Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ehrman overturned

Counterfeiting Christ

In Revelation, the Beast is functionally a Devil Incarnate, with a counterfeit resurrection (13:3). The second Beast performs miracles, which parody the miracles of Christ (13:13-15). In that same vein, 20:7-10 may represent a counterfeit Parousia: the second coming of Satan!

Conversely, it’s possible that the downfall of Satan in Rev 12 & 20 represents a judicial inversion of the Ascension. Christ goes up, returning to heaven. By contrast, Satan, who aspired to godhood, spirals down. First he’s cast down from heaven. Then he’s cast down into the Netherworld. It’s a steady descent from the heights to the depths.

Put another way, the Devil’s downward motion represents a classic tragedy, whereas the Son’s downward motion is preliminary to the upward motion, which represents the classic comedy.

Like the contest between Moses and the Egyptian magicians, the diabolical counterfeit has severe limits. 

Pictorial theology

For those of you who have thought that God doesn’t really expect you to study this protracted description (because, after all, it’s symbolic of something or other), here’s a great chance to correct the deficiency.

I am a big believer in the utility of Ezekiel’s Temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48 for dealing with those brethren who want to disbelieve what the Bible says while claiming to believe it.  I especially like to call out those who will not be honest enough just to state the obvious truth that they spiritualize the text (as in they claim a concrete depiction of a named entity should be thought of as a spiritual picture of a different concrete entity).  In Ezekiel 40ff. you cannot use the “Apocalyptic” card. 

Sometimes people reveal more about themselves than they intend. Henebury is such a proud, self-congratulatory bigot.

Moreover, one of the problems with his statement is the implication that he’d lose his faith if God didn’t fulfill the vision according to Henebury’s stipulative preconception. 

Therefore, those who cannot bring themselves to believe that Ezekiel is really referring to an actual physical Temple, whether they be dispensational or covenant theologians, should be pinned down on these chapters and asked to explain a). what they are supposed to really mean; b). what sort of hermeneutical practice is involved, and c). why on earth did God not simply say what He meant?

Surely these are good questions?

I tried in vain to deal with a gainsayer on these specific issues but to no avail.  He was more interested in telling me what it didn’t mean than what it did.

Henebury dissimulates about our conversation. But let’s respond one more time. And let’s take his questions in reverse order:

c) why on earth did God not simply say what He meant?

i) That’s not a real question. That’s a loaded question. An accusation couched as a faux question. A question that builds a tendentious premise into the formulation. As if those who dare to differ with Henebury don’t think God said what he meant.

ii) Moreover, Henebury’s way of framing the issue is foolish and silly. One might as well ask, Why on earth didn’t God simply say what he meant in Ezk 37:1-14, instead of that strange business about reassembling and reanimating skeletons? Why on earth didn’t God simply say what he meant in Ezk 29:3-4, instead of comparing Pharaoh to a Nile crocodile? Why on earth didn’t God simply say what he meant in Ezk 4:2, instead of directing the prophet to play with a clay model of Jerusalem (Ezk 4:1-2)?

b) what sort of hermeneutical practice is involved?

i) The grammatico-historical method. One element of that hermeneutic is audiencial meaning. Bible writers (and speakers) generally intend to be understandable to their immediate audience. So meaning is to that degree anchored in the potential understanding of the original audience. What the audience would be able to grasp.

ii) In the case of prophecy, a further distinction may be in order. The audience to whom the oracle is originally addressed may not be the same as the audience for whom the oracle is fulfilled. There can be a considerable time lapse. In that respect, a prophecy can be intended for a future audience.

How or when we apply that distinction depends on the context. Some oracles are short-term prophecies. Other oracles are long-term prophecies. For instance, Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the end of the exile is a fairly short-term prophecy (Jer 29:10).

a) what they are supposed to really mean?

Before we answer that question, we need to lay down some ground rules.

i) We need to distinguish between literal events and literal depictions. For instance, Ezk 37:1-14 depicts a literal event in symbolic terms. It depicts the restoration of Israel. That’s a literal event. But the depiction is symbolic.

ii) We need to distinguish between pictures and propositions. Images aren’t meaningful in the same way that sentences are meaningful. Unlike sentences, images don’t make assertions.

a) An image needn’t mean anything. For instance, an artist can paint a scene from his imagination. The scene doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t represent something he saw. Rather, he paints the imaginary scene because he finds it pleasant or interesting.

b) Of course, some images are referential. They stand for something else. Ezk 40-48 contains prophetic images.

c) Ezk 40-48 is an extended word-picture. A series of images. The images don’t contain dates. An image, all by itself, doesn’t point to the past, present, or future. An image, by itself, is chronologically indefinite or indeterminate.

Suppose you’re shown a picture of a river valley. You can’t tell from the picture when that was taken or where that was taken.

Ezk 40-48 is a record of what the prophet saw. There’s nothing in the imagery itself to say when it happens.

d) Of course, when imagery is embedded in a text, the text can supply a chronological or geographical frame of reference. A literary image signifies whatever the writer assigns to it. 

e) Ezekiel is addressing the exilic community. What could this mean to them? I think chaps. 40-48 present pictorially what Ezk 36:22-38 & 37:26-27 present more prosaically. Same message, different medium. Likewise, I think Ezk 37:1-14 and Ezk 40-48 are different imaginative depictions of the same reality.

The regathering of the diaspora.  Repatriation to the land of Israel. In that respect, the vision had reference to the near future.

f) However, because mere imagery isn’t time-indexed, the same images, or modified images, can refer to more than one event. Bear a one-to-many correspondence.

That’s why Revelation can see parts of Ezk 40-48 fulfilled in a different setting than the postexilic restoration of Israel. Here the themes of God’s compresence with his people, shalom, and the Davidic messiah, take place in the world to come. The consummation. In that respect, the vision had reference to the distant future.

John isn’t reinterpreting Ezekiel’s vision, for pictorial scenes have no intrinsic interpretation. What they represent is determined by the author. Their representative significance is assigned.

Of course, certain kinds of images are more naturally suited to represent certain kinds events than others. The historical referents aren’t imposed on the images arbitrarily.

g) From our position in church history, I think Ezk 40-48 is both past and future. To some extent the vision pictures the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. That lies behind us.

But to some extent the vision pictures the end of the church age, and the onset of the eternal age. That lies ahead of us.

The American Way

“True truth” vs “infallible, epistemological certainty”

Addressing Benjamin Keil’s comment #296:

I’m glad to see you admit what I suspected was implicit in your position all along: That you aren’t 100% certain of any given theological doctrine (including, one imagines, trinitarianism, two sacraments vs. seven, sola scriptura, etc). You are, as you put it, 99.999% certain of these things, and if being 99.999% certain that James is part of the canon cuts the mustard for you, well, at least we know where you stand….

I’ll leave to others to dispute the other more substantive claims you make, but I did want to point out that it’s absolutely nothing like “Protestantism gives you 99.999% confidence as a theological methodology and Catholicism offers 100% certainty, so why strain at gnats over that last .0001%?” (my summary, not a direct quote). Instead, it’s going to be more like “Catholicism, if true, offers 100% confidence in the correctness of its theological doctrines and if false offers 0% confidence. Protestantism, if true, always must offer less than 100% confidence and probably a lot less, and if false also offers 0% confidence”. Once you look at the math like we did above (we hit ~77% probability with only 3 propositions, each of which we assigned at least a 90% probability of being true), the probability of correctness that Protestantism can offer to a systematic theology, even if Protestantism is true, is a heckuva lot smaller than you were making it out to be.

I’ve described in my previous comment, or, if it didn’t get published, here, and here, why I think the 99.999% [or whatever that number becomes] is far more sufficient than your “100% confidence” level.

Certainly, based on conservative Protestant methodologies, our knowledge level will never, ever fall to 0% [which is a danger if Rome is “false”, but because we know “true truth”, will always have value.]

As I described it in a private email:

What Michael Liccione’s “IP” enables him to do set up a chain of deductions by which, if any one premise can’t be “ruled out by logical deduction”, then they can say X is “not inconsistent with Roman Catholic Doctrine”. This is how their argument for “authority” works.

You remember “must-see TV” – Roman Catholic dogma has a long string of “must have” things happen in order for the Roman Catholic authority structure to be true (Peter as first pope, recognized authority through the lineage that they give). If the probability that any one of them (or even most of them) is .001%, but if you haven't ruled it out by logical deduction (which can’t be done in a historical context, just as you can’t completely rule out the existence of Blue Men on Mars by logical deduction), then they claim, “It’s true because Rome says it’s true”.

I’ve argued strenuously from an analysis of leadership structures in first century Palestine and the Roman “household” community and Clement and Hermas relating how “presbyters” and “episcopoi” were interchangeable, how Hermas chided a council of elders that presided over the church of 2nd century Rome – all that, and others – that more than confirm that the story they present just absolutely cannot have been true, from a historical perspective.

However, there is no way to totally exclude any of these “must-have” points. If you do, they’ll say “it’s an argument from silence”. (What went un-responded to was my citation of R.P.C. Hanson citing Tertullian to the effect that the Assumption of Mary never occurred because if it did, Tertullian would certainly have known about it.

All they need is that .001% possibility, occasioned by the fact that “you can’t rule it out 100%”, and thus, because Rome made it a dogma, and because it hasn't been ruled out by logical deduction, “it must be the way Rome says it was” (see Bryan's comments about why “apparent contradictions” are never “actual contradictions” according to the Catholic “IP”).

This strain of thought, by which they claim their authority, is totally separate from the historical doctrinal efforts in councils, such as the Trinity, Christology, etc.

There are really two kinds of development, and these have been thoroughly documented.

First, no doubt there are historical “developments” such as the increase in understanding that led to the doctrines of the Trinity. Even though there was historical development, YOU CAN prove the Trinity from the Scriptures. Steve Hays has done so. He never contends for anything that's not Scriptural, and the Trinity is a cornerstone of his (“Biblicist” – or “solo Scriptura) theology.

The line of thinking on Roman authority, however, from the first century through the definitions of 1854, 1870, and 1950, however, were all done in a both a biblical and historical vacuum. [Actually, we know how “papal infallibility” developed]. But YOU CAN NOT prove any of these three things from the Scriptures. That is what I mean by “vacuum”.

But they conflate the two. Roman Catholics will say “development occurred with the Trinity, it must have occurred in the same way with the papacy”. in an exercise of logical fallacy, they conflate the two types of development.

This is “the shape” of what they stand on. The authority is invisible and non-existent, but you can’t rule any step out by logical deduction, and so they take credit for the whole thing.

The Protestant hermeneutic, the “grammatical historical method”, seeks to start at the beginning, to understand who the people are (the writers, the various audiences) – to understand “what they knew and when they knew it”, and yes, to build an inductive case, which never claims 100% perfection, but as I said above, I will hold with that 99.999% figure. There is no “epistemological crisis”.

So the churches of the Reformation build their case from actual Scripture and history, this practice, not being “logical deduction”, does not give the ability to claim “100% certainty”. But I say, “so what”?

We know what we know with a great deal of certainty, and we know it from based on the “hermeneutical methods” provided by the various disciplines, whether from historical studies or language or other forms of Old and New Testament scholarship.

Roman Catholics know things (a) that cannot be falsified, and (b) on the basis of an assertion of authority from Rome.

So far as I remember, that “appeal to authority” is a logical fallacy, is it not?

On mining for support for doctrines “after the fact”, and finding “100% certainty” “under certain conditions”. Or: “Dogma-appreciation 101”

This is something that Nathan Rinne picked up on a couple of weeks ago:

Earlier in the thread [the “Visible Church” thread], in post # 221, John Thayer Jensen wrote: “… people often seem to me to make the mistake of deciding, first, what things are true – which implies some external canon – and then looking around for the body that teaches that.”

Michael Liccione, responded to that in post # 222 saying, “And that is the very essence of Protestantism. One assumes that the deposit of faith is knowable independently of ecclesial authority, and that one knows its content. Then one chooses a church whose teaching conforms with that.”

That comment by Mike prompted me to write my comment citing Beale on Adam, Eve, and Sola Scriptura, but there is another way to approach this.

In his comment “people often seem to me to make the mistake of deciding, first, what things are true … and then looking around for the body that teaches that”, John Thayer Jensen has described perfectly well what I’ve called the “Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”.

This is an almost perfect description of “how the Magisterium operates”. It, of course, has the body of doctrine for which it is responsible, “the formal proximate object of faith”, which it “infallibly” hands on, and thus you all have 100% epistemological certainty as to what is “divine revelation” contrasted with “mere human opinion”.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy godless Valentine Day!

Life and death in the sandbox


There are many reasons why people hold on to their beliefs in supernatural things. Many of these reasons, I think, are psychological ones—people hold on to supernatural beliefs because not having them would be psychologically unacceptable in some way (or in many ways). In other words, they have—or think they have—certain psychological needs that could not be met if they did not hold on to some sort of supernatural belief. For instance, my stepmother has told me multiple times that she has to believe in God because she has to believe that she will see her dead parents again. A more extreme example here is the tendency for people to think that, without belief in the supernatural, they would not be able to have any hope whatsoever. Nonbelief, they think, is "a recipe for despair." This view of nonbelief probably stems from the belief that belief in God, or at least belief in some supernatural power, is the source or foundation of hope. For if this is believed, then the rejection of the supernatural amounts to the rejection of the source or foundation of hope, which makes hope impossible and despair the only appropriate reaction.

With this working conception of hope in place, I can now turn to the idea that nonbelief is a recipe for despair. I imagine that this idea is due, at least in part, to the fact that there is indeed no room for certain hopes without some sort of spiritual or supernatural belief to prop them up. For instance, if no belief about spiritual realms or entities is true, then there can be (a) no immortality of any kind (and thus no evil-free afterlife in Heaven, and no reunion with dead friends or loved ones) and (b) no guarantee that justice will ultimately prevail. If no belief about spiritual realms or entities is true, then death permanently ends our conscious experience—our own as well as that of our friends and loved ones. So even if we desire to live forever in Heaven or elsewhere, or to see our deceased friends and loved ones again, these are not live possibilities for nonbelievers. And if no belief about spiritual realms or entities is true, then there is also no supernatural figure or power to ensure that justice will ultimately prevail. So although we want to be sure that justice will prevail, this too is simply not a live option for nonbelievers. Consequently, condition (3) cannot be met for any of these desired outcomes, and thus nonbelievers cannot have any kind of hope in regard to them.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that there is no room whatsoever for hope if one holds a naturalistic worldview. For no matter how important the "lost" hopes might be, their exclusion does not entail the exclusion of all hope, just like the exclusion of 18-wheelers from the average residential garage does not entail the exclusion of all motor vehicles. In fact, there is plenty of room for both confident and fairly reasonably hopes on a naturalistic worldview: a nonbeliever can confidently or reasonably hope that he or she will get that dream job, be admitted to a good doctoral program, make a positive impact on the lives of others or the community, recover from setbacks, find true love, live a long and fruitful life, and so on. When it comes to these sorts of things, nonbelievers are just as entitled to confidently or reasonably hope for them as believers in the supernatural are; for such things are definitely not desperately improbable in a naturalistic world and, in many cases, they warrant confidence in their realization. Therefore, it is patently false that nonbelief is a recipe for despair.

Can atheism lay a foundation for hope? Take “making a positive impact on the lives of others or the community, recover from setbacks, finding true love, living a long and fruitful life.”

But if atheism is true, then we’re just sand people. What does a sandman “making a positive impact” on the lives of other sandmen amount to? What does the “fruitful life” of a sandman amount to?

Every generation is an Etch A Sketch generation. The passage of time turns us upside down and shake us up, reducing us to a pile of sand. Then the process begins all over again. A new generation of sand people. We live in the sandbox until the passage of time turns us back into heaps of sand.

Yes, you can fall in love with a sand woman, and you can father sand children. But the sand is continuously recycled.

Where’s the hope in that? Does life inside the sandbox lay a foundation for hope? Hope is forward-leaning. Future-oriented. But what’s your future in the sandbox?

Suppose an outsider walks by the sandbox every year. Every year he sees a new set of sand people as he passes by. New sand families where last year’s sand families used to be. A new sand community where last year’s community used to be.

It doesn’t matter who existed or never existed. It doesn’t matter in what order the sand people appear or pass away.

Nothing lasts. Nothing endures. 

Is atheism worth defending?

After one has accepted the truth of atheism, questions about its value arise. Once you conclude that there probably is no God, then what? Is this fact worth defending? Should atheists even bother to rebut their critics and develop arguments for their positions?

The main reasons why I think that atheism is worth defending are epistemic ones. The first of these reasons is quite simple: atheism is a true or rational belief. As both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable things, truth and rational belief are very important goods; so any belief will be valuable insofar as it is true or rational, and this value constitutes a very good reason to defend it. Other epistemic reasons for defending atheism are constituted by our duties as responsible epistemic agents. As such agents, we have a duty to defend true and rational beliefs for their own sake, as well as a duty to defend true and rational beliefs in order to engender such beliefs in other epistemic agents.

A perfect illustration of shallow atheism.

What if atheism is nihilistic? Are nihilistic truths valuable?

From a secular standpoint, what makes truth “intrinsically” good? What makes anything intrinsically good from that vantage point?

What if nothing is good? What if true and false beliefs are equally harmful? What if, no matter what you believe, you are doomed? 

Why does Stringer assume we even have duties, much less an inalienable duty to defend truth for truth’s sake? Why should we be responsible epistemic agents? What if I’d rather be irresponsible? If I lose either way, what’s the difference?  What if it’s more fun to be irresponsible?

Suppose I’m an atheist. Suppose I’m abducted. Suppose my captor gives me a choice. On the one hand, I can continue to cling to me true or rational beliefs. If I exercise that option, I will spend the rest of my life in a concrete cell with a bare light bulb.

On the other hand, I can take an injection which will cause me to forget my true or rational beliefs. If I exercise that option, I will spend the rest of my life in comfort, enjoying every amenity, under the misconception that this is where and how I’ve always lived.

“To my knowledge only John Bugay called shennanigans from the get-go”


If I thought for a second that the CtC crew had innocent motives to explore the areas where Protestants and Roman Catholics agree and disagree, I’d be far more inclined to dialogue. But make no mistake, they aim for our conversion to Rome. The trophy wall of Reformed converts on their blog, and their very name are indicators. I watched as they gained a foothold over at Stellman’s blog, as many of us naively stood by and assumed they were in it for the dialogue, to my knowledge only John Bugay called shenanigans from the get-go. I can understand that they think they are on a noble mission, but what they in effect are seeking is to knock us off of the foundations of Scripture and the gospel we all confess. As a Reformed individual, I am loathe to acknowledge that anyone has noble, or even neutral motives.

Open season on Canadian Christians

Consider, for example, the “war on Christmas” that Fox News plays up every autumn. The vote of one town council not to have a creche on the front lawn of the town hall suddenly becomes another sobering sign of the tightening noose on God’s persecuted elect.

It’s striking to see Rauser trivialize the specter of persecuted Christians in North America. Rauser is Canadian. I’m no expert on Canada, but isn’t the persecution of Canadian Christians a looming issue? For instance:

A simple prolife argument

Are people valuable because we value them? Or do we value people because they are valuable? Do people have intrinsic value or extrinsic value? Is one person’s value relative to the value another person (or society) confers of him?

That’s the basic difference between the prolife and proabortion positions. And you will have to radically different societies depending on which principle you consistently carry out.

Now some atheists and/or hardline abortionists are prepared to bite the bullet. They’ll admit that human beings have no inherent value. How valuable you are depends on how much or little others value you.

Of course, there’s a catch. While this may be how they treat others, that’s not how they want others to treat them.

Now, someone might object that, as a matter of fact, we do value some people more than others. We value friends and relatives more than strangers and enemies. So the distinction is artificial.

However, that’s not a real exception, for the two positions are asymmetrical. The question is whether there’s a baseline below which human value doesn’t go.

People can have intrinsic value, while, at the same time, we value some more than others. The floor is not the ceiling. So those are complementary positions.

By the same token, people can commit heinous acts that exclude them from the human community. But that’s different than saying there’s no least lower threshold on human value. Indeed, it’s because of what they did to others that they forfeit their membership in society.

For instance, a friend has greater claims on me than a stranger . So in some respects I’ll treat a friend better than a stranger. But that doesn’t mean the stranger as worthless. To treat someone less well is not to treat him badly. There are minimal standards for everyone.

This also means there’s an upper limit to how well we should treat people. For instance, just because someone is my friend doesn’t mean I should excuse everything he does. If he cheats a stranger, justice takes precedence over friendship. In that situation, I have a greater duty to the stranger.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In Defense of the Second Amendment

The all-women's army


Okay, so women can now be official combatants. It’s striking to compare this with the oft-recited meme that nowadays many men never grow up. We could, of course, examine the accuracy of that depiction. But for now let’s play along with the stereotype.

Imagine stay-at-home, unattached males greeting the news of women co-opting a role traditionally reserved for men:

Terrific! By all means, let women do the fighting for us! That’s one less thing for guys to do. Why should I risk my neck when women are so eager to take my place? That frees me up to spend more time at the strip joint.

Go for it, honey! Go fight for me. Be my guest. I’ll be waiting for you if you make it back. (Well, to be honest, I probably won’t wait for you.)

In fact, maybe we can lobby for an all-women’s army. Suit them up and send them off to battle while us sensitive males stay behind to play Paintball, water sports, video games, and surf the web for internet porn. Isn’t women’s lib great! 

Everyone is crazy but me!

Drake Shelton:

Am I the only one on this planet that sees what has happened to the Church?  THIS IS INSANE!

You’re not alone, Drake. Many patients in padded cells are equally convinced that they’re the only ones left who see what’s really going on. Why won’t anyone listen to their warnings? Soooo frustrating!

I wish I could offer Drake more support, but the alien overlords who invaded our planet won’t let me to explain how you can detect their presence or distinguish them from the humans they impersonate. 

Yet Steve Hays has admitted that there are many different kinds of Unitarianism. Thus the accusation remains bogged down in ambiguity.

Likewise, there are many kinds of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, &c. Since the many different kinds of unitarianism are damnable falsehoods, a more exacting classification is moot.

My Nicene brothers, we can comfortably assume that when a man comes against us with Romans 9:5, he is an excuseless, ignorant apostate.

Copy/pasting quotes from Hippolytus and Tertullian isn’t exegesis. If you want to parse Rom 9:5, read Bruce Metzger or Murray J. Harris.

BTW, Drake and his cohorts aren’t “Nicene.” Rather, they retreat into the ante-Nicene Fathers–filtered through Samuel Clarke.

Women in combat

Literal events, figurative depictions

The view taken here is that, while the NT often recognizes fresh significances in its reading of OT texts (the church is heir to the spiritual promises of God to Israel), Ezekiel’s own understanding of his oracles must be determinative in our interpretation. If one could ask Ezekiel whether or not he expected a literal regathering of his people, their return to the land of Israel, their spiritual rejuvenation, and the restoration of a Davidide on the throne, one would expect an unequivocally affirmative answer. After all, Yahweh has given his word, and he will not renege on his eternal promises to Abraham, Moses, and David.

However, although Ezekiel’s restoration oracles predict literal events, not all of his descriptions portray the events literally. In fact, from Ezk 34 to 48 his prophecies of hope become increasingly abstract and ideational. It is not difficult to envision the regathering and revitalization of the nation as described in chapters 34 and 36:16-38 and the main elements should be taken seriously (similarly 37:15-28).

However, 37:1-14 is cast as a vision, with the dry bones functioning symbolically for Israel; the Gog-Magog oracles (chs. 38-39) reads like a literary cartoon, with many unreal and bizarre features; the final temple vision is quite ideological, with many idealistic and fantastic elements that are difficult to reconcile with geographical and cultural realities.

While Ezekiel undoubtedly envisages a real return of Israel to the land of Palestine, the appointment of a Davidic Messiah, and a protracted period of peace and prosperity for the nation, his vision remains narrowly nationalistic. Apart from Yahweh’s guarantee of protection, even from universal conspiracies against Israel (chs. 38-39), Ezekiel has little to say about the cosmic implications of the new order. Since he does not offer a clear chronology of latter day occurrences, one is cautioned against using the details in his descriptions to construct a sequential calendar of eschatological events.

Contrary to common popular opinion, the description of the temple is not presented as a blueprint for some future building to be constructed with human hands. The vision picks up on the theme of divine presence announced in 37:26-27 and describes the spiritual reality in concrete terms, employing the familiar cultural idioms of temple, alter, sacrifices, nasi, and land.

D. Block, “Ezekiel: Theology of,” NIDOTTE 4:625,27.

Is the Father Yahweh?

Unitarians take the position that the Father is the default referent of Yahweh or Elohim in the OT. I’ve discussed this contention before, but now I’d like to approach the issue from a different angle.

One of the major themes in the Fourth Gospel is the Son’s role as the revelation of the Father. By knowing the Son, you come to know the Father as well. The Son uniquely mediates knowledge of the Father. Other NT passages pick up on the same theme.

If, however, OT references to God single out the Father, then the Jews already knew the Father from OT revelation. They had direct knowledge of the Father.

So why would we need indirect knowledge of the Father via the Son? On the unitarian view, knowing the Son doesn’t contribute anything unique to the knowledge of the Father we can get straight from the source in the pages of the OT. Indeed, on a unitarian view, knowing the Son would be a superfluous and inferior means of knowing the Father, compared to the immediacy of OT revelation.

Anatomy of a scoundrel

Arminian theologian Randal Rauser has gone on the rampage:

I’ll comment on his screed. After that, I’ll append the comments I left at his blog, leading up to his screed.

If homosexuals are “sodomites” what does that make the rest of us?

What an odd title. Since “sodomite” is simply a traditional synonym for homosexual, that tautology doesn’t carry any implications for the rest of us. Rauser might as well do a post entitled If single men are bachelors, what does that make the rest of us? Short answer: nothing in particular.

Our story begins this past Saturday when I published an article called “Why do conservative Christians think everything is getting worse?” In the article I pointed out that the data is, at best, ambiguous and that much of it indicates broad societal improvement over the last two centuries and more. Alan Kurschner took issue with this claim, and part of his argument consisted of asking a simple question:

“is Canada more or less tolerant of sodomy today than it was in 1800? I’d like an answer from you.”

My initial answer was “wow”. There is a popular stereotype that conservative Christians are disproportionately concerned with sexual ethics over-against other important ethical issues. And now Alan was confirming that stereotype by suggesting that an assessment of the moral status of Canadian society c. 2000 over-against Canadian society c. 1800 could be settled simply by considering the legislation and social mores in each period on the issue of “sodomy”.

Rauser began with the straw man that premils think “everything is getting worse.” Rauser then cited what he took to be counterexamples to the straw man he was burning in effigy. Alan then cited a counterexample to his counterexample.

Rauser then responds by burning another strawman by acting as if Alan thinks the status of homosexuality is the only index of social morality. Needless to say, Alan didn’t say that or imply that. This is simply Rauser’s demagogical caricature.

I wondered at the time whether Alan was aware that one of the stars in the conservative Reformed firmament, Mark Driscoll, provides a spirited defense of anal intercourse between husband and wife in his book Real Marriage (p. 187 ff.). This is significant. You see, according to the English Buggery Act of 1533, buggery or sodomy included anal intercourse between a man and a woman. And since Canadian laws against sodomy were based on this act, had Mark Driscoll published his racy marital guide in 1800 in Canada he could have faced prison … or worse.

Of course, that’s just a distraction. And is far as that goes, Driscoll’s position was denounced by various Calvinists. Driscoll has come under fire for other things as well. If he’s a star in the Reformed firmament, he’s a falling star.

I didn’t bother to pursue that point since I took Alan to be using the term “sodomy” more or less equivalent to “homosexuality”. (Though one can surely pause to marvel at the irony here.)

Where’s the irony?

So I provided a reply to him in “Sodomy and the Kingdom of God” in which I asked him whether he thought homosexuals should be killed in accord with Canadian law c. 1800. Neither he nor Steve Hays (to whom I also posed the question) had the courage to provide a reply. This, in itself, is extremely disturbing. What is one to think when the question “Should this person be killed for their actions?” is met with silence?

That’s a demonstrable lie. I didn’t meet Rauser’s question with silence. Rather, I pointed out that Rauser was grasping for a pretext to change the subject.

This got started when Rauser caricatured premillennialism. Since it’s so easy to cite counterexamples which puncture his caricature, Rauser then felt the need to save face by deflecting attention away from his original, bankrupt argument.

Not surprisingly, these questions were also met with silence. Why?

i) It as met with silence (from Alan's end) because Alan is a busy guy. He wasn’t monitoring Rauser’s blog.

ii) Notice Rauser’s scurrilous pseudo-logic. Alan cited the normalization of homosexuality as a mark of social decadence. How does Rauser manage to go from that position to the allegation that Alan thinks homosexuals should be executed? There’s no logical validity to that move.

I can’t speak for Alan, but there standard reasons why conservative Christians might oppose homosexuality, but also oppose the execution of homosexuals.

i) They often regard most of the death penalties in the Mosaic Law as a reflection of Israel's cultic holiness. Something not carried over into the new covenant.

ii) Even during the OT era, some scholars regard the death penalty as a maximum penalty, not a mandatory penalty. Subject to commutation (except in case of murder).

So Rauser's imputation is fallacious.

iii) However, it remains the case that sodomy was a capital offense in OT law. According to God, sodomy merits the death penalty. Rauser may stamp his feet, but I prefer to take my cue from God’s disapproval rather than Rauser’s disapproval.

iv) From a Scriptural standpoint, sin generally merits the death penalty (e.g. Rom 6:23). That’s why everyone dies. At that level, every sin is a capital offense. 

At the same time, every sin is not a crime. Although every sinner is worthy of death, that doesn’t translate into penology. Scripture itself is selective in that respect.

I presume because it is easier to judge the actions of others at a distance rather than the sins that are going on in your midst.

That’s very rich coming from Rauser. When attacking the alleged hypocrisy of others, Rauser has 20/20 vision. But he suffers from instant glaucoma where his own conduct is concerned.

In a subsequent discussion with Steve Hays I then pointed out that Alan was crassly attributing to me statements I never made. I wrote:

“By the way Alan Kurschner wrote an article titled “Randal Rauser Asserts Premillennialism is Pessimistic, Therefore, it is Against Social Justice and the Environment”. I never said any such thing. I trust that you’ll set Alan straight.”

To the contrary, Alan’s ascriptions were completely accurate. In his initial argument against premillennialism, Rauser resorted to straw men and hasty generalizations. When challenged, Rauser began to rewrite the history of his argument, then backdate his revised argument as if that’s what he’d been saying all along. Yet you only have to compare his current statements with his original statements to see the difference.

Here was Steve’s reply:

“I have no doubt that Alan is straight. You’re the one who’s defending sodomites.”

Note what Steve does here. In response to my point that Alan has attributed blatantly false claims to me…

Far from being “blatantly false,” Alan’s characterization of Rauser’s argument was blatantly true. The only thing which needs to be set straight is Rauser’s crooked behavior.

Steve replies by making a play on words…


…to suggest that I am homosexual. 

How does my pun suggest that Rauser is homosexual? Rauser’s bizarre reaction unwittingly illustrates the Rorschach test.

And then he charges me with “defending sodomites.”

Count me guilty on that one.

Which confirms my charge.

I’ll defend homosexuals against religious hypocrites any day of the week. After all, if there is one group Jesus did single out for special moral censure, it was religious hypocrites.

That’s a popular cliché, but it’s demonstrably false. For instance, Jesus also singled out “murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt 15:19) for special moral censure. And “sexual immorality” certainly included sodomy.

Moreover, Jesus singled out those who break God’s commandments (Mt 15:3), yet Rauser routinely attacks God’s commandments.

So then I asked Steve:

“Steve, we all know you hate homosexuals. But the real question is: what should be done with the remarried divorcees that fill the pews of churches, the very ones Jesus called adulterers? Why don’t you field that question since Alan refused to?”

Remarried divorcees aren’t ipso facto adulterers. Jesus made exception for divorce and remarriage in case of infidelity.

Steve replied:

“Randal, we all know you hate Yahweh.”

Huh? Ignoring that strange non sequitur…

That’s not a “strange non sequitur.” Here’s another example of Rauser’s deceptive debate tactics. Look at the full exchange:

Randal Rauser

By the way Alan Kurschner wrote an article titled "Randal Rauser Asserts Premillennialism is Pessimistic, Therefore, it is Against Social Justice and the Environment". I never said any such thing.

I trust that you'll set Alan straight.

steve hays

I have no doubt that Alan is straight. You're the one who's defending sodomites.

Randal Rauser

Steve, we all know you hate homosexuals. But the real question is: what should be done with the remarried divorcees that fill the pews of churches, the very ones Jesus called adulterers? Why don't you field that question since Alan refused to?

 steve hays

 Randal, we all know you hate Yahweh.

My statement that “Randal, we all know you hate Yahweh” is an obvious riposte to his statement that “Steve, we all know you hate homosexuals.”

So, no, my statement is not a “strange non sequitur.” But Rauser edited the exchange to eliminate his own statement, which I was responding to.

Moreover, I’ve documented Randal’s rejection of OT theism. So that’s the larger context.

I persisted:

“Please answer the direct question. What should be done with the remarried divorcees that fill the pews of churches, the very ones Jesus called adulterers?”

Not surprisingly, Steve refused to answer. Like his friend Alan, he prefers to focus his moral outrage on the sins of a select group rather than focus on the moral failings in his midst, even when the issue is one Jesus specifically addressed.

i) Rauser is so transparent. Does he really think people can’t see what he’s up to? This is just a distraction. Because he bungled his original argument against premillennialism, he’s laboring to deflect attention away from his failure. He does that by a show of mock indignation.

If I played into his diversion, that would give him the excuse he’s desperately seeking to shift attention to a discussion of my answer, thereby hoping readers will forget the original issue, which was his caricature of premillennialism. 

ii) As far as that goes, I’ve discussed the pastoral issue of divorced parishioners on my blog.

iii) Since I’m not divorced, I’m not guilty of hypocrisy in that respect.

iv) In my comment on Rauser’s blog, I haven’t exhibited moral outrage. Rather, I’ve discussed Alan’s counterexample in response to Rauser.

Of course Jesus didn’t just address divorce. In the Sermon on the Mount he drops an atom bomb on the “sinner vs. the rest of us” mentality. Jesus offers us a moral universe that is breathtakingly egalitarian: we’re all sinners, we’re all in need of redemption. It’s a world in which we recognize ourselves as the chief of all sinners and in which there’s no hatred left for others because it is all directed at stamping out the sin nature in our own decaying souls.

i) Rauser is now inventing a nonexistent position to attack, as if that has any bearing on Alan’s position or mine.

ii) Funny to compare Rauser’s disclaimer about an us-versus-them mentality in the context of a post which is completely framed in terms of Rauser’s us-versus-them mentality.

iii) Keep in mind that Rauser repudiates the moral authority of Jesus. This is coming from a man who thinks Jesus can give false theological answers. So why is Rauser wrapping himself in the mantle of the Sermon on the Mount? Even if we agreed with his glib interpretation of what Jesus said, Rauser’s kenotic Christology dissolves the moral authority of Jesus.

iv) Paul singles out homosexuality in Rom 1. From all the sins that Paul could choose to illustrate man’s moral and spiritual revolt, he makes homosexuality the showcase sin.

v) Divorce and sodomy aren’t morally equivalent. According to Scripture, sodomy is intrinsically wrong. By contrast, divorce is not intrinsically wrong. It depends on the circumstances. 

Rehabilitating “Evangelical Obedience”

“Evangelical obedience” is a grand old phrase, which has sadly faded from use & familiarity in Reformation circles. It captures the old, Reformed orthodoxy regarding sanctification and its source – not the Law, but the Gospel....

(By the way, the Greek verb “to justify” means “to declare righteous,” not simply “innocent,” so the imputation of righteousness is implied in the very definition of the word. That’s free, no charge, for anyone who thinks the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is not essential to justification.)...

I like this quaint old phrase. I think we should revive its use. It clarifies where Christian obedience – imperfect as it is – comes from. It is not from the Law, but from the evangel, the Gospel. The Law guides and defines that obedience. But only the Gospel produces it. But stay humble, kids. Even your “evangelical obedience” has only a “small beginning” in this life – Heidelberg 114 (based on Romans 7:14-15). Your good works could never stand the severity of God’s judgment apart from Christ – Westminster Confession 16.5 (Is 64:6, Gal 5:17, etc). You still need Jesus, to mediate your “evangelical obedience” which is defiled by your sin (1 Pet 2:5). But He makes it a beautiful thing in the sight of the Father, and graciously rewards it.

That’s why evangelical obedience is not a burden, but a joy...

Straining at a gnat, while swallowing the camel of centuries’-worth of ‘distinctively Roman accretions’

Continuing with my very long discussion with Michael Liccione at Called to Communion:

Mike 286:

That remark is as good a place as any to start for the sake of explaining what’s wrong with your approach at the most fundamental, philosophical level.

There is nothing wrong with my approach at any level, much less “the most fundamental, philosophical level”. As I’ve explained repeatedly, the “fundamental, philosophical level” that you want to bring up has been necessitated by the fact that you need to explain away some things (very many things) and account for the addition of very many other things.

In your writings, you often quote one or more English translations of the Bible. Precisely as translations, they are interpretations of critical editions of the Bible in the original languages. Those critical editions, in turn, are interpretations of what’s written on the pages of the all the oldest codices that survive. And “what the Bible says,” to the extent we know it, is what’s written on those pages. So, what you quote is not “what the Bible says.” What you quote are interpretations of interpretations of what the Bible says.

You use the word “interpretations” very loosely. It’s true that there is some need for judgment, on some issues, but very, very infrequently is there a need to make an “interpretation” that changes anything at all that is significant.

Is Obama a Christian?

Here’s recent exchange I had at the Secular Outpost:

steve hays

Jeff, that's not mind-reading. That's Driscoll judging Obama both by his theological statements as well as his political policies. Judging Obama by his public persona, not his inaccessible mental states. That would be no different than, say, Albert Mohler denying that John Spong is a genuine Christian.

Jeffery Jay Lowder

I was wondering if I would get this response.

I'll go ahead and bite. Without even asking you to supply any sources (yet :) ), can you summarize the theological statements and political policies which you take to be evidence that Obama is not a Christian?

steve hays

There's his interview with Cathleen Falsani, where he positions himself on the far left of the theological spectrum. There's the fact that he was comfortable with the James Cone brand of theology espoused by Jeremiah Wright. Then you have his position on issues like abortion and homosexuality, which are at odds with Christian ethics. Those are some examples.

steve hays

Jeffery Jay Lowder

“I have some questions. As I write this post, I recognize that these questions may seem stupid to someone who has studied theology as much as you, so I'll understand if you decide that answering them is not worth your time. Or, if you want to provide links for each question, that's fine with me.’

Thanks Jeff. Those are intelligent, reasonable questions. I’m going to answer (3) last because that demands a more detailed answer.

“1. I'm not familiar with the interview with Falsani. Without looking it up, I can't tell why "he positions himself on the far left of the theological spectrum" means (or makes probable) that Obama is not a Christian. Why do you believe that?”

Here’s the interview:

Among other things, Obama says: “I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.”

That’s classic religious pluralism. At best, that would make Jesus one Savior among many. Jesus is a Savior, Buddha is a Savior, Krishna is a Savior, &c.

Obama also says: “Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.”

i) He says Jesus is a historical figure “for me,” as if historicity is relative. Historical for me, but not for you.

ii) He reduces Jesus to a bridge or means of reaching something higher. But in orthodox Christology, Jesus is God the Son Incarnate. As such, there’s nothing or no one higher than Christ.

Obama also says: “And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.”

This puts Jesus on the same level of other spiritual guides. Classic religious syncretism or pluralism.

“2. Why is the James Cone brand of theology incompatible with Christianity?”

Short answer: because it’s Marxism with a Biblical veneer:

“4. Regarding homosexuality, I agree that the Bible, when interpreted literally, condemns homosexuality. Why can't someone be a Christian and not interpret the Bible literally?”

i) What’s the alternative to taking those condemnations literally? Treating them allegorically? Do they stand for something else? What would that be?

Take this passage: 

“9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

Logically, we’d interpret the statement about homosexuality the same way we’d interpret the statements about other vices. If we take the other statements literally, why not the statement about homosexuality?

ii) Many atheists take those condemnations literally. They say the Bible is “homophobic,” “transphobic,” &c.

iii) Apropos (ii), one doesn’t have to believe the Bible to believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. For instance, Luke Timothy Johnson is a leading Catholic NT scholar who admits the NT condemns homosexuality, but denies that we are bound by NT teaching. For Johnson, this is not a question of Biblical interpretation, but Biblical authority:

“That challenge is to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand. The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel. I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority?”

iv) For a detailed defense of the view that Scripture condemns homosexuality, see Robert Gagnon:

“3. I'm well aware that many (most?) Christians believe that human life and personhood begins at conception. What I don't understand is why can't someone consistently believe that Jesus is their lord and savior and believe that personhood begins after conception but before birth? For example, why can't a Christian believe that a soul is "attached" (if that is the right word) to the unborn child once the brain reaches a certain stage of development?”

i) The personhood or cognitive development of the unborn is not a necessary precondition of the Christian prolife argument.

ii) There are exegetical arguments for the prolife position:

iii) There are philosophical arguments for the prolife position:

iv) More generally, Obama’s attitude towards the unborn is antithetical to the Christian principle of neighbor-love. It’s like a man climbing a ladder who kicks someone else off the ladder. The man higher up the ladder kicks a man in the head who’s just below him to knock him off.

Obama’s attitude is murderously ungenerous. Because he got a head start, he doesn’t grant others behind him the same opportunity he had. To take a few comparisons:

a) Suppose you have a race in which one runner prevents the other runner from having a fair chance to win by cheating. Suppose the cheater spikes the drinking water of his competitor, so that his competitor becomes sick. We consider that contemptible, yet that’s trivial compared to abortion, where the baby has far more to lose.

b) Take fictional stories in which a character has discovered the secret of immortality. He regenerates by sapping the youth of teenagers. They die so that he can live. We’d consider that immoral. He had a normal lifespan, yet he denies to others the chance to enjoy what he had.

v) For reasons I’ve given elsewhere, Obama’s position is hypocritical:

vi) He treats children as a burden or “punishment” rather than a blessing or gift, contrary to Biblical values.

vii) He defies the special parental duty that mothers and fathers have to protect and provide for their children. Parents have a Christian obligation to risk their lives to protect their kids, rather than risking their kid’s life to protect themselves.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Cumulative Case For The Authorship Of The Biblical Documents

In a thread at the Stand To Reason blog, I've been discussing some of the evidence for John's authorship of the fourth gospel. I mentioned five lines of evidence that all point in the same direction, toward authorship by John, son of Zebedee:

Suicidal atheism

Shameless murder

Compatibilism and Regret

This will be quick. Sometimes Calvinists hear that their belief in divine determinism makes regrets unintelligible. One Arminian puts it like this:
It would seem that regrets can only make sense, however, if we hold to a libertarian view of free will. Regrets are nonsensical if we believe that all of our actions are determined by decree and circumstances which are beyond our control. There is no point feeling regret for something you could not possibly have done otherwise; yet we still feel regret. Do Calvinists feel regret? How do they work such feelings into their worldview? Do they temporally shelve their worldview when confronted with the experiences of daily human life? Do they somehow train themselves to have no regrets so as to conform their feelings with their belief in determinism? I am curious to know.
I've had regrets, most of us have. Mine, and I'm assuming this is so for most people, go roughly like this: This situation I've brought about is somehow undesirable. If I knew then what I know now, I'd do differently. But this is consistent with determinism: Same past, same future; different past, different future (perhaps). What's the alternative? Do I say, "I wish I would have done otherwise given the exact same circumstances, the exact same information, the exact same reasons, the exact same belief-desire complexes, etc.? Would I have done differently? That seems quite odd to me. Why would I have done differently? Why think I would have done otherwise? I don't regret something by looking back and saying I would have done differently given the exact same situation. I don't think many others think that either. They might say, "I noticed X back then, but didn't think it was relevant. I wish I would have seen the relevance of X to my situation, then I would have done otherwise." And this, of course, is fully consistent with determinism.

“Suppressing the Truth by Wickedness”

John Thayer Jenson, asked in Comment 271:

I don’t see how this helps me to know which of us is right and which is suppressing the truth by his wickedness. I believe God’s Voice has told me the Catholic Church is His Body and men can be saved only through it; you believe – well, you don’t believe that! Is one of us suppressing the truth by his wickedness, therefore?

I’ll give you just two examples of how this might work. First, see comment #18 of the Green Baggins thread I mentioned to Susan, From Natural Revelation to Special Revelation:

[Question]: Is [the Church’s] structure established by Christ or by the vote of human beings?

[Response]: 1 Timothy 3:1ff, among other passages, gives us the divine structure of the church, and human beings didn’t vote on that God-given structure. That structure says that the “bishop must be…” while the history of [Roman Catholicism] demonstrates to us that the “bishop need not be…” in terms of what is prerequisite for that office.

Not only is there an explanation for why “the bishop need not be…”, but on top of that you have also superimposed a papacy, and you especially have all kinds of explanations for why “the pope need not be…” In this case, the “…” lists all kinds of, really, divinely-structured guidelines such as “be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)”.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Does it take a miracle to prove a miracle?

Against the Gods

John Currid has a forthcoming book, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, due out late summer. Among other things, I assume it will respond to Peter Enns.

The death of faith

I know God is not a senile old uncle in the New Testament, but he is less–well, reactionary about certain things. Comedian Lewis Black wonders if having a son mellowed God out a bit. You might not like the joke but you can get the point.

Schreiner's whole Bible theology

Rauser's defamatory tactics

I’m going to offer a more detailed commentary on this post:

Why do conservative Christians think everything is getting worse?

Do conservative Christians think “everything” is getting worse? Is that just a catchy title? Is the title hyperbolic? Or does Rauser really think that’s accurate? If so, then he’s burning a straw man.

Rauser is claiming a correlation between what “conservative Christians” believe about social trends, and their eschatology. If, however, Rauser is equivocating, then that vitiates his comparison.

The answer is simple: eschatology. Eschatology is the doctrine of last things, and most Christian conservatives these days continue to be premillennial in their eschatology.

What about conservative Christians who are not premils? What about confessional Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians–to name a few? If Rauser correlates the alleged belief that “everything is getting worse” to the corollary belief in premillennialism, and many conservative Christians who allegedly believe “everything is getting worse” don’t buy into that eschatology, then Rauser’s claim is demonstrably false.

Premillennialism is often described as a pessimistic eschatology, one that expects conditions to get progressively worse until Jesus comes back and establishes his millennial kingdom.

i) To begin with, what premil distinctive predicts for conditions to get progressively worse until the Parousia? Can Rauser pinpoint out the distinctive premil doctrine which selects for that prediction?

ii) “Progressively worse” in reference to what terminus ad quo? When does premillennialism predict that everything will start going downhill? 1000 BC? 1000 AD? 1776? 1865?

Is there a triggering event? If so, has the triggering event occurred?

Incidentally, the assumption here is that the progression or regression of which we speak is moral in nature. Obviously if we’re talking technological progress alone the postmillennialists would have won the debate long ago. But admittedly if you shift the discussion to the question of moral progress the space for debate opens up. After all, there is no shortage of societies in history that have been on the vanguard of technological progress and yet have also been morally brutish.

I am not a premillennialist, and I find premillennialism disturbing for one important reason: it tends to breed passivity in those who accept it.

Yet Rauser just said:

…while amillennialism is described as realistic since it thinks we’ll progress and regress — two steps forward, one step back; one step forward, two steps back — until Jesus returns.)

And Rauser calls himself an amil. However, wouldn’t his description of amillennialism breed passivity? He makes it sound like a cyclical process where all the progress you make at low tide is washed out at high tide. But if every advance is met by a setback, why bother? Your efforts to improve the situation are continually undone. So perhaps Rauser can explain, by his own logic, why amils shouldn’t be passive spectators.

If things are expected to get worse, then what’s the use of trying to make them better?

Notice the fatal ambiguity. “Expected to get worse” when? At what point in history do premils expect things to get worse?

For instance, suppose premils expect “everything” to get worse 10 years before the Parousia. That would only breed passivity if they know the Parousia will happen in the near future. Then they can count back from the date of the Parousia to when “everything” gets worse. But what if premils have no idea when Jesus is coming back? In that case, how would their abstract belief that things will go downhill shortly before Jesus returns breed passivity?

To take a comparison, suppose my kitchen sink is clogged. Suppose astronomers announce that eventually an asteroid is going to destroy my town. Do I not call a plumber to unclog my sink because, at some wholly unspecified time in the future, an asteroid will reduce my kitchen to rubble?

Indeed (and this where things can get really perverse), one could even get to the point of reasoning that seeking to reduce the misery in the world and increase acts of justice and mercy could effectively be postponing the return of Christ since he won’t show up until things get really bad. And which Christian wants to delay Christ’s return?

i) Even if (ex hypothesi) we could delay Christ’s return, that would be beneficial to future generations, some of whom would become Christian and thereby enjoy eternal life.

ii) Couldn’t one just as well argue that evangelism hastens the return of Christ (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” Mt 24:14)? Therefore, that would breed missionary/evangelistic activism rather than passivity.

I’m not saying that a premillennialist cannot consistently fight for justice whilst holding this pessimistic theology. But every theology has dangerous tendencies, and in this case the tendency toward passivity is a serious concern.

Sounds like a good opportunity for Rauser to come clean on the dangerous tendencies in his own theology.

This leads to another problem. Premillennial Christians often expect that Christians will become a specially targeted minority as history devolves toward Armageddon. As a result, ever instance of Christians being targeted as Christians feeds into the interpretive framework and provides more evidence for the “persecuted minority” trope.  Consider, for example, the “war on Christmas” that Fox News plays up every autumn. The vote of one town council not to have a creche on the front lawn of the town hall suddenly becomes another sobering sign of the tightening noose on God’s persecuted elect.

i) Since Christians are persecuted at different times and places throughout church history, why would “every instance” of Christian persecution presage the apocalypse?

ii) BTW, notice how Rauser trivializes the widening scope of antipathy to traditional Christian values in North America, Europe, the UK. Yet it’s not just premils who’ve drawn attention to that ominous development. Is Robert P. George a dispensationalist? Nigel M. de S. Cameron a dispensationalist? Is John Warwick Montgomery a dispensationalist? Is Wesley J. Smith a dispensationalist? Is Francis Beckwith a dispensationalist?

There are many dangers with this kind of thinking. Here’s one: if you always think of yourself as the persecuted minority you are that much more liable to miss the moments when you are in the wrong. Do you have any idea how many Christian conservatives in 1950s Alabama interpreted the rise of the civil rights movement as evidence of their status as a beleaguered, persecuted minority of God’s people? A sobering thought indeed.

Is that a fact? In reference to whom did 1950s Alabamans view themselves as a persecuted minority? Did white Alabamans view themselves as a religious minority group? Didn’t they considerably outnumber black Alabamans?

Does Rauser mean they viewed themselves as a persecuted minority in relation to the Federal gov’t? Was the Eisenhower administration spearheading the civil rights movement? To my knowledge, it wasn’t until Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General that the Feds got seriously involved in the civil rights movement.

What about 1950s South Carolinians? Weren’t many 1950s South Carolinians Presbyterian or Episcopalian? So what’s the connection with dispensational eschatology?

On what issues are Christian conservatives currently on the wrong side of history?

I can’t think of any. Maybe Rauser will enlighten us.

And to what extent is their premillennial eschatology blinding them to that fact?

Nothing like a loaded question.

I was raised in this tradition so I know it from the inside.

He doesn’t know 1950s Alabama from the inside.

Christian conservatives often exercise a clear confirmation bias as every major disaster (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis, wars) and every attack on Christians (e.g. the removal of the creche from the lawn of the town hall) is marshalled in support of the “Things are getting worse” thesis.

i) Notice Rauser’s bait-n-switch. There’s a basic difference between a “things are getting worse thesis” and an “everything is getting worse” thesis. Do conservative Christians take the position that everything is getting worse?

ii) Do confessional Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, et al. regard every natural disaster as confirmation that things are getting worse?

If anything, isn’t it just the opposite? Don’t global warming alarmists take every natural disaster as confirmation that things are getting worse?

But what is counted for the “Things are getting better” thesis? If you start counting from this side then things become decidedly more ambiguous.

Do conservative Christians take the position that nothing has gotten better over time? Isn’t Rauser indulging in blatant hasty generalizations?

This is what I challenged my students to do last week when I was teaching a course in Christian worldview. After hearing that things were getting worse in Canadian society, I presented them with a challenge based on John Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment. I put it as follows:

Imagine that you could choose to be born into Canadian society in the year 1800, 1900 or 2000 while not knowing what your gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status would be. Which year would you choose to be born into?

While I didn’t call for a formal vote, the response of the class seemed unanimous. Contemporary Canadian society — for all its great faults — is still on the whole a far more just society today than it was one or two hundred years ago. In many ways we are a far more compassionate and civil society than we once were. Now extend the thought experiment. What about being born in Canada in 1800 or Assyria in 800 BC? To ask the question is to answer it. In almost all cases ancient societies were far more brutish than modern societies.

Several issues:

i) I’m not qualified to speak to the Canadian situation. There are, however, Canadians who don’t seem to share Rauser’s sanguine view of social trends in Canada. For instance, consider the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.

ii) Is it Rauser’s claim that according to premil eschatology, everything will go downhill after 1800? Can Rauser quote dispensational scholars like Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, Craig Blaising, Buist Fanning, or John Feinberg who take that position?

iii) Seems to me that Rauser defines progress through the self-congratulatory eyes of a white liberal. But do the minority groups on whose behalf he presumes to speak share his glowing outlook?

Thanks for the link Alan. I'll give Steve one thing: "pessimillennialism" is a clever neologism.

Actually, it’s Gary North who coined that term. The fact that Rauser doesn’t know that shows how little he really knows about the issue.

Unfortunately things go downhill from there. Steve obfuscates on the meaning of the word "pessimism" in the critique. If you follow the logic of his strange argument then Westboro Baptist Church has an "optimistic" eschatology which is absurd.

Notice that Rauser isn’t responding to my specific analysis.

Equally problematic is Steve's apparent ignorance of the real-world impact of dispensationalism (which is the primary target here) on matters like environmental concern and social justice. Numerous scholars (e.g. Mark Noll, George Marsden) have chronicled the negative impact dispensationalism has had on North American evangelicalism.

i) What is Rauser alluding to, exactly? What “environmental concerns” does he have in mind? Global warming? Unless I missed it, George Marsden doesn’t link opposition to global warming alarmists to dispensationalism in his classic, revised monograph on Fundamentalism and American Culture.

ii) What about Christian critics of global warming alarmists like James Wanliss?

Is his opposition traceable to dispensational theology–or to his scientific expertise?

Did Rauser have something else in mind? There are some apocryphal quotes attributed to James Watt:

Does Rauser have anything besides urban legends to back up his claim?

iii) And Rauser’s chronologically-challenged reference to 1950s Alabama doesn’t inspire my confidence in his command of U.S. history–not to mention how the dispensational culprit breaks down when you consider the religious demographics of other Southern states like S. Carolina.

I note finally that Steve ignored the central thesis of the article, namely the evidence I provide that the pessimism thesis is not borne out by the facts.

Notice that Rauser begins by imputing to me or to dispensationalism a “pessimistic” eschatology, when that ascription is the very issue in dispute, then faults me for ignoring his counterexamples. But, of course, that’s predicated on a false premise. I never granted his contention that conservative Christians think “everything” is getting worse. Therefore, even if I accepted his counterexamples, that’s a red herring. 

There are vast numbers of Reformed dispensationalists in North America. Think Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary.

What makes Rauser think Moody Bible Institute and DTS are synonymous with Reformed dispensationalism? 

BTW, many Arminians are dispensationalists.