Thought Thinking Itself?: Christianity and Logic

Scott Oliphint
Does A equal A? The answer to this question is, of course, yes, but the broader question is, how should Christians think about logic? Especially when it is Scripturally mandatory for us to affirm the paradoxical, how can we also affirm, as we must, that contradictions are a fatal problem? These are knotty questions, with all kinds of avenues, venues, rabbit trails and responses. There is no way to do justice to the complexity of the topic of logic and its use in such a short space.

What I hope to do, then, in response to a questioner, is to frame the general parameters in which a fruitful discussion of logic (and issues germane) can take place, both in the church and in apologetics. Specifically, I hope (perhaps in vain) to deal with this subject more from a pastoral, than a philosophical, context. Much of the technical material written on this subject is meant only for technicians. It can be useful and beneficial for some, but the rest of us tend to deal with problems like this in a less technical format. So, the principles highlighted below are the ones, in my experience, that most who are concerned about a Christian approach to logic might find worth thinking about, perhaps even applying. Since, however, we are discussing logic, we should recognize that discussions can inevitably become quite complex, even at a more basic level.

That said, there are two primary principles that are crucial for Christians to imbibe if our arguments with respect to paradox, logic, contradictions, etc. are to be founded and grounded in the revelational truth of God's Word and God's world. I use the word "imbibe" here intentionally. The principles that will be discussed below are ones that most Christians would affirm. In the areas of Christian thinking and of apologetics, however, these principles need to be absorbed and deeply assimilated into our now-normal, regenerated, renewed-unto-knowledge way of thinking. Affirmation is one thing, absorption and assimilation is another, when discussing things of this nature. These principles, therefore, may require some thoughtful meditation along the way.

1. The first principle is one we have discussed already, in previous posts -- it is the principle of authority. When we Christians affirm that Scripture is a foundational authority, we are not simply focusing on our belief that the Bible is authoritative, as important as that belief is. The Word of God is, by definition, authoritative, whether we believe it or not. Neither are we simply saying that Scripture is my authority (though it is), as if the Bible is like the authority of a parent -- you have yours and I have mine. When Christians confess Scripture's authority, what we are confessing, in the first place, is that what Scripture teaches is true (John 17:17), and that, as truth, we (and everybody else) are bound to accept, affirm, believe and act on it (Acts 17:30).

A central part of what it means for us to imbibe the authority of the Bible is that it is our foundational guide for all that we know and do -- the technical term for this is principium. Whatever the Bible teaches, we affirm; whatever it denies, we deny. Anything else that claims to be the foundational guide for our thinking and living, we reject.

But Scripture does not come to us in a vacuum; it comes in the context of God's general revelation. So Scripture is not meant to give us intricate details about everything (though it does tell us something about everything, e.g., everything is created, everything is ruled by the Triune God, everything is subject to Him, etc.). Neither is it designed to give us exacting instructions about all aspects of life. So, for example, a Christian who is intent on getting married, should not consult Scripture for the exact person he is to marry. He must, according to Scripture, marry a woman who is a Christian. Beyond that, principles of biblical wisdom are to prevail.

If Scripture is our foundational authority, then, it must function as our first and final court of appeal. All that we believe has its source in God's revelation, and can only properly be understood if and when it is taken from Scripture; and all that we determine to believe must be in conformity to what Scripture teaches. Anything that violates the teaching of Scripture, either as a beginning point in our thinking or a conclusion, should not be affirmed by us.

So, let's think about this in the context of logic. Surely, the Bible is not going to be opposed to the use of logic any more than it is opposed to the use of language, is it? Not as long as such things are guided by the foundational truths of Scripture. (I should note here that the Bible obviously uses both logic and language, but it is not helpful to claim, therefore, that the Bible presupposes logic and language, any more than it is to say that the Bible presupposes writing instruments, ink, people, etc. Presuppositions carry much more ontological and epistemological weight than what logic and language are able to carry.) One of those truths is quite simple (though when it comes to discussions of logic some have trouble here). Before the beginning of creation, there was one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was nothing but God. There was no space that contained Him; neither was there time that dictated His existence. There was only the Triune God. He did not exist somewhere or at some time. He simply was.

The implication of this with respect to logic is clear. Before creation, there was no logic. Of course, God thought, and God knew. But that thinking and that knowing were themselves identical with the Triune God Himself. God was/is not One who is and then who happens to know and to think according to logical principles, or according to propositions. Because God is not composed of parts, everything that He is, is identical with who He is.

When God created, His creation reflected His character, but as it reflects that character; it is not identical to it/Him. So, it reflects Him, but in a created way. As the heavens declare God's glory (Ps. 19:1), they declare that glory as an image of the glory that is His alone, and of Himself. All of creation, then, is reflective of God, and that reflection culminates in man - male and female - who just is image of God. It might help us to think of a mirror image as an analogy. The image that you see of yourself in a mirror looks very much like you. But that image is not you. It has a different character altogether -- it is not three dimensional, it has no real flesh and bones, it is completely dependent on your presence, it is limited by the content and context of the mirror itself, etc. As a matter of fact, if we were able to break the mirror image down into its constituent parts, it would be almost impossible to recognize you in it.

So it is with logic. Logic is a created reflection, an image, of God's own character. It is, like language, a medium of communication, even communication of truth. But it is not the final arbiter or determiner of truth; only God is that. He uses language, and He uses logic, to communicate truth to us. They are, we could say, built in to His creation. But, in terms of His essential Triune character, he is bound by neither; they are both expressions of His creative hand. God is only bound by His essential nature, nothing else.

So, for example, let's take one of the basic Aristotelian syllogisms as an example of the relationship of logic to truth:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal
Logicians use this syllogism in their basic logic textbooks. The question then is asked, "Is this syllogism (or argument) valid?" In order to answer this question, we have to know how many premises in a syllogism have to be true in order for the syllogism itself to be valid. The answer is (drum roll) -- none. 

A valid syllogism simply says that if the premises are true, the conclusion will necessarily follow. But it does not say whether the premises are true. For that, we need to answer a further logical question that is asked - "Is this syllogism sound?" In order to answer that question, we need to know if the syllogism is valid and if the premises are true. In other words, an argument can be valid without any of its premises being deemed true. Not so with a sound argument. In a sound argument, there must be validity, and all premises must be true.

But is the syllogism above sound? In order to know that, we have to affirm that "All men are mortal" is true. But is it? The point here is not to be overly pedantic. It is simply to point out that, when it is truth that we're concerned about, logic, as a guide and tool, is in need of its own foundation. It depends on the truth of God and His existence; it does not determine that truth.

2. The second principle that Christians must imbibe is that God is Triune. As I said, Christians affirm this; we must affirm this if we are going to call ourselves Christians. But, at least in some contexts, we have been reluctant fully to imbibe this glorious truth. For example, John Calvin says this about the Trinity:
And that passage in Gregory of Nazianzus vastly delights me: "I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightway carried back to the one."
Calvin's quote of Gregory here is replete with substantial and significant, mind-boggling and life-changing application, both to our thinking and to our living.

At this point the reader will be well aware that I have not yet defined what logic is. Some text books define logic as "the science of inference." Most of the time, however, when matters like this are discussed, logic is thought to be summed up in the law of identity (A = A) and/or the law of non-contradiction, which is, roughly, (A ≠ -A).

Suppose now that we think about these laws in light of the quote from Calvin/Gregory above. At least part of what that quote says is that it is not accurate for us simply to think "God" as Christians. Rather, as Christians, in our thinking, the minute we think about "the one" God we are "quickly" to think of the three, at which time we should "straightway" be carried back to the one.

In other words, ultimate reality, which just is the character of the Triune God, does not neatly fit into an "A = A" or an "A ≠ -A" equation. We can affirm, of course, that "God = God" or that "God ≠ -God," but these affirmations do not adequately reflect God's essential Triunity. As soon as we think "God = God" we must quickly be encircled by "God = Father, Son and Holy Spirit," at which time we must straightway think "Father, Son and Holy Spirit = God." But at the same time, we have to also affirm that "Father ≠ Son, Father = Father." Even as we affirm that, however, we must also agree that, with respect to their essence, Father, Son and Spirit are identical.

All of this is not to say that we have to now rewrite logical laws. As we have said, those laws reflect something of God's Triune character. The very things that we are saying in this article make use, at every point, of those laws. It is rather to remind us that the laws themselves cannot, and were never created to, function in abstraction from the world, even as our understanding of "God" is not abstracted from His character as One, and as Three -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In the Christian faith, there are basic and foundational truths that are and remain paradoxes for us. The Triunity of God is one of those truths. But when we say that they are paradoxes, we are saying more than simply that our minds do not have the intellectual resources to put these truths together. We are also saying (as Scripture requires) that the truths imply and entail each other, such that to affirm one without the other is to do an injustice to what they actually are.

To use an example, Aristotle argued for a god who was and had to be "Thought Thinking Itself." There was no other way, he thought, to affirm the "godness" of this god unless it could be entirely independent, in and of itself, disconnected from absolutely everything else, even from thinking anything other than itself. Aristotle's god (and this is no coincidence) comports with Aristotle's view of logic. A = A applies, for Aristotle, to god = god. To relate this god to anything else would be to destroy his character as god. As long as this god was completely unrelated to all things, it could be who it was. (This, by the way, is the very same problem that Islam has with its god. In order to be who it is, it must be completely unrelated to everything else.) The only god Aristotle could affirm was an abstract god, who could have no relation to anything else.

So what is the apologetic import of our two principles above? I can only mention one or two and will leave for homework just exactly how this is fleshed out in discussion. 

First, given that logic is a reflection, an image, of the Triune God's character, it can only have its ultimate ground and justification in Him. This does not, of course, mean that only Christians can use logic. All people use it, necessarily. But its use is quite different from its foundation and ground. If its foundation is the Triune God, then, while we can (and must) affirm the laws of identity and of non-contradiction, we also understand (and logicians recognize this) that those laws say very little in and of themselves. The proper application of those laws requires that we see both unity (analogous to A = A) and diversity (analogous to A ≠ -A) as equally ultimate in the Triune God, who is One and Three. So any unbeliever who wants to claim logic as a universal law, for example, quite apart from Christianity, has some 'splainin' to do, which explanation will be, in the end, futile.

Second, when some want to charge that this Christian view ultimately allows for all kinds of contradictions, in the Bible and elsewhere, we have a ready answer. If Scripture and the Triune God are our foundation, then the paradoxes that are taught in His Word are truths, both sides of which imply and require one another. Paradoxes are such that when you have the one, you must "straightway" also have the other. Other truths that may seem contradictory, either in the world or in the Word, and that do not imply, entail and require each other, are in need of resolution.

So, for example, I have been asked on more than one occasion, something like the following question, "If you accept that God is One and Three, or that Christ is fully God and fully man, and you cannot reconcile those truths, why can you not also accept that Christ died both for His own people, and also (in the same way) for all people?" The response to a question like that, which moves toward a fuller answer, is that the extent of the atonement in Scripture is not taught as a paradox, such that "death for His people" and "death for the world" imply, entail and require each other, but rather is meant to be understood non-paradoxically. So also for other incompatibilities and supposed contradictions that we think we find in the Bible. The coherence of the paradoxes taught in Scripture, in other words, are meant to move us toward understanding how, and that, the rest of what Scripture teaches coheres.

As I said, these discussions can become quite complex. I suspect they don't plague the majority of Christians. However, the foundational principles given above -- that God's Triune character and His truth must form the parameters for all that we think and do -- are relevant, not simply for our view of logic, but for our view of the entirety of life. Soli Deo Gloria!