Saturday, November 29, 2008

Church, state, and fate

I'm posting another (edited version of an) email correspondence I recently had.

“It seems to me that throughout the world, we have not simply a pendulum swinging back and forth (as it has seemed in the US as the two parties rise and fall over the years), but more like a sea in which waves rise and fall in various places.”
Voters are fickle. They get bored. They want change for the sake of change. They’re also passive creatures of habit. They’ll go along with the status quo until catastrophe strikes—even when the catastrophe was foreseeable and, at one point, avoidable.
As you know, the problem with socialism is that it’s inherently insolvent. A businessman is a risk-taker. But socialism rewards the risk-averse and punishes the successful risk-taker.
Coupled with that is the demographic suicide of a culture that uses abortion and contraception to the point where it falls below the replacement rate—at which juncture it becomes a pyramid scheme with fewer on the bottom supporting ever more on the top. That’s unsustainable.
So, eventually, it falls of its own dead weight. But that doesn’t mean the next generation ever learns from the mistakes of the former generation. The next generation tends to make the same mistakes all over again.
For a lot of folks, unless they personally experience something, it’s unreal to them. They can’t think in abstract terms.
“I know you disagree, but I can't help but think that George Bush's almost boastful portrayal of his Christianity, and the notion or perception that somehow a ‘Christian’ government was in place, has hurt the church. “
Except for Ashcroft, Bush was the only high profile Christian in the administration, and Bush is just a layman, and a rather anti-intellectual layman at that, so his theology isn’t what you’d call sophisticated.
“But in Hortons 2K model, it is not just natural law that is foundational, but it's the fact that God, thru his common grace, is still overseeing things, even in the most godless secular governments. That is what is foundational in Horton, and maybe even in Kline, I have not read him. (I know that seems like a stretch, but biblically, it has to be that way, don't you agree?)”
But what do you do after you lay the foundation? You have to build something on the foundation.
All Horton is doing here is to discuss the providential underpinnings of human gov’t. But that doesn’t furnish any specific guidance as to what forms of social conduct the state should prescribe, proscribe, or permit.
I’m not saying the Bible has all the answers. Scripture gives us a combination of general norms and specific illustrations. We can get a lot of moral mileage out of that if we try.
But Scripture is silent on some issues. That’s fine. That’s a point of liberty. There can be more than one acceptable course of action in a given situation. My problem is when Scripture isn’t consulted for the answers it has.
“Maybe this is why I am not alarmed at the election of Obama, the possible passage of FOCA -- God is still in charge.”
That’s also true in N. Korea, but you wouldn’t want to live under that regime, or raise your kids under that regime, if you could avoid it.
We need to avoid the temptation of hypercalvinistic fatalism, where it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do. For the decree includes the role of human agents in history.
"Some time ago, I read a bunch of Schaeffer's stuff, and he cited that magical 51% figure as being necessary to enact legislation. Christians seem to be falling away from that figure (if you think of the truly Christian population in this country, and how it has fallen as a percentage). “
As a practical matter, a total theonomic package will never be enacted into law. In the OT, God simply imposed his law code on Israel. He didn’t put it up for a vote. It didn’t depend on the consent of the governed. And there were curse sanctions if the nation as a whole balked at the law. There was a credible threat to back it up.
Under our system, human legislators pass laws. And a human lawmaker is disinclined to pass a self-incriminating law. For example, we will never have harsh penalties for adultery, because that’s an evil which a certain percentage of lawmakers are likely to commit, and they’re not going to leave themselves liable to harsh punishment for breaking that law. Hence, a law like that will never get on the books.
However, theonomy is still useful in laying down some basic parameters. One can operate within that framework, even if the framework as a whole will never be enacted into law.
“We’ve had Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and Pat Robertson's run for the White House, and other movements like that.”
But these did some good. We need to separate the men from the movements they inspired or the institutions they established. Liberty U and Regent U are more important than Falwell or Robertson.
There are people who became disillusioned with the Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution because it felt short of their expectations. But that was unrealistic. The question is not whether various movements achieve utopia, but whether they make things better than the situation would otherwise be absent those movements. All I’m looking for is improvement, or even a counterbalance to the forces of evil.
“That Christians have identified themselves with the Republican party leaves them open to charges of hypocrisy because Newt Gingrich was married three times, having abandoned his first wife under almost horrific conditions.”
I’m not impressed by unbelievers who accuse Christians of hypocrisy when said unbelievers don’t know the first thing about Christian ethics. Their ignorant standards need to be challenged, not appeased.
We endorse a policy, not a person. But it takes a person to lobby for a policy.
“It seems unhelpful to the gospel that Christians feel compelled in the world to tie their hopes to (smart, reasoned, but morally flawed) individuals like Gingrich.”
But that’s a caricature. It’s not as if all our hopes are vested in one man. Gingrich is just a vehicle. We use him until he runs out of gas. Then we thumb down another vehicle to take us on the next leg of the journey. We’re political hitchhikers.
BTW, I’m not saying that we should treat everyone as a vehicle. We shouldn’t disown a fellow Christian if he becomes a political liability. We might tell him that he’s done his tour of duty, and it’s time for him to retire from active combat. But he’ll still be a friend.
No, I’m talking about cynical politicians who exist to be used. Who live for power.
“But did the earliest Christians want to live in the Roman empire, being persecuted as they were?”
But Christian fortunes oscillate in time and place. We play the hand we’ve been dealt. You work with what you’ve got and try to build on that.
I’d distinguish between principles and processes. The principles are invariant. But we should be flexible and adaptable about the process we employ. A process is just a mean to an end. It’s the vehicle, not the destination. We don’t have to use the same vehicle from start to finish. We can change cars during the course of our journey.
I think some Christian political theorists make the mistake of trying to formulate a procedural metanarrative which will apply in every time and place. But we don’t need a single recipe to get things done. I’m a consummate pragmatist about the process issues. Process is entirely subordinate to principle. Depending on the terrain, I may switch from a sports car for a Land Rover or dirt bike or motorboat or chopper. What mode of transport I use at any given time is a question of pure expediency. We should be opportunistic about the process, but principled about the norms and the goals.

(Of course, some methods are out of bounds. I’m not suggesting that we do whatever it takes. Sometimes we have to take a loss if price of success is morally exorbitant.)
“That thread at Greenbaggins is now over 500 comments long. This clearly is a discussion that thoughtful Christians are itching to have. What do you think?”
Both in tone and substance, I think the “theonomists” performed badly in the first couple of innings. A lot of swashbuckling rhetoric in lieu of rational arguments.
I think the theonomic side of the debate underwent a dramatic improvement in later innings as some of the early, B-team players dropped out while some A-team players took their place.
Both in tone and substance, I think the 2k proponents have performed badly from start to finish. This may be in part because they are also backbenchers. It would be useful to see what some A-team players like Irons, Tipton, or VanDrunen would have to say if they took to the field. 
“This is one reason why I think that it's important for Christians not to simply hitch their wagons to one party, but for Christian principles to be suffused (somehow) throughout the Democratic party.”
The GOP is a temporary vehicle. Conservative Christians generally vote Republican for the simple reason that Republican candidates are generally more sympathetic to our agenda while Democrats are generally antagonistic to our agenda.
“And I think, in these last few elections when we've seen pro-life Democrats and former military Democrats winning seats in congress, this is happening.”
In principle, a prolife Democrat is better than a proabortion Republican.
On the other hand, politics is often about majority rule. Which side has the most votes. Therefore, the position of the party is often more important than the position of an individual politician.
Take Congress. The minority views of a prolife Democrat will be diluted by the proabortion views of his colleagues. There are times when voting for a prolife Democrat might shift the balance of power from a Congressional prolife majority to a Congressional proabortion majority. Therefore, we need to vote tactically and strategically with a view to the net result. It’s the policy that counts, not the individual politician. The total vote tally, and not any individual vote.
“But Bush was the name on the ticket.”
Bush is not the Church or the State. To judge Christianity by Bush is like people who refuse to salute the flag because, to their warped way of thinking, the flag symbolizes a particular administration or foreign policy.
That’s irrational, and I don’t cater to stupid objections. If some people choose to attack Christianity via Bush, they’re entitled to be stupid, but that’s their problem, not mine.
“And, the church should ‘be the church,’ that is, should adhere to word and sacrament.”
But this way of categorizing the issue is misleading. We’re not talking about the “church,” or what your pastor does on Sunday. We’re talking about Christians in general. What should lay Christians do Monday-Saturday? What should a Christian lawmaker do?
“I like the two-kingdoms model of churches preparing people to be Christians in society.”
How are they actually doing that? 

Probability & culpability

I appreciate Paul Manata’s recent post on probability and inexcusability. I’m going to second his position with a few supporting arguments of my own. In the process, I’d like to reorient the discussion a bit.

1.Before we discuss what renders a sinner guilty before God, it might be useful to discuss guilt generally.

i) Let’s take the insanity defense.

a) In my opinion, for a normal adult not to know the difference between right and wrong is culpable rather than exculpatory. A normal adult is supposed to know the difference. So, not knowing the difference between good and evil is, itself, evil.

b) But suppose someone commits murder because he has brain cancer. In that case, I think we’d agree that he’s in a condition of diminished responsibility. He’s not responsible for his actions.

c) There also seems to be a class of people, like Bobby Fischer and Ted Kaczynski, who work themselves into a state of mental illness. They weren’t always insane.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Kaczynski was clinically insane at the time he committed murder. Is that an exculpatory circumstance?

I’d say, no. He’s still guilty of murder because he is guilty of psyching himself into a condition of criminal insanity.

The analogy I’m making is this: suppose, for the sake of argument, that the unbeliever has successfully forgotten what he used to know about God. Does that render him blameless before God?

No, for he’s guilty of forgetting what he used to know about God. That, of itself, is an evil thing to do.

d) We might also use the example of a torturer or serial killer who’s become desensitized to the pain and suffering he inflicts on others. At the outset of his career, he felt a twinge of conscience about the way he treated his victims. But over time, he’s become callous and unfeeling.

Is that culpable or exculpatory? Clearly the former.

2.Now let’s approach this issue from a different angle. Can I be culpable if I fail to take reasonable precautions in some situations? Here, “reasonable” would fall short of certainty.

For example, if a hotel is on fire, should the firemen conduct a sweep of the hotel, floor-by-floor and room-by-room to see if all the guests got out in time?

Suppose the fire chief didn’t order them to do that. As a result, 20 guests died of smoke inhalation.

Suppose the fire chief justifies his inaction as follows: the firemen didn’t have time to knock on every room or check every room. They didn’t have time to check to see if anyone was hiding under the bed or cowering in the closets.

Since they didn’t have time to conduct a thorough search of the premises, there was no point in conducting even a cursory search since the results of a cursory search would be inconclusive.

We would still regard the inaction of the fire chief as culpable. Although any search within the time allotted (before the hotel burned down) would be less than exhaustive, he still had an obligation to make a good faith effort to do the best he could under the circumstances.

The analogy I’m making is this: even if, for the sake of argument, we say the unbeliever’s evidence for God is merely probable rather than conclusive, an unbeliever is still culpable if he responds unreasonably in the face of the available evidence.

I’m not equating this with Paul’s argument in Rom 1 (which is a separate question). I’m just discussing general grounds for culpable conduct.

3.Finally, Paul grounds culpability in more than one factor. Human culpability is overdetermined. The suppression of revelation is one ground.

But in chapter 5, he also grounds culpability in the sin of Adam.

That’s interesting because, unlike chapter 1, it doesn’t depend on the knowledge of the interested party. It might depend on Adam’s knowledge, but not on the knowledge of his posterity.

Of course, many people think that original sin is unfair. At the moment, I’m not trying to defend Paul’s argument (which I’ve done elsewhere). I’m merely discussing the Pauline grounds for guilt.

And, of course, Paul also grounds guilt in actual sin.

The upshot is that the unbeliever could be “inexcusable” for a number of different reasons.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Christmas Resources

In a recent book critical of the traditional Christian view of the infancy narratives, Marcus Borg and John Crossan wrote:

"The stories of Jesus's birth are the foundation of the world's most widely observed holiday. Christmas is celebrated by the world's two billion Christians, a number about twice that of the next largest religion, Islam. Moreover, because of the cultural and commercial importance of Christmas in Western culture and beyond, it is observed by many non-Christians as well. Indeed, no other religious holiday is so widely commemorated by people who are outside of the tradition that originated it....Indeed, in contemporary Western culture and even for many Christians, the commemoration of Christmas exceeds the commemoration of Easter. Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jesus's birth matters. What we think they're about - how we hear them, read them, interpret them - matters. They are often sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings...Moreover, for many Christians, they are associated with their earliest memories of childhood. Christmas has emotional power....They [the infancy narratives] speak of personal and political transformation." (The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], pp. vii-viii)

Though I disagree with much of what Borg and Crossan go on to say, I agree with their assessment of the significance of Christmas and the infancy narratives.

Last year, I organized much of Triablogue's material on the infancy narratives by linking it to the relevant texts from Matthew and Luke. You can also access all of our posts archived under the topic of Christmas here. If you're looking for material on Luke's census, for example, you can click on the relevant links in the text of Luke 2 on the second page linked above, or you can go to the third page linked above and search under "census" with the Ctrl F feature on your keyboard. You may want to scroll through the third link above, or click a lot of the links within the first two pages, to get a better idea of the range of material we've written. We've covered many topics that I've rarely or never seen addressed elsewhere on the web. There are hundreds of relevant articles in our archives.

Glenn Miller has some good material on the infancy narratives, including an article he wrote this year on alleged contradictions between the accounts in Matthew and Luke. J.P. Holding has some good material as well. So does CADRE Comments. John McCarthy has some helpful material on the infancy narratives at The Roman Theological Forum.

I would recommend the same books on the historicity of the infancy narratives that I've mentioned in previous years. The best resource on Matthew's infancy material is Craig Keener's commentary on that gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999). The best resource on Luke is Darrell Bock's commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994). Raymond Brown's The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999), though wrong on many points, covers the issues in a lot of depth and remains one of the best resources available. A good concise treatment is Ben Witherington's article in the Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels, Joel B. Green, et al., edd. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), pp. 60-74.

I've reviewed the most influential modern scholarly work on the infancy narratives, Raymond Brown's book cited above, in three articles: one, two, and three. I've also reviewed two more recent works critical of the infancy narratives, Geza Vermes' The Nativity (New York: Doubleday, 2006) and Marcus Borg and John Crossan's The First Christmas (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007). I've reviewed Vermes' book here. Borg and Crossan's book is reviewed in five parts: one, two, three, four, and five.

There's a lot of relevant, and often underestimated, material in the church fathers. Below are a few representative passages, which should give you an idea of how the early Christians interpreted the infancy accounts and how non-Christians responded to those accounts, for example:

Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 77-79
Justin Martyr, First Apology, 34
Julius Africanus, Eusebius' Church History, 1:7
Origen, Against Celsus, 1:51
Origen, Against Celsus, 1:58-61

The earliest commentary on one of the infancy narratives is Origen's homilies on Luke. They're available in English translation in Joseph Lienhard, Origen: Homilies On Luke, Fragments On Luke (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 1996).

Concerning whether it's acceptable for Christians to celebrate Christmas, see here.

A good resource on the history of Christmas as a holiday, such as its cultural influence and the development of Christmas traditions, is Bruce Forbes' Christmas: A Candid History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2007). I disagree with Forbes on some issues, especially related to the earliest history of Christmas, but the book has a lot of information about the history of the holiday.

Here are some points to keep in mind regarding the historicity of the infancy narratives:

- There would have been interest in Jesus' background, including some elements of the infancy narratives, among both Christians and non-Christians even before Jesus died. Such interest is to be expected, given the common Messianic expectations of that era (see, for example, here and here). Paul, the gospels, and other early Christian sources express interest in Jesus' background, and all of the gospels agree that both Jesus' followers and His opponents were interested in His background before Jesus even died. Christians wouldn't have waited until late in the first century to begin asking questions about issues such as Jesus' ancestry and birthplace.

- The early Christians and their enemies had access to multiple sources who would have had reliable information on the events surrounding Jesus' infancy. Some of the sources with the most knowledge of Jesus' background were initially opposed to Christianity, so information about His infancy that would have been damaging to Christianity, if that sort of information existed, would have been accordingly accessible to non-Christian sources.

- Critics who cite sources like Josephus and Tacitus against the infancy narratives, such as when discussing the Slaughter of the Innocents or Luke's census, shouldn't then argue that reliable information about such issues wouldn't have been preserved as late as the time of the gospels. If reliable information wasn't available at that time, then Josephus and Tacitus didn't have it either.

- The gospels of Matthew and Luke belong to a historical genre, and the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources interpreted the infancy narratives as accounts meant to convey history.

- Historians regularly practice harmonization of sources, and the infancy narratives can be harmonized. That harmonization depends on some premises critics often deny or minimize, such as the premise that two accurate genealogies of the same individual can significantly differ and the premise that Matthew 2:16 probably places the events of Matthew 2 after everything in Luke's gospel prior to Luke 2:39. But those premises are reasonable and make better sense of other data involved, such as the early and widespread acceptance of both gospels as harmonious.

- An argument that Matthew and Luke are inconsistent, if granted, doesn't give us reason to reject both accounts or even everything in one account. The argument from inconsistency only goes so far.

- Contrary to what critics allege, the infancy narratives are consistent with what the gospels and other sources report about Jesus' public ministry.

- Human memory is more reliable than skeptics often suggest.

- The early opponents of Christianity weren't apathetic about the religion, and they weren't apathetic about the infancy narratives. Many of the arguments used by modern critics of the infancy accounts are found in Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, Origen's Against Celsus, John Chrysostom's Homilies On Matthew, and Augustine's Harmony Of The Gospels, for example.

- Vague accusations of gullibility on the part of ancient people are insufficient to dismiss the historicity of the traditional Christian view of Jesus' infancy. Any accusation of gullibility would have to be argued, not just asserted. It would have to be shown that the degree of gullibility is sufficient to establish what the critic wants to establish. Other factors would have to be taken into account, such as the fact that the early opponents of Christianity wouldn't have had a desire to believe in Christianity. Christian gullibility wouldn't explain non-Christian corroboration of Christian claims. And the critic who dismisses ancient people as too gullible to trust should explain why historians disagree with him, should explain whether he trusts ancient sources on other matters, and should explain why he's trusting sources like Josephus and Tacitus if he's going to cite them against the infancy narratives.

- The early enemies of Christianity corroborated some of the evidence for the infancy narratives that modern critics argue against, such as the authorship attributions of the gospels (see here, here, here, and here) and Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

- Some of the modern critics' objections to the infancy narratives weren't raised by the early enemies of Christianity, even though those early enemies were in a better position than modern critics to judge the Christian claims. An example is the historicity of Luke's census.

- Some significant arguments and conclusions of conservative scholarship on the infancy narratives are accepted by non-conservative scholars. See, for example, here and here.

- Just as conservative scholars disagree among themselves on some points related to the infancy narratives, so do non-conservatives. For example, compare the three books I've cited above that are critical of the infancy narratives. Brown, Vermes, Borg, and Crossan agree on some points, but disagree on others.

- Scholarly disagreements over the infancy narratives largely occur for the same reasons they occur on other such issues: whether naturalism is assumed, how much weight is assigned to external evidence, etc. Brown's book cited above, for example, though more reasonable than works like Vermes' and Borg and Crossan's, rests heavily upon highly speculative arguments from internal evidence. He often recognizes the speculative nature of his arguments and acknowledges that he doesn't have much reason to be confident about his conclusions. He'll suggest that one part of the infancy narratives may have been derived to a significant extent from one portion of the Old Testament, then he'll appeal to a different portion of the Old Testament to explain another part of the infancy accounts. Brown has to appeal to a wide range of Old Testament sources in his attempt to explain much of the infancy narratives as something other than an effort to convey history. On p. 193, we're told about a wide range of possible sources for the material in Matthew 2, including "the combined story of Joseph in Egypt and Moses...the stories of the birth of Abraham, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and the struggle between Laban and Jacob...the most likely background is offered by the episode centered on Balaam in Num 22-24...The Matthean Herod resembles both the Pharaoh and Balak." After citing such a diverse array of possibilities, Brown assures us that he's omitted any mention of other parallels that are "too tenuous" (n. 40 on p. 193). I prefer his advice elsewhere that "one should be cautious in drawing an identification from such echoes of an OT scene." (p. 344) Brown often acknowledges that his conclusions could be wrong and that the narratives could be more historical than he concludes (for example, pp. 578-579). The Old Testament is a large collection of literature that covers a wide range of personalities, circumstances, and issues. Finding some parallels of New Testament events in the Old Testament doesn't have the sort of significance that liberal scholars often suggest, nor does the use of Old Testament language by first-century Jews who lived in an atmosphere so heavily influenced by that language. Brown doesn't go as far as critics like Vermes, Borg, and Crossan, but he does arrive at a view of Jesus' infancy that's far from what the early Christians or their opponents believed. When modern liberal scholars find themselves so far to the left even of the earliest enemies of Christianity, they ought to ask themselves where they went wrong.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Grateful When Some Questions Aren't Answered

"Let us therefore give thanks not only for blessings which we see, but also for those which we see not, and for those which we receive against our will. For many are the blessings He bestows upon us, without our desire, without our knowledge. And if ye believe me not, I will at once proceed to make the case clear to you. For consider, I pray, do not the impious and unbelieving Gentiles ascribe everything to the sun and to their idols? But what then? Doth He not bestow blessings even upon them? Is it not the work of His providence, that they both have life, and health, and children, and the like? And again they that are called Marcionites, and the Manichees, do they not even blaspheme Him? But what then? Does He not bestow blessings on them every day? Now if He bestows blessings on them that know them not, much more does he bestow them upon us. For what else is the peculiar work of God if it be not this, to do good to all mankind, alike by chastisements and by enjoyments? Let us not then give thanks only when we are in prosperity, for there is nothing great in this. And this the devil also well knows, and therefore he said, 'Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast Thou not made an hedge about him and about all that he hath on every side? Touch all that he hath; no doubt, he will renounce Thee to Thy face!' However, that cursed one gained no advantage; and God forbid he should gain any advantage of us either; but whenever we are either in penury, or in sicknesses, or in disasters, then let us increase our thanksgiving; thanksgiving, I mean, not in words, nor in tongue, but in deeds and works, in mind and in heart. Let us give thanks unto Him with all our souls. For He loves us more than our parents; and wide as is the difference between evil and goodness, so great is the difference between the love of God and that of our fathers. And these are not my words, but those of Christ Himself Who loveth us....The ungrateful, however, and unfeeling say, that this were worthy of God’s goodness, that there should be an equality amongst all. Tell me, ungrateful mortal, what sort of things are they which thou deniest to be of God’s goodness, and what equality meanest thou? 'Such an one,' thou wilt say, 'has been a cripple from his childhood; another is mad, and is possessed; another has arrived at extreme old age, and has spent his whole life in poverty; another in the most painful diseases: are these works of Providence? One man is deaf, another dumb, another poor, whilst another, impious, yea, utterly impious, and full of ten thousand vices, enjoys wealth, and keeps concubines, and parasites, and is owner of a splendid mansion, and lives an idle life.' And many instances of the sort they string together, and weave a long account of complaint against the providence of God....For why does it concern thee, if such an one is blind, or such an one poor? God hath not commanded thee to look to this, but to what thou thyself art doing. For if on the one hand thou doubtest that there is any power superintending the world, thou art of all men the most senseless; but if thou art persuaded of this, why doubt that it is our duty to please God?...Go to the physician’s, and thou wilt see him, whenever a man is discovered to have a wound, using the knife and the cautery. But no, in thy case, I say not so much as this; but go to the carpenter’s. And yet thou dost not examine his reasons, although thou understandest not one of the things which are done there, and many things will appear to thee to be difficulties; as, for instance, when he hollows the wood, when he alters its outward shape. Nay, I would bring thee to a more intelligible craft still, for instance, that of the painter, and there thy head will swim. For tell me, does he not seem to be doing what he does, at random? For what do his lines mean, and the turns and bends of the lines? But when he puts on the colors, then the beauty of the art will become conspicuous. Yet still, not even then wilt thou be able to attain to any accurate understanding of it. But why do I speak of carpenters, and painters, our fellow-servants? Tell me, how does the bee frame her comb, and then shalt thou speak about God also. Master the handiwork of the ant, the spider, and the swallow, and then shalt thou speak about God also. Tell me these things. But no, thou never canst. Wilt thou not cease then, O man, thy vain enquiries? For vain indeed they are. Wilt thou not cease busying thyself in vain about many things? Nothing so wise as this ignorance, where they that profess they know nothing are wisest of all, and they that spend overmuch labor on these questions, the most foolish of all. So that to profess knowledge is not everywhere a sign of wisdom, but sometimes of folly also. For tell me, suppose there were two men, and one of them should profess to stretch out his lines, and to measure the expanse that intervenes between the earth and heaven, and the other were to laugh at him, and declare that he did not understand it, tell me, I pray, which should we laugh at, him that said he knew, or him that knew not? Evidently, the man that said that he knew. He that is ignorant, therefore, is wiser than he that professes to know. And what again? If any one were to profess to tell us how many cups of water the sea contains, and another should profess his ignorance, is not the ignorance here again wiser than the knowledge? Surely, vastly so. And why so? Because that knowledge itself is but intense ignorance. For he indeed who says that he is ignorant, knows something. And what is that? That it is incomprehensible to man. Yes, and this is no small portion of knowledge. Whereas he that says he knows, he of all others knows not what he says he knows, and is for this very reason utterly many things are there to teach us to bridle this unseasonable impertinence and idle curiosity; and yet we refrain not, but are curious about the lives of others; as, why one is a cripple, and why another is poor. And so by this way of reasoning we shall fall into another sort of trifling which is endless, as, why such an one is a woman? and, why all are not men? why there is such a thing as an ass? why an ox? why a dog? why a wolf? why a stone? why wood? and thus the argument will run out to an interminable length. This in truth is the reason, why God has marked out limits to our knowledge, and has laid them deep in nature....And so then let us only 'give thanks for all things.' 'Wherefore,' says he, 'give thanks for all things.' This is the part of a well-disposed, of a wise, of an intelligent servant; the opposite is that of a tattler, and an idler, and a busy-body. Do we not see amongst servants, that those among them who are worthless and good for nothing, are both tattlers, and triflers and that they pry into the concerns of their masters, which they are desirous to conceal: whereas the intelligent and well-disposed look to one thing only, how they may fulfill their service....Tell me, now, which is the widest difference, between our age and that of children, or between God and men? between ourselves compared with gnats, or God compared with us? Plainly between God and us. Why then dost thou busy thyself to such an extent in all these questions? 'Give thanks for all things.' 'But what,' say you, 'if a heathen should ask the question? How am I to answer him? He desires to learn from me whether there is a Providence, for he himself denies that there is any being thus exercising foresight.' Turn round then, and ask him the same question thyself. He will deny therefore that there is a Providence. Yet that there is a Providence, is plain from what thou hast said; but that it is incomprehensible, is plain from those things whereof we cannot discover the reason. For if in things where men are the disposers, we oftentimes do not understand the method of the disposition, and in truth many of them appear to us inconsistent, and yet at the same time we acquiesce, how much more will this be so in the case of God? However, with God nothing either is inconsistent, or appears so to the faithful. Wherefore let us 'give thanks for all things,' let us give Him glory for all things." (John Chrysostom, Homilies On Ephesians, 19)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Update On The James Ossuary

Chris Price has posted another summary of recent news related to the James Ossuary.

To Form A More Secular Union

One of the most important freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution, the freedom from religion, is being threatened by an obvious hoax circulating on the web. I'm referring to two thanksgiving proclamations purportedly issued by Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. These are palpable forgeries. Just read the First Amendment. It's obvious.

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor--and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be--That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in thecourse and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions--to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

Monday, November 24, 2008

Secular scumbags


“Apparently you're not interested in understanding or faithfully representing what I've written.”

I answered you on your own grounds. You said that Rhology was “scum.” That’s a value judgment. But you also said that morality is a process of negotiation. Yet you didn’t negotiate with Rhology over the propriety of your epithet.

You also like to hurl epithets like “fascist.” Yet, by your own definition of morality, fascism is a social convention. A social contract. So there’s nothing wrong with fascism if we apply your own definition of morality to the phenomenon of fascism.

For example, you said:

“That’s easy. Authority is granted by convention, of course. The most rationally conceived authority is one most adapted to the needs of the community and most adaptive to the demands of reason. Morality is all a matter of justification, after all. So, a moral authority is a person or body of persons whose decisions on moral questions are respected within a community.”

i) But Nazi German satisfied those conditions—for Germans. That was their social contract.

ii) And while we're on the subject, how can a social contract define what rights we have? After all, a process of negotiation assumes at the outset that we have a right to enter into contractual negotiations. That right can’t derive from social contract theory. For human rights or civil rights would be a result of such negotiations, and not a presupposition thereof.

“I've explained what morality is.”

Indeed you did. And I simply used some concrete examples like the Third Reich, Double Indemnity, and The Godfather to illustrate the cash-value of your explanation.

“How it is objective.”

Indeed you did. This is how you attempt to explain objective morality:

“Now, listen. I will explain what an objective moral authority is. In so doing, it should be clear why your argument is bankrupt on two fronts: first, because you wrongly accuse atheists of lacking objective moral authority; second, because you wrongly claim to have an objective moral authority of your own. See, I’m about to turn your argument upside down. Ready?”


“The term ‘objective’ refers to that which can be observed and measured by anybody (in theory, of course), and not what is only available for a single person. Of course, people react differently to objective events, and no matter how similar people’s experiences tend to be, there is often some small difference in what they observe and measure. Yet, in so far as something is theoretically available to be observed and measured, we call it ‘objective,’ even if our observations and measurements are not always exactly the same. Often we have to negotiate an understanding of objective events, because our experiences aren’t always exactly the same. In this way, objectivity can be established through discourse.”

Unfortunately for you, there are some basic problems with this explanation:

i) We can observe an event, but the rightness or wrongness of an event is unobservable. Moral properties are not empirical properties. We can observe a bank robbery, but the bank robbery doesn’t look or sound or smell or taste or feel right or wrong.

ii) What metric to you use to measure morality? What units of measurement do you employ? Is morality measured in liters or meters?

Is something wrong because is has more liters/meters of wrongness or fewer meters/liters of wrongness? How do you empirically measure the immorality of murder—assuming you think that murder is wrong?

Here’s another definition you gave: “Morality is a process of deciding what is best for humanity and civilization.”

i) Of course, this begs the question since you first need to derive and justify the concept of “best” before you can apply it to a concrete situation.

ii) You also beg the question of what humanity and civilization even matters. Why assume that what is good for humanity is good? Is what is good for Stalin good?

Why, on your grounds, should humanity exist, survive, and prosper?

Here you give it another try:

“Justice, beauty, truth, rights . . . these are human values. We all have them because we have working human brains and because we are actively involved in the world around us.”

How does that distinguish the mass murderer from the philanthropist? Stalin had a working human brain. And he was actively involved in the world around him. Very active!

“I've explained why notions of ‘God’ are meaningless, and why they cannot be used to justify any moral arguments.”

Indeed you did. You appealed to “theological noncognitivism,” which is just a warmed over version of the long discredited school of logical positivism.

You also claim that “The term ‘supernatural’ is meant to refer to that which cannot be observed or comprehended in any rational way. The supernatural cannot possibly be understood. Ever. By anyone.”

“Theologians for ages have known that the term ‘God’ is defined in a way that is impossible to understand. By recognizing the lack of coherence here, I am only pointing out what religious believers through the ages have willingly acknowledged. They have claimed that the inability to understand the meaning of the term ‘God’ is one of the main reasons why God must be embraced as a matter of faith.”

i) I notice that you don’t actually quote any theologians to that effect. What theologians have you actually read? List some names and titles to document your sweeping claim.

ii) At best, your claim would only apply to the apophatic tradition. But many theologians are not apophatic theologians. For example, Francis Turretin, in the Institutes of Elenctic Theology, spends a lot of time carefully defining the divine attributes.

Or, to take a modern example, Kathrin Rogers, in Perfect Being Theology, devotes several chapters to carefully defining certain divine attributes.

Therefore, you historical claim is demonstrably ignorant and demonstrably false.

iii) But let’s take a specific case. Take the conventional definition of divine omnipotence: God can instantiate any compossible state of affairs.

Try to explain how that concept is either unintelligible or incoherent.

“I have not expressed any dogmatic allegiance to any texts, not even the Humanist Manifesto, contrary to your suggestion.”

i) You were dismissing Biblical ethics on the mere grounds that it’s contained in a book. An old book. “It's just a collection of really old stories.”

Are you now modifying your original objection?

Christians don’t believe in Biblical ethics because it’s contained in a book. A book is just an information storage and retrieval mechanism.

ii) You also object to Biblical ethics because it’s “old.” But how is that germane to your own definition of morality? An old social convention would be just as valid or invalid as a new social convention. What makes it valid is not the age of the convention, but its conventional acceptance.

“By the way, you are totally misreading the point about ‘selfish’ genes. The point is that human altruism can be explained as the product of natural selection, as the result of genes that are not interested in our own well-being, but which just go about replicating themselves as much as possible. That does not mean that human beings are all scumbags.”

Several problems:

i) Dawkins says that human beings are reducible to bacteria. Cellular colonies of bacteria. Question: does a bacterium have rights? Does a colony of bacteria have rights?

ii) He also says we’re blindly programmed robots. Question: do blindly programmed robots have rights?

iii) To “justify” altruism by appealing to natural selection commits the naturalistic fallacy. Morality is not about what is, but what ought to be. Even if our sense of altruism is a product of natural selection, that’s a descriptive statement, not a normative statement.

iv) Moreover, once we become aware of our evolutionary conditioning, we’re in a position to resist our evolutionary conditioning. It only works if we’re unaware of it. Like someone who’s been brainwashed. The moment he becomes conscious of the fact that he’s been brainwashed, the programming breaks down.

So you have yet to explain why we should be altruistic. Selfish genes won’t do the trick.

“You say atheism cannot account for abstractions. Sure it can, and we can talk about abstractions without postulating any non-physical realm.”

i) Sure about that? Do you even know what an abstract object is?

Take possible worlds. At one point you say “There are also some laws which apply to any possible world in which certain conditions are met.”

What is your point of reference? For you, the real world is all there is, and the real world is physical.

So where do possible worlds come from? Not from the real world, since a possible world is a way the real world might have been, but isn’t. A possible world is a world apart from the real world. An unexemplified possibility. Unexemplified in space and time. It doesn't exist in the actual world.

The real world is a possible world which has been instantiated in time and space.

ii) Or what about infinite sets, like the Mandelbrot set. In what does that inhere? Not in the human mind, since the human mind is finite.

Yet a set must include all its members. A set is a given totality. To what physical structure does the Mandelbrot set correspond?

We can represent the Mandelbrot set, but that’s not the same thing. A representation of something is not the thing-in-itself.

Likewise, we can define or formulate the Mandelbrot set, but that’s not the same thing as the thing-in-itself.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An offer he can't refuse

I’ve been reading some choice things that an atheist as to say about Rhology:

“The problem is, your scumminess prevents you from understanding what a moral position actually looks like. I’ve been trying to explain this to you, but your mind has been so infiltrated by scum that you can’t see beyond the scum. You are trapped in a mental web of scum. It’s sad, because I think there is an intelligent and well-meaning person underneath all those layers of scum. But maybe I’m wrong, and you’re just scum to the bone.”

Notice the finality of his condemnation. But I thought he also told Rhology that morality is a “process of negotiation” (see below). Did he work with Rhology to establish this charge? Did he enter into negotiations with Rhology over his alleged scumminess? Shouldn’t the charge of scumminess be open to further negotiation?

Looks like Jason Streitfeld being very “dictatorial” and “fascistic.” Issuing a unilateral condemnation. That’s very scummy of him, is it not?

“Now, this view is so patently stupid and absurd, it’s hard to decide where to begin. Let’s begin by comparing your scumminess to that of the Nazis. You see, as I mentioned, they had a book, too.”

While we’re on the subject, let’s begin by comparing Streitfeld’s scumminess to that of the other atheists. You see, they had a book, too. Mao’s Little Red Book.

“And they thought it told the truth.”

Ditto: Maoist atheists.

“They killed millions of people because of the ideas written in that book.”

Ditto: Maoist atheists.

Other scummy atheistic titles also come to mind, such as the Marquis de Sade’s Les 120 journées de Sodome, ou l'École du libertinage.

“Now, on what grounds do you embrace your Bible, and not Mein Kampf?”

Now, on what grounds does Streitfeld embrace the Humanist Manifesto, and not Mein Kampf?

And on what grounds does Streitfeld condemn Mein Kampf? Surely he’s not trying to “end all negotiations” on the morality of Mein Kampf?

“Why should anyone take one book as a guide to moral absolutes, and not another book?”

Maybe because one book is right while another is wrong.

“The fact is, scum, your allegiance to the Bible is wholly arbitrary. It’s no better than the Nazis’ allegiance to Mein Kampf.”

Only if you disregard all of the evidence for Scripture.

“You blindly assert that, if atheism is true, then morality is impossible.”

Rhology probably got that idea from reading scummy atheists like Richard Dawkins:

For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria.

What are all of us but self-reproducing robots? We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot a child.

We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.

This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

If it's true that it causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.

Sounds like we’re all a bunch of evolutionary scumbags. Returning to my fellow scum:

“You see, morality is a process whereby justifications are established. It is an ongoing process, and it requires discourse.”

Like the way a philandering husband (or wife) justifies his adultery, you mean? Speaking of which, here's one example of negotiated morality:

“It is based on the very need for people to establish common notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.”

Like Nazi Germany.

“Morality is thus based in human need, and it is the product of biology and civilization.”

What if I need to murder someone?

“You seem to think that, without a book to tell us exactly what is right and wrong, we would all be lost. We wouldn’t be able to do anything. We would, in short, be ignorant and confused savages.”

Like Jason Streitfeld.

“And yet, we have reason.”

So did the Unabomber. Indeed, serial killers are very clever. That’s why it takes so long to catch them.

“We can work together to establish social systems based on our ability to reason and negotiate values together. That is what morality is. It is a process of negotiation.”

Reminds me of a scene in The Godfather:

Don Barzini, I want to thank you for helping me organize this meeting here today. And also the other heads of the Five Families—New York and New Jersey. Carmine Corleone from the Bronx and ah…Brooklyn—Philip Tattaglia. An' from Staten Island, we have with us Victor Strachi. And all the other associates that came as far as from California, and Kansas City, and all the other territories of the country—thank you.

How did things ever get so far? I don't know. It was so—unfortunate—so unnecessary.

Tattaglia lost a son—and I lost a son. We're quits. And if Tattaglia agrees, then I'm willing to—let things go on the way they were before...

We're all grateful to Don Corleone for calling this meeting. We all know him as a man of his word—a modest man -- he'll always listen to reason...

Yes, Don Barzini—he's too modest. He had all the judges and politicians in his pocket. He refused to share them...

When—when did I ever refuse an accommodation? All of you know me here—when did I ever refuse?—except one time. And why? Because I believe this drug business—is gonna destroy us in the years to come. I mean, it's not like gambling or liquor—even women—which is something that most people want nowadays, and is ah forbidden to them by the pezzonovante of the Church. Even the police departments that've helped us in the past with gambling and other things are gonna refuse to help us when in comes to narcotics. And I believed that then and I believe that now.

Times have changed. It's not like the Old Days when we can do anything we want. A refusal is not the act of a friend. If Don Corleone had all the judges, and the politicians in New York, then he must share them, or let us others use them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly he can present a bill for such services; after all, we are not Communists.

I also don't believe in drugs. For years I paid my people extra so they wouldn't do that kind of business.

Somebody comes to them and says, "I have powders; if you put up three, four thousand dollar investment, we can make fifty thousand distributing." So they can't resist. I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don't want it near schools—I don't want it sold to children! That's an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people—the colored. They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls...

I hoped that we would come here and reason together. And as a reasonable man I'm willing to do whatever's necessary to find a peaceful solution to these problems...

Then we are agreed. The traffic in drugs will be permitted, but controlled, and Don Corleone will give up protection in the East, and there will be the peace.

But I must have strict assurance from Corleone—as time goes by and his position becomes stronger, will he attempt any individual vendetta?

Look, we are all reasonable men here; we don't have to give assurances as if we were lawyers...

You talk about vengeance—is vengeance gonna bring your son back to you? Or my boy to me? I forgo the vengeance of my son. But I have selfish reasons. My youngest son was forced to leave this country, because of this Sollozzo business. All right—and I have to make arrangements to bring him back here safely, cleared of all these false charges. But I'm a superstitious man—and if some unlucky accident should befall him—if he should get shot in the head by a police officer, or if he should hang himself in his jail cell, or if he's struck by a bolt of lightning—then I'm going to blame some of the people in this room. And that, I do not forgive.

But—that aside—let me say that I swear on the souls of my grandchildren that I will not be the one to break the peace that we have made here today...

Continuing with Streitfeld:

“You wish to end all negotiations and condemn those who do not adopt the views written in your very old book. That is one way to approach the process whereby moral questions are negotiated—it is a dictatorial, fascist way to approach the process, because it denies the very possibility of negotiation. You are therefore unreasonable and potentially dangerous to the very possibility of morality.”

But I thought that Streitfeld just condemned Rhology as scum. He didn’t even open negotiations with Alan over the charge of scumminess—much less terminate them. That makes Streitfeld an unreasonable person, and potentially dangerous to the very possibility of morality, does it not?

“By claiming that morality cannot be negotiated, and that it can only be embraced as the word of ‘God,’ you are denying the very process whereby morality is established. You are against morality.”

I’m sure the philandering husband would appreciate Streitfeld’s definition of morality. Adultery can be negotiated. The husband of the wife he’s banging is “scum” for feeling that he’s the wronged party in this transaction.

“Why should anyone think that the writings in your very old book are of any more value than the ramblings of any idiot on the street?”

Yeah, old books like…Euclid. Geometry is so old hat. Newer is truer. Like the latest Paris fashion.

“I embrace morality, because I embrace that process whereby people work together to try to justify their decisions.”

Like Hitler and Himmler and Goebbels.

“It is not a perfect process, but it’s success is not predicated upon any supposed infallibility. It leaves room for error, but it works.”

Like the Third Reich.

“Now, please, give us all a single reason why we should abandon morality and embrace your Bible. Why should we value that book any more than we value Mein Kampf or other such insults to humanity and reason?”

Why not do some rudimentary reading in Christian apologetics?

Deceptive humility

Ben Witherington has done a post on Calvinism, commenting on an interview with John Piper:

“What he does not add, that could have been added, is that, for whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.”

Well, that raises some interesting questions. Isn’t the Bible concerned with our knowing what God is like? The contrast between worshiping and serving the true God over against worshipping and serving false gods? The sin of idolatry.

Of course, Witherington throws in the weasel word “exactly” to give himself an escape route.

Okay, so how much inexactitude is too much inexactitude? Is the God of Islam close enough to count? What about Mormonism? How unlike the true God can your “God” be like and still count?

And what about intellectual certainty regarding my salvation? Suppose Calvinism does “feed” a deep-seated need on that score. Is there something wrong with having a deep-seated need to know whether I’m heavenbound or hellbound?

We’re all going to die sooner or later. And eternity is a long time. Is there something wrong with making my eternal fate a top priority? And doesn’t Scripture itself prioritize that concern?

“But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong-- because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence.”

Of course, Witherington spends a lot of time drawing theological and hermeneutical circles. That’s what he does for a living. As a professor, blogger, speaker, writer.

“This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.”

Unless they’re constructed by Ben Witherington.

“A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true.”

Except that Ben Witherington will exempt himself from his own statement.

“The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone's ability (or any collection of human being's abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a 'coherent theological system' without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.”

And Ben Witherington is quick to identify the flaws, gaps, and lacunae.

“Even his [Calvin’s] God is too small to encompass everything that is said about God in the Scriptures, even just everything that is said about soteriology in the Scriptures.”

See what I mean? Unlike Calvin, Witherington is in a privileged position to tell us where to draw the right theological and hermeneutical lines. He’s certain that Calvin drew the circle too small.

“A strong sense of assurance provided by the living presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not the same as intellectual certainty.”

How does he know this assurance comes from God? That he is in the presence of the living God? That the Holy Spirit stands behind this experience?

Doesn’t that require an intellectual identification of who or what is causing this experience?

“I must tell you that whenever I have had a profound experience of God through reading his word or encountering God in worship or community.”

He’s assuming that he had an experience of God. That involves an intellectual interpretation of his experience.

“Nevertheless, we should be placing our faith in God, not in a particular theological system. There is a difference. In the former case the faith is largely placed in whom we know and whom we have encountered. In the latter case the faith can be too often placed in what we believe we know about God and theological truth.”

That’s a lot of pious nonsense. The immediate object of faith is our concept of God. Our faith is oriented to what we think, rightly or wrongly, God is like. The question, then, is whether our concept corresponds to what God is really like.

It’s a belief, or set of beliefs, about God. Our beliefs also trigger an emotional response, accompanied by a level of commitment or repulsion.

Witherington talks about “encountering God.” That’s a belief. He believes that God is the author and object of his encounter. He identifies God as the person he encountered.

But that’s not raw experience. That’s interpreted experience. And it involves an element of intellectual certainty. Absent intellectual certainty, he’s in no position to simply equate his experience with the presence of God.

“Not even Paul in the Bible dots all the i's and crosses all the t's of a particular theological system and more to the point, he has no compelling interest in doing so. He is interested, as are all the Scriptural writers in simply bearing witness to a truth and a reality they have not merely come to believe in, but which they have experienced and which has changed their lives.”

To witness to a truth is an intellectual exercise.

There is also a difference between the religious experience of the apostles and the religious experience of later Christians. At one level, we share a common experience in the saving grace of God.

But at another level, the apostles knew Jesus by acquaintance, while we know him by description. They didn’t come to believe in quite the same way we do.

It’s also fallacious to assume that Paul was not a systematic theologian. We have 13 occasional writings from Paul, addressing the special needs of individual churches. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s own belief system is reducible to 13 letters. Same thing with the Pauline speeches in Acts.

Paul is usually responding to a situation. And it’s more plausible to suppose that his systematic grasp of revealed theology helped him to know just what to say in every situation.

“Humility is fostered more by a recognition of and an owning up to what you don't know about God, than what you do.”

This is one of those mock-pious statements that sounds very modest and devout, but it’s also one of those throwaway disclaimers that he himself quickly discards in actual practice. Witherington is a very prolific speaker and writer. His entire life is dedicated to persuading his audience that he is right. That demands a high degree of self-confidence.

“What I have noticed over the years is that in the pursuit of and lust for certainty, Calvinists tend to look for an intellectual certainty of some sort, but Arminians seek an experiential certainty (e.g. a second blessing or post-conversion crisis experience that assures one that one is right with God and so, saved).”

But Witherington is in no position to map his “experiential certainty” back onto God unless he can identify God as the source (and object) of his experience. And that, in turn, presumes a level of intellectual certainty.

Also, notice the invidious contrast, as if Arminians have more spiritual experience than Calvinists. For someone who talks about fostering “humility,” that’s a rather prideful claim—don’t you think?

“One of the problems in this discussion is when a necessary element in a theological system is made central to that system even if, it is barely, if all mentioned in the Scriptures themselves. I am thinking for example of the notions of either irresistible or prevenient grace. These of course are not Biblical phrases, and indeed they are quite difficult to demonstrate on any straightforward exegesis of any particular text. And yet, whole theories about salvation are based on these two different notions (see my The Problem with Evangelical Theology). Now in my view passion should be reserved for things we can talk about with more certainty and clarity and which more nearly seem to be major themes or emphases in the Scriptures themselves. I demonstrated at length, in the Problem of Evangelical Theology that it is no accident that it is precisely where a theological system tries to say something distinctive is where it is exegetically the weakest. This should have told us something. For example, the rapture theology is precisely the least exegetically defensible element of Dispensationalism.”

This is a perfect illustration of the fact that, all his mock-pious disclaimers notwithstanding, his actual position is predicated on his sense of intellectual certainty. He’s sure that Calvinism is wrong. He’s sure that Dispensationalism is wrong.

“Experiential certainty” doesn’t select for Arminianism over against Calvinism or Dispensationalism—or Lutheranism or Anabaptism, &c.

Witherington is blind to his theological presuppositions because he’s blinded by his theological presuppositions. He reads Scripture through his Arminian lenses. He reads Calvinism through his Arminian lenses.

The problem is not that he has his own presuppositions. Rather, the problem is that he’s so oblivious to his own presuppositions that he arbitrarily oscillates between absolutistic claims and relativistic disclaimers. Arminianism just so happens to coincide with what we can know for sure, while everything outside that blessed circle is fraught with doubt and uncertainty.

Make no mistake: Witherington is not a man who suffers from a lack of intellectual self-confidence. He’s every bit as dogmatic as Calvin ever was.

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