Monday, July 17, 2006

Talking animals


John W. Loftus said:

My brief comments on the debate can be found here.

You see, it doesn't do presuppositionalists any good to say atheists don't have an objective standard for moral truth when we question whether that which they presuppose has any better objective standard for knowledge and truth. What Barker's analogy was getting at was the Euthyphro dilemma And the Euthyphro dilemma puts an end to this presuppositionalist nonsense. So I say to presuppositionalists, solve that dilemma before we go any further.


There are a couple of basic problems with this objection:

1.Loftus acts as if Christians had either never even heard of the Euthyphro dilemma before, or if they had, are speechless to deal with it.

But many of us are familiar with the dilemma, and we’ve already addressed it. I addressed it a long time ago in my critique of Bertrand Russell, and Frame has also engaged that objection.

2.Even if the Euthyphro dilemma were unanswerable, that would not be an argument for secular ethics, but only an argument against Christian ethics.

Stalemate—not checkmate for the unbeliever.

Continuing with Loftus:


I also thought Barker did a fine job when he asked why Manata believes a snake talked. Barker suggested that the principle of induction stands as overwhelming evidence against the story told in Genesis 3, as well as other Biblical claims. For none of us have experienced a snake that really talks. The only reason Manata believes a snake talked was because "someone told a story." Manata uses that "story" to count as evidence against all of our inductive conclusions about snakes, rather than letteing his own inductive conclusions about snakes to count as evidence against the reliability of the story in Genesis 3, and that's just strange and muddled thinking. Does Manata believe any similar "stories" told today just because someone tells them? Barker told a story with tongue-in-cheek about a cat that spoke Spanish to him. Such a story goes against what the principle of induction tells us can happen, and so Manata inconsistently said he didn't believe it. Of course he doesn't. But he won't apply that same clear thinking to the story about a snake that talked. Snakes do not have vocal chords, nor the other things needed to talk!


This raises quite a few issues:

1.As I and others have pointed out, secularism is unable to ground the principle of induction.

Hence, it would be a simple matter for Manata to convert the Barker/Loftus objection into just so much grist for the TAG mill, this time using induction as his point of departure.

2.Barker/Loftus also act as if the absence of evidence were positive evidence against the existence of something. But that’s a non-sequitur.

Just as nonevidence isn’t evidence for anything, neither is nonevidence evidence against anything.

There are times when the argument from silence has some probative value if we have a reasonable expectation of evidence, but one must make a case for the argument from silence in any given deployment.

Both Barker and Loftus are committing what one writer dubbed “the fallacy of negative proof,” D. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (Harper & Row 1970), 47-48.

3.Most of our knowledge of the world is based on testimony. The fact that Manata believes in the possibility of a talking snake because he read about one in a reliable source is hardly an argument against his belief in talking snakes.

4.Loftus likes to remind us that he used to be a Christian—a Christian with several seminary degrees.

When did he stumble upon the discovery that snakes lack vocal chords? Did he used to believe in Gen 3 because he didn’t know this fact about ophidian physiology?

5.Why did the author of Gen 3 believe in talking snakes? Is it because, unlike Barker or Loftus, the author had a personal experience with talking snakes?

Whatever date Loftus or Barker assign to Genesis, the author and his audience had no more experience of talking snakes than we do. So modernity is not the differential factor.

There are superstitious ancient writers as well as sceptical ancient writers; superstitions modern writers as well as sceptical modern writers.

6.Barker and Loftus apparently presume a uniform, acontextual criterion for judging the credibility of “stories.”

But they don’t explain or justify why we should apply the same abstract criterion without regard to time, place or circumstance.

For example, suppose we have several reported sightings of a Yeti rummaging through the dumpster in the back lot of the local Wal-Mart. And suppose we also have several reported sightings of a Yeti in the Himalayas.

Should we treat all these sightings as equally credible or incredible? Obviously not. The circumstances make quite a difference.

In the one case, witnesses claim to have seen a large, undiscovered animal in its natural habitat, and—what is more—a largely unexplored habitat.

In the other case, witnesses claim to have seen a large, undiscovered animal in an artificial and densely populated habitat.

Now, you may reasonably conclude that the evidence is insufficient in either case. But clearly the attendant circumstances make a difference in how we weigh the respective reports.

Likewise, if a neighbor tells me that he saw a broomstick levitate and smash into his kitchen window, then my initial reaction will be one of polite disbelief—assuming that I have nothing else to go on.

If, however, his home is reputed to be a haunted house, with a high rate of turnover because a series of former homeowners say they were drive out of the house by the same paranormal phenomena, then I’ll judge my neighbor’s report quite differently.

If, of course, you’re a doctrinaire unbeliever like Loftus or Barker, then no amount of eyewitness testimony would ever shake your dogmatic scepticism.

7.Likewise, Gen 3 isn’t describing an every-day event. Rather, the account is situated in a set of circumstances which no longer exist. In a garden specially prepared by God for the first human couple. In a garden populated by animals specially created by God. In a time and place before the Fall. Before the Flood.

Loftus and Barker would, of course, reject the preternatural underpinnings of the “story.”

But we need to judge the “story” by its narrative outlook, and not deem the “story” to be false by straining it through an extraneous filtering device like atheism or materialism. That’s an exercise in prejudice. The narrative was never meant to make sense from a secular viewpoint.

8.We also need to discuss the identity of the serpent. What are the exegetical options?

i) The serpent could be an articulate, intelligent creature, just like human beings are articulate, intelligent creatures.

The fact that you and I have never encountered a talking snake is due to the curse (3:14). We’re on the wrong side of history.

On this interpretation, Loftus and Barker are guilty of an anachronistic reading of the text.

ii) The serpent could be a fallen angel. It is called a “snake” because the Hebrew word is a pun. As one commentator explains:

“A more directly sinister nuance may be seen in Heb. Nahas if it is to be connected with the verb nahas, ‘to practice divination, observe signs’ (Gen 30:27; 44:5,15; Lev 19:26; Deut 18:10). This verb appears eleven times in the OT, always in the Piel. The related noun nahas means ‘divination’ (Num 23:23; 24:1),” V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 1:187.

a) This interpretation is attractive in several respects. It’s consonant with Pentateuchal usage. It resonates with certain intertextual motifs.

b) It has the irony of an accursed creature which is the source of our primal parents’ accursed state. It brings a curse upon Adam and Eve.

c) Note the parallel with the Balaam cycle, in which the false prophet attempts to hex Israel. Note Israel’s lapse into apostasy, like Adam and Eve before her.

If a reptile were in view we’d expect it to be classified with the creepy crawlers rather than the beasts of the field.

d) The syntax of 3:1 is ambiguous: it could either be partitive or comparative. If partitive, then the serpent is set in contrast to the animal kingdom. Cf. EBC 1:50.

e) It fits with the complex allusions to Gen 2-3 in Ezk 28.

iii) It could be a case of metamorphosis, in which an angel assumes a reptilian form.

a) At least on one interpretation, we have other cases of metamorphosis in the Pentateuch (e.g. Gen 3:14; Exod 4:3; 7:15).

b) The Pentateuch is studded with angelophanies. Indeed, we have a couple of angelophanies in the very account of the Fall. Cf. 3:8,24.

c) Angels can assume corporeal form (Gen 18).

d) On a traditional reading, Gen 6:1-4 is alluding to fallen angels.

iv) Or it could be a case of animal possession (cf. Mt 8:30-32). Its ability to speak and reason would be due to the incubus, not the host.

9.On a related note, we might consider Num 22. Two comments are in order:

i) The donkey’s capacity for speech is specifically attributed to divine agency (v8).

ii) The scene is meant to be incongruous and highly ironic. Balaam is a professional seer who is blind to the angel while his donkey, which would ordinarily be a dumb animal, is made more clairvoyant than he!

For a fine analysis, cf. I. Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Crossway Books 2006), chap. 27.

For an unbeliever, all of this is worse than silly. But it’s only silly because the existence and the presence of God is not a living reality for him.

I’d add that, for a believer, naturalistic evolution is every bit as “magical” and counterintuitive as anything in the Bible.


  1. Here are some further comments from Barker's Pitbull.

  2. "Barker/Loftus also act as if the absence of evidence were positive evidence against the existence of something. But that’s a non-sequitur."

    Hi Steve,

    I think this comment confuses induction with deduction. Does it "necessarily" follow that simply because we have no experience with talking snakes that talking snakes must never have existed? Well no. But inductive arguments (and all arguments about historical fact are inductive arguments) are about probabilities, not necessities. He's saying it's probably not historical. That's reasonable. It is not a fallacy.

    Take a claim from a different religion. Mormons say the Ephraimites came to South America around the time of Christ. A little earlier I believe. There is no archeological evidence for this. Is it a fallacy to point this out? Are you satisfied if the Mormon says in response "Non evidence is not evidence against anything. You've committed a non-sequitor." You wouldn't accept that response. Neither do we.


  3. When it comes to the Euthyphro Dilemma, I've already answered both your objections and Frame's objections here, even though what I wrote was before I looked at anything you wrote. What do you say in response to what I wrote?

    Come on. Give it a try. Your whole apologetical strategy is at stake. I'll read your response and see where it goes from there, okay? But your attempts are already doomed to failure.

    Would you be willing to give up presuppositional apologetics if I can show you wrong here? And if it's a stalemate between us, you still lose, because you can only be sure of your faith to the same degree as you can defend your position on the Euthyphro.

    Go on. Give it a try. Read what I wrote and respond.

  4. Hello, anonymous. I do not think the Mormon example works for several reasons.

    First, while in historical analysis it is unwise to make negative or positive statements based on lack of evidence, in terms of the archaeology of South American peoples and genetics, we have an abundance of evidence--not a lack of it, as is normally the case when it comes to many ancient historical studies.

    Second, many times, our knowledge about an ancient time or place is so incomplete that a new find may completely reverse previous ideas and revolutionize our understanding. But, again, this is not the case with South American peoples and their genetics for the most part.

    Thirdly, the Bible has various other evidences supporting its texts both in history and historically...while the text of the Book of Mormon has no available manuscript evidence and has little or no other ancient historical support outside of its agreement with the Biblical text that antedates it.

  5. On another note, I'd be interested to hear what Triablogue thinks about the reference to an angel with a flaming sword... Is there more to this interpretation? A better way to understand the linguistics? Could this be evidence of a narrative that is meant to be understood symbollically or that it was composed through more vision-based imagery?

    Historically speaking, metalurgy and swords didn't exist at the time and if an angel held a sword, Adam and Eve wouldn't have recognized it as such anyway. The angel could as well as held a flaming shotgun as a sword except that a flaming shotgun would not be understood at the time the text of Genesis was coming into its form...which suggests the event was being re-interpreted for the understanding of a later audience.


  6. Slaveofone. The question is not whether there were swords in the time of Adam and Eve. Remember, the book of Genesis dates from the time of Moses.

    When they did have swords. Adam and Eve would have seen an angel with a big flaming pointy thing. Moses, shown this by God, saw the pointy thing and recognised it as a sword. So, writing this down, he called it a sword.

  7. Hi slaveofone. I'm Jon by the way.

    The issue is not whether or not there are additional evidences against the book of Mormon. And the issue is not the veracity of the Book of Mormon vs the veracity of the Bible. The comparison is between belief that snakes talked and the belief that the Ephraimites lived in South America. Also the issue is about confusion between induction and deduction.

    Steve is confusing deduction and induction. Forget about the Bible and the Book of Mormon if need be. I don't want you to confuse what the issue is here. Take belief in leprechauns around the moon. We have no experience with them. So it is not a fallacy to say that this is good reason to doubt their existence. That's a fact.

    Now, if that's true, then the same reasoning applies to talking snakes. We have no experience with them. Does this prove that it is impossible that they would exist? Of course not. But we're not doing deduction. We're doing induction. All we can say is that it is very unlikely that they exist. Now, if we had tons and tons of evidence that it really did happen, this might overturn our initial doubt. Barring that, it is irrational to believe it happened.

  8. Hey, Gerard. Thanks for the comment. Let me see if I understand you correctly...

    You’re saying you agree with those who say we should not seek to know anything about the historical circumstances of the time period in the text because the history in the narrative is either irrelevant (implied by saying it is not a question of what happened at that time, but what was meant in Moses’ time) or false (you seem to imply there was not a sword, just a pointy thing, even though the text says it was one).

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  12. OK. This will be my third post. Sorry if you've read the previous ones (though they are largely the same here).


    I read your article but I don't think you've adequately dealt with Frame or the presuppositional perspective on Euthyphro. You ask:

    Would you be willing to give up presuppositional apologetics if I can show you wrong here?

    ... but what you've painted in your article doesn't adequately take into account the success of the nuance outlined by Frame and presuppositionalists and how it defeats the dilemma. You define the dilemma:

    If we say, on the one hand, that something is right because God commands it, then the only reason why we should do something is that God commands it. It makes God’s commands arbitrary, because there is no reason why God commanded something other than the fact that he did.

    It seems to me that this line of argumentation assumes the principle:

    1) commands not predicated on reasons external to the commander are arbitrary.

    But this means that in order to remove the lack of clarity in your paragraph, the last sentence ought to be modified to read:

    2) ... there is no reason [external to God,] why God commanded something other than the fact that he did

    It’s not clear why any Calvinist would have a problem with (2) and it certainly doesn't imply that God's commands are arbitrary. Of the definitions of 'arbitrary' on the following seems most appropriate:

    Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle

    If these commands (or moral standards in general) are rooted in the very person, nature or character of God, then they would be hardly arbitrary, and might even be 'necessary.' Now this is exactly what Frame points out:

    “God's nature is righteous and therefore normative.”

    These commands and the moral principles upon which they are based reflect the very nature/character of God. There's no problem with saying that 'God acts according to His character;' it's virtually a tautology. "[H]e does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character" which is neither external to him nor arbitrary.

    You’re essay goes on at some length about this possible formulation but you never deal with the aspect of how it is successful against the Euthyphro dilemma.

    He’s saying that morality is grounded in God’s nature, not in his commands. But this is a difference that makes no difference. It does no good to step back behind the commands of God to God’s purported nature at all.

    Well, it certainly does with respect to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma (though this was not the context of these statements).

    You again address this with:

    Steve Lovell also defends this position that God's commands are rooted in His essential nature (known as the 'Divine Nature Theory' or DNT), in 'C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma' (July 14, 2002) found at,

    But again, here, and as you continue in your post, you don’t deal with how this answers Euthyphro. Instead you argue with him about the issue of circularity (which I will deal with later on in this post).

    A second, though related, objection is when you say: "this makes the whole concept of the goodness of God meaningless" allegedly due to the fact that the statement wouldn't really convey any information – 'God commands' is all that need be said – that is the definition of Good. So what is the point in saying 'God is good?' As you say:

    if God were to tell us he's good, then that only means that he labels his character with the word "good." The word "good" here is merely a word God uses to apply to himself without any real definitional content, apart from the fact that God says this word applies to himself—see the circularity?

    Yes – but only when the statement 'God is good' is interpreted in such a constrained sense as to make it a simple analytic proposition. "All Bachelors are unmarried." Yee ha! First, it’s not clear such statements ARE completely meaningless, but besides that, the phrase 'God is good' certainly has existential import when interpreted without the aid of simplistic Platonic categories – which, I believe, the Hebrew scriptures ignored ... ;-)

    You said: "I personally think the inherent circularity in trying to defend the DNT points to the non-existence of God" so let me ask you, does the statement "All bachelors are unmarried" contain the metaphysical implications for a complete transcendental argument for the non existence of bachelors?

    As a side, you said:

    "Germany was a Christian nation—the heart of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation! How could a Christian people allow these evil deeds to happen and even be his willing executioners? How?"

    Are you serious? How? In a word: Nietzsche.


  13. Jim thanks for trying, but I can tell you don't understand the dilemma. I'll wait for someone to tackle the problem who understands it. But thanks for trying.

  14. John, Great response. Based on the brevity of your response I suppose you don't have time to educate me on where my understanding is lacking.

    Since you clearly don't have the time, please just point to the appropriate paragraph of your essay where you show how the concepts outlined by Frame (those you've tagged with the mnemonic 'DNT') fail to satisfy the dilemma. Not where they have circularity issues. Not where they supposedly make the concept of goodness meaningless, but where they allegedly fail to address the dilemma posed in the dialog.


  15. Jim,

    You just don't understand the dilemma because I said so, and don't confuse me with actual reasoning that demands an appropriate conclusion. That's not fair, sheesh....

  16. John may be right; how am I to judge? In any case I've looked around since then and found richer literature on the subject of DNT than I thought I would. Many touch on the points I tried to make (though I was apparently unsuccessful at making them). From pointing out that DNT resolves Euthyphro, to details on how, to pointing out that the circularity is due to an overly analytic or platonic understanding of goodness (and that understanding also suffers directly from the “third man” problem of Plato’s theory of forms).

    In any case there are many cases where DNT is shown to specifically avoid the dilemma posed in Euthyphro (see Frame referenced earlier, Alston’s "Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists" – or references to it). In fact I ran across an article that provided exactly what I asked of John ( ); a explanation of how DNT fails to resolve the Euthyphro dilemma. Personally, I do not think it succeeds but it at least has me wondering – something John’s articles haven’t done. .