Saturday, February 11, 2017

Michael Brown on Joseph Prince

Voluntarism and absolutism

The whole point of religious commitment is that it is ultimate commitment. There are things to which one has given one's whole self, things to which one is absolutely committed. Christianity, as taught not just in verses about not denying Jesus but throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament (and Judaism in the Old) is similarly about absolute commitment of oneself. To the Christian, God, as revealed in the Son, Jesus Christ, is the ultimate value. If we don't have Him, we have nothing. We are therefore willing to die for him, to suffer for him. Nothing else is more important. Literally nothing. Nothing can compete with Him, nothing can take His place.

Posted by Lydia McGrew 

Like Anselm says, if God told you not to look in a particular direction, even though by looking you could save the whole world from destruction, you still ought not to look. We are never commanded to love our neighbor by denying God, even only formally, which is a grave sin.

Posted by: Steven Nemeș 

One of the ironies of the reaction to Scorsese's Silence is that some critics, in the name of moral absolutism, take a position on religious duties which borders on theological voluntarism. For instance, we need to be circumspect about using hypotheticals in moral theology. It's child's play to concoct morally outrageous hypotheticals. So the question is how seriously we should take hypothetical scenarios about total devotion. You can make God command or forbid anything in a hypothetical. But that doesn't correspond to actual obligations. Here's one example: "Suppose God ordered you to rape a little girl, cut her tongue out, and set her on fire". 

If I have an unconditional obligation to obey God, then I'm duty-bound to heed that command, right? That's my sacred duty. After all, religious commitment is ultimate commitment. God has an absolute claim on my allegiance. The little girl can't compete with my unrivaled duty to honor God before before all else. 

Problem is, these hypotheticals are just a reflection of human imagination. The fact that we can dream up a divine command doesn't mean it's a pious requirement for me to submit to that injunction if "God" enjoined me to do it, for the God imposing that obligation on me is the God of the hypothetical. A hypothetical God issuing hypothetical commands. That doesn't necessarily or even presumptively map onto a realistic conception of religious duties. 

God's authority isn't absolute in the voluntaristic sense. To the contrary, God's authority is qualified or characterized by his moral attributes. By his wisdom and goodness. That's what makes divine authority a moral authority, rather than sheer dominion. It's striking that even in the limiting case of Abraham and Isaac, God didn't make Abraham go through with it. 

Some critics of Silence are appealing to moral absolutes to decry a symbolic act of desecration, yet they've driven such a wedge between fidelity to God and justice or compassion for the innocent that they subvert the principle that anything is intrinsically right or wrong. Beginning with moral absolutism, the critics wind up defending moral relativism. 

How The Gospels Compare To Other Ancient Biographies

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Friday, February 10, 2017


Tim McGrew on the reliability of Acts

Better to let the whole world burn

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

There's a brittle absolutism you encounter in some theological circles. It's often found among Catholic ethicists like Elizabeth Anscombe, Alexander Pruss, Germain Grisez, and Christopher Tollefsen. A Protestant exponent is Lydia McGrew. 

In Lydia's case, I suspect her absolutism is driven by her commendable opposition to abortion and euthanasia. Now perhaps she'd say it's the another way around: her absolutism is driving her opposition to abortion and euthanasia. 

However, Lydia has said:

Suppose that a general has ordered a military strike against a certain location and that there is some outcry that this was unethical because it was not a military target but a civilian target. The general had a lot of statistics and facts showing precisely this question, showing why this question arose, but he still chose to order the strike despite the doubts. Later, he sees pictures of the children who have died in the airstrike, precisely as predicted by the statistics he had available to him about the civilian population at that location. He is filled with remorse and offers a deep statement of grief and repentance. We should certainly not say to him, "You had the statistics in advance. You knew that it could plausibly be regarded as a non-military target. What did you think you were doing? Why do these pictures change anything? You should make your decisions with your eyes wide open or not make them at all!"  
We know perfectly well that sometimes people have a notional commitment to doing a particular action but then have their minds and hearts changed by being viscerally confronted with the reality of what they have chosen. And this is not a bad thing but a good thing. It is on the many subtle interactions between conscience and the real world that our hopes for repentance often turn.

One the one hand, criteria can select for corresponding examples. On the other hand, examples can select for corresponding criteria. Like Chisholm's distinction between methodism and particularism. 

Presumably, then, she doesn't think a person must begin with deontology. Rather, they might begin with some paradigm-examples. They then turn to deontology to supply a formal justification for their moral intuitions.  

I suspect her brand of absolutism is based on the concern that once you make allowance for exceptions, that becomes a wedge issue. Where do you draw the line? Any position short of saying that abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are always wrong is a foot. And once they get a foot in the door, you can't stop it from swinging wide open. 

Now I myself subscribe to moral absolutes, although my list of moral absolutes is shorter than Catholic ethicists. But the brittle absolutism I'm assessing has counterintuitive implications. 

Take the cliche of the ticking timebomb scenario. The absolutist will say torture is intrinsically wrong. By contrast, the "pragmatist" or "consequentialist" has no compunction about torturing one terrorist to extract information about the location of the bomb that will save thousands or millions of innocent lives.

Take the cliche of lying to Nazis about Jews you're harboring. The absolutist will say lying is intrinsically wrong. By contrast, the "pragmatist" or "consequentialist" has no compunction about lying to Nazis to save his Jewish neighbors from the gas chambers. 

The question that raises is, what is the moral absolute? Is the moral absolute protecting the innocent? Is the moral absolute protecting the vulnerable? If that's the moral absolute, then ironically it's the "pragmatist" or "consequentialist" who's acting on that that principle while the absolutist is so uncompromising that it prevents him from protecting the innocent. Prevents him from protecting the vulnerable. The absolutist will sacrifice millions of innocent lives rather than violate a moral absolute. But, then, what is the moral absolute? Evidently, it's not protecting innocent life. It's not protecting the most vulnerable members of society. Rather, there's some overriding concern that prevents the absolutist from doing what's necessary to protect the innocent from harm. Is it the consequentialist who's violating moral absolutes–or the absolutist, by his failure to intervene? 

Perhaps the absolutist will say that while protecting the innocent and the vulnerable is a moral absolute, that's not the only moral absolute. There's an absolute prohibition against torture. There's an absolute prohibition against lying. 

But in that event, their absolutism generates moral dilemmas. A conflict between equal duties: an absolute duty to protect the innocent and the vulnerable over against an absoute duty not to lie or torture. And that, in turn, leads to moral paralysis. Wringing your hands in the face of preventable evil.  

Consequentialism is the bugbear of deontology. But brittle absolutism drives conscientious people into the arms of consequentialism, because their absolutism is so theoretical, and ineffectual, and counterproductive. 

Stepping on an icon

Some further responses by Lydia:

I'm also completely unmoved by the repeated idea that I see in various places that Jesus is enjoining only against saving oneself by some public act of denial, not against trying to save others. This idea that it's wrong publicly to abjure one's commitment to Jesus only if one does it for self-centered motives but not wrong if one does it "nobly" to save others is entirely anachronistic and foreign to Scripture. Scripture not only does not recognize such a distinction, it positively rejects it.

Presumably, Lydia doesn't think it's entirely anachronistic and foreign to Scripture in general to protect the innocent from harm. Does Lydia mean there's no one verse of Scripture that contains that distinction? In systematic theology, we attempt to integrate various Biblical teachings. How what Scripture says in one place relates to what Scripture says in another place. Many distinctions are drawn by theological synthesis. 

When Jesus says to "hate" your parents and children in comparison to your commitment to him, he adds at the end, "And your own life also." In other words, it's not as though you're being told just to hate your own life but to do whatever it takes to preserve the lives of the others. 

Except that I already noted that Lydia rips that passage out of context. So she's not engaging the counterargument. She's converted that passage into a universal, unconditional command–in defiance to the context.

Similarly, when the man tells Jesus he wants to follow him but first must go and bury his father, Jesus rebukes him. He does not say, "Okay, I understand that you want to delay following me for an unselfish motive of honoring your father, so that's okay. It's only if you hold back on following me for the sake of your own self that there is a problem."

i) It begs the question to say the priest (in Silence) is not following Jesus if he commits public sacrilege to save others from torture and/or murder. Whether or not that's consistent with following Jesus is the very point at issue.

ii) Likewise, the question at issue is not whether we have a higher allegiance to Jesus than we have to family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies. Rather, the question (or at least one question) is whether this is, in fact, a case where it would be substantively disloyal to Jesus to commit a symbolic act of sacrilege to spare the innocent. 

Put another way, does Jesus require Christians to sacrifice the innocent? Does Jesus make that a litmus test of fidelity to himself? 

iii) By the same token, the case of the son who says he can't accompany Jesus until he buries his father isn't obviously analogous to a priest who steps on an icon of Jesus to save the innocent from torture or murder. 

I find it understandable emotionally that one would try to invent such an exception in Jesus' injunction, but I find it entirely indefensible rationally. 

i) Are we "inventing" an exception? For instance, there are well-meaning Christians who treat Proverbs as a promise box. Then they become disillusioned when God "breaks his promise". But they overlook the fact that Scripture often states maxims and general principles which are understood to admit exceptions or qualifications depending on the circumstances. These are guidelines, not predictions or promises. 

ii) In addition, the teaching technique of Jesus includes abundant hyperbole. Does Lydia think sanctification requires amputation (Mt 5:27-30)? Gouge out your eyes and cut off your hands? Given the hyperbolic nature of so much dominical teaching, it's not "inventing exceptions" to make allowance for the possibility that a general statement may be an overstatement for emphasis. 

Jesus' injunction is about the incredible badness of denying him before men! Jesus isn't making a point about the badness-with-an-insufficiently-noble-motive. 

Jesus routinely upbraids the religious establishment for failing to take motives and intentions into account when they interpret and apply the law. He upbraids the religious establishment for failing to consider the rationale for a particular injunction. What's the purpose of that injunction? Is that injunction a means to an end or an end in itself? 

If saying, "I renounce Jesus," etc., isn't an intrinsically wrong act, I really don't know what is, given what Jesus says and given the very nature of Christianity, as argued in the post. And if it's intrinsically wrong, then it doesn't matter whom you are trying to save by doing so, just as in any of the other millions of consequentialist scenarios that one gets confronted with. There is no way to make Christianity safe for consequentialism. There just isn't.

This is one of Lydia's intellectual shortcuts. She always likes to cast the issue in terms of consequentialism v. deontology. But I didn't rely on consequentialist principles in my assessment of her position.

Kaddish for those who mourn

Christians are admonished to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, ESV). The NIV is even more direct: “mourn with those who mourn”. Having lost a spouse, I’ve found that I have a close and automatic connection to others who have lost spouses, especially those who were married for a long time.

Today, a Jewish friend of mine is observing anniversary the death of her husband of 28 years. In Jewish tradition, a special prayer is said on this day, called a Kaddish (it can be for the anniversary of anyone’s death). I found the prayer to be especially poignant and God-honoring. Here is an English version and a link to the prayer in Hebrew:

Exalted and hallowed be God's great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God's majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel -- speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

Blessed be God's great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing,
praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,
to which we say Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.
To which we say Amen.

This sounds a lot like Paul’s exclamation in Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

Sparing the innocent

Lydia McGrew attempted a partial response to my critique:

I have answered the claim, above in this thread, that one could just "lie" about denying Jesus Christ, engage in the activity demanded, and thereby get the bad guys off one's back.

The question at issue isn't getting the bad guys off one's own back, but getting them off the backs of other people. So Lydia isn't engaging the actual point at issue.

I would emphasize again that that solution, if it were legitimate, would make it rather pointless to enjoin Christians to be prepared to stand firm and not deny Jesus before men. Virtually all (or all) martyrdoms would become unnecessary, since all the Christians/Jews could just pour the libation to the emperor, bow before Nebuchadnezzar's image, stomp on the picture of Jesus, say, "I deny Jesus" or whatever external gesture of renouncing Christ is demanded, while not really meaning it in their hearts, and then nobody would have to be martyred. "Lying to the persecutors" would take care of it. They could then go back to their fellow Christians and explain that they didn't really mean it, and everything would be fine. This seems to be a ridiculous position to hold given the injunctions both in Scripture and in Christians tradition against cooperating with such demands. Those injunctions (and the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) strongly (to my mind blatantly obviously) imply that the public act is sufficient for denying Jesus, that "denying Jesus" is not simply constituted by private meanings and intentions.

i) What's a "ridiculous position" is for Lydia to do a bait-n-switch. Once again, the question at issue is not whether Christians have a duty to undergo martyrdom, if it comes to that, but whether they have a duty to make others undergo martyrdom. Lydia is a highly intelligent woman, so why does she misrepresent the issue under discussion? 

ii) Moreover, the question at issue isn't whether denying Jesus in general is simply constituted by private meanings and intentions, but a morally complex situation in which other social obligations come into play. Some actions are pro tanto or prima facie wrong, but can be overridden by competing duties. The question of where our duty lies when our course of action is unencumbered by other obligations isn't interchangeable with situations where there are two or more mutually incompatible obligations vying for our submission. Jesus himself taught us that distinction in his debates over Sabbath-keeping. 

The "before men" part of Jesus' injunction becomes entirely extraneous on such a construal. All the moral weight is born by hypothetical injunction (which isn't even stated) against denying Jesus in your heart. 

It's true that denying Jesus in your heart is not part of the injunction. But Lydia cast the issue in terms of apostasy. So one question is whether denying Jesus before men is ipso facto tantamount to apostasy, regardless of any attenuating circumstances. The question is whether apostasy is reducible to public gestures. 

Even if one denies Jesus both publicly and in one's heart, on this construal, the "before men" part, the public part, isn't the problem. The problem lies with denying him in your heart! We can all agree that turning away from Jesus in one's heart is wrong, even if no persecution ever comes, so denying him in your heart while not doing it before men (if the subject never comes up) is wrong. 

That oversimplifies the issue. It is normally culpable to publicly recant the faith. But the question at issue is whether that's culpable in a situation where feigned sacrilege is motivated by a desire to spare the innocent from grievous harm. Why does Lydia continually caricature the argument? 

And if you really are an apostate in your heart and are told by persecutors to deny Jesus publicly, without even lying, it would seem ridiculous to enjoin the heart-apostate to lie and pretend that he's still a follower! That can't be what Jesus is talking about. 

I didn't suggest that Jesus was talking about an actual apostate who pretends to be a follower. Why interject that red herring? 

So really, it's just denying him in your heart that is wrong! Denying him before men doesn't have any special wrongness to it on this view. If you are really a heart-apostate, then why would you not deny him before men? But if you really are not a heart-apostate, it's perfectly okay to appear to deny him before men, or it's not un-okay in any special way…

i) Why does Lydia continually caricature the argument? The real argument is that there's a pro tanto or prima facie duty to endure whatever social sanctions are threatened rather than to evade them by publicly renouncing the faith. But in addition, the argument is that Christ's injunction envisions the typical incentive that people have to deny the faith under duress: to save their own skin. The injunction has an implied context. 

It's implausible that the injunction envisions a morally complex situation in which persecutors use the innocent to extort public sacrilege. There's nothing in the passage about torturing the innocent as psychological blackmail to make a Christian recant his faith. 

…it's just a special case of the general wrongness of lying, if there is any such general wrongness, which maybe there isn't!

Why does Lydia say things like that? Surely she must know that that's a malicious interpretation of the argument. Did I suggest that there's nothing generally wrong about lying? No. I suggested the opposite. 

It isn't anything Jesus is specially telling you not to do. So the only thing that is wrong is denying Jesus in your heart and maybe lying because lying is wrong! But denying Jesus before men is not wrong in itself. Which is an absurd construal of Jesus' words.

That's absurd because Lydia can't bring herself to accurately represent the opposing position. Lydia is a brilliant, sophisticated thinker, but temperamentally she's like some  New Atheists (e.g. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne). Lydia is very passionate, with unshakable conviction in her moral intuitions. She has such unbridled contempt for certain positions that she cannot exercise the critical detachment necessary to fairly represent the opposing position. So she creates a parody of the opposing position, then proceeds to lampoon the parody. 

How The Gospels Compare To Other Ancient Biographies (Part 5)

(Earlier parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

Though this book by Keener and his colleagues is a great resource that provides a lot of valuable information about ancient biographies and related topics, it does have some limitations and flaws. I want to close my series on the book by discussing several of those problems. I refer to "limitations and flaws", since it might be argued that one or more of my points below fall outside the scope of what the authors were trying to accomplish with the book. Either way, whether I'm addressing a limitation of the book or a flaw, I think these are points worth making.

- Because of the nature of modern culture and modern scholarship, some issues tend to be underappreciated or ignored in certain contexts. A book like this one is unlikely to say much, if anything, about the Divine inspiration of the gospels. I don't remember the subject coming up in the book in any significant way. But, whatever the merits of bracketing that kind of issue in a book like this one, whether the gospels are inspired scripture has major implications for what we make of their historicity and other characteristics. We've written a lot about the evidence for the Divine inspiration of scripture, such as here, here, and here.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Symbolic sacrilege

Scorsese has the unusual distinction of making a movie (Silence) that's provoked a serious theological debate. That's rare. That's good. I'm going to comment on Lydia's analysis:

One attempt to justify Rodrigues can, I think, be easily dealt with. This is the attempt to say that his action is a "mere motion of the foot" and that what would be really wrong would be his rejecting Jesus in his heart. As long as he isn't apostatizing in his heart, goes this argument, it is completely okay to make a mere "foot motion" to save others from suffering.

This attempted justification makes a mockery of what is clearly taught in Scripture--that it is wrong to deny Jesus before men. (Matthew 10:33, Luke 12:9) In order to deny Jesus before men, one must use language or some external sign that is understood by other people. But any such sign could be said to be "merely external," up to and including the words, in a commonly understood language, "I deny and renounce Jesus Christ." One could say that uttering such words is "merely a movement of the tongue" or "merely a breath of wind out of one's mouth" and that, as long as one doesn't really deny Jesus "in one's heart," it's okay to apply consequential considerations and go ahead and say the words. And the same for the three young men and the fiery furnace. Bowing down to the image is a "merely external" act. So is pouring a libation to the emperor. So go ahead. It isn't really denying Jesus in your heart!

This sort of reasoning would negate the importance of resisting such acts that both Scripture and common sense attach to them. Scripture, overtly and repeatedly. Common sense, because we all know that the very reason that the persecutors are demanding the external act is because it is meaningful. Everyone involved in the situation realizes that they wouldn't be doing all these horrible things to try to force Rodrigues to trample on the face of Jesus Christ if it were a "mere foot movement." It is a significant speech act.

i) I agree with Lydia that it's a meaningful act. But it's meaningful in the same way lying is meaningful. A pretended "apostasy". The ethics of the symbolic gesture are similar to debates over the morality of lying to save innocent lives. That, of itself, doesn't legitimate the action, since it shifts the debate to whether lying is intrinsically wrong. But it reframes the nature of the issue. 

ii) I put "apostasy" in scare quotes because the question of whether this is an act of apostasy is one of the very points in dispute. It's not as if this text says to deny Christ before men is tantamount to apostasy. Rather, we're operating with a concept of apostasy, which we apply to this text. Now, this text may contribute to our concept of apostasy, but our concept of apostasy is based on a number of Biblical passages. If this was the only text we had to go by, would we classify the action as apostasy–with all the fateful and frightful connotations we now attach to that term? 

iii) Apropos (ii), even if public renunciation of the faith is a necessary condition of apostasy, is that a sufficient condition? Normally, an apostate is someone who publicly denies the faith because he has ceased to be a believer. At least, that's one paradigm-example of an apostate. He renounces the faith because he lost his faith. The assent is gone.

But in the scenario under review, the priest hasn't changed his Christian beliefs. Indeed, he's acting from a Christian conscience. 

iv) We might also consider the double effect principle, or something along those lines. The priest doesn't intend to commit sacrilege. That's not his aim. Rather, the symbolic act of sacrilege is a side-effect of his true intent, which is to spare the innocent.  

v) Furthermore, all parties concerned know that the gesture is insincere. That sends a very different message than a sincere act of apostasy. The priest is only doing it to spare others. Not only is his action disingenuous, but people can tell it's disingenuous, because they grasp the circumstances that are coercing his imposture. Same sign, but different significance. He isn't signaling loss of faith, but desperate compassion. 

The next argument is really just a plea from the extreme nature of the coercion involved. When Jesus said that we should never deny him before men, could he really have had in mind a scenario in which the evil men are torturing your children to try to get you to engage in some symbolic act of apostasy?

This argument is related to the claim, made in a 1989 philosophical article about Endo's book, that Rodrigues faces a genuine moral dilemma in which the command to love God with all your heart is at odds with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. (See quotes here.)

The problem with this whole approach is that it assumes that the act of publicly denying Christ is not intrinsically wrong. Those of us who believe in intrinsically wrong acts have been bombarded forever with increasingly horrific scenarios: But surely if the bad guys were going to do this, you would do that, right? There is this curious idea that the ethical concept of an intrinsically wrong act can be rendered null and void if only the consequences of refusing to perform it--even consequences brought about manipulatively by evil men--are bad enough! But the whole point of an intrinsically wrong act is that nothing can justify it, period. Hence it doesn't matter what the bad guys are going to do.

i) One problem with Lydia's response is her failure to grapple with the argument at hand. For if there are genuine moral dilemmas, then an agent caught in that dilemma can't avoid doing wrong, one way or another. To complain that the agent is doing something intrinsically wrong misses the point, for given moral dilemmas, he has no morally licit alternative. Perhaps Lydia doesn't subscribe the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. If so, that's what she needs to attack. 

ii) In addition, even if she personally rejects the possibility of moral dilemmas, that doesn't address the priest's duty in a hypothetical situation where he is confronted with a genuine moral dilemma. There's still the question of where his duty lies if we grant the possibility of moral dilemmas for the sake of argument. And since we're dealing with a fictional ordeal, surely that's a legitimate hypothetical question. 

iii) Moreover, Biblical commands and prohibitions have an implied context. In Mt 10:33 & Lk 12:9, the normal motivation to publicly deny Christ is to save your own skin. That envisions a situation where Christians face social sanctions (e.g. ostracization, financial deprivation, imprisonment, torture, martyrdom) unless they openly renounce the faith. That's the typical situation. A realistic prospect. 

There's no reason to think it covers more arcane scenarios where a Christian is acting, not to save himself, but to save others. And there's a crucial difference in Christian ethics between the two. Christian ethics is sacrificial. There's is a fundamental difference between risking yourself to save others, and risking others to save yourself. 

iv) Furthermore, since Lydia is a freewill theist, it isn't clear to me how she can rule out the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. In freewill theism, man's libertarian freedom limits God's providential options. Can God always arrange events to leave us with a morally licit option? 

v) Assuming that God lacks that degree of providential control, one might deny moral dilemmas in the sense that if we find ourselves in a hopeless bind through no fault of our own, then no forced option is morally wrong. What would ordinarily be wrong can't be wrong if we're boxed into a situation where every available choice would ordinarily be wrong. 

St. Paul quotes what was probably an early Christian hymn or creed to this effect:

If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us (2 Timothy 2:12).

That's equivocal since the situation under review not about my suffering, but my complicity in the preventable suffering of others. 

Indeed, Jesus actually says that we should "hate" our parents and children in comparison to our love for him. (Luke 14:26) Even allowing for Eastern hyperbole, the whole point of such an utterance seems to be that, if there is an apparent conflict between our duty to remain true to Jesus and our duties to those people, our duty to Jesus takes precedence. (Look, Ma, no ethical dilemmas!)

No, that oversimplifies the situation. That envisions a situation in which Jewish or pagan parents make you choose between allegiance to Jesus and allegiance to them. The parents are forcing a (grown) Christian child to choose. That's hardly analogous to the situation under review, where the human parties are victims. 

That denying Jesus before men is an intrinsically wrong act is clear not only from Jesus' teaching and other biblical teaching (e.g., the three young men in the fiery furnace) but also from the very nature of religion and Christianity. The whole point of religious commitment is that it is ultimate commitment. There are things to which one has given one's whole self, things to which one is absolutely committed. Christianity, as taught not just in verses about not denying Jesus but throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament (and Judaism in the Old) is similarly about absolute commitment of oneself. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. To live is Christ and to die is gain. We are crucified with Christ, yet Christ lives in us. We are to count all things as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. We present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable, which is only our reasonable service.

To the Christian, God, as revealed in the Son, Jesus Christ, is the ultimate value. If we don't have Him, we have nothing. We are therefore willing to die for him, to suffer for him. Nothing else is more important. Literally nothing. Nothing can compete with Him, nothing can take His place. If evil men choose to do evil things, yes, even evil things to those we love, that does not change the nature and importance of our own commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to be absolute, because that is part of what it means to be a Christian.

i) I agree with Lydia that apostasy is never justifiable. Of course, whether a symbolic act of sacrilege in this particular context is equivalent to apostasy is the very issue in dispute.

ii) In addition, this circles back to the issue of moral dilemmas. It's true that allegiance to God is typically treated as an absolute duty. But if freewill theism is true, does God have the right to be so demanding? If God puts us in a situation where we're essentially on our own, to fend for ourselves, because God's hands are tied; if God has thrust us into a situation where we must take our chances, then why should we suffer for a God who isn't looking out for us? Why should we value him more than he values us? Devotion is a two-way street. 

As a Calvinist, I believe everything happens for a good reason. But if I were a freewill theist, if I thought horrific things happen for no reason at all, then it's no longer clear to me why I'm supposed to have that unconditional level of commitment. I agree with Lydia that that's a part of what it means to be a Christian. The problem is whether freewill theism nullfies a necessary condition for absolute fidelity to be warranted. If the God of freewill theism shoves you out the airplane onto a wild island, wishing you good luck, and flies away, never to intervene, then where does your duty lie?   

White homeland

In light of the rise of the alt-right, some of whom hanker to turn (or return, in their view) the USA into a white homeland, I'd like to draw attention to three up-and-coming conservative Christian American "minorities": 

Social teaching

I am not a Roman Catholic and not a huge fan of much Roman Catholic theology. But I had long thought that, when it came to social teaching and hard-headed moral thinking, the Roman Catholic Church was light years ahead of most Protestants in both sophistication and precision.

It's hard to know what to make of Trueman's terse statement.

i) Many "social justice" positions taken by the current Magisterium are interchangeable with the platform of the Democrat Party. Perhaps Trueman's position is affected by the fact that he's English. In general, conservative Americans are quite hostile to the welfare state, but perhaps that's something which differentiates them from Trueman. I'm not suggesting that the English automatically support the welfare state. Maggie Thatcher was a notable critic, but she was controversial for that very reason. Indeed, she may be more popular among American conservatives than many Britons. Peter Hitchens disdains her, although Roger Scruton admires her. 

ii) I wonder how conversant Trueman is regarding evangelical ethicists. Perhaps this reflects Trueman's disdain for evangelicalism–in contrast to "confessional Calvinism". There are sophisticated expositions of personal and social ethics, viz. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics; John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for A Brave New World; John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life; John Frame, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons, and Problems.

iii) It's true that Catholic ethicists can argue with great precision and sophistication, but to what end? Their job is not to ascertain right and wrong, but to defend whatever the Magisterium deems to be right and wrong. They begin with the diktats of Rome, then cast about for supporting arguments to retroactively rationalize a foregone conclusion. And it can take tremendous ingenuity to defend Catholic moral theology. Consider the hairsplitting distinctions that are required to attack artificial contraception while defending natural family planning. Or to attack divorce while defending annulment, or to attack lying while defending mental reservations. Perhaps, though, Trueman is using "social teaching" in a narrow sense, rather than Catholic moral theology in general. Even so, Catholic social teaching reflects misplaced precision and sophistication. Not sophisticated analysis to arrive at the truth, but sophisticated special pleading to justify whatever Rome says. Not precision to be conceptually accurate, but precision to draw ad hoc distinctions.  

Prima donna

There's currently a civil war in the Roman Magisterium regarding the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. I think both sides are wrong for different reasons.

But I'm also struck by the spectacle of the pope, cardinals, and bishops squabbling with each other. At best, the Catholic hierarchy is a prima donna club. They even dress like prima donnas–or drag queens. Old men in dresses. 

These are aging childless bachelors, so the only status they have is their position in the hierarchy. There's nothing else in their life. None one to come home to. 

That's at best. And of course, some Catholic prelates are closet homosexuals, so they act like bickering old queens–since that's what they are. Bitchy bishops. 

I sometimes refer to what I call aging atheist syndrome, but that has a counterpart in aging gay syndrome. The crotchety old queen. Although some young gay men may find the lifestyle exhilarating, homosexuals sour on life because it just isn't fun to be an aging homosexual. Sexual vitality declines, and prospects dwindle. Womanizers have a similar problem. 

Off the top of my head, examples include Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Barney Frank, A. L. Rowse, and Dan Savage. I also remember a scene during the making of West Side Story in which Leonard Bernstein is taunting José Carreras. And I'm struck by how James Levine clung to his position at the Met despite his declining health. No doubt there are many other examples if I knew the terrain better. But as an outside observer, that's what comes to mind. 

I think this also contributes to the obsession with Mary's perpetual virginity. Catholic prelates who can't bring themselves to imagine Mary as a normal woman. 

Did Jesus forbid divorce?

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Mt 5:32). 
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery (Mt 19:9).

This raises several questions:

1. The Markan parallel has no exceptions. So that raises the question of which text preserves the original wording of Christ's statement. Several theories:

i) Matthew has liberalized the absolute prohibition of Jesus. That interpretation is incompatible with the inerrancy or historicity of Matthew.

ii) Matthew added that caveat to the original. But that's because Jesus and the disciples took that exception for granted. General statements often presume unstated qualifications. It's not uncommon in Scripture for formally unconditional statements to be implicitly conditional.

Although I think that's a legitimate explanation, it's not my preference (see below).

iii) It's quite possible or probable that Mark preserves the original wording of what Jesus said on that particular occasion, but afterwards, the disciples questioned Jesus to clarify the scope of his prohibition–at which point he qualified his initial statement. Matthew combines what Jesus said on two separate occasions: the initial statement and the follow-up. 

I think that's a very realistic scenario. It's consistent with how Gospel writers edit material. It's consistent with the fact that his disciples did ask him follow-up questions.  And it's consistent with the historicity and inerrancy of Matthew. 

However, any explanation is speculative. Although that's an interesting question in its own right, for Christians who affirm the inspiration of the Gospels, we don't have to reconstruct the original exchange for Matthew's version to be authoritative. 

2. Most commentators think this text supplies a justification for divorce. In other words, they think it refers to sexual sin within marriage. The standard candidate would be adultery.

It's striking how pious Catholics act as if it's unquestionable that Jesus forbids divorce, when on the face of it, Jesus seems to allow for divorce in this very text. There's a general prohibition against divorce, but here's an exception.

3. Because Catholicism teaches the indissolubility of marriage, it can't take the position that this refers to extramarital sex, so it it must refer to something else. 

i) One alternative is premarital sex. Hence, that would be a grounds for annulment rather than divorce.

ii) I don't object in principle to the concept of annulment. I think there are cases where that's a valid principle. However, I object to a theory of annulment that's driven by false dogma regarding the indissolubility of marriage. Moreover, that results in a declaration of annulment in cases where that's not a valid application of the principle. In reality, the Catholic church annuls marriages for the same reasons people divorce. In practice, it's a distinction without a difference.  

iii) One problem with the Catholic interpretation of Matthew is how we'd be able to determine from this text that Jesus is providing grounds for annulment rather than divorce. Indeed, what clue does the reader have that Jesus is talking about annulment rather than divorce?

The larger context concerns divorce. Jesus is countering a lax position on divorce. There's no indication that Jesus suddenly pivots to annulment.

We could turn the Catholic interpretation around. Although the Catholic position takes this to be referring to annulment, how can a reader distinguish grounds for annulment from grounds for divorce? What would Jesus say differently if he were talking about divorce? 

iv) Here's another problem with the Catholic interpretation: this is recorded in a Christian gospel. The new covenant actively reaches out to Gentiles. 

However, most pagan converts to Christianity would have sexual experience prior to marriage. So the Catholic interpretation invalidates just about every gentile Christian marriage, whether that was contracted before they became Christian or afterwards. That would be true for anyone who wasn't a virgin on his or her wedding night. When you consider that Christianity is a missionary religion, expanding into a world where premarital sex was the norm, the implication that all those married Christian converts are living in sin is extraordinary. By that logic, nearly every pagan convert to Christianity would have to desert their spouse and become celibate. After all, if premarital sex disqualifies a person from entering into a genuine marriage, then you cross a line of no return. 

v) A further problem with the Catholic interpretation is that porneia has a broad semantic range. Although that includes premarital sex, the meaning of the word is scarcely confined to premarital sex. Moreover, in the context of a discussion about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, adultery is the default sin which the disciples, or Matthew's audience, would think of, since that's the sexual sin which typically precipitates divorce. Although the word means more than adultery, we wouldn't expect it to mean less than that–especially in this context. 

So there's nothing in the context to single out premarital sex. To the contrary, the indicators suggest otherwise. 

4. Another Catholic interpretation takes this to be a reference to incestuous marriage. An advantage of that alternative, from a Catholic standpoint, is that incestuous marriages are invalid, so that's consistent with annulment rather than divorce. There are, however, serious problems with that interpretation:

i) Once again, although incest would be covered by porneia, the word doesn't single out incest to the exclusion of other sexual sins. Moreover, the first kind of sexual sin which the disciples, and Matthew's audience, would naturally think of in a discussion about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, is adultery–since that's the leading cause of divorce. 

ii) Due to the nearly universal incest taboo, even in Greco-Roman paganism, we wouldn't expect Jesus to be alluding to something that esoteric. 

iii) There is, moreover, the question of whether Jesus would even classify an incestuous liaison as "marriage". 

How The Gospels Compare To Other Ancient Biographies (Part 4)

(Earlier parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

Keener closes the book with an appendix on memory and oral tradition. There's a lot of valuable information in it, and I recommend reading the whole thing. I'll just cite some of the highlights.

He observes that "Most memory studies so far involve contemporary western memories - which are usually considered less rigorous than ancient Mediterranean ones" (332). Here are some of his other comments:

Scruton on Trump

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Collective judgment

A brief debate I had on Facebook:

I'm open to a designer of this nature. But if that's the case it would blow apart Clay Jones's articles on God's order for soldiers to kill babies.

Jones touts 400 years as a reasonable metric as God "waits patiently for all people to turn to him." He is "slow to anger" after all. 

But a designer of the wonders described in Shapiro's article works methodically, millennia upon millennia. It seems absurd for a being of that nature to give a "point of no return" to a culture after 400 years. And grievously absurd to mark that anniversary with mass slaughter. 

If you're given to a designer of wonders, that's great. If you're given to capital punisher that includes infants, that seems weird. But it is truly inconsistent to try reconciling one with the other.

The fundamental issue isn't so much how or when people die, but human mortality in general. Whether that's by divine command or divine providence isn't a morally all-important distinction.

There seems to be a distinction between adult punishment after choosing poor paths, and infants being slaughtered by soldiers. 

If there wasn't a moral distinction between these two concepts, Clay Jones wouldn't have written on the topic so extensively.

You seem to be assuming that the death of children by divine command is punitive. If so, that doesn't follow. 

Because humans are social creatures, adults cannot be harmed without harming children who depend on adults (or elderly relatives who depend on able-bodied grown children to care for them).

What's the alternative? Leaving the children orphaned, to fend for themselves? To die of starvation? 

The death of children is a side-effect of executing their adult caregivers. Keep in mind, too, that this is because the Canaanites didn't self-evacuate. 

As a former Marine, when you kill adult combatants, there will often be innocent people who suffer as a result. People who were dependent on fathers and sons who died in combat. Unless you think your former profession was immoral, you yourself admit that it isn't always possible to draw nice distinctions.

BTW, Jonathan's post has nothing to do with the fate of the Canaanites. And even if you wish to drag that red herring into the discussion, there's no reason we have to frame the issue in just the way Clay Jones does. (Which is not necessarily a criticism of his approach.)

If we want to marvel at a designer who spends millennia building DNA, it seems inconsistent to imagine that same designer ordering mass baby slaughter, especially in the form of telling adult human soldiers to do it. 

I'm testing for consistency, and the parameters from Shapiro's article do not seem to match the parameters from Jones's. 

As for whether the mass baby slaughter was punishment, I'm not necessarily assuming punishment. I'm just saying the mere act of soldiers slaughtering babies seems out of line of a designer of DNA. 

And yes, I was a former Marine. And yes, there are often non-combatant casualties. But there is still a moral distinction between that and soldiers actively targeting babies.

I used Clay Jones because Jonathan posted it the other day. I try to keep my critique limited to material posted by this page.

You yourself raised an ethical objection, but then you duck the implications of your own position. Suppose a Marine kills an enemy combatant. Presumably, you believe there are situations where that's justifiable. 

But in some, or many cases, by killing the combatant, you deprive his wife of a husband, deprive his kids of a father, and deprive his parents of a son they were counting on to care for them in their old age.

So the distinction between "actively targeting" innocents and the inevitable consequences of harm to innocents isn't morally clear-cut.

I'm not defending collateral innocent deaths at war. But I am saying there's no wiggle room for targeting all the babies in a city specifically to kill them all. 

And this is not about me. I'm a person. This is about how a designer of the universe would treat infants.

What do you mean when you say you're not defending collateral innocent deaths in war? Presumably you're not a pacifist. So you regard that as morally defensible–a tragic, but necessary side-effect of winning a just war.

You've asserted that there's no wiggle room, but your distinction is ad hoc. You're not engaging the counterargument.

How is the fact that you're a person germane? God is a personal agent, too.

I'm just not allowing you to change the argument. You don't have to address my original argument if you don't want. 

I'm seeing a lack of consistency between claims. That's all.

I addressed your original argument by demonstrating that your original argument overlooks moral complications. It's your position that lacks internal consistency.

I expect me to be inconsistent. I would not expect a designer of the universe to be inconsistent.

What's that supposed to mean? If your objection is inconsistent, then why should that be taken seriously?

Whether the designer of the universe is inconsistent is the very issue in dispute. I've presented several counterarguments to your position, which you continue to duck.

Carl Trueman Plays the Sanctimonious Fool

I’m sorry if this sounds uncharitable, I really am. However, it’s so sad to me when a seminary professor at a leading Reformed seminary – and one who’s a celebrity to boot – gets things wrong like this. He says in a recent First Things blog article:

I am not a Roman Catholic and not a huge fan of much Roman Catholic theology. But I had long thought that, when it came to social teaching and hard-headed moral thinking, the Roman Catholic Church was light years ahead of most Protestants in both sophistication and precision. That no longer seems to be the case.

I wonder if he has really been following along, or if he just picked the thing up in a vacuum and responded sanctimoniously. The problem is, Trueman in this very article demonstrates that he hasn’t got a good grasp on what Roman Catholicism really teaches in this case, about marriage, nor has he identified what they’re talking about when they talk about “adultery”. In most cases, “Roman Catholic moral thinking” is far more sanctimony than it is “sophisticated” or “precise”.

Earlier in the article, he writes:

Last week I stumbled across the document issued recently by the Roman Catholic bishops of Malta. It is an attempt to establish “criteria” for “applying” the now-infamous Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia

Paragraph 9 of the Maltese bishops’ document is one for the ages: We are told of “complex situations” that might make it “humanly impossible” to avoid illicit sex. I wonder what those situations might be?

“Illicit sex” in this case, in the real world (not a conservative Roman Catholic view) is simply sex between a legally married couple. Traditional, conservative Roman Catholics view these documents as discussing the fate of a Roman Catholic couple, married according to Rome’s “sacramental marriage”, who hasn’t gone through their Annulment process, who gets divorced and civilly re-married.

How The Gospels Compare To Other Ancient Biographies (Part 3)

(Earlier parts in the series: part 1, part 2.)

Keener, et al. often refer to the gospels as more consistent about Jesus than other sources are about the figures they discuss or how the gospels are superior to other ancient sources in some other manner:

Synopses of the Synoptic Gospels suggest, at least where we can test Matthew's and Luke's adaptations of Mark, that they may treat their sources more conservatively than Philo treats the biblical life of Moses (i.e., more like Suetonius than like Philo)....

Soo-Kwang Lee's essay on biographies of Arrian notes that most scholars regard Arrian as our most reliable source concerning Alexander [the Great], even though Arrian writes centuries after Alexander's death and at many points must decide among radically inconsistent reports. This is partly because Arrian depends on some sources from the period of those who knew Alexander. By comparison, the Gospels also stem from the period of those who knew Jesus, and are much more consistent on key points such as the manner of Jesus's death. (32, 38)

Monoethnic theology

Christianity is an interesting phenomenon. The founding documents are Jewish and semitic, yet historically, Christianity has been dominant in Europe and, for a time, the Levant–before that was overrun by Muslims. As a result, the interpretation of Scripture has been predominantly European. 

This means Catholic and Orthodox dogmatic theology have an essentially ethnic stamp in a way that Protestant theology does not. Historically, Protestant theology has an incidental ethnic stamp because it was generally produced by British and European theologians, as well as their far-flung decedents. But in principle, Protestant theology must always be reducible to the founding documents. Indeed, that's the standing test of Protestant theology. 

By contrast, Catholic (and Orthodox) dogmatic theology represents an "authoritative" interpretation that enjoys a certain autonomy in relation to Scripture, as something over and above Scripture. Since Catholics reject sola Scriptura, Sacred Tradition mustn't be reducible to the message of Scripture. By definition, tradition contributes something extra. Something independent of what can be derived from Scripture alone. 

But in that event, Catholic theology is welded to the thought-world of Italians (primarily), as well as Spaniards,  Germans, and French (secondarily). Those are the countries most influential in the formulation of Catholic theology. And Eastern Orthodoxy has its counterparts. To convert to Catholicism, you must convert to the traditional ethnic thought-world that produced the dogmatic theology of Catholicism. You must operate within their culturebound conceptual categories. 

So Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are fundamentally ethnic religions in a way that Protestantism is not. Indeed, these are nearly monoethnic, given the overwhelming dominance of a few historically and geographically related nationalities feeding into the official formulations. 

By contrast, the Protestant faith is essentially universal. The  explanans (interpretation) is distinct and separable from the explanandum (Scripture) insofar as the legitimation for the explanans must derive from the source documents. Any ethnic overlay that's not reducible to the source has no final warrant.