Monday, October 31, 2011

Commanding or permitting

Recently, Victor Reppert revisited the “genocidal” passages in Scripture. I’m going to focus on two of his arguments:

1) One argument he deploys is a tu quoque argument. He draws attention to secular ethicists like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley who take the position that infanticide is justifiable under some circumstances. In that event, an atheist can’t say it’s ipso facto wrong for God to command the death of Canaanite children.

Reppert isn’t endorsing the position of Singer and Tooley–or the Biblical injunctions. He’s simply pointing out that popular objections to “religious violence” (a la Sam Harris, Hector Avalos) fail to make allowance for what some secular ethicists allow for.

As far as that goes, I think Reppert’s counterargument is legitimate.

2) Another argument appeals the increasingly popular claim that the “genocidal” commands are hyperbolic or idiomatic. To this I’d say several things:

i) I distinguish between Bible scholars like Richard Hess and Lawson Younger, on the one hand, and philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, on the other hand. I wouldn’t turn to philosophers for the exegesis of Scripture. At least, that’s not where I’d start. However, I do think that philosophers can take the exegetical findings of Bible scholars and draw certain conclusions.

ii) While I don’t object to the notion of hyperbole in Scripture, I think this type of analysis fails to distinguish between the genre of law and history. Law describes what agents ought to do while history describes what agents actually do. If you have a discrepancy between the scope of a command and the scope of compliance, that doesn’t mean the command was hyperbolic or idiomatic. It’s common for compliance to fall short of the command. The command states one’s duty, but sinners are often derelict in their duty. Indeed, that’s a common theme in the historical narratives of Scripture. 

You can’t infer the intended scope of a command from the outcome, or vice versa.

ii) I don’t understand why professing Christians like Reppert find literary accounts of corporate judgment in Scripture so problematic. After all, there’s nothing in Joshua that doesn’t happen in the real world, in terms of mass fatalities. In the real world, women and children die in war (not to mention natural disasters). Why take offense at the accounts, but give comparable events a pass?

Why is an outcome that God commands a different theodicean problem than the same outcome which God permits? If we already have an adequate theodicy to explain what God allows, why do we need a different explanation for what God commands? The end-result is the same. 

iii) Apropos (ii), perhaps Reppert thinks there’s a morally significant difference between God commanding something and God permitting something. Is that the case? Take a comparison:

a) God orders Joshua to kill one Canaanite child

b) God allows Joshua to kill a thousand Canaanite children

On the face of it, I don’t see why (b) is licit while (a) is illicit.

iii) In the past, Reppert has appealed to the law of unintended consequences. For all we know, what seems like a gratuitous evil at present may have a morally sufficient reason if we could see how things play out in the long run. There are, however, several problems with his appeal:

a) Reppert has often indicated his sympathies for open theism. He regards open theism as a viable fallback position.

b) Apropos (a), if God doesn’t know the outcome, then he doesn’t if things will turn out for the best by permitting evil. Allowing evil at present may result in a greater good down the line, or it may result in a greater evil down the line. The unintended consequences cuts both ways. For better or for worse.

c) Even if we grant open theism, or God’s self-limiting knowledge, this doesn’t mean that God is equally ignorant of all future events. For instance, the future is frequently more predictable as the future approaches the present. To say we can’t anticipate an outcome 100 years into the future doesn’t mean we can’t anticipate an outcome tomorrow. Even if we don’t know for sure what will happen tomorrow, we may well be in a position to know what’s more than likely to happen tomorrow.

And part of moral responsibility is to consider probable outcomes. Suppose, in 1900, God can’t forestall some tragedy in 2/2/2000. This doesn’t mean that on 2/1/2000, God can’t forestall the same tragedy a day later.

So you can’t say God refrained from intervening to prevent some future atrocity or humanitarian disaster because he lacks advance knowledge. For, in many instances, he can see it coming. Even if the impending evil isn’t a dead certainty, we frequently have a moral responsibility to take preemptive or precautionary measures. That’s part of risk management.

d) Apropos (c), there are situations which carry a low risk of catastrophic consequences over against situations with a high risk of trivial consequences. In those circumstances, avoiding the catastrophic consequence may outweigh the minimal risk, simply because the worst-case scenario is too devastating, even if it’s highly unlikely. Don’t gamble if you can’t afford to lose.

e) There are also situations in which willful ignorance is culpable. Suppose there’s a security camera at a public park. The camera is there to monitor, record, and deter criminals from preying on joggers. Suppose the cameraman decides to turn it off. He doesn’t want to know what’s going on. He doesn’t want to intimidate criminals since that would infringe on their freedom of choice.

If a crime occurred on his watch, would we consider that a valid defense?


  1. I always wonder what these folks do with the crucifixion.

  2. My central claim here is that Dawkins's grounds of refusing to debate Craig based on his endorsement of "genocidal" passages in Scripture is hypocritical, and can be seen to be so even if you endorse something like Flannagan's view of those passages.