Are Theistic Arguments Religiously Useless? A Pascalian Objection Examined -- By: Douglas Groothuis

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 15:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: Are Theistic Arguments Religiously Useless? A Pascalian Objection Examined
Author: Douglas Groothuis


Are Theistic Arguments Religiously Useless?
A Pascalian Objection Examined

Douglas Groothuis*

As a part of his multidimensional attack on natural theology, Blaise Pascal claims that the kind of argumentation required for theistic proofs is unacceptable for engendering true religious devotion. Rather than enlisting the services of natural theology to convince unbelievers, Pascal argues that the venture, however nobly conceived, goes wrong because it fails to do justice to the subject matter to which it attends so earnestly. Hence, instead of accepting any theistic arguments as a service to faith, Pascal rejects them as wrongheaded in principle because traditional theistic arguments are too opaque to be religiously helpful. In his words, they are too “remote from reasoning” and so have “little impact.”

Pascal was, of course, a Christian theist and a defender of Christianity; however, he argues that natural theology, given its very nature, is ill-suited to the Christian cause. He is not alone in this contention. On similar grounds, John Baille, in the fideistic tradition, states that “the knowledge of God of which the New Testament speaks is a knowledge for which the best argument were but a sorry substitute and to which it were but a superfluous addition.”1 For Baille, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and other theists suspicious of natural theology, the classical arguments for God’s existence miss the point entirely and should therefore be avoided. This claim is worthy of attention since it appears in various forms throughout the Christian tradition. Moreover, Pascal’s particular kind of complaint voices the concerns of many theists that the philosophical enterprise is a poor handmaiden to religious faith.

I. Thomistic Argumentation

In order to understand the nature of Pascal’s complaint and assess its force, we should note that he is rejecting the standard Thomistic approach to theistic proofs (and, mutatis mutandis, rejecting any other relevantly similar natural theology); but neither Thomas nor other natural theologians consider themselves

* Douglas Groothuis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary.

to be in the peril Pascal suspects, as we will see. Thomas argues from nature to deity through the use of natural reason. His argumentation comprises the preambles of faith. The Five Ways claim to demonstrate, in order of Thomas’s exposition: an Unmoved Mover, a First Cause, a Necessary Being, a Perfect Being, and a Designer. And these, he claims, all people call God.

This Being can be known throu...

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