Paul K Moser - Convictional Knowledge, Science, and the Spirit of Christ

Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Zondervan, Andrew B. Torrance, Thomas H. McCall

ISBN: 978-0310536086, Zondervan Academic, May 8, 2018, $25.05

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

In the context of a book called “Christ and the Created Order” I was a little disappointed by this chapter, because it was rather oblique in its mention of the created order, and rather thin on references to Christ, building its “theoretical” case on God as a perfect moral agent, and concluding with a stress on the conviction of the Holy Spirit in the individual’s life.

Perhaps this reflects the fact that Moser writes from the standpoint of a philosopher at a Jesuit University: in the context of Thomist arguments for God, the epitome of scholastic natural theology, perhaps his points are well made. So I will briefly deal with his case in its own terms, whilst registering my wish that he had taken a more clearly Christocentric approach, and dealt more with the created order.

The essay begins with a contrast between the deliberately impersonal knowledge of the natural sciences, and the intrinsically personal knowledge of God, which must be the basis of any successful inquiry:

Inquiry will fail to the extent that inquirers fail to attend to the nature or character of the actual object, or at least the actual subject matter of an inquiry.

As he goes on to point out, even this misses the main point:

God would be not just an object of human inquiry, in any case, but also a subject whose perfectly good purposes entail some elusiveness towards humnans.

Moser makes passing reference to Michael Polanyi’s important insight that even scientific inquiry “must be understood in terms of the personal commitments of inquirers.” The scientistic, purely objective concept of science can only, as Moser quotes Jerry Fodor, be glimpsed “sometimes, out of the corner of an eye.” Incidentally, Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge is essential reading for any Peaceful Science readers trying to understand the human subjectivity of science.

But in the distinction he makes between scientific investigation of the natural world and inqury into God, Moser covers much the same ground as does Alvin Plantinga when the latter says that knowledge of God is “properly basic.” We may know God only by Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship, and never, by his very nature, through the “I-it” relationship of science.

It follows that this knowledge is by “experiential immanence”: it is a question of conviction by an active, morally perfect God, and thus is “vocationally sensitive” to individual persons. That means it is necessarily elusive, variable - and most importantly about “moral challenge,” mediated (Moser says) through an uncoercive encounter respecting the moral freedom of the inquirer.

Even in my summary, this all sounds rather abstract and philosophical, and I suppose that reflects the author’s desire to use the language of his guild: to me, it seems simply to mean, more biblically, that one has to taste to see that the Lord is good. Casual reflection on evidence will not cut it, and neither will purely intellectual pursuit of a classical “natural theology” of the First Cause, and so on. However, not only Thomas Aquinas, but even William Paley would have agreed with this, I think: both saw natural theology either as a first pointer to God, or as evidence to support the conviction of the heart. It is a refutation of Richard Dawkins (mentioned on p200), and perhaps of some of our atheist friends here, but seems to me to take us little further in understanding the role of Christ in creation.

Moser goes on to make reference to Paul’s famous “natural theology” passage in Rom 1:19, but says that God’s inherently moral nature would not be manifested in the created world

by itself (that is, as a strictly natural world)…

Instead, he suggests that God would be seen in some part of the world, and especially “in the personal agents being cooperatively conformed to God’s moral character.” In this regard he refers to the convicting power of the indwelling Spirit of God in believers.

But I cannot see that this is quite what Paul means in Romans 1, for it is the failure of humankind to respond to the knowledge of God’s “eternal power and deity” in what has been made (rather than God’s “moral perfection”) that leaves them, in Paul’s estimation, without excuse. It is in the unfolding argument of the rest of the letter that Paul speaks about the convicting activity of the Holy Spirit - and that mediated only through the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by those who know him.

The problem, I suspect, lies in that little phrase, “a strictly natural world,” which in my view is essentially meaningless because, as we have seen in earlier chapters of this book, the creation is itself deeply personal and christological in its origin, function, and purpose and (I would contend) in its potential to communicate some basic knowledge of Christ to us. This communication is no less personal and elusive than what Moser decribes: it is the communication between divine and human subjects, and not (as he rightly says) the abstracted intellectual inquiry of a science that seeks objectivity.

Neither does the perception of God (as Christ) in nature replace the necessity for the moral conviction of the Holy Spirit that Moser regeards as so fundamental. It is, rather, only the first step, the resonance of the human creature with his or her Creator, whose image he or she is. And neither can the communication of God through the Spirit be divorced from the resonance of the human sinner with his or her Saviour, the crucified and risen Christ, proclaimed in the gospel.

It is the gospel that reveals the centrality of Christ both to nature and to the saving knowledge of God - and I feel the chapter to a significant extent missed out on the opportunity to explore that.