Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Perils of Pauline

Predictably enough, Francis Beckwith tries to roll out the Jacobean artillery against the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. Cf. Return to Rome, 104f.

We’re treated to an extremely cursory discussion of the Protestant position. But that’s not the only problem. He doesn’t bother to interact with Catholic scholarship. However, Catholic exegesis has come a long ways since the Counter-Reformation. I’ll quote from the standard Catholic commentary on Romans, followed by the standard Catholic commentary on James:

“Consequently, this uprightness does not belong to human beings (10:3), and it is not something that they have produced or merited; it is an alien uprightness, one belonging rightly to another (to Christ), and attributed to them because of what that other has done for them. So Paul understands God ‘justifying the godless’ (4:5) or ‘crediting uprightness’ to human beings quite ‘apart from deeds’ (4:6; see Käsemann, Kertele, Lyonnet, Reumann, Schlatter, Schultz),” J. Fitzmyer, Romans (Doubleday 1993), 117-18.

“[3:28] But his [Paul’s] emphasis falls on pistei, ‘by faith,’ as Kuss, Bardenhewer, and Sickenberger recognize. That emphasis and the qualification ‘apart from deeds of (the) law’ show that in this context Paul means ‘by faith alone.’ Only faith appropriates God’s effective declaration of uprightness for human beings,” ibid. 363.

“How should the critical passage in James 2:18-26 be read in comparison to the Pauline discussion? The first thing to note is that James’ understanding of nomos, as I have already twice stated, has nothing whatever to do with the issues Paul is combating. James does not connect nomos to any sort of ‘works,’ much less those concerning circumcision or the ritual laws. Second, James is entirely in agreement with Paul on placing pistis, epangelia, and kleronomia in the same column (James 2:5). Third, James places in opposition an empty pistis theou (‘faith in God’) or pistis Christou (‘the faith of Christ’), which consists in profession or claim to membership (2:1,19), and the living ergo pisteos (‘works of faith’), which make such profession real. Forth, Abraham is an example precisely of this ‘active faith’ by his sacrifice of his son Isaac (2:21). Fifth, this ergon pisteos is itself ‘co-worked by faith’ (synergei) and perfects faith,’ that is, brings faith to its full realization in deed (2:22). Sixth, the action of Abraham in Gen 22:2-9 is read by James as the textual ‘fulfillment’ of the declaration by God in Gen 15:6 that Abraham’s faith made him to be reckoned as righteous (2:23). Finally, James’ climactic statement, ex ergon dikaioutai anthropos kai ouk ek pisteos monon (‘a person is shown to be righteous on the basis of deeds and not on the basis of faith only,’ 2:24), which superficially appears to contradict Gal 2:16, does nothing of the sort, for the terms in the respective sentences have quite different referents,” L. Johnson, The Letter of James (Yale 2005), 63.

“[2:20] There is no reason to read this statement as a response to such Pauline passages as Rom 3:28: ‘We maintain that a human beings is made righteous by faith apart from (choris) the works of the law (erga tou nomou),’ because that contrast is simply not at issue here. Rather, James’ contrast is between mere faith as belief and faith as a full response to God,” ibid. 242.

“[2:21] The hardest term to translate here is dikaioun, primarily because of its frequent use by Paul in contexts opposing righteousness by faith and ‘works of the law’ (Rom 2:13; 3:4,20,24,26,28,30; 4:2,5; 5:1,9; 8:30,33; Gal 2:16-17; 3:8,11,24) and the complex use of the verb and its cognates in the OT (e.g., LXX Gen 38:26; Exod 23:7; Deut 25:1; Pss 50:6; 81:3; 142:2; Sir 1:22). The precise meaning in each case must be determined by context, not some general theological concept. Given the previous statement demanding the demonstration of faith, the translation here as ‘shown to be righteous’ seems appropriate (see Hort, 63, ‘appear righteous in God’s sight,’ and Marty, 104, ‘God sanctions his righteousness’). The meaning would be similar to such NT passages as Mt 11:19; 12:37; and 1 Cor 4:4. The phrase ex ergon (literally, ‘out of works’) has the sense of ‘on the basis of deeds,’ meaning that the deeds make his righteousness manifest. At first glance, the sentence appears flatly to contradict Paul’s argument concerning the righteousness of Abraham on the basis of faith rather than works (Gal 2:16; 3:5-6; 3:24; Rom 4:2), until we remember that in Paul’s case, the contrast is with ‘works of the law’ (including circumcision), whereas in James it is with a pistis arge (ineffectual faith),” ibid. 242.

Therefore, even based on modern Catholic exegesis, the Protestant doctrine of justification is entirely consistent with Paul and James alike.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Star Trek: First Look

For those nerds who may not know this:

The first trailer for the new Star Trek movie was released earlier this week. Speaking for myself, I've watched it more times than I watched Star Wars when I was kid. It's pretty good. Okay, well, let's put it this way, the tag line for this movie should be: If you don't see this, you're stupid!

Seriously, though, this is something we need. This looks like a fun romp, and, what's more, it's a real guy film. To a certain extent, I've always related to Spock. This movie is largely about his choices as he tries to navigate between two worlds, Vulcan and Earth. It's also about Kirk and how he navigates from a young, fatherless man into the captain of the Enterprise. It also seems to contain a lesson for men: young men need responsible male role models. Pike, from what I gather, assumes the role of Kirk's father, when Kirk's father is killed early in the film. In today's feminized culture, this is a movie men need to see, not just nerds like Patrick Chan and I.

I would also point out that there are nerds whose heads likely exploded when they saw this trailer. Uhura is seen taking off her top (so warning for kids). This is, and all you nerds are just afraid to admit it, every young geek's dream come true. Oh, and she's wearing appropriate underwear - no thongs here, she's wearing a very 1960's white bra. Apparently Kirk sneaks into her quarters for a look, and knowing he's there, she gives him a show then promptly kicks him out and lets him know that he'll never have her. Good for her.

Shatner has now responded.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How Obama got elected

How Obama got elected.

Lost loved ones

The primary appeal of universalism is the belief that we will be reunited with all our loves ones. Now, I’ve already pointed out that there are internal problems with that facile argument, so I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’m going to make a different point.

Suppose I’m a consistent universalist. Not merely consistent in what I believe, but consistent in how I act in accordance with what I believe. As a universalist, how would I be inclined to behave towards my loved ones?

I would be inclined to take them for granted. Neglect them. After all, what’s the hurry?

There will always be another day, another chance, to make things right or spend more time with them. If not in this life, then in the afterlife. Time is on our side. No loss is irretrievable. In universalism, there's no such thing as "too late!"

If, by contrast, you’re a traditional Christian, and you’re consistent with your belief in hell, then that introduces a note of urgency into your relationships. You value your loved ones all the more because you don’t assume that you will always have them around. The sense of what it would mean to lose them forever is never far from your mind.

That also interjects an element of sadness into some of your relationships, an anxious quality, but by the same token, it deepens the bond. It makes you a caring and compassionate person.

It’s like having a friend or family member with cancer. You’re not sure how it will turn out. So you spend far more time with them, and the time you spend is better time.

In the age of modern science, it’s easy to assume that everyone we know and care about will fill out a normal lifespan. And when they unexpectedly die in an automobile accident, we bitterly regret all the lost opportunities to spend more time with them—when we had the time to spend.

Universalism, if taken seriously, fosters a spirit of indifference and procrastination. Our loved ones are less loved. And our circle of loved ones is smaller. We befriend fewer, and lose contact with others, because we’re sure that everything will turn out fine for them in the long run.

Universalism prides itself on its superior empathy, but practically speaking, it cultivates a callous outlook on life.

It’s like the liberal who subcontracts his charity to a government agency. It relieves him of having to be personally charitable. “That’s not my department!” He can pretend to be oh-so concerned about the plight of others without having to become personally involved.

To some extent, belief in hell casts a long shadow on the Christian life. But under that shadow is a level of love which you will never find in the fatalistic optimism of the consistent universalist.

Family life in the afterlife

I’ve been reading Stein’s treatment of Mk 12:18-27 in his new commentary. It doesn’t seem to me that his interpretation is quite satisfactory. For example, some scholars (e.g. Green, Kilgallen, Witherington) think the type of marriage which is excluded in the afterlife is levirate marriage, and not marriage in general. Stein objects to that on the grounds that “this does not resolve the problem of the Sadducees’ illustration. How can the marriage state of the woman continue simultaneously with all seven brothers,” R. Stein, Mark (Baker 2008), 554n8.

But there are two problems with this objection:

i) In the OT, you could be married to more than one person at a time. While the OT frowns on polygamy, it doesn’t take the position that polygamous marriages are invalid. And the OT supplies the immediate frame of reference.

Insofar as a polygamous marriage is sinful, you couldn’t contract a polygamous marriage in the world to come. But that doesn’t mean the afterlife dissolves all previous relationships which were initiated in sin. For example, a child conceived through rape, adultery, fornication, or incest was conceived in sin, but he doesn’t thereby cease to be the child of his sinful parent or parents in the world to come.

ii) A more immediate difficulty with Stein’s objection is that it doesn’t cohere with something else he says. He earlier said, “The question of the Sadducees involves not just the specific doctrine of the resurrection but also the general doctrine of life after death. The resurrection from the dead, in the technical sense of the resurrection of the body, was seen as a future event occurring at the end of history (12:23: ‘in the resurrection, when they rise’). The fact that Jesus argues that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive (12:27) deals more with the doctrine of life after death. Since the Sadducees denied both, the demonstration of either would refute their denial of life after death,” ibid. 549n2.

But if that is true, then Jesus’ reply isn’t targeting their specific rejection of the resurrection, but their general rejection of the afterlife, whether it be the intermediate state or the final state. Their rejection of the afterlife in toto is what underwrites their specific rejection of either phase of postmortem survival.

On that interpretation, Jesus isn’t trying to resolve the specific problem they pose, but to challenge their underlying denial of the afterlife, which their specific example was intended to illustrate. So Stein fails to apply his own explanation to the case at hand.

Stein also says that “Whereas marriage on earth is for the purpose of procreation (Gen 1:28) and companionship (Gen 2:18-23), in the resurrection there is no longer a need for procreation…for there is no more death” (cf. Luke 20:36), ibid. 554.

i) But a basic problem with this interpretation is that the institution of marriage was never predicated on mortality. It’s a creation mandate, given to Adam and Eve in their unfallen state. It’s not a lapsarian ordinance.

The implication of Stein’s interpretation is that if Adam and Eve had never fallen, they would have remained childless. That’s good Mormon theology, but bad Biblical theology.

By contrast, mortality was a specific presupposition of levirate marriage. Therefore, the identification of marriage with levirate marriage in this pericope is more coherent with the overall teaching of Scripture.

ii) In addition, Scripture doesn’t say our companionship with the saints will compensate for the loss of marital or familial companionship.

And different forms of companionship are not interchangeable. The companionship of a husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, grandmother, grandfather, granddaughter, or friend are not equivalent. Likewise, a relationship with God is no substitute for human relationships, or vice versa. Different relationships have distinctive virtues. And, of course, your mother isn’t my mother. Your son isn’t my son.

No doubt heaven has its compensations. Unexpected compensations. But we need to avoid facile explanations. Some things remain mysterious. We won’t know till we get there.

Finally, what is the relevance of the angels to this debate? On the face of it, the status of angels, as discarnate spirits, is more analogous to the intermediate state than it is to the final state.

But as Bock points out, “by comparing the resurrection to angels, Jesus strikes at another doctrine that the Sadducees denied—the reality of angels,” D. Bock, Luke 2:1623.

In that event, Jesus introduces angels into the discussion to take a swipe at another Sadducean error: their denial of angels. And this ties into the general discussion of the afterlife inasmuch as immortality presupposes existence. Nonentities can’t be immortal. Jesus is using their question as a pretext to turn it against another one of their errors. The audience would no doubt appreciate the irony of his reference to angels in responding to the Sadducees.

It might be objected that on my interpretation, Jesus leaves the answer to the original query dangling in midair. So what? It was a trick question. He didn't take the bait.  Jesus doesn’t always answer the questions that people ask. That’s because people don’t always ask the right question. So he sometimes answers the question they should have asked. This is especially so in the case of a trick question.

Indeed, his reply to the Sadducees is a case in point. They ask a question about the resurrection, and he replies by claiming that the patriarchs are still alive.

Yet that wouldn’t refer to the resurrection, which is a future event—but to the intermediate state. So, in that respect, his reply is unresponsive to their question.

He also refers to the angels, and says the saints are like the angels with respect to their common immortality (in the Lucan parallel). But mortality is not a biblical presupposition of marriage qua marriage. By contrast, mortality is a biblical presupposition of levirate marriage. Mortality was the specific rationale for levirate marriage. By contrast, the institution of marriage is a prelapsarian ordinance.

Hence, there would be no need for levirate marriage in the world to come. But that doesn’t address the larger question of marriage in general. And, indeed, the original question singled out levirate marriage, not marriage in general. It does, however, address the larger issue of the afterlife.

From what I can tell, Jesus gives a very qualified answer to their question—an answer which reformulates the question in certain key respects.

Put another way, I think he gives a two-part answer. He challenges the relevance of a question about levirate marriage in afterlife, and he goes on to challenge their denial of the afterlife, which is the seminal error that gave rise to their original question. In so doing, he explodes the false dilemma.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Probability & Inexcusability

Some apologists have made the claim that an apologetic argument(s) that only demonstrates the existence of God with probability, albeit a high probability, are deficient in a major way: the unbeliever still has an excuse.

This inexcusability, of course, is taken from Romans 1.

It is alleged that if the apologist only shows the probability of God's existence, albeit a high probability, the unbeliever can go before God on judgment day and claim he had an excuse for not believing.

It seems that those who argue thus grant Bertrand Russell's argument before the throne:

God: Why didn't you believe, Bertie.

Bertie: Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence.

There was some evidence, just not enough. God's existence was only probable.

Of course Bertie didn't think God's existence probable, let alone highly probable, but I trust my general point about apologists granting his claim stands.

By why think this?

First off, the text isn't even discussing apologetics in general and arguments for God's existence in particular.

Secondly, isn't the fact that God's general revelation to man is clear, exceedingly clear, what grounds the inexcusability? Even if every apologetic argument in the world failed to show that God's existence had a probability of .1, wouldn’t man still be without excuse?

Third, is it even true that probability can't ground inexcusability or moral culpability? Ignorance of the law is not an excuse?

Furthermore, suppose that a man had an argument presented to him by an auto mechanic to the effect that his brakes would probably fail the next time he stepped on them. The man asks how sure the mechanic is. The mechanic says that he's pretty sure. "How sure?", says the man. The mechanic says, "You have a 90% chance the brakes will fail the next time you press the pedal." Now, say this man ignored the mechanic, took his children, and got in his car to go home. Unfortunately, the mechanic was right, the car failed to stop at the intersection, and the car was t-boned, landing the man's children in county hospital in critical condition. Now say you go to visit this man, who's a friend of yours, while he's waiting for news on his children at the hospital. Say the mechanic was also a friend of yours and he called you and told you what he told the man who crashed. Wouldn't you rightly, and with indignation, storm up to the man and say something like, "What were you thinking Mike! Didn't Moe at the auto shop warn you about your brakes? What's your excuse!?" You obviously mean the last line rhetorically as there is no excuse. But the man, Mike, looks at you and says, "But I had an excuse, the argument Moe gave only yielded a 90% probability that the brakes would fail. One can't be held inexcusable for failing to form a belief that is only probable, albeit highly probable."

Mike's reasoning seems self-evidently false to me. Especially considered morally rather than epistemologically (and Paul is making primarily an ethical point).

That's at least my rough thoughts on the matter.

Fight FOCA

Some might be interested in signing this petition to fight the FOCA. See Justin Taylor's post for more info.

Penultimate thoughts on the Iraq war

I’ve been having an amicable discussion with a friend over the pros and cons of the Iraq war. In the waning days of the Bush administration, it’s useful to take stock. Below is an edited version of my response:


There are good arguments and bad arguments for opposing the Iraq war. My problem with Stellman is that he's rehashing all of the bad, hackneyed arguments against the Iraq war. That shows a lack of intelligence. He's just repeating disreputable, leftwing arguments against the war.

It's quite possible to raise intelligent objections to the Iraq war. But those are not the objections he's raising. So I don't respect that.

I also can't respect a man (Stellman) who parrots the talking points of Jim Wallis.

“One of the reasons I disliked Bush so much was that he moved away from his 1st term promise to have ‘a humble foreign policy’."

I don’t dislike Bush. I think he’s a well-meaning individual who’s trying to do the best he can given his intellectual limitations.

He made a shortsighted statement about foreign policy. He didn’t anticipate a contingency like 9/11. It’s not a bad thing to change your mind and adapt to new challenges.

And, in context, he was referring to the do-gooder nation-building of Clinton. That’s quite different than nation-building as a tactic in national security. Mind you, I’m not a big fan of nation-building. But, in fairness to Bush, we need to make allowance for a very different context.

“I think the worst thing that George Bush did was to squander the good will that we had in the eyes of the world after 9/11.”

Sorry, but I can’t bring myself to take that seriously. That’s one of the bad antiwar arguments. To begin with, I take exception to the asymmetry. Why should we care what the "world” thinks of us, but the world shouldn’t care what we think of it?

It’s not as if the international community enjoys the moral high ground. Just look at the UN. World opinion is not a morally serious standard of reference.

The point at issue is not what people think of us, but to they have good grounds for what they think of us.

More to the point, you can’t formulate a national defense posture based on what other people think of you. That’s really rather silly, don’t you think?

Keep in mind, too, that world opinion is largely shaped by state run media.

The world was sympathetic to the US on 9/11 because they saw us as weak on 9/11. They like a weakened US. They would like to see us on our knees.

When we fought back, we lost the sympathy vote.

As a practical matter, most of our allies are in no position to help us militarily.

They can be useful in other aspects of counterterrorism, such as internal policing, counterintelligence, and the financing of terrorism.

Lets keep in mind that other nations aren’t doing us a personal favor when they cooperate in counterterrorism. They are doing themselves a favor. It is in their national self-interest to partner with us in counterterrorism. Many of these nations are far more vulnerable than we are.

Transitioning to Bacevich:

“WITH Barack Obama's election to the presidency, the evangelical moment in US foreign policy has come to an end. The United States remains a nation of believers, with Christianity the tradition to which most Americans adhere. Yet the religious sensibility informing American statecraft will no longer find expression in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.”

I see no evidence that Bush’s foreign policy is distinctively “evangelical.” There’s nothing evangelical about the neocons. There’s nothing evangelical about Rice or Rumsfeld or Cheney.

“Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.”

He doesn’t bother to explain how the Bush administration is presuming to interpret God’s will.

“Niebuhr specialized in precise distinctions. He supported US intervention in World War II - and condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended that war.”

I don’t blame Truman for dropping the bomb. I did a post on that:

I don’t blame presidents for trying to keep us safe, even if they make some mistakes in the process. I fault a president for stupid policies, but not for mistaken policies, per se.

In the nature of the case, there are many situations in which we don’t know the outcome of a policy until we implement the policy—at which point it may be too late to undo the damage.

I’ll cut a president a lot of slack if he’s acting to protect us from our enemies. I much prefer that to a president who plays it safe to protect his own reputation.

“After 1945, Niebuhr believed it just and necessary to contain the Soviet Union. Yet he forcefully opposed US intervention in Vietnam.”

The Vietnam War is not all of a piece. It was an incremental phenomenon that extended from about 1949 to 1975. We judge it with the benefit of hindsight.

American involvement in SE Asia was reasonable in the early stages of the conflict. There came a point of diminishing returns. We should have cut our losses far sooner.

“The vast claims of Bush's second inaugural - with the president discerning history's ‘visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty’ - would have appalled Niebuhr, precisely because Bush meant exactly what he said. In international politics, true believers are more dangerous than cynics.”

I agree with Bacevich that Bush is idealistic to a fault. But that is deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

I myself am far more cynical. I think we should use Cold War tactics in counterterrorism. I think we should instigate civil wars in hostile regimes. Turn factions against each other. That’s the sort of thing the CIA used to do before Frank Church destroyed the CIA.

I would be more ruthless than Bush, although I have my limits.

“Grandiose undertakings produce monstrous byproducts. In the eyes of critics, Abu Ghraib”

What happened at Abu Ghraib was simple incompetence, aggravated by the coed military.

“And Guantanamo show that all of Bush's freedom talk is simply a lie.”

I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with what we’ve done at GITMO. If anything, we’ve been far too soft and accommodating. Foreign-born jihadis aren’t American citizens or POWs. They’re not entitled to the same treatment.

“We've tried having a born-again president intent on eliminating evil.”

That’s a straw man argument. Bush was never intent on eliminating “evil.”

“It didn't work.”

Actually, it did work. We won the Iraq war. It took too long. The effort was too costly (in blood and treasure). But thanks to Petraeus, we won.

And the jihadis did a great deal to discredit their cause in the eyes of the Muslim world. Muslims got tired of seeing jihadis murder fellow Muslims.

There are good antiwar arguments and bad antiwar arguments.

A better antiwar argument would simply say the invasion of Iraq wasn’t worth the effort. The benefits didn’t outweigh the costs.

It would also say that Bush set the terms of success too high. I t was almost impossible to “win” given his definition of victory.

But objections like that are too modest and pragmatic for the antiwar critics. They want to come up with a completely different paradigm of counterterrorism.

“It is interesting that you mentioned Bush’s ‘intellectual limitations.’ I don’t doubt that he was ‘well-meaning,’ but it seems to me that his advisers, from Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, etc., were all from a school of thought – the ‘pre-emptive war’ school of thought.”

I’m not opposed to the principle of preemptive action. Whether Iraq was a good candidate for the application of that principle is a separate issue.

“Look at the way Bush 41 went about building a coalition in the first Iraq war. The circumstances were different, but Iraq was a clear aggressor, and when Bush pulled the trigger, there were armies from more than 20 or 30 allied nations in the desert, crossing the line with us.”

Bush 41 is better at that sort of thing than his son. But it was also easier for him to pull off. Saddam had invaded Kuwait. The world regarded that as a dire threat to its economic security.

“The Bush 43 administration for some reason had a target on Iraq (even though there was no evidence at all that Iraq was involved in 9/11.”

I think the hawks felt that 9/11 gave them a pretext to do things which needed to be done all along, that were long overdue. It created a political climate for a more aggressive foreign policy.

In peacetime, the nation is risk-averse. As such, it allows various dangers to our national security to mount and go unchecked.

So, in a sense, they exploited 9/11 to further a preconceive agenda. But there’s nothing inherently dishonest about that. They felt we should have a more aggressive foreign policy even before 9/11, and 9/11 merely drew spectacular attention to the threat we were facing all along, a gathering threat due to our past neglect.

In a democracy, timing matters. The public mood can turn on a dime. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking advantage of that fact. You need public support to get things done. That’s the nature of the democratic process.

“Yes, Saddam was supporting terrorist actions in Israel, but some different argument needed to be made about that. I was glued to the TV/Internet in those days. What can you say about Powell’s speech before the UN? I remember the photograph of the crop-duster plane they found, suggesting that Iraq was some how going to attack the US with anthrax. What about Cheney’s invocation of Saddam’s ‘reconstituted’ nuclear weapons program? Do you remember the stories about ‘the aluminum tubes’? A presidential administration that must resort to such fear-mongering to build a case for war has got to be lacking in some very important respects.”

I don’t have any problem believing that gov’t officials sometimes lie to the public. But I find it implausible to assume that the case for invasion was all predicated on a campaign of deception.

i) A number of the key players have since retired, viz. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Bremer, Richard Myers, Andrew Card, Powell, Tenet, Tommy Franks.

Having retired, they are free to speak their minds. To write lucrative, backstabbing, tell-all memoirs in which they settle old scores and accuse the boss or their administration rivals of an evil plot to hoodwink the nation. They haven’t done so.

ii) A number of “experts,” both inside and outside the administration, assured Bush and/or the nation, that Saddam had WMD, viz. George Tenet, James Woolsey, Richard Butler, David Kay. Even Hans Blix was surprised by the absence of WMD in Iraq.

Foreign intelligence agencies like MI-5 corroborated the claim.

Saddam’s own generals thought he had WMD. Remember the biochem suits?

iii) The problem with lying about WMD as a pretext to invade Iraq is that the invasion of Iraq would expose the pretext as a lie. So that would be a really stupid lie.

It’s as if I lied about the presence of illegal drugs in student’s locker as a pretext to search his locker when a search of his locker would expose my pretext as a lie.

Of course, people do dumb things, so this is possible. But it does suffer from an antecedent improbability.

You’ve also had supporters of the Iraq war like Thomas McInerney whose sincerity is unquestionable, or so it seems to me. They may be misguided, but I have no reason to impute dishonest motives to them.

“I don’t want to say what the response should have been. But what it was, was the source of a loss of the world’s good will that we possessed after 9/11. Bush’s response at that time was at least the beginning of ‘the grounds for what they think of us’.”

I don’t care. I’ve never been able to read that objection with a straight face. There are reasonable objections to the Iraq war. This isn’t one of them. Or national defense posture can’t be dictated by whether or not the world loves us.

“Bush could have spent his good will seeking authorization to do the very things you mentioned, instead of committing the nation to war in Iraq.”

Authorization from whom? Congress? The UN?

“I believe he thought it was going to be a ‘cakewalk’.”

He clearly underestimated internal opposition and overestimated internal support.

But the “cakewalk” phrase comes from a 2002 article by Ken Adelman, and not from Bush or a member of his war cabinet.

“Ironically, Bush's having taken out Saddam does seem to have freed up Iran to become the ‘nuclear threat’ that it is today. One useful thing that Saddam did was to keep Iran focused on Saddam.”

I don’t see how that follows. If Saddam were still in power, and Iran felt threatened by Iraq for that very reason, then that would be a tremendous incentive for Iran to go nuclear.

“Richard Clarke was a counterterrorism expert from the Clinton years who carried over into the Bush administration. If anything, he was a ‘get things done’ person who had the right ideas. And yet, in Bush's first year, the importance of his work was pushed further down the ladder.”

But Clarke’s policies were a failure, were they not? They didn’t prevent 9/11, and they didn’t prevent terrorist attacks leading up to 9/11.

“When you speak of ‘preconceived agenda’ the Iraq agenda wasn't an agenda that was in the best interest of the needs of the country at the time.”

That may be the case. I’m not defending the Iraq war. I’m simply responding to stock objections to the Iraq war, most of which strike me as illogical.

“It was preconceived in the 1990's and it came from being low on the priority list to assert itself. (Feith was writing about Iraq, for example. There were probably many others I was not aware of).”

There was dissatisfaction with the way the Gulf War ended. That we didn’t “finish the job.”

“Bush, and his acceptance of this ‘preconceived agenda’ -- when such was not the national security priority du jour, exhibited a contemptible kind of leadership, by adopting this agenda, seemingly without having challenged it in any way.”

But Bush sincerely thought it was a national security priority. And so did the hawks who were promoting this venture.

“There was, as you say, a reasoned case against Iraq. Where was that case being made in the Bush administration? In retrospect, it seems simply to have been squelched.”

I don’t know that it was “squelched.”

Another theory I’ve read is this: some career analysts thought the intel was thin, but they didn’t speak up because they felt their superiors had already decided to do Iraq, and it would have an adverse affect on their career advancement to tell the boss something he didn’t want to hear.

I don’t know that that’s true. It’s just one theory I’ve read. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it’s true, it also sets up a circular predicament. Based on the assumption that Iraq is a done deal, no one dared to tell Bush otherwise. Of course, their inaction would guarantee that Iraq was a done deal.

I can’t blame Bush for acting on the info he had if other info was withheld from him. Intelligence briefings are filtered through a chain-of-command.

Now, I can understand if career analysts were concerned about professional repercussions in case they spoke out. You get promoted or demoted by pleasing or displeasing your superiors.

But if they didn’t challenge the president, then they’re in no position to know if he was committed to a particular course of action.

In fact, if you think the key players are as devious as you take them to be, then it might be in their interests to keep him out of the loop and feed him just one point of view so that he wouldn’t overrule their preconceived agenda.

Since I’m not one of the inside players, and don’t know which theory is true.

“Of course government officials sometimes lie. But from an individual who was clearly an evangelical Christian, on the heels of the much-lying Clinton administration, to have been less than truthful on a public policy such as this one, was, in my opinion, the pivot point upon which the whole Republican and conservative agenda crashed. Republicans had Pres, House, and Senate for the first time in generations, and the very first thing they did with it was to make a shipwreck of it.”

i) That’s not my point. In context, the point I was making is the fact that just because gov’t officials sometimes lie to the public, this, of itself, doesn’t lead me to automatically question the veracity of what a gov’t official says. I take into account whether he has a motive to lie. When you lie to the public you assume a certain risk. If you’re caught in the lie, you pay a political price. You lose influence and power.

ii) You are also imputing a level of deception to the administration which I don’t find plausible. You tend to cite the same half-dozen examples, some of which are quite debatable. As politicians go, I think that Bush is more honest than most.

“It was clear that an agenda was adopted and then there was an effort to ‘sell’ that agenda to the public. Wolfowitz even said that he was not in favor of ‘leading with the WMD story’ (not an exact quote, but there were several ways of selling the ‘agenda’ -- this was the least plausible, but the one most likely to ‘work’.) But selling the agenda via the argument that the geopolitical situation in the middle east probably warranted something like an action in Iraq, was not likely to build the kind of public support the administration -- Bush on top -- needed to start such an action.”

I’ve read that accusation from others. At the time I went back and Googled his statements. That’s a misrepresentation of what he said. He thought there were several reasons to invade Iraq. WMD was one, and he thought that Iraq did, indeed, have WMD. They decided to emphasize WMD because there was a consensus on that issue.

In a democratic republic, you do have to “sell” your policies to the public. That’s how the democratic process works. You need public support to garner Congressional support. There’s nothing sinister about this.

“The correct thing to do at the time was simply to sit on the situation.”


“But Cheney took that comment and turned it around to say, ‘Saddam has reconstituted his nuclear weapons program’."

But Cheney later corrected that statement.

Now Cheney is an interesting case in point. He’s very bright. He was Secretary of Defense during the Gulf war. And he may have been dissatisfied with the aftermath of the Gulf War, so he was looking for an opportunity to complete some unfinished business.

If so, there’s nothing nefarious about that. It may reflect a lack of judgment, but it isn’t evil or devious.

I do think Cheney may be a bit pigheaded. I remember his shortsighted statement about how the insurgency in Iraq was in its “final throes.” At the time he said it, that assessment was obviously premature. Which suggests to me that he had lost his detachment.

“In effect, this administration played on the fears (real or imagined) of the public to sell its agenda.”

I’ve heard Tenet say in TV interviews that the administration really was afraid of what might happen next. Was 9/11 the prelude to another attack? They didn’t know. They had to play catch-up.

“And I found that to be a reprehensible thing from an administration that portrayed itself as everything we conservative Christians were hoping for in 2000.”

Well, I’m a natural born, lifelong cynic, so I’m impervious to the kind of disillusionment you describe. I voted for Bush because I thought he was better than Gore. If I had it to do all over again, I’d still vote for Bush rather than Gore.

BTW, Bush did some good things in his first term. Except for stabilizing Iraq, I think his second term has been an unmitigated disaster, but bad is that is, it’s better than a John Kerry administration.

In a fallen world we’re often confronted with crummy choices.

“I took particular umbrage at being manipulated in such a way.”

I never felt manipulated by the Bush administration since what the Bush administration said was corroborated by other sources outside the Bush administration.

I was never a big fan of the Iraq war. I just thought that most of the anti-war arguments were illogical.

We blame the Bush administration for every erroneous statement it made in the ramp up to war, but we don’t blame the Cato Institute for every erroneous statement it made in opposition to the war:

If you assume the Bush administration was lying through it’s teeth, then, in consistency, you must assume that antiwar groups like the Cato Institute were lying through their collective teeth as well when they made all sort of apocalyptic projections which didn’t pan out.

You’re also assuming that subsequent events have falsified all of the administration claims. But Stephen F. Hayes, my namesake over at the Weekly Standard, has argued that documents we uncovered in Iraq confirm some of our suspicions.

Likewise, you have, as I recall the recent, underreported discovery of 1.2 million tons of yellowcake in Iraq.

“Feith came close to saying that everyone else in the administration was totally incompetent with his vision.”

My point is that, to my knowledge, none of the key players who has since retired has implicated the Bush administration in a web of deception. And Feith, for one, has argued that public perception of the war, shaped by the news media, is often at variance with the facts:

Of course, we have to take what he says with a grain of salt since he’s trying to make himself look good. But we could say the same thing about antiwar critics like Richard Clarke or Michael Scheuer.

“There could be other motivations for these individuals to not write more about it. And perhaps that reason could be that to expose the incompetence (or worse) of others would be to expose one's own culpability even more.”

No, they usually exempt their own conduct in the following way: “I served in the administration. Unfortunately, the administration made many avoidable mistakes because my colleges and superiors failed to heed the wisdom of my sage advice. If only they had taken my prescient warnings to heart, everything would have turned out for the best. But, alas, they failed to recognize my singular brilliance and unerring foresight!”

“Keeping Saddam contained.”

There were problems with the containment strategy. Iraq had porous borders. And the sanctions hurt the underclass rather than the ruling class. And let’s not forget the UN food-for-oil scandal.

“At that point, we had the re sources to verify things inside Iraq, even without the UN.”


“If I recall, Blix wasn't finding anything, and wanted more time to look even further. Bush was instrumental in shutting down that effort so that he could invade.”

The argument is that UN inspectors couldn’t do their job as long as Saddam was in a position to move things around.

One other thing: I can't work up much resentment towards men and women who try to defend us from our enemies, even if they make some mistakes, as long as they were acting in a conscientious fashion.

I do blame gov't officials if they're incompetent.

I also blame them if their worldview is fundamentally flawed.

And I also blame them if they'd rather risk the public safety than risk their own popularity (e.g. Bill Clinton).

Finally, I resent someone like McNamara who admitted, long after the Vietnam war had run its course, that by 1967, he and other insiders had already concluded that the Vietnam war was a lost cause, yet he kept that to himself, so the war continued and escalated for another 6 years, with all the gratuitous dead and wounded.

Life is short. I don’t have time to research all of the controversies surrounding the Iraq war. I’m not a policymaker. I have no influence on policy. But I am aware of the fact that many urban legends about the Iraq war have gained popular currency.

Concise Reformed Dogmatics

Concise Reformed Dogmatics by J. Van Genderen & W. H Velema is now available from WTS Books. They're currently offering it at 40% off.
When an 800 page book has "Concise" in its title, we expect a different perspective. Indeed, this book comes from the Netherlands, the land of Kuyper and Bavinck, where three- and four-volume theology texts are the rule. Indeed, Concise Reformed Dogmatics is immersed in the theological traditions and dialogues of continental Europe, though its main allegiance is to the Scriptures by which, the authors say, all dogmas must be tested. English speaking Christians should be better acquainted with the perspective of our European brothers. In this book we will get that broader picture, while being reminded that good, solid Reformed theology can be found in many locations. So the book edifies in both its similarities and its differences from the way we formulate doctrine.

- Dr. John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

9/11: The True Story


“That's where the conspiracy theorist merely scales back down the magnitude a bit so that s/he can still proceed forward.”

Sorry, TUAD, but you’d make a lousy screenwriter. You’re leaving out all the fun parts. Surely you know by now how the story goes.

A young investigative reporter for the Washington Post makes a clandestine appointment with a secret gov’t informant to meet him at E. Potomac Park around midnight. The informant has incontrovertible evidence that George Bush staged 9/11 in exchange for a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card from the private collection of Philippine de Rothschild.

When the reporter arrives on the scene, the gov’t informant has a bullethole in his left temple.

The reporter rushes back to his car and tries to make his getaway, but he’s driven off the road by men in black with earpieces. He’s bound, blindfolded, sedated, and thrown into the back of a van with a gov’t plates.

Hours later, he wakes up in a 5 x 5 cell at GITMO. And that’s the good news.

Making peace with the matrix

There are people who fritter away their lives on grand conspiracy theories. There’s a certain irony in this exercise. What’s the point?

If the powers-that-be are that all-powerful, then it’s futile to expose their nefarious schemes. If you really had the goods on them, they would arrange for you to suffer a freak “accident” or simply disappear without a trace.

That’s what happens to seditious whistleblowers, is it not? Isn’t that an integral part of the conspiracy theory itself? The lone gov’t employee is leaking classified info to the lone investigative reporter. They almost expose the bad guys, but the bad guys intercept them before they can reveal the diabolical plot.

They never had a chance. Their every move was monitored. A trap.

The very fact that the evil powers-that-be permit conspiracy theorists to spin their conspiracy theories just goes to show that our devoted conspiracy theorists pose no threat to the evil, all-powerful establishment.

So why bother? If the cover-up is really as big and bad as you say it is, then it’s a waste of time to fritter away your life exposing the awful truth. If you ever got close enough to the truth to do damage, they would get to you. Either buy you off or do you in. Isn’t that what happens to dangerous informants? Isn’t that a fixture of the conspiracy theory itself?

It seems that conspiracy buffs don’t take their own theories all that seriously. For if they did, wouldn’t they know how hopeless their efforts are?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sinners in the hands of an angry God

Calvinism spends a lot of time defending the truth because it is true. This shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately, it often is.

Because we spend so much time defending the truth for the simple reason that it’s true, we can underemphasize the linkage between the good and the true.

While the truths of Calvinism have the undeniable benefit of being true, they also have the additional benefit of being good.

Although we should be prepared to believe the doctrines of grace merely because they’re true, they are not merely true. In addition, they are good. They are true goods and good truths.

Take the holiness of God. To a sinner, the holiness of God is naturally threatening.

The natural tendency, then, is to soften God. A holy God is a menace to unholy sinners. Especially if sin were unredeemed.

What kind of parents would you like to have? Well, if you get into trouble, it’s nice to have an indulgent dad who turns a blind eye and bails you out. It’s a relief to know that no matter what you do, dear old dad is such a soft touch, is so blinded by his affection for your, that whenever you get into a fix, he will fix your problem.

For selfish reasons, we find that kind of father appealing. It’s very convenient. Very useful to have him around.

But while there are times when we might like to have that kind of father, there’s a catch.

That’s not the kind of father you can admire or respect or look up to. A father like that is a softheaded fool. We appreciate having him available when we get into a bind, but we also hold him in a certain contempt. We yank the chain and he comes running.

A father who lives for the approval of his kids is a weak father. A pitiful father.

Conversely, some sons have stern fathers. The strict disciplinarian. Never lets you get away with anything at all.

And that creates another tension. They respect their fathers. And they need a father who sets a standard.

But they need more than that. They also need paternal affection and approval. Especially when they are growing up. A father who is impossible to please is a crushing weight on a young son. Irreproachable and unapproachable.

God is just. God is holy. Not only should we believe it because it is true, but we should value it because it is good. Any other God would be unworthy of our worship.

But, for sinners, this presents a dilemma. What if the God you admire is the God you fear? You respect him. Revere him. Hold him in awe. But he scares you. Isaiah was afraid of God (Isa 6).

If you’re a sinner, then there’s a sense in which a good God is too good. Too much of a good thing.

It’s not coincidental that the heathen created gods who were just as evil as they were. If you’re bad, you hate the good. It stands over you like an ax waiting to fall.

Apart from the atonement, there is no solution to this dilemma. But the cross is, at one and the same time, an emblem of divine justice and mercy.

It allows us to draw near to the only God who is worthy of our worship. A righteous God, but a gracious God as well.

Ultimately, we wouldn’t want one without the other. Holiness without mercy is terrifying; mercy without holiness is contemptible.

Atheism suffers from the opposite dilemma. The “truths” of atheism, if true, are bad rather than good. “Unyielding despair.”

Dawkins tries to make a virtue out of the hopeless outlook of atheism. Make it sound brave and heroic. But courage in the face of nihilism and oblivion is an ersatz virtue. Play-acting.

There is no solution to the atheistic dilemma. The only choice is whether you die now or die later. And in the long run, it makes no difference.

Give thanks to God that a godless existence is not the end of the line. Give thanks to the justice of God. Give thanks to the grace of God.

Beckwith in retreat

Francis Beckwith has responded to my review:

Before I interact with his response, I’ll make a couple of preliminary observations.

I became aware of his response when it popped up on my site meter. When I went over there the first time, he allowed for comments. A few hours later, he closed the combox.

What happened in the interim? He received a critical comment by Gene Bridges. And what did Bridges do? Beckwith cited McGath in alleged support of his contention that sola fide was a theological innovation. Gene merely corrected Beckwith’s citation by giving a verbatim quotation of McGrath’s actual position.

Now, I don’t care whether or not a blogger allows for comments. But when a blogger allows for comments, then shuts down the combox the instant he receives a single negative comment, and, what is more, a comment which is answering him on his own grounds with suitable documentation, that says a lot about the insecurity of Francis Beckwith. He can’t stand factual correction.

Which brings me to the next point—what is the purpose of his book? To justify his reversion to Rome. It’s an apologetic for Roman Catholicism. He may deny that, but, if so, he must go out of his way to deny the obvious, which merely draws attention to the obvious.

Fine. Apologetics is a two-way street. If you attack my faith, I reserve the right to counterattack.

Did Beckwith really think that he could attack the Protestant faith with impunity? If he wants to defend his reversion to Rome, which inevitably involves a critique of the Evangelical faith he left behind, I don’t have a problem with that. Give it your best shot. But we’re allowed to return fire. Trying to silence your critics the instant you receive any negative feedback is a mark of intellectual cowardice.

If he thought some comments were inappropriate, he could delete the inappropriate comments. Apparently, though, it didn’t occur to him that someone might actually disagree with his response.

“Here's another review of Return to Rome. IMHO, I do not believe that this review is the consequence of reading the book very carefully. In one place, for example, the reviewer confuses Protestantism with comments I made at a Boston College conference about anti-creedal Protestantism.”

What is that supposed to mean? If he made some comments about “anti-creedal Protestantism,” then his comments were directed at Protestantism. So how am I confusing Protestantism with something else he was discussing?

I’d only be guilty of confusion if I were confusing Protestantism with something he said about a non-Protestant faith. But he states, in his very response to me, that he was commenting on “Protestantism”: in this case, an anti-creedal version of Protestantism.

Or does he mean that I’m confused because I equate anti-creedal Protestantism with Protestantism in general?

But in my original review, I explicitly distinguished the two. He’s the one who was using anti-creedal Protestantism to tar Protestantism in general. I pointed out, in my original review, that his observation was irrelevant to confessional Protestant traditions. He is using anti-creedal Protestantism as a club to beat down Protestantism in general, as if that’s the least bit relevant to what the rest of us believe.

Remember the purpose of his book. His book is an apologetic for Catholicism. He cites invidious examples of Protestantism to debunk the Protestant faith as a whole and make way for the Catholic alternative. That’s the point of these vignettes. Fine. Be honest about your intentions.

Was that his ulterior intention at the time he delivered his remarks at Boston College? Maybe not. But that is his intention when he incorporates this earlier incident into his current book. This is not just about something in his past, but the application of the past to the present. Not just what he said back then, but how he is using that statement right here and now to make a point about how he got from where he was to where he is today.

Indeed, on the very same page, which carries over to the next page (76-77), he explicitly ties this experience into the process of reflection which led to his religious reversion. This was one of those triggering events that caused him to question his commitment to the Protestant faith. That’s how the event functioned in his thinking, and it serves a polemical function when he repeats the story in his book. It contributes to his apologetic narrative—as part of an overall argument for Catholicism, to the detriment of Evangelicalism.

“In another place he misses my analogy between grace-works and God-man by thinking that I was referring to Jesus' works. But I wasn't. What I was suggesting is that Christ's humanity no more diminishes his deity than do our works performed in grace diminish God's grace.”

What’s the actual point of his analogy? He is trying to create a parallel between Catholic synergism and the hypostatic union.

That’s a smart, tactical move because it puts the Protestant on the defensive. It carries the insinuation is that if you deny Catholic synergism, then, by implication, you operate with the same mindset as a heretic like Arius.

It’s not uncommon in high-church circles to treat the Incarnation as the paradigm of synergism. I’ve run across this comparison on a regular basis.

However, I’m happy to see Beckwith deny any analogy between the work of Christ and Christian good works. But that will make it difficult for him to uphold the cult of the saints.

“In a yet another place he thinks my comments about the scope of the Protestant canon is part of a defense of the Catholic canon. It is not. It is an analysis of the problem with the reconciling of two claims in terms of the ETS press release concerning my resignations from ETS: (1) that all theological knowledge is derived exclusively from Scripture, and (2) that the scope of the canon, an item of theological knowledge, is not derived from Scripture since it is logically prior to Scripture. As I write in the book, ‘[B]ecause the list of canonical books is itself not found in scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical theological knowledge.’ (p. 123).”

This is quite disingenuous. Why does he bring up the press release in the first place? It’s not like Beckwith mentioned his favorite brand of coffee. This is not some miscellaneous piece of information.

No, he’s using the press release as a pretext to attack the Protestant canon and thereby make way for the Catholic canon. The first step in establishing your alternative is to eliminate the competition. All these anecdotes serve an apologetic purpose.

He’s claiming that Protestants implicitly rely on Catholic methodology to establish the canon. That being the case, they should be more consistent. They should go all the way with Catholic methodology. That’s the thrust of his argument.

“In any event, this review is loaded with many, many mistakes like these.”

Of course, it’s easy to lodge a sweeping charges without commensurate evidence to substantiate your charges. By contrast, I carefully documented all of my allegations.

“It seems that this well-meaning fellow has let his anger get the best of him.”

As far as my own motives are concerned (“anger”), I’m under no obligation to disprove a charge which he is in no position to prove.

And, of course, we could say that Beckwith let his own emotion get the best of him: “my return to the Catholic Church had as much to do with a yearning for a deeper spiritual life as it did with theological reasoning” (129).


“That's a real shame, since the spirit in which I offer the book was intended to inspire dialogue not diatribe.”

If it was really intended to inspire dialogue, then when did he shut down the combox? His censorious actions give the lie to his ecumenical words.

Proud Roman Catholic Apologists Causing Divisions Among Their Brethren

James White and James Swan have a lot of good material on their blogs. I recommend following both blogs on a regular basis. I want to call attention to this recent article by James Swan.

The Diversity Of Roman Catholicism At The Time Of The Reformation

There was a wide diversity of theological beliefs among professing Christians between the time of the apostles and the Reformation. That diversity included widespread acceptance of doctrines contrary to what's believed by both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Even in the last years leading up to the Reformation and in the earliest years after its start, there was significant sympathy for Protestant beliefs in Roman Catholic circles. People who believed in doctrines like the papacy and transubstantiation would affirm justification through faith alone as well, for example. That sort of diversity is reflected even in the Roman Catholic leaders who attended the Council of Trent. See, for instance, here; Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle Of Roman Catholicism (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1959); Marvin Anderson, The Battle For The Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978); H. George Anderson, et al., edd., Justification By Faith (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985). Here, for example, are some of the many illustrations one comes across while reading through David Daniell's biography of William Tyndale:

"Many [Christians in London], and probably most, were aware of some loosening of traditional belief in the ways of the Church, and conscious of new ideas coming in quickly from Germany. There was no doubt a confused feeling there might be no harm in subscribing to both beliefs, in the absolute Church and in Luther's sola fides. Evidence from wills may support this....He [Thomas Bilney] had studied Erasmus's Novum instrumentum, and in the Latin version there he had found for himself Paul's doctrine of justification by faith, with profound effect....Like Luther, Bilney found that this inward experience went with an understanding of the pointlessness of a religion based only on outward observances. Yet his deviations were few and slight: he held the orthodox [Roman Catholic] position on the central doctrines of papal supremacy and the authority of the Church, on transubstantiation and confession. He wanted reform from the inside, and like Erasmus he felt free to attack the worship of images and saints....The heresy of the Cambridge men did not include rejecting the Pope's authority, or sacramental issues: they denounced prayers to saints and affirmed, from reading the New Testament, justification by faith alone....In March 1518 Erasmus had sent More a copy of Luther's Ninety-five Theses, with a jocular letter including the anti-papal games, and witty satirical diatribes against abuses within the Church, which both of them loved to make. Luther was thought of then as a powerful speaker and writer, a great scholar, even in all his contradictions, a great man, but no more, it was imagined, than a new version of a familiar old character, the charismatic prophet, this time with real learning. Thomas More, as Erasmus hinted in a letter to Luther of 30 May 1519, was probably one of the 'great men' in England 'who think the best of your writing', and More himself in his 'Letter to a Monk' of 1519 saw Luther not as a heretic but simply as an extreme Augustinian. Events in Germany steadily darkened the sky" (William Tyndale: A Biography [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001], pp. 106-107, 177, 180, 254)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Acting Like a Grown-Up

Apparently, Momma's Boy, thinks his critics can't act like grown-ups. I left a comment at his blog in which he reacts, and does not interact, with Steve's review of his new book. I don't know of any others, as, at the time, nothing else had been posted. There was, ironically, a note about the lack of moderation saying, "Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it."

Apparently, Momma's Boy, didn't like what was said, so instead of manning up, he decided to run from the playground and take is marbles with him. Instead of not moderating comments, he decided to moderate them. This looks suspiciously like either Dr. Beckwith or his administrators do moderate comments and do disapprove comments, despite the disclaimer.

So, for the benefit of others, I'll comment here. Dr. Beckwith is more than welcome to at least attempt a reply.

Apparently, Dr. Beckwith, you and I are reading two different reviews. For example, you write:

I do not believe that this review is the consequence of reading the book very carefully. In one place, for example, the reviewer confuses Protestantism with comments I made at a Boston College conference about anti-creedal Protestantism.

Really? This is what Steve actually wrote:

The first thing I note is that he merely recycles the stock arguments for Catholicism, as if no Protestant had ever heard of these before, much less answered them. Likewise, he recycles the hackneyed objections to Protestantism, as if this would leave us speechless. It’s all rather childish.

“In a nutshell, I argued that Protestants who don’t believe creeds are necessary—those who says things like ‘no creed but Christ’—do in fact accept creeds in the sense that they embrace fundamental doctrines that they believer are unassailable” (76).

Beckwith states this trite little truism as if he’d discovered some hitherto unknown and irrefutable objection to the Protestant faith. But, course, many Protestants are confessional Protestants of one kind or another, viz. Calvinists, Lutherans, &c.

Perhaps there’s some storefront church in Chicago where his objection would trigger an epiphany on the part of the listener, but for the rest of us, it’s rather like a Tibetan tourist in America who just discovered McDonald’s. This may be something new and amazing to him, but it’s no revelation to the natives.

What makes Beckwith think he came up with an explosive objection to the Protestant faith when he unfurls this utterly commonplace observation? My best guess is that this simply reflects the superficiality of his own evangelical dossier.

“Moreover, much of what these anti-creedal Protestants believe about Christ, the Trinity, the nature of scripture, and so forth are not easily derived form a reading of the Bible or mere appeal to the words of Christ” (76).

That’s another stock objection to the Protestant faith. At one level it’s difficult to respond to, not because it’s inherently difficult to respond to, but because it’s difficult to know who he has in mind. Who has he been reading all these years? More to the point, who has he not been reading all these years? It seems to be an expression of his own provincial ignorance. The evangelical literature on these topics is abundant. It’s hard to know where to start with someone like Beckwith, because I don’t know when he came on board. How much remedial education does he need?
Apparently, Dr. Beckwith is unaware that these statements he made at Boston College, which he recycles by repeating them in his book are also popular objections to Protestantism qua Protestantism (not mere "anti-confessional/creedal Protestantism). That's the problem here. The problem with Dr. Beckwith's evaluation of Steve's statements is that, ironically, while critiquing Steve, he misrepresents what Steve actually wrote. This is but one of several problems with his (hasty) commentary.

Indeed, I can add another misrepresentation of another source, McGrath. Dr. Beckwith writes:

“The idea, that the Reformation’s view of forensic justification as a virtual theological innovation, is put forth even more strongly by none other than the great theologian and Oxford professor, Alister McGrath” (84).

What does McGrath actually write?

First, this is the quote from McGrath, proper:

"A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification ­ as opposed to its mode ­ must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum." (Alister McGrath - Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Vol. I. .....Pg. 186)"

Here's some of the rest of what McGrath says:

"The pre-Augustinian theological tradition, however, may be regarded as having taken a highly questionable path in its articulation of the doctrine of justification in the face of pagan opposition"
[ibid. 18-19]. McGrath mentions that "
For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate and ill-defined"[ Ibid. 23].

The Council of Trent was faced with a group of formidable problems as it assembled to debate the question of justification in June 1546. The medieval period had witnessed the emergence of a number of quite distinct schools of thought on justification, clearly incompatible at points, all of which could lay claim to represent the teaching of the Catholic church." [Ibid, 259]

there was considerable disagreement in the immediate post-Tridentine period concerning the precise interpretation of the decretum de iustificatione" [ibid. 268]. Put another way, even at that time, Catholics were uncertain about how to interpret the decree.

Indeed, regarding the whole idea that the Protestant conception of justification has no ecclesiastical predecessors (which Steve directly quotes Beckwith as having written), McGrath writes the polar opposite, even telling us that a good case can be made that Augustine misunderstood the Bible itself because, "
"The term iustificare is, or course, post-classical, having been introduced through the Latin translation of the bible, and thus restricted to Christian writers of the Latin west. Augustine was thus unable to turn to classical authors in an effort to clarrify its meraning, and was thus obliged to interpret the term himself. His establishment of a relationship between iustificare and iustitia is of enormous significance, as will become clear." (McGrath, 31)

So, once again, Dr. Beckwith is either citing his sources carelessly or selectively (and thereby misrepresenting them to his audience) and/or recycling this use of McGrath by Roman Catholic popularizers like Robert Sungenis and even Dave Armstrong, something a number of folks have long ago documented. Search, for example, James Swan's blog.

Dr. Beckwith would do well to actually interact with his critics now instead of (hastily) reacting to them. Does he do that? Judging by the quickness with which he closed the comments down on his blog and chose to tell us that some people cannot behave like grown-ups, the answer must be "No." Indeed, he mirror reads yet again, by labeling his critic(s). Grown-ups who write books don't run away from comments and corrections left on their blogs. Indeed, that is, in my opinion, dishonest. Let the readers decide if somebody has been childish. After all, if your cause is good, right, and true, and your critics aren't behaving like grown-ups, then just let them do damage to their own position. We certainly do around these parts, as the comboxes here will certainly demonstrate. Interact with your critics, don't react to them.

Dr. Beckwith, you chose to write this book, and you chose to react to Steve's review. We've interacted with your commentary more than once now, and you can't seem to muster the fortitude to even publish a single comment on your own blog when offered in good faith. I urge now a third time to interact with Steve's review, not merely react to it. As it stands now, you have given me (and I should think other readers) no reason not to agree with Steve's comment that your scholarship appears to be a bit hastily, overlooking the obvious objections.

Momma's Boy

Francis Beckwith just published his alibi for his reversion to Roman Catholicism: Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos 2009).

This is one those books that’s important, not for what it says, but for who says it. It’s a celebrity endorsement for Roman Catholicism, like an ad Paris Hilton’s favorite lip-gloss.

It’s not that I’m comparing Beckwith and Hilton; rather, I’m comparing one consumer with another—the type of consumer who rushes out to buy a product because her favorite pop star uses the same product.

And, in the context of Catholicism, there’s something fitting about this, for Catholicism has always centered on the cult of celebrity: the pope, the saints.

In general, Beckwith is a useful writer, so there’s no need to demonize him or shun him. In the pecking order of Christian thinkers, he operates at a lower level than Alvin Plantinga, but at higher level than Dan Story. He’s a semipopular writer and thinker. That’s a useful niche. But he’s not a great scholar or philosopher or theologian.

The first half of the book is autobiographical. It’s only when we get to chap. 5 that he begins to make a case for Catholicism.

One thing that struck me in reading his book is how ignorant he seems to be regarding both Catholic and Protestant theology. The only systematic theologian he refers to is Norman Geisler. He also references a book which Geisler coauthored with Thomas Howe: When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. There’s a reference to yet another book coauthored by Geisler: Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. There’s a reference to a book by Arthur Pink, and another reference to a book by R. C. Sproul. Stuff like that.

To judge by this material, he operates at the reading level of the ordinary layman. He relies on popularizers. And his library of Protestant theology would seem to occupy all of one bookshelf.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that if you are the ordinary layman. But Beckwith is an academic by profession.

Moreover, he also relies on popularizers for his knowledge of Catholic theology. So he lacks a scholarly grasp of either side.

Now, he did study some great theologians like Aquinas. But that’s scarcely germane to the situation of modern Catholicism, or the Protestant Reformation.

And there’s more at issue than who he’s read. Unlike the ordinary layman, Beckwith could simply pick up the phone and speak to just any about evangelical philosopher or Bible scholar or theologian. He has access.

Yet, to judge by this book, there’s no evidence that he ran his doubts and questions by any number of qualified people he was free to consult. Same thing with Catholicism.

Let’s now evaluate his case for Catholicism. The first thing I note is that he merely recycles the stock arguments for Catholicism, as if no Protestant had ever heard of these before, much less answered them. Likewise, he recycles the hackneyed objections to Protestantism, as if this would leave us speechless. It’s all rather childish.

“In a nutshell, I argued that Protestants who don’t believe creeds are necessary—those who says things like ‘no creed but Christ’—do in fact accept creeds in the sense that they embrace fundamental doctrines that they believer are unassailable” (76).

Beckwith states this trite little truism as if he’d discovered some hitherto unknown and irrefutable objection to the Protestant faith. But, course, many Protestants are confessional Protestants of one kind or another, viz. Calvinists, Lutherans, &c.

Perhaps there’s some storefront church in Chicago where his objection would trigger an epiphany on the part of the listener, but for the rest of us, it’s rather like a Tibetan tourist in America who just discovered McDonald’s. This may be something new and amazing to him, but it’s no revelation to the natives.

What makes Beckwith think he came up with an explosive objection to the Protestant faith when he unfurls this utterly commonplace observation? My best guess is that this simply reflects the superficiality of his own evangelical dossier.

“Moreover, much of what these anti-creedal Protestants believe about Christ, the Trinity, the nature of scripture, and so forth are not easily derived form a reading of the Bible or mere appeal to the words of Christ” (76).

That’s another stock objection to the Protestant faith. At one level it’s difficult to respond to, not because it’s inherently difficult to respond to, but because it’s difficult to know who he has in mind. Who has he been reading all these years? More to the point, who has he not been reading all these years? It seems to be an expression of his own provincial ignorance. The evangelical literature on these topics is abundant. It’s hard to know where to start with someone like Beckwith, because I don’t know when he came on board. How much remedial education does he need?

“The idea, that the Reformation’s view of forensic justification as a virtual theological innovation, is put forth even more strongly by none other than the great theologian and Oxford professor, Alister McGrath” (84).

There are two problems with this objection,

i) McGrath is not a great theologian. He’s mainly a student of the history of ideas. He’s useful on historical theology, but that doesn’t make him a great theologian.

ii) More to the point, Beckwith’s objection represents a throwback to the way in which apologetics was done in the days of Bellarmine and Stapleton.

But this is very anachronistic since it overlooks the paradigm shift from tradition to the doctrine of development. If a “theological novum” is an objection to Protestant theology, then the same objection applies with equal force to the theological innovations of Rome.

This is a really obvious objection to his own position. Why is Beckwith so blind to the obvious? Probably another example of his hasty scholarship.

“Of course, some Church Fathers disagreed with each other one a variety of mattes, and some of them in fact defended positions that were later declared heretical by Church Councils. But it is interesting to note that on the question of the correctness of the doctrines and practices over which contemporary Evangelical Protestants and Catholics generally divide—the Real presence of the Eucharist, apostolic succession, prayers for and to the death, penance, infusion of grace, etc.—one does not find in the Fathers warring camps with one risking an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy, as in the Arian and Pelagian controversies. In fact, for the Fathers the correctness of the ‘Catholic’ doctrines and practices seem conspicuously uncontroversial” (92).

For someone with a doctorate in philosophy, his lack of elementary logical acumen is often startling.

i) To begin with, he might stop to ask himself what makes a “Church Father” a “Church Father.” That title involves ecclesiastical recognition. Hence, there’s something viciously circular about appealing to the authority of the church fathers to validate the church. For, really, it’s the other way around—don’t you think? The church validates the authority of the church fathers. The church decides who is or is not a church father.

Appealing to the church fathers to validate the church is just like appealing to the chairman of General Motors to validate General Motors. Apart from General Motors, the chairman would have no institutional standing to begin with.

ii) Apropos (i), the church fathers represent a select subset of opinion. It’s because they tend to think alike that they are grouped together as church fathers in the first place. Broadly speaking, they represent a common “catholic” outlook, as over against the “heretics” or “schismatics.”

You might as well say that for Hegelians, the correctness of Hegelian philosophy is conspicuously uncontroversial. Well, what would you expect?

“When I ceased reading the Fathers anachronistically, what I began to notice was the far more important fact that Church Fathers X and Y agree that without apostolic succession there is no Church, and that no Father implies or affirms that apostolic succession is a non-Christian view.”

But this would only be an “important fact” on the prior assumption that the opinion of the church fathers qua church fathers is important. And that only follows if you presume a Catholic view of patristic authority to begin with. So, once again, Beckwith is reasoning in a vicious little circle.

Why would we attach any unique importance to what a church father says unless we attach a unique importance to the church which confers on him the status of a church father?

By the way, I don’t object to considering the testimony of the church fathers. I do object to considering their testimony because they’re church fathers—as if they official position is what makes them worth a respectful hearing. That begs the question in favor of Catholic (or Orthodox) ecclesiology.

iii) Apropos (ii), it’s not as if the Roman Catholic church has an exclusive contract with the church fathers. What about the Eastern Orthodox or the Oriental Orthodox? What makes Beckwith think that patristic testimony singles out the Roman Catholic communion?

iv) Apropos (iii), the church fathers weren’t talking about the 21C church of Rome. That lay far beyond their historical horizon. There’s a difference between testimony and prophecy. The church fathers weren’t a bunch of prophets who spoke with a view to the distant future. They were referring to the church they knew, in their own time and place. You can’t simply transfer their testimony from the church they knew to a church they never knew, or could ever know. If Benedict I is my contemporary, and I vouch for Benedict I, this doesn’t mean you can reapply my endorsement to Benedict XVI.

At best that would only be valid if you assume a fundamental continuity over time. But, for that, you need a separate argument—with an enormous amount of supporting evidence to document fundamental continuity throughout the centuries.

“Once I ceased approaching the biblical text with methodological Protestantism, it was nearly impossible for me to get forensic justification from the teaching of Jesus” (97).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is true, so what? The explicit doctrine of sola fide arose in a specific historical context. In the apostolic church, mission to the gentiles raised the issue of how Jews and gentiles were related to a common faith. The Judaizers gave one answer. That’s the setting in which Paul has to give a different answer. It’s not terribly relevant to the ministry of Jesus, which was directed to the Jews—and only incidentally skirted the gentile question.

Beckwith goes on to discuss Paul, as well as James. But there are some obvious problems with his treatment:

i) It’s not as if Protestant scholars have never dealt with the question of James. Beckwith doesn’t interact with this literature. Indeed, he shows no awareness of this literature.

ii) Same thing with Paul. Due to the challenge posed by the new perspective on Paul, there’s been a renaissance of evangelical scholarship on sola fide—much of it upholding the traditional position. Once again, Beckwith doesn’t interact with this literature. Once again, he shows no awareness of this literature.

And, as I said before, the problem is not merely that he’s so illiterate when it comes to standard Evangelical scholarship in the issues at hand. He is in a position to speak directly with experts in the field. He could phone them or email them or make an appointment to see them. He has far more access than the ordinary layman.

There’s no evidence in this book that he made any serious use of his many opportunities to inform himself on the questions at hand.

iii) Finally, not only is he ignorant of standard Evangelical scholarship, but there’s also no interaction with modern Catholic scholarship. Has he ever read Fitzmyer’s commentary on Romans, or Johnson’s commentary on James?

It’s all so amateurish. Now it’s no sin to be amateurish if you happen to be an amateur. But Beckwith doesn’t have that excuse. To whom much is given, much is required.

And I also know some amateurs who exhibit a far more professional command of the relevant literature on both sides of the issue than he does. Busy laymen with a fulltime job who manage to do so much better than he. It’s a shameful performance. The basic problem is that Beckwith is a man in a hurry.

“This means that for the Protestant view of justification, good works are a necessary condition for true justification” (109).

i) Of course, you could say that being a human being is a necessary condition for justification. That hardly adjudicates the dispute between Catholic and Protestant.

ii) More to the point, good works are not a causal condition of justification.

iii) Even more to the point, Beckwith fails to appreciate why justification and sanctification differ. Ironically, it’s Catholicism, and not Calvinism, which treats justification as a legal fiction.

For Catholicism, God treats us as if we were righteous partly on account of our good deeds. But, of course, we are not actually righteous. We are still sinners. Due to regeneration and sanctification, we’re not wholly evil. We can do good works. But we remain fallen creatures. To treat sinners as if they were righteous partly on account of their good deeds is a legal fiction. Worse: it’s a lie. A sinner merits condemnation. That’s simple justice.

This is why justification is a state rather than a process. A complete, once-for-all-time act of God. Because we are sinners, we can’t stand before God in our own rectitude. To be partly righteous doesn’t count. Many wicked men have remnants of goodness in them. But we don’t consider them righteous on that account.

To be morally acceptable to God, we need to be better than we are. God isn’t going to pretend that we’re better than we actually are. That would buy into a lie. At that point, God would cease to be righteous. God would cease to be just.

It poses a dilemma. On the one hand, it’s a terrible thing to be guilty, to stand before a righteous judge, a hanging judge.

On the other hand, it’s a terrible thing when corrupt judges rule the land. And heathen mythology is full of evil gods and goddess. Imagine if the cosmic judge of the universe were a corrupt judge? It would be like one of those Latin American countries where drug lord run the show. Mutilated bodies turn up by the roadside.

The dilemma is resolved at the cross, where justice and mercy meet.

“The Catholic view of justification requires a faith, wholly the work of God’s grace” (109).

That’s not true. Catholic grace is synergistic. Resistible.

“The Protestant can’ repeat the sinners’ pray and answer the altar call until the cows come home” (110).

But this represents a decadent modern tradition. It doesn’t represent Protestant theology at its best, but at its worst.

Referring to a Calvinist, Beckwith goes on to say: “his error, it seems to me, rests in his understanding of grace, that it has no ontological status, that it is not a divine quality that can change nature over time in the would of the believer who cooperates with God’s free gift of grace” (110).

Assuming that this is a sincere statement of how Beckwith understands Reformed theology, and not polemical rhetoric, it betrays his pig-ignorance of the position he’s attacking.

Sinners have a twofold problem: we are guilty and corrupt. Guilt is an objective condition while corruption is a subjective condition.

As a result, saving grace remedies both conditions, but in ways appropriate to each. The grace of justification is objective because our guilt is objective. The grace of renewal (regeneration, sanctification, and glorification) is subjective because our corruption is subjective.

There’s a sense in which we cooperate in sanctification, by using the means of grace. But we don’t cooperate in regeneration, for the unregenerate are dead in sin—just as a heart attack victim is in no position to cooperate with the paramedic in his resuscitation.

“The view that my friend holds, the Reformed doctrine of imputation, and its attendant understanding of grace, has its roots in a late medieval school of thought called nominalism…nominalists were also voluntarists when it comes to God’s moral law. Because God himself does not have a nature (for, they reasoned, to have a nature would limit God), then his moral law must be based exclusively on his will, and not constrained by any intrinsically good nature. So, God could be capricious and arbitrary…This is why Reformed thinking fully embraces the forensic view of justification” (110-111).

Several problems here:

i) Nominalism, per se, was not heretical. Gabriel Biel was a nominalist. He was also a Catholic theologian in good standing with his religious superiors:

Likewise, Luther was a Catholic theologian.

If Beckwith thinks that nominalism is such a grave error, then the Catholic church is culpable for allowing Biel to teach. Then the Catholic church is culpable for educating Luther in nominalism. Then the Catholic church is culpable for making Luther a theology prof.

ii) Beckwith is trying to attack sola fide on philosophical grounds so that he can sidestep the exegetical argument for sola fide.

iii) Whether or not Luther was a nominalist, Calvin was not. Calvin rejected voluntarism. It’s symptomatic of his shallow scholarship that Beckwith utters these demonstrably false claims. Cf. P. Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, chap. 11.

“Because the Early Church was committed to the deep mystery of Chalcedonian Christology—Jesus of Nazareth was both fully God and fully man—it saw no need to divide faith and works, as if they were hostile forces…After all, if works diminish faith’s significance because our cooperation apparently limits God’s sovereignty, then why believer that Jesus really took on a human nature…” (112).

This is so egregiously sloppy that it’s hard to credit Beckwith with even being honest at this point.

i) To begin with, Jesus was sinless and impeccable. To compare his good works with the works of a sinner is overlooks a glaring disanalogy.

ii) In historical theology, “works” is a term of art. A specialized term. Reformed theology doesn’t have a problem with “works.” Rather, it has a problem with “works” when defined in a particular way, in a particular relation to saving grace.

Reformed theology is opposed to the idea that sinners can perform meritorious works, or supererogatory works (in relation to God). It is also opposed to the idea that there’s something good in us which elicits saving grace. That’s the point at issue.

“Justification is about our being part of a communion of saints, the body of Christ” (113).

Of course, many different things are about our being part of the church, viz. election and redemption and regeneration and sanctification and adoption. Beckwith isn’t even attempting to present a careful statement of justification, of what distinguishes justification from other graces.

“Thus, there is a heavy burden on the part of Reformed writers to show that the ascendancy in the sixteenth century of a Reformation thinking that had no ecclesiastical predecessors may be attributed to a return to the true understanding of Christianity” (113).

i) Even if that were true, which it’s not, it cuts both ways. Catholicism has a number of theological innovations which it can’t begin to trace all the way back to the early church fathers—much less the NT. That’s why Newman, who was very well versed in the church fathers, finally gave up doing Catholic theology the old fashioned way.

ii) The only burden on Reformed theology is to show that Reformed theology is scriptural.

iii) There’s no presumption that something is probably true just because it’s a popular and venerable belief. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhist have believed the same thing for centuries on end. So what?

The Catholic church is a hierarchical institution. Therefore, it’s predicated on groupthink. And an upper crust of elite clergymen who dictate dogma to the laity. Theological dissent was suppressed. Dissidents were persecuted.

So we wouldn’t expect much public disagreement with the party line. Certain interpretations were locked in at an early stage, and became the unquestioned premise for further elaboration.

There’s an ideological entropy and ideological inertia which quickly sets in with any institution. That’s what makes them institutions. Standardization. Resistance to change.

“I found that the Church Fathers affirmed, very early on, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, infant baptism, penance and confession, an ordained priesthood, and an episcopal ecclesiology and apostolic succession (as well as other ‘Catholic’ doctrines including prayers for the dead and purgatory…And this by men who were discipled by the Apostles and/or the apostles’ disciples and/or their successors” (114).

Several problems:

i) Of course, some of the false teachers in NT times were discipled by apostles (e.g. Hymenaeus and Philetus).

ii) If antiquity is a mark of orthodoxy or apostolicity, then what about various heretics and schismatics who were contemporaneous with the church fathers?

iii) At the risk of stating the obvious, over time an organization can radically depart from the vision of its founder. Take the Jesuits. This is headed by the Superior General. That’s a regular office with a continuous series of successors.

Does Beckwith imagine that the contemporary Society of Jesus has stayed true to the Counter-Reformation zeal and ultramontane vision of Ignatius Loyola? What would Ignatius think of his old order if he returned from the grave?

To take another example, please don’t tell me that John-Paul’s syncretistic Day of Prayer at Assisi represents a logical development of Unam Sanctam.

“I could not justifiably accept the Early Church’s recognition and fixation of the canon of scripture—and its correct determination and promulgation of the central doctrines of God and Christ (at Nicea and Chalcedon)—while rejecting the Church’s sacramental life as well as its findings about its own apostolic nature and authority” (115).

i) Which canon did the early church canonize? The Roman Catholic canon? The Eastern Orthodox canon? The Ethiopian canon? Does the Eastern Orthodox church even have an official canon of Scripture?

ii) Roman Catholicism didn’t formally define the canon until Trent. And even then the Tridentine Fathers couldn’t agree on the scope of the canon. It came down to a vote. 24-15 with 16 abstentions. Doesn’t sound like it was settled by the early church.

i) In addition, the Council of Trent cited the Vulgate as its canonical frame of reference. But which edition of the Vulgate represents the canonical edition?

It’s clear that Beckwith hasn’t done any in-depth research on the history of the canon.

“At this point, I though, if I reject the Catholic Church, there is good reason for me to believe I am rejecting the Church that Christ himself established. That’s not a risk I was willing to take” (115-116).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Catholic church is the true church, wherein lies the risk of rejecting it? In the ecumenism of Vatican II, you don’t have to be Catholic to be saved. You don’t even have to be Christian to be saved.

“After all, if I return to the Church and participate in the Sacraments, I lose nothing, since I would still be a follower of Jesus and believe everything that the Catholic creeds teach, as I have always believed” (116).

Actually, he would be a follower of the pope. Moreover, contemporary Catholic theology has evolved and devolved far beyond the Apostles’ creed or the Nicene creed.

“Moreover, my parents had baptized me a Catholic, and made sure I was confirmed while I was in the seventh grade. For the first time, the commandment ‘Honor thy father and mother’ carried with it an authority I had never entertained” (116).

This is what passes for a serious argument by a man with a doctorate in philosophy? What about the parents of Lutherans or Presbyterians or Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Hindus or Nazis?

Why did the Apostles preach the gospel to the heathen? Wouldn’t a pagan convert to Christianity be dishonoring his parents by breaking with his ancestral faith?

“Because the Catholicism that Professor Nicole had in mind was not the Catholicism that is actually embraced by the Catholic Church” (123).

This is a remarkably arrogant statement. Nicole is an exceptionally erudite theologian. He has a tremendous command of historical theology. He knows far more about Catholic theology than a whirlwind revert like Beckwith. Here’s an example, in his own words, of Beckwith’s research into Catholic theology:

“I then purchased and read Called to Communion (1996) by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Rome Sweet Home (1993), Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s narrative of their journey to the Catholic Church. I also consulted the works of Catholic writers Jimmy Akin, Mark Brumley, and Carl Olson, which I discovered while surfing the internet” (114).

Who is Beckwith to take issue with Nicole’s mastery of Catholic tradition?

“In the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Catholic church affirms, just as the ETS affirms, tha the Bible is God’s inerrant word written” (124).

Once again, this illustrates his clueless ignorance of the deliberations leading up to that statement, where Cardinal König successfully dissuaded the bishops from reaffirming the plenary inspiration of Scripture.

“Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical knowledge…The belief that the Bible consists only of 66 books is not a claim of scripture—since one cannot find the list in it—but a claim about scripture as a whole…If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief” (123-124).

“Because there can be no scriptural test for canonicity unless one first knows what constitutes scripture, one must rely on extra-scriptural tests in order to know the scriptura to which sola scriptura refers. But then one is not actually relying on ‘scripture alone’ to determine the most fundamental standard for the Christian, the Bible” (135n10).

“Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul seems to concede as much: ‘Roman Catholics view the canon as an infallible collection of infallible books. Protestants view it as a fallible collection of infallible books’” (142n11).

Beckwith seems to think he has backed the Protestant into an inextricable dilemma. But there are several problems with his argument:

i) Beckwith seizes on the word “sola”—as if you can derive the meaning of a doctrine from looking up a word in a Latin lexicon. By that logic, you can master the theory of relativity by looking up the word “relativity” in Webster’s.

“Sola scriptura” is just a slogan. You can’t derive the meaning of the doctrine from a popular catchphrase.

ii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Sproul’s statement is correct, isn’t Catholicism in the same boat? How is a fallible list of fallible teachings superior to a fallible list of fallible books? The Vatican has never issued an infallible list of infallible teachings.

iii) Yes, the identification of Scripture is contingent on some extrascriptural conditions. For example, the knowledge of scripture depends on sense knowledge. A blind man can’t read the Bible. A comatose patient can’t read the Bible.

Likewise, the knowledge of Scripture depends on a certain degree of cognitive development. A one-year-old baby can’t grasp the teaching of Scripture.

None of this is germane to the authority of Scripture.

iv) Why would you need a list of books? One book can refer to another book without listing another book. For example, in the footnotes of his own book, Beckwith mentions a number of other books and articles he’s written. He doesn’t list them. But you could generate a list from his references.

Likewise, there’s an enormous amount of intertextuality in Scripture, where one book of the Bible quotes or alludes to another book of the Bible. That isn’t the same thing as a list, but you can generate a list from those quotes and allusions.

v) Moreover, it’s not as if one book has to refer to another book. Books of the Bible can be considered separately as well as collectively.

Suppose we applied Beckwith’s reasoning to Catholicism. Must one church father list every other church father? Must one papal bull list every other bull? Must one church council list every other council?

Does Beckwith only accept the authority of a papal bull if it appears on a master list of papal publications?

vi) Or is his point that we lack a complete list? Well, suppose, for the sake of argument, that you can’t generate a complete list of Scripture from Scripture.

What about Catholicism? Does Beckwith have a complete list of Catholic teachings? Would he chuck Catholicism if he only had a partial list of Catholic teachings?

Suppose he took the position that only Catholic teachings are authoritative. But he doesn’t have a complete Catholic listing of Catholic teachings. Would this omission justify the inclusion of other, extra-Catholic teachings, like Hindu or Buddhist teachings?

No, it would mean that whatever teaching is Catholic is authoritative, and whatever teaching is not Catholic is not authoritative. He could still say, with perfect consistency, that only Catholic teaching is authoritative, even if he didn’t have a complete Catholic listing of Catholic teachings.

Likewise, even if, ex hypothesi, we didn’t have a complete Scriptural listing of Scripture, this wouldn’t mean that extra-Scriptural teaching was equally authoritative, or authoritative at all.

vii) In principle, you could also use some listed books to assess the inclusion of some unlisted books.

Say we had 10 authentic plays by Shakespeare. We could employ this core canon to evaluate the authenticity of other putatively Shakespearean plays. We would be using Shakespeare to evaluate Shakespeare. We wouldn’t be using something other than Shakespeare to evaluate Shakespeare. It would be a part/whole relation.

Suppose Luke is on my list, but Acts is unlisted. Still, I could use Luke to add Acts to the list.

viii) Did Intertestamental Jews have no inkling of what constituted scripture until they had the NT to supplement and complete the OT? Were they in the dark regarding the identity of any scripture unless they knew the identity of every scripture?

Because revelation is progressive, the canon is cumulative. As such, recognition of the canon is cumulative.

Wouldn’t Beckwith have to say the same thing about church councils? Does he think the age of the councils must come to an end before you’re in any position to say that Nicea or Trent or Vatican I or Vatican II was an ecumenical council?

Or is it possible, anywhere along the chronological process, to identify a council as ecumenical?

Perhaps he’d say you need papal confirmation. But that only pushes the “test” back a step. For you need a papal conclave to elect a pope. And a conclave is a church council. A council of cardinals. So who confirms whom?

Does Beckwith have an infallible list of the College of Cardinals? Must he fall back on some extra-Catholic test to know the number the cardinals? To know who’s a cardinal and who is not? Does he need an infallible adding machine to determine its composition? Is this a Catholic adding machine, or an extra-Catholic adding machine?

Ironically, the net-effect of his book is to undermine the claims of Rome. He makes his best case for Catholicism. But when the best case of a bright, sophisticated, and well-educated guy like Beckwith is so appallingly bad, it simply reinforces the fact that there are no good arguments for Catholicism. It comes down to which bad argument, or set of bad arguments, you find more appealing.

There’s been a lot of anticipation for this book. But it’s like a Christmas present with a very big box and a very small gift inside. Mostly foam stuffing. And a plastic toy.