Saturday, December 02, 2017

Silver lining

Jonathan is one of the few truly admirable people in OT history. OT history is full of villains. And even some of those on God's side have glaring character flaws. In one respect, it's tragic that he died so young. 

But suppose an alternate history played out. Had he assumed the throne, Jonathan might have been corrupted. 

Or if he was David's righthand man, would their friendship sour? Over the long-haul, would he find it grating to play second-fiddle?

And even if that didn't happen, his sons and David's sons would be rivals to the throne. One or more of his sons would probably think David was a usurper. That Saul's lineage was the rightful lineage. I can imagine one of Jonathan's sons murdering one of David's sons to snuff out the competition. Consider the strain it would put Jonathan and David's friendship.

Or what if Jonathan was still alive when the Gibeonites demanded scapegoats to even the score for Saul's effort to extirpate the Gibeonites. Jonathan would be at the top of their hit list. Since Saul was dead, Jonathan would be the next best thing.

Presumably, David would refuse to hand over his best friend. Even so, what would Jonathan's reaction be when David delivered seven of Jonathan's nephews into the hands of the Gibeonites, to play fall guys for Saul's misdeeds? Once again, imagine the strain that would place on Jonathan and David's friendship.   

Jonathan died before the friendship had a chance to fall apart. 

Are oaths indissoluble

i) According to Biblical ethics, are oaths irrevocable? In the Mosaic law, a father can nullify the oath of a teenage daughter. In that particular respect, the oath is dissoluble. 

It's unclear whether that's because the party is a minor or a female minor. Is it just that she's underage? Or is it that she's still single and living under her father's roof, which puts her under his authority? 

ii) Then there's the famous case of Jephthah's vow. In narrative theology, the narrator will often recount an incident without editorial comment, so it's up to the reader to infer how to view the incident.

Intuitively, it's contradictory to say we ever have a moral duty to do something immoral. In that case, how can we acquire a moral duty to commit a wrong? 

So it seems as though Jephthah should have broken his vow rather than commit murder. It was morally wrong for him to make that vow in the first place. 

This goes to the conventional distinction between lawful and unlawful vows. Still, the account itself is silent on the moral status of his action. Admittedly, this occurs in a book designed to illustrate Israel's reversion to heathen depravity. 

iii) Then there's the difficult case of the Gibeonites, in Josh 9. They hoodwink the Israelites into making a peace treaty. Even after it turns out that the Israelite were snookered, they honor the treaty. 

That's counterintuitive because we normally think a contract entered into under false pretenses voids the contract. Yet God himself backs that treaty (2 Sam 21). 

So is our intuition mistaken, or do special circumstances make this case exceptional?

iv) Josh 9 involves a couple of dilemmas. The Gibeonites find themselves in a bind. They fear annihilation by the Israelites. So they seek a peace treaty. But how can they do so without divulging their identity as the enemy? And once they expose themselves, doesn't that leave them vulnerable to annihilation?

So they resort to subterfuge. It's possible that the treaty is honored in part due to the extenuating circumstances of the dilemma in which they found themselves. That may mitigate what would ordinarily be the culpability of their deception.

v) In addition, they act on faith. They fear Yahweh. So perhaps the treaty is honored, in part or in whole, because their action is a witness to the true God. They were submissive to Yahweh.

This may be similar to Jacob's trickery in Gen 27. Even though it was wrong to fool his father, his action ironically demonstrates a degree of faith, compared to his indifferent brother. Jacob puts his trust in Yahweh's promises. Although his behavior is manipulative, it's still a cut above Esau's casual impiety. 

vi) Finally, the Israelite leadership creates a dilemma for itself by failing to consult Yahweh before sealing the deal (9:14). Either way, they lose face. 

Given the extenuating factors in the account, on both sides, I don't think this case proves that oaths are absolute. 

Friday, December 01, 2017

Is Isa 7:14 prophetic?

i) Isa 7:14 is a classic messianic oracle, made even more famous by Handel's Messiah. It is, however, common to the claim that the Christian interpretation (or Matthew's interpretation) is anachronistic. The conventional liberal reading identifies the woman as either Isaiah's wife or the wife of Ahaz. On that view, the child is either one of Isaiah's sons or Ahaz's. That's said to fit the context, whereas the Christian interpretation is said to rip the passage of context.

There's some value in discussing this. For one thing, During the dry seasons of life, a Christian can experience doubts. When he's in that mood or state of mind, he may wonder if he hasn't defended the Christian interpretation from mere tradition or wishful thinking.

ii) As I've pointed out on more than one occasion, Alec Motyer has demonstrated that it's actually liberal scholars and commentators who take the passage out of context by artificially separating this particular oracle from the larger context. But the son is part of an ongoing motif, that carries all the way through to chap. 12:

The advent of the son extends into future vistas well beyond the immediate crisis in chap. 7.

iii) Of course, Motyer is evangelical. Perhaps of more interest in that regard is Brevard Childs. He was one of the premier OT scholars of his generation. Unlike Motyer, he was not evangelical. But that makes his interpretation all the more striking:

The mysterious name of Immanuel in 7:14 receives clarification in two passages in chap 8 that belong roughly to the same period of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis. The judgment announced by Isaiah will come and cover the whole land, but the remnant has hope because the land belongs to Immanuel (8:8). Again in 8:9ff., in spite of the evil plans of distant nations, their counsel will not prevail because God has so willed it through Immanuel (v10). In sum, Immanuel is no longer the unborn child of 7:14, but the owner of Israel's land and the source of the divine force that brings the plans of the conspiring nations to naught (Ps 2:1ff.). Notwithstanding the extraordinary mystery and indeterminacy surrounding the giving of the sign of Immanuel, there are many clear indications that it was understood messianically by the tradents of the Isaianic tradition, and shaped in such a way both to clarify and expand the messianic hope for every successive generation of the people of God. B. Childs, Isaiah (WJK 2001), 68-69.

Earlier we describe the movement from the promise of Immanuel in 7:14 to a clearly messianic interpretation of his role in 8:8,11. Now the son is described as coming in the period of Israel's deepest humiliation: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. The royal titles of kingship are conferred upon him: "Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Each name brings out some extraordinary quality of the divinely selected ruler…The description of his reign makes it absolutely clear that his role is messianic.

To summarize: There is a narrative movement from 7:1-9:6 that portrays the rejection of the promise of God by the house of David and the resulting destruction of the people of God as divine hardening takes effect. Conversely, there emerges the hope of a faithful remnant, adumbrated by Isaiah's own experience of death and rebirth in chap. 6, and foreshadowed by the sign of Immanuel. This unfolding presentation of the entrance of God's rule in the midst of terrifying disasters culminates the history of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis with the messianic promise of chap. 9 and anticipates its ultimate expansion in chap. 11 (80-81).

In chap 7 the historical context of the Syro-Epharaimite war of 734 is absolutely crucial for its interpretation and the historical details have been assigned a centrality by the biblical text itself. Again, in chap 9 the initial background for the messianic light that suddenly breaks forth (v1) appears to be the Assyrian conquest of Galilee, but even here very shortly the messianic promise far transcends the initial 8C setting. When one comes to chap 1, the emphasis on v1 falls on the new life sprouting from the mutilated house of David (101).

So Childs arrives at the same basic interpretation as Motyer, based on thematic intertextual links, despite the fact that he doesn't share Moyter's evangelical presuppositions. 

iv) But suppose, for discussion purposes, that we grant the liberal identification, yet with a twist. Who was Isaiah referring to? This goes to theories of reference. What fixes the referent? 

To take a comparison, people sometimes confuse identical twins. Take twin brothers. Let's call them Ryan and Brian. Suppose I'm talking to Ryan, but he has to break off the conversation to check on something in his bedroom. He reemerges a minute later, so I resume the conversation, picking up where I left off.

Only it's a case of mistaken identity. It's not Ryan who just came out of the bedroom, but Brian. I can't tell the difference. They look alike, sound alike, dress alike. Same haircut. Comb it the same way. So I talk to Brian as if I'm talking to Ryan, since I think I'm still talking to Ryan.

Who am I actually speaking to? My comments are physically addressed Brian, but intentionally addressed to Ryan. My words are directed at Brian, but my thoughts are directed at Ryan. I'm looking at Brian, my voice is pointed at Brian, yet he's not the mental object of my communication. In effect, Brian functions as a stand-in for Ryan. 

Even if (ex hypothesi) there's a sense in which the son in 7:14 is a son of Ahaz or Isaiah, he could still function as a placeholder for a more distant referent–apropos my illustration of twin brothers. 

v) A critic might object that that's ingenious special-pleading. To which I'd say two things:

I've already documented that the son in 7:14 is part of a royal messianc sonship motif which extends will beyond the topical crisis chap. 7.  

In addition, there's extrabiblical evidence for premonitions and prophetic dreams. Admittedly, these are short-term rather than long-term, yet the principle is the same. Some people are enabled to foresee the future. Glimpses of the future are revealed to them. 

Confessional seminaries

I'd like to discuss some of the moral permutations of confessional seminaries (as well as confessional colleges).

i) Confessional seminaries are justifiable, and even necessary. The purpose of a Christian seminary is to transmit the faith to the next generation. The faculty should be Christian. Moreover, students should know what to expect.

However, that general principle is subject to some caveats and complications.

ii) Suppose an applicant is hired on the basis of the institution's current statement of faith. Suppose, after he gets the job, the institution amends the statement of faith. Should he be fired if he dissents from the policy change? 

That depends. In some situations, that's clearly unfair. He wasn't hired on those terms, so he shouldn't be fired on those terms. He was hired based on a mutual understanding and agreement. To unilaterally changes the rules in the middle of the game may well be unjust. 

iii) On the other hand, because the political and theological climate changes over time, new issues may arise that weren't on the radar when the statement of faith was originally formulated. In some cases, it wouldn't be possible to anticipate those developments. In other cases, it was just understood back then that those were out-of-bounds.

So there are situations in which it's proper and necessary for a confessional institution to revise the statement of faith. I can't say in the abstract if that's good or bad, because it depends on the specifics. Warranted examples include Bryan College and Cedarville on the historical Adam. 

iv) In addition, sometimes the threat comes from the left rather than the right. Robert Gagnon lost his job because he was well to the right of his denomination and its flagship seminary. It was inevitable that this would come to a head. He was out of step with the liberal trajectory of the PC-USA. 

v) Sometimes, though, the ground can shift under faculty, not due to a formal change in the statement of faith, but due to a change in the ecclesiastical climate. Power-brokers in the denomination may exert great influence and pressure, which changes what is tolerated in practice, regardless of what is tolerated on paper. That's an unwritten code which may jeopardize the job security of faculty. 

Likewise, if the board rubber-stamps the college or seminary president, then he's a law unto himself. (But a potential check is the alumni, especially the donor base.) 

By "power-brokers," I have in mind players like Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, and Paige Patterson. 

vi) In situations like that, a professor may find himself in something of a moral bind. He has prior obligations to his dependents. So he may prevaricate about his true position if his family's financial security is threatened by ex post facto changes. 

I think lying is prima facie wrong, but there are situations where that's overridden by a higher obligation. And that distinction can be consistent with deontological ethics, viz. threshold deontology.

I have in mind situations like Dembski found himself mired in vis-a-vis Paige Patterson. 

vii) If a professor ceases to believe the statement of faith in one or more respects, then as a rule he should resign or be fired. I have no sympathy for Christian college or seminary professors who suffer an intellectual crisis of faith. By that point in their intellectual development, they should be familiar with the stock objections to Christianity, and have resolved them to their personal satisfaction.

Sometimes, though, a crisis of faith may be triggered by personal tragedy. That goes to the emotional problem of suffering rather than the intellectual problem of suffering.

In that case, I don't think they should be summarily dismissed. They must continue to teach orthodox theology. They shouldn't air their doubts with students, much less use the classroom as a platform to attack Christianity.

But according to the "church as hospital" model, I think that should be treated as much as possible as a pastoral issue, like nursing a sick patient back to health. I have in mind the situation of Gary Habermas. 

Scholasticism and creation

Human actions are simply the occasions for the unfolding of God’s ad extra display of these unchanging and unacquired virtues…. God simply is that act of existence by which He is. This means that even His relation to the world as its Creator and Sustainer does not produce any new actuality in Him. (15)
I do not disagree with these statements, but I do think they raise a problem that Dolezal does not discuss: what is the status of God’s “relation to the world as its Creator and Sustainer?” Is that relation within him? One might argue that it is, because it certainly is a fact about God that he is related to the world. But on Dolezal’s view, if this relation is within God, then it is identical with his essence. That implies that God would not be God unless he were related to the world. And on that basis, the world itself is God’s essence. But to say that the world is God’s essence is pantheism.
That would not have been a problem for Parmenides, for whom all relations exist as aspects of a distinctionless “Being.” Parmenides was a consistent pantheist, as were his Greek philosophical predecessors. But in a Christian theology, pantheism destroys the creator-creature distinction, which of course is quite central to the biblical world view.
But consider this alternative: Perhaps the relation between God and the world is not his essence, but something entirely outside him. To assert that would allow us to renounce pantheism.

Evangelical Moral Witness, Power, and the State

Ecclesiastical power politics

In a previous version of this post, I recommended John Frame’s The Doctrine of God and a book by Bruce Ware on the Trinity. I can no longer recommend Frame’s book because it has become evident that he has moved away from the classical Christian understanding of such doctrines as divine simplicity and immutability.

But Frame isn't saying anything new as of 2017. He's not saying anything he didn't say in the monograph that Mathison recommended back in 2009. He hasn't moved from the position he took in c. 2002. 

So it's not Frame who's changed. Evidently, what's changed in the intellectual climate within some Reformed circles, so there's pressure to retract previous positions that were acceptable 8 years ago. What's changed in the church politics. 

In particular, I think the ruckus over eternal functional subordinationism is causing people like Mathison to preemptively recant before the inquisition strikes! 

Understanding And Arguing For Luke's Census Account

I've written a few posts this week on Facebook about the historicity of Luke's census:

Does Luke Claim That Quirinius Was Governor When Jesus Was Born?

How Acts 5:37 Suggests That Luke Was Aware That The Census Of 6 A.D. Was Different Than The Census At The Time Of Jesus' Birth

Internal Evidence For Luke's Account

Doctrine and evidence

Their objections to Christianity being directed much more against its doctrines than its evidences. William Cunningham, Theological Lectures (Forgotten Books, reprint, 2015), 240.

That's an important distinction to keep in mind when responding to atheists. Are they objecting to Christian doctrine or the evidence for Christianity? 

Often, they attack the Christian faith by attacking what they deem to be problematic doctrines or consequences. In that situation, a Christian apologist needs to redirect the conversation to the question of evidence. The question at issue should be whether something is true, and how we can know it's true. Discussing evidence has more ultimate relevance to what really matters, because evidence is evidence for (or against) the truth of something. So that should be the focus of the debate. If there's direct evidence for Christianity in general, or indirect evidence for individual doctrines (i.e. evidence for the source of doctrine), then we need to concentrate on the evidence. 

De Chirico: Rome will Absorb “Pope Francis”

Marking Time
In an article with the same title, Leonardo De Chirico asks, “What Happens If Catholics Think the Pope Is a Heretic?” The short answer is found at the end of the article:

Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importantly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.

The article primarily catalogues the ruckus that has been going on in the controversies surrounding “Amoris Laetitia” and the subsequent protests, first from the Dubia Cardinals, then from the “Filial Correction” crowd (Roman Catholic priests and theologians), and finally from Fr Thomas Weinandy, who wrote an open letter to Bergoglio stating, “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions.”

De Chirico asks, “What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?”

Interestingly, he frames the issue as one of “Roman” elements vs “catholic” ones. “Pope Francis” and “Vatican II” on the “catholic” side (De Chirico uses the word “Catholic” with a capital “C” from time to time, but I think he means small-c “catholic).

He suggests, however, that the “inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism” – and the synthesis of “Roman” and “Catholic” will enable the system to survive, because the system was created in order to accommodate various swings back and forth between both.

Here is his larger explanation:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

God without parts

As Dolezal explains, the church has always understood that anything composed of parts depends on those parts for its being. The parts of a composite entity are ontologically prior to that which is composed of those parts. The bricks and mortar are prior to the wall...The doctrine of divine simplicity denied that God is composed of parts because there is nothing that is ontologically prior to God.

i) I should say at the outset that I haven't read Dolezal's books. I've read lots of sympathetic expositions of classical theism generally, as well as Thomistic simplicity in particular. To judge by sympathetic reviews, I don't get the impression that Dolezal has anything original or ingenious to contribute to the traditional position. So I don't see any duty to read his books. 

ii) Although I think God is timeless and spaceless, I don't regard God as fundamentally simple. Rather, I regard God as fundamentally symmetrical. The Trinity is the archetypal mirror symmetry. And symmetries are far more interesting than an undifferentiated unity. 

iii) I'd add that symmetries are indivisible. Symmetries don't come in parts. Symmetries are irreducibly complex. 

iv) An acute irony in this debate is that the very people who champion Thomistic simplicity are typically the same people who champion eternal generation and procession. They regard the Father as the fons deitas. But that makes the Father "ontologically prior" to the Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit are ontologically dependent on the Father for their existence. It's an asymmetrical dynamic. 

Of course, they don't call that composition, because tradition forbids it, but that's what their position amounts to. They just camouflage it with different language.

v) His classic argument for Thomistic simplicity shows how easily some people are bewitched by the power of a seductive illustration. Now there's nothing wrong with using examples to illustrate a principle. But we have to be wary of master metaphors, because that can myopically fixate on one all-controlling illustration while overlooking different metaphors. If you began with a different kind of metaphor, you might wind up with a different conclusion. I'll get to that in a moment.

vi) One basic problem with this comparison is that it gives the reader an argument from analogy minus the supporting argument. The comparison just assumes (or posits or stipulates) that concrete complexity is analogous in that regard to abstract complexity. Now maybe in his books, Dolezal provides a supporting argument. But as it stands, all we have here is the assertion that if God has distinct attributes, then that's like a bigger, more complicated thing that's made of smaller parts.

But if God is timeless and spaceless, then the question is whether the analogy breaks down at the critical point of comparison. Consider complex abstract objects like possible worlds, the number Pi, Euler's number, or the Mandelbrot set. Those are conceptually complex, but they're not "put together" like something made of legos. We can isolate a particular sequence in the decimal expansion of Pi, but that's inseparable from the whole. And it's not as if the whole is physically bigger than constitutive elements. Abstract objects like Pi, Euler's number, and the Mandelbrot set are complex yet indivisible. 

vii) In addition, the illustration is one-sided. Even with respect to physical objects, while there's a sense in which the whole is dependent on the constituent parts that compose it, there's another sense in which parts can be dependent on the whole. Take classical car buffs. Car parts wear out, and it's increasingly difficult to find vintage, original replacement parts. Eventually you must resort to new duplicate parts.

Suppose, over the course of time, you must replace every part of a classic Mustang or Jaguar, Packard or Duesenberg (take your pick). Is it the same car? It's the same car, not in the sense of having the same parts, but having the same pattern. The parts change, but the whole remains the same. 

In that respect, the whole can be ontologically prior to the parts. The whole is an abstract pattern that's multiply-instantiable. Different parts can replicate the same arrangement. 

A more dramatic example is the human body. As a living organism, the body is composed of parts. At one level, body organs are dependent on smaller "parts" that compose them.

However, the human body is factory that makes replacement parts. Stem cells create cells. New blood cells replace old blood cells. Or take the endocrine system, where glands secrete hormones. The brain produces chemicals. Or the production of seminal fluid.  

So there's top-down dependence as well as bottom-up dependence. Some parts depend on the whole. 

Or take a piece of music. You could say it's composed of notes. But the arrangement is unique, and that's recreated overtime there's a live musical performance. The score is an abstract structure that's indefinitely exemplifiable. A music score is complex, but more "ultimate" than any particular, temporary performance. Different players with different instruments who recreate the pattern. A violinist might use a Stradivarius or Guarneri.  

That's a problem with simplistic analogies, where a proponent is captivated by a particular illustration, which blinds him to alternate conceptions. Philosophical theologians need to have a wide variety of models and metaphors at their disposal, to avoid becoming entranced by one narrow comparison. If that's Dolezal's primary argument, then it's terribly simple-minded. 

I'm not saying that's how we should conceive the relation between God and his attributes. I'm just demonstrating the severe limitations of a particular nearsighted illustration. 

Parsing classical theism

In the dispute between John Frame and James Dolezal, I find many of Dolezal's supporters equivocating. In this post I'd like to do a bit of sifting and sorting. 

1. First of all, there's the question of what classical theism is. Classical theism is a package of tenets. Some of them are interrelated, others less so. At the bottom of my post I quote two expositions of classical theism to provide a comparative frame of reference. 

2. Apropos (1), one issue is whether it's necessary to affirm every item of the traditional package. Some items rise and fall together, but is the entire package that tightknit? 

If, for instance, you affirm Thomistic simplicity, then that implicates some other items of the package. If, however, you reject Thomistic simplicity, you might still affirm other items. These might be consistent with Thomistic simplicity, but not be entailed by Thomistic simplicity. So there's an asymmetrical relation between some items and other items. Some tenets are interdependent while others may be independent, stand-alone tenets. 

Is the entire package a take-it-or-leave it proposition, or is it possible to pick and choose, mix and match? That's not possible in the case of internally related items, but are all the tenets of classical theism mutually implicative? 

Likewise, there's the question of whether there's even a single agreed-upon package. That's why I quote two examples at the bottom of the post. Their content overlaps, but they are not identical. If classical theism has fuzzy boundaries, then it may not be possible to affirm the whole package even if you want to, because even theologians who specialize on this issue disagree on the precise scope or content of the package.

3. In addition, we might draw a distinction between generic classical theism and Thomistic classical theism. To affirm classical theism, must you adhere to the Thomistic metaphysical apparatus that underpins that particular version? Or is classical theism detachable from Thomistic metaphysics?

4. I'd call myself as classical theist*. I'm a classical theist with an asterisk because I don't subscribe in Thomistic metaphysics in general, and I'm quite dubious about Thomistic simplicity in particular. 

Biblical personalism

Goldilocks atheism

All Keener's work can ultimately do is to get us to the level of belief in miracles being present. A leap of faith is still required to confirm that there is a supernatural agent behind  such purported miracles and this cannot be proven by a historian. "It could have been something else" is just as valid or invalid, just as speculative, and has obvious limitations for the historian. The only firm evidence the historian has is that people claim miracles happen" Graham Twelftree, ed., The Nature Miracles of Jesus (Cascade Book 2017), 89.

Beyond a certain point the mere piling up of examples starts to look more problematic than convincing: if miracles are really so commonplace, perhaps they're not so miraculous after all. Or perhaps Keener's examples tell us more about social anthropology, social psychology, and the sociology of knowledge than about what can actually happen. What is needed is not the piling up of further examples, but a closer analysis of a selection of the better-documented ones to see what they do in fact establish... (202).

No matter how many independent attestations of feeding miracles there may be, the use of multiple attestation of sources only shows the popularity of miracle stories (including "nature" miracles) in certain contexts… (206). 

Here's a brief sequel to my previous post:

In that post I offered detailed responses to their specific objections, but now I'd like to comment on something they share in common. Ironically, the complaint is the abundance of testimonial evidence for miracles. 

Suppose we only had a few reported miracles. Wouldn't atheists exclaim that the paucity of independent corroboration is reason to discount the reports? It's easier to dismiss a few random cases as luck. Odds are, coincidental events are bound to happen. 

But now they turn around and say, in the face of a veritable avalanche of well-documented, contemporaneous reports, that the very abundance of the testimony is a problem. That just means miracle stories are popular. 

From their viewpoint, there's either too little evidence or too much evidence. There can never be just enough. These are clearly people who don't want to believe in God, miracles, or Christianity. If you point to lots of evidence, they say that's too much. If you pointed to less, they'd say that's not enough. They've arranged things so that you can never strike the right balance. 

An embarrassment of riches

All Keener's work can ultimately do is to get us to the level of belief in miracles being present. A leap of faith is still required to confirm that there is a supernatural agent behind  such purported miracles and this cannot be proven by a historian. "It could have been something else" is just as valid or invalid, just as speculative, and has obvious limitations for the historian. The only firm evidence the historian has is that people claim miracles happen" Graham Twelftree, ed., The Nature Miracles of Jesus (Cascade Book 2017), 89.

Beyond a certain point the mere piling up of examples starts to look more problematic than convincing: if miracles are really so commonplace, perhaps they're not so miraculous after all. Or perhaps Keener's examples tell us more about social anthropology, social psychology, and the sociology of knowledge than about what can actually happen. What is needed is not the piling up of further examples, but a closer analysis of a selection of the better-documented ones to see what they do in fact establish... (202).

No matter how many independent attestations of feeding miracles there may be, the use of multiple attestation of sources only shows the popularity of miracle stories (including "nature" miracles) in certain contexts… (206). 

This is from a collection of essays by contributors with different viewpoints, including Craig Keener and Timothy McGrew, as well as unbelievers like Eric Eve and James Crossley, whom I just quoted. 

To some degree, Keener's case-studies are game-changer. A traditional objection to miracles is that reported miracles come to us from the distant past, filtered through the accounts (allegedly) written by anonymous authors who may have no firsthand knowledge of the incident or witnesses. This also plays into the famous analogy argument, popularized by Troeltsch (although it has antecedents in other thinkers like Bradley), that miracles reported in the past lack credibility because there's no counterpart in the present. In a sense, Keener can grant that standard of comparison, but call the bluff by appealing to well-documented modern miracles. 

That requires unbelievers to adjust the traditional strategy, because it backfired. Now they find themselves confronted by an abundance of reported miracles from eyewitnesses. And this is an ongoing event, at present. Indeed, Keener himself is continually updating his file of case studies. And he's not alone. 

So let's run back through the retooled objections:

No matter how many independent attestations of feeding miracles there may be, the use of multiple attestation of sources only shows the popularity of miracle stories (including "nature" miracles) in certain contexts... 

That's all that multiple-attestation shows? Suppose there was a reported sighting of a rabbit at a local park. Then additional reports of rabbits at the park began to pour in. Would that only show the popularity of rabbit stories? Or would independent reports of rabbit-sightings indicate the presence of rabbits at the park? 

Or perhaps Keener's examples tell us more about social anthropology, social psychology, and the sociology of knowledge than about what can actually happen.

Would multiple examples of rabbit-sightings tell us more about social anthropology, social psychology, and the sociology of knowledge than about the actual existence of rabbits?

What is needed is not the piling up of further examples, but a closer analysis of a selection of the better-documented ones to see what they do in fact establish...

i) Although there's a sense in which the quality of the reportage is more important than the quantity of the reportage, isn't there a tipping-point where the sheer volume of independent reports creates a strong presumption that the reported phenomenon is real? If we had lots of reports of rabbit-sightings at the park, we'd be justified in believing that rabbits frequent the park. We wouldn't be duty-bound to interview witnesses, conduct background checks to establish their credibility. 

Hiding behind the demand for intensified scrutiny is the prejudicial viewpoint that there's a strong standing presumption against miracles, which only rigorously vetted witnesses can overcome. This assumes that we already know what kind of world we inhabit, a world in which miracles are highly implausible. Yet that benchmark is circular. Our belief about what the world is like is largely dependent on testimonial evidence. If miracles are widely reported, then that should figure in our background understanding of the kind of world we inhabit. 

ii) The skeptical bias involves the view that our world is regulated by natural laws, which miracles, if they ever occur, must "violate". But even if we accept a natural law framework, which is contentious in itself, it only means that a natural law can't be contravened by a natural event. It creates no presumption against, much less impossibility of, a supernatural event overriding a natural law. And whether there are such exceptions falls within the purview of human observation. 

iii) I'm also struck by the studied passivity of the critic. If he thinks what is needed is a closer analysis of the better-documented examples, why doesn't he take that upon himself? Investigators like Keener have already done the preliminary spadework. Why does the critic act like it's someone else's job to follow up on those reports?

Few things could be more significant. If supernatural agents exist, is it not important that we nail that down? For their existence will impact our lives. Indeed, their existence may impact the afterlife–for better or worse. So why does he shrug his shoulders in the face of the prima facie evidence, as if settling that question has no relevance or urgency? 

if miracles are really so commonplace, perhaps they're not so miraculous after all.

The defining element of a miracle is not rarity but a supernatural source. An event that defies the ordinary course of nature, pointing to supernatural agency. 

All Keener's work can ultimately do is to get us to the level of belief in miracles being present. 

If we received numerous reports of rabbit-sightings in a park, would that only get us to the level of belief in rabbits being presence? Wouldn't that count as evidence for the presence of rabbits? Yes, they believe what they saw, but the point is what forms the basis of their belief. It's not sheer belief, but belief grounded in observation. What underlies their belief in rabbits is the spectacle of rabbits in their field of vision. 

There are two elements to these reports: the reported experience and the reported interpretation. It's not, in the first instance, belief in a miracle, but the observation of an event. It's then a question of how to properly characterize the nature of the event. 

A leap of faith is still required to confirm that there is a supernatural agent behind such purported miracles and this cannot be proven by a historian. "It could have been something else" is just as valid or invalid, just as speculative, and has obvious limitations for the historian. The only firm evidence the historian has is that people claim miracles happen"

i) It's true that there's a distinction between the event and the construal. However, inferring a supernatural agent isn't a leap of faith. Rather, that involves an understanding with regard to the limitations of what a natural process can yield. And that's not a uniquely Christian understanding. Indeed, atheists discount reported miracles because they typically subscribe to physicalism and causal closure. Miracles imply a larger reality. If, therefore, a well-attested event is inconsistent with natural law (in that sense), then, in principle, an atheist must infer outside agency that transcends what is naturally possible. 

"It could have been something else" is not just as valid or invalid on secular grounds no less than Christian grounds. For an atheist, the only viable explanations consistent with naturalism are naturalistic explanations. If an event is naturally inexplicable, then the logic of naturalism requires a supernatural explanation. 

ii) The critic tries to insulate his position by artificially compartmentalizing the task of the "historian". But reality isn't compartmentalized. Historians seek causes. Historians appeal to personal agency all the time. Historians draw inferences like everyone else. If the ultimate explanation points to a source behind the empirical phenomenology of the event that can't be explained by physical causes alone, then an intellectually honest historian must follow the logical trail back to the point of origin. And he isn't switching explanatory principles. It still comes down to personal agency.  

Lewis on science fiction

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Space as a plot device

Although visionary revelation is a major revelatory mode in Scripture, the Apocalypse is unusual, both for how extensive the vision is, and the narrative structure of the vision. One wonders if John had the entire vision at one sitting, and wrote it out as is, or whether he edited it in some respects. A question we can't answer.

Because Revelation has a narrative structure, that raises the question of how it corresponds to time. This is a point of controversy, with idealists, preterists, amils, premils, and postmills taking different sides. 

Space can be a metaphor for time. Space is a plot device in some stories. Take road stories. That's a popular genre. Some of the best or most enduring stories are road stories, viz. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Pilgrim's Progress, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lord of the Rings, Route 66. 

Road stories make linear use of space. They are forward-leading. Because of how humans conceptualize time, we associate that use of space with action moving into the future.

There are, however, other ways that space can function as a plot device. Take a story about kids poking around a rambling old mansion. They explore one room after another, on one floor after another, to see what's inside each room.

That involves the use of interior space as well as space within space. Smaller spaces inside larger spaces.

There are many possible variations on this theme. Take the opening of That Hideous Strength, which takes place within a walled garden. There a traveler is moving towards the center. It's set up like outer rooms and inner rooms. A nautilus shell design.

Stories set in a large, but confined space with outer perimeters and lots of interesting things to look into. Take a campus like Oxford or Cambridge with lots of historic buildings. A story with that setting could make creative use of space, but it wouldn't be linear. 

Exploring a castle is another example. You're going places inside the castle, or on the castle grounds, but it has a coming and going quality to it. You check out one room, then another.

A biblical example is Ezekiel's vision of the temple complex, with the angelic tour guide to show the seer around. 

Natural examples include labyrinthian journeys like trails along the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, caverns, &c. 

In this kind of story, the use of space isn't backward and forward but inward and outward. Not linear but concentric. 

In reading Revelation, it's useful to ask ourselves how the narrative uses space. If you were a director, how would you film it? Is the use of space linear and forward-leaning? Or more like opening doors into rooms? Alternating between inside and outside perspectives? 

Licona gospel examples V: Making things complicated

Jack and Warnie

Shortage of Priests Threatens Roman Catholicism in Big Cities in US

It seems that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles ordained only seven men in 2017 for well over 4 million Catholics. That reminded me of the kind of vocation data that have plagued the large archdioceses of South America for centuries. So I looked into our other large archdioceses, and I must say the picture is rather stunning.

Take the five largest: Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Houston. In 2017, these five ordained a total of 33 men to serve a combined population of 12.5 million Catholics. (Again, like what we have long seen in South America where the vocations were so few that most priests come from outside that continent.) Here too, a significant number of those being ordained were born outside the United States. Indeed, in one of these local churches not a single ordained priest was born in the United States. A half-century ago those 33 ordained would have been fairly common in a single large archdiocese. Obviously, those days are gone.

Keep in mind that in a system where grace is dependent upon sacraments, which can only be performed by sacerdotal priests (and only those priests where the ever more loosely-defined form of “succession” is available), priests are the coin of the realm.

This current lack of coin reflects the bankruptcy of the system. Perhaps the system will look toward “inflationary measures” – the kind of money-printing you would find in a third world government – enabling married men or women to become priests. This type of discussion IS occurring. But such a move would be both highly unlikely (admitting “developments” that would be very painful admissions), as well as the end of the sacerdotal and Medieval Roman Catholic system as the world has known it from, say, the year 400 till 2000.

This writer is looking to the future through smaller Roman Catholic dioceses such as Wichita Kansas, and Lincoln, Nebraska, where the numbers are less lopsided. But they are still highly strained.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

McGrew on Hume

This particular lecture

is an excellent compact critique of Hume's central argument against miracles. McGrew generally quotes and summarizes trenchant criticisms of Hume's argument by 18-19C critics of Hume. 

God's lighthouse

Why does God perform a miracle at one time and place but not another? Why does he grant miraculous answers to prayer for some desperate Christians but not for others? Possible answers vary according to the function we assign to miracles.

i) On one traditional and influential view, the purpose of miracles is to validate religious claimants. I think that's one purpose they serve, but not the only one.

ii) Some miracles are acts of mercy. When Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons, that wasn't just to demonstrate who he was, as if he didn't care about the people he healed or exorcized. He acted from compassion for suffering souls. So it would be a false dichotomy to contend that it's only to validate the religious claimant.

Conversely, while (i) and (ii) are combined in some cases, they may also be separable in other cases.

iii) In some situations, God may perform a miracle, not for the benefit of the immediate recipient, but for the delayed effect. It precipitates a desired effect further down the line.

iv) But there's a neglected consideration I'd like to briefly explore. Here I'm expanding on an observation by Craig Keener.

Although a fallen world can be made a better place, there's a low ceiling for improvement. Medical science is limited, and even if medical science could make all of us perfectly healthy, that just scratches the surface, for healthy people retain a great capacity to be miserable and make others miserable. The frustrating quest for love. Our capacity to hurt those we most love, or be hurt by those we most love. Not to mention malevolence.

A miracle is not a floodlight or heat lamp that's designed to turn a frigid winter night into a balmy summer day. A miracle is not a spotlight with a steady beam.

Rather, a miracle is a blinking light guiding travelers to the world to come. A lighthouse has a rotating light that shines in darkness. It doesn't provide interior illumination for a ship at sea. Rather, it directs the ship. It draws the ship to land, to safe harbor. 

Although miracles happen in this world, they point to another world. God performs enough miracles, now and then, here and there, to remind us of a better country from afar. A beacon hope beyond this veil of tears, a beacon of hope beyond the grave. 

Jesus And The Joy And Freedom Of Isaiah 9

I want to mention something else about Jesus' use of Isaiah 9 in John 8. Isaiah 9:3-4 brings up the themes of joy and freedom from bondage. And after Jesus cites Isaiah 9 in John 8:12, he discusses the themes of freedom (8:32-36) and joy (8:56). The order is reversed from what we see in Isaiah 9. The passage in Isaiah has joy, then freedom, whereas Jesus addresses freedom, then joy. But both freedom and joy are addressed close to John 8:12. And I'm not aware of anywhere else in John's gospel where the two are addressed so close together. There's a reasonable chance that it's just coincidental that Jesus goes on to discuss those themes, and I wouldn't place much weight on it, but I think Jesus' discussion of the themes later in John 8 does add some weight to the conclusion that he has Isaiah 9 in mind in verse 12. The other evidence that he's citing Isaiah 9, which I've discussed many times over the years, is more weighty. The line of evidence I've cited here bears mentioning, though.

Monday, November 27, 2017


This is from a Facebook debate I had regarding James Dolezal's defense of Thomism:

In his classic monograph (On a Complex Theory of a Simple God), Christopher Hughes unpacks the Thomistic notion of divine simplicity as a set of six distinct propositions:

(i) God is not composed of extended parts; hence, he is not, and does not have, a body.

(ii) God is not composed of substantial form–in virtue of which he is the kind of thing he is–and form-receiving matter–in virtue of which he is the particular thing he is. God is instead pure self-subsistent form, devoid of matter of any kind.

iii) God is not "composed" of act and potency. There is no distinction in God between an element by virtue of which he has certain potentialities and an element by virtue of which those potentialities are actualized. Consequently, God is entirely immutable and atemporal.

(iv) God is not composed of essence and anything disjoint from that essence. While there is a difference between the individual, Socrates, and his essence (humanity), there is no difference between God and his essence (Godhead or Deity).

(v) God is not composed of substance and accidents. There are not in God any properties outside of the divine essence which enter into composition with that essence. Instead, his wisdom, his power, his goodness, and the like are all the same as the divine essence (which is to say, the same as God), and hence all the same as one another.

(vi) God is not composed of essence and esse (existence)–or what-he-is and a that-he-is. The divine essence (God) is pure subsistent existence, inherent in nothing distinct from it, and having nothing dissect from it inherent in it.

(Ibid., pp3-4)

Now, even if you happen to agree with all that, are Dolezal's evangelical supporters claiming that you can derive each and every one of those particular propositions from Scripture? Likewise, are they alleging that all the church fathers subscribe to the same six propositions? 

If not, what kind of divine simplicity are they alleging that Scripture attributes to God? 

BTW, how many of Dolezal's supporters even understand these highly recondite categories and distinctions? I don't deny that some of his supports understand them.

Unfortunately, Frame has become his own tradition. A dangerous place to be.

Everyone is selective about tradition. By your logic, everyone is in a dangerous place.

i) Every professing Christian is selective in his appropriation of tradition. That's unavoidable because there is no uniform tradition in historical theology. Church history contains a vast plethora of divergent traditions, so you can't avoid selectivity even if you wish to. You can't simultaneously adhere to divergent theological traditions. Therefore, some sifting and sorting is inevitable.

Novelty is unavoidable, even in historical theology. You won't find the Westminster Confession in the 13C. 

There are different ways a theological tradition can be novel. Even if it contained nothing but traditional elements, the way in which that package includes some traditional elements while excluding other traditional elements makes the combination novel.

Or it may include some theological innovations, in addition to traditional elements. That's something you get in Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, &c. 

Every theological tradition is a novel package in some respects.

ii) Some professing Christians do their own sifting and sorting while others default to second parties to do that for them. Some professing Christians simply identify with whatever theological tradition they were born into, raised in, or married into.

An obvious problem with this is that it makes one's profession an accident of birth. A coin flip where the theological tradition you happen to profess is a random result of external circumstances that have nothing to do with theological truth. If your parents were Lutheran, you're Lutheran. If your parents were Methodist, you're Methodist. If your parents were Pentecostal, you're Pentecostal. If your parents were Catholic, you're Catholic. If your parents were Mormon, you're Mormon. 

That's an unreliable basis for theological identity. Geography shouldn't be the basis of your theological affiliation. 

iii) Christian duties in that regard are person-variable, depending on one's aptitude and opportunities. If you're a 19C German immigrant with little formal education who belongs to a German-speaking community in the midwest, it's fairly inevitable that you will be Lutheran. That subculture is the only frame of reference you have.

Due to the power of social conditioning, in many cases God graciously puts the elect in churches where they will hear the Gospel. The churches vary in their theological accuracy, but they are sufficiently accurate that parishioners have an object of saving faith. 

iv) However, every Christian generation has an obligation to assess the theological legacy handed down to it. God requires us to be loyal to him. We don't have a right to delegate what be believe to a second party, handing him a blank check which he fills in and we sign. That's just playacting. It can't be, "I believe whatever he believes". That's not the standard of comparison.

v) Although individual duties vary, Frame is precisely the kind of person, due to his intellect and education, who has a duty to evaluate the theological traditions at our disposal. You can disagree with his conclusions, but he's doing what someone with his gifts is supposed to do.

Also, Frame has a habit of novelty making. His theistic personalism is one, his triperspectivism is another. If the church missed something for 2,000 years, and this generation all the sudden got it right, we're in trouble.

i) That's a classic objection which Catholic apologists and theologians raised in opposition to the Protestant Reformers. By the same token, that's an objection which Orthodox Jews raise to Christian theology. 

ii) What does Josh mean by "the church"? Is that a euphemism for theologians, church fathers, &c.? If so, what makes that a representative sample? That's an infinitesimal fraction of God's people. 

iii) Is Josh suggesting that traditional interpretations are unquestionable? For instance, does Josh deem it impossible for archeological discoveries to correct a traditional interpretation? 

iv) It's a problem when people take intellectual shortcuts ("That's a theological innovation!"). That's not a discerning way to arrive at the truth. 

v) Why does Mike Ricardi like Josh's comment? Isn't he a pretrib dispensationalist? And isn't that a theological innovation in the history of the church?