Sensus divinitatis and Reformed Epistemology

The sensus divinitatis means we all have an innate sense of God, and this sense leads us to seek God. Does this mean if we don’t hear the gospel we were ignoring our sensus divinitatis? In other words, is someone who has never heard the gospel news damned? Wow, what a loaded question…

As I continued my reading of Colin Brown’sbook, Philosophy and the Christian Faith Philosophy and the Christian Faith: A Historical Sketch from the Middle Ages to the Present DayColin Brown; InterVarsity Press 1980WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder I have to make a break with him.  Last week, I said here, that Brown made a persuasive case for the presuppositionalist approach to apologetics. He does do that, but in his final chapters an conclusion he goes beyond presuppositional apologetics to a Reformed Epistemology approach.

What is the difference between presupposition and reformed epistemology?

A presuppositionalist begins with the assumption of God’s existence and argues from that perspective to show the validity of Christian theism. The reformed epistemology approach is quite similar, but includes something called the sensus divinitatis, or an innate sense of the divine.

Steven B. Cowan gives an excellent overview of the 5 most common apologetic approaches in the the book, Five Views on Apologetics.  According to Cowan’s typology, the reformed epistemology method states that it is reasonable for a person to believe in things without objective evidence.[i] This does not mean that positive arguments for belief in God are not useful; they just are not necessary.[ii] Rational arguments are not necessary because, according to Calvin, all human beings are born with an innate sense of the divine.[iii] Thus the proper focus of reformed apologetic is defensive, countering challenges to theistic belief.[iv]

This sounded like an ok perspective to me until I read Brown’s amplification of it. According to Brown all people have a sensus divinitatis, or an “awareness of God regardless of whether they have heard the gospel and regardless of whether they respond or not.”[v] This awareness is the point of contact for believers to share the Christian message, and is what “clinches man’s guilt in his persistent turning away from God.”[vi]


I have two problems with Brown’s assertions. 1: A person’s innate sense of the divine can be distorted both by their own sin, or by another’s sin. For example, during the years I was abused I lost faith in a God that claimed to love me, but didn’t protect me. Was this my own fault? Would I, if I had died during this time have been damned?

The 2nd problem is that the reformed epistemology approach limits apologetics to a purely defensive discipline.  According to Colin and others, the effects of sin are so strong  that we cannot possibly build common ground with a non-believer. Our presuppositions are opposed.

I will grant that most people do not come to faith by a reasoned and well thought out logical argument, but some do. My Christian Philosophy professor did. My own mother did as well after years of struggle with the  tension she imagined between a scientific and a Christian worldview.

So what do you think of the sensus divinitatis? This week I have only been exposed to Brown’s ideas about Calvin’s idea of sensus divinitatis. Next week, we will go straight to the source, Calvin himself, and see what he had to say.

[i] Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics, 20.

[ii] Ibid., 20.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Brown, 272.

[vi] Ibid., 273.

The Case for Presuppositionalism

Is presuppositionalism circular? Can you assume that Christianity is right? Can you argue the truth of the Bible from the Bible?  Is an apologist obligated to use the two step approach?

If you’re new to the realm of apologetics it is important to realize there are a variety of approaches. The approach I have favored is the two-step approach. The two step approach first establishes God’s existence. The moves to establish the truth and rationality of Christianity. My reason for favoring the two step approach over presuppositionalism  is simple. It is the approach that helped bring my skeptical family to faith.

Recently, however, I have been converted more towards presuppositionalism. A presuppositionalist begins with the assumption of God’s existence and argues from that perspective to show the validity of Christian theism.

This change was prompted in part by been reading Colin Brown’s, Philosophy & The Christian Faith. 

Philosophy and the Christian Faith Philosophy and the Christian Faith: A Historical Sketch from the Middle Ages to the Present DayColin Brown; InterVarsity Press 1980WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

Brown is not intentionally creating a presuppositionalist apologetic. Instead he sums up the traditional arguments for God throughout history. He then points out they all have flaws and are all capable of being refuted. A philosopher refuting an argument, however, does not refute the faith. The Christian faith does not depend on arguments for proof.[1] Modern skepticism tells us we must understand something in order to believe it. The problem with evidence is we are always going to want more time, or more compelling evidence to make up our minds. The evidence some find convincing will leave others totally unconvinced.

Brown sides firmly with presuppositionalism quoting  Anselm, who stated, “I believe so I may understand.”[2]

Brown offers us this logic for presuppositionalism, “Does it not make better sense of the world- and of our thought about it and our behavior in it- if we presuppose the biblical view of God as its author and sustainer?”[3]

If we accept Browns view that we should presuppose the truth of Christianity, the purpose of apologetic philosophy then is the explanation of the grounds for and the nature of the Christian faith, and that the investigation of these grounds strengthens and enriches the committed Christian’s faith.[4]

Brown, finally, offers an important critique of the two-step approach, If we first wait to establish objectively that God exists, will we ever get to the second step of presenting the truth and validity of Christianity?

For more information on  about what pressupositionalism is check out
Christianity Today also has an excellent post that looks at the common objections to presupposing the existence of God in apologetics. You can find it here.
For another look about  why I think apologetics matter check out Apologetics in an Unapologetic World.

[1] Brown, 29.

[2] Anselm, Proslogion, i.

[3]  Brown, 30.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] Ibid., 48.

Us vs. Them or Us. FOR Them?

I had the wonderful opportunity to preach at my home Church, Church of the Messiah this past Sunday. If you would like to hear my sermon you can check it out by following the link below…The sermon reflects on the purpose of confession and absolution in the Sunday Service in light of sin in the world.

Us vs Them?

The lessons were Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7 * Ps 32 * Rom 5:12-19 * Mt 4:1-11


Are Convicted Sex Offenders the modern leper?

Warning: This post may trigger traumatic memories and contains details about my familial experience with sexual violence, verbal abuse

This audacious suggestion that sex offenders are the modern leper is how a presentation in my class, mentored ministry:outside parish walls began. At first I listened in stoic silence as a UMC Pastor explained her ministry context and how she began working with sex offenders. The presentation ultimately asked us to answer, “Can Jesus truly change and heal hearts and minds?”
Of course he can…but…As a convicted sex offender stood up and told his story tears began streaming down my face…you see I’m a victim. Not in the classic sense. I wasn’t abused, but a member of my family was.

This family member was my dearest friend, confidante, and partner in crime until I turned age 7. She had just turned 12 and her life was going all kinds of crazy. She was molested at her daycare as a toddler. Now as she began to develop sexually she began acting out. This acting out put her at greater risk of further abuse. At age 13 she was raped, although I wouldn’t find out until much later.

I then became her victim of choice. Everyday my former best friend called me fat, ugly, worthless. She caught me experimenting with my body once and making out with a pillow. She told me I was going to hell. She threatened to kill herself once in front of me, and when I stopped her she threatened to kill me instead. Occasionally the abuse turned physical when I attempted to call parents or authorities she would wrestle and bite me to make me drop the phone. Once she chased me around the house with a knife.Periodically she would go away for awhile to “get better.” But really she just got better at hiding it.

The abuse continued until at 14 I tried to kill myself. I was hospitalized, and suddenly my parents began taking me seriously. Somehow they’d turned a blind eye to what had been going on. Many, many years of therapy later (both hers and  mine) I can say I’m ok, and I’ve forgiven my victimizer and am back on good terms with her. She is some of the only family I have left. But until, Friday I’d never thought of her victimizers, and it certainly hadn’t occurred to me to forgive them…

I sat there listening to this man talk about growing up in the church and having no one to talk to about sex or sexual thoughts, and eventually losing a wife and 2 children because of his public exhibitionism and being forever labeled as a sex offender. He brought up several valid points…

  1. Jesus can save and change lives
  2. the sex offender label is so broad it lumps in urination in public, being 18 and having sex with a 15 year old (in some states), and being a child molestor and murderer.
  3. These people are forever stigmatized even though they are not out patrolling the park in a trenchcoat looking to kidnap your children.

BUT and here’s my problem with the leper analogy.

Leprosy was a physical ailment that was greatly feared would spread and infect the community. Lepers could only rejoin the community after presenting themselves to the priest and being certified as clean.

Sexual offenders have a mental disease or defective coping cycle that results in them acting out in ways that harm the community and (as in my case) spiral out into cycles of abuse.

Can Jesus heal this? Absolutely! BUT, we don’t see a physical manifestation that complete healing has been achieved. We as priests, and pastors are responsible for the safety of those under our care. An alcoholic can be clean and sober for 40 years and then suddenly fall into a bender. Who is to say that a “healed” sex offender won’t also relapse at the sight of someone that looks exactly like one of their victims or under times of great stress.

As I sat in the classroom, traumatized by this flood of memory and emotion, my classmate thanked the man for coming and dug this verbal knife into my side “I was molested by a man at a young age, but I’ve been fully healed by Christ.”

I wanted to punch him! To me his statement seemed to belittle my pain into not being fully healed, and not having a full faith in Christ. You can have forgiveness and healing and still have scars that are painful to the touch.

Any headway the man had made with me in his presentation disappeared as he talked about how resistant some people were to having sex offenders at church. It seems their most vocal opponent was victimized when she was young, and some people take it harder than others. So WAIT WHAT?!?!?! It’s the victims fault if they let it continue to affect their life?

Ultimately yes, the sex offender is the modern day leper, and I believe they deserve to stay that way. The labeling may need to change so that public urination doesn’t get the same label as a molester, but the label is there for the community’s safety. Just like the lepers of old that Jesus healed, some may have faith make them well, but in the absence of clear testable evidence that they will never offend again I believe we are justified in our excluding them from the regular worshiping communities.

Jesus told the parable of a shepherd leaving his flock of 99 sheep to go after the 1 lost sheep. I’m not advocating we leave sex offenders as lost sheep. I’m saying that they, like a leper need to stay in quarantine. Christian communities of sex offenders do exist. The man spoke of one called Miracle Village that houses over 120. Yet they are also integrating into this UMC pastors church with a buddy system pairing of offender with non-offender for safety and no Sunday School or youth ministry contact. But are these safeguards enough? I would say no. The cycle of abuse is too devastating. Jesus told us to not prevent the little children from coming to him. The abuse of and in my family prevented us from truly coming to Christ for a long time.



Can you find the gospel?

Perhaps it is my many years working for Disney, but I cannot stand bad show. Bad Show at Disney is any element that is out of place that detracts from the whole experience. At Disney, Bad Show was rigidly prevented and disciplined with extensive handbooks on employee and park appearance, as well as guidelines on the closing of attractions based on whether certain key Show elements were functioning…So how does this relate to the Episcopal Church?

Is worship a show? yes and no. Hear me out… Last Sunday, I was serving at the altar, and one of my roles, in the absence of a deacon, was to carry the gospel book for the gospel processional and recessional. I was a little nervous because I had never done this at St. Benedict’s before, but I had done it at other churches. And so I felt reasonably confident I could do this.

At the proper time during the gospel anthem, I went and retrieved the golden gospel book. I bowed with it facing the altar, and then turned and with the priest in my wake held the book aloft as we processed with crucifer and torchbearers preceding me into the congregation. The theological reasoning here is that the gospel is proclaimed among and for the people.

As I turned and opened the book the torch bearers gathered in close. This is so that the priest can see to read the book, and is a leftover from the days of dim chapels without electric light, but also symbolizes Christ the light of the world.

The priest read the gospel. I closed the book and began the solemn recessional back up to the altar with the book held aloft, when suddenly I felt a tugging at my sleeve. This tugging causes me to fumble a bit as he pulls me and instructs me to step off to the side so that the cross, then the torches and then FINALLY little old me with the gospel book is allowed to go.

My initial reaction is “what?!?” this is horrible show. How tacky to have the gospel stand to the side while we re-line up the parade in the order “we prefer”.  I spoke to the master of ceremonies (yes our church has a master of ceremonies to corral the acolytes), and he explained this is just the way we do it at St. Benedicts. My question here is “Why?”

Aside from it not flowing smoothly when you have to rearrange elements in full view of the congregation, what is it saying about our theology. What we do visually indicates what we hold most important. Is the cross always the most important element? I would say “No.” Look back to the featured image at the top of this post. This is a gospel processional…Can you find the gospel? Go on and look, I’ll wait….Did you find it yet? Tip: look 3 people back from the front.

At the processional and recessional of the gospel the focus is on the teachings of Christ. They should be the “star of the show.”

Howard E. Galley, in his bookThe ceremonies of the Eucharist The ceremonies of the Eucharist: a guide to celebrationHoward Galley; Cowley Publications 1989WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

thinks the presence of the cross isn’t appropriate at all in the gospel procession.

“The two lights carried at the gospel are both a token of joy and a symbol of Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12). The use of incense is also appropriate. The use of a processional cross at this point is not desirable. The original purpose of the lights was to accompany the gospel book, a purpose that is obscured when a cross is carried, since they appear to be accompanying it instead. A cross, moreover, tends to call attention away from the book.”

So thinking theologically…

  1. Is show, or the way we do things important theologically?
  2. If we believe, as I do, that show is important how do we handle it when things go wrong. Do we correct in the midst of the worship service? or Do we wait until later? I tend to lean towards the latter. Correcting (like pulling on the sleeve of a person) during the service only compounds the issue of things not going according to plan.
  3. Finally, what do we do when we disagree, theologically, with how worship is run?


The trend of Young Anglicans

I read a great article about a trend towards younger clergy in the Anglican church in England. From my own experience in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Florida I can definitely say this holds true here as well as across the pond.

The biggest factor in this trend that I can see is moving away from the idea that clergy is a second career calling.

Check out the original article…