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Tabula Rasa: A Scriptural Refutation [Pt.1]

Not too long ago, I offered a logical refutation of the tabula rasa doctrine. Today, I am going to offer a Scriptural refutation of the doctrine. In order to do this, we need to look first at (I.)the ontology of man, and (II.)biblical anthropology. These will not be exhaustive treatments of these two subjects, but will be the foundation of our brief study of the Scripture’s teaching on the mind of man and its content.

I. Ontology

Materialism assumes that man is ultimately only comprised of physical elements. In this view, the soul/mind is typically thought to be an epiphenomenon of brain activity. This is clearly at odds with the Scriptures, which teach that man is his soul, the body being his instrument/vehicle for the expression of his soul (i.e. his thoughts, beliefs, values, etc). Without his body, man can reason, receive information about the physical world, reflect on his past, consider the future, and have emotional reactions to such cogitations. However, man can only properly express these cogitations on earth with his own body.

The soul is, moreover, ontically simple. It is not composed of parts. It did not develop over time. Rather, God brings the soul/man into being at once, as he did in the beginning. Summarizing the creation of the soul, John Flavel writes –

"God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul:" which plainly speaks it to be the immediate effect of God's creating power. Not a result from matter; no, results flow e sinu materiae, out of the bosom of matter; but this comes ex halitu divino, from the inspiration of God. That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; but this is a spirit descending from the Father of spirits. God formed it, but not out of any pre-existent matter, whether celestial or terrestrial; much less out of himself, as the Stoics speak; but out of nothing. An high born creature it is, but no particle of the Deity.

(Pneumatologia: A Treatise of the Soul of Man)

Man is, in other words, a rational, personal, relational, volitional mind. The belief that man is ever, at any point, lacking any of these properties is self-contradictory. To be man is to be rational, personal, relational, and volitional.

II. Biblical Anthropology

Materialism reduces man to a socio-historical construct, a being which could have been otherwise, and is only what he is due to the violent forces of time and chance acting on matter. In this view, it is denied that man has a peculiar essence and, therefore, a peculiar and proper set of roles to play on earth throughout the course of his life. Scripture, however, teaches us that man is essentially the image of God, a mind with the aforementioned properties. Man’s roles throughout the course of his life, then, are those which, via the body, express the image of God. Man as thinker, pro-creator, architect, judge, custodian of animals, keeper of vegetation, etc. The soul does not come into existence the way physical things come into existence, but is ontically simple, not composed of parts. This does not mean, however, that men do not grow, develop, etc.

The analogy to be considered is that of the body. The body, once it has fully formed in the womb, grows into the determinations which God has given it. Physical maturation gives us an analogy of the development of the already existent soul. Just as the development of the post-partum development of man’s body further reveals how God has determined it to look and perform, the development of the soul further reveals its essence as the image of God.

Deductions from (I) & (II)

The first thing we need to note is that since man is essentially the image of God, it necessarily follows that from the moment of conception he is a rational, personal, relational, volitional mind. This implies that man, from his conception, is a thinking being. The infant in the womb is no less a rational, personal, relational, volitional mind than is his 40 year old father.

In the second place, the infant’s nature as the imago dei is not dormant. Rather, from the moment of conception he stands in an active relationship to God. We know this because of what the apostle Paul writes elsewhere –

we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.1

Given that we are, from conception, a unity of body and soul, this passage implies that even in the womb we are either doing good or evil.2

This does not mean that we can determine the degree to which an infant is guilty of sin, that is God’s to determine. We are to judge on the basis of information available to us, as we read in Deut 19:15 –

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

A person can only be accused if he has acted in manner which we can identify as wrong, implying that not only the act itself but the presence of some sinful intention/s must be noted in order for there to be an accusation at all. If, for instance, one were to lose control of one’s hand and slap someone in the face, this would be much different than if one slapped someone in the face out of anger, or to humiliate them, etc. The former is not sin; the latter is; yet the physical action is the same. This is partly dependent upon the child’s physical and social development. If the child is capable of controlling his limbs, as well as capable of understanding that slapping someone in the face is disrespectful, etc, then he is to be held accountable and punished accordingly. However, if he has no control over his limbs, and he has no grasp of what physical actions correspond to good and evil, then he cannot even be accused of sin.

In other words, before God infants are sinners who are capable of being judged; before man, infants are innocent.

1 2 Cor 5:10.

2 Some may object by pointing to Scriptures such as Isa 7:16 and Rom 9:10-11, both of which seem to support the idea that good and evil are (a.)unknown to the unborn child, and (b.)incapable of being performed by the unborn child. This, however, is a misreading of these texts.

Isaiah 7:16 states that,

before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.

Isa 8:4 uses similar language in reference to the development of the child’s ability to use language, stating –

before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.”

The idea in these passages is that of the development of the child outside of the womb in relation to others, not in relation to God. Indeed, in relation to God we see that the prophet John the Baptist rejoiced in the presence of the Lord Christ (cf. Luke 1:39-42).