Monday, June 15, 2009

Paradox and Mystery

Some ships, decked in bunting, set sail with a great fanfare and to the sounds of a brass band. Others, carrying an equally valuable cargo, weigh anchor and make for the open sea unnoticed. James Anderson’s book, Paradox in Christian Theology, (Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2007) has slipped out almost unnoticed. There has certainly been no fanfare, and though it has received several favourable reviews as far as I can tell it has not yet been much appreciated by that sector of the Christian public likely to enjoy and benefit from it.

This is a pity. For what Anderson has written is a book of great importance to those concerned both with the relation of Christian theology to reason, and with the question of the reasonableness of Christian belief. In the first half of the book he raises questions about doctrinal coherence, and in the second half he raises how deep our understanding of the mysteries of the faith can hope to be, and whether it is reasonable to believe what we cannot understand. Anderson has admirable contributions to each of these areas. His treatments of the questions are thorough and clear, with a good theological grasp and a philosophical mind. A rare combination. He writes clearly and carefully, with no inclination to fudge or equivocate over the central questions that he raises. He and shows a good knowledge of the primary and secondary sources. His treatment also raises further questions for discussion. My aim here is simply to note some of its main features in the hope that it will whet some appetites. Though it is written from an avowed Reformed perspective, (Anderson is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy, R. T. S., Charlotte, North Carolina), the theses of the book are intended by the author for wider consumption, so this is not by no means a mere ‘in house’ Reformed production.

Anderson is chiefly concerned with what are usually called the mysteries of our faith, with what he calls paradoxes. He understands paradoxes to be sets of statements that are apparently contradictory. (The way that the author ties 'mystery' to the test of logic, and does not treat it as a hold-all for any theological difficulty, is excellent). Take for example the dogma of the Holy Trinity. This states, inter alia, that the one God exists in three persons each of whom is wholly divine. The fact that the church denotes this state of affairs as one substance (or essence) in three persons (or hypostates) prevents the doctrine from falling to the immediate self-contradiction that ‘God is one person in three persons’ would entail. God is one substance (or essence) in three persons. But that is not the end of the matter. For each of these persons is God, fully God, not divine in some watered-down sense: the Father is fully, wholly, God; and the Son, and the Spirit. And yet the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, and so on. The three persons are wholly God, but distinct, having distinct properties. The Son could not be the Father, nor the Father the Spirit, and so on. So each of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is one and the same God, yet each person has distinct properties. This flouts the principle that if X is identical with Y then necessarily whatever is true of X is true of Y. Not in the case of the Trinity, or so it seems. An apparent self-contradiction.

Anderson clearly expounds this paradox, as well as that arising from the Incarnation, though these are not the only paradoxes, of course. He surveys the chief attempts that have been made in the history of dogmatic discussion to soften or eliminate the appearance of incoherence. In the case of the Trinity one move is to argue that ‘being fully divine’ operates rather like ‘being fully human’. Tom, Dick and Harry are three individuals, each fully human. They are distinct individuals, but share this common nature, human nature. But the consequence of this is tri-theism, or at least of a godhead of three individuals having a common divine nature, none of them being numerically identical with the one divine essence. In the case of the incarnation, the thesis of kenoticism typically argues that in becoming human the Son divests himself of some divine properties, making him less than fully divine, and so not truly divine.

It is in this sense that Anderson demonstrates that essential Christian doctrines, the doctrines formulated in the great Creeds of the Church and taken over largely unmodified by the magisterial Reformers, are paradoxical. The cost of strategies that are designed to remove or lessen the paradoxical element outweigh the benefits. The appearance of self-contradiction resists the best efforts of the most insightful believer, but actual inconsistency has not been demonstrated either. To suppose that there was actual and demonstrable inconsistency at the doctrinal centre of the Christian Faith would be to suppose the logical incoherence of the Faith; in fact to suppose that the Faith was no Faith.

That’s the problem, an abiding problem, the paradoxes at the centre of the Faith. Anderson then turns his attention to the question of whether it is rational to adhere to a faith which has paradoxes at its heart. So the author's question is: does belief in the mysteries of the faith, or beliefs which entail such mysteries, have warrant for the believer? ‘Warrant’ signifies reliance upon the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga (Warranted Christian Belief, NY, Oxford University Press, 2000, and elsewhere). As befits his project, this part of the book is written in a more purely philosophical style which makes some assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of modern epistemology, for example, modern attempts to analyse the concept of knowledge. The reader without such a background will need to exercise some patience at this point, but patience will be rewarded. The chapters are a good summary introduction to the work of Plantinga, and to what he has to say about basic theistic belief, and more especially about the operation of the Spirit upon the testimonial evidence of Scripture in properly forming convictions about ‘the great things of the Gospel’, as Plantinga himself puts it.

Anderson in effect is extending Plantinga's argument to belief in creedal formula which rest purely on a foundation of Scriptural testimony. The argument (roughly) is : If belief in the great things of the Gospel is warranted by the testimony of Scripture, as Plantinga plausibly argues, then doctrines adequately based on that testimony are also belief-worthy, even though they contain paradoxical elements. Anderson’s distinctively Reformed conviction about the necessity and sufficiency of Scripture become evident here. So he links his idea of paradox to biblical testimony regarding divine incomprehensibility. It is because God’s nature and his ways are past finding out that our present understanding of the divine nature contains paradoxical elements. But these are due, Anderson in effect argues, to the present limitations of our cognitive apparatus (and not, for example, to our creatureliness.) In defending his position Anderson has interesting things to say about the relation of doctrine to Scripture, logic as a hermeneutical tool, and much else.

Some further questions may be raised about the central claim of the book. Is Anderson’s argument not in effect an endorsement of implicit faith? For he is defending the view that it is reasonable to believe what we may not understand, which is another way of saying we may believe a statement whose meaning is known to be unclear. And does holding that there are paradoxes (in Anderson’s sense) at the heart of the Faith not inhibit the pursuit of that greater understanding that is characteristic of the great tradition of Faith Seeking Understanding from Augustine onwards? For what is the point of seeking further understanding of matters which we know are, under present circumstances, beyond our comprehension? The answer presumably is: we may seek and gain more understanding while still falling short of a full understanding.

There is much to learn and to ponder from Anderson’s book.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Hodge and Hymn-singing

The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have
of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other, is by music.
- Jonathan Edwards

In the first Chapter of his Systematic Theology, the chapter in which he sets out his theological method, Charles Hodge warns against two methods that are in his judgment unsatisfactory; the Speculative, and the Mystical. These very different approaches to the construction of Christian theological doctrine have one thing in common. They each impose on Scripture, the only authentic source of Christian doctrine, norms from outside. He mentions Anselm’s work on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo? as an example of Speculative theology, for in that work Anselm seeks to establish the necessity of the atonement from reason alone; or at least, from reasoning that is based on a few plausible theological principles. In the case of Mystical method he particularly mentions Schleiermacher, who believed it to be the duty of the theologian not to systematize theology from Scripture, but to construct theology from the Christian consciousness.

Hodge had studied the work and influence of Schleiermacher at first hand during his time in Germany, 1826-8. In the Systematic Theology he conducts a sustained critique of Schleiermachian theology, not only its method, but also its theological fruits. A glance at the Index shows that he takes the German theologian to task for (inter alia) his views on divine omnipotence, omniscience, divine holiness, the Trinity, inspiration, Christology, Soteriology, and the post-mortem status of human beings. This feature of the Hodge's Theology – its assessment of post-Kantian German Protestant theology - is one reason, perhaps the main reason, why it is wrong to consider Hodge’s work as a mere repristination of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which was the textbook used at Princeton before the arrival of his book. We may surmise that it was his desire to have such German theology assessed for the benefit of his students that was one reason for him writing the work.

Although Hodge was resolutely opposed to constructing Christian theology out of the religious consciousness alone, this does not mean that he disparaged Christian experience in any way. ‘The true method in theology requires that the facts of religious experience should be accepted as facts, and when duly authenticated by Scripture, be allowed to interpret the doctrinal statements of the Word of God.’ Then he says this

So legitimate and powerful is this inward teaching of the Holy Spirit, that it is no uncommon thing to find men having two theologies, - one of the intellect, and another of the heart. The one may find expressions in creeds and systems of divinity, the other in their prayers and hymns. It would be safe for a man to resolve to admit into his theology nothing which is not sustained by the devotional writings of true Christians in every denomination. It would be easy to construct from such writings, received and sanctioned by Romanists, Lutherans, Reformed, and Remonstrants, a system of Pauline or Augustinian theology, such as would satisfy any intelligent and devout Calvinist in the world.

And later on in his Systematic Theology he says about Schleiermacher:

When in Berlin the writer often attended Schleiermacher’s church. The hymns to be sung were printed on slips of paper and distributed at the door. They were always evangelical and spiritual to an eminent degree, filled with praise and gratitude to the Redeemer. Tholuck said that Schleiermacher, when sitting in the evening with his family, would often say ‘Hush, children; let us sing a human of praise to Christ’. Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomsoever Christ is God, St. John assures us, Christ is a Saviour. (II.440 footnote).

What is Hodge saying that hymn-singing may reveal and express what a person’s developed theology may not? At this point I'm tempted to launch into a diatribe against those who think that Charles Hodge was a child of the Enlightenment, a rationalist, a pure intellectual, a religious scientist. But I forbear. In any case, it’s immediately obvious what a serious distortion that is. If you are still in doubt, read the last page of Ch. 1 of his Systematic Theology. (His critics never seem to read that far.) My aim instead is to try to answer the issue raised by Hodge's remarks about hymn-singing. Here’s what I think.

Beginning at the most abstract level, Hodge is saying that the Fall, which disrupted and disorded the image of God in man, continues in the life of the Church. Regeneration, which brings new life and light, does not immediately heal that disruption. So Paul’s ‘law’, that ‘when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand’ finds expression not only in moral desire and action, narrowly understood, but in all the operations of ‘right reason’. Such a person wants to subject himself to Christ in his word, but may find that he cannot, or cannot easily do this. The reason why unregeneracy, ‘the flesh’ in Paul’s special sense, cannot easily do this may be because of a person’s background, or his intellectual training, or the effect of party spirit, or of ambition, for example. Just as a person can be all head and no heart, or all heart and no head, so he may be part head and part heart, but in such a case his head part may out of kilter with his heart part. So what happens?

What Hodge thinks happens is that in such a case, where (in a regenerate person) the intellect is blocked, or is taken over by various factors, the forces of regeneration nevertheless find their outlet in what he calls the ‘religious consciousness’, the ‘renewed heart’. He gives the example of the experience of being ‘sold under sin; of being its slaves; or being possessed by it as a power or law, immanent, innate, and beyond our control’. This experience is Spirit-given and Spirit-driven. But because of the disruption, the disjunction between head and heart, these teachings of the Spirit may find expression not in exact doctrinal formulae, but in devotional writing, not in the strict cognitive language of doctrine, but in that language of aspiration, and the use of such language, devotional language, in worship. Such language, note, is not simply an expression of vague sentiment or religiosity, but it is that from which, as Hodge puts it, one could construct ‘a system of Pauline or Augustinian theology’. Such people subscribe to these beliefs as long as they are singing, but (strange though it may seem) deny them when they study. Is this weird? Yes, it is weird. Does it happen? Yes, according to Hodge, it does.

The recognition of this disjunction between heart and head, the presence and working of ‘mental error’ in the construction of Christian theology, is a recurrent strand of Reformed theology, though one to which (so it seems to me) little attention has been given. Here are three other examples, from three different centuries, the latest first. Try to guess who the authors are.

(Answers to be given next month. No prizes.)

(1) ' Heretical notions may occupy Christian men’s heads, leading to error of thought and practice and spiritual impoverishment; but these notions cannot control their hearts. As regenerate men, it is their nature to be better than the unscriptural parts of their creed would allow. Hence they are inconsistent; it is good that they are. In this case, Christians in the liberal camp have adopted a position which logically makes reason, and not Scripture, their final authority. But just because they are Christians and have the witness of the Spirit, it is not in their nature to follow this anti-Christian principle to its logical conclusion – which would be to dismiss as incredible all that is incomprehensible, and so to deny the whole Christian faith. Regenerate men can never do that. Hence we find that they are in practice inconsistent'.
(2) 'How far a wonderful and mysterious agency of God’s Spirit may so influence some men’s hearts, that their practice in this regard may be contrary to their own principles, so that they shall not trust in their own righteousness, though they profess that men are justified by their own righteousness—or how far they may believe the doctrine of justification by men’s own righteousness in general, and yet not believe it in a particular application of it to themselves—or how far that error which they may have been led into by education, or cunning sophistry of others, may yet be indeed contrary to the prevailing disposition of their hearts, and contrary to their practice—or how far some may seem to maintain a doctrine contrary to this gospel-doctrine of justification, that really do not, but only express themselves differently from others; or seem to oppose it through their misunderstanding of our expressions, or we of theirs, when indeed our real sentiments are the same in the main—or may seem to differ more than they do, by using terms that are without a precisely fixed and determinate meaning—or to be wide in their sentiments from this doctrine, for want of a distinct understanding of it; whose hearts, at the same time, entirely agree with it, and if once it was clearly explained to their understandings, would immediately close with it, and embrace it: — how far these things may be, I will not determine; but am fully persuaded that great allowances are to be made on these and such like accounts, in innumerable instances; though it is manifest, from what has been said, that the teaching and propagating [of] contrary doctrines and schemes, is of a pernicious and fatal tendency'.
(3) 'Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed'.
The consequences of such an analysis of mental error for those of us interested in Reformed theology and its outworkings are too obvious to need stating.

Theological Compatibilism: Two Counter-arguments considered

Byrne’s First Counter-Argument

I turn now to Peter Byrne’s first counter-argument to my claim that (despite the point just made about apophatism) there is a significant parallel between theistic creation and sustaining on the one hand, and general determinism on the other, and that if general determinism is consistent with human responsibility so may divine sustaining be. Arguing in support of Antony Flew, Byrne claims that there are ‘customs and institutions associated with human responsibility because human beings possess characters and all that pertains thereto – patterns of belief, desire and would be very odd on this account to praise or blame the non-purposive, non-characterful causes that stretch beyond any instance of human choice and action’. (HG 196) And he goes on to claim that things are different ‘in the case of theistic determinism’.

But this counter-argument clearly rests upon an ambiguity regarding ‘responsibility’, as between ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘causal responsibility’. These phrases are not equivalent, of course. On some versions of atheistic general determinism my beliefs and desires and my character are solely the product of my genes and my environment. It is certainly true that it makes no sense to wag one’s finger at my genes, or to look disapprovingly at my early upbringing, to charge them with moral failure or to punish them because of it. As Byrne says, we do not blame the genes or diet, or the Big Bang. Nevertheless, determinists must assign causal responsibility to them; too many strawberries are responsible for my stomach ache, being high up brings about giddiness, my genetic structure is responsible for my maleness, and so on.

Byrne’s presentation of his counter-argument, with its reference to appropriateness, and customs and institutions, makes it seem as if the attribution of personal responsibility is merely a matter of human convention. But if, according to Flew’s general outlook, it is perfectly in order to hold me responsible for some voluntary action that I perform, but not to hold my genes responsible, and if this is based upon a set of human conventions, or ‘paradigm cases’ of free and voluntary action, as Flew used to argue, then why (by the same token) is there a reason to blame God but not me for my vicious actions? If in the matter of ascribing responsibility to human actions we choose to ignore the causal role that genes play, why may we not, in a similar way, choose to ignore the causal role played by God’s ordaining what I do? Flew’s and Byrne’s answer is: because God himself, unlike our genes, has motives, beliefs and intentions. But they have not shown why this is a telling difference.

Byrne also applies his (and Flew’s) questionable principle about the locus of responsibility to an argument of Anthony Kenny’s to the effect that whenever a person X causes another person Y to do moral evil, X must also do the moral evil. (HG 197) Besides failing to compel, for the same reason as Flew’s argument failed to compel, Kenny’s argument also explicitly raises the spectre of the second matter that Byrne focuses on, God’s relation to moral evil, and particularly the question of whether God’s attitudes to good and to evil are asymmetrical. So we must next look at this.

God, Good and Evil

On the view developed in Eternal God it is possible for God, in ordaining that A does evil, to take up a different intentional stance to what he ordains than does A take up to what he does. While conceding something to this, Byrne proceeds to claim that ‘if X infallibly and down to the smallest level of detail caused and necessitated Y’s acts of torture, then Y is fulfilling X’s purposes in committing torture’. (HG 197) To be sure, but – leaving aside the fact that Byrne’s language points once again to the conflation of (1) and (2) discussed earlier – X’s purposes may be distinct from Y’s. God may ordain evil but not as evil in that his reasons for ordaining the evil cannot themselves be wicked. In ordaining a murder God cannot himself be murderous.

Byrne responds that this claim for the asymmetry in God’s authorship of good and evil, namely that God does not intend the evil that he ordains as evil, that is, he does not have an evil intention in ordaining it, is based upon a serious confusion, that of running together different types of excuse for someone’s commission of an evil act . (HG 198) One type of excuse deflects responsibility away from the accused; but another type justifies the one accused, pointing to good reason s the accused had for doing what appears to be evil.

He has two distinct arguments on this. First he states that ‘If it were really the case that evil is not authored by God, Helm would have no need of the excuse that God does not will it as evil but only as part of an outweighing good’. (HG 198) That is, if my first argument, the one against Flew, is sound, then the second counter-argument is unnecessary. But this is a hard saying. To start with, in that argument I don’t say that God is not the author of evil in the sense that he intends evil, merely that if according to an atheist compatibilist such as Flew my genes are not responsible for my evil action, but I am, then by parity of reasoning God is not responsible for my evil action, but I am.

My second defensive argument has to do with something rather different, namely an objection from a theistic libertarian, or someone arguing on his behalf, based on a comparison between theistic compatibilism and theistic libertarianism. In other words, the second argument is directed to someone using libertarian assumptions. Though, as Byrne himself notes, both of the arguments are defensive strategies, as he calls them, (HG 195) it is hardly reasonable to say of two distinct arguments, one of which is an ad hominem argument, that they ought not to be distinct, in that the success of the ad hominem objection should make an answer to the second objection unnecessary. One has to take arguments as they come. The argument from Anthony Kenny (an argument that is also characteristic of libertarian theists) to the effect that compatibilist theism makes God the author of evil, has different premises than that of a secular determinist such as Flew who claims that if God ordains all that comes to pass then only he is responsible for what happens, that he is the Grand Manipulator.

Further, Byrne claims that the asymmetry of good and evil cannot apply to God because on my account of divine sovereignty and human freedom ‘exactly the same kind of divine causal responsibility lies behind both good and evil acts. For both kinds of acts it is the case that God foreordains, strictly determines and necessitates that they be done and that human beings have the plans, purposes and values that give issue to them.’ (HG 198, Byrne’s italics). But we need to note that exactly the same objection may be made against the secular compatibilist. For the secular compatibilist such as Flew, exactly the same kind of deterministic account - in terms of genes and the influence of the environment, say – lies behind both good and evil acts. Beyond noting this obvious parallelism here, in the next section I shall return to this objection.


Byrne believes that the only way open for getting off this particular hook of God’s being the author of sin lies in my general theodicy, and this brings us to his second argument.
Here he concentrates on my ‘second argumentative strategy’, the claim that in the matter of God’s responsibility for evil ‘standard libertarian theodicies’ (HG 200) are in no better a position than are compatibilist theodicies.

Byrne’s counter-argument to this claim relies on the Principle of Double Effect (HG 201), a principle that in turn relies on a distinction between an act which is merely foreseen and willingly brought about by some agent and an effect which is fully intended. Byrne illustrates the distinction using Philip Quinn’s example of ‘Strategic Bomber’ and ‘Terror Bomber’. Terror Bomber seeks to shorten the war by bombing civilians, fully intending to do so. Strategic Bomber seeks to shorten the war by bombing a munitions factory, knowing that civilians will in fact also be killed by his bombs. Byrne comments, ‘There is a difference between an effect that is foreseen and willingly brought about and an effect which is intended. An effect is intended when it is part of the act’s objective (that is, its immediate purpose) or part of its end (that is, its larger purpose). The difference lies in this: an effect which is part of the agent’s objective or end defines the act’s success and failure’. (HG 201) Further, the type of responsibility in the case where a person intends X and merely foresees Y as a necessary bye-product of X is different from that where a person intends both X and Y. Byrne believes that the first kind of case, illustrated by Strategic Bomber, corresponds in its logic to libertarian theodicies, the second kind of case, illustrated by Terror Bomber, to compatibilist theodicies.

But in fact the cases are not parallel to libertarian and compatibilist theodicies respectively. In the case of such theodicies, if each employs a standard understanding of theism, God is the creator of all his creatures and upholds all of them and all their actions. In addition, in the case of those libertarian theodicies which do not have an ‘openness’ approach to God and his relation to the future, God perfectly foreknows what his creatures will do, whether for good or evil. The case of Quinn’s Strategic Bomber is not appropriate to the divine creating, upholding and foreknowing of a universe in which human beings have been gifted with libertarian freedom. Adopting Byrne’s language (HG 203), we may say that in standard libertarian theodicy, God knowingly created and sustained the person of Adolf Hitler, infallibly knowing that Auschwitz would follow, while retaining the power to cut short this devilish regime at any time. On this view, God has from all eternity been planning and purposing states of affairs with the infallible knowledge that horrendous evils will result from certain exercises of human free agency, and chooses to do nothing about it. There are of course important differences between libertarian and compatibilist theodicies. But is there much of a moral difference?

Further, Byrne deploys his human analogy as part of an account of human action in terms of objectives and intentions. So we might ask, what, in the case of libertarian theodicies , are God’s objectives? Perhaps he has only one objective, to create and sustain a universe in which men and women have libertarian free will and exercise it come what may. As Byrne puts it ‘Free will is a great good in itself and its grant will lead to further greater goods (such as the development of significant moral and spiritual qualities)’.(HG 200) Maybe so.

Here’s a dilemma: on theistic libertarianism either human libertarian freedom is the supreme aim and end of creation, or it is a means to other ends. The objections to the exercise of human libertarian freedom being the only or the supreme aim and end of creation are too obvious to need spelling out. Alternatively, it may be that in such a libertarian universe God has other purposes, and that the grant of libertarian freedom is a means to the achieving of these ends. In characterising the libertarian view Byrne himself refers to God’s ‘wider purposes’. (HG 200) Perhaps these wider purposes are not directly connected with the granting and exercise of human libertarian freedom. However, this does not seem likely. So maybe the achieving of such wider purposes does arise out of this granting.

But the libertarian might press the following: if God could have he would have created a world in which human beings always do what is right, but the counterfactuals of freedom prevented this outcome. Isn’t this behaviour more like that of Strategic Bomber than of Terror Bomber? While the compatibilist theist is not able to agree that God would have if he could have, nevertheless, his position has analogous features. God ordains evil because it is logically necessary for his goal of the greater good. So perhaps what the difference between libertarian theism and compatiblist theism comes to at this point is: for the libertarian God knowingly and hypothetically necessarily permits evil that good may come, for the compatibilist he knowingly and hypothetically necessarily ordains evil that good may come.

A notable contemporary instance of such a free will theodicy is offered by Alvin Plantinga in his ‘Supralapsariansm, or “O Felix Culpa”’. In this instance God knowingly allows evil, giving life and breath to all evildoers, in order that good may come. Of course while one should not tar all libertarian theists with the Plantingan brush, nevertheless all such theists (with the exception of those of the ‘openness’ variety) subscribe both to infallible divine foreknowledge and to God having wise and just purposes. Byrne accuses compatibilist theodicies of violating the moral principle that one should not do evil that good may come of it. (HG 200) Does Plantinga’s free will theodicy not also violate that principle? And is God ‘s end not sullied and dirtied by him permitting and upholding evildoers? (HG 201) Is not God flawed by the most terrible deception because he could not tell himself that he did not allow the death camps as an evil but only as part of an outweighing good? (HG 203) In my view, Byrne’s deployment of the Principle of Double Effect has failed to show that God ‘s responsibility for sin and evil is significantly morally different in the case of libertarian theism than it is in that of compatibilist theism.