XFiles Friday: Yes and no

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 13.)

Gullibility is when you believe whatever people tell you even though common sense ought to expose their words as false because they conflict with reality and/or contradict themselves. This week, Geisler and Turek are going to tell us that Christianity contradicts itself, but we should believe whatever they tell us anyway.

[I]n Matthew 24:36, Jesus claims he doesn’t know the date of his own return when he declares, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Now how can Jesus be God if he… is limited in knowledge?

The answer… lies in a proper understanding of the Trinity. First, let’s state clearly what the Trinity is not: the Trinity is not three Gods, three modes of one God, or three divine essences. The Trinity is three persons in one divine essence. In other words, there are three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who share one divine essence.

We’ve talked before about how Christianity substitutes the ritual for the rational in discussing the Trinity, and this is a pretty typical example. The words don’t have to mean anything—you could call Jesus “an unmarried spouse whose biological mother was never pregnant,” for example—and as long as the ritual formula has an officially sanctioned “correct” form, you can mentally substitute the concept of a correct expression of the doctrine in place of the concept of correct substance in what the doctrine teaches. So Geisler and Turek are very concerned with making sure we’re dealing with a correct expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, as though that were the key issue.

Once you start trying to make the formula express some non-nonsensical meaning, however, you get into trouble. G&T close the above paragraph by adding, “The Trinity is like a triangle: a triangle has three corners, but it is still one triangle.” And just in case we’re unclear on what a triangle is, they include a picture of a triangle, with one corner labeled “Father,” one labeled “Son,” and one labeled “Holy Spirit,” and with “Divine Nature” in the middle of the triangle.

Trouble is, each corner is only part of the triangle, and is not wholly triangular in and of itself. That’s another thing the Trinity is not: it is not the doctrine that the three Persons are each only part of God. If we were to apply the triangle analogy to the Trinity, we would say “Jesus is not God, he’s only part of God, just like one corner of the triangle is only part of the triangle.” That’s a direct denial of trinitarian teaching, because we would also have to say that the Father and the Holy Spirit are not God either. G&T’s simple, homey illustration is a heretical contradiction of the primary point they’re trying to make.

At this point, however, they veer away from discussing the Trinity, and turn to a similarly murky discussion of the muddy waters of Christology.

Jesus shares in the one divine nature, but he also has a distinct human nature. Jesus is one “who” with two “what’s” (a divine “what” and a human “what”); God is three “who’s” (Father “who,” Son “who,” and Holy Spirit “who”) in one “what,” that is three persons in one divine nature.

And we’re back to the ritual formula again. Don’t let the side trip into Whoville distract you; all they’re really doing is rephrasing the official formula using a more folksy-sounding vocabulary. (“See, the Trinity isn’t hard, it’s just pronouns!”) But once again, as soon as you start trying to tease out some non-nonsensical meaning from the formulaic expression, you get into trouble.

[D]id Jesus know the time of his second coming? As God, yes; as man, no. Did Jesus know all things? As God, yes; as man, no… Did Jesus get hungry? As God, no; as man, yes. Did Jesus get tired? As God, no; as man, yes.

In other words, the Trinitarian/Christological formula gives simultaneous, contradictory answers to simple questions like “Did Jesus know X?”. Geisler and Turek know this. They realize that if you answer “Yes, he did know,” that’s a contradiction of the answer “No, he did not know.” They know that Christianity, by asserting the truth of both answers, is contradicting itself. But here’s the catch: they know that they’re reciting the trinitarian formula correctly, and therefore the self-contradictory answer must be correct. Right?

What Geisler and Turek overlook is the fact that it is entirely possible to be entirely 100% correct in how you repeat the official, canonized doctrine, and for that doctrine to nevertheless be 100% bullshit. You can compartmentalize your thinking, you can simply shut out the implications of what “being God” means when answering the question in terms of what “being man” means, but that does not eliminate the contradiction. The Church Fathers published a canonized formula that gives blatantly contradictory answers when applied to simple, straightforward cases, and Geisler and Turek know the answers are contradictory, and they believe what the Church Fathers said anyway.

We could stop there, but let’s dig a little deeper, and see why the Christological formula is unable to come up with straightforward self-consistent answers to simple questions. The formula states that Jesus is one “person” with two “natures.” A “person” in this context is a unique individual identity that is aware of itself. Self-awareness, uniqueness, and individuality, in turn, are part of the nature of this person: “nature” is the set of all qualities that define the characteristics, abilities, and limitations of a thing.

The problem that the Church Fathers got into is that once you describe the set of all qualities that define the characteristics, abilities and limitations of something, you’ve only got one set of qualities. If you take a man whose nature consists of the set of all human qualities, and you add omniscience to that set, you still end up with one set of qualities that describe his characteristics, abilities, and limitations, it’s just that this single set of qualities now happens to include the quality of omniscience.

“Nature” thus describes the complete set of properties possessed by something, and there’s only one complete set, because for any given property, it’s either in the set or it isn’t. And within that set of properties, if one property has one value, it would be a contradiction to assert that it also had some contradictory value at the same time. You might, perhaps, observe a change in the set of properties, or a change in the value of the properties, over time, but at any given moment the singular nature of a thing is the complete set of self-consistent properties that describe the thing. And there’s only one set.

Since a thing can have only one complete set of properties that define its nature, you can’t ascribe two contradictory natures to the same thing at the same time. If you say that “the nature of something is X,” you’re contradicting the claim that “its nature is not X, but Y.” And that’s the root of the problem Geisler and Turek are running into. The Christological formula is necessarily going to give contradictory answers to simple questions because it explicitly incorporates the inherently contradictory assumptions that Jesus both is divine rather than human, and is human rather than divine.

There is one caveat here: it’s also possible to talk about “categorical natures” that are subsets of the complete set of characteristics that define a thing. For example, you can combine the “nature of a husband,” the “nature of a college professor,” and the “nature of a liberal” in the same man, because these are only subsets of the complete set of qualities that make up the person. Besides, the qualities in “nature of a husband” do not overlap with the qualities of “nature of a liberal,” so the two sets can be merged without causing conflicts.

That caveat doesn’t work for the Christological formula, though, because the “divine nature” and the “human nature” do directly overlap and contradict one another across a wide range of properties. That’s why the formula, even when correctly stated, cannot give consistent, non-self-contradictory answers to straightforward questions.

This is a point worth emphasizing: the problem is inherent in the formula as correctly stated. We’re not getting wrong answers because we’re applying the wrong formula, or because we’re applying it incorrectly. The original, authentic, Christian formula is self-contradicting and therefore gives self-contradictory answers even when correctly stated and applied. It’s a flaw in Christianity itself, and not a problem in how we’re using it.

Geisler and Turek know this. They know that what the early Christian Fathers said was self-contradicting, they even list a number of examples of cases where the same formula returns both “Yes” and “No” for the same simple questions. But they believe what the Christian founders said anyway, even though common sense would recommend otherwise. And that, as I mentioned before, is the very definition of gullibility.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Yes and no”

  1. g Says:

    Your account of Geisler+Turek’s Triangular Heresy reminds me of my depraved Christian past when, alas, I used to help on a children’s Christian holiday. On one occasion, I had the unenviable task — I don’t remember, and cannot now imagine, why anyone thought this was a good idea — of talking to the children about the Trinity (note: not terribly young children; say, 14 or thereabouts, and most of them very bright). I prepared some slides to illustrate the two standard ways of being heretical about the Trinity (tritheism and modalism). I was particularly pleased with my illustration of modalism: it showed a 3-dimensional shape whose projections in three directions were a square, a circle and a triangle, and also showed those projections. So *of course* I had at least one of the other leaders come up to me, point at this thing, and say “Wow, that’s a really great illustration of the Trinity”.

    But then, what can you expect when people are expected to believe something that (1) is, at the very best, flirting with contradiction, and where (2) just about every attempt anyone has ever made to clarify it has been officially declared a heresy?

  2. Bacopa Says:

    The Trinity is an intellectual suicide drill. Get them to profess one incoherent doctrine and further incoherent doctrines are easy.

    Salvation itself is incoherent. We must be saved by another because we have wronged God? If someone has wronged me I want payback from that person. It’s not like it’s all business and someone owes me money. If I loaned money with the sole concern that I get that money back plus a little more, I don’t care where the money comes from. But if someone has wronged me I want an apology and restitution from the offending party. No thord party can make up the difference. And if I decide to forgive the offense, no third party is needed.

  3. Swimmy Says:

    This is a great counter of Trinitarianism–of course, however Trinitarians won’t care. They’ll just brush all the contradictions aside and say, “Humans can’t understand it.” And they’re ok with this, usually. God can be illogical; he’s allowed to because he’s all-powerful! Not very satisfying after all that intro-speech about how the truth is consistent with other truths. but there it is.

    I think it works better as a counter of the transcendental argument for God, which holds in part that the laws of logic must be mental abstracts, and therefore must be products of God’s mind. It furthermore asserts that any epistemology which can’t give an account of the laws of logic can’t be as good as one that does. But the TAG proponent has to argue that Christianity must be right because it accounts for the laws of logic, and also that it doesn’t matter that one of its most basic tenets directly contradicts the laws of logic. I suppose one could counter that God didn’t have to apply his mental logic laws to himself, but if that card is played, it’s easy to point out that God could then exist and not exist at the same time, or be God and not God at the same time, or any other Christianity-disproving claim you can dream up. No, the TAG proponent must argue that the laws of logic are part of the nature of God and that his nature defies the laws of logic at the same time. It’s meta-illogical!