Saturday, September 09, 2017

Prooftexts for Purgatory

1. I'm going to comment on Catholic prooftexts for Purgatory. Before remarking on specific passages, there's a general problem with the methodology of Catholic apologists: even if their prooftexts are consistent with Purgatory, that doesn't mean they entail Purgatory. Something that's merely consistent with the truth of X can be equally consistent with the falsity of X. For instance, Tony Blair was Prime Minister during the 9/11 attacks. So his Prime Ministership is consistent with the 9/11 attacks. But it hardly follows that his Prime Ministership entailed the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 attacks were independent of whoever happened to be the English Prime Minister at the time. 

2. Mt 12:32

I take the basic argument to be this: if blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable both in this life and the afterlife, then there's an implied contrast with other sins which are forgivable (forgiven?) in the afterlife. 

i) At best, that's a possible implication, but hardly a necessary implication. It can just as well or better be an emphatic way of saying blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That sin, even though it was committed in this life, has permanent damnatory consequences. 

ii) Assuming for argument's sake that it does open the door to postmortem forgiveness, that would make it a disproof for Purgatory inasmuch as someone can only enter Purgatory if they die in a state of grace. So their sins must already be forgiven in this life, as a precondition for entrance into Purgatory. 

iii) If, moreover, a Catholic apologist is going to draw inferences from this text to extrapolate to cases other than the unforgivable sin, then there are four possible interpretations:

a) Some sins are forgivable both in this life and the afterlife

b) Some sins are unforgivable both in this life and the afterlife

c) Some sins are forgivable in this life but unforgivable in the afterlife

d) Some sins are unforgivable in this life but forgivable in the afterlife

There's nothing in the text to single out the Catholic interpretation, to the exclusion of other interpretive options. 

iv) Likewise, if a Catholic apologist says this opens the door to postmortem forgiveness, then that doesn't select for Catholic Purgatory. It could be used as a prooftext for postmortem salvation (you get a second chance in the afterlife). 

3. 1 Cor 3:15

i) In context, it refers to the day of judgment, whereas Purgatory concerns the intermediate state.

ii) In context, the "fire" isn't to purify character, but to test the quality of the preacher's work.

4. Lk 12:47-48

There's nothing distinctively Purgatorial about this passage. Rather, it describes different penalties for different sins. Degrees of punishment corresponding to degrees of accountability corresponding to degrees of knowledge. 

5. Mt 5:25-26

i) Mt 5:25-26 is quite down to earth. About the here and now rather than the hereafter. It refers to an out-of-court settlement to avoid debtor's prison. That's not Purgatory, but prudent advice to Christians to head off legal tangles like that.

ii) Even if we think it applies a fortiori to eschatological judgment, the point is that, in contrast to an out of court settlement, hell (v22) has no escape hatch. 

6. 2 Macc 12:39-46

Evangelicals reject this book as apocryphal, but even if we grant the book's canonicity for discussion purposes, the Catholic appeal fails to distinguish between a descriptive text and a prescriptive (or proscriptive) text. This is not a divine command. Even if the account is historically accurate, a narrative doesn't endorse everything recorded in the narrative. Assuming this is historically accurate (a dubious assumption), it tells you something about the attitude of Judas Maccabaeus and his coterie, but tells you nothing about God's attitude. There's nothing normative about this example, any more than atrocities in the Book of Judges are normative, or royal sins in 1-2 Kings are normative.  

Tails up

A cliche objection miracles, popularized by Carl Sagan, is that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". This slogan is parroted by atheists, as if it's self-evidently true. 

Ironically, the slogan is a claim in its own right. Indeed, two claims bundled into one: (i) miracles are "extraordinary"; (ii) as such, it takes "extraordinary evidence" to credit them. 

The slogan itself needs to be unpacked. The key terms need to be defined and defended. So an atheist who uses Sagan's slogan has his own burden of proof.

That said, let's approach things from another angle: Suppose a reporter tells me that he saw a table with 100 coins, and every coin was tails up. Is that extraordinary? What are the odds? Does it demand extraordinary evidence to lend credence to the report? 

That's not a question we can answer in a vacuum. Is the assumption that someone flipped every coin once, and on the first flip, each quarter came up tails?

If so, would that be extraordinary? What are the odds? 

Well, that depends. Do the 100 coins represent the entire sample? Suppose the original sample was 1000 coins, some of which flipped heads and some of which flipped tails. The coins on the table represent a select subset of that larger total. In that event, there's nothing extraordinary about 100 out of 1000 coins coming up tails on the first flip.

Suppose, though, it is the original sample. But just by looking at the coins on the table, an observer can't tell how many times each coin was flipped. Maybe someone flipped each coin until he got tails. In that event, there's nothing extraordinary about 100 coins tails up. You can't tell from just looking at the end-result what caused that particular outcome. 

Or maybe the coins were never flipped to achieve that result. Maybe someone simply laid each coin on the table, tails up. In that event, there's nothing extraordinary about 100 coins tails up.

You can't tell, from viewing the event in isolation, whether the event is "extraordinary". What might be extraordinary in the case of random coin tossing might be ordinary in the case of selected results or direct action. 

And you don't need to know in advance that an agent produced the result to take agency into consideration. Indeed, if the reported outcome is astronomically improbable, absent some additional variable to orient the outcome, that's not a reason to deny the resort unless there's no good reason to suppose an agent may have been involved. And if the outcome is not in serious doubt, then agency is the only rational explanation. 

6 months

Thursday, September 07, 2017

When Harry Wants To Be Called ‘Sally’

Tennis, anyone?

Psychology of atheism

The Storm Is Passin' Over

Hurricane season reminds me of the Barrett Sisters' signature song:

Moral skepticism and Scripture

From an exchange I had with an unbeliever on Facebook:

I have no theory as to why God predestines a particular hurricane to strike a particular area. In general, hurricanes are natural forces which restore the balance of nature. 

It's not as if hurricanes are targeted to hit population centers. That's an incidental consequence of humans living in hurricane zones. In general, humans die in natural disasters as a side-effect of living where natural disasters happen to strike.

God created a world with natural mechanisms. And everything happens according to his master plan for the world. In that respect, even bad things happen for a good reason. And this life is not the ultimate frame of reference.

When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12 then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity (Deut 25:11-12).

i) To begin with, who started the fight? Who threw the first punch? Who's at fault? 

ii) You also disregard the nature of the offense. Grabbing the genitals risks rendering the man impotent. A harsh penalty for a harsh crime. The penalty is completely avoidable by avoiding the crime.

18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear (Deut 21:18-21).

i) I didn't say if that was the thing to do now. Not everything that God commanded ancient Israel to do is a direct command to or for Christians.

ii) You fail to grasp the nature of the Mosaic penalty structure. As various scholars contend, the death penalty was generally a maximum penalty, not a mandatory penalty (first degree murder might be a notable exception). 

ii) The fact that the legislator invokes the purgation formula in the case of the incorrigible son indicates to me that in this case (and other cases in kind), the penalty is indexed to the cultic holiness of Israel. If so, that doesn't carry over into the new covenant era. By contrast, the penalty for murder antedates the Mosaic covenant. The penalty for murder is indexed to the image of God rather than holy land. 

Deuteronomy has a refrain about "purging evil" (Cf. Deut 13:5/6; 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:9,21; 22:21-22,24; 24:7). A dramatic illustration is the ceremony to cleanse the land of blood guilt (21:1-9). These penalties operate within a framework of ritual holiness, where the land is culturally holy, and transgressions defile the land, necessitating punitive actions that reconsecrate the land. But that principle doesn't carry over into the new covenant, because the holy land category is defunct.

iii) Your position suffers from self-referential incoherence. On the one hand, you appeal to stock arguments for moral skepticism. If I was born at a different place and time, I'd have different views.

On the other hand, you attack OT ethics. But your moral skepticism neutralizes your ability to attack OT ethics. You can't say that's wrong. At best, you can only say that's not right–in the sense that nothing is right or wrong. 

Ironically, I agree with moral skeptics that moral intuition is unreliable, given the fact that different cultures have different taboos. What's admirable in one culture is abominable in another, and vice versa. So we need something over and above moral intuition to correct or corroborate our moral intuitions. 

You attack OT ethics, but obviously the Pentateuchal legislator didn't share your outlook. You have your convictions and he had his. So what brokers the disagreement? Who's the referee? What makes your moral opinion superior to the viewpoint of the Pentateuchal narrator? You're using the same argument John Loftus employs, but it disqualifies you from assuming the posture of a moralist.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Moral heresy

Revelation then and now

Many scholars view the 1C as the proper frame of reference for interpreting Revelation. You also have scholars who think Revelation has a futuristic dimension, but is grounded the 1C. Even though, say, Rev 19-22 looks far ahead, they think much of Revelation speaks directly to the situation facing 1C Christians. 

But here's an interesting thing about Revelation: from a 1C standpoint, it's surreal and hyperbolic. Yet as of the 20-21C, the surreal, hyperbolic aspects are becoming increasingly feasible. 

That doesn't necessarily mean we should interpret the imagery literally. I myself think it's dream-like. Things are possible in dreams that are physically impossible. 

But it is striking that technological advances make the literal interpretation of Revelation more realistic, in terms of hitech analogues to the ancient imagery. 

An atheist dilemma

Militant atheists are duplicitous on what makes life worth living. On the one hand they say you don't need God to have a meaningful life. What makes life meaningful is what's meaningful to you. What you personally value. 

On the other hand, they attack Christianity for giving believers false hope. Christians waste the only life they have by banking on the deferred reward of a nonexistent afterlife. They fail to make the most of the only life they will ever have in the here and now through time-consuming religious devotions and prayers and anxieties over sin and sexual inhibitions, because they're staking their ultimate fulfillment on a future payback that will never happen. There is no hereafter, so it's now or never. 

Notice, though, that their objection is diametrically opposed to how many atheists justify the significance of their own existence. Many atheists say subjective meaning is sufficient to make life worthwhile. But then, why can't Christians have meaningful lives as Christians, even if (from a secular standpoint) Christianity is false? Sure, it's subjective meaning. It doesn't correspond to objective reality (from a secular standpoint). Yet the same atheists insist that your sense of purpose in life needn't correspond to objective value. Rather, value is what is valuable to each individual. 

So why do militant atheists make their mission in life talking Christians out of their faith, or dissuading people from ever considering Christianity in the first place? Is it because they think Christianity is based on wishful thinking? But what if wishful thinking is what makes you feel that you and your loved ones are important in the grand scheme of things? An atheist can't object on grounds that that's a sentimental projection, for he that's how he defends his own position. 

So the atheist has a dilemma on his hands. If subjective meaning is good enough for atheists, why isn't that good enough for deluded Christians? 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Swami Jesus

I wasn't originally planning to comment on the Nashville statement. I wasn't planning to sign it. I wasn't planning not to sign it. I had no particular inclinations one way or the other.

In fact, I had no particular urge to even read it. At first I was wondering, what's special about this statement? For some time now, evangelical pundits have been saying the same thing. And you have to be a theological junkie to even know what the CBMW is. 

But then I started seeing hostile reactions pour in. The reaction to the statement justified the existence of the statement.

I signed it for the same reason Pamela Geller lampoons Islam: because I can. If you're afraid to exercise a right, you already lost it. The very fact that so many people are incensed by a bland reaffirmation of biblical norms on sex and gender is reason enough to support it. 

It's like when a Republican president makes a judicial nomination. My initial impression of the nominee is formed, not by supporters, but opponents. Does he have the right enemies? If the nomination is denounced by Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center et al., then he sounds like my kind of nominee. That gives me a favorable first impression of the nominee. 

The Nashville statement has succeeded in smoking out Oreo evangelicals who are evangelical on the outside but oh-so progressive on the inside.

There are roughly two strategies for attacking the Christian faith. One is a direct, frontal assault. That's more honest.

The other way is more insidious. Unbelievers attempt to co-opt the very definition of Christianity. In an age of biblical illiteracy, many unbelievers derive their view of Christianity from atheist caricatures or "progressive Christians." If they know any professing Christians at all, it's "progressive Christians" who echo the political views of the secular progressives. 

When people that ignorant hear a statement of orthodox Christian theology and ethics, they think that's a misrepresentation of Christianity. When they hear a statement that's simply a repetition of the consensus position of historic Christianity, they think that's a white, reactionary, patriarchal innovation! They're incensed by people who simply expound what Christianity actually represents. They think the real Jesus is Swami Jesus, a hippie guru who loves everybody except "fundamentalists". John Spong's Jesus. 

That's why we need to set the record straight. We need to correct the malicious caricatures and the secularized revisionism. 

Gnashing on the Nashville statement

I'm going to comment on some representative objections to the Nashville statement, beginning with Scot McKnight:

When I saw that the Nashville Statement was being announced I wondered Why? and Why now? and To what end? 

It's hard to believe McKnight is sincerely asking that question. He's not Rip Van Winkle. In any event, here's an answer from the man who spearheaded the document:

Bourgeois naval-gazing

One chic objection to the Nashville statement is that it lacks pastoral sensitivity. But we need to distinguish between real problems and ersatz problems. From what I can see, transgenderism is primarily a reflection of cultural decadence. It reminds me of the idle rich and royalty who explore perversion because they are bored to death.

Bracketing the individuals who are truly psychotic, transgenderism is only possible for people who have it too easy. For our ancestors, and many people in the Third World today, surviving was a daily struggle. They didn't have the luxury to indulge in naval-gazing.

Transgenderism is made possible by affluence and leisure time. Don't get me wrong: affluence and leisure time are blessings as well as opportunities for good. If, however, you have nothing to live for, no higher purpose in life, then having things too easy exposes the vacuity and lack of direction. It's like pop stars, sports stars, and lottery winners who are ruined by success. They end up worse off than before their dreams came true.

In my observation, most of the transgendered are pampered, spoiled, self-absorbed individuals who have too much time to think about themselves because they have nothing better to think about. 

People like that can still have functional or even happy lives if they live in a society that channels them into naturally fulfilling social roles, as a spouse and parent. In that case, cultural expectations impose an external structure on their lives that makes their lives more meaningful. But when a culture loses common grace social norms, they no longer have the external direction to compensate for lack of inner direction. So their lives become aimless, frivolous, cruel, and debased. 

In addition, adversity is a distraction from the vacuum of the soul. You are too busy making ends meet to suffer from existential ennui and fashionable malaise. If, however, you don't have those distractions, and you have nothing worthwhile to live for, then the absence of adversity leads to self-pitiful naval gazing. 

Self-examination is only salutary if there's something better to aim for. But a secularized culture without a transcendent reference point has nothing to aspire to.   

Notice that this is a general problem regarding the "human condition" in a fallen world. The solution is to evangelize the lost. 

Person of Interest becoming reality

Is Skynet the Antichrist?

13 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear's, and its mouth was like a lion's mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. 9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear:

10 If anyone is to be taken captive,
    to captivity he goes;
if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
    with the sword must he be slain.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (Rev 13).

The identity of the Antichrist and/or the Beast and the False Prophet exerts enduring fascination among Christians. The  candidates depend on the reader's own place in the course of church history. As we move forward into the future, certain candidates are eliminated while new candidates present themselves. As some candidates move into the past, it's too late for them to be viable candidates. For a medieval Christian, there were different candidates than for a modern-day Christian.

When I was a kid, I saw a movie, set in the Cold War, about two doomsday machines that take over the world: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). This idea was further popularized by The Terminator franchise. 

That was science fiction. But computers increasingly control our lives in a hitech civilization. And that can be very convenient so long was we control the computers. 

Recently there were sensational headlines about Facebook shutting down chatbots after they invented their own language. That may have been hyped.

However, A.I. needn't be a realistic prospect to lose control. If computers "talking" to each other do invent their own language, which humans can't understand, then couldn't things get out of hand in a hurry? Computers needn't be intelligent to do that. They just need to have adaptive software with learning cycles. 

If we don't know what computers are telling each other–computers which regulate so many critical aspects of a hitch civilization–then won't computers become highly unpredictable? What happens if computers run amok–not because they're malicious, but have simply taken on a life of their own (as it were)? Even if we still have the off-switch, that's a dilemma if you can't shut down a computer network without shutting down everything that depends on a computer network. You have so many interconnected systems in a hitech society. So much coordination and synchronization. If it breaks down, there's a cascade effect. 

Anyway, I said that to say this: suppose the Antichrist or Beast/False prophet will be a rogue computer network? Civilization will be at the mercy of this inscrutable, inhumane machine. 

"An everlasting Auschwitz"

I had a brief exchange with Christian apologist and annihilationist Matt Flanagan on Facebook:

BTW, [John] Wenham double-edged sword. For instance, he says:

Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine which I do not know how to preach without negating the loveliness and glory of God. From the days of Tertullian it has frequently been the emphasis of fanatics. It is a doctrine which makes the Inquisition look reasonable.

That is, of course, the classic moralistic objection to eternal punishment. In my experience, annihilationists of the Rethinking Hell stripe avoid that argument because it divulges the essentially sentimental motivation for annihilationism, which is bad PR if you're endeavoring to make an intellectually respectable case for annihilationism. 

In addition, Wenham was consistent enough to take his position to a logical extreme:

When I analyze my own thoughts, I find that (rightly or wrongly) everlastingness has virtually no place in my concept of eternal life. Everlasting harp playing or hymn singing or even contemplation is not attractive.

So he's prepared to sacrifice eternal heaven to eliminate eternal hell. Both the saints and the damned face eventual oblivion. 

"The Case For Conditional Immortality" Facing Hell: The Story of a Nobody, An Autobiography 1913 - 1996 (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), chap. 27.

I originally said:

We need to draw an elementary distinction between informed biblical scholars who happen to espouse annihilationism, and informed biblical scholars who endeavor to make a detailed case for annihilationism. Mere name-dropping is a fallacious argument from authority. So, for instance, Wenham did attempt to make a detailed case for his positions.

Matt counters by saying:

The comment is a few sentences of an article which contains 20 pages of argument which is entirely devoted to exegetical argument…So Steve its rather misleading to take that one paragraph out of context and suggest Wenham based his conclusion on sentimental emotion.

Notice Matt acts as if he's correcting my characterization, when in fact his observation is entirely consistent with my original statement that Wenham makes a detailed case for his position. 

To ignore a person’s actual arguments, and dismiss it on alleged motives is the ad hominin circumstiantal argument, and basing this fallacy on the reading a few lines omitted from there context suggests something of a straw man is being attacked.

i) It was never my aim in a Facebook discussion to present a systematic refutation of Wenham's arguments. Facebook is not an efficient medium for that kind of analysis. I have in fact engaged the exegetical arguments for annihilationism on other occasions. 

ii) As far as that goes, there's nothing inherently fallacious about ad hominin circumstantial argument. When, say, we're assessing the credibility of an expert witness or putative eyewitness, it is not invalid to take into consideration a vested interest or conflict of interest. 

iii) In addition, Wenham is not the only annihilationist who tips his hand in that regard. Take Clark Pinnock's statement that everlasting punishment God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die.

Or John Stott's statement that 

I want to repudiate with all the vehemence of which I am capable the glibness, what almost appears to be the glee, the Schadenfreunde, with which some Evangelicals speak about hell. It is a horrible sickness of mind or spirit…Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain.

Does that disprove annihilationism? No. But I notice that proponents at Rethinking Hell are less candid than Stott, Wenham, and Pinnock.

iv) Moreover, it's entirely consonant with motivated reasoning to make a detailed case for your position. For instance, Dale Tuggy rejects the Trinity and Incarnation because by his lights that's incompatible with the law of identity. He then proceeds to reinterpret all the prooftexts for the deity of Christ. 

Or take people who reject or reinterpret Bible passages condemning homosexuality because that offends their moral sensibilities. 

Or, to take an issue dear to Matt's heart, consider critics who reject the historicity and/or inerrancy of OT holy war commands and war narratives because that conflicts with their preconception of divine benevolence. 

In the previous sentence Wenham shows he is using the word 'everlastingness' in contrast to eternity understood as timelessness, This is confirmed by the very next sentence, omitted from your quote, where he describes eternity as involving 'deliverance from sin and the bliss of being with God in heaven, knowing that the inexorable march of death has been abolished for ever ' So, its simply misleading to suggest that Wenham here is suggesting heaven is finite in duration. You have to snip the quote carefully so the previous sentence and proceeding sentence are omitted to give that impression. What Wenham says is that, as opposed to being an existence that is everlasting in duration. Heaven is a timeless existence in which there is no death.

i) Biological immortality doesn't entail a timeless mode of subsistence. What does that even mean? Biological life necessitates biological *processes*. If the final state involves the resurrection of the body, then that can't be timeless. Processes are inherently temporal.

ii) If by "heaven", Matt means the intermediate state, then there's no death in heaven because the saints are already dead. Death is a prerequisite to enter the intermediate state. 

Put another way, the intermediate state is a discarnate state. In that condition, they can't die again because they no longer have a body. Biological death presumes biological life which presumes a physical body.

I don't know if Matt is a physicalist or substance dualist, but his claims make no sense on either position. 

iii) Moreover, this fails to address the underlying issue. Annihilationists need to offer a consistent meaning for aionios. A meaning that applies equally to promises of eschatological reward as well as threats of eschatological just desert. The dilemma is how to finesse the asymmetry in the respective fates of the saints and the damned if aionios has a consistent sense.

Monday, September 04, 2017

5 steps to embrace people from another race or culture


13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loose in heaven” (Mt 16:13-19).

I find commentaries on this passage to be unsatisfactory overall, so I'm going to take a stab at my own interpretation. 

1. Let's begin with some programmatic questions:

i) What does the "rock" refer to?

ii) Does Hades refer to the realm of the dead or the realm of the demonic?

iii) Does binding/loosing have independent meaning, or is that simply an alternative metaphor for keys, and derives its meaning from whatever the keys represent?

iv) Are the gates of hell and the keys of heaven mutually interpretive, or does the latter have an independent meaning?

2. Now I propose answer my own questions:

i) Caesarea Philippi is situated on a rocky terrace at the base of Mt. Hermon. As such, it's natural to suppose the rocky metaphor was suggested by the immediate surroundings. Jesus was standing on rocky ground, and standing in the shadow of Mt. Hermon, at the time he made his statement. 

This may also goes to a difference between the written word and the spoken word. Consider the demonstrative pronoun: "this". In that setting, it's easy to imagine him pointing to an actual rocky object. "I will build my church on this!"–accompanied by an illustrative gesture. The repetition of "rock" may well include a reference to Simon, but the double reference may also include a reference to the rocky surroundings. Indeed, that may be primary. 

"Rock" is probably a double entendre, both for Peter and especially the emblematic location. "Rocky" is a pun in honor of Peter's insightful confession, but what the church is built on is what the location symbolizes. 

ii) In Revelation, the Netherworld is subdivided into a realm of the dead (Rev 20:13-14) and a realm of the demonic (9:1-11; 11:17; 17:8). And keys are associated with each (Rev 1:18; 9:1-2.; cf. 20:1-3). My point is not to use Revelation to interpret Mt 16 directly. Rather, this seems to be stock imagery that was in circulation in Jewish circles. 

iii) Caesarea Philippi was pagan territory. In OT times, it may well have been a site of Baal-worship. Later on, it was a shrine for the Greek god Pan. So it would have demonic associations.

iv) Although Matthew doesn't fill in the details, the implicit imagery involves a parallel between hades and heaven, where they stand in contrast. Gates imply keys and keys imply gates. If we mentally flesh it out, the reader should visualize both heaven and hades as gated locations.

Since these two images occur back-to-back, not to mention the intrinsically related imagery, it stands to reason that these are mutually interpretive, picturesque metaphors. And it would be jarring if binding/loosing had a different import. 

v) Gates can be used to lock people out or keep people from escaping. A form of authorized access and/or confinement. The porter is a sentinel who guards the site. No one can enter or leave unless he unlocks the gate. 

vi) Given the associations with heathen idolatry, I think hades more likely connotes the realm of the demonic in this evocative setting. Jesus may be boldly saying he will build his church on top of hellmouth. The gates of heaven and hades may not be two separate gates, but a single gate separating the church from the demonic realm. And the function of the gate may be to block the demonic realm from storming the church. It's daring to build the church right over hell, but that's an example of God subjugating his enemies. A variation on making his enemies his footstool. Rather than building his church at a safe distance, he builds his church right behind enemy lines to demonstrate God's invincibility. The church survive and thrives in the face of the enemy. 

Sunday, September 03, 2017

John 21:24 And John's Authorship

Charles Hill recently wrote a chapter about John 21:24 in Lois K. Fuller Dow, et al., edd., The Language And Literature Of The New Testament (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 398-437. He makes too many significant points for me to even summarize them here. I recommend getting the book, from a library if you don't want to buy it, especially to read Hill's chapter and Michael Kruger's. Here's some of what Hill writes:

Genesis: a phenomenological reading

1. I'm going to offer a neglected interpretation of Gen 1. A phenomenological interpretation. I'm not suggesting the account is merely about appearances. The account is constitutive. But it visualizes creation in phenomenological imagery.

The account has a few basic structuring principles. The seven-day progression gets the most attention, but other structuring principles include borderline conditions, progression from invisible to visible, and general to specific. 

2. In many respects, the opening scene is reminiscent of a world right after a flood. Down below, the land is submerged in standing water. Up above, rainclouds block the sunlight. 

3. Some scholars think the account doesn't represent an absolute beginning; rather, creation begins with preexistent matter. Water and darkness. That interpretation depends in part on the syntactical relationship between v1 and the following. Is v1 a summary statement, or part of day 1? For one interpretation:

4. Another question is whether darkness is metaphor for nothingness. If so, that wouldn't be a preexistent something. 

5. What's the relationship, if any, between water and light? On the face of it, these may seem to be unrelated substances. However, the combination of water and light may foreshadow the rainbow (Gen 9:13-17). And that, too, would fit the diluvial imagery or connotations. A rainbow is a borderline phenomenon, briefly existing between sunshine and rainclouds, as the sun begins to emerge from behind the clouds. And emergence from invisibility to visibility is one of the motifs in the creation account. 

6. Another example is the emergence of dry land. The description is reminiscent of flood waters abating. The dry land resurfaces after the floodwaters recede. 

7. A further example is the emergence of foliage. In a desert, the land may seem to be barren and deluded, but after a flash flood, there's a burst of foliage. The invisible seeds were dormant, waiting for water to spring to life. Conversely, flooding can produce an underwater forest. 

8. Then there's the paradoxical relationship between day 1 and day 4. How can there be dawn and dusk, and how the diurnal cycle be in place, before the creation of the sun?

There is, however, a very familiar condition, indeed, it happens twice a day, when you can see sunlight without seeing the sun. And that's when the sun is below the horizon. Before sunrise or after sunset. 

In addition, in winter, there's the polar twilight at arctic or antarctic latitudes, when there's daylight and sunlight even though the sun is invisible because it remains just below the horizon. So there can be a diurnal cycle without sunrise or sunset. (Of course, an ancient Near-Eastern audience would not be privy to that phenomenon.)

9. Sometimes light and darkness are opposites. That's the dichtomy between day and night in reference to sunlight. In that case, light is present when darkness is absent while darkness is present when light is absent.

But sometimes light and darkness are complementary. That's the relationship between darkness, moonlight, and starlight. It requires a darkened sky to see the stars. In that situation, light and darkness are simultaneous rather than successive. 

Likewise, hills, mountains, and shade-trees cast shadows, blocking the sunlight. Patterns of light and darkness can be spatial as well as temporal. 

8. You also have borderline conditions at twilight where Venus and the moon are visible in the waxing or waning sunlight. If it's dawn, they fade. If it's dusk, they brighten. 

9. There's a relationship between general partitions of space (land, sky, sea) and their specific occupants: land animals, aquatic animals, birds, the sun, moon, and stars. 

There's a relationship between generic light and darkness, and specific light and darkness (day and night, dawn and dusk). 

I think these aspects of the Genesis account are usually neglected because commentators aren't very observant about the natural world. Yet Genesis was revealed to people who were very attentive to their natural surroundings.