Reviewed by Todd Scacewater
Anderson’s work is an attempt to use Alvin Plantinga’s proper functionalist epistemology in order to evaluate the epistemic status of paradoxical Christian doctrines. Is it rational to believe in a doctrine that is truly a paradox?
Part I first defines paradox as an apparent contradiction, or, more specifically, “a set of claims which taken in conjunction appear to be logically inconsistent” (5-6). The rest of Part I examines the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation as formulated in the ancient creeds (particularly, Nicaea and Constantinople) and attempts to make them rational. He argues that all attempts to redefine the doctrines so they are no longer paradoxical resulted in heresies that were condemned (11-106). He concludes that these doctrines are indeed paradoxical (11-106). The fourth chapter sets up part two by examining various responses to paradox (theological anti-realism, anti-deductivism, dialetheism, doctrinal revisionism, semantic minimalism, and complementarity, finding all of them wanting (107-152).
Part II applies Plantinga’s epistemology to the analysis of one’s epistemic status when holding to paradoxical doctrines. Are Christian doctrines warranted Christian beliefs? While Plantinga suggests in some places that doctrines such as the trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection can be properly basic beliefs according to his model, Anderson believes this is not the case because, for example, the doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity are only implicit in Scripture and are formulated explicitly in the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries (190). He is therefore trying to extend Plantinga’s model to cover not only basic Christian beliefs, but also basic Christian doctrines.
It is uncertain, however, whether Anderson is correct on this point. The doctrines are implicitly stated in Scripture, but isn’t that enough to allow for a basic belief, based on one’s encounter with Scripture, combined with the IIHS (i.e., Scripture would be the occasion of belief, not the basis)? If one reads an implicit Trinitarian formula in Scripture, e.g., Eph 2:18, and one instinctively comes to believe that the three persons of the godhead are one, then isn’t this a warranted basic belief according to Plantinga’s model? As we will see, Anderson has a more person-to-person testimonial model of teaching doctrines that he holds to, and perhaps his idea that doctrines must be taught to those who are not scholars stems from his Reformed background upon which he builds his case in this work.
Before applying Plantinga’s epistemology, he summarizes his trilogy with only slight modifications (155-89). After evaluating four views of Scripture and revelation, he settles for the Reformed view since it holds Scripture to be God’s word as inspired revelation, over against the Catholic view which also holds Scripture as such but combines it with the church’s testimony (which would complicate the model). He rules out neo-orthodox views of Scripture and liberal views since they would not allow the testimony to be from God at all times (192-99). So Christian doctrines “are only warranted insofar as they are grounded on God’s special revelation through the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture alone” (199). Anderson might have done better to label this the Reformational view of Scripture, since “Reformed” excludes a host of Christian parties today who hold to the same view of Scripture.
Based on this view of Scripture, he develops four paradigm cases for how doctrines may come to be believed. First, one undergoes “personal scholarly study of the biblical texts, coupled with warranted belief in biblical inspiration” (208). As said before, the idea that the study must be scholarly is probably overblown, for a layman could come to understand the doctrine of the trinity in rudimentary form from simply reading the text. Second, one could hear an exposition of the doctrine and believe Scripture to be inspired. Third, one could hear that Scripture teaches a doctrine and believe it is inspired. Fourth, one could hear from reliable testimony that a doctrine is true (this case is like catechism). The first case is the foundational case and therefore none can have more warrant than it.
Next, he summarizes Plantinga’s handling of potential defeaters and adds that paradox is one he does not address (214). The irrationality of holding a paradoxical doctrine could be a defeater for warranted Christian doctrines. In response, he develops the RAPT model (rational affirmation of paradoxical theology). “According to this scheme, doctrinal paradoxes are best construed as merely apparent contradictions resulting from unarticulated equivocation, which arise on account of divine mystery—that is, a metaphysical state of affairs the revelation of which strikes us as contradictory due to present cognitive limitations and conceptual imprecisions” (307-08).
The heart of his proposal is the idea that the doctrines of the trinity and incarnation are merely apparent contradictions resulting from unarticulated equivocation (MACRUE) (225). The seemingly contradictory propositions that make up the two doctrines (e.g., God is one divine being and God is three divine beings) involve an unarticulated equivocation of terms. The solution to this equivocation and to which words are equivocal is not available to us due to the inability of our cognitive capacity, due to divine design. God’s incomprehensibility makes it such that we are unable to fully grasp God, and thus our cognitive capacity lacks the ability necessary (237-43, where he gives several human examples which could be solved if we knew enough).
But the doctrines do not contain mere equivocation; they are analogical (233-36). Hence, it is not that our apparently contradictory propositions are meaningless, but they are analogical to the truth, which lies beyond our capacity to truly understand. He gives an excellent illustration of a Flatlander, who lives in a two-dimensional world and is told by those who live in a three-dimensional world that an object is both triangular and circular. This seems paradoxical because the Flatlander lacks the cognitive capacity to think of an object in three-dimensions. If he were able, he would realize this object was a cone, which can appear triangular and circular from different perspectives (230-31).
Lastly in chapter 6, he defines mystery as “a metaphysical state of affairs the revelation of which appears implicitly contradictory to us on account of present limitations in our cognitive apparatus and thus resists systematic description in a perspicuously consistent manner” (245). He suggests the mystery of the doctrines can serve as a defeater-insulator. The idea of divine incomprehensibility should lead us to expect some doctrines concerning the divine to be beyond our cognitive capacity to grasp, and therefore paradoxical (252-54).
Chapter seven does the necessary work of defending the model from biblical, theological, and philosophical objections. He dispenses with biblical objections that the doctrines are not in Scripture, that the doctrines cannot be self-contradictory, and that paradox defeats the warranted belief of the doctrines (begs the question against his model) (267-75). Theologically, the RAPT model does not defy systematic precision because the doctrine is equivocal. Other doctrines are equivocal (e.g., the will of God) but some are within our capacity to explain (277-78). Also, heterodoxy is characterized by a rejection of the RAPT model, whereas orthodoxy makes its bed with paradox (281). He notes the objection that God could have created us to understand paradoxes, but that it is not necessary (281-83), and his model does allow warranted doctrinal beliefs for some other religions with a personal deity giving specific revelation, but not all religions (285).
Philosophically, he defends the idea of apparent contradictions (285-87) and that consistency is an intellectual virtue as much as we can be consistent with our cognitive abilities (288-90). Other notions of rationality are not necessary or required for warrant in his system and therefore do not matter (290-93), while our intuition can serve helpfully, but only as far as it comports with the biblical data. If the Bible tells us something that is extremely difficult to prove given our current metaphysical assumptions, then those assumptions must be refined (296). Lastly, one must not completely understand the content of a proposition in order to believe it. One can understand a proposition formally as an idea without understanding it concretely (understanding the meaning of the proposition) (297-305). He suggests we should think about the Trinity in the formal manner, even if we cannot think of the Trinity in a concrete manner, which would be beyond our cognitive ability.
There are two major points of critique here. The first regards the book itself, which could likely have been incredibly condensed and worked into a chapter of Plantinga’s original book (had Plantinga worked this out himself). Part two, in other words, adds little to what Plantinga had to say, and indeed what Anderson adds may actually be unnecessary. His model of scholarly academic study as the primary testimonial source of Christian doctrines is unnecessarily intellectual. Is he saying that no Christian would come to the doctrines of the incarnation and trinity on their own, without an expert scholar teaching it to them? I think he is, and I doubt this can be correct. Sure, he is using the formulation of the doctrines as enshrined in the creeds, and perhaps for such a philosophically sophisticated formulation, intellectual study would be required. But for a more rudimentary explanation, such intellectual scholarly study is not required. One may acquire these beliefs basically by inferring from the text, which acts as the occasion of belief. In that case, Christian doctrines would be warranted basic beliefs, and Anderson’s theories here would be unnecessary.
The second regards his explanation of paradox and its relationship to warrant. It seems his need to explain how paradox can be rationally believed is unnecessary. After all, the purpose of warrant is to rule out different types of rationality as necessary. But explaining paradox as something that can be rationally believed, based on the ideas of mystery and MACRUEs, it seems no longer necessary to have external warrant. One now has internal justification, based on the testimony of Scripture, and one can explain how one is justified in knowing these doctrines. This seems, therefore, to be an internalist move, which would not be faithful to the Plantingan system he attempted to utilize.
Overall, the work is helpful for thinking about paradox and especially for understanding how our cognitive capacities work in conjunction with MACRUEs. It is perhaps an unnecessary application of Plantinga’s model that could have been worked into a part of a chapter or even a footnote in Plantinga’s work, but it was a valiant attempt nonetheless.
Todd Scacewater is Assistant Editor here at Books At a Glance and a Teaching Fellow at Westminster Theological Seminary. He owns and produces content for learning biblical languages at Exegetical Tools. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status