Saturday, October 27, 2007

Further Thoughts on Calvinism’s Noetic Effect of Sin

Previous post of a fictional dialog between a Subjectivist and a Calvinist meant to reveal the underlying similar incoherence between both structures of thoughts. The former by arguing for the inexistence of absolute truth is itself proposing an absolute truth. While the latter by contending that the notion that all human cognition is marred by sin and thus unreliable is suggesting that that very notion itself is an unmarred and reliable knowledge.

One reason many find affinity with Noetic effect theology due to its explanatory effectiveness to explain human’s limited and often-mistaken capacity to comprehend. But as demonstrated in my previous post, this theology is incoherent and philosophically rootless. If all human understanding is unreliable as an effect of the Fall, then this very notion is itself unreliable.

Having that said, I am aware that another reason the idea of Noetic effect of sin was still prevalent in Christian communities is its function to uphold the supremacy of Special Revelation against Natural Revelation in Christian Theology. That means this particular theology was meant to place the Scripture above human’s reasoning. For instance, if some Galileos or Copernicuses step up to say that the earth is not the center of the universe as some knowledge that contradict the Church’s teaching, the Church authorities could take refuge by invoking the principle of Noetic effect of sin to emphasis and ground knowledge in the Scripture rather than grounding knowledge on observations of those Galileos and Copernicuses. Through such theology, the Church hopes to retain the Scripture as the ground for human cognition.

There are two problems with this theology. First, very often though not always, whenever the Church argues for the supremacy of the Scripture is really an attempt to elevate the Church’s own posture as superior in the marketplace of ideas rather than that of the Scriptural data. And subsequent to this power-driven manipulative motivation, the imperialistic and hegemonic Church might turn out to be exactly what it was not meant to be: hell. We know what had the Church done with Galileo and Copernicus and, personally, I pray that that will not happen again.

And following this first problem, the second problem is that whenever a church postulates a scrupulous interpretation of the Scriptural data is really, very often though not always, an interpretation comes out from the particular tradition of that particular church and thus would not be the right interpretation after all. Hence in the end, if the Noetic effect theology is correct, is not that particular interpretation a marred interpretation as well?

(Upon reading here, you might ask (1) how then should we contend for the right understanding of the Scripture (2) and how do we understand the Scripture? My own attempt to these questions follows Imre Lakatos’ research program for the contention part, and Anthony Thiselton on the understanding part)

After complaining so much about the Noetic effect principle as detrimental to our theology of human cognition and the philosophical coherence for our epistemology, I hope, now, to refocus this conversation with a proposal that I think is more robust.

The function of Noetic effect to explain the limitation and erroneous-able of human understanding can be replaced by the doctrine of creation. This doctrine affirms that there is an infinitely huge ontological difference between the Creator and the creation. Simply said, human as part of the creation is extremely different from God the Creator. God as a being and possess the ability to know all there is to know contrary to humans as limited and finite beings with limited and finite capability to know.

By grounding the theological problem of cognition in the doctrine of creation instead of the doctrine of sin, we are privileged with two advantages: (1) With such inadequacy, it is expected that our knowledge is not perfectly comprehensive and hence we have incomplete knowledge on almost everything. But such incompleteness does not mean error; it just means we lack the ability to understand certain things in this given moment. (2) There are certain things that we cannot know or understand as limited finite being. And thus, there are space for mysteries and wonders in our ever-discovery and learning.

Moreover, these two advantages do not threaten the canonical status of the Scripture. There is no ‘Scripture VS Reason’, but a continuous dialog between Scripture and Reason. In the many cases of Galileos and Copernicuses, although their discoveries do not gives us the right interpretation of the Scripture, nonetheless, these discoveries correct our wrong ones.

By this simple task of refocusing, I hope I had demonstrate the incoherence of Christian epistemology in invoking the Noetic effect theology. And so, convincingly prompts you to abandon this theology and ground our knowledge on this matter in the doctrine of creation instead.


Edwin Tay said...

1. The Reformed Orthodox do not deny what you've said about the distance between Creator and creature. They've made it clear that God's knowledge of himself is different from man's knowledge of God.

2. Do you take human disobedience in Gen 3 as historically true?

3. In your opinion, does sin affect human reason?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Edwin,

Thanks for dropping by :)

RE 1. Yes, i think on this part the RO got it right. Thus I was not trying to propose anything new but to re-focus the problem back to doctrine of creation for solution.

Re 2. No, but open and keeping the matter in view.

Re 3. I can't really answer this question. Too much presumption involved. To give an oversimplification, 'sin' is not something that we can quantify or, in many case, easily recognized. If sin is taken to mean our flawed human desires and aspiration, then yes it affects our reason. But then that would cut off the ground from where i stand because my answer too might be affected by sin. So in the end, who knows what is what? So in term of whether does this question helps to shed understanding on our reasoning faculty, i would say it doesn't help. A re-focus back on doctrine of creation does a much better job.