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The Possibility of Theological Statements

I.M. Crombie in Faith and Logic: Oxford Essays in Philosophical Theology (Routledge: 2013; orig. 1957), chap. II.

Christianity, as a human activity, involves much more than simply believing certain propositions about matters of fact, such as that there is a God, that He created this world, that He is our judge. But it does involve believing these things, and this believing is, in a sense, fundamental; not that it matters more than the other things that a Christian does, but that it is presupposed in the other things that he does, or in the manner in which he does them. This is a fact, but it is in some ways an awkward fact, and for many years some theologians have tried to sidestep it. It is an awkward fact because, for example, if one professes certain beliefs, it seems that one ought to be willing to offer some kind of grounds for them. Yet we all know that it is difficult, and some think it is impious, to offer adequate grounds for the faith. Again — a requirement which has become more prominent with recent developments in philosophy — if one professes certain beliefs it seems that one ought to be willing to map out, roughly at any rate, the extent of the claims one is making by saying what is compatible and what is incompatible with them; and that again, in the case of religious beliefs, is something which is difficult to do, for reasons which will be considered in this chapter. Therefore some theologians have tried to sidestep these problems by denying that the Christian religion involves anything that may fairly be called factual beliefs about a transcendent being. That, it is said, is metaphysics , and religion has no interest in metaphysics. A simple-minded move, that has had its devotees, consists in saying that we do not believe that there is a God; we believe in God. More sophisticated apologists have urged that credal affirmations may, without significant loss, be treated as equivalent to recommendations of the behaviour and attitudes that are agreed on all hands to be their proper corollaries. ‘There is a God’ thus becomes equivalent, or nearly equivalent, to something like: ‘Treat all men as brothers, and revere the mystery of the universe.’ Beliefs are said to be merely the expression — the somewhat misleading expression — of an attitude of worship. ¶ But, in spite of the piety and wisdom of those who have been seduced by them, these expedients must be denounced as evasions. The distinction between believing that and believing in is, of course, valid; but it does not help us, for believing in is logically subsequent to believing that.

I cannot believe in Dr Jones if I do not first believe that there is such a person. Nor is the reduction of credal affumations to the behaviour of worship and general charitable conduct that ought to follow from them of any avail. For Christian worship cannot be exhaustively described in terms of how the worshipper feels, of what he says and does; it retains an irreducible element of belief. Christian worship is neither a kind of poetry nor a kind of ascesis, neither a giving vent to feelings of awe and reverence, nor a cultivation of the soul. Fundamentally it is thought of by the Christian as an entry into relationship with a transcendent being, whom non-Christians do not believe to be there to enter into relationship with. Christian worship, therefore, is not only something which the non -Christian does not do, it is something which, by virtue of the difference of his beliefs, the non-Christian cannot do, though he can, of course, do something which, in externals, is as closely similar as you please. What the non-Christian does, whether in church or out of it, may be better or it may be worse than what the Christian does, but it cannot be the same, because it cannot share the same credal basis.

There are then certain factual beliefs which are fundamental to Christianity, in the sense that they underlie all Christian activity, and give it its specifically Christian character. The expression of such beliefs I shall refer to as the making of theological statements .*

The problem stated

Our problem in this chapter, then, is: how are theological statements possible? For it is a fairly common philosophical position to-day to say that there can be no meaningful theological statements. This view may be loosely put by saying that theological statements are unverifiable, and therefore meaningless ; or it may be more carefully put by attending to the rules which Christians appear to lay down for the interpretation of theological statements, and contending that these rules conflict with each other in such a way that no meaningful statements could possibly be governed by such rules. For, it is said, the statements purport to be about a quasi-personal subject, and in that way to be parallel to statements about, say, Julius Caesar; and yet if we proceed to draw conclusions from them, to bring arguments against them, in general to test them as if they were parallel to statements about Julius Caesar, we are told that we have failed to grasp their function. They have, apparently, some kind of special exemption from empirical testing; and yet if one attempts, for this reason, to assimilate them to other kinds of utterances (moral judgments for example, or mathematical formulae) which enjoy similar exemption, one is at once forbidden to do so. How paradoxical this is; and how much easier it makes it to believe that the making of theological statements rests on some kind of confusion than to accept them at their face­ value!