Saturday, October 24, 2009

The mythical JFK

One of the top bloggesr over at the CADRE has a comment which graphically illustrates the dangers of parallelomania:


Seriously, I have seen better comparisons between Lincoln and Kennedy in my e-mail than this. You know the type:

Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846 while Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946

Lincoln was elected President in 1860 while Kennedy was elected President in 1960.

Lincoln's wife lost a child while living in the White House while Kennedy's wife lost a child while living in the White House

Lincoln was directly concerned with Civil Rights while Kennedy was also directly concerned with Civil Rights

Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theater while Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln who told him not to go to Dallas

Both were shot in the back of the head in the presence of their wives.

Lincoln shot in the Ford Theatre and Kennedy shot in a Lincoln, made by Ford.

Both Lincoln and Kennedy were shot on a Friday

Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was known by three names, comprised of fifteen letters while Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was known by three names, comprised of fifteen letters

This is a much better comparison than the weak comparison between Jesus and St. Nicholas made by Anonymous. Yet, I think most people would find me a looney if I claimed that these comparisons prove that Lincoln and Kennedy are both based on myth.

For the love of Benji

According to Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary):
Christ died for the sins of the world, and to ransom that world. 1 Tim. 2.4-5 puts the matter succinctly. God our savior "wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people." One could compare this to John 3.17, "God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world", or the repeated refrain in Hebrews that Christ died once for all time, for all persons, and so on. (See the discussion of these matters in my forthcoming volumes on NT Theology and Ethics entitled The Indelible Image).

Of course, quoting Scripture is not the same thing as exegeting Scripture. This is especially ironic considering the fact that Witherington is a NT scholar. He’s giving us some tendentious prooftexting in lieu of exegesis.

But this is not just a matter of finding sufficient proof texts (of which there are many more), it is a matter of one's theology of the divine character. God is love, holy love, to be sure, but nonetheless love, and as 1 Tim. 2.4 says, the desire of God's heart is that all persons be saved. It is not just the elect whom God loves, but as John 3.16 says, the world, for whom Christ was sent to die. It follows from this that Christ's atoning death is sufficient for the salvation of all persons, but only efficient for those who respond in faith to God's gracious provision of redemption.

Is that what follows? I don’t see where he exegetes the sufficient/efficient dichotomy from his chosen prooftexts.

Even more foundational is the understanding of the meaning of saying that God is love. Among other things, this means God is committed to relating to those created in his image in love. Now real love must be freely given, and freely received. It cannot be predetermined, manipulated, coerced or else it becomes contrary to what the Bible says love is (see 1 Cor. 13).

Once again, where’s the exegesis? How is 1 Cor 13 at odds with predetermination?

In the debate between whether the primary trait of God is God's sovereignty or God's love, it seems clear that God exercises his power in love, and for loving ends.

Is that the nature of the debate? Why is it a case of which divine trait is God’s primary trait?

And as far as that goes, what about the difference between sovereign love and ineffectual love?

Even his acts of judgment, short of final judgment, are not meant to be punitive but rather corrective and restorative. God in short, is unlike vindictive human beings, very unlike them.

i) Does this mean that God’s historical judgments are loving whereas his eschatological judgments are vindictive?

ii) It’s also hard to see how the flood, or the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the execution of the Canaanites–to take a few prominent examples–was remedial punishment for the victims.

Thus Hosea relates that God says "All my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger ... For I am God and not a human being." God, the divine parent, is not less loving than the best of human parents, God is more loving.

Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it. How would a loving parent deal with a teenage son (or daughter) who’s a drug addict?

Wouldn’t a loving parent be prepared to do whatever it takes? If a parent could wean the kid from drug addiction through coercion or manipulation, wouldn’t a loving parent resort to such measures? Rescue the child from a self-destructive habit by any means necessary?

If Christ is the perfect incarnation of the character of God, then the answer to the question, for whom did Christ die, becomes theologically self-evident--- for the world which God created and still loves.

If God loves whatever God makes, and God seeks the restoration of all his fallen creatures, then God would also make atonement for the fallen angels.

How Arminians make God a sinner

According to Billy Birch:

“First, let us define sin. The Larger Catechism states that sin is ‘any want [lack] of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.’2 This definition works as well as any other.”

If we plug that definition of sin into the phrase “author of sin,” then God would be the author of sin in case he were to transgress or be out of conformity with his laws for rational creatures (i.e. men and angels).

So, according to Birch, God must be a sinner since God is a Sabbath-breaker (Jn 5:17). Doesn’t seem like a very auspicious opening move to me, but then it’s his argument, not mine.

However, I appreciate his tacit admission that Arminian theology makes God a sinner. It’s nice to know that Arminianism would never besmirch God’s character.

“Second, let us define author. The writer to the Hebrews states that it was fitting of God the Father to perfect the author of the salvation of everyone through sufferings (Heb. 2:10). He also called Jesus ‘the author and perfecter of faith’ (Heb. 12:2 NASB). The Greek word for author is archegos and ‘primarily signifies one who takes a lead in, or provides the first occasion of anything.’3”

This is inept on several grounds:

i) Birch is defining a Latin derivative by reference to a Greek word.

ii) Birch is defining his usage by reference to two verses in Hebrews, as if that has any bearing on the sense of the phrase (“author of sin”) in historical theology.

iii) Birch is defining the Greek word by reference to Strong’s, rather than a standard Greek lexicon (e.g. BDAG, EDNT) or a major commentary on Hebrews (e.g. deSilva, Ellingworth, Lane).

“Combining our definitions, then, an author of sin would be one who is either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature. This is the definition of author of sin which we will be working with in this post.”

This is hopelessly amateurish. To determine what the “author of sin” means in historic theological usage, you’d need to consult the primary source documents. How were 16-17C opponents of Calvinism using that phrase?

It’s not just that Birch is wrong. It’s worse than that. He has no inkling of how to arrive at the correct answer.

“Can God be said to be the author of sin?”

If, for the sake of argument, we play along with Birch’s amateurish definition, then the answer is yes. Birch makes God the author of sin.

God laid the foundations of the world. Therefore, God is the founder of the world. If the world we inhabit is a sinful world, then that makes God the author of sin, since he laid the foundations for that “infallible” outcome.

Likewise, God is the originator of men and angels. If men and angels fell, then that makes God the author of sin, since the end-result takes its point of origin in God’s prior action.

This is plugging Birch’s definitions into his own equation.

So, thus far, Birch’s argument yields the following results:

i) God is a sinner

ii) God is the author of sin

“What Arminius (and Arminians) wants to avoid, again, is the admission that God is one who is either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.”

If that’s what they want to avoid, then, by Billy’s own argument, their effort is a miserable failure. For Billy’s argument indicts God as both a sinner and the author of sin.

“By ‘God's cooperation,’ Arminius means that since God is the sustainer of all things, and since no one or no thing can do anything without God granting it, God is said in that sense to cooperate.”

So doesn’t Arminian theology make God a necessary accomplice in every single sin?

“Arminians interpret Jesus' instruction to pray for God's will to be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10) to mean that His perfect will (that which is done in heaven) is not always done on earth.”

Does this mean God also has an imperfect will?

“Arminians interpret the Lord's words to reference God's ‘perfect will’ (as opposed to His ‘permissive will’).”

Doesn’t that grossly understate the case? “Concurrence” or “Cooperation” is more than mere “permission.”

“The fact that these wicked people of Judah sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire testifies to God's permissive will, for He Himself stated that not only did He not command them to do such a wicked thing, but the thought for them to commit such wickedness never entered His mind.”

Is Billy an open theist? God doesn’t know the future? God didn’t see it coming?

“Again, concurrence is not denied. What is denied here is exhaustive determinism, i.e. that God was the one who was either the father, originator, founder, or pioneer of any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.”

How is that distinction morally relevant? How does “concurrence” exempt God from complicity in the outcome?

“It is painfully obvious that God is distancing Himself from involvement in this wickedly horrible and sinful act. What or who made Judah sin? The wicked people who committed the horrible act made Judah sin, not Judah's holy and just God.”

Even if that’s “painfully obvious” in Jeremiah, how is that painfully obvious in Arminius? How is the exegesis of Jeremiah, even if we stipulate to Birch’s interpretation, germane to the logical implications of Arminian theology?

“Now, for Calvinists to suggest that God ‘influences the desires and decisions of people’10…”

This is a phrase that Billy quotes over and over again. It illustrates, once again, his inability to discuss serious issues at a scholarly level.

Grudem is basically a NT scholar who teaches systematic theology. That brings a useful, exegetical orientation to his theology.

However, theodicy crosses over into philosophical questions regarding various models of value theory and action theory. This is properly the domain of a Christian philosopher or philosophical theologian, not an exegetical theologian.

What is more, Grudem published a systematic theology which was written for popular consumption. Birch, in turn, is quoting from a digest of Grudem’s systematic theology. So Birch is quoting from a popularization of a popularization.

If Birch were serious about Reformed theodicy, he’d study some contemporary Reformed philosophers or philosophical theologians on the issue at hand. Or email them.

Instead, he frames the issue in terms of a phrase which he lifted from a pop theology text by a Bible scholar.

“But one cannot restrain from asking how God can ‘influence the desires and decisions of people; without being in some sense responsible for the results that follow.”

Even if we stick to this phraseology, it fails to draw a rudimentary distinction between responsibility and culpability. Doesn’t Birch know the difference?

“According to Calvinism's definition of God's sovereignty, He not merely influenced their desire and decision to commit that wickedness, He secretly willed it, for all things which happen have been foreordained by God's all-determining, secret decree.”

If it’s a “secret,” then who leaked the secret to Birch?

“A distinction between two modes of God's will is absolutely crucial to Arminius and his followers: the antecedent and the consequent wills of God.”

Let’s plug this into Birch’s prooftext. As he quotes it, it says: “They have built pagan shrines at Topheth, the garbage dump in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, and there they burn their sons and daughters in the fire. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!" (Jeremiah 7:31 NLT; cf. Jeremiah 9:5). But what this really amounts to is:

"They have built pagan shrines at Topheth, the garbage dump in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, and there they burn their sons and daughters in the fire. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; however, I antecedently and consequently willed them to sacrifice their children Molech."

How does that distinction exonerate God?

“The first has priority; the second exists because God reluctantly allows human defection in order to preserve and protect the integrity of the creature…Sin is only within God's will consequently insofar as it is necessary to preserve liberty…”

i) Why does the preservation of human liberty require God to allow for sin? Billy himself defined human liberty as the freedom to do otherwise.

Well, if that’s your operating definition, then every human being can either do right or wrong. In that event, the liberty of the creature is consistent with a creature always doing good. So why didn’t God choose to create the possible world in which everyone freely chose good over evil? If human beings really have the freedom that Billy ascribes to them, then there ought to be a possible world corresponding to that alternative.

ii) Moreover, why is God obligated to respect the liberty of evildoers? What if one free agent infringes on the freedom of another free agent? Why should God respect the freedom of the mugger to beat and rob a little old lady? Why should he respect the freedom of the mugger at the expense of the victim’s life and liberty? How is that a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil?

“…in granting one permission to do something, even if against the wishes of the one who grants it…”

How is that exculpatory? If a rich, indulgent dad grants his spoiled, bratty son permission to commit date rape and murder, is he not complicit in the crimes of his delinquent son? Why does Birch think that’s an adequate theodicy?

“I pointed out to Hays that neither Calvin, the authors of the Belgic and Westminster Confessions, Dort, Erickson, or Grudem offer detailed explanations of what is meant by ‘author of sin.’ It is assumed and commonly agreed what the phrase is referring to, so much so that these Calvinists find it imperative to insist that their theology does not make God the author of sin, without defining what it means for God to be the author of sin. But when I posted on God being the author of sin in Calvinism recently, Hays felt it necessary to point out that I had not defined the term. Oy! I mean what Calvin means, what the Confessions mean, what Erickson means, what Grudem means.”

i) To begin with, the fact that a 16C reader might know what a 16C writer is talking about hardly means a 21C reader knows what a 16C writer is talking about. Suppose we applied Birch’s silly statement to Shakespeare.

ii) An accuser shoulders the burden of proof in defining his accusatorial terms.

“It is not mere invective for critics of Classical Arminian thought to connote that Arminianism inevitably leads to Open Theism, it is defamatory and deceitful ~ an attempt at constructing a straw man, thus caricaturing Arminianism to make one's system appear orthodox.”

Is Billy just a bit dense? Is that his problem? He acts as though this is a slippery slope argument. It’s not. Rather, it’s a logical argument. What does libertarianism entail? That’s the question.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Irrefutable or irrefruitable? Survival of the fruitiest

Here, direct from the horse’s mouth, are the criteria by which the church of Rome judges her own claims:

Only faith can recognize that the Church possesses these properties from her divine source. But their historical manifestations are signs that also speak clearly to human reason. As the First Vatican Council noted, the "Church herself, with her marvelous propagation, eminent holiness, and inexhaustible fruitfulness in everything good, her catholic unity and invincible stability, is a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefutable witness of her divine mission."258

By way of comment:

1.This doesn’t mean we have to limit ourselves to Catholic criteria. But if the church of Rome falls short of her own criteria, then that’s as far as we need to proceed.

2.Criteria cut both ways. If they carry the potential to verify the claims of the claimant, then they carry the corollary potential to falsify the claims of the claimant.

3.The passage I’ve quoted can be broken down into two distinct criteria:

i) A subjective, faith criterion

ii) An objective, historical criterion

If we apply Catholic criteria to Catholicism, how does the church of Rome stack up?

4.Let’s begin with the subjective criterion. The problem with this criterion is that contemporary Catholicism acknowledges the existence of true believers outside the Roman fold.

So we have many believers who, when they apply the faith-criterion to Rome, are unconvinced by the claims of Rome. Observing the church of Rome doesn’t trigger in the a recognition of Mother Church.

So Catholicism already fails the faith-criterion. And that’s sufficient, all by itself, to falsify her claims.

5.What about the objective criterion?

I) ”Successful” propagation is no index of truth since many cults and false religions successfully propagate themselves.

ii) Same thing with “stability.”

Perhaps, though, the Catechism defines “invincible stability” as survival of the fruitiest. If so, see below.

iii) If “marvelous” is shorthand for Catholic miracles, then that raises its own set of questions:

a) We need to evaluate Catholic miracles on a case-by-case basis.

b) Reported miracles are hardly limited to Catholicism. So even if we could verify Catholic miracles, that wouldn’t single out Catholicism–in case we could verify other miracles outside of Catholicism.

c) Attestation is not the only function of miracles. Some miracles are simply acts of God’s miraculous mercy or judgment.

iv) Is Catholicism distinguished by “eminent holiness”? What does that mean, exactly?

a) Does this have reference to Catholic saints? But even if we stipulate to the eminent holiness of Catholic saints, that cuts both ways since that appeal is diluted by all the Catholic scoundrels. What about the amount of eminent iniquity we can also find in Catholic church history?

b) If, on the one hand, “eminent holiness” is defined in terms of what is distinctive to Catholic piety, then the evidence is viciously circular.

c) If, on the other hand, “eminent holiness” is defined in more generic terms, then Christian sanctity is scarcely limited to Catholics.

v) If unity is defined in Catholic terms (“catholic unity”), then the definition is tautologically true. But in that event, the definition begs the question in favor of Catholicism.

vi) If nutritious fruit is evidence of truth, then rotten fruit or poison fruit is evidence of falsehood. What’s truer is fruitier depending on the quality of the produce. The Catholic orchard or garden has its share of wormy lemons, rotten apples, and poison mushrooms.

vii) The Catholic church has fruity priests by the barrel. But unless you equate fruit-flavored piety with eminent sanctity, that kind of produce is hardly a confirmation of Roman Catholicism. Such signs are more irrefruitable than irrefutable.

Lukan ecclesiology

What are the marks of the true church? The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the Nicene marks of the church. Of course, that’s deceptive. The Nicene marks of the church don’t define the Catholic church. Rather, the Catholic church defines the Nicene marks. It defines or redefines the Nicene marks to mark out the Catholic church.

The Catholic church has its historic roots in tradition. However, once has institution becomes well-established, it can take on a life of its own. It ceases to dependent on its historical point of origin for its continued existence. It can proceed to redefine itself. Over time, a bureaucracy may depart from its original vision or mandate.

The NT is the logical place to look for the marks of the church. For the NT church is the archetype and prototype of the Christian church.

Mind you, some details of the NT church may be timebound or culturebound. We may need to distinguish between what is normative and what is adaptive or inaugural.

But the NT church remains our standard of comparison for what is prescribed, proscribed, or permitted in Christian ecclesiology.

Catholics often act as though we Evangelicals lack a theology of the church, but, of course, that’s false. It’s just that we have a different source of theology.

As the church historian of the NT church, Luke is a major reference point for NT ecclesiology. I’ll be quoting some passages from a recent monograph on Lukan ecclesiology: G. Twelftree, People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (Baker 2009).

Of course, what Twelftree says here and elsewhere is subject to debate. But his exegetical orientation, and focus on Lukan ecclesiology, is a suitable starting point for further reflection.

And, needless to say, Lukan ecclesiology intersects with Pauline ecclesiology inasmuch as Paul was Luke’s friend, traveling companion, and theological “hero” in Acts.

So here’s what we might dub the Lukan marks of the church:

§§4.2; 14:2 The Church dispenses salvation?

“In these stories Luke’s view of the relationship between the Church and the individual’s present experience of salvation becomes clear. It is not that salvation is dependent on being part of the Church, nor even that entry into the Church is part of salvation. Rather, salvation comes about distinct from and prior to joining the Church. Yet, taking up one’s place among the other people of God is a natural and assumed consequence of being saved–being found or made whole. In short, for Luke, while salvation is not joining or re-entering the community of God’s people–the Church–it is a natural (perhaps expected or unavoidable) consequence or expression, even ongoing benefit, of it.” (49).

“Although Luke describes the Church as embodying the ministry of Jesus, he does not describe the Church as dispensing salvation. The missionaries remain mortals bringing and demonstrating the news that makes salvation possible. Moreover, although salvation is prior to and distinct from becoming part of the Church, belonging to the people of God is an assumed and natural expression of being saved…We are saved individually but live corporately (4.4 above).

§5.1 The Church and Judaism

“Luke occasionally calls his readers ‘Israel.” In the Infancy Narrative, in particular, salvation is said to come to ‘Israel.” Further, Luke insists that the group of twelve apostles must be maintained, conveying the idea that ‘Israel’ continues in the story of the Church (Acts 1:15-26). This is characterized in Luke’s description of the post-Easter community of followers of Jesus. What was expected for Israel–a kingdom, twelve leaders, the Spirit, growth, fear of the Lord, mighty works, material well-being, for example–had come to the early community of the followers of Jesus. This suggests that Luke saw the Church as the new or renewed Israel” (55).

“Also, in numerous passages, Luke introduces the word ‘people’ into the material as those hearing the message of Jesus. In Acts the followers of Jesus are called ‘a people for his (God’s) name’ (Acts 15:14; see also 18:10). The significance of this is that Luke is probably dependent on the Greek Old Testament where the ‘people’ are those God saves and leads (e.g. Zech 2:11)” (55n9).

§5.2 A synogague?

“That Luke thought of the first post-Easter followers of Jesus as a distinct group of Jews, with their own synagogue, is suggested early in Acts where he says the group totaled 120 persons (1:15; see §2.1). In any case, Luke’s undoubted knowledge of synagogues will have been informed by the Diaspora where, as I have just argued, he depicts the followers of Jesus beginning to form their own synagogues” (56-57).

§5.3 A sect?

“In that Luke also describes the Pharisees and Sadducees as sects [Acts 5:17; 15:5; 25:5] we can suppose that, in using the word ‘sect’ of followers of Jesus [24:14], Luke had similar motives: portraying them as a respectable school of thought or legitimate, perhaps even influential, expression of Judaism. In this, Luke is reinforcing for readers the view that they–Jews, Greeks, and God-fearers following Jesus–are at least a legitimate expression of God’s purposes for and promises to his people” (59).

§5.4 “The Way”

“In sharing with the Qumran people both their use of ‘the Way’ as a description of people faithful to Jewish traditions [Acts 18:25-26; 24:14] and their interest in the quotation from Isaiah 40:3 (Lk 1:76; 3:4-6), as well as what we have seen in his use of the word ‘sect,” we can reasonably suppose that the hint is confirmed that Luke held the view that members of his community were marked out from the mainstream of society as the true expression of God’s expectations of and promises to his people…the Church is being portrayed as the true and faithful expression of Israel” (61).

§5.5 Ekklesia

“In Acts 7:38 Luke uses ekklesia of the Israelites gathered in the wilderness (also Heb 2:12; cf. Josephus, Ant. 4.309)…The first feature to note about ekklesia is the implications of the answer to the question whether or not Luke wrote ‘church’ or ‘churches’ in Acts 9:31: ‘the church [or churches] throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria [all?] had peace.’ The issue at stake is whether Luke had in mind a single, universal Church distributed throughout various localities or whether he wrote of the various churches in their areas…This [singular] use of ‘church’ to represent either a region of churches or the universal Church would be unique in Luke’s writing…when Luke wants to write of groups of Christians in a number of places he uses the plural ‘churches’ (Acts 15:41; 16:5). More likely, then, Luke used the plural ‘churches’ here in Acts 9:31,which also has significant textual support (as in codex Bezae)…In short, this verse (Acts 9:31) is consistent with Luke’s use of ‘church’ elsewhere as a local gathering of the followers of Jesus. Thus, although Luke’s narrative conveys the idea that he considered the spreading numbers of followers of Jesus all belonged to the one movement that originated in the ministry of Jesus and expanded from Jerusalem, he did not use the word ‘church’ in the singular to express that idea” (62).

§5.6 A household

“To gain insight into his understanding of the local church we can note that, on a number of occasions, the local groups of followers of Jesus met in private homes…In Luke’s society the household was accepted as a semi-independent socioeconomic unit and political unit under the control of the householder. Thus, the household was a microcosm of society (cf. Mt 12:25)…A household would consist of members of the family, servants, labourers, tenants, and dependent business people. Economically, religiously, socially and personally these people were dependent on the householder who in turn had a measure of legal responsibility for his people. So, with the apparent frequent conversion of whole households and the focus of the local church in a house, Luke portrays the Church not as a collection of individuals in a city, but as people belonging to a basic social unit of care and responsibility that affected every aspect of life” (63).

§10:3 Scripture

“Not only does Luke expect his readers to find the Old Testament Christologically rich but also to mine it for ecclesiological self-understanding. In light of what he has written in relation to the texts, Luke probably expects his readers to use the Old Testament to find their place (and plight) in the biblical story…There is nothing about the speeches that suggests Luke thought scriptural interpretation was a particular prophetic gift or act” (150).

§12 Leadership

“We have not been able to find any evidence that Luke was attempting to establish an ecclesiastical system with Jerusalem as the headquarters; too much of the narrative takes place without recourse to Jerusalem or the leadership there for Luke to be seen as an early catholic or even presbyterian in this sense…Paul’s commissioning is without the direct imprimatur of any Jerusalem figure…James replaces Peter. Additionally, without attention to Jerusalem or the leaders there, Luke has Paul and Barnabas appoint leaders in churches” (175).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cartographic ecclesiology

I’m gratified to see that Jay Dyer continues to find religious certainty in the one true church…es:

It’s just one more piece evidence, as if further evidence were needed, that high churchmen enjoy a rock of stability denied the stray sheep of schismatic evangelicalism.

For Dyer, the roadmap for finding the one true church resembles a calendar. The identity the one true church varies with which pretty picture adorns which month of the calendar you’re gazing at. Every month, Dyer discovers the one true church–which differs from the last one true church, which differs from the next to the last one true church…

His compass is, without fail, oriented to true north–except when the needle is pointing northeast, or east, or southeast, or south, or southwest, or west, or…

Ecclesiology is synonymous with cartography.

Inconsolable grief

I know exactly where the tape is, in which box, on which shelf. It's an old reel-to-reel tape I used with the tape recorder my dad bought me in grade school. It has his voice on it. The box has moved around with me for a long time, but I have never listened to the tape since my dad died. I don't think I could stand it. It would be too heartbreaking.

I thought about the tape as I was watching Gregory Hoblit's "Frequency." Here is a movie that uses the notion of time travel to set up a situation where a man in 1999 is able to talk to his father in 1969, even though his father died when the man was 6. The movie harnesses this notion to a lot of nonsense, including a double showdown with a killer, but the central idea is strong and carries us along. There must be something universal about our desire to defeat time, which in the end defeats us.

There may be holes and inconsistencies in the plot. I was too confused to be sure. And I don't much care, anyway, because the underlying idea is so appealing--that a son who doesn't remember his father could talk to him via radio and they could try to help each other.

Moviegoers seem to like supernatural stories that promise some kind of escape from our mutual doom. "Frequency" is likely to appeal to the fans of "The Sixth Sense," "Ghost" and other movies where the characters find a loophole in reality. What it also has in common with those two movies is warmth and emotion. Quaid and Caviezel bond over the radio, and we believe the feelings they share. The ending of the movie is contrived, but then of course it is: The whole movie is contrived. The screenplay conferences on "Frequency" must have gone on and on, as writer Toby Emmerich and the filmmakers tried to fight their way through the maze they were creating. The result, however, appeals to us for reasons as simple as hearing the voice of a father who you thought you would never hear again.

This illustrates the dilemma of the unbeliever.

On the one hand, Ebert can’t bear to part with this memento of his late father. Wherever he moves, wherever he lives, he takes it with him. From house to house and move to move, it’s something that remains a part of his life. Something he always takes along. Something he always keeps alongside.

On the other hand, he can’t bear to hear it. It stays in a box on a shelf–unheard. There it sits–month-after-month and year-after-year.

He clings to this little remnant of his late father. This tangible contact with the now intangible person he knew and loved and lost. He can’t bring himself to break that tenuous connection. It’s all he’s got. He can't let go. Can’t put his dad behind him or sever the tie.

And yet, he can’t bring himself to turn around. To look back. For that would only remind him of something he no longer has, something irrevocable. It would only serve to rub in the aching, incurable sense of loss–an absence made present by the present reminder of an irretrievable past.

It may also be true that we love time-travel scenarios because they express our frustration with life under the curse. A yearning to escape the curse. Escape the domino effect of youthful sin. Redeem our lost opportunities.

But in this unyielding world, with the inexorable march of time, with the inexorable effects of ill-considered deeds, there is not escape–except the illusory world of science fiction.

We seek deliverance in our imagination. By turning within. To our daydreams of a better world. A world in which we can change the past to amend the future. A world in which we have a second chance. A world in which it’s never too late. Never to late to profit from our hard-earned experience.

But if this world is all there is, then the dream of the daydreamer is trapped inside a rigid world of linear time and linear effects. Sooner or later, even a daydreamer must awaken. The alarm clock of a real world is too insistent to tune out for very long.

He can, for a time, escape into his celluloid dreams, but when he awakens he’s right back in his prison. In his dreams, he’s on the lam. But when he wakes up, as he must, he instantly return to his cell–which makes his momentary freedom all the worse.

But for the Christian, our fallen world is the dream. The nightmare. The prison. When he awakens in death, another world awaits him–outside the walls he left behind.

Clarkian confusions

In his final years, Gordon Clark staked out a number of increasingly eccentric positions. Perhaps this represents his intellectual development. Or perhaps he always held these views.

It’s a pity because, in some respects, he was a very useful Reformed apologist. Unfortunately, all the good stuff he did tends to lend specious credibility to some of his lapses in judgment. To take a few examples:

“One may wonder whether the truths of mathematics, unlike the truths of history, are infinite in number. Each year some brilliant professor adds one or two more. Theorems seem to be possible without end. Then would not omniscience make God infinite? There are two replies. First, if the theorems are infinite in number, neither God nor man could know them, for with respect to infinite there is no all’ to be known. Infinite has no last term, and God’s knowledge would be as incomplete as man,” The Incarnation, 61-62.

“It is a delicate question whether God’s knowledge is infinite in the English sense of the world. If it were, God’s knowledge would be incomplete, if not unsystematic…If God’s knowledge were infinite, there would always be an extra item beyond the last,” The Atonement, 130n1.”

i) The basic problem with this objection is that it fails to distinguish between a potential and actual infinite. Yet Cantor demonstrated the possibility of an actual infinite. The infinite as a given totality.

ii) In addition, Clark’s definition is infected with spatial and temporal metaphors. The notion that an infinite that has no “last term,” because there’d always be an extra item “beyond the last,” takes the notion of an infinite “series” too literally. It seems to equate the process of counting (from one to infinity) with the internal structure of the infinite. But that confuses an abstract object with a concrete process.

The infinite is not something that literally grows. It doesn’t literally “go on and on.” That’s a figurative way to depict the infinite. A way of making it easier for us to conceive of something a bit beyond our grasp. But we shouldn’t confuse metaphors with reality.

iii) We should also keep in mind that the term “infinite,” especially in application to God, can mean more than one thing. It can be used as a synonym for a being who is not conditioned by the vicissitudes time, space, or other contingencies.

“[When we] consider the will of God, we are apt to think or subconsciously suppose that God makes decisions. He willed to create, he willed, after some deliberation, to save some, and so on. Though we may not say so out loud, we suppose that God was puzzled: He could create or he could refuse to create; he could or could ruse to save some; and if he decided to save some, he could use any means imaginable…This seems to me to be logically inconsistent, for if it relieves God of indecision on the last point, it pictures him as indecisive on the prior points, and assigns to him a relatively momentary act of choice. This makes God a temporal creature, or if not a creature, at least a temporal being” The Atonement, 129.

i) What’s ironic about this allegation is not the subconscious assumption which Clark gratuitously imputes to Hodge, but the Clark’s own subconscious assumption. Clark is simply taking for granted, without any supporting argument, that the notion of divine choice or divine decision implies a psychological process or interval of time.

But why should we assume such a thing? If God is timeless, then there was never a time when God was undecided. Clark is failing to distinguish between the incidental features of human decision-making with the fundamental notions of having or making choices. Making choices is subjective, while having choices is objective.

ii) Having choices has reference to opportunities. Alternate courses of action. And that can be independent of decision-making in the sense that such opportunities might exist quite apart from the existence or deliberation of any particular agent. The existence of an objective opportunity doesn’t ipso facto depend on the subjective process of decision-making.

Suppose a student has been accepted to Harvard and Oxford alike. He has those two choices. And if he has those two choices, he can choose between them (barring some impediment). But Harvard and Oxford aren’t contingent on his decision-making process. They’d get along just fine without him.

I don’t say this to say that choices bear the same relationship to God. Just that we need to distinguish between what it means to make a choice and what it means to have a choice. One of flaws in Clark’s argument is his confusion of the two.

iii) And the fact that human decision-making involves a psychological process doesn’t mean that time is an essential feature of choosing or resolving on a particular outcome.

In any comparison between God and man, we need to make due allowance for the discontinuities as well as continuities between the two. We have to compare the two at the appropriate level of abstraction.

In the subjective sense, a choice is simply an intention or purpose to do something. That, of itself, doesn’t imply any prior state of indecision.

“First, it is not true that the Father could choose to create or choose not to create. God did not have, from eternity, a blank mind, undecided as to whether to create or not. God’s mind is, or better, includes the idea of this particular cosmos, with Abraham, David, and Jesus at particular points in time,” The Trinity, 111.

A number of problems with this objection:

i) It commits the same conceptual confusion I noted before, by illicitly intruding the notion of a temporal or psychological process into divine choice.

ii) And it bundles that error with another error by assuming that if God chose between two or more possible outcomes, then God had a “blank” mind. It’s a mystery to me how Clark can even begin to draw that inference.

In the nature of the case, an agent can’t choose between two or more alternatives if his mind is blank. To the contrary, he could only make that choice in case his mind is cognizant of the various possibilities. He has to have something on his mind to do that. A blank mind is a nonstarter.

iii) It’s true that God’s mind includes the idea of the actual world. Did anyone deny that?

But that’s hardly all it includes. God’s mind also includes the idea of various unexemplified possibilities. Includes the idea of hypothetical or counterfactual scenarios.

a) For one thing, God himself has cast certain issues in hypothetical or counterfactual terms. Just consider the very different consequences of obedience and disobedience in Deut 28. God has to have an idea of what each hypothetical outcome amounts to.

b) Likewise, human beings have an imaginative faculty. And God has an idea of whatever we have in mind. God is hardly ignorant of human ideas.

c) Moreover, not all possibilities are compossible. Go back to Deut 28. These two opposing outcomes cannot be simultaneously realized. Therefore, the actual world can’t exemplify both outcomes. For whichever outcome is actual, there must be a possible world which represents the unexemplified alternative.

“It there had been a God who might not have created, he would not have been the God described in the Bible,” ibid. 111.

i) God is the source of all possible worlds, whether exemplified or unexemplified. They all inhere in his nature or will. So, yes, he’s the same God across all possible worlds.

ii) To take an example, if in one possible world, Brad has a haircut on Tuesday, whereas, in another possible world, Brad has a haircut on Friday, would we say they can’t be the same individual?

iii) To take another example, suppose a novelist writes himself into one of his novels. The author is a character in his own novel.

And suppose he composes another novel, with a different setting, in which, once again, he’s a character.

Is he the same person in both novels? That’s equivocal. He’s not the same character in both novels, but he’s the same author.

iv) In a tautological sense, it’s true that if God hadn’t made our world, then he wouldn’t be the God described in the Bible. But that’s misleading. The differential factor isn’t the presence or absence of God, but the presence or absence of the world.

In the nature of the case, a description of God in reference to our world is a world-indexed property. If God hadn’t made our world, then our world wouldn’t be a descriptor for God. But that doesn’t mean he’d cease to be the very same God.

If Laurence Olivier stars in Macbeth rather than King Lear, then he wouldn’t be the same actor described in some production of King Lear–since, ex hypothesi, he didn’t act in King Lear. But to change the setting (Macbeth instead of King Lear) doesn’t mean he’s not the same actor qua actor. Just that he’s not the same actor qua acting. Same actor, different role. To play a different part doesn’t make you a different individual.

“On this view of things no other conditions than the actual conditions are possible. This is not ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ as Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, as Spinoza claimed. Any other world, on this view, can be imagined only by failing to see that it contains a logical contradiction or impossibility…Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable,” 118-19.

This piggybacks on some of Clark’s previous confusions while introducing some new confusions:

i) It seems to equivocate on the meaning of possibility. It conflates what is feasible with what is conceivable. But these are distinct and separable ideas.

ii) To say that no other world than ours is even imaginable is simply absurd. We can all imagine variations on this world. We do so on a regular basis. And some individuals, like philosophers and fiction writers, make a career of doing that very thing.

iii) Clark also seems to be utterly clueless about the metaphysical basis of possible worlds. He’s very selective in what divine attributes he appeals to. By possible worlds are generated (as it were) by the conjunction of two divine attributes: omniscience and omnipotence.

A possible world is a way of expressing what an omnipotent God could possibly do. And since not all possibilities are compossible, there’s more than one possible thing an omnipotent God could possibly do.

Possible worlds are generated (as it were) by the application of divine omniscience to divine omnipotence. God knows what God can do. And what he can do outstrips any finite set of effects.

Does Clark seriously think that God couldn’t give Absalom dandruff or bald spots? Is it metaphysically necessary that every day be a good hair day for Absalom? Is it not within God’s power to do a single thing differently? Is God incapable of even imagining a different outcome?

I think Clark’s basic problem is that he suffered from intellectual isolation. As a result, his thinking becomes more erratic as time goes on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The intellectually fulfilled atheist

It has been Darwin, Richard Dawkins remarked, that has made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

A much better case might be made in the other direction. It is atheism that makes it possible for a man to be an intellectually fulfilled Darwinist.

D. Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin (Discovery Institute Press 2009), 507.

Finding a Good God in an Evil World

I) William Dembski has written a new book: The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B&H 2009).

The book is adorned with a number of glowing blurbs by the likes of John Collins, Stephen Davis, Doug Groothuis, Gary Habermas, Hank Hanegraaff, William Hasker, Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, J. P. Moreland, and Don Page.

In one respect, these kudos are superfluous. It’s not as if Dembski is a debutante who needs to be introduced to the world. He’s an established figure in Evangelicalism. He has a following. I assume any major book he publishes would already have a preexisting constituency. But that’s a minor point.

More to the point is what some of them actually say. Moreland says it “towers over” the competition in “profundity and quality.” McDowell says it’s “groundbreaking.” Hanegraaff says it “may well prove to be a Copernican breakthrough,” while Montgomery says “Believers have badly needed the kind of compelling case for biblical theodicy provided in Dr Dembski’s new book.”

One of the problems with all this hype is the insinuation that Christian theodicy was in truly dire straits before he came along to save our bacon. You’d think that, up until now, we were utterly dumbfounded in the face of evil.

My own assessment is rather different. Reading his book is like watching a cinematic failure by a great director. Even if the film falls short of the high aims it set for itself, it still has memorable moments which a more successful film by a lesser director wouldn’t approach. A flawed masterpiece contains touches of greatness you won’t find in a flawless, but pedestrian piece of work.

Likewise, Dembski’s new book is one of those productions in which the parts are greater than the whole. Odd lapses of judgment punctuated by flashes of insight.

I also have a quibble with the subtitle: the world we inhabit is not an evil world. Rather, we inhabit a fallen world. Our world contains a lot of evil, but it’s also a world that contains a lot of common grace and special grace. So it’s deeply misleading to say our world is evil. There is both good and evil. Moreover, the good will out.

II) There are different ways of evaluating a work like this. One criterion is whether he succeeded in solving the problem he posed for himself. In that respect, I think Dembski’s book is only a partial success. I’ll have more to say about that shortly.

But perhaps a more fundamental issue is whether he’s giving us the right answers to the wrong questions. I just don’t see the problem of natural evil the way he does. Apparently he regards that problem as either evident or even self-evident. So he goes straight to the next step. But to me he’s expending a lot of ingenuity in solving what is more often than not a pseudoproblem. For example, here’s one way he states the issue:

“But animal death and suffering as it exits now and as it appears to have existed throughout the fossil record bespeak a cruelty and perverseness that only exacerbates the problem of evil” (210n6).

Let’s make some preliminary observations before delving into the various permutations of his position. There are two broad aspects to the problem of natural evil:

a) The problem that natural evil poses to human victims of natural evil.

b) The problem that natural evil poses to subhuman victims natural evil.

These are distinct and separable issues. I don’t think they require the same treatment.

1) Concerning (a):

i) I think that even a sinless world would contain natural “evils.” That’s because I think natural evils are generally natural goods. What makes them “evil” is if they’re evil to you. If they do you harm. They’re only “evil” in the relative sense that if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, then they pose a threat to your life or wellbeing. But, in general, many natural “evils” are actually beneficial to the ecosystem. Indeed, essential to the balance of nature as we know it.

I think what the Fall effects is not the existence of natural evil, but a liability to natural evil. It exposes us to dangers which, in a sinless world, we’d be immune to–in one way or another.

There’s a difference between a dangerous world and a world which endangers you and me. A world with mountains and streams is a dangerous world inasmuch as you can fall off a cliff or drown in the river. I think the difference between a pristine world and a fallen world is not so much the presence or absence of natural evils, but whether we are put in harm’s ways. Is the potential for harm actually realized?

ii) I also assume that part of the cultural mandate is to tame the wilderness. We start in a garden, then we extend the garden. Cultivate the wilderness. Domesticate animals. Found towns and cities.

I think God has posed certain natural challenges for us to overcome. We need these raw materials to exercise our God-given creativity.

In a fallen world, that becomes an occupational hazard. But I don’t view the underlying principle as essentially different for an unfallen world.

iii) This is not to deny that some natural evils are second-order evils which reflect our fallenness. Scientists develop treatments for STDs. STDs are a natural punishment for sin. The STDs then adapt by developing a resistant-strain to the conventional treatment. So some natural evils to presuppose the Fall.

iv) And, of course, to the extent that some natural evils are penal sanctions for sin, they require no special justification.

2) Concerning (b):

i) Seems to me the so-called problem of animal pain is greatly overrated. For one thing, surely we need to draw some distinction between higher and lower animals. To say a dog can suffer doesn’t mean a millipede can suffer.

ii) Likewise, it seems to me, from my observation, that animals have a high pain threshold, not to mention a high pain tolerance. Haven’t we all seen veterinarians inject horses and dogs? When the needle goes in, they don’t even flinch.

Likewise, what looks painful may be painless. We know from survivors of shark attacks, bear maulings, and the like, that the victim often goes into shock. He feels nothing at the time.

If he survives, he may be in excruciating pain, but of course, the victim is ordinarily killed and eaten.

iii) It’s demonstrable that predation, parasitism, disease, aging, death, and even extinction serve a natural purpose in the ecosystem. Although we classify natural disasters as natural “evils,” they hardly a gratuitous evil. While I regard human mortality as a result of the fall, I don’t regard subhuman mortality as a result of the fall.

iv) Beyond functionality, I think God has another purpose in this respect. We live in a “sacramental universe.” God has designed the animal kingdom to mimic good and evil. There are “good” animals and “bad” animals. Bestial heroes and villains.

You can see this in Scripture itself, where animals serve as moral and spiritual metaphors. They also symbolize good and evil in world literature, as well as many popular idioms.

3) At a specific level, this is how Dembski frames the problem of natural evil:

“We can imagine a world far more violent than ours in which many more people die annually of natural disasters. Alternatively, we can imagine a world far more halcyon than ours in which no one dies of natural disasters because the whole world is a serene tropical paradise…As suggested earlier, why didn’t God simply place us on a less dangerous planet where earthquakes don’t ravage human life? Or was this not an option for the Creator, and if not, why not?” (30).

On the other hand, he makes statements like this.

“…in the real world, there are no causally isolated events. Everything hangs together with everything else. The slightest change in one thing changes everything…Thus, by a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, a hurricane is averted in Miami…The lesson of chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics is that even the slightest physical changes ramify and eventually change the history of the entire world…The slightest change in any event makes everything different (if not immediately, then soon enough). That’s why films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Frequency, and Timecop (in decreasing order of excellence), which chart different possible futures but keep too many features of the world constant, make for entertaining fiction but are completely unrealistic” (139-40).
“The standard possible-worlds semantics for these conditionals (see David Lewis, Counterfactuals) depends on a similarity metric on possible worlds: the counterfactual if A, then B is true if in the worlds closest to ours where A is true B is also true. Such measurements of closeness among possible worlds, however, fail to respect the multidimensionality of similarity–along which dimension(s) do we gauge similarity?” (215n14).

But if imponderables like the butterfly effect and the incommensurability of possible worlds prevent us from being able to say whether one world is better than another, or being able to say whether a merely conceivable world is, in fact, a live possibility, then how can Dembski appeal to some imaginative ideal in we have a tropic paradise devoid of natural evils? Is that actually feasible?

Wouldn’t changing one variable trigger a series of mutual adjustments? You might have to trade down in one respect to trade up in another respect.

4) Likewise, Dembski says:

“All three forms of God’s will seem to be involved in the disordering of creation via natural evil. Genesis 3:17-18 suggests that God actively wills thorns and thistles (which symbolize the material effects of the fall…Vipers, viruses, and vermin seem more appropriately attributed to God’s permissive will, the permission going to Satan. On this view Satan ravages the earth prior to the Fall but is permitted to do so because of his success in tempting the first humans, a temptation that itself required God’s permission” (146).

A couple of problems:

i) It begs the question to say that thorns, thistles, vipers, viruses, and vermin represent natural “disorders.”

ii) Dembski is ascribing an extraordinary degree of power to Satan. Satan becomes a mad scientist or criminal genius with the power to reengineer the natural world. Create vipers, viruses, and vermin in his laboratory. That borders on the radical dualism which he finds so objectionable in Gregory Boyd’s worldview.

5) Moreover, “Biologists have since discovered even nastier critters. I leave to the reader to study the emerald cockroach wasp (which stings the brain of a cockroach twice, first turning it into a zombie and then into a vegetable)…Did God, in making the creation defective on purpose, specifically design such features into the natural world?…One possibility worth exploring is to what extent such instances of perverseness in nature can be explained as a subversion (by Satan? By evolution?) of an originally good design” (149).

A couple of problems:

i) That’s a trick question. To ask if God made the creation “defective” on purpose begs the question of whether natural “evils” like the cockroach wasp represent a design flaw or “subversion” of the natural order.

ii) To describe the “subversion of an originally good design” is ambiguous. Does he merely mean that sin results in certain diseases, genetic defects, &c.? Or does he mean that God had an original plan, as well as a backup plan in case the original plan fell through? Does the fall scuttle God’s original plan? Does God have to “respond” with a fallback plan?

iii) The example of the cockroach is blatantly anthropomorphic. In what sense can a cockroach suffer? What’s its level of awareness? Isn’t this a case in which Dembski is simply projecting himself into the “brain” of a cockroach? Isn’t he, in effect, saying to himself, “If I were a cockroach, I sure wouldn’t want that to happen to me!”

But, of course, if he were a lowly cockroach, he wouldn’t have that imaginative faculty in the first place. Dembski, from his human viewpoint, is implicitly asking himself what it feels like to be a cockroach. But if he were a cockroach, he wouldn’t share the human viewpoint which forms the basis of that empathetic projection. Does a cockroach even have a viewpoint? It’s a complete illusion to think that we can identify with the plight of a cockroach. I’m puzzled by what so many otherwise bright, sophisticated thinkers fall into this trap.

iv) I’d also add that, from the perspective of a human observer, animals seem to be pretty content with their lot in life. Do chipmunks suffer from clinical depression?

6) Furthermore, “The worry now arises whether the ‘genius’ who subverts an original good into a natural evil is God. Theological determinists, who think that every detail of the world is planned and executed by God, counter this worry by simply admitting that any such subversion of the original good must be God’s doing” (150).

That’s a tendentious way of putting it. Calvinists, for one, don’t think God “subverted” his own plan. Rather, the fall was instrumental to a greater good. That was part of the plan all along.

7) Finally, “In the Garden of Eden, the originally intended perfect world borders the Fall-corrupted imperfect world. In the originally intended world, there were no pathogenic microbes and, correspondingly, there is no need for Adam and Eve to have an immune system that wards off these microbes” (153).

i) Once again, this way of putting things borders on open theism. On the one hand, there is what God originally intended. On the other hand, there’s what actually played out-–which falls short of what God originally intended. Did his plan go awry?

ii) It’s true that absent pathogens, there may be no need for an immune system. But what if pathogens are a form of population control for the animal kingdom? And if Adam and Eve needed an immune system of shield them from that potential side-effect, is that a natural evil-–or a natural good?

III) But let’s waive my reservations to the way he’s chosen to frame the problem. Given that framework, is his solution successful? His answer involves the “retroactive” effects of the fall. That, of itself, could be a promising response depending on he defines his terms and develops his thesis. Unfortunately, his treatment suffers from some crippling confusions and equivocations.

1) I’m not clear on what metaphysical machinery underlies his thesis. For example, sometimes he resorts to the language of retrocausation. I don’t know if he’s speaking literally or figuratively. For example, you can use time-travel scenarios to illustrate a point even though you don’t believe in time-travel.

If he’s serious about retrocausation, then, of course, his position is saddled with all the paradoxes of retrocausation. Not only is that self-defeating, but it’s also unnecessary–since I think it’s possible to recast his solution in ways that sidestep the metaphysical baggage.

2) His equivocation may be due to a deeper problem. He speaks as though natural evils are part of a contingency plan after God’s original plan disintegrated on contact.

A more elegant solution would be to say the Fall was a part of God’s original plan, as a means to a higher end. And with that in mind, God frontloaded his creation with natural evils as a proleptic penal consequence of the Fall.

Why he avoids that solution, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a bit too Calvinistic for his bloodstream, and he’s trying to hit on a mediating solution which strikes the right between Calvinism and neotheism.

3) On a related note, he appears to be torn between deontologism and consequentialism. On the one hand, Dembski seems to reject the possibility of a greater good defense:

“The difficulty of this suggestion, which is made throughout the old-earth creationist literature, is that natural evil becomes simply a tool for furthering God’s ends rather than a consequence of human sin. Old-earth creationism thus opens God to the charge of inflicting pain simply to advance a divine agenda” (79).
“Thus, according to Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm, God creates a world of suffering not in response to human sin but to accomplish some future end (i.e., ‘the Master’s plan’). But this, again, makes human suffering a means to an end. And even if this end is lofty, we are still being used. Used is used, and there is no way to make this palatable, much less compatible with human dignity. That’s why Kant taught that we must treat fellow human beings not as ends in themselves. And that’s’ why, unless human suffering is permitted by God because we have, in some way, brought it on ourselves. Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm becomes a cynical manipulation of means to justify otherwise high ends” (79).

But there are some problems with this objection:

i) It takes Kantian deontologism for granted. Where’s the supporting argument?

ii) It fails to distinguish between culpable and inculpable agents. Suppose, all things being equal, that men are entitled to be treated as ends rather than means. So far so good. But what if a man happens to be a criminal or wrongdoer? Is it not possible, in that moral condition, for him to forfeit certain rights and immunities he enjoyed as an innocent man? In that case, it might be permissible to treat him as a means rather than an end. Shouldn’t Dembski at least consider that objection?

iii) It also seems to contradict other statements in which Dembski apparently endorses some version of the greater good defense:

“But why was the Cross necessary at all? If there was a rift between God and humanity, why was suffering–Christ’s suffering on the Cross–the key to healing it? In a fallen world, the only currency of love is suffering. Indeed, the only way to tell how much one person loves another is by what that person is willing to endure for the other. Without the cost incurred by suffering, love among fallen creatures becomes cheap and self-indulgent. Suffering removes the suspicion that the good we do for one another is for ulterior motives, with strings attached, a qui pro quo…Moreover, only such a full demonstration of God’s love enables us to love God with all our heart. The extent to which we can love God depends on the extent to which God has demonstrated his love for us, and that depends on the extent of evil that God has had to absorb, suffer, and overcome on our behalf…But note, for us to love God also depends on our seeing the magnitude of our offense against God and gratefully receiving the forgiveness that God’s suffering, in Christ on the Cross, has made possible. The principle at issue here is stated in Luke 7:47; those who realize that they have been forgiven much love much; those who think that they have only been forgiven little love little” (24).

This [O felix culpa] tradition redresses the Fall by pointing to the great redemption in Christ that the Fall elicits. In that tradition, just because a good outweighs an evil does nothing to make the evil less evil. Yes in the end we will be better off because Jesus saved us from evil rather than because we happened to be descendents of an Adam and Eve who escaped evil by never sinning. But their sin and its consequences must, even in the O felix culpa tradition, be viewed as a tragedy” (30).

But wouldn’t that “manipulate” the situation to “advance a divine agenda”?

4) “What were humans doing before they received the divine image and entered the Garden of Eden?…In the theodicy I’m proposing, these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God. Then, at the moment they entered the Garden, they received God’s image and became fully human.” (158).

On the one hand, we accept the narrative description insofar as we continue to take the Garden to be a real place in time. On the other hand, we reject the narrative description insofar as we take the process by which they were made Adam and Eve to be unreal unreal. Isn’t that a makeshift explanation?

Why are we still using the Edenic paradigm if we no longer believe the original story? In that event, why keep tweaking the same old paradigm? If we don’t believe the original story, isn’t it time to scrap that paradigm and move one? Start from scratch? Why cling to an obsolete paradigm when you’ve lost faith in the paradigm?

Mind you, Dembski doesn’t seem to be speaking for himself. From what I can tell, he’s basically an old-earth creationist. So he’s pointing out that his theodicy is neutral with respect to the theistic evolutionist/old-earth creationist debate. I wonder, though, why he’s more accommodating to theistic evolution than young-earth creationism. Even if he regards young-earth creationism as mistaken, is this a graver mistake than theistic evolution?

5) “What environment would God have arranged for us if Adam and Eve had not sinned?…In Gen 1, God tells humanity and the other organisms to reproduce and fill the earth. Once the earth is adequately filled with a given type of organism, and supposing organisms of that type do not die, what is the point of continued reproduction? It makes sense to think that a homeostatic mechanism actives when a population has adequately filled an environmental niche, maintaining the stability of population numbers and thus preventing overpopulation” (172).

Even at a purely speculative level, I don’t find this conjecture very plausible.

i) For one thing, there’s more to human sexuality than making babies–although that’s undervalued nowadays. Human sexuality is also a fundamental form of emotional bonding. A way of giving and receiving affection.

ii) Aren’t sex hormones a part of physical maturation? Wouldn’t adolescents in a pristine world still have a sex drive?

iii) On this view, there would be a final, albeit immortal, human generation. The final generation wouldn’t mate or beget. But that would deprive the final generation of the emotional fulfillment which comes from pairing off and having kids.

iv) I can imagine several other scenarios which partially or fully address this hypothetical question:

a) At that point, God might preserve the human sex drive, but render couples infertile.

b) Human beings might colonize the universe.

c) Dembski is also assuming the coexistence of the human race. But perhaps human beings, even immortal ones, could occupy different segments of the timeline–past or future. Even now, there’s some evidence for timeslips. The best-known case (but not the only reported case) involved the celebrated claim of Annie Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain.

d) In a world where everyone is immortal, it’s not as if you have to have all your kids in the first 10 years of marriage. You can space things out. You have time to spare.

IV) “As a consequence, the doctrine of divine omniscience entails a paradox: to know everything, God must know by acquaintance the full measure of human experience and thus must know what it is not to know since not knowing (what we call ‘ignorance’) is a basic feature of human finiteness (19).

Several problems with this claim:

i) That would, indeed, be a paradox, and Dembski states the paradox rather than resolving it. But that’s unsatisfactory in this context. It won’t do to say that in order for God to be omniscient, he must also be ignorant. You can’t say, on the one hand, that knowledge by acquaintance is a necessary condition to render God omniscient, then say, on the other hand, that knowledge by acquaintance imposes a limitation on God’s knowledge. At that point, what does your argument amount to? How does that solve the problem you originally posed for yourself?

ii) There’s another problem with Dembski’s contention. Must God, to be omniscient, experience what it feels like to be a sadist or serial killer or pedophile? If a sadist finds it plesant to torture little children, but God find that pleasant as well? Must he experience whatever the sadist or serial killer or pedophile finds appealing? Know what it’s like to like evil? What it’s like to give into sin? What it’s like to take satisfaction in evil for its own sake?

This would cast God in the role of the criminal profiler who, to get inside the mind of the killer, is slowly seduced by evil. Begins to identify with the killer. Empathize with the killer.

iii) Moreover, if knowledge by acquaintance is a necessary condition of omniscience, then God is not omniscient. The incarnation hardly acquaints God with the “full measure of human experience.” At best, it would only acquaint God with some cultural universals–along with the unique life-experience of one particular individual. But everyone’s life experience is unique. To experience one is not to experience another.

In addition, that would still leave God unacquainted with the experience of the entire subhuman order. To become a man doesn’t acquaint God with the inner experience of a squirrel.

iv) Let’s illustrate the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. A color-blind ophthalmologist is the world’s leading authority on color vision. He knows everything there is to know about the physiology of color vision. That’s knowledge by description.

Yet there’s one crucial and elusive bit of information he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what it’s like to actually see colors. That’s knowledge by acquaintance.

Is this applicable to God? No. The fact that we frequently experience color as a physical sensation doesn’t mean that color is essentially physical. For example, we may dream in color, but we’re not actually seeing sensible objects. The dream is a simulation reality. There’s no external stimulus producing this sensation.

Color is ultimately an abstract universal. God’s exemplary idea of different colors. Different shades of color. The sensible colors we perceive when we see a sunset or rainbow or flower garden is a concrete property instance of God’s insensible idea. God doesn’t have to experience the sensible exemplum to know the insensible exemplar. God doesn’t need to reproduce our finite mode of knowledge to know what we know.

“God’s knowledge includes knowledge of the future. When God becomes man in Jesus Christ, however, he sets aside divine omniscience. The point of God’s becoming man is for God to identify with the whole human experience, and this is not possible if Christ retains all his divine privileges (20).

i) This sounds like the Kenotic heresy. One wonders why a statement like that didn’t raise red flags for a confessional Lutheran like John Warwick Montgomery or a countercult apologist like Hank Hanegraaff or Doug Groothuis.

ii) It also turns on a particular theory of the atonement–Dembski’s disclaimer notwithstanding (cf. 204n5). If you subscribe to penal substitution, then that was not the point of the Incarnation. And penal substitution doesn’t require the Redeemer to “identify with the whole of human experience.”

V) Dembski uses anachronistic answers to prayer (51; 127-28) as a paradigm case of retroactive effects. Depending on how we define our terms, there is nothing wrong with this example. However, we don’t need retrocausation to explain anachronistic answers to prayer. A prayer can affect the past without changing the past. If God foreknew (much less, if he predestined) our prayer, then the answer to can be built into his plan for the world. He doesn’t have to rewrite the plan while the program is running to answer our prayer.

“God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur” (131).

i) I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Seems backwards to me. Is God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that God is able to respond to events and human actions before they occur because he can anticipate their occurrence?

ii) More to the point, why is God “responding” to events before they occur? Are the events inevitable? Is God a first-responder? He can’t prevent it–he can only deal with it, as a fait accompli?

VI) On the one hand, Dembski scornfully rejects open theism, and variants thereof:

“Contemporary strategies for redressing the Fall consistently run aground because they attribute at least some of the evil that humanity suffers to factors other than human guilt. In such approaches, God lets humanity suffer evils of which it is entirely innocent–evils for which it is not responsible and which it therefore does not deserve. For a good God to permit such evils thus presupposes a limitation on God’s power and knowledge. For presumably, if God’s power and knowledge were up to the task, he would be both able and morally obligated, as a matter of justice to prevent evils of which we are innocent from afflicting us. This is why process and openness theologies have become increasingly attractive. They give us a God who means well but is limited in stemming the tide of evil,” ibid. 32.
“Such a God wrings his hands over the world’s evil and, like an ineffectual politician, tries haltingly to make the world a better place. To our hardier theological forebears, this God would have seemed pathetic (to say nothing of heretical). But each age constructs gods in its own image, and in this touchy-feely age, a diminished God who shares our vulnerabilities and weaknesses is all the rage,” ibid. 34.
“Gregory Boyd, a proponent of open theism, has in fact written an entire book on the evils that may, in his view, properly be ascribed to Satan: Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. In that book, Boyd shifts to Satan the responsibility for natural evil. Yet, in making that shift, Boyd embraces a dualism that Lewis would have rejected. Because open theism contracts the power and knowledge of God, God does not have Satan on a leash as he does in classical theism. Thus, for Boyd, Satan becomes an independent center of evil activity. This is not quite a Manichean dualism, in which good and evil are ontological equals (Satan for Boyd is still a created being). But it’s close. Moreover, it’s not clear how Boyd’s theodicy absolves God of evil since as Satan’s Creator, he must have realized the possibilities of evil inherent in his creation,” ibid. 38-39.

On the other hand, Dembski stakes out a position which seems to be functionally equivalent:

“All things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation of all things.’ Creation always starts with an idea and ends with a thing. Anything achieved must first be conceived. Creation is thus a process bounded by conception at one end and realization at the other…All this is unproblematic so long as the second creation fulfills the promise of the first. But what if the two creations don’t match up? What if the second creation doesn’t achieve anything like the goal set by the first Creation? God, who is perfect, cannot make mistakes in the first creation. The first creation is creation as a conceptual act and is therefore completely under divine control” (107-08).
“Thus, if divine creation miscarries, it ahs to miscarry at the second creation. But how can a prefect first creation end in failure at the second creation? The short answer, of course, is rebellion of the creature–in a world, the Fall. Rebellion of the creature sabotages the second creation by preventing the first creation from fulfilling its purpose” (108).
“God writes our story and, when we fall, rewrites it…God can rewrite our story while it is being performed and even change the entire backdrop against which it is performed–that includes past, present, and future…Once humanity falls in Genesis 3, God must act to undo the damage.” (110-11).

Doesn’t this make God seem to be a shortsighted Creator who’s having to improvise in light of unforeseen variables or unintended consequences?

On a related note, he says:

“God has to deal with a sin-ridden world and all the messiness that entails. There are no neat solutions for dealing with a fallen world. Even God faces difficult decisions…The problem is that in a fallen world, no decision, when executed, has prefect consequences. A fallen world is a world of costs and benefits. It is a world of tradeoffs and compromise. The challenge for God is to pick the best compromise among competing objectives that procures the greatest good” (173-74).

i) He makes it sounds as though all possible worlds are fallen worlds. God can only choose between one fallen world and another.

ii) He also makes it sound as though tradeoffs only occur in fallen worlds. But it seems to me that cost/benefit considerations apply more broadly. Different possible worlds may exemplify incommensurable goods. A sinless world may be better in one respect, but deficient in another–if it can’t include certain second-order goods which presuppose evil.

VII) Demski has a whole chapter on YEC. And, even beyond that, YEC is a running foil throughout his book. I have two basic problems with his treatment of YEC:

1) If I were defending YEC, I wouldn’t go about it the way he describes it. So his criticisms, even if valid on their own level, are counterarguments to arguments (or specific formulations, thereof) I wouldn’t use in the first place, if I were making a case for YEC.

2) If you’re going to attack a position, then you need to give it the amount of attention it demands to get the job done. Dembski’s attack on YEC is far too cursory.

The proper way for him to do this would be to quote the most astute representatives of YEC (e.g. John Byl, Jonathan Sarfati, Kurt Wise), then offer a sustained critique of their position. This would also have to go beyond stuff they write for popular consumption. It would involve contacting them directly. Posing questions for them to answer.

I don’t see that Dembski has done that. In his acknowledgements, he thanks people like Don Page, Hugh Ross, David Snoke, the ASA list, and so on. But names from the YEC camp are conspicuously missing. There’s no evidence of direct, personal interaction with them. They don’t seem to be his conversation partners or even his sparring partners.

Likewise, he incorporates email communications in his book. But, once again, there’s nothing from the YEC camp.

So I don’t know quite what he’s trying to accomplish. Is he trying to dissuade young-earth-creationists? If so, he can’t very well talk them out of their position unless he does a lot more to engage the argument.

Now I realize that he may not wish to get sidetracked. But if he can’t give YEC the space it requires in this book, the least he could do is to write some lengthy reviews of books and articles by Byl, Sarfati, Wise, &c., and then refer the reader to his reviews for more detail. And his book reviews could also incorporate personal correspondence.

Or he could write a separate article on the subject. He has a website where he posts a lot of his shorter writings.

All in all, I prefer Dembski’s book for some of the side dishes rather than the main course. And I also like some side dishes better than others.

Self-Defeating Skepticism

Here's a recent thread at Stand To Reason on the trustworthiness of the gospels. Notice that the skeptics in the thread show so little knowledge of the subjects they're discussing, as if they haven't done much research. They often raise objections to the Bible that, if they were consistent, they would have to apply to non-Christian historical sources and common human behavior in everyday life. If you're going to object to the reliability of human memory, paraphrasing people, translating what people have said, etc., then your objections reach far beyond the Bible.

Two of the skeptics participating in the thread, Joe and Bino Bolumai, posted on Triablogue in the past. Joe was banned after he lied about his identity, and Bino Bolumai was caught lifting material from an unreliable skeptical web site and presenting that material as if it was his own.


I recently read a Time article about problems people are having saving for retirement with a 401(k). What I found most significant in the story was what it assumes about the nature of retirement. For example:

Retiree Robert Shively spends his days on the golf course. For many, that would be a dream come true, but not quite in the way Shively does it. The 68-year-old is the cart mechanic at the Niagara Falls Country Club....

Lucantonio, 61, is proud of what he has been able to afford in retirement. He and his wife bought a cabin in New York's hilly Southern Tier. "It's even got ceramic tile in the kitchen," he says. He would like to spend more time there, but like many other former Occidental employees we talked to, he's had to unretire into a new job....

Dennis O'Neil plays the part of a former HR executive well. You can find O'Neil, who left Oxy on disability a few years ago, on a golf course, clad in picture-perfect golden-years attire: a black Izod shirt with white shorts, faux-alligator-skin cleats, Ray-Bans, a gold shamrock hanging from a gold chain on his neck and a black baseball cap. But O'Neil's retirement outlook is growing darker every day. He once made a six-figure salary, but the 63-year-old is fairly certain that his savings won't be able to sustain him for very much longer. He has some $500,000 left in his 401(k) and spends about $75,000 a year. At this rate, he worries he will tap out his retirement savings within the next decade.

Unless, as O'Neil's thinking goes, he can make something happen in the stock market. So he spends much of his day watching CNBC. "Right now, I want to know which area of the economy is going to recover first. Will it be retail? Commodities? Energy?" says O'Neil. Playing the market is probably the wrong thing to do, but he got divorced eight years ago, depleting a good portion of his savings, and his medical bills are likely to go up soon. O'Neil is going blind from histoplasmosis. These days he has to golf with a friend. He would like to buy a house in Florida before he loses his eyesight completely, but he just can't afford it.

What do people do in retirement? They play golf or buy a new home. Despite their early retirement, and despite their spending money and time on things like a new home, we're told that these people may "have" to get a job again. Things are getting "darker" for them, since they won't be able to keep spending $75000 a year.

I often meet, or hear about, people who return to work because they can't find much to do in retirement. They're bored. A few years ago, I spoke with a man, who professed to be a Christian, who was about to retire. What were his plans for retirement? Not much, apparently. His wife had lined up a long list of unnecessary housework for him to do. A television ad I saw, maybe a year or two ago, was built on the premise that people largely spend their retirement watching television. A recent study found that the average American spends more than five hours a day watching TV, and the average is higher for the elderly.

How are you using your time? How are you raising your children? What examples are you setting for them and for other people? What are your plans for retirement?

If you're a Christian who's bored, who can't think of much that's significant to do with his time, go see one of the pastors of your church. Or contact a missionary, apologist, or somebody else working in some field of Christian ministry. They should be able to give you a lot of ideas about how to better spend your time.

"Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader's Digest, which tells about a couple who 'took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.' At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn't. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life - your one and only precious, God-given life - and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells. Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: 'Look, Lord. See my shells.' That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream." (John Piper, Don't Waste Your Life [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003], pp. 45-46)

"So what can't [science] account for?"

HT: Kingdomview.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Twisse on supralapsarianism

[Quote] Now Twisse was no enemy to logic in theological discussions. In fact his statement and defense of Supralapsarianism has been obscured if not ignored in later accounts of the question. It is therefore in order to hear his own precise formulation, which differs from that of others with whom he has been included as holding this high version of Calvinism. In treating of the teaching of Prov. 16:4 as to the manifestation of God’s glory as the end of his works, Twisse writes: “And from hence we conclude, that in case the end is such as has been specified, and all those actions following, congruous means tending to that end, therefore the decree of manifesting God’s glory, as above specified is first with God, and secondly, the decree of the means; which means although they are many materially, yet they come all under one formal notion of means tending to a certain end, which according to the several parts thereof bespeaks them all, and consequently they are all to be considered, as making up the object of one formal decree, called the decree of the means: and the intention of none of them is before another, but all intended at once, as means tending to the end which is first intended. In like manner if God shall be pleased to intend the manifestation of his glory in Man, or Angel, in the way of justice vindicative, the means necessarily required hereunto are Creation, Permission of sin, and Damnation unto punishment, and all three make up the object of one formal decree which is to be called the decree of the means. So that like as God doth not intend the creature’s creation, before he intends his damnation, in the same respect he cannot be said to intend his damnation before he intends his creation, or the permissions of his sin.” (p. 11). In this way, Twisse demolishes the Arminian objection that Supralapsarianism is guilty of the blasphemy that God has determined to create men in order to damn them. At the same time he hints gently that Infralapsarians have no reason to agree with Arminians on this point.

Do-It-Yourself Deity

"What is God?"

Giving Up Social Currency For Something Better

People often like to flatter themselves, or be flattered by others, with the notion that they have less free time than they actually have. Advertisers and politicians, for example, often flatter people in an attempt to get their money or their vote. People want to think of themselves as hard workers, even if they aren't. And claiming to be busy is a common excuse for ignorance of the Bible, ignorance of politics, and other forms of negligence. Supposedly, people don't know more about the Bible, pray more, follow election campaigns more closely, or know more about current events, for example, because they don't have the time for it.

I've written on this subject in the past. People have more free time than they let on. A recent study found that the average American spends more than five hours a day watching television. The New York Times article I just linked concludes:

When subjects in the study were asked to recall their behaviors, “people underestimated the amount of time they spent with TV by a substantial amount,” about 25 percent on average, Mr. Wakshlag said. The same people tended to overestimate their use of other media.

For some people, there is a “social stigma” attached to high levels of TV watching, Mr. Bloxham said. When some people are asked to estimate their TV viewing, he said, some of them may not “want to tell you five or six hours, because that may slip into the couch potato category,” he said. For others, he said, “there is no stigma because being able to talk about last night’s reality show or last night’s ball game is social currency.”

But knowledge of some other subjects isn't so valuable as social currency. Most Americans don't read the Bible much. They don't know much about the Bible. They place more of an emphasis on being an American than being a Christian. In summary:

The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy. How else can you describe matters when most church-going adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm?

The New York Times article cited above refers to watching television as something that provides social currency. I think an excessive desire for social currency is one of the reasons why so many professing Christians spend an inordinate amount of time with popular television programs, movies, music, sports, etc. If you spend your time responsibly, you'll pay a high social price for it. Are you paying that sort of price for your time management? If you go into work this morning without being able to name the four gospels, without knowing who the vice president of the nation is, or without knowing how to defend your view of abortion, you probably won't pay much of a social price for it. But if you didn't watch American Idol or Monday Night Football, you'll most likely be left out of a lot of discussions. The world won't reward you for your knowledge of theology, church history, or ethics as much as it will reward you for your knowledge of trivial and vulgar television programs, music, and sports.

There's nothing inherently wrong with something like watching television or playing a video game. But the degree to which Americans are involved in such activity, while neglecting things that are far more important, is grossly wrong.

But apart from what's wrong, what's wise? If a Christian is free to watch a television program, in the sense that there's nothing about the program that makes watching it unacceptable in most or all contexts, it doesn't follow that he ought to do so in the current context.

One of the reasons why I oppose the sort of large government role in healthcare that's currently being proposed by many Democrats is that we can't afford it as a nation. We're out of money. We've already put our children and grandchildren into deep debt.

And we don't just have a financial debt. We also have a debt of time. We can't afford to spend time on things like sports and video games the way we might have in the past. In a time of war, you make sacrifices that you wouldn't make at other times. The less your surrounding culture is teaching you about the Bible, for example, the more time you'll have to spend to learn about it without your culture's help. The less other people in your society know about the Bible, the more time you'll have to spend trying to educate them. You have to spend more time educating your children yourself. More time analyzing television programs and books, for example, before allowing them into your life or your home. More time trying to learn how to interact with a culture that's more ignorant of and hostile toward your worldview. Etc. The same is true of politics, ethics, and other subjects when a society neglects them.

I'm not suggesting that everything is getting worse. It's a mixed bag. On some issues, such as racism and abortion, there's been some improvement over time. But I think the general trend has been negative. (Societal acceptance of pornography and homosexuality are a couple of examples, and see the recent Barna data on views of the Bible here, for instance.) And even if things were getting better, or were the same, we would still be far from where we ought to be.

Scripture often encourages us to consider future generations and make sacrifices for their benefit, "that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord" (Psalm 102:18). You don't have to avoid things like sports and video games altogether. But why not give them up, or at least decrease your time spent on them, anyway? Many people of previous generations did so, to your benefit. A Christian ought to be enthralled by "the unfathomable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8). He should be risking and sacrificing (responsibly), trying to achieve great things, involved in something that's "more wonderful than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams". That's difficult to do when your mind is immersed in baseball, American Idol, and the latest popular music and movies.