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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Occam’s Razor and WORLD magazine (speech: GWP board of directors)

(This is a talk given to God’s World Publications, Inc. Board of Directors, Atlanta, GA 5/93. In those early years of God’s World Publications, Inc. (it was reformulated in l986) we would periodically have lectures and discussions following the lectures. These times were meant to stimulate thought and new ideas among board members. I joined the board in l991 and my talk at the May board meeting was meant to be such a lecture. The subject matter gives an indication of the quality of the founding board members of GWP.)

Introduction

“As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.” (Prov. 27:19)
“A wise man’s heart guides his mouth, and makes his lips persuasive.” (Prov. 16:23)
“For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil things.” (Matt. 12:35; cf, Matt. 15:18, Luke 6:45 and Solomon’s example in I Kings 3:12; 2 Chron 9:23)
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well-spring of life.” (Prov. 4:23)

To the authors of Scripture, the “heart” was the seat of the intellect; that is, the mind, the purpose, the intention, the understanding, the knowledge, the insight, the discernment. In short, all the cognitive faculties of the person are referenced in the Scripture by the term “heart.”

Biblical Framework

Christianity is a religion of the heart (that is, mind), as well as the emotions; it is a philosophy as well as an experience. One of my favorite passages comes from Paul, that towering Jewish intellectual of the first century, when he wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Paul is contrasting God’s weapons of war with Satan’s. Paul’s weaponry was weaponry of the intellect. His was an ideological war, a war of ideas.

I would submit to you that the techniques of warfare haven’t changed a bit in 2000 years, indeed 4000 years. Ours is not a battle for political power, or economic power, or military power, or cultural power. We don’t demolish stone fortresses, we demolish intellectual citadels. We don’t capture human slaves; our bondsmen are “empty” notions and philosophical systems (Eph. 5:6). The weapon God has given us is our mind, molded by the ideas and wisdom contained in Scripture, explained by godly teachers, and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Our tactics are active encounter, that is, persuasive engagement (cf., Acts 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9; 26:28; etc.) with the ideas of spiritual darkness and slavery and foolishness that masquerade as God’s will for His creation (2 Cor. 11:13-15). But, to engage, we must know, to use Pauline language, the ideological “strongholds,” the “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col. 2:8), “godless chatter and opposing ideas” (1 Tim. 6:20), the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:20), and “the basic principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3).

Those of us in this room are on the ideological front lines in America like few other groups. God has opened “a great door for effective work” (1 Cor. 16:9) for God’s World Publications, Inc. We must wisely and boldly go through it, for as we go through the door we will face fierce opposition. As it was for Christ, it will be for us also (John 15:18).

Not only are we, as Christians, a people carried along by beautiful ideas (Phil. 4:8), but we as a peculiar group of Christians are captivated by a uniquely beautiful idea: “To assist in developing a Christian understanding of the world, rather than accepting existing secular ideologies.” Sound familiar? It ought to, it’s on our masthead. I would submit to you that God’s World, Inc. is a profoundly ideological and principled organization. It must be so for it to be effective in such an ideologically “wicked and perverse generation.” We, together, are called to “hold out the word of life” to our culture (Phil. 2:15-16). It is a great and awesome calling.

Those of us who have come to this publishing enterprise rather late owe an enormous debt to you fathers in the faith who have persevered and sustained God’s World Publications, Inc. (and particularly WORLD magazine) through difficult and tenuous times so that we can have the opportunity to join you in this great endeavor which is standing in “the gap before our Lord on behalf of our land” (Ez. 22:30). You are like the sons of Tula, “mighty men of valor in your generation” (1 Chron. 7:2).

Let me now, for a moment, turn from Scriptural imagery to illustrate why we must be vigilant to analyze ourselves, as well as our society in order to speak faithfully and lovingly and courageously to our time. Every Christian by virtue of salvation is a moral philosopher, and to repeat, we at God’s World, Inc., are called to dwell in the world of ideas because that is where God has pitched the battle.

If you were to offer the name of the most influential British philosopher, who would you suggest? Francis Bacon? Thomas Hobbs? John Locke? Isaac Newton? David Hume? Adam Smith? John Stuart Mill? Bertrand Russell?

William of Occam

Let me suggest to you a British philosopher who called himself a Christian and who the Church has called “The Invincible Doctor” (Venerabilis Inceptor), whose ideas ended medieval philosophy and ushered in, Renaissance thought and the Reformation activity. Martin Luther called him “my beloved Master William” because Luther was so deeply influenced by his ideas. This scholarly and devout Franciscan priest was so outraged by the venality and corrupt luxury of the papacy that he denounced the popes and was imprisoned by them in Avignon. His ideas led directly to the separation of church and state, and eventually to the creation of democratic civil government through the Frenchman Charles Montesquieu and the Englishman John Locke.

Who was this 14th century English Christian philosopher who lived after Thomas Aquinas and before Martin Luther? His name–William Occam. Occam’s philosophy is called “nominalism” (Latin for “belonging to a name”) or “voluntarism (Latin for “will”).

Occam held that the science of God (theology) was not a rational science. The truths of faith are inaccessible to reason. Only faith can access the divine. Therefore, philosophy has nothing to do with the truths of Christianity. God is not reason. God is beyond reason. He is omnipotent, totally free from any hindrances, even the hindrances of reason or human understanding. God, therefore, is not a proper subject of the human intellect. His existence cannot be really proved; therefore we cannot adequately analyze God’s nature. So, Christian piety doesn’t need reasoning, but rather revelation.

Occam’s position implied a double truth: one kind of truth is available through science or philosophy; another kind of truth is received through revelation. One kind of truth is the product of human reason; the other kind of truth is a matter of faith. One kind of truth is the knowable, physical world; the other kind of truth is the unknowable, abstract metaphysical world.

Furthermore, because God is omnipotent, He is totally free to will what he wants. God’s will is the most important aspect of God. The ultimate ground of moral law is God’s will, not his character. To call actions “good” or “evil” can mean only that they are commanded or forbidden by God. Moral duty is the obligation to be obedient to a statute of God’s revealed will, and not conformation to God’s character. The moral law is founded on the free, divine choice, rather than on divine essence. God can do anything or order anything that He wants, as long as it does not involve a logical contradiction. Things are what they are because God chose to make them that way by his supreme, sovereign will.

For the human individual, the moral obligation is to follow God’s will, however one understands God’s will. The individual does that through intuition or conscience or, what Occam calls “right reason.” Right reason or conscience then is the guide for human morality. Here we see the importance of Occam for Luther. If we follow our conscience, we may choose badly, but we will be blameless in God’s eyes because we were following the only thing we can follow, our “right reason,” our conscience, our sincerity.

Occam’s Legacy

What is Occam’s current ideological legacy? He left us with a divided view of the world where we can know God only by faith, and not by reason. I believe Francis Schaeffer lays too much at the feet of Thomas Aquinas when Schaeffer highlights Aquinas as the main influence in the nature-grace duality. (Mark Noll agrees with this point in the Rutherford Journal, 3/93.) I believe it is more accurate to claim that our English Christian cousin used his philosophic razor to split grace from nature, in order to maintain grace in the face of the Aristotelian philosophic onslaught of his day! Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of his attempt to preserve Christianity ushered in the intellectual chaos of our modern culture. Occam’s ideas had the effect of separating science from metaphysics (i.e., Christianity). The study of natural things became more and more independent of metaphysical or theological explanations which led to the growth of modern secular science, to profound skepticism and radical empiricism. Knowledge is separated from metaphysics. Education is separated from religion.

Occam left us with the notion that we can only know that God acts according to his will and not his character since we can’t know what his character is. And my understanding of God’s will, through my conscience, is as correct as the next person’s. Church authority is broken (eventually, any transcendent authority is broken), while individual authority and autonomy through the conscience is built up. And when God’s infallible and binding Scripture is discarded (as it has been) humanity is left with no moral certitude at all.

It is not too much for a Christian commentator like myself to say that the tragic result of Occam’s Razor is that man has been left feeling alienated, alone and insecure in his world because God has been removed. Man’s life is now practice without theory. Social progress is defined by an enumeration of particular benefits and goals, and not consistency with a transcendent vision or purpose. We are more concerned about personal psychology than metaphysical truth.

Conclusion

What’s my point? To return to Biblical language, what I am urging is that we must constantly “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), we must be as “shrewd as snakes” (Matt. 10:16), we must “test all things” (1 Thess 5:21), we must “not believe certain things” (Matt. 24:23, 26), and we must “stimulate each other to wholesome thinking” (2 Peter 3:1).

It is easy to identity the “bold and arrogant slanderers of celestial things,” as Peter would say (2 Peter 2:10). It is far less easy to identify those who purposefully masquerade godly wisdom to seduce the church. We must be discerning to differentiate the Occams from the Luthers. Prov. 23:6-8 tells us to beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and in Paul’s final exhortation to the Ephesian elders he warns: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples- after them so be on your guard” (Acts 20:30). Occam came in the masquerade of Biblical Christianity but he was destructively wrong.

We live and minister in perilous times. There is an astonishingly huge vacuum of Christian leadership in America today. Christians from coast to coast and border to border are frightened and angry, and they are looking for intellectual leaders and spiritual hope. God’s World, Inc., can provide some much needed direction for the body of Christ. But we must be exceedingly careful and circumspect and wise to guide our Christian constituency to the Biblical pattern of Christian leadership and hope.

Great evangelical seminaries, organizations and publishing houses continue to cave in to theological pluralism and therapeutic theology, forfeiting, in the process a rigorous defense of God’s revealed truth (1 Peter 3:15) and a corresponding transforming application to our culture. There is a rejection of content for style, truth and meaning for simple impressions, and ethics for social role playing. As one of our contributing editors, Charles Colson has written, there is the widespread tendency to demonize the Clinton administration and to see political victory as spiritual victory, or vice versa.

Os Guinness, a friend and collaborator of God’s World, Inc., has just written in his new book, The American Hour, that we are in a “crises of cultural authority” in America and the question as to who will shape the future is still, for a time, unresolved. I would suggest that Occam’s razor-sharp heresy is gaining ascendency as our moral and spiritual center gives way under the ideological onslaught of unbelief. (cf., Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”). There is no current ideological authority in America. Guinness claims there are four future choices facing America during this brief window of opportunity. He says of the four, America probably will embrace either a national vision which is deeply secular, liberal and prosperous—or as Guinness’s mentor Francis Schaeffer said, “personal peace and affluence” (A Christian Manifesto). The other vision, which he and we favor, is one that results in a “massive revitalization of American life, including both its ideals and institutions, through a movement of decisive spiritual revival and reformation.”

God’s World Publications, Inc., stands “as a watchman to the house of Israel” (Ez. 3:17) in this ideological war. There is no more daunting task than that which is ours—to cull the intelligent, and edifying and true wheat from the chaff in such a way that the body of Christ can better, to quote Paul, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith.” (1 Tim. 6:11). May God give us wisdom and discernment and courage to be faithful to His grand calling for God’s World Publications, Inc.

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