers can attain to a knowledge of divine things, then why do they need faith? There is a bit of intellectualism in that concept. Faith is an intellectual virtue, but faith does not occur apart from the desire of the will moving the mind toward God, and faith should not be separated from the virtues of hope and charity. In other words, the validity of faith, at least in one sense, is inherent within its own definition. Faith requires a repentant heart and an open mind. I think the Reformed argument would go this way if fully spelled out: “Our faith is a purely intellectual assent to theological propositions, the principal one being ‘God exists.’ Therefore if the Christian admits that the philosopher may have a knowledge of God, then our own ‘divine science’ will be merged into pagan ‘divine science.'” 

Of course, I could respond to this Christian argument that a proper definition of natural knowledge and sacred knowledge would solve this problem, since this distinction leaves some knowledge of God to the philosopher by self-evident principles, but knowledge that God reveals about himself  in the first principles of faith is supernatural and only for the Christian to know. As true as the distinction between pagan theology and Christian theology is, that is not my point. I have noticed that those who denigrate reason by denying a knowledge of God to unbelievers or denying that unbelievers may be virtuous tend to treat faith as if it were mere understanding. Once the distinction between natural science and divine science, natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge, philosophy and theology, is done away with by denying the validity of the former, then the latter science must compensate for lack of natural tools by which to unify or explain itself. Theology makes up for the loss of philosophy by either making up its own rules and language, by subjecting the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge, or both. Granted, those who submit the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge do not always realize what they are doing. Yet, when nature is done violence, whether “nature” refers to the science of philosophy or the faculty of reason itself, faith is also done violence. 

God converts our souls, he does not recreate them ex nihilo. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Therefore, the function of reason in the natural man is not destroyed when the divine illumination of faith is given. Rather, that natural knowledge is perfected by the conversion of the whole person. The first principles of faith would be useless for the healing of man’s depraved nature if they were not accompanied by a change of the individual’s heart. Those principles would also be useless if they were not somewhat built upon the principles of natural knowledge. For example, the religious knowledge that informs me of Christ’s incarnation assumes that I know what the word “incarnation” means or that I know what it means to be born. And, in terms of the science of theology, the study of the nature of God assumes that one knows the meaning of essence, being, nature, attribute, and so on. 

The “natural man” is that rare bird who is well schooled enough that he has actually taken time to think about the ultimate goal for the human race or a First Cause of the universe and come to the conclusion that there must be a God. If and when this person is converted to the Christian faith, he would not be asked to recant his former knowledge of an ultimate goal of humanity or a First Cause of the universe. Rather, he would be asked to “repent and believe.” This means he would have to turn from seeking after his own desires and the idea that his natural knowledge is sufficient for his own perfection.

Thus, those Reformed folks who denigrate natural knowledge implicitly adhere to a radical separation between nature and grace, faith and reason. This is often couched in terms of worldview. Nevertheless, this solid wall that many have erected between natural knowledge and religious knowledge often leaves the latter lacking in emotion – since desire itself is natural. Theology devoid of the insight of the natural mind becomes a list of propositions tightly organized into columns of rules that one must either adhere to or relinquish the faith. Confessions are also “reanimated” into a modern and robotic system of belief that is simple and practical for the new convert to the Reformed world. It does not come with all of the hang-ups of organs and tissue that one finds in the writings of Luther and Calvin. It does not move on its own or go places that we cannot predict. No, our confessions have no real value apart from the authority of the institutional church. It goes where we want it to go and jumps when we push its buttons. We are the Reformed faith, and it is what we say it is.

Within the Reformed world (in the South at least) there seems to be two main types of student: the first type is loyal to the denomination and presbytery and will never consider objecting to the confession at any point, and the second type reacts to what they perceive to be a strict intellectualism  by seeking to make everything practical – these are the ones who are evangelizing in the community every weekend. Sometimes the groups overlap, but not usually. What I have seen is a genuine lack of theological aesthetic that comes from a wise soul who takes the time, or perhaps can’t avoid gazing in wonder at things natural and divine and marvels at the deep mysteries waiting to be discovered in both realms. Instead, you find faculties warring between the Biblical Studies department and the Systematic Theology department. The former is usually a reaction against the Reformed Robotics mentality of the latter, yet to the opposite extreme. 

This type of Reformed theology that I call Reformed Robotics is not confined to a single camp but comes from the generally Puritan mentality of “Church vs. world.” The distinction between philosophy and theology is not even a tertiary issue for most of us, but what really matters is the battle against “the liberals.” Lectures in the biblical studies department are centered upon textual issues contra Liberali, with almost no time devoted to the discussion of theological issues that practically leap out of the text. In fact, certain professors are masters at skipping every “difficult” text – theologically “difficult” not textually “difficult.” But, when your team only plays defense, the whole game is played by the movements and progressions of the other team. 

When the beauty of natural knowledge and its contribution to theology are disdained out of fear, either that the faith will lose its value or that the liberals will take over the church, theology becomes a Robot devoid of desire-provoking beauty and mystery, and is then used as a defensive tool for the Reformed Magesterium. Unfortunately, when this happens most of the truly intellectual types within the church find residence elsewhere (Anglicanism, Methodism, Catholicism, etc.) and those intellects that remain tend to be mere intellects, preaching a theology that lacks real substance. A Quodlibetal of difficult issues would be counterproductive to the agenda. 

Fortunately, this is not true of every Reformed person, though the exceptional sorts may be difficult to find; and it was not true for earlier generations, as I have attempted to demonstrate with this blog. The issue of the proper role of faith and reason is difficult and requires meditation for sure, but we should thrive on the difficult issues because extraordinary challenges generate extraordinary solutions. And, if grace perfects nature, then faith will supply answers for some of the errors and weaknesses of reason. But, when nature is seen as inherently evil, faith tends to take the place of reason and becomes a purely intellectual duty, and the science of Reformed Robotics is born.

A Brief Bio of Jerome Zanchi: Italian Reformer

Jerome ZanchiThe following is a brief biography of Jerome Zanchi by Samuel Clarke, a late 17th century English Presbyterian. The accuracy of the data should be taken with caution due to the nature of the writing and the polemical agenda of the writer. However, the facts seem to be correct and do not present anything that appears blatantly dubious. If I were to write this bio I would make greater mention of Zanchi’s humanism, particularly his lectures on Aristotle’s Physics that he delivered in Strasbourg while Peter Martyr was lecturing on the Nicomachean Ethics in the same school. I’d also include the fact that Zanchi, like Martyr, was a trained Thomist and even planned to organize his works into a Summa theologiae. Yet, the following is a good intro to the life and times of such a monumental Reformed divine who has been unjustly neglected in our day. 

Early Years and Conversion:

Hierom Zanchius was born at Atzanum in Italy, Anno 1516. His Father was a Lawyer, who brought him up at School; and when Zanchy was but twelve years old his Father died of the Plague Anno Christi 1528; at which time Zanchy was at School, where he was instructed in the Liberall Sciences: When he came to the age of fifteen years, being now deprived of both his parents, observing that divers of his kindred were of the order of Canons Regular, amongst whom that there were divers learned men, being exceeding desirous of Learning, he entered into that Order, where he lived about twenty ears, and studied Arts and School-Divinity, together with the Tongues. He was very familiar with Celsus Martiningus, joyning studies with him, was a diligent hearer of Peter Martyr’s publick Lectures at Luca upon the Epistle to the Romans, and of his private Lectures upon the Psalmes, which he read to his Canons. This drew his mind to an earnest study of the Scriptures. He read also the Fathers, especially St. Augustine, with the most learned Interpreters of the Word of God: And thereupon he preached the Gospel for some years in the purest manner that the time and place would suffer. And when Peter Martyr left Italy, so that his godly Disciples could no longer live in safety there, much lesse have liberty of Preaching, about twenty of them in the space of one year left their station, and followed their Master into Germany, amongst whom Zanchy was one. Being thus (as he used to say) delivered out of the Babylonish captivity, anno Christi 1550. He went, first into Rhetia, where he staied about eight months, and from thence to Geneva, and after nine months stay there, he was sent for by Peter Martyr into England, but when he came to Strasborough, he staid there to supply Hedio’s room newly dead, who read Divinity in the Schooles, which was in the year 1553. (The Marrow of Ecclesiastical History, 804-807)

Professor of Divinity in Strasbourg:

He lived, and taught Divinity in that City about 11 years; sometimes also reading Aristotle in the Schools; yet not without opposition, old James Sturmius, the Father of that University being dead: Yea his adversaries proceeded so far as to tell Zanchy, that if he would continue to read there, he must subscribe the Augustane Confession, to which he yeelded for peace-sake, with this proviso, modo Orthodoxe intelligatur; declaring his judgment also about Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, wherwith they were satisfied. And thus he continued to the year 1563, being very acceptable to the good, and a shunner of strife, and a lover of concord. At the end whereof the Divines and Professors there, accused him for differing from them in some points about the Lord’s Supper, the Ubiquity of Christ’s Body, the use of Images in the Churches, Predestination, and the Perseverance of the Saints: About these things they raised contentions, which were partly occasioned by the book of Heshusius, printed at this time at Strasborough, About the Lord’s Supper; and it came to this pase, that they put Zanchy to his choice either to depart of himself, or else they would remove him from his place. And though many waies were tried for the composing of this difference, yet could it not be effected. (ibid.)

Pastor of an Italian Congregation:

But it pleased God that about this time there came a Messenger to signifie to him that the Pastor of the churhch of Clavenna, in the borders of Italy, being dead, he was chosen Pastor in his room; wherefore obtaining a dismission from the Senate of Strasborough, he went thither, and after he had preached about two months, the Pestilence brake forth in that Town so violently, that in seven months space there dyed twelve hundred men; yet he continued there so long as he had any Auditors; but when most of the Citizens had removed their families into a high mountain not farre off, he went thither also, and spent above three months in Preaching, Meditation, and Prayer, and when the plague was stayed, hee returned into the City again. And thus he continued in that plae almost four years to the great profit of many, but not without afflictions to himself. (ibid.)

Professor of Divinity in Heidelberg and Christian Apologist:

Anno Christi 1568 hee was sent for by Frederick the third, Elector Palitino, to Heidelberg to be Professor, and was entertained with all love and respect, where he succeeded Urfin, and at his entrance made an excellent Oracion about the preserving, and adhering to the inner world of God alone. The same year he was made Doctor of Divinity. About which tie that excellent Prince Frederick, who was a zealous promoter of the Doctrine of the Prophets and Apostles, required him to explain the Doctrine of the one God, and three Persons, to confirm it, and to confute the Doctrine of those which at the time denyed the Deity of Christ and the Holy Ghost in Poland and Transilvania, and to answer their arguments whence upon he wrote those learned Tractates, De Dei natura, De tribus Elohim, etc. In which book the whole Orthodox about that great Mystery so unfolded and confirmed, that all adversaries may forever be ashamed which goe about to contradict the same…. (ibid.)

Move to Neostade and Death:

He taught in that University ten years till the death of Prince Frederick. Then by Prince John Cassimire he was removed to his new University at Neostade, where he spent above seven years in reading Divinity. Though in the year 1578 he had been earnestly solicited to come to the University of Leiden, then newly begunne; as also the year after the Citizens of Antwerp called him to be their Pastor, yet the Prince would by no means part with him, knowing that he could not be missed in his University. The Prince Elector Palatine, Ledwick, being dead, and Prince Cassimire being for the time made Administrator of his estate, the University was returned from Neostade to Heidelberg, and Zanchy being now grown old, had a liberal stipend setled upon him by Prince Cassimire; whereupon going to Heidelberg to visit his friends, he fell sick, and quietly departed in the Lord Anno Christi 1590, and of his age seventie five. He was excellently versed in the writings of the ancient Fathers and Philosophers, he was of singular modesty, and very studious to promote the peace of the Church. (ibid.)

An Apparent Apologetic Method in Aquinas: A Critique of Certain Van Tilianisms

Those theologians who consider themselves to be within the theological lineage of Cornelius Van Til tend to represent Thomas Aquinas as a rationalist who polluted the waters of theology with the pagan wine of philosophy.  He should have recognized that philosophy is separate from theology and that the use of reason by Christians such as proofs for God’s existence subsumes the latter underneath the former. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those who believe this usually themselves hold to a radical opinion on how philosophy relates to theology.  See this statement by Van Til for example:

The Romanist-evangelical type of apologetics assumes that man can first know much about himself and the universe and afterward ask whether God exists and Christianity is true.  The Reformed apologist assumes that nothing can be known by man about himself or the universe unless God exists and Christianity is true. (Defense of the Faith, pp. 163, 317)

I understand what Van Til is trying to say here:  “Those apologetic methods that present Christianity to the atheist as an option on the buffet table of religions to be tested and verified by how much it “makes sense” do more harm to Christianity than good.”  They turn theology into philosophy.  I agree with this idea. However, I do not agree that man must first believe in God in order to know himself and the universe (which is the import of Van Til’s first statement). Unbelievers can have a limited knowledge of themselves and even of God.  With the implications of Van Til’s statement he is in danger of subsuming philosophy into theology.  

It is tempting to answer the Kantian dilemma and bridge the gap between the noumena and phenomena by appealing solely to God’s supernatural revelation of himself. However, this only makes things worse.  If certain things about God cannot be know apart from special revelation then how can anyone, Christian or not, justify anything extra-biblical? Are we all skeptics? What about Paul’s statement in Rom. 1:20 that the invisible things of God (his eternal power and divinity) have been clearly revealed to all men through created things? I shall first debunk the idea (however implicit) that Aquinas subsumed theology under philosophy and then show what I think his apologetic method may have looked like and point out similarities between it and that of Van Til. I hope this demonstration will reveal that a healthy relationship between philosophy and theology can only be maintained if reason is allowed to play a significant part in apologetics.  

Continue reading “An Apparent Apologetic Method in Aquinas: A Critique of Certain Van Tilianisms”


I don’t think it is autonomous rationalism to begin one’s apologetics with theological proofs.  The whole point of beginning with reason is not to start from a neutral ground where all facts are brute facts and everyone agrees that religion is not an issue.  The point of beginning with reason is to demonstrate the necessity of faith. One must differentiate, as St. Anselm did, between an “independent” argument and an argument made directly from Holy Scripture.  Neither can be called “autonomous.”  Both presuppose the necessity of the Triune God.

Borrowed Truth

As I read it is becoming more clear to me that folks like Van Til, Schaeffer, and Bahnsen did not invent the idea that Modern Philosophy has borrowed turf from Christianity.  Van Til was critical of Medieval Philosophy for being too rationalistic but Ettiene Gilson in his The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy argues that Modern Philosophy borrowed just as much from Augustine as it did from Plato and Aristotle. He notes that philosophical works from the 17th and 18th centuries would be difficult to explain without taking into account the “Christian Philosophy” of the Medievals, who may have overemphasized man’s reasoning capabilities but never allowed that reason to contradict the fundamentals of faith: 

Open for example the works of Rene Descartes, the reformer of philosophy par excellence, of whom Hemelin went so far as to say that “he is in succession with the ancients, almost as if – with the exception of a few naturalists – there had been nothing but a blank between.”  What are we to make of this “almost”? Consider, to start with, the title of the Meditations sur la metaphysique, “in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.” Consider, again, the close kinship of Descartes’ proofs of God with those of St. Augustine or even those of St. Thomas.  It would not be at all difficult to show that his doctrine of liberty owes a great deal to the mediaeval speculations on the relations between grace and free-will – a Christian problem, if ever there was one. (Gilson, p. 13)

Gilson also points out that Hume, in his pronouncement against causality, borrowed heavily from Malebranche.  “Now to whom does Malebranche appeal?  To St. Augustine quite as much as to Descartes.” (Ibid., p. 15)

BTW:  Gilson wrote this in 1931.

Anselm’s Faith Seeking Understanding

Many Reformed folks have been taught that the ontological proof for God’s existence is completely worthless for apologetics. This idea is usually backed up by the argument that Anselm was a rationalist who thought he could prove God just by thinking really hard. But, is that not a bit anachronistic? Was Anselm Descartes? Did he start from pure reason apart from any belief in the Christian God? Was his a strict natural theology? Anselm’s ontological argument is not Natural Theology in the Enlightenment sense.  He does, nonetheless, seek to demonstrate the existence of God based on an “independent proof”, independent in that his argument is not a direct appeal to the authority of special revelation. However, his “independent argument” is not independent from his a priori belief in the existence of the Triune God.  Anselm does not begin from autonomous reason but from the presupposition of God’s existence.  Unquestionably one of the most famous lines of the Proslogion shows him to be in harmony with this idea, “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ [Isa. 7:9].”[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg concurs that Anselm’s ontological argument is not a radically a posteriori postulation,

“…if we have arrived at the idea of God…on other grounds [than pure reason], and if we then form the conception of a being with maximal perfection – and if, in addition, we raise the question of whom we should affirm this highest perfection – then in such a case it must be clear that this attribute can be affirmed only of the one God.  It is in this sense that we are to understand Anselm’s thesis that God is the being ‘greater than which none greater can be conceived.'”[2] 

Continue reading “Anselm’s Faith Seeking Understanding”