Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Holding the line on Holding-1

James Holding, who runs Tektonics Apologetics Ministry, has posted a rather lengthy critique of Calvinism.

I'll just content myself with commenting on what strike me as his major arguments. This will be a bit stream-of-consciousness because his own style is so free associative.

1. Quote: 'It is our contention that Romans 9 may be better understood in terms of the rubric of primary causality. But we anticipate the objection that we would be thereby reading into the text a concept not found therein. Our answer is that we would not expect it to be found within Romans 9 or any explanation offered by Paul -- because such an "explanation expectation" would be the product of a Western low-context mind rather than a Hebrew high-context one, like Paul's.'

Even if we were to accept this description of the Hebrew mind, this amounts to a preemptive admission that he's not doing exegesis on Rom 9. Instead, he's using the Aristotelian category of primary causality as an interpretive grid through which to filter Rom 9. But, in that event, this has nothing to do with what Paul meant. It doesn't even attempt to construe the text in light of original intent.

At this point there's nothing for the Calvinist to rebut. The Calvinist has exegeted Rom 9 (e.g., Murray, Piper, Schreiner). Holding has offered no contrary interpretation, based on text and context.

2. Quote: 'The thinking of the ancient Hebrew is not, as ours, concerned with precision. As Marvin Wilson points out in Our Father Abraham, "The nature of Hebrew [the language] is to paint verbal pictures with broad strokes of the brush. The Hebrew authors of Scripture were not so much interested in the fine details and harmonious pattern of what is painted as they were in the picture as a whole. Theirs was primarily a description of what the eye sees rather than what the mind speculates."'

This strikes me an obvious exaggeration. It depends on the subject-matter. It depends on what they're interested in. When it came to personal and social ethics, Jewish thinkers could get very detailed and draw very precise distinctions indeed.

As long as we're going to indulge in breezy generalities about the Hebrew mind, here's one from a more qualified source than Wilson:

'I once asked Prof. Harry Wolfson of Harvard U, a savant in ancient and medieval Greek as well as Jewish philosophy, how he evaluated the Greek mind, as exemplified by Aristotle, vis-a-vis the Talmudic mind. He replied, "if you compare a Greek philosophic treatise with a Talmudic tractate, obviously the Greek is orderly and easy to follow, whereas the rabbinic is disorderly and circuitous. But if you compare the mental horsepower of the Greek philosopher and the rabbinic sage, the latter is superior." That was not the answer I expected, but eventually I realized that Wolfson was right,' C. Gordon, A Scholar's Odyssey (Society of Biblical Literature 2000), 5-6.

3. Quote: 'In terms of theology, this means that God's existence is never argued, but assumed; "God is not understood philosophically, but functionally." God is thought of in terms of what He does.'

This is another exaggeration. Because the Bible is ordinarily addressed to the community of faith, it ordinarily takes the existence of God for granted; but when addressing outsiders, such as Isaiah's indictment of idolaters (Isa 40-48), the Bible does launch into an apologetic for the existence of the true God.

4. Quote: 'Wilson concludes, therefore, that the Hebrews would have had "little or no interest" in many issues we consider important, including the debate over free will and predestination.'

On the face of it, this claim is palpable false. For starters, just read Warfield's article on 'Predestination' (Works 2:3-67), in which he lays out quite a lot of the Biblical data on this topic.

5. Quote: 'Second, Jewish thinking, unlike our own, involved the use of what Wilson calls "block logic." In this item we explained some points about ancient Jewish and Near Eastern wisdom literature which has applicability here:
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The paradoxical nature of Ecclesiastes -- a book filled with statements regarded as being in tension (for example, on one hand mulling over the despair of life, then shortly thereafter encouraging the enjoyment of life) -- has been variously identified as being because Ecclesiastes is either a dialogue of a man debating with himself, "torn between what he cannot help seeing and what he still cannot help believing," [Kidner, Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 91], or else as the author's "challenge to the man of the world to think his own position through to its bitter end, with a view to seeking something less futile." I prefer the second interpretation, but in either case, the compositional principle is the same, and derives from the ancient Near Eastern methodology, which we might loosely compare to a Hegelian case of combining thesis and antithesis, to arrive at a synthesis; or else for sports fanatics to a game of tennis in which the ball is batted back and forth between opposing points to arrive at a consensus.

In this regard Ecclesiastes is related to other ANE literature with the same, or similar, content and methodology. Works like A Dialogue About Human Misery and Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant (on which, Murphy comments, the "dexterity the slave displays in affirming both the positive and negative aspects of a situation is reminiscent of [Ecclesiastes'] own style" -- Murphy commentary on Eccl, xliii] from Babylon; The Man Who Was Tired of Life from Egypt; and the book of Job from the OT, are all examples of this genre in which problems were discussed and resolved via dialogue. The modern Western mind has little patience with this sort of logical construction, and it is no surprise to see that critics have no appreciation for the implied intent of such literature: "Work out the problem yourselves," vs. "Give me an answer in a can, to go."'

i) Holding is extrapolating from one particular literary genre (wisdom literature) to Hebrew psychology. This is a huge leap of logic. It extrapolates from one genre to all genres, and then extrapolates from a literary genre to national character. Indeed, the fact that Bible writers alternate between different genres goes to show that they are not intellectually straight-jacketed.

ii) There is nothing Hegelian about Job or Ecclesiastes. In both cases, the existential problem lies with God's inscrutable providence. I have offered my own interpretation of both books in my essay on 'Vanity of vanities.'

iii) It should be needless to say that the dialogical genre is a staple of Western philosophy, viz., Socrates, Plato, Berkeley, Hume.

6. Quote: 'Hebrew "block logic" operated on similar principles. "...[C]oncepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antimony, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension -- and often illogical relation -- to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic." Examples of this in practice are the alternate hardening of Pharaoh's heart by God, or by Pharaoh himself; and the reference to loving Jacob while hating Esau -- both of which, significantly, are referred to often by Calvinist writers.'

i) There is nothing paradoxical about the hardening of Pharaoh The Bible cues the reader with a couple of programmatic statements (Exod 4:21-22; 7:2-3), the function of which is to supply a hermeneutical framework for what follows in the subsequent narrative. The text is flawlessly logical. The problem lies with careless readers like Wilson and Holding.

ii) The second illustration is even worse that the first. We would only have an antinomy of God was said to both love and loathe Jacob, both love and loathe Esau. Holding's illustration is simply incompetent.

7. Quote: 'Wilson continues: "Consideration of certain forms of block logic may give one the impression that divine sovereignty and human responsibility were incompatible. The Hebrews, however, sense no violation of their freedom as they accomplish God's purposes." The back and forth between human freedom and divine sovereignty is a function of block logic and the Hebrew mindset.'

i) I've already shown that block-logic is a fiction foisted upon Scripture by Wilson and Holding.

ii) But, assuming for the sake of argument, that block-logic is a feature or even fixture of Scripture, then should that not be normative for Christians?

Wilson and Holding are treating the logic of Scripture as a culture-bound casket which they are at liberty to bury in an unmarked grave. But the Bible-believing Christian is honor-bound by the logic of Scripture.

8. Quote: 'What this boils down to is that Paul presents us with a paradox in Romans 9, one which he, as a Hebrew, saw no need to explain. "..[T]he Hebrew mind could handle this dynamic tension of the language of paradox" and saw no need to unravel it as we do. And that means that we are not obliged to simply accept Romans 9 at "face value" as it were, because it is a problem offered with a solution that we are left to think out for ourselves. There will be nothing illicit about inserting concepts like primary causality, otherwise unknown in the text.'

What paradox? Paul repeatedly explains the relation between divine and human agency in terms of divine priority and purpose (9:11-18,21-23).

Instead of reading what Rom 9 is actually saying, Holding is superimposing his own harmonistic device on the text.

If you really think that Rom 9 presents a paradox, a paradox which Paul saw no need to relieve, then it is illicit of Holding to relieve the paradox.

9. Quote: 'The rabbis after the NT explicated the paradox a bit further. They did not conclude, however -- as is the inclination in the Calvinist camp -- that "a totally unalterable future lay ahead, for such a view contradicted God's omnipotence and mercy." They also argued that "unless God's proposed destiny for man is subject to alteration, prayer to God to institute such alteration" is nonsensical. Of course the rabbis were not inspired in their teachings. Yet their views cannot be simply discarded with a grain of salt, as they are much closer to the vein than either Calvin or Arminius, by over a millennium and by an ocean of thought.'

Let us remember that Rabbinical Judaism codifies the Pharisaic school of thought. It is therefore rife with synergism and merit-mongering. Yes, I know, Sanders would demure, but I've addressed the new perspective in my essay on 'Reinventing Paul.'

10. Quote: 'Consider this now as well with reference to Pilch and Malina's observation that in an ancient context, "mercy" is better rendered as "gratitude" or "steadfast love" -- as in, "the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received." Mercy is not involved with feelings of compassion, as today, but the "paying of one's debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt." To say, "Lord, have mercy!" (Matt. 20:31) means, "Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!" Far from being a plea of the hapless, it is a request to pay back previously earned favor from our client (God) whose patron we are.'

i) Yet another exaggeration. There are basically two forms of petitionary prayer in Scripture. One is where the suppliant calls upon God to remember his covenantal promises. The other is a confession of sin, and plea that God not judge us according to our sins, but be merciful.

ii) Even in the former case, we did nothing to earn God's covenant promises. This isn't back-pay for services rendered. To cast the divine party in the role of the client, and the human party in the role of the patron, is such a grotesque inversion of Biblical priorities that we might as well class it with other heresies such as gnosticism.

iii) Whoever said that the Reformed definition of divine mercy must ascribe certain feelings to God?

10. Quote: 'Consider again our example of the three worlds. There is no possible world in which all are saved. God as Prime Mover, He who in sovereign freedom chose one world over all the others possible, in this manner thereby in essence decrees as well who the elect and non-elect will be, without in any way removing our ability to freely choose. Remember that just because God knows we will do X does not mean that we must do X, as if by force.'

i) This, of course, is classic Molinism. Holding offers no exegetical support for such a position.

ii) He also ignores philosophical criticisms of Molinism, such as the grounding objection. In addition, some libertarians (open theism) are critics of Molinism. So the attack is not limited to the Reformed front.

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