Wednesday, July 30, 2014

God is my co-pilot

I notice that atheists and cessationists are both making hay about Prionda HIll, who ran over a motorcyclist because “she was driving and out of no where God told her that he would take it from here and she let go of the wheel and let him take it.”

i) It's predictable that atheists would cite this incident to discredit Christians. It's the kind of opportunistic, unprincipled attack you'd expect from atheists. 

ii) But for the same reason, that's why it's foolish for cessationists to seize in this incident as a way to discredit charismatic theology. There are responsible ways to critique charismatic theology. You can raise exegetical objections. You can raise empirical objections. But this is not a responsible way to attack charismatic theology.

iii) To begin with, why assume there's a charismatic connection? You don't have to be charismatic to hear, or claim to hear, strange voices in your head. Psychotics hear voices. In principle, a psychotic cessationist might hear voices. Cessationists are not immune to mental illness. Does the fact that psychotics hear voices discredit mental illness? 

iv) I'm reminded of how atheists pounced on Anders Breivik as a Christian mass murderer. But as we learned more about him, he didn't even claim to be a believer. He admitted that he was just a cultural Christian. 

If you're going to comment on Prionda Hill, you should at least wait for more background details to emerge. Did a tox report reveal drugs in her system? Does she have a history of mental illness?

v) Suppose she is charismatic. If her example disproves charismatic theology, do Westboro Baptists disprove Baptist theology? There's the obvious fallacy of the hasty generalization. 

vi) Likewise, evangelic cessationists believe in demonic possession. Someone who's possessed can hear voices. He may act on that, with dire consequences. Does that discredit belief in demonic possession? Does that bring the Gospels into disrepute? 

vii) There's also an elementary difference between saying you hear a voice and hearing a voice.

viii) Perhaps the cessationist argument is not that she actually heard a voice. Perhaps it's an argument from analogy: If you believe God still speaks to Christians in an audible voice, how can you deny that God may have spoken to Prionda Hill?

If so, that argument backfires. An atheist can easily turn that argument against them:

"Abraham heard a voice telling him to kill his son. If you heard a voice telling you do to that, would you?"

"How do you know God spoke to Abraham, but God didn't speak to Prionda HIll?"

Both cessationists and charismatics need to be able to answer the same type of question. There are parallel objections. 


  1. Such discussion leaves open the question, why believe anything? Why believe sense experience? How do we interpret testimony?

    This is how I make sense of things. I'll order it in a propositional format.

    (i) We find ourselves surrounded by a chaos of data. Intuitions arise but are not understood. The general imprecision of feeling. Understanding may take illegitimate leaps or mis-organizations.

    (ii) However we believe that there is order. We must. Else we live in a world of darkness where chaos reigns. I think of Hebrews 11: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." I suspect a leap of commitment is necessary to overcome solipsism.

    (iii) We choose to believe on the basis of the order that we have seen and believe in. Let's call this order "law." Deeply within ourselves we feel a calling to obey this law, an order. We are responsible only for our commitment to follow this law. And to quote 1 John, I think fairly, "Sin is lawlessness."

    (iv) So if we hear a voice outside our head, and that voice has no inner sense to it. If there is no reason for it. We ought not believe it, or we ought to question it, looking for meaning.

    On a concrete level, we have Prionda Hill. Indeed, it seems that she did hear a voice. What was going through her mind? I imagine, on the basis of my own experience with such whimsical people, that she felt that she had to. The idea of submission to an aesthetic idea was overwhelmingly sweet to her imagination. However, looking at societal norms, historical narratives, etc. there can be no lawful reason for her to obey this voice. There is no law. There is no inner sense.

    Someone (ostensibly Kiekegaard) might object that Abraham was called to do something with no president at all. There was no inner sense to his calling. He might as well have been following a demon. A leap of faith must be made, and that leap discovers later if the action was right or wrong.

    I doubt this. I've heard somewhere that Abraham's calling was not very strange in the ANE world. "Dedicating" firstborn children to gods and all that. Also, doesn't the author of Hebrews say that Abraham expected God's resurrecting Isaac? So he was indeed functioning on the basis of some inner sense, some law. Namely, the expectation that God keeps his promises.

    Sure, a leap must be made somewhere. But I believe that the extent of this choice is between meaning (Heaven) and non-meaning (Hell).

    1. Applied to the epistemology of charismata, these thoughts would lead us in the direction of seeking sensibility to the inspiration. Just like the OT law:

      “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him."

      (Deuteronomy 18:15-22 ESV)

    2. Against those who a priori reject the miraculous on the grounds of it's making our world unintelligible nonsense, I say: "You assume to much. You assume that miracles cannot be sensibly integrated into the world. Yours is a priori rejection. Your belief is not necessary. Rather you simply have a bad imagination. Stories often have miraculous elements, but we don't balk at the characters' treating them as real. For it works within the story's logic. So we can imagine sensibility of miracles in our own real-world narratives. So such belief is not a conceptual impossibly. It does not entail chaos."

  2. There's a certain irony in the way that atheists will bemoan the way that people with mental illnesses are treated in this day and age, but once those mentally ill people say something like "Jesus told me to do it," they become the objects of ridicule.

  3. Question: When someone does raise that objection about Abraham and his son, how should we respond? I personally, have no clue.

    1. Hi Alex,

      For starters, I think this post is worth checking out.

    2. Alex,

      i) From our outsider perspective, there is no *direct* evidence that God spoke to Abraham. However, the various lines of evidence for Scripture *in general* count as evidence for the patriarchal narratives.

      ii) In addition, the progressive fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, both in Bible history and church history, is evidence that this really happened.

      iii) And from Abraham's perspective, Gen 22 is not his first encounter with God. So that has a larger context.

    3. Ehud is also an interesting case. Before he stabbed Eglon he said, "I have a message from God for you." Did God actually tell Ehud to kill Eglon? The text doesn't specify, but it's clear that Ehud was raised up for that purpose.

    4. Alex, here's a link to my blog where I touch on the topic. I think it's one of a number of possible views consistent with Calvinism. It's a place to start, not end.

      God in Relation to Law: Ex Lex, Sub Lego or Sibi Ipsi Lex