Tag Archives: logic

What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!

In my previous post, I showed how the essence of heresy is to resolve a biblical paradox in one direction or the other in order to satisfy the human need for a consistent rational explanation of things; and how the early church, on the contrary, used reason not to resolve or dismiss paradox and mystery, but rather to protect it. Examples included the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa against heresy (protecting the essentially paradoxical nature of the whole Gospel message), and the “four fences” of the Chalcedonian Definition (protecting the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human).

Now we move to the medieval period for two more examples of this use of reason to protect, rather than resolve or dismiss, the paradox and mystery at the heart of Christian theology – that is, the Incarnation.

The first example is the doctrine of transubstantiation, promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This explanation of how the Eucharist “works” extends the Chalcedonian explanation that one person (Christ) can indeed be both 100% God and 100% human, to a nuanced piece of (Aristotelian) scientific reasoning on how the same sort of “this and also that” reality can be true of the Eucharistic elements. In other words, transubstantiation tried to explain, in terms accessible to scientific reason, how Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” can possibly be true.

The second example comes from the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, both of whom we’ve already met, and looks at their reasoned explanations of the bloody scandal that was the Crucifixion. Why on earth would God have to redeem his human creatures in such a bizarre and painful way? If you’re a thoughtful Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith, then you’ve likely wondered this yourself. Again, Anselm and Abelard used forms of reasoned explanation that made good sense in their cultural contexts to explain this paradox: God died.

In other words, the divine Being who “has His own being in Himself” ceased, as all creatures do, to be! Anselm and Abelard, both brilliant dialecticians, both refused to use reason (in the mode of the early heretics) to flatten this paradox in one direction (Jesus was not really human and thus God did not really die–the docetist heresy) or the other (Jesus was not really God, and thus God did not really die–the Arian heresy). Instead, each used cultural materials to protect that central mystery while offering reasonable explanations for why the God the Second Person of the Trinity found it necessary to die on the cross–the ultimate Being submitting, however temporarily, to death, just like a sinful human.

Here’s how I work all of this out in the “theology chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Continue reading

Out of the medieval darkness: The REAL story of medieval theology

English: Illustration of the spherical earth i...

English: Illustration of the spherical earth in a medieval manuscript. The figure shows two men walking around the spherical earth, one going to the East and the other to the West, and meeting on the opposite side. O. H. Prior, ed., L’image du monde de maitre Gossuin, (Lausanne & Paris: Librarie Payot & C ie , 1913), pp. 93-4. 14th century copy of a 12th century original (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK folks, still at it: the “theology chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis is nearly done. Having introduced it with clips from my introduction of the “modern problem” which I hope this chapter can help address and my two-part review of Lewis’s relationship to philosophy and theology (of the modern and medieval varieties), the time has come to jump into the medieval material. Here is the “medieval introduction,” which finds that it must clear away some stereotypes before positing the “four balances” that medieval theology maintained – from which we can learn much today.

I. Medieval faith in reason? Surely not!

Possibly the number one reason many (I hope not most!) modern Protestant Christians will not give this book the time of day is that they assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason.[1]

It’s a shame we have to do this, but in order to get back to the brilliance of medieval theology, we first have to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and top-selling – according to Amazon sales rankings) book by one William Manchester called A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester is a historian, but he works way out of his field here.[2] And that is the most charitable reason I can think of for his straight-faced argument that even in Columbus’s time, and throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the 8-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says “nonsense.”[3] Continue reading

Is there really “no true Scotsman”? or “Amishman”? or “Quaker”?

Ever hear of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy? There’s a delightful exposition of it, with great relevance for the church, on the Slacktivist blog. It is by Fred Clark, and it makes me want to read more of Mr. Clark’s stuff. Here’s how it begins:

The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a common way of exempting a group from any culpability for the bad actions of members of that group. More generally, the useful Wikipedia article linked to there describes it as:

An ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.

The key point there is that final phrase: “without reference to any specific objective rule.” I want to clarify that even further, and say that such specific objective rules need to be credibly accepted as excluding the counterexample. But I also want to reinforce this aspect of the definition to ensure that we’re not seeing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy where it does not exist.

It’s helpful here to look at philosopher Antony Flew’s classic example of this fallacy, from which it derives its name. That example is structured, actually, as a joke: Continue reading