Saturday, May 07, 2011

Innate Solidarity or the Despotism of the Sky

In what might very well be one of his last pieces, Christopher Hitchens has again raised the banner of atheism against the parochial machinations of theism.

Defiant to the end, Hitchens' letter reflects his customary style of rhetoric over substance, so there is little in terms of argument to critique.

However, his article provides insight into modern assumptions about the ultimate source of value and meaning:

It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

He goes on to explicate this choice:

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Notice how Hitchens frames the issue; we are left to choose between oppressive concepts of objective truth ("despotism"), on the one hand, and dignity enriching subjectivism, on the other.

This is all downstream of Richard Rorty and his famous essay Objectivity or Solidarity, where Rorty defends subjectively defined community. Here are some representative excerpts (emphasis original):

There are two principle ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contribution to a community. This community may be the actual historical one in which they live, or another actual one, distant in time or place, or a quite imaginary one, consisting of perhaps a dozen heroes or heroines selected from history or fiction or both. The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. This relation is immediate in the sense that it does not derive from a relation between such a reality and their tribe, or their nation, or their imagined band of comrades. I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity. Insofar as a person is seeking solidarity, she does not ask about the relation between the practices of the chosen community and something outside that community. Insofar as she seeks objectivity, she distances herself from the actual persons around her not by thinking of herself as a member of some other real or imaginary group, but rather by attaching herself to something which can be described without reference to any particular human beings.

The tradition in Western culture which centers around the notion of the search for Truth, a tradition which runs from the Greek philosophers through the Enlightenment, is the clearest example of the attempt to find a sense in one's existence by turning away from solidarity to objectivity. The idea of Truth as something to be pursued for its own sake, not because it will be good for oneself, or for one's real or imaginary community, is the central theme of this tradition.


By contrast, those who wish to reduce objectivity to solidarity--call them "pragmatists"--do not require either a metaphysics or an epistemology. They view truth as, in William James' phrase, what is good for us to believe...They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged by isolating a natural and transcultural sort of rationality which can be used to criticize certain cultures and praise others, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better.


Part of the instinctive resistance to attempts by Marxists, Sartreans, Oakeshottians, Gadamerians and Foucauldians to reduce objectivity to solidarity is the fear that our traditional liberal habits and hopes will not survive the reduction...I think that putting the issue in such moral and political terms, rather than in epistemological and metaphilosophical terms, makes clearer what is at stake. For now the question is not about how to define worlds like "truth" or "rationality" or "knowledge" or "philosophy," but about what self-image our society should have of itself. The ritual invocation of the "need to avoid relativism" is most comprehensible as an expression of the need to preserve certain habits of contemporary European life.


We should say that we must, in practice, privilege our own group, even though there can be no noncircular justification for doing so. We must insist that the fact that nothing is immune from criticism does not mean that we have a duty to justify everything. We Western liberal intellectuals should accept the fact that we have to start from where we are, and that this means that there are lots of views which we simply cannot take seriously.


The best argument we partisans of solidarity have against the realistic partisans of objectivity is Nietzsche's argument that the traditional Western metaphysico-epistemological way of firming up our habits simply isn't working anymore. It isn't doing its job. It has become as transparent a device as the postulation of deities who turn out, by happy coincidence, to have chosen us as their people.1

In at least one critical sense, Rorty has won the philosophical debate, and this is reflected in Hitchens' piece.2 The secular world, through the influence of the university, accepts these terms: either we choose unity through subjectively defined, community-based morality, or we suffer under those who think they have a divine mandate that allows them to bend the world to their will.3

Even though Hitchens' dilemma is ultimately false (and deeply problematic, for it ends in claiming God as the fundamental problem with the world!), it is partially correct. Formed in the image of a Triune God, we only thrive in loving, service-oriented community. History is filled with examples of professing believers brutalizing those outside of their community. We may only need mention the Catholic Church of the middle ages and its cultural expectations of "how things ought to be"; claiming that its cultural values were derived from a transcendent standard, it laid a delightful foundation for every sort of rank imperialism and colonialism. And Scripture gives us several case studies of claimed followers of God exercising injustice against those who do not hold to the in-group's standard of righteousness. (A prime example is that of the Pharisees.) The thirst for solidarity is natural and good, and there is a limited, qualified sense in which objectivity ruins its pursuit.

Yet because Scripture accounts for this behavior--the misuse of God's truth for selfish, destructive ends--such activity cannot be a sufficient objection to theism.

Indeed, Scripture offers a positive alternative. Christ has come to establish a kind of community that promotes not just in-group solidarity, but love for those outside of the group, even if they are enemies.4 In one sense, the Sermon on the Mount presents a choice between two kinds of objectivity: (a) one which inevitably brings derision, scorn, hate, and even violence, toward those who are not part of the in-group, and (b) another which brings peaceful, loving, tolerant solidarity to both those inside and outside the group. In the former, exemplified by the Scribes and the Pharisees, you earn your social and religious standing through righteous obedience to an extrinsic standard. This acceptance inevitably produces a superiority complex out of which arrogance and oppression flow. In the latter, however, acceptance into Christ's kingdom is grace from beginning to end, a justification by faith alone. Since you do not earn the love of God, there is no ground on which to say you are better than those in the out-group. Since you understand your own sinfulness, and what Christ sacrificed to save you from it, you will have grace and power to love others, even those who hate and despise you.

The love of Christ shatters the post-modern dilemma. In Jesus you will find both objective meaning and loving solidarity.


1. Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 21ff.

2. Strangely enough, here we also find the basis of Brian McLaren's objections to modern Christianity, whether in its conservative or liberal forms.

3. While Rorty's essay targets all forms of objectivity, including scientism, Hitchens' narrowing of the scope of objectivity to theism is reasonable given his intended audience of American atheists.

4. I am indebted here to Timothy Keller's conception of Christ's community as described in "The Community of Jesus." This sermon, an exposition of Luke 6:12-36, is available for free, either on the Redeemer podcast or here at the Redeemer website.

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 2: “The Advent of Modernism”

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 1: “New Territory” (6:50)

I’m going to continue to provide transcriptions from the lecture, Roman Catholicism Today, by Nick Needham, because he summarizes so well the evolution in Roman Catholic theology and dogma from, say, Vatican I to Vatican II, and not everyone has the opportunity to sit and listen to an hour-long lecture.
Now in order to understand what happened at Vatican II, we need to step back and take a bird’s eye view of Roman Catholic theology in the hundred years or so that preceded the council. No important event in history suddenly pops into being without causes or a background. There were streams of influence flowing within the Roman Catholic communion that finally burst forth at the Second Vatican Council and its decisions. (7:23)

Part of the problem for the great majority of Protestants and evangelicals, is that we know little or nothing of the history of Roman Catholicism after the turmoil and the conflicts of the Reformation era in the 16th century. We could, each of us, no doubt, without difficulty, name six Protestant theologians, preachers, or devotional writers who have lived and worked since the days of Luther or Calvin. How many of us could name six Roman Catholic theologians, preachers, or devotional writers, who’ve lived and worked since that time. Therein lies the problem. It is not our history, and perhaps inevitably, most of us know little or nothing about it. And consequently, we tend to view all Roman Catholicism through the distorting lens of the 16th century conflict. (8:23)

But you see, Roman Catholicism no more stood still than Protestantism did. It “developed” in all kinds of ways. It had its internal problems and struggles. It interacted with the changes in society brought on by such events as the rise of science, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the French Revolution, the advent of the modern secular democracy, and nationalism. It had its own distinguished men and women, theologians, philosophers, poets, humanitarian workers, and missionaries, whatever we may think of them. (9:00)

So, let’s try in broad brush strokes, to paint a rudimentary picture of what was going within Roman Catholic theology, in the century that led up to the Second Vatican Council. Prior to Vatican II, the official theology of the Roman Catholic communion was “neo-Thomism,” named after Thomas Aquinas, greatest of the Catholic theologians of the middle ages. “Thomism” [was] the theology of Thomas, and hence “neo-Thomism” the “new” Thomism. Neo-Thomism was a revamped Thomism, adapted and fine-tuned for the purpose of rescuing the church from an increasing diversity of ideas and theologies that had emerged in the early 19th century. Because Thomas and the theologians of the middle ages were known as “scholastic” theologians, you’ll also come across the term “neo-scholasticism” to describe this 19th century movement within Roman Catholicism. (10:07)

So then there was this attempt within the Roman Catholic communion to revive, to rehabilitate medieval scholastic theology in general and Thomism in particular, from around 1840 onward. Neo-Thomism especially, was given the official seal of approval in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Aeterni Patris of 1879, where Leo named Thomas as the great theologian of the church. (10:42)

Now this is the kind of Roman Catholicism still portrayed in popular Protestant books on the subject. For example, in the classic 1962 volume, Roman Catholicism, by the reformed writer, Lorraine Boettner. It was published during the early stages of the Second Vatican Council. But rather misleadingly, it describes the theology which had prevailed in Rome, up to that point. This is the theology that was essentially neo-Thomist, and also committed to upholding the teachings of the great Council of Trent, a 16th century Roman Catholic council which had reacted to the Reformation, and formulated its views in opposition to it. (11:29)

However, even during this era [the 19th century], when neo-Thomism was the official Roman theology, liberal ideas in various forms were circulating within Roman Catholicism. And these liberal ideas were collectively known as “modernism”. The leading modernist theologians within Roman Catholicism at that time were the German Baron Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925), the Englishman George Tyrrell (1861-1909), and the French thinker Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), and Maurice Blondel (1861-1949). (12:15)

Now the essence of Roman Catholic modernism was to reshape Roman Catholic theology much along the lines of liberal Protestantism, and its leading thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher had radically reinterpreted and reformatted Protestant theology in this way. Rather than the teaching of an infallible Bible, Schleiermacher made man’s religious experience the heart of his theology. He was trying to respond to the challenges of the 18th century enlightenment, which saw the traditional arguments for the existence of God rejected by leading philosophers. It also saw the historical reliability of the Bible questioned within the church by critical scholars. Schleiermacher thought he could rescue Christianity from these assaults of skepticism. His method has been described thus: “Take heart, all is not lost. Religion does not need outside evidence to justify its existence. Religion is not knowledge, whether in the form of creeds, doctrines, or the content of sacred books. It does not need philosophical reflection either. The essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. If you have a feeling of dependence on God, you have all that is necessary to make you a member of the worldwide communion of saints or company of the truly religious. The separate beliefs and practices of the various religions scattered through time and space are simply different ways, all more or less valid, of cultivating and expressing this fundamental instinct or attitude or feeling of dependence, which by itself is sufficient.” (14:22)

Now Schleiermacher was eminently successful in persuading many Protestants to follow his program for reformatting Christianity, and so this human religious feeling and experience. The Roman Catholic modernists pursued a similar path, often with explicit reliance on Schleiermacher. Baron von Hugel, for example, was a disciple of Schleiermacher’s, and he introduced the great English Roman Catholic modernist George Tyrrell to Schleiermacher’s writings. These modernist ideas then, parallel to liberal Protestantism, were circulating among Roman Catholics, even during the heyday of neo-Thomism. (15:09)

But they didn’t escape criticism and censure. Pope Pius X, pope from 1903-14, condemned modernism in his decree, Lamentabili, and his encyclical letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis, both issued in 1907. He described modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies”. The Roman Catholic modernist thinkers, such as von Hugel, Tyrell, Loisy and Blondel, thus become the object of official scorn, and rejection. Tyrrell and Loisy, indeed, were excommunicated. However, the modernist seeds had been sown. (15:55)

And looming in the background stood the titanic figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Black, white, and gray

Much has been written about how Christians ought to react to the death of bin Laden. One of the oddities of this debate is how quickly it was recast in terms of “celebrating” or “rejoicing” or “gloating” over his death.

From what I can tell, the initial stimulus for that framework was live footage of Americans in DC and NYC who, upon news of bin Laden’s death, streamed into the streets to cheer his demise.

How we got from that to deploring the reaction of Christians is far from clear. Where’s the direct connection?

Speaking for myself, I didn’t feel much of anything when I switched the TV on late Sunday night, and ran across breaking news of his demise.

The deeper problems is that, in situations like this, you always have some professing believers, usually clergymen, who act morally and emotionally conflicted about the whole thing. Frankly, this incessant handwringing brings the church into disrepute.

In a fallen world there are many shades of gray. But every issue or event isn’t a gray area. In a fallen world, events range along a moral continuum. There are borderline cases somewhere in the middle. But there are more extreme cases at either end of the spectrum.

The Bible itself uses the imagery of “light” and “dark” to morally differentiate good and evil people, good and evil events, in starkly binary terms.

Moral paralysis is a moral weakness. Certain events ought to leave us ambivalent. But it’s inappropriate to have mixed feelings about everything that happens.

Friday, May 06, 2011

"lament for an assassination"

For those who look to Rome for moral guidance:

The Waterboarding Trail to bin Laden

"on the death of a mass murderer"

Is Allah God?

This issue has come up, not only in relation to contemporary Catholic theology, but also in conjunction with Miroslav Volf’s recent book, Allah: A Christian Response.


“But the theological overlap comes from Islam's strict monotheism, with which we agree…”

No, we don’t agree. That’s fatally equivocal. There’s no overlap between worshipping the one true God and worshipping one false god.

Monotheistic idolatry is no better than polytheistic idolatry.

“…and their identification of the one God as the God of Abraham, with which we also agree.”

They don’t worship Yahweh. They don’t worship the God of Abraham.

God didn’t reveal himself in the Koran. The Koran is not a self-revelation of the one true God. Muhammad was a false prophet. Therefore, the Koranic god doesn’t map onto the OT God. Rather, the Koranic god is just a literary construct–like the Homeric gods.

“They believe in ‘what may be known about God...[His] invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - [which] have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.’”

Islamic theism falsifies the natural knowledge of God. It superimposes an idolatrous reinterpretation onto natural revelation.

“To the extent that they are not culpable for their ignorance, they are not responsible for being ignorant of doctrines specific to Revelation like the Trinity and redemption through Jesus.”

If we grant your tendentious premise, which begs the question.

“Their fidelity to what can be known by God through nature situates them to fit Paul's category for the Gentiles of his time in Romans 1-2.”

Islam is a Judeo-Christian heresy. Muhammed viewed himself as a religious reformer. In his mind he was purifying and restoring the true religion. Islam is not on a trajectory towards Christianity, but on a trajectory away from Christianity. It stands in conscious opposition to Christian theology. A deliberate repudiation of the Christian faith.

That’s hardly equivalent to pre-Christian gentiles in Rom 1-2. Rather, that’s post-Christian and anti-Christian.

“The teaching on Islam has to be understood in light of the Church's understanding of culpable and inculpable ignorance [of Christian revelation]. I understand this is a major disagreement between Catholics and Calvinists, but I think it's the more fundamental locus of the disagreement.”

It also has to be understand in terms of Rome attempting to paper over internal tensions in her disparate theological traditions–as well as subsequent Rahnerian influences.

"This is, I think, all that the Catechism is trying to say about Muslims."

If (a la Vatican II) Muslims worship the same God as Catholics, then, by converse logic, Catholics worship the same God as Muslims. Hence, Catholics are Muslims.

I think that's Bnonn's basic argument, and it's a pretty straightforward argument.

5/06/2011 9:42 AM 

I've heard it said that Arabic speaking Christians (who believe in the doctrine of the Trinity) sometimes refer to God as "Allah" because the word "Allah" is the generic word for "God/supreme being/the Deity". I've even heard it said that Arabic speaking Christians have been referring to God as "Allah" before Mohammed was ever born (circa 570 A.D.) or claimed to be a prophet (circa 610 A.D.). That even Arabic translation(s) of Scripture (whether partial or whole)which ante-date Islam also refer to the Christian God as "Allah". 1. Is there any truth to the above? 2. How does this affect DBN's argument?

i) “Allah” can be used as a synonym for Yahweh, Elohim, or theos (in the NT).

ii) “Jacob” can be used as a synonym for “James.” One could use the same name(s) to denote the same individual. But, of course, every man designated by “James” or “Jacob” is not the same individual!

iii) “Allah” in the Koran doesn’t share the same referent as “Allah” in Arabic translations of the Bible. In one case it denotes the Koranic deity, in the other case the Biblical deity.

iv) We need to distinguish between “Allah” as a common noun for the deity, and “Allah” as a proper noun for the Islamic deity in particular.

As a common noun, the usage is neutral. And Arabic translations of the Bible use “Allah” as a common noun.

v) Since the context of Bnonn’s post was Islamic usage, I don’t think the usage of Christian Arabs is germane to his argument.

Karl Rove Assesses Republican Chances in 2012

Karl Rove, who was the political mastermind behind the two George W. Bush elections in 2000 and 2004, assessed Republican chances in the 2012 presidential election.

• Obama won the electoral count in 2008, 365 to 173.

• Reapportionment in congress, based on the 2010 census, means that 18 states have experienced a change in their number of electoral votes. This reapportionment alone would have given John McCain an additional 14 electoral votes.

• Obama narrowly won three traditionally Republican states in 2008: Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina. He “will be hard-pressed to win these states and their 39 electoral votes next year.”

• Ohio, with 18 electoral votes, and Florida, with 29, both went Democratic in 2008. But “a recent Quinnipiac University poll in Florida shows the president losing to a generic, unnamed Republican by three points.”

• There are nine other “battleground states” which Rove expects will again be battlegrounds: New Hampshire (4), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), Iowa (six), and Minnesota (10), Colorado (9), New Mexico (5) and Nevada (6).

“The 2012 presidential election is likely to be decided in 14 states. If Mr. Obama loses the three states he narrowly carried in 2008 plus Ohio and Florida, then the GOP would win back the White House by swiping any one of the nine remaining battlegrounds. This is a good place for the party to be right now…. Mr. Obama has the considerable benefits of incumbency but also a dismal record. The electoral map has shrunk for him: Key states that went for him last time are unlikely to do so again. This election is within the GOP's grasp. The quality of the Republican candidate's campaign and message will decide whether it becomes so.”

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Mars Hell

The one true Islamic sect

Since there seem to be problems linking to the post, I'll just the whole thing here:


Rome: “Catholics adore the one God, Allah”

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.
So says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 3, Sub-paragraph 841, if I understand the organization of the catechism correctly—it seems rather long and complicated considering it’s such an important document).

Let’s make an argument!

  1. Muslims and Catholics together adore the one God
  2. Muslims adore Allah
  3. Therefore, Allah is the one God
  4. Therefore, Catholics adore Allah

Yeap, it holds water

I’ve seen Catholics respond to this by saying that the argument doesn’t follow, because Muslims deny certain truths about God, like that he is manifest in Jesus. So, to draw an analogy, you might adore Batman and yet believe that he is not Bruce Wayne; so you can adore God and yet believe that he is not Jesus. But there’s an obvious problem with that comeback, because neither my argument nor the catechism is couched in terms of denial, but rather of affirmation. So we can construct a valid parallel argument from the perspective of Selina Kyle, who knows Batman’s secret identity, in regards to Vicki Vale, who does not:
  1. Vicki and Selina together adore Batman (because…)
  2. Vicki adores Bruce
  3. And Bruce is Batman
  4. So of course Selina also adores Bruce
You’ll notice the argument isn’t trying to prove anything new—rather, it’s retracing the steps of reasoning used to get to Rome’s conclusion (premise [1]) in the first place. My conclusion, premise [4], is simply an entailment of Rome’s original line of reasoning.
The premises follow exactly because the argument is framed from the perspective of someone claiming greater knowledge than the parties whom the arguments are about. Catholics say Muslims adore God—and Selina says Vicki adores Batman—not because the epistemically impoverished Muslims believe that Allah is God—or the epistemically impoverished Vicki believes that Bruce is Batman—but because the epistemically gifted Catholics (and Selina) claim to know it.
But if Allah is God like Bruce Wayne is Batman, then Catholics, who adore God and know about his “secret identity”, automatically adore Allah too. Just like someone who adores Batman, and knows his secret identity as Bruce Wayne, must adore Bruce too. They adore them both because they know they’re one and the same person.

The upshot

Well, it’s obvious enough, innit? Catholics explicitly identify Allah with God. Since Christians explicitly deny that Allah is God—he is just another false idol—it follows that Catholics are not Christians, but rather some kind of “enlightened Muslims”. It’s nice to have it confirmed by Rome that Roman Catholicism is not a Christian denomination, but rather a sect of Islam.

We confess One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Islamic sect

J. R. Michaels, Commentary on The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010)

Down below, Steve quoted from this commentary, and of the many things I’ve learned from reading Triablogue over the years, it’s the value of commentaries. Steve and I have had many discussions about commentaries. One of my fervent wishes is that he would expand and bring up-to-date his commentary page, hint, hint.

Whenever I see a new commentary, I try to at least check it out, Amazon being the typical source I would check for such things (I try always to buy used books if I can). My comment below was, “Who is Michaels, and why does his commentary sell for $130.00, when other commentaries in the series are in the $50.00 range?” Amazon was selling it for $130.00 new and $165.00 used.

Fortunately, CBD is selling it at a more normal price, as is shown in the photo on the left.

(With my “income tax refund” this year, I had a choice to buy a lot of books – again this year I’ve passed on Bavinck’s Systematic Theology, and Muller’s “Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics,” – each $100+ sets, in order to stock up on commentaries. I’ve come to see how good commentaries are foundational when we want to try to understand, “what saith the Lord?”)

A pilgrim's regress

"A Pilgrim's Regress: George John Romanes and the Search for Rational Faith" by Tim McGrew.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Beyond Minimal Facts

Kruger reviews Forged

Arminian moral conundra

I’m going to begin by juxtaposing two statements by Roger Olson:

I think the main difference lies in different views of God’s intentionality. Arminians say God never intended the fall to happen and does not intend any of its consequences–except to allow them. Calvinists would seem to have to say that even the fall, then all of its consequences, was intended by God. To me, there’s a huge difference there. If God intended for the fall to happen, if it is part of a divine plan, then God’s character is questionable.

However, even Anabaptists believe God gave the sword to the state and so some killing is justified even if it is sin.  But it is never justifiable for the Jesus follower to kill.  It is not God’s will for his people to kill.
Christian realists believe sometimes God’s people must hold their noses and kill.  But even when killing is absolutely necessary (e.g., in the case of Bonhoeffer participating in the plot to kill Hitler) the Jesus follower must not celebrate.  The appropriate response is instead to repent and trust God for forgiveness.

If you think evil events are divinely unintended events, if God didn’t plan the fall, or other evil events, then it’s easy to see how that, in turn, would generate intractable moral dilemmas in which we have no morally good options. For we’re dealt our cards from a disorganized deck of haphazard events.

If conversely, God predestined every event, including evil events, then each event (including evil events) is coordinated with every other event. God has good reason for whatever he decrees. Even if a given event is evil in and of itself, it serves a good purpose.

But if you take Roger Olsen’s position, then evil events are random, disjointed events. So you could well find yourself trapped in a haphazard situation where there is no right course of action. It’s just the luck of the draw whether or not unplanned evils leave you with a morally licit option.

Ironically, Olsen’s position is fairly fatalistic. You may find yourself, through no fault of your own, caught up in a web of helter-skelter events where whatever you do will be morally wrong.

But it’s unclear, on that scenario, why Olson still believes our actions are blameworthy. 

In a further irony, Olson’s position invalidates a popular Arminian prooftext (1 Cor 10:13). For on his view there are situations in which we have no innocuous escape route. We may have choices, but all our choices are culpable choices.

Mind you, as I’ve argued on more than one occasion, I don’t think 1 Cor 10:13 succeeds as an Arminian prooftexts, but it’s nice to see an Arminian theologian who agrees with me (albeit for different reasons). 

A done deal

From the start, the Gospel [of John] speaks of those who “receive” Jesus as the Light and “believe in his name,” those who are given “authority to become children of God” by virtue of having been born…of God” (1:12-13). Two chapters later Jesus tells Nicodemus, “unless someone is born from above [or “of water and Spirit”], he cannot see [or “enter”] the kingdom of God” (3:3,5). But what exactly is the relationship between being “born of God,” or “born from above,” and “receiving” or “believing in” Jesus? Which comes first? Is a person reborn because he or she believes, or does a person believe as a result of being reborn? Conventional wisdom assumes the former as a matter of course, and the word order of 1:12-13 seems on the face of it to support this. Yet those verses make no explicit causal connection either way between faith and rebirth, and as Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus runs its course, evidence for the opposite view begins to surface. “Receiving” Jesus’ testimony is mentioned in 3:11, and “believing” is repeatedly urged in verses 12, 15, and 16. Finally, the stark alternative of “believing” or “not believing” in him is clearly set forth (v18), and then restated (in language reminiscent of 1:9-13) as either loving or hating the Light, either “coming to the Light” or refusing to come (vv19-21). The person who “hates the Light” does so because he “practices wicked things,” and refuses to come “for fear his works will be exposed” (v20). By contrast, the person who “does the truth comes to the Light, so that his works will be revealed as works wrought in God” (v21).
On this note the interview with Nicodemus–if Nicodemus is still anywhere in the picture–comes to an end. In sharp distinction from the other three Gospels, in which Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:27//Mt 9:13; also Lk 5:32), he does come to call, if not explicitly “the righteous,” at least those who “do the truth”–as against those who “practice wicked things.” Those who come to him in faith (that is, “come to the Light”) demonstrate by so doing that they are already “doers of the truth,” not by their own merits to be sure, but because their works have been “in God” (en theo, 3:21). They do not prove their faith by their works–at least not yet–but on the contrary prove their works by their faith. To this extent, John’s Gospel turns some versions of Reformation theology on their heads! It is not as radical as it sounds, however, for the point is simply that God is at work in a person’s life before the person “receives” Jesus, or “believes,” or “comes to the Light.” This is evident in the account of the man born blind–the Gospel’s classic case study on what it means to be “born of God”–where the point made is not that the man was a sinner who “believed” and was consequently reborn. On the contrary, Jesus insists, “Neither this man sinned nor his patents”–that is, his predicament was not the result of sin. Rather, the purpose of the healing was “that the works of God might be revealed in him” (9:3)–that is, God was already at work in his life, and his eventual confession of faith 9:38) would reveal that to be the case. He did not believe in order to be “born of God.” He believed because he was “born of God.” This interpretation is confirmed by Jesus’ repeated insistence that “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37), “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him” (6:44), and “no one can come to me unless it is given him from the Father” (6:65). The initiative in human salvation is God the Father’s and his alone.
While it is true that John’s Gospel centers on a call to decision, the hearer’s decision cannot change but only reveal what has gone on before–the working of God the Father in those who will eventually become his children. Jesus can speak of “other sheep” whom, he says, “I have,” even though they have not yet believed (10:16), and the Gospel writer can envision scattered “children of God”–born of God,” therefore–who have yet to be gathered into one” (11:52). Perhaps the words of old Simeon in another Gospel put it best: Jesus in the Gospel of John comes “so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed” (Lk 2:35). The accent is not on “conversion” (the words for “repent” and “repentance” never occur), or even the forgiveness of sins, but on revelation. The coming of Jesus into the world simply reveals who belongs–and who does not belong–to his Father, the God of Israel.

J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010), 40-42.

"Does Jesus Really Want You to Hate Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, Wife, and Children?"

Just, justified, or both?

"Justified sin"

Arminian theology prof. Roger Olson has once again graced the world with his profound moral insights. In the age of terrorism and counterterrorism, we’re truly blessed to have a man of his crystalline moral clarity to guide us.

I live in a city where the majority of people consider themselves serious Christians and where I see lots of bumper stickers that raise doubts about whether all who think they are really are. 

I often get the same feeling when I read Roger Olson.

One thing Yoder (Anabaptist) and Niebuhr (Christian realist) would agree on is that Christians should never celebrate killing–however justified it may be.  Anabaptists like Yoder probably think no killing is truly justified.  Christian realists like Niebuhr probably think some killing is justified, but no killing is righteous.  I find myself leaning toward the Christian realist view on this, but when I read the Sermon on the Mount and think about what Jesus would do I have trouble believing a Christian ought ever to kill.

Except that Olson doesn’t really care what Jesus taught. He pays lipservice to the Sermon on the Mount, but he doesn’t lift a finger exegete the relevant passages.

With Olson we get a totemic reverence for Jesus, yet while he’s prepared to quote what Jesus said, he’s not prepared to ascertain what Jesus meant. But what about the Sermon on the Mount?

1 .Jesus uses several examples to illustrate what an “enemy” denotes:

i) There’s the kind of enemy who dishonors you (Mt 5:39). That’s a personal indignity, not a threat to life and limb.

ii) Then there’s the hypothetical plaintiff who sues an indigent defendant (5:40). Since, as a matter of fact, the Mosaic law (Exod 22:25-27; Deut 24:12-13) forbad a plaintiff from doing what Jesus depicts, this illustration is hyperbolic. The point is that Christians should be prepared to go over and above their minimal legal duties.

iii) Then there’s abuse of power by representatives of the Roman occupation force (5:41). Once again, that’s not a threat to life and limb.

In addition, Jesus is a realist. When you’re dealing with a situation like that, resistance is futile. Jesus is, in part, shadowboxing with the Zealots.

iv) Jesus also anticipates the religious persecution of his followers (5:44; cf. 10:17; 23:34). We should pray for our persecutors.

2. What Olson also overlooks is that Jesus isn’t teaching us to love our enemies rather than our neighbors. Jesus takes neighbor-love for granted, but extends that principle to our enemies (properly defined).

But what about situations in which the two come into conflict? What if your enemy is also your neighbor’s enemy? And what if the enemy is dangerous?

Olson acts as though, if a mugger accosted his wife, it would be his Christian duty to hold her down while the mugger beats her. But there’s a difference between turning your own cheek, and offering someone else’s cheek to strike (not to mention that “turning the other check” envisions humiliation, not assault and battery, much less intent to commit murder).

However, even Anabaptists believe God gave the sword to the state and so some killing is justified even if it is sin.  But it is never justifiable for the Jesus follower to kill.  It is not God’s will for his people to kill.

i) “Justified sin”? But if it’s justifiable, how can it be sinful–and if it’s sinful, how can it be justifiable?

ii) Likewise, how can something contrary to God’s will be justifiable?

Christian realists believe sometimes God’s people must hold their noses and kill.  But even when killing is absolutely necessary (e.g., in the case of Bonhoeffer participating in the plot to kill Hitler) the Jesus follower must not celebrate.  The appropriate response is instead to repent and trust God for forgiveness.

i) Why should we repent of something that’s “absolutely necessary?”

ii) I wonder if this doesn’t reflect the moral and metaphysical dualism inherent in Olson’s Arminian theology. The world is full of evils which are contrary to God’s will. God didn’t plan them or intend them.

As a result, Christians frequently find themselves caught in moral dilemmas, where it’s “absolutely necessary” to commit sin.

That certainly takes the Arminian worldview to its logical extreme. But, frankly, if that’s what he believes, then how can we trust a God who leaves us with no righteous options?

These last two days America has been in a frenzy of celebration over the killing of one of our and humanity’s worst enemies.  Personally, I’m glad he’s dead IF that is the only alternative to him engineering more horrendous deaths through terrorism.  Apparently it is.  But I can’t celebrate.  And I can’t understand Christians who do celebrate death–especially when there is “collateral damage” as in the case of the woman used as a human shield.

i) It depends, in part, what we mean by “celebrate.” We don’t celebrate killing for the sake of killing. But we may rightly celebrate a just outcome.

ii) Why assume the women in the compound weren’t devoted followers of bin Laden? Doesn’t Olson think women are free moral agents?

Now, the Niebuhr in me wants to pat the Navy Seal who killed on the back and say “Good job!”  “Now let’s pray for forgiveness.”

Forgive them for doing good?

The Yoder in me wants to say “Now let me talk with you about being a peace maker instead of a killer.”

Of course, that’s a false dichotomy.

There was no hint of sorrow for innocent lives lost in war or repentance for our numerous military incursions into non-combatant countries to defend our “national interests.”  (The US has, without invitation by legitimate governments, militarily intervened in Latin American countries about 150 times.)

We can debate the pros and cons of American foreign policy. Our policymakers are not infallible.

However, I assume Olson is alluding to Cold War policies to check the spread of communism. It was the duty of US presidents to oppose the expansion of communism.

In conclusion, while I’m glad the snake has been decapitated, as a Christian I can’t celebrate any violent death.  I can only breathe a sigh of relief and pray “God have mercy.”

God have mercy on whom? Killing him was an act of mercy to bin Laden’s innocent prospective victims. And justice for his innocent actual victims. 

Roman Catholic Ecclesiology: The Church that Roman Catholics Believe In Today

Many Reformed believers have heard Warfield’s statement that “The Reformation was the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church” (B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine).What Reformed thinkers have to grapple with is that Rome, in its post-Vatican II doctrines, has sidestepped the issues surrounding grace and justification, and has, in effect, doubled down on its ecclesiology as “the means of salvation”.

Here’s a sample of what I mean:
The opening words of the [Vatican II] Constitution on the [Roman Catholic] Church Lumen Gentium, “the light of the nations,” refer not to the church but to Christ. But the next sentence introduces the church as “in Christ a kind of sacrament: that is, a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and the unity of all humanity … [Consider] St. Augustine’s description of the origin of the church: “It was from the side of Christ as he slept on the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament which is the whole church.” This one sentence suggests some of the reasons that prompted St. Augustine to describe the church as sacramentum where the word clearly means “mystery.” First of all, he sees the church as the fruit of Christ’s passion and death, thus having its origin not in a mere act of institution, but in the redemptive work accomplished by Christ on the cross. He sees the church as symbolized by the blood and water that flowed out from the side of Christ: no doubt because this blood and water were identified with the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the most fundamental elements in the life of the church. Finally, the reference to Christ “sleeping the sleep of death” presents Christ as the “new Adam” from whose side the church came forth as the “new Eve,” thus suggesting that as the first Eve was drawn from Adam’s side to be his bride and “helper (Gen 2:18), so the church is the bride of Christ who has a helping role to play in Christ’s ongoing work for the salvation of humanity…. No mere human institution could be described in terms such as these.

Article seven [of Lumen Gentium] develops further aspects of this doctrine, found mainly in Colossians and Ephesians. In these letters St. Paul introduced an idea that he had not used in the earlier letters, namely, that of Christ as head of his body the church…. The final paragraph involves the passage of Eph 5:22-28 where St Paul applies to Christ and his church the idea from Gen 2:24 that a man and his wife become “one flesh.” So also, the church is both Christ’s bride and his body, which he loves, nourishes and cherishes, fills with divine gifts…. [Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., “The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”, New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, ©1988, pgs. 9].
Sullivan is a Roman Catholic theologian, a professor of Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. This is foundational to what the post Vatican II Roman Catholic Church thinks about itself. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church equates itself and its hierarchical structure, its “sacramental priesthood,” its continuing “succession” of priests with this image of “one church”. One can imagine why they think this is a good thing. It is a winsome story that ties the Roman Church today with this “bride of Christ” that was “mysteriously” born “while Christ slept on the cross.”

Here are some of the foundational doctrinal statements from Vatican II that clarify this meaning (from Sullivan):
In three important documents, Vatican II has further developed this concept [of church as sacrament] by speaking of the church as the universal sacrament of salvation. In Lumen Gentium we read: “Christ, having been lifted up from the earth, is drawing all men to himself (John 12:32). Rising from the dead, he sent his life-giving Spirit upon his disciples and through this Spirit has established his body, the church, as the universal sacrament of salvation” (LG 48). Gaudium et Spes declares: While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the church is the ‘universal sacrament of salvation,’ simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God’s love for man” (GS 45). Finally, the decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad gentes: AG) opens with the statement “The church has been divinely sent to all nations that she might be ‘the universal sacrament of salvation’” (AG 1)

The appearance of the word “universal” in these texts suggests that we are dealing with an aspect of the catholicity of the church. If the role of the church as sign and instrument of salvation really means that the church not only signifies but helps to bring about the salvation of everyone who is saved, we have another important reason for professing our belief in the church as “catholic.” In this chapter we shall have to see in what sense the church [“the Roman Catholic Church”] can be said to be both a sign and instrument of salvation, and what grounds there are for claiming a universal role for it in the salvation of all humanity.

… We have seen that there is no salvation without the grace of Christ, and that every offer of grace is intrinsically directed toward the church, even when it does not bring about actual membership in the church on earth. In this sense, the catholicity of the church consists in the fact that the universal offer of grace involves a relationship to the church on the part of every human person—a relationship, to be sure, that will vary according to the response each person makes to God’s grace. [“All who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain, though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church”. This “certain, though imperfect communion” also is extended to non-believers.] In some cases, as we have seen, people respond to grace in such a way as to enter into spiritual communion with the church, living in Christ without knowing him as the source of their supernatural life. In other cases, a person may not have responded, and yet the offer continues to be made. The common factor here is that everyone without exception is placed in some relationship to [the Roman Catholic Church]. All those who do not actually belong to her are at least “ordered toward her” (ad eam ordinatur) [Sullivan, 109-110].
So you, my friend, according to Rome, are saved because “the Roman Catholic Church” is the “universal sacrament of salvation,” because “all grace of salvation is not only ordered toward [the Roman Catholic Church], but in some way comes fromand through the [Roman Catholic] Church. As a sign and instrument of all salvation, the church is not merely the goal toward which grace is directed, it is the channel or medium through which grace is given. You are in a “certain, though imperfect communion” already with the Roman Catholic Church.

This is the reason you’ll find the following language in the CCC:
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism explains: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.

“However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [of the Reformation that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

… the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.”

“All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God. . . . And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.”

“Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.”

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race: …

The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”

To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is “the world reconciled.” …

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation. (Selections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 811-847).
When we see converts to Roman Catholicism today, this is the “gospel” that they are buying into. Rome may be losing members, but Rome is not going to let you alone. You are saved, according to Rome, because Rome exists as the universal sacrament of salvation.