Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The utter east

Light and darkness are major theological metaphors in Scripture, so I find it useful to mentally visualize the play of sunlight in different situations. 

In addition, my parents had a waterfront property with a panoramic view spanning east and west, so I was used to watching the play of sunlight on the waves as the sun arced over the sky. I've lived in different places, in and around nature, and I study sunlight from different angles. The symbolism of light in Scripture trades on these variations, so it's useful to be observant.

Suppose you're standing on a hilltop facing east, just before dawn. As the sun rises over the opposing hillside, the shadows retreat. As the sunlight strikes the hillside you're standing on, that's where the recession begins. When the sun is overhead, the valley is flooded with light. As the sun dips below the hillside, the valley becomes enveloped in shade, with shadows crawling up the opposing hillside. 

But suppose you're standing on a hilltop, facing west. As the sun rises, the valley is backlit. It comes alive in the light. By the same token, if you're facing east as the sun circles around behind you, the scene is backlit, but the light is muted. Fading, dying light. 

In the Christian pilgrimage, the road ahead is backlit. We don't see the sun directly. Rather, we see by the sun. We see the effects of sunshine. That's like faith and hope. 

The pilgrimage also has phases of twilight, moonlight, starlight, and pitch black. By contrast, heaven is like facing the sun, where faith and hope give way to sight. 

It's similar to the OT paradox about seeing God. You can't view God directly, face-to-face, and live–but you can see reflections of God. It reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

As I have said before, there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu — the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less — if anything, it increased — but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before. And the deck and the sail and their own faces and bodies became brighter and brighter and every rope shone. And next morning, when the sun rose, now five or six times its old size, they stared hard into it and could see the very feathers of the birds that came flying from it.

After that for many days, without wind in her shrouds or foam at her bows, across a waveless sea, the Dawn Treader glided smoothly east. Every day and every hour the light became more brilliant and still they could bear it. No one ate or slept and no one wanted to, but they drew buckets of dazzling water from the sea, stronger than wine and somehow wetter, more liquid, than ordinary water, and pledged one another silently in deep draughts of it. And one or two of the sailors who had been oldish men when the voyage began now grew younger every day. Everyone on board was filled with joy and excitement, but not an excitement that made one talk. The further they sailed the less they spoke, and then almost in a whisper. The stillness of that last sea laid hold on them.

There was no need to row, for the current drifted them steadily to the east. None of them slept nor ate. All that night and all next day they glided eastward, and when the third day dawned — with a brightness you or I could not bear even if we had dark glasses on — they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-grey, trembling, shimmering wall. Then up came the sun, and at its first rising they saw it through the wall and it turned into wonderful rainbow colours. Then they knew that the wall was really a long, tall wave — a wave endlessly fixed in one place as you may often see at the edge of a waterfall. It seemed to be about thirty feet high, and the current was gliding them swiftly towards it. You might have supposed they would have thought of their danger. They didn't. I don't think anyone could have in their position. For now they saw something not only behind the wave but behind the sun. They could not have seen even the sun if their eyes had not been strengthened by the water of the Last Sea. But now they could look at the rising sun and see it clearly and see things beyond it. What they saw — eastward, beyond the sun — was a range of mountains. It was so high that either they never saw the top of it or they forgot it. None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction. And the mountains must really have been outside the world. For any mountains even a quarter or a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them. But these were warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls however high you looked. 

The incredible shrinking Christmas story


Reading Scripture in community

1. A popular Catholic trope is that, contrary to sola Scriptura, Scripture was meant to be read in community. It can't be properly understood apart from the interpretive community of faith. 

To flesh out the argument: the Bible is the Church's book. Scripture was written to and for the Church. The Church promulgated the  Bible by deciding which books are canonical. 

To understand the Bible, you must read it from the viewpoint of the interpretive community. You can't understand the Bible as an outside observer, but only as an insider.

You must experience the Bible as a member of the community. That's not something you can get just from reading the church fathers or papal encyclicals. Community is something you must experience firsthand. There's a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. To experience community is different from reading Catholic expositors, with the critical detachment of an outsider. 

Compare watching a movie at home alone with watching the same movie in a movie theater. Watching a movie in a movie theater is a collective experience. There's a social dynamic. Crowd psychology kicks in. The reaction of the audience has an influence on how individual members of the audience experience the film. 

2. There's a grain of truth to that. Christian identity has a corporate dimension as well as an individual dimension. Christians belong to the family of God. We worship together. And the Bible is a common reference point. But the Catholic trope suffers from some basic problems:

i) What's their reference class for the interpretive community? For instance, suppose everyone in the Christian community reads Rom 4, then the ten most popular interpretations are collected, then a vote is taken. The winning interpretation represents a communal reading.

But, of course, that's not what Catholic apologists mean by communal interpretation. They mean church councils, church fathers, papal encyclicals. But a papal interpretation is individual rather than communal.

ii) By the logic of the Catholic trope, the only way to be Catholic is to be born into the community. It's not possible to become Catholic because an outsider can't break into the hermeneutical circle of the community. Unless he's already a member of the community, he can't experience the Bible in community. As an outsider, he can't know what the Bible means to an insider. He can never compare the two perspectives, for if he's one he's not the other. So that precludes conversion. 

iii) By the same token, suppose a Muslim says the Quran was meant to be read in community. You can't properly understand the Quran unless you share the communal experience of the ummah. A Mormon or Swedenborgian could deploy the same argument.

So a Catholic can't say the Quran, or Book of Mormon, or Arcana Cœlestia, is false–because a communal reading requires privileged access. But if a Catholic can't say what is false, then he can't say what is true. He can't say Catholicism is true without a point of contrast. Catholicism and Gnosticism can't both be true if Catholicism represents orthodoxy while Gnosticism represents heresy. What about reading the Westminster Confession in community? 

Dual-covenant theology

Culture warrior and Orthodox Jew Ben Shapiro recently interviewed Bishop Barron:

Barron is the Fulton Sheen of his generation, although they have different skill sets. Barron is a smooth, smart, articulate, winsome evangelist and apologist for mainstream Catholic theology. Protestant apologists ignore him at their peril.
Barron is a teamplayer, a member of the hierarchy, so he refuses to criticize Pope Francis-either because he's onboard with Francis or because he'd be sacked if he became a public critic of Francis. As a result, he ducked some of Ben's questions when the answer would be impolitic. In that regard he sometimes sounds like a member of the cabinet on a Sunday morning talk show who deflects questions critical of the president. In general, though, it was a very impressive performance-especially for listeners unaware of the historical revisionism reflected in many of his theological answers.

  1. Between about 45-56 min. he discusses the relationship between Judaism and modern Catholicism. And some of what he said between 16-20 min. feeds into that as well. In response to Ben's question about replacement theology/supersessionism, Barron says Catholic worship is unintelligible apart from the temple or Jewish worship. When Barron celebrates Mass, he dons the robs of a temple priest, with a mitre. There's an altar, incense, and sacrifice. So that, according to him, reflects the Jewish roots of Catholicism. However, that comparison raises some questions: i) The heathen world had its own temples, priests, and sacrificial offerings. So does the Mass have its antecedents in Mosaic sacerdotalism-or is this a syncretistic version of pagan sacerdotalism?
    ii) Even assuming it has Jewish antecedents, wouldn't most Jews regard the Catholic appropriation as an expropriation of Judaism? A usurpation of Judaism by putting a Catholic stamp on Jewish practice? Rebranding Judaism. Isn't that supersessionism through the backdoor? It still replaces Judaism with Catholicism.
    iii) In addition, Barron equivocates over the meaning of "fulfillment". But that can mean either of two different things:
    a) To abrogate

For instance, if I'm on a one-way road trip and I cross a bridge, I put the bridge behind me. I don't look back. It served its purpose. It has now outlived its usefulness to me. The bridge was just a temporary means to an end. It has no continuing value.
b) To perfect

For instance, some musical pieces build to a crescendo or climax. But this doesn't mean that once you reach the climax, you can dispense with the lead-up to the climax. It's not like after you hear the entire composition for the first time, you only listen to the final bar on repeated hearings. The climax only works in the context of the entire composition. Each time you need to listen to the music from start to finish. Likewise, the objective in reading a story isn't get to the end. If it's a good story, the entire story is enjoyable.
iv) Modern Catholicism has adopted dual-covenant theology, where the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant run on parallel tracks leading to the same destination. But even if the Mosaic covenant is essential for understanding the new covenant, that doesn't entail the permanence of the Mosaic covenant. That confounds the epistemological role of the Mosaic covenant with its ontological role. Like confounding the purpose of a bridge with the purpose of a roadmap.

  • Baron said that in many parts of Protestantism there's a desire to de-Judaize Christianity. We've overcome that and left that behind. i) But as I noted, his Catholic alternative is a bait-n-switch.
    ii) Protestant positions on the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant range along a continuum. For instance, Lutheranism and Anabaptism are closer to the discontinuity end of the spectrum while Anglicanism and Presbyterianism are closer to the continuity end of the spectrum. Dispensationalism reflects both ends of the spectrum.
    Within modern Judaism itself, there's a spectrum of views, due in part to the question of Judaic identity in a post-temple world. Priesthood and sacrifice were central to OT Judaism and Second Temple Judaism. But the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD abolished that in practice, precipitating a Jewish identity crisis. To some degree that had a counterpart in the Babylonian exile, when priesthood and sacrifice were in abeyance. So Jews after 70 AD must also take the Mosaic covenant apart and isolate the essential elements. Different Jewish schools of thought give different answers.
    iii) Speaking for myself, ancient Israel was two-sided: a political state as well as a religious state. On the one hand, many Mosaic laws are necessary for a political state. A political state requires a penal code. And I think some of its civil and criminal laws exemplify enduring moral principles.
    On the other hand, the purity codes, priesthood and sacrificial system are keyed to Israel as a religious state. That side of Israel had a symbolic role that's abrogated under the new covenant.
  • Barron appealed to the Incarnation as the fusion of Israel with the church. The God of Israel meeting with his people. But that confuses metaphysical union and spiritual communion. The alienation between sinners and their God isn't metaphysical but moral. The question is how to restore fellowship between a holy God and sinners. That requires the cross, not the Incarnation-although the Incarnation is a necessary underpinning to the Cross.
  • Barron said the Logos made flesh is the divine mind/reason made flesh, and when I follow my conscience I'm following Christ. That builds on one false premise after another. It's quite dubious to construe the Logos in Jn 1 in Philonic categories. Rather, the narrator identifies the Son as the Creator God in Genesis. To deify conscience as the voice of Christ ("aboriginal vicar of Christ") in the soul is diabolical.
  • Ben asked him about the common distinction between Christianity as faith-based and Judaism as act-based. However, I think that's more of a dichotomy between OT Judaism and rabbinic Judaism. OT Judaism had a vertical dimension as well as a horizontal dimension. But rabbinic Judaism shears off the vertical dimension, reducing piety to law and social ethics. The role of God is primarily a presupposition for morality-in contrast to fellowship with God as the goal of life. In both OT and NT theism, life with the life-giving God lies at the center.

  • Monday, December 17, 2018

    Umpires who bet on their own team

    Around the 26-31 min. mark, Bishop Baron defends the papacy:

    1. He's discussing the difference between authentic an inauthentic theological development. Developments may deviate from the essential meaning of the original idea. So that requires the authority of the pope to play umpire.

      But there's an obvious flaw in Barron's argument: an umpire isn't supposed to bet on his own team. By contrast, the pope is not a disinterested arbiter. The papacy is, in itself, a product of theological development, so popes have a vested interest in developments that aggrandize the papacy. They have a direct hand in writing their own job description. An umpire who has a personal stake in the outcome should be disqualified, because that rigs the game. So Barron's comparison backfires.

      Cult-leaders and false prophets make self-serving claims. Now, it's possible to make a self-serving claim even if the claim is true, but in that event we should have some corroborative evidence independent of the claimant. Because the papacy has a direct stake in theological developments, appealing to the papacy to make the call regarding what constitutes authentic or inauthentic development of doctrine is viciously circular.

    2. Barron trots out the ersatz "30,000" Protestant denomination figure as contrary to Christ's prayer for unity in Jn 17. But what kind of unity does Barron think Jn 17 refers to? Surely not doctrinal unity. Doctrinal unity is not a requirement for membership in the church of Rome. Passing a theology exam is not a prerequisite for confirmation in the church of Rome.

    3. He compares sola Scriptura to handing a kid a copy of Hamlet. The bare text of Hamlet. Point being: Hamlet requires an interpret lens. The reception history. It's borderline irresponsible to pick up the Bible and off you go.

      i) It's true that the average reader will have a much better grasp of Hamlet if he reads an annotated edition by A. L. Rowse. But Barron knows perfectly well that most Protestant pastors have a seminary education. He knows perfectly well that Protestants produce commentaries on the Bible by OT and NT scholars. So the comparison backfires. Just as the interpretation of Shakespeare benefits from having background knowledge about his time, place, and sources of influence, Protestant exegetical scholarship does the same thing in reference to Scripture.

      ii) Moreover, the proper interpretive lens isn't the reception history of the text but the original setting. Not what came later, but a Bible writer's background and the background of his target audience. The occasion, purpose, situation.

      iii) Modern Catholicism subverts the historicity and supernaturalism of Scripture. Take the footnotes of the NABRE at the USCCB website.

    4. In addition, it's possible to overemphasize as well as underemphasize the necessity of Bible scholarship. To take a comparison, a Trekkie will get more out of some Star Trek movies than a novice. Star Trek movies have in-jokes and allusions to the Star Trek mythos. It's useful to know the backstories of Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons. It's useful to know the backstory of Spock. His hybrid psychological makeup.

      However, that doesn't mean you have to be a Trekkie to make sense of a Star Trek movie. If well-written, it has a plot that's comprehensible to a novice. Most of the dialogue is comprehensible to a novice. If you enjoy the cheesy space western genre, you can get the gist of the movie even if you come to the movie as a novice. Star Trek movies operate at more than one level. At one level is the basic plot and dialogue. That's accessible to general viewers. But it also has a subtext for the fan base.

      By the same token, the Bible is not a closed book unless you have a commentary by your side. Much of Scripture is accessible to a novice. Returning to Barron's illustration, T. S. Eliot wrote a famous essay on "Hamlet and His Problems". Although Eliot didn't know as much about Shakespeare's world as Rowse, yet as a poet and literary critic, he was able to analyze the play on strictly dramatic or literary terms.

      By the same token, because there's so much narrative in Scripture, literary critics like Robert Alter, Leland Ryken, and Meir Sternberg explore the internal dynamics of biblical accounts without reference to the world outside the story. And that contributes to our understanding of the text. That draws attention to a dimension of meaning that's lost sight of if a commentator is preoccupied with comparing a biblical narrative to the world outside the text.

      Like Shakespeare or Star Trek, the Bible operates at more than one level. There are different ports of entry.

    Catholicism on funerals for suicides


    Gratia prima

    Around the 19 min. mark, Bishop Barron draws a distinction between sola gratia and gratia prima. He frankly says Catholic theology affirms gratia prima but rejects sola gratia. That's a useful admission to clarify a crucial difference between Catholicism and classic Protestant theology:

    In Catholicism, you're not saved by grace alone.

    The evil of the Roman Catholic hierarchy “would make the Mafia blush”

    I urge you to watch this. It's only six minutes long, but it would be hard to find a Protestant who has ever said more scathing things about the Roman Catholic hierarchy, than Michael Voris says here.

    What's really amazing is that, because Voris has had interactions with federal and state investigators, what he says here is no doubt highly factual.

    Some of his phraseology:

    The institution ... operates as an international organized crime syndicate that has access to enormous amounts of wealth from multiple sources ...

    Consider the effects of compound interest for a 1500 year old organization.

    ... [This syndicate within the hierarchy] flies under the cover of "religion", and under that cover, has been unexamined and unchecked for the past half century ...

    Ok, I would extend that to about 1000 years ... "unchecked" since the eastern churches broke off from Rome in about 1054 AD, leaving Rome not merely the "first among equals", but simply "the first" in its part of the world (western Europe).

    ... To a man (among prosecutors and investigators), they are all coming to the conclusion that this evil monster that has seized operational control of the church is far-flung, and motivated by sexual and financial corruption on a scale that staggers even these veterans ... There is a corrupt, organized, criminal syndicate running the church, putting itself in place for decades now. A criminal syndicate that would make the mafia blush with shame ...

    These investigations will be going on for years, and they will be in the major news media for years to come. It is hard to imagine where it will all end.

    You can tell a tree by its fruit.

    Sunday, December 16, 2018

    Grieving as an atheist

    I'll comment on this:

    It is one thing for me to pretend to believe an abominable doctrine such as Christianity, but it’s another for my children to be put under it. As a parent, one of the strongest instincts I feel is the desire to protect my daughters, and boy did the idea of sending them to a Christian church set off that protective instinct.

    One problem with an atheist appealing to or relying on instinct is that in naturalistic evolution, instincts are amoral. Some animals instinctively protect their offspring while other animals instinctively eat their offspring–or eat the offspring of their rivals. 

    So there's the question of what lies behind the instinct. In Christianity, we have some God-given instincts. Transcendent wisdom lies behind the instinct. But naturalistic evolution is a fumbling, pitiless process. 

    Was New Testament Material On Jesus' Childhood Based Only On Oral Tradition?

    Critics often say or imply that the early Christians were more dependent on the oral transmission of information than they actually were. This past Easter season, I wrote a post about non-extant documents on Jesus' resurrection, including documents that predate the ones we have. Much of what I wrote there is applicable to Christmas issues as well.

    We shouldn't think that information on Jesus' childhood was passed on only orally prior to the writing of the New Testament documents. In fact, the idea that nothing was written about his childhood prior to the time of the New Testament is antecedently improbable, so that those who hold that position bear the burden of proof.

    Saturday, December 15, 2018

    Bryan's stalled chess game

    Bryan Cross recently reviewed Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation, by Kenneth Collins & Jerry Walls, in Faith and Philosophy 35/4 (October 2018), 485-491. 

    i) It's worth noting who didn't write the review. It wasn't written by a cradle Catholic. It wasn't written by a graduate of a Catholic seminary. It wasn't written by a Catholic Bible scholar or church historians at a Catholic seminary or pontifical university. It wasn't written by a Catholic theologian. It wasn't written by a priest, monsignor, or bishop. It wasn't written by the prefect for the CDF. 

    Rather, it was written by a Catholic layman and evangelical convert to Catholicism. It was written by a self-anointed spokesman for Catholicism. Whenever I read Bryan, I'm struck by how he presumes to pontificate (pun intended) for Catholic theology. But how representative are his views within the hierarchy or mainstream Catholic academia? Or is this an idealized abstraction that's out of step with official currents in Roman Catholicism? 

    ii) I've skimmed the book Bryan is reading. I read the parts that interested me. For purposes of this post, I'll assume that Bryan accurately represents the stated positions of Walls and Collins in the book. I won't go back to compare his representations with theirs. They can do that on their own if they choose to respond to him. I did reread their section on the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture before writing this post. 

    iii) It's somewhat roundabout to review a review. I don't necessarily frame the issues in the same way as Collins and Walls. And Bryan wasn't responding to me, so he can't be faulted for failing to engage my arguments, since that wasn't his aim. So my response is orthogonal to this particular exchange. I speak as an interested third party, overhearing their exchange. 

    Keeping Christ in Christmas

    Puritan cultural warrior:

    Santa Hunted Down

    Genesis in the church fathers

    It seemed to me [reviewer James Pate] that a lot of the church fathers Allert profiled believed that the events of Genesis 1 occurred as narrated. Why seek to explain the light that existed before the sun, moon, and stars, if it is all just symbolic, anyway? They may have believed there was a deeper spiritual meaning to the details of Genesis 1, but they seem to have accepted Genesis 1 as history: a narrative about what happened in the past.


    Invisible friends

    Atheists mock Christian belief in their "invisible friend". 

    i) Jesus is visible, not invisible. God Incarnate is visible. He was seen (heard, and touched) by thousands of observers in 1C Palestine.

    ii) And that's not just a thing of the past. Consider many reported Christophanies in modern times:

    iii) But suppose Jesus is invisible. Charlemagne is invisible. I never saw him. Never met him. There are no photographs of Charlemagne. Does that mean Charlemagne is a figment of the imagination? 

    iv) Consider an anonymous benefactor. Take someone who endows a college scholarship. Although that's an invisible friend, it's not an imaginary friend.

    Calvinism as devotional theology

    From a devotional standpoint, Calvinism has two centripetal orientations:

    i) Our absolute dependence on God as creatures

    ii) Our absolute dependence on God as sinners

    (ii) presupposes (i), but (ii) deepens the sense of helplessness and indebtedness. 

    Friday, December 14, 2018

    Will John Chau help or harm missions in India?

    Two missiologists address the question: "Will John Chau Help or Harm Missions in India?"

    Reproduction machines

    Had an impromptu debate with an apostate on Facebook

    What Doctrines do Atheists hold? I would prefer to describe myself as a Humanist because that does tell you something about my beliefs and values. If I called you a non-Buddhist, all that would tell you is some of the things a don't believe.

    Typically, atheists are physicalists. In addition, they believe the universe is a closed system:

    Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities. 

    In the final twentieth-century phase, the acceptance of the casual closure of the physical led to full-fledged physicalism. The causal closure thesis implied that, if mental and other special causes are to produce physical effects, they must themselves be physically constituted. It thus gave rise to the strong physicalist doctrine that anything that has physical effects must itself be physical. 

    There is no ultimate reason for why things happen, although there are causes. This life is all there is. No immortality. No immortal soul. No resurrection of the body. Humans are fleeting, fortuitous combinations of particles. What we believe and cherish is the result of blind evolutionary conditioning and social conditioning. That's pretty standard. Some atheists toy with Platonic realism. Many atheists reject moral realism.

    Can We Trust the Gospels?

    Recently I read Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway 2018) by Peter Williams, a NT scholar and textual critic. 

    Chap. 1 reviews the non-Christian sources. 

    Chap. 2 provides an overview of the canonical Gospels.

    Chap. 3 marshals a battery of evidence to demonstrate that the canonical Gospels reflect intimate knowledge of the time and place of Jesus, based on place names, proper names, bodies of water, roads, gardens, botanical terms, finance, local languages, Jewishness, and usual customs. 

    It also compares the canonical gospels with apocryphal gospels to illustrate the dearth of such information in gospels from a later time and different place. 

    Chap. 4 summarizes the argument from undesigned coincidences, drawing on Lydia McGrew's monograph.

    Chap. 5 addresses the question of whether we have the actual words of Jesus, as well as harmonizing the Resurrection accounts of Matthew and John.

    Chap. 6 debunks the textual skepticism of Bart Ehrman. 

    Chap. 7 addresses the allegation that the Gospels are contradictory, appealing to literary paradox in John's Gospel. 

    Chap. 8 applies the criterion of embarrassment, defends and sketches the argument from miracles, defends and sketches the argument from prophecy, as well as making a case for the Resurrection.

    Despite the book's brevity, it's a fact-filled treatment. Highly recommended. Here's a sample:

    What is Calvinism?

    I. Preliminaries

    I've discussed this before, but now I'd like to offer a more comprehensive statement. This will reflect my own understanding.

    Calvinism is often defined by the "five points of Calvinism". But while that's an integral element of Calvinism, it's a reductionistic definition. 

    There's a distinction between Reformed distinctives and Reformed essentials. Calvinism shares many essentials in common with other theological traditions. Usually the question "what is Calvinism" has reference to things that distinguish Calvinism from freewill theism or (traditionally) Catholicism. But it's misleading to define a theological tradition primarily by what makes it different from other theological traditions. 

    Even in that respect, Reformed distinctives aren't necessarily unique to Calvinism. Calvinism is not the only predestinarian theological tradition. There's Augustinianism, classical Thomism, and Jansenism. 

    This post is not a defense of Calvinism, but an exposition of some key tenets.