Saturday, September 06, 2014

Arminianism and slavery

Did the Calvinistic assumptions of Edward’s theology contribute to his support of slavery? How did prominent Calvinists of the era approach the issue slavery, and how did prominent Arminians address the issue?
Good question. Let's take him up on the offer. Here's how a prominent Arminian addressed the issue:

What if I'm wrong?

I have a few comments on a post by Mike Licona:

As a result, I’ve doubted the truth of my Christian faith many times; sometimes to the point of almost walking away from it.
Professing Christians who feel this way need to stop and ask themselves, where would they be going? Walk away…for what
Imagine if you accidentally slide down a cliff. On the way down you grab hold of a shrub on the face of the cliff. You have two options. You can either try to climb back up, or you can let go. But what does the second option amount to? What does letting go mean? Letting go for what? If you let go of the branch, what awaits you? You will fall to your death. Splat! 
Before you leave Christianity behind, ask what you're leaving it for. What lies ahead? Atheism? How's that any different than a free fall to the rocky ground below? If you're consistent, you will keep falling until you hit the hard surface of nihilism. That's where apostasy logically bottoms out. What breaks your fall breaks you
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless…It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. 
Ethical nihilism or moral nihilism rejects the possibility of absolute moral or ethical values. Instead, good and evil are nebulous, and values addressing such are the product of nothing more than social and emotive pressures. Existential nihilism is the notion that life has no intrinsic meaning or value…“the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking, and ‘Why’ finds no answer.”
Many apostates begin with dutiful idealism, which they derive from their Christian upbringing. Dutiful idealism about truth and goodness. A duty to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
They view themselves as honest, virtuous, disinterested truth-seekers. In their view, this led them out of Christianity. Yet by leaving that behind, they implicitly turn their back on the very basis for duty that spurred them on that ill-fated journey in the first place. Their destination contradicts their starting-point. Their sense of duty makes no sense. Transplanted from Christianity to atheism, duty dies on the dry, barren soil. 
I’ve asked myself, “Have I been brain-washed? Am I unable to think objectively because I was brought up to believe?” 
What if that's exactly how God saves many people? By raising them in Christian families? By raising them in Christian churches? 
It can be good to ask, am I Lutheran (or Baptist or Presbyterian) because that's how I was raised. But those are intramural Christian questions. 
“What if I’m wrong?” 
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that you were wrong to believe in Christianity, so what? If you're wrong, it's not as if you have anything to lose. If nihilism is the logical alternative, then you're better off being wrong. Better to cling to that branch. Why let go for nothing? If the "right" answer subverts the very basis of rightness, then why be right? If you jettison normative values, what's the difference between right answers and wrong answers? For instance:
Admittedly, many apostates stop short. They draw an arbitrary line. 
Action #3: Recognize that absolute certainty is an unreasonable expectation. Some live with faith without ever doubting. That’s great. But some of us are so wired that we are incapable of such bliss. 
That fails to distinguish between certainty and certitude. Between what we can prove, what we can know, and a psychological sense of conviction or assurance. 

How Islam's Prophetic Failures Support Christianity

Yesterday, I wrote a post about Muhammad that, in part, addressed Islamic claims that he fulfilled prophecies found in the Bible. I argued that Muhammad's alleged prophecy fulfillments are evidentially far weaker than Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy.

That contrast between Muhammad and Jesus illustrates the absurdity of an objection that's frequently raised against the Christian argument from prophecy fulfillment. Supposedly, according to atheists and other critics, the early Christians inserted Jesus into the Old Testament after the fact, without justification and without anything supernatural having occurred. Well, Islam is a religion with a lot of resources (many adherents, political influence, wealth, etc.), a religion that's had a strong motivation to find prophecies of its founder in the Bible and has had a lot of time to do it. (For those who don't know, the Quran suggests that the Bible predicted Muhammad. See surah 7:157.) So, why has Islam, after all this time, produced such pathetic results in its attempt to find prophecies of Muhammad in the Bible? They've had far more time and other advantages the early Christians didn't have, including a larger range of material to draw from (both the Old and New Testaments rather than just the Old). Yes, you could find alleged typological prophecy fulfillments for Muhammad, much as many of Jesus' alleged fulfillments are typological (e.g., Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15). But non-typological fulfillments are much more evidentially significant, and Christianity has many of those as well. Islam doesn't. If it was so easy to make it look like Jesus fulfilled prophecies as unusual as Psalm 22 and the Suffering Servant Prophecy, to align his life with Daniel's Seventy Weeks prophecy, to fulfill the Son of David prophecy, to fulfill the Bethlehem prophecy, etc., why have Islam and other competing belief systems failed to produce anything that even comes close to being comparable or better? Then there are the Bible's non-Messianic prophecies, which the Quran also has failed to duplicate or surpass.

See here for an index of our posts on Christian prophecy fulfillment, both Messianic and non-Messianic.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Muhammad's Lesser Credentials

There's a lot to criticize in the Quran, but the issue I'd suggest Christians focus on most is authority. We don't have sufficient reason to conclude that Muhammad was a messenger of God. And we have far more reason to trust Jesus than to trust Muhammad.


1. From time to time I see Arminians try to tar Calvinism with apartheid. It's a tactic that's apt to boomerang. For instance, American Methodists split over slavery. So should we link racism to Arminianism via Southern Methodists? It's funny how often Arminian apologists are blind to easy, obvious counterexamples.

This attempted linkage takes different forms. 

i) For instance, Peter Lumpkins compares apartheid to a caste system, then compares a caste system to Calvinism:

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a caste social structure is "any of the ranked, hereditary, endogamous social groups, often linked with occupation, that together constitute traditional societies in South Asia, particularly among Hindus in India."Given this specific description, it seems to socially follow that "apartheid" as it was thoroughly embraced in South Africa as well as "segregation" as it was widely practiced in the United States up until the Civil Rights Movement began to openly challenge it, qualify as at least a similar social construct to the "caste system" of South Asia. Cox included a comparison chart suggesting an ideological affinity between a racial "caste" construct, the traditional Hindu "caste" construct, and a novel Calvinistic "caste" construct he apparently infers from the socio-religious construct.
But there are several basic problems with that comparison:
a) Election and reprobation don't constitute a social ranking system. Election and reprobation aren't hereditary. Election and reprobation aren't linked to occupations. And endogamy has nothing to do with it. So the analogy doesn't fit his own definition.
b) Lumpkins offers no historical evidence to show that belief in double predestination influenced the development of apartheid. 
c) Ironically, Arminianism invites comparison with the Hindu caste system:
The universal law of karma (action and reaction) determines each soul's unique destiny. The self-determination and accountability of the individual soul rests on its capacity for free choice. 
Every person is responsible for his or her acts and thoughts, so each person's karma is entirely his or her own. Occidentals see the operation of karma as fatalistic. But that is far from true since it is in the hands of an individual to shape his own future by schooling his present.

In Arminianism, like Hinduism, individuals are the ultimate source of their own destiny. 

Do babies have a right to life?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Irreligion and violence

I'm going to comment on Keith Parsons' alarmist screed:

1) When someone challenges your religion, they appear to denigrate your customs, traditions, community, history, and your whole way of living. It feels like they are being ethnocentric and condescending. If someone insults your religion, it can feel like they are insulting your family, and, in a sense, they are. The Apostle Paul spoke of fellow believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ, and the family metaphor is apt. A perceived insult to one’s biological or religious family can provoke a violent response.

This assumes that, as a matter of fact, Christians take an attack on Christian theology as personally as they take an attack on one's own mother. Where's the empirical evidence that, in fact, most Christians make the same emotional connection that Parsons is laboring to make?  

2) Challenging religion can appear subversive, an attempt to dissolve the glue of society and sow discord. The low will be incited to indulge their envy of the high, and the high will be left with no means of preserving their position except by brutal repression. If you take away their pie in the sky, the lowly will fight to get it now by any means necessary, and the high will fight to hold on by any means necessary.

Once again, that's just armchair psychology. In the US, atheists have been denigrating Christianity for a very long time. Take Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Robert Ingersoll, or H. L. Mencken–to name a few. Where's the empirical evidence that they were "brutally repressed"? 

3) Anyone who questions your religion seems to be attempting to relegate you to insignificance. Nobody likes to be made to feel that they do not matter. If your religion is what gives you a sense of meaning in life, then, you will surely bitterly resent anyone who seemingly wants to deny you that comfort.

Unless we respect them, why would we respect their opinion of us? What makes Parsons suppose Christian self-esteem is contingent on the approval of atheists? 

4) Unfortunately, biases are all too often among the beliefs that religion reinforces. Among the comforts that religion offers is the reassurance that God hates the same people you do. Indeed, if God hates, say, liberals, feminists, evolutionists, environmentalists, gays, lesbians, atheists, Democrats, and smarty-pants college professors, then you have a duty to hate them too. I have on my office door a hilarious picture of a horrid Phyllis Schlafly-type woman saying “God told me to hate you.” Religion did not create hatred, but it can make is so much easier and more fun to hate. It makes it easier and more fun by combining the pleasure of hating with the pleasure of self-righteousness.

If Phyllis Schlafly is the worst thing he has to worry about, he doesn't have much to worry about. Does she have a history of fomenting violence against atheists? 
Ironically, Parsons is a stellar example of a self-righteous atheist who despises Christians. 
5) As with every topic, St. Thomas Aquinas was impeccably logical when discussing heresy. In the 13th Century murderers were always and everywhere put to death. Yet, notes Aquinas, the murderer only destroys the body. The heretic does not destroy merely the mortal body, but leads the immortal soul into perdition. The heretic is therefore far more dangerous and despicable than the murderer, and far more worthy of being punished by death. If you accept Aquinas’s premises, this conclusion is inescapable. If eternal punishment is the consequence of departing from true belief, then must we not oppose the spread of false doctrine by any and all means? If you accept this conclusion, the stake and the rack cannot be far behind.

Of course, medieval Catholicism was very authoritarian. Unquestioning submission to your religious superiors. 

By contrast, Protestant theology accentuates the necessity of personal conviction. External conformity is no substitute for genuine faith. Coercion is not persuasion. 

Religion is the high-octane fuel of ideologies. It touches deep things, like personal and collective identity, fears and hopes, and a fundamental sense of worth and security. Carelessly or maliciously handled, religion can be explosive. A Bible or Koran in the wrong hands has done, and is doing, vast amounts of harm. I would recommend putting a warning label on every Bible sold: "Warning: Use with extreme caution. Do not take literally. Do not take with self-righteousness. Admits of very different interpretations. Misuse can result in symptoms including but not restricted to genocide, persecution, crusade, intolerance, obscurantism, sexism, homophobia, and racism."

i) One could just as well say we should put a warning label on The Communist Manifesto. Consider the humanitarian devastation that wrought. 

ii) Parsons also assumes, without benefit of argument, that "persecution, intolerance, homophobia" &c. are bad consequences of religion. But many atheists espouse moral skepticism, moral relativism, or moral nihilism. So he needs to explain the secular basis for his value judgments. 

Thanks for the comments and clarification, but I think that you are still underplaying the particular potential of religion to incite violence. Of course, John Locke, in "A Letter Concerning Toleration" makes the same point as Lactantius: Force can only make people into hypocrites who say the right things to avoid harm while sill disbelieving. True religious commitment requires an unforced assent.Fine, but I still have to wonder whether the "no coercion" policy is really grounded in principle or whether it is based on an empirical claim that, as a matter of fact, force does not work. As a matter of fact, it might. The most terrifying sentence in Orwell's 1984 is the final one: "He loved Big Brother." The point was that torture, systematically and "scientifically" applied could not only bring about external assent, but change perception. If you are tortured severely enough, Orwell implied, you may be able actually to think that 2 + 2 = 5. Suppose Orwell is right and it is discovered that belief can be coerced. What would the Christian response be?So long as eternal destiny hinges upon a decision--the decision whether or not to accept Christian salvation--just how far can one go in good conscience to make sure that someone makes the "right" decision? If not outright violence, how about extreme persuasion, using all the tools of propaganda and manipulation so artfully developed by advertisers and politicians? We live in an environment where, whatever you do, you can hardly escape advertising. If in doubt, check the distracting and moronic ads running right now on this site. Why not 24/7 hard-sell proselytizing? I understand that there is something now called "The Good News Movement" that aims at evangelizing elementary-school children? Is this OK? Doesn't the logic of Christian theism imply that if one child is saved from eternal perdition, then hard-core propagandizing of kids is OK?

Committed atheists think society has a huge stake in the success or failure of atheism to inform social policy. They think Christian theology poses a clear and present danger to human flourishing or the very survival of the human race: 

When belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society, they hinder the world from advancing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity. We now may be only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems predicted to result from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. Our children and grandchildren could be faced with flooded coastal areas, severe climatic changes, epidemics caused by overcrowding, and increased starvation for much of humanity. Such disasters would generate worldwide conflict on a scale that is likely to exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars, possibly with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable nations and terrorist groups.
By Parsons' own logic, atheists have an incentive to suppress Christianity by any means necessary. 

Elect infants

i) The eternal fate of those who die before they can exercise saving faith isn't an issue unique to Calvinism. For instance, John Wesley, in his Treatise on Baptism, says:

As to the grounds of it: If infants are guilty of original sin, then they are proper subjects of baptism; seeing, in the ordinary way, they cannot be saved, unless this be washed away by baptism. It has been already proved, that this original stain cleaves to every child of man; and that hereby they are children of wrath, and liable to eternal damnation. It is true, the Second Adam has found a remedy for the disease which came upon all by the offense of the first. But the benefit of this is to be received through the means which he hath appointed; through baptism in particular, which is the ordinary means he hath appointed for that purpose; and to which God hath tied us, though he may not have tied himself. Indeed, where it cannot be had, the case is different, but extraordinary cases do not make void a standing rule. This therefore is our First ground. Infants need to be washed from original sin; therefore they are proper subjects of baptism.

ii) For his part, Warfield summarizes no fewer than five different positions in Reformed historical theology, of which I'll comment on two:

Many held that faith and the promise are sure signs of election, and accordingly all believers and their children are certainly saved ; but that the luck of faith and the promise is an equally sure sign of reprobation, so that all the children of unbelievers, dying such, are equally certainly lost. 
More held that faith and the promise are certain signs of election, so that the salvation of believers' children is certain, while the lack of the promise only leaves us in ignorance of God's purpose; nevertheless that there is good ground for asserting that both election and reprobation have place in this unknown sphere. Accordingly they held that all the infants of believers, dying such, are saved, but that some of the infants of unbelievers, dying such, are lost. Warfield, Studies in Theology, 9:432-33.

i) It's not clear from this why some Reformed theologians tie the fate of dying infants to their parentage. This may be related to the argument for infant baptism, where parents sponsor their children. Or the notion that children of believing parents are in the covenant by virtue of their parentage–and thereby suitable baptismal candidates. In both cases we have a representative principle at work. 

There are, however, problems with tying the fate of dying infants to their parentage:

ii) What if one parent is elect, but the other is reprobate? How to split the difference? 

iii) Election can, and sometimes does, cut across family lies. The following combinations are possible, and actually play out in various cases:

a) Elect children of elect parents

b) Elect children of reprobate parents

c) Reprobate children of elect parents

d) Reprobate children of reprobate parents

Given that fact, it's unclear why some would argue that the eternal fate of dying infants is tied to the spiritual status of their parents. 

iv) It might be argued that God is more likely to save the children of believers. 

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word (WCF 10.3). 
i) I don't know for a fact why the Westminster Divines settled on this ambiguous formulation. Perhaps that's covered in the minutes of the Westminster Assembly. The historical question doesn't interest me that much. I'm guessing there were two reasons for the studied ambiguity. 
a) Since Scripture doesn't specifically address this issue, the Westminster Divines thought it best to be circumspect in how much they said on the subject.
b) As a consensus document, the Westminster Confession must sometimes finesse disagreements among different parties or individuals at the Westminster Assembly. 
ii) The formulation is committed to the existence of heavenbound dying infants. And the formulation is amendable to two additional, but opposing views:
a) All dying infants are elect
b) Some dying infants are reprobate
Both (a) and (b) are logically consistent with the Confessional wording. Neither (a) or (b) is logically entailed by the Confessional wording. Beyond a certain point, the Confession is noncommittal. It doesn't imply the salvation of all dying infants or the damnation of some dying infants. Rather, it leaves that an open question.
Many professing Christians, as well as many opponents of the Christian faith, find the whole subject of infant damnation morally appalling. This is sometimes caricatured as babies roasting in hell. I'll just make a few brief points:
i) It seems a bit ad hoc to claim that if Attila the Hun died at 5, he'd go to heaven–but if he died at 25, he'd go to hell. That makes damnation a misfortune of timing. 
ii) As I've discussed on several occasions, there's no reason to think hell is the same for all the damned. Dante popularized the notion of hell as physical torture, but that's a literary tradition. 
iii) Assuming (ex hypothesi) that some who die before the age of discretion are damned, that doesn't mean they remain in the psychological condition in which they died. There's no reason go think death freezes the decedent in the physical or mental condition he was in at the time of death. To take a comparison, if a Christian dies in a state of advanced senile dementia, that hardly means he will be senile for all eternity. Heaven is restorative. 
By the same token, if Attila the Hun died at 5 and went to hell, I take that to mean that he'd mature psychologically. But he'd mature without common grace or special grace. His eternal condition would be characterized by the absence of grace. There'd be nothing to mitigate his sinful predisposition. It doesn't require any external punitive environment. Rather, it's a deprivation.

Of blastocysts and embryos

A reminder from Wesley J. Smith: "Waddya Know: A Blastocyst IS an Embryo!"

(A minor quibble: I don't agree blastocyst = embryo. But this is a matter of technical terminology or semantics if you like. Smith's main point more than stands.)

Be Prepared To Address Polygamy

Polygamy has been in the news lately. As the polygamist movement gains more legal victories and advances in other segments of our culture, we'll have to address the issue more than we have in the past. How prepared are you to do that? Here's an article I wrote several years ago about the Biblical and patristic evidence against polygamy. (I interact with some defenders of polygamy in the comments section of the thread.) And here's an article Matthew Schultz wrote about polygamy and the Bible. I've written some posts about mistakes Christians and their allies have made in the dispute over same-sex marriage, and it's important that we avoid those mistakes when addressing polygamy. See, for example, here, here, and here.

“The mandate to create includes a mandate to display the glory of God”

Human beings have an aesthetic need built into their being…
Stephen Wolfe works to define a Groundwork for a Reformed Theology of Public Aesthetics.
How one ought to love one’s neighbor is the subject of much discussion in Christianity.... What is often left out in these discussions is the aesthetic demands of loving one’s neighbor. We always ask, what ought we do? or what ought we think? But why not the question, how ought things look? Following much modernist thought, Reformed Christians have separated the aesthetic from the ethical and, I submit, the Gospel. We have come to believe that only ideas are formative of character, virtue, and holiness in a community. My contention in this post is that human beings—as created beings meant to belong in creation—have an aesthetic need built into their being. I also argue that loving one’s neighbor includes seeking to fulfill this aesthetic need through proper community and town/city development. In addition, I argue that the modern view of nature as something other than and separate from man is problematic and must be rejected.

We should keep in mind that the Son of God did not come to earth simply to show the way of righteousness, or even just to bear the sins of humankind. He came to restore creation and finish the work that God set for Adam. To love God and to love man is not simply to fulfill a set of disconnected ethical demands, but to work toward the original intent of creation, namely, to build beautiful and harmonious communities that express a love for God and each other. The ultimate demand of God for humankind is a unity of the aesthetic and the ethical. We are not simply to love, but to love with beauty….

This is an important concept because, as he says, “Reformed theology rejects the nature/grace dualism of medieval theology. This theology, made explicit by Thomas Aquinas, states that even prior to sin, nature required a superadded feature, namely, grace in order to keep it from falling. In other words, nature did not have an original integrity; it required an addition supernatural category to remain away from corruption.”

On the contrary, Genesis relates in many places that God’s creation was “good”, “good”, and “very good”. As I’ve related earlier:

The typical Reformed understanding is that Adam was created upright, or righteous, and that God justified, or declared righteous, the initial creation as well as man in his declaration that everything was “very good” (Gen 1:31). We see the Westminster Larger Catechism (q. 17) echo this point when it states that God created man in “righteousness, and holiness, having the law of God written in their hearts, and the power to fulfill it” (John Fesko, in “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, pg 372).

Stephen argues that the goodness, righteousness, and holiness extend to all of creation. “Reformed theology rejected this [Medieval/Thomist] dualism by positing that nature has its own integrity, that it does not require a superadded supernatural category to be good.” Read the entire article here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Abortion and infant salvation

Some Christians espouse two positions: (i) they oppose abortion; (ii) they espouse universal infant salvation. 
Some proabortionists recast this as a dilemma for Christians: if you espouse universal infant salvation, then you ought to support abortion, for abortion ensures their salvation. 
Obviously, this is not a dilemma for Christians who espouse (i) but don't espouse (ii). But what about Christians who espouse both?
To even begin to make this a true dilemma, we need to add a missing premise. A Christian would also have to believe the following: If the same person who died in childhood died later, he'd be damned. 
In other words, if you die in childhood, you go to heaven. But if you die later, you may wind up in hell. Once you pass the age of discretion or age of accountability, you are suddenly at risk of damnation. You lose your chronological immunity to damnation. You acquire that fearful liability. 
And there may, indeed, be Christians who think this way. Of course, that may be because they haven't thought it through.
I'd simply point out that that's not a necessary implication of universal infant salvation. Universal infant salvation doesn't entail that if everyone who died in childhood died later, some of them would go to hell. Universal infant salvation doesn't imply that there's a subset of infants who, if they hadn't died in infancy, would be damned.
Although that's logically consistent with universal infant salvation, it's also logically consistent with universal infant salvation that only those who actually die in infancy are automatically heavenbound.
Put another way, a Christian who espouses universal infant salvation could, in principle, believe that anyone who is heavenbound as an infant is heavenbound as an adult. Anyone who would have gone to heaven had he died in infancy would likewise go to heaven had he died later.
Of course, that's speculative, but then, the alternative is speculative. And we shouldn't kill people based on unverifiable conjectures. 
Thus far I haven't said anything that turns on the Arminian/Calvinist debate. But I'd add that, from a Reformed perspective, salvation or damnation doesn't turn on lucky or unlucky timing. From a Reformed perspective, your eternal fate was sealed before you ever came into existence. Dying young or old doesn't ipso facto change that. 
At most, it would be a question of whether, in his providence, God takes some of the elect to himself sooner rather than later because, counterfactually speaking, had they lived longer, they'd suffer a crisis of faith. 
There are, of course, Christians who think a born-again believer can lose his salvation. If they also believe in universal infant salvation, then they may believe that some people lose their salvation when they grow up. And that's a pressure point when it comes to abortion.
Mind you, they could still take the position that it's not our prerogative to take life absent divine authorization. The ends don't justify murder. 

The Prince of Peace

As Christians, we know that there is a Prince of Peace who came to set right what humanity continues to destroy through oppression, injustice, and violence.
It's striking how often pacifists mouth this messianic title out of context. They imagine that "Prince of Peace" means Jesus is a peacenik. But consider the title in its original setting:

3 You have multiplied the nation;    you have increased its joy;they rejoice before you    as with joy at the harvest,    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.4 For the yoke of his burden,    and the staff for his shoulder,    the rod of his oppressor,    you have broken as on the day of Midian.5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult    and every garment rolled in blood    will be burned as fuel for the fire.6 For to us a child is born,    to us a son is given;and the government shall be upon his shoulder,    and his name shall be calledWonderful Counselor, Mighty God,    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.(Isa 9:3-6) 

In this passage, the messiah is a divine warrior. He's a "prince of peace" in the sense that peace is the end-result of defeating the enemy by military means. V3 refers to plundering the vanquished enemy. The proverbial spoils of war. The "day of Midian" alludes to battles in Judges 6-8. The bloodstained garments reflect hand-to-hand combat. Burning the military hardware was part and parcel of holy war. Dedicating to God a portion of the plunder (cf. Josh 11:6,9). The imagery is thoroughly militaristic. 

How should Christians respond to ISIS?

"Science flies us to the moon–religion flies us into buildings"

I'm going to comment on some statements by the late Victor Stenger in The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Reason and Science (Prometheus Books 2009), 59. 
We trust scientific method, logic, and mathematics because they work. They give us answers that we can independently test against objective observations. They give us electric lights, computers, and cell phones. 
i) Is there just one scientific method?
ii) Apropos (i), seems to me that there's a distinction between great scientists and average workaday scientists. The average scientist is methodical. But great scientists operate more from intuition. Flashes of insight. Take Einstein's thought experiments involving clocks, trains, elevators, or riding a light beam. Is that a method? 
A method is reproducible. A set of instructions. Just follow the instructions. Do it yourself. 
But the average scientist can't imitate Einstein. Einstein had a remarkable knack for visualizing physics. That's not a method–that's a talent. Ironically, as Einstein got older, he became more methodical, but less insightful. 
Same thing with Newton's cannon, Schrödinger’s cat, and the EPR paradox. Is that a method? 
What about Feynman's sum-over-histories interpretation of quantum mechanics? In a sense, that's a method. But how did he arrive at that in the first place? Was there a method by which he hit on that interpretation? 
Or take this example:  
I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. I had nothing to do, so I start figuring out the motion of the rotating plate. I discovered that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate—two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! I went on to work out equations for wobbles. Then I thought about how the electron orbits start to move in relativity.

How many physicists sitting in a cafeteria would draw that analogy? Is that a method? Great scientists employ analogical reasoning. They discern parallels which lesser scientists don't notice. Like Newton's bucket. That's a real experiment. A simple experiment. Anyone can do it. What made it special was not the experiment itself, but Newton's extrapolation. He used that as a springboard for a thought-experiment. One which, in turn, proved to be a stimulus to Mach and Einstein. 

Great scientists resort to thought-experiments, in part because that's a short-cut, and in part because the technology may not exist to perform a real experiment. So they have to experiment in their heads. For instance, the double-slit experiment was originally a thought-experiment. When Feynman proposed it, the technology did not exist to do it for real. 

iii) Do we trust logic because it works? How could we tell what works apart from logic? What works doesn't prove logic; rather, logic proves what works. There's no way to "independently test logic against objective observations," for that comparison depends on logic from the get-go.  

iv) Do we trust math because it works? If math didn't work, how could we tell? Not by taking measurements to see if math matches our measurements, for measurement depends on math.

How can we independently test math against objective observations? Suppose I observe some marbles. How many? Are there five marbles or six? Unless I have a preconception of number, I can't count how many marbles there are. Absent math, I can't register their number. How does Stenger think math works in that setting? How could he ever detect a mismatch between math and how many marbles there really are? 

Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies us into buildings.
That's a catchy slogan. Appealing to the rabble. 
i) From a Christian standpoint, that's a false antithesis. Absent God, there'd be no moon, no astronauts, no rocket scientists. No electricity. God is the ultimate source of science and scientists. God is the ultimate source of logic, mathematics, and the physical world. 
ii) It wasn't religionists in general who flew airplanes into buildings. It was Muslims in particular. A very specific theology. 
iii) Yes, science flies us to the moon. Science also gives us tanks, missiles, stealth bombers, battleships, bioweapons, chemical weapons, thermonuclear weapons, and predator drones. In future, it may give us orbital weapons.   

Newspaper exegesis

Dispensational premils are frequently accused of resorting to "newspaper exegesis." And they are, indeed, often guilty as charged. One classic example is John F. Walvoord's, Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis. Nor surprisingly, he had to keep updating it. 

That's a trap which premils often fall into. And it can be spiritually hazardous, for when events falsify their interpretation of endtime prophecy, they can become disillusioned and lose their faith. 

But in fairness, "newspaper exegesis" isn't really unique to dispensationalism or premillennialism. There's a sense in which every school of prophecy attempts to correlate Biblical prophecies with historical events. For instance, Loraine Boettner defended postmillennialism based on his rosy reading of modern history. In his view, the world was getting better. Like Dispensationalists, postmils may imagine that they are on the verge of the Second Coming. Dabney was a postmil, although the Civil War may have dampened his optimism. 

Obviously, the historicist school attempts to correlate Revelation with milestones in church history, viz. the Gothic war, rise of the papacy, rise of Islam, the Ottoman Empire, &c., Preterists attempt to correlate NT prophecies with the First Jewish-Roman War or the fall of the Roman Empire. 

Amils correlate golden age prophecies with world mission. Because amil correlations are far looser than Dispensational correlations, amil correlations aren't directly falsifiable, which spares them the embarrassment of premillennial date-setters. But it's a difference of degree rather than kind. Every school of prophecy runs the risk of misidentifying predictions. That's unavoidable–although some positions are more vulnerable than others. 

Neglected Evidence For Universal Infant Salvation

Steve Hays recently called my attention to an article by Daniel Akin arguing for the universal salvation of infants. Steve doesn't hold that position, but I do. In the article, Akin mentions a diversity of views on the subject among the church fathers, but he doesn't bring up a more significant point he could have made.

Though there is a diversity of views on infant salvation among the fathers as a whole, universal infant salvation seems to have been the dominant view of the earliest fathers. The salvation of some or all deceased infants, without any accompanying references to the non-salvation of infants, is found explicitly or implicitly in sources such as the following: Aristides (Apology, 15); Hermas (The Shepherd, Similitude 9:29-31); Justin Martyr (First Apology, 18); Athenagoras (On The Resurrection Of The Dead, 14); Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 4:28:3); Tertullian (A Treatise On The Soul, 56). Given the high rate of infant mortality in antiquity and the significance of the issue of salvation, it seems likely that one or more of the apostles would have directly addressed infant salvation in some context. They probably did so more than once, as the Christians living just after them did. The earliest patristic authors were in a better position than later sources to have been influenced by what the apostles had taught about the matter. And notice the wide diversity of backgrounds, locations, personalities, and theologies represented by these patristic sources. That diversity makes the overlap in their views on infant salvation more significant.

Here's a short article I wrote on infant salvation almost a decade ago, at another blog. The article addresses both the Biblical and the patristic evidence.

Practicing Christians v. believing Christians

You’ve mentioned that you believe in God. How would you characterize your religion? 
For me, religion is much more about a community of people than about belief. It’s fine literature and music. As far as I can tell, people who belong to my church don’t necessarily believe anything. Certainly we don’t talk about that much. I suppose I’m a better Jew than I am a Christian. Jewish religion is much more a matter of community than it is of belief, and I think that’s true of us Christians to a great extent, too. 
Were your parents Christians? 
Yes. Nominally. I would say they’re practicing Christians, but not believing Christians. 
What’s the difference? 
Oh, it’s totally different. A practicing Christian is somebody who lives a Christian life and likes to worship in common with a lot of other people and considers the church as a community to which to belong, but you don’t inquire closely as to what the others believe. Of course, some people take belief very seriously, and others don’t.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Schreiner on Hebrews

Schreiner has a monograph on Hebrews due early next year. Ought to make a significant contribution:

Hidden But Now Revealed

I expect this will make a useful contribution to Messianic prophecy studies:

Why Do Paul's Letters Not Say Much About Jesus' Life On Earth?

James McGrath has a post on the subject that makes some good points.

What I cannot create, I do not understand

Near the end of his life, Richard Feymann left a terse statement on the blackboard: "What I cannot create, I do not understand."

What he meant, apparently, is that unless you can reconstruct every step, you don't really understand it. Understanding is a form of reverse engineering. Working back from the end-product to how everything functions. 

Unbelievers often make glib remarks about "design flaws" in nature. To which I always say, "Let's see you construct a better alternative." 

Breaking Littlewood's Law

Some atheists invoke "Littlewood's Law" to dismiss miracles as statistically inevitable cases of sheer coincidence. There are books on the subject which popularize that outlook. 

Problem is, facile appeal to"Littlewood's Law" proves too much. They render cheating undetectable. Sometimes the dice are loaded. Sometimes the deck is stacked:

A flickering firefly in the night

We are utterly irrelevant in the vastness of the cosmos, its evolution, and eventual annihilation...It isn’t that you exist and this “you” is irrelevant.  It’s that there is no “you” there in the first place to be either relevant or irrelevant.  Phenomena we call thoughts, feelings, and sensations – Yes. But at the heart of these experiences there is no “you” to be found. An apparent you – Yes.  There is only emptiness that manifests now and then as the person you take yourself to be.

From what else I've read on the subject, I'd say that's a basically accurate summary of the Buddhist position. Buddhism has a fundamentally tragic outlook on life. Buddhism is an exercise in despair management. How to make the best of the losing hand we've been dealt.

As an atheistic philosophy, Buddhism is somewhat insightful on the costly nature of atheism. In addition, Buddhism reflects the hopelessness of a pre-Christian philosophy. 

Of course, popularizers like Sudduth try to pretty it up and make it sound better than it really is. It's hard to live with unremitting despair. So they dole out nuggets of chocolate-coated nihilism. The yummy rhetoric masking the toxic core. 

Buddhism is about learning to let go, before you have to let go, because Buddhism is a philosophy of flux. Nothing lasts. Sooner or later, you lose everything. So you might as well make the mental adjustment in advance to brace yourself for the inevitable. 

There's an element of truth to this. Ecclesiastes makes a similar point. But Buddhism is a half truth. A half truth is more persuasive than a pure lie. 

In Buddhism, both good and bad are equally ephemeral. In Christianity, by contrast, good is eternal. Preexistent and everlasting. Nothing ultimately good is ever truly lost. 

We might compare and contrast Buddhism with Hinduism:

After my father's death, I went to India and went through rituals that you in the West would find strange. I bathed and anointed my father's body, then carried it on my shoulder, stoked the cremation fires, and watched his body burn. I took his remains to the mouth of the Ganges and watched them float away to retune to the dust to where he came from. 
I am questioning the whole idea that there is such a thing as a person. A few hours after cremation the person has totally disappeared. You collect the bones; they're like little pieces of ivory. You wash them in the Ganges, and then the person merges back into the energy and intelligence of the universe from where he came…For a few years, which is nothing–like the flicker of a firefly in the middle of the night–we are individuals. 

Not surprisingly, this has affinities with Buddhism. The same reductionistic outlook. The insignificance of the individual. Eulogizing his brother at the graveside, Ingersoll said:

Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word.

That's atheism. That's Buddhism.

From Hinduism, Buddhism inherited reincarnation. Buddha was a reformer, but not a radical. Buddhism would be more consistent if it shed reincarnation. That illustrates the power of tradition. Dogma. 

Mind you, reincarnation is just as bad, in a different way. Every time you die, you wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Everything slips through your fingers. 

Compare that to Christianity, where the best of the past comes back around in the new Eden, the new Jerusalem. Better than ever. 

Arminian schizophrenia

Since Olson's post continues to accrue comments (170 at last count), I'll say a bit more:
Or do you not feel any pressure to reconcile or deal with contradictions? Do you simply accept that God both did and did not command David to carry out a census? Please read Dewey Beegle's Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility and then tell me how you hold on to scriptural inerrancy (other than closing your eyes to the contradictions or engaging in tortured harmonizations).

An obvious problem with Olson's argument is that he's appealing to Scripture to attack Scripture. If the Bible is errant and contradictory, what makes him think the Gospels are a reliable source of information about Jesus' teaching? Given his view of Scripture, why think Jesus really said the things the Gospels attribute to him? Why not think the Gospels write a script which they put on Jesus' lips? You can't impugn the veracity of Scripture one moment, then prooftext your claim the next moment. 

Frankly, and with all due respect, I think you are still evading the issue. Jesus, God in humanity, the God-man, the perfect revelation of God's character, gathered children about him and said "of such is the Kingdom of God." Surely you don't think he meant "these children only--the ones right here sitting by me." Surely he meant children, period. That he, God, would also command the merciless slaughter of innocent children…

There are several obvious problems with his extrapolation:

Jesus miraculously fed some children when he multiplied the fish and bread. But Jesus doesn't miraculously feed all, or even most, hungry children. Many children are malnourished. Many children die of starvation.

Jesus healed the daughter of Jairus. But there were many sick or dying children in Palestine whom Jesus didn't heal. Not to mention the Roman Empire at large. Or North America. Or South America. Or China, India, Japan, Scotland, &c. And that's just in the 1C. What about the ancient Near East? What about the Middle Ages? 

I know of no more important principle for Christian theology than that Jesus is the perfect if not complete revelation of God’s character. After all, Jesus was God in human flesh. Or, put more technically, following the hypostatic union doctrine of Chalcedon, he was the Son of God, the eternal second person of the Trinity, equal with the Father, with an added human nature. But orthodoxy does not say and should not permit anyone to say that the addition of humanity to the Son of God made him any different morally than he always was or than the Father is.
The “person” of Jesus Christ was not morally altered by the incarnation. That, I take it, is a basic orthodox doctrine. He was the Son of God. That is his “who” even if his “what” included humanity.
Surely, in trinitarian orthodoxy, the Son of God, the Word, the Logos, is morally the same as the Father; that is, there is no difference between them (and the Holy Spirit) as to their character. They share all the same moral attributes and always have and always will. To say otherwise would be to wreak havoc with the Trinity.

i) Problem with his appealing to the deity of Christ is that it backfires. Logically, this means whatever the OT attributes to Yahweh, Christians should attribute to Jesus. But that includes the very commands to execute the Canaanites. 

ii) In addition, thousands of children die every year from divinely preventable causes. Sometimes these involve moral evils, like war or murder. Sometimes natural evils, like illness, accidents, famine, tornadoes, &c. 

Be patient…I’m going somewhere with all this.
Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He gathered them about himself and, as they say in Texas, “loved on them.” I do not believe these were “elect children,” some select group of children Jesus loved while he hated others.

Actually, this is a select group of children. Notice that Jesus didn't seek out children to bless. Rather, parents brought their children to Jesus. 

But there’s a problem. Can anyone imagine Jesus turning around and saying “Slaughter these little children”? I can’t.

i) Actually, when God threatened to punish apostate Israel by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans, that included many underage victims. 

ii) What matters in the long run is what happens to you in the long run. Not this life, but the afterlife. Sooner or later, all of us die. Some die young. Death by natural causes can be more painful than a violent death. 

Fahrenheit 451

Assuming this report is accurate, it graphically illustrates our lawless law enforcement culture. Instant totalitarianism.

Grace, wrath, and eternal love

Monday, September 01, 2014

Humanism and human rights

Saving God from himself

I think there is an important apologetic aspect to this whole issue of whether God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanite infants...We cannot invite men to the source of all goodness and then play a bait and switch. We cannot turn around and say, "Oh, by the way, I told you that God is the source of love, mercy, pity, and the laughter of children. But actually, I also believe firmly that God commanded men to be pitiless upon little children and to cut off their laughter forever by putting them to the edge of the sword. And they carried it through, too. And in the end, I'm okay with that."
Which is why I cannot sit down and simply accept God's ordering the slaughter of the Canaanite children by the Israelites.

One problem with Lydia's position is the notion that she can erect a high wall between God and natural or moral evil. But even if she succeeded in that implausible exercise, it would relocate rather than resolve the problem of evil. It's like a black market arms dealer for a drug cartel who says he's not responsible for the cartel assassinating a prosector because, once the buyer takes receipt of the weapons, what's done with them is out of his hands. But, of course, we wouldn't accept that excuse.

Is God too pure to look on evil?

The Bible is very clear that God has nothing to do with evil. There is “no darkness” in God (1 Jn 1:5). Far from intentionally bringing about evil, God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil” (Hab. 1:13).   All evil, therefore, must be ultimately traced back to decisions made by free agents other than God. Some of these agents are human. Some of these agents are angelic. Either way, evil originates in their willing, not God’s.

It's striking to see how badly Gregory Boyd quotes Hab 1:13 out of context. Let's begin by quoting a larger sample of the passage in question:

3 Why do you make me see iniquity,    and why do you idly look at wrong?Destruction and violence are before me;    strife and contention arise.
12  Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he? (1:3,12-13, ESV)

Here's how Richard Patterson renders the Hebrew in his commentary:

Why do you make me look at iniquity while You behold oppression?
O Lord, You have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, You have established them to reprove. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot behold oppression. Why do You behold the treacherous and keep silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves (pp129,143).

And here's how F. F. Bruce renders the Hebrew in his commentary:

You have appointed them for judgment, O Lord; you have established them for punishment, my Rock. You are too pure of eyes to behold wrongdoing, you cannot look on evil; why do you look on treacherous people and remain silent when the wicked swallows up one more righteous than himself? (p852). 

i) Contrary to Boyd's denial, it's very clear from Habakkuk that God does have something to do with evil. He is behind the Babylonian resurgence. He uses them as executors of divine judgment against wayward Israel. As Bruce observes, commenting on v12:

The prophet goes on to acknowledge Yahweh's sovereignty over the nations; he ordains or overrules their actions for the furtherance of his purpose in the world. The Chaldean invaders have indeed been raised up by him for the punishment of the ungodly–this the prophet accepts without question (p853).

ii) Habakkuk makes formally contradictory claims about God. He says God both does and does not "look on" evil. So he resorts to paradoxical formulations.

There's a sense in which God does look on evil, and another sense in which God does not. A double entendre. Presumably, Habakkuk means God doesn't look on evil with favor or approval. 

iii) Yet God is using evil to punish evil. Poetic justice. Indeed, the Babylonians are even worse than apostate Israel. 

Habakkuk senses a tension between the means and the ends. God goes on to explain that having punished apostate Israel by the Babylonian scourge, God will punish Babylon for its own iniquity. 

Boyd's description conjures up the image of a king who is pure because he lives within a walled city, surrounded by beauty. There's no crime within the walled city. No moral ugliness. 

But outside the walled city is physical and moral squalor. Utopian conditions inside the walls. Dystopian conditions outside the walls. 

The king retains his stainless purity because he never leaves the royal city to see the rest of his kingdom. The royal city is walled off from the evil outside the walls, so the king never sees it. He retains his innocence by averting his eyes. By shielding his gaze from the sight of evil. The king can't bear the sight of evil, so he looks away. 

There are freewill theists like Boyd who act as if God would be morally tarnished if he even beheld evil. Like some Christians who defined holiness by never watching an R-rated movie. Of course, that's not a position which Boyd can consistently maintain. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The wheel of life and death

Victor Stenger passed away on Wednesday. He lived and died an atheist. From a secular standpoint, his death will be missed in the way some people miss a handsome oak tree that was destroyed by ambrosia beetles. They enjoyed looking at it. Now it's gone. Sad, but life goes on. Indeed, some people miss their favorite tree more than they miss dead humans. His demise is no more important in the great scheme of things than a fallen leaf. 
To put his life and death in perspective: 
We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. 
What are all of us but self-reproducing robots? We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot child. 
For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria.
– Richard Dawkins
Whenever an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals), I say that it is adopting the intentional stance or treating that thing as an intentional system.   
So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. When somebody we love or even just know well dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it…A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our intentional-stance habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse. We can't just delete the file in our memory banks, we wouldn't want to be able to do so. What keeps many habits in place is the pleasure we take from indulging in them. And so we dwell on them, drawn to them like a moth to a candle. We preserve relics and other reminders of the deceased persons, and make images of them, and tell stories about them, to prolong these habits of mind even as they start to fade. 

– Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin 2006), 110, 112.

The wheel of life and death 
In Buddhism this is extended to the idea that everything physical or mental is by nature transitory and in a constant state of change. Whatever rises must fall. This state of change must thereby result in decline and decay. In this sense existence is an unending cycle of growth and decay, integration and disintegration.  
Along with the frailty and insecurity of life, it is believed that at the center of existence there is a void. This void is the result of the insubstantial nature of life, and the aggregates, although forming a recognizable and perceivable object, do not produce a substance " all of them are insubstantial, a part of the endless movement of life.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.
But Freddie's Summer soon passed. It vanished on an October night. He had never felt it so cold. All the leaves shivered with the cold. 
One day a very strange thing happened. The same breezes that, in the past, had made them dance began to push and pull at their stems, almost as if they were angry. This caused some of the leaves to be torn from their branches and swept up in the wind, tossed about and dropped softly to the ground. All the leaves became frightened. 
"What's happening?" they asked each other in whispers. 
"It's what happens in Fall," Daniel told them. "It's the time for leaves to change their home. Some people call it to die." 
"Will we all die?" Freddie asked. 
"Yes," Daniel answered. "Everything dies. No matter how big or small, how weak or strong. We first do our job. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and to laugh. Then we die." 
"Does the tree die, too?" Freddie asked. 
"Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That lasts forever and we are all a part of Life." 
"Where will we go when we die?" 
"No one knows for sure. That's the great mystery!" 
"Will we return in the Spring?" 
"We may not, but Life will." 
"Then what has been the reason for all of this?" Freddie continued to question. "Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die?" 
Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact way, "It's been about the sun and the moon. It's been about happy times together. It's been about the shade and the old people and the children. It's been about colors in Fall. It's been about seasons. Isn't that enough?" 
Then, Freddie was all alone, the only leaf on his branch. The first snow fell the following morning. It was soft, white, and gentle; but it was bitter cold. There was hardly any sun that day, and the day was very short. Freddie found himself losing his color, becoming brittle. It was constantly cold and the snow weighed heavily upon him.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Leo Buscaglia