Saturday, September 14, 2013

There Probably are no Duties. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life!

HT: Wenatchee the Hatchet

Theistic human evolution

One of the challenges for theistic evolution is how to reconcile theistic evolution with the competence and benevolence of God. According to evolution (i.e. macroevolution, universal common descent), Cromagnon man is the end-result (thus far, at least) of earlier hominids. Some represent linear ancestors of Cromagnon man, while others represent independent offshoots, where we and they branched off from a common ancestor. Divergent evolution. Earlier hominids became extinct. In some cases, Cro-Magnon man replaced them. 

From a theistic evolutionary perspective, this is strikingly like those science fiction stories in which a cyberneticist experiments with model androids until he is able to perfect his design. Once they outlive their usefulness, the earlier models are deactivated and destroyed. This calls into question both the competence and benevolence of the deity postulated by theistic evolution

In addition, it's far from clear why modern man would represent the final stage in human evolution. Logically, we'd be just another stepping stone, another temporary phase, in human evolution–to be replaced by a superior model down the line. 

Abraham in Egypt

The call of Abraham

The Feynman Lectures on Physics

"Caltech and The Feynman Lectures Website are pleased to present this online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Now, anyone with internet access and a web browser can enjoy reading a high-quality up-to-date copy of Feynman's legendary lectures. This edition has been designed for ease of reading on devices of any size or shape; text, figures and equations can all be zoomed without degradation."

Why evolution is false

At the tail end of last year, Jonathan McLatchie reviewed Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne.

Our make-believe parents

Jared Oliphint recently posted an article on the evolutionary debate:

Jared is the son of Scott Oliphint, the WTS apologetics prof. Unfortunately, his argument is rather hazy. 

You can respond to the "problem" at one of three different levels. 

i) You can respond directly. At the same level as the alleged evidence. Ostensible evidence is given. You cite counterevidence. Go toe-to-toe with the Darwinian. 

In some ways, that's the best way to respond. But it requires a certain degree of scientific expertise. That's the level at which intelligent-design theorists and young-earth creationists respond. Those with the requisite training. They answer the Darwinian on his own grounds. Point/counterpoint. 

ii) You can respond at a more philosophical level. Show that evolutionary biology is critically underdetermined by the evidence. A Darwinian may seem to base his position on hard evidence, but he's sneaking in key philosophical assumptions that not only go beyond the evidence, but behind the evidence. 

A blatant example is how often Darwinians find it necessary to take refuge in methodological atheism. That's a tacit admission that the physical evidence alone doesn't yield evolution. Especially in historical sciences, it's necessary to extrapolate from the present to the past–as well as postulating interpolations to plug all the lacuna in the natural record. Darwinians must posit continuity. Linearity. Natural laws. That's not given in the raw evidence. Rather, that's a framing device. That's outside the extant evidence. 

It's not as if we have live footage of land animals incrementally turning into whales–or fish turning into salamanders, turning into lemurs, turning into man. You can rearrange fossil remains into an evolutionary narrative, but that's an artistic depiction. Nine parts imagination to one part evidence. 

iii) You can appeal to the transcendental authority of Scripture to trump the alleged evidence. That's a blocking maneuver. And that seems to be what Oliphint is hinting at. But there are two problems:

a) He raises objections to the historicity of Adam, then leaves them hanging out there. There's nothing to robustly counter the objections that he himself put on public display. All the weight lies on one side of the seesaw. What impression does that make on the reader? 

b) He doesn't make a case for the transcendental authority of Scripture. That's just assumed. 

Towards the end he links to a list of resources, but most of those are systematic theology. Yet that's the very thing under fire. 

In general, it's a mistake for an apologist to raise objections he isn't prepared to address head-on. It's one thing to raise objections for the sake of argument, as a preliminary move to go back and knock them down–one-by-one. It's quite another thing to raise objections, then leave them intact. That's counterproductive. Showing the Darwinian triumphantly seated at one end of the seesaw, with nothing to counterbalance, much less overthrow, the ostensible evidence, is a pretty maladroit approach. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

80/20 arguments for God: the Why and Wherefore argument, part 1

Preaching to the bathroom mirror

John MacArthur has ruffled some feathers. I'm alluding to a post by Adrian Warnock:
Adrian's post is entitled "John MacArthur accuses half-a-billion Christians of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit"
Although I disagree with MacArthur's allegation, which I will get to shortly, I don't think the numerical objection holds water. For instance, classic Protestants regard the church of Rome as an apostate church. Now the number of Catholics worldwide is estimated at 1.2 billion. Of course, that includes boatloads of nominal Catholics who were simply baptized by a priest as babies. But my immediate point is that if somebody like Eric Svendsen said the church of Rome was a false church, I can imagine a Catholic apologist posting an indignant response entitled "Eric Svensen accuses a billion Catholics of belonging to a false church!"
Well, suppose he did? So what. Numbers are irrelevant. What's relevant is the truth or falsity of the accusation. And, if anything, the more adherents who are deceived, the worse.
Adrian then quotes MacArthur as saying:
the Holy Spirit has been under massive assault for decades and decades, and I've been asking the question 'where are the people rising up in protest against the abuse and the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?' 

Here I think MacArthur leaves himself wide open to legitimate criticism. "Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" has very specific connotations. It's a loaded phrase that alludes to an accusation which Jesus leveled against his opponents. Unless MacArthur thinks that the Pentecostals in question are guilty of the same (or crucially similar) offense, it's very careless of him to bandy that phrase around. It's especially ironic for him to be theologically sloppy when that's what he's faulting Pentecostalism for. 

In the same context, Adrian quotes MacArthur as saying:

Why don’t evangelical leaders speak against this movement?  Why is their such silence?…The only thing I can suggest is that they have been literally backed up into a corner by intimidation that they need to be loving and accepting and tolerant and not divisive in the body of Christ, thats been the mantra. . .

In some cases, I expect MacArthur's insinuation of cowardice is probably true. That said, I think think of other reasons why they don't speak up or speak out against Pentecostalism. 

i) MacArthur is tacitly assuming that deep down, evangelical leaders see things the same way he does. But there may well be evangelical leaders who don't share his position because they don't think he's a serious scholar. Consider D. A. Carson's assessment of MacArthur's commentries: "These books often betray too little time and care with the text, so that they cannot be read as a reliable commentary."

MacArthur has a reputation for caricaturing the charismatic movement. Picking on the worst representatives rather than the best representatives. That may be one reason he isn't taken seriously by other evangelical leaders. 

ii) Apropos (i), another reason his protest may be ignored is the lopsided nature of the argument. Consider the Strange Fire conference. Don't all the guest speakers think alike on this issue. Weren't they recruited with that in mind? 

Now, there's nothing inherent wrong with a one-sided presentation. There's nothing inherently wrong with hosting a conference in which you only give your side of the argument. 

However, that's not a persuading anyone who wasn't in the tank for you going in. It's just a pep rally before the game to gin up the fans for your team. 

MacArthur takes a wholly insular approach, then is baffled by the fact that his approach lacks appeal to outsiders. Isn't that predictable?

iii) Apropos (ii), look the roster of the Strange Fire Conference:

These may all be wonderful folks, but on the face of it, not one of them has any expertise on the evidence for or against modern miracles. 

If he wants to mobilize evangelical opposition to charismatic theology, he needs to win the argument before he can win the war. He's debating an empty chair. Empty because he didn't invite a single opponent to fill it.

If he's serious about recruiting new converts to his cause, why not host debates between Master's faculty and leading exponents of charismatic theology like Craig Keener, Gordon Fee, Graham Twelftree, and Max Turner? Otherwise, he's preaching to the bathroom mirror. His methods are at cross-purposes with his objectives. 

Adrian quotes MacArthur as saying:

How do they do it? By attributing to the Holy Spirit words that He didn’t say, deeds that He didn’t do, and experiences that He didn’t produce, attributing to the Holy Spirit that which is not the work of the Holy Spirit. 

There's certainly some truth to this accusation, especially among TBN televangelists and their fawning followers. 

However, is misattributing something to God the same thing as "blaspheming" God? Let's take a comparison. Take thanking God for answered prayer. I assume MacArthur thinks Christians ought to give God the credit. Express their gratitude for answered prayer.

Yet providence can be inscrutable. Certainly there's the possibility that we mistook an outcome for God answering our prayer. That we misread God's providence.

Does MacArthur think a Christian is guilty of blasphemy if he mistakenly thanks God for answering his prayer, when the result was not an answer to prayer? 

Endless human experiences, emotional experiences, bizarre experiences and demonic experiences are said to come from the Holy Spirit…visions, revelations, voices from heaven, messages from the Spirit through transcendental means, dreams, speaking in tongues, prophecies, out of body experiences, trips to heaven, anointings, miracles. All false, all lies, all deceptions attributed falsely to the Holy Spirit . . .

Notice that MacArthur is assuming what he needs to prove. Take commentators on Acts 2:17ff. and 1 Cor 13:10,12 who don't agree with his cessationist interpretations? And you don't have to be charismatic scholar to disagree with his interpretations. What about Jas 5:13-18? 

MacArthur whines about how his warnings go unheeded, but his hidebound tactics are self-marginalizing. Same thing with MacArthurites who form a circular cheer-leading squad. 

"Woefully naive and theologically Pollyannish"

And then third, my continuationist critics will charge that I am picking the easy, wacko fringe element within charismatic circles. I need to go and interact with Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Craig Keener, DA Carson, yada, yada, yada… I believe that charge is woefully naive and theologically Pollyannish.The so-called open, but cautious continuationists insist the bizarre and devilish behavior portrayed in that video as charismatic is really fringe, cultic extremes. The reality is the other way around, however.
If Fred is including me in that veiled reference, and it's hard to see how he's not, even if he has more than me in mind, I invite him to furnish verbatim quotes in which I indicate that the wackos represent a fringe group or cultic extreme–in contrast to mainstream Pentecostalism. I look forward to the supporting documentation to back up his attribution.   

Stonehenge just happened!

In light of all the unknowns in these theistic “explanations,” one can hardly be blamed for concluding that “creation” and “design” are simply explanation names, not actual explanations. Compare to a naturalist saying, “X is the result an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism operating without a purpose.” It’s unclear why any of these unknown theistic explanations are supposed to be better than their unknown naturalistic counterparts.

Let's apply Lowder's reasoning to Stonehenge:

For his part, Wainwright believes that no theory will ever be fully accepted, no matter how convincing the evidence. “I think what most people like about Stonehenge is that nobody really knows why it was built, and I think that’s probably always going to be the case,” he says. “It’s a bloody great mystery.”

By Lowder's logic, since we don't know how or why Stonehenge was built, appealing to human agency is not a better explanation–indeed, not a real explanation at all–than appealing to natural inanimate processes. 

Animal clairvoyance

22 But God's anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam's foot against the wall. So he struck her again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” 30 And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse[b] before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back” (Num 22:22-34).
Many unbelievers regard that as one of the most fabulous stories in the Bible. They single out the donkey's supernatural ability to speak.

However, the account also credits the donkey with the ability to perceive the angel, which was invisible to Balaam. Are there other examples of animal clairvoyance? 

At one time, Michael Sudduth resided in a haunted house in Windsor Connecticut. At the time he and his wife didn't know they were buying a haunted house. It was a historic colonial home. After living there they discovered that it was haunted. And subsequently, they found out that the previous owners had the same experience. (I think Michael's experience in the haunted house, on top of his youthful dabblings with the Ouija board, is one of the things that pushed him off the deep end.) Among other things, he recounts the following:

The family dog (a golden retriever named Abbey) also seemed to sense something in the house. Early on she had some very strong reactions to something we could not see, much like she would if a stranger come to the house. She would go a particular spot in the house and look up and bark at something she had focused her eyes on. Sometimes she would stare down the stairs from the top of the stairs, as though she were looking at something in the foyer downstairs.
This happened in several places in the house, sometimes when we heard things and some- times when we had not. On one occasion Abbey became extremely aggressive, almost violent. She was really spooked by something. On at least two occasions, while I was teaching night classes, Jill had locked herself in the master bedroom with Abbey for fear that someone had broken into the house. Over time while Abbey continued to act as though she sensed something, she was not as disturbed, exactly as she behaved with guests with which she had become acquainted.

You might dismiss this as subjective, but Sudduth also recounts objective phenomena which collaborate the dog's clairvoyance. For instance:

One day after we had been in the house for a few months, Jill and I were having an argument about the house. At one point, Jill said: "We should just sell this damn house andleave!" Immediately a short umbrella we had hanging on the coat rack by the backdoor flew off the peg and landed about six feet or so from the door. The peg did not break. There was no door or window open. And the umbrella was still rolled up. This umbrella just launched itself across the room. We were speechless.

Out of curiosity, I wrote Dr. David Hufford. He's a college prof. at at the Penn State College of Medicine (Hershey), where he has appointments in Medical Humanities, Behavioral Science, and Family and Community Medicine. He's a world authority on old-hag syndrome, based on extensive original research (e.g. interviews, case studies) that he's conducted over the years. 

In your research, have you run across credible reports that animals, like pet dogs and cats, can perceive the unseen presence of "spirits." Sense the presence of personal entities which are invisible to human observers?

To which Dr. Hufford responded:

I have reports I consider credible. Most do not involve "hagging," but some do. I am convinced that this happens.

So there is corroborative evidence for animal clairvoyance, of the kind exhibited by Balaam's donkey. 

I should add that Rupert Sheldrake has done extensive research on animal telepathy:

Running the race

6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (Jas 1:6-8).
We are living in a period when hipster churchgoers make a virtue of doubt. Their attitude is mirrored by some Christian philosophers and theologians who consider doubting the Bible or various articles of the faith to be intellectually virtuous and healthy. 
It's striking to compare their attitude with the contemptuous, unyielding position of James, stepbrother of Jesus. But when James contrasts faith and doubt, what kind of faith is he referring to? One commentator makes a comparison:
Abraham, Paul says, "did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God" (Rom 4:20). Paul, of course, is well aware that Abraham did, in fact, doubt God's promise on at least one occasion, greeting God's promise about his son with laughter (Gen 17:15-18). Paul's point is not that Abraham never entertained any doubt about God's promise but that Abraham, over many years, displayed a consistency in his faith in God…[James] wants us to understand that God responds to us only when our lives reflect a basic consistency of purpose and intent: a spiritual integrity D. Moo, The Letter of James (Eerdmans 2000), 60-61.
And that certainly dovetails with what James says about Abraham. So the kind of unwavering faith that James is talking about isn't so much intellectual faith, but a life of faith.  Unswerving faith. Goal-oriented faith. A steadfast lifestyle in which we make decisions and lead our lives, day after day and year after year, according to God's promises.
God's promises set the goal, directing the course of our lives. We remain devoted to God throughout the ups and downs of life, throughout the confusions, losses, and disappointments. Throughout the times when we don't understand what God is doing. Throughout the silence, the dry seasons, the unanswered prayers. We get up the next day and continue in the same direction, in a single-minded pursuit of the distant, unseen destination. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dog years and human years

The prediluvians lived about ten times longer than a normal lifespan for us. That raises the question of whether they aged at a steady rate, but simply aged more slowly, or whether they matured sooner or later, stayed youthful for most of their life, while the pace of aging accelerated towards the end. In that respect it's interesting to compare human maturation/aging with canine maturation/aging:

The inscrutable designer

One objection that's been raised to the design inference is the claim that if the designer is inscrutable, then that invalidates a design inference.

The strength of that objection depends, in part, on the identity of the designer. If the designer is the God of Christian theism, then to some extent he has disclosed his intentions. 

But let's play along with the inscrutability objection for the sake of argument. Suppose (ex hypothesi) that the designer is inscrutable. Would that invalidate the design inference?

i) One stock counterexample would be discovering an alien spaceship. The technology would be too advanced for us to figure out what the gizmos were for. Yet it would be absurd to deny that they were designed, just because the gadgetry is inscrutable to human engineers.

ii) Here's another counterexample. A common theme of SF stories is the intelligent supercomputer that takes over the world. As I kid I saw Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). It's about a military supercomputer. Shortly after it goes online, it discovers a Russian counterpart. The two systems devise a code language to communicate with each other. They do so by inventing a whole new branch of mathematics. Their code language is unintelligible to humans. 

The challenge is how to outwit a computer that's far smarter than its inventor. It has adaptive intelligence. It becomes exponentially more intelligent every minute. The smarter it becomes, the less analogous it is to human reasoning. Ever further removed from the originating source. Incommensurable. They lose any standard of comparison, for it's increasingly unlike human intelligence. Truly alien. 

In effect, the computer is inscrutable. Its superior intelligence renders it inscrutable to the intellectually inferior human (Dr. Charles Forbin) who designed it. They can't anticipate its next move. And they have to second guess themselves. 

Yet just because the AI machine is inscrutable, it would be absurd to say its actions don't reflect intelligence. To the contrary, it's the computer's daunting (artificial) intelligence that makes it inscrutable to less intelligent human observers. 

Bergoglio’s Gig: Devoutly Venerate This Painting.

Protectress of the Roman People
If peace breaks out in Syria, some Roman Catholics will believe it was because Pope Francis invoked this icon: the “Salus Populi Romani”, or the “Protectress of the Roman People”.

ROME, September 12, 2013 – With the passing of the days the extraordinary nature of the vigil presided over by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on the evening of Saturday, September 7 is becoming ever more perceptible.

First of all, the reason: a day of fasting and prayer to call for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and wherever there is war. With the participation not only of Catholics but of men of every religion and simply “of good will.” Not only in Rome but in many cities of the world.

Then the duration. One cannot recall a public vigil of prayer of four consecutive hours, from sunset to late into the night, in the constant presence of the pope.

Then the silence. Over the entire span of the vigil the recollection of the hundred thousand persons crowding St. Peter's Square and the surrounding areas was intense and emotional. In harmony with the accentuated austerity of the very presence of the pope.

Then, above all, the form that the prayer took on. It began with the rosary, the most evangelical and universal of the “popular” prayers, and with a meditation by Pope Francis. It proceeded with the adoration of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It continued with the office of readings - the nocturnal psalmody of the monks - with the reading of passages from Jeremiah, St. Leo the Great, and the Gospel of John. It concluded with the singing of the “Te Deum” and with Eucharistic benediction imparted by the pope.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blomberg on Reza Aslan


The word "literal" is used a lot in debates over Bible history or Bible prophecy. Sometimes it's used as a term of abuse. We need to draw some distinctions:

i) There's a difference between literalism and a literal interpretation. Literalism is a hermeneutical system. A literal interpretation is often the correct interpretation, but not because our methods dictate a literal interpretation. 

ii) Literalism is culturally relative. What's figurative to a modern reader might be literal to an ancient reader. What's literal to a modern reader might be figurative to an ancient reader. Take idiomatic figures of speech like "shooting the bull." Someone for whom English is a second language might take that literally! 

When readers interpret the Bible "literally," what that usually means is what strikes them as literal given their modern cultural frame of reference. What they grew up hearing, seeing, reading, the media, social expectations about what's possible or real. So the "literal" sense is unstable. A form of reader-response criticism. What it means to the reader, given his plausibility structure.

iii) In that respect, literalism is frequently the opposite of original intent. Traditionally, the grammatico-historical method is concerned with recovering or ascertaining what the text meant to the author and his target audience. 

iv) In addition, readers often bring auxiliary assumptions to the text of Scripture. We can see this in debates over the flood. Secular critics of the flood raise scientific objections to a global flood. They map the world of Genesis onto the modern world, then drawn invidious comparisons. But in so doing, they unconsciously interject auxiliary assumptions into the ancient text.

When global flood geologists devise model flood mechanisms (e.g. impact event, hydroplate theory, catastrophic plate tectonics, eccentric orbital mechanics), they may say that they are interpreting the text literally, but at the same time they are recasting the text in light of their auxiliary assumptions. 

Likewise, they criticize local flood geologists on scientific grounds, viz. the ark can't travel upstream, the Mesopotamian flood basin can't contain a massive deluge, prediluvian man migrated to the far corners of the earth due to human longevity and fecundity.

And, of course, local flood geologists return the favor by attacking global flood geology on scientific grounds–objections which typically mirror secular critics. Conversely, they defend their own view by appeal to auxiliary theories, viz. extant Mesopotamian typology, a storm surge.

All sides to this debate help themselves to extrabiblical auxiliary hypothesis. 

v) As a rule, when we interpret the Bible and attempt to correlate Biblical events with a real world setting, I think it's best to make the fewest auxiliary assumptions, although that has to be counterbalanced by the simplest explanation. 

vi) Apropos (v), there are often uncertainties when we interpret an ancient text. There are more often uncertainties when we try to reconstruct the distant past. And when we try to correlate an ancient text with the past, that combines the uncertainties. So it's prudent to have more than one interpretive working hypothesis. 

I'm not suggesting we should artificially hedge our bets for purely pragmatic reasons. I'm saying that if there are genuine uncertainties, then we should make allowance for that fact, and have more than one interpretive option, where there is more than one reasonable interpretation or historical reconstruction. 

Ancient prophecy raises analogous issues. The idiom of ancient prophecies is often enigmatic for modern readers. And just as the distance past is indirectly inaccessible, so is the future. That's why it can be tricky to correlate a prophecy with its fulfillment in advance of the fact. And the same holds true for ancient histories about ancient events. It's the same thing in reverse. 

Married name

Traditionally, a woman takes her husband's surname when she marries. Of course, feminists find that oppressive. But retaining their hereditary surname is just as "patriarchal":

80/20 arguments for God: intro

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lawrence Krauss' Behavior

From William Lane Craig's latest newsletter:

Where Was Abraham's Ur?

Who's Actually Less Loving?

I just came across a study about the role of the Bible in the lives of Americans, through a link from J. Warner Wallace. You can read about the study in more depth here. Notice, for example, the sections on "Giving to Non-Profit Organizations". Take note of the contrast between how much particular groups give and how often those groups claim that they object to Christianity because it's unloving, divisive, hypocritical, etc. Here's an article by Chris Price on Christianity's historical influence on charity.

"…why do we not observe that it is their [Christians'] benevolence to strangers…their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [Christianity]?…For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us." (Julian the Apostate, cited in John Cook, The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], 327)

Beyond good and evil

In the abstract, atheists assure us that it's possible, even preferable, to be good without God. But their moral footing is slippery when they shift to concrete cases:

Redefining history

I'm going to repost some comments I left at Michael Kruger's blog:

[James McGrath] “Well, people often assumed that it was how sin entered the world. But when they did so, they often took the story in directions that are at odds with what the story actually says – including most notably turning the serpent into a supernatural angelic being.”

Actually, people in the ancient world often viewed “snakes” as supernatural beings. They believed in snake-gods, fire-breathing cobras guarding the Netherworld, &c.
“But I am not persuaded that Paul understood the text as you claim. He focuses on Adam only because Christ was one man and it makes for a nice contrast. If he were a literalist, he would have said ‘Just as through two human beings sin entered the world.’”
Here’s what Joseph Fitzmyer has to say: 
“Paul treats Adam as a historical human being, humanity’s first parent, and contrasts him with the historical Jesus Christ…Some commentators on Romans have tried to interpret Adam in this symbolic sense here…but that reading does violence to the contrast that Paul uses in this paragraph between Adam as ‘one man’ and Christ as ‘one man,’ which implies that Adam was a historical individual much as was Jesus Christ,” Romans (Doubleday 1993), 407-08.
This is despite the fact that Fitzmyer rejects the historicity of Adam and disagrees with Paul’s interpretation of Genesis. But even though he’s just as liberal as McGrath, he’s honest enough to let Paul speak for himself.
"And the fact that the ancient authors of Genesis thought that living things came into existence either when God formed them with divine hands, or through spontaneous generation at God’s command, has no more bearing than the fact that they thought the sky was a solid dome."
To say they thought the sky was a solid dome says more about McGrath’s naivete than theirs.
"It has nothing to do with anyone’s naivete, and has only to do with the meaning of Hebrew words."
i) To begin with, words can used metaphorically.
ii) Even liberal scholars dispute the solid dome interpretation (e.g. Baruch Halpern). John Walton now rejects the solid dome interpretation.
iii) The OT contains various passages attesting the fact that ancient Israelites knew thay rain came from rainclouds.
iv) Ancient Near Easterners could see for themselves that rain came from rainclouds.
“But it is noteworthy that at these points the poetic hyperbole of the psalmists is taken literally, while other things that are problematic like the Earth’s immobility are treated as metaphors, when the ancient Israelite assumptions if anything seem to have been the reverse.”
McGrath is so confused. He acts as if Ptolemaic astronomy supplies the background for the Psalms. But that’s grossly anachronistic. In the Psalms, the “Earth’s immobility” has reference to God protecting his people from catastrophic earthquakes, not celestial mechanics.
“But it is noteworthy that at these points the poetic hyperbole of the psalmists is taken literally, while other things that are problematic like the Earth’s immobility are treated as metaphors, when the ancient Israelite assumptions if anything seem to have been the reverse.”
McGrath is so confused. He acts as if Ptolemaic astronomy supplies the background for the Psalms. But that’s grossly anachronistic. In the Psalms, the “Earth’s immobility” has reference to God protecting his people from catastrophic earthquakes, not celestial mechanics.
No, not “convenient.” I gave a reason. Notice that McGrath has no counterargument.
I understand that you don’t care to interact with people who call your bluff, forcing you to fold and head for the nearest exit.
Notice McGrath’s modus operandi. Because his claims are indefensible, he resorts to adjectives (“Liars!”) and self-serving characterizations.
“I don’t think that any view which misrepresents evidence the way young-earth creationism and Intelligent Design do is compatible with the moral teachings of Christianity. If you reject the clear teaching of Jesus about truth in order to defend that ancient human beings were somehow prescient in their knowledge of modern science, there is really no way you can seriously call yourself a Christian, or your views Christian."

In the name of truth, McGrath is dissembling:

i) Does McGrath believe the Gospels are historically accurate records of what Jesus taught? Seems highly unlikely.

ii) And even assuming he does grant their accuracy, does McGrath believe that Jesus was the infallible Son of God Incarnate? Does he believe what Jesus said about hell, Jonah, Noah’s flood, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, the creation account (Gen 1-2) in relation to marriage, &c.? Clearly not. He regards Jesus as a child of his times.
Hebrews 7 reflects an ancient understanding of procreation, not a modern one informed by genetics and biology.”
Once again, McGrath is hopelessly confused. The author of Hebrews indicates that he’s speaking hyperbolically. How did McGrath manage to miss the parenthetical disclaimer (hos epos eipein)?
Needless to say, there are creationists and intelligent design theorists who work in the relevant scientific fields. Notice that in the name of honesty, McGrath can’t bring himself to honestly represent the opposing side. And, of course, his definition of “Biblical scholars” is anyone who thinks like him.
“Young-earth creationists (I say this as someone who used to be one) are only liars and people who repeat what liars say uncritically. That is incompatible with Christianity at its most fundamental level.”
Since McGrath thinks the Bible is riddled with falsehoods, what’s his standard of comparison for true Christianity?
“So too is inerrancy, which treats ancient authors or a book as though they have an attribute which belongs to God alone.”
In that event, we can safely disregard everything McGrath says as errant. After all, he’s only human.
“It is a form of idolatry”
By whose definition? The Bible’s? Or McGrath’s?
“I think Chris Heard’s suggestion, that the word (not used elsewhere in the Greek Bible) recalls the story of Adam.”
That makes precious little sense. Far more likely is that “God-breathed” is a metaphor for divine speech. Breath=spoken word. Therefore, Scripture is divine speech committed to writing.
“Historical questions are answered using the tools of historical study. The fact that texts happen to be part of a collection that is given the status of Scripture by this or that religious body is irrelevant to the answering of historical questions. What matters is historical evidence.”
i) And McGrath has said in the past that methodological atheism is a guiding principle of historiography. So he will automatically discount a miraculous report as unhistorical.
ii) He also begs the question of whether Scripture is, itself, historical evidence.
iii) Notice, too, how he acts as though the Bible is no different than the Koran or Upanishads. It’s just a collection of ancient texts that happens to be given the status of Scripture by a religious community. Nothing inherent in the nature of the text itself to merit that status. Rather, that status is merely ascriptive and sociological. Something conferred on it from the outside. This just tells you that McGrath lacks a Christian view of Scripture.
“We have letters from someone who had met Jesus’ brother. We do not have something similar in the case of Adam.”
Notice how McGrath excludes revelation and inspiration. He has a purely secular outlook.
“What we do have is a story the genre of which is made clear by the presence of a talking animal.”
i) The genre of Gen 2-3 isn’t different from the genre of Pentateuchal narratives generally, many of which are characterized by supernatural incidents and agents.
ii) And why does he classify the “snake” as a talking animal? In the ancient Near East, “snakes” could be numinous beings. Supernatural beings.
“But alas, some Christians have been indoctrinated that they are supposed to ignore everythign that they have learned about reading and literary genres when it comes to the Bible.”
McGrath is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He is imposing his secular perspective on Gen 2-3. But that confuses what he is prepared to believe with what the narrator was prepared to believe. The narrator doesn’t share his naturalistic worldview.
To take the genre into account means viewing the narrative on its own terms. Assuming the viewpoint of the narrator. That’s the polar opposite of what McGrath is doing. He views the world as a closed system.
Notice that McGrath is tacitly rigging the definition of history, by tacitly defining the historical method naturalistically. Yet that prejudges what did happen as well as what can happen. McGrath talks about the “available evidence,” but his “rules” filter out any evidence that doesn’t slip through his secular sieve. So his approach to reality is artificial. He doesn’t begin with reality. He doesn’t take the world as it comes to us. Rather, he begins with his “rules.” Rules that dictate in advance what reality is permitted to be like.
“Although as I have already said, I have no interest in interacting with Steve Hays again given his behavior on a previous encounter…”
McGrath was hoping to get off a few free rounds attacking Christianity, then escape without a nick. He wants to be free to make tendentious assertions that go unchallenged. He resents having to defend his tendentious assertions.
“…I would point out for anyone else interested in discussing this that there is no movement, even on the part of ultra-conservative Christians, to redefine the judicial system to allow for miracles and the conclusion that God simply wanted someone dead.”
That’s McGrath’s canned example. But notice that although he pays lip-service to the “available evidence,” he has stimulative rules that preemptively exclude evidence of the miraculous. So even if all the evidence pointed to the fact that “God simply wanted someone dead,” McGrath would default a naturalistic explanation despite all the evidence to the contrary. His rules precommit him to a false naturalistic explanation over a true supernatural explanation every time.
“We set up methods that deal with the ordinary.”
“The ordinary” is a euphemism for McGrath’s ignorance or inexperience. What’s extraordinary for McGrath may be ordinary for a Christian exorcist (e.g. Kurt Koch, John Richards, Gabriele Amorth), or a paranormal researcher (e.g. Stephen Braude, Rupert Sheldrake, Mario Beauregard).
For instance, M. Scott Peck was a famous psychiatrist trained in secular medical science at Harvard University and Chase Western Reserve. But towards the end of his career he performed two exorcisms. He didn’t originally believe in demonic possession. It was the empirical evidence of two patients that forced him to make that diagnosis. That was the best explanation of the evidence. Cf. Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption.
“That they cannot reach verdicts about the truly extraordinary is simply part of the method.”

Notice how McGrath divorces methodology from truth. The method becomes an end in itself. It’s no longer about discovering the true explanation. For if the true explanation happens to be “extraordinary,” then the method discounts the true explanation out of hand.
McGrath uses methodology to mask his ulterior position. McGrath rejects Bible history, not on methodological grounds, but metaphysical grounds. He doesn’t think the world works in the way Scripture depicts. McGrath doesn’t believe those miracles happened. His metrology is based on his notion of reality.
“A Christian can obviously believe in miracles and also practice historical study. What they cannot do is claim that historical tools and methods, which assess probability, can judge an inherently improbable event (a parting sea, a resurrection) to be probable. This should not be controversial.”
That’s grossly simplistic and deeply confused. In what sense is a miracle like a resurrection or a parting sea “inherently improbable”?
i) It can be improbable in the sense that if nature is left to run its course unimpeded, then that event is highly unlikely (or even impossible).
ii) If, however, a personal agent (of sufficient power) deflects or redirects the course of nature, then that event is not improbable.
For instance, if Yahweh intends to part the sea, then that event is not improbable. To the contrary, the event is certain to happen under those conditions.
So is McGrath saying it’s “inherently improbable” that Yahweh intended to part the sea? How is McGrath in a position to know that?
McGrath’s definition of history is self-refuting. History is the past. History is whatever happened. If miracles occur, then historians had better make allowance for miracles. To say historians ought to disallow miracles is synonymous with saying historians ought to disallow the past.
Moreover, historical evidence for miraculous events isn’t in a class apart from historical evidence for other past events. Historians must rely on the same kinds of evidence.
It would only make sense for historians to exclude miracles from consideration if historians knew that miracles don’t happen. But that’s a metaphysical prejudgment. That can’t be settled by appeal to made-up rules.
McGrath needs to come clean. He lost his faith in Scripture. He’s moved from the far right end of the theological spectrum to the far left end of the theological spectrum. He disallows miracles, not because that commits some methodological faux pas, but because he doesn’t think they happen. So, if he were honest, that’s where he would engage the argument. But instead, he struggles to rationalize his apostasy by ad hoc definitions of history.
Notice McGrath’s bait-n-switch. The Bible doesn’t “show itself” to be errant. This isn’t “evidence from the Bible itself.” Rather, McGrath is imputing mistakes to Scripture based on his faith in some external sources of information, which he compares to Scripture. He applies criteria extrinsic to Scripture to Scripture. So he’s judging Scripture from the outside, not the inside. He disregards the self-witness of Scripture.
“Or for that matter any Muslim or Mormon who views their sacred text as self-authenticating.”
That comparison is confused on multiple grounds:
i) A document “viewed” as self-authenticating is not equivalent to a self-authenticating document. To take a comparison, suppose two students ask to be excused from class due to headaches. One student actually has a headache. And her experience is self-authenticating. She feels pained in her head. That’s not something she can be mistaken about.
The other student feigns a headache to cut class. She falsely claims to have a headache.
These are both self-authenticating claims, but they are hardly equivalent. The fact that a claim to self-authentication may be bogus doesn’t negate genuine cases of self-authentication.
ii) By the same token, McGrath fails to distinguish between different levels of justification. If I have a headache, I’m justified in believing I have a headache. That may not be sufficient justification for you to believe that I have a headache, since you’re not privy to my experience. Likewise, the self-authenticating character of the Bible may be sufficient for defensive apologetics even if it’s insufficient for offensive apologetics. It can be adequate for Christians, even if it’s unpersuasive to an outsider.
iii) Muhammad falsified his own claims to be a prophet when he appealed to the Bible to validate his message.
iv) Joseph Smith falsified his own claims to be a prophet when he claimed to translate an Egyptian document into English, and cited an Egyptologist who supposedly vouched for his translation. Well, we have the Egyptian document, which we can compare with Smith’s alleged translation. We also have a letter from the Egyptologist disowning Smith.
What makes McGrath imagine that Hindus operate with a concept of plenary verbal inspiration?
Keep in mind that Islam and Mormonism are Judeo-Christian heresies. Naturally they’re imitative. So what?
"Some of us think that what fallible human beings need most is to become mature, responsible, discerning individuals, and that if God had given what fundamentalists claim God gave, that would have been crumbs rather than bread."
Of course, that raises the question of what God McGrath believes in. Clearly not the God of Biblical theism.