Saturday, January 28, 2017

Debunking Carrier

Casting mountains into the sea

23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mk 11:23-24).

i) How should we interpret this promise? V.24 is a prosaic paraphrase of v23. Jesus uses the example v23 to illustrate the principle in v24. If v23 is hyperbolic, then v24 is hyperbolic. 

Did Jesus literally mean that his followers can uproot mountains and cast them into the sea? Is that the kind of world we actually live in?

ii) Consider the havoc it would wreak if Christians had the power to trigger natural disasters. Do we really think God has delegated that kind of unbridled power to Christians? 

iii) Moreover, it would make God subservient to the whims of every Christians. Does Jesus really think we can compel God to do whatever we demand? What kind of God would put the world at the mercy of shortsighted Christians. 

iv) Furthermore, it isn't even coherent. What if a farmer prays for rain while his neighbor prays for sunshine to display her baked goods at the county fair? 

v) I interpret v24 the same way I interpret v23. If v24 is not to be taken at face value, then neither is v23. 

vi) And it just doesn't work. There are well-meaning people who take v24 at face value, only to learn the hard way that God doesn't do whatever they ask. God doesn't perform miracles on demand. God is not a genie in a bottle. 

vii) Someone might object that we shouldn't interpret v24 in light of experience. I disagree. If a claim has predictable consequences, then it's legitimate to judge the claim by the outcome. If the claim is true, there will be observable evidence. That's the nature of the claim. It is necessary to take experience into account when a particular claim implies a particular experience. 

viii) Someone might object, "Don't you believe Jesus?" Well, part of believing in Jesus is believing that Jesus is wise enough not to make demonstrably false claims. In you believe in Jesus, you must believe that he knew better than to make a false prediction or false promise. So, that should figure in my interpretation. 

ix) A commenter mentioned cases where God may give a Christian special insight into his will, on some topical course of action. I agree that sometimes happens, but Mk 11:24 seems to be a general promise, so that's not how I construe it. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Is the lottery sincere?

In Calvinism, doesn't the butcher first determine that you won't like liver, and then offer you liver? That doesn't come across as a sincere offer.

That's a comment on my analogy in this post:

I'd like to respond to it separately, because it has several permutations. 

i) God doesn't directly and individually address the Gospel offer to anyone. It's not like Gabriel appears to every human being. No one's name is on the Gospel offer. It's not a question of God making an offer to people face to face and one by one. Indeed, tens of millions of people never hear the Gospel offer.

So it's not as though God is personally encouraging the reprobate to take him up on the offer. Rather, it's an all-purpose promise that's filtered through second-parties. Preachers and evangelists who don't know who's elect and who's reprobate.

ii) Let's take a comparison. Suppose you buy a lotto ticket. There's an implied promise that if you have the winning number, the prize money is yours.

But the machine has no idea who you are. The ticket machine isn't making you an offer. 

iii) Moreover, does every ticket-holder have a chance to win the lotto? Depends on what you mean. The promise is that if you have the winning number, the prize money is yours. But every ticket-holder can't have the winning number. In that respect,99.9999% of ticket-holders have no chance of winning, since the vast majority of ticket-holders are bound to have a losing number. By design, the intention of the lottery is to limit the offer or promise to a single winner, to the exclusion of everyone else. Most customers go into the process doomed to lose. Their ticket number predetermines the outcome. Yet we wouldn't say that makes the lotto a scam.  

My point is not that that's a direct parallel to the Gospel offer, but it illustrates the complexities and unspoken assumptions about what makes an offer or a promise a bona fide offer or true promise. 

iv) Let's take a different comparison. Suppose two uncover cops infiltrate the mob. In fact, the two cops are partners.

Suppose the Don discovers that one of the agents is an undercover cop, while he's suspicious of the other agent, but unsure.

So he proposes to test the ultimate loyalties of the suspected agent. He names the agent he knows to be an infiltrator. He then tells the suspected agent to shoot him dead.

He does that to smoke out which side the suspected agent is on. He doesn't expect the suspected agent will kill his partner to maintain his cover. 

v) By the same token, Scripture depicts the atonement as having a twofold purpose. It's designed to save some, but drive others away or expose their ultimately loyalties. Intended to inculpate or aggravate their guilt. For instance:

But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart (Ezk 3:7).

Why does Yahweh send Ezekiel on a mission when he predicts the prophet's failure to win over his audience? Is the futility of the task "insincere"? But it demonstrates how hardhearted they are.


34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Lk 2:34).

So the atonement is divisive of by design. Intended to stir up opposition. 

By the same token:

20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (Jn 3:20-21).

39 Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (Jn 9:39).

37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
40 “He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
    and understand with their heart, and turn,
    and I would heal them.” (Jn 12:37-40).

Law and order

A quick follow-up to my post on Darryl Hart. Among other things, he said:

If I break the civil law, I should be punished. God gave us authorities to uphold the law and maintain order and peace.

Problem with Hart's justification is that Paul doesn't use that rationale in Rom 13. Paul doesn't frame the issue in terms of law, order, and domestic tranquilly. He doesn't appeal to legal categories, but moral categories. Paul talks about the duties of a magistrate in reference to those who do right and those who do wrong, including the magistrate's duty to facilitate the ability of constituents do right, and punish those who do wrong. 

So Hart is using an argument that Paul doesn't use. Hart is oblivious to what he's interjecting into the text from outside the text. He's transplanted an extraneous justification into the text. 

Moreover, while there's a sense in which I'm sure that Paul believed in law, order, and domestic tranquility, that doesn't mean Paul is operating with Hart's legal positivism and totalitarian concept of the state. Paul doesn't absolutize legality or social control. Rather, it's about incentivizing good and disincentivizing evil. Hart, by contrast, turns Paul's priorities on their head. 

Faith and providence

The standard objection to Calvinism is that predestination implicates God in evil. I've fielded that objection on multiple occasions, so I won't rehash my arguments. I will say that it comes down to two stark alternatives:

i) Every evil happens for a good reason

ii) Evils happen for no good reason

Whichever box you check, it will be a hard truth. 

But now I'd like to draw attention to one of the practical values of predestination. Nabeel Qureshi is a Muslim convert to Christianity. He's become perhaps the most high-profile Christian apologist who specializes in Islam. Lately, he's been struggling with what, if nature takes its course, is terminal cancer. He's done a running series of videos updating his diagnosis and treatment. Here's the latest:

It's painful to watch these videos in chronological order, because he starts out very upbeat and optimistic, but is forced to move the goal post as his prayer for miraculous healing goes unanswered (thus far). In earlier installments, he talked about how Scripture encourages "presumptuous" faith. (What Sam Storms calls "expectant faith"). He said in light of this that he must believe God has in fact healed him. But sadly, that hasn't happened. 

In his latest update he says Jesus healed everyone who came to him, or everyone who was brought to him. He infers from this that it is God's will to heal everyone. 

The problem with Nabeel's position is that, despite the best of intentions, his setup means faith in Scripture is bound to lose. Even though he knows in advance that God doesn't miraculously heal everyone, or every Christian, he's pitting Scripture against undeniable experience to the contrary. But that guarantees confusion and disappointment at best, and bitter disillusionment at worst.

What he needs is a more robust theology of providence. It's a false dichotomy to pit Scripture against providence. To some degree, we can infer God's will from providence. For providence mirrors God's decretive will. The past is the record of God's plan for the world, up to that point.

So there's nothing faithless about inferring that it's not God's will to miraculously heal everyone, or every Christian in particular, from the fact that God doesn't heal everyone. History in itself, is a reflection of God's will. 

I'd also point out that Nabeel's appeal to the Gospels is misleading, even thought that's not his intention. Assuming that Jesus healed everyone who came to him, or everyone who was brought to him, that's an infinitesimal fraction of all the ailing people whom he didn't heal. Most people didn't come to Jesus for healing for the simple reason that most people didn't know he existed. Outside the ambit of Judea and Samaria, he was unknown. So consider all the ailing people who never had an opportunity to seek him out for healing. Not to mention people living on other continents. 

And that's just in reference to his public 2-3 year ministry. Consider the multiplied millions of people throughout human history whom God hasn't healed, both before and after the Incarnation. So Nabeel's sample is quite unrepresentative. 

Which is not to deny that some people are miraculously healed. But he's framed the issue in such a way that faith in Scripture will inevitably be dashed by rude experience. That's a recipe for professing Christians to become alienated from the faith. They had a false expectation, based on their misunderstanding of Scripture. When that collides with unyielding reality, they lose their faith. Or, at the very least, suffer a crisis of faith. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chopped liver

I recently had an exchange with an intemperate freewill theist:

"Calvinism tells sinners there is nothing they can do to change their eternal fate."

That confuses predestination with fatalism. Sure, there's nothing you can do to change a predestined outcome, but that hardly means faith or lack of faith is irrelevant to the outcome–for what sinners do or don't do is, itself, a predestined factor leading to the predestined outcome. The outcome won't happen apart from intervening causes.  

"Calvinists are dangerous heretics because they insist that God has NOT made a SINCERE offer of salvation to the whole world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His only son."

The offer of salvation is a conditional offer: if you repent of your sins and put your faith in Jesus, you will be saved. That's a sincere offer that's entirely consistent with Calvinism.

"God saves ONLY a relative handful that He Himself has chosen to save, and that these lucky few cannot"

That's a willfully ignorant Arminian trope. Calvinism is neutral on what percentage of humanity will be saved. Some Calvinists think it will be the majority.

"Is this something I can choose to do, or do I have to hope and pray that my 'dead spirit' has been supernaturally "regenerated" first?"

Unless you're Pelagian, even evangelical freewill theists believe prevenient grace is necessary to enable sinners to repent and believe the Gospel. 

What makes an offer a bona fide offer is that if anybody complies with the terms of the offer, he will get what he was offered.

To take a comparison, suppose a butcher offers to sell two pounds of chopped liver for the price of one. If you only buy one pound, you don't get half price. You have to buy two pounds. 

Okay, but suppose I can't stand the taste of liver. In that sense, I can't take him up on the offer. 

Does my distaste for chopped liver make the offer insincere? Not by any reasonable definition of a bona fide offer.

Once again, are you ignorant of evangelical freewill theism? According to evangelical theology generally, original sin renders humans unable to accept the Gospel unless God provides necessary preliminary grace. In Arminian theology, that's prevenient grace. To deny that is Pelagian.

In addition, you keep missing the point. The stated purpose of the chopped liver analogy is to illustrate that an offer isn't rendered insincere due to the inability of a customer to be receptive to the offer. A sale on chopped liver is a bona fide offer even if many customers hate chopped liver. 

"So the offer--at whatever price--is INSINCERE if the person it is being offered to has no ABILITY to receive it."

People who can't stand chopped liver are unable to enjoy the taste of chopped liver. Therefore, they are constitutionally unreceptive to the offer. They find the offer repellant. 

It is insincere for the butcher to offer chopped liver unless every customer is able to enjoy the taste of chopped liver? 

No. It's only insincere in case the butcher has no intention to giving them what was offered if they comply with the terms of the offer. 

Moreover, the butcher isn't even offering chopped liver to customers face-to-face. He simply put an ad in the newspaper.

Actually, the reprobate don't show up. That's the point. It's not as if they show up, only to be served bad food. Rather, they refuse to come because they hate the food. 

Or, to use my analogy, it's not as if they go to the store to buy the chopped liver, present their coupon, only to be charged full price. No, they don't take the butcher up on the offer in the first place since they hate chopped liver.

But there are other customers who just love chopped liver. They go to the store, present the coupon, and get two for the price of one–exactly as advertised. A bona fide offer. 

Dropping the metaphors, the elect accept the Gospel and the reprobate reject the Gospel.

Common knowledge

When we interpret Scripture, or any document from the past, it can be useful to have background information. That's because writers generally leave many things unsaid. They are usually writing to or for an audience that has a common frame of reference, so they don't engage in lots of exposition. Rather, the audience is expected to bring supplementary information to the text.

Problem is, what was common knowledge for readers at a particular place and time may not be common knowledge for a modern reader. So it can be useful to have background knowledge to help a modern reader fill in the gaps. 

That, however, raises the question of what counts as suitable background knowledge. For instance, when is a parallel truly parallel? Without attempting to be exhaustive, I'll briefly mention two controls that I use:

1. The ostensible background information needs to have a foothold in the a text. It is illicit to import an interpretative paradigm wholesale from outside the text. For instance, consider ufological interpretations of Ezekiel's theophanies. That "background" information belongs to a frame of reference that's extraneous to the world of the text. Based on watching Hollywood movies about flying saucers and extraterrestrials. 

2. The ostensible background information needs to have a foothold in reality. On the issue of comparative mythology, for instance, I don't use mythology as a starting-point. Rather, I go behind mythology to ask what experience gave rise to the mythology. How did ancient people experience the natural world? What are the natural properties of snakes, mountains, rivers, and "gardens" that underlie the symbolism? That provides a more reliable transcultural basis for extrapolating from one text to another text.  

To take a stock example, the four seasons are typically used as a metaphor for the human lifecycle. That's due to the relative universality of the seasons. Of course, if you live in equatorial Africa or Latin America, that may not be an accessible metaphor. 

Another example is imagery drawn from human social life to provide theological metaphors. But because these are analogies, they require some modification. For instance, the Bible sometimes depicts heaven as a palace. The Father is the aging king. His youthful Son is the Crown Prince. There's a throne room with angelic courtiers and sentinels.

In real life, the palace guard exists to protect the royal family from hostile intruders. But, of course, God doesn't need anyone to protect him, so the function is reversed: they protect unwary intruders from stumbling into God's presence! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The anonymous Tempter

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

This may be a case of dramatic irony, where the audience senses something about a situation or a character (the Tempter) that another character (Eve) does not. The name of the Tempter instantly tipped off the audience that there may be something sinister about this character. "Snaky" characters have a reputation that precedes them. The connotations of the Hebrew designation are ominous. 

The question is whether Eve knew the name of the Tempter. To begin with, she wasn't around when Adam named the animals. Moreover, as some commentators note (e.g. Mathews, Sailhamer), the syntax is ambiguous as to whether the Tempter even is one of the garden animals. It could be rendered that he was "subtle as none other of the beasts"–which would place him in a class apart.

Eve never addresses the Tempter by name. It's the narrator who uses that designation. So the dialogue between Eve and the Tempter resembles a movie in which viewers watch a character strap on a shaheed belt, concealed under his jacket, leave his apartment, then board a crowded subway train. It could go off at any time. Passengers are oblivious to their imminent peril. 

By the same token, the narrator clues the audience into an alarming piece of information that Eve may lack. But while the audience is on the alert, Eve suspects nothing. 

Is the Quran one or many?

A friend asked me to comment on this post:

1. A few preliminary comments. If you turn to Deut 6:4, it says: "Here, O Israel, the Trinity is false!"

Only it doesn't say that. It doesn't say anything directly about the Trinity. In context, it sets Yahweh in contrast to paganism. 

2. As for Mk 12:28-29, Jesus reaffirms the Shema. What a surprise. Was anyone expecting Jesus to repudiate the Shema? 

Here's some recently scholarship on Markan Christology:

Put succinctly then, Mark’s Jesus is the kyriotic Son inasmuch as he embodies the royal hopes surrounding a Davidic ruler and healer, who performs these same activities (and more) as a god-in-disguise. Functionally, Mark’s Jesus is characterized as though he were the embodiment of both Yahweh and his Davidic Messiah. This union of the divine and Davidic creates a characterization for audience members in which the Markan Jesus far surpasses anything known in Jewish cultural memory aside from Yahweh himself. The result is that, for sympathetic audience members, the Markan narrative creates its own scripts and forms its own cultural memory, in which Jesus is assimilated to both David and God as a divine and suffering messiah.

Looks far more promising for Trinitarians than unitarians. And that's just Mark's Gospel, which has the least developed Christology. 

3. A final preliminary point: why are Muslims in the combox giving Bart Ehrman high fives for his claim that Markan Christology is unitarian? 

Do Muslims think the Gospels are unitarian? If so, why do they reject the Gospels? Aren't the Incarnation and Trinity the primary stumbling blocks for Muslims? If they think the unitarian interpretation is correct, why don't they accept the Gospels? They can't have it both ways. 

4. Now I'd like to quote and comment on some remarks a Muslim made:

If you saw an orange and you kept saying it’s an apple, the whole world would not change their language and their norm understanding for things because of what you invented by your tongue. 
In fact, by this kind of playing and tampering, we can make everything is acceptable even if you worshipped idols. Just invented an odd understanding, and new language to describe that absurdity, and you would be fine. 
I know some Christians out there wish to insist that the three Persons are not individual beings, but even with them, the question which was just asked can be posed. Could you share how you define the word “being”? 
For now, I’ll propose a very simple definition (which others, including Christians, are free to reject): a being is a thing which exists (i.e. here the word “being” is treated almost like an active participle of the verb to be). On such a definition, a cat could be a being, and various parts of that cat (e.g. its bones, its organs) could also be considered beings (though beings of a sort different from the being which comprises them). But even if one did hold to this definition, and concluded that a cat is a single being comprising multiple beings of another sort, that would not mean one cat is actually multiple cats. 
Analogously, do you consider yourself a being? Do you consider me a distinct being from you? If so, would that mean you are a polytheist? Or does the existence of multiple beings not automatically equate with the existence of multiple gods? 
But the whole matter is about your trinity. Muslims are asking why? If each person is a being who is full God by himself, then by definition why can’t we say that you worship three gods? 
Although your analogy is not right since I was arguing from christians’ perspective that they worship one being consists of three persons, yet are you saying that (each person) in the trinity is not god or it’s god?
As I know that you say each person is full God, so I’m asking what the real difference between you and polytheists except the terms that you use?!

He's responding to someone other than me. I might have phrased things differently than the person he's responding to. Still, this may be representative of how a reasonably intelligent Muslim attacks the coherence of the Trinity. So let's consider his objection.

Let's begin by formalizing his objection. It might go something like this: if B is identical to A, and C is identical to A, then B is identical to C (via A). That seems logically irrefutable. But what if that's deceptively simplistic? Identity is vexed issue in metaphysics. 

Let's take a comparison. I'm going to use some Muslim examples to illustrate a point. So let's assume for discussion purposes that Islam is true. I will be arguing from Muslim assumptions. 

Is the Quran one or many? Surely it can't be both. It must either be one or many. That's the same logic Muslims deploy against the Trinity.

Well, what is the Quran? Suppose I have a pile of objects on a table. I'm speaking to a Muslim. I show him a hardcopy of the Quran and ask him what it is. I presume he'll say, "That's the Quran!"

I then show him a CD-ROM of the Quran and ask him what it is. I presume he'll say, "That's the Quran!"

I then show him an audiobook of the Quran and ask him what it is. I presume he'll say, "That's the Quran!"

I then show him an electronic Quran (on my e-reader) and ask him what it is. I presume he'll say, "That's the Quran!"

I then show him a Braille Quran and ask him what it is. I presume he'll say, "That's the Quran!"

I then quote the Quran in sign language and ask him what it is. I presume he'll say, "That's the Quran!"

So, is this one Quran or six Qurans? 

What about a lector who recites the Quran from a minaret. Isn't that the Quran? 

There's a sense in which these are all one and the same Quran. Yet there's another sense in which the spoken word is not the written word, an ebook is not a CD-Rom, which is not an audiobook, which is not a hardcopy. So here's a case where two or more things can be both identical and distinct. They can all be identical with the Quran even though they are not identical with each other. 

How is that possible? Well, we can say, in one respect, that the Quran is the message. The content. 

Yet the same information can be encoded in different media. So in that respect, it's possible for B to be identical with A, and C to be identical with A, even though B and C are not identical with each other.  

And we can carry the same principle back a few more steps. If Muhammad dictates a surah to a scribe, and the transcription is accurate, isn't that the Quran?

If Muhammad dictates the Quran from memory, and his memory is accurate, isn't his recollection of the Quran the Quran?

If Gabriel utters a surah to Muhammad, isn't Gabriel's utterance the Quran?

According to Sunni theology, there's an eternal Quran. An uncreated, heavenly exemplar. 

Yet that's distinct from, say, Muhammad's memory of the Quran. Muhammad's memory of what Gabriel said isn't eternal. Rather, that's a mental copy. A mental representation of what he heard. 

But let's take this back one step further: isn't there a distinction between the uncreated Quran and Allah's mind? 

Does Allah think in Classical Arabic? Is Allah's cognition inseparable from human words? Was Allah unable to think before the development of Classical Arabic? 

Or is the eternal Quran an Arabic translation that exists in Allah's mind? A translation, from thought into words, of Allah's nonverbal Quranic concepts? So how many Qurans are there? 

• Hard copy. Print media

• Braille 

• Ebook

• Audiobook


• Live recitation

• Sign language

• Transcription of Muhammad's dictation

• Muhammad's memory of Gabriel's revelations

• Gabriel's revelations

• The eternal Quran

• Allah's nonverbal concept of the Quran

Now, I'm not Muslim. I don't think Gabriel appeared to Muhammad. I was temporarily adopting a Muslim viewpoint for the sake of argument. 

In addition, my point is not that this presents a direct analogy from the Trinity. That's not how I'd model the Trinity.

It does, however, illustrate that there's nothing inherently contradictory or nonsensical about saying individuals can be both distinct in some respect, yet identical in some respect. And there's nothing terribly esoteric about that distinction. I just drew that distinction in relation to the Quran. 

Snake in the grass

i) One reason we need to be circumspect about using comparative mythology to decode Biblical symbolism is that the same items can have varied significance in world mythology. So there's the risk of sample selection bias. Of superimposing an alien gloss onto the text. 

ii) It's possible that the symbolic import of some natural elements is a cultural universal. But it's hard to make confident generalizations given the vast scope of the topic over time and place. The available evidence is unmanageably large, and even then, that's only scratching the surface. 

iii) Some natural elements, because they have different functions, inevitably give rise to different or divergent symbolic meanings. Take fire. That can be used for heating and cooking. Keeping predators at bay. Purifying ores (metallurgy). But, of course, it can also be destructive. 

Likewise, take water. Too much water may be fatal (drowning). Too little water may be fatal (dying of thirst–or dying of hunger from famine due to drought). 

Water is used for so  many different things. Washing, cooking, drinking, &c. 

That's why scholars disagree on the significance of baptism. It's often thought to represent cleansing. But some scholars think it represents amniotic fluid, while Meredith Kline thought it represents deliverance from death by drowning. 

iv) Fauna, flora, and landscape have symbolic significance in many different cultures. But, of course, different cultures often have different faun, flora, and landscapes. Had Gen 3 been revealed in a culture with different animals, the Tempter might have been named Fox rather than Snake–since the fox is a trickster animal in some folkloric traditions.

v) Moreover, the same natural elements can have variable symbolic significance. For instance, many different symbolic roles and properties are attributed to snakes. 

vi) To take another comparison, consider rivers. I suspect temperate rivers have a generally benign symbolism, but tropical rivers might well have an ambivalent or ominous connotations. For instance, the Nile has hippos and crocodiles. That makes the Nile river hazardous to humans. Likewise, many hidden dangers lurk in the Amazon river, viz., the Piranha, tiger fish, anaconda, electric eel, stingray, Bull shark, black caiman. 

vii) To take another comparison, some mythologies view fabled islands as heaven on earth (e.g. Dilmun, the Isles of the Blessed). Yet an island which appears to be a tropical paradise can be very menacing beneath the balmy surface. The sandy beach main contain deadly cone snails. The waters may contain sharks, stonefish, box jellyfish, &c. The scenic jungle may contain venomous snakes, giant pythons, or poisonous spiders. The island would have very different associations to a native than a passerby. 

vii) By the same token, mythological utopias like Dilmun and the Garden of the Hesperides are both "Edenic" or paradisiacal, yet these gardens for the gods, not humans. 

viii) Now I'd like to quote from a standard reference work to illustrate the diverse ways in which world mythology interprets "Edenic" motifs:

As the center of the world, linking heaven and earth and anchoring the cardinal directions, the mountain often functions as an axis mundi–the centerpost of the world…One of the most important such mountains is Mount Meru, or Sumeru, the mythical mountain that has "centered" the world of the majority of Asians–Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain. "Mountains," L. Jones, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion (Macmillan, 2nd ed., 2005), 9:6212a. 
Mountains are the source not only of nourishing waters but also of rains and lightning. Storm gods are often associated with mountains: Zeus, Rudra/Siva, Baal Hadad of Ugarit, Catiquilla of the Inca, and many more.  
Mountains, the source of the waters of life, are also seen as the abode of the dead…Among the Shoshoni of the Wyoming, for instance, the Teton Mountains were seen primarily as the dangerous place of the dead. The Comanche and Arapaho, who practiced hill burial, held similar beliefs. "Mountains," ibid., 9:6214b. 
Above all, the influence of the desert environment appeared in the way in which, in the West, the garden was seen as an oasis, in stark contrast to the barren wastes outside…Confusingly, there was another more puritanical tradition in which the roles were reversed, and the garden, with its luxury, was condemned as the scene of temptation, while the wilderness was celebrated as the true paradise. "Gardens: An Overview," Ibid. 5:3277a. 
In China and Japan, both the awesome mountains and the streams that issued from them were thought to be possessed by spirits, and they were considered to be alive like plants animals and human beings themselves…To the Buddhist, the garden furnished a lesson on time. The flowers opened and withered within a month. The seasons revolved. But stone decayed on a far longer time scale that turned the present into a moving infinity. The symbolism was as varied and extensible as the clouds that gathered around the mountain peaks. Ibid. 5:3277b.  
The garden contained both friendly and unfriendly spirits. But threatening spirits were not persecuted as they might have been in the West: they were either left undisturbed (for example, by not digging the ground too deeply) or frustrated (as in the case of the demons who traveled in straight lines, who were thwarted through the construction of zigzag bridges). Ibid, 5:3277b.   
Real-life peasants and laborers, on the other hand, with families to feed, know that in temperate latitudes the skills involved in planning and maintaining a subsistence garden are greater than those called for in a recreational or cosmic garden because most of the edible plants are annuals….Things are different in parts of the tropics where three crops may be harvested in a year and the division between extensive fields and intensive gardens breaks down. There, the subsistence garden may assume an idealized form. Ibid. 5:3278b.   
Dilmun [is] a place that is pure, clean, and bright, a land of the living who do not know sickness, violence, or aging…a garden with fruit trees, edible plants, and green meadows. Dilmun is a garden of the gods, not for humans, although one learns that Ziusundra, the Sumerian Noah, as exceptionally admitted to the divine paradise. "Paradise," ibid. 10:6981b. 
Crossing the river at the time of death, as part of the journey to another world, is a common part of the symbolic passage that people have seen as part of one's journey after death. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero encounters a boatman who ferries him across the waters of death, as he seeks the source of immortality. The river Styx of Greek mythology is a well-known as the chief river of Hades. 
The dry riverbed of Sainokawara is said to be the destination of dead children. In the Buddhist tradition, nirvana is referred to as the "far shore". "Rivers," Ibid. 11:7862b-63a.  
To Hindus, the Ganges is the archetype of all sacred waters; she is a goddess, Mother Ganga, representative of the life-giving maternal waters of the ancient Vedic hymns…According  to Hindu belief, the Ganges purifies all she touches…Pilgrims go to these places to bathe in the Ganges, to drink her water, to worship the river, and to chant her holy name. Especially in Banaras, many come to cremate their kin, to deposit the ash of the dead in the river, or to perform religious rites for their ancestors. Some come to spend their last days on the banks for the river, to die there and thus to "cross over" the ocean of birth and death….All who come to the Ganges come in the firm belief that bathing in this river, even the mere sight of Mother Ganga, will cleanse them of their sins… "Ganges River," ibid. 5:3274. 

Clearly, it's unreliable to assume that ancient Near Eastern mythology encodes culturally universal intuitions regarding the emblematic significance of a river, mountain, or garden paradise. We can't just default to that frame of reference as the presumptive background material for decoding the symbolism of Eden. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The celestial bureacracy

I'll comment on this:

To draw a division between administrative and defensive functions is not only logically unwarranted, but positively contradicted by the nature of those functions in an ancient Near Eastern context…Even if the former point were not the case, the Bible never sets out an “angelic taxonomy” where cherubs are placed into the single category of palace guards.

i) We can only work with the information at our disposal. The Bible doesn't have a whole lot to say about cherubim/seraphim. I wouldn't call it an argument from silence or ignorance to draw conclusions from the available evidence. Surely that's preferable to beliefs that aren't supported by the evidence.

ii) Moreover, isn't the divine council theory require a taxonomy of distinct angelic roles?

In the divine council in Israelite religion, Yahweh was the supreme authority over a divine bureaucracy that included a second tier of lesser elohim ("sons of God") and a third tier of malakim ('angels'). 
The Old Testament seems to distinguish angels—mere messengers—from the sons of God—the royal family; and in doing so it follows Ugarit, which had two tiers of gods: the sons of El, who ruled certain districts and provinces, and a larger group of lesser gods who acted as messengers and warriors.

Now, however, Bnonn is blending what he previously distinguished. In the quoted paragraph, he differentiates the administrative role of the top-tier angels from the defensive or revelatory role of lower-tier angels. So it looks like the original argument is undergoing ad hoc adjustments when challenged. But in that case, the distinctive assignments in the celestial bureaucracy or hierarchy seem to be arbitrary or interchangeable. 

As for the "counterevidence":

i) Keep in mind that all these representations are anthropomorphic. It's not as if God is literally a white-haired man in royal vestments in a throne room surrounded by sentinels and courtiers. God projects that imagery into the minds of seers. So the question is the significance of the symbolism. I think the point is that God is holy, so that creatures ordinarily need to be shielded from direct contact or the Beatific Vision. The cherumbim/seraphim function as "hazard" signs. If you trespass on sacred space, it's like walking into a radioactive chamber. 

That's a common theme in Scripture. It's not that God needs to be protected. Rather, creatures ordinarily need to be protected from God's incinerating holiness. I never suggested that their role is to protect God from trespassers, but to protect trespassers from God. 

It's a graphic, anthropomorphic way to drive home a point about the relationship between sinners and God. And that's underscored by the literary device of even making the seraphim shield their eyes. In effect, the seraphim need to wear visors. Unfiltered vision of Yahweh is fatal. This is all rather picturesque.

ii) We need to distinguish between cherubic statuary and actual angels or visions thereof.

iii) Some OT theophanies take the form of a portable throne. A mobile, miniature throne-room. In that respect, cherubim/seraphim reprise their role as the outer vanguard to screen unwary eyes from seeing Yahweh directly. That's symbolism. 

iv) I never suggested that angels are distinct from cherubim/seraphim. Rather, "angel" is a generic designation, whereas "cherub" or "seraph" is a specific designation. A special case or distinctive role for some angels. 

Moreover, Heiser and Bnonn are the ones who propose an angelic hierarchy in which top-tier angels have different bureaucratic roles than second-tier angels, and vice versa. 

v) As for Rev 4, that's different from, say, Isa 6, because the saints in heaven are holy in a way that Isaiah (or Moses, Exod 33) is not. They don't need the lead shielding to avoid a fatal dose of divine radiance. 

The depictions are flexible because this is picturesque imagery that varies according to the context. It's not that angels naturally have wings or tetramorphic bodies. 

Interfaith marriage

What's the Biblical position on interfaith marriage? Here are some classic prooftexts on the subject:

3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly (Deut 7:3) 
For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father (1 Kgs 11:4). 
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord (1 Cor 7:39). 
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14).

The danger of interfaith marriage is twofold: (i) Divided loyalties between a Christian's devotion to God and his devotion his spouse, and (ii) sending mixed signals to their kids. 

To some degree, Deut 7:3 might reflect defunct Mosaic purity codes. The need to separate what is ritually pure from what is ritually impure. But even if that is timebound, the prohibition includes a timeless psychological principle. And the cautionary tale of Solomon illustrates that psychological principle. 

It isn't clear that 2 Cor 6:14 has specific reference to marriage. In context, it could be referring to participation in the public and private idolatrous religiosity of pagan Corinthians. And that would be a challenge for Christians. However, in one or two ways it might still be germane to the question of interfaith marriage:

i) It might reflect a general principle about forbidden attachments or emotional entanglements.

ii) Interfaith marriage might be analogous to participation in pagan rites. 

But even assuming that 2 Cor 6:14 either refers to interfaith marriage, or is applicable to interfaith marriage, who are the "unbelievers"? In the context of Roman Corinth, they'd be practicing pagans. 

The "in the Lord" phrase in 1 Cor 7:39 is a bit ambiguous. But in the context of Roman Corinth, that probably stands in contrast to a pagan spouse. 

How does that correspond to the situation of contemporary Christians. In some cases, the correspondence is direct. Paganism is not a dead religion. Take folk Hindus and folk Buddhists. You also have "Wiccans". 

So, in general, 1 Cor 7:39 and 2 Cor 6:14 prohibit marriage between a Christian and a pagan. That's fairly clearcut, although many Hindus and Buddhists are merely cultural Hindus and Buddhists. Nominal pagans (as it were). 

Besides direct comparisons, analogous cases include marriage between a Christian and a Muslim or a Christian and an atheist. Even though those aren't pagan, they are hostile to the Christian faith. I mean the religion or ideology, not necessarily the individual. But that can be dicey to untangle. 

Then you have the question of marriage between a Christian and a Jew. That's a borderline case. Paul's strictures don't directly address that issue. It's clearly not equivalent to paganism. But is it analogous to paganism? That has to be heavily qualified. Traditional Judaism is antithetical to paganism. But many Jews are hostile to Christianity. Yet Paul himself was both Jewish and Christian. In principle, these are complementary rather than contradictory. 

Of course, modern Judaism ranges all along a broad political, ethical, and theological spectrum. So that's further consideration. 

Another complication is that in Paul's discussion, there are actually two opposing dangers. On the one hand there's the danger of getting married to someone who's morally and religiously unsuitable. On the other hand, there's the danger of remaining single, for that raises the risk of succumbing to sexual temptation–especially for younger men and women. So the danger isn't one-sided. Interfaith marriage is hazardous, but celibacy is hazardous.  

Indeed, one reason Paul discusses the issue of single Christians is because the available pool of eligible Christians would be so shallow in the overwhelmingly heathen culture of mid-1C Corinth. So that creates a dilemma. He himself admits that celibacy is inadvisable in most cases.

Although there are many situations in which interfaith marriage is prohibited or imprudent (see above), it isn't always that straightforward inasmuch as there are situations in which we need to balance two competing principles. That's when borderline cases may come into play.

Biblical success

Alternative facts

I haven't followed the story closely, but apparently Trump made exaggerated predictions or claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. 

I haven't followed the story in detail because I avoid stories like that. I don't need to get embroiled in microscopic debates. I don't need to take sides on every controversy du jour. 

It's a mistake for conservatives to get into the habit of defending Trump's statements. Trump is loose with the truth. That's a given. I expect him to make factually indefensible statements. That's a vice he shares in common with Hillary. 

It's hardly surprising that the turnout was lower for Trump than Obama. DC is 50% black and 75% Democrat, so naturally there'd be higher turnout for the inauguration of a black president, or a Democrat president, not to mention both in one person. That's the obvious response to make, rather than making demonstrably false claims or foolhardily predictions. Aerial photography is hard to dispute. 

But this is all a distraction. Now that he's president, it really doesn't matter so much what he says, but what he does. That's what we need to keep our eye on. Conservatives should resist getting caught up in the melodrama between Trump and the media. Focus on what Trump is doing, and Congress is doing. That's where the real action is. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

"A sure norm for teaching the faith"

According to the late John-Paul II:

In 1986, I entrusted a commission of twelve Cardinals and Bishops, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with the task of preparing a draft of the catechism requested by the Synod Fathers. An editorial committee of seven diocesan Bishops, experts in theology and catechesis, assisted the commission in its work. 

The commission, charged with giving directives and with overseeing the course of the work, attentively followed all the stages in editing the nine subsequent drafts. The editorial committee, for its part, assumed responsibility for writing the text, making the emendations requested by the commission and examining the observations of numerous theologians, exegetes and catechists, and above all, of the Bishops of the whole world, in order to produce a better text.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.

So that's a thoroughly vetted text. But it turns out that it wasn't all that reliable after all: 

The Catechism says succinctly: "Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving one's neighbor" (no. 2508). Despite this simple statement, there is a long historical debate about the actual meaning of the term.

Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez has observed: "Although most Catholic theologians have considered the prohibition of lying a moral absolute, there is a lesser but significant school of thought holding that lying sometimes can be justified, particularly when it is a question of lying to an enemy, who has no right to the truth, in order to protect the innocent from harm" ("The Way of the Lord Jesus,"vol. 2, Franciscan Press, 1993).

These two ways of thinking are reflected in the editorial process of the Catechism, which was revised for the book's second edition. The earlier edition (1994) stated that to lie is "to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has a right to know the truth" (no. 2483, emphasis added). This definition, reflecting what Grisez calls the "lesser but significant school of thought," stems from the teaching of the 17th-century Protestant writer Hugo Grotius.

After the publication of the Catechism, many Catholic scholars wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) about this paragraph. They asked for rectification of the text, which had abandoned centuries of Catholic teaching by accepting the position of Grotius. Fortunately, the paragraph was revised; the 1997 edition eliminates the words "who has a right to know the truth" (see also no. 2484).

So, despite the fact that the project was overseen by the Prefect for the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger), despite the fact that it went through ten drafts, despite the fact that Pope John-Paul pronounced it to be a "sure norm" for teaching the faith, the original paragraph on the morality of lying had to be rewritten after the Catechism was published. And not due to a typographical blunder, but because it promoted an unethical position on lying. Yet this is supposed to be the church that has a divine teaching office. The church that God protects from ethical or theological error in its official teaching.