Saturday, February 03, 2007

Revelation 12

Though it's popular among modern Roman Catholics to view the woman of Revelation 12 as Mary, the interpretation is exegetically problematic and wasn't so popular among the earliest Christians:

"Even Oecumenius, the first true proponent of the full-orbed Marian interpretation, is not considered a canonized father of the church....The number of patristic writers in the first six centuries who subscribe to the people of God view of Revelation 12 (at least sixteen known to us, counting Quodvultdeus, nine of whom are canonized saints) far exceeds the number of those who see Mary as the primary or secondary referent (only two, none of whom are canonized fathers of the Roman church)....It is not until the fifth century (in Quodvultdeus) and the sixth century (in Oecumenius) that we find positive evidence for seeing, respectively, Mary as a secondary referent unintended by the author of the Revelation and Mary as the primary referent in the interpretation of this text. In any case, the Marian interpretation was never the majority opinion in the early church. The majority viewed the 'woman' as the people of God, both the ancient church and the New Covenant church." (Eric Svendsen, Who Is My Mother? [Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001], pp. 231-232)

See, for example, Hippolytus (Treatise On Christ And Antichrist, 61), Methodius (The Banquet Of The Ten Virgins, Discourse 8:5-7), and Victorinus (Commentary On The Apocalypse Of The Blessed John, 12:1-2). These fathers often make the same observations about the passage that are made by modern critics of the Marian interpretation. They sometimes argue against elements of the Marian view, and they don't advocate the Marian view anywhere else, so it seems unlikely that they were merely proposing other interpretations in addition to the Marian interpretation. Rather, it seems that the earliest interpreters didn't see Mary in Revelation 12. They identified the woman as some other entity and repeatedly contradicted the Marian interpretations that are popular today.

The Anti-Lewis

Here are two reviews of Philip Pullman by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens' expose is all the more revealing, if not ironic, when you consider that Hitchens is every bit as much the militant atheist as Pullman.

Pullman's first novel is coming to the silver screen later this year. So be on your guard.

This is the Most Dangerous Author in Britain

A Labour of Loathing

UPDATE: The Above reviews are by Peter Hitchens, not Christopher Hitchens. See comment below. Sorry 'bout that.

Pious fraud

Since I recently crossed swords with Michael Pahls over Jn 6, I might as well take the occasion to comment on some of the other things he’s posted over at the pseudo-Reformed/deutero-Catholic website (which I found beginning here):


It is impossible to reclaim those who have lapsed in Hebrews 6 and 10, because they have explicitly renounced their salvation as sacramentally mediated. They have turned their back on baptism (enlightenment), the Holy Supper (heavenly gift), the proclaimed word, and the variegated Spirit-wrought charisms of the community. In turning their back on the people of God they have turned their back on God in Christ and vice versa. They have “spurned the Son of God,” “profaned the blood of the covenant” and “outraged the Spirit of grace.” This is why “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” is part and parcel of the exhortations to perseverance in Hebrews.


This is exhibit A of acontextual exegesis. Michael makes no effort to show that “enlightenment” (6:4) and “the heavenly gift” have reference to baptism and communion respectively.

It is true that “enlightened” came to be a synonym for baptism in patristic usage. Read Hughes’ commentary.

But it would be anachronistic to read that back into Hebrews without further argument. Pahls has done nothing to exegete that significance from the actual usage of the author of Hebrews, or his general theology, or his literary allusions.

By contrast (according to Hughes), the identification of “the heavenly gift” with communion doesn’t even have the benefit of patristic attestation.

For an interpretation which is more sensitive to the author’s own usage, read Ellingworth.

A more contextual explanation of the passage would be as follows:

The author is addressing a congregation of Messianic Jews, probably in Rome. Christianity is coming under persecution from the Roman authorities.

Since Judaism was a licit religion under Roman law, and since Judaism had also been a saving faith, the members of this congregation are tempted to revert to Judaism. For the historical reconstruction, read Lane.

They cannot be reclaimed if (or as long as) they turn their backs on the New Covenant and look to an obsolete covenant (the Old Covenant) as the object of saving faith.

As yet, they haven’t made that fateful choice.

Pahls’ sacramental interpretation is also problematic on its own grounds, for his view of postbaptismal apostasy would commit him to the rigorist position of the “schismatic” Donatists and Novatianists.



I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do no understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.


Several issues:

1.Since Reformation Sunday is only a man-made tradition, it wouldn’t say that we are under any obligation to mark it on our calendars. This is a point of liberty.

But as long as the observance is voluntary rather than mandatory, I have no more problem with Reformation Sunday that other holidays like Christmas or Advent.

2. We can celebrate Reformation Sunday in the same spirit that the Jews celebrated the Passover.

Just as the Exodus marked a liberation from Egyptian bondage, we can thank God that the Reformation liberated Christians from bondage to a decadent religious system.

3.It’s rather simple-minded to define the *concept* of Protestantism from a dictionary definition of the *word* “Protestant”.

The nature of Protestant identity isn’t derivable from a popular label. Why does Michael indulge in semantic fallacies to prove his point?

4.Who says that Protestantism is an end in itself?



Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. Christian salvation consists in works. To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of–or perhaps better, because of–the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we have been made part of God’s salvation for the world so that the world may know it has been freed from the powers that would compel us to kill one another in the name of false loyalties. All that is about the works necessary to save us.


This is a caricature of Evangelical theology. It deliberately rides roughshod over fundamental distinctions regarding the source and role of good works in salvation.



For example, I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin. You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation. Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise? We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.


A couple of points:

1.Is the magisterial office of the papacy a good thing? Where is his supporting argument?

Why is Michael drawing invidious comparisons without bothering to establish the standard of comparison in the first place? Is that too much to ask?

2.He’s very free with the word “sin.” By what authority does he accuse Evangelicals of sin for the “sin of disunity” or the “sin of the Reformation.”?

The question at issue is not whether Evangelicals can be divisive to a fault. This is not a question of individual sins.

No, the question is whether the very idea of the Reformation is inherently sinful.

What he needs to do is to first exegete what he takes to be the relevant passages of Scripture, and then show that the Reformation in toto is analogous to what Scripture classifies as sin.

Thus far, all we get from Michael are personal assertions dressed up as oracular anathemas for whatever he happens to disapprove of.



The magisterial office–we Protestants often forget–is not a matter of constraining or limiting diversity in the name of unity. The office of the Bishop of Rome is to ensure that when Christians move from Durham, North Carolina to Syracuse, New York, they have some confidence when they go to church that they will be worshipping the same God. Because Catholics have an office of unity, they do not need to restrain the gifts of the Spirit. As I oftentimes point out, it is extraordinary that Catholicism is able to keep the Irish and the Italians in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.


Other issues aside, they could only be sure of this if, on the basis of Herculean historical research, they could be sure of unbroken apostolic succession contingent on the valid administration of holy orders for each and every link in the chain.

How does Michael propose that we achieve this level of certainty? Michael keeps giving us his conclusions without the elementary spadework to support his conclusions.


I think Catholics are able to do that because they know that their unity does not depend opon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

This creates a quite different attitude among Catholics about their relation to Christian tradition and the wider world. Protestants look over to Christian tradition and say, ‘How much of this do we have to believe in order to remain identifiably Christian?’ That’s the reason why Protestants are always tempted to rationalism: we think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than with the unity of the Spirit occasioned through sacrament.

Moreover, once Christianity becomes reduced to a matter of belief, as it clearly has for Protestants, we cannot resist questions of whether those beliefs are as true or useful as other beliefs we also entertain. Once such questions are raised, it does not matter what the answer turns out in a given case. As James Edwards observes, “Once religious beliefs start to compete with other beliefs, then religious believers are - and will know themselves to be –mongerers of values. They too are denizens of the mall, selling and shopping and buying along with the rest of us.”


1.This is a fascinating admission. Having castigated the Protestant cause for the sin of disunity, he then proceeds to redefine Christian unity by eliminating a common faith.

Does he really think that a common faith is irrelevant to religious identity in either the OT covenant community or the NT covenant community?

2.At the same time, he is making his own faith-claims about church and sacrament.


In contrast, Catholics do not begin with the question of “How much do we need to believe?” but with the attitude “Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!” Isn’t it wonderful to know that Mary was immaculately conceived in order to be the faithful servant of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ! She therefore becomes the firstborn of God’s new creation, our mother, the first member of God’s new community we call church. Isn’t it wonderful that God continued to act in the world through the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe! Mary must know something because she seems to always appear to peasants and, in particular, to peasant women who have the ability to see her. Most of us would not have the ability to see Mary because we’d be far too embarrassed by our vision.


1.And does he believe in the Immaculate Conception? Does he believe that God continues to act in the world through Marian apparitions?

2.What about the visions of Muhammad or Swedenborg or Joseph Smith or Oral Roberts?

Does Michael have any criterion for distinguishing between divine visions and occultic visions, or does he even care?


Therefore Catholics understand the church’s unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The office of Rome matters. For at least that office is a judgement on the church for our disunity. Surely it is the clear indication of the sin of the Reformation that we Protestants have not been able to resist nationalistic identifications. So we become German Lutherans, American Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans. You are Dutch Calvinist, American Presbyterians, Church of Scotland. I am an American Methodist, which has precious little to do with my sisters and brothers in English Methodism. And so we Protestant Christians go to war killing one another in the name of being American, German, Japanese, and so on.


1.Having, by his own lights, reduced Evangelical identity to bare belief, notice how he now substitutes feeling for belief. Does he really think these are equivalent?

2.Isn’t it a caricature of Evangelical theology to say it’s reducible “our good feelings for one another”? Is Michael even attempting to be accurate at this point? Or is he reading his opponents in the light of all the straw man he’s burning?

3.Why assume that nationalistic identifications are sinful?

God chooses when and where we will be born. That inevitably affects our live options and general outlook. Social conditioning is an aspect of God’s ordinary providence.

Nationality is not a criterion of truth, but to treat nationality as inherently sinful is quite unnatural given the way in which, to take one example, OT covenant theology builds on patriarchy and tribalism as fundamental units of socio-religious identity.

4.If he’s alluding to WWII, does he really think that America went to war against Japan or Germany simply because American Protestants like to kill German Protestants or Japanese Protestants?

Does Michael think that this amounts to a serious analysis of the historical provocations and personal motivations?

Nothing about the Nazis or the Japanese imperial cult or Japanese stratocracy.

If he’s not alluding to WWII, what’s the connection between Germans, Japanese, Americans, and killing?

5.Notice his flagrant disregard for the degree to which American Evangelicals freely associate with one another.


You can tell the destructive character of that narrative by what it has done to the Jews. The way we Protestants read history, and in particular our Bible, has been nothing but disastrous for the Jews. For we turned the Jews into Catholics by suggesting that the Jews had sunk into legalistic and sacramental religion after the prophets and had therefore become moribund and dead. In order to make Jesus explicable (in order to make Jesus look like Luther - at least the Luther of our democratic projections), we had to make Judaism look like our characterization of Catholicism. Yet Jesus did not free us from Israel; rather, he engrafted us into the promise of Israel so that we might be a people called to the same holiness of the law.


There are a couple of basic problems with this indictment:

1. On the one hand, it disregards philosemitic Evangelical traditions like Calvinism and Fundamentalism.

2. On the other hand, it disregards the role of Russian Orthodoxy in the pogroms, as well as the role of Medieval Catholicism in the slaughter of the Jews during the Crusades, as well as the role of Catholic countries like Austria and Poland in the Holocaust.

So one would like to see Michael to make a minimal effort at moral, historical, and theological consistency. Or is that too much to ask?



Revelation is a book of “thick” as opposed to “thin” symbolism. What I mean by “thick” is that they are capable of double references. The “Antichrist,” for example can refer to a single person (the Roman Emperor of John’s day, a future tyrant, etc.) or it can refer to a general spirit of human idolatry in any day (last week, for example, we spoke of self-justifying human egoism as the “spirit of antichrist”). With the “woman” in this passage we have the same phenomenon.

A simple reading of verses 2 and 5 make the connection with the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus obvious. Mary is the woman who gives birth to the, “male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” It is Mary’s son, who was, “caught up to God and to God’s throne.” in the Ascension. Simply put, Mary is the woman in Revelation. This does not exhaust the symbol, however. To say that the woman is merely Mary is to miss John’s point.

John also says in verse one that the woman is, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” These descriptions associate the woman with the Old Testament’s prophetic hopes for the glory of the whole people of God who experience his salvation. The twelve stars here, represent the twelve tribes of Israel. From this perspective we might say that the woman represents the people of God from whom Jesus traces his human lineage.

To put it very simply, John is speaking of Mary as the ideal representative of the people of God. In doing so, John is simply expanding on the picture of Mary already present in the Gospels themselves.


This identification would be more impressive if Pahls could lift a finger to interact with objections to his identification by the major commentators (e.g. Aune, Beale, Keener, Smalley), as well as contemporary Catholic/ecumenical scholarship, viz. R. Brown, K. Donfried, J. Fitzmyer, & J. Reumann, eds. Mary in the New Testament (Fortress 1978).



The canon of Holy Scripture being closed, there is no new revelation or addition to the one, completed revelation of God in Christ (Heb. 1:1-4), but the Church is graced by God with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, who faithfully guides her into all truth (Jn. 16:13). The Church’s witness may therefore be spoken of as normative, but because the witness of the Church is always subject to the Scripture, her witness is always a “normed norm” (norma normata). On this basis, the Church retains the right, with the consent of the faithful, to dogmatically define and present the teachings of Scriptures, to settle controversies, and to close its communion to dissension.


He assumes, without benefit of argument, that Jn 16:13 refers to the church. He then erects an edifice over a nonexistent foundation.



An acceptible doctrine of Purgatory can start from quite ordinary principles faced in the confession and repentance from personal sin. A confessor or a pastor would be acting irresponsibly if he were to offer the assurance of forgiveness to one that has confessed to stealing while refusing to restore the stolen object to its rightful owner. Suborning that kind of cognitive dissonance would be inimical to the kind of personal reformation intended by the word “repentance” (metanoia) and would amount to what Bonhoeffer called the offer of a “cheap grace.” [Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.” The Cost of Discipleship (trans. R.H. Fuller; London: SCM, 1959; repr., New York: Touchstone, 1995) 44.]
Human beings, even redeemed human beings, have an incredible aptitude for self-deception and the evasion of truth. [Calvin describes the human heart as a “factory of idols” (fabricum idolorum). Institutes (1559) 1.5.11-12.] In its most Gospel-shaped expressions, Purgatory ceases to be expressed in terms of time and space and merely expresses a postmortem, personal encounter with Christ in which the remaining structures of self-deception and self-evasion are finally crumbled and we see ourselves as we truly are before God. In full light of God’s truth and holiness, the false self is burned away and we are graced with the gift of a full and complete repentance.

Of course, one must readily say that this represents but one potential (and historically novel) configuration of the doctrine. As such, assent to the dogma could not be imposed as binding on the conscience or be regarded as necessary to salvation (Cf. Article 20). In fact, one may venture that this represents such a thoroughgoing mitigation of the Medieval doctrine that it ceases to be recognizable as the dogma of Purgatory altogether. My only concern is to name the space in which the affirmation of such a doctrine could be acceptable to communing Anglicans.


Note the complete absence of appeal to divine revelation in his attempt create “space” for an acceptable version of Purgatory.

By what criterion, if any, does Michael attempt to distinguish between the truth and make-believe or pious fraud?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Nuts to you!


“You Christian theists are in such a funny position. You claim moral superiority, but when we look at your book, we atheists see a morality typical of the time that spawned it, steeped in superstition.”

And if Abraham were looking at your books, he’d see a morality typical of your time, steeped in secular groupthink.

“Would you really defend Leviticus when God (supposedly) says: ‘[Ye shall keep my statutes] neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee’."

Yes, I’d defend it with a view to original intent.

“It doesn't matter who God supposedly told this to, it's just plain nuts! NUTS! ... the law would never make any sense under any circumstances-- let alone your claim that from God comes ‘intrinsic morality’. ‘Thou shalt not eat green jelly beans.’ is just as morally applicable in the REAL WORLD.”

Several problems here:

1.You’d make a lousy anthropologist. Every culture has its symbolic associations. You’re a fool if you think you’re automatically in a position, based on your 21C American point of reference, to declare another culture’s custom “just plain nuts! This would never make any sense under any circumstances!”

Suppose a native from an undiscovered tribe in S. America were brought to the United States. What would he think of those funny colored lights we have at every major intersection? “It’s just plain nuts! Those funny colored lights would never make any sense under any circumstances!”

2.The fact that we believe in moral absolutes doesn’t mean that every law in Scripture is a moral absolute. That was never the claim.

3.And you’ve done nothing to salvage Loftus’ argument from evil, which was the original point of reference.

4.Lev 19:19 is part of the ceremonial law. It deals with ritual purity and impurity. To some extent, categories of ritual purity and impurity are admittedly arbitrary.

That’s no objection to the ceremonial law, for we were never claiming otherwise.

5.However, not everything that’s arbitrary is unreasonable.

Libraries catalogue books according to a somewhat arbitrary classification scheme.

It would be a lot simpler to file books on a shelf without all that effort to order them according to a complicated numerical code.

But while that would greatly simplify the shelving process, it would greatly complicate the retrieval process.

There’s nothing intrinsically evil about mixing books on different subjects, but that would also be extremely inefficient if you were looking for a particular book on a particular subject.

Even a somewhat arbitrary way of arranging books by topic is preferable to randomized shelving.

6.The Bible has a doctrine of natural kinds. God created a variety of things. Things of a kind.

This is important to ontology, epistemology, and morality.

Some things naturally go together, while other things don’t.

7.The ceremonial law has its basis in the moral law. To some extent it parallels the natural order, but it goes beyond the natural order to illustrate ethical distinctions and typological truths by symbolic rites and rituals.

Like any cultural code language, it makes perfect sense if you know the code, and perfect nonsense if you don’t know the code.

“Morality isn't fixed; it's not intrinsic, that's the whole point. We as human beings have to evaluate a given moral position based on real outcomes and evidence as much as it is possible.”

Thanks for that insight. Suppose I lobby for the passage of a law according to which every atheist whose last name begins with “M” will be executed.

Before passing that law, I conduct a feasibility study on the most cost-effective method of executing every atheist whose last name begins with “M.”

Does that satisfy your criterion of outcome-based morality?

“How do we evaluate this evidence? Simple. Based upon the "state of being human" -- a just law is created at an attempt to alleviate human suffering.”

But since, according to you, the alleviation of human suffering is not a fixed value, why should we evaluate the evidence or pass a law with that outcome in mind?

If there’s no intrinsic morality, there’s no intrinsic justice. So much for “just” laws.

“In point of fact, it is you theists who claim there are moral absolutes, so YOU must defend the moral edicts of the Bible which now seem horribly out of date and cruel.”

i) I defend them on a regular basis.

ii) Since, according to you, there is no fixed or intrinsic morally, you may find the edicts of Scripture cruel, but they can’t be intrinsically cruel, now can they?

“We atheists don't need to explain why we don't believe in fixed morality. You do.”

May I quote you on that in case an atheist whose last name begins with “M” complains about the new law we’ve passed?

“We have a perfectly reasonable explanation for why certain laws in the Bible are silly. They were written a long time ago and humanity has moved on... please join us.”

But since, according to you, there is no fixed, intrinsically morality, then the fact that humanity has supposedly moved on since Bible times doesn’t mark a moral advance. So why should we join you?

If morality is extrinsic and fluid, then your humanistic laws are just as “silly” as the laws of Scripture.

Another Review Of Bauckham

Patrick mentioned Craig Blomberg's review of Richard Bauckham's recent book. Ben Witherington also reviewed it recently. I'm almost finished reading the book myself, and I'll probably be posting some comments on it in the near future.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Can science explain everything?

Dr Denis Alexander argues against scientific naturalism from a Christian perspective (or see here for a cleaner version of the same).

Also, there are more articles on Christianity and science here.

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily endorse everything in these articles (e.g., theistic evolution).

The Three Faces of Eve-il

Remember The Three Faces of Eve, starring Joanne Woodward? The character suffered from multiple-personality disorder.

On the one hand, there was Eve White, the mousey, fridge housewife.

On the other hand, there was Eve Black, the risqué party girl.

Under psychoanalysis, the character was able to merge her two personality in Jane.

John Loftus also suffers from an identity crisis. You see, there are two of him.

Unfortunately, he’s been considerably less successful in reintegrating his two personalities.

On the one hand, there's Johnny Six-pack Loftus.

This is the ordinary Joe who retains his intuitive belief in moral absolutes. Hence, you get his unguarded, knee-jerk reaction to examples of good and evil—at least as he views them. Hence, the brimstone fulminations of a modern Ingersoll.

On the other hand, there's John Atheologian Loftus.

When he's donning his atheologian’s top hat, he affects the austere opinion that there are no moral absolutes, since there's no elbowroom for moral absolutes in his religiously disinfected, secular outlook.

The real Loftus and his secular alter-ego vie for control, like a patient who suffers from multiple personality disorder. When one personality seizes control, the other is suppressed, and vice versa.

John Atheologian tries to deploy a chemically pure, internal argument from evil, but he can't keep Johnny Six-pack from resurfacing at socially inappropriate moments—rather like Eve Black reemerging at the church social.

The self-consciously amoral Atheologian keeps slipping back into his blue collar, default setting. Other militant unbelievers who suffer from this acute disorder include Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins.

Loftus is that curious, but perennial apostate oddity—the hellfire preacher who lost his faith in hellfire. The fire has gone out of his faith, but the fiery, homiletical rhetoric remains.

The moral schizophrenia of a militant atheist

“One thing is sure to me. The Triune God in the Bible simply cannot be describing the God who exists. That God is a barbaric God. He is a hateful, racist and sexist God.”

But Loftus says he doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically good or evil. So even if the God of Scripture were hateful, barbaric, racist, and sexist, that wouldn’t be intrinsically evil.

So how does it follow that such a God cannot exist?

Loftus can’t attack Biblical morality on his own grounds, because he doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically good or evil, and he can’t attack the Bible on its own grounds since he could only attack the Bible on its own grounds by assuming the Biblical viewpoint for the sake of argument, but the examples he cites from Scripture are not examples which Scripture itself characterizes the way he does.

“He’s a pretty barbaric God, if you ask me.”

But if you ask Loftus, he will tell you that he doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically good or evil.

“This God is simply the reflection of ancient barbaric peoples.”

But, according to Loftus, barbarism or barbarity is not intrinsically evil.

“God decreed that a man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day was to be stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36). God commanded that anyone who curses his father or mother was to be put to death (Exodus 21:17). Witches, and those of differing religious views were to be killed (Ex. 22:18,20). These are pretty stiff punishments, eh?”

But since Loftus doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically evil, he doesn’t believe these penalties are intrinsically evil.

“God asked Abraham to kill and sacrifice his son Isaac. As I've said, if we heard a voice today telling us to do that, we would not think this voice was God’s, although Abraham wasn’t horrified at the suggestion. Enough!”

Why doesn’t he think this would be the voice of God? Does he think the command is evil? But he doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically evil.

“Josef Mengele is widely hailed as a monster for doing just that to Holocaust victims.”

But Loftus doesn’t believe that the Holocaust was intrinsically evil.

“Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?”

Even assuming the dubious truth of this characterization, why does Loftus believe that God should have done so? According to Loftus, slavery isn’t intrinsically evil.

“If God created us then he can do whatever he wants to us. But that doesn't make him a good God. Goodness means at least treating people as you would want to be treated, and such a God would have no respect for us as human beings.”

Even assuming the dubious premise, since Loftus doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically good, he can’t believe it’s intrinsically good to treat people as you would want to be treated.

“However, the actual situation is that the presence of the amount of suffering in our world stands as evidence against the existence of any God, from our earthly perspective.”

But since Loftus doesn’t believe that suffering is intrinsically evil, how does this count as evidence against the existence of God?

“Come on, why would he create such a world that has so many faults, like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, poisonous creatures and plants? Why not create us with better immune systems to diseases which have wiped out whole civilizations in the past? Why did he create the whole predator-prey relationship in the first place?”

But if you can find these sorts of things in the Bible, then the Bible doesn’t regard these evils as evidence against the existence of God.

So what is left of his original objection? It can’t be either internal or external.

“Christians who respond by saying that suffering is God's punishment for our sins fail to understand that the so-called punishments do not fit the crimes.”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the punishment exceeds the crime, since Loftus denies that any punishment could be intrinsically evil, how does his objection have any traction?

Not on external grounds. And the Bible doesn’t regard its penalties as disproportionate.

“Even our own system of punishments is more humane in how we treat criminals.”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that our own system is more humane, Loftus doesn’t believe that it’s intrinsically good to be more humane, or intrinsically evil to be more inhumane. So his external comparison is like a flat tire, punctured by his own nail.

“Ed Babinski has often quoted Voltaire on this subject who said: ‘The silly fanatic repeats to me... that it is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the great Being; that His reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice. Eh! How, you mad demoniac, do you want me to judge justice and reason otherwise than by the notions I have of them?’”

But Loftus judges justice by the principle that nothing is intrinsically just or unjust.

“It's time to discuss what is known as the bedrock of atheism, the problem of evil.”

So this is the “bedrock” of atheism. Keep that in mind.

“Here are some more things God could’ve done: One childhood fatal disease like the Spanish Flu of 1918 could have killed Hitler and prevented WWII. One actual attempt on Hitler’s life by some people, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could have ended his reign after the war started. A different police officer could have discovered a naked boy who had briefly escaped Jeffrey Dahlmer’s clutches, and upon investigating further could’ve saved that boy’s life. Timothy McVeigh could have had a fatal vehicle crash while driving to Oklahoma, or a crash that would reveal what was inside his truck. McVeigh could also have been killed while in combat before coming back to the states.”

And so on.

But if nothing is intrinsically good or evil, then it isn’t intrinsically evil that God didn’t do any of these things.

So he can’t judge God’s actions by an external absolute.

What about internally? But he’s already told us that the God of Scripture is “barbaric.”

So, according to him, the fact that God doesn’t intervene in these cases is entirely consonant with what Loftus takes to be the Biblical viewpoint. It isn’t intrinsically evil on his own grounds, and it isn’t intrinsically evil on Biblical grounds.

Where does that leave his argument from evil?

“Why did God allow the earthquake that sent the tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people in Asia?”

Since Loftus doesn’t believe that anything is intrinsically evil, it isn’t intrinsically evil that God allowed it.

Not on Loftus’ view of good and evil. And not on a Scriptural view of good and evil.

“Why couldn’t something have happened to all nine hijackers of those planes on that fatal 9/11 day?…God allowed the destruction of nearly 3500 lives that day even though there were means at his disposal to stop it.”

Given Loftus' view of good and evil, how is this relevant to the argument from evil?

Utilitarianism and evil

John Loftus says that he subscribes to consequentialism as his ethical system. He also spends a lot of time on the argument from evil. For him, this is the trump card of atheism.

But the odd thing about his position is that many of the phenomena he cites as paradigm-cases of evil could be justified on utilitarian grounds.

So, if Loftus were a logical man, he would begin by running through his cliché-ridden list of moral or natural evils, and eliminate all of these examples which can be justified on utilitarian grounds.

In mounting the argument from evil, he would have to limit himself to whatever residual examples of evil that cannot be justified on utilitarian grounds.

Either that or he would have to argue that teleological considerations are incompatible with Christian ethics or Christian theology.

Let’s take some of his favorite examples of evil:

“The 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people…40,000 people who starve every single day in the world. Those who don’t die suffer extensively from hunger pains and malnutrition all of their short lives…the Titanic…leukemia…schizophrenia and dementia…pandemics which have destroyed whole populations of people. Lethal parasites kill one human being every ten seconds. 100 million people were slaughtered in the last century due to genocides, and wars. Well over 100 million animals are slaughtered every year for American consumption alone, while animals viciously prey on each other.”

1.One fundamental consideration is that, according to consequentialism, a particular phenomenon doesn’t have to be good in and of itself to be justified. It could be evil, considered in isolation. What makes the existence of the phenomenon justifiable is that it is either instrumental to some greater good or common good, or else the possibility of this phenomenon is contingent on general conditions which make other phenomenon possible that are instrumental to a greater good or common good.

2. A particular pain may be evil, but a capacity for pain is a survival advantage.

In addition, the capacity for pain is what makes possible a capacity for pleasure.

3. Parasitism, predation, starvation, illness, aging, and death are Mother Nature’s method of population control. Overpopulation would destroy the ecological balance.

4.Ships can sink due to the existence of water, gravity, icebergs, &c. But water, gravity, and icebergs are not, themselves, natural evils.

5.Human beings can drown because human beings are natural land animals. But to be a natural land animal is not a natural evil. And there are benefits to being a land animal.

6.Even though war and genocide are moral evils, they are made possible by abilities which are not naturally evil. For example, man’s capacity to make tools.

7.A tsunami may be a natural evil, but it is made possible by things like earthquakes which function as a natural safety value to release and equalize pressure points around the globe.

8.Likewise, a tsunami is also made possible by the existence of oceans. But the ocean is not a natural evil. Indeed, it’s necessary to life on earth.

I could go into more detail, but you get the general picture.

You may find my analysis of moral and natural evil to be rather callous. But that’s because many people find utilitarianism to be rather callous. Yet I’m simply measuring Loftus’ examples of evil by his own utilitarian yardstick.

9.I’d add that there is a teleological dimension to the Christian philosophy of history.

10.I’d also add that teleology is not the only consideration in Christian ethics or Christian theology. Life in a fallen world leaves us liable to various tragedies and calamities.

Yet there are compensatory values, for the Fall is a prerequisite of redemption, which represents a second-order good unobtainable apart from the Fall.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Catholicity's father-fixation


The fact of the matter is that you are a middle-aged seminary student who does not yet know enough to recognize how little he knows. Why don't you at least finish your seminary degree before acting like you are some sort of authority in NT studies? Speaking as a published scholar in the field (and yes, I know I'll catch endless abuse for citing my credentials when the occasion calls for it), who has a terminal degree in New Testament studies, I can tell you, you most plainly are not any kind of authority in these issues.

This is one of these unintentionally revealing ad hominem attacks that discloses more about the critic than it does about the target.

And it’s worth addressing because it’s symptomatic of a larger pathology and pathological ecclesiology.

I, of course, have never asked my readers to accept what I say on my own authority. Rather, I cite other scholars. And I cite them for their arguments.

Credentials can be useful, although Owen is a paradigm example of someone well-credentialed, but intellectually unstable.

Conversely, a man like Kenneth Kitchen has no “terminal degree,” but is a far more distinguished scholar than Owen will ever be.

Owen’s the classic company man—who’s fanatically loyal to whatever name-brand he happens to be selling at the time, and transfers his fanatical allegiance from one company to another whenever he changes employers. When he’s selling a Ford, a Ford is the greatest car in the world. When he’s selling a Chrysler, Chrysler is the greatest. When he’s selling a Chevrolet, GM is the greatest. And so it goes—Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Audi, Honda…

Or, to drop the metaphor:

For the record, I grew up in the LDS Church, and had a “born again” experience at the age of 15…From that point on, during the years 1986-1997 I mostly attended Pentecostal churches, ranging from Assemblies of God, to Foursquare Gospel, to Calvary Chapel. During the years 1992-1997, I grew increasingly sympathetic to Calvinism...In the year 1997, while living in Scotland, I began attending a Free Church of Scotland congregation, and gradually was won over to Reformed covenantal theology and infant baptism, though I was never entirely convinced of Presbyterian church government…I was a member of several Presbyterian congregations during the years 1997-2005. During the years 2003-2005, I undertook a fresh look at the Scriptures and much of the literature and confessions of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. This period of reflection led to my decision to be confirmed in the Anglican church in 2005.

Why is Owen so fixated on authority? Because he suffers from a father-complex.

And that’s why Evangelicals cross the Tiber or the Bosporus.

An authoritative Bible isn’t enough for them, so that they look to an authoritative church, which they personify, as their father-figure.

Indeed, this is explicit in Catholicism. A priest is a “Father,” while the Pope is the “Holy Father.”

Catholicity is a quest for Big Daddy.

The father-complex can take different forms.

There’s the good boy and the bad boy. The dutiful, adoring son and the resentful, rebellions son.

Owen represents the good boy. Lives for his father’s approval. To make the old man proud.

And Owen runs through one father-figure after another, searching for the perfect father. Naturally, no one quite measures up.

Owen grew up in a paternalistic cult, and he currently belongs to a paternalistic sect.

There are grown men who remain boys on the inside. They live their entire lives in their father’s shadowy presence. Even after he’s long gone. They never felt they were able to please him. And his absence in death will cast as long a shadow as his living presence.

Incidentally, this points us to a central truth of Christian theology, but it’s misdirected when it’s redirected to the Church.

Then there’s the bad boy. The rebellious son.

Enloe represents the bad boy. The underlying pathology is the same, but the reaction is different. Enloe has “authority issues,” as they say.

He projects his authority-issues onto father-figures like Svendsen and White. In his paranoia, they represent the stock character of the evil stepfather in fairy tales of the Brother Grimm variety. You know the type. Beats the kid with a broomstick and feeds him cold gruel.

At one level, it’s odd that Enloe is involved with Reformed Catholicism and the Federal Vision. Wouldn’t this rub against his anti-authoritarian streak?

Ah, but that’s a way of getting back at the evil step dad. A way to spite the old man. Stick it to him!

For immature males, Dad is either godlike or demonic. No reasonable mean. Pure good or pure evil. Either worship him or desecrate his name.

And this is where the extremes meet. If you begin with an illusion, then that queues you for disillusionment. Adoration turns to loathing if the object of your adoration lets you down. Of course, it only lets you down because you were indulging in a false expectation.

And this brings us to another variant of the bad boy. And that’s the militant atheist. This often takes the form of the apostate.

Paradoxically, the anti-clerical apostate is the flip side of the high churchman. They are obverse sides of the same coin.

These are simply differing adaptive strategies in response to the same underlying, psychological malformation.

And just as almost every heresy is a half-truth, the appeal of catholicity lies in its insidious appeal to a heretical half-truth.

For God has, indeed, implanted a paternal ideal in the human heart. And when we’re young, our human fathers, for better or worse, play the proxy.

Men who mature spiritually and emotionally learn to transfer their ideal from their human fathers to God the Father.

This transition also liberates a son so that he can evolve a realistic
relationship with his human father. He no longer idolizes the old man or holds him to a superhuman standard of perfection—an expectation which, sooner or later, Dad is bound to disappoint.

But men who suffer from arrested development either search for surrogate father-figures or take it out on surrogate father-figures.

Once More With Feeling

John Loftus said:
“According to Steve these children go to hell.”

Steve replied:
Really? Can he quote me on that? Where have I ever said that everyone who dies in infancy goes straight to hell?

All I said here is that infants die as a consequence of original sin.

The same holds true for Christians. Christians die. And they die as a result of original sin (; ).

In order to mount a internal critique from this platform, it would be helpful if Loftus would actually mount an internal critique. Simply getting mad about what Christian theology or a particular theological tradition states is not an internal critique. That's an external critique. Now, he can certainly do the latter, but, as Steve has repeatedly stated, the way to do an internal critique is to actually show how it is wrong or inconsistent given the actual and properly stated ideas of your opponent for the opponent to hold that position, in this case with reference to theodicy.

1. As usual, Loftus assumes, I presume from his Arminian theological training, a particular position on the death of infants. However, that would only work against an Arminian, not a supralapsarian (or even infralapsarian Calvinist or an Amyraldian). It wouldn't work against a great many Arminians. It may, at best, apply to the Campbellites and a few others. As a rule, evangelical Arminians have a doctrine of original sin, though they temper it with a theology of "the age of accountability" and posit all infants dying in infancy go to heaven.

2. As usual, Loftus presents us with an inaccurate picture of what Steve has actually said. Below, I'm going to repeat a great deal of what Steve has actually discussed in the past few years he has been blogging, as he did happen to touch on this subject way, way back, before Loftus and Steve began engaging.

3. I'd add that an Arminian professor at Duke University and I had a chat on this issue in email about a year ago or so, and I was able to point out some of these same things to him. Granted, he's a professing Christian, but the point I was making is that objecting to infant damnation in order to object to Calvinism presents a massive misunderstanding of the Reformed tradition on this issue. In the course of our discussion, he actually agreed, though he still, to be best of my knowledge sees any view that might allow for the damnation of infants to hell as "hyper-Calvinistic." From my perspective, that's pure rationalism intruding on his theology, for he is allowing his emotions and particular apriori notions about God, justice, mercy, etc. to control his views. It would be better to mount (a) an internal critique of Calvinism with some emotional distance, or (b) for him to mount an exegetical defense of his position. I'd further add that both of these would be helpful for Loftus to attempt if he truly desires to mount an internal critique from this platform.

That said, once more, with feeling...

Infant Election

There are a number of issues that intersect with this particular subject, and some of them are issues I will be covering in a forthcoming paper here in August dealing with the theological language about regeneration itself in the Reformed tradition. What is said here will cover a piece of that. (This was originally posted on my other blog, and that paper was posted, I believe, both there and here at Triablogue).

Typically, the non-Calvinist proceeds toward a notion that there is an age of accountability, normally a person variable index, and that any infant who dies before that age, whatever it may be, is automatically elect and goes to heaven. Immediately this raises several questions, not the least of which is the age itself. In addition, if the person dies and is not morally “accountable” for sin, then why do they die at such a young age. Arminianism that denies that children are counted guilty of sin have a problem, here, as that would infer that such children enter heaven because they are “innocent.” But if they are innocent of sin, why do infants die? In addition to this, this idea in incompatible with the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. If infants are not guilty of sin in some sense, then Adam’s sin is not imputed to mankind through the fall, and Christ’s righteousness, conversely, has no basis for being imputed to men through justification.

How then does Reformed theology answer this? Traditionally, Warfield has classified no fewer than five different positions on this issue:

1.From the beginning a few held with Zwingli that death in infancy is a sign of election, and hence that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into glory. After Zwingli, Bishop Hooper was probably the first to embrace this view. It has more lately become the ruling view.

2.At the opposite extreme a very few held that the only sure sign of election is faith with its fruits, and, therefore, we can have no real ground of knowledge concerning the fate of any infant; as, however, God certainly has his elect among them too, each man can cherish the hope that his children are of the elect. Peter Martyr approaches this sadly agnostic position.

3.Many held that faith and the promise are sure signs of election, and accordingly all believes and their children are certainly saved; but the lack of faith and the promise is an equally sure sign of reprobation, so that all the children of unbelievers, dying such, are equally certainly lost. The younger Spanheim, for example, writes…”they are justly reprobated by God on account of the corruption and guilt derived to them by natural propagation.

4.More held that faith and the promise are certain signs of election, so that the salvation of believers’ children is certain, while the lack of the promise only leaves us in ignorance of God’s purpose; nevertheless that there is good ground for asserting that both election and reprobation have place in this unknown sphere. Accordingly, they held that all the infants of believers, dying such, are saved, but that some of the infants of unbelievers, dying such, are lost. Probably no higher expression of this general view can be found that John Owen’s.

5.Most Calvinists of the past, however, have simply held that faith and the promise are marks by which we may know assuredly that all those who believe and their children, dying such, are elect and saved, while the absence of sure marks of either election or reprobation in infants, dying such outside the covenant, leaves us without ground for inference concerning them…It is this cautious, agnostic view which has the best historical right to be called the general Calvinistic one. Warfield, Works, 9:431-434.

Warfield also mentions that

“Calvin seems, while speaking with admirable caution, to imply that he believed some infants dying such to be lost,”ibid. 431, n66

Most Reformed Baptists seem to move along 1,5, and 2, though you may find
representatives of each of those 5 if you looked hard enough. I personally speak where Scripture speaks. There are too few Scriptures chasing this question, so any answer I give is speculative. I agree that if they are all universally saved, it is by sovereign election and thus they all pass into glory on the merits of Christ alone. I do not affirm that infants are regenerated “willy nilly” and survive into childhood without being converted at a very early age. I am also inclined to believe Calvin’s view on infant reprobation, but that is because a person is either reprobate or elect from eternity past; he is not reprobated or elect at birth, as God is not bound by time, rather he is either elect or reprobate by eternal decree. I’d add that this is even true of the Arminian order of decrees. So, I’m inclined to affirm that, while in one sense it is wise to remain agnostic where Scripture is agnostic, it is likely that their death in infancy is a sign of their election. I have no theology of covenant children, as I am a Baptist, but I affirm with the 1689 Confession that elect infants go to heaven. That is, they go based on God’s merciful election, because they are still imputed with original sin/guilt and require election to salvation in order to enter heaven.

Calvin on infant reprobation, according to Boettner(Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 147). :

While, therefore, Calvin teaches that there are reprobate infants, and that these will be finally lost, he nowhere teaches they will be lost as infants, sand while they are infants; but, on the contrary, he declares that all the reprobate “procure” their own destruction by personal acts of impiety, wickedness, and rebellion. Consequently, his own reasoning compels him to hold (to be consistent with himself) that no reprobate child will die in infancy; but such must live to the age of moral accountability, and translate original sin into actual sin.

R. C. Sproul even calls the doctrines of infant salvation “speculative.” (Providence, Tape 10,Q&A). Sproul points out that some reformers believe that all babies who die are numbered among the elect, and other reformers believe that all babies of saved parents who die are numbered among the elect. Boettner writes:

Most Calvinistic theologians have held that those who die in infancy are saved. The Scriptures seem to teach plainly enough that the children of believers are saved; but they are silent or practically so in regard to those of the heathens. The Westminster Confession does not pass judgment on the children of heathens who die before coming to years of accountability. Where the Scriptures are silent, the Confession, too, preserves silence. Our outstanding theologians, however, mindful of the fact that God’s “tender mercies are over all His works,” and depending on His mercy widened as broadly as possible, have entertained a charitable hope that since these infants have never committed any actual sin themselves, their inherited sin would be pardoned and they would be saved on wholly evangelical principles.Such, for instance, was the position held by Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, and B. B. Warfield. Concerning those who die in infancy, Dr. Warfield says: “Their destiny is determined irrespective of their choice, by an unconditional decree of God, suspended for its execution on no act. (Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 143-144)

Most objectors to this seem to move along the assumption, at least in part, that those who have held to the doctrine of infant reprobation have affirmed that infants suffer in hell as infants, but is this really the case? Those I have read qualify their position quite heavily.

i) Of course, much of what makes this mental image repellent is just that—the colorful imagery. But let’s not mistake Dante for whatever hell is really like. Those who hold this view have generally stayed away from “burning in hell” and looked beyond this imagery to hell as as Arminian heaven, where all bets are off and all its residents can do what they want as they want to their hearts content. Moreover, hell is a place of differing degrees, so it’s not as if such persons, in this view are placed near the center. No, that is, it seems reserved for those who apostatized in particular. What we’re literally talking about is the state of the soul—whether a younger or older soul, which–at the general resurrection–will be reunited with a body.

ii) Is the age you die at the age you remain? If you die at 90, are you still 90 in heaven?

In heaven, wouldn’t you, in a sense, age up, age down, or both? You would age down in the sense that if you were past your prime when you died, you’d then revert to an optimal time of life—both mentally (in the intermediate state) and physically (in the final state). But you’d also continue to mature—in that same ageless and youthful state—to mature intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

iii) The same with those who go to hell. Suppose that some of the great bloodletters of history like Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Attila and and Genghis Khan had died in childhood, died before they murdered their millions. And suppose they went to hell.

Should we really visualize them as cute, curly-haired, cherubic babies in hell—50 years later, a 100 years later? Or should be visualize them as what they became, and worse—far worse. In fact, if you put anyone in hell, without the preservative of common grace, much less saving grace, they’ll all turn into a Hitler or Nero or Stalin—a super-duper Hitler, Nero, or Stalin.

What you have here is a natural evolution of sin, from seed to full flower. It is not a little angel turning into devil, but a little devil turning into a bigger devil.

iv) And when we debate the merits of universal infant salvation, not only are we forming a mental image of babies in heaven or hell, but we’re tacitly projecting our mental image onto the mind of God, as if he is visualizing the very same spectacle.

But does God see a baby as a baby, as only a baby? According to , God sees a baby as a storybook character in a novel that he himself has written. His entire life and afterlife is present to the mind of God—present because he penned every single page.

What is more—God has a number of unpublished manuscripts as well. Books that never went to press. Books he’s written with alternative endings (cf. ; ).
The point is not that God chooses according to what’s in the book. The point, rather, is that what’s in the book is according to God’s choosing.

Moreover, when we see a baby or a little child, that is literally all we see. We don’t see the soul. But God sees the invisible soul. Not only does he see the future, but he sees an delitescent dimension of the present. Parts of his book are written in invisible ink—legible to his eyes alone.

Let’s not forget this is still a problem for other theological traditions. The traditional rationale for infant baptism was the presupposition that infants were hell-bound due to original sin unless they received the sacrament of baptism. Although Catholicism has softened its initial position, it can only do so by impeaching its rationale for infant baptism. Logically speaking, the structure of Presbyterian theology is more predisposed to universal infant salvation than Reformed Baptist theology. To some extent, then, you have the same arguments and counterarguments for universal infant salvation as you have for infant baptism, and for a Baptist, since Baptists do not include infants in the covenant community, isn’t this a major problem, since we affirm a person must be converted in order to be saved?

Intersecting with this is Prebyterian and Dutch Reformed theology on infant regeneration, as well as James Boyce who speaks of infant regeneration as well in his Abstract of Theology. So, let’s take a quick look at their work on this subject before continuing.

The Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed tradition allow for infant regeneration. Some Reformed Baptists (James Boyce) do as well, but for different reasons. Hardshells also affirm that infants can be regenerated.

Difference between Hardshell doctrine and dominant Reformed doctrine:

In Hardshell doctrine, infants regenerated may come to Christ very late in life. In Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches (and as abstract limiting cases in the views of some Baptists), an infant that is regenerated will come to faith, not as an adult, but at an exceptionally young age.

On this latter view, they are reared in believing homes, exposed from infancy to the Word of God, the gospel, etc. and make a saving and credible profession very early. Therefore, their conversion is not separated from instrumentality at all. They may through their behavior prove not to be “problem children” at all, but behavior itself is not a measure of their status with God at this age. This is considered the exception to the rule in God’s dealings with people and is very rare. It is put forward to account for those who either have no memory of their conversion (like Ruth Graham) or were converted at the ages of 3 or 4 and generally shown the fruits of conversion (faith, understanding of truth, apprehension and love for God and Christ, sorrow over sin, etc.). Shedd epitomizes this view, in his discussion of regeneration in adults vs. infants. After his discussion of preaching, prayer, etc. and its connection to regeneration and conversion, he writes:

The regenerate child, youth, and man, believe· and repent* immediately. The regenerate infant believe· and repent· when his· faculties will admit of the exercise and manifestation of faith and repentance. In the latter instance, re­generation in potential or latent faith and repentance.

Historically, the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed traditions have oscillated between 2 views on the treatment of children. Abraham Kuyper, for example, advocated a position by which children born to believers (and of course baptized) should be presumed to be elect (and thus presumptively regenerate) until they show signs otherwise. They appeal to Maccovius, Voetius, Gomarus and others, but this is far from conclusive. (See: Presently, those Presbyterians favoring Auburn Ave./Federal Vision theology tend toward this direction. This view also seems to involve the a time gap between regeneration and effectual calling.

Archibald Alexander summarizes the dominant view among Presbyterians in the Princeton tradition (emphasis mine): “The education of children should proceed on the principle that they are in an unregenerate state, until evidences of piety clearly appear, in which case they should be sedulously cherished and nurtured. . . . Although the grace of God may be communicated to a human soul, at any period of its existence, in this world, yet the fact manifestly is, that very few are renewed before the exercise of reason commences; and not many in early childhood.” (Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), pp. 13-14.) So, the first presumption is not that the child is regenerate, rather it is that s/he is unregenerate. What then is the age about which we are speaking here?

Vern Poythress articulates this position today (emphasis mine) from

It might seem that I have pushed hard in the direction of finding genuine faith even in very young children. But it would be artificial and speculative to place any great weight on demonstrating the character of the child’s response. It is much more important that we recognize that God can meet and spiritually bless such young children. Obviously the very young child is more passive, and the signs of response may be very vague. But the blessing of God, his spiritual care, rebuke, comfort, and strengthening are quite vividly real, as they come largely through the channel of the child’s parents. To a large extent, these very young children are receiving the substance of the care that ought to characterize participation in the Christian community.

The experience of the Christian community also shows what happens to children who are raised in this kind of environment. Let us suppose that the parents and the larger community are diligent in practicing their faith and in raising children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (). Let us suppose that they are diligent in praying for their children to be saved and to grow spiritually. Then the children will be professing faith in Christ when they are two and three and four. There are no four-year-old apostates in a healthy Christian community.

Infants do not directly manifest their faith by verbal confession. But the prayers of their parents, the training of their parents, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community are evidence that they will give credible professions by the time they are a few years old. One might then argue that this evidence is in practice just as convincing as a verbal confession. There is no more danger that the children will apostasize when four years old than that an adult convert would apostasize after four years in the faith.

This is, therefore in contrast to the Kuyperian and Old Hardshell traditions which state that infant regeneration can occur (and in the Old Hardshell tradtion, regeneration can occur at any time), and the individual is not converted either immediately or in a very short period thereafter.

Thus we can outline these 2 positions as follows:

A. Kuyperian/Old Hardshell*

Infant Regeneration
Time Gap, even into adulthood
Effectual Calling
Conversion, even in adulthood

*In Old Hardshell doctrine any person, not only an infant, may be regenerated by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit and not become conscious of it for a lengthy interval, even a great many years. From this comes their doctrines of “time salvation” and “eternal justification.” In contrast, View 2 above states that, while the agency of the Holy Spirit is immediate and, technically, His own work apart from means, in all but infants (the exception to the rule), this does not happen apart from instrumentality of the Word, and the first conscious action of the person is to repent and believe, and, moreover, because of the use of instrumentality, they are actively engaged in the psychology of this process.

B. Princetonian:

Infant Regeneration
No time gap
Effectual calling commences immediately

Conversion at very early age “as soon as his faculties will admit”; very rare

Strictly speaking, from a Baptist perspective, both views seem to involve a time gap between regeneration and effectual calling, judging from a surface level comparison. Moreover, because Baptists deny that children are part of the new covenant, Reformed / Sovereign Grace Baptists have no conceptual mechanism by which to presume infants regenerate, making the Old Hardshell position / Kuyperian position seem grossly illogical as a result. However, Baptists standing in the broader Reformed tradition do often, as Boyce demonstrates, affirm the possibility of infant regeneration under the Princetonian, not the Kuyperian, paradigm, because of their pastoral experience, not because of any theology of covenant children, and we all affirm that elect infants dying in infancy go to heaven. (SLC 10.3)

William Young, responding to the Kuyperian position taken by the hyper-covenantalists / Federal Visionists responds to this idea (emphasis mine):

The view of Voetius and Kuyper involves the anomaly of a time gap between regeneration and effectual calling, particularly appalling in the case of the apostle Paul, of whom, on the basis of , the younger Kuyper is reported to have preached as an example of a regenerated blasphemer.

In his detailed exposition in E Voto, Kuyper devotes a chapter to documentation and argumentation for his claim that he is introducing no novelty, but simply returning to the doctrine of Calvin and the Reformed fathers which a later generation allowed to fall into oblivion.(32) Does he make out his case?

Kuyper quotes from Institutes IV.xvi.17-20 to find support in Calvin, who does teach: “That some infants are saved; and that they are previously regenerated by the Lord, is beyond all doubt.” What Kuyper fails to quote is Calvin’s rejoinder to the Anabaptist evasion that the sanctification of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb “was only a single case, which does not justify the conclusion that the Lord generally acts in this manner with infants.” Calvin’s rejoinder is: “For we use no such argument.”(33) But Kuyper does use such an argument, in contending that children of the covenant are to be presumed to be regenerated because in fact that is the general manner of the Lord’s dealing with them. Calvin does speak of a seed of future repentance and faith implanted by the Spirit,(34) but does not state the false proposition that this is the case with all baptized infants, nor the highly disputable thesis of Voetius that this is the case with all elect children of believers. Certainly there is no hint of the presumptive doctrine of Kuyper in any of these texts of Calvin. (Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 36 (1973-74).)

The understanding of the dominant Princeton tradition represented by Presbyterians outside the Auburn Avenue/Federal Vision/”hyper-covenantal” position, has been that those who are regenerated in infancy will, because of God’s providential care, be exposed from birth to the means of grace, including the gospel (as soon as they can understand language) and thus, the effectual call begins from that moment and culminates in their conversion. This view is also the view of Reformed Baptists who hold this out as an abstract possibility. These individuals reason as James Boyce in his Abstract of Theology ( as follows:

2. Regeneration (as in infants) may exist without faith and repentance, but the latter cannot exist without the former. Therefore, regeneration precedes.

3. Logically the enabling act of God must, in a creature, precede the act of the creature thus enabled. But this logical antecedence involves actual antecedence, or the best conceptions of our mind deceive us and are not reliable. For this logical antecedence exists only because the mind observes plainly a perceived dependence of the existence of the one on the other. But such dependence demands, if not causal, at least antecedent existence. Here it is only antecedent.

VI. There is not only antecedence, but in some cases an appreciable interval.

1. This is true even of conversion regarded as a mere turning to God. Between it and regeneration must intervene in some cases some period of time until the knowledge of God’s existence and nature is given, before the heart turns, or even is turned towards that God.

(1.) This must be true of all infants and of all persons otherwise incapable of responsibility, as for example idiots.

Boyce will go on to discuss the heathen and some pastoral cases, but they are not germane to this particular discussion on infants. For Boyce, such individuals are regenerated in infancy and are brought under the effectual call and believe as soon as they are able.

Thus, unlike the Kuyperian tradition, there is not a time gap between regeneration and the effectual call, since all the means of grace, including the Word of God are included in the Princetonian tradition’s definition of the external and internal call, but there is a time gap between regeneration and conversion itself. In addition, then, at the conceptual level, this view is quite at home in View 1 of Regeneration above, and View 1 itself is, as we have seen, at home in View 2 as a subset of View 2. A Reformed Baptist holding to View 2 would be more prone to say that the child making an early saving/credible profession of faith was regenerated by the Holy Spirit at the time of his actual conversion, but, strictly speaking, given the speculative nature of such analysis, and the further rarity attached to infant regeneration as such, the two evaluations, while differing on the timing of regeneration, are generally equivalent.

In the Kuyperian tradition, there is a time gap between regeneration and effectual calling. This is closer to the Old Hardshell doctrine, but it is not the view of Sproul, Frame, They hold to the Princeton tradition in this matter. It is unfair, therefore, for individuals like Bob L. Ross to lump all persons affirming the regeneration of infants in the Presbyterian tradition together while dropping their distinctive approaches.

Now, that said,

Related to Presbyterian theology is the assumption that if some infants are lost, they are the infants of unbelievers. This is why a Presbyterian in Gill’s day would have found more comfort than Gill, since his theology is more conducive to universal infant salvation than Gill’s was at the time.

But how this is supposed to follow? In the case of adults, we know for a fact that election cuts across family lines: that you have elect children of reprobate parents and reprobate children of elect parents—as well as elect children of elect parents and reprobate children of reprobate parents. Ergo, there’s no pattern here from which one could extrapolate to the case of infant mortality.

Thus, you end up with universal infant salvation is justified on the grounds of some chronological threshold. This is variously called the age of discretion or the age of accountability. Although the two terms are used interchangeably, the concepts are hardly synonymous. Scriptural evidence for an age of discretion is not necessarily evidence for an age of accountability—especially in light of original sin, which both Arminians and Calvinists have generally affirmed, with the exception of certain more Pelagian traditions like the Campebellites.

On the face of it, the chronological threshold seems pretty artificial—if not wholly so. If a child dies at the age of 6, he is saved–but if the very same child dies at the age of 8, he is damned? One is, in effect, positing a transition from election to reprobation. This is a hypothetical transition, to be sure, but the whole discussion is hypothetical in the absence of clear revelation. Does your eternal fate really turn on which side of the age range you fall on? Is that the boundary-condition?

This doesn’t seem to be an argument that has nature in its favor. After all, cognitive development ranges along a continuum. It’s not as if the kid goes to bed one night below the age of discretion and wakes up the next morning above the age of discretion. Likewise, it’s hard to see how grace would respect a chronological threshold. How is the boundary drawn? Where is it drawn? Why is it drawn? If it isn’t a natural boundary or a gracious boundary, then what is it?

Is there really some invisible line to cross? Is the same line in the same place in the case of every human being? Or only those who die in infancy? Does God have the same line for those who die in infancy in some possible world, but not the actual world? The whole scheme strikes me as hopelessly ad hoc. It would seem preferable to affirm universal infant salvation by way of de facto election and regeneration into the kingdom, which is exactly the method that the SLC/WCF 10.3 affirms or take an agnostic position, since too few Scriptures are chasing this topic.

John Piper today is representative of this position.

In his monograph on imputation, Counted Righteous In Christ (pp. 95 -96), he writes on the teaching of that there are those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam:

“Who are they? I am still inclined to think, against the most common scholarly opinion, that the group of people begging for an explanation, and providing the most relevant illustration for Paul’s point, is infants. Infants died…

I know that many commentators object to the reference to children. It is indeed a very difficult complex connection of thoughts….Personal, individual sin cannot be the reason all died, because some died without transgressing a known law the way Adam did (v.14), and thus without the ability to have their personal sins reckoned to them in the sense of which he is speaking (v.13). Therefore, they must have died because of the sin of Adam imputed to them. “All sinned” in 5:12b thus means that all sinned, through the one man’s disobedience.” (v.19).”

From my perspective an Arminian arguing for universal salvation has an bigger problem, for it seems he should logically deny the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, since babies die and would have to do so from the imputation of Adam’s sin, if they are innocent of personal sins themselves and not counted “guilty” until that ever illusive “age of accountability” which is generally the view they take. True God in His graciousness allows them into heaven and His presence, but they get their by way of moral innocence, not by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, or, alternatively by way of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness which is conditioned on their moral innocence at the time of death, not sovereign election as such, so this view still moves salvation out of the ethical category of mercy and into remunerative justice. If this view denies the imputation of Adam’s guilt, and they are not guilty of sin in some sense, why do they pay the wages of sin, death? This certainly wouldn’t be saved due to election, since election based on foreseen faith puts election itself outside a chain effected by grace, unless there is an alternative, hidden scheme for the election of infants operative in Arminianism or “moderate Calvinism” that they’ve never articulated, at least to my knowledge, that includes “moral innocence.”

There is one way, theoreticaly, to alleviate this difficulty, and that is to posit the imputation of Adam’s sin, suspended on the first actual sin of the infant, who, by his sin or the certainty of his sin should he survive to commit it (a certainty known by divine foreknowledge), agrees with Adam and thus violates the covenant of works himself. So Adam’s federal guilt is imputed retroactively on the child. But that still does not answer for why such a one would die, for death comes as a wage of sin. It also suspends the imputation of guilt on divine foreknowledge without warrant and in violation of ’s paradigm case, Jacob and Esau, and such foreknowledge is itself predicated on a divine decree. Ergo, this solution ultimately fails on the horns of the regressive fallacy, by moving the question back just one step.

I would argue that is it precisely the imputation of Adam’s sin to infants who die in infancy that allows them to die, but this is also that which means that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to them in order to bring them into heaven with Him. In this sense death becomes a sign of their election the way that, in those who survive infancy (all of us alive at this moment), faith and repentance are signs of election. We must remember that infants contain sin in “germ form.” All that we are, they are in principle, but not yet in practice, yet not yet expressed. God, unlike man, sees the whole book, not just the first page. These children may be innocent babies to us, but to God they are much more. By imputing them guilty in Adam, He can then impute them righteous in Christ, and, in so doing, no man, including those who were taken as infants, will be able to glory in his innocence as a means to gain eternal life. They will have all, infants, included arrived by the grace of God alone. I suspect those who die in infancy will have the most marvelous testimonies of all in the next world, for they never had to know much of what we experience here. They got to be with the Lord from the start!

The question of infant salvation is a limiting-case of hell. The reason for these makeshift distinctions is the unbearable specter of babies burning in hell. But is that an accurate depiction?

Once again, this ranges along a continuum. Consider the opposite end of the spectrum. What about the specter of your dear old grandmother roasting in the everlasting bonfire. Is that any less intolerable? What about your mother or father? What about an adult child who dies prematurely? Everyone is related to someone. Most-all of us would like to exempt our own family members for liability to damnation. So the logic for universal infant salvation is really of a piece with the logic for universal salvation, simpliciter. And, by that same token, the logic is reversible. If everyone is not saved, then…

Many things in life are unbearable, yet we go on with life. We all live with a certain amount of sorrow and heartache–some more than others. Life is a fallen world is rife with personal tragedy.

Those that do not favor universal infant salvation (at least as a universalizable truth) generally proceed on the notion that no man, infant or adult, has a free pass to heaven. God would be perfectly just in condemning them to hell. To us, this seems quite harsh. On the other hand, in doing so, He may be punishing one who would flower into a Hitler on steroids if left to common grace working itself out. God sees us as a whole book, not page one or two. He sees us as we really are. Who’s to say that the spirit of a child does not go to heaven with all the faculties of adulthood? This is a relation about which we know nothing. God does. From our perspective, an infant is dying. From His, a serial killer may be dying. To deny this, from the perspective of this view, involves a denial of imputation and/or original sin and/or the fall of men. Either all men are fallen and corrupt or they are not. Either they have been imputed guilty or they have not. Either no one can boast because grace alone gets them into the kingdom or they can boast that their moral innocence served to aid in the process.

Samuel Hopkins writes: “Many have supposed that none of mankind are capable of sin or moral agency before they can distinguish between right and wrong. But this wants proof which has never yet been produced. And it appears to be contrary to divine revelation. Persons may be moral agents and sin without knowing what the law of God is or of what nature their exercises are and while they have no consciousness.”

Scripture itself is largely silent on this issue. It simply depends on how convinced one is about the exegetical arguments as to which position one takes. I wonder, is David’s, “I will go to him” is really meant to infer universal infant salvation for all infants who die in infancy? That’s a rather grand, sentimental application of the text. God may well do this. I think there is a pretty good chance He does. On the other hand, I must admit (a) He would not be unjust not to do this; and (b) if He does, it is by way of Calvary, not some kind of “age of accountability” that mitigates against us being counted guilty in Adam.

Those who affirm reprobation of infants, at least by way of abstract possibility, believe that it as it seems to lack in biblical certainty, it would be unloving to extend to someone “absolute assurance” where Scripture itself is not absolutely clear. What we can give unshakable assurance to, is that God is just and righteous desiring that none should perish; delighting not in the death of the wicked; and is at the same time both loving and holy, just and merciful, wrathful and full of grace. And in all that He does, He does with absolute perfection befitting His own righteous, holy character after the council of His will, to accomplish His purpose, for His own pleasure and for His glory alone (Cf. Ephesians 1:4-14 ). And it is there, that we must rest, find our resolve, and leave it with Him.