Are Some Things Impossible to Believe?
written by Roger E. Olson, PhD
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.
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