Thursday, November 03, 2011

By Jove!

I’m posting my side of a recently exchange with Bob Gonzales. My disagreement in no way detracts from all the other fine work Dr. Gonzales is doing.


How would you respond to someone who suggested that the hermeneutical approach taken by Murray on God’s attitude towards the reprobate leads to open theism if carried to a logical extreme?

To take a concrete example, this is how Gregory Boyd replies to a Wm Young type of reply:

The Scripture used to support the open view may be interpreted as phenomenological anthropomorphisms
Response: This asserts that these passages are a human way of speaking about things as they seem to be, not as they really are. However, nothing in the context of these Scriptures, covering a variety of audiences, authors, and contexts, suggests they are “phenomenological” (how things appear) or “anthropomorphic.” There is no justification for reading into these descriptions of God’s actions anything other than their most natural explanation. How can reports about what God was thinking be phenomenological (Jer. 3:6–7; 19–20; Exod. 13:17)? And if they are anthropomorphic, it’s not clear what they mean. For example, what do all the passages that explicitly say God changed his mind mean if God doesn’t, in fact, change his mind?

Conversely, take the OPC minority report, which you link to. Young raises some of the following objections to Murray’s position:

(a) There is frequent employment of anthropopathic language in Scripture, in which grief, anger, jealously, curiosity, and repentance are ascribed to Deity. Such Scripture passages teach that God acts in a manner which we are taught to view as corresponding to the manner of action of human beings moved by such passions. From these Scriptures the presence of such passions in God cannot be inferred.
(b) Elements in human desire unsuited to the perfection of God can be mentioned. Desire suggests a want or lack in the one who desires which can be fulfilled only by the gratifying of the desire. This is incompatible with the self-sufficiency of God. Desire is something weaker than the firm determination of the will. No such weak wishing can properly be ascribed to God whose will is firmly fixed and fixes all things. God has not a will that can be frustrated as well as one that cannot be.
(c) The particular passages of Scripture alleged to support frustratable desires no more prove desire as an emotion or passion in God than the assertion “it repented God…” etc. proves a real change of his mind, or that God actually desired to know that the wickedness of Sodom was as it had been represented to him.

That’s the standard strategy which orthodox Christians use to deflect the arguments of open theists. Notice the parallel between arguments Murray is using and the arguments that open theists use. Wm Young interprets that as anthropomorphic or anthropopathetic usage. But his side lost.
Of course, open theism wasn’t on the radar back then, but if you reject Young’s counterargument to Murray, how could you rebut an open theist who is making the same exegetical moves that Murray does? You’ve forfeited the strategy available to Young.

Murray takes the emotive ascriptions at face value. So do open theists like Boyd. How can you accept Murray’s methodology, but reject the conclusions of open theists when they are using essentially the same methodology?

Gonzales replies:

“(1) Man as God’s image is his visible replica and vice-regent. Accordingly, man himself is a vehicle of general revelation, and God uses human language as a vehicle for special revelation. Such revelation is, of necessity, analogical in nature. That means descriptions of God employing human language and ascribing qualities or faculties to God that sound “human” must be interpreted analogically (similar), not univocally (identical). (contra Open Theism)”

i) I think you and I are talking at cross purposes. For one thing, we need to distinguish between how we interpret/exegete a text, and how we interpret our exegetical findings. Take how Murray handles these two passages:

“Since they did not fulfil that which was optatively expressed in [Deut] 5:29 (26), we must conclude that God had not decreed that they should have such a heart. If God had decreed it, it would have been so. Here therefore we have an instance of desire on the part of God for the fulfilment of that which he had not decreed; in other words, a will on the part of God to that which he had not decretively willed. Should we make full allowance for doubt as to the exact force of the construction in the case of Deut. 32:29 and Isa. 48:18, there can be no room for question but that the Lord represents himself in some of these passages as earnestly desiring the fulfilment of something which he had not in the exercise of his sovereign will actually decreed to come to pass.”

The point at issue is not whether that is how God represents himself. The disagreement doesn’t occur at that interpretive level.

When I say Murray takes his prooftexts at face-value, I mean this: Murray takes for granted that the Bible writer intends to literally ascribe these mental states to God. Murray doesn’t think the Bible writer is speaking rhetorically or hyperbolically. He doesn’t even make allowance for that possibility.

ii) Put another way, is the Bible writer using propositional/illocutionary language about God, or performative/perlocutionary language about God? Is he trying to assert something about the mind of God, or is he trying to provoke an appropriate response in the listener (e.g. encourage, deter)?

Genre considerations are also relevant to our discourse classification.

The question at issue is not whether these texts attribute certain mental states to God, but how the reader is supposed to interpret that attribution. What did the Bible writer intend? What did he have in mind? How did he mean that ascription to be understood by the audience? That’s the issue.

iii) Put another way, we need to distinguish between how we interpret the text, and how we interpret the implications of the text vis-à-vis systematic theology.

In principle, Young could agree with Murray on what the text says. That’s not the primary point in dispute. The bone of contention is whether that ascription was meant to be taken literally or rhetorically. Propositionally or performatively.

iv) Which brings me to the next point. We don’t interpret a text analogically. It’s not our hermeneutical approach that’s analogical. Rather, the question of analogy is a second-order question. How we interpret our exegetical findings. The role of analogy in God-talk. And, underlying that, the degree to which God is metaphysically like and unlike the creature.

“(2) Theologians have commonly referred to such language as ‘anthropomorphic’ (human form) or ‘anthropopathic’ (human feelings). This terminology is appropriate provided that we remember its function is to convey analogical knowledge, not univocal or equivocal knowledge.”

That’s parallel to the distinction between literal and figurative usage. A metaphor involves a relation between one thing and another. A metaphor stands for something else. The metaphor has something in common with the literal referent.

“The psalmist is certainly not implying that God has physical ears or physical eyes.”

i) Sure. You just take it up to the intended level of abstraction. Arms, eyes, and ears are concrete modes of acting or knowing. So they can function as metaphors for divine omniscience and omnipotence.

ii) But analogy doesn’t distinguish your position from open theism. Boyd isn’t a Mormon. Boyd doesn’t think God is just a very powerful man.

“God is not simply above time and space. God actually enters time and space. And within the matrix of human history, God thinks, feels, and acts. Moreover, God’s thinking, feeling, and acting is often depicted as a response to some state of affairs or human action.”

That’s a highly contestable claim which you seem to treat as a given. But theologians like Paul Helm certainly wouldn’t grant your contention.

“So God’s acts within the matrix of human history (e.g., the exodus, the resurrection of Christ) are instances of real and discreet activity occurring within time and space.”

The fact that God’s plan is effected in time, in a given sequence, doesn’t mean that God himself must be in time.

“Similarly, God’s emotive responses to states of affairs or events within the matrix of human history are genuine responses. God reacts to evil with a kind of grief, disappointment, and anger that corresponds to the kind of emotions we feel.”

i) You’re assuming what you need to prove. That begs the very question at issue. And it’s on the same continuum as open theism.

ii) Yes, you introduce predestination, but that’s diluted by your claim that God is “disappointed” with the results.

“But I believe we must embrace all the biblical descriptions of God…”

We must embrace all that with a view to their intended force.

“Yet, I also affirm that within the matrix of human history God experiences grief, sorrow, anger, pleasure, love, hatred, jealousy, joy and peace. All of these emotional responses are perfectly consistent with his unchanging ‘being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.’”

Stipulating consistency doesn’t make it consistent.

“On the other hand, I reject the view that only sees God in terms of above or outside of human history–the view that describes God as a ‘fixed pillar’ and depicts mental, volitional, or affectional changes ascribed to him as merely phenomenal, as changes that really occur in man but not in any sense in God.”

You’re casting classical theism in rather invidious terms, but that aside, you’re admitting, in a roundabout way, that God loses control. That creation can pull God’s strings.

I’m reminded of an old Columbo episode (“By Dawn’s Early Light”) where the Patrick McGoohan character manipulates a cadet because the cadet is so predictable.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean that Murray viewed divine desire in a one-to-one correspondence with human desire. He, like Van Til and John Frame, maintain the Creature/Creator distinction.”

It’s not enough for you to invoke analogy in the abstract. If your going to claim that God literally experiences grief, sorrow, anger, hatred, jealousy, &c., then you need to say in what respect those ascriptions are analogous or disanalogous.

“You raise the question of whether the text is trying ‘to assert something about the mind of God, or is [it] trying to provoke an appropriate response in the listener (e.g. encourage, deter)?’ as if we have to choose between one or the other. My response is that both are true. In this case, performative/perlocutionary language about God is grounded in propositional/illocutionary language about God. That’s how I believe the ordinary Israelite would have interpreted the text, i.e., ‘I should genuinely fear God (which includes faith and repentance) because God genuinely wants me and all sinners–including those who fell in the wilderness–to genuinely fear him always for our perpetual good.’ Indeed, that’s how God wants the Israelite (as well as you and me) to interpret the text.”

I don’t know why you think God has to have a singular purpose or motive when he issues threats, promises, &c. He might issue a threat to deter the elect as well as inculpate the reprobate. His intention is genuine in both cases, but it’s not reducible to a singular intention for both parties.

“So we have to remember the Creator/Creature distinction from the beginning to the end of the whole exegetical process.”

You’re blurring the Creator/creature distinction.

“God does not simply manifest the “effectuation of his plan” in time and space; God manifests his real presence in time and space especially through the incarnation.”

i) That’s a confused statement. I didn’t say God manifests the effectuation of his plan. He effects his plan. He doesn’t effect a manifestation of his plan. Of course, there’s a sense in which the spatiotemporal world is a manifestation of his timeless, immaterial decree.

ii) You also beg the question in terms of how best to model the Incarnation.

“I believe my view is consistent with Scripture.”

Your view is consistent with the surface grammar of Scripture, but the same could be said for open theism.

“Steve, you seem to object to the idea that emotive responses ascribed to God can in fact refer to any real inward psychological activity within the Godhead.”

On my view, God causes changes in the world; the world doesn’t cause changes in God. God is not an effect of his own creation.

“He argued that when the Bible says God feels compassion, it doesn’t really mean that. Rather, God does nice things which we humans interpret as indicative of real heartfelt compassion. But in reality, we’re wrong to interpret it that way, so says Anselm, because of his particular view of divine impassability (unfortunately inherited from certain Greek philosophers) that a priori precludes us from interpreting it that way.”

i) You seem to be equating impassibility with apathy. That’s not what it means. Rather, it means God cannot be affected by anything outside himself.

ii) As far as Greek philosophers go, we could just as well say that your alternative resembles Greek mythology. The Greek gods were very emotional. Very reactionary. Your view of God seems quite Homeric. Prone to wild mood swings.

“On the other hand, you ascribe to me the unfounded belief that God ‘loses control’ when in fact I have asserted that God not only responds emotively in time and space but that God has decreed and providentially governs every one of his responses as well as the states of affairs and/or human actions that precede his responses. How that can be interpreted as God “losing control” is beyond me.”

Because, what you give with one hand, you snatch away with the other. You have God ruing the consequences of his own actions. Take your illustration of a screenwriter. You’re putting the God in a position where the characters in his screenplay have the power to make him mad, grief-stricken, &c. The characters acquire this godlike power over their Maker. They know what buttons to push to get a rise out of him.

You can’t patch it up by falling back on predestination, for given predestination, it’s nonsensical to say that God feels let down by his own plan.

“Above you say I need to prove that God responds emotively rather than simply assuming that he does. Fair enough, the Bible provides an overwhelming amount of data in favor of divine emotivity.”

i) Your methodology is identical to Gregory Boyd’s. He also quotes lots of verses to prove that God frequently changes his mind. God expresses regret and disappointment over how things turned out. God tells us that he is surprised at how things turned out because he expected a different outcome. God frequently tests his people to find out whether they’ll remain faithful to him. God sometimes asks non-rhetorical questions about the future.

ii) Merely quoting Scripture misses the point. As I said at the outset, the question at issue is not whether Scripture contains certain depictions of God, but how we ought to construe those depictions.

“Finally, I question whether this conversation is going to end up productive.”

The point of conversations like this is rarely to change the minds of the immediate participants. Rather, it’s to get the arguments and counterarguments out into the open so that onlookers can better assess the respective claims. But if you feel this conversation is at the point of diminishing returns, fine. Thanks for your time.

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