Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Got questions?

Christian apologists have a stock repertoire of questions and objections they field. Nothing wrong with that. However, these  are somewhat canned questions and objections. If you Google certain theological questions, the search engine will often take you to Gotquestions.org. I don't know much about this site although it appears to offer generic conservative evangelical responses. 

What's instructive is the kinds of questions they get. Take their top 20:

Or take the FAQ archives

Although of few of these are standard apologetic fare, many of them are not. So this functions as an informal poll of questions that many believers and unbelievers have. And that suggests that the range of topics which apologists typically cover may be too narrow. Believers and unbelievers are interested in the answers to a wider range of topics. I'll take a stab at the top 20 questions. Admittedly, I've discussed most of these before. In future, I may take a stab at some of the FAQs. 

1. Women pastors / preachers? What does the Bible say about women in ministry?

i) The classic prooftexts against women in the pastorate are 1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:34, & 1 Tim 2:11-15. 

a) There's a prima facie tension between the two Corinthian passages inasmuch as 1 Cor 14:34 is an unqualified prohibition against women speaking in church while 11:2-16 makes provision for women to speak in church (when they prophesy). So 11:2-16 modifies the force of 14:34. 14:34 can't be absolute. 

b) However, prophecy is different from preaching and teaching. Prophecy is directly revelatory, whereas preaching and teaching are natural. Of course, you had some inspired preaching in the NT church. This is also bound up with the cessationist/continuationist debate. 

c) In 1 Tim 2:11-15, there's the question of whether Paul regards authority and teaching as separate prohibited activities, or if teaching is an exercise of authority.

d) In modern churches, pastors have no intrinsic authority in the sense that they lack the power to compel the laity to comply. Church attendance is voluntary. Pastors can't make a layman do anything against his will. By contrast, "authority" probably has a more coercive connotation in the ancient context of Paul's prohibition. Actual power over others.

e) Apropos (d), the background seems to be upperclass women who hosted Christian gatherings in their home. In that setting, the hostess had authority over many participants, due to her social class and the venue (on her turf). So Paul may be alluding to potential abuse of authority in that context. And that, in turn, would be applicable to analogous situations in modern times.

f) In addition to cultural factors, Paul grounds his prohibition in a transcultural principle of male headship. 

ii) Pastoral authority depends on the size of the church and church polity. For instance, megachurches have several pastors with different jobs. One pastor might be the primary preacher. That's distinct from church discipline, which is an exercise of authority. 

iii) From a psychological and sociological standpoint, men are generally more interested in things and ideas while women are generally more interested in people. Likewise, men are generally more oriented towards right, wrong, and retributive justice, while women are more oriented towards mercy and empathy. 

Of course, pastors need social skills. But in terms of how men and women are typically wired, men are more suited to safeguard orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That's a reason to reserve church office to men. Naturally there are exceptions–in both directions–but policy is based on what's normal, not what's exceptional. For instance, there are responsible kids as well as irresponsible adults, but that doesn't invalidate having an age of majority. 

2. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Is it a sin?

i) According to Gen 1-2, heterosexuality is God's design for human nature. 

ii) The Bible is consistently and overwhelmingly heteronormative. There are no exceptions. 

iii) Standard prooftexts against homosexuality include Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9 & 1 Tim 1:10. These carry over from OT ethics. 

Some homosexual activists labor to reinterpret the standard prooftexts. Robert Gagnon has a lot of good, freebie material defending the traditional position:

iv) There are Bible scholars like Daniel Kirk and Luke Timothy Johnson who admit that Scripture condemns homosexual attraction/activity. They simply reject biblical authority. 

3. What does the Bible say about tattoos / body piercings?

i) The OT condemns ritual mutilation. That's in the context of paganism.

ii) I don't think there's anything wrong with Christian tattoos. 

4. Once saved always saved? / Is eternal security biblical? / Can a Christian lose salvation?

i) In some theological traditions, a born-again Christian can lose his salvation. I think that's mistaken.

ii) In another tradition, a Christian can permanently lose his faith, be indistinguishable from an impenitent unbeliever or militant atheist, yet still be saved. I think that's mistaken. That reduces salvation to justification by a one-time decision for Christ. But in Scripture, saving grace is something God does in us as well as something God does for us. 

iii) There's a distinction between backsliders and apostates. Christians can suffer a crisis of faith or lapse of faith, but be restored. 

iv) In Calvinism, a professing Christian can lose his faith and be damned. However, a born-again Christian can't lose his salvation. God preserves the elect. 

v) Hypothetically, a backslider might die in a traffic accident before he had a chance to return to the faith. But salvation and damnation aren't contingent on lucky or unlucky timing. 

vi) Christians can be overwhelmed by personal tragedy. I'm not convinced that loss of faith is always damnatory. That may depend on extenuating circumstances. 

5. Masturbation - is it a sin according to the Bible?

i) Some theological traditions regard masturbation as intrinsically wrong. That's still common in Protestant ethics. That's a throwback to Catholic moral theology.

ii) Scripture has no specific prohibition against masturbation. Of course, it may still be immoral, based on general principles (which I'll consider momentarily). But given the near ubiquity of masturbation, if it's inherently sinful, I'd expect Scripture to be more definite. Scripture certainly doesn't hesitate to be very emphatic and explicit when it comes to sexual sin. So I think the silence of Scripture on this topic creates a certain presumption that it's not necessarily sinful. But there are, of course, other factors to take into consideration.

iii) Masturbation is often thought to violate the general principle laid down in Mt 5:28. Possibly so, but the inference isn't straighfoward:

a) The traditional interpretation has always been problematic since heterosexual attraction is part of God's design for human nature. So at best it becomes a matter of degree rather than an absolute prohibition. 

b) John Frame defines "lust", not as sexual attraction, but forbidden desire. Although that's a good definition, it doesn't select for what's forbidden. To insist that masturbation is lustful in the forbidden sense is circular inasmuch as that's the very question at issue.

c) On a related note, critics condemn masturbation if that's linked to sexual fantasies. However, that simply pushes the issue back a step. Are sexual fantasies inherently sinful? Are all sexual fantasies sinful? To take a comparison, it would be hard to teach sex-ed without evoking the sexual imagination of the student. 

d) In addition, the question of lust cuts both ways. If a bachelor has no outlet for pent-up sexual impulses, then that's a source of lust. That preoccupies the mind. Masturbation can function as a "lust"-reducing safety value to lease excess pressure, which otherwise continues to build up. 

e) Then there's the question of whether the traditional interpretation is correct: 

Klaus Haacker (“Der Rechtsatz Jesu zum Thema Ehebruch,” BZ 21 [1977]: 113-16) has convincingly argued that the second auten (“[committed adultery] with her”) is contrary to the common interpretation of this verse. In Greek it is unnecessary, especially if the sin is entirely the man’s. But it is explainable if pros to epithymesai auten, commonly understood to mean “with a view to lusting for her,” is translated “so as to get her to lust” The evidence for this interpretation is strong (see Notes). The man is therefore looking at the woman with a view to enticing her to lust.

If Haacker (see above) is right in his contention that the second auten is unnecessary on the customary reading of this verse, the problem is resolved if the first auten within the expression pros to epithymesai auten functions as the accusative of reference (i.e., the quasisubject) of the infinite (as in the equivalent construction in Lk 18:1) to generate the translation “so that she lusts” REBC (Zondervan, 2nd ed., 2010), 9:184-85.

If the alternative rendering (“get her to lust after him”) is correct, then I take this to mean that what 5:28 really forbids is seduction, viz. a man seducing a woman. As such, the prohibition would presumably apply to both premarital and extramarital sex–since OT law condemned each form of immorality, although adultery was the graver offense. 

iv) Although debates over the morality of masturbation typically focus on males, there's a female equivalent that receives far less attention. 

v) In Catholic theology, masturbation is a sin, but there's a loophole since you can just confess it to a priest and receive absolution. 

vi) The upshot is that masturbation in moderation is probably permissible for bachelors, although it's not a solution to sexual impulses, and shouldn't become a substitute for marriage, when that's available. 

6. What does the Bible say about interracial marriage?

i) The Bible says nothing about interracial marriage, per se. The Bible frowns on interfaith marriage. Sometimes interfaith marriage and interracial marriage overlap. 

ii) Scripture doesn't treat race and ethnicity as fixed categories that ought to be maintained. It's fluid. 

7. Who was Cain's wife?

Cain's wife was a sister. There's a moral distinction between parental incest and sibling incest. Parental incest is intrinsically wrong, but sibling incest is sometimes permissible. 

8. What is the Christian view of suicide? What does the Bible say about suicide? What about a believer who commits suicide?

i) Scripture has no explicit prohibition against suicide. That doesn't ipso facto mean suicide is permissible. Rather, we must evaluate the issue in reference to more general principles.

ii) Some ethical and theological traditions regard suicide as intrinsically wrong. That depends in part on whether you grant the authority of the tradition.

iii) A traditional argument is that suicide is self-murder. Forbidden as an extension of the fifth commandment. There are, however, problems with that argument:

a) Not all homicide is murder. The fifth commandment prohibits murder, but whether suicide is morally equivalent to murder is the very question at issue, so the argument is circular.

b) The fact that doing something to someone else may be forbidden doesn't mean it's ipso facto wrong to do it to yourself. For instance, it's often wrong to do something to someone else without their consent, but what you do to yourself is consensual. 

c) Likewise, the fact that using someone else's debit card is theft doesn't mean using my own debit card is self-theft. 

For that matter, you can sometimes use someone else's debit card with their permission. Say you buy something for a shut-in. 

d) Likewise, the logic is potentially reversible. If there's justifiable homicide, and suicide is self-homicide, then there may be justifiable self-homicide. I'm not suggesting that's a justification for suicide. Rather, I'm critiquing a fallacious objection on its own grounds. 

iv) A different ethical approach regards suicide as a special case of taking life in general. There's a prima facie prohibition against taking human life, yet there are exceptional situations where that can be overridden. 

v) For instance, Fr. Kolbe took the place of an inmate who was condemned to die. That's a type of suicide, but morally heroic.

vi) In the 9/11 attacks, some office-workers were trapped in burning skyscrapers. They were doomed. Some chose a quick death by jumping from the skyscraper rather than waiting to be burned alive. 

vii) If, say, a bachelor or childless widower is diagnosed with brain cancer or some degenerative illness, does he have an obligation to let nature take its course? Does he have an obligation to become incapacitated, with no one to care for him? That's a tragic situation. 

Certainly there's no general obligation to let nature take its course. Much of medical science is direct at impeding the ordinary course of nature. 

x) Suicide is sometimes condemned, not because it harms the suicide, but the community, or those he leaves behind. No doubt that's often a reason why suicide is wrong, although it doesn't take much imagination to entertain counterexamples:

a) If a drug lord commits suicide, the community benefits from his demise. 

b) Some people have no one to leave behind. That's why they're suicidally depressed. I'm not suggesting that's a justification for suicide. But the specific objection doesn't apply in their case. Different objections must be deployed.

c) Sometimes we need to strike a balance between harm to others and harm to self. for instance, we have a prima facie duty to rescue those in danger, but if that puts our own life in danger, we may hold back. It depends on several variables. 

ix) We shouldn't base a policy on extreme cases. A policy concerns ordinary cases. Normally, suicide is wrong. But arguably there are exceptions to the rule (see above). 

x) Even though suicide is normally sinful, that doesn't make it damnable. On the one hand, even grave sins are forgivable. On the hand, every sin is damnable if you die outside of Christ. 

And some people aren't in their right mind when they commit suicide, although suicide is sometimes a lucid decision. 

9. Do pets / animals go to Heaven? Do pets / animals have souls?

i) Scripture doesn't say one way or the other.

ii) It's certainly possible for God to resurrect pets. 

iii) The question of whether animals have souls may turn on a distinction between higher and lower animals.

iv) It also depends on whether physicalism can explain the psychological properties of animals. 

10. What happens after death?

The soul is decoupled from the body. There's a heavenly intermediate state for believers as well as a hellish intermediate state for unbelievers. There's no purgatory. Once you die your eternal destiny is fixed. There's no change in your postmortem destiny. If you die hellbound, that's forever. If you die heavenbound, that's forever. 

11. What does the Bible say about Christian tithing? Should a Christian tithe?

i) There's no NT command to donate 10% of your income to the church. However, that doesn't automatically settle the issue. There's a perennial issue in theological method: is there a presumption that the old covenant carries over into the new covenant except where that's explicitly repealed, or is there presumption that the old is repealed except where that's explicitly reaffirmed? Both approaches are  simplistic.

ii) The NT commends Christians to be generous in financial support of poor Christians, as well as remunerating people in Christian ministry.

iii) Some Christians have no money to spare while others have disposable income. 

iv) Supporting Christian ministry isn't the same thing as giving to "the church". For one thing, "the church" is ambiguous. Does that mean the local church? Does that mean the denomination to which a local church may be affiliated?

In addition, Christian ministry is much broader than "the church". It's good for Christians with disposable income to diversify their financial contributions to Christian ministry.  

12. What is the gift of speaking in tongues? Is it for today? What about praying in tongues?

i) In Acts, glossolalia appears to be xenoglossy. There are some documented cases of modern xenoglossy, but it seems to be very rare among Christians. Xenoglossy can be symptomatic of demonic possession.  

ii) In 1 Corinthians, glossolalia appears to be something different from xenoglossy. Since we don't have audiotape of 1C Corinthian glossolalia, we can't compare that to what happens in modern charismatic churches, and say if it's the same phenomenon.

iii) It's easy to fake speaking in tongues. 

13. What does the Bible say about dinosaurs? Are there dinosaurs in the Bible?

Scripture is silent on the specific existence of dinosaurs. It doesn't deny their existence. It doesn't speak to that issue one way or the other. 

The Bible is not a textbook of zoology. Scripture never mentions most species. Indeed, ancient Greek and Hebrew don't have words for most species. Most species, whether extant or extinct, would be unrecognizable to the original audience. The names would be meaningless. 

14. What is the importance of Christian baptism?

i) According to some theological traditions, baptism is a means of grace or even a source of regeneration and/or justification. On that view, baptism is very important. However, I think that view is mistaken.

ii) I think baptism is just a symbol. A metaphorical ritual. The symbolism is important. And because it's a divine command, we should obey that command. 

iii) What baptism represents depends on part on what verses actually refer to baptism. 

15. What does the Bible say about drinking alcohol? Is it a sin for a Christian to drink alcohol?

Drinking alcohol in moderation is permissible (Ps 104:15; Jn 2:1-11; 1 Tim 4:3-5).

16. What does the Bible say about gambling? Is gambling a sin?

i) The Bible says nothing about gambling one way or the other.

ii) It's partly a question of degree. How do we spend our time? Our we good stewards of our time, or do we fritter away the gift of life in trivial pursuits?

iii) A friendly game of cards can be a social virtue. Feeding money into a one-armed bandit is pathetic.

iv) Making a modest, low-risk investment with a low chance of winning can be reasonable. Like betting on the stock market. 

v) However, amateur gamblers generally lack the skill for that to be a profitable exercise. 

17. What does the Bible teach about the Trinity?

Scripture teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are equally divine, but distinct personal agents. For a good overview:

18. What does the Bible say about sex before marriage?

Scripture says sex should be reserved for monogamous marriage. 

19. Where was Jesus for the three days between His death and resurrection?

In heaven, with his Father. 

20. What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?

i) In the NT there are two explicit grounds for divorce: adultery and desertion. 

ii) That raises the question of whether there are any additional grounds for divorce which Scripture doesn't mention. Generally, we shouldn't expect the Bible to address every hypothetical situation. So there may well be other situations in which divorce is justifiable. Of course, that leeway can be abused. 

iii) Divorce formally dissolves a marriage, although there's a sense in which divorce is an official acknowledgment that the marriage was already informally dissolved by the irreparable misconduct of a spouse. 

iv) Grounds for divorce makes divorce permissible rather than obligatory under those circumstances. If the offending party is penitent, the offended party can be forgiving. If, on the other hand, the offending party is a serial offender, then that's a vicious cycle. 

v) In some theological traditions, marriage is a sacrament. To be valid, it must ordinarily be performed by a priest. And that rules out common law marriage.

Since, however, I reject that theological paradigm, I think common law marriage may be permissible in some situations, although that's not ideal. 


  1. This is a great post - succinct answers to common questions. One thing, though:

    "John Frame defines "lust", not as sexual attraction, but forbidden desire. Although that's a good definition, it doesn't select for what's forbidden. To insist that masturbation is lustful in the forbidden sense is circular inasmuch as that's the very question at issue."

    Is there a definition that you think is more suitable? Or does it matter, given your other arguments?

    Also, on the question of divorce, do you think a valid divorce allows for remarriage?

    1. i) It's a fine definition which has no purchase on my position.

      ii) Valid divorce allows for remarriage.

      iii) For that matter, even invalid divorce can allow for remarriage. By that I mean, if your spouse initiates the divorce without due cause, you are free to remarry without incurring sin.