Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The "Good and Intelligent People Disagree" Argument

This is an adaptation of a paper I will be reading Friday at the Intermountain Philosophy Conference at the University of Utah.

Agnosticism is a dominant viewpoint in modern America.  I would define "Agnosticism" as the view that objective truth cannot be known (at least with anything close to conclusiveness) in matters of religion and deep philosophy due to a lack of objective evidence for any religious or deep philosophical claim being generally available.  The number of people associating more explicitly with some kind of Agnostic label (including the label of "none") is increasing, as has been shown by a number of polls (so far as such things are conveying accurate information).  But aside from this more explicit sort of identification, Agnosticism dominates the minds of many implicitly.  I don't have time here to build a case for this claim, but it is evident in the attitudes and the language of many people (both at a grass-roots level as well as in higher-up academic and political settings) when it comes to talking about and relating in general to matters of religion and deep philosophy.

One of the ways in which this fact about our culture shows through is in the popularity of an argument I call the "Good and Intelligent People Disagree" argument (or GIPD, for short).  This argument seems to be the main, lynchpin argument for an Agnostic point of view in matters of religion and philosophy among a very large number of people.  It has come up in just about every conversation I have ever had regarding the truth of any controversial religious claim.  Those who make the argument almost never recognize it as a distinct argument or label it explicitly.  Usually it is just stated as an obvious fact to which no objection could be conceivable and passed over quickly.  It seems to function as an unquestioned assumption in the minds of many which has the tendency to make the Agnostic viewpoint seem like an unquestionable truism.

I think that it is helpful, in order to bring these kinds of unquestioned assumptions up to the surface and subject them to critical analysis, to give them an explicit label.  And therefore I have done so.  I am not aware of anyone else ever labeling this exact argument, though I would be surprised to find that it has never been done anywhere before, as the argument is so ubiquitous (and irritating to non-Agnostics!).


So what is the GIPD argument?  It goes basically like this:  "There is widespread disagreement on matters of religion and deep philosophy.  If there was enough objective evidence generally available to people so that the truth could be known in these matters, there would be far more of a general consensus.  Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion we can draw from the lack of such a consensus is that there is not enough objective evidence to know with any conclusiveness what is really true in such matters."

I consider the GIPD argument to be one of a number of arguments I have labeled together as shortcut arguments.  Shortcut arguments are arguments that try to reach a conclusion without doing the necessary work to get there.  They are lazy arguments that rely on superficial appearances and gut reactions that are not carefully examined with more precision.  See the hyperlink in this paragraph for more examples of this kind of argument.

As with all shortcut arguments, a closer examination of the GIPD argument causes it a lot of trouble.  I want to provide such a closer examination by attacking the argument on two main fronts:  1. First, I want to show that the GIPD argument is both self-refuting and that, if successful, it refutes the very Agnostic position it is designed to support.  2. Secondly, I will show that the GIPD argument begs the question by resting on certain unquestioned and dubious assumptions about the nature and tendencies of human beings.  Once these assumptions are questioned and shown to lack support in the evidence, the basic thrust of the GIPD argument is fatally undermined.


First of all, the GIPD argument is self-contradictory.  I wonder if you can anticipate what I am going to say here.  The GIPD argument says that when there is widespread disagreement over a matter, the only reasonable explanation of this disagreement is that there is not enough objective evidence available to know what is true.  Well, as we look at the various items out there over which there is widespread disagreement, guess what we find among them:  GIPD!  Perhaps I should pause here for a moment and let that sink in. . . . Good, I can see from some of the smiles on your faces that you've gotten the point.  Since there exists widespread disagreement over GIPD (all non-Agnostics reject the argument as fallacious--though the conversation seldom becomes explicit because the argument is seldom explicitly articulated), GIPD itself tells us that we have no reason to accept GIPD as being a good argument.  Well, if GIPD doesn't think itself a worthwhile argument to consider, I am happy to go along with its judgment here!

Also, GIPD opposes the very position it has been created specially to support: Agnosticism.  GIPD is designed to be a weapon to shoot at any non-Agnostic view when it rears its ugly head and makes any claims obnoxious to Agnostics.   So, for example, if a Muslim were to claim that it is objectively true and can be known to be true that the Qur'an is the Word of God, the Agnostic response will often be, "Well, you may think so, but the Christians think their holy book is the Word of God, and the Hindus think their holy books are the Word of God, etc.  So therefore you have no basis for your claim!"  (You can see how the GIPD argument is usually articulated, not explicitly as an argument but as an apparently obvious observation that can't be gainsaid.  "If there are lots of contradicting claims about holy books, well, that just must mean that each claim is roughly equally valid and thus all are equally worthless.  What else could the existence of contradictory claims mean?")

However, Agnostic users of the GIPD argument (as if there were any other kind) generally fail to see that the argument can be turned just as easily against their own Agnostic position.  If Christian claims are subject to skepticism on the grounds that lots of people disagree with them, and Islamic claims are subject to skepticism on the same grounds, and Hindu claims, and Buddhist claims, etc. . . . well, then, why not Agnostic claims?  Agnosticism itself is widely disagreed about.  So, according to GIPD, we don't have any good basis to believe the Agnostic position any more than any other controversial position.  So when an Agnostic claims, "There is simply not enough objective evidence available to conclude objectively that any particular religious claims are true," a non-Agnostic could simply reply, using the GIPD argument, "Well, you may think so, but the Christians think otherwise, as do the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.  So therefore you have no basis for your claim!"

GIPD is one of those all-purpose arguments.  It slices, it dices, it refutes every single position and argument in existence, including itself and any argument or position it is used to defend!  Which makes it completely worthless!  One of the hallmark tendencies of the use of fallacious arguments is that they are often used selectively and arbitrarily rather than consistently.  And that is the case here.  GIPD gets turned on whenever some unwanted non-Agnostic argument or position comes by, and then is shut off again quickly enough to avoid it being turned on its user and on itself.


The other major problem with the GIPD argument is that it is a question-begging argument.  I label it thus because it rests its case on certain assumptions regarding human beings and human tendencies which are themselves dubious and disputed and need to be subject to critical evaluation.  These dubious assumptions cause the GIPD argument to ignore alternative conclusions that can plausibly be drawn from the fact of widespread disagreement.

GIPD makes a lot of sense as an argument (besides it being self-refuting and all-purpose, as discussed above) if we assume the following description to be true of the generality of human beings:  "Human beings are generally competent, honest, and successful truth-seekers in matters of religion and deep philosophy.  They have a general tendency to follow the evidence wherever it leads, no matter what the personal consequences to themselves might be--whether there be negative social consequences, financial consequences, consequences in terms of prestige and dignity, or comfort, etc.  They would never come to a wrong conclusion motivated by a desire to avoid an alternate uncomfortable conclusion.  They would never cling to an old position or argument out of familiarity.  They would never avoid a conclusion because of feared social consequences, such as being thought wicked or stupid or being rejected by friends, family, employers, entire social communities, etc.  They would never cling to an opinion for financial reasons, or for reasons of pride, or bias, or apathy, or reputation, or opportunities that come with it, etc.  And they are are generally very competent and successful truth seekers.  They are all generally well skilled and practiced in precise and careful critical thinking in religious and deep philosophical matters, and never come to conclusions due to sloppiness or carelessness of thought, or irrational habit.  And they can be generally relied upon to come to the right conclusions.  They hardly ever get confused, or simply make errors in reasoning that lead to incorrect conclusions.  You can be pretty confident that if you ask a religious or a deep philosophical question to most of the people on earth, you will get a well thought-out, well-reasoned, competent, successful, and fully honest answer!"

Perhaps you think that I have just provided an accurate view of the general tendencies of human nature.  If you do, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you, real cheap!  : )  For my part, let me understate my position by saying that I am a tad bit skeptical that this is what most people tend to be like when it comes to religious and philosophical matters!  And yet this general picture is required by the GIPD argument, because the GIPD argument assumes that if there was simply enough objective evidence available to people so that it was possible for people in general to find out the truth, then we should expect the generality of the human race to congregate around the truth and reject error, so that there would no longer be widespread disagreement.  That assumption is the entire basis of the argument.  It is on the basis of this assumption that the argument claims that the existence of widespread disagreement can only reasonably be explained by there being a lack of objective evidence available.

But in reality, there are lots of other possible reasons for widespread disagreement, because people are not always motivated by a pure desire for truth at all costs when they come to conclusions, and they do not always learn to practice the sorts of thinking skills that are required to be good at actually arriving at truth instead of error.  (Not to mention that the best and most honest thinkers on earth are quite capable of just being confused and wrong sometimes!)  These facts fatally undermine the GIPD argument.  The argument depends on there being no other plausible reasons for widespread disagreement besides lack of objectively available truth; but this is clearly not the case, or at least there is no reason to believe it to be the case.

There are many different views out there about human nature (which means that we can't know which of them are true!  Just kidding.).  The GIPD argument, as we have seen, requires an incredibly naive optimistic view of human nature.  But some perspectives think far less of the natural good tendencies of human nature.  The Christian worldview, for example, holds that the entire human race exists since the Fall of man at the beginning of human history in a state of wickedness, under the curse and wrath of God.  We Christians hold that the natural tendency of human beings is not to be honest and competent truth seekers in religious matters, but rather to be haters of truth and to run from it and invent for ourselves lies that better suit our desires.  By nature since the Fall, we humans are bent on going our own ways in rebellion against reality and the God of all reality.  The Apostle Paul describes our natural state this way in Romans 1:18-25 (NKJV):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

According to Christianity, this is the natural state of man since the Fall, and it is only by the grace of God in Christ that anyone is restored out of this condition.  Now, if this is the actual condition of humanity, we would certainly not expect the GIPD argument to be reliable!  Therefore, the GIPD argument begs the question by assuming without argument a controversial view of human nature which contradicts other views of human nature, such as the Christian view.

In fact, I would go even further here and claim that the existence of widespread disagreement, ironically enough, is actually far more consistent with something like a Christian view of human nature than it is with the sort of human nature assumed by an Agnostic who is using GIPD.  If it really is so that human beings tend to follow the available evidence where it leads and to gather in agreement and consensus around the truth, and if it really is so that Agnosticism is the viewpoint to which the evidence leads, then why do we not see the generality of the human race gather in consensus around Agnosticism?  That's exactly what we should see if the GIPD assumptions are right.  So, actually, the Agnostic GIPD position does not predict widespread disagreement on religious matters!  Rather, it predicts a general consensus around Agnosticism!  So the existence of widespread disagreement is so far from being a confirmation of GIPD Agnosticism that it is actually strong evidence against GIPD Agnosticism!  On the other hand, what would you expect the world to look like if it was full of a large number of diverse groups of people who don't really care about ultimate truth and are in fact opposed to it, who are far more interested in living in a worldview of their own invention that suits their desires regardless of whether it matches up with reality?  It seems to me it might look like . . . the world we live in!  We would expect widespread disagreement on religious matters, because while truth is one, individuals and cultures are very different from each other, and different worldviews suit different sets of values and preferences.  John Calvin called the human heart an idol factory.  Well, what do you get when you have a world full of diverse people and cultures all supporting their own preferred idol factories?  You get widespread disagreement on religious matters!  So the existence of widespread disagreement does not support either GIPD or Agnosticism, but instead points to Christianity (or any other worldview that holds a similar view of human nature).


There is one more issue I ought to address before I close.  If objective evidence is available or at least might be available in matters of religion and deep philosophy, then why is there a lack of consensus in these areas when there is far more of a consensus in other areas, particularly in areas having to do with things that are empirically observable or scientifically testable?  For example, there is not widespread disagreement (though there is some!) regarding, say, the existence of giraffes.  There is not widespread disagreement over the boiling point of water, the capital of Idaho, the number of moons orbiting the earth, or that the American Revolution actually occurred.  Why is that?  Why is there widespread disagreement over the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, but not over these other kinds of things?  This requires an explanation.

Of course, the Agnostic explanation reflected in the GIPD argument will be that the difference is that there is sufficient objective evidence available on the boiling point of water, etc., but not in matters of religion.  That is certainly one possibility to be considered.  But, again, the GIPD line of reasoning begs the question by failing to consider other reasonable possibilities.  For one, we can point out the difference between more abstract claims vs. claims that are more immediately empirical and have more immediate practical consequences in life.  If you don't think that God exists, you can get by fairly well in life in terms of being able to live what would generally be considered a normal life.  On the other hand, if you start denying things like the existence of giraffes or, even more practically, the existence of your house or your best friend, you are very quickly going to run into serious disruptions in your ability to live a normal life.  This is not necessarily because there is less objective evidence available with regard to the existence of God than there is for giraffes or your best friend; it may simply be that some matters simply present themselves more forcefully and immediately before one's attention than others, making it harder to be wrong about them.

I've never had any arguments with anyone over the existence of giraffes.  But I have had quite a number of arguments with people over whether or not 2+2=4.  If you're surprised at this, well, just get yourself in the habit of asking people (particularly in a certain skeptical tone of voice) on various occasions whether or not we can really know if 2+2=4 and I imagine you will eventually have this fascinating experience.  Now, why is it that people will argue far more readily over whether or not 2+2=4 than they will over the existence of giraffes?  Is it because there is less existence for the claim that "2+2=4" than there is for the claim that "giraffes exist"?  No.  Actually, the reverse is true.  The existence of giraffes is not as immediately evident as the fact that 2+2=4.  Giraffes might simply appear to exist, really being all-sensory illusions projected by extremely dedicated aliens with advanced technology and too much time on their hands.  On the other hand, there can be no distinction between the appearance of 2+2=4 and 2+2 actually =4, because the appearance is simply the thing itself, since we are talking not about an illusion vs. an actual thing but simply an abstract concept.  So we ought to be more certain, in this sense, that 2+2=4 than we are that giraffes exist.

Another factor that needs to be taken into account here is that matters of religion and deep philosophy tend to deal with issues that are far more important to people than many empirical matters, such as how many moons orbit the earth or the capital of Idaho.  If you find out you are wrong with regard to the capital of Idaho (what is the capital of Idaho, anyway?  Is it Boise?), it is not likely to devastate your life or change it significantly.  On the other hand, changing one's religion or basic worldview is typically a very significant and often traumatic event with all sorts of personal and social consequences.  So, knowing human nature (even without Christian assumptions), we would expect far less resistance to be given to new ideas and calls to accept certain conclusions with regard to things like which cities are capital cities than things like which religion is the true religion.  So much more is at stake, we would expect greater diversity and less consensus to be maintained.

So it very well may be the case that the reason why we have greater consensus in some areas and less in others has nothing to do with the amount of objective evidence available and more to do with other factors, such as those mentioned above.  Therefore, this fact cannot be used, without further argumentation, to conclude that objective evidence is not available in religious and deep philosophical matters.


So the GIPD argument turns out to be a bad argument.  It is self-contradictory; it contradicts the position it is intended to support; and it begs the question by assuming without argument controversial and dubious views of human nature while ignoring alternative plausible explanations of the data.  It therefore cannot do the work required of it to support an Agnostic position regarding deep philosophical and religious matters.  Refuting GIPD, of course, does not imply that Agnosticism itself is refuted.  There are other arguments for Agnosticism that would need to be refuted as well, the refutation of which would take us beyond the scope of this paper.  However, inasmuch as the GIPD argument tends to function for many Agnostics as a key argument supporting their reasons for being Agnostic, its refutation should have the tendency to call Agnosticism into question and to open minds up to the possibility that more may be available to know than many of us had previously considered.

And by the way, the capital of Idaho is indeed Boise.  I looked it up on Wikipedia.  And I don't care if you agree or not.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Secularism is Neutral, So Come Over and Join Our Side! (Oh Wait . . .)

Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher at the City University of New York and runs a blog called "Rationally Speaking."  Just today, Prof. Pigliucci published an article on his blog by Michael De Dora, who is the director of the Center for Inquiry's Office of Public Policy and its representative to the United Nations.  The article is titled "Arguing pluralism instead of Church-State."  I am going to reproduce the article here in chunks and add responses inline in red ink (much as I did with the Proposition 8 court case a few posts back, but this is shorter).  This is legal, as the article is able to be reproduced under the standard Creative Commons license.  (Otherwise I wouldn't do it!)  Thanks to Mr. De Dora and Prof. Pigliucci for allowing this!

The article presents an argument (along the lines of the thinking of John Rawls) for a secular civil government, arguing that such a government is neutral and is the best kind of government we could have given our pluralistic society.

OK, here we go:

Arguing pluralism instead of Church-State

by Michael De Dora

When Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan were asked about how their religious beliefs influence their views on abortion during last week’s debate, Americans were given more than just the chance to hear two vice presidential candidates discuss their faith and how it relates to a controversial political issue. They were given the chance to observe the candidates address a much broader subject: the relationship between religion and politics.

As could be expected, the two candidates outlined two very different approaches to this relationship. In order to discuss the broader points, let’s first take a look at what Biden and Ryan said.

Ryan’s answer:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.

You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.” Now I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life. Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

So if life begins at conception, why does Ryan want to allow exceptions for rape and incest?  Is it OK to kill innocent people without due process of law so long as their existence is sufficiently irritating or inconvenient to someone else?

Biden’s answer:

... with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the — the congressman. I — I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.

Ryan's response:

All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

(You can find a full transcript here).

According to Ryan, there is no way (or no reason to try) to separate one’s beliefs regarding the veracity of religious claims from one’s approach to specific policies. For example, if you believe an embryo is a person made in the image of God, and deserving of certain rights, that will undoubtedly influence your approach to abortion. But, according to Biden, there is a way to separate these two. In his view, an elected official must realize that not everyone he or she represents practices his or her religion, and therefore should not have to live according to its dogmas. I think they each make an important point. Allow me to explain.

Ryan’s point cannot be easily dismissed. When Ryan says that he does not see “how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,” he is stating what counts as a fact for many people. Ryan — like many devoutly religious people — honestly and ardently believes that embryos are people, and that abortion is murder. Though I consider that position incoherent and unsupportable, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to believe that, yet sit idly by while thousands of abortions are happening every year. That is simply how belief works: once you accept some proposition as true, you are bound to act on it.

Yay!  I always experience a sensation of great joy in those rare moments when advocates of secularism get this patently obvious point.  Most of them never do, no matter how many times you try to patiently explain it to them.  If you really believe something, you will act according to your beliefs.  Sounds simple and obvious, right?  If secularists could generally grasp this basic point, so many worthless conversations would never happen.  So kudos to Michael De Dora!  (See here for more on this.)

As for Biden, I have a hard time believing that he truly agrees with the Catholic Church on abortion, at least as fervently as Ryan. Me too. But that’s not necessarily what matters here. Biden has a compelling point in regard to making laws in a pluralistic society. While he readily admits that he has religious beliefs, he also realizes that public policy influences the lives of millions of different Americans. As such, he thinks public policy should not be based on his (or anyone’s) religious beliefs, which require a personal leap of faith, but on reasons that are accessible by all Americans.

And here we begin to see the typical Agnostic/Atheist bias creep in.  It is true that laws affect many people, and we have to take everyone's interests into account when proposing laws.  But laws must always reflect some worldview beliefs and imply a rejection of others, because different worldview beliefs lead often to different values and thus different laws.  De Dora seems to suffer under the all-too-common secularist mindset that believes that, somehow, the Agnostic/Atheist worldview beliefs that underlie secularism are neutral, even though they contradict the beliefs of others.

Perhaps it would be valuable here to remind ourselves of what "neutral" means.  "You keep using that word.  I don't think it means what you think it means."  Here is what Merriam-Webster thinks it means:

Definition of NEUTRAL

1: not engaged on either side; specifically : not aligned with a political or ideological grouping neutral nation>

2: of or relating to a neutral state or power <neutral territory>

3a : not decided or pronounced as to characteristics : indifferent

Agnosticism/Atheism contradicts biblical Christianity; therefore Agnosticism/Atheism is not neutral with regard to biblical Christianity.  Secularism contradicts biblical theocracy; therefore secularism is not neutral with regard to biblical theocracy.

Note that De Dora thinks that reasons based on religious beliefs depend upon "a personal leap of faith" and are therefore not "reasons that are accessible by all Americans."  Translation:  Religious beliefs cannot be shown to be true by objective evidence, but are only believed on the basis of subjective speculations/wishes/feelings, etc., and therefore it would be unreasonable to expect all Americans to believe them; and therefore reasons based on them are not objectively reasonable when imposed on all Americans.  Great Agnostic/Atheist thinking!  Once again, we see that it is this kind of worldview (and not the Christian worldview) that is at the base of arguments for a secular civil government.

You’ve probably noticed that Biden’s position does not employ the separation of church and state argument; he uses the pluralistic society argument. I suspect some secularists found Biden’s answer incomplete, but I think the pluralistic society argument could actually be more effective at convincing religious believers to adopt secular policies than a purely church-state argument (though I would note that pluralism is indirectly an argument in favor of church-state separation).

To be clear, I interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as mandating government neutrality on religion. Which is impossible, but De Dora, like most secularists, doesn't see it because he thinks his own worldview beliefs and values are neutral while those of others (like Christians) are not.  Again, "neutral" means "not engaged on either side" or "not taking sides," but clearly De Dora is engaged on one side of a debate over worldviews and the ethical implications that flow from them.  What he really means by "government neutrality on religion" is "government endorsement of my beliefs and values over the beliefs and values of those who think differently" (like me). Government should not favor religion over non-religion, non-religion over religion, or one religion over another. But secularism is a favoring of "non-religion" (that is, Atheism/Agnosticism) over religion by advocating the endorsement of an Agnostic approach over a religious one in law. But there is nothing in the Constitution that states that religious lawmakers are required to leave their consciences at home when they arrive at their respective statehouses. In my view, secularists should realize this, and consider directly rebutting arguments for religiously based laws when they come to the surface, instead of asking politicians to dismiss them as personal or as outright absurd (even if they are). These beliefs are clearly influencing our political system, and should be exposed to critical reasoning.

Now this makes sense!  But it contradicts what De Dora just said before (and what he is going to say later).  If I am a lawmaker and I am not required to leave my conscience at home, then I am going to try to make laws, as much as I legally can, on the basis of beliefs and values that make sense according to my Christian worldview.  My Christian worldview tells me to look to God's law as providing the principles for civil law, and thus I advocate a Christian theocracy.  But when I do this, De Dora and his fellow secularists are going to turn around and tell me to stop on the grounds that I am violating what is fair and equitable by trying to impose my beliefs and values on everyone else!  So can I bring my conscience into lawmaking or not?  Ultimately, De Dora is going to say "not."  That is, although he acknowledges the silliness of telling people to leave their convictions at home when doing public work, he is still part of the group of people who continue to tell people to do just that.

If De Dora really meant what he says here, that all beliefs/values should be welcome in lawmaking on an equal basis, only to be rejected not a priori but on the basis of an examination of specific arguments, he would be an advocate for a much more intelligent conversation over the deep ethical and political divisions in this nation.  It would mean that if I were to propose a law based on biblical teaching, people would not feel they have the right to reject it merely because it is "religious," but only on the basis that it can be shown to be wrong.  But that would be to give up the claim and pretense of "neutrality" and expose Agnosticism and secularism to having to win arguments on a level playing field, which their proponents typically aren't willing to do--and De Dora is no exception.

While we cannot control the reasons people give for their beliefs, we can work to prevent religious-based reasons from entering the debate in the first place, steering political discourse towards secular reasoning. You see?  He doesn't really want people with non-Agnostic/Atheistic worldviews to be able to bring their consciences into their public work and into the debate on a level playing field.  He wants to find a way to exclude them a priori and on principle. How? I think Biden’s pluralistic society argument is instructive here.

As it happens, this argument has been detailed before by a familiar figure: President Barack Obama. As Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”  [1] Ah, but we Christians think our beliefs/values are universal, in the sense that there is objective evidence available so that anybody can know that they are true.  In other words, we are not Agnostics. An example he uses is (oddly enough!) abortion:

If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

People cannot hear the divine voice others claim to hear, nor can they rely on others’ assertions that they have heard God’s voice. Furthermore, most people do not believe in the same holy book. In fact, even adherents to the same religious traditions often disagree over central tenets. And, of course, many people (reasonably, I might add) deny that the supernatural realm exists to begin with.

So here's the basic argument:  People don't all agree that Christianity (for example) is true, that the Bible is the Word of God, or how to interpret the Bible, and so those beliefs and the values based on them are not universal, and so we cannot make public laws based on them.

Well, it is of course quite true that not all people agree with my version of Christianity, my biblical interpretations, or my values based on these.  But it is also quite true that not all people agree with any other point of view, including the Agnostic worldview and the values based on that.  If I cannot base a law against abortion on my religious beliefs/values because those values aren't shared by all, then someone else cannot make a law in favor of abortion on the basis of the assumption that my religious beliefs/values are wrong or cannot be known to be true.

Do you see the problem here?  This argument for secularism is biased and one-sided.  I am not allowed to make a law against abortion based on my religious beliefs because to do so would be to assume that my religious beliefs are true and can be known to be true, and other people don't agree with me on these points.  But it is perfectly acceptable for another person to make a law for abortion on the basis of the assumption that my religious beliefs cannot be known to be true (Agnosticism), even though I and others disagree with that point of view.  We have two contrary positions grounded in two conflicting views of what is true and can be known to be true, but one of these positions is excluded on the basis that not everyone agrees with it while the other position is allowed even though not everyone agrees with it.  If this isn't one-sided and biased, I don't know what is!  This is not neutrality; it is the endorsement by stealth of one set of beliefs and values over others.

If there really is objective evidence available to prove that God wants the society not to tolerate abortion, then clearly what we should do is not tolerate abortion!  Going against the known will of the omnipotent, omniscient creator and ultimate moral authority of the universe would be wicked and foolish!  But if there really is not objective evidence available to prove that God wants the society not to tolerate abortion, then it is not necessarily unreasonable to ignore such an unproven claim and go ahead and tolerate abortion.  What De Dora and other secularists are suggesting is that, in the name of neutrality (!), one controversial position should be adopted and become the basis of law while the other controversial position should be rejected.

I have to ask at this point:  Why does De Dora make an argument like this?  Does he truly, really believe that his position is worldview-neutral?  Does he really believe it is a position that all sides could come together around?  Does he really not see that his position amounts to nothing other than advocating that the government adopt his worldview beliefs/values as the basis of law and reject those held by others?  If so, then, frankly, he exhibits an incredible naivete, but one shared by most of his fellow secularists.  Or does he know very well what he is doing, and this is all an attempt at deception to get his views established in law by stealth rather than by honest, straightforward argumentation (perhaps because he knows his views could never stand up to such an honest debate)?  Or is it something in between?  I don't know.  There is no way for me to tell.

What does the pluralistic society argument mean for religious lawmakers? It doesn’t mean that they cannot hold or even speak about their religious beliefs in political debates. The fact that we live in a highly religious open democracy means that such reasons are bound to appear often. A person’s religious views naturally influence his or her views in politics, and we cannot bar these from entering the discourse. But politicians should also hold to certain practices regarding how to best make public policy. Since laws influence millions of different people who have different values, they cannot be defended by mere reference to a holy book or faith. Public policy must be based on natural world reasons that everyone can grasp and understand. Believe in religion if you like, but also believe that “I can’t make other people live according to my religion; I need to base laws on values that apply to everyone.”

Translation:  "I need to base laws on the practical assumption that Agnosticism is true rather than Christianity or other religions."  In other words, what De Dora is saying is that I need to stop acting as if I have knowledge that Christianity is true and that the evidence for this is available to all when I make laws, even though I actually think that Christianity is true and that the evidence for this is available to all.  I am to put my Christian perspective aside and instead act as if I think that there is insufficient objective evidence available to prove to all that Christianity is true, even though I think this Agnostic view happens to be false.

Note that the issue for De Dora is not simply that Christianity is controversial, although he makes it sound like that is his concern.  I have a nagging suspicion that De Dora is in favor of mandating the teaching of evolution and only evolution in public schools, even though he is fully aware that lots of people don't agree with it.  No, the real argument here is not simply that Christianity is controversial (for it is equally the case that his Agnostic approach is controversial, but that doesn't stop him from advocating that we all adopt it whether we agree or not), but that there is insufficient objective evidence to prove it true to the reason of all (if all would be reasonable and follow the evidence where it leads).  People don't all agree that evolution is true (I know I'm stating that in a rather simplistic way, but it is enough for now), but De Dora doesn't care about that because there is enough objective evidence available that he thinks everyone ought to believe that evolution is true.  But De Dora is greatly concerned that not everyone agrees with Christianity, because he sees dissent in this area as a reasonable dissent, as an Agnostic/Atheist would (and a biblical Christian wouldn't--see Romans 1:18-25, Luke 10:1-16, etc.).  So, again, his entire argument for secularism here is based on the assumption that Agnosticism/Atheism is true and that therefore everyone ought to live like it is true, including when they make controversial laws for all, while the Christian point of view is invalid (because what it claims actually has no support in the evidence) and that therefore it is perfectly fine to ignore it and it certainly should not be imposed on people in law.

At the least, this approach pushes religiously devout lawmakers to consider how they can defend their views on clearer grounds that is, grounds that Agnostics/Atheists would find reasonable and acceptable to all of their constituents. At its best, it will help foster a more reasonable according to Agnostic/Atheist standards public policy.

For Rep. Ryan, this means that it is not enough to simply tell the story of your wife’s childbirth and of the nicknaming of a seven-week-old embryo. If you think beans deserve equal or even more moral and legal consideration than women, you need a better argument than “I looked at an ultrasound and nicknamed what I saw; you should too.”

If you want to restrict abortion, you need to answer questions such as: what does it really mean to say that life begins at conception? Why do you think embryos are persons worthy of moral consideration and legal protection? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to largely control her body and make reproductive decisions with her doctor? If you can’t answer these questions without reference to some religious principle that is, if you can't answer these questions looking at things as an Atheist/Agnostic would, you should think deeply about whether you are fit for public office. In other words, only Atheists/Agnostics and those who act like them are fit for public office.  All in the name of religious neutrality, of course!  : )

Here is a different point of view, and one presented not by stealth in the name of neutrality but straightforwardly and openly, ready to debate opposing views in the battlefield of fair and honest argumentation.


Note: a shorter version of this article first appeared on The Moral Perspective.

[1] Editorial Note: this is essentially John Rawls’ argument, as articulated in his A Theory of Justice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dialogue with a Skeptic

Below is an argument against agnosticism and skepticism, in the form of a dialogue.  More specifically, it is a refutation of the argument that we should all be agnostic skeptics on the ground that we are all fallible and therefore could possibly be wrong.

SKEPTIC:  Do you believe in God?

CHRISTIAN:  Yes, I’m a Christian.

SKEPTIC:  Well, you shouldn’t be, because there is not enough evidence to warrant belief in it.

CHRISTIAN:  Well, I think there is, based on what I have seen.  I think the objective evidence warrants acceptance of Christianity, and in fact warrants no other response.

SKEPTIC:  How do you know the objective evidence warrants that?

CHRISTIAN:  Well, I have looked at the evidence, and that is what it says.  I would be happy to share some of my reasoning with you.  First of all . . .

SKEPTIC:  No, no, that won’t be necessary.  I don’t need to look at your arguments.  I can already tell that they won’t prove what you think they prove.

CHRISTIAN:  Really?  How can you tell that?

SKEPTIC:  Let me ask you this:  Are you fallible, or infallible?

CHRISTIAN:  Do you mean, am I capable of being wrong?  Yes, I am capable of being wrong.

SKEPTIC:  And have you been wrong in the past?


SKEPTIC:  Well, there you go.  Since you admit you are capable of being wrong, and you even admit you have been wrong in the past, therefore you must admit that you could be wrong in your evaluation of your arguments for Christianity.  And therefore you really can’t know whether or not your arguments are any good, and so you should stop asserting things on the basis of them.  So you should stop making the assertion that Christianity is true.

CHRISTIAN:  Well, I admit that insofar as I am a fallible human being, I could potentially be wrong in my arguments for Christianity.  However, I have thought about these matters quite a bit, and it appears to me quite certain that Christianity is true.  So I should continue to believe and assert it.

SKEPTIC:  But you just admitted that you could be wrong!  If you could be wrong, how can you have any basis to claim that you are right?

CHRISTIAN:  My basis is that I have done my best to reasonably examine the evidence, and the conclusion that appears to me clearly to be true is that Christianity is true.  I admit that I have the potential to be mistaken, insofar as I am fallible; but I also assert that all the evidence says that I am not mistaken and that I ought therefore to continue to believe Christianity and assert that it is true.

SKEPTIC:  But if you admit that you could possibly be wrong, then you must admit that you can’t possibly have any basis to claim that you are right.  For if you are capable of being wrong, and you have been wrong in the past, then who knows whether this isn’t one of those occasions where you are wrong?  Who knows whether or not your arguments for Christianity really hold water conclusively?  They may seem to hold water to you, but you could be wrong!  You are fallible!

CHRISTIAN:  Let me ask you a question:  Are you fallible, or infallible?


CHRISTIAN:  I said, are you fallible, or infallible?

SKEPTIC:  Well, I’m fallible, of course.  I’m only human!

CHRISTIAN:  Have you ever been wrong before?

SKEPTIC:  Well, sure I have, lots of times.

CHRISTIAN:  Well then, according to your own reasoning, you have no basis to make any of the claims you have been making to me throughout this conversation.  It may seem to you that there is no basis for a fallible person ever to claim that he is right in any instance, but you are fallible!  You might be wrong!  And so, according to you, you can have no basis for that claim.  And since you must admit, to be consistent, that none of your claims have any basis, why should I pay any attention to anything you have to say?  You yourself tell me that you have nothing to say, and I am not inclined to argue.

SKEPTIC:  Um, well, I, uh . . . Now just a minute!  OK, I agree that I am fallible, and so there is really no basis for me to make any claims.  But it still remains the case that my position is a more modest and reasonable position.  I don’t claim to know that Christianity is not true.  I am merely an agnostic skeptic.  I take no position.  But you, on the other hand, are making a very large and dubious claim!  You are claiming that there is enough evidence to know that Christianity is true!  Since we both admit that we are fallible, and it follows that we don’t really know anything or have any basis to make any claims, it makes sense for both of us to give up making such grandiose claims and just be agnostic skeptics, doesn’t it?

CHRISTIAN:  You’re still doing it.

SKEPTIC:  Doing what?

CHRISTIAN:  Making claims.  You have now said multiple times that you don’t think you have any basis to make any claims since you are fallible.  So why do you keep making claims?

SKEPTIC:  I’m not making any claims!

CHRISTIAN:  Sure you are.  You just claimed not to be making any claims, for one.  And you’ve made a number of other claims.  For example, you have claimed that given the fact that we are all fallible, the rational and modest thing for us all to do is become agnostic skeptics.  That’s a pretty big claim.  You are asking me to give up my entire worldview and embrace a new one on the basis of a claim that you yourself acknowledge that you have no basis to make.  That seems pretty irrational to me.  I mean, here you are getting on to me for endorsing Christianity for insufficient reasons, while you yourself are openly and admittedly endorsing agnostic skepticism for what you admit are no good reasons at all.  If you have no basis to claim that I should not be endorsing Christianity, why don’t you stop asserting it and end this conversation?

SKEPTIC:  OK, you’re right.  I have no basis for any claim that I am making.  But neither do you!  You still haven’t faced that fact!

CHRISTIAN:  You’re doing it again.

SKEPTIC:  Doing what?

CHRISTIAN:  Making claims.  You just made two of them:  You claimed that you have no basis for any of your claims.  And you claimed that I don’t either.  But you yourself admit that you don’t have any basis to make any claims at all.  So why don’t you stop doing it?

SKEPTIC:  OK, let’s approach this a little differently.  Let’s stop talking about my claims.  Let’s focus some attention on your claims.  As I said, I admit that neither of us have any basis to make any claims.  Now, you want to try to twist me all up in a knot here and accuse me of self-contradiction for making claims when I say I have no basis to make claims.  But let’s put that aside for a moment.  What about you?  You are fallible too, and so you have no basis to make any claims.

CHRISTIAN:  Sure I do.  I have lots of good reasons to think that Christianity is true.

SKEPTIC:  But you’ve already granted that you could be wrong!  So how can you continue to assert that you have good reason to think you are right?

CHRISTIAN:  I don’t grant your assumption that only infallible people can ever claim to know anything or be right.  And neither do you, as is evidenced by the fact that you keep making claims as if you do indeed think you can know things even though you are fallible.


CHRISTIAN:  Let me put it this way.  The situation is like this:  I must start with how things appear to me.  What else could I do?  So how do things appear to me?  Well, on the one hand, I see what appears to me to be conclusive evidence proving Christianity to be true.  On the other hand, we have the fact that I am fallible.  Since I am fallible, I have the potentiality of being wrong.  Hypothetically speaking, looking only at my fallibility, it could potentially be the case that the evidence for Christianity is not nearly as conclusive as it seems to me to be (although the evidence clearly indicates otherwise).  But on the other hand, using the same reasoning, since I am fallible, I could potentially be wrong in my assessment that I am fallible.  How do I know that I am fallible?  I might appear to be fallible, but I could potentially be wrong!  No matter what position I embrace, no matter what belief I hold, no matter what assertion I make, since I am fallible (so far as I can tell), I could be wrong.  You are asking me to give up on what appears to me very strong and conclusive evidence on the one hand merely on the grounds that I am fallible and could potentially be wrong.  But, on the other hand, you are asking me to ignore the fact of my fallibility when considering the possibility that your agnostic skeptical conclusion could be wrong.  If my fallibility is important on one side, it must be important on the other side as well (so far as I can tell!), and so the two sides cancel each other out.  If I follow how the evidence appears to me and embrace Christianity, well, I could be wrong!  But if I abandon the appearance of the evidence and instead embrace an agnostic skeptical outlook on the basis that I am fallible, well, I could be wrong about that too!  Since no matter what I believe or do my fallibility will be there, it cancels itself out, leaving me with only one rational choice: to follow the evidence where it appears to me to lead.  And it appears to me, abundantly, to lead to Christianity.

SKEPTIC:  But you could be wrong!

CHRISTIAN:  So could you!

SKEPTIC:  But since you are fallible, you should embrace agnostic skepticism, for that is the only safe, rational, and modest choice!

CHRISTIAN:  So it appears to be to you.  But you could be wrong!  Right?

SKEPTIC:  Well, uh, I . . .

CHRISTIAN:  Look, no matter what course I take, I have only one option:  I must follow the evidence where it appears to me to lead.  If I embrace Christianity, I am doing so because I think that is where the evidence leads.  If I were to embrace your agnostic skeptical view, it would be because the evidence seems to lead me there.  So the agnostic skeptical position is in no better epistemological position than my Christian position.  So there is no advantage to embracing agnostic skepticism, particularly when the evidence seems conclusively to point instead to Christianity.  Or let me put it another way:  If my fallibility is not a problem in coming to the conclusion that I am fallible and that therefore I could be wrong, it cannot be a problem in coming to the conclusion that Christianity is true.  So the argument from fallibility is self-refuting.  If I take it seriously, it refutes itself as well as everything else.  But if it refutes itself, it is refuted and therefore wrong.  If I don't take it seriously, well, then, I don't take it seriously.  Either way, it is merely a phantom and not a real problem in the way of examining evidence and coming to conclusions, such as I have done with regard to Christianity.

SKEPTIC:  But how can this be?  Doesn’t it make sense that fallible beings could not know if they are right?  Doesn’t it make sense that they could not know if they really have a good basis for any of their claims?  Doesn’t the agnostic skeptical position seem to follow from human fallibility?

CHRISTIAN:  On a superficial level, it does seem to make sense.  But on a deeper level, it really doesn’t.  The problem with the skeptical position is that ignores an obvious fact of reality.  It ignores the fact that we really can examine reality and learn truths about it, and that we do this all the time.  Skeptics themselves are actually assuming this very thing, right at the same time they are denying it!  Skeptics are claiming to be describing a true feature of reality that they claim to know—the feature that no one can know anything.  But if it were true that no one could know anything, then no one could know the truth of skepticism either.  So in the very act of asserting that no one can know anything, they are at the same time asserting that people can know things!  Skeptics themselves don’t really believe their own skeptical claims.  And how could they?  They are absurd and contradictory, and they are patently false.  The right way of thinking about things is not "Well, it looks like such and such is true; but I am fallible, and so I could be wrong, and so I cannot come to any conclusions."  This is obviously false and self-refuting.  The right way of thinking about things is rather "So far as I can tell, the evidence seems to be pointing clearly enough in such and such a direction; and therefore, as I ought to follow the evidence wherever it leads as best I can, I ought to embrace that conclusion."  In my case, this means that since, as far as I can tell, I see the evidence clearly pointing to Christianity, I ought to follow that evidence and embrace the conclusion that Christianity is true.

SKEPTIC:  But I'm still bothered by the fact that you could be wrong.  And think of the consequences of being wrong about so important a thing as Christianity!  If you embrace, follow, and promote Christianity, and it turns out to be wrong, you will have caused harm to yourself and many others by leading them to embrace beliefs and follow practices that, if wrong, are harmful.  For example, let's say that Christianity turns out to be wrong.  Christianity says that homosexuality is an evil abomination, and on that basis Christians tell homosexuals that their sexual desires are actually sinful temptations that they need to oppose and that homosexual activity is a sin that they must repent of upon threat of eternal damnation.  On the basis of biblical teaching, Christians oppose the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, thereby preventing many people from being united in marriage to the person they love.  But what if Christianity is wrong, and in actuality there is nothing at all wrong with homosexuality?  In that case, Christians are causing unnecessary and grave pain and suffering to perhaps millions of people all around the world!  Since the stakes are so high, in this and in many other matters, doesn't it make more sense to go the modest, agnostic route and decline to embrace the conclusion that Christianity is true, or at least to publicize such a conclusion, in light of the possibility (however slim it may seem) that you could be wrong in your evaluation of the evidence?

CHRISTIAN:  But you are once again using selective argumentation.  You are failing to see that I could turn around and ask you exactly the same kind of question.  Let's say that the evidence is as it appears clearly to be and Christianity is in fact true.  But you, in the name of modesty and carefulness, have instead taken an agnostic position and refrained from embracing or promoting it.  Since in the Scriptures God commands everyone to embrace and follow his gospel, your position is not neutral; it is the rejection of Christianity.  You are disobeying God's command as it is recorded in the Bible.  Since Christianity is in fact true, you are by your choice of belief and lifestyle dishonoring God (which is the greatest evil) and doing spiritual harm to yourself and others.  Also, failing to promote Christianity or to identify as Christian will have the effect of encouraging other people away from it, particularly if you do what you just talked about and go around affirming unbiblical behavior like homosexuality.  Since Christianity is true, by following this course you are driving others away from God and thus again dishonoring God and also bringing spiritual harm and even eternal harm on other people.  And if it is true, as the Bible indicates, that all human societies are under a moral obligation to follow God's law as it is found in the Bible, then by encouraging the society not to base laws and policies on God's Word you are encouraging the society to dishonor God and encouraging the bringing of God's wrath down on the entire society.  And you are doing all of this on the basis of what is nothing more than a self-refuting, groundless argument!  The evidence clearly points in one way, but instead of following the evidence where it leads, on the ground that humans are fallible you go in the opposite direction and embrace an agnostic point of view, even though your argument from fallibility, if a good argument, strikes just as much against itself and your agnostic approach as it does against the Christian conclusion.  So taking all things into consideration, what you are really advocating is that we refrain from following the evidence where it really seems to lead and instead embrace a conclusion that the evidence points away from for no reason at all, even though if it turns out that the conclusion the evidence is pointing to is actually right you are bringing grave dishonor on God and causing the spiritual and perhaps eternal harm of yourself and possibly (potentially) millions of other people.  That doesn't sound like a modest, careful course to me.  To be blunt, it sounds more like reckless, immoral stupidity.  Surely the only reasonable and wise course to take, all things considered, including one's own well-being and the well-being of others, is to examine the evidence and to follow where it seems to lead.  And that is exactly what I am doing.  And it is what you should be doing too.

SKEPTIC:  Hmmm . . . Well, I do see your point.

CHRISTIAN:  And let me make one more important clarification.  I've acknowledged that, being fallible, I have the potentiality of being wrong.  But we must distinguish between our potentiality of being wrong, as we are fallible creatures, and the objective state of the evidence.

SKEPTIC:  What do you mean?

CHRISTIAN:  Although we are fallible in ourselves, yet in some cases the objective evidence for something can be so strong and evident that we can see clearly that we cannot be wrong in that case.  For example, I make the claim that 2+2=4.  Could I be wrong about that?  Well, simply considering my fallibility, we can always talk about a general potentiality of being wrong.  So you shouldn't take my word for anything as if I were infallible!  However, in the case of 2+2=4, the evidence that it is and must be true is so clear that I can see without a doubt that it must indeed be true and cannot be false.  So, really, I would say that I cannot be wrong about that, not because I am personally infallible, but because the objective certainty in the evidence itself is clear to me.  This sort of thing is what I meant earlier when I said that one of the big problems with the skeptical position that you are advocating is that it ignores an obvious and important fact about reality--the fact that, though fallible, we do indeed have the ability to examine evidence and come to clear conclusions.

SKEPTIC:  OK, granting that we can know that some things are true, such as 2+2=4, surely you wouldn't say that all claims can be made with objective certainty!

CHRISTIAN:  Of course not.  There are things we can know with certainty because the evidence is objectively certain.  There are other things that we can only know to a degree of probability, because the evidence only consists of an analysis of probability.  For example, I got on a bus this morning.  I got on that bus holding the belief that it would not explode.  Now, I would not have claimed to have had objectively certain knowledge that the bus would not explode.  My belief rather was based only on a conviction that it was highly unlikely that the bus would explode.  In the case of 2+2=4, I can see directly that it is true, and so my knowledge is objectively certain.  In the case of the bus not exploding, on the other hand, strictly speaking, all I saw was a statistical probability.  So, strictly speaking, my claim was not that the bus will not explode, but only that it is highly likely that the bus would not explode.  So, strictly speaking, I would not have been wrong if the bus had exploded.  My expectation would have turned out to be wrong, but my actual claim would not have been wrong; for even if the bus had exploded it would still have been true that this was an unlikely event from my vantage point before getting on the bus.  And that was all I was claiming.

SKEPTIC:  So with regard to your claim that Christianity is true--Do you consider that an objectively certain claim, or merely one of high probability?

CHRISTIAN:  I consider it to be objectively certain.

SKEPTIC:  Do you mean that you never, ever doubt that it is true?

CHRISTIAN:  No, I can't say that.  There were times in the past when I was far more troubled by doubts on this score than I am today.  But even today, my level of conviction is capable of wavering from time to time.  We have to distinguish between objective certainty in the evidence and subjective certainty in the believer.  I've known people who have doubted that 2+2=4, and yet it remains clearly the case that this is objectively certain.  Similarly, I can see clearly that the truth of Christianity is objectively certain, even though mood swings, irrational concerns, cloudy thinking, etc., can sometimes make it harder to see than at other times.  On the whole, by the grace of God, I am able to see reality clearly.  And my ability to do this has increased over the years with practice and maturity, thanks to God's preserving grace.

SKEPTIC:  So why do you think Christianity is objectively certain?

CHRISTIAN:  Ah, are we ready to look at some actual arguments now?

SKEPTIC:  I suppose so.  You've given me a lot to think about!

CHRISTIAN:  Very well.  First of all, consider . . .

ADDENDUM 7/21/15:  One of the fundamental mistakes of the skeptical argument is that it makes the unwarranted assumption that a person who can be wrong and who has been wrong before cannot know anything at any given time.  The argument, in addition to being self-refuting and incoherent (how do you even know if you've been wrong before unless you know now that you are right about what you now think you were wrong about before?!), functions as a smokescreen that obscures the evident fact that the validity of any claim at any moment in time is dependent not upon whether the person making the claim has been wrong before but whether the evidence and arguments that currently function as the basis of that claim are adequate to warrant it.  No matter how many times I have been wrong before, even no matter how stupid I may have been in the past, it is completely irrelevant unless right now I am misconstruing the evidence or being stupid.  If I make a claim right now, the only way you can evaluate that claim is to look at the arguments for it right now and see if they hold up.  Of course, if a person has tendency to continually be wrong about certain things, this should raise a healthy skepticism and an intention to examine his arguments for any current claims very carefully, but his wrongness (even continual wrongness) in the past is not sufficient evidence in itself that he is wrong now.

It may be in some cases that we learn from our getting things wrong in the past that a certain method of knowing is not useful and should be abandoned.  But whether that is the case in any given instance must be examined on a case-by-case basis with specific reasoning; we should not discount a method simply on the grounds that someone allegedly using it in the past has come to some wrong conclusions, if it appears upon present examination that we have reason to think that the method applied in the present case is yielding accurate results.  In fact, progress is often spurred on by our learning from the mistakes of the past in order to do better in the future.  A person who is well trained to learn from his past mistakes might be expected to be more likely to be right the next time after being wrong the previous time.

At any rate, the main lesson is this:  We must be specific and careful in our reasoning, and not allow ourselves to be carried to a conclusion by superficial reasoning based on vague generalizations and surface impressions, etc.

ADDENDUM 6/26/17:  See my brief follow-up post here, where I examine why the skeptical argument seems so plausible, despite its obvious fallaciousness.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

Note: The arguments of this paper have now been made in a fuller, book-length version, which can be found here.


In the Nicene Creed, the church confesses that she believes “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Likewise, in the Apostle's Creed, the church confesses that she believes in “the holy catholic church.” In the Reformed world, we are very used to these phrases. But I think that we have not always done a good job at remembering all that they mean.

The word “catholic” means “universal.” In the early church, it also came to have the connotation of “orthodox” as opposed to heretical, and to denominate a true church over against a false one. The idea of the “holy catholic church” is that there is one Body of Christ in the world, and that one Body is the true Body, holding the true faith delivered to it by Christ, over against other bodies which falsely claim to be the Body of Christ and which teach false doctrine or are divided from the true Body by schism. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Christ is the head of his Body, and as Christ is not divided, so neither should his Body be divided. “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)?

This unity of the Body of Christ, the church, has many aspects to it, as we can see from these passages and from the Scriptures in general. There is a unity in the Spirit shared by all believers. Many in the evangelical world today are content to leave it at that. However, biblical unity implies more than this. Christ has appointed not only the Holy Spirit to be with believers, but he has also appointed outward ordinances by means of which he guides and sustains his people through the power of the Spirit. “Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25:3). Church unity is to be manifested not only informally and spiritually, but also by means of an outward, formal unity grounded in a common church government and common sacraments and other ordinances (1 Peter 5:1-5; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

The unity of the church, both in its spiritual and in its outward aspects, goes beyond particular congregations. Believers are not to formally recognize fellowship within their particular congregations, and then forget all about all other Christians in the world. There is a unity of members and officers within particular congregations, and that unity is to be extended between congregations as well. “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:15-16). Although biblical church government does not possess the hierarchy of officers involved in the episcopal system of church government—such as rule by bishops (in the episcopal sense), archbishops, patriarchs, and the like—yet there is a hierarchy that transcends particular congregations. This hierarchy is horizontal rather than vertical, as officers in the church are able to judge other officers in the church. “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Here we have instructions for how to try an elder in a church court, which would be governed by other elders (Matthew 18:15-17). This horizontal exercise of authority does not stop at the local congregation, but continues throughout the whole church in all the world. “Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22). Just as a local congregational session can judge an officer in the congregation, so a regional gathering, or a national gathering, etc., of church officers can judge an officer or a group of officers in a congregation.  The authority of these gatherings is binding on all those who are under the authority of these bodies.  The logic of this pattern of concentric circles does not stop until it reaches the level of the "whole church.”

Of course, what I have just described is nothing less than the classic presbyterian form of church government (as outlined in fuller detail in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government, written up by the Westminster Divines), which Reformed Christians are aware is the biblical pattern of church government. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government (FPCG) describes and gives names to the several concentric circles of church government, or church courts, which are found throughout the whole church:

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical. . . . It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convent, and call before them, any person within their several bounds, whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern. They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church-censures.

Speaking in more detail regarding synodical church assemblies, the FPCG says this:

The scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call Synodical. Pastors and teachers, and other church-governors, (as also other fit persons, when it shall be deemed expedient,) are members of those assemblies which we call Synodical, where they have a lawful calling thereunto. Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and oecumenical. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that there be a subordination of congregational, classical, provincial, and national assemblies, for the government of the church.

(For additional biblical argumentation in support of presbyterian church government, see here.  For further examination of the Westminster Standards as they speak to presbyterian church government and its implications, see here.)


Presbyterian and Reformed churches have generally been good at practicing presbyterian church government at the congregational and classical level. In the early days of the Reformed churches, national assemblies were not uncommon, though today, because of differing relationships between church and state, we seldom hear much about them. Most Presbyterian and Reformed churches today have a higher synodical assembly above the level of congregational session and classis (presbytery) which usually meets on a regular basis, and is often called the “general assembly” or sometimes “synod.” This assembly is typically understood to be the highest court in each denomination. For example, here is how the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) describes the various assemblies of the church:

Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. (FOG XII:2)

The nature of this “general assembly” in modern Reformed churches is curious. What exactly is a “general assembly” supposed to be, and whom is it intended to represent? The OPC, following the typical pattern, says that the general assembly is the assembly of the “whole church” and is the highest judicatory of the church. Is the claim, then, that the general assembly is what the Westminster FPCG calls an “oecumenical” (or “ecumenical”) synod? The word “ecumenical” has a meaning similar to the word “catholic” as well as to the word “general.” They all mean, basically, “universal,” or “pertaining to the whole.” Is, then, the general assembly supposed to be an assembly of the whole church—that is, the entirety of the Body of Christ on the earth?

Here, the answers from modern Reformed churches tend to be a little fuzzy. This is because there is a tension at the heart of much Reformed thinking today. On the one hand, most Reformed denominations don't want to claim to be the whole church—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This generally seems absurdly presumptuous. Instead, each denomination wants to claim to be only one part of the universal catholic church. But this presents a serious problem. According to biblical, presbyterian church government, the government of the church must extend to the whole church throughout the world. The highest judicatory must be the ecumenical council. And that ecumenical council must have binding authority like all other synods, and not be merely “advisory” in nature. So if a particular denomination remains separated from other denominations and proclaims its own general assembly to be the highest judicatory, and yet does not claim itself to be the whole catholic church but only a part of it, what has become of presbyterian church government? It is betrayed. Christ calls for the unity of the whole church throughout the world. If a denomination only claims to be a part of the whole church, why does it divide Christ by remaining divided from the rest of the church with regard to formal unity? This is sinful schism and an embracing of congregational church government (at least beyond the provincial level). On the other hand, if a denomination wants to remain faithful to presbyterian church government and to the preservation of the formal unity of the church, and yet it still wants to remain divided from other denominations, it must, to be consistent, proclaim itself to be the one worldwide catholic church.

Some Reformed denominations, like the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), at least partly relieve the tension by simply abandoning presbyterian church government beyond the provincial level:

The Synod is composed of at least four Classes and represents the whole Church. It is the highest judicatory and the last resort in all cases respecting the government of the Church. (

John 17 is the premiere passage enlisted to prove organizational unity among all believers. The issue in John 17:21 concerns whether the oneness of the invisible and visible church is horizontal or vertical. Is this a command for all Christians to be so united that they strive to create one worldwide church (i.e., the Reformed Catholic Church!), or is the unity primarily with the Triune God? Three significant features emerge: (1) The unity of John 17 is not organizational unity since the unity envisioned is compared to the union of God the Father and God the Son (vv. 11, 21, 22). John 17 is not teaching organizational unity between the Father and the Son. (2) Christ is clearly not praying for horizontal unity but the vertical. The thrust is not that believers may be one with one another. Rather, it is that they may be "kept" (vv. 12, 21). John 17 is fundamentally a prayer for the preservation and thus perseverance of the saints by virtue of their unity with God. (3) It is impossible to consign all Christians in every era into the same visible organizational body. If this is what "all may be one" really means, then Christ's high priestly prayer will never be answered. However, if it means that believers are "kept" by God the Father and God the Son, it is beautifully answered time and time again and in every generation. In every generation of Christians those "kept" are kept because of their union and communion with God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the high priestly prayer of Christ is not a prayer for organizational unity. The world will believe that God has sent Christ not because of a horizontal unity among churches but because of the church's union with the Triune God. (

On the other hand, other denominations, such as the OPC, maintain a commitment to full, worldwide, presbyterian church government:

The church is the body of Christ and there is no schism in the body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:25). As in the human body, there is diversity in unity and unity in diversity (cf. 1 Cor. 12). The point to be stressed, however, is the unity. If there is unity it follows that this unity must express itself in all the functions which belong to the church. Since government in the church is an institution of Christ (cf. Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 1 Pet 5:1, 2), this unity must be expressed in government. The necessary inference to be drawn is that the government should manifest the unity and be as embracive in respect of its functioning as the unity of which it is an expression. A concrete illustration of this principle is the decree of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:28, 29; 16:4).

The ultimate goal of the unity of the church is nothing less than one world-wide presbyterian/reformed church. ( – This is, in general, an excellent document outlining principles of the unity of the church.)

Denominations like the RCUS are more consistent, but they are consistent in opposition to presbyterianism and the genuine unity of the church. Denominations like the OPC are more faithful (at least on paper) to presbyterian church government and the unity of the church, but they are less consistent because they do not want to either proclaim themselves the worldwide catholic church or unite with those others they profess to be other parts of it.

An important distinction needs to be introduced here. Just as we can speak of the church invisible or the church visible, the same church but in different aspects, so we can speak of the church de facto and the church de jure. The church de facto refers to the actual existence of the church throughout the world. Wherever there are those who profess the true religion, and where the Body of Christ is maintained, there we have, in fact, the Body of Christ, the church. There is no doubt but that the Body of Christ, de facto, can exist in a multiplicity of denominations. The church de jure, on the other hand, refers to the church as formally recognized and as being properly and legally constituted. The two are not coextensive. For example, a minister in a church may have an informal friendship with a person who is a non-member of the church. “And yet,” the minister may say, “so far as I can tell, I think he is a true believer.” This is a de facto recognition. On the other hand, the minister (hopefully) has a formal roll of members, and he regards these members in a special way, as those who are formally recognized as being part of Christ's Body, and over whom the minister is formally responsible to function as a shepherd. Similarly, a minister may have an informal relationship with a pastor in another denomination down the street. He may regard this pastor as, in the providence of God, actually functioning as a pastor to a group of Christians. This is a de facto recognition. However, he has a more formal relationship with other ministers who are in his denomination and with whom he is formally united together in a legitimate presbytery. This is a de jure recognition.

It would indeed be presumptuous for any denomination to claim itself to contain within it the entirety of the Body of Christ de facto. This would be to say that there are no regenerate Christians outside of that denomination, and how can anyone possibly have a basis to make such a claim? The claim is evidently false, so far as we can judge such things. However, for a denomination to claim to be the whole church de jure is another matter. As a matter of fact, every denomination either implicitly or explicitly claims this about itself (at least if it holds to a presbyterian view of church government). The very fact of denominational separation implies such a claim on the part of the separated parties. This is evident from what we have already seen. Each denomination has a court of highest appeal, a “general assembly” of some sort. (Even congregational churches have a court of highest appeal, if they have any court at all. They just limit de jure authority to a single congregation because of their commitment to independency. Although, in reality, most congregationalist denominations are not truly fully congregational, as many of them have ministerial associations and other such bodies that sometimes and in some ways function suspiciously like presbyteries and synods.) This general assembly is general because it is regarded as representing “the whole church.” It is, in effect, treated as an ecumenical council. But who is invited to this general assembly and given full voting rights within it? Only the members of that particular denomination. But what does that say? What does it say when a denomination calls a meeting of “the whole church” and yet only includes (as full voting members) officers within that denomination? It clearly communicates the message that that denomination is the whole church, the worldwide catholic church, considered de jure. There is formal recognition of the authority of officers and assemblies within that denomination, but no formal recognition of the authority of officers and assemblies of other denominations. There may be (and often is) a de facto recognition that there are Christians in other denominations, but there is no de jure recognition of the church outside of the denomination. Each denomination, at least implicitly, claims itself to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Christ, considered de jure; and this claim entails that all other denominations are schismatic sects that have cut themselves off from the de jure Body of Christ.1 A recent article on the website of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland puts this well:

Denominational walls are erected on a judicial level and the distinct jurisdiction of church courts is the final and fullest expression of separation. The setting up of rival Church courts from Kirk Session through to General Assembly is an express rejection of the jurisdiction of the Church courts of other denominations and is either schismatic itself or necessarily charges other bodies with the sin of schism. Persisting in such separation is either schismatic or else there is an implicit charge of schism against all those from whom separation is maintained. (


Most Reformed denominations today have grown comfortable with claiming to be only a part of a divided church. Consistency and faithfulness, as we have seen, should drive them either to end their schismatic existences immediately (or at least within a very short period of time), or to come out and declare themselves to be the one holy catholic church de jure. But they do not see the full implications of their continued separate existence. One of the reasons, I think, is that many of them have engaged in certain activities that have tended to function in their minds as substitutes of a sort for full unity. Many of the Reformed denominations in North America, for example, are a part of a group called the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). NAPARC encourages and facilitates a certain degree of dialogue and cooperation between its member denominations, short of full organic unity. On the international scale, many Reformed denominations worldwide are a part of The International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), a similar body to NAPARC but working on a broader scale. These organizations have only an “advisory” character and no binding authority. Because these organizations create the impression of a worldwide group of churches working together happily, they have a tendency to lull members into forgetting that “getting along with each other nicely and informally” is no substitute for full formal unity. Instead of seeing separation as the result of horrendous and sinful schism in the Body of Christ, they come to see the situation as only a “happy, gentle sort of schism” that is not such a big deal.

Another reason, I think, that Reformed churches in the modern day have generally not realized the gravity of what it means to exist as separate denominations is that there has been a lack of taking seriously the full meaning of the authority of church courts. Official courts of the church are not simply a group of wise individuals hanging around giving advice. Church authority is an ordinance of Christ that has his authority behind it.

It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word. (WCF 31:3)

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:15-20)

When a church court, in the legitimate exercise of its authority, comes to a conclusion or makes a practical decision, if that conclusion or decision is in accordance with the Word of God, it has the authority of God behind it. God ratifies it. When a session receives a member into the church, and the act is performed appropriately and biblically, God ratifies it by considering that person to be a formal member of the visible church of Christ, and he holds that individual to the covenant promises involved in that relationship. Likewise in reverse when a session rightfully excommunicates an individual. When a church court pronounces a doctrinal position, or commands a certain practice, and the pronouncement or command is lawful and in accordance with God's Word, the members of that church are under a moral obligation to believe that doctrine or to practice that commanded duty, not only because it happens to be biblical, but also because God has commanded them to do so through his official representatives who are backed by his authority. For “the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2).

Therefore, when a denomination holds a general assembly and excludes officers from other denominations from having a part in it as full voting members, thereby rejecting the claims of those officers to have authority as officers in the church of Christ, if the action of that denomination in doing so is just, legal, and biblical, then God himself ratifies it. Those other officers are rejected as having no authority not only by some human body, but by God himself. On the other hand, if the denomination is rejecting the authority of those other officers unlawfully or for unbiblical reasons, that denomination is guilty of the horrendous blasphemy of abusing the authority of Christ given to it. It has used its God-given position not to do God's will and promote the purity and unity of the church, but to create schism in the church, to rend the Body of Christ into pieces. (It may be doing so in ignorance, but it is still an evil act nonetheless.)

When we understand the awful power granted by God to church courts, we cannot take the act of separating or remaining separated lightly. The fact that there are multiple denominations within the de facto Body of Christ means that many people have much to answer for to God. Let all existing denominations take warning! Realize what an awful claim you are making when you decide whom you will and whom you will not invite to your general assemblies! You are either exercising the de jure power of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, or you are grossly profaning the name of God by abusing your authority to unjustly rend his Body into pieces!


The realization of the true meaning of separation provides us insight into the proper means of promoting the unity of the church. Church unity is not achieved through informal or “fraternal” relationships between divided denominations. Neither is it achieved through a compromised organic union where denominations are brought together by means of watering down commitment to the full truth of God. Both of these, unfortunately, are among the most common methods of trying to promote unity in the church today. But church authorities are not given the option to water down the truth of God for the sake of organic unity. The job of church authorities is to teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). What God commands can never be made optional.  (See here for more argumentation against this idea--typically called latitudinarianism.)

The Bible provides a different model for achieving unity: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). How is unity preserved in the church? By the members and officers of the church “speaking the same thing” and being “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Unity is based on agreement in doctrine and practice.

Our task, then, is to examine the claims, doctrines, and practices of existing denominations. We are to determine which denomination is the purest in doctrine and practice according to the full standards of the Word of God. And we are to look at the history of how the denominations came to be separated. Remember that separation always involves at least implicit claims of divine authority. If a denomination has a right to exist separately, then that denomination is declared by God to have de jure authority to function as the church, while all denominations separated from it are to be regarded as having had their de jure authority revoked (or never granted) by God. We have a moral duty, whether as members or officers, to be joined to and to function within that denomination that has true de jure authority from God. And we have a concomitant moral duty to leave any denomination that has had its authority taken away (or never granted) by God. True unity will be achieved when those who have embraced false teaching and/or are existing in schism from the de jure catholic church of Christ cease to do these things and come back into full union with Christ's rightful church. We should grant that this may take some time, and that it is more practical for some than for others. Some people may not live in an area where there is a de jure congregation. Some people who are currently functioning as officers in a schismatic denomination may have an obligation to the flock that God has providentially placed under their care not to leave that flock without an appropriate shepherd. It certainly would not do for a minister to say, “Well, now that I know that I am in a schismatic denomination, I know that I am not a true de jure minister, and so I will simply cease to show up for Sunday services this week and stop retuning my parishioners' phone calls.” Even apart from the question of the rightfulness of one's authority generally speaking, there are duties that we often have due to providential relationships in which God has placed us. However, while these nuances are real and important, it is also important that they not become excuses for refusing to do our duty. If we are members or officers in schismatic denominations, we have a moral obligation to remedy this situation as soon as it is possible to do so without shirking other duties.

So which existing denomination today is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church de jure? Every one of us must make this examination for himself.  This is an objective question, and it can be answered like any other objective question—by means of weighing claims in the light of the objective evidence.  My position is that it is the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS).  This is not the place for me to go into my own reasons for favoring the claim of the FPCS, but I felt it appropriate to state my leanings.

Whether the de jure catholic church turns out to be the FPCS or some other denomination, this denomination has a moral obligation to state its claim and its reasons for that claim clearly. I think the FPCS has done a much better job of this than any other denomination I have personally been familiar with, but there is still room for improvement. For example, on the FPCS website, it says that the “Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is an evangelical, Calvinistic denomination, reformed in doctrine, worship and practice. It was formed in 1893 and is a mainline descendant of the historic Church of Scotland of the Reformation. As part of the Christian Church, we accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God. We believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith is an accurate statement of the main doctrines of the Bible.” This is a nice description, but surely it falls significantly short of making clear the kind of claim the FPCS is making. The FPCS quite self-consciously considers itself and often explicitly claims to be the rightful heir to the historic Church of Scotland of the Reformation. Although this claim is made clear elsewhere, it is not clear on the front page of their website. (Note: It is now.) But, as we have seen, the FPCS, by existing separately from all other denominations, is claiming not only to be the rightful heir to the Church of Scotland; it is claiming to be the rightful heir to the Church of Christ, considered de jure. If the FPCS believes itself to be only the Church of Scotland, then it has a moral obligation to formally unite immediately with the true de jure churches in other nations. But the FPCS has no formal union with any denomination in any other nation. In addition, the FPCS has congregations in other nations, including Australia, Canada, and the United States of America. The implication of these things is clearly that the FPCS is claiming not only to be the Church of Scotland but the general, worldwide, catholic church of Christ. But if that is its claim, it needs to make this far more explicit and clear than it has done so far. Making its claim more explicit will no doubt make the duty of providing officers and sealing ordinances to be available to people in all other nations a more pressing and present reality as well. (Note: The FPCS has made this more explicit since the time of writing this, such as in their new catechism.)

The Reformed churches need to do a much better job at dealing with the issues pointed out in this article than they tend to do today. In fact, the Reformed churches have often through their history lacked somewhat in their performance in these areas. Even in the early periods of Reformed history, such as at the time of John Knox and the original reformation of Scotland, the Reformed churches have not always had the focus they ought to have had on maintaining the full, worldwide unity of the church of Christ. Let me cite one example of this lack from those early days: In 1566, Theodore Beza of the Reformed church in Geneva, Calvin's successor in the ministry there, sent a letter to the Church of Scotland. In the letter, he gave them a copy of the Second Helvetic Confession that had recently become a popular confession among the continental Reformed churches. In a laudable display of concern for church unity, he wanted the Scottish church to be aware of this confession and to have the opportunity to give their approval to it. The Church of Scotland wrote a letter back to Beza in which they praised the confession with great enthusiasm:

We are therefore altogether compelled, as well by our consciences, as from a sense of duty, to undertake its patronage, and not only to express our approval, but also our exceeding commendation of every chapter and every sentence. For that little treatise rests altogether upon the Holy Scriptures, which we both profess and are prepared to defend at the risk of our lives, or even to the shedding of blood. And we have all of us, as many as by reason of the shortness of the time allowed us, were able to be present, both subscribed our names, and sealed this letter with the common seal of this University. But if you should think that it would be of use to your churches at any future time, we will send you by the first opportunity both the public subscription of this Church, and the formula of our Confession of Faith, confirmed in the Assembly of the Three Estates of the realm.

However, the confession contained one small part in it that the Church of Scotland could not approve of. In chapter 24, it said this:

Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

With regard to this segment of the confession, the Church of Scotland had this to say:

This one thing, however, we can scarcely refrain from mentioning, with regard to what is written in the 24th chapter of the aforesaid Confession concerning the “festival of our Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Holy Ghost upon his disciples,” that these festivals at the present time obtain no place among us; for we dare not religiously celebrate any other feast-day than what the divine oracles have prescribed. Everything else, as we have said, we teach, approve, and most willingly embrace.

This difference in practice between the continental Reformed churches and the descendants of the Church of Scotland continues to this day, and is a significant barrier to full denominational unity. The question that comes to my mind is this: Why wasn't this problem dealt with at the time it became known? The Church of Scotland pointed out dutifully the difference in practice, but why did they not pursue the matter further and try harder to bring unity between the Reformed churches on this matter? And why did Beza and the continental churches not act on the Church of Scotland's expressed concerns? It seems that both churches were content to merely note the difference and then to go along as if nothing important needed to be done about it. If something had been done—if perhaps a formal council had been called to decide the issue, after a period of serious dialogue—perhaps a current barrier to unity between the descendent denominations would not exist today. By now this difference has become so entrenched that it will be perhaps much harder to remove. The Reformed churches were not as universally-minded as they ought to have been in this case.

We can learn a lesson from the past. Let us do even better than our Reformed ancestors did. Let us work to gain and maintain a clear understanding of the proper principles of church unity and authority, and let us put them into practice in our churches, even with regard to the unity of the whole church worldwide. Let us work to better recognize and live the true and full meaning of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

1 It might be objected that there might be a case where a denomination has tried to be united with another denomination and yet that other denomination has refused union. How can it be said to be the fault of the first denomination if union is not achieved? But this is no exception to what has been stated. First of all, if the other denomination is not considered schismatic and its general assembly is considered valid and legitimate, then why don't the officers in the first denomination simply move over to the other denomination and join it, becoming a part of and accepting the rules of its legitimate general assembly? That would solve the unity problem. If the first denomination refused to join into what they regard as a legitimate de jure general assembly and accept its legitimate rules, they would be guilty of schism. On the other hand, if the first denomination feels that it is duty-bound not to join in with and accept the general assembly of the other denomination, but that the officers of the other denomination have a duty to unite with them in their own general assembly, or perhaps in a third joint general assembly, then the failure of the officers of the other denomination to do so should be considered a schismatic act and the first denomination should proceed without them, as they have cut themselves off from the de jure church, leaving the first denomination to be the one worldwide catholic church de jure. So in either case, there will either be a union or a claim to be the one catholic church. If there is no claim by the first denomination to be the one catholic church and the separation continues, the first denomination is declaring itself to be schismatic.

UPDATE (10/5/12):  See here and here for related earlier blog articles.  And see here for a much briefer version of the main argument of the article.  And see here for a fuller, book-length version of the argument.

UPDATE (10/15/12):  As an illustration of how the Reformed churches have historically understood the need to have full formal unity of the church throughout the world, culminating in the ability to have binding ecumenical councils, see this selection from the Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland (1578) below.  Note how the Church of Scotland recognized the presbyterian nature of church government and how it implies concentric circles of binding authority all the way up to the level of the entire church of Christ in all nations.  This biblical model of the unity of the church is distorted when denominations treat their own general assemblies as the highest judicatory while failing to claim themselves to be the worldwide catholic church de jure.

Chapter 7 - Of the Elderships, and Assemblies, and Discipline
  1. Elderships and assemblies are commonly constituted of pastors, doctors, and such as we commonly call elders, that labour not in the word and doctrine, of whom, and of whose several power has been spoken.
  2. Assemblies are of four sorts. For, either are they of particular kirks and congregations, one or more, or of a province, or of a whole nation, or of all and diverse nations professing one Jesus Christ.
  3. All the ecclesiastical assemblies have power to convene lawfully together for treating of things concerning the kirk, and pertaining to their charge. They have power to appoint times and places to that effect; and at one meeting to appoint the diet, time, and place for another.
  4. In all the assemblies a moderator should be chosen (by the common consent of the whole brethren convened) who should propose matters, gather the votes, and cause good order to be kept in the assemblies. Diligence should be taken, chiefly by the moderator, that only ecclesiastical things be handled in the assemblies, and that there be no meddling with anything pertaining to the civil jurisdiction.
  5. Every assembly has power to send forth from them of their own number, one or more visitors to see how all things are ruled in the bounds of their jurisdiction. Visitation of more kirks is no ordinary ecclesiastical office in the person of one man; neither may the name of a bishop be attributed to the visitor only; neither is it necessary to abide always in one man's person; but it is the part of the eldership to send out qualified persons to visit pro re nata.
  6. The final end of all assemblies is, first, to keep the religion and doctrine in purity, without error and corruption; next, to keep comeliness and order in the kirk.
  7. For this order's case, they may make certain rules and constitutions appertaining to the good behaviour of all the members of the kirk in their vocation.
  8. They have power also to abrogate and abolish all statutes and ordinances concerning ecclesiastical matters that are found noisome and unprofitable, and agree not with the time, or are abused by the people.
  9. They have power to execute ecclesiastical discipline and punishment upon all transgressors and proud contemners of the good order and policy of the kirk; and so the whole discipline is in their hands.
  10. The first kind and sort of assemblies, although they are within particular congregations, yet they exercise the power, authority, and jurisdiction of the kirk with mutual consent, and therefore bear sometimes the name of the kirk. When we speak of the elders of the particular congregations, we mean not that every particular parish can, or may, have their own particular elderships, especially to landward; but we think three or four, more or fewer, particular kirks may have one eldership common to them all, to judge their ecclesiastical causes. Albeit this is meet, that some of the elders be chosen out of every particular congregation, to concur with the rest of their brethren in the common assembly, and to take up the delations of offences within their own kirks, and bring them to the assembly. This we gather from the practice of the primitive kirk, where elders, or colleges of seniors, were constituted in cities and famous places.
  11. The power of these particular elderships is to give diligent labours in the bounds committed to their charge, that the kirks be kept in good order; to inquire diligently of naughty and unruly persons, and travail to bring them in the way again, either by admonition, or threatening of God's judgments, or by correction.
  12. It pertains to the eldership to take heed that the word of God be purely preached within their bounds, the sacraments rightly ministered, the discipline rightly maintained, and the ecclesiastical goods uncorruptly distributed.
  13. It belongs to this kind of assembly to cause the ordinances made by the assemblies provincial, national, and general, to be kept, and put in execution; to make constitutions which concern to; prevpon[2] in the kirk, for the decent order of these particular kirks where they govern; providing they alter no rules made by the general or provincial assemblies, and that they make the provincial assemblies foreseen of these rules that they shall make, and abolish them that tend to the hurt of the same.
  14. It has power to excommunicate the obstinate.
  15. The power of election of them who bear ecclesiastical charges pertains to this kind of assembly, within their own bounds, being well erected and constituted of many pastors and elders of sufficient ability.
  16. By the like reason their deposition also pertains to this kind of assembly, as of them that teach erroneous and corrupt doctrine; that are of scandalous life, and, after admonition, desist not; that are given to schism or rebellion against the kirk, manifest blasphemy, simony, corruption of bribes, falsehood, perjury, whoredom, theft, drunkenness, fighting worthy of punishment by the law, usury, dancing, infamy, and all others that deserve separation from the kirk. These also who are found altogether insufficient to execute their charge should be deposed; whereof other kirks would be advertised, that they receive not the persons deposed.
  17. Yet they ought not to be deposed who, through age, sickness, or other accidents, become unmeet to do their office; in the which case their honour should remain to them, their kirk should maintain them; and others ought to be provided to do their office.
  18. Provincial assemblies we call lawful conventions of the pastors, doctors, and other elders of a province, gathered for the common affairs of the kirks thereof; which also may be called the conference of the kirk and brethren.
  19. These assemblies are instituted for weighty matters, to be treated by mutual consent and assistance of the brethren within the provinces, as needs requires.
  20. This assembly has power to handle, order, and redress all things omitted, or done amiss, in the particular assemblies. It has power to depose the office-bearers of that province for good and just causes deserving deprivation. And, generally, these assemblies have the whole power of the particular elderships whereof they are collected.
  21. The national assembly, which is general to us, is a lawful convention of the whole kirks of the realm or nation where it is used and gathered for the common affairs of the kirk; and may be called the general eldership of the whole kirk within the realm. None are subject to repair to this assembly to vote but ecclesiastical persons, to such a number as shall be thought good by the same assembly; not excluding other persons that will repair to the said assembly to propose, hear, and reason.
  22. This assembly is instituted, that all things either omitted or done amiss in the provincial assemblies may be redressed and handled; and things generally serving for the weal of the whole body of the kirk within the realm may be foreseen, treated, and set forth to God's glory.
  23. It should take care that kirks be planted where they are not planted. It should prescribe the rule how the other two kinds of assemblies should proceed in all things.
  24. This assembly should take heed that the spiritual jurisdiction and the civil be not confounded to the hurt of the kirk; that the patrimony of the kirk be not diminished nor abused; and, generally, concerning all weighty affairs that concern the weal and good order of the whole kirks of the realm, it ought to interpose authority thereto.
  25. There is, besides these, another more general kind of assembly, which is of all nations and estates of persons within the kirk, representing the universal kirk of Christ; which may be called properly the general assembly, or general council of the whole kirk of God. These assemblies were appointed and called together specially, when any great schism or controversy in doctrine did arise in the kirk, and were convoked at the command of godly emperors, being for the time, for avoiding of schisms within the universal kirk of God; which, because they appertain not to the particular estate of one realm, we cease further to speak of them. 
UPDATE 5/10/13:  The FPCS has recently released a new catechism of its distinctive principles that deals with the subject of the international catholicity of the church and other issues of church unity and schism.

UPDATE 7/29/13:  A few more reading resources (in addition to articles and books already cited):

The Unity of the Church, by Thomas M'Crie

The Due Right of Presbyteries, by Samuel Rutherford (this can be found as one of the books linked to here)

Undoing the Reformation: Schism, by Matthew Vogan

A Vindication of the Essence and Unity of the Church-Catholick Visible (1658), by Samuel Hudson

UPDATE 8/12/13:  The OPC Form of Government, Chapter III, articulates a beautiful description of the collegiate nature of church authority in presbyterianism.  No room for multiple independent denominations here!  De jure officers do not function independently, but exercise their rule jointly as part of an eldership ruling over the entire church.  Therefore, to exclude certain men (such as officers from other denominations) from having a place at the table in the governance of the whole church is to treat them as having no de jure authority as officers in the church.

Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.

UPDATE 8/21/13:  Here is a brief numbered argument to spell out further my core contention:

1. In biblical presbyterianism, the church is to be one in formal unity through all the world, and the rule of the eldership is collegial in nature.  That is, no elder rules independently.  Elders rule in conjunction with other elders in church courts, and all legitimate, active elders have an inherent right and responsibility as a part of their authority to function as part of the courts of the church.  And no church court is independent, but all church courts have an inherent right and responsibility as part of their lawful authority to function in communion with each other under mutually-binding higher councils (sessions under presbyteries, presbyteries under synods, etc.) going all the way up to an ecumenical council of the whole catholic church.

2. Therefore, it is morally obligatory on all parties that all officers and church courts function collegially as described.  That they function in this way is not simply a nice goal, or an ideal to hope for someday, but is an essential requirement inalienably involved in the very concept of church authority, in the same way that submitting to husbands is an inherent part of the role of wife and caring for the wife is an inherent part of the role of husband.  Churches cannot opt out of this arrangement, citing non-ideal circumstances as an excuse, any more than churches can opt out of the prohibition against the worship of images or any other command of God.

3. Therefore, when presbyterian churches function separately in independent denominations, not united under mutually-binding councils, it is necessarily implicit in this that they are rejecting the de jure legitimacy and authority of each others' officers and church courts, for they are refusing to treat the church courts of the other denominations as would be required if they had de jure legitimacy and authority.

4. When de jure church courts act justly in the proper exercise of their responsibilities, their decisions and resolutions possess divine authority, for they have true authority delegated from Christ.

5. Therefore, when a denomination possessing de jure authority refuses to enter into union with another denomination under mutually-binding councils (thus rejecting the de jure authority of the other denomination), and it is acting justly and appropriately in so doing, its rejection of the other denomination's de jure authority is backed by divine authority, and thus it is an objective fact that the justly rejected denomination from that point on does not possess de jure legitimacy and authority, and therefore should not be treated as if it possessed such authority.

6. Therefore, with regard to the various currently existing presbyterian denominations, their separation from each other entails their rejection of each others' de jure authority.  Therefore, whichever of these denominations has the best claim to a right to separate existence should be joined with by Christians, unless all of them are beset with such doctrinal and/or practical error that there is a need to set up a new denomination.

For the most part, points #1 and #4 introduce the substantial ideas, while the other points simply follow logically from these.

UPDATE 4/27/14:  Here are a couple of relevant comments from Rev. James Porteous from his book, The Government of the Kingdom of Christ (pp. 322-323):

Presbytery is the proper manifestation of the unity of the Church. Let these principles of associated representative government be logically and fully embraced, and its range must be commensurate with the entire Church. It cannot stop with nations, it must embrace the world. The visible Church can no more be restricted to nations, or partitioned among these as separate and independent portions, than may the congregations of a locality. The Church is one in all the earth. . . .
Then the assembly at Jerusalem was not local, not even national—it was universal. Not only the Jewish nation, Syria, and other lands—yea, by the apostles, ‘all nations’ were represented in that assembly. If that example be refused as a model for a universal assembly, it must also be refused as a model for any. Decline to entertain the question as to an assembly for the world, as there exemplified, and all authority for national and local synods is removed. If this be so, then this is the model to which the Church must ever seek to conform.

UPDATE 6/9/14:  Here is a well-articulated comment from church historian James Walker:

The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all . . . This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century.' (James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland. Edinburgh: Knox Press, [1888] 1982. Lecture iv. pp.95-6.)