Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ezekiel 16 as a test-case for open theism

i) There are roughly two streams of open theism. One stream argues for open theism on primarily philosophical grounds (e.g. William Hasker, Alan Rhoda, Dean Zimmerman, David Basinger) while the other stream argues for open theism on primarily hermeneutical/exegetical grounds (e.g. Gregory Boyd, John Sanders, Terence Fretheim, John Goldingay). I'm going to focus on the latter approach.

ii) Open theism suffers from a fundamental internal tension. A tension between its theology and its methodology. On the one hand, the theology of open theism is basically a variant of Arminianism and Anabaptism. It stresses God's universal love, including God's nonviolent love for his enemies. It stresses the Cross and the Sermon on the Mount as its interpretive prism.

On the other hand, its major prooftexts, in challenging classical theism, are taken from the OT. Narrative theology and prophetic literature. Yet the OT depiction of God's character often clashes with open theist sentiments. If anything, the OT depiction of God's character is frequently the polar opposite of universal love or nonviolent love for God's enemies. 

iii) Open theism typically rejects the appeal to anthropomorphic explanations in classical theism. Open theism champions a face-value hermeneutic. That's essential to the open theist program. 

iv) Perhaps I'm insufficiently well-read in current open theism literature, but to my knowledge, when open theists lay out their exegetical case for their position, there's a conspicuous omission of passages like Ezk 16. Yet that seems to be custom-made for open theism, in terms of how open theism typically interprets and infers God's nature (i.e. emotion, passibility, mutability) from the OT. It presents a limiting-case for open theist prooftexting. 

Let's quote some reflections on this passage from feminist hermeneutics:

One place the patriarchal portrayal of God is felt most keenly and distressingly is in the prophetic literature. This is especially true in passages where God is portrayed as a faithful husband while Israel is portrayed as a faithless wife. Renita Weems has commented on the problematic dimensions of this marriage metaphor in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in her monograph: Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. The portrait of God that emerges from these texts is not very attractive, to say the least. She writes: "God is described as an abusive husband who batters his wife, stripes her naked, and leaves her to be raped by her lovers, only to take her back in the end insistent that when all is said and done Israel the wife shill remain interminably the wife of an abusing husband. E. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009), 45. 
When these judgment oracles are directed against the people of God, God is portrayed as an abusive husband who sexually degrades and humiliates his wife (Israel). This is "sexual violence," writes Cheryl Exum, "where God appears as the subject and the object of his abuse is personified Israel/Judah/Jerusalem." In a particularly graphic passage [Ezk 16:35-42] in Ezekiel, God has this to say about Jerusalem, "his" unfaithful spouse…Although this motif is sometimes referred to as the "marriage metaphor," that designation is unsuitable. What is portrayed here is not a healthy picture of marriage but a horrifying depiction of spousal abuse, violence, and sexual degradation. Susanne Scholz comes nearer the mark when she refers to this as "the prophetic rape metaphor."  
Depicting sinful cities as faithless women who "deserve" to be punished in sexually violent ways creates all sorts of problems for modern readers…As Katheryn Darr writes: "I become uneasy when Ezekiel employs female sexual imagery to depicted the ostensible wickedness of 6C Judeans…because imagery, especially biblical imagery, that details the degradation and public humiliation of women…can have serious repercussions.  
Numerous OT texts also lend themselves quite naturally to discussions about domestic violence. In her study of Ezekiel 16, Linda Day discusses the typical pattern of abuse that battered women experience (tension building, acute violence, and contrite behavior) and then demonstrates that this is precisely how God behaves toward Jerusalem in this chapter of Ezekiel.  Similar observations have also been made about the way God treats Gomer in the book of Hosea. E. Seibert, The Violence of Scripture (Fortress Press 2012), 137, 142.

v) My point is not that I agree with their interpretation. As I recently argued, I disagree with that approach:

More generally, the Bible contains some very positive feminine images, along with some very negative feminine images–as well as some very negative masculine images. So the Bible isn't sexist or one-sided.

However, the question at issue isn't how I interpret Ezk 16, but how we'd expect open theism to handle this passage, if its proponents were consistent. Given their hermeneutical presuppositions, it's hard to see how open theists can effectively resist the feministic interpretation. Ezk 23 presents the same dilemma. 

vi) Given open theist hermeneutics, the God who emerges from Ezk 16 is a terrifying God. And terrifying in a particular respect: he lacks emotional self-control. He loses his cool, lashing out in fury. A God with a short fuse.  

It's like a Mafia Don who adopts the daughter of his late brother. He raises her with great affection and kindness. But if his ward betrays his love, his love turns to hate. He  becomes vindictive. He's wonderful to you as long as you don't cross him. But if you get on his wrong side, if he feels betrayed, then you will find yourself on the receiving end of omnipotent revenge. 

It's like a throwback to Greek mythology. Think of the ingenious punishments which the Greek gods devise for those who fall out of favor. 

Foreknowledge and Fatalism: Why Divine Timelessness Doesn’t Help

A persistent dilemma for classical Arminianism, which tries to square the circle of libertarian freedom and divine foreknowledge:

Friday, August 15, 2014


I'm going to comment on some related statements by Arminian theologian Randal Rauser:
The same is true for the Bible itself. The text has many images of violence on which Christians rarely pause to reflect. We’ve learned to read many of these passages selectively. (See, for example, my article “On reading the Bible’s texts of terror“.) Others we don’t read at all. When I read Ezekiel 16 to students they are aghast as they see God depicted as a horrifying, abusive husband who plans the vicious murder of his own (adulterous) wife. 
Christians and other religious people do need to confront and reflect upon depictions of God as an abusive consort within their traditions. For example, I regularly challenge Christians to consider Ezekiel 16, a passage that depicts Yahweh in terms that would immediately be considered abusive were they applied to any other agent. To fail to reflect on this text while decrying this kind of behavior in all other circumstances is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. Consequently, we do need to reflect on these types of images and in what sense they are to be appropriated and/or critiqued within communities of faith. 
Lanier completely ignores all the morally problematic depictions of God in the Bible. To take but one example, in Ezekiel 16 God is described as adopting Jerusalem like an abandoned child and then, when she reaches sexual maturity, as taking her as a romantic consort (Ez. 16:6-8). That’s awkward enough. But after Jerusalem then becomes promiscuous God becomes enraged and marshals a mob that can “stone” Jerusalem and “hack [her] to pieces with their swords” (v. 40). Only after Jerusalem is finally lying dead and dismembered in the dust does God’s wrath subside (v. 42) 
This is an extremely disturbing description of God as acting like the worst kind of abusive husband. And any apologist who is going to appeal to the “biblical teaching on God” had better be prepared to address such deeply disturbing images.
i) I don't know if Rauser is simply incompetent, or if he willfull misrepresents the material to further his theological agenda. He probably misrepresents the material because his theological compromise requires him to misrepresent the material. He used to be a conservative Christian. He's moved far to the left of the theological spectrum. He's trying to cling to some semblance of Christianity while repudiating Biblical revelation. 
ii) Ezk 16 is ugly. Ezk 16 was meant to be ugly. This isn't a difference between a backward, sexist prophet and how sensitive modern readers view the same situation. 
In this chapter (as well as chap. 23), the prophet goes out of his way to be offensive. He's using graphic, ugly imagery for shock value. He's trying to get under the skin of hardened sinners. The description is deliberately cringe-worthy. 
iii) This is an allegory. A very anthropomorphic allegory. 
Some scholars deny that classification because they think an allegory demands one-to-one correspondence between each detail and what it represents, but that' a wooden understanding of allegory. Even in Dante, many of the details are window-dressing. So this is basically an allegory, although the underlying historical referents break through from time to time–since the allegorical depiction is just a means to an end and not a literary masterpiece for its own sake. 
iv) An allegory operates at two levels: the fictional narrative and what it symbolizes. It's crucial to interpret each level consistently. God doesn't adopt the woman. Rather, a man adopts the woman (baby girl). You may say the man stands for God, but if you're going to take it to the next level, then you need, at the same time, to say the woman stands for the Israelites. God is to the man as the woman is to (personified) Jerusalem. It's the man (in the allegory) who relates to the woman. God doesn't relate to the woman. That confuses what's inside the story with what's outside the story. Confounds the fictional characters with the external referents. 
v) The allegory is not about men and women. Not about how men should treat women or vice versa. That's not its concern. In terms of the intended referents, the woman stands for men as much as women. She symbolizes male and female Israelites. The allegory assigns to men as well as women the status of the adopted girl/wife/prostitute. 
vi) In the Mosaic law, adultery was a capital offense for men and women alike. 
vii) In the allegory, the woman is burned/put to the sword, not because that was the legal punishment for an adulteress, but because that foreshadows the actual fate of the apostate Jews when Jerusalem as conquered by the Babylonians. That's a military image, not a judicial image. Inhabitants hacked to pieces by invading soldiers. Cities torched. 
viii) Among other things, the residents of Jerusalem were guilty of child sacrifice (Ezk 16:20-21). That's the kind of literal infidelity which this allegory figuratively depicts.  
ix) The allegory has elements of folklore, like Shaw's Pygmalion. Pauper to princess. A mentor falls in love with his youthful charge. Does Rauser think Pygmalion is "awkward enough"? Even at the allegorical level, this isn't child marriage. 
Of course, it would be inappropriate for God to take a consort, but that objection confuses the allegory with what it stands for. In the allegory, God doesn't take a consort. Rather, her human benefactor does.  
x) Instead of being offended by what God says should offend us, Rauser is offended by what God says. A complete moral inversion. 
xi) Is this really the first time that Rauser's students at Taylor seminary had ever read Ezk 16? Christians need to know what's in the Bible.
Of course, they may be aghast, not at the real meaning of the allegory, but Rauser's twisted interpretation. You need to understand Scripture. Don't wait until someone like Rauser comes along, with his subversive agenda. 
xii) In the allegory, a benefactor discovers a newborn girl who was left to die. He adopts her. When she matures and "blossoms," he falls in love with her. He not only makes her his wife, but his queen. But she replays his love and kindness by becoming a prostitute. He's enraged. 
(There's a Hebrew pun on nudity and exile, which have the same root word.) 
That's the allegory. It trades on common primal emotions. Passion, compassion, ingratitude, betrayal, rage, revenge. 
Don't confuse the allegory with the reality it represents. The allegory is just a rhetorical vehicle. 
xiii) Although the Bible would be a nicer book without Ez 16, the world wouldn't be a nicer place without Ezk 16. This chapter presages the Babylonian deportation. The horrors were only too real, as well as the wickedness which precipitated that punishment. 

Does The Assumption Of Mary Assume Too Much?

Today is the Feast of the Assumption in Roman Catholicism. The absence of the concept of an assumption of Mary in early Christian sources is often discussed. But the case against the assumption can be made much more forcefully than it usually is. See here and here. And here's a review I wrote of a debate on the assumption between James White and Robert Sungenis.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Still divided

A rambling post by Leon Brown:

Brown's basic problem is his unquestioned conviction that he understands the situation, and white Christians don't. Therefore, his prophetic calling is to make us understand. 

At least from the stuff of his I've read, it never seriously crosses his mind that just possibly, his own grasp of the situation is one-sided. That, just possibly, he doesn't understand what white Christians understand. (Mind you, I don't think it's meaningful to even make sweeping statements about what white Christians in general think.)

For instance, you'd never know from his post that conservatives are increasingly critical of our law enforcement culture. Let's take a few examples from today: the same day as his post:

Let's take another doozie:

Consider the recent and ongoing immigration debate. How has it affected you? What do you think when you see a Spanish speaking image-bearer, one who knows, or at least it is assumed, very little English? What has caused your conclusions? Do you remain unaffected by the outcry of some in the media who thrust names on them, such as, "illegal," "unwanted immigrant," or "wetback"? The point of the news, while to inform, is also to sway opinion, and I think we may lack transparency if we claim we are not, at least in part, somehow affected by what some branches of the media portray about immigration.

Honestly, on what does Brown base that preposterous characterization? What news media refer to Latin American immigrants as "wetbacks"? Any reporter who used that term would be fired within minutes. 

In fact, the news media avoid "illegal immigrant" in favor of "undocumented worker" (or some such euphemism). 

Moreover, in what sense is it "thrusting a name" on them to call them illegal immigrants? That's a factual description. 

Brown is a classic example of someone whose social conditioning blinds him to his own conditioning. 

Perceptions of mental illness in the church

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Resources on depression

American Pastors Silent On Controversial Issues

See Jim West's post here on a recent Barna study. Contrary to what's often suggested, pastors typically avoid controversial issues like abortion and same-sex marriage rather than saying a lot about those subjects. As I've said before, the claim that churches focus too much on such issues, are overly political, etc. seems to often be a dishonest excuse used by people who rarely or never attend church. They're trying to come up with a justification for something like not attending church or rejecting Christianity, so they cite the common claim that churches are too focused on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. In reality, churches are addressing those issues far too little.

I suspect that a large percentage of pastors are highly ignorant of the issues, and that's part of the reason why they don't say much about them. Other factors are that they're overly concerned about not losing their tax-exempt status, not dividing the church, not losing financial support, not being accused of being too political, etc.

Reflections on depression

Ron Gleason Ironically, I submitted my manuscript yesterday to Crossway with the tentative title: "When the Unthinkable Happens. The Christian and Suicide." I do believe we need to be very careful when we toss the word "depression" around. Clearly, there are chemical imbalances in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Having said that, we are all too quick to throw the word "depression" around for what constitutes sinful behavior. A psychiatrist told me recently that a very, very small percentage of depression cases are actually depressions. Most behavior, he went on to say, that we call depression is simply the result of unbiblical living.

i) To be fair, Gleason is responding to a query by renegade Jason Stellman. I appreciate the need to puncture cheap universalism, where every dead celebrity goes to heaven. 

I respect Gleason. He's an admirable man with a remarkable resume. I wouldn't be surprised if his book is peppered with useful anecdotes about people coping with adversity and extremity from his experience as a pastor and soldier. 

ii) That said, I shudder at how his book will approach the issue of depression and suicide. This seems to reflect the same attitude that gives the nouthetic/"Biblical counseling" movement a bad name. I hope that's not the case. 

Depression has difference causes. Some people bring it on themselves. 

Others are despondent because they find themselves in depressing circumstances through no fault of their own.

But one of the frighting things about depression is that in some (many?) cases, it  overtakes people, engulfs people, from out of nowhere. And there's nothing they can do to fight it off. Here's one example:

During my second year at McGill, I plunged into the deepest depression I’ve ever known.  I wrestled in prayer, searched the scriptures, examined my conscience, and fell apart.  I told my wife about it one night; the next morning, a letter arrived from a Christian psychotherapist who had felt an inexplicable but irresistible urge to write.  I still have that letter.  Over the next year I learned more about myself and my emotions than I had thought possible.  If today I manage to function as a pastor, it is not least because I know something about pain.  I know, too, that healing of memory and imagination is not just wishful thinking.

Final exit

As long as we're discussing suicide, I'll venture two more observations before reverting to other topics:
i) It's often said that people who commit suicide weren't in their right mind at the time. That's said to express sympathy for their condition and mitigate their guilt. And I'm sure it's frequently the case. You have people who kill themselves because they were emotionally overwhelmed at the time. 
However, I think it's an overgeneralization to suggest that's always the case. Suicide can be a cool, clear-headed choice. I think of the late George Sanders. He acted in a number of classic films. Now Sanders was a genuinely mean person. As he put it, he found it pleasant to be unpleasant. And he killed himself at the age of 65. In his suicide note, he said "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough."
For an aging atheist, that's a perfectly rational attitude. As Albert Camus said: "There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that."
Ironically, the harshest statement I read about the suicide of Robin Williams came not from Christian Matt Walsh , but atheist Keith Burgess-Jackson:
Jackson isn't merely disapproving, but disdainful. Jackson shares the philosophy of fellow atheists like Richard Dawkins, who say we are the "lucky ones." The mere fact that we are here means that we won the lottery of life, beating out our competitors in the race to fertilize the ovum.

He takes suicide as a personal affront. It offends his secular outlook. This life is all you've got, so make the most of it. 
Yet, when life ceases to be fun, why drag out the inevitable? 
To say it's rational doesn't mean it's right. Certain white-collar crimes may be rational. It may entirely be rational for a banker to cleverly drain several accounts of millions of dollars, transferring the funds to Cayman accounts or Swiss bank accounts, then skip the country to another country without an extradition treaty. Unethical, but logical. Coldly logical. 
Suicide can be rational from the viewpoint of an atheist. But, of course, that's a blinkered viewpoint. 
ii) To my next point, it's often said that suicide is a selfish act. I think people generally say that to stigmatize suicide in the hopes of deterring suicide. And that's a good thing. We want to discourage people from committing suicide. 
It's also true that suicide can be selfishly motivated. Take revenge suicide, that's intended to inflict pain on the survivors. Suicide can also be selfish in the sense harming those who are left behind–even if that's not the intention.
Yet I suspect that suicide is generally the loneliest decision in the world. A decision someone must make all by himself. By himself and for himself. An action which, in itself, epitomizes his sense of isolation, alienation, and desolation. 
Some people commit suicide because they won't be missed. And they know it. They leave no one behind. That's the problem. 
I'm haunted by a phone call from some 35 years ago. My father answered the phone. Turned out it was a girl he knew from high school. Did he remember her?
He hadn't seen her or spoken to her for about 50 years. Imagine a woman around 70, combing through the phonebook, searching for names of old classmates from 50 years ago. Dialing the number in hopes of hearing a familiar voice at the other end of the receiver? The world is full of people like that. 

Bogie & Bacall

Movie legend Lauren Bacall has died at 89. To say she peaked early would be an understatement. What's striking about Bacall is that her legend was based entirely on three classic films from the 1940s which she made with Bogart. For decades, she coasted on those early achievements. She will always be remembered for the first impression she made in her very first film. Everything was anticlimactic after that.  

Although she made some other films over the years, did Broadway, and the talk-show circuit, that's almost all forgettable and forgotten. She gave a good performance in The Shootist, with John Wayne, but many actresses could have played that part just as well. If you didn't know it was Lauren Bacall, you wouldn't pay that much attention.

Although reviewers talk about her sultry voice and sultry looks, her voice deteriorated from sultry to brassy, and she didn't try to hang onto her looks.  

Reviewing Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Roger Ebert said:

There is a kind of movie that consists of watching two people together on the screen. The plot is immaterial. What matters is the "chemistry," a term that once referred to a science but now refers to the heat we sense, or think we sense, between two movie stars. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have it, or I think they have it, in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," and because they do, the movie works. If they did not, there'd be nothing to work with. 
What makes the movie work is that Pitt and Jolie have fun together on the screen, and they're able to find a rhythm that allows them to be understated and amused even during the most alarming developments. There are many ways that John and Jane Smith could have been played awkwardly, or out of synch, but the actors understand the material and hold themselves at just the right distance from it; we understand this is not really an action picture, but a movie star romance in which the action picture serves as a location.
Bacall never had the starpower to make it on her own. People enjoy watching her with Bogart. They click. 
Audiences enjoy watching screen couples who obviously enjoy each other. There's an element of common grace to this. They may not be admirable people in real life, but they project a certain ideal. God made men and women for each other.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Needing To Fend Off The Evangelicals"

Last week, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) about a recent book on the paranormal by Patricia Pearson. I referred to Alex Tsakiris' interview with Pearson, which hadn't been posted yet. It's now available. Here are some comments she made about how people are responding to her book:

"Certainly based on my experience promoting this book over the last few weeks, I think Americans have their own particular cultural issue here, which is not the same in Canada or in England, and that has to do with kind of needing to fend off the Evangelicals. So the kind of rigidity around engaging in anything spiritual because it might feed ground to Evangelical cause….Well, [the book is] coming out in Germany and in Italy. The Italians are interesting, because they’ve kind of – they are pissed off at the church, but they secretly are deeply still interested in their saints….The other place that it resonates, where I’ve never seen, is in Louisiana. So again, there is some sort of overlay with that kind of Gothic Catholic delight in spirits. And coming out in Germany. And it’s actually become a best seller in England."

The book corroborates some Evangelical beliefs about the paranormal and the afterlife, so I can see why some opponents of Evangelicalism would be wary. But I suspect most people would take the book as an argument against Evangelicalism, since near-death experiences and other paranormal phenomena are so often seen as inconsistent with Evangelical belief. If you encountered somebody citing Pearson's book or material similar to it, how well would you be prepared to respond?

Ministering to the suicidal

Matt Walsh has written a controversial post on the suicide of Robbin Williams:
To begin with, Walsh is angry. Unfiltered anger. I find that refreshing. Authentic emotion. 
He also says a number of good things along the way. For instance:
Free? I’ve seen a lot of this kind of rhetoric. Robin Williams is “in a better place,” he is “free,” he is “at peace,” he is “smiling down upon us,” he’s “happy.” 
This all might seem pleasant enough, but have we stopped to think how it looks and sounds to those who may be contemplating this heinous deed themselves? Can we tell our friend to step away from the ledge after we just spoke so glowingly of Robin Williams’ newfound “peace” and “freedom”? This is too important a subject to be careless about. We want to say nice things, I realize, but it isn’t nice to lie about suicide.

I, too, find it nauseating when people who despise and revile Christian theology keep an ersatz version of heaven in their closet to whip out whenever someone they care about dies. These are functional atheists. Do they really believe that's what happens after death? 

Here's another good point:

The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.

However, this statement is more problematic:

We are all meant to lead joyful lives, and the key to unlocking our joy isn’t hidden under a pile of money and accolades.

The sentence ends better than it begins. Are we all meant to lead joyful lives? Fact is, many people, due to their circumstances, are condemned to a life of misery. Think of Third-World street children and child prostitutes. 

I’ve seen it in the neighborhoods where I’ve lived and the schools that I’ve attended. I’ve seen it in my family. I’ve known adults and kids who’ve done it. I’ve seen it on the news and read about it in books, but I can’t comprehend it. The complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. 

This is what I'm going to focus on. I'm not discussing the morality of suicide. I'm not discussing whether suicide is ever justifiable, but whether suicide is ever understandable. That's how Walsh himself frames the issue. 

This is important from a pastoral standpoint. We need to be able to comprehend why some people commit suicide. 

It's understandable why Walsh finds it hard to understand. He's at a very good time of life. He's young and healthy. Happily married. Young kids. A job he loves. And a Christian outlook. His incomprehension is a natural reflection of his inexperience. 

Let's take a couple of comparisons. In real life, Siegfried Farnon was modeled on Donald Sinclair. Sinclair committed suicide. Why? All you have to know are a few autobiographical details for his suicide to be comprehensible. He was 84. His brother died a few years before. His best friend died four months before. And his wife of 53 died about a week before. (He remarried after his first wife died just six years into the marriage). It was a botched suicide attempt, so he lingered for a few days. 

That's too much to lose. People can get to a point in life where all the good is in the past. The good ran out. There's nothing left to look forward to. 

When his wife died, on top of everything else, the good came to an abrupt end. He no longer had her to come home to. That simple and elemental. 

I'm not saying this to justify his action. I'm merely making the point that there's nothing mysterious about his reaction. The difference is that Walsh is nowhere near that point in life, and may never be.  

Let's take another example:

Eminent philosopher Stephan Körner, who served on the Yale faculty for more than a decade, died at his home in Bristol, England, on Aug. 17. 
Professor Körner, who was 86, committed suicide with his wife, Edith Körner, 79, who had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Very understandable. He's about to lose his wife of 40 years. He's 86. It's too late to start over again. 
Again, I don't say that to justify their suicide. My point is that we can't minister to the suicidal unless or until we can at least see how life looks, not from our viewpoint, but from theirs. 

Israel, Hamas, and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Bill Vallicella kindly posted an answer to a question I ran by him:

Between deterrence and despair

In this post I'm going to revisit the ethics of suicide. This post will take for granted my previous discussion on the subject, viz.

i) For several reasons, I imagine that suicide is an especially difficult issue for pastors to address. To begin with, I wonder how many seminaries offer courses which give adequate attention to the ethics of suicide, as well as the pastoral dimensions thereof. I expect many pastors have to grope at working out their own position.

ii) Another complication is that a pastor is pulled in two diametrically opposing directions on this issue. How to strike the right balance between deterrence and despair. 

As a rule, we want to say whatever we can to strongly discourage suicide. Taken to a logic extreme, that would commit us to an utterly merciless attitude towards those who take their own life. That functions as a disincentive to commit suicide. Utter disapproval. The threat of damnation.

On the other hand, what if, despite our best efforts, the deterrent fails? Then we find ourselves trapped by our rhetoric from offering any possible consolation to the survivors. 

So I imagine that pastors often find themselves in a bind. Suppose he preaches at the funeral of someone (maybe a church member, or child thereof) who committed suicide. Suppose he holds out hope for the suicide. That's comforting to the family.

But suppose another church member commits suicide a few months later. That family might blame him. Had he taken harder line at the funeral, maybe their loved one would never have considered suicide. That crack of hope was all they needed. So whatever position a pastor takes, he's liable to have parishioners mad at him. 

iii) My point is not that we should settle a pragmatic compromise that maximizes the benefits of both positions without the extremes. This is not about splitting the difference. Clearly whatever position we ultimately take must be grounded in sound theological principles. My point, rather, is that both these opposing concerns are legitimate concerns. We need to try and do justice to both because both are valid principles. 

iv) A further complication is the euthanasia debate. The ethics of suicide intersects with voluntary euthanasia (i.e. assisted suicide). In fact, Peter Geach defines euthanasia as "suicide to escape pain and disability" (The Virtues, 143). So there's the additional challenge of carving out a pastoral position that doesn't fuel euthanasia. 

v) It's striking that the Bible has no direct prohibition against suicide. How should we interpret the silence of Scripture in that regard?

There is, of course, the traditional Catholic view that prooftexts a prohibition against suicide from the 6th commandment. Problem is, that inference is fallacious. As Catholic philosopher and logician Peter Geach says:

Now the arguments against suicide are often as bad as the arguments in defense of traditional sexual morality. The argument that suicide is self-murder is none the better for it antiquity. As Antony Flew once pointed out, you might equally condemn matrimonial intercourse, as own-wife adultery; both as regards "x kills y" and as regards "x copulates with y's wife", identifying the variables so that you have "x" both times makes a difference that may well be morally relevant. Again, the argument that suicide cuts off a chance to repent of what you have done may sufficed to show that if suicide is a sin it is a very great sin, but it cannot be used to show that suicide is a sin. The Virtues (Cambridge 1979), 143. 

Geach is opposed to suicide, but he's clearing away the dead underbrush of bad traditional arguments for make room for better arguments supporting the traditional prohibition. 

That doesn't mean suicide is licit. It just means you can't prooftext your opposition from the 6th commandment. That's not a valid inference. 

vi) In theory, one could construe the silence of Scripture to mean that whatever is not forbidden is permitted. And there are certainly many instances in which that's the case. That, however, is not a reliable principle

Indeed, one could take the silence of Scripture in the opposite direction. Scripture doesn't specifically forbid some activities because they were so obviously evil that it's unnecessary to spell it out. The Bible doesn't attempt to provide an exhaustive list of what's permissible and impermissible. 

vii) Another explanation might be that biblical laws codes and vice lists deal with typical behavior rather than exceptional behavior. The will to survive is strong. It's unnecessary for Scripture to explicitly forbid suicide inasmuch as there's a natural aversion to suicide, unlike most sins. 

Even if that's a partial explanation, it can't be the whole explanation. Although suicide is statistically unusual, there's a fraction of the population that resorts to suicide, for a variety of reasons. That's been the case throughout history. 

viii) I think the absence of a Biblical prohibition makes it harder to argue that suicide is intrinsically evil or damnable. It's not disobeying God or breaking God's law (cf. Rom 4:15). 

ix) Of course, suicide could still be generally wrong because it indirectly conflicts with certain Biblical duties. To take an obvious example, consider a family man. As a husband and father, he has an obligation to support his dependents. By committing suicide, he is shirking his social responsibilities. 

x) This can also apply to potential or prospective duties as well as actual duties. Take a teenager. He's single. Has no dependents. 

Yet his parents may need him to provide for them when they become enfeebled by old age. If he commits suicide, he is denying them the support he owed them. Actions have consequences. Part of moral evaluation is to consider the likely or foreseeable consequences of our actions. Will that unjustly harm others? 

xi) You also have the emotional devastation that suicide often inflicts on the survivors. Indeed, one suicide can precipitate another suicide. If a survivor is inconsolable, he (or she) may commit suicide.

xii) Let's take a more difficult case. A man with grown children is diagnosed with terminal cancer or mild dementia. Not only is death inevitable (barring the unexpected), but death will be preceded by physical and mental incapacitation. Some people fear that more than death. 

However, that's also a great opportunity for a family to pull together. Draw closer. Undergo emotional healing and reconciliation. Suicide short-circuits that opportunity.

xiii) Let's take an even more difficult case. Say a childless widower is diagnosed with terminal cancer or mild dementia. He will be tempted to end his life while he still has the presence of mind to make decisions for himself. He fears being at the mercy of strangers. Does he have a duty to let nature take it's course? 

However we answer that question, this is an opportunity for the church to practice outreach to people who otherwise face abandonment at a time of life when they are most vulnerable.  

ix) The claim that suicide is unforgivable because it's too late to repent is complicated. 

a) That depends on the method. If you use an instantaneous method, then once you pull the trigger or step in front of the train, it will be too late to regret it–this side of the grave.

b) But other methods allow for regret. If you jump off a skyscraper, you may regret it a split-second later. You may regret it all the way down. At that point, the dilemma is not that you can't regret your rash act, but that you can't reverse it. Same with other methods which may induce mental or physical incapacitation prior to death. There may be time enough to regret it, but not enough time to reverse it. 

c) The actual claim may be, not that you can't repent, but that you can't confess to a priest and receive absolution. It's too late for that. But, of course, that's bound up with a particular theological tradition. 

x) I'd also like to make a point about euthanasia. Many people support socialized medicine. At least they support the idea of socialized medicine. They don't think healthcare should be a business. 

I'd simply point out that as long as healthcare is in the private sector, you can't be euthanized against your will. You have contracted with a healthcare provider. That may include advance directives prohibiting passive euthanasia (i.e. death by dehydration). And you may have granted a second party medical power of attorney to enforce your directives. Even if the physicians wish to euthanize you, under that private sector arrangement they lack the legal authority to defy your advance directives (a legal instrument) or overrule the medical power of attorney. 

If, however, physicians are public employees, then end-to-life policies will be set by gov't bureaucrats. Physicians are accountable, not to the client/patient, but to their gov't employer.

De-hellenizing the Old Testament
“Indicative of the pattern of Old Testament piety is the fact that the dominant motives of prayer never included that of losing oneself, through contemplation, in the divine infinity. There was no room in Israel for mystical prayer; the nature of the Mosaic Yahweh with his mighty personal will effectively prevented the development of that type of prayer which seeks to dissolve the individual I in the unbounded One. Just as the God of the Old Testament is no Being reposing in his own beatitude, but reveals himself in the controlling will of the eternal King, so the pious Israelite is no intoxicated, world-denying mystic revelling in the Beyond, but a warrior, who wrestles even in prayer, and looks for the life of power in communion with his divine Lord. His goal is not the static concept of the summum bonum [the highest good], but the dynamic fact of the Basileia tou Theou [the Kingdom of God]”.

Eichrodt, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament, Volume One (Old Testament Library). Westminster John Knox Press, 1961. ISBN-10: 0664223087
ISBN-13: 978-0664223083

Monday, August 11, 2014

Laughter masking depression

Predictably, after saturation coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, with occasional coverage of mass Christian martyrdom by ISIS, the news reverts to its center of gravity: celebrities. 

Many people envy the rich and famous, but Robin Williams is yet another illustration of the fact that talent and success is not the secret to happiness. From what I've read, his career has been dogged by substance abuse from start to finish. 

As a stand-up comic, he had few equals. Jim Carrey is a great physical comedian, but lacks his knack for repartee. His idol, Jonathan Winters, comes to mind. 

Williams also stared in a string of hit-and-miss movies and TV shows. I confess I'm suspicious of comedians who feel the need to prove that they can play serious roles. 

I didn't watch him very often. I may have seen him on Dick Cavett back in the early 80s. He had a great gift for mimicry and improvisation. I saw just a few of his films.

I imagine there must be something ultimately unsatisfying about so much comedy. Although a few literary satires like Gulliver's Travels have perennial worth, due to their allegorical reserves, most comedy is extremely topical and ephemeral. Like watching fireworks. Dazzling, but it comes and goes in a flash. Brilliant, but forgettable. After every performance is the inevitable letdown. It isn't cumulative. 

His ability was imitative rather than creative. He didn't create memorable characters, like Peter Sellers. Unlike Groucho Marx, he didn't have a knack for quotable one-liners. Much less an all-around genius like Charlie Chaplin. 

Presumably that's one reason–beyond testing his versatility–that he tried his hand at serious drama. Likewise, when so much of your comedy routine is based on pop cultural allusions, you have to be an omnivorous consumer of junk food media. 

In addition, I imagine the aging process, abetted by years of substance abuse, eroded his vocal range and mental alacrity. Hard to compete with your younger self. 

Support For Same-Sex Marriage Associated With Support For Other Forms Of Sexual Immorality

Andrew Walker has a good post at National Review about how professing Christians who support same-sex marriage also have anti-Biblical views on other sexual issues. Take a look at the chart in his post. Notice how radically immoral "Gay and Lesbian non-Christians" are. That's not the focus of Walker's post, but it deserves some attention. Even the professing Christian homosexuals have remarkably high levels of support for other forms of sexual immorality. Contrast those study results to the image of homosexuals portrayed by the media, Hollywood, etc.

Carrier's scholarship

This should lay to rest any lingering doubts about Carrier's impeccable scholarship 8-)

Learn how to be more critical. And check your facts.

Wikipedia has all the account and references you need. Maybe you should actually check historical sources and not propaganda sites. Do research. Not just buy what you want to hear.


In our politically polarized climate, the question of how best to treat two Ebola-infected medical missionaries has generated a false dichotomy. At one extreme is the shrewish reaction of Ann Coulter. At the other extreme I read a Christian pundit refer to "Ebola hysterics." 

But the real question isn't whether to treat them, but how and where. I'm no expert, but to my knowledge, containment (i.e. quarantine) is the first rule in preventing an epidemic. 

Ben Carson has raised concerns as well as proposing alternatives: 

Admittedly, Carson is not an infectious-disease specialist, and it's possible that he's wading into the controversy to raise his public profile as a presidential aspirant. At the same time, he is a respected medical professional–not some flake like Coulter or Trump.

Risk assessment is a twofold assessment:

i) What is the probability of exposure to the danger in question?

ii) What is the severity of the danger if exposed?

One has to balance these two factors. Something might be a low-risk in terms of probability, but high-risk in terms of severity if the worst-case scenario transpired. That's why we take extraordinary precautions with certain pathogens. Even if the risk of exposure is low, if the consequences of exposure are catastrophic, you err on the side of safety. 

Atlanta, where the CDC is located, is a huge metropolitan area with a major international airport. 

In addition, we have to ask how much faith we should put in medical professionals who work for the Federal gov't. I don't know the details, but don't Federal employees generally belong to public-sector unions whose contracts make it virtually impossible to fire them regardless of incompetence or misconduct? Indeed, they may even be promoted, or simply transferred to another department. 

It would be ironic if Christians, who are ordinarily skeptical of gov't, suddenly abandon their customary skepticism in this particular case. 

Calvin: “The entire church is polluted by the papacy.”

In the comments below, explorer wrote:

When the Popes launched all the “horrific events” in the middle ages etc, was that counted as “solemn/infallible judgement” or just a “discipline” or was it “only committed by the secular state”?

In that same comment thread, Matthew Schultz asked, “How would the situation been different if Roman Catholicism had not ‘disfigured’ the Gospel? Do you think a proper Gospel would have somehow contained Islam? (Perhaps launched more effective Crusades?)”

I’m grateful for these questions. I seriously get disgusted first that Roman Catholicism attempts to sweep all of its past under the rug, and second, that its attempts are successful, insofar as people just forget about all of it. And every “papal conclave”, we see on TV the thoughtless crowds cheering on “il papa”, and the ignorant news casters suggesting that the pope is somehow the leader of all Christians.

I do stand by what I said about Rome and the papacy – it doesn't take much reading in church history to understand that the direction it took was a wrong one. If the church at Rome had been more faithful to Christ, instead of pushing its own agenda of domination, I'm sure that history would have turned out much differently.

This isn’t my own opinion. I have picked up on this theme which was earlier articulated by John Calvin.

Calvin begins Book IV of the Institutes – the section on the Church – with a comment succinctly describing the papacy’s relationship to the Gospel, to the church and the world:

In the last Book, it has been shown, that by the faith of the gospel Christ becomes ours, and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness procured by him. But as our ignorance and sloth (I may add, the vanity of our mind) stand in need of external helps, by which faith may be begotten in us, and may increase and make progress until its consummation, God, in accommodation to our infirmity, has added such helps, and secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church.

He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people (Eph. 4:11); he has invested them with authority, and, in short, omitted nothing that might conduce to holy consent in the faith, and to right order. In particular, he has instituted sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith. For seeing we are shut up in the prison of the body, and have not yet attained to the rank of angels, God, in accommodation to our capacity, has in his admirable providence provided a method by which, though widely separated, we might still draw near to him (Institutes 4.1.1)

So, given all that God has done for man (Institutes 1-3 – through Creation, fall, and redemption), we still, through “ignorance”, “sloth”, and “the vanity of our minds”, need help in “accommodation to our infirmity”. To this end, God has given us “the Church”, within which “He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people (Eph. 4:11)”.

Note how Calvin now describes the relationship of “the papacy” to “the Church”:

Wherefore, due order requires that we first treat of the Church, of its Government, Orders, and Power; next, of the Sacraments; and, lastly, of Civil Government;—at the same time guarding pious readers against the corruptions of the Papacy, by which Satan has adulterated all that God had appointed for our salvation (Institutes 4.1.1).

That was from the online Beveridge translation. The Battles translation refers to:

those corruptions by which Satan, in the Papacy, has polluted everything God has appointed for salvation (Vol 2, pg 1012).

The entire church is polluted by the papacy. This is not in any way a stretch or an exaggeration.

All the good things that God has given to us in the church, visible and invisible, is polluted by the papacy. Pastors, teachers, Scriptures, interpretations, sacraments/ordinances. Everything. That is why I work so hard to bring this to light. If we can remove, or at least understand this curse, God’s blessings to us in the church will be so much more available to the world.

In the spirit of Luke 9:46 (and similar verses), “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest”, the papacy – the “successor to Peter” – the “Petrine ministry” – whatever they are calling it these days, has consistently brought bitterness and strife into the church.

I’ve written extensively on the topic of “The Nonexistent Early Papacy”, and I’ve encouraged the work of others on this topic (most notably Brandon Addison, a WSCal grad who has gone farther and deeper, in a more pastoral and scholarly way than I ever could have done).

The whole church, virtually all through history, has the stench of pollution in it because of the papacy. Because of the impulse of early bishops of Rome to say “I’m the greatest. I’m the ontologically and epistemologically necessary component of ‘the Church’. I’m the connection between heaven and earth.”

Calvin, however, said it best: “Christ’s headship is not transferable” (Institutes 4.6.9).

How to read Calvin’s Institutes