At about 2am (EST) in the morning of May 26, 2016, I really, truly, officially, once and for all (no, seriously, we totally mean it this time – there is no more paperwork or revisions or fees) was awarded my Ph.D. in Theology from North-West University. My dissertation was titled A Theological Evaluation of Modern Apologetic Responses to Atheistic Ontological Disproofs, and a summary of the work is reproduced below. Before that, however, my heartfelt thanks must be shared.
First and foremost, to my heroic wife, Elaine Beaumont, whose effort in procuring me the time to accomplish this work was just as, if not more, laborious than mine in its writing. Second, my three oldest children, for the together time we lost on my work nights. Third, the son whose creation coincided with that of my dissertation. You all provided the much-needed inspiration for me to get done. Thank you for your sacrifices, and know that I shared them with you.
Huge thanks go to my director, Dr. Henk Stoker, for his interest in this topic and helpful advice during the writing process. Also to my good friend, Dr. Jason Reed, for nearly two decades of friendship plus our many co-dependent dissertation conversations. To my seminary professors, Dr. Richard G. Howe and Dr. Thomas Howe, for encouraging my interest in the subjects of Thomism, ontological disproofs, and the doctrine of analogy.
Thanks are also due to many others (too many to list in detail) that lent a helping hand or mind during this process such as Dr. Louise Mabille, Dr. Michael Licona, Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. Bryan R Cross, Dr. Michael Liccione, Dr. Brandon Dahm , Dr. Bryan Appley, and Mr. Timothy Wilson. Your advice, encouragement, and scholarly examples were of great aid to me.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my debt to Mr. Zev Zrihan at Java’s Brewing for providing my “office space” as well as excellent coffee on many a late night.
My dissertation presented an exposition and critique of various contemporary responses to atheistic “ontological disproof” arguments based on the alleged incoherency of theistic attributes. Arguments in this class seek to demonstrate either an incompatibility between multiple attributes of God, or an inconsistency within a single attribute of God. My focus was on the differences between many modern apologetic responses that utilize analytic philosophy and Anselmian perfect being theology and those available from the classical traditions of apophatic theology and analogical God-talk. Special attention was paid to theologians who have contributed to this debate and who exhibit these characteristics to various degrees in their methodology.
The resulting theological positions of these scholars were examined, with attention paid to those considered non-traditional, unorthodox, or heretical, in contrast to more classical, orthodox doctrines. The overall debate was then evaluated according to a more classical context via the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and his followers. Thomistic analogical theology was especially explicated and contrasted with these modern apologists’ use of language. This latter method was then offered in responses to the atheistic ontological disproof arguments. The Thomistic system, with its apologetic strengths and more traditional theology, was finally recommended as not only a viable, but a more desirable, response to such arguments.
After establishing the basic shape of the work in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 provides a more detailed presentation of the problems raised by atheistic ontological disproofs, as well as several summary expositions of examples of such arguments. Chapter 3 provides a similar exposition of modern apologetic responses to such arguments by Christian philosophers of religion who have devoted considerable material to such a project. In Chapter 4, the methodology behind this dialogue is discussed with an exposition of Anselm’s theological method and the tenants of modern Analytic Philosophy. Chapter 5 is concerned with the apophatic theological tradition and analogous God talk, along with the difficulties these raise for modern apologetic approaches. Chapter 6 presents the classical apologetic, philosophical, and theological methodology of Thomas Aquinas, then evaluates how it might be used to deal with ontological disproofs in a manner that respects the nature of the debate while preserving historic Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Chapter 7 summarizes the issues and presents the author’s recommendations for future encounters with atheistic argumentation.
Chapter 1: Introductory Summary Statement
1.1 Background: Modern Atheistic Arguments and Apologetic Answers
1.2 Problem Statement: Non-Traditional and Unorthodox Theology
1.3 Objective and Methodology
1.4 Content Summary
Chapter 2: Atheistic arguments
2.2 Atheistic argumentation
2.3 Theistic ontological disproofs
Chapter 3: Apologetic responses
3.2 Richard Swinburne
3.3 Thomas Morris
3.4 John S. Feinberg
3.5 William Lane Craig
3.6 Theological evaluation
Chapter 4: Anselmian theology and analytic philosophy
4.2 Anselmian theological method
4.3 Analytic philosophical method
Chapter 5: Apophatic theology and analogical God-talk
5.2 Via affirmativa: kaphatic theology
5.3 Via negativa: apophatic theology
5.4 Via media: analogical theology
Chapter 6: A Thomistic response to ontological disproofs
6.2 Metaphysical Prolegomena
6.3 Thomistic theology of God
6.4 Thomistic resolutions to ontological disproofs
Chapter 7: Conclusion
Appendix 1: Protestant doctrinal statements
Appendix 2: Thomistic analogy
With the decline of scholastic theology and the rise of modernism (e.g., Logical Positivism and its offspring, analytic philosophy), atheistic argumentation turned from the age-old problems such as the existence of evil and naturalism’s explanatory power to deductive ontological disprooofs that were believed to have disproven the very possibility of God’s existence. In response, many of today’s apologists have accepted the atheists’ starting point and attempted to respond in like kind. Using a combination of analytic philosophy and intuitional quasi-Anselmian methodology, many apologists working with these sorts of difficulties were often at odds with the methodological traditions of apophatic theology (which affirms the mystery of God) and analogous God-talk (which attempts to reconcile the mystery with the revelation of God). In doing so, they may actually have given theological ground both to atheists (by following their methodology) and to heretics (by denying the importance of theological orthodoxy).
The ironic result is that the God being defended by many modern apologists is not the God being attacked by modern atheists. At times this works to the Christian’s favor – for when atheists attack God’s attributes on non-classical grounds, they may be overturned by simply noting that it is not the traditional God they are attacking. However, when apologetic responses themselves rely on non-traditional, unorthodox, or even heretical understandings of God’s attributes, the initial problem can hardly be considered resolved. As Sheeben eloquently put it: “Even friends and zealous defenders of Christianity could not always suppress a certain dread when they stood in the obscurity of its mysteries. To buttress belief in Christian truth and to defend it, they desired to resolve it into a rational science, to demonstrate articles of faith by arguments drawn from reason, and so to reshape them that nothing would remain of the obscure, the incomprehensible, the impenetrable. They did not realize that by such a procedure they were betraying Christianity into the hands of her enemies.” In attempting to answer modern atheists according to their own philosophical principles, it was forgotten that true theology “cannot result in confronting us with real antimonies, but only with obscurities or incomprehensible mysteries; moreover it must finally bring us to mysteries” (per Garrigou-LaGrange).
Moreover, such moves away from orthodoxy are not necessary in the first place. Thomas Aquinas provides the Christian apologist with a robust, classical, orthodox understanding of God’s attributes, as well as a means of communicating them that does justice to both mystery and revelation. Far from being an ad hoc retreat to mystery in the face of theological challenge, Aquinas’s views are grounded in his biblically-based philosophical theology which begins with the great Ehyeh of Moses, the Ego Eimi of the Apostle John, and the Primum Movens of Aristotle, concluding with Actus Purus – “to which everyone gives the name of God.” God as described by Aquinas is then, both known and unknowable due to His very nature. Thus what is said of Him must be understood analogically and not as communicating God’s very essence (which is beyond the ability of the created intellect to know perfectly). Without this balance between the kataphatic and the apophatic, the equivocal and the univocal, the analytical and the analogical, Christians can easily fall into irrational fideism or intellectual rationalism – both of which (like all heresies), are more easily-understood (but false) extremes, rather than the more mysterious truth that falls in the mean between them.
If Christian apologists are not going to give up the classical attributes of God, a return to the venerable theology of Aquinas and other classical thinkers seems to be in order. This is true even if doing so results in a more “mysterious” view of God that proves less satisfactory to atheist critics. For over 1,800 years, the classical view of God was successfully defended on the highest of intellectual grounds, and its low status among many today does not overturn this historical fact. Substituting heresy for orthodoxy is too high a price to appease the enemies of Christianity – and it is unnecessary. Potential apologetic success cannot justify actual theological failure.