What can be said at all can be said
clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Tractatus
In this section we will look at some aspects of language, and
how it has been used to support religious claims.
"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said, in rather
a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean
neither more nor less".
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Alice Through the Looking-Glass
Words are not always as straightforward as they appear. To
take a simple example, descriptive names are not always accurate.
As Voltaire (1694-1778) observed, the Holy Roman Empire was
neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Again, the Edict of
Milan was not an edict, and neither was it issued at Milan.
Sometimes a name can be deliberately misleading: George Orwell's Ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love are classic examples.
Sometimes the accuracy of the name is a matter of belief. Christian
Scientists presumably regard their faith as scientific. Roman
Catholics regard their Church as catholic. Jehovah's Witnesses
believe that they bear true witness to Jehovah. In each case
members regard the name as an accurate description, while non-members
Much confusion arises from the fact that different people interpret
the same words in different ways. In some cases this happens
naturally, for example because words change their meaning over
time. The Holy Ghost has recently become known as the Holy Spirit.
The reason is that the word ghost, which originally
meant much the same as spirit, has acquired new meanings
similar to spectre or apparition. This change
is understandable. Words do change their meanings, and to retain
clarity it is sometimes necessary to rephrase sentences to retain
their original meanings. More worrying is the deliberate changing
of a word's meaning, in order to meet one's own ends.
Theologians sometimes do this to keep scripture credible after
it has been shown to be in error. For example, the Bible says
that the world was made in six days, but in the nineteenth century
it became widely accepted that it took many millions of years
for Earth to form. To reconcile these contradictory facts theologians
proposed that the biblical day was not an earthly day
of 24 hours, but a heavenly day, which could conveniently be
equated with millions of Earth years*.
This simple device allows the same words to be used, but the
meaning to be completely changed. Using this technique, churchmen
never need to acknowledge that they have been wrong.
The Jesuits spent much time and
effort developing a doctrine called equivocation. The
basic idea is that in certain circumstances it is desirable
to mislead people by saying something that will be understood
one way by the listener but means something else to the speaker.
The doctrine effectively permits lying even under oath, as long
as it is possible to construe the words as accurate in some
sense, however tortuous. Equivocation was popular in England
when the authorities were threatened by Catholic terrorist attacks
like the Gunpowder Plot. Some Priests and fervent Catholics
plotted, and more were suspected of treason. Those accused used
equivocation to allay suspicion. Thus a priest wishing to conceal
his identity might say that he is "no priest", meaning
in his own mind that he is not Apollo's priest at Delphos. If
asked if he had ever been beyond the seas he might answer no,
meaning in his own mind that he had not been beyond the Indian
seas, even if in truth he had sailed to foreign countries for
treasonable purposes. The doctrine may sound absurd, but it
was adopted, justified and used for centuries. The two examples
given are real ones, both used by a certain Father Ward around
the time of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605*.
Another priest, Father Garnet, wrote a treatise on the subject
around the same time, giving practical examples of how to equivocate,
and pointing out that Jesus himself had employed the technique.
With a little imagination it is clearly possible to justify
any untruth using equivocation. A modern Jesuit might say that
he believes in the Virgin Birth, while in fact he believes no
such thing in his own mind he might believe it in a figurative
mythical sort of way, or he might believe in the phenomenon
of parthenogenesis, or something else equally irrelevant. The
trick boils down to finding alternative meaning for the words,
Equivocation is still used in the Catholic Church to deceive legal
authorities as well as just the faithful. For example Bishop Desmond
Connell used the technique to conceal the truth about child abuse
in his diocese in the early years of the twenty-first century.*
Inconvenient teachings can be adjusted in a similar way, by
changing a word's definition. For many centuries the Church
taught that "There is no salvation outside the Church".
This was universally accepted as meaning that only those who
belonged to the sole denomination favoured by God had a chance
of going to Heaven. Protestants held that only Protestants could
go to Heaven. Baptists held that only Baptists could go to Heaven.
Roman Catholics held that only members of the Roman Church could
go to Heaven, and so on. This idea of there being no salvation
outside the Church is increasingly unacceptable to modern theologians,
who find it difficult to accept that members of other denominations,
and indeed most of humankind, can be damned without a chance.
As one professor of theology has written of this doctrine*:
Is not such an idea excessively parochial, presenting God
in effect as the tribal deity of the predominantly Christian
West? And so theologians have recently been developing a mass
of small print to the old theology, providing that devout
men of other faiths may be Christians without knowing it,
or may be anonymous Christians, or may belong to the invisible
church, or may have implicit faith and receive baptism by
desire, and so on. These rather artificial theories are all
attempts to square an inadequate theology with the facts of
God's world. They are thoroughly well intentioned and
are to be welcomed as such. But in the end they are an anachronistic
clinging to the husk of the old doctrine after its substance
According to the Church of England's current position
"It is incompatible with the essential Christian affirmation
that God is love, to say that God brings millions into the world
to damn them" and "We can see empirically that people
are enabled to lead better lives through loyally following other
faiths, and this must mean that God is at work in these faiths"*.
In plain terms the Church of England (like many other denominations)
no longer teaches that "there is no salvation outside the
How can any Church abandon one of its central tenets without
admitting a massive mistake? The answer is to keep the same
words, but change their meaning. In this case the trick is to
change the meaning of the word Church. As attitudes
became more ecumenical and Christians started to accept that
members of other denominations might be saved, the word Church
was reinterpreted to mean not merely one particular denomination,
but the community of all good Christians. Thus for example Roman
Catholics could suddenly accept that Protestants could be saved.
More recently it has became popular to believe that any good
person might be saved, even a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, indeed
even an atheist. The word Church has had to be reinterpreted
again to include this wider group. So now it means a special
community of worthy people suitable for admission to Heaven.
The Church is a sort of invisible community known only
to God. Certain people belong to it, Christian and non-Christian
alike, but no one knows who they are. Now the statement "there
is no salvation outside the Church" means something quite
different. What has happened is that theologians have reversed
their position, for they are now asserting that non-Christians
can be saved. They are in fact teaching that there
is salvation outside the Church (in the original sense
of the word).
By changing the meaning of a key word, they have been able
to continue to use the ancient maxim and thus claim that their
position is unchanged. Indeed by switching the meaning of the
word Church from one occasion to another, clergymen
can enjoy the best of all possible worlds, matching the doctrine
to the needs of the moment. Priests will sometimes affirm the
original doctrine, and sometimes deny it, without abandoning
the wording, simply by redefining the term Church according
to the needs of the moment.
Similar reinterpretations are used to explain away all manner
of inconvenient material. The Bible prohibits the practice of
usury. The word usury means simply taking interest
on loans. For centuries that was how it was universally interpreted.
The prohibition became untenable as capitalism developed, so
the word was redefined. Suddenly usury denoted not
merely the charging of interest, but specifically the charging
of unreasonable interest. Now the Church can claim that it has
always disapproved of usury, and in a sense this is true, even
though it has completely changed its views on the practice of
charging interest. In November 2005, Benedict XVI was quoted
as condemning the "social plague" of usury, saying
that it should be combated through prevention, solidarity and
Other words were similarly redefined, and sometimes even changed.
The purported reason for altering a word is that the new word
conveys better the original meaning, just as the Holy Ghost
became the Holy Spirit. So it is that biblical slaves
became helpers, clerical wives became female
relatives, and concubines became maidservants.
Inconveniently, historians have no doubt that the words slave,
wife, and concubine still best represent the true meaning. The
words helper,relative and maidservant
are really euphemisms, intended to detract from the full impact
of the original term. We have already seen this technique in
use for biblical translations. For sects that believe in the
Virgin Birth, Jesus" brothers and sisters
become "cousins", and for sects that do not
permit clerical marriage, bishops become "elders".
According to requirements presbyteroi can be presbyters,
priests, elders or even old-timers. Again, the Word
(logos) can be rendered as word, idea, message, doctrine,
system, book or pre-existent being. By using the same word for
several different things it is easy to produce specious arguments.
The technique is common. Witnesses turn into victims of persecution
simply by changing the meaning of the word martyr.
Thousands of early Christian have been acclaimed as martyrs,
simply because they were witnesses, i.e. believers.
Another popular technique is to invoke human limitations of
understanding of the meaning of words. For example God is often
claimed to be all-merciful. This does not square easily with
his biblical persona. How can an all-merciful God commit genocide,
or encourage the killing of children, or punish people for the
sins of others? The usual solution to this difficulty is to
say that God is indeed all-merciful, it is just that our puny
human understanding is inadequate when it comes to comprehending
attributes such as divine mercy. It is beyond us. Other inconvenient
theological contradictions can be handled in the same way. A
perfect God who makes mistakes in creation, leading to suffering,
is explained by our failure to understand divine perfection.
An all-powerful God who is sometimes unable to perform is explained
by our failure to understand divine omnipotence. An all-knowing
God who is sometimes ignorant of worldly events is explained
by our failure to understand divine omniscience. Our standards
are not comparable to those of God, and it is presumptuous of
us, even impious, to pretend that they are.
To a non-Christian what is happening here is that God is being
invested with lots of qualities that humans consider desirable:
benevolence, perfection, omnipotence, omniscience all
of them concepts defined by human standards. The words are used
to convey the idea that God possesses properties that we consider
desirable. But as soon as we start asking uncomfortable questions
we are told that these words do not mean what they normally
mean they mean something completely different, but we
do not know what. Many people suspect that theologians are trying
to have it both ways. The words bear the ordinary meanings when
it suits them and mean something else when it doesn"t.
Divine benevolence sounds well enough, but if it means
something different from human benevolence, we might
be excused for asking what it is. At worst divine benevolence
might equate to something like human cruelty. This
is not merely cynicism, for as the theologians point out, we
have no way of knowing what divine benevolence might
mean. And these theologians are in no position to help. Like
any other human being, as they themselves admit, their understanding
is totally inadequate to comprehend God's attributes.
We have only one concept of benevolence and that is the human
one. If theologians want to apply that attribute to God then
they ought to have reasons for doing so. If they want to invoke
a different concept of divine benevolence, then they
should have the honesty to admit that since they know nothing
about it, there is no reason to suppose that it bears any similarity
to human benevolence. In that case it is misleading
to use the word benevolence at all, because people
naturally assume that the sort of benevolence being talked about
is the ordinary, familiar kind. Incidentally, many philosophers
believe that theologians know perfectly well what they are doing
when they use verbal tricks of this kind. Theologians often
get away with it because unsophisticated audiences fail to realise
that a key word is being given a new meaning part way through
A further source of confusion arises from the use of words
that can bear more than one meaning. Consider the assertion
that "God is perfect: therefore God is". Here, the
first is means possesses the attribute, the
second is means exists. The assertion is really
"God possesses the attribute “perfect”. Therefore
God exists". Suddenly, the argument has evaporated. The
assertion that "God is perfect. Therefore God is"
can be seen as a trick with words. One might equally well deduce
that God is just from the statement that God is
just a human invention this variation on the trick
clearly depends upon two different meanings of the word just.
Similar games are played with the word know. If we
know God, then God must exist in order for us to know him. But
the word know has two distinct functions in English.
It means both to comprehend and to be personally
acquainted with. If one were personally acquainted with
God, one would have grounds for believing in his existence.
If one merely understood the concept of God, one would not.
These tricks are dependent on the language in which they are
presented. Other languages have different words for the two
meanings of the English word know, for example, French
distinguishes savoir (to comprehend) and connaître
(to be acquainted with). German makes the same distinction between
wissen and kennen. The argument therefore
is obvious nonsense if expressed in these languages.
Another venerable technique is the non sequitur. Desired
conclusions are represented as being the logical consequences
of foregoing statements, though in fact they do not follow at
all. Here is an example of St Paul, a master of the non sequitur,
in action, with his arguments on the appropriateness of men
and women covering or uncovering the head when praying (1 Corinthians
11:3-15). This translation is from the NIV:
Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ,
and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is
God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered
dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies
with her head uncovered dishonours her head it is just
as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover
her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a
disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she
should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head,
since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the
glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from
man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought
to have a sign of authority on her head...Does not the very
nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it
is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it
is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
As most theologians would now concede, Paul is simply stating
a number of personal preferences, conditioned by his own cultural
milieu. But he uses a string of non-sequiturs to make out that
there is a better justification for his ideas. Evidently his
first argument did not convince even himself, for he eventually
appeals to the angels to justify his ideas, and then
to the very nature of things. It does not seem to occur to him
that "long hair is given" to men as well as to women.
If men have short hair, it is only because they get it cut.
It is sometimes assumed that all statements formulated in English
convey meaning. That this is a mistaken assumption is easily
illustrated by a sentence created specifically to demonstrate
the point. An example is the assertion that colourless green
ideas sleep furiously. The individual words all appear
meaningful, and the syntax is unimpeachable, yet the sentence
as a whole is nonsense. Unfortunately, it is not always as easy
to see that statements are meaningless. Pseudo-scientists and
some politicians make a living from the production of plausible
sounding assertions and arguments that are entirely devoid of
meaning. Mere words can easily give an illusion that matters
of substance are under consideration, especially if learned
terms are used. The eminent philosopher A. J. Ayer formed the
opinion that Christians routinely seek to deceive themselves
and each other in this way: "I think it is a very reprehensible
form of cheating for someone to utter sentences to which no
meaning is attached, and then pretend that he has said something
frightfully important ..."*.
Yet another form of cheating, as many philosophers see it,
is to refuse to accept the usual rules of logic whenever they
lead to unwanted results. An example is as follows. Christians
traditionally maintain that God is both omnipotent and benevolent.
The question then arises as to why
evil exists in the world (this is known as the Problem of Evil).
How for example could God permit such enormities as the Nazi
death camps during World War II? We may assume that he is aware
of such things because he is also held to be omniscient , so
the possibilities are that either God has no power to prevent
evil, or else he does have the power but chooses not to exercise
it. If he has no power to prevent it then he is not omnipotent.
On the other hand if he chooses not to prevent it then he is
not wholly benevolent. The conclusion is that God cannot be
both omnipotent and benevolent after all.
When results like this are obtained, theologians often refuse
to accept the normal conclusion that at least one of
the assumptions is wrong. Instead the contradiction is dismissed
as a "mystery". Thomas Paine identified the problem
over 200 years ago:
Forewarned, we now address the question as to whether important
assertions made by Christian Churches are meaningful.
When men, whether from policy or pious fraud, set up systems
of religion incompatible with the word or works of God in
the creation, and not only above, but repugnant to human comprehension,
they are under the necessity of inventing or adopting a word
that should serve as a bar to all questions, inquiries and
speculation. The word mystery answered this purpose, and thus
it has happened that religion, which is itself without mystery,
has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries*.
The doctrine of the Incarnation asserts, amongst other things,
that Christ was both fully God and fully man. Since the Ecumenical
Council of Chalcedon in 451, orthodox Christians have tried
to justify the doctrine of the Incarnation. Ordinary Christians
who trouble to think about the problem often arrive at explanations
that are technically heretical. The ancient Nestorian heresy,
that God and man coexisted in Christ as two persons, can be
characterised as a Clark Kent/Superman type dichotomy. Theologians
claim that explanations such as this are simplistic, but they
have never themselves been able to formulate explanations convincing
to objective outsiders.
A major problem is that of how one person can be wholly God
and wholly man, when on the one hand God is all-powerful, all-knowing,
transcendent and incapable of sin, and on the other man is limited
in power, restricted in knowledge, fleshy and sinful. It is
a common criticism that theologians" explanations only
ever seem to convince those who already accept the doctrine
of the Incarnation as a matter of faith. To many disinterested
observers, theologians have succeeded in weaving an ever more
intricate web of linguistic confusion. Even eminent theologians
now ask whether the doctrine is meaningful. As a Regius Professor
of Divinity at Oxford has written " ...it seems to me that
throughout the long history of attempts to present a reasoned
account of Christ as both fully human and fully divine, the
church has never succeeded in offering a consistent or convincing
picture"*. The same
author has asked "Are we sure that the concept of an incarnate
being, one who is fully God and fully man, is after all an intelligible
Theologians took the approach that a single object can possess
two separate properties. Moreover it can possess them both wholly,
and at the same time. We may, for example, easily conceive of
a coin that is both round and metallic. The fact that it is
perfectly round does not make it less metallic, nor does the
fact that it is made of metal mean that it cannot be round.
This is true, but misleading, for this argument concerns properties
that are unrelated. If we look at properties that are mutually
exclusive, the picture is different. Few people, for example,
would be likely to accept the existence of a coin that is made
of 100 per cent gold and also 100 per cent iron. The concept
is meaningless. We can conceive of alloys in any proportion
of gold to iron that we might desire, but no alloy can be simultaneously
both pure gold and pure iron. The hub of the matter is whether
the possession of one perfect nature allows the possibility
of another. Common sense declares that it does not. Even fictional
characters like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (who are provided with
one person but two natures) have to share
their time between the two natures, for their creators
know that the fiction would be meaningless if they exhibited
the two natures simultaneously. The fact is that in order for
any statement of the doctrine of the Incarnation to be preserved,
words like person and nature have to be supplied
with such contrived meanings that they cease to be intelligible.
Certainly, modern philosophers have difficulty with them, and
many have inferred that they are designed to obscure rather
than enlighten. If we phrase questions in straightforward English
it becomes much easier to provide straightforward answers. How
could Christ be fully infallible God if he was as fallible as
he often showed himself to be in the gospels? And how could
he be wholly mortal man if he was immortal? The only rational
answers are that he could neither be wholly man, nor wholly
God, much less could he be both.
As Paine pointed out, the usual response to straightforward
conclusions like these, arrived at by the application of reason,
is that it is not for us to question these things; this is a
most profound mystery. In practice any mention of profound mysteries
tends to conclude discussions on such matters. Theologians feel
that the word mystery supplies them with a triumphant
ace, while philosophers regard the same word as a coded admission
of defeat, another contribution to the "fog of mysteries".
The doctrine that God has three persons (Father, Son,
and Holy Ghost) arose through a series of deductions based on
the teachings of St Paul and his followers. For example, if
we accept the premise that Christ was divine, along with the
premise that there is only one God, we are driven to the conclusion
that Christ and God are in some way the same. A similar argument
concerning the Holy Ghost, applied at a later date, led to the
conclusion that the Holy Ghost and God were also the same. There
are a number of ways in which these conclusions could be accommodated.
obvious conclusion is that God, Christ and the Holy Ghost are
identical. In other words Father, Son and
Holy Ghost are alternative names for the same being.
This conclusion was rejected, apparently because the Bible shows
the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to have different physical manifestations,
to fulfil separate functions, and to have different levels of
understanding. A second possible explanation is that God reveals
himself in one of three different ways at different times. Some
Christians adopted this explanation, but others rejected it.
Those who accepted it (Sabellians, Patripassions, or Modal Monarchianists)
were persecuted out of existence in the fifth century, although
the Eastern Churches would accuse the Western Church of Sabellian
heresies for centuries to come. A related idea was that the
three persons of the Trinity represented three different aspects
of God. For example Pierre Abélard identified the Father,
Son and Holy Ghost as Power, Wisdom and Goodness respectively.
A third solution is to reject one of the premises. Either there
was more than one God, or Christ was only a man after all and
whatever the Holy Ghost was, it was not divine. Some people
adopted these explanations. Tritheists, who believed in three
separate Gods, were eliminated by the sixth century. Arians,
who believed that Christ was not as exalted as the Father, were
enormously influential in the fourth century and almost became
the principal (i.e. orthodox) line, but were eventually defeated.
Macedonians denied the godhead of the Holy Ghost and were also
The compromise eventually adopted was that God has one substance
but three persons. Whether or not this statement actually
means anything is open to doubt. Certainly it is difficult to
see what the word person means in this usage. And the
position was no better in the original formulation of the doctrine
in Greek. Fierce arguments raged for centuries over the minute
differences between alternative Greek words used in early formulations
of the doctrine.
Like so much Christian doctrine the concept of the Trinity
seems to be unintelligible to anyone who does not already believe
in it (and indeed it seems to be unintelligible to many who
do). It is not at all clear what it can possibly mean for the
Trinity to represent a single godhead. The statement that God
has one substance but three persons looks superficially
like a meaningful statement, but until someone succeeds in expounding
this meaning we have no reason to suppose that it signifies
any more than the assertion that invisible green ideas sleep
It is as though there are really three separate gods, but in
order to maintain a fiction of monotheism, they are said to
represent a single godhead. By analogy it would be possible
to contend that the gods of, say, ancient Greece were really
representations of a single deity. The fact that each so-called
god had a separate manifestation, a separate role, and a separate
intelligence, would be of no consequence. They would be, as
the argument might run, simply different aspects of a single
natural universal force, in other words different facets of
the same god. Clearly it would be possible to apply a similar
argument to any religion and prove it to be monotheistic. Indeed
some ancient Greek philosophers did argue that their religion
was monotheistic, despite its extensive pantheon. Some modern
Hindus make similar claims for their religion, again despite
its extensive pantheon. Such arguments would be as satisfactory,
or unsatisfactory, as the one presented to support Christianity's claim to monotheism, at least so far as the Trinity is concerned.
For many philosophers it is tempting to conclude that the concept
of a three-in-one deity is no more than a linguistic deceit,
devised to reconcile the fact that Christianity makes contradictory
claims. These claims are that on the one hand there is only
one God, and on the other that there are three Gods: God the
Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This contradiction
is another mystery.
The doctrine of transubstantiation originates from a description
of Jesus" actions and words at the Last Supper (the gospels
disagree about his exact words):
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it,
and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take,
eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks,
and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this
is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for
the remission of sins. Matthew 26:26-28, cf. Mark 14:22-24,
This phraseology appears to suggest that, at least at that
particular meal, the bread and wine changed into Jesus"
flesh and blood. However,
this seems unlikely in view of the fact that Jesus was still
there at the meal, and presumably still clothed in his human
flesh. A possible explanation is that in most Middle Eastern
languages (notably Aramaic) there is no easy way of distinguishing
between the statements "A is B" and "A is like
B" or "A represents B". So, even assuming that
Jesus did utter the words reported, it seems likely that he
intended a figurative interpretation. In any case, one might
have thought that the correct interpretation could be discovered
easily enough for later re-enactments of the Last Supper: if
at the Eucharist the bread and wine was transformed so that
it looked and tasted like flesh and blood then a conversion
had taken place. If it continued to look and taste like bread
and wine, then these items were merely tokens, and the act purely
symbolic. No chemical change has ever been shown to take place,
so the obvious conclusion is that they are indeed mere tokens,
and the words are to be interpreted figuratively. Medieval Christian
scholars chose to ignore this conclusion and formulated a theory
that depended upon concepts used by Aristotle and other ancient
A distinction was made between on the one hand the substance
of the bread and wine, which they said was changed into flesh
and blood, and on the other the so-called accidents
(or outward appearance), which they said remained unchanged.
This encapsulates the doctrine of transubstantiation as declared
by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Unfortunately, later
philosophers pulled the rug from under this doctrine, for the
distinction between accidents and substance
was recognised as illusory and unhelpful. At the Reformation
the Protestant Churches took the pragmatic view that the Eucharist
was purely symbolic. The doctrine of transubstantiation was
rejected by most Protestants and by the Church of England (see
Article 28 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church). The Orthodox
Churches have skirted around it. Lutherans and some other Christians
tried for a compromise, asserting that the substance of the
bread coexisted with Christ's flesh, and the substance
of the wine coexisted with his blood. This idea is called consubstantiation.
It is open to much the same criticism as transubstantiation,
in that it depends upon philosophical concepts that are no longer
The Roman Catholic Church is still committed to its position of
1215 a position that philosophers and semiologists regard
with some bemusement. It is rather as if a man were to claim that
his pet rabbit had been transformed into a fish. He freely concedes
that it still looks and behaves like a rabbit. It still breathes
air and would drown in water. It is fond of lettuce and carrots.
It will breed with other rabbits. Its skeleton is like that of
other rabbits. No conceivable test will reveal it to be anything
other than a rabbit, even if its molecular structure is examined
in the finest detail. Yet the man persists in claiming that it
is really a fish, and he holds that only its outward appearance
is that of a rabbit. He concedes that the animal looks like a
rabbit, but asserts that at some deeper level it is really a fish.
What he is doing is disregarding what it means to be called a
rabbit. He is ignoring the accepted meaning of the word rabbit,
for rabbit is the noun applied to animals with certain
characteristics, just as fish is the noun applied to
animals with certain other characteristics. He is either unwittingly
deceiving himself or consciously trying to deceive others. Either
way, he is relying upon an elementary trick with words and would
be unlikely to convince many ordinary people that his pet had
merely the appearance of a rabbit and that its real, but mysteriously
hidden, nature was that of a fish.
The doctrine of the atonement asserts that Christ's death
reconciled humankind to God. The idea is that Original Sin,
and other sin, is an insult to God. Any crime against God is
so serious that it deserves eternal punishment. Guilt for such
crimes is so great that it cannot be expiated by human beings
themselves. To wash away this guilt requires that God himself
(in Christ) must suffer and die through sacrifice, and this
expiation is not merely sufficient, but more than sufficient
to redeem humanity.
In the Middle Ages, at a time when the law frequently required
compensation to be paid to expiate a crime, theologians saw
the atonement as a sort of compensation paid to God.
Today, the sacrifice is often seen merely as an example to mankind.
For our purpose the important point is that theologians almost
invariably refer to the Atonement as though there were some
sort of conventional causal relationship: "Christ died
in order to save us", "We are saved through
the blood of Christ", "We are redeemed because
Christ was crucified", and so on. These formulations link
two statements of the essential meaning "Christ was killed"
and "We are saved". If they did so with a conjunction
such as "and" there would be no problem because
both elements stand alone, the first part as a matter of fact,
and the second a matter of faith. By employing the word "therefore"
instead of "and" the position is changed
completely. "Christ was killed, therefore we are
saved" appears to confirm a matter of faith by reference
to a matter of fact. To take an example that shows up the flaw
more clearly: if we were reliably informed that Mr Smith had
died, and if we accept that cabbages are green, we could accurately
state that cabbages are green andMr Smith is dead
but we should be unwise to formulate the proposition that
cabbages are green therefore Mr Smith is dead. Only if
we could establish a causal link would we be justified in making
such a statement.
Of course, none of this establishes that there might not be
a causal relationship in propositions about the Atonement but,
if there were, we might reasonably expect to hear about this
causal relationship. If Christian theologians elect to give
their teachings the form of rational arguments, then we expect
to hear a clear formulation of their reasoning. As it is, we
have only disjointed statements that mimic the form of rational
arguments, and, to make matters worse, appear to contradict
everyday experience. It is difficult to see exactly what was
achieved by the death of Jesus, for the world seems to have
been much the same after the crucifixion as it was before. If
Jesus came to eliminate sin, he does not seem to have been altogether
successful. Also, if self-sacrifice is so potent, why do other
voluntary sacrifices have so little effect? Many men and women
have sacrificed their lives in much more testing circumstances
than those experienced by Jesus. Moreover they have often done
so to save a single child, or a friend, or even a stranger.
Why are their sacrifices not more potent? Objectively, they
are more impressive than that of Jesus, for the people involved
have no certainty of eternal life as we are told Jesus had.
Indeed, many are quite convinced that their sacrifice will mean
the total and absolute end of their existence. No doubt the
fact that Christ was also God incarnate was a significant factor,
but its relevance has never been explained. Without an explanation,
one could reasonably deduce that linking statements together
in such a way as to suggest a causal link is another form of
what A. J. Ayer called cheating.
The misuse of conjunctions such as because, therefore,
so and consequently is common in sermons,
hymns and theological discourses. Such words may sometimes be
seen as vehicles for misleading the unwary into drawing invalid
conclusions from premises, even when these premises are themselves
My dear child, you must believe in God in spite of what the
clergy tell you.
Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), quoted in Margo Asquith's Autobiography
For many hundreds of years there was no doubt at all that Christian
doctrines were to be interpreted literally, just as the Bible
was to be interpreted literally. To suggest otherwise was blasphemous
and heretical. Christian doctrines were not allegories, they
were strict literal truth, and anyone who denied this central
truth was a criminal. The Anglican Church, when it was established,
adopted the traditional line and its Articles of Religion were
explicit about the matter. They were prefaced by a declaration
by the King, the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church, insisting
that the articles were to be accepted in full and read in their
ordinary senses. For each he required that
.... no man hereafter shall either print, or preach, to draw
the Article aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain
and full meaning thereof: and shall not put his own sense
or comment to be the meaning of the Article, but shall take
it in the literal and grammatical sense.
Belief in the literal truth of all manner of things (the infallibility
of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, etc.) were
all once absolutely necessary to the faith. Anyone who did not
believe them could not possibly be a Christian. Today, however,
they are widely disputed, even in relatively conservative quarters.
problem is that for many people the texts, if read literally,
are simply unbelievable. Generally the solution is to abandon
the literal interpretation and to find an alternative interpretation.
Thus for example, God has changed from a supernatural being
who looked like Zeus a gigantic old man, sporting a long
white beard, dressed in white and sitting on a throne in the
sky into an increasingly vague abstraction. For critics,
the problem with increasingly abstract concepts is that they
do not provide good targets, and the suspicion is that God has
become more and more abstract for exactly this reason
the old man in the sky was too easy a target. Here is Sigmund
Freud's opinion on the state of God's transition in 1927, when
theologians were still considered to be philosophers:
Where questions of religion are concerned people are guilty
of every possible kind of insincerity and intellectual misdemeanour.
Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain
scarcely anything of their original sense; by calling "God"
some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves,
they pose as deists, as believers, before the world; they
may even pride themselves on having attained a higher and
purer idea of God, although their God is nothing but an insubstantial
shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrine*.
During the second half of the twentieth century God became
more abstract still. Now he/she is asexual and defined as the
"ground of our being", the "depth of our life",
the "ultimate reality", or even the "one in whom
existence is completely transparent to essence". God is
not unintelligible but "superintelligible". The terms
sound grand but are, as far as disinterested observers can tell,
entirely devoid of meaning. No one seems to be able to explain
what any of these descriptions mean, though they are now the
common currency of theologians*.
As one observer has noted of the more general problem of religious
beliefs “If postulates are to be unquestionable, it is
important that they be incomprehensible”*
Devil, like God, has also become increasingly abstract. Few
people in Europe believe in a personal Devil, and theologians
now say that the concept is only a sort of analogy, personifying
evil. It therefore came as rather a shock to many of the faithful,
and indeed made newspaper headlines, when Pope John Paul II
announced in the 1990s that he still believed in such a being.
Fifty years earlier the Pope would merely have been confirming
what all Christians knew. By the 1990s his traditionalist views
of Satan and his realm seemed unusual. Many Christians had abandoned
the idea of his Satanic Majesty ruling over a kingdom of eternal
torture. The idea of a God of infinite mercy allowing such a
thing did not fit modern tastes. It turns out that making God
into a sadistic monster responsible for Satan and Hell was not
merely mistaken but, according to Anglicans, it was blasphemous*.
Again it turns out that the soul is not to be understood in
the traditional way, but as the "information-bearing pattern
of the body", which might be held in the mind of God after
death. Again, Christians always used to know that religious
doubt pointed the road to certain damnation: "He that doubteth
is damned" (Romans 14:23). Now bishops and archbishops
assure us that doubt is not only permissible, it is an essential
part of faith! By redefining words like devil, Hell,
faith and damnation it is possible to make traditional
texts mean exactly the opposite of what they originally meant.
Satan tempting John Wilkes Booth to murder
Abraham Lincoln, 1865
Satan often wore female clothing before he faded into
non-existence in the twentieth century..
affirmations of belief are routinely ignored. The fourth of
the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church asserts that Christ ascended
"with flesh and bones" and that he is now sitting
in Heaven, yet the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on
Doctrine declared in 1962 that such descriptions are "to
be interpreted symbolically". In the past it was universally
held that the Bible was literally infallible. A few Christians
still believe this, but most have long abandoned such beliefs.
On the other hand, if the word infallible can be redefined so
that it means something new and sufficiently abstract, even
modern scholars can agree that the Bible is infallible. Here
is an extract from the preface of the NIV.
…the translators were united in their commitment to
the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form.
Taken at face value this statement is wholly inconsistent with
the footnotes that these same translators have provided to their
translation, so the word infallible is presumably to
be understood in some mysterious, figurative way. This seems
to be another case of manipulating words to paper over controversial
areas. It sounds as though the translators are faithful to the
traditional line, accepting the infallibility of the Bible,
which keeps the masses happy. In truth they share the scholarly
consensus, and their statement means something quite different.
We cannot know exactly what they do mean because we cannot know
what the word infallible means in this context
whatever it means it does not preclude the translators noting
hundreds of imperfections in "God's Word".
When the Bible was read literally, Christians knew that they
could be healed of any illness. The Bible promised it:
Is any sick among you? Let him call for elders of the church;
and let him pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name
of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick,
and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed
sins, they shall be forgiven him. James 5:14-15
Prayer would effect a cure, the patient would get up out of
bed, and if the illness were caused by sin (rather than by demons)
then the sin would be forgiven. But how to explain the fact
that many sick people died, however much praying went on? Evidently
the assurance was false, or priests and bishops did not qualify
as genuine Church elders. However, if we re-interpret the words,
we do not have to make such an admission. By assigning new meanings
to "save the sick" and "raise him up" it
is possible to make the sentence mean something completely different
nothing at all to do with healing the sick, but rather
a matter of spiritual salvation. The passage cited above is
the justification for the "extreme unction" (last
rites) given by the Roman Church to those believed to be dying.
Almost all of those believed to be dying do indeed die soon
afterwards, and no one notices that this contradicts the original
meaning of the biblical assurance, because it is now taken to
mean something else.
The biblical account of the Second Coming is now something
of an embarrassment. Certainly a straightforward, literal interpretation
is unacceptable to many. The Bible says repeatedly that Jesus
will descend from the skies, surrounded by clouds, and that
everyone will see him, just as people saw him ascend into Heaven.
Here for example is one assurance:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout,
with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God:
and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are
alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in
the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.... 1 Thessalonians
According to the Church of England such passages "are
not intended to provide literal depictions of the event, as
though Jesus were a space traveller returning to Earth. They
refer, in the far more profound language of biblical imagery,
to the manifestation in this world of that which is already
true of Jesus Christ in Heaven"*.
This "profound language of biblical imagery" seems
to have escaped earlier believers. All Christian authorities
agreed for almost two millennia that Jesus would physically
reappear descending from the sky.
The root of the problem is that educated churchmen generally
have beliefs far in advance of their flocks. They cannot admit
to these views because the faithful masses will not understand
and will be left angry and alienated if they were to learn what
their priests really believe*.
Professor Rudolf Bultmann, an early advocate of mythical interpretation
of scripture, expressed this clearly when writing about the
co-author of his book in 1954:
He is as convinced as I am that a corpse cannot come back
to life or rise from the grave, that there are no demons and
no magic causality. But how am I, in my capacity as pastor,
to explain in my sermons and classes, texts dealing with the
resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, with demons, or with magic
This dilemma has been a serious problem for the mainstream
Churches since the middle of the nineteenth century as
we know from Clergymen themselves*.
Some clergymen have abandoned their Churches, others have been
thrown out for voicing their views. In the more authoritarian
Churches clergymen are denied licences to teach, or authority
to publish, or even permission to speak out. The more usual
solution is for theologians to find a form of words to express
their views, which certain people will understand and other
people will not. The ones who will understand are generally
educated liberals, the ones who will not are the conservative
literalists. In this way traditional dogma is not abandoned,
it is merely reinterpreted. Statements are no longer literally
true, but are valid as somehow "expressing the faith".
Christian myths are claimed to embody important truths that
cannot otherwise be put into words. This permits Christian Churches
to embrace a vast range of views, from those who still believe
in the inerrency of the Bible and literal truth of the Virgin
Birth and the Resurrection, to those who regard virtually all
supposedly historical aspects as mythological. As one Roman
Catholic priest famously put it in 2002, "Everything in
the Bible is true, except the facts". Usually theologians
are more circumspect. Here is an example of scholarly language
being used to soften what is really being said. Scholars have
long doubted that Jesus claimed many of the titles now attributed
to him (King, Saviour, Messiah, God, etc.). Indeed, it is doubtful
that he even heard most of them, but it would not do to say
so directly. So how can this be admitted without upsetting the
faithful? A Christian New Testament scholar who has assessed
the significance of Jesus" titles concluded,
"(a) that the titles and concepts were there to be used
before the early Christians adopted them that is, they
can be found in non-Christian documents and with non-Christian
(b) that by their application to Jesus they were filled
with new content, and new interpretations became inevitable
as a new combination of once distinct concepts was made;
(c) the combination was probably the result of believers
searching for categories in which to express their response
to Jesus, rather than Jesus claiming to be these particular
(d) each block of writings in the New Testament has its own
emphases and combinations, that is, its own christological
The book from which this is taken was extremely controversial
when it was written, but not as controversial as it might have
been without the theology-speak. A plain English version might
The titles commonly attributed to Jesus are largely unwarranted.
They were appropriated by his early followers from other contemporary
uses and their meanings were then changed in different ways
by different factions to suit their own ends.
Clergymen cannot tell this to their flocks. They would be offended
and upset. Many priests therefore join an unofficial conspiracy
of silence. In all mainstream Churches there is a convention
that priests and ministers do not talk too much about the views
of Church scholars, at least not sympathetically. It is not
unusual for theologians to proclaim the traditional literalist
view when speaking to the faithful masses, and another when
speaking to other theologians, who like themselves believe almost
no literal truths at all. It is for example common for senior
theologians to affirm the Virgin Birth in public, and to deny
it (and even ridicule it) in private. The phenomenon is not
new. In the early fifth century a respected philosopher called
Synesius was chosen as Bishop of Alexandria. He accepted on
condition that he might "speak in myths" in church,
and that he would still be free to "think like a philosopher"
in private. Synesius was not even a Christian.
This is a Christian cartoon.
The joke is that almost no bishop would sign up to the
sort of doctrinal beliefs held by most Christians
How far modern theology has moved away from the straightforward
literal language of early Christians is demonstrated by a theological
parody, which puts the words of modern theologians into the
mouth of an apostle:
Jesus said to them "But whom say ye that I am?".
And Peter answereth and saith unto him "Thou art the
eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, in
the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal
relationships" (cf. Mark 8:29).
The greatest irony is that the position of modern theologians
is similar to that of Greek and Roman priests before the birth
of Jesus. Those priests generally came from prestigious families
and were well educated. They did not believe literally what
their religion taught, but could not say so openly. The priesthood
saw religious stories as myths that embodied great truths and
were not to be understood literally. They too joined an unofficial
conspiracy of silence. The educated elite who staffed the pagan
priesthood developed theological ideas remarkably similar to
those of modern theologians. Cato wondered that two of them
could look each other in the face without laughing*.