31 August 2006

Is Christianity rational?

by Dan Phillips

A Mormon friend, in passing, remarked that religion is not rational, so he didn't expect it to make sense. It's a matter of faith, not reason.

You might think, "Right: Mormon. I don't expect rationality, either." Hang on.

He went on to give an example—but the example was not how a human could become a god, or how there could be only one god and many at the same time, or how God can keep changing His mind about things, or how two equally-inspired books could contradict each other. His example was the virgin birth. I said there was nothing irrational about the virgin birth, and the conversation simply moved on elsewhere. (I now wish I'd asked instead of stated; still looking for a do-over.)

But was he right? Is religion irrational?

"Religion," maybe. Christianity, no.

Now, before we stay too focused on my friend's Mormonociousness, I'd add that some Charismatic friends have said the exact same thing. Try to follow out some thinking to its uncomfortable conclusion, and you get a shrug and a dismissal. It doesn't have to make sense. It's faith, man. "A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument," I heard a Charismatic church elder say.

Perhaps definitions are part of the problem. There is a world of difference between rational and rationalism. The latter is a philosophy, a worldview that asserts that man can know truth by the use of his unaided reason. The former merely means that something is in accord with reason, it doesn't violate fundamental canons of thinking such as the law of non-contradiction.

Is Christianity rational? Without re-writing van Til, Gordon Clark, Carl Henry and the gang (—as if I could), I'd rather just focus on one generality and two specifics.

First, some who karaoke this tune are actually simply anti-intellectual. Their religion is a Schleiermacheranian mish-mash of feelings and sentimentality; and, lazily, they like it that way. Like Alice's queen, they have "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." They can splop! down an absurd statement and, when challenged to try to make any kind of sense of it—let alone Biblical sense—they can loftily murmur that their religion is a matter of the heart, not of the mind.

This is of course to stand Biblical religion on its head (pun noted, but not intended). As soon as you assert anything about God, life, reality, you find yourself in the arena of thought and ideas. Even the assertion that nothing can be asserted about God is an assertion about God, open for analysis, criticism, acceptance or rejection.

This is by the design of God, who crafted us to analyze, understand, exercise dominion (Genesis 1:26-28). Thus He positions the first commandment as "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind"(Matthew 22:37; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5).

The resurgence of the irrational is not new, either. It was in vogue in the seventies, but was already old then. J. Gresham Machen had fought and slain this dragon a half-century earlier -- nor was he the first. The shade of rouge, the odor of the cheap perfume, and the color of the plastic jewels change, but it's the same old whore.

But second, even among Christians who are not anti-intellectual jellyfish, I've met some who very reverently think that some of our beliefs simply are not rational. They're mysterious, they have to be held by faith, not reason.

To this I'd just begin by noting that the opposite of faith is not reason; it is sight (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7).

But are some of our faith-tenets irrational? Two that I hear cited specifically are the Trinity, and the Virgin Birth.

The second example is just plain silly. I have never understood how this can be an issue to anyone who grants the premise of a God who created everything out of nothing. It's like saying, "Everything out of nothing? Sure! But make an existing egg alive without a sperm? No way!" Canons of rational thought are not even stretched, let alone violated, by the fact of the Creator and Ruler thus operating within His creation.

How about the Trinity? Surely the doctrine that God is three and one is not rational?

When I informally debated a Jesus-only heretic on the radio once, he described the Trinity as the belief that "God is three people and one person at the same time." That belief is irrational; if that were what the doctrine of the Trinity meant, I would agree with him. God is not one in one way, and three in the same way.

Yes, the Trinity, stated that way, is irrational. That statement is also irrelevant. Because Biblically-instructed Christians do not believe this.

(By the way, this is a classical straw man argument. You'll meet it in every anti-Trinitarian cultist or heretic. The procedure is as old as dirt: mis-state, then refute the mis-statement, then declare victory. This is yet another reason why it is so vital that we know what we believe better than those whom we seek to evangelize.)

The Trinity is the Biblical teaching that there is but one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), and that this one God is Father (2 Peter 1:17), Son (John 1:1), and Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). The simplest way I have been able to understand and express the truth is that God is one in one way, and three in another. Or, we could say that God is one "what" (i.e. one as to His essence), and three "who's" (i.e. three as to His persons).

Now, do we understand the Trinity exhaustively? Of course not! How exactly does God manage being what He is? We don't really need to know, since we'll never need to be God. Nor should the finite expect to understand the infinite exhaustively. It is as C. S. Lewis says:
If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about. (Mere Christianity [Macmillan: 1960], p. 145.)
But we know enough to love Him, to worship Him, and to discern truth from error. And we know enough to know that there is nothing irrational about the doctrine.

Is Christianity rational? I daresay it's the only worldview, ultimately, that is.

Put another way: if it isn't rational, it isn't Christianity.

Dan Phillips's signature


Benjamin P. Glaser said...

I agree completely. I often have an argument with people who claim to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ but just cannot seem to wrap their head around Jonah being eaten by a fish. I always ask, "What seems more plausible? A man surviving three days in the belly of a fish or flesh & soul being "re-animated" and returning from the dead?" The ususal response is the well its all about faith line. What they are really saying is that it is easier to believe in the mystical miracle than it is in the physical miracle.

FX Turk said...

I read this in preview, and I was dying to say this:

Booyah, Dano. If you had posted the Trinity diagram only, it would have been worth it, but the rest is great.


Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dan, I'm not sure I am willing to say that God must conform to my human standard of reason in order to be valid, or that He necessarily does conform to this human standard.

DJP said...

Thanks, BP and Frank; I appreciate that a lot.

Others can express this better than I, Jonathan, but I don't see rationality as an external rule imposed on God. To whatever degree, it is a description of how God thinks. Like goodness or righteousness; they're not rules formed by committee and laid on God, they're descriptions of His character.

So to take one such rule, the law of non-contradiction. God creates the cosmos, and darkness is on the face of the deep. God doesn't say, "Tell you what: let's solve that whole 'darkness' thingie by saying that dark and light are the same thing." No, he creates light the antithesis of darkness, names and distinguishes them.

I hope that helps; doubtless someone else can say it better.

SFB said...

Believe it or not, I had an elementary-school-level Catholic Catechism book that gave your reasoning or an understandin of the Trinity:

Boy: WHAT are you?
GOD: I am GOD.

Boy: WHO are you?
GOD: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Of course, our reasoning and understanding are marred by sin, and even what we learn of God now on earth is seen "through a glass", but we should be grateful that God in His goodness and mercy has revealed Himself to sinners at all. Amen?

Martin Downes said...

As you hint at the end Dan eventually the question has to be faced at the level of the entire Christian worldview. And that takes us all the way to Van Til.

Gordon said...

I agree with Frank that the Trinity diagram was definitely worth twice the price of this article.

I had a similar discussion with a friend recently. We were discussing God in relation to logic. My conclusion was that God will never do anything that is illogical, but neither can He be limited to logic.

Logic and rationalization are wonderful tools, but are limited to the abilities of the one wielding them.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dan, I would say the laws of logic would be in a different category than determining what is reasonable. I tend to think that determining what is reasonable is in more flux, and is more conventional than the laws of logic (not conventional).

Tertullian: “Credo quia absurdum est” (“I believe because it is absurd”).

Tertullian’s statement (pre-modern) does need explanation, and I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but I do lean more towards his point of view.

Chip said...

Dan -- your statements on strawman arguments were excellent. It is incredibly common for opponents of Christianity to articulate a false doctrine (which initially sounds orthodox) and then tear it up. As you say, if we don't bother to learn why we believe what we believe we will likewise be torn up.

Nice post all around, sir.

Phil Johnson said...

Jonathan: "I would say the laws of logic would be in a different category than determining what is reasonable."

REA son able: "not irrational or absurd."

Using a standard definition of the word, your statement above is hard to account for. Do you really mean you're prepared to toss logic aside when evaluating what's "reasonable"?

Perhaps you could explain 1) what you mean by "reasonable" and 2) what terminology you would prefer when you're trying to differentiate between something that is logically coherent and something that is self-contradictory and thus truly absurd.

BTW, Tertullian's unfortunate drift into Montanism was rooted in the perspective reflected in the quotation you cited.

Phil Johnson said...

Frank and Gordon: for some history on the Trinity diagram, see this.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Phil, how is it that you can have two people disagree on what is reasonable while using the same laws of logic? The laws of logic are just that: laws. Determining what is reasonable is more subjective. We see the same problem in hermeneutics where there are laws of interpretation. Although these laws exist, that does not mean that all Christians will agree on the application of those laws.

Concerning Tertullian, I would be interested to see how his statement led him to Montanism. Would all those espousing his apologetic (many fideists) necessarily go the way of Montanism? It seems like this is a genetic fallacy. Warm regards.

Gordon said...

Thanks, Phil. Very informative.

J441 said...


You are correct to note our fallenness and our propensity to misuse logic. However, I arrive at a different conclusion.

Let's take the three primary laws of logic:

1. Law of non-contradiction: Something cannot be X and not-X at the same time.
2. Law of excluded middle: Given X, either X or not-X is true - not both.
3. Law of identity: X = X

These laws are all considered to be necessarily true, as are the rules of deductive reasoning (for instance, if P, then Q; P; Therefore Q). Our problem is that we are awful at using them. You correct in identifying that as the problem. However, when doing so, we have to admit that the problem is not in the laws of logic, but in our ability to use them. (Personally, I believe that we rarely disagree over using the laws of logic, and I explain in the following paragraph.)

It might also be important to distinguish between the soundness (whether an argument is formally valid) of the truth-ness (are the premises true?) of an argument. For instance, the following argument is sound, but not (in my opinion) true:

i. If the Bible supports Roman Catholic dogma, then we should be Roman Catholics.
ii. The Bible does supports Roman Catholic dogma.
iii. Therefore we should be Roman Catholics.

Most of the time when we argue, we disagree on the truth of the premises (in the case, ii) - not the soundness of the argument. That is to say, we agree that the conclusion is true if and only if the premises are true. In such situations, it is not the laws of logic we are debating, rather, the truth of the preimises. This is where the majority of disagreements take place.

Finally, in closing, take the three primary laws of logic. Imagine any of them not being true, then apply such thinking to God.

For instance, if we cannot adequately apply the law of non-contradiction, then that means that God could lie to us (even though the Bible says God cannot lie, if we don't except the law of contradiction, then it's impossible for X and not-X to both be true, which is absurd). If we try to say that our application of logic is subjective, then how do we adequately apply the law of non-contradiction to the Bible, especially if we believe in inerrancy.

Phil Johnson said...

Jonathan Moorhead: "how is it that you can have two people disagree on what is reasonable while using the same laws of logic? The laws of logic are just that: laws. Determining what is reasonable is more subjective."

1. I explained that what we mean by "reasonable" in this context: "not self-contradictory or absurd." I asked you to define what you mean by "reasonable." You didn't actually reply to that question, though your answer would be essential to making any sense of what kind of claim you are making here.

2. Given the usual meaning of the word "reasonable" in a context like this, the problem with your statement ("I would say the laws of logic would be in a different category than determining what is reasonable") is that it seems to suggest that "what is reasonable" may be determined without resorting to any of the principles of sound logic.

3. You also seem to assume (wrongly) that if "two people disagree on what is reasonable while using the same laws of logic," the problem must be with the laws of logic, rather than with the way logic is being used, abused, or misapplied by one or the other (or both) parties. I categorically reject that notion (along with the postmodern presupposition that until everyone agrees on what is true, the truth can't be established and therefore should never be affirmed unequivocally).

4. Which is to say: The reason "you can have two people disagree on what is reasonable while using the same laws of logic" is quite simply that when such a situation exists, one or both of the two people must be wrong. The way to discover who is wrong is not to discard logic, but to work harder to apply logic correctly to the propositions under consideration.

5. Which is not to suggest any more than this: Truth by definition cannot be self-contradictory. Logic is therefore an important test—an indispensible test—of the coherence of truth. That which demonstrably cannot be reconciled with itself is therefore self-refuting; it is by definition not true.

6. Here's something I wrote on this question more than a decade ago.

...and why do I suddenly feel the Blue Raja is prolly going to show up today?

DJP said...

Phil -- great contribution; remarkable how that decade-old essay dovetails this, though I hadn't read yours (and I'm pretty sure you hadn't read mine!). We should team up. Oh, wait....

...and why do I suddenly feel the Blue Raja is prolly going to show up today?

Dunno. But if he does, nothing he says will be true and untrue at the same time.

J441 -- thanks for that helpful addition. I thought about going off a bit into the valid/true distinction, but didn't want my post to be too LONG. I'm glad you did, though.

clyde said...

This is a wonderful topic. Thank you Dan. Totally rational, yet impossible without the aid of the Holy Spirit.

Supraman said...


This post puts to words exactly what I have been trying to communicate with my pastor. I have the unique honor of being an elder (with Reformed Baptist tendancies) in a Lutheran Missouri Synod Church. And, in my experience, Lutherans love to pull out the "mystery" card whenever confronted by the text in areas like election/predestination, the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer), and the Trinity. In any case, thank you so much for clarifying and quantifying what I have been saying all along...

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dan, are you really saying what Supraman says you are saying? Is there really no "mystery" to election, the hypostatic union, the Trinity, etc?

Phil, give me some time to respond to your questions.

DJP said...

Jonathan, that question gives me the impression you didn't actually read the article.

Tom Chantry said...

Perhaps what is needed is a clear definition of "mystery." This is a New Testament term, so its meaning should not be mysterious to students of Scripture.

My rather weak attempt (offered in the hope of further clarification):

A mystery is a truth which man by his reason could not arrive at on his own. It is hidden, so general revelation is not enough to open it to him. However, many mysteries are revealed on the pages of scripture. When they are, one who reads by faith and with the illumination of the Spirit can truly understand by applying the mind God gave him to the text of scripture. He may not have comprehensive knowledge, but he can truly understand.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dan, I read your article in its entirety and the question still stands. Saying that you do not “understand the Trinity exhaustively” does not answer the question. Saying you do not understand something exhaustively and saying something is a mystery are two different things.

donsands said...

Nice study.

"Come now, and let us reason together said the Lord"

I was thinking how faith was something the Jewish elders and priests lacked, and yet they saw the glory of God in the flesh.

They saw Lazarus raised from the dead, and they wanted to kill him. Talk about irrational.

So faith and rationale are bedfellows.

Seems reasonable to me.

God the Father isn't God the Son, and yet they are both completely and fully God in all His glory alone. As well as the Holy Spirit.

Thr triune God is a magnificient truth! This is the God of all the universe, and there is no other God.

DJP said...

Perhaps if you define what you mean by "mystery," Jonathan, I'll be able to see how you think the article doesn't answer.

Anonymous said...

I particularly appreciated this comment, "This is yet another reason why it is so vital that we know what we believe better than those whom we seek to evangelize." Sadly, so few people know what they believe or even what their church believes in and they follow blindly the first charismatic leader that teaches some truth (aka the emergent church). Also thank you for the Trinity diagram it is most valuable. Excellent post.

Gavin Brown said...

I think that many people find the Virgin Birth to be mysterious because (without being perverse) we know how reproduction happens, both practically and scientifically. It's somewhat tangible, concrete, yes, even rational. Why? Because it has been proven as a matter of fact.

Therefore, the "Virgin Birth" seems an mysterious to some.

Since scientists are still scratching their heads at how the heavens and earth came to be, that is, since their is no irrefutable scientific proof of the details of Creation, is seems rational to just accept that God did it.

I, however, do not find either to be mysterious. I'm with you on this one.

Just trying to elaborate on why some see Creation ex nihilo as rational and the Virgin Birth as mysterious.

Deathrow Bodine said...


You are dead on that a correct understanding of the meaning of the word “mystery” is critical in understanding that Christianity is rational. The Apostle Paul very often uses the word throughout the New Testament; we had better understand what he means. The only way I know to do that is to give an example.

Almost everyday at work I have to solve a problem using Calculus. Something as simple as finding the area of a shape that can be described mathematically is done using the concept of “infinity.” The process requires breaking an area into “infinitely” small areas then “counting” up all the small rectangles. Now, let’s think about this. There is no way I can imagine or understand what it means to have an infinitely small area nor can I add up the total for an infinite number of infinitely small areas. In short, it is a mystery due to human inability. On the other hand, it is perfectly rational …does not violate rules of logic…. even mathematically so, to calculate the area using this method.

I think it is important to say that we may comfortably work with the understanding that something can be “mystery.” But we CANNOT accept paradox and be rational. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if your “belief system” is paradoxical, then it probably should not be considered Christian.

To adequately discuss this topic, it is imperative that a mystery is distinguished from a paradox and that we fight to preserve Paul’s meaning of mystery.

[Hoping my head is not to be soon returned upon a platter]


IB Dubbya said...

eh...my head spinnith, but in a good way!


DJP said...

Thanks, DB, I think we're on the same page.

The Bible does use the word mystery a number of times, but never with the meaning "irrational.

There's a world of difference between saying, on the one hand, "I can't see the sense of that" and, on the other, "That makes no sense." Or between saying, "I have no idea how that works," and saying "That works in a way contrary to reason."

Or, finally, between saying "I can't explain the Trinity exhaustively," and "The Trinity is irrational."

Phil Johnson said...

The very first post on the Pulpit Live blog dealt with the very issue Daniel raises here.

Sharad Yadav said...

Hey - just wanted to drop by and fulfill Phil's prediction.

I'd simply point out that rationality and logic aren't coextensive (something can be formally logical and completely irrational), that the application of logic isn't usually helpful in determining non-trivial beliefs as true (none of the big debates in philosophy can be solved with logic) and that the philosophy of logic isn't free from debate about the nature and application of logic. Quantum physics, I understand, may actually be able to show how the law of noncontradiction may not always be applicable. Likewise there's been on-going raging debate in analytic philosophy as to what constitutes identity. The law of the excluded middle has also not gone unchallenged.

Suffice it to say that there's enough serious questioning about what constitutes rationality, and what the precise nature and application of logic is that I'd probably lean toward Jonathan's position on this one.

Supraman said...

Not to get into a debate here, but I never said that there was no mystery to the three topics I brought up. I merely stated that when I present the clear teaching of scripture (i.e. what has been revealed to us by God) on those subjects to my pastor, it seems to me that, if it disagrees with his Lutheran distinctives (i.e tradition), then those topics become mysterious, and we cannot know a whole lot more about them.

Let it be known that Supraman affims biblical mysteries, not traditional mysteries...

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dan, Phil et al, sorry it took me a while to respond but it has been a long, hot day of crime fighting on the DTS campus.

Dan writes, “if it isn't rational, it isn't Christianity.” This initially provoked me to respond because it teaches us to only believe that which we can accept by flawed, human reason. If I can’t make rational sense out of xyz, then I won’t believe it. We can go down the list of heresies throughout church history that appeal to this logic.

Phil, I am not a trained logician, so I am certainly teachable on these points. These are my initial thoughts:
(1) I would define “reasonable” as “that which is according to sound judgment or good sense.” I think I could even use your definition.
(2) To deny that the laws of logic are applicable in certain situations is self-defeating because you make that claim based upon logic. However, just because something is logical does not mean that it is reasonable.
(3) You are wrong about what you assume I assumed. I nowhere suggested that the flaw is with the laws of logic.
(4) This gets to the heart of the matter. As J441 mentioned above, premises must be agreed on in order to have a functioning syllogism.
(5) I agree.

P.S.- I noticed you didn’t answer my response about Tertullian (that silly postmodern).

Sharad Yadav said...

In relationship to my prior comment, I might ask where Phil or Dan are deriving their "principles of logic" from - and if either one of them says "common sense", I may shoot myself. I'd also be curious to know if they think that philosophical studies in logic can have anything to say about their views about the nature and use of logic, or if this is all derived directly from Scripture somewhere.

I'd also point out that while there's nothing postmodern about the fact that all the varying forms of philosophical logic are about determining validity, not truth, there's something crazily ultra-modern about saying that disagreements would dissolve if only people would consistentaly and accurately apply laws of logic. That's putting more weight on logic than it can bear.

Moreover, I should say that by mentioning disagreements within philosophers of logic, I'm not saying that nothing can be known until there's unanonymity on the issues - I'm saying that there are real and legitimate differences which show that it's not as cut and dried as some people make it sound.

It's also a little bit silly to say that "one or both of the two people must be wrong", since that depends entirely on what's being said. Both can be a little right and a little wrong.

Logic doesn't do all the work in determining what's true, what's rational, or what's reasonable, and it's not as though "logic" consists of a few axioms written into the fabric of the universe.

FX Turk said...

Two things for Raja:

[1] Does Scripture demonstrate any presuppositions in telling the tale it tells? If so, can you name 3 which are relevent to Dan's post?

[2] There is a pretty broad gap between saying "The Christian faith depends only on rational thought" and "the Christian faith depends on rational thought". The former is excessively exclusive, wouldn't you say -- because the Christian faith also depends on (for example) historical facts, and the work of the Holy Spirit, among other things.

The latter is inclusive, which is to say that it admits that one of the things the Christian faith depends on is rational thought. And if I may be so bold, that's what Dan was talking about. People who think you can have "Christ faith" without "rational thought" are "kooks".

You see what I'm sayin'?

Sharad Yadav said...

Last comment - just because I don't think logic is univocal, self-evident, or uncontroversial that doesn't mean I don't think it retains its authority. I believe in the law of non-contradiction - I just don't believe that we can always know when it's application is valid (for instance, the challenge of modern physics that shows the assumption that something is EITHER here OR it's there isn't always true; the idea that light is either a particle OR a wave, I think, has been shown to be a false disjunction as well).

Sharad Yadav said...

Hey Cent,

I think I see what you're sayin' (though you'll have to explain the first question a little more) - but I think that rationality has to be defined in distinctively Christian terms - I'm not happy with secular theories of epistemic justificaiton, secular theories of knowledge and secular foundations of inquiry. That doesn't mean there's no overlap - it just means that I'm not quite as willing to cede either the rules of the game or the optimism of human competence to Enlightenment standards.

DJP said...

Then Jonathan, what is your point? And --

1. You still didn't define mystery. Please do.

2. Name something the Bible teaches that is irrational.

Deathrow Bodine said...


I may be abit too dumb or am just getting tangled in what seems to be your use of "god-words." But it appears that your objections all fall into several categories.

The first is to discount "logic" or "rationality" because the "logical structure" has false or inadequate "premises."

The second is to discount the "truth" of logic because it may be imperfectly applied.

Also, you cite Quantum Physics (an a posteriori MODEL based upon empirical observation) as somehow superceding a priori laws. Which I would contend is reverse of the proper order of our epistimological building blocks, and THAT by epistimological necessity.

Which leads me to an interesting point. So many of God's prefections / attributes, even when we try to start our reasoning denying Him always leads us back to Him by sheer necessity to be able to reason at all. For example; self-existence, eternality, immutability, & omipotence.

Just because one cannot always grasp or mentally handle the truth does not mean that the absolute truth is not "out there" or does not exist.

As a scientist, nothing is more fulfilling in my life than knowing that there is truth, I can find it, and when on those occasions that I do... I always find that I have come to deeper understanding of God and his attributes.

Where is Doug Wilson when you need him?


J441 said...

For reference,

I did not say that we need to have to agree on true premises to have a functioning syllogism - you don't. Rather, we often disagree on the truth of premises (an argument's soundness).

Thus (1) it is not the fault of the rules of logic that we disagree - it is our fallibility and (2) as many have mentioned, our lack of agreement does not mean that there is no right (and knowable!) answer, rather that one or both of the sides are wrong. In any event, it is manifestly not the rules of logic at fault, and we can (and must) use them in order to discern beliefs.


I think that Dan and Phil believe that God created the universe such that it operates under (at least) the three primary laws of logic - not that it's merely common sense, but that it's a necessary feature. In my previous comment in this thread, I tried to address some (I think, huge) theological difficulties in involved in denying our ability to apply the law of excluded middle.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Dan, your "question gives me the impression you didn't actually read" my response. Gotcha back (can you tell you hurt my feelings). My point is that I disagree with your exaltation of reason (“if it isn't rational, it isn't Christianity.”).

I don't want to push it with you further, but just so you know, I don't believe anything in Scripture is irrational.

Taliesin said...

I miss all the good discussions.

Is Christianity rational? Yes ......

and no. But not yes and no in the same way and at the same time.

What I read Dan as saying is that there is nothing about Christianity that is truly contradictory. I agree with the comment that to violate this would mean that God could lie.

But, at the same time there are paradoxes, in the sense of a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement that is or may be true in the Bible. In my opinion there are at least three great paradoxes: (1) the Trinity; (2) the union of complete deity and humanity in Christ; and (3) God's sovereignty and human responsibility. I know that these are not contradictory, but I have yet to meet anyone who can "untie the knot".

God tells us through Moses that there are limits to what we know. I don't see Dan (or anyone else here) disagreeing with this. Where there might be disagreement is that I believe there will always be paradoxes for us; points of inquiry where believers must stop and acknowledge that beyond are the secret things. I am responsible for my actions, even though God ordains all things. God is Perfect Unity, and also Three persons. Jesus was the perfect union of true humanity and the fullness of deity, one Person with two natures.

But those things are not against reason, they are beyond reason. It is rational, and not irrational, to say that the fallen, finite mind cannot grasp all that the Perfect and Infinite God has done.

(I'm not sure at this point if I'll get general agreement, or if the tomatoes will fly from every direction.)

Supraman said...


What you have stated is almost verbatim what my pastor is telling me about these various doctrines. To him, they are ultimately mysterious, or as you (and he) put it paradoxes. Perhaps I am mistaken, but a paradox exists if there is no revelation that clarifies and reconciles the subject at hand. If that is so, then I take it you do not think that there is insufficient clarity on these (and perhaps other theological) matters?

Sharad Yadav said...


I didn't discount logic or rationality because of inadequate premises - I'm not sure what that means. I'm pointing out that no form of logic I'm aware of has solved the big questions in philosophy, because philosophical (and theological) problems aren't simply formal or structural.

I also didn't discount the "truth" of logic - I just said that it is sometimes impossible to tell what constitutes a genuine contradiction and what belongs to the realm of simply not knowing how two apparent contradictions are reconciled. That shouldn't preclude us from trying, but it should make us a bit more modest about what we can prove with logic.

As for epistemology, the point is that whatever happens to be true is true regardless of whether it can be rationally justified or demonstrated. Again, that shouldn't preclude us from trying, but it should provide some epistemic humility.

Just because one cannot always grasp or mentally handle the truth does not mean that the absolute truth is not "out there" or does not exist.


J441 said...


I appreciate your comments, particularly the one noting that philosophy has not "solved" many big problems. I think though, that the goal of philosophy and logic is slightly lower than that.

The goal of logic is to create an argument such that if the premises are true, the conclusion is true. The problem is, as you noted, that there are few premises with 100 percent certainity.

However, 100 percent certainty does not seem to be necessary for truth. I ask anyone what beliefs they have enjoy 100 percent certitude (that is to say, they cannot possibly be wrong). There is literally a handful of things that meet this criteria, including few major beliefs. The goal, then, for philosophy is asking "What are we rationally justified in believing?" as opposed to "How do we get full certainity?" An logic and philosophy are invaluable towards that endeavor.

FX Turk said...


The next time you use the word "Enlightnemnet" around here, you had better be talking about lightbulbs.

The singularly-worst criticism (and all its sad little sisters) of the mistakes of the contemporary church is how the pointg Dan is making here is somehow beholden to "Enlightenment" principles. Can you tell me: was the creed generated at Nicea beholden to "Enlightnement" principles? Then how, exactly, were they able to use propositional thinking to frame the affirmation of the nature of God they produced against Arius and his clan?

Reasoning and being reasonable and (frankly) rational is not pagan nor is it sanctified -- thought being sanctified clears up a lot of things. One of the massively-underrated doctrines of the New Testament is the doctrine of general revelation as it is presented in Romans 1-2-3. And that presentation is unquestionable a pre-enlightenment formulation of the idea that man has the opportunity to understand the mind of God by his perception of nature. What man does witht hat is entirely another question, but it turns out that man's doing in this case is plain called "vain reasoning" by the apostle.

I wonder: how could Paul have the audacity to proclaim a kind of reasoning "vain" if there is not another kind (that is to say: category or class) of reasoning which man knows about?

The enlightenment did not invent filum and species: it simply went crazy about them. And to say that all efforts to use propositional thinking as a basis for the qualification of the rational is somehow stained by "Enlightenment categories" is just plain funny.

Let me rephrase that: whenever you do it, I think it's funny. But I'm easily amused.

Sharad Yadav said...


The goal of logic is to create an argument such that if the premises are true, the conclusion is true. The problem is, as you noted, that there are few premises with 100 percent certainity.

The problem isn't just related to "certainty" - a standard I've not evoked because I don't think it's a realistic or necessary one - it's related to the fact that beyond accomplishing validity (which is what you described in the conclusion following from the premises) logic can't do much by way of truth. Formally logical arguments aren't always (or even often) true. Further, my point was that we ought not confuse justification with knowledge - just because something can't be demonstrated as true, it doesn't mean it's not true. But even if we did have some moral duty for epistemic justification, logic doesn't do that job either. THere are many different conceptions of how beliefs are justified (of both internalist and externalist varieties), and none of the differences hinge significantly on the proper application of logic.

Sharad Yadav said...


You're cute! I was thinking something very specific when I mentioned the Enlightenment standards which gave birth to logical postivism and the hopes that formal logic could single-handedly ajudicate true belief - think Russel and Ayer. Moreover, I didn't say that Dan was "beholden to the Enlightnement" I said that secular theories of epistemic justification, namely those that demand evidences for every belief, shouldn't make Christians feel constrained to do the same - think Alvin Plantinga. What the Nicean creed has to do with that is beyond me. Why that is a slam against "propositional thinking" must be limited to your imagination.

What I was trying to say is that however loudly you declare it, the exact nature of rationality and what constitutes justified beliefs are matters of on-going debate among both secular and Christian thinkers, liberal and conservative. As for Romans 1, it emphatically doesn't say that "man has the opportunity to understand the mind of God by his perception of nature". It says that man can percieve his attributes, which isn't the same thing.

And of course you're right that the idea that "all efforts to use propositional thinking as a basis for the qualification of the rational is somehow stained by 'Enlightenment categories' is just plain funny" - I'm so glad to have not said that.

Phil Johnson said...

Raja: As far as I can tell, you're alone in thinking (or pretending to think) Dan was writing about epistemic justification. He was actually talking about coherence as a necessary quality of truth. These are not at all the same issue. As a matter of fact, I don't know of anyone—even John Robbins—who would suggest that logic alone provides epistemic justification for belief.

Your bait-and-switch argument isn't carrying any real freight here.

Taliesin said...


Perhaps I am mistaken, but a paradox exists if there is no revelation that clarifies and reconciles the subject at hand.

I think I can agree with that statement, so long as we understand that "no revelation" does not mean God has to have spelled it out to the nth degree before we believe it. We can logically deduce many truths and reconcile many things that seem to conflict one another at first glance (say, for example, Paul's and James' view of justification).

If that is so, then I take it you do not think that there is insufficient clarity on these (and perhaps other theological) matters?

I'm not sure if I understand the question. It would make more sense to me without the "not". Let me respond in a way that I hope will answer your question. I don't think God ever provides insufficient clarity on something we need to know. Again, this does not mean it is spelled out in black and white. We might have to work for it a little, but it's there.

On the other hand, there are many times when I don't get all the information I want. For example, last Sunday I taught on the woman caught in adultery. I'd still love to know what Jesus was writing in the dirt, but I don't think we have been given enough information to make a reliable deduction.

However, for the paradoxes I mentioned, I suspect we have been given all the information we can process, at least this side of the Jordan.

When God responds to Job, I don't think he was only saying, "Who are you to question me?" I think He was also saying, "What makes you think you can understand my purposes?" Paul in Romans 9, after saying that the creature cannot judge the Creator, provides a "What if?". Is it a true "what if"? I have insufficient clarity to answer that question (though I admit a tendency to use it as a definite statement).

Even So... said...

One word:


Sharad Yadav said...


All I do all day long is pretend that people say something that I can talk about. I can't help myself. I need a support system.

But the reason I mentioned epistemic justification is because that is what this post is talking about even though it isn't using those words. It's how people demonstrate that their beliefs are rational. I don't know who John Robbins is, but the logical positivism which was the beginning of modern analytic philosophy beleived that all knowledge was based on logical inference from facts. Using logic to justify Christian belief speaks to the criteria for rational belief. So, baited by the topic of rationality I switched to the topic of . . . rationality. I'll never understand what counts as "off-topic" around here - these kinds of responses are very odd. Suffice it to say that I don't think what I actually argue corresponds to what you think "carries freight around here". But, as Robbie Nevil always says, C'est la vie . . .

Sharad Yadav said...

Even so,

I like it.

DJP said...

Okay, Jonathan, I re-read, prepared to apologize if I'd missed something. I don't see that I did. (I want my re-read time back.)

I build a case that Christianity is rational. You object, and waffle about, dropping "mystery" once or twice.

I try repeatedly to get you to define "mystery" -- still to no avail. So I ask, "What is your issue? What's your point? Try this: what is it in Christianity that you think is irrational, that you find threatened by my insisting that it is rational?"

And you say, "Oh... nothing."

So I still don't understand your point. It seems you simply want to complain. When asked "About what?", you say, "Nothing" -- then repeat your complaint.

DJP said...

Taliesin -- I think you interpret me correctly (if I interpret you correctly). I think we fundamentally agree.

And I think you should drop the "...and no." It is misleading. You DO NOT believe that Christianity IS irrational. You DO NOT believe that, if we understood any of these issues exhaustively, we would find that they fundamentally violate the canons of thought God wove into the universe. We would not, in other words, find actual contradiction.

My topic and issue was not "Do we know and understand everything perfectly?" Nor was it "Does Christianity present apparent paradoxes?"

It was, "IS Christianity [ACTUALLY] rational?"

To that, the answer is not "Yes... and no." It is simply "Yes."

DJP said...

Even So -- raja likes "suprarational."

Are you ready to recant?

Taliesin said...

I think you interpret me correctly (if I interpret you correctly). I think we fundamentally agree.


I think we do. Working it out helped to clarify my own thinking a bit and to verify that I understood what you were saying. Based on agreement with regards to what we mean by "rationality" I can drop the "no".

Taliesin said...

I type faster than I think (and I type slow). "Rationality" should be "rational".

Craver Vii said...

Dan. Thanks for the Shield of the Trinity diagram. I never saw that before, but it was timely. We used that as part of family devotions this morning. We’ve had recent dealings with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. And if I understand them correctly, they think we’re tritheists. I’m curious to see their reaction to the illustration.

I appreciate reading your posts, and treading the sometimes difficult whitewaters of the ensuing dialogue. I even understand some of it, though I probably wouldn’t be able to generate a strong current of original thought.

Pyro team: Thanks for stimulating brothers and sisters to love God with all their mind!

DJP said...

Craver -- Glad it was helpful! Yeah, I should have linked to a source for that diagram; I assumed that (A) most everyone already knew it, and (B) all the rest would know I could never come up with soemthing so clever. Happily, Phil linked to an article about it, above.

You are right, the JWs represent Biblical Christianity as tritheism. I suggest a little karate. When they say, "1+1+1 does not equal 1," say "No, that is correct. It equals three." When they triumphantly proclaim you a tritheist, look confused and say, "I thought we were counting persons, not essences. As to essence, it's one plus nothing. There is only one God. This one God exists eternally as three Persons. That's what the Bible teaches, so that's what I believe."

Sharad Yadav said...


I'm a big fan of the Bible, too - do you need to recant?


As for your response to tritheism and JW's, your warrant for believing the Trinity isn't logic - it's the Bible. People who claim that the doctrine entails a contradiction demand evidence as to how it isn't - and when they get answers full of mystery, they don't see the warrant for such a belief and they reject it. Christians frequently refer to such "apparent" contradictions as "paradoxes". The problem, of course, is that the word "paradox" seems to be conveniently used when a sufficient explanation for the apparent contradiction is lacking.

That's why I said that it's sometimes impossible to tell what constitutes a genuine contradiction and what belongs to the realm of finite humans simply not knowing how two apparent contradictions are reconciled.

Supraman said...


You got the gist of my question correctly. Moreover, in the end it looks like we agree in the main anyhow (thanks again, Dan!).

even so...,

What's wrong with being rational?

DJP said...

I'm a big fan of the Bible, too - do you need to recant?

Not sure we're fans in the same way, so I'll hold of on the recantation

Actually, it is logic. Did you read the article? To say that God is one and three in the same way would be irrational. This is what the JWs think we believe. We don't. Hence, no irrationality.

Sharad Yadav said...

Not sure we're fans in the same way, so I'll hold of on the recantation.

Not sure what you mean by that - I severely doubt that your doctrine of Scripture is higher, more central or majestic than mine.

Actually, it is logic. Did you read the article? To say that God is one and three in the same way would be irrational. This is what the JWs think we believe. We don't. Hence, no irrationality.

I did read it, I just don't think your "one in one way and three in another" really escapes the accusation of contradiction. Is the Trinitarian God not A (singular) person? Of course He is. He's not just an ethereal "essence" made up of three persons. There is one personal God - and the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Spirit is God. When we predicate each member of the Trinity with the word "God", we're not primarily citing a QUALITY in each person (divinity), we're assignint a particular IDENTITY to them - that is the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.


My point is that the warrant for our belief in the Trinity isn't ultimately a logical constraint, it's the authority of the Bible - moreover we choose to call something a contradiction based on our knowledge of the incompatibility of two propositions; but we're not always in a position to see how two supposedly incompatible propositions may be rconciled. That's not a matter of being irrational - it's a matter of being finite.

DJP said...

So what are you saying, Raja?

Are you a modalist, Raja, or a tritheist? In either case, you are not a Christian.

Or do you believe that God is one in one way, and three in the same way? Then what you believe is absurd, and should be rejected.

Or are you saying that God is one in one way, and three in another?

In that case, I guess you just like to see your name on lots and lots of comment boxes.

Which is it?

Sharad Yadav said...

Not a modalist because I don't believe that God has revealed himself throughout time in three different forms. I'm not a tritheist because I believe in God's essential unity. I'm also not a monarchianist, as Jehovah's Witnesses are, because I don't believe that God is to be identified as the Father.

I am a monotheist - that is, I believe in one (mono) personal (I'm not a deist) God. But I'm a trinitarian monotheist because I also believe that the Father is God. And that Jesus is God. And that the Spirit is God. Saying that God is one essence existing in three persons (which I obviously believe) doesn't mean that there is no apparent contradiction, though. I'm positing one thing and three things at the same time. There is one personal God and three persons who are God. I read an interesting article about logical paraconsitency and and "true contradictions" that you might find stimulating.

In that case, I guess you just like to see your name on lots and lots of comment boxes.

C'mon, Dan - there's no need to be a jerk, is there? And is my point really that dangerous and worthy of your contempt, since it doesn't discount the role of logic while at the same time holds to the ultimate authority of the Bible?

Even So... said...


Nothing wrong with being rational...

Just wanted to introduce the terminology because while Christianity is indeed rational, some of its concepts, while being reasonable, also have an element of mystery, and to define that I use the word suprarational, or within the scope of reason and yet also beyond it.

To wit, the Trinity, we cannot comprehend it fully, but we can apprehend it...one what, three who's, the doctine of perichoresis, and all the ancillary matters we can begin to understand and can qualify them in such a way so as to talk rationally about them, but we will not fully comprehend all the nuances on this side of heaven.

We can understand and articulate what we need for faith and practice, yet there are things, such as our union with Christ, that are reasonable, rationally discerned, and yet also suprarational, in that we see the revelation in the Bible, we understand what it means, but we don't fully understand the mechanics of it all. It is beyond the scope of our reasoning power. His ways are higher than our ways, but we have what we need, and it is rational...

We have much to look forward to, friend, if we are on our way there.

My faith is a rational faith, but it is also informed by revelation, some of which, is suprarational...

As to your proposition Dan, I agree, Christianity is rational, period.

DJP said...

Your evasive reaction actually seems to validate the analysis that irks you most. Which happens a lot.

Sharad Yadav said...


Right on. That "suprarational" quality also applies to the trinity, which is to say, with Jonathan, that there is mystery there - not simply "limited knowledge". As I said, we're not always in a position to see how two supposedly incompatible propositions may be rconciled (like that of divine sovereignty and human free will). That doesn't invalidate the use of logic (which, as I said, I think is important for interpreting the Bible), but it also doesn't constrain us to justify these doctrines with the demonstration of their logical consistency in order to be rational.


I answered you directly. Evasion, my foot. In any case, I actually validated Jonathan Moorhead's conclusions, not yours - and like him, I wonder if you read his responses very carefully. Furthermore, if you agree with D.J.'s comments, we probably agree - though a few of the members of Team Pyro try ridiculously hard to disagree with me as much as humanly possible even if the issue isn't nearly as contentious as it should be, thereby bolstering their own orthodoxy by always questioning mine. Which happens a lot.

Hit it, Robbie.

Supraman said...

even so...

Got ya. That's a great way of explaining it (gonna have to make a point of using that). I had thought, for a moment, that you were giving a non-complimentary play on words (i.e. Supraman - Suprarational). Seemed a bit out of character from the material I've read from you in the past. Thanks for the clarification and insight.

MSC said...

If you start from vain reason you get the god of Aristotle. If by divine enablement you accept [inscripturated] revelation you get the triune God of the universe revealed in the God-man Jesus Christ. It would be impossible to concieve of the Triune God in any other way if He had not revealed Himself to us. No wonder JW's and others laugh. They despise revelation before they dsepise reason. Noetic effects of sin anyone?

"Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar" (Rom. 3:4). Furthermore, I read Romans 11:33-36 and I cover my mouth with my hand and fall to my knees.

Sharad Yadav said...

Right on, Scott.

DJP said...

So, Raja, you're saying you do believe that God is one in one way, and three in another, not a tinge of irrationality?

Sharad Yadav said...

Dan, dude - God is 3 beings and 1 being simultaneously. That's an apparent contradiction that "three in one way and one in another way" doesn't really solve.

Sharad Yadav said...

And yeah, I do believe that trinitarian theology is rational.

DJP said...

Okay, Raja, so, hundreds of words later, is this the upshot of what you're saying?

"I agree -- but in a much more sophisticated way."

And, if so, your the basis for your objection to my speculating that you love to see your name on lots and lots of comments is...?

Sharad Yadav said...


I'm sorry - I thought these comment threads were for something more than ostentatious affirmation.

The discussion about logic and rationality turned into the use of logic in interpretation and theology, which is directly related to your post because it speaks to what Christians mean by "rational".

Jonathan spoke to the role of mystery and insufficiency of logic, and the historical importance of that in giants of the past like Tertullian. I asserted that part of that mystery involves apparent logical contradictions in doctrines such as the Trinity, and that in some cases we're really not in a position to see know how they resolve. I also said that though this may not pass muster with those who require the resolution of apparent contradictions in order to justify Christian belief, it shouldn't necessarily lead to the conclusion that Christianity is irrational.

Scott (Calvdispy) pointed out that Christianity has to be careful to play on its own terms and not capitulate to "the god of the philosophers", which is the same point I made about Enlightenment standards for justification (citing logical postivism as one iteration of those standards).

I'd call all of that genuine advances in the conversation about Christianity's rationality - at least it would be if the responses weren't consistently filled with weird over-reactions, abrasive bravado and defensive retorts.

Unless people around here are willing to admit that maybe listening carefully before responding isn't necessarily their strong suit, I don't see how the meta can get much more productive than, "You go girl!". And regardless of how much anyone might want to turn that suggestion around into "well, YOU should listen more - YOU'RE the one that's not listening!" such a response will only confirm that the suggestion is warranted and the point stands regardless if others needs to work on that too.

But whatever.

DJP said...


[ raising eyebrow and noddingsignificantly, with a half-smile, tapping previous comment ]

Sharad Yadav said...


[rolling eyes, patting Dan on the head and leaving quietly]

Isaac said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Isaac said...

Your article was quoted on http://www.wayofthemasterradio.com/ Way of the Master Radio today.

DJP said...

Ooh, that's cool. I just listened to the previous podcast at Phil's recommendation, and enjoyed it. I'll have to check it out; thanks.

hockeyboy5 said...

Dan, dude - God is 3 beings and 1 being simultaneously. That's an apparent contradiction that "three in one way and one in another way" doesn't really solve.

Theblueraja, that's not the orthodox view of the trinity. God is three persons in one being, not three beings, which would be tritheism and which you already disavowed. The apparent contradiction arises from a flawed description of God.

ReligionGuru said...

The Adam & Eve story is taken from a Chaldean myth. It never really happened. Christians say we need a savior, since those people in the garden were disobedient. Since the Adam & Eve story never really happened, we DO NOT need a savior. We are our own savior. By trying to live a righteous life, we progress thru many lifetimes to a perfected state.