Saturday, January 12, 2013

What do the Orthodox officially think of the papacy?

There have been ongoing “dialogues” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches for a long time. Some of these are more or less official, and some are more or less realistic.

What follows is a response to a “Joint International Commission for Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue Statement”, which apparently was in the “less realistic” category.

The “Statement” itself got some publicity for some hope of a breakthrough, but an official response from a real Russian Orthodox Patriarch (Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk) told it like it is:

For the Orthodox participants, it is clear that in the first millennium the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome was exercised only in the West, while in the East, the territories were divided between four Patriarchs – those of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The bishop of Rome did not exercise any direct jurisdiction in the East in spite of the fact that in some cases Eastern hierarchs appealed to him as arbiter in theological disputes. These appeals were not systematic and can in no way be interpreted in the sense that the bishop of Rome was seen in the East as the supreme authority in the whole Universal Church.

It is hoped that at the next meetings of the Commission, the Catholic side will agree with this position which is confirmed by numerous historical evidence.

The Orthodox, too, believe that the Roman Catholic side simply ignores history. Where’s that “IP” when you need it?

This statement by coheres with a statement from Archbishop Roland Minnerath that I published some time ago, to the effect that “The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West. It never accepted that the protos in the universal church could claim to be the unique successor or vicar of Peter.”

Minnerath’s statement is from a paper written in 2003 or 2004. This statement from Hilarion is from 2010; I’m not aware of anything more recent than this.


Arminian Bible-hater Randal Rauser, whose material sometimes graces the Society of Evangelical Arminians, loves to attack OT ethics. Recently, he’s been using Jesus as a wedge issue. Would Jesus do some of the things commanded in the OT which Rauser finds morally odious?

Several problems with his argument:

i) Jesus didn’t come to renew the old covenant, but to inaugurate the new covenant.

ii) Do we expect one member of the Trinity (the Son) to disapprove of what another Trinitarian person (the Spirit) did when he inspired the OT?

iii) Finally, Rauser espouse as kenotic theory of Christ’s knowledge:

But why go through these tortured machinations? Why not just admit that Jesus was a product of his time and thus could have non-culpably held to some false beliefs including false beliefs about science, politics, history, and human origins?

Given Rauser’s kenotic Christology, even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the Mosaic law contains evil commands, what’s to prevent Jesus, with his diminished moral and rational discernment, from obeying an evil OT command?


I’m going to comment on parts of an interview that’s getting some buzz:

Crisp gives a number of good answers. I’m not going to comment on what I agree with, since that would be redundant. I’d just be paraphrasing what he said. And he can express himself quite well without me.

Theology that is not done in the service of the Church is seriously defective, in my view. Although I work in a so-called 'secular' university, I am very conscious of the need to address the Church in what I do. I hope that in some small way my own work may be of use to the Church through the trickle-down effect of students of theology and prospective ministerial candidates getting trained in theology and reading the sort of stuff I write. I have taught in both secular and confessional contexts in the UK and North America, and I think effective theological education is of vital importance for the life of the Church. If we want an educated and effective laity, we need an effective and educated clergy to teach them.

I largely agree with this, although I’d add two caveats:

i) I’d actually broaden the vision. I think theology should be done in the service of unbelievers as well as believers. It should have an evangelistic, outward thrust as well as an ecclesiastical, inward thrust.

ii) In principle, theological insights can have practical value even if the theologian wasn’t consciously practical, but just pursuing a line of thought. It’s like spin-offs in math and science, where pure math or scientific speculation is developed without any practical application in view, but the results have an unforeseen practical payoff. Sometimes we can solve a problem better by looking away from it. Because all of reality is interrelated, solutions may not occur to us if we’re too focused on the problem before us, whereas work in apparently independent fields can pay unexpected dividends.

No, I don't. The creedal heritage of the Church is very important. We cast it aside at our peril.

There’s some truth to that. In particular, we shouldn’t clean out the attic and discard the contents without even looking inside the boxes to see what we’re casting aside.

On the other hand, there’s the opposite peril of following the path of least resistance by letting others make all the important decisions for us.

Some evangelicals are very much embedded in the tradition (e.g. some Episcopalians or Lutherans or Presbyterians).

i) And that can be a problem. That can foster an unquestioning, chauvinistic herd-mentality. Let’s not confuse following Christ with following our forbears. Unless we can see Jesus apart from our forebears, we dont know if they were headed in the right direction.

ii) Different theological traditions present different reading strategies. You can read the Bible with Lutheran spectacles, Anabaptist spectacles, Catholic spectacles, Calvinist spectacles, and so forth. Although we may always be reading the Bible with tinted glasses, it’s useful to try on different glasses, comparing and contrasting one view with another.

 But evangelicals in what we might loosely term 'non-confessional' traditions, such as some baptistic denominations, and charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to be less concerned about confessions, thinking they can simply leap over the tradition to Scripture. This is a mistake.

i) As a matter of fact, it is possible to “simply leap over the tradition to Scripture.” That’s the point of the grammatico-historical method.

And this isn’t limited to the exegesis of Scripture. When Crisp studies Jonathan Edwards, I assume he tries to immerse himself in the social and intellectual milieu of Edwards. Likewise, when Crisp studies Barth, I assume he makes allowance for the historical and political situatedness of Barth’s theology.

For that matter, when we read Homer, Dante, or Lady Murasaki, the point is to escape our own cultural mindset and step inside a very different culture. To see the world through a different pair of eyes.

Of course, initially, we bring our own framework to whatever we read. But in the course of reading, it’s possible to put some distance between our hereditary viewpoint and the viewpoint of the narrator. That’s a useful exercise. That provides a valuable contrast to our prereflective assumptions.

ii) In fairness to Crisp, I suspect he has a particular type of individual in mind. The kind of “Bible-only” Christian who’s oblivious to the impact of his own nationality, education, social class, and religious prism on his reading of Scripture. A Christian who’s unconscious of the degree to which his approach to Scripture has already been framed by a tacit, internalized tradition.

It’s important to become self-aware of our operating assumptions. Both confessionalism and “Biblicism” are vulnerable to the bias blind spot.

 We read Scripture in the household of faith, in company with the saints before us, not in isolation from them. And in so doing, we learn from our forebears (from their triumphs and their mistakes). It is folly and hubris to think one can set this great cloud of witnesses to one side in theologizing. Not that I think the fathers and Reformers of the Church trump Scripture. But they help us to understand Scripture better just as a teacher helps the student to understand matters that might be difficult to grasp were the student to be left alone with the class textbook.

Up to a point that’s true, but one-sided.  The household of faith includes the faithful who went before us, as well as those who come after us, as well as those who walk beside us. We can learn from them, but they can learn from us.

At the end of the day, we’re not answerable to our forbears. Rather, we are directly answerable to God.

Because he is a theological titan. I am a critical, but I hope appreciative, reader of Barth. In some ways, I am more sympathetic to Barth than I used to be, though it is sometimes a sort of love-hate relationship! But Barth is a profound theologian by anyone's estimate, and someone worth wrestling with. One is unlikely to find any theologian with whom one concurs on every point of doctrine. Yet great theologians like Augustine or Anselm or Thomas or Calvin or Luther or Edwards or Barth are the sort of thinkers with whom we can engage with fruitful results.

It is very difficult to isolate one voice from the great chorus of those who have gone before us as THE person I would like to meet if I had the chance. But in my top five (and in reverse diachronic order) would be Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Augustine of Hippo.

To judge by this answer, Crisp’s methodology isn’t really confessional. He isn’t using the lens of the church’s creedal heritage. Rather, he has a theological meritocracy. A short list of the most intellectually impressive or challenging theologians. He picks out these thinkers to be his sparring partners. He tests his theology against them. Develops his theology in a dialectical conversation with the theological giants. That’s selective rather than collective.

Robin Parry in his book Worshipping Trinity makes this point really well when he says that too many evangelical Christians he speaks to are effectively binitarians, not Trinitarians. Their understanding of the Trinity is borderline heretical.

It’s funny to see a heretical universalist be so judgmental. But I guess the best defense is a good offense.

Homage to John Loftus

One of the Christians who defends him is Steve Hays, who should be condemned by all civilized people, such that if he ever defended me it would be a red-light warning to re-think what I was doing.

John Loftus is my hero. I stand in awe of Loftus. Correction: I genuflect in his presence.

Loftus is an intellectual Titan. He makes Newton, Aristotle, Leibniz, Einstein, Pauling, Pascal, Poincaré, Kripke, Cantor, Capablanca, da Vinci, Feynman, von Neumann, and Aquinas look like preschoolers.

But that’s not all. I also admire the moral greatness of John Loftus. He’s the William Booth of atheism. The Albert Schweitzer of infidels.

Okay, John, there’s your red-light warning. Now time to reconsider your mission in life.

Theology in service of the church

Paul Manata recently pulled up this several-years-old interview with Oliver Crisp, who recently taught philosophical theology at the University of Bristol in the UK and now is at Fuller Theological Seminary. I think this is a good overview of how I see my own interests developing:

Q: What made you want to be a theologian?

A: Encountering Jesus.

Q: How do you see the relationship between your work in academic theology and the Church's task of proclaiming the gospel?

A: Theology that is not done in the service of the Church is seriously defective, in my view. Although I work in a so-called 'secular' university, I am very conscious of the need to address the Church in what I do. I hope that in some small way my own work may be of use to the Church through the trickle-down effect of students of theology and prospective ministerial candidates getting trained in theology and reading the sort of stuff I write. I have taught in both secular and confessional contexts in the UK and North America, and I think effective theological education is of vital importance for the life of the Church. If we want an educated and effective laity, we need an effective and educated clergy to teach them.

Q: In some respects is analytic theology a retrieval of the methods of medieval scholasticism and Reformed Orthodoxy?

A: Yes, you might think of it in that way. As I have already indicated, I think it is in keeping with much of this tradition of theology. I hope it is a legitimate successor to a scholastic or Reformed Orthodox approach. It seems to me that both the medievals and the Reformed (and Lutheran) orthodox have much to teach us today. There is a theological richness in their work that we have lost. Theirs is also an unapologetically dogmatic approach - what John Webster has recently called 'theological theology'. That is the sort of theology I am interested in. I am not concerned with paddling in the shallows of theology, spending all my time in methodological or apologetic matters. I am not terribly concerned with questions about whether we can do theology or not. I am interested in getting on with the job of doing theology in the service of the Church.

Q: How would you configure the relationship between Holy Scripture and the traditions of the Church?

A: I've recently dealt with this in detail in the first chapter of my book, God Incarnate. I think that Scripture is the norming norm, the bedrock of all Christian theology. The 'tradition' consists in a cluster of different, subordinate norms, such as the catholic creeds, confessional statements (e.g. the Westminster Confession) and the works of particular theologians. But these are all subordinate to the Word of God.

Q: I have sometimes heard Evangelical preachers say that Jesus became a human person at the incarnation. Do you think that Evangelicals are sufficiently aware of the creedal heritage of the Church?

A: No, I don't. The creedal heritage of the Church is very important. We cast it aside at our peril. Some evangelicals are very much embedded in the tradition (e.g. some Episcopalians or Lutherans or Presbyterians). But evangelicals in what we might loosely term 'non-confessional' traditions, … tend to be less concerned about confessions, thinking they can simply leap over the tradition to Scripture. This is a mistake. We read Scripture in the household of faith, in company with the saints before us, not in isolation from them. And in so doing, we learn from our forebears (from their triumphs and their mistakes). It is folly and hubris to think one can set this great cloud of witnesses to one side in theologizing. Not that I think the fathers and Reformers of the Church trump Scripture. But they help us to understand Scripture better just as a teacher helps the student to understand matters that might be difficult to grasp were the student to be left alone with the class textbook.

[Edited 9:26 am to update Crisp's experience to Fuller.]

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Assault rifles"

I just saw a debate between Ben Shapiro and Piers Morgan:

 Shapiro handily won the debate, despite the fact that he was arguing at a disadvantage inasmuch as Morgan artificially restricted the discussion to “assault rifles.” In addition, Shapiro is handicapped by a poor speaking voice. But he can think on his feet. He won on points, not presentation.

Shapiro defended the right to own semiautomatic “assault rifles” on Constitutional grounds. According to him (and he’s a Harvard Law grad), the original intent of the 2nd amendment was to furnish a deterrent against tyrannical gov’t. I’d like to briefly discuss that.

In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t own an “assault rifle,” so I don’t have a stake in this particular debate. Likewise, I’m not a member of the NRA.

i) People like Morgan think the deterrent argument is delusional. The stuff of tinfoil fanatics.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that that’s a wildly unrealistic scenario. Suppose that rationale is obsolete.

Even in that case, it’s not unreasonable for Shapiro to defend the 2nd amendment on those terms. Even if (ex hypothesi) the 2nd amendment has outlived its utility, that doesn’t mean the state has the right to set it aside. The reason conservatives defend the Constitution is not out of blind allegiance to a bunch of dead men who wrote a piece of paper in the 18C. Rather, conservatives defend the Constitution because the Constitutional rule of law protects us from tyrannical gov’t. We uphold the Constitution as a matter of self-interest. Self-defense. By defending the Constitution, we defend our liberty. Even assuming the 2nd amendment is obsolete, that’s a judgment to be made by voters and their elective representatives through the process of Constitutional amendment.

ii) In addition, I think many gun-owners oppose a ban on “assault rifles” because they regard that as an incrementalist strategy. You start by banning and confiscating “assault rifles.” But that’s just the first step. That’s a wedge issue. That becomes legal or judicial leverage to extend the ban. A fatal precedent.

iii) But let’s revisit the original rationale. Is that delusional? If gov’t were moving in a totalitarian direction, wouldn’t disarming the general public, so that only the military, police, or secret police, had guns, make it much easier to control the populace? Wouldn’t that be a logical and practical preliminary? It’s a lot easier to police a defenseless population. Where one side has all the firepower.

iv) There’s also a distinction between the deterrent value of the 2nd amendment, and the effectiveness of an armed citizenry to actively repel gov’t tyranny– if that were to transpire. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that armed citizens would be no match for the US military if it came down to an all-out fight. That doesn’t mean the 2nd amendment would have no deterrent value in preventing the situation from escalating to that point. Gov’t officials who might be otherwise inclined to impose totalitarian gov’t on the masses would also have to consider whether that’s worth the risk of civil war. Even if, after the dust settles, the military won, that might be far too destructive to the physical and economic infrastructure of the country to justify the ruinous cost. If you take a city by destroying the city, you win by losing what made the city valuable in the first place.

v) Whether or not the military would win depends on the scale of the insurrection, and how far a dictator would be prepared to go. What’s the ratio of soldiers to insurgents in our hypothetical scenario? Is the dictator prepared to bomb cities?

vi) In addition, American soldiers usually have American parents, siblings, spouses, and friends. There’s a limit to how far the US military would go. Mutiny (or worse) would be a danger if the dictator gave extreme orders.

Obviously I’m discussing a very extreme scenario. But since that’s how the debate has been framed, it’s useful to consider the worst-case scenario. To take the alternatives to their logical extremes.

Francis Beckwith's canonical confusions

Francis Beckwith says:

It’s my understanding that the Palestinian Jews rejected the New Testament as well.

Francis Beckwith is fond of these cute little quips. But they’re intellectually shallow.

i) There’s nothing inconsistent about regarding Palestinian Jews as more reliable witnesses to the OT canon than the NT canon. God revealed the OT to the Jews. For centuries, the Jews copied and recopied the OT. A chain-of-custody. That’s hardly comparable to the NT.

ii) In addition, it’s reasonable to distinguish between Palestinian Jews and Diaspora Jews. Jews who relied on a Greek edition of the OT were further removed from the source.

iii) Keep in mind, too, that some NT writers were Palestinian Jews. So not all Palestinians Jews rejected the NT. Consider Jewish followers of Jesus who belonged to the 1C church of Jerusalem.

It is not clear how a divided Church tradition helps the Protestant case, since by employing this argumentative strategy you seem to concede the central point of Catholicism: the Church is logically prior to the Scriptures.

Divided tradition applies to “the Church” as well as the canon. There are divergent traditions regarding the primacy of Rome.

That is, if the Church, until the Council of Trent’s definitive declaration, can live with a certain degree of ambiguity about the content of the OT canon, that means that sola scriptura was never a fundamental principle of authentic Christianity.

i) No. At best that would mean sola scriptura was never a fundamental principle of Roman Catholicism.

ii) But this isn’t really a question of sola scriptura, although Beckwith would like to recast it in those terms. If the church of Rome can live with a certain degree of ambiguity about the canon of Scripture, that means the church of Rome can live with ambiguity about when or whether God has spoken. Ambiguity about true and false prophecy. Ambiguity about people speaking in God’s name without God’s authorization.

If that ambiguity applies to the canon, why not church councils and papal encyclicals?

 After all, if Scripture alone applies to the Bible as a whole, then we cannot know to which particular collection of books this principle applies until the Bible’s content is settled. Thus, to concede an unsettled canon for Christianity’s first 15 centuries, as you do, seems to make the Catholic argument that sola scriptura was a 16th century invention, and thus not an essential Christian doctrine.

i) Needless to say, Protestants don’t think Trent settled the canon. At best, Trent settled the canon for the church of Rome. And even then, Trent settled on the wrong canon.

ii) Beckwith fails to draw an elementary distinction regarding the canon:

iii) Beckwith’s argument is circular. As long as the church of Rome had a monopoly on western Christendom, then, by definition, sola scriptura wasn’t fully operative. If a drug cartel controls a city, things can’t return to normal until the power of the cartel is broken. 

iv) Trent didn’t confine itself to the OT canon. Trent settled a number of other Catholic dogmas. So, by Beckwith’s logic, Tridentine dogmas were never essential Christian doctrines. Tridentine dogmas were never fundamental to authentic Christianity.

Infernal espionage

Open theism has gained a number of notable adherents in recent years. I used to be a staunch opponent of open theism. However, a few months ago, when I was operating my ham radio, I accidentally intercepted some ancient radio transmissions from heaven. I didn’t realize until hearing these conversations from the throne room how hard it is for God to accomplish his will.

God the Father: Gabriel, there’s something a little off about my Son. Every time Joseph and Mary try taking him to synagogue, Jesus throws a temper tantrum. Go down and find out what when wrong.

Gabriel: Milord, I discovered the source of the problem. Turns out the midwife who delivered Jesus in Bethlehem was an operative from hell.

God the Father: You mean my Son was switched at birth?

Gabriel: That’s right, Milord.

God the Father: I didn’t see that coming.

Gabriel: Wouldn’t be the first time, Milord. 

God the Father: So where is my Son?

Gabriel: I have a dozen angels pursuing different leads. However, I’m afraid the trail may have gone cold my now. The dark side is good at covering its tracks. Several witnesses, including the midwife, died in mysterious “accidents.”

God the Father: Well, if you can’t find my Son, we may need to repeat the Incarnation.

Gabriel: That won’t be easy. During the Annunciation phase, three girls turned me down before Mary accepted our terms.

God the Father: Humans are so unpredictable!

God the Father: Gabriel, are you telling me you lost track of my Son again?

Gabriel: Sorry, Milord.

God the Father: What happened this time?

Gabriel: At the moment the details are still a bit sketchy, but apparently Good Friday was a ruse de guerre, orchestrated by Hell.

God the Father: What do you mean?

Gabriel: Turns out the Praetorium was a dummy military installation. Pilate is an operative from Hell.

God the Father: To what end?

Gabriel: Well, once they had your Son in custody, they swapped him out for a double.

God the Father: Are you suggesting the wrong guy died on the cross?

Gabriel: Looks that way.

God the Father: I didn’t see that coming.

Gabriel: Wouldn’t be the first time, Milord.

God the Father: Who else was party to the caper?

Gabriel: They managed to turn Judas by snaring him in a honey trap with a succubus, then blackmailing him by threatening to tell his wife that he was caught in flagrante delicto in a compromising position.

God the Father: Are you suggesting Hell pulled the wool over my eyes?

Gabriel: They do have a history of that, Milord.

God the Father: Well, if you can’t find where they’re hiding my Son, I guess we’ll have to repeat the Incarnation.

Gabriel: A third time, Milord?

God the Father: Gabriel, something’s a little off about my Son. Ever since I resurrected him, he spends all his time partying back on earth. Go down and find out what’s up with that.

Gabriel: Turns out Easter was another black flag operation from hell.

God the Father: What do you mean?

Gabriel: Upon further investigation, I found out that Joseph of Arimathea’s sepulcher was a dummy tomb with a hidden exit. Hell’s operatives swapped out the body of Jesus on Holy Saturday, then swapped in the cadaver of a look-alike.

God the Father: You mean to tell me I resurrected the wrong guy?

Gabriel: To judge by the initial reports.

God the Father: I didn’t see that coming.

Gabriel: Wouldn’t be the first time, Milord.

God the Father: Seems like Hell is always one step ahead of me. On your way out, tell the Archangel Michael to do a sweep of the throne room, just in case the dark side bugged it again.

And while he’s at it, have him run another background check on the cherubim and seraphim. I never know who I can trust these days.

Gabriel: Will do, Milord. And what about the Easter caper?

God the Father: Easter? Oh, yes, that’s right. I guess that means we have to repeat the Incarnation.

Gabriel: A fourth time? 

Michael Liccione finds ‘the Lutheran IP’ ‘utterly unsatisfactory’

I thought this was funny:

NathanRinne is a Lutheran writer, and Lutherans are quite fond of holding out to Reformed folks that there are things that God just consigns to mystery, and we are  best not to inquire about them. [Reformed theologians go with the things which “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”, but that is a no-no for Lutherans, as I understand it].

So here we have a Lutheran, who is more than willing to have those “rough edges” at the border of the “formal proximate object of faith”, in a discussion with a Roman Catholic, who blows right beyond “good and necessary” deductions and resides squarely in the infallible certitude “of a principled, rather than an <i>ad hoc</i>” way of arriving at the boundaries of “the formal proximate object of faith”. A “principled” way of determining the content of “divine revelation” as opposed to what is merely “human opinion”.

I hope these two men continue the discussion.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In moments like these

I didn’t sleep well last night and I woke up sad and unsettled. For some reason, killing these 20 children and 6 adults in Connecticut yesterday burrowed deep into my heart and has decided to stay put for a while.

What kind of a God would let…..

This sort of thing happens all the time. We all know that. In recent months the news has been full of these “stories.”

But it’s actually far worse. Violence against innocents–whether at the hand of individuals, groups, tribes, or nations–is as old as recorded time. Violence and the drama of human history go hand in hand.

And people have been asking, in one way or another, “Uh, excuse, me, God?” ever since learned scribes began writing about God/the gods on rock, clay, animal skin, and papyrus.

What kind of a God would….    Indeed. In my opinion, this is the grand struggle of any faith in God, a higher power, whatever.

It’s an age old question that no one can solve, but that every college philosophy student and seminarian has to take a deep look at: If God is all loving and all powerful, why do things like this happen? Why does God let them happen? Why doesn’t he do something–now, right here?

Good questions.

Well, like I said, who cares what I think. But these moments test one’s faith more than most. And it makes other “challenges to our faith,” like whether there was a historical Adam or whether the Bible was written after the return from Babylonian exile, look like a splash in a shallow puddle compared to the deep, black, ocean storm of 5 year olds getting shot because they went to school one day.

I can easily get my arms around a God whose book begins with a mythic story of a naked first couple holding a conversation with a serpent, or a Bible that wasn’t written until the 5th century BC. But yesterday? There is nothing “easy” about it.

i) There are good answers. Enns is either ignorant of the answers, or ignores them.

ii) Enns is an OT scholar. Hasn’t he noticed that the OT documents many atrocities?

iii) Thousands of children die every day. That doesn’t make  headlines. But it’s a daily, hourly occurrence.

iv) Enns doesn’t have much faith to test.

But these moments test one’s faith more than most.

i) That’s a theological cliché in some religious circles. A moralistic affectation. Mock piety. 

I think some people say it because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say in situations like this. They think it would be wrong not to feel that way.

ii) Speaking for myself, moments like these are not a test of my faith. For one thing, you get used to it. I know that may sound like a terrible thing to say, but it’s like living with chronic pain. If you have chronic pain, you become accustomed to living with chronic pain. That doesn’t make it less painful. But it doesn’t come as a shock. You adjust to it as best you can. You have no choice. It’s something you’ve come to expect. Something you dread, but something you know is going to happen.

I grew up on nightly news coverage of the Viet Nam War. After that there were the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Burundi genocide, the Columbine massacre, and on and on it goes.

Even assuming this is a test of faith, it’s not a test you need to retake every time there’s another atrocity.

iii) More to the point, suppose a believer fails the test of faith in the face of Sandy Hook? What’s the significance of dead children from a godless perspective?

Kids are merely biological replacement units. Had they lived, they would have procreated their own replacement units, and so it goes–like a vending machine that keeps dispensing chilled soda pop after everyone was incinerated by a thermonuclear device.

Natural selection has brainwashed us into valuing kids because that delusive, reflexive, instinctive sentiment confers a survival value on the species. But our tender feelings are the result of psychological manipulation by a mindless, pitiless, uncaring process.

From a secular standpoint, we’re like ants whose anthill was overtaken by wildfire. The anthill is littered with dead ants. Fried by the wildfire. The surviving ants are in disarray. Above it all and through it all, the universe remains supremely indifferent. 

If atheism is true, then when we die, it’s like putting a match to a strip of paper. The flame works itself up from one end to the other, reducing all our memories to ashes.

So, no, moments like these don’t test my faith. Not in the slightest.

Apostates are a living contradiction. Their scruples lead them out of Christianity. And so they take their precious scruples with them. They transplant their scruples to the dry, rocky, barren ground of atheism. But their scruples have no air, water, sunshine or nutrients to survive in a godless environment. That’s just a hangover from their abandoned faith.

iv) But what if your own child was murdered, someone may ask? That might be a test of faith, but let’s be clear on what kind of test that would be. That would be an emotional test of faith, not intellectual test of faith.

Vatican “laicizes” priest for supporting ordination of women; leaves thousands of pedophile priests in place

From the comments thread:

In response to this:

Roy Bourgeois, the longtime peace activist and Catholic priest dismissed by the Vatican because of his support for women's ordination, has received the official letter notifying him of the move three months after it was made.
The letter, which comes from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is signed by the congregation's prefect on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI and states that the pope's decision in the matter is "a supreme decision, not open to any appeal, without right to any recourse."
Written in Latin, the letter dismisses Bourgeois from the priesthood and restricts him from all priestly ministries. It asks Bourgeois to return a signed copy "as a proof of reception and at the same time of acceptance of the same dismissal and dispensation."
The letter, dated Oct. 4, was made available Wednesday by Bourgeois, who said he received it last week from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the U.S. missionary society he served as a priest for 40 years. Bourgeois said he did not plan to return a signed copy.
The congregation's letter does not make reference to specific charges against Bourgeois or mention his support for women's ordination, saying, "for the good of the Church, the dismissal from the said Society must be confirmed, and moreover, also the dismissal from the clerical state must be inflicted."
"There's no mention of what I did," Bourgeois said. "There's no mention ... of women's ordination. What crime did I commit that brought about this serious sentence? There's no mention of that. What did I do? What am I being charged with?"

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Fuzzy bunny

Clarification on domestic abuse

At the center

One popular atheist meme says the Copernican Revolution demoted our place in the universe. Because we can no longer occupy the center of the physical universe, that’s a psychological comedown. We cease to have the significance which the Bible attaches to us.

The logic of this argument is far from clear. For instance, a mother may “center” her life on her growing children. She arranges her schedule to meet their needs. To be available for them.

That doesn’t mean her children must occupy a physically central place in her life. Does she love her children any less when they are 20 miles away from home? Indeed, physical distance, physical separation, can enhance the sense of love and longing. You wish they were closer.

It’s true that a sense of vast time and space can make us feel small and insignificant. However, our littleness supplies the backdrop for God’s special love:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples (Deut 7:7).

To take a human illustration, there are 7 billion people in the world. But that doesn’t make your friends and family less special to you. If anything, that makes them more special to you. In a world full of strangers, it’s all the more important to have a few people you can call your own. That you’re a part of. That you “belong” to.

Compare that to lonely people who feel lost, forgotten, abandoned.

Same thing with our place in time. So many generations have come and gone before us. So many will succeed us after we’re gone.

That can certainly make you feel insignificant. Replaceable.

But the fleeting nature of our mortal existence makes God all the more important to us. Only he can preserve us. Only he can reunite us:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations (Ps 90:1).

We are special if we are special to God. It is not our place in time and space that makes us significant, but God’s involvement in human history. God making us. God redeeming us. God becoming one of us. God restoring us.

Likewise, if parents have ten kids, they can love each child as much as if they had only one child. For each child is different, yet each child is theirs. They love each child for his individuality, as well as what he means to them–as their own child.

How Visible Should Christian Unity Be?

Leonardo De Chirico has posted his Vatican Files 16: on the need for visible Christian unity.

He touches on one of his own themes, namely, that Protestant critiques of Roman Catholicism require more of an “integrated analysis”:

The author suggests that evangelicalism's appraisal of Roman Catholicism has lacked systematic awareness, tending instead towards more episodic aphoristic criticism of Roman doctrine, which for all its truth lacks integrated analysis. With this in mind, Dr. de Chirico proposes a critique which (i) applies the category of 'system' or 'worldview' to Roman Catholicism, and (ii) perceives two foundational theological foci in Roman theology - the relationship between nature and grace, and the self-understanding of the Church….

He cites Pope Benedict from a recent “Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity”. There is no mistaking what he says:

‘Papal Infallibility’ is a cause for confusion

“Papal Infallibility” is not a point of unity even among conservative Roman Catholics.

Michael Liccione said:

What is at issue is whether any church is ever divinely protected from doctrinal error, not moral error, under certain conditions.

Elsewhere he described one component of this:

“In Catholic theology, it is not even a matter of dispute that the definition of 1870 [of “papal infallibility”] applies to Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and indeed to every papal ratification of conciliar dogmatic decrees set forth to bind the whole Church, going back to the 4th century.

Other Roman Catholics say rather, “Yes, it is a matter of dispute”:

“How many times has the pope taught ex cathedra, or ‘from the chair’ of Peter? How many ex cathedra papal statements have there been, and what are they? . . . Different Roman Catholic apologists have asserted very divergent numbers of infallible papal statements. . . . It depends on which apologist you ask….

Of course, the “apologists you ask” aren’t the standard, but the fact that even self-described “conservative” Roman Catholics disagree is telling [never mind all those “Liberal” Catholics who may or may not be real Catholics].

You all have “the one true teaching”, which is infallibly correct, but even on this absolutely fundamental question, the question which you say shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Roman Catholics may absolutely and infallibly make the distinction between “divine revelation and human opinion”, on this most fundamental of foundations, there is confusion.

What good on earth is the “infallible Magisterium” if it can’t answer this fundamental question? What good is having the “basis for making a principled distinction between divine revelation and human opinion”, if even that “basis” doesn’t work out in real life?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The pale blue dot

I don’t normally comment on John Loftus anymore. Every few weeks I glance at DC. It’s always a rehash of stuff that Loftus has said 50 times before.

Since, however, a recent post of his has generated controversy among his fellow infidels, I’ll venture a comment. He said:

When I was in the throes of doubt in the early 90's I bought nearly a dozen poster pictures of galaxies, stars, various nebula, and the solar system itself. I hung them on the walls of my office. I was astounded by our universe and it's massive size. I read a few astronomy books too. Science tells us so much about our universe it was quite surprising as well.

I remember thinking to myself how God could be omnipresent in such a universe, how he could be a personal agent without a center for his personality in it, how he could be omniscient knowing what was going on at the far reaches of it, and how he could be omnipotent such that he could create and maintain it. I also wondered how he could care about life on this pale blue dot of ours that exists on one spiral arm in the Milky Way galaxy. What kind of God could exist given this universe? How could he interact with parts of it several billions of light years away when a light year is a measurement of both time and distance?

Notice that his operating assumption involves a physical concept of God, as if he thought “omnipresence” meant God was like an eye drop of ink dispersed in water. The problem is how God can stretch himself to reach the far-flung reaches of the universe. Is there enough God stuff to go around? Enough God particles per billion to close the gap?

Even as a nominal Christian pastor and apologist, Loftus was operating with a very crude, materialistic, quasi-heathen conception of God.

Geocentrism, theocentrism, and anthropocentrism


Reading John Loftus recount his poignant tale about the size of the universe reminded me of how I lost my faith in God in 1st grade. But that was just the culmination of a painful process of disillusionment.

As a baby, I was a convinced cribocentrist. Being a precocious scientific observer, I noticed that everyone moved in relation to my crib, but my crib never moved in relation to anyone else. People would come over to my crib and go away from my crib. Based on solid empirical evidence, I inductively inferred that my crib was the center of the universe. All by myself I developed the cribocentric theory of the universe.

But when I outgrew my crib, my parents removed my crib and replaced it with a bed. This was shocking. I suddenly understood that my crib wasn’t the center of the universe after all. However, I sought temporary intellectual consolation in the thought that my bedroom was still the center of the universe.

After I got old enough to roam the neighborhood, I used to visit a playmate two houses down from me. He had a bedroom, just like I had a bedroom. This is when I suffered another existential crisis. A body blow to the solar plexis of my Weltanschauung.

Both our houses couldn’t be the center of the same universe. Moreover, how could God hear me pray in my bedroom, but also hear my playmate pray in his bedroom? Could God hear through solid walls? Maybe God had a very acute sense of hearing.

However, having the limited attention span of a young boy, I quickly forgot my flash of insight the moment I switched on the latest episode of The Wild Wild West.

When I was old enough to go to school, I began attending kindergarten. Up on the classroom wall was a map of the USA. I could proudly see that my country was the center of the universe. Smack dab in the middle. Every other nation surrounded the USA. Canada was above us, Mexico below us, with other countries to the left or right.

Still, I found the map theologically disturbing. If there really was a God, why would he waste so much valuable space on something as useless as…Canadians?

But I managed to hold my faith intact through little rationalizations until I started 1st grade. Our classroom had a world globe. This was devastating. I could now see for myself that the USA wasn’t the center of the universe. If you spun the globe around, there were other countries just above and below the equator. There was no such thing as “right” or “left.”

It was even worse when a student accidentally knocked the globe over. Then I realized that there was no such thing as right side up or upside down. It was all relative, dude.

That’s when I organized the 1st grade Humanist Club. I invited Antony Flew and J. L. Mackie to come and give presentations. We had some fascinating discussions about the Gödelian ontological argument, the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and the problem of boll weevils.

A Challenge to Michael Liccione

Michael Liccione said in a comment to me:

it is incumbent on anyone debating said question to argue, on grounds independent of the particular biblical interpretations he adopts, that his IP [“interpretive paradigm”, or hermeneutic] has a principled distinction between divine revelation and human theological opinion, so that by deploying it, he at least has an argument that his particular interpretations are reliable expressions of divine revelation, not just opinions. But if you deny that you or anybody else enjoys the gift of infallibility, and thus admit that you could be wrong, you have no way of making that argument.

In this comment, he further challenged:

For several years now, I’ve been waiting for you to engage the essentially philosophical issue I’ve posed for you. If and when you do, our discussions might move forward.

These “philosophical issues” are outlined this article, in sections IV and V. What follows is my direct response to his “philosophical issues”. Stay tuned.

Michael Liccione (372), you wrote this in another comment thread:

I'm saying: "The reason why you have no [basis for making a principled distinction between divine revelation and human opinion] is that you see [certain churchs' claim to be divinely commissioned through apostolic succession] as merely as one more opinion on an epistemic par with others."

I’ve added the [square brackets] there to set off the nature of your claim.

There are all kinds of things balled up here, and no doubt they are clarified in other places. I just haven’t had the opportunity to look at them all in one place. If some of my questions below get answered some place, I'll be happy to look in other places.

You have challenged me to respond to the philosophical questions you have, and so here I am.

The first thing to ask is the question, What is “divine revelation”? I’m going to assume for the sake of discussion that we believe in the same God, and so proving “who” God is shouldn’t be much of an issue. Although, we may disagree on “what God would do, or how he would do things in any given situation”.

In that way, we certainly differ even on what is “divine revelation”. In this respect, your citation of Dei Verbum should be analyzed.

Also, we need to look at the definition of the word “church”. We need to arrive at an adequate definition of “church”.

What is “a church”? What is “the church”?

What specifically was this “divine commission?” How do you know specifically what it was? When did it occur? If it was an “epistemologically superior” claim, how is it that certain individuals walked away from that claim without a full and complete understanding of it? After all, Christ is God. Did he just leave them with “hints” that they forgot to pass along? Or the promise that (John 16:13) that the Holy Spirit would come in and “fill in the gaps” later?

Then, Here is what we are dealing with when we say “epistemology”. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources?

How is it that the mere “claim to be divinely commissioned” entails “epistemological superiority”? What are the limits of that?

Mike, according to your account, the specific claim, by some churches “to be divinely commissioned through apostolic succession” is a claim that’s epistemologically superior to the claim that other churches make.

You say in this article,

if said claims are true, then there is a principled as opposed to an ad hoc way to distinguish the formal, proximate object of faith from fallible human opinions about how to identify it in the sources. And that is the way in which the Catholic can distinguish the assent of faith from that of opinion.”

But so what? The claim itself does not bear the kind of entailment that is placed on it. Where is the entailment that “there is a principle as opposed to an ad hoc way” to “distinguish the formal, proximate object of faith from fallible human opinions”.

There is, in fact, no entailment that there be “a formal proximate object of faith”. There may well be instances in which “faith” and “human opinion” not only coincide, but coincide in a fairly co-extensive way.

As I asked, when you call the Liccione kids off the street, “get out of the traffic or your could get hurt”, there is no entailment that you define “the formal proximate object” of your entire family set of rules, in order to make that particular command authoritative.

And second, if you say, “come to your own Birthday Party”, there is similarly no entailment for a “formal proximate object” to make “the good news” of a Birthday Party any less clear in the child’s mind.

I say these things in defense of the “Protestant IP”. If God can speak to Adam, and if Eve can misunderstand, and God permits this [there is no entailment for a “formal, proximate object of faith”], then God can speak through a larger Scripture, and still, there is no entailment for a “formal proximate object of faith” in the church age, either.

Neither you nor your colleagues has done an adequate job of explaining this [and in fact, I think you go beyond what Roman Catholicism actually claims in this; your own claims do not fully coincide with official Roman Catholic claims].

Here, too, are areas where I think that neither you nor any of your colleagues here has done an adequate job of explaining things:

1. If the Roman Catholic Church makes some claim to “divine institution”, then, it assumes upon itself a burden of proof to show clearly and explicitly where this “divine institution” occurred, how it applies to (a) Rome and (b) the papacy, and again, it must do so explicitly, and show why anyone might be thus bound by it. Not to do so clearly and explicitly is grounds for rejection of the claim.

Note that this “burden of proof” is not fulfilled by showing, as you seem to do, that the Roman Catholic claim is neater, tidier, than “the Protestant IP”. That may make it seem more secure for those who are seeking epistemological security. But God does not seem to supply such security.

If He does, I don’t see it, and you need to show it to me.

2. This particular burden of proof, on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, means that Keith Mathison’s very long article examining (and rejecting) those claimswas a worthwhile exercise.

If the Roman Catholic explanations in support of this “divine institution” do not hold up to scrutiny [of the Scriptural kind or the historical kind, or in fact, of any kind of scrutiny that we can place upon it], then no amount of perceived confusion in the Protestant world can fix those claims to authority. And yet, the shape of the argument coming from this side is “Protestantism is in a disarray, therefore Roman Catholic claims are correct”.

What you seem to do in this article is to put the “epistemological claims” of Protestants and [some subset of Roman Catholics, but not the official Roman Catholic Church] on the table, side-by-side. Such a side-by-side comparison may constitute an apparent act of “fairness”. But this is no way to prove the validity of Roman Catholic claims.

3. The claim here is that the mere “claim to be divinely commissioned through apostolic succession” is somehow epistemologically superior to other claims.

But I’ve seen this “claim” in practice. And the “practice” is that, when there is an “apparent contradiction” in Roman claims, the “apparent contradiction” exists only in my mind; it does not exist in reality”. Thus, there is always an explanation [or an excuse] offered. The Roman Magisterium is always right in everything it says.

I refuse to engage in this kind of make-believe, in defense of an institution that has so clearly been corrupt in the history of its existence, at every level. Christ’s claim “you can tell a tree by its fruit” is a guarantee of a kind of epistemological “test” that can be made against a “tree”. It is no accident that Newman’s comparison (and Bryan’s comparison) involves a “tree” with “branches”.

We can understand the “Roman Catholic” tree by the “fruit” that it produces – as evidence of corruption.

This whole “interpretive paradigm” thing is not much more than a fancy, “grown-up” way of saying “I’m taking my marbles and going home”.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Outing the Devil

John Loftus has made an underworldly discovery. He’s outed the Devil. According to Loftus, Jeff Lowder is nothing less than Satan incognito.

Unfortunately, the only way we could scientifically confirm Loftus’s hunch is by obtaining a DNA sample from Jeff, a DNA sample from Mia Farrow, then compare them.

Absent that, we have to settle for circumstantial evidence. Since I personally know Jeff, this naturally makes me think back on whether I missed some tell-pointytail clues during our student days. Offhand, I don’t recall Jeff whistling tunes from Gounod’s Faust under his breath. And I never saw Jeff sporting that ultra-Goth Hellboy look.

If you told me at the time that his Infernal Majesty was impersonating somebody at Seattle Pacific University, my first thought would have been one of the religion profs. in the School of Theology. Bob Wall and Frank Spina would make two promising candidates. Eugene Peterson might be another prime suspect. His Father Christmas appearance would certainly catch the unwary off guard.

On the other hand, Josef von Sternberg thought the Devil was a woman. However, Jeff doesn’t look at all like Marlene Dietrich.

If he is Satan, I must say that Jeff is very well preserved for his age. Like those centenarian vampires who repeat high school chemistry for the 120th time.

But if Jeff really is Satanic, then the Archfiend is quite the underachiever. In fairness, the Secular Web has doubtless made a diabolical contribution to the fortunes of the dark side. Still, if you had the Devil’s worldly resources at your disposal, wouldn’t you aim a little higher? At least be mayor of New York?

Finally, if Loftus is wrong, then he’s a marked man. His Infernal Majesty doesn’t appreciate anyone else taking the credit for his deviltry. Satan is not the kind of guy who likes to play second fiddle. Definitely not a team player. Indeed, that’s what got him kicked out of heaven in the first place.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Loftus begins to experience unusual happenings, like pianos falling from third-story windows as he’s strolling down the sidewalk.

Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization

“I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them"

"My Lord and my God"

John 20:28; Hilary of Poitiers Puts all Doubts of the Father’s Monarchy to Rest

My Nicene Monarchist party has been accused of innovation respecting the interpretation of John 20:28 which states,

Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

My group has stated that this verse does not mean that Jesus is the one God, but that Jesus is the eternally begotten son of the one God who is “the radiance of His (the one God the Father) glory and the exact representation of His nature”. (Heb 1:3-Which reeks of the idea of emanation.)

i) One wonders how many other Clarkian Scripturalists belong to Drake’s “Monarchist party.”

ii) How would Hilary’s opinion lay to rest all doubts about the Father’s monarchy? The mere fact that Hilary believes something to be the case hardly makes it to be the case. His interpretation of Jn 28:28 isn’t self-validating.

iii) Jn 20:28 says nothing about the Father’s monarchy one way of the other. It’s entirely silent on that issue.

Notice that Drake is making a classic unitarian move in relation to Jn 20:28. He draws a distinction between the articular use of theos and the anarthrous use of theos, then acts as though that syntactical distinction is theologically significant. Indeed, all-important.

For him, this means that while Jesus may be “God” is some muted sense, he falls short of being the God.

Anyone who’s debated Jehovah’s Witnesses will recognize this tactic.

An obvious problem with that argument is that John uses the anarthrous construction for theos in passages like Jn 1:6,13 & 9:16,33 where Drake’s “Monarchist party” presumably thinks the Father is the grammatical referent.

I also notice that Drake and Ryan both fail to draw a rudimentary distinction between theos as a proper noun and theos as a common noun. I went over that ground with unitarian Dale Tuggy.

iv) Does Heb 1:3 “reek of emanation”? Let’s consider the second clause: “the exact representation of his nature.”

Drake is assuming that the metaphor emphasizes the process rather than the result. As if the point of the metaphor is to explain the process by which the Son originates: “emanation.”

However, the verse itself accentuates the resultant aspect of the metaphor: By nature, Father and Son exactly resemble each other. Exact, essential correspondence. 

This trades on the metaphorical relationship between a die and what is stamped, like stamping an image and superscription on a coin. There’s a mirror image between the die and the impression made by the die.

v) In addition, if Drake is going to press the metaphor, then that backfires. A die is made of harder metal than the metal it stamps. Precious metals like gold and silver are softer than iron. If you press the metaphor, this doesn’t mean the Father is greater than the Son. To the contrary, a gold or silver coin is more valuable than the metal composing the die.

That’s true of the casting process generally. Take a ceramic mold for a golden bowl, where molten gold is poured into the mold. After it cools, the outer mold is broken, leaving a solid gold bowl. The shape of the bowl exactly matches the mould, but the bowl is clearly more valuable than the mold.

vi) Incidentally, the same problem afflicts to press the father/son metaphor. For sons can outstrip their fathers. For instance, Isaac Newton’s father was a farmer, whereas his son was the founder of modern physics, and cofounder of calculus. Clearly the son was greater than the father.

vii) This is not the only unitarian move made by Drake’s party. For instance, Ryan draws a distinction between the Mighty God and God Almighty. Once again, that’s a classic unitarian tactic. Anyone who’s debated Jehovah’s Witnesses will recognize that move.

They act as if that’s a theologically significant distinction. They also disregard equally exalted titles applied to Jesus, viz. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). 

As a rule, Ryan is more careful and cautious than Drake, so I’m hoping that he will outgrow his youthful infatuation with Drake’s “semi-Arianism.” Only time will tell.