The Good God of the Inaccessible Black Box

The Good God of the Inaccessible Black Box December 13, 2023

In a recent article, I analyzed the applicability of Scripture as an ultimate authority regarding matters of salvation throughout Church history. My analysis showed that, due to almost near universal Christian illiteracy up to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Scriptures existed as an inaccessible authority, or God’s Black Box. Its practical use by common Christians depends heavily on Christian literacy. Not mentioned in the article, but also highly relevant, are the multiple layers of scriptural interpretive difficulty encountered by the highly literate. These aspects of inaccessibility Dr. Douglas Beaumont masterfully addressed in his article, Sola Scriptura: Death by a Thousand (or Ten) Qualifications?

This, coupled with a recent video by Gavin Ortland* and a dialogue between Ben Shapiro and Alex O’Conner*, inspired me to ask some questions about God’s good nature in light of an inaccessible black box containing the true unaltered message of salvation for all mankind.

My good friend, Matthew Graham, agreed to answer these questions from his Protestant perspective. In turn, I answer the same questions from my Catholic perspective. Hopefully, a fruitful and engaging dialogue ensues.

  • One caveat: the nature of Scriptural authority is not in question here. Both Catholics and most Protestants agree that the authority of Scripture comes from God. The issues here concern accessibility and how this accessibility reflects positively or negatively on God’s good nature.

Given that Christianity emerged during the time of the Roman roads, and after Alexander the Great’s conquests spread the Greek language throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, one could make the argument that God picked this time in history to allow for the greatest accessibility to His salvific message. The common Greek language, and the road system, allowed for apostles, like St. Paul, the opportunity to preach and spread the Christian message.

Questions:

  1. If Scripture contains the only inspired word of God, why did God not pair almost universal spoken language with an almost universal literacy (reading and writing)?
  2. If all sola scriptura is an application of God authority contained within its written form, why would God allow access to its application only recently (historically speaking)?
  3. Given O’Conner’s critique of God’s not flatly declaring slavery as objectively wrong an impunity on God’s good nature, does the inaccessibility of God’s word also reflect an objectively immoral action (or inaction) by God since He placed His unaltered salvific message within its inaccessible pages? If not, why not?
  4. How do we get around the inaccessibility of scripture, both in layers described by Dr. Beaumont, and in the illiteracy of most Christians until recent history, not impugning God’s good nature?

A Protestant’s Answers (Matthew Graham)

1.  Scripture contains the only inspired word of God, why did God not pair almost universal spoken language with an almost universal literacy (reading and writing)?

Answering “why didn’t God” questions are particularly speculative. The short answer is, I don’t know. All I can do is take a stab at possible reasons for why He might provide His only infallible guide in a setting with limited literacy rates.

  1. It is common for us to learn about important things from other people. We learn about threats to our safety from others, we learn math and science from others, and we learn about God from others. To be sure, there is always a possibility that we are being given false information. But for most areas of our life, we base what we know on what others tell us.
  2. If God is loving and patient with us, it’s not unreasonable to think that He would allow us some inaccuracies in what we believe about Him. It takes time to grow in our knowledge of God, even if we can read.
  3. God has given us rational minds and His Holy Spirit to enable us to have some measure of discernment. God must have found it acceptable to give His Word to people and let them sort it out as best as they can (with His aid).

2. If all sola scriptura is an application of God authority contained within its written form, why would God allow access to its application only recently (historically speaking)?

It’s not true that people have had access to God’s word only recently. Written language existed before the Bible was written. Not all people could read, but those that could read would convey the meaning of what was written to others.

3. Given O’Conner’s critique of God’s not flatly declaring slavery as objectively wrong an impunity on God’s good nature, does the inaccessibility of God’s word also reflect an objectively immoral action (or inaction) by God since He placed His unaltered salvific message within its inaccessible pages? If not, why not?

It’s possible that it indicates that God is indifferent to the salvation of humanity. But how would we evaluate such a claim? How many people does God have to make His revelation directly accessible to in order for him to not be immoral? You could say something like “If He is really good and loves us, He would make Himself directly known to all”. This is a claim that I have heard atheists make.

However, the question frames the problem as if a lack of direct access to Scripture necessitates the damnation of those who have not heard. If it was the case that those without access to the Scriptures were automatically damned to hell for all of eternity, then the problem would have a significant amount of force. However, I don’t think that way of thinking about it is correct. Scripture itself offers indications that those who haven’t heard are evaluated differently from those who have heard.

Given this, God’s giving us Scripture is a gift to help us clarify and sharpen our understanding of his requirements. The Judge of the whole world will judge justly and will take into consideration how people respond to the revelation given them.

4. How do we get around the inaccessibility of scripture, both in layers described by Dr. Beaumont, and in the illiteracy of most Christians until recent history, not impugning God’s good nature?

We can’t really get around the “layers” described by Dr. Beaumont. All we can do is go through them. We must learn as much as we can given the opportunities that we have. We should learn about how to read texts properly, how to analyze ideas historically and philosophically, and we should look into the nature and history of the church. The alternative is to hope that you find a great church that has done all of that and that they do a good job of teaching it to you.

These barriers to understanding Scripture exist for all areas of knowledge (to a greater or lesser degree). God didn’t make the principles of physics, as expressed by Einstein, clear to everyone. If you want to learn that you need to learn math and physics. You will have to invest a lot of mental energy in order to obtain those lofty notions. All the more so with theology.

This doesn’t impugn God’s character as He judges based on the revelation given. But it does demand more from us than we are typically told. If you go through life taking as many intellectual short cuts as possible, you will not be formed into the sort of creature that God wants you to be. He wants you to struggle to find the truth because there is something valuable produced in you when you do this. He wants you to accept certain claims by faith because this produces something good in you. There is no shortcut to gaining these goods. You must go through the struggle.

 

A Catholic’s Answers (Dennis Knapp)

1. If Scripture contains the only inspired word of God, why did God not pair almost universal spoken language with an almost universal literacy (reading and writing)?

From a Catholic perspective, the Word of God is the person of Christ. In Christ, “the entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up…” Christ, in turn, commanded His apostles to preach the Gospel and teach all that He commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). Initially, they accomplished this through oral teaching, as all the apostles themselves (except St. Paul) lacked significant education.

Eventuality, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, some of the apostles (and educated men associated with them) wrote down the message of salvation. Furthermore, the apostles left living successors to continue to preach and teach both the literate and illiterate. “And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time.” Therefore, regardless of the time God selected to reveal Himself, whether during a time of mass illiteracy or literacy, does not reflect poorly on the Catholic perspective, as it depend not on the written word but on a “full and living Gospel” preserved by Christ’s Church.

2. If all sola scriptura is an application of God authority contained within its written form, why would God allow access to its application only recently (historically speaking)?

Again, from the Catholic perspective, education and accessibility do not present an issue, as the Church continues as a living bearer of the Gospel message. The Church teaches and preaches Christ and His commands until the end of time.

3. Given O’Conner’s critique of God’s not flatly declaring slavery as objectively wrong an impunity on God’s good nature, does the inaccessibility of God’s word also reflect an objectively immoral action (or inaction) by God since He placed His unaltered salvific message within its inaccessible pages? If not, why not?

If the Bible alone contains God’s true and unaltered message of salvation, and most people throughout history were unable to access it, then yes, this lack of access reflects a direct immoral action on God’s part. Accessibility is paramount to the applicability of sola scriptura. Furthermore, if the uneducated possess no recourse except blind faith in educated men, what use is sola scriptura except as a means for educated men to via for their personal interpretations to achieve paramount status (for example, John Calvin and Martin Luther)?

4. How do we get around the inaccessibility of scripture, both in layers described by Dr. Beaumont, and in the illiteracy of most Christians until recent history, not impugning God’s good nature?

If our understanding of God’s true salvific message means we somehow traversed Dr. Beaumont’s 10 layers unscathed, which takes a high degree of education, this too reflects poorly on God’s good nature. If God desires the salvation of “all people,” He cannot make the message inaccessible to even the literate. Does one need a doctorate in Theology to enter the kingdom of heaven?

Thoughts?…

 

*Gavin Ortland recently stated: “It is inherent within the New Testament itself, in the Scriptures claims about itself. Scripture claims to be the inspired word of God, so it is of unique authority. All sola scripture is the application of that claim to a very specific question. Namely, how does the rule of the Church work with respect to infallibility?

*Alex O’Conner challenged Ben Shapiro as to why God took so long for declare slavery immoral. O’Conner contends: “Even if it is the case that God, for some reason, couldn’t just say, couldn’t even hint at the idea, that maybe eventually we should be moving towards the abolition of the idea of owning human beings as private property, I still think it’s the case that He would not permit a flat immorality.”

Thank you!

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