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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review: The Word of God and the Mind of Man

Book Review: "The Word of God and the Mind of Man" by Christian philosopher Dr. Ronald Nash


The Word of God and the Mind of Man by Ronald Nash is a book about Christian epistemology (how we can know what we know). I've been intrigued by discussions of knowledge for quite some time. I was enjoying a philosophy lecture series by Dr. Nash, and while discussing epistemology, he mentioned this book. The book is divided into two parts consisting of a total of twelve chapters. In the first part, Nash provides a case against different religious epistemic systems of the past and present, while in the second part he provides a case for the Christian God being the epistemic foundation for human knowledge.

Chapter 1: Hume's Gap- Divorcing Faith and Knowledge

In Chapter 1 Nash clarifies some misconceptions about David Hume. He explained that Hume's epistemology was not based on an atheistic worldview, but one that held to man's inability to know metaphysical things with any level of certainty. Hume's argument against miracles, was not against miracles happening, but against man having any rational reason for believing that miracles happen. Nash explains that Hume believed that faith was indirectly related to the amount of thinking put into it. In other words, Hume promoted a completely blind faith. He explains that Hume's effect on Christianity (the split between faith and reason) was not from a direct attack on the truth of the worldview, but an attack that emphasized mystery rather than rationality or a balance of the two. Since it was not a direct attack on the truth of Christianity, Christians did not feel the need to defend against Hume's arguments.

Chapter 2: Theological Agnosticism: From Kant to Ritschl

In Chapter 2 Nash describes the Kantian legacy on Christianity. Immanuel Kant proposed that there are two "worlds": the world of perception that man can know things about, and the world of reality which man cannot know anything about. He believed that God is part of the world of reality that man cannot know, so God was unknowable by man. The division between what man can know and what he cannot know is called "Kant's Wall". Kant's religion was based on actions (his ethics) rather than beliefs.

Nash moves on to Friedrich Schleiermacher. His focus being that religion has nothing to do with our knowledge or our actions, but our feelings. Religion is more of a subjective experience than something that can be known as being true or something that should really affect the rest of our daily lives. Nash then brings in Albrecht Ritschl who was not a fan of Schleiermacher's religion of feeling, but did like Kant's placing of God and other metaphysical things into a world unknowable to man. Ritschl preferred a religion of action (ethics). Nash identifies all three of these epistemic systems to the current Christian church (both liberal and conservative sides).

Chapter 3: The Assault on Propositional Revelation

Nash begin Chapter 3 by explaining that Kant's wall implies that God is so transcendent that man cannot even comprehend the divine mind. Any revelation that makes a positive affirmation about the divine mind is not valid. Which means that scripture is not "God-breathed". Those who hold this view tend to hold a different view of what "revelation" is. Its more personal and experiential.  Some even hold that Jesus Christ was the revelation itself (rather than propositions about who Jesus is or did being the revelation).The Bible is not God's Word, but His Word can be found in the Bible.

Chapter 4: A Defense of Propositional Revelation

In Chapter 4 Nash provides a philosophical defense for the idea that Revelation is both propositional and personal. He demonstrates that in order to know someone personally, some propositions must be known about the person. Propositional revelation and personal revelation are not competing with one another; they complement each other.

Nash address some of the concerns about Revelation being propositional. Two of those concerns being that all Scripture must be interpreted literally (without taking into account genre) and that it under-emphasizes the human element of the writing of Scripture. He reiterates that having propositional knowledge about God is not in competition with knowing God. Finally Nash distinguishes between the propositions of a revelation and the act of revealing the propositions, but states that they are both revelation.

Chapter 5: A Brief But Necessary Interlude

Chapter 5 marks the boundary between the two parts of the book. Nash states that he has spent the first part of the book arguing against different epistemic views and views of Revelation. His next part will be focusing on developing and defending a Christian theory of epistemology that creates a solid foundations for human knowledge.

Chapter 6: The Christian Logos

Nash begins the second part of the book by reiterating that Hume's Gap and Kant's Wall created a split between ontology (what actually is) and epistemology (what we can know). His first goal is to establish that the Christian worldview provides a bridge between the two. Nash identifies this bridge being the Logos identified at the beginning of John's gospel (Jesus Christ). He goes into describing the philosophical history of the Logos doctrine and in so doing, explains it in more detail. He shows that Scripture not only identifies Jesus as the "cosmological" Logos (the Creator God) and the epistemic Logos (the bridge between what is and what can be known), but also the soteriological Logos (the One whom man can gain salvation through). Nash explains that without Jesus Christ (the second person of the Trinity), creation could not exist, knowledge could not exist, and salvation could not exist (not to mention the many combinations that those three could affect each other).

Chapter 7: Rationalism and Empiricism and
Chapter 8: The Christian Rationalism of St. Augustine

In Chapters 7 and 8 Nash gets a little more detailed about how man can know things. He brings in knowledge via the senses and via rationale alone. He goes into a discussion of both modern empiricism and rationalism. These chapters get a little heavier on the philosophy of Plato's forms. He explains the paradoxes created by rationalism and empiricism in the absence of the Divine Logos (Jesus Christ) and shows how man being created in the Image of God (the Divine Logos) eliminates such paradoxes. It seems that the implication throughout these chapters is that any worldview, that denies the deity of Jesus Christ or that man was created  in (and still possesses) the image of God, has no foundation for reality (metaphysics) or knowledge (epistemology) of such a reality- they fail at the most basic philosophical levels.

Chapter 9: The Religious Revolt Against Logic

Nash devotes Chapter 9 to bringing several previous chapters together. He discusses the Church's antagonistic position regarding logic and reason. He explains that some influential theologians have promoted the idea that contradictions are part of who God is and accepting those contradictions is a noble act of faith demanded by Scripture. This idea has led many in the Church to believe that faith and reason are incompatible with one another; and since they are committed to faith, they react vehemently against logic and reason. Nash addresses this by introducing the concept of the law of noncontradiction and investigating what God knows versus what man can know. It appears to me that Nash is implying that such an idea is either a direct decedent of or a reintroduction of Kant's Wall (discussed in Chapter 2).

Chapter 10: Reason and Religion

Chapter 10 goes into much more detail about the law of noncontradiction. Nash explains the argument for its truth and how it governs language, knowledge, and reality. He also discusses God's relationship to the law (does it constrain God?) and how faith is affected by it as well. Throughout all these discussions, Nash demonstrates that the denial of the law of noncontradiction in any of these areas leads to absurdities and impossibilities- communication (including divine propositions, such as those found in Scripture), knowledge (what is being communicated), and reality (what knowledge is about and language describes), itself, are impossible without such a law.

Chapter 11: Reason, Revelation, and Language

Chapter 11 is spent discussing language. Nash starts off by stating that one's ideas about language are directly related to their worldview. He examines three contemporary theories of what language is, and he demonstrates how they are all self-defeating. He then explains how only the acceptance of the Divine Logos allows for a philosophy of language that has a solid foundation. From this the reader may continue to conclude that the other theories of language do not allow for anyone to know anything (due to their inability to communicate knowledge) about anything. The Christian worldview is the only one that contains a foundation for communication of knowledge about reality.

Chapter 12: Revelation and the Bible

In the final chapter Nash addresses a view of the Bible as being different from Revelation. It was addressed a little in a previous chapter, but it is investigated much deeper in this last chapter. Nash concludes that the deficiencies in the separation of the two require that the idea be abandoned, in favor of the idea that the Bible is God's revelation to man.

He concludes the book by stating that the theory he proposes is a complete package that addresses reality, knowledge, and communication of that knowledge about reality. He states that the ability to apprehend and understand knowledge is grounded in the fact that man has been created in the Image of God and that all three find a solid foundation only in the existence and divinity of Jesus Christ. He states that God has revealed Himself to man in both propositional and personal ways; it is up to the individual to accept that the fact that that revelation is true or not.

Reviewer's Thoughts

This has to be my favorite book that I have read to date. It is short, but not short on content or required brain-power. If you are unfamiliar with philosophical terms, you will want a philosophical dictionary near you, and maybe someone who can help explain some things. If you are perfectly comfortable in the realm of philosophy, I cannot recommend this book enough. If you are a Christian, this book cannot but strengthen your belief that Christianity is the true worldview; if you are not a Christian, it will challenge you to critically examine the philosophical foundations that ground your current worldview.

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