Saturday, October 01, 2016

Should Christina Van Dyke Resign? We Report, You Decide

Avalos on prayer

Last year, apostate Hector Avalos gave a talk on prayer:

This appears to be a rehash of objections he raised in more detail in his article: "Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?" Free Inquiry 17 (1997). I'll comment on that article. 

The problem with this and any so-called controlled experiment regarding prayer is that there can be no such thing as a controlled experiment concerning prayer. You can never divide people into groups that received prayer and those that did not. The main reason is that there is no way to know that someone did not receive prayer. How would anyone know that some distant relative was not praying for a member of the group that Byrd had identified as having received no prayer?

I basically agree with that.

For example, many people with high blood pressure would call me to pray for them when their blood pressure rose. I would come and pray, and afterwards the blood pressure would fall. This would be regarded by me and the patient as an answered prayer. Yet most blood pressure frequently does rise and fall on its own because our bodies have systems that function like the thermostat in our homes. Many other "sick conditions" also get better on their own because the body has mechanisms to relieve itself (for example, fevers, colds, many types of aches and pains). 
Another reason for the widespread belief in divine healing among Christians, especially Pentecostals, is the dynamic of the services in which healings are said to occur. In many instances a great quantity of healings are reported by traveling evangelists. Usually the evangelist asks the patient what the problem is. 
Many may say, for instance, that they had a "kidney problem" when they have a backache. The evangelist usually does not verify if the patient is indeed suffering from kidney problems and is not usually familiar with the patient s medical history. Yet he might announce that the patient was healed of "kidney problems" to the entire audience. The evangelist also might assume that the persons who approached the altar were healed, and so he may report that multitudes of persons were healed in his previous stop. Indeed, the evangelist rarely performs follow-up examinations. Thus exaggerated numbers of reported healings can multiply rapidly in these environments.  
The psychology of the petitioner is also a contributing factor. If the evangelist, for example, asks patients if God has healed them, they are very likely to say "Yes," even if their symptoms say the opposite. [14] The reason is that many patients are embarrassed to say that God has not healed them because this appears to insult God.

i) I agree. However, citing unimpressive examples does nothing to counter more impressive examples. What about medically verifiable miracles? 

ii) Avalos fails to draw an elementary distinction. If you wish to prove the occurrence of answered prayer, then it's logical to begin with unambiguous examples. But once you establish the occurrence of answered prayer, that makes another examples more likely to be cases of answered prayer, even if they are ambiguous. 

For most of my young and adolescent life, I was a faith healer in a Pentecostal tradition. I witnessed what I then thought were resurrections, spontaneous growth of short limbs, cures from cancer, and many other types of diseases. In retrospect, I have learned much about why people believe in answered prayers even when there is evidence to the contrary or even when it is logically absurd. Every single case of a supposedly answered prayer that I witnessed can be explained by one or more of the following factors: (1) false assumptions, (2) erroneous information, and (3) wishful thinking. 

Yet he admits that he "witnessed what he then thought were resurrections, spontaneous growth of short limbs…" He fails to explain how he could misperceive the instantaneous growth of short limbs. That would be a visible phenomenon, right? Does he think his eyes played tricks on him?  

For Christian believers, answered prayers qualify as a type of miracle. According to Charles Hodge, the famous American fundamentalist theologian: "A miracle, therefore, may be defined to be an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition, of God." [11] The problem with verifying scientifically that miracles as defined above ever occur is that the Christian god is supposed to have infinite characteristics, and we can never know whether a prayer has been answered by a being that is said to be infinite. 
Let me explain. One of the infinite characteristics of the Christian god is omnipresence - that is, this being is said to be everywhere in the universe at the same time. The Christian god is also said to be eternal, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Yet, we, as finite human beings, could never know that such an infinite being exists. For example, in order to know that there is a being who is everywhere at the universe at the same time we would have to be everywhere in the universe at the same time. 

i) I don't think God is literally omnipresent. God isn't a physical being. So God isn't everywhere. Strictly speaking, God isn't anywhere. 

ii) It's not uncommon to postulate the existence of spaceless entities (e.g. numbers, logical laws, possible worlds). Their explanatory power accounts for concrete states.

In order to know that there is a being who is eternal, we would have to be eternal. 

i) That's a one-sentence assertion. He fails to explain why we'd have to be eternal to know there's an eternal being. What's the principle? That you must be like what you know? The subject of knowledge must be the same kind of being as the object of knowledge? Must I be a bumble bee to know that bumblebees exist?

ii) I don't need to be timeless to know that timeless objects exist (e.g. numbers, logical laws,possible worlds). I infer their existence because they do necessary explanatory work. They are indispensable to account for certain concrete states. 

In order to know that any event we witnessed in the world was caused by a particular being, we first have to know that such a being exists. For example, it would be absurd to say: "I know my prayer was answered by an invisible Martian, but I do not know if invisible Martians exist." The reason this statement is logically absurd is that it attributes an action to a being not known to exist. 

Really? Take white explorers who saw bison on the Great Plains for the very first time. Must they know in advance that bison exist to take sightings of bison as evidence for their existence? Must they have evidence that bison exist independent of bison sightings before they can acknowledge that bison exist based on direct observation? How would Avalos ever establish the initial existence of something? If he automatically discounts the first case on the grounds that we can't accept that evidence unless we already know it exists, then that rules out novel discoveries. 

Likewise, in order to know that any event (e.g., an answered prayer or any other supposed extraordinary event) was caused by an infinite being, we first have to know that an infinite being exists. Since we can never know that an infinite being such as the Christian god exists, we can never know that any event we witness was caused by this being. In sum, knowing scientifically that an infinite God answered a prayer is logically impossible. 

That piggybacks on a couple of bad arguments (see above).

Prayer would be unnecessary if there were an all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful God. Let's suppose that the most gifted doctor in the world happens to be your friend. This doctor has the ability to cure any sickness known to modern medicine. Let s also suppose that this doctor is living with your family, which includes a six-month-old baby. 
Now if this infant were to become violently ill in the presence of this super-doctor, what would you expect from him? If the baby is choking, for example, you would expect him to use techniques that will relieve the baby s problem. You would not expect him to ask you first if you believed that he could cure your child before he was willing to help the child. You would not expect him to require you to show how much faith you had in him before he would help your child. What you would expect is for this super-doctor to act as soon as he sees the child choking. 

Among other things, prayer is designed to cultivate a sense of dependence on God. If all our needs were automatically provided for, there'd be no appreciation or realization of our dependence on God. 

Moreover, we shouldn't just expect people to do us favors. Asking for a favor is an acknowledgement that if your request is granted, the grantor is doing your a favor. Even if a parent knows that his teenager wants something from them, he may wait for the teenager to ask. A teenager shouldn't just take his parents for granted. Receiving what he asked for is a basis for gratitude. Otherwise, the child grows up to be a selfish, thankless person, since he expects everything to be provided without ever having to ask. The same dynamic applies to friendship. 

Let's also suppose that this doctor has the ability to prevent cancer in all children anywhere in the world even before it occurs. Undoubtedly, you would expect that if he had this ability then he would use it, if he really fits our definition of "good." But if the doctor has this ability, and does use it, then you would not expect there to be any cases of infantile cancer in the world. If this super-doctor has this ability, then he should not wait for anyone to ask him to prevent the suffering of children with cancer. We would expect him to act immediately out of pure goodness. 

That depends on the long-term consequences. Individual lives are not self-contained events. Rather, they have short-term and long-term impacts on other people's lives, for better or worse. Suppose God heals a child with cancer. Suppose his future grandson is a security guard at an oil refinery. He works the nightshift. One of his duties is to periodically check the gauges to make sure a system isn't going critical. But instead, he's watching a skin-flick. As a result, the refinery explodes, incinerating the inhabitants of the company town. Saving one life resulted in a thousand deaths. 

Similarly, an all-good God would not want anyone to suffer. 

Some people deserve to suffer. Take people who commit atrocities.  

An all-knowing God would know who would suffer ahead of time, and an all-powerful God could prevent suffering before it happens. Thus, if there were an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God, then there would be no need for prayer in the first place, especially if the prayer is used to alleviate illnesses or any other type of suffering. 

Of course, that's the problem of evil, for which there are different, sometimes complementary, theodicies. For instance, suffering can be a theater for soul-building virtues. Likewise, a world without suffering will have a different set of people than a world with suffering. Each scenario has tradeoffs. Each scenario has winners and losers. 

Even if someone prayed to the Christian god for healing and that person was healed, it would not prove that the healing was done by the Christian god. All religions claim to have answered prayers. For example, according to the Bhagavad-Gita, part of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, the god Krishna claims that it does not matter which god human beings worship; it is Krishna who answers their prayer. [13] Thus, it would not be scientifically possible to show that it is the Christian god who answered a prayer even if such a prayer was answered. 

i) Avalos is equivocating. He's an atheist. So even if you can't prove that a prayer was answered by the Christian God, it still falsifies atheism.

ii) What kind of god is Krishna? He didn't always exist. He had parents (Devaki, Vasudeva). Is it even possible for an anthropomorphic deity like Krishna to exist? Is it even possible for a finite god like Krishna to answer prayer? 

iii) Hector's comparison is reversible. If the Christian God intended for Ravi Zecharias to exist, he might answer a prayer to Krishna by one of Ravi's ancestors, in case Ravi's future existence is contingent on that answer. Likewise, if God intended Tom Schreiner to exist, he might answer a prayer to Mary by one of Schreiner's Catholic forebears, in case Schreiner's existence is contingent on that answer. 

iv) There's a conspiratorial quality to Hector's objection. For instance, he teaches at Iowa State U. Now it's hypothetically possible that Iowa State U is really a front organization for a drug cartel. This deflects attention away from the cartel's nefarious activities. They bought off the local reporters and politicians to avoid detection.  

Hector's habit of floating hypothetical alternatives is a diversionary tactic. Even though it's hypothetically possible that things are not as they seem, unless we have actual evidence to the contrary, it's irrational to be suspicious. 

Even if we saw an extraordinary healing occur (e.g., a severed leg grow back instantaneously), we would not be able to prove scientifically that it was a supernatural occurrence. To say that something is supernatural is to say that something is not natural. But to say that something is not natural, one would have to be practically omniscient because that would be tantamount to saying that we know all the natural factors that could possibly be responsible for an event, and are claiming to know that none of the factors was responsible. No one has the kind of knowledge, and so consequently no one could ever call anything non-natural. 
The most we could say about an event whose cause is unknown is that the cause is unknown. As already noted, we would be less justified in attributing an extraordinary event to an infinite being. 
But even if you recovered from a potentially deadly illness in some unexpected manner, you still cannot know if it was an act of God. The most we could say is that the recovery was accomplished through an unknown process. Many recuperations that may appear supernaturally miraculous may be due to very natural processes which have not been recognized or studied previously. Indeed, one can draw up a long list of phenomena that were unknown 100 years ago but are deemed perfectly natural today. In fact, most believers in prayer have received conventional medical treatment, and so one cannot eliminate the possibility that it was the medical treatment, not the prayer, that actually had a beneficial effect, even when such an effect might be unexpected. 

i) That argument either proves too much or too little. We can turn it around. You'd have to be omniscient to disprove God's existence. You'd have to be omniscient to rule out supernatural factors. As he himself says, "there is no way to know that someone did not receive prayer". So naturalism is unverifiable. 

ii) By that logic, every biblical miracle might have happened, just as people saw it occur, yet it has a naturalistic explanation. Surely Avalos doesn't take that seriously. 

iii) If he really takes that position, then he's a secular fideist. If nothing in principle could ever count against atheism, then atheism isn't based on evidence. Atheism is indifferent to evidence. Faith-based atheism rather than fact-based atheism. 

iv) If a Christian receives conventional medical treatment, that explains the instantaneous regeneration of an amputated limb? 

God heals amputees!

Don't take my word for it. According to apostate atheist Hector Avalos, in "Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?" Free Inquiry 17 (1997):

Even if we saw an extraordinary healing occur (e.g., a severed leg grow back instantaneously), we would not be able to prove scientifically that it was a supernatural occurrence. 
For most of my young and adolescent life, I was a faith healer in a Pentecostal tradition. I witnessed what I then thought were resurrections, spontaneous growth of short limbs, cures from cancer, and many other types of diseases. 

So he's conceding that he saw the instantaneous regeneration of amputated limbs. (Notice that he uses "spontaneous" as a synonym for "instantaneously".) By his own admission, that's from firsthand observation. 

He doesn't deny what he saw. "Who should I believe–me or my dying eyes!" Instead, he says that's still not scientific proof that it was a supernatural occurrence. 

Now, Avalos is such a fanatical atheist that he might backpedal on his original, damaging admission. Again, though, how could he be mistaken? How could he see an amputated limb merely appear to instantaneously grow right before his eyes? 

Notice that he's not talking about tricks by other faith-healers, but his own direct observation.  

IMPORTANT: International Declaration of Fidelity to the Church's Unchangeable Doctrine and Uninterrupted Discipline on Marriage

There is a "Catholic-Protestant Debate Group" on Facebook. It is a closed group, but you can apply for membership there.

Not long ago, one of the moderators, Seth Murray, blocked me (I'm still a member of the group, he just can't see what I write) -- because I insisted that Amoris Laetitia actually was a big deal in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Well, now there is an IMPORTANT: International Declaration of Fidelity to the Church's Unchangeable Doctrine and Uninterrupted Discipline on Marriage attesting the very thing I was saying.

I like to razz them, so I posted this:

These guys are just way too uptight, right? I mean, TECHNICALLY no TRULY INFALLIBLE dogmas have been changed. THE TEACHING (whatever that is -- where's the "infallible table of contents", to use Scott Hahn's word, but that's another question) is UNSCATHED. These guys should just chill. So what if a brilliantly "merciful" pope has found a way around the letter of the "unchangeable law", handed down, uninterrupted, as received from the Apostles? Why change "the letter" of the law, when "the spirit" is so malleable? They should just get with the times. Be like the Easterners. Go with the flow. After all, annulments are just so easy and inexpensive to get these days. This issue never needs come up in real life. We should go with Seth Murray on this one, right? Seth is studying this stuff, and he says, "no harm, no foul." Move along. No need to make a big deal about this, much less have an IMPORTANT INTERNATIONAL DECLARATION. These guys should just get a life, right?

This is important enough, by the way, that the New York Times has been writing about it:

More instances where Roman Catholicism opens up the name of Christ to mockery.

Van Til vs Barth

Highly recommended: Van Til’s Critique of Barth’s Christology:

If what we have said above about Barth's thought is correct, then we must stand with Van Til in his fundamental contention: Barthianism is not simply a different expression of Christianity, but a different religion altogether. Or, to put the matter in the form of a question: is there any way to conceive of Barthianism and (Reformed) Christianity as friends? The answer must be Nein!

For this reason, we find the recent dismissals of Van Til's critique by current evangelical theologians somewhat troubling. What is perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Barth's theology is being readily received today as being friendly toward Reformed orthodoxy. Whatever the reasons for this, it is time to once again exercise discernment, as Van Til did. In addition, we would do well to read Barth, carefully and closely as Van Til did, seeking to understand truly the deep structures of his thought and their implications for Christian doctrine and life. And when we have done that, we must stand in witness and testimony to the self-attesting Christ of Scripture.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Rome's moral weathercock

Prof. Robert George, perhaps the leading conservative Catholic public intellectual in America, candidly admits that the One True Church has done an about-face on some fundamental issues in moral theology:

In fact, the Church can and has changed its teaching on the death penalty, and it can and does (now) teach that it is intrinsically wrong (not merely prudentially inadvisable). Both John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism reject killing as a penalty, i.e., as a punishment, i.e., for retributive reasons. Rightly or wrongly (I think rightly, but the teaching is not infallibly proposed—Professor Feser is right about that—nor was the teaching it replaces infallibly proposed) the Church now teaches that the only reason for which you can kill someone who has committed a heinous crime is for self-defense and the defense of innocent third parties. You can’t kill him as a punishment, even if he’s Hitler or Osama bin Laden, once you’ve got him effectively and permanently disabled from committing further heinous crimes. There is no other way to read Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism. The interesting debate, I think, is about the status of the earlier teaching and what kind of assent, if any, it demanded of faithful Catholics. The same is true of the earlier teaching—plainly contradicted by the teaching of (I think) all the 20th century popes who opined on the issue—that among the valid justifications for the use of military force are retributive justifications. The Church used to teach that going to war to punish aggressor nations can be justified. It now teaches that going to war to punish aggressor nations cannot be justified (though going to war to counter their aggression can be justified).

When Rome gives moral directions, stay alert for U-turns. 

Who's the magician?

Write up on Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

Should we prioritize dogmatics over exegesis?


John Byl has an interesting response to a post of mine:

One potential problem with his analysis is the use of round numbers and recurrent 7-motif in the flood account. That suggests a degree of numerical stylization–especially Sabbatarian numerology. 

Y-chromosome Adam

Two statements by Jerry Coyne, back-to-back:

...genes on the Y chromosome trace back to one male who lived about 60,000-90,000 years ago 
Since sequencing of human genomes became possible on a large scale, we can back-calculate from the observed genetic diversity in our species to find out roughly when different forms of human genes diverged from one another, and how many forms of a given gene existed at a given time…We can, for example, trace all the Y chromosomes of existing males back to a single man who lived between 120,000 and 340,000 years ago. This individual is often called "Y-chromosome Adam"…all the Y chromosomes of modern humans descend from this one individual… J. Coyne, Faith Versus Fact (Viking, 2015), 127.

i) I find it striking that even though he's talking about the very same thing in both cases, the upper estimate in the first quote is 30K years below the lower estimate in the second quote. In the first quote there's a 30K spread. In the second quote, there's a 220K spread. So where are these figures coming from?

ii) In addition, there were, presumably, thousands of other human males (or protohumans) contemporaneous with Y-chromosome Adam. Just as he had descendants, many or most of them had descendants. Given the extent of human interbreeding, how could all modern humans derive their Y chromosomes exclusively from a single common ancestor? Surely Coyne doesn't think all the descendants of Y-chromosome Adam's contemporaries died out. I don't see how the argument goes through even on his own assumptions. 

iii) There's the additional question of whether human males would even be male without the Y chromosome. Perhaps, though, the precise function of the Y chromosome is in dispute.


I'd like to compare two objections that unbelievers raise to the Bible:

#1. Science has disproven Gen 2-3. 

#2. Stories like Gen 2-3 are fables. For instance:

As a child, I enjoyed reading Aesop’s fables and biblical stories. Both have talking animals, along with moral lessons and universal truths. 
But rather than just make fun of such fables, I also think it’s important to read the Bible and try to understand why it has so deeply influenced our culture. Even non-religious people can find meaningful messages in “holy” books. In a previous piece, I gave a few moral lessons from the Bible, including the snake fable.

Let's consider #2 in more detail. It's common for unbelievers to dismiss the Bible as a book of fables. From their standpoint, Gen 3 is a case in point. Talking animals are stock characters in fables. What is more, the Temper in Gen 3 is a trickster, which is another stock character in fables. On this view, the Temper is a serpentine variant on animal tricksters like the fox, coyote, raven, and rabbit. That's a common motif in world folklore.

But here's the rub: #2 cancels out #1. If Gen 2-3 is a fable, then science hasn't falsified Gen 2-3. On the fabulous classification, Gen 2-3 would be consistent with, say, theistic evolution. 

To my knowledge, American-Indian beast lore was pedagogical: cautionary tales designed to teach young people how to be shrewd like the trickster and avoid getting outsmarted like the trickster's hapless dupes. Such tales were intentionally fictional and satirical. 

Now, my point is not to endorse the fabulous interpretation, but to note that an atheists can't consistently deploy both #1 and #2. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Modern Reformation goes off the rails

The current issue of Modern Reformation (September-October, 2016, 25/5) has an article by Jerry Walls promoting purgatory: "The Imagery of Heaven in C. S. Lewis". I'm curious as to why an ostensively Reformed periodical is providing a platform to boost purgatory. The same issue has an article by Arminian Scot McKnight. How very ecumenical. Makes you wonder who's minding the store at Modern Reformation these days. 

For the love of God

Under what conditions and in what context can one justifiably expect a Christian theologian to discuss these texts? If, as a universalist, I should try to construct an exhaustive biblical case for a doctrine of universal reconciliation, one could justifiably expect that I would give at least some account of Matthew 25:46 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9; and similarly, given that Calvin tried to present an exhaustive biblical case for his understanding of limited election, we can justifiably complain that he did not even mention 1 John 4:8 and 16 in that context.

A basic problem with Talbott's comparison is this: What theological alternatives stood in contrast to Calvin's position at that time and place? Arminianism didn't exist. Although the Eastern Orthodox might give an "Arminian" interpretation to 1 Jn 4:8,16, that's not the framework within which Calvin and his theological opponents operated.  He was a Western European Christian writing to, for, and against other Western European Christians.

To my knowledge, the primary theological alternatives in the church of Rome–which was Calvin's primary foil–were Thomism and Augustinianism. But there's no reason to think a Thomist or Augustinian would offer a significantly different interpretation of 1 Jn 4:8,16 than Calvin. For instance, here's how Aquinas glosses God's love for the "world" in Jn 3:16:

from the condition of the one who is loved, because it is man, a bodily creature of the world, i.e., existing in sin: “God shows his love for us, because while we were still his enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:8). Thus he says, the world.

But that's consistent with limited atonement. 

It's my impression that Luther and Calvin co-opted Augustinianism to such an extent that it delegitimated the Augustinian tradition as a viable option in Catholicism. Prior to the Reformation, that had been a major, honorable option. But when the post-Reformed Jansenists tried to go that route, it was too late. Catholicism had narrowed in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. 

How did Judas die?

The death of Judas is a familiar crux. We have two accounts in Matthew and Acts. At least superficially, these seem to describes two different ways of dying. 

How these are two be harmonized is anyone's guess. My own theory is that Judas hanged himself, then animal scavengers yanked his body down (e.g. dogs, jackals, a bear, a lion). 

This is easy to visualize for anyone who's seen nature shows in which wildlife photographers string meat from a tree, then photograph predators attempting to pull it down. So I think that's an economical explanation.

However, an unbeliever will object that I'm guilty of special pleading. If it was anything other than the Bible, I'd just admit we have discrepant accounts. 

So let's take a comparison. Mattathias Antigonus was the last Hasmonean king. He was predecessor to Herod the Great. Depending on how you count them, we have three or four different accounts of his demise:

These people Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged, — a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, — and afterwards slew him. Dio Cassius, Roman History, 22:6. 
Now when Antony had received Antigonus as his captive, he determined to keep him against his triumph; but when he heard that the nation grew seditious, and that, out of their hatred to Herod, they continued to bear good-will to Antigonus, he resolved to behead him at Antioch, for otherwise the Jews could no way be brought to be quiet. And Strabo of Cappadocia attests to what I have said, when he thus speaks: "Antony ordered Antigonus the Jew to be brought to Antioch, and there to be beheaded. And this Antony seems to me to have been the very first man who beheaded a king... Josephus, Antiquities ,15.1.2 (8-9). 
and he deprived many monarchs of their kingdoms, as, for instance, Antigonus the Jew, whom he brought forth and beheaded, though no other king before him had been so punished. Plutarch, Life of Antony, 36.11.

As you can see, Plutarch, Josephus, and Strabo (according to Josephus) all say that Marc Antony had Mattathias Antigonus beheaded. By contrast, Dio Cassius says Marc Antony had him crucified. 

Now, these aren't strictly contradictory. Dio Cassius doesn't exactly say Mattathias Antigonus died by crucifixion. It indicates that he was slain after he was crucified–which is rather vague. 

If, however, we approach these accounts with the same skepticism that unbelievers apply to Scripture, we wouldn't try to harmonize them. For one thing, isn't crucifixion and decapitation overkill? Moreover, why dispatch him before he dies from crucifixion? The whole point of scourging and crucifixion is to make your enemy die a slow, excruciating. To behead him before he succumbs would be counterproductive. Finally, his death by decapitation is multiply-attested, whereas Dio Cassius is the only source who says he was crucified. What are the odds that a man would both be crucified and beheaded? 

Ah, but here's where the story gets even more interesting. We aren't confined to literary notices. There's archeological evidence that, as a matter of fact, Mattathias Antigonus did undergo both crucifixion and decapitation. In 1970, an ossuary was discovered in the Abba cave. The remains were identified as belonging to none other than Mattathias Antigonus.

On the one hand, the cut jaw and severed second vertebra indicate decapitation. On the other hand, the ossuary contains three hooked nails (used in crucifixion) with traces of human calcium. 

Recently, that's has been confirmed by Yoel Elitzur and Israel Hershkovitz. As one scholar (Greg Doudna) summarizes the evidence:

There are the very clear and specific indications that this individual was both beheaded and nailed through the hands at the time of death. As I understand it, very few nails have been found inside any ossuaries (with the bones) in any case, and in no other case have nails been found attached to hand bones in an ossuary. And this particular individual was also fairly clearly beheaded (possibly with the executioner whacking twice to complete the job, per P. Smith’s analysis). The extremely unusual combination, with no other known parallel, of nails attached to hand bones and beheading corresponds specifically and exclusively to dual traditions of Antigonus Mattathias being hung up on a cross and flogged (Dio Cassius), and beheaded (Strabo). While that particular combination may have been done by Romans in cases not known to history, Antigonus Mattathias is the only case in which these dual traditions of these two particular kinds of death are recounted for the same person—the exact combination that turns up on a set of bones in an ossuary of a tomb with an Inscription referring to bones of one MTTY, of the approximate time as Antigonus Mattathias as independently established on dating grounds.

Now, the death of Antigonus Mattathias is at least as convoluted and antecedently unlikely as harmonizing the death of Judas in Matthew and Acts. Yet there's both documentary and paleoforensic evidence that that's what happened. 

Incidentally, the reason Antigonus Mattathias might have been beheaded after he was crucified was to expedite his death. Unless a corpse was buried before sunset, it defiled the land (Deut 21:22-23).  Marc Antony may have been forced to accede to Jewish sensibilities in that respect.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Armed revenue collectors

A historical view of John's Gospel

The collapse of institutional Catholicism

Michael Rea is a bigwig in the philosophy dept. at Notre Dame. That may be the most prestigious philosophy dept. in America, although Plantinga's departure a few years ago certainly reduced its nimbi aura somewhat. Rea's public apologetic disclaimer for Swinburne's keynote address at the SCP, where he defended the traditional view that homosexuality is a "disorder," is just another example in the ongoing collapse of institutional Catholicism. Notre Dame is technically Catholic. Why didn't the president of Notre Dame issue a disclaimer for Rea's disclaimer? Why didn't the president of Notre Dame express support for Swinburne's position?

Or take Georgetown recently hiring a Hindu chaplain. Likewise, when Georgetown law school graduate Sandra Fluke spoke at the 2012 Democrat National Convention, why didn't the president of Georgetown issue a disclaimer, explaining how her views don't represent the views of Georgetown? Or take  Barack Obama speaking at Notre Dame and Georgetown? The presidents of both institutions are Roman Catholic priests. So they are answerable to their religious superiors. 

However, the problem goes all the way to the top:

My immediate point is not about the policy itself. I don't believe in the indissolubility of marriage. My point, rather, is the leadership vacuum in Catholicism. Generally, if you wish to find people who still defend traditional Catholic dogma, the place to look is among the laity rather than the clergy. Yet that's catastrophic for Catholicism. That could work for evangelicalism because evangelicals have portable theological traditions. In evangelicalism, it's doctrine that produces religious institutions–but in Catholicism, it's the religious institution that produces theology. 

Evangelicals can always start over again with new institutions. They can zero out a preexisting denomination and start from scratch. That's because their theology comes first. Their theology is independent of any particular institution. 

By contrast, Catholic theology can't survive without the intubation of the sacraments, priesthood, and magisterium. That's why traditionalist Catholics have such a hard time. 

Institutional Catholicism is the essence of Catholicism. When institutional Catholicism collapses, it takes takes everything else down with it. Laymen can try to take up the slack, but that's a temporary substitute. 

This raises the question of why Catholic clergy are generally more liberal than the laity. I have two or three theories. These aren't mutually exclusive:

i) A certain percentage of Catholic clergy are homosexual. That inevitably has a liberalizing influence.

ii) Unlike evangelical converts to Rome, Catholic clergy attend Catholic educational institutions that usually present mainstream Catholic theology, which is liberal. 

iii) It's easier for the laity, and especially evangelical converts to Rome, to be taken in by the mystique of "the Church". They see it from the outside. Like a model home or display window.

However, priests and bishops see the church from behind-the-scenes. It's hard to maintain belief in the mystique when you're aware of the offstage machinations. Hard to believe this is supernaturally guided when you see the all-too-human intrigue.

To be fair, I'm not suggesting that's confined to Catholicism. Human nature, being what it is, you can certainly find that in Protestant institutions, too. Again, though, in evangelicalism, the theology is separable from the institutions. 

Existential theology

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies (Jn 8:44). 
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son (1 Jn 2:22). 
Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 Jn 5:21).

i) In his influential article on "The Sanctity of Truth," John Murray takes the position that lying is intrinsically wrong. His argument relies heavily on the concept of alethinos in Johannine usage. However, I think he fails to capture the nuance of the alethinos word-group in Johannine theology.

Translations commonly render alethinos as "truth".  Although "truth" is a valid translation, lexicographers include "genuine" or "real" as alternative definitions. So the traditional rendering prejudges the meaning of the term. 

ii) In addition, we need to distinguish between the meaning of words and the meaning of concepts. What is John's concept of alethinos? In context, I don't think it means propositional truth, although that's covered. Rather, John uses alethinos as an antonym for what is counterfeit. For John, there's a dualism between what's authentic or genuine, on the one hand, and what's spurious or counterfeit, on the other. 

iii) But even though that's semantically valid, it's too generic to capture the underlying concept, which is more specific. What makes something authentic or inauthentic? That involves the ultimate contrast between God and whatever denies God or supplants God. God is the standard of comparison. What God is like. What he says and does.

Satan and idolatry are the antithesis of alethinos. Satan is a usurper. Pagan deities usurp the real God. Idolatry is delusive. 

An idolater or heretic doesn't merely deny the truth. He misrepresents God. He replaces God with something else. 

iv) This has a propositional dimension, but it also has an existential dimension. An authentic life tracks the reality of God. An inauthentic life deviates from the reality of God. 

v) Suppose you care for a senile relative. She's forgotten that her parents are dead. She's forgotten that her husband is dead. Everyday she asks about them. Where are they? Why doesn't she see them?

Should you tell her they are dead? She will forget. Telling her they are dead makes her repeatedly relive their death every day, or several times a day. Imagine the shock and trauma of hearing that time and again as if for the very first time. What could be more cruel?

Is it not better to tell her a comforting lie? They are shopping. They will be back soon. 

That's not contrary to the Johannine concept of alethinos. In fact, that's consistent with the Johannine concept of alethinos. Acting in a way that's consonant with God's compassion, mercy, and lovingkindness. 

That may ruffle some feathers, but sometimes we need to reexamine a traditional interpretation. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Michael Rea owes Richard Swinburne an apology

Safe spaces for philosophers

I'll comment on the controversy involving Swinburne's SCP speech. There are many permutations to this controversy. Let's consider just a few:

1. I expect Rea bit off more than he can chew. I doubt it occurred to him that his apologetic disclaimer would provoke this firestorm. For him, that's just a natural response given the liberal echo chamber he resides in.

This reflects a common pattern. Liberals inhabit a bubble. Self-reinforcing communities. 

It's like stories about school officials who do something predictably unpopular like telling a student he can't wear a patriotic T-shirt or telling parents they can't wave American flags at a football game. The NEA culture is so insular that school officials can't anticipate the utterly foreseeable response. They are constantly blindsided because they don't think like ordinary people. They don't relate to ordinary people. 

2. We're witnessing a predicable development. Although atheists are numerically in the minority, they dominate the power elite. Increasingly they persecute traditional Christians.

As a result, nominal Christians like Rea publicly disown traditional Christians. This is to signal to the power elite that they aren't to be confused with traditional Christians. Unlike traditional Christians, they are on the "right side of history". 

That, of course, leaves traditional Christians isolated and exposed. Nominal Christians desert them and denounce them to the secular authorities. Nominal Christians realign themselves with the power elite by adopting the social agenda of the power elite, and by adapting theology to echo whatever the power elite dictates. It's total assimilation. Just like the Nazi theologians. 

We're rapidly approaching a point where traditional Christians may resume the role of the Confessing Church in Germany under the Third Reich. 

What's striking is how some people (Rea, Timpe, Tom Morris) instantly collapse the moment their moral fortitude is put to the test. They never had the slightest resistance to despotic evil. This is how someone like Hitler can rise to power.

People like this are conventionally virtuous when the culture supports their conventional virtue, but if the tide changes, they change with the tide.   

3. Rea's disclaimer abdicates Christian standards of morality and philosophical standards of critical analysis. The fact that someone was offended by Swinburne defending traditional Christian morality hardly constitutes grounds for issuing a disclaimer or apology. That's not a philosophically or theologically legitimate response. 

That recasts the issue. The germane question is whether a person even has the right to be offended by certain positions. To be offended by something isn't self-validating. It is morally wrong to be offended by some positions. 

The only pertinent philosophical question is whether the views expressed by Swinburne converge on or diverge from reality. Let the chips fall where they may. If some people's feelings are hurt by being told what is real, so much the worse for their feelings. They have no right to feel hurt. Their hurt feelings are intellectually and morally unjustified. 

4. Ironically, Swinburne's position was actually on the soft side. He said it was extrinsically disordered. The traditional position is that it's intrinsically disordered. Moreover, the "disability" framework mitigates homosexual orientation. 

5. Then there's the issue of the disability framework. Swinburne was accused to "dehumanizing" and "pathologizing" homosexuals. 

i) I don't agree with Swinburne's framework in reference to homosexuality. That said, homosexual activists have for many years declared homosexuality to be a genetic condition. If we respond to them on their own grounds, that naturally raises the question of whether homosexual orientation is genetically defective. 

ii) Likewise, transgender activists sometimes claim that gender dysphoria has a basis in brain chemistry or neurological structures. If we respond to them on their own grounds, that naturally raises the question of whether gender dysphoria is (technically) pathological.

iii) Apropos (ii), some people with gender dysphoria undergo hormone therapy and sex-change operations. From their standpoint, that's equivalent to reconstructive surgery or supplements to restore their condition to normal functioning. But that implies the untreated condition is defective. 

iv) It's understandable that people with disabilities are sensitive or sometimes hypersensitive to how their condition is characterized. There is, however, nothing inherently derogatory about noting that someone suffers from a disability. Take a child born with a congenital heart defect who will die young without corrective surgery. If the procedure is affordable, parents have a duty to fix the condition. That's acting in the best interests of the child. 

Take medical conditions like Tay-Sachs, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, and ALS. Should we abandon medical R&D because some people imagine it's "dehumanizing" to speak of disabilities or genetic effects? To the contrary, it's the critics who are promoting an inhumane policy.  

v) Jesus healed people. Does that mean he was dehumanizing the people he healed? 

6. Supporters of Rea and critics of Swinburne complain about the "harm" that gender-normative and heteronormative paradigms have done to LGBT persons. One glaring problems with that complaint is that it's so lop-sided:

i) Homosexual activity is harmful to homosexuals. The homosexual lifestyle is disease-ridden. Just mouse over to the CDC. Homosexuals individually harm themselves. 

ii) Homosexuals harm each other. They transmit STDs. Likewise, homosexual men are at elevated risk of colorectal cancer and colectomies. 

In addition, you have elevated rates of domestic violence in homosexual relationships. Elevated drug use. And so on and so forth.  

iii) Homosexuals harm heterosexuals. For instance, the Catholic abuse scandal is a homosexual scandal, involving gay priests molesting adolescent boys. 

Homosexual activists harm everyone's civil liberties by demanding policies that violate Constitutional rights regarding freedom of religion, speech, and association.

iv) Transgender ideology is harmful to people who suffer from gender identity disorder. They harm themselves through hormone treatment (consider the side-effects) and sex-change operations. Indeed, they can do irreversible harm to themselves.

v) Transgender activists harm everyone's civil liberties by demanding policies that violate Constitutional rights regarding freedom of religion, speech, and association.

Transgender activists put women at risk by demanding coed restrooms and locker rooms. Likewise, there's official pressure to make shelters for women and children accessible to biological men who self-identify as women. Just consider the predictable potential for harm to already battered women. 

And I'm just scratching the surface. 

Is God beyond gender?

Michael Rea, who's a philosophy prof. at Notre Dame, as well as President of the the Society of Christian Philosophers, recently and infamously issued an apologetic disclaimer on behalf of the SCP for a keynote address by Richard Swinburne in which Swinburne took a politically incorrect position. I plan to do a separate post on that controversy, but for now I'd like to note that there's a subtext to Rea's reaction. He has a position on gendered theological usage that's likely related to his position on LGBT issues:

1. There's duplicity and incoherence of Rea's position. He tries to play both sides of the fence. On the one hand he says God is beyond gender. On the other hand he says God is equally masculine and feminine. But if God is beyond gender, then he isn't both masculine and feminine, but neither. In that event we need to abstract away from our idea of God everything we associate with masculinity or femininity. The result is to depersonalize God. God becomes more like a principle. 

2. Among other things, his analysis suffers from a basic equivocation. Gender terms exist in ascending orders of abstraction:


Every man is male, but every male isn't a man. A man and a bull are both male, but a bull isn't a man.

Masculinity is an abstract property that can be variously exemplified. Although men and males are concrete, physical instances of masculinity, masculinity is immaterial. 

We can also associate gender with inanimate objects. It's natural to think of a Ferrari as masculine. Perhaps feminists would say that's sexist. So much the worse for feminism. 

Masculinity is more fundamental than men or males. In principle, God could have masculine properties. And God's masculine properties would be exemplary for their instantiation in men or male animals. So the masculine representation of God in Scripture is not metaphysically misleading. That's a coherent concept. 

3. We can also view the issue along the lines of a novelist. A novelist will create male and female characters. Obviously, there has to be something in the novelist that he puts into the characters. That comes from his imagination.

In the case of a male novelist, his female characters reflect his experience of women. And he describes them from a masculine standpoint. 

Of course, divine creativity isn't based on God experiencing the world. So there's a difference. The feminine paradigm originates in God in the sense that God has an idea of femininity. And God makes counterparts that mirror that concept. 

4. Scripture uses many metaphors for God. A few of these might be gender neutral (e.g. light, fire, potter). In theory, a farmer might be female. However, farming in the ancient world sometimes required physical strength.

In Scripture, God is a king. That might seem gender neutral inasmuch as you can have queens. However, in the ancient world, kings often had to be warriors. So it has a stereotypically masculine connotation. Indeed, Scripture frequently depicts God as a warrior. 

Same thing with shepherds. A shepherd had to be able to protect the flock from major wild predators (e.g. bears, lions, wolves). So that has stereotypically masculine connotations. 

Scripture sometimes uses animal metaphors for God (e.g. lion, leopard, eagle, bear). That might seem to be gender neutral inasmuch as each species has male and female.

However, human mothers don't have the defensive or offensive equipment of a lioness or she-bear. So the comparison breaks down at that point. 

It's not incidental that a number of these metaphors have protective connotations. Of course, mothers can be protective. Again, though, the focus is not on a protective instinct, but protective ability. As a rule, men have greater protective capabilities than women, and theological metaphors for God play on that natural association. 

Historically, a masculine duty was to protect women. Except for women who carry guns, women still depend on masculine protection–as do children. It's not incidental that Scripture uses the husband as a theological metaphor for God/Christ.

5. Then you have the complex father/son metaphor. That has many dimensions. With respect to the issue at hand:

i) In Scripture, that's not primarily Incarnational. Rather, that's prior to the Incarnation. The Father, in his capacity as Father, sends the Son, in his capacity as Son, into the world. 

ii) In Bible times, a reason a father would task his son rather than his daughter to go in a mission is because it was a dangerous world. A son would be in a better position to defend himself. You had to be able to handle yourself in rough-and-tumble of the ancient world. 

iii) In addition, the father/son metaphor is related to the king/prince metaphor. A royal son as the father's heir. And that, once again, plays on the connotations of warrior kings. Indeed, messianic prophecy as well as NT depictions often represent the Son as a military conqueror. 

6. In Scripture, both men and women are in submission to God. That's stereotypically feminine. 

7. Finally, Rea harps on the alleged harm and oppressiveness of masculine characterizations of God. 

i) Let's assume for the sake of argument that's true. That means Rea wants a different religion. He's hostile to the Biblical concept of God. He rejects Judeo-Christian theism. He wants to invent a new religion. It's a classic heresy that has some roots in the religion it deforms.  

He should be honest about his repudiation of biblical theism and make a clean break. He doesn't think the Bible is an accurate self-revelation of God. Indeed, he thinks the Bible seriously misrepresents God. So he rejects Christianity as a revealed religion. 

ii) In a fallen world, whenever one person has power over another, there's the potential for abuse of power. That's true when men have power over women; that's equally true when women have power over men. It's trivially easy to give examples of both. 

iii) Feminism is harmful. Feminism is harmful to the judicial system. It's soft on crime. Feminism is harmful to the education system. It discriminates against boys. Feminism is harmful in the military: harmful to men and women alike. It's trivially easy to multiple examples. 

A Rejoinder to Thomas Talbott on Calvin and the Love of God in 1 John

Choosing between the lesser of two evils

Limitations on the lesser-evil principle

I've discussed the legitimacy and limitations of the lesser-evil principle on several occasions. Now I'd like to expand on what limits the principle. The lesser-evil principle involves a twofold comparison. At one level it involves a comparison between two or more actions or choices. If, however, that's all there was to the lesser-evil principle, it would be relativistic inasmuch as it would be confined to comparing one choice or action in relation to another. 

At another, deeper level, the principle involves comparing each action to a standard of comparison. A standard of good, prudence, &c. 

Take the current debate about whether to vote for Trump, vote for Hillary, cast a protest vote, or refrain from voting for president in this election cycle (although you should still vote for downballot candidates, initiatives, and referenda). 

At one level, that involves a direct comparison between Trump and Hillary. Predicting what you think each candidate is likely to do as president. Predicting the impact on their respective parties. 

But at another level, you're comparing each candidate to a standard of comparison that's independent of either candidate or any candidate. Certain general criteria by which you evaluate any candidate. That includes possibly disqualifying criteria. And that preserves the lesser-evil principle from relativism. It's not just a question of assessing which choice is better or worse in relation to other choices, but the goodness or prudence of that choice in relation to an absolute metric. Indeed, you can even assess which choice is better or worse unless you have a standard of comparison. 

Some actions are intrinsically evil. That makes them out of bounds. The lesser-evil principle can never transgress that boundary. 

What makes something or someone controversial?

One thing I notice is how the media poisons the well by calling a conservative spokesman or conservative position "controversial". 

i) To begin with, the media only applies this label to conservatives and conservative/traditional positions. For instance, "Russell Moore's controversial LGBT comments at Justice Conference."

They use the adjective "controversial" as a prejudicial introduction. 

ii) Apropos (i), the label is one-sided. What makes a person or position "controversial"? As used by the media, it's instantly controversial if liberals are offended. 

Of course, that's one-sided inasmuch as liberal positions are just as "controversial" to conservatives as conservative positions are "controversial" to liberals. 

iii) In addition, the label is circular. Basically, you're controversial if the media say you're controversial. Your position is controversial if liberal pundits and liberal academics say your position is controversial. As if just using the label makes it so. "By definition," so-and-so's position is controversial because some people call it controversial. 

There's no substantive reason. Just a question-begging, self-reinforcing characterization. 

iv) The question is, "controversial" to whom? For instance, segregating public restrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams by biological gender isn't "controversial" to most people. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy

I'm going to make some scattered comments on P. Gould & R. Davis, eds., Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy (Zondervan, 2016). 

1. The contributors are Graham Oppy, Scott Oliphint, Timothy McGrew, and Paul Moser. 

I've already done some posts on related topics, which I will link to at the end of this post.

It's unclear to me what the editors' selection criteria were. If you want a spokesman for atheism, Oppy is a good pick. He's probably the top atheist philosopher of his generation.

If you want spokesman for evidentialism, you can't do better than Timothy McGrew. 

However, Paul Moser is overrated. If the point was to have someone who represents a more existential or illative perspective, that emphasizes direct religious experience rather than formal arguments and empirical evidence, then C. Stephen Evans or Kai-man Kwan would be much better picks for that niche. 

Which niche was Oliphint chosen for? To represent Calvinism, presuppositionalism, or both? If Reformed presuppositionalism in particular, then either Vern Poythress or James Anderson would be far more competent exponents. If Calvinism in general, then Greg Welty, William Davis, or Jeremy Pierce would be far more competent exponents. (That's assuming Davis is not a presuppositionalist. I don't know his position on that one way or the other.)

There are many other Christian philosophers who might have interesting things to say about the relationship between Christianity and philosophy, viz. Robert Adams, Michael Almeida, Oliver Crisp, George Mavrodes, Alexander Pruss, Del Ratzsch, Nicholas Rescher, Eleonore Stump, Antony Thiselton, Kevin Vanhoozer, Peter van Inwagen, Merold Westphal, Edward Wierenga, Stephen Wykstra, Keith Yandell.

Perhaps, though, the editors felt that would be too idiosyncratic. Maybe they wanted to represent particular schools of thought. If so, why wasn't Thomism included? Mind you, I think Thomism is overrated, so I don't lament its omission, but I'm puzzled by the selection criteria.

Likewise, Augustinianism has a distinctive position on religious epistemology. 

2. I don't have much more to say about Oppy than I've already said. He's super-smart. However, he's dumb about the ultimate stakes in the debate over atheism and Christianity. Moreover, he has a kind of armchair intelligence that's more at home with abstractions. He's impatient with the nitty-gritty of sifting historical evidence.