[Henry wrote] the six-volume God, Revelation and Authority. GRAis still the most sustained theological epistemology by any American theologian. It deserves to be read more than it is, but it is not easy to read. Theologian Millard Erickson once said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I love Carl Henry’s work. It’s extremely important. I hope someday that it is translated into English!”
Carl F. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, Vol. 1, pp. 96-121
In this essay, Henry reviews the challenge of logical positivism to the Christianity, and Christianity’s responses. First, he defines the challenge as follows:
What they especially affirmed, rather, is that statements about the supernatural simply cannot be regarded as factual, that religious language lacks objective cognitive validity, and that assertions about God are meaningless nonsense. Logical positivists applied the terms meaningless and nonsensical not simply to demarcate statements about nonempirical reality, but also to belittle all but empirically verifiable statements as cognitively vacuous. They held that cognitively meaningful propositions must involve empirical observations that lead either to their acceptance as true or their dismissal as false.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 97. While there are serious nuances to the the basic propositions about logical positivism, it essentially was a claim that only matters which were empirically verifiable were “true”. To say that “Murder is wrong” might be interesting, but it was not “true”. Since ethics could not be true, God seemed even more difficult a matter.
To respond to this philosophical challenge, Christians undertook various tactics. Henry notes that Evangelical Christians do not deny verification, we admit to its existence and importance. “Instead, it presses the question of what epistemological tests are appropriate to every indicated object of knowledge.”
John Hicks asked the question about the public nature of verification: how many people have to verify a proposition for it to be true? The incontestably public nature of Christian truth claims will not become universally acknowledged until the Eschaton. But logical positivism rules out any future verification.
Others, such as John Wilson insists that knowledge of God is true and verifiable, but not in the manner sought by the logical positivists: however, this verification is personal not public and empirical to all. Henry then thoughts the push-back on this idea. Logical positivism is looking for sensory data, something coming through the retina, not the mind.
But there was another means of responding to logical positivism: What if its basic proposition of verification was faulty?
Equally important was the question whether the positivist methodology could bear the weight of all the intellectual traffic that was detoured its way. It makes little difference what lies on the other side if the bridge we are compelled to take is sure to collapse before we cross it. Instead of acceding to positivist demands, the far more discerning course—dictated by the inherent requirement of evangelical beliefs and by the nature of the real world—was to expose how implausible as the test of meaning was the positivist theory of verifiability.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 102. Soon, others besides theologians responded to logical positivism’s demands for verification. The verification principle was doomed to failure, because it could not bear the traffic. Indeed, it was self-stultifying:
It became increasingly apparent, moreover, that to insist, as positivism did in its earliest formulations, that metaphysical assertions are unverifiable in principle and therefore cognitively vacuous was self-defeating and self-destructive. The demand for empirical verifiability of truth-claims did much more than downgrade to unverifiable speculation those theological and philosophical affirmations of a metaphysical nature that were distasteful to the positivists. For on this same basis—namely, the indispensability of empirical scientific veriftability—all statements about ethics (ought-assertions), including statements affirming universal human rights or requiring integrity in scientific research and experiments likewise become mere speculation. Not only all theological and ethical statements, but all statements about past historical events, because empirically unverifiable, are shorn of truth-status. Assertions about past memories or about present subjective psychological desires and intentions lose cognitive validity for the same reason. The fatal blow lay in this, however, that on positivist premises not even the basic positivist thesis—that only empirically verifiable statements are true—could be cognitively accredited, since it too, was empirically unverifiable. Logical positivists were convinced that they had leveled statements about God, sin and salvation to sheer nonsense; now they found themselves at the mourner’s bench, lamenting the death of their very own dogma. Theologians had been accused of speciously presuming to have knowledge about an invisible spiritual world. Now positivists were indicted of arbitrarily vetoing all metaphysical assertions except their own unverifiable epistemological bias.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 110–111. Translated into English, this is the point: Logical positivism tried to reduce all meaningful, true statements into statements which could be observed by the senses [including instruments] or could be logically deduced from such observations. However, that rule cannot be true on the basis of Logical Positivism’s rule: You cannot see this rule in nature, nor is it a logical deduction from such observations. Therefore, logical positivism cannot be true.
An interesting note in the essay is the discussion of atheist Anthony Flew who abandoned his atheism prior to his death.