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Agnosticism comes from two Greek words (a, “no”; gnosis, “knowledge”). The term agnosticism was coined by T. H. Huxley. It literally means “no-knowledge,” the opposite of a Gnostic (Huxley, vol. 5). Thus, an agnostic is someone who claims not to know. As applied to knowledge of God, there are two basic kinds of agnostics, those who claim that the existence and nature of God are not known, and those who hold God to be unknowable. Since the first type does not eliminate all religious knowledge, attention here will center on the second.
Over 100 years before Huxley (1825–1895), the writings of David Hume (1711–1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) laid down the philosophical basis of agnosticism. Much of modern philosophy takes for granted the general validity of the types of arguments they set forth.
Skepticism of Hume
Even Kant was a rationalist until he was “awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” by reading Hume. Technically Hume’s views are skeptical, but they serve agnostic aims. Hume’s reasoning is based in his claim that there are only two kinds of meaningful statements.
“If we take into our hands any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).
Any statement that is neither purely a relation of ideas (definitional or mathematical) on the one hand or a matter of fact (empirical or factual) on the other is meaningless. Of course all statements about God fall outside these categories, hence knowledge of God becomes impossible (see Acognosticism).
Empirical Atomism. Furthermore, all sensations are experienced as “entirely loose and separate.” Causal connections are made by the mind only after one has observed a constant conjunction of things in experience. All one really experiences is a series of unconnected and separate sensations. Indeed, there is no direct knowledge even of one’s “self,” for all we know of ourselves is a disconnected bundle of sense impressions. It does make sense to speak of connections made only in the mind a priori or independent of experience. Hence, from experience there are no known and certainly no necessary connections. All matters of experience imply a possible contrary state of affairs.
Causality Based on Custom. According to Hume “all reasoning concerning matters of fact seems to be founded on the relation of cause and effect.… By means of that relation alone can we go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses” (Hume IV, 2; see Causality, Principle of; First Principles). And knowledge of the relation of cause and effect is not a priori but arises entirely from experience. There is always the possibility of the post hoc fallacy—namely, that things happen after other events (even regularly) but are not really caused by them. For example, the sun rises regularly after the rooster crows but certainly not because the rooster crows. One can never know causal connections. And without a knowledge of the Cause of this world, for example, one is left in agnosticism about such a supposed God.
Knowledge by Analogy. Even if one grants that every event has a cause, we cannot be sure what the cause is like. Hence, in his famous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume contends that the cause of the universe may be (1) different from human intelligence since human inventions differ from those of nature; (2) finite, since the effect is finite and one only need infer a cause adequate for the effect; (3) imperfect, since there are imperfections in nature; (4) multiple, for the creation of the world looks more like a long-range trial and error product of many cooperating deities; (5) male and female, since this is how humans generate; and (6) anthropomorphic, with hands, nose, eyes, and other body parts such as his creatures have. Hence, analogy leaves us in skepticism about the nature of any supposed Cause of the world.
The agnosticism of Kant
The writings of Hume had a profound influence on the thinking of Kant. Before reading them, Kant held a form of rationalism in the tradition of Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). Leibniz, and Christian Freiherr von Wolff (1679–1754) following him, believed reality was rationally knowable and that theism was demonstrable. It was the pen of Kant that put an abrupt end to this sort of thinking in the philosophical world.
The Impossibility of Knowing Reality. Kant granted to the rational tradition of Leibniz a rational, a priori dimension to knowledge, namely, the form of all knowledge is independent of experience. On the other hand, Kant agreed with Hume and the empiricists that the content of all knowledge came via the senses. The “stuff” of knowledge is provided by the senses but the structure of knowledge is attained eventually in the mind. This creative synthesis solved the problem of rationalism and empiricism. However, the unhappy result of this synthesis is agnosticism, for if one cannot know anything until after it is structured by sensation (time and space) and the categories of understanding (such as unity and causality), then there is no way to get outside one’s own being and know what it really was before he so formed it. That is, one can know what something is to him but never what it is in itself. Only the phenomenal, but not the noumenal, can be known. We must remain agnostic about reality. We know only that it is there but can never know what it is (Kant, 173f.).
The Antinomies of Human Reason. Not only is there an unbridgeable gulf between knowing and being, between the categories of our understanding and the nature of reality, but inevitable contradictions also result once we begin to trespass the boundary line (Kant, 393f.). For example, there is the antinomy of causality. If everything has a cause, then there cannot be a beginning cause and the causal series must stretch back infinitely. But it is impossible that the series be both infinite and also have a beginning. Such is the impossible paradox resulting from the application of the category of causality to reality.
These arguments do not exhaust the agnostic’s arsenal, but they do lie at the heart of the contention that God cannot be known. However, even some who are unwilling to admit to the validity of these arguments opt for a more subtle agnosticism. Such is the case with the school of thought called logical positivism.
Logical Positivism. Logical positivism or logical empiricism is a philosophy of logic and language that seeks to describe all reality in terms of the senses or experience. Its foundational ideas were developed by the nineteenth-century philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Its theological implications were described by A. J. Ayer (1910–1989) in his principle of empirical verifiability. Ayer alleged that human beings cannot analyze or define the infinite God, so it is impossible to speak more than gibberish about God. The idea of knowing or speaking of a noumenal being is preposterous. One may not even use the term God. Hence, even traditional agnosticism is untenable. The agnostic asks the question of whether God exists. For the positivist, even the question is meaningless. Hence, it is impossible to be an agnostic.
Oddly, Ayer’s acognosticism does not automatically negate the possibility of religious experience, as does agnosticism. Someone might experience God, but such a touching of infinitude could never be meaningfully expressed, so it is worthless to anyone except the recipient of its wonder. The logical positivist Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was perhaps more consistent in placing a deist type of restriction on positivistic thought (see Deism). If it is meaningless for us to speak of a God or even to use the term, then any infinite being would have the same problem regarding the physical. Wittgenstein denied that God could be concerned about, or revelatory within, the world. Between the noumenal and phenomenal spheres there can be only silence. In summary, for religious noncognitivists Ayer and Wittgenstein, metaphysical acognosticism is the net result of language analysis (see Analogy, Principle of).
Antony Flew develops an agnostic philosophy by taking another angle on the limitations of language and awareness of the divine. There may or may not be a God; one cannot prove either thesis empirically. Therefore, one may not legitimately believe either thesis. To be verifiable, an argument must be falsifiable. God must be shown, one way or the other, to make a difference. Unless the theist can answer the challenge head-on, it would appear that he must have what R. M. Hare called a “blik” (Flew, 100). That is to say, he has an unfalsifiable belief in God despite all facts or states of affairs.
The logic of Agnosticism
There are two forms of agnosticism: The weak form simply holds that God is unknown. This of course leaves the door open that one may know God and indeed that some possibly do know God. As such, this agnosticism does not threaten Christian theism. The stronger form of agnosticism is mutually exclusive with Christianity. It claims that God is unknowable, that God cannot be known.
Another distinction must be made: There is unlimited and limited agnosticism. The former claims that God and all reality is completely unknowable. The latter claims only that God is partially unknowable because of the limitations of human finitude and sinfulness. The latter form of agnosticism may be granted by Christians as both possible and desirable.
This leaves three basic alternatives with respect to knowledge about God.
- We can know nothing about God; he is unknowable.
- We can know everything about God; he can be exhaustively known.
- We can know something, but not everything; God is partially knowable.
The first position is agnosticism; the second, dogmatism, and the last, realism. The dogmatic position is untenable. One would have to be infinite in order to know an infinite being exhaustively. Few if any informed theists have seriously held this kind of dogmatism.
However, theists (see Theism) sometimes argue as though partial agnosticism is also wrong. The form this argument takes is that agnosticism is wrong simply because one cannot know something is unknowable about reality without having knowledge about that something. But this is faulty reasoning. There is no contradiction in saying, “I know enough about reality to affirm that there are some things about reality that I cannot know.” For example, we can know enough about observation and reporting techniques to say that it is impossible for us to know the exact population of the world at a given instant (unknowability in practice). Likewise, one may know enough about the nature of finitude to say that it is impossible for finite beings to know exhaustively an infinite being. Thus, the Christian holds a controversy only against the complete agnostic who rules out in theory and practice all knowledge of God.
Self-defeating Agnosticism. Complete agnosticism reduces to the self-destructing (see Self-Refuting Statements) assertion that “one knows enough about reality to affirm that nothing can be known about reality” (see Logic). This statement is self-falsifying. One who knows something about reality cannot affirm in the same breath that all of reality is unknowable. And one who knows nothing whatsoever about reality has no basis for making a statement about reality. It will not suffice to say that knowledge of reality can only be purely and completely negative, that is, knowledge can only say what reality is not. For every negative presupposes a positive; one cannot meaningfully affirm that something is not and be totally devoid of a knowledge of the “something.” It follows that total agnosticism is self-defeating. It assumes knowledge of reality in order to deny all knowledge of reality.
Some have attempted to avoid this critique by forming their skepticism as a question: “What do I know about reality?” However, this merely delays the dilemma. Both agnostic and Christian should ask this question, but the answer separates the agnostic from the realist. “I can know something about God” differs significantly from “I can know nothing about God.” Once the answer is given in the latter form, a self-defeating assertion has been unavoidably made.
Neither will it help to take the mutist alternative by saying nothing. Thoughts can be as self-stultifying as assertions. The mutist cannot even think he or she knows absolutely nothing about reality without implying knowledge about reality.
Someone may be willing to grant that knowledge about finite reality is possible but not knowledge about infinite reality, the sort of knowledge at issue in Christian theism. If so, the position is no longer complete agnosticism, for it holds that something can be known about reality. This leaves the door open to discuss whether this reality is finite or infinite, personal or impersonal. Such discussion ventures beyond the question of agnosticism to debate finite godism and theism.
Kant’s Self-defeating Agnosticism. Kant’s argument that the categories of thought (such as unity and causality) do not apply to reality is just as unsuccessful. Unless categories of reality corresponded to categories of the mind, no statements can be made about reality, including the statement Kant made. Unless the real world were intelligible, no statement about it would apply. A preformation of the mind to reality is necessary whether one says anything about it—positive or negative. Otherwise, we think of an unthinkable reality.
The argument may be pressed that the agnostic need not be making any statement at all about reality but simply defining the limits of what we can know. Even this approach is self-defeating, however. To say that one cannot know any more than the limits of the phenomena or appearance is to draw a line in the sand while straddling it. To set such firm limits is to surpass them. It is not possible to contend that appearance ends here and reality begins there unless one can see at least some distance on the other side. How can one know the difference between appearance and reality who has not seen enough of appearance and reality to make the comparison?
Another self-defeating dimension is implied within Kant’s admission that he knows that the noumena is there but not what it is. Is it possible to know that something is without knowing something about what it is? Can pure “that-ness” be known? Does not all knowledge imply some knowledge of characteristics? Even a strange creature one had never seen before could not be observed to exist unless it had some recognizable characteristics as size, color, or movement. Even something invisible must leave some effect or trace in order to be observed. One need not know the origin or function of a thing or phenomenon. But it has been observed or the observer could not know that it is. It is not possible to affirm that something is without simultaneously declaring something about what it is. Even to describe it as the “in-itself” or the “real” is to say something. Further, Kant acknowledged the noumenal to be the unknowable “source” of the appearance we are receiving. All of this is informative about the real; there is a real, in-itself source of impressions. This is something less than complete agnosticism.
Other Forms of Skepticism
Hume’s Skepticism. The overall skeptical attempt to suspend all judgment about reality is self-defeating, since it implies a judgment about reality. How else could one know that suspending all judgment about reality is the wisest course, unless he knows indeed that realty is unknowable? Skepticism implies agnosticism; as shown above, agnosticism implies knowledge about reality. Unlimited skepticism that commends the suspension of all judgments about reality implies a most sweeping judgment about the knowability of reality. Why discourage all truth attempts, unless one knows in advance that they are futile? And how can one be in possession of this advance information without already knowing something about reality?
Hume’s contention that all meaningful statements are either a relation of ideas or else about matters of fact breaks its own rules. The statement fits neither category. Hence, on its own grounds it would be meaningless. It could not be purely a relation of ideas, for in that case it would not be informative about reality, as it purports to be. It is not purely a matter-of-fact statement since it claims to cover more than empirical matters. In short, Hume’s distinction is the basis for Ayer’s empirical verifiability principle, and the verifiability principle is itself not empirically verifiable (see Ayer, A. J.).
Hume’s radical empirical atomism that all events are “entirely loose and separate” and that even the self is only a bundle of sense impressions is unfeasible. If everything were unconnected, there would be no way of even making that particular statement, since some unity and connection are implied in the affirmation that everything is disconnected. To affirm “I am nothing but the impressions about myself” is self-defeating, for there is always the assumed unity of the “I (self)” making the assertion. But one cannot assume a unified self in order to deny it.
The Agnosticism of Bart D. Ehrman
[Note: We Will Place Debunking Articles Throughout His Story For Further Reading]
I was born and raised in a conservative place and time—the nation’s heartland, beginning in the mid 1950s. My upbringing was nothing out of the ordinary. We were a fairly typical family of five, churchgoing but not particularly religious. Starting the year I was in fifth grade, we were involved with the Episcopal church in Lawrence, Kansas, a church with a kind and wise rector, who happened also to be a neighbor and whose son was one of my friends (with whom I got into mischief later on in junior high school—something involving cigars). As with many Episcopal churches, this one was socially respectable and socially responsible. It took the church liturgy seriously, and scripture was part of that liturgy. But the Bible was not overly emphasized: it was there as one of the guides to faith and practice, along with the church’s tradition and common sense. We didn’t actually talk about the Bible much, or read it much, even in Sunday school classes, which focused more on practical and social issues, and on how to live in the world.
The Bible did have a revered place in our home, especially for my mom, who would occasionally read from the Bible and make sure that we understood its stories and ethical teachings (less so its “doctrines”). Up until my high school years, I suppose I saw the Bible as a mysterious book of some importance for religion; but it certainly was not something to be learned and mastered. It had a feel of antiquity to it and was inextricably bound up somehow with God and church and worship. Still, I saw no reason to read it on my own or study it.
Things changed drastically for me when I was a sophomore in high school. It was then that I had a “born-again” experience, in a setting quite different from that of my home church. I was a typical “fringe” kid—a good student, interested and active in school sports but not great at any of them, interested and active in social life but not in the upper echelon of the school’s popular elite. I recall feeling a kind of emptiness inside that nothing seemed to fill—not running around with my friends (we were already into some serious social drinking at parties), dating (beginning to enter the mysterium tremendum of the world of sex), school (I worked hard and did well but was no superstar), work (I was a door-to-door salesman for a company that sold products for the blind), church (I was an acolyte and pretty devout—one had to be on Sunday mornings, given everything that happened on Saturday nights). There was a kind of loneliness associated with being a young teenager; but, of course, I didn’t realize that it was part of being a teenager—I thought there must be something missing.
That’s when I started attending meetings of a Campus Life Youth for Christ club; they took place at kids’ houses—the first I went to was a yard party at the home of a kid who was pretty popular, and that made me think the group must be okay. The leader of the group was a twenty-something-year-old named Bruce who did this sort of thing for a living—organized Youth for Christ clubs locally, tried to convert high school kids to be “born again” and then get them involved in serious Bible studies, prayer meetings, and the like. Bruce was a completely winsome personality—younger than our parents but older and more experienced than we—with a powerful message, that the void we felt inside (We were teenagers! All of us felt a void!) was from not having Christ in our hearts. If we would only ask Christ in, he would enter and fill us with the joy and happiness that only the “saved” could know.
Bruce could quote the Bible at will, and did so to an amazing degree. Given my reverence for, but ignorance of, the Bible, it all sounded completely convincing. And it was so unlike what I got at church, which involved old established ritual that seemed more geared toward old established adults than toward kids wanting fun and adventure, but who felt empty inside.
To make a short story shorter, I eventually got to know Bruce, came to accept his message of salvation, asked Jesus into my heart, and had a bona fide born-again experience. I had been born for real only fifteen years earlier, but this was a new and exciting experience for me, and it got me started on a lifelong journey of faith that has taken enormous twists and turns, ending up in a dead end that proved to be, in fact, a new path that I have since taken, now well over thirty years later.
DEBUNKING AGNOSTIC BART D. EHRMAN: ‘What We Have Here Are the Error-Ridden Copies of the Autographs’
Those of us who had these born-again experiences considered ourselves to be “real” Christians—as opposed to those who simply went to church as a matter of course, who did not really have Christ in their hearts and were therefore simply going through the motions with none of the reality. One of the ways we differentiated ourselves from these others was in our commitment to Bible study and prayer. Especially Bible study. Bruce himself was a Bible man; he had gone to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and could quote an answer from the Bible to every question we could think of (and many we would never think of ). I soon became envious of this ability to quote scripture and got involved with Bible studies myself, learning some texts, understanding their relevance, and even memorizing the key verses.
Bruce convinced me that I should consider becoming a “serious” Christian and devote myself completely to the Christian faith. This meant studying scripture full time at Moody Bible Institute, which, among other things, would involve a drastic change of lifestyle. At Moody there was an ethical “code” that students had to sign off on: no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no card playing, no movies. And lots of Bible. As we used to say, “Moody Bible Institute, where Bible is our middle name.” I guess I looked on it as a kind of Christian boot camp. In any event, I decided not to go half-measures with my faith; I applied to Moody, got in, and went there in the fall of 1973. The Moody experience was intense. I decided to major in Bible theology, which meant taking a lot of biblical study and systematic theology courses. Only one perspective was taught in these courses, subscribed to by all the professors (they had to sign a statement) and by all the students (we did as well): the Bible is the inerrant word of God. It contains no mistakes. It is inspired completely and in its very words—“verbal, plenary inspiration.” All the courses I took presupposed and taught this perspective; any other was taken to be misguided or even heretical. Some, I suppose, would call this brainwashing. For me, it was an enormous “step up” from the milquetoast view of the Bible I had had as a socializing Episcopalian in my younger youth. This was hard-core Christianity, for the fully committed.
There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired—down to its very words. As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later—in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this. So rather than actually having the inspired words of the autographs (i.e., the originals) of the Bible, what we have are the error-ridden copies of the autographs. One of the most pressing of all tasks, therefore, was to ascertain what the originals of the Bible said, given the circumstances that (1) they were inspired and (2) we don’t have them.
I must say that many of my friends at Moody did not consider this task to be all that significant or interesting. They were happy to rest on the claim that the autographs had been inspired, and to shrug off, more or less, the problem that the autographs do not survive. For me, though, this was a compelling problem. It was the words of scripture themselves that God had inspired. Surely we have to know what those words were if we want to know how he had communicated to us, since the very words were his words, and having some other words (those inadvertently or intentionally created by scribes) didn’t help us much if we wanted to know His words.
This is what got me interested in the manuscripts of the New Testament, already as an eighteen-year-old. At Moody, I learned the basics of the field known as textual criticism—a technical term for the science of restoring the “original” words of a text from manuscripts that have altered them. But I wasn’t yet equipped to engage in this study: first I had to learn Greek, the original language of the New Testament, and possibly other ancient languages such as Hebrew (the language of the Christian Old Testament) and Latin, not to mention modern European languages like German and French, in order to see what other scholars had said about such things. It was a long path ahead.
Agnostic NT Textual Scholar Bart D. Ehrman Equates the Apocryphal Gospels as Being Equal to the Canonical Gospels—Is This True?
At the end of my three years at Moody (it was a three-year diploma), I had done well in my courses and was more serious than ever about becoming a Christian scholar. My idea at the time was that there were plenty of highly educated scholars among the evangelical Christians, but not many evangelicals among the (secular) highly educated scholars, so I wanted to become an evangelical “voice” in secular circles, by getting degrees that would allow me to teach in secular settings while retaining my evangelical commitments. First, though, I needed to complete my bachelor’s degree, and to do that I decided to go to a top-rank evangelical college. I chose Wheaton College, in a suburb of Chicago.
At Moody I was warned that I might have trouble finding real Christians at Wheaton—which shows how fundamentalist Moody was: Wheaton is only for evangelical Christians and is the alma mater of Billy Graham, for example. And at first I did find it to be a bit liberal for my tastes. Students talked about literature, history, and philosophy rather than the verbal inspiration of scripture. They did this from a Christian perspective, but even so: didn’t they realize what really mattered?
I decided to major in English literature at Wheaton, since reading had long been one of my passions and since I knew that to make inroads into the circles of scholarship, I would need to become well versed in an area of scholarship other than the Bible. I decided also to commit myself to learning Greek. It was during my first semester at Wheaton, then, that I met Dr. Gerald Hawthorne, my Greek teacher and a person who became quite influential in my life as a scholar, teacher, and, eventually, friend. Hawthorne, like most of my professors at Wheaton, was a committed evangelical Christian. But he was not afraid of asking questions of his faith. At the time, I took this as a sign of weakness (in fact, I thought I had nearly all the answers to the questions he asked); eventually I saw it as a real commitment to truth and as being willing to open oneself up to the possibility that one’s views need to be revised in light of further knowledge and life experience.
Learning Greek was a thrilling experience for me. As it turned out, I was pretty good at the basics of the language and was always eager for more. On a deeper level, however, the experience of learning Greek became a bit troubling for me and my view of scripture. I came to see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text of the New Testament could be grasped only when it is read and studied in the original language (the same thing applies to the Old Testament, as I later learned when I acquired Hebrew). All the more reason, I thought, for learning the language thoroughly. At the same time, this started making me question my understanding of scripture as the verbally inspired word of God. If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure to learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original? What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?1 My questions were complicated even more as I began to think increasingly about the manuscripts that conveyed the words. The more I studied Greek, the more I became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us, and in the science of textual criticism, which can supposedly help us reconstruct what the original words of the New Testament were. I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes—sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.
These doubts both plagued me and drove me to dig deeper and deeper, to understand what the Bible really was. I completed my degree at Wheaton in two years and decided, under the guidance of Professor Hawthorne, to commit myself to the textual criticism of the New Testament by going to study with the world’s leading expert in the field, a scholar named Bruce M. Metzger who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Once again, I was warned by my evangelical friends against going to Princeton Seminary, since, as they told me, I would have trouble finding any “real” Christians there. It was, after all, a Presbyterian seminary, not exactly a breeding ground for born-again Christians. But my study of English literature, philosophy, and history—not to mention Greek—had widened my horizons significantly, and my passion was now for knowledge, knowledge of all kinds, sacred and secular. If learning the “truth” meant no longer being able to identify with the born-again Christians I knew in high school, so be it. I was intent on pursuing my quest for truth wherever it might take me, trusting that any truth I learned was no less true for being unexpected or difficult to fit into the pigeonholes provided by my evangelical background.
Upon arriving at Princeton Theological Seminary, I immediately signed up for first-year Hebrew and Greek exegesis (interpretation) classes and loaded my schedule as much as I could with such courses. I found these classes to be a challenge, both academically and personally. The academic challenge was completely welcome, but the personal challenges that I faced were emotionally rather trying. As I’ve indicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of the foundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God. That commitment came under serious assault in my detailed studies at Princeton. I resisted any temptation to change my views, and found a number of friends who, like me, came from conservative evangelical schools and were trying to “keep the faith” (a funny way of putting it—looking back—since we were, after all, in a Christian divinity program). But my studies started catching up with me.
A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was taking with a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story. The course was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, at the time (and still) my favorite Gospel. For this course we needed to be able to read the Gospel of Mark completely in Greek (I memorized the entire Greek vocabulary of the Gospel the week before the semester began); we were to keep an exegetical notebook on our reflections on the interpretation of key passages; we discussed problems in the interpretation of the text; and we had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing. I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grain field, eating the grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat. One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Sam. 21:1–6), it turns out that David did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was. In other words, this is one of those passages that have been pointed to in order to show that the Bible is not inerrant at all but contains mistakes.
In my paper for Professor Story, I developed a long and complicated argument to the effect that even though Mark indicates this happened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters. My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted. I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me. He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch. I finally concluded, “Hmm…maybe Mark did make a mistake.” Bold mine) “No, Mark did not make a mistake, Bart D, Ehrman made a mistake, read the article below.” Edward D. Andrews.
Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well. Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark 4 that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth,” maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t. And maybe these “mistakes” apply to bigger issues. Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14)—maybe that is a genuine difference. Or when Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’s birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19–22)—maybe that is a difference. Or when Paul says that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before him (Gal. 1:16–17), whereas the book of Acts says that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9:26)—maybe that is a difference.
This kind of realization coincided with the problems I was encountering the more closely I studied the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. It is one thing to say that the originals were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals—so saying they were inspired doesn’t help me much, unless I can reconstruct the originals. Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. As we will see later in this book, these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. insignificant. – Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (p. 1-10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Some Specific Agnostic Claims
Hume denied the traditional uses of both causality and analogy as means of knowing the theistic God. Causality is based on custom, and analogy would lead to either a finite, human god or to a God totally different than the alleged analog.
The Justification of Causality. Hume never denied the principle of causality. He admitted it would be absurd to maintain that things arise without a cause (Hume, I.187). What he did attempt was to deny that there is any philosophical way of establishing the principle of causality. If the causal principle is not a mere analytic relation of ideas, but is belief based on customary conjunction of matter-of-fact events, then there is no necessity in it. One cannot use it with philosophical justification. But we have already seen that dividing all content statements into these two classes is self-defeating. Hence, it is possible that the causal principle is both contentful and necessary.
The very denial of causal necessity implies a causal necessity. Unless there is a necessary ground (or cause) for the denial, then the denial does not necessarily stand. And if there is a necessary ground or cause for the denial, then the denial is self-defeating; in that event it is using a necessary causal connection to deny that there are necessary causal connections.
Some have attempted to avoid this objection by limiting necessity to the reality of logic and propositions but denying that necessity applies to reality. This does not succeed; in order for this statement to exclude necessity from the realm of reality, it must be a necessary statement about reality. It must claim that it is necessarily true about reality that no necessary statements can be made about reality. This actually does what it claims cannot be done.
A Foundation for Analogy. Likewise, Hume cannot deny all similarity between the world and God, for this would imply that the creation must be totally dissimilar from the Creator. It would mean that effects must be entirely different from their cause. This statement too is self-destructive; unless there is some knowledge of the cause, there can be no basis for denying all similarity between cause and its effect. Even a negative comparison implies positive knowledge of the terms being compared. Hence, either there is no basis for the affirmation that God must be totally dissimilar, or else there can be some knowledge of God in terms of our experience, in which case God is not necessarily totally dissimilar to what we know in our experience.
One should be cautioned here about overdrawing the conclusion of these arguments. Once it has been shown that total agnosticism is self-defeating, it does not ipso facto follow that God exists or that one has knowledge of God. These arguments show only that, if there is a God, one cannot maintain that he cannot be known. From this it follows only that God can be known, not that we do know anything about God. The disproof of agnosticism is not thereby the proof of realism or theism. Agnosticism only destroys itself and makes it possible to build Christian theism. The positive case for Christian knowledge of God must then be built (see God, Evidence for).
Kant’s Antinomies. In each of Kant’s alleged antinomies there is a fallacy. One does not end in inevitable contradictions by speaking about reality in terms of the necessary conditions of human thought. For instance, it is a mistake to view everything as needing a cause, for in this case there would be an infinity of causes, and even God would need a cause. Only limited, changing, contingent things need causes. Once one arrives at an unlimited, unchanging, Necessary Being, there no longer is a need for a cause. The finite must be caused, but the infinite being would be uncaused. Kant’s other antinomies are likewise invalid.
Conclusion. There are two kinds of agnosticism: limited and unlimited. The former is compatible with Christian claims of finite knowledge of an infinite God. Unlimited agnosticism, however, is self-destructive; it implies knowledge about reality in order to deny the possibility of any knowledge of reality. Both skepticism and noncognitivisms (acognosticism) are reducible to agnosticism. Unless it is impossible to know the real, it is unnecessary to disclaim the possibility of all cognitive knowledge of it or to dissuade men from making any judgments about it.
Unlimited agnosticism is a subtle form of dogmatism. In completely disclaiming the possibility of all knowledge of the real, it stands at the opposite pole from the position that claims all knowledge about reality. Either extreme is dogmatic. Both are must positions regarding knowledge as opposed to the position that we can or do know something about reality. And there is simply no process short of omniscience by which one can make such sweeping and categorical statements. Agnosticism is negative dogmatism, and every negative presupposes a positive. Hence, total agnosticism is not only self-defeating; it is self-deifying. Only an omniscient mind could be totally agnostic, and finite men confessedly do not possess omniscience. Hence, the door remains open for some knowledge of reality. Reality is not unknowable.
- Collins, God in Modern Philosophy, chapters 4 and 6
- Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” A. Flew, et al., eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology
- Flint, Agnosticism
- Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature
- Hackett, The Resurrection of Theism. Part 1
- Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics
- Hume, “A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh,” in E. C. Mossner, et al., eds., The Letters of David Hume
- H. Huxley, Collected Essays, Vol. 5
- Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
- Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology
- Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticis
- Bart D. Ehrman, MISQUOTING JESUS