Friday, May 16, 2008

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.


At 5/17/2008 9:22 AM, Blogger Dr. Brian E. Clark said...

In response to Question 3, if the Bible is Truth with a capital "T", it matters not whether the person using it as a trump is mistaken or not. I happen to believe that the Bible is Truth with a capital "T". But whether I (or you) or anyone else believes Truth to be Truth, Truth does not change even if the beholder of Truth reasons that it is not Truth.

At 5/17/2008 10:14 AM, Blogger Raffi Shahinian said...

I happen to think Jesus is Truth with a capital "T." And if we really take that seriously (the implication that Truth is a person rather than a concept), how do we re-ask the questions here? Or do they become questions at all?

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian
Parables of a Prodigal World

At 5/17/2008 5:06 PM, Blogger Michael B said...

I agree with the original comment entirely and agree with Raffi's comment, with the minor caveat that the latter agreement stresses the living person of Jesus, the Christ, and not necessarily our perceptions of that Truth. I do think Paul, in part, had the theologians fallacy in mind when he advised concerning those with a too tender vs. a stronger conscience. Further and if obviously enough, this fallacy, or rather the corrective applied to this fallacy, has great import in terms of better and more mature conceptions of God and better and more mature conceptions of the purpose of scripture and biblical texts. The latter has a sacred quality, but whatever it is in a more positive sense, it is not Truth with a capital "T" in ultimate terms.

At 5/17/2008 5:13 PM, Blogger Michael B said...

I meant the original post.

At 5/17/2008 6:08 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Dr. Clark,

Thanks for your comment, but I think you miss my main point. I'm not saying that the Bible (or any other authority) isn't Truth with a capital 'T'. What I'm objecting to is a certain way in which some people use the Bible, namely, as a Trump.

At 5/17/2008 6:24 PM, Blogger Robert Ivy said...

I don't understand why the Trumper couldn't answer "yes" to question 3 and still use his Trump as a trump.

Just because it is possible that the Trumper is wrong about his Trump doesn't mean that he is wrong about his Trump. So it seems that as long as the Trumper has good reasons for believing that his Trump is a trump, then he is warranted in using his Trump as a trump, even though the Trumper could (and should) say that he could possibly be wrong.

At 5/17/2008 6:30 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Good questions. Due to time constraints, I won't attempt a complete answer here, but I'll try to sketch my thinking on the issues you raise.

What I take Jesus to be saying in John 14:6ff. is that he is the fullest revelation of the Father that we, in our current station at least, could possibly have (cf. esp. verse 9). In this regard, I don't take him to be giving us a definition of the concept of "truth". Rather, he's saying, in effect, "I am the Way (to the Father), the Truth (the fullest revelation of the Father), and the Life (of the Father made available to us)."

There's another side to this, though. If one takes truth to be an ultimate and absolute good (a "pearl of great price" for which a man will give all that he has), then one is committed to the idea that what is ultimately and finally true is also what is ultimately and finally good. But what is ultimately and finally good? I would suggest that the best thing there could possibly be is an essentially Perfect Lover. And that, I think, is the Triune God. If this is right, then authentic human inquiry (which aims at truth) ultimately points us to a personal God who is, in a paradigmatic sense, the Truth.

At 5/17/2008 6:49 PM, Blogger mark said...

The rationalist's fallacy:
Setting up a duel between sacred reason and sacred scripture. Knock it off. :)

1. Do you place ultimate value on "the most secure deliverances of human reason", "truth" or on "Truth"? When do these questions devolve into meaninglessness? What is the inner human faculty of evaluating that value system? What is the source of it's validation?

2. Does human reason trump mystery and paradox, and does it deliver enough to satisfy your soul? Cogito?

3. Are such arguments as the "Theologian's Fallacy" capable of being transposed and turned upon the one bringing the accusation, pointing out the strawmen cynically and selectively used and the ease with which we engage in one-up-trumpmanship? Don't like being told, "because I said so, that's why!"? It's okay, they're not your authority figure. Because others appeal to a trump to extinguish the agony & ecstasy of the unending discovery and unattainment of "most secure deliverance", is my reality base more or less undermined by them, or by my own reflection?

4. Who's got the bandwidth to download the whole application? To be self-authenticating in the highest degree is, for humans, not that high of a bench mark. Absolute-like words do not authenticate absolutely. But then, that is your point. The fallacy that human reason can get you over the chasm of unknowing more securely than appeal to authority is a faulty syllogism because it isn't the appeal to authority that bridges the gap either, but another purely human faculty: faith. Just hope it's placed carefully in the right amount, tempered with reason and goodwill.

At 5/17/2008 7:03 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Thank you. I think the application you make to intellectual and theological maturity is a good one.

People who have a healthy confidence in their positions have no need for Trumps. They realize that if they have the truth they think they do, then their position will stand up to critical scrutiny without the need for ad hoc strategems (like Trumps). If it turns out that their position doesn't stand up to critical scrutiny, they are thankful to have been disabused of an error and seek to revise their thinking accordingly.

The people who use Trumps are generally insecure. The possibility that one of their cherished doctrines might fail to withstand critical scrutiny scares them, and so they whip out Trumps to insulate their positions from scrutiny.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think we'll realize that we all have a tendency to resort to Trumps. After all, we all have cherished doctrines that we have devoted years of our lives to. To seriously countenance the possibility that those doctrines might be false consequently strikes at our self-confidence and pride. It takes a mature person, one who accepts his own limitations and fallibility but nevertheless trusts that the Truth (whatever it may turn out to be) is of greater worth than any particular doctrine, to consistently resist the urge to employ Trumps and instead to follow the argument where it leads.

At 5/17/2008 7:14 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Sure, the epistemic possibility that one is wrong about a Trump does not imply that he is in fact wrong about the Trump. But to acknowledge that possibility as a genuine epistemic possibility and to continue to use that source of authority as a Trump is performatively inconsistent. To use something as a Trump one has to act as if the epistemic probability that the Trump is false is zero, whereas to acknowledge the possibility that the authority is mistaken is to take the epistemic probability that the Trump is false to be non-zero.

At 5/17/2008 10:38 PM, Blogger Heather said...

As I understand it, your main point is this: Don't use a trump card (whatever that trump card may be) to cut off or block avenues of honest, intellectual inquiry. Right?

Good post!

At 5/18/2008 9:16 AM, Blogger Shane Moe said...

Thanks for challenging us to think about these things, Alan. One of my deeper concerns is that the estimation of one's trump card as infallible typically amounts to the estimation of one's interpretation of that trump card as likewise infallible, not simply in terms of its incorrigible status as an alethic or epistemic foundation as such, but (more frighteningly) in terms of what it is saying about this or that item of truth or knowledge.

Scripture is infallible turns into What Scripture says about determinism is infallible turns into What I interpret Scripture to be saying about determinism is infallible. And it gets even more potentially dangerous when such thinking is tied to understandings of divine glory that render any other interpretation, in effect, idolatrous.

On a related note, I'm growing more and more interested in the Scriptural underdetermination of theological and philosophical theories. I don't suppose you happen to know of anyone who has grocery listed a handful of such theories or strata and argued that (and why) they are Scripturally underdetermined (or at least potentially so)? I'm definitely not a fan of the notion of Scriptural perspicuity (if you can't tell already). :-) Or I'm inclined to limit it to relatively few debatable issues anyway.

Quickly regarding Jesus as the Truth here--those of postmodern (and Kierkegaardian or perhaps some other) persuasion discontent with the propositional nature of truth as such are deeply drawn to this identification. I'm sympathetic there, but I'm wondering if there's some over-literalizing in this hermeneutical move, if not at least some unnecessary generalization. He also said in the same statement that he is the way and life. What happens if we apply the same hermeneutic to these terms and their standard referents as such?

There's also a difference between saying I am truth and saying I am the truth. People are interpreting Jesus' statement as communicating the former proposition, when the latter is arguably intended to be saying something a bit different on account of the definite article. And even if we wanted to grant a redefinition of truth in matters of theology proper or soteriology, would we be warranted in redefining it for all alethic domains (perhaps akin to presuppositionalists)?

At 5/18/2008 11:17 AM, Blogger Clayton said...


Spot on.

Look, it's either a fact that the number of stars is even or odd. If anyone were to treat either "The stars are even" or "The stars are odd" as a settled matter not open to rational revision, we'd think they were a loon. You can say that some religious text is the inerrant truth, but it's quite another to say that you posses inerrant grounds to identify the particular book as such. Once you appreciate this point, I think you'll immediately appreciate the virtues of the sort of epistemic humility that Alan seems to be advocating.

And, no, I'm not just saying this because I'm an atheist. I mean, I think that Dawkins is inerrant, but I'd never dream of appealing to this fact in the course of argument, explanation, or reasoning ;)

At 5/19/2008 4:55 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

I liked this a lot. I particularly liked the 'if then, if then' that brings you to the fourth bit, where you then see you have come back to reason again.

This reminds me there are other arguments, generally used by philosophers, of this type, though I can't recall any of them at the moment.

Bill mentioned it in his blog, which is how I arrived here.

At 5/19/2008 4:59 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

PS (Aquinas):

"I answer that, Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God."

At 5/19/2008 7:09 PM, Blogger Dmitry Chernikov said...

Why assume that the Bible, say, is self-authenticating through unaided reason rather than through grace? If faith is a particular form that grace takes (that is, it is an infused by God theological virtue), and if the articles of faith properly admit no doubt, then why can't an important source of those articles, namely, the Bible, admit no doubt at least in some of its parts?

At 5/19/2008 11:56 PM, Blogger Ocham said...

Dmitry argues that “articles of faith properly admit no doubt”. Therefore one could honestly answer ‘no’ to the question of whether it is possible that you could be mistaken about your Trump, concerning its status as a source of absolute and infallible Truth, without committing the sin of intellectual pride.

But why do “articles of faith properly admit no doubt”?

At 5/20/2008 3:04 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

This argument is now straddling two other blogs (Maverick and Brandon). Brandon makes the interesting point that the argument depends on the assumption that to use something as an authority sufficient to correct your best reasoning, you have to act as if the epistemic probability that the authority is false is zero, whereas to acknowledge the possibility that the authority is mistaken is to take the epistemic probability that the authority is false to be non-zero.

Which assumption is unreasonably strong: "it's clear that [this assumption] would require that we never correct our reasoning on the basis of authority; and we have a name for people who do this: crackpots. They are the sorts of people who will not correct their best reasoning on, say, quantum physics, or biology, or whatever else, no matter how many authorities, no matter how eminent, no matter how qualified, tell them they have the wrong answer".

At 5/20/2008 8:39 AM, Blogger Dmitry Chernikov said...

> But why do “articles of faith properly admit no doubt”?

Ocham, if you doubt them, then you are not a Christian. As the Catholic Encyclopedia argues, "doubt cannot coexist either with faith or knowledge in regard to any given subject; faith and doubt are mutually exclusive, and knowledge which is limited by a doubt, becomes, in regard to the subject or part of a subject to which the doubt applies, no longer knowledge but opinion." If you doubt, then you are almost by definition not well-justified in your beliefs and so do not have knowledge. Similarly, if you doubt, then you fail in your obligation to believe something that rests on divine authority. Hence no faith and not Christian.

At 5/20/2008 4:05 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...


Your proposal that the Bible may be self-authenticating through grace rather than reason simply reinforces my point that trumping is not rationally defensible.

Either the grace that produces faith works through human reason and understanding or it works independently of human reason and understanding. If the former, then faith does not trump reason because it is consonant with reason. If the latter, then one may perhaps use faith as a trump, but by nature of the case one can have no rational justification for doing so.

At 5/20/2008 4:58 PM, Blogger Dmitry Chernikov said...

> Your proposal that the Bible may be self-authenticating through grace rather than reason simply reinforces my point that trumping is not rationally defensible.

No, my proposal is that Bible is not fully self-authenticating through unaided reason. That is because grace does not violate reason; it enhances it.

> Either the grace that produces faith works through human reason and understanding

Yes, it does. It lifts those reason and understanding above their natural capacities into knowledge that could never be attained except by revelation.

> or it works independently of human reason and understanding.

It moves human reason and understanding into reasoning about and understanding truths which they cannot reach on their own power.

> If the former, then faith does not trump reason because it is consonant with reason.

"Consonant" with reason or builds on reason or "grace requires nature and perfects nature," any way of saying this is fine. Faith is not science; it is acquiesced to for a different reason; science on empirical evidence or logic or whatever, and faith on divine authority, miracles, prophesy, and other such things, sanctifying grace for the unbeliever, and gratuitous grace for his teacher. Of course, explicating faith can use all manner of sciences, e.g., if it were possible to examine Jesus's body, we could use biology and medicine to figure out precisely how it was, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, that "Christ's dignity excludes some bodily pains and states. God's all-preserving power inhabiting the body of Jesus did not allow any corruption; it also prevented disease or the beginning of corruption. Christ's holiness was not compatible with decomposition after death, which is the image of the destroying power of sin." Did He kill harmful bacteria with His mind?

There is certainly natural evidence for the articles of faith (historicity of the Bible, the self-understanding of Jesus, the empty tomb, whatever) on which grace builds. I think Johnny-Dee has published a paper in which he argues that grace is just another piece of evidence, on equal footing with all other evidence for Christianity. That's an intriguing thesis, and I am not sure if he is right. The nature of grace must be clearly understood first.

At 5/20/2008 5:56 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Dmitry,

I'm inclined to agree with the proposal you attribute to Johnny-Dee. So are as I can see, in whatever sense divine grace "perfects" human reason (as opposed to bypassing it) it does so by giving us a source of evidence that we would not otherwise have access to.

But then I don't see how faith can properly function as a Trump.

At 5/20/2008 9:07 PM, Blogger Clark Goble said...

As I pointed out to Brandon the problem with the quantum physics example is that it doesn't work. It works in that a physicist is strong evidence as authority but it never acts as a trump and no physicist in their right mind would want it to. (More details here) A physicist will probably point to an error in your reasoning. And expect you to rethink through the reasons but never act as an authority.

My complaint with Brandon's approach is in effect he's just denying there are real trumps. (At least as I see it) That is trumps are just really, really strong evidence. But as I see it there is still a fundamental difference between a trump and strong evidence such that a trump always cuts off inquiry whereas evidence always opens it up.


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