Grudem's Systematic Theology, #2

The following practice question in chapter 10 of Grudem ties together my major complaints, so far, of his text: namely that there is weak, to non-existent, development of the doctrines of epistemology and ethics. To be sure, Grudem has said correct things about each, but he is inconsistent in his application of those things. I've already mentioned one problem with his exposition of ethics in a previous post; this post looks at a problem with both epistemology and ethics.

How can we be sure that when we reach heaven God will not tell us that most of what we had learned about him was wrong, and that we would have to forget what we had learned and begin to learn different things about him?

     — page 152, question #2

The answer that I think Grudem expects, based on the contents of the chapter, would be something like: we can be sure that what God has revealed to us about Himself is true, because He understands that our knowledge of Him requires the revelation of Himself [Mt 11:7], He desires His people to "know him, the only true God", [Jer 31:34], He reveals Himself truly [Num 23:19], and that He would not deceive us, because He is Truth [John 3:33] and the ultimate good. [1 John 1:5].

But the correct answer is, "we cannot be sure."

Part of the problem is semantics. Grudem doesn't define the difference between "sure" knowledge and "uncertain" knowledge. I recently had a conversation at Starbucks about epistemology with an Emory graduate student concerning the question, "do you know that you are at Starbucks right now?" He ended up asking me this several times as we went back and forth trying to clarify various issues. While he always responded in the affirmative, my only answer was "I believe that I am." He based his answer on the assumptions that, first, there really is a reality that is external to us and, second, that our senses give us a (mostly) accurate indication of the nature of that reality. I have no problem with either of those two premises but, as anyone who has read Descartes or watched the movie
The Matrix knows, that might not be an accurate view of reality at all.

What are the differences between sure and uncertain knowledge? I claim that I know that two plus two equals four. I also know that if a plane is flat that the angles of a triangle sum to 180 degrees, but that if a plane is curved, the sum of the angles will be more than 180 degrees if the plane is positively curved, and less than 180 degrees if the plane is negatively curved. I claim I know these things, because the results are self-contained. No connections to external things are needed for these statements to be true.

But the moment we consider objects external to ourselves, things become more complicated. If I physically measure the angles of a triangle, I get 180 degrees as the answer (within the margins of measurement error). This means that, locally, space is flat. But what result would we get if the sides of the triangle were thousands of light-years apart? That depends on the overall curvature of space which, in turn, depends on the total amount of mass. We think the mass is such that, overall, space is flat. This knowledge is less certain because it depends on a correspondence between a model and a measurement between the model and the thing being modeled. Here, the uncertainty is whether or not the mental model is in a one-to-one correspondence with the external object.

Then, if there is uncertainty whether or not a mental model corresponds to an external object, there is also uncertainty whether or not the right mental model is being used, since there is usually an abundance of mental models, but (supposedly) only one reality. Our hope is that we can find a mismatch between one of the models and the external thing, so that the number of models can be reduced, but even if that's possible, it's usually a painstaking, time consuming effort. But what happens if there is no known way to distinguish which of two explanations are correct? Is whatever I am in a place physically external me that serves coffee, or is this all just a simulation? I just don't really know, and while I am not a solipsist by choice, I cannot logically defend that choice against the alternatives.

In one sense, scientists, theologians, and philosophers face the same problem: a multiplicity of explanatory models. The scientist can test the model against Nature and hopefully converge on the correct model. If Christianity is right, then the theologian has no such recourse. While we can experience God, and we believe that God reveals certain aspects of Himself to us, we cannot experiment on Him. In fact, we are forbidden to do so: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" [Mt 4:7]. Philosophers don't have either recourse.

At best, theologians can test what they think God has revealed for consistency, under the assumption that God is consistent. But then the problem of ethics arises. Grudem writes:

God's righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right.

     — page 204

In particular, this means that God does not have to conform to our expectations of goodness. If, at the end of all things, God were to say "just kidding", He would be righteous in doing so.

This is actually an important thought experiment, because we learn that we cannot judge God according to our expectations, nor can we judge God by any external moral standard. All we can do is trust Him and if things don't happen the way we want them to, we have no other recourse than to say, "You, alone, are God."
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Grudem's Systematic Theology, #1

Based on the recommendation of my Sunday School teacher, I picked up Grudem's Systematic Theology. I've gone through the first eleven chapters. While there are a few gems here and there, they are overshadowed by the egregious parts, such at this philosophical argument for the unchangeableness of God. Here, Grudem attempts to supplement the Biblical statements on God's unchangeableness with an argumentum ad absurdum:

At first it might not seem very important for us to affirm God's unchangeableness. The idea is so abstract that we may not immediately realize its significance. But if we stop for a moment to imagine what it would be like if God could change, the importance of this doctrine becomes more clear. For example, if God could change (in his being, perfections, purposes, or promises), then any change would be either for the better or for the worse. But if God changed for the better, then he was not the best possible being when we first trusted him. And how could we be sure that he is the best possible being now? But if God could change for the worse (in his very being), then what kind of God might he become?

     — page 168

The fundamental flaw with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that there is a fixed standard against which one or more of God's attributes can be compared. Furthermore, if God changes, and this standard does not, then this means that the measure is external to God. But this cannot be so, since God is not answerable to any external thing. So if God were to change, the standard itself would change — since God is His own standard of good and evil. The statement, "then any change would be for the better or for the worse" is wrong. Were God to change, both the initial, intermediate, and final states would all be perfect.

This lack of understanding of measures of good and evil permeates Reform theology. But that's a post for another time.

Update 10/5:

Grudem is woefully inconsistent. Later in the book, he writes:

He is therefore the final standard of good.

     — page 198

This is exactly what I said ("God is His own standard of good and evil"), but Grudem didn't integrate this with his argument on page 168.
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Sputnik's Gonna Get Me!

sputnik
Purely by coincidence, we visited the National Air and Space Museum on Saturday which happened to be the 45th anniversary of the first Moon landing. There, I again met my old nemesis, Sputnik. It was launched by the former Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. I was two years old. My father used to tell me that I was very concerned that Sputnik "was gonna get me." No, I am not neurotic. I suspect some encouragement by my parents.

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Neurosis and Psychosis

Last Thursday, I spent a pleasant morning at the Starbucks at the Hoffman Center talking with Jake, who is one of the regulars. He shared a way to understand the difference between neurosis and psychosis. "A neurotic is someone who believes that two plus two equals four and is deeply troubled by it. A psychotic is someone who believes that two plus two equals five and is quite happy about it."

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