The Ontological Arguments

Commenter Catherine recently commented on a post from 2013 in which I offered an ontological argument for the existence of God, asking for help with the covalent ontological arguments of St. Anselm of Canterbury and of Alvin Plantinga. She wrote:

I’m currently suffering through a Philosophy of Religion course (the democratic nature of these courses is sickening), and we have just gone over the cosmological arguments, arguments from design, the ontological arguments, and their respective criticisms. I’m writing an essay about which I prefer and discussing its strengths and weaknesses. I immediately go toward the ontological argument per St. Anselm, which I have loved for years now. The problem is that each time I study it I find myself peering at it through seemingly various aspects that become obscure to me as the next one approaches (this also could be linked to sleep issues, but anyway). I would love to get your perspective on it. What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it? Can a Thomist use the ontological argument? Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm? How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being? Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously). Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga? I’m very unfamiliar with analytic philosophy, so I hardly even tried to tackle his writing on it. I wrote on a paper for a concise summary of his argument, “If it is possible for God to exist, then it is impossible for God not to exist,” and yesterday morning it CLICKED, wonderfully (but at the same time I feel as though there’s a strange gap between the two statements that I need to work out). Is it possible to reconcile this with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)? What about Aquinas? Please, Kristor, don’t be vague (not to say that you tend to be); I really could use your help even from a personal position. Thank you.

The rest of this post is my response.


I’ll do what I can to help, but I must say that an adequate answer to any one of those questions would have to go on for many pages. I’ll see if I can give them each at least short shrift, and then you can respond back to me with any follow up questions. I should also warn you that I am probably not the best person to ask about these things. I’m just an amateur.

What do you make of St. Thomas’s criticisms of it?

I don’t think Thomas could quite bring himself to grapple with the argument. His objection is identical with my own first reaction to Anselm: “Shoot, just because you can think of a thing doesn’t mean that it actually exists.” It’s a little more complicated than that, but I think that’s what his objection boils down to.

I think this objection does not answer Anselm’s argument. The argument goes as follows (cribbing here from Wikipedia):

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.

The key step is 5. The thrust of 5 is that the thought that God might not exist is not coherently conceivable at all, once we understand what the term “God” must mean. As logically incoherent, it is a proposition that cannot be entertained, even by God (no matter how easy it seems at first to entertain it). And an incoherent proposition can’t be true; it can’t even make sense, so as to be either true or false.

Not only that, but an incoherent proposition cannot be carried into practice – cannot become true in act. It is impossible to implement “5 ≠ 5” in reality. So likewise the incoherent notion that there might be something conceivable that is greater than the greatest thing that can be conceived can’t be implemented in reality. To think, “I am thinking of that thing than which no greater can be conceived, and it doesn’t actually exist, even though it might,” is like thinking, “I am thinking of 100, and 100 is the greatest thing I can think of, even though I can think of 200.”

It’s not that step 5 forces God’s existence, but rather that it makes God’s nonexistence logically inconceivable, given the proper meaning of “God.”

Put another way, if you understand what “God” must mean, then you can’t conceive that what it refers to does not exist; this would be like thinking that 5 ≠ 5.

Put yet another way: if we think “God” refers to something that exists only in our minds, we aren’t thinking of the proper reference of “God” in the first place.

Put yet again another way, if “God” is not an incoherent notion (and we have no reason to think that it is), then God must exist.

Can a Thomist use the ontological argument?

Sure, why not? There’s nothing I can see in Thomism that would rule out the use of the argument. Some Thomists will find it compelling, and some won’t, is all.

Do you think that there are really two ontological arguments made by Anselm?

Well, no; but there are two versions of the argument. Anselm’s restatement of the argument in response to Gaunilo’s objections clarifies what he was getting at in his first statement. It does not differ in substance, so far as I can see, from the first. Rather, it differs only in scope: in the restatement, Anselm makes clear that his argument pertains only to necessary beings, not to contingencies like islands.

How do you approach Kant’s criticism and does it reject the traditional notion of God as Being?

Kant’s most telling critique is that on its own terms the ontological argument is tautological, just as “2 + 3 = 5” is tautological. If you understand the terms and operators properly, the statement “2 + 3 = 5” doesn’t tell you anything. It says only that there are at least two ways of indicating the quantity indicated by “5.”

Kant insists that tautologies tell us nothing about reality. I have never been able to understand this notion of his, except under the terms of his purblind epistemology, in which we cannot ever think about anything other than our own thoughts. I exaggerate, but he exasperates me. If Kant is right, then Kant’s thoughts are all about Kant’s thoughts, and are not about reality (including, let it be said, the reality of what Kant’s thoughts are about – he’s only thinking about what he *thinks* he’s thinking about, and not what he’s *really* thinking about (what he’s *really* thinking about is a ding an sich, which he cannot anywise get at)). Let him speak for himself and his thoughts, stuck there in his icy crabbed little involute prison, and I shall speak for myself and mine as I rove freely over the vast and pellucid plain suffused with immensities of light from the black omnipotence of the sky. I’d rather be Nietzsche than Kant, by God; but then I’d rather be Augustine or Eckhart, than either.

But I digress.

That the truths of mathematics are all tautological tells us that there can be no possible state of affairs in which their contradictions are manifest. Not only do tautologies tell us about the relations of terms, then, but, as necessary truths, which cannot be contradicted in act in any possible world, they tell us about the necessary conditions of beings in all possible worlds. They constrain what can actually happen. In no possible world can you add two pebbles to three others and end up with any number of pebbles other than five. That this is obvious when you think about it for a moment does not mean it is not important. The most obvious things of all are the most important things of all. They are the basis of existence.

Kant insists also that being is not a real predicate, so that even if the ontological argument tells us that God exists, knowing that he exists tells us nothing about him that we did not already know from the definition of “God.” This too makes no sense to me. I get what he means: to the definition of a thing’s essential properties we add nothing when we mention that it happens to exist, or not. But while this is true for contingent beings, it is not true for necessary beings. Necessary beings exist by definition; their existence then is one of their *essential* characteristics, and is indeed therefore a real predicate.

Take an example: the actual existence of Catherine is not one of Catherine’s essential properties. Catherine might never have existed actually, even though the idea of Catherine had existed from all eternity as a possibility for actualization.

But Catherine is contingent. If she were necessary, then her actual existence would be an aspect of her essence: the definition of her essence would include her actual existence, and we could not refer to her using that definition without inferring her actual existence. We could not, that is, coherently say something like, “Catherine that necessarily exists and that doesn’t actually exist.”

So I think Kant misses the mark rather badly on this one.

Is modal logic orthodox? (ha…seriously).

I’m guessing that what you are asking here is whether it is orthodox to think that there might be many possible worlds, or even many actual worlds. Yes. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” It might seem that if there are many worlds, then it doesn’t matter too much what happens in this one, really. But not so. “Not a sparrow falls.” Omniscience knows every hair of your head, no matter how many infinities of worlds there may be, worlds within worlds, wheels within wheels. Omnipotence cherishes each atom of each hair; for, omnipotence furnishes their existence in the first place, no?

Lastly (at least for now), what about Plantinga?

I love Plantinga’s ontological argument, although it is not as beautiful to me as Anselm’s, mostly because it is less elegant. But it seems much more compelling, as easy to grasp. It’s a bludgeon of an argument, a blunt force weapon. If, as not logically incoherent, “God necessarily exists” might be true in at least one possible world, then in that world it is in fact true, so that it is then necessarily true, and is therefore true in all possible worlds; for a necessary truth anywhere is necessarily true everywhere.

Is it possible to reconcile [Plantinga’s argument] with Anselm’s, whose I am assuming can be thoroughly defended (double question)?

Plantinga’s argument connects with the whole notion in Anselm’s argument that if the concept of God as necessarily existent is coherent, then God must necessarily exist. If, i.e., it can possibly be true in any state of affairs that God exists necessarily – this being what we mean when we say that “God exists necessarily” is a coherent statement – then in some state of affairs God does indeed exist necessarily. But then he exists in every state of affairs; for what we mean in saying that a statement is true necessarily in any one state of affairs is that it is true in every possible state of affairs.

Analogously, “2 + 3 = 5” is true in at least one state of affairs, and necessarily so; so it is true in every possible state of affairs. But “2 + 3 = 6” is incoherent: it cannot be true in any possible state of affairs. Plantinga’s argument is that “God necessarily exists” is coherent, so that it is true in at least one possible state of affairs, and thus in all possible states of affairs.

The connection between the arguments of Plantinga and Anselm, then, is that they both turn on the question of whether the concept of God is coherent. The really serious challenges to both of them attack the coherence of the classical notion of God, arguing that maximality is not possible along all dimensions. I have not of course examined all these arguments in detail, but what I usually find when I do is that they err in treating God as if he were a creature. They reiterate Gaunilo’s misprision of the subject of the discourse.

What about Aquinas?

Hard to know what you are asking about here, but it sounds like you are just *really worried* about the fact that Aquinas disagrees with Anselm. Well, don’t be. Aquinas wasn’t right about everything, and I think he’d be the first to agree with that. Aquinas had a lot on his plate, and I get the strong impression that he skimmed Anselm’s argument, found it immediately wanting, dismissed it out of hand, and never had time to reconsider it.

The power of Anselm’s argument lies in his discovery that the necessary existence of God is implicit in the very structure of thought – not just our thought, but thought as such – and, *therefore,* of being as such. The key insight is this: you can express an incoherent proposition in words, but if you get clear on the terms and operators in the proposition, you absolutely cannot believe it, and you absolutely cannot find it implemented in any possible world. If a proposition is incoherent, properly speaking, it is meaningless, and can’t possibly be true, ever. If on the other hand it is coherent, and it is about necessary truths, then it cannot possibly be untrue.

To sum up: a proposition about necessities that is coherent is necessarily true. That’s the kernel of it.*


* This seems like a controvertible assertion. But it isn’t. All it says, really, is that tautologies are necessarily true.

66 thoughts on “The Ontological Arguments

  1. The power of Anselm’s argument lies in his discovery that the necessary existence of God is implicit in the very structure of thought – not just our thought, but thought as such – and, *therefore,* of being as such.

    Eureka! I wonder (and I really do wonder, I can’t possibly know) if this suspicion, that thought and being have to be fundamentally coterminous for us to make any sense of anything at all, wasn’t at the root of Bertrand Russell’s fascination with the argument….and also the reason why it just won’t go away.

  2. …the impression is this because what the intellect knows is intelligible reality (rather than sense reality, and this cannot be coherently denied). But that’s not the same as what the ontological argument is premised on.

    The former truth is the reason Thomists like Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, for example, will not refer to the law of non-contradiction, say, as a mere law of thought but a law describing reality.

    The danger here, the temptation many people (including philosophers) fall prey to, it would seem, even if this fall is only implicit and/or unconscious, is to posit the necessity of complete intelligibility of reality to us humans – that’s why people will object to the Most Blessed Trinity as “unintelligible”, incoherent and therefore nonexistent, whereas in reality it’s simply “it’s not completely intelligible to us”.

    I also think the language of the Wikipedia entry is unfortunate, because it treats intellection and imagination as the same thing, and they are manifestly not.

  3. Pingback: The Ontological Arguments | Reaction Times

  4. The Ontological Argument is a true example of the masterclass logical proofs for God rooted in His very nature as the holder of great making properties.

    In spite of this, it is often rarely discussed in defending the Christian faith because unbelievers hearing it on reflex do not believe it can be true on the basis of just how simple it is. The Cosmological and Axiological Arguments require some long-winded explanation and appeal to our senses, and of course the case from the historicity of Jesus is anchored by things like sources and context.

    By contrast, the Ontological Argument just seems to be some sort of slight of hand at first glance, mainly because people are not used to dealing logically with a maximally great being. We are used to dealing with things that lack those great making properties, so when the outworkings of such a being suggest He would be necessary in ALL possible worlds, that bamboozles people.

    Of course, the attempt made to dispute the argument isn’t typically in denying any of its premises, it is in parodying the argument and trying to make the argument suggest something absurd and so become unpalatable in a way that can’t be ascertained. Concepts like a maximally great lion or a necessary star have been suggested. I particularly enjoy Craig’s dismissal of these arguments as he unpacks them to reach the greatness they supposedly have, and you end up with something that couldn’t be conceivable defined as a ‘lion’ or a ‘star’. You end up with God.

    One query that I have had trouble answering is the idea of what makes one property ‘greater’ than another. What makes being strong ‘greater’ than being weak, and what more importantly makes existing necessarily ‘greater’ than existing contingently.

    My response was that this is an abstract scale, so that these things are greater in the same way that 5 is ‘greater’ than 4, but that doesn’t seem like a good comparison, as greater in the mathematical sense is not a claim of superiority but a numerical climb.

    I’m sure the answer to this is painfully obvious, I just haven’t run across it yet. Where is this scale of greatness rooted for each property, defining the ‘greatest’ level of each attribute, all of which God has?

    • While I don’t have the full answer, I do think that the mathematical comparison is wrong since it reduces being to a matter of quantity, whereas it must be a qualitative matter, although I think it’s actually something transcending even that.

    • Just an idea. To exist necessarily is greater than to exist contingently because the latter is lacking something the former has while you can’t say the same about the former. Similarly weakness is lack of strength rather than something positive.

      • Correct. Process theologians argue that contingency is a perfection in its own way, too, so that it is no derogation of God to say that he is contingent. Classical theologians respond that God is the sort of necessary being whose perfections of omniscience and omnipotence enable him to know and respond appropriately (lovingly, in particular) to everything that happens, with a knowledge and response – with, that is to say, an act – that is logically prior to, and so causal for, all contingent events (logically prior is not in God’s case also temporally prior (as it would be for temporal creatures), for it is incoherent to speak of an eternal being as temporally related to anything). Thus the classical theologians argue that God can respond to creatures ex excelsis (not, NB, ex ante), preserving him from contingency.

  5. Kristor,

    Thank you! You’re the best. This was deeply satisfying, but, yes, I still have some questions/thoughts. Your criticism of Kant confirms my suspicions, though I will have to re-read his text before I can make that attack in my paper. So I will probably get back to you on him and on a few other points, but for now… St. Thomas.

    Of course I’m worried about Aquinas! It kind of broke my heart when I read about his disagreeing. Since I recalled there being more to his argument than you granted, I’m reviewing it now and my thoughts follow. Here, from Summa Contra Gentiles:

    “…These are the persons who assert that the existence of God is self-evident, in such wise that its contrary cannot be entertained in the mind….”

    Looking at how he puts forth the opinions with which he disagrees (chapter 10), it does seem that he understood Anselm and others’ argument to mean that “God is self-evident: it is impossible for someone to deny His existence!” rather than the truly ontological meaning, that God exists so truly that He cannot be thought not to be–when someone denies His existence, they are not actually conceiving of Him. I agree with this, especially given that the reprobate who deny God (like the demons) do not intellectually deny His existence, they know well that He exists. As for the atheists, it is obviously another kind of sin, a pride that obscures their view, I think.

    Now, chapter 11, his first argument is on the term “self-evident.” He seems to argue that not everyone can conceive of God, even when they hear the name God, as St. Anselm wrote one could. But, as I’ve pointed out, Anselm (in my understanding) is talking about the metaphysics of thinking; the failure, in the absolute sense (encompassing everyone), of the subjects doing the thinking to conceive of God does not refute the argument. His second point (really third) is what you have described, and I do agree with you now that I re-read it (I could never have asserted something like that about Aquinas myself, but I’ll jump on board with you).

    My question about whether a Thomist can use the ontological argument rests on that the Thomist approach to knowledge about God is certainly not abstract like Anselm’s but rather has a scientific approach. Aquinas writes in the 11th chapter: “…the weakness of our intellect, which cannot behold God Himself except through His effects and which is thus led to know His existence through reasoning.”

    Let me know if you think I’ve erred in my interpretation of any of this. More commenting to follow. Thanks again. (True philosophy sincerely increases my awe and love for God….)

    • You’re welcome, Catherine. I look forward to your further comments.

      You write:

      [Aquinas] seems to argue that not everyone can conceive of God, even when they hear the name God, as St. Anselm wrote one could. But, as I’ve pointed out, Anselm (in my understanding) is talking about the metaphysics of thinking; the failure, in the absolute sense (encompassing everyone), of the subjects doing the thinking to conceive of God does not refute the argument.

      Exactly. It is in the first place quite common to reason a priori about necessary things without understanding them completely. E.g., imaginary numbers, or n-dimensional geometry. You can “do the math” without understanding fully what the math signifies, and indeed without being able even to form a mental image of what you are thinking about.

      Then there is the notion of the variable. We can see that “x ≠ x” is incoherent without even bothering to ask what x might be like, let alone understand x. That being the case, there is no way, in any conceivable state of affairs, that we could actually encounter a situation where it was true; indeed, in any conceivable state of affairs, its contrary must be true, so that “x = x” is a necessary truth, and *every situation whatsoever* must reflect its truth.

      It is the latter consideration that drives Anselm’s argument. “That than which no greater can be conceived” is standing in Anselm’s argument as a variable: we don’t need to specify its exact properties in order for the argument to proceed. Indeed, if we were to succeed in doing so, all we would have done is specify a being than which we could then proceed to conceive an even greater, along some dimension or other of greatness. The use of an unspecified variable is necessary in this case precisely because, as Aquinas rightly points out, we cannot adequately comprehend God. We use the variable “that than which no greater can be conceived” for the same reason we don’t try to write out the exact number that equals ∞.

      If the use of variables or placeholders, black boxes or proxies in our thinking prevented us from reasoning validly about them, and reaching true conclusions, then we couldn’t reason to truth about anything at all; for, there is nothing at all, either contingent or necessary, in respect to which our comprehension adequates to that of omniscience – that is to say, to things as they most truly are.

      What Anselm is saying then is that, whatever the character of the greatest conceivable being might actually be, and no matter how inadequate our conceptions of that being, it is incoherent to say that one can conceive of something greater than the greatest thing of which one can conceive. Thus no mind of any sort could coherently think “God does not actually exist, even though he could.” The notion that he does not exist, even though he could, turns out to be crazy talk. And because “God does not actually exist, even though he could” turns out (despite first appearances) to be incoherent, there is no way it may ever be either conceived or concretely manifest. It is a meaningless statement. Thus there is no way, in any conceivable state of affairs, that we could actually encounter a situation where it was true: in any conceivable state of affairs, its contrary must be true, so that “God actually exists” is a necessary truth, and *every situation whatsoever* must reflect its truth.

      The only line of attack left to the critic of this argument is I think to try to show that God could not exist – that, i.e., the notion of God’s existence is incoherent, so that no possible state of affairs could manifest its truth. So you get atheists arguing that omniscience contradicts omnipotence, that divine freedom contradicts divine necessity, and so forth. Most such arguments are inapposite: they turn out to be about beings that no theist would call God. I.e., they argue against straw men. Some are apposite, and easy to answer. But some of them are apposite, and non-trivial. These preoccupy theologians and theist metaphysicians. Careers are spent on them.

      Here again, though, Anselm’s ingenious variable comes through. If our notion of God is incoherent, then Anselm’s argument is *not about that notion.* An incoherent notion of God is not, strictly speaking, conceivable in the first place. Anselm is arguing about the greatest being that *can* be coherently conceived (whether or not we can do it ourselves) and that could therefore actually exist.

  6. It seems to me that the other logical proofs of God’s Existence ultimately boil down to something along the lines of the Ontological Argument as well. All, ultimately, point back and say that without God, something necessary to reality simply isn’t. For instance, the Cosmological Argument tells us that without God the causal chain is non-existent. The ontological tells us basic language and reason (simple non-contradiction and law of identity) are nonsense without God. We cannot even get from point a to point b without teleology.

    To show the depravity of the unbelieving mind, I’ve convinced atheists up to this point, only then to have them start launching assaults on these basic aspects of reality. I’m just curious what kind of mind takes seriously the idea that there is no cause and effect or that a and not-a can be true at the same time in the same relationship* (which would still mean God would exist while not existing *mind senses error must stop train of thought now*). No wonder many of these people need computers to perform basic functions. Even those things know when to shut down because a contradiction has taken place that overthrows reality. Atheists don’t.

    *But then doesn’t understand how the Bible isn’t full of contradictions because the supposed contradictions they point out are not talking about something at the same time and in the same relationship.

    • There is no God above us, is the fond thought of reckless hearts. Warped natures everywhere and hateful lives, there is not an innocent man among them. God looks down from heaven at the race of men, to find one soul that reflects, and goes in search of him; but no, all have missed the mark and rebelled against him; an innocent man is nowhere to be found.

      Dixit insipiens in corde suo: Non est Deus. Corrupti sunt, et abominabiles facti sunt in iniquitatibus; non est qui faciat bonum. Deus de cælo prospexit super filios hominum,
      ut videat si est intelligens, aut requirens Deum. Omnes declinaverunt; simul inutiles facti sunt:
      non est qui faciat bonum, non est usque ad unum.

      Psalm 53 (I like the Latin better, especially “insipiens”)

      I think that any definitive argument boils down to the necessity of things self-evident, undeniable.

      What you describe has been true in my experience. The discussions of the classical proofs for the existence of God (baring superficial discussions of quantum mechanics) are probably the only context where people enter fits of rage and/or incredulity against self-evident things/things that cannot be coherently denied.

      Just like discussions of forms/essences/natures are tolerated, at times even treated with curiosity, only to disolve into defending oneself against proclaimations of teenage nominalism of the “it’s all abnormal” kind when one proceeds to discuss natural law. Or when self-proclaimed nihilists start to pontificate on the immorality of religious belief..

      Reckless hearts, indeed.

      • My favorite time was when this science nerd told me how quantum mechanics proved that a and not-a could both be true because, apparently, one electron can be in two locations at the same time. I know little about that stuff now, and even less back then. I just looked at him kind of funny and then said I’d rather deny quantum mechanics than the law of non-contradiction. I was, of course, accused of being “anti-science” (I wonder how ballistic he would have went if I told him I also believe the cosmos was created in 6 days around 6,000 years ago). At that point, the I lost interest in continuing debating this fool.

        And some people don’t think the Bible is insightful about human nature, particularly that of the non-believer….

  7. Here’s Plantinga, at the conclusion of his examination of the Ontological Argument.

    [56] But here we must be careful; we must ask whether this argument is a successful piece of natural theology, whether it proves the existence of God. And the answer must be, I think, that it does not. An argument for God’s existence may be sound, after all, without in any useful sense proving God’s existence. Since I believe in God, I think the following argument is sound:

    ・ Either God exists or 7 + 5 = 14
    ・ It is false that 7 + 5 = 14
    ・ Therefore God exists.

    [57] But obviously this isn’t a proof; no one who didn’t already accept the conclusion, would accept the first premise. The ontological argument we’ve been examining isn’t just like this one, of course, but it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise — that the existence of a maximally great being is possible — will accept it. Still, it is evident, I think, that there is nothing contrary to reason or irrational in accepting this premise. What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability. And hence it accomplishes at least one of the aims of the tradition of natural theology.

    I’ve only read this paper and Warranted Christian Belief, but it seems to me that this is characteristic of Plantinga’s arguments: it is perfectly rational and reasonable to believe in the existence of God, or the truth of Christian revelation, or ….; if God does in fact exist, or …, or …. then it is the belief is reasonable, rational and true.

    In the modern context, this is a huge step forward, and, if the awareness of this could be generally established, it would bring about revolutionary changes in the culture.

    • I think Plantinga is giving Anselm too little credit. Anselm’s argument is *nothing like* the sound argument he gives in [56]. Boiled down, Anselm’s argument is that:

      1. Let p = “God does not exist”
      2. p is incoherent (it is this premise that takes up most of Anselm’s attention in his argument)
      3. Incoherent concepts cannot be true.
      4. -p

  8. A comment on modal logic: I don’t understand it, but that’s not the comment, merely a necessary disclaimer.

    In the little reading I have done, it seems to me that the notion of “possible worlds” is extremely misleading. A lot of modal logic seems to be an attempt to grapple, from within the starting point of early-mid 20th century propositional logic, with certain troublesome characteristics of the real world – of _this_ real world.

    So, for example, it is _possible_ that Oswald might have missed, and Kennedy survived the attempt, it is possible that my wife might have had a small dog for a pet, rather than a cat, etc, etc. Aspects of modal logic have been developed to incorporate such contingencies. The logical systems that have been developed are tested for basic coherence against the much-maligned “common sense.” See, for example, the discussion of Brouwer’s logic system at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    The feeling that I get from this is that “possible worlds” are “possible configurations of this world.” If such a view is defensible, it puts a different complexion on Catherine’s question and Kristor’s answer.

    • The modal logic used by Plantinga, Hartshorne & alia for analysis of Anselm’s argument takes “possible worlds” to mean “possible states of affairs,” not just “possible worlds like ours.”

  9. If the ontological arguments are convincing to you, I have no wish to disturb your confidence in the existence of God. Most people believe that the evidence for the existence of God is convincing, as do I. But the arguments are not convincing to most contemporary academic philosophers.

    “A recent survey by PhilPapers, the online philosophy index, says that 62 percent of philosophers are atheists (with another 11 percent “inclined” to the view).” See

    This poll, of course, neither proves not disproves the proposition that God exists. However, given that academic philosophers are much more familiar with the ontological arguments than the general public, which is statistically much less inclined to atheism, the poll does suggest that (1) the philosophical arguments for the existence of God may be less convincing the longer and more intensely they are studied, and (2) a career in academic philosophy is more likely than most careers to lead to atheism.

      • Yes. The more you think about the arguments, the more compelling they seem. I speak from experience. Then there is Antony Flew, who was converted to theism late in his career as the most eminent atheist philosopher in the world by an honest confrontation with the arguments of Aristotle.

      • I agree that the arguments have great force, but they’re not particularly inspiring. They’ll never convince someone who does not want to be convinced. Further, they’ll never inspire even someone looking for inspiration. All my experience has shown me that the heart has to change before the mind can change. And once the heart is ready there are other, better ways to close the deal.

      • Hi Andrew,

        And once the heart is ready there are other, better ways to close the deal.

        Don’t you think it depends on the particular person though?

      • Thanks for the link. So here are the numbers for academic philosophers broken down with some comments:


        Accept or lean toward atheism 72.8%
        Accept or lean toward theism 14.6%
        Other 12.5%

        This is overwhelming. In contrast a recent poll showed “63 percent of accounting professors, 56.8 percent of elementary education professors, 48.6 percent of finance professors, 46.5 percent of marketing professors, 45 percent of art professors, and 44.4 percent of both nursing professors and criminal justice professors stated that they know [!] God exists.” (


        Accept or lean toward theism 72.3%
        Accept or lean toward atheism 19.1%
        Other 8.5%

        This is overwhelming in the other direction. I imagine that some of this result is self-selection. Those convinced by the theistic argument gravitate towards religiously oriented schools or departments. Those unconvinced gravitate toward general philosophy. Still the number leaning to atheism in a philosophy of religion specialty is greater than in the general populace, where the number is perhaps 2 to 16 percent depending on the poll and how the question is asked.


        Accept or lean toward atheism 41.1%
        Accept or lean toward theism 29.4%
        Other 29.4%

        Once again tilting to the atheist side and less inclined to belief than the general public or accounting, nursing, or art professors.

      • Hi Ian. Sure it can depend on the person. But did early Christianity spread on the basis of philosophy? Or was it the promise of gaining everlasting life in a new heaven and a new earth with our Creator? Or the example of the lives of other Christians? Or the example of Christian martyrdom?

        Maybe there’s too much of my personal bias in this. I know philosophy didn’t work with me like I very much wanted it to. And I’ve never been able to convince anyone else who wasn’t already convinced using philosophy.

    • I once read an indirect reference to Newman, to the effect that no-one is converted by argument. If anyone else knows the source, I would be grateful to hear it. I’m not sure what the full portent of row putative quote is, but it surely is to do with the understanding that faith is a gift, which one cannot give oneself.

      If so, is the loss of faith also a spiritual work? Having lost my faith once or twice before, I can say that it doesn’t _feel_ like an external influence; but feeling an external influence would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?

      As to the risks of academic philosophy, I suspect that the problem is the atmosphere of influence and the structures of plausibility that govern its works and days, rather than any argument, that is the primary determinant on the belief trajectory of philosophers; much as for the rest of us. I don’t know about philosophers of religion in particular, but university departments of religious studies in Australia seem to be pretty grim places where God, if He is allowed to exist, must acknowledge the equivalence of all cultures and all beliefs in a strictly PC manner.

      • Hi Ian. Sure it can depend on the person. But did early Christianity spread on the basis of philosophy? Or was it the promise of gaining everlasting life in a new heaven and a new earth with our Creator? Or the example of the lives of other Christians? Or the example of Christian martyrdom?

        Likely all of the above.

  10. I’d say it’s all of the above. A philosophically-minded person is unlikely to be satisfied with a religion that has no philosophical depth to it.

    Speaking for myself, I have always been a Christian, so I cannot say whether philosophical arguments would have led me to becoming a theist or Christian had I not been raised one. However, philosophical arguments have caused me to change my views on moral and doctrinal questions.

    • Ian, I think what you say is true. From my perspective, time is short. We need to get as many people over to our side as possible, before it is too late (for them). Much death and destruction is approaching fast and people are going to need something deep and unshakeable to prevent despair, backsliding and going over to the other side.

      • I think part of the difficulty with philosophical argument in today’s age is that so many of the elite have bought into scientism/materialism, so philosophical proofs have no purchase with them since they are not ‘scientific’ proofs. Add to this the common misconception that faith is belief without evidence, and it becomes difficult to get a reasoned defense of Christianity off the ground.

        This may have been less of problem in previous ages, where spiritual reality was accepted as a given.

      • Exactly. The default reaction to ontological arguments of the modern mind – mine included, once upon a time – is that they are “nothing more than word games,” and, as such, rather contemptible. But this critique presupposes that our terms don’t really properly pertain to anything in reality. In other words, it presupposes nominalism. If nominalism is true, then arguing from the meanings of terms is specious per se.

        If on the other hand nominalism is false, then terms can indeed have proper meanings, i.e., proper indexical relations to reals. In that case, arguing from the meanings of terms can furnish knowledge; for, if a statement validly composed of terms properly defined is not coherent, then the state of affairs to which it refers is not truly possible.

        Mathematicians and logicians commonly presuppose that the terms of their arguments have proper meanings; that they mean what they say. They therefore feel confident that they do really argue to true conclusions from the relations of those meanings. And it often turns out much later that their findings about the relations of their terms are reflected in the deep structure of the physical world, in ways that no one would ever have suspected.

        Once you convert from the default modern presumption of nominalism to the default pre-modern presumption of essentialism, you can see that well-formed ontological arguments are tremendously powerful. If our terms really mean something – are really apposite to reality – then the fact that it is incoherent to *say* that God does not exist means that “God does not exist” indicates an incoherent state of affairs: i.e., a state of affairs that is strictly impossible.

    • “did early Christianity spread on the basis of philosophy?”

      Originally Christianity was folly to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23), but conflating and mixing it with Greek philosophy made it not only palatable, but also increasingly popular among the philosophically inclined.

      As Bruce Charlton says in his latest post:

      “Platonism is so strong, so satisfying – including spiritually satisfying, and so nearly-complete a metaphysical system; that it almost cannot-help but become a rival to plain, storytelling, personal relations-based Christianity as revealed in the New Testament (and the Old).”

      Read the whole post at

      Platonism is so strong that it can easily gain primacy, as Bruce correctly concludes, overshadowing the original Biblical root. Cf. Jacob 5 in the Book of Mormon (an allegory on tame and wild olive trees).

  11. There seems to be a connection — or perhaps a strange paradox — between materialism and nominalism. The more ‘scientific’ a person is (nothing exists outside of what can be tested and proved; the world is a closed system; faith and the supernatural are “foolish” concepts) the more nominalist he becomes wherein nothing is really real; meaning is whatever you make it — the deconstructionists paradise. It seems a strange inversion of reality.

    Has anyone written about this seeming paradox? Or is it so obvious to everyone, and I am just now seeing it.

    Whereas, the essentialist who ascribes, recognizes, the reality within meaning (Platonism?) (not being a philosopher, I struggle with communicating my thoughts precisely), is he who honors and thanks the invisible God and who may also trust and believe the Biblical revelation of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

    For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

    — Romans 1:20-21 (ESV)

    Materialism → Nominalism; Faith → Essentialism

    • There is indeed a connection between materialism and nominalism. If you are a materialist, the mind reduces without remainder to matter, and mental operations therefore fail to mean or indicate anything: as being nothing more than an arrangement of material items, they are without signification (in exactly the same way that a random jumble of pebbles doesn’t signify anything (whereas if the pebbles were arranged in the shape of an arrow, say, they might signify a number of things)). But this is to say that mental phenomena are not in reality directed toward any end, and do not intend anything. At best they are only about other mental phenomena; at worst they are just illusory.

      That being the case, the terms that we use in our mental operations clearly cannot have any true pertinence to reality as she actually is, but are all rather nothing more than heuristics: mere names that we make up and apply to our experiences for the sake of our own convenience. Materialism turns out to entail nominalism.

      Essentialism by contrast must end with a conviction that the meanings and essences of things, as given prior to any of their instantiations, and ergo as objective and eternal facts, must therefore first of all be meanings in respect to, and essences comprehended by, some eternal mind. Conversely, faith in the Christian God cannot but incline the mind to a conviction of the truth of essentialism: for, omniscience must completely know from all eternity the entire character of each thing, including its essential nature, which makes each thing just what it is and no other; so that it is in virtue of that divine omniscience, which is logically prior to every act of being, that each such act is what it is.

      • I can see how this train of thinking easily leads to the doctrine of sola fide.

        In any event, the dismissal or the downgrading of the specific, the concrete, and the material in favor of an ultimately Platonic reality is at odds with the tenor of Hebrew thought. See

        From this last link:

        In Western thought, form and matter (or an analogous distinction, genus and species) are separate. We use both concepts to describe an object, and form (genus) is more important because it is less changeable. In contrast, Hebrews do not make this distinction. If we were to make it for them, we would have to say that for Hebrews the material, not the form, is most important. In Hebrew, to change the material is to change the object. In other words, the form/matter distinction is Greek (Indo-European) rather than Hebrew (Semitic). Unlike Greek, Hebrew does not conceive of anything immaterial or unembodied, even in thought. That concept is required, however, to make the form/matter distinction, and perhaps it is required to believe that ultimate reality is absolutely static.

      • Fortunately, Christianity does not dismiss or downgrade the specific, concrete and material in favor of an ultimately Platonic reality. Quite the contrary.

        What train of thinking, and how would it lead to sola fide?

      • Leo, what then are the “shades” of the Psalms, and how do they relate to the resurrection envisaged by the Pharisees? On another tack, how do Hebrews recognise a “man” or a “horse” or “water?” Indeed, how do they set about making a table or a door?

      • How would a materialist respond to this? This is important to know if you want to engage with such a person.

        Might the argument go something like this?

        The mind is entirely material, but the long process of evolution has resulted in a neurophysiology which has adapted, by trial and error, to the successful apprehension and manipulation of the environment. These characteristics first appeared in the animals, becoming more and more capable as the higher animal forms evolved.

        So, while there is no _essential_ or _logical_ necessity about so-called mental processes, the guarantee of their aptness, their fitness for purpose, is this history of tuning in response to the external environment.

        I’m not saying that this is the argument that any particular materialist would offer, but any such argument must, I think, run along a similar track. I’ve never actually seen a concise expression of this argument, and would appreciate any references to such arguments.

        The reason I think it is particularly important to elaborate this reasoning, is that, by extracting it from an interlocutor, we have a basis for teasing out the inconsistencies of the position, and, more vitally, the limitations that it imposes on any _other_ positions our materialist might wish to take.

        Materialists are blithely unaware of the chasms of contradiction across which they skip in moving from one topic to another, and by establishing exactly what their anthropology entails, we can call them to account in public debates in a way which I have not, personally, seen done.

      • @Pete West

        Not sure what you are getting at. Immaterial things are non-existent things, i.e., non-things, existing neither here nor there, neither now nor then. Thoughts are not things. Thoughts, as and of themselves, do not and cannot become things. Even thoughts that are repeated many times a day do not become things unless a physical being makes them so. Nothing is so easily lost or corrupted as a thought. It cannot maintain itself in and of itself.

        We are material beings with experiences with real, tangible things. That is how you learn to make a door or a table. To know something is to become familiar with it by experience. God created things for us from prima materia and gave them meaning, value, and purpose for our benefit. For example, God called the light Day and the darkness night rather than just calling the light Light and the darkness Darkness. They were created for times and seasons for the benefit of man. Adam, in turn, named the beasts, e.g. “horse.” That is one of our powers, we can name things, real things, and if we share that name, it becomes part of a common language. And we can make things, e.g. a table or a door. That is also one of our powers.

      • @Leo
        “…non-things, existing … neither now nor then.” Followed by, “Even thoughts that are repeated many times a day …” That is, these immaterial things do, in fact, “exist” either now or then. So they seem to have a temporal reality. “Nothing is so easily lost…as a thought. It cannot maintain itself in and of itself.” How then, ca a thought recur many times a day. Where is it in between recurrences?

        In fact, ideas which are thought similarly and contemporaneously by many minds are the most powerful forces in human history. I can’t see that there _are_ any other forces in human history, apart from the directly attributable actions of God in inducing new ideas in human minds.

        “We are material beings with experiences with real, tangible things. … To know something is to become familiar with it by experience.” Two instances here of the magic word: experience. What is it? A materialist and I will both say, “Experience is immaterial,” and mean completely different things. He will mean that experience is of no account, because it is an epiphenomenal effect of “real, tangible things.” I will mean that experience, which is the reality of being human, is irreducibly non-material. Human subjects are defined by their capacity to experience. Everybody knows this. But the “strong” materialist must continue to deny it, for the buzzing immaterial structure of ideas that make up his worldview and that motivate and sustain his action in the world, is built upon this sand, so he must press on. An example of the absurdities that result is at

        “Adam, in turn, named the beasts, e.g. ‘horse.'” The glaring problem here is that the process by which we recognise a “horse” is completely mysterious. It is a difficulty that applies also to “door” or “table,” and it a problem that you elide, rather than attempt to address. In my experience of making things, I am guided by my _idea_ of what it is I _intend_ to make. I gather the “makings” and my notion becomes more detailed, more “concrete” if you like, as I begin to deal with the particular materials in my hands. But “concrete” here is a metaphor. The idea is more particular, but it is still immaterial. Its particularity is an elaboration of a much less metaphorically concrete idea upon which I concentrated at the beginning of my project. Is this not the case for you?

      • in favor of an ultimately Platonic reality is at odds with the tenor of Hebrew thought.

        When I think of Platonism, some key concepts come to mind:

        denial of the concept of creation ex-nihlio
        pre-existence of souls in some heavenly like realm
        multiple degrees of heaven

        Which religion do we more readily find this concepts articulated in? Mormonism or Christianity?

  12. So why is it that the principal tool of the left (liberalism) employs — in contradistinction to nominalism — tropes, such as “the war against women,” and racism, and a whole host of other “categories” in its attack against traditionalism (and essentialism)? Why are nominalists, in one area, not nominalist in another?
    Categories, it’s apparent, are useful to the left when it promotes its agenda: those categories which constitute state-designated oppressed peoples. But categories are not useful to the left when such categories reflect and identify truths of human experience and transcendent reality that conflict with the liberal paradigm.
    But I see that lstsp, above, has summarized the landscape: “Materialists are blithely unaware of the chasms of contradictions across which they skip . . . “

  13. @Kristor

    “What train of thinking, and how would it lead to sola fide?”

    Faith alone is so Platonic, so immaterial, so purely mental, so seemingly perfect in and of itself. Yet without works it is dead.

    Works are specific, concrete, and small. Yet these small, concrete, specific, and material (meat, drink, housing, clothing, visiting) acts determine, according to the very words of Jesus, who receives eternal life and who departs into fire. See Matt 25:31-46. It is their materiality, their concreteness, that gives them both actual existence and meaning. They are vivid and real, not ethereal and existing only in our heads.

    To quote Charles Williams:

    “You exist in [your] acts – yes; it is up to you to produce them. No one and nothing can produce them except you; unless you do, they will be everlastingly and eternally lost. They are of intense value; their value is such that they are not only applicable to the present situation but to all situations. They affect those dead long since and those yet unborn, as you are affected by the deeds of love of those not yet born or dead long since.”

    • Works are the result of faith; God does not need them, but your fellow man does.
      A tree bears fruit; the fruit does not bear the tree.
      Works are the visible sign of a prior condition; works are not the cause of the condition, or more accurately, ones position in Christ is not dependent upon works but upon faith in the WORK of Christ.
      The semi-pelagianism of Catholics is corrosive to absolute trust in Jesus as your redeemer.
      You have nothing whatsoever to do with your redemption; not your works, not even your faint, which is God’s gift to you.

    • I don’t know, Leo; the act of faith is about the meatiest, most concrete thing I have ever experienced. It is more real, certainly, than any of the comparatively dreamlike evanescences of quotidian mundane life. It was a motion of my head, yes; but it was also a motion of my heart and my guts, that absolutely knocked me to my knees, helpless. It was more completely a work than any other job of work I have done; yet while it was I that worked, and so was my own work – so that it worked to change me, thus becoming mine by becoming me – it was not I, but Christ in me, who worked.

      But never mind all that. I still don’t know what train of thinking you are talking about – in this post, or its thread – and how it connects to sola fide.

  14. @ Bill McEnaney

    I skimmed with interest your link explaining (bullet-pointing?) the Catholic doctrine of the relationship between faith and good works. And I thank you for your eagerness to place into my purview the depth and breadth — with the Scriptural citations — of your church’s teaching.

    But surely you must know, that for every Scriptural reference cited in official Catholic teaching there is the Reformed or the Lutheran counterpart, by which I mean an understanding of said passage that is in conflict with what the Catholic church proffers.

    For this reason, as I have written here to another poster, I will not engage in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue and spend the bulk of my time and energy attempting to dissuade Catholics, for example, of their error. (And doesn’t that make you grin with displeasure, perhaps?)

    I will always appeal to my Lutheranism on matters relating to theology and the body of Christ — as I comment here at Orthosphere (it’s who I am); but that does not mean that I will make it my goal to dissuade others of their firmly held Christian beliefs which spring from different faith traditions. I am much more likely, as you have done, to refer inquiring minds to other sources, that they may have the leisure to investigate and explore theological differences (within Christendom) on their own.

    So, with that in mind, I will refer you to: _A Lutheran Looks at Catholics_, by Curtis Jahn, Northwestern Publishing House, Millwaukee, WI.

  15. Debra, thank you for your kind, well-written reply. Yes, I know that Lutherans and Catholics disagree about what some parts of Holy Scripture mean. That’s partly why I love to study what early Christians wrote between about the first and the eighth centuries. Since they lived in or near Our Blessed Lord’s day, they knew a lot about what He taught, what biblical figures of speech meant, what Ancient Hebrew culture was like . . . In fact, if you’ve read some scholarly introductions to “The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,” you know, I’ll bet, that Polycarp knew St. John the Apostle personally.

    My point is one St. Vincent of Lerins made in his ancient book called “The Commonitorium.” When people disagree about what the Bible means, ancient extrabiblical sources can tell us a lot about what ancient Christians believed about the Bible, how to interpret it, and authority. In this translation of that book, he suggested:

    A General Rule for distinguishing the Truth of the Catholic Faith from the Falsehood of Heretical Pravity.

    [4.] I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

    [5.] But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

    [6.] Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

    Here’s a link to another translation of that book, a translation you’ll find in Calvin College’s Christian Classics Ethereal Library, where the college keeps some writings by Luther, too, I seem to remember. No, I don’t need you to read the whole book, let alone both translations of it. I’m citing a Protestant scholar’s translation, too, because many may wonder whether Catholic bias affected the other one.

    Years ago, while an acquaintance of mine discussed the Seventh-Day Adventist belief that our disembodied souls will be unconscious until Christ resurrects our bodies, I quoted St Justin Martyr to show that he disagreed with that doctrine. What did my acquaintance say about St. Justin’s thought belief that they remain conscious? He told me that didn’t matter, since we have the Bible. Anytime I need to choose between St. Justin’s theological opinions and my amateur ones, I probably will need to agree with him because he knew much more than I know.

    In Chapter 18 of that book, St. Justin writes:

    For reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would be a godsend to all the wicked. But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked), see that you neglect not to be convinced, and to hold as your belief, that these things are true. For let even necromancy, and the divinations you practise by immaculate children, and the evoking of departed human souls, and those who are called among the magi, Dream-senders and Assistant-spirits (Familiars), and all that is done by those who are skilled in such matters — let these persuade you that even after death souls are in a state of sensation; and those who are seized and cast about by the spirits of the dead, whom all call dæmoniacs or madmen; and what you repute as oracles, both of Amphilochus, Dodana, Pytho, and as many other such as exist; and the opinions of your authors, Empedocles and Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates, and the pit of Homer, and the descent of Ulysses to inspect these things, and all that has been uttered of a like kind. Such favour as you grant to these, grant also to us, who not less but more firmly than they believe in God; since we expect to receive again our own bodies, though they be dead and cast into the earth, for we maintain that with God nothing is impossible.

    • My dear Mr. Bill McEnaney:

      What a lot of effort, time and energy, you devote to helping me see your viewpoint, and with the most sincere and honorable motives, I’m sure. Your earnestness and devotion to your church’s teaching are exemplary — and evangelistic; for you wish that everyone knows the truth as you see it.

      Mr. Bill: I am a Lutheran, of long standing; and I do not accept Catholic dogma (as Wm Lewis rightfully asserts). You, dear one, could write ten-thousand times ten-thousand the volume of polemic or tendentious “proofs” as to your Catholic belief, and they would not even dent this Lutheran’s heart, a heart that seeks first the glory of Jesus Christ — which my study of the Bible and church history and the various arms of Christendom — has led me to embrace these many years.

      Have you read Philip Schaff’s _History of the Christian Church_? I have not, but am blessed to be among those church members who have attended weekly Wednesday Bible Study for the better part of three years now in which the study of Schaff’s history has been the subject. (You can get all eight volumes of the history on Amazon Kindle for an amazingly low price!) Have you read, _Martin Luther and the Long Reformation: From Response to Reform In The Church_ by James Kiecker, 1992, Northwestern Publishing House?

      You see, as I wrote to you earlier, for every argument you make for the orthodoxy of Catholicism, there are arguments I can make that reveal that said arguments fall short of the truth of the gospel, and which then necessarily depart from Reformation orthodoxy — of which I am an intractable adherent. Please note the word, “intractable.”

      But you and I are not going to go there. I will not use the forum of Orthosphere to challenge your assertions, except in a most general manner — as they reflect my Lutheran perspective on OTHER topics, most often, and when the topic is Christian theology, when the Lutheran voice needs a hearing.

      • My dear friend Debra,

        Thank you for even more of your kind, warm thoughts.

        Please don’t overestimate what I’ve done to share with you what Saints Justin and Vincent wrote. I only copied and pasted from writings I’ve read and have treasured for years. With my philosophy degree and a longing to live like a scholarly monk, I can hardly read enough philosophy and enough theology. Some deluded : ) people even think I’m an expert in St. Thomas Aquinas thought. But I’m only a beginner. In both philosophy and theology, there’s always much more to learn, knowledge that makes everything I’ve studied for about 30 years look like a mere introduction.

        Sure, you can find countless sincere, well-meaning people who disagree with me and with the Catholic Church. In fact, disagreement gave me my voracious appetite for philosophy and theology when an acquaintance of mine handed me a booklet brimming with arguments against some Catholic beliefs. So, to answer the author’s criticisms, I hurried to a college library, where I discovered Dr. Ludwig Ott’s book “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma,” an admirably clear “refresher course” for priests. I just wish I understood enough Latin to read each Latin passage he quotes in it.

        You and I could waste hours, not to mention much of the space at this blog site, by proof-texting from Holy Scripture, quoting theologians, and citing parts of Bible commentaries when we already know that we’re disagreeing about our theological convictions. For me, the disagreement only supports what St. Vincent writes us about how to tell the difference between orthodox doctrine and “heretical pravity.” To ensure that we believe what has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all,” we need an extrabiblical teaching authority that can settle our disputes. In my opinion, that authority is and has always been only the Catholic Church.

        I don’t expect to convince you of any Catholic doctrine, partly because Our Lord hasn’t blessed me with talent in apologetics. Although I haven’t read Dr. Schaff’s book, I know that he edited the 38-volume set of patristic documents where I first found St. Vincent’s book. Hendrickson Publishes the same collection in hardcover, by the way. I owned it, too. Sadly, with another copy of it, my room would be cluttered enough to starve my “botanical kids,” my carnivorous plants, for light. : )

        By the way, I’m vaguely familiar with Missouri Synod Lutheranism because, in my teens, I belonged to a Missouri Synod Lutheran youth group. The pastor there at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Colonie, New York and his wife were two of the saintliest people I’ve ever.

        Keep studying, reasoning, and learning. Our intellects distinguish us from every other living creature who shares our planet with us. Clearly, you use yours splendidly.

  16. Sorry about the link-related poor layout you’ll see in my second note to Debra. Too bad we can’t revise our posted replies.

  17. Debra, I’d be happy to reply to your point about faith and good works. But I would also hate to hijack anyone’s online conversation about anything. So I won’t try to discuss Lutheran/Catholic disagreement during this thread, since I think I’ve already written too much about Catholicism during the conversation about Kristor’s fine post.

  18. I am thoroughly enjoying the friendly dialogue between Bill McEnaney and Debra S., and I wish more posts on the Orthosphere were like theirs (yes, I recognize my part in deviating from that, and I will strive in the future to be more charitable and less confrontational in my own posts).

    I would like to point out another way to understand the Bible, one put forth originally by the Reformers and espoused by R.C. Sproul in the following way: “we are to interpret Scripture according to Scripture. That is, the supreme arbiter in interpreting the meaning of a particular verse in Scripture is the overall teaching of the Bible.”

    This is, of course, part of what sola scriptura means, which I know Mr. McEnaney rejects. It also seems, at first glance, to be impossible: how can the Bible interpret itself? The idea is that the Bible is a unified whole, and consistent with itself: no passage contradicts another (though parts of the New Testament supersede parts of the Old Testament, e.g., the dietary laws). This means that any apparent contradiction lies in our incomplete understanding, and not in the Bible. The way to get at greater understanding is to use the clear passages to interpret the obscure ones, to use the explicit passages to interpret the implicit ones.

    Also important is to take the Bible at face value: parables are parables,
    poetry is poetry, symbols are symbols, letters are letters. In other words, read the Bible as you would any other literature. (However, since the Bible is not just any work but the inspired word of God, it also carries with it Divine authority.) The point here is that reading the type of writing in the wrong way can lead only to misinterpretation and wrong conclusions. For example, Jesus said He is the good shepherd. Reading this literally leads to one of two false conclusions: either He is an actual shepherd who kept actual sheep, or He is a liar. Both conclusions are patently false, so this statement should not be read literally.

    I’m afraid that my poor attempts at summarizing the linked Sproul article (which is only nine paragraphs long) fall short. Please follow the link and see for yourself.

  19. Wm. Lewis, thank you for your encouraging, friendly note. Sometimes Our Blessed Lord gives some good thoughts when I pay Him the attention He deserves, which I do too rarely.

    Naturally, I agree with you and Dr. Sproul that Scripture is a unified, logically consistent, coherent, whole free from error. Hilaire Belloc would agree with us on that point, I’m sure, because he believes that, “Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential point therein” (Belloc 2), “We mean by ‘a complete self-supporting scheme’ any system of affirmation in physics or mathematics or philosophy or whatnot, the various parts of which are coherent and support each other” (Belloc 2). Then, on the same page, he concludes that, “Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by ‘Exception’: by ‘Picking out’ one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation” (Belloc 2).

    Belloc, Hilaire. “The Great Heresies.” Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1991.

    It seems to me that, if we harm Holy Scripture in the way Belloc describes, we probably will get logical inconsistency in the rest of it, because that consistency depends on what we dislocate, remove, or replace. That’s why I try to remember that logicians remind that one inconsistency in a set of propositions makes the whole collection inconsistent because propositions are consistent if and only if they can be true together. Their truth and their logical consistency imply each other.

    Since I seem to recall that Dr. Sproul believes that the Bibe is a fallibly collected set of infallible books, his belief about a self-interpreting suggests that, before the Bible can interpret itself, we need to know that we have the complete Bible, since missing parts may cause logical inconsistency in the rest of it, contradictions, for example.

    Now logicians taught me that an argument is valid in the logician’s sense of that word when its premises imply its conclusion. Since they do that in a valid argument, I contradict myself when I affirm its premises and deny its conclusion.

    With all that logical detail in mind, say I can’t comprehend any Bible passage that I read. Then I can’t interpret any passage in light of Holy Scripture’s overall meaning. If I don’t comprehend any part of the Bible, I don’t comprehend the whole one either. I need, after all, to learn the meaning of the whole from the meanings of its parts. The meanings of some parts depend on the meanings of others. That interdependence makes me wonder what we need to do to discover the Bible’s overall meaning to begin with. Debra is right when she says that, for any Bible passage I can quote to support a Catholic belief, other people can use the same passage to argue against that belief. Aha, there’s another reason for me to agree with St. Vincent when he writes that there may be as may different interpretations of Scripture as there are interpreters of it.

    Sir Karl Popper discovered what he calls the “asymmetry between confirmation and refutation. The idea is that, since any inductive argument is inconclusive when it supports its conclusion, any counterexample would prove conclusively that the conclusion is false. If you count a million white swans, you’ve gathered statistically strong evidence that all swans are white. But however many white swans you meet, your conclusion is still false because some swans are black.

    To me, sadly, Debra’s point suggests that, while we interpret the Bible, it’s even hard to tell how much confirmation any passage gets two disagreeing people when each uses that passage to defend a belief that’s logically inconsistent with the one the other argues for with that same passage. If the interpretations are logically inconsistent with each other, that guarantees that one or both of them are false.

    In my opinion, Dr. Sproul needs to ask himself whether his Bible is complete, because as you may already know, in 397 A.D., the Third Council of Carthage taught the the canon includes the seven Old Testament the seven Old Testament books you always find in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles but only rarely in Protestant ones.

    • Bill, it’s an endless argument. It’s not a good idea to bring in Popper, because on Popper’s analysis, no strand of Christian theology yields novel falsifiable predictions; except for the odd, very interesting, occasion.

      Our individual gifts of faith are just that, gifts. They are, if you like, the cards we are dealt. If we are wrong in the beliefs we adopt that define the details of our faith, we must throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord. It seems to me, however, that anyone who professes that Jesus is Lord is in better shape for the Judgement than any Western atheist. Unfortunately, our societies are being driven down the freeway to Hell, because those atheists (including many who maintain a public pretence of Christianity) are in the driver’s seat.

      It seems to me that in these circumstances, our common Christian confession of faith is of much greater significance than our differences. In fact, I have been idly sketching out for myself the outlines of an accommodation with Muslims to restore respect for, and acceptance of, the importance of religion in the public square, and to restore personal modesty and religious devotion to the everyday interactions of civil society. It seems to me that this may provide a constructive outlet for the disgust that many young Muslims feel for Western civil society, while energising that tiny rump of young Christians to go out and re-evangelise the West.

      But I digress from my digression. My original intended digression was in the direction of Biblical texts. By way of background: I was raised a ABC Protestant (anything but Catholic) of no fixed abode, and left at the usual time. When I came back, I was reborn as a Catholic, but I fell at many hurdles and eventually left the fold, although I retain a great affection for many aspects of Catholicism, including the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was never part of my childhood.

      I have read of a recent increase in interest among some Protestant scholars in the Septuagint. This I find very encouraging. It seems to me that the Hebrew Scriptures, up to the time of Christ, were a work in progress, and that the New Testament, for all the contortions of Biblical textual scholars, has a certainty of provenance that the Old Testament cannot claim. Christianity has its basis in the well-attested life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth; it is rooted in historical reality so vibrantly documented by so many of Jesus’ contenporaries that it can only be rejected on a priori grounds. This immediacy and historical concreteness not only validates Christianity, but flows on to the validation of the Old Testament. But which Old Testament?

      If Jesus is the measure of all things, then do we not look to the Scripture of Jesus’ time? Is that the canonical Hebrew Scriptures for the school of Jamnia, circa AD 100? These documents were canonicalised by the Pharisees who survived the razing of the Temple in AD 70, and who had deliberately rejected Christ. The Septuagint, on the other hand, was the Greek translation of the Scriptures that were so regarded in the couple of centuries before Christ, and it was the primary Scriptural source for Hellenised Jews of the region. The name Septugint, or LXX, reflects the prestige accorded to these texts. I seems to me that if there is any conflict between the Septugint and the Scriptures of Jamnia, that Christians should lean towards the former. Some controversies about quotations from the Old Testament within the New Testament may well be satisfactorily resolved in such a manner.

  20. Peter, I’ll write more later, I hope, because your thoughtful, beautifully written reply deserves a thoughtful one from me. For now, my friend, let me try to answer your point about Sir Karl, God rest his soul.

    I’m not even assuming his falsificationism when I tell you about the asymmetry between confirmation and refutation. The problem is more general than the one you mention. The more general one is a problem with induction.

    In a sound deductive argument, all the premises are true, and they imply its conclusion. Again, in one like that, I contradict myself when I affirm the premises and deny the conclusion. A sound deductive argument can be conclusive because of that relationship between the premises and the conclusion.

    But an inductive one can’t do that, since its premises don’t imply its conclusion in the way I’ve just described. In an inductive argument, the conclusion can be false, even when the premises are true. What’s more, induction can be hard to justify. If I use induction to justify induction, I’m reasoning circularly because I assuming that it’s reliable. I’m not rejecting induction, I just don’t know how to solve it. Maybe someone has solved it or will solve it. Meanwhile, philosophers are still debating it long after Hume found it.

  21. Peter, the “gifts of faith” you mean are divinely revealed truths, right? Since God can’t lie, I doubt that any falsehoods anyone believes are gifts from Him. If we get the hands we’re dealt, does that mean that God tells you on a whim some divinely revealed truths that He has refused or will refuse to tell me? Are you suggesting that, in effect, He gives us our Bibles and says, “Okay, you two. Now that you have copies of my literary masterpiece, you’ll need to figure out what it means, because I won’t explain any of it. You’re on your own”? I must be misinterpreting your post, eh?

    • “Since God can’t lie, I doubt that any falsehoods anyone believes are gifts from Him.” Therefore, if, as you assert, the (Roman) Catholic faith is the true faith, all others are false. If falsehood cannot come from God, it must be coming from some other spiritual source. Now surely God would not share the stage with that other source, so allowing the faithful to be led to damnation by His own words, through their admixture with the falsehoods of the enemy? It follows then, that all the works of all Protestant (and Orthodox?) so-called Christians from the Reformation (or 1054?) are works of “some other spiritual source.” I must be misinterpreting your post, eh?

      Here’s what I said. “If we are wrong in the beliefs we adopt that define the details of our faith, we must throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord.” Let me now correct that by adding a rider. “The foregoing does not apply to those who have certain knowledge that their beliefs are correct.”

      • Peter, my friend, we’re thinking about problems that I’ve wondered about for years, partly because I specialized in logic while I earned my philosophy degree. Before I got it, I programmed computers professionally, which may explain why I love analytic philosophy with its logical rigor, its precise language, and its razor sharp distinctions. Since I’m extremely detail-oriented, I pay theological distinctions much, much attention, too. Detail-orientation helps a lot, because much of Catholic doctrine includes details that many non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, haven’t learned. That may be why most arguments against Catholicism, most that I’m familiar with, have actually been arguments against misinterpretations of Catholic doctrines. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen says, though I may be paraphrasing, “No one hates the Catholic Church. He hates his misconceptions about it.”

        Yes, we need to throw ourselves on Our Blessed Lord’s mercy. Everyone I know of, even each pope, can believe theological falsehoods. Some popes have even expressed heretical opinions in public. A pope, John XXII, I think, said that the souls of the faithful departed would see God face to face only after the resurrection. He, thank God, rejected that heresy on his deathbed. Another pope, I forget who, intended to define a heresy as a dogma. But didn’t try to define it. He died. Pope John Paul II thought that, in the Apostle’s Creed the sentence “He descended into Hell” meant that Our Lord’s body went into the tomb. That’s why it’s important to remember the Catholic difference between teaching infallibly and merely expressing a theological opinion.

        No, I’m not even hinting that on the last day of a Christian’s life, God will say, “I’m sorry. Since you were wrong about some minor details, you’re going to Hell. For anyone to go to Heaven, all his theological beliefs need to be true. One mistake, I press a button, a trap door opens, and he falls into you know where.”

        Not at all. God considers our motives, our sincerity, how hard we tried to know the truth, how intelligent we are . . . He doesn’t punish us for innocent ignorance. I’ve met some Christians who believe that aborted babies will go to Hell because they haven’t accepted Christ. A God who would damn them for something they couldn’t have done then isn’t the God I worship.

        Remember St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he writes about the natural moral law, about people who are “a law unto themselves.” Although they haven’t learned the law, the commandments, they do their best to obey the law that God has written on their hearts. But that doesn’t mean that every well-meaning, naturally virtuous man can go to heaven because he’s ignorant.

        I could bore you with a long, detailed post about the dogma that there’s no salvation outside the Catholic Church, i.e., the one the pope rules. If I did that, you’d hear a lot about the difference between being in it as a member and being in it as a nonmember. I would need to explain it thoroughly because it’s one of the most often misinterpreted doctrines the Church teaches. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it up in a sentence that goes something like this, “If anyone refuses to enter I the Catholic Church when he knows that it’s the true one, he can’t be saved.”

        I could go on and on about the ambiguous phrases “the true Church” and “the true religion.” But I’m not here to teach a catechism class, let alone to force anyone to join the Catholic Church. That coercion is, as the Church insists, always immoral. And everyone has a right to be free from that kind of coercion.

      • Mr. McEnaney, that last point of yours sounds surprising similar to the Protestant position that Mr. Roebuck & I have presented: while we believe that Reformed teachings are most correct, and that membership in a confessional church is the best way to salvation, we accept that it is possible for members of other denominations to be saved as well. Although you stated it as a negative (“If anyone refuses to enter I the Catholic Church when he knows that it’s the true one, he can’t be saved”), it expresses a similar notion, I believe.

        Of course, from our perspective it is not the acceptance of this denomination or that; rather, it is the acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. It is repentance and faith. I think we’re talking about the same thing, just from different directions.

  22. Mr. Lewis, please call me “Bill.”

    I mentioned St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans because what he writes about people who are a “law unto themselves” is much like natural law theory that you can read about in a book by, say, Professor Russell Hittinger. To explain the dogma that there’s no salvation outside the Catholic Church, I’ll need to write a detailed post, since that dogma is very easy to misinterpret. If I do explain it, please remember that I’m only a layman, not a theologian. Please don’t take my thoughts as gospel truth. I try to be like a hero of mine, Fr. Gregory Hesse, because he, God rest his soul, would answer a theological question only when he knew the correct answer to it. I don’t want to be original when I write about Catholic doctrine. I want to repeat exactly what the Church has always taught.

    I’m a member of the Catholic Traditionalist movement. I practice Catholicism as though Vatican II hadn’t met. And I resist the novelties that came along during and after that council, today’s religiously indifferent ecumenism and the new rite of Mass, the vernacular one that most people think of when they think of the Mass. I always go to the Traditional Latin Mass that St. Pius V codified in 1570.

    • Dear Bill,

      I’m very happy to hear that you are a Roman Catholic Traditionalist; I can only imagine how difficult it is for you to deal with awfulness afflicting the Roman Church today.

      Just as Debra S. is dedicated to her Lutheran beliefs, I am dedicated to my confessional beliefs. As fascinating as it might be to read the various pro-Roman works you mention, I am afraid that I will not be swayed. The necessity of the Reformation, the truths the Reformers rediscovered, the clarity of confessional theology—it all works together as a coherent whole, and is inherently incompatible with Roman teaching. I’m OK with that. I’m OK with the differences in our beliefs; it doesn’t mean we can’t be amiable about it.

      As Mr. Roebuck pointed out, we have at least 95% overlap in our beliefs, and we should focus on the commonalities that join us, rather than the differences that separate us.

  23. Dear Mr. Lewis, thanks for the reassuring post. Nobody I know of feels trouble by my reactionary opinions. But my hereditary monarchism and my traditionalist Catholicism may raise a few eyebrows and disappoint a few people I know. Imagine my dad’s surprise when I told me that I thought the American Revolutionaries were traitors.

    For me, what’s happening in the Catholic Church can be very painful, and I’m afraid the current pontificate shocks me almost daily. So sometimes I wish St. Pius X would come back to life to rule the Church again. Fr. Hesse and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre would have been wonderful popes, too. Those three are the clergy I admire most. God bless the popes who came after Pius XII. But fro my taste, even Benedict XVI is too progressive.

    Again, my friend, I don’t expect to convince anyone of anything. Naturally, I would love to hear that everyone in the world is Catholic. But what other people do is up to Our Blessed Lord and to them. I’m only sharing some beliefs I love and hoping that I’m doing what He’s asking of me. If I am doing that, miracles still happen. : )


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