Friday, July 03, 2020

Flattered To Death

As good as things like capitalism and democracy are, they come with some downsides. One of those is that we're often flattered by people who want our money, our vote, or both. We're surrounded by it. We swim in an ocean of it. And since this is a presidential election year in the United States, the situation is especially bad. We hear a lot about how the problem is with corrupt leaders in Washington (and wherever else), how good the American people are, what hard workers they are, how they deserve this and deserve that, are entitled to this and entitled to that, etc.

It would be simplistic to say that all of this flattery goes to people's heads. But some of it does. And that's added on top of all of the teaching of self-esteem in schools, in books, on television, and elsewhere, all of the popular sayings of a similar nature ("don't let anybody judge you", "don't let anybody put you down", "be yourself", "follow your heart", "you deserve a break today", "the customer is always right"), and so on.

For a partial antidote to all of this, see here. We should ask what we're doing to make the problem worse. Do we accept and repeat claims that most Americans are political conservatives or that most are traditional Christians, for example, despite the lack of evidence for such conclusions and the evidence to the contrary? Do we repeat common false notions of how Americans are such good people, but that a small group of political leaders (or the media, academia, Hollywood, etc.) are holding them back and bringing about most of our problems? How much of your view of America is based on wishful thinking or false notions you've accepted without subjecting them to much analysis?

Many years ago, I heard Alistair Begg tell a story from his childhood on his radio program. Listen at 17:18 here. A worker in a candy shop, apparently after hearing somebody compliment Begg about something, told him, "Sonny, flattery is like perfume. Sniff it. Don't swallow it."

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Some comments on theistic evolution

For what it's worth, here are some comments (revised) on intelligent design and theistic evolution that I recently left in a previous post in a friendly conversation with Eric:

1. I'll use evolution as shorthand for neo-Darwinism. And I'll use ID for intelligent design.

2. To my knowledge, ID is relatively "new" in the sense that Dembski describes it in his chapter "How does intelligent design differ from the design argument?" in his book The Design Revolution. An excerpt is available here. However, ID is "old" in the sense that it's in the same or similar vein as teleological arguments in general (aka arguments from design, which might be more clearly termed arguments for design). This stretches back as far as Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways if not earlier.

3. I'm very sympathetic and greatly appreciate the work of the ID guys. At the same time, I think I'm persuaded by Alvin Plantinga (e.g. "design discourse") and Del Ratzsch (e.g. "the persistence of design thinking") when it comes to assessing their work.

4. My impression is, relatively speaking, secular physicists (cosmology) seem more open-minded about arguments for design (e.g. fine-tuning) than secular biologists. I mean, there are plenty of close-minded cosmologists, but I'm speaking in comparison to secular biologists. Secular biologists seem like the dwarves in the stable in C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle, imprisoned in their own minds, and "so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out". They stick their fingers in their ears and refuse so much as to entertain the possibility of anything other than a strictly material world. I guess most of them take after Lewontin: "materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door". Regarding fine-tuning, see the works of Robin Collins and Luke Barnes.

5. An interesting question to explore is whether evolution itself requires design to operate. By contrast, if the universe and all it contains including life is not designed, then would evolution even be able to get off the ground?

For starters, evolution appears to be goal-directed, that is, it appears to be teleological. It appears to be able to adapt means to ends. However, if the universe and all it contains is not designed, then how would evolution come to be goal-directed? How would it come to be able to adapt means to ends? For example, if all is undesigned, without teleological purpose, then how did the heart come to exist to pump blood to the body? A happy accident? Not to mention all the other functions in every organism on this planet. Multiply all this together and the chances of all these serendipitous events occurring seem improbable to say the least.

Stepping back, what are the chances of the origin of life? Next, of the origin of the first cell? Next, of the origin of the first multicellular organism? Next, of the origin of the first warm-blooded animal? Next, of the origin of intelligence or consciousness? And so on. Each step is not one small step, but a giant leap. A leap as giant as a human being becoming a star-child à la 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And all this is in addition to the chances of finely-turned laws to drive all this, but what are the chances of a law like natural selection in an undesigned universe?

A Tribute To Maurice Grosse


(I'll be citing Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair's Enfield tapes. "MG" will refer to tapes from Grosse's collection, and "GP" will refer to those from Playfair's. MG28A is Grosse's tape 28A, GP11A is Playfair's tape 11A, etc.)

In the mid 1990s, Maurice Grosse appeared on a BBC television program, Video Diaries, to tell his life story. You can watch the program here and here. He discusses his background as an artist, his military service in World War II, meeting his wife, his Judaism, how the premature death of his daughter led to his work on paranormal issues, and his work as an inventor and businessman. But I know him mainly from his work on the Enfield Poltergeist. I want to say more about him from that perspective.

Hugh Pincott, who was Honorary Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) at the time when Grosse started on the Enfield case, was one of the contributors to Melvyn Willin's recent book on Enfield. Pincott recalls how Grosse became involved in the case and comments on the controversy surrounding his involvement. Grosse was a new member of the SPR and had been asking them to assign him to a case. After the Daily Mirror started going to the Hodgsons' house to report on the poltergeist that was occurring there, one of their reporters contacted the SPR to send somebody out to help the family:

Dehumanizing humans

I suspect one reason some people think like this meme depicts above is because they don't have children. See declining birth rates in the US and other western nations. It's as if a baby is something "other" to them. I guess more like knowledge by description than knowledge by acquaintance. Anyway, to these people it may seem like it's an abstract debate, without significant personal stakes. That is, it's a debate between "a person with rights" vs. "a woman's right to bodily autonomy" as if "rights" is the sole or central concern, while our "humanness" is something incidental or secondary. As if "rights" are conferred by one group of human beings to another group of human beings, so it's ultimately human beings who decide which "rights" are more fundamental. They can't seem to appreciate that we're dealing with human beings who, simply by virtue of being human, have inherent or innate rights.

At best, they might see kids around them. However, they may see kids, but do they truly see kids? I know too many people or couples who "can't stand kids". Who don't wish to be around kids let alone have kids. People who are more career-minded than family-minded. (I'm referring to childless couples by choice, not childless couples who longed for children, but sadly never could have children due to infertility or other reasons.)

At the same time, it's easier to kill someone if the killer doesn't consider their victim a human being. Or considers them a lesser kind of human being. Like when Germans began to see the Jews as rats or vermin (cf. Kafka's Metamorphosis, Spiegelman's Maus). Like masters seeing slaves as their inferiors. Or like considering babies (at the embryonic or fetal stage of life) mere "clumps of cells".

People can de-God God by failing to esteem God as he ought to be esteemed, but people can also de-humanize humans by failing to esteem humans as we ought to be esteemed. Human beings aren't God, of course, but we're not a chunk of randomly assembled molecules in an aqueous solution either.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"Why Derek Chauvin May Get Off His Murder Charge"

Here are six reasons why Derek Chauvin and the other three police officers involved in George Floyd's death may get off a murder charge:

  1. George Floyd was experiencing cardiopulmonary and psychological distress minutes before he was placed on the ground, let alone had a knee to his neck.
  2. The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) allows the use of neck restraint on suspects who actively resist arrest, and George Floyd actively resisted arrest on two occasions, including immediately prior to neck restraint being used.
  3. The officers were recorded on their body cams assessing George Floyd as suffering from “excited delirium syndrome” (ExDS), a condition which the MPD considers an extreme threat to both the officers and the suspect. A white paper used by the MPD acknowledges that ExDS suspects may die irrespective of force involved. The officers’ response to this situation was in line with MPD guidelines for ExDS.
  4. Restraining the suspect on his or her abdomen (prone restraint) is a common tactic in ExDS situations, and the white paper used by the MPD instructs the officers to control the suspect until paramedics arrive.
  5. Floyd’s autopsy revealed a potentially lethal concoction of drugs — not just a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, but also methamphetamine. Together with his history of drug abuse and two serious heart conditions, Floyd’s condition was exceptionally and unusually fragile.
  6. Chauvin’s neck restraint is unlikely to have exerted a dangerous amount of force to Floyd’s neck. Floyd is shown on video able to lift his head and neck, and a robust study on double-knee restraints showed a median force exertion of approximately approximately 105lbs.

Let’s be clear: the actions of Chauvin and the other officers were absolutely wrong. But they were also in line with MPD rules and procedures for the condition which they determined was George Floyd was suffering from. An act that would normally be considered a clear and heinous abuse of force, such as a knee-to-neck restraint on a suspect suffering from pulmonary distress, can be legitimatized if there are overriding concerns not known to bystanders but known to the officers. In the case of George Floyd, the overriding concern was that he was suffering from ExDS, given a number of relevant facts known to the officers. This was not known to the bystanders, who only saw a man with pulmonary distress pinned down with a knee on his neck. While the officers may still be found guilty of manslaughter, the probability of a guilty verdict for the murder charge is low, and the public should be aware of this well in advance of the verdict.

I don't know how reliable these statements are. However, if these statements are true, and Chauvin et al aren't found guilty of murder for one or more of these reasons (though they may be found guilty of manslaughter), then this makes me wonder about something the left often argues. The left often argues it's better for ten guilty persons to go free than it is for one innocent person to be convicted. Will the left argue the same to keep the lynch mobs at bay?

Of course, legally sophisticated leftists may be able to argue against the relevance of Blackstone's ratio in this case, but I'm referring to popular sentiments from the left about Blackstone's ratio. That's primarily because it's typically the sentiments that are used to incite mobs and the like. Yet if leftists incite mobs to protest and even riot (like they already are doing well before a trial has even occurred) if Chauvin et al aren't found guilty of murder, then whatever leftists may think about the theoretical arguments pertaining to Blackstone's ratio, the theoretical evidently doesn't trump the pragmatic.

NB. I myself am not agreeing or disagreeing with Blackstone's ratio. However, in case anyone is interested, Alexander Volokh's piece offers some helpful background information.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Omnipotence isn't what you think it is


I frequent a couple of apologetics groups on Facebook, and in one of them there was a recent discussion on the old atheist’s question, “If God is all powerful, can He make a rock too heavy for Him to lift?”  Now most Christians have been asked this question at some point if they’ve ever talked to atheists, and the majority of apologetically-minded Christians probably learned an answer along the lines of, “When we say God is all powerful, we don’t mean that He can do everything, but that He can do everything that is logically possible to do.  Everyone agrees that God cannot make a square circle, because that would be logically impossible to do.  Asking for an all powerful being to do something that would make Him no longer all powerful is, on the face of it, a logical absurdity.”

There is a problem with this argument.  The problem is not immediately obvious, however. After all, contained in the meaning of “all powerful” is the necessity of certain inabilities, which are in fact required in order to make something “all powerful”.  For example, if something is “all powerful” then that thing is incapable of being defeated.  So if God is all powerful, that means He cannot be defeated, say if I were to play Him in a game of chess.  Note, this doesn’t mean God cannot lose, for it is certainly still possible that God could throw a game and let me win. What I’m saying is that it is impossible for God to want to win and not be able to do so.  Thus, contained in the concept of “all powerful” is the notion that certain things are impossible to do.  God cannot want to win and still lose if He is all powerful.

So the logic checks out in the argument.  Because the concept of “all powerful” contains aspects which necessitate the inability to do certain things, it’s logically absurd to hold that something cannot be “all powerful” if it cannot do those things which are necessarily impossible to do given one is “all powerful.” 

What, then, is the flaw in this response to the atheist?  The flaw comes from the Christian maintaining that the definition of omnipotence is “the ability to do all that is logically possible to do.”

For normal theism, this claim is certainly something that is obtainable.  That’s why the argument has worked in philosophy for centuries.  But for the Christian who holds to the inspiration of Scripture, we cannot agree that it is possible for God to do all that is logically possible to do.   The Bible, in fact, gives us a specific example where this is refuted.  It’s found in a clause in the middle of Hebrews 6:18:

“It is impossible for God to lie.”

That’s correct.  God cannot lie.  The passage does not say God will not lie even though He could.  It says it is impossible for God to lie.  (We can also add in Titus 1:2, which contains the clause “God, who never lies”, but the fact that Hebrews literally uses the word “impossible” makes it all the clearer.)

Now here’s the rub.  Is it logically possible to lie?  Clearly, yes.  Humans lie all the time.  No one can make a square circle, so square circles are logically impossible.  But anyone can say they made a square circle, which would be a lie.  It is therefore obvious that lying is logically possible to do.

Furthermore, we know that God can speak.  He spoke the entire creation into existence, and the Bible records Him speaking directly to many individuals.  So the impossibility of God to lie is not because God cannot form words.

Given all that, we are left with the following:

1) God can do anything that is logically possible (per definition).
2) God can speak.
3) Speaking lies is logically possible.
4) Therefore, God can speak lies.
5) But, Hebrews 6:18 says it is impossible for God to speak lies.

(5) contradicts (4). Since there’s a contradiction, then (at least one of) 1, 2, 3 or 5 must be wrong.  But the only one that seems to be capable of being wrong is the first.

And there is good news for the Christian on that front.  Nowhere in the Bible does it ever say that God is able to do anything that is logically possible to be done.  In fact, if we let the Bible define God’s power, we see it in passages such as these:

Daniel 4:35 –  “…he does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”

Isaiah 14:27 – “For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”

Isaiah 43:13 – “Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?”

Job 42:2 – “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

It’s also implicit in the fact that God created all things and indeed maintains all that exists. Romans 1:20 declares “his eternal power” is seen “in the things that have been made”, and Hebrews 1:3 says “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.”  Indeed, Colossians 1:17 even declares: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

There are many more passages that could be quoted on that topic, but I think the one that is most succinct for Christians to use is found in Psalm 135:6.  “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”  I maintain that for a Christian apologist, this should be the definition of omnipotence that we use.

In fact, I would maintain that using this passage, we can also see why it is impossible for God to lie. God does whatever He pleases.  It does not please God to tell a lie.  It is impossible for Him lying to please Him, and therefore it is impossible for Him to lie.

So would there be any downsides to using this type of argumentation?  Some may think that God’s omnipotence may be cheapened if we don’t assert He is capable of doing anything that is logically possible to do.  As if saying that God can do whatever He wants to do, instead of saying God can do every single logically possible thing, somehow lessens His abilities!  I suppose someone could argue, “So if God wants to do nothing, then Him doing only nothing would make him ‘omnipotent’?  That seems absurd.”  And it would seem absurd until you realized that if God can always do what He wants, then if He wants to do nothing there is absolutely no power strong enough to force Him to do anything.  That means He would need quite a bit of power in order to maintain His ability to do nothing, should He so desire.  None can thwart Him and force Him to do anything if He wants to do nothing!

If God wants to do something, He does it; if He does not, none can make Him do it.  This seems to be a perfectly fine definition of omnipotence.

In fact, not only do I not think this definition lessens God’s omnipotence at all, I think it gives us the ability to argue for omnipotence in the context of a personal God.  If we stick with the language of “anything that is logically possible to do”, then God can be viewed as an impersonal force. But if, instead, we maintain that God does whatever He chooses to do, then we necessarily have a personal being who is interacting with His creation.  If God does whatever He desires, and there are certain things we know He will never desire, then we have confidence that there are certain things that are impossible to occur.  Thus, we can rest in knowing that it is impossible for God to lie, and that impossibility is because of His omnipotence. Nothing can ever force God to lie.

That definition of omnipotence tells me something about the nature and character of God.  And that, in my mind, is required in apologetics even more than simply making a logical argument that could be satisfied by an impersonal Deistic god.

Arguing For Jesus' Self-Perception

Hawk recently started a thread that was partly about how to argue for and from Jesus' self-perception. Did he view himself as God? If so, what are the implications? How should we go about arguing for and from our answers to these questions? And so on.

One of the issues that came up was the validity of arguing for the historicity of Jesus' identity claims based on the general reliability of the documents that report the identity claims. And that is a valid approach and one that's sometimes neglected.

But we can, and sometimes should, appeal to more than the general reliability of the documents. We should be open to using every argument we have, though there's no need to use every argument on every occasion. It often makes sense to be selective, even highly selective (e.g., because of time constraints).

One question to ask, then, is what lines of evidence we have for Jesus' self-perception that meet multiple standards of evidence simultaneously. The more, the better. There's no need for the evidence we cite to meet multiple standards, but it is helpful.

I discussed an example in a post late last year. We have many, often significantly independent, lines of evidence that Jesus viewed himself as the messianic figure of Isaiah 9. And I've argued elsewhere (linked in the article cited above) that the figure in Isaiah 9 is God. The evidence for Jesus' identifying himself as that figure comes from all four gospels, both from Jesus' words and his deeds, in both subtle and explicit forms, with partial corroboration from early non-Christian sources, with partial corroboration from non-conservative modern New Testament scholarship, etc. I've written a lot about Isaiah 9 over the years, and I'll be discussing it further during the upcoming Christmas season. But even if we just take into account what I've already posted, I think there's a strong case that the figure of Isaiah 9 is God and that we have many, highly varied, and highly reliable lines of evidence that Jesus identified himself as that figure.

I encourage people to research the issues surrounding Jesus' self-perception, and develop arguments about the subject, in ways that take the multifaceted nature of the evidence into account. Don't just look at Jesus' words. Look at his deeds as well. Think about the Old Testament backdrop of his life and other relevant contexts. Look at the subtle assumptions and allusions in his other comments, not just his comments you're most focused on. Ask yourself if there are some ways in which the evidence is corroborated by ancient non-Christian sources or modern non-conservative scholars, for example. There will be different degrees of evidence for different conclusions, and you'll have different degrees of confidence accordingly. But it's important to gather a large amount of evidence, even if the levels of probability vary a lot.

Part of what's so significant about approaching the issues in this manner is that the cumulative effect adds to the credibility of the argument. If Jesus perceived himself in a certain way, especially if that self-identification was of a more central nature, there's a better chance accordingly that his identifying himself that way will be reflected in more places and more often. It doesn't follow that we can dismiss a claim about his self-image if there's only one line of evidence for it, it's only reflected in a couple of places, or something like that. For a variety of reasons, even the features of Jesus' alleged self-perception that are less evidenced can be credible (people aren't equally revealing of every aspect of their self-perception; our historical records are so partial; etc.). But there's especially good reason for accepting and arguing on the basis of portions of Jesus' self-perception that are evidenced in the sort of multifaceted manner I'm focused on here.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The one thing I vehemently disagreed with Steve Hays on

Steve thought Randal Rauser was a useful foil to engage with.

I don't.

Christless Calvinism

An interesting take from John Ehrett on Stephen King's oeuvre: "The Dark Theology of Stephen King".

What is systemic racism?

What is systemic racism?

1. One definition is that institutions are racist. There's racial discrimination in housing, healthcare, education, employment, the justice system, politics, and so on. If this definition is the case, then I presume most conservatives would have no problem fighting against it. Show us where there's racial discrimination in this or that policy or law, and we'll fight against racism. For example, take the Asian-American Harvard law suit. It seems arguable there is institutionalized racial discrimination against Asian-Americans at Harvard in terms of their admissions policy (and likely other Ivy League institutions too). Why isn't this getting as much coverage as BLM?

2. Another definition is social inequalities are primarily or solely due to racial discrimination. If this definition is the case, then does that really explain most or all our social inequalities? For instance, is it the case that black students aren't admitted to prestigious institutions primarily or solely because there's racial discrimination against blacks? Is it the case that blacks are incarcerated at higher rates primarily or solely because there's racial discrimination against blacks? What about other factors such as the fact that a majority of blacks come from broken homes (e.g. single mothers, absentee fathers)? What about the fact that there's a culture of black students shaming other black students if they want to focus on academic achievement (and interestingly Asian culture is kind of the opposite where there's shaming of Asians by other Asians if they don't wish to focus on academic achievement)?

3. There's a third definition regarding systemic racism: unconscious or implicit bias. People unconsciously having attitudes or stereotypes toward others based on their race. If this definition is the case, can one fight against implicit bias? How so? Fundamentally speaking I presume it would have to be by changing people's minds or attitudes. And there are various ways to change people's minds or attitudes toward others. Some may be licit, while others illicit (e.g. coercion, brainwashing). Yet the problem is it's usually white people who are expected to change their minds about their attitudes towards black people. Why shouldn't it be the case that blacks need to change their attitudes about whites too? And what about other races/ethnicities? Should Italians seek to change people's minds about their people due to how they're depicted in mafia movies by rioting, demanding mafia shows are canceled, Scorsese to issue a public apology for his movies, and so on? Another issue is it usually takes time to change people's minds, but leftists don't seem very patient. They don't want to play the long game. This makes it more tempting for them to coerce change in people's minds and attitudes if they have the ability to do so. And this in turn threatens to spill over into Orwellian machinations and designs.

4. Of course, these definitions aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and there may be other definitions. Indeed, a significant problem is leftists often use two or more of these definitions in the very same conversation or debate. Moreover, it seems leftists engage in this behavior because it suits them to move back and forth between one definition or the other (equivocation). Rather than because it's what's factually accurate. The mainstream media is rife with examples.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

John Frame on Steve Hays

Posted on Behalf of Dr John Frame

I think I met Steve in the early 90s. When you teach theology, people come out of the blue and ask you questions. And that's what happened, in a way, with Steve. Typically, such correspondents want to ask about predestination or the millennium— the conventional topics of the day. But Steve's question was very different.

He asked something like "can a Reformed Christian be a Malebrancheian Occasionalist?"

When people try to understand causality, they think in terms of David Hume, and determinism, and freedom.

Malebranche was a philosophical predecessor to David Hume. Steve had been reading a history of philosophy, and Malebranche was kind of like a theistic Humean, except that he lived prior to Hume. His Occasionalism held that God is the only causal agent, and that creatures provide the "occasion" for divine action.

Steve's question threw me for a loop. I had never considered this question. I tried to persuade Steve that God did create the world with a real causal structure. That God causes things in such a way that the world does produce genuine causes.

According to my very fallible memory, after our brief correspondence, Steve joined us at WSCal as a student. He took some classes for about a year, and then he went back north.

Maybe a year later, I got a note from a former student and WSCal alumnus in the Northwest. He had become a pastor.

He wrote to me, "is it possible that there's such a thing as a theological prodigy?" He wrote about this fellow he knew, and, given the details, I knew it had to be Steve Hays.

Steve came back to WSCal in the late 1990s, and he took most of my classes. We became good friends.

On one occasion, my wife had Steve to dinner, and he seemed to trail me around the house, asking question after question, and writing my answers in a notebook.

Unfortunately, that was the time when things became sticky for me at WSCal. What had been a wonderful, congenial and collegial faculty in the eighties had become faction-ridden, and it seemed that everybody was at each other's throats. Steve was an encouragement to me, but he didn't take sides in the controversies. Looking back on the experience, Steve later described himself as neither confessional enough, nor Klinean enough, for the culture there. "I'd prefer to stay closer to the Scriptures," he said.

In 1999 I got my family together and moved to Orlando, Florida. Teaching at RTS [Reformed Theological Seminary] was the greatest 17 years of my life.

Around that same time, Steve and his mother decided to move east, to Charleston SC. Steve was close to his parents, and his father had died in 1999. [Steve's memoir notes "My father had died a month shy of my fortieth birthday".]

RTS also had a campus in Charlotte, NC, and Steve became associated there.

Together we became involved in producing a distance education program. I taught a number of courses, in theology, philosophy, ethics, and apologetics. Steve worked as my teaching assistant, as well as having worked on his own project.

Unfortunately, Steve became disassociated with RTS. I think he was in an online discussion that became a little too heated. I'm not sure what it was, but something happened, and he began blogging at Triablogue.

I've followed Steve over the years. In fact, Triablogue is the only blog that I've read consistently. When I went to my office each morning and turned on the computer, Triablogue was part of my regular routine.

Over the years, Steve has been helpful to me in a number of ways, such as in discussions with some of the neo-Thomists in recent years. For a while, it looked as if the whole Reformed world was about to go neo-Thomist. Paul Helm, Richard Muller, and many other Reformed thinkers joined the movement.

I recognized, and still do, that there are many good things in the work of Thomas Aquinas. But Thomas mixed up his good biblical theology with a lot of pagan philosophy from Plato, and especially Aristotle. I am a student of Cornelius Van Til, and like Van Til I have always been critical of Thomas's compromises with Greek Philosophy.

I wrote some brief essays such as "Two Models of Divine Transcendence: Pure Being vs. Divine Lordship," to indicate my view of things.

I realize that Thomas was trying to reconcile some Christian theologies with ideas from some of the great philosophies. It would be unthinkable for a Christian thinker living in his time not to do that. But "pure being" is not in the Bible. The biblical God is not Aristotle's "prime mover", although some try very hard to make that identification. God is YHWH, who makes covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Some time over the course of those early years, Steve became a very sophisticated philosopher. I've been at some of the leading seminaries and universities in the country, and I was amazed at how much philosophical reading Steve did. He was aware of philosophical conversations that I'd never heard of.

He had personal correspondence with many philosophers, as well as theologians, and he learned quickly how these professional thinkers discussed issues. Steve avoided stereotyped lists of talking points (alas, the common content of evangelical theology) and instead developed careful, cogent chains of argument, nuanced and qualified.

He tended to develop his arguments as I also do, with numbered lists of points. He'd develop one point, then another, indicating that he wanted to focus on this issue, rather than that. Whatever it was that Steve wrote, you always could tell that he knew what he was talking about.

I was interested that in our numbered-list approach, and in our way of approaching problems, Steve and I were very similar. I think he learned from me, but the reverse was also true.

In sum, I regarded Steve as a kindred spirit. He wasn't always on my side, but he was a Godly man, devoted to his family, seeking to think God's thoughts after Him.

He wasn't afraid to step outside of boundaries. So while he was always thoroughly Reformed in his thinking, he didn't use buzz words. He didn't always make conventional arguments. He wasn't afraid to delve into unpopular topics.

Look at the issue of cessationism. With me, the sufficiency of Scripture was always most important. Yes, natural revelation is helpful, and we learn that from Romans 1. We also know that God has spoken to people through dreams and visions. But Scripture is a sufficient source for doctrine.

So some Reformed thinkers have argued that at the death of the last apostle, God absolutely stopped speaking authoritatively to human beings. To many Reformed thinkers, the Charismatic tradition is entirely anathema.

My position was that yes, the canon of inspired Scripture is closed. That is to say, Scripture alone is God's "covenant document" (Kline) to rule his church. But Scripture never says that God's revelation will stop with the death of the last apostle. God communicates any way he chooses.

Natural revelation, for example, continues. We may legitimately make various distinctions within the concept of revelation, but in ordinary life we need not only to hear Scripture, but also to work in a godly way to APPLY Scripture to other forms of experience in which God makes himself known. So there is a bit of looseness here that we cannot avoid, a looseness hard for many Reformed thinkers to tolerate.

Steve, though a highly principled Calvinist, was willing to embrace that looseness. He did not feel bound by Reformed tradition to avoid anything that sounded Charismatic. Indeed, he maintained an independence from tradition that seemed to me to express sola Scriptura in the best possible sense.

Other Triabloggers write about paranormal phenomena, such as the Enfield poltergeist. [JB note: Steve has often told me that "naturalism" is the greatest enemy that we face.] I think God can work in unusual ways.

So over the years, even after our collaboration at RTS was over, Steve and I continued to be good friends. We were also part of a group that began at Westminster back in the 1990s. Philip Marshall, Greg Welty, later James Anderson, and I all stayed in touch, and every once in a while Steve would write to the whole group about philosophical and theological ideas that he was in touch with. We'd all get together by email and go over the issues.

I thought the world of Steve, and I will miss him very much. I look forward to resuming our conversations in glory (with so many more resources at our disposal!) Until then, I will still be reading Triablogue, where Steve's influence lives on, and where a number of godly thinkers remain to take up his torch.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Opportunities And Responsibilities In Evangelism

You can't say much about evangelism without discussing a lot of other topics as well. There's a lot of overlap, which is part of what makes addressing evangelism so difficult.

I can't be exhaustive. This is just a post, not a book. And there are some issues I'm undecided on or too hesitant to address here.

One of the factors we should take into account when deciding how to handle matters related to evangelism is the principle Paul discusses in Colossians 4:5. Start where you have the most opportunity, then work out from there. The large majority of professing Christians in places like the United States don't make much use of the opportunities they have, even where the conditions are most favorable.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Why Some People Hate Cops (An Ex-Con Explains)"

I saw Peter Pike mention David Wood's video here.

Also, Wood includes a lot of autobiographical material in his video. I think Wood is someone who was given so very little in life (albeit he's very intelligent), but who has turned his "little" into a tremendous harvest.

It's not about history...

I've seen several people posting this image in social media:


East Germany was unavailable for comment.

People have also compared the destruction of statues to the Boston Tea Party. The British Empire was likewise unavailable for comment.

When people destroy objects in their community, it is not because they want to distance themselves from history. They want to distance themselves from the government who built those objects.  That in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It's good that East Germany no longer exists.  It's good that the British Empire no longer exists.

Is it good if America no longer exists?  That depends on what replaces America.  But I find it pretty clear that those who tore down the Berlin Wall did so because they wanted more freedom for themselves, and those who dumped tea into the harbor did so because they wanted more freedom for themselves.  Those who are destroying statues of Jefferson, Washington, and Grant are the same people demanding that others bow to them, that you do not have the right to free speech (but they do), and that you do not have the right to freedom of religion or assembly (but they do).  After all, art is speech and they are destroying the art they disagree with, but if you tear down BLM posters you will get arrested.  And you don't have the right to sit in a car outside of church without getting a ticket because of COVID, but they have the right to gather face to face in the streets without risking jail.

I do not see how their replacement for America is objectively better than what we currently have; rather, it is objectively far worse.  But make no mistake, this isn't about history. It's about bringing down the United States and replacing it with something else.

Perceiving design

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies:

Perceiving Design?

In this chapter and the last we have been thinking about fine-tuning arguments for design, and Behe's biological arguments for design. We have been calling them, naturally enough, "arguments." But perhaps there is a better way to think about what is going on here. You are hiking up Ptarmigan Ridge towards Mt. Baker in the North Cascades; your partner points out a mountain goat on a crag about two hundred yards distant. She thus gets you to form a belief—that there is a mountain goat there. But of course she doesn't do so by giving you an argument (you are appeared to in such and such a way; most of the time when someone S is appeared to that way there is a mountain goat about two hundred yards distant in the direction S is looking). Perhaps what is going on in the arguments like Behe's, as well as the fine-tuning arguments of the last chapter, can be better thought of as like what is going on in this sort of case, where it is perception (or something like it) rather than argument that is involved.20

What is intelligent design?

William Dembski offers one definition:

Intelligent design is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence.

What is intelligence? Intelligence is teleological. It's basically about adapting means to ends. Intelligence is a causal power that can bring about purposes by arranging the means to bring those purposes about. An intelligence has to make choices. If it's adapting means, then it's this means, not that means. In fact, the very etymology of the word intelligence is inter lego - "to choose between". That's the characteristic of intelligence. Whereas something that operates by brute necessity always does the same sort of thing. Even chance is not really intelligence; it's not goal-directed. So it seems there's this fundamental distinction. Intelligence is about adapting means to ends.

The starting question for intelligent design is, what are the markers? How do we detect the effects of intelligence? There seem to be three main things we're looking for. Contingency: whether something happens that didn't have to happen. So it was optional. There are different live possibilities. Complexity: it was hard to reproduce by chance. If chance and necessity were operating, would it have been unlikely? And third specification: does it conform to some independently given pattern? So it's not just something we're imposing after the fact, that we're cherry-picking and looking for something that we're hoping is there, but that there's this independent pattern to which it conforms. If we have those three things that come into place, then it seems we're triangulated on the effects of intelligence.

So lots of questions are then open. What's the nature of that intelligence? What were the purposes of that intelligence? How did the intelligence implement that design?

Where intelligence design starts, not where it ends, is having reliable methods of design detection. Specifically: contingency, complexity, specification.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Is evolution a big deal?

I recently watched this informal debate or dialogue between Josh Swamidass and Doug Axe:

I thought it was pretty good on Axe's side. I'd recommend it for Axe's contributions.

Swamidass, however, was a challenge to listen to. For example, Swamidass frequently interrupted Axe (and Swamidass often interrupts others in several other videos I've seen). At times Swamidass didn't seem to try to make a good faith effort to try to understand Axe but perhaps even the opposite. Swamidass seemed condescending toward Axe around the 50 minute mark when he suggested to Axe that Axe's description of cancer is "not what we find" because Axe hadn't been through medical training (MD) or worked in a cancer lab. Axe's description of cancer was fine for his purposes.

At 56:20, Swamidass claimed "Dembski himself backed off from his book The Design Inference". However that's false. Dembski himself responded to Swamidass here.

Swamidass further questioned Dembski over on Peaceful Science. (By the way, the Peaceful Science forums seem anything but "peaceful" in my opinion.) Others replied including Paul Nelson. Nelson mentioned he'll do a 4-part series on Evolution News. This is the first one.

Jesus seminar renders Lewis' trilemma obsolete! And other tall tales

Esther O'Reilly:

Reminded today of just how awful this William Lane Craig quote from Reasonable Faith is [near the end of chapter 7]:

Often one hears people say, 'I don’t understand all those philosophical arguments for God’s existence and so forth. I prefer historical apologetics.' I suspect that those who say this think that historical apologetics is easy and will enable them to avoid the hard thinking involved in the philosophical arguments. But this section ought to teach us clearly that this is not so. It is naïve and outdated simply to trot out the dilemma 'Liar, Lunatic, or Lord' and adduce several proof texts where Jesus claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah, and so forth. The publicity generated by the Jesus Seminar and The DaVinci Code has rendered that approach forever obsolete. Rather, if an apologetic based on the claims of Christ is to work, we must do the requisite spadework of sorting out those claims of Jesus that can be established as authentic, and then drawing out their implications. This will involve not only mastering Greek but also the methods of modern criticism and the criteria of authenticity. Far from being easy, historical apologetics, if done right, is every bit as difficult as philosophical apologetics. The only reason most people think historical apologetics to be easier is because they do it superficially.

How awful is this passage? Let me count the ways:

  1. The Jesus Seminar renders Lewis obsolete? I'll let the self-defeating irony of this particular bit speak for itself.
  2. Are we doing sociology or epistemology here? Genuinely can't tell.
  3. Is there reasonable doubt that Jesus *did* make such explicit claims to deity as those we find in, say, John? If not, why not use them? Yet, significantly, Craig never does.
  4. Why the need for all this "spadework" if we can establish whole-gospel reliability?
  5. Yet further irony: In the intro to RF, Craig downplays "saddling" oneself with establishing whole-gospel reliability, then here proceeds to "saddle" his readers with all this "spadework" as...an improvement?
  6. "This requires mastering Greek." So much for the "one-dollar apologist," eh?

I'm sorry to say it, but this really is the sort of rhetoric that gives big apologetics a bad name. Massively unhelpful, confusing, and does not reflect the actual state of the argument.

Yes, we really need to get out of this rigid rut where first you need to establish X, Y and Z arguments for general theism, and only then can you "move on" to the historical arguments. Says who? Written where?

How Much The Media Are Influencing You

You can disagree with their conclusions, but let them have too much influence on what you think about and what you discuss with other people. Disagreeing with them about the coronavirus, racial issues, or guns isn't enough if they're getting you to spend too much time thinking and talking about the coronavirus, racial issues, or guns.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The State Of The Culture

When we're doing work in apologetics, evangelism, politics, or some other context, it's important to be well informed about the state of the culture we're interacting with. I want to recommend some resources. I can't be exhaustive, and I won't be saying much about these sources. But you can search the Triablogue archives or my posts on Facebook, for example, to find further discussion of the significance of these sources and their findings. I won't always link the latest research. Some of these sources are ones I don't consult every year, and there's only so much that I've read from these sites.

The Pew Research Center publishes a lot of material on relevant subjects. Go here for an article on where Americans find meaning in life, for example. Among other results, they reported, "Overall, 20% of Americans say religion is the most meaningful aspect of their lives, second only to the share who say this about family (40%)."

Around this time every year, the Department of Labor publishes their annual research on how Americans spend their time. See here. I've been following their research for several years, and they've consistently found that the average American spends more than five hours a day on what they call leisure and sports and less than ten minutes a day on religious and spiritual activities. Here's one of many posts over the years in which I've discussed the implications of those findings.

Gallup has a lot of useful information. Here's a collection of resources on moral issues. The page here shows you how Americans' views on moral issues have changed over time. And here's an article that discusses why acceptance of polygamy has been growing.

There's been a major reduction in global poverty in recent decades. See here and here. That has major implications for how concerned we should be about poverty, how much attention we should give it, how much Christians should be focused on poverty in the local church and other contexts (e.g., financial giving), the proper size and role of government programs addressing poverty, etc. In my experience, the vast majority of people seem unaware of statistics like these or haven't thought much about the implications of them.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center does a lot of research on how much Americans know about civics issues. See here, for example. C-SPAN has commissioned polling related to the Supreme Court. Their 2018 poll was done at the time of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. A majority of Americans couldn't name a single Supreme Court justice.

Some of these sites have a lot of data on religious issues. See, for example, here on Bible reading, here on how Americans view the Bible, and here regarding their views on issues related to Christmas. On global percentages for religious affiliation, see here. One important fact to note from the page I just cited and others at these web sites is that atheists make up such a small percentage of the population. We should keep that in mind when considering issues like how much of our apologetic effort should be directed toward atheism. Barna does a lot of research on Evangelicals in particular. Another site has an article on church attendance numbers.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A few more tributes to Steve Hays

I recently saw some more tributes to Steve Hays that I thought would be worth linking to. However some are on Facebook so they might not be accessible to everyone. Please feel free to post more in the comments if there are others worth reading.

Yellow Lives Matter

I recently saw a popular Christian apologist post the following image on Facebook. He's also been making posts sympathetic to if not in support of BLM.

Let's take a comparison:

Asian-Americans hear similar things. You're a banana or Twinkie. You're fresh off the boat. No but where are you really from? Well of course you're good at math and science. You all look the same. And so on.

Asian-Americans face systemic racism in college admissions. For example, see the Harvard law suit which may go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Yet, are Asian-Americans going around demanding the cancellation of every movie or series with yellow face racism? Supporting a Marxist-influenced organization like BLM? Justifying the destruction of property? Tearing down railroad tracks from the First Transcontinental Railroad because Chinese immigrants were literally treated like pack animals? Using Japanese internment camps like Manzanar as a modern rallying cry against the evil US government?

Should Asian-Americans be doing these things?

I think other racial/ethnic groups could say similar things too (e.g. Latinos, Indigenous Americans, Jews, underprivileged whites). Where's the massive public outrage and support for them? Why aren't CNN and MSNBC covering their plight as much as BLM?

Friday, June 19, 2020

How To Begin To Argue For Christianity

Christians who are involved in apologetics are often overly defensive and don't go on offense enough. They're familiar with some or all of the broad outlines of the evidence for Christianity, but don't know much about the details or how to prioritize them.

There are a lot of approaches that can be taken. Different ones are better in different circumstances, and we don't have to take only one approach toward a given individual. I want to recommend several approaches, among others that could be used, with links to relevant posts.

Just as there isn't any easy way to answer every objection to Christianity, there isn't any easy way to argue for the religion as a whole. The same is true of other worldviews. There is no easy way to answer every objection or argue for your beliefs as a whole if you're an atheist, Muslim, or Hindu. About a decade ago, this is how I began my contribution to an e-book written by a few of us on the Triablogue staff:

We live in a complicated universe. No worldview has an easy answer for every question. There are advantages to complexity, though. The depth of human relationships makes life more enjoyable in some ways, but more difficult in other ways. The complexities of language are an advantage in some contexts and a disadvantage in others. Life involves a lot of tradeoffs. One thing is gained at the expense of something else. Any belief system can be made to look bad by inordinately focusing on some elements of it while neglecting others. (The Infidel Delusion, 5)

Having said all of that, we need to make decisions about where to begin in a discussion with a non-Christian. I can't cover all of the ground here, but I want to recommend some resources.

If you're interacting with an atheist or agnostic, for example, you could appeal to philosophical and scientific arguments for God's existence. You could also appeal to video evidence for miracles, especially if you're interacting with somebody who claims that there is no such evidence or that such evidence would be significant to him. To make a case more specifically for Christianity, you should familiarize yourself with the reasoning behind the traditional Christian arguments for the religion and be prepared to provide an overview to others. See here. You can appeal to prophecy fulfillment based on common ground with the non-Christian, namely evidence from the modern world and evidence from the ancient world that non-Christians often accept. You can also argue for Jesus' resurrection from non-Christian sources, in the sense of either people who were non-Christians prior to seeing Jesus risen from the dead or people who remained non-Christians, but corroborated the resurrection to some extent.

Those are just several examples. You can find more in our archives. And we have a lot of material that can be used to go beyond the earliest steps in arguing for Christianity. See here, for example, on arguing for the superiority of the Christian system of miracles over competing systems.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Duty


In Steve’s memoir, he said “most of what I post on my blog is written from a sense of duty rather than personal interest” (page 74).  Steve and I had a couple of email exchanges along that topic over the years.  A lot of what drove that feeling is the difference between writing about what interests you and writing about what people need to hear.  For example, if I wrote about what interest me, I would write about Chaos Theory, mathematics, logic, music theory, and trying to become a polyglot.   Yet these topics would not be very useful for the church as a whole.

Indeed, I remember something my father once told me about a complaint R.C. Sproul made around the time when I was in high school.  It’s so long ago, I don’t have a way to verify the quote, but it seems accurate enough.  Essentially, Sproul’s complaint was that publishers kept having him dumb-down his books for a wider audience, so he was never able to talk about the things he wanted to talk about in the detail he wanted to express it.

But there’s another aspect to Steve’s quote that does need to be examined as well.  In using his quote as my launch pad, I should clarify that I do not believe what I’m going to discuss was Steve’s primary reasoning in the slightest—but it’s also not completely alien, given our conversations behind the scenes.  And that is the dichotomy that arises from writing about what you know to be true at times when you do not feel it to be true.

There is a reason that I use the distinction between knowing and feeling here.  Steve mentioned how for him it was a no brainer that God exists, but that the emotional problem of evil was far more difficult to tackle (see page 43 of his memoir).  This is something that I have also struggled with.  I’ve never doubted the existence of God—logic makes no sense unless theism is true.  But given theism, the question of God’s goodness definitely still remains one that can be struggled with.

Now at this point, I want to speak solely for myself.  While Steve and I did discuss the topic, as I mentioned, it’s in the midst of some emails that I am unable to dig through at the moment, given the nature of the events that were going on in my life during the time we had these exchanges.  So while I’m fairly confident I can accurately reproduce from memory what we discussed, I don’t want to inadvertently put words in Steve’s mouth that he would never have actually said simply because I mis-remembered the conversation.

So to my point.  There can be a radical difference between what you intellectually know to be true and what you feel at any given time.  My personal struggle arose from a time when I felt God had betrayed me.  This feeling of betrayal was a real feeling, but even a cursory logical look at the circumstances indicated that there was no such betrayal.  While confidentiality requires that I not give too many specifics, it involved the fact that at one point while I was in prayer and fasting, I believed God answered my prayers by affirming that I should remain faithful to my word and continue to pursue something that all my reason told me was impossible to achieve.  What I concluded from this was that God had told me, “If you remain faithful to your word, I will work out the details so you will get the result you want.”  But the truth was that never was the “message” that I got from the prayer—it was a simple command to be faithful without any indication that God was promising to do anything further.

The net result was, of course, that not only did I not get the ultimate desire I was hoping to achieve from my prayers, but it turned out that by remaining faithful to my word I ended up in a far worse position than I would have been in had I ceased my efforts when I knew it was hopeless.

Now here’s the rub.  The feeling of the betrayal was a real feeling, but it was not a reasonable feeling.  I could logically tell myself repeatedly all the facts.  I knew God had never promised to give me the end result I wanted, contingent upon my following through on my word.  For that matter, the affirmation to be faithful to my word was merely the bare minimum of what God wants us to do anyway!  In short, had I broken my word, that itself would have been sinful, and God is not obligated to bless you simply because in one instance you avoided sinning.

But reason doesn’t enter into matters of the heart.  I felt pained.  I felt betrayed.  I felt that God was unjust.

But I still knew God was just.  And here is where this ties back into the topic of this post.  At the time that I was struggling with this dichotomy between what I felt and what I knew, a former friend of mine who had apostatized to atheism started to engage me in debates on Facebook.  He would consistently make arguments about how if God existed, He would be nothing more than a moral monster.  That God was actually evil, not good.  Etc.

I engaged with this friend by arguing from reason.  I would object to his claims by showing the flawed logical assumptions and presuppositions underlying the claims, and how they had no teeth in an atheistic universe.  I used every bit of my intellect to focus on the reason his claims were false.

Yet the reality was, as soon as I hit “Submit” and turned off my computer and went to bed, my prayers would be accusing God of the very things the atheist had accused Him of, and which I had just spent so much time to refute.  And I was well aware that those emotions were genuinely felt, even though irrational.  I knew I had answered all my own questions, but it wasn’t an intellectual issue.  It was the emotional pain driving everything.

Why did I bother debating my atheist friend on logical grounds when emotionally I felt the same way he did?  Because I had a duty to do so.  I know that God is real and good and just.  And I know that my emotions, while genuine emotions, are not reality, nor can they be used to condemn God.  I can’t jettison what I know on the basis of what I feel.  As a result, I would write what I knew to be true despite how I felt.

I believe there is a sense where some (by no means all!) of Steve’s writing was based on that same balance sheet.  That some of what he wrote he did so because he knew it was true, and the sense of duty that compelled him to write it was required because the reality of evil in this world had hurt him in the same way it had hurt me. 

It’s easy to throw in the towel and let emotions rule the day.  It’s easy to vent, to rage, to cry out, to despair, to throw a tantrum against God.  It’s much harder to acknowledge that those emotions aren’t truth, and the truth still needs to be said.

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).

"And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

The point of this somewhat lengthy meandering post is thus to assert a simple claim: To write the truth despite how one feels is actually a very good thing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Providence In The Life Of Steve Hays

"those who honor Me I will honor" (1 Samuel 2:30)

God's providence is the subject of the title of Steve's memoir and a recurring theme within it. I won't repeat everything he says about the topic there. But I want to supplement the memoir with a discussion of providence in Steve's life in contexts the memoir doesn't discuss much, especially his work at Triablogue and the events surrounding the end of his life.

Whether we consider something providential will depend on a lot of background factors that we've discussed in other contexts and that I won't get into here (the existence of God, the characteristics of God, the evidence for Christianity, etc.). And different aspects of providence are going to be evident and evidenced to different degrees. I'm not suggesting that all of what I'll discuss below is of equal significance.

I'll start with some examples of providence related to Steve's life as a whole. I'll then conclude with the events surrounding his death.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Confessions of the Unknown Blogger

It was me. 

I wrote the first ever posts on Triablogue. Up until today I didn't realize I was listed as "unknown" on the list of bloggers. 

I even came up with the name. It was a verbal mashup of my hopes for dialogue with two of my most learned friends: Rev. Richard Bledsoe and Steve Hays. So I invited them to join me for a triablogue. 

Blogging was new to me back then and I knew that Steve and Rich would be good at it if they tried. Indeed, Steve became a hall-of-famer. I, on the other hand blog like I play golf: too infrequently to be any good at it. The others that Steve recruited to Triablogue have graciously kept me around despite my absenteeism. I do feel regret for not engaging more. 

I met Steve while attending Westminster Seminary in California. I wouldn't claim we were close friends but I learned quickly that he was an insightful thinker and prolific writer. Steve was thoughtful and cared deeply about evangelism. When I told him I worked for a campus ministry he immediately took an interest. 

After I left WTSC in 2000, Steve would send me interesting things via email and we would exchange replies. I knew he would be a great blogger. 

I was stunned and saddened to read that Steve had died. 

I saw him before I left CA in 2000. It was on a pier in San Diego. I was with my family and he was walking with his mother. I remember his gentle kindness with his mother and his delight in meeting my family. That has been my enduring image all of these years as I have read his work on the blog. 

It might sound strange but Steve remains "present" in my thoughts like a well memorized equation of arithmetic. Maybe it is because I've read far more from Steve than I ever heard him utter. He is now "present" with Jesus and though I will miss his writing, I look forward to renewing our friendship in person. 

In this house of prayer

Danny recently suggested reposting Steve's old posts from time to time. I think that's a good idea.

This fictional story about prayer might be a good place to start. Attentive readers will realize the examples Steve used in the story are taken from the pages of his own life (e.g. the junior high school in Seattle where Steve's father used to teach and where Steve would walk around and pray for his father).

Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Long Obedience In the Same Direction

I wrote this about Steve Hays last Saturday, as soon as I knew he had died:

It is fair to say that I have learned more from Steve Hays in my life, than from any other human being. Christian doctrine, philosophy, “how to think clearly”. Steve was first of all a profound Christian thinker, and a prolific blogger at Triablogue, which I started reading in 2006, and where I became a co-blogger at his request, in 2010. He died peacefully this morning.

Looking back, it was actually 2011 when I became a Triablogger.

I am now and always have been a nobody. I never wanted to be anybody. Back when I was young and running for my health, Joe Henderson, a former editor of Runner’s World magazine and, according to Wikipedia, “recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on running”, said something to the effect that “while many are running up mountains, to try to get to the top, some of us just want to run laps around the base.”

To put that idea more Scripturally, it might be stated, “But we urge you, brothers, … to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, …” (1 Thess 4:11).

That has generally been my philosophy of life, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions typically revolve around me looking at a thing and saying “now that ain’t right”.

One of those exceptions turned out to be Roman Catholicism.

* * *

I grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic family, hearing very frequently that the Catholic Church was the Church that Christ founded, the one true Church. “Thou art Peter, and on This Rock I will build my Catholic Church”.

Later as a teen, I heard the Protestant Gospel (the Biblical Gospel). I read the New Testament, I found the Gospel there, but I didn’t find the Roman Catholic Church. Matthew 16:18 was always thin gruel for me. As an aspiring wordsmith, I soon learned that it didn’t say what they told me it said. And so that contradiction sent me on a journey of explanation. To find out precisely why “that ain’t right”.

I was in and out of Catholicism a couple of times. I left in 1979 for what I considered to be the right reasons. Later someone persuaded me “it wasn’t too bad”, and following up with those folks, I was persuaded that I should try to go into the priesthood. After a few years of that, I ended up getting married, and having lots of kids, but some things about the Roman Catholic Church still didn’t sit right with me.

A friend handed me the 1994 issue of “First Things” with the first “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statement. That too didn’t seem right.

I wrote a long letter to my parish priest at the time, telling him all my reasons that I did not believe that I could remain Catholic. I never heard from him after that. That was August of 1997.

The Internet was coming online at the time, and I found some of the early Protestant writers who were writing about Catholicism: James White, Eric Svendsen, David King, and several others. James White’s “The Roman Catholic Controversy” had a profound influence on my thinking about Rome in those days.

I joined the NTRMin discussion board, and got to be one of the “adelphoi”, the insiders. (I honestly didn’t understand James White’s “channel”. Never got the hang of the culture there. Not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t understand how it worked!)

NTRMin helped to shape my thinking theologically. When you leave a thing that’s important to you, as Roman Catholicism was to me, there’s a void. And it’s very important that that void gets filled properly.

After a lot of exploration, I found and attended an OPC church in 2002 and 2003, but it was destroyed in a fire, and Reformed churches in the area were few and far between. I began following several blogs and participating in comments and discussions, especially surrounding political and religious issues.

That’s the first time I had heard of Triablogue. NTRMin (where I had met Jason Engwer) kind of went out of business in 2004 or 2005. Then in 2006, one of my other NTRMin friends said she had started reading Steve Hays and Triablogue. I had seen Steve’s name in a few discussions at NTRMin, so I tuned in over at Triablogue.

Around that same time, I first came across Peter Lampe’s work, “From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries”. That ground-breaking work had been written in 1987, in German, so it was not widely known.

But apparently the Vatican knew about it. They promptly did two studies into the papacy, one historical (1989) and another theological a few years later That was surprising because Rome never does anything promptly. It is said that they think in terms of centuries. But the quick work here well could have been because Lampe’s work shook them up.

John Paul II issued his “Ut Unum Sint” encyclical in 1995, famous for its request that even Protestants help him look for “a new situation” for the papacy.

Lampe’s work was published in English in 2003, and I found it in 2006. Reading that work was a life changing experience for me, for it showed me the first genuine look at what the ancient church in the city of Rome was like, in a way that was based on historical, archaeological, and other physical evidence.

In 2007 I went to a local Michael Horton conference, in which he talked about “Two Kingdoms” theology. Not ironically, a key verse for him was “But we urge you, brothers, … to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, …” (1 Thess 4:11).

I became interested in that, and by 2008, I had landed on Jason Stellman’s blog about Two Kingdoms theology (the now defunct “De Regnis Duobus” blog). I was looking into a subject that might be termed “political theology” or “political philosophy”.

But Stellman was going through his own “transformation”. In those days, the group of Roman Catholic converts who were later to start the blog “Called to Communion” were showing up in Stellman’s comments, and it seemed as if that blog had totally moved off of “Two Kingdoms” and into discussions of Roman Catholicism.

So in June 2009, I started a blog to discuss issues separately from both the Stellman site and the new “Called to Communion” site. By that time, I already had a huge sense that “that ain’t right” – a WSCal-trained pastor was converting to Roman Catholicism.

It was during those discussions that I began to have a fairly robust email conversation with Steve. My earliest emails with him go back to that period. Later, James Swan asked me to blog at his blog, Beggars All. A year later, after I told Steve that James and I had had a bit of a disagreement, Steve asked me to write at Triablogue.

My response was to say, “It would be the dream of a lifetime”.

* * *

I wasn’t one of the insiders who knew of Steve’s health conditions beforehand. I just assumed he’d keep writing. But I do have the ability to do the kind of snooping around that most readers don’t have access to.

As I write, there are 23,546 published blog posts on Triablogue. I personally have written 1,344 of them. Jason Engwer is tagged in 1549 of them. Patrick Chan in 1299. Peter Pike is tagged in 301. Interestingly, Hawk does not tag his posts as Hawk, but he’s been writing a quite a bit lately. There are several others who have written for this blog over the years, but the vast majority of these 23,000 blog posts were written by Steve Hays.

Checking the archives (in the right hand column), the earliest blog post here was “Posted by Unknown” on Friday, April 16, 2004. That one reads:

This is an experimental blog with two who’ve never blogged but should and one who just started blogging but struggles to find the time. I’m hoping this will give a public outlet to all of the wisdom and provocative thoughts of my two as of yet blogless friends. Gentleman, after you...

Steve was one of those guys, and since that date, it seems, he genuinely took 1 Thess 4:11 to heart. And he did it in a profoundly appropriate way.

There’s a book title that impressed me a great deal, some time ago. It was “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. Those of us who read this blog got to see that concept play out right before our eyes.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson has announced today on Facebook that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer as well. I will be praying for him as he battles this.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Was it Suicide?


I have seen a couple of social media posts where some have questioned whether or not Steve’s death was a form of suicide.  After all, the announcement we made included the fact: “He had cancer and heart disease. Both conditions were initially treatable, but he declined treatment.”  So that brings up the moral question: If you decline treatment for something, is that the same thing as committing suicide?

Before answering this broadly, we can first look at the specifics as it relates to Steve Hays.  If you read his memoir, A Backward Providence, you will see that when Steve was in his thirties, he was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia (p. 65).  At the bottom of that same page, he notes: “…I was thirty-five, which is a very different time of life. I had far more to live for. I underwent the full course of treatment.”

So Steve had already gone through the treatment he subsequently refused back when, as he pointed out, he had far more to live for.  There are a couple of ways you could parse that phrase, but included in it would definitely be the fact that at thirty-five you are much closer to your prime than when you are sixty years old.  You have more strength and vigor.  You don’t have as many aches and pains.  In addition, Steve was 35 years old in 1994. He still had both parents at that time (his father passed away in 1999, and Steve became the caretaker for his mother until she passed away in 2013).  When he was diagnosed with the recurrence, he had none of that remaining: no youthful strength, no family to take care of, and the long pain of Fibromyalgia, in addition to other health issues.

Knowing this will address a couple of other things raised by other individuals.  Since Steve was a Calvinist, some have questioned whether he had decided to “accept his fate.”  But Calvinism is not fatalism, so that’s already framing the issue incorrectly.  Steve clearly held to the belief that predestination included the means, not just the end, and “means” included the ability to use doctors for treatment of normal diseases.  So it was not due to a belief that God had predestined him to die that he refused treatment, for he would have held that God had predestined him to use doctors to fight against his disease had he wanted to fight the disease.

Somewhat ironically, another person speculated that perhaps Steve was trying to get God to heal him miraculously.  This is due to the fact that Steve was not a full cessationist and had argued against some cessationists in the past.  However, when you read A Backward Providence, it is very clear that Steve was ready to die.  He didn’t want God to heal him, although if God had done so Steve would have accepted it as God’s desire.  But as mentioned above, he had less to live for as he aged.  So, he prepared himself for his death, and he was ready to meet his Savior.

To add a bit of my own speculation (since Steve and I never talked about this point directly), I also think that since Steve went through the full treatment already, he knew what kind of toll it would have on his body.  And he also knew that “treatment” wasn’t the same thing as “cure” and there’s a good chance he would not have wanted to add another couple of years to his life just to have to go through the same painful treatment again and again until it finally killed him.  Add on the reality that treatment can be expensive, so those painfully extended years might have come at the cost of Steve being forced to live on the streets, unable to blog or to do anything he considered useful.

So those are some specifics in dealing with Steve’s death itself.  But while that may perhaps give us understanding for why Steve chose not to get treatment, it does not yet answer the question of whether it was morally licit for Steve to decline treatment.  So let us examine the moral question.

First is the question: what is suicide?  At a simple level, suicide is deliberately taking an action, the result of which will knowingly cause the end of one’s life.  But even this simple definition needs to be examined.  I can immediately think of a counter: if a soldier sees an enemy about to shoot his friend, and he leaps in front of the bullet and subsequently dies, he has deliberately taken an action that ended his own life.  Yet hardly anyone would view such a death to be suicide.  It was instead noble.  Indeed, Jesus Himself would declare such an action to be that of which there is no greater love (John 15:13).

There is also the fact that refusing to do something is not the same thing as deliberately taking an action.  That is, it was not Steve taking an action that resulted in his disease not being treated—it was the absence of an action that resulted in the disease not being treated.  So defining suicide as "deliberately taking an action that will end one's life" clearly would not apply.

So let us amend it slightly.  "Suicide is deliberately taking an action, or refusing to take an action, the result of which will knowingly end one's life." And that brings us to the crux.  If refusing to take an action to save one’s life results in one’s death, is that suicide or not? 

It's perhaps beneficial to look at the conundrum slightly differently.  When Terri Schiavo was being kept alive with a feeding tube, pro-life activists argued that removing the feeding tube would be murder.  Under the same logic, if one chose to remove one’s own feeding tube, would that be suicide?

The Terri Schiavo case helps us examine this philosophically.  Why was it that removing a feeding tube was considered tantamount to murder by the pro-life side?  After all, the opposition to the pro-life crowd pointed out:  “We’re not killing her.  We are just removing the feeding tube and letting nature take its course.”

But of course, if you keep anyone from food, then “nature’s course” is death.

This brought up the key distinction in the ethical debate.  Terri Schiavo was not on a ventilator or heart bypass machine.  She could breathe on her own, and her heart beat on its own.  What kept her from dying was the nutrition her feeding tube gave her.  Nutrition—the same thing that keeps all of us from dying.  The pro-life argument had been that there was no medical issue with refusing extra-ordinary treatment, but ordinary care that everyone needs for basic survivability could not be turned off without resulting in murder.  In other words, turning off a heart bypass machine resulting in the death of the patient would not constitute murder because hearts beat on their own naturally, but because everyone needs food to survive then depriving her of food was tantamount to murder because everyone needs food to survive.

This moral argument clearly made sense to a lot of pro-life adherents, myself included, and so using that same principal we can ask: is chemotherapy ordinary or extra-ordinary treatment?  Chemotherapy is poisonous.  The hope is that the cancer cells die before all the healthy cells die.  Given that, if you are healthy and you take chemotherapy, only bad things could possibly happen to you.  Clearly chemotherapy is not ordinary care, like food and water are.  This means that under the same principal that it is moral to turn off a heart bypass machine because of it being extra-ordinary care, so too one can refuse chemotherapy without it constituting suicide.

Of course one could still object that this is just a philosophy argument, not Biblical.  The Bible may still forbid one to refrain from doing anything possible to stay alive.  To that, I would respond: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”  These words from Jesus recorded in Matthew 26:53 show that Jesus could have done much to keep Himself from the crucifixion.  Does the fact that He did not act to save Himself, knowing full well that He would die if He did not act, mean that He committed suicide?  Clearly not!

So there is at least one example where not choosing to save one’s own life does not constitute suicide.  Indeed, I would suspect that no one could come up with an example where someone does nothing at all to save their life—while also not doing anything active to endanger it—where that would be classified as a suicide.  Regardless, the onus is on the person who says that refusing treatment for a disease is equivalent to suicide to prove that it is.

At the end of the day, I think it’s clear both from philosophy and theology that there is no rational basis to claim that there is a moral imperative to prolong one’s life using extra-ordinary means.  There’s no admonition against it either.  So when faced with two options, neither of which is sinful, then whichever option is chosen is, by definition, not sinful to take.