Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: Joe Nickell's Skepticism

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)

Joe Nickell's article on the Enfield Poltergeist is one of the best debunkings I've ever seen. Of Nickell.

But he recently said that Playfair is "one of the most credulous people, maybe, in the history of the paranormal…he loses pretty much all credibility…a very gullible man" (in the program here at 43:58, 45:35, and 1:06:30). Nickell never even comes close to substantiating those descriptions of Playfair. But let's take a look at how much Nickell damages his own credibility in his efforts to undermine Playfair's.

Just a few paragraphs into Nickell's article, it becomes evident that there's a major problem:

Friday, May 05, 2017

Floating zoo

A common objection to Noah's ark is that prescientific people found the story credible because they didn't know any better. I'm going to quote two ancient Jewish sources which show that prescientific Jews were quite capable of raising logistical questions about Noah's ark. My point is not to comment on their solutions, or to provide my own solutions–which I've discussed on various occasions–but to simply document that it's fallacious to discount Noah's ark on the grounds that the narrator was too ignorant to anticipate practical objections to his account. Even before the advent of modern science, ancient readers were in a position to pose common sense questions like how and what to feed all the animals on the ark:

This applies to Noah, who fed and sustained the animals. What food did he feed them? R. Akiba maintained: All of them ate dried figs, as it its written: And it shall be for food for thee and for them (Gen 6:21). Our sages, however, said, This is not so. He provided each of them with the kind of food it was accustomed to eat–straw for the camel, barley for the ass, and so forth. Each animal was fed what it was accustomed to eat.

Certain animals were fed at the first hour of the day, others at the second, and still others at the third; while some animals were fed at the third of night, others at midnight, and still others at the time of the crowing of the cock. Our sages declared that during the twelve months in the ark, Noah slept neither during the day nor at night because he was occupied constantly with feeding the creatures in his care [Tanh. B. 58.2]. Samuel A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (KTAV, 1996), 41-42.

R. Hana b. Bizna said: Eliezer [Abraham's servant] remarked to Shem [Noah's] eldest son,42 'It is written, After their kinds they went forth from the ark. Now, how were you situated?'43 - He replied. '[In truth], we had much trouble in the ark. The animals which are usually fed by day we fed by day; and those normally fed by night we fed by night. But my father did not know what was the food of the chameleon. One day he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate, when a worm dropped out of it, which it [the chameleon] consumed. From then onward he mashed up bran for it, and when it became wormy, it devoured it. The lion was nourished by a fever, for Rab said, "Fever sustains for not less than six (days) nor more than thirteen."44 As for the phoenix,45 my father discovered it lying 'in the hold of the ark. "Dost thou require no food?" he asked it. "I saw that thou wast busy," it replied, "so I said to myself, I will give thee no trouble." "May it be (God's) will that thou shouldst not perish," he exclaimed; as it is written, Then I said, I shall die in the nest, but I shall multiply my days as the phoenix.' Sanh. 108b.

Foundation for a new covenant

Eph 2:20 is a cessationist prooftext. That, however, raises questions regarding the function of the metaphor in Paul's argument. Metaphors aren't like propositions with logical implications. Metaphors are open-textured, and it's because they can be taken in so many different directions that we need to be sensitive to the intended scope of the metaphor. Failure to confine ourselves to the role which the metaphor was meant to play in an author's argument is a recipe for mischief, nonsense, and heresy (as the case may be). 

What is the author using that to illustrate? In his recent commentary, this is how Baugh construes the imagery:

The point is that the Ephesian congregation has already been laid down as a first layer of stone upon the temple's foundation. From here the building will continue to be erected ("grow," v21), but the foundation and the initial level had already been laid down when Paul wrote this epistle (cf. Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 3:10-14). In the background is the notion that there is no going back to the Mosaic theocracy that excluded Gentiles from full membership in "the covenants of promise" (cf. Gal 2:18). The Mosaic "old covenant" has been displaced by its fulfillment in the "new covenant" definitively and permanently instituted by the once-for-all, high-priestly sacrifice of Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 3:7-11; Heb 7:12; 8:13; 9:15-18; 10:8-12).   
No Ephesian could hear vv21-22 without thinking immediately of the great Temple of Artemis Ephesia (the Artemisium), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the largest building in the Greek world. The Artemisium was about four times larger than the Athenian Parthenon. It made Ephesus an important tourist attraction and formed a large part of  its economy (Acts 19:24-27,35), S. M. Baugh, Ephesians (Lexham Press, 2016), 201, 204. 

So according to Baugh's analysis, the purpose of the imagery is, in the first place, to show that the Mosaic theocracy is defunct. You might say that foundation was torn up. Replaced. A new foundation was laid. Ephesian Christians are the first story.

It isn't possible to lay the old covenant onto of the foundation of the new covenant. It can't be relaid. That's out of place. Out of sequence. Anachronistic. Passe.

In addition, although Baugh doesn't make this explicit, Paul may be taking a polemical swipe at the cult of Artemis in Ephesus, by appropriating temple imagery for Christian usage. The spiritual Christian temple displaces the pagan temple.  

In context, I don't think Eph 2:20 can be used as a prooftext for cessationism. That doesn't disprove cessationism. But it must look elsewhere for its exegetical justification. 

Wall of water

Liberal scholars typically think Gen 1:14 refers to a vault or solid dome. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the narrator is using an architectural term connoting a roof or ceiling. Let's compare that to Exod 14:22, where God divides the Red Sea. The narrator describes a "wall" of water on either side of the Israelites, as they walk along the (temporarily) dry seabed. That's an architectural term for the defensive walls of fortified cities. But, of course, the narrator didn't think this was a solid wall, made of stone. He's using an architectural metaphor to describe the appearance and function of the phenomenon. Since the Pentateuch is a literary unit, it would make sense for the narrator (the same narrator) to use an architectural metaphor to describe the appearance and function of the sky. It's a hermeneutical virtue to have consistent principles of interpretation. 

Wall of fire

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24).

What are we supposed to visualize when we read Gen 3:24? In what sense did Eden have an entrance or exit? What did the seraph with the fiery sword look like? 

I've speculated on the topography of Eden. Perhaps it was a high river valley or fluvial island. Both might fit with the Mesopotamian locale (Gen 2:10-14).

But let's try come at it from another angle. The Pentateuch is a literary unit. To some degree, the books of the Pentateuch are mutually interpretive. That includes foreshadowing and backshadowing. So the The seraph with the fiery sword might be the same phenomenon as the pillar of fire in the wilderness. For instance:

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people (Exod 13:21-22).

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. It came between Egypt's camp and Israel's camp. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long (Exod 14:19-20). 

And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic (Exod 14:24).

And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward (Num 12:5).

and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Num 14:14).

And the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud. And the pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent (Deut 31:15).

There are clear similarities. The association of fire with angels. The defensive function of the fiery pillar. The parallel between the fiery figure before the entrance to Eden and the entrance to the tent of meeting. 

Mind you, that falls short of telling us what, exactly, the pillar of fire was. In the past, I've noted that descriptions of the pillar of fire and pillar cloud, especially in the desert setting, are reminiscent of desert devils in daytime and fire devils at night. A flaming tornado. 

I'm not suggesting that the pillar of fire is a merely natural phenomenon. It doesn't behave like an inanimate object. It has a stability and directionality unlike a desert devil or fire devil. So it might be a preternatural phenomenon. I don't think God is a shapeshifter like the heathen deity Proteus. But God can produce concrete phenomena that represent his presence. 

Or, if it's an angel in the usual sense, perhaps angels can assume the appearance of a desert devil or fire devil, performing a similar function. This would trade on natural symbolism but surpass what is naturally possible. And it would dovetail with the ambiguities of the burning bush. 

Perhaps, then, a wall of fire was blocking reentrance to the Garden of Eden. For that matter, maybe there was always a ring of fire around the Garden, excepting the entrance, to protect the Garden. A wall of fire encircling the Garden, as an impenetrable barrier to keep the tame animals inside and the wild animals outside. But when God expelled Adam and Eve, he sealed that off, so the Garden now had a continuous wall of fire on all sides. Or perhaps it has some other natural barrier. 

Time lag

I'm going to return to a topic I've discussed on more than one occasion. 

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place (Rev 1:1).

1. This is a prooftext for preterism. On this view, John expected the predictions in his Apocalypse to be fulfilled within the 1C, give or take. Of course, that's a somewhat anachronistic way of looking at it. People in the 1C didn't think of themselves as living in the 1C. They didn't think of the end of the 1C as a terminus ad quem. That's a retrospective calendrical distinction. 

2. In addition to Rev 1:1, we have similar sounding passages at the end of the work:

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (Rev 22:6).

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev 22:7).

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done (Rev 22:12).

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20).

And I doubt it's coincidental that these kinds of passages come at the beginning and ending of the Apocalypse. It forms an inclusio. 

And these passages are customarily understood to refer to the end of the world. The return of Christ and the aftermath thereof. 

3. Before discussing that, I'd like to draw a technical distinction. A linguistic or philosophical distinction. Expressions using terms like "I," "sooner," and "later" are call indexicals:

An indexical is, roughly speaking, a linguistic expression whose reference can shift from context to context. For example, the indexical ‘you’ may refer to one person in one context and to another person in another context. Other paradigmatic examples of indexicals are ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘that’.

In the philosophy of language, an indexical is any expression whose content varies from one context of use to another. The standard list of indexicals includes pronouns such as “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “it”, “this”, “that”, plus adverbs such as “now”, “then”, “today”, “yesterday”, “here”, and “actually”.

A temporal indexical is only be true at a particular time. A spatial indexical is only be true at a particular place. Mind you, that doesn't necessarily mean it can only be true once. Once person's "now" may be another person's "then," and so forth. 

By themselves, indexicals don't pick out a particular time and place. They don't have a date-stamp or place-name. 

4. In addition to the first set of passages I quoted, there's another set:

Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev 2:5).

Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (Rev 2:16).

Only hold fast what you have until I come (Rev 2:25).

Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Rev 3:3).

I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown (Rev 3:11).

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).

Like the first set, these refer to Jesus "coming" or coming "soon," yet unlike the first set, these seem to refer to events within church history rather than events that terminate church history. Indeed, the Apocalypse is inaugurated by Jesus coming to John, on Patmos. So the variety of similar sounding statements, that can't all converge on the same event, should make the reader cautious about assuming that when Revelation talks about the coming of Jesus, or his coming "soon," that this is necessarily an end-of-the-world prediction, with a terminus ad quem around the turn of the 2C, give or take. 

5. The thief-in-the-night motif (Rev 3:3; 16:15) is in tension with a predictably imminent event. The point is to keep Christians watchful. They can't afford to let their guard down, because the timing of the Parousia is unexpected. That, in itself, qualifies how imminent it can be. 

6. A theme in some science fiction stories is a character in the present sending a message to people in the future. This may take the form of a warning. The messenger has foreknowledge that if the current trajectory continues as is, it will culminate in a catastrophe one or more generations in the future–or possibly centuries in the future. He needs to send this message into the future, or at least have a message from the past which, when they discover it, future readers will recognize is about their situation, enabling them to deactivate the time bomb before it detonates (as it were). The impending disaster can't be prevented in the present.  

So this raises a practical question: how to send a message about the future to people in the future. How to send a message about the future to people in the same future as the message is referring to. The message would have to be sent in the past. There'd be a time lag between time-frame when the message was sent and the time-frame when it took effect. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that predictions about Jesus coming soon are not to give people in the present (i.e. John's contemporaries) a preview of the near future, and not even to give people in the present a preview of the distant future, but to give people in the future a preview of their impending future. How would a seer in the 1C, or Jesus speaking through a 1C seer, give people in the distant future advance notice? How would you signal them?

As in science fiction stories, there's a certain paradox when a character must speak over the heads of his contemporaries to an audience that doesn't yet exist. His contemporaries may be the first people to hear it, although it's really not about them. And it order to reach the target audience down the line, it may have to be transmitted from one generation to the next. Handed down by scribes who copy it down and recopy it, century after century, until it finally reaches the intended audience. 

We can't literally send messages into the future. We can't skip over the intervening time. A message to future recipients has to begin in their past. In some cases, in their distant past. It has to work its way through the intervening years or centuries. 

That's the nature of long-term prophecy in general. Promises or forewarnings to people who do not yet exist. The carriers of the message are, in a sense, the immediate audience. But it's really not for them or about them. They are just switchboard operators. 

7. Scholars typically think the letters to the seven churches (Rev 2-4) were addressed to real 1C churches in Asia Minor. And that's my own predilection. 

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that you took a consistently futuristic view of Revelation. Could Rev 2-4 be reconciled to that position?

Well, this goes back to the science fiction conundrum. How would Jesus signal churches far into the future? The letters can't be addressed to the church of Manilla, the church of Buenos Aires, the church of Helsinki, the church of Singapore, the church of Fiji, the church of Bombay, the church of Cape Town, &c. That would be anachronistic to the point of opacity. 

Moreover, it would be counterproductive. If the NT used placenames that didn't exist in the 1C, Christians would name localities prematurely after those placenames. So the message would never get to the intended target. It would be diverted.

Therefore, a seer would need to use familiar localities that function as placeholders for the future counterpart. Suppose this was really for the benefit of Christians in Manilla. One of the ancient churches will be a stand-in for that future referent.  

I'm not saying I agree with this. I think it's overstated. My own position is that Revelation was occasioned by the situation facing 1C Christians, that it's intentionally germane to the situation of Christians at different times and places throughout church history, but it also has a climactic fulfilment in the future. 

8. A critic might object that my explanation could rationalize any failed prophecy. That raises several issues:

i) A dated prediction is falsifiable after the fact. That's more specific than mere indexicals.

ii) It's true that a long-range prophecy may be unverifiable or unfalsifiable in advance. But if there's a track record of fulfilled predictions, then that supplies a reason to believe the next prediction.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Enfield Poltergeist: Deborah Hyde's Skepticism

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

In 2012, Deborah Hyde appeared on a television program with Janet Hodgson, the individual the Enfield Poltergeist centered around, and Guy Playfair, one of the chief investigators of the case. It was an opportunity for Hyde, a prominent skeptic of the paranormal in general, to cross-examine two witnesses and demonstrate the strength of the skeptical case against Enfield. How did she do?

Poorly. When she wasn't speaking in generalities that fail to address the details of the Enfield case, she was often misrepresenting the few details she did address.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Who is Jesus

You can either watch it or read the transcript:

God, evil, and illusion

The argument from evil is usually cast in terms of an allegedly inconsistent tetrad:

i) God is omnipotent

ii) God is omniscient

iii) God is benevolent

iv) Evil exists

One solution is to deny a horn of the proposed dilemma. Some freewill theists tweak (i) by stressing God's self-imposed limitations. But there's not much milage to be had in tweaking (i). Even if God doesn't exercise his omnipotence, he's capable of stopping or preventing evil. Moreover, even if one denies (i), that hardly refutes the argument. As John Piper noted, in response to Rabbi Kushner:

God does not need to be “all-powerful” to keep people from being hurt in the collapse of a bridge. He doesn’t even need to be as powerful as a man. He only needs to show up and use a little bit of his power (say, on the level of Spiderman, or Jason Bourne)—he did create the universe, the Rabbi concedes—and (for example) cause some tremor a half-hour early to cause the workers to leave the bridge, and the traffic to be halted. This intervention would be something less spectacular than a world-wide flood, or a burning bush, or plague of frogs, or a divided Red Sea, or manna in the wilderness, or the walls of a city falling down—just a little tremor to get everybody off the bridge before it fell.

Roger Olson was outraged by Piper's response, but he didn't attempt to directly rebut Piper's observation, which is irrefutable. 

Some freewill theists deny or minimize (ii). But that's unsuccessful. Even if (ex hypothesi) God doesn't know the future, a moral agent needn't be 100% certain about a ripening outcome to see what's highly likely to transpire unless he intervenes. Suppose a mother loses control of her baby stroller, which goes careening down the hill, heading straight into a busy intersection. A pedestrian halfway up the hill is in a position to intercept the stroller just in time. All he has to do to ensure a tragic outcome is to do nothing. Inaction, in combination with gravity, terrain, wheels, &c., guarantees the outcome.

The hypothetical pedestrian didn't create the situation. Didn't cause the mother to lose control. Didn't put the baby in danger. He's far less responsible than the God of freewill theism (be it Molinism, open theism, or simple foreknowledge Arminianism). Yet the pedestrian's nonintervention is culpable.

Or suppose the tragic outcome isn't a dead certainty if he fails to intercept the stroller. Suppose there's only a 40% chance the baby will die in a collision. But even so, we'd consider the pedestrian to be blameworthy.

Or a Christian could challenge how the atheist defines (iii). What if God is not benevolent in the way we wish or hope? Isn't Yahweh pretty hard-nosed? And the harsh events we read about in Bible history are no different in kind than the harsh events we read about in the newspaper or secular history books. So why not adjust your view of God's goodness to the Bible and reality? 

Finally, a person can deny (iv). And that isn't just hypothetical. Take Mary Baker Eddy or John McTaggart–as well as strands of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy that say the sensible world is Maya (illusory or delusive). 

Freewill theists tend to operate with a priori notions of what God must be like. This comes out clearly when attacking Calvinism. So they may appeal to perfect being theology (as they construe it) to preemptively discount Reformed theism. 

On a related note, John Wesley famously said that whatever the Bible means, it can't be that!–in reference to Calvinism (specifically, reprobation). Roger Olson takes the position that Reformed theism can't be true because it would make God untrustworthy. 

Some freewill theists (e.g. Randal Rauser) take the next step by denying that God did some of the things attributed to him in the Bible, viz. "abhorrent" commands, like the command to sacrifice Isaac or the command to execute the Canaanites. Once again, this conflicts with their preconception of God's goodness. 

The pattern here is to begin with a preconceived notion of what kind of evil is permissible in a world made by a benevolent God. But the dilemma for the freewill theist is that given the existence of horrific evil, that limits their explanatory options. 

Considering their scruples, if evil didn't exist, it's hard to envision their conceding that a benevolent God would allow such evil to exist. If evil didn't exist, don't you imagine they'd rail against a philosophical theologian who proposed the possibility of God making a world in which atrocities like the Holocaust, child murder, &c., happen? Wouldn't they accuse the philosophical theologian of blasphemy for even entertaining that impious speculation? 

But the existence of evil forces their hand. So they struggle, because it stands in deep-seated tension with their moral intuitions regarding what ought to be the case, given their  expectations regarding what a benevolent God should disallow. If they had their druthers, if they were coming to this issue from scratch, in a world devoid of evil, certain evils would be incompatible with the only kind of God that can exist–from their viewpoint. As it is, they are stymied by the horrific and apparently gratuitous evils in the real world. And it makes they resort to hairsplitting distinctions when attacking Calvinism while exempting their own position.    

Considering the way in which many freewill theists lay down a priori strictures regarding what a benevolent God would or wouldn't do, it would be more consistent for them to go whole hog with thinkers who say evil is illusory. That really does let God off the hook. 

In fact, idealism is making something of a comeback in Christian philosophical circles. For instance, Robert Adams, "Idealism Vindicated," Peter van Inwagen & Dean Zimmerman, eds. Persons: Human and Divine. (Oxford, (2007), 35-54; J. Farris, S. Hamilton, & J. Spiegel, eds. Idealism and Christian Theology: Idealism and Christianity • Volume 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016); S. Cowan &. J. Spiegel, eds. Idealism and Christian Philosophy: Idealism and Christianity • Volume 2 (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Mind you, I find that wholly implausible. But given their theological priorities and moral presuppositions, if they were really serious, the most consistent theodicy for freewill theism is to reclassify evil as a massive illusion. That way they don't have to squirm over God allowing horrors which would be culpable for a human agent in his position. 

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

"Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate"

Prof. James Anderson offers his thoughts on the recent debate between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Frank Turek.

Scientific evidence and Adam

Composition fallacy

Apostate anti-Trinitarian Dale Tuggy did two new posts in response to me:

The Enfield Poltergeist: Chris French's Skepticism

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

One of the documentaries I linked in my first post periodically features a critic of the Enfield case, Chris French. Let's consider some of his objections in that documentary, then take a look at an article about Enfield that features his objections.

He first appears at 9:49 in the video, making the point that one witness of an event can lead another witness to reach a false conclusion. He doesn't explain how that general principle applies to Enfield in particular. As we'll see, that's a recurring problem with French's analysis. He deals too much in generalities and too little in specifics. The fact that one witness can mislead another doesn't prove that a first witness usually misleads a second one. And the first witness would have to be wrong, or some sort of miscommunication would have to occur, in order for what's communicated to the second witness to be incorrect. We have no reason to think that witnesses are usually wrong or that miscommunication usually occurs. Though eyewitness testimony is wrong sometimes, it usually isn't. The Enfield case involves a quadruple-digit number of alleged paranormal events (THIH, 215). Even if we assumed that a large minority of those incidents involved faulty memory, miscommunication, an optical illusion, the overreliance of a second witness on what a first witness claimed, or something else that led to a normal event's being perceived as paranormal, there would still be at least several hundred events left to explain.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Is Genesis history?

A sympathetic review of a new YEC documentary:

By what authority?

In objection to sola Scriptura, a Catholic apologist says, "By what authority do you justify your interpretation?" (or words to that effect). Catholic apologists routinely frame the issue in terms of authority. Unless your interpretation is authoritative, it's just fallible private opinion. 

It's striking how many Catholics find that gambit persuasive. But that's why they're Catholic. 

i) Appeals to authority are used to settle disputes. But for that very reason, an argument from authority can't settle a dispute in the case of competing authorities. If the legitimacy of the authority source is the very issue in dispute, it is viciously circular for one side to appeal to his authority source to trump the opposing side. 

Rather, he must first present an argument for the legitimacy of his authority source. He can't deploy an argument from authority to justify the authority source he's appealing to. 

The dispute between Catholics and Protestants is in part a dispute over legitimate authority. You have two competing claimants: Scripture alone or the Roman Magisterium. It's premature and question-begging at that stage of the argument for the Catholic to mount an argument from authority based on the Magisterium, for that has yet to be established.

ii) Moreover, by attacking unaided reason, a Catholic apologist disarms himself from arguing for his authority source. His objection generates an infinite regress. If you always need some authority source to warrant your beliefs, then by what authority do you belief in the Magisterium? The Catholic objection just pushes the demand back a step, creating a dilemma for the Catholic apologist. By what authority does he trust in his authority source? What authorizes the Magisterium? 

If it's illicit in principle to argue for your position by using unaided reason, then a Catholic apologist has preemptively invalidated any arguments for the Magisterium. If he makes a case for the Magisterium, that's just his fallible private opinion. There's no referee to say which side is right. Unwittingly, Catholic apologists who takes this approach neutralize Catholic apologetics. They can never get started. 

Given the Magisterium, he can appeal to the authority of the Magisterium, yet he needs a preliminary argument independent of the Magisterium to legitimate the Magisterium in the first place. But by his skepticism and relativism concerning unaided reason, he forfeits the ability to give a Protestant compelling reasons to believe in the Magisterium. His apologetic strategy is self-defeating. 

It's funny how many Catholic apologists are blind to the quandary they've made for themselves. They locked themselves in a cage and thrown away the key.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Purgatorial presuppositions

1. What are the presuppositions of purgatory? The basic argument is twofold: (i) sinners cannot enter heaven; (ii) Christians are still sinners when they die. Hence, there must be a period of postmortem sanctification to render them sinless. 

2. But what's the basis for the assumption that sinners cannot enter heaven? I can think of roughly three or four prima facie arguments:

i) Rev 21:27 is stock prooftext. 

However, even if we grant the relevance of that passage to the issue at hand–which is dubious (see below), that of itself, doesn't explain why it's the case. It's just a statement of fact. What's the underlying rationale? 

ii) It might be argued that sinners cannot enter into the presence of God, the heavenly angels, and the saints. That's incompatible with God's holiness (1 Jn 3:2), and the general holiness of heaven.  

iii) It might be argued that the saints in heaven can never commit apostasy. Never lose their salvation or fall from heaven. But that must mean they are sinless.

iv) It might be argued that sin is incompatible with heavenly bliss (e.g. Rev 14:13; 7:16-17; 21:4).

3. Let's run back through the list:

i) One ambiguity is how the word "heaven" is defined. Is that used to denote the intermediate state of Christians or the final state of Christians? On the face of it, Rev 21:27 has reference to the final state, not the intermediate state. In the narrative of Revelation, this is after the return of Christ and the final judgment. So it doesn't speak directly to the period between death and the final state. In the same book, Rev 6:19-11 is more germane to the intermediate state.

Therefore, Rev 21:27 doesn't prove that sinners can't enter heaven, if we're using heaven as a synonym for the intermediate state of Christians rather than the final state of Christians. Mind you, this doesn't mean sinner can enter heaven, in that sense. But one needs a better argument. It could be true, but perhaps we lack sufficient information to say whether or not that's true.

ii) The problem with this rationale is obvious. Jesus mingled with sinners. God appears to sinners in theophanies. Seers (e.g. Isaiah, Daniel, John the Revelator) have visions of heaven, which seem to be (temporary) out-of-body experiences. So there doesn't seem to be any impediment in principle to God's compresence or Christ's compresence with sinners in heaven. Likewise, heavenly angels appear to sinners. Sinners survive these encounters. 

iii) This is more interesting. From the standpoint of Reformed theology, God preserves the elect from apostasy even though they can still sin. So, in theory, people in heaven could still be sinful, but not be in danger of falling from heaven. I'm not saying that's true, just addressing the logic of the rationale.

In addition, even assuming that someone can become sinless through a gradual process of sanctification, which is not a given, it's unclear to me how any incremental process could make it impossible for someone to sin. Impeccability seems to require a special act of grace by which God preserves an individual from sin. But if God can instantly render a Christian impeccable, then, a fortiori, God can instantly render a Christian sinless. If God can do the greater, he can do the lesser (argumentum a maiore ad minus). That, however, nullifies the rationale of purgatory at one stroke. 

iv) That's more complicated. Certainly heaven is supposed to be an improvement over life in a fallen world. A better place (Heb 11:16). Sin is a source of misery. 

Again, though, it may be necessary to distinguish between the intermediate state and the final state. The saints in Rev 6:9-11 don't seem to be blissful! 

There are various ways in which heaven (i.e. the intermediate state) could be a great improvement, could be a far happier condition, without requiring the saints to be sinless. For instance, there will be no crime in heaven. No persecution. There won't be the opportunity to commit certain sins. 

My point is not to deny that the saints are sinless. My point, rather, is that the supporting arguments fall short of demonstrating that contention. From what I can tell, traditional theological assumptions on this question are underdetermined by the available evidence. 

Folk magic

One strategy Mormon apologists use is to excuse Joseph Smith's antics by claiming that his use of folk magic can be paralleled in the Bible. Let's consider that.

i) False prophets

We mustn't make a religious belief-system so flexible that it's impossible to show that someone is a false prophet. It is not in the self-interest of Mormons to stake their salvation on a charlatan. So they should want to have criteria that distinguish charlatans from true prophets. Certainly that's a running concern in the Bible, from the OT to the NT. 

ii) Descriptive and prescriptive

The Bible describes examples of folk magic, viz., mandrakes as aphrodisiacs (Gen 30:14-17), sympathetic magic in selective breeding (Gen 30:37-42), teraphim (Gen 31:19,34; 1 Sam 19:13), a divination cup (Gen 44:2,5). 

There is, though, a fundamental distinction between what the Bible describes and what the Bible prescribes. The fact that Scripture records a character doing something doesn't ipso facto carry any presumption of approval. Indeed, Scripture frequently records characters doing things which are prohibited and condemned. 

Syncretism posed a chronic threat to OT Judaism. The law and the prophets condemn syncretism on a regular basis. Ancient Israelites were surrounded by heathen, superstitious cultures. It took constant vigilance to guard against moral and theological contamination.

The fact, for instance, that Gideon had a gimmick to determine God's will (Judges 6:36-40) doesn't imply divine approval rather than divine accommodation. That's very different from God proposing a sign (e.g. 2 Kgs 20:8-11). 

iii) Randomizing device

Casting lots isn't necessarily a method to determine God's will. In some cases, it can simply be a randomizing device, in the same way we use coin flips to make impartial selections (e.g. Lev 16:7-10; 1 Chron 24:5,31; 25:8-9; 26:12-14; Lk 1:8-9). That's a fair way to make arbitrary selections. It eliminates favoritism. 

To combine prayer with casting lots doesn't, by itself, indicate that casting lots is a way to determine God's will (e.g. Acts 1:23-26). For instance, Christians are often confronted with forced options. We must choose between alternate courses of action. We have a deadline. We pray about it, but making a decision isn't contingent on God answering our prayer. We can't compel God to give us guidance. We're not at liberty to refrain from action or wait to take action unless and until we have a sign or hear an audible voice. Circumstances force us to make a choice. If it's an arbitrary choice, we might use a randomizing device, like tossing a coin. Heads represent one course of action, tails another course of action. We hope and pray that God will bless our conscientious choice, but there's no presumption that God is bound to act on cue. 

The OT discourages a talismanic mentality. Saul found out the hard way that God's will could not be mechanically compelled (1 Sam 28:6). Likewise, when the Israelites superstitiously treated the ark of the covenant as a rabbit's foot, their plan backfired (1 Sam 4). God humiliated their presumption.  

iv) Authorized/unauthorized divination

There's a fundamental distinction between licit and illicit divination. The Urim and Thummin was a form of divinely sanctioned divination. We don't know what it was or how it worked. But it could sometimes be used to determine God's will. That, however, doesn't license the use of divination in general, which is condemned in the Mosaic law. 

Another example is trial by water ordeal (Num 5). That's a miraculous maternity test. But that doesn't mean people are entitled to concoct their own gimmicks. 

v) Bronze snake

Num 21 appears to be an example of polemical theology. It appropriates popular belief in sympathetic magic, but uses that ironically to subvert paganism, like burning an effigy: 

It is clear that the uraeus was a fiery snake which the Egyptians believed would protect the Pharaoh by spitting forth fire on his enemies…Clearly, then, the biblical writer employed Egyptian background material and motifs when recording the Num 21 incident…The raising up of the bronze serpent on a standard may also be a symbol of Yahweh's vanquishing Egypt. The Egyptians fashioned images of threatening forces in order to demolish those forces…Sometimes it is the hostile power to be destroyed that is thus counterfeited and done to death. So the replication of snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, and the like not only served to protect whoever made use of such an image, but on occasion functioned as a force of destruction against the object represented. Since the serpent was the emblem of ancient Egyptian sacral and regal sovereignty, Yahweh's command in Num 21 to fashion a model of a serpent was a sign of his conquering the nation. This point would be especially clear to those Hebrews who desired to return to Egypt and who believed that their security and deliverance rested in Pharaoh and his people. Yahweh was proclaiming the annihilation of Egypt. Egypt could in no way liberate Israel. Salvation came only from the hand of Yahweh. J. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Baker, 2001), 147-49.  

The Enfield Poltergeist: General Skepticism (Part 3)

(Earlier posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

People often ask why the family didn't move, if there actually was a poltergeist in the house. Note, first of all, that the objection isn't consistent with the usual skeptical claim that the girls were playing tricks. The primary individual who would have made a decision to move would have been Peggy Hodgson, not the girls. If Peggy and her boys had wanted to move, it's doubtful that the girls would have been able to have overridden their desire. Second, they did leave the house at times. But, third, the poltergeist activity would often occur in locations outside their house. A distinction is sometimes made between hauntings and poltergeists. A haunting centers around a location, whereas a poltergeist centers around a person or group. The Hodgsons had evidence that the poltergeist wasn't confined to the house, even though it was there more than anywhere else, so its existence outside the house undermined the motive to change locations. Fourth, they had lived in the house for more than a decade, without previous poltergeist activity, and moving would have taken them away from friends and family in the area (THIH, 8-9). Furthermore, they had two SPR investigators working with them (Grosse and Playfair), who had access to other people who could help and other resources, and those investigators would often stay in the house with the Hodgsons and help them in other ways. Moving would risk losing or diminishing that sort of support, which would be problematic if the poltergeist followed them where they went. Fifth, even if the poltergeist had been limited to the house, there would still be some merit to wanting to resolve the situation by seeing it through. In fact, Playfair had a conversation with Peggy on one occasion in which she said that she wanted to persevere through staying in the house to "get to the bottom of this" (THIH, 83) rather than trying to run away from the problem. She was concerned that the problem would return if it wasn't addressed thoroughly (ibid.). Sixth, the Hodgsons were a low-income family living in public housing, and trying to get moved to another house on the basis of an alleged poltergeist would arouse suspicion. Early on in the case, one of the ways in which George Fallows, a reporter at the Daily Mirror, tried to gauge the sincerity of the family was by asking if they wanted to get moved to a different house. Peggy's opposition to moving was an indication that the family at least wasn't making up the poltergeist claim in an effort to get moved to a better location.