Saturday, August 10, 2013

Is John's gospel history or theology?


i) I notice that members of the MacArthur circle frame the issue in terms of "sign-gifts." I'm struck by their unquestioned reliance on this category. Let's compare that with some charismatic phenomena in the NT:
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot” (Acts 8:26-29). 
9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (Acts 10:9-13). 
9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:9-10). 
9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10).

ii) These are revelatory or "prophetic" phenomena. It's the kind of charismatic phenomena that cessationists tell us petered out with the death of the apostles or apostolic generation. 
iii) Yet in what sense are these instances of the "sign-gifts"? Signs for whom? These are private revelations, not public revelations. Revelatory dreams and visions are psychological experiences, not public events. Likewise, an angel or the Spirit speaking to Philip. 
Cessationists pride themselves in their strict adherence to Scripture, yet they frame the issue in categories ("sign-gifts") that are not a close fit with all of the relevant Biblical data. 
iv) However, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all the charismata were "sign-gifts." How would that identification imply their termination at the end of the apostolic era? For instance, I don't think John Wimber (a la Power Evangelism) would object to classifying miracles a sign-gifts. And he would say that if these were needed to attest the Gospel message in the first Christian generation, there's continuous need of that inasmuch as Christianity is always new to the up-and-coming generation. 
Now, we might debate the merits of that contention, but my immediate point is that classifying miracles a sign-gifts doesn't logically suggest an expiration date. 

Primary and secondary sources

I'm going to comment on a few more of Ed's characteristically irrational remarks:
Would Hays deny that a person reared in the Muslim faith is in a unique position to comment on Muslim theology? Would he deny that a Mormon practitioner is also uniquely qualified to comment on Mormon theology? He can if he wants but he would be foolish to do so.

So, by his own logic, it would be foolish for Ed to deny that Sam Storms is uniquely qualified to comment on cessationism.

Hays then creates some artificial categories in hopes of showing that his reasoning is valid and sound. There is nothing secondary about the revelation that is Scripture. To separate the revelation in Scripture from the revelation of Scripture is utterly ridiculous and impossible. 
I reject the classification of these revelations as extra biblical. You see, extra biblical has a very specific meaning in our context. Surely Steve knows this. By extra biblical, we mean revelations from God apart from the authoritative revelation of Scripture. 
I am sorry, but to argue that the content of Scripture itself is extra biblical revelation is frankly a foolish and absurd proposition. 

Ed pay's lip-service to Scripture, but he disregards the specifics. God gave Abimelech a dream "apart" from Scripture. God gave Pilate's wife a dream "apart" from Scripture. The Biblical record wasn't the source of the dream. Rather, the dream was the source of Biblical record. Those revelatory dreams have their origin outside of Scripture. They were causally and originally extrabiblical revelations. 

To take a comparison, there's nothing outlandish in pointing out that Luke consulted extrabiblical sources when composing his gospel. He himself indicates as much in the prologue to his Gospel. His Gospel is a secondary source in relation to those primary sources. To some extent, his Gospel incorporates information which originated elsewhere. Those are factual categories, not "artificial" categories. 

ROFL. So what then is Steve's basis for current, modern, Pentecostal "revelations" NOT being included in Scripture? If revelation continues, why is the canon closed? If all revelations are equal, what about my revelation that says that canon should remain open? Essentially, we should still be writing the Bible. The canon expands with each new generation and their own respective revelations. 

i) I'm not vouching for "modern Pentecostal revelations." However, Ed's objection proves too much. Scripture is very selective. Even during the age of public revelation, Bible writers didn't commit all "revelations" to writing. Take John's disclaimer:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-31).
ii) Ed also fails to distinguish between private and public revelation. 

Finally, to compare the genuine revelation of Scripture and in Scripture with modern Pentecostal revelation might make for stimulating conversation to some people, the fact is that it is just plain ridiculous. 

How is comparing the dream of Abimelech or the dream of Pilate's wife to a Christian who says he had a premonitory dream inherently "ridiculous"? If you assume at the outset that God no longer does what he did in the case of Abimelech or Pilate's wife, then the comparison won't hold. But that assumption begs the very issue in dispute. 

By what standard do we judge these supposed revelations? Well, we cannot judge them! They are the words of God. Who are we to judge God's word?

i) By what standard was Abimelech or Pilate's wife supposed to judge their dreams? What does Ed think they should have done in that situation? 

ii) There's an obvious distinction between personal experience and reported experience. 

iii) Notice how Ed fails to distinguish between verbal and visionary revelation. 

iv) Luke treats Agabus as a genuine prophet, yet Paul feels free to disregard his advice. 

In addition, we may not be able even to judge failed prophecies because God may have changed His mind. In Pentecostal theology, God is allowed to do that you know. The understanding of human free will is far worse than you could imagine in that system.

Since some charismatics are Calvinists, that's demonstrably false. 

The Magi

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him"…12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way (Mt 2:1-2,12).
Commentators are puzzled by how the Magi connected the star to the birth of Jesus. That the Magi might connect a striking stellar phenomenon to the birth of a significant personage is not surprising. In the ancient world, astronomical "prodigies" were often thought to portend significant events, like a royal birth. 
What's puzzling is the specificity of the association. How does the star single out the birth of Jesus? 
According to one theory, the Magi came from Babylonia. There was a Jewish community in Babylonia. Due to the duration of the Babylonian Exile, you had second and third-generation Jews who were born there. Some of them stayed behind because, for them, that was home. They didn't view themselves as expatriates. For them, Palestine was a foreign land. So it's possible that the Magi learned about Num 24:17 from their Jewish neighbors. 
That's all very iffy, but it's one possible explanation. However, v12 might suggest another possible source of information. Since these particular Magi were subject to revelatory dreams, that might supplement their astrological observations. They don't mention this to Herod, but there's no reason to expect they'd give him a full debriefing of all the factors that led them to Jerusalem. 

"Extrabiblical revelation"

I'm going to comment on some recent remarks by Ed Dingess:
For the record, I come to this subject uniquely qualified to speak about it. I was converted in a Pentecostal Church some 34 years ago. I was a licensed minister in the Church of God, Cleveland TN.

Of course, the traffic goes both ways. Does that mean Sam Storms is uniquely qualified to speak about cessationism? 

Core to Pentecostal theology is that extra biblical revelation is legitimate…Once you open the door for extra biblical revelation, there is no way to close it.

Let's consider some examples of extrabiblical revelation:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man's wife” (Gen 20:3). 
10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! (Gen 28:10-12). 
Then he [Joseph] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Gen 37:9). 
After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke (Gen 41:1-4). 
When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, “Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat” (Jdgs 7:13).  
10 The visions of my head as I [Nebuchadnezzar] lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it (Dan 4:10-11). 
And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they [the Magi] departed to their own country by another way (Mt 2:12). 
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). 
Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19). 
It may not occur to a careless reader to classify these revelatory dreams as extrabiblical because we read about them in Scripture. In that secondary and derivative sense, they are "biblical."
But originally, these were extrabiblical revelations for the recipient. Abimelech, Jacob, Joseph, Pharaoh, the soldier, Nebuchadnezzar, the Magi, Jesus' stepfather, and Pilate's wife didn't learn about these dreams by reading the Bible. That's not their source of information. Rather, they received these dreams from outside the Bible, by direct revelation. 
Does Ed think these extrabiblical revelations were illegitimate? That's the problem for people like Ed. They pride themselves on their fidelity to Scripture, but they aren't really beginning with the witness of Scripture. Rather, they begin with their preconceive theory. 
Pentecostal theology naturally produces charlatans by permitting extra biblical revelation and the prosperity doctrine in conjunction with each other.

Extrabiblical revelation and the prosperity doctrine are logically separable. 

Now, I think Pentecostal theology does foster false expectations. That, in turn, leads to predictable excesses, abuses, and disillusionment. 

Keep in mind that this cuts both ways. Historically, hardline cessationism can lead to Deism or veiled atheism (e.g. Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, Conyers Middleton).  

Hays points to a tiny portion of Pentecostals, a very tiny portion as if the presence of this infinitesimally small number is really a better representation of Pentecostal theology than Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton, Ken Hagan, Ken Copeland, Fred Price, etc. 

Ed is equivocating between numerical representation and which representatives of a position make the best case for that position.
The Church is a mess, she will always be a mess, so save your energy and stop this nonsense of trying to straighten the Church up. This position is absolutely preposterous.

What's preposterous is Ed's characteristic misrepresentation. He's an unscrupulous critic of unscrupulous charismatics. Two of a kind. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Craig Evans on Zealot

Hypocrites chiding hypocrites

I'm going to comment on a self-interview by Frank Turk:

Permit me to lead with a disclaimer. I don't have a personal stake in this issue. I'm not Pentecostal. Likewise, I don't claim to be a healer,  prophet, or exorcist. I don't speak in tongues. I've witnessed no angelic apparitions.  

I do think their approach is very destructive to apologetics, which concerns me. But that's a different issue. 

FT: Well, it's Twitter.  You have to gauge the method by the medium.  Should DJP have rather posted a series of TwitLonger pieces on the faults of Charismatics and their theology so he was fully nuanced and well-measured?  Should that have been the trend?
What I think is this: when the so-called serious and sober Charismatics start policing their own and teaching their followers that one of the real gifts of the Spirit is discernment, and we don't charm the Holy Spirit by being gullible any more than we grieve Him by being critical of people using His name to get rich, I'll be more worried about being nuanced toward them.  I don't think it's unkind in the least to tell someone, however sincere, that they are at best being undiscerning and sloppy -- and at worst, they are actually harming other people with gullibility and spiritual chaos.
TPSP: how about we clean up a few items quickly to close here as a sort of speed round.  I'll give a topic or concern, and you give me the 50-word response.
FT: So, like Twitter?
TPSP: {glowers}
FT: I'm not bothered.
TPSP: There are a lot of credible men who are committed Charismatics. 
FT: I'd say that their commitment to Charismaticism -- especially their silence and acceptance of the rampant hooliganisms in the movement -- calls into question the rest of their track record.  Their otherwise-orthodox views don't make their approach to this stuff somehow rubber-stamped for acceptance.

Several problems:

i) There's a fundamental difference between attacking an individual representative, and attacking the belief-system he represents. If the Strange Fire conference wants to attack Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, et al., more power to them. However, that no more disproves charismatic theology or hermeneutics than the example of Paul Hill disproves Presbyterian theology.

In this respect, Frank Turk and Dan Phillips are just as dishonest as Joseph Smith and Paula White. Dishonest in a different way. They are cutting corners on the truth by acting as if they can discredit charismatic theology by discrediting some Pentecostal charlatans. That tactic is glaringly fallacious. 

If you're going to make an honest case against charismatic theology, you need to critique the best representatives as well as the worst representatives. And you need to critique arguments. It's morally and intellectually incumbent on you to engage the best exegetical case for charismatic theology, viz.  Craig Keener, The Spirit in the Gospels and Acts: Divine Purity and Power; The Gift and the Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today; Gordon Fee, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul.

Likewise, you need to engage important mediating positions, viz. D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians, 12-14.

Dan and Frank keep doing this bait-n-switch, as if attacking a charlatan is any substitute for engaging serious charismatic scholarship. 

ii) What does Frank mean by "policing their own?" Has Gordon Fee been "silent" on the excesses of Pentecostalism? Is Frank even aware of Fee's classic exposé: The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels? Isn't that a good example of "serious and sober Charismatics" policing their own? 

Once again, it looks as if Frank and his cohorts suffer from self-reinforcing ignorance. They accuse the "serious and sober Charismatics" of failing to police their own, but seem to be willfully uninformed of what "serious and sober Charismatics" have actually done in that respect.

If so, then this is just another instance of how Frank and his cohorts are no more honest than the charlatans they deride. Hypocrites chiding other hypocrites. 

What makes hypocrisy an insidious sin is that hypocrites don't view themselves as hypocritical. That wasn't the self-image of the Pharisees. They were only hypocritical to outsiders. Hypocrisy can blind you to your own hypocrisy. 

iii) "Policing" is a catchy metaphor, but it's not as if the "serious and sober Charismatics" can place a gag order or stop-work order on the antics of charlatans. 

iv) Finally, the church has always been a mess. The NT church is no exception. Just read 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Galatians, Colossians, Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, 1 John, Rev 2-3, &c. 

The church will always be a mess, both because Christians are sinners, and also because the visible church is, to some ineluctable degree, a mixed multitude of true and nominal believers. 

Is "white privilege" unfair?

Is so-called "white privilege" unfair? An obvious problem with the "white privilege" allegation is that it's a meaningless abstraction. Meaningless because it's a hasty generalization. There are so many exceptions in both directions. The Obama daughters will enjoy many advantages that most whites never will. 

As far as that goes, we could talk about black privilege. Most black Americans are far better off than most black Africans. Is that unfair to black Africans? Should they seek reparations from black Americans?
But let's take a comparison. Rich kids enjoy certain advantages not enjoyed by poor or middle class kids. Is that unfair? Does that need to be redressed?
Well, if poor kids are poor because their parents made lousy lifestyle choices, it's unfair that the kids should have to suffer for the folly of their parents. But that doesn't mean the rich were unfair to the poor. And it doesn't mean I should feel guilty. I'm not their neglectful father or mother. 
Conversely, is it wrong for kids to benefit from the labor of responsible parents? By definition, most kids (especially young kids) are consumers rather than producers. They were born into a situation where they are cared for. They did nothing to earn it or deserve it. Is that unfair? Is that a social injustice? 
If a man is wealthy because he is smart and diligent, is there some reason his wife and kids shouldn't benefit from his hard work? As long as he made his fortune by honest means, isn't he entitled to spend his money however he pleases? It's his money. He made it the hard way. If he spends his own money on his kids, is that unfair? Unfair to whom? 
Maybe his son drives a Porsche to school while I ride a bike. Should I feel wronged? Am I a victim of social injustice? Does his dad owe me a Porsche too? 
I benefit from computer technology I didn't invent. Is that unfair? 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Sticks and stones

A friend and I got into a discussion of the Riley Cooper kerfuffle. I'll make a few brief observations:
i) As a Christian, I don't condone racial slurs or racial epithets. 
ii) That said, when two men get mad at each other, when they get into a heated, face-to-face confrontation, it's not unusual for them to swear at each other. And this is never truer than in sports. I think cussing matches are pretty common in sports. I'd add that nowadays, a lot of women and teenage girls are just as coarse. 
In that setting, many men will resort to every salty epithet in the urban dictionary. The fact that Cooper cursed someone out goes with the territory. 
Is that sub-Christian? Sure. But many of the pundits who revile him aren't Christian. 
Indeed, his liberal critics are very fond of expletives in their own discourse. So their Victorian reaction in this case is pretty rich, all things considered.
iii) It also illustrates the triviality of liberal ethics. Their fanatical obsession with speech codes. With words
Liberals have these ersatz moral tripwires. If you use a certain word, like a "homophobic" slang word, that's a death sentence. Your doom is sealed. That's a career-killer. Off to Siberia. 
Fact is, words are only hurtful if you give the speaker power over you. If you care what he thinks of you. That's quite different from objective harm. Liberals promote many objectively harmful policies. 
iv) Historically, what made the N-word so demeaning wasn't the use of the N-word all by itself. Rather, back in the antebellum South or Jim Crow South, a white man could demean a black man with impunity, and he knew it. He knew the black man had to sit there and take it. This gave white cowards the chance to play king for a day, knowing they could demean a black man without fear of reprisal. 
What makes the N-word so demeaning was the veiled threat behind the N-word: a whipping or lynching if the black got uppity with a white man. It was a taunt. "I dare to you talk back to me!" 
But nowadays, there's nothing behind the word. The calvary won't come riding over the hill to save your bacon. If a white man walks into a Harlem bar and starts throwing the N-word around, the next stop is a trip to the E.R. 
So it doesn't pack the same punch. It's a fighting word, but one you use at your own risk. Those who fish in troubled waters end up as lunch meat for sharks.
v) Liberals presume to be the moral arbiters for everyone else. They take it upon themselves to dictate to the rest of us what's virtuous and what's out of bounds. They get away with it because they have just enough people cowed by their act to let them get away with it. They recruit Quislings to enforce their totalitarian strictures. 

What is prophecy?

The nature of prophecy is one of the dividing lines between cessationists and charismatics.
i) Cessationists frequently distinguish between mediate and immediate miracles. They deny that God still works miracles through human agents. But they make allowance for God to work miracles apart from human agency.
ii) This distinction is deployed to rule out the spiritual gifts. But is that consistent?
Take prophecy. From what I've read, the continuation of prophecy is what cessationists find most objectionable. They find that more objectionable than tongues or faith-healers. That's because they think continued prophecy jeopardizes the sufficiency of Scripture. It yields an open canon. A rival canon. 
But one problem is how to classify prophecy according to this rubric. What kind of miracle is prophecy? Immediate or mediate?
Prophecy can be either. God can give one person a message to share with others. That would be a mediate miracle, where God conveys his message to others through a spokesman.
However, God can also speak to an individual for the individual's benefit. Private rather than public revelation. That would be an immediate miracle. God is speaking directly to that individual rather than through that individual. He's not using that individual as an intermediary to communicate with others. That's not for public consumption. Not for posterity. Not for the church. Not to be included in the lectionary. 
Yet I think cessationists regard continuing private revelation as scarcely less objectionable than continuing public. But in that event, the cessationist classification scheme fails to filter out the kind of miracle that they most oppose. 
iii) Let's go back to the question of whether continuing prophecy threatens the canon of Scripture.  One charismatic response is to point out that NT examples of prophecy aren't about ethics and doctrine, but directions like "Go here!" or "Don't go there!" That's not the sort of thing Scripture tells you anyway. So the content is a differential factor.
iv) Another charismatic response is to say continuing prophecy is fallible. Cessationists respond by objecting that the notion of fallible prophecy is confusing.
However, I think that debate may be a category mistake. It depends on how we define "prophecy." In the Book of Acts, the programmatic passage is 2:17ff. That passages invites a distinction between verbal and visionary prophecies. Prophetic dreams are visionary revelation rather than propositional revelation. Strictly speaking, visionary revelation isn't true or false, fallible or infallible. Pictures aren't propositions. Imagery doesn't affirm or deny something to be the case. 
v) In addition, there's a further distinction between allegorical and representational dreams. Allegorical dreams (and visions) employ figurative imagery. Taken in isolation, the meaning is ambiguous. What do the picturesque metaphors stand for? 
That may not be recognizable in advance. Rather, that may only be recognizable after the fact. But that's still edifying, because it shows us that God knows and controls the future. 

Can God be chained?

The debate between cessationists and charismatics is typically polarized between two absolute, opposing positions:
i) On the one hand, cessationists take a proscriptive position. The "spiritual gifts" don't continue at all during the church age. There are no genuine Christian healers, prophets, exorcists, or thaumaturges during the church age. God may still work miracles, but not through human agents.
ii) On the other hand, charismatics take a prescriptive position. The "spiritual gifts" ought to continue throughout the church age. The "spiritual gifts" are available to every Christian. Every Christian ought to have one or more of the "spiritual gifts."
Both sides hammer the Bible to squeeze out their position. Both sides standardize the divine modus operandi. 
iii) I'd simply point out that, logically speaking, that's a false dichotomy. For these two options don't exhaust the logical alternatives. On the face of it, there's a mediating position. 
A Christian could say the NT is open-ended on the status of the "spiritual gifts." It doesn't prescribe or proscribe what God is prepared to do in the future. It's largely silent about the course of church history in that respect. Maybe God raises up a healer at a particular time and place, but doesn't do so on a regular basis. Perhaps we don't know in advance if Christians can still exorcise demoniacs. Maybe that's something we have to discover. Maybe God is not as predictable as we'd like to make him. Perhaps he resists our efforts to domesticate his field of action. 
Now, a logical alternative may not be correct. It's something we have to test against Scripture and church history. But this rather obvious mediating position seems to be totally overlooked by both sides. 

Getting out of Dodge

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). 

i) The warning passages in Hebrews are a major prooftext for Arminians–especially Wesleyan Arminians. Not all Arminians share that view. Many Baptist Arminians espouse eternal security. 

That, itself, is tricky. If you can't prooftext libertarian freewill from the warning passages in Hebrews, it's hard to see how other Biblical passages would be more promising. But I'll pass on that for now.

ii) Arminians who prooftext their theology from the warning passages in Hebrews insist that unless a born-again Christian is free to either heed the warning or disregard the warning, the warning is "meaningless."

Since I've dealt with that objection directly, I'll skip that. What I'd like to do now is draw a comparison. In Mt 2, Joseph receives some revelatory dreams. These are premonitions of danger. The dreams implicitly raise the specter of alternate futures. If Joseph stays, his young son will be murdered by Herod's henchmen. But he can avert that hypothetical outcome if he gets out of Dodge in time. If things continue as is, along their current trajectory, Jesus will die a premature death. 

iii) This raises a question for Christian libertarians. Was failure to heed the angelic warning a live option for Joseph? Pause to consider what that would entail. We're not just talking about the fate of a lone individual. The fate of the whole human race would hang in the balance. The Incarnation would be in vain. Centuries of providential preparation would go up in smoke. God would have to start from scratch. 

Is this one of those cliff-hanger endings between season 1 and season 2? Were the heavenly angels biting their nails, breathlessly waiting to see which way this turning point in world history would go? Was the outcome truly open-ended? Could it go either way until the very last moment? 

Open theists might bite the bullet. Their position might commit them to that scenario. God is shortsighted, so his plans can be thwarted. Not just incidental plans, but the central plan of redemption. That's the price you way for freedom.

But what about Arminians and Molinists? Do they think failure to heed the warning was ever in the cards? Was the fate redemption contingent on Joseph's solitary and indeterminate choice? Did it go right down to the wire? 

iv) From a Calvinist perspective, God predestined the dreams to motivate Joseph to take the predestined course of action. 

Zero Dark: Operation Bambi

Strange Fire conference

John MacArthur's Strange Fire conference is drawing the ire of some Pentecostals. There's a dustup between Fred Butler and Michael Brown. 

The fact that this conference is "controversial" doesn't bother me. Also, MacArthur is a long-time critic of Pentecostalism. So this is nothing new, except that the players change. 

There's lots of fraud in the ranks of Pentecostalism, especially among the televangelists. Exposing that is a good thing. 

However, when attacking dishonesty in charismatic circles, critics need to guard against dishonesty, too. Otherwise, critics are just as bad as the charlatans they (rightly) deride.

The problem I have is that, at least in my admittedly limited observation, some members or follows of the MacArthur circle suffer from Richard Dawkins syndrome. Dawkins has such contempt for Christianity that he can't bring himself to take Christianity seriously even for the sake of argument

And some members/followers of the MacArthur circle reflect the same mindset. They exhibit such unbridled contempt for charismatic theology that they can't take it seriously even for the sake of argument. They demand evidence, yet they don't make a good faith effort to be informed. So the objection is circular, given their studied ignorance. 

There's a word for that: prejudice. 

This also results in a distressing display of spiritual pride. Consider Dan Phillips' endless stream of smug, back-patting tweets–which receive self-congratulatory kudos from his fawning fans. 

Don't become the thing you hate.  

Why Roman Catholic Apologists Are the Way They Are

They have a long history of it. This description from Trent, by John W. O'Malley, "a Jesuit who teaches at Georgetown University and writes from a moderately critical perspective" and "a very able historian":

Theologians [as opposed to "the Magisterium"] ... were the primary voice communicating the views of the Reformers in formal sessions to the voting members of the body - bishops, superior generals of the mendicant orders, and abbots. The accuracy of their expositions, though, is questioned by O'Malley, who suggests a great weakness of the council was a penchant for "proof-texting" the Reformers and lifting their comments out of context.

There is no other way to defend Roman Catholicism. They figured this out right from the beginning of the Reformation.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

White privilege


The Church of Hume

It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements, quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature.    It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days.   The advantages are so great, of starting an imposture among an ignorant people, that, even though the delusion should be too gross to impose on the generality of them (which, though seldom, is sometimes the case) it has a much better chance for succeeding in remote countries, than if the first scene had been laid in a city renowned for arts and knowledge. The most ignorant and barbarous of these barbarians carry the report abroad. None of their countrymen have a large correspondence, or sufficient credit and authority to contradict and beat down the delusion. 
– Hume

i) One of the things I'm struck by when I see some members/followers of the MacArthur circle dissing reported modern miracles is how their arguments unwittingly mimic the arguments of infidels like Hume. Take the way they breezily dismiss reported miracles in Third World countries, as if a reported miracle from Ethiopia, the Philippines, rural India or China, is inherently suspect. This is precisely the argument Hume uses. And it's the very same argument modern-day atheists deploy against Biblical miracles. Biblical miracles are reported by primitive, backward, superstitious writers. 

ii) I think part of the problem is that many members/followers of the MacArthur circle don't seem to have much experience debating atheists. They generally seem to prefer intramural debates involving eschatology, creationism, &c. That renders them oblivious to the way they are aping atheist objections to miracles in general. It would be pitifully easy for an atheist to turn the tables. It's not as if we can compare reported Biblical healings with PET scans, CT scans, and MRIs of the patient, before and after. 

iii) Now, for reported miracles from contemporary Western nations, I don't think it's unreasonable to request medical documentation. At least in a certain percentage of cases, if a miraculous cure took place, we'd expect there to be medical records to bear that out. That's because, in a certain percentage of cases, the patient ought to have medical records. So that's a reasonable standard, given the setting.

It's not reasonable to impose that standard in settings where that's not to be expected. Are we going to take the position that no Christian before the age of modern medicine is a trustworthy witness to a miraculous healing? Should we summarily scratch off 1800 hundred years of church history? Likewise, should we be reflexively skeptical of miraculous divine activity among the poor illiterate masses? Do we really think the distribution of divine activity lopsidedly favors the Northern hemisphere over the global south? Urban areas over rural areas? College grads over pious peasants? What about all the Christians who have to live by faith and prayer because they have nothing else to fall back on but the mercy of God?  

It's like those infamous "prayer studies," where God is supposed to submit to randomizing protocols–as if answering prayer is equivalent to card-guessing experiments.

Clement Of Rome And Sola Fide

A poster named Midas asked me how I reconcile sections 34-35 of First Clement with my view of Clement of Rome's position on justification. For anybody who's interested, you can find the discussion here.

In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son

This is one of the more sophisticated arguments for cessationism:

I have reservations about one of his arguments:

Yes, this seems to be the case. Does this mean that the sign gifts continued to exist for second-generation Christians? Not exactly. Three careful distinctions need to be made: (1) God bore witness with someone (the sun-prefix on sunepimarturou'nto" implies this) “to us.” The only option is “those who heard”--thus, eyewitnesses. Thus, these believers were recipients or observers of such sign gifts; they were not performers of them. The eyewitnesses seem to be the only ones implied here who exercised such gifts. This, in itself, may well imply that the sign gifts lasted only through the first generation of Christians: once the eyewitnesses were dead, so were these gifts. (2) The aorist indicative ejbebaiwvqh loses much of its punch if the author intends to mean that these gifts continue.1 He so links the confirmation to the eyewitnesses--and the proof of such confirmation by the sign gifts--that to argue the continued use of such gifts seems to fly in the face of the whole context. If such gifts continued, the author missed a great opportunity to seal his argument against defection. He could have simply said: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was . . . confirmed to us by those who heard and is still confirmed among us while God bears witness with signs . . .” By way of contrast, note Gal 3:5 (written when the miraculous was still taking place; two present participles are used): “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (RSV) This contrast is significant: The author of Hebrews, who is so articulate a defender of his position, lost a perfect opportunity to remind his audience of the reality of their salvation by not mentioning the current manifestation of the sign gifts. That is, unless such were no longer taking place. Though an argument from silence, I think the silence is fairly deafening. The sign gifts seem to be on their way out. (3) But what about this confirmation “to us”--second-generation Christians? I take it that Hebrews was written in the mid 60s (shortly after Paul had died), but that it was written to a long-established Jewish church which was waffling in their faith. If so, then we would expect some of the first-generation believers to have had some contact with them. (Good grief--first-generation folks even have contact with third generation folks at times!) There is no question that some of these folks had witnessed such miracles. There is a rather large question, however, as to whether they had performed them themselves. One simply can’t find support for such a view in Hebrew 2:1-4.All in all, Hebrews 2:3-4 seems to involve some solid inferences that the sign gifts had for the most part ceased.2 Further, it offers equally inferential evidence of the purpose of the sign gifts: to confirm that God was doing something new. The whole argument of Hebrews rests on this assumption: there is a new and final revelation in Jesus Christ (cf. 1:1-2). He is the one to whom the whole OT points; he is the one who is superior to the Aaronic priesthood, to prophets, and to angels. He is indeed God in the flesh. Is it not remarkable that in this exquisitely argued epistle, the argument turns on Scripture over against experience? The strongest appeal the author makes to the audience’s experience is to what they were witnesses to in the past. If the sign gifts continued, shouldn’t we expect this author (like Paul in Gal 3:5) to have employed such an argument?
The problem with this argument is twofold:
i) There's the artificially narrow classification of the miracles as "sign-gifts." But the Biblical purpose of miracles is not confined to attesting the messenger or the message. For instance, one function of dreams and visions in the Book of Acts is to give the recipient directions regarding where to go next, or where not to go. 
ii) From my reading of Hebrews, the recipients never doubted the Gospel message–as they construed it. They didn't need additional proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Their error was not regarding the veracity of the new covenant, but the finality of the new covenant. They seemed to operate with a dual-covenant theology: Jews are saved by the old covenant while gentiles are saved by the new covenant. They failed to acknowledge the fact that the new covenant supersedes the old covenant.
An argument from experience wouldn't resolve that question. Rather, that requires an exegetical argument, showing the provisional nature of the old covenant, from the OT itself. 

Mediate and immediate miracles

From what I've read, members of the MacArthur circle distinguish between mediate and immediate miracles. Mediate miracles involve human agency whereas God bypasses human agency in the case of immediate miracles. Cessationists of the MacArthur circle make allowance for immediate modern miracles, but disallow mediate modern miracles. They bristle at the accusation that they don't think God performs miracles in the modern world.

One issue which this distinction raises is how they distinguish evidence for immediate modern miracles from evidence for mediate modern miracles. In both cases, it would be the same kind of evidence: testimonial evidence. Here's how they treat reported mediate modern miracles:

Robert Warren ‏@jnthree35 Aug 
"My nephew's cousin witnessed it"
Retweeted by Dan Phillips 

[Fred Butler] 
I too have read many accounts of modern miracles. I find them to be mostly hearsay and apocryphal. N1hil07/25/2013 12:40 PM 
Everybody in the charismatic movement (only a slight exaggeration) knows someone who knows of somebody whose second cousin knows this other person who heard eyewitness testimony from someone who was present when a miraculous resurrection occurred at an evangelical meeting in a small African village.
But if they're that dismissive of reported mediate modern miracles, then do they believe in reported immediate modern miracles? Or is that just a throwaway line? 
If they discount reports of mediate modern miracles because that's "hearsay," "my nephew's cousin witnessed it," what's their basis for believing in immediate modern miracles? Or is that just a paper theory? 

When "government" becomes a synonym for organized crime

Is continuationism false by definition?

I'm going to make some comments on this speech:
For the first time ever, multitudes believe that the “signs of the apostles” (2 Corinthians 12:12) are actually meant for every believer. There are many Charismatics today who will tell you that if you are not seeing miracles and obtaining messages directly from God or speaking in tongues or any of those things--then if your ministry, in other words, is built on the authority of Scripture alone, apart from any kind of miraculous signs and wonders--according to them, your ministry is lame--you have cut the power out from under your testimony.
I agree with Phil's criticism. 
Now again, consider the implications of that claim. Deere and Grudem have, in effect, conceded the entire Cessationist argument. I would say, that whether they will admit it or not, they themselves are Cessationists of sorts. They believe that the true apostolic gifts and miracles have ceased, and they are admitting that what they are claiming today is not the same as the gifts described in the New Testament. That’s Cessationism. In other words, modern Charismatics, at least the mainstream, in Grudem’s words, “the reliable ones, the legitimate ones,” have virtually adopted a Cessationist position. And when pressed on the issue they are forced to admit that the gifts they practice today are lesser gifts than the gifts of the apostolic era.
i) This introduces an element of equivocation into Phil's analysis. Assuming that these are "lesser gifts," does that render them nonmiraculous? 
ii) Moreover,  why is is necessary to predict what kinds of miracles may or may not occur in the course of church history? Why do we have to stake out a position on that in advance of the facts? Why can't we take a wait-and-see attitude? Is that something we need to prescribe ahead of time? Why can't we discover what God is prepared to do? 
Above all, despite all the fanciful and unsubstantiated legends that have been circulated, despite the vast numbers of Charismatics who claim the ability to do even greater works than Jesus Himself, there is not one single, credible, verifiable case of a Charismatic miracle worker who could raise the dead.
Why should raising the dead be the litmus test? After all, Scripture contains many miracles which fall short (as it were) of raising the dead. 
The truth is that even in Scripture there are very few miracles comparatively. There is ample evidence that miracles were extraordinarily rare events, always associated with people who spoke inspired and infallible utterances. 
What about the Egyptian sorcerers (Exod 7-8)? What about the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28)? What about the fortune-teller (Acts 16:16-18)?
Let me make one more distinction: There are two kinds of miracles noted in Scripture.1. Some are remarkable works of God apart from any human agency…unilateral miracles, mighty works of God alone.2. The other kind of miracle involves a human agent, who from the human perspective is the instrument through which the miracle comes…miracles that are done through some kind of human agency.
I agree with Phil that there are examples which fit this distinction–although I don't think Phil's illustrations are good examples. A better example would be raising Lazarus from the dead.
However, there are also examples where Phil's distinction breaks down.
Suppose you pray for a friend or relative with terminal cancer. Suppose his cancer disappears overnight. Assuming that God healed him in answer to your prayer, is that a case of God working apart from human agency? Wasn't God working through you? Wasn't your prayer instrumental to the outcome. Suppose, absent your intercessory prayer, that your friend or relative was bound to die? 
For example, when Christ was crucified there was darkness over all the earth for three hours--that fits our definition of a miracle. It was an extraordinary work of God; it overrode the natural order of things--it was a miracle. Other examples where God unilaterally intervened or where miraculous events happened apart from any human agency would include the destruction of Sodom, when brimstone and fire rained down from heaven--I believe that was a miracle. The flood in Noah’s time, when it rained forty days and forty nights and flooded the entire earth. I don’t think we need to seek a natural explanation for that--it was a miracle. Those were undeniably miraculous events, they were not acts of providence because they overturned the natural order of things. And in all the examples I just cited, God did the miracle apart from any prophet or worker of miracles--He did it unilaterally without a human agent.
Phil is conflating two different issues:
i) Do these events occur apart from human agency?
ii) Do these events occur apart from natural agency?
Doesn't the Bible attribute the flood waters to natural sources (e.g. rain, "fountains of the deep)? So the flood had "natural" causes. Sure, God was the ultimate cause, but that fails to differentiate miracles from providence, as Phil defines it.
Likewise, why assume that God had to "override the natural order of things" to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Does Phil think that happened out of the blue? That God created the fire and brimstone ex nihilo? 
What makes that a miracle? Is how it happened what makes it miraculous? Or when and where it happened? Seems to me that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah could be a natural disaster. What makes it miraculous is the specificity of the event. The selective timing and placement. This was designed to single out Sodom and Gomorrah for punishment–unlike many natural disasters whose distribution appears to be random
And those acts of providence, even extraordinary acts of providence are not miracles, they are not the same as miracles.Now, what is a miracle? Another definition: In a Biblical sense “a miracle is an extraordinary work of God that involves His immediate and unmistakable intervention in the physical realm in a way that contravenes natural processes.”
There are many problems with this definition:
i) There's the risk of special pleading. Phil is saying that, by definition, continuationism is false. His definition acts as a filter to preemptively exclude continuationism. 
But in that  event, he's not beginning with the Bible. He's beginning with continuationism, then devising a definition which is custom-made to rule out continuationism. It's an artificial definition. To take a comparison, consider how atheists try to incorporate methodological naturalism into their definition of science. 
ii) Moreover, the Bible doesn't actually define miracles. Rather, the Bible gives paradigm-cases of miracles. The Bible describes certain events which the reader is inclined to identify as "miraculous." At most, Scripture gives us the raw materials for an ostensible definition of miracles. We try to define miracles by abstraction for those examples.
Take the ten plagues of Egypt. Scripture treats that as a paradigm-case of the miraculous. Yet a number of the plagues could utilize natural forces. What makes them miraculous is not that God acted "immediately," in a way that "contravenes natural processes," but the targeted quality of the event. Moses threatens a natural disaster. Pharaoh ignores the threat. The threatened event then occurs right on schedule. 
We need to distinguish between inanimate forces that operate automatically, and events which involve natural forces, but are specially guided by a superior intelligence. What makes some natural disasters divine judgments is the directional aspect of the event–like aiming a gun. They reflect rational discretion–unlike ordinary natural disasters, which are indiscriminate
iii) Phil's definition assumes a hard-edged distinction between natural and supernatural events. But that's basically a Humean definition. It's essential to atheism to demarcate nature from supernature. For instance, in atheism, angels would be supernatural entities. But in Scripture, angels are natural entities in the sense that angels are creatures. As creatures, they belong to the natural order. The only categorical distinction in Scripture is between God and creatures. 
iv) This, in turn, raises the question of whether certain "miraculous" or paranormal abilities are natural or supernatural. For instance, angels "naturally" have certain abilities that humans lack. If a human did it, we might consider that "supernatural"–but if an angel did it, that would be natural for an angel.
v) Phil's definition fails to make allowance for coincidence miracles:
Coincidences like this reported by Weaver (1963) undoubtedly occur but do they call for any special explanation? Are they in any sense miraculous? Clearly they do not contravene any law of nature so there is no question of a conflict with science and so in that sense, at least, they are not miracles. But are they so improbable that some agency outside the normal working of nature must be invoked to explain them? 
Of a rather different kind is the following coincidence reported by Koestler (1972) and retold by Inglis (199) related to a young architect who in 1971 narrowly escaped death when attempting suicide by throwing himself in front of a London underground train. It turned out that a passenger on the train had pulled the emergency handle just in time to avert disaster. Attempts at suicide in this manner occur from time to time and so do false alarms with the emergency system…Can one argue in this case that because the conjunction of the two events was so highly unlikely to have occurred by chance that some other agent must have been at work? Did some external being or force act at that moment to stop the train through the agency of the passenger who operated the braking system? The short answer, of course, is that we do not and, perhaps, cannot know. But if it could be shown that such events occurred more frequently than one would expect "by chance" there would be good grounds for believing that there was something "going on". 
The question for us is whether such happenings can be accommodated within the scientific worldview and, if not, whether they are indicative of an unseen hand at work. On the face of it "significant" coincidences such as the train incident appear to be ideal candidates for miracles in the sense that C. S. Lewis defined them for they seem to point to the hand of a divine agent operating within the framework of natural law.  
In order to get our thinking clear it may help to begin with the definition with which Diaconis and Mosteller (1989) begin their discussion of coincidences:
A coincidence is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection. 
Notice the inclusion of the phrase "meaningfully related" which sharpens the focus to those events which might call for some extra-scientific explanation.  
The notion of coincidence is analyzed from a philosophical point of view by Owens (1992). According to him, a coincidence arises when the events involved result from independent causal chains. The separate events thus have causes but, because of the independence, there is no explanation for their coincidence. In the cases of interest to us there is an apparent dependence between the causal chains involved–due to God's alleged action–and we are concerned with whether  probability arguments can help us determine whether it is real.  
Before we leave the subject of coincidences there is one closely related kind of event in which believers have a special interest. This concerns alleged answers to prayer. If someone prays for the healing of another and if at that time a change in the patient's condition occurs it is natural to conclude that the prayer was instrumental in effecting the cure. If it was not, then the coincidence between the two events in time is very remarkable. Now such coincidences have occurred very often in the realm of healing and elsewhere. Archibishop William's Temple's reported remark that "When I pray coincidences happen; when I don't, they don't," may not be based on the counting of cases but does reflect a common experience. D. Barthlowmew, Uncertain Belief (Oxford 2000), chap. 4.