Formulations of the doctrine in creeds, doctrinal statements and systematic theologies attempt to smooth out apparent contradictions while remaining consistent with scripture. James Anderson argues that any treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity faces a dilemma – to remain orthodox and face paradox or to banish paradox and embrace the heterodox. Anderson concludes that “no writer from the first century to the twenty-first century has offered an explication of the doctrine of the Trinity that is both orthodox and free from apparent contradiction.”1
Whether or not Anderson is correct is open to debate. Presumably adherents to various positions argue that they succeed. However, in this paper I want to argue that, when confronted with the challenge of contradiction by an unbeliever, rather than attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction, the believer is warranted in using the doctrine in its paradoxical state as a defense of the Christian worldview.
This strategy is usually associated with the idea that God can breach laws of logic.2 It is the kind of defense that is criticized by Thomas Morris who argues that it is “just a desperate move which embraces incoherence to avoid its sting.”3 However, Anderson is not suggesting that any laws of logic should be breached, only that the precise logical relationship of the Trinity is not known to us.
If what Anderson argues holds water, the strategy is open to be used by a Christian who is confronted with the charge of incoherence. There are three reasons that the Christian might want to take this approach. First, it is rather difficult to imagine a college freshman attempting to articulate one or other of the various options for articulating the doctrine of the Trinity to her new atheistic friend, especially if they have not yet attended a class in metaphysics.
Second, on the Christian view, it is not God who has the problem. If he is indeed one God in three persons, he does know how this works even if we do not. In other words, the Christian system of belief not only allows paradoxical statements, but leads us to expect such statements given the nature of God. This perspective is also included in the proposal put forward by Anderson, who argues that belief in a paradoxical doctrine of the Trinity is warranted given the nature of God, the criteria of revelation and our finite epistemic status.
Thus, in her defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, the Christian is tasked with demonstrating that while she cannot fully comprehend the Triune nature of God she is nevertheless perfectly rational to believe in the Triune nature of God. I hope that what I argue will bolster the confidence of the Christian while simultaneously encouraging her humility.
There is another reason that a Christian might want to use this strategy. While the Christian finds warrant for her beliefs despite the apparent paradoxical nature of one such belief, the Christian’s atheist detractor, when faced with his own paradoxes in reasoning, has no such recourse. Consequently, I also hope such an argument will force the atheist to be aware of his own paradoxical relationship with human reasoning and, consequently, his deficiency in both confidence and humility.
James Anderson argues that the doctrine of the Trinity should be understood as a paradox, a set of statements “that strikes us as inconsistent, but may or may not turn out to be genuinely inconsistent.”4 Anderson accepts the charge of paradox and examines the consequences. He argues that the acceptance of paradox does not diminish the rationality of belief in Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and incarnation.5
Anderson argues that the doctrine of the Trinity, as it is traditionally described, is warranted and rational. Paradox in Christian doctrine, for Anderson, is the mere appearance of contradiction and presupposes that such contradiction is not real:
If certain Christian doctrines appear contradictory (as they do) but the notion that they involve real contradiction is logically and theologically anathema (as it is) then the only acceptable option is to treat these doctrines as [merely apparent contradictions.]6
Merely apparent contradictions, according to Anderson, are the result of “unarticulated equivocations” such that what sounds to be a contradiction is not. If such statements as “God is one divine being” and “God is three divine beings” are to be taken as containing such unarticulated equivocations, then at least one term within the statements should be considered to be meant in a different way in each statement.
Anderson suggests that we are already familiar with instances of unarticulated equivocation. He gives an example of a husband awaiting his wife’s surgery outcome. The husband may at one time say “I am concerned about my wife’s operation,” but then say, “I am not concerned about my wife’s operation.” Anderson suggests that if one considers the person who makes them to be reliable, then one is justified in assuming that a term in each statement is being used in different ways. Anderson suggests that “concerned” could be taken two ways. The husband could be saying that he was concerned for his wife’s welfare, but not concerned about the competence of the surgeon.7 Since our trust in God is maximal, we are warranted in assuming that an unarticulated equivocation of this kind exists in orthodox statements of the Trinity in as far as they reflect the teaching of God’s articulation of his own nature in the Bible.
|Dr James Anderson
God is one divine being1
God is three divine beings2
One might place the subscript next to “is” or “divine” and yield similar results. It is not to say, Anderson goes on, that the same word means something entirely different, but that the word in one setting is analogous to the meaning of the same word in another setting. Much as the example of the husband shows, a word might mean something analogous to the same word in another setting.
Furthermore, Anderson argues, the Christian system itself accounts for and leads us to expect the presence of paradox, particularly the doctrine of incomprehensibility. If human finitude is taken into account, we cannot expect to find a “maximally precise knowledge of God.”8 This seeming lack, however, does not prevent the formulating of doctrines that go as far as they are permitted by God’s revealed Word and by human conceptual apparatus. It is important to note that what is meant by incomprehensibility is not to be taken to mean that it is incomprehensible to everyone, but only incomprehensible to human beings. Consequently, we can say that, for God, there is nothing that is incomprehensible since he has comprehensive knowledge of all things including knowledge of the internal structure of his own Triune nature. Whether or not one finds the doctrine of the Trinity plausible, Anderson believes that it is immune from the charge of irrationality.
The main objection we might pose to Anderson is what, If anything, is the criteria for deciding what is to be treated as an apparent contradiction and not a real contradiction. It might be possible to make all sorts of contradictory statements warranted if we are allowed to appeal to mystery. We might go so far to say that there is really no such thing as a real contradictory statement. Anderson suggests that two criteria are apparent. The rationale is to be defended by an appeal to scripture and limited to paradoxical statements about God. The latter point harks back to the doctrine of incomprehensibility, the former to the doctrine of inspiration. If God obtains comprehensive knowledge, then he knows what is a contradiction and what is not a contradiction. If God reveals certain things he knows to human beings, then we can be sure that what he reveals is not a contradiction.
Dale Tuggy offers some further objections to Anderson. Tuggy wonders what motive God might have for inflicting apparently contradictory required beliefs on human beings. Surely such apparent contradictions prevent knowledge of God, not encourage it. This is a good question, especially for our Christian who, when challenged, might wonder why God would put such a block on her efforts to defend him.9 Tuggy suggests that since God is in control of such factors (his own comprehensibility and human ability to comprehend) it would have behooved God to have revealed himself in a less paradoxical manner or to have made human beings in such a way as to make them able to understand him.
Anderson has two responses. First, Anderson suggests that there are many alternative ways that human beings could have been designed. Presumably God did not think it necessary to equip human beings with the noetic faculty to comprehend how his nature fits conceptually. This is not, therefore, a problem to Anderson’s theory since God deemed it unnecessary to design human beings with many other faculties (wings, 360o vision etc.).
Anderson’s second response is to suggest that while we do not know how the paradox is resolved, we can know that we are not in a position to know. This also means we do not know what motivates God in making us with a reduced noetic faculty or limiting his revelation.10 This is no mere “punt” to mystery since God has gone so far as to sanction an official set of manuscripts which are fully inspired, verbal, without error and perspicuous. It is not as if God had trouble communicating what he meant. And if the set of books does not contain a book on the internal construction of the Trinity it is because God decided not to reveal it to human beings. Consider Anderson’s statement:
If God alone is in a position to know how some state of affairs X that strikes us as metaphysically impossible is nonetheless possible (and indeed actual) then only an implicit assurance from God to that effect could warrant the belief that X is a mystery rather than an absurdity. Only divine revelation has the epistemic authority to ‘trump’ our natural intuitions about what is metaphysically possible and what is not.11
I am inclined to agree with Anderson since all that he uses to defend his position are clearly Christian doctrines—inspiration and incomprehensibility—neither of which are incoherent doctrines. Furthermore, they are plausible, given the belief in the existence of God. If there is a God he would be at least partially incomprehensible. If his thoughts are so far above ours then that does lead to a highly plausible theory of analogical language. And if he has revealed himself in scripture it is plausible that scripture would not comprehensively reveal the nature of the Trinity.
An objector might point out that while the Christian has given a possible way out of the charge of incoherence, she has not made a convincing case for the existence of such a God. The answer is that the Christian, in order to respond to the challenge of holding to a contradictory doctrine has only to show that it is possible given her commitments. Incidentally, this is an important part of any claim to defend the doctrine of the Trinity since the challenge is one of irrationality not plausibility.12 However, for the Christian, the possibilities are not endless. Scripture is the revelation of God and stands guard over what we can say is metaphysically possible. Also, there is nothing irrational in holding to both divine revelation and divine incomprehensibility. If these, taken together, turn out to warrant belief in certain ideas expressed in the revelation itself, but that are apparently contradictory, then the charge of incoherence has been met.
Another of Tuggy’s objections to Anderson’s argument is relevant at this point. What is to prevent the atheist developing his own doctrine of incomprehensibility? Tuggy suggests that anything could be regarded as incomprehensible, even a mouse, since for something to be incomprehensible it merely needs to resist being fully comprehended. Anderson’s response is revealing:
As a matter of fact, I do believe the creation is also incomprehensible, and that this logically follows from the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility. For if creation derives its meaning from its Creator and every part of the creation is necessarily related to its Creator, then in order to fully comprehend the creation one would also have to fully comprehend the Creator.13
Based on what Anderson says in this response there might be an additional strategy the Christian could make in her response to the objector. It appears that while the Christian does have a possible explanation for apparent paradox, such cannot be said of an atheistic worldview.
While the doctrine of the Trinity may be a tall order for any atheist to accept, it may well be possible to use the previous argument to raise worries for the atheist’s own theory of knowledge. Whereas the Christian claims that God’s knowledge is comprehensive and that God reveals some knowledge to human beings, atheists do not. Consequently, if an apparent contradiction occurs in the atheist system of belief, perhaps a pair of statements appear to contradict, then he cannot appeal to an exhaustive center of knowledge to act as guarantor for the warrant of the statements. The atheist may respond that the paradox is equal to the Christian paradox in that it is only apparent. He may say that there is indeed a resolution for the apparent contradiction and that some day a human being may discover how to resolve it, but he cannot be sure. The Christian, however, can suggest that even if she spends eternity with a paradoxical set of statements about God, she can be sure of her belief in them since God does know and the contradiction is only apparent. The reason for this is that the Christian has, as an inherent part of her system, no expectation to obtain a human comprehensive knowledge of reality. What is convenient about the argument I have outlined is that it too is an argument Anderson has made in another essay.14 What Anderson argued was based on his interpretation of Cornelius Van Til who wrote:
It is only a Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere, but this comprehensive knowledge need not and cannot be in us; it must be in God.15
It might, therefore, be possible to turn the tables on the atheist objector and mount an attack on his confidence in, say, scientific naturalism. It is conceivable that a scientific naturalist would hold to the idea that the scientific method can render a complete picture of reality. For example, Dennett and Taylor argue, “science strives for a description of the universe that is as thoroughly and comprehensive as possible, composed in an orderly mathematical idiom.”16
Anderson argues that since we do not have comprehensive knowledge of the universe we cannot know how much is left unknown (it could be very little or quite a lot. It could even be infinite!). Everything we know is in some way connected to everything else we know and, presumably, to everything we do not know. One thing we know has the potential to change other things we know. Something that we do not know might become known and drastically alter what we already know. What we come to know might alter everything we think we know and therefore render what we think we know as unknown. Furthermore, Anderson argues, there is no guarantee that how we know might even be brought into question.17 Given this possibility it would be reasonable to be in a constant state of worry about what we take to be knowledge. However, we are not in a constant state of worry. The reason we are not in a constant state of worry is that God does know everything comprehensively. Since God has comprehensive knowledge, God is able to create human beings in such a way that they can obtain some knowledge.18
The atheist detractor has two options at this point. Either he continues to argue for his own ability to form a comprehensive system of thought or develop his own doctrine of incomprehensibility. If he does both it is not clear how he would avoid a paradox – rationality leads him both to assert the possibility of comprehensive knowledge in human beings and that rationality cannot comprehend reality. As Robert Fogelin writes:
Reason, pursued without constraint, tends to drive us in one of two contrasting directions. The first is the way of metaphysics, which… is an attempt to produce a purely rational account of the underlying structure of the unchanging, underlying structure of reality. The second, contrasting tendency is for reason, when driven to its limits, to undercut itself, yielding radical skepticism or radical relativism.19
Fogelin argues that in order to avoid such a dilemma one should recognize that neither way can be practically lived. One cannot, as Hume’s life demonstrates, live as a skeptic. One still has to look both ways before crossing the road. Fogelin readily admits that this ability to live in a practical way, not having a comprehensive system of knowledge rendering a complete picture of reality without yielding apparent contradiction, cannot be accounted for on any human rational system. Yet this is the point the Christian is making. She says that the reason that we are able to live assuming that the world is not irrational is that whereas we do not comprehensively know all of reality, God does. It is for this reason that she is confident in her doctrine of the Trinity and it is the same reason that she can continue any scientific or mathematical research without concern that rationality itself will be proven false or insufficient. The Christian can point to what appeared to the atheist as irrationality and speak of her own confidence in God and her humility before him. The reason she confidently goes on in her studies of science or logic is that she knows that she does not have to comprehend everything, but, because God comprehends everything, she is able to know something.
Anderson’s formulation of paradoxical statements in Christian theism are not new observations about the formulating of such statements; they are, however, aimed at producing confident grounds for making such statements in the face of the accusation of being contradictory. I think Anderson supplies a significant aid to Christian epistemology by asserting that Christians can be confident in what they know even when they cannot resolve internal paradoxical statements. Such confidence arises from a properly placed humility.
What I have said is quite different from the dogma of doubt, that all belief should be balanced with a due degree of doubt. As Hume writes, “in general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.”20 For the atheist, this dogma counts for all reasoners and for all claims. For the Christian, Hume’s rule does not count for God since for God there is no mystery and no doubt. It is not that the Christian has to admit that she is not confident about the existence of God and, consequently, all that she has said is to be held to lightly. Rather, the Christian can be very confident in what she has to say, while reasonably saying that she cannot know all that can be known.
The upshot for our Christian is that she now has a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity in the sense that she can claim a possible solution to the problem even if she cannot explicate it exactly. If she can provide a possible solution, then she can no longer be accused of irrationality. The fact that all she is armed with—divine incomprehensibility, verbal revelation, analogical language—accounts for the appearance of contradiction, puts her in a good position to defend her epistemic humility while avoiding loosing her confidence. However, it appears that the atheist has no such recourse. Given the above suggestion the atheist should be concerned about his own epistemic status. Given his own attempt to unify his knowledge and given the assumption that such unity of knowledge is seemingly impossible in human beings, worry is a reasonable epistemic status. The fact that the atheist is not worried shows that the atheist cannot account for his own confidence. Perhaps, the Christian might suggest, the atheist is equally dependent upon the Triune God for the guarantee of knowledge even though he denies his existence.
1James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 59.
2Thomas Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1986), 24.
3Paradox in Christian Theology, 25.
4Ibid., 11 fnt 2.
9Dale Tuggy, “On Positive Mysterianism,” in The International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 69 (2011): 210.
10James Anderson, “Positive Mysterianism Undefeated: A Response to Dale Tuggy” (2011), http://www.proginosko.com/docs/Positive_Mysterianism_Undefeated.pdf.
11Paradox in Christian Theology, 265-266 (emphasis mine).
12For Example, John Feinberg defends a relative identity thesis as a possible resolution: John Feinberg, No One Like Him (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 493.
13“Positive Mysterianism Undefeated,” 10.
14James Anderson, “If Knowledge Then God,” April, 2005, http://www.proginosko.com/docs/If_Knowledge_Then_God.pdf.
15Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2008), 65.
16Christopher Taylor and Daniel Dennett, “Who’s Still Afraid of Determinism? Rethinking Causes and Possibilities,” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 222.
19Robert Fogelin, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
20David Hume, Essays Concerning Human Understanding