Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Infant King

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

In dulci jubilo

Hodie Christus natus est

Making a case for Christianity

I've read lots of books on and articles on Christian apologetics over the years. I cringe at books entitled The Case for Christianity, as if the fortunes of the Christian faith hang on the success of that apologist in that book. Should we read these books in breathless suspense, turning the pages with white knuckled trepidation as the Christianity teeters in the blanche until the final chapter tips the scales in its favor? It would be preferable if less pretentious titles were used. Especially since many of these books are pitched at a popular level, and therefore skim the issues pro and con.

On a more substantive note, a dissatisfaction I have with many books on Christian apologetics is the narrow range of evidence. The Christian faith arose in a pagan world haunted by ghosts, demons, and witchcraft. In that context, the evidence for Christianity included exorcism, dreams and visions, angelic apparitions as well as apparitions of the dead. And the mission field in many parts of the Third World today parallels that environment. But Western Evangelical apologists from about the Enlightenment up until our own day generally neglect or avoid that dimension. While many treatments are good for what they include, they suffer from a provincial, ethnocentric, First World oversight in what they omit

Likewise, the argument from prophecy is a fixture of traditional Christian apologetics, but there's an unfortunate lacuna between pop apologetic arguments for fulfilled prophecy and scholarly expositions. Constructing good arguments for fulfilled prophecy takes patient detail work. 

Another issue is the gap between evidence for mere theism and evidence for Christian theism. How do we bridge the gap between evidence for theism in general and evidence for Christianity in particular? That's a common complaint, although I think the complaint is often unfair. If Christian theism is true, then that will include components of mere theism. They overlap. 

I frequently argue from Christianity from different angles. If I were to make a systematic case for Christianity, what's a good way to organize the argument? Is there a hierarchal structure, where one thing leads to another in stepwise progression? I think that's someone artificial, because reality is holistic, with overlapping domains. Nevertheless, there is something of a multi-stage argument, even if it's not strictly linear. 

This post takes for granted all the supporting material I've posted over the years. (Jason Engwer has posted lots of pertinent material as well.) The purpose of this post is not to actually lay out all the evidence, but to sketch an apologetic strategy. How to logically arrange the material. 

Back to Eden

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates (Gen 2:10-14). 

24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). 

I often circle back to certain issues, because they interest me, and because there's always more to be said. One issue concerns the location and landscape of Eden. When we read the account, what should the reader try to visualize?

What's intriguing about Gen 3:24 is the implication that the Garden was enclosed space. There was one way in and one way out. So it wasn't wide open. You couldn't just walk into the Garden from anywhere. There was some kind of natural (?) barrier separating the Garden from the surrounding territory. But what might that be?

One possibility which suggests itself from the account is the river system. Perhaps the Garden was encircled by a meandering, impassable river. A river too wide and deep to wade across or swim across. On that view, the eastern access point was like an isthmus. Depending on whether Eden was near the ocean, it might even be a tidal river that submerged the access point at high tide, leaving it briefly exposed at low tide. That's a simple explanation. 

Another possibility is a river valley, where the surrounding hillside forms a solid boundary, like a brick wall. Or a fluvial island. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Deity Of The Servant In Isaiah

Jonathan McLatchie has a good article on the deity of the Servant figure in Isaiah and some of the connections between the Servant Songs and other passages in Isaiah, like Isaiah 9 and 11.

Lennox polemics

This is a sequel to my initial post on John Lennox's new book:

In the first installment I focussed on general ideas and largely ignored his exegetical arguments. That's in part because I've been over this ground before. For instance:

However, in this post I'd like to sample some of his exegetical arguments. 

It is a serious matter to deny the plain teaching of Scripture in the interests of maintaining a theological paradigm, or to try to get round it by special pleading... (179). 

Using our God-given moral judgment is very important. For instance, the most elementary moral logic surely tell us that, if someone is going to be condemned because they personally failed to do something (in this case, to believe), then they must have been capable of doing it in the first place. Otherwise no guilt could attach to their action, and their condemnation would be unjust  (145). 

So which is it? Do we defer to the "plain teaching of Scripture," or does our moral judgment override the "plain teaching of Scripture"? 

Some take recourse in the exotic notion that God has two wills: his: his so-called "prescriptive will", by which he says to Adam that he should not eat; and his "decretive will", by which he has determined that Adam should eat the fruit. However, the second makes the first completely disingenuous and unreal, and negates any form of true freedom. And with freedom goes responsibility (157).

i) One issue is semantic. If the same word has more than one meaning, then it's easy to generate verbal contradictions. But that doesn't mean the underlying concepts are contradictory. It's just a linguistic convention that the word "will" is used in different ways, with distinguishing adjectives. yet there's no reason we must denote both by the same noun. We can just distinguish between what God predestines and what he commands or forbids. That avoids a facile verbal contradiction.

ii) Is this an exotic notion? Consider Exod 7:2-5, where God intends for Pharaoh to disobey his command. There's God's public command, and then there's God's ulterior design, in which disobedience to the command is instrumental to God's ultimate goal. Another classic example is God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. 

The list of Scriptures in which the Greek terms related to predestination occur is short and the topics are few…In light of this it seems well-nigh incredible that the doctrine of predestination has been extrapolated to become an all-encompassing divine determinism that know no bounds (112).

That commits the word=concept fallacy, as if a concept is only present when a word denoting the concept is present. But the exegetical basis for "divine determinism" is far broader than a few verbal data-points. For instance:

In other words, the passage [Eph 1:4] is not concerned to tell us how they first came to hope in Christ but what God intended for those who are in Christ. It is noticeable that when some authors quote the above passage in Ephesians they tend to omit the words in him (118).

i) The passage can't be about those who are already, actually in Christ since they didn't even exist at that stage. That's the point of saying God's choice was made before he made the world. So this is referring to God's antemundane plan for the world. 

ii) They are chosen in Christ because election is coordinated with redemption. Christ is their Redeemer. Salvation is mediated through the atonement of Christ on their behalf. That's entirely consistent with Calvinism. Indeed, that's required by Calvinism. Christ died to save the elect.

On pp157-158, Lennox misunderstands a passage he quotes. When it says Adam wasn't acting "under external compulsion or determination", that's explicitly defined in the next sentence: "There was no necessity arising from his physical condition, nor from his moral nature, nor from the nature of his environment, why he should sin."

There was external "determination" in the sense of predestination, but that's not the kind of determination the denial was referring to. Moreover, predestination isn't coercive. 

The deterministic idea held by some, that Adam's sin was caused by God's decree, and therefore Adam could not have done otherwise, is grotesque. Morality would thereby be emptied of all coherent meaning, and the problem of evil would cease to exist (because we could simply blame God for everything). We have seen that Calvin calls his deterministic view "horrible," but if his view were true, a moral concept would have no meaning (161).

i) As a linguist, Lennox ought to be sensitive to the fact that cognate words in Latin, French, and English don't necessarily have the same denotations or connotations. 

ii) Notice that Lennox doesn't provide a reason to justify his claim. He simply informs the reader that determinism has this baleful consequence, but there's no supporting argument.

Yet he references some high-level works on the freewill debate. If he actually read them, he'd be aware of the fact that his facile objections are philosophically jejune. He doesn't even attempt to engage the arguments some philosophers advance for determinism/compatibilism or raise in objection to libertarian freedom. 

The objector [Rom 9:19] raises the moral problem: if God's will irresistible, there is no reason for God to judge that anything is wrong. 

There are only two possible logical responses to this. Either the premise (God's will is irresistible) is correct, and the deduction (God has no right to find fault) is false; or the premise is incorrect and so the argument collapses. Scripture gives adequate support for the latter. Our Lord once wept over Jerusalem [Mt 23:37]. Here it is the will of the Lord to gather the people under his protection, but they resisted his will, and the resistance was not broken by an arbitrary display of power.

The climax of Stephen's speech [Acts 7:51-54] to the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem demonstrates that resistance to God has been a sad characteristic of the people of Israel throughout their history. Once again, their resistance was not overcome by irresistible force. It was allowed to stand, and Stephen was murdered. 

Therefore we must read the story of Pharaoh in such a way as to challenge the objector's deduction that God's will is irresistible (258-59).

Several problems:

i) He's not construing Paul's argument on its own terms. His interpretation doesn't arise from the flow of argument in Romans. Instead, Lennox appeals to two extraneous passages that have nothing to do with Romans. Not only do they fall outside the scope of Romans, but they fall outside the scope of the Pauline corpus. Yet it's hermeneutically illicit to (re-)interpret Paul's statement by appeal to something which has no reference to Paul's statement. Instead of showing how his interpretation derives from the inner logic of Paul's argument, Lennox interjects something irrelevant to Paul's argument. Something that disrupts the continuity of Paul's argument. 

ii) When Stephen talks about resisting God's will, what does he mean? In context, refers to hostile reception to God's prophets. Disobedience to God's word. That, however, is entirely consonant with Calvinism. To say sinners have the ability to resist God's word is very different from the claim that they have the ability to resist God's will (in the decretive sense). 

iii) Mt 23:37 raises a number of complex issues. Since Jesus was human as well as divine, he has natural human empathy. 

iv) Should we always take divine statements at face value? Consider paradigm examples where Abraham and Moses intercede for others. On the face of it, they talk God out of doing what he originally intended. Yet Lennox affirms divine foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. So in what sense can God change his mind? Not due to new information. 

v) Scripture sometimes depicts God in all-too human terms. Unless you're a Mormon or open theist, you must make allowance for anthropomorphic representations. Otherwise, Yahweh is hard to distinguish from the mercurial, short-sighted gods of Greco-Roman and ancient Near Eastern mythology. 

vi) We need to distinguish between performative language, which is designed to elicit a reaction–and constantive language, which is designed to convey propositional information.

vii) In the Synoptic parallel (Lk 19:41-44), Jesus uses the divine passive ("hidden from your sight") to indicate that God spiritually blinded them. 

viii) Once again, Lennox thinks God has complete foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge. But in that event, why does his God so often back himself into a corner? He's like a chess player who makes a losing move. At the time, he didn't realize it will lead to checkmate. 

Lennox believes that God often intervenes in OT history, and God knows the long-range effect of his interventions. So why, according to Lennox, does God so often find himself in a bind? Shouldn't a God who's equipped with foreknowledge and counterfactual knowledge be able to avoid that train wreck by acting in ways that trigger a different chain reaction? In open theism, divine dilemmas are generated by God's lack of distance vision. By the time things come to a head, it's to late to forestall it by diverting traffic up the road. Lennox's God is very much like humans who must improvise on the fly because they didn't see it coming.  

If God's will is irresistible and human behavior is determined, then, logically, any apparent resistance cannot be real since that too is predetermined. If it is impossible to resist his will, then it is pointless to ask questions such as: is God unjust? But the expected answer to this question is no. God's will can be resisted, as we have already pointed out in connection with Christ's weeping over Jerusalem (266). 

i) To begin with, that's not an exegetical argument but a personal appeal to his sense of fairplay. Not based on what the text says or implies, but a reader's preconceived notion of justice. 

ii) He conflates two different questions. The answer is "no" to what question? "No" to "Is God unjust?" rather than "no" to "Is his will resistible?" 

Moral logic and common sense demand that, if no one is responsible for accepting the Gospel, then no one is responsible for rejecting it (277).

i) That overlooks the asymmetry between justice and grace. We're not responsible for accepting the Gospel in the sense that acceptance is due to God's grace rather than our natural receptivity. Believing the Gospel is not an independent contribution we make, but the efficacious outcome of God's grace. It is God's prior action rather than our resultant reaction that's decisive. By contrast, rejecting the Gospel is deservedly culpable. Now, Lennox denies that theological paradigm, but there's nothing illogical about it. 

ii) In addition, justice is getting what you deserve whereas mercy is getting better than what you  deserve, in spite of what you deserve. That's the Gospel in a nutshell. 

Material Against Luke's Interest In Luke 1-2

Some examples of how Luke's material on Jesus' childhood is different than we'd expect under skeptical scenarios:

- Even though so much space is given to discussing John the Baptist, there's no anticipation of his work as a baptizer. Francois Bovon remarks that "The lack of any preliminary announcement of John's baptizing [in Luke 1:13-17] is surprising…The Benedictus surprisingly conceals John's primary activity, his baptizing." (Luke 1 [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2002], 37, 75) Bovon goes on to say (75) that there's probably an allusion to baptism in the reference to forgiveness of sins in Luke 1:77, though he acknowledges that baptism doesn't "grant forgiveness" in Luke's writings. It's doubtful that Luke is alluding to baptism. Even somebody who thinks he is alluding to it, though, like Bovon, finds it "surprising" that baptism isn't referred to explicitly anywhere in Luke's material on Jesus' childhood.

- Not just with regard to baptism, but more broadly as well, Bovon notes that "the Christian traces are minimal in the birth legend of the Baptist" (ibid., 30).

- The premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy is unnecessary, a departure from the precedent of Old Testament accounts of supernatural births, and highly susceptible to moral objections. As Raymond Brown wrote, if Luke or his source made up the account, "one must deem it a great religious blunder; for it gave rise to the charge of illegitimacy against Jesus that was the mainstay of anti-Christian polemic for many centuries." (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], n. 28 on 143) Bovon refers to the premarital timing of the pregnancy as "shocking" (Luke 1 [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2002], 85).

- The Messianic hopes of figures like Mary and Zechariah seem more nationalistic, political, and militaristic than what Jesus' ministry and his movement in general would turn out to be later in Luke's gospel and Acts. Bovon goes as far as to contrast the highly nationalistic views of Luke's infancy material with how "at the end of his two volumes, Luke has little hope left for the people of Israel" (ibid., 103).

- The portrayal of Jesus' parents and their relationship with him at the close of Luke 2 is unusually negative. James Edwards makes a lot of good points on the subject in his recent commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2015). For example:

"In the male-dominated temple one would expect Joseph rather than Mary to address Jesus [in Luke 2:48]….She addresses him not as pais (v. 43, 'boy, young man'), but with a more juvenile and subservient term, teknon (v. 48; 'child,' NIV 'Son')….Her reproach expresses less concern for Jesus than for what he has done to them….Mary's distress is a first fulfillment of Simeon's prophecy that a 'sword will pierce her soul' (v. 35)." (94-95)

Additionally, Jesus rebukes them in verse 49, and Luke comments on their lack of understanding in verse 50.

Brown comments that Mary's reproach of Jesus in verse 48 is "all the more startling since Luke tends to avoid reproaches to Jesus by the disciples during the ministry….For instance, in 9:21-22 in reporting Jesus' reaction to Peter's confession, Luke drops the reproach by Peter found in Mark 8:32. The Lucan disciples are more reverential to Jesus." (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 489 and n. 35 on 489)

- John the Baptist is referred to as having had an unusual upbringing in the wilderness (Luke 1:80), reminiscent of Moses' upbringing in the house of Pharaoh and Samuel's upbringing in a sanctuary setting with Eli, for example. But Jesus just grows up in an ordinary home with his parents (Luke 2:51). Luke gives Jesus a less auspicious upbringing than John and makes no attempt to parallel Jesus with individuals like Moses and Samuel, even though we're so often told that the infancy narratives are unhistorical efforts to parallel Jesus to such Old Testament figures.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Last Jedi

For a few reasons, I haven't seen the new Star Wars franchise. For one thing, the Star Wars saga always had a somewhat juvenile quality to it. I don't necessarily mean that as a putdown. It's natural to relate to certain things at a particular phase of life. Mind you, even when I was younger there were many wince-inducing moments in the Star Wars franchise. 

To judge by reviews, and that's my only frame of reference, Rogue One was better than The Force Awakens, while The Last Jedi seems to be the kind of film that viewers either love or hate.

One of my problems with the new franchise is replacing the Luke Skywalker character with a female character (Rey). My problem is twofold:

i) There are actresses who can play strong female characters, but they're not the cute, petite ingenue types.

ii) Action films properly center on male leads. A stereotypical role for men is to protect hearth and home, kith and kin, and save civilization from existential threats. Men are natural warriors, and I refuse to adapt to feminism in movies. 

And it's not just ideological revulsion. This makes for unconvincing drama. I can't suspend disbelief. 

Let's consider some possible counterexamples. Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. One reason that works is that Sigourney Weaver is the kind of actress who can pull that off. 

But in addition, she must fend for herself because the male warriors are killed off by the alien(s). She's not generally competing with male warriors, or leading them into battle.

In addition, she has a stereotypically maternal, nurturing dimension when she rescues the orphan girl. A she-bear defending the cubs. 

Another example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That succeeds because it was always a lark, tongue-in-cheek, and not simply based on the slayer's preternatural abilities, but sassy wit.

Moreover, she was paired with a male lead. Audiences like to see well-matched male and female characters. Each is strengthened by the other.

There are actresses who can hold their own with the male lead. That makes for fine dramatic synergism. But it takes talent. It can't be imposed on the audience as a duty. 

I was also put off by reviews of Kylo Ren reprising the Dark Vader character. He seems effeminate. In fairness, the original Darth Vader was a very cartoonish character. 

Finally, I'm not interested in seeing Mark Hamill reprise the Obi-Wan role. It's striking to realize that he's now about the same age as Alec Guinness when Guinness played the role. How time flies! But Hamill is no Guinness. And he hasn't aged well. There are actors like Jeff Bridges, Tom Selleck, Kurt Russell, and Nick Nolte who take advantage of the aging process, but Hamill never had the natural gravitas to make that happen.

Mind you, I respect the fact that Hamill has a life outside movies. Not having the starpower to parley his initial success into a career, unlike Harrison Ford, Hamill had the self-respect to take early retirement rather than play a string of B movies like so many desperate actors. He was content to live off his fortune. 

Admittedly, my impressions are based on reviews. But then, the purpose of movie reviews is to make snap judgments about what's worth watching and what's not.  

The individual mandate

It's my understanding that the GOP tax bill repeals the individual mandate. In one respect that's a good thing, but if it leaves other Obamacare provisions intact, including the requirement to insure everyone with preexisting conditions, isn't that an unfunded mandate leading to a death spiral, which in turn leads to a single-payer system? That's what liberals wanted all along. 

Catholic fence-straddling

Catholic theological method builds on a platform of cumulative error, where earlier errors lay the precedent for later and more egregious errors. 

One of the ways that Catholics routinely defend their sect is to distinguish between official and unofficial teaching. But, ironically, that's just one more reason to reject Catholicism. The fact that the hierarchy so often straddles the fence on major issues, refusing to take a definitive position one way or the other, is hardly to its credit. If the pope is able to infallibly distinguish truth from error in matters of doctrine and ethics, why does he leave so many important issues up for grabs?

An obvious explanation is that by not taking an official position, the magisterium can't be proven wrong. You can't lose if you don't play.

One of the big selling points for Catholicism is the claim that you guys have a living oracle, unlike us benighted evangelicals with our dead book. We've got competing opinions, but no referee. So it's amusing when Catholics retreat into "there's no official position" in Catholicism on major issues to defend their sect.

Global Atheism Versus Local Atheisms

This makes a point which dovetails with a point I've made on more than one occasion. The argument from evil is typically formulated against a very abstract concept of God, a concept derived from some version of classical theism or philosophical theology, rather than a more concrete, specific concept such as biblical theism:

Jeanine Diller (2016) points out that, just as most theists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God exists, most atheists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God does not exist. Indeed, many atheists are only vaguely aware of the variety of concepts of God that there are. For example, there are the Gods of classical and neo-classical theism: the Anselmian God, for instance, or, more modestly, the all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good creator-God that receives so much attention in contemporary philosophy of religion. There are also the Gods of specific Western theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, which may or may not be best understood as classical or neo-classical Gods...Diller distinguishes local atheism, which denies the existence of one sort of God, from global atheism, which is the proposition that there are no Gods of any sort—that all legitimate concepts of God lack instances.

Global atheism is a very difficult position to justify (Diller 2016: 11–16). Indeed, very few atheists have any good reason to believe that it is true since the vast majority of atheists have made no attempt to reflect on more than one or two of the many legitimate concepts of God that exist both inside and outside of various religious communities. Nor have they reflected on what criteria must be satisfied in order for a concept of God to count as “legitimate”, let alone on the possibility of legitimate God concepts that have not yet been conceived and on the implications of that possibility for the issue of whether or not global atheism is justified. Furthermore, the most ambitious atheistic arguments popular with philosophers, which attempt to show that the concept of God is incoherent or that God’s existence is logically incompatible either with the existence of certain sorts of evil or with the existence of certain sorts of non-belief [Schellenberg 2007]), certainly won’t suffice to justify global atheism
Nor is it obvious that evidential arguments from evil can be extended to cover all legitimate God concepts, though if all genuine theisms entail that ultimate reality is both aligned with the good and salvific (in some religiously adequate sense of “ultimate” and “salvific”), then perhaps they can. The crucial point, however, is that no one has yet made that case.

What is the "authorship of sin"?

Determined to Believe?

I'm going to comment on Determined to Believe (Monarch Books 2017) by John Lennox. I'm of two minds about responding to this book. He's just recycling staple objections to Calvinism, so his book doesn't constitute a new challenge to Calvinism. On the other hand, he's a very prominent Christian apologist, so his book may be influential. 

1. Before discussing the specifics, I'll make a few preliminary observations. It's striking that in the acknowledgments, he doesn't mention any Reformed philosophers or theologians. That's a serous omission. He could have avoided many missteps by running a draft copy by some astute Reformed thinkers like Paul Helm, Hugh McCann, John Frame, Jeremy Pierce, James Anderson, Bill Davis, Greg Welty, Paul Manata, Guillaume Bignon, &c. Likewise, he rarely interacts with Reformed commentators and Bible scholars of note. 

As a result, his critique of Calvinism fails to anticipate and engage the responses. Philosophers often solicit feedback from representatives of the opposing side. They then attempt to incorporate those criticisms into their position, sometimes reformulating their original position to protect against those objections. But for whatever reason, Lennox failed to take advantage of that opportunity, and his critique suffers accordingly. 

2. He fails to distinguish between popularizers and high-level thinkers. But you need to choose your target. There's a place for attacking popularizers. But if you wish to disprove a belief-system, you should direct your fire at the most capable exponents. His critique would be more effective if he was more discriminating in his targets. Oftentimes, he picks on soft targets. That's not his intention, but it dilutes the force of his objections. 

3. Although he mentions some advanced resources on the freewill debate (Timpe, Freewill in Philosophical Theology; Timpe, Freewill: Sourcehood and its Alternatives; The Oxford Handbook of Free Will), he raises the usual schoolboy objections to "determinism". He shows no awareness of philosophical answers to the objections he poses. In principle, he could disagree with the answers, but the problem is that he doesn't even acknowledge the fact that his objections have been addressed, and show how the answers are deficient. 

4. I'll mostly ignore the exegetical section of his book because it fails to break any new ground. I and others have been over that ground. I will make one observation: he has a section on "foreknowledge" where he quotes some NT passages using proginosko, in English translation. He just assumes that the Greek compound word means what the prefix plus root word literally mean, in combination. It doesn't even occur to him that compound words often have an idiomatic meaning (i.e. to choose beforehand).  

5. I like Lennox. I've read some of his books and watched some of his debates. He comes across as a warm, sweet, humble, kindly, loving and lovable Christian gentleman. In addition, he's done some great work defending the Christian faith. There's much to admire. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


An edited account of a recent debate I had on Facebook.

Because "mother of God" is equivocal, Catholics use that as a wedge issue. They try to get evangelicals to agree on an orthodox sense of the title, swap that out and swap in a different meaning, then use their bait-n-switch to promote their legendary Marian dogmas.

We should reject true things because somebody abused them. Got it. 

No, we should reject equivocal usage, where the evangelical side means one thing, the Catholic side means something else, and the Catholic side substitutes their meaning for our meaning, as if we made a substantive concession.

This also goes to the tactical blunder of letting your opponent define the terms of debate. That rigs the outcome in his favor.

I'm not persuaded in the least that Catholics use "Theotokos" equivocally. Believing related things in addition to the cognitive content of a phrase is not the same as redefining the phrase. 

In any case, instead of abandoning orthodox terms that belong to all Christians in a perpetual defensive retreat, we ought to reassert the true definition and distinguish it from abuses, not abandon the term. One wonders if Steve would argue we abandon the titles "God the Father," and "God the Son" because Mormons equivocate on them.

i) It would behoove you to pay attention. Notice that I commented on "mother of God".

ii) The Theotokos is a half-truth. As such, it can be misleading, and Catholic apologists exploit that. There's nothing wrong with avoiding formulations that are half-truths.

Theotokos, while having a grain of truth, is far from strictly accurate. For one thing, the Trinity is God, but Mary isn't the birth-mother of the Trinity.

Likewise, what Mary actually bore was the body of Jesus, which is in union his rational soul, while his body and soul are in union with the Son. But that's two steps removing from giving birth to God. 

To be theologically orthodox requires precision thought and precision formulations, not equivocations and half-truths. 

iii) Likewise, a formulation that's innocent in one context may be imprudent in another. There are perfectly innocent, acceptable theological formulations of the Incarnation or Trinity use with Christians in a popular context that I wouldn't use in philosophical theology or that I wouldn't use when debating a unitarian.

iv) There's no obligation to use invented Marian titles. Sure, we can and should use extrabiblical terminology for various things, but I reserve the right to choose which extrabiblical terms I use. That can't be foisted on me by someone with their own agenda.

v) you're allowing Catholics to frame the debate. And it gets off track, because it becomes a debate over Mary rather than Jesus. A strategic shift in focus. We don't need to start with Mary to expound NT Christology: we can go straight to what-all the NT has to say about Jesus, which is abundant. Any discussion of Mary can and should be secondary to the direct, primary NT evidence regarding the nature of the Incarnation.

vi) Important in this debate is the Reformed communication of attributes, where what is true of each nature can be predicated of the Person (i.e. common property-bearer), but cannot be predicated of the opposing nature.

vii) BTW, a number of commenters just assume that Acts 20:28 should be rendered "the church of God, which he bought with his own blood," but the syntax is ambiguous, and a number of scholars argue that it's better rendered "with the blood of his own".

Monday, December 18, 2017

Feeling nostalgic for Obama?

Can prophetic fulfillment be staged?

One objection to the argument from prophecy is whether it's naturally possible to stage a prophetic fulfillment. What if a Jew read OT oracles, then decided to "fulfill" them by imitating them? He'd be acclaimed the messiah. 

Well, that depends. In theory, it would be humanly possible to "fulfill" some prophecies by manipulating circumstances. Mind you, the argument from prophecy doesn't rest on a handful of instances.

There are, however, some formidable obstacles to pulling that off systematically. 

For instance, a messianic pretender can't prearrange to be born in Bethlehem. He has no say in where he will be born, since he doesn't exist at that point. It's up to his parents. 

Or take this oracle:

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy (Isa 35:5-6).

Suppose a messianic pretender tried to imitate that? In the original, this is probably metaphorical, but that would make it all the more impressive if he could do it literally. But, of course, it isn't naturally possible to heal the blind, deaf, mute, and lame. 

By the same token, consider this oracle:

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied (Isa 53:10-11).

Vv8-9 describe messiah's violent death. And it's naturally possible to provoke the authorities into executing you. Mind you, what would be the incentive to get yourself killed if you know it's a hoax? 

But putting that aside, the encore is the really tricky part. Isa 53 presents a paradox that would be deeply baffling to OT readers. The messiah dies, and yet–according to vv10-11–he lives again!

Engineering your own resurrection isn't naturally feasible. 

A Skeptic Of Christianity Complimenting R.C. Sproul

Listen to the first few minutes of Robert Price's latest podcast. He also makes some positive comments about John Warwick Montgomery. Price doesn't believe in the existence of God, he's a Jesus mythicist, and he's debated William Lane Craig, James White, and other Christians.

Jesus Was Born In Nazareth?

Newsweek had an article Saturday titled "Trump Didn’t Totally Ruin Christmas In Nazareth, City of Jesus' Birth, Mayor Says". But the article itself doesn't identify Nazareth as the city of Jesus' birth. It looks like somebody other than the author of the article wrote the headline. But whether it comes from the article's author or somebody else at Newsweek, it does reflect how liberal the media are, how ignorant they are of Christianity and other religious matters, or both.

For a collection of resources on the many lines of evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, including some articles that argue against a Nazareth birthplace, see here. See, especially, the second half of the post here.

Crossing over

It's interesting how rivers evolved into an emblem for death and passage to the afterlife in Christian symbolism. In Revelation, the tributaries of Eden represent the river of life. Yet in subsequent Christian tradition, there's a river of death. 

That's because deep wide rivers form natural barriers and boundaries. They may be naturally impassable. Too deep to wade across. Too wide, or with a strong current, causing swimmers to drown. And some rivers have aquatic predators, like crocodiles, anacondas, and so forth. 

It's possible that the Edenic river was a natural boundary between the Garden and the wilderness beyond. But the primary inspiration is the incident of Israel crossing the Jordan river to enter the promised land. The Jordan river is one of the borders of ancient Israel. And it makes the Jordan river valley a an oasis in the desert. 

In Christian symbolism, the promised land is heaven, so the Jordan river represents the river of death. Death is the passageway from this life to the afterlife. 

Bunyan elaborates on this picturesque metaphor in Pilgrim's Progress: 

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.”

Pilgrim crosses the riverThen Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah! My friend! ‘The sorrows of death have compassed me about.’m I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead. It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead. Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

“And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin He has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.”

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men.’ These troubles and distresses that you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole. With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again, and He tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.’”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation.” Then they all went they along together toward the gate.

Glass door between two worlds

The Christian faith is centered on two events which lend Christianity unique appeal, compared to all other world religions: the Incarnation and the Resurrection. At Christmas, we commemorate and celebrate the Creator of the world entering the world he made to redeem it. God passing through the first stages of the human lifecycle. 

At Easter we commemorate and celebrate the hope of immortality, and reunion with departed loved ones. A better life in the world to come, where all tears are wiped away. 

Compare that to a unitarian Christmas: although the messiah has a unique role to play in redemptive history, the person who plays that role is interchangeable with any other human being. There's nothing special about the messiah, just his particular mission. For that matter, Adam, Noah, Abraham et al. each had a unique part to play in redemptive history as well. 

The Incarnation has a two-sided character. There's the physical, this-worldly side of the Incarnation. Then there's the divine, other-worldly side of the Incarnation. Like a door between two worlds. We see the door facing into our world. But on the other side, the door faces into the Godhead. The Incarnation is a glass door through which we see God on the other side. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Honor and suffering

I'd like to sketch a neglected theodicy. This isn't a standard theodicy in apologetics or philosophical theology. I think the reason for this is twofold: (i) It's alien to the outlook of many western Christians, and (ii) it's not a general theodicy, but focussed on Christian suffering in particular.

Let's begin with a comparison: In the Gospels, Peter and Judas both betray Jesus, but in different ways. Judas betrays Jesus in a very direct way, by collaborating with his enemies to have him arrested. 

In the case of Peter, it's more subtle. A moral betrayal. Peter betrays a friendship. 

Peter's fear is very understandable. If the authorities arrest Jesus, then that puts his disciples at risk by association, because the authorities may well view his disciples as coconspirators. Jesus is the ringleader. If he's guilty, they're guilty because they're his followers. They belong to the very same seditious movement.

So there are two aspects to this: innocent suffering for a worthy cause, when you could evade suffering, is honorable. It's a reflection of virtue when someone is prepared to suffer unjustly for a noble cause. 

Take Christians who, during the Third Reich, sheltered Jews at great risk to themselves. The natural reaction would be to dissociate themselves from their Jewish friends and neighbors, to shield themselves from hostile scrutiny by the authorities. But these Christians did just the opposite. They endangered their reputation to protect the innocent. They took the risk of suffering the same fate as those they sheltered. 

And some of them paid the price. Some of them were arrested, imprisoned, and/or executed. But in the long run, their courage is a badge of honor in the eyes of posterity. We admire their sacrificial bravery. Indeed, it puts us to shame. 

A somewhat different example is honoring someone else by suffering for them. Suppose your best friend is falsely accused. That may put you in a bind. On the one hand, you have a duty to your innocent friend. On the other hand, if you defend him, then that draws unwanted attention to yourself. The authorities may view you as complicit in the alleged misconduct of your friend. Yet it's an honor to have the opportunity to stand by your friend in his hour of need, rather than allowing him to suffer alone.

For instance, consider the FBI's anthrax investigation, in the wake of 9/11. The Bureau had a theory about domestic terrorism. And they had a suspect. I remember one of the suspect's friends defending him on camera. But that was a brave thing to do, because a suspect's circle of friends may become suspects by association, especially if they stick up for him rather than disowning him. If the FBI questions you about your friend, the natural impulse is to distance yourself from your friend, to elude legal jeopardy. 

Another example is someone falsely accused, who could exonerate himself, yet he refuses to furnish exculpatory evidence because he'd have to betray a confidence in the process. So he allows himself to fall under suspicion or even disgrace, to protect a confidence. He's prepared to sacrifice his own good name to protect the good name of another. That's an acid test of friendship. 

Of course, many of us can relate to the principle instinctively. And it only takes a few examples to illustrate that principle. But it hasn't been developed to the same degree as other theodicies. There are stock examples like martyrdom, which carries a specific evangelistic witness. But I'm considering something more generic. Coping with the evils of life in a fallen world. Yet I think this theodicy has more immediate resonance in parts of the Third World.

From a theological standpoint, Christian suffering is a witness to fellow believers as well as unbelievers. Grace under fire. Their example can steel other Christians to persevere. And it can be very impressive to unbelievers. To be "counted worthy" of the opportunity to honor our Lord is both humbling to self and inspiring to others. In that respect there's a reciprocal dynamic, where God honors us by giving us a platform to honor him. 

That's a running theme of Hebrews 11. And it culminates in Heb 13:12-13, which trades on the paradox of enduring dishonor for an honorable cause. Christians must share in their Lord's disgrace (Heb 12:2). The Virgin Mary had the same burden. She was called upon to suffer the reproach of an outwardly scandalous pregnancy. 

Sproul on suffering

Is hell empty?

According to Bishop Barron:

This isn't official Catholic teaching as of yet. And it may not become official Catholic teaching. In general, when Rome changes course, there's a softening up process. But this has been in the works for some time:

 Von Balthasar was John-Paul II's favorite theologian, which is why he made him a cardinal. To my knowledge, hopeful universalism is gaining ground in Catholic circles, although it's largely underground at this time.

Even if it's not official teaching, it's no longer treated as heresy. Catholic prelates in good standing can openly promote it. It's now an acceptable option in Catholic theology. 

We need to stop and consider what a radical departure from traditional Catholic theology this represents. In a nutshell, traditional Catholic theology follows this basic narrative: due to original sin, humans are born damned. Born in a state of mortal sin. Infant baptism changes your condition from a state of mortal sin to a state of grace. However, you can, at any time, relapse to a damnable state of mortal sin. Therefore, a lifelong maintenance program of absolution and communion is required to keep you in a state of grace. Even that's not a sure thing. It just raises the odds that you're still in state of grace. Then, on your deathbed, you receive last rites to make it more likely that you will die in a state of grace. But there's no assurance of salvation this side of the grave.

Universalism can't be grafted onto that framework. Rather, universalism represents a drastic paradigm-shift. If universalism is true, then the sacramental system is superfluous. Salvation is independent of baptism, absolution, communion, and last rites. The sacrificial system doesn't even make salvation more likely if everyone is heavenbound regardless. 

In addition, in traditional Catholic theology, valid sacraments require a valid priesthood. On top of that is the cult of the saints, with the intercession of Mary as paramount. 

But if universalism is true, then the priesthood is superfluous. So at one stroke, universalism nullifies the rationale for the Catholic sacramental and sacerdotal system. That's an immense relict of a defunct paradigm. And the cult of the saints suffers the same fate. 

In addition, this takes the sting out of denunciations against abortion. If universalism is true, then everyone who performs an abortion or facilitates an abortion is going to heaven. 

Consider all the nonconformists who were tortured for "soul-murder". Yet now there's no such thing. Sorry about that! Don't take it personally! 

Finally, consider Bishop Barron's statement that:

Therefore, if there are any people in Hell (and the church has never obliged us to believe that any human is in that state)...

Catholic doctrine is that Hell exists, but yet the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in Hell.

This invites complete theological skepticism. The church of Rome, throughout the centuries, has assiduously cultivated belief in damnation. It milked the fear of hell as a powerful disincentive to motivate Catholics to throw themselves at the mercy of Mother Church, because there was no salvation outside the Church. Saving grace was confined to the sacraments. 

To say this was never official teaching, and is probably false, means the Catholic church constantly fostered a false impression. It said and did things that were bound to deceive the faithful. It did nothing to correct that misconception until beginning in the late 20C. How can you trust anything the Catholic church says? 

And this isn't a theological quibble. The afterlife is central to the nature of religion. This life is brief, wracked by suffering and injustice. Religion is fundamentally about taking the long-range view. What happens to you when you die? Do you pass into oblivion? Will you be punished? Will there be a reversal of fortunes? Will things get better or worse? Will you be reunited with your loved ones? 

If, indeed, the church of Rome has never taken an official position on this position, then Catholicism is derelict. This is the most important issue is all of religion. If the Catholic church refuses to take a stand one way or the other, but plays coy and plays it safe by remaining noncommittal, then it doesn't even claim to know the answer to the one question that any religion worth its salt must be competent to answer. Why would any rational person look to Rome if it can't give a straight answer to that question?