Saturday, April 14, 2018

Why did God make harmful things?

A YEC perspective:

Open communion

I was recently asked if I thought baptism should be a precondition for communion. This goes to issues of open communion, closed communion, and fencing the table.

1. Scripture doesn't explicitly make baptism a prerequisite for communion. However, the reasoning is that baptism is logically and chronologically prior to communion inasmuch as baptism is the rite of initiation. It signifies entrance into the Christian life, whereas communion is for church members. Part of the ongoing, communal life of the church. Therefore, it makes sense that baptism should precede communion.

2. That can be a teaching opportunity. If a professing Christian or would-be communicant hasn't been baptized, that's an opportunity to discuss the nature of the sacraments, and how they're interrelated.   

3. Some denominations practice closed communion. For instance, I've attended confessional Lutheran churches. Since I don't meet their qualifications, I don't go forward for communion. That doesn't offend me. I don't feel excluded, even though I disagree with their sacramentology. I knew what to expect going in. No hurt feelings. 

I once attended a service at a breakaway Anglican church. There the condition for communion was membership in a church in apostolic succession. I don't believe in apostolic succession. Moreover, I found that requirement funny in context. Here was a splinter group with the most attenuated, artificial claim to be in apostolic succession.

4. For denominations that practice closed communion, enforcement can be tricky. Depends in part on the size of the church. If, in addition to the regulars, they have guests, the ministers know nothing about the guests. 

5. Historically, some Reformed churches grilled prospective communicants, then issued them a communion token to preauthorize them to take communion:

That's one way of fencing the table. One extreme.

6. It also depends in part on the format. When I attended a PCA church, it was the generic grape juice in plastic thimbles and bits of bread in trays passed down the pews from one parishioner to the next. Not much opportunity for policing who partook. 

7. The rationale for closed communion and fencing the table is the hazard of taking communion unworthily (1 Cor 11:27). Paul's says that may result in condemnation, illness, or even fatal illness. 

Policing communion depends on how unworthy communicants are defined. In liturgical churches, that's associated with communicants who don't subscribe to the real presence. But in the original context, it arguably has reference to parishioners mistreating fellow parishioners. "Body" is a double entendre for the church/congregation as well as the bread/communion element. Paul alternates.  

8. Some churches practice open communion. In principle, the minister could issue a warning. But how realistic that is depends on the frequency of communion. If a church has communion every time it meets for worship, it isn't very practical for a minister to issue a warning each time before communion, since that requires an explanation regarding what it means to take communion unworthily, and that prefatory explanation would be longer than the time it takes for the whole congregation to take communion. 

9. So it's basically an honor system. You abuse communion at your own risk. If some communicants spontaneously combust during the service, that might be an ominous giveaway!

10. There are some notoriously impenitent churchgoers who should be refused communion. But they usually attend theologically lax churches where that's no impediment to the Lord's table or membership in good standing. 

A failed experiment


Stevie, you just need to devote some actual thought to epistemology, specifically Plantinga and Reid. If you think such appeals are facile, you just don't understand that approach to human knowledge and justification. You may disagree, which is fine, but taunting it all as facile - sorry, you're just not getting the methodology here.

Let's reviews some problems with Tuggy's breezy appeal to Reid:

Reid thinks that ordinary people don't do much reasoning–not much good reasoning, anyway.

The question is whether any of those contingent propositions also satisfy the traditional concept of the self-evident? It was traditionally assumed that the concept of a self-evidently true proposition applies only to necessary truths…Suppose that, with everything working properly, the perceptual belief is formed in me that there's something green before me. Does that contingent proposition have "its evidence in itself"? Certainly it doesn't satisfy the traditional concept of a self-evident truth: "no sooner understood than believed"…He says that the principles of Common Sense are identical with beliefs held noninferentially and justifiably. That can't be right, for an obvious reason. Whereas  the Principles of Common Sense are common, lots of such beliefs aren't common at all; they're entirely personal. 

My thesis has been that in his writings one finds two very different understandings: Principles of Common Sense are shared first principles, and principles of Common Sense are what we all do and must take for granted in our lives in the everyday. What remains to be shown is that they don't mesh.

Most people surely don't actually believe those propositions that all those of us who are normal adults take for granted in our living of life in the everyday. Most people haven't even so much as entertained them, let one believed them…One doesn't have to believe something to take it for granted. N. Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology (Cambridge 2009, chap. 9. 

i) The entire chapter is worth reading. I could quote more of Wolterstorff's analysis. The immediate point is that it's unclear what Tuggy's appeal to Reid actually amounts to, given the equivocations and overgeneralizations in Reid's position. Which is not to deny that Reid makes some useful points, but a lot of sifting, sorting, and reformulation is required. 

ii) Plantinga is, of course, an exponent of Reformed epistemology. I take it that Tuggy is alluding to properly basic beliefs. Yet Plantinga is a Trinitarian. He even uses the Trinity as a positive example to illustrate some points in Warranted Christian Belief

iii) I'd add that basic beliefs are defeasible beliefs. They can be overridden. They're hardly "self-evident" in the traditional sense. 

Not everything should be up for debate. Debates must start somewhere. As Christian philosopher Thomas Reid pointed out, humans are made such that, when we’re fully mature, and when we have certain common experiences, we will, on auto-pilot, know certain truths. He called this first principles, or principles of common sense. We can also call the self-evident truths – things that we, so long as our judgement is unhindered by various non-rational factors, can recognize as true, and even know to be true, without mounting an argument for them. Like lamps, they illuminate themselves, in addition to other things. As heard in a previous episode, Reid listed a number of self-evident truths which he had found to be contradicted by various philosophers’ speculations. But he didn’t directly apply this method to Christian theology.

I've already documented to some basic problems with Tuggy's appeal. But let's make another point. Roderick Chisholm distinguished between methodists and particularists. Methodists begin with criteria while particularists begin with evidence. It's clear that Tuggy is a methodist. Take his resort to the law of identity.

Consider the widely reported phenomenon of bilocation. I don't have a firm position on that. It's not something I've researched in detail. But using Chisholm's rubric, there are two divergent approaches you can take to such reports. On the one hand, you can be a methodist like Tuggy. You take your stand with armchair criteria like the law of identity. You therefore discount all reported bilocations in advance, no matter how well-documented. The evidence is irrelevant. You never look at the evidence because you just know it can't possibly be true, given the law of identity.

On the other hand, you can be a particularist. You're open-minded about the phenomenon because, for you, this is ultimately an evidentiary question. Is there good empirical evidence for biolocation? If the same individual can be in two different places at the same time, then we can't insist that personal identity requires numerical identity. In that event we adjust the definition of personal identity to accommodate the evidence.

Now, my point is not to take a position on bilocation. I mention this example because it's relevant to personal identity, which figures in unitarian objections to the Trinity, and it's not just hypothetical. The immediate point is that unitarians like Tuggy take a position comparable to Hume on the question of miracles: no quantity or quality of evidence can dislodge their disbelief in the Trinity, Incarnation, or miracles, because they begin with unfalsifiable "first principles, principles of common sense, and/or self-evident truths". Unitarians are to Trinitarians what methodological atheists are to supernaturalists.   

The problem with absolutizing certain criteria is that it prejudges the nature of reality, but to a great extent, reality must be discovered. We aren't born already knowing what's possible or impossible. Revelation and observation must inform our understanding of what's possible and impossible.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

On the Disagreement Between Lydia McGrew and Michael Licona

Calvinism and God's love

The spirit of Elijah

Apostate Dale Tuggy responded to my post:

Steve, simplicity a desideratum - of course, not the only one - of theory-making in science, and really, just in common life. All other things being equal, we all prefer a simple explanation to a more complex one, e.g. in solving a crime. 

There are two kinds of simplicity: explanatory and ontological. 

It's a common error to confuse first principles or self-evident truths with truths known a priori (i.e. not on the basis of any experience, but only through conceptual analysis). 

The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy says "self-evident" is generally a synonym for "a priori" (p628). Philosophers like Carl Ginet and David W. Benfield operate with the same equivalence.   

The above truth is not one of those, of course, but is something an unbiased reader simply discerns in the NT texts. It's no harder than understanding that one character in a novel is supposed to be a different person (and so, being) than another character. 

But God is a very different kind of entity than finite human creatures. 

For that matter, reports of biolocation defy common sense appeals to numerical personal identity. 

As another example, Reid would say, when you are looking at apple right in front of you (in a well lit room, and your eyes are working, etc) that it is self-evident to you then that there is an apple right there. Notice the dependence on the visual experience. In my case, there is a dependence on reading, with basic comprehension.

The credibility of the first example (viewing the apple) is used to lend stolen credibility to unitarian hermeneutics, but that doesn't transfer because the two examples are so different.  

Steve, this is convoluted - you're typing too fast or something. Using "the spirit of X" to mean the power that was operative in X - that is wholly consistent with my point that the spirit of X isn't supposed to be someone in addition to X. That's just another usage, in addition to the common one I linked in the Psalms in the post, where you talk about "the spirit of X" meaning just, X himself, or inner part or aspect of him - again, not an additional self. 

That doesn't work in the passages I quoted, since you do have two different "selves": Elijah and Elisha or Elijah and John the Baptist, each of whom embodies "the spirit of Elijah". 

Yes, IF in that instance the "spirit" was meant to be a self. But often, it is a power or aspect of the one whose spirit it is. Admittedly, biblical spirit-talk is confusing to us. 

But now you're equivocating between two different definitions:

i) "spirit of X" synonymous with X himself

ii) "spirit of X" synonymous with "inner part or aspect" of X. 

And even in drawing that distinction, the Spirit is identical with the Father, or identical with the "inner part or aspect of him". On that definition, the Father and the Spirit are one and the same self. But that generates a dilemma when Dale simultaneously rejects adoration of the Spirit. But if the "Spirit of God" is synonymous with God or some aspect of God, then why isn't the Spirit a proper object of worship? 

As  unitarian, Dale wishes to deny that the Spirit of God is someone in addition to the Father/the one God, but in that event, the Spirit of God is a suitable object of worship inasmuch as the Spirit of God is interchangeable with God himself. Dale needs to pick one position and stick with it. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018


Many atheists take the position that the only evidence for something is empirical evidence. If something is empirically indetectable, then there's no reason to think it exists. Hence, there's no reason to think God exists, if he subsists outside the space-time continuum. 

Let's take a comparison. According to the B-theory of time, the entire timeline actually exists. Past, present, and future actually exist. I'm just going to use that for illustrative purposes. I'm not going to make a case for the B-theory of time, although there are some good philosophical arguments for that position. For discussion purposes, let's grant that the B-theory of time is correct. And that's neutral in terms of scientism or empiricism. 

Suppose I'm a high school student, sitting in the cafeteria during lunch. The student body undergoes a complete turnover every three years. My classmates occupy the cafeteria. I can see them from where I sit.

But suppose I have a visor that enables me to see the past and future. Let's say my visor has a split-screen. And I can tune it to a particular year, past or present. Through my visor, I can see the last student body and the next student body, in addition to the present student body. They occupy the same cafeteria. They are compresent in the same cafeteria. 

Without my visor, I can only see classmates in my own timeframe. I can't detect the presence of the other classmates, past and future, even though every student body in the history of the school actually occupies that cafeteria at lunchtime. 

Same thing for football games. When I switch on my visor, I can see teams from different years superimposed on the same field–like a montage, with chronological layers. I can see fans from different years superimposed on the same stands. The same space is filled with people from past, present, and future. All of them are actually present at that exact same site, yet those outside my timeframe are indetectable without my special visor. 

So even when it comes to the issue of physical presence, of physical entities which occupy physical space, on a macroscopic scale, they can be right there, beside me, in front of me, behind me, and yet be invisible, inaudible, intangible. 

Tim McGrew fielding atheists

Minimal facts v. maximal data

The lion and the lamb

i) Isa 11:6-9 & Isa 65:25 are YEC prooftexts: in particular, belief that there was no antelapsarian carnivory. No antelapsarian predation, parasitism, disease, &c. 

ii) One alternative interpretation is that Isaiah's golden age passages are political allegories for the cessation of warfare. Harmony between predator and prey symbolizes the outbreak of universal peace (e.g. Childs).

There may be grain of truth to that interpretation. Certainly the larger context includes the end of warfare. 

iii) At the same time, the imagery suggests a restoration of Edenic conditions, and that's consistent with the political interpretation. The end of political violence doesn't rule out a literally Edenic interpretation, since there was no warfare in Eden.

iv) One complication is that metaphor and literality aren't necessarily opposites, but can range along a continuum. Indeed, prosaic discourse contains many dead metaphors. 

So it's possible for Isaiah to predict something like Eden redux even if the picturesque imagery is somewhat figurative. Was there no carnivory in Eden? Presumably, the animals weren't dangerous to Adam and Eve. That doesn't necessarily mean they weren't dangerous to each other. They might be tame animals, that are safe around humans, but still predatory or violent. For instance, domestic dogs and cats are still predatory, even though they are docile around their owners.

v) We might also consider how realistic a particular interpretation is. I mean "realistic", taking biblical supernaturalism into account. 

Some wild animals don't seem to be tamable. I don't think you can tame sharks, crocodiles, venomous snakes, Komodo dragons, &c. So it's hard to see how all wild animals could be safe around humans, even if some might be. 

Perhaps, then, there'd be a degree of providential protection. For that matter, even if Adam, Eve and their posterity were never banished from the Garden, they'd still need to take reasonable precautions. The world is not a theme park. There are natural hazards. 

The Roman Catholic Churches

There are different ways the church of Rome may die:

i) Francis has been decentralizing leadership. If that trend continues, it will result in a nominal alliance of semi-autonomous national churches, where each national church sets its own policies. That's not sustainable over the long haul. Like Franklin's quip about hanging separately. 

If that happens, all roads don't lead to Rome. They don't lead anywhere in particular. The Roman Catholic Churches. 

And it destroys the raison d'être for the One True Church® if you encounter a different kind of Catholic church every time you cross the border. If each Diocese has its own policies. Catholicism is supposed to be a franchise with the standard menu. 

ii) There's the possibility of schism, but that depends in part on how schism is defined. To me, schism has connotations of a large-scale breakup. But thus far the Francis pontificate has triggered an elite crisis. Only theological junkies are following this debate. How many rank-and-file Catholics are aware or care about the disputes? Many of them seem to have a simplistic view of the papacy: the pope is the boss. His word is final. Bishops and cardinals who dissent are insubordinate. It's not supposed to be that simple on paper, but in reality it's that simple. 

iii) But we already have a precedent in mainline churches. If Rome follows that model, it will slowly bleed out. Some diehards will remain to fight a losing battle. Many Catholics will like the lax policies, although they will drift away since doctrinal indifference is reciprocated by declining attendance. Why go? 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Unitarian shortcuts

Apostate Dale Tuggy tries to short-circuit Christian theology by appealing to his list of 20 "self-evident truths":  

In this first part, I discuss the 20 self-evident truths below. If they really are so, then you can use them in judging between rival speculations about God, his Son, and his spirit.

And if they really are self-evident, then it is not “begging the question” to appeal to them when some Trinity theory or other is at issue, for what is self-evident will typically be more evident overall than some planks of that theory. To sacrifice the less evident in favor of the more evident is to yield to reason. To maintain a pet claim against what is obvious is to stubbornly resist reason.

Before discussing some specific examples, I'll make a general observation regarding Tuggy's philosophical prejudice. There's a philosophical bias that's especially common in naturalism. Many atheists invoke Occam's razor. They regard ontological simplicity as a philosophical virtue. Examples include monism (physicalism), finitism (in math and modality), the uniformity of nature (pace miracles). 

Ironically, unitarianism reflects the same prejudice. Intellectual impatience and hostility regarding metaphysical complexity (e.g. the Incarnation, the Trinity) and hermeneutical complexity (e.g. the OT subtext of NT Christological claims). 

In the history of ideas, there's an opposing bias: the principle of plenitude. Abstract objects. Possible worlds. The multiverse.

Newtonian physics is simpler than Relativity and quantum mechanics. The math is simpler, and it has a simpler view of physical reality. But that doesn't make it true. 

A unitarian conundrum

1. The Synoptic witness to the deity of Christ is somewhat muted compared to John's Gospel or some other NT writings. Unitarians try to capitalize on that difference in emphasis as if that poses a special problem for orthodox Christians. However, this is far more problematic for unitarianism.

2. To begin with, there's no epistemic parity between the evidence for Trinitarianism and unitarianism. To take a comparison, suppose one historian says Ulysses S. Grant was a Civil War general, but doesn't mention his presidency–while another historian says Grant was a US president, but doesn't mention his military career. Those omissions don't generate a contradiction.

Suppose, for argument's sake, that the Synoptics were altogether silent on the deity of Christ. That doesn't contradict other NT writings which witness to the deity of Christ. If some NT documents provide evidence for the deity of Christ, while other documents don't assert that, their silence doesn't conflict with what other documents attest. If some documents provide positive evidence, absence of evidence in other documents isn't equivalent to counterevidence. Lack of evidence isn't evidence to the contrary. It just means a particular document doesn't speak to that particular topic.

Take the fact that one Gospel mentions things that another Gospel fails to mention, and vice versa. But a conservative unitarian doesn't consider that to be a contradiction. 

Justification by faith alone is a central plank of Paul's theology, yet it's only a major theme in two of his epistles. But the fact that several of his letters never affirm sola fide doesn't mean they disaffirm sola fide. Rather, they are neutral on that topic. They don't speak to that issue one way or the other. 

So there's a crucial evidential asymmetric between unitarianism and Trinitarianism. Not to say Jesus is deity isn't equivalent to saying Jesus is not deity. So even if (arguendo) the Synoptics said nothing to indicate the deity of Christ, which is a tremendous overstatement, that would still be entirely consonant with other NT documents affirming the deity of Christ. 

3. In principle, a unitarian could take a liberal position. He could say the NT contains divergent Christologies. Some NT documents reflect a high Christology (i.e. Jesus is fully divine) while others reflect a low Christology (i.e. Jesus is merely human). 

That would at least be a consistent position for a unitarian to take. But it would also be self-defeating. In that event, the NT lacks revelatory authority. Why believe the low Christological books rather than the high Christological books? Why think the NT is theologically trustworthy at all? 

A unitarian could say high Johannine or Pauline Christology contradicts low Synoptic Christology. But that would be a counterproductive strategy. If, however, he refuses to countenance a contradiction, then even assuming a prima facie contradiction between Synoptic Christology and Johannine or Pauline Christology, it's not as if that's a special problem for Trinitarians rather than unitarians. To the contrary, that would be a problem for both sides. 

Unitarians are like suicide bombers who must destroy themselves to destroy Trinitarians. By contrast, Trinitarians don't face the same dilemma. 

4. The alternative is for a unitarian to take a conservative position on the NT. Traditional authorship. Inerrancy. However, that's going to be deeply problematic for unintarians. For instance, if Luke is Paul's best friend, then it would be quite incongruous to have low Lukan Christology alongside high Pauline Christology. 

Mind you, a difference in emphasis is unsurprising inasmuch as Luke is biographer and historian whereas Paul is a theologian. Theological interpretation draws out the Christological implications of the historical record. Like the difference between news and news analysis. 

Likewise, Mark is a member of the Petrine and Pauline circles alike. He moves in the same company as the apostles (Acts 12-13,15; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24; 1 Pet 5:13). So it would be incongruous to have low Markan Christology alongside high Pauline Christology. 

By the same token, Hebrews has high Christology. In his commentary. J. Ramsey Michaels has suggested that Timothy is the author of Hebrews. If so, that puts the author firmly in Paul's high orbit. 

Of course, unitarians try to explain away the high Christology of various NT passages. That's an argument for another day. And I've discussed it before. My immediate point is to reframe the debate by correcting the fallacious way in which unitarians shift the burden of proof, as if the onus is somehow on orthodox Christians to align Synoptic Christology with the more overt or sustained witness to the deity of Christ in other NT documents. But unitarians are hardly exempt from discharging their own burden of proof, which is far higher. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Jet-set pastors

I notice that many (most?) celebrity/megachurch pastors spend a lot of time jetting around the country or the globe to speak at various conferences. In fairness, this isn't new. Donald Barnhouse used to be absent from Tenth Pres. six months out of the year, due to his popularity on the speaker's circuit. 

But that's pastoral dereliction. These men are preachers rather than pastors. To be a pastor, you need to invest your time in your congregation. You need to know what's going on in the lives of your parishioners. 

You need serious time for sermon prep, prayer, counseling, visitation ministry, as well as serious time with your own family. Some of these "pastors" seem to treat their church as a motel to crash in-between speaking engagements. 

Of course, a megachurch pastor can't give each parishioner lots of individualized attention, due to the pastor-to-parishioner ratio. He has to delegate. He needs to have associate pastors who help with visitation ministry and other things. 

But he still needs to have a life shared in common with his congregation, as a fellow pilgrim. He needs to know them as persons and not just abstractions. Not all of them, but a percentage. A pastor can't do that if he plays hooky so often. 

In addition, a pastor's impact is incremental. One forty minute sermon at a conference is unlikely to be transformative. A faithful pastor has a cumulative influence by preaching week after week, month after month, and year after year, in addition to all he does behind the scenes, in terms of counseling, visitation, marriages, funerals, &c. Most folks aren't zapped into the kingdom by a single inspirational sermon. Even Jesus, with the peerless resources at his disposal, went back to some of the same places time and again. 

That doesn't mean his feet are nailed to the church. He can do local gigs. For instance, some pastors who have an athletic background volunteer as part-time coaches at the local junior high or high school. That's great community outreach. A way to practice friendship evangelism with the unchurched. A way to mentor the next generation of young men.  

There are some bilingual ethnic pastors who fly to the Third World every so often to do evangelism, because they have entree with people-groups that white anglo missionaries find harder to penetrate. But in that case it should be a church with rotating preachers. 

The Death Of Guy Playfair

I was sad to learn this evening that Guy Playfair died this past Sunday. As the article just linked notes, it was the morning a new BBC program on the Enfield Poltergeist aired.

I only interacted with him briefly, in an exchange of a few emails last year. He was courteous and helpful, but was busy with other matters at that point and wasn't able to say much. I was hoping to have further discussions with him in the future, but it wasn't to happen.

I don't know how anybody could read his book on Enfield, This House Is Haunted (United States: White Crow Books, 2011), and not have some respect and gratitude toward the man. One of the passages that's stood out most to me summarizes what I have in mind:

Misquoting Jesus

Although this is rather dry stuff, the presentation is an excellent takedown of Ehrman's book. The Q/A session spins of in many directions.


Saying a prayer I don't believe in

Like countless Jews before me, I am saying Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Three times a day, wherever I am in the world, I strive to find a minyan (quorum) so I can recite these ancient Aramaic verses as a last measure of devotion to my father.

At each service, I repeat the mantra: “Magnified and sanctified be His [God’s] great name in the world He has created according to His will.” To which my coreligionists respond with great force: “Let His great name be forever blessed for all eternity.”

I say those words and hear that refrain three times daily. The strange thing is that I’m not sure I really believe them.

The Kaddish is probably the most famous of all Jewish prayers...Yet, the Kaddish is an odd prayer to have become the centerpiece of mourning. Despite its association with death and dying, it does not mention the word death. Instead, it is an endlessly repetitive celebration of the glory of God.

The Kaddish’s origin, and its adoption by Jews as the signal act of mourning, is not entirely clear. The first words of the prayer are adapted from a verse in the Book of Ezekiel. And there are opaque references to the dominant refrain of the Kaddish — “Let His Great Name be forever blessed for all eternity” — in a commentary on the Bible written in Talmudic times.

But it appears that the custom of reciting the Kaddish for a deceased parent did not develop until the Middle Ages. Many scholars believe it to have been a Jewish response to the massacres of Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades. Others have posited, based on a story about Rabbi Akiva, a leading second-century scholar, that the Kaddish was a response to the Christian concept of purgatory, and is intended as a plea to God to mitigate the eternal punishment of the deceased.

Whatever its origins, the text of the prayer leaves me cold. Each day as I say the Kaddish, I struggle with the fact that I am praising a God who, according to Jewish tradition, created the world “according to His Will.” Does God really will that the world endure the cruelty and suffering we see so often? And, on a more personal level, did God will that my father, an intellectual who suffered from dementia, would lose the ability to communicate and have the mental faculties of a 5-year-old during his last 18 months on earth?

The Kaddish is hardly the only prayer that troubles me. Take the 145th Psalm, which I say every day as an observant Jew. It proclaims that “God protects all those who love God, but will destroy all the wicked?” Really? Do I honestly believe that’s a true reflection of God or our universe?

Unlike some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who take great comfort in communicating with God, I am not confident that God even listens to our prayers. Yet I have reoriented my life to accommodate my obligation to say Kaddish. And I do so cheerfully because it links me to Jews across generations and continents. It defines me as a member of the tribe. My tribe.

That is the essential gift of the Kaddish. It fosters community for a person who has just suffered a searing loss of a parent or sibling, spouse or child, even when we find ourselves far from home.

Even if the words themselves offer little comfort, I take great satisfaction in this communal act of prayer; of hearing the voices of others respond to my own prayers; and of being welcomed and enveloped by a larger and transcendent community. And in that experience, I honor and reconnect with my father.

i) It's useful to have a point of contrast so that Christian self-reflection doesn't become too insular. It's a pity that the author secularizes prayer, reducing it to a sense of psychological solidarity with other Jews. Collapsing the vertical dimension of prayer to the horizontal. Unfortunately, his Jewish background leaves him without sufficient resources to adequately cope with the death of his father. It leaves him estranged from the once-familiar world. 

ii) Ps 145 is false if that's a promise about this life. And that's another problem with modern Judaism, which is so often this-worldly rather than other-worldly. 

iii) However, the article raises another issue. Is it hypocritical to say a prayer you don't believe in? It can be hypocritical to maintain pious appearances when faith is absent. However, his case is different. He wants the prayer to be true. He hopes the prayer is true. He yearns for a world that's really like that. Desperate wishful-thinking, yet that's the paradox of prayer: desperation is the seedbed of prayer. 

Christians struggle with prayer, when they're not sure it makes any difference. When, to all appearances, prayer often makes no discernible difference. When, to all appearances, the outcome is just the same whether or not they prayed. If they hadn't prayed at all, things would have turned out exactly the same–because they turned out contrary to what the Christian fervently prayed for. And, of course, if things were going to turn out that way all along, then it was pointless to pray about it. Or so it seems. You'd get the same dismal result without prayer. 

Yet many Christians continue to pray because…what's the alternative? Uncertainty is better than bleak certainty. Suppose a kidnapper gives the hostage a choice: "I will kill you–or I will spare your life if you throw sixes three times in a row." Of course, the odds are very low that throwing dice will yield three sixes in a row, but given that the grim, hopeless alternative is a sure thing, it's better to roll the dice. Even a shaft of sunlight through the barred window of a dungeon is better than black despair. 

iv) Did God will his father's dementia? Let's take a comparison–a Christian comparison: did God will the cross? The atonement is a part of God's eternal plan. Yet the crucifixion requires some human agents to act sinfully. Judas, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the lynch mob. To will the end, God must will the means. In that sense, God wills evil. Not evil for evil's sake. But even sin can have instrumental value. 

Not your father's Catholic church

Monday, April 09, 2018

Success stories in gun control

Proponents of "common sense" gun control like to tout the UK as a model to be emulated in the USA. In case you're skeptical, here's some success stories:

Gored by the horns of a dilemma

In response to a post of mine, apostate Dale Tuggy said:

What folks like Steve here imagine to be obvious to the reader - that Jesus is claiming to be the one God, the god of Israel - was not obvious to Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, etc. - all of whom explicitly hold the one God to be the Father - not the Trinity, not Jesus, and not the Logos. What not obvious right away to careful, smart, informed readers, is just not obvious in a text! 
We know that the 'logos' theorists of the 100s and 200s held the logos to explicitly be 'another god,' 'a second god' (or: a second 'god' - see the difference?), and less than the one God in (for various authors) power, knowledge, authority, divinity, and even (for theorists before Origen) less old than him, having come into existence.

I've already responded to this at length, but I'd like to approach it from a different angle:

1. I didn't claim that the deity of Christ is "obvious" in every NT writing. And my position doesn't require that.

2. But if we're going to cast the issue in those terms, then Dale's argument is counterproductive. It isn't that they thought just one thing was obvious–rather, they thought two things were obvious, and they were struggling to harmonize them. On the one hand they thought Scripture obviously teaches monotheism, while on the other hand they thought Scripture obviously teaches the divinity of Christ. 

Even by Dale's own admission, they obviously didn't think Jesus was just a human male. That's not how you characterize "another god" or a "second god". So their position is far removed from Dale's humanitarian unitarianism. 

3. Let's put this is a larger context. In principle, there are several different strategies for dealing with dilemmas:

i) You can affirm the dilemma. You can say this is paradox that surpasses human reason. There's nothing we can do to mitigate the tension. That's the position of Christians like John Owen and James Anderson.

However, you can defend it by saying that if we have good reason to believe both horns of a dilemma, then we're warranted in affirming both horns even if that generates a dilemma. Moreover, you can say that high Christology is not exceptional in this regard. Paradox is commonplace in physics, mathematics, and logic. 

ii) You can affirm both horns of the dilemma, but deny that it's a dilemma. You can marshal arguments to relieve the tension. You demonstrate (to your own satisfaction) that it's not paradoxical.

iii) You can deny the dilemma by denying one horn of the dilemma. There are Christological heresies that say Jesus was apparently human but really divine, or–conversely–that Jesus was apparently divine but really human.

iv) You can relieve the tension by relativizing both horns of the dilemma. Take a chain-of-being ontology in which divinity is quantitative rather than qualitative. Trees have more divinity than rocks, animals have more divinity than trees, humans have more divinity than animals, angels have more divinity than humans, while the Son has more divinity than angels but less divinity than the Father. It's a matter of degree rather than kind. Gradations of divinity. That works in Neoplatonism. What makes God differ from creatures is that God has more God stuff than creatures. It's not an absolute categorical distinction. 

That's what the logos-theorists seem to be doing. On the one hand they affirm monotheism, but not in the absolute monadic sense (e.g. Maimonides, Al-Ghazali) . On the other hand they affirm the deity of Christ, but not in the absolute sense of co-equality, auto-theos (e.g. Helm, Warfield). It's a mediating position. A compromise position.

4. Finally, the NT is addressed to Jews and gentiles alike, but that presents a challenge. Gentiles had no objection to affirming the divinity of Christ, but the danger is to recast that in polytheistic terms. (The same problem persists today when evangelizing Hindus.) So the NT uses traditional monotheistic language, which reaffirms OT theism, yet it then extends that exclusive language to Jesus. NT writers have to strike a balance to avoid falling into either one of two opposing errors. Using traditional formulations that exclude polytheism while including Jesus within the same formulations. That generates a prima facie dilemma, yet the NT is not an exercise in philosophical theology, but a witness to history in the self-revelation of divine action. 

The Coneheads

Apostate Dale Tuggy has been laboring to respond to a post of mine:

That includes direct comments on my post as well as a separate post of his own:

I'll respond to both:

I’m starting to lose patience with our present-day confused and confusing tradition of “high christology” exegesis. 

A unitarian apostate is losing patience with Christians. Why does Dale imagine that his patience or impatience was ever the standard of comparison? 

I think of it as a new Gnosticism – reading the NT gospels as if they were esoteric texts, texts written so that their main or most important meaning is hidden from plain sight, waiting to be uncovered by only the more spiritual, more insightful reader – like you, you beautiful man, you.

Does Dale seriously think that when we interpret the NT, we should exegete the text in a literary and historical vacuum? Does he think we should construe the NT in isolation to the OT? Does he think we should ignore how the NT would resonate in the context of Greco-Roman culture? 

That's just standard grammatico-historical exegesis. When you interpret a text from the past, especially an ancient text, you need to consider the cultural preunderstanding and literary precedents. This isn't even unique to biblical exegesis. Why do we have annotated editions of Shakespeare and Dante? Because it requires some background knowledge to understand some of their statements. What was common knowledge to the original reader can be lost on modern readers.

This isn't distinctive to high Christology. Take the atonement of Christ. That has a subtext in the OT sacrificial system, the redemption of Israel from Egypt, &c. 

And this isn't esoteric. Commentators and NT scholar appeal to evidence that's in the public domain. You don't have to be a 33rd degree Freemason to have access to this information. It's available in monographs, commentaries, reference works, &c. 

Jesus had to mumble and gesture at his being God himself; but this was all a deliberate plan on his part, so as to be more persuasive. How clever!

There's nothing Gnostic or esoteric about the idea that Jesus needs to lay a foundation for his elevated claims before he begins to make elevated claims about himself. Even from a unitarian standpoint, it won't be persuasive to go around calling yourself the Messiah without supporting evidence. 

Take the narrative strategy in John's Gospel. It opens with an introduction that clues the reader into the identity and mission of Jesus. That advance knowledge gives the reader an edge, a frame of reference, to grasp the ensuing narrative. By contrast, figures within the narrative must discover the identity and mission of Jesus by stages. A series of speeches, miracles, encounters, which have a cumulative effect. They flesh out the Prologue. One thing builds on another in a steady culmination. 

In Matthew and Luke we have something similar. The nativity accounts flag Jesus as a very special child. When he begins his public ministry 30 years later, most folks aren't privy to his remarkable conception and childhood, but it provide a reading guide for the Gospel audience. They expect Jesus to be and do amazing things in adulthood. 

Granting that Jesus would (if he believed it) have to keep such a claim on the down-low, clearly…

Notice Dale's hurried, backdoor admission that what I said was right.

…there is no reason to think that the gospels’ authors c. 50-95 AD would have also muttered and hinted! If they thought the point of it all was that Jesus is God himself, they could have and would have clearly asserted that! 

There are different ways in which the Gospels indicate the deity of Christ. Some are more implicit while some are more explicit. 

To pat that message on the head and stride right past it, rushing towards the hidden gems, the sneaky indications, clever hints, and oblique suggestions that “Jesus is God”… that is a kind of learned ignorance, pointy-headed point-missing. 

i) To begin with, the Coneheads take umbrage at Dale's bigoted attack on pointy-headed humanoids. 

ii) In addition, Dale keeps acting as if NT exegesis should be insulated from the society in which it was revealed. Are unitarians so desperate that they think NT exegesis must confined itself to the bare text, shorn of any cross-referencing to the OT, the political milieu of the Roman Empire, paganism, &c.? 

An obvious problem with that approach is that by excluding ancient background information, a modern reader unwittingly recontextualizes the NT–because his own subconscious cultural conditioning supplies the hermeneutical grid. He unconsciously substitutes his own cultural assumptions in lieu of the original audience. It takes a conscientious effort to become aware of our social conditioning and screen that out when we read a text from a different time and place, so that we aren't imposing foreign assumptions onto the text. Take The Tale of Genji. Does Dale think you should jump straight into that text without bothering to know anything about medieval Japanese court life? 

It's not that ancient texts are incomprehensible without background information. We often get the storyline. But many allusions can be lost on us. And interpretation can go seriously awry if we don't try to enter the thought-world of the original audience. 

That Jesus is God’s Messiah – this is an astounding, life-changing, mind-boggling, old-order-overturning truth, when you finally understand the implications of it. If you don’t see this as revolutionary… you may have been distracted by other ideas.

There's nothing astounding or mind-boggling about God sending yet another human emissary. Yet another prophet. Yet another miracle-worker. That's just more of the same. The status quo. 

There is no hidden main meaning. 

That's simplistic. A meaning that was in plain view for Dante's social circle may become hidden from view with the passage of time. Dante contains many topical aside that are now obscure even to Dante scholars. 

I think, is just the social pressure of that set. It is unspeakably uncool to be a unitarian there. 

To the contrary, it's hip and cool to challenge traditional orthodoxy. Bart Ehrman, Elaine, Pagels, Phyllis Trible, Rosemary Reuther, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza et al. are trendy and cool, unlike that fusty old Trinitarian, Incarnational faith. 

The Poseidon Adventure

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mk 4:35-41; par. Mt 8:23-27; Lk 8:22-25).

i) Imagine if you had a friend with the ability to control weather. You'd wonder who or what your friend really was. What was the source of your friend's superhuman ability. Clearly there's more to your friend than meets the idea. 

ii) Notice that unlike Moses or Elijah, Jesus doesn't pray to God to make this happen. There's no indication that his ability to do it is derivative. 

iii) The incident likely reminded the disciples of what the OT says about Yahweh:

23 Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the great waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their evil plight;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men
    and were at their wits' end.
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
29 He made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.
(Ps 107:23-30; cf. Jonah 1:4)

iv) But it runs deeper than that. Modern readers think of storms and squalls as natural forces. But ancient pagans believed in storm gods and sea gods. OT polemical theology trades on this association. In the parting of the Red Sea, Yahweh humiliates the gods of Egypt:

13 You divided the sea by your might;
    you broke the heads of the sea monsters[a] on the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
(Ps 74:13-14)

 In that day Yahweh with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea (Isa 27:1)

9 Awake, awake, put on strength,
    O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days of old,
    the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
    who pierced the dragon?
10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,
    the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
    for the redeemed to pass over?
(Isa 51:9-10)

Jewish readers of the Synoptics would be in a position to register the parallels between Jesus and Yahweh. In addition, this had its counterpart in Greco-Roman mythology. Poseidon is  the nemesis of Odysseus. Odysseus antagonized Poseidon. Unfortunately for him, the way home from Troy to Ithaca was by boat, so it took him ten years to return home because the vindictive sea god thwarted him at every turn. And Poseidon had a Roman counterpart (Neptune). 

Gentile readers of the Synoptics would be in a position to draw comparisons between Jesus and Poseidon or Neptune. Modern readers are apt to miss that ancient subtext because we have a scientific view of storms and squalls, but to an ancient reader, incidents like this carry symbolic connotations. It takes a Deity to trounce a Deity. A greater Deity to vanquish a lesser deity.