Chris Tilling’s interesting and challenging remarks raise some important questions about how the philosophical approach that John Kronen and I take in God’s Final Victory
fits or should fit within the broader context of Christian theology, beholden as it is to a body of purportedly divine revelations.
For example, Chris writes the following:
To what extent is ER’s “philosophical method”, operating with expected regard for contradiction, coherence and belief-justification, itself self-consciously located within the sometimes logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy? (As an aside, I find it fascinating that philosopher Graham Priest has even sought to “attack the law of non-contradiction”, by advocating dialetheism, the view that there are true contradictions! See Graham Priest, In Contradiction: A Study of the Transconsistent, reprint, 1987 [Oxford: OUP, 20062] and his article “What Is So Bad About Contradictions?” Journal of Philosophy 95 95, no. 8 [August 1998]: 410–26. But that is a topic for another day!)
To press this point, in light of such matters it should be remembered that Thomas Torrance makes his case against Christian Universalism (and ‘limited atonement’) by maintaining that philosophical logic finds itself judged at the cross of Christ, as it remains our own attempts "to project our own views from within fallen humanity onto the unique action of God in Jesus Christ" (so Paul Molnar in Thomas F Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity), which ends up redefining rather than clarifying soteriology. Without wanting to affirm Torrance’s inference, the question remains: logic, yes, but to what extent could ER’s case change if this logic is orientated into the theological universe of a specifically Christian tradition, which sometimes embraces apparently opposing statements (so Randal Rauser)?
The questions here center on what role logic can legitimately play with respect to the effort of Christians to faithfully understand the self-disclosure of a God who transcends the limits of human thought and its logic. I propose, therefore, to focus my response on seeking to explicate my understanding of this role.
Before doing so with care, however, I would like to make one important preliminary comment: There is a difference between apparent and actual contradiction. Likewise, there is a difference between “logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy” and apparently
logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy. Some things that look as if they are logically inconsistent turn out to be consistent on deeper analysis. Our initial judgments about what is logically possible and what is logically impossible can be mistaken. Likewise, our initial notion of what follows logically from certain premises can be wrong.
In many of these cases, the error arises because we are working with assumptions that we take so much for granted that we don’t even know we’re assuming them. The contradiction (or implication) only arises because we are importing hidden assumptions and incorporating them into our thinking without knowing it. Perhaps there really is a logical contradiction between A, B, and our hidden assumptions, but there is not a logical contradiction between A and B by themselves. We just take there to be one because we cannot imagine that our assumptions are wrong.
But God so transcends the world we know that even our most cherished assumptions cannot be treated as sacrosanct when we turn our attention to God. In many of the cases in which theologians claim that God defies our logic, I think this is what is going on: God defies the assumptions we are unwittingly importing into our logical reflections on God.
In such cases, it isn’t logic that needs to be thrown out. Rather, the problem is that we are insufficiently self-aware to recognize the ways in which our thinking is shaped by “givens” other than the rules of logic, givens that must be called into question when the object of our thinking is a God who transcends us.
So, for example, perhaps we think it is logically incoherent to assert that there is only one God and yet to assert at the same time that this one God is a triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—all of Whom are distinct persons. But perhaps the problem is that we are assuming, taking it for granted, that more than one person cannot share the same individual essence. Once we dispense with this assumption, we might find ourselves able to formulate a version of the doctrine of the trinity that does not defy the demands of logical consistency. In that case, what the orthodox Christian doctrine of the trinity defies, it turns out, are our assumptions, not our logic.
So, if we’re not careful, we may treat the apparently
logic-defying claims of Christian orthodoxy as if they were actually
logic-defying, and hence jump to unwarranted conclusions about the incompatibility of Christian orthodoxy with logic.
This is my preliminary point, which I think we need to bear carefully in mind throughout discussions such as these. But this point doesn’t answer the deeper question of whether, as Christians wrestle with divine revelation and try to formulate doctrine, it is ever the case that the laws of logic must be abandoned.
To answer this question, I think we first need to think about logic itself. What is logic? Let me attempt a fairly basic answer.
Logic begins, as I see it, with the fact that when we have a propositional thought—that is, a thought about what is the case or what is true—we are thinking that things stand thus
. And to think that things stand thus
is to think that there is some other, opposing way in which things do not
stand. Things stand thus and not otherwise
. Now let me pause here for a moment to stave off potential confusion—specifically, confusion that is likely to arise in anyone who has read Anthony Flew’s famous essay, “Theology and Falsification.” Flew, in that essay, insists that “an assertion, to be an assertion at all, must claim that things stand thus and thus; and not otherwise
.” He then suggests that “sophisticated” theists refuse to allow that anything might happen which would count against their theological claims—and in so doing, he thinks, they reveal that they aren’t really making any genuine assertions at all. Their pseudo-assertions prove to be “vacuous.”
But Flew’s thinking here is premised on the idea that any assertion I make about how things stand has to be about matters discernible to me
—about matters I can test in experience. That is, he supposes that in order for me to make an assertion about how things stand, I have to be able to test the assertion, at least in principle—there have to be observations I might make which would either confirm or disconfirm the assertion.
I’m making no such assumption here. I’m quite confident that the limits of what I can think exceed by far the limits of what is experientially testable. Consider, for example, the following thought: There is another universe—a spatio-temporal whole—like ours but wholly separate from ours, such that it has no impact on what happens in our universe. It seems to me that this is a coherent thought, even though its truth is consistent with any conceivable observation we might make. It’s not empirically testable, because if things stand otherwise there is no observation I could make which would show to me that things stand otherwise. But nevertheless, this is still a thought because I am still envisioning that things stand thus and not otherwise: two universes and not one; two wholly disconnected universes rather than universes with links between them.
What makes this a coherent thought is that it involves envisioning that things stand in one way—two separate universes—as opposed to another way. And I can have thoughts about “how things stand” that I can’t test. What makes something a coherent thought is not its testability in experience, but the fact that it is a distinctive portrait, if you will, of how reality is—one portrait among rivals. And if a particular thought is correct, it means that the portrait it offers, and not the rivals
, is the correct portrait.
In other words, affirming a thought just is
portrait and everything contained in this portrait, and rejecting everything that is excluded from this portrait. Reality is like this
and not like that
. But of course, we don’t always clearly see everything that is contained in the “this” we’re embracing, nor everything that is excluded from it. Sometimes we don’t think clearly.
As I understand it, being logical is simply the practice, when affirming a thought, of striving to think so clearly that we actually affirm whatever that thought includes, deny whatever that thought excludes, and correctly identify what is neither included nor excluded. Logic as a discipline involves recognizing and applying the “laws of thought” which make these inclusions and exclusions clear. Logic provides procedures for us to discern, say, that to think this
, given what it is
to think this, means that we are denying that
. Hence, if we simultaneously think that
, we aren’t really thinking this
after all…because to think this just is
(in part) to think not that.
Now, there is much about God (arguably most) that falls outside the scope of human thought. If so, then insofar as the laws of logic are laws of thought, there is that of God which falls outside the laws of logic…not in the sense that contradictions can be true of God, but in the sense that there are truths about God that can never be encompassed by a human thought, and hence truths about God that we can’t think
in such a way as to include some things within the thought and exclude others. If a truth falls outside the scope of human thought, there are no thoughts to be regulated by the laws that thoughts must follow in order to be thoughts.
But to say this is emphatically not to say that everything about God falls outside the scope of what human thought can encompass. If that were the case, then there could not be anything like the sort of divine revelation that Christianity has historically affirmed. At best there would be modes of divine revelation that wholly defy thought—mystical revelations which amounts to experiential encounters with what we cannot capture in thought, even of the vaguest and most general kind. While I think there are such mystical revelations, I do not think they are the only kind of revelatory experiences we can have.
And the Christian tradition has, generally speaking, agreed with this. The very business of systematic theology—of disagreeing about doctrines, formulating teachings, offering reasons to think that a particular theological view is better than another—presupposes that not all revelation is of this radically ineffable kind. While all Christian theology must be premised on the acknowledgment that its object exceeds the reach of efforts at systematic thought, this is not to say that there is no dimension of God with which our thinking selves can connect. God’s transcendence—including His transcendence of the limits of the humanly thinkable—does not preclude there being that of God which falls within the limits of the humanly thinkable. In other words, it does not preclude the possibility of our thinking selves, qua
thinking selves, being able to commune with God.
When we engage in intellectual reflection on the divine—whether it be through theology or philosophy of religion—we are attempting to think carefully about that-of-the-divine-which-is-thinkable, while remaining conscious of the fact that there is so much more that exceeds this. But the recognition of a broader context of unthinkability does not entail that what falls within the domain of the thinkable can defy the rules of logic. To be thinkable just is
to be subject to logic. Put another way, if affirming a particular thought about God does not
involve denying the negation of the thought, then one isn’t affirming a particular thought about God.
Of course, some theologians appear to be quite consciously doing precisely this: affirming contradictions and denying logical implications in relation to God. But when they are doing this, I believe that their aim is to try to push themselves outside the domain of the thinkable in order to connect with that-of-the-divine-which-is-unthinkable (and, I think, also to remind themselves and others that most of the divine is, indeed, unthinkable). To deny the rules of thought is to refuse to think, which can be a strategy for attempting to connect with what cannot be thought.
I certainly don’t want to rule out such noncognitive connection with God. We are more than thinking creatures, and as such have avenues of communing with God that don’t involve thinking
about God. Deliberately defying the laws of thought is a way to silence our thinking selves so as to make room for those noncognitive parts of who we are, hopefully facilitating our capacity to connect with the divine on that noncognitive level. But again, the practical value of rejecting the laws of logic for this delineated purpose is not the same as saying that the laws of logic don’t apply to God.
Any time we are actually thinking about God (as opposed to engaging in an intellectual exercise whose aim is to silence our thinking selves), a necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for getting our thinking right
is that we abide by the laws of logic. And any divine revelation that is amenable to the development of doctrine is thereby a revelation that falls within the domain of the thinkable.
As such, I do not believe that revelation in any way overthrows logic or calls us to set logic aside. Whatever portion of revelation we can think about and discuss and debate and disagree over is that portion of revelation within which the rules of logic must be obeyed. Where the rules of logic don’t obtain, attempts to formulate a view or debate opposing views is misguided. Where thought ends, silence or music or painting or poetry have to take its place. And there may well be revelatory silence, revelatory music, revelatory painting and poetry. But we can’t convert such revelatory works into dogma, since they aren't that kind
In short, I am convinced that the portion of revelation which can culminate in thoughts about the divine must conform to the rules of thought. Otherwise, they're not thoughts about the divine, although they might be something else of great use to our relationship with God. But if this is right, then our capacity to appreciate that portion of divine revelation amenable to thought can only be served by the effort to think as clearly and logically and systematically as we can about the matters at hand—not all alone but in conversation with others who are attempting to do the same, so that we can help each other overcome our respective shortcoming.
In other words, when it comes to divine matters about which discussion and disagreement and debate are coherent activities, we ought to be rigorously philosophical—so long as we do so while remaining fully conscious that what is thus becoming clearer through careful communal thought (in the light of revelation) is only a small part of something much greater. To believe that God transcends our cognitive grasp is to believe that our most rigorous thinking (about those elements of the divine that are amenable to thinking) gives us only a fragment of the whole. But it is not
to believe that something other than our most rigorous thinking is what is called for with respect to that fragment.
With respect to the fragments of the divine which fall within the scope of our thinking selves, our best and only hope for getting revelations about those fragments right lies in being as careful and rigorous thinkers as we can be, meticulously abiding by the laws of thought as embodied in the rules of logic, and doing so in the company of other thinkers who are attempting to do the same (since we are fallible creatures), and being humble enough in these communities of inquiry to change our view when someone points out a logical implication we missed or a contradiction we didn’t notice (or reveals to us that what we took to be a contradiction really isn't one, but only seems that way because of something we were assuming--something which, in relation to God, cannot be legitimately assumed).
If it makes sense to discuss universalism and the doctrine of hell at all, then, it follows that such discussion is best served through rigorous communal thinking of a broadly philosophical sort. And if such rigorous communal thinking is not
a necessary condition for approaching the subject appropriately, it is because the subject matter defies thought and hence should not be something about which any of us has a belief, a suspicion, an intellectual assurance, etc. It should no longer be something about which the church makes doctrinal pronouncements. It should no longer be something about which preachers make claims from the pulpit.
Either we approach this topic as something amenable to thought, in which case all the standards of intellectual rigor need to be brought to bear, or we concede that this is one of those matters that defies the grasp of our human cognitive faculties. And in that case we abandon misguided attempt to formulate doctrines, have disagreements, etc.
If the former is appropriate, then we are best served by the kind of intellectual rigor and adherence to rules of logic exemplified (I like to think) in the best that the discipline of philosophy has to offer. That the raw material for our thinking on these matters comes from divine revelation doesn’t change this fact. That the divine far exceeds our cognitive grasp doesn’t change this fact. The fragment of the divine self-disclosure that can be formulated into thoughts—what might be called “cognitively-apt revelation”—needs to be approached with a serious effort to abide by the rules of thought. The effort to formulate sound doctrine is the effort to do precisely this in the domain of cognitively-apt revelation. In that little sphere of the divine infinity that our thinking mind can grasp, those who care about getting at sound doctrine should struggle valiantly to make sure that every element fits with every other element in a manner in keeping with the laws of thought.
And I think in the debate over universalism and the doctrine of hell, there is much that falls under the heading of cognitively-apt revelation. Even if there is much about the concept of salvation that defies our grasp, the concept is not wholly ineffable. Having a teaching about the matter, based on an interpretation of those aspects of Scripture that discuss what is thinkable, makes some sense. And so we can say, for example, that salvation involves coming to be in the best state that it is possible for a created human to enjoy. And though we can concede that much of this “best state” will defy formulation in terms that allow us to have thoughts about it, we might nevertheless be prepared (based perhaps on our interpretation of Scripture) to make some claims about it—for example, that salvation involves having a loving relationship with God, that it involves feelings of joy that exceed the joy we experience in this life, and that it involves moral sanctification.
And it surely seems to be the case that the distinction between universal and limited salvation is accessible to human thought. We can distinguish, in thought, between the view that all ultimately coming to experience this best state and the view that some never do. It makes sense, therefore, to consider things that have been revealed to us about God which are thinkable—revelations telling us that God is like this
and not like that
—and explore what, following the rules of thought, the implications of God’s being like this are: whether they exclude limited salvation or imply it, whether they exclude universal salvation or imply, or whether they leave both possibilities open.
Even if the raw material for thoughts on such a subject has to come from revelation, and even if much revelation is of a mystical sort that can supply no raw material for thoughts, those elements of revelation which lend themselves to thought will need to be approached in a way that abides by the rules of thought. If they seem not to be amenable to formulation in terms that abide by the rules of thought, then perhaps we have misconstrued revelatory poetry for cognitively-apt revelation. Or perhaps we misidentified as revelation something that isn’t revelatory.
If what we think of as a thought derived from revelation defies the rules of logic, what follows is that it isn’t a thought at all, let alone one derived from revelation. It might be a poetic device useful in transcending the limits of thought so as to connect with truths about God that defy thought. But a poetic device is not a doctrine and should not be treated as one. If the doctrine of the trinity, say, really defies logic, then it is not the doctrine
of the trinity after all, but a poetic device for connecting with a dimension of the divine that exceeds the grasp of our cognitive faculties. But if it really is a doctrine, this means that it is one of those fragments of the divine that falls within the scope of what is humanly thinkable.
And if so, the law of noncontradiction obtains. Any formulation of the doctrine that defies this law is a false formulation. We must choose among formulations that conform to this law (a choice that may require looking beyond the laws of thought to other considerations--I am not claiming that the laws of thought will be sufficient
to establish doctrine), or we must concede that what we are dealing with is not a matter of doctrine after all.
Likewise for the doctrine of hell. Or at least that’s what I think.