Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Most Misunderstood Book: Christopher Hitchens on the Bible

Make allowance for the fact that this is by a Mormon reviewer:

Is God inevident?

There's a famous vignette about Bertrand Russell. When asked what he'd say when facing God on judgment day, he replied that he would tell God, "Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!"

Of course, we'd expect Russell to give a self-serving answer to that hypothetical question, but it's striking to compare Russell's response to what some of his fellow unbelievers have observed:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose (Richard Dawkins). 
Organisms appear as if they had been designed to perform in an astonishingly efficient way...Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved (Francis Crick). 
Organisms fit remarkably well into the external world in which they live.  They have morphologies, physiologies and behaviors that appear to have been carefully and artfully designed to enable each organism to appropriate the world around it for its own life (Richard Lewontin).
So, by their own admission, we're surrounded by prima facie evidence for God.
Now, on the face of it, the simplest explanation for this observation is that organisms appear to be designed because organisms really are designed. Occam's razor is an oft-cited principle in science. If something appears to be designed, the presumption is that it seems that way because it is that way. The burden of proof lies on those who wish to overcome that initial impression. 
But, of course, Dawkins, Crick, and Lewontin are atheists. They go to tremendous lengths to explain away the evidence. They avoid the obvious explanation. They resort to convoluted alternatives. And that's because they don't want God to exist. Their problem is not lack of evidence. Rather, for them, the existence of God would be an unwelcome truth. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Adam in the balance

A friend asked me to comment on this article:

On thing I'd note at the outset is that Mohler is just a popularizer. If Evans is attempting to mount a takedown of young-earth creationism, he will have to train his guns against its most sophisticated exponents. 
It is not only possible but desirable that advocates of LSDYEC, Day-Agers, Framework proponents, and Analogical Day advocates join together in their common affirmation of the full authority of Scripture and discuss the merits and problems of the various positions—without anathemas and ad hominem arguments...
A problem with that recommendation Evans is oblivious to his own anathemas and ad hominem arguments. His article betrays a bristling animosity towards Mohler and other "fundamentalists." He needs to back up a few paces and cultivate the critical detachment to recognize in himself what he is so quick to fault in his opponents.
Although many young-earth creationists are "fundamentalists," Evans uses the term very loosely. For instance, it's my impression that many confessional Lutherans are young-earth creationists. Does that make Lutherans "fundamentalists"? Likewise, were the Westminster Divines "fundamentalists"? 
In his detailed study of Christian interpretation of the days of creation, Robert W. A. Letham concludes,
Before the Westminster Assembly there were a variety of interpretations of Genesis 1 and its days.  If the text of Genesis is so clear-cut, why did the church down through the centuries not see it that way? 
Well, that's a very broad question. For example, some church fathers espoused instantaneous creation. But isn't that a preconception they were bringing to the text of Genesis rather than a conclusion they were deriving from the text of Genesis? 
As I have argued elsewhere, a consistently intra-biblical hermeneutic is impossible—the biblical writers wrote to people who were expected to bring their knowledge of nature, history, geography, language, and the human condition to bear on the interpretive process.  Or, to phrase it more concretely, they wrote to people who knew what the city of Damascus, acacia trees, the Euphrates River, and human sexuality were, and they assumed that such knowledge would be utilized in interpretation.  At issue here is the crucial question of whether extrabiblical knowledge is relevant to the interpretation of Scripture, and the historic Christian tradition has answered this question with a resounding “Yes.”
There's some truth to that principle. However, there are two basic problems with Evans' appeal to that principle:
i) As we shall see, Evans (as well as Walton) merely pays lip-service to what ancient Near Easterners could know about their world. Evans doesn't make a good faith effort to project himself into the situation of an ancient Near Easterner. 
ii) There is also a bait-and-switch, as Evans substitutes the historical horizon of a modern reader for the historical horizon of the original audience. Take his appeal to "astrophysics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology." But it would be grossly anachronistic to bring those considerations to bear on the interpretation of Gen 1, for that's far removed from what the original audience had in mind. Those were not the operating assumptions of the narrator's target audience. 
Second, Mohler vastly underestimates the problems that ANE comparative studies pose for his LSDYEC position.  The problem is not simply that there are some superficial similarities between the creation narratives in the Babylonian Enuma Elish text and Genesis 1.  Rather, both these texts (and many others) assume a cosmology which was quite coherent to the ancients but which we do not (indeed cannot) share.  Wheaton College Old Testament scholar John Walton phrases the matter well:
So what were the cultural ideas behind Genesis 1?  Our first proposition is that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology.  That is, it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.  The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos.  They did not know that the stars were suns; they did not know that the earth was spherical and moving through space; they did not know that the sun was much further away than the moon, or even further than the birds flying in the air.  The believe that the sky was material (not vaporous), solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters.  In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today.  And God did not think it important to revise their thinking (John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate [IVP, 2009], p. 14). 
In other words, Dr. Mohler doesn’t interpret Genesis 1 in a consistently literal way, and neither does anybody else today as far as I can tell.
i) It's revealing to see Evans quote this passage with evident approval. For Walton's position surrenders the inerrancy of Gen 1. On Walton's view, Gen 1 asserts a false conception of the world. That's because the narrator was scientifically ignorant. He didn't know any better. Likewise, that's the position of Paul Seely and Peter Enns–among others. So Evans is tacitly admitting that he must sacrifice the inspiration of Scripture to defend his alternative. 
ii) Walton is trying to ride two horses. On the one hand, he attributes the depiction of Gen 1 to antiquated cosmological conceptions. On the other hand, he promotes a cosmic temple interpretation. But if the narrator is depicting the world in terms which foreshadow the tabernacle, then isn't that the controlling paradigm rather than ancient cosmology?
iii) Did ancient Israelites not know that the sun and moon were farther away than flying birds? What that claim reveals is not how unobservant ancient Near Easterners were, but how unobservant Walton and Evans are. If you spend much time watching birds in flight, or gazing at the sky,  you'll notice birds flying across the face of the sun. Likewise, at night, you can see bats or nocturnal birds fly across the face of a full moon. Therefore, ancient Near Easterners were certainly in a position to gauge relative distances in that regard. Walton and Evans aren't making a serious effort to see the world through the eyes of an ancient Near Eastern observer. Rather, they make unexamined and untested assumptions about the original audience. Walton and Evans are clearly out of touch with the natural world. 
iv) To take another example, if ancient Near Easterners thought the earth was flat, how did they account for seasonable variations in the angular distance of the sun between sunrise and sunset? 
v) To take another example, wasn't Tiamat a sea goddess? Isn't she a personification of the sea? If so, wasn't she made of salt water? If so, how could a metal dome be constructed from her body? 
Likewise, when ancient Near Easterners looked up at the sky, did they see the naked body of a giant woman overhead? 
vi) You can see rain issuing from rainclouds. When you see rainclouds on the horizon, you can often see clear sky above the clouds. So the rain isn't coming through sluicegates in the sky. 
Likewise, if ancient Near Easterners thought the world was like a fish tank, how did rain water drain away? Wouldn't see level continue to rise after each rain? 
Did ancient Near Easterners really think the "solid dome" of the sky rested on mountain ranges? From certain vantagepoints, it might look that way if you lived in the same place all your life. But, of course, some ancient Near Easterners travelled widely on trade routes. Consider the far-flung travel itinerary of Abraham. Many ancient Near Easterners knew as a matter of experience that the world continued on the other side of the mountain range. It didn't come to an abrupt end at the edge of the mountains. 
Third, as we have seen, Mohler contends that literal six-day creationism necessitates a young earth.  But this is simply not the case—there are those who with perfect consistency hold to LSD and an old earth—unless one also insists that the genealogies in Genesis be interpreted as precise, complete, and sequential (i.e., with no gaps or symbolic numbers).  As William Henry Green, a splendid Old Testament scholar of Old Princeton with a high view of Scripture, demonstrated, such a literalistic reading of the genealogies involves one in many insuperable difficulties. He rightly concluded that the genealogies were simply not intended to provide the basis for a scientific chronology and that interpretations based on such an erroneous expectation were unsound (see William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra(April 1890): 285-303. 
That's true as far as it goes. But gaps in the genealogies won't buy millions or billions of extra years. 
Furthermore, Mohler does not shy away from suggesting that those who adopt non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 do so in order to accommodate Scripture to modern science and the spirit of the age.  But it is at least interesting to note that a good deal of impetus toward the Framework Hypothesis has come from intra-textual exegesis of Genesis 1.  For example, it has long been noted that there is correspondence between days 1-3 and days 4-6 as days of separation followed by days of filling.  Moreover, Meredith Kline’s well-known argument for the Framework Hypothesis is basically an intra-textual argument (see Meredith G. Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” WTJ 20 (1958): 146-157).
i) To begin with, the chronological interpretation can easily accommodate that observation. God creates the habitats before he creates the inhabitants. That's perfectly consistent with a chronological sequence.
ii) The framework hypothesis cuts against the aural grain of the text. The text is directed at the ear rather than the eye. Most members of the target audience would hear the text rather than read the text. Hearing is linear, sequential. 
By contrast, proponents of the framework hypothesis rearrange the events to form a vertical pattern of matching pairs rather than a horizontal pattern of successive installments. They even include graphic depictions, in which the days are placed side-by-side in two columns. But that's not how the original audience processed the text. So I find the framework hypothesis psycholinguistically implausible. 
John Walton has begun to address this problem with his interpretation of Genesis 1 as an account of functional rather than material origins, and of the cosmos as God’s temple (see Walton, Lost World of Genesis One, pp. 110-111).
But as many critics have pointed out, it's arbitrary to insist that Gen 1 is only concerned with functionality rather than material origins. Why assume ancient Near Easterners operated with that false dichotomy? 
In fact, the evidence for an old earth is insistent and overwhelming.  It comes to us from astrophysics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology, and so on, and simplistic postmodernish appeals to worldview are not sufficient to discount this.
i) One problem with that appeal is that Evans needs to disambiguate the ostensible evidence for an old earth from the ostensible evidence for human evolution. To some degree, the ostensible evidence is intertwined. Inasmuch as both young-earth and old-earth creationists must challenge the scientific establishment, both groups are in the same boat, even if they occupy different–sometimes overlapping–sections.
ii) A basic problem with dating the origin of the universe is that we use natural processes to clock natural processes. If certain cyclical or periodic processes are already in place, then (assuming a uniform rate) we can use these to clock other processes. But when dealing with the absolute origin of the universe, those processes are not a given, for those processes are the result of God's creative fiats. You can use a watch to clock the passage of time if you have a watch, but if the watch is under construction, you can't use the watch to clock itself. 
iii) In addition, if creation ex nihilo is true, then there's no natural starting-point. God could make the world at any stage in the process. So you can't just run the clock backwards in time, for you don't know when God set the clock. 
iv) The measurement of time presupposes a temporal metric. but that, in turn, raises the question of whether time itself has an intrinsic metric, or whether any metric we use will be extrinsic to time. And since you have to use a temporal metric to measure time, you can't derive the temporal metric from time.  Empirical evidence won't settle that question, for the evidence presuppose an operating metric. As one philosopher explains, summarizing the argument of a great physicist and mathematician:
The second half of Poincaré’s essay ‘The measure of time’ is the more famous because of its connection with special relativity. But I will concentrate here on the first half, where Poincaré begins with the problem that we do not and cannot have a direct intuition of the equality of successive time intervals (equality of duration of successive processes). This is not a psychological point. Two successive periods of a clock cannot be compared by placing them temporally side by side, that is why direct perception can’t verify whether they lasted equally long, Bas Van Fraassen, Scientific Representation (Oxford 2008), 130. 

In the case of two sticks we can check to see whether they are equally long (at a given time) by placing them side by side; that is we can check spatial congruence (at that time) by an operation that effects spatial coincidence (at that time). We can check whether two clocks run in synchrony during a certain interval if we place them in spatial coincidence. These procedures do not suffice for checking whether two sticks distant from each other in time or space are of equal length, nor whether distant clocks are running in tandem, nor whether a clock’s rate in one time interval is the same as some clock’s rate in a disjoint time interval. But in physics, criteria for spatial and temporal congruence are needed. Poincaré is concentrating on this need, ibid. 130-31. 

What measures duration is a clock, and physics needs a type or class of processes that will play the role of standard clocks. What type or class to choose? One answer might be: the ones that really measure time, that is, mark out equal intervals for processes that really take equally long. While certain philosophers or scientists might count his demand as intelligible, it must be admitted that there could be no experimental test to check on it. We cannot compare two successive processes with respect to duration except with a clock; but clocks present successive processes that are meant to be equal in duration. This is similar to Mach’s point about thermometry: whether the melting of ice always happens at the same temperature, or the volume of a substance expands in proportion to temperature increase, can be checked only with something functioning as a thermometer–and thus cannot be ascertained in order to check whether thermometers are ‘mirroring’ temperature, ibid. 131. 

Poincaré wishes to reveal by these examples two problems that arise in developing a measurement procedure for duration. The first is the initial one, illustrated with the pendulum: we cannot place successive processes side by side so as to check whether their endpoints coincide in time. So there is no independent means for checking whether successive stages of a single process are of equal duration: the question makes sense only after we have accepted one such process as ‘running evenly,’ ibid. 132.

Continuing with Evans:
Or perhaps we could argue, with Bill Dembski in his 2009 book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World, that “the Fall had retroactive effects in history.” 
Why would Evans oppose mature creation but tout retrocausation? Dembski's retrocausation is designed to save appearances. How is retrocausation essentially different from an omphalism or Last Thursdayism? All these theories go behind the physical record.  
Finally, Mohler’s explanation of the apparent age of the earth as due to God’s having created it with the appearance of age raises more problems than it solves.  The problem here, in short, is that in the cosmos we see not only things in a “mature state,” but also evidence of events in the past.  It is as if God not only created Adam as a mature man, but also created him with the scars incurred during his growing up years (years which never actually happened).  Suggestions of this sort, such as the notion that God embedded fossils in the rock strata in order to create the impression of great antiquity, are unworthy of God and subversive of the doctrine of common grace.  
i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that mature creation is deceptive, Scripture sometimes depicts God duping humans. Cf. R. Chisholm, "Does God Deceive"? BSac 155:617 (Jan 1998), 11-28. Is that "unworthy of God" according to Biblical standards?
ii) Other than Philip Henry Gosse (or P. G. Nelson), who says "God embedded fossils in the rock strata in order to create the impression of great antiquity"? Evans is conflating omphalism with young-earth creationism, but these are hardly equivalent. Has Evans actually bothered to study the most astute exponents of young-earth creationism, viz. Jay Wile, John Byl, Jason Lisle, Andrew Snelling, Steven Gollmer, Kurt Wise, Todd Wood, John Sanford, Jonathan Sarfati, Marcus Ross?
iii) But let's play along with omphalism for the sake of argument. Would that be "unworthy of God"? Take period dramas. The Western genre is a case in point. Take Pale Rider. The movie jumps right into the 19C, skipping over all of the intervening centuries. It's as if time began in the 19C. There are mountains in the background, but Pale Rider never depicts the origin of the mountains. It's as if they sprang into existence the moment before the director shouted "Lights, camera, action!" Logically speaking, Preacher had to have parents. His parents had parents. Their parents had parents. But in the movie, Preacher rides into town out of the blue, like all the other characters. 
What if the world is like a period drama? What if God wanted to make a world which was set in a particular historical context, even though that's a cosmic stageset which only came into being an instant before? Would that be "unworthy of God"? Or would that be analogous to how many human storytellers begin their stories?
iv) What about miracles like Jesus healing the man born blind (John 9)? By restoring his vision, Jesus erases the prior evidence of his congenital blindness. It now looks like he was born sighted rather than sightless. Is that deceptive? Is that unworthy of God? 
...he would do well to heed these wise words of Herman Bavinck:
It is nevertheless remarkable that not a single confession made a fixed pronouncement about the six-day continuum, and that in theology as well a variety of interpretations were allowed to exist side by side. 
Don't the Westminster Standards pronounce on the timespan? 
Just as the Copernican worldview has pressed theology  to give another and better interpretation of the sun’s “standing still” in Joshua 10...
Remember that the audience to whom Joshua was originally addressed knew nothing of Ptolemaic astronomy. That imports later models of geocentrism into a text that antedates those debates.  Josh 10 doesn't contrast geocentrism with heliocentrism. It isn't based on Greek astronomy.  The "Copernican revolution" simply stripped away an interpretive layer that postdates Josh 10 by centuries.

Roundtable discussion on analytic theology

William Lane Craig

"The New Theist: How William Lane Craig became Christian philosophy's boldest apostle"

Independence Day News of the World: New World Record for Eating Hot Dogs; Meanwhile, “Military Crackdown in Egypt”

Joey Chestnut eats 69 hot dogs, sets new world record:

ESPN commentator Bob Ley tweeted this:

America, the world is watching you! Meanwhile in Egypt:

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Reformed Churches in America

In his first volume, Bavinck offers a brief history of what he calls “Reformed Dogmatics”, or Reformed Theology, beginning with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, through the period of Reformed Scholasticism, Rationalism, Mysticism, through “the Decline of Reformed Theology” beginning in 1750, then 19th century streams of thought in Europe, and a chapter that he calls “Reformed Theology in North America”.

Bavinck was writing right around 1900, and was a contemporary of the “Old Princeton” of Warfield and Vos. Not long afterward, we recall the adoption by “Old Princeton” of the liberalism that Machen railed against. Many of us are familiar with 20th century events in the history of the Reformed churches, but less so for the period of 1600-1900.

In that regard, Bavinck’s assessment is a discouraging, though useful trip “down memory lane” about some of the high points and low points that Reformed theology has faced over the centuries. Given that it is Independence Day, I thought this historical overview might be appropriate:

Stratfor: Egypt Military Coup Bodes Ill for Future Stability

What we are seeing is the military in Egypt, which has stable roots going back to Nasser in 1979, forcibly ejecting a democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, of the radical "Muslim Brotherhood".

When I first started reading about this, Stratfor was suggesting that because the the Egyptian military had such continuity, they would lend an element of stability in the face of whatever changes were happening politically. However, with this more recent article, they are suggesting that there will be less stability because of the nature of the change:

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has effectively been thrown out of power, must now figure out how to respond. The group probably will not respond violently, but it will engage in civil unrest that will lead to violence. Though the Brotherhood is unlikely to abandon the path of democratic politics, Morsi's ouster will lead elements from more ultraconservative Salafist groups to abandon mainstream politics in favor of armed conflict.

The overthrow of Egypt's moderate Islamist government undermines the international efforts to bring radical Islamists into the political mainstream in the wider Arab and Muslim world. Ultimately, within the context of Egypt, Morsi's ouster sets a precedent where future presidents can expect to be removed from office by the military in the event of pressure from the masses. In a way, this was set in motion by the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, and it does not bode well for the future stability of Egypt.

There are links to other (and newer) articles at the link given above, including statements from Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


What’s more important? “Protect the money – fast!!”

The Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal is Still In the News

MILWAUKEE Cardinal Timothy Dolan says it isn't so, but advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse say they can now prove what they suspected: Dolan shifted almost $57 million into a cemetery trust fund to protect the money from lawsuits brought by victims.

"Hail Satan"

It's revealing to see what abortion supporters really stand for:

Reformation500: Tony Phelps Teaches the Commandments through the Westminster Larger Catechism

The First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me”

Recently Pastor Tony Phelps has been teaching through the Ten Commandments using the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Recently, I’ve started to use the Westminster Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments as the basis for the homily before our corporate confession of sin. I plan to spend four Sundays on each commandment. And beginning with this post, I plan to share these homilies in my upcoming blogs, starting now:

If ever you think you’re doing pretty well in the Christian life. If you’re not feeling much like a sinner, but pretty darn holy. It’s time to sit yourself down and carefully read the Westminster Larger Catechism on the Ten Commandments. It’s a thorough, biblical exposition of each commandment – what duties each one requires, and what sins each one forbids. In fact, it’s so thorough, that we will only be able to sample it. But as we do, it will be more than sufficient to show us our sin and drive us to our Savior. …

Here is his four-part series on the First Commandment:

Part 1:

(See also J.W. Wartick:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Tony Phelps is pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield RI, the second largest PCA church in RI. (He says, “at the moment, there are only two; come to think of it, that makes us the smallest PCA church in RI.)

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Should Christians oppose homosexual "marriage"?

Limiting laws

American Stasi?

Faith & family

Has Historical Criticism Proved the Bible False?

Thomas Schreiner on the Historical Reliability of the Bible:
Historical criticism of the Bible began in earnest in the eighteenth century, flowered in the nineteenth century, and became the dominant approach to the Scriptures in the twentieth century. Historical criticism has at times been rejected by conservatives because it has called into question the accuracy of the Bible. For example, in the nineteenth century, most scholars delving into the life of Jesus provided rationalistic, not supernatural, explanations of Jesus’ miracles. New Testament scholar F. C. Baur argued that the theologies of Peter and Paul contradict one another if one reads the NT historically. Old Testament scholars, such as Julius Wellhausen, maintained that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was not actually written by Moses. Careful literary and historical study, it was claimed, indicated that the Pentateuch had various sources that were written over a period of hundreds of years and that the final document was put together by an unknown editor.

Still, it is important to recognize that the rise of historical criticism has also benefited the church. The Christian faith is rooted in history. God has manifested Himself supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. He lived and ministered in a particular time and place—in Palestine in the third decade of the first century. As Christians, then, we believe that our faith is historically rooted. Paul insisted that Christians were foolish to believe in the Christian faith if the resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur (1 Co 15:12-19). Hence, we have no fear of historical study but welcome it, for we believe historical research can assist us in understanding the message of the Scriptures.

The benefits of historical study are numerous. It has cleared up the meaning of obscure terms. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has cast light on the environment within which the NT was birthed. Study of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world has clarified the extent to which the Scriptures are similar to and dissimilar from documents that came out of surrounding cultures. Historical criticism has also demonstrated that some traditional views were not credible. It was once thought that the NT was written in a special “Holy Ghost” language, but study of sources from the era of the NT has demonstrated that the NT was written in the common Greek of the day. The King James Version of the Bible was an outstanding product of the scholarship in its day, but we now have many more manuscripts for both the NT and the OT, and hence our English Bibles are even closer to the original today because of recent manuscript discoveries and the careful work of scholars in text criticism....

Though evangelical scholars have often solved problems raised by historical critics, conservatives have not solved them all. This does not mean that the Scriptures are inaccurate in such instances but instead that we could resolve such problems if we had enough information. To make such a claim is not a sacrifice of one’s intellect. Comprehensive answers are lacking in every historical discipline since the evidence is fragmentary. We can be grateful to historical criticism since it has helped us understand the Scriptures better. But we must also be on our guard. Often historical criticism has veered off into unsubstantiated allegations about the accuracy of the Scriptures, and it has routinely approached the Scriptures with an antisupernatural worldview. Historical criticism has not demonstrated the Bible to be false. The Bible, rightly interpreted, has stood the test of time.

Greg Koukl on the Causes of Homosexuality

Greg Koukl’s “Stand to Reason” has published a 12-page overview that discusses some of the causes of homosexuality, taken from Alan Shlemon’s forthcoming booklet, The Ambassador’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality. This is an excerpt:

The pink priesthood

Monday, July 01, 2013

Arminians on inerrancy

God accommodates his message, his communication, to the local culture and context on issues that are of no importance to the theological point. And this isn’t entirely consistent throughout the Old Testament, because the text comes from different times and contexts. Thus we can have differing views of the earth showing up in different texts, with the earth on pillars in Psalm 75 and Job 9; but established on waters in Psalm 24 and Psalm 136.  These texts reflect different times and different views.

One of the striking differences between Arminians and Calvinists is that Arminians–especially Arminian scholars–often have more liberal views of Scripture. The quote by a contributor to Scot McKnight's blog is a case in point. Another example is Bill Arnold's commentary on Genesis. His views on Genesis are basically an updated version of Julius Wellhausen and James Frazer. There's no indication that his views are controversial in the theological circles he travels in. He's not the least bit defensive. 

Proving gratuitous evil

Chapter 5, the largest by far, is devoted to parrying the objection to theism from the existence of natural evil. Rescher has in mind a defense, not a theodicy. He tries to show that, for all the atheist knows, God has, in fact, created the best world possible (so far as the natural order is concerned). It's not that God has created a perfect world (here is invoked the Augustinian notion that created things are by nature finite and imperfect), but that (for all we know) He's created an optimal world. The argument turns on three claims: 1) the world is very, very complex; 2) all of the world's features are so intimately connected that any change has ramifications throughout the system; 3) the world is (in the technical sense) chaotic: a tiny change here can lead to (unpredictable) enormous changes far away in space and time. 

When, then, the atheist suggests that God could have removed some particular evil or type of evil and so made a better world by, for example, changing the laws of nature or initial conditions a bit, Rescher's reply is that it's not enough for the atheist to suggest such possibilities. In order to make her case, the atheist must provide a blueprint for the allegedly better world, complete with a tracing-out of all the long-range consequences of any such proposed alteration in the natural order. And, because of the world's complexity, the atheist can't hope to satisfy that demand. Ergo -- for all anyone knows -- the world may indeed be optimal, the best that a perfect God could have created. 

In any event, Rescher considers another tack that the atheist might try. Why confine oneself to tinkering with our world in search of improvements? Why not let imagination roam freely over much different possible worlds that God would have had better reason to create than this one? Alas for the atheist, Rescher thinks, this maneuver will offer no help - for it won't do merely to partially imagine such a world. One needs to nail down and evaluate the goodness of all the details -- again an impossible task for creatures such as we. One might complain of God that He should have made us smarter, so that we could think such matters through and discover that our world is indeed the best. This complaint might seem ineffectual as an objection to Rescher; he will naturally point out that our intellectual limitations may well be part of what makes this world -- in ways obscure to us -- optimal.

Olson's Arminian theodicy

I'm going to comment on this post:

My point so far is simply that innocent suffering, the suffering of small children, for example, is a serious challenge to Christian faith in an all good and all powerful God, the God of Scripture.

i) How is that a challenge to faith in the God of Scripture? Doesn't Scripture acknowledge the suffering of children? Aren't there Scriptural cases in which God directly or indirectly causes children to suffer? It's not as if Scripture fosters the expectation that children are exempt from suffering. That God will always shield children from suffering. There's no inconsistency between the God of Scripture and suffering children. So how is the latter a challenge to faith in the former? 

ii) Also, throughout his presentation, Olson assumes a standard of right and wrong. But absent the goodness of God, where does that standard come from? 

The great German Lutheran theologian and preacher Helmut Thielicke came to America once after World War 2. He was one of the few leading pastors of Germany who did not support Hitler and survived anyway. He pastored a large church in Hamburg throughout the war including the devastating bombings in its later months. He wrote many books of theology and his sermons fill many volumes. When he was asked by an American during his visit to this country what one thing he thought Americans needed more than anything else he said “a theology of suffering.” Like many people around the world he thought America has been largely immune to the ravages of war, pestilence, famine, epidemic, earthquake. Because of that, he believed, Americans are ill equipped to respond to innocent suffering. I have to agree with Thielicke.

So Americans didn't experience the Civil War. Americans who were drafted to fight in foreign wars didn't experience the ravages of war. Likewise, Americans don't experience natural disasters or epidemics. What was Olson thinking?

Well, theology has four criteria: revelation, including Jesus Christ and Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. 

Is tradition a criterion? Since tradition can be wrong, don't we need a criterion to judge tradition? Likewise, don't we need a criterion to judge experience? Even reason needs criteria. 

Some suffering, however, seems to be absolutely gratuitous—serving no good purpose. 

If that's the case, then I don't see that Olson has a salvageable position. Once you concede the existence of "absolutely gratuitous" suffering, then cobbling together some partial theodicies won't fix the problem. Why would God permit a preventable evil that has no fringe benefits or redeeming value? 

Many question that until I mention the suffering of a child being murdered by a sexual predator or a soldier or concentration camp guard. Then, suddenly, most people intuitively agree that some suffering is gratuitous. 

I don't find that intuitively obvious. Most lives impact many other lives in a multitude of ways, for better or worse. By the same token, premature death has both good and bad consequences down the line. 

Another preliminary matter has to do with the Bible and suffering. What does the Bible say about the subject? Why can’t we just turn to the Bible for our answer? Doesn’t the Bible contain all the answers? The Book of Job is the only sustained discussion of suffering in the Bible. It offers no theodicy. In fact, it rejects the theodicies of Job’s “friends.” All it tells us is that not all suffering is deserved. The book was apparently written with that one purpose in mind—to reject the common belief that suffering is always the result of sin in the suffering person’s life.

The Book of Job offers a theodicy for Job's ordeal. And that would be a theodicy for comparable cases. 

Never addressed directly, however, is the problem of totally innocent suffering—the suffering of innocents. 

"Innocence" is a relative concept in Scripture. We are all sinners. We may suffer unjustly at the hands of other sinners. And there's no systematic correlation between our sins and what we suffer. But we're not innocent in relation to a holy God. 

Nor does the Bible provide a clear, comprehensive, rationally satisfying theodicy—“This is why all suffering is justified in God’s world.” Rather, as many Bible scholars point out, the Bible’s alternative to theodicy is eschatology—the promise that someday all innocent suffering will end. “Every tear will be wiped away” and the creation will be liberated from its “bondage to decay.”

Seems to me that Scripture does outline a theodicy. For instance:

1 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him (Jn 9:1-3). 
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn 11:1-4). 
 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all (Rom 11:32). 
 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal 3:22).

Divine determinism is that form of speculative theology, common in some Protestant circles, that claims that God “designs, ordains, and governs” everything without exception including all events of suffering including innocent suffering—for his own glory. One of the most influential contemporary pastors who promotes this view to thousands of so-called “young, restless, Reformed” Christians is Baptist pastor and author John Piper whose books sell by the millions. According to him, and his precursors such as Puritan theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards, God foreordains and renders certain even the agonizing death of an infant. God thus becomes sheer power without goodness in any sense of “goodness” meaningful to us.

2) God does not foreordain or cause innocent suffering; it does not glorify him. To believe that is to detract from God’s goodness and love.

He sets (2) in contrast to "divine determinism," but is that a tenable contrast? 

i) Since the Arminian God could prevent the "agonizing death of an infant," but refrains from so doing, the Arminian God makes the baby die an agonizing death by refusing to intervene. His inaction makes that happen. That's the differential factor. Whether or not he intervenes is what makes the difference. How is that distinguishable from God "causing" the infant to die an agonizing death?

ii) Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that that's distinguishable from divine causation, how is that distinguishable from divine determinism? If, absent divine intervention, the infant is bound to die an agonizing death, then God's inaction makes it certain to happen. How is that different from "determining" the outcome? Indeed, since the Arminian God has both foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge, how is that different from predetermining the outcome? 

Another speculative answer, one that does not sacrifice God’s goodness or power, distinguishes between two wills of God—God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will.” It appeals to God’s self-limitation to explain why there is evil and innocent suffering in God’s world without sacrificing God’s goodness or power. A contemporary example of this in Christian theology is pastor and author Gregory Boyd who wrote Is God to Blame? But he stands in a long tradition of Christian thought called Arminian theology (after Jacob Arminius who died in 1610). According to Boyd and Arminians, God has to limit his power to allow for human free will. Human rejection of God has pushed God away so that the world is under a self-chosen curse. Evil powers, whether personal or structural or both, rule the world. God depends on us, for now anyway, to alleviate suffering. That there be no innocent suffering was God’s antecedent will—antecedent to human rebellion against God by means of misuse of free will. That there be innocent suffering in this fallen world is part of God’s consequent will—consequent to human rebellion.

So the Arminian solution to the problem of evil is that God consequently wills the death of innocents rather than antecedently wills their death? How is that distinction morally relevant? 

Advocates of this view, however, argue that God respects free will and cannot intervene every time someone is about to misuse free will to cause innocent suffering or else free will would be a mirage, an illusion, not real. 

If the police foil a terrorist plot to kill thousands of innocents, does that turn freewill into a mirage? 

And God cannot intervene to stop every instance of innocent suffering from illness or calamity because that would be to make this world something other than it is—a “veil of soul making” in which there must be risk and danger in order for people to recognize their need for God. C. S. Lewis, an advocate of this view, said that suffering is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world to its need of him.”

One problem with a soul-making theodicy is that suffering causes some pious believers to lose their faith. They become so bitter and disillusioned that they commit apostasy. So it's counterproductive.

That was revolutionary because traditional theology said God cannot suffer. God is, Christian tradition says, impassible—incapable of suffering…Tradition says God is incapable of suffering, impassible, because to suffer is to change and God is perfect.

That's not what impassibility means. Impassibility means God cannot be affected by the world. 

Bushnell, Bonhoeffer and other orthodox Christian thinkers who have adopted the idea of a suffering God in modernity see God’s suffering as voluntary in the sense that God could have avoided suffering by not creating the world or by preventing sin and its consequences. Once God created and permitted human defection from fellowship with him into sin God had no choice but to suffer because God is love.

This assumes that suffering is inevitable, which–in turn–assumes that sin and evil are inevitable. But if human agents have libertarian freedom, then in what sense are sin and evil inevitable?  

But how does God’s suffering with the suffering help them? It helps his reputation, but how does it help those who suffer? God’s suffering presence with gives comfort and hope. Comfort in knowing that one is not alone in suffering.

Isn't that rather like the vindictive attitude of the sniper or the sociopath who wants to makes others miserable because he is miserable? "If I can't be happy, no one else deserves to be happy!"

I see this pastoral approach of emphasizing God’s suffering with and for those who suffer as compatible with the speculative view of Arminianism—the distinction between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. In other words, if we are going to say pastorally, as I think we must, that God is present with those who suffer, suffering with them and for them, because God is love, then we must say that this is due to a voluntary self-limitation of God in relation to creation itself. Innocent suffering is a side effect of creature’s misuse of free will. It is part of the human condition under the curse of defection from God. We have pushed God out of the center of our world and our lives onto the cross. God goes voluntarily to the cross—not only of Calvary but of the world of suffering. God is present whenever and wherever innocents suffer because he is love and cannot but suffer with them. This still leaves some questions unanswered. But I believe it relieves much of the stress of believing in an all good, all powerful God in face of innocent suffering in God’s world. God is not a distant, unaffected deity “watching from a distance,” but a God intimately involved in suffering with those who suffer and for them.

That's like saying an ER physician should be in pain if the patient is in pain.

2) God does not foreordain or cause innocent suffering; it does not glorify him. To believe that is to detract from God’s goodness and love.
5) When we suffer we should realize that God may have something good to bring out of it if we hand it over to him and seek his will for that. 

If God brings good out of evil, did he not intend to bring good out of evil? Was that not his plan all along? 

Hard to Believe: “Barth on History”

Richard Mueller on “Barth’s Historiography”:

“As is often the case with Barth’s reviews and critiques of the [Reformed] tradition, his argument is directed more toward the justification of his own position than toward a genuine understanding of the past.”

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 155.

HT: Jared Oliphint

I find this helpful, given that I’ve never had the time to read Barth. One of the best discussions of Barth’s work that I’ve seen from a conservative Presbyterian point of view is this RTS Seminar by on iTunesU. It’s about a two hour seminar, the second hour of which is some discussion, but it provides an erudite view of what Barth got right (i.e., putting a stop-sign up to the train wreck of “old liberalism”), and what he got wrong (i.e., his view of Scripture).

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Work in progress

Grief-counseling for the godless

Here's how a prominent atheist philosopher proposes that we deal with the death of a loved one. 

Whenever an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals), I say that it is adopting the intentional stance or treating that thing as an intentional system.  

So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. When somebody we love or even just know well dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it…A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our intentional-stance habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse. We can't just delete the file in our memory banks, we wouldn't want to be able to do so. What keeps many habits in place is the pleasure we take from indulging in them. And so we dwell on them, drawn to them like a moth to a candle. We preserve relics and other reminders of the deceased persons, and make images of them, and tell stories about them, to prolong these habits of mind even as they start to fade. D. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin 2006), 110, 112.

William Lane Craig Seems To Affirm The Historicity Of The Guards At The Tomb

For the background to this post, see here, including the comments section of the thread.

Here's William Lane Craig's 1984 article defending the historicity of the passages in Matthew about the guards at the tomb. You can find web pages in which he cites that article approvingly in recent years here and here. Not only am I not aware of a retraction of the 1984 article, but I've also repeatedly seen Craig cite that article with approval in recent years. In the 1984 article, he refers to the historicity of the guards at the tomb as an "open question", but he seems to be limiting his evaluation to common criteria applied by modern scholarship. Craig's own view of the passages has to be further qualified by his positions on other issues, like Biblical inerrancy.

In his 2006 debate with Bart Ehrman, Craig said:

The surveillance state

Brain power