Fallacy Files #4: False Dichotomy in the Baptism Debate

The informal fallacy of false dichotomy (or false dilemma) is committed when two options are mistakenly or misleadingly presented as the only two possible or viable options. George W. Bush famously declared after 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Whatever the rhetorical merits of his statement, it was, strictly speaking, an example of false dichotomy. There was no obvious logical inconsistency in adopting a position that neither supported nor hindered the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies. (Bush’s statement echoed Jesus’ even more provocative claim, but I would argue that in Jesus’ case there was no false dichotomy. As analytic philosophers would say, with typical understatement, George W. Bush and Jesus are “relevantly different”.)

TurretinFan Strikes Back

A couple of months ago, I offered some criticisms of an argument given by TurretinFan against the claim that there are irresolvable paradoxes. (As a side note, it’s worth mentioning again that this claim can be understood in several different ways.)  His argument was apparently aimed at paradoxes in general, not just theological ones.

TurretinFan has now responded by offering a restatement of his argument and a rebuttal of my criticisms. Here are some comments by way of reply:

1. The most serious problem with his argument is that his premise P1 misrepresents my position (and Van Til’s, as I read him). As I make clear in my book, I firmly reject the idea that a paradox necessarily involves some proposition P being both true and false at the same time and in the same way. As I also make clear in the book, I reject the idea that a paradox can arise for just any proposition (or set of propositions).

2. The conclusion of his argument — “if we accept the existence of unlimitable paradoxes, we must also be prepared to accept at least the possibility of the nonexistence of unlimitable paradoxes” — is far too weak to do my position any harm. In fact, I’ll even grant it! Of course it is possible that there are no irresolvable paradoxes. My defense of theological paradox doesn’t imply otherwise. But what of significance follows from that? Certainly not the fact that there are no irresolvable paradoxes, theological or otherwise.

Bottom line: TurretinFan’s conclusion is no more problematic for me that the mere possibility that I am a brain in a vat (which I am also willing to grant).

3. TurretinFan also offers an “enhancement” and “simplification” of his original argument. On examination, his second argument turns out to be neither an enhancement nor a simplication of the first, but a different argument altogether. In any case, it’s no more successful as an objection to my position, and for much the same reason: it attacks a straw man. In my book I argue against the idea that theological paradoxes should be construed as genuine violations of the law of non-contradiction. So his enhanced argument also badly misses the mark.

4. I’ll also mention in passing that while I would grant his premise P4, it isn’t beyond reasonable dispute.

5. TurretinFan adds by way of conclusion: “I don’t see any good reason to accept the existence of irreconcilable paradoxes.” I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I suspect he says this because (i) he hasn’t read much if any of the literature on philosophical paradoxes and therefore doesn’t appreciate how challenging some of them are to resolve and (ii) he hasn’t read much if any of the literature on theological paradoxes, particularly on the difficulties of explicating the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation in ways that are both orthodox and non-paradoxical. I could be wrong about this; if I am, it shouldn’t be any trouble for him to set me straight.

Regarding (i), I wonder whether TurretinFan thinks there is a straightforward solution to, say, the Sorites Paradox.

Regarding (ii), I wonder how he would state the doctrine of the Trinity in such a way as to rule out all heterodox views while avoiding any trace of apparent logical inconsistency.

6. TurretinFan goes on to say, “I have seen no reason to reject the strongly intuitive position of the universality of the laws of logic and particularly the law of non-contradiction.” But as I’ve pointed out (and not for the first time) this simply isn’t an implication of my position; on the contrary, my defense of theological paradox is designed to accommodate that very intuition.

7. It should be evident by now that TurretinFan’s arguments miss the mark in large part because he’s tilting at windmills. I don’t deny the law of non-contradiction or advocate dialetheism (although refuting dialetheism is harder that you might think) even though I believe that certain Christian doctrines are paradoxical (i.e., they seem to imply a logical contradiction). At this point, I can only recommend that he obtain a copy of my book (perhaps via interlibrary loan) and interact with it directly. Until he does that, I doubt any further exchanges between us will bear much fruit. If he does read it, however, I’m confident it will only be a matter of time before he joins us on the Dark Side.

Anti-Sabbatarianism in the ESV Study Bible

Let me preface this post by stating that I am a big fan of the ESV Study Bible. Sure, the relentless pre-publication hype eventually became rather tiresome, the superlatives used in some of the celebrity endorsements were faintly ridiculous, and I can’t help but wonder how anyone could in good conscience shell out $240 for a “Premium Calfskin” edition when around 200 million people today don’t have access to the Bible in their own language. Such minor gripes notwithstanding, the ESV Study Bible is easily the best of its kind available today and I have no hesitation in recommending it. It’s a fantastic resource and I use it daily.

How to Write a Theological Paper

John Frame and P&R Publishing have kindly granted me permission to post Professor Frame’s ‘How to Write a Theological Paper’ on my website. This short article appears as Appendix F in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R, 1987). It should be required reading for every seminary student!

The article makes a few references to other sections of DKG, and is best read in the context of the whole book, but it can still be read as a standalone article to great profit.

Wesleyan Trinitarianism

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ is one of my favourite Christmas carols, and I’m not alone. It’s one of the few carols that manage to combine a rousing tune with grown-up theology, all the while avoiding historical and meteorological blunders. (See amid the winter’s snow?) It’s nice to be able to sing carols that don’t require me to cross my fingers at certain points. But as I sang the lines quoted above at our Christmas Day service, I wondered whether a Social Trinitarian ought to do precisely that.

Among those who actually think about such matters, the two most popular understandings of the doctrine of the Trinity are Latin Trinitarianism (LT) and Social Trinitarianism (ST). According to LT, God is essentially one being who subsists in three distinct persons. Each person of the Trinity is numerically identical to God, but numerically distinct from the other two persons. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and so have others) this conception of the Trinity is mysterious to the point of paradox, but arguably it enjoys the best support from the biblical data and the strict monotheism of the early trinitarian creeds.

According to ST, on the other hand, God is three distinct personal beings who share precisely the same divine attributes and who are necessarily united in mutual love and benevolent purpose. On this conception, God is essentially a society of divine persons. God is, in effect, a group. The main objection to ST is that it’s closer to tritheism than monotheism. (Some theologians, most notably Jürgen Moltmann, have courageously tried to spin this apparent vice as a virtue.)

Both LT and ST reject the heretical position of modalism, according to which the persons of the Trinity are not ultimately distinct. (The modalist’s God is more like one divine person who plays three different roles.) But the two views differ on whether God is ultimately Three rather than One, ontologically speaking. LT insists that God is neither ultimately One nor ultimately Three; rather, God is ultimately Three-in-One and One-in-Three. In contrast, ST comes down squarely on the side of plurality: God is ultimately Three.

So what does any of this have to do with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’? Consider the first of the two quoted lines. According to standard dictionary definitions, the word ‘Godhead’ refers here either to God qua God (i.e., the Deity, the Creator, the one God of monotheism) or to the divine nature (i.e., the essence of deity which is possessed fully by each of the three persons, according to trinitarian theology).

Take the first interpretation, where ‘Godhead’ refers simply to God, the Deity. I suggest that this is the most natural reading, since the first definition of ‘Godhead’ is usually in view when used with the definite article. (We would say “Jesus is the second person of the Godhead” rather than “Jesus is the second person of Godhead”,  but we would say “Jesus fully possessed Godhead” rather than “Jesus fully possessed the Godhead”.) The echo in the line that follows (“Hail the Incarnate Deity”) tends to confirm that this reading is the correct one.

Now, this first interpretation causes no problem for LT, which holds that the Son of God is one and the same being as God (the Godhead). Jesus is God Incarnate, not merely one-part-of-God Incarnate or one-member-of-God Incarnate. However, the same reading couldn’t be endorsed by an advocate of ST, since ST denies that the Son of God is one and the same being as God. Rather, the Son is only one third of God (the Godhead). Jesus Christ is not the Godhead “veiled in flesh” on this view.

Consider now the second interpretation, where ‘Godhead’ refers to the divine nature. Would this reading be more acceptable to the advocate of ST? According to both LT and ST, the divine nature is possessed fully by all three persons of the Trinity. So both agree that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, fully possessed ‘Godhead’ in this second sense. Nevertheless, this second (and less common) meaning of ‘Godhead’ leads to a theologically awkward reading of Wesley’s lyric. On a ST view, the divine nature is an abstract set of divine attributes shared by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It’s hard to see how the divine nature in that sense could be “veiled in flesh”. Indeed, to be theologically precise, we ought to say that the Incarnation involved a divine person taking on a human nature, not a divine nature taking on a human nature. So it seems we have both grammatical and theological reasons to prefer the first reading of Wesley’s verse over the second. But if this is correct, a Social Trinitarian ought to take issue with the idea that in Christ we see the Godhead “veiled in flesh”.

So what’s the lesson here? Some will conclude that Christians should give more thought to the theology of Christmas carols. Others, no doubt, will conclude the very opposite! Either way, sustained reflection on the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation can only increase our awe at the God who created us and then condescended not only to live among us but also to suffer and die that we might have eternal life.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Andrew McGowan on Inerrancy (Part 4)

[Continued from Part 3]

Inerrancy: Rationalistic or Just Plain Rational?

McGowan’s final salvo against the doctrine of the inerrancy is his charge that it is a “rationalist implication”. This is a rather surprising accusation, since inerrantists are more commonly accused of irrationalism than rationalism! At the heart of McGowan’s charge, however, is the idea that inerrantists have based their doctrine on an “unwarranted assumption about God”:

The basic error of the inerrantists is to insist that the inerrancy of the autographa is a direct implication of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (or divine spiration). In order to defend this implication, the inerrantists make an unwarranted assumption about God. The assumption is that, given the nature and character of God, the only kind of Scripture he could ‘breathe out’ was Scripture that is textually inerrant. If there was even one mistaken in the autographa, then God cannot have been the author, because he is incapable of error. (p. 113)

Andrew McGowan on Inerrancy (Part 2)

[Continued from Part 1]

The Case of the Missing Argument

Two things surprised me about McGowan’s case against inerrancy. The first is that (unless I’ve missed it) he nowhere provides a definition of the doctrine of inerrancy. It seems to me that anyone who wants to argue against a doctrine ought first to specify clearly what he understands that doctrine to claim. Still, since McGowan expresses his view that the “most significant argument for inerrancy … comes from the Chicago inerrantists” (p. 104), it’s reasonable to assume that his working definition aligns with the one provided by the Chicago Statement.

Andrew McGowan on Inerrancy (Part 1)

Challenges to the doctrine of inerrancy from within the evangelical tradition are nothing new. In that respect, Andrew McGowan’s recent book The Divine Spiration of Scripture is not especially noteworthy.[1] It has, however, caused quite a stir in Reformed evangelical circles, mainly because confessional Reformed theologians (such as McGowan) are generally thought to be more firmly committed to inerrancy than other evangelicals precisely in virtue of their confessional commitments (e.g., to the Westminster Standards). The burden of McGowan’s book is to argue that the doctrine of inerrancy is actually a recent development within the Reformed tradition, forged by Old Princeton in response to the challenge of the Enlightenment, and, moreover, that its advocacy was — to be blunt — a big mistake.

In this series of posts, I want to examine McGowan’s main arguments against the doctrine of inerrancy, as that doctrine is articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.[2] I believe his arguments are weak and evidence a misunderstanding of both the core claim of inerrantists and the core argument for that claim. What follows is not intended to be a full book review of Divine Spiration. I happen to agree with much of what McGowan says in the book, but here I want to focus solely on his case against inerrancy.[3]