“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”

—C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The professor might as well have said these words about me. I confess that for most of my life I didn’t even know that logic was a subject that might be taught in schools. I distinctly remember reading this passage in Lewis’s Narnia series as a child and wondering what the professor was talking about. I assumed he was offering a broad (if somewhat cranky) rhetorical question along the lines of “Why don’t they teach kids to think straight anymore?”

I eventually learned that logic is an actual subject with a venerable history in Western education. Fast forward a few years, and I somehow found myself teaching the subject to freshmen in a public university. I later fell in with a group of parents who found themselves asking this question about their own children’s education: “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” So, they decided to start their own school. I was recruited to teach logic — the exact same “college-level” material, mind you — to seventh and eighth graders.

Formal training in logic was once the status quo in primary education. Students learned at an early age how to determine whether a syllogism is valid or invalid. They learned the square of opposition and the law of the excluded middle (a.k.a. the law of non-contradiction). This was taking place centuries before the likes of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead developed the study of logic into the highly specialized discipline it has become today. It was assumed that a rudimentary grasp of logic was a prerequisite for critical thinking. So, in one sense, these seventh and eighth graders weren’t doing anything novel at all.

There’s a larger story to be told here, and it involves not just logic, but the broader liberal arts tradition. Moreover, this tradition is interwoven with the development of Christian theology. If in doubt, one only needs to pick up a volume of scholastic theology (e.g. Aquinas’s Summa theologiae) and peruse its pages. For a significant part of the Church’s history, it was safe to say that if one wished to study theology, the study of logic was unavoidable.

We might be tempted to think that Anglicans are among the torchbearers of this noble enterprise. After all, our own Richard Hooker (allegedly) developed the metaphor of the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, tradition, and reason. (I should note here that the metaphor of a three-legged stool is actually nowhere to be found in Hooker’s works. The notion that Scripture, tradition, and reason share equal authority in the zero-sum game of ‘truth’ is foreign to Hooker’s theology.)

Or, in a more contemporary idiom, “you don’t have to check your brain at the door” to be an Episcopalian (after all, you can even buy a t-shirt to let everyone know). Surely logic must hold pride of place within our own tradition. We’re not fundies, after all.

There are several problems with this picture, the primary one being that it’s simply not true. I’m afraid that Anglicans, on the whole, are no more rational or logical than any other branch of the Church. I recently had a conversation with an Episcopal seminarian (whose institution shall remain nameless) about his Introduction to Theology class. He told me that the professor had to dedicate a few days of class to teaching the fundamentals of logic. As many seminary professors are aware, incoming seminarians are often unprepared to read the texts that are assigned in their classes.

I don’t blame the seminaries for the lacunae in their students’ educations. Really, I don’t even blame the students. Usually our educational paths are simply given to us, and we don’t have the opportunity to be critical of them until they are already behind us. The “problem” (whatever it might be) is deep and systematic. It reflects broader cultural currents as much as it reflects specific approaches to theological education. Nonetheless, it should serve as a wakeup call to the Church.

I’m reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’s analysis of contemporary seminary education.[1] He imagines a hypothetical seminarian saying:

I’m not into Christology this year. I’m just into relating. After all, relating is what the ministry is really about, isn’t it? Ministry is about helping people relate to one another, isn’t it? So I want to take some more Clinical Pastoral Education courses.

And we think nothing of it. Yet, what if a medical student were to say:

I’m not into anatomy this year. I’m into relating. So I’d like to take a few more courses in psychology, because I need to know how to relate to people better.

Our reaction to this student would be quite different. Hauerwas goes on to explain:

Now what that shows you is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them. Therefore, people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind of training that’s necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation.

Hauerwas’s example isn’t just about Christology. It’s really about the relationship between theology and ordained ministry. But if we’re already suspicious about the necessity of theological training for ordained ministry, then so much the worse for training in logic.

I’ll go ahead and confess right now that I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw from these observations. Of course I’m advocating the importance of logic in theological formation, but that’s far from an earth-shattering thesis. The reason I can only offer such an anticlimactic conclusion is twofold. For one, logic is only a single piece of a larger, more complex educational apparatus. Offering remedial courses in logic at the seminary level isn’t a bad idea, but it’s not a long-term solution. Focusing all our efforts on logic is like treating a severed limb with a Band-Aid.

Secondly, we must avoid the temptation of believing that logic and truth are synonymous. As G. K. Chesterton once quipped in “The Maxims of Maxim:”

Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other .… Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding out truth; on the contrary, truth is a necessary instrument for using logic — for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.

Logic cannot be conflated with truth or reason itself. Logic is integral to reason, but it isn’t coterminous with it. Logic is a tool we can use to form our understanding of the materials we have to work with (Scripture, tradition, insights from other intellectual disciplines, and so on). But even here we must be careful, lest we grant logic too much autonomy. The relationship between theology and logic is reciprocal, that is, we need to leave room for theology to inform our use of logic. But I’m afraid we haven’t been doing that too well. What we really need is a full-scale reevaluation (recovery?) of the relationship between Scripture, tradition, and reason.

The world will not be saved through logic. Nor will the Church be restored by it. But this doesn’t mean that we can abandon it. All I’m saying is this: Maybe it’s time we picked it back up again.

This is the first post in an ongoing series addressing the role of Scripture, tradition, and reason. The featured image is a depiction of a medieval classroom in a fourteenth-century French chronicle, now held in the Bibliothèque municipale de Castres. It is in the public domain.  


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” The Hauerwas Reader, ed. by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 609-610.

About The Author

Fr. Stewart Clem is assisting priest at St. Paul’s Church (Mishawaka, Indiana) and a doctoral candidate in Moral Theology & Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of