Review of The Word of God and the Mind of Man by Ronald H. Nash

The Word of God and the Mind of Man, The Crisis in Revealed Truth in Contemporary Theology, by Ronald H. Nash, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1982, 132 pp.

After a few comments, the following is not a review so much as a really long summary of Ronald Nash’s The Word of God and he Mind of Man. It is an excellent book. For the content it is hard to believe it is only 132 pages. There are a few points on which I disagree with Nash, but I generally like where he is going. These long summary notes are primarily for my own reference. If readers of my blog find them valuable as well, that is positive gain.

The most valuable chapters are Chapter 1 on “Hume’s Gap” and Chapter 8 on “The Christian Rationalism of St. Augustine.” It is the latter of these two that I find particularly interesting. I’m under the impression that Nash generally holds to the Augustinian position he elaborates upon. This position differs from Gordon Clark’s in at least three important ways.

1. Nash says Augustine has forms/ideas, while Clark says Augustine has propositions or at least makes propositions the basic element in his own theory.

2. Nash/Augustine have the forms/ideas implanted in the mind of man as part of the image of God. Clark has less innate knowledge for man with most propositions remaining only in the mind of God. Nash’s view is almost like Deism, where God has acted once and has left man alone to be autonomous in his thinking. Clark’s view has man living, moving, and having being in God and thus always dependent on God for knowledge.

3. Nash allows for knowledge of the world by having man compare sensory perception with the forms/ideas. This is a correspondence theory. Clark limits knowledge to revelation and rejects correspondence saying “Suffice it to say that if the mind has something which only corresponds to reality, it does not have reality; and if it knows reality, there is no need for an extra something which corresponds to it.” – “The Bible as Truth.”

Summary of the book:

From the preface we learn that Nash’s goal is to contend that “all human knowledge is possible because of the unique human participation in the eternal Logos of God, Jesus Christ” and that human words are capable of carrying a cognitive word of God. Nash says that the views he will present are in “the mainstream of evangelical thinking about divine revelation and religious epistemology since the end of World War II.” It seems to me, however, that in both that time and today there is barely a trickle of theologians writing on epistemology.

“Following the lead of eighteenth-century philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant, many modern theologians have questioned God’s ability to communicate truth to man and undermined man’s ability to attain knowledge about God.” (p. 11) Nash quotes various thinkers who have rejected the possibility of verbal revelation and have replaced it with mystical inward personal experience as the only way for man to relate to God. To them Nash intends to “offer an alternative theory that makes human knowledge about God possible.” (p. 11)

Chapter 1 is titled “Hume’s Gap: The Divorce of Faith and Knowledge.” “Hume tried to show that most of our pivotal beliefs about reality are matters that human reason is powerless to prove or support.” (p. 19) Most of the important things we think we know are not supported by evidence but rest on instinct, habit, and custom. “In ethics, as in metaphysics and religion, human reason is and ought to be the slave of the human passions, that is, our nonrational nature. This is tantamount to the claim that we cannot have knowledge about the transcendent. This axiom is the foundation of what I call ‘Hume’s Gap.’” (p. 20) “Speculative knowledge claims about certain topics in metaphysics, theology, and ethics should be avoided; such matters should be accepted on the basis of faith, not knowledge.” (p. 20) “His point was that we cannot have any knowledge about God. But it is entirely natural to have faith that God exists.” (p. 21) “But nature does not compel us to go beyond this basic belief in God’s existence and accept the theological claims added by orthodoxy.” (p. 21) Hume denies “the possibility of any knowledge about God in general and the possibility of revealed knowledge in particular.” (p. 22) “Humes’s Gap is the rejection of the possibility of rational knowledge of God and objective religious truth. Hume grounded man’s belief in God in man’s nonrational nature. Hume was a precursor of those philosophers and theologians who insist that religious faith must be divorced from knowledge and who believe that the impossibility of knowledge about God will in some way enhance faith.” (p. 22) “Hume’s Gap appears prominently in the thought of a great many modern thinkers.” (p. 22) (Sarte, Heidegger, Jaspers, Bultmann, Tillich. “Nonevangelical theology since Hume is a chronicle of futile attempts to retain respectability for religious faith while denying religion any right to revealed truth.” (p. 23) “Apparently, about the only thing nonevangelical thinkers can agree about is that God has not spoken, and, indeed, cannot speak.” (p. 23) These tendencies have effected Evangelicals as well. Christian anti-intellectualism may be manifested in a variety of ways: in a contempt for creeds, in a search for God through the emotions, in a dependence upon some kind of mystical experience. Hume would be comfortable in many contemporary churches for he would not hear the truth of God proclaimed and defended.” (p. 23) Nash doesn’t reproduce any of Hume’s argument, and so the reader is left thinking Hume is possibly just making an assertion. Regardless, it seems quite foolish to argue that God—the omnipotent being—is incapable of giving knowledge of Himself to man.

In Chapter 2 “Theological Agnosticism from Kant to Ritschl” we learn of others who have argued against the possibility of knowledge of God. “Kant taught that the form or structure that the human understanding supplies to knowledge exists in the form of categories or innate aptitudes for knowing. Since all human knowledge must be mediated by these categories, men cannot know anything that is not so mediated. The unfortunate consequent of this claim, however, was a radical disjunction between the world as it appears to us (the world modified by the categories of our understanding) and the world as it really is. According to Kant, human knowledge never brings us into contact with the real world, what he called the noumenal world. All we ever know is the phenomenal world, the world as it appears to us after it has been modified by the categories of our understanding.” (p. 27) “Hume had his Gap; Kant had his wall.” “Since God is not a subject of experience and since human categories cannot be extended to transcendent reality, Kant’s God is both unknown and unknowable.” (p. 27) For Schleiermacher, “true religion is found in feeling.” (p. 29) Albrecht Ritschl sought to ground Christian faith in history, but “the Jesus whom Ritschl ‘found’ in history was a Jesus conveniently matched to his own liberal presuppositions.” (p. 32) “Kant’s Wall and Hume’s Gap reappear in the thought of both Schleiermacher and Ritschl. For Schleiermacher, they assume the form of a disjunction between knowledge and feeling. For Ritschl, they become the disjunction between knowledge and value, between knowing a doing, between theory and practice.” (p. 34)

Chapter 3 “The Assault on Propositional Revelation” moves on to neo-orthodox theology. It is not so much the liberalism of Schleiermacher but the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth that has produced the “the theological scepticism of the past sixty years.” (p. 35) Learning from Kierkegaard, Barth’s “totally transcendent or wholly other God was no more able to communicate knowledge or truth than the immanent deity of Schleiermacher.” (p. 36) “This radical otherness of God means, among other things, that the human mind is incapable of comprehending the divine mind.” (p. 36) “Advocates of this view usually begin by drawing a radical distinction between two sense of revelation, propositional revelation (the revelation of truth) and personal revelation. The distinction once granted becomes an exclusive disjunction, and proponents of the non-propositional view of revelation then simply assert the impossibility of any cognitive knowledge about God and insist that God reveals Himself, not through propositions, but through personal presence or encounter. According to this position, man does not require knowledge about God (propositional truth) as a precondition for a personal relationship with God. Revelation is exclusively an event in which God reveals Himself; it is never a disclosure of information about God or anything else.” (p. 36) Advocates of this view included William Temple, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and John Baillie. Nash provides a brief critique at the end of the chapter: “The weakness of the noncognitive approach to revelation lies not so much in what its advocates affirmed as in what they ignored or denied. Ignoring belief that, they emphasized faith in the sense of belief in. But belief in has belief that as a necessary condition.” (p. 41)

Starting then in Chapter 4, Nash moves on from the anti-propositional revelation views to his own position affirming “A Defense of Propositional Revelation.” Nash contends, “Proponents of the noncognitive view misrepresented the alternative to their position.” (p. 43) Nash distinguishes between the views that “all revelation is propositional” and that “some revelation is propositional.” Nash holds the second of these two positions. He then notes that “advocates of the nonpropositional thesis would have everyone think that the evangelical alternative to their view is indeed the extreme claim that all revelation is propositional.” (p. 44) Nash believes that the difficulties with the thesis “all revelation is propositional” are “obvious and overwhelming.” They are not obvious to me though, and thus cannot be overwhelming. Nash holds that “some divine revelation assumes forms that are not propositional.” (p. 45) And he gives the example of God being revealed in “divine acts that have occurred in the history such as the Exodus and the Resurrection.” (p. 45) But what is non-propositional revelation? What of God has been revealed that is not or cannot be put into a proposition? Isn’t this, like Gordon Clark contends, “a phrase without any meaning.” Nash insists “on making a common sense distinction between a revelatory event which cannot be a proposition and any accompanying interpretation which is.” (p. 45) Nash holds that “revelation can be both personal and cognitive.” (p. 46) But what is “personal non-cognitive revelation”? Regardless of the disagreement then between Nash and Clark on this point, they both agree against the liberal and neo-orthodox contention that there is no propositional revelation.

Chapter 5—“A Brief But Necessary Interlude”—reviews what has been said in the previous chapters. Nash also gives some indication of where he is going next—the Logos doctrine. His contention is “the human mind can know the divine mind.” (p. 56)

Chapter 6—“The Christian Logos”—discusses at least part of the solution to how man can known God. “Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos of God, mediates all divine revelation and grounds the correspondence between divine and human minds.” This Logos doctrine, Nash says, was present even in the early church, in the New Testament, and even earlier in Alexandrian Judaism. It is well known that the Logos Doctrine is found in John’s Gospel. Nash notes that it is also evident in the book of Hebrews. But, Nash notes, “too many differences exist” between Alexandrian Judaism and the New Testament to suggest an accommodation. “The Logos of Hebrews and of the Gospel of John is not the metaphysical abstraction of Philo, but a specific individual, a historical person.” (p. 64-65) “Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle postulated to solve assorted metaphysical and epistemological problems.” (p. 65) “A careful study of the Epistle to the Hebrews will make clear that while the writer was obviously familiar with the Platonism of Alexandria, he intentionally set out to contrast his understanding of the Christian message with the philosophy he himself may once have accepted and which his audience may still have found attractive.” (p. 65) “My hypothesis about Hebrews … is that one purpose, if not the major purpose, of the writers of Hebrews was to expose the inadequacy of the Alexandrian mediators.” (p. 66) These mediators he is referring to are “a being or beings who would mediate between God and the world” present both in Old Testament wisdom theology and Platonic philosophy. Nash then notes that the NT “ascribes three distinct but related functions to the Christian Logos.” This “makes it possible to speak of Christ as the cosmological Logos, the epistemological Logos, and the soteriological Logos.” (p. 66) The (epistemological) Logos doctrine is found in the writings of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine.

The way in which Nash approves of “personal knowledge” and his quoting of Carl Henry making the Logos Doctrine apply not only to the connection between Man and God but also between Man and nature, makes me think that Nash has some sort of interest in empiricism. His next chapter might clarify:

Chapter 7 is on “Rationalism and Empiricism.” In another volume Nash defends “inductive presuppositionalism” which he never clearly defined and which appears to be a contradiction in terms or at least a serious confusion. In this chapter Nash rightly notes, “Many of the specific problems about human knowledge of God are extensions of more basic difficulties about human knowledge in general.” (p. 71) Nash then surveys the history of the philosophical debate between rationalism and empiricism. Does the mind begin entirely empty (per empiricism) or with something innate (per rationalism)? The chapter ends without Nash weighing in with his position on the question.

A footnote of Nash’s on page 78 says “It should be noted in passing, however, that Gordon Clark maintains that Blanshard ultimately makes too many concessions to empiricism.” This is really quite funny. And it shows how anti-empirical Clark was; even making the Hegelian Blanshard look moderate.

Chapter 8 is titled “The Christian Rationalism of St. Augustine.” Nash returns to the Logos Doctrine, but also mentions for the first time Augustine’s theory of divine illumination. (p. 79) “The divine light is Augustine’s answer to how humans know the eternal ideas that subsist in the mind of God. … All human knowledge must be explained ultimately in terms of the divine light.” (p. 80) But what Augustine’s theory exactly is, according to Nash, is debated. He references his earlier book The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. “Augustine meant his theory of divine illumination to explain not only the quality but also the content of necessary truths.” (p. 80) “Any adequate understanding of Augustine’s theory of illumination must take account of the fact that two lights are involved in any act of human knowledge.” (p. 80-81) “Human knowledge is made possible by two lights, the uncreated light of God, and the created, mutable light which is human intellect. Just as the moon derives the light it reflects from the sun, so the rational human mind derives a created ability to know from its origin, God. Human knowledge can be regarded as a reflection of the truth originating in the mind of God. To be more specific, God has endowed humans with a structure of rationality patterned after the divine ideas in His own mind: we can know truth because God has made us like Himself.” (p. 81) “A harmony or correlation exists therefore between the mind of God, the human mind, and the rational structure of the world.” (p. 81) I can understand that because man is made in the image of God that there is that correlation between God and man. But where does Nash (or Augustine, rather) find the correction also with the world? “Augustine came to hold that God had implanted a knowledge of the forms in the human mind contemporaneous with birth. In other words, Augustine’s account of human knowledge replaced Plato’s appeal to recollection with a theory of innate ideas that belong to humankind by virtue of our creation in the image of God.” (p. 84)

His summary at the end of the chapter is worth the price of the book:
“To summarize: The forms or eternal ideas exist in the mind of God (independently of particular things), but in a secondary sense they also exist in the human mind. God created humans with a structure of rationality patterned after the divine forms in His own mind. This innate knowledge is part of what it means to be created in the image of God. In addition to knowledge of forms, knowledge of the world is possible because God has also patterned the world after the divine ideas. We can know the corporeal world because God has given man a knowledge of these ideas by which we can judge sensations and gain knowledge.

“I regard these conclusions as merely an elaboration or logical extension of the Logos doctrine. Augustine is one Christian theist who believed that the claim that the human logos is part of the image of God rests on a sound philosophical and theological ground. He believed that the Logos teaching of the New Testament and the early church fathers entailed a similarity between the rational structure of the human mind and the rational structure of the divine mind. It is possible for the human logos to know the divine Logos because God created the human being as a creature who has the God-given ability to know the divine mind and to think God’s thoughts after Him. The laws of reasons are the same for both God and humans.” (p. 90)

Nash notes in a footnote that he denies the analogical view of Christian empiricists and holds that “human language can have the same (univocal) meaning applied to God that it has when applied to sensible things.” (p. 90)

Taking almost a full day to catch my breath after reading chapter 8, we come to the next chapter.

Chapter 9 returns to the main critique of the book. The chapter is titled “The Religious Revolt Against Logic.” W. T. Stace was a mystic who gloried in contradictions. But then, as Nash contends, Stace has no ground for criticizing others. “Once logic is denied, inconsistency becomes a virtue.” (p. 93) Many Christian theologians have a similar distaste for logic. Nash evidences Barthian Thomas Torrance who “certainly appears to claim that there is a difference between God’s logic and human logic.” (p. 94) The position is self-defeating. Donald Bloesch too takes issue with the belief “that man’s logic and knowledge are identical with God’s.” This view “leads to absurdity.” (p. 96) Nash then comes to Herman Dooyeweerd. “For the followers of Dooyeweerd, the laws of logic, of valid inference, exist only on man’s side of the Boundary.” (p. 97) This “entails that it is impossible for any human being to think meaningfully about God.” (p. 97) Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck embraced the Logos Doctrine, but Dooyeweerdian Al Wolters “rejoices in the fact that the Amsterdam Philosophy of Dooyeweerd has rejected it.” (p. 98) Finally, Nash (rightfully) includes Van Til in this same pattern. “Only recently have I come to understand that Van Til had developed his own version of the Dooyeweerdian Boundary between the human mind and the mind of God.” (p. 100) While Nash gives credit to Van Til for not wavering “from his earlier conviction that humans can have knowledge about God” he concludes, “it is difficult for anyone holding a position like Van Til’s to be consistent.” (p. 101)

“While the assorted rejections of logic found in the writings of Torrance, the followers of Dooyeweerd, and Van Til are (because of their sincere motives) pious nonsense, they are still nonsense.” (p. 101)

Chapter 10—“Reason and Religion”—argues for the necessity of logic and mentions something of the noetic effects of sin. Nash is not only in line with Clark on these points, he quotes Clark directly and favorably.

Chapter 11—“Reason, Revelation, and Language”—makes the case for innate knowledge by arguing that language develops in a child by something more than just sensory experience; there is a contribution from the mind. The views of theologians like Karl Barth who argue that language is unable to convey knowledge are found to be self-defeating. Language, Nash contends, “is possible because humans, created in the image of God, possess innately a priori categories of thought and the ability to use and understand language.” (p. 119) “Human language is adequate as a vehicle for divine revelation and for human communication about God because it is a divinely given instrument.” (p. 120)

The last chapter then is on “Revelation and the Bible.” Nash critiques the views of James Olthuis, Arnold DeGraaff, Hendrick Hart, G. C. Berkouwer, and especially Donald Bloesch. He sees them as not much different from Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *