Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hot on the trail of the elusive, infallible interpreter

Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so systematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility.

Where then is this gift lodged, which is so necessary for the due use of the written word of God? Thus we are introduced to the second dogma in respect to Holy Scripture taught by the Catholic religion. The first is that Scripture is inspired, the second that the Church is the infallible interpreter of that inspiration.

For many professing believers, this argument is utterly convincing–even self-evident.

Of course, a presupposition of Newman’s argument is to exaggerate the obscurity of Scripture. But let’s pass on that for now.

Besides all that, there a fundamental flaw in his appeal to antecedent probabilities, for his argument either proves too much or too little.

If it's antecedently probable that God would install some ecclesiastical machinery to spit out infallible rulings, then it's antecedently improbable that God would confuse the faithful by allowing rival claimants to vie for the title of the true church.

It's kind of like: there's a fail-safe to eliminate theological uncertainly, but there's no fail-safe eliminate rival fail-safe claimants. God gave us this swell machine to eliminate our doctrinal doubts, but God neglected to give us an indubitable way to identify the doubt-removing machine!

A mechanism for certainty without an equally certain mechanism to identify which rival mechanism is the true mechanism simply relocates the original uncertainty. It's doubtful which doubt-removing mechanism is the true doubt-removing mechanism, over against the counterfeit doubt-removing mechanisms.

Sort of like saying, God gave us the fountain of youth, but he forgot to give us a map. If only we could find it, that would restore our youth!

And, what is more, there's more than one fountain that claims to be the true fountain of youth. And if you drink from the wrong fountain, it will prematurely age you rather than rejuvenate you!

If sola scriptura is antecedently improbable, then, by the same token, it’s antecedently improbable that God would permit the Great Schism, when Catholics couldn’t tell which pope was the true successor to St. Peter. Antecedently improbable that God would allow Arian bishops to at one time dominate the episcopate. Antecedently improbable that we’d have no indubitable way of distinguishing an ecumenical council from a rogue council. Antecedently improbable that God would leave us in doubt as to when the pope is speaking infallibly. Antecedently improbable that God would leave us in doubt as to who speaks for Eastern Orthodoxy. And so on and so forth.

If the purpose of an infallible interpreter is to alleviate our doubts, then unless we have some indubitable way of knowing which interpreter is the infallible interpreter, and which one is the usurper, all that’s happened is to shift the source of doubt from a doubtful interpretation to a doubtful interpreter. Trading one dubiety for another.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with two considerations:

1.Instead of resorting to antecedent probabilities, we must use our eyes to see how God guides his people by observing the way in which he actually guides his people. By discovering what he has said and done rather than divining his will.

2.It also leaves us with faith. We must put our trust in God’s providence. In a God who can see further than we can see. In a God who takes us by the hand and leads us through the darkness and into the dawn.

It would be nice to see the next step before we have to take it. But that is not how God has ordered the lives of his people. We can’t expect to always see in advance where our foot is going to land. God guides us one step at a time–giving us just enough to go by, from one day to the next. We don’t get a foretaste of tomorrow’s bread today.

That’s the pilgrim path. The walk of faith.

The fall of Lucifer

The fall of Lucifer (as well as Adam and Eve) is often thought to present a psychological conundrum. To commit sin, you must desire to sin. How could a sinless being ever form the initial desire to sin?

Even if you subscribe to libertarian freewill, that’s of no avail here. Freewill can’t explain how a sinless being could acquire a sinful motive. What would make sin appealing to a sinless being in the first place? To entertain a sinful desire, you must find sin desirable. How would a sinless being get to that point? How would a sinless agent take the first sinful step?

Once the process is under way, you can explain the outcome, but how does it get underway? How does it ever get started in the first place?

However, this dilemma may be a pseudoproblem. I think the source of the problem lies in the failure to distinguish between possible and actual agents.

The Bible uses certain literary metaphors to describe God. God is the Word, the Logos. The world is like a book. God has written every chapter of the book before the world existed.

So the Bible uses a literary metaphor to describe God’s creatorship. Let’s play along with that illustration.

When a novelist contemplates a novel, he contemplates different characters who may populate his novel. There’s a wide range of things which each character could do. What a character could possibility do is only limited by the imagination of the novelist, as well the relation of one character to other characters, and to his fictional environment.

A possible character can do whatever a novelist can make him do, in the preliminary sense of all the possible actions a novelist can think of. What is possible for the character comes down to what is possible for the novelist to contemplate. All of the possible actions or events which the mind of the novelist can imagine.

However, not all possibilities are compossible. One character must interact with other characters. He must interact with his fictional circumstances. So the range of possibilities is narrowed down by the demands of the story. A coherent story in which what one character does must be consistent with everything else that happens in the story.

Out of the larger range of hypothetical possibilities, the novelist chooses one set of possibilities to write about. He instantiates one set of possibilities to the exclusion of others.

There is, however, no prior constraint on what possible character could do. A merely possible character has no default setting. This no particular course of action which, is left to his own devices, he would have done. Rather, he could have done any number of things. He could have done whatever the novelist could conceive of him doing.

By contrast, an actual character will only do one thing. At a concrete level, he can only do one thing. In the actual story, the novelist selects one combination of serial possibilities to the exclusion of others. The novelist instantiates one combination to the exclusion of others.

When we think about it this way, the fall of Lucifer, or Adam and Eve, doesn’t strike me as especially mysterious or paradoxical. It’s a problem when we start with the concrete individual. With the actual person. It seems out of character for a sinless character to sin.

But, considered as a merely possible agent, there is nothing either in character or out of character. There is nothing in particular which a possible agent was or wasn’t going to do. His field of action is only limited by the imagination of the author. A possible agent is a concept. A concept in the mind of God. A divine idea.

What distinguishes acting out of character from acting in character is subsequently determined by the creative act of the author when he resolves on one set of actions to the exclusion of other possible actions. Only then does the agent have a settled persona.

When God creates Lucifer, he instantiates one possibility–out of many. Considered in abstraction, as a merely possible agent, there is nothing that Lucifer was incapable of doing–consistent with his finitude.

The only thing that delimits his practical field of action is which possible action God chooses to instantiate. There’s a sense in which God makes every creature do whatever it does, but not in the sense of making it do something contrary to what it would otherwise do, when left to its own initiative. For there’s no one thing which a possible agent was going to do, or refrain from doing.

There are certain abstract possibilities which God will not allow to be realized. God’s choices are characterized by his wisdom and justice. But hypothetically speaking, there was no prior constraint on Lucifer’s field of action, or Adam’s field of action. What we have, instead, is a posterior constraint due to the creative act itself. A character can’t act out of character once the novelist has finalized a concrete combination of abstract possibilities. A subset of hypothetical scenarios.

So there is, in a sense, there is nothing to get started–since it doesn’t start with the actual agent. Rather, starts with a possible agent–an agent with an indeterminate field of conceivable actions. God’s creative fiat crystallizes one subset of conceivable actions. Renders an indeterminate possibility a determinate reality. God instantiates that particular idea–his own idea–to the exclusion of other ideas.

The Messiness Of The Canon


CNT = Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

EOB = Craig Evans and Emanuel Tov, edd., Exploring The Origins Of The Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008)

TCD = Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)

In a chapter in a recent book, Jonathan Wilson expressed a common sentiment about the history of the canon of the New Testament. He referred to "the historical messiness of the formation of the canon" (EOB, 243). Different people can mean different things when they refer to the canonical process as messy. Why is the twenty-seven-book canon not advocated by any extant sources until so long after the time of the apostles? Why are there so many disagreements on canonical issues among the patristic sources? What about the large number of books that didn't make it into the canon, but might have? Why are there so many different arguments for and against the canonicity of the books? If Christianity is true, how could God expect people to sort through all of these issues? I want to address some points that I think are relevant to what many people have in mind when they ask such questions.

Often, the questions are asked by those who want us to follow some alleged infallible guide who will sort through these issues for us. Critics of Christianity aren't the only people who ask such questions. They're often joined by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example.

Bruce Metzger's book on the New Testament canon (CNT) is one of the most respected and influential works on the subject in recent years. In the process of discussing the wide diversity of canonical opinions that have existed over the centuries, he mentions some similar disagreements about extra-Biblical literature. He mentions a book attributed to King Charles I, whose authorship is disputed to this day (n. 2 on 12). He refers to an Alexandrian canon of classical Greek authors, including authors of pre-Christian times, that "did not reach a final and fossilized form until the second century of our Era" (111). Clement of Alexandria, who recognized the large majority of New Testament books as scripture, "was well aware of the elaborate discussions concerning the genuineness of Orphic literature current in his day. Practically nothing had been written by Orpheus himself, and almost everything in the Orphic tradition was open to debate." (111) Theophilus of Antioch's authorship of a commentary on the gospels was disputed in ancient times (n. 9 on 117). The authorship of a treatise attributed to Athenagoras is disputed by modern scholars (n. 26 on 126). The authenticity of the Secret Gospel Of Mark is disputed (n. 39 on 132). The authorship of a work attributed to Cyprian has been questioned (163-164). The canon of John Chrysostom's writings is disputed (n. 10 on 215).

To add to Metzger's examples, what about the canon of the apostolic fathers (the earliest church fathers)? Ancient sources and modern scholars have disagreed. Are any of the Ignatian letters genuine? If so, which ones? Should The Epistle To Diognetus be included among the apostolic fathers? Which fragments attributed to Papias are genuine? What about the writings attributed to Justin Martyr? Which belong in his canon of writings? What about the many disputes, historically and among modern scholars, regarding the alleged writings of Popes and rulings issued by church councils? Kent Clarke gives many examples of forgeries and authorship disputes among ancient pagans (TCD, 450-452).

In addition to recognizing that such disputes are common in extra-Biblical literature, not just with regard to Biblical books or religious literature, we should remember the limits of the disputes over the New Testament. In an earlier article, I discussed the widespread agreement of the earliest Christians regarding the large majority of the New Testament canon. Even the most disputed books seem to have been accepted by a majority in the ante-Nicene era. And books like The Shepherd Of Hermas and The Epistle Of Barnabas weren't as popular as is often suggested.

Think about how significant the early canonical agreements are in light of the complexities involved. Early Christianity was spread out over a wide region. Think of the diverse locations of men like Clement of Rome, Papias, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. The early Christians were also diverse in many other ways. In forming a New Testament canon, they weren't just making judgments about the writings of one man, but about the writings of the apostles and their associates. Paul traveled widely. What if he wrote something along the way that you, a Christian of the patristic era, hadn't heard about? What about the linguistic differences between the gospel of John and Revelation? Should James, the brother of Jesus, be considered an apostle? Who wrote Hebrews? Should the book be considered scripture? Coming to agreement on a canon of apostolic books is in some ways more difficult than coming to agreement on a canon of the writings of one man, such as Plato or Thomas Jefferson.

We should keep in mind that when people refer to the diversity of canonical beliefs among ancient Christians (or later Christians), they're often letting everybody join the discussion. Despite the widespread agreement of both ante-Nicene and later Christians on the canonicity of 1 Peter, Eldon Epp mentions a fourth-century manuscript that allegedly reflects doubts about 1 Peter's canonicity on the part of the author of the manuscript (TCD, 491-492). But who wrote that manuscript? Given our ignorance of its background, how much weight should we assign to it? Who wrote other manuscripts often cited in canonical discussions? Who wrote The Epistle Of Barnabas? Or the Muratorian Canon? If we're going to include every source from Hermas to Tertullian to Athanasius to a fifth-century manuscript from an unknown author to Pope Innocent III to Martin Luther to a pastor of a modern liberal church who doesn't think Revelation should be in the canon, then shouldn't we, for the sake of comparison, also allow everybody to join the discussion about other literary canons? If you searched the historical record for every source who comments on the subject, you would find a wide diversity of views concerning the literary canons of many historical figures. You would find many different beliefs on the web alone.

One of the reasons why there have been so many disagreements about the New Testament canon over the centuries is that it's a subject that so many people want to address. Not as many people are going to be concerned about the canon of writings of an ancient mathematician or a medieval bishop.

The historical developments surrounding the New Testament canon aren't as unusual or difficult as they may initially appear to be. Lee McDonald writes:

"Most biblical scholars have concluded that the writings of the New Testament addressed the needs of specific communities and that the writers had the needs of those communities in mind while telling their story (gospels) or admonishing specific churches (letters). It is therefore amazing that these ad hoc writings were viewed early on as having value for the wider Christian community for all time." (TCD, 418)

Bruce Metzger wrote:

"It is, therefore, not surprising that for several generations the precise status of a few books remained doubtful. What is really remarkable (as suggested earlier) is that, though the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries among the very diverse and scattered congregations not only throughout the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia." (CNT, 254)

We rely on the work of specialists in many areas of life. We know little about the production of food, but trust food manufacturers and grocery stores to give us products that are safe to consume. We know little about constructing bridges, but we trust those familiar with the subject to build bridges that we drive across. The same is true of medicine, politics, and many other things in life. The same principles apply to a historical consideration of the New Testament canon. The historical approach to the canon isn't the only approach one could take, as I discussed in a previous post. God isn't dependent on historical argumentation to lead His people to a recognition of what is and isn't scripture. But as far as the historical approach is concerned, it's significant when a large majority of scholars agree that the large majority of the earliest Christians agreed upon the large majority of the New Testament. Making a historical judgment about the minority of books that were more controversial is more difficult, but even that judgment isn't as hard as many make it out to be, for reasons I've explained elsewhere.

The vast majority of Christians aren't going to read a book on the canon by somebody like Lee McDonald or Bruce Metzger. And the vast majority of Americans aren't going to read a book on George Washington or the Revolutionary War by a historian. People form conclusions about history, and not just history as it relates to religion, on the basis of a wide variety of sources, many of them easily accessible. They believe what parents tell them, what they're taught in school, what they hear from the media, what neighbors and friends tell them, etc. Some become more discerning with the passing of time and seek increasing amounts of information from increasingly reliable sources. A person who accepts the twenty-seven-book New Testament on the basis of what his parents tell him at age five might accept that canon on the basis of the credibility of his seminary-educated pastor at age fifteen, accept it on the basis of what he's told by a Christian apologist who's more knowledgeable about the subject than his pastor at age twenty-five, and accept it on the basis of a book by a canon scholar that he reads at age thirty-five. Our beliefs about medicine, politics, science, American history, and other subjects sometimes develop in a similar manner.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who want us to follow their variety of infallible guide in order to arrive at a canon of scripture have to make judgments about history, such as what men like Papias and John Chrysostom did and didn't write, without that infallible guide. The atheist who asks how God can expect people to sort through the difficult historical issues involved in making a canonical judgment not only ignores the fact that God isn't dependent on historical argumentation in guiding His people, but also overlooks the many similar judgments he makes regularly regarding history, science, relationships, diet, medicine, and other issues in life.

There are some difficulties involved in making judgments about the canon of scripture. But those difficulties aren't as bad or as unusual as they're often made out to be.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Faith, hop and charity, and the greatest of these is hop."

An Arminian marsupial has responded to something I wrote.

“I was going to respond to Steve’s second response point by point and exchange rhetorical blows with him along the way, but I think such a response would only serve to distract us from the main contentions at issue here.”

An alternative explanation is that Ben found the exegetical material which I quoted from Garland and Fitzmyer to be unanswerable, so he’s trying to deflect the reader’s attention away from his inability to deal with it by taking a detour around the unanswerable material.

“Steve also cited a commentary by Fitzmyer, which I pointed out actually agreed with my view against his own.”

Ben falsely alleged that Fitzmyer actually agreed with his view.

“In my response, I pointed out that Steve had really painted himself into a tight spot.”

In his response, Ben made a feeble and failed attempt to paint me into a tight spot.

“I countered by showing that Paul references numerous sins in the surrounding context and that Steve’s narrow view seems obviously forced in light of Paul’s specific use of language in 1 Cor. 10:13.”

Ben countered by adding his misinterpretation of OT texts to his misinterpretation of NT texts.

“Since Steve seemed to suggest that my interpretation was so obviously wrong, and since Steve seemed to build his entire case on two sources (one which ultimately did not even agree with him).”

Both of which completely agree with me. I corrected Ben on that contention–among others.

“I concluded my response by citing numerous commentators that agreed with my interpretation against Steve’s.”

He cited a number of popular and/or dated commentaries, along with one or two scholarly commentaries. Of these, Thiselton is the most significant, and even Thiselton doesn’t actually support his contention.

“(Several of them written by Calvinists, including John Calvin himself).”

Really? How many of the commentators he cited believe in limited atonement or double predestination or irresistible grace or unconditional election or the perseverance of the saints? Let’s see the documentation.

By definition, a Calvinist doesn’t think that you can lose your salvation. Therefore, no Calvinist would construe 1 Cor 10:13 as a prooftext to disprove the perseverance of the saints.

“Steve has raised the bar very high in suggesting the passages can only be understood to be addressing the ‘temptation’ of finally denying the faith, and for that reason needs to produce a tremendous amount of compelling evidence in order to lend any credibility to that claim.”

I don’t need to produce a “tremendous about of compelling evidence” to support my interpretation. I only have to show that my interpretation is the best interpretation of the verse.

“After reading his last post, I can’t imagine how Steve would think he has offered sufficient evidence to prove my view untenable while establishing his own view as the only plausible interpretation.”

That’s rhetorical posturing.

“Rather, he has only succeeded in clouding the issue and diverting attention away from his monumental task of proving, from the text, that Paul is speaking solely of the temptation to deny the faith in 1 Cor. 10:13, while actually guaranteeing that no believer ever will fall to that specific temptation.”

i) If my task is “monumental,” then Ben’s contrary task is equally monumental.

ii) I “clouded” the issue by quoting two leading commentators (neither of whom is a Calvinist) who document that Paul’s statement in v13 is framed within the context of idolatrous apostasy. That material is directly on point.

“Steve spends a significant portion of his post complaining that I have dismissed the only book that gave him any support for his unusual interpretation of the passage.”

i) I measured Ben’s sources by his own yardstick. By that yardstick, most of them came up short.

ii) Nothing unusual about my interpretation–as I’ve documented. And a commenter in Ben’s meta agrees with me:’

“I’m convinced that the ‘fall’ mentioned in 1 Cor. 10:12 is referring to apostasy from Christ and the Christian faith that can occur if the believers in Corinth persist in idolatry and the attending immorality that is common place at these social events/banquets. In my research I have found several commentators and academic works on 1 Cor 8:1-11:1 that hold to this view as well. The work that I have found the most impressive is . . .
Paul and Apostasy: Eschatology, Perseverance, and Falling Away in the Corinthian Congregation (Paperback)_by B. J. Oropeza”

Continuing with our marsupial:

“When I said that Schreiner’s work was ‘popular’ I did not mean to suggest that it was worthless or should be discounted.”

Now Ben is dissembling. The only reason, in this context, to mention that Schreiner’s monograph was allegedly “popular” was to prejudice his readers against this source.

Ben is now upset because I applied his yardstick to his own commentaries.

“If Steve sees that as a negative, then that would seem to be his problem, not mine.”

Aside from Ben’s dissembling, his hasty retreat from his original insinuation is counterproductive. If he doesn’t have a problem with popular works, then he should have no problem with Schreiner’s “popular” monograph–as he chose to classify it.

“However, I do not think it is irrelevant to mention that Schreiner’s work is not a commentary, since commentaries are typically less biased and are more concerned with exegesis than upholding or dismantling a particular theological systematic. Schreiner’s work, on the other hand, is specifically focused on defending the Calvinistic view of inevitable perseverance.”

i) Really? And are we to suppose that Ben Witherington’s commentary on Romans–to take one example–doesn’t have a theological agenda?

ii) It’s also a false dichotomy to drive a wedge between exegesis and defending a particular position. For example, monographs are also written to uphold the deity of Christ against unitarian cults. Does Ben think their exegesis is inferior to the exegesis of a Jehovah’s Witness?

“My point was simply to identify these works and their purposes along with the fact that Steve’s post was totally dependent on quotes from these two works.”

His point was simply to marginalize the material I cited. It’s a standard tactic: if you can’t address the material on its merits, you try to marginalize the material.

“One essentially agreed with my exegesis against Steve, and the other did not.”

Ben keeps reiterating his misrepresentation of Fitzmyer–even after he’s been corrected–in the hopes that a repeated falsehood will efface the truth.

“Based on these two sources (one, really), Steve concluded that my exegesis was out of harmony with the context.”

No, I merely cited two standard works to illustrate my point.

“Yet, Steve did not spend any time interacting with the context himself. He just quoted two sources and assumed that everyone would see these sources as conclusive on the matter.”

The level of my response was calibrated to the level of his original argument–such as it was. If he gives more detail, I can give more detail.

“My response was an attempt to actually do some detail work.”

Yes, he offered a detailed fallacious argument in follow-up to his simple fallacious argument.

“I further pointed out Steve’s double standard in not abiding by the rules of ‘detail work’ that he imposed on me (i.e. reading things into the passage that are not there, etc.).”

In Ben’s odd little mind, he imagines that if a person quote a sentence or two from a one or two sources, then that’s all he has at his disposal. Needless to say, both Schreiner and Fitzmyer say much more on the subject than what I quoted for illustrative purposes.

“If my ‘evidence box’ and ‘warehouse’ were ‘empty’, then the same must be said of Calvin, Morris, Bruce, Thiselton, Blomberg, Barrett, and others.”

Ben is standing in front door of an empty warehouse, shouting into a microphone to stall for time while he gets someone to go around to the service entrance in the rear and hustle a few empty packages in the warehouse so that when the inspectors come back, he can then exclaim that the warehouse always had a few packages in storage.

“I wasn’t trying to create a battle of commentaries or pit scholars against one another. Nor was I rating some scholars (like Schreiner) as less important than others.”

I’m sure he wasn’t–since Ben is too shortsighted to anticipate the countermoves. Some commentaries are obviously more important than others for ascertaining the sense of a particular verse or passage.. That’s because some commentaries are more detailed or up-to-date than others. If you’re serious about the exegetical literature, you turn to the best available commentaries and monographs–and not just whatever you can lay your hands on, regardless of how dated or skimpy the coverage is. Ben is trying to make up for in quantity what he lacks in quality.

Does he seriously think a Puritan commentary is the best resource to ascertain the meaning of 1 Cor 10:13?

“I never would have mentioned a single commentary if Steve hadn’t first criticized my post based solely on two quotes. He can go on and on about what he had in ‘reserve’, but the fact remains that his post was all about those two quotes, and lacked any effort on Steve’s part in supporting his argument, or showing mine untenable, through a careful examination of the text.”

As I said before, I answered Ben on his own level. That’s how it works. You say something, I respond in kind. You say something, I respond in kind. My response is calibrated to the level of your statement.

“ In short, it would be an understatement to say that Steve had taken what was at best a minority view, and then painted me the fool for not agreeing with it.”

In short, it would be an understatement to say that Ben is doing a patch-up job to salvage the inadequacy of his initial foray.

“ All of this about different commentaries and reading more into ‘popular’ than was intended, amounts to little more than a red-herring that diverts attention away from the fact that he has still not managed to conjure up any substantial support for his strained interpretation.”

All of this is about Ben’s attempt to win in the post-game recap what he lost on the field. So, before he ever gets around to his reply to my latest post, he treats the reader to his slanted, self-serving version of previous exchanges.

“The bulk of Steve’s response is concerned with finally emptying the great ‘reserve’ of information that supposedly supports his initial claims; but all Steve can produce are several comments by various commentators which mention the background of idolatry and apostasy in several of Paul’s OT allusions in verses 5-12.”

Which is the necessary lead up to what Paul is referring to in v13. Idolatry, apostasy, and the connection between the two–over against which is God’s promise to the believer.

“This is apparently true of the sources Steve now makes use of, since he did not produce a single quote that agreed with him on 1 Cor. 10:13.”

Ben can’t follow his own argument. I already quoted two scholars on v13. But he accused me of taking the verse out of context. Therefore, what I did in response was to cite some of the supporting material. Putting the verse in context.

“Steve would have saved himself considerable time and effort by just reading what I had written in my last post. Nothing he has produced is contrary to what I have said above. In fact, it seems that all of his sources would be in basic agreement with me.”

What they agree with is the context of v13, which has reference to idolatrous apostasy–and that, in turn, supplies the background for God’s promise to the believer.

“These are specific sins and none of them necessarily constitutes apostasy. If Paul was speaking only of apostasy here, then he sure went about it in a strange way. We would have to conclude that whenever we ‘grumble’ or ‘complain’ or ‘try the Lord’ or ‘crave evil things’, that we have denied the faith to the point of final apostasy.”

I quoted from the expositions of Fitzmyer and Garland to document what these sins had reference to in their OT historical setting. Ben blows right past the contextual definitions and redefines them to suits his purposes. That isn’t exegesis. That is acting in defiance of exegesis.

“Paul does not give general references to apostasy on a whole and then apply that principle to the Corinthians. Rather, he takes pain to apply each sin directly to their present situation and the various like sins (those common to man) they might be tempted to commit.”

He cites specific historical precedents to illustrate a common motif.

“It is likely, though, that Paul intends for them to keep in the back of their minds that continually giving in to such temptations can eventually lead to the terrible consequence of drifting from God to the point of final apostasy.”

That’s a conclusion without a supporting argument.

“Notice Paul doesn’t say that this person commits apostasy. Rather, Paul says that in such an act the weak believer’s conscience is ‘defiled’. A defiled conscience is a far cry from a final and deliberate act of apostasy.”

In this verse, the weaker brother isn’t committing idolatry. (See below.)

“Notice Paul doesn’t say that this person commits apostasy.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say this person commits idolatry.

“Rather, Paul says that in such an act the weak believer’s conscience is ‘defiled’. A defiled conscience is a far cry from a final and deliberate act of apostasy.”

Irrelevant. Paul is dealing with a variety of scenarios. One scenario isn’t interchangeable with another. In chap. 8, he’s not dealing with actual idolatry, but imagined idolatry.

“This is very problematic for Steve’s position, but fully supports my own. Paul says that the weak believer, who eats as a result of the stronger believer’s example, is ‘ruined’. The KJV says that the weak brother will ‘perish’, and the NIV says that the weak brother will be ‘destroyed’. All of these sound pretty serious. Perhaps Steve would jump on this as supporting his case that such an act constitutes apostasy. But if this is apostasy being described, then Paul plainly tells us that a true believer ‘for whose sake Christ died’ can be ‘destroyed’ by an act of idolatry spurred on by the actions of a stronger believer. Steve, of course, denies that any believer for whom Christ died can ever be destroyed, and so would think twice in seeing this as an act of final apostasy. But if he does not see it as apostasy, then his position crumbles, for here would be an example of a believer committing idolatry in a similar manner as Paul describes in chapter 10 (even in the same context of food sacrificed to idols), and yet that idolatry not constituting apostasy.”

Multiple problems with this claim:

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this refers to eschatological judgment, the damnatory deed is not idolatry, but acting in violation of one’s conscience.

ii) One needn’t to be a Calvinist to reject the eschatological interpretation. For example, in commenting on the parallel passage in Rom 14:15, one scholar says:

“Paul uses the powerful verb apollumi in the present imperative, which implies an ongoing process rather than once and for all ‘being lost before God.’…Horst Baltz is therefore closer to the nuances required by this context in suggesting the translation of lupeo in this verse as ‘injured/deeply troubled,’ which implies an ongoing state…That ‘that’ person is ‘being destroyed ’is clearly a ‘metaphorical’ use of the word, but it does not imply the temptation to apostasy except in a secondary sense…References in the commentaries to ‘eschatological ruin’ or ‘spiritual ruin’ not only overlook the tense of the verb but also provide scant explanation of the effects of conscience violation,” R. Jewett, Romans, 861-62.

Likewise, Thiselton apparently agrees with Gundry-Volf that the reference in 1 Cor 8:11 is existential rather than eschatological (653f.).

iii) Even if we accept the eschatological interpretation, a warning merely states the ultimate consequences of an action; it says nothing about the probability that such a warning will be violated. Indeed, a basic function of a warning is to serve as a disincentive to all such actions.

iv) The Reformed doctrine of the atonement isn’t based on verses which simply state that Christ died for X. Rather, it involves verses which describe penal substitution.

“Truly, he is on the horns of a dilemma here. Either deny that such a case of idolatry necessarily constitutes apostasy (contrary to his prior claims), or affirm that one for whom Christ died can be ‘destroyed’ (contrary to his Calvinistic belief in limited atonement and inevitable perseverance).”

False dilemma. Idolatry involves idolatrous intent. Not simply eating meat which happens to be dedicated to an idol–by someone else. But eating such meat with the express intention of honoring the deity to whom it was dedicated.

Paul, himself, goes out of his way to accentuate the importance of intent to distinguish true idolatry from incidental appearances.

“Maybe Steve will just say that Paul is speaking of impossibilities, since no true believer could ever eat food sacrificed to idols to his own destruction. But then Paul’s dire warning to the stronger believer loses all force.”

i) Maybe Steve will just say that Ben is ignoring the psychological distinctions which Paul has drawn between actual idolatry, imagined idolatry, and the innocent consumption of food dedicated to a god.

ii) Moreover, this is an issue of nested possibilities:

a) If it is possible for a true believer to flagrantly and persistently disregard Biblical admonitions,

b) Then it’s possible for a true believer to lose his salvation.

However, the possibility of (b) is contingent on the possibility of (a). If (a) is impossible, then (b) is impossible.

The question is whether God preserves the elect from (b) by preserving the elect from (a).

iii) Furthermore, classic Arminians subscribe to conditional election. So in what sense can a Christian, whom God elected on the basis of foreseen faith, lose his faith, and thereby his salvation? Is conditional election a revolving door?

Even on Arminian grounds, Ben’s position is illogical.

“Another solution would be…”

A solution to a pseudoproblem of Ben’s own making.

“So, quite simply, as I have said before, my view does not have to eliminate apostasy as one of those things that is included in ‘No temptation’. Rather, Steve needs to prove that “No temptation” amounts solely to ‘No temptation to finally deny the faith.’ This, Steve has failed to do.”

To the contrary, Ben has failed to interact with the exegetical material I cited to substantiate my interpretation of 10:13.

“Again, the context of chapter 10 bears out that Paul is making reference to the damaging affects of sin in general (with special attention given to those sins which fall under the category of “idolatry”), and the potential for such sins to damage (even destroy) relationship with God and bring severe judgment.”

As I’ve just shown, Ben is building on a false premise. He’s using his misinterpretation of 1 Cor 8 to prop up his misinterpretation of 1 Cor 10. One thing you can say about Ben: when he’s wrong, he’s consistently wrong!

“It is important to notice, though, that in 1 Cor. 10, apostasy is kept more in the background and is not Paul’s immediate concern. His immediate concern is the various temptations to sin that believers face every day.”

i) This simply disregards the background material I cited without offering a counterargument.

ii) Moreover, Ben has a problem on his hands. If every sin represents a falling away (as he loosely construes 10:13), and if he denies that 10:13 furnishes a promise of divine protection against spiritual defection, then every Christian is hellbound since every Christian sins.

“Steve hasn’t really added anything new to the conversation. He has done nothing to substantiate the assertion that ‘No temptation’ in 1 Cor. 10:13 means ‘No temptation to finally deny the faith’.”

To the contrary, Ben accused me of taking the passage out of context. I then quoted from Fitzmyer and Garland to support my contextual interpretation of the passage. Ben ignores what he can’t refute. Then pretends that nothing was said to corroborate the original interpretation.

“He has also done nothing to explain how, according to his interpretation, he came to the conclusion that God irresistibly causes the believer to take the ‘way of escape’ (since he sees the passage as a proof text for inevitable perseverance and a guarantee that no believer will ever commit apostasy).”

From the nature of the divine promise. And notice that the promise is not a conditional promise.

“First, we need to address Steve’s horrible straw man understanding of the Arminian position regarding the context and limits of human freedom. The issue has nothing to do with what God ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ do. It is a matter of what God ‘will’ and ‘will not’ do according to His own sovereign freedom. God is free to create free agents and hold them accountable for the decisions they make.”

Of course, Ben defines “free agent” in libertarian terms. That definition entails a self-limitation on what God can or cannot do with regard to Christians. Given those prior constraints, God can’t prevent a born-again Christian from losing his salvation.

“Arminians simply maintain that God has endowed His creatures with a measure of free will. God certainly does ‘interfere’ (or ‘intervene’), by fully equipping and empowering the believer (in this case) to resist temptation and take the way of escape provided by God. This has nothing to do with a ‘Libertarian Prime Directive’, but with God’s sovereign right to interact with his creatures within the context of the God given ability to make genuine choices in certain situations.”

This is the Orwellian way in which Arminians redefine standard terms. Ben throws in the word “sovereign,” as a pious, face-saving device to make it sound as though Arminians believe in divine sovereignty. But Ben has already circumscribed God’s field of action such that God can’t actually prevent any Christian from losing his salvation.

Rather, we have an Arminian form of deism in which God equips human beings in general, or Christians in particular, with certain abilities or potencies, then leaves them to sink or swim.

“And this is what Paul would say if he were a Calvinist who meant the passage as Steve Hays suggests,
‘No temptation has overtaken you but such as God has unconditionally and irresistibly caused you to be tempted with, despite James 1:13’s insistence that God does not tempt anyone’.”

Three basic problems:

i) Ben is filtering Paul through James. I guess that’s good Roman Catholic methodology, but it’s bad exegetical methodology. We should interpret Paul on his own terms, just as we should interpret James on his own terms.

ii) In addition, he doesn’t even bother to interpret his Jacobean prooftext. But as one scholar explains:

“No solid line should be drawn between v12 and v13, as if James drops the topic of testing to take up the issue of temptation. His concern, rather, is to help his readers resist the temptation that comes along with the trial. For every trial brings temptation…Thus testing almost always includes temptation, and temptation is itself a test…The OT often makes clear that God himself brings trials into the lives of his people…But while God may test or prove his servants in order to strengthen their faith, he never seeks to induce sin and destroy their faith,” D. Moo, The Letter of James, 72-73.

Therefore, even if Jas 1:13 were pertinent to 1 Cor 10:13, my interpretation of 1 Cor 10:13 is perfectly consonant with Jas 1:13.

iii) It’s not as if Arminian theology holds the copyright on Jas 1:13. According to Arminian theology, God created these tempting situations when he created the world. God knowingly places men and women in these tempting situations. If Jas 1:13 is a problem for Calvinism, then it’s equally problematic for Arminianism.

“[And believe me, though it appears utterly nonsensical, God unconditionally and irresistibly causing us to be tempted is quite different from him tempting us], and such as is common to man; and even though I speak of no temptation but such as is common to man, and it would sound like I am talking about any and every temptation you might experience, I really only mean the one specific temptation to apostasy.”

I see that Ben suffers from ADS. Despite the amount of exegesis I put on the table from scholars like Fitzmyer and Garland, Ben defaults to his acontextual reading of the passage.

“And hey, don’t worry, though every sin you commit was unconditionally decreed by God, and you have no choice but to commit every sin that you do because God has unconditionally predestined you to do it.”

i) And hey [according to Arminianism], don’t worry, though every sin you commit was foreseen by God, and you have no choice but to commit every sin that you do since the outcome cannot be otherwise than God’s foreknowledge of the outcome.

ii) In addition, God isn’t forcing the sinner to do something which he would otherwise refrain from doing. There’s nothing in particular which a merely possible agent was going to do. There are any number of things a possible agent could have done. A merely possible agent has no default setting. Nothing in particular he would choose to do.

Rather, a merely possible agent is like a character in a novel. There are any number of things which the novelist could make his characters do. The novelist chooses which one of these possibilities he will incorporate into his story. By choosing what the character will do, the novelist isn’t making the character do something contrary to what the character would otherwise do.

“God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able only in the case of apostasy, because after all, he is the one unconditionally and irresistibly causing you to be tempted.”

Because after all [according to Arminianism], God created these tempting situations and knowingly put you in these tempting situations.

“Because after all, he is the one unconditionally and irresistibly causing you to be tempted, but with the temptation will also irresistibly cause you to take the way of escape provided for you”

Ben thinks that this is a clever way to satirize predestination. But if Ben took his cue from Bible history rather than his silly little mind, he’d see that, as a matter of fact, God does put individuals or larger groups in tempting situations for the express purpose of subsequently delivering them from the ordeal which God himself set up. God did that with Abraham. God did that with Job. God did that with the Israelites in Egypt. This is a common biblical motif. Ben thinks he’s mocking Calvinism, but he’s mocking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“But with the temptation will also irresistibly cause you to take the way of escape provided for you, but only when it concerns apostasy; other than that one specific temptation to sin, you’re on your own, but at least in that one type of temptation, it is so that you cannot possibly fail to endure it.”

Is Ben so ignorant of Reformed theology that he actually thinks this is an accurate statement of the opposing position?

Reformed theology doesn’t take the position that Christians are on their own except when tempted to commit apostasy. The issue, rather, is God’s decretive will in any particular case. On the one hand, God has reasons to prevent the elect from committing apostasy. On the other hand, God also has reasons not to prevent the elect from committing certain other sins which fall short of apostasy. In no case are Christians on their own. For that matter, the reprobate are never on their own. God has a purpose for unbelievers.

“[But this is only the case for the elect, and, of course, you can’t know that you are elect until you endure to the end, so you can’t even really be sure this promise has any meaning for you at all].’ (1 Cor. 10:13)”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the elect can’t be certain of their own election, how does that distinguish Reformed unconditional election from Arminian conditional election–much less merely corporate election?

And wouldn’t that alleged uncertainty attach to every single promise in Scripture?

“Idolatry is not necessarily a “God-given choice”, but it is certainly a “choice” based on the pull of the still remaining sinful nature and the influence of the fallen world. Yes, because of God’s gracious intervention they are free to resist temptation, but that doesn’t mean that they are not still free to resist God’s gracious intervention and fail to take the way of escape He provides. The fact that many of them have already fallen to such temptations is likely the main reason Paul is addressing the matter. And since Steve has yet to establish that Paul is speaking solely of the temptation to finally deny the faith, his comments here would force us to conclude that believers never fall to temptation of any sort.”

Since I have, in fact, established that interpretation, and since Ben’s studied avoidance of the supporting material I presented is a tacit admission that I succeeded in establishing that interpretation, Ben’s argument backfires.

“Truly, Paul tells us in Romans 8:2 that believers have been ‘set free from the law of sin and death’ (‘freedom’ from something [sin], just as Steve describes above). Yet, who would conclude from such a passage that believers are now incapable of sinning?”

i) Wesleyan perfectionists, for one.

ii) On a related note, here is something a famous Arminian Bible scholar recently said:

“This is an excellent question, and it is quite impossible to answer on the basis of what little you have said about this person. But consider these two possibilities: 1) the first go around the person was not in fact a Christian, did not love the Lord with all their heart etc. They were in a state much like the demons described in the Gospels-- who knew very well who Jesus was and did not dispute it, but this truth had not transformed their lives and behavior, as evidence by this person going AWOL. Mental assent to the Gospel is not the same as being saved. The issue is had they trusted and adhered to, and been transformed by and lived on the basis of that truth? 2) the very fact that this person now has a heart for God, and the other things you mentioned, is evidence that they did not commit apostasy in the first place which is a soul destroying act.”

iii) Moreover, Ben is resorting to a diversionary tactic by discussing sin in general, whereas the question at issue is the specific sin of apostasy.

“And if they have the freedom not to sin, and not to fall into temptation, then whenever they do sin they have made a real choice between legitimate alternative possibilities (which reflects one fine definition of LFW, the ability to make a real choice between legitimate alternative possibilities). Steve’s comments have only further established the reality of libertarian freedom in these passages. Maybe he is finally starting to get it.”

i) That’s not a logical implication of what Paul said. Whether they sin or not means that God made a choice between alternate possibilities. God instantiated one possible course of action rather than another.

ii) Ben also overlooks the fact that, in God’s economy, God uses sin to further his appointed ends. Joseph’s brothers were not at liberty to either sell him into slavery or refrain from so doing. For selling him into slavery was instrumental in God’s long-range plan for the Israelites. Yet it was sinful for his brothers to sell him into slavery.

Pharaoh was not a liberty to either release the Israelites or refrain from so doing. For God used Pharaoh’s intransigence as a foil to manifest his supremacy over the gods of Egypt. Yet Pharaoh’s intransigence was sinful. King Saul was not at liberty to either be faithful or faithless. For God used Saul’s infidelity as a means to inaugurate the Davidic covenant, which was, in turn, a necessary installment in God’s messianic designs. Yet Saul’s infidelity was sinful. Pilate and the Sanhedrin were not at liberty to either condemn Christ or acquit him. For God was using their actions to advance his plan of redemption. Yet their actions were sinful.

“Paul makes it clear that they do have a choice.”

i) Yes, they do have a choice. Which doesn’t mean a choice between polar opposites. Rather, it means they aren’t condemned to commit idolatry. Why? Because God shut that door by opening another door.

ii) Moreover, Calvinism doesn’t deny that nominal believers can succumb to apostasy. 1 Corinthians is a public letter, addressed to a general audience. The Corinthian church was a mixed multitude of elect and reprobate members.

The task of apologetics

Over the past few weeks I’ve been interacting with a couple of Clarkians (Sean Gerety & Turretin Fan). Contrary to some obtuse comments by Tim Harris, I haven’t been presenting my own position. Rather, I’ve been responding to them on their own terms.

This has nothing to do with whether or not I’m “agnostic.” Rather, my skepticism is directed at Clarkian epistemology. To be skeptical of Clarkian epistemology is not, itself, a skeptical position. Indeed, the problem with Clarkian epistemology is that it quickly degenerates into unbridled skepticism.

What is the task of apologetics? For starters, apologetics is typically subdivided into defensive and offensive apologetics. In defensive apologetics we defend the faith by refuting objections to the faith. This is primarily for the benefit of someone who is already a believer. In offensive apologetics, we refute opposing positions and offer constructive arguments for the faith. This is primarily directed at unbelievers.

This subdivision is not airtight. Unbelievers can benefit from defensive apologetics while believers can benefit from offensive apologetics.

The problem with “dogmatic apologetics” is that it fails on both counts. As far as the unbeliever is concerned, “dogmatic apologetics” begs the very question at issue.

But that’s not the only problem. “Dogmatic apologetics” also fails at the defensive level. The reason we have defensive apologetics in the first place is that some Christians are unsettled by objections to the faith. The function of defensive apologetics is to either assuage their doubts or forestall their doubts. It can be a preemptive action as well as a defensive reaction.

To ask, "What better reason is there to believe what God says than that God says it?" is perfectly useless to a Christian who is suffering from a crisis of faith.

If every Christian had that level of confidence, there would be no need for defensive apologetics. The reason we have defensive apologetics is that some Christians hit a point along the way where they maybe wracked by doubts. Have second thoughts about there faith.

The “God said it, that settles it” response is useless to a Christian in this state of mind, since he’s having doubts about that very claim. You haven’t given him a reason to believe it.

To claim that “God said it” is not a way of defending the claim that “God said it.” Rather, it’s an assertion that “God said it.” An unsupported statement.

And, of course, false prophets, make the very same claim, whether Muhammad or Swedenborg or Joseph Smith, &c.

Likewise, a statement like “Didn't God swear on his own name because there was nothing higher? No other authority aside from God to which one could appeal in order to be assured that what God said was actually true?” misses the point.

If God swore on his own name because nothing was higher, then there’s no higher court of appeal. Which is fine. A logical place to stop.

But this takes the claim for granted. That’s useless in either defensive or offensive apologetics.

There’s a difference between a statement that claims to be self-warranting, and a self-warranting claim. A statement that merely claims to be self-warranting is not, itself, a self-warranting claim.

Likewise, appealing to “objective truth” fails to explain how the subject of knowledge is privy to objective truth.

What makes objective truth objective is that it’s true in and of itself, irrespective of what the subject of knowledge may believe or disbelieve.

So that appeal does nothing to bridge the gap between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge.

And the gap is widened by the Clarkian rejection of sense-knowledge, induction, and–for some Clarkians–innate knowledge, too.

What is my own position? I’m going to touch on three or four issues for now.

1.In the history of epistemology there’s a philosophical tradition which equates knowledge with certainty. I think this goes back to Plato.

One of the problems with making certainty a condition of knowledge is that it tends to impose a godlike, superhuman standard on finite human beings.

It sets an artificial bar on what constitutes knowledge. Sets the bar out of reach for most of what we believe.

But why should Christians accept that arbitrary standard? What makes that a standard in the first place?

Is this something that God requires of us? Does God oblige us to be sure of what we believe?

Greek rationalism reflects the deification of the human mind. It’s not a biblical outlook. It fails to make allowance for the limitations of our creaturely finitude.

Rather, it’s reaching for a God’s-eye view of the world. Grasping for godhood. There’s no reason we should measure our beliefs by that inhuman yardstick.

2.Apropos (1), suppose that none of our beliefs count as knowledge. I’m not claiming that to be the case. Just discussing the issue from that angle.

Suppose it comes down to probabilities. Some claims are more likely to be true than others. Some claims are truer than others.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is the best we can hope for. So what?

Unless God obligates us to achieve a higher threshold, and equips us to achieve a higher threshold, there is nothing wrong with believing something because it’s probably true. Because that’s the best available explanation.

There’s nothing wrong with forming a belief in the basis the evidence which God has put at our disposal. If he wanted us to form a different belief on the basis of different evidence or fuller evidence or better evidence, he could have made that available. So we should be content with the situation that God has put us in.

3.Suppose, however, some of our beliefs can rise to the level of knowledge. Even so, knowledge is not the same thing as certainty. Certainty is a type of second-level knowledge. A belief about a belief.

Suppose I know the Bible is true even though I’m not sure of what I know. Is that a problem?

But as long as saving faith rises to the level of knowledge, isn’t that the main thing?

As long as I’m not wrong in what I believe about God or God’s word, then certainty is a comforting accessory, but hardly a necessity.

Certainty is a bonus point. By definition, assurance is reassuring.

But that psychological state is not the same thing as knowledge. Indeed, it’s possible to be sure of what you believe, but be mistaken. Entertain a false assurance.

Given a choice, it’s better to have knowledge than certainty. Better to have knowledge even though you lack certainty than to have certainty even though you lack knowledge.

4.What about the vicissitudes of memory and sensory perception? I do think there's a way out of the fly-bottle. We could transcendentally argue that God limits the frequency of misperception or misrecollection so that we can know what we need to know when we need to know it. And the "we" would vary according to God's purposes for each individual life, and its relation to other individual lives, in ultimate relation to his integrated plan for human history as a whole.

This isn't begging the question, because, unless you can ground knowledge, you slide into global skepticism–which is self-refuting. So you can reason back from that self-refuting consequence to what is necessary to avoid that self-refuting consequence.

As far as saving faith is concerned, it wouldn't even be necessary to argue for the general reliability of the senses or the general reliability of memory. It would be sufficient to argue that God preserves the elect from degrees of misperception or misrecollection which would threaten to render the saving knowledge of God impossible.

Cogent Arguments

Annoyed Pinoy said...

"Paul, how would you define "cogency" exactly"?

I would define cogency briefly as: A sound argument that is recognized by your audience to be so due to the presentation of its parts (form and content).

For example, here's a sound argument:

[1] God exists or December first is Christmas day.

[2] December first is not Christmas day.

[3] Therefore, God exists.

This argument is sound, not cogent.

If your apologetic argument is one that no one will recognize as sound, it's basically useless as an apologetic argument. Patting yourself on the back for merely announcing "the truth" to non-believer, and consoling yourself that "he'll be judged all the more for rejecting it", isn't doing apologetics.

Take the above argument again and let's draw another conclusion:

[1*] God does not exist or December first is Christmas day.

[2*] December first is not Christmas day.

[3*] Therefore, God does not exist.

An atheist will believe all the premises of this argument are true and so believe he's presented us with a sound argument for the non-existence of God. The problem is, like with the first argument, the atheological argument is not cogent.

However, it is the case that one of these arguments is in fact sound (as a Christian, I believe it's the first). The problem is that its soundness is hidden from us. The only way an audience would recognize the alleged soundness of the one over the other is because they already believe that God exists or that he does not.

But for both sides, there is nothing in their respective argument that rationally compels us to accept the premises.

So (one of) the apologist's job is to try to figure out how to make his arguments cogent. To get the audience to accept what you believe (know!) is true. You can do this by arguing, expanding, elaborating, for and/or on one or more of the premises.

There are many ways to do this, and a future post may be helpful in fleshing some of this out, but we can mention one thing not to do. Thwacking unbelievers on the head with your Bible and telling them that they have a reason to believe that God exists because the Bible says God exists, and the Bible is the word of God and so cannot be wrong, ergo God exists, isn't the way to go.

Why Trust The Canonical Judgments Of The Early Christians?


CNT = Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

FGO = Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000)

JAE = Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006)

JCO = Steve Mason, Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009)

TCD = Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)

TJL = Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007)

Each generation builds on the knowledge of previous generations. In many ways, we're better able to evaluate history than those who lived in the past. But they had some advantages over us as well, and future generations will have advantages over previous generations, including ours.

The early Christians were often wrong, but they were more often right. It should be kept in mind that when people criticize an error in a Christian writer of the second century, for example, that same writer is correct on thousands of other issues he addresses directly or indirectly. Often, a focus on errors distorts our judgment of the overall reliability of a source. In the past, I've written about such distortions in the context of human memory.

People know more about some subjects than others. A second-century Christian in Italy may be highly ignorant of the history of ancient Egypt or events in Greece hundreds of years before he was born, yet be much more knowledgeable about events in his own region of the world a generation before his birth or events within the church of his day. Similarly, a modern American may be highly ignorant of Japanese history, yet know much more about American history. We don't dismiss the testimony of a witness in a court of law, concerning a murder he claims to have seen, because he believes in ghosts or carries a good luck charm. We should ask questions such as what interest a source has in the subject under consideration, what his standards of evidence are, and what evidence he had access to.

Despite our advantages over people of the ancient world in some contexts, we have access to only a portion of the evidence that the early Christians had in making judgments relevant to the New Testament canon. Martin Hengel observes that "of the second-century Christian writings known to us by title, around 85% have been lost. The real loss must be substantially higher." (FGO, 55)

Consider New Testament manuscripts. (Some of the issues related to manuscripts are relevant to the canon, such as gospel titles and whether chapter 21 of John's gospel was part of the original document.) We often argue over how much a manuscript of the late second or early third century reflects the text of the early second century, whether earlier manuscripts are likely to have had the same titles as the later manuscripts we possess, etc. But Christians of the first two centuries had easy access to a large number and variety of such manuscripts, far more than we possess today. Men like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus would have regularly come into contact with manuscripts that predated what we have today, sometimes including manuscripts contemporary with the apostles or disciples of the apostles. Bruce Metzger notes that some patristic sources refer to the preservation of some of the original copies of the New Testament documents (CNT, n. 4 on 4-5). Metzger cites the example of Tertullian's claim that the church of Thessalonica still possessed the original copies of the letters Paul sent them.

Though we today only have the writings of several disciples of the apostles, there obviously would have been a far larger number of such people who lived in the first and second centuries. Thus, Irenaeus can comment that "there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles" during the lifetime of Clement of Rome (Against Heresies, 3:3:3).

Contrary to the common assertion that the early Christians weren't concerned with evidence or had little concern for it, their belief system and their system of church government were founded on evidential concepts, such as fulfilled prophecy and eyewitness testimony. The highest church office, that of apostle, consisted only of eyewitnesses, and the churches that had a historical relationship with the apostles were the most prominent in the second century (Rome, Smyrna, Ephesus, etc.). Bruce Metzger refers to the "'authority' that underlay the impulse to form a canon of Scripture - an authority that rested upon the testimony of eye-witnesses....As Prorector of the University of Utrecht, van Unnik delivered a learned address on the status of an eye-witness and an ear-witness in vouching for trustworthiness of what was included in early collections of New Testament books." (CNT, 28-29)

Concerning one of the earliest church fathers and one of our earliest sources on canonical issues, Harry Gamble writes:

"Among other things, it can now be seen that Papias's interest in 'the living and abiding voice' does not signify that he was wholly committed to oral tradition and ill-disposed to written materials, but rather, in accordance with a widespread topos, that he preferred firsthand information. Indeed, he should be understood to invoke oral tradition precisely to legitimize written Jesus tradition." (TCD, 278-279)

See, also, Richard Bauckham's case for the general reliability of Papias (JAE, 12-38, 202-239, 412-437). Justin Martyr refers to the importance of evidence, including hostile corroboration (First Apology, 20, 30, 33-34, 53). Tatian is aware of the value of hostile corroboration (Address To The Greeks, 31) and firsthand knowledge (Address To The Greeks, 35). Tertullian appeals to information in the registers of apostolic churches (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32). Dionysius of Alexandria evaluates the New Testament books on the basis of their internal evidence, making some of the same observations that have been made by modern scholarship (Eusebius, Church History, 7:24-25). Eusebius appeals to internal evidence as well (Church History, 3:25). Etc.

Irenaeus is a good illustration of some of these points. He had access to other churches and men of the previous generation. His predecessor in the bishopric of Lyons, a man named Pothinus, died beyond age ninety in the late 170s (Eusebius, Church History, 5:1:29). He was a contemporary of the apostles at a young age and a contemporary of the apostles' disciples as a grown man. Irenaeus would have had access to Pothinus, Polycarp, and probably many other men who could have given him significant information about canonical issues. It's highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood what all of those people said or would have lied about it, for example. It's even more unlikely that all of the sources who corroborate Irenaeus were mistaken as well.

Concerning his relationship with Polycarp, a disciple of multiple apostles, Irenaeus wrote the following to a contemporary who had also met Polycarp:

"For, while I was yet a boy, I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp, distinguishing yourself in the royal court, and endeavouring to gain his approbation. For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in— his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received information from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. These things, through God's mercy which was upon me, I then listened to attentively, and treasured them up not on paper, but in my heart; and I am continually, by God's grace, revolving these things accurately in my mind. And I can bear witness before God, that if that blessed and apostolical presbyter had heard any such thing [as what heretics are saying], he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, exclaiming as he was wont to do: 'O good God, for what times have You reserved me, that I should endure these things?' And he would have fled from the very spot where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words. This fact, too, can be made clear, from his Epistles which he despatched, whether to the neighbouring Churches to confirm them, or to certain of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them." (Fragments, 2)

Notice the appeal to an eyewitness of the apostles. The appeal to corroboration from other sources. The appeal to written records that we no longer have today. (We only have one of Polycarp's letters.)

Elsewhere, Irenaeus appeals to the historical witness of multiple apostolic churches and individuals associated with those churches who had been eyewitnesses of the apostles (Against Heresies, 3:3:1-4). While discussing a dispute about the text of Revelation, he appeals to "ancient copies" of the book and the testimony of those who "saw John face to face" (Against Heresies, 5:30:1). Note the appeal to multiple earlier copies of the document that were "ancient" from the perspective of a late second-century writer and the appeal to multiple eyewitnesses of John.

Going back a generation further, consider the influence of Polycarp on New Testament authorship attributions, for example. When Polycarp visited Rome in the middle of the second century to discuss some issues of controversy with the Roman bishop Anicetus, for instance, he surely would have interacted with the beliefs of the Roman Christians on issues of New Testament authorship. We have some idea of how those documents were used at that time in Roman church services, from sources like Justin Martyr. Would documents like the gospels and the letters of Paul have been used without any reference to their authorship? When controversial issues arose, like the ones Polycarp discussed with Anicetus, New Testament documents would have been cited in the process. The concept that somebody like Polycarp could live for several decades as a Christian and travel and involve himself in teaching and controversies, as he did, yet have little effect on the authorship attributions of his day, is untenable.

Sometimes an objection will be raised to the effect that the claims of the early Christians are unreliable, since they don't cite sources or give us a detailed account of how they reached their conclusions. But when an ancient Christian does go into such detail, as Irenaeus does above regarding Polycarp as one of his sources, critics often dismiss what he said anyway. And it was unusual for ancient writers in general, not just Christians, to go into depth about their sources or the process by which they arrived at their conclusions. The same is true today. Imagine the untenable length of Luke's writings, for example, if he cited sources for every historical claim he made, accompanied by a detailed explanation of how he reached each conclusion. Richard Bauckham notes that "Historians in antiquity did not name their eyewitness sources as a matter of course, but in specific cases they did" (JAE, n. 35 on 304). Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, while commenting on a passage in the Roman historian Tacitus in which Tacitus doesn't cite a source, observe that making historical claims without citing a source is "a practice that was typical for ancient historians" (TJL, 184). The Josephan scholar Steve Mason notes that the Jewish historian Josephus usually doesn't identify his sources (JCO, 11). He also notes that it was common for ancient writers to leave details out of their writings when they could assume knowledge of those details on the part of their audience (JCO, 50). He cites the comment of an ancient source, Demetrius, who wrote that "It is a slur on your hearer to tell him everything as though he were a simpleton." (JCO, 50)

Much more could be said. I've addressed topics like these many times in the past, such as here and here.

I close with some comments from Bruce Metzger and Martin Hengel, regarding the canonical judgments of the early Christians:

"In general, these [non-canonical] gospels show far less knowledge of Palestinian topography and customs than do the canonical can appreciate the difference between the character of the canonical Gospels and the near banality of most of the gospels dating from the second and third centuries....these four [gospels] came to be recognized as authentic - authentic both in the sense that the story they told was, in its essentials, adjudged sound by a remarkably unanimous consent, and also in the sense that their interpretation of its meaning was equally widely recognized as true to the apostles' faith and teaching. Even the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, both of which may preserve scraps of independent tradition, are obviously inferior theologically and historically to the four accounts that eventually came to be regarded as the only canonical Gospels....the apocryphal Acts cannot be put on a level with the Lucan work...The knowledge that our New Testament contains the best sources for the history of Jesus is the most valuable knowledge that can be obtained from study of the early history of the canon." (CNT, 167, 173-174, 180, 287)

"[Irenaeus gives us] historical arguments which must be taken seriously....At the same time, according to all our historical knowledge and an impartial, sober comparison between the apocryphal Jesus traditions and the four Gospels, indeed the New Testament generally, the church of the second century could hardly have made a better choice....To emphasize the point once again: in its selection and ordering the church of the second century showed historical and theological understanding. I would like to repeat emphatically here the remark made above (33): the church really could not have made a better choice." (FGO, 33, 115, 140)

No time to cut missile defense

From William Cohen.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Vicar in Til


“T-fan -- don't assume these guys are vantillian. They are not! I am now officially writing them off as agnostics that have an itchy intellectual interest in Christianity.”

It’s true that I’ve not been speaking on behalf of Van Til. I’ve only been speaking for myself.

I realize, though, that as a man who, among other things, recently defended the old custom of white and colored restrooms, drinking fountains, &c., Tim speaks with a moral authority which I’d be contumacious to resist. So I must humbly bow to his magisterial verdict. If I can’t be a Van Tilian in good standing unless I don a white sheet, then I guess that agnosticism will be my portion.

The Moral Virtues of Suicide

Over at, a poster asked:

A few posters on here have expressed dissatisfaction with their lives to the point of considering suicide. It is certainly something I have grappled with for many years. The most common objection you hear to suicide is the impact it will have on those you leave behind. I have a girlfriend of 10 years. There are times I think she would be better off without me and she should find a man who is more successful at life. She has in fact told me that if I were to commit suicide she doesn't think she would ever get over it. She said if I died of natural causes or an accident she could mourn and eventually move on, but suicide is something completely different.

Has anyone ever had someone close to them commit suicide or know someone who had a loved one commit suicide? Is the impact of someone killing themselves very different from someone who dies naturally? I know this sounds like a very obvious question, but I am just interested in hearing real stories of the impact it has on the survivors.

A followup comment quoted the highlighted portion above and said
Which is, of course, bullshit.

But isn't that exactly where secular ethics leads? After all, if ethics logically conduces to the self-interest of the individual, then it's his life to take. The effect on others is immaterial. So what? Moral outrage, sadness, and all of that sentiment is really just illusory.
One of our resident nullifidians Sidious016 replied:

And another poster replied to Rii
: I'm sorry, but, as you may understand, this is a very sensitive subject for many people, and you probably shouldn't be so caviler about how other people may feel.

Agreed, but I thought that was a good place to make a wider point, namely, in light of Steve's recent post on secular ethics and antinatalism, namely (in summary) it is better not to live than live at all, given a secular worldview, so where is the moral outrage? What Rii said is a good, if brief, illustration of the logical end of a secualist worldview.

Indeed, Rii, went on to say: The concept that suicide is selfish. That someone in so much distress that they can't see a reason to continue living should refrain from suicide because their death might upset friends and family is the pinnacle of hubris.

But what goes right over the heads of the secularists there is this: So what? If we're all just blobs of protoplasm with ideas above it's station, then so what?

Well, Camelopard and Sidious now think that's libelous and, here's their chance to prove otherwise by actually arguing that their comments to me and their sentimentalism about suicide is consistent with a secularist worldview. I've invited them over here, let's see if they can man-up and provide reasons consistent with nullifidianism for their sentimentality. Here's the problem: Secular / atheological ethics logically conduces to moral nihilism, illusionism, and / or relativism. So, their moral outrage is rather misplaced. They are very judgmental relativists, and libelousness is just an illusion, as are anybody's feelings about the "tragedy" of suicide. Indeed, if John Smith decides it is in his own evolved self-interest to take his own life, they have no reason consistent with secularist/atheological ethics to get all worked up about it, and they certainly have no basis for criticizing Christian ethics in particular. So, heres your big chance to shine, guys and any of your other secularist buddies from the Board vs. Little old me, Steve, Manata, etc. here. All you have to do is play by our rules of behavior and you need to argue, not assert your position. This isn't TNZ.

The Death of Christian Apologetics

* A dialogue of how not to engage in Christian apologetics:


Christian: The Lord God exists, enthroned in the heavens.

Unbeliever: I don't believe that.

C: Well, you're wrong, because God said he exists.

U: Okay, but I don't believe in God, which implies that I don't believe he's said anything. Can you provide me with any reason to believe your assertion?

C: Um, yeah, haven't you been listening? The reason is the best possible one: God said it.

U: Hmmm, that sou..

C: Bzzzzzzt! Don't even bother responding, God said it, he can't be wrong, so whatever you say is wrong.

U: Okaaaay, I was just going to say that it sounds like you're begging the question. Why should I believe God said it. What reason can you give me?

C: That he said it.

U: I don't feel like we're getting anywhere. Look, I don't believe that God exists, so telling me to repent sounds silly to me, what argument can you give me for accepting your religion over the thousands of others.

C: Well, because their gods don't exist and so haven't said anything, since my God exists, then he said he exists, and that's the only reason you need.

U: Well, I've really got to be going, we're not getting anywhere.

C: The Lord rebuke you!

U: Okaaaay. I don't really know what to say to that.

C: Just because you're not persuaded doesn't mean I'm wrong.

U: Quite right, so what reason or argument can you give me that might indicate that you're right?

C: Well, I've already told you the reason,

U: Yeah, I don't believe that.

C: So? The Lord rebuke you.

U: Well, I guess since you can't give me a reason or argument to believe in your version of God an religion, I'll continue to disbelieve.

C: Okay, let me give you an argument.

U: Whew, finally, I was getting worried there for a moment. So, what's the argument.

C: [1] God cannot be wrong. [2] God said he exists. [3] Therefore, he does.

U: [Looks around] Am I on candid camera? Isn't whether there is a God what's in question?

C: Not anymore. How could it be a question when God said it. Besides, that tree over there proves he exists.

U: Okay, how.

C: 'cause God said it did.

U: But I don't believe that.

C: The Lord rebuke you!

U: Okay, have a good day.

C: Sinner!


The above represents the approach to apologetics Turretin Fan apparently advocates.

Besides that, his post indicates that he thinks that I demand apologetics provide "rigorous proofs" (when I have denied this many times on this blog, where 'proofs' are considered in a strong sense ala Plantinga), and that I think apologetic argument will be persuasive to all (which I also deny, though cogency is a goal).

Turretin Fan also indicates that he thinks he is a prophet commissioned like Moses and Ezekiel were. Or that he's an Apostle like Paul. He also apparently thinks that Moses' engagement with the Pharaoh is an instruction on how to do apologetics (but he's had no luck with the stick-to-snake thing yet, and not for lack of trying!). So add weird exegesis to the list.

He also thinks his story is an answer to my questions that he provide some arguments for all the claims he's been making. Apparently I can't even question him, since he thinks his position is biblical, that means when I question him I question God!

Unfortunately, Turretin Fan has exhibited an all-too-common flaw with (many) contemporary Reformed: philosophical ignorance, intellectual laziness, and confusing the warm fuzzies that appeals to piety give for actual arguments.

Reformed Christians...wake up!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Chimp-Human Genome Similarity

"Guy Walks Into a Bar and Thinks He's a Chimpanzee: The Unbearable Lightness of Chimp-Human Genome Similarity"

Coercive interrogation

There’s been a renewed debate lately over the necessity or efficacy of coercive interrogation. Dick Cheney says these techniques were necessary to obtain information from some high-value terrorists, and–what is more–the information we obtained saved innocent lives. Critics deny his claims.

From what I’ve read, the evidence favors Cheney. However, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Cheney overstated his case.

It’s striking, but not surprising, to see where his critics draw the line. Where they place the burden of proof. According to them, unless you know for sure that these techniques are necessary to obtain such information, and unless you know for sure that this information will save innocent lives, then it is wrong to coercively interrogate a terrorist.

That’s a very revealing position. My question is: when in doubt, why should we be giving the terrorist the benefit of the doubt? Why should we err on the side of the terrorist rather than erring on the side of the American public? Why should the (alleged) right of the terrorist not to be coercively interrogated take precedence over the right of 300 million Americans to be safe and secure?

Counterterrorism will always involves probabilities rather than certainties. A threat assessment based on the best available information at the time.

And in the case of counterintelligence, you start with what you know or think you know, and use that as a platform to try and obtain additional information.

If it’s a choice between putting a terrorist at risk, and putting a nation at risk, the choice is pretty obvious.

Epistemic Certainty and Belief in God

* Below is an edited excerpt from Dr. Michael Sudduth's forthcoming book, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology. It is posted here with his permission


*An excerpt from Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (2006 draft)

Section III of chapter 13

Epistemic Certainty and Belief in God

Many theists maintain that they are certain of the truth of various theological propositions, among them being the proposition that God exists. I want to argue that for at least one important sense of certainty this position is false. The relevant sense of certainty here is what is called epistemic certainty, a species of certainty distinguished from so-called psychological certainty. The latter is merely descriptive and refers to a cognizer having maximal conviction or assurance of the truth of some proposition. While many theists are psychologically certain of God’s existence, this is epistemologically uninteresting. People have psychological certainty regarding all sorts of false propositions (e.g., Santa Claus exists, the world is flat, Elvis is alive). By contrast, a belief that is epistemically certain has some epistemic merit or credential, an epistemic merit or credential that is in some respect unsurpassed by other beliefs. I’ll argue that theistic belief (and belief in other theological propositions) is not epistemically certain.

I. Epistemic Certainty as Indubitability

Most accounts of epistemic certainty are tied to beliefs having some sort of epistemic immunity. This is typically articulated in terms of immunity from doubt or indubitability, where this means roughly the absence of any grounds for doubting a proposition p or doubting that one knows that p.1 Recall here that we’ve been working with a view of propositional knowledge according to which a person S knows that p just if (A) S firmly believes that p (belief condition), (B) S’s belief that p is (adequately) warranted (warrant condition), and (C) S’s belief that p is true (truth condition). More precisely, then, we can say that if a proposition p is epistemically certain for some person (in the sense of being epistemically indubitable), then it is logically impossible for (A) to be satisfied and for there to be any grounds for doubting that either (B) or (C) is satisfied. Since (B) and (C) are necessary conditions for knowledge, grounds for doubting either (B) or (C) will constitute grounds for doubting whether the persons knows that p.

A fairly crucial question, though, is what constitutes a ground or reason for doubting some proposition p? A baseline requirement is typically that there is no proposition q such that

(1) adding q to S’s beliefs would at least lower the warrant of S’s belief that p (ever so slightly).2

To this is frequently added:

(2) q is epistemically possible3 for S, meaning either that:

(a) S lacks conclusive reasons for believing the denial of q


(b) S is not warranted in believing the denial of q.

So a person S’s belief that p will be epistemically certain only if4 there is no epistemically possible proposition q for S that would result in lowering the warrant of S’s belief that p ever so slightly if q were added to S’s beliefs.

Is theistic belief indubitable and hence epistemically certain in this sense?

First, there are presumably many propositions that, if added to a person’s beliefs, would result in the warrant of theistic belief being lowered to some degree, however minimal: (i) theistic belief is produced by non-truth-aimed cognitive faculties (maybe in conjunction with the proposition “beliefs generated by non-truth directed faculties are unlikely to be true”), (ii) the concept of God involved in theistic belief is apparently inconsistent, (iii) there is Nth degree of apparently gratuitous evil in the world, (iv) the conjunction of theism and some other apparently true proposition is clearly logically inconsistent, (v) the conjunction of theism and some other true proposition is apparently logically inconsistent, and (vi) the sources of theistic belief among the various theistic religions and denominational divisions therein often yield incompatible propositions about God as output. Now we need not maintain that any of these propositions gives us good reasons to suppose that theism is false, or even good reasons for no longer believing that theism is true. They are simply some reason to suppose that theism is false or some reason for no longer believing that theism is true. Nor is it necessary that any of these propositions, if accepted, lower the warrant of theistic belief significantly, but only that they do so ever so slightly. Hence, if knowledge does not require epistemic certainty, then satisfying conditions (1) and (2) would be consistent with knowing theism to be true. The point here is not that theistic belief has no significant epistemic credentials, but only that it does not have the best possible epistemic credentials. All that is necessary, then, is to find propositions that would suffice to lower the warrant of theistic belief ever so slightly, and these would be any proposition that at least minimally counts against the truth of theism or at least minimally counts against our thinking that theism is true.

Secondly, since doubt makers need not have significant epistemic credentials, it seems fairly clear that there is going to be some proposition q that both lowers the warrant of theistic belief if added to S’s belief and is epistemically possible for S, at least for most cognizers. Indeed, the candidate doubt maker need not be warranted at all. It must only be the case that we are not warranted (conclusively or otherwise) in believing their denials. But it certainty seems that at least some of the relevant propositions above are such that we lack conclusive reasons for believing their denials. Indeed, we might even suppose that (iii), (iv), (v), and (vi) have some degree of warrant for most cognizers.

But isn’t it the case that if a person were warranted in her theistic belief, then she would be warranted in denying any proposition logically incompatible with theism? And in that case, condition (2) will not be satisfied. Apart from the fact that this would be applicable only to epistemic certainty cashed out in terms of the conjunction of (1) and (2b), it is misguided for at least two other reasons. First, since doubt makers need not be reasons for believing that theism is false, many of them will be compatible with the truth of theism and even compatible with S’s theistic belief being warranted. So even if a person’s being warranted in theistic belief entailed that she is warranted in denying every proposition logically incompatible with theism, she would not on that account be warranted in denying every candidate doubt maker for theism, as in the case of (iii), (iv), (v), and (vi) above. Secondly, the supposition that if a person is warranted in believing that p, then the person is warranted in affirming every entailment of p (and thus warranted in denying every proposition that is logically incompatible with p) is questionable.5 This so-called “entailment principle” overlooks the possibility that my warrant for believing p may be less than my warrant for believing some proposition that is incompatible with p. In that case, while I may indeed be warranted in believing p, I’m not necessarily warranted in disbelieving every proposition that is incompatible with p. I might of course if theistic belief had maximal warrant. But is this so?

II. Epistemic Certainty as Maximal Warrant

The idea of “maximal warrant” introduces a more modest way to think of epistemic certainty. On this view, a proposition p is epistemically certain for a person S just if S is warranted in believing p and there is no other proposition q that has more warrant for S than his belief that p.6 Now an indubitable belief will be maximally warranted, but a belief can be maximally warranted even if it is not indubitable. After all, there might be no proposition q more warranted or better justified than p for a person S, but it still may be that q is epistemically possible for S and such that q would lower the warrant of S’s belief that p if q were added to the rest of S’s beliefs. Indeed, there might be some other proposition q, which has as much warrant for S as S’s belief that p, but where q is doubt-maker for p. So this is a more modest account of certainty. It does not entail indubitability. We might suppose, then, that while theistic belief is not indubitably certain, there is no belief that has more warrant for a person than theistic belief, and so theistic belief is certain in this more modest sense.

One of the problems with this proposal, though, is that it appears that there are beliefs that have more warrant than any paradigm case of theistic belief. For example, take any number of introspectively evident beliefs about one’s current states of consciousness, e.g., I feel tired, it seems to me that there is a computer in front of me, I am thinking now. It is generally held that these sorts of beliefs have fairly strong epistemic credentials, perhaps the strongest sort human beliefs can have. Different reasons have been proposed for supposing why this is the case, most of which involve different accounts of how introspective beliefs involve particular entailments between the conditions of knowledge. One might suppose, for example, that introspective beliefs can’t be true without our believing them and we can’t believe them without their being true. So the truth condition entails the belief condition, and conversely. One might further suppose that in this case introspective beliefs enjoy the best sort of epistemic credentials possible. After all, warrant is a truth-indicating property. Perhaps there is no better indication that a proposition is true than if its truth is entailed by our simply believing it. Alternatively, we might suppose that introspective beliefs that are in fact based on self-presenting states of consciousness are based on grounds that guarantee the truth of the belief, for in this case the ground of the belief would be what makes the belief true. Hence, for introspective beliefs the warrant condition (being connected to the grounds of a belief) entails the truth condition, and this might be viewed as the best conceivable sort of warrant. Finally, on other accounts introspective beliefs are warranted simply by our holding them, even if their truth is not entailed either by their being held or warranted.7 In each of these three cases, we see ways of explaining why introspective beliefs enjoy a sort of privileged epistemic status.

Now it is fairly obvious that theistic beliefs are not beliefs about our current states of consciousness, but neither they do appear to have the sort of epistemic credentials that such beliefs possess. Consider the three accounts of these credentials. First, unless one adopts a radically anti-realist view of God, theistic beliefs are not made true by our believing them, nor does the truth of any theistic proposition guarantee that anyone will believe it.8 Secondly, theistic beliefs are not based on grounds that make theistic belief true and thus that guarantee the truth of beliefs based on such grounds. The putative grounds of theistic belief, be it religious experience, intuition, the sensus divinitatis, inference from various features of the world, are not identical to the fact that makes theism true. Are theistic beliefs the sort of beliefs that would at least be warranted simply by virtue of our holding them? This seems doubtful, even in those cases where the beliefs are true theistic beliefs. Perhaps a person comes to hold some true theistic belief on the grounds that he has communicated with apparitions from beyond the grave who have spoken to him of the beauties of heaven, but he is simply suffering from a mental disorder. From the vantage point of most externalist and internalist epistemologies, it’s hard to see how the person’s belief would be warranted in this circumstance.9 The warrant of theistic beliefs is not just given by the mere fact that one holds such beliefs. It is thus hard to see how theistic beliefs can be warranted to the same degree as beliefs about our current states of consciousness.10

One might suppose, though, that a different answer can be drawn from Plantinga’s epistemology. On Plantinga’s view, a person whose relevant cognitive faculties are functioning properly will hold a firm theistic belief that has a high degree of warrant. In fact, on Plantinga’s view, theistic belief is indefeasible for all fully rational persons. No proposition a fully rational person entertains could serve as a defeater for theistic belief. That’s a pretty substantial epistemic credential. Of course, defeaters against theistic belief exist according to Plantinga, but only because the epistemic integrity of some other aspect of our cognitive establishment (perhaps the sensus divinitatis) has been compromised, say by the noetic effects of sin. It may very well be true that apart from the noetic effects of sin, humans would believe in God just as firmly as they believe in their own existence, the existence of an external world, other minds, and various a priori truths, and perhaps our theistic beliefs would be just as warranted as these other beliefs. But this is an ideal view of the human cognitive situation, at best true for some original cognitive design plan and perhaps true for us in our final state. But now we see through a glass darkly, as it were. As indicated in prior chapters, the noetic effects of sin are a factor in assessing the degree to which all our beliefs can be warranted, including belief in God. It is hard to see how theistic belief can be maximally warranted for humans under any post-lapsarian cognitive design plan.11

So I think we must conclude that there isn’t a very strong case for supposing that theistic beliefs are epistemically certain in either the sense of indubitability or maximal warrant. In fact, this looks just plain false.

III. The Senses in which Belief in God is Certain

In what sense, then, can theistic belief be certain?

Many theists are psychologically certain of the existence of God and other theological propositions. However practically useful such a belief is, psychological certainty says nothing about the normative axis of belief, the epistemic merits or credentials of a belief. So we must look elsewhere for a relevant and plausible sense in which theists may have certainty concerning the existence of God and other theological propositions.

If God’s existence is logically necessary, then theistic belief is certain in a purely logical sense, for then it will not be logically possible to believe that God exists and for this belief to be false.12 But this isn’t epistemic certainty. Since it is logically possible to believe a logically necessary truth and yet not know the proposition, or even be warranted in holding it, clearly there is a sense in which it is impossible to be mistaken in a belief and yet for this to carry no epistemic significance. Suppose Jack believes nothing is red and non-colored because a character in a cartoon asserts it and Jack is inclined to accept whatever he hears cartoon characters affirm. His belief is true, but it would seem to have little by way of warrant. The logical status of the proposition tells us nothing about the positive epistemic status of his belief in the proposition.13

I would suggest that the relevant and plausible kind of certainty is moral certainty. A morally certain belief is beyond all reasonable doubt, though not beyond all possible doubt. In positive terms, such beliefs are highly probable. Morally certain beliefs entitle us to be sure about our beliefs, and at least some of them they carry a degree of warrant that is plausibly sufficient, together with the satisfaction of the truth condition, for knowledge. Thus morally certain theistic beliefs do justice to the Biblical passages that suggest Christians ought to be sure about their faith and that Christians have knowledge of God.14


1 This is not the same as saying that it psychologically impossible to doubt the proposition. Clearly enough it might be psychologically impossible to doubt a proposition even if there are grounds for doubting it. Many children find it impossible not to believe in Santa Claus. Grounds or reasons for doubting his existence are not hard to come by. Indubitability is a normative concept.

2 This need not be a reason for supposing that the denial of p is true. It can simply be a reason for our no longer thinking that p is true.

3 (2) shows us that a doubt raiser need not have any significant epistemic credentials. It is sufficient that a statement’s negation not have any significant epistemic credentials. Recall that Descartes conceded that doubt makers might be very doubtful themselves, but this is acceptable when searching – as Descartes was - for the least or slightest ground of doubt. See E.M. Curley, Descartes against the Skeptics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 85-86, and Jeffrey Tlumak, “Certainty and Cartesian Method,” in Descartes Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 44-53.

4 Whether such conditions are sufficient is another issue. Klein, for example, thinks that the idea of absolute certainty requires a third condition to the effect that there be no true proposition, d, such that if D were added to S’s beliefs, the warrant for believing p would be reduced. With this addition, certainty will entail truth. See Klein, “Certainty,” in A Companion to Epistemology ed., Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), pp. 61-64.

5 To cite a counter-example proposed by Audi (Belief, Justification, and Knowledge (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1988), p. 78). Suppose I add up some figures in column and believe that the total is 10,395. Suppose that I am correct and this belief is warranted. Suppose that I know I am correct. It follows, though, that the total is 10,395, even if I made a mistake in my addition. But it seems implausible to suppose that I could be warranted in believing this consequence, much less know it. Hence, we are not necessarily warranted in believing every entailment of propositions we are warranted in believing.

6 For instance, according to Roderick Chisholm: “p is certain for S = Df For every q, believing p is more justified for S than withholding q, and believing p is at least as justified for S as is believing q.” (Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge, 3rd edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989), p. 12). See also Feldman, “Epistemic Appraisal and the Cartesian Circle,” Philosophical Studies 27 (1975), p. 43.

7 See Alston, “Self-Warrant” in Alston, Epistemic Justification (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989). Cf. Alston, “Concepts of Epistemic Justification,” p. 106 in same volume for the contrasting theory of truth-warrant.

8 My believing that there is a God makes it true that “Michael Sudduth believes that there is a God”. But the proposition that is made true by my act of believing that there is a God is not a proposition about God. It is a proposition about Michael Sudduth’s mental state.

9 The actual grounds of the belief in this situation would not satisfy either a proper function or reliability constraint on warrant. So the externalist must reject the idea that theistic belief is warranted in this situation. Of course, an internalist might concede that in this situation a person has evidence for the truth of his belief and thus is justified or rational in some weak sense. But is this enough for warrant? No. There is some true proposition, such that if the person were to believe it, he would no longer be justified (in an internalist sense) in his belief, namely that proposition describing the fact that he suffers from a cognitive disorder. Hence, from an internalist perspective, the person’s belief would not pass the test of an indefeasibility clause designed to rule out Gettier cases. So there is a clear sense in which the person’s belief would not be warranted even from an internalist perspective, whatever other epistemic merits it might have.

10 Something similar should probably be said for at least some self-evident truths known a priori, for instance those who negations are evidently self-contradictory and so must be false. Even if the denial of theism contains an implicit contradiction, the contradiction isn’t as evident as the denial of, say, “all red things are colored.”

11 Perhaps there are exceptions here, e.g., the beliefs of Moses on Mt. Sinai, St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or the disciples with the resurrected Christ. But most people are not in this sort of privileged position.

12 This does not require that the denial of theism be self-contradictory. There are some logically necessary propositions whose negations are not self-contradictory, e.g., 2 + 2 = 4.

13 Of course if a person knows that God exists, then it is logically impossible for the person to be mistaken in this belief since knowing p entails (by definition) that S believes p and p is true. But in this sense all knowledge is infallible. There’s nothing unique here about the knowledge of God. Nevertheless, it is logically possible for a person to believe p and not know p. A more rigorous understanding of infallibility would be that a person’s belief that p entails that S knows that p. Where knowledge entails that the person is warranted in the belief and the belief is true, it would follow that an infallible belief is true and warranted. But as far as I can see theistic belief is not infallible in this sense, for reasons already noted above in text.

14 Turretin distinguished between three kinds of certainty: mathematical, moral, and theological. Institutio theologiae elencticae, II.iv.22. Turretin denied that theological propositions have mathematical certainty, and this would seem to conform to the negative axis of my argument. He also denied that the certainty of theological propositions is merely moral, and this would seem to conflict with the positive axis of my argument. Although theological certainty appears to be located in between mathematical and moral certainty, it isn’t adequately clear whether or how it is epistemically distinct from them. Turretin unpacks moral certainty as equivalent to conjecture, the acceptance of probabilities on the grounds of evidence. This may be a weaker view of moral certainty than the one I’m employing above. Moreover, if—as seems plausible—Turretin saw theological certainty as partaking of the psychological qualities of mathematical certainty and the epistemic qualities of moral certainty, then our accounts will be roughly identical.