Translating Christianese, Part 7

Trinity ShieldIn January & February, I posted a series of articles that (hopefully) defined some common “church talk” terms in non-jargon fashion: “sin”, “holiness”, “righteousness”, “atonement”, “grace”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “born again”, “saved”, and “repentance”. This week, I want to add to that list a distinctly Christian term, yet one you won’t find actually mentioned by that name in the Bible – the Trinity. Nevertheless, the concept is throughout the Bible, and “in the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion”.[1] The Trinity is the name given to the completely unique three-in-one relationship demonstrated by God. The idea that God is one, and yet three (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) is at the core of Christianity, but what exactly does that mean? Are Muslims right when they say we are polytheists worshiping three gods? Are skeptics right when they say one of our core beliefs is self-contradictory?  No. Now let’s dig into why not.

Definition

  • The Trinity, or Tri-unity, is the idea of “plurality in unity”, that God is three distinct persons united in a Being having one nature or essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity describes three “Whos” in one “What”.[2]
  • A being’s nature or essence is what it is at its core without incidentals. For example, having blond hair is not essential to a human being, but having human DNA is. Nick Vujicic, the man born without arms or legs (and pretty amazing guy), is still obviously human despite not having the limbs typical of most humans. That’s because these are not what makes us human.
  • “Personhood is traditionally understood as one who has intellect, feelings, and will.”[2] Alternatively, a person can be defined philosophically as “a self-conscious or rational being”.[3] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland use the concept of “imago Dei” (that humans are created in the image of God),[4] to explain that when we use terms like “person” to describe God, it’s not that we are trying to say how God is like us, but rather how we derive our nature from God. They put it this way: “Human beings do not bear God’s image in virtue of their animal bodies, which they have in common with other members of the biosphere. Rather, in being persons they uniquely reflect God’s nature. God Himself is personal, and inasmuch as we are persons we reflect Him.“[5] Part of the difficulty in understanding the Trinity is that our uniform experience is that one person correlates to exactly one human being. We have no experience with how 3 persons would correlate to 1 being.

Though there have been many attempts to explain the concept with different analogies, it’s important to remember that every analogy breaks down when the object under study is truly like nothing else. In fact, several common analogies actually explain competing ideas about God that are definitely not the Christian view. We’ll look at some of those in with related objections.

Objections

  •  Muslims look at the Trinity and think we are polytheistic (believers in multiple gods). However, the Trinity is not 3 gods (this would be tritheism), but rather one God in three divine persons. The Godhead is 3 personalities operating in perfect union, but only 1 essence.
  • Another common misconception is that God is one Being taking on different roles (or modes),  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at different times. This is actually an old heretical view called modalism that says that God took on different modes as our Father from eternity past, then as our Savior as Jesus, and then as the Holy Spirit  after Jesus ascended. A common illustration of the Trinity – that God is like water in that it can exist in solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (steam) – is actually an example of modalism. While it’s still H2O in each case, it isn’t water, ice, and steam at the same time. It has to stop being one to change form to the others. Similarly, the example of how a man can be a son, a husband, and a father at the same time also falls victim to this error (the modes may be simultaneous in this case, but they are exhibited by only one person instead of three). However, each member of the Godhead is equal in being (i.e. fully God) at the same time, while differing relationally from each other.[6]
  • The law of noncontradiction explains that a statement can’t be true and false in the same sense at the same time. When skeptics claim the Trinity is a contradiction, they are forgetting the “same sense” part of that law of logic. To say that God was 1 person and 3 persons, or 1 essence and 3 essences at the same time would be a contradiction. The correct term would be that this is a paradox (a statement that appears contradictory at first, but proves not to be on closer examination), or a mystery (something we simply don’t understand fully yet, like the wave-particle duality of light).

In closing, in the Trinity, we find mystery and awe for One truly beyond our finite understanding, yet who reveals Himself sufficiently for us to grasp in small ways the scale of our Creator’s nature. We find a foundation for our own dignity as humans. Yet we also find a reason for humility in remembrance of our own limited understanding. The more we grasp this, the more we are driven to worship – to give God the honor, respect, and adoration only He deserves. I leave you with these words from theologian Wayne Grudem on the matter: “Because the existence of three persons in one God is something beyond our understanding, Christian theology has come  to use the word person to speak of these differences in relationship, not because we fully understand what is meant by the word person when referring to the Trinity, but rather so that we might say something rather than nothing.”[6]


[1] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 281, as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 247.
[2] Norm Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2011), p. 540-1.
[3] “Person”, www.dictionary.com, definition 5 (Philosophy), accessed 10/25/2015.
[4] Genesis 1:26-27, NASB.
[5] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, 2003), p.609.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 254-5.

The Challenge of a False Dilemma, Part 2

Decisions_smallIn last week’s post (here), we looked at how to tell if a dilemma before you is legitimate or not. This week, let’s apply that training in logic to a classic case, the Epicurean Dilemma. This is a series of questions regarding the goodness of God allegedly proposed by Epicurus in the 3rd century BC to show that God could not be omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good or all-loving) if evil exists.[1]

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

The 4 questions have 2 base assumptions: 1)  omnipotence and omnibenevolence are required attributes of God, and 2) Evil exists. The first, depending on the definition of the terms, is in accord with traditional lists of attributes of God accepted by theists.[2] The second is reasonable given our observations of the world around us – just look at the news headlines and you’ll find abundant evidence of the existence of evil.  The horns of the dilemma then form a choice between:

A) God, if He exists, does not meet the “minimum job qualifications”, or
B) evil doesn’t exist.

Since evil is so readily apparent, “Whence cometh evil?”is a rhetorical question attempting to make the simultaneous existence of a good God and a world of evil an absurdity, and to steer us to accepting choice A. How then should we respond?

Actually, once we clearly define the terms, we’ll see that 3 of the 4 questions fall away, and the remaining has a reasonable answer. Let’s start with clarifying what we mean by these terms:

  • Omnipotence means having unlimited power to do whatever is possible. God cannot make square circles or stones so heavy He couldn’t move them. These are logical contradictions, and God cannot do what is contradictory.[3]
  • Omnibenevolence refers to God’s “infinite or unlimited goodness”, or His love for all.[4]
  • To love is “to will the good of its object”.[4]
  • Evil may be defined as a deprivation of some good that ought to be there; not a substance in itself, or a mere negation of substance, but a corruption of the good substances God made; analogous to rust on a car or rot in a tree.[5]
  • Free will is simply the ability to choose between alternative possibilities.

With clearly defined terms, we can now examine the argument. Though not mentioned in the dilemma, God has free will, which governs the use of His omnipotence. So then, just because God can do something, doesn’t mean He must. While His power to do anything possible is unlimited, His use of that power is limited by His will and His love. He could overwhelm us, and force us to only do what is right, but He doesn’t because of His love for us. Instead, He desires our freely-given love in return, since forced love isn’t really love at all. And so we have been created  with free will, able to choose to love or hate, to obey or rebel, to build up or destroy. This is where we start to see the nature of the false dilemma: the “problem of evil” really isn’t a choice between either God’s omnipotence or His omnibenevolence. It must factor in free will, both of God and man, and this actually answers the question “Whence cometh evil?” As Norman Geisler has highlighted, “God is responsible for making evil possible, but free creatures are responsible for making it actual.”[6] Free will is that two-edged sword that allows moral good and evil.

People often ask why God couldn’t simply eliminate all the evil in the world. But how many of us stop to think that if He did that, He just might start with me? We like to think other people are always the problem, or that He would take out the Hitlers of the world (and, you know,  maybe the guy that cut me off in traffic last week), but not sweet little me! Yet none of us are perfect, and perfection is the standard. Then, if we got our wish that a perfectly just God eliminate all the evil in the world, would any of us survive?

So is He able to prevent evil? Yes. He could make us all robots without the ability to disobey (but also unable to obey out of love). He could potentially give us “free will” but take away any bad choice that we were about to choose. Is that really freedom when the game is rigged like that? Is it really love when there’s actually no other possible option? He could potentially make every bad choice somehow have only good results, but (if possible) this seems to eliminate any concept of moral responsibility for our actions. I could go out and kill people knowing that God would simply follow behind me resurrecting them on the fly (or some other compensatory act). Is He willing to prevent evil? Yes, but not at the expense of free will that makes a morally good world possible.

We can therefore “escape between the horns” by showing how free will allows a third option that reconciles God’s attributes and the presence of evil in the world, or we can “take the dilemma by the horns”, by showing that the premises are false because of an unclear definition of the term “omnipotent”. In the end, God is willing and able to prevent evil, but it’s for our own good that He restrains His power and grants us the freedom that so often sadly results in the evil we observe.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil#Epicurus, accessed 10/17/2015.
[2] See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, MN, 2011), p. 410 for a longer list of attributes.
[3] ibid, p. 487-8 (see also Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, & Titus 1:2, NASB).
[4] ibid, p. 585.
[5] “Evil, Problem of”, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norman Geisler, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2000, 5th Printing), p. 220. Condensed for brevity.
[6] ibid, p. 219.

The Challenge of a False Dilemma

Wall St BullSometimes as engineers, we are confronted with tough choices like counteracting project requirements; solving one problem makes the other worse, or vice versa. My boss gave me some good advice in these situations: redefine the problem. Often, the problem is not one of truly conflicting requirements, but rather of our presuppositions leading us to interpret the requirements a certain way, eliminating valid options prematurely (or more likely, never even considering them).

In many areas of life, we are likewise confronted with dilemmas where neither choice is desirable. The two unwelcome choices of a dilemma have long been compared to facing down the horns of a charging bull: but is it only a question of which horn you want to be skewered on? Not necessarily.[1]

The first step with any dilemma is to see if the choices offered are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. That will determine whether or not we are really limited to the choices given, or if we can “escape between the horns” of a false dilemma.  This is like my boss’s idea of redefining the problem. This is the easiest solution, but it may not always be possible, especially if the dilemma is carefully worded. For instance, consider the dilemma “He who is not with me is against me.” This is mutually exclusive and exhaustive (the way this is worded, a person trying to claim neutrality is lumped in with those in the “against” category; thus the case of x or non-x exhausts the possibilities, and the two are contradictory positions that can’t be held at the same time in the same manner, thus being exclusive).[2]  If there are other options not stated, or if we’re not limited to an either-or choice (maybe both options or neither apply) , then it’s not truly the dilemma it was made out to be. For example, suppose your friend Joey asks you if hamsters should have legal rights, and on answering, you’re given the dilemma “If you don’t agree with me on this issue, you’re either a bigot or an idiot!” While it may be a childish response,  it’s still an example of a dilemma, but one that definitely doesn’t exhaust the possibilities; the idea that Joey could simply be wrong and your opposing view perfectly warranted is still a viable option.

What if we really are obligated to the dire options given? Then we need to look at the choices themselves to see if the conclusions are true. This is called “taking the dilemma by the horns”. Invalid reasoning, false premises, and ambiguous terms can break one or both horns of the dilemma. Suppose we accept Joey’s conclusions of bigot or idiot as the only possibilities. Are those really the necessary result of disagreeing with him? Most bad arguments won’t actually have invalid reasoning. Even Joey’s response is still logically valid – if his assumptions are true. First, let’s look at those. In other words, what is he assuming connects disagreement with bigotry and idiocy? Filling in those unstated premises, his dilemma would look more like this: “If you disagree with me on this, then either A) you are a bigot, for all who disagree with me regarding hamster rights are bigots, or B) you are an idiot, for all who disagree with me on this are idiots.” If his terms are appropriate, and these premises true, then his either-or conclusion would be valid. But “all” is actually a pretty big word in each of his assumed premises, as that implies that disagreement with him somehow consistently results in reduced mental capacity or unfair intolerance in other people. Unless he could clarify that, this premise appears to be false. This brings us to the most common cause of false conclusions: ambiguous terms. The term “bigot” means someone with an obstinate and unfair intolerance of opposing ideas, and so it does not follow that you are a bigot simply for having an opposing idea. In this case, Joey is probably using “bigot” ambiguously to begin with, which makes his first premise false once we correctly define the  term. It’s important to remember that refuting an argument doesn’t prove the conclusion to be false. You might still be a bigot or an idiot, but your friend will have to come up with better reasons to prove that.

Of course, Joey the Defender of Hamsters was a somewhat silly example, but the concepts apply to any dilemma (or any other disagreement) you might find yourself in. Remember: define the terms clearly so you understand the issue; judge whether the supporting reasons are true;  determine whether the conclusions necessarily follow from those reasons; and with dilemmas specifically, determine whether the conclusions offered are really the only ones available. Tune in next week as we apply this tactic to a more complex dilemma, an argument against the goodness of God called the Epicurean Dilemma.


[1] See Peter Kreeft’s “Socratic Logic” textbook, (St Augustine’s Press, 2010), Ed. 3.1, p. 306-310 , for a more technical analysis of constructing and responding to dilemmas.
[2] Matthew 12:30, NASB. This quote from Jesus uses the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Law of Noncontradiction, and is a sobering warning to those thinking they can be neutral toward Jesus, or think of Him as “a wise teacher” and nothing more.

Memes and Hidden Premises

Philosoraptor EnthymemeIt’s hard to be on the internet these days without seeing these “memes” (rhymes with dreams). Memes (also called image macros), are clip art or photos with whatever caption a person wants to use to convey an idea. Atheist Richard Dawkins is credited with coining the term back in 1976 to describe the concept of a piece of cultural information propagating and changing over time in an evolutionary fashion. He derived the name from the Greek word for mimicry, “mimema”, as he was trying to show how ideas could propagate through imitation and evolve over time. With the advent of the net and things “going viral”, the name has stuck around, if not exactly the same as he intended.[1] The common internet memes we see so often today might also be classified with another similar-sounding, but unrelated, term: enthymemes. What’s that? Glad you asked. An enthymeme is an abbreviated syllogism, and a syllogism is a set of 3 propositions: 2 premises and a conclusion. The classic example is the following:

Premise 1) All men are mortal.
Premise 2) Socrates is a man.
Conclusion) Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

An enthymeme shortens this format down to only 2 propositions. “Enthymeme” comes from the Greek word en-thymos, meaning “in mind”, because one proposition is “kept in mind” instead of stated.[2] This can take a couple of forms. The conclusion can be left out as a form of rhetorical setup where the audience makes the connection given the 2 premises that are allegedly true. An example of this could be something like, “Only lawyers are qualified to serve in Congress and write laws, and I don’t see a law degree hanging on your wall…” The intent is for the audience to fill in the conclusion in their own mind that the speaker’s opponent wouldn’t be qualified to serve in Congress by that measure. Hopefully, they would also question the truth of the first premise, but I digress.

More commonly, one of the premises will be given, along with a conclusion that is supposed to obviously follow from that. Here’s where we have to not rush to agree with the catchy sound bite until we’ve examined it a little closer (even if the conclusion expresses something we support). In this case, the conclusion is stated, so we know the author’s intent. The stated premise may be true, but there is typically a hidden premise (“kept in mind”) that may or may not be true, and that will typically determine whether or not the conclusion necessarily follows. Once we discover the hidden premise, then we can actually analyze the view being put forward. Why is this important? If the 3 requirements of clearly defined terms, true premises, and valid argument are met, then we have a sound argument and the conclusion has to be true (whether we like it or not). Therefore, it’s important to be able to see whether someone’s view is actually supported by the reasons they give.

While validity is a measure of correct form, the argument  can still be valid even with false premises as long as the conclusion necessarily results from the premises (like the rhetorical example above). Take, for example, the following argument: “How could it be right to restrict abortion? Any restriction on a woman’s right to control her own body is wrong.”[3] This is a passionate plea on a controversial issue, but is it justified? Rewording the initial question into a declarative sentence, we have “It is wrong to restrict abortion” as the conclusion, and “Restricting a woman’s right to control her own body is wrong”  as the only stated supporting premise. But there has to be something connecting these 2 propositions together. The hidden premise in this case is “Restricting abortion is restricting a woman’s right to control her own body.” Put in syllogistic form, we would then have the following:

Hidden Premise 1) [Restricting abortion] is [restricting a woman’s right to control her own body].
Stated Premise 2) [Restricting a woman’s right to control her own body] is .
Stated Conclusion) Therefore, [restricting abortion] is .

Note: brackets are used to help keep track of the terms of each proposition to more clearly see the relationships between terms. Now we can see that this is indeed a valid structure because the conclusion does necessarily follow if the premises are true. But the argument still has to pass 2 other tests for the conclusion to be true: clear terms and true premises. In this case, the fetus is a separate human body with its own DNA, fingerprints, blood type, and gender, residing in the mother’s body. Therefore, it is not  part of her body, so the hidden premise is false. Also, most people wouldn’t think twice about restricting a woman’s right to control her own body if she were trying to commit suicide, so it would seem that even the stated premise is not true (at least not without being more specific). Now, the stated conclusion could still be true, but not for the reasons given by the author. This, then, is not a sound argument.

So before you share that next clever meme that supports your view, or get frustrated by one that doesn’t, take a few minutes to look for hidden assumptions. Then examine their logic. You might just be surprised how many popular sentiments don’t have a leg to stand on.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme, accessed 2015-10-06.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, Ed. 3.1 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp. 264-275, “Enthymemes”. This chapter includes this bit of wisdom – “[T]here is no more practical skill you can learn from a logic course than this: how to smoke out an arguer’s hidden assumptions.” Indeed!
[3] ibid., p272, Exercise #20.