Wednesday, November 25, 2015

“Yet the need is to understand Roman Catholicism as a system governed by spurious principles …”

The Gospel Coalition has featured an interview with Leonardo De Chirico on the state of the Gospel and the real church in Italy:

On the Gospel in Italy:

The faithful evangelical witness of past generations in difficult circumstances is inspiring. The gradual growth of cooperative efforts—for instance, in advocating for religious freedom or mercy ministries—is also encouraging. There are more solid books being translated into Italian (e.g., authors like Don Carson, Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Dever), and conferences and training initiatives are available for the Italian public. Recently the Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, a 900-page volume with more than 600 entries, was edited by Italian theologians and had to be reprinted—something unthinkable even a few years ago. There are 120 students following a non-residential five-year course in Reformed theology at the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (IFED); this is also encouraging.

In the past, Italian theologians have significantly contributed to the cause of the gospel worldwide: I think of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), peer to John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger, whose Loci Communes (Common Places) were standard works for generations of Protestant pastors. I think of Francis Turretin (1623–1687), whose Institutes of Elenctic Theology is a crown of Reformed orthodoxy that served as the theology textbook at old Princeton Seminary. So while there’s still much to be translated, I’m convinced of the need for Italians themselves to write and develop contextually appropriate resources.

On “Roman Catholicism”:

The allure and appeal of unity with Rome is as enticing as ever. Yet the need is to understand Roman Catholicism as a system governed by spurious principles such as optimistic anthropology, synergistic salvation, abnormal ecclesiology, and ambiguous church-state identity which lies at the heart of the church (emphasis added). The Vatican Files are tools designed to help grasp the theological system binding the whole of Roman Catholicism—and it attempts to go beyond simplistic and superficial understandings of it. …

Today, the contribution that Italian theology can make to the global evangelical family perhaps lies in helping it to frame a biblically robust assessment of Roman Catholicism. More than ever this is at the top of the list of the global evangelical agenda.

On the secular popularity of “Pope Francis”:

Pope Francis is working hard to change the overall narrative of the Roman Catholic faith, wanting it to be marked by mercy and inclusivity instead of tradition and rules. He’s pitting the “letter” against the “spirit” of Roman Catholicism, pushing the latter over the former. This explains the concerns of certain traditional quarters about ambiguities in his language, also present in the final document of the recent Synod on the family.

Pope Francis wants to overcome the letter of canon law with a merciful spirit that welcomes all without challenging anyone. This is why he’s so loved by secular people. Everyone feels affirmed and no one feels questioned by what he says. But the biblical good news is that Jesus has come to pay for our sins and calls all persons to repent and believe. If you miss one bit of the gospel, you miss it all. The Pope uses language that resembles the gospel, but the meaning of what he says is far from it (emphasis added).

How can we pray for the evangelical church in Italy?

Please pray for:

  • a growing appreciation for gospel centrality in all we are and do;

  • a stronger sense of being part of the historical and global church of Jesus Christ;

  • a deeper sense of unity based on gospel truth;

  • a new enthusiasm in church planting and evangelism, especially in urban centers;

  • a support of training initiatives that are biblically sound and culturally relevant;

  • a peer-to-peer gospel partnership between the Italian church and the global church wanting to help us; and

  • a renewed gospel-centered engagement of society that addresses the bankruptcy of both religious and secular illusions in the hope God will move powerfully in the country.

  • Tuesday, November 24, 2015

    The angel of Yahweh

    The theology of theistic evolution

    The Positive Attention The Great Christ Comet Is Getting

    Christianity Today recently interviewed Colin Nicholl about his new book on the star of Bethlehem, which argues that the star was a comet. And Justin Taylor just put up a positive post on the book. Earlier in the year, it got some positive coverage from Tim Challies, Tim Keller, and others. The book's endorsements are highly impressive. You can read them in Justin Taylor's post linked above. I expect the book to get a lot of coverage during the upcoming Christmas season.

    But I have some problems with Nicholl's argument. You can read my review of his book at Amazon here.

    Hipster pacifism

    Some comments on the Facebook wall of hipster pacifist Preston Sprinkle:

    Steve Hays What we see are hipster pacifists who equate picking up the cross with picking up a Caramel Brulée Latte, while they feign the rhetoric of martyrdom in the ouchless, painless forum of a Facebook wall.

    Steve Hays Preston deploys two contradictory defenses:

    i) The "Syrian refugees" pose no risk.

    ii) We should take them in regardless of the risk.

    Steve Hays I notice Preston ignores objections he can't refute. For instance, there's the persistent refusal to register the elementary moral distinction between protecting yourself and protecting another. Between putting others at risk and putting yourself at risk to protect others. Defending your wife and kids isn't selfish or playing it safe. To the contrary, that's endangering yourself to defend their physical well-being. 

    Preston keeps taking ethical and intellectual shortcuts.

    Steve Hays Preston says 1 Tim 5:8 is only about financial provision. Two points:

    i) So, according to Preston, Paul thinks Christians have a duty to protect dependents from the physical harm of starvation of destitution, but no duty to protect them from the physical harm of rape, battery, or murder? That's a pretty artificial disjunction. 

    ii) But for the sake of argument, let's agree with Preston's arbitrary restriction. Problem is, pacifism prevents a Christian from financially supporting his dependents. If you can't protect your livelihood or financial assets, then you can't support your family.

    Steve Hays Preston says Christians who oppose pacifism are motivated by "fear". Is that generally true? 

    Take the Muslim culture of rape. Most rape victims are women. As a man, I'm at very low risk of becoming a rape victim.

    If, therefore, I'm concerned about importing a rape culture into the US, that's not because I'm afraid of rapists. I personally have next to nothing to fear from rapists. It's highly unlikely that I'd ever be the target.

    Likewise, Preston says Christians who oppose pacifism want to play it safe. Is that generally true?

    Suppose I leave a downtown tavern by the rear exit. In the alley I see a well-built man threatening a woman. If I wanted to play it safe, I wouldn't get involved. 

    Suppose I interpose myself between the woman and the assailant. Am I playing it safe? Hardly. I'm exposing myself to potential harm, possibly grave harm. There's no guarantee that I will win that altercation. I may be hospitalized. I may be murdered. 

    The objective is to buy the woman time to get away from the assailant. And I do so at my expense. 

    Preston routinely posits a false dichotomy between safety and defense. But counterexamples like these are trivially easy to imagine–and they have many real-world counterparts.

    Or take the command to love our enemies. Well, to continue with my illustration, the assailant wasn't my enemy. The assailant was the woman's enemy. (At least until I drew her fire.)

    That's not a case of "retaliating" against my enemy. Rather, that's a case of protecting the innocent from their enemies. 

    These are rudimentary distinctions which the hipster pacifists on this thread disregard.
    Steve Hays Suppose an armed intruder breaks into my house when I'm at home with my 5-year-old son. Suppose I take one of two actions:

    i) Put my son between the intruder and me. 

    ii) Put myself between the intruder and my son.

    Does Preston think using myself to shield my son from the armed intruder is morally equivalent to using my son to shield myself from the armed intruder? Are both these actions equivalent to playing it safe?

    Steve Hays Regarding Preston's "cruciform" way of following Jesus, Preston evidently thinks it is unChristlike to defend your wife or daughter against a rape gang. That's what his pacifism boils down to.

    Steve Hays Preston's position is self-refuting:

    On the one hand he complains about how unchristian it is not to give safe haven to "Syrian refugees."

    On the other hand, he complains about how unchristian it is to forcibly defend the innocent from harm. But in that event, there can never be any safe haven for fleeing refugees.

    Steve Hays "No one ever said that the radical, enemy-loving, cross-bearing, self-sacrificial, countercultural, cruciform way of following Jesus would be safe. If you want safety and security, just keep following the American Dream. As Christians, we cannot die and we cannot lose. We've been crucified to the world and the world to us." - @Preston Sprinkle

    Is Preston suggesting that if you wish to protect woman from jihadist rape-gangs (to take one example), that's equivalent to pursuing the American Dream?

    Steve Hays One problem is Preston's elementary failure to distinguish between protecting yourself and protecting others. 

    In addition, these can be linked. If, say, a man is the sole caregiver for his elderly, enfeebled mother, then by defending himself against a mugger, he's protecting his mother. For if the mugger kills him, his mother will be bereft.

    Steve Hays Let's consider one of Preston's key theses in his case for "Christocentric" nonviolence:

    "Jesus never acted violently to fight injustice or defend the innocent."

    There are several basic problems with that thesis:

    i) It acts as though Jesus is dead. It acts as though Jesus was just a man who lived 2000 years ago, made some inspirational statements, and left us an inspirational example. 

    It acts as though his field of action was confined to 1C Palestine. But according to NT Christology, the Son is active wherever and whenever the Father is active (Jn 5:17). 

    In the 1C, at the same time the Son was doing things in 1C Palestine, he was doing things in 1C India, China, North and South America, &c. As a member of the Trinity, the Son is an agent of divine providence. The Son is active 24/7 throughout the universe. 

    ii) The problem with Prescott using Jesus as an example, including his exemplary inaction, is that it undercuts his appeal to Christian charity. What is Jesus doing for "Syrian refugees"? Is Jesus personally housing, feeding, and clothing Syrian refugees? No. 

    If Preston is going to analogize from Jesus' example, then we shouldn't have Christian relief agencies. We shouldn't do stuff Jesus isn't doing. Well, Jesus isn't on the ground in war-torn countries like Syria, aiding the hungry, homeless, wounded, destitute masses. Jesus is an example of nonintervention in the "Syrian refugee" crisis.

    Steve Hays As I pointed out before, there's a central contradiction in Preston's argument. His position involves an argument by analogy. 

    He says Jesus was nonviolent, so we should follow his example. So he's operating with a general principle, Don't do what Jesus didn't do.

    Well, what is Jesus doing in the "refugee" crisis? What example is Jesus setting for us right here and now? Presumably, Preston thinks Jesus is still alive. Indeed, omnipotent.

    On the face of it, Jesus is doing nothing to intercede. Therefore, by parity of argument, we should practice nonintervention as well.

    Steve Hays My portrayal of his argument is drawn directly from one of the theses in his ETS presentation ("Jesus never acted violently to fight injustice or defend the innocent"). That isn't based on Jesus' commands, but Jesus' example.

    You then proceed to equivocate regarding the analogy. Jesus isn't personally showing hospitality to "Syrian refugees." Rather, he's taking a hands-off approach. 

    So, by parity of argument, we should follow his example by similar inaction. If we truly follow Jesus' lead in this crisis, that's a prescription for nonintervention. 

    At best, we could delegate the heavy-lifting to third-parties, just as, according to you, Jesus now delegates the heavy-lifting to third parties.

    Steve Hays Jay needs to learn how to follow an argument–in this case, Preston's argument. Jay is now admitting that we shouldn't emulate Jesus. After all, Jesus lets "Syrian refugees" starve, so by analogy, we should let "Syrian refugees" starve.

    Presumably, the general principle undergirding Preston's argument is that Christians should do what Jesus does and refrain from doing what Jesus refrains from doing. By that logic, if Jesus lets "Syrian refugees" starve, we should follow his lead. 

    If that's not the general principle, then that component of Preston's case disintegrates. 

    Jay responds by insisting that we should treat "Syrian refugees" differently than Jesus treats them. But that's the opposite of Preston's argument. Jay has turned Preston's argument by analogy into an argument by disanalogy.

    Spooftexting the "Syrian refugee" crisis

    I'll comment on this:

    i) Prov 19:17, Phil 2:4, and Heb 13:16 are about generic charity. One problem with applying them to the "Syrian refugee" crisis is that we have humanitarian crises going on throughout the world. The media decides to hype one particular crisis to the neglect of others. But we lack the resources to bail out everybody. 

    ii) Aiding refugees doesn't entail resettlement in the US. We have Christian relief organizations that minister on site. That's far more cost-effective. 

    iii) In addition, short-term charity can be uncharitable in the long-term if you don't consider the consequences. For instance, the "Syrian refugees" include (mostly) Muslims as well as Christians fleeing from Muslim persecution. If, however, you import both groups into the US, then Christian refugees will face Christian persecution coming and going. The very people who persecute them follow them right across the border, like bounty hunters. 

    Likewise, young Muslim men are prone to violent crime. When you import them into the US, the innocent will suffer. But that's hardly loving and caring to the innocent. 

    In addition, because the political class promotes "multiculturalism" and frowns on assimilation, Muslim communities in the US become breeding grounds for domestic terrorism.

    iv) In context, Mt 24:35-40, Jas 1:27; 2:14-17, & 1 Jn 3:17 are about charity to and for Christians–not charity in general.  

    v) As for the parable of the Good Samaritan, it all depends on who you plug into the parable, based on modern analogies. What if the man who went down to Jericho was a suicide bomber, but he was injured in a traffic accident before he could complete his mission. The Good Samaritan nurses him back to health, after which the suicide bomber resumes his original mission. Arriving in Jericho, he teams up with some fellow refugees to kill or main thousands of spectators at a sports stadium. BTW, that's not hypothetical. 

    Matters would have been even worse if the attackers had achieved what was apparently the main component of the attack, namely the planned multiple-suicide bombings at the international football game. One bomb inside the stadium to create a panic, then two more bombers to meet fleeing fans at the exits. It’s an obvious enough tactic, that different groups have been flirting with for years. I first encountered the idea as a hypothetical nightmare for security agencies some forty years ago, in the context of crowded department stores and Christmas shopping.
    What do you do when you hear or see something terrifying? You run in the opposite direction, and (as you then discover) into the zone of greatest danger. If the tactic had succeeded in Paris on Friday, it could have added hundreds (at least) more fatalities. Trust me, ISIS/Daesh will try and repeat the plan until they finally get it right.
    So what are the implications? Assume you know that groups are planning a two-pronged attack like that against a sporting event, whether in the US or Europe. What do you do? The days of full body searches at football stadiums might not be far removed. And also for Christmas shoppers?
    Oh, and please note that two of the suicide attackers were outside the stadium, so would not have been picked up by even the most thorough and professional searches of fans entering. Their job was to remain there until the crowds flooded out.

    Problem is, the "Syrian refugees" aren't any one thing. They're a diverse group. So it all depends on which kind of "refugee" you plug into the parable. 

    Liberal white arrogance

    This raises some issues, but not necessarily the issues that Pastor Wickham intended. 

    What's the viewpoint of this cartoon? It has more than one viewpoint. There's the viewpoint of the cartoonist. It's intended to be a statement in favor of resettling "Syrian refugees" in the US.

    Then there's the viewpoint of the reader. The cartoon tilts the issue in order to make the reader see the issue from the cartoonist's perspective. To agree with the cartoonist.

    Then there's the viewpoint of the characters. The cartoon is an analogy or allegory of the "Syrian refugee" crisis, in which the Pilgrim stands for Syrian refugees while the Indian stands for those fearful, heartless, unChrist-like evangelicals who oppose importing Muslim "refugees" into the country.

    Given the heavy-handed analogy, Wickham is casting the Indian in the role of the bad guy. He's the villain in this cartoon. The native who's too hard-hearted to share his land with desperate refugees.

    As a matter of fact, it wouldn't surprise me if many Indians think it was a mistake to let the white man into the country. Many Indians were killed and dispossessed as a result.

    Yet the implied viewpoint of the cartoon is that a reader ought to condemn the attitude of the Indian character. Surely it's not the cartoonist's objective that a reader should agree with the attitude of the Indian character. For that would be siding with the "anti-refugee" position. 

    Isn't it awfully presumptuous for Pastor Wickham to create an Indian character as a mouthpiece to express the viewpoint of a white cartoonist? I imagine many Indians would resent a white guy using them in that way. 

    Denying the Signature 5

    "Denying the Signature: Of Minds and Causes" by Stephen Meyer.

    Fundamental differences between an evangelical and Roman Catholic understanding of the Gospel

    This is three minutes, and it's worth a look. De Chirico neatly summarizes the key differences that he points out in his book, "Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism".

    HT: Vincent van der Weerden

    Sanders Is Outperforming Trump

    Dan McLaughlin has a good article on how Sanders is doing better among Democrats than Trump is among Republicans. He also gives several examples of Sanders' unusual and absurd views and responds to excuses that are often given for why the media cover Trump so much more than Sanders. Other parts of the article address how weak Trump's standing in the Republican party actually is, despite all of the media attention given to his outpolling his competitors.

    Misusing the Christmas story

    Why So Few Syrian Christian Refugees? For the Same Reason You Can’t Find Orphans in Haitian Orphanages

    Sunday, November 22, 2015

    Manufacturing wedges

    In defense of time-travel stories

    There are film critics who, whenever they review a movie about time travel, rehearse the antinomies of retrocausation. This was a weakness of Roger Ebert. But that's a mistake. We need to be more discriminating when it comes to the genre.

    i) Time travel that doesn't change the past is coherent. Likewise, if a person traveled into the future and stayed there, that would be coherent.

    But changing the past is incoherent. By the same token, traveling into the future, then returning to the present, creates the same problems. Even if the traveler didn't intend to change his own time, by returning to the present with advance knowledge, that will affect his actions in many subtle ways. He behaves differently than before he took that trip. His very presence changes the status quo, because his present-day actions are now informed by foreknowledge. 

    Problem is, the impossible time-travel scenarios are the very scenarios we most enjoy. So we have a choice: would you rather have time travel stories or not have time travel stories? If you enjoy the genre, then stop bitching about the antinomies. That's the price you pay for the genre. 

    If a character was simply a detached observer, then time travel would be coherent. But we prefer stories in which the character interacts with his environment. That's because the character is a stand-in for the reader or viewer. He vicariously takes us to times and places where we'd like to go. We experience it through his eyes, ears, and feet. 

    That goes to the limitations as well as the distinctive appeal of the genre. Can't have one without the other. 

    ii) This is part of the willing suspension of belief. We do that all the time with movies we watch. Why be so picky about time travel films? 

    We don't demand that stories be realistic. We like unrealistic stories. The imagination can take us places where we can't go in real life. That's what makes it appealing. 

    iii) Given the genre, just about every film about time travel will suffer from this paradox. Unless you hate the genre, there's no point attacking every example of the genre. For that "flaw" will be present in just about every specimen. It can't be eliminated without eliminating the genre. So we should discriminate between good examples and bad examples of the genre. 

    That doesn't mean time travel stories are above criticism. That doesn't mean they are equally good. It depends on how well or badly the theme is handled. 

    iv) In general, I think it works best if the story takes the possibility of time travel for granted, without explaining it. Just like an author doesn't stop to detail the metaphysical machinery of magic when he tells a story about wizards. Rather, that's just a given. If you can't accept that on its own terms, read a different kind of story. Same thing with fire-breathing dragons. We really don't want a biological theory. 

    I've seen movies that make the mistake of offering a scientific explanation for vampires. But it's more plausible when they are viewed as occult creatures. 

    v) There are philosophers and physicists who labor to elude the antinomies of time travel. If a director or screenwriter offers a philosophically serious explanation, I think we should give him credit, even if theory can't withstand scrutiny. I'd cut him some slack. At least he respected the intelligence of the audience. 

    However, even that can be a problem. For instance, there's a scene in Minority Report where a character "resolves" the dilemma with an object lesson:

    Anderton picks up a wooden ball and rolls it toward Witwer, who catches it before it lands on the ground. When asked why he caught the ball, Witwer says "Because it was going to fall." Anderton replies, "But it didn't." Then confidently tells him, "The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn't change the fact that it was going to happen."

    But the problem with that illustration is that it freezes the attention of the audience. A thoughtful viewer will keep pondering the validity of the illustration long after that scene. He's mentally stuck on that scene. The story continues, but his mind is back on that scene. So it's distracting. 

    A good director doesn't want the audience to keep thinking about that scene, to keep puzzling over that illustration. He wants the plot to move forward, and the viewer to move in tandem.

    vi) Where directors come in for deserved criticism is when the film gives a half-baked explanation for time travel. I've never understood the mentality of SF directors who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film, but can't budget for a decent screenwriter. 

    Sometimes they come up with a "scientific" theory of time travel that's pure poppycock. It's just a lazy, throwaway explanation. No attempt to be scientifically or philosophically plausible. 

    Plot holes and continuity errors are often due to slipshod writing. The director or screenwriter made no effort to be consistent. They take no pride in craftsmanship. It's just about making a quick buck. Another forgettable film. 

    vii) But in an open-ended TV series or movie franchise, plot holes and continuity problems may be due to the fact that the director or screenwriter didn't or couldn't think that far ahead. They had no idea the film would be a blockbuster, so they didn't plan for a sequel. They don't know how many seasons the series will run for, so they can't anticipate where the story will go. Plot holes and continuity errors that happen for that reason are more excusable. 

    In a movie or miniseries, that's avoidable because it's all written ahead of time. However, improvisation can have its own benefits, even if it generates inconcinnities. 

    For instance, Chris Carter did a lot of improvising in The X-Files. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But he had lots of interesting ideas, so the creative momentum of one unforeseen development sparking another opened up many good fresh storylines. He didn't know where-all he was headed when he began, but in the right hands, that's an artistic stimulus. 

    In addition, discontinuity errors can be deliberate. A new director or screenwriter may think the original idea was bad to begin with, so he scraps it and strikes out in a new direction. Or maybe he thought the original idea was good, but exhausted its dramatic potential. 

    The Final Countdown

    The argument from evil presumes a standard of comparison. A better possible world, a better feasible alternative, is the foil in contrast to the real world. 

    Years ago I saw The Final Countdown. It's an alternate history film in which a nuclear aircraft carrier passes through a temporal wormhole and returns to the day before the Pearl Harbor attack. 

    Once the captain figures out what's happened, he's been given an opportunity to change history. He has advance knowledge of what will happen, absent intervention, and he has advanced military technology to shift the balance of power.

    So the film has a great dramatic premise. Unfortunately, the director lacked the interest and imagination to exploit that premise. But it's a useful illustration. Of course, the film raises the usual time-travel antinomies, but as a thought-experiment, we can bracket that. 

    What should the captain do? Should he take advantage of the situation to avert the Pearl Harbor attack? 

    There are different ways of developing the film's dramatic premise. The carrier has only so much jet fuel and ordnance. After thwarting the Pearl Harbor attack, should he and the crew focus on the Pacific theater or the European theater? Should he destroy the Japanese navy? Or should he steam off to Europe and attack German assets? 

    Or what about selective interventions? Do something now, then lay low for a few years before using the carrier to disrupt the Soviet nuclear program?

    Should he simply prevent the Pearl Harbor attack, then sink the carrier, while he and his crew melt into the 1940s–with no one the wiser?

    The question a film like this raises is, after having done whatever they do to improve the immediate situation, they pass back through the temporal wormhole to the same date in the present, before they were transported into the past, what future awaits them? What will the altered future look like? They won't be returning to the same world from whence they came, that's for sure. 

    The Pearl Harbor attack gave FDR the pretext he was spoiling for to get both feet on the ground in the war effort. In the attack itself, 2,335 U.S. servicemen were killed and 1,143 were wounded. In addition, WWII resulted in 1,076,245 U.S. servicemen dead and wounded, as well as 30,314 MIAs. So there's an obvious sense in which preempting the attack would be better for those who were directly or indirectly killed or maimed as a result of the attack, not to mention their bereaved or bereft family members. 

    LIkewise, Japan would be spared the firebombing of Tokyo as well as the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So that would be better for them. 

    But, of course, there are tradeoffs. Drastic tradeoffs. Dire tradeoffs. Absent the Pearl Harbor attack and the American counterattack and occupation, Japan would remain an aggressive military dictatorship for however long. 

    England might well fall to the Nazis. That doesn't necessarily mean Hitler would conquer Europe. But there's a difference between winning and losing. The Nazi war machine would be able to do a lot more damage before it ran out of men and materiel. Far more Jews would be exterminated. You might end up with a stalemate between Russia and Germany. Perhaps they'd carve up Europe. Or maybe Russia would overwhelm Germany and take all the marbles. That in turn might give a boost to communism in Latin America. 

    Consider some of the things that hadn't happened before December 7, 1941. FDR hadn't been reelected to a fourth term. Truman hadn't been picked as his running-mate. Mao hadn't defeated Chiang Kai-shek. The state of Israel hadn't been established. The Manhattan Project was barely under way. 

    It's very hard to predict what the world would be like had the Pearl Harbor attack been preempted. Certainly better in some ways for many people, especially in the short term. But worse in other ways for many other people in both the short-term and the long-term.  

    Vetting terrorists

    This article by the Cato Institute is becoming the go-to response to people who oppose Obama's policy on hosting "Syrian refugees." 

    A few observations:

    i) He quotes a State Dept. spokesman. But, of course, Foggy Bottom is just a mouthpiece for the Obama administration. That's not a credible, independent source.

    ii) His sleight of hand by framing the issue in terms of all refugees (Of the 859,629 refugees admitted from 2001 onwards…), but of course, the question at issue isn't refugees in general, but Muslim refugees in particular. And these are clearly creating problems in the US. Increasing problems as their numbers and political clout increase. 

    iii) Then there's the narrowly and cagily worded statement that "only three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States."

    Needless to say, the immediate concern is not planning terrorist attacks on targets outside the US, but inside the US!

    iv) Likewise, the limitation to those "planning" attacks stands in tacit contrast to those who carry them out. In the nature of the case, it's hard to catch those who plan attacks, whereas those who carry them out are typically killed in action. They may be suicide bombers, or they may be shot and killed by police at the scene of the crime.

    Naturally they can't stand trial because they are…dead!

    v) In addition, the gov't doesn't necessarily or even usually inform the public about attacks that were prevented. In some cases that's because that would disclose methods and sources. And it might create "panic" if the public was aware of how many plots and plotters our intel agencies must thwart every year.

    vi) I've read different status on the age and percentage of males. 

    vii) He draws a hairsplitting semantic distinction to avoid including the Boston Marathon bombers (Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev) in his analysis. Sure, they may not illustrate a flaw in the vetting system. But that misses the point: it's not coincidental that they were Muslim. And, of course, that's been the common denominator for a string of domestic jihadist attacks on Obama's watch–some successful, some thwarted. 

    viii) In addition, the more we invite in, the more we create a surveillance state to monitor them–and everyone else in the process. So this is highly ironic from a libertarian think-tank. Domestic terrorism and domestic surveillance go hand-in-hand. Importing high-risk groups into the country guarantees dragnet surveillance. 

    On a related note:

    Bauman, who heads the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, also said that the vetting process through the State Department and FBI takes anywhere from 18 months to two years for refugees to be granted asylum in the United States.

    i) Does that mean the "refugees" whom the Obama administration is currently imposing on the states have been vetted for 18-24 months? I thought this was supposed to be in response to a "crisis" that started last Spring? 

    Likewise, isn't there a distinction between entering the country and being formally granted asylum? In general, just about anyone with a passport can enter the US. Whether they can stay here depends on how the subsequent review process goes. 

    ii) Here's another obvious problem with the vetting process: if we really had a rigorous process for vetting "Syrian refugees," then we couldn't specify in advance how many applicants would qualify. Yet the Obama administration has a yearly quota. Indeed, an expanding annual quota. So there's a foreordained number of "Syrian refugees" to be resettled in the US every year. But that makes a mockery of the allegedly rigorous screening process.

    iii) Finally:

    —Administration officials have acknowledged that checking the accuracy or authenticity of documents provided by refugee applicants against foreign government records can be especially difficult involving countries that don't cooperate with the U.S. government, such as Syria. It can also complicate U.S. efforts to check foreign government records for local arrests or lesser bureaucratic interactions, such as bank records, business licenses or civil filings. "We do the best we can with the information we have," one U.S. official said. 
    —FBI Director James Comey told Congress weeks ago that the FBI sees a risk with Syrian refugees and "we will work hard to mitigate it." He said the biggest challenge is that a background check is as only as good as the information available. "That's the challenge we are all talking about, is that we can only query against that which we have collected. And so if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home but ... there will be nothing show up because we have no record on that person," Comey said.

    Vetting "Syrian refugees"

    Saturday, November 21, 2015

    How often does God intervene?

    Back to the stable nature theodicy:

    i) To take a comparison, it's like healing and prayer. If God always healed in answer to prayer, then medical science would be pointless–and if God never healed in answer to prayer, then prayer (for healing) would be superfluous. 

    Occasional miraculous healing in answer to prayer doesn't make medical science useless. You don't know in advance which will do the trick, or whether either one will do the trick. Sometimes we pray for healing because medical science failed. 

    The dilemma for the stable environment theodicy is that it can't explain why God intervenes in some cases rather than others. So that must be supplemented by skeptical theism. 

    ii) I doubt it's possible to even guess at how often God prevents some natural evils. Physical events leave physical evidence in their wake, but nonevents leave no trace evidence of their nonoccurence. So what's the evidence that something didn't happen because God preempted it?

    To take a comparison, consider those time-travel scenarios in which a Jewish scientist goes back in time to kill Hitler's granddad, thereby erasing Adolf from the space-time continuum. If successful, there will be no evidence that Adolf ever existed, because changing that one variable changes a host of affected variables. To be consistent, there must be corresponding adjustments. 

    Of course we know that's unrealistic: hence time-travel antinomies. But I'm just using that an an analogy to illustrate a point.

    In the case of divine intervention to preempt a natural evil, that doesn't change the past, but prevent that past from happening in the first place–in which case, there's no empirical evidence that God intervened. We have no basis of comparison. We just have what actually happened. 

    It's not as if there's a gap or hole in the historical record or natural record when God prevents a natural evil. So in that sense, there's no direct evidence for divine preemption. Not like a missing folders in the filing cabinet between the As and the Cs where the Bs ought to be. All the "space" is filled.

    So, from what I can see, there's no estimating the frequency of divine interventions in that respect. For all we know, divine intervention to prevent natural evils might be commonplace. It's imponderable. 

    I'm not saying it's never possible to identify divine preemption. In some cases you have plausible answers to prayer. But in other cases, no testimonial evidence will be available.

    Charbroiled Bambi

    i) Atheist William Rowe famously cited a fawn dying in a forest fire as a paradigm-case of gratuitous evil. On the face of it, that's not gratuitous evil, because forest fires are necessary to maintain the balance of nature. In fact, animal death is necessary to maintain the balance of nature. So that's purposeful suffering.

    ii) Now perhaps Rowe would say it's gratuitous in the sense that an omnipotent God could create a world without predation, forest fires, &c. But there are problems with that response:

    a) Yes, God could, but that would be so unrecognizably different from the actual world that we can't even begin to do a comparative axiological analysis. We can't say which is better and which is worse because a world without our type of ecosystem is so far removed from human experience that it's hard to even conceive of what that would be like. Atheists have a bad habit of artificially deleting "bad things" from the world, then leaving everything else intact. But, of course, that requires corresponding adjustments. It's unclear what's left after the dust settles.

    b) Moreover, a world without animal suffering might be better in some respects, but worse in others. Even if it's better overall, the goods might not be as good as a world that's worse overall. You could have a world that's worse overall, but the peaks of goodness are higher. So there's no single criterion of goodness. 

    iii) Furthermore, animals lack our human viewpoint on suffering. Take the somewhat amorphous distinction between lower and higher animals. A continuum of sentience. 

    A few years ago I read about some men who discovered a rattlesnake pit right by the playground of an elementary school. A communal rattlesnake pit. That posed an obvious danger to the school kids.

    So the men poured gasoline down the snakepit and set it afire. End of problem!

    I'm sure the snakes writhed about as they were roasting alive. Does that mean they were in pain, or is that a reflexive reaction? For instance, decapitated snakes continue to writhe. 

    How does a snake brain process or interpret that stimulus? I doubt what it's like for a man or German Shepherd to burn alive is the same for a snake. For one thing, it has a much simpler brain. Does the same stimulus mean the same thing to  reptile? Seems unlikely. 

    Same thing with cooks who put live crabs directly in boiling water. Seems cruel, but isn't that just an anthropormophic projection on our part? 

    iv) I don't necessarily mean that's reducible to neurological structures. It's possible that animals have souls. But if they have souls, they have animals souls. If a wolf has a soul, it has a soul specific to the nature of a wolf; a soul with a lupine viewpoint. An outlook in many respects alien to a human viewpoint.

    I think it would be cruel to set a dog on fire. But I don't think it was cruel to incinerate the rattlesnakes.

    v) To take another comparison, during the Vietnam War, some Buddhist monks protested the war by setting themselves on fire. There are Youtube videos of that horrific scene. Yet, as I recall, they were very stoic about it. They didn't scream or flail about.

    If we were just judging by body language, we'd infer that a snake is in greater pain than a man. But, of course, because we're human, we know that's not the case. So body language can be deceptive. 

    vi) From the standpoint of Christian ethics, given borderline cases, it's best, all things being equal, to allow ourselves a wide margin of error in the avoidance of possible animal cruelty. 

    Another factor concerns intent. To set a dog on fire is an act of malice. That is done with the intent to inflict pain on the dog. The person who does it takes depraved pleasure in cruelty. Even if, unbeknownst to him, the effect is painless, his motivation is heinous. 

    Is there gratuitous evil?

    i) Evils are rarely self-contained events. It's hard to think of events, even little incidents, that don't cause a chain of events. Even individual evils have a ripple effect. Preventing the evil would prevent some resultant good down the line. Moreover, preventing one particular evil might mean a worse evil would take its place–either the precipitating evil or the resulting evils. 

    ii) Even reflecting on an apparently gratuitous evil will affect the thinker who reflects on it. And because the thinker is an agent, whatever impacts him will impact what he does. So even if the evil was gratuitous in itself, it can have a purposeful influence on the thinker. It is only gratuitous if considered in isolation. But the very act of evaluating the evil changes the thinker in subtle ways, which–in turn–changes the world based on what he does, and others do in response to what he does. 

    That's a bit circular, where reflecting on an otherwise gratuitous event makes it non-gratuitous, but it's true nonetheless. 

    iii) A critic might object that if we all thought that way, we'd never intervene to advert a foreseeable tragedy. But that misses the point. Whether or not we intervene would depend on how farsighted we are. And in fact, God has prearranged things so that what we do is ultimately for the good. 

    iv) Whether inscrutability is a "cop-out" depends in part on whether that's simply invoked as a blocking maneuver or face-saving exercise to show that, for all we know, any state of affairs is consistent with a hypothetical God's existence, wisdom, and benevolence, absent positive evidence to that effect. But, of course, inscrutability isn't cited in an evidential vacuum. It presupposes multiple lines of evidence for God's actual existence, wisdom, and benevolence.

    Losing Jesus

    I'll comment on some recent statements by Peter Enns:

    For Christians, I believe that condemning mass, ideologically driven, and horrific violence today means taking on the responsibility of deconstructing the violence in the Bible.

    You can't "deconstruct" violence in the Bible. Rather, you either accept or reject the inspiration of Scripture. 

    —to be able to speak with integrity of our God who we believe condemns mass violence today but who is said to have commanded it long ago.

    Why does he believe his God condemns that? What's his source of information? What's his standard of comparison? How does he know what God is really like–even assuming there is a God? Clearly he doesn't take the Bible as God's self-revelation. So what supplies the contrast?

    It is our Christian responsibility to take this on and not avoid it.


    —to reflect on what it says, work with others and make sober Christian decisions about what it means live and speak faithfully today and to be in step with the Spirit of God...

    How does he identify what is from the Spirit of God? How does he decide what is contrary to the Spirit of God? 

    The New Testament, I would argue, is not on the same page as the Old when it comes to mass military violence toward other peoples. In fact it’s turned that page altogether. But neither does it get a free pass.
    At the hands of the Gospel writers, in different ways and varying degrees, Jesus’s rhetoric also exhibits violence—though not as persistently and not against the world out there. The Gospel rhetoric of violence on Jesus’s lips is aimed at his fellow Jews for not understanding that he was God’s chosen messiah.
    Christians today must also assume the responsibility of wrestling with the Gospel rhetoric, too, and determining when, if, or whether it should remain as part of our own rhetoric.
    The God of the OT is the God that Jesus and Paul believed--simply took for granted, actually--was the same God behind the Sermon on the Mount, etc. That’s the theological issue. one can toss the OT out, of course, but that is the lazy way out.
    But the OT still has to be addressed, because the same God who spoke there is the God that Jesus spoke of. At least that what’s Jesus thought. That’s what creates the hermeneutical and theological conundrum.

    i) Enns makes a good point that "progressive Christians" can't compartmentalize the NT or the Gospels from the OT. 

    ii) To say Christians must take responsibility for Jesus is unintentionally comical. Are we his minders and handlers? 

    iii) Enns appears to be undecided on how to view the "Gospel rhetoric of violence". On the one hand, he seems to suggest this is something Gospel writers attribute to Jesus rather than something he actually said. On the other hand, he suggests this is what Jesus actually thought, said, and took for granted. As it stands, Enns leaves both options open. Maybe he can't decide which is right, or perhaps he thinks both may be right at one time or another. 

    iv) His own position drives a wedge between Christ and Christians. If, on the one hand, the "rhetoric of violence" is authentic to Jesus, then we must distance ourselves from Jesus. If, on the other hand, the Gospel writers put words in Christ's mouth, then the historical Jesus disappears behind the editorializing. We no longer know what Jesus really said or thought because the historical Jesus is hidden behind the literary Jesus. We lack access to the historical Jesus. The Gospels are a mirror of the writer rather than a window into Jesus. 

    Either way, that poses an intractable dilemma for "progressive Christians" like Enns. By their own admission, they can't follow Jesus–either because they disagree with Jesus or because they don't know where to find him. 

    True Christians, Muslims, and Scotsmen

    Christian philosopher Jeremy Pierce recently made some interesting observations about the No True Scotsman Fallacy in relation to Muslims and Christians:

    So is the No True Scotsman Fallacy only a fallacy if you're using it to say someone isn't really a genuine Christian?
    To be clear: there's a huge difference between IS and what most Muslims believe and practice. Nevertheless, last I checked, the core of being Muslim is (1) to believe (a) there's one God and (b) Muhammad is his prophet and (2) to practice the five pillars of Islam. Those who say the Nation of Islam isn't really Muslim are wrong, even if there are some huge differences between the Nation of Islam and the predominant beliefs and practices of Islam.
    There's a good amount of diversity within Islam, and there's no reason to assume of any particular Muslim that they fit any particular manifestation of the broader religion without knowing more about them. Nevertheless, it's very clear that it's a version of Islam that motivates al Qaeda and a different version of Islam that motives IS. They are both religiously motivated, and it's clear that they are both legitimately classified as Islamic extremism. IS is severely atypical of Islam worldwide, but that doesn't make them not Muslims.
    I recommend being careful of applying the No True Scotsman Fallacy label in particular cases, because it's often abused. There are ways to go back to the original core of a belief system to see who is a genuine member of the group or to look to key documents that the group produced over time to indicate who is in and who is out. There are groups that consider themselves part of Christianity but who have clearly departed from central teachings. There are people who have adopted the label but have not believed or followed the central gospel message. And it's important to recognize that there are sometimes borderline cases where it's hard to know what the right answer is (or even if there is a right answer).
    But I don't see how anyone can claim that it's the No True Scotsman Fallacy to say that Hitler wasn't really Christian in any important sense. He wasn't a follower of Jesus in any serious way, and he explicitly contradicted several core teachings of Christianity. Saying he wasn't really a Christian is not an instance of the fallacy. But saying that IS isn't Muslim is simply ridiculous, by the very standards that most Muslims use to explain their big tent admissions requirements for belonging to the religion. They do fit the criteria, and anyone who says otherwise is committing the No True Scotsman Fallacy.
    I want to reiterate that most Muslims think IS theology is not just wrong but offensive. Their theology of rape, for instance, is offensive to the vast majority of Muslims, and their use of that theology to recruit men who will be able to rape sex slaves at will is pretty despicable and at odds with traditional Muslim teaching about sexual morality. Nevertheless, sexual morality, political philosophy, and other issues that set apart IS from the rest of Islam are not among the three criteria for whether someone counts as Muslim. There are Christians who believe offensive things but who accept the core Christian teaching. I wouldn't say they aren't Christian.
    Yes, those would be genuine instances of the fallacy. Westboro Baptist theology is within orthodoxy, and for all we know people who murder doctors or bomb churches might as well be orthodox in their theology. Any church worth its salt would engage in church discipline with such people (and probably take the side of the law against them on legal questions), but their views are within orthodoxy.

    1. Let's unpack this. When we consider criteria for Muslim identity, there are basically two questions: (i) What does it take to be a true Muslim? (ii) Is a certain practice (e.g. jihad, sex slavery) consistent with Islamic theology? 

    i) To be a Muslim involves observing the five pillars of Islam: The shahadah: there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet; five daily prayers; almsgiving; Ramadan fast, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. 

    Notice, here, the emphasis on actions rather than belief. Even in the case of the shahadah, it's less about personally believing the shahadah than publicly professing the shahadah. 

    To illustrate, when Queen Noor (née Lisa Najeeb Halaby) married the late King Hussein, a precondition was her conversion to Islam. But conversion to Islam doesn't mean the same thing as conversion in evangelical theology. It's not like she had an epiphany in which she became convinced that the Angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Muhammad. It's not about conviction, but saying and doing the right things. Islam is a very public religion. 

    This goes to the fact that Islam is based on justification by works rather than justification by faith, unlike Christian theology. 

    Of course, Islam also has a detailed code of social ethics (Sharia). But in that case, I think the question of observance or nonobservance involves a distinction between good and bad Muslims rather than true and false Muslims. 

    ii) The other question is whether a particular practice is consistent with Islamic theology, or even required by Islamic theology. Islam isn't simply a religion of the book (Koran). It's a religion that's defined, not only by the Koran, but authoritative tradition, viz. Hadith, schools of jurisprudence. I think it's safe to say that in venerable Islamic tradition, jihad is considered a sacred duty. Killing the infidel is permissible or even mandatory. 

    2. Christian identity is more complex. By "Christian," I'm confining myself to evangelical theology. Unlike Islam, Christian identity is centered on faith. And that has different aspects:

    i) Minimal orthodoxy is a necessary condition of saving faith. This involves belief in certain doctrines. 

    I say "minimal" because you don't have to be a theologian to be a Christian. 

    In that respect, Christian identity has a more personal orientation than Islam. Although Christian identity has a social dimension as well (e.g. the communal life of the church), even the social dimension is grounded in this individual component: personal conviction. 

    So we'd say John Spong or Dale Tuggy is not a true Christian because he lacks minimal orthodox belief. They flub that preliminary test. 

    ii) However, orthodox belief is a necessary rather than sufficient condition of Christian identity. There's more to saving faith than bare assent. There's trust. Trust that's rooted in the experience of saving grace. 

    For evangelical theology also has a category of dead orthodoxy. A person can be a believer but not be a true believer. 

    That's because Christianity, unlike Islam, has a doctrine of original sin, which, in turn, has the new birth as a corollary. To be a Christian, it is not enough to merely believe. You must be a regenerate believer. Have sanctifying grace. Have the Holy Spirit. 

    As a result, evangelical theology draws a principled distinction between nominal believers and true believers. You don't have the same distinction in Islam, because you don't have the same theological underpinnings. 

    By contrast, Islam has no doctrine of original sin. Indeed, every human is born Muslim.

    So we might say someone doesn't seem to be a Christian, even if they are doctrinally orthodox, because something else, something crucial, is missing. 

    For instance, it's not something they live for. Not their frame of reference. If they ceased believing it, that would make little appreciable difference.

    Or take loss faith. That's retrospective, but with the benefit of hindsight, we'd say they had an accidental faith. Apostasy waiting to happen. They lost their faith because even when they had it, the basis of their faith was deficient. Their apostasy exposed something that was deficient all along. 

    3. Let's consider some illustrations. 

    i) Are members of the Westboro cult Christian? They might pass the minimal orthodoxy test. 

    However, we might still have good reason to doubt their state of grace. There's a distinction between whether their overall theology is Christian, and whether they are Christian. A distinction between Christian identity in terms of doctrine and Christian identity in terms of appropriation. Has the theology been properly internalized? 

    In addition, their commitment to orthodox theology appears to be nominal. Their defining characteristic is hate-mongering. 

    ii) Are Confederate theologians like Thornwell and Dabney Christian? Certainly they pass the doctrinal test. And their personal piety is not in serious doubt. 

    So, yes, I'd say they were true Christians, despite their defense of Southern slavery. 

    iii) Ironically, their theology made it very challenging to defend the institution of slavery. Their theological commitment to monogenism meant they couldn't deny the common humanity of black Africans. But that, in turn, made it hard to justify enslaving blacks rather than whites. Why drawn the line along racial lines? That's arbitrary.

    Likewise, in the Mosaic law, Hebrew slaves were term-limited. Moreover, indentured service was voluntary. And black Christians would be analogous to Hebrew slaves (or debt servants) rather than foreign slaves. 

    We could say Dabney and Thornwell were Christian, but their position on slavery was unchristian. 

    Denying the Signature 4

    "Denying the Signature: Methodological Naturalism and Materialism-of-the Gaps" by Stephen Meyer.