“Thus it is, therefore thus it should be.” Ruminating on a theological fallacy

For a while now I’ve been reading (and will soon review) the book Chosen Nation by Braden P. (Brad) Anderson. There are a variety of topics in the book that I’m going to want to engage, but one in particular caught my attention last night. In Chapter 7, Brad discusses the work of two writers, Stephen H. Webb and Richard John Neuhaus, both of whom are proponents of a popular notion in which the United States is somehow under a covenantal blessing from God rather as Israel was in the Old Testament. Consequently both, but particularly Webb, hold that the U.S. has not only the right, but even the duty, to act as sovereign on the world stage–and that the Church is duty-bound to support her.

Webb, as related by Anderson, builds much of his case on the notion of “Providence,” the notion that “God rules the world through the work of nations” (Webb, American Providence, 72, quoted by Anderson, 203).  Essentially, the idea is that the nations do what they do because God has so ordered it in order to accomplish his grand design in history. Webb sees a particularly providential role for America, says Anderson, in that “America has been chosen to fill the role of sovereign in the world today, as evidenced by its hegemony” (p.216). As characterized by Tim Beach-Verhey, “Webb argues that American religious, economic, and political institutions and values are dominating the world, which could not happen apart from God’s will, which means it must be in accord with God’s good and benevolent intentions for the world” (Beach-Verhey, as quoted in Anderson, 207).

Anderson does a good job of showing how the Biblical model of God’s kingdom is wrongly co-opted by Webb and others, but what he does not do is address the underlying philosophical assumption of Webb’s claim, which I suggest is a form (or at least a close cousin) of the “Is/Ought” problem first articulated by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume (here’s a brief summary). Hume’s own statement was this:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”

This statement has been reduced in philosophical usage to the statement “you can’t prove an ought from an is,” and numerous writers then refer to any such conclusion as an “ought-is fallacy” — essentially, the notion that what “ought to be” can never be derived through logic from empirical observations (what “is”) alone, and therefore any argument which does so is fallacious.  Google around a little, and you’ll find that philosophers (or at least those who presume to put philosophy on the web) fall into essentially two (vastly oversimplified) camps.  The first says that ought-is reasoning really is fallacious, and that consequently there is no such thing as morality derived from observation–that in fact, a prescriptive “ought” or “ought not” statement simply doesn’t fit into the categories of “true” and “false”.  These thinkers can come to the conclusion that morality is not, in fact rational at all (though by no means all conclude thus).  Another group disagrees, and says merely that one can’t get to a conclusion of morality (or perhaps any judgment of value) if all one’s premises are merely empirical.  In other words, if one’s inputs (premises) include a moral judgment, then it’s possible to infer further moral judgments from that set of premises (see this article by Dr. Charles Pidgin for an exploration of this).

Now all the discussions on the “Is/Ought problem” that I’ve found seem to circle around the concept of deriving imperatives or norms (what one ought to do) from some set of empirical premises.  What I see in Webb is actually a somewhat different type of inference–not one that (directly) tells us what we ought to do, but rather one which informs the “rightness” of what is.  For want of any source I can find on the subject, I’ll phrase it this way:

Thus it is, therefore it thus should be

which I think sounds cooler in Latin:  Sic est, ergo esse debet

(if anyone wants to correct my Latin I’d welcome it)

This is a far-more-comprehensive idea than simply whether or not one can make a value judgment on a particular action, norm, or command.  Rather than examining the basis for moral judgment, this position seems to be used largely as a foundation to silence dissent, to preclude any prophetic or moral evaluation of our nation’s actions.  If God has willed everything “we” do, then no one can challenge “us” without challenging God.

Now, I’m not entirely sure if the principle that what happens is what ought to happen necessitates any sort of Prime Mover who wills it (a position categorically different from mechanistic determinism), but maybe some of my readers can help me out here.  In any event, it is certainly true that many Christians (and, I rather suspect, theists of other faiths as well) do make this claim all the time.  As I have previously written (see here and here), I believe the assertion that whatever happens is God’s predetermined will is an error founded primarily on a misunderstanding of the meaning of God’s sovereignty, one that conflates sovereignty with absolute control or determinism.  But I don’t have to commit myself either to logic or to faith to call out Webb’s rationale as fallacious.  At the bottom, the claim that everything happens as it is destined or determined to happen does not follow from logic (Greg Boyd makes a nice case on this here); nor does it follow from the Biblical account of God, who for example, genuinely regretted having made Saul king of Israel (see this post on God’s immutability for more).

More importantly from a Biblical standpoint, it is instructive to compare 2 Kings 24, in which a variety of Chaldaeans, Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites all attack Judah (see 2 Kings 24:1-4), and yet these very groups are punished for their actions (see Amos 1 & 2).  If one accepts that the wars of nations are tools in God’s hands, as a literal reading of 2 Kings would suggest, then Amos informs us that being God’s tool may not be such a great thing after all.  If, on the other hand, one holds that God works around and through evil human actions (that is, actions that in themselves run counter to God’s will) for his own good purposes, one cannot then conclude that because God used a situation, he willed it or (more to the point) God’s people ought to support it.  Yet this is precisely what Webb does.  Simply, Webb’s claim that what the United States is doing on the global stage is the right thing (and the church should therefore support it without question) just because whatever the nation does is God’s will, is completely fallacious (and somewhat circular) whether you believe in the God of the Bible or not.  I’m a little surprised Anderson didn’t call him on it.

Disclaimer:  in case any true academic student of philosophy comes across this post, let me say that I do not claim any credential in this regard.  I’m trying to make reasonable inferences from some philosophical literature, but I am a layman and claim nothing else.  If you want to clarify or correct my reasoning, I welcome it, but please understand that I freely admit to being an outsider in the discipline.

3 thoughts on ““Thus it is, therefore thus it should be.” Ruminating on a theological fallacy”

  1. Bill

    Great post. On the question of whether other theist traditions subscribe to this notion, classical Islam certainly does. Muslims believe that nothing occurs apart from the will of God. So, ergo, whatever happens is God’s will. Just thought I’d pass that along.

  2. Stephen G. Parker

    @ Bill – I believe you will find that there is as wide a variation of interpretation among Muslims with regard to this difficult subject of the relationship between God’s Sovereignty and human responsibility/free will as there is among Christians. In my own reading I have found it to be so.

    In the Qur’an, strong statements of Divine Sovereignty are placed side by side with statements of human freedom to choose; and so far as I can remember, there is never any direct explanation as to how to ‘reconcile’ those statements. To my mind, it seems that we are intended to use our reason to try to understand the statements; but ultimately we are left to humbly realize that we simply can’t comprehend the Incomprehensible One – so we say, after we have used our reason to the best of our ability, “but God knows best”.

    Sometimes, statements are in fact capable of being rendered in two different ways. For instance, it is frequently stated in the Qur’an that God guides whom He will, and leaves to stray whom He will. Many times, though, Muhammad Asad’s English version renders such statements as “God guides those who will [to be guided], and leaves to stray those who will [to stray].” Apparently both renderings are legitimate possibilities. My own take on it is that both are true: God guides whom He will; and those He wills to guide are those who are willing to follow His guidance.

    I too agree that Dan’s post is very good, although I disagree on some things. But as I’ve said from the first time I read one of his blog posts (or perhaps one of his comments on Kurt Willem’s blog), I love Dan’s openness to question ‘traditional’ thinking even when I disagree with his conclusions.

    One place where I would disagree with Dan is that I believe it is ‘blasphemous’ to assert that God ever truly ‘repents’ of things He has done. To say such a thing is to say that God’s knowledge and wisdom, foresight, etc. is flawed – and I refuse to say such a thing about the Infinite One. Therefore, I believe one must either accept that when the Bible speaks of God repenting of something it is speaking ‘in human terms’ (God’s actions have the appearance of what we know of as repentance, although in fact God’s knowledge and wisdom is such that He never makes a mistake and never has any need to repent); or one must believe that those Biblical authors who assert that God repented are lying scribes. They represent what the prophet Jeremiah said in Jer. 8:8 – “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the FALSE PEN OF THE SCRIBE HAS MADE IT INTO A LIE”.

    Having stated my disagreement, I’ll next say that I think Dan’s comment in the next to last paragraph (the paragraph preceding the ‘disclaimer’) is an excellent summary of ‘the Biblical viewpoint’. Just because God wills to use a nation (or person) to fulfill His purpose, does not mean that the actions of the nation (or person) are ‘right’, or at least excusable.

    Dan used an example from II Kings compared with Amos; I believe among the clearest examples of this principle is the New Testament view of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The consistent viewpoint of the apostles was that Jesus’ crucifixion was eternally purposed by God; it was His will. Nevertheless, they did not hesitate for a moment to condemn those who carried out God’s will! For instance, Peter expressed it this way in Acts 2:23 – “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed BY THE HANDS OF LAWLESS MEN”.

    Or as Acts 4:27 and 28 says, Peter and John (together with their believing friends) united in this prayer: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, TO DO WHATEVER THY HAND AND THY PLAN HAD PREDESTINED TO TAKE PLACE.” (My Bible quotations were taken from the Revise Standard Version). The apostles obviously did not see any contradiction in saying something was foreknown and predestined by God – and therefore “God’s will” – and yet saying those who did the actions should not have done it!

    In other words, it’s “God’s will” and yet at the same time it’s contrary to “God’s will”. It’s contrary to “God’s will” as contained in God’s commandments and moral law; but nevertheless it’s a fulfillment of God’s will to use ignorant/disobedient men to carry out His greater purpose. God directs the evil actions of men without providing any excuse for those evil actions.

    Can we completely comprehend this? Maybe, and maybe not. We can certainly try our best to understand it, and respect the attempts of others who come to different conclusions than we do. And as I said earlier, after all is said and done if we’re wise we’ll wind up saying “and God knows best”.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      And where I’d “disagree back” (ha!) with Stephen is that I don’t think the writer of Genesis, or Samuel, or Jeremiah, is blaspheming when they say that God “repented” or “relented” or “regretted” something he had done or purposed to do (see my post Does God Change? part 2 for more details). Rather, we have at least in part imposed a modern reading on an old word (in modern usage, you can’t “repent” of something unless it was wrong when you did/thought/planned it, while the use of the word in Scripture appears to be merely a change in path or intention). The former is impossible of God since he never sins; the latter, quite possible and, if we believe the Biblical testimony, true.

      This really is part of the much larger argument about God’s foreknowledge and/or omniscience, which itself is a subset of the arguments over the Open View of God generally. God can truly be omniscient…that is, he knows all that exists to be known, and yet not know the entire future if the future does not exist as a settled fact. Boyd describes God’s infinite knowledge as knowing as true those things which are settled, and knowing the future as certain only for those parts God has purposed (which are therefore “settled”) while knowing the rest as possibilities which may, or may not happen. Within those possibilities, which exist because God sovereignly granted genuine freedom to his creation, we can choose to obey or disobey his will. If we disobey, God knew all along we might do so, but that does not mean that God willed our disobedience. And God may have to change his actions (which he may do with genuine regret) in order to accomplish his ultimate will in the light of our disobedience. None of this denies God’s sovereignty or sufficiency, or his knowledge of all that can be known. It just denies that exhaustive foreknowledge is a necessary element of God’s sovereignty and/or omniscience.

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