New Calvinism and Logical Thought

[This piece is meant as a companion to “New Calvinism and Scholarship.”]

by Trevor Anderson

The aspiration to competent, consistent thought is a defining mark of New Calvinism. Such thought (both within the movement and outside of it) is often referred to as ‘logic’. To take a few examples of this New Calvinist commitment: R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries promote the proper use of logic for the strengthening of a Reformed worldview. Logic is important for understanding what is taken within New Calvinism to be the heart of the gospel. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is admired for an approach to theology described as “logic on fire.” Justin Taylor has written several good posts highlighting the nature and importance of traditional logic for competent theological work (others here, here, and here). The title of D.A. Carson’s book Exegetical Fallacies (Baker Academic, 1996) speaks for itself with respect to the importance of logic and Scripture-reading. Finally, one of the reasons Pastor John’s sermons and written work are so exceptionally compelling is because he knows how to define terms, stick with them, and construct an argument based upon them (his talk at T4G2016 is a recent example of these skills at work). In another context, citing Christ’s reproach of the Pharisees for their purposefully incorrect use of logic in Matt. 16:1-4, Pastor John has written:

Jesus assumes that human beings use logic, and he holds them accountable to use their logic well. Sometimes I have been told that Aristotelian-like logic is Western and Greek, not Hebraic or biblical, and therefore doesn’t belong in the presentation of the gospel. Let me explain briefly what I mean by Aristotelian-like logic. We all know what a syllogism is. Premise number one: All men are mortal. Premise number two: Plato is a man. Conclusion: Plato is mortal. That’s a syllogism. Aristotle is famous for noting this. And, I believe, it came from God. Now, you have to decide: does God hold you accountable to think clearly like that? Would God be pleased if you used a syllogism like this: Cows have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore, my dog is a cow. I don’t think God would be pleased if you really thought that way. That’s bad logic. It’s the sort of logic thugs use to put you in a dictator’s jail, and it gives you no recourse to “reason.” Might makes right when logic is relativized. Now, of course, you should care little about my opinion about logic. But you should care a lot about what Jesus thinks about logic. (p. 56) 

This concern for clear, correct thought is commendable, and is one of the reasons New Calvinism produces literature that is regularly a cut above the average non-academic Christian fare, even when those books (or posts, or talks) are produced by authors other than the movement’s leaders.

Logic and Realism

This commitment to rigorous, consistent thinking would in itself be a boon to the movement and would allow for meaningful engagement with other traditions. But beyond this there are significant metaphysical commitments that come with the kind of logic endorsed by New Calvinism that make conversation between New Calvinist and Catholic theology an eminently fruitful undertaking.

As Pastor John makes explicit in the quotation above, the kind of logic that he (and the linked work above) finds to be legitimate and helpful is “Aristotelian” or “traditional” logic, often contrasted with modern logic, referred to variously and under different aspects as ‘symbolic’, ‘propositional’, ‘predicate’, etc. This broad dichotomy is endorsed by Peter Kreeft (though see here for a helpful rebuttal), who wrote the book that served as Justin Taylor’s source text for several of the latter’s posts on logic. (I find the conceptual distinction between these two schools of logic basically helpful and historically accurate, though I hesitate to affirm some of the “decline narratives” Dr. Kreeft seems to associate with choosing one over the other.)

In one post, Dr. Taylor summarizes the basic insights of Aristotelian formal logic, as articulated by Dr. Kreeft. There are, of course, the standard requirements for a convincing argument: The terms are clear, the  premises are true, and the logic is valid. But Taylor also highlights some of the more philosophical tenets of traditional logic. They include the following:

  1. There are three ‘acts’ of the human intellect: simple apprehension (grasping concepts), judgment (uniting or dividing two concepts), and reasoning (relating judgments to produce conclusions).
  2. These three acts of the intellect put us in contact with reality: simple apprehension grasps essences of things, judgment grasps the existence (or lack thereof) of things, and arguments grasp the causes of things.
  3. Put another way: simple apprehension tells what a thing is, judgment tells whether a thing is, and argument tells why a thing is.

As Taylor’s points indicate, Aristotle’s logic assumes that the human intellect can make ‘real contact’ with the essence, the ‘whatness’, of a given thing that exists in the world (we name this contact “concept”). Such things have natures/essences/’forms’ that make them to be the kind of thing they are, and the intellect comes into real contact, not with a mere representation or image of the thing (say a tree), but with the essence of the tree itself. The mind takes into itself the ‘whatness’ of the thing, while of course leaving behind the physical matter of the thing (so, when I have a simple apprehension of a tree, I don’t take hold of the tree and put it into my head). Thus, Aristotle says that the intellect in some sense “becomes all things” (De anima 3.5). By contrast, modern logic, as the standard story goes, grows from a metaphysics that is skeptical about “natures” or “substantial forms” (which are terms associated with the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophical tradition) and about the mind’s ability to come into direct contact with such natures.

The purpose of this brief excursion is to show that traditional logic brings with it a commitment to a certain philosophical conception of reality. This is not a bad thing; it is a great thing. Christian thinkers from Boethius to Aquinas to Calvin to Bavinck employ the ideas and terms of Aristotelian logic. The basic metaphysical system that underlies such logic was adopted, studied, and developed by the Catholic Church, particularly in its Scholastic tradition (Kreeft, a Roman Catholic, follows in this tradition, with special affinity for Aquinas). The magisterial Reformed tradition is no stranger to such metaphysics either. Luca Baschera, in a volume on the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (who himself wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) says this:

If we consider the works of some Reformed authors such as Otto Werdmüller (1513–1552), Girolamo Zanchi (1516–1590) and Andreas Hyperius (1511–1564), all active as professors of theology and/or philosophy in Zurich, Strasbourg and Marburg in the middle of the sixteenth century, we can easily detect some features of the general Reformed understanding of philosophy in that period. All these authors were not only convinced of the legitimacy of philosophical studies from a Christian point of view, but decisively emphasized the usefulness of philosophy for the theologian. Relying on arguments which Melanchthon had already used for the same purpose, they recognized first of all the indispensability of logic as the discipline which taught the rules of correct thinking and of scientific methodology. (pp. 133-4)

Kevin DeYoung’s T4G2016 plenary session (as well as his breakout session) in which he makes use of the work of Francis Turretin, a Reformed scholastic if ever there was one, is a specifically New Calvinist instance of the continued presence of the metaphysical-logical heritage held in common by Catholics and Protestants.

Of course, given that Turretin was a (quite anti-Catholic) Protestant scholastic, it is clear that different Christian traditions can make use of a common metaphysic and logic and yet arrive at disagreements on a great number of significant points. My point here is not that the acknowledgment of a common logic will lead to smooth, ‘deducible’ theological agreement. Rather, I simply want to bring to attention that there is an important convergence between Catholic and New Calvinist (and, more broadly, Reformed) theology, in that (1) both are committed to valid, true thinking that (2) is intended to make actual contact with reality. Pro dialectica!

3 thoughts on “New Calvinism and Logical Thought

  1. I do find Calvinism to be the most coherent and consistent of Protestant flavors. That consistency and insistence on systemization has made it somewhat of a magnet toward more intellectually minded protestants. However, I think Calvinisms blind side is that its insistence on formal logic and consistency is prone to human exaggerations. For example, Christ’s death on the cross is for the purpose of atoning for each and every individual sin of the elect. Because God is just, sin is not paid for twice, therefore the scope of Christ’s atonement is limited to those whom he willed to save, the elect, and man cannot do anything to receive this grace except exhibit an active (passive?) faith in the completed work of the cross. Hence, limited atonement.

    But in the center of all Calvinist Heterodoxy is that very notion of the purpose and goal of the atonement- to pay for the guilt of individually committed sins. And what lies behind that? The need for infallible assurance of personal salvation. Hence St. Robert Bellarmine calls the greatest heresy of Protestantism “Assurance.” Everything flows from the psychological need for infallibleassurance. Because of our need for infallible assurance, the nature of the atonement is altered, the perception of perseverance is altered, the necessity of sacraments is altered, the notion of the Church is altered and all things spiral outward from there.

    It is no wonder James White calls his fellow protestants who don’t adhere to once saved always saved, “partly Catholic already.”

    Now, Catholics have intellectually consistent systems of thought too. We have in our ranks great defenders of Augustinianism and all its unpleasant, but logically consistent and plausible doctrines such as infant damnation (I personally subscribe to it as more plausible and theologically certain than Limbo), but we are reigned in by certain limits. We have to admit at least God’s antecedent will that all be saved, that he does not positively predestine people to Hell unconditionally, that Infants who die without baptism cannot enter into blessedness (Try telling that one to the locals these days!), that Christ established sacraments that work ex opere operato (But do they do so morally or physically? I Choose Moral.)

    IN short, my point in rambling here is that we can present to the reformed a thoroughly Augustinian Catholicism that resonated with the reformed on many levels, from the issues of predestination, from the notion of the tension of the two loves of Cupidity and Charity, from a sacramental system where the sacraments are efficacious signs containing God’s promises that work because he has so chosen to honor the performance of the work (Moral mode of operation) etc.

    It would be interesting to see just how far the Augustinian envelope could be pushed in terms of a Catholicism that could really appeal to the reformed. I think we see it in Berti and Belleli.

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, Calvinism certainly appeals to some people who are drawn toward ‘rigorous’ or ‘logical’ theological systems, as Piper acknowledges here. However, and very interestingly, Piper thinks it is ‘Arminians’ (in scare quotes because of the Olson pieces linked below) who impose philosophical categories onto Scripture, while Calvinists allows Scripture to speak for itself, as he says here. (Though see here and here for prominent Arminian theologian Roger E. Olson’s response to this charge.)

    Bellarmine’s alleged charge of “assurance-as-greatest-heresy” is an interesting one that Matt Gaetano has addressed at TRF here.

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