Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Practicing Christians v. believing Christians

You’ve mentioned that you believe in God. How would you characterize your religion? 
For me, religion is much more about a community of people than about belief. It’s fine literature and music. As far as I can tell, people who belong to my church don’t necessarily believe anything. Certainly we don’t talk about that much. I suppose I’m a better Jew than I am a Christian. Jewish religion is much more a matter of community than it is of belief, and I think that’s true of us Christians to a great extent, too. 
Were your parents Christians? 
Yes. Nominally. I would say they’re practicing Christians, but not believing Christians. 
What’s the difference? 
Oh, it’s totally different. A practicing Christian is somebody who lives a Christian life and likes to worship in common with a lot of other people and considers the church as a community to which to belong, but you don’t inquire closely as to what the others believe. Of course, some people take belief very seriously, and others don’t.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Schreiner on Hebrews

Schreiner has a monograph on Hebrews due early next year. Ought to make a significant contribution:

Hidden But Now Revealed

I expect this will make a useful contribution to Messianic prophecy studies:

Why Do Paul's Letters Not Say Much About Jesus' Life On Earth?

James McGrath has a post on the subject that makes some good points.

What I cannot create, I do not understand

Near the end of his life, Richard Feymann left a terse statement on the blackboard: "What I cannot create, I do not understand."

What he meant, apparently, is that unless you can reconstruct every step, you don't really understand it. Understanding is a form of reverse engineering. Working back from the end-product to how everything functions. 

Unbelievers often make glib remarks about "design flaws" in nature. To which I always say, "Let's see you construct a better alternative." 

Breaking Littlewood's Law

Some atheists invoke "Littlewood's Law" to dismiss miracles as statistically inevitable cases of sheer coincidence. There are books on the subject which popularize that outlook. 

Problem is, facile appeal to"Littlewood's Law" proves too much. They render cheating undetectable. Sometimes the dice are loaded. Sometimes the deck is stacked:

A flickering firefly in the night

We are utterly irrelevant in the vastness of the cosmos, its evolution, and eventual annihilation...It isn’t that you exist and this “you” is irrelevant.  It’s that there is no “you” there in the first place to be either relevant or irrelevant.  Phenomena we call thoughts, feelings, and sensations – Yes. But at the heart of these experiences there is no “you” to be found. An apparent you – Yes.  There is only emptiness that manifests now and then as the person you take yourself to be.

From what else I've read on the subject, I'd say that's a basically accurate summary of the Buddhist position. Buddhism has a fundamentally tragic outlook on life. Buddhism is an exercise in despair management. How to make the best of the losing hand we've been dealt.

As an atheistic philosophy, Buddhism is somewhat insightful on the costly nature of atheism. In addition, Buddhism reflects the hopelessness of a pre-Christian philosophy. 

Of course, popularizers like Sudduth try to pretty it up and make it sound better than it really is. It's hard to live with unremitting despair. So they dole out nuggets of chocolate-coated nihilism. The yummy rhetoric masking the toxic core. 

Buddhism is about learning to let go, before you have to let go, because Buddhism is a philosophy of flux. Nothing lasts. Sooner or later, you lose everything. So you might as well make the mental adjustment in advance to brace yourself for the inevitable. 

There's an element of truth to this. Ecclesiastes makes a similar point. But Buddhism is a half truth. A half truth is more persuasive than a pure lie. 

In Buddhism, both good and bad are equally ephemeral. In Christianity, by contrast, good is eternal. Preexistent and everlasting. Nothing ultimately good is ever truly lost. 

We might compare and contrast Buddhism with Hinduism:

After my father's death, I went to India and went through rituals that you in the West would find strange. I bathed and anointed my father's body, then carried it on my shoulder, stoked the cremation fires, and watched his body burn. I took his remains to the mouth of the Ganges and watched them float away to retune to the dust to where he came from. 
I am questioning the whole idea that there is such a thing as a person. A few hours after cremation the person has totally disappeared. You collect the bones; they're like little pieces of ivory. You wash them in the Ganges, and then the person merges back into the energy and intelligence of the universe from where he came…For a few years, which is nothing–like the flicker of a firefly in the middle of the night–we are individuals. 

Not surprisingly, this has affinities with Buddhism. The same reductionistic outlook. The insignificance of the individual. Eulogizing his brother at the graveside, Ingersoll said:

Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word.

That's atheism. That's Buddhism.

From Hinduism, Buddhism inherited reincarnation. Buddha was a reformer, but not a radical. Buddhism would be more consistent if it shed reincarnation. That illustrates the power of tradition. Dogma. 

Mind you, reincarnation is just as bad, in a different way. Every time you die, you wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Everything slips through your fingers. 

Compare that to Christianity, where the best of the past comes back around in the new Eden, the new Jerusalem. Better than ever. 

Arminian schizophrenia

Since Olson's post continues to accrue comments (170 at last count), I'll say a bit more:
Or do you not feel any pressure to reconcile or deal with contradictions? Do you simply accept that God both did and did not command David to carry out a census? Please read Dewey Beegle's Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility and then tell me how you hold on to scriptural inerrancy (other than closing your eyes to the contradictions or engaging in tortured harmonizations).

An obvious problem with Olson's argument is that he's appealing to Scripture to attack Scripture. If the Bible is errant and contradictory, what makes him think the Gospels are a reliable source of information about Jesus' teaching? Given his view of Scripture, why think Jesus really said the things the Gospels attribute to him? Why not think the Gospels write a script which they put on Jesus' lips? You can't impugn the veracity of Scripture one moment, then prooftext your claim the next moment. 

Frankly, and with all due respect, I think you are still evading the issue. Jesus, God in humanity, the God-man, the perfect revelation of God's character, gathered children about him and said "of such is the Kingdom of God." Surely you don't think he meant "these children only--the ones right here sitting by me." Surely he meant children, period. That he, God, would also command the merciless slaughter of innocent children…

There are several obvious problems with his extrapolation:

Jesus miraculously fed some children when he multiplied the fish and bread. But Jesus doesn't miraculously feed all, or even most, hungry children. Many children are malnourished. Many children die of starvation.

Jesus healed the daughter of Jairus. But there were many sick or dying children in Palestine whom Jesus didn't heal. Not to mention the Roman Empire at large. Or North America. Or South America. Or China, India, Japan, Scotland, &c. And that's just in the 1C. What about the ancient Near East? What about the Middle Ages? 

I know of no more important principle for Christian theology than that Jesus is the perfect if not complete revelation of God’s character. After all, Jesus was God in human flesh. Or, put more technically, following the hypostatic union doctrine of Chalcedon, he was the Son of God, the eternal second person of the Trinity, equal with the Father, with an added human nature. But orthodoxy does not say and should not permit anyone to say that the addition of humanity to the Son of God made him any different morally than he always was or than the Father is.
The “person” of Jesus Christ was not morally altered by the incarnation. That, I take it, is a basic orthodox doctrine. He was the Son of God. That is his “who” even if his “what” included humanity.
Surely, in trinitarian orthodoxy, the Son of God, the Word, the Logos, is morally the same as the Father; that is, there is no difference between them (and the Holy Spirit) as to their character. They share all the same moral attributes and always have and always will. To say otherwise would be to wreak havoc with the Trinity.

i) Problem with his appealing to the deity of Christ is that it backfires. Logically, this means whatever the OT attributes to Yahweh, Christians should attribute to Jesus. But that includes the very commands to execute the Canaanites. 

ii) In addition, thousands of children die every year from divinely preventable causes. Sometimes these involve moral evils, like war or murder. Sometimes natural evils, like illness, accidents, famine, tornadoes, &c. 

Be patient…I’m going somewhere with all this.
Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He gathered them about himself and, as they say in Texas, “loved on them.” I do not believe these were “elect children,” some select group of children Jesus loved while he hated others.

Actually, this is a select group of children. Notice that Jesus didn't seek out children to bless. Rather, parents brought their children to Jesus. 

But there’s a problem. Can anyone imagine Jesus turning around and saying “Slaughter these little children”? I can’t.

i) Actually, when God threatened to punish apostate Israel by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans, that included many underage victims. 

ii) What matters in the long run is what happens to you in the long run. Not this life, but the afterlife. Sooner or later, all of us die. Some die young. Death by natural causes can be more painful than a violent death. 

Fahrenheit 451

Assuming this report is accurate, it graphically illustrates our lawless law enforcement culture. Instant totalitarianism.

Grace, wrath, and eternal love

Monday, September 01, 2014

Humanism and human rights

Saving God from himself

I think there is an important apologetic aspect to this whole issue of whether God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanite infants...We cannot invite men to the source of all goodness and then play a bait and switch. We cannot turn around and say, "Oh, by the way, I told you that God is the source of love, mercy, pity, and the laughter of children. But actually, I also believe firmly that God commanded men to be pitiless upon little children and to cut off their laughter forever by putting them to the edge of the sword. And they carried it through, too. And in the end, I'm okay with that."
Which is why I cannot sit down and simply accept God's ordering the slaughter of the Canaanite children by the Israelites.

One problem with Lydia's position is the notion that she can erect a high wall between God and natural or moral evil. But even if she succeeded in that implausible exercise, it would relocate rather than resolve the problem of evil. It's like a black market arms dealer for a drug cartel who says he's not responsible for the cartel assassinating a prosector because, once the buyer takes receipt of the weapons, what's done with them is out of his hands. But, of course, we wouldn't accept that excuse.

Is God too pure to look on evil?

The Bible is very clear that God has nothing to do with evil. There is “no darkness” in God (1 Jn 1:5). Far from intentionally bringing about evil, God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil” (Hab. 1:13).   All evil, therefore, must be ultimately traced back to decisions made by free agents other than God. Some of these agents are human. Some of these agents are angelic. Either way, evil originates in their willing, not God’s.

It's striking to see how badly Gregory Boyd quotes Hab 1:13 out of context. Let's begin by quoting a larger sample of the passage in question:

3 Why do you make me see iniquity,    and why do you idly look at wrong?Destruction and violence are before me;    strife and contention arise.
12  Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he? (1:3,12-13, ESV)

Here's how Richard Patterson renders the Hebrew in his commentary:

Why do you make me look at iniquity while You behold oppression?
O Lord, You have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, You have established them to reprove. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot behold oppression. Why do You behold the treacherous and keep silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves (pp129,143).

And here's how F. F. Bruce renders the Hebrew in his commentary:

You have appointed them for judgment, O Lord; you have established them for punishment, my Rock. You are too pure of eyes to behold wrongdoing, you cannot look on evil; why do you look on treacherous people and remain silent when the wicked swallows up one more righteous than himself? (p852). 

i) Contrary to Boyd's denial, it's very clear from Habakkuk that God does have something to do with evil. He is behind the Babylonian resurgence. He uses them as executors of divine judgment against wayward Israel. As Bruce observes, commenting on v12:

The prophet goes on to acknowledge Yahweh's sovereignty over the nations; he ordains or overrules their actions for the furtherance of his purpose in the world. The Chaldean invaders have indeed been raised up by him for the punishment of the ungodly–this the prophet accepts without question (p853).

ii) Habakkuk makes formally contradictory claims about God. He says God both does and does not "look on" evil. So he resorts to paradoxical formulations.

There's a sense in which God does look on evil, and another sense in which God does not. A double entendre. Presumably, Habakkuk means God doesn't look on evil with favor or approval. 

iii) Yet God is using evil to punish evil. Poetic justice. Indeed, the Babylonians are even worse than apostate Israel. 

Habakkuk senses a tension between the means and the ends. God goes on to explain that having punished apostate Israel by the Babylonian scourge, God will punish Babylon for its own iniquity. 

Boyd's description conjures up the image of a king who is pure because he lives within a walled city, surrounded by beauty. There's no crime within the walled city. No moral ugliness. 

But outside the walled city is physical and moral squalor. Utopian conditions inside the walls. Dystopian conditions outside the walls. 

The king retains his stainless purity because he never leaves the royal city to see the rest of his kingdom. The royal city is walled off from the evil outside the walls, so the king never sees it. He retains his innocence by averting his eyes. By shielding his gaze from the sight of evil. The king can't bear the sight of evil, so he looks away. 

There are freewill theists like Boyd who act as if God would be morally tarnished if he even beheld evil. Like some Christians who defined holiness by never watching an R-rated movie. Of course, that's not a position which Boyd can consistently maintain. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The wheel of life and death

Victor Stenger passed away on Wednesday. He lived and died an atheist. From a secular standpoint, his death will be missed in the way some people miss a handsome oak tree that was destroyed by ambrosia beetles. They enjoyed looking at it. Now it's gone. Sad, but life goes on. Indeed, some people miss their favorite tree more than they miss dead humans. His demise is no more important in the great scheme of things than a fallen leaf. 
To put his life and death in perspective: 
We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. 
What are all of us but self-reproducing robots? We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot child. 
For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria.
– Richard Dawkins
Whenever an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals), I say that it is adopting the intentional stance or treating that thing as an intentional system.   
So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. When somebody we love or even just know well dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it…A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our intentional-stance habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse. We can't just delete the file in our memory banks, we wouldn't want to be able to do so. What keeps many habits in place is the pleasure we take from indulging in them. And so we dwell on them, drawn to them like a moth to a candle. We preserve relics and other reminders of the deceased persons, and make images of them, and tell stories about them, to prolong these habits of mind even as they start to fade. 

– Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin 2006), 110, 112.

The wheel of life and death 
In Buddhism this is extended to the idea that everything physical or mental is by nature transitory and in a constant state of change. Whatever rises must fall. This state of change must thereby result in decline and decay. In this sense existence is an unending cycle of growth and decay, integration and disintegration.  
Along with the frailty and insecurity of life, it is believed that at the center of existence there is a void. This void is the result of the insubstantial nature of life, and the aggregates, although forming a recognizable and perceivable object, do not produce a substance " all of them are insubstantial, a part of the endless movement of life.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.
But Freddie's Summer soon passed. It vanished on an October night. He had never felt it so cold. All the leaves shivered with the cold. 
One day a very strange thing happened. The same breezes that, in the past, had made them dance began to push and pull at their stems, almost as if they were angry. This caused some of the leaves to be torn from their branches and swept up in the wind, tossed about and dropped softly to the ground. All the leaves became frightened. 
"What's happening?" they asked each other in whispers. 
"It's what happens in Fall," Daniel told them. "It's the time for leaves to change their home. Some people call it to die." 
"Will we all die?" Freddie asked. 
"Yes," Daniel answered. "Everything dies. No matter how big or small, how weak or strong. We first do our job. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and to laugh. Then we die." 
"Does the tree die, too?" Freddie asked. 
"Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That lasts forever and we are all a part of Life." 
"Where will we go when we die?" 
"No one knows for sure. That's the great mystery!" 
"Will we return in the Spring?" 
"We may not, but Life will." 
"Then what has been the reason for all of this?" Freddie continued to question. "Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die?" 
Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact way, "It's been about the sun and the moon. It's been about happy times together. It's been about the shade and the old people and the children. It's been about colors in Fall. It's been about seasons. Isn't that enough?" 
Then, Freddie was all alone, the only leaf on his branch. The first snow fell the following morning. It was soft, white, and gentle; but it was bitter cold. There was hardly any sun that day, and the day was very short. Freddie found himself losing his color, becoming brittle. It was constantly cold and the snow weighed heavily upon him.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Leo Buscaglia

Reverse bigotry

I'll comment on this:
During the last week, some genuinely concerned people have admonished me about what they perceive to be an unhealthy bias against police officers. They have with good intention taken the position that those in authority should have our trust and support. I’ve had a running conversation with at least four officers or former officers concerned that I’m spreading distrust of them and their mates. They think it’s better if people with a public platform of any size would encourage trust for officers.
I’ve benefitted from these exchanges, if for no other reason than it demonstrates once again the very different lives African Americans and White Americans live in the same country. For my white interlocutors, the thought of not trusting the police never crosses their mind. It’s the right thing to do. It’s basic civics.
Ah, yes, because white Americans automatically think we should trust and support those in authority. White libertarians, Tea Partiers, and/or conservatives vest implicit trust in the ATF (e.g. Ruby Ridge), IRS (e.g. Lois Lerner), HHS (e.g. Kathleen Sebelius), DOJ (e.g. Janet Reno, Eric Holder), VA, TSA, EPA, NSA, NLRB, &c. 
Funny how Thabiti stereotypes white Americans. Isn't there a word for that? Prejudice?  
The idea that African Americans have lived in a police state in the United States may be something new to White readers of this post. That, again, just shows how different the lived experiences have been.
Notice he makes a gratuitous assumption about what white Americans allegedly don't know, then faults them for his own imputation. 
For nearly all of African-American life in the U.S., the police force has been the local arm of white supremacy and oppression. Ask yourself, How does white supremacy, racism and oppression get enforced for centuries even in cities and places where African Americans were the majority? How was it possible to enforce slave codes and Jim Crow segregation? What local means of power did the state exercise to “keep Blacks in their place”?
Was Jim Crow nation wide? After Reconstruction, didn't many Southern blacks move north (e.g. Chicago, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia) to put Jim Crow behind them? 
Since the late 1600s up to the end of official desegregation, the official local means for enforcing white supremacy was the police.
That’s been an everyday truth for most of African-American experience. It’s a truth passed down at dinner tables between mothers who love their sons and sons wanting to play with toy guns or imagine one day being officers. It’s a truth recounted in history books—not the official books of public schools, but the books African Americans have worked to write in order to remember their names and tell their stories first person. It’s an experience that shapes generations. So the moments when little boys and girls daydream with their parents about what to become when they grow up intersects the story of an entire people. Like waters flowing from oceans into rivers, the moving memories and sediments get passed along until they puddle up in some lake and there grow with each wave that enters. Memory is long. The memory of hurt longer.
Well, that's the problem. He's not describing the firsthand experience of contemporary black Americans. Today's black teenager doesn't remember going through that, because he didn't. Or his parents. Thabiti is talking about a story that's passed down from one generation to the next. 
And you may be asking at this point, “How long?” How long will the remembrance of past injustices dog the steps of inter-ethnic peace and progress?
Notice the key phrase: "the remembrance of past injustices." Frankly, social commentators like Thabiti are shortchanging blacks by trapping them in a now nonexistent past. A psychological prison. Not physical bars, but invisible bars. That holds them back. Fosters a defeatist mentality. 
First, how long do you think it takes a police system and a justice system to exorcise the poison of officially-sanctioned racial animosity? How long do you think it takes people and systems to move from embraced and open racism to something resembling a true content-of-character, love-believes-all-things heart?
What about when the Jim Crow generation retires? It only takes one or two generations to have a compete turnover in police departments or the judiciary. 
Are all the racists and the racist sentiments of a police force with hundreds of years of practice gone in one generation? Have all the attitudes and practices that made forceful subjugation of African Americans possible disappeared in a couple of decades?
But our police officers work in a system. And systems don’t change overnight. Systems have a way of molding the behavior and attitudes of the best of people. That’s true of every system, and it’s no less true of law enforcement. It’s true even when you put a black man in a blue uniform. They find themselves acting out prejudices or facing the prejudices inside the force. The invisible hand of systemic prejudice is always at work on everyone in the system.
Notice how he personifies the "system," as if that's is a long-lived human being. 

Folk Mass

Because royalty are just ordinary people with extraordinary perks, they've felt the need to have something that makes them seem special, more special than they really are. Something that sets them apart from the hoi polloi. Typically, this involves finery. Gold crowns. Jewelry. Ostentatious attire. There's nothing about a naked king to distinguish him from a naked peasant. The externals must make the difference. The externals confer artificial importance on royalty. The illusion of that these are a breed apart from ordinary mortals. They dress like demigods to disguise how average they are underneath. 

Traditionally, the Mass employs the same psychology. Allegedly, the consecrated communion elements are the True Body and Blood of Christ. The trick is how to make something essentially mundane seem magical. So you fancy it up with ritual and glittery trappings. Archbishop Sheen once teamed up with  Yousuf Karsh to produce an illustrated guide to the Tridentine Mass. It's an elaborate exercise in how to make something intrinsically unimpressive impressive. How to elevate something made from water and flour, or fermented grape juice, to an object of reverence and adoration. High Mass at St. Peter's is another example. The choir. The visuals. The incense. Same thing with a Russian Orthodox service. Glorious Hocus Pocus. A priest strumming a guitar just doesn't have the same effect. 

This is why the folk mass was so disastrous. It's like stripping royalty of their gold, ermine, gemstones, and putting them in overalls. There's the sudden shock of recognition. When you peel back the layers, what's left is banal. The Tridentine Mass is a Christmas present with fancy wrappings. But what's inside the box doesn't compare with what's outside the box. Removing the wrappings, peek inside, and it's just an empty box. Jesus isn't there. The folk mass was very deflating. 

It's interesting to compare the Mass with Solomon's temple. By design, that was a very impressive building. Impressive interior. Some top-quality furnishings.

The floor plan is concentric. Space within space. Progressively holier, progressively smaller. 

Imagine when Jerusalem finally fell to Nebuchadnezzar. I assume he was curious to see the temple. See inside the temple. Walking into the sanctuary must have taken his breath away. The inner sanctum would be the high point. Yet, when he pulled the curtain aside, it must have been a bit unprepossessing. Just a box. Albeit a gilt box. 

I imagine he was trembling with suspense. There must be something pretty important inside the box to justify the build-up. What could be that important in such a small space? 

He lifts the lid. What a letdown! The Decalogue. Aaron's rod. A pot of manna. And that's it!

Solomon's temple is deliberately anticlimactic, because it's only an emblem of God's presence. God didn't live there. When you peer around the veil, you don't see God on the other side. Nebuchadnezzar was lucky that God wasn't waiting for him. Had it been the Shekinah or the Angel of the Lord, that would be a fatal encounter for the impudent king. 

Unlike the Mass, Solomon's temple never pretended to be more than it was. A symbolic structure. A pointer. A memorial. God wasn't really there. At least, no more or less than God is anywhere or everywhere. That's not where you find God, because that's not how you find God.

The Reformed Church: “Best Understanding of What's Happening in Our Crazy World Today”

Carl Trueman has an article that makes genuine good sense in the current environment.
We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs….

But of this I am convinced: Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile. That faith was forged on the European continent in the lives and writings of such men as Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin. It found its finest expression in the Anglophone world in the great Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans of the seventeenth century. It possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment. It has a strong tradition of reflecting in depth upon the difference between that which is essential and that which, though good, is inessential and thus dispensable. It has a historical identity rooted in the wider theological teachings of the Church. It has deep resources for thinking clearly about the relationship of Church and state.

It’s not surprising that Reformed Christianity equips us well for exile, because it was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles. Indeed, the most famous Reformed theologian of them all, John Calvin, was a Frenchman who found fame and influence as a pastor outside his homeland, in the city of Geneva. The Pilgrim fathers of New England knew the realities of exile, and the conditions that it imposed upon the people, only too well. Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.

The Reformed Church has its own baggage, but given the nature of its origins and our own moment, it is the right baggage: light when it needs to be light and heavy with the Gospel when it needs to be heavy. A marginal, minority interest in America for well over a century, she does not face the loss of social influence and political aspirations that now confront Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. We do not expect to be at the center of worldly affairs. We do not imagine ourselves to be running indispensable institutions. Lack of a major role in the public square will cause no crisis in self-understanding.

This does not arise from indifference or a lack of substance, but instead from clarity and focus. Doctrinally, the Reformed Church affirms the great truths that were defined in the early Church, to which she adds the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. She cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise. We do not draw our strength primarily from an institution, but instead from a simple, practical pedagogy of worship: the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions around the family dinner table.

There’s more “quotable Trueman” in there:

It is important to understand that the medieval Church’s failure to produce a theology that instilled this New Testament confidence contributed in significant ways to the Reformation. Luther’s notion of Christian freedom depends upon our clear knowledge of our identity in Christ. The bonds of sin are broken by faith’s secure hold on the truth of the Gospel. The way in which faith gives us a place to stand over and against worldliness was picked up and elaborated by Calvin and other Reformed theologians. The New Testament note of confidence—we really can know and give ourselves to the saving power of Christ—was cultivated by preaching and liturgy. This enabled Protestants to survive and then to thrive in the hostile world of sixteenth-century Europe. Our identity was not mediated by priest or sacrament. Then and today it is grasped by faith in the Word….

For those in physical exile, for those suffering for their faith, for those despised and marginalized by the world around them, the knowledge that history is under God’s control provides encouragement. However weak the Church appears to be, however many setbacks it faces, the end of history is already determined in Christ…

Reformed theology contributed to the rise of the theory of just rebellion, played a role in the English Civil War, inspired the Scottish Covenanters, and gave John Winthrop a vision for building a city on a hill in the New World. The Reformed faith resists being reduced to a type of private pietism. On the contrary, it has often proved a potent social force, even in situations of marginality and exile….

[John Calvin] spent much of his adult life in Geneva and was very influential in the city. But he was a foreigner, a Frenchman abroad, not even a citizen of Geneva for much of his time. He was never even powerful enough to persuade the magistrates to allow him to celebrate communion on a weekly basis. In short, Calvin was an exile, and he wrote his theology from the perspective of an exile. But this did not prevent him from speaking powerfully into the world where he found himself.

Yet there are differences between the Reformed and Rome. Calvin is no Thomas, and the Reformed faith is not Roman Catholicism. Where Thomas saw sin as exacerbating the limitations of nature in a fallen world, Calvin saw sin as bringing a decisive ethical darkness into the world. This difference is important and gives Reformed theology a more realistic understanding of Christian life in the public square and thus of the limits to what we might expect to achieve.

People do not call evil good and good evil primarily because they are confused or not thinking clearly. They do so because they are in basic rebellion against God.

It sounds a tad paradoxical: The Reformed use natural law for public engagement but expect little or no success. We believe that the world was created with a particular moral structure. Yet we also believe that fallen humanity has a fundamental antipathy toward acknowledging any form of external authority that threatens our own ultimate autonomy. This injects a basic irrationality and emotional passion into moral debates. This distortion of conscience and reason explains the apparent impotence of otherwise compelling arguments. And it surely reflects our actual experience as Christians in exile in twenty-first-century America.

I’ve lifted some of the passages that give the article its flavor. You can read the whole article here.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

And the walls came tumbling down

In my judgment, the only way to counter this for the inerrantists is to prove that the historical and archaeological evidence supports that account as it is in Joshua 6. 
On the problem passages, I have one big comment: inerrantists tip toe and tap dance around the fall of Jericho’s walls and end up denying the overwhelming conclusions of the archaeologists. Pete Enns is right here to challenge dust-in-the-eyes proposals of resolution to these sorts of problems.

Several issues:

i) There's the question of personal and professional ethics. McKnight used to teach at TEDS. That's a seminary committed to inerrancy. Yet he's attacking inerrancy. Has he changed his mind? Or did he dissemble about his true views when he was there?

ii) Biblical archeology is a wonderful discipline. But it has inherent limitations. Unless we know what Jericho looked like in the 2nd millennium BC, from one century to the next, we don't know what it looked like before or after the Conquest. Not to mention over 3000 years of subsequent erosion, reuse of preexisting materials, &c. So what's the basis of comparison? 

iii) Do proof and disproof have the same burden of proof? Does archeological proof that something happened, something existed, have the same evidentiary onus as archeological disproof that something never happened, never existed? 

iv) Josh 6 is, in itself, historical and archeological evidence for the event in question. Written records are a major source of archeological evidence. 

v) Why are inerrantists required to supply corroborative evidence? The area where I grew up has changed drastically in just 50 years. Many of my old haunts are now unrecognizable. From memory, I can mentally reconstruct what used to be there. But only someone who lived through that period is in a position to do so. And when that generation dies, those memories are lost. That knowledge is gone. 

vi) Incidentally, McKnight is a prominent Arminian. Once again, I'm struck by the fact that Arminians, especially in academia, are more liberal then their Calvinist counterparts. 

The Cat in the Hat

I'm going to comment on some of Lydia McGrew's latest statements on this thread:
I think if you have a real, absolute moral prohibition on killing infants, you should be very, very uncomfortable with these passages and especially with saying that it really happened just like that. You should have a serious conundrum. You should not be *just fine* with the, "God ordered it, so I guess then it's okay" response.
That's reversible. If you take Biblical revelation seriously, then you should question having "a real absolute moral prohibition" on killing infants.
There are plenty of reasons for not just taking it that it must be okay, the most important of which is that that would appear blasphemously to be saying that God ordered the murder of children. It's odd that those who are concerned for the honor of God aren't concerned that perhaps attributing this to Him isn't so honoring to Him.
Notice her tendentious tactics. Christians who defend Biblical revelation aren't saying that God ordered the murder of children. She smuggles in her own characterization, then imputes that to her opponents. 
As I said elsewhere, Scripture is full of statements that God is light, that God is love, that in God is no darkness at all, that God is good, that all goodness comes from God. If we are to consider that God ordered hacking infants to death, surely you can see that any attempt to say that our ideas of goodness are just radically faulty enough that we can't see why that is okay severely calls into question our ability to have any concept of divine benevolence! It raises the very real question of whether the passages could say that God ordered _just anything_ and people would believe it in the name of inerrancy. It also raises the very real question of what we are worshiping and whether we can be worshiping truly, truly adoring God's goodness, while attributing these things to Him. And if one were simply to accept such a thing, it raises the question of whether one who insists on doing that could literally _reverse_ the meanings of "good" and "evil" and still worship the god thus defined.
But that goes to the problem of evil generally. After all, infants have been "hacked to death" at various times regardless of whether or not God orders it. Since she considers that intrinsically evil, how is God benevolent towards infants if he twiddles his thumbs while that happens? 
As for its not being applicable to today, that seems to confuse the situation of the Israelites vis a vis the Canaanites with our situation vis a vis the Israelites. _They_ didn't get this order from a written canon of Scripture, because no such thing existed. _They_ couldn't have believed sola scriptura. Anyone who putatively received such an order today would presumably believe himself to be in _their_ position. He's not interpreting what God said to the Israelites but interpreting what he thinks God is telling him to do today. If you believe God could order the slaughter of infants over three thousand years ago, it seems rather too convenient, and argumentatively unsupported, to use the concept of sola scriptura to argue that God _couldn't_ do such thing today.
She's disregarding the specific reasons given in the text for the holy war commands. 
The putative slaughter of the Canaanites, with its apparent contradiction of the 6th commandment and even other OT statements, _does_ undeniably put strain on Judaism sans Christ, even as it puts strain on Christianity (which is a continuation of Judaism).
She keeps salting the mine. It's only in apparent contradiction to the 6th commandment if it's murder. That's the very question in dispute. 
First of all, I am not "setting" the Scripture against the Scripture. I am pointing out what seems to me a direct conflict, which would be there even if I never pointed it out. This isn't something I'm just making up. You yourself should be able to see the appearance of conflict, and simply resolving it by saying, "I believe in inerrancy" isn't much of a resolution. 
Notice that she's stipulating a "direct conflict." 
I would not apply the "consequentialist rationalization" label to God, because I've already said at the outset that the entire category of murder does not apply to God at all. It's just a category mistake to try to apply it to Him. So therefore the notion of a consequentialist rationalization of a wrong action cannot apply to God either.
If the entire category of murder does not apply to God at all, how does that mesh with her claim about "the very real question of what we are worshipping"? 
I'm surprised that you don't see the relevance of the hypothetical to the topic at hand. There are evidently some things that you would not believe to be true, even if found in part of the canon of what is designated as Scripture that has come down to us.
A counterfactual scenario can show a method to be mistaken. If your method is, as it seems to be, to take it as beyond question that anything that comes down to us in what is designated as the canon of Scripture must be true, even if that means attributing what appears to be an atrocity to God, and redefining our concept of "atrocity" accordingly, then that method is subject to a reductio ad absurdum. That reductio can be understand in terms of a counterfactual as to what that method would require us to do in the hypothetical case I have given. You cannot just say that the hypothetical is irrelevant because it isn't actual, because to do so is to show a failure to comprehend the nature of a reductio for a method of coming to a conclusion.
In trying to run a different reductio using a hypothetical, I'm simply finding something that you _would_ balk at.
Your method of believing whatever is in what is designated as the canon of Scripture _does_ have these absurd consequences as shown in my hypothetical. For some reason you just do not see that I have presented thereby a reductio of your method.
I'm pointing out, however, that someone could say exactly the same things you are saying, in exactly the same way, about *absolutely any content*. Since you don't apparently really want to say that you would accept *absolutely any content* as being true just because it is in the canon of Scripture, you should realize that what you are saying to me is also not argumentatively moving.
In that context, to try to move me *merely* by saying, "You can't call that into question. It's in the Bible" is a fairly weak argument and really does invite the sorts of reductios I have been bringing forward.
Why is this so hard? Why couldn't someone say the _exact_ same thing about "why the Bible shouldn't be the norm" if the Bible contained a record of God's telling the Israelites to rape the Canaanite children? The answer is, someone could.
This point has force whether you see it or not. If you have any line at which you would reject what is in the canon of Scripture, then you are prepared to do the exact same thing that I am doing.
i) Notice the bait-and-switch. When she asks, "What if the Bible said…?" she's no longer talking about the Bible, but something different. The fact that an inerrantist doesn't have the same deference for what's not the Bible as he has for what is the Bible proves nothing. That's not what has come down to us from the Jews, or Jesus, or the Apostles. 
ii) To say "what is designated as Scripture" is sleight-of-hand. Suppose an avid fan of Dr. Seuss founded the Church of Seuss. Members regard Dr. Seuss as a prophet sent by God to restore the true faith. In the Church of Seuss, his writings are designated as canonical Scripture. As a result, Green eggs and ham are the communion elements.
Suppose Lydia then says, "Well, if you balk at what Green Eggs and Ham teaches, then you ought to balk at what Deuteronomy 20 teaches." Really? How does that counterfactual scenario show that faith in Deuteronomy is misplaced? 
Yes, there are some things I wouldn't believe to be true, even if found in what the Church of Seuss designates as Scripture. I draw a line. And that's a reason to deny the Bible? 
iii) Lydia acts as if the designation of canonical Scripture is arbitrary. The title on the dust cover. What's inside could be anything. 
But, of course, the books comprising the canon aren't simply designated as Scripture by fiat, a la The Da Vinci Code. At least, not for Protestants. 
iv) In fact, this isn't just hypothetical. There are rival canons of the OT. The church of Rome, the Orthodox church, and the Ethiopian church have different OT canons than the Protestant canon. Protestants reaffirm the Hebrew OT canon because that has the best historical chain-of-custody. The OT apocrypha and pseudepigrapha arose during the Intertestamental period, and there's no good reason to think the Jews, or Jesus, or the Apostles, ever viewed those Intertestamental writings as Scripture. Content, per se, is not the criterion, but the chain-of-custody. 
If the idea is that the reason we don't need to talk about those hypotheticals is that the real-life situation *isn't really all that bad* and hence needn't be compared to such a hypothetical, then that, of course, is where we disagree.
So if her opponents don't think the real-life situation is intrinsically evil, then by her own admission, the hypothetical comparison has no traction. 
What is her argument, anyway? Is this an argument from analogy? If you reject child rape, you ought to reject child homicide, because the two are morally equivalent? But if that's the claim, where's the supporting argument? To say they're morally equivalent begs the question. 
In what sane moral universe, I ask you, do we say, "Raping little kids, that can't be justified. I draw the line there. But cutting off their heads with swords--yeah, I can probably find a workaround to justify that"?
But we're talking here about swiping the heads off of babies, which, on the contrary, *is* one of the things which has been condemned both by natural law and by tradition all along. Therefore all manner of special pleading is necessary to try to justify it in the case of the Canaanites.
For some reason, chopping off children's heads just doesn't do it for you, but raping children does.
i) Are we talking here about beheading babies? That's what she's talking about, but does the OT command the Israelites to behead Canaanite babies? Where does the Pentateuch prescribe that method of executing the Canaanites? Why is she suddenly imputing that imagery to the text? Is it because she finds that polemically useful, even if it's untrue? 
ii) Since, moreover, she's conceded that God has the right to end a child's life, then her comparison between raping children and killing children isn't analogous even on her own grounds.