Saturday, January 23, 2016

Darrell Bock on the Wheaton controversy

Darrell Bock, a theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who sits on Wheaton’s 17-member board of trustees, said that Hawkins’s refusal to speak further about theological issues has made it “very, very difficult.” He declined to speak on the theological issues at stake, saying it had turned into a personnel matter.

“What really tied the school’s hands was she stopped talking,” Bock said. “It was unfortunate in many ways because I think they were in a process that could’ve made progress.”

Was Nabeel Qureshi a fake Muslim?

I've seen Muslims attempt to discredit Nabeel Qureshi on a couple of grounds:

i) They say he was never a real Muslim in the first place because he was an Ahmadi, and Ahmadis aren't true Muslims. Some of them compare that to how Christians disassociate themselves from Mormons.

Now, I can understand this objection from a Muslim standpoint, but it's only persuasive to insiders, not outsiders. It's hardly a reason for a Christian to view Nabeel as a fake Muslim. From a Christian standpoint, if Islam is a false religion, then the difference between one sect of a false religion and another sect of the same false religion is often insignificant. 

By the same token, the attempted parallel with Mormonism fails from a Christian standpoint. If I think Christianity is true, then I can distinguish true Christians from heretics. I have a standard of comparison. 

Indeed, the objection either proves too much or too little. Sunnis don't think Shiites are true Muslims. Shiites don't think Sunnis are true Muslims. Likewise, the Ibāī deny that Sunnis and Shiites are true Muslims. And, of course, you have lots of vicious factions within Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, &c. 

ii) Now, I'm not saying you can't draw any lines at all. I think Hinduism and Islam are both false religions, but I don't think Hindus are Muslim, or vice versa. Likewise, I might say a Muslim modernist is not a true Muslim. 

The point, though, is that an outsider will draw the lines differently than an insider. Muslims can tell me that Ahmadis aren't true Muslims from their frame of reference, but they can't tell me that Ahmadis aren't true Muslims from my frame of reference. They can't dictate to me what's the proper frame of refernce. I don't share their standards. I have my own standards. My criteria will differ from theirs. 

I'd only agree with them if I was one of them. But that's the very thing we don't share in common. 

iii) Ironically, I expect much of the animosity which Muslims have towards Nabeel is because they view him as a traitor. But he can't very well be a traitor if he was never one of them. 

iv) In addition, they've taken issue with his statement that if he were still a Muslim, he might join the jihad. They object that since he was an Ahmadi, and Ahmadis reject jihad, he's dissembling. 

Now it's possible that his claim is inconsistent in that regard. It's possible that he's hyping his Muslim background to make his conversion more sensational and salesworthy. I don't rule that out. 

However, it could be a sincere statement. For instance, I've read that during WWII, many Anabaptists volunteered for military service. Although Anabaptists are officially pacifistic, Anabaptist communities suffered a significant defection rate during WWII. 

And that wasn't hypocritical on their part. The fact that they were raised in pacifism, indoctrinated in pacifism, doesn't mean they signed on the dotted line. Although nonviolence is part of the Anabaptist package, not everyone raised in a theological tradition views their theological inheritance as a package deal which they must accept or reject in toto. 

More to the point, some young men find the prospect of literally fighting for a cause enormously appealing. Consider how successful ISIS has been at recruiting Westerners. These are man (and women!) with no background in Islam. Or consider foreigners who volunteered to take sides in the Spanish Civil War. There are young men who find that thrilling and self-validating–at least in theory. For better or worse, many men are warriors at heart. The fact that some of them were taught otherwise doesn't change how they feel. Actual combat may disillusion some of them. So there's nothing inherently disingenuous in Nabeel's statement. 

v) In addition, it wouldn't surprise me if Nabeel is referring to Islam in general: to its early authoritative texts. Because he's no longer a Muslim, he can view it with greater detachment than when he belonged to one particular sect. 

Nabeel Qureshi and the Gospels

Unbelievers as well as liberals cite differences between the Gospels to disprove the inerrancy and historicity of the Gospels. They account for these differences on the grounds that, at best, the writers rely on hearsay information. Conflicting traditions. Because the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses, and because they had no contact with eyewitnesses, we end up with discrepant accounts of what was said and done. They never knew Jesus. They never knew anyone who knew Jesus. They weren't where it happened or when it happened. They write at a time and place that's too far removed from events to be in touch with the facts. So goes the argument.

Let's consider a frame of reference. Nabeel Qureshi is the kind of guy whose career depends on his conversion testimony. That's how he introduces himself. That's the launchpad for his career. As a result, he often talks his background and conversion experience. Here are four examples: 

Now when you compare these four testimonies, there are differences. They are most dissimilar in terms of wording. Even when they describe the same events, they rarely use the same phrasing. 

In addition, the details vary. One account will mention something that's omitted in another account, and vice versa.

Yet all four accounts are firsthand accounts. What is more, all four accounts are from the same source. The same witness. 

Compare that to a political candidate's stump speech. Because he gives the same speech so often, even if he's not using a teleprompter, he will often use the same phrases and sentences. Likewise with prepared answers. Because it begins with a text rather than experience, there's great verbal similarity from one presentation to another.

By contrast, when you are recounting an incident from your own life, the wording may vary greatly because each time you are verbalizing what you remember. It doesn't begin with a script, but a memory. The wording wont be stereotyped. There are lots of different ways you can express what you remember. Different synonyms and sentences. Different words in different combinations. So long as you remember what happened, so long as you are fairly articulate, you don't need to consult a script or outline or cue cards to talk about your past. Your benchmark is not a text, but a memory. Not remembering what you said, but saying what you remember. 

Trump's Liberalism In His Own Words

I just saw that Ben Howe posted a good video to show people on the subject. It includes clips of some of Trump's older comments and some more recent ones. He tries to portray himself as more conservative now, but he still talks like a liberal at times.

And here's a video of Trump talking about how irrationally committed his supporters are. You may have to enable the sound on the video by clicking on the icon in the lower right.

Down to the wire

i) The Iowa primary will be a test of Cruz and Trump alike. Iowa is the kind of state where a social conservative like Cruz should do well. If he can't win in Iowa, where can he win? Moreover, if Trump wins, that gives him momentum. That weakens Cruz in other states where a conservative candidate would normally have the advantage.

However, Iowa will be a test for Trump, too. Thus far, all we have is polling data. Iowa will be the first test of how many Trump supporters are Trump voters.

It will also expose how much (or little) he's invested in a ground game? Does he have a good voter turnout machine? 

Conversely, if Cruz wins, that will weaken Trump and strengthen Cruz for NH. 

If Cruz loses, that theoretically gives rivals like Rubio an opening. But they have to catch up and overtake Trump. 

ii) In terms of pure math, having twice the percentage points of your nearest rival is not enough to win the nomination. 20% doesn't get you the nomination. 

However, the primaries function as an elimination race. It's a linear process that quickly narrows. If Trump can pick up a string of wins at the outset, then other candidates drop out, at which point voters down the line no longer have a viable alternative. By process of elimination, Trump could win be default. He may raise the percentages if later voters have no one left to turn to. Indeed, that's how primaries work. 

iii) Suppose no candidate has enough delegates to win the nomination outright. If it's a brokered convention, then all bets are off.

iv) Suppose Trump wins the nomination. Can he will the general election? 

One advantage he has over Hillary (or Bernie) is that he's better in front of a camera. That, however, will be offset by biased debate moderators who favor the Democrat nominee. 

Theoretically, Trump might appeal to voters who don't normally vote for Republicans. But that's offset by all the Republicans who will sit out the election if he's the nominee. Moreover, his crossover appeal is dubious:

Contra Rupert Murdoch’s assertion about Trump having crossover appeal, Trump is extraordinarily unpopular with independent voters and Democrats. Gallup polling conducted over the past six weeks found Trump with a -27-percentage-point net favorability rating among independent voters, and a -70-point net rating among Democrats; both marks are easily the worst in the GOP field.

v) If it's Trump v. Hillary, both candidates have astronomically high negatives, so they might cancel each other out on that score. Likewise, both have mountains of dirt to dump on their rival. In theory, that's a wash. But in practice, the mainstream media will target Trump. 

Typically, that would be offset to some degree by rightwing media. However, Trump won't get the same support from rightwing media that a conservative candidate would. 

vi) Then there's the question of how he'd finance a presidential campaign. Thus far I don't think Trump has had to spend much money because it's so easy for him to get free airtime. And the liberal media cooperates, both because it's good for ratings, and because they like to promote a civil war in the GOP primaries.

If, however, he gets the nomination, then the media landscape will drastically change. The same media that enables him as contender for the Republican nomination will turn on him as a contender for the presidency. He has two or three options:

a) Public financing

If he goes that route, he will be vastly outspent by Bernie or Hillary.

b) Self-financing

That would be a test of his commitment and sincerity. Is he prepared to gamble or squander his personal fortune on what might be a prospect with a dubious chance of success?

How much is he really worth? Isn't most of his personal fortune tied up in stock real estate? Assuming he has a controlling interest in The Trump Organization, surely he's not prepared to liquidate so much stock that he loses a controlling interest in his own company, is he?

Is he going to sell the Trump Tower? Trump Taj Mahal? 

Even if those would fetch enough money to finance his campaign, surely you can't sell that kind of real estate overnight. How would he liquidate enough assets, and liquidate them quickly enough, to finance his campaign out of pocket? 

c. Donations

How many working-class and middle-class Trump supporters will dig into their pockets to contribute to the campaign of a man who brags about his elite status as a multibillionaire? Won't they say to themselves, "If he's that rich, why doesn't he just write himself a check?"

Likewise, how many rich people will contribute to his campaign? Is he popular among the superrich? Or do they despise him as a braggadocio? 

Obviously, I don't have the answers to all these questions, and if he loses his nomination bid, they will be moot. But these are questions that prospective supporters should consider.

It would actually be in Trump's self-interest to drop out of the race before he's overtaken by events. Trump is a salesman who sells the product by selling himself. He's a brand-name unto himself. Thus far he's succeeded in raising his public profile for free. But if the campaign continues, and he suffers a humiliating defeat in November, or sooner, then his effort at self-promotion will backfire. Thus far in the process he had much to gain and little to lose. But that's about to change. A good poker player knows when to leave the table. If he was smart, he'd take his winnings and leave. 

Vote For Yourself

I was listening to Sean Hannity's radio program yesterday. I heard him say that the Republicans in Congress should have done the right thing, regardless of the political consequences. I got the impression that what he meant was that they should have put forward various policy proposals, voted for particular pieces of legislation, etc., regardless of how the media, voters, and other people would have responded. It's a common sentiment. Do the right thing, regardless of the cost.

The problem is, it's not always the right thing. There's nothing inherently wrong with something like voting for a piece of legislation that only gives you half of what you want while giving you other things you don't want. There's nothing inherently wrong with voting for a less conservative candidate who's more electable than a more conservative one. Sometimes, short-term setbacks prepare the way for better victories over the long run. You gain something more valuable by giving up something less valuable. We all apply such standards in many contexts in our lives, but some people act as though we can never do that in politics.

So, why don't they vote for themselves? Who do they agree with more? Sure, you aren't running for office. And your electability would be poor even if you were running. But so what? Do the right thing. Stand on principle. Vote for yourself. Don't settle for voting for somebody like Trump or Cruz. That's an unethical compromise. You don't agree with them as much as you agree with yourself. And that's the only thing that matters.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Prayer, physical intuition, and sample selection bias

Unbelievers dismiss evidence of answered prayer as sample selection bias. Christians remember the hits and forget or discount the misses. 

Let's take a comparison. Some great scientists are credited with physical intuition. Examples include Newton, Einstein, Dirac, Pauling, Hoyle, Feynmann, and Witten. They have insights or make predictions based on hunches. And these sometimes turn out to be uncannily perceptive. 

You have the equivalent with great mathematicians like Poincaré, Paul Cohen, and Andrew Wiles. They know the answer before they can prove it. 

Likewise, great chess players have sight-of-board. They can take in the opportunities and liabilities at a glance. 

But suppose we apply the same skepticism to physical intuition–or its counterparts in math and chess–that unbelievers apply to prayer. When we attribute physical intuition to a great scientist, why isn't that just sample selection bias? Aren't we just counting the hits and discounting the misses? Mustn't the predictions they get right be offset by the predictions they get wrong? Likewise, what about the games that chess masters lose? 

So isn't that sheer coincidenxw? Indeed, isn't that the sharpshooter fallacy?

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy takes its name from a gunman who shoots at a side of a barn, only later to draw targets around a cluster of points that were hit. The gunman didn’t aim for the target specifically (instead aiming for the barn), but outsiders might believe that he meant to hit the target.

Now, one might counter by saying, no, it isn't just coincidental, for even though they have their share of misses or losses, lesser scientists, mathematicians, and chess players don't have the hits or wins. So they clearly have something extra going for them that lesser scientists, mathematicians, and chess players don't.

But by the same token, couldn't we make an analogous claim for answered prayer–especially more uncanny examples? 

Why don't Republican leaders rally behind Rubio?

How Many Non-Conservatives Would Vote For Cruz?

Unless there would be some sort of major change in the electorate in the near future, which we have no reason to expect, Republicans can't win the White House this year without getting many millions of votes from non-conservatives. And a lot of the ones who are most persuadable are low-information voters, who decide how to vote based on factors as shallow as race, physical appearance, communication skills, whether a candidate came from a wealthy or more modest background, or what news items are most prominent just before the election (e.g., around fifteen percent of voters said that Hurricane Sandy was the biggest factor in determining which presidential candidate they voted for in 2012). Cruz might win over enough of those people. You could see him having some good moments in the debates or some good television ads, for example, that would make him likeable enough to those voters. Or his Democratic opponent could be flawed enough to allow Cruz to win in spite of his weaknesses. But we can't assume, without evidence, that some such scenario will occur. We have to make a judgment about Cruz's ability to win over the non-conservatives he needs based on what seems likely to happen, not just what might happen.

Could natural law be miraculous?

Hume famously defined a miracle as a broken law of nature. Although that definition has many critics, many supporters and opponents of the miraculous continue to define a miracle in those broad terms. They may tweak it a bit, but the definition still involves the concept of natural laws or laws of physics.

I think that's most consistent with physical determinism. The universe as a closed system of cause and effect. Within that framework, a miraculous event must temporarily violate intramundane causality or temporally violate physical determinism. It could either be indeterminate, or be the determinate effect of an external cause. 

On this model, what makes an event miraculous is the contrast between physical determinism and the miracle. 

Now suppose, for the sake of argument, that we turn this around. Let's posit indeterminism. Seven times out of ten (in no particular order) the same subsequent (physical) state follows the same antecedent (physical) state, but three times out of ten, a different subsequent state follows the same antecedent state. Say, seven times out of ten, water runs downhill, but three times out of ten, water runs uphill. And the alternation is random. Suppose the universe is a billion years old, and that's how it has always operated.

Let us now suppose that for a span of a million years, God makes physical determinism reign. The same subsequent state always follows the same antecedent state. During this time, water invariably runs down hill. 

Given Hume's principle, that be a miracle. If indeterminism is the norm, if that's the backdrop, and determinism is the exception, then cause and effect would be miraculous.

So Hume's definition has paradoxical consequences. If a miracle is defined as the opposite of the status quo, then, in principle, a (temporary) regime of natural law could itself be miraculous so long as that stands in contrast to what's normally the case (i.e. randomness). If we maintain his principle of contrast–as a necessary backdrop–then we can simply reverse the norm. Physical determinism and indeterminism changes places. 

Fact-checking Sam Harris

Marco Rubio: A Pro-Life President Who Will Defend Human Dignity

I've seen some Christians attacking Rubio as supposedly weak on the prolife issue. Here's an endorsement by a leading prolife apologist:

Pointless Prayer

As a Calvinist, I’ve lost track of the number of times someone has said to me, “If God is sovereign, there’s no point in praying.” Of course, the immediate rejoinder is obvious: “Only if God is not sovereign is there no point in praying.” Still, the typical meaning behind the statement seems to be, “If God has determined everything that will happen, then it’s pointless to pray because God has already made up His mind about what will happen.”

I think it’s time to turn the tables though. Especially regarding Arminians who pray for the salvation of other people. Indeed, not only do I think these prayers are utterly pointless, but if God really is the God that Arminians imagine, then such prayers demonstrate an utter lack of faith in Him.

I make that claim due to the following claims that Arminians—at least those I’ve interacted with—have asserted. First, Arminians claim that God loves every person everywhere with a universal and benevolent love. Second, Arminians claim that God wants every single individual person ever created to be saved. Third, only those who freely choose can believe in Him; God does not want robots.

So given these claims, it becomes fairly straightforward to demonstrate that it is futile for an Arminian to pray for the salvation of anyone. The most obvious way is by looking at the third claim. Since God wants us to be free and He does not want robots, what exactly is the prayer supposed to accomplish? Is the Arminian praying that God violate someone’s freewill? Obviously not. But what, precisely, is the prayer for salvation supposed to do?

Perhaps it is designed to ask God to bring about more opportunities for someone to be saved. Let’s examine that for a moment. Suppose an Arminian has a friend we’ll call Jim Bob, and the Arminian prays “Lord, I ask you to bring about more opportunities for Jim Bob to be saved.” But doesn’t God already want everyone saved? And if He does, why does He need you to prompt Him to try extra hard in Jim Bob’s case? Is He not already doing all that He can for Jim Bob?

Or look at it this way. Jim Bob and Billie Sue are both unsaved individuals. If you pray for Jim Bob to be saved, but not Billie Sue (because you’ve never met her and don’t know she exists), does this make it more likely for Jim Bob to be saved than Billie Sue? Does God give more attention to Jim Bob than Billie Sue? Certainly God doesn’t love Jim Bob more than Billie Sue, because of the first claim of Arminianism that God loves all universally.

So what, precisely, does the Arminian’s prayer accomplish when he prays for Jim Bob? God was acting toward Jim Bob in a specific manner before the prayer, and according to Arminian precepts, He acts in the exact same manner after the prayer too. Not only that, but God was acting the same way toward Billie Sue too. Thus, such a prayer is completely ineffectual. It accomplishes absolutely nothing whatsoever.

Except it’s worse than that for the Arminian. It’s not so much that such a prayer accomplishes nothing, but rather that it accomplishes the proclamation that the Arminian does not actually believe in Arminianism! After all, what would prompt an Arminian to pray for Jim Bob except that he doubts God really loves everyone with the same universal and benevolent love? In short, by praying for Jim Bob, the Arminian is ultimately saying, “God, I don’t really think you love everyone the same, so please save Jim Bob.”

Of course, I would anticipate an Arminian to say, “No, we believe God wants all saved, but we are just lifting up that request for Jim Bob in particular for…reasons.” Well, in that case, the Arminian is not mimicking the God he claims is real, for the Arminian is being very particular in asking salvation for one person and not for another. But that aside, the Arminian would be asking God to do…what God is already doing. This seems to me to fly in the face of Matthew 6:8, which in the ESV states: “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” The “them” in the first clause is the Gentiles who “heap up empty phrases” in their prayers: “Lord, I ask you to please keep doing what you’re doing that I know you’re going to be doing whether I ask or not but I’m going to ask it anyway because this is in no way a heaped-up empty phrase.”

After all, it’s not like Arminians can use the Calvinist concept of God ordaining the means as well as the ends. See, a Calvinist can argue that God uses the means of prayer in order to enact His will, choosing to not do something until He has moved His people to pray for it. Hence, the means to the end are established. But that doesn’t work for the Arminian here, because God is going to love everyone universally and He is going to want all saved and He is going to do all He can without violating their free will, irrespective of what anyone prays.

Or do Arminians really think that God would have saved Jim Bob if only we had prayed for him, but since we didn’t pray for Jim Bob then Jim Bob never got the chance to believe? Really? God’s going to withhold salvation for a person because someone else failed?

No, any way you look at it, the conclusion resounds: Every time an Arminian prays for anyone to be saved, he has torn down the foundation of his own worldview and proclaims that he knows in his heart that Calvinism is true.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why atheists ought to vote Christian

Recently, Marco Rubio responded to an atheist. It was a good off-the-cuff answer, especially for somebody who's not a philosopher:

But here's how I'd respond to the atheist. Let's begin with his question:

You say you want to stand up for religious freedom. My question is for atheist voters who are looking somebody who will uphold their rights as Americans: how do you plan on upholding our rights? 

There are different ways of fielding that question, but here's one way: either your rights come from God or government. That's what it boils down to.

God-given rights are above government. God-given rights are normally inalienable, although, in some cases, it's possible to do something that forfeits your ordinary immunity to harm. 

By contrast, if your rights derive from gov't, then whatever gov't gives it can rescind. What rights you have at any particular time and place depends on what rights the ruling class chooses to grant. Your rights exist at the indulgence of the state. And the state is capricious. 

Since atheism has no absolute standard, some groups have more rights than others, and it rotates. Take identity politics. The establishment adopts a social mascot. After a while it gets bored with its toy and abandons that for a new social mascot.

For instance, anti-Semitism used to be chic. That was popular among the educated classes. Then, after the Holocaust, the establishment was pro-Israel. But later the establishment shifted from pro-Israel to pro-Palestinian. So it's come full circle. We're right back to anti-Semitism. 

In addition, the establishment has a pecking order. It supports black rights and Latino rights unless that conflicts with gay rights. Asians take a backseat to blacks and Latinos in college admissions. It supports blacks so long as they are dutifully liberal. It supports women so long as they are dutifully liberal.

There's now a civil war between feminists and transsexuals. Feminism is the old guard. But feminism is passé. Feminism is based on gender essentialism whereas transgenderism is based on gender conventionalism. Gender is a social construct. Gender is not about plumbing or chromosomes but how you self-identify. Transgenderism is the new fad. Feminists are losing their hegemony. The ruling class has found a new social mascot to pamper. 

It's like a king with royal wives and mistresses. His favorite one year may be demoted the next year. 

In the pecking order, the ruling class has decided that Muslims have greater rights than anyone else. Muslim rights not only trump Christian rights, but Jewish rights, gay rights, women's rights, &c.

A secular ruling class won't protect atheists from Muslims. It's demonstrated that repeatedly in Europe and the UK. Ironically, atheists can't trust their fellow atheists to defend their life and well being from Muslim religionists. 

The primary opposition to sharia and jihad is coming from conservative Christians (and Jews). It's the Christians who are standing between atheists and Muslim oppressors. Likewise, only Christians will protect the right of atheists not to be aborted or euthanized. 

If atheists want to be safe, they should vote for Christian candidates.

The world to come

There are different ways to view the world to come. Will there still be natural disasters and dangerous animals? That's necessary to the balance of nature as we understand it. If so, how will the saints be safe? If not, that will be an unrecognizably different kind of world.

One possibility, which I've discussed before, is God's providential protection. But here's another possibility: in Scripture, some prophets and apostles have the ability to perform miracles. In principle, the saints in the world to come could have the same abilities. That would enable them to ward off dangerous animals or ward off natural disasters. Or in some cases they might have the prophetic foreknowledge or counterfactual knowledge to dodge impending threats. 

Right/left or right/wrong?

The RINO label is becoming an intellectual shortcut. A substitute for rational analysis.

Some political issues aren't about right and left, but right and wrong. I don't mean morally wrong, but just mistaken. 

Take support for Libyan intervention (to topple Gaddafi). That's not a right/left issue, but a right/wrong issue. A misjudgment. I'd say the Iraq war was a miscalculation. But that doesn't make Bush 43 a RINO. 

Is illegal immigration issue a right/left issue? Why not view that as a right/wrong issue? 

The social issues are both right/wrong and right/left. But there are a number of domestic and foreign policy issues that we can't pigeonhole into right/left categories, and that's a distraction. Instead, we should discuss them in terms of whether they are good or bad, wise or foolish. 

Not every political issue is a moral issue. Sometimes these are prudential issues. And it can be difficult for shortsighted creatures like ourselves to come down on the correct side of some prudential issues, because the consequences are too complex and unpredictable. 

An addiction to labels short-circuits intelligent evaluation of the issues and options. Labels can be useful, but that should be the end-result, and not the starting-point, of our assessment. 


I'm posting another exchange I had with a village atheist at Victor Reppert's blog:

Which is why, when asked why these kinds of things only happen in stories, you point out that they don't just happen in stories -- because they also happen in stories. Got it.

Apart from what you personally experience, everything else you believe about the world is based on testimonial evidence. Records, "Stories." I've pointed you to multiple resources containing well-documented miracles.

Calling them "stories" is unintelligent. Historical knowledge, including the history of science, is transmitted through "stories." Reported events. 

Discerning people distinguish between true and false "stories". You, however, have a circular, unfalsifiable position where no matter how much evidence is provided, you dismiss that as something which only happens in "stories". 

All these are entities or phenomena that exist in reality, and not just in stories. Why do you suppose that the magical events that occurred in the New Testament don't ever happen in reality, but are only recounted to us through stories? Are there no events that you think only happen in stories, and aren't real?

Most of what you think you know about reality is based on secondhand information. You don't directly observe most of what happens in the world. You're in no position to distinguish between "reality" and "stories" when your information about "reality" is mediated through reports. Your posture is anti-intellectual and self-refuting. 

Apart from logical contradictions, we don't have an inborn knowledge of what's possible. That's something to be discovered. We learn about the world through observation or revelation. 

Most of what you believe about the world is based on secondhand information. Reported places, reported events, reported fauna and flora, &c. He can only call things "stories" if he can distinguish between reality and stories. He can only use reality as a benchmark if he has access to reality. 

But he lacks direct access to most of what he believes about the world. He relies on records, reports, testimony, "stories". 

He still hasn't figured on that his invidious contrast between "evidence" and "stories" is viciously circular.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The cradle of humankind

The controversy over statements made by Larycia Hawkins took on a life of its own. The philosophical debates regarding theories of reference are important in their own respect, but shouldn't be used to exegete her comments one way or another. The question is what she meant, and the underlying theology or ideology that informs her position. I'll comment on a few of her public statements, beginning with her initial Facebook post:

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

Although this hasn't gotten much attention (that I'm aware of), she apparently subscribes to theistic evolution. If so, that contradicts Wheaton's statement of faith, that affirms the special creation of Adam and Eve:

WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.

She also said:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Since Wheaton is a confessional evangelical college, appealing to the Pope is an illicit argument from authority.

Moving on to a later statement:

I am guided by evangelical theologians like Timothy George, John Stackhouse, Scot McKnight, and Miroslav Volf, as well as the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition, as expressed in both encyclical form (e.g. Nostra Aetate 3.1) and Pontifical writings (e.g. John Paul II, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope"). 

i) Once again, the illicit appeal to Catholic authorities.

ii) Apropos (i), her syncretistic theology, in which she blends elements of evangelical theology with Catholic modernism. That's inconsistent with Wheaton's identity as a confessional evangelical institution. Ten years ago, Wheaton terminated a professor who converted to Catholicism:

There would, of course, be nothing wrong with her affirming elements of Roman Catholic theology that traditionally overlap elements of classic Protestant theology, but that's not what she's doing. Obviously, Catholics can say things we agree with, but she act as if quoting the pope or Vatican II gives her cover. But that has no cachet in Protestant though. 

iii) By the same token, citing Volf is counterproductive inasmuch as Wheaton is supposed to be to the right of Yale Divinity school on the theological spectrum. 

Finally, her appeal to John Stackhouse and Scot McKnight is ironic inasmuch as they disagree with her position:

Turning to a later statement. 

We are Christians and Muslims and Jews and atheists who aver that all religions believe in justice.

But all religions don't believe in justice. That's another indication of her pluralistic outlook. 

Wheaton College cannot scare me into walking away from the truth that all humans, Muslims, the vulnerable, the oppressed, are all my sisters and brothers.
Wheaton College cannot intimidate me into cowering in fear of the enemy of the month as defined by real estate moguls, Senators from Texas, Christians from this country, bigots, and fundamentalists of all stripes.

It’s striking to see how she divvies up the world between good guys and bad guys. On the one hand she talks about “all humans” as her “sisters and brothers.”

On the other hand, in the very next paragraph, she talks about “real estate moguls, senators from Texas, Christians from this country, bigots, and fundamentalists of all stripes.”

That’s the enemy. So her actual outlook is highly polarized rather than inclusive. She's ironically oblivious go her own visceral intolerance.

Wheaton College will never induce me to kowtow to their doublespeak concerning the Statement of Faith, so as to appease an imaginary constituency that clearly knows little about what academic freedom or Christian love mean; or to placate platinum donors to their coffers.

Notice the arrogant ingratitude. Where does she think the money comes to pay for her salary? To my knowledge, tuition isn't nearly enough to fund a college. It requires generous donors to make up the difference.

Groothuis on the same God controversy

A Short, Simple Argument: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
1. Belief in one God is not the same as worshiping God, since worship requires right belief and the right attitude.
2. The entire Bible warns of false worship pretending to be true. This is caused by either a wrong concept of God or a bad heart or both.
3. Christians worship a triune God, who is there.
4. Christians worship the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the God-Man.
5. Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and Man (1 Timothy 2:5).
6. Therefore, one cannot worship God if one does not come to God as he truly exists.
7. Therefore, to worship the one true God requires that we worship Jesus Christ, God the Son.
8. Muslims deny the Trinity and, of course, the Incarnation.
9. Islam teaches that there is no mediator between God and man. You are on your own with Allah, who is one mean God.
10. To worship Jesus, according to Islam, is to commit the sin of shirk, giving Allah a partner. This is idolatry and the worst possible sin.
10. Muslim worship is not praise and thanksgiving for salvation; it is obeisance before a fearsome deity who favor is courted so one may god to paradise and not hell. (Further, Allah is nowhere in paradise, since he is utterly transcendent.)
11. Therefore (are you ready?), Muslim and Christians do not worship the same God.
However, any Muslim can worship the one true God by believing the Gospel and entrusting themselves to Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. May it be, Lord Jesus!

Ex nihilo nihil fit

Brazilian witchcraft

Greenfield is an academic anthropologist with extensive fieldwork in Brazil. Here's an example of syncretistic witchcraft:

What takes place between a patent and a supernatural provider in Brazil’s alternative health care system incorporates elements from the still vibrant transaction between a petitioner in the pre‐Reformation folk variant of Roman Catholicism brought to Brazil by its first settlers and a saint or the Virgin Mary. According to the assumptions of Roman Catholicism, a saint is a special individual who, after death, has been reborn “and elevated to everlasting life in heaven by an all‐powerful creator God believed to have control over all aspects of the universe, including the destinies of those on earth....” Saints “are considered ‘friends of God,’ able to act as intermediaries with him on behalf of supplicants on earth” (Greenfield and Cavalcante 2005:7).

I had observed and filmed other Spiritist healer‐mediums previously (see Greenfield 2008) and thought I knew what to expect. I had seen people sliced into with knives and scalpels. I had witnessed pieces of flesh, said to be tumors, removed. The patients reported experiencing little if any pain when cut. The instruments were not treated with antisepsis and no visible anesthesia was given. 
As Carlos lay nervously waiting, not knowing what to expect, his brother joined him. Pedro spoke words of reassurance. A few minutes later Antonio, dressed in a white coat, walked rapidly out of the building onto the porch pushing a cart laden with “surgical” instruments. Without saying a word he reached across the cart and picked up an electric saw with a serrated circular blade. Rapidly he attached the tool to an extension cord handed to him through a window from inside the building. Carlos, wide‐awake, continued his conversation with Pedro and seemed to pay little attention to the approaching man with the saw in his hand. Antonio methodically turned on the tool and still not addressing or interacting with Carlos, drove the spinning blade into the left side of the patient’s chest. As it spun, the skin parted and blood spurted out. The onlookers gasped. The patient did not cry out or move, but he did continue his conversation with his brother. After withdrawing and reinserting the blade several times, Antonio removed it and, with his fingers, picked up a strip of flesh from near the patient’s heart, the same piece Carlos showed me the next day in the airport. The procedure took but a few minutes. The saw blade had not been cleaned before it was used and no effort was made to sterilize it afterwards when the healer turned it on his next patient. Carlos did not received any anesthesia and was wide‐awake as the blade severed his flesh and the healer removed the tissue. Without uttering a word to the man whose body he had violated in this extreme manner, Antonio unplugged the saw and walked away, pushing the cart in the direction of his next patient. A few minutes later a woman, also dressed in white, holding what looked like an ordinary sewing needle and thread, closed and bandaged Carlos’ wound. She then helped the patient from the cot and escorted him back into the building where he was given a glass of “specially prepared water.” After drinking the liquid, he was chaperoned to yet another room where he was told to rest quietly.
In the airport I asked Carlos if he could tell me what he experienced. Perhaps still in shock, he said that he did not remember when the blade entered his flesh because he had perceived no pain. There was no distress when the wound was closed or as he rested on the bed. Even now, although the left side of his chest felt “numb,” the discomfort was minimum. 
I asked if he understood and could explain to me what had happened to him the previous day. He replied that he could not but added that he wanted to learn about the beliefs that informed the treatment he had received. 
I asked if I might telephone to learn about Carlos’ progress. Pedro gave me his card and offered to provide me with reports. I called several months later and was told that Carlos had gone to a nearby Kardecist‐Spiritist center the day after he returned home. He said he was feeling better and stronger and walked the six short blocks to the center. Intrigued by what he learned, he returned frequently; and, after attending several lectures and beginning a class on the basic beliefs, he explained to Pedro that it had not been Antonio who had operated on him. Antonio, the bricklayer with a first grade education, was a medium whose body at the time of the surgery was inhabited by a spirit, the spirit of a Dr. Ricardo Stans, a German national who received his medical education in Italy during the 19th century. Sometime after his death he is reported to have returned to “our world” to treat living patients using the bodies of mediums like Antonio. When operating, Carlos informed his brother, Dr. Stans was assisted by a number of other spirits who had been trained in various aspects of medicine, or in other healing traditions, in previous lives. He was told that they brought with them “advanced” medical techniques from the spirit world. It was these spirits who had cleaned the instruments and provided the anesthesia for Carlos and the other patients.

Only 13% Of Americans Are Dissatisfied With The Mainstreaming Of The Homosexual Movement

According to this Gallup article, only 13% of Americans say they're dissatisfied with "the degree of acceptance of gays and lesbians" in America. By contrast, 70% say that they're satisfied or that they want more acceptance. Not only does the polling reflect how corrupt and undiscerning Americans are, but it also reflects how easily and how rapidly their beliefs can change under the influence of movies, sitcoms, music, the mainstream media, etc. They're not spending much time with other influences that would lead them in a better direction.

And it doesn't help when the allegedly neutral Gallup author writes misleadingly-worded paragraphs like this one:

But despite being in the minority, there are many Americans who are unhappy with the advancements made in gay rights, and there are judges, religious figures and GOP presidential candidates who seek to undo what gay rights supporters have achieved. Meanwhile, another faction of Americans are dissatisfied because they seek more acceptance for gays and lesbians -- perhaps in response to continued efforts to walk back newly achieved gay rights, hate crimes against LGBT people and other acts of intolerance directed at the community.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What does Rome stand for?

Some Catholics defend the orthodoxy of their denomination by pointing to "official" statements of Catholic doctrine and ethics like the Catechism. Putting aside the officially heterodox teaching of Rome, does that prove their point?

Consider a college with an officially Christian statement of faith. And the same college has a handful of Christian faculty whose teaching matches the statement of faith. A few orthodox professors. 

However, the same college also has Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, and atheistic professors. Would it be correct to say the college teaches Christian theology and ethics?

Well, that's one of the things it teaches, but it also teaches the negation of Christian theology and ethics. It has faculty who teach rival positions. Who teach contrary to the statement of faith. Christianity theology is one of the positions that's represented in the curriculum and classroom, but along with various competitors. 

I don't simply mean they educate students about what these alternative viewpoints represent. Rather, these professors attack Christianity and promote positions contrary to the Christian faith. 

But suppose someone says, Ah, but that's just their private opinion. That's not official. The college officially has a Christian statement of faith.

But the official statement of faith is just a charade. For the collage tolerates faculty who openly repudiate the official statement of faith. The college knowingly hires and promotes such faculty.

That's the situation we have in the contemporary church of Rome. In practice, and to some degree in theory, Rome has become very pluralistic. 

Gospel Contradictions

This forthcoming book may or may not make a useful contribution to the subject:

I'll comment on a few statements:

I wasn’t so much concerned about resolving them [contradictions], because I understood that if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, regardless of any errors that might be present in the Bible. 

That's a simplistic trope. For instance, if the Jesus of Moonies, Mormons, or the Watch Tower rose from the dead, would Christianity still be true? 

By carefully reading ancient biographies written around the same time as the Gospels and comparing how they tell the same stories differently, I began to recognize that some of the differences resulted from compositional devices. Then when I went to the Gospels, I could see that the authors were probably employing the same compositional devices as other ancient biographers; specifically Plutarch.

i) Certainly it's important to classify the Gospels as historical rather than fictional. But beyond that, I doubt the unquestioned assumption that they belong to a conventional genre, or that they are modeled on literary exemplars.

For instance, when a person writes their autobiography, they simply write down what they remember, and especially what things they want to share with the reader. Their autobiography isn't self-consciously modeled on conventions of the genre, or literary exemplars. Rather, they are simply writing about their own life and interests.

Likewise, when a historian writes a biography, he usually says something about the subject's parents or grandparents, then narrates his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, then his career, retirement, and death. He may also write about his private life as well as his public life.

This isn't because the genre dictates that coverage, but because human lives have  a stereotypical cycle, and because readers are interested in certain things about the subject. 

ii) Even assuming that the Gospel writers had literary precedent in mind, what about OT biographies about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon? 

This is one of many examples I could cite where the Gospel authors employ various compositional devices that resulted in differences. In some cases we may not be able to know what actually occurred. But we have enough to get a general idea of what happened. And I’m fine with that, although ten years ago it would have made me feel a little uneasy because I assumed the Gospel authors would have been committed to writing with the same precision we moderns have.

Licona speaks as if he's breaking new ground. Filling a neglected niche. Yet scholars like Robert Stein, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, and Very Poythress have already produced excellent material on the historicity and inerrancy of the Gospels. Licona appears to suffer from tunnel vision. Had he never bothered to read these scholars? Even now it sounds as if his research failed to include them.   

Was Van Til a voluntarist?

(Posted on behalf of Steve.)

Jeremy Pierce 1/17/2016 12:12 AM

I haven't read any Van Til directly, so I don't know where it is, but people I know who have studied him at length have said that he held to the Cartesian view that God created the laws of logic and mathematics and that even the truths we take to be necessary God could have made false. God could have made true contradictions and so on. Voluntarism about ethics follows from that, I think, although I don't know if he explicitly held that. I'm pretty sure Descartes' voluntarism about logic and mathematics is what influenced Locke to hold to voluntarism about ethics. So Van Til is my guess about where this is coming from, anyway, if it's legitimate at all.

Of course, there was that confusing and confused piece from Scot McKnight recently that simply confused Calvinism with voluntarism. It just occurred to me that it might have something to do with that mess.

A few observations:

  1. A friend of mine said he only knows one sentence is Van Til's voluminous output which might possibly suggest the Cartesian position:

    The law of contradiction, therefore, as we know it, is but the expression on a created level of the internal coherence of God’s nature. An Introduction to Systematic Theology.

    Even in that case, he doesn't say the law of contradiction is created, but rather, the law of contradiction "as we know it" is created. Seems to me his qualifier is just a variation of the Clark controversy, where Van Til denied that man's knowledge is identical at any point with God's knowledge. So I take the qualifier to be in reference to the human understanding of logic, and not logic itself.

  2. Even if Van Til were a Cartesian possibilist, I don't think that would entail ethical voluntarism unless it was combined with divine command theory. On natural law theory, there'd still be right and wrong because human social ethics and individual ethics are, in no small measure, grounded in God's design for human nature. To that extent, ethics is contingent, because human nature is contingent, but it's not relativistic.

    In theory, there could be different ethics for extraterrestrials if their nature (physiology and psychology) is sufficiently different. But it wouldn't be cultural relativism or moral relativism. Given the same nature, the same morality would always be in force. Universal in time and place for that kind of creature.

  3. Finally, I ran this by John Frame, who replied:

    I’m quite sure that VT was not a voluntarist.

    There are three alternatives: (1) logic is above God, (2) logic is created by God, and (3) logic is an aspect of the divine nature.

    In his various polemics, VT often opposed (1).

    He was less clear on (2), but he was critical of the classic “voluntarist” philosophers like Duns Scotus. His basic picture was that (1) is rationalist, (2) is irrationalist, leaving (3) as the biblical alternative.

    Of course, he didn’t want to say with Clark that “logic is God,” so his witness to (3) was blunted somewhat.

    [JF: better to say that yes, logic is God; but mercy, justice, wisdom, eternity, are also God—i.e. God from various perspectives.]

    He should have been more careful in his thinking on this matter which was, unfortunately, distorted by intra-Reformed polemics.

Why won't God heal leprechauns?

(Posted on behalf of Steve.)
I'm reposting some comments I left at Victor Reppert's blog in response to a village atheist:

Isn't there a simpler answer to the question "Why does god hate amputees?" than anything believers give?

I think the tougher question is "Why does God hate leprechauns." I don't know a single record instance where God healed a leprechaun. If that's not sufficient to disprove God's existence, I don't know what is.

It appears that you don't understand the amputee problem (amputees exist).

It appears you have a tin ear for satirical replies.

Is it possible that the god you believe exists has never performed any miracles? Why is hard for you to just answer that question with a yes or no.

Here's a better question: Why is it hard for you just to engage the evidence?
Atheism posits a universal negative in reference to miracles. The onus on the atheist is to disprove every single reported miracle (not to mention unreported miracles). By contrast, the onus on the Christian is to prove just one miracle. A single miracle is sufficient to refute a universal negative. Your burden of proof is a whole lot tougher than mine.
And instead of floating fact-free hypotheticals ("Is it possible..."), why don't you engage the actual state of the evidence?

The fact that there's no good evidence for any amputee, ever, being healed.

What makes you think God never healed an amputee? Most folks aren't famous. They are quickly forgotten after they die. Most folks leave no trace of their existence in the history books. Many ancient and medieval books no longer exist.

We have lots of cases of medicine healing people. We have NO good evidence for medicine (or anything else) healing an amputee.

Your objection is irrational. A classic example of the framing fallacy, where you act as if the only possible evidence for miracles is one arbitrarily selected example, which allows you to ignore all the other evidence. That's a mark of your intellectual evasiveness.

So, amputees are healed all the time, we just don't have any good evidence for any of that?

So you're telling me you don't know the difference between "ever" and "all the time."

Would that be an explanation for the problem with miracles only existing in stories.

Stories? You mean like Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle? He didn't really visit Patagonia or the Galapagos islands, because that's just a story, right?
I don't answer loaded questions. Only dumb people answer loaded questions. I don't play poker with someone who uses marked cards. Your "question" rigs the issue by acting as though the only relevant evidence for miracles is evidence for one arbitrarily selected example. That's philosophically preposterous.
Your myopic obsession with amputees is just a diversionary tactic. Let's begin with a definition. In his recent debate with atheist Zach Moore, Timothy McGrew defined a miracle as:

an event that would not have happened if the natural world was left to itself, as opposed to outside agency (i.e. divine intervention).

I think that's a good working definition. It's not a definition with Christian bias, but a neutral definition. Atheists define miracles in contrast to the natural order. Indeed, Zach never challenged McGrew's definition.
According to atheism, miracles never happen. They don't happen because they can't happen, and they can't happen because they require supernatural agency.
If we plug in the above definition, that means it only takes a single example of an event that would not have happened if nature was left to itself to disprove atheism. Atheism posits a universal negative regarding miracles.
Is healing amputees the only evidence for miracles? Absolutely not. Any event that would not have happened if the natural world was left to itself will falsify the universal negative posited by atheism. Any such event would suffice to establish the occurrence of miracles.
To act as if the regeneration of severed limbs is the one and only kind of event that counts as evidence for miracles is intellectually ludicrous given the definition of miracles. All you need is at least one event that fits the definition. There are innumerable kinds of events which are covered by that definition. All you need to establish is that some event like that has happened at least once in the course of world history. Just once is enough to disprove a universal negative.

For instance, I am not just telling a story when I say that the universe is consistent with itself. That's because anyone can go test to see if the universe is consistent with itself, and does't have to rely on just my story to 'know' that this is true. Same with all facts that examinable, in ways that reliable, verifiable, and objective.

Does you believe Darwin's "story" about sailing to Patagonia and the Galapagos islands? Can you "go and test" whether Darwin went there? Do you have independent verification that Darwin went there?

Let me be clear: if we believe in something that only, ever, happens in stories, then we are being inconsistent and foolish. I use the term silly, because it takes longer to type inconsistent and foolish.

That's a reflection of your self-reinforcing ignorance. Consider some of the paranormal studies by philosophers and anthropologists, or consider what foreign missionaries encounter in cultures where witchcraft is prevalent. In addition, I've pointed you to multiple resources for well-documented miracles.
No, it doesn't just happen in "stories".

Compare this to how Christians 'know' about the trinity, the virgin birth, and Jesus's resurrection. The only way those things can be "known" is through stories.

The way to know about the Resurrection is through testimonial evidence. Most of what you believe is based on testimonial evidence.

Do you see the difference between a story about you seeing squirrels and trees, and a story about you seeing unicorns and magical bean stalks?

That's a standard village atheist decoy. Instead of grappling with actual evidence for actual cases, they resort to silly hypotheticals. They try to shift the discussion away from specific evidence for concrete examples to imaginary cases.
Carl Sagan infamously said extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Pop atheists are very fond of that statement.
Unfortunately, it's terribly vague. What's the definition of an extraordinary event? What's the definition of extraordinary evidence? And why should an extraordinary event (whatever that means) demand extraordinary evidence?
Let's use an illustration. The odds of being dealt a royal flush are 649,740 to 1. As one source put it: "If you were dealt 20 hands of poker every night of the year, in 89 years you should only expect to see one royal flush."
So that's very rare. Extraordinarily rare, you might say. Yet it's also inevitable. Soon or later it's bound to happen.
In addition, the conventional odds of a royal flush depend on a randomly shuffled deck. But a cardsharp can drastically lower the odds. That's a crucial difference between personal agency and dumb luck.
Suppose you're dealt a royal flush. That's extraordinary!
Does it take extraordinary evidence to demonstrate that you were dealt a royal flush? Hardly. Ordinary evidence will suffice. Eyewitness testimony.
You don't need extraordinary evidence to establish the occurrence of an event. At best, you might need extraordinary evidence to establish the interpretation of the event.
For instance, your royal flush might be the luck of the draw. Or that might be due to funny business.
Does it demand extraordinary demand extraordinary evidence to determine which is which? No.
Suppose security camera footage, played in slow motion, shows the dealer using a riffle shuffle. Or suppose bank records show the dealer and the winning player splitting the jackpot. That's sufficient to establish a particular interpretation of the event. Extraordinary evidence is not required.

Machen, “Pope Francis”, and “the hermeneutic of rupture” -- or as it is now known, “the hermeneutic of mercy”

J. Gresham Machen’s work, “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923) is one of those rare theological works that helps to define what Reformed Christianity is even in our day. It stakes out an orthodox position, and it contrasts it with a line of thinking that was very prevalent in Machen’s day, “naturalistic liberalism”. It’s on the list of books that every Christian (especially those in authority) should read every once in a while, just to keep focused on what is and isn’t genuine Christianity.

Reading Machen is wise and admirable and even necessary. But what should conservative Reformed Protestants think of this quote by Machen?

Vetting miracles

(Posted on behalf of Steve.)

This is a sequel to my previous post:

  1. In case my previous post was unclear, McGrew won on points–as in a shutout where, by the end of the game, one team has 100 points on the scoreboard while the other team has 0.

    McGrew's opening statement pulled the rug out from under Zach's opening statement. As I recall, about the only thing McGrew's opening statement didn't address was Zach's claim about the "vanishingly low background probability" of miracles like the Resurrection. However, McGrew refuted that confusion (on Zach's part) later in the debate. Zach shot his wad with his prepared remarks. He had nothing left to say (besides repetition) after McGrew disarmed him.

    Now the reason I watched the debate is because Timothy McGrew is a world authority on the history and philosophy of miracles. In this post I'd like to spend more time considering his stated position. I still find some aspects of his position concerning.

  2. I don't object to vetting miracles. Some Christians are too gullible. To some extent, the church of Rome was built on bogus miracle claims. Hagiographies. Likewise, the charismatic movement is full of chicanery and wishful thinking.

  3. As a matter of apologetic strategy, it can sometimes be useful to adopt an artificially stringent standard. That leaves the unbeliever without excuse. Likewise, if an open-minded believer asked you for examples, it makes sense to lead with some of the best documented cases.

    And in apologetics, it's logical to focus on public evidence for public events. Mind you, private miracles could be just as probative for those who witness them, but that appeal is less accessible to outsiders. Yet we need to remember that this is artificially restrictive. It serves a purpose, but it shouldn't be the gold standard.

  4. Here's my basic concern: I think McGrew's criteria are quite sensible up to a point. Sensible in certain contexts. However, in their effort to preclude reasonable doubt, they generate a paradox:

    As a matter of policy, they are skeptical in the very situations where miracles are most apt to occur. According to the criteria, we should automatically doubt or discount reported miracles under the very conditions where, if they happen at all, most miracles will in fact occur. But wouldn't reported miracles be more credible if that's where they are more likely to occur?

  5. Let's begin with my understanding of his position. In the immediate context of the debate, the purpose of the filter is to eliminate most reported miracles so that an inquirer can focus on the strongest cases. The filter doesn't deny that many other reported miracles may be genuine.

    But it seems to me that his position is more far-reaching. From what I can tell, his position is that a reported miracle fails to merit direct, intrinsic, or independence credence unless it can pass the filter, as well as his additional fourfold criteria. For ease of reference, let's call miracles that survive the vetting process "vetted miracles."

    As I understand his position, vetted miracles can also function as what we might call index miracles. They furnish a standard of comparison in relation to which some other reported miracles can be validated. If we are able to establish vetted miracles or index miracles, they can then be used to sponsor or anchor some other miracles. I'm not clear on how that connection is made.

    If that's correct, it lays a very brittle foundation for Christianity. If, apart from the Resurrection, or 5-6 miracles, all other miracles can only be credited by their connection with the index miracle(s), then that places crushing weight on one (or maybe a handful) miracle to support the entire edifice.

  6. McGrew defines a miracle as an event that would not have happened if the natural world was left to itself, as a closed system or isolated system, as opposed to divine agency. Outside intervention changes the way nature behaves. So the probability of miracles depends on whether we have good reasons to believe the system was not left to itself in that instance.

    I have no objection to that definition. I think it's a good working definition. Discriminating, but not too discriminating or indiscriminate. Hard to see how you could improve on it. It's challenging to come up with good definitions. If they are too narrow, they suffer from too many exceptions. Too many holes. But if they are too broad, they fail to demarcate one kind of thing and another. There'd be problems if his definition were either more expansive or more restrictive.

    I'd add that I think his definition allows for coincidence miracles, which is a plus.

  7. Distant in time and place

    i) As a rule, it's true that if the first report falls outside the bounds of living memory, it's less reliable. Likewise, if the reporter didn't have contact with anyone on the ground, it's less reliable. And that's useful in distinguishing the historicity of the NT from apocryphal traditions.

    ii) My only caveat is that if we make allowance for inspiration or revelation, then God can disclose events about the distant past or future. Likewise, God can boost someone's memory. Although it's often useful, in apologetic strategy, to treat the NT documents just like historical documents, we shouldn't make methodological naturalism the standard. That's an apologetic concession for the sake of argument. And it has some merit in its own right. Ordinary providence is the norm.

    But Christianity, if true, is a revealed religion. So we shouldn't permanently bracket the supernatural factors in the production of the record.

    Someone might object that this begs the question. But it would only beg the question if we gave no reason for belief in revelation. If true, then Christianity is ultimately a supernatural and not a natural phenomenon. So even if we temporarily bracket the supernatural claims at this preliminary stage of the argument, we need to reintroduce that dimension at a later stage. The credibility of the Christian faith isn't based on naturalistic considerations alone. Our apologetic stance must take into account the nature of the phenomenon we defend.

  8. Public, observable events

    In apologetics, it's logical to concentrate on generally accessible events and generally accessible evidence. Likewise, if Christianity is true, then we'd expect evidence for the Christian faith to be generally available.

    My only concern is if this emphasis is taken to imply that all the best evidence is the kind of evidence that's equally accessible to believers and unbelievers alike. For if Christianity is true, then many Christians will experience providential incidents that are significant for them, and not for others–like miraculous answers to prayer. I'm not saying that's frequent. Just that private miracles, if they occur, have the same evidential value for the parties concerned as miracles for public consumption.

  9. Statistical noise

    i) By this I understand McGrew to mean an event that could be explicable on either naturalistic or supernaturalistic terms. Put another way, I think he means an an event that appears to be anomalous or miraculous considered in isolation, but one that averages out over time, given a wider sample.

    If so, it's not a good candidate for a miracle. The evidence or the nature of the event doesn't single out a miraculous explanation.

    Take prayer for rain. A Christian farmer prays for rain–and it rains!

    But is that an answer to prayer, or is this the post hoc fallacy? After all, sometimes it rains after he prays, and sometimes it doesn't. So couldn't that be reasonably, maybe more reasonable, chalked up to coincidence rather than special providence? Like the old saying that you find a lost object in the last place you look. Success selects for that end-point, because you stop looking once you find it. By the same token, it's bound to rain sooner or later. You keep praying until it rains. If it rains, you stop praying. But if it rained sooner or later, you'd cease prayer sooner or later. So the timing in relation to prayer is just coincidental. Self-selection bias. Or is it?

    I suppose you could raise the same objection to prayer for miraculous healing. Some people are healed, and some people aren't. So is that an answer to prayer, or statistical noise?

    ii) That's a dicey issue because these are circumstances under which, if miracles occur, this is when we'd expect them to occur. Christians do pray for rain. In some cases, we'd expect rain to be an answer to prayer. Same thing with healing. If God is a prayer-answering God, then these are the kinds of situations in which he will sometimes act.

    iii) In addition, it's not necessarily random. Rain has complex effects. Whether or not to answer prayer may involve balancing the overall benefits. Same thing with healing.

    iv) Moreover, rain can be very opportune at a particular time and place. Sure, inevitably it will rain, but later may be too late to save the crops. So if it rains when and where it's needed, that's not necessarily random.

    v) Furthermore, from a Christian standpoint, providence isn't naturalistic in the godless sense. The outcome can be divinely prearranged.

    vi) Whether or not a healing is miraculous will depend on the specifics of the case. The prognosis. The timing of remission in relation to prayer. Is "spontaneous remission" really a naturalistic alternative to miraculous healing, or is that just a placeholder?

    vii) I think it's too strong to say that if the same event can either be explained naturally or supernaturally, the default explanation is natural. I don't think that ipso facto makes a natural explanation better. For even if it's naturally possible, that might be very convoluted. For instance, it's possible for a gambler to have an astonishing run of luck. But sometimes cheating is a simpler explanation.

  10. Self-serving events or high cost of getting it wrong

    i) These are reasonable criteria for lowering the credibility of the report in some instances or raising the credibility of the report in other instances.

    ii) But what about a situation where a reporter has nothing in particular to either gain or lose? That falls in-between these two criteria.

    For instance, take the cliche of the Christian mother who prays for a deathly ill child, who recovers. She shares the "miracle" with her friends. On the one hand she pays no price for that claim. On the other hand, she has nothing to gain by telling her friends. And she doesn't share her experience because she personally benefits from sharing her experience. Rather, she does so because she can't contain herself. She's so thankful and joyful. She wants all her friends to know how merciful God was.

    iii) Moreover, if miracles ever happen, then we'd expect some of them to happen in situations just like that. So it seems counterintuitive to be dubious about reported miracles in the very circumstances where many of them take place–presuming they ever take place.

  11. Confirm preexisting belief system

    i) That poses a similar dilemma. On the one hand, it's true that in that context, there's more credulity. Unreflective or even dutiful acceptance of sectarian miracles that are consistent with what you already believe. Not to mention the propaganda value of sectarian miracles.

    On the other hand, if God performs miracles, we'd expect them to cluster in the community of faith. If they happen at all, they will be more prevalent among God's people because God is blessing his people. He does more for believers than unbelievers.

    So there's a certain perverse logic that says we should be suspicious about reported miracles under the very conditions where most of them occur–if they ever occur. Shouldn't that setting enhance rather than diminish their probability?

    ii) Perhaps, though, the objection is that more true and false miracle claims will occur in that setting, so it's better to avoid that altogether so that you don't have to sort out which is which.

    However, we can finesse that by distinguishing between institutional miracles and personal miracles. Institutional miracles are purported miracles which are designed to authenticate a particular sect, religion, or denomination. By contrast, personal miracles occur to meet a need. Although they may bolster the faith of the individual, that's a side-effect, and not the primary purpose.

  12. To function as signs, miracles must be rare

    I think this is related to his position that the regular course of nature is a necessary backdrop for the recognition of miracles. If so, that's ambiguous.

    For instance, let's posit a billion Christians. Let's posit that every Christian will experience one, but only one, miracle in the course of a lifetime.

    Would miracles still be rare? That depends on the frame of reference or reference class. In terms of the sum total, miracles would no longer be rare.

    But the individual experience of miracles would be rare. If that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then the rest of your life–both before and after–is like the "regular course of nature." The miracle stands in contrast to that generally ordinary backdrop.

    Collectively, miracles would be frequent–but distributively, miracles would be rare.

  13. Finally, McGrew said:

    I took that stance since (a) a large proportion of the people present would not have claimed to experience a miracle and (b) I never have (to my knowledge).

    without denying that such things might happen simply to meet an individual need, I'm very cautious, partly because I believe (rightly or wrongly) that I've seen some people fool themselves about private miracles, partly because I am mindful of Luke 4:25-26.

    i) In one respect, that's circular. If you think that miracles must be rare, then most people in the audience cannot have that experience.

    ii) If someone is operating with an "Expect a miracle!" philosophy, then that's a recipe or self-delusion or disillusionment. If that's what McGrew has in mind, I agree. However, we need to draw some distinctions:

    a) I'm not necessarily praying for a miracle, but just a solution. I don't have a particular solution in mind. That's up to God. I didn't specify a miracle. I didn't ask for a sign. I simply have a need that only God can supply. How he provides for my need isn't what I pray about.

    A miraculous answer to prayer doesn't imply prayer for a miracle. Indeed, a miraculous answer to prayer might be surprising. The Christian didn't anticipate that kind of response.

    b) There are legitimate situations where Christians pray for a miracle. A stock example is prayer for healing in case the patient's condition is medically hopeless.

    c) Likewise, there are situations in which a desperate person will pray for a sign. Sometimes this is non-Christian prayer by someone who's at a crossroads in life. Ironically, "private miracles" like that might fit McGrew's criterion of a high-cost commitment. Take Muslims who say they converted to Christianity due to revelatory dreams. They have a lot to lose.