Thursday, September 25, 2008

Logic and Semantics in Theology

In the medieval university the study of logic and semantics was part of an education eventuating in the Master of Arts degree. Students studying for their Doctor of Theology learned their craft after having already mastered these important fields. In medieval disputations participants knew the rules of inference and could easily spot logical infractions. Moreover, they knew that words had both a signifcatio (signification) and a suppositio (reference), and they could unpack the meaning of theological sentences on the basis of this distinction. The educational horizon of the budding medieval theologian included profound training in the art of inference and the nature of meaning.

At the dawn of the Reformation, theologians like Luther who would become important purveyors of the new theology at Wittenberg, could also claim a deep education in logic and semantics. Luther participated in faculty disputations throughout his life and he clearly knew how to chop logic with the best of his peers. His training at Erfurt with the nominalists Trutvetter and Unsinn prepared him to understand deeply the truth-conditions of theological language, an understanding thought necessary for theological precision. Disputants were concerned with the question of which theological statements were true and which false. In a time in which it was salvifically important what one believed to be true theologically, sustained effort was made to give students the requisite tools to grasp the truth value of theological statements.

We Lutherans living almost 500 years after the Reformation find ourselves in a context quite unlike that of the Reformers. While for them the critical questions concerned the truth value of particular theological statements, for us the crucial theological questions don't seem any longer to be about truth. It is as if many Lutheran theologians and pastors have outgrown a robust sense of truth. Of course, they might say, theological statements are in some sense true, but this does not mean that there is some theological states of affairs existing independently from consciousness making those statements true. Such statements are true for other reasons, it seems. Theological statements may express or address the human existential situation such that their meaning and truth are thus connectable to human experience in a very profound sense. Or perhaps such statements are best understood as linguistic customs of a Lutheran community, meta-rules regulating how that community employs other theological statements.

In an age where one cannot claim another's religion false without thereby somehow denigrating the other person or his/her culture, it is difficult to claim that the truth of one's statements have any ontological backing. The reason is obvious: If one's theological statements are true because of some objective feature of the divine and its relationship to the world, then the statements of other religions not referring to these objective features must be false. But these statements cannot be false without denigrating the other person's cutlure and since to denigrate another's culture is wrong, then these statements cannot be false, and if they cannot be false, then one's own theological statements cannot be true. This is how it works logically.

So theology today passes without robust truth conditions. Theology becomes a discourse about the self, about the self within a communal context, about power relationships and marginalization, about racial or patriarchal oppression, about the individual's will-to-power, about almost anything but a divine being existing over and apart from human beings, a divine being who acts on behalf of human beings. Moreover, the purveyors of contemporary theology seem not even to know how differently from previous generations they understand theological terms. In addition, they do not know how deeply problematic contemporary theological semantics has become, a semantics that seems not cable of allowing for standard logical derivations at all.

In this time when theological language seems to have adopted multiple semantic structures, and theological argument has been debased to mere assertion, perhaps it is time again to return to a former time, a time when agreement on semantics and logic allowed for reasoned theological argument and objective truth and meaning. Perhaps if theologians and pastors could again agree on the rules of thought and the nature of meaning, discourse about God could become again a deeply pertinent discourse seeking to discern truth - - a truth that we have not constructed, but rather found, a truth not of our making, but God's.


  1. Donavon Riley9:59 AM

    Dennis, if we were to go pre-Kantian in our examination of theological language - and pre-Kantian in our assertions regarding God's Word of law and Gospel - is there any theological "school" in the present tense that pre-supposes an ontological foundation of the law (similar to or simply parroting the onotlogical foundation of the law as proposed by medieval realism)?

    Playing off of your blog post, do "we" in the church who weekly take to the pulpit commonly accept the pre-supposition that the law is valid for human be-ing because it does NOT rest on a universal and eternal order within something but rather locates its source in the will of God?

    I believe, thinking historically, that the primary problem has been and continues to be, the split that took place between the two Reformation "camps" claiming theological fealty to the teachings of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

    Melanchthon I believe, accepted the law as an eternal and universally valid and objective order (lex aeterna) which certainly, later in Melanchthon's career, more and more, resembled the medieval Thomistic position which is no surprise considering Melanchthon's appreciation and acceptance of Aristotelian philsophy into his theological suppositions.

    On the other hand, as Laurie Haikola asserts, Luther is much more consistently Nominalistic; the law does not represent an eternal, immovable order from which eternally valid material norms can be derived.

    That is, God's will is certainly expressed in God's Word of Law, however, God's will can never be expressed in the form of a few absolute and eternally valid rules.

    Since you brought up Kant, it seems that in the present tense, our pulpits are suffering from the proliferation of theological science-fiction because we have little to no appreciation and understanding of "the Law" as God's Word which precedes the Gospel, just as the Old Testament precedes the New Testament, and just as the Old Adam must be put to death (in fact) in order to make way for the New Christ.

    Finally, the basic presupposition about the Law - especially when we begin speaking about Kant's influence regarding our theological suppositions about the law in the present tense - will influence and determine our "use" of theological language - as you assert in your blog post - especially how we make the distinction and transition from second to first order discourse in preaching justification by faith alone in christ alone apart from the law.

    To co-opt a line from John McCain, our fundamentals regarding the law (and as a result, the Gospel) are NOT strong and therefore, our understanding and use of theological language suffers uncritical, or perhaps better, "post-critical," exploitation and abuse.

  2. Donavon,

    I agree that the issue of the law is very important in the movement towards any post-critical "retrieve" of theology. I don't, however, see the basic dialectic between the eternity of the law (Thomist tradition) or the divine will authority of the law (late medieval scholasticism) as that important in what happened. Both of these camps regard the law as something over and against human beings, something to which they must conform if they are somehow not to be sinning. Finally, it makes little difference salvifically whether one is failing to conform to an eternal law or to a willed divine precept. The real problem is that after Kant, it made no sense to think of God as a being who could possess any law over and against the noblest sentiments in human being. If God is not a being, who in His being, places law (of whatever kind) upon His creation, then human beings are not beings, who in their being have divine law at issue for them. What is important to post-Kantian human beings is to attempt to live in conformity with that law which men and women themselves legislate. To discover and discern that law then becomes an act of self-discernment, self-discovery, and self-actualization. Of course, a God that is finally an ideal of human reason cannot, in principle, contravene the noblest intentions of the human experience. Such a God cannot be real in the sense of the great Christian tradition, a tradition that regarded theological language to have truth-conditions, a tradition that believe that something definite must obtain in order for a theological proposition to be true.