Saturday, March 15, 2014

Why Britain Has Bond and America Has Bourne

Selective historical skepticism

I'm going to comment on an article by Hector Avalos:
I am an agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus.
If he were more forthcoming, he'd admit that he's an apostate and a militant atheist. 
A main problem continues to be the lack of documentation from the time of Jesus to establish his existence definitively. Jesus is supposed to have lived around the year 30. But there is no mention of him anywhere in any actual document from his own time or from the entire first century.
That denial turns on Hector's idiosyncratic definition of an "actual document from his own time or the entire first century." 
The best known stories about Jesus are the biblical gospels. Despite recent claims to the contrary, most biblical scholars recognize that none of the actual manuscripts of these gospels originated earlier than the second century. 
The best efforts of textual scholars have failed to recover the so-called “originals” of any biblical text. Thus, it is difficult to know what has been added or subtracted from any original accounts.
Several problems:
i) If scribes frequently and drastically added or subtracted from the original text, that would generate dramatic and increasing diversity in our extant MS tradition. Where's the evidence? 
ii) It's not as if scribes tacked Jesus onto accounts originally bereft of Jesus. Jesus isn't exactly a minor character in the Gospels. Without Jesus, there is no narrative. There is no plot. The Gospels are pervasively centered on Jesus, from start to finish. It's not like a scribe could insert or excise Jesus from the Gospels with the stroke of a pen. The accounts are totally built around Jesus. What he said and did. What others said to him or about him. What was done to him, with him, or for him. 
iii) Significant tampering with the text would be extremely controversial. Christians divide over far less. That would leave its mark in the historical record.  
iv) The church has never had the centralized command-and-control required to systematically alter the text of Scripture. The church is too geographically diverse, with too many competing factions and rival power centers. 
v) The aim of textual criticism was never to discover the original documents, but to recover the original wording. Keep in mind that this is like proofreading. The general state of the text is not in doubt. With few exceptions, it's a question of correcting minor errors that crept into the text in the process of repeated transcription.  
vi) The reason we have so many MSS of Scripture in the first place is because Jews and Christians revere the sacred text. That's why they are zealous to preserve and transmit the text for posterity.  
Historicists often will reference the famous Annals of Tacitus, the Roman historian, for evidence of the existence of Jesus. However, even John P. Meier, author of “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus” and a historicist, admits: “As with Josephus, so with Tacitus our observations must be tempered by the fact that the earliest manuscript of the Annals comes from the 11th century.”
That paranoid attitude leads to radical skepticism regarding the possibility of historical knowledge. And it's at odds with his own alleged field of expertise–medical anthropology. For instance:
As I began to research Greco-Roman healthcare, I saw that the problems with their system mentioned in Greco-Roman sources were the problems that were being addressed in the Bible: the cost of healthcare, going to the temple to receive it, crowded spaces and tiny limitations. They address these problems in Greco-Roman literature and the solutions were being addressed right there in the New Testament. 
One of the things I was surprised to learn in your book was that there were actual pharmaceuticals at the time. 
Yes, we know that from a number of sources. Number one, we have whole books such as a book by a man named Celsus, big compendium on all medical and all the substances that were used.
Notice how confident he is in using Greco-Roman sources to reconstruct ancient Mediterranean healthcare, even though he doesn't have the original MSS at his disposal. Why isn't he agnostic about the existence of the historical Celsus? 
True enough, we cannot document the existence of most individuals who lived in the first century. So why should we expect documentation for Jesus? 
But that absence of evidence is still curious because, when speaking of Christianity, the Bible says that “everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22, RSV). More traces should remain in the first century of a group that everyone was speaking against.
Is Avalos really that obtuse? The phrase "everywhere it is spoken against" is hyperbolic. Has he no grasp of literary conventions? 
In favor of the historicists are the frequent allusions in the New Testament (e.g., Galatians 2:1-10) to “James, the brother of Jesus,” which seems to designate a particular person, and not just a follower of Jesus. It would be odd for a mythical character to have a brother who seems genuinely human. 
On the other hand, 1 John 4:3 states: “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” The rest of this biblical epistle suggests that there were other self-described Christians who did not believe that Jesus had come in the flesh. 
If the existence of a real flesh-and-blood Jesus was so well established, why were there Christians who did not believe in such a flesh-and-blood Jesus in the first place?
There's no reason to think John's opponents in Asia Minor were in Palestine during the public ministry of Christ. The apostle John is the primary source of information about the life of Christ for his Anatolian parishioners. And, of course, his opponents reject his testimony. 
Heretics are quite capable of dematerializing flesh-and-blood. Take failed millenarians who dematerialize the physical return of Christ.  

Filming the Gospels

Pastor Ron Gleason invited me, or challenged me (as the case may be) to engage his argument against movies about Jesus (or "pictures of Jesus"):

Before delving in to the specifics, I'd like to make three general observations:

i) Actor Alec McCowen pioneered solo performances of Mark's Gospel. Other actors like Max McLean and Lance Pierson have followed his lead. You also have amateur solo performances of Mark. 

Does Pastor Gleason think a one-man performance of Mark's Gospel violates the 2nd commandment? If so, how is that essentially different from the public reading of Mark's Gospel in church? If not, how is that essentially different from filming Mark's Gospel?  

ii) There are different ways to make a movie about Jesus. One way is for a screenwriter to produce a pastiche of two or more Gospels. These will include many things from the Gospels as well as excluding many things from the Gospels. I think that's the least satisfactory way to make a movie about Jesus.

Yet another way is to focus on a particular part of the Gospel. A particular phase of Christ's life. LIke his passion, death, and resurrection. 

Yet another way is to film an entire canonical Gospel. You preserve the Gospel intact. There is still the challenge of translating one medium into another medium. One issue is what to do with the narrator. One solution is to reassign the narrator's statements to various characters in the film. Likewise, some narrative descriptions about the time and place would be replaced by showing the event. 

I think filming each Gospel is a better way of making a movie about Jesus. I don't know how long a filmed version of Matthew, Luke, or John would be. There are some very long movies, like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind–not to mention Bondarchuk's 8-hour version of War and Peace.

However, assuming it's too long for one sitting, it could be a two-part miniseries. 

iii) A basic problem I have with Pastor Gleason's case is the absence of a consistent principle. He will begin by stating a principled objection to movies about Jesus. Or so it seems. But later he will qualify his objection. Yet in that case, he's rescinded the original principle and substituted a different principle. Indeed, a contrary principle. When the dust settles, it's hard to make out what's left of his original argument. He keeps switching principles. You can see what I mean as we proceed. 

iv) Due to the rambling nature of Pastor Gleason's case, it's difficult to know where exactly to begin. I've excerpted what I take to be his key arguments. 

The Passion, Son of God, or any film that attempts to depict or portray Christ faces the impossible task of manifesting Christ’s divine nature. 

That raise's some questions. How did Jesus manifest his deity during his public ministry? How do the Gospels manifest his deity? In a variety of ways. Statements Jesus makes about himself or his relation to the Father. Statements the narrator makes about Jesus. Statements made to Jesus or about Jesus by disciples, seekers, enemies, angels, demons, the Father, and the Devil. Various actions of Jesus, like performing miracles or forgiving sins. Showing how Jesus fulfills OT motifs about the coming of Yahweh.

A filmed Gospel will manifest the deity of Christ in pretty much the the same way as the Gospel it films. It's just a different medium. And it's easy to exaggerate the differences. For a filmed Gospel can contain all the same words as Gospel it films. To that great extent, it's the very same medium. A largely verbal medium with visuals. 

Pastor Gleason doesn't seem to take much effort to answer the question he asked. It isn't hard to answer if you give it much thought.

v) But as far as that goes, does every sermon manifest the deity of Christ? Don't most orthodox sermons about Jesus treat his deity as a presupposition? Every sermon about Jesus isn't making a case for the deity of Christ. 

It makes no difference if the movie is Mel Gibson’s The Passion, the upcoming Son of God, or any other effort to show the world what happened to Jesus, the audience only receives a bit of biography. 

"A bit of biography." You mean, like this:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-31).

Of course, Hollywood is smart enough to throw in a smattering of biblical references, which are tantamount to throwing a bone to the evangelical community. 

If a director films one of the four Gospels, from start to finish, is that just a "smattering of biblical references"? 

The cinematography might well be exquisite, the actors might play their roles flawlessly, and the biography might be more or less accurate, but at the very best the audience receives only part of the story. In fact, the most important part of the story cannot be told because “What is omitted is the meaning of the event.”7 

If a director films one of the four Gospels, including the dialogue and narrative exposition or commentary, how does such a film omit the meaning of the event? Once again, Pastor Gleason doesn't seem to be making much effort to anticipate obvious counterexamples to his objections. 

Now a word especially to my P.C.A. colleagues: An investigation of the Reformation and Puritan literature will not produce pastors who would consider taking an exception to the second commandment.

That tendentiously assumes that a movie about Jesus violates the 2nd commandment. Yet that's the very issue in dispute. 

Packer’s second reason against the use of various images is that “Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God.”

But the Bible and Bible history contain images of God. Take theophanies. Take visions of God. If, in principle, images of God mislead us by conveying false ideas about God, then the Bible conveys false ideas about God through theophanies and visions of God. 

Pastor Gleason will attempt to address this counterargument further down. But to do so, he must weaken (indeed, sacrifice) the original principle. 

[Packer]: “To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of him from a human source, rather than from God himself; and this is precisely what is wrong with image-making.” The last quotation rings true concerning The Passion of the Christ and it will also be true of the upcoming film Son of God. It is true of all movies attempting somehow to depict the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

Is that a fact? Describing the baptism of Christ, the Gospels say the Spirit of God descended on Christ in the form of a dove. If a filmmaker depicts that scene, is he taking that image "from a human source, rather than from God himself"? Isn't it just the opposite? He's taking that image straight from the Gospels. 

Once again, why do men like Packer and Gleason overlook such obvious counterexamples to their strictures? Why don't they stop to consider if there aren't clear exceptions to their claims? They seem to be so conditioned by a traditional way of framing the issue that they view the issue through that prism rather than looking directly at Biblical examples to the contrary. 

The prominent reason given why God’s people were not to make images of people, animals, or the celestial lights is precisely that they saw “no form” on the day the Lord spoke to them.

Yet that objection is clearly too topical, for God does project a "form" on many other occasions, viz. visions and theophanies. 

Baal was worshiped in the form of a bull, a symbol of power...Every Israelite knew that Yahweh was invisible. If they had paused and thought about it for a moment they would have had to have concluded that if Yahweh is invisible, what happens when you look at the Dan and Bethel bulls?

Is filming one of the canonical Gospels equivalent to depicting God in the form of a bull? On the face of it, the comparison is so disanalogous that it's hard to detect any relevant parallel. If he weren't serious, it would be a parody. Certainly Pastor Gleason will have to flesh out the argument. 

After all, so the argument runs, Jesus took on a true humanity and people in his day saw him and touched him. They knew what he looked like. If we had had cameras, people could have taken pictures. Yes, if we had had them we could have, but we did not, did we? Few pause to reflect adequately on why the Lord God Almighty in his infinite wisdom chose not to have cameras during the Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry. Now no one knows and we are left not to know. It is that simple. Live with it.

Is it that simple? Or is that grossly simplistic? The existence of cameras presumes a certain level of technological development. It's not as if you're going to have an artifact of 20C technology embedded in a 1C culture. 

We raised an interesting point in the previous section that we need to address here. The “theophanies” (appearances of God in human or angelic form in the Old Testament) as well as the various dreams and visions were part of God’s sovereignty as he dealt with his people in the unfolding of the history of redemption. This translates into the fact that “God reserves for Himself alone the right to express and produce the images of Himself before which men must worship, through which men must conceive Him, to which men must respond in obedience to His own initiative in seeking fellowship with them.”94 It is crucial and essential that we take due note of the fact that it is God who decides when and how he will appear in a particular theophany. We also need to note that such theophanies were not commonplace, but occurred only at very special times.

i) Now he's shifting to a different argument, at the expense of his original argument. He's no longer contending that, as a matter of principle, images of God are false. He has to retract his categorical objection. 

ii) His new argument introduces a different principle: images of God are permissible so long as God produces the image. So he's conceded that, in principle, images of God are permissible. The real principle isn't whether to depict God, but who depicts God. 

iii) He adds the further caveat "that such theophanies were not commonplace, but occurred only at very special times." However, that's not a categorical distinction. That's a difference of degree rather than kind. 

iv) Finally, suppose we grant his new argument. If a director films one of the Gospels, he is reproducing the imagery that God produces of himself. It's a cinematic record of how God expresses himself in the Gospels. So how does that violate the essential principle? From start to finish, a canonical Gospel supplies the point of reference. 

Again, modern evangelicals view what transpires in the Lord’s Supper as a mere memorial event. As Presbyterian and Reformed, however, we believe the real presence of Christ in the Holy Meal through the agency of the Holy Spirit, who takes everything from the risen and ascended Lord and imparts that unto our hungry and thirsty souls unto eternal life. 

Is Pastor Gleason excluding Zwingli from the company of the truly Reformed? 

Does the New Testament not tell us that Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (cf. Col. 1:15)? In addition, Hebrews 1:3 reminds us that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature. When we combine this with the well-known verse in John’s gospel that states that the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and Jesus’ own words declaring that he who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9), do we not have some kind of license to portray Jesus since he was a man? By way of reminder, David Wells makes a solid and cogent case against such things in his distinction between the crucifixion and the cross.97 Recall that Wells argued against dramatic presentations of Christ’s life and death, such as on TV and in movies, because, he asserted they “so often miss the point. They give us the crucifixion, not the cross.... It leaves us with only a biographical Christ, who may be interesting, but not with the eternal Christ whom we need for our salvation.”98

If a director films one of the four canonical Gospels, how is a filmed Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John "only a biographical Christ" whereas the Gospel it films is not "only a biographical Christ"? On the face of it, Gleason and Wells are arbitrarily dichotomizing the two media. 

The age-old problem of a painting of Christ is that we really don’t know what he looked like. Even if we did, how would the artist capture the godhead of Jesus in a painting? What would a portrait of grace, covenant, and forgiveness look like? With all due respect, a painted halo just does not hack it. It is insufficient, especially in light of the fact that halos are often painted over the heads of, say, Paul and Peter. When the time had fully come (Gal. 4:4) Scripture teaches us, God sent forth his Son. In that time, there were no cameras—digital or otherwise—and no portrait of Jesus has survived—I believe for very good reasons. I truly believe if such a painting were in our possession we would become even worse idolaters than we already are—if that’s possible.

This raises a number of issues:

i) Even if a painting of Christ may fail to "capture the godhead of Jesus," how does it follow that a filmed Gospel will fail to capture the godhead of Jesus? A filmed Gospel doesn't rely on halos. 

ii) Are theophanies and visions of God representational? Does God really look like the figure in Isa 6? Isn't that deliberately anthropomorphic? If Pastor Gleason is making resemblance or correspondence the condition of a true image, then Biblical images of God misrepresent God, for God isn't a physical being. 

iii) This exposes an equivocation or paradox in the Puritan objection. If the "age-old problem of a painting of Christ is that we really don’t know what he looked like," then is he objecting to a picture of Jesus because it is not a picture of Jesus? If so, what's objectionable to not depicting Jesus? After all, Puritans think it's wrong to depict Jesus. But if they think paintings of Jesus fail to depict Jesus, because we don't know what he looked like, then the painter isn't guilty of depicting Jesus. Does that mean he's guilty of not depicting Jesus? But according to Puritans, we're not supposed to depict Jesus. In that event, can't the painter plead innocent? "I wasn't depicting Jesus. You admit I wasn't depicting Jesus."

iv) What makes a "picture of Jesus" a picture of Jesus? What makes it about him? Suppose St. John had a Kodak. Suppose he snapped a picture of Jesus feeding the five thousand. What makes that a photograph of Jesus?

a) One explanation might involve a correspondence theory of truth. The photographic image resembles Jesus. It looks just like Jesus–from that angle, distance, lighting. 

b) Another explanation might be the act of photographing Jesus. On our hypothetical, this was taken of Jesus, where he was at the time, when he was feeding the five thousand. The camera captures the historical event. A snapshot of the actual incident. A direct, visual record in real time. 

But a painting of Jesus isn't a picture of Jesus in either sense. Rather, it's a representation of Jesus. 

v) Apropos (iv), an actor who plays Jesus in a filmed Gospel represents Jesus. Does that violate the 2nd commandment? If so, how so?

To revisit my earlier example, if actor gives a live performance of Mark's Gospel, does that violate the 2nd commandment? Is reciting statements Jesus made in the Gospels a violation of the 2nd commandment? Suppose you were to film the performance. Would that violate the 2nd commandment?

What's the essential difference between an actor in a business suit performing Mark's Gospel on stage (or in church), and an actor in period dress reciting lines from the Gospel in front of a cameraman? What makes the difference, if any? The beard? The robes? The sandals? 

vi) Finally, let's consider a painting. Take Da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne." This depicts the Christchild playing with a lamb. But what makes that a painting about Jesus? 

a) One explanation might be artistic intent. Da Vinci intended the child to represent Christ. Christ is the willed referent

Even if we accept that explanation, it means the identification is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. The painter assigns that religious referent to the child.

b) But there's a further complication. Recognizing that the child represents Jesus requires some knowledge of traditional European art on the part of the viewer. You could show that painting to millions of people, many of whom would fail to appreciate the religious significance of the portrayal. It wouldn't be a painting about Jesus for them, because they lack the requisite background knowledge to discern the intended referent. 

So it's relative to both the painter and the viewer. Even if you think paintings like this are idolatrous, for whom are they idolatrous? For whom do they violate the 2nd commandment? 

Consider different kinds of viewers. A devout Catholic. An atheist. A disapproving Puritan. Someone who doesn't even understand the painting. A Christian who admires the painting without "worshipping" the depiction. 

God tells us what is acceptable worship of him and in his love for his people he has made ample provision for the image he has given us in Christ. This obviously begs the question: Which image has he given to us? The answer is: An analogous image to what we find in the Old Testament. There, Yahweh gave his Word, Circumcision, and Passover. In the New Testament, he gives his Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The continuity between the Old and New Testaments, which has been the mainstay of Presbyterian and Reformed theologians down through the centuries, retains the prohibition to making images and representations of the Lord. The Ten Commandments are still in effect for the believer.

i) Sacraments aren't the only images God gave us. 

ii) How is watching a movie about Jesus equivalent to "worship"? 

First, he argues, whoever attempts to make an image or likeness of God denies his freedom.108 This approach is tantamount to man’s effort to eradicate the Creator/creature distinction. In Douma’s words, “An image attempts to make the Incomprehensible comprehensible.”109 It is also an attempt to make the Incomprehensible God comprehensible to man—on man’s terms. Man makes God in man’s image and suddenly God takes on man’s attributes, likes, dislikes, and propensities. The Creator ends up acting, thinking, and speaking very much like the one who fashioned the image—whether the image is actually in physical form or in man’s imagination.

How does that characterization accurately characterize a filmed Gospel? 

The second reason Douma offers next to God’s freedom is his majesty.112 Another way of saying this is God’s sovereignty or transcendence. When the Lord thundered from Sinai, the Israelites saw no form but heard the terrifying voice (Deut. 4:11). In that same fourth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy Moses gives a summary of what happens to people who abandon following God’s plan and strike out on their own to fashion/imagine gods after man’s image, which is simply disobedience.

Once again, how does that characterization accurately characterize a filmed Gospel? 

Making images—any image—is a slap in the face to God. Why? Simply because, “The love that Yahweh bestows is despised. Instead of receiving life as a covenantal gift, people seek by means of serving images to secure life for themselves.”129

Why is there any reason to think that bit of armchair psychoanalysis is accurate? 

The problem is that modern Christians would rather get a “quick fix” at the movie theater or from a CD instead of being fed from the solid preaching of the Word. 

Why does Pastor Gleason deem it appropriate to libel millions of Christians he never met? How does he know what motivates them all? 

We justify making “innocent” images that are supposed to be helpful to and for our covenant children. Would it not be far more fruitful and productive to spend time catechizing our youth rather than providing images for them when they are young? Do we not realize that a time will come when our children become more conversant with Scripture that they, too, will question the propriety of images? 

Is he suggesting the catechism is a substitute for a chlldren's Bible? Should we not give our younger kids a children's Bible? Should we catechize them instead? 

First, the Law of God is still relevant and applicable for the New Testament Church. What Yahweh commanded in the Old Testament still applies for the New Testament saints.

There's some truth to this although it's clearly overstated. Surely Pastor Gleason would limit that to the "moral law" or "general equity." 

Second, New Testament Christians are still prohibited from making any image of the deity— even in a movie or in art. The reason is that it is impossible for any artist to depict the godhead or spiritual matters, but more importantly, no matter how necessary or essential we might believe a movie to be, God has said “No.” That ought to be more than sufficient for us.

Why assume the justification for filming a Gospel is because that's "necessary" or "essential"? Does Pastor Gleason think Christians are only allowed to do what's necessary or essential? 

The church of the ages

“Gay Marriage”: It’s All the Church’s Fault

In the midst of life we are in death

MAN, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord. 

 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
    and say, “Return, O children of man!”

For a thousand years in your sight
    are but as yesterday when it is past,
    or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning:

in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers.
(Ps 90: 1-6) 
And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
(1 Jn 2:17)
On weekends, or weekdays after school, I sometimes go back to my old high school, where I walk around the campus. It's a good place to walk and pray. Quiet enough and spacious enough to afford enough privacy and seclusion for prayer. At the same time, it's not necessary safe going somewhere that's too secluded. So this is a good compromise.
With the return of sunny spring weather and longer daylight hours, the football field is sometimes a hive of activity, even though this is about two hours after school is out. But for some students, this is when the fun really begins.
Walking by the field, there's sometimes one or maybe two practice soccer matches in play. The gymnastics and track-and-field teams are also utilizing the area. 
It's a bustling community event. Almost like an extended family. Of course, except for coaches, it's mostly teenagers. All that youthful exuberance. All that joie de vivre. 
On the stands is a smattering of students, parents, younger siblings, girlfriends. 
Yet, at several levels, this is deceptive. The same field that's brimming over with social life a few hours earlier will be deserted just a few hours later, even before sundown. From a crowded field to a vacant lot in just a few hours. Their togetherness is very ephemeral. 
That's in part because almost everyone is unrelated to everyone else. After practice they separate. They all fan out to different homes. They're not really a part of each other. They all belong to different families. 
Some students dread high school. They can't wait to graduate. For others, this is the high point of their life. All that company and camaraderie. For them, life after high school is a tremendous let-down. 
A few teammates will remain lifelong friends. But many will become preoccupied with work and family. Some will have to move to other towns or out of state to find work. 
At this age, in their youthful prime, with their whole life ahead of them, they have so much to live for. So much to look forward to. Or so it seems. Some will squander the gift of life. Take it for granted. Live a thankless life. End badly. 
In addition, school reflects a rapid rate of turnover. There's continuity, but it's a cyclical continuity. Every year there's a new incoming class. Every three years, a complete turnover in the student body.
The scene you see on the football field this season repeats itself every spring. Yet the continuity is deceptive. Every year, roughly a third of the students who were on the field a year before are long gone. Roughly a third of the students are new. The play remains the same, but the players keep changing.
In a sense, the field is full of ghosts. Layers upon layers of previous seasons. All the teams that came and went. Forgotten by the younger generation. The present superimposed on the past. The present fading into the past. The same field filled with different students every three years, going back and back. In some cases, today's students are sons of fathers who used to be right where they are, doing just what they are doing now. 
Although it takes longer, eventually there's a complete turnover in the faculty. None of the teachers I had when I was there is still there. I'm already older (by 10 or 20 years) than some of my teachers were. Just about all of them have retired. Some have died. Some are lingering in nursing homes. A living death.
The world we knew is passing away. Even in the midst of life we are in death. Without the superglue of God's grace to keep us together, the acid of death dissolves every bond of devotion and affection. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

I reject Christianity because __________

False flag operations

I'm not sure this is worth commenting on:

In both of Hays' critiques (link/link), he seeks to justify the core of my complaint on the silence of conservative Christian bloggers on gay violence

You mean, silent about fake hate crimes? 

To the extent that we should break our silence, it should be to condemn the strategy of using fake hate crimes as a ruse to leverage a totalitarian change in social policy. First create a string of fake hate crimes, then use that false premise to justify a crackdown on the nonexistent perpetrators. Homosexual activists are resorting to false flag operations to foment an oppressive solution to a manufactured crisis.

But fake hate crimes are no indication that genuine hate crimes are not occurring. 

How many layers of fake hate crimes am I supposed to peel away in search of a genuine hate crime at the bottom of the pile? If homosexual activists deliberately obscure the true situation, then it's hardly incumbent on me to sort through their pack of lies. Why doesn't Birch call on his confreres to dispel the smoke and mirrors?

Moreover, what about Christian so-called "persecution" in the U.S.? 

Notice the combined use of scare quotes as well as the adjective "so-called." 

Certainly we can find not even one fake source of Christian persecution among conservative Christians, right? Wrong. 

He erects a straw man, then proceeds to burn it. There are several criteria he ignores:

i) Are we dealing with isolated incidents, or a pattern? In the case of fake hate crimes, these form a strategic pattern. 

ii) What's the source of information? For instance, I quoted from The Advocate to document one of my key contentions. That's a leading LGBT magazine. Yet the columnist admitted that the Matthew Shepard case wasn't really a hate crime,  even though the liberal media and the LGBT community continued to milk it as if it was for the political capital. Coming from a source that's in the tank for the LGBT community, that's a pretty damning admission. Concessions from hostile sources are a strong form of evidence. Compare that to Billy's sources, which he uses to prove "the lies perpetuated by these conservatives."

He quotes a leftwing columnist (Susie Madrak), writing for a leftwing rag (Crooks and Liars). How reliable is that?

If that's not bad enough, consider her lead-in: "There are so many lying, hypocritical fundamentalists, why, I can hardly keep track of them all."

Yes, that certainly instills confidence in her objectivity.

To top it off, she had to amend her original allegation:

CORRECTION: Gordon Klingenschmitt has supplied documentation that states he received an honorable discharge, so I've removed the headline that stated otherwise. My apologies for getting it wrong.
Yet that's one of Billy's sources. Here's another source he cites:
As Right Wing Watch has reported, this is not the first time Starnes has been caught pushing poorly sourced stories claiming religious discrimination.
Ah, yes, Right Wing Watch: an arm of People for the American Way. Kinda like getting your Jewish history from
Here's yet another one of Billy's sources:
Fred Clark is a…liberal, tree-hugging, pro-choice, pro-GLBT, peacenik, commie, evolutionist.

Now if that's not impartial, I don't know what is.  

Reaching even further into the barrel, if possible, Billy rounds out with:

Recently, in Ohio, conservative Christians staged fake arrests at their churches "as a prelude to an upcoming production at the Akron Civic Theatre." (link) reports: "The goal of the dramatization is to make people more aware of what it takes for pastors to defend the Christian faith beyond preaching on Sundays." 

But, of course, that's not a fake hate crime. There's no intention to deceive. Compare that to this:

iii) Finally, comparative statistics need to take into account the relative size of the respective groups. Comparing a larger number of fake hate crimes for a smaller group over against a smaller number of fake hate crimes for a larger group. Is this reported at a disproportionate rate? If so, that also distinguishes isolated incidents from a strategic pattern. 

Now, according to Hays, because of the lies perpetuated by these conservatives, they have "shot their credibility." 

Actually, I'd say Birch has shot his credibility (assuming he had any to begin with). 

Fishing trips

I'm not expert on the ins and outs of PCA policy and polity, so my post is more hypothetical, but I'm curious about this allegation:

With all of the hoopla in the evangelical world and the rising incidences of P.C.A. candidates for ordination taking exception to the second commandment we are observing a disturbing trend in modern Christianity. Somehow, we seem to have a type of spiritual amnesia forgetting that we do not carry the meaning of the cross “within ourselves, nor can we find it in this world. What eludes us is something we have to be given by God himself.”8 This is the essence of the debate surrounding “pictures of Jesus,” isn’t it? Why shouldn’t we allow children to look at pictures of Jesus in Sunday School material? Is it wrong to have any pictures of Jesus? What if we have no intention of bowing down and worshiping those pictures? Are we still violating the second commandment?

I infer from Pastor Gleason's statement that during their oral and/or written ordination exams, PCA presbyteries are questioning ordinands on whether they think movies about Jesus violate the 2nd commandment. Which makes me wonder–unless the PCA has an official policy condemning movies about Jesus as a violation of the 2nd commandment, isn't it an abuse of authority for examiners to question ordinands on that issue? Isn't the purpose of the examination process to determine if the ordinand's theology is consistent with official policy of the denomination? Presumably, it's not a pretext  to conduct a fishing expedition to find out if an ordinand's views on movies about Jesus conflict with the private, unofficial opinion of the examiner.

If Pastor Gleason thinks the PCA should adopt the Puritan position, isn't the proper venue for that debate a resolution at the General Assembly rather than an ordination exam? As it stands, his allegation seems to be a veiled threat against prospective ordinands. He's accusing them for "violating" the 2nd commandment if they don't share his views on movies about Jesus. Doesn't that suggest he'd vote against an ordinand for giving the "wrong" answer to that question, even though the denomination hasn't ruled on this issue? Conversely, if he and other like-minded elders lack the votes to get a binding resolution passed at the General Assembly, then there's the appearance of subverting due process by trying to push through at the level of an ordination exam what can't be achieved at the General Assembly. But perhaps I'm not conversant with the relevant rules and regulations.

Finally, assuming for the sake of argument that the PCA was officially opposed to movies about Jesus, what practical form would that policy take? Would it forbid a pastor from viewing a movie about Jesus? Would it enjoin a pastor to forbid his parishioners to view movies about Jesus? Would infractions be subject to church discipline? 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Edwards and necessity

Cosmos reboot

Sources of knowledge

A correspondent recently asked me some questions about epistemology. Here's the exchange:

I just want to know if you are a coherentist or foundationalist ? Do you believe that the coherent system corresponds to the world?

Coherence applies to a system of internal relations. Where all truths are necessary truths. There are no contingent facts. Nothing which could have been otherwise. 

I don't believe that all relations are internal relations. There are truths of reason and truths of fact. These sometimes intersect, but they don't coincide. 

I don't think the world is reducible to facts entailing other facts, where every fact is logically deducible from other facts. 

Things could have gone differently, had God decreed differently. 

Do you think a Christian with a coherentist view can justify realism? What is your view of bonjour's doxastic presumption popularized by bonjour? What do you think is more biblical and rational internalism o externalism?

i) I'd begin by reframing the discussion. If dualism is true in metaphysics, then it makes sense for dualism to be true in epistemology. If reality consists of abstract objects and concrete objects, then it's logical to have two different sources of knowledge corresponding to their respective objects of knowledge inasmuch as these occupy different domains. Intuition for abstract objects like math, logic, and morals, and sense knowledge for concrete phenomena (i.e. physical objects, events). 

ii) This isn't strictly compartmentalized. To the contrary, they often intersect. To paraphrase Kant, universals without particulars are empty while particulars without universals are blind. Fact and value are mutually interpretive. An example would be counting quarters. Suppose I have six quarters. Unless I have a preconception of numerical relations, I don't see how viewing quarters enables me to bootstrap the concept of six, which I then use to number the quarters. I must have the concept before I can use it. I can't derive the concept from sensibles, then turn right around and apply it to the sensibles. 

So I regard rationalism and empiricism as half-truths. 

iii) I find internalism implausible. To take a stock example, I don't see how a young child can satisfies the conditions of knowledge on that account, like knowing his mother's voice or face. Yet surely he does. 

But perhaps that merely exposes a limitation of internalism. Maybe it's a mistake to demand a single theory of epistemic justification which will cover all cases. 

In general, I find reliablism more plausible. But, of course, philosophy being what it is, none of the available positions escapes criticism. 

iv) I think both internalism and externalism are underdetermined by the witness of Scripture. Scripture clearly affirms sense knowledge (Clarkian exegesis notwithstanding), but that falls short of empiricism. 

As I discussed in my post, I think both internalism or externalism can be made to work within a robust theological framework of meticulous providence. At that level, they may be phenomenologically equivalent. If so, then we lack an objective standpoint or independent evidence to adjudicate which one is true. 

Secular epistemologies, including theories of epistemic justification, omit considering theological factors like revelation and providence. I think these can shore up what's lacking in secular epistemologies.

Of course, in another sense, that pushes the question back a step. How are we warranted in believing revelation? Here I think transcendental theism is helpful. 

McGrew on Christmas

Take-out menu

If preterists date Revelation to the mid-60s (68 at the latest), then we have a complex, 22 chapter book of the Bible about an event which will happen just 2-6 years later. Talk about overkill! 

Chilton says you wouldn't send a futurist to get hot sandwiches, but is it necessary to wade through a 22 chapter menu to order hot sandwiches? Most fast food menus are a whole lot shorter!

Faith seeking understanding: evolution

James Swan: The Reformers Affirmed Christian Marriage While Questioning Roman Canon Law and its Aberrations

Calvin affirms: marriage was instituted by God, and that it is a good and holy ordinance of God. But simply because it holds this pedigree doesn't mean it's a sacrament… “At length, we must extricate ourselves from their mire…”

This was the gist of the Reformers’ teachings on Marriage – and their message was that the Roman making of marriage into a sacrament, and dependent upon Roman Canon Law, introduced all manners of aberrations that convoluted the true meaning of marriage.

The Reformers on Christian Marriage, Part 1

The Reformers on Christian Marriage, Part 2

A Roman Apologist has published an article, “500 Years of Protestantism: Luther and Calvin Destroy Marriage”. Swan says “The basic thrust of this recent offering is that the Reformers denied that marriage is a sacrament and hence took God out of marriage, placing it in the hands of the state government. The contemporary mess of marriage can entirely be laid at the feet of the Reformers.”

In his usual exacting style, in Part 1, Swan first places into context the various patristic quotations that this Roman polemicist uses and concludes:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmos, Giordano Bruno, and Getting it Right

Gay martyrs


(UPDATE: Considering a criticism of this post (link), having had time to think about the claims made, I have decided not to change a single word of this post in its current form. While I considered his critiques, and challenged myself as to the validity of his claims, I believe the blogger has erred on several points, concluding that I am right in my complaints here, and that he is wrong. I'm sure he disagrees.)

Birch is referring to my post:

Since he is digging in his heels, I will simply take the occasion to elaborate on one of his allegations: 

So, conservative Christians have no excuse whatsoever for refusing to stand up and against the bullying, mocking, violence, hatred and killing of gays, no matter their personal opinion of gay sex. 

i) Homosexual activists, with the complicity of the liberal media, have been very successful in popularizing a narrative of persecuted homosexuals. The Matthew Shepard case is the grandaddy of this narrative. However, it turns out that was bogus. Even homosexual outlets now admit that was bogus. And it's revealing how they respond to the corrective:

By the time he died, five days later, the question had been firmly settled, as news reporters and gay organizations like GLAAD rushed in. As JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in a brilliant 1999 piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Press crews who had never before and have not since lingered over gruesome murders of homosexuals came out in force, reporting their brush with a bigotry so poisonous it could scarcely be imagined.” 
Add to that a president who needed to expiate his sins against the LGBT community, still recoiling from the double whammy of DOMA and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Shepard’s posthumous status as gay martyr was sealed. The defendants didn’t aid themselves by claiming they’d lured Shepard into their car and then flipped out when he came on to them.   
Not everyone is interested in hearing these alternative theories. When 20/20 engaged Jimenez to work on a segment revisiting the case in 2004, GLAAD bridled at what the organization saw as an attempt to undermine the notion that anti-gay bias was a factor; Moises Kaufman, the director and co-writer of The Laramie Project, denounced it as “terrible journalism,” though the segment went on to win an award from the Writers Guild of America for best news analysis of the year. 
There are valuable reasons for telling certain stories in a certain way at pivotal times, but that doesn’t mean we have to hold on to them once they’ve outlived their usefulness. In his book, Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, similarly unpicks the notorious case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the arrest of two men for having sex in their own bedroom became a vehicle for affirming the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private. Except that the two men were not having sex, and were not even a couple. Yet this non-story, carefully edited and taken all the way to the Supreme Court, changed America. 
In different ways, the Shepard story we’ve come to embrace was just as necessary for shaping the history of gay rights as Lawrence v. Texas; it galvanized a generation of LGBT youth and stung lawmakers into action. President Obama, who signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Shepard and James Byrd Jr., into law on October 28, 2009, credited Judy Shepard for making him “passionate” about LGBT equality. 
There are obvious reasons why advocates of hate crime legislation must want to preserve one particular version of the Matthew Shepard story, but it was always just that — a version. Jimenez’s version is another, more studiously reported account, but he is not the first to challenge the popular mythology. Way back in 1999, Wypijewski rejected what she called the “quasi-religious characterizations of Matthew’s passion, death, and resurrection as patron saint of hate-crime legislation” in favor of what she called “wussitude” — a culture of “compulsory heterosexuality” that teaches young men how to pass as men, unfeeling, benumbed, primed to cloak any vulnerability in violence.
So the Shepard case was a lie, but a useful lie. And unfortunately, that's not an isolated incident. There's an epidemic of fake hate-crimes to bolster the politically expedient narrative:
ii) As a result, members of the LGBT community have shot their credibility. When a homosexual or transgender claims to be the victim of bullying, violence, or harassment, there's no presumption that the allegation is true. Absent independent corroboration, Christians are entitled to be skeptical. Gullibility is not a theological virtue. Allowing yourself to be manipulated by a cynical political strategy is not an intellectual virtue. 
iii) Some students have always been bullied. Straight students are bullied. Smaller students are bullied by bigger students. If a school is predominantly one race, then students of another race tend to be bullied. 
So we need to distinguish between a bullied student who happens to be homosexual and a student who's bullied because he's homosexual. Given all the special protections accorded homosexual and trans students, I suspect they are less likely to be bullied than other students who don't belong to the protected class. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Very Good DVD About The Evidence For Jesus

I recently watched a DVD that I want to recommend, titled Jesus Of Testimony. At the time I'm writing, you can watch a large portion of the DVD, the main segment of it, for free here. The DVD includes some extra segments that apparently aren't available online.

The Bryan College Controversy

The usual suspects (e.g. Peter Enns, Rachel Held Evans) have been tearing their hair out about the recent change Bryan College's doctrinal statement. Here's an inside perspective from someone who's critical of the process, but sympathetic to the substance:

Playing Jesus

I'm going to comment on this post:

Are Christians going to a Jesus movie merely to get a glimpse of the Lord’s humanity, or are they looking to be spiritually edified by a visual depiction of the God-man?

Speaking for myself, I watch a movie about Christ out of curiosity regarding the director's artistic interpretation, as well as the actor's artistic interpretation. In the respect it's not essentially different from reading a sermon about Jesus to experience the preacher's theological interpretation of Jesus. 

Added to this, an actor, no matter how good, cannot help but project his own personality (blended with a scripted personality) onto the screen. He cannot portray the personality of another perfectly - let alone the personality of the Second Person of the Trinity even approximately! Therefore, the actor who would dare play the Christ cannot but project a false image of God even if he sticks to the written script of Scripture. It’s not as though verbal tone and body language do not proceed from personality. 

As far as that goes, the gospel writer is, to some extent, projecting his own personality. That's part of the organic theory of inspiration, championed by Warfield. Commentators have often noted how the voice of the narrator blends with the voice of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Sometimes they're indistinguishable. 

Also, to say it's "false" is misleading. There's no reasonable expectation that an actor's portrayal of a historical figure will be identical with figure he portrays. We make that mental distinction at the outset. At least we ought to. 

What possibly intrigues me most in all of this is that when I watch a good movie I have no problem suspending my beliefs so that the actor may “become” for me the character. So, Al Pacino becomes The Don and Anthony Hopkins becomes C.S. Lewis. No sin there I trust. Do Christians do the same when watching Jesus movies? I would think not. I certainly hope not! Christians are to be on their guard because they should realize that the actor will not be faithful to the Second Person. We don’t know Jesus’ facial expressions, etc. but such expressions often speak a thousand words. Are those words consistent with the Son of God? More to the point, are they His words? If not, then how are movies such as this not putting words in God’s mouth?

That raises a number of issues which demand further distinctions:

i) Great actors find themselves in an ironic position. Once you gain a reputation as a great actor, people watch you to see what you will do with the character. It's harder to forget the actor and get into the character. 

ii) We need to distinguish between playing fictional characters and historical figures. And that requires further distinctions:

iii) Sometimes a director will film a fictional book. Say, film the Chronicles of Narnia. If you read the book first, then you have a preconception of the characters. You already imagined the characters in your own head. And you compare your preconception with the film. Often, you will judge the cinematic adaptation to be a success or failure depending on how it jives with your preconception. So we frequently bring that critical detachment to viewing a fictional character.

iv) Then you have fictional characters who only exist in film. The screenwriter created the character. The viewer's first introduction to the character is through the actor. In that respect we make less mental separation between the actor and the character, because we have no independent frame of reference. Of course, if the actor has done other memorable performances, then we don't exclusively associate the actor with that particular part. But some actors become typecast when, early in their career, their performance of a particular character is iconic or unforgettable. 

v) Then you have historical figures. That ranges along a continuum. In some cases it's difficult to distinguish between fact and legend. And many of them lived before the advent of photography. We don't know what they looked like or sounded like. In that respect they have a more fictional quality, because our imagination fills in so many biographical details. 

Then you have historical figures whose lives were in some degree captured on news reels, talk shows, &c. Their voice was recorded. They were photographed. 

That creates more potential to compare and contrast the actor with the historical figure he portrays. The extent to which the viewer draws that comparison depends on other factors. If, say, you're old enough to remember Eisenhower, then you can mentally compare Tom Selleck's performance with your personal recollection of Eisenhower from televised speeches, press conferences, &c. Or, if you're a presidential history buff, you may have watched news footage of Ike.

On the other hand, many viewers who were born after the historical figure passed from the scene don't have that frame of reference. 

vi) Jesus has been portrayed by so many different actors that we don't associate Jesus with any one actor's performance the way we associate Patton with Scott's performance. Speaking for myself, when I think of George S. Patton, I think of George C. Scott. But when I think of Jesus, I don't think of Max von Sydow, Enrique Irazoqui, Robert Powell, Willem Dafoe, Jim Caviezel, Henry Ian Cusick et al. That's not the first thing that pops into my head. 

vii) Finally, when we read the Gospels, isn't there a sense in which all of us sit in the director's chair? Isn't there a sense in which we play all the parts? By that I mean, isn't it natural for reader's to visualize narrative descriptions? When you read about Jesus cleansing the temple or feeding the multitudes, do you never imagine that scene?

Likewise, take silent reading (subvocalization, inner vocalization, implicit speech). There's a simulated voice in my head reciting the lines. An inner actor who's voicing what Jesus says. And it's in my own voice. I supply the accent, the inflections, the tone. In that sense, every Christian plays Jesus when he reads the Gospels. Every Christian is hearing Jesus, in his own mind, speak those words, as the Christian himself would speak them if he were reading aloud.     

Likewise, what about the public reading of the Gospels in church? The lector will supply the verbal tone and facial expressions. And if he's a skilled reader, it will be a vivid enactment.