Monday, January 28, 2013

Empiricism and a Sloppy Failure to Define Terms Consistently

Empiricism dominates the academic world today, as well as the atheist sub-culture.  But it survives only by ignoring basic rules of good thinking, such as the requirement that we define carefully all our terms and remember the meanings of the things we are saying when we are saying them, etc.

Here is a case in point:  I have just been having a conversation with some of my empiricist friends (a conversation much like many others I have had in the past) in which they are trying to convince me that logical reasoning cannot provide any knowledge of the world beyond that which can be produced by empirical means.  My basic argument to the contrary--that logic and reasoning can provide information about reality beyond that which empirical methods can deliver--can be found here and here.  (My position is called rationalism--not to be confused with the sort of rationalism that means a denial that God is necessary to explain or understand the universe, mine is a more technical, epistemological use of the term, such as that discussed here.)

I provided to my friends an example of how rationalistic methodology can provide information about the universe not available by empiricist methods:  Take the concept of an infinite past--the idea that there was no beginning to the space-time universe, that the past extends forever back into, well, the past, that an infinite amount of time has already passed as of this present moment.  Empirically, we probably don't have the means necessary to determine whether or not the past could be infinite.  To know that, we might have to have seen the beginning of the universe ourselves, or at least to have seen many other universes begin and so make some kind of inductive argument that it is highly likely that this universe has begun as well.

However, an analysis of the basic concepts involved in the idea of an "infinite past" provides us with further information here.  When we look at the concepts of "infinite" and "past," we can see that the two are contradictory.  The concept of "infinite"--as used in this context--involves the idea of an unlimited number of something.  So an infinite row of fence posts, for example, would mean a row of fence posts where there are an unlimited number of fence posts in the row.  Now, one of the inherent ideas involved in the concept of "infinite" is "untraversability."  It is impossible to traverse an infinite, because, by definition, whatever one can traverse is necessarily finite (limited).  If I were to propose that I am now about to begin a journey of walking past all the fence posts in my infinite row of fence posts, when would you expect my journey to be complete?  Never, of course.  The journey could never be complete, because if it ever was, if there ever came a time when I had completed my task of walking past the infinite number of fence posts, it would prove that the number of fence posts was not infinite after all but finite.  One cannot ever finish walking past an infinite number of fence posts.  Infinites are inherently untraversable.

Now let's look at the concept of the "past."  What is the "past," exactly?  The idea is that the space-time universe is on a timeline, and that we are currently at some point on the timeline (that current point would be, of course, the present), and that part of the timeline extends ahead of us and has not yet happened (this would be, of course, the future) while another part of the timeline extends behind us and has already occurred (this would be, of course, the past).  We can see, then, that the concept of the "past" inherently involves the idea of "traversability"--and more than that that, it inherently involves the idea of "having in fact been traversed."  That is, the past has already been traversed by the universe.  The universe has already been through the whole past and all its parts.  The past has been traversed.

Now we can see clearly why the past cannot be infinite.  Since "infinite" necessarily involves "untraversability" while the "past" inherently involves "traversability" and even "having been traversed," the idea of an "infinite past" would inherently involve the idea of an "untraversable traversed thing"--a clear contradiction.  The concepts of "infinite" and "past" necessarily, logically, exclude each other.  Therefore, there can be no such thing as an "infinite past."  Therefore, the past cannot have been infinite.  Therefore, it is finite.  Therefore, there is a beginning to time and thus to the space-time universe.  (Of course, this observation brings up more interesting questions that I won't go into here but which I go into in chapter three of Why Christianity is True, particularly the section on "Deeper Philosophical Issues.")

Now, I shared this example with my empiricist friends, and here is basically what they said.  No, one better:  Here is exactly what one of them said:
Just because we have accepted clear definitions of words does not mean we actually have a correct or comprehensive understanding of the concept the word seeks to represent. So while your logical argument about "past" and "infinite" being mutually contradictory seems logical, how do you know those are accurate reflections of reality to begin with?

Our entire understanding of space-time has been utterly revolutionized at least once and further discoveries will likely alter our knowledge further.
This response provides a clear example of the sort of confusion that tends to plague empiricists.  Basically, what this person is saying is this:  "OK, so you have a clear idea of what you mean by 'past' and 'infinite' and can see that those concepts are contradictory.  But how do you know that your concepts of 'past' and 'infinite' line up with reality?  How do you know that your concept of the 'past' and your concept of 'infinite' match the reality of these things?"

This is just like if I had said that red and blue exclude each other so that to the extent that something is red it cannot also be blue, and the response had been, "Well, sure, your concepts of 'red' and 'blue' exclude each other, but how do we know that real red and blue fit into your concepts of 'red' and 'blue'?"  How do we know?  We know because if something doesn't fit into my concept of "red," for example, then, by definition, it isn't red!  It is absurd to speak of red things that might not fit into the concept of "red."  If these things do not fit into the concept of "red," that is the same as to say they are not red!  The problem here is that the meaning of the word "red" is being forgotten.  The arguer is confusedly thinking that when he mentions real red things, he has somehow moved beyond the confines of the word "red."  But of course he hasn't, since he is still using the word.  As long as he is going to keep talking about "red things," he is necessarily bound to the concept of "red."  His "red things" must be "red"--that is, they must fit into the concept of "red."  The arguer is thinking he can keep using the word while transcending and abandoning its essential meaning.

The same thing is going on with regard to the concepts of "past' and "infinite."  My friend thinks he can talk about some real past or some real infinite that goes beyond and might be essentially different from the meaning of the concepts of "infinite" and "past."  But since he is still using the words, he cannot escape the basic meaning of the concepts.  Just as we cannot meaningfully talk about red things that don't fit into the essentials of the known category of "red", so we cannot meaningfully talk about an "infinite past" which does not fit into the essentials of the categories of "infinite" and "past".  The problem here is a simple failure to keep a clear definition of terms, one of the most basic elements of clear thinking.  You cannot keep using a word while leaving behind its essential meaning.  Of course, you can redefine words if you want.  We could redefine "infinite" to mean "really neat" or something like that, and then I will grant that there is no logical problem with having an infinite past.  But that is, in fact, not what the word "infinite" normally means, and it is not the way I am using it in my original example, and so it is equivocation to change its meaning without notice.  It certainly would also be permissible to say something like this:  "OK, so we can't have an infinite past.  But maybe there is something out there which is not an infinite past, because it doesn't fit the definitions of 'infinite' and past'--let's therefore call it a zondula, since we don't know anything about it--and maybe it can exist."  OK, I'll grant that maybe zondulas exist, since I have no idea what a zondula is.  But now we've simply changed the subject and ignored my point--which is that an infinite past cannot exist.

Certainly, there is no doubt much still to be learned about the universe, the things in it, how it works, etc.  But our words and concepts have definite meaning and content, and as long as we are going to refer to them, we cannot consistently simply abandon or forget that definite meaning and content.  We do know what we basically mean by "past" and "infinite"; otherwise, these words would be meaningless gibberish, like "zondula."  But they aren't, and so their actual content must be remembered when we use them.

Empiricism survives only so long as basic semantic confusion and the sloppy thinking that accompanies it survives.  Once clear thinking and clear defining of terms comes to be practiced consistently, empiricism must disappear and rationalism will take its place.

Empiricism and Categorical Knowledge

The paper below is Appendix I from my book, Why Christianity is True. 

The purpose of this paper is to show that it is possible to have real knowledge about reality that is universally applicable. Most importantly, it is possible to know that logic is universally valid and applies universally. This is important, because the arguments for the existence of God that are used in this book, and have been used through the centuries, are to a great extent logical in form. That is, they attempt to show that God is logically necessary and that to deny God is illogical. If logic is universally valid, this argumentative method is legitimate. If it is not, they are not. Some have challenged the universal applicability and legitimacy of logic, and so I felt a need to show how logic’s universality can be conclusively defended. And that is what this paper tries to do. It was written with a philosophical audience in mind, but is certainly understandable to anyone who wishes to put in the effort it takes to think about these issues.

I should also add that my terminological habits have changed a bit since I wrote this paper. I used to distinguish between broad empiricism (the idea that we can learn truth not just through the senses but through reason and logic--the view I am defending in this paper) and narrow (or na├»ve) empiricism (the idea that we cannot use logic and reason to establish truth but are dependent only on our senses in a more crude, everyday sense). What I used to call “broad empiricism” I now tend to call “rationalism,” and I tend now to use the word “empiricism” to refer to what I used to call “narrow empiricism.” Of course, these terminology changes don’t make any difference as to the substance of my arguments.


It is often assumed that in order to have categorical knowledge, one must have access to what is frequently called “a priori” knowledge. Empirical knowledge is not sufficient. “Categorical knowledge,” as the term will be used in this paper, is knowledge that is universal, knowledge that can affirm something to be universally the case or exclude something from being the case anywhere in universal reality. “A priori” knowledge refers to knowledge that is gained prior to or apart from all experience. “Empirical knowledge” is knowledge that is gained through experience.

It is a frequently-held position that empirical experience can only provide a very limited, non-universal view of things. For example, empirical experience can lead one to observe a connection between a particular kind of event occurring and some other particular kind of event that always occurs before it. When the sun comes up, the earth is filled with significantly more light and heat than it was before the sun came up. In our experience, this happens all the time, so we feel we can count on it and call it a universal, categorical law. However, it seems that no matter how many times we observe this connection, we cannot strictly speaking say that we know it must always happen. We can suspect that the connection will always exist, but we could not prove it unless we could personally observe the sun coming up everyday throughout time. Any other example of cause-and-effect would be subject to the same limitations. The laws of logic in general are frequently thought to be underivable from empirical experience, because even though we observe existing objects acting in logical ways whenever we watch them, we can never get from there to being sure they must act in these ways even when we are not observing them. Therefore, it is frequently concluded that empirical knowledge is incapable of grounding truly categorical, universal knowledge.

This supposed lack of ability of empiricism to ground categorical knowledge has important implications. Categorical knowledge is essential to human knowledge in general. Without categorical knowledge, one cannot know that the laws of logic are valid; but the laws of logic are foundational to all knowledge. If A does not exclude non-A, no propositions can have any meaning at all. This is true of both high metaphysical propositions as well as everyday propositions about the immediate physical world around us.

There are two directions taken by those who are convinced that empiricism cannot ground categorical knowledge. One direction is to continue to affirm the validity of categorical knowledge but to attempt to ground it in a priori ways of knowing. The other is to abandon belief in the validity of categorical knowledge and therefore, in effect, all real knowledge whatsoever.

The main purpose of this paper is to argue that the belief that empirical experience cannot ground categorical knowledge is mistaken. It is important to show this because a priori foundations of knowledge simply do not work, and therefore we are left with either empiricism or skepticism.

There can be no such thing as a priori knowledge. A priori knowledge, by definition, would be knowledge that is attained apart from any experience. But “experience” is simply “contact with reality.” To gain information “from experience” simply means to gain information from reality. Knowledge is knowledge of reality. A propositional claim is a claim about reality. The only way to tell if a claim is “true” (in other words, if it matches up with reality) is to compare the claim with reality, which implies a perception of (or experience with) reality in some way or another. There is simply no other way to verify the truthfulness of any claim or belief. Without contact with reality—experience—it is impossible to know what is true.

We can see this even more clearly if we look at a couple of examples of ways in which some have suggested we might gain a priori knowledge. One popular idea is the way of innate knowledge. “Innate knowledge” would be knowledge that is simply built into us as a part of who we are, not derived from any experience with the world. For example, we can suppose that “two plus two equals four” is a piece of innate knowledge. In that case, we know that two plus two is four because we were born knowing it, not because we have learned it through any sort of contact with reality. It seems at least theoretically possible that humans might be born with innate beliefs. But how would we know that our innate belief that two plus two is four is really true? How would we know it is not just a concept in our heads but actually matches up with reality? Just being born with it as a belief is no guarantee. We might reason that we would not have been born with the belief if it wasn’t true, but why would we assume this? What evidence do we have that this is the case? Is this belief also simply born with us? If so, how do we know that it is true? Do we have some kind of evidence that innate beliefs tend to be true, such as having observed a track record of innate beliefs matching up with reality? But this would be an empirical argument, grounding the reliability of the innate belief in empirical observation, and therefore giving up the argument for a priori knowledge. Either way, we come to the same conclusion: Apart from some kind of verifying contact with reality, we have no basis to conclude that our innate beliefs, if we have any, match up with reality and are therefore true. Innate beliefs therefore cannot constitute innate a priori knowledge.

Another popular idea about how we might come to possess a priori knowledge is that we can gain it by intuition. But “intuition” is a vague and nebulous concept. Sometimes “intuition” can be grounded in subconscious observation. For example, someone might say that he has a “bad feeling” about going down a certain street even though he doesn’t know why, but upon reflection he might realize that there are a number of observational clues that he is picking up subconsciously that are prejudicing his mind against that particular street. In this case, intuition is quite empirical, so it has nothing to do with establishing a priori knowledge. There are also ways of construing “intuition” that are not empirical at all. But we can ask the same question here we asked with regard to innate knowledge: How can an intuition be known to be true, and thus be real knowledge, apart from experience with reality? If Janet has an intuition that Brad is a really bad guy, but she has no input from reality at all that would verify this claim, how can she know it is true? She holds the belief, but without any access one way or another to the reality that her belief is about—the character of Brad—her intuition must be groundless. It might turn out to be true, but that would be only a coincidence. Intuition is often claimed as the source for very grandiose claims about the nature of the universe. For example, many people, including many philosophers, base ethical claims on intuition: “How do I know that stealing is wrong? I just know!” But this is very unsatisfactory. It may be that those who make such claims really do have good reasons for believing them, but if these reasons are good they must be based on some kind of verification derived from contact with reality. If they are truly non-empirical in nature, they have no evidential support whatsoever, and so are empty claims that cannot command assent.

So we must conclude that knowledge cannot be had apart from a foundation in empirical experience. Whatever methods of obtaining a priori knowledge we look at, they all have the same basic problem: A priori knowledge is an inherent impossibility, because without contact with the reality our beliefs are about (whether direct or indirect) there can be no verification and hence no knowledge. Many would conclude that total skepticism is our only option at this point. But this is not the case. Empiricism is quite capable of filling the role of grounding categorical, universal knowledge.


As we noted at the beginning of this paper, “categorical knowledge” would be a knowledge that certain concepts or characteristics are universally the case. That is, we have categorical knowledge if we can know that certain characteristics apply to all reality, to all real being. To know that the laws of logic are valid would be a form of categorical knowledge because the concept of “the laws of logic” implies that certain logical principles are applicable to all being everywhere.

Not surprisingly, our human ability to categorize is helpful to us in trying to get at such universal knowledge. And categorization can be empirically based. For example, take the concept of red. Our concept of red is derived from our experience in perceiving red. We can perceive the color red in our imaginations, and we can perceive it in the external world. Of course, we never see merely “redness” abstracted from actual red objects. Even in the ideas of our imagination, “redness” is always accompanied by other physical characteristics, such as extension. That is, we are always imagining a certain red object of a certain size and shape. (Even a pure “wall” of red in the mind is a determinate object. We can see this by altering our idea so that we see half blue and half red. The fact that our red “wall” can be thus divided in half indicates its determinate form.) However, even though we cannot perceive “redness” by itself, we can abstract it theoretically as a characteristic from other characteristics like extension. That is, we can talk about “redness” and “extension” as two different concepts. We can do this because although redness always appears in conjunction with extension, they are empirically distinct ideas. We can have two objects equal in their degrees and kinds of redness while differing in their physical shape and size.

Since we can conceive of the distinct empirical characteristic of redness, we can examine the idea and see what sorts of inherent qualities it possesses. One obvious quality that redness possesses is the quality of not being blue. “Blueness” is another empirical characteristic, distinct from redness. Since they are empirically distinct, they are not the same thing. Therefore, they empirically exclude each other. Insofar as something is blue, it is not also red. If something is all blue, it must contain no red. If something is only partly blue, it might also be partly red; but it cannot be red in the same places that it is blue. It is the fact that empirical characteristics are distinct from each other, each possessing its own intrinsic nature, that allows categorization to take place. Since we know what red looks like, we can talk about the category of “red things.” We can distinguish this category from the category of “blue things.” This sort of categorization, based purely on empirical observation, gives us access to universal knowledge. If we know what the essential characteristics of redness are, we know that whatever is red, whatever fits into the category of “red things,” will exhibit those characteristics. If an object doesn’t exhibit those characteristics, it simply isn’t a red thing. We don’t have to travel through the entire universe to confirm that every particular red thing exhibits those characteristics; we already know based on the essential characteristics of “redness” that all red things, even things that we will never have the opportunity to observe, will exhibit those characteristics.

Now, let us apply this same reasoning to the category of “being.” “Being,” like “redness,” is an empirically-based category. We derive it from our perception of ideas, both ideas originating in our imaginations and ideas originating from the external world. Since “being” is a category, we can examine it to see what essential characteristics beings have, just as we examined the category of “redness” to determine some of the characteristics of red things. In other words, our question is, What sorts of characteristics make us put something into the category of being? Perhaps the most basic characteristic of beings is that beings have positive characteristics. This distinguishes being from the category of non-being, or nothing. Non-being possesses no positive characteristics. It has no particular shape, size, color, nor any other particular quality at all. So the concept of a “being” is the idea of something that possesses certain particular qualities. We can derive two characteristics from this idea: Beings will be distinguished from non-being by having some particular qualities; and because they have some particular qualities, all beings will be not only something but something in particular. The concept of “being” includes in it the idea of “being something in particular.” The idea of “being,” since it reduces to the possession of characteristics, cannot be abstracted from some particular set of characteristics. It is meaningless to talk about characteristics that have no particular characteristics.

Attributing positive characteristics to members of the category of beings distinguishes being from non-being. It also distinguishes particular beings from other particular beings. An apple is a being because it manifests certain particular positive characteristics: It is red, round, relatively small (compared to, say, an elephant), etc. This distinguishes an apple-being from non-being, which is not red, round, or small, or anything else; and it distinguishes it from non-apple beings like elephants, which have a different set of characteristics—in the case of elephants, relatively large (compared to an apple), not round, grayish in color, etc.

So we can see that “being,” like “redness,” is an empirically-derived category that has certain essential characteristics. Just as the essential characteristics of redness will apply to any member of the category of redness, wherever it may be found, so the essential characteristics of the category of being will apply to any member of the category of being, wherever it may be found. But the category of being is coextensive with the category of “things that exist” and the category of “reality,” for these are all the same category. “Existence” and “reality” are synonyms of “being.” Therefore, we can conclude that the essential characteristics of the category of being will apply to universal reality. All real things everywhere will possess the characteristic of having particular characteristics and will therefore be distinguished from non-being and from each other. All things that exist will be as opposed to not being, and they will be what they are as opposed to being something else. But notice that these characteristics are nothing more nor less than what we call the “laws of logic”: A is not non-A. Therefore, by examining the empirically-derived concept of being, without bringing in any a priori ideas, we can conclude that the laws of logic apply universally. We have empirically established categorical knowledge.

An objection might be raised at this point: Perhaps we have proven that the category of being includes certain essential characteristics, and thus that any member of this category will possess those characteristics; but how do we know that our category of being is coextensive with reality itself? Perhaps nothing fits into our conception of “being” which does not exhibit the principles of logic, but what if there are beings beyond our conception of being? What if something exists which we cannot conceive and which therefore doesn’t fit into our categories?

This objection sounds very plausible, but it is based in simple confusion. The objector speaks of something that might “exist” in “reality” but which would not fit into our category of “being.” But, as we have seen, “reality” and “existence” are synonyms of “being.” To speak of something as “existing” is simply to say that it fits into the category of being. To talk about something existing which does not fit into the category of being would be like talking about there being a red object somewhere that does not fit into the category of redness. If it is red, of course it fits into the category of redness. If it does not fit into the category of redness, it is not red by definition. If the objector thinks our category of being needs to be redefined, he may present specific suggestions towards that end. But the way we have defined this category is in fact how it is actually used by human beings, and therefore for the objector to talk about “existing things” that are outside of the category of “existence” is meaningless gibberish. There may be a lot we do not know about many of the beings in the universe, but we do know that any being, however strange, is going to actually be, and it is going to be something in particular rather than being something else. Otherwise it would not be a being at all and therefore would not exist by definition.

We have specifically shown how categorical knowledge of the laws of logic can be derived from strictly empirical resources. This foundation shows us how other pieces of categorical knowledge can be established. For example, the law of cause and effect is established. This law is simply an aspect of the basic principles of logic. The law basically says that “whenever anything comes to be or changes, there must have been a cause as to why it came to be or changed.” The truth of this can be established simply by looking at the nature of the concepts of “coming into being” and “change.” “Change” is really a form of “coming into being.” When a change occurs, something new is present that was not there before. “Coming into being” is a process. In any process, there is some agent acting: Something is doing something. When we have nothing and then something, what is doing the acting? It is not the something that is coming into being, for then it would have to be acting before it exists. It is not non-being, for non-being by definition is not something and therefore can’t do anything. It must be something else. It must be some other being besides that which is coming into being. We call this other being the “cause.” So the law of causality is simply the observation that in the process of change, there are agents acting. To say that something can happen without a cause would be to say that a process can occur without any agent acting in it, which is contrary to the very idea of “process” and therefore a violation of the laws of logic.

The categorical concepts of metaphysics are also established by the establishment of the laws of logic. Once we have access to universal characteristics of being, metaphysics becomes possible. This is not to say, of course, that all metaphysical claims are therefore valid, any more than all claims in any other area must be valid. But metaphysical claims can be valid and rationally-based if categorical knowledge is empirically-grounded and therefore evidence-based. In other words, if categorical knowledge is empirically-based, then there can be such things as metaphysical claims that are legitimately inferred from empirical data. For example, the classic theistic arguments for the existence of God claim to contain empirically-based metaphysical claims.


We have now seen how categorical knowledge can indeed be based on nothing more than empirical experience. Since empirical experience, and that which is derived from it, is the only thing that can constitute evidence for anything, in proving that categorical knowledge can be empirical we have shown how it can be evidence-based and hence known to be true. Our observation of how our universal knowledge is tied to categories is very reminiscent of the thought of Immanuel Kant. Kant was quite right to observe how our knowledge takes particular shape and is thus accessible to us in the form of categories. Where Kant went wrong is that he supposed that such categorical knowledge could not be empirically-based but must be a priori. He assumed that the categories in the human mind must be originated by the human mind rather than reflecting inherent characteristics of the real world. This assumption produced a fundamental distinction in his thought between “the way things are in themselves” and the categorical, orderly way they appear in our minds, and this distinction created a barrier that would effectively prevent any human being from ever knowing the true nature of reality. Since we cannot conceive anything, even the most minute observation, without that thing appearing to us in an orderly, logical form, attributing all such categorical knowledge to human imagination rather than to the real world effectively implied that we can really know nothing at all about reality. We are cut off completely from any real access to reality; all we have are the imaginary creations of our own minds. But the fact is that there can be no rational distinction drawn between reality “as it really is” and the reality that we actually experience. Our category of “reality” is derived from the reality that we actually experience, and whatever does not fit into this category does not “exist” by definition, as we noted earlier. Therefore, our categories are not made up by our human minds apart from reality; they are derived from our observations of reality. It is not human imagination but the real world that provides us with our categories. Therefore there is no real distinction between the logical, orderly reality that we know and “the way things really are.” For Kant, our categories block us from experiencing reality and become a substitute for it. In reality, however, our categories are part of our perception of things as they really are.


On a bit of a different note, there is one more thing worth noting before we conclude this paper. The grounding of all knowledge, including categorical knowledge, in empiricism has interesting implications for the definition of science and for the perceived relationship between science, philosophy, and theology. Science has frequently attempted to define itself as distinct from philosophy and theology, and it has often chosen as its defining characteristic a commitment to empiricism and an empirical methodology. But if our conclusions are correct, all knowing and reasoning is empirically-grounded, and so the distinction between science and “other ways of knowing” becomes blurred. For example, it is often assumed that arguments for the existence of God (or against the existence of God) are non-scientific in nature. But if theistic arguments are empirical in nature, it is harder to figure out why they would be excluded from being considered scientific (whether or not one agrees or disagrees with their soundness). For another related example, the theory of evolution is often defended from charges of being atheistic by making a distinction between higher-order causes and empirical causes. Physical laws and the interactions of matter/energy are considered to be empirical, while the involvement of God as an ultimate creator is presumed to be non-empirical. Therefore it can be said that science, which deals only with the empirical world and uses only empirical methodology, need not take “higher-order” metaphysical causes into account. But if all knowing is empirical, then arguments for the necessity of God to explain the existence and continuance of the world and its objects (living and otherwise) as well as arguments against God’s necessity are empirical in nature, and it is harder to see how science can exclude them. There is no time to explore these implications and the questions that arise from them in any depth here, but it is interesting and useful to note that they exist. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Quote from Rev. John Black on the Early Reformers and Worldwide Church Unity

The Reformed churches have always taught that the church ought to be united in formal unity throughout the world.  All congregations, presbyteries, synods, etc., ought to be united, formally, in one worldwide catholic church.  See here for more evidence of this.  See also this great article by Matthew Vogan, a ruling elder in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, on the unity of the church, and another great article from the OPC.

However, it is a fact that the Reformed churches have not always done as good a job as they ought in explicitly acknowledging the truly universal character of catholic unity and in acting accordingly.  I mention one example of this lack  historically in my article linked to above.  One of the main reasons for this lack, I think, has to do with the difficulties faced by the early reformers in establishing Reformed churches in various nations.  They often faced a great degree of persecution and other trials in their work.  Also, communication across national lines (especially when messages had to cross areas not friendly to the Reformation) was not always convenient or easy.  In this situation, the tendency for the reformers was to focus their efforts in their own areas or nations, without a great deal of practical consideration for how concretely to preserve biblical unity internationally.  We need to do better at this today.

I came across a quotation today from Rev. John Black, a nineteenth century Reformed Presbyterian minister, in a sermon titled Church Fellowship, where he articulates much the same sentiments.  I thought it would be worth quoting here:

Still it is urged, that the reformed churches, notwithstanding their different confessions of faith, held occasional communion with each other; and consequently, if we withhold communion from christians differing from us, we contradict their practice.
But still the cases are not parallel—nor were the reformers correct in every thing. The reformed churches were generally, what were called National churches, and acted upon the ground of civil establishments of religion.—The principle of the church’s unity in all the nations of the earth, was not duly appreciated, by the majority of the early reformers. The struggle in which they were engaged—the difficulties they had to encounter—the dangers to which they were exposed—the want of opportunities for mutual consultation; together with the worldly policy of the civil rulers who joined them, and by whom they were in some measure protected, had a tendency to divert their minds from sufficiently attending to this principle, in the formation of their ecclesiastical systems. Happy would it have been for the church, had all the reformers possessed such accurate views of her unity as did the great John Calvin. His comprehensive mind embraced this subject in all its bearings. But his excellent plan for consolidating all the friends of the reformation, in every country, into one church, was unhappily frustrated.—The great body of the reformers, confined their views of uniformity to their own country. In concert with the civil authorities, the officers of the church laboured to obtain a uniformity in religion, in the kingdoms or nations to which they respectively belonged, as if the church in their district had been the whole church of Christ on earth.
The ministry were too inattentive to the church’s independency of the civil governments; while the civil rulers, taking advantage of this, endeavoured to make the church, in her external form, a creature of state policy, and but too far succeeded. Hence their ecclesiastical constitutions, and confessions, instead of preserving that unity which ought to subsist, among the different branches of one great family—were, in a great measure, moulded into the frame of the respective civil governments where they were made. Their ecclesiastical standards respectively, became the bond of their own internal communion—while, as separate and independent governments, they held a friendly correspondence. They did not condemn each other’s establishments, nor did they view their respective confessions of faith as erroneous. They admitted also an occasional communion with each other, according to circumstances. This communion, however, was rather external than internal.

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.

On the Temporary Legitimacy of De Facto Authority in the Church in Certain Circumstances

In my series on church authority (see here and here, for example), I have argued that when denominations are separate from each other in the context of a presbyterian system of church government, they are rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as a church (though not their de facto existence and reality as a church).  We therefore have an obligation to avoid abetting schism by joining in formal membership only with that denomination which has de jure authority and refraining from joining formally with those denominations that do not.

So what does one do when one unavoidably lives in an area in which there is no de jure church present, when one cannot be under the governing oversight of a proper de jure church?  Here is one possibility that I think makes sense:

First of all, consider an analogy:  We can distinguish between de jure doctors and mere de facto doctors.  A merely de facto doctor would be some person who has learned some medical skills and is actually functioning in a doctor-role, though without a legal license to do so.  A de jure doctor is a person who has a legal license to function in a doctor-role.

Now, normally, of course, a merely de facto doctor ought not to be functioning as a doctor.  It is illegal for him to do so.  And people should not go to such a doctor for medical care.  However, imagine a situation where a person is sick and in need of medical care but there is no de jure doctor within reach.  What should this person do?  If, upon investigation, it seems that the local illegally-practicing de facto doctor is reasonably good at what he does, and the sickness is at such a level that the person really ought to receive medical care, I would say that he ought to go and seek medical care from the de facto doctor.  In this non-ideal situation, it would be appropriate for the de facto doctor to practice, and it would be appropriate for the person in need of medical care to make use of his abilities.  The de facto doctor still has an obligation to attain a proper medical license if he can, and he is in the wrong if he does not do so; but in the meantime, due to the need present that only he can meet, it is appropriate for him to use his gifts to meet that need.

I think this sort of reasoning can apply to de facto churches as well.  Ideally, one ought not to join in formal membership with an illegitimate church.  However, when it is impossible to be joined to a legitimate church, it is, I think, appropriate to be joined to a normally-illegitimate church.  The session of that church, which would normally be illegitimate, yet finds itself in a situation where it is the only available body to fill a need.  Local people need shepherding; they need the sacraments; they need formal church fellowship and discipline; they need the preaching of the Word; etc.  In this situation, although the de facto session still has a moral obligation to seek proper licensing (by coming into full communion with the proper de jure body) and it is in the wrong if it does not do so, yet due to its position by God's providence of being able to fill a need that cannot reasonably be filled any other way, it is appropriate for the session to use its gifts to shepherd the local people, and it is appropriate for the local people to join with it in formal membership, granting a temporary, non-ideal authority to it, given the circumstances.

I think that similar reasoning can sometimes apply to other spheres of authority as well, such as to the civil magistrate (I have discussed this a little in this post).

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Terminological Clarifications

Some people have asked me to clarify my views with regard to three terms/phrases used to describe the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Two of these terms/phrases I have used in my writings.  I am not aware if I have used the third.  But I thought it would be helpful, with regard to all three terms/phrases, to clarify what I mean (or at least would mean if I used them) and what I don't mean by them.

"sinful in its worship" - I don't currently recall ever using this particular phrase in my writings to describe the OPC's worship, but certainly the phrase is true in some sense, while false in others.  If by "sinful in its worship," we simply mean that the OPC sanctions aspects of worship that are contrary to the commands of God, then I do think the OPC is, in part, sinful in its worship.  I hold, for example, that the singing of uninspired hymns in the worship of God is contrary to the regulative principle and thus the commands of God, and yet the OPC sanctions such singing.  However, if by "sinful in its worship" we mean that the OPC is violating the commands of God in all aspects of its worship, or that it is violating the commands of God intentionally, or that it is sinful to worship in OPC congregations, I have made and would make no such claims.

"schismatic" - I have used this term to describe the OPC.  When I say the OPC is "schismatic," I mean simply that it currently maintains certain positions and practices which are inappropriate (such as sanctioning hymn-singing in public worship) and which are creating unnecessary and inappropriate barriers to unity with other denominations.  I don't mean to say that the OPC is intentionally doing this, or that it is not a part of the Body of Christ.

"has no right to separate existence from the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland" - I have used this phrase to describe the OPC, or similar phrases.  What I mean by it is that the OPC ought to be united in formal communion with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and that it is inappropriate for it to be divided from the FPCS.  I do not mean to say that the OPC has no right to exist in any sense, or that it is always wrong to be joined in formal communion with the OPC, or that the OPC has no authority as a church in any sense.  I do think that the fact that the OPC is inappropriately separated from the FPCS means that, when possible, individuals ought to be united to the FPCS in formal communion and not to the OPC.  However, I recognize that in situations where it is not possible to be joined to the FPCS, it is at least sometimes permissible to be joined in formal communion with the OPC.  That is my current thinking, and my current practice, as I myself am currently a member of the OPC.

More on my views regarding these subjects can be found here and here.

Friday, January 4, 2013

On Semi, or "Clumpy," Congregationalism

One of the things that I think causes enormous confusion in trying to understand the positions of the various Presbyterian and Reformed churches in terms of their relationships to one another is that many of those who hold to the presbyterian model of church government today seem to hold it with a bit of confusion, with a significant amount of influence from independency or congregationalism.

More particularly, many Presbyterians today seem to have sort-of adopted a model of church government that might be called semi-presbyterianism or semi-congregationalism, or, as I like to call it, "clumpy congregationalism."  Historic congregationalism, or independency, holds to a system where formal church authority functions only at the level of individual congregations.  Beyond the local congregation, there may be confederacies of various sorts, but there are no assemblies with any binding authority.  (In practice, various congregationalist bodies work out the details of this in a variety of ways, some closer and some farther away from presbyterianism.)

Many modern Presbyterian churches seem sometimes to be functioning under a modified or expanded version of congregationalism, where presbyterian rules of church governance are enforced up to a certain point, and then the polity switches to a congregationalist sort of system.

For example, in the OPC, there is a firm commitment to presbyterian principles of church government.  Congregations are not autonomous or independent, but are united together under higher binding formal councils.  Groups of local congregations in a region are united together under presbyteries, which exercise governance over those congregations.  These presbyteries are, in turn, united together under the General Assembly, which exercises governance over all the OPC presbyteries.  The General Assembly is the highest binding church court recognized in the OPC.  Now, according to the presbyterian system, the concentric circles of church courts ought to continue to expand until all the churches in the world are under an ultimate binding ecumenical council (see the quotation from the Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland found at the bottom of this article).  So the fact that the General Assembly of the OPC is the highest judicatory in the OPC ought to mean that the OPC recognizes only the OPC as constituting the entirety of the de jure visible church of Christ in terms of its formal structures of authority.  And the OPC does indeed make clear that it does understand and hold to the presbyterian system all the way up to the logical conclusion that "[t]he ultimate goal of the unity of the church is nothing less than one world-wide presbyterian/reformed church."

However, I have had numerous conversations with individuals, including ministers, in the OPC who seem to think that denominational division is a perfectly acceptable situation and that it does not at all imply any rejection of the de jure authority or legitimacy of bodies from whom denominational separation is maintained.  I have recently spoken to one OPC minister who maintains that the OPC fully recognizes the de jure authority of other Reformed denominations and that denominational separation is really no more inherently sinful or problematic than jurisdictional distinctions between congregations and presbyteries within a single denomination.  He holds that the separation between, say, the OPC and the RCUS is really, in principle, the same kind of separation that exists between different presbyteries within the OPC.  Like the latter, the former is not a schismatic wound to the unity of the church of Christ but merely a matter of distinction for logistical jurisdictional purposes.  Just as presbyteries remain distinct from each other for logistical purposes while maintaining full unity, so the OPC and the RCUS remain distinct from each other for good practical reasons while maintaining full unity.

But this is absurd, and a rather remarkable failure to recognize both reality and the full implications of presbyterian church government.  For one thing, the OPC and the RCUS are not divided along regional lines.  It makes sense for logistical purposes to distinguish presbyteries from each other along geographical lines.  But RCUS and OPC congregations are frequently mixed together in the same regions.  When an OPC presbytery invites all the ministers of the OPC churches within a certain designated region as full voting members to its meetings, it cannot plead that its exclusion of RCUS ministers within that same geographical boundary is owing to nothing more than jurisdictional distinctions for logistical purposes.  And, even more importantly, while all the OPC churches ultimately find formal unity in that they are all eventually subject to a common binding umbrella council, the same cannot be said for both the OPC and the RCUS churches.  These churches never do find any union in any common binding council.  So to pretend that such denominational separations are of the same sort as distinctions among the jurisdictions of presbyteries within a single denomination, is, frankly, evidently ludicrous.

And it is also a betrayal of true presbyterian church government for a semi-presbyterianism or a semi-congregationalism.  Whereas traditional conregationalism maintains that the visible church of Christ does and should consist of a bunch of autonomous congregations under no higher binding authority that unites them together, so the view I just described above basically holds that the visible church of Christ does and should (at least sometimes) consist of a number of "clumps" (hence my term "clumpy congregationalism") of churches, which churches are united to each other by means of a presbyterian system but which clumps are only united to the other clumps in congregationalist ways.  So what we have, basically, is a big, loose association (such as NAPARC or the ICRC) which is held together by congregationalist methods (councils with non-binding authority) and which consists of a bunch of clumps of churches held together by presbyterian church government (such as the OPC, the RCUS, the PCA, etc.).  It is as if we have a giant congregationalist denomination in which we find a plethora of presbyterian "clubs" which various officers and members of the larger church may be a part of (and, indeed, are required to be members of one of them, whichever they may choose).

This is certainly not presbyterianism.  What is the OPC, for example?  In a presbyterian system, the OPC must be either nothing other than the de jure catholic church or it is a schismatic sect.  There is no place in the Scriptural view of the church for something like the OPC considered as a part, but not the whole, of the catholic church.  Where in Scripture do we find license for the one church of Christ to divide itself up into clumps of churches with distinct names that function by-and-large separately from each other in their formal functions?  Where does Scripture give the right to form little cliques inside the catholic church that get to have their own separate church courts and exclude each other formally from them?  This is a serious betrayal of the Scriptural view of the unity of the church of Christ.  It is the partial victory of congregationalism, a view historically firmly rejected by the Reformed churches.  (And even now, many Presbyterian churches, such as the OPC, formally reject it and adhere in confession to full presbyterian church government, while maintaining within them many who hold serious confusion on this point and who influence the church into a lethargy that fails to deal adequately with the seriousness of denominational divisions in the church of Christ).

For more, see here and here.

What Exactly Are "Fraternal Relations"?

As I've mentioned in a previous post, I think that one of the things that causes confusion among Presbyterian and Reformed churches with regard to issues of church unity and authority is the idea of "fraternal relations" between churches.

Under a presbyterian system of church government, denominational division necessarily involves a charge of schism from one denomination to the other and a rejection of the de jure legitimacy of the other denomination's officers, church courts, etc.  For if there was no charge of schism, and there was a de jure recognition of authority, this would be the same as being one and not two denominations.  (See here and here for earlier discussions of this basic principle.)

However, many Presbyterian churches that are out of full communion with each other nevertheless keep up the practice of maintaining "fraternal relations," or relations of "ecclesiastical fellowship," as the OPC puts it.  A document expressing the OPC's position on the unity of the church titled "Biblical Principles of the Unity of the Church" describes relations of ecclesiastical fellowship as involving a situation where "official interchange may take place including the exchange of delegates at the meetings of the ruling bodies of the church," and where "[t]here will be fellowship and cooperation in organizations, both domestic and international, which give expression to oneness of faith and life."  Fundamentally, a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship between denominations involves "[t]he recognition of each other as true churches of Christ, more or less pure (Confession of Faith XXV.4), in which the marks of the church are found."

So what exactly does this mean in light of the fact of denominational separation?  Some I have spoken to have suggested that fraternal relations implies a recognition of de jure authority between denominations.  But this does not seem to be the case, because, in practice, there is no such recognition of de jure authority.  OPC presbyteries do not invite to their meetings, as full voting members, officers from other denominations functioning within their regions, nor do the church courts of the different denominations find any unity in any binding umbrella councils.  There is thus a refusal to grant the rights and privileges which ought to be granted to de jure officers and church courts.  When the roll is taken in an OPC presbytery meeting, for example, the various churches of the OPC in the region are mentioned along with their ministers and any ruling elders sent to the presbytery meeting, and it is also noted which churches and ministers are absent; but there is no mention on these rolls of the churches and ministers of other denominations in the region.  The OPC possesses a formal roll including all the churches, members and officers of the OPC, but no formal roll of churches, members and officers of other denominations.  (See here for more on this.)

So if the practice of fraternal relations does not imply a recognition of de jure legitimacy and authority between denominations, what does it imply?  (We are, of course, assuming here that there is enough consistency in the practices of these denominations with regard to matters of church unity and authority to put forward a consistent meaning to their categories and actions in this regard.  That this is the case should not be taken for granted, but it is helpful to see how far we can get assuming that the categories and practices are at least basically consistent and intelligible.)  I think that what fraternal relations amounts to is basically this:  "Although we do not formally recognize the de jure legitimacy and authority of your officers and church courts, yet we formally recognize that you are a denomination which teaches the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and even the core elements of the historic Reformed faith, and which seems to seek to live out such a confession in the life of your body, and on the basis of these things we formally recognize that you are truly a part of the visible Body of Christ with a faith and practice very close to ours.  On the basis of this recognition, we wish to find various ways to express the unity of our faith and life while seeking to work towards full communion and a full recognition of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority."