Saturday, March 02, 2013

Parting with God Without Parts

In this post I’m going to comment on Dolezal’s theory of divine simplicity. This is an extension of my response to Shannon’s critique of the Welty/Anderson’s theistic ontology of logic. One of Shannon’s objections was to deploy the theory of simplicity against Welty/Anderson. And Shannon is indebted to Dolezal.

Historically, some Reformed theologians like Owen and Turretin defended divine simplicity. They did so in opposition to Socinians and Remonstrants. In that respect, I support what they are opposing.

However, it would be a mistake to imagine that there’s a Reformed consensus on this issue. For instance, Charles Hodge was an outspoken opponent of divine simplicity.

Dolezal seems to have a following in some Reformed circles. One reason may simply be that he’s a Calvinist, so there’s a built-in constituency for whatever a Calvinist publishes. A sympathetic predisposition.

It may also be that some young Calvinists enjoy philosophical theology. They’d like to see Calvinists get back in the game. They look forward to a renaissance of Reformed scholasticism.

I have no problem with that. But we must also acknowledge the limitations of philosophical theology.

In addition, divine simplicity is often presented as a bulwark for classical theism generally. To some extent, I think divine simplicity becomes a synecdoche for other components of the classical theistic package, like aseity, impassibility, timeless eternality, omnipotence, omniscience. By the same token, some (but not all) of those who object divine simplicity do so because they object to other components of classical theism.

But in that case we need to be clear. Are we defending simplicity in its own right, or by association with other tenets we hold dear? Is simplicity inseparable from the other tenets? And what if simplicity is actually in tension with some other important tenets?

Dolezal’s monograph doesn’t address major objections to divine simplicity involving divine freedom, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. He does, however, sketch his position in that respect in other forums. Among other things, he’s said:

As a Christian who confesses God’s incomprehensibility based upon his pure actuality, I cannot see how I can avoid appealing to mystery in the sense of (1). Yet there seem to be good reasons for this appeal. Most notably, as pure act God is beyond all categorical being and thus beyond definition in any scientific sense. (Hence, my commitment to analogical predication about God) It is God as ipsum esse subsistens (or, in biblical terms, as “I AM”) that chiefly accounts for his incomprehensibility and the mystery that permeates any discussion of his existence, essence, or triunity.

With respect to the difficulty of explaining how God is both free and simple (point 4 of your post), I would not locate the mystery primarily in the “conjunction” of the terms, but in the terms themselves. Yes, the conjunction is mysterious and I, like you, am not convinced by the numerous theistic attempts to overcome it. But, if I do indeed make a “mysterian move” it is not made at the end of a process in which I have grasped all the terms involved and simply cannot figure out how to link them together. Rather, I confess divine mystery at the outset, at the moment I conceive of God as pure act (as “I AM”). Admittedly, I did not make this as clear as I should have in chapter 7 of my book. The mystery of the conjunction follows from the mystery of God’s purely actual existence. Indeed, the mystery of divine freedom itself follows from the same. It is for this reason that I don’t expect (or even desire) “resolution” to the difficulty; such resolution could only be achieved by eradicating the ontological distinction between God and his creatures (which I would regard as impossible since God cannot produce a purely actual being distinct from himself). In this regard the “cognitive limitation” of humans is be located not in the circumstances of their present mental development or non-development, but in the fact of their ontological and intellectual compositeness.

If God produced the world by an absolute necessity then his very being as God would be correlative to the world’s existence. But such correlativity would obviate his pure actuality, i.e., he would be made actual in some sense by something other than himself and consequently would fail to satisfy the requirements for an agent that is pure act. In other words, he couldn’t be the absolutely sufficient explanation for the world’s existence if he were in any way correlative to the world.

It seems to follow, then, that if an absolutely simple God is going to create (and only a simple God satisfies the requirements for creation ex nihilo) he must do so freely.

I am hesitant to move too quickly in the direction of “libertarian freedom” before considering other ways in which divine freedom might be expressed. Perhaps most importantly, if divine simplicity means that God’s is the primary object and final end of all his knowing and willing (as I argue in chapter 6 of my book), then he is first and foremost free in that older Aristotelian sense of the one who is “for himself.” As pure act, he must be most “for himself” and thus most free, absolutely free of dependence upon all things not identical with him. I think that this is one sense of divine freedom that is often lost sight of in the modern stress upon power for counterfactuals.

Still, you are right to raise the question of God’s power for counterfactuals. How shall I explain the modality of such freedom? I confess that I cannot. I have no idea how to adequately express the modality of a free choice made by an agent who is pure act. And yet his pure actuality requires that his will for the world’s existence be free. I would not hesitate to affirm that human libertarian freedom is an analogue of this divine liberty; but it fails to convey the precise modality of that freedom as it is in God. Human acts of knowledge are also analogues of the divine act of knowledge and they too do not disclose an adequate (or univocal) notion of the modality of God’s knowledge. As I cannot form a univocal notion of God’s pure actuality, neither can I form a univocal notion of all he does in that actuality (knowing, willing, relating among the divine persons, creating, etc.).

i) Dolezal is resorting to mystery or paradox to justify his position. A position grounded in his view of divine incomprehensibility.

ii) I think appeal to mystery or paradox is a legitimate defense when we’re dealing with revealed truths. Faith in revealed truths is authorized by divine revelation.

However, I don’t think simplicity enjoys the status of a revealed truth. Simplicity is a philosophical construct. Even if it has some revelatory truths feeding into it, I think it goes well beyond the logical implications of God’s self-revelation.

That, of itself, doesn’t make it illicit. However, that does have two consequences:

a) As a philosophical construct, it has to withstand philosophical scrutiny. It can’t be justified by arguing from authority, for it’s not a revealed truth. The theory of divine simplicity is only as good as the rational arguments marshaled in its favor. It must stand or fall at the bar of reason. It must be cogent on its own terms. It can’t fall back divine authorization.

b) In case of conflict between the theory of divine simplicity and revealed truths, we should sacrifice simplicity. We can’t defend simplicity at the expense of revealed truths.

iii) There’s a viciously circular quality to his appeal. For simplicity figures in his definition of divine incomprehensibility based on God’s pure actuality. Isn’t simplicity one of the primary ways in which he explicates the pure actuality of God? If simplicity grounds divine incomprehensibility, then he can’t turn around and invoke divine incomprehensibility to give it cover.

iv) He seems to duck the question of whether God has counterfactual power. I assume that’s because he hasn’t made up his mind. And I assume he hasn’t made up his mind because he doesn’t have a strategy for reconciling divine counterfactual power with his precommitment to divine simplicity. At the same time, he clearly wants to affirm something like divine counterfactual power.

v) Consider what it would mean to deny God’s counterfactual power. It would mean the actual world exhausted the resources of divine omnipotence. But surely that’s implausible. Does God lack the knowledge or power to do a single thing differently than he did? Can’t God imagine alternatives? If so, is God impotent to do what he imagines?

vi) That would also make the created order commensurate with God. The finite effect would mirror the scope of divine omnipotence. A spent force.

vii) In addition, if God lacks counterfactual power, then the Son cannot become incarnate in one world unless he is incarnate in every possible world. But is it reasonable to stipulate that there is no possible world where the Son is not incarnate? Doesn’t the Bible tie the Incarnation to redemption, which is, in turn, tied to the Fall? Is every possible world a fallen world?

viii) Some Calvinists might say that we’re already used to denying human counterfactual power, so there’s no compelling reason why we should apply a different definition to God. There are, however, some basic problems with that comparison:

a) Calvinists deny the specific contention that humans must have counterfactual power to be moral agents. But the argument for divine freedom is not predicated on the assumption that God must have counterfactual freedom to be a moral agent.

b) Calvinists typically deny human counterfactual power precisely because that would conflict with divine counterfactual power. The human agent would be choosing what will happen rather than God. The creature would control the outcome. So the denial of human counterfactual power stands in contrast to divine power.

c) Apropos (b), why should Calvinists expend so much energy rebutting freewill theist restrictions on divine sovereignty only to embrace divine simplicity? Why stand adamantly opposed to Arminian, Molinist, and open theist restrictions on God’s sovereignty to spin around and enthusiastically accept a theory of divine simplicity which imposes a restriction on God’s sovereignty at least as radical (and arguably more so)? It’s like barring a wolf at the front door while inviting a tiger inside through the backdoor.

ix) One source of the problem may be the way in which Dolezal defines counterfactual freedom. He seems to think counterfactual freedom involves one or two assumptions: (a) choosing which possible world to create requires God to transition from a state of indecision to a state of resolve; (b) God’s range of options is confined to platonic realm of abstract objects or a plenum of preexistent possibilities, which subsist independently of God.

However, God’s counterfactual freedom doesn’t require either one of those assumptions. God’s omnipotence is the source of alternate possibilities, and his choice of one possibility over another is a timeless intention.

x) When he says:

As pure act God is beyond all categorical being and thus beyond definition in any scientific sense. (Hence, my commitment to analogical predication about God)

That seems reminiscent of Neoplatonism, where God is not a being, however exalted, but beyond being or nonbeing. Isn’t that a form of words without any intelligible concept to back it up?

Moreover, his statement seems to commit him, not to analogical predication, but apophaticism. God is incommensurable with human experience. None of our categories corresponds to what God is really like, in himself.

I don’t see how appeal to analogy will salvage his position, for analogy is a comparative relation. But if God is beyond all categorical being and thus beyond definition in any scientific sense, then we have no comparative frame of reference. 

xi) When he says:

It is God as ipsum esse subsistens (or, in biblical terms, as “I AM”) that chiefly accounts for his incomprehensibility and the mystery that permeates any discussion of his existence, essence, or triunity…Rather, I confess divine mystery at the outset, at the moment I conceive of God as pure act (as “I AM”).

Is he deriving the concept of God as pure act from God’s name in Exod 3:16? That’s how Aquinas tries to prooftext his position:

I answer that, This name HE WHO IS is most properly applied to God, for three reasons:

First, because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other (Q[3], A[4]), it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form.

Secondly, on account of its universality. For all other names are either less universal, or, if convertible with it, add something above it at least in idea; hence in a certain way they inform and determine it. Now our intellect cannot know the essence of God itself in this life, as it is in itself, but whatever mode it applies in determining what it understands about God, it falls short of the mode of what God is in Himself. Therefore the less determinate the names are, and the more universal and absolute they are, the more properly they are applied to God. Hence Damascene says (De Fide Orth. i) that, "HE WHO IS, is the principal of all names applied to God; for comprehending all in itself, it contains existence itself as an infinite and indeterminate sea of substance." Now by any other name some mode of substance is determined, whereas this name HE WHO IS, determines no mode of being, but is indeterminate to all; and therefore it denominates the "infinite ocean of substance."

Thirdly, from its consignification, for it signifies present existence; and this above all properly applies to God, whose existence knows not past or future, as Augustine says (De Trin. v).

Reply to Objection 1: This name HE WHO IS is the name of God more properly than this name "God," as regards its source, namely, existence; and as regards the mode of signification and consignification, as said above. But as regards the object intended by the name, this name "God" is more proper, as it is imposed to signify the divine nature; and still more proper is the Tetragrammaton, imposed to signify the substance of God itself, incommunicable and, if one may so speak, singular.

Reply to Objection 2: This name "good" is the principal name of God in so far as He is a cause, but not absolutely; for existence considered absolutely comes before the idea of cause.

Reply to Objection 3: It is not necessary that all the divine names should import relation to creatures, but it suffices that they be imposed from some perfections flowing from God to creatures. Among these the first is existence, from which comes this name, HE WHO IS.

a) There is no scholarly consensus on the right way to render the Tetragrammaton. Cf. V. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker 2011), 64-66.

b) Even if the rendering favored by Aquinas and Dolezal was correct, it commits the word-concept fallacy to imagine that you can derive the highly specialized concept of “pure act” from one of God’s Hebrew names.

Yes, I do interact with the truthmaker account and argue that it provides a way out of the problems that plague the various “property accounts” of DDS defenders like Stump, Kretzmann, and Mann. In short, I conclude that God does not actually possess properties in a metaphysical sense. All talk about “divine properties” is simply an accommodation to our creaturely way of thinking. Among the truthmaker theorists, I found Jeffrey Brower to be the most useful for the Reformed and Thomistic view of simplicity.

i) There are problems with the truthmaker defense. For instance:

ii) In addition, we don’t have to begin with a general category of “properties” or “attributes.” We can start with specific ascriptions of Scripture, viz. God is just, holy, righteous, gracious, merciful.

Justice characterizes God. So does mercy. Surely those ascriptions aren’t merely accommodations to our creaturely way of thinking. Is there nothing in God to which those ascriptions actually correspond? Is God in himself “beyond” those categories? That’s not Reformed theology. That’s theological noncognitivism.

Likewise, is justice reducible to mercy, and vice versa? Doesn’t Calvinism demand that justice and mercy are not interchangeable? According to Reformed theology, God treats the elect mercifully in contrast to treating the reprobate justly. Likewise, justice is necessary whereas mercy is discretionary.

Why would a Calvinist adopt a theory (simplicity) that erases these crucial distinctions? Isn’t that antithetical to Calvinism?

Friday, March 01, 2013

Natural Law And Secular Enlightenment Morality

Divine simplicity: the good, the bad, and the ugly

This will be my fourth and final response to Nate Shannon’s critique of the Welty/Anderson article on the theistic foundations of logic.

One thing that struck me about Shannon’s critique is the way he deployed the theory of divine simplicity against Welty and Anderson’s position. He acts as if that’s axiomatically true.

This, in turn, raises the question of how we unpack divine simplicity. Although the theory has its roots in Neoplatonism, Thomism is the standard formulation in Western theology. From what I’ve read, divine simplicity involves a bundle of claims. Whether all these claims are actually generated by a single underlying principle, or whether divine simplicity is an omnibus category, is itself an interesting question. Is this a package deal, where we must accept or reject the whole package? Or are some of these separable claims, with varying degrees of merit?

From my reading, these are the claims normally associated with divine simplicity. 

1. God is timeless. God is temporally incomposite. God is not composed of temporal parts or phases. God has no intrinsic temporal properties.

2. God is spaceless. God is spatially incomposite. God is not composed of spatial units. God has no spatial properties.

3. God is a se. Inderivative. God doesn’t derive from something more ultimate, the way a whole is dependent on its constituent parts. There is no part/whole relation in God.

4. God is not a property-instance of a kind. God doesn’t exemplify a generic nature, over and above himself.

5. God possesses his attributes necessarily rather than contingently. His attributes are not a contingent set. He can’t add or lose an attribute.

6. God’s attributes are coextensive.

7. God’s existence is identical with his essence.

8. There is no contingency or unrealized potential in God.

9. God is an undifferentiated unity. There is no metaphysical complexity in God. His attributes are reducibly equivalent. We only distinguish them for convenience or ease of reference. The distinctions exist in the human mind, not in God.

Speaking for myself, I agree with 1-5. In that respect, I think God is simple.

Concerning #6, although its true that his attributes are coextensive (i.e. inseparable), this does not entail their mutual identity or reducibility. 

#7 is ambiguous. It could merely mean that existence is an essential property of God. God cannot not exist. In that sense, I agree with #6.

However, #7 is sometimes taken to entail 8-9. At that point I demure.

#8 is somewhat ambiguous. #8 is true in the sense that God is not a work in progress. God is not evolving (pace process theology). God is not on a learning curve (pace open theism). God cannot be affected by the world. If #8 is synonymous with aseity or impassibility, then I agree with #8.

However, #8 is sometimes taken in the more metaphysically austere sense that God has no contingent extrinsic relations. But if God willing the actual world is an essential divine property, then the actual world is necessary. God was not at liberty to will a different world or will to create nothing at all.

God can’t be the same God across different possible worlds if God’s creative will or creative fiat for different worlds is the same as God’s nature. That’s incoherent. Different willings or fiats can’t be identical with one another. 

There are some Christian philosophers and theologians who’d be prepared to bite the bullet and accept this restriction on divine freedom. But I don’t see how divine simplicity outranks divine freedom in this respect. I don’t see that divine simplicity is more important than divine freedom, and I don’t see that the argument for divine simplicity is stronger than the argument for divine freedom. Indeed, in case of conflict, I think the opposite is the case.

#9 seems to be straightforwardly antithetical to the Trinity. For there to be three distinct persons of the Godhead, each person must have at least one unique property that individuates that person and differentiates that person from the other two. But if all God’s properties are reducible and interchangeable, then there’s no differential property distinguishing one person from another.

More generally, if nature, person, and relation are strictly identical in the Godhead, then God is one person rather than three.  

Three's a crowd

Christian revival in the Mideast?

Warm bodies

I haven’t seen Warm Bodies yet. I’ll wait for the DVD. I’ve seen the trailers, and I’ve read some reviews.

A couple of reviews mention a baptismal motif, where R is reborn through immersion in water. I doubt that’s a deliberate allusion to the Christian sacrament, but it may be a cultural relic, where even post-Christian writers and directors subconsciously still operate within remnants of a Christian framework.

Also, to judge by reviews, Warm Bodies has a surprisingly traditional view of male/female role relations. R’s residual humanity is almost gone. He’s forgotten his past. Forgotten who he is. Because he can’t remember, he collects memorabilia. He’s still human enough to be aware of how much he’s lost. In his amnesia, he seeks personal identity in fragments of the past. Mementos of a lost world, before the zombie apocalypse.

When he sees Julie endangered, his masculine instincts kick in. He saves her from harm. Becomes her physical protector or bodyguard.

And she returns the favor by saving him in a characteristically feminine way, by giving him a woman to hope for, long for, and live for. In her company, his submerged humanity begins to surface. She draws him out of his zombie shell.

So they save each other, in different ways–one stereotypically masculine, the other stereotypically feminine. Her romantic presence inspires him to tap into his nearly extinguished humanity. To rediscover his manhood. His humanity. His individuality.

Although it’s not a Christian film, it imitates the plot contours of a theological metanarrative: fall, regeneration, eschatological restoration. At least, that’s my cursory impression.

How Lutheran Was The English Reformation?

How Lutheran Was The English Reformation?

How Lutheran was the English Reformation? In its early years, primarily during the reign of Henry VIII, the people working for reform were looking to Wittenberg and listening to Luther. Barnes, whose influence was doctrinal, was a student at Wittenberg and brought Lutheran doctrine to England.

Tyndale, the translator of the Bible, translated in Wittenberg and Germany under Luther’s influence. Cranmer had close associations in Lutheran Germany and followed Lutheran principles in liturgy and worship. The English church could have become a Lutheran church.

What was the end result? The exiles that came to England during Edward’s reign and that went to the continent during Mary’s reign represent strong Calvinistic influence. Cranmer, more like Melanchthon in being given to compromise and not a confessor like Luther, became a Calvinist in his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper while retaining Lutheran liturgical principles. In the Elizabethan Settlement the Anglican Church retained enough of what England’s early reformers had given it that it is not surprising that someone coming from an Episcopal church can feel comfortable in a Lutheran liturgical service.

There’s also an excellent (though brief) timeline of the English Reformation and its primary influences.

Resurrection Evidence Outside The New Testament

With Easter approaching, we'll be seeing a lot of discussion of what the New Testament says about Jesus' resurrection. It's often claimed that we don't have much, if anything, to go by other than the New Testament documents. But there's a lot of information about the resurrection, including some highly significant evidence for it, outside of the New Testament. I'll mention a couple of examples I've discussed before.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Craig on Calvinism and divine command theory

On the one hand:

Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility. In contrast to the Molinist view, on the deterministic view even the movement of the human will is caused by God. God moves people to choose evil, and they cannot do otherwise. God determines their choices and makes them do wrong. If it is evil to make another person do wrong, then on this view God is not only the cause of sin and evil, but becomes evil Himself, which is absurd. By the same token, all human responsibility for sin has been removed. For our choices are not really up to us: God causes us to make them. We cannot be responsible for our actions, for nothing we think or do is up to us.

On the other hand:

I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements.  According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.  We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.”  Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God.  God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second.  If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.

That raises an interesting issue. How is a Molinist divine command theorist in any position to attack the morality of Calvinism? What would a debate between a Molinist divine command theorist and a Reformed divine command theorist look like? Could we argue that God’s decrees (e.g. reprobation) are morally analogous to God’s commands?

I don’t see how Craig could deploy his moral intuitions against Calvinism given his position on divine command theory.

Intolerance and spite

Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought

I’ve been reading Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought, by Vern Poythress.

i) The best thing I can say about the book is that there are Christians (e.g. Clarkians) who think logic begins and ends with Aristotle. The “three laws of logic”; “If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man…”

If they read his book, it will disabuse them of that quaint, simplistic narrative. For he reviews the history of logic, and brings it more up-to-date.

ii) That said, my preliminary impression of the book is that it’s a huge missed opportunity. A basic problem is his target audience. He tries very hard to pitch his new book on logic to the average Christian layman. I think that’s a fundamental misstep. On the one hand, I seriously doubt most non-philosophy majors are going to slog through a 708-page monograph on logic, even if Poythress bends over backwards to make it user-friendly.

On the other hand, the treatment is too popular, too rudimentary, to satisfy philosophy majors, much less fully trained philosophers. It’s too much for the layman, and too little for the pro. It’s a book without a realistic audience. An editorial compromise that won’t satisfy anyone.

iii) The book has lots of juicy chapter titles, but when you dip into the chapters, the actual treatment is very sketchy. His basic style of writing is almost sermonic. I’m struck by the very loose quality of reasoning. He will take a Biblical prooftext, then assert that this relates to something in logic. And that’s about it. There’s very little intensive argumentation. It’s largely reverent claims with illustrative prooftexts.

iv) Ideally, a 708-page Christian monograph on logic would present a detailed case for the theistic foundations of logic. Ideally, each chapter would contribute to a cumulative case for the theistic foundations of logic. Poythress would slowly but steadily construct his argument, a piece at a time.

Ideally, he would compare and contrast his theistic model with secular models.

But from my reading, the chapters aren’t related to each other in that linear, progressive fashion. He isn’t building an argument from chapter to chapter. It doesn’t really add up.

Rather, each chapter discusses a different topic by giving a cursory overview. So the overall treatment is fairly superficial. The analysis never digs down very far.

Instead, it’s written like a home Bible study, or one-year devotional, with study questions at the end of various chapters.

This is disappointing, if not entirely unexpected. I’m sure he’s capable of operating at a much higher level. He’s a Caltech grad with a doctorate in math from Harvard. He studied logic under Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke. And he’s clearly been researching and ruminating on these issues for many years.

However, I don’t think the popular audience is necessarily the only explanation for the surface-level treatment. I think his Van Tilian view of divine incomprehensibility severely limits how far he thinks we can or ought to explicate the theistic foundations of logic. Analogy is the glass ceiling, and the ceiling is low. Doesn’t take much to bump your head against the glass ceiling of the Creator/creature distinction, or the immanence/transcendence distinction. I think that’s the basic reason his analysis tends to peter out so soon.

For him, analogy is almost like a natural, impenetrable barrier. It conceals as much as it reveals.

v) This goes to a basic tension in his overall position. For instance, he says:

Something similar to this argument can be found in James N. Anderson and Greg Welty, “The Lord of Non-contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic.” But it appears to me that this article does not take into account the presence of analogy and the Creator-creature distinction in logical reasoning about God (69n4).

Now this is the paragraph the footnote goes to:

In addition, let us remember that we are speaking of logic as it really is, not merely our human guesses and approximations. Logic in this sense is an aspect of the mind of God. All God’s attributes will therefore be manifested in the real laws of logic, in distinction from our human approximations of them (69).

So does he think it’s possible to discuss logic in itself, or not? Isn’t he making a statement about logic in itself, in contrast to mundane exemplifications of logic? But in that case, mustn’t he sneak across the border to discuss logic from the other side of the boundary? Isn’t that what he’s implicitly doing?

If this is the One True Church®, I'd hate to see a false church

Once again, this makes me ask, how does a Catholic know he’s not a member of a cult? Is there anything that would falsify the claims of Rome? Is there anything that would cause him to lose faith in the claims of Rome?

Perhaps a Catholic would say that if the church of Rome taught heresy or immorality, that would falsify its claims.

Of course, even that leaves an escape clause, for it would depend on how formally Roman Church taught heresy or immorality.

Moreover, the verdict is ultimately circular. What is a Catholic’s frame of reference for distinguishing between orthodoxy and heresy? Well, he looks to Rome for guidance. He has no independent standard. Orthodoxy is whatever Rome says is orthodox. Morality is whatever Rome says is moral.

Pious agnosticism

This will be my third post in response to Nate Shannon.

Shannon’s basic objection to Welty and Anderson’s theistic model of logic goes back to the ancient debate regarding the (in)comprehensibility of God. This ranges along a continuum, from rationalism to apophaticism. Do we have any positive knowledge of God? Do we know what God is like? Or do we only know what God is unlike? Is God-talk univocal or analogical, literal or figurative?

And religious epistemology tends to track religious ontology. A continuum ranging from very anthropomorphic concepts of God (e.g. Mormonism, open theism, folk Hinduism) to very refined concepts which stress the alterity of God, such as we find in classic Christian theism (a la Thomism).

The more God is like us, the more we can know what God is like. That’s the theory.

It seems to me that Shannon is snared in a dilemma. On the one hand, he’s positioned himself closer to the apophatic end of the continuum, a la Maimonides, Aquinas. He accentuates the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God. That casts a veil over logic.

And to some extent this is grounded in his strong doctrine of divine simplicity, which he deploys against Welty and Anderson. He relies on Dolezal’s exposition and defense of divine simplicity.

A God who’s simple in the Thomistic sense is a God who’s very unlike human creatures. There’s nothing directly comparable in human experience. So that’s a way of grounding divine incomprehensibility.

On the other hand, if that’s the case, then how would we be in a position to know that God is simple in the first place? How can we present detailed explanations of divine simplicity? Doesn’t that exercise assume that God is fairly accessible to human reason? Doesn’t that push Shannon towards the rationalist end of the spectrum?

On the one hand, if God is simple, then he’s ineffable. On the other hand, if God is simple, how would we ever know that God is simple?

On a related note, it sounds very pious to stress God’s transcendence, incomprehensibility, and the Creator/creator distinction, but if we take that principle too far, it terminates in pious agnosticism. The less you know about God the better!

We start out by extolling the surpassing greatness of God. But when he becomes so great that he ceases to be an object of knowledge, then what is left to revere? How can God be worshipful if he is opaque to human reason? If God is unintelligible, what are we worshiping?

Also, that becomes a recipe for religious pluralism. A strong doctrine of divine incomprehensibility entails a strong doctrine of divine accommodation, so God-talk doesn’t reveal the true nature of God.

It reminds me of Maimonides. I wonder if it’s just coincidental that he’s a medieval Jew. Doesn’t his extreme doctrine of divine transcendence, of God as utterly other, preempt the Incarnation? Likewise, doesn’t his doctrine of divine simplicity preempt the Trinity?

Of course, Shannon would insist on the immanence as well as the transcendence of God. The problem, though, is not in what he says he believes, but in how he argues. He’s raising objections against Welty and Anderson which are difficult to render consistent with a counterbalancing affirmation of God’s immanence and knowability.

Calvinism at the burial service

When Koop came to speak at the college where I taught theology in the 1990s I was excited to hear him in person. I had a vague hope of perhaps meeting him, but that dimmed when I saw the crowds that showed up to hear him. The auditorium was packed to the rafters. He lived up to his reputation as a spell binding public speaker. However, he didn’t talk about any of the expected subjects—respect for life, AIDS, homosexuality, smoking, etc. His subject was “God Killed My Son.”

Koop spoke that day for almost an hour about God’s sovereignty and his son’s death. (He also wrote a book about it that was published around the same time.) According to Koop, God arranged his son’s tragic death in a mountain climbing accident so that it was immediate and painless (according to the coroner). Most of his talk was about God’s sovereignty over all things: meticulous providence. His son was his case study.

According to Koop, whose pastor James Montgomery Boice was one of the most vocal advocates of high Calvinism among American evangelicals and one of my seminary professors, every event is foreordained and governed by God. That, he said, is the only thing that gave him comfort when his son died—that it was no accident. It was foreordained and rendered certain by God for a divine and good purpose. As I listened, I wanted to stand and ask him (and would have asked him had there been a Q & A session afterwards) whether he would get the same comfort out of thinking God killed his son if his son’s death had not been immediate and painless. He made such a huge issue of that. After all, many sons’ (and daughters’) deaths are not immediate and painless.

A few years later I stood in a hallway in a children’s wing of a hospital and heard a small child, probably no more than two or three, screaming in agony in a room down the hall. There was no question about the source of the screaming—it could only be extreme pain. It went on and on the whole time I was visiting my daughter’s friend with her. I wanted to stop my ears from hearing it.

If Koop was right, that, too, was from God. If asked, would he tell the parents of that screaming child that her pain was foreordained and rendered certain by God for a good purpose?

I can’t say for sure that Koop’s son’s death wasn’t foreordained by God. Perhaps it was. Without a special revelation, I doubt we can know for sure. But I am confident that God did not foreordain and render certain that tiny girls’ pains. With Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper (A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God) I believe God is not a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.”

In my opinion, the proper response to that little girl’s pain (other than medical intervention which I’m sure was being tried) was prayer, not explanation.

A few years after hearing Koop (whom I respected and admired even as I disagreed with him) I had the unique privilege of spending a fairly long time one-on-one with (then) retired Fuller Seminary ethics professor Lewis Smedes. (I was serving as his chauffeur from a large airport to the small city where I teach. He was coming to give our seminary’s annual endowed lecture series.) Smedes was not as famous as Koop, but he was known and still is remembered as one of the leading Christian ethicists. He was also a member of a Reformed church. (He was an ordained minister of the Christian Reformed Church.)

Smedes and I talked about Koop’s theology. He told me that when his son died, he stood beside the open grave into which he had just been lowered and swore that he would never tell another person that God took their child. He wrote an article about God’s sovereignty that broke decisively with meticulous providence. I explained open theism to Smedes and he expressed strong sympathy with that view and said he would probably have to write an explanation to his synod about his theology as it deviated from what he believed when he was ordained. Smedes and I exchanged e-mails about open theism and his last one to me stated that he embraced that view (without embracing the label). He died soon after that.

One thing I find interesting is how some Christians (and no doubt others) find comfort in believing God kills people, including children, while others are repulsed by the idea. Equally devout, equally God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing people like Koop and Smedes not only hold different beliefs but react so radically differently “from the gut,” so to speak, to childrens’ deaths. And, of course, they interpret Scripture differently. Which comes first, I wonder? The experience or the hermeneutic? Or are they ever really separate?

One thing I look forward to finding out is how many of the “young, restless, Reformed” generation will hold onto their strong belief in God’s absolute, meticulous sovereignty as they mature and experience life—including tragedies in their personal lives. I predict many of them will, like Smedes, change their beliefs.

It’s one thing to believe God can bring good out of innocent pain and suffering and something else to believe God planned it and rendered it certain. The former is a good God; the latter is hardly distinguishable from the devil.

Several problems:

i) It could well be that the zeal of some converts to Calvinism will dampen with the passage of time. Of course, the phenomenon of converts losing their initial enthusiasm as the freshness of their discovery wears off is hardly unique to Calvinism. The zeal of many converts to many theological traditions cools as time goes on.

ii) Koop wasn’t a zealous young convert when he attributed his son’s death to predestination. BTW, James Boice died of liver cancer at 61.

iii) It’s striking that Olson was an evangelist for open theism in his correspondence with Smedes.

iv) Olson mentions a young child in physical agony. Of course, Koop was a pioneering pediatric surgeon, so it’s not as if Olson has a monopoly on compassion for the plight of suffering children. Koop made that his life’s work.

v) Olson evidently thinks it is evil for a child to suffer excruciating pain. If so, we’d classify that as natural evil in distinction to moral evil. So what prevents the Arminian God from sedating the child? God isn’t violating the freewill of the pain receptors.

vi) Perhaps Olson would say natural evil is rooted in moral evil. That natural evil is the result of the fall.

Actually, I wonder if Olson believes in a historical fall, or the historicity of Adam and Eve.

But let’s assume he does. Even if (ex hypothesi) the child’s agony has its remote source of origin in Adam’s sin, why does that inhibit the Arminian God from sedating the child? God isn’t violating Adam’s freewill by sedating a child born centuries later. And God isn’t violating the child’s freewill by relieving its pain. Even if we can trace the child’s agony back through a causal chain or historical sequence to Adam’s sin, how is that relevant to what should be done now to comfort the child?

Does Olson think the child deserves to be in pain? Does Olson think the child is guilty in Adam? Apparently not. After all, Olson views the child’s agony as something deplorable, so deplorable that God would be diabolical if he were responsible for the child’s agony.

But if the child did nothing deserving of pain, why would the Arminian God hesitate to sedate the child? The child’s pain isn’t punitive. So even if this is a natural evil that’s rooted in the moral evil of Adam’s sin, why would the Arminian God allow the child to suffer like that?

For that matter, don’t Arminians think original sin is unjust unless original sin is offset by universal sufficient grace?

vii) Doesn’t the Arminian God ensure the child’s agony by refusing to anesthetize the child? Olson seems to think the only way to render an event certain is to directly or positively cause it. But that’s obviously false.

Suppose I see an egg rolling across a counter. Unless I stop the egg or catch the egg, it will roll off the edge of the counter and fall on the floor. By not intervening, I ensure that the egg will fall to the floor. Likewise, the child’s agony is rendered certain by God doing nothing to stop the pain.

viii) In what sense did the Arminian God not plan the child’s pain? The child’s pain was a foreseeable and avoidable consequence of God making the world. So that’s hardly an unplanned event.

ix) If the parents asked, what would be wrong with saying the child’s agony was happening for a good reason? How is that answer supposed to be worse that saying God allows your child to be in agony for no good reason?

x) Sure, prayer might be better in that situation than a theological explanation, but Olson is the one who has the parents asking for an explanation. Olson can’t turn around and condemn the Calvinist for giving the parents an explanation when that’s how he framed the hypothetical in the first place.

xi) Does Olson think God never kills people? Aren’t there many biblical examples of God killing people? As is so often the case, Olson seems to repudiate the God of the Bible:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Cor 11:27-30).

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things (Acts 5:1-11).

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last (Acts 12:20-23).

29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead (12:29-30).

32 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 33 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. 34 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

35 And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36 (2 Kgs 19:32-36).

41 But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” 42 And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting. And behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. 46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” 47 So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. 49 Now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who died in the affair of Korah (Num 16:41-49).

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

“But they might be poor!”

Eternity matters

A commenter at Wintery Knight’s fine blog made some apt observations concerning Jerry Walls lecture attacking Calvinism:

eMatters says:
02/25/2013 at 9:01 PM

I still find it amusing that Arminians and Middle Knowledge people get upset with Calvinists for their interpretations. But don’t all three camps agree on the simple timeline where God knows ahead of time — that is, before He creates people — who will end up in Heaven and who will end up in Hell? Regardless of how you define predestination you can’t get around that fact. So how does the Calvinist interpretation make God a big meanie and the others let him off the hook? He knew, then He created knowing who would go to Hell.

eMatters says:
02/25/2013 at 10:40 PM

I’d distinguish between God’s perfect love and the apparent definition of the speaker when he says “all loving.”

Again, I don’t think the Middle Knowledge guy going to Hell in the “real” scenario God picked — even though the guy would have chosen Heaven in other scenarios — would buy into the speaker’s definition. He would rightly question if God “really” loved him if he would have chosen to follow Jesus in other universes but not this one. God obviously loved the people in the real universe more than Mr. Tough Luck — or He loved his goal of maximizing the entrants into Heaven over the individuals chosen.

Seriously, thanks for putting these things out there. They make me think about the particulars more, and, oddly enough, make me more Reformed ;-).

eMatters says:
02/25/2013 at 10:02 PM

Yes, we should be consistent, and she was. But I have yet to hear a non-Calvinist speak this truth when sharing the Gospel: “If you don’t trust in Jesus, then God knew you wouldn’t. He created you with full knowledge that no matter what happened in your life — no matter whom you met, no matter what you read or heard, no matter how many debates you listened to on Wintery Knight’s blog, etc. — you would NOT believe in Jesus and you would spend an eternity in Hell. His carefully crafted Middle Knowledge universe left you on the outs. Yeah, sure, one of the other possible universes had you believing, but this universe maximized the total believers. Sorry about that, champ! Or maybe He’s the Arminian God who is super-powerful but just not persuasive enough to convince you that He exists and that you should trust in Jesus. But He created you anyway, because He wanted to, even though He knew you’d never turn to him. And He loves you thiiiiiiiis much.”

eMatters says:
02/25/2013 at 10:16 PM

We agree that God is good and that if we end up in Hell that it is well-deserved. That’s one of the main things, and why I don’t get all worked up when people disagree on these views.

My point is simply that the other views aren’t as far from Calvinism as their adherents like to think they are (“That old meanie Calvinist God who knew which people would go to Hell but created them anyway is nothing like our loving Arminian/Middle Knowledge God who knew which people would go to Hell and created them anyway!!!”).

The Papacy: “Self-Consciously” Modeled After the 4th Century Roman State

Roman Catholics today like to tell us that “Christ is the head of the church,” but Pope Siricius (384-399), who was the successor of the murderer pope Damasus, “self-consciously … began to model their actions and style as Christian leaders on the procedures of the Roman state. … [Siricius responded to an inquiry from a neighboring bishop in Spain] in the form of a decretal, modeled directly on an imperial rescript, and like the rescripts, providing authoritative rulings which were designed to establish legal precedents on the issues concerned. Siricius commended the [inquiring] Bishop for consulting Rome ‘as to the head of your body’, and instructed to him to pass on ‘the salutary ordinances we have made’ to the bishops of all the surrounding provinces, for ‘no priest of the Lord is free to be ignorant of the statutes of the Apostolic See’” (Duffy 40).

Shotwell and Loomis, who a almost a century ago, compiled virtually all the writings concerning the “early papacy” into a single volume, go into somewhat greater detail:

We see that Siricius, in taking up, as he says, the responsibilities of Damasus, assumes the right to make ordinances for the metropolitans [city bishops] and clergy of the West and classes the statutes of the Apostolic See and the venerable canons of the councils together as laws of which no priest of the Lord may be ignorant. He is writing, one must note, for western churches only, as far as his explicit directions go, but his West includes Spaniards and Gauls and Carthaginians in provinces far beyond Italy.

The decretal itself is more than the instructions of a senior bishop to his junior colleagues on ways to remedy evils in congregations under their authority. In several of its provisions it goes behind the local bishop and metropolitan altogether and establishes relations by its own authority directly with the lesser clergy, monks and laity of these distant regions. The local bishop is for the moment merely the organ of communication between the chief shepherd and the sheep. All priests are to keep the rules or be “plucked from the solid, apostolic rock upon which Christ built the universal Church.” Offenders are “Deposed by authority of the Apostolic See from every ecclesiastical position which they have abused.” (Shotwell and Loomis, “The See of Peter,” New York: Columbia University Press, ©1927, 1955, 1991, pgs 699-700).

This is perhaps the earliest of these epistolae decretales on record. It was contemporary with the time that all that the Eastern bishops, at the council of Constantinople (381), had decreed that “appeals in the cases of bishops should be heard within the bishop’s own province,” as Duffy had said, “a direct rebuttal of Rome’s claim to be the final court of appeal in all such cases (34). The Eastern bishops had no concept at all that the Roman bishop had the right to interfere with or make laws in their regions.

Duffy notes that “the apostolic stability of Rome, its testimony to ancient truth, would now be imagined not simply as the handing on of the ancient paradosis, the tradition, but specifically in the form of lawgiving. Law became a major preoccupation of the Roman church, and the Pope was seen as the Church’s supreme lawgiver. As Pope Innocent I (401-417) wrote to the bishops of Africa, ‘it has been decreed by a divine, not a human authority, that whatever action is taken in any of the provinces, however distant or remote, it should not be brought to a conclusion before it comes to the knowledge of this see, so that every decision may be affirmed by our authority’” (Duffy 40). And of course, nepotism reigned:

Round the papal household there developed a whole clerical culture, staffed by men drawn often from the Roman aristocracy, intensely self-conscious and intensely proud of their own tradition – Jerome dubbed them ‘the senate’. Damasus himself was a product of this world, the son of a senior Roman priest who had himself founded a titulus church. Pope Boniface was the son of a Roman priest, Innocent I was the son of his predecessor as pope, Anastasius I (399-401), and had served his father as a deacon.

But probably the pinnacle of admixture between Roman imperial law and arrogance and usurpation of the nepotism system came in the person of “Pope Leo the Great” (440-461).

More on Leo the Great next time.

Good Pope John

Paul Bassett sent me the ad nearby. I wrote back to tell him I already have a job:

Habemus Papam!

Revolution in Rome

It’s been a year since the Vatican came under new management. Readers will remember the precipitating event, when Catholic Answers elevated John Bugay to the Pontificate.

As a golden parachute, Pope Bugay offered Benedict XVI the Archdiocese of Detroit. However, that offer hit a snag when Dave Armstrong said Metropolitan Detroit wasn’t big enough for him and the pope.

There was a personnel shakeup at the Vatican City after Pope Bugay took the reins. Robert Sungenis asked the Holy Father to make him astronomer of the Vatican Observatory, where he hoped to reinstate Dantean geology and cosmology, but Peter Pike had already been offered the top slot at the Vatican Observatory.

Sungenis then asked to be appointed to the Commission for religious relations with the Jews, but that post had already been promised to Alan Kurschner.

Rhology became Cardinal Archivist of the Vatican Library, while Turretinfan took over as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

In other appointments, Jason Engwer chaired the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Evan May chaired the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology, Matthew Schultz chaired the International Theological Commission, and Dustin chaired the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization–while Paul Manata headed the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Patrick Chan presided over the Pontifical Academy of Sciences–when he wasn’t moonlighting as a concierge physician in the Hamptons.

For his part, Matthew Bellisario was made commandant of the Swiss Guard–because he looked so darn cute in the pleated gorget, white gloves and pale grey metal morion with the ostrich-feather plume.

In his capacity as Curator of the Vatican Secret Archives, James Swan discovered a long lost letter from Leo X to Luther, in which Leo admitted that Exsurge Domine was all a big misunderstanding, and preemptively excommunicated anyone who denied sola Scriptura or sola fide.

In other news, Steve Hays retired to the Maldives to write his memoirs.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Apostles' Creed: A Sketch of Its History and an Examination of Its Contents

Bread and salt from the word of God

Creationism and time travel

Philip Henry Gosse famously (or infamously, depending on your viewpoint) distinguished between prochronic time and diachronic time. Gosse viewed nature as cyclical. Therefore, the only way to start the natural process was to kickstart the process by instantiating the cycle (or set of cycles) at some point during the cycle. So that generated a distinction between the ideal age of a natural object by divine fiat from and its real age.

The theory is unsusceptible to direct scientific attack, for the beauty of the theory is that it saves appearances. It’s a global theory that’s empirically equivalent to the competition. Consistent with whatever scientific evidence you throw at it.

You might try to attack in on those very grounds: claim it’s pseudoscience precisely because the theory is immune to scientific falsification. However, given the indeterminate status of theoretical entities, the problem of verisimilitude, and the underdetermination of theory by data, theories are resistant to straightforward falsification.

Because that line of attack is abortive, the objection shifts from scientific objections to ethical objections. God would be deceptive if he created a situation in which there was a discrepancy between ideal time and real time. In assessing that objection, it’s interesting to compare Gosse’s philosophy of time with the philosophy of time travel.

David Lewis was a distinguished philosopher who defended the coherence of time travel. He did so by distinguishing between external time and personal time. Among other things, he said:

Time travel, I maintain, is possible. The paradoxes of time travel are oddities, not impossibilities.

What is time travel? Inevitably, it involves a discrepancy between time and time. Any traveler departs and then arrives at his destination; the time elapsed from departure to arrival (positive, or perhaps zero) is the duration of the journey. But if he is a time traveler, the separation in time between departure and arrival does not equal the duration of his journey. He departs; he travels for an hour, let us say; then he arrives. The time he reaches is not the time one hour after his departure. It is later, if he has traveled toward the future; earlier, if he has traveled toward the past. If he has traveled far toward the past, it is earlier even than his departure. How can it be that the same two events, his departure and his arrival, are separated by two unequal amounts of time?

Instead I reply by distinguishing time itself, external time as I shall also call it, from the personal time of a particular time traveler: roughly, that which is measured by his wristwatch. His journey takes an hour of his personal time, let us say; his wristwatch reads an hour later at arrival than at departure. But the arrival is more than an hour after the departure in external time, if he travels toward the future; or the arrival is before the departure in external time (or less than an hour after), if he travels toward the past.

We can say without contradiction, as the time traveler prepares to set out, “Soon he will be in the past.” We mean that a stage of him is slightly later in his personal time, but much earlier in external time, than the stage of him that is present as we say the sentence.

In the same way, an event in a time traveler’s life may have more than one location in his personal time. If he doubles back toward the past, but not too far, he may be able to talk to himself. The conversation involves two of his stages, separated in his personal time but simultaneous in external time. The location of the conversation in personal time should be the location of the stage involved in it. But there are two such stages; to share the locations of both, the conversation must be assigned two different locations in personal time.

A time traveler who talks to himself, on the telephone perhaps, looks for all the world like two different people talking to each other. It isn’t quite right to say that the whole of him is in two places at once, since neither of the two stages involved in the conversation is the whole of him, or even the whole of the part of him that is located at the (external) time of the conversation. What’s true is that he, unlike the rest of us, has two different complete stages located at the same time at different places.

I answer that what unites the stages (or segments) of time traveler is the same sort of mental, or mostly mental, continuity and connectedness that unites anyone else. The only difference is that whereas a common person is connected and continuous with respect to external time, the time traveler is connected and continuous only with respect to his own personal time.

It remains true at all the personal times of Tim’s life, even after the killing, that Grandfather lives in one branch and dies in the other.

"The paradoxes of time travel." American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1976).

Notice that he deploys his distinction between external time and personal time to finesse how a time-traveler who encounters his younger self is still one person rather than two–appearances notwithstanding.

Now one can debate the philosophical merits of his analysis. However, would it be reasonable to attack his explanation on ethical grounds? Is his distinction between external time and personal time deceptive?

We might still conclude that time travel is scientifically infeasible or subtly incoherent, but should we reject time travel because it requires us to distinguish between appearance and reality, one kind of time and another kind of time? If not, why is this model of time travel morally innocent, but Omphalism is morally culpable?

The optional Jesus

Perhaps the timing is just coincidental, but it does seem as though the election and reelection of Barack Obama has emboldened the “evangelical left” (for want of a better term). They seem to think the reelection of Obama marks the end of the culture wars. The liberals won.

So it’s now safe for the evangelical left to come out of hiding. To stop pretending. Drop the doubletalk. Admit what they’ve been thinking all along. For instance:

For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority?  What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him?

I’ve decided to quit apologizing for my questions.  It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian.

To begin with, I read the Bible under the operative assumption that a superintending (divine) intelligence has brought these disparate writings together into a canonical whole. That means that I am committed to resolving the tension between prima facie contradictory statements. Like pieces of a puzzle, they fit together into some greater unity. And making them fit doesn’t commit me to making them both come out as true.

It seems quite clear that the Laws of Moses were very far from perfect. They are morally substandard in serious and unsalvageable ways. So that’s a problem that’s not neatly resolved. My approach, as I detail in my book, The Human Faces of God, is to read these morally problematic texts as “condemned texts.” They are still scripture. And God still uses them to instruct us, but God uses them as negative instruction. They’re there to challenge us to use critical moral reasoning, and to warn us away from making the same moral mistakes made by so many of our spiritual forebears.

The slavery laws are wrong, and that they were written by humans who got God wrong. But we can find God throughout the pages of the Bible by using our God-given moral reasoning. Wherever there is truth, wherever there is justice and compassion, that’s where God is. That doesn’t mean those parts are really inspired by God while the other parts aren’t. The inspiration lies not in the verbatim language of scripture, but in the struggle of God’s community to know God, the struggle that’s reflected in the conflicting views throughout the Bible about who God is and what God desires.

It is not blasphemy to question the character of the different portrayals of God in the Bible. That’s not the same thing as questioning God’s character. That’s just saying that the men who wrote the Bible sometimes were very wrong about God’s character. I would argue that it’s blasphemy to affirm some of the ways that God is characterized in the Bible. It’s precisely out of zeal for God’s character that so many Christians throughout history have been forced to reject certain portrayals of God in scripture.

When the Bible is used for such evil ends, there is no mistaking the fact that something has gone terribly wrong.

Most Christians would attribute this misuse of the Bible to faulty interpretations and misguided interpreters.  And this certainly is part of the problem. But, unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than this.  It runs right through the pages of Scripture itself.

To put it bluntly: not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us. I realize this may sound blasphemous to some people and flies in the face of everything they have been taught to believe about the Bible. When the Church grandly proclaims the Bible to be the Word of God, it gives the impression that the words of Scripture are above critique and beyond reproach. We are taught to read, revere, and embrace the Bible. We are not taught to challenge its values, ethics, or portrayals of God.

But this way of reading the Bible is problematic, to say the least. At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.

What happens when people dig into the Bible and find things there that are not only unsavory, but downright unhealthy for them? What happens when reading the Bible pushes people away from God rather than leads them closer to God?

If we feel compelled to accept what we read at face value, and are forbidden from asking honest questions about the troublesome texts we encounter, we run the risk of using the Bible in ways that may harm others (not to mention ourselves!).

What are we to do with passages of Scripture that sanction violence and portray it as something good? How should we regard what one might call “virtuous” violence in the text?

Examples of “virtuous” violence abound in the Old Testament and are embedded in some of its most beloved stories: the flood narrative (Genesis 6-8), the story of the ten plagues, culminating in the death of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 12), the drowning of the entire Egyptian army (Exodus 14-15), the “conquest” of Canaan (Josh 6-11), Jael’s slaying of Sisera (Judges 4), and David’s slaying of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), to cite just a few notable examples.

In each of these passages—and many others like them—lethal violence is condoned and sometimes even celebrated.  Passages like these create significant problems for Christian readers.

As Christians, we have a moral obligation to critique the assumption that violence is somehow “virtuous,” in spite of what the Bible suggests on numerous occasions.

Violence is not a virtue. It is not a fruit of the spirit or a mark of discipleship.

Surely, those of us who follow the prince of Peace, the God of Life, must raise our voices in protest and object. We must say, “This is not right!” Such violence is never justifiable and should never be condoned.

One very important step we can take is to be intentional about problematizing and critiquing “virtuous” violence when we encounter it in the Bible. This is not hard to do, especially if you are willing to read violent verses from the perspective of the victims. For example, when reading the flood narrative, try reading the story through the eyes of those people outside the ark. Or instead of reading the story of the battle of Jericho with the Israelites who are circling the walls, try reading the story from the perspective of the Canaanites sitting inside the city.

Reading in this way complicates the notion of “virtuous” violence considerably. It is hard—some would say impossible—to justify the killing of infants and toddlers in stories like these. Reading this way sensitizes us to the problem of violence in these texts and keeps us from simplistically classifying such moral atrocities as good.

When read from the perspective of the victims, the myth of “virtuous” violence is exposed for what it really is: a myth. As I said in my previous post, violence is not a virtue. Violence is destructive and harmful. It is not the kind of behavior that should be sanctioned or celebrated, even when the Bible suggests otherwise.

The violent verses that cause the most problems are those that contain divine violence and divinely sanctioned violence.  Passages that portray God engaging in acts of violence are problematic because they often depict God behaving in ways that are difficult—if not impossible—to justify.

If we are committed to reading the Bible in an ethically responsible manner, we need to read it actively rather than passively.  We must be willing to question what we read and to critique values and perspectives in the Bible that are problematic or oppressive.  Reading responsibly means being prepared to challenge views and assumptions in the Bible that are ethically problematic or morally offensive.  For example, it means recognizing that slavery is unacceptable, patriarchy is oppressive, and violence is not praiseworthy despite the fact that numerous biblical texts suggest otherwise.  When we read responsibly, we refuse to sanitize these troubling texts or the violence sanctioned in them.  Instead, we are honest about the Bible’s limitations and recognize that some things in the Bible are ethically and morally problematic.

Reading the Bible responsibly also means reading it in ways that help us think accurately about God.  This involves making distinctions between the way God is portrayed in the Bible and the way God really is.

I argue that we should not uncritically assume that all these portrayals are trustworthy representations of God.  Instead, we should make distinctions between the way God is portrayed in the Bible and the way God actually is.  This is necessary given the contrasting views of God in Scripture and the compelling archaeological, historiographical, and cultural reasons suggesting God did not say and do everything the Old Testament claims.

The Bible should never be used to harm others.  Yet, as I argue in this book, the problem is not just that people have misinterpreted or misapplied these passages.  Rather, the texts themselves are often quite problematic.  They sometimes condone, sanction, and even celebrate violent acts and attitudes.  This is even true of some of the most beloved Bible stories, like the story of David and Goliath.  This creates a real dilemma for individuals who look to the Bible for moral guidance, or who wish to use the Bible to promote Christian values.

In a sense, I think this is a healthy development. By that I mean we see a self-segregation of sheep and goats in the evangelical movement, as covert unbelievers emerge from the shadows and openly, indeed, brazenly, disassociate themselves from the authority of Scripture. Separating themselves from pious remnant helps to purify the church.

Before proceeding any further, I’d like to highlight just how radical their alternative really is. Seibert, for one, is exhorting us to switch sides. To show our solidarity with the Canaanites.

In the OT, the Canaanites are the epitome of religious and moral degradation. So Seibert’s proposal could not be more subversive or seditious. It’s like taking the side of John’s theological adversaries in 1 John.

Just to summarize the proposal, these people are telling us that we should regard the Bible as an anthology of conflicting voices, conflicting depictions of God, competing for our endorsement, and it’s our duty to choose sides. To pick which human voices echo the real voice of God.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we play along with that proposal, the question this naturally raises is our selection criteria. How do we salvage the truer portraits of God in Scripture from the portraits which falsify God?

One proposal is a “Christocentric hermeneutic.”  That’s the filter which proponents like Randal Rauser, Roger Olson, and Eric Seibert propose. Here’s one example:

When we attempt to use the Bible to think about God’s character, we need to utilize a principled approach to help us determine which portrayals reflect God’s character and to what extent they do so.  To make this determination, I propose using a Christocentric hermeneutic (Christ-centered method of interpretation).  This is based on the premise that Jesus is the clearest and fullest revelation of the moral character of God.  By using the God Jesus reveals as a standard, other portrayals of God in the Bible can be evaluated to determine the extent to which they reflect God’s character.  This process of evaluation makes it clear that some Old Testament portrayals of God, like those portraying God commanding genocide, do not reveal what God is really like.  We should freely acknowledge this even as we attempt to find ways to use these troubling images—and the texts in which they reside—more positively.

And that has a pious veneer. How could any Christian object to a “Christocentric hermeneutic”?

There are, however, obvious problems with the Christocentric filter:

i) Since these people repudiate the verbal inspiration of Scripture, there’s no particular reason for them to think the Gospels are an accurate record of what Jesus really said and did. What if Gospel writers are putting words in Jesus’ mouth? Inventing Jesus?

ii) Moreover, the notion that Scripture contains conflicting views of God extends to the notion that Scripture contains conflicting views of Christ. Liberals don’t think the NT presents a unified Christology. Rather, liberals think the NT presents a number of conflicting Christologies. So before you can use Christology to filter the Bible, you have to decide which NT portrait of Jesus portrays the real Jesus, or something approximating the real Jesus. You need a prior filter to filter out the distorted Christological filters. 

iii) Furthermore, the same people who are apt to find parts of Scripture so objectionable are apt to find parts of Jesus objectionable. If you find some OT stories embarrassing, then Jesus has the embarrassing habit of endorsing the creation account, the flood account, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, the fate of Lot’s wife, &c.

Indeed, liberals admit that Jesus was a child of his times. Randal Rauser toys with a kenotic Christology.

In addition, Jesus isn’t always very nice or politically correct. He has puritanical views of sex. He only chose men to be apostles.

He demands unconditional loyalty. Unquestioning faith in whatever he says and does. You must be prepared to lose your job, friends, relatives, and even your life, to follow him. He threatens you with hell if you don’t obey his every command. Sounds like we’re coming full circle–right back to Yahweh.

iv) In fact, some proponents have already taken the next step. Thom Stark considers Jesus to be a flawed role model. Likewise, Peter Enns has sympathetically hosted an interviewee who says:

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and then slanders their sexual morality  (“wicked and adulterous”) and their pedigree (“brood of vipers” i.e. “children of snakes” i.e. “sons of the devil”), that should give us pause.

These “Christians” are becoming so emancipated that they part company with Jesus whenever he gets in their way.

After they jump from the skyscraper, is there anything to break their fall? Anything to stop or slow their fatal, precipitous descent to the pavement below? Anything to grab onto or hang onto on the way down?

What’s left? What’s their contingency plan? What’s their fallback strategy? Does Peter Singer become the new Messiah? Or David Benatar? Or Barack Obama? Or Paul Watson?