The Theologian's Fallacy
In his contribution to a recent book, Perspectives on the Doctrine of God (Bruce A. Ware, ed.), Paul Helm leads off with an epigraph from Anselm (the exact source is not given):
But if Scripture indubitably opposes our understanding, even though our reasoning appears to us to be impregnable, still it ought not to be believed to be substantiated by any truth at all. It is when Sacred Scripture either clearly affirms or in no way denies it, that it gives support to the authority of any reasoned conclusion.In other words, what Anselm is saying is that the authority of the Bible always trumps human reason when the two come into conflict. Helm clearly approves of this sentiment, as do many other theologians who want to defend cherished doctrines (in Helm's case, theological determinism) against external critique. My concerns, however, are broader than the question of Biblical authority. I'm interested here in the general practice of appealing to some allegedly absolute authority - whether that be the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon's revelation knowledge (i.e., "burning in the bosom"), or what have you - as a "trump card" for defeating rational objections.
It is my view that this practice, which I will dub the "Theologian's Fallacy", is rationally indefensible. (I give it that name because, in my experience at least, theologians seem to like to whip out these sorts of trump cards with considerable frequency, especially when they feel that what they regard as their intellectual turf is under external challenge from science, philosophy, or even common sense.)
What's wrong with this practice? I'll answer that by addressing some questions to a generic practitioner of this fallacy whom I'll call a "Trumper".
Question #1: Do you place ultimate value on the truth?
The typical Trumper will confidently answer 'yes' to this question. Why? Because the Trumper believes that his favorite Trump (the Bible, the Koran, etc.) is or contains absolute and infallible Truth (with a capital 'T') of a vitally important sort. Moreover, the Trumper is prepared to submit to that Trump over and against, if necessary, the most secure deliverances of human reason. This he takes as evidence of his intellectual humility and sincerity, of his preparedness to sacrifice all for the Truth. Conversely, the Trumper sees external critics of the Trump either as ignorant children who need to be taught or as malicious rebels vainly raging against the admantine Truth with the feeble sticks of human reason.
Question #2: Do you place ultimate value on your Trump?
Again, the typical Trumper will answer with a confident 'yes'. After all, in the Trumper's mind, the Trump is or contains absolute and infallible Truth of a vitally important sort.
Question #3: Is it possible that you could be mistaken about your Trump, concerning its status as a source of absolute and infallible Truth?
At this point the Trumper is caught in a bind. On the one hand, his own aspirations to intellectual humility encourage him to answer with a 'yes'. Human fallibility is too familiar for us to dismiss such possibilities out of hand. On the other hand, the Trumper's preparedness to use his Trump as a Trump, if necessary against even the best that human reason and inquiry can muster, requires him to say 'no'. After all, once a person genuinely admits that it is possible for him to be mistaken about a Trump, it ceases to function for him as a Trump. But how could one honestly answer 'no' to this question without committing the sin of intellectual pride? There is a way - the Trump must be self-authenticating in the highest possible degree, such that its status as Truth is at least as obvious (to those who are sufficiently prepared) than the most secure deliverances of human reason and inquiry. This leads us to our final question:
Question #4: Can you honestly maintain that your Trump is self-authenticating in the highest possible degree?
Unless one's Trump is something on the level of the Cartesian cogito, like a simple conceptual truth (e.g., "All triangles have 3 sides") or a simple introspective report (e.g., "I am in pain right now"), to answer with anything other than a blunt 'no' would seem a breathtaking display of nerve. Furthermore, if one's Trump is self-authenticating in the highest possible degree, then one would expect it should be accessible to human reason and inquiry, just like the cogito and simple conceptual truths are. In that case, of course, it can no longer be used as a Trump over and against human reason and inquiry. Still, some incorrigible Trumpers will have the temerity to answer 'yes' to this question. Such people are, I think, beyond hope of rational engagement. But those who still have a robust sense of reality, of their own finitude and fallibility, will look at their prospective Trump (the Bible, say) and realize that they are not in fact more or even equally confident of its Trump-worthiness than they are certain of the best deliverances of human reason. And if they realize that, then they should realize that they are no longer in a position to use it as a Trump.
In closing, I say to any of my readers who are inclined to commit the Theologian's Fallacy and appeal to the Bible, Koran, Vedas, Book of Mormon, Communist Manifesto, Magic 8-ball, or what have you, as a Trump to defeat external criticisms to your pet theories, knock it off! If you really have the Truth that you think you do, then you can and should be able to meet the criticisms head on without whipping out a Trump card.