The Quest for Wisdom

by Vern Sheridan Poythress

[Published in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Ed. Lane G. Tipton & Jeffrey C. Waddington. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008. Pp. 86-114. Used with permission.]

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Prov. 3:19)

“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6)

At the mall a child begins to cry and scream when his mother does not buy him a cookie. The mother, embarrassed by the public display, tries desperately to quiet the child. The noise from the child temporarily subsides while the mother speaks a sentence or two. And then the child breaks out louder than ever. The mother, exasperated, finally buys the cookie, and all is calm again.

As I look on, I can see a history, a history in which the mother by giving in to screaming is actually training her child to scream in order to get his way. By rewarding him for bad behavior she is encouraging him to do it again. Unfortunately, the mother does not see what she is doing. She is too immersed in the situation, and does not stand back, think, and consider the larger pattern. The mother needs wisdom and does not have it. I wish I could give it to her.

The writer of Proverbs had a similar experience when he observed folly of another kind:

For at the window of my house

I have looked out through my lattice,

and I have seen among the simple,

I have perceived among the youths,

a young man lacking sense,

passing along the street near her corner,

taking the road to her house

in the twilight, in the evening,

at the time of night and darkness.

And behold, the woman meets him,

dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.

All at once he follows her,

as an ox goes to the slaughter,

or as a stag is caught fast

till an arrow pierces its liver;

as a bird rushes into a snare;

he does not know that it will cost him his life. (Prov. 7:6-23)

The observer at the mall and Proverbs’ observer at the window are able to stand back and see long-range consequences. In their ability to stand back, they “transcend” the pressing demands of the situation. They have a deeper understanding, in comparison with the animal-like instincts of the mother who thinks only of immediate relief and of the young man who thinks only of immediate pleasure.


We may be able to acquire bits of wisdom by watching mothers in malls. But how can we look down on our human life as a whole “from above,” when we ourselves are immersed in it? We can never surmount it by focusing analytically on everything simultaneously, and being perfectly conscious of everything. We are always focused and conscious from a particular point of view, and of that point of view we are never exhaustively conscious.

A view of human life as a whole requires transcendence. We must somehow transcend the limits of our life, and be able to view life as an object rather than merely have it as a subliminal environment. Or, to put it another way, a sound view of life requires wisdom. We must be able to position our life in a measured way that gives us guidance and appreciation for both the powers and the limitations of our life. We must have something like a God’s-eye view.

Access to wisdom

The Bible says that wisdom comes from God (Prov. 2:6; 1 Cor. 1:30). God knows everything, and knows each of our lives exhaustively. God is aware of every aspect of a child’s screaming and a young man’s lust and the history of both. He has the wisdom we need.

Receiving wisdom from God involves communion with God. And how do we have communion? Since the fall, as sinners we are alienated from God. After the fall, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, the place of communion with God (Gen. 3:23-24). Cherubim barred the way back. We have a three-sided problem. First, as human beings we have the need and the longing to return to God. Second, our own sin and rebellion makes us want to avoid God and to flee from him (Gen. 3:8). Third, God himself prevents return, because sinners cannot stand in the presence of the holiness of God (Isa. 6:3-5).

The barriers to returning to Eden are analogous to the barriers in the tabernacle, in the form of curtains barring the way into the presence of God. In still other passages of Scripture, the barriers are re-expressed as barriers to receiving wisdom, or as barriers to ascending to heaven. Since the tabernacle of Moses is an image of heaven, its barriers correspond by analogy to the seeming impossibility of ascending to heaven. Consider the language in Proverbs 30:1-4:

The words of Agur son of Jakeh.

The oracle.

The man declares, I am weary, O God;

I am weary, O God, and worn out.

Surely I am too stupid to be a man.

I have not the understanding of a man.

I have not learned wisdom,

nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?

Who has gathered the wind in his fists?

Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?

Who has established all the ends of the earth?

What is his name, and what is his son’s name?

Surely you know!

Agur’s confession in Proverbs begins with weariness. It appears that Agur is worn out from seeking wisdom and not achieving it. And wisdom is linked with “knowledge of the Holy One.” That observation in turn leads him to reflect on the wisdom of God’s governance (“gathered the wind in his fists”). Agur perceives the need to ascend to heaven to receive wisdom, and then to come down. One would think that such an ascent is impossible, and so come to despair. But that is not where the passage ends. The very next verse shows a way forward: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Prov. 30:5). In other words, God provides wisdom for those who receive his word. This thought is confirmed at the beginning of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

Similar language can be seen in Deuteronomy.

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)

In context, Moses is exhorting the Israelites before the time when they are to enter the promised land. He envisions both their future disobedience (Deut. 30:1) and restoration (Deut. 30:2-10). So it is debated whether the “nearness” of God’s word in Deut. 30:14 is a nearness that has already been brought about by God’s speaking through Moses, or whether it is a nearness only to be accomplished in connection with the restoration that Moses prophesies.1 From a theological point of view, God did come near to Israel at Mount Sinai, when he gave them the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are a linguistically accessible expression of God’s wisdom. Yet the giving of the Ten Commandments did not succeed in penetrating into the heart of each Israelite and giving him a new heart that loved God and obeyed him. So Deuteronomy 30 does look forward beyond what was accomplished at Mount Sinai. It looks forward to Christ, as in clear in Romans 10:5-10:

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) or ” ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

The revelation of the word of God at Mount Sinai took place in connection with Moses ascending Mount Sinai, and then descending with a copy of the law in his hands. His ascending symbolized ascent to heaven and to the presence of God. His descent symbolized descent from heaven, bringing the word of God to man. In this way, Moses mediated between God and the sinfulness of the people. He foreshadowed and typified Christ’s mediation (1 Tim. 2:5-6).

Christ’s fulfillment of the quest

Christ’s ascent and descent fulfill the picture in Exodus 19-20 and in Deuteronomy 30. Ephesians 4 uses similar language with respect to Christ:

Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,

and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lowest parts of the earth? He who descended in the one who also ascended far above all the heaven, that he might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:8-10)

There are still some notable complexities. Christ descended from heaven in his incarnation. “The lowest parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9) might refer either to the incarnation or to Christ’s descent into the realm of death at the time of his death. Both are aspects of Christ’s identification with humanity. He underwent death as the penalty for the sins of others, which he bore (1 Pet. 2:24). His incarnation and his death, as acts of identification with us, belong together theologically. Both of these precede his ascension, to which Eph. 4:8 and 10 refer. By contrast, in Prov. 30:4 the ascent comes first, before descent. Ascent also precedes descent in Moses’s movements in Exodus 19 and in Deut. 30:12.

Actually, the Old Testament examples are fully compatible with Eph. 4, once we fill it out into a fuller picture. According to Ephesians 4:8-10, Christ ascended and then “gave gifts to men” (verse 8). The gifts are further explained in verse 11 and what follows. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints …” Christ did not descend bodily after his ascension, but he gave the church his representatives and those who would teach his word. He speaks to the people on earth through these representatives. So, theologically speaking, he has descended. To put it another way, he has poured out the Holy Spirit, who empowers his representatives (Acts 2:33). The giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is parallel to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Moreover, the Spirit of Christ brings Christ’s presence to his people: spiritually speaking Christ descends in the descent of the Holy Spirit (John 14:23, 16-18).

Then what about the incarnation? It too is a descent of God from heaven. Jesus more than once speaks of having “come down from heaven” (John 6:33, 38, 51). In the incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). His “dwelling” or “tabernacling” among us is parallel to the symbolic picture of God dwelling in the midst of Israel through the tabernacle of Moses.

The incarnation, as a fulfillment of the tabernacle dwelling, is an act of God’s coming near to man to bless him, to dwell with him, and to establish communion with him. As such, it already anticipates the further work that Jesus will accomplish in his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension. And in fact, as a blessing of God’s communion, it anticipates the communion with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who is poured out to make us into a temple of God, both corporately (the church; 1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19).

Let us put it another way. The “descent” of God to man in Christ’s incarnation is one historical stage in a progression of works of God that redeem man, establish communion between man and God, brings God’s wisdom down to man, make it accessible to man in Christ’s teaching, and transform the heart of man by remaking him a dwelling of God and transforming him into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). The appearance of God in the flesh is the appearance of the Redeeming God, and so already implies in a nutshell all the works to come.

The descent of the Holy Spirit is the descent of the presence of the resurrected and ascended Christ. Christ comes through the Spirit who represents him. The Spirit is “another Helper” (John 14:16). The coming of the Spirit is thus integrally related to the incarnation, even though it is a distinct event. And the same holds for the “descent” of gifts to the church. Through the apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11), the church hears the voice of Christ proclaiming the good news of his resurrection and ascension and their implications (Eph. 2:17). “For through him [Christ] we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). “Access” is access to heaven. Each of us who is “in the one Spirit” may now ascend:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places [in heaven] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10:19-22)

We are to “draw near,” that is, draw near to the presence of God in heaven. We are able to do so because of the completed work of Christ, which is referred to by the mention of “the blood of Jesus” and the sprinkling and washing accomplished by his priesthood and self-sacrifice. Jesus the great high priest is the mediator between God and man, just as 1 Tim. 2:5 indicates. Through him we have permanent, unimpeded access to God. Through him the barrier of the cherubim in Gen. 3:24 has been removed. Through him we have access to wisdom, because he is himself the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30; see Col. 2:3).

So Jesus Christ turns out to be the answer to Agur’s unanswered longings for access to the wisdom of God. Agur asks, “What is his name [the name of God], and what is his son’s name?” (Prov. 30:4). The name of God is not just a meaningless sound, but in a biblical context indicates the revelation of his character. Through the name of the Son, the character of the Father is revealed. And with that climactic revelation, we receive the wisdom of God:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:1-3)

Agur, without knowing in detail exactly what he was longing for, was inspired by the Spirit to speak beyond himself, and prophetically to anticipate the satisfaction of his longing, when one comes to know the name, that is, the character, of the Son of God.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament one may see similar longings. Job longs for wisdom, because what is happening to him does not make sense:

But where shall wisdom be found?

And where is the place of understanding?

Man does not know its worth,

and it is not found in the land of the living.

The deep says, “It is not in me,”

and the sea says, “It is not with me.”

It cannot be bought for gold,

and silver cannot be weighed as its price.

From where, then, does wisdom come?

And where is the place of understanding?

It is hidden from the eyes of all living

and concealed from the birds of the air.

Abaddon and Death say,

“We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.”

God understands the way to it,

and he knows its place.

For he looks to the ends of the earth

and sees everything under the heavens.

When he gave to the wind its weight

and apportioned the waters by measure,

when he made a decree for the rain

and a way for the lightning of the thunder,

then he saw it and declared it;

he established it, and searched it out.

And he said to man,

“Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,

and to turn away from evil is understanding.” (Job 28:12-28)

The fear of the Lord is wisdom, because it sets a person in communion with God and sets him on the path to the fullness of knowledge that will dawn in Christ. Indeed, the fear of the Lord is granted to a sinful person only for the sake of Christ. God acts in mercy towards people in Old Testament times by reckoning for their benefit beforehand the grace that will be accomplished in Christ (Rom. 3:25). Even in the Old Testament, godly people experienced beforehand some foretaste of the wisdom of God and the communion with God. The full realization of that communion awaited the coming of Christ. And of course we still await a yet fuller communion with God in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21:1-4; 1 Cor. 13:12).

Multiple quests for wisdom

The Bible claims to be the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21). As the word of God, it offers us wisdom from God. At the heart of that wisdom is personal knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. Christ is the wisdom of God, and we may know him because he speaks to us in the Bible. The Bible is not only the word of God, but the word of the Son of God who is God (John 1:1). And Christ promises the Holy Spirit, to opens our minds to understand him (John 16:13-15).

But not everyone accepts this. Many people remain in rebellion against God; and yet, because they are human beings, they are still made in the image of God. They still rely on God. And, more painfully, they have an unquenchable longing for God, because they were originally created not only to be like God but for the purpose of communion with God, for enjoying the presence of God forever (Ps. 16:11).

In particular, they long for wisdom. They have an intellectual thirst to understand. And God is the all-wise One. He is the obvious source of transcendent wisdom. At some level, human beings know this instinctively. God manifests his wisdom in the created world (Rom. 1:18-23). He manifests his wisdom in the very constitution of the mind, which knows the need for rationality, a rationality that reflects the rationality of the mind of God. And so in longing for wisdom they long for God.

But simultaneously they rebel. They would have an autonomous wisdom, a wisdom coming from virtually being god. Each person would like to have seen and understood everything by himself and for himself, locked up in the narcissism and wilderness of loving only oneself–and simultaneously hating oneself, because a self turned on itself is no longer beautiful.

And of course no one is really by himself. Not only must he rely on God, but in rebellion he falls victim to Satanic deceit. He is enslaved in his mind as well as his body:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! (Eph. 4:17-20)

Because people are alienated from God, the quest for wisdom takes strange, distorted forms. It takes counterfeit forms, and leads to counterfeit wisdom. Satan is the great deceiver (Rev. 12:9), the great counterfeiter who tries to make his deceit close enough to the truth to entrap people.2 He tries to appear like an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).

The counterfeit has to be close to the truth in order to be effective. The counterfeit of true religion is still in essence religion. If you will not worship and serve God, you will serve a substitute god. Ultimately you will worship yourself: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). But you are finite, and can never succeed in being an adequate substitute for the true God. And so the gods multiply. Not only the self, but Satan, and Satanic ideas, and physical idols, and money, and pleasure, and sex, and the health of one’s body, and fame, and so on and on.

In the intellectual arena, we have a continuing quest for wisdom. This quest is in essence a religious quest, even if it is undertaken by an atheist. It is a quest to ascend to heaven, to be like God. And because each of us is finite, the quest for the infinite needs mediation. Moses mediated in his limited way between God, at the top of Mount Sinai, and the people of Israel at the bottom (Exod. 19). The priests in the tabernacled mediated between God’s presence in the innermost room of the tabernacle, and the people who stood outside. Animal sacrifices, through substitutionary sin bearing, expressed the principle of mediation that deals with the sins of man, and more broadly with his failures, including his intellectual failures. All of these Old Testament symbolic institutions pointed forward to Christ, who is the final mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). If, now, we do not come to Christ, we will embark on some other religious quest for mediation, and through mediation, a quest for the infinite wisdom of God.

So what forms does man-made wisdom take? Let us consider some examples. In order to see the main point, we consider them only in a highly simplified, “skeletal” form.


In Plato’s allegory of the cave, people are chained to one place in a subterranean cave and see only shadows on the wall.3 In the allegory, the cave dwellers represent ordinary people, who live in a shadow world, with confused and muddled thoughts. Outside the cave, where the sun shines, one is able to see the world as it is, and to see the realities that produced the shadows on the cave wall. The person who is outside the cave corresponds to the enlightened philosopher. He has wisdom because he has ascended from the subterranean cave to enjoy the light of the sun. The physical ascent pictured in the allegory represents spiritually an ascent “to the intelligible region,”4 a kind of ascent to heaven. Plato conceives of this philosophical wisdom mainly as a recovery of the eternal knowledge of eternal forms or ideas. The idea of the good is supreme, but one may also seek to grasp the idea of justice, the idea of piety, the idea of temperance, the idea of love, and so on.

Who has such knowledge? According to Plato, the individual soul is eternal, indestructible, and pre-existent. In its pre-existence it had immediate access to and grasp of the eternal ideas. It had virtually divine knowledge. The claim for pre-existence is interesting. In biblical terms, we would say that that claim is a claim to be “like God” in the non-Christian sense. Christ existed even before his incarnation, and that is one evidence for his transcendent wisdom (John 1:1-3). In Platonic thought, the individual soul counterfeits the role of Christ.

According to Platonic thought, when the soul becomes embodied, it forgets its former knowledge. The task of the philosophical quest is recovery of what the soul has “forgotten.”

So what plays a mediating role, offering access to a divine vision of the ideas? The soul itself does. Man, conceived of as capable of virtually divine vision and knowledge, has made himself the mediator. In practice, Plato uses “dialectic,” a process of dialog involving interchange and critical analysis of imperfectly grasped ideas. Using dialectic one may cast off the imperfections and more and more clearly see the “essence” of the idea, through the vision of the soul. In this respect, dialectic, and the mind that plays through the process of the dialectic, is itself the mediator. Plato must know that even he has not yet actually come to a perfect grasp of the ideas. The full vision (that is, something akin to divinity) awaits the time when, through death, the soul breaks free from the body. Socrates does not fear death, but rather welcomes it, because it is the gateway and final mediator5 leading to the heavenly deification of his knowledge.

In the meantime, grasp of the ideas is partial. But the dialectic, faithfully used, will lead onward toward the goal. The dialectic itself, the process, I would guess is a deeper religious certainty even than the state of knowledge that a Platonist has already attained. And how does one know for sure that the dialectic itself is pure and not misleading? It is the operation of eternal reason. It is self-correcting, because reason can always catch out an earlier lapse in the operation of a human dialog. And one knows its power, one knows its promise, by the vision already afforded by previous experience. One has experienced the destruction of the illusions and the half-baked opinions of ordinary people through its operation.

Socrates admits that, for the most part, he does not know. But at least he knows that he does not know. That is, through the dialectical critical analysis of others’ opinions, he sees flaws and contradictions in those opinions, and he then knows that they do not represent truth. And through an accumulation of these experiences, each of which is a revelation, a moment of insight, he gains experientially a confidence in the dialectic. Reason is virtually divine, and he has achieved it as a process even if he has not yet arrived at the heavenly vision where the soul sees the eternal ideas in an unimpeded way.

This quest for wisdom is a counterfeit. Yet there are still some positive insights in Plato. From a Christian point of view, how can this be? It is a product of common grace.

God’s mind is the original for which the human mind is an analogue. Man’s reason images God’s reason. So Plato is partly right about his rational powers. God is rational, because he is faithful to his own character. He is consistent with himself. Or, to put it another way, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Word (John 1:1). He is not only “with God from the beginning,” but he is God. He is in harmony with the Father. That harmony includes the harmony of word, of discourse. The Greek word used in John 1:1 is logos. This word can mean “discourse,” but is also closely associated with reason. He is the mediator for those who would grow in human wisdom.

Now Plato thinks of wisdom as the fruit of communion with reason. But for him it is still the self-achieved wisdom of the insight of the autonomous soul. His own would-be autonomous soul, and especially its reason, is the religious substitute for Christ. It is man listening to the voice of Satan, “You will be like God.” According to Platonic thinking, man, when properly reasoning, is the ultimate standard for truth, because in such a mode his mind is virtually identical with the divine mind. This is non-Christian rationalism. At the same time, the soul’s captivity within the body drags the soul down into the world of shadows, where there is virtually no access to truth. How then can Plato know, as long as he is in the body, whether his whole experience of enlightenment is not a gigantic deception? The lack of foundation for knowledge is non-Christian irrationalism.6

If one has given oneself to Platonism, as a religious commitment, one might still ask how many people are directly capable of achieving the exalted insights that Plato achieved. Is every soul as pure in its grasp of reason? It does not seem so. And so there comes in the need for more mediation. We must have earthly priests who help the unenlightened toward enlightenment. Socrates and Plato themselves offer themselves as mediatorial priests, who claim to have access to the light, and to stand in heaven, in order to come down and speak to ordinary people. They give them insights, adapted to their level of enlightenment, and lead them higher. We have here substitutes for the exclusive mediation of Christ, who as man is one with us, and who as God has the eternal wisdom of the divine vision.

Plato frames his discussion primarily in terms of ideas, rather than in terms of language. But the two correlate closely. One could easily transcribe Plato’s reasoning into the realm of language. The ideas, instead of being primarily located in thought, are concepts in an eternal, heavenly language. The challenge of Plato and his friends would then be to grasp that heavenly language in its essence. Human language points to the heavenly original, but is distorted through the presence of the body. Purification takes place through discourse, discussion, and dialog. That is, we use language, in according with the rules of language, in service of language purification. Rules of language include logical rules. Rules of language, and particular rules concerning dialectic, offer the mediatorial substitute for Christ.7 Those who have already managed to purify their language serve as priests for those who are beginning.

Is Plato really this bad? Yes and no. Underneath the surface, Plato represents a counterfeit offer of wisdom, and therefore a counterfeit religious direction. But like all counterfeits, Platonic thought also includes many attractive and helpful insights. There is common grace. Elements of truth make the whole more attractive. Sorting of good and bad is required.8

Similar things could be said about other thinkers who endeavor to bring us wisdom. For the ones below, I will indicate what I see as counterfeit features. But I will not delay very much to make the legitimate point that each is a subtle combination of truth and distortion of truth.

Immanuel Kant

Next consider Immanuel Kant. At the heart of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical reflections lies his reasoning about the nature and limits of human reason. According to Kant, people analyze the phenomena of human sense experience, but never succeed in directly grasping things as they really are. Why not? The phenomena are what they are because they have already been conformed to the nature of man’s sensory apparatus and the character of his mind. The mind necessarily thinks in terms of the categories of space, time, and causality. So these categories are imposed on the phenomena in the process of their becoming phenomena accessible to human consciousness.

Human reason can operate confidently in analyzing the phenomena, since these are always automatically conformed to the natural categories of human reason. But reason produces antinomies if it is inappropriately applied to the noumenal realm, which includes God, morality, and human freedom.

The interesting aspect about the picture that Kant paints is its transcendent vision. Kant speaks confidently about the noumenal realm, about things in themselves, about about human reason and its limits, about the human capacities of understanding and imagination, about the innate categories of the human mind, and about the impossibility of a direct appearance of God (revelation). It would seem that he himself must first exceed the limits that he has postulated for reason, in order to write his account of those limits and their relation to what lies beyond them. His own books confidently use reasoning, and apply it beyond the realm of the phenomena, in order to show what goes wrong when ordinary people use reason without noticing its limits. But in using reasoning in this way, Kant has gone beyond the limits for reason that he has prescribed for everyone else.9 In an intellectual sense, he has ascended to heaven, and achieved a divine vision.

At the same time, Kant’s philosophy forbids human beings in general from transgressing the limits of reason. Through his philosophy, then, he attempts to forbid any other ascent to heaven. Kant assures us that, in the nature of the case, the ascent is impossible for human reason. So his philosophy claims for itself an exclusive, monopolistic role in the quest for wisdom.

Additional questions arise. How shall we know whether Kant’s reasoning gives us illusions rather than the truth? Actually there are hidden assumptions in his reasoning. But even if his reasoning appeared completely sound, how do we know–given his concerns about the possible limits of reason–whether they describe reality, as opposed to merely being postulated in conformity with the natural categories of our finite minds? We could know this if we could achieve a second ascent to heaven, to a heaven above the heavens. From there, we might discern whether our minds constituted in such a way that they can achieve an accurate vision from the first heaven.

From a third heaven, higher than the second, we could then check as to whether our vision achieved from the second heaven is really authentic. And from the vantage point of a fourth heaven, we could check the authenticity of the third heaven. An infinite regress threatens. Why? Man is attempting to make himself God. He never achieves exhaustive consciousness of the relation of his consciousness to an outside reality, because he does not have direct divine knowledge of that outside reality nor of his own consciousness. He never achieves deity.

At the same time, a human being does have the ability to stand back, to look at his limitations. He thinks about what it might be like to see things from an all-knowing point of view, that is, from God’s standpoint. Though he is a finite creature, he has ability to think like God, to imagine things from God’s standpoint, to think God’s thoughts after him. That ability is one aspect of his being made in the image of God. Since he is made in the image of God, he can project images of himself looking at himself, or God looking at him, or a whole indefinite series of images of higher heavens from which he looks down on the limitations of the lower heavens.

If a questing person does not find rest by trusting in the all-knowing God, he ascends and ascends through these mental images, in an endless quest. His thirst does not come to an end. Like Kant, he may perhaps assure himself that the thirst for scientific knowledge of the phenomena can be satisfied, but that thirst for knowledge of the noumena is vain. But then he finds that he still thirsts for a third knowledge, a knowledge of whether he is right in thinking that this second thirst is vain.

As in the case of Platonism, so also here we can transform Kant’s reflections into reflections about language and its rules, instead of reflections about thought and reason. According to this kind of thinking, man cannot escape the bounds of his language and its rules. He sees the world, not as it is in itself, but in the form to which it has been conformed by being seen through the windows of the categories of language with which man is supplied. In this situation, Kant’s attempt to ascend to discover the limitations of thought is transformed by analogy into an attempt to ascend to see the limitations of language. The ascent takes place, not through reason that inspects reasoning, but through language that inspects language use. That is, we look at linguistics, discourse that uses language to take language as its subject matter. And to see the limitations of linguistics itself, one would use metalinguistic discourse that talks about the philosophy of linguistics. To guarantee the authenticity of metalinguistic discourse, one would need to ascend further, to meta-metalinguistic discourse that has metalinguistic discourse as its object. Again, one must ascend forever.


Evolutionary naturalism

In the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, the overt cultural influence of Kant and other philosophical system-builders has perhaps waned. In the West, two dominant worldviews remain, evolutionary naturalism or materialism, and postmodern contextualism. Let us consider how they build a worldview.

First, what is the typical approach of evolutionary naturalism? Evolutionary naturalism uses the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution as a platform to propound a materialistic worldview.10 This materialistic worldview contrasts not only with views in which God works miraculously to create some forms of life, but the view, often called theistic evolution, that God has worked out his purposes for various forms of life using the secondary means of evolutionary gradualism, means that he sovereignly controls. The contrast is between the work of a purposeful God on the one hand, and on the other hand the purposeless development of life in a situation in which God is absent or nonexistent. This contrast shows that evolutionary naturalism is not just a narrow scientific theory for explaining specific material phenomena, but a worldview with close ties with philosophy.11 According to this worldview, the world consists primarily in matter and energy in interaction. There is no God or gods, and mind and consciousness have arisen without the influence or guidance of God or gods. All of life has arisen by gradualistic, chance processes that take place without any purpose to direct them.

Evolutionary naturalism, as a worldview, offers us answers to “big” questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Who or what made us? Where are we going? What is our purpose? Which kinds of questions have answers? Naturalism, by offering answers to such questions, offers wisdom. But its answers differ from the answers in the Bible, and so it is a counterfeit wisdom.

How did naturalism achieve its wisdom? From science. It has begun from scientific analysis that enters into a minute causal, physical, material explanation of physical things and of life-processes. And it has ended up by concluding that the material aspect is all that there is. That itself involves a leap. How could a scientist confidently make that leap? How could he logically go from the success of science in explaining some things to the conclusion that what it does not explain does not exist? The leap is all the more problematic, because in its beginnings the procedures for science focus on the physical and the material. It follows almost by necessity that such procedures will end only with physical and material conclusions. The general nature of the conclusions follows not from the details of the investigation in the middle, but from the assumptions and commitments made at the beginning. The leap to a materialistic worldview seems to have been the result of a slight of hand, by which the materialist simply overlooks the starting assumptions.

The leap is nevertheless very appealing to many. By calling it a “leap,” I have already hinted at one possible reason. This “leap” is another form of an ascent to heaven. We have a quest for wisdom. For a human quest the most valuable wisdom would be not the minute wisdom that understands the mechanisms in chromosomal duplication in a cell, but the wisdom that understands the world as a whole–a worldview. We want transcendence. Evolutionary naturalism gives it to us, by means of the leap, the extrapolation from a narrow materialistic procedural focus within scientific practice to philosophical materialism.

The leap also needs for its success a conception of scientific law. Elsewhere I have discussed the topic of law at some length.12 Within the worldview set forth in the Bible, “scientific law” is one aspect of God’s word of providence governing the universe. God governs as a person. His faithfulness produces the regularities that scientists observe. But generally speaking, secular science today, by its training, pushes people in the direction of conceiving of scientific law as impersonal and therefore perfectly masterable. As a result, there must be no exceptions to the ordinary patterns of cause and effect that we observe. The principle of no exceptions effectively allows man to master the law. He conceives of the law not as God exercising his rule through speaking (God’s word of providence), but an impersonal rule that in principle must be fully graspable by his human mind. At the moment of full grasping, his mind has ascended to heaven, and he sees the world as it really is.

Through conceiving of the law as impersonal, the evolutionary naturalist can achieve certainty that there is no God and that everything is reducible to matter and energy. This certainty is fundamentally a mysticalreligious vision. It is religious because it involves an ascent to heaven in order mentally to grasp the law as impersonal. It is mystical because the ascent actually exceeds the bounds of scientific evidence and human consciousness. Materialist reasoning has smuggled in, from the beginning, its commitment to reducing phenomena to the material level, and only so can it achieve its goal.

Finally, this religious vision is satisfying, because it terminates the quest for wisdom. Wisdom has been achieved by accessing a worldview. The soundness of this wisdom is allegedly guaranteed by science. And this worldview assures those who adhere to it that they have essential guidance concerning wisdom in other spheres of life. What about wisdom in knowing moral right and wrong, wisdom in knowing God, wisdom in knowing oneself, wisdom in knowing the purpose of one’s life? Such questions about wisdom either ask fruitlessly about what is illusory or have already received the essence of their answer within the worldview already within one’s possession.

Unfortunately, as John Byl points out in his extended critique of naturalism, the price to the richness of human life is very high. Byl indicates in brief how naturalism threatens to evaporate reason, mind, consciousness, mathematics, and scientific law itself into an illusion–because none of them is material.13 Idolatrous religions devour their adherents, because ultimately counterfeits are not the same as the original, and therefore do not succeed.

Variant views of religious “revelation”

Let us go on to consider some other routes in the quest for wisdom. Liberal and neo-orthodox theologies have often said that revelation from God takes the form of religious feeling or personal encounter. They claim that revelation cannot contain propositional content, that is, it cannot contain assertions that are true. The Bible contains many kinds of language: histories, songs, prayers, sermons, commandments, proverbs, letters. Among this variety, even a casual reading turns up many discourses that contain assertive claims, both about ordinary matters (“Crescens has gone to Galatia,” 2 Tim. 4:10) and about matters of God and “religion”:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. (1 Cor. 15:20)

He [God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. (Acts 17:31)

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 103:8)

Liberalism and neo-orthodoxy have tried to evade the obvious by claiming that the Bible is not itself revelation, but the product of the “real” revelation in religious feeling or in personal encounter. This move conveniently allows modern people to escape claims from the Bible that they do not like or do not agree with. Some people have even admitted that their view is a modern innovation, not a view found in the Bible itself. But it is alleged to be necessary to make this adjustment in the face of modern knowledge.

Modern knowledge, allegedly, shows that the Bible is mistaken in many of its claims. This kind of allegation deserves a detailed response, such as is found in many apologetics books written by modern evangelicals, who are familiar with the modern world and still do believe that the Bible is the word of God.14 We cannot pursue this line of argument here, because it would take a book in itself, and because many books have already been written on the subject.

But we can say something about another aspect of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, namely their positive claims about the nature of revelation. Where do these claims come from? To know the nature of revelation goes together closely with knowing about the God or gods who can give such revelation. It is a claim to transcendent wisdom or insight. Liberalism and neo-orthodoxy thus have their own transcendent claims, and these claims presuppose that the claimant has been able to “ascend to heaven.” But if, as liberalism asserts, religion is the product of human religious feelings, is never really rises to heaven.

Religious feelings have been variously interpreted. Indeed, evangelicals who believe the Bible have interpreted their own feelings in a manner consistent with their beliefs that the Bible is actually the word of God. So liberals have no firm ground for a transcendent claim to the contrary.

The situation is a little different for the neo-orthodox. They say that we can have nonpropositional “personal encounter” with God. Could neo-orthodox theology, and in particular its theology of revelation, be built on such a personal encounter? But unfortunately the encounter is nonpropositional. So who is to say that neo-orthodox interpretation of it is any better than any other? Neo-orthodox theology has often attempted to derive its view of revelation from the Bible itself. But in actuality the Bible fights against such an interpretation, as John Frame’s articles on neo-orthodoxy have shown.15

If neo-orthodoxy succeeded by using the Bible itself, it would be using a legitimate transcendent source of wisdom. It would have “ascended to heaven,” not by human power, but by being taught by God. The result would, however, still be paradoxical, because neo-orthodoxy would have been taught by God the propositional truth that it is impossible to be taught by God in propositional truths.

In fact, an inspection of affinities in the history of ideas shows relationships between both classical liberalism and neo-orthodoxy on the one hand, and Kantian philosophy on the other. Kant has allegedly shown that a direct revelation from God into the time and space world of phenomena is impossible. A revelation, for example, like God speaking from the top of Mount Sinai as recorded in Exod. 19 is supposed to be impossible.16Kant says that revelation cannot be of the character that simple Bible readers of previous centuries have thought it to be. So, in the light of Kant’s alleged transcendent wisdom, the reformulations undertaken by liberalism and neo-orthodoxy were to be expected. They are just as much counterfeits as was Kant’s original vision.

Logical positivism

Consider next logical positivism (also called logical empiricism). Logical positivism saw the rigor of symbolic logic, along with the rigor of mathematics and the lesser rigor in hard sciences, as the model for all truth. It said that only two kinds of propositions had cognitive meaning and truth value, namely tautologies and empirically verifiable statements. All other propositions had only “emotive” significance.

Tautologies are statements that can be seen to be true by virtue of an inspection of their meaning: “A is A”; “What is white is white”; and “Bachelors are unmarried.” Empirically verifiable statements are statements whose truth can be checked out by empirical means, by inspecting or measuring something within the environment (akin to Kant’s phenomenal realm). Thus, “The moon is made of green cheese” is empirically verifiable and false. “An apple seed can be planted and sometimes grows into an apple tree” is empirically verifiable and true. “Being negates itself” (a famous statement from Heidegger) is not empirically verifiable.

Logical positivism blossomed and flourished for awhile, especially among people who admired the rigor of science and who felt impatient or skeptical about general philosophical and religious statements (“God is love”). It is a significant movement from the point of view of language, because it was hoping to clean up language, and concentrate on the proper and fruitful uses of language for empirical science, while discarding the allegedly fruitless and meaningless uses having to do with philosophy, metaphysics, and religion.

Yet the movement died because of its own internal problems. Consider its fundamental thesis:

A statement is cognitively meaningful only if it is either tautologous or empirically verifiable.

Is this thesis a tautology? If so, it can only be because the expression “cognitively meaningful” has already been secretly redefined to mean “tautologous or empirically verifiable,” in which case it is trivially true. But then it is useless for the practical task of assigning genuine meaning (as opposed to its own hothouse definition of meaning). Or is the thesis empirically verifiable? No, because it is a claim about cognitive meaning, not about the phenomenal world. One cannot specify a series of scientific procedures that would lead to a definitive test of its truthfulness.

So now apply the thesis to itself:

The thesis of logical positivism is cognitively meaningful only if it is either tautologous or empirically verifible.

Since the thesis is neither tautologous nor empirically verifiable, it is not cognitively meaningful. Hence the thesis has destroyed its own meaning, and the movement of logical positivism cannot be sustained.

In looking back over the collapse of logical positivism, one can see the theme of ascent to heaven. The central thesis, the thesis about tautology and verifiability, offered a seemingly universal vision about the nature of meaning. But it had to exceed its own bounds–it had to ascend to heaven–in order to obtain this vision. It was in fact a kind of substitute religion. It declared, on the basis of transcendent insight into the nature of truth and verifiability, that all conventional religions and philosophies were meaningless. With that declaration it offered to its adherents transcendent wisdom, and freed them from the alleged deceits of conventional religion. But in the long run it undermined itself, since it could give no coherent account of its access to this heavenly vision.

Postmodern contextualism

We may also use the analogy of ascent to heaven to understand one aspect of postmodern contextualism. By postmodernist contextualism I mean the skeptical and pragmatic views that think that the language and culture in which we are immersed prevent us from accessing reality, or at least prevent us from being certain about truth. The skepticism and uncertainty in contextualism typically build on insights about the influence of language and culture. The influence of culture is expounded particularly in the tradition of the sociology of knowledge.17 The influence of language is discussed in many contexts. One main line of influence comes from linguistics through French structuralism into deconstruction.18

Postmodern contextualism uses the analysis from linguistics and structuralism in order to become aware of the limits of language and the instabilities of meaning. The instabilities are related to the fact that meaning is largely constituted by a system of relations within the language system, relations with other elements of meaning, whose meaning is in turn determined by a system of relations, and so on indefinitely.

Contextualism uses “scientific” approaches to language and culture in order to rise to a general view of the function of language and culture. This general view offers a transcendent insight into the limitations of meaning. One climbs up to this insight through scientific analysis of meaning. Once one has completed the climb, one realizes that all language, even the language used in scientific analysis, has instabilities.

Something akin to this situation is described by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.19

In the present case, the “ladder” consists in the social sciences. One climbs on their conclusions. When one has attained the postmodern insight, one “sees the world rightly.” Then he also sees that the social sciences are culturally conditioned human opinion. He “throws away the ladder.” This achievement is akin to a religious vision, not only in its move to transcendence, but in its essential inexpressibility. The limitations of language meanings imply that the vision cannot be made transparent.

Shortly before Wittgenstein’s analogy concerning the ladder that one throws away after climbing it, he has some telling remarks:

6.432 How the world is [the facts open to empirical observation], is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.

6.45 The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole.

The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.20

The vision of the whole, which shows the limits of language, is not only inexpressible, but “mystical,” and is akin to a vision from God’s point of view. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein thought that he had achieved such a vision through indirect expression about the nature of the ideal, logical language. But he later became dissatisfied with this solution and went on to analyze the nature of ordinary language, which he recognized was richer than the formerly envisioned logical ideal. The earlier Wittgenstein had a position similar to logical positivism, and fell into a similar pattern of claiming a transcendent understanding of the limits of language. The later Wittgenstein abandoned the logical ideal, but he did not give up the idea of analyzing the limits of language (in this case, ordinary language) in the hope of dissolving philosophical problems by showing that they transgressed the bounds.

Both of these moves show similarities to postmodern contextualism, in that they hope to use observations about language in order eventually to understand the limits of access to truth. The lure of transcendence and of “mystical” vision remains in both. The quest is in the end religious, even if it is no longer a quest to know “God” as traditionally conceived. Buddhism, remember, also has a quest: not to know God (Buddhism maintains that there is no personal Absolute) but to know final reality, and in knowing to dissolve the restlessness of the questing mind.21

How to answer restlessness

In the end, there are only two options. First, one may find rest in submitting to God. “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”22 Or, second, one may continue in the autonomous quest to which the serpent invited mankind.

In the second option, one tries to ascend to heaven by oneself, autonomously. Many counterfeit gods offer themselves as allegedly satisfying substitutes for the true God. But in the end they fail if one gives oneself over to them.

Underneath them all there remains one final “god,” namely the self, man himself, who aspires to “be like God.” In this final “quest,” man’s mind will be the limits of his self-constructed world, either the world of the early Wittgenstein’s atomic empirical facts, or the world that we form for ourselves through the power of language, or the mystical world of Buddhist insight that has seen through the illusion of both the phenomenal world and the world of ordinary thought. One thinks one has arrived at transcendent wisdom.

In ordinary consciousness a human person experiences limits in his senses and in his knowledge and in his ability to hold simultaneously in mind many meanings. He is confronted at every moment with his finiteness. He is not God. If he nevertheless persists in the delusion that he is the ultimate arbiter, he makes himself god. Then he forces himself to believe that his mind is the mind of god, and identical with reality. Thus, above or below or within the level of ordinary consciousness, the observer is identical with reality. This identity can take a more Kantian form, in which one claims that the external world is inaccessible, so that in practice one is living in the mental world that one claims is self-constructed. Or it can take a mystical monist form, in which one thinks that one’s mind in essence is one with the All. In their focus on the alleged ultimacy of the human mind, the two are more akin than one might think.

For all its apparent secularism and easy tolerance for religious differences, postmodern contextualism cannot evade the essentially religious quest of the restless mind. What is reality, and what can we know about it? Contextualists offer a fundamental vision of reality that limits and reconfigures the role of traditional religions. That looks secularist in spirit. What is not so obvious is that this vision has a fundamental affinity with mysticism. While pretending to be secular, it offers a religious answer to a religious longing, the longing for transcendent wisdom.

Contextualists may appear to be breezily tolerant of all sorts of religious views, provided that these views keep themselves in their assigned place. That is, the religious viewpoints are to be viewed as finite cultural viewpoints under the hegemony of multicultural tolerance. Tolerance demotes religions from their leading role in premodern cultures to an ancillary role as merely one colorful aspect of culture.

Traditional religions are thus given their place. And ruling over them all is a secularism that privatizes and tames the potency of religion, which otherwise would stir up dangerous absolutist and intolerant claims. This secularism thinks it knows the proper role for traditional religions. And how does it know? Only because it has first secured itself: it has assured itself that no religion can actually access transcendent truth (because of the limits of languages and cultures). This knowledge is the contextualist’s own claim to transcendence.

It is mystical, in that it cannot directly reveal itself in words, which are within the limits of language. But it is absolute (as the contextualist secretly assures himself). It gives “rest” by assuring the mind that there is nothing to know beyond its own self-constructed and language-constructed world. An early Wittgenstein aphorism may express it: “6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”23That aphorism is right next to the aphorism 6.522: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”

Counterfeits depending on truth

Many false routes for ascending to heaven offer themselves. They are counterfeits. But counterfeits are always counterfeits of the truth. Each of the routes discussed above–and others that we might add–is not merely a false route, but a route containing within itself many individual insights, many partial truths. Without dependence on truth, these routes would not offer the least attraction. The challenge, then, is not merely to discern the difference between true and counterfeit, but to discern even within a counterfeit its dependence on truth.

For instance, in the twentieth century not only logical positivists but also Martin Heidegger, post-Wittgensteinian ordinary-language philosophy, and some postmodernists have looked at language as a key to transcendent wisdom. And in one sense they are right. God created and governs the world through speaking. If indeed philosophers could get to the bottom of language, they would understand everything important about the world, because they would understand God’s language ruling the world. In fact, they would understand God himself. They would understand the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Unfortunately, that is not the way that it has turned out. The philosophers’ search after wisdom shows not only a profound insight into the fact that language is a fruitful source of wisdom, but also a profound failure. Which of the philosophers has managed to become aware of the true God, and his profound presence in language? No, God is not found through human wisdom. Rather, God chooses to find out and reverse human rebellion through the “folly” of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18-25):

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:20-21)

1 See Steven R. Coxhead, “Deuteronomy 30:11-14 as a Prophecy of the New Covenant in Christ,” Westminster Theological Journal 68/2 (2006): 305-320.

2 On counterfeiting, see Vern S. Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2000), 16-25.

The allegory is set out in Plato, Republic, Book 7, 514a-520a.

4 Ibid., 517b.

5 That is, a person’s own literal death, rather than the death of Christ, becomes the mediator for achieving wisdom.

6 On non-Christian rationalism and irrationalism, see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 13-15.

7 One might ask whether something very similar to this program for language was in process in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

8 For further discussion of Plato and the larger field of Greek philosophy, see John M. Frame, “Greeks Bearing Gifts,” in Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007), 1-36.

9 Richard Rorty comments:

… Kant seems never to have asked himself how, given the restrictions on human cognition the Critique of Pure Reason had discerned, it was possible to assume the “transcendental standpoint” from which that book was purportedly written…. (Rorty,Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 110)

10 See Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 79-80.

11 See ibid., 79-81, 259-283.

12 Poythress, Redeeming Science, pp. 13-31, 259-283.

13 John Byl, The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math, and Meaning (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004).

14 See, in particular, Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith, (2d ed.; Waynesboro, GA/Bletchley, UK: Paternoster, 2005), which refers to a large number of apologetic works in a variety of traditions. I myself belong to the tradition of Cornelius Van Til (see Defense of the Faith), which acknowledges value in other traditions but also claims that at times they have been inconsistent and have conceded too much to the power of man’s would-be autonomous reason.

15 John M. Frame, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence,” in John Warwick Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), pp. 159-177; John M. Frame, “Scripture Speaks for Itself,” in John Warwick Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), pp. 178-200..

16 A more sophisticated Kantianism might claim not that the Mount Sinai theophany is literally impossible, but rather that it is not direct revelation, because it is phenomena, and as such it must still be subjected to the critical faculties of human reason as the arbiter of religious claims. The word “must” is tantamount to saying that man must insist on being absolute lord of his ideas even when, to do so, he must defy the most overt and overwhelming manifestation of God. In other words, man must seek Satanic autonomy no matter what.

17 See, e.g., Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967).

18 For an introduction to postmodernism, see Heath White, Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006).

19 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922), p. 189, propositions 6.54 and 7. I am, of course, using Wittgenstein’s picture, but not the specific application that he gave to it.

20 Wittgenstein, Tractatus, p. 187.

21 Richard Rorty, for example, proposes to find rest, or at least the best way to live life, in the acceptance of the nonexistence of God and the nonexistence of transcendent truth:

To drop the idea of languages as representations, and to be thoroughly Wittgensteinian in our approach to language, would be to de-divinize the world. Only if we do that can we fully accept the argument I offered earlier–the argument that since truth is a property of sentences, since sentences are dependent for their existence upon vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths. (Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 21)

Rorty’s rhetoric offers us a proposed answer to ultimate questions, and therefore includes a promise of transcendent wisdom.

22 Updated language, from St. Augustin, The Confessions of St. Augustin, 1.1.1, in Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 1:45.

23 Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.521, p. 187.



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