Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Square circles and the Trinity, part 1: believing contradictions

In this series, I interact with the criticisms of the Trinity forwarded by Steve Zara in our recent debate, using them as a springboard to examine this important doctrine and demonstrate that it is not intrinsically self-contradictory.

This is part 1 of 4. It argues that contradictions cannot be believed, nor considered reasonable answers to any questions, and that if the Trinity is self-contradictory it invalidates Christianity as believable and reasonable.

During the course of our debate on whether God is a necessary precondition for reason, Steve made the following claim about the Trinity, in his second rebuttal:

The existence of the Trinity is contradictory. It is equivalent to a statement that a circle is a square. Of course, we can believe contradictions, but it is not appropriate to allow them in a discussion about reason, that is itself supposed to be using reason to make a case.

I didn’t answer this specific objection in the debate itself, since it’s poor form to present new arguments in a closing statement. Nonetheless, I do wish to answer it, partly because it’s a topic which interests me; but particularly because a couple of people asked me at the time whether the formal argument Steve presented is valid. I think the formal notation he used made it seem more impressive than it really is (partly because it made it harder to follow). Anyway, his objection is worth looking at, because the Trinity is a doctrine which we can have a hard time with. It’s easily targeted by unbelievers, but it’s not easy to defend.

I’d like to consider both aspects of Steve’s above-quoted statement before I critique his actual argument: (I) that we can believe contradictions, which I’ll talk about only briefly; and (II) that the existence of the Trinity is logically equivalent to the existence of a square circle, which I’ll consider at greater length. Once I’ve covered these, I’ll devote some time to (III) drawing out the implications this has for our understanding of identity, in order to be able to (IV) properly examine the argument which Steve presented. The reason I’m leaving the argument itself until last is because topics (I) to (III) will lay a lot of groundwork which will make it easier to understand what’s going on.

I. Believing a contradiction

According to Steve, although contradictions can be believed, they are not appropriate in debate. In order to lay some groundwork for my discussion later on, I’d like to look at this twofold claim now. Indeed, this is a point particularly worth addressing because it’s directly relevant to an increasingly popular mindset within the church today. It’s directly relevant to the sorts of professing Christians who would be quite happy to affirm that the Trinity entails a contradiction. A lot of people in churches around New Zealand just wouldn’t see any problem with this. They would say that the Trinity is self-contradictory, and that they believe it anyway. Some of them might even say they believe because of the contradiction—as if believing things which don’t make sense is deeply spiritual. This is very unfortunate. It betrays a disturbingly shallow, uncritical, frankly childish level of thought about these deep doctrinal issues.

Now, Steve said that contradictions aren’t appropriate in debates—at least as allegedly reasonable answers to questions. I agree. In fact, I’d extend this to say that contradictions are not appropriate ever as answers to anything. But my reason for saying this is that contradictions literally cannot be believed—so to try to present one as an answer to some question is self-defeating. At best, a contradiction is false by definition. It’s hardly helpful to give an obviously false answer to a question. That is how you lose debates. And no one is going to convert to a religion which claims to provide answers to the ultimate questions if those answers are false by definition.

The problem is that Steve reckons you can believe contradictions. But if that’s true, why does he say that they aren’t appropriate as reasonable answers? Surely they would be entirely appropriate? After all, if something can be believed, and a debate is about convincing someone that your beliefs are true, then surely if you believe a contradiction it is fully appropriate to bring it up. The only reason I can see to reject a contradiction as an appropriate answer in debate is if it cannot be believed. And I suspect that Steve knows this very well, which is why he considers them inappropriate in the first place.

Having said this, let me go on to explain why contradictions can’t be believed. If you’ve been taught that the Trinity is self-contradictory, and you’re happy to believe this, you’ll probably want to pay attention. You’re going to have a really hard time witnessing to anybody with half a brain if they ask you about the Trinity, and you tell them it’s a self-contradictory doctrine. They will rightly ask not why they should believe it, but how.

This is because to believe something means that you think it is true. Now, one of the necessary conditions of truth is non-contradiction. For example, some proposition p can be believed quite readily. So can its negation, not-p. But imagine a proposition, q, which means “p and not-p“. q really can’t be believed, because it patently violates a condition of being truthful. That isn’t to say that you can’t mistakenly think you believe it. You can say “I believe q” if you haven’t actually taken the time to consider its constituent propositions. You might think you’re just affirming a single, simple statement. If you haven’t actually thought about what q means when broken down into more basic statements, you can say you believe it. That just makes you uncritical, though. It doesn’t make you spiritual or clever. It doesn’t make you actually believe q.

So what do you actually believe? Well, not that both p and not-p are true. You can’t believe this, because you can’t understand it. I don’t mean that you can’t understand what it means to believe p, and what it means to believe not-p. I mean that you can’t understand what it means to believe both p and not-p at the same time. It doesn’t make sense. It would be like saying that you do believe in God, and that you also don’t believe in God. Sure, you can read the letters and sound out the words, and if you are very silly you can say that they are true—but the actual structure of the statement does not mean anything. You cannot believe p and not-p any more than you can believe that God is not God, or that created things are not created. The latter half of the proposition denies the former half, and vice versa. They cancel each other out, and so to say p is not p is really to say nothing at all.

So if you say that you believe q, you’re fibbing. You’re making no more sense than if you say that two minus two doesn’t equal zero. No doubt you believe something, and no doubt you call this something q, but you don’t actually believe q itself because it doesn’t make sense to be believed. It literally can’t be believed. In the same way, we can’t say that the Trinity is actually self-contradictory, because we’d really just be admitting that this crucially important doctrine doesn’t mean anything. We’d be saying, in effect, that a core teaching of Christianity is meaningless—that it is not a teaching at all. We’d be saying that, in order to be saved, you have to believe…nothing. Worse; we’d be saying that in order to be saved, you have to be stupid or naive enough to think you believe something when you don’t. We’d be admitting that salvation is based on a nonsense-statement. If that’s the case, we’re all in a lot of trouble one way or another.

We can’t even say that the Trinity is apparently self-contradictory. If it is then we’re no better off—because as far as we can see, it still cancels itself out and means nothing. So to say we believe it is merely to say we believe nothing in that regard at all. Even if it isn’t really self-contradictory, we still can’t understand it. So, if we’re going to say you must believe the doctrine of the Trinity to be a Christian, we had best be able to show that it is actually capable of being believed at all.

Continued in ‘Square circles and the Trinity, part 2: the nature of the Trinity’ »

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