Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mad Cow Disease

This looks interesting:

Don and Jill are church-planting missionaries in Germany.  In August of 2000, Don was diagnosed  by two teams of doctors at two university hospitals with new variant-Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), the human version of Mad Cow Disease.  The Vanderhoofs were told by both hospitals that this disease is always fatal.  However, God had other plans and healed Don of the disease.  A book has been written detailing how God helped Don and Jill through Mad Cow Disease.  The book is entitled From Strength to Strength, and is their testimony of God's grace, help, and healing from this terminal illness.  
Its first printing of the book was in the English and German languages.  The English version is now in its third-edition printing and contains pictures with letters from three different doctors.

Gifts of healing

to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles (1 Cor 12:9-10).
According to Gordon Fee, in his revised commentary on 1 Corinthians (Eerdmans 2014):
The plural charismata ["gifts of healings"] probably suggests, not a permanent "gift," as it were, but that each occurrence is a "gift"in its own right. So also with the plurals in the next item [lit. "workings of miracles"], 659.  
[Quoting Bittlinger] "Every healing is a special gift…" 659n134.
That's a potentially revolutionary take on the typical cessationist/noncessationist debate or stalemate. It's not so much that the healer has a "gift of healing," but that each healing is a divine gift. An act of God's gracious merciful kindness. 
It's possible that some Christians are healers, viz. God heals more often through some Christians than others. But it's not a resident ability which the healer can switch on and off at will. It's just that God chooses some Christians to sometimes act in that capacity.

Keeping our promises

America, and you, have lost the moral high ground on this issue. I find it despicable that any person who is required by Jesus to give his life for others--including enemies--as Jesus himself did can even countenance making the sort of arguments you have in the wake of the torture revelations.

I find his comment a bit puzzling. If Inglis thinks that Jesus requires him to give his life for others, then the world is chock-full of opportunities to do what's required of him. What's he waiting for? Reminds me of a dialogue from I Claudius:

Lentulus: (kissing Caligula's hand) Your recovery is a miracle! 

Caligula: But you prayed for it, Lentulus. 

Lentulus: Oh, night and day! But prayers are not always heard. 

Caligula: But yours were special, so I understand. You offered your life to the gods in place of mine. That was extremely noble! 

Lentulus: It's true, I did. 

Caligula: And what are you going to do about it? 

Lentulus: Do about it? What do you mean? 

Caligula: Well, I'm still here, and so are you. But we oughtn't both be here. Should we not give the gods the things we promise them? You're in danger of the crime of perjury, Lentulus. Think about it. But not too long–gods won't wait forever, that I can assure you only too well.

Trial by ordeal

Some people claim the Bible actually endorses abortion. They allege that Num 5 is a recipe for an abortifacient. 

i) One hermeneutical challenge is that Num 5 contains some obscure terminology. For that reason alone, it's very precarious to make this a prooftext for abortion. 

ii) Even apart from the semantic issues, this is not a ritual for pregnant women in particular, but for suspected wives in general. Whether or not the woman happens to be pregnant is incidental to the ritual. The point of the ritual is to establish guilt or innocence, and penalize guilt. 

iii) In Scripture, barrenness is sometimes (but by no means always) a penalty for sin. It would be consistent with that theme if the punishment in Num 5 is infertility. 

iv) Some critics will complain that the ritual is sexist or misogynistic. By way of reply:

a) In the Mosaic law, adultery was a capital offense for adulterer and adulteress alike (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). 

b) In Lev 20:20-21, childlessness is a penalty for incest. Apparently, God will curse the incestuous couple with infertility. They will be unable to reproduce. Presumably, they will outlive any children they may already have.

c) In traditional cultures, adultery is an offense against the husband. She has shamed him. And it's up to him to restore his honor.  

In the OT, by contrast, adultery is primarily a religious offense. A question of how men and women conduct their lives in the sight of God. Whether they lead God-honoring or God-dishonoring lives. 

Hence, trial by ordeal (Num 5) takes the case out of the husband's hands. A wife, falsely accused, has been dishonored by the accuser (her husband). If innocent, the rite restores her honor. The efficacy of the rite is contingent on God's will. 

v) Here's a good discussion of the terminology:

The priest himself holds the vessel which contains the "water of bitterness." There has been much debate regarding the meaning of the term "bitterness" here. The Septuagint translates it as "waters of testing" or "proof," and, of course, that makes good sense in the context. This reading has been supported by G. R. Driver. Snaith, using Arabic cognates, suggests that it may mean to "cause an abortion." There is no support from the Hebrew language for such a reading. Pardee argues that it may mean "curse-bringing," and he bases his translation on an Ugartic textual parallel. Brichto takes an entirely different approach by saying it means "instruction, revelation." 
Sasson has taken a unique approach to the issue. He argues on the basis of an Ugaritic cognate, that the term translated above as "bitterness" actually means "blessing." Thus, in his view, the closing of v18 is really a merismus, which reads, "waters which bless and bring the curse." In other words, the judgment is still in doubt, and the outcome will depend on her guilt or innocence with regard to the test. 
In these verses the priest administers an oath-taking ceremony. If she is innocent, then may she "be free" from a curse…If, on the other hand, she is guilty of committing adultery, may she receive the "oath of the curse." The term for "curse" here is used of an imprecation that is added on to an oath. Thus, the woman is calling down punishment on herself if she is indeed guilty of the crime.  
The specific punishment is that Yahweh will cause her "thigh to sag" and her "belly to swell up." 
What is meant by these two physical ailments is uncertain…The ailments probably, in a sense of ironic justice, prohibit the act of procreation. The "thigh" is commonly used to refer to sexual organs, particularly in regard to the male (see Gen 46:26, KJV).  
Distending of the belly is more difficult to interpret. Frymer-Kensky has offered a reasonable solution. She argues that the verb "to swell up" (of which this is the only occurrence in Hebrew) is related to the Akkadian verb "to flood." And, thus, the woman's uterus is directly flooded by the curse-bearing waters. She is not able to have intercourse, to conceive, or to bear children. J. Currid, Numbers (EP 2009), 93-96.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Yes, there's evidence that God exists

Letters from home

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Heb 11:13-16). 
My father was a WWII vet. He told my mother that there were two kinds of soldiers in his unit: those who frequented brothels, and those who wrote their sweetheart or fiancée every day.
On bases far away, or serving overseas, that's what kept some soldiers going. Having that to look forward to. 
Having a woman who was waiting for them. Having a woman they were waiting to see again. Planning a life together. 
Writing a letter to their sweetheart or reading a letter from their sweetheart. Hoping to see her again, face-to-face. Hoping to embrace. Hoping to pick up where they left off.
This is what many men ultimately fight for. For the folks back home. Having that to return to. 
And that's like the life of faith. The waiting. The longing. Like letters to home or letters from home. Counting down the days before reunion. 
Of course, many soldiers never made it back. Yearning for home, but dying far from home. They died unfulfilled in this life. 
And I suppose this is one of the worst things about a civil war. Even if you survive, what if you go back home, only there's no home to go back to? When you go back, you find burned buildings. Makeshift graves of friends and family you left behind. They waved you good-bye. Hugs, tears, and kisses. That's the last time you saw them alive. While you were gone, the life you knew was blown to bits. Literally. 
There's nothing left for you here. Nothing left to keep you here. Going back shows you there's nothing to go back to. 
And that, too, is like the life of faith. Especially as the losses accrue. By faith we override what we can see and feel–putting our faith in what we can't see or feel. What we can see and feel is real, but ephemeral. What we can't see or feel is everlasting. 

The commercialization of Christmas

This time of year you always have some Christians and pastors bemoan the commercialization of Christmas. And, in a sense, they are right on the merits. The gratuitous spending. The kitsch. The secular Christmas songs. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, &c.

But in the providence of God, the commercialization of Christmas has a fringe benefit. For the commercialization of Christmas exposes many unbelievers to a major redemptive event. Exposes them to the story and the theology of Christmas. If it weren't for the commercialization of Christmas, many unbelievers would be utterly ignorant of this central redemptive event. 

For instance, because Good Friday isn't commercialized, many unbelievers don't know the first thing about the significance of Good Friday. They don't know what it stands for. Many of them aren't even aware of Good Friday. 

If Christmas wasn't a national holiday, with all the popular hubbub, many unbelievers would be even more ignorant than they already are of Christian theology. For all the excesses of the season, it makes them aware of something profoundly important. So even though the commercialization of Christmas is bad in itself, God can use that to create a theological foothold to reach people who never step inside a church. It's a start. Instead of complaining, we should build on that.

Did God love the Egyptians?

Darwin and the Mathematicians

The greatest flimflam man on earth

The presumption of creation

I could be wrong about this. I haven't seen any scientific polling data. But it's my impression that we seem to be living in a time, at least in North America, where a larger that usual percentage of professing Christians have jettisoned the historical Adam for theistic evolution. 

I imagine this is due in no small part to the impression that given the (allegedly) mounting evidence for evolution, that theory is now the presumptive position. Young-earth and old-earth creationists are supposedly fighting an uphill battle. Or a rearguard action. Pick your metaphor. 

However, it's important to keep in mind that there's no antecedent presumption in favor of evolution. Indeed, if you tune out the barrage of evolutionary propaganda and step back a few paces, evolution is antecedently implausible. Monumentally implausible. 

The theory of naturalistic evolution is like a corridor millions of miles long. Every few feet is a door with a combination lock. The blind safecracker must try every possible combination until he hits on the right one. That opens the door, allowing evolution to proceed for a few feet until the next door. 

Of course, Darwinians might take exception to my metaphor. However, I don't think it's a trade secret that mathematicians are more skeptical of evolution than biologists. Biologists say that's because mathematicians don't know much about the life sciences. Mathematicians counter that that's because biologists don't know much about probability. So it's a metaphor with a real-world analogue. 

Hence, there's no antecedent presumption that evolution is true. To the contrary, there's an antecedent presumption that evolution is false. Indeed, a well-night insurmountable presumption to the contrary. It's divine creation that's the default position. 

However, a theistic evolutionists might object. It's not a blind safecracker. Rather, if evolution is divinely guided or front-loaded, then God knows the combination lock. 

And it's fair to say that theistic evolution might not be improbable in the way that naturalistic evolution is. Intelligence has problem-solving abilities that mindlessness does not. 

There are, however, problems with that appeal:

i) If a young-earth creationist or old-earth creationist invokes divine agency to make his theory work, he's accused–often by theistic evolutionists!–of resorting to a deus machine or God-of-the-gaps. He's lectured on the continuum of physical cause and effect. 

ii) If theistic evolutionists need to invoke divine agency to make the theory work, that raises questions about the explanatory power of the theory in the first place. 

Let's assume scientific realism for the sake of argument. Serious scientific theories, even if they are wrong, aren't simply wrong. What makes them serious theories is that they can account for some of the evidence. What makes them lose out to competing theories is if the competition can account for more of the evidence.

A mark of a failed theory is that it only accounts for some of the evidence, not to mention evidence to the contrary. It lacks the explanatory power of a theory that accounts for more evidence, and is at least consistent with all the evidence. 

If the theory of evolution needs God to get the kinks out, isn't that a telltale sign of a failed theory? If we're going to invoke divine agency, why bother with the theory of evolution at all? The theory may need God, but God doesn't need the theory. 

Is Tolkien Christian?

Many Christians love Tolkien's fiction. Some love the books. Some love the movies. Some love both.

However, for some, this is a guilty pleasure. That's because C. S. Lewis is a Christian novelist in a way that Tolkien is not. Lewis uses thinly-veiled Christian symbolism and overt analogies. 

As a result, some Tolkien fans resort to special pleading to make his fiction more Christian than it is. They offer typological interpretations.

Now in some cases I suppose that's more plausible. You could claim that Gandalf is a Christ-figure who dies for his friends, then is "resurrected." Mind you, that would be more plausible if Gandalf in general were more Christ-like. 

i) I think one problem is when Christians feel the need to justifying their enjoyment of something that isn't Christian. But something can be good–artistically good–without being Christian. Even unbelievers must take their materials from God's hand. 

ii) That said, I think there's a way of offering a more Christian interpretation of Tolkien. It seems to me that the genre is basically in the medieval chivalric tradition. Gandalf is priestly or monkish. Aragorn and Legolas are knightly. Saruman is an evil monk and sorcerer. Frodo is the holy fool. Gollum is an apostate. Sauron is a fallen angel. And medieval literature had mythological creatures which have their counterparts in Tolkien. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Climbing Mount Improbable

Here are three critical reviews of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. Interestingly, all three reviewers are Jewish. One a Messianic Jew, and the other two secular Jews:

The Spanish Inquisition redux

In one example, interrogators were told that a detainee's medical files showed he had a severe phobia of the dark and suggested ways in which that could be manipulated to induce him to cooperate. 
In March 2002, the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, believed then to be a high-level Qaeda mastermind. Abu Zubaydah apparently feared insects. Someone at the CIA came up with the idea—right out of "1984," it would seem—of putting him in a small, dark box and letting an insect crawl on him. But since this was America, and not Orwell's fantasy police state, the CIA first had to get permission from a lawyer at the Department of Justice. Parsing statutes against torture, the lawyer (Jay Bybee, then chief of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel) ruled that Abu Zubaydah's interrogators could not tell the suspect that the insect was venomous because, under the law, prisoners could not be threatened with imminent death. However, Abu Zubaydah could be placed in a "confinement box" with a harmless insect as long as he was told nothing about it. The CIA had proposed using a caterpillar.

Evil "by definition"

Critics of "torture" always employ the same methodology: 

i) Begin with a broad, amorphous, stimulative definition of "torture"

ii) Claim that "by definition," torture is evil

iii) Claim that various techniques of interrogation fit the definition. That makes them "torture" by definition

iv) Ergo, that makes said techniques evil by definition

But why would any reasonable person think that tendentious, circuitous method is the logical way to determine if, say, sleep deprivation is immoral? 

Why not consider sleep deprivation on its own terms? Why not consider if that's licit or illicit in its own rights? Why not consider each technique on the merits?  

Moreover, why treat various techniques in isolation to the terrorist? Has the terrorist forfeited certain prima facie protections by his actions, associations, or intentions? 

"Primitive" snakes

i) When I read about reticulated pythons, it's amusing to see them described as "primitive" snakes. As if these are early, draft models of more advanced snakes–like venomous snakes.

Yet reticulated pythons are perfect killing machines. Quick, clean, bloodless. They have rows of incurved teeth to get a solid grip. They suffocate their prey within minutes, then swallow it whole. They have detachable jaws which enable them to swallow prey wider than themselves. They have gorgeous camouflage, ideal for an ambush predator. 

It's a very efficient, complete mechanism for killing and costuming prey. How would you improve on that?  

It doesn't look like a primitive design which natural selection has to get the kinks out of. It's not a test model, but a final design. A fully developed, fully-functional system. 

ii) Moreover, it's not transitional to venomous snakes. Death by constriction and death by envenomation are two unrelated methods of predation. Python design is not a bridge to a rattlesnake. 

iii) Darwinians counter that pythons have vestigial hind-legs. And they point to fossil snakes with hind-legs. For them, that's evidence that snakes evolved from quadrupeds. But it seems to me that there are problems with that inference:

a) Vestigial structures don't disprove special creation. Structures can atrophy through disuse. Take blind cave fish. That's not inconsistent with special creation or fiat creation.

b) Why assume a fossil snake with hind-legs evolved from quadrupeds, rather than viewing it for what it is–an extinct snake with hind-legs?

c) To my knowledge, only the largest snake species have vestigial legs (of that's what they are) or hind-legs (in the case of fossil snakes).

That raises the question of whether hind-legs were functional. Do snakes that long and heavy need hind-legs–unlike shorter, lighter snakes? Did that help them get around, or get going? 

d) By parity of argument, should we infer that walking catfish evolved from quadrupeds? Are their pectoral fins vestigial legs? 

iv) Are pit-vipers more advanced than mambas and cobras? Infrared vision might seem to be a more advanced design. But that's only beneficial for nocturnal predators. That's not advantageous for diurnal snakes like mambas and King cobras. So it' s not more "advanced." 

If, moreover, all snakes had infrared vision, then they'd be in competition night and day. By contrast, if some snakes are diurnal while others are nocturnal, that's a time-sharing arrangement. 

Retractable fans might seem to be more advanced than fixed fangs. Yet venomous snakes with fixed fangs are some of the world's deadliest. 

v) Another fascinating predator is the electric eel. In evolutionary terms, this is a "primitive" creature compared to, say, a dolphin or leopard. Yet it's a marvel of engineering efficiency. It uses electricity for offense, defense, and navigation (like radar). It stuns or electrocutes its prey, then swallows it whole.

A very compact design. How would you improve on that? How is that "primitive"? 

Are Cheetahs evolving dogs?

As a rule, why do dogs and cats have different paws? That's because canine paws are designed for running whereas feline paws are designed for climbing and/or killing (e.g. puncturing, gripping). Although cats can run, they run in short bursts–when they are chasing down prey. They lack stamina. By contrast, wolves, Cape Hunting dogs, &c., are long-distance runners. They can run for miles and miles without becoming winded. That's how they wear down their prey. Cats are sprinters, dogs are marathon runners. 

The Cheetah is an exception. The Cheetah has paws like a canine rather than a feline. It's a necessary adjustment to equip it for extreme speed. It couldn't run that fast, or turn that fast, with big soft paws and retractable claws. 

According to evolutionary reasoning, we should infer that Cheetahs have canine paws because Cheetahs and canines share a common ancestor. Indeed, Cheetahs are transitional species. Either felines evolving into canines or canines evolving into felines. 

But, of course, in the case of Cheetahs, Darwinians admit that this is simply an adaptation. It's not common descent, but the environment, that accounts for this adaptive trait. That exploits a food niche. Superior speed enables Cheetahs to outrun prey that's too fast for lions and leopards. 

But that raises questions regarding evidence for evolution. Are similar traits due to common ancestry or adaptation? 

From a theistic standpoint, Cheetahs are cats with dog-like feet because God designed them to run fast. A very specialized cat. God makes a wide variety of creatures. God rings the changes on possible combinations.

The divine origamist

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that this is a significant discovery:

i) Lately, a number of professing Christians have abandoned the historical Adam based on (alleged) genetic evidence for the common ancestry of apes and humans. The basic argument is that common genes imply common ancestry. The more two creatures are genetically alike, the greater their affinity by common descent. They share so much genetic material in common because they share common ancestry (i.e. most recent common ancestor).

ii) However, even Darwinians admit that the shared vocal ability (i.e. imitation, vocalization) of parrots and humans isn't due to a common ancestor. Rather, they chalk that up to independent development of the same morphology and brain circuitry. 

iii) But a familiar problem that convergent evolution poses for evolutionary theory in general is that it undermines evidence for common ancestry. 

iv) Another issue is why we'd attribute this to independent evolution rather than special creation. 

v) Finally, if parrots and humans have similar vocal abilities because they have similar genes, then how do shared genes count as evidence for evolution (whether convergent evolution or common ancestry)? 

From a theistic standpoint, if God chose to make two creatures with similar vocal abilities, he does that by giving them similar genes. They have similar genes, not because they are related to each other, or because they evolved, but because that's the natural mechanism to produce a similar result. God uses similar physical causes to produce similar physical effects.

To say they are related because they share common genes is  circular. You can reason from similar morphology to similar genes or vice versa. Each implies the other. 

If God designed to creatures to have similar abilities, then the way to engineer that would be to give them similar genes. 

Some creatures are more alike because God chose to make them more alike. Some creatures are less alike because God chose to make them less alike. The range of diversity is a tribute to divine ingenuity. Like origami. All the different figures you can shape by folding the same piece of paper different ways. That takes great imagination, artistry, and skill.

"Development of Doctrine" for the Roman Catholic: A blank check for a wax nose.

It seems to me that what Roman Catholicism has done over the years is to “synthesize” and to bring in unbiblical concepts, which it then understands to be “divine revelation”. That is why I’ve written recently about Aquinas being “the problem”.

Aquinas “synthesized” Aristotelian metaphysics, and in doing so, he did alter what was at the time “the Classical doctrine of God”, sacraments, etc. The challenge with understanding all of this is to understand (a) where the concepts came from, and (b) at what point did they become “doctrine” and hence, at what point, did Rome begin to consider them “divine revelation” -- or “tradition”, in other words.

In the Roman system, “tradition” is not the same as what the Eastern Orthodox mean by “tradition”. There is a whole elaborate set of explanations to say why these Roman accretions are “development” and how they continue to be part of “tradition” (or rather, “Tradition”, with a capital “T”), even though some of them are less than 50 years old.

Before Aquinas, the writing of someone like a pseudo-Dionysius existed, and some likely loosely held to them. Aquinas incorporated what we now clearly know to be a forgery into his “theology”, and his “theology” became ratified into dogma in large scale by the RCC.

Keep in mind, there is a difference between “doctrine” (or “dogma”) in Roman Catholicism and “theology”. Any “theology” can be (and is) easily dismissed by apologists, especially that which doesn’t suit their purpose du jour.

Dogmas then, for Rome, become “reformulated positively” -- essentially a blank check for a wax nose, all of which occurs under the rubric of “development”.

This is essentially why Rome, while having the claim to being “old”, really is the adopter of “every wind of doctrine” that has come down the pike. It keeps a couple of dusty old artifacts (such as “the papacy”), and all the rest is a whirlwind.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Does The Behavior Of The People In Matthew 2 Make Sense?

Jonathan Pearce has been writing some posts lately about how the individuals mentioned in Matthew 2 wouldn't have behaved the way Matthew describes (see here, here, and the comments section of the thread here). Below are some of my comments on the subject, taken from my review of Pearce's book on the infancy narratives and what I've written elsewhere:

Depicting angels

In a recent interview, Ridley Scott said:

But I didn’t like the idea of an angel associated with wings. I wanted everything to be reality based….  
The writer I chose to finally polish it said, “You couldn’t have asked a worse person to do this because I am a dyed in the wool atheist. I simply don’t believe in this stuff.” I said, “Well, on the contrary, it’s a bit like being in science fiction. ‘Cause I never believed in it, I had to convince myself every step of the way as to what did make sense and what didn’t make sense and where I could reject and accept.  
When you take into account the reality and feasibility of those “rock men,” which really should be part of the hobbits. I’m serious. Listen, I think [“Noah” director Darren Aronofsky] is a great director, but rock men? Come on. I could never get past that. The film immediately kicked off as a fantasy…that was a problem. If you begin that way, it’s hard to get past that without saying, “I’m going to build a boat and on it’s going to go creatures two by two, and make that credible.” 
But that’s what we do for a living. So I have to part the Dead Sea and I’m not going to part the Dead Sea because I don’t believe it. I don’t believe I can part the Dead Sea and keep shimmering water on each side. I’m an absolutely very, very practical person. So I was immediately thinking that all science-based elements placed come from natural order or disorder–or could come from the hand of God, however you want to play that.
Any liberties I may have taken in terms of how I show this stuff was, I think, pretty safe ground because I’m always going always from what is the basis of reality, never fantasy….So the film had to be as real as I could make it.
And a Christianity Today review said:
no “staff-to-snake” scene 
The controversial choice to depict God’s mouthpiece as a young boy called Malak (11-year-old British actor Isaac Andrews), who is only visible to Moses, actually works. Before you shout heresy, ask yourself: If you were a filmmaker, how would you visualize God’s voice? In a story where Moses has frequent conversations with a rather garrulous “I Am,” what are the options? A booming, James Earl Jones-esque voice from the clouds? Morgan Freeman in an all-white suit? Any visual artist telling this story must make an artistic decision, and though it may not be perfect, I found Scott’s choice to be compelling and interesting, in a good way.
i) At the risk of stating the obvious, Christians can't expect secular directors to make movies about the historical narratives of Scripture that are faithful to the text, or the worldview of Scripture. If we think that should be done, then it's something we must do ourselves. Of course, the catch is financing. 
ii) At the same time, there's no reason why Scott shouldn't have theological advisors. Or, for that matter, Christian screenwriters. There are basically two audiences for a film like this: Christian moviegoers (including some Jewish viewers) and moviegoers who like spectacular, panoramic action films. There's no reason for him to gratuitously snub a major market niche for his film. 
iii) The problem with his definition of realism is that what's realistic given naturalism is different from what's realistic given supernaturalism. Yet he's adapting a narrative that's explicitly supernaturalistic, in general outlook as well as specific incidents. 
That's presumably why he filmed the plagues, but not the metamorphosis of inanimate objects into snakes. He could depict the plagues naturalistically, but there's nothing naturalistic about the metamorphosis of inanimate objects into snakes. 
iv) Now let's shift to the question of how to depict God on film. There are, of course, "Puritanical" Christians who think that's wrong in principle. I'm going to ignore that because I've discussed that repeatedly.
v) In Exodus, there are different kinds of theophanies. There's an angelophany. There's the Shekinah. There's the pillar of fire. And there's the Sinai theophany.
In principle, CGI could simulate a representation of the Shekinah and/or the pillar of fire. An artistic interpretation of the narrative descriptions. And that could be visually impressive. 
vi) In Scripture, angels manifest themselves in roughly three different forms:
a) Humanoid angels. These are angels who can pass for humans. They look human. They have solidity. The only thing that gives them away is their supernatural power (e.g. Gen 19:11).
Humanoid angels don't have wings. A human actor could depict an angel like that without any special effects. 
b) Luminous angels. Sometimes, angels have a humanoid appearance with a nimbic aura. They glow. But they don't have wings.
You could use a human actor, then enhance the image with a nimbic aura. That could be impressively done. 
c) Cherubim and seraphim. These have wings. Indeed, they have two or three pair of wings. 
Given the association between wings and fire or lightning, are these wings that look like flames or flames that look like wings? In any case, it's probably no feathers, but something like flickering firelight or electricity. 
Assuming that Isa 6 and Ezk 1 & 10 are representative, the basic distinction seems to be that seraphim are the angelic retinue for the stationary heavenly sanctuary or throne room whereas cherubim are the angelic retinue for the God's mobile throne (cf. Ps 18:10). 
It's not clear if these are different kinds of angels. Since angels are essentially incorporeal, this is merely how they manifest themselves, not how they naturally subsist. 
The cherubim are tetramorphs. They don't have the appearance of a winged-man. Rather, they are hybrids. In principle, CGI would simulate a representation of a cherub. An artistic interpretation of Ezekiel's description. That could be breathtaking. 
Based on Biblical iconography, there's no reason to assume the Angel of the Lord had the appearance of a winged-man. Audiences raised on science fiction films are conditioned to expect and appreciate inhuman figures, so long as that's skillfully and imaginatively executed. According to Biblical exemplars, there's nothing comical about the appearance of angels. 

Writing a blank check

Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, Steven Wedgeworth has done yet another confused post on "torture":

He consistently fails to frame the issue correctly. His latest post is basically worthless. 

What is his objective? What does he think he's trying to prove? Is his goal to show that "torture" is intrinsically evil? Is his goal to show that "torture" is wrong in principle?

If so, then attacking the arguments of Dick Cheney or John Yoo is beside the point. I shouldn't have to explain to Wedgeworth that if your objective is to disprove a position, you need to attack the strongest version of the position. Your foil needs to be the most astute representatives of that position. 

In fact, there are philosophers who, before attacking the opposing position, will even improve on the arguments of the opposing position. They will make the strongest case they can for the opposing position before they proceed to dismantle it. 

As I pointed out before, John Yoo was giving legal advice. That's not even relevant to the moral status of coercive interrogation. 

Cheney is a bright guy, but he's not a philosopher or ethicist. And, from what I can tell, he's a nominal Christian at best. 

Even if his case for coercive interrogation is ethically flawed, what does that prove? It does't begin to prove that coercive  interrogation is wrong in principle. If that is Wedgeworth's objective, he chose the wrong foil. 

Here's an example of a more sophisticated argument:

What is Wedgeworth's goal? Is it to assess the interrogation program of the Bush administration? Or is it to assess coercive interrogation as a matter of principle?

For instance, two people can support the same thing for different reasons. My reasons for supporting coercive interrogation can be entirely independent of Cheney's. 

The moral question which underlies everything is always answered by a sort of “two wrongs make a right” red herring. The evil of our enemies is all the justification we need.
Speaking for myself, I haven't used that argument. 
But the reality of using that sort of argument is that it creates a blank check for any and all actions taken in response to 9/11.
Except that that's exactly what Wedgeworth is doing, albeit unwittingly. There are two different ways of approaching this issue:
On the one hand, you can begin by formulating general criteria, or necessary and sufficient conditions, for licit and illicit interrogation techniques. You then use that to rule in or rule out specific methods.
On the other hand, you can begin with paradigm-cases of licit or illicit interrogation, then analogize to comparable candidates or methods. 
Wedgeworth doesn't do either. He vents. He emotes. 
He offers no constructive guidance to officials sworn to protect Americans from foreign terrorists. By his intellectual dereliction, he hands them a blank check.


A friend asked me if violent opposition to abortion is legitimate in principle. Here's my response:

Before answering your question directly, I'd note that the point of my AHA post was not to expound my own position or discuss the issue on the merits, but to interpret Trewhella's actions/statements on their own terms, and consider if that's consistent with AHA's stated nonviolent philosophy. 

I think there are situations where we can honestly say, "I wouldn't do it, but I don't blame someone who does." I'm not referring to this issue in particular, but generally. However, it's not incumbent on me to make Trewhella's (or AHA's) arguments for him. 

For instance, years ago a convicted sexual predator was paroled. But someone burned his house down before he could move into the neighborhood. That's not something I'd do. But I don't fault the person who did it. And if I witnessed the person who did it, I wouldn't report him to the authorities. If the police questioned neighbors, including me, I'd feign ignorance. 

On the substantive question, I'm inclined to say "no." I don't think vigilantism is wrong in principle. But I think there are are implicit parameters to permissible vigilantism. And like many ethical issues, it's hard to drawn the boundaries precisely. We have borderline cases. So I don't know that I can lay down an exceptionless generalization. I'll have to content myself with illustrations.

If I'm walking in the park, and I see a man attacking a woman, it's generally permissible, and sometimes obligatory, for me to forcibly intervene. Mind you, even that depends on other considerations. If he's 6' 4" and I'm 5' 5", my intervention would be futile, unless I have a gun.

Likewise, if I'm the caregiver for my elderly invalid mother, then I can't risk injury. In fact, I probably can't even risk a police investigation. 

But as a rule, I'd be justified in counterattacking the attacker to protect the third party.

Keep in mind that even in that situation, I wasn't on the lookout for muggers or rapists to neutralize. I simply happened upon that altercation. I found myself in that situation. I didn't seek it out. 

By contrast, in many parts of the world, innocent people are murdered with impunity. One country invades another country without provocation. Or you have a bloody civil war.

But I don't have a duty to hop on a plane, fly to that theater, choose sides, get a gun, and start killing the aggressor. Not only is that not obligatory, but I doubt it's even morally permissible. The enemy soldiers aren't my enemies. They are not a threat to my own family. It's really none of my business. 

And I'd say the Bible corroborates this viewpoint. If vigilantism was generally obligatory, the Roman Empire afforded countless worthy causes. Yet Jesus, the apostles, and/or NT writers don't call upon Christians to practice frontier justice. For instance, Christ did not align himself with the Zealots, even though they had legitimate grievances.

Indeed, St. Paul implicitly discourages vigilantism:  

11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thes 4:11-12). 
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1-2).

Science and Faith: An Interview with a Biochemist

Ethics in “The Hunger Games”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's all about thugs, all the time

The liberal media and the sclerotic civil rights community have done enormous damage to the reputation of black Americans. There's a huge overemphasis on young black thugs. Sometimes the liberal media covers black entertainers or sports stars, though even then it's drawn to celebrity scandals. 

If you were to base your perception of black Americans on the liberal media and the civil rights community, the first thing you'd think of would be swaggering, dangerous hoods. Pimps, pushers, looters, muggers, gang-bangers, gangta rappers, &c. 

This attention almost completely eclipses responsible, gainfully-employed, law-abiding working-class, middle-class, and upper-class black Americans. They rarely make the headlines. 

With that in mind:

A definite Incarnation

"A definite Incarnation" by Paul Helm.

Yes, Apologetics Makes A Difference

The Bible places a lot of emphasis on apologetic themes, like eyewitness testimony and fulfilled prophecy. It also commands and commends apologetic work, even to the point of saying that apologetics can "greatly help" (Acts 18:27). Yet, many people, even some professing Christians, suggest that apologetics doesn't do much good and even question whether it's ever been instrumental in anybody's conversion.

Two conversion stories that have been receiving a lot of attention lately illustrate how much of a difference apologetics can make. See here and here for a couple of places in David Wood's conversion video in which he mentions the involvement of apologetics in his becoming a Christian. Notice that, in the first clip above, Wood refers to how other Christians he'd met hadn't challenged him on intellectual issues. In other words, not only was intellectual engagement with the Christian he met in jail important, but the failure of other Christians to intellectually interact with him was significant as well, in a negative way.

Similarly, Nabeel Qureshi, writing of his time as a Muslim prior to becoming a Christian, commented:

"What I needed was something that would not let me get away with my biases. I needed something that would mercilessly loop my bad arguments before my eyes, again and again and again, until I could avoid them no longer. I needed a friend, an intelligent, uncompromising, non-Muslim friend who would be willing to challenge me." (Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014], 117)

Like Wood, Qureshi refers to how a lot of Christians he met had made his situation worse by failing to provide the intellectual help he needed. For some examples, see here.

Apologetics does help people and does lead to conversions. And people who underestimate apologetics do significant harm.

The primordial death penalty

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17).
i) Some readers puzzle over the timeframe. After all, they didn't expire on the day they ate the forbidden fruit. However, I think the explanation is that "on the day" is idiomatic for "when." We have the same idiom in 2:4.
ii) However, that's not my main point. Most young-earth creationists deny animal mortality before the Fall. Jay Wile is a notable exception.
iii) If, however, there was no human death or even animal death before the fall, then Adam (and Eve) had no frame of reference to understand the penalty. 
If there was animal death before the fall, then that would at least be analogous. But according to most young-earth creationists, there was no death whatsoever. 
In that event, what did the penalty mean to Adam and Eve? What could it mean? They had no experience with death of any kind. No standard of comparison.
The best one could do is postulate innate knowledge. That, however, is not an exegetical argument.

Creation, evolution, and transubstantiation

The doctrine of transubstantiation has two primary components:
  • The real presence of Christ's body and blood
  • The real absence of bread and wine.

Some objections center on the Real Absence. After all, it looks like bread and wine are present—why would God make our senses deceitful?…(Quick answers: Senses give prima facie reasons to believe, but in the context of the liturgy as a whole there is no deceit as it is explicitly stated that this is Christ's body and blood.

i) To my knowledge, most contemporary Catholic intellectuals espouse theistic evolution. And at least some, if not many, Catholic intellectuals have contempt for young-earth creationism. They think young-earth creationism is intellectually dishonest. Rides roughshod over the evidence. Indulges in special pleading.

ii) However, let's compare that to faith in transubstantiation. If true, then transubstantiation is at least as skeptical as mature creation, if not more so. In mature creation, artifacts of fiat creation appear to be older than would normally be the case given conventional natural processes. However, if you see an instant tree, it's still a tree. So even though it looks older than it would if it was produced by the usual process, there's a truthful correlation between what you perceive it to be and what it is. A tree appears in your field of vision. You interpret the image to be a tree. And, in fact, that's what it is. 

Moreover, it's not as if natural objects have an intrinsic appearance of age. Rather, that's relative to the usual rate at which they occur and endure. 

The closest thing to illusion in mature creation would be, say, supernova, where the effect exists even though there was no stellar explosion to produce that effect. 

iii) Compare that transubstantiation. If true, all five of our senses systematically deceive us. And not just our unaided senses. If we subject the consecrated bread and wine to chemical analysis, it still appears to be bread and wine. So it's sensory deception all the way down. And undetectable illusion. There's no correspondence between what we perceive and what it really is. In principle, the consecrated bread could be an elephant, or Mt. Fuji, or a velvet Elvis painting. The relation between appearance and reality is entirely arbitrary. It's more radical (i.e. scientific antirealism) than mature creation. 

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the empirical evidence for evolution (i.e. macroevolution, universal common descent) is absolutely overwhelming. All the evidence points in that direct. There's no counterevidence. Yet given the principle of transubstantiation, that could be a Matrix-like illusion. 

The justification is that the dogma of transubstantiation corrects or overrides our misinterpretation of the sense data. But, of course, young-earth creationists lodge a parallel appeal: mature creation is a revealed truth. God has explicitly told us how he made the world–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. 

Irons on Adam

Lee Irons has been doing a series on Adam and evolution. He's a protege of the late Meredith Kline:

Please Stop Helping Us!

Poking holes in true stories

David Gabois emailed me a response to my post on "Bible contradictions" and missing evidence:

David is an aerospace engineer and moderator at Green Baggins. With his permission, I'm posting his response:

I'm not a JFK buff, but I have burned more time over the years than I probably should have on moon landing conspiracy theories and 911 conspiracy theories regarding the collapse of the WTC towers, mostly because the technical and engineering issues interest me. 
I am always amazed at how conspiracy theorists find "contradictions" and "inconsistencies" in events as well-documented as these.  In fact, that more documentation there is, the more ammunition they have.  They often ignore or aren't cognizant of the more obvious explanations for various phenomena.  And when there are instances that involve elements that are genuinely perplexing on a prima facie take, they don't turn their powers of observation and creativity to constructing and investigating alternate theories that don't fit the cynical, conspiratorial narrative. 
There is also a lot of laziness involved.  In the age of the internet, oftentimes good answers are only a few minutes of Google searching away with some good faith effort.   
Technical ignorance often trips them up, sometimes this stems from a lack of basic scientific literacy, but other times there are elements in play of which only practicing scientists or engineers would (normally) already be acquainted.  Take the WTC towers- most people are not familiar with the havoc that structural deformation due to thermal expansion can inflict.  Beams can easily lose orders of magnitude of buckling strength.  Worse, joints come unseated. 
In any case, there are certainly parallels with critics of Scripture who allege "contradictions" and "inconsistencies" in the Bible.  Most of the secular critics of the Bible would, however, consider moon landing hoaxers and the like to be intellectually disrespectable. 
One of the lessons is that it is not hard to "poke holes" in nearly any story, even a true story and even in a well-documented one.  While, conversely, accounting for every last phenomenon and scrap of detail to create a complete picture and answer every question, indeed, can be very, very hard.  

Making The Most Of Your Time, Because…

We're at that time when we get lists of the year's top ten news stories, the five most significant events in politics, the twenty most influential people, and so forth. Here's an article about the top online searches at places like Google and Yahoo. The results are pathetic, a reflection of our secular, trivial, and vulgar culture. A society that gluts itself on humor and movies while swimming in an ocean of trivialities thinks it's being mature and profound by focusing so inordinately on the death of Robin Williams. But is your life much different? Does your church do much to address these issues? When was the last time you heard a sermon that not only addresses time management, but does so with a lot of details, a lot of confrontation, a lot of rebuke, and suggestions about how to change? How are you influencing the people around you on these issues?

Monday, December 15, 2014

A different perspective on race relations

In the mainstream media, our "national conversation on race" boils down to an conversation between white liberals and black liberals. Here's a change of pace:


The Good Lie

Playing with matches

In the recent past I noted that AHA needs to be more cautious about who they work with. Unfortunately, my admonition was greeted with knee-jerk hostility. 

Here's another case in point: according to one AHA source, AHA is committed to nonviolence:

Now, I say "one source," because AHA keeps telling us that AHA is not an "organization" or parachurch ministry. But in that event there's nobody in authority to speak in an official capacity regarding what AHA stands for.

However, I'll let that pass for now and move on to my main point. Compare AHA's nonviolent policy with this:

Matthew Trewhella made this presentation at the Against the World – For the World Conference conducted by Abolish Human Abortion in Memphis, Tennessee on November 1st, 2014. The presentation defines the doctrine and demonstrates the necessity of the interposition of lower magistrates for total abolition of abortion.
That raises questions of consistency. For instance, Trewhella was a signatory to the following statement:
We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child.

The clear implication of that analogy is that lethal force is sometimes legitimate or necessary to defend the life of the unborn. 

In subsequent developments:
Trewhella had, in 1994, signed this statement, which says he and others feel it's OK to be violent against abortionists. One of the other signatories later shot two people at an abortion clinic.  
But he tells me that he pulled his name from the statement about six months after he signed it, when it became clear to him that Paul Hill and others took the statement as a justification for doing violence themselves. Trewhella says he does not advocate using physical force against abortionists.

But given what the statement actually says, which he originally signed, he apparently removed his name, not because he changed his mind, but because it became inexpedient to be associated with the other signatories. To put it bluntly, at that point he was covering his posterior. 

In addition, he eulogized Paul Hill: Among other things, he said:

What I learned is that he is not a madman or a flake as some have tried to dismiss him, rather he is a brother in Christ who has rational, biblical reasons for his actions which landed him in prison. 
It has long been established in law, not to mention Holy Scripture, that it is legitimate to use force in order to defend other persons from bodily harm. Therefore, this idea that the use of force or violence on behalf of the preborn is “unthinkable” or “wrong” is nonsense. However, it is legitimate to question whether Paul used the proper amount of force or too much.  
Paul was not allowed to discuss “why” he shot the abortionist at his trial. He was not allowed to discuss his intent.

The clear implication is that assassinating an abortionist is, in principle, a legitimate use of force. 

Likewise, intent would only be germane if that was exculpatory, which would only be exculpatory if intent makes that a case of justifiable homicide.

He abruptly ends on this note:

For those who may be wondering, we here at Missionaries to the Preborn remain committed to non-violent action on behalf of the the preborn, but that does not mean that we will disparage those who use force, for to do so is to repudiate the humanity of the preborn.
But in light of what he just said, that's a throwaway disclaimer. He's having his cake and eating it too. Why would he be committed to nonviolent action given his stated position that lethal force is legitimate or even necessary? 
This seems like a situation in which you first say what you really mean, then attach a declaimer to buy you plausible deniability. A declaimer that's incongruous with what you just said. A wink and a nod. 

Causing evil and committing evil

When attacking Calvinism, freewill theists belittle the distinction between causing evil and doing evil. But isn't there a relevant difference?

For instance, say I get drunk at the bar. I sense that I'm drunk. But I drive back home. Only I'm involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident on the way back.

I did evil. I committed evil. 

Suppose I have a grown son who gets drunk at the bar. Senses that he's drunk But drives back home, running over a cyclist on the way back.

I caused evil. 

In the second case I initiated a chain of events resulting in a wrongful death. But I didn't do evil. And I'm not culpable for my son's vehicular homicide.

Now, freewill theists might say the situation is different in the case of God. For instance, if an agent knowing and intentionally causes evil. But for now I'm noting that there's a distinction in principle between causing evil and committing evil.

That creates an interesting parallel between human and divine causation of evil vis-a-vis open theism.

As a thoughtful human, I know that whatever I do or don't do will cause some resultant evil somewhere down the line. Being shortsighted, I don't know what the resultant evil will be, but I know that, even with the best of intentions, my actions will cause some resultant evils. 

And the same would apply to open theism. 

Kinda like: if I throw dice enough times, I know that I will throw sixes. I don't know which throw that will be. But sooner or later, that combination is bound to turn up. 

Hoping Scripture is wrong

A common objection to inerrancy is that inerrantists have a totalitarian commitment to the plenary inspiration of Scripture. They are deeply invested in the issue. They can't afford for Scripture to make mistakes. So they resort to desperate expedients to defend the inerrancy of Scripture.

There's some truth to that allegation. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with fighting for a worthy cause. The meaning of life is pretty fundamental. And absent divine revelation, the meaning of life is groundless. 

In addition, there's a difference between commitment to inerrancy and the need to demonstrate inerrancy. There's no presumption that we can or should be able to explain everything in Scripture. It's bound to have some obscurities. Our ability to harmonize the Gospels is not a precondition of inerrancy. Since we didn't see what they saw, we may be in no position to piece together the whole picture. But that's not surprising.

However, that's not the point of my post. Let's turn the objection around. Why do many people deny the Bible? Well, some people deny the Bible because they think there's evidence that disproves the Bible. But that's not all. 

Many people, both inside and outside the church, think the Bible is wrong because they want the Bible to be wrong. They need the Bible to be wrong. They have a vested interest in the falsity of Scripture.

You have atheists who don't want God to exist. God's existence offends their sense of autonomy and self-importance. God is a superior being. That knocks them down a peg. If God exists, they  are answerable to someone else. 

There are "progressive Christians" who think St. Paul is sexist and homophobic. They want Paul to be wrong. They can't both be right. 

There are "progressive Christians" who need Jesus to be wrong about hell. 

There are "progressive Christians" who think the divine command to sacrifice Isaac was immoral. They need that to be fictitious.

They don't reject it because they have evidence to the contrary. It's not as if they have a tape recording of Yahweh telling Abraham not to sacrifice his son. 

There are "progressive Christians" who don't want Yahweh to exist. They hate Yahweh. They hate what he says and does. They hate what he represents. They are counting on Scripture to be wrong. God can't be like that. Scripture must be wrong. 

There are scientist who want Bible miracles to be fictitious, "for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. Anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured"

There are theologians who hope that God doesn't know the future. For if our actions are 100% predictable, then in what sense are we free to do otherwise? 

Make no mistake: this attitude informs much of what passes for Bible scholarship of the SBL variety. The Bible has to be wrong. There's too much at stake if Scripture is true. They have too much to lose if Scripture is true.