Book Review: ‘Doctrine Impossible’ by Steven Tiger

“The essential conflict is not rationality versus faith but rationality versus dogmatism.” 
– Steven Tiger


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Steven Tiger, Doctrine Impossible: A Journey from Dogmatic Religiosity to Rational Spirituality (independently published, 2017), 310 pages.

Steven Tiger, who wrote for over thirty years in the complex world of medical literature, has taken on the complex world of religion and spirituality. His latest book, published in 2017, is entitled Doctrine Impossible: A Journey from Dogmatic Religiosity to Rational Spirituality and in a little over three-hundred pages offers his readers a glimpse into how he views Christianity and its doctrines as well as his own personal views on God and the universe. DI is divided into six parts, each dealing with either an area of Christian dogma or some philosophical issue related to theism. Along the way Tiger has inserted “Map-Checks” which aid the reader in seeing what is coming ahead as well as a chance to briefly reflect on what has come before. He also has little interludes sprinkled into his chapters at various points. They include “ALLEMANDE: Animal Acts” (84), “BADINERIE: Bad God!” (108), “PAVANE: Perfection and Infinity” (128), and many more. Sometimes they feel like hiccups in the flow of the chapter but more often they are like spices one might throw into a pan to add some flavor to a dish.

DI is a highly structured book, a sign of Tiger’s rigor as a medical writer. It begins with an “Embarkation” (5-9) and concludes with a “Disembarkation” (308-310). In between are six main sections:

  • Rationality and Faith (11-51)
  • The Bible and Bibliolatry (52-97)
  • Dilemmas in Doctrine on Sin (98-155)
  • Dilemmas in Doctrine on Salvation and Damnation (156-218)
  • The Phenomenon of Evil (219-248)
  • Spiritual Aliveness in and Beyond Our Lives (249-296)

DI is a critique of Christianity and a dismissal of its tendency toward dogmatism. But this is not the writing of an atheist, so don’t expect there to be some take down of all the classical arguments for theism. “I am not an atheist,” Tiger writes, “but I reject all the common notions about God’s character” (59). Those “notions” involve things that cause Tiger to make a distinction between “Bible-God” and God (62). It also causes Tiger to take note of what he considers “bibliolatry” on the part of inerrantists and many Christian apologists.

They are not idolaters by the narrow definition but they are by the broader definition, for they impute divine attributes (inerrancy and infallibility) to a tangible object (a book). The Bible is the focus of their primary faith, and their faith in the existence and character God is dependent on their faith in the Bible. (57)

This is Tiger’s assault on the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the belief that it is the Bible alone that is the guide to salvation and Christian living. As such it is devastating since it was the apostle Paul who said, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, NRSV). If what the Bible teaches is problematic, so is the rigid dogmatism of mainline Christianity.

Attacking Dogmatism at the Source

The reason Tiger sees Holy Writ so problematic has to do with the problems he sees with fundamental Christian doctrine which is derived from it. For example, in part three Tiger tackles hamartiology, the doctrine of sin. And quite frankly, this section is worth the price of the whole book. He begins in the garden of Eden and with the sin of Adam and Eve.

According to Christian doctrine, we are all enslaved by sin and condemned unless we are forgiven and redeemed through the blood of Christ – but why do people who are enslaved need forgiveness for being helplessly trapped by that which enslaves them? They need rescue, not forgiveness. A need for forgiveness suggests that they sinned of their own free will. But if Man is not helpless and sin is a free-will choice, how can it be that everyone freely and willfully chooses to in and thus needs forgiveness?

Something does not compute here. (105)

In what follows, Tiger demonstrates that the doctrine of sin and the scenario that played out in Genesis 3 reveals some serious self-contradictions. He shows that free-will is merely a panacea, unable to truly account for what many Christians believed happen with our “first” parents. But I don’t want to give it all away but you should go buy the book and check out pages 113-117. You will see his argument clearly (and you won’t be able to unsee it).

So what does Tiger make of the Adam and Eve story? He writes, “To me, the Garden story is really about spiritual evolution” (148). Adam and Eve began a journey from ignorance to enlightenment and that is what the story is about. While this is an interesting take, and the first couple does move from ignorance to knowledge (just as the serpent said they would), I don’t find any exegetical warrant for such a view. The same can be said of his view of Genesis 1:3 where Tiger writes that God’s declaration of fiat lux

is a description of the emergence of rational understanding where there has been superstitious terror, knowledge where there has been ignorance, and civilization where there has been savagery; it is a metaphor representing the evolution of spiritual enlightenment. (148)

Again, I don’t find this compelling or without any real exegetical warrant. But thankfully this doesn’t detract from Tiger’s overall point.

Father, Son, Spirit

In part four, Tiger spends some time discussing things like whether Jesus was the Jewish messiah as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. With regards to the former Tiger writes, “By Christianity’s own doctrines, Jesus did not fulfill the criteria by which the messiah-king would be known” (158). He marshalls a number of arguments in support of this claim. Jesus was to be born of the house of David but according to Christian doctrine Jesus was born of a virgin and his father was God and “so there is no link to King David through a father’s bloodline” (158). Jesus also failed to liberate Israel from Rome or build a new temple or usher in an unending golden age for Israel. “If and when Jesus returns and brings about all these things, then Christians can claim that he fulfilled prophecy. For now, the claim is premature and presumptuous” (158). Tiger does not mince words.

Tiger also takes on the infamous prophecies of Jesus from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 9:6? Not about Jesus (159). Isaiah 53? It’s about Israel (160). Isaiah 7:14? It finds its meaning in the immediate historical context (161-162). These aren’t exhaustive rebuttals of Christian interpretations of Hebrew Bible texts but they do the job.

And so does Tiger’s treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity, probably the most confusing of all Christian doctrines except for maybe the hypostatic union. As Tiger shows, Trinitarian math simply doesn’t add up.

Consider: God is himself; and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are themselves. God is all three trinitarian persons, and all three are God. Adding up who is who, God is himself and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (total, four yet one); but each trinitarian person, not being either of the other two, is just himself and God (two yet one). Question: Is four-yet-one God greater than any of the two-yet-one trinitarian persons, even though each of them is God? (170)

Anyone familiar with the history of the early Christian movement knows that the idea that God was three-in-one is not the earliest belief regarding God’s nature. The main reason for this is that it doesn’t just jump out at you when you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament. In fact, the Deuteronomic author emphasized that there is but one God in the Shema – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4, NRSV). [1] Tiger writes, “Note well: ‘the Lord is one,’ not ‘…the Lord is triune'” (171).

Sin and Sinners

Tiger’s section on Sin is a fantastic look at the topic. Some of it is his witty snarkiness:

Well, in this blind sinner’s view, apologists’ evasions cannot alter the forced conclusion that sin, notwithstanding its central place in Christian doctrine, has no coherent meaning other than imperfection. As a word, sin sound portentous, but so do the slithy toves and borogoves from “Jabberwocky.” (114)

His next section covering salvation and damnation, though helpful, misses the boat in one juncture. He writes in the chapter “John Calvin and Predestination,”

Yet Calvinism’s basic premise – Man’s total depravity – is self-evidently false. Most people do some good things and feel some remorse when they do bad things. Totally depraved people would perform no good deeds and would feel no remorse for their bad deeds. (196)

I can appreciate Tiger’s point. Humans actually do some good in the world and so the idea that humanity is diseased by sin seems to be at odds with the evidence. But Tiger’s view of Total Depravity is somewhat of a strawman. I don’t think this is an intentionally erected strawman, mind you, especially given that the majority of what Tiger writes is fair and balanced and shows an appreciation for nuance. But this misunderstanding of Total Depravity is a symptom of a flaw in Tiger’s overall approach: the lack of citations. Tiger quotes, often at length, famous Christian theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther. But he doesn’t provide us with any footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations. Furthermore, Tiger doesn’t interact with more modern theologians who deal with some of the issues he raises, though I am sure he would find their answers problematic.

What is Total Depravity? The Westminster Confession of Faith explains it this way:

By this sin [our first parents] fell from their original righteousness and fellowship with God, and so became dead in sin and completely polluted in all their faculties and parts of body and soul. (6.2)

So Total Depravity doesn’t say humanity is utterly depraved – what Tiger describes – but rather that sin has affected all of man’s “faculties and parts of body and soul.” Total Depravity states that

man is born corrupt (dead in his sin), so that he must be made alive spiritually before he can do anything of a spiritual nature. Under the Calvinistic doctrinal system, man’s depravity is total in extent (though not in degree). In other words, all of man’s nature is corrupted by sin, but he is not as evil as he could be. [2] 

This is why Calvinists (including Calvin) can admit people are able to perform good deeds. But because of our sinful nature no good deed is ever able to measure up to God’s perfect standard. That is why humanity needs the salvific work of Jesus.

Despite this unfortunate mistake by Tiger, this in no way detracts from his major point. However, in future iterations of DI I hope Tiger engages more with modern theologians or even uses catechisms and summaries of Christian doctrine like the WCF as starting points for his critique of Christianity, complete with citations to aid readers like myself who like to fact-check.

“Cosmic Mindfulness”

One of the more perplexing sections of Tiger’s book is the final one which covers what he calls “Cosmic Mindfulness.” He admits that it is a position without any evidence and defines it as a presence within “every self-aware life-form on Earth and throughout the universe” (250). He sees CM as something akin to what people mean when they speak of God. Even Jesus may have spoken of it when he told his disciples that the kingdom of God was within them (Luke 17:21): “CM is within us at all times and among us when we treat each other with love and compassion” (253). That was Jesus’ message after all, wasn’t it?

This view is entirely out-of-place for Tiger, especially in a book subtitled “A Journey from Dogmatic Religiosity to Rational Spirituality.” There is nothing rational about believing in CM and, in fact, as far as evidence is concerned there is no epistemic warrant for accepting it. Yet I can appreciate Tiger’s point: there is something about humanity that seems almost unfathomable. Across all cultures, parents love their children and band together to aid one another. Love and compassion must come from somewhere, right? I won’t begrudge him that.

Rational Spirituality

The journey the reader takes in DI is one that shouldn’t be done lightly. Christians will find their beliefs challenged in very rigorous ways and atheists will have new arguments from which to draw upon in their discussions with dogmatic theists. For me, Tiger’s work demonstrates that thinking takes time and cogent writing is well worth the effort. Tiger knows how to write a good sentence and frame a good argument. He shows the value of living a life of rational spirituality.

In all, Tiger shows us a better way.

ENDNOTES

[1] I taught the Shema to vacation Bible school students back in my evangelical days. I taught it to them in English as well as in Hebrew. I even taught them how to write basic Hebrew letters (though with a low success rate).

[2] Craig R. Brown, The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism (Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2007), 25. For more, see Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, second edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 450-453.

 

 

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