The Error of Descartes – And of some Open Theists

In the letter of dedication by René Descartes to the Dean and Doctors of the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris, to whom he appealed for support in promulgating the principles contained in his “Meditations on First Philosophy …”, he erroneously concluded from Romans 1:19 that by reason alone one could show the existence of God and the soul.

“And in Romans, Chapter 1, it is said that they are ‘without excuse.’ And again in the same passage it appears we are being warned with the worlds: “What is known of God is manifest in them,” that everything that can be know about God can be shown by reasons drawn exclusively from our own mind.”

Who cannot immediately see that the great Descartes has gone too far in his inference. It does not say that *everything* that can be known about God follows from ‘a prior’ principles and unaided reason, but rather that specific things about God are manifest in all men, as God has made it part of their nature i.e., ‘a priori’ (revealed law in his nature) and in the creation of the universe external to man, has provided the stimulus of discovery of “first truths of reason” in man.

The error of some Open Theists is in going too far in the other direction in denying that certainty about morals or even any attributes of God is possible or legitimately claimed. That error should be obvious in what Paul further says:

“…for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: (Rom. 1:19-20)

Those are discrete aspects of God: eternal power and divinity. Even without the Bible every person in possession of right reason has default views, given by God, of moral law and the perception of his infinite power and identity as creator of all things.

“Ye Have Heard That It Was Said by Them of Old Time”

The classic work of Dr. David Daube, “The New Testament And Rabbinic Judaism” identified the phrase as a reference to the traditional Jewish midrash that had become more authoritative than the text of Scripture itself. Much like the “Baptist Faith and Message” or the Catechism of Catholicism, it formed a tradition that invariably made “the word of God of no effect.” Jesus had poured forth his criticism upon that tradition in no uncertain terms (e.g., see discourse on ‘Corbin’) and it should not be surprising that in the Sermon on the mount its contrapuntal use to his own “But I say unto you” forms a landmark hermeneutic of the initiation of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ clear reference to Scripture are predicated by “it is written” or “the word of God” and similar unambiguous terms making the phrase “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time” conspicuous by its obtuseness. But this phrase has been used copiously by biblical historical critics to show a putative dichotomy between the “Law” and “Christ” as if Christ were indicating that his teaching superseded the law it self.

Such claims are understandable coming from an ethos that assumed that Scripture, especially the Old Testament, was at core the production of myth and tradition (e.g., German biblical historical criticism) but has been perpetuated in the teaching of a number of self-identified “open theists.”

The chief problem with the “Law” vs “Christ’s teaching” is that the context of the contrapuntal back and forth is prefaced by:

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:17-19 KJV)

That is the exegetical key to understanding what follows. That and the solemn warning that “…except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20 KJV).

Jesus was excoriating the “theology of Phariseeism” that had taken up the text of Scripture into its superseding midrash. One can easily think of popular “open theist” authors who use the Sermon on the Mount as a pretext for redaction of the Old Testament to conform to a “kinder and gentler” view of God, or the basis for denying the authority of the law in the age of grace.

As a corollary interest many have claimed that Jesus’s “fulfilling the law” was also a statement to the effect that its purpose has been accomplished and its need now removed. But that is based upon the assumption of a definition that has clear alternatives. In light of the Jesus’s disavowal of coming to destroy the law, the case to be made for “to make to stand” or “to establish by scrutiny and examination, by exegesis and by obedience to the sprit as much as the letter.” [1] is more consistent with his stated purpose.

All to say that the popular assumption that Jesus was directly quoting from Scripture in his “But I say unto you” does not satisfy a consistent contextual exegesis, and the alternative undermines a number of pretexts for denying a high view of Scripture or enables a valid ground to redact the Old Testament portrayals of God using violence to accomplish His purposes in the Old Testament.

1.) See Guillaume, ‘The Midrash in the Gospels’, Expository Times, 37, 1926, 392.

Romans 8:26 – Synchronous Suffering

Probably the most overlooked passage of Scripture that demonstrates a shared continuum of duration between us and God is the following.

“And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28 NAS)

“…intercedes for us (as our infirmities are hurting us) with groanings too deep for words.” (pause)

Intercedes – συναντιλαμβάνεται verb indicative present middle. A compound verb depicting “to lay hold along with, to strive to obtain with others, help in obtaining 2) to take hold with another”. Being in the middle voice emphasizes the initiative of the one doing the action.

So the Spirit is depicted as living right alongside of us taking up the weight of our infirmities, as He encounters them, and does so with extreme passionate concern.

Then we are told that the Father who is always searching hearts (another statement of durative consciousness for God) is present tense *knowing* the mind of the Spirit (nonpersonal forces don’t have “minds”) and is hearing the Spirit because “…Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10) and in THEIR consultation the Spirit formally intercedes synergistically with the will of God.

I don’t know how a more emphatic case could be made for the durative, intimate and deeply sympathetic experience of the Spirit of God within our experience.

Postulating that God is outside of time totally ignores this passage and exempts Him from our experience.