The Sensus Divinitatis and Empirical Evidence

I am not a Calvinist, and Calvinism is one of the strands of Christianity that I find most problematic, but, in this post, I’m going to be defending a Calvinist, and to a certain degree, a Calvinist position. When I first saw this article, and read the first subheading, I was a little bit surprised, Reformed Theologian John Piper is not really known for engaging in Natural Theology, a lot of Calvinists tend to shy away from evidential argumentation for God and start with presuppositional apologetics and stick with revealed theology. As I read the article, though, I understood that what the author (Neil Carter) is criticizing is John Pipers response to a question in a podcast episode about Paul’s claim that God’s existence is self-evident in Romans 1:19-20.

Now John Pipers response is to exactly not engage in Natural Theology, but rather go directly to the typical Calvinist argument of appealing to Romans 1:18 saying that Unrighteous men are “suppressing the truth.” Neil doesn’t like this response, he writes:

Notice that Piper never answered the poor guy’s question. His question was simple and forthright: What elements, forces, or phenomena within the natural world actually do what the Bible says they do? How do they tell us anything specific about God(s)? Instead of giving any answers to that (I can only assume because he has none to offer), he simply sidesteps the question and tells him to go pray about it.

Now before we talk about that, let’s look at the question itself, the questioner asks:

“Pastor John, what does Paul mean in Romans 1 when he writes that God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, are ‘plain’ and ‘clearly perceived’ by everyone? I have heard this verse used to say that there is no such thing as an atheist, but there have been times when I’ve felt unsure whether God truly exists even though I want to believe he does. How can I reconcile my experience with Paul’s words?”

Notice the question wasn’t about forces elements or phenomena, or scientific evidence; it was about not believing God exists even though one wants to. It’s a phenomenological question, not an evidential one. Now one could approach that question in an empirical way, going to various philosophical arguments for the existence of God or appealing to design, contingency, cosmology and so on as a William Lane Craig style apologist might, or one could that the presuppositional approach of the Calvinists. The fact that the writer is shocked that John Piper would choose the latter shows he hasn’t engaged much with Calvinists, that’s what they do. Neil Carter isn’t buying it; he summarizes Tim Keller’s (another Calvinist theologian) approach in this way:

So in other words, “Yeah, sure! There are lots of evidences for my particular version of a singular Supreme Being. I’m just not going to tell you what they are, because that would be cheating…or something. You have to just ask the God you don’t believe in to show you what those evidences are.”

Now I am in no way a Calvinist, but when it comes to their approach I think they have some good instincts. What Neil Carter misses is that what individuals need to do, before they can discuss various evidences for or against God (or really anything) is deal with their own presuppositions, their own instincts and intentions. The Sensus Divinitatis claim is that within all human kind there is a knowledge of the Divine, which one either suppresses or embraces. This is not a claim that is reserved for Calvinists, even the most important figure in evidential apologetics, Thomas Aquinas, claimed that of course knowledge of God is implanted in human beings naturally, be it a general and confused knowledge.

St. Augustine in his City of God gives us an example of this kind of knowledge, but not for God, but for the concept of Justice, he says (Book 11:27):

For we have another and far superior sense, belonging to the inner man, by which we perceive what things are just, and what unjust—just by means of an intelligible idea, unjust by the want of it. This sense is aided in its functions neither by the eyesight, nor by the orifice of the ear, nor by the air-holes of the nostrils, nor by the palate’s taste, nor by any bodily touch.

Now the reason I like this explanation so much is that it works just as well for an Atheist in explaining the Sensus Divinitatis. Justice is something that can be empirically examined, in one sense; you can empirically examine outcomes of actions and find out what is and what is not just. However, Justice itself, the grounds on which these outcomes and actions are measured, in fact the existence of such a category, is not empirically verifiable. Surveying the attitudes of different cultures doesn’t get you any closer, neither does surveying opinions of various philosophers, if one is to claim that justice is something by which opinions and cultures can be judged. The knowledge of Justice is non-empirical, and arguments for and against what is and is not just can only come after the participants are open to the idea of justice.

Earlier Augustine says (book 11:2):

For God speaks with a man not by means of some audible creature dinning in his ears, so that atmospheric vibrations connect Him that makes with him that hears the sound, nor even by means of a spiritual being with the semblance of a body, such as we see in dreams or similar states; for even in this case He speaks as if to the ears of the body, because it is by means of the semblance of a body He speaks, and with the appearance of a real interval of space—for visions are exact representations of bodily objects. Not by these, then, does God speak, but by the truth itself, if any one is prepared to hear with the mind rather than with the body.

So for Augustine a kind of Divine Knowledge some outside of empirical evidences, truth itself, as a category is how one can reach knowledge of the divine. Now, like John Calvin, Augustine believed that this knowledge was not always entirely self-attainable he says in Confessions book 4:

For as deeds of violence arise, if that emotion of the soul be corrupted, whence vehement action springs, stirring itself insolently and unrulily; and lusts, when that affection of the soul is ungoverned, whereby carnal pleasures are drunk in, so do errors and false opinions defile the conversation, if the reasonable soul itself be corrupted; as it was then in me, who knew not that it must be enlightened by another light, that it may be partaker of truth, seeing itself is not that nature of truth. For Thou shalt light my candle, O Lord my God, Thou shalt enlighten my darkness: and of Thy fullness have we all received, for Thou art the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world; for in Thee there is no variableness, neither shadow of change.

So Augustine believed that corruption leads one to not only lack knowledge of God, but also even to lack the ability to gain such knowledge without Divine help, enlightenment.

This might seem like a cheap cop out to Neil Carter, or other atheists, but when one compares it to the concept of Justice, it makes more sense. Someone who is a complete Nihilist, who has no use for justice whatsoever (if there be such a person), cannot be argued into caring about justice from pure empirical evidence and logical argumentation, generally the Nihilist would need some kind of experience, transcendental or otherwise that shakes something inside him, or he would just need a change of heart. The same thing, Augustine and John Calvin argue, with some Atheists, in order for them to accept the divine and accept God as even a possibility, they would need to first be open to it, and that requires “God’s light.”

Once an individual is open to the concept of Justice can the work of empirical examination and logical argumentation begin to work out what is and is not just. In the same way once an individual is open to the Divine can the work of rational inquiry and examination of God, his attributes, his existence, his revelation and so on begin.

Take the example of two traditional arguments for God, the argument from morality and the Liebnitzian argument from contingency. I find both arguments extremely persuasive. I exist in a word where there are objectively right and wrong things, they are as real to me (and most people) as anything else out there, and yet I cannot see how things can be objectively right or wrong without God. Atheists disagree. I live in a world that is entirely contingent, not self-explained, not necessary, existence itself is mysterious, and this points me immediately to a source of all being, a ground, necessary and ultimate, i.e. God. Atheists are not pointed to that.

In both of these arguments both me and the Atheist have more or less the same data, as far as I can tell there are not obvious mistakes in reasoning (these things have been argued over and over again) and as far as I can tell there isn’t any empirical evidence or advances in logic that could force one to either position. At bottom, the question comes down to something beyond that, be it desire, genetic makeup or an openness to divine knowledge or divine intervention.

Ultimately, I tend more toward Thomas Aquinas than the Calvinists. I think that one can be an honest atheist who simply needs to hear convincing arguments. Nevertheless, I also believe Augustine who says that at bottom God is not going to be apprehended by sense Data, just in the same way Justice is not going to be apprehended by sense Data. In the end, the arguments are only going to be as effective as the individual hearing them is open to the divine. But unfortunately Paul in Romans 1 is right, many people simply supress the truth, so that even when evidence is right in front of them, evidence from every day experience, being itself, consciousness, the good, the beautiful and the true, some people simply will not accept that there is a God.

Had I been John Piper, however, I wouldn’t have ended where he ended, I would have explained Romans 1:18-23, and then went on to make a positive case for the divine from our experience as men made in the image of God. But for Neil Carter just to dismiss out of hand what Paul says and claim it’s just a cheap cop out is missing the very important point that is obviously true, human beings do not form beliefs, relationships and moral positions simply on the basis of empirical observation and rational argument, both desire and suppression play much bigger roles, and in some cases the only possible role in the grasping of truth, and not all truth is verifiable by purely empirical means.

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The Sensus Divinitatis and Empirical Evidence

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