Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The One True Puppet Church


Conversion testimonies

So-called Street Epistemologists (i.e. militant atheists who ape A Manual for Creating Atheists) like to interrogate Christians about their conversion experience, then attempt to poke holes in their conversion experience. Same thing with cradle Christians who were raised in church, and never questioned their faith.

Here's one of the problems with that tactic: It's possible for somebody to have a belief that's unwarranted insofar as the immediate evidence or cause of that belief is insufficient or unreliable to pick out that explanation to the exclusion of other tenable explanations. And yet the belief could well be true. And there could be lots of confirmatory evidence for that belief, over and above whatever caused a person to form that belief in the first place. 

Suppose I see someone breaking into a house. I notify the police on the assumption that it's a houseburglar. Yet it's possible that the homeowner locked himself out of his own house. Likewise, before the days of powerlocks, drivers might inadvertently leave their keys in the car, then use a coathanger to unlock the car. Yet to a passerby, that looks like auto theft. 

In that respect, my initial belief might be unwarranted. Yet I might be still right. In addition, I might read a report in the newspaper that corroborates my initial impression. 

Most people assume their ostensible parents are their biological parents. It's possible that they were kidnapped as babies. Or the maternity ward mislabeled the babies. Or adoptive parents never told their adoptive kids. 

In that respect, my belief that my ostensible parents are my biological parents might be unjustified. For the preliminary evidence on which I base my belief is consistent with other scenarios. Yet my belief could still be true. Moreover, subsequent evidence like a DNA test might confirm my prior belief. 

Or suppose, as an atheist, I witness what I take to be a healing miracle in answer to Christian prayer. As a result, I become a Christian.

Now let's say I made a snap judgment without knowing enough about the diagnosis or prognosis to rule out a natural explanation. Yet my initial impression could still be correct. And the naturally inexplicable nature of the healing might be subject to medical verification. Suppose I have an opportunity to research the healing and discover that it's naturally impossible. Even though my initial conclusion was hasty, it turned out to be right. 

When Street Epistemologists query conversion testimonies, that's an exercise in misdirection. For even if the original experience a convert appeals to is less than probative, the real issue is whether his belief can be verified by reason and evidence after the fact. 

Mind you, it can be a good thing to scrutinize our beliefs, whether religious or secular beliefs–as the case may be. Some people convert to a false belief-system. Some people deconvert due to false or fallacious reasons. 

But Street Epistemologists deliberately ask the wrong questions. The important question isn't necessarily how you formed a belief in the first place, but whether that belief is justifiable–all things considered. In some instances, the precipitating cause might be sufficient. In other cases, the initial belief might have been underdetermined by the evidence, yet a true belief may be demonstrable by additional lines of evidence, which were not available or under consideration when the belief was first formed. 

Hope for the world

I just received the following note from Richard Pratt at Third Millennium ministries. I know it's a form letter, but items such as the one shown in the image above give me an incredible amount of hope for the Gospel in the world.

Here is the whole text of the letter:

Dear Friends,

This year marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The invention of the movable-type printing press and the Reformers’ commitment to translating the Scriptures into every language has given access to God’s Word to more and more believers around the world.

At Third Millennium Ministries we continue in the Spirit of the Reformation. We believe that Christians everywhere in the world have a right to well-taught leaders. God has blessed us this year as we continue to pursue our goal: Biblical Education. For the World. For Free.

We give God all the glory for what he has achieved through Third Millennium. The following are just a few of his accomplishments in 2017:
• Our production team completed 10 new series across our five core languages, and we are accelerating Hindi translations.

• With the addition of new partners like The Gospel Coalition and YouVersion’s Bible App, we now have partnerships with 102 ministries.

• We are producing a free Study Bible available in the public domain, translated in multiple languages, and distributed worldwide.

• This year we fulfilled requests for 1,051 USBs loaded with our curriculum in five languages to church leaders around the world.

• We currently have 687,464 verified supervised students studying our curriculum through one of our partners or on our eLearning website.
In 2018 we are celebrating 20 years of service to Christ. Will you pray for God’s blessing as he continues to expand our ministry over the next 20 years so that every Christian has a well-trained pastor? Your continued support – both spiritually and financially – are absolutely critical to our success.

As you decide how to best steward your resources this year, I ask you to consider partnering with us. If God’s Spirit leads you to join with us, click here to make a donation online.

I pray you will know the joy and peace that only Christ can give as you celebrate His birth this special Christmas season.

In Christ,

Richard Pratt
Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.
President of Third Millennium Ministries

P.S. - You can also set up a recurring donation. A monthly donation of just $25 is enough to send a USB filled with our entire curriculum to a different pastor each month. Thank you so much.

Progressive Christians>atheists


Peter's sinking barque

Bourgeois Religion
An interviewer asked Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, “Is gay sex sinful?” He gave a diffident response. “I don’t do blanket condemnation, and I haven’t got a good answer to that question.” This is not to say the Anglican primate has no moral compass. He went on to affirm the importance of “faithfulness, stability of relationships, and loving relationships.” But Welby allowed that he is “having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition.” While he won’t say that the traditional view is wrong, he can’t say that it’s right.
We can make fun of Welby’s Anglican waffling. But most Catholic bishops in North America and Europe also waffle. Ask Cardinal Blase Cupich if sodomy is a sin, and in all likelihood he will start talking mumbo-jumbo about conscience and then say something about the Church’s emphasis on mercy. The Holy Father himself famously replied to a similar question with the memorable (and misleading) paraphrase of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “Who am I to judge?” One of Pope Francis’s close associates, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, told a colloquium at Boston College on Catholic teaching regarding marriage, sex, and the family, “It is no longer possible to judge people on the basis of a norm that stands above all.” I could add many more instances, but we know the routine: conscience, accompaniment, the “ladder of love,” etc., etc. That’s Welby’s answer with a more elaborate apparatus—and without his honesty.
The Catholic Church’s retreat from anything resembling clarity about sexual morality does not surprise me. It’s been a long time coming. Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, that consensus shifted. For a long time now it has been socially acceptable to divorce and contracept. Soon thereafter it was OK to cohabitate, and then the good and responsible people who run things adopted an affirmative attitude toward gay sex. During all this, the same consensus became hostile to those who say otherwise. It became “cruel,” “hateful,” and “bigoted” to call something wrong that the bourgeois consensus now deems right. In this way, the good and responsible people did not just accommodate themselves to the sexual revolution; they took ownership of it.
Amid this change, most Catholic bishops and priests have been disoriented. Not too long ago, they were happy chaplains of the bourgeois, the good people, who tended to affirm the moral code that the Church taught. As the sexual revolution worked its way through elite culture, bishops and priests were eager to sustain their place as chaplains of the establishment consensus. Unfortunately for them, the Catholic Church has a rigorous tradition of moral philosophy and theology. This closed off the broad, well-traveled avenues of revisionism used by mainline Protestants. Do the loving thing! This noble and conveniently vague imperative offers wide latitude. In the smug and self-complimenting culture of the bourgeois, that meant pretty much anything they did was by definition loving. These sorts of people are always seeking to do what’s best!
Given the inconvenience of the Catholic commitment to moral truth, the approach has been to remain silent. Insofar as bishops and cardinals have spoken about sex, it has almost always been to qualify and soften the Church’s moral voice. The strategy was one of careful retreat. The enduring hope has been to find a way to moderate the obvious clash between what the Church teaches and the bourgeois consensus about sex.
It has become apparent that Pope Francis wants to make this retreat more explicit. For this reason, I have given up trying to keep track of controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia. The details don’t matter. Pope Francis and his closest associates have no interest in the sacramental coherence of their positions on matters such as divorce and remarriage, nor do they care one whit about defending the logic of the arguments they put forward. I admire those who have explained the limits that the rich tradition of Catholic sacramental and moral teaching places on our interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. This is important work. But it has little bearing on the near-term outcome of this controversy. Pope Francis and his associates want to sign a peace treaty with the sexual revolution. They will use whatever arguments and rhetoric are necessary to achieve this goal.
One can see the urgency of the task. Reconciling the Catholic Church with the sexual revolution is necessary in order to preserve Catholicism as a bourgeois religion. Unless this is done, more and more of the good and responsible people will come to regard the Church as a regressive, harmful force in society, a source of repression and bigotry that is antithetical to the spirit of inclusion and affirmation that promotes human flourishing. This is especially obvious in the controversy surrounding divorce, remarriage, and communion.These are good, sensitive people trying to make the best of a difficult situation!How can the Church deny them communion? The same is true for those who use artificial means of contraception or who are committed to another person of the same sex—which is why it’s reasonable to think the pontificate will seek to muddy the Church’s teaching on those issues as well.
This papacy’s goal of aligning the Catholic Church with the bourgeois consensus has other dimensions that show how unprincipled this process will be. Euthanasia is not something our bourgeois consensus wishes to endorse, at least not enthusiastically. Most good and responsible people have misgivings. They recognize the dangers it poses to the weak and vulnerable. But they believe that intelligent, self-possessed people like them ought to have the option of doctor-assisted suicide, at least in some cases. The general tone of the Francis papacy thus encourages bishops to mirror this position. Doctor-assisted suicide is not OK, exactly, but it is OK-ish. It falls under the rubric of “accompaniment,” which means saying “no” without saying “no,” which is a way of saying “yes” without saying “yes.”
One need only consult the opinions of earnest and progressive secular elites in Germany, France, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere to be able to predict the positions that will be taken by this papacy on a wide range of issues. It will be permissive where permission is wanted, not so much changing the Church’s teaching as sidelining it. But Francis also will denounce where denunciations are wanted. Recently, he declared capital punishment always and everywhere forbidden. One can argue that this pronouncement is inconsistent with the Church’s two-thousand-year tradition of moral teaching on the matter. But that’s beside the point. The notion of Pope Francis defining any act as intrinsically evil is laughable on its face, given how often he attacks the “doctors of the law” who speak about objective moral norms. And didn’t Fr. Antonio Spadaro very clearly tell us that the time has passed when we can speak of “a norm that stands above all”? Pope Francis takes the hard line because it’s required if the Catholic Church is to remain aligned with the good and responsible people. After all, only barbarians in Texas continue to support the death penalty.
Christianity orients us upward and toward the divine. Bourgeois religion is horizontal. It takes its cues from the consensus of the moment, the opinions of the good and responsible people. This reduces Christianity to a political religion organized to buttress the status quo. The Francis papacy largely follows this pattern, making it quite predictable. We can count on Pope Francis to talk about the poor in exactly the same way that people do in Berkeley, which means with great earnestness and little consequence.
This papacy is not hard to figure out. Pope Francis and his associates echo the pieties and self-complimenting utopianism of progressives. That’s not surprising. The Jesuit charism is multifaceted and powerful. I count myself among those profoundly influenced by the spiritual genius of St. Ignatius. Yet there’s no disputing that for centuries Jesuits have shown great talent in adjusting the gospel to suit the powerful. And so, I think the European establishment can count on the Vatican to denounce the populism currently threatening its hold on power. I predict that this papacy will be a great defender of migrants and refugees—until political pressures on the European ruling class become so great that it shifts and becomes more “realistic,” at which point the Vatican will shift as well. What is presently denounced will be permitted; what is presently permitted will be denounced.
Adjustment, trimming of sails, and accommodation are inevitable. The Catholic Church is not set up to be countercultural. Catholicism, at least in the West, has establishment in its DNA. But this papacy is uniquely invertebrate. I can identify no consistent theological structure other than a vague Rahnerianism and post–Vatican II sign-of-the-times temporizing. This makes Francis a purely political pope, or at least very nearly so. No doubt he has an evangelical heart. But ever the Jesuit, he seems to regard every aspect of the Church’s tradition as a plastic instrument to be stiffened here or relaxed there in accord with ever-changing pastoral judgments.
This will not end well. The West has seen a long season of loosening, opening up, and deconsolidation, of which the sexual revolution is but a part. Our establishment is committed to sustaining this consensus. This is why it has been at war with Catholic intransigence, which is based on the Church’s insistence that she answer to timeless, unchanging, and demanding truths. It’s foolish for the papacy to make a peace treaty with this establishment consensus. It’s theologically unworkable. It’s also politically inept. For the establishment consensus is failing, and that includes the sexual revolution, which made many promises that were not fulfilled.

Craig on penal substitution


Righteous Lot

7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard) (2 Pet 2:7-8).

Peter's commendation of Lot's character is puzzling to Bible readers because it doesn't seem to be derivable from the depiction of Lot in Genesis. It may be necessary to distinguish between the historical Lot of Genesis and the literary Lot, who undergoes character development in the Intertestamental literature. For instance:

She it was who, while the godless perished, saved the upright man as he fled from the fire raining down on the Five Cities (Wisdom 10:16, NJB).

This whole section of 2 Peter uses words and pictures from Intertestamental literature (1 Enoch) and Greek mythology ("tartarus"). So the positive image of Lot is probably filtered through that kind of material.

This might be analogous to how, in our own culture, we use allusive analogies to famous movies, or legends about the Founding Fathers (e.g. George Washington's cherry tree).

That's understood to be a fictional gloss. It may be that in 2 Peter and Jude, we have examples of audience adaptation, where the author is evoking popular tropes that had resonance with their readers. The Genesis account would be the historical core, but with this overlay. 

There are other examples of this. Take Ezekiel's creative description of Adam's fall or Lucifer's fall in Ezk 28. Readers would instantly recognize the allusion to Gen 3, but Ezekiel has recast that in a more poetic vein. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Church


Salvation for all

i) I'd like to revisit an exchange I had with Jerry Walls a while back. According to what's become a stock objection to Calvinism, the Calvinist God is (allegedly) able but unwilling to save everyone.

ii) Now that's only a problem on two assumption, one being: the God of freewill theism is willing, but unable to save everyone. However, that claim isn't obviously true. For instance, some freewill theists are universalists. They believe God will wear down the resistance of unbelievers. He's got all the time in the world. Eventually, they will see the light. So critics like Jerry have to show that freewill theism doesn't suffer from the same problem it ascribes to Calvinism.

iii) In addition, the objection only has teeth if you think God is less than good unless he saved everyone he could. But that doesn't chime with my moral intuitions. Irrespective of Calvinism, it's by no means obvious to me that God isn't good in case he damns Pablo Escobar, Charles Manson, Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Josef Mengele, Ted Bundy et al. Pick your villain. Even if I wasn't a Calvinist, freewill theism hardly entails that God can't be good unless he saves ISIS thugs who burn people alive and vivisect children with chainsaws–assuming he was able to do so. 

iv) So the point of this exercise is to respond to the freewill theist on his own grounds. I'm not conceding his standards. But the question is whether there are limitations on what even a Calvinist God can do in that regard. 

v) As I pointed out to Jerry, the statement is ambiguous. Who's the everyone that God can save? Suppose God regenerated "everyone" in the womb. Would that save everyone?

It would save everyone in that timeline. But regenerating "everyone" in the womb will produce a different world history than a world in which God doesn't regenerate everyone. Some people who are born into a world where everyone isn't regenerate won't be born into a world where everyone is regenerate. As a result, some people are heavenbound in a world where everyone isn't regenerate from the womb who won't be heavenbound in a world where everyone is regenerate from the womb, because they won't exist in that alternate timeline. So even in deterministic universalism, there still are losers. People who miss out on heaven. 

vi) To that, Jerry responded two different ways. One response was to play the Epicurean card. There are, however, serious philosophers like John Martin Fisher who argue that nonexistence, be it prenatal or postmortem, is a deprivation. Cf. J. Fischer, ed. The Metaphysics of Death (Stanford 1993); J. Fisher, Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will (Oxford 2009). 

Let's take a comparison. Suppose I'm a teenager. There's a classmate who's competing with me for the affections of a pretty cheerleader. But I have a time machine. If I go back in time, I can erase him from the space-time continuum. My action will replace the current timeline with a new timeline that has a very similar past, only he doesn't exist. Instead, on the alternate timeline, his parents had conjugal relations a half hour later, conceiving a different son. 

I suspect many people would say that's tantamount to murder. Yet my rival classmate never existed in the new timeline. He has no idea what he's missing. From Jerry's Epicurean perspective, is there anything wrong with a time-traveler who scrubs people from the timeline who happen to cramp his style? 

vii) Another response was to invoke postmortem salvation. Jerry said the Calvinist God could regenerate unbelievers after they die. That wouldn't change world history in this life. So there'd be no losers, only winners. 

What about that? One stock objection to Calvinism is that God's choice of who's elect and reprobate is (allegedly) arbitrary. Let's grant that objection for the sake of argument. 

But by that logic, it's still arbitrary that only the folks in one world history are saved. Even if everyone in that world history will ultimately be saved, what about all the folks who still miss out on heaven because God didn't instantiate an alternate timeline in which different people exist and go to heaven? 

So for Jerry's argument to go through, it requires the Calvinist God not merely to instantiate a world history in which everyone is saved, but to instantiate a multiverse in which every conceivable person in infinitely many world histories is saved. 

Jerry could duck that by playing the Epicurean card, but I just discussed problems with that. Or he might try to dodge it by withdrawing the charge of arbitrariness, yet that's one of the primary objections that freewill theists level against Calvinism. 

viii) Yet a universalistic multiverse may still be arbitrary, inasmuch as there's no logical cutoff regarding how many possible persons to create. Is there any upper limit on the number of conceivable persons? 

And these alternate timelines will generate scenarios in which, say, someone who wasn't tortured in one world history will be tortured in another world history. Likewise, there will need to be an indefinite number of Incarnations to redeem the lost. Even hypothetically, there seem to be limitations on what even the Calvinist God can do in that regard. 

The argument from undesigned coincidences

One of the nifty things about the argument from undesigned coincidences is that it's self-contained. All you need is the NT. You don't need extrabiblical corroboration. In that regard it's like a priori theistic proofs. 

Atheists love to put in the mouths of Christians "the Bible is the word of God because it says so", as an illustration of viciously circular reasoning. 

Mind you, I rarely if ever see atheists actually quoting Christians who say that. And if they did, it would likely be some Christian layman. 

However, using X to prove X isn't necessarily viciously circular. Appealing to Biblical authority to prove Biblical authority is viciously circular. 

But to take a comparison, there are probably many undesigned coincidences between The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and the Memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman. These are independent of each other, based on each man's firsthand experience.

You don't have to come to either autobiography with prior confidence in the credibility of the author. But if you systematically compare them, I expect they contain many cases where a statement in one memoir sheds light on a statement in the other memoir. That would be highly implausible if these were penned by writers lacking access to the actual events. 

Gardens grow at night

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mk 4:26-29).

i) This is a deceptively simple illustration. What does it mean? It maybe that Jesus gave the listener a thumbnail sketch that can be developed in more than one direction. It's up to the listener to responsibly fill in details.

ii) Who is the sower? Or does that matter? Some people think the sower is God or Jesus. But it makes no sense to say God/Jesus doesn't know how the kingdom grows and does nothing beyond scattering seed to promote its growth. 

Probably, the sower stands for pastors, missionaries, and evangelists as well as Christians generally throughout the course of church history. They scatter seed, but the results are ultimately out of their hands. In many cases the results outlive them. Or may not become evident until after they die. 

iii) That the sower "rises night and day" is a Jewish idiom for rising at sunup and sleeping after sundown. In Jewish reckoning, a new day began at dusk rather than dawn. 

iv) Does automate mean "by itself" or "without visible cause"? In one respect it was mysterious to ancient farmers how a seed was programmed to develop on its own. 

Presumably, Jesus doesn't mean to teach that the kingdom grows with no human contribution. Evangelism is essential to the growth of the kingdom. Normally, it prospers from watering, weeding, pruning, fertilization–both literally and figuratively. 

Sometimes Jesus expresses himself in deliberately provocative, contrarian terms to shake up the complacency of the listener and galvanize attention. 

He may mean, in part, that it grows despite opposition. In addition, the kingdom grows in ways surprising. We scatter seed, but when and where it takes root and grows to fruition may unexpected. Take birds that pick up seeds, then drop them elsewhere. 

The growth of God's kingdom is mysterious in the way God's providence is mysterious. Sometimes we can discern the hidden hand of God from opportune, but highly improbable events. Naturally inexplicable outcomes that reflect God guiding events from behind the scenes. 

v) The seed grows at night as well as day. Ironically, the kingdom sometimes grows because hostile forces are oblivious to the kingdom in their midst. They don't know where to look. Their social circle excludes believers. Consider atheists who confidently say there's no evidence for miracles. They don't experience miracles or know anyone who does because they associate with like-minded atheists. They avoid the very circles where that's more likely to happen. Like plants growing at night, it could happen in their own backyard, but they wouldn't observe because they are in the dark (as it were). And by the time it becomes so conspicuous that even they take notice, they've been overtaken by events. 

Indeed, many atheists have a secularization thesis. They take for granted the inexorable progress of atheism. Christianity is bound to die out. Every generation, they say that's just around the corner. So they're often caught off-guard by unforeseen developments. 

SEA on gun control

Friday Files, 17 Nov 17

, posted by K.W. Leslie
Once again it’s time for The Friday Filesour weekly stack of links. We highlight older SEA posts of interest, and post some of the latest from Arminian and non-Calvinist blogs. Names in green indicate SEA members.
Inclusion isn’t necessarily approval or endorsement. (Some articles aren’t even Arminian!) We offer these links because they’re thought to be of potential interest to those interested in Arminian/Calvinist issues. Blame K.W. Leslie for the brief summaries.
Steve Hays (Calvinist), Triablogue“SEA jumps on the gun-control wagon.” [10 Nov 17] Hays reads the Friday Files! Pity he doesn’t read the disclaimers about how inclusion isn’t endorsement.
This refers back to a previous Friday Files, where SEA plugged an article by Kirsten Powers advocating gun control.
Pity Leslie doesn't read the disclaimers. How is propaganda for gun control of potential interest to those interested in Arminian/Calvinist issues? How is that related?
And what"s the point of posting it? You can post something you disagree with to serve as a foil. You then engage it. But Leslie never did that. If SEA doesn't endorse gun control, then what purpose is served by plugging that article? Are these throwaway disclaimers that don't mean anything? Unless SEA was tipping its hand regarding its political sympathies on this issue, what's the rationale for promoting that article? 
It's also possible to link to an article without comment, with the tacit understanding that your target audience will react to it the same way you do. Such as Ben Shapiro linking to articles about SJWs run amok. 
But what's the corresponding attitude that Leslie expects the SEA constituency to share in reference to the gun-control propaganda? 
Instead of just making a snide comment about me, which doesn't say much about the Leslie's Arminian sanctification, what was the justification for plugging that article? Just to cite the disclaimer fails to explain why it was included in the Friday Files. 
It's extremely rare for SEA to weigh in on culture war issues. So what accounts for this exception, and if SEA is going to wade into the gun rights/gun control debate, why an article supporting gun control/confiscation rather than an article opposing it? 
But I don't expect to get a rational explanation, because I'm a Calvinist, and Arminians only love their own kind. They treat Arminians one way and Calvinists a very different way. Their universal love begins and ends with people they like. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

You almost never see disabled people in China


I think this reflects the difference between a traditionally Christian culture and a traditionally non-Christian culture. In non-Christian cultures, disability is shameful. The disabled aren't valued. 

The mirage of 30,000 denominations

A stock objection to the Protestant faith is "30,000 denominations". That's a figure that Catholic apologists pull out of thin air. I've discussed this before, as have others. But I'd like to revisit the issue. 

1. To begin with, doing a headcount of denominations is a dumb way to analyze the issue. Let's compile a theological list, in no particular order:

i) Predestinarian theism or freewill theism

ii) Is the Bible fallible or infallible?

iii) Are OT narratives historical or fictional? Are the Gospels historical or fictional? 

iv) Is God inside space and time or outside space and time?

v) Does God know the future?

vi) Is everyone saved?

vii) Annihilation or everlasting misery?

viii) Is lying always wrong?

ix) Is vicarious atonement/penal substitution true?

x) Is regeneration causally prior to faith?

xi) Is justification forensic or transformative?

xii) Can a Christian lose his salvation?

xiii) Is baptismal regeneration true or false?

xiv) Is the real presence true or false?

xv) Is there an intermediate state?

xvi) Amillennialism, premillennialism, or postmillennialism

xvii) Did Christ die to atone for everyone or just the elect?

xviii) Do miracles happen?

xix) Are there permissible grounds for divorce and remarriage?

xx) Is baptism for infants or believers?

xxi) Can women be pastors?

xxii) Cessationism or continuationism 

xxiii) The fate of those who never heard the Gospel

xxiv) Were Adam and Eve real people?

xxv) Is Tobit apocryphal? 

I'm up to 25 disputed issues. That's just a sample. The list could be extended. However, it can't be reasonably extended to 30,000 disputed issues. Or even a fraction of that. 

2. Moreover, the list is somewhat misleading. There are more general or more specific versions of the same issue. If you think Genesis is history, then the presumption is that Adam and Eve are historical figures. Although you could discuss that issue separately, the genre of Genesis selects for the answer as well. 

Likewise, only freewill theists believe that born-again Christians can lose their salvation. By the same token, only (some) freewill theists deny that God knows the future. So some of these issues are interrelated. Which side you come down on regarding one issue logically predetermines which side you come down on another.

3. What generates a large number of possible theological movements or traditions is not the number of the individual factors, but how these might be combined. There are many more possible combinations than the individual factors that comprise any particular package. It's the size of possible combinations that's great, and not the number of constituent factors. 

So there's a difference between totaling the combinations and totality the constituent factors. The way that Catholic apologists quantify Protestant denominations is misleading and simpleminded. 

It's like two dice with six faces. Just two dice with numbered faces generate a larger number of combinations (36). Yet you can factor that into something much simpler and smaller. 

It comes down to how you'd answer a list of theological questions. It may not be a long list. But if there are two or more answers to each question, then different answers generate different combinations. Yet it's illusory to think that's something over and above the underlying list. For every combination is reducible to the underlying list.

4. At present, there's a plethora of concurrently running Bible commentary series. If you spend much time reading major Bible commentaries, there's a great deal of overlap. Many Bible verses are self-explanatory. If it's a verse-by-verse commentary, then it will comment on every verse for the sake of completeness, but not because the meaning of this or that verse is in reasonable doubt.

Then you have the disputed passages. But in many or most cases, the commentator will list two or more stereotypical options. Different commentaries on the same book will list the same stereotypical options. It boils down to the leading contenders. 

With some exceptions, it's quite possible that we're approaching a limit on our understanding of the Bible. We only have so much new information. There are only so many plausible interpretations. We've got good answers for many verses. For some verses we can't be sure. And that's that.

A new archeological discovery may revise a received interpretation. Or a brilliant scholar may come up with a novel, but plausible interpretation. Yet there will always be some ambiguities in the interpretation of Scripture, so there comes a point where we understand it about as well as we are going to, given the available information, and we have to put what we know into practice. 

In my experience, most Catholic apologists don't read commentaries by mainstream Catholic Bible scholars. If they did, they'd discover that there isn't any essential hermeneutical difference between Catholic and Protestant commentators. That's because the Vatican no longer requires Catholic Bible scholars to rubber-stamp traditional interpretations. Freed from the necessity of defending a predetermined interpretation, they ask the same questions their Protestant counterparts do. Appeal to the same methods and evidence. Primary difference is that mainstream Catholic scholarship is liberal. 

5. Speaking of which, for the past 500 years, the Catholic church has been a major frame of reference. However, it's been liberalizing ever since Pius XII. If it becomes just another mainline denomination, and it's already far along that trajectory, then it will cease to be a significant alternative. Catholic distinctives can only be justified by the authority of the magisterium. If, however, it becomes increasingly evident that the church of Rome was never infallible or indefectible, that then will snip the string keeping that particular set of beads together. 

Visions of Jesus


BTW, I think Acts 2:17-18 indicates that this is to be expected, although it's unpredictable in terms of when and where it will happen.

"I need some drug"

I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it? Merely confirm the monotonous, tread-mill march of the mind round one subject? But what am I to do? I must have some drug, and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now. By writing it all down (all?—no: one thought in a hundred) I believe I get a little outside it. That’s how I’d defend it to H. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. 

Grief is hard for anyone to bear, but I wonder if it wasn't harder for him due to his aversion to church music. Most folks of all stripes love music. Some love pop music, some love classical music, some love both. But his aversion to music left him more emotionally isolated than most grieving people, who turn to music for solace. Music is a kind of mood-altering drug. When a good text is set to good music (hymns, anthems, carols), the combination of word and melody reinforce each other. But he absented himself from musical church services. He had a very textual orientation. And unlike his brother, he didn't travel much, either.

Personent hodie

Classical music was ubiquitous in my childhood. I first heard this hymn as a young boy:

At the time I found it too modern and dissonant to my youthful ear, but nowadays I like the vigorous, angular melody. A modern musical setting of a Latin Christmas carol. For some background:

I find it edifying on occasion to listen to Latin hymns because it demonstrates the continuity of the Christian faith down through the generations. Christians who came before me. Who had their own challenges to face, at their own time and place. 

Another, much older example, is the Christmas hymn by St. Ambrose: 

Simplicity and necessity

Recently I asked some Reformed Thomists a couple of questions:

I've read a number of sympathetic expositions of the Thomistic understanding of divine simplicity, which I'll dub Thomistic simplicity for short. I've also read some criticisms. I have a couple of interpretive questions for the group:

One interpretation goes something like this: on a classical understanding, God's attributes are essential to his being. "Essential" in the sense that God cannot be other than he is. If God is omniscient, he cannot be other than omniscient. Same with the other attributes.

But if the divine attributes are mutually identical, then that generates a necessitarian scheme in which there are no contingent facts. If Thomistic simplicity is true, then whatever God wills, he wills essentially. If he wills the world to be, then he cannot will otherwise. If he willed to elect Peter and reprobate Judas, then it's not possible for Peter to have been other than elect or Judas to be other than reprobate. Thomistic simplicity collapses the distinction between actual and possible, contingent and necessary. God's choices/volitions are as essential to his being as his aseity, impassibility, omnipotence, &c.

Is that a correct interpretation of Thomistic simplicity? If not, where does the analysis go awry?

I received a couple of erudite but murky explanations, one of which appealed to mystery. 

Second interpretive question. According to Reformed theology, God's mercy and justice are not conterminous. Election and reprobation are distinct and divergent. Although God is never less than just in how he treats his rational creatures, God is often less than fully merciful or gracious (in the soteric sense) in how he treats some of his rational creatures. Roughly speaking, the elect receive divine mercy whereas the reprobate receive divine justice. Divine justice is essential whereas divine mercy is selective and discretionary.

Can Thomistic simplicity sustain that distinction?

I didn't receive any direct answer to that question. 


A recent exchange I had with an atheist:

There are a few issues here, first a pedantic one, calling the apparent evils "mysterious" somewhat begs the question, as on many hypotheses said evils are not mysterious at all, but instead exactly what one would expect, e.g. an evil god hypothesis, or an amoral natural universe hypothesis etc.

On your amoral natural universe hypothesis, what's the basis for calling anything morally "evil"?

then Evil doesn't magically become inconsistent with the hypothesis, instead Evil is just the observation of something people subjectively judge as evil, i.e. apparent evil, or evil by convention etc.

i) In which case, atheists can't deploy the argument from evil on their own grounds. At best, they can try to show that it's inconsistent on theistic grounds. But that's the very question at issue.

ii) Since no one believes in a perfectly evil god, whether Christian or atheist, that's a diversionary tactic. Why should we take the evil God hypothetical any more seriously than brain-in-vat hypotheticals? Suppose we couldn't disprove the evil God hypothetical? So what? What makes that any more significant than the inability of philosophers to disprove other skeptical thought-experiments? It's just a mind-game.

how about you engage in the argument/rebuttal

What argument in particular? The evil god hypothesis? That's just a poor man's version of the Cartesian demon. Steven Law didn't bring anything new to the table.

If the evil god existed, that would be a defeater for atheism no less than Christian theism, so assuming we're supposed to take that thought-experiment seriously, the onus lies on the atheist as much as the Christian. 

If the evil god exists, there's nothing anyone can do about it. Arguments are futile in that event. If the evil god doesn't exist, arguments are unnecessary in that regard.

Friday, November 17, 2017

On abandoning moral principles for political power

by Stephen Wolfe:


Exactly what power are evangelicals seeking by favoring Trump and Moore over others?

The answer is this: the power not to listen to the dictatorial moralizing of the East Coast liberal elite who claim hegemony over the general will of the nation.

This is what evangelicals like about the Trumps and the Moores of American politics. They are willing to challenge the hegemony of the elite and disregard their calumnies and moral denunciations. Instead of “witnessing” to the elites by public demonstrations of weakness (i.e., selective “humility”) and by caring about the same issues (and not caring about the same issues), evangelicals would treat them as opponents to be defeated...

So what power are evangelicals seeking? The countervailing power that disrupts the moral hegemony of the elite.

Boys and their toys

One of the stock objections to the local flood interpretation is that if Noah's flood was merely regional in scale, the ark was unnecessary. Humans and animals could survive outside the flood zone. 

That's a reasonable question. I've addressed that from various angles. 

Now I'd like to consider it from one more angle. Last year, Ken Ham unveiled a theme park centered on his life-size reconstruction of Noah's ark. 

This is meant to graphically illustrate the feasibility of a global flood. There is, though, a sense in which the exercise subverts the aim. After all, we could redirect the objection to the local flood interpretation to the Ark Encounter. The outlay for financing, planning, and building the mockup was much greater than for Noah's ark. More resources were put into designing the floor plan, the furnishings, and so forth, than for the original ark. 

Yet it's not as if the survival of the human race was hanging on Ham's ark. It's not as if the survival of the animal kingdom was hanging on Ham's ark. In fact, his ark will never leave dry dock. His ark will never function as a boat. 

In one respect it's a giant model toy that serves no practical purpose. So what's the point? Its only purpose is the pedagogical value it serves. But ironically, that's in large part what local flood interpreters would say about the purpose served by Noah's ark. 

There can only be one


As Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeon was wont to say.

Licona gospel examples IV: More over-reading


Passover and Last Supper

Here's how one scholar resolves the apparent contradiction between John and the Synoptics on dating the crucifixion:

We must begin with what is (emphatically) clear in the narrative before moving to what is unclear. The biggest and most traditional "constant" in the exegetical equation is the assumed relation between the Last Supper and the Passover meal, especially in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Fourth Gospel, however, such a concept is entirely and intentionally foreign. While it is usually assumed that the Synoptics make the connection clear, this assumption finds no direct warrant from Scripture itself. 

It is really only Mk 14:12-16 that allows for the suggestion of a Passover meal connection, and even in this verse there is no exegetical demand to view the Lord's Supper as a Passover meal. A few reasons can be provided. First, the reference to the Passover-meal "preparations" in Mk 14:12 is made by the disciples, not Jesus. While Jesus does give them instructions for the preparation of a meal, he never once refers to the meal as a Passover meal; the disciples assume it is a Passover meal because of the approaching Passover Feast. Certainly the meals are theologically related, but they are also (and necessarily) distinct. This might be exactly what the text intends to depict in its implicitness, with the absence of a Passover lamb (because it was not a Passover meal) making the point explicit–Jesus was to be the Lamb (Jn 1:29). Even if the disciples thought it was a Passover-like meal (Mk 14:16), that does not mean that it was viewed as such by Jesus. For him this meal was instituting (proleptically) the new covenant in his blood.

Second, there is no reason to suggest that the time of the meal in Mk 14:12 is on Friday, for on the normal Jewish method of reckoning days this meal would be on the evening prior to the sacrifice preparations, since the Jewish day was normally understood to begin at sunset of the previous day (as Mark's Gospel makes clear in Mk 15:46). "In other words, he [Mark] was as clearly aware as John was that Jesus held his Passover meal not on the official day, but deliberately one day earlier" [France]. And similar to the Gospel of John, we would argue that such an adjustment was not merely out of historical necessity but also for very important theological reasons. 

Third, the statement by the narrator in Mk 14:2 that the Jewish authorities were seeking to kill Jesus "but not during the feast" for fear of the people's reaction, adds further support to the chronology depicted by John. Unless the Jewish authorities changed their mind (about which the reader was not made aware by the text), this rules out the possibility that Jesus was arrested on the evening when everyone else was participating in the official Passover meal. That is, by Mark's own account, Jesus had to be arrested on the previous evening before the actual day of the Passover.

Fourth, the Barabbas incident (vv39-40; cf. Mk 15:6-14) is best explained on John's chronology. The obvious premise of the Barabbas release–an amnesty or pardon granted to some Jewish prisoner at Passover–is that amnesty was given precisely so that this Jew, upon release, could take part in the Passover meal. The common Synoptic chronology that relates the Lord's Supper to the Passover meal is unable to explain the point of Barabbas's release, for the meal would have already been celebrated! The Barabbas incident only makes sense if the Passover meal had not yet occurred and if the Lord's Supper (as recored in the Synoptics) is not the Passover meal.

By making the Passover meal the implicit background for the Lord's Supper (per Mark) or Jesus's final meal with his disciples (per John), the Gospels transfer the theology of Passover and the old covenant (the lamb, the blood, the ceremony) to Jesus and the new covenant. This is why John (and the Synoptics) is so careful to connect the final meal of Jesus to the Passover but not define it as such. For this final meal was actually the first Lord's Supper, and the only one that would look forward and not back, situated between the "Passover" meals of both covenants so as to make Jesus the fulfillment and subject matter of them both. In several places the Gospel has employed the historical reality of the Jewish "Feasts" in order to highly the cosmological forces at work in the narrative (see comments on 10:22). The use of the Passover in John is no exception. E. Klink, John (Zondervan 2016), 758-60. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Age gap

I recently ran across the following observation:

In Jesus' day, 30-something men pursuing high-school aged girls was fairly normal. Where does the Bible condemn it? It must be a pretty clear passage given the bold statements of people like Russell Moore about Roy Moore.

That's a worthy question.

i) I'll grant you that a 10-day weather forecast is more reliable than Russell Moore's moral intuition. 

ii) The rules for candidates are different. It's a case of political viability. In the popular imagination, reports of Moore going to shopping malls and high school football games to hit on girls has associations with psychos who trawl a college campus in search of coeds jogging at night and that sort of thing. I'm not saying Moore is in the same category, but reports like this make one's skin crawl. That may or may not be fair, but such comparisons spring to mind. 

iii) Although Scripture is our supreme authority, there are issues it doesn't address. In those cases, we must fall back on reason and experience. 

iv) Biblical narratives often record events without editorial comment. Sometimes we can infer the narrator's viewpoint from certain clues. Descriptions don't imply endorsement. By the same token, descriptions don't necessarily imply condemnation. 

v) An age-gap isn't intrinsically morally relevant. That depends. Pedophilia, in the sense of sexual interest in prepubescent boys and girls, crosses a line. 

In the case of adolescents, that's a difference of degree rather than kind. In that situation, there are borderline cases. It's like the sorites paradox, where it's harder to state an absolute threshold.  

vi) Some of Moore's defenders have cited the case of Mary and Joseph. That, however, is an argument from ignorance. Mary may well have been a teenager, but the teens represent a spread. There's quite a difference between 13 and 19–both physically and psychologically. 

People assume Joseph must have been much older than Mary because he apparently died sometime before Jesus began his public ministry, but that's a very dubious inference. In the ancient world, many people died in their youthful prime from disease or injury. Mortality was high for every age-group. Many conditions that are easily treatable by modern medical science were life-threatening back then.

vii) It has connotations of what I might call psychological incest. It suggests a man who lacks the emotional security to marry a psychologically adult female. So he seeks out psychologically immature females. In our society we sometimes see adult men and women who lack the psychological maturity to have romantic relationships with people their own age. They gravitate to teenagers or adolescents. It reflects arrested development. 

I'm not saying that's necessarily Roy Moore's problem. But I think intuitively or subconsciously, that's why many people react they way the do to stories like this. 

viii) On a related note, I see the phrase "dirty old man" bandied about. I don't mean in reference to Roy Moore in particular, but in other cases. However, that phrase is agist and sexist. There's nothing wrong with elderly men and women having an active libido. And there's nothing from with older folks finding younger folks attractive. That's just biology. Lechery has no particular age (except for prepubescent kids). What's inappropriate for old folks is often just as inappropriate for younger people.