Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why "torture" doesn't work...except when it does (part 2)

Once again, my immediate purpose is not to debate the morality of “torture,” but just to scrutinize the constant refrain that we shouldn’t use “torture” because torture doesn’t work. To follow up on my last post on the same subject, isn’t there evidence to the contrary?

Kyle Reese v. Arminian Jesus

In the movie The Terminator, John Connor - leader of the human resistance - sent sergeant Kyle Reese "into the word" of 1984. He was sent to save Sarah Connor. That was his mission. He didn't fail. Indeed, he gave his life for her, his friend.

In the story told in John's gospel, Jehovah - the LORD of all - sent his son Jesus "into the world" of the 1st century.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

Jesus' mission - the save the world. Yeah, sure, sergeant Reese only had to save one person, but then again, sergeant Reese isn't the Theanthropos. Reese isn't God. (Although, a case can be made that Reese did save mankind, the whole world, by saving Connor. This makes the situation worse!) So, the number needing salvation balances out by the weight of the one doing the saving. Jesus failed, and he even died for all of them.

So, Reese was "sent into the world" to save and he succeeded. Jesus was "sent into the world" to save, and he failed.

Well, he failed if we assume Arminian soteriology anyway...

Gomer Pyle v. Camelot

Much has been written about the political liability of Romney’s Mormon faith. But I’ve not seen much of anything written about the political liability of Huckabee’s Baptist faith.

To some extent, one’s religious affiliation is a stereotypical emblem of one’s social class. This has some factual or historical basis, although it’s easy to overgeneralize.

For the moment, though, I’m only concened with popular perception, and not with how accurate that perception may be. Why is it that so many Evangelical leaders are endorsing the Mormon candidate rather than the Baptist candidate?

Of course, we know their stated reasons, but there may also be an unspoken reason. To be tactless, Romney is Camelot to Huckabee’s Gomer Pyle. I’m not saying that this comparison is the least bit fair. I’m just suggesting that it may be the elephant in the room.

Romney’s the manor-born Brahman, with the Ivy League degrees, and the movie star looks to Huckabee’s hillbilly Babdist. Romney’s old money to Huckabee’s po’ white trailer trash; Romney’s blueblood to Huckabee’s redneck; Romney’s Mozart to Huckabee’s bluegrass; Romney’s Polo to Huckabee’s rodeo; Romney’s a Lexis to Huckabee’s Ford tuff pickup truck.

Of course, Evangelical leaders aren’t going to express their preference in this fashion since that would expose a deep streak of snobbery, but you have to wonder if Huckabee’s Baptist faith isn’t being held against him.

He’s not just a Baptist. He’s a Southern Baptist. And not merely in the technical sense of belonging to the SBC. You could be a Connecticut Yankee and belong to the SBC. No, I mean that, culturally (as well as religiously), Huckabee is a Southern Baptist. And he just doesn’t project the image that some Evangelical leaders want the GOP to project.

Some might object that this can’t be so since some of the folks endorsing Romney share the same religious affiliation as Huckabee. But that doesn’t follow. It’s quite possible to be ashamed of your roots.

It’s like the talented, ambitious kid who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. He makes it to the Ivy Leagues. Becomes a Wall Street arbitrager.

But he’s embarrassed to introduce his friends to his kinfolk. He can’t invite them to social gatherings cuz they speak the upcountry dialect and their table manners aren’t up to snuff. It’s like that old question, “Sure, he’s a nice kid, but would you want your daughter to date him?”

Friday, November 09, 2007

Why "torture" doesn't work...except when it does

At the moment, I’m not discussing the morality of “torture.” Rather, I’m examining the oft-stated claim that torture doesn’t work.


John McCain: Torture Worked on Me

Sen. John McCain is leading the charge against so-called "torture" techniques allegedly used by U.S. interrogators, insisting that practices like sleep deprivation and withholding medical attention are not only brutal - they simply don't work to persuade terrorist suspects to give accurate information.

Nearly forty years ago, however - when McCain was held captive in a North Vietnamese prison camp - some of the same techniques were used on him. And - as McCain has publicly admitted at least twice - the torture worked!

In his 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain describes how he was severely injured when his plane was shot down over Hanoi - and how his North Vietnamese interrogators used his injuries to extract information.

"Demands for military information were accompanied by threats to terminate my medical treatment if I did not cooperate," he wrote.

"I thought they were bluffing and refused to provide any information beyond my name, rank and serial number, and date of birth. They knocked me around a little to force my cooperation."

The punishment finally worked, McCain said. "Eventually, I gave them my ship's name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant."

Is U.S. Surrendering Technique That Extracted Vital Intel From 9/11 Mastermind?

Is the U.S. government giving up the interrogation technique that extracted vital intelligence from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

On Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor" on September 20, Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, reported that a tough interrogation technique called "waterboarding" had been used by the Central Intelligence Agency to break Mohammed, inducing him to surrender "very valuable" information.

Speaking of 14 "high-value" al Qaeda targets subjected to harsh interrogation practices by the CIA, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly asked Ross, "Now, the waterboarding broke all these guys?"

"Not in every case," said Ross. "Some broke before [it] even got to that point."

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed held out the longest, according to Ross. "About two and a half minutes [of waterboarding], according to our sources," he told O'Reilly.

In some cases, said Ross, "the material that has been given [by the terrorists subjected to harsh tactics] has not been accurate, has been essentially to stop the torture."

But Mohammed did provide accurate information. "In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," said Ross, "the information was very valuable, particularly names and addresses of people who were involved with al Qaeda in this country and in Europe. And in one particular plot, which would involve an airline attack on the tallest building in Los Angeles, known as the Liberty Tower."

Arminian Counterterrorism

One argument often used to support torture is that killing a combatant is worse than torturing them, so why not torture them?

It does seem straightforwardly true that being dead is as bad as it gets.

However, the argument (or intuition) fails on four counts.

Argument from Soul Liberty

First, killing a combatant actually honors his free will. He has chosen to take up arms and the minister of justice is honoring that choice by meeting him as he has chosen to be met.

Torture removes the internal free will of the combatant by forcing him to a mental submission that should not be in the power of humankind. We should allow his mental defiance, even if we cannot allow his physical defiance. In this way, we honor his reason (one aspect of the divine image), while also protecting the innocent.

Yes, if we ever got bin Laden into custody, the very last thing we should do is to subject to him to any interrogatory techniques, whether physical or psychological, which would in any way infringe on his freewill and thereby rob him of his “soul liberty.”

Given a choice, we must always protect the freewill of the terrorist rather than protect the lives of his innocent victims. In this way we “honor his reason.”

Flew Confessions

I'm disappointed that Carrier hasn't written a parallel exposé about Bertie. Bertrand Russell wasn't a real atheist in his old age. He was clearly over the hill by then—probably senile. He was being manipulated by a young Turk by the name of Antony Flew.

Don't be bamboozled into thinking that Russell wrote those tired old rants against Christianity. They were ghostwritten by Flew—maybe with a helping hand from Ayer.

Universalism v. Calvinism

This is an edited debate between universalist Tom Talbott and me:

There are a lot of things I could say about Talbott’s parable, which is studded with straw man arguments about Calvinism, but for now I’ll confine myself to one observation:

Talbott is putatively attacking double predestination, but this is clearing the ground for his alternative—which is universalism. And universalism no doubt enjoys a certain superficial appeal. But it’s only appealing to pampered folks like Talbott who’ve led a charmed existence. I daresay that universalism is not the least bit appealing to the victims of horrendous violence and galling injustice. 

It loses its superficial appeal the instant you swap in a very different illustration. For example, instead of a mother’s love for her “little albino child,” suppose we substitute a psychopath who rapes and tortures her little girl to death.

According to Talbott, the psychopath will eventually be saved, even though he may have to undergo a hellish process of purification. What would a normal mother have to say about his heavenly prospects?

"Look, Nivlac, I love Morg with all my heart, and I believe that the Book of Morg is indeed his holy Word. And I don't know what to say about your fancy arguments that seem to imply such awful things about Morg. But I do know this. No holy or just or loving Creator like Morg, no Creator of the kind that I worship, could possibly love and save the rapist and tormenter and killer of my little girl. Indeed, if he loves my little girl, as you say he does, then he cannot also love the rapist and tormenter and killer of my little girl. So if you are right about the meaning of these verses--mind you, I'm not saying you are right--but IF you are right, then these verses are just wrong; they are not a true revelation from Morg."

“It therefore seems to them that albinos have reason to expostulate with Morg if they are hated solely by his decision, apart from their own merit.”

This parabolic statement is supposedly analogous to the Reformed doctrine of reprobation. However, there is, in Reformed theology, an asymmetry between election and reprobation. Election is unconditional. Merit doesn’t figure in election, in part because sinners have no merit to contribute.

By contrast, demerit does figure in reprobation. Demerit is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition of reprobation. (Insufficient inasmuch as everyone would be reprobated if demerit were a sufficient condition.)

"Look, Nivlac, I love Morg with all my heart, and I believe that the Book of Morg is indeed his holy Word. And I don't know what to say about your fancy arguments that seem to imply such awful things about Morg. But I do know this. No holy or just or loving Creator like Morg, no Creator of the kind that I worship, could possibly hate this little albino child of mine that I love so much. Indeed, if he loves me, as you say he does, then he must also love my baby. So if you are right about the meaning of these verses--mind you, I'm not saying you are right--but IF you are right, then these verses are just wrong; they are not a true revelation from Morg."

Here’s another problem with Talbott’s parable. He uses the example of a little child. Now normal men and women—unlike pedophiles, abortionists, and psychopaths—are naturally protective of young children. So this illustration plays upon the emotive connotations of a “little child” or “baby.”

But children ordinarily grow up to be adults. Suppose we compose a different parable. 

Once upon a time there was a Jewish physician who had dreams. And, unlike most folks, his dreams came true.

One night he had a dream about a sick little German boy who visited his clinic. The little boy would grow up to commit genocide against the Jewish people.

The next day, a sick little boy by the name of Adolf Hitler was brought into the clinic to receive treatment for a life-threatening childhood illness. The doctor could cure him or he could let him die by administering a placebo. He knew that by healing this child, he would be condemning thousands of other innocent children to death—including his very own children. 

Should he save this child, and thereby condemn thousands of other children to suffer an unjust and premature death, or should he let this child die, and thereby save the prospective victims? Who should he allow to live, and who should he allow to die? I’ll let you decide how you wish to finish the story. 

Point being: our moral intuitions are context-dependent. It all depends on the illustration. Change the illustration, and you may suddenly find yourself contradicting your previous intuition. You were very sure of yourself until 

Tearjerkers cut both ways. For it’s easy to compose tearjerkers that illustrate opposing positions.

“May I presume that by ‘a revelatory claim’ you simply mean *the claim* that some proposition is true because it is part of a revelation from God?”

In the context of this discussion, I mean something that claims to divine revelation, whether or not the claim is true. It could either be a true claim or a false claim.

I’m also assuming that divine revelation is true. However, there are theological positions, like open theism, in which something could be genuinely revelatory and yet be mistaken, inasmuch as God could be mistaken. But that is not my own position.

“And may I also presume that by ‘moral intuition’ you simply mean *a moral conviction*?”

No, that’s too simple. Moral intuition isn’t synonymous with moral conviction, for moral conviction is a broader category. I’d define a moral intuition, like intuitions generally, as a pretheoretical conviction. And moral intuitions would be a subset of moral convictions. However, a moral conviction may be a refined intuition—refined by subsequent analysis.

“But here is my question: Given that your present moral convictions and mine are both fallible, to what should we appeal, or perhaps lift up, as a corrective for our fallible moral convictions? And why?”

God’s word (i.e. the Bible) would be the moral arbiter of our moral convictions. A full explanation would be complicated, but briefly, I regard saving faith as a mode of knowledge rather than opinion.

Therefore, while some of my religious beliefs may be mistaken, I don’t think a Christian can be systematically mistaken in his Christian faith—including his conviction that Scripture is the word of God.

If I were going to defend this philosophically, I might formulate this in terms of reliabilism. Scripture is divine testimony. It is possible for belief in testimony to count as knowledge if the belief-forming process is reliable. As a philosopher, you know how the argument goes.

Hence, while moral intuition can stand above a false revelatory claim, it will necessarily stand below a true revelatory claim.

“Of course, as you know, Osama bin Laden might make a similar claim, provided that we replace ‘the Bible’ with ‘the Qur’an.’ So perhaps the bottom line is this: If you have saving faith and through it God produces in you a belief that the Bible is the Word of God, then this belief qualifies as knowledge rather than merely as an opinion; and similarly, if Osama (or perhaps some more reasonable Muslim cleric) has saving faith and through it God produces in him a belief that the Qur’an is the Word of God, then this belief also qualifies as knowledge rather than merely as an opinion.”

i) Your question is predicated on the hypothetical assumption that a Muslim can exercise saving faith. I deny that assumption. A Muslim can convert to the Christian faith, and thereby exercise saving faith, but a Muslim qua Muslim is not in a position to exercise saving faith. From a Biblical standpoint, Islam is just another form of idolatry.

ii) Moreover, belief in a false proposition or set of false propositions wouldn’t count as knowledge. For something to even be a possible object of knowledge, a necessary precondition is that it be true. And God wouldn’t produce saving faith in a false prophecy (prophecy in the broader sense in which Scripture distinguishes between true and false prophets.)

A reliable belief-forming process is not a sufficient condition to produce knowledge. There must also be a true object of knowledge.

“So far, so good. But now I am wondering whether your saving faith, assuming you have it, also enables you to believe infallibly (or to know) that Paul actually wrote I and II Timothy or that every decision of the great councils concerning which books truly belong in the canon were correct. Beyond that, I’m wondering how you would assess two kinds of revelatory claims: First, on its face the claim that the 66 books in the Protestant Bible are the very Word of God seems quite consistent with the claim that additional books in the Catholic Bible, or perhaps the Gospel of Thomas, or even the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are likewise genuine sources of revelation in the world. So as you see it, does your saving faith enable you to believe infallibly (or to know) that some of these writings are not, despite many claims that they are, genuine revelations from God? Does your saving faith enable you to know, in other words, that the Bible, and only the Bible, is the Word of God?”

One has to sort out a number of issues here.

i) Islam and Mormonism are Christian heresies. They take the Bible as a standard of comparison. If, therefore, their “scriptures” contradict the Bible, then they have falsified their own revelatory claims. Therefore, we can discount Christian heresies on their own grounds, since they are at loggerheads with their own frame of reference.

ii) The Gospel of Thomas disqualifies itself in a different way. We’ talking about a 5C Coptic MS, which we can trace back, in some form, to a mid-2C Greek exemplar. Since the date of the original would postdate the life of the Apostle Thomas by many decades, we’re dealing with a pious fraud or forgery. It can’t be written by Thomas since it was written long after he died. Therefore, it’s not what it claims to be.

iii) As to the Catholic canon, I assume you’re alluding to differences between the Catholic OT canon and the Protestant OT canon. This, in turn, involves debates over the status of an Alexandrian/LXX canon in relation to a Palestinian/Hebrew canon. I think that scholars like Roger Beckwith, Robert Hanhart, and David DeSilva have convincingly demonstrated the originality of the Palestinian canon, whereas the Alexandrian canon is something of a scholarly legend.

iv) I could also discuss the authorship of 1-2 Timothy, but you are using all these examples to illustrate a larger issue, so I think it’s more efficient if I graduate to your larger issue. I think the question you’re angling at is whether knowledge is compatible with probabilistic evidentiary arguments. We associate evidentiary arguments with probability, we associate probabilities with degrees of uncertainty, and we associate uncertainty with a belief that falls short of knowledge. Is that the point you’re making?

v) One thing I’d say is that even flimsy evidence can sometimes point us in the right direction. Suppose I believe that one of my correspondents lives in Cincinnati. I believe that because the letter I received from her is postmarked from Cincinnati.

Of course, that isn’t compelling evidence. Maybe she lives in Boca Raton, but was visiting Cincinnati at the time she mailed the letter.

On the hand, suppose she does, in fact, reside in Cincinnati. In that event, I formed a true belief about her whereabouts, even though I did so on the basis of a very flimsy piece of evidence.

Now, I’m aware of the fact that true belief is not equivalent to knowledge. I simply use this example to illustrate the fact that while I might have been mistaken, I wasn’t mistaken.

At the very least, it is possible for a probabilistic argument to yield a true belief. So the appeal to evidence does not, of itself, undermine the possibility of knowledge. If, in light of the evidence, I truly believe something, then it’s possible that I can also know it—even if an additional condition must be met to raise true belief to the status of knowledge.

vi) Put another way, we could say that, counterfactually speaking, my belief (in the whereabouts of my correspondent) could have been erroneous, but—as a matter of fact—my belief was not erroneous. So unless someone can either demonstrate the counterfactual or shift the onus, I think it’s illicit to cast doubt on every noetic claim merely on the grounds that it’s hypothetically possible that the evidence is less than compelling.

vii) Moreover, the status of certain religious beliefs doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is God’s will that his people come to saving knowledge of truth.

And before you accuse me of vicious circularity in my implicit appeal to Scripture at this point, I would note that this proposition (regarding God’s will) is redundantly attested in Scripture, so it doesn’t depend on any particular verse or book of the Bible.

viii) Furthermore, I, as a Calvinist, have a robust doctrine of providence—which is also redundantly attested in Scripture. 

I also think one could mount a transcendental argument for divine providence as a precondition of knowledge. As Plantinga and others have argued, (naturalistic) evolutionary psychology undermines rationality. The logical alternative would be a doctrine of creation and providence.

ix) Apropos (vii)-(viii), it is God’s will that his people come to a saving knowledge of the truth. We form our beliefs, in part, on the basis of the available evidence. And the evidence available to us is not a historical accident, but the evidence that God has preserved for us.

When I form critical judgments on canonicity or authorship, I’m using the best evidence I have at my disposal, and that is also the evidence that God has left at my disposal. It’s like one of those spy novels in which a covert insider wants to expose government corruption, but he doesn’t want to expose himself in the process, so he feeds a number of anonymous tips and clues to an investigative reporter. He is guiding the reporter every step of the wait, until the reporter discovers the “shocking” truth.

Taken by itself, each piece of evidence is less than compelling, but the reporter is also aware of the fact that someone in the know is feeding him one lead after another. So beyond the evidence itself is the directed process by which the evidence is being leaked—like a treasure hunt. 

Or perhaps the reporter knows his source. He knows that his source is a reliable, well-placed informant. So the reporter’s confidence goes beyond the immediate evidence to include the source of the evidence. 

“Second, and perhaps more important for our present purposes, many Christians have held that the moral law written in our hearts (Rom. 2:15) and even the creation itself (Rom. 1:20) are genuine sources of revelation. Would you reject this idea?”

I’m inclined to agree with Cranfield, Schreiener and Wright that Rom 2:15 is probably referring to Gentiles Christians. However, I’ll concede your general point.

“Or, if you would accept it, would you nonetheless deny that these additional sources of revelation can sometimes refine our theological convictions and even correct our understanding of the biblical message?”

Several issues:

i) Moral conviction as a result of natural revelation would be raw intuition, not refined intuition.

ii) Paul goes on to say that unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness. So natural law doesn’t retain its prelapsarian purity.

iii) Exegesis isn’t based on moral intuition—although it makes use of logical intuition. The proper way to understand the Bible is to employ the grammatico-historical method. 

To take a concrete example, if I find the divine command to execute the Canaanites morally offensive, does that entitle me to reinterpret the account such that God did not order their execution—even if the text explicitly and repeatedly attributes the command to God himself? How do my scruples in any way affect the objective assertions of the text?

“Wow, Steve, you really do try to cover a lot of ground with breathtaking speed! But believe me, I don’t need to be informed that a ‘reliable belief-forming process is not a sufficient condition to produce knowledge.’ Nor do I need to be informed that ‘belief in a false proposition or set of false propositions wouldn’t count as knowledge.’ I think we can both agree that no one can know a false proposition! What I do need explained to me, however, is how these comments are even relevant to the context in which they appear.”

This is not a case of explaining things to you as if I’m teaching you something you don’t already know. Rather, I do it for a number of other reasons. This is for the benefit of lurkers who may be following this thread. This is so that you know what underlies my position. And to head off certain potential objections.

“But unfortunately, that response exhibits a two-fold confusion. First, although it may seem like a rather picky point, the quoted passage includes no question at all.”

I see any no confusion on my part. You are asking me questions, and the business about the Muslim functions as a question (directed at me), whether or not it takes the literary form of a question.

“Second, although the quoted passage does include a couple of conditionals, the same is true for them; neither of these conditionals is “predicated on the hypothetical assumption that a Muslim can exercise saving faith.” The truth of a conditional, remember, in no way entails the truth of its antecedent.”

Once again, I see no confusion on my part. I say “hypothetical” and you say “conditional.” Do you think there’s a material difference between a hypothetical and a conditional? Can we move past the semantic quibbles to the substantive issues?

“So where does this leave us? We can all agree, I presume, that, if through ‘a reliable belief-forming process’ God produces true beliefs in us, then those beliefs qualify as knowledge. But once we have acknowledged that obvious point, all the interesting theological and philosophical disputes remain right where they were, whether they be disputes between Christians, between Christians and Muslims, or between Christians and atheists.”

But I didn’t leave it where I found it. You attempted to construct a symmetrical claim. I then gave concrete reasons for why your parallel was disanalogous. So I didn’t discuss the comparison between Christian and Islamic revelatory claims at a purely abstract level. Rather, I proceeded to show why the hypothetical equivalence was equivocal once we delve into the details.

“At the risk of violating one of my own principles and making this post way too long, I also want to clarify the point behind the first set of questions in my previous post. For you seem to have missed that point entirely, no doubt because I failed to make it clear enough…No, that is not the point I was making. Indeed, I was not making any point at all; I was merely asking some questions in an effort to get clearer about your own view.

You seem to have a very atomistic or compartmentalized notion of what you’re trying to accomplish at any particular moment. You’re not merely asking me questions to be clear on my own view. Rather, you have your own position to promote to promote, and as a preliminary exercise you want to be clear on my own view so that you can critique it in order to promote your own position. I don’t have a problem with that. But I’m puzzled by the consistently defensive tone of your replies. 

You have a theological agenda, and I have a theological agenda. Let’s be upfront about our ultimate objectives. 

“But again, we can surely agree about this: If my belief that Neil Armstrong once walked upon the moon rests upon evidence of a probabilistic kind, that in no way excludes it from the category of knowledge. So your long excursus into epistemology, even to the point of mentioning Plantinga’s argument for the irrationality of naturalism(!), seemed to me quite unnecessary.”

It’s unnecessary if you concede the point. I don’t know in advance what you’re prepared to concede until I lay it on the table.

“As did your spelling out what you take to be compelling reasons for denying that the Gospel of Thomas, for example, belongs in the canon.”

I don’t know why you think that’s unnecessary. It was your example, not mine. If my response was unnecessary, then your example was unnecessary. __You said, “on its face the claim that the 66 books in the Protestant Bible are the very Word of God seems quite consistent with the claim that additional books in the Catholic Bible, or perhaps the Gospel of Thomas, or even the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are likewise genuine sources of revelation in the world.”

I’m simply answering you on your own grounds. That’s how you chose to frame the discussion. Why do you react this way?

“I was instead trying to clarify in my own mind how exclusively you want to identify the Word of God with the Bible. I therefore posed a series of questions that led up to the crucial one, which, despite the length of your reply, you never addressed. The question was this: Does your saving faith enable you to know … that the Bible, and only the Bible, is the Word of God?” I was wondering, in other words, whether you would claim to know that every book in the Bible truly belongs there and also claim to know that nothing outside the accepted canon could qualify as the Word of God. And after reading your latest post, I still have no idea how you would answer that question.”

That’s partly a chronological question, and partly a terminological question:

i) Not everything that God ever spoke to a prophet or apostle, or inspired him to say, was committed to writing and preserved for posterity. So, historical speaking, the word of God is not conterminous with the Bible. Not every one of his words was canonized.

However, from our contemporary position, in contrast to the situation of an OT Jew or 1C Christian, the word of God is conterminous with the Bible. The history of revelation and the history of redemption run on parallel tracks which converge in the Christ-Event (Heb 1:1-2).

ii) Jews also drew a categorical distinction between canonical revelation and subcanonical forms of revelation like divination. See David Aune’s analysis in Prophecy In Early Christianity.

Hence, a prophecy could be a word of the Lord without being God’s word in the canonical or scriptural sense. So, in terms of this classification scheme, you could have an instance of divine speech that is not Scriptural speech. It falls outside the boundaries of Scripture. Whether the Bible is identical with God’s word therefore depends on your relative timeframe as well as your prophetic taxonomy. 

You also seem to be bundling two distinct questions in one:

i) Is the Bible the only word of God?

iii) Can the Bible be *known* to be the only word of God?

The former is an ontological question, the later an epistemic question. Were you intending to ask two distinct questions? Obviously the answers will differ.

I think I just addressed the former question. In answer to the second, yes I think person can *know* the word of God is *now* conterminous with the Bible (i.e. the Protestant canon of Scripture).

“I was also wondering how far you would take your claim of infallibility with respect to beliefs that unquestionably do rest upon probabilistic evidence, that is, beliefs that may indeed qualify as knowledge, provided that they are true…I took this to imply something more than that certain Christian beliefs are properly basic in Plantinga’s sense; I took it to imply that many distinctively Christian doctrines—the doctrine of the Trinity, perhaps—are such that Christians cannot be mistaken about them.”

i) It’s true that I’m staking out a stronger position than Plantinga insofar as properly basic beliefs only enjoy prima facie warrant, and can be overturned in the light of contrary evidence. I reject that with reference to saving faith.

ii) At the same time, the content of saving faith is, to some extent, person-variable. To whom much is given, much is required. So saving faith varies in some degree with one’s natural aptitude, exposure, and the scope of revelation at that point in redemptive history. 

Conversely, the Bible also says, on the one hand, that certain beliefs are a necessary precondition of salvation while, on the other hand, certain contrary beliefs are damnatory. So sheer ignorance is not exculpatory. 

“So I guess one question I would put to you is this: However strong you may think the probabilistic historical evidence for excluding the Gospel of Thomas from the canon, do you claim infallibility in this matter? I wouldn’t.”

Since the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic gospel, the theology of which is incompatible with Biblical theology, it couldn’t be canonical scripture.

“But then, I doubt that saving faith requires many distinctively Christian beliefs at all, not even the belief that Christ was raised from the dead; much less does it require the belief that the Bible is the Word of God.”

As a universalist you naturally have a very elastic definition of saving faith.

“According to the author of Hebrews, after all, Abraham had saving faith, and Abraham held neither of these beliefs, at least not during his earthly life.”

i) As I’ve said before, we make allowance for one’s historical position in the course of progressive revelation.

ii) At the same time, the author of Hebrews is warning his readers that the history of revelation is irreversible. They can’t turn back the clock. What was saving faith for Abraham ceases to be saving faith for 1C Jews living on the other side of the cross.

"If you believe that I have somehow misrepresented Calvin in the section where I actually discuss him, I invite you to point out where I have done so; and if you would like to challenge some specific point in my critique of Calvin, I invite you to do that as well."

Case in point. You said:

"The only problem is that his assumptions also undermine the Christian faith entirely, because they undermine the very possibility of trust in God. If God can ‘justly’ do anything whatsoever, including predestine some to eternal perdition, then he can also ‘justly’ engage in cruelty for its own sake, "justly" command that we torture babies or that we produce as much misery in the world as we can, and ‘justly’ punish acts of love and kindness. So why should we even care whether God is just or righteous if his righteousness excludes nothing at all? And on what grounds can we trust him? If, as Calvin claims, there is no answer to the question, ‘Why does God act from one set of motives (e.g. love) rather than from another (e.g., hatred or deceitfulness),’ then nothing in God's nature precludes him from lying or breaking promises or deceiving all Christians regarding the conditions of salvation. For all we know, therefore, perhaps God has deceived all Christians regarding the conditions of salvation in order that he might display the true nature of his righteousness."
You're claiming that Calvin is a theological voluntarist. And this is central to your critique of Calvinism. I believe that this identification is incorrect. For starters, read “The Power Dialectic” in Paul Helm’s book on Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford 2004), chapter 11.

“But the more general line of criticism, not necessarily reflected in the paper, would be this: Either Calvin is a theological voluntarist in the relevant sense, or he is unable to block moral objections to his understanding of predestination and reprobation.”

i) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Calvin cannot block the moral objections to his position. What would follow from that admission?

Calvin was not a philosophical theologian in the sense that Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Scotus were. He’s not making a philosophical case for reprobation.

So there’s a certain asymmetry in this debate. Calvin subscribes to reprobation on exegetical grounds, but he’s fielding philosophical objections to reprobation. Now it may be that Calvin lacks the philosophical aptitude or sophistication or conceptual resources to offer a philosophically satisfying counterargument. That isn’t his métier.

ii) This is an issue that shades into the Euthyphro dilemma and the problem of evil. As you know, many theologians representing varying theological traditions wrestle with these issues.

Reformed theology is a species of Protestant theology. It subscribes to the Protestant rule of faith (sola Scriptura). 

To successfully attack Calvinism, you would have to attack in on its own (exegetical) grounds. In principle, there are two ways you could do this:

a) Challenge Reformed exegesis;

b) Challenge the Reformed rule of faith.

In the present thread you seem to be doing the latter. That is to say, you appear to be mounting a sort of transcendental argument against Calvinism by claiming that if, ex hypothesi, Calvinism were true, then divine revelation would be untrustworthy.

Of course, that’s a very different objection than Calvin was dealing with, so it would be anachronistic to look for answers in Calvin to questions which he never had to confront.

One more point (maybe more than one) before we move to your next point:

i) There’s no doubt that Gordon Clark was a theological voluntarist. And that position is sometimes attributed to William Twisse—although I think that attribution is suspect. In general, though, theological voluntarism is not a defining tenet of Calvinism.

ii) Now, the will of God came up in the conflict with Rome. Why does God elect A, but reprobate B?

In the traditional context, Calvinism is opposing Catholic synergism. The ultimate answer is not to be found in the sinner, but in the will of God.

That may *sound* like theological voluntarism, but that interpretation is misleading because it overlooks the concrete framework of the debate, in which certain assumptions were a given.

Since all sinners are worthy of damnation, sin or demerit is not, in and of itself, the reason that God reprobates A rather than B. For if that were a sufficient condition, then God would reprobate A and B alike. 

So, in that particular respect, Calvinism appeals to the will of God as the ultimate explanation since there is no morally distinguishing property in the sinner to differentiate one sinner from another for purposes of reprobation. 

iii) However, reprobation does take demerit into account. Just not in that particular respect. But it’s still the case that sinners are damned. 

(I’d add that in Reformed theology, you don’t have to be guilty of actual sin to be guilty. You can be guilty of original sin.)

iv) In theological voluntarism, by contrast, God is free to damn the innocent. That is not the position of Calvinism.

v) I’d also add that even when we appeal to the will of God as the final explanation, this doesn’t mean that God no reason whatsoever for discriminating between one sinner and another. Election and reprobation aren’t brute facts. 

Rather, God elects some and reprobates others to underscore the gratuity of grace; to wit, that God owes no one his saving grace.

vi) Finally, to indulge in a bit of speculation, there may be other reasons, irrespective of merit, why God elects A and reprobates B. (“Irrespective” in the sense of being over and above that consideration.)

A world in which God elects A rather than B will be a different possible world than one in which God elects B rather than A, or a world in which God elects A and B, or a world in which God reprobates A and B. So who is elect or reprobate does make a difference in the history of the world. These are not identical scenarios. Rather, they’re distinct alternatives.

Hence, God’s will in this matter is not arbitrary or inexplicable in the sense of violating Leibniz’ law. So while the distinction between elect and reprobate is morally indiscernible, it isn’t metaphysically indiscernible.

In that respect, God may have a reason for choosing person A over person B because he has a reason for choosing world A over world B. 

“Anyway, setting aside for a moment the label ‘theological voluntarism,’ here is the question I would like someone to answer, whether it be Calvin, or you, or Helm, or someone else. If God can justly predestine Esau to eternal damnation, why can’t he also justly break his promises or justly send all Christians to hell as well? And if he cannot justly do the latter, how is it that he can justly do the former? What is it about the nature of divine justice, in other words, that permits predestination to damnation but precludes breaking promises and sending Christians to hell?”

i) I may already have answered your question. Demerit is a necessary, but insufficient, condition of reprobation. Demerit is a morally sufficient condition for reprobation. The reprobate merit their damnation on account of sin.

It is not unjust for God to discriminate between the elect and the reprobate since neither group has a prior claim on the mercy of God. Since no sinner is entitled to salvation, God wrongs no sinner by damning a sinner—for God has not denied him his rights when he gives the sinner exactly what he deserves.

ii) In a supralapsarian theodicy, moreover, there is reason for electing some sinners and reprobating others. God is good, and knowing God is good. God’s justice and mercy are goods. But an existential knowledge of his justice and mercy presupposes the fall, and subsequent redemption. The experience of God’s mercy towards the elect, and justice towards the reprobate, enriches our knowledge of God.

iii) As to why, on a Calvinistic scheme, God can’t break a promise, I’m not sure that justice is the most relevant attribute. Wouldn’t truth be a more pertinent attribute? Or perhaps the wisdom of God. God is not a rationally capricious being.

iv) In Reformed theology, it would be unjust of God to send all (or any) Christians to hell since the Jesus died to redeem the elect from their sins.

“But unfortunately, in asserting that 'all sinners are worthy of damnation,' you are already assuming the very point at issue between us. Why suppose that God could justly treat Esau as worthy of damnation when, even before Esau was born or had done anything good or bad, God had already predestined (or causally determined) that he would be a sinner? If God could justly predestine, first, that Esau would be born a sinner, second, that he would never repent of his sin, and third, that he would nonetheless be punished with eternal damnation for his sin, why couldn’t God likewise justly consign all Christians to hell and grant to all non-Christians the eternal bliss of heaven? So far as I can tell, you have not so much as addressed this question; much less have you provided a persuasive answer to it.”

I haven’t addressed this question before because, to my recollection, this is the first time that you’ve raised that particular question—in the course of the current thread.

This is, of course, a stock objection to Calvinism. There are different ways of broaching the answer:

i) It isn’t clear to me what, exactly, you’re objecting to. Do you distinguish between determinism and predeterminism? Do you find predeterminism more objectionable than determinism?

ii) Or is your objection, not to determinism/predeterminism, per se, but to a particular (odious) outcome?

iii) Likewise, as a universalist, is your objection specifically to a Calvinistic version of everlasting punishment? Or would you be equally opposed to a libertarian version of everlasting punishment?

iv) Is your objection specific to Calvinism, or do you object to any form of determinism, whether it’s hard determinism or soft determinism?

At one level, you—as a universalist—‘are raising the same objection to Calvinism that a libertarian will raise to determinism. Unless we are free to do otherwise, we can’t be blameworthy.

As a philosopher, you’re well aware of the fact that there are astute representatives of semicompatibilism (e.g. John Martin Fischer) and hard incompatibilism (Derk Pereboom) who—on the one hand—field standard objections to soft/hard determinism while—on the other hand—lodging objections to libertarianism. Likewise, there are distinguished proponents of libertarianism like Peter van Inwagen who ultimately retreat into mystification. 

On the face of it, you’re leveling an objection that has already been addressed, in considerable detail, by a number of sophisticated philosophers. Perhaps you find their explanations unsatisfactory, but I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel unless you can refine your objection.

v) So what, once more, is the precise point of your objection?
a) Is your objection that an agent is not responsible for his actions unless he is free to do otherwise?
b) Or is your objection that a particular outcome—in this case, everlasting punishment—is morally unacceptable?

In theory, you might reject (a), but affirm (b). Perhaps you don’t think there’s anything wrong with a deterministic outcome per se, but only with a hellish outcome.

vi) Are you merely objecting to the idea of original sin, or to the idea of original sin when it leads to damnation?

vii) Are you merely objecting to the idea that Esau couldn’t repent, or to the idea that his inability was predestined? Or to the consequence of impenitence (i.e. damnation)?

viii) As to the question of causality, the Bible, being a practical book, pitched at a popular level, doesn’t offer a theory of causation. And as you know, there is no theory of causation that commends the general consent of the philosophical community.

The Bible gives a number of examples of what we would identify and cause-and-effect relations, but it offers no theory of causation to explain the nature of that relation. On the face of it, the decree (i.e. predestination, foreordination) doesn’t cause something to happen in the way that the cue-ball causes the 8-ball to move.

Predestination specifies a particular outcome, and ensures a particular outcome. The outcome is certain. But the decree, in and of itself, doesn’t cause anything to happen. Everything happens according to the decree, but the decree isn’t causing it to happen. Rather, the decree is implemented by such causal modalities as creation, providence, and miracle. And providence involves second-causes. Esau is an agent in his own right.

“You will agree, I presume, that having a reason to do something in no way guarantees having a just reason; even a demonic god, after all, would have a reason for his tyrannical actions. So let us suppose that Belial should construct the following parallel to your statement above: ‘In demonic theodicy, moreover, there is a reason why God punishes Christians and extends his mercy to non-Christians. For God is good, and knowing God is good. God’s justice and mercy are goods. So the experience of God’s boundless mercy towards non-Christians and of his severe justice towards those whom he deceives and consigns to hell enriches our knowledge of God’.”

The problem with invoking Cartesian demons to undercut Calvinism is that your incantation cuts both ways. Cartesian demons are mercenaries. You can hire a Cartesian demon to bedevil any theological option.

For example, in your book, The Inescapable Love of God, you attempt, among other things, to mount an exegetical defense of universalism. And in another book, Universal Salvation: The Current Debate, you defend your exegesis against the objections of I. H. Marshall.

But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that your exegesis is correct. The Bible does, indeed, teach universalism. Unfortunately, this is a diabolical deception. The Cartesian demon inspired St. Paul to teach universalism. 

So it seems to me that this line of argument either proves too much or too little. 

“When judged by our fallible human intuitions, the deceiving God that Belial here describes no doubt seems terribly unjust.”

I have the same problem with fallibilism that I have with Cartesian demons. This is just another double-bladed sword. If fallibilism undermines Calvinism, it equally undermines universalism.

“But against those Christians who trust such intuitions and begin to doubt God’s justice, Belial could simply quote the words of Calvin and castigate ‘these venomous dogs" who "spew out more than one kind of venom against God.’ Then, still using Calvin’s own words, he might continue: ‘But we deny that they [the Christians whom God deceives and sends to hell] are duly excused, because the ordinance of God, by which they complain that they are destined for destruction, has its own equity [or justice]—unknown, indeed, to us but very sure’ (Institutes, Bk. III, Ch. XXIII, Sec. 9).”

I don’t know why you’re hung up over Calvin’s invective. Invective was common coinage in the polemical theology of that day in age—whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. 

“Nor will it do to quote, at this point, those Scriptures according to which God can neither lie nor deny himself. For according to Belial, God is in no way denying himself; to the contrary, he is precisely being true to his own deceptive nature. And besides, so Belial might also contend, the lie that God cannot lie is but one of the means by which he justly plays his joke on Christians, deceives them to their own destruction, and finally sends them all to hell.”

And, as I’ve said, one can redeploy the Cartesian demon to deceive the universalist. It’s a wash. 

“So here, perhaps, is another way of putting my question: If I cannot trust my seemingly clear and decisive intuition that a perfectly just (not to mention a perfectly loving) God would never cause Esau to sin and then damn him eternally for it, how can I trust my seemingly clear and decisive intuition that a perfectly just God would never deceive all Christians and damn them eternally for their deception?”

Several more issues:

i) We need to distinguish two questions: (a) Is Scripture true? (b) What’s the true interpretation of Scripture?

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that your intuition is sound, that would not call into question the Reformed interpretation of Scripture, but rather, the veracity of Scripture. Can Scripture be trusted?

ii) Even if, ad arguendo, our intuition tells us that God would never reprobate Esau, this doesn’t mean our intuition also tells us that God will save Esau—much less everyone else.

iii) I don’t think intuition tells us that:

a) An agent is blameless unless he *could* do otherwise.

Rather, I tend to think people confuse this with a more plausible principle, to wit:

b) An agent is blameless if he *would* have done otherwise.

In other words, I think the popular intuition you appeal to is, at best, a truncated intuition. If we spell it out, the full formulation would be something like:

b-ii) An agent is blameless unless he could have done otherwise—provided that he would have done otherwise.

I’m not saying if this intuition is correct. But, when you unpack it, that’s the moral intuition. The intuition instantly loses its intuitive appeal when you insist that an agent is blameless if he couldn’t do otherwise even if he wouldn’t do otherwise given the chance.

iv) Let’s take a Lady and the Tiger scenario. Behind door A is the princess. Behind door B is the tiger. Do both doors need to be unlocked for this to be a fair ordeal? Does the suitor need the freedom to open either door for this to be a fair ordeal? Why would that be the case? He has a choice. He can only choose one door or the other. 

Suppose he chooses to open door A, but door A is locked. As a fallback, he tries to open door B. Door B is unlocked. As a result, he is devoured by the tiger. Intuitively speaking, I suppose most-all of us would regard that outcome as unfair.

Take 2: suppose, once again, door A is locked. But, this time, door A isn’t his first choice. Door B is his first choice.

Now, unbeknownst to him, door A is locked. So he couldn’t open door A even if he wanted to. Since, however, he never wanted to open door A, why is it necessary for that to be a live option?

We could run through the various permutations, but you get the drift. The fact that a dire outcome awaits him if he opens door B, and the further fact that door A is secretly locked, is not, of itself, morally significant. His fate is not unjust if wasn’t free to make a choice he was never going to make in the first place.

So, for your intuition even to get off the ground, you would need to demonstrate that, if Esau had been given the opportunity to repent, he would have seized the opportunity to repent.

v) Let’s take another example. We generally view a stacked deck as unfair. As cheating. The game is rigged.

However, in a game of chance, the odds are that—sooner or later—a randomly shuffled deck will have the same sequence as a stacked deck. In that event, the outcome will be the same whether or not the order of the cards is a result of determinism or indeterminism.

The same player will play the hand he’s dealt, whether the dealer is a card sharp or an honest broker. And there are situations in which random circumstances just so happen to yield the same result as controlled circumstances. A player could win or lose under either scenario.

So, once again, for your intuition to even get off the ground, you need to explain why a predeterminate outcome is unfair if an indeterminate outcome would be identical with a predeterminate outcome. Or, to put it another way, you need to show that the outcome would differ in any particular case.

vi) And that’s assuming that intuition is the deal-breaker. The limitation of moral intuition is that it’s like a brute fact. You can try to explicate your moral intuition and defend it. But it ultimately comes down to your personal impression that something *just seems* to be right while something else just seems to be wrong. So intuition really can’t justify itself. You rapidly get to the point where you can’t argue for your moral intuitions. __Like the old Kennel Ration commercial (“My dog’s better than your dog!”), it boils down to the claim that “My intuition is better than your intuition!”

vii) And that’s also the problem when you say that I’m “already assuming the very point at issue between us.” Can you yourself offer a non-circular justification for your own intuitive appeal to universalism? Or does your objection quickly and inevitably degenerate into a stalemate?

viii) On a final point, I find the Bible intuitively compelling. There are no moral intuitions that trump my intuitive faith in Scripture. (My faith in Scripture isn’t limited to sheer intuition, but for purposes of this discussion, that’s the aspect I’ll accentuate.) Therefore, on intuitive grounds alone, there is no intuitive defeater to my intuitive conviction that Scripture is the word of God.

“And now here is my question for you, Steve. Why not just address a question simply and directly? I still have no idea of what your answer to my question, repeated several times in this post, might be. If you think that a confusion lies behind the question, just spell it out, one step at a time, so that your post does not wander all over the map, so to speak. Do you really believe that a post such as your latest one, or several others you have written, is conducive to an intelligent discussion? I’ll let you answer that question in any way you see fit without any further comment from me.”

Well, you’ve peppered me several questions in the space of this one paragraph. By way of answer:

i) I’m puzzled by the anti-intellectual character of your reply. You are, after all, a philosophy prof.

ii) Why don’t I just address a question simply and directly? Because your questions are loaded with ambiguous, theory-laden assumptions. For example, this was one of your questions:

“Why suppose that God could justly treat Esau as worthy of damnation when, even before Esau was born or had done anything good or bad, God had already predestined (or causally determined) that he would be a sinner? If God could justly predestine, first, that Esau would be born a sinner, second, that he would never repent of his sin, and third, that he would nonetheless be punished with eternal damnation for his sin, why couldn’t God likewise justly consign all Christians to hell and grant to all non-Christians the eternal bliss of heaven?”

But that’s hardly a “simple” question, which is why I tried to break it down into its component parts and treacherous assumptions.

When you say, “If God could justly predestine, first, that Esau would be born a sinner,” that’s presumably an allusion to the doctrine of original sin, and—by implication—, you’re evidently taking the position that it would be unjust of God to damn Esau on account of original sin. So this is why I asked you if that’s a correct interpretation of the element of your question.

When you also say, “second, that he would never repent of his sin,” the apparent implication is that you think it would be unjust of God to damn Esau if he could not have done otherwise (i.e. repented of his sin). So that’s why I asked you if you regard libertarian freedom as a necessary precondition of culpability.

When you also say, “and third, that he would nonetheless be punished with eternal damnation for his sin,” it’s unclear whether you think the injustice lies in the *duration* of the punishment, or in the fact that Esau was *predestined* to this particular fate—which is why I asked you to distinguish and relate the two. 

You ask, “If [I] think that a confusion lies behind the question, just spell it out, one step at a time.” That’s exactly what I was doing.

When you say, “You will agree, I presume, that having a reason to do something in no way guarantees having a just reason; even a demonic god, after all, would have a reason for his tyrannical actions. So let us suppose that Belial should construct the following parallel to your statement above,” you seem to be invoking the specter of Cartesian demons as a defeater or undercutter for Calvinism.

If so, I point out that a parallel argument can be constructed for universalism. Indeed, you yourself were trying to construct a parallel argument with reference to Calvinism, so I’m merely taking my cue from you and doing the same thing in reverse. Why do you think your argument would count against Calvinism, but not against universalism?

Finally, when you say that “judged by our fallible human intuitions, the deceiving God that Belial here describes no doubt seems terribly unjust,” you appear to be invoking fallibilism against Calvinism—but if that’s a cogent objection to Calvinism, then why isn’t that a cogent argument against universalism.

These are just a few examples. If I’m “wandering all over the map,” that’s because my GPS is keeping track of all your circumnavigations. __When you ask if I “really believe that a post such as [my] latest one, or several others [I’ve] have written, is conducive to an intelligent discussion?” 

I can’t think of a tactful response since your accusatory question is so self-incriminating. When my replies are pegged to your questions every step of the way, and you then ask if my replies are “conductive to intelligent discussion,” the only candid answer is that if my replies are not conductive to intelligent discussion, then that’s because they follow the counters your chosen framework. I guess that answers can only be as intelligent or unintelligent as the questions.

At this point I really don’t know what your problem is, Tom. Are you unable to follow your own argument? And why do you object when I follow every twist and turn of your own argument, even if you are unable or unwilling to do so? 

Why do you react in this fashion when I merely address you on your own terms? If you think I’m going down too many rabbit holes, that’s because I’m chasing down a wascally wabbit by the name of Tom Talbott. The hunter goes wherever the prey takes him. 

iii) As to your oft-repeated question, you ask: 
“I have a strong intuition, as you presumably do as well, that God could not justly deceive all Christians and send them all to hell as a kind of divine joke. I also have a strong intuition that God could not justly predestine Esau to an everlasting hell. So my question is: Why should I trust my intuition in the first case, but not in the second?”
Actually, I reject your intuition in the first case. I have no intuition against God deceiving Christians and damning them to hell. Rather, I have a *revelation* against God deceiving Christians and damning them to hell.

I have no idea why you think that intuition speaks to the fate of Christians. Apart from revelation, intuition tells me absolutely nothing about Christians. If I were born on a desert island, in the proverbial state of nature, intuition wouldn’t even speak to me about the existence of Christians, much less their eternal fate—for better or worse.

There’s nothing the least bit intuitive about that belief. You’ve been so conditioned by your upbringing and your particular interpretation of Scripture that you’ve long forgotten where the source of your confidence comes from, and you now mistake your acquired conviction for intuition. It’s nothing of the kind. 

And that’s’ one reason you can never appeal to your intuition to trump a revelation regarding the fate of humanity. For your putative intuition is, in fact, contingent on your interpretation of God’s revelation in Scripture. Throughout this thread, you overestimate intuition, and underestimate revelation.

Now, I think it’s possible to have an intuitive faith in Scripture, if we define intuition along the lines of an illative sense or tacit knowledge—a la Newman, Polanyi, and Mitchell. But intuition is not the source of that knowledge. Rather, it takes Scripture as its object

So—as you set up the question—even if there were a parallel between the two cases, yet since—as a matter of fact—your faith in the first case cannot be informed by intuition, but only by revelation, then—by parity of argument—there is likewise no support for the second case.

iv) Apart from the Bible as a whole, I’d find myself in the same situation as Solomon, in Ecclesiastes. There’s plenty of natural evidence for the existence of God. But the distribution of blessing and bane is so disparate and apparently random at best, or perversely unjust at worst—with the wicked prospering at the expense of the righteous—that l’d be in a complete quandary. Left to my own devices, I could discern a providential pattern to the natural order, but not to the moral order.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Christian ethical valuation

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

In debating what we should do in the face of Islamic terrorism, it's become quite apparent to me that a lot of Christians don't have a big enough metaethical toolkit to properly evaluate ethical issues. I don't say that as a personal criticism.

Although we enjoy certain innate moral intuitions, these are very roughhewn, and easily distorted by sin or cultural conditioning. To some extent, too, ethical valuation is a learned behavior. We are not equipped with ready-made principles, much less ready-made answers, to every ethical question and challenges we face.

Many Christians seem to default to a very wooden version of deontologism in which every action is either right or wrong, period—irrespective of motives, circumstances, objectives, or consequences. But one of the problems, when you don't study philosophy, is that you still have an operating philosophy, but it's an unexamined philosophy—often piecemeal and contradictory.

I suspect many Christians assume this outlook in part because Christians believe in moral absolutes, so any consideration of motives, circumstances, objectives, or consequences smacks of moral relativism—or so it seems to them. It's also appealing because it's so formulaic.

Unfortunately, this outlook is simplistic, unscriptural, and ultimately unethical. I've taken the liberty of gleaning some basic principles and distinctions in ethical valuation from John Frame. I'd recommend that Christians read the entire series. [See here for all of Prof. Frame's articles which are hosted on Reformed Perspectives. -- Ed.]

Three Ethical Principles

In this section I will discuss another aspect of the ethical debate between Christians and non-Christians. This debate also concerns the lordship attributes.

Most people who think about ethics, Christian and non-Christian alike, are impressed by three principles:

1. The Teleological Principle: A good act maximizes the happiness of living creatures.

That is to say, a good act does good. Christians emphasize that it is good for God, bringing him glory. But Scripture tells us that what brings glory to God brings good to his people: "And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day" (Deut. 6:24; cf. 10:13). Non-Christian ethical writers like Aristotle have also emphasized that doing good brings happiness, however that may be defined. The ethical life is the good life, the blessed life (Ps. 1; Matt. 5:1-11). And of course to live ethically is also to bring blessing to others.

In Christian ethics, this insight is based on God's lordship attribute of control. For it is God who arranges nature and history so that good acts have beneficial consequences to himself, to the ethical agent, and to other persons.

I call this principle the principle of teleology, for it declares that all our behavior should be goal-oriented, that it should seek the glory of God and the happiness of people.

2. The Deontological Principle: A good act is a response to duty, even at the price of self-sacrifice.

We admire people who follow their ethical principles even at great cost to themselves. In the Bible, Abraham obeyed God's word, even though it meant leaving his home country and moving to a place where he was a complete stranger to everybody, and even though it meant taking his son Isaac up to a mountain to serve as a human sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-19). To do his Father's will, the Lord Jesus gave his very life.

So, God defines duties for us, absolute norms that take precedence over any other consideration. Our duty is what we must do, what we ought to do. So they are necessary. And they are universal, for they apply to everyone. If it is wrong for me to steal, then it is wrong for you to steal in the same situation. Ethics is no respecter of persons.

This insight is based on God's lordship attribute of authority. For the ultimate source of human duties is God's authoritative word. Some secular thinkers, such as Plato and Kant, also acknowledged the important of duty. But as we shall see, they had a difficult time determining where our duties are to be found, and what our duties actually are.

I call this principle the principle of deontology, from the Greek verb translated "owe, ought, or must." It states that ethics is a matter of duty, of obligation.

3. The Existential Principle: A good act comes from a good inner character.

A good person is not a hypocrite. He does good works because he loves to do them, because his heart is good. Scripture emphasizes that the only righteousness that is worth anything is a righteousness of the heart. The Pharisees cleansed the outside of their cup, their outward acts, but not the inside, their heart-motives (Matt. 23:25). Non-Christian writers, such as Aristotle, have also frequently emphasized the importance of character, of virtue, of inner righteousness. But as we shall see they have not succeeded in showing what constitutes virtue or how such virtue may be attained.

This insight is based on God's lordship attribute of presence, for it is God "who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12). Without inward regeneration and sanctification, our best works are hypocritical.

I call this the existential principle, for it says that morality is personal, inward, a matter of the heart.

Are the Three Principles Consistent?

Christians can gladly accept all three of the principles, insights or intuitions listed above. The God of Scripture is the author of the situation, the Word, and the moral self, so that the three are fully consistent with one another. He ordains history so that people will find their ultimate blessing in doing their duty. He has made us in his image, so that our greatest personal fulfillment occurs in seeking his glory in history, as his word declares.

Now, many writers appreciate the three principles, or some of them, although they reject the God of the Bible. But in the absence of the biblical God, these principles are in tension with one another.

The teleological principle says that ethical action leads to happiness. Yet the deontological principle says that in order to do our duty, we must sometimes sacrifice our happiness.

The teleological and deontological principles say that our ethical responsibility is objective, grounded outside ourselves. But the existential suggests that our goodness is inward, and therefore subjective.

The deontological principle says that we are subject to a moral law that declares our duty, apart from inclination or the consequences of our acts. But the teleological and existential principles measure our goodness by the consequences of our actions and our inner life, respectively.

The existential principle says that it's wrong to measure a person's goodness by anything external to himself. But the teleological and deontological principles say that one may measure goodness by the consequences and norms of actions, respectively.

Non-Christian thinkers who appreciate the teleological principle tend to be empiricists in their epistemology (as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), basing human knowledge on sense-experience. But philosophers have generally recognized that sense-experience does not reveal to us universal or necessary principles. It cannot reveal universal principles, because we cannot have sense-experience of the whole universe. And it cannot reveal necessary principles, because necessity is not something available to the senses. At most, the senses tell us what happens, not what must happen, and certainly not what ought to happen. But the deontological principle says that ethics is based on principles that are universal, necessary, and obligatory.

So if one tries to hold these principles without God, they inevitably appear to be in tension with one another. With God, they cohere, for the same God who controls the consequences of our acts also declares our duties and also gives us a new inner life. But without God it seems likely that in some ethical situations one principle will contradict another. We may, then, have to abandon our duty in order to maximize happiness in a situation, or to be as loving as possible (Joseph Fletcher). Of course, we must then decide what principle will prevail. Non-Christian ethicists differ among themselves on that question, so among them there are three schools of thought.

Types of Christian Ethics

These three motivations have led Christian thinkers to develop three main types of Christian ethics: command ethics, narrative ethics, and virtue ethics. Command ethics emphasizes the authority of God's moral law. Narrative ethics emphasizes the history of redemption. It teaches ethics by telling the story of salvation. Virtue ethics discusses the inner character of the regenerate person, focusing on virtues listed in passages like Romans 5:1-5; Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3:12-17.

What Really Matters

We can see the same triadic structure in the actual content of biblical ethics. I shall expound this structure at length later in the book. For now, let us note sayings of the Apostle Paul that intend to show the highest priorities of the Christian life. In these passages he is opposing Judaizers, who think that one must be circumcised to enter the kingdom of God. He replies that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is important, but rather the following:

1 Corinthians 7:19
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

Galatians 5:6
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Galatians 6:15
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

As in our previous discussion, there is a reference in 1 Corinthians 7:19 to keeping the commandments of God. It corresponds to God's lordship attribute of authority. "Faith working through love" in Galatians 5:6 is the work of the Spirit within us, and refers to God's covenant presence. "New creation" in Galatians 6:15 is the great redemptive-historical change brought about by Jesus' death and resurrection, the powerful work of God's sovereign control over history.[15]

Factors in Ethical Judgment

Now imagine that you are a pastor or counselor, and someone comes to your office with an ethical problem. Basically, there are three things you will need to discuss: the situation, the word of God, and the inquirer himself.

Normally, we ask first about the situation: "What's your problem? What brings you to see me?" This question is ultimately about God's lordship attribute of control, for God is the one who brings situations about.

Then we ask, "What does God's word say about the problem?" This discussion invokes God's lordship attribute of authority.

Thirdly, we focus on the inquirer, asking how he or she needs to change in order to apply God's solution to the problem. At this point, we are thinking especially about God's presence within the individual. If the person is a non-Christian, then he needs to be born again by God's Spirit before he can apply the word of God to his life. If the person is a believer, he may need to grow in certain ways before he will be able to deal with the issue before him.

We note in such conversations that each of these subjects influences the other two. We may start with a "presentation problem:" "My wife is angry all the time." But as we move to a focus on God's word, gaining a better understanding of Scripture, we may gain a better understanding of the problem as well. For example, Scripture tells us to remove the log from our own eye before trying to get the speck out of another's eye (Matt. 7:3). So the inquirer may come to see that his wife is angry because he has provoked her. So the problem now is not only in her, but in him as well. Reflection on God's word has changed our understanding of the problem.

But this new understanding of the problem pushes us to look at more and different Scripture texts than we considered in the beginning. As we understand the problem better, we understand better how Scripture relates to it. Scripture and the situation illumine one another.

Then when we move to the third question and ask the inquirer to look within, he may see even more things in himself that have provoked his wife's anger. So the problem, the word, and the inquirer have all illumined one another. Evidently you cannot understand your problem, or yourself, adequately until you have seen it through what Calvin called the "spectacles of Scripture." And you can't understand the problem until you see yourself as a part of it.

And you can't understand God's word rightly until you can use it, until you see how it applies to this situation and that. This is a more difficult point, but I think it is important. If someone says he understands "you shall not steal" but has no idea to what situations that commandment applies (such as embezzling, cheating on taxes, shoplifting), then he hasn't really understood the biblical command. Understanding Scripture, understanding its meaning, is applying it to situations. A person who understands the Bible is a person who is able to use the Bible to answer his questions, to guide his life. As I argued in Chapter 2, theology is application.

Perspectives on the Discipline of Ethics

In general, then, ethical judgment always involves the application of a norm to a situation by a person. These three factors can also be seen as overall perspectives on the study of ethics:

1. The Situational Perspective

In this perspective, we examine situations, problems. This study focuses on God's actions in creation and providence that have made the situations what they are, hence God's lordship attribute of control. The situational perspective asks, "What are the best means of accomplishing God's purposes?" That is, how can we take the present situation and change it so that more of God's purposes are achieved?

God's ultimate purpose is his own glory (1 Cor. 10:31). But God has more specific goals as well: the filling and subduing of the earth (Gen. 1:28); the evangelization and nurture of people of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20); the success of his Kingdom (Matt. 6:33).

The situational perspective explores the consequences of our actions. Under the situational perspective, we ask, "If we do X, will that enhance the glory of God and his blessing on his people?" We seek the best means to the ends that please God. So, we might describe ethics from this perspective as a Christian teleological, or consequential ethic.

2. The Normative Perspective

Under the normative perspective, we focus on Scripture more directly. Our purpose is to determine our duty, our ethical norm, our obligation. So we bring our problem to the Bible and ask, "What does Scripture say about this situation?" At this point we invoke God's lordship attribute of authority. Since we are focusing on duties and obligations, we might call this perspective a Christian deontological ethic.

3. The Existential Perspective

The existential perspective focuses on the ethical agent, the person (or persons) who are trying to find out what to do. Under this perspective, the ethical question becomes "How must I change if I am to do God's will?" Here the focus is inward, examining our heart-relation to God. It deals with our regeneration, our sanctification, our inner character. These are all the product of God's lordship-presence within us.

Necessary and Sufficient Criteria of Good Works

What is a good work? Reformed theologians have addressed this question in response to the "problem of the virtuous pagan." Reformed theology teaches that human beings by nature are "totally depraved." This does not mean that they are as bad as they can be, but that it is impossible for them to please God in any of their thoughts, words, or deeds (Rom. 8:8). So, apart from grace none of us can do anything good in the sight of God. Yet, all around us we see non-Christians who at least seem to be doing good works: they love their families, work hard at their jobs, contribute to the needs of the poor, show kindness to their neighbors. It seems that these pagans are virtuous by normal measures.

Reformed theology, however, questions these normal measures. It acknowledges that unbelievers often contribute to the betterment of society. These contributions are called "civic righteousness." Their civic righteousness does not please God, however, because it is altogether devoid of three characteristics:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (WCF 16.7)
Note the three necessary ingredients: (1) a heart purified by faith, (2) obedience to God's word, and (3) the right end, the glory of God.

The first is a plainly biblical emphasis. The Confession cites Hebrews 11:4 and some other texts. Romans 14:23 also comes to mind, which says, "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." In Jesus' arguments with the Pharisees, too, it is evident that our righteousness must not be merely external (see especially Matt. 23:25-26). In describing the necessity of an internal motive of good works, Scripture refers not only to faith, but especially to love, as in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 and many other passages. We learn from these passages that love is not only necessary for good works, but also sufficient: that is, if our act is motivated by a true love of God and neighbor, we have fulfilled the law (Matt. 22:40, Rom. 13:8, Gal. 5:14).

The second element of good works, according to the Confession, is obedience to God's word, to his law. Note the references in the previous section to the importance of obeying God's word. Certainly obedience to God's word is a necessary condition of good works, for disobedience to God's law is the very definition of sin (1 John 3:4). It is also a sufficient condition: for if we have obeyed God perfectly, we have done everything necessary to be good in his sight. Of course, among God's commands are his commands to love (see above paragraph) and to seek his glory (see the next paragraph).

The third element is the right end, the glory of God. Ethical literature has often discussed the summum bonum or highest good for human beings. What is it that we are trying to achieve in our ethical actions? Many secular writers have said this goal is pleasure or human happiness. But Scripture says that in everything we do we should be seeking the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Certainly, any act must glorify God if it is to be good, so seeking God's glory is a necessary condition of good works. And if the act does glorify God, then it is good; so it is a sufficient condition.[11]

So, there are three necessary and sufficient conditions of good works: right motive, right standard, and right goal.[12] Right motive corresponds to the lordship attribute of covenant presence: for it is God's Spirit dwelling in us who places faith and love in our hearts. Right standard corresponds, obviously, to God's lordship attribute of authority. And right goal corresponds to the lordship attribute of control, for it is God's creation and providence that determines what acts will and will not lead to God's glory. God determines the consequences of our actions, and he determines which actions lead to our summum bonum.