The ancient Greeks distinguished themselves, among other things, by establishing ways of reaching reasonable conclusions. The syllogism as an instrument of reason makes it possible to advance one’s thinking with certainty. “All human beings are mortal. Socrates is a human being. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” It is not necessary to present evidence that confirms the death of Socrates.
In the early Christian disputes about the person of Christ, the arguments centered on the definition of the Logos (Word) that according to the Gospel of John was in the beginning with God. Arius of Alexandria formulated a powerful syllogism: “God is immortal. The Logos became incarnate and died. Therefore, the Logos is not God.” He is a divine being, but not God. Docetists had formulated an opposite syllogism: “God is immortal. The Logos is God. Therefore, The Logos did not die.”
Athanasius tried to find a compromise that would allow him to say that the Logos was God and had died. First, he invented the world homoousios. With it he could say that God and the Logos were of the same ousia (being, essence). Then he said that what died was the immaculate body the Logos had built for his incarnation, and that the Logos had raised his own body. This attempt to solve the problem, not surprisingly, did not please the majority of Christians.
The rigor of syllogisms did not affect the Biblical writers, especially those of the Old Testament. In the Bible, ideas advance, principally, by way of parallelisms, or what is called free association. These two things go together. Exactly how does not concern me. If something takes place, God intended or did it. How? It does not matter.
English versions of Isaiah 1:18 read, “Come, let us reason together.” Reasoning, however, was something unknown to Isaiah. Classical Hebrew actually lacked the word. Isaiah was concerned with how to take care of the weight of sins when God does not care for the sacrifices, the feasts and the solemn assemblies at the temple. If the people wish to settle their debts, balance their accounts, they must “desist from doing evil and learn to do good, seek justice, restitute the injured, listen to the complaint of the orphans and protect the widows” (1:17). Then, “if your sins be as scarlet, as wool they will be whitened” There is no argument, no explanation, no reasons given. This is the way it is. Nobody sits down to reason with another. One moment blood taints sins red, and the next they are whitened without blood.
To the elimination of sin one does not arrive by a “therefore.” One gets there by a “nevertheless.” No syllogism produces this result.
No syllogism can give us the certainty that God is the Creator of heaven and earth, or that the death of Christ cleanses us from all sins. If we could have today some of the blood that stained red the brow, the hands, the feet and the chest of Jesus on the cross, and we were to analyze it in a modern laboratory, the results obtained at the lab would not prove its efficacy to whiten sins. There is no “therefore” here.
When the author of the Letter to the Hebrews goes beyond any Old Testament author and says that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins,” he does not build a syllogism on the basis of this major premise. The minor premise says, “the blood of lambs and goats sacrificed at the temple did not cleanse from sin” (according to the prophets). With these premises he cannot draw a “therefore.” He can only introduce another premise, “the blood of Christ is better.” With this premise, however, no conclusion may be drawn. When forgiveness is viewed as the product of God’s grace, it can only be affirmed on the basis of a “nevertheless.”
What makes me conscious of my Creator and of my being a creature is not a “therefore.” Many times I have had to recognize this. The tragedy of the Port-au-Prince earthquake has forced me to consider again, more painfully than before, this important truth. Karl Barth was one of the great theologians of the middle of the last century. His influence has not persisted, in great measure, because he did not pay sufficient attention to history and based his theology on the Sovereign and Transcendent Word. Paying attention to our historical reality, we still have to recognize the significance that Barth gave to “dennoch” (nevertheless). Facing the more than 230,000 deaths and the dilapidation of the Haitian capital that an Almighty and Sovereign God did not prevent, Can one affirm the inactivity of the Creator? Certainly it cannot be affirmed on the basis of a “therefore.”
There may be some who consider the Port-au-Prince earthquake a sign of the soon Second Coming. It is the one that replaces the Lisbon earthquake and causes God’s people to get ready to meet their Savior. Such a view, undoubtedly, is the total negation of the character of the God who is worthy of our worship. A god who sacrifices 230,000 human beings and destitutes 2,000,000 to give a sign of God’s Coming is a mockery of God. Facing the Port-au-Prince earthquake I can only confess, “I am totally confused, disoriented, in despair and uncertain as I consider this event in God’s world, “nevertheless” I believe in God the Creator.
When we sing “This is my Father’s world” we affirm our faith. Evils perpetrated by evil people who carry out their perverted wills leave us angry, frustrated and eager to confront them, fight them and stop them. Earthquakes that destroy and kill directly or by producing ocean waves thousands of innocents leave us disoriented, defenseless, asking ourselves, “What king of Creation is ours? Couldn’t God have created a world in which these things do not happen? Surely God did not create the best of all possible worlds.” If “nature” is capable of killing 230,000 persons and destroying what 2,000,000 call home, it is difficult for us to identify “nature” with “Creation.” No syllogism will lead us to that conclusion. If we wish to identify nature with Creation, it will have to be on the basis of “nevertheless” nature’s erratic, irresponsible and even evil behavior. Even if we insist that nature is not immoral but amoral, the morality of its Creator is not obvious.
I conclude emphasizing that in no way do I wish to leave the impression that I am arguing that one must not allow reason to guide us to certain conclusions. On the contrary, I am a staunch defender of reason as the best guide and as the only means by which the Holy Spirit can communicate with us and have an influence on us. Reason, it must be recognized, does not only facilitate the construction of syllogisms. It also makes possible for all our thoughts to be reasonable by giving structure to our minds. Both “therefore” and “nevertheless” are products of our reason and both allow us to offer opinions that are then evaluated by the reason of our contemporaries. For this reason my faith cannot contradict reason, but it can, and sometimes has no alternative but to, go beyond the limits of syllogisms. Christian faith has its basis on a “nevertheless,” and the Port-au-Prince earthquake made me realize this anew, with the force of 7.0 on the Richter scale.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2160