“That to the heighth of this great argument I may assert eternal providence, And justify the ways of God to men…” John Milton, Paradise Lost
“Mansplaining” reaches dizzying height of hubris with poet John Milton, who figured several walloping stanzas of his epic poetry should sufficiently “justify the ways of God to men.” Really? The very idea of trying to justify God’s ways—as if we could ever truly figure out the Creator of the universe with our puny human brains—is borderline nuts. Nevertheless, Milton dove in headfirst and was lauded for his efforts. He had a 19th century apprentice in James B. Walker, D.D., author of “The Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation” (1889)—the CLSC book under discussion here. Walker’s goal: explain God’s plan in a way that would knock the legs out from under his era’s highly literate critics of Christianity. That first generation of Chautauqua logisticians must have wrestled mightily with this assigned text; I know I did.
Walker attempts to lay out, in sequential logic, exactly what God had in mind when He constructed His plan of salvation. He tackles his subject with supreme confidence, building arguments and presenting conclusions with literary flourishes worthy of the courtroom “…it follows, therefore, legitimately and conclusively…” (pg 118). While I admire the Victorian philosopher’s zeal for corralling dogma and doctrine (not to mention the Old Testament’s ferocious bloodletting) into fitted-and-bolted frameworks, I struggle with its inevitable reverse engineering aspects.
Starting with his era’s elaborate “scientific” anthropology, for example, he posits that God orchestrated the grand scheme of holiness, priesthood, sacrifice, and temple worship because the ancient Jews could best understand God via object lessons and displays of power (i.e. Mt. Sinai, parting of the Red Sea, et al.). He called them “preparatory steps that led...to the light” (pg 116). Tribal Judaism, in his theory, wobbles along on religious training wheels until evolved enough to understand the “perfect system of religion.” (pg 109). Enter Jesus. We don’t require these sorts of spiritual pyrotechnics now, because we’ve culturally progressed. No miracles needed, thanks. We’ve got enough intellectual prowess in the new dispensation.
For me, Walker’s book somehow reduces the wondrous passion of God’s heartfelt redemption to a series of inescapable logical steps. His respectful, emotionless discourse perhaps anticipates the predictable Victorian recoil against overly emotional religious sentiment (labeled, with disgust, “cant”).
His tightly woven arguments do force conclusions—but only if the reader accepts certain baseline truths and cares about cohesive, rational deductions. “The preceding premises being established, the following conclusions result...” (pg 139) Alas, his cherished conventions of ordered logic are nowhere to be found in today’s highly subjective, post-Truth society. His arguments may have been compelling in the 19th c. (“..and so you see”, “…you must admit,” etc.), but today’s skim-and-scan readers dismiss logical progression as belonging to a stodgy egghead crowd. Logic isn’t the final authority—one’s feelings are. As a result, in our day, the antiquated structure of formal logic is lumbering inexorably towards the sheer cliff of “who cares?” Walker is essentially preaching to the choir and writing in a sealed chamber—each logical argument is based on the precarious belief that there’s a one-size-fits-all human behavior pattern. Ergo, God created a system of religion to maximize its effectiveness based on that predictable and in fact, God-designed pattern. It’s all a fine-tuned, inevitable cosmic cause-and-effect where God Himself is logically constrained by His own decrees and creation.
Most cornered atheists would probably admit they’ve never taken the time to construct experiential proof for their belief system. Their spiritually null state often stems from shattered illusions, painful family trauma and/or a hedonistic discarded of the repressions that represent God. It’s a “Santa suit in the basement” moment for many. Once setting forth on a godless sea, no amount of rational discourse is going to turn that ship around.
The problem isn’t a lack of logically presented information—Walker’s stance notwithstanding—it’s spiritual deafness. 1 Corinthians 2:14 clearly states: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
Convincing someone they need a Savior via higher criticism, as the apostle Paul discovered, can be disappointing work. After listening to Paul’s irrefutable logic, King Herod Agrippa witheringly remarked, “You almost persuade me, Paul.” Another rationalist listener, Judean governor Festus, reacted less calmly. “You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." (Acts 26:24)
Let’s see if the 21st century rationalist approach of Ravi Zacharias, the foremost Christian apologetic of the age, fares better. I’ll be reviewing his response to the foremost contemporary atheistic text in my next post.
“Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Acts 26:28