Friday, December 06, 2019

Inerrancy is the enemy!

As is well-known, there are believers who lose their faith in Christianity when they lose their faith in biblical inerrancy. As a result, there's an increasing number of apologists–with W. L. Craig in the lead–who regard inerrancy as expendable–a "house of cards". By the same token, they regard inerrancy as a stumbling block to conversion. On that view, inerrancy should be permanently bracketed. 

But there's a flip side to this. A paradox that hasn't received the same attention. There are believers who'd lose their faith in Christianity if inerrancy is true. Their faith requires a fallible Bible because there's too much in Scripture they find intolerable. They disagree with male headship. And they disagree with many ethical teachings in Scripture, viz. eternal punishment, spanking, "misogyny," "homophobia," "genocide," exclusivism, &c. Inerrancy poses a threat to their faith, not if it's false, but if it's true. There are things in the Bible they're just not prepared to accept, and biblical fallibility gives them the elbow room they require to avoid a hard choice. Not because the offending teachings might be wrong, but because their truth is incompatible with a progressive worldview. Ultimately, they need a different religion than biblical theism, and biblical fallibility gives them the loophole to have a designer religion. 

Of course, a religion that conveniently changes whenever you change your beliefs can't be objectively true. It becomes a mirror rather than a guidepost. It takes its lead from you, not vice versa.  

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Fires At Enfield

Poltergeist cases often involve fires that are paranormal in some way (fires that start, proceed, and/or stop paranormally). In her doctoral thesis (187), Anita Gregory mentions that at least one incident involving fire was reported at the Hodgsons' house as early as the night of August 31, going into September 1, 1977. So, fire incidents were occurring in the Enfield case much earlier than is suggested in Playfair's book (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 187) and elsewhere.

It's useful to have some knowledge of the layout of the Hodgsons' house, so go here to see a floor plan. I'll be citing Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair's Enfield tapes, using "MG" to designate Grosse's tapes and "GP" to designate Playfair's. MG30B refers to Grosse's tape 30B, and GP15A refers to Playfair's tape 15A, for example.

As far as I recall, all of the fire incidents occurred in the kitchen, for whatever reason. (Click here for a photograph of the kitchen. The man in the photo is John Burcombe, and he's facing the living room. The back hallway is behind him.) It may be that the poltergeist needed something found only in the kitchen to produce these phenomena or preferred to do it in the kitchen for some other reason. There could be a psychological factor involved, such as a tendency to associate fire with kitchens (stoves, matchboxes kept in kitchens, etc.). Whatever the reason for only producing these events in the kitchen, Peggy Hodgson noted at one point that the poltergeist fires used to happen after they'd left the kitchen, but now happen while they're there (GP52B, 7:39).

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Razon de la esperanza

Weak Christian Responses To Weak Christmas Objections

A site affiliated with the BBC recently ran a story by Spencer Mizen on the historicity of a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood. It repeats a lot of claims that are frequently made. I'll point those who are interested to my collection of resources on Christmas issues. To Mizen's credit, he often cites Ben Witherington's defense of a traditional Christian perspective. But Witherington, at least in what Mizen quotes, just repeats common observations that don't go into enough depth. Christians, especially scholars like Witherington, never should have been so focused on such insignificant arguments to begin with, and it's even worse when they keep repeating those arguments each year. I'll cite one example to illustrate the problematic nature of how the issues are approached by both Mizen and Witherington:

Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that his mother, Mary, was a virgin when she gave birth. But these are the only episodes of the nativity story in which the two accounts converge….

For some academics, the discrepancies between Luke and Matthew’s accounts cast further doubt on the nativity’s historical credibility, but not everyone agrees. “If the evangelists were going to make up a story about the origins of Jesus, and keep their story straight, you would expect their stories not to differ in detail,” argues Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “The fact that they do, suggests we are dealing with two independent witnesses talking about the same events, with the same core substance affirmed by both.”

There's some truth to Witherington's response, but the core substance that Matthew and Luke have in common is far larger than Mizen suggests. Christians seldom make that point, and it's even rarer for them to make the point as persuasively as they should. See my article here that discusses forty examples of agreements between Matthew and Luke. The number of agreements is significant, but so is the nature of the agreements, as I discussed in another article:

Matthew and Luke agree about Jesus' childhood in ways that meet the criterion of embarrassment. They agree in exercising restraint in contexts in which it would have benefited them to have not been so restrained. They agree on unusual details that couldn't have been anticipated by Old Testament Messianic expectations, the culture of their day, or some other such source. They agree on points that add coherence to what we read in Paul, Mark, and other early sources.

Anybody who's interested in getting more information about these issues can read the two articles I've linked above. Even conservative Christian scholars typically cite less than half the agreements between Matthew and Luke that they could mention, often citing numbers as small as eight or ten, if even that many. The nature of the agreements is typically underestimated as well. Mizen bears more responsibility than Witherington for the problems with the article I'm responding to. But we wouldn't be getting so many articles like that if Christians were putting more effort into arguing as they should on these issues.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Tips on parenting

Generally good advice, although, in the age of film and TV drama, we have to strike a balance. It can't all be literary fiction. Film is not an inferior art form to the novel. Also, he has a Catholic bias. 

Tony Esolen

Enchanting the world ...
Or rather, allowing the world, which is an enchanted place, to be present to your children in all its wonder ...
Or again, how to scrub away the grime of DISENCHANTMENT, which grime is the stock in trade of our schools ...
I've gotten some requests recently about what to do to work against the grime. Here are my recommendations:
1. Get your kids the hell out of the schools.
2. Find the list of the Thousand Good Books, by John Senior. A very fine list it is. I might have a couple of quibbles here and there, but in general it is terrific.
3. Get your kids outdoors. Do things. Make things. Play games. Visit people. Find food and cook it.
4. Teach your boys to chop wood, hunt, fish, find their way in the woods, etc.; if your girls are interested, take them too.
5. Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn the stars in the sky. Get a pair of binoculars and use them. Get a small telescope. Things like those ....
6. As for BOOKS: Anything by Charles Dickens -- or rather EVERYTHING. Dickens is the greatest creator of literary characters this side of Shakespeare. For that one capacity, he can even stand the comparison with the Bard. Nobody else can, with the possible exception of Dante -- for characterization, I mean. Dickens is a comic genius, and is underrated, because anybody can read him. Read the other great novelists of the 19th century: Jane Austen, Alexandre Dumas, George Eliot, Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathanael Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol ...
7. Don't ignore art, music, and poetry. Get the 19th century, before the 20th century meltdown in poetry: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, etc. Poetry delivers a lot in a small space: it is TNT. Read Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Read Browning's dramatic monologues: "My Last Duchess," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb etc.", "The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "An Epistle of Karshish," "Andrea del Sarto," "Caliban Upon Setebos," "Fra Lippo Lippi," "How It Strikes a Contemporary," "Cleon," ....
8. Don't go down the Lord of the Flies route, for starters. Lord of the Flies is a great work of art and thought. But it is not for beginners. It is not for your disillusioned young people, nor is Walker Percy, nor is Fitzgerald, nor is Orwell ... Not for starters. They come later ...

Do miracles have a higher burden of proof?

This is something I frequently discuss because it's a mainstay of atheism. Atheists typically say there's an overwhelming presumption against miracles. In addition there are Christian Bayesian theorists who say miracles have a higher burden of proof, but it's not insurmountable. Let's take a couple of comparisons.

Suppose I'm abducted and sedated. Next thing I know I wake up in the middle of nowhere. A wilderness with a river nearby. Is it safe for me to wade in the river?

Some rivers are hazardous.  Some rivers are frequented by crocodiles, anacondas, electric eels, or bull sharks.

What's the antecedent probability that the river is safe or hazardous to wade in? Unless I know where I am, I have no frame of reference. There's no presumption one way or the other to overcome.

I can't begin to calculate the probabilities in a vacuum. I need to know where I am. 

Or take another example. Suppose a driver spots a license plate in the parking lot. What are the odds that that car would be at the same time and place he was? In principle, you could consider the number of in-state license plates, and make an educated guess about out-of-state drivers. 

But suppose the driver is a bookie on the run from the mafia, and the car with that particular license plate belongs to triggermen who are shadowing him. That drastically changes the odds.

Now in Bayesian probability theory, as I understand it, you divvy up the odds into prior and posterior probabilities. The prior improbability may be high, but that can be overcome with more specific evidence. 

But my problem is that if the probability theorist already has all the information when he begins his analysis, why bifurcate the evidence into prior and posterior compartments? Why artificially bracket off some of what he knows to assign a prior probability value, which creates a presumption that must then be overcome? What's the point? It's not like he discovered new evidence in the process of his analysis. 

I don't think it's meaningful to lay odds on miracles in the abstract. It depends on the kind for world we live in as well as specific evidence for specific reports. 

Near miss

A stock objection to Christianity is that if God existed, he'd intervene to prevent evil. But as I've remarked on more than one occasion, that's circular in the sense that there's no trace evidence for nonevents. If something never happened, it leaves no record. 

To take a concrete example, during summer break I used to go for walks at the football field of my old junior high. One time two adolescent boys, friends or brothers, were there when I arrived. They brought their Rottweiler with them. They were fooling around inside the field, I was walking around the track, while the dog was lying in the shadows beyond the track. At one point I came between the boys and the dog. It suddenly rose up and began to snarl. The boys were too foolish to anticipate the danger of taking a dog like that into the public arena. They were able to verbally retrain it, but it was clearly untrained, with a hair-trigger reaction. They had no real control over what it did. That dog was a mauling just waiting to happen.

For me, that was a near miss. If it attacked me, I would have been hospitalized...or worse. That's a concrete illustration of a tragedy that didn't happen. And it's forgettable in a way that the alternative is not. We don't generally remember a close call because it didn't come to a head. It's the tragedies that make an impression. 

Prayer mojo

I think it likely that some Christians have more prayer mojo than others. 1 Cor 12:9 refers to a gift of faith. In context, that can't mean garden-variety Christian faith, since every Christian has to have that kind of faith to be Christian in the first place. Moreover, the whole passage is about different Christians having different gifts. So it must refer to a special kind of faith. And prayer would be a natural outlet. So it's likely that some Christians have more prayer hits than others. Some Christians may well have a gift for petitionary/intercessory prayer. God makes greater demands on some Christians that others, so there can be compensations or corresponding abilities. 

BDD and amputees

A recent popular atheist trope is the taunt, "Why won't God heal amputees?" Two assumptions or motivations lie behind the taunt:

i) Candidates for miracles are ambiguous. The test is an unambiguous example which rules out naturalistic explanations. 

ii) If God healed amputees, a spectacular miracle like that would be widely reported. 

Since there's no evidence that amputees are healed, there's no evidence that a miracle-performing God exists. So goes the argument. 

I've discussed this before, but now I'd like to approach it from a different angle. There's a mental health disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). The patient feels alienated from a body part. They imagine their body part to be defective, despite the fact that it's perfectly healthy and normal. 

Nowadays, some patients take the next step by undergoing surgical mutilation to fix the perceived problem. They have normal functional body parts amputated for cosmetic reasons. 

Suppose God routinely healed amputees with BDD. That would encourage some people to test God by becoming amputees. That would be their fallback. If I change my mind, God will restore the body part!

Would that be a better kind of world or worse kind of world? Should we expect God to encourage that behavior? 

Now a village atheist will complain that my explanation is special pleading. And I agree that if there was no good evidence for bona fide miracles, then attempts to explain away the nonoccurrence of miracles consistent with the existence of a miracle-performing God are special pleading. But to the contrary, it's atheists who obsess over one arbitrarily chosen example to be the test case who are guilty of special pleading. There's plenty of evidence for unambiguous miracles. 

Killing body and soul

Jesus also said the following:

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Emphasis added) (Matthew 10:28)

Hell is where God will destroy the soul! Some say that “destroy” doesn’t mean destruction in a literal sense, that it instead means conscious “ruin” or “loss.” However, aside from the consistent use of the word for “destroy” referring to killing and slaying3 when describing what one person does to another in the synoptic gospels,4 we have an indication of what is meant within the immediate context. Jesus directly contrasts what man cannot do (“kill the soul”) with what God can do. If Jesus meant that God would “ruin” body and soul in hell or something like that, then why would he directly contrast it to ability of men to kill the body and their inability to do likewise to the soul? It would amount to him saying, “don’t fear those who cannot kill the soul; instead, fear the one who isn’t going to kill the soul either.”

If God doesn’t do to the soul what humans can do only to the body (i.e. kill it, make it as vivacious and conscious as a corpse), then why would Jesus have even brought it up?

One might argue that even if annihilation5 was meant, Jesus only said that God can do it, not that he will. But, that raises the question of why Jesus would have warned about what God could do if God would never do it, even to the wicked, no matter what. If this were so, “then the same purpose would be served by some absurd warning like ‘be afraid of the One who can turn you into a melon.'”6

The meaning is simple. Man cannot render a soul as dead and lifeless as a corpse (which they can do to the body). But what man cannot do, God can and will do, which is to kill the soul, thereby destroying it as a living, conscious entity.

There are some problems with this analysis:

i) What does Joseph Dear mean by "hell"? Does he simply mean the realm of the dead (hades)? What happens after you die?

ii) In that sense, hades is not where the body is destroyed. It's not as if decedents pass into hades, body and soul, then their body is destroyed in hades. Rather, when they die they leave their body behind, in this world. The body is destroyed by the natural process of dissolution. This is the place where the body undergoes destruction. So the parallel poses an obstacle for annihilationist dualists and physicalists alike. And that raises questions about what is meant by "destroy" in this context. 

iii) Many annihilationists are physicalists rather than dualists. So they don't think the soul is destroyed in hades inasmuch as man doesn't have a soul to destroy. 

iv) Physicalists believe that everyone passes into oblivion at the moment of death–the righteous and wicked alike. So everyone is destroyed in hades. That's not a fate reserved for the wicked. True, annihilationists believe the righteous will be resurrected, but that's in tension with this prooftext–in combination with physicalism.

v) I think the gist of the passage is that there's a fate worse than death. There's more to fear in the after life than in this life.

"He is not here"

"He is not here" (Paul Helm)

Monday, December 02, 2019

End-of-life testimonies

There's a genre of conversion testimonies. I believe this originated in the evangelical faith. After all, if you're a cradle Catholic, you were supposedly born again during infant baptism. 

There are variations on the formula. Most common is how individuals became Christian in their teens or twenties. Another variation is individuals raised in the faith. They never rejected the faith, but the testimony is about how they came to personally embrace the faith they were raised in. This may often include a crisis of faith in college. 

These testimonies can be inspirational, which is why it's a popular genre. I read an edifying example just recently:

I'm an ex-Sikh, I grew up going to a c of e school and we sang hymns every morning in assembly. I was only a child but many of those hymns had something about them that even as a Sikh child I felt moved and imagined the scene of a green hill and Christ being nailed to a cross on top of the hill. This was one of my very favourite hymns. Now when I was hit 23-yrs of age I converted to Christianity after an experience with the Lord. It's been 28 yrs and I'm so glad Jesus died for me. Glory to God for His saving grace.

But there are limitations to the genre. It freezes the individual in the past. But not everyone who begins the race crosses the finish line. Some drop out. And even for those who persevere, at that age their reasons are thinner. Over a lifetime, the reasons may change, evolve, be augmented, or replaced with deeper reasons. Approaching the end of life, they will have thicker reasons for their faith, due to all the life experience under their belt. 

Some Christians suffer a crisis of faith later in life. Although it may be intellectual, it's my impression that it's more likely to be an emotional crisis of faith brought on personal tragedy and disappointment, like a family tragedy. Some pilgrims survive the crisis, but it leaves them emotionally damaged. They get through it but they don't get over it. A classic example is Jeremiah. Surely he was emotionally damaged by all the pain.

Some trees flourish and grow into shapely specimens. Others are killed by lightning, forest fire, or parasites. Others survive, but battered and broken. Disfigured. In a way, that's more inspiring that picture perfect trees. 

More useful than conversion testimonies are end-of-life testimonies. That's a gift which pilgrims on the way out should share with pilgrims on the way in. 

Jesus' Childhood In Isaiah's Servant Songs

This past Easter season, I posted an article about Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah's first three Servant Songs. And I've often written about his fulfillment of the fourth one. It's worth noting how much relevance the passages have to Christmas issues.

Isaiah 49 opens with a reference to how the Servant had been called and named by God from the womb (verse 1; see, also, verse 5). Isaiah 42:6 uses the imagery of being held by the hand, which pictures the Servant as a child, but somewhat older than an infant. He's initially lowly and even despised (49:7), including in his origins (53:2-3). As I discuss in my posts linked above, the Servant is referred to as God, and he's referred to (especially in the Isaiah 50 passage) as unusually righteous, probably sinless, throughout his life. That includes his childhood. The plant imagery in 53:2 probably alludes to the common prophetic theme of the Messiah as a root of Jesse, a branch, etc. (e.g., 11:1, 11:10). That has implications for the Servant's (Davidic) ancestry, birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and other issues.

The Servant Songs also expand upon what Luke tells us in his gospel about Jesus' growth as a child. Luke tells us that Jesus "continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him….And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." (2:40, 2:52) When he was twelve years old, people were "amazed at his understanding and his answers" (2:47), including "teachers" (2:46). While Jesus did learn from people like his parents and those teachers, as 2:46 indicates, he had a level of knowledge and wisdom that went beyond that sort of education. How did he acquire those attributes as a child and become the sort of teacher he was as an adult? Isaiah gives us a window into how that occurred. "The Lord God has given me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens me morning by morning, he awakens my ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord God has opened my ear; and I was not disobedient nor did I turn back." (50:4-5) When the Father refers to holding his hand and watching over him (42:6), and we're told that the Servant grew up before him "like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground" (53:2), we're getting a glimpse of how Jesus was loved, sustained, and taught by the Father when none of the relatives, teachers, and other people around him knew much about him or why he had come into the world.

In a post on Isaiah 9 last year, I discussed some connections between that passage and the Servant Songs. So, the implications of those connections should be considered here as well.

We need to be careful to not underestimate the significance of these issues. For example, not all ancient Jews expected the Messiah to have a childhood like the one Jesus had. As Raymond Brown wrote, "I mentioned in the previous Appendix (footnote 6) the expectation of a hidden Messiah who would appear suddenly, without people knowing where he came from. (This expectation is described in John 7:27, in contrast to 7:42 which involves the expectation of the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem.)" (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 514) Think of the theophanies and angelophanies we see in the Old Testament. The Messiah could have arrived on earth as an adult. And if the Messiah was to be born into the world like other humans, wouldn't it be appropriate for him to have grown up in a royal setting, like Moses, or a sanctuary setting, like Samuel? So, when the Servant Songs refer to the Servant as arriving on earth in the womb of a mother and growing up in a humble setting and even being despised, that's significant. The Messiah didn't have to arrive that way, and many people expected otherwise and considered Jesus' origins inappropriate. When Isaiah 49:1 refers to the Servant as named by God while in the womb, something that occurred with Jesus (Matthew 1:21), we should keep in mind that naming typically didn't occur that way. In the Old Testament, the parents or other people frequently chose the child's name, including in cases that involved a pregnancy that was supernatural in some manner (Genesis 5:28-9, 25:25-6, 30:6-24, Exodus 2:10, 2:22, Judges 13:24, Ruth 4:17, 1 Samuel 1:20).

We usually think of the Servant Songs in the context of Easter. But they illustrate the strong connection that exists between Easter and Christmas. I hope this post will motivate you to remember the Servant Songs at Christmastime and to incorporate them into your celebration of the season.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

A Santa for everybody

Mark Jones 

What does Santa give to children based on their denomination?

Woke Santa steals presents from some kids and gives them to others. 

Lutheran Santa gives children nothing because they possess all in justification.

Presbyterian Santa gives children gifts with a clear conscience because they are holy.

Baptist Santa wakes up children and evangelizes them.

Catholic Santa leaves a note that they better watch out if they aren't good and leaves a donation card for the church.

Scottish Covenanter Santa comes in and tears apart anything resembling Christmas. He leaves a Psalter.

Anglican Santa gives children an advent calendar they never asked for.

Dutch Reformed Santa just takes the cookies and is too cheap to leave presents.

Reformed Baptist Santa Leaves suits and ties so all the children can look like their dad at church.

Pentecostal Santa leaves a note where he hid the presents in gibberish that no one can understand.

Eastern Orthodox Santa refused to dress up as Santa because he didn't want to remove his vestment.

Southern Baptist Santa stole a drink of alcohol because everyone was sleeping. And he left a bunch of Albert Mohler books for the kids to read.

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

Two kinds of Christians

One of the striking things about many apostates, at least militant apostates like Bart Ehrman, is how easily they make the adjustment to life as an atheist. They don't think they put much behind them when they put Christianity behind them.

This goes to a related issue. You can have two Christians who are equally zealous, equally devout, but one loses his faith while the other perseveres. And this can be unnerving. In a sense, that's a good thing. It's a deterrent to getting cocky. 

The standard Calvinist explanation is that an apostate was never saved in the first place. 1 Jn 2:19 is duly quoted. Apostates and freewill theists consider that special pleading. The No-True-Scotsman fallacy. But that's an argument for another day. 

On the face of it, the Reformed explanation, which I think is correct, fails to explain the divergent trajectories of two equally zealous, devout Christians. And here I'd like to make an observation:

The similarity may be quite superficial, because they are Christian for different reasons. On the one hand there are Christians who are Christian because they believe they are sinners, and Christ died for them to spare them damnation. That inspires gratitude. You might say he's a sawdust trail Christian. Some become pastor and missionaries. 

Now, up to a point there's nothing wrong with that. It's great as far as it goes. But it's a Christian solution to a Christian problem. It takes the Christian framework for granted. So it's only valuable within that framework. 

If, however, you lose your faith in the framework, then you have nothing to lose by losing your faith. The Gospel is only the antidote if you accept the diagnosis. If, though, you come to believe that sin is just an artificial theological category, and you no longer believe the theology that sponsors it, then Christianity is the answer to a pseudo-problem. 

On that view, apostasy is cost-free. You can be very zealous so long as you operate within that framework, but if you cease to find it convincing, then you can shuffle it off because you never had any real stake it in. The value was internal to the system. The value was conferred by the theological paradigm, and has no value independent of the paradigm. From that viewpoint, it's easy to make the transition from Christian to atheist. 

But there's another kind of Christian. His identity is bound up with Christianity at a much deeper level. You might say he's an existential Christian. In a sense, he comes at it from the opposite end. He appreciates the fact that everything of value hinges on the Christian faith. There's everything to lose if Christianity is false. It's not just about sin and salvation, but what makes anything important. What makes something good? What, if anything, makes life worthwhile? 

It's far more difficult for a Christian like that to give up on Christianity. And even if he does, he's more likely to return to the faith. He understands what's at stake in a way that the first kind of apostate does not. So while, to all appearances, both kinds of Christians may be equally zealous, equally devout, what motivates their faith is fundamentally different. The existential Christian may be less outwardly zealous than the sawdust trail Christian, yet his roots run much deeper. He's a Christian because he has to be. 

Walking on water

A Facebook exchange I had with Lydia. There are some other participants as well. 

I am inclined to think that when Jesus says, “It is I” in Mark 6:50 he is merely trying to calm the disciples’ fears, not to make an “I am” claim to deity.

While it's true that ego eimi is not a claim of deity in itself, the setting of the claim inevitably evokes and invites parallels with OT statements about Yahweh's control over the sea.

My argument would be that it would scare them more for him to make a claim to deity while walking out of the night on the water, whereas it seems that he's trying to make them feel better and calmer by saying it, since they're already terrified. That would fit more with saying, as we would in like circumstances, "It's okay, guys, it's me."

Lying in the background of Lydia's statement about Synoptic Christology is her legitimate concern that some "evangelical/inerrantist" scholars treat the deific statements of Jesus in John's Gospel as legendary embellishments. The narrator wrote a script which he makes Jesus, like a fictional character recite. And one of Lydia's concerns is the cavalier notion that John's Gospel isn't a pillar of high Christology (Trinity, Incarnation).

Right, I do think John is necessary to a full-orbed defense of high Christology, especially if we're focused on what Jesus himself said, not simply how the author portrays him or thinks of him. I don't think John is epistemologically extraneous and that you can get all you want from the Synoptics anyway, etc. OTOH, I hope that I'd be objective enough (hope?) to recognize high Christology in the Synoptics even if this somehow made John less necessary. One example that I actually like that I got from Jonathan McLatchie and was new to me in this past year: Jesus' reference to Psalm 8 in the Temple in Matthew. The leaders suggest that he should rebuke the children for singing Hosanna to him, and he asks them if they are not familiar with the Scripture that says, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise." This would be at least faintly blasphemous if he were not God, since the one being praised in Psalm 8, the one being addressed in that verse, is Yahweh. So there is something pretty strong in that answer: "I'll see you and raise you five," basically.

I'd add that there's an intensely practical aspect to this issue. Imagine if the NT was ambiguous about the deity of Christ. Maybe Jesus is God Incarnate or maybe not. The NT witness could be read either way. That would be completely untenable from a religious standpoint. False worship is a huge issue in biblical piety. Are we supposed to worship him as God or not? The NT can't afford to be ambivalent on that question. Believers can't take a noncommittal position. There is no middle ground.

Exactly. Thank goodness that we have all the evidence, incl. John. Especially since it's not enough just to say, "Well, that's what Paul thought." I mean, for sure some Arian or Unitarian is going to say Paul just got it wrong and attributed things that Jesus never taught himself. Obvs. that's what the liberal scholars say anyway, which is why they try to dismiss John as non-historical.

I should say that when I look at a verse like that I try to ask myself how it would look to an audience member who was not ill-disposed toward Jesus but who just was not expecting the Incarnation, was not expecting even the Messiah to be God Incarnate. That seems to me a reasonable question, because it seems to me a reasonable position for a devout Jew to be in at the time. I imagine there are some who will disagree with me there, but I think Jesus' own disciples were non-culpably in that situation for a lot of the time while Jesus was on earth. The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were new and seemed shocking to them. They may even have tried to interpret some of the things Jesus said in ways that didn't imply such a thing because they thought that was being charitable and that it was his enemies who attributed such claims to him and considered them blasphemy. 

So for that example, my initial reaction is that it is suggestive and can be seen in hindsight to be an allusion to Jesus' deity but that a Jew at the time who heard it for the first time would have been likely to try to find some other way to interpret it. It would be indirect and non-obvious to him. (You'll notice that nobody tries to stone Jesus when he says that and nobody is recorded as expressing shock or dismay, unlike in response to the claims in John or the claim to forgive sins in Mark 2.) Since it's a prophecy he's interpreting, they may have said to themselves that prophecy is often fulfilled in weird ways and is cryptic, that perhaps he's saying that John the Baptist is foretelling some kind of final apocalypse (which John the B's own preaching gave some excuse for thinking), or that the Messiah will be the messenger of Yahweh in an even more direct way than John the B. was. One can say that they should have taken it more literally, but if they thought that doing so would be attributing blasphemy to Jesus himself, then it's understandable if they didn't catch the allusion to his deity.

"my initial reaction is that it is suggestive and can be seen in hindsight to be an allusion to Jesus' deity"

i) The retrospective viewpoint is a useful distinction. That said, it's not uncommon for people to believe or entertain something in the abstract, but when it becomes a concrete reality in their lives they're not ready for it. It takes them awhile to make the intellectual and emotional adjustment. Like planting ideas in people's minds. They may not be ready for what you have to say at the time you say it, so there's a delayed effect. In that respect it doesn't have to be something new. They just weren't prepared for it at a practical level. So long as it remains at a safe distance, they don't have to come to terms with it.

ii) In addition, it would be very unnerving, even for Christians, to think they're in the tangible presence of God. Imagine it dawning on the disciples that when they see Jesus face-to-face, they are gazing into the face of God. Even in theophanies, which are a step removed, that was very unnerving.

"The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were new and seemed shocking to them."

Depends on what you mean by "new". There are no divine incarnations in the OT. There's no list of messianic prophecies. And there's no single verse which says messiah will be Yahweh Incarnate. What we have are lots of oracles about someone who will fill certain roles. Are these one and the same individual or more than one individual? Might be hard to sort out ahead of time, but easier to recognize in retrospect. There are indications of divine plurality. Indications of a divine messiah. Indications of a dying and rising messiah. But it helps when they coalesce in the person of an actual individual who combines these scattered motifs.

The extent and number of indications of divine plurality and indications of a divine messiah are where I would probably disagree with various people, including Jonathan, various of the Triablogue-ers, and Michael Heiser. I have really grave doubts about this extensive Jewish "binitarianism." And even Heiser admits, as far as I've been able to figure out, that even on his theory this supposed "binitarianism" didn't go as far as believing that there would be a man, born of a woman at a particular time and place, who would be Yahweh Incarnate. The "dying and rising messiah" is indicated in Isaiah 53, I agree, and said that in my Phil. Christi paper on messianic death prophecy some years ago. Isaiah 9:6 is an indication of a divine Messiah, I would grant that.

It's a case of reading the OT through pre-Christian Jewish eyes. For instance, I myself wouldn't appeal to a shift from first-person to third-person discourse by Yahweh as an indication of divine plurality. Yet it's striking that the Rabbis did find that puzzling. There are, however, stronger arguments involving the Angel of the Lord, which also caught the attention of the Rabbis.

My argument would be that it would scare them more for him to make a claim to deity while walking out of the night on the water, whereas it seems that he's trying to make them feel better and calmer by saying it, since they're already terrified. That would fit more with saying, as we would in like circumstances, "It's okay, guys, it's me."

That depends on how narrowly or holistically we view the incident. Jesus may have more than one motive. 

At one level he may be walking on water because it's an efficient mode of transportation.

If, however, he knows that the disciples will witness the miracle, then presumably another motive is to provide them with a dramatic nature miracle. 

But over and above that, if Jesus anticipated (or even arranged) this rendezvous, then the primary purpose isn't to allay their panic but to furnish a stage in which he manifests himself to them as Yahweh.

So do we view the incident as an occasion where Jesus and the disciples just happen to cross paths, or is the whole thing a premeditated setup?

Certainly it is premeditated. And certainly he is trying to show them that he is more than a mere man. But his immediate purpose in telling them that it is he, himself, and not to be afraid, is to calm their immediate terror. I would argue that the colloquial meaning of, "It is I" serves better for that purpose than any allusion to the divine Name.

A related issue is the intended audience. At one level, his contemporaries are the immediate the audience for what he says and does. But at the same time he also speaks and acts with a view to posterity. Or, to take a different comparison, who's the audience for the binding of Isaac? At one level, Abraham and Isaac. But from a providential standpoint, it's primarily for the benefit of future Jewish and Christian readers.

To take another example, who's the audience for the Bread of Life discourse? At one level, those who were there. But surely Jesus also has posterity in mind.

There are other passages about Yahweh's delivering his people in the Red Sea crossing. While poetic, the refer back to a real event, and poetry is a way of succinctly and memorably celebrating and commemorating that event. 

I don't think the walking on water episodes were ever meant to evoke one particular OT verse. Rather, they were designed (in addition to their practical function) to trigger a range of associations with OT texts and related events. The walking on water episodes aren't a reenactment of the Red Sea crossing, but function to invite comparison. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Jesus, John, and plagiarism

In the recent past there were two plagiarism stories involving Peter T. O'Brien and Andreas Köstenberger. O'Brien was accused of plagiarizing F. F. Bruce while Köstenberger was accused of plagiarizing Don Carson. Specifically, O'Brien was accused of plagiarizing Bruce's commentaries on Hebrews and the Prison Epistles while Köstenberger was accused of plagiarizing Carson's commentary on John. 

I myself noticed how Köstenberger's commentary reads like a paraphrase of Carson's. Since, moreover, Carson has authored a (periodically updated) NT commentary survey, I thought it must been a strange experience for Carson to read and review Köstenberger's commentary, which borrows so heavily from Carson. Offhand, I think the accusation against O'Brien is a pedantic technicality. 

But here's why I bring this up: many readers notice that John's Gospel generally has a very different style than the Synoptics. Moreover, they notice that it's hard to distinguish the style of the Johannine narrator from the style of Jesus. As a result, some scholars conclude that either Jesus in John's Gospel is a fictional character or else the author has reworded the ideas of Jesus in his own style. 

Now let's go back to plagiarism. It seems to me there are two basic ways to explain the similarities between the voice of Bruce and O'Brien or Carson and Köstenberger. One possibility is that Köstenberger and O'Brien had the commentaries right in front of them while they were writing their own. They were literally on the same page, and they copied from the commentary, only they paraphrased the original. 

Here's another possibility: O'Brien was a student of Bruce while Köstenberger was a student of Carson. They had read those commentaries so often, as well as other writings by their mentors, that they became imbued with the same style. Unconscious assimilation. By the same token, the Apostle John may have become so steeped in the style of Jesus that it's second nature for his to speak the same way. To take another comparison, the style of Apocalypse is marinated in the OT. 

It's also striking that, unlike the Synoptics, John often records private conversations between Jesus and another or other individuals. So that's one reason John's Gospel differs from the Synoptics. 

Would you indoctrinate your child to save their soul?

A typically malicious analysis on Rauser's part:

1. Christian parent aren't ultimately responsible for the eternal fate of their kids because they don't control the outcome.

2. There's a risk of defection if you only show them to one side of the argument as well as a risk of defection if you show them to both. So that's a wash. There's no presumption that if you only show them to one side of the argument, they are more likely to stay in the fold. Consider the countless testimonies of apostates who discovered objections to Christianity and the Bible. They were defenseless because they were never schooled in Christian apologetics.

3. But the most fundamental flaw in Rauser's argument is his defective concept of saving faith in exclusivism. Saving faith isn't an accidental default faith where a Christian is an apostate waiting to happen, who only believes in Christianity because he's been shielded from alternatives. 

That never was saving faith. That never was personal faith in God or Christ or Scripture. Rather, that was childish faith in the authority figures in his life, like his parents or pastor. And that's fine when you're a child, but you're supposed to outgrow blind faith in your parents. You can't leech off of parental faith for the rest of your life. You have to develop your own conviction. 

It's like kids who lose their faith in Christianity when they find out that their parents "lied" to them about Christianity. But that just means they became disillusioned with their parents (for stupid reasons). In a sense it's good to lose that kind of faith, because that frees up space for personal faith. 

Does Calvinism cancel out the Gospel?

A brief exchange I had on Facebook

There is no one saved if calvinism were true. You have to be in danger of something to be saved. No one headed to heaven was ever in danger of not being in heaven. It literally cancels out the gospel.

It's easy to reframe the issue counterfactually. They'd be in danger if they were not elect. To take a comparison, a swimmer would be in danger of drowning if there was no lifeguard on duty.

Christmas Resources 2019

The issues surrounding the childhood of Jesus are important, but often neglected. For over a decade now, I've been putting together a collection of resources for each Christmas season:


You can also click here for an archive of all of our posts with the Christmas label. Keep clicking on Older Posts at the bottom of the screen to see more. Or you can view the text of the infancy narratives with links to relevant material from our archives. Go here for Matthew and here for Luke.

Here's a collection of our reviews of Christmas books. Some of the reviews are on Triablogue, but others are on Amazon or Goodreads.

Since Raymond Brown's book on the infancy narratives is still widely considered the standard in the field, it's important to know what to make of it. See here for a collection of responses to the book.

I've compiled some responses to skeptical misrepresentations of the church fathers, including on issues related to Christmas. You can find the collection here.

For more about the importance of apologetics in general, not just Christmas apologetics, see this post I wrote several months ago.

And here are some examples of the posts we've written on Christmas issues over the years:

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Charlatan faith-healers

This is a good expose of some high-profile charlatans, and that's just a sample.

However, the dilemma of this sort of expose is that those who are listening don't need to hear it while those who need to hear it aren't listening. In general, those who are listening weren't taken in by the charlatans in the first place while those who need to hear it are impervious to evidence that their idols are flimflam men. That's not the fault of Dembski and countercult ministries. 

Led by the nose of modernity


Christians who defend the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment…

I don't defend hell as eternal conscious torment but eternal conscious punishment or misery. Some of the damned deserve to suffer torment, but damnation is fundamentally about retributive justice, not torment. It's dishonest for progressives like Rauser to constantly mischaracterized the opposing position. 

…often challenge critics of the doctrine of "modern sentimentalism". 

If you prefer, what about modern immortality? Opposition to retributive justice is immoral. 

What, like the "sentimental" ideas that slavery and torture are wrong? 

Here he's resorting to a familiar wedge tactic. Cite alleged parallels which he assumes everyone ought to agree with. But the examples beg the question.

Under the circumstances, I think the OT position on "slavery" (not one thing) was justified. 

Gratuitous "torture" is wrong. But using physical or psychological coercion to extract information from an unwilling terrorist about future plots is morally warranted. 

That animal suffering is morally significant? 

I think the "moral" problem of animal suffering is vastly overrated. It's a sign of decadence by people spoiled by affluence. 

That military conflicts shouldn't target non-combatants? 

Military conflicts ought to avoid gratuitously targeting noncombatants. But there are human shield type situations where that's a necessary evil. 

That prisons should seek to reform and not merely to punish?

Depends on the crime. Retributive justice is good in its own right; it doesn't require remediation for its justification.

Those are all "modern" ideas. Yet, that is no argument against them. 

A willfully one-sided claim. There are lots of arguments againt his examples. They're only unquestionable within his bubbleworld of fellow progressives. 

The wedge tactic only works against like-minded people or those who lack the sophistication to critique the examples. 

And to call them "sentimental" would be diminished as retrograde, foolish ignorance.

Having no argument, he resorts to shaming opponents into submission. It's so egotistical when little twits like Rauser imagine their approval or disapproval should mean anything to anyone else. 

The moral censure of eternal conscious torment is drawn from the same well as the modern stance on all these other varied topics. 

Which cuts both ways. 

If we do not dismiss the latter as mere sentimentalism, why do so in the case of eternal conscious torment?

Because Christian faith demands commitment to biblical authority. If Christianity is a revealed religion, there are severe limits to its capacity for change. 

The right way to debate Bart Ehrman

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Dracula on the move

L'Osservatore Romano

Dracula has been leaving a trail of exsanguinated victims in Poland, Spain, France, Italy and Ireland. Police are stymied by the fact that Dracula is a shapeshifter. In addition, he's invisible to security cameras. All of which make him exceedingly elusive. 

Church authorities have had more success tacking him down, but with demoralizing effects. The usual techniques have proven ineffectual, resulting in Dracula exsanguinating the church's best vampireslayers. 

The reason is that Catholic vampireslayers have nothing to use against Dracula since he's Romanian Orthodox. A Latin cross or crucifix is ineffectual. They need to use a Byzantine cross. Making the sign of the cross is ineffectual because Catholic vampireslayers cross themselves backwards: from left to right rather than right to left. Holy water is ineffectual because Catholic vampireslayers profess the Filioque, thereby invalidating the sacramental. The Vatican has been in negotiations with the Ecumenical Patriarch to dispatch Rumanian Orthodox vampireslayers to the West, but the Ecumenical Patriarch has demanded that the Pope come home to mother church before he authorizes such action.