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Can We Know Truth?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
August 19, 2021 12:01 am

Can We Know Truth?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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August 19, 2021 12:01 am

Is it truly possible to know that God exists, even though we do not see, hear, or touch Him? Today, R.C. Sproul and his mentor John Gerstner begin to square off in a mock debate to test the truth claims of the Christian faith.

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Today on Renewing Your Mind… Aren't you pleading cosmologically? You're saying God makes a universe, He makes a cosmos, and even though He never shows up in it personally, we can't see Him. He's invisible to our eyes.

We don't hear His Word spoken audibly, but we see the universe, and you're saying somehow that universe reveals something to me about God. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind. On this Thursday, I'm Lee Webb, and you know, sometimes to really understand an issue, it's helpful to hear both sides of the argument.

You're in for a real treat today as Dr. R.C. Sproul and his mentor, Dr. John Gerstner, square off in a mock debate with passion and a little good-natured ribbing, these two gifted theologians and loyal friends challenge and defend the existence of God, the Christian faith, and the teachings of Scripture. My ignominious role in this exercise is to serve as the devil's advocate.

I'd like to say that that role was chosen by lot, but instead we tried out for the parts, and I lost. But in our first session together, Dr. Gerstner, we're going to be discussing the question of truth and ethics, and let me begin by calling attention to what is clear, I'm sure, to you and everyone else, that we live in an age that has been marked by extraordinary discoveries in science that in turn have influenced philosophy and theology and all of the other disciplines, and one that has certainly made an impact on my thinking is the concept of relativity as it has changed the whole structure of the modern world. But not only is relativity something that we conceive of with respect to science, but I think now safely with respect to all truth. I notice that you Christians tend to make bold declarations and affirmations about truth, and yet from my perspective as a modern person I have to say, Dr. Gerstner, that as far as I can see, truth is relative.

So how would you respond to that? Since you put the question to me at the outset, what is my Christian reaction to relativity, it's very affirmative as far as that's concerned. God and the world and everything else is relative to the knowing mind. I see no problems with that from a Christian standpoint. What I'm saying, though, Dr. Gerstner, is not simply that I have to relate to God and to the world and to propositions that people make here and there. In that sense, we're all relatives, one of another. I'm not disputing that. But what I'm saying is that the truth itself is conditioned by my perception of it and that what may be true, for example, for you in your religious devotion, you may believe that there is a God, an eternal God who's the object of your devotion and of your prayers and your preaching and that sort of thing, so that for you, Dr. Gerstner, it's true to say there is a God because you relate to that.

It has meaning for you and significance to you. But for me, Dr. Gerstner, that doesn't mean anything. There's no God. So for me, it's true to say God does not exist. That's what I mean when I say the truth is relative. You're quite correct when you say that we Christians say there is a God. Now, first of all, that's a proposition which I maintain is a true proposition.

Now, you are hostile to it, but I take it you're not hostile to a definition of the term. You understand, the same as I understand, what that proposition means. Would you agree with me on that? Yes, I think we could have a basic agreement of the meaning of the statement in the sense of as a sentence and as a proposition, we both understand what these words in connection communicate. Yes, I understand that. But what I'm saying, Dr. Gerstner, is that you affirm the truth of the statement.

That's exactly so. And because it's meaningful to you, it is true for you. It's meaningful to you, but you affirm the falsehood of it. Well, I don't believe there is a God. You don't believe there's a God, but that's a meaningful proposition to which you give that negative response.

That's correct. It's a meaningful proposition to which I give an affirmative response. And the rational thing for rational people to do at a point like this is to ask, what's the reason I affirm it, and what's the reason you deny it?

Well, do you want to take the initiative or do you want me to? I say the reason I deny it is that I don't get any particular personal significance out of it. It's irrelevant to my life if there is this God that you put so much stock in and believe in.

I don't know anything about Him, and He doesn't make any difference to me. You're saying it's irrelevant. That is a non-rational proposition. I would say because if this being does exist, and I'm assuming a dictionary definition of the term just as you, He is the author of your being.

And for you to stand there and say, that is irrelevant to me, doesn't sound like a very brilliant observation. Well, what I'm saying is that there is a God, that that may be true for you because I'm saying I'm saying that truth is defined by personal meaning. And because you find meaning in this to your own life, subjective significance, then I would agree, Dr. Gerstner, that this is a true statement.

There is a God. That's true. But what I'm saying is it's true for you.

It's not true for me because I don't believe it. Now, you're shifting to another subject, but before you do, if we're going to make any progress in this discussion and debate, we've got to go step at a time. You are withdrawing the statement that it is irrelevant. This is highly relevant to you unless you can prove that this being does not exist. Now, you have insinuated that it can't be proven because truth is proven by feeling, and you don't have any positive feeling about that. That's exactly what I'm saying.

Okay. Now, since when is truth determined just by positive being? Would you deny that this being about whom you have a negative feeling therefore does not exist because this devil's advocate does not have a positive feeling about him?

That's correct. You'd consider that a rational remark? Well, I'm not interested whether it's rational, and this is a matter of what I'm saying is that… That's all we were talking about, truth. We are talking about truth, but we're trying to get a definition, and I'm saying to you, you want to have a rational objective concept of truth. I'm telling you, we don't live in the dark ages anymore. The age of rationalism is over, Dr. Gerstner.

Welcome to the 20th century. I have an existential view of truth, and for me, as an existentialist, see, truth is an experience. It's an encounter. It's feeling more than rational propositions, and you want to insist the truth is some kind of objective, rational system. You want to say that any truth, this or any other truth, stirs up a certain feeling in an individual if it's going to be significant. I gather you're not denying the objectivity of the concept, but what you're still going back to is that it's not relevant to me unless I am internally involved in it positively. If there is a God out there, apart from my feelings, apart from my relationships and all of that, and apart from your relationship and all of that, I would have to grant that that would be relevant.

Okay. Let me try to show you that this God must… Well, before you do that, let me say to you what I'm struggling with here, that I guess the reason why I'm saying that this proposition becomes a matter of personal subjective preference, if you will, is because I don't really think we can know in the final analysis if there is such a being independent of your personal feelings about it and my personal feelings. What I mean, Dr. Gerstner, is I don't think we can know whether there is such a being, but it doesn't matter because if you respond positively, for you it's true, and if I don't respond positively, then for me it's not a viable truth in my life. But what I'm saying is I'm not agnostic about that we can make sentences that are objective, and I'm not even agnostic about what you've said here, that if there is a God, it would be relevant. But I'm not agnostic about whether we can know such a truth. Well, and we all agree on the fact that if there be such a being as that, it's highly relevant how you feel about Him, and if He does exist and you feel negatively about Him, you're in a bad way. And if I feel positively about Him, I'm in a good way.

That's all accepted. The whole point now rests in this one thing, whether we can know this being. Now, you're maintaining that we can't even know before we even deal with the question because the only kind of knowing that you're interested in and want to maintain is the only kind of knowing possible is one that affects you positively. That's your subtle underlying implication.

Now, I've qualified that. I've said that that only comes into play in areas where we're dealing with subjects or questions that I'm convinced we can't know about objectively. Well, what do rational people do when one person says we can't know and the other person says we can't know?

Where do you go from there? Well, you have to debate it. That's why we're here. Okay. Now, do you want to prove He can't exist, or do you want me to prove He can't exist?

No, no, no. I'm not going to say that… I'm not going to say that He doesn't exist. I said we can't know. I'm not being a, you know… You know He exists. You admit that. What? You just said it. I don't care. We know… I said we cannot know that He exists.

You're going to say that. How are you going to prove that you can't know God exists? Because He's beyond the pale of… You already know a great deal about Him, don't you?

Wait a minute. For example, for example, certainly as a theologian, as a philosopher, you're well aware of the monumental critique of the traditional arguments for the existence of God that was proffered by Immanuel Kant, and you know that Kant has shown that such a being, as you describe as God, is in a realm that is beyond our ability to get at. I mean, we can't see Him. We can't touch Him. We can't taste Him. We have no access to a metaphysical realm beyond the physical things that we can investigate through science, so God cannot be an object of scientific inquiry, and we can't know Him rationally.

What other way is there? We can't know God because Kant said we can't know God. Tell me, first of all, how can you know anything about a being who is beyond the scope of sense perception? This being could, for example, you're just asking me how it would be possible.

I can answer you on a hypothetical matter, which I think is true. This being, who is beyond visibility and beyond total comprehensibility, could make things by means of which he would reveal the nature of his being. I'm a finite person, and he could actually create things that are finite also, which could cue me into the fact that he's the author of those things.

That would be telling me something about him, that he's already there at the beginning and that he makes these things, that he's intelligent in the way he goes about it, and he's benign in his tendency, and he's moral too because he's affect me morally as well. What I hear coming out of your mouth, forgive me if I'm being presumptuous, but is nothing more than the old cosmological argument for the existence of God that I thought that Kant demolished here. Aren't you pleading cosmologically? You're saying God makes a universe, He makes a cosmos, and even though He never shows up in it personally, we can't see Him. He's invisible to our eyes.

We don't hear His words spoken audibly, but we see the universe, and you're saying somehow that universe reveals something to me about God. You're giving a very fine statement, a cosmological argument. Now, why don't you make a critique of it while you're at it? All right. Isn't that what you're arguing for?

I'm using it. You're not showing any fallacy in it. Let me ask you, what I want to know is how, Dr. Gerstner, you can reason from this created realm to this invisible Creator?

Okay. I've already told you, and you've been mocked it out, but I'll say it again, and I'll ask you, if you don't have to take this mock debate so seriously as that to give mock argument, you know, that you will actually address what I say rather than make authoritative statements to manual Kant thought differently. I'm simply trying to identify the argument as the cosmological argument. Now, I would say, with Kant as my ally, that what it requires to move, whether it's a gentle step, a progression up a ladder, or we jump up in the air here, whatever it is, Dr. Gerstner, we are moving, you grant that, from this sphere, okay, but we are moving from this sphere to some metaphysical sphere. Now, it would seem to me, Dr. Gerstner, that in order to do that, we would have to make some assumptions, which I think, with Kant, that the law of causality, which we use in our scientific inquiry of this world, would apply to this other world equally.

That is not necessarily true. Aren't you resting your case on some kind of causal… Oh, I am, but that doesn't mean that in this other world it would be exactly the same. Well, how do you… For me to argue from this world to the fact that it requires this God in this other world you're talking about is one thing. To say that God's self-knowledge would be of the same nature as something else again.

But we don't have to get that. All we need, as far as our debate is concerned, is for you to show me this is a gratuitous leap and that these cosmological arguments that you denigrate so liberally and so on are actually non-cogent. You just don't like the idea of moving from this world to the other world. You're assuming that because there's a world here, there has to be… I'm not assuming anything. You're the guy who's putting that word as something else.

Correct me. What I'm hearing you say is that because there's a world here… Right. …that we can perceive… Exactly.

…that is visible to us. Exactly. What's that assumption? Because that world is here, all right? No, that's not the assumption. I'm saying that what I'm assuming, or either what I think you're assuming or arguing for, is that because we can perceive this world here, this world somehow bears witness to an antecedent cause. That's true. That is God.

That would have to be God. He'd only be… And the reasoning that we use to get there is causal. Is that correct? Okay. All right, so that now you have this antecedent cause… Right. …for this visible universe. Okay. Why does there have to be an antecedent cause?

Why does it have to be what? Why does there have to be some kind of antecedent cause behind the universe? Why can't the universe be its own cause? All right, let's hypothecate that.

Let's say for a moment here, you're going to prove now, you're taking on the business of proving that we can't know God, and you're going to say, why can't we assume that this world is eternal, huh? No, it… No, correct me. What are you… It's its own cause. Its own cause.

So, presumably indefinitely. If it's its own cause, it's been there, presumably now. If it's there now in its own cause, presumably it would have existed this way, or at least in some shape or… Or we could go through an infinite series of finite causes and so on, but that… If you're the one who's saying finite causes, you won't even let me finish my sentence, all right, finite causes. That's your language now, right?

Yes. You've got a series of finite causes. Well manifestly, if they're finite, they can't be unlimited, can they? And they could not, of course, have existed of themselves finitely or temporally.

Not any single one of them. Or all of them. But the series could be infinite. But they're all finite, aren't they not? Isn't that what you've been saying? No, I say each of the causes is a finite cause, but the series is infinite. Each of these finite items, each finite item depends on its own. I just want to make sure I get what you're saying.

It takes the shape of an argument and not a mere accusation and so on. Each finite item has own cause. That's correct. Infinitely. Yes. Eternally.

Yes. All right, now suppose for this, I don't believe that's the case, but I'm like my friend Thomas Aquinas over there. He maintained you couldn't prove you wrong at this particular point. I think we could, but I'll go along with the master Thomistic reasoner at this point and grant you that when I consider diabolical thought that the universe could actually be eternal, OK? Infinite. Its own cause forever. Then I would say as we look at, see it used to be, if I may preach here for just a moment, that when I would debate this type of thing with a person who would argue that everything came out of nothing is just here, you see, or God.

That's what I'm saying. I'm not arguing right now about an eternal universe. Just of itself, see, of itself. It used to be, this is how the irrationality of our existential age is ending. It used to be when there was still a remnant of rationality left in the culture of our day, that if you could show that there's no cause for this thing behind all these things which depend on cause, and it's either nothing or God, you had the argument.

God had no competition. This is the same thing as saying it's God or nothing. Now I get people like yourselves who can actually live with the idea of nothing, and there's one man who starts the whole thing by saying a fluctuation of nothingness, see. Now that used to be an indication of a fluctuation of irrationality, absurdity, nonsensicality, and non-humanity, but today people in full possession of their faculty can say a thing like that. You're all exercised because modern man is willing to accept the possibility of nothing.

Right, yes. And of something coming from nothing. That's right, especially when they define it as something. Well, it's... As they inevitably do, by the way.

They know what nothing is. Go ahead. Well, what would you put in the place of nothing? Look, I'm trying to say, you admit intelligence here.

You admit order. You question the idea of the ontological argument, which would be just from being itself. Well, what do you mean by that? What do I mean by the ontological argument? What I mean by this argument from being is that that being, in order to be, has to be eternal. Otherwise, it would have come out of nothing, which is an absolutely meaningless, absurd proposition, and that you can't think of non-being. My good friend back here said that nothing is what the sleeping rocks dream of, and I sort of add to that that people today who talk about fluctuations of nothingness must have rocks in their head and so on that you can't not think of being, even as nothing becomes being after all and so on. Wait a minute. Let me see if I get this.

Let me see if I get this. What I hear you saying is that we can use the word nothing. Meaninglessly. But, well, what we really mean by it is something. Yes. That we cannot think of nothing except as some kind of being that isn't.

Precisely. It's just like my friend Norman Geisler said, this is sayable but not thinkable. There are all sorts of things people can say, and you've exhibited a number of them this evening and so on, that are not thinkable. But right now, you're giving arguments against it and you're admitting them all along the way.

I realize you've got to report to headquarters, and he's not going to be pleased with what you say. You mean to tell me you admitted in public assembly that there was an intellectual argument for God? Don't you know some of these people might become believers and will lose them out of our kingdom? I feel a little sorry for you, but nevertheless, you have ventured into the open now, as you devils don't like to do. Well, actually this has just been an exercise to warm us up to go further on this discussion of the existence of God. What I was trying to get from you here is the groundwork, the method that you use to try to prove such a thing as the existence of God.

And I see that what you're doing is you're using your senses for the world, and then your reason to go back to this first cause. All right, I understand that. And I know you don't like it, but I don't get what you think.

I don't like it, but I get the point. But there's still some things I need to iron out with you on this, and we'll take them up in the next session. If you don't mind, I appreciate your patience with this poor fallen devil, but we'll go on and really look at this more sharply in our next engagement. Well, this has been a lot of fun, hasn't it? What a fascinating exercise to hear two theological titans facing off like this.

It's a rare opportunity. Dr. R.C. Sproul and his mentor, Dr. John Gerstner, held this mock debate as a way to dismantle some of the arguments against the existence of God. And if you'll join us again tomorrow, we will bring you another session of this debate. In a world that is aggressively looking for ways to erase God from its collective memory, it's critical that we as Christians have answers to the objections the world throws at us.

In this five-part mock debate, Drs. Gerstner and Sproul answer questions about God's sovereignty, the inspiration of the Bible, and God's very existence. When you contact us today with a donation of any amount, we will be happy to send you the two-DVD set of this debate, plus Dr. Sproul's groundbreaking 32-part series on apologetics, Defending Your Faith. Both of these resources are our way of saying thank you for a donation of any amount today. You can find us online at, or you can call us.

Our number is 800-435-4343. Dr. Sproul established Ligonier Ministries to proclaim God's Word faithfully and clearly. For fifty years, by God's sustaining grace, this teaching fellowship has worked to unfold the riches of Scripture.

As R.C. said, the power is not in methods, but in the Word of God itself. And friends like you make it possible for God's Word and His glory to be lifted high in every outreach that Ligonier undertakes.

So we thank you for your gifts. Well, many atheists hang their hat on the Big Bang Theory as the way to explain how the world came into existence. But what was before the Big Bang, and is matter eternal, like some suppose? Can it produce intelligence? Please join us tomorrow as we continue this mock debate between Dr. R.C. Sproul and Dr. John Gerstner, here on Redoing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-14 16:14:22 / 2023-09-14 16:24:35 / 10

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