Monday, November 10, 2008

Paul Helm on the Necessity of Making Good Distinctions

Paul Helm had a post a while back that is worth our time to read and ponder. I've repeated before a dictum I learned from John Piper: much of being a good theologian is about learning to make good distinctions. And Helm helps us here.

Consistency, Inconsistency, and Entailment

He first shows that the following three logical relationships between propositions are significantly different:
  1. Propositions p and q are consistent.
  2. Propositions p and q are inconsistent because they are self-contradictory.
  3. Proposition p entails proposition q, such that if p is true, q must necessary be true
Helm admits this is abstract, but insists it is not remote or irrelevant. "By neglecting such simple, basic logical distinctions some are led to some ludicrous ideas about systematic theology." You can go to his post and see him unpack this further.

What Words Imply vs. What the Author Intends by Those Words

The second distinction Helm wants us to see is that, when interpreting theologians and their theology, we must distinguish between what the theologian's words imply, and what he intended by those words. "After all, not being omniscient, a person cannot be held responsible for all the logical consequences of his thoughts."

He illustrates by exploring the somewhat anachronistic question of whether or not John Calvin believed in the covenant of works. I'm less interested here in the answers (Helm suggests some plausible but not definitive ones) than I am in the process of making good distinctions in asking good questions. Here they are:
  1. Did Calvin believe in the Covenant of Works?
  2. Did Calvin intend to teach the Covenant of Works?
  3. Did Calvin deny the Covenant of Works?
  4. Is some of what Calvin believed consistent with the Covenant of Works?
  5. Is the covenant a dominant motif of Calvin's theology?
  6. Does some of what Calvin believed entail the Covenant of Works?
Being Committed to a Belief vs. Committing Oneself to a Belief

The third important distinction Helm insists on is the difference between a theologian being being committed to a doctrine and committing himself to it. To illustrate Helm uses the issue of whether or not Calvin believe in definite atonement:
A person may be committed to a doctrine without committing themselves to it. How so? Because the proposition or propositions that a person believes may have logical consequences that that person does not realise (even though such consequences may, to later students, be as plain as a pikestaff). Why may this be so? Perhaps through a simple failure of logic, simply not noticing that p and q entail r. Or perhaps through simple ignorance, because the logical consequences had not been brought to that person’s attention. One result of controversy is that those in the controversy, and bystanders too, come to have their noses rubbed in some of the logical consequences of the positions being argued over. (Think of the connection Christ drew between ‘God is the living God’ and ‘Abraham, having died, nevertheless lives on’.) Seeing that p entails q might make a person affirm q. Or seeing that p entails q might make him deny p. So the question, did Calvin commit himself to limited atonement, is bound up with another: Is it plausible to believe that, had the fully developed doctrine of definite atonement being available to Calvin, he would have embraced it? Or would he have back-peddled to a vaguer or to a contrary view? In asking and attempting to answer such questions the mists and fogs of anachronism loom. So perhaps we are better not to ask them, or not ask them very often.
Read the whole thing.