Strong meat, not milk: Are some things impossible to believe?

Are Some Things Impossible to Believe?

Lewis Carroll’s White Queen tells Alice that sometimes she has believed six impossible things before breakfast. That led some later wits to quip that faith is believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Lately I’ve been re-reading Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (having read it many years ago).The first volume was first published in the early 1870s. I wonder if Hodge had read Through the Looking Glass which was published in 1871?

Or perhaps Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) and Hodge had read the same source? Perhaps someone associated with the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy?

In any case, interestingly, and I dare say surprisingly to many of his admirers, Hodge believed there are things it is impossible to believe.

First, it’s important to know that Hodge believed in a “constitution of the human mind.” such that “What is true of other sciences is true of theology.” (ST I:2). One aspect of the constitution of the human mind that science and theology share is what poet Wallace Stevens called the “blessed rage for order.” That is, the human mind seeks to systematize facts.

Second, Hodge believed in “self-evident truths.” (ST I:10-11) These are “given in the constitution of our nature.” (ST I:9) One is the existence of a personal God. (ST I:23). Another one is the law of non-contradiction (ST 1:51-52).

Third, on the basis of the constitution of our nature and self-evident truths, Hodge argued that it is simply impossible to believe some things. Even revelation must be judged by reason in this sense—not by philosophy but by basic intuition. “Reason must judge the credibility of a revelation.” (ST I:50) (Clearly Kierkegaard would disagree!)

By “credibility” Hodge makes clear he means things possible to believe, not what must be believed. In other words, he was setting forth negative tests for belief, not saying that it is only possible to believe what reason alone can establish. (He called that Rationalism.)

Hodge asks what is the proper office of reason in matters of religion? “Revelation is the communication of truth to the mind. But the communication of truth supposes the capacity to receive it. Truths, to be received as objects of faith, must be intellectually apprehended.” (ST I:49) In other words, a person can hear or read something and even consider it and think they believe it when, in fact, it’s impossible to believe because of the constitution of the human mind. That is, while it can be communicated, it cannot be believed because it is literally incredible.

Hodge gives some examples: “(1.) That is impossible which involves a contradiction; as, that a thing is and is not; that right is wrong, and wrong right. … (3.) It is impossible that He [God] should require us to believe what contradicts any of the laws of belief which He has impressed upon our nature.” (ST I:51) He then says “We have a right [!] to reject as untrue whatever it is impossible that God should require us to believe. He can no more require us to believe what is absurd than to do what is wrong.” (ST I:52)

Following on all that, Hodge gives us as a basic axiom of religion and theology that “God requires nothing irrational of his rational creatures.” (ST I:55) What about faith? Doesn’t faith mean believing whatever God has revealed? Hodge answers both yes and no. Yes insofar as what is revealed is possible; no insofar as what is supposedly revealed is impossible. “Faith…is not a blind, irrational assent, but an intelligent reception of the truth on adequate grounds.”

Now, clearly, Hodge knew some people claim to believe impossible things. What he is saying about them is that, in fact, they do not really believe those things because it’s literally impossible to believe them. That is, when they say they believe them, insofar as they are literally incredible, Hodge thinks they might as well be saying “I believe Jabberwocky” (the title of one of Lewis Carroll’s poems). If someone came up to Hodge and said “Sir! I believe Jabberwocky,” Hodge would say “No, you don’t. You just think you do. But, in fact, it’s not possible to believe Jabberwocky.” (Assuming, of course, the person means more than they believe it is a real poem.)

How does this function for theology? Hodge tells us very clearly: “We are to try the spirits. But how can we try them without a standard? and what other standard can there be, except the laws of our nature and the authenticated revelations of God?” (ST I:53) Notice he says “the laws of our nature and the authenticated revelations of God.”

There is one clear conclusion from all this that is embedded in what Hodge is saying but has to be drawn out and made explicit. Hodge is saying that if the Bible really did teach something that is impossible to believe, he would not believe it. He could not. Of course, he was convinced that was not the case. But all his talk about laws of our nature and things impossible to believe because of them makes clear that he was not advocating mindless acceptance of whatever Scriptures says. And certainly not mindless acceptance of someone’s interpretation of Scripture however authoritative they may seem.

I agree with Hodge. There are things it is literally impossible to believe. Not just impossible for me to believe but literally impossible for anyone to believe. So when I meet an adult who says they believe something I am convinced is literally incredible I have to assume one of several things (and I believe Hodge would agree given what he said about possible and impossible beliefs):

1) Possibly the person is not telling the truth. (If they’re not lying perhaps they are simply deluded or in denial.)

2) Possibly the person is insane.

3) Possibly I have not understood the person. (For example, perhaps they mean      something different by “believe” than I mean. Maybe they mean “feel” or something.)

4) A version of “1” above is that possibly the person truly thinks they believe it but I have to conclude they don’t, but without trying to explain what’s going on inside their mind.

So how is this relevant? What’s its importance? Well…Hodge himself lists as something impossible to believe (like Jabberwocky) “that God should do, approve, or command what is morally wrong.” (ST I:51) I agree. I think that is impossible to believe. So, if the Bible seems to say that God does, approves or commands what is morally wrong I can’t believe that is what it really means. Neither can Hodge. So, when someone confronts me with Isaiah 45:7, claiming that it supports belief that God can do evil, I can only tell them “That’s impossible to believe. It must mean something else.” Notice, I am not saying “I disagree with Isaiah 45:7.” I am saying with Hodge that it is literally impossible to believe that’s what it means. If the person persists, then all I can do is revert to one of the four possibilities above (not necessarily saying any of them to the person).

This principle of Hodge’s raises some philosophical questions, of course. Why is it literally impossible to believe that God can do, approve or command what is morally wrong?” Hodge doesn’t explain, but I assume he thinks this is self-evident. That is, somehow the concepts of “God” and “morally good” are inseparable. This was, of course, Augustine’s belief and I think he made a very good case for it relying on Plato. Another way of putting that is to say that if it were conceivable that God is not perfectly morally good our whole sense of right and wrong would be destroyed. There would be no way to distinguish between them even relying on divine commands. This insight lies at the heart of Augustine’s rejection of Manichaeism and C. S. Lewis’s argument against dualism in Mere Christianity.

Even more applicable to theology is that unless we assume that God is morally good, there is no reason to believe the Bible. A God who is not perfectly morally good could not be trusted. So, in the moment a person believes the Bible they are already believing that God is morally good.

Now, it’s essential to stop here and say this. It should be obvious, but I predict unless I say it someone will miss it. When Hodge says that God cannot do, approve or command what is morally wrong he obviously thinks “morally wrong” has some content to it. And he can’t only mean “morally wrong as taught in the Bible” because then it wouldn’t be a law of our constitution, something impossible to believe (in the sense of “impossible” he means). If “morally wrong” and “morally not wrong” are conceivably compatible with anything and everything they are meaningless. So, obviously Hodge believed his principle extends to certain specific things God cannot do. I’m sure he would say “lie”—that is, that it is impossible to believe that God lies or could lie—and not just because the Bible says so. Fortunately, the Bible does, but if it didn’t it wouldn’t matter. It’s impossible to believe that God can lie.

People ask me why I’m an Arminian and not a Calvinist. My most basic answer is that I believe Calvinism is literally impossible insofar as it implies that God does what is morally wrong. Of course, no Calvinist I know says they believe that. But if I were a Calvinist…I would have to believe that God does morally wrong which is literally impossible. What wrong? Foreordaining and rendering certain the fall and all its consequences including the Holocaust.

Am I then “judging God’s morality?” No more than Hodge was. (I am simply disagreeing with him about what actions constitute “morally wrong.” I think every attempt to explain why foreordaining evil, immorality, is not morally wrong is a (possibly unconscious) subterfuge. I think it is self-evident that to plan and render certain someone else’s sin is to participate in that sin no matter what one’s own intentions were because, to do this, in a way that would absolutely assure the outcome, one would have to also plan and render certain the sinner’s morally wrong intentions.

So, for me, when I read a passage of Scripture that seems to say that God foreordains moral evil, sin, or that God predestines people infallibly to hell, it literally cannot mean that.

Given all that Hodge says about this subject, I can only conclude that if someone asked him “If it were revealed to you in a way you could not doubt that God does what is morally wrong would you still worship him?” he would reply that he would not because then, by dint of sheer intuition (as he means it), that would not be God. In other words, it’s an impossible hypothetical situation. The only difference between him and me is that, somehow, in a way I cannot grasp, he didn’t think “doing, approving or commanding what is morally wrong” includes what Calvinism says God does. I think he contradicted himself because it is intuitively true that “morally wrong” includes what Calvinism says God does (whether Calvinists grasp that or not). But he was no less “judging God’s morality” than I am. Neither of us is. We are simply explaining what it is possible and impossible to believe.


  • Randall

    Yes, I have looked at this subject until my eyes cross and I agree that the difference between Hodge and myself is that Hodge imagines it possible to cause someone else to sin without being involved in sin culpably and I can’t imagine it based, primarily on what I understand scriptures to show us. Great post, I wish I had your talent for explaining these things.

  • Chase

    Wonderful post! Theodicy has always interested me, but I had never approached the issue from this slant. I want to read more of Hodge now. I could probably use some of his work on my paper this semester over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Also, for anyone who’s interested, Christopher Wright has a terrific approach to this topic in “The God I Don’t Understand.”

  • Emily Hunter McGowin

    This is a very incisive explanation and application of Hodge’s point. I always enjoy reading your posts, but this one is especially helpful, I think. As a good teacher should, you are reiterating your point about the God of Calvinism in a variety of different ways. I hope that eventually one will stick for some of your critics!

  • Buks

    Someone who has never heard of the theory of general relativity would be absolutely convinced that it is impossible to believe that the temporal order in wich events occur may differ for different observers. Even simpler – just a few centuries ago it would have been called absurd to believe that the earth rotates about the sun.

    What one person is totally convinced is literally incredible, may not be to another who may be in possession of information that the other does not have.

    So I would add a point 5 to your list – Maybe I just find it incredible because of a lack of understanding on my own part?

    Just a thought.

    • rogereolson

      Hodge makes clear that his presuppositions do not rule out new discoveries in the sciences. I agree. Nothing science discovers can violate basic laws of logic because then the discovery can’t even be understood. “Absurd” does not have to do with things in the physical or even metaphysical world; it has to do with logic. It would be absurd, for example, to claim that the earth rotates around the sun and it does not. “A” cannot be “not A.” Hodge apparently believes, and I agree with him, that it is logically absurd to claim that God can do evil because to be “God” is to be the very standard of good. Without that, there is no difference between good and evil.

  • Jeff Martin

    Hmmm…..Dr. Olson. If I did not know any better I would say this is a start of an even better book Against Calvinism.

    I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to use quotes from the “Rockstars” so to speak, of Reformed theology, to debate Calvinism, not just about a particular aspect of it. Trust me when I say that there is plenty of ammunition in Hodge, Turretin, Murray, and Bavink. The Collected Writings of John Murray, I believe Volume II, there is a chapter on faith that has great ammo against Calvinism even though he is one himself.

    Keep it up! BRAVO!

  • Robert

    For kicks: How do you interpret that passage in idea. These so-called “Spectrum texts,” as Bruce Ware calls them?

    • rogereolson

      Help me out here. I’m not sure what you’re asking.

      • Robert

        So, how do you interpret the texts that imply that God brings about “evil” for his purposes? Ware calls them “spectrum texts” in his chapter in the Doctrine of God edited volume to which you contributed.

        BTW – I’m an Arminian, so I’m not trying to bait you, here. I’m genuinely curious as to how you interpret texts that would seem to imply that God orchestrates (what to us seems) “evil” to accomplish his will?

        • rogereolson

          First, they cannot mean that. :) Everyone finds some texts difficult to deal with. I finally gave up trying to be an inerrantist who has to explain every single text as equally “God’s Word.” One explanation of that verse in Isaiah that I’ve heard is that “evil” there can mean “calamity”–as in not moral evil but the fall of a city or something. I’m still not sure how to deal with that, but I have less trouble attributing a defeat (e.g., of Germany at the end of WW2) to God than attributing moral evil/sin to God.

          • Robert

            Sorry, are you saying that a “defeat” (Germany) is akin to a “calamity” (for Germany) and that this is the sense in which “evil” is used (e.g., in Isaiah), and that God may have orchestrated this? I may be wrong on some or all of that train of interpretation.

          • rogereolson

            I’m not sure I’d use all your language, but, in essence, yes. I do see God’s hand at work in the Allies’ defeat of the Axis in WW2. I’ve watched many documentaries, read many books and visited many museums that deal with those events. It does seem to me almost, perhaps completely, miraculous even if only that Hitler seems to have gone stark, raving crazy (in a clinical sense) toward the end. Even his generals thought so. He was making decisions that doomed Germany and its allies. But there were also very strange, I would even say more than coincidental or accidental, events along the way toward Germany’s defeat that seemed to be the hand of God. As I understand it, the Hebrew word translated “evil” in that verse in Isaiah has various possible interpretations. Now, let me as you…Do you believe, on the basis of that verse and/or others, that God does what is truly evil?

  • Barry Applewhite

    Your argument would be a winning one in any rational world, but your opponents are not rational actors where Arminians are concerned. So, I thank you for showing me an excellent argument and some history about a Calvinist theologian, but I do not think they will admit the winning nature of their argument.


    • rogereolson

      Nor do I. I hope only to help those who are undecided or who have adopted Calvinism but waver about it.

  • Joy F

    Exactly my conclusion on Calvinism – that by its nature of what it teaches, it necessarily demands that we believe God to be the creator of evil, and more than that foreordained evil in order to prove a point. This makes for an evil god – one that I can’t tell is different from Satan – what is the difference in a god that foreordained people to be decieved and go to hell and Satan? And this is impossible to believe! How could that be true? I have yet to see an argument from Calvinism that explains how this could not be the necessary conclusion.

    As a side note, I think this is why Calvinist run into the difficulty of lack of compassion and mercy in their churches – they are telling people to believe in a God who has none – why be surprised when this trickles down to the congregations?

    • rogereolson

      Of course, in all fairness to Calvinists, they have wrestled with this problem. It’s just that I think (and you probably do as well) their explanations of why God is good even though he foreordains evil including the Holocaust and hell are torturous. They make no sense to me. For example, the typical Calvinist response to what I wrote would be that we must make a distinction between God’s decretive will and God’s prescriptive will. God decrees the fall (for example) and renders it certain without participating in the evil of it. God commands the opposite of what he decrees. The reason they (Adam and Eve) were guilty for doing what God decreed they would do and rendered certain they would do is that, unlike God, they did it with an evil motive. My question is where the evil motive came from if God is the all determining reality? I go into this in great detail in my book.

      • Robert

        Hello Roger,

        Again you continue to make strong points against Calvinism. I just wanted to comment on one point that you made.

        In your recent book you bring up the concept of conundrums and give various examples of these conundrums within Calvinist theology. Conundrums are problems that a person may or may not have a reasonable explanation or “solution” for. However, **contradictions** are another matter. A conundrum is a problem logically speaking while a contradiction is logically fatal to a theory.

        You wrote:

        “For example, the typical Calvinist response to what I wrote would be that we must make a distinction between God’s decretive will and God’s prescriptive will. God decrees the fall (for example) and renders it certain without participating in the evil of it. God commands the opposite of what he decrees.”

        I have multiple problems with the two will theory, ad hoc adjustment made by Calvinists attempting to defend their theological fatalism. You bring up one of the worst: if it is true, then God’s words (His commands given in the bible) CONTRADICT His actions (the secret or sovereign decree that predecides and conceives of every event that God desires to occur as part of the one total plan).

        The problem is succinctly stated by you in your words: “God commands the opposite of what he decrees.”

        There are many clear examples of this, but let’s take just two: adultery and pornography. God commands people not to commit adultery and makes it clear that pornography is something to be avoided. These things involve sinful actions and thoughts. These things are sinful conduct and destroy and weaken marriages and sometimes also result in divorce (and further problems including nasty custody battles in the courts for the kids, and problems that result for the kids). The bible is absolutely and unequivocally clear that God commands people not to commit adultery (and that he hates divorce) and to seek to have pure thought lives. Let’s call that (A).

        On the other hand, and in complete contradiction to WHAT HE SAYS in the bible about adultery and impure thoughts. If God predecides and predetermines every event that occurs and also controls people’s minds, wills, thoughts, and actions to ensure that they think, will and do what he predetermines for them to do. Then God desires and preplans and then ensures that every sinful act of adultery and pornography that occurs, occurs exactly as it occurs. Call this (not-A). This means that if Calvinism is true then every impure thought that any human person has is a thought that God desired for them to have and predetermined for them to have and controls them in such a way as to ensure that they have these thoughts.

        This is a contradiction.

        We also believe this with human persons as well. If someone says or tells me to do (A) that they are against something or do not desire that something occurs. But then at the same time they perform actions clearly showing that in reality that they want (A) to occur. I cannot trust their words at all, as their actions directly contradict their words. If they outwardly and explicitly tell me adultery and pornography is wrong, and yet it then comes out that they are involved in leading people to commit adultery (say they run a brothel) and have impure thoughts by materials that they are ensuring that their targets have in their hands and are reading. Then their words really don’t mean much. I really cannot take their words seriously nor can I trust them at all.

        I have a friend who does a lot of work in the area of human trafficking: if you were to tell her that God Himself preplanned all the kidnappings, the various forms of abuse that these women and children endure, she would conclude that you were insane. And this is just one example; these examples can be readily multiplied. In fact this would be true of EVERY SIN AND EVIL if Calvinism were true.

        And again, what would this say about God’s character if he preplanned all of this evil and ensures that it takes place precisely as planned?

        If the two will theory were true, then God ordains and preplans and desires and ensures all sorts of sinful thoughts and actions which he says in the bible are not to be done. There is no way out of this **contradiction** and contradictions when present are always indications of falsity. This is no mere conundrum but is a contradiction between what God supposedly says in the bible and what he really wants to occur.


        • rogereolson

          One reason I avoided calling these things contradictions is that I’m no logician and I didn’t want to invite reaction to a claim I may not be competent to defend. As I wrote the book I kept in mind what claims would draw what responses. I sought to avoid diversions from the main point. By calling things “conundrums” rather than “contradictions,” I avoid the diversion from the real point that would occur if someone argued that I was wrong in terms of formal logic of which I am not an expert. (I have taught courses on logic, but I know there are people much better trained in it than I.) Needless to say, I agree with what you wrote.

  • Scott C

    I am curious. As an Arminian do you believe that God is the author of good in the same way that he cannot be the author of evil? IOW, does God determine good outcomes in the world? To use a specific example, did God determine the death of Christ (assuming you believe that it is a good thing)?

    • rogereolson

      I have trouble making sense of your first question. It seems to me like asking if an apple is an apple in the same way it’s not an orange. Your second question is clearer. No, I don’t think God determines every outcome because people have power of contrary choice. However, IF someone does something spiritually good, it can only be because of God’s grace even if they could have done otherwise. The death of Christ was both good and bad as the New Testament treats it. If it was wholly good why would Jesus have asked the Father to forgive them? But, of course, it wasn’t wholly bad either. I have discussed this typical Calvinist challenge many times here before. Yes, God determined Jesus’ death, but not by causing anyone to do evil. Jesus’ triumphal entry was his way (God’s way) of making his death inevitable without “determining” it.

      • Scott C

        So you believe God has no causal power in the activities of men whatsoever?

        • rogereolson

          Now there’s a classic example of leaping beyond all kinds of middle ground. Did I say that or anything that would justify that conclusion or even that question? I don’t think so. God is the cause or our very being in existence and of our every ability to do good. Now what did I say that made you jump to that extreme conclusion?

          • Scott C

            No need to go postal, I was just wondering if in your theology God can cause the actions (i.e. conscious choices, not sustenance of biological functions) of human beings at any point. Your last reply sounded like God “determined” (i.e. in a causal way) that Jesus would be crucified yet did not determine (cause) the actions of those that crucified him.

            I assume your comment about the triumphal entry means that Jesus’ action provoked the authorities to take action against him. I will grant that for argument sake, but how does that “determine” (i.e. cause) the actions of those in authority? Perhaps it influences them, but don’t they have the ability of contrary choice. If so how does the triumphal entry “determine: Jesus’ death?

            We know for example that Pilate was prepared to release Jesus and thus thwart God’s plan. Of course that does not explain why Jesus said Pilate would have no authority to do anything to him unless God’s granted it. How does God grant authority to Pilate without violating his free will? I am perplexed in the libertarian scheme how God ever accomplishes his purposes without violating human free will. How for example did God orchestrate things so that Jesus would be a descendant of David, born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem without once violating free will? In other words, how does God with absolute certainty accomplish that which was prophesied since in a libertarian world man’s actions are not caused outside the will of the man who chooses?

          • rogereolson

            I don’t think I came even close to “going postal.” I asked if you think God does evil. What say you? As for me, neither Arminius nor Wesley nor I believe in absolute freedom; we believe in situated freedom. Certainly God influences people, but he never causes them to do evil. If he did, he would be the ultimate sinner in that case, not them.

          • Scott C

            Well, first of all you haven’t answered my question. How can God “determine” that Christ will die given that libertarian freedom obtains in a man like Pilate?

            I am not afraid to address culpability for evil. God can determine the evil actions of men and be completely free from culpability because culpability is bound up in one’s intentions. This is the argument from James 1:14-15. Thus, Joseph can affirm a dual explanation for his brothers’ actions. They intended it for evil while simultaneously God intended it for good. God has never once had an evil intention. All his intentions are good, righteous and holy. Subsequently, God can ordain that godless men crucify Jesus, the most heinous act in history, to accomplish the greatest good in history, the redemption of sinners. Having thus ordained the evil of the cross, God will then hold the perpetrators responsible while He remains innocent. I think careful reflection upon Isa. 10:5-15 adequately supports my case. I would love to see your exposition of this text. Those who are disturbed by this must then reflect more carefully upon Rom. 9:19-21.

          • rogereolson

            The problem with you view is that, in order to guarantee an evil outcome, God must also guarantee evil intentions. That makes God the author of sin and evil. I believe God can see what will happen, given circumstances and people involved in them, and guarantee a good outcome that includes some bad people doing bad things without God having to impart evil intentions to them. I see a huge inconsistency between the divine determinism implied in the typical Calvinist doctrine of providence and the typical Calvinist claim that God is unconditionally good.

  • John Inglis

    It seems to me that Hodge both equivocates in his use of the term “belief”, and and fails to clarify what belief(s) is/are. He does not fully set out what it means to “believe”.

    Hodge is trying to be more precise in his use of terms than one is in general langauge. If, similarly, one works with more precise and limited defnitions, then “belief” is one’s attitude toward a proposition. An attiude that the proposition is true, rather than an attitude of doubt or fear or hope, etc.

    If there is objective truth, that is, outside our representation of it (and we believe this because of God’s existence), then one’s belief can be mistaken. That is, one can have an attitude toward the proposition “it is raining outside” that the proposition is true. However, if it is not raining outside, then one’s belief is objectively false. Such a situation could arise if, for example, one hears noise on the roof that sounds like rain and so one believes it is raining, but in fact there is some other cause for the sound and it is not raining.

    If one’s beliefs are not objectively true and so are not warranted (without getting into the complexities of warrant), then one does not have knowledge. Hence one has a belief that something is true, but does not have knowledge of or about that something.

    Hodge also seems to confuse belief with rationality. That is, when he says that one “does not really believe it”, he appears to mean that one’s belief conflicts with objective rationality, or with one’s own system of rationality, or both. He further assumes that legitimate beliefs can only be ones that are rational and true. But in doing so he again fails to specify what belief is or what type /species of belief he is referring to (since he seems to be working with two different meanings for the word “belief”). In doing so he again fails to clarify the difference between belief and knowledge.

    He also fails to clarify that there are different ways of understanding or viewing belief. Is belief merely representational? Is it inextricably connected to behaviour? Is it to be understood functionally? etc.

    I do not think that Hodge advances our understanding of belief at all, nor does he provide us with useful tools for dealing with the fact that people hold contradictory beliefs or beliefs that contradict objective truth and rationality.

    Calvinists (assuming that they are wrong and that they hold irrational beliefs about God’s goodness), do have the propositional attitude of belief toward the propositions (1) God determined that evil would exist, (2) God is morally good, and (3) God is not morally culpable for the existence of evil. That is, the Calvinist’s attitude toward each of these propositions is that they are true: she has the propositional attitude of belief toward the propositions.

    Given that it can be shown that these propositions are inconsistent with each other, it is illogical and hence irrational to simultaneously hold an attitude of belief toward each of the propositions. But that does not mean that the Calvinist does not “beleive” or “truly believe” that these propositions are true. It means that she is irrational, objectively wrong, and so fails to have knowledge. It means that her propositional attitude is wrong–or unwarranted–with respect to at least one of the propositions.

    Hodge also fails to distinguish between occurrent and dispositional belief, and other types of “belief”. All of which supports my contention that Hodge does not provide a useful way to talk about the phenomena of Calvinist beliefs. He may be on to something, but he does not provide us with the tools to usefully understand what is going on.


    • rogereolson

      All very good points. However, do you think a person can “believe” a sheer contradiction? Would you describe it as a possible “belief” that “A is not A” when the “A” and the other “A” in the sentence refer to exactly the same thing at the same time and in the same place? I admit that, with Hodge, I think that’s impossible to believe–just as it is impossible to believe that one does not exist but is only a character in someone else’s dream. We call such “beliefs” “delusions,” not beliefs in any formal sense.

      • John Inglis

        I would agree with calling them delusions, which I think some do in philosophical discussions of belief. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Hodge’s approach entails making assumptions or conclusions about inward or interior dispositions of people that are not warranted by the methodology employed.

        One might think of the common statement, “you don’t really believe that”. How can one know what someone “really” believes? Unless one takes the approach that belief is behaviour, that is, my actions indicate what I believe and so analysis of belief means engaging in an analysis of behaviour (and this is one philosophical approach to understanding “belief”). Moreover, I’ve often read Calvinists who say that they believe both parts of a contradiction and that it won’t be resolved until the next life. Often what such people do is to redefine (a.k.a. delude themselves) a contradiction as something other than a contradiction, which allows them to appear to affirm a belief in both aspects of the contradiction.

        For example, Michael Patton writes on his blog, “In the end, you can be a Calvinist who affirms both unconditional election and God’s universal love, atonement, and desire for none to be lost. I know it sounds contradictory, but this is my point. Calvinism allows for this tension. ”

        Of course I’m using “belief” in a more restricted sense than Hodge when I specify that belief is an attitude toward a proposition. Consequently, I can affirm that a person can have this attitude toward propositions that are inconsistent with each other, or even contradictory. If that person is committed to rationality–as Hodge was–then exposure of that contradiction will drive the person to resolve it (if the contradiction is only apparent) or to give up his attitude of belief to one of the propositions.

        It seems to me that Hodge is presupposing that a belief in, and commitment to, rationality underlies and precedes our other beliefs. Hence, for Hodge one cannot really believe a contradiction if one’s foundational belief is that “A” cannot be equivalent to “not-A”. And so, by this way of thinking, an impossible belief is a belief that inconsistent with one’s foundational rationality (where rationality is understood as at least encompassing logic).


        • rogereolson

          Correct. Hodge and I are presupposing that a person cannot really believe (in the intellectual sense of cognitively affirm) two things that contradict each each other–i.e., an absurdity. So how do I explain someone like Patton (or any number of Calvinists including the most radical I know–Edwin H. Palmer who openly admits his Calvinist belief is “absurd”)? Well, one way I do that is to think that one moment they believe one thing and the next moment they believe its opposite, but I don’t its’ possible to believe two things that logically contradict each other at the same time. I admit this is an unusual sense of the word “believe,” but I think it is the one Hodge is also working with. Of course people claim to be believing two contradictory things, but I doubt that’s really possible. So, when I meet someone like Patton or Palmer my response is “You don’t really believe that” in the same way my response to someone who says they believe they are nothing more than a figment of someone else’s imagination is “You don’t really believe that.”

          • John Inglis

            Thank you for the helpful clarification.

  • Pingback: The World Wide Religious Web for Tuesday, January 24, 2012 «

  • Robert

    You don’t need scripture to know that some heinous stuff happens to “good” people, and God doesn’t stop it from happening. That’s the hardest pill for me to swallow.

    Some of the OT and Revelation imagery of what God does or commands Israel to do–it’s pretty horrific. Like you, I’m inclined to ascribe that to the “human nature” of scripture (Bloesch). The problem with your (and my, and Bloesch’s) doctrine of inspiration/inerrancy is that it does leave you with a canon within an canon. My preferred response to the charge that I’m setting up a “canon within the canon” is: yes, yes, I am. I think Christ’s life and teaching and Paul’s gospel are the canon within the canon. They’re the interpretive keys against which anything else must be measured. There is error in the biblical text, but we have Christ and his gospel and the Spirit to lead us into all truth. In my mind, however, this presents a conundrum for strong forms of sola scriptura that would imply that the Bible is “over” the church or interpreting community. I don’t think either one is over the other. I think God is over them both.

    • Robert

      By way of not evading your question. Minimally, God does not stop horrific evil of natural or human-made forms. Scripture suggests that God carries out judgment via events that are nothing less than horrific…horrific not just for comic book villain-grade evil (Hitler), but also for garden variety sinners and children and babies.

    • rogereolson

      Yes. And I’d add that I have never met a Christian who doesn’t have a canon within the canon! When I was growing up among fundamentalists we ALWAYS handed out the Gospel of John, never a tract containing The Song of Solomon or Ecclesiastes.

      • Robert

        “Banned in the UK: The Song of Solomon Tract.” Parental advisory: explicit content.


  • Taylor

    Laying Calvinism aside for a moment and replacing it with ethics… Is the assumption here that all things which are impossible are impossible to believe? Or are there things that are false, yet can still be honestly believed?

    • rogereolson

      In my opinion, it’s impossible that the tooth fairy exists. But it’s not impossible to believe in the tooth fairy. It’s impossible to believe that the same tooth fairy both exists and does not exist at the same time. See the difference?

      • Taylor

        Yes. I disagree that all apparenly contradictory beliefs are as straightforward. But even the tooth fairy analogy makes determining the impossible considerably more difficult. (back to Calvinism/Arminianism)

        a) Given two antithetical choices, we can possibly determine that one must be false, but so far no one disagrees with that. The issue is which one is impossible to believe, as it has been for the duration of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians.

        b) Hodge fails to convince that thesis/antithesis is a legitimate way of understanding all truth. God seems to revel in paradox and apparent contradictions. This suggests that it is at least possible that two things which seemingly cannot coexist truthfully through our framework may in fact be able to.

        • rogereolson

          I always think a paradox is a task for further thought. A sheer contradiction is a sure sign of error or misunderstanding.

  • John Inglis

    Further reflection on “not really believing something”: Over at Scot McKnight’s blog a respondent “RJS” posts, “Life is a journey. I agree with your comment – I simply couldn’t force myself believe something I don’t honestly believe is true. And there are “common” beliefs in the church that I simply do not and cannot accept.”

    She “simply couldn’t force [herself to] believe something that [she doesn't] honestly believe is true”. Her perception of “honest belief” seems to approach what Hodge was speaking of, a sense that we have baseline beliefs that we hold or belief is not even possible (without them). I get the feeling that what Hodge is referring to is beliefs that we cannot deny to ourselves–even if we can cover them up, or over, for a while.

    Surely–except for the irrational–we have as an honest base belief that A cannot be equivalent to -A, or else communication is not possible. Even our own thoughts cannot have rationality and so we cannot muse or reflect.

    But then again, people are never completely rational. Moreover, no one has the time to think through the rationality of all their beliefs. If so, why would it be impossible to believe two apparently contradictory things? Certainly it would be possible before the contradiction was either realised or pointed out. But even afterward simultaneous belief in the contradictory propositions would still be possible on the rational belief that one does not have all the facts, or there is some other solution (i.e., only apparent contradiction), or some assumption–on which the argument for contradiction is based–is wrong.

    Consequently, I return to the proposition that belief is more properly understood as an attitude toward a proposition rather that an assertion about its possibility or actuality of being true.

    I think I’m making sense as I ponder aloud, but in any case my main point is that people are not so rational and devoid of the noetic effects of sin that it is impossible for them to never simultaneously believe two contradictory propositions.


    • rogereolson

      Maybe I’m just being overly optimistic here, but it seems to me God created the human mind so that, when it is functioning normally, even under the conditions of sin, it’s impossible to believe certain things. I guess that’s “logos theology.” Do you think it’s possible for someone to believe they are only a figment of someone else’s imagination?

      • John Inglis

        “when it is functioning normally, even under the conditions of sin” would be the key phrase, I think. Plantinga speaks well to the issue of the importance of normal functioning–and the nature of what “normal” is.

        Obviously, there are psychologically disabled people who don’t think normally and might indeed believe they are only figments, but that’s not the case wrt “impossible to believe with a normally functioning mind”.

        If I take a step back, then there is the time / case when a person who believes two propositions does not know that they actually contradict each other. In such a case I can grant that they do sincerely and in actuality believe both propositions.

        However, what is then the case when the contradiction is brought to their attention? I suppose that their first defence could be that the other person must be mistaken (i.e., there is no contradiction) but they just cannot yet see the error in the other’s reasoning. Or perhaps they could assume that there is another fact or assumption that, when added to the two propositions that they hold, relieves the contradiction. In cases like these they could continue holding the two contradictory beliefs if they then add the further belief that some future knowledge will resolve the contradiction in their favour (i.e., show that the two propositions do not contradict).

        In this further case, the continued belief occurs because they do not truly believe that there is a contradiction (this belief that something further will resolve the contradiction is, initially, the third proposition they add to the contradictory two in order to dissolve or at least suspend the contradiction).

        So, in this further case what others know to be truly contradictory and “impossible” is still truly believed. Is not this the situation of the 5 pt. Calvinists? They hold what–on my account–is an attitude of belief toward the contradictory propositions because of the enabling power of their additional third belief.

        It would only be when they come to realize that their third belief is false, and that their two propositions do contradict, that they then have a crisis because they can no longer believe with all their heart what they previously did. But, until that point, do they not truly believe subjectively in their propositions even though objectively they two propositions are contradictory and therefore false (at least one of them)? That is, they do not think that theybelieve in something impossible.

        Consequently, their ability to receive truth and the communication of truth must be impaired–perhaps it is sin that has the noeitic effect. Per Hodge, as quoted above “But the communication of truth supposes the capacity to receive it. Truths, to be received as objects of faith, must be intellectually apprehended.”

        Hence they can maintain their subjective belief, their attitude of belief, in the face of objective impossibility.

        Anyway, interesting post.