Saturday, April 23, 2016

Waffle irons

Some young Calvinists become very enamored with Thomism. What makes Thomism so appealing? 

1. One motivation is the appeal of social media. A virtual community in which you can achieve social status by making comments that mark your territory. How to be an intellectual showoff on social media. 

2. On a different front, Thomism is so appealing to some because it's so encyclopedic. It has ready-made answers on a whole raft of issues from metaphysics and epistemology to ethics. Calvinism hasn't developed anything equivalent. 

Thomism has these nifty categories, slots that you can put things into, and out pops the answer, viz. form/matter, essence/existence, substance/accident, efficient/formal/material, final causes. 

Like a waffle-iron. Pour in the batter, and out come waffles. The waffle-iron determines what shape the batter will take. 

Of course, that's only a virtue if reality is waffle-shaped.  

3. Aquinas was a great philosophical theologian, a great systematic theologian, as well as an influential ethicist, political theorist, &c. So there's some justification for their interest. That said, the interest in Aquinas often becomes myopic. And there are problems with that. For instance:

i) Philosophy and philosophical theology didn't end with Aquinas, so there's no good reason why he should be the default paradigm. This leads to the neglect of later philosophers and philosophical theologians outside the Thomistic tradition. Especially for Protestants, there should be no presumption that Thomistic ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are the best framework. For instance, philosophy often uses models and analogies drawn from logic, math, and science. Advances in logic, math, and science can lead to advances in philosophical analysis. In that respect, Thomism has antiquated conceptual resources.

Of course, Thomism has been updated, but like retrofitting an old car, there comes a point when you should stop tweaking carburetor technology and come up with something from scratch. 

ii) Left to his own devices, Aquinas is a very clear thinker. However, he's a loyal churchman first and last. His duty is to defend Medieval Catholic dogma.

That means he's stuck defending things that are hard to defend. He must come up with ingenious defenses of received dogma. That results in lack of clarity. He's unclear, in part, because he's drawing ad hoc distinctions to defend whatever happens to be dogma. He's not the dealer. He plays the hand he was dealt. 

iii) Another problem concerns time management: life is short, books are expensive, there's only 24 hours in a day. Time invested in Thomism is time taken away from other studies. That doesn't mean the philosophically inclined should ignore Thomism, but by the same token, there are other things they shouldn't ignore. It becomes a question of priorities. 

For instance, someone recently asked about some good works on Christology, besides Aquinas and Garrigou-Lagrange. Recommendations included The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus (Oxford, 2002), by Richard Cross; The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study of Christology (CUA, 2015) by Thomas Joseph White; Trinity in Aquinas (Sapientia, 2003) & The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Oxford, 2007), by Gilles Emery.

Now, there's an important place for philosophical Christology. But that's not the proper starting point. What we know about Jesus is based on historic revelation. The proper starting point is exegetical theology, not philosophical theology or historical theology. Put another way, philosophical theology should take its point of departure from exegetical theology. In the case of Christology, NT Christology is the foundation. 

If you're going to read high-level works on Christology, begin with exegetical monographs by scholars like Richard Bauckham, Gordon Fee, Simon Gathercole, Larry Hurtado, and Sigurd Grindheim. That supplies the raw material for philosophical analysis and modeling. 

Philosophical Christology that's not firmly grounded in NT Christology is just an exercise in the history of ideas, toying with ideas, how some ideas relate to other ideas. None of this has any basis in the reality of who Jesus actually is. It becomes intellectual idolatry: worshiping our own minds. 

4. It makes sense for a pious Catholic to begin with church dogma. He thinks Mother Church has the correct interpretation of the NT vis-a-vis the person and work of Christ. So that's his starting point. And that's logical, given the faulty premise.

But that's not a premise for Protestants. Unless we begin with revealed truths about Jesus, what we believe is just playacting. 

For instance, if you begin with Aquinas, you must cash out the two natures in terms of Thomistic anthropology (e.g. hylomorphism) and Thomistic theology (e.g. divine simplicity, actus purus, Latin Trinitarianism). You're replacing NT Christology with a simulacrum. 

Ironically, some young Calvinists are more Catholic than Catholicism. There are Catholic philosophers like Nicholas Rescher, Bas van Fraassen, Michael Dummett, and Dagfinn Føllesdal who don't share their infatuation with Thomism. Not to mention entire religious orders (Jesuit, Franciscan) which are at odds with Thomism.

Cardinal Newman took a very different approach to religious epistemology than Aquinas. Likewise, Benedict XVI is, to my knowledge, much more in tune with his favorite church fathers than he is to Aquinas. For that matter, how central was Aquinas to the philosophy/theology of John-Paul II? Wasn't Urs von Balthasar his favorite theologian?

By the same token you have Catholic philosophers like Alexander Pruss who are quite eclectic. He defends the Leibnizian cosmological argument, and has no problem combining Aristotelian and Leibnizian insights on possible worlds. 

Aquinas purist Ed Feser has an amusing taxonomy. Thing is, real philosophers bring some independent judgment to their assessment of Thomism. That's what makes them critical thinkers. Even when they appropriate Thomism, they sift and sort:

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) and her husband Peter Geach are sometimes considered the first “analytical Thomists,” though (like most writers to whom this label has been applied) they did not describe themselves in these terms, and as Haldane’s somewhat vague expression “mutual relationship” indicates, there does not seem to be any set of doctrines held in common by all so-called analytical Thomists. What they do have in common seems to be that they are philosophers trained in the analytic tradition who happen to be interested in Aquinas in some way; and the character of their “analytical Thomism” is determined by whether it tends to stress the “analytical” side of analytical Thomism, or the “Thomism” side, or, alternatively, attempts to emphasize both sides equally. 
We might tentatively distinguish, then, between three subcategories within the group of contemporary analytic philosophers who have been described as “analytical Thomists.” The first category comprises analytic philosophers who are interested in Aquinas and would defend some of his ideas, but who would also reject certain other key Thomistic claims (perhaps precisely because of their perceived conflict with assumptions prevalent among analytic philosophers) and thus fail to count (or even to count themselves) as “Thomists” in any strict sense. This sort of “analytical Thomism” might be said to emphasize the “analytical” element at the expense of the “Thomism.” Anthony Kenny (who rejects Aquinas’s doctrine of being) and Robert Pasnau (who rejects certain aspects of his account of human nature) would seem to exemplify this first tendency. A second category within analytical Thomism would comprise thinkers who do see themselves as Thomists in some sense, and who would argue that those aspects of Aquinas’s thought which seem to conflict with assumptions common among analytical philosophers can be interpreted or reinterpreted so that there is no conflict. This approach might be said to give both the “analytical” and the “Thomistic” elements of analytical Thomism equal emphasis, and is represented by thinkers like Geach, Brian Davies, and C. F. J. Martin (all of whom would attempt to harmonize Aquinas’s doctrine of being with Frege’s understanding of existence) and Germain Grisez and John Finnis (who would reinterpret Aquinas’s ethics so as to avoid what Moore called the “naturalistic fallacy”). The work of Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump also possibly falls into this second category, though since it is often interpretative and scholarly rather than programmatic, it is harder to say. 
Thomists of other schools have been very critical of both of these strains within analytical Thomism, sometimes to the extent of dismissing the very idea of analytical Thomism as being no more coherent than (in their view) “transcendental Thomism” is. But there is a third possible category of “analytical Thomists,” namely those whose training was in the analytic tradition and whose modes of argument and choice of topics reflects this background, but whose philosophical views are in substance basically just traditional Thomistic ones, without qualification or reinterpretation. Here the “Thomism” would be in the driver’s seat and the “analytical” modifier would reflect not so much the content of the views defended but rather the style in which they are defended.

“Reformed Scotism”

John Duns Scotus
In response to my “Reformed Thomism” post, an “Unknown” commenter who identified himself as a “Reformed Scholastic” asked, “can you name one pre-20th century influential Scotistic or nominalistic Reformed theologian?” (he was of course suggesting that scads and scads of Reformed Orthodox writers (those from 1550-1750) were “Thomists”).

As a matter of fact, Muller suggests that it was Scotist influence, rather than Thomist, that shaped the “Orthodox definition of the discipline” of theology. What follows is from Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena to Theology (2nd ed., pp. 222–224). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic:

In the decade following 1590, a distinction between theologia archetypa, God’s knowledge of himself and his works, and theologia ectypa, creaturely knowledge of God and works, entered the systematic conceptuality of early Reformed orthodoxy. Althaus correctly points to Franciscus Junius’ De theologia vera (1594) as the first work to employ this distinction and to make a threefold division in the theologia ectypa: the theologia unionis, visionis, and viatorum.

The myth of the mythical Jesus

Friday, April 22, 2016

Evil dreams

Peter van Inwagen is a premier freewill theist. I'm going to quote and comment on some of his statements regarding the problem of evil. 

But an omnipotent and omniscient creator could be called to moral account for creating a world in which there was even one horror. And the reason is obvious: that horror could have been "left out" of creation without the sacrifice of any great good or the permitting of some even greater horror. And leaving it out is just what a morally perfect being would do: such good things as might depend causally on the horror could–given the being's omnipotence and omniscience–be secured by (if the word is not morally offensive in this context) more "economical" means. The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), 96. 

i) One problem is the distinction between a good and a "great" good. What makes something a great good? "Great" for whom

For instance, suppose a couple have a child who dies of leukemia. As a result, they have another child to compensate for the loss of the child who died. Is the replacement child a great good? Well, it's great for the replacement child. It gives him an opportunity to exist–an opportunity that would not otherwise obtain apart from the tragic death of his older sibling. 

ii) When Inwagen says such good things might be secured by more economical means, that fails to distinguish between particular goods and generic goods. Even if certain kinds of goods could be secured by more economical means (which is far from evident), it doesn't follow that particular goods could be secured by more economic means. Take my example of the replacement child. If you leave out the horror of the sibling that died, you do sacrifice the replacement child. 

iii) Invoking omnipotence is not a solution, for omnipotence makes feasible the realization of alternate scenarios. But that involves sacrificing one possible outcome for another. God can do either one, but he can't instantiate both alternatives in the same timeline. 

A defense cannot simply take the form of a story about how God brings some great good out of the evils of the word, a good that outweighs those evils. At the very least, a defense will have to include the proposition that God was unable to bring about the greater good without allowing the evils we observe (or some other evils as bad or worse). Ibid. 68.

One problem with this statement is framing the justification in terms of bringing about a "greater" good, a good that "outweighs" those evils. But why is that a necessary condition? What about an alternate good? A good that would not obtain apart from attendant evil? Why is that insufficient justification? 

To recur to my previous example, suppose the replacement child doesn't "outweigh" the evil of his sibling's premature death. But why does the justification for his existence depend on that condition? 

If there were no evil, no one would appreciate–perhaps no one would even be aware of–the goodness of the things that are good. You know the idea: you never really appreciate health till you've been ill, you never really understand how great and beautiful a thing friendship is till you've known adversity and known what it is to have friends who stick by you through thick and thin–and so on. Now the obvious criticism of this defense is so immediately obvious that it tends to mask the point that led me to raise it. The immediately obvious criticism is that this defense may be capable of accounting for a certain amount of, for example, physical pain, but it certainly doesn't account for the degree and duration of the pain that many people are subject to–and it doesn't account for the fact that many of the people who experience horrible physical pain do not seem to be granted any subsequent goods to appreciate. If, for example, the final six months of the life of a man dying of cancer are one continuous chapter of excruciating pain, the "appreciation" defense (so to call it) can hardly be said to provide a plausible account of why God would allow someone's life to end this way. Ibid. 69.

i) Up to a point, that's a valid criticism. But it contains some dubious assumptions:

ii) The "appreciation" defense may fail as a stand-alone theodicy. It may, however, make a distinctive contribution to an overall theodicy. There needn't be one uniform reason for every kind of evil. 

iii) What if evil is not intended to benefit everyone who suffers evil? 

iv) Apropos (iii), the criticism is shortsighted. What if the beneficiary is not the person who suffers, but someone else? In the chain of events, someone further down the line may be the beneficiary. Changing a variable has a domino effect. Every altered variable has a different domino effect. It's not as if one variable can be changed, while leaving everything else in place. Removing the evil removes good side-effects. It changes how all the dominos fall thereafter–for good and ill alike. 

v) His example presumes that a person has to let the cancer take its course. But that's subject to debate.

An omnipotent being would certainly be able to provide the knowledge of evil that human beings in fact acquire by bitter experience of real events in some other way. An omnipotent being could, for example, so arrange matters that at a certain point in each persons's life-for a few years during his adolescence, say–that person have very vivid and absolutely convincing nightmares in which he is a prisoner in a concentration camp or dies of some horrible disease or watches his loved ones being raped and murdered by soldiers bent on ethnic cleansing…It seems clear that a world in which horrible things occurred only in nightmares would be better than a world in which the same horrible things occurred in reality… Ibid. 69.

I'm afraid that really isn't clear. 

i) There's a sense in which it would be better for your loved ones if they don't actually suffer. If these are merely dream characters.

ii) But would it be better for the dreamer if he's the one who suffers from a horrible disease? Sure, it's only a dream, it isn't real, but since the experience is phenomenologically indistinguishable from reality ("very vivid and absolutely convincing"), how is that clearly better? If it happens to you, and you can't tell the difference, how is that clearly better? Indeed, that would be a very effective form of torture. In reality, you can only die once, however horribly, but in recurring nightmare, that's indefinitely repeatable.

iii) If, conversely, we know it was just a bad dream once we awaken, then we don't take it all that seriously. It's like a video game about combat. An immersive simulation. Because no one is really harmed, it lacks moral weight. It's safe fun. 

iv) Inwagen is sketching a scenario in which horrific evil only happens–or seems to happen–in very vivid nightmares. Our waking state is Edenic. 

But wouldn't nightmares like that raise doubts about God's benevolence? If these horrors don't happen in the world I inhabit, then where do they come from? Normally, we dream about things that happen in the world we inhabit. If that's not the case, then what's the source of the nightmares? Do they happen in another world? Am I tapping into another world when I dream? Is the fact that I have these nightmares a premonition of what awaits me in the next world? Inwagen's alternative shifts the problem. 

v) It isn't clear, moreover, how he can confine moral evil to nightmares. Doesn't that say something about the imagination of the dreamer? How can his imagination be haunted by moral evil without that spilling over into his waking state? 

Repeatedly, Inwagan's analysis of the problem of evil, and his objections to proposed solutions, suffer from compartmentalization. The implications of a hypothetical scenario aren't that self-contained. 

More on miracles

If private revelations agree with Scripture, they are needless

Some cessationists cite a statement attributed to John Owen. Commenting on Owen, Packer says:

He is quick to deploy against them the old dilemma that if their ‘private revelations’ agree with Scripture, they are needless, and if they disagree, they are false. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1994), 86.

That has epigrammatic clarity and concision. However, it's unclear to what extent Packer is quoting, summarizing, or paraphrasing Owen. As it stands, the statement, while pithy, punchy, and quotable, poses a simplistic and fallacious dilemma.  

I assume "agree" is synonymous with "consistent". To "agree with" is to be consistent with. Put another way, to agree with means it doesn't contradict it. If so, the statement is deceptively appealing.

It's like saying, if medical science is consistent with Scripture, then it's needless; and if it's inconsistent with Scripture, it is false. The latter clause is true, but the former is false. 

To say something "agrees" with Scripture just means that it's consistent with Scripture. But that doesn't make it redundant. Something can be consistent with Scripture, but add to our fund of knowledge–like medical science. 

To take a hypothetical case: suppose I have a premonition or dream that if I board that plane tomorrow, it will crash. I reschedule. The plane I missed explodes in midair, killing everyone on board.

That "private revelation" doesn't contradict anything in Scripture. But it's not superfluous or needless. 

The statement attributed to Owen makes the mistake of attempting a quick and easy refutation of a position that isn't that simple. Whatever your position on cessationism, this gambit is a nonstarter. 

No such thing as “Reformed Thomism” among the Reformed Orthodox

The concept of “Reformed Thomism” is thoroughly wrong-headed.
There’s a Facebook group (and I suppose a movement) that calls itself “Reformed Thomism”. I think that’s a wrong-headed concept through and through. “Thomism” has had a lot of different iterations, and most of the contemporary ones rely heavily on (and work to support) Roman Catholicism.

Elsewhere, I’ve cited Richard Muller regarding the phenomenon known as “Reformed Scholasticism”, something that was a mark of the “Reformed Orthodox”:

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to [the scholarly practices of the Reformed Orthodox] indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well. As Masson has remarked, borrowing Chenu’s definition of medieval scholasticism, this relatively uniform method of exposition, with its clear structure, its patterns of reasoning and standard practices of making distinctions, neatly dividing and subdividing topics, its brief citations of texts, its monotonous use of formulae, and its impersonality of style, serves to hide the variety of its actual contents (Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pg. 34). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.).

So “Reformed Scholasticism” was a genuine phenomenon. However, taking the word “Thomism” and plugging it in where the word “Scholasticism” appears is buying into a lot of things that the Reformed Orthodox did not buy into.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Trump's politically correct position on unisex restrooms

Bullwinkle is a dope

Once again, I'm going to explore the question of what makes a claim historically accurate. Bart Ehrman constantly impugns the historical accuracy of the Gospels, but rarely says much about what makes a claim historically reliable or accurate. 

Sometimes he says we should judge the Gospels by modern standards of historical accuracy rather than ancient standards, but that assumes, among other things, that modern standards are indeed more accurate or reliable. It's true that we can measure space and time with greater precision. Down to multiple decimal places. But unless you're an engineer, that's pedantic. 

Let's run through some examples:

#1 A newsworthy event happened on August 8, 1974. 

#2 On August 8, 1974, Nixon tenured his resignation.

#3 In a televised address, Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#4 In a televised address from the White House, Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#5 In a televised address from the Oval office, Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#6 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#7 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Richard Milhous Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974. 

#8 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Richard Milhous Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective noon the next day. 

#9 In a televised address from the Oval office, President Richard Milhous Nixon tenured his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective noon the next day, EST. 

These successive descriptions are increasingly specific. Each is a bit more detailed than the previous description. 

In that respect, you might say #9 is more accurate than #8, #8 is more accurate than #7, and so forth. Conversely, #1 is less accurate than #2, #2 is less accurate than #3, and so forth.

However, to be less accurate is not to be inaccurate. Each description is completely accurate. 

Put another way: if a description mentions some detail, then to be accurate, the description must match the detail. However, including that detail is not a prerequisite for accuracy. Failure to mention that detail doesn't render the description inaccurate. Mere omission is not an inaccuracy. Rather, if it mentions some detail, and the description fails to match the detail, then that's an inaccuracy.

Compare three statements:

#1 Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. 

#2 Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

#3 Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Rocky Squirrel will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

Both #1 & #2 are accurate. The fact that #2 omits some details doesn't make it inaccurate. It just makes it less informative. 

#3 is inaccurate because it contains a false identification. In a sense, #3 is inaccurate because it says too much, unlike #1. Omission is not a falsehood–although it can sometimes be deceptive. 

Let's take another example: 

Rocky J. Squirrel is Bullwinkle J. Moose's best friend. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. 

That's an accurate statement. And it contains more information than a bare statement about Nixon's resignation. But that doesn't make it more historically accurate in reference to his resignation. Rather, it combines two entirely unrelated claims. Each claim is extraneous to the other. 

The Shallowness Of The Trump Movement

Something I recently sent in an email:

It's not just Trump, but the Trump movement in general. They don't think in much depth, which includes a failure to plan ahead much. As some commentators have noted lately, Trump's supporters have shown little interest in defeating incumbents or making other changes in political contexts other than the current presidential campaign. What have Trump supporters been doing to change Congress, to change governors and state legislatures, etc.? Not much. I spent months last year trying to reason with Trump supporters in National Review's comment threads, and one of the questions I asked them was how Trump was going to work with Congress. They had no good answer, and most seemed uninterested in even addressing the subject. We can also look at this in terms of what happened before Trump entered the race. How many of Trump's supporters were calling for him to run before he got in? Only a tiny percentage of them. How many were even calling for somebody like Trump, regardless of whether they mentioned Trump by name? Few.

Here's something Ramesh Ponnuru wrote on this subject yesterday:

Seeing Christ in all of Scripture

Westminster Seminary Press is currently offering Seeing Christ in All of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary (pdf) as a free download.

Bathroom battles

Big Brother meant well

Keeping death at bay

I've never seen this discussed–which doesn't mean it hasn't been–so I will discuss it myself. Let's begin with a preliminary observation:

i) To my knowledge, the human body typifies planned obsolescence. Almost as though the body has an auto-destruct that triggers after it runs a fixed number of cycles. Each body has a natural lifespan. And that varies from one body to another. Jeanne Calment didn't live to be 122 because she was a health nut. Rather, it seems like the rate at which she aged was slower than for most folks. 

I think human bodies are programmed to shut down at a certain age, although the program varies from one body to the next. Of course, it's not quite like a switch with a timer. Behavioral and environmental factors affect longevity. 

But there's a sense in which the body is programmed to self-terminate. That's internal to the body. Each body's inbuilt lifespan. 

ii) Now, one kind of life-extension is counterfactual. There are external factors, like pathogens, that can prevent the body from completing its natural lifespan. Take an illness that will shorten the life of the patient, absent medical intervention.

In that case, medical intervention counteracts the attack from outside forces. It restores the body to normal functioning, as if the patient was never sick in the first place. Resetting the status quo ante, so that a body will continue enjoy the longevity it was internal programmed to have. That kind of intervention prevents premature death. Keeps a body from dying "before its time". Let's call that natural life extension. 

iii) Another kind of life-extension prolongs the body's longevity beyond its natural lifespan. Like resetting the timer on the auto-destruct. It impedes the aging process. This can involve medication, oxygen, surgery, transplants, implants, &c. Let's call that artificial life extension.

The difference between between the two is that natural life extension blocks something that interferes with natural longevity while artificial life extension interferes with natural mortality. 

A potential problem with artificial life-extension is that a body continues to age.  Like pushing the car's temperature gauge into the red zone. Organs continue to wear out. Organs and systems are now aging beyond the body's natural lifespan. That makes a person more susceptible to dementia, macular degeneration, &c. Even if a cure is found for Alzheimer's, if the brain continues to age, a person will still become senile due to brain atrophy. The brain shrinks with age. Because the brain has so much redundancy, you don't automatically become senile. But below a certain threshold, the deficient begins to manifest itself. 

iv) Prolonging life in this sense can generate self-imposed dilemmas. For instance, Hans Küng is flirting with euthanasia because he's going deaf and blind, suffers from osteoarthritis, and Parkinson's disease. Yet he takes 10 pills a day to stay alive. 

If he finds aging unbearable, why doesn't he just discontinue his medications? Why take pills that artificially prolong life while contemplating euthanasia to end it? 

v) Apropos (iv), to refrain from artificially prolonging your life beyond the body's natural lifespan is not the same thing as suicide. 

BTW, I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with medical devices that preserve life. Although I oppose transhumanism, biotechnology can be a wonderful tool in medical treatment, both by saving life and enhancing the quality of life. 

In addition, I'm not discussion public policy or bioethics. I'm just making the point that individuals need to consider the tradeoffs and consequences of their personal choices when it comes to prolonging life beyond the body's inbuilt longevity. Both Christianity and atheism have certain tensions in this regard.

In atheism, human life has no intrinsic value. Since, from their perspective, there is no afterlife, some atheists cling to life. Hang on to the last possible moment. Others commit suicide when their best years are behind them and they have nothing much to look forward to.

By contrast, Christians think life has intrinsic value. Yet that's balanced by their belief that this life is not all there is. Indeed, the afterlife will be better. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Putting transgenderism to the test

What Has God Ever Done For Me?

God in math

What is historical accuracy?

1. Bart Ehrman spends a lot of time attacking the historical accuracy of the Gospels. However, he doesn't spend much time unpacking the concept of historical accuracy. Rather, he contents himself with examples of what he considers to be discrepancies in the Gospels. But what does it mean for something to be historically accurate? 

2. Perhaps we'd say an account of an event is accurate if the event happened, and the account corresponds to how the event happened. In a sense, that's unobjectionable, but it's fatally ambiguous. Let's take a few examples:

i) Was the healing of Jairus' daughter an event? That's a trick question. In a sense, it's an event. But in another sense, it's a series of events. In Mark's account, Jairus comes to Jesus. That's an event. He talks to Jesus. That's an event. Jesus goes with Jairus. That's an event. While they are on their way to his house, servants come to say his daughter has died. The sending of the servants is an event. Her death is an event. And so on.

In other words, we can view this as one event, or a series of related events. And that's not a pedantic distinction. If we say an accurate account should correspond to the event, are we saying it must correspond to every link in the chain? But what if that makes the description bloated? Stuffed with extraneous details? Is it inaccurate for a narrator to cut the dead wood?

If, to be accurate, an account must correspond to every link in the chain of events, then where's the cutoff? You could always go back another step in the series of events leading up to the conclusion. When did the daughter take ill? What was the history of the pathogen (if that's what it was)? 

Any description of the event must somewhat arbitrarily isolate what's relevant from all the precipitating factors leading up the denouement. In terms of causality, the event isn't a self-contained incident. Rather, it's the end-product of an ever-receding series of cause and effect. Any account will have to omit many details. 

ii) Take another example: suppose we say an accurate account of the Civil War is an account that corresponds to what actually happened. In a sense that's a truism. But the Civil War isn't a single event. Rather, it's a network of various events at different times and places. That can't be shoehorned into one linear plot. Rather, you have multiple chains of events. What was happening in Virginia, South Carolina, Missouri, the District of Columbia, &c. What a Union general was doing, what a Confederate general was doing, what a Union politician was doing, what a Confederate politician was doing, and so forth. 

No single narrative can correspond to everything that was happening at the same time, or different times, in different states during the Civil War. At best, you can have multiple narratives that correspond to one chain of events or another–related, but distinct–chain of events. 

3. In one sense, a time machine is the ideal standard of historical accuracy. By taking you back into the past, that's an exact match. 

In another sense, that's not what we mean by historical accuracy. For accuracy involves the concept of representation, not identity. 

4. Apropos (3), take holodeck simulations of the past. The computer creates an interactive, 3D facsimile of the past. That would certainly correspond to the past. 

But, of course, that's science fiction. Even if we had the technology to pull that off, we lack the fine-grained knowledge of the past to reproduce details. The computer would have to pad the simulation of generic, imaginary details to plug the many gaps.

5. Let's take another example. Suppose I'm a director. I'm going to make a miniseries on the Civil War. A nonfiction dramatization. I wish to make it as historically accurate as possible. 

i) One challenge is dialogue. To my knowledge, not much original Civil War dialogue has come down to us. By that I mean, you didn't have stenographers following soldiers and statesmen around, taking down their informal conversations in shorthand. So how do I supply authentic dialogue? Or do I?

I could simply invent dialogue that's the kind of thing that characters might say in that situation. It would be accurate in that very broad sense.

However, it's possible to get much closer to the reality. There's tons of primary source material consisting of speeches, sermons, letters, memoirs, diaries, journals, essays, tracts, pamphlets, editorials, biographies, news articles, &c., by Civil War observers or participants. That could be mined for raw material to turn into dialogue. 

Although it wouldn't be what they said in conversation, it would be in their own words. It would be about the war. 

Therefore, I'd have the Robert E. Lee character saying things Lee actually said. Same thing with all the other characters.

Sure, that's not something they said on that exact occasion. As a filmmaker, I've changed the setting by adapting their statements to dialogue. But that's a necessary adjustment to the medium. No, it's not something they said at that particular time or place, but it is something they said about that particular time or place. 

ii) Another challenge is viewpoint. Should the series have an editorial viewpoint? That's unnecessary. Different characters would naturally present different viewpoints. North and South. Generals. Statesmen. Foot soldiers. Slaves. Abolitionists. And the dialogue would be taken from things they actually said.

iii) On a related note, how would I depict battles? Well, if I have descriptions of the same battle from a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier, I might show the battle from both perspectives. After all, each soldier experienced the battle differently. 

iv) Some of the original settings are gone. There are different ways to finesse that. There are still Antebellum buildings around. I could substitute one of those. I could build period sets, based on historic photographs. And in the age of CGI, I could simulate period landscapes and cityscapes, based on historic photographs. I could even digitally alter the facial appearance of the actors to make them look just like the historical figures they portray. 

Now, all these devices are one or more steps removed from the original event. Yet all of them strive for authenticity. 

Suppose I go to all the effort, only to have film critic Bart Ehrman exclaim that my miniseries wasn't historically accurate in any modern sense of the term. Really? Would any rational person agree with his review?

6. I think the Gospels are much closer to reality than the scenario I proposed in #5. But even if, for argument's sake, the Gospels were like my hypothetical miniseries, they'd be highly informative about what happened in the Civil War. If that's historically accurate in the case of a representation which is more steps removed from the original event, then that's even more accurate in the case of a representation which is fewer steps removed from the original event. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

I forgot I had amnesia

I'm going to comment on Part 2 of the debate between Bart Ehrman and Richard Bauckham:

(I swiped the title of my post from a song by Win Corduin.)

1. I suspect Ehrman's influence is actually quite limited. Whose mind is he changing? He's not changing the minds of conservative Bible scholars–because they reject his definition of inerrancy. He's not changing the minds of moderate Bible scholars–because they reject his definition of historicity. Moreover, both groups are quite familiar with his stock examples. Both groups are quite familiar with the same data that he is. They arrived at their own explanations before he became a celebrity apostate.

Some liberal scholars agree with him, but he didn't change their minds. Rather, they already shared a similar outlook.

Apostates and atheists rubberstamp anything he says so long as he is bashing the Bible and Christianity. He could contradict himself, and they'd still root for him. 

I think the only group he has much impact on are stereotypical young people growing up in intellectually lazy evangelical churches. They make easy targets. 

2. Here's one of Ehrman's tactics: if his opponent happens to agree with him on the "phenomena" of Scripture, he acts as though they made a damaging concession. Problem is, they don't think the phenomena have the same implications that he does. 

For instance, one problem with the debate was failure to define a "story". Do Matthew and Luke change Mark's "story". 

That's equivocal. For one thing, it fails to distinguish between the underlying event and narrating the event. Although there's only one event (in any given case), it's not like there's just one right way to describe the same event. To the contrary, there are different ways to accurately present or represent the same event. 

Take the difference between expository documentaries, observational documentaries, linear narration, nonlinear narration, immersive journalism, &c. These can all be accurate depictions. Indeed, the multiplicity of viewpoints makes a variety of techniques more accurate. 

3. Apropos (2), Erhman said the Gospels are historically inaccurate because narrators provide the framework, which varies from one Gospel to the next. But that's equivocal. There's a difference between providing the framework in the sense of arranging scenes in a narrative sequence, and inventing a physical or temporal setting. 

Ehrman said the Gospel biographies not historically accurate in any modern sense of the term. Really?

What's the modern standard of comparison, exactly? For instance, I've seen hundreds–probably thousands–of documentaries in my lifetime. Is Ehrman denying that historical and biographical documentaries are selective? Use narrative compression? Nonlinear narrative (e.g. flashbacks)? Paraphrastic quotes?

There are different kinds of documentaries. For instance, you have expository documentaries with voiceover narrators. Both the narration and the narrative structure impose an editorial viewpoint. The genre may include reenactments to fill gaps in the record. They edit the raw material to form a logical rather than chronological progression that makes it flow smoothly, so that a viewer can follow the story more easily. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are observational documentaries, where unobtrusive cameras simply record what happens spontaneously, with minimal editorial intervention. Just let events speak for themselves. Presents material from the viewpoint of participants. 

Is one more accurate than the other. Genre alone doesn't settle that question. Observational documentaries are more ostensively lifelike. More realistic. More like verbatim quotation and strict chronology. 

But that can be propagandistic. If subjects know they are being filmed, that affects how they behave. They may exploit that to influence the viewer through the image that participants consciously project. Rather than a director staging their actions, they stage their own actions to create a favorable impression. Conversely, the overtly interpretive nature of an expository documentary may be truer to events by evaluating events in light of the larger context and supporting evidence. 

Ehrman has a positivist view of historiography. Just record things as they happened. But that's simplistic and misleading. On 9/11, airplanes flew into skyscrapers. Just showing what happened is barely informative. That fails to distinguish between an accident and a calculated attack. What motivated the pilots? You have to go behind the events to explain why it happened. Ehrman has a bad habit of making oracular pronouncements that fail to consider obvious counterexamples to his confident generalities. 

4. Ehrman labored to impugn testimonial evidence. But a basic problem with Ehrman's position is that even if, for the sake of argument, we say the Gospel writers had fallible memories, there's a big difference between the occasional memory lapse and systematically misremembering the life of Jesus. Unless the Gospel writers suffered from senile dementia, Ehrman cannot impugn the historical reliability of the Gospels by giving us cliches about how eyewitness testimony isn't "necessarily" trustworthy. His position requires a far more ambitious claim: observers consisitently misremembered what Jesus said and did. 

For instance, I've read reviews of biographies about C. S. Lewis which mention that Lewis is unreliable when it comes to dating events in his own life. biographers have to correct some of his dates. They go to great pains to work out a careful chronology of his life. 

It would, however, be ridiculous to conclude that since Lewis misremembered when some events happened, that he misremembered what happened. Those are two very different things.

Indeed, it's often not a case of misremembering the date, but not remembering the date in the first place. If you didn't write it down or make a mental note, then it's not a case of forgetting or misremembering the date; rather, you never took notice of what day it was.

Later, you may attempt to reconstruct the date. But that's a different process. That's about attempting to remember something else that happened around the same time, and using that as a frame of reference to fix the rough timeframe of the incident whose calendar date you can't remember directly. 

5. Bauckham noted that witnesses may misremember the details of an accident because it was unexpected. To expand on what he said, they didn't see it coming. They were surprised. Unprepared. They only focus on the accident after it happens. After the initial shock wears off. 

He also said most forgetting occurs in the first few hours or a couple of days after the incident. Memories that survive that window are likely to stick. Moreover, once we begin to rehearse what happened, it falls into a standard stable form.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Roman Catholicism distorts the Biblical message about God’s work in time

Leonardo De Chirico has revised and re-posted an article of his that demonstrates how the Roman Catholic distortion of time plays a major role in its current ecclesiology (which is, as I’ve mentioned, its major selling point in the post Vatican II era). He focuses on two words, two biblical measures of time, “hapax” (“once for all”) and “mallon” (“for evermore”)

As Protestants, we believe the following:

1. The incarnation of Christ was “once for all”
2. Christ’s death and resurrection and our redemption were “once for all”
3. “Revelation” was “once for all delivered to the saints”.

Roman Catholicism flips these precisely on their head:

1. The Roman Catholic Church is the “ongoing incarnation of Christ” (“for evermore”)
2. “The Eucharist” (“the sacrifice of the Mass”) is a “re-presentation” of the one sacrifice of Christ, providing redemption on an ongoing basis (“for evermore”) throughout time.
3. The “once for all” sense of biblical revelation is opened up to being integrated with “living Tradition” that is mediated by the Magisterium, creating a dialectic between the biblical message and the process of tradition.

De Chirico’s original Themelios (2004) article is here.

In it, he suggests “Roman Catholicism is not intentionally driven by the desire to confuse the time periods of God. It would be uncharitable and prejudiced to think so,” he says.

However, Roman Catholicism IS driven to exalt itself: “Rome IS all about aggrandizing Rome”. And if it means distorting the Biblical message about God’s work in time, it has no hesitation to do so. This is not at all “uncharitable and prejudiced to think so”, because it is true.

Can you use the Bible to prove the Bible?

i) It's often said that you can't use the Bible to prove the Bible. Unless the Bible is true, you can't use it to prove its veracity, since that's the very issue in dispute!

ii) Sounds plausible, but is it that simple? For instance, reviewers praise some memoirs if the autobiographer was candid about his foibles and misjudgments. His transparency is mark of veracity. What would motivate him to say unflattering things about himself unless he was honest? 

That dovetails with the criterion of embarrassment. The Bible is chockfull of examples like that.

iii) But let's approach this from another angle. I think the apparent vicious circularity of using the Bible to prove the Bible is largely semantic. How can you use the same book to prove itself?

But that's deceptive. Although "the Bible" is a singular designation, it's actually an anthology of various writings by various writers. 

Suppose an editor compiled a history of WWII by soliciting accounts from Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Curtis LeMay, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, George Patten, Chester Nimitz, and Matthew Ridgeway. Could you use his history to prove his history? Sure. Although it would technically be one book, it's actually a collection of independent accounts by leading participants. To a large degree, their respective accounts would be mutually corroborative. 

You can do the same thing with the Bible. It's complicated, but there's nothing fallacious about the procedure. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Possum privilege

Los Angeles Times

The Berkeley City Council had a contentious public meeting last night over the issue of speed bumps. An advocacy group representing dachshunds lobbied for the removal of speed bumps. They argued that speed bumps were hazardous to the low-slung carriage of the breed. They cited expert testimony that dachshunds running over speed bumps at high velocity suffer from dachshund testicular impaction syndrome, necessitating painkillers and corrective surgery. They complained that speed bumps reflect institutional structures of high-slung privilege. 

But as the council was poised to vote for the removal of speed bumps, an advocacy group representing possums objected on the grounds that removing speed bumps would raise the incidence of vehicular/possum interaction, technically dubbed possum pancake syndrome. 

For hours, the council was deadlocked as it agonized over whether to check dachshund privilege or possum privilege until one councilman proposed retrofitting the speed bumps with dachshund underpasses, as a reasonable accommodation for dachshunds and possums alike. By unanimous vote, the council directed the civil engineering dept. to proceed forthwith. 

Red Square

I'm going to make two completely unrelated observations about this interview:

1. I appreciate the fact that the Family Policy Institute of Washington is uncovering the sneaky, despotic machinations of the liberal establishment.

In addition, I appreciate how the interviews expose the arbitrary, harebrained logic of transgenderism. 

That said, accurate opinion polling presumes that respondents feel free to say what they really think. But the average college campus is a police state of political correctness. If you stick a microphone in front of students and ask questions like that, even most students who think transgenderism, unisex locker rooms, &c., are BS, are reluctant to say that on camera. They are acutely self-conscious of severe reprisal that awaits them if they dare to challenge the regnant political orthodoxies on camera. The video will go viral. They will be subjected to a cyber lynch mob. They will be hauled before college Kangaroo courts, in a Kafkesque no-win situation. They will be ordered to recant on pain of expulsion. They will be required to attend "sensitivity" seminars. This is a reason the liberal establishment resorts to intimidation. It works! The establishment has the high cards. 

2. On a completely different note, these interviews took place on the campus of the UDub (as locals call it). You can see different parts of the campus in the background.

Now, because I'm fairly familiar with the campus, I know where some of these shots were taken. I haven't been there for almost 20 years, but before I moved out of state, I often went there to do research.

One shot was taken at Red Square in front of Suzzallo library. Another shot was taken in the Quad, just above Red Square. The cherry trees are in blossom this time of year.

However, it takes pinpoint knowledge in time and place to know exactly where these interviews were conducted. Most people watching the video wouldn't have a clue. If you go forward or backward a few years, the scene will change. For instance, Red Square used to be covered in grass rather than brick (from which it takes its name). 

Let's draw a comparison:

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five covered colonnades (Jn 5:2). 

As one scholar notes:

John 5:2 was dramatically corroborated by archaeological discoveries in the 1890s, as the site of the pool of Bethesda was located in Jerusalem. Reconstruction showed how two juxtaposed rectangular enclosures would have created five porticoes (NIV "covered colonnades")–the four sides forming a perimeter of the entire area combined with the dividing wall down the middle. Identification of the name of the site was later made possible by the reference in the Copper Scroll from Qumran… C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (IVP, 2001), 109. 

This is one of those incidental details in John's Gospel that belies liberal dating schemes. This is a time-sensitive description. The Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. So this anecdote is contingent on living memory. Someone who was there at the time. It's inexplicable that someone writing in the 2C would have that intimate knowledge of pre-70 AD Jerusalem. 

Ehrman, Lewis & Clark

I'm going to comment on the Erman's latest installment in his debate with Mike Licona:

This post will be longish, not because I have that much to say, but because it will contain longish block quotes.

The expansion of Christianity

Ehrman's Argument Against Bauckham And The Gospels Fails

The second half of the gospels debate between Bart Ehrman and Richard Bauckham is now available. Before I address that second part of the debate, I want to summarize what I've argued so far.

Ehrman's position is highly speculative and highly unlikely, relying on layer after layer of implausibility. He has no good explanation for the internal evidence for the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels, ignores most of the external evidence prior to Irenaeus and may not even be aware of much of it, doesn't have a good explanation for the evidence from Irenaeus onward, and provides no external evidence for his own position. He has Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source, yet refuses to acknowledge the likely implication that those gospels would have been given titles and/or other identifying marks involving the authors' names, so that the documents could be distinguished in contexts in which they were being used together. (Since authors' names were the widespread means of distinguishing among the gospels from the second half of the second century onward, that means of distinguishing among them is the most likely one to have been used earlier. Continuity is more likely than discontinuity.) Ehrman wants us to believe that the gospels were collected in libraries, public and private, for several decades and were used in church services during that time, all the while remaining anonymous. I've used Irenaeus as an illustration of how implausible such a scenario would be. The general principles I've applied to Irenaeus must also be applied to Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and every other relevant source, including the many heretical and non-Christian sources who corroborated the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels. When that kind of scrutiny is applied to Ehrman's hypothesis, it breaks down again and again and again.