Deist John Toland Was Right! Even Religion Must Be Intelligible

Deist John Toland Was Right! Even Religion Must Be Intelligible July 2, 2014

Deist John Toland Was Right! Even Religion Must Be Intelligible.

Some of my student balk when we are studying Deism/Natural Religion and I tell them I think John Toland, author of Christianity Not Mysterious was partly right.

Some years ago Tony Campolo wrote a book with the intriguing title We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Partly Right. Before that, evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm (with whom Campolo studied theology) wrote The Devil, Seven Wormwoods, and God. Both books describe how Christians can and should agree with some of the insights of thinkers Christians usually consider absolute enemies of the Christian faith.

Here is what I consider the key statement of Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious: “Whoever reveals anything, that is, whoever tells us something we did not know before, his words must be intelligible, and the matter possible. This rule holds good, let God or Man be the Revealer.” My thirty-two years of teaching mostly Christian students tells me that many, perhaps most, American Christians would reject this rule.

When I ask why student react negatively to it, they often appeal to the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and to miracles such as Jesus’ resurrection. They argue that those doctrines are unintelligible (at least to non-Christians) and that miracle is impossible. I disagree and strive to explain why to students, some of whom seem persuaded and others not.

First, let me say that I do not agree with Toland about much else. His definitions of “intelligible” and “possible” seem terribly narrow to me. Postmodernity, for all its problems, has opened up new possibilities for what might rightly be considered intelligible and possible—even by secular, rationalist people.

Second, I carefully explain what I mean by “intelligible” and “possible” when I agree with Toland’s rule.

Third, I attempt to show that no Christian dogma, essential doctrine, and nothing I believe, is either unintelligible or impossible.

What do I mean by “intelligible.” Let’s start with the negative: Something is unintelligible if it is in a language I don’t understand and/or violates the law of non-contradiction. If someone asks me to believe something and the “something” involves a logical contradiction, I am well within my rights to demand an explanation that clears up the contradiction or to reject the something out of hand.

Examples always help. “The moon is made of green cheese” is not unintelligible. It’s perfectly intelligible. It’s impossible and I’ll come to that later. What’s an example of an unintelligible “something?” Consider “John Doe is a married bachelor.” Without further explanation such a revelation has to be considered unintelligible. Not much else is strictly unintelligible; only logical contradictions are strictly unintelligible. Of course, there are apparent logical contradictions and we call them “paradoxes.” And a paradox is always a task for further thought and explanation.

Are any Christian dogmas unintelligible? No. What about the Trinity? Well, if the doctrine of the Trinity were that God is “three in one, one in three” (as many people say), then it would be unintelligible without further explanation. I forbid students from expressing the doctrine of the Trinity that way. That’s taking a phrase from a hymn and making it a whole doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is one substance shared equally by three persons. That’s a mystery but it’s not unintelligible unless you consider all mysteries (things that cannot be fully comprehended) unintelligible which would make some scientific theories unintelligible.

I say again, no doctrines of the Christian faith (and none of my beliefs) are unintelligible in this strict sense of the word. And the moment we step beyond this strict sense to broaden “unintelligible” to include more than logical contradictions we get ourselves into trouble. We all believe things that are unintelligible to some other people because they only make sense within a certain plausibility structure. But logic transcends plausibility structures. The law of non-contradiction is the basic law of all persuasion. If someone wants me to believe something it cannot contradict itself. If it does, I don’t even know what they are saying or asking me to believe.

The problem with Toland and most modern rationalists is that they did not/do not see that their definitions of “intelligible” identifies their own plausibility structure with intelligibility itself. Postmodernity informs us that we are all caught in plausibility structures and there is no one over arching one that rules all language and thought. The law of non-contradiction, however, is not part of one plausibility structure. It is the law of what truth claims can be taken seriously.

Moving on to “possible.” Toland says that a matter must be possible in order to be believed. Put another way, if someone asks me to believe something I did not already know, it must be possible. That seems like a truism. Of course nobody believes in the impossible. But what’s “possible” depends on one’s plausibility structure. “With God all things are possible.” Well, not quite. Even William of Ockham thought God could not do the illogical. Still, with God in one’s plausibility structure, much more is possible than otherwise.

If someone asks me to believe that he jumped to the moon (to keep the moon illustration going) without any aid of any kind, simply by his own effort, I would not believe him. I would immediately discount that claim as impossible.

But what about the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? If the resurrection of Christ, as understood by historical, classical Christianity, is anything it is a miracle. If naturalism is one’s plausibility structure it’s impossible. But if one believes in God, it’s not impossible.

Toland believed in God, but he almost certainly did not believe in the bodily resurrection. Why? Because he considered the universe Newtonian—ruled by mathematically describable natural laws in perfect harmony—a closed causal network created by God. For him, so it seems, God is “outside” that network and would have to “violate” it, “break into it,” “interrupt it” in order to work a miracle. That would, given the nature of the network, destroy it.

However, Newtonian physics is now on the ropes and postmodernity has opened up all kinds of opportunities for belief in miracles. And Christians should never have adopted the modern idea of nature as a closed network of causes and effects ruled by mathematically describable natural laws over against God. As C. S. Lewis argues in Miracles, laws of nature are simply regularities of God’s general providence—God’s operation in and through nature. A miracle is not a violation or interruption of nature and nature’s laws because God isn’t “outside” having to “break in” to do something. And God is fully capable of bringing about an unusual (and inexplicable to science) events while keeping the whole of nature moving along harmoniously.

Too many Christians seem to revel in the irrational; it is to many Christians a sign of Christianity’s “specialness.” But the cost is twofold. First, we can hardly blame non-Christians for rejecting our truth claims insofar as they are truly unintelligible. Christians have failed miserably when it comes to expressing dogmas like the Trinity and the Person of Christ (“hypostatic union”) intelligibly. Second, we can hardly argue against non-Christian belief systems on the grounds that they are unintelligible if our own is unintelligible. Many Christians argue, for example, that Mormonism is unintelligible while themselves reveling in illogical beliefs that they think are Christian.

In sum, what is at stake is truth. When Christians revel in unintelligible nonsense and resist the hard work of making their beliefs intelligible to themselves and others, eventually Christianity moves into a ghetto of irrationality, subjectivism and folk religion. Then the claim that Christianity is “true” is easily interpreted as “true for us.” But Christianity was always intended to be a gospel of good news for all, true for all, understandable by all—insofar as they are open to it and their minds are not closed to it. Paul’s message to the Athenians was not esoteric. The reason his message about the resurrection was rejected was that their minds were closed. But some wanted to hear more. “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope you have within you.” (1 Peter 3:15)

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