Friday, October 16, 2009

Are there few that be saved?


“By you? Are you God's corrective voice in the earth. That's comical.”

What is Birch’s problem, exactly? Is he just a little funny in the head?

Whether or not Calvinism has an official position on what percentage of the human race is elect or reprobate is a factual, historical question. Does Birch think you have to be God to correct misstatements about historical theology?

If so, then Birch should disband his blog, since he constantly accuses Calvinists of misrepresenting Arminian theology. What is that if not an attempt on his part to set the record straight?

Or does Birch think he’s God? Is that it?

“It is Jesus Himself who corrects you. In Matthew 7:13-14, as has been offered several times, Jesus notes the quantity of people who enter the way to everlasting life and to everlasting death. Do the words ‘few’ or ‘many’ mean anything? They certainly do when Calvinists point to ‘many’ are called but ‘few’ are chosen! You're not wrestling with me, you're wrestling with God's Word.”

Once again, what is Birch’s problem, exactly? Is he simply ignorant? Willfully ignorant? Too dense to grasp the issues? Or just plain dishonest?

i) Historical theology and exegetical theology are two different things. The correct interpretation of a Bible verse is utterly irrelevant to what any given theological tradition may happen to affirm or deny.

Is Birch simply too obtuse to grasp that rudimentary distinction? It isn’t all that difficult.

For example, Birch is a Baptist. That means, presumably, that Birch interprets various Bible verses on sacramental and ecclesiological topics according to Baptist sacramentology and ecclesiology. He thinks that’s the correct interpretation.

But suppose Birch were writing a term paper in which he offers an exposition of Roman Catholic sacramentology and ecclesiology. Would Birch impute his Baptist interpretation of Catholic prooftexts to Catholic authorities, then derive a conclusion regarding Catholic theology based on his aptist interpretation of Catholic prooftexts?

Or would he, in his exposition of Catholic theology, present the Catholic interpretation of Catholic prooftexts?

What is there that Birch can’t figure out about this procedure?

ii) By the same token, what I (Steve Hays) personally think is the correct interpretation of Mt 7:13-14 is completely irrelevant to the historical question of whether Calvinism has an official position on the percentage of the reprobate in relation to the elect.

Why is Birch so intellectually challenged that this distinction continues to elude him?

iii) Likewise, can he cite any historical evidence that Calvinism has an official interpretation of Mt 7:13-14? Remember, Birch has pretensions to becoming a church historian when he grows up. So when he makes a claim about historical theology, is it asking too much that he document his claim by reference to some representative statements of the theological tradition in question? Aren’t church historians supposed to engage in a little thing known as historical research?

iv) Unfortunately, Birch’s incorrigible ineptitude doesn’t begin and end there. Not only has he failed to research the historical question, but he’s also failed to research the exegetical question.

Since he brings it up, what about Mt 7:13-14? Keep in mind that this is irrelevant to the historical question. But inasmuch as he continues to introduce this irrelevancy into the debate, let’s discuss it.

a) Donald Hagner has written one of the standard commentaries on Matthew. Here is what Hagner has to say:

“’There are few who find it,’ is primarily descriptive of the situation confronted by Jesus and his disciples during his ministry (so too, 22:14). Although the ‘few’ is clearly hyperbolic, it remains true that the majority of the people (polloi, v13) do not receive Jesus’ message (cf. 11:20-24; 12:41-42)…It is not the point of the passage to speculate over the number who are saved or lost,” Matthew 1-13, 179-180.

Notice that Hagner regards the scope of the passage as delimited by the immediate historical setting. The 1C Jewish Palestinian setting, during the public ministry of Christ. Not about Jews in general, much less gentiles in general. Not about all times and places.

Of course, we’re at liberty to take issue with Hagner’s interpretation. But it’s sufficient to show that Birch’s facile prooftexting is far from being and open-and-shut case.

b) In addition, if you consult standard commentaries on the Matthean, they will also note a Synoptic parallel in Lk 13:23. Indeed, they will sometimes interpret the two passages in concert.

So what about that Synoptic parallel? C. F. Evans has written one of major commentaries on Luke. Here is what he has to say: “For Luke this is no longer such a problem for in Acts, while entry into the kingdom is difficult (14:22), and Israel as a nation is excluded, a great number will belong to the true Israel of the patriarchs (cf. the discussion of the same issue in Rom 9:11),” Saint Luke, 555.

Notice that according to Evans, the Lukan passage needs to be considered in relation to the redemptive sweep of Acts.

c) In addition, Joel Green has written another major commentary on Luke. Keep in mind that Joel Greek is a NT prof. at Asbury seminary, that infamous hotbed of supralapsarian Calvinism. Here is what he has to say:

“On the one hand, Jesus’ answer may seem ambiguous; after all, his first image, the narrow door (v24), gives way to the door slammed shut (v25), and, in the end, he acts as though there are infinite doors allowing entry to just about anyone v29)! His answer may seem ambiguous in another sense, too, insofar as it appears to avoid the question about how few people might be saved only to focus on the many who will be lost (v24),” The Gospel of Luke, 528.

“On the other, Jesus’ answer is quite intelligible when read against the horizons of the eschatological banquet scene in Isa 25:6-9, whose images and vocabulary are mirrored in the Lukan scene. Isaiah had described the end as a lavish banquet, a feast fit for royalty, yet prepared for all peoples; on that day it will be said by all the nations, including Gentiles, ‘Let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation’ (v9, LXX)…Taking into account this trajectory of interpretation, the query, ‘Are only a few people being saved?’ may well be understood with reference to who among the Jews are to be regarded as the saved remnant. Jesus’ response signals a profound departure from the thought of many of his contemporaries at the same time that it recalls the vision of Isaiah. Heredity, ancestral lineage as a Jew, does not figure into his reply; moreover, just as the kingdom parables of vv18-21 had foreseen, so here his image of the kingdom banquet is marked by its explicit embrace of the Gentile world,” ibid. 528-29.

“Here, that saving dominion appears on a grand scale…is projected into the future, and is represented as a great feast. The last emphasis, envisioning the eschaton as an appropriation and celebration of divine blessing in the form of a feast, is well rooted in the literature of the OT and Second Temple Judaism. Most resonate in its reverberations, though, is the Isaianic vision, with its capacity to embrace both the notion of the eschatological banquet and the universal embrace of God’s salvation (esp. Is 25:6-8). Luke’s earlier emphasis on salvation to the Gentiles (2:30-32; cf. 12:18-21) appears again on the horizon, with the four winds representing the four corners of the earth, including the scattered remnant of faithful Israel wherever they may be found and, with them, the faithful of the world (Isa 11:11-16; 43:5-6; 60),” ibid. 532.

“As will become clear, those embraced in the kingdom feat will include even those Jews thought by many to be excluded from the family of God–cf. 14:21-23,” 532n61.

So Green takes a very expansive view of salvation in Luke-which forms the Synoptic parallel to the passage cited by Birch.

Ironically, Birch isn’t even conversant with Arminian Bible scholarship. It would behoove him to spend less time pounding his fist and more time cracking the books.

How to pray for your enemies

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).

This is an oft-quoted verse of Scripture. To many, it enunciates something unique about Christian social ethics.

Unfortunately, it’s generally quoted in a rather formulaic fashion, without bothering to seriously determine what it means or how it applies.

1.Jesus doesn’t define who one’s “enemy” is. Of course, the Bible has a lot to say about personal enemies as well as enemies of the faith. So we might use a common sense definition. At a minimum:

i) An enemy is someone who means you harm.

We might expand that a bit:

ii) An enemy is someone to tries to do you harm.

We might expand this a bit further:

iii) An enemy is someone who intends or attempts to do you harm for no good reason.

It’s more than just wishing someone ill. It’s also about acting on that animosity in some concrete fashion. More than just a hostile imagination. That’s clear from the business about “persecution.”

Moreover, to capture the invidious connotation of the word in Biblical usage, we need to distinguish between the just and unjust infliction of harm.

A policeman intends to harm a sniper. Yet it wouldn’t be fair to characterize the policeman is the “enemy.”

In context, this verse is talking about adversaries who are wronging a second party.

2.There’s a danger of turning a prayer for one’s enemy into a self-righteous exercise in personal justification. Such a prayer can actually be a pretext to malign the person we are ostensibly praying for, under the pretense of heartfelt concern for his immortal soul-and, by the same token, portraying ourselves as the innocent, injured party who in our saintly self-abasement is prepared to absorb the blow and intercede for this misguided soul.

If we ever have occasion to pray for a genuine enemy, we must guard against the snare of spiritual self-deception.

3.On a related note, there’s more to prayer than intoning the right verbal formulas. We need to mean it. And, of course, that can be a challenge if we’re praying for someone who’s gone out of his way to make us dislike him. How do we overcome dry or grudging prayers for personal enemies–assuming we have any?

i) It helps if we don’t obsess over this individual. It’s easier to pray for an enemy if you’re a generally happy person. For if your enemy puts you in a mad mood, then you’re in no mood to pray for him.

It helps to be in a good mood generally so that when we can bring that with us into our prayer closet (as it were).

I’m not saying that we should only pray for an enemy in case we happen to be in a good mood. Just that, if we’re in a bad mood, that makes it harder to truly care about the individual and avoid a perfunctory petition.

ii) The more seriously we take ourselves, the more seriously we resent injuries to our reputation or honor. Slights are magnified by a magnified sense of self-importance.

The less seriously we take ourselves, the more easily we can pray for those who defame us. So we should labor to lose ourselves in the goodness and the greatness of our God. Not only is that salutary for the walk of faith generally, but it also softens the blow.

iii) In addition, it helps to imagine what one’s enemy would be like in heaven. If he made it to heaven, what sort of person would he be at that point? Imagine what that person would be like if God made him all he was meant to be. Brought out the best rather than the worst.

iv) There are also situations in which a Christian is just a secondary target for God. The individual is going through you to attack God. He can’t harm God. God is out of reach.

So you’re the target of opportunity. It’s a case of transference.

At the same time, we have to tread very warily here, because this can also be a snare for self-justification. My own conduct is faultless. So all their antipathy must be directed at God!

Maybe–but not necessarily.

4.There’s also the question of what to ask for. What are we asking God to do in this situation?

I think the answer is related to what it means to love one’s enemies. And I don’t think that’s about affection, per se. Rather, it’s a case of acting, where possible, in their best interests–even if you don’t like them or feel much one way or the other.

Speaking the Truth in Love

Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame (John J. Hughes, ed.) was recently published.

Contributors include J.I. Packer, Vern Poythress, Scott Oliphint, Paul Helm, Bruce Waltke, Bill Edgar, James Anderson, Esther Meek, Clair Davis, David Powlison, Wayne Grudem, Richard Pratt, and of course John Frame. Steve Hays also made a one-page contribution.

Here is a sample (PDF).

"On the injustice of supralapsarian Calvinism"

Billy Birch has posted a critique of supralapsarianism.

Like a drunken marksman, Birch keeps missing the target.

First, the theory is mere speculation, with absolutely no scriptural warrant. As a matter of fact, the Bible explicitly declares that "God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21 NASB).

How does 1 Cor 1:21 disprove supralapsarianism? Where’s the supporting argument to justify this linkage?

God has conditionally elected to save those whose faith is solely in Jesus Christ His Son.

Of course, appealing to conditional election as though that were a given is tendentious.

Arminianism (or sublapsarianism) might postulate the following order of God's decrees:

1) Create (not out of necessity, as in the supralapsarian model)

Supralapsarianism doesn’t treat creation as necessary.

2) Permit the fall (not decree it, so that it was necessary

What does it mean for an Arminian to say that God “permitted” the fall? Is the fall a naturally inevitable event unless God intervenes to prevent it?

3) Provide atonement and salvation potentially for all (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 4:10; 1 John 2:2

Notice how, without argument, he is glossing those passages in terms of some unrealized potentiality. Where do they say or imply that?

4) Call all to salvation (Rom. 10:14-17)

When, where, and how does God call “all” human beings to salvation? How is this call to salvation issued? Have all human beings been evangelized? Does Birch subscribe to postmortem evangelism? If not, then how is the Gospel made available to every human being?

Or is Birch falling back on natural revelation? Is natural revelation the gospel?

5) Elect (or save, regenerate) all those who believe in Christ (John 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 1:21; Ephesians 1:4)

Where do these verses teach us that election or regeneration is subsequent to faith? And if all human beings already have freewill by virtue of God’s sufficient grace, then what does regeneration add? Likewise, if some men choose God apart from election, then what does election add?

Reprobate all those who reject Christ (John 3:36; Rom. 9:22).

i) How does Birch define “reprobation”? Here he seems to be using “reprobation” as a synonym for damnation. But on that definition, it’s equally true in Calvinism that God reprobates (=damns) all who reject Christ.

ii) Where does Rom 9:22 say or imply that God reprobates individuals because they reject Christ?

Second, the theory of supralapsarianism makes creation a necessity, thus contradicting the explicit teaching of Scripture to the contrary. Paul taught that God is not "served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25 NASB). Supralapsarianism betrays God's aseity. Since God is the all-sufficient One, in need of nothing outside of Himself for His being (or pleasure for that matter), then to suggest that God was indebted to create human beings because He needed them in order to fulfill a decree is to contradict Acts 17:25. Hence, in the supralapsarian scheme, the decree to create human beings was by necessity prior to any decision made about them.

What a terribly confused statement!

i) The “need” in question is teleological. And that state of affairs is conditional and voluntary rather than necessary.

It’s a means-ends relationships. If you set a goal, then you may “need” to achieve that goal through some means or another. There may be more than one hypothetical route to achieve your objective, but you have to settle on one or the other. In that contingent sense, God “needed” certain means to realize his ends. However, God didn’t need to do anything at all.

Given a goal, you may “need” a way to achieve the goal. But the goal is not a given.

ii) The question of “need” is equally true for Arminianism. God “needed” to create the world before he was in a position to save sinful creatures. God “needed” to “permit” the fall before he was in a position to redeem sinners. Without the fall, there would be no sinners to save. Without creation, there would be no creatures to fall. So, by Birch’s own logic, the Bible “explicitly contradicts” Arminian theology.

iii) Birch is quoting Acts 17:25 out of context. In its historical setting, this verse has nothing to do with teleology. Ironically, Birch’s appeal is even out of whack with sound Arminian exegesis. As Witherington explains in his commentary, “V25 asserts that God is not served by human hands, as if God had needs human beings could meet by sacrifices and other religious activities” (525).

So it has reference, in context, to heathen offerings to the gods, and other suchlike. Birch is abusing Scripture to service his preconceived theological agenda.

Third, the decree to elect and reprobate could not logically appear prior to God's decree to create human beings, for He would have no one to elect and reprobate. It is nonsensical to suggest that God found it necessary to elect and reprobate without having yet decreed what or whom to elect and reprobate!

What a silly objection!

i) To begin with, the various “decrees” reflect a teleological order, not a chronological or psychological order. It’s not as if God can only think one thing at a time–in a rigid sequence. The entire plan is present in God’s mind, with all its nested elements.

ii) Keep in mind, too, that we only break it down into a series of “decrees” to highlight the teleological structure of the decree. But it’s not as if this is a literal series of discrete decrees. It’s all one timeless plan–like the plot of a play or novel.

iii) Moreover, the fact that one entity can’t exist unless a prior entity exists doesn’t mean the idea of the subsequent entity depends on the actual existence of the prior entity.

For example, a son cannot exist apart from the prior existence of his father. But the idea of their existence is hardly dependent on their actual existence, in any particular order.

The decree is a divine idea, or set of ideas. God’s complete concept of the world he intends to make.

Fourth, and most significant, supralapsarianism is unjust, for it reprobates human beings who have not yet sinned against God's holy commands. In this scheme, God decreed the fall of humanity subsequent to the decree to create them, subsequent to the decree to reprobate them.

i) In the nature of the case, God makes decisions for his creatures apart from their actual existence. Indeed, they wouldn’t exist in the first place unless he decided to create them. It’s not as if they preexist his decision to bring them into being.

ii) Logically speaking, Arminianism would have to say that God reprobates impenitent sinners based on his foreknowledge of their impenitence. Before they did anything sinful. Human beings who have not yet sinned against God’s law.

The reprobate were created solely for hell.


i) They are created to reveal the justice of God.

ii) They are also created for the benefit of the elect, viz. reprobate fathers of elect sons.

iii) The fact that they are predestined to hell doesn’t mean they were created for the sole purpose of damning them–as if God damned them for the sake of damning them.

iv) In Arminianism, creates human beings whom he foreknows he will damn. He didn’t have to create hellbound sinners. But he does. So he did create them solely for hell?

v) If Arminianism is consistent with its commitment to libertarian freewill, then there’s an alternate possible world in which a hellbound sinner in this world is a heavenbound sinner in the alternative scenario. But God didn’t realize the alternative scenario in which the sinner goes to heaven rather than hell.

So he didn’t give the damned a choice in the matter. Although they had freedom of choice, in the sense of their ability to potentially do otherwise, he didn’t give them the freedom of opportunity to choose which hypothetical outcome would actually play out. They didn’t get to vote on which possible world would become the real world. He didn’t give them a chance to realize a different potential outcome.

They did not yet deserve hell. They had not done anything deserving of hell, for God's primary decree was to elect some to eternal bliss and others to reprobation (eternal hell). The reprobate's ‘fall’ was not fixed until the third decree. This is unjust.

i) The notion that one decree wasn’t “fixed” until another decree was in place imports illicit temporal notions into the decree, as if predestination were a chronological process. To the contrary, it was all “fixed.”

ii) Considered as merely possible persons, there are many different paths which are open to a possible agent. Different logical possibilities. Different logically possible outcomes.

It’s not as though God is making them act contrary to what they were going to do if he hadn’t intervened. God is not preventing them from doing something else which they were planning to do. For there’s no one thing which a possible person could possibly do. Different hypothetical outcomes are logically possible.

The only internal limit is what God can coherently imagine. In the decree, God selects one possible timeline rather than another. Where is the injustice in that procedure? Since there was nothing in particular that a possible person was bent on doing, it’s not as if divine intent is thwarting the plans of a possible agent. God instantiates the hypothetical timeline in which someone goes to hell rather than the hypothetical timeless in which the same person goes to heaven.

How is that unjust? It may not be merciful, but how is that unjust?

One can easily guess where Calvin (as would any supralapsarian Calvinist) wanders off to in answering such objections: mystery, or antinomy. And who can blame them? For their own theology inevitably leads to the insistence that a person cannot know these things, because the Bible does not support such things, nor does it support their presuppositions.

Notice that in responding to Birch, I haven’t resorted to mystery or antinomy. Therefore, my own theology doesn’t inevitably lead to such an appeal.

Mind you, there’s room in Calvinism for mystery. But I haven’t had to take refuge in mystery, much less antinomy, in responding to a single one of Birch’s objections.

This seems to comport with the tenor of Scripture as well as good reason, for it is God's desire to save fallen humanity, not reprobate the majority of creatures whom He created in His image.

i) If God wants to save all men, then why, according to Arminian theology, does God make hellbound sinners whom he foreknew were hellbound sinners? He knew that eventuality prior to making them. Nothing is forcing him to make them. Yet he makes them anyway, in full knowledge of their infernal fate.

ii) Calvinism has no official position on whether or not God reprobates the majority of the human race. Birch has been repeatedly corrected on that falsehood. Why does he persist? Why does Birch think he has the right to lie about Calvinism? Is there something about Arminian ethics which authorizes you to lie about a position you disagree with?

Does Arminianism have the Islamic equivalent of “holy hypocrisy” (Taqiyya and kitman)?

We must not lose sight of two important truths: 1) God is willing to demonstrate His grace to all lost sinners ("For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him," John 3:17 NASB

And in the very same Gospel, Jesus also said: “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (Jn 9:39 NASB).

“Cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).”

It begs the question to merely cite Arminian prooftexts when the correct interpretation of these verses is the very point in dispute.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Interview with Michael Behe

Transcript of McWhorter-Behe Blogginheads Discussion.

Zero tolerance

Several times a year the media reports on the ludicrous application of a zero tolerance policy. A student with asthma is suspended for bringing his inhaler to school. That sort of thing.

Zero tolerance is one of those wonderful ideas that only a liberal could devise.

It’s usually applied to guns and drugs on campus. But there are several obvious problems with a zero tolerance policy:

1.Since the policy is, by definition, inflexible, it inevitably results in some idiotic application or miscarriage of justice. The policy has no room for obvious exceptions or mitigating circumstances. To a zero tolerance policy, a toy gun is no different from a real gun–even though one is dangerous, and the other is not. (And, of course, to disarm the populace can also be dangerous.)

2.Ironically, zero tolerance policies undermine authority. If teachers and administrators are incapable of exercising rudimentary moral and rational discrimination, then the message that sends to young folks is that adults are stupid. It breeds contempt for authority when authority-figures are that mindlessly foolish.

If we want our young people to respect authority, then authorities need to be intellectually respectable.

3.Zero-tolerance policies on firearms are many layers deep:

i) Liberals think that guns cause violence. And the best place to start is with school, when people are young, impressionable, and powerless. Indoctrinate the young on the unmitigated evils of firearms. Convert them to your cause during their formative years.

ii) It also reflects a hatred of masculinity. Guns are too macho for limp-wristed liberals. That’s why school administrators even crack down on harmless contact sports like ball tag. Anything “violent” is evil. Male aggression must be suppressed.

Of course, that’s counterproductive. It just spills over into street gangs.

iii) In addition, liberals firmly believe in social control. They think an upper echelon of official grown-ups should exercise adult supervision over the masses. Liberals want to regulate every aspect of public and private life. Food police. Speech police. Permission to remodel your house or remove a tree from your own backyard.

They want a world with security cameras on every block. A police state. Round the clock surveillance to keep the restive masses in check.

iv) It turns teachers into snitches. And it’s striking how many teachers revel in the chance to rat out a student for some utterly meaningless infraction.

v) There are people who take comfort in rules. And any rules will do. The rules make all their decisions for them. They don’t have to think for themselves. It gives them a sense of security to do what they’re told. They simply memorize the rulebook, and do everything by the book–like wind-up toy soldiers who march in place. And this despite the fact that their precious rulebook is a just a set of man-made rules.

4.I’m struck by how passive parents are in the face of this totalitarian encroachment. Zero tolerance policies can be repealed. And, indeed, there’s a glacial backslash underway. But why does it take so long?

We’ve seen this all before. We’ve seen this under Communism. But why do so many members of a democratic republic volunteer to be handcuffed and assigned to a chain-gang?

5.It’s a standing irony that the education establishment is a magnet for some of the world’s dumbest men and women. Why do we have dumb people teaching the next generation? Shouldn’t teachers be models of wisdom rather than stupidity? That’s certainly the Scriptural model. The wise teach the young.

In God's nursery

“But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’" (Lk 18:16-17).

“It took me till I was out of college to begin to see how immature, even delusional, all this was. You can't grow up, it seems to me, till you learn that you live in a world of impartially random events and that you are responsible for your own actions…Religion now seems to me a kind of nursery school version of philosophy.”

People have conflicted views about childhood. The statement by apostate Robert Price is a favorite atheist cliché. Christians are overgrown children. Can’t cut the apron strings. Cling to infantile make-believe. Need to have a secret friend.

On the other hand, childhood is often upheld as a wistful ideal. The wonder and innocence of childhood. An age of discovery. When we were young, the world was young. When we were small, the world was vast. The nursery was our universe.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which philosophers and scientists are overgrown children. They never outgrow their sense of wonder. If, as children, the grown-ups can’t answer their incessant questions, then when they grow up they go looking for their own answers.

Yet we don’t say they’re immature. We don’t say they suffer from arrested development.

In the past, many men also became explorers–driven by sheer curiosity.

Then there’s the wunderkind. The child prodigy.

He’s a step ahead of his peers. He doesn’t grow up to be like them. Rather, they grow up to be like him–at that age. It takes them years to catch up.

You don’t tell a wunderkind to act his age. What sets him apart is that he is in some ways a man trapped inside a boy’s body. Wise beyond his tender years.

By grace, a Christian is a gifted child. Precocious in the ways of God. He sees the old world through newborn eyes. In God’s nursery–with wallpaper stars.

Misdating The Second Coming

Critics of Christianity often claim that the earliest Christians, particularly Jesus and Paul, falsely predicted that the second coming of Christ would occur before the end of Jesus' generation. William Lane Craig makes some good points about the issue in his October 12 podcast. For those interested in a fuller treatment of the subject, I wrote an article about it a few years ago.

Here are some points to remember:

- Critics who claim that documents like the gospel of Matthew and 1 Thessalonians predict that the second coming will occur before a particular time should be asked about the dating and textual transmission of those documents. It wouldn't make much sense to argue that a document like the gospel of Matthew predicts that the second coming will occur within a few years of 70 A.D. or earlier, and to argue that the early Christians were highly dishonest in their transmission of the text of the New Testament, only to go on to date Matthew well past 70 A.D. and to claim that Jesus' false predictions were preserved in the text even after the predictions were demonstrated to be false. Often, critics of Christianity employ arguments that are inconsistent with each other.

- Ancient Jewish eschatology and early post-apostolic Christian eschatology used language similar to what we see in the New Testament, without a belief that the second coming (or its Jewish equivalent) was certain to occur within the current generation.

- The early Christian (and Jewish) belief that nobody knew the time of the second coming probably included generational units of time, not just months, days, hours, minutes, etc.

- Though Jesus and Paul did sometimes speak as if the second coming could occur within their generation, they also spoke as if it could occur later.

- The earliest opponents of Christianity criticized the slowness of the fulfillment of the eschatological promises, not a failure of fulfillment. We see similar objections to ancient Jewish eschatology, which didn't involve a prediction of eschatological fulfillment within a generation. Trypho, Justin Martyr's Gentile opponents, the heretics Irenaeus addresses, Celsus, and other early opponents of Christianity raise a wide variety of objections against the religion, but a failed prediction of Jesus' second coming within His generation doesn't seem to have been an issue.

"It has often been ignored that in early Jewish literature, in particular some of the apocalyptic material in 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Baruch and elsewhere, wrestles with the concept of the 'flexible' imminence of God's day of vindicating justice. In many ways, the discussion of the so-called delay of the parousia is just a continuation of this early Jewish discussion. In texts like Apoc. Bar. 85:10 we already see the tension between already and not yet, between eschatological hope and the delay of final vindication. That other early Jews could continue to maintain a strong faith in the possible imminence of 'the day' coupled with a discussion of its delay and possible reasons for it should warn us against the assumption that when someone like Jesus or Paul used the language of imminence it precluded any idea of flexibility about the timing or an interval before it happened." (Ben Witherington, Jesus, Paul And The End Of The World [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], n. 29 on p. 263)

"This [the use of 'time' in Mark 13:33 to correspond with 'day or hour' in verse 32] rules out the artful and somewhat humorous dodge suggesting that while Jesus did not know the exact time of the parousia, he knew the generational time it would transpire, namely, within a generation, if not sooner." (Ben Witherington, The Gospel Of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001], p. 349)

"In short, Paul does not refer [in Ephesians 6:3] to a future eternal life but to a present temporal life. In the end, the same general OT principle can be applied to the NT, namely, that obeying and honoring father and mother will bring well-being and a long life on earth. Again, there are going to be exceptions to the rule but the general principle holds....Because of the promise of long life on the earth, Lincoln contends that this could not have been penned by Paul who expected an imminent parousia....This argument is not compelling, for Paul never predicted that the parousia would occur within his lifetime. Even the apostles did not presume to know the time of the parousia since Jesus had told them that even he did not know, only the Father knew (Matt 24:36 = Mark 13:32)." (Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006], p. 793)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On the road to Obamacare

NewsBusters links to another Morgen Richmond YouTube clip, this one of a speech that Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton's labor secretary, delivered on the subject in 2007:

"And by the way, we are going to have to--if you're very old, we're not going to give you all that technology and all those drugs for the last couple of years of your life to keep you maybe going for another couple of months. It's too expensive, so we're going to let you die.”

Love in Winter


Caedmon hated everything about Archer City. Hated the hot, dry, dusty streets. Hated the brown, blighted landscape. Hated the razor-edged horizon, dotted with rusty, whistle-blown oilrigs.

Archer City was like a long-forgotten town you pull into when your car runs out of gas–but never leave. Stalled in time, at the intersection of nowhere in general and nowhere in particular.

For his part, Caedmon grew up in Anacortes. Living in Archer–if “living” was the operative word–he longed for the trees, the sea, the harbor, the rising and receding hills–one above another–and behind it all the snow-lined peaks–like beacons at the edge of the world.

He lived alone with his father, who sold insurance. His mother walked out on them for another man when he was ten. Then his dad was stricken with prostate cancer during his senior year of high school. They caught it late–too late.

Unable to work, his dad’s little business folded, while the bank took what little was left of the pitiful estate.

So Caedmon had to move–move somewhere cheap. And, at the time, it seemed like a good idea to get as far away as possible from Anacortes. Put the grief behind him–literally. Physical, palpable distance. Total separation.

But the grief tailed him all the way to Archer City. There he lived in exile. Rootless. And disconnected. Like tumbleweed that meandered through the eddies of the empty, wind-swept streets. What do you do when you feel far from home, yet you left home when what made it home had ceased to be?

He was mad. Mad at fate. Mad at God. Mad at his Godforsaken excuse of a life.


The only bright spot was Jessica. When she wasn’t working a day shift or night shift at the café, Jessica was a hairdresser at the beauty salon.

He first met her at the café. Because he took an instant liking to her, he was a better tipper than her average customer.

To see her more often, he started going to the beauty salon. He felt out of place there. Frankly, he didn’t care that much about his hair. Much less having it done once a week.

And the beauty salon was really a social club for the town matrons and their giddy girls. Stacked with fashion magazines. Not his cup of tea.

The barbershop, two stores down the block, was where the men hung out. And that’s where he used to go when he first moved in. He felt a bit more at ease, there.

Yet barbers make small-talk, and he wasn’t in the mood for small-talk. He didn’t like to talk about himself. Where he came from. It was still too painful.

Except for Jessica. That’s why he switched to the beauty salon. Just for her. To be with her.

At first he simply enjoyed the rush of having her soft, scented blouse stroke his face as she leaned over to wash his hair. But he also found her easy to open up in her company. Open up a crack at a time.

She was also new to town. Moved there a few years ago. She also missed her hometown–back in Biloxi. But after Katrina hit, her family moved away.

In their different ways, Caedmon and Jessica were both refugees and vagabonds. Each one felt stymied by life in Archer. So they could commiserate.


Yet unlike Caedmon, Jessica wasn’t bitter or angry inside. She had her faith. That was, to her, like a walled garden, hidden in her heart, where she could go to each day to walk and pray

She event invited him to church. But at the time he found that prospect repellent. And yet, the very thing he found repellent was what he found so oddly compelling about her. For that’s what made the difference. That’s what made her different from the other girls. The thing which put promise in her eyes, and hope in her smile. So she was his church. For now.

As the weeks wore on, they spent time together outside of work. For him, it was a spring thaw. Like a frosty bud slowly warming and opening under the steady heat and light the emergent sunshine.

He felt the frozen sap begin to move again. Heard the birds begin to sing again. Breathe again. What once felt hard and dry felt new again.


They married a year later. The wedding took place in Archer Baptist Church, which Jessica attended.

Caedmon moved back to Anacortes with his newlywed–where they attended John Knox Presbyterian Church. He took a job with the Washington State ferry system. In time, Caedmon and Jessica relocated her parents to Anacortes as well–and went for family picnics on the beach.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Born to blush unseen

That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn't create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn't engage in such waste.

Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you've got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean's unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn't He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn't (just) an engineer?

That’s an interesting argument, which is worth exploring a bit more.

i) Craig is challenging the facile appeal to Occam’s Razor–so dear to atheists. And it’s true, as he says, that there’s no antecedent reason why God would necessarily put a premium on efficiency.

After all, even human beings value many this more highly than mere efficiency. It’s not as if art and music constitute an efficient use of one’s time and money. There’s nothing all that efficient about gourmet food.

A flower garden is not a terribly efficient use of one’s time. We don’t own dogs and cats because that’s an efficient use of our resources. Poetry is a rather inefficient means of communication.

A sports car may be an efficient sports car, but it’s not a very efficient mode of transportation. That’s not the point.

We do lots of “wasteful” things because we like to. That’s all.

ii) There’s a somewhat anthropomorphic way in which Craig describes God. Even if God delights in nature, God doesn’t have to make the natural world to delight in it. It would be more than sufficient for God to delight in his complete idea of the natural world. God doesn’t need real time and space to do so.

iii) One possibility which Craig overlooks is that God may create all these wonders for our benefit. That’s one way in which we experience his goodness, and be what we were made to be. The way to find yourself is to lose yourself–in God. In all he is and does.

Craig is partly alluding to some famous lines of poetry:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

And he’s updating, as well as augmenting, the poem just a bit with his reference to far-flung galaxies.

His assumption seems to be that because human beings are bound by space and time, there are many natural wonders and beauties which we miss. Which go unobserved.

Therefore, God must be the observer. It’s for his benefit, and his alone.

And God is, no doubt, the omniscient observer. Nothing escapes him.

It’s equally true that our locality and temporality severely limit what we can enjoy at any one time and place.

Reality has a nearly infinite variety and density of detail. There’s so much happening on any given day, in any given place.

Some artists, like Monet and Georgia O’Keefe, concentrate on exploring, celebrating, and commemorating the same small square of reality. Overturning every autumnal leaf which that tiny square of reality has to offer. And that’s just one lifetime.

Imagine if you could go back in time to the same day, returning to the very same day, day after day, to plumb the depths of just one day. Then repeat that process for other days, in the same place–or other places. A selective intensity of experience.

Philosophers debate whether immorality would be an interminable bore. Yet there’s so much to discover–here, there, and everywhere–past, present, and future. An inexhaustible diversity of experience.

And, of course, that’s the stuff of science fiction. Time travel. The exploration of space. But what is science fiction in the here-and-now may be reality in the hereafter.

We can imagine many things, yet our finite imagination is but a shadow of God’s infinite imagination.

Perhaps the flower which is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air in this life is waiting in the world to come. For the meek shall inherit the earth.

Is Dominic Bnonn Tennant the author of sin?

It has come to my attention that Dominic Bnonn Tennant may be writing a story about an arsonist. Needless to say, I greet this development with utmost trepidation. It would be tragic if the career of such a promising young philosopher were scuttled by so imprudent a deed.

For, were he to do so, Arminians would report him to the authorities as the author of sin.

After all, if you write a story about villains, then that makes you a partner in crime. An accomplice in their villainy. An abettor in their iniquity.

His wife would become a single mom. His young daughter would grow up without a dad.

If I can’t dissuade him from this foolhardy course of action, I’d advise him to name the arsonist Finn. That way, Dominic could at least challenge the indictment as facially invalid since he’s not, in fact, the author of “sin,” but rather, the author of “Finn.”

However, the DA might amend the indictment to charge him as the author of evil, which would moot that particular line of defense.

But, just to cover his bets, perhaps he could name the arsonist Boll weevil Finn.

"A Challenge from Roger Olson for Calvinists"

As I read Mark Talbot's chapter on God and suffering in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor) a thought occurred to me:

Since most Calvinists are harshly critical of the novel The Shack (which takes a similar approach to theodicy as Greg Boyd in Is God to Blame?) because of its alleged undermining of God's glory and sovereignty, why don't they (or one of them) write a similar novel in which God explains to Mack (or someone like him) why his daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered--and avoid language about God permitting or allowing it (which is really Arminian language)? I challenge a consistent "high Calvinist" such as Piper or Talbot to produce such a novel. I would like to see what the popular Christian reaction would be to what God would have to say about such atrocities in such a novel. Talbot pulls no punches; he says that God foreordains such events and is their ultimate cause; they are willed by God and not merely allowed or permitted by God (although even he occasionally uses such language--as do all Calvinists in my experience). At crucial points he pulls back a little and uses language such as God "governs" such events, but the context makes clear he means God renders them certain because they fit into his plan and purpose and are necessary for the full accomplishment of his will.

I look forward to the publication of such a novel; I think it would go far toward turning people away from Calvinism.

Roger Olson

Olson’s challenge raises a number of important issues, not only for Calvinism, but equally so for Olson’s alternative.

1.It’s true that learning more about something can be a major turn-off for certain people. For example, there were some erstwhile disciples of Jesus who, the more they heard, the less they liked what they were hearing. Put another way, the less they knew about Jesus, the more they admired him. But when they found out what he really stood for, they stopped following him (Jn 6). He wasn’t what they thought he was. He wasn’t their kind of Messiah.

Likewise, some churchgoers have never read the Bible from cover-to-cover. All they know are the inspirational tidbits which make it into the lectionary. The greatest hits.

If they ever read the Bible from cover-to-cover, they’d be so shocked and appalled by what they found that they’d resign their church membership in disgust and never look back.

Indeed, there are apostates who tell us that reading the Bible for the first time destroyed their nominal faith in Christianity. They were coasting along just fine until the fateful day when they decided to sit down and read the Bible all the way through from Genesis to Revelation. They never recovered.

2.Then there’s an important truth of practical and pastoral theology. Sometimes the right explanation is the wrong explanation. It may be correct. It may be orthodox. But some people just aren’t ready to hear it.

That’s one of the lessons we can derive from the book of Job. Some of what his friends told him was unobjectionable in its own right. But it was tactless to say those things to a grief-stricken man.

Sometimes the truth doesn’t help. Sometimes it’s futile to explain things to an individual. And that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the explanation, as such.

Suppose, for example, a soldier died in a friendly fire incident. You were there. You were his comrade. You know what went down.

However, his parents are under the mistaken impression that their son died from enemy fire. And they take comfort in that mistaken belief. They take pride in that mistaken belief.

To them, it’s more honorable to die from enemy fire than friendly fire. To their way of thinking, if he died in a friendly fire incident, then he died in vain.

Now, that’s irrational. Either way, their son died serving his country. Had he not volunteered for combat, he’d still be alive. So, however he died, they should be proud of their son.

But they don’t see it that way. And no amount of patient reasoning will ever make them see it differently.

Now, you’re in a position to correct their misimpression. And you could also explain to them that that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

But what’s the point? If you know your words would be hurtful, then why contribute to their loss?

Take another example: suppose an absent-minded teenager forgets to lock the house on his way out the door. As a result, an intruder gains easy entry, and murders the teenager’s 3-year-old brother, who’s playing by himself in the bedroom. And older sister is also in the house, but she’s easily overpowerd by the intruder.

The homicide detective is aware of the fact that the intruder didn’t have to force his way into the house. But he withholds that information from the grieving teenager because, if the boy knew how it happened, he’d unfairly blame himself for the rest of his life. So the detective spares his feelings.

Olson makes it sound as though Calvinists are dishonest and hypocritical. We lowball what Calvinism really represents.

But even if Calvinists are sometimes hesitant to state what their position implies when dealing, let us say, with the victim of some horrendous tragedy, that, of itself, is not an act of dissimulation.

There are many situations in life where discretion is a virtue. Where it’s best to hold your tongue and say less than you know. There are times when we need to take people’s feelings into account. To make allowance for the effect of our words, and let some things pass without comment. To pull our punches.

This isn’t limited to Calvinism. And it in no way impugns the truth of Calvinism.

3.Before we take up Olson’s challenge, let’s discuss his own position. This is how Olson has framed the alternatives. On the one hand, there is the Arminian position, according to which God merely “permits or allows” some atrocity to happen.

On the other hand, there is the Reformed position, according to which “God renders them certain because they fit into his plan and purpose and are necessary for the full accomplishment of his will.” That stands in contrast to the Arminian position.

Well, that comparison raises a number of questions:

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that God merely allows it to happen, I should think a novel written from that perspective would also go far toward turning people away from Arminianism.

After all, when folks blame God for some tragedy, what’s the first question they ask? Don’t they ask, “Why did God allow it?”

They don’t regard divine permission as a solution to the problem of evil. Rather, they regard divine permission as the source of the problem. That’s how they state the problem of evil in the first place–in terms of permission. “Why did God allow it?”

That’s why they are angry with God. Because he allowed it to happen.

So how in the world does Olson think that’s a promising theodicy?

ii) By the way he’s chosen to contrast Calvinism with Arminianism, Olson doesn’t think that God renders an evil certain because it fits into his plan and purpose, as a necessary means to accomplish of his will. So Olson’s alternative would break down as follows:

a) The occurrence of an evil event is uncertain.
b) The occurrence of an evil event is unnecessary.
c) Evil events don’t fit into God’s plan. God has no purpose in allowing them.

iii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is an accurate description of what Arminian theology represents, how is that a plausible theodicy?

How does it exonerate God to say that God has no purpose for allowing evil? That evil events are gratuitously evil. That they don’t fit into his plan for the world?

Doesn’t that make God blameworthy rather than blameless? Shouldn’t God have a purpose for allowing evil? Shouldn’t evil fit into his plan?

Olson makes God sound like an absentee landlord whose apartment complex is a firetrap. If it goes up in flames due to faulty wiring, and dozens of tenants die in the fire, can the landlord plea innocent on the grounds that he allowed it to happen? Can he plead innocent on the grounds that the fire was a gratuitous hazard?

Can he plead innocent on the grounds that it was uncertain to occur? As long as there was a possibility that the firetrap might not catch fire, then that lets him off the hook?

Isn’t the landlord’s negligence the very thing which makes him culpable?

You have to wonder what intellectual cocoon Roger Olson inhabits to seriously imagine that his alternative is any solution to the problem of evil.

iv) But we also have to question the accuracy of his depiction. If he thinks (as he must) that God foreknew the outcome; if he thinks (as he must) that God was free to prevent the outcome, but went right ahead and made a world with that foreseeable outcome, then didn’t God intend that to happen? Indeed, didn’t God foreintend that to happen?

And how can the outcome still be uncertain if God makes a world in which that foreseeable outcome occurs? If God knowingly makes a world containing that foreseeable outcome, then, at that point, how can the outcome still go either way? If it went another way, then that wouldn’t be the same world which God foresaw.

v) Finally, how should a Calvinist respond to Olson’s challenge? Let’s take a concrete example. The case of Tamar (Gen 38). This is one of those tawdry incidents in the OT which offends the easily offended.

The story is rife with evil. Tamar was probably a Canaanite (Cf. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 827). The life of a Canaanite woman would have been pretty grim–even in the best of circumstances. It’s not as if women were valued in heathen civilizations. No code of chivalry back then.

In addition, Tamar was wronged by two different men: her brother-in-law and her father-in-law.

In the ANE, the situation of a childless widow is pretty desperate. As a result, Tamar resorted to the desperate measures that women are prone to when driven to desperation–in this case, incestuous prostitution.

Her ruse resulted in the birth of male twins (Perez, Zerah), fathered by the chieftain. And that, in turn, immediately lifted and secured her social standing.

Yet good things came of this. Good consequences of evil antecedents.

Tamar had a very hard life. But she had a life. Apart from the Fall, she wouldn’t exist. She was the sinful issue of sinful parents. No sin, no such parents, no such offspring.

She also married into a Jewish clan, which gave her the opportunity to come to a saving knowledge of God–something denied to most of her heathen forebears and contemporaries.

And her twin boys were beneficiaries of this evil transaction. It wasn’t evil for them. To the contrary, it was good for them. It gave them life. And, what is more, life among the Chosen People. Both the gift of life and a gifted life. A life gifted by God.

It also served a larger purpose in God’s redemptive plan. As a result, the tribe of Judah became the line of promise (cf. Ps 78:59-72; 1 Chron 5:1-2). And, for her part, Tamar became a link in the chain leading all the way up to Christ (Mt 1:3).

Of course, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. We know how the story ends. We know how things turn out. But from within the story, from Tamar’s timebound perspective, it may seem utterly bleak.

And, of course, future Christians are to us what we are to Tamar. The past makes more sense to those living in the present. Our present is someone else’s past. Our future is someone else’s present.

As timebound creatures, we all find ourselves in inexplicable situations. What was bad at the time may be a future good. What was bad for one man may be good for another.

And that’s how God often operates. Making the best of the worst. This isn’t just an afterthought, either. Rather, it’s a divine strategy which underlies much of human history.

If that’s too much for you to stomach, then you might as well become an atheist. You can sit there on your pink cloud, with your can of air freshener, and rue the terrible things you see below–or else you can agree with God’s way of doing things, and learn to see the hidden wisdom of his ways.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Confusing, archaic, offensive language"

In your writing at Denver Seminary, you will be required to use gender-neutral language.

In older English, still used in some parts of the English-speaking world, generic nouns later referred to by pronouns used a form of the pronoun “he.” (E.g., “The student should bring his Bible to class.” Today, particularly in the United States, there are increasing numbers of individuals who find this kind of language archaic, confusing and/or offensive. There are ways, however, to avoid using the masculine pronoun in contexts like this, and thus make the language gender-neutral.

Good point about the continuing everyday-use of "man." I work in a highly secular, retail environment -- mostly twenty-somethings -- and I hear, not only "man" as a universal plural, but also "he"/"his" as a universal singular. E.g., "If a customer buys a Vista notebook, will he get the free upgrade to Windows 7?"
I never hear either "she" or "they" in everyday language. Only in academic papers.

Should we hire Arminians as first-responders?

One of the expected duties of first-responders is to prevent, when possible, men and women from committing suicide. This can range from gentle persuasion to actively overpowering the suicidal person. Tackling him before he jumps from the ledge or the bridge. Wrestling him to the ground to pry the gun from his fingers. That sort of thing.

This raises the question of whether, in good conscience, an Arminian could discharge his duties as a first-responder. If a man has chosen to commit suicide, and you intervene against his will, then, by definition, isn’t that a flagrant violation of his libertarian freedom?

What possible grounds could you have to contravene his freedom choice? Are you going to say that he’s not in his right mind? That he’s in a state of diminished responsibility?

But I thought God endowed all men with sufficient grace. Through sufficient grace, God has restored their freedom to do otherwise. And that, in turn, grounds their moral responsibility. As libertarian agents, they are, at the one and the same time, responsible agents. Responsible for their choices and attendant actions.

If it would even be improper for their Maker to “force” his human agents to act against their wills, then it would be even more improper for a first-responder to do so.

So should our standard application form be revised to include a little box for the applicant to check in case he happens to be an Arminian, open theist, &c.? Shouldn’t their views of moral responsibility disqualify Arminians from working as first responders?

Love for all, damnation for all


“False dilemma. God is succeeds in loving everyone, and succeeds in saving those who He intends to save (i.e. believers).”

Well, if you’re going to dichotomize God’s redemptive love from his redemptive intent, then Arminianism is consistent with the following outcome:

God loves everyone without exception and damns everyone without exception. God loves absolutely everyone and fully intends to save absolutely no one. God successfully loves every single sinner while he successfully intends to save no one at all.

Suppose a lifeguard says he loves every drowning swimmer, but only rescues those with blond hair and blue eyes. Yet he’s just at successful at loving each and every drowning victim whom he never intends to rescue. For his intention to let them drown should never cast suspicion on the universality of his love.

Once again, we see how much more loving the Arminian gospel is than the Reformed gospel.

For the love of God

Which is more loving?


“As the post states, the issue is what does God intend. I think it can be simply addressed by asserting that God desires all to be saved on a conditional basis rather than unconditionally. Only if God’s intention is to save all unconditionally, and some remain unsaved, could it be said that God failed to accomplish His intentions. But if God desires and intends for all to be saved conditionally, then he has not failed if some refuse to meet the necessary condition, since his intention is not for them to be saved unconditionally.””

Or this?

“God loves his elect unconditionally and consequently gave His only-begotten Son to be their ransom. We who are loved unconditionally cannot earn that love, either by faith or works. It is simply bestowed upon us out of the riches of his grace (Ephesians 2:7), mercy, and compassion (Romans 9:15).”

God's fractional, provisional love

A fond apologetic argument of Calvinists is that if Arminianism is true in regard to universal atonement (i.e., Jesus died for everyone, and not just for the elite few), then he has failed miserably. Here is the argument as one Calvinist wrote to me, "If you believe that Christ was sent into the world to save every single man, Christ has failed... and not only slightly failed, He has failed miserably, for more men than will be saved, will be damned...."

If God's purpose was to save believers, then he is 100% successful. If God's purpose is to save a people who choose to believe in him without him throwing on the all powerful, irresistible and automatic faith switch, then God is 100% successful.

So I suppose how you define success is relevant here. I'm not impressed with the success rate of a God who throws his almighty, all powerful Godness at a hapless human being making him believe! In such cases, of course 100% will believe, but this is nothing to be impressed about. If God were to decide to wipe out 100% of the human race, he'd be successful, but such power goes without saying. I'm much more impressed with a God who loves 100% of his creatures so much that he sent his son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

The sad thing about Calvinists in regard to their claim that Arminianism has a God who miserably fails, is that they will see responses such as mine and realise that their logic is completely flawed and that their argument really isn't worth the time of day. But then, the next time it comes up in a discussion, they will repeat the same lame logical argument or not bother correcting one of their own who uses it.

i) But that does nothing to close the gap between a God who “loves 100% of his creatures” and the percentage of his loved ones whom he actually saves. He still fails to save 100% his loved ones.

ii) Moreover, someone who subscribes to limited atonement or unconditional election can also say that God was successful in saving those, and only those, he intended to save.

iii) Furthermore, sure–you can say “If God's purpose was to save believers, then he is 100% successful”–but how is that successful in relation to the universal extent of the atonement? If the atonement is for 100% of sinners, but only a fraction of sinners is saved by the atonement (even if it’s a high percentile), then there’s a gap between the extent of the atonement and the extent of the saints. A 100% atonement is unsuccessfully in saving 100% of those for whom atonement was made.

As the post states, the issue is what does God intend. I think it can be simply addressed by asserting that God desires all to be saved on a conditional basis rather than unconditionally. Only if God’s intention is to save all unconditionally, and some remain unsaved, could it be said that God failed to accomplish His intentions. But if God desires and intends for all to be saved conditionally, then he has not failed if some refuse to meet the necessary condition, since his intention is not for them to be saved unconditionally.

i) Of course, a Calvinist also appeals to divine intent to circumscribe the scope of the atonement.

ii) A Calvinist could also apply that distinction to Arminian prooftexts like 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9.

iii) If you qualify God’s redemptive love or will in that fashion, by placing conditions on his redemptive love or will–conditions which may or may not be met–then you put limits on God’s redemptive love or will.

Once you read the fine print of Arminian theology, with its parenthetical caveats regarding God’s redemptive love or redemptive will, then it loses a lot of its prima facie appeal.

Instead, it becomes a quid pro quo, like a dad who tells his son, I’ll keep loving you as long as you score touchdowns and make the old man proud.

God loves us if we do something in return. Suddenly, the Arminian gospel doesn’t seem all that magnanimous in contrast to Calvinism. All of a sudden, the Arminian gospel got a whole lot smaller. The fractional love of God. The provisional love of God.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Judge, jury, and executioner


“Why, though, if such things are within the realm of morality (and may even bear a moral mandate)?”

i) Since I don’t equate sadism with punishment, you’re building on a false premise.

ii) Moreover, I haven’t taken a position on what type of punishment is appropriate for the damned. That’s not my call.

I don’t share Reppert’s pretensions to omniscience regarding the proper or improper type of punishment in any given case.

iii) Furthermore, I have more intuitive confidence regarding what is unjust than what is just. There are cases in which I’m simply at a loss to know what punishment fits the crime.

I have a clearer sense of what punishment is too light in heinous cases than of what punishment is too harsh in heinous cases. I find it easier to say if the bar is set too low than if the bar is set to high.

“My point is that in life, we refrain from inflicting certain kinds of suffering (even upon the most heinous of criminals) as being in themselves intrinsically evil.”

That depends in part on who carries out the punishment. Suppose a pedophile kidnaps a 5-year-old girl, sodomizes her, then buries her alive.

Suppose her dad tracks him down and tortures him to death. Frankly, I’m in no position to judge the actions of the father. That didn’t happen to my daughter. If I were a juror, I’d vote to acquit the dad.

I don’t feel morally competent to evaluate his actions one way or the other. That’s something I’d leave to God.

If, on the other hand, I were the executioner, then I wouldn’t feel justified in doing what he did. I’m not the affected party.

It might well be right for the father, as an injured party, to do something, which would be wrong of me to do since I wasn’t the affected party.

How to gamble with someone else's money

Before I respond to some questions and objections on whether or when public assistance is appropriate, we need to take a few steps back.

Liberals have a habit of saddling conservatives with social problems which are either caused or exacerbated by liberal policies, then taunting us to deal with the end-result.

On this view, we’re supposed to take the end-result as a given. More to the point, we’re supposed to take the liberal policies which result in this outcome as a given. Liberals create a problem, dump the mess on our lap, then demand to know how we’d fix their problem–without, of course, laying a hand on the social program that gave rise to the problem in the first place.

Of course, that rigs the debate. It’s quite premature to even address the issue of public assistance before we have a chance to explore different social policies which might yield a better result.

This is not just a case of how to treat the problem, under the operating assumption that the problem is a fait accompli. For what happens downstream depends on what happens upstream. Instead of taking the outcome for granted, what about considering different policies which raise the bottom-line? Take two examples:

1.To the extent that poverty is the result of misguided socioeconomic policies, we can ameliorate that problem by revamping our polices. You change the result by changing the policy. What would be the net effect of a tax code that makes small businesses and corporations more profitable and competitive? A tax code that promotes private investment, as well as corporate R&D? Same thing with tort reform.

Socioeconomic policies that promote prosperity rather than poverty.

2.Or take a raft of education reforms:

i) School choice

Competition for quality education, viz., tax credits for private schooling and homeschooling.

ii) Vocational education

Part of the core curriculum (not just electives) should include courses which give students useful or marketable skills, viz. automechanics, bushcraft, carpentry, plumbing, computer science, first aid, home-ec, electrical and electronics engineering, infant & toddler care.

iv) Gender-specific education

It’s well-known that men and women generally have different priorities, cognitive abilities, and modes of learning.

For example, men tend to prefer a more hands-on approach to education, rather than sitting in a stuffy classroom, staring at a chalkboard or textbook.

vi) Placement tests

Why do we try to teach every student math and science when some students have no aptitude for math and science? Students should be screened according to their cognitive aptitude. Their education should be adapted to their cognitive aptitude.

Likewise, if you’re going to teach math in junior high, middle school, and high school, it ought to be applied mathematics. Something that’s useful to most students.

vi) Social ethics

The Bible has a whole book on social ethics (Proverbs) which would teach boys and girls vital social skills.

vii) Learning by playing

Since teenagers like to dance, party, and hang out, why not make a virtue of necessity?

Make junior high, middle school, and high school musicals a part of the core curriculum. A musical is a highly collaborative, popular, and participatory art-form which can engage a variety of students in a variety of tasks.

Moreover, the plot of a musical can be written to model important social skills.

Furthermore, a musical can also teach history, or foster an interest in history. It could be a period piece, set in a different time and place.

To take another example, adults sometimes lament how much time boys waste on videogames. However, that medium could be a very effective way of teaching students certain useful or marketable skills.

To take yet another example: there’s such a thing a recreational mathematics. That can be a more compelling way of teaching math that staring at equations on the chalkboard or textbook.

Likewise, origami, tessellation, and crystallography can be appealing ways to model certain mathematical problems and solutions.

If we make education more fun and functional, that would lower dropout rates and make graduates more employable. It would also equip them with useful skills around the house.

3.Every socioeconomic system, be it capitalism, social, communism, or variants and combinations thereof, has its share of horror stories.

That being the case, the first question we need to ask is whether a policy initiative is just or unjust. And justice is determined by our social obligations, which vary.


“Although this is an interesting and informative post, it never quite answers the question of what governmental aid to poor citizens a Christian ought to support.”

Unless and until I need to cross that bridge, why should I try to answer such a question? Why don’t we start by implementing better policies, and then see what residual problems are left over?

“Would you accept the claim that we should aim for a society in which those who can work but don't don't eat, but those who do work, or can't work, should?”


“Do you think of it as a travesty that some people work full time and sleep in their cars? ”

Why would that be an argument for public assistance? Shouldn’t we be asking other questions? Such as:

Are they underpaid? If so, why so? Because their employer is stingy? Because their employer can’t afford to pay them anymore? If so, why is that the case?

Are they paid a fair wage, but blow their paycheck on booze, gambling, &c?

“Since we can't investigate every case of poverty for its causes, should we err on the side of generosity, or not?”

i) So you’re saying we should garnish the wages of responsible breadwinners and transfer a portion of their income to those who may be poor because they’re crack-addicts or blow their money on the lottery, &c.? Why, by your own admission, would we be giving public money to recipients we haven’t even screened?

Why should we be generous with someone else’s earnings? Do you think that’s play-money? Do you think the average wage-earner doesn’t need his paycheck to actually live on?

ii) Moreover, your “generosity” comes at someone else’s expense. Suppose hardworking parents want to send their kids to private school. The school is safer. Has higher academic standards. Better values.

But they can’t afford to because the gov’t forces them to subsidize the lifestyle of a welfare queen or illegal immigrant.

Likewise, suppose a man would like to start a small business. Not only will this help him support his own family, but it will help other families by providing jobs for his employees.

But he lacks the startup capital to launch his business because the gov’t is forking over a portion of his wages to provide foreign aid for poor Haitians or Palestinians or Sudanese.

“Some governmental institutions designed to help people seem to have worked reasonably well. How do you account for that?”

I don’t know what institutions you have in mind. Do you think the Bureau of Indian Affairs has bettered the lives of American Indians over the years?

What about Head Start? Are inner city kids better off today than they were in 1965, when that program was instituted? What about the VA? Do you think Walter Reed is a success story? What about forced bussing? Was that another success story?

Perhaps you’re alluding to Social Security and Medicare. Of course, both those institutions are actuarially insolvent. To the extent that they worked “reasonably well,” that’s because they were underwritten by the baby-boomers. But that’s unsustainable.

Laws of utility and laws of morality


“Well, you have two types of offenses in the criminal law. You have offense where the penalty is set and is clearly finite. These range from jaywalking, to which a fine is attached, to serious felonies that require long prison terms.”

That depends on what theory of punishment underwrites penology. For a penologist who subscribes to remedial punishment, a sentence is indefinite rather than definite. The duration of punishment is contingent on the successful rehabilitation of the offender.

“But there is a boundary on how much we think we should punish. When the time is done, the prisoner gets out. We do not inflict a hell-like punishment on such people, there is a proportionality that is observed and imposes an upper limit on the offense.”

i) As a practical matter, we couldn’t inflict a hellish punishment on any offender, no matter how heinous the offense. We lack the resources.

ii) On the other hand, there are science fiction scenarios in which it’s possible to inflict a hellish punishment (however you define infernal punishment) on the offender.

So, for purposes of philosophical analysis, we aren’t limited to real world remedies.

iii) In addition, we don’t normally regard certain infractions like jaywalking as cases of actual wrongdoing. Rather, those are laws of utility.

So you’d have to distinguish between laws of utility and laws of morality. Culpability involves laws of morality, not laws of utility.

“With some other offenses, we either imprison for life or execute the prisoner. In fact, in some cases we choose life in prison over execution, which in one sense limits the penalty. There is something we could take away that we don't take away.”

Once again, we are limited to the forms of punishment available to us.

“From the perspective of the criminal justice system, punishment exculpates in all cases except capital cases.”

i) That’s obviously false. Once again, it depends on what theory of punishment is guiding the penologist. If the ostensible purpose of punishment is to deter prospective criminals, then serving out one’s sentence is not intended to absolve the offender. Likewise, if the ostensible purpose of punishment is to incapacitate the offender (e.g. incarceration, execution), then serving out one’s sentence is not intended to absolve the offender.

Likewise, if the penologist is a utilitarian, then absolution is not the objective.

Likewise, a deontologist will have a different theory of punishment than a utilitarian.

ii) I’d also add that we don’t have to have a uniform theory of punishment for every crime. It depends on the nature of the offense. For example, retributive punishment would correspond to laws of morality, but not to laws of utility.

To break a law of utility may be a crime, but it’s not morally culpable, per se. Therefore, the purpose of the fine is not to exculpate the offender. He’s “guilty” in the legal sense (a legal technicality), but he’s not guilty in the moral sense. In this case, a fine doesn’t represent a just desert. Not all crimes are wrongs (unless you’re a contract theorist and legal positivist).

“But hell is not only for capital criminals. So even if there are some offenses which deserve everlasting punishment from the point of view of the criminal justice system, I have surely done nothing worthy of that kind of punishment. Yet, presumably, I have done something worthy of hell, and so have you. Most people have not committed crimes worthy or unlimited judicial punishment. So your defense of hell is of limited value even if it works.”

i) I don’t think you grasp the function of these illustrations. A retributivist proponent of everlasting punishment isn’t necessarily arguing that certain crimes which one man commits against his fellow man merit everlasting punishment.

Rather, we cite certain paradigm-cases of evil as an intuitive argument from analogy. Hitler may or may not deserve eternal punishment for his role in the Holocaust. My argument doesn’t require that assumption.

Rather, I’m using examples like that to illustrate a principle, not prove a principle. It’s an appeal to common ground.

Take the popular catchphrase: “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”

Many think certain crimes cross a line of no return. That there’s no adequate punishment for crimes of that sort. That’s the principle I’m illustrating with paradigm-cases of evil.

ii) The ultimate basis for damnation is not one man wronging his fellow man, but a man wronging his God.

Now, for all I know, Hitler’s crimes against humanity may well merit everlasting punishment–above and beyond the way he wronged his Maker.

But what makes a wrongdoer deserving of hell, regardless of whatever else he may have done, is his failure to give God his due. Dereliction of duty to his Maker–to whom he owes his being and wellbeing. The exemplary good from whom all mundane goods derive.

iii) At the same time, that’s a difference of degree, not of kind. The degree of culpability is indexed to the degree of responsibility. We have higher obligations to those who have higher claims on our gratitude.

We have the highest obligations to God. But that represents the end-point of a continuum. We have a range of higher and lower social obligations–with God at one end of the spectrum. God is the exemplary good-of which every mundane good is a property-instance.

“Further, you are making the argument from intuition.”

I use arguments from intuition to counter arguments from intuition.

“You are using the remarks of an atheist philosopher to justify your position on hell.”

I’m building on a premise, which he supplies. A tu quoque argument.

“So you have to make your case to me using the criminal justice system, and Grayling's remarks about it, as an intuition pump. This is strategically problematic.”

No ethical appeal is going to be universally persuasive. What a deontologist finds convincing, a utilitarian may find unconvincing. What John Rawls finds convincing, Ernest van den Haag may find unconvincing. What a longshoreman finds convincing, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times may find unconvincing.