Having reviewed my own work in the previous article about who God is and what sort of God he is, I realize that it is an easy article to contest. One might easily say that I have committed the No-True-Scotsman fallacy. This fallacy is an after-the-fact attempt to rescue an argument from refutation. It is so called the No-True-Scotsman fallacy for the illustrations that are often used to explain it.
Smith: All Scotsmen are loyal and brave.
Jones: But McDougal over there is a Scotsman, and he was arrested by his commanding officer for running from the enemy.
Smith: Well, if that’s right, it just shows that McDougal wasn’t a TRUE Scotsman.1
Or another form, which was my first introduction to the idea and still the one which first comes to mind, goes like this:
Person A: No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Person B: But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.
Person A: Ah yes, but not true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.2
One might say this is the sort of thing I have done. I have asserted that God exists. Then, when someone points out that there is suffering in the world, I simply respond by saying, “Ah yes, but the sort of God that is disproved thereby is not the God of the Bible. The true God is not disproved by suffering.” One might say that in the face of any evidence which would refute God I simply say, “The God you have refuted is not the true God.” One might say that this is “simply a dogmatic refusal to face up to the possibility of being wrong.”3 Is this what I have done? Have I committed the No-True-God Fallacy?
Have I failed to make God intelligible? What am I to do? Should I recant all that I have said? I find myself in the position of the blind man by the pool of Siloam. And so, consider this a blind man’s confession.
The Unbelievers Who “Know” God, and the Believer Who Doesn’t
In John 9 Jesus and his disciples come across “a man blind from birth” (9:1). Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). then he went and washed and came back able to see” (9:6, 7). It is undeniable that this man had been changed by Jesus, so much so that even those who knew him were not sure that he was the same person. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.” Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'” (9:8, 9).
The most interesting thing about the encounter is the man’s agnosticism. Whenever he is asked for an explanation as to how he came to see all he can tell is what happened to him, but as to who Jesus is, where he came from, or how we was able to perform the miracle, he repeats over and over, “I don’t know.” “But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.'”
In contrast, those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah are quite sure that they know what sort of man Jesus is. “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.'” (9:13-16a). Whereas the healed man did not know where Jesus was, certain the Pharisees knew where he was not from. They were certain that he was not from God. Others, however, were more cautious. “But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided.” (9:16b).
They turn to the formerly blind man and ask him again to explain the man who healed him. This time he ventures beyond his agnostic position to say simply, “He is a prophet” (9:17). The Jews who interrogated him were not even sure that the man was born blind or whether he was making it up. After calling his parents to witness to the truth of the matter they turn again to the man and say, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24). Again, those who reject Jesus are the one’s that make the strongest claims to know him. They know that he is a sinner. The blind man continues his cautious and agnostic approach about the nature of Jesus. “He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see'” (9:25).
After the blind man’s expulsion he has another encounter with Jesus. “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshiped him” (9:35-38). How ironic that it is the life-long blind man who “sees” Jesus (9:37).
As so often happens in scripture, Jesus explains his actions to those around him as a kind of enacted parable. “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.'” (9:39-41). The blind man knew well that he was blind, not only physically but spiritually. He did not presume to know who Jesus was, and thereby he was able to accept Jesus as coming from God. It was this “blind” man who has his sins forgiven. The mistake lies with those who were so sure that they could see, both physically and spiritually. They “knew” who Jesus was and what sort of man he was. It is that claim to knowledge that made them unable to accept Jesus. It is because they said “We see” that their “sin remains” (9:41).
We Do Not Make God Intelligible, He Makes Us Intelligible
All those who are sure that they know what sort of God the God of the Bible is find themselves in the place of the Jews who opposed him. They had read the Bible, they were sure that they “knew” what the Messiah would look like, how prophets would act, and what sort of God they served. It was that “knowledge” of God which caused them to refuse Jesus. As it turns out, the God they rejected was not the God they met in Jesus Christ. So it is with so many unbelievers. They have perhaps read the Bible and maybe even some philosophy. They are then sure that they know what sort of God the Christian God is and that is the very thing which stops them from being able to accept him.
But if they are the Pharisees then that leaves me in the place of the blind man. Often the best that I can do when asked about God is to say, “I don’t know.” Still, given that it turned out well for the blind man, I don’t think that’s a bad place to be. “Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say ‘God.’ This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word ‘God’ only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit. Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn.”4 Because this is the case, it is likely misguided to try and defend God or explain him. Even believers are often not quite sure what to say about God. And when they are “sure” they are often wrong. But I think that is because God does not gain his intelligibility from us, rather we get ours from him. We do not explain him, he explains us. The blind man put it so well. “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). He could not make sense of who had healed him. But the only explanation for the blind man’s sight was that someone had healed him. He could not explain Jesus, but only Jesus could explain him. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says something about this dynamic when he says, “John’s designation of Christ as the Logos points to the fact that the evangelist envisions him as fulfilling the role of cosmic reason, in the Greeks’ and in Philo’s sense as that which grants all things their intelligibility.”5
The Church that Only God Could Make
Mortimer Adler once described his attempt at apologetics using the works of Thomas Aquinas.
“One year–in 1936, I believe–that seminar began with the ‘Treatise on God.’ I announced that I would not move a page beyond Question 2 until I had succeeded in persuading every member of the class that the existence of God could be demonstrated by one or another of the proofs advanced by Aquinas. One by one they gave in, either from some measure of conviction or, more likely, from weariness and boredom with the protracted process; but one, Charles Adams, indomitably held out. Finally, my professorial colleague, Malcolm Sharp, called a halt to the proceedings and suggested that, instead of sticking to my guns with Adams, I tell the class about the life and work of Aquinas. I did so, stressing the shortness of his career as a teacher and writer (a little more than twenty years) in which, under the austerities of monastic life, with no libraries, typewriters, in ordinary-sized volumes, would occupy many shelves; and, I added, most of these works were filled with quotations from Sacred Scripture, from the philosophers of antiquity, from the Fathers of the Church, and from his immediate predecessors in the 11th and 12th centuries–all this without having the convenience of a well-stocked library or an adequate filing system. When I had finished, Adams spoke up. He rebuked me for not having started out by telling the class what I had just finished reporting. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because,’ said Adams, ‘if you had told us all this about Aquinas, you would not have had to bother our minds with arguments about God’s existence. Aquinas could not have done what he did without God’s help.”6
Whereas, for Adams, Aquinas had failed to make God intelligible, he was sure that only God could make Aquinas intelligible. It may be that the church’s best apologetics is being the church. Stanley Hauerwas tells of a woman who served as his priest for some time, “Susan would often begin her sermons by observing that she could not ‘think the church up.’ She could not imagine an Aldersgate, but God can and does. What a wonderful way to put it.”7 Our response to the living Christ is not to explain him but to live lives which only he could explain. This is a hard call to answer because so often Christians have severed their theology from the way that they live. Christianity has become formal knowledge of a private creed instead of discipleship to a living Christ. “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.”8
It is time for the church to be the church. It could very well be it is our lives, not our arguments, which need conversion. There is a story often told of G.K. Chesterton. He was asked if there was any irrefutable argument for Christianity. He said, “Yes. Christians.” Immediately following he was asked if there was any really good argument against Christianity to which he answered, “Yes. Christians.”
I may not be able to make God intelligible. The church may not be able to make God intelligible. But the church can be a body which only God makes intelligible. Let’s get about being the church that only God could make.
©M. Benfield 2017
1. This example is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#NoTrueScotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017. There it is noted that the No-True-Scotsman Fallacy is a different way of naming what is called an Ad Hoc Rescue.↩
2. This is the first form given on Wikipedia, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017.↩
3. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ad Hoc Rescue.” Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHoc Rescue ; accessed 7 July, 2017.↩
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2012), 236.↩
5. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 54.↩
6. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan, (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 22-23.↩
7. Hauerwas, 222.↩
8. Ibid, 159.↩