Saturday, December 27, 2014

An Arminian Dilemma

Steve Hays recently pointed to a statement from Roger Olson which said:
The original plan (to speak mythically) did not include the cross, but it became part of the plan when humanity rebelled (emphasis original).
More fully, in the paragraph Steve quoted, Olson says that he believes that the incarnation would have happened no matter what, but that it “became a rescue mission (emphasis original)” due to man’s fall into sin. Indeed, Olson speaks elsewhere in the post of Christ’s incarnation as “not merely a ‘Plan B’”—wording which indicates that it is still at least a Plan B, (for one cannot “merely” be something without being that something.)

When I commented on Steve’s post, I pointed out that this type of thinking demonstrates to me that someone who believes in this manner must jettison the immutability of God at some point. Olson seems to be fine with that, saying: “It is sad that so many Christians…prefer instead a philosophical idea of God as glorious according to human conceptions of glory—immutable, impassible, apathetic, self-enclosed, infinite (in the sense of incapable of limitations).”

Olson already should not be seriously quoted by any Arminian in the first place as he is essentially already an Open Theist. Nevertheless, certain Arminian organizations still hold him in high esteem. The viewpoint of God having a Plan B is also relatively common among Arminians I’ve met, but it holds quite a dilemma for a consistent-minded person.

First, it requires God to change. This is what is meant by mutability. An immutable God is an unchanging God (Malachi 3:6a, ESV— “For I the LORD do not change”) . One who is the same from day to day (Hebrews 13:8, ESV – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”). One who does not vary: “James 1:17b, ESV – “…with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”). Clearly, to deny the immutability of God, you must deny many Scriptural passages (a problem Olson doesn’t mind, since he denies the inerrancy of Scripture in the first place—again I ask why any Arminian still quotes this guy).

But if God had to come up with a Plan B, then the Arminian is faced with a problem. Either God had to change and invent a new Plan B, or God knew Plan A would fail all along. The problem with the first prong stretches beyond just the immutability of God, but also runs straight into the omniscience of God. How would it be possible for God not to know Plan A would fail if God is omniscient? Indeed, if God did not know if Plan A would work or not, then He had to learn that information. It would mean that when God implemented Plan A, He didn’t know what would happen, putting God on equal footing with man.

I believe that this question here could very well be the distinction between Arminians and Open Theists, because Open Theists will just acknowledge, “Yeah, God learned something. He doesn’t know everything.” But Arminians do not want to jettison Omniscience and Immutability, and therefore will conclude that God knew that Plan A would fail all along.

But here’s the question. If I know that a plan isn’t going to work, but I do it anyway, what does that say about my intelligence? Let me give a concrete example to play with. I work an IT Help Desk job during the day. If someone called up and said that they can’t connect to the internet, I know that telling them to turn off all the power in their house will not fix the solution. It would be foolish for me to offer that as a suggestion. Instead, I offer suggestions about things that might be causing the problem. “Have you tried resetting your router? Can you connect with a different browser than your default browser? Are you getting malicious popup advertisements that might indicate a virus?” Etc. Now, to be sure I do rank those in order of which is most likely to be occurring with a given customer, and if the first suggestion fails I move on to the next one. Thus, I do engage in Plan B behavior. But that’s sort of the whole point. Since I’m not omniscience and I don’t know what the problem is until I’ve investigated it, then I’m forced to offer Plan A, Plan B, all the way up to, “Buy a Mac so you can call me back and hear me say, ‘I’m sorry, we only support PCs here.’”

But if we are insisting that God knew that Plan A—testing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—was going to fail, requiring Him to move to Plan B, and God did what He knew would fail anyway, then that doesn’t speak much for the intelligence of God. In point of fact, we have to realize that if God knew that Plan A would fail, the only rational option left is to conclude that what we are calling Plan B was God’s Plan A all along.

Returning to the Help Desk analogy: if I’m working with someone who is completely unknowledgeable about computers and I know that rebooting his computer will fix the issue, having him turn off all the power to his house may not be so crazy after all. Instead, the point of turning off the power is so that the actual plan—Plan B—is put into effect. The computer powers down and must be restarted.

Granted, that example is extremely forced, but it should make the logical structure obvious. If God knew that Plan A couldn’t help but fail, then Plan B was His genuine Plan A all along. The only reason Plan A would be put into effect is so that Plan B happens. Thus, Plan A failing is the first step of Plan B. Plan B is the genuine plan and Plan A is the mere prelude. But if that is the case, then we can jettison the whole language of Plan B, because it just simply is the only plan that exists.

So it seems to me that Arminians are stuck in an uncomfortable position here. Either they must side with the Open Theists in believing that God is not omniscient or immutable, or they must side with the Calvinists in agreeing that God planned the fall of man in some sense so that He would redeem mankind. The only other option is to say God does things He knows must fail in the hope that it would succeed anyway, which seems to me to be pretty close to a certain definition of insanity that’s thrown around….

Fruitless or fruitful?

In one respect, debates over ecclesiology and church polity are all-important, but in another respect, pretty unimportant. Is that contradictory? No. It depends on the frame of reference. In comparing Roman Catholicism (and to a great extent Eastern Orthodoxy) to Protestant polity, the issue is all-important. That's because the Roman polity is a rule of faith in itself. Rome requires an authoritarian church to underwrite dogmas and duties that have no basis in revelation. Indeed, dogmas and duties which often contradict and contradict revelation. 
But when it comes to comparing Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, or Presbyterian polity (to take a few examples), there's nothing much at stake. At that level, what matters is not what your church polity is, but what your church polity does. What does it have to show for itself? Not polity in theory, but polity in practice. Is it fruitless or fruitful? That's really all that counts. 
11:30 AM I see that yet another book on New Testament ecclesiology is about to be published. I'm all for that. Every tradition of the church needs to be tested by every new generation of Christians. Does this mean that your church, or mine, can go back to the beginning and start all over again, ab initio? Hardly. Truth always comes to us in vessels of clay. That's why, regardless of what our convictions are on "how to do church the right way" (and I have some very strong convictions, as you know), the structures themselves will always be relative. Some will scrap the institutional church completely. (I did this back in the 60s when I was part of the Jesus Movement.) Others will seek renewal within their churches. (This is my current stance on the matter.) But the tabula rasa approach is, in my view, utterly unrealistic. Christians can never build a new church from scratch, no matter how hard they try and regardless of how many times they assert that they are following "the" New Testament pattern. Right structure does not always result in proper functioning. "Simple" churches can easily turn inward, relativizing the importance of the Great Commission. Worse, they can become lifted up with pride, belittling the institutionality of the church. I'm reminded of the old German saw, "Operation glänzend gelungen. Patient leider tot." There is no reason why churches of the Reformation should not be open to the possibility of rethinking the wineskins that Jesus talked about so much. My own local church has made tremendous strides in recent years to adopt what we consider to be a more biblical form of church structure and practice. But that's not the real issue. By their fruits we will know whether a congregation is practicing the Gospel. The crisis in world missions today is not due to faulty structures alone. Rather, what lies at the root of the trouble is confusion about our priorities. 
The Lord has much to say to us today. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Rev. 2:7). Does my heart respond, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening"? Does your heart respond like that? We Christians ought to be setting the world on fire. Alas, it's so easy to go from fire to frost, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to pat ourselves on the back over our ecclesiology.
[Tuesday, November 25]

Submit yourselves to God

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve (2 Tim 2:12-13).
A few preliminaries before I get to the main point:
i) It's not my intention to exegete this text. But I'll make the following thumbnail observations. I suspect the background for this is a house-church setting where wealthy women opened their doors to host Christian gatherings. In the NT, we see some examples of affluent women who patronized the church. In itself, that's a good thing.
However, it carries the potential for abuse. Since it takes place under her roof, there's a sense in which she's in charge. Likewise, upperclass women outranked many male Christians on the social ladder. Whenever one person has power over another or others, there's the temptation to abuse their power. To throw their weight around. 
ii) Nowadays, many women rankle at this text. And you have some husbands who abuse their authority. You also have situations where irresponsible husbands can put the wife in an untenable situation. 1 Sam 25 is a case in point. So there can be some understandable resentment.
iii) That said, there's a sense in which we've come full circle. Just as some men abuse their authority, some women abuse their authority. In our own culture, you have men who find themeslves on the receiving end. For instance, in the current education system, you have female teachers or professors who discriminate against male students. Likewise, you have gov't officials (e.g. Kathleen Sebelius, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mayor Annise Parker) who abuse their authority. Just as there are women who suffer injustice at the hands of men, there are men who suffer injustice at the hands of women. 
iv) Getting to my main point, submission is a universal principle. By that I don't mean mutual submission in the faux egalitarian sense. Rather, I mean that even–or especially–in the case of male headship, men must be submissive to the will of God. There are Christian men who've had to endure hard providences. Christian men who've had to persevere in the face of a crushing loss or setback. Yet they soldier on as best they can. That's a submissive attitude. This isn't just a feminine virtue, but a masculine virtue. Not just a feminine duty, but a masculine duty. For instance:
Samuel Rutherford
His wife, Euphame, died in 1630 after suffering intensely for thirteen months. With the exception of one daughter, all the children she and Rutherford had died at an early age. Rutherford himself fell seriously ill with a high fever about this time. Then, in 1635, Rutherford’s mother, who had come to live with them, also died. 
In 1640, Rutherford married Jean M‘Math, described as “a woman of great worth and piety.” He had one daughter, Agnes, from his previous marriage, and six more from the second marriage, all of whom died before Rutherford. Two of them died as infants before Rutherford left to attend the Westminster Assembly. Two more died while he and his wife were in London.
Robert Lewis Dabney
Dabney was to eventually have six children - all boys. In 1855 tragedy struck his household. In November - his second son died of diphtheria in his arms. It is a terrible disease of the throat - where your throat slowly swells to where you can't talk - then swells more to your can't breathe. Dr. Dabney held his small boy in his arms and helplessly watched him die of suffocation. The next month his oldest son Bobby died of the same disease. He had lost two out of - at that time - three of his children within a few weeks. 
In the late 1880's, Dr. Dabney developed an astigmatism and eventually glaucoma. Surgery at Baltimore in 1886 proved unsuccessful. From 1886 to 1889 his sight became dimmer and dimmer until the light went out absolutely. 
He did not give up on life. He employed a private secretary to write at his dictation and to read for him that he might continue his studies.
Win Corduan
Thanks for beginning with this personal question; I just hope that readers will not be put off by my answer and that they will continue to the next item. To be perfectly honest, life has been challenging. If I hadn’t been experiencing the limitations associated with my condition (Parkinson’s disease), I wouldn’t have needed to retire on disability. So, I have had to learn to attempt to live with much greater restrictions on how much energy I have and what I can produce than I had expected. Furthermore, continuing to speak with embarrassing honesty, our financial situation has been disastrous. I will spare you any further details, except to say that, when you go on disability due to a health condition, and you lose all forms of health insurance, and your income is reduced to about 50% of what it was previously, life gets a bit uncomfortable. I’m not totally sure why I’m telling you all of this, but these last two years have been nothing like what I had hoped for. I had thought in terms of settling in, spending my days basically devoted to studying and writing, enjoying the ideal life of the Christian scholar, but it’s been anything but that. Nevertheless, the Lord is bearing us through this time; June and I are rejoicing daily in the love and relationship he has given to us; and there is a certain amount of light on the horizon. It takes two and a half years on disability to become eligible for Medicare, and that is supposed to set in this coming January, which will hopefully ease the financial burden. In the meantime, I have been plodding on with various writing and research projects; I have had the chance to fill in  a couple of small slots at Taylor; I am determined to keep my blog going; and recently spending a week at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, teaching a module on world religions, has been a real shot in the arm.
David Alan Black
For 37 years God broke me on the wheel of another's love. She was my hermitage, my dwelling place, and I was her hermit. Her body led through a glorious forest and her heart shot arrows into my own. Two rocking chairs on a porch, a voice on the other end of the phone, laughter squealing around the door from the kitchen. Just to touch her face was more powerful than life itself, and in her arms I could safely die. 
My love, all my searching found its end in you. Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, I had no one like you. You were the best, the cream of the crop. That I knew you intimately still makes me feel thunderstruck. But all this joy, all this light, was nothing more than looking through a glass darkly. Something more breathtaking awaited us when we said our "I dos" those many years ago. "Today you will be with Me in Paradise" has taken on new meaning for you -- and for me. I can tell you, it's mighty painful, but I would not have you back for the world. He gives. Hallelujah! He takes away. Hallelujah! His Name is blessed forever. Hallelujah! And so it will remain for all of eternity. Hallelujah! 
But I miss you no less because of it.
8:45 AM It was late last night and I was reading in bed when I suddenly felt overwhelmed, felt something rising deep within me and clawing its way to the surface, loud and painful. Once again God was challenging me, offering me another opportunity to trust Him viscerally. My mind went to the passage in Philippians we had studied this week in my Greek 3 class, the passage about a man named Epaphroditus. He had ministered to Paul in prison, had gotten desperately ill, but God had healed him miraculously, thus sparing Paul "sorrow upon sorrow." All I can tell you is that, had Epaphroditus died, Paul would have been overwhelmed with grief, wave after wave of sorrow assaulting him mercilessly. 
Well, God in His love and sovereignty allowed Becky to become desperately ill. For four and a half years we battled cancer together. But unlike Epaphroditus, her illness was unto death. It's common for a major loss in life to trigger the memory of previous losses, and if those losses weren't grieved over, the pain begins to pile up, it accumulates and is added to your current pain. The result is often emotional trauma. Paul's honesty in Philippians is refreshing. "God had mercy on him, and not only on him, but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow." This verse is the counterpoint to all the verses in Philippians that speak about joy. To rejoice in the Lord does not mean that you deny the reality of your loss. When a person loses someone precious to them, you needn't admonish them, "Don't be sorrowful. Death is nothing but the entrance into eternal life, into the very presence of Jesus. We are to be content even when someone precious to us dies." At some point during the process of recovery, you will hear those words from well-meaning friends. What they fail to realize is that when someone close to you dies, part of you also dies. You grieve not only for them but also for yourself. You are forever "without" that other person. You feel frustrated, hurt, helpless, and afraid. Sometimes you may even become angry or depressed. Neither emotion represents a lack of faith. They are simply responses to loss. Grief is that 30-feet wave I surfed at the Banzai Pipeline when I was a teenager. It moved over me and broke against me and there was nothing in the world I could do about it except yield to its force and let it carry me to a new place until it ran out of energy. 
Last night, as I sat in my bed, overcome with emotion, I asked myself, What caused this sudden sorrow? What triggered it? And then it became clear to me. I had been checking the national weather map on my iPad, moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, and as I moved into the deserts of Arizona my mind blew a gasket. Before me, staring at me unforgivably on the map, were the places Becky and I had vacationed with our family while we were living in California. Memories began to race through my mind -- Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, Winslow, Canyon de Chelly. I suddenly felt empty, depressed, sad, withdrawn. I felt like Lee at Chancellorsville: outmanned, outgunned, outsupplied. For a brief moment I forgot that I was not alone, that Jesus Himself, the Man of Sorrows, the one who was "acquainted with grief," was sitting right next to me, holding my hand, understanding my loss, weeping and mourning with me like He did at the tomb of Lazarus, not trying to rush me through the sadness but letting it accomplish its perfect work, teaching me how to embrace my grief, and the steps to recovery. Raw and fragile, I receded into self pity. 
And then it happened. I heard the ring on my iPad telling me an email had just arrived. This is what I read:
Dear Dave, 
Just wanted you to know that I am especially praying for you this week.  I have followed your blogs about Becky now for a year and have appreciated them so much.  I don’t pretend to understand your journey but I have been going on one of my own since my dad died a year ago Oct 31.  I know it doesn’t come close to the pain of losing a spouse but he was still my dad for 58 years and I have terribly missed his voice and words of encouragement.  Your willingness to openly blog your pain and your healing process has helped me through mine this past year and I am truly grateful to God  and to you for that. May the Lord comfort and encourage you through His Holy Spirit’s ministry over the coming days. 
Love in Him,
Your brother in Christ.
The sky suddenly lightened. The wind subsided. The dust settled. The wave released me. God, who had seemed so distance, now felt so close that I thought I could touch Him. Tell me it isn't so, I said to myself. How did this friend of mine, who lives 7,000 miles away on another continent, know that he needed to send me that email at that precise moment in time? This is not normal. It is inexplicable -- unless you believe in a God who sees your vulnerability, sees that something has been ripped away from you, and yet still loves and cares for you. It's as if He was saying to me, "Dave, your grief is okay. It is a statement that you loved someone very much." 
And what of this morning? The disruption, the confusion, the sorrow is still with me to a degree. I learned long ago that I can't just hang up my pain like I hang up my shirt in my closet at the end of a work day. Grief is my constant companion, though sometimes it is more blatant, more in-your-face than at other times. Often, when I least expect it, the grief returns, sometimes like the crashing wave at Pipeline, sometimes like the oozing lava that is bearing down upon Pahoa on the Big Island today. I know that some of you feel the way I do about Becky's loss. You share with me my pain, my grief. I have spoken with many of you. You have your own pain, too, some of you do. You lost a child or a parent this past year. There was a miscarriage or a stillbirth. That infant, though dead, still fills the bleachers of your mind. Loss is not natural, normal, predictable. I want you to know that I grieve for you too. Enter fully into your sorrow. Weep like I did last night. Go ahead and feel the pain of your loneliness (even though you are never really alone). Something absolutely life-changing has occurred in your life. Face it head-on, learn from it, let it do its work. Expect your feelings to intensify in the months ahead. And when deep within you those memories trigger the sights, sounds, and even smells of the past, when your pain overrides your ability to pray even, when all you can do is sit there and mutter over and over again, as I did last night, "Dear God, Lord Jesus," remember that Christianity embraces both real tears and real hope.
"Two are better than one," wrote Solomon, "because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up." For 37 years Becky lifted me up when I fell. And now that is no more. This is an excruciating truth. There is something bitter and painful about it, yet also something peaceful and acquiescent. This truth must be grasped, must be embraced as passionately as when Becky and I first put our mouths and bodies together. There is no escaping the grief and the sense of utter loss and abandonment. Like the brown leaves I see outside on this fall day, marriage is a temporary pleasure, something that is soon swept away. There was once a woman in bed right beside me. She was more beautiful to me than life itself. "Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." She was mine to have and to hold, till death do us part. And yet she was never truly mine. She was His. That is a comforting thought. As a result, my grief has begun to subside. Hope is replacing despair. I'm learning to rest in the knowledge that I will see her again someday, enjoy her radiant smile, and together we will breathe the air of pure grace. By the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, her death will be transformed into a victory song, and we will bow at His feet in humble adoration, just as we did when we took our vows those many years ago -- this time as brother and sister, caught up in the wonder of our God. 
This Saturday will be a star in a dark night, a reminder that dawn is coming, a harbinger that "rejoicing comes in the morning" (Ps. 30:5). As we gather one last time to honor Becky's memory, I will tell her again that I love her, that I miss her, that she will never be forgotten. I will cry buckets of tears. I will say goodbye for the billionth time. And I will thank God for my Florence Nightingale. I will thank Him for His kindness in entrusting her to me and, now that she is gone, for His grace in holding me close and filling my emptiness. 
And then life will return to taking one step, and then another ....

Like anyone who suffers from loss, I feel a need to redeem the experience, to leverage the loss for something good, to use it to bless others. 
In 37 years of marriage, we grew more and more like each other. Now if that isn't scary! Even today I find myself saying things that Becky would have said or counseling my daughters in words that Becky would have uttered. Marriage evens out our differences and draws us into an odd, otherworldly kind of togetherness where you really do become "one." This is an overwhelming reality that I've had to come to grips with since Becky's passing. No, I am no longer married to Becky. But I live as though I am, in many ways...I still wear my wedding ring. It is this unrelenting personalness of marriage that one cannot escape. Just as marriage gives face to unspeakable joy, so it also gives face to unbelievable suffering. Not only does marriage fail to mitigate the struggles of life, it exacerbates them. And just because your spouse is no longer living doesn't mean that you have stopped being delimited and informed by that other person. Marriage always involves a drastic course of action, not least when one of the spouses dies. It cannot succeed without a compete and utter attitude of acceptance. Death is the fate of all of us, and should your spouse die before you do, you dare not harden your heart or let your love grow cold. There are still many others who depend on your loving faithfulness, your constancy, your selflessness, your support, and your resources.
As I ate my dinner today, alone, I kept thinking about all the dinners Becky and I ate together at my table, this same piece of furniture, and I knew we would grow old and gray together and sit on the front porch and talk about all the things happening in the lives of our grandkids and thinking about all the adventures we still had left in life. Those days are no more, but I am not depressed. I have a roof over my head. I have food to eat. I have a family who spends time with me. That's more than Saeed can say as he wastes away in a prison in Iran.

Gregg Allison on Roman Catholicism: Introduction

I’m a big fan of Gregg Allison. Two of his works, “Historical Theology”, which topically explores all the major doctrines of Christianity from a historical perspective, and “Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church”, are among my favorites.

So I was delighted to see that he was coming out with this over-arching work on Roman Catholicism, “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”. This work does not disappoint.

I have to say, from a personal perspective, I’ve not looked forward to a book, nor enjoyed reading one, so much as I’ve enjoyed this one. There are a lot of works on Roman Catholicism, and many of them are bad, or incomplete. As Leonard De Chirico has pointed out, they fail to look at Roman Catholicism from a “systematic” perspective.

That’s De Chirico’s message in his 2003 work, “Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism”. Essentially a minor revision of his doctoral dissertation, De Chirico focuses on his one core lament:

The Evangelical perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism share a vivid concern for historical developments and doctrinal themes related to Roman Catholicism itself, but broadly speaking, must be judged to be deficient in theological insight, especially as far as the recognition of the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism and the theological core of the problem between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism are concerned (De Chirico, 303).

That is, among the different Protestant writers who look at Roman Catholicism (especially in its post-Vatican II iteration), virtually all of them look at it “atomistically” – focusing on one aspect or another – or many of them – but they fail to look at its “core”.

What does this mean? Some authors look at Roman Catholicism from the perspective of its system of justification (having rejected and anathematized the Gospel at Trent). Yes, they’ve done that, but what’s the purpose of it? Where did Rome’s doctrine come from? What caused the difference?

Others look at the system of the papacy, or the sacerdotal priesthood, or transubstantiation, or devotion to Mary and the saints, or transubstantiation, or penance. All of these things are aberrations from New Testament and patristic Christianity. But what caused these aberrations? Where do they come from? Is there one grand theme or idea holding them all together?

De Chirico says, “yes”. In fact, he searches out and identifies what he calls Rome’s two “core doctrines” (very closely related, however), and almost without exception, Reformed and evangelical writers since Trent, and especially since Vatican II, have missed them.

Allison’s work picks up where De Chirico’s work leaves off, and while he does not do a perfect job of it, much of what follows then is Allison’s [quite substantial] attempt to remedy this deficiency.

In a way, Allison’s work is the flip-side of De Chirico’s work, the “other side of the coin” which completes what was lacking, and “filling in the blanks” for De Chirico’s lament. Here’s how I’d break them out:

De Chirico’s work essentially breaks out into three parts:

1. Discuss the problems defining “Evangelical Theology” (since about 1960).
2. Review the “Evangelical responses” to Vatican II and conclude that they don’t show the “core” of Roman Catholicism.
3. Identify the two-fold “core” of Roman Catholicism and suggest how a comprehensive Evangelical treatment might proceed.

Allison begins with those items in mind, and elaborates:

1. He presents an “Evangelical Theology” (which he largely identifies with his own Reformed Baptist beliefs).
2. He discusses the two-fold “core” of Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism in some detail
3. He then works through the first ¾ of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” in light of his discussion of #2 (in his own list).

This is why De Chirico seems to love this book.

Over the next couple of days and weeks, I’m going to provide an occasional series looking at different aspects of the work. I wouldn’t call this a “review” in the technical sense, because I intend to bounce around and show different aspects of it.

Stay tuned.

NT ethics and war

Friday, December 26, 2014

Tickle apologists


Hacktivists have leaked John Yoo's Tickle Memos. These memos document shocking new incidents of CIA interrogators torturing high-value terrorists. 

In one case, interrogators strapped Faisal Shahzad to a table and tickled his bare feet with a feather-duster until he disclosed a plot to bomb Times Square.

In another case, interrogators discovered that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had a fear of clowns. A CIA interrogator then dressed up as a clown, causing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to lose bladder control and divulge pending plots. 

Christian spokesmen immediately denounced these brassknuckle tactics. 

Brian Zahnd said "You cannot be Christian and support tickling. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise. The support of tickling is off the table for a Christian. Tickling is demonic and it leads to hell. These evangelicals have reached a crisis of decision."
Steven Wedgeworth said: "Tickling is an offense against the image of God. Donning a clown outfit debases and degrades the clownish interrogator along with the terrorist.  The ends never justify exploiting a terrorist's coulrophobia. The good news, though, is that Jesus died for tickle apologists."

Atheism, consequentialism, and torture

I notice that a number of atheists have been crowing about a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. According to the poll, white evangelicals are the group most likely to support CIA "torture" whereas atheists are the group most likely to oppose CIA "torture." 

The atheists I've read treat that as empirical vindication that you can be good without God. Indeed, you can be more moral without God. They take it for granted that "torture" is morally indefensible. 

There are, however, some glaring gaps in their logic, even from–or especially from–a secular standpoint:

i) What about prominent secular Jews like Richard Posner, Alan Dershowitz, and Charles Krauthammer who support torture in extreme situations to extract intel from terrorists? Likewise, secular philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson supports torture under those circumstances. 

ii) Atheists keep insisting that atheism is not a philosophy. It's just disbelief in God or gods.

On that definition, atheism is consistent with moral nihilism, moral fictionalism, or consequentialism. Peter Singer is a famous (or infamous) secular utilitarian. Likewise:

There are those who argue in the affirmative and point to so-called ticking bomb scenarios to support their case. These theorists often adhere to some form of consequentialism, such as utilitarianism. They include Allhoff (2003), and Bagaric and Clarke (2007).

iii) And this is more than anecdotal. According to a sweeping survey of philosophers, secular philosophers espouse consequentialism at 3-1 ratio compared to theists:

Normative ethics:consequentialism0.218
consequentialismnot consequentialism
Response pairs: 789   p-value: < 0.001

Surely there are situations where torture is justifiable on utilitarian grounds. The ticking timebomb scenario and other suchlike. For instance:

(1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is more or less imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent—the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them; (5) the terrorist is known to be (jointly with the other terrorists) morally responsible for planning, transporting, and arming the nuclear device and, if it explodes, he will be (jointly with the other terrorists) morally responsible for the murder of thousands. 
In addition to the above set of moral considerations, consider the following points. The terrorist is culpable on two counts. Firstly, the terrorist is forcing the police to choose between two evils, namely, torturing the terrorist or allowing thousands of lives to be lost. Were the terrorist to do what he ought to do, namely, disclose the location of the ticking bomb, the police could refrain from torturing him. This would be true of the terrorist, even if he were not actively participating in the bombing project. Secondly, the terrorist is in the process of completing his (jointly undertaken) action of murdering thousands of innocent people. He has already undertaken his individual actions of, say, transporting and arming the nuclear device; he has performed these individual actions (in the context of other individual actions performed by the other members of the terrorist cell) in order to realise the end (shared by the other members of the cell) of murdering thousands of Londoners. In refusing to disclose the location of the device the terrorist is preventing the police from preventing him from completing his (joint) action of murdering thousands of innocent people.[14] To this extent the terrorist is in a different situation from a bystander who happens to know where the bomb is planted but will not reveal its whereabouts, and in a different situation from someone who might have inadvertently put life at risk (Miller (2005); Hill (2007)).
My point is not to say whether this is right or wrong. Rather, my point is that atheism doesn't preclude this position, or even incline an atheist to reject it. Therefore, even on atheistic grounds, opposition to torture (under special circumstances) is not ipso facto virtuous. 

Dynamite under the Vatican

The cult of Mary, including Marian apparitions, has been very profitable–both literally and figuratively–for the church of Rome. For people who take a fancy to that sort of thing, it lends an emotional and popular appeal to Catholicism which would be lacking absent that phenomenon. Marian apparitions become tourist attractions and pilgrimage sites. They gin up lots of fervor. 

I don't mean to suggest that this is purely cynical. I'm sure that many recent popes are genuinely devoted to the cult of Mary. 

But although the papacy benefits from Marian apparitions, this is a potentially destabilizing principle. It's like dynamite under St. Peter's basilica. Just waiting to go off. 

It's my impression that many pious Catholics are far more devoted to Mary than they are to the pope. After all, what's a pope compared to Mary? She's the Queen Mother of God. The Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix. 

And here's where it could get dicey. Take Lucia Santos:

Soon she had her first vision of an angel, a rather blurred apparition resembling, she told her family, "somebody wrapped up in a sheet"; the description drew much teasing from her siblings.
While watching over the family sheep with her cousins the following year, Lucia saw another angel, this time resembling "a boy of great beauty, about 14 years old, whiter than snow, transparent as crystal when the sun shines through it". Announcing that he was "the Angel of Peace", the apparition taught the children prayers, showing them a vision of a chalice above which he held the Eucharist, which was dripping blood. He revealed, in two subsequent visions, that Jesus and Mary had special plans in store for them.
Announcing that she was from heaven, the Virgin said that she would appear to them for six successive months, at the same place and on the same day each month, revealing her identity during the final vision.
Subsequently, she confided a terrible vision of hell "where poor sinners go", showing blackened souls floating in a fiery pool. If humanity did not repent, warned the Virgin, a second, more terrible war would break out.
This was the first of the Three Secrets of Fatima. The second predicted that Russia would return to Christianity and, in 1944, while gravely ill, Lucia sent a sealed envelope containing the contents of the Third Secret of Fatima to the Vatican, with strict instructions that it should not be opened before 1960.
By 1925, Lucia had entered their novitiate at Pontevedra, over the border in Spain, where she saw fresh visions of the Virgin and Child Jesus. In one, Mary told Lucia about a spiritual exercise she had mentioned at Fatima involving the faithful attending Mass on the first Saturday of each month for five consecutive months in order to offer prayers and sacrifice for the conversion of Russia. Later, the Child Jesus appeared to Lucia in the convent's backyard when she was taking out the rubbish, and urged her to spread this devotion throughout the world.
In 1929 the Virgin Mary instructed Lucia to tell the Pope about this and to ask him to say a special prayer, in union with every Catholic bishop in the world, consecrating the entire world - but especially Russia - to her immaculate heart. Only thus, said the Virgin, would Russia be prevented from spreading its errors (Communism).
When a letter from the Bishops' Conference of Portugal failed to elicit a papal response, Lucia's bishop and her spiritual confessor urged her to write a personal letter to Pope Pius XII. Despite strong misgivings, she complied, signing herself "the least of the daughters of the Church"; and, in 1942, the Pope made the consecration. However, he failed to ask the other Catholic bishops in the world to unite with him in prayer. In 1984, John Paul II repeated the consecration in Rome in union with the world's bishops. For years malcontents speculated that the consecration was incomplete; but in 1989, months after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Sister Lucia announced that "heaven" had accepted the Pope's 1984 consecration.

Notice that Lucia was supposedly Mary's mouthpiece. In regular communication with the Queen of Heaven! When Lucia spoke, popes listened! 

No wonder! Lucia is taking dictation from the Mother of God–not to mention the Christchild. What pope can compete with that? Compared to that, he's pretty far down the pecking order. 

Imagine having secret revelations from Mary which you can dangle, like a sword of Damocles. Technically, popes outrank nuns, but if the nun happens to be channeling directives from the Queen of Heaven, what gives? 

Imagine if, in an interview, Lucia ever said Mary told her that John XXIII was an antipope or that Vatican II was a robber council? Who are Catholics going to side with–a pope or Mary's mouthpiece? 

Now, Lucia didn't put Rome in that predicament, but given the proliferation of Marian apparitions, what happens if a future confidant of the Virgin Mary becomes a critic of the Vatican policy?

Catholics might point out that the approval process for Marian apparitions precludes that dilemma. If so, there are a couple of problems with that safeguard:

i) What if surviving visionaries of an approved apparition subsequently cite new encounters with the Blessed Virgin which take issue with developments in Catholic theology? Can Rome say, "On second thought, we take it back!" 

ii) Moreover, if a Marian apparition achieves critical mass in popular sentiment, Rome can't afford to shut it down. Imagine the backlash if the Vatican were to say, "Based on historical renewed investigation, we've concluded that Mary's appearance to Juan Diego is a dubious legend. Please scratch Our Lady of Guadalupe from the list of approved apparitions."  

To a great extent, the Magisterium becomes captive to the Marian piety which it fosters. It is simply ratifying popular sentiment. The popes–and Catholic apologists–had better keep their fingers crossed. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

God's eraser

According to Arminian theologian Roger Olson, God had a plan–but he used a pencil rather than a pen:

The original plan (to speak mythically) did not include the cross, but it became part of the plan when humanity rebelled. 
Read more:

How will Jesus return?

This is a follow-up to an earlier post:

The physical, visible return of Christ is a pillar of the Christian faith. But can we be more specific? What will the return of Christ look like?

i) In the Gospels, Christ's appearance takes two forms. There's his ordinary human appearance. That's how he usually appears. A normal human body. 

But we also have the Transfiguration (Mt 17), where he becomes physically luminous. Blindingly bright. And this is before the Resurrection. So he always (as of the Incarnation) had that capacity. Interestingly, this incident is accompanied by the Shekinah or glory-cloud. 

ii) We have his appearance to St. Paul (Acts 9). This could be a subjective vision. However, it may be an objective vision. Once again, there's intense luminosity. That's reminiscent of the Transfiguration. So this may well be a case where Jesus puts in a physical appearance.

iii) Then you have the Christophany in Rev 1. This could be a subjective vision. But maybe not.

The sword-like tongue suggests figurative imagery. That might imply a subjective vision. 

On the other hand, that might be a figurative description which has a literal analogue. Given the associated imagery, it's reminiscent of the fiery cherubic sword in Gen 3:24. 

The white hair might be a symbol of purity and holiness. But in context it could just as well or better reflect his luminosity. Indeed, you already have the connection between whiteness and brightness in the Transfiguration. 

iv) As commentators note, the imagery in Rev 1 has its counterparts in the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. Among other things, their visions and/or theophanies combine elements of the Shekinah or glory-cloud and a mobile throne. 

This is sometimes how God appears to prophets on earth. God comes to them in the Shekinah, seated on a throne, surrounded by cherubim. It's a miniature throne-room. A microcosm of heaven descending (as it were) to earth. 

The Translation of Elijah (2 Kgs 2:10) is similar, but in the opposite direction. 

v) This, in turn, helps to flesh out Acts 1:9-11. The return of Christ will reverse the Ascension. As I read it, the Ascension involves Christ levitating above the disciples, at which point the glory-cloud envelopes him. The the glory-cloud passes out of sight. That doesn't necessarily mean it flies away. It may simply vanish. 

vi) For modern readers who've been conditioned by science fiction movies and TV dramas, these Biblical descriptions are apt to trigger associations with wormholes and flying saucers. Of course, that's anachronistic. 

You even have UFO religions, where people think theophanies and angelophanies were really about aliens and spacecraft. On this theory, ancient observers didn't know what they were seeing, so they described what they saw in culturally available categories.

Without taking time to discuss all that's wrong with that, I'd simply point out that the logic is easily reversible. Modern readers are reinterpreting apparitions in the cultural categories available to them. When they read accounts of apparitions, whether in Scripture, church history, or elsewhere, they translate or recast these descriptions in the ufological conventions of science fiction films. Flying saucers. Wormholes connecting parallel dimensions. That's an overlay imposed on the phenomenon rather than derived from the phenomenon.  

BTW, here's a witty critique of urological interpretations of Ezekiel:

The Defeat Of Satan

"he has visited us and accomplished redemption for his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David" (Luke 1:68-9)

"since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2:14)

"The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil." (1 John 3:8)

"Satan may be a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, but none of those who take refuge in Christ, the horn of our salvation, can he destroy. If I were an artist, I would paint for my home a special Christmas painting this year and hang it on the wall near the manger scene. It would be one of those big oil canvasses. The scene would be of a distant hill at dawn. The sun is about to rise behind the hill and the rays shoot up and out of the picture. And all alone, silhouetted on the hill in the center of the picture, very dark, is a magnificent wild ox standing with his back seven feet tall and the crown of his head nine feet tall. On both sides of his head there is a horn curving out and up six feet long and twelve inches thick at the base. He stands there sovereign and serene, facing the southern sky with his massive neck slightly cocked, and impaled at the end of his right horn hangs a huge lion, dead." (John Piper)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible

Defending Daniel

Although this post has special reference to Daniel, much of what I say is applicable to Scripture in general.

i) Warranted belief in Scripture doesn't hinge on corroboration from outside. Most Christians are in no position to independently verify Scripture. If the God of Scripture exists, he wouldn't make faith dependent on access to information which few Christians enjoy. 

In apologetics, we cite various lines of evidence to rebut attacks or provide additional reasons for belief. But that doesn't mean faith in Scripture should depend on independent confirmation. 

ii) Although unbelievers routinely attack the historicity of Scripture, that's really a red herring. Even if we had independent corroboration for every merely historical report in Scripture, that wouldn't make a dent in the unbeliever's disbelief. That's because unbelievers don't really care about the merely historical events recorded in Scripture. Their real objection is to the specifically supernatural or miraculous events. Even if we had complete corroboration for every "natural," nonmiraculous incident in Scripture, unbelievers would continue to reject Scripture out of hand. 

iii) The argument from silence is only significant if there's a reasonable expectation something would be mentioned if it occurred.  

iv) I find historical objections to Scripture inherently unimpressive. As I've said before, hits are far more impressive than misses. 

If two ancient sources disagree, it's easy to account for their disagreement if one or both are wrong. By contrast, if two ancient sources independently agree, then it's hard to account for their agreement unless both are (at least approximately) correct.

If the reported event really happened, they agree because that's the source of their information. And that's the standard of comparison.

Roughly speaking, there's only way to be right, because there's only one event. By contrast, sheer imagination is the only limit on the number of false reports. Since error isn't aligned with a standard of comparison (i.e. the actual event), there's no external check on variations in error. Proliferation of erroneous accounts is uncontrollable in a way that true accounts are not. 

Two accounts can easily disagree if both are out of touch with reality. The permutations of error are infinite. It's sheer coincidence if two fictional accounts happen to agree. Likewise, two accounts can easily disagree if one is factual while the other is fictitious. 

v) What makes the hits even more impressive is the scattershot nature of the surviving evidence. Given how little evidence survives, given how little interest ancient historians took in Israel or 1C Christianity, given the inevitable bias of ancient sources, it's nothing short of remarkable that we even have much independent corroboration of Scripture.

So this is something Christians always need to keep in mind when reading historical criticisms of Scripture. Hits are very impressive, but misses are very unimpressive. These are radically asymmetrical. 

vi) I think some scholars view a historical reconstruction like a jigsaw puzzle. In a good reconstruction, all the available pieces should fit together. 

But that's a misleading metaphor. Events fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Things only happen one way. One thing follows another. One thing happens at the same time as another–in a different locale. So there's only way that events fit together.

But in the case of ancient history, we don't have direct access to the events. What we have are sources. Ancient sources are unlikely to have the tight-fit of a jigsaw puzzle. Due to bias and ignorance, our ancient extrabiblical sources are, at best, raw data. 

If, say, a Christian scholar identifies Darius the Mede with Cyrus, his historical reconstruction needn't dovetail with all of the available evidence. For the extant evidence is likely to have jagged edges rather than smooth edges. The extant evidence is going to be piecemeal at best and often inaccurate to some degree. A rough fit is usually the best we can expect. 

vii) If Daniel was fictional, the more evidence that archeology turns up, the more the historical problems for Daniel should multiply. But the opposite is the case. The more evidence that archeology turns up, the more that eliminates or ameliorates past objections to the historicity of Daniel. 

That's not the emerging pattern we'd expect if Daniel was fictional. That's antithetical to the pattern we'd expect if Daniel was fictional. 

Liberals used to say Belshazzar was fictional, until archeology discovered extrabiblical evidence. 

Liberals used to raise linguistic objections to the 6C date of Daniel. But comparative linguistics based on archeological discoveries of extrabiblical Hebrew and Aramaic texts made that argument backfire. 

Liberals used to say Daniel 1:1 got the date wrong, but archeology has turned up evidence of different calendrical systems which can harmonize Daniel and Jeremiah. 

Liberals often say Darius the Mede is fictional. But archeology has supplied evidence that makes Cyrus a plausible candidate. 

Liberals used to say the designation of Belshazzar as a "king" is inaccurate. Yet archeology has turned up evidence to corroborate that title, viz. distinguising between a "king" and a "great king." 

Likewise, there's fragmentary evidence that Nebuchadnezzar suffered a bout of mental illness, which is consistent with boanthropy. 

viii) Apropos (vii), why would Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Jehoiakim be historical figures, but Darius the Mede be fictional? It's consistent to say all three are fictional. But since even liberals admit that's untenable, that puts pressure on their position. You could argue that if the Belshazzar pericope is fictional, and Belshazzar is fictional, then Darius the Mede is fictional. It's all of a piece. But when evidence turns up that Belshazzar is historical, then the claim that Darius the Mede is just a literary construct becomes very ad hoc.

ix) When unbelievers read conservative defenses of Daniel, this smacks of special pleading. Yet liberals and conservatives alike engage in historical reconstructions. Both sides extrapolate from trace evidence. Both sides interpolate missing evidence. 

For instance, Collins, in his commentary, doesn't think Darius the Mede ever existed. However, he's enough of a scholar to realize that it's inadequate to say Daniel was wrong and leave it at that. For he needs to explain what motivated the author to write Dan 6. He needs to provide an alternative explanation to account for Dan 6. 

So he comes up with an ingenious reconstruction. Yet his explanation is at least as complicated and speculative (if not more so) than scholars who identify Darius the Mede with Cyrus. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The mythicism fad

Continuing education

In the nick of time

This is a sequel to an earlier post:
Among other things, Braude says:
The potential psychic strategies are obvious enough: (1) Relevant people could come to know our prayers through ESP and respond consciously or otherwise.

i) One problem with this statement is what he means by "respond consciously or otherwise."

Does he mean they consciously know our need, but unconsciously respond? If so, that's less than self-explanatory. If they become aware of our need, then either they'd consciously respond, or they wouldn't bother to respond at all–if they don't care what happens to us, or don't wish to assume a personal risk.  

Or does he mean we plant a subliminal idea in their minds, which they carry out. Their action happens to meet our exigent need, although they were oblivious the relevance of their action to our exigent need. They didn't know our situation. They didn't know what we needed. But we did. So what they do has the unintended consequence of benefiting us. 

ii) One problem with that interpretation is that it seems to be one of those flexible explanations you resort to to cover your bets. An explanation that makes your theory consistent with any scenario. It can't be falsified, but by the same token, it's hard to see how it can be verified. If nothing counts as evidence against it, what counts as evidence for it? It seems to be independent of the evidence one way or the other. 

iii) Another problem is that this isn't a naturalistic alternative to theism. If there is a God, then he can alert others to our need or influence others to carry out the needed action. 

iv) But there's another problem with Braude's secular explanation. Take the case of retroactive prayer. Suppose I go jet-skiing late afternoon. In the middle of the lake, my jet-ski conks out. Let's say it's too far for me to swim to shore. Moreover, I don't wish to abandon my jet-ski.

Or let's say it's dusk. I if try to swim back in the dark, I could end up swimming in circles. I can't see the shore at night. I will become disoriented. I will drown from fatigue or die from hypothermia. 

So I pray. Just in the nick of time, somebody in a motorboat comes to my rescue, heaves me into the boat, and tows the jet-ski.

But to answer my prayer in time, he had to be on the way before I prayed. How could Braude's alternative account for that?

Braude might appeal to precognition, but there are problems with that appeal in this situation:

i) I didn't know in advance that I was going to find myself in this predicament. 

ii) And if I did have a premonition, I wouldn't put myself in this dire predicament in the first place. I'd have my jet-ski serviced before I went jet-skiing. 

iii) Perhaps Braude might say I had a subconscious premonition. But even assuming that's meaningful, how would I be able to plant an S.O.S. in the mind of my rescuer based on a subconscious premonition? If I'm unaware of my future predicament, how can I telepathically communicate that to a second party? 

iv) For that matter, my rescuer is a perfect stranger to me. How does my mind know ahead of time to reach out to that person?

Now, admittedly, this is a hypothetical example. For now I'm just considering the kinds of answered prayer that Braude's theory lacks the resources to replace. 

N.T. Wright And The Evidence For The Virgin Birth

Steve Hays drew my attention to an article by N.T. Wright arguing for the virgin birth. Wright makes some good points, but some of the best arguments for the virgin birth and some of the best responses to objections to it aren't addressed. Here's an article I wrote earlier this year that outlines some of the evidence for the virgin birth and links a lengthy book review I wrote on the subject.

Among other points I make in my article linked above, it should be noted that the virgin birth receives indirect support in the citation of Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18. Though John doesn't refer to the virgin birth in his writings, what he does write is consistent with the doctrine, and it's affirmed early and widely among the disciples of John and the churches he most influenced. The virgin birth was affirmed by Polycarp and other contemporaries of the apostles, as I document in my material linked above. Christian sources in the second century refer to the virgin birth as a core belief of Christianity that's accepted across the Christian world. I've also argued that early and widespread belief in the virgin birth is the best explanation for why the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy wasn't more controversial in early Christianity. We have far more evidence for the virgin birth than the material found in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke.

Herod and the magi

Jason Engwer has been responding to Jonathan Pearce's attacks on Matthew's nativity account. I notice that Pearce is very repetitive. He recites his talking-points, paraphrasing the same stump speech without advancing the argument. With that in mind, I'll comment on a representative example of how he proceeds:

To set the scene, Herod has been visited by the Magi who inadvertently get lost following a supernatural star (which God is in control of, so this seems by design) and end up in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. Remember, these are some wise Zoroastrian astrologer/astronomers (probably) who have come together and followed a star that no one else in the known world appears to have seen, thinking it will lead them to something special. What a huge risk!

i) There's no textual evidence that they were following the star at this stage. There's no textual evidence that the star was visible during their journey. To the contrary, the text indicates that the star was only intermittently visible. 

As far as the text goes, the star may have initially appeared for just a few days or less, around the time of Christ's birth. It may have appeared in the direction of Palestine, from their original location. It didn't point to Bethlehem. 

The function of the star at this juncture wasn't to continuously guide them from their country of origin to Bethlehem or even Palestine. Rather, the star had an emblematic significance for them, indicating the birth of a Jewish king. And it gave them a compass point (as it were). Head in that general vicinity. 

ii) Going to Jerusalem isn't just a detour. In the implicit theology of the narrative, the magi bear witness to the Jewish establishment. Their presence signals the birth of the Messiah. That puts the Jewish establishment on notice. 

iii) I don't know why he identifies the magi as Zoroastrians. 

iv) Others may have seen the star, but without a frame of reference, it held no particular significance for them. Unless you know what it signifies, seeing the star doesn't lead to a plan of action. 

v) Matthew doesn't bother to explain how they were able to interpret the star. If they were from Babylon, there was a major Jewish community in Babylon–a holdover from the Babylonian Exile. They might have gotten some information from that source.

Or, even if they weren't from Babylon, given the role of angels in the nativity account, an angelic apparition might have clued them in.

They end up wandering around Jerusalem, where word of their search gets to the king. Herod finds out that they speak of a prophecy which neither himself, his scribes, or anyone else in Jerusalem appear to have the first clue about. Apparently, it speaks of the Messiah being born in nearby Bethlehem. Who knew?!

i) What is even Pearce talking about? There's nothing in the text to indicate that the magi spoke of a prophecy about the Messiah's birth in Bethlehem. To the contrary, that's supplied by Herod's theological consultants. 

ii) Moreover, as an impious halfbreed Jew, there's no reason to think Herod was deeply versed in the OT Scriptures. 

Littered with these issues, the somewhat trusting (out of character) Herod lets the Magi go and assumes they will report back to him. 

i) Matthew doesn't present Herod as trusting, but devious. Herod is used to manipulating people. He doesn't expect the magi to double-cross him. He's the kind of man who prides himself on outsmarting his enemies. He lives by his wits, and that's served him well over the years. He was very cunning. A political survivor in a cutthroat world. 

It's the magi who are trusting. Unsuspecting. They intend to report back to him. It's the angel who warns them. Not something Herod could anticipate. So Herod's behavior is perfectly in character.

ii) But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it's out of character. So what? In the Bible, God sometimes messes with the minds of wicked kings. God makes them do rash, foolish things. Matthew's God isn't going to let Herod murder the Messiah–who happens to be his Son, no less! 

As I have pointed out, Herod is not likely to have troubled himself with the newborn since at the time he was very ill, very old (in his 70s), suicidal and we know he did not care for the future of his kingdom, leaving it not explicitly to any particular son, with no vision of what it should become. In this light, is he likely to care a fig about a child whose challenge will not come to fruition for another 20-30 years, if at all?

That's not what our extrabiblical sources tell us. To the contrary, they say that as he grew older, he become fanatically possessive and paranoid about his hold on power. 

Is it more probable, then, that the Matthean account of Herod did not happen? That the Magi were a literary and theological mechanism, a device for getting Herod involved to play the Pharaoh in a midrashic retelling of the crucial Old Testament story of Moses? That the firstborns dying is repeated in the Massacre of the Innocents at the hands of Herod, which leads Joseph and family to flee to Egypt only to “come out of Egypt” (“fulfilling” a prophecy in the meantime) like Moses to create a new kingdom of God? To believe this actually happened as reported by Matthew, to me, beggars belief.

i) The firstborn males aren't singled out in the Massacre of the Innocents. Moreover, the males are targeted because the Messiah is male. 

ii) Critics are conflicted on this point. On the one hand they claim that Matthew began with his OT prooftexts, then invented stories to illustrate his prooftexts. On the other hand, they claim that the prooftexts don't match the stories.  

One would certainly have good right to think that this is bizarre and that Herod would more likely accompany them or send troops with them to find the Messiah at risk of death, and kill him there and then.
This, of course, assumes that the Magi were real, which, as I point out in my book (and it is worth reading Adair’s superb The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). But Jason does have something of a point. However, Herod’s affront at the time would lead him, surely, to accompany the Magi by force. This would mean that there was no margin for error. On pain of death, those Magi would have led him to the baby. 

That's a fallacious inference. The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem doesn't imply that he was still residing there by the time the magi arrived on the scene. That's simply his last known address. Neither Herod nor the magi know in advance if Jesus is still there. 

So it would make sense for Herod to let the Magi scout out Bethlehem to confirm his whereabouts. That's the logical place to start. If he had moved, they could query the neighbors. 

Moreover, the Star reappeared, so it would have been trivially easy to go there independently of the Magi. In fact, unless God only magically made the star visible to the Magi, the whole of Jerusalem could have gone to see the newborn Messiah; the entity they had surely been waiting to see for quite some time.

i) The star reappeared for the magi's benefit, not for Herod's henchmen. Why assume the star would compliantly light the way of assassins? It doesn't act like a natural object. It's very discriminating. 

ii) In order for the star to be visible to everyone, it would need to be high in the sky. If, however, it was high in the sky, it wouldn't point to Bethlehem in particular. And to position itself right over the house of Mary and Joseph, it has to be very low in the sky. And not on the horizon, but very localized. yet in that event, it's visibility is obscured by hills and trees. You can't see it by looking up. Rather, you can only see it by looking in the right direction. 

iii) It doesn't occur to Pearce that "all Jerusalem" is hyperbolic. In context, Matthew is probably referring to the religious establishment. 

iv) As the text says, Herod conducted his investigation in secret. It was very compartmentalized. He asked his theological consultants where the Messiah was to be born, and he asked the magi when the Messiah was born (assuming the appearance of the star coincided with the birth of Christ). However, he kept his theological consultants in the dark regarding the timing. Moreover, the general public wasn't privy to what either group told Herod behind closed doors. Only Herod and the magi know both the when and where. 

At best, it takes two coordinates to locate Jesus: time (his birthdate) and space (his birthplace). Even that's fairly roughhewn–which is why Herod allows himself a generous margin of error (boys two years old and under) to make sure he doesn't miss the target. 

v) What does Matthew intend the reader to visualize? What if it's more like ball lightning? It stays ahead of the magi, at about eye-level or a little higher. It illuminates the dark road. It leads them to Bethlehem, then singles out the house of Joseph and Mary. 

I'm not saying it is ball lightening. I think it's likely the Shekinah. My point is simply to consider what the reader is supposed to imagine. 

This concerns the idea that Herod, whilst talking to the Magi, was fortuitous enough to gain the exact information of where the star was at the time, etc etc... 

How's that "fortuitous"? He's posing specific questions to pinpoint the time. And they'd be in a position to know when they first saw the star. 

…so that, when the Magi failed to return, he was amazingly able to triangulate the position and age of the child and go about killing babies unbeknownst to any contemporary historian or recorder of events.

i) How is that "amazing"? He got the birthdate from one source and the birthplace from another source. Those are two key coordinates. However, that's time-sensitive. Indeed, as it turns out, his information was slightly out-of-date. So he just missed his quarry.

ii) Who says the death of the children was unknown to any contemporary historians? We only have fragments of some ancient historians. And the works of other ancient historians, like Nicolaus of Damascus, are completely lost to posterity. 

iii) Moreover, ancient rulers routinely wiped out whole villages. That's so commonplace that we wouldn't expect ancient historians to record it. Ancient historians don't care about the little people.