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Hugo Meynell's Is Christianity True? (1998)

Michael Martin


In Is Christianity True? Hugo A. Meynell, a Cambridge Ph.D. who teaches at the University of Calgary, provides an affirmative answer to the question posed in the title of his book.[1] After a short introduction in which he gives reasons for believing in God, he devotes subsequent chapters to a discussion of obstacles to Christianity; for example, the immorality of Christian doctrines, the irrationality of the Incarnation and the Atonement, the incoherence of the Trinity, and the implausibilty of belief in a future life.

Unfortunately, Meynell does not attempt to answer some of the most important objections to Christianity and does not even seem to be aware of some of the best Christian defenses to the objections he does consider. For example, in Chapter I he makes no attempt to meet objections to Christian ethics and to Jesus as a moral model.[2] Without counterarguments his claim to have shown that belief in the Christian God is not morally harmful cannot be maintained. Moreover, in Chapter 3 he fails to answer the criticism that the Incarnation is conceptually incoherent.[3] Indeed, he does not seem aware of the recent work of Christian philosophers who have attempted to defend the coherence of the Incarnation.[4] Although Meynell states that the truth of Christianity crucially depends on the truth of the Resurrection (p. 36), he makes no attempt anywhere in his book to answer my objections to the Resurrection or the criticisms of others.[5]

The result is a brief, superficial treatment of some relevant issues and a complete neglect of others. According to the introduction, Meynell's book is addressed to "persons of good will who think that there may be something of value in Christianity, but that there are decisive intellectual and moral grounds for believing it is not true (p.1)." I suspect that it will be hard to find even a moderately sophisticated person of good will who, having serious doubts about Christianity, will be persuaded by this slender volume.

Rather than give here a detailed examination of all six chapters, I will concentrate on three crucial areas of interest: Meynell's defense of religious ethics, the Incarnation and the Atonement, and the Trinity.

1. Religious Ethics

To his credit, in his defense of religious ethics Meynell takes the Euthyphro dilemma seriously: Either God's will is dependent on what is good or what is good is dependent on God's will. The first alternative entails that God's will is not the source of moral value, and the second option entails that moral value is arbitrary. Both alternatives are unacceptable to theists. Meynell seems to think he can escape the dilemma by distinguishing two ways of knowing God's will: via special revelation and via "reflection on human individuals and society in their various natural and historical situations, and on the actions and dispositions which tend to promote their happiness and fulfillment (p. 27)." Now, obviously, the first way depends on God's will. However, according to Meynell, the second way also depends on God's will since, if God exists, everything depends on God's will including natural and historical situations. But this solution hardly escapes the dilemma since Meynell has not shown that it would be impossible to know what is good if God did not exist.

In fact, Meynell seems to admit that morality is possible without belief in God. His point seems to be that the "significance of religion for morally relates not so much to the definition of good. . . as to its implementation (p. 31)." Only with religious belief and its promise of rewards in an afterlife is there reason to think that happiness is proportional to merit. However, as I have argued elsewhere, appealing to Heaven is problematic.[6]

In any case, Meynell admits that if there is a systematic conflict between allegedly revealed divine commands and what human reason can establish as just and good, believers should give up their belief in God. However, Meynell makes no attempt to answer atheistic arguments that such a conflict is precisely what exists. Atheistic critics have frequently pointed out the immorality and injustice of Biblical morality.[7]

2. The Incarnation and the Atonement

Although Meynell's argument in defense of the Incarnation and Atonement is hard to follow, it seems to be this. The human condition--in particular our evil and aggressive nature--creates a problem. It could be solved by a community headed by a leader with the highest possible moral authority who could inspire loyalty and harness our aggression for good. The Incarnation and the Atonement provide this. So despite claims to the contrary, the Incarnation and Atonement are not irrational: they have a point and serve a useful purpose.

Although this argument may show that the Incarnation and Atonement have a rationale, it hardly answers the crucial questions. First, Meynell does not rebut arguments that Jesus is not a good moral authority.[8] Second, he fails to answer the criticism that the Incarnation is conceptually incoherent. Third, he does not answer any objections to traditional theories of the Atonement.[9] For example, even if Jesus was God incarnate who died on the cross for our salvation, why did God choose this way to solve the practical problem mentioned above, given many other possible solutions that do not entail the difficulties associated with the Incarnation and the death of his Son?

3. The Trinity

In his defense of the Trinity, Meynell's strategy is to explicate the Trinity by a psychological analogy: "God as Father 'begets' God the Son, and God as Holy Spirit 'proceeds from' both. . . .[T]his is to say that infinite understanding forms a conception of itself, and infinite love is evinced in accordance with this conception. As forming this conception God is Father, as the conception so formed God is Son, and as the love evinced in according with this conception God is Holy Spirit (p. 99)." The rest of his discussion of the Trinity is devoted to the practical or pastoral significance of this idea explicated in terms of overcoming human self-deception and distorted affection.

Meynell does not seem to be aware of the systematic critique of the incoherence of the Trinity by Michael Durrant.[10] In simple terms the incoherence can be understood as follows: There are three divine persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Yet these three divine persons are supposed to be distinct from one another: the Father is not the Son, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. However, there is exactly one God. According to this doctrine, Christ must be his own father and his own son. The Holy Ghost is neither father nor son, but both. The son was begotten by the father, but existed before he was begotten. Christ is just as old as his father, and the father is just as young as his son. The Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and Son, but he is of the same age as the other two.[11] Even if the Trinity does have the practical import that Meynell alleges, an all powerful God could have devised an equally effective solution that is not incoherent.

In a brief final chapter Meynell concludes that in the light of his arguments it is "reasonable and responsible to believe in the central doctrines of Christianity (p. 129)." However, as this review has indicated, his conclusion is unjustified.


[1] Hugo A. Meynell Is Christianity True? (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 149 pp, $14.95 (paperback)

[2] See Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity, (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 6.

[3] Ibid., Chapter 5

[4] See for example, Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986)

[5] Martin, The Case Against Christianity, pp. 87-96.

[6] Michael Martin, "Problems With Heaven," (<URL:/library/modern/michael_martin/heaven.html>, 1997)

[7] See Michael Martin,"Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape," (<URL:/library/modern/michael_martin/rape.html>, 1997)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Martin, The Case Against Christianity, Appendix 2.

[10] Michael Durrant, Theology and Intelligibility (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973).

[11] I owe this formulation to Jeff Lowder in correspondence.

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