Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gagnon on Gushee

In a tendentious puff piece about David Gushee (“Progressive” Baptist and Christian ethicist at Mercer University), Jonathan Merritt (senior columnist for Religion News Service) trumpets that Gushee’s defection from the orthodox stance on homosexual practice will do great damage to that position (“Leading evangelical ethicist David Gushee is now pro-LGBT. Here’s why it matters”). Mr. Merritt declares with the usual bias that we have come to expect from him when talking about homosexuality:
“While other pro-LGBT Christian activists — including Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network and Matthew Vines, author of ‘God and the Gay Christian’ — have been dismissed in some circles as wet-behind-the-ears youngsters without formal theological training, Gushee, 52, is a scholar with impeccable credentials. He can add intellectual heft to what has largely been a youth-led movement, and is not someone who can be easily dismissed.”
Mr. Merritt goes on to agree with Dr. Gushee in characterizing everyone who concurs with Jesus’ stance on a foundational male-female prerequisite for sexual relations as a “hardline conservative” and a member of the “far right.”
One helpful point in the article, though, is the disclosure of the reason for Dr. Gushee’s departure from the overwhelming evidence from Scripture and nature: “Then in 2008, his younger sister, Katey, came out as a lesbian. She is a Christian, single mother, and had been periodically hospitalized for depression and a suicide attempt.”
I will respond to each of the last three paragraphs in order.
(1) Dr. Gushee's alleged "intellectual heft" on the issue of the Bible and homosexuality:
Dr. Gushee carries no “intellectual heft” on the issue of Scripture and homosexuality, for two simple reasons: (1) Dr. Gushee is heavily dependent on the “wet-behind-the-ears” Matthew Vine for his “exegesis” of biblical texts pertaining to the issue of homosexuality; and (2) Dr. Gushee has ignored nearly all the major arguments against his embarrassingly bad exegesis, even when I sent him links to online articles that summarize more extensive arguments in my published work.
In response to a request from FB friends, I looked at Part 11 of his series of articles posted on, entitled “Two Little Words: The LGBT Issue, Part 11,” on two terms in 1 Cor 6:9: malakoi (“soft men,” which I argue means, in context, effeminate men who serve as the passive partners in male homosexual practice) and arsenokoitai (“men who lie with a male,” formed from the Greek translation of the absolute prohibitions of man-male intercourse in Lev 18:22; 20:13).
Dr. Gushee was trying to argue that these terms had to do only with exploitative forms of homosexual practice. It was clear that he had no personal facility with Greek and was entirely dependent on Matthew Vines (who likewise has no personal facility in Greek). The research, such as it was, was amateurish and unworthy of a scholar.
I sent him a private message on FB, asking him that if he was determined not to take an hour or two to read my 33-page analysis of these two terms in The Bible and Homosexual Practice (303-36), he might at least look at a 5 page online summary of the 4 arguments for malakoi and 8 for arsenokoitai, arguments which indicate that these terms are inclusive of adult-committed male homosexual relationships (point 4 of I asked him if he would revise his article by at least responding to these arguments, heretofore ignored. He thanked me and did revise his article, but not in light of my arguments; rather, only in light of the comments that others, who were not scholars, left below his online article.
In his revision, he not only ignored my arguments, but he also mischaracterized an important scholar’s view (William Loader) as supporting his (Gushee’s) viewpoint and opposing mine (the exact opposite was the case). He added a reference from “biblical scholar Michael Vasey” about the cultural milieu. Yet Vasey, who was not a biblical scholar but a gay Anglican priest who died at age 52 of HIV complications, was oblivious to the evidence for committed homosexual relationships in the ancient world.
Dr. Gushee followed this with an over-reaching theological claim about Paul that is unsustainable from the evidence. He claimed that God’s grace precludes the possibility that Paul could have warned sexual offenders, including homosexual offenders, about exclusion from God’s kingdom. Yet Paul’s offender list in 1 Cor 6:9-10 is precisely such a warning (“Stop deceiving yourselves: [The following] shall not inherit the kingdom of God”), where the larger context is the shocking case of a self-proclaimed Christian “brother” at Corinth in a sexual relationship with his stepmother. Paul has similar warnings about sexual immorality sprinkled throughout most of his extant letters.
So I asked Dr. Gushee a second time through private FB messaging to respond to the many counterarguments that I offered. He sent me the message, “I appreciate your comments. Thank you.” A day or two later Dr. Gushee blocked me from his FB page so that I couldn’t see or answer his public response on Facebook (a FB friend sent me a copy anyway). In it he lamented that adopting the LGBT stance “will cost me suffering, including public repudiations and stinging attacks from erstwhile friends and determined adversaries.” I’m quite sure that my work has received many times more attacks than his (by those long on vitriol and short on academic integrity), but I don’t cry about it. (And my first book on the Bible and homosexuality came out less than a year before tenure.) I rather investigate to see if the charges are merited.
He added that by Gagnon asking him to read 5 pages of material that differs from his preferred viewpoint I have demanded the impossible since he cannot spend his “entire life reading ancient Hebrew, Persian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian, laws, plays, poems, fables, and moral exhortations on sexuality, in the original languages, plus all associated scholarly literature produced in the last 40 years”; that he doesn’t have time to spend “his entire career doing [this] work.”
Does not everyone see the ridiculousness of this claim by the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University? Could you imagine an undergraduate, let alone first-year M.Div. student, far from a tenured full professor, making that kind of remark? “No, professor, I can’t read a 33-page chapter of a key work, or even a 5-page summary of the chapter, from the principal scholar who disagrees with my agenda because I can’t spend my entire life reading Hebrew, Persian, Aramaic, Greek, etc., and all the scholarly literature produced in the past 40 years.” Well, I wasn’t asking you to learn again the Greek and Hebrew that as a professor of Christian ethics you shouldn't have let slide in the first place (let alone Persian and Aramaic), now was I? I was asking you to read an English-written 33-page chapter or just a 5-page summary.
Brave soul that he is, Dr. Gushee was resolute on his FB page: “I will continue to publish articles each week @abp/rh on this LGBT issue reflecting my best, highly fallible, time-limited effort to address the relevant dimensions of the problem…. I will not be intimidated or rebuked into silence. I will follow what I believe Jesus is calling me to do.”
Well, when did I ever want David Gushee to stop following Jesus? I just think that he shouldn’t be citing Jesus as justification for shoddy work that deliberately hides from readers the problems with his exegesis of Scripture. Apparently now “intimidation” occurs when one scholar shows the deficiencies of a poorly argued position by another scholar who has the intellectual wherewithal to do much better but refuses to spend even a half hour to investigate the counterarguments. Gushee, like Vines and Justin Lee of the “Gay Christian Network,” is an intellectual coward (I’m sorry to say). By that I mean that he deliberately ignores the array of counterarguments to his own ideological position and sometimes even misrepresents the views and credentials of scholars in order to advance that position.
Dr. Gushee has recast bad scholarship as martyrdom. According to his FB post, there are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who care for same-sex attracted persons and those who don’t. He feels that love for same-sex attracted persons demands that we twist Scripture to mean what it can’t possibly mean, read in its historical and literary context, so that such persons can now enter into homosexual unions free of any societal reservation or stricture. Never mind that Paul viewed such behavior as a dishonoring of the integrity of one’s gender vis-à-vis one’s own sex; or that Jesus viewed a male-female prerequisite for sexual relations as foundational for sexual ethics according to God. All of that must be dispensed since it can’t possibly be loving to believe such things. Dr. Gushee apparently thinks that he is a better, more compassionate ethicist than Jesus.
I later looked at his Part 9 posting on Sodom and Gomorrah. It was as badly researched as his piece on 1 Cor 6:9. Again, he ignored all the counterarguments that I put forward more than a decade ago regarding interpretation of the Sodom narrative (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 71-91). I point readers to a shorter online summary of the arguments at
(2) Regarding Mr. Merritt's and Dr. Gushee's extreme description of those who disagree:
As I noted earlier, Mr. Merritt, in agreement with Dr. Gushee, refers to everyone who agrees with Jesus’ stance on a male-female prerequisite as a “hardline conservative” and a member of the “far right.”
Mr. Merritt and Dr. Gushee must be correct in their pejorative labels because we all know that drawing the conclusion that the appropriate sexual counterpart to a man is a woman and to a woman a man is completely obscurantist. Why should the views of Jesus, the apostolic witness to him in the New Testament, the Old Testament witness from Genesis on that precedes Jesus, the witness of early Judaism, and the united witness of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, and everyone of note in the Judeo-Christian tradition until only the last few decades be regarded as a centrist theological position? We’re not just “right”; we’re “far right.” We’re not just “conservative”; we’re “hardline conservative.” I guess that using such extreme nomenclature helps Mr. Merritt and Dr. Gushee to deceive themselves into thinking that they are in some sort of moderate theological middle relative to worldwide Christianity.
But how can we not agree with their labels for us as extremists? After all, it is not at all obvious that anatomically, physiologically, and even psychologically men and women are sexual complements. (What was St. Paul thinking when he referred to this as a deliberate suppression of the truth?) And it is not at all self-evident that the absence of a true sexual complement in homosexual unions results in disproportionately high rates of measurable harm in male homosexuality and female homosexuality but at different rates for each group that corresponds to gender type.
Then, too, it is certainly clear that claiming congenital influences on homosexual development constitutes a great moral argument for endorsing the behavior arising from those desires. We all know that innate urges with a biological basis are usually or always good and should be promoted (like a polyamorous orientation, greed, pride, envy, jealousy, etc.). Don't we know this?
It is also crystal clear that the arguments used to endorse homosexual unions have nothing to do with undermining sexual standards on adult-consensual forms of polyamory and incest. It is not as if the twoness of the sexual bond has any relationship to the twoness of the sexes (as Jesus thought) or that the elimination of a principle of sexual otherness has any bearing on the elimination of a lesser principle of kinship otherness, right?
We can all be thankful for these extreme descriptions of us by Mr. Merritt and Dr. Gushee ’cause us far-right hillbillies recently began walking upright and still subscribe to Soldier of Fortune magazine, right?
(3) Regarding the impact on Dr. Gushee of his lesbian sister:
I sympathize with the struggle of Dr. Gushee's sister Katey and with the struggle of all those like her. Yet I disagree that the solution to the problem is to put one’s own desires over the will of God clearly expressed by Jesus, the apostolic witness to him in Scripture, and indeed the entirety of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation (to say nothing of philosophic nature arguments and science, both of which lend further support to the overwhelming biblical witness). All of us are called to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and lose our lives, and follow Jesus. None of us gets an exemption.
To be sure, I don’t struggle with same-sex attractions like Katey, though I am honored to be close friends with many who do and who nonetheless continue to live a life of faithfulness before the Lord. All of us have one or more areas of life (some of an even more serious nature than same-sex attractions) where we are called on by God to let the “dying of Jesus” become manifest in our body so that the “life of Jesus” might likewise become manifest (as Paul mentions in 2 Cor 4). Nobody gets a pass from a cruciform life, out of which resurrection follows.
The church is called by God to come alongside all those who suffer and to encourage such in the midst of hardships and deprivations that God’s grace will in the long run prove itself sufficient even in the midst of hardships and deprivations, because knowing God is so great that it more than makes up for life's deficiencies. In fact, God’s power is brought to completion precisely in the midst of our weaknesses. Consequently we can even delight in these weaknesses because through them we learn what it is to rely on the God who raises from the dead (2 Cor 12; 1).
We have no right to short-circuit the work of God, who through the Spirit is in the business of transforming us into the image of his Son, by assuring people falsely that God does not regard this or that behavior as an egregious violation of the divine will. I do not fault Dr. Gushee for sympathizing with those who suffer. I fault him for distorting the message of Jesus and the apostles through bad exegesis and, worse still, for playing the role of God in granting immunity from divine judgment for behavior against which God gives grave warnings.
When Mr. Merritt and Dr. Gushee pejoratively label such responses as “hardline conservative,” “far right” “backlash,” it is relatively transparent that they are using manipulative rhetoric to cover up the problems with their position and, ultimately, the lack of true love in that position. When Paul began his moral exhortation (paraenesis) to the Roman believers, he stated, “Let love be without phoniness [or: pretending, play-acting],” immediately adding: “abhorring [or: detesting, strongly hating] what is evil, joining [or: gluing, attaching] yourselves to what is good” (12:9; my trans.). Unfortunately for Gushee, one can’t really do the first without attending to the second and third. When one calls what God declares an evil to be a good, one's "love" is phony, a mere pretense, a play-acting. Love must be genuine, which means (with Jesus) that one's outreach to the lost includes a call to repentance and to discipleship.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Libertarian Calvinism – 3

Why I vote conservative

"Death with dignity"

"Death with dignity" is one of the popular euphemisms used to defend euthanasia. In one sense, proponents are correct. The aging process can be very undignified. Losing control of your mind and/or body is painfully undignified. 
Of course, when you stop to think about it, human life is replete with little indignities. Childbearing is undignified. Childrearing is often undignified. Sex is undignified. Defecation is undignified. Breaking wind is undignified. Sickness is often undignified, both for the patient and the caregiver. 
Comedy is undignified. Comedy lampoons human foibles. 
Many essential occupations are undignified. Indeed, there's a whole TV series (Dirty Jobs) which explores that topic.
To a great extent, we are grubby little creatures. That's an ineluctable component of our physicality. We take ourselves far too seriously if we imagine that our "dignity" is all that important. 
There is, however, a different kind of dignity. Moral dignity. This requires a contrast between a person's undignified situation and how, through grace and courage, they cope with their undignified situation. There's a special kind of beauty that only shines forth in the midst of moral and physical ugliness. Goodness in spite of badness. Bringing good out of evil. 
That's a central feature of the Christian worldview. That's one reason God predestined the Fall in the first place. There's a unique kind of good, a second-order good, that's only possible in the face of evil. That's when it rises to the occasion–like a flower rising out of the underlying decay.

There can be dignity in all states of life

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Since the Catholic dogma of Mary's perpetual virginity (hereafter PVM) recently came up, I'd like to say a few things. 

i) We need to begin with a definition. There's more to the PVM than the claim that Mary never had sexual intercourse. Rather, Rome has a very idiosyncratic definition:

499 The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.154 In fact, Christ's birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it."155 And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin".
ii) It's unclear what Mary's in partu virginity is supposed to denote. In order to affirm something, it must deny the contrary or contraries. Offhand, I can only think of two logical possibilities:

a) In some miraculous fashion, Jesus passed through the birth canal without rupturing the hymen. Did he momentarily dematerialize, then dematerialize? Did the hymen momentarily dematerialize, then dematerialize? 

b) Jesus was born without passing through the birth canal. Rather, it was a miraculous C-section. Teleportation. "Beam me up, Scotty!" 

iii) I don't have any a priori objection to a miraculous birthing process. However, the stated rationale indicates that there was something improper about the normal birthing process. And that is theologically objectionable.

iv) The onus is not on a Protestant to disprove the PVM. My disbelief is justified by lack of evidence. Indeed, absent evidence, I'd be irrational and irresponsible to believe it. 

Suppose you ask me if I believe in leprechauns. I say, "No." You say, "Prove it!"

Prove what? The onus is not on me to disprove the existence of leprechauns. I don't believe in them for the simple reason that, to my knowledge, there's no credible evidence that they exist. I need no further justification. I don't have to produce evidence against their existence to be warrant my disbelief. Regarding the PVM, the Catholic shoulders the burden of proof. 

v) What would count as evidence for the PVM? Needless to say, there's no available medical evidence. 

At best, it could only be known by divine revelation. Yet Rome can't add to the deposit of faith. So unless it can be proven from public revelation (i.e. the Bible), there's no evidence for the PVM.

There's no point quoting the church fathers. It's not as if the church fathers conducted a pelvic exam of Mary. 

vi) Some Protestants attempt to disprove it. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that effort. Keep in mind, though, that justified disbelief in the PVM doesn't depend on the success of that effort. It is not incumbent on Protestants to disprove a dogma for which there's no evidence in the first place. 

vii) The weakest argument is that Jesus was Mary's "firstborn" son. However, that doesn't necessarily imply subsequent offspring. Given the cultural importance of primogeniture, the birth of a firstborn son was significant in its own right.

viii) A better argument is that the Gospels refer to brothers and sisters of Jesus. Catholics counter that the word can mean cousins. That's possible. But unless there's a presumption that they couldn't be his brothers or sisters (or stepbrothers and stepsisters, to be precise), there's no reason to reach for "cousin."

ix) An even stronger argument involves the "until" clause in Mt 1:25, with its before and after contrast. That's very hard to get around, and there's no reason to evade it unless you have a prior commitment to the PVM–based on what?

x) Finally, as I recently observed, if Mary and Joseph never consummated their marriage, then there's nothing to distinguish their "marriage" from an extension of their betrothal. If Joseph was never the legal stepfather of Jesus, then that in turn delegitimates the theological rationale for the Matthean and Lukan genealogies–both of which trace Christ's ancestry through Joseph:

and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ (Mt 1:16). 
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli (Lk 3:23).

Ike Redivivus?

Commanding evil

One objection which some "progressive Christians" raise to OT "genocide" is that if genocide is wrong, then commanding genocide is wrong. Therefore, the OT attributes commands to God which God did not in fact command. 

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that OT "genocide" is wrong. If what is commanded is wrong, is it wrong to command it? That might seem like a logical inference, but is it?

Let's consider a couple of counterexamples:

i) My first example is adapted from a friend's illustration. Many of us have seen movies or TV dramas in which a spy or uncover cop must take certain actions, including some ordinarily immoral actions, to maintain his cover. He might have to issue "abhorrent" commands to a subordinate. Suppose he orders a subordinate to torch the establishment of a business that refuses to pay protection money. If he doesn't issue that command, someone else will, so his refusal to issue the "abhorrent" command will not prevent any evil that would otherwise occur. On the other hand, by maintaining his cover, he is able to greatly mitigate the scale of evil. 

Although it's wrong for the subordinate to carry out the command, it's not wrong for him to give the command. 

ii) I sometimes use a different example. Instead of commanding wrong, it's a case of instigating wrong. But I think they're morally comparable. 

For instance, suppose a Latin American country is trying to protect the populace from two drug cartels. But it's a losing battle. The gov't lacks the resources to defeat the cartels. The cartels bribe judges, soldiers, policemen, &c. Those that can't be bought off are assassinated. 

The only way for the gov't to defeat the cartels is to provoke a civil war between the two cartels. They will so degrade each other that it will be a mopping up operation after the dust settles.

In order to pull that off, the gov't must kill the son of a drug lord, but make it look like a hit by the rival cartel. The son is deeply involved in the family business, so he's a legitimate target.

It would be wrong for members of the rival cartels to murder each other. But it's not wrong of the gov't to instigate their mutual hostilities. The gov't has a duty to protect innocent citizens, and that's the only feasible strategy. 

Some critics might object that God doesn't face the same limitations as my two scenarios. True. But the question is whether, as a matter of principle, it is necessarily evil to command evil. 

You also have radical chic Anabaptist types who refuse to get dirt under their fingernails by even contemplating tough judgment calls in ethics. They subcontract that out to others. Leave it to others to make the hard choices. They repeat the benefits without having to make the tough call themselves. 

Keep in mind that I don't concede that God commanded evil. I'm just responding to critics on their own grounds. Even if we grant their operating premise, does their conclusion follow? 

Foreign affairs

I'm going to briefly compare and contrast Obama and Bush 43 foreign policy. I don't think Bush 43 is the standard of comparison by any means. That's not how I'd cast the issue, left to my druthers. But since this issue has come up, I'll address it on those terms:

i) The Iraq war obviously backfired. 

ii) Keep in mind that many critics of the Iraq war preferred the containment policy of economic sanctions and the no-fly zone. However, that strategy had many critics too.  The sanctions were hard to enforce. And they took a toll on the civilian populace. Eventually, the UN would have allowed the sanctions to lapse. 

A problem with the no-fly zone is that Iraq kept firing anti-aircraft missiles at our fighter jets. What should we have done if they downed one of our fighter jets?

iii) I think the Afghanistan war was justified, but the nation-building component was a boondoggle. 

iv) Obama's foreign policy is basically procrastination. 

v) One traditional component of American foreign policy has been the balance of powers concept. The world is safer for America when some foreign powers form a check on the ambitions of other foreign powers. You play one off against the other. Kissinger is a famous exponent of this strategy.

It's been criticized for favoring global stability over human rights. An amoral foreign policy. There's some truth to that. However, it's not as if the Arab Winter or Putin on the march promotes human rights. 

During the Cold War this involved a tradeoff between the greater evil of global communism and the lesser evil of, say, the Shah of Iran or Latin American dictatorships. 

The lesser evil principle is not amoral. Moreover, global stability doesn't mean you can't ever challenge the status quo. But it's a cost/benefit analysis. 

Because the future is unpredictable, good intentions sometimes have calamitous unforeseen consequences. Both retaining and changing the status quo has unintended consequences, for good or ill.   

With the passage of time, the threats change. Islam is now a greater danger. So is the threat of pandemics.

vi) A basic problem with Obama's foreign (non-) policy is that no one knows what, if anything, the US is prepared to fight for. We don't present a credible threat. Under Obama, America's enemies don't fear America. Obama is an international laughingstock. A guppy in a sea of sharks. 

In addition, he's undercut Israel, and he's strengthened Iran.

He's let Chinese cyberterrorism go unchecked. 

We have an open border on the South, with potentially catastrophic consequences.  

By killing rather than capturing bin Laden, we were unable to interrogate bin Laden. In addition, Obama has apparently failed to exploit the intel cache we did acquire:

And we still have two years to go before his second term expires. 

“Evaluating Ebola as a Biological Weapon”

Sola Fide Before The Reformation

The doctrine of justification through faith alone is foundational to the Christian life. It's a source of great peace, love, joy, and other blessings. And it's one of the central themes of the Reformation, which is relevant in light of Reformation Day coming up next week.

Disputes over sola fide often focus on Biblical and philosophical objections to the concept. But there's a common historical objection that's seldom addressed in depth, and it's even more uncommon for it to be addressed well. It's an objection that has a lot to do with the Reformation and, thus, Reformation Day. Did anybody hold to justification through faith alone between the time of the apostles and the Reformation? If not, then isn't that absence of the doctrine strong evidence against it? There are many implications that follow for the plausibility of a Protestant reading of scripture, how we view church history, and other issues.

I've addressed sola fide before the Reformation in many posts over the years. What I want to do here is link my central post on the subject. The comments section of the thread has some relevant material as well, such as a discussion of sola fide in Clement of Rome. You can find similar material in other threads in our archives, like the ones I link in the post just mentioned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


i) I'd like to make a brief observation about the culture wars. Not winning isn't the same thing as losing. For instance, we didn't win the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan wars. But we didn't lose. In the last three wars, we simply gave up. All four wars ended in stalemate. We couldn't win, but as long as we were there, the enemy couldn't win, either. 

Now, my point is not to comment on the wisdom of those war efforts. Rather, I'm using that as an illustration. Not winning the culture wars isn't the same as losing the culture wars. A stalemate is better than losing. Never surrender unless and until you're defeated.

ii) Liberals are perpetual malcontents. They see something wrong with the world everywhere the look. Fixing the world is a full-time job. Liberals are chronically dissatisfied with the way things are. They lurch from one cause to another. It's like an addiction. As a result, liberals have something to offend everyone. Sooner or later they alienate every voting block. 

Take the food police. Take Mayor Bloomberg's ill-fated ban on jumbo soft drinks.

Or take attempts to sexually integrate contact sports. 

Or take transgender policies, which give grown men the right to use the locker rooms of women and girls. 

Just watch how that plays out.

Consider the havoc that transgender policies can wreak in medicine. 

You also have factions within the liberal movement. Take environmentalists. When wild animals (e.g. deer, rabbits, squirrels) lack natural predators, they multiply to the point where they destroy habitat. That creates a war between the tree-huggers and the animal rights activists. 

iii) The future is predictably unpredictable. Today's losing team may be tomorrow's winning team. Don't count yourself out. 

The sugar-plum tree by the lollipop sea

Michael Kruger's review of Peter Enns new book was posted both at his own blog and cross posted at TGC. I'm going to remark on some of the comments left at the latter site. Some commenters rehash the same issues I dealt with in response to Lydia McGrew, so I'm ignoring those comments. 
Context is important. But some actions are immoral no matter the context. 


A man forcing a woman to have sex with him is rape even if it occurs in the context of marriage. 

Since marriage implies a general consent to conjugal actives, that's not the best example. I'm not saying there's no such thing as spousal rape, but that's not a clear comparison. 

Is there any context where killing infants and children is morally justified? I say, "No." In every other situation, you (I hope) would agree.

No, I don't agree. 

Can you say that God directly wipes out a civilization with a natural disaster?

Well, by definition, if God does it through a natural medium, then that's indirect. 

Did God send the current Ebola outbreak on the West Africans? That seems quite presumptuous. 

That deliberately obfuscates two distinct issues: are some natural disasters divine judgments? Yes. Apart from divine revelation, are we in a position to say a natural disaster is divine judgment? No. 

If you were to agree that God did directly send a natural disaster, than it would seem to be fighting against God to clean up afterwards. Why would we want to find against God, if God sent that tsunami?

Once again, that would be a case of mediate rather than immediate divine action. More to the point, Caleb seems to be riffing off of the false dilemma in Camus's The Plague. The alleged dilemma is that if a natural disaster (like contagion) represents divine judgment, then it would be impious to aid the victims. However, that's a false dilemma:

i) Apart from revelation, we don't know that any particular natural evil is divine judgment. 

ii) Even collective judgment doesn't assume every victim is guilty. 

iii) If we are able to counteract the natural disaster, then it was never God's intention to kill the people we save. Unless you think God is incompetent. We can't thwart God even if we tried.

iv) Natural evils can also function as a God-given opportunity for God's people to minister to victims. Model God's grace and mercy. Be at our best when times are at their worst. 

Only giving me these 2 options is a false dichotomy. Scripture could be accurate, but it could be accurately reporting what the ancient Israelites believed God was telling them to do. 

That's the secular explanation. God doesn't speak to man. Rather, man speaks about God. That simply denies the fundamental status of Judeo-Christian faith as a revealed religion. It amounts to pious atheism.  

Or as Adam has mentioned elsewhere in this thread, I could follow Origin and other early Church Fathers and allegorical [sic] these passages. They believed the Scripture is accurate, but it must be interpreted properly.

Allegorizing passages you find offensive is a transparently makeshift solution. 

Evangelical questions [sic] often condemn abortion as inherently immoral.

Prolifers often allow some exceptions. 

If that is indeed the case, then one should also condemn the killing of infants and toddlers as inherently immoral.

Unless there is divine authorization. 

But this is just what these passages have YHWH commanding the Israelites to do. If the the killing of infants is always wrong, then what the Israelites did (or are portrayed as doing) is also wrong. 

Taking a false premise to a logical conclusion. 

Someone who would argue that there are situations when the killing of infants is justified, in my mind, has lost all ethical credibility.

As if his approval is the standard of comparison. 

All ancient civilizations were barbaric and corrupt compared to societies today. 

I don't think modern societies are less barbaric than ancient societies. Especially modern societies that secularize.

My question for Kruger is this, "Is genocide ever morally justified?" If his response is a qualified yes, (i.e. Yes, if God commanded it) as appears from this review, than he has lost all moral credibility to speak. 

Lost all credibility to whom? To people like Caleb? Who made Caleb the arbiter of right and wrong?

I encourage all readers to check out Randel Rauser's essays on this issue. Rauser is himself a Christian apologist, so you cannot accuse him of trying to undermine Christianity.

Rauser's a flaming liberal. 
Adam Omelianchuk 

"I suppose Enns could say he doesn’t need to justify why “genocide” is wrong—it’s just obvious to everyone (which is also Dawkins’s argument). But why should Enns get a philosophical “pass” on such a fundamental issue like the foundation for ethics, especially if his main argument is an ethical one?"
I wouldn't think he gets a "pass" on the "foundation for ethics"--but one doesn't need that to have a justified belief that genocide is wrong. That much is a moral datum, and if your moral theory can't explain why its wrong, then so much the worse for the moral theory.

Ah, yes, truth by definition. Just call your own position a "moral datum." 

Isn't Omelianchuk a lapsed Calvinist? Striking how often, when people leave Calvinism behind, that's not all they leave behind.

What does he even mean by "bludgeoning babies"? Does the OT contain a divine command to bludgeon babies? 

Perhaps he's alluding to Ps 137:9. If so, even liberal commentators like Goldingay regard that imagery as figurative.

Sure, it gets " more complex," alright, especially when you have to claim that bludgeoning babies, who are made in the image of God (as Scripture claims), is not necessarily or even intrinsically wrong, and that your best evidence for that claim are a few Ancient Near Eastern conquest narratives (for which there is no archaeological backing).

i) So, like Enns, he denies the historicity of Biblical narratives. 

ii) Why think we need archeological corroboration for every event in Scripture? Why think that's a reasonable expectation? 

iii) What's the archeological backing for the Incarnation or Resurrection? 

It gets even more complex when you have to claim that loving one's enemies, a command Christ clearly endorsed, is supposed to be compatible with that sort of thing.

i) Loving one's enemies is not the only command that Christ clearly endorsed. And keep in mind that Christ is the eschatological judge of God's enemies. 

ii) Death is not inherently unloving. Moreover, if God intended to save Canaanites babies, that would be the retroactive effect of Christ's life and death. But if the Israelites were unable to defend themselves, Jesus would never come on the scene. 

Of course, it is doubtful that any such account could undermine our justification for believing genocide (in which baby-bludgeoning occurs) is always wrong and for placing a heavy burden of proof on those who would say otherwise.

Once again, notice the tactic. He stipulates that the burden of proof is on his opponents. Pure sophistry. 

Here's the problem: If you are right, then the belief that bludgeoning babies is not intrinsically wrong is a matter of Christian commitment…

What about babies who die of natural causes (e.g. malaria)? God is the ultimate cause of their demise. 

…and that to follow Christ is to view such an act as morally neutral in itself; it is wrong (or right) only when God says something about it. Do you really believe that? 

I don't really believe it because it's a malicious caricature. 

Funny how he spurns divine command theory, yet he himself presumes to dictate what is good and evil. 

In any case, I cannot believe that genocide is not intrinsically wrong and if that is what is required of me to gain the whole Bible, then I will have to forfeit my soul by forcing myself to believe something I surely don't. That is just dishonest, and I doubt God would be honored by that.

God is dishonored by his false dichotomy. 

Believe me I would love to reconcile this problem, but I will follow Origen and go allegorical before I ever entertain the belief that genocide is not intrinsically wrong.

He's just being willful. And while he's at is, why not allegorize the miracles of Christ? Why not allegorize the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Parousia. 

I'm struck by the compartmentalized faith of people like Omelianchuk. They want to reduce the Bible to the sugar-plum tree by the lollipop sea. A sweet, inoffensive book. 

Yet the moment they put the book down and step outside, the real world doesn't look anything like the sugar-plum tree by the lollipop sea. 

Tradition or truth?

I'm going to comment on this interview:

I have had a serious interest in Reformed history and theology for a long time. In the last decade I've been drawn to marginal or less-well-known figures in the Reformed tradition, and have been writing about them (e.g. William Shedd, John Williamson Nevin, John McLeod Campbell, John Girardeau, John Davenant, Donald Baillie, and so on).

There's a reason for that. Most of them aren't exactly topnotch.  

But there is a constellation of divines who are part of our tradition, and whose work informs and fructifies it, e.g. Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Turretin, Ames, Preston, Owen, Schleiermacher, Edwards, Hodge, Barth, and so on. 

I'm puzzled by why he'd included Schleiermacher. Also, although Barth was in dialogue with Calvinism, he wasn't a Calvinist. Barth has a very idiosyncratic theology. A one-man vision. 

For instance, Huldrych Zwingli believed that we are not culpable for being born with original sin, and that God graciously saves humans who have not heard the name of Christ. 

But, of course, Zwingli was one of the very first Protestants. We'd expect Reformed theology to become more reflective, sophisticated, and internally consistent/developed with the passage of time. 

One of the aims of the book is to challenge some of the ways in which this narrative is sometimes presented--as if there is only one acceptable Reformed view about the ordering of God's decrees, about what God intends in salvation, about the scope of salvation, and about the number of the elect. 

One basic problem with how he frames the issue is his failure to distinguish between how we draw the boundaries of Reformed tradition and how we draw the boundaries of theological truth. Shouldn't our primary concern be with the correct "ordering of God's decrees,  what God intends in salvation, the scope of salvation, and the number of the elect"? Shouldn't our theology aim to match reality? 

I discuss various issues in the neighborhood of these claims. For instance, the worry about eternal justification: is my election and justification eternally decreed so that my change of heart on coming to Christ is merely an epistemic matter, or is such a view inherently antinomian? 

That's confused. As the divine act of a timeless God, justification is, in that respect, eternal. However, God has decreed to effect justification in time. Justification is contingent on faith. 

Or, to take another issue, must those who adopt a Reformed or broadly Augustinian account of the divine decrees hold to the notion that only a tiny remnant of humanity is saved, or is this scheme consistent with universalism, the doctrine that all are saved by the work of Christ?

i) That's a gross false dichotomy. Are these the only two alternatives? Either God saves everyone or else God only saves a "tiny remnant" of humanity? 

ii) Moreover, this isn't just a question of ideas, but truth. Yes, it's antecedently possible for God to save everyone. But the real issue is what God has, in fact, decided to do.   

Are we determined to act as we do by God in every single action we perform, or is the Reformed doctrine of bondage to sin consistent with some robust account of human freedom that, in some instances, includes a notion of alternate possibilities?

That's confused:

i) Spiritual inability due to original sin is different from inability to act contrary to what God predestined. Apart from the fall, it would still be impossible to act contrary to what God predestined.

ii) Reformed theology allows for alternate possibilities, but those are ultimately divine options. 

Finally, is it the case that to be Reformed one must opt for the view that the atonement is particular and definite in scope and intention? 

Again, is he asking how broadly/narrowly we should define Reformed tradition, or what is the true scope and intention of the atonement? 


Over at the Secular Outpost, atheist Jeff Lowder approvingly posted this abstract, with a link to the full article:

Abstract. Some people feel threatened by the thought that life might have arisen by chance. What is it about “chance” that some people find so threatening? If life originated by chance, this suggests that life was unintended and that it was not inevitable. It is ironic that people care about whether life in general was intended, but may not have ever wondered whether their own existence was intended by their parents. If it does not matter to us whether one’s own existence was intended, as will be hypothesized, then why should it matter whether there was some remote intent behind the creation of the first unicellular organism(s) billions of years ago? I will discuss three possible scenarios by which life might have originated. I will then argue that, in regard to whether one’s individual life can be meaningful, it does not matter whether life was intended or arose by chance. If complex life was unintended and is rare in this universe, this is not a reason to disparage life, but a reason to appreciate and value our existence.

It's unclear why Jeff finds that's impressive:

i) To begin with, chance really is threatening. In a chance universe, you can suddenly be wiped out for absolutely no good reason. And not just individuals, but the human race. A solar flare might incinerate life on earth. So there's reason to feel insecure. 

ii) However, Trisel seems to be focussed on chance in relation to human significance. He goes on to say: 

Your birth into this world was solely dependent on the actions of human beings (i.e., your parents). 

His analogy is shortsighted. Speaking as a Calvinist, although my parents did not intend my specific existence, God intended my specific existence. God used my parents as the means of creating me. And not just some human being. But the unique, particular human being who is me. And not just my existence, but what I'd do with my life. 

So my birth is not solely dependent on the actions of my parents. To the contrary, it's dependent on a long complex chain of events which God planned and providentially executed.  

Albert Einstein is often mentioned as someone who led a meaningful life. In judging whether his life was meaningful, no one would ever ask “Was his existence intended?” Whether or not a person’s existence was intended is irrelevant to whether this person’s life is meaningful.

To the contrary, if we're doomed to extinction by cosmic heat death, if there's no memory of our achievements or discoveries, then it's all ultimately meaningless. 

However, as I argue in a companion article in this issue, God has not clearly informed us of his purpose or our role in carrying out this purpose. 

i) To begin with, that's equivocal. My life can have a divine purpose even if I'm in the dark regarding my purpose in life. I can do God's will without knowing in advance what his will for my life is. Indeed, I discover God's plan for my life everyday. That's something I perceive in retrospect.

ii) Moreover, this life is not all there is. Some Christians may lead lives that seem to be pointless. They don't understand why certain tragedies befall them. It's only in the afterlife that they will learn how their life furthered God's plan.

We need not feel threatened if life arose by chance. There are many natural occurrences that people value, not because they were intended and it was inevitable that they would occur, but for the opposite reasons. They are valued, in part, because it was highly improbable that they would occur, which makes them special. One such occurrence that comes to mind is the natural emergence of rainbows.

i) In relation to Reformed theism, natural occurrences like rainbows are both divinely intended and inevitable. 

ii) Something can rare can still be inevitable. 

iii) Yes, an atheist may value rainbows. If, however, he asks himself why he values rainbows, that's because a blind physical determinism programmed him to value rainbows. 


A generally good article. 

I don't agree with Last that this is a reason to "panic." For one thing, it's very unpredictable. It may burn itself out. 

Moreover, I'm fatalistic about these things. I have no control over whether or not there will be an ebola epidemic in the US. So "panic" is futile. It doesn't change whatever the outcome will be. 

He does, however, raise some valid issues.  

“Obama is a Republican”

A liberal friend linked to this “American Conservative” article on Facebook, which is provocatively entitled, “Obama is a Republican” by Bruce Bartlett.

I disagreed with him that Obama was anything like a Republican on “social issues”, but I may have been wrong about that (my point now being that there are many unhelpful Republicans). Bartlett continues:

In my opinion, Obama has governed as a moderate conservative—essentially as what used to be called a liberal Republican before all such people disappeared from the GOP. He has been conservative to exactly the same degree that Richard Nixon basically governed as a moderate liberal, something no conservative would deny today. (Ultra-leftist Noam Chomsky recently called Nixon “the last liberal president.”)

Here’s the proof:

And he goes on to list a number of items wherein Obama has either willingly or fecklessly been “helpful”:

Bibliography: “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview”

Jacob Aitken has helpfully compiled the Bibliography (or a large portion of it, anyway) from Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview [“Craig and Moreland (2003): 627-639”].

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Darwinian Bourne Legacy

Over at The Secular Outpost, Jeff Lowder has been conducting a rearguard action to shore up the flagging fortunes of secular ethics. For instance, he posted Quentin Smith's attack on theistic ethics. Problem is, Smith's post is just a crude version of the Euthyphro Dilemma, and as I recently documented, even a prominent secular ethicist like Richard Joyce doesn't consider conventional formulations of the Euthyphro Dilemma to be sound. So Jeff is just kicking up a dust cloud to obscure the issue. 

Aside: isn’t it amazing how apologists like William Lane Craig will quote Michael Ruse to make an argument from authority to support the claim that atheism leads to nihilism, but then conveniently ignore the fact that equally well qualified authorities disagree with Ruse?

I don't know why Jeff assumes that's an argument from authority. Speaking for myself, when I cite Ruse on moral nihilism, my appeal is not an argument from authority. Rather, I have different reasons:

i) Many atheists are blissfully unaware of the fact that many atheist philosophers reject moral realism on secular grounds. They think that's just an ignorant or malicious caricature of atheism by Christians. They think we're slandering atheists. In that regard, it's useful to show them that this isn't just a Christian characterization of what atheism leads to. Rather, many noted secular philosophers concede that consequence. So this is to correct their ignorance of what their own side is saying.

ii) Apropos (i), I've seen many atheists confuse moral psychology with moral ontology. They infer that because evolutionary psychology can account for our moral instincts, that's sufficient to ground right and wrong. 

iii) I don't merely cite Ruse for his opinion. Ruse presents supporting arguments for his position. So that's not an argument from authority. 

Jeff quotes him saying:

My claim is that the recognition of morality as merely a biological adaptation shows that there can be no foundation of the kind traditionally sought, whether by evolutionists, Christians or others!

I think Jeff then misconstrues Ruse's argument because Jeff overlooks an unstated presupposition of Ruse's argument. Remember that naturalistic evolution is Ruse's frame of reference. Now, if theistic evolution were true, then some biological adaptations might be morally normative. But he's not considering the issue from that vantage-point. 

In addition, I disagree with Jeff's interpretation of Ruse's argument. At the bottom of this post I will quote Ruse. Here's my interpretation of Ruse's argument:

Evolution brainwashes us into believing that certain behavior is right or wrong. This confers a survival advantage on the species. 

But there's a catch. Brainwashing only works so long as the test-subject is oblivious to the fact that he's been brainwashed. If he becomes aware of the experiment, then he's in a position to break the programming. He may not be able to change what he perceives or feels about morality. It may be like a phobia or optical illusion. You can't suppress it, but you can override it.

Unlike other animals, humans are smart enough to reflect on the fact that our moral instincts have been programmed into us by an amoral, unintelligent process. At that point, we're in a position to realize that what we took to be right and wrong is a psychological projection rather than a moral fact. There is no particular way things are supposed to be. 

Here's Ruse in his own words:

I think I would still say—part of my position on morality is very much that we regard morality in some sense as being objective, even if it isn’t. So the claim that we intuit morality as objective reality—I would still say that. Of course, what I would want to add is that from the fact that we do this, it doesn’t follow that morality really is objective.

I’m saying that if in fact you’re Christian then you believe you were made in the image of God. And that means—and this is traditional Christian theology—that means that you have intelligence and self-awareness and moral ability… it’s a very important part of Christianity that our intelligence is not just a contingent thing, but is in fact that which makes us in the image of God.

What I would argue is that the connection between Darwinism and ethics is not what the traditional social Darwinian argues. He or she argues that evolution is progressive, humans came out on top and therefore are a good thing, hence we should promote evolution to keep humans up there and to prevent decline. I think that is a straight violation of the is/ought dichotomy…I take Hume’s Law to be the claim that you cannot go from statements of fact—“Duke University is the school attended by Eddy Nahmias”—to statements of value—“Duke University is an excellent school.”

Ed [Edward O. Wilson] does violate Hume’s Law, and no matter what I say he cannot see that there is anything wrong in doing this. It comes from his commitment to the progressive nature of evolution. No doubt he would normally say that one should not go from “is” to “ought”—for example from “I like that student” to “It is OK to have sex with her, even though I am married.” But in this case of *evolution* he allows it. If you say to him, “But ‘ought’ statements are not like ‘is’ statements,” he replies that in science, when we have reduction, we do this all the time, going from one kind of statement to another kind of statement. We start talking about little balls buzzing in a container and end talking about temperature and pressure. No less a jump than going from “is” to “ought.”

My position is that the ethical sense can be explained by Darwinian evolution—the ethical sense is an adaptation to keep us social. More than this, I argue that sometimes (and this is one of those times), when you give an account of the way something occurs and is as it is, this is also to give an explanation of its status. I think that once you see that ethics is simply an adaptation, you see that it has no justification. It just is. So in metaethics[4] I am a nonrealist. I think ethics is an illusion put into place by our genes to keep us social.

I distinguish normative ethics from metaethics. In normative ethics I think evolution can go a long way to explain our feelings of obligation: be just, be fair, treat others like yourself. We humans are social animals and we need these sentiments to get on. I like John Rawls’s[5] thinking on this. On about page 500 of his Theory of Justice book, Rawls says he thinks the social contract was put in place by evolution rather than by a group of old men many years ago. Then in metaethics, I think we see that morality is an adaptation merely and hence has no justification. Having said this, I agree with the philosopher J.L Mackie[6] (who influenced me a lot) that we feel the need to “objectify” ethics. If we did not think ethics was objective, it would collapse under cheating.

If we knew that it was all just subjective, and we felt that, then of course we’d start to cheat. If I thought there was no real reason not to sleep with someone else’s wife and that it was just a belief system put in place to keep me from doing it, then I think the system would start to break down. And if I didn’t share these beliefs, I’d say to hell with it, I’m going to do it. So I think at some level, morality has to have some sort of, what should I say, some sort of force. Put it this way, I shouldn’t cheat, not because I can’t get away with it, or maybe I *can* get away with it, but because it is fundamentally wrong.

We’re like dogs, social animals, and so we have morality and this part of the phenomenology of morality, how it appears to us, that it is not subjective, that we think it *is* objective…So I think ethics is essentially subjective but it appears to us as objective and this appearance, too, is an adaptation.

Within the system, of course, rape is objectively wrong—just like three strikes and you are out in baseball. But I’m a nonrealist, so ultimately there is no objective right and wrong for me. Having said that, I *am* part of the system and cannot escape. The truth does not necessarily make you free.

There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention—an invention of the genes rather than of humans, and we cannot change games at will, as one might baseball if one went to England and played cricket. Within the system, the human moral system, it is objectively true that rape is wrong. That follows from the principles of morality and from human nature. If our females came into heat, it would not necessarily be objectively wrong to rape—in fact, I doubt we would have the concept of rape at all. So, within the system, I can justify. But I deny that human morality at the highest level—love your neighbor as yourself, etc.—is justifiable. That is why I am not deriving “is” from “ought,” in the illicit sense of justification. I am deriving it in the sense of explaining *why we have* moral sentiments, but that is a different matter.

I think ultimately there is nothing—moral nihilism, if you wish.