A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part II First Cause Argument

A Review of “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell: Part II First Cause Argument

In the last post I discussed Russell’s definition of what it means to be Christian. You can read Russell’s presentation here. In this post I will discuss Russell’s first reason for not being a Christian, the First Cause Argument. There are different variations of the argument and Russell provides yet another variation. However Russell’s understanding of the argument can be framed this way:

  1. Everything we see in the world has a cause
  2. Each cause regresses back to a first cause
  3. The first cause is God

Russell’s response to the argument is:

  1. If everything must have a cause then god must have a cause
  2. If god had a cause then he cannot be the first or uncaused cause

The problem that comes up is found in premise one of the response. If everything has a cause “then God must have a cause”. The First Cause Argument never articulates or alludes to by implication a God that is caused. In other forms of the argument premise one is read “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. Notice the use of the term “exist”. In classical theism “existence” is never used of God because “existence” in its classical understanding assumes contingency. Only contingent things can “exist”. God is not contingent thus He at no time ever existed. In classical theism we believe in God’s Being or reality but not His “existence” because He is not contingent.  If God required a cause His Being would be contingent upon that cause and He would lose His God like quality since God cannot be contingent upon anything. In premise one of the argument Russell restricts causation to only those things seen in the world. Because of God’s non-metaphysical nature He can’t be grouped among those things that we see in the world, and therefore causation can’t be a necessary attribute of His Being. This is a categorical error that I believe to be of significant proportion.

However, to Russell’s credit, he is speaking from a naturalistic perspective. Arguments can be made that such a restricted perspective-like naturalism- does not reflect adequately on the whole reality of human experience, a discussion for another post. Suffice it to say, from his naturalistic assumption Russell is being consistent with his naturalism. If one begins his interpretation of reality with a naturalistic foundation as Russell does in his response, then all facts of his experience will be based upon that naturalistic assumption including causation when it comes to God. Notice how different Russell’s response is from the First Cause Argument he sites. The argument begins with temporal earthly “existent” or contingent things that owe their contingent existence to the “non-existent” or non-contingent universal first cause. However, Russell’s response assumes God is part of the temporal “existent” or contingent world. I think this demonstrates Russell’s inability to deal with the argument at had. His pre-commitment to naturalism cannot reflect adequately on the argument from First Cause.

For this reason I tend not to use the argument of First Cause outside of a Christian context that can make sense out of universal first causes. Even more problematic is that the First Cause Argument does not argue for a God who is triune, but rather a general first cause, what ever that might be. I think this approach misses the point. Purpose of teaching about God is not to teach an abstract form of God as a universal first cause but to teach Him as He is in His full triune Being. In any case I would say Russell’s first reason for not being a Christian is insufficiently articulated and should be reconfigured or rejected.

John Calvin on the Knowledge of God

The previous post-debate between Brunner and Barth-raised the question of John Calvin’s teaching on the knowledge of God. It is a fundamental question that we all raise but also seems to be confused on occasion. Calvin teaches that there are three fundamental aspects when it comes to the knowledge of God: the Sensus Divinitatis (SD) (“sense of the divine in man” or internal knowledge), external Knowledge of God, and knowledge of God the Redeemer.

For Calvin SD amounts to a universal belief in God the Creator. In regards to SD Calvin gives us the following reasons: (1) Observation shows us that all men demonstrate belief in God. (2) The various expressions of religious worship throughout the world seem to indicate a genuine appeal to a conception of deity or ultimate authority (3) Even those who object to God have a conception of Him that they are objecting to. Such a conception of God renders all men without excuse before God their Creator. Therefore, this natural conception of God that is held by all is related to theological and moral knowledge (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 3)

Calvin also taught that an external knowledge of God can be seen in the physical world. This is similar to what Paul says when writes  “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1 ). Calvin does not offer a syllogistic argument for God’s existence in his discussion of the external knowledge of God. But he does teach that God’s attributes such as power and wisdom are revealed in creation (Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 5).

For Calvin, knowledge of God is distinguished from knowledge of God the Redeemer. The key distinguishing factor between these is the former is arrived at through natural revelation (external) while the latter through special revelation by the Holy Spirit (internal).

The key take away is the three part aspect to the knowledge of God SD, external, and knowledge of God the redeemer. Understanding how it is that we come to know God will help us understand how it is that we are to do as Christ explained in the Great Commission “make disciples”. Relying solely on external as some tend to do is insufficient. It is when we realize that the work of making disciples is completely God’s work then we can rely on God’s appointed means, the Gospel which is the power unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit the reveal-er of Gospel truth.

Wittgenstein: Paschal Meditation for Easter

“I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.) It says that all wisdom is cold; and that you can no more use it for setting your life to rights that you can forge iron when it is cold. The point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you; you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription. — But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction. — (I.e. this is how I understand it.) Once you have been turned around, you must stay turned around. Wisdom is passionless. But faith by contrast is what Kierkegaard calls a passion.” (Culture and Value. Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Wittgenstein’s fideism (as well as Kierkegaard’s assumingly) has reached its excess in the claim that sound doctrines are all useless.  The relationship between sound doctrine and life are not among the polarized binaries like good and evil.  The danger is to adopt one to the exclusion of the other.  A life without sound doctrine is much like Tom Petty’s rebel without a clue.  The absence of sound doctrine does not leave one with no doctrine rather what one is left with is doctrine that is unsound.   The opposing distinction “sound doctrine” is articulated by Wittgenstein’s claim to passionless wisdom.  This is a turn from the facts of objective reality to the personalized experience of the subjective self.  But this does not necessarily capture the Christian condition.

Within Christianity there is an exchange between the two so that the Christian life is influenced by sound doctrine.  It is because of sound doctrine that the subjective does not drift into the great wide open.  Conversely it is the subjectivity which gives life to the objective content of sound doctrine.  Why will the subjective hearts of many believers be stirred tomorrow morning on Easter Sunday?  Because of something objective that Christ did 2000 years ago by taking their sin upon Himself and giving them His merited righteousness.  This is the relationship between sound doctrine and passion.