Saturday, May 05, 2018


I'd like to consider some stock objections to the historicity of the Gospels, using the Victorian art critic John Ruskin as a comparative reference frame. 

1. Argument from Silence

A stock objection is that if something is only mentioned in one Gospel, or if something is mentioned in the Gospels but not in extrabiblical sources, then it's fictional. Now the argument from silence is sometimes compelling provided that there's an expectation that if someone existed or something happened, there'd be an extant record of that, or that the writing in question would mention it. Likewise, that one Gospel writer may suppress a statement from his source. So goes the argument.

Skin for skin

9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face”...4 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life (Job 1:9-11; 2:4).

i) The problem of evil is typically cast in terms of why God allows humans in general to suffer harm, yet the problem of evil in that popular as well as philosophical sense is hard to find in Scripture. For in Scripture, the problem of evil is more specific: why doesn't God do more to protect his own people from harm? 

ii) But suppose God invariably intervened to spare Jews and Christians from harm? What would that say about their piety? Would they be serving God for his sake or their sake? God has showered Job with security and prosperity. Job would be foolish not to honor a God like that. To serve a God like that is self-serving. An ideal arrangement, where he has everything to gain and nothing to lose. 

The Adversary compares Job's situation to sheepfold made of thorny hedges that shields sheep and goats from straying, or predators from picking them off. Is Job blessed because he's faithful–or faithful because he's blessed? Do he value the giver or the gifts? 

The Adversary accuses Job of acting out of enlightened self-interest. He proposes a test to distinguish disinterested motives from self-interested motives. If Job remains faithful after God suspends the gravy train, then Job's motives are pure. 

iii) However, that poses something of a conundrum. To be a creature is to be needy, dependent, and vulnerable. God can't suffer, but we can. Why should we be faithful to a God who's faithless to us?

Is it wrong to be concerned with our own welfare? Indeed, Scripture promises eschatological rewards and compensations. What we ultimately get out of it is an incentive to persevere.

iv) Do we do the right thing because it's the right thing to do? Do we do the right thing even when it hurts? Sacrificial love is a good example. "Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). That's the acid test of friendship. Are they prepared to suffer with you, or even suffer in your place, when they could avoid suffering by disowning you or leaving you behind? Or take someone who has to put his plans on hold to provide for an ailing family member. He does it out of love or duty. 

It's natural and proper to care about ourselves. But it's improper to care only about ourselves. On the proverbial lifeboat, do we share the rations or do we heave passengers overboard to have more rations for ourself? 

So it seems necessary that God not prevent Christians from having to experience suffering. If the walk of faith was harmless and pain-free, there'd be no difference between virtue, fidelity, and selfishness. Although it's legitimate to care about your own needs, you shouldn't be self-centered, but care also about the needs of others. Cost-free altruism is dirt cheap. The litmus test is when there's a conflict between your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Self-interest and self-denial need to be counterbalanced. Shouldn't be one-sided in either direction. 

v) Commentators dispute whether the antagonist in Job is the Devil. Other issues aside, his allegation is revealing. His suspects people ultimately act out of naked self-interest, disguised as mock-piety. Although that's a legitimate concern, his suspicion raises questions about the purity of his own devotion to God. Although his query is directed at Job, what does that cynical outlook say about his own motives? Has the antagonist unwittingly tipped his hand? By impugning Job's motives, is he inadvertently impugning his own motives? 

Thursday, May 03, 2018

The boy in the barbershop

1. I'm noncommittal on the antiquity of the universe. I'm open to old-earth creationism and new-earth creationism in that regard. A stock objection to mature creation is that it's deceptive. For instance, if the universe is only about 6-10K years old, then when we see a supernova, we're witnessing a nonevent. There never was a supernova corresponding to what we see, because the universe isn't old enough for the light to travel from the point of origin to earth, measured in lightyears. 

2. However, that objection poses a conundrum for the critic of mature creation. It posits a discrepancy between appearance and reality. We see something in the present, but in reality, we're witnessing the past, like a photograph of an event taken from the distant past. So the "deception" is relative to the background knowledge of the observer. According to modern astronomy, the supernova we see may no longer exist. Yet an ancient observer would assume that if he sees it, it must be there. So the objection of deception cuts both ways. 

3. This raises the problem of the observer in science. If physicalism is true, the observer is the brain, connected to sense organs. This means the observer never perceives the external world directly. Indeed, he can only see eyes with eyes. He can't directly observe the instrument he uses to make observations with. So he has no way of independently  confirming that he even has sense organs. The observer can't observe himself apart from himself. He can't assume the role of an outside observer. He can't step outside of himself to observer what he's really like, or what the world is really like. All he has to go by are his impressions. 

4. If anything, the problem is more acute regarding the origin of the world. Since that starts from nowhere, it could start anywhere. An absolute beginning is bound to be artificial. There's no right or wrong way to begin. 

5. As a young boy, I remember sitting in a barbershop. I was sitting in the barber chair, having my hair cut. It was one of those neat swivel pump chairs. Behind me was a mirror all along that side of the shop. In front of me was another mirror. The combination of the two mirrors generated an infinite=y mirror. Sitting in the chair, I could see my reflection multiplied, receding into the never-ending distance, in ever smaller images. Boxes within boxes. 

Of course, that's an optical illusion, but I knew it was an illusion because I was seeing myself. I enjoyed a privileged perspective. 

Yet science is all about reducing the first-person viewpoint to a third-person viewpoint. Eliminating that indexical perspective to produce a universal viewpoint.

But in that event, what counts as the unbiased observer? What's the true frame of reference?

Which of those images in the infinity mirror is the correct representation of reality? We can't say the boy in the chair is the unbiased observer, because that's a unique and unrepeatable viewpoint. An outside observer can't tap into his experience. As the boy in the chair, who sees his own reflection, I know that there's an asymmetrical relation between the observer and the images. Yet that's not a third-person viewpoint. That's not the perspective of an outside observer. 

In theory, the entire system–the boy, the mirrors, and the barbershop–could be boxes within boxes of an even larger image, like a picture on a wall. The observer could be standing outside the picture, looking at the picture of the boy in the barbershop. 

As creatures within the universe, who's the objective observer? Who's the outside observer? Who sees things as they really are? Is the supernova like reflections in a cosmic infinity mirror–or the object producing the reflections? 

6. Modern physics is very strange. The theory of relativity is counterintuitive. And quantum mechanics is even more baffling. There are multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics, and it's a choice between one weird interpretation and another weird interpretation. 

Isaiah 7:14

Virgin Birth (Isa. 7:14)

Wegner states, "There is little doubt that Isa. 7:14 and its reuse in Matt. 1:23 is one of the most difficult problems for modern scholars."67 This stems from a growing amount of evangelicals who question whether Isaiah 7:14 prophesies about a virgin birth. To be clear, these scholars acknowledges that Jesus was certainly born of a virgin as Matthew states (1:23). However, did Isaiah intend for that idea originally? Is there any movement from Old Testament to New Testament in this case?

Arguments against a messianic interpretation of the text appeal to three major pieces of evidence. First, the historical setting of Isaiah 7 seems to demand Isaiah's sign relate to the current circumstances. Isaiah 7 opens discussing how Ephraim and Aram are placing political and military pressure upon the southern kingdom (vv. 1-2).68 The discussion of the sign responds to that situation (vv. 3-14). This suggests it deals with something in the present and not future. Second, the wording of the sign implies this. Isaiah relates Immanuel's birth with the collapse of the kings of Ephraim and Aram (v. 15). That seems to say the sign relates to the current crisis.69 Third, later development of the sign in Isaiah seems to support this interpretation. In the very next chapter, Isaiah describes the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz in terms quite similar to [the] birth Immanuel (Isa. 8:4; cf. Isa. 7:16). Maher-shalal-hash-baz explicitly deals with the current situation of Ephraim and Aram (Isa. 8:4-8). That appears to confirm Isaiah intended the sign be fulfilled int he current time. Immanuel is a sign of the enemy's destruction and thereby Judah's deliverance.70

These arguments are admittedly compelling and make it seem that this is simply all the text discusses. However, several factors show there may be more involved. Like other prophets, Isaiah's mentality in this text does not merely focus on the present but the future:

  1. The context of Isaiah 7 shows Isaiah's redemptive historical awareness. Isaiah 7 is not the first chapter of the book. The previous chapters have set up important concepts and issues Isaiah 7 addresses. This revolves around how God will send Israel into exile because of their sin (5:26-30) but will reverse this in the end with a glorious kingdom (2:1-4; 4:2-6). Isaiah's call reiterates this paradigm. His job is to proclaim Israel's condemnation (Isa. 6:8-12) so that in the end, they will be made holy (Isa. 6:13).71 Isaiah's mission is one that connects present with the eschatological. Isaiah 7 is not in a vacuum. Its context suggests the present situation discussed relates to something greater.

  2. The immediate context exhibits this very perspective. Isaiah meets Ahaz with his son, Shear-Jashub, whose name means "the remnant will return" (7:3).72 The language is used earlier in Isaiah (cf. 1:26, 27; 4:3) showing the situation in Isaiah 7 is not just about the present but God's greater agenda of exile and restoration.73 Likewise, Isaiah's use of the "house of David" evidences Isaiah believed the current situation was a threat not only to Ahaz but the entire Davidic dynasty (7:2).74 Interestingly enough, the threat against the Davidic dynasty is the immediate context and concern of the sign (7:13). Again, the immediate context of Isaiah 7 does not merely describe a historical situation but one situated in a larger plan. Isaiah is not just speaking to the present situation.

  3. The grammar of the sign indicates this. As discussed, some have interpreted Isaiah 7:14-15 to say the child is a sign that the northern kingdom and Aram will be defeated. The language makes mention of the present situation for sure. However, that is not precisely what Isaiah says. Notice, the wording states the son will eat curds and honey (v. 15) because (כִּי) before the child is old enough to choose between good and evil, the kings' lands will be desolate (v. 16). Technically, the resolution of the conflict with Ephraim and Aram is not the content or purpose of the sign but rather the reason the sign occurs the way it does.75 It answers the question "why does Immanuel eat curds and honey, the food of poverty?" (cf. 7:22), as opposed to "what is the significance of Isaiah's sign?" Hence, to say Immanuel is a sign for Israel's present deliverance is not grammatically correct. Rather, the present circumstances will cause the tragic circumstances surrounding Immanuel's birth and childhood. Again, the present connect with the future.76

  4. Understanding this helps make sense of Maher-shalal-hash-baz in Isaiah 8. As discussed, some scholars parallel Maher-shalal-hash-baz with Immanuel. Indeed, in Isaiah 8:4, Maher-shalal-hash-baz signifies the upcoming desolation of Ephraim and Aram as predicted in Isaiah 7:16. That is the child's prophetic purpose. However, we just observed such desolation is not the purpose of the sign of Immanuel. In Isaiah 7:16, the desolation of those kingdoms explains why Immanuel will be born in poverty and not what Immanuel is all about. Accordingly, Maher-shalal-hash-baz and Immanuel do not share the same purpose. They relate, but are not the same sign. Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the sign that the harsh circumstances surrounding the Messiah's birth will take place. Maher-shalal-hash-baz is near the prophecy that confirms one in the more distant future (Immanuel's birth in exile). Kidner's observation (reiterated by Motyer) sums this up nicely:

    The sign of Immanuel . . . although it concerned ultimate events, did imply a pledge for the immediate future in that however soon Immanuel were born, the present threat would have passed before he would even be aware of it. But the time of his birth was undisclosed; hence the new sign is given to deal only with the contemporary scence.77

  5. The rest of Isaiah 8 further supports that Immanuel is not Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Isaiah's wife does not name the child contrary to what is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Isa. 8:3; Luke 1:31). Isaiah also records how Immanuel will ultimately triumph over Judah's enemies and end exile (Isa. 8:10). Based upon this, Immanuel seems to be different than Maher-shalal-hash-baz. After all, the latter never delivers Judah from its enemies. Thus, Isaiah differentiates Immanuel from Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

  6. Isaiah 8 also affirms the logic we observed in Isaiah 7:14-16. It describes how the Assyrian invasion will desolate Aram and Ephraim. However, it also discusses how the invasion will flood Judah, the "land of Immanuel" (8:5-8). If Immanuel is a sign that Israel's enemies will be destroyed resulting in Judah's salvation, why does Isaiah 8 state the opposite result occurs? Instead, the description in Isaiah 8 fits with what I have suggested above. Isaiah 7 prophesies Immanuel would live in poverty because of the present circumstances. Isaiah 8 states the desolation of the Judah's enemies would lead to Judah's own desolation and so Immanuel will be born in exilic conditions.

  7. The rest of Isaiah 8-11 reinforces a messianic perspective to Isaiah 7:14. At the end of Isaiah 8, the prophet describes how Israel and its king will collapse in darkness (8:21-22).78 However, from that darkness a light will come (9:1-2 [Heb., 8:23-9:1]) based upon the birth of a child (v. 6 [Heb., v. 5]) who bears the authority of God upon his shoulders. This messianic individual in Isaiah 9:6 (Heb., v. 5) corresponds with Isaiah 7:14.79 Both record the birth and naming of a child associated with God's presence ("God with us" versus "Mighty God"). Both discuss how a child is born in exile and trial. Both texts ensure the security of the Davidic dynasty by virtue of the child's birth. With such parallels, Isaiah arguably equates his prophecy in 7:14 with the messianic figure in 9:6 (Heb., 9:5). This reinforces a messianic interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah 11 also reiterates this. That chapter introduces a child-deliverer (Isa. 11:2) whose dominion is at the culmination of history (11:9-12).80 With that, Isaiah 11 repeats the same pattern of a royal child born who secures ultimate deliverance and reign. The similarities and pattern argue that Isaiah tied all of these texts together. Isaiah shows how the Son born of a virgin in exile (Isa. 7:14) is the Son/Child who will conquer the exile (9:6 [Heb., v. 5]) and ultimately restore the world (11:1-12). Again, later texts reinforce Isaiah 7:14 is not just about the present but the future.

These factors illustrate what we have observed in this chapter. Isaiah did know complex theological concepts like the Messiah. His writing develops that idea (Isa. 9:6 [Heb., v. 5]; 11:2) which clarifies the nature of Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah also did not strictly write about his current situation but had in mind how the present relates to the future. Hence, he talks about how the current crisis relates to the sign of the ultimate deliverance and security for the Davidic dynasty (Immanuel). He writes with greater complexity than we might originally anticipate.

One factor remains. Intertextuality not only helps us to see Isaiah's directionality but also his theological depth. This relates to the sign itself, the virgin birth. One might ask how the sign of a young woman (rightly assumed to be a virgin) giving birth participates in Isaiah's theological agenda.81 Scholars have consistently wondered about this reality.82 Intertextuality can aid in this discussion. The phrase "conceive and give birth" (יֹלֶ֣דֶ + הָרָה֙) is actually a formula reiterated in the canon. The formula applies to individuals including Eve (Gen. 4:1), Hagar (16:11), Sarah (21:2), Jochebed (Ex. 2:2), the mother of Samson (Judg. 13:5), and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:20).83 Ruth is a close parallel (4:10).84 The births are often miraculous because God overcomes barrenness (Judg. 13:5; 1 Sam. 1:20) or provides protection from harm (Gen. 16:11). Accordingly, the sons born are important individuals in God's plan.

The significance of the virgin birth seems to be an argument of lesser to greater. A virgin birth exceeds any other miraculous births. Consequently, the virgin-born Son is the most significant individual in redemptive history. He surpasses Isaac, Moses, Samson, or Samuel. In the context of Isaiah 7:14, the birth of this ultimate individual secures the Davidic dynasty and the restoration of a remnant (cf. Shear-Jashub, 7:3). He will be born in exile to end it. Hence, God will use this child in extraordinary ways to fulfill his plan and display his majesty. The child is truly "God with us" (7:14).

Therefore, Isaiah does not write better than he knows. He is aware his words will have bearing upon the future and the Messiah. His intertextual use of terms also shows why his prophecy is theologically significant. His appeal to the virgin birth showcases the Messiah as the most crucial individual for all time. In this way, Isaiah is a prophet-theologian who writes better than we give him credit for.


67. Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 467.
68. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 195-96.
69. Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 468-70; Walton, "Isaiah 7:14," 295-98.
70. Hamilton, "Virgin Will Conceive," 228-39. Hamilton summarizes these arguments well.
71. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 178.
72. Isaiah had already used the term "return" (שׁ֖וּב) in a pun on exile. On one hand, a remnant will return (1:26, 27), but the reason they return is because they refused to repent (6:10) and so God must judge them (1:25, 6:13).
73. Contrary to some (e.g., Walton) who argue that Isaiah 7:13-14 falls under a new section historically, there appears to be no real gap in the narrative. Furthermore, even assuming a historical discontinuity between the events, Isaiah enforces a literary continuity by placing the world "also" (גַּם) in the text. This adverb inherently places the information in Isaiah 7:13ff in parallel with the context above. The distribution of "house of David" also attests to this cohesion.
74. Isaiah describes how the present threat is a threat to the house of David (7:2), then addresses Ahaz directly (vv. 3-12), but then later addresses the house of David (v. 13). A change of pronouns accompany the change in titles. God addresses Ahaz in the singular but the Davidic household in the plural. These grammatical shifts argue that the different titles are not meant to be purely stylistic or synonymous. Isaiah addresses two different groups: Ahaz and the rest of the Davidic dynasty.
75. To make verse 16 the content of the sign, one would have to take the particle כִּ֣י ("for") as content ("that"), as opposed to causal or explanatory ("for" or "because"). However, two factors make this unlikely. First, to make verse 16 the content of the sign in verse 14 is unnatural since the verses are quite far apart. Second, technically the particle modifies the verbs in verse 15. The boy will eat curds and honey because the land will be forsaken. Thus, to claim that the sign is one of the destruction of the land is mistaken grammatically.
76. An additional grammatical observation supports this assertion. "Young woman" and "conceive" are in a predicate adjective construction. Conceive (or be pregnant) directly modifies the young woman in her current status. Just as the "man is good" means that the man in his current description as a man is good, so the virgin woman will get pregnant as a virgin. This counters the suggestion that while עַלְמָ֗ה may imply virginity, the young woman in Isaiah's day would marry, become pregnant, and then deliver a child. This too backs the notion that Isaiah had in mind a miraculous conception and birth par excellence. Contra Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 472. Wegner permits Isaiah 7:14 to influence the discussion which is circular reasoning. He suggests, based upon Ugaritic literature (particularly, the Nikkal poem), that glmt cannot include the semantic idea of virgin (471). In dealing with the Nikkal poem, it appears in the context that there is a prayer involved. Hence, the imperfect tld (to give birth) is not past-referring but rather denotes a request. See Vawter, "The Ugaritic Use of GLMT," 321; Goetze, "Nikkal Poem," 353-60. If this is the case, then his reasoning from Ugaritic is less effective.
77. Kidner, "Isaiah," 639; Motyer, Isaiah, 90.
78. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 239.
79. Ibid.; Motyer, Isaiah, 102-5.
80. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 239. Oswalt states "But this person will also be a child, and it is inescapable that the childish aspect of the deliverer is important to Isaiah, for it appears again in 11:6, 8 (as it is, of course, implied in 7:3, 14; 8:1-4, 8, 18)." See also Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 158-64; Motyer, Isaiah, 101-2.
81. Space does not permit an adequate lexicographical analysis of עַלְמָ֗ה, as opposed to בְּתוּלָה. However, the idea of a young woman who is marriageable and thereby presumably a virgin is defensible. See Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 471-72. Wegner critiques Walton's construal of the evidence for a helpful discussion. I disagree with Wegner's methodology of including Isaiah 7:14 in the discussion. If Isaiah 7:14 is the verse in question, bringing it as evidence of a certain lexical definition is circular reasoning. See also Feinberg, "The Virgin Birth in the Old Testament and Isaiah 7:14," 251-58; Niessen, "The Virginity of the עַלְמָ֗ה in Isaiah 7:14," 133-41. Two passages also raise attention to this issue, including Isaiah 54:4 where the term is used supposedly with a barren woman as well as Proverbs 30:19-20 where an adulterous woman is in the context. Reading Isaiah 54:4 as synonymous parallelism is misleading. Lexically if עַלְמָ֗ה refers to youthfulness, we are dealing with antithetical or merismatic parallelism. In the latter case, it demonstrates that Israel has been shameful in the context of her youthfulness as well as her adulthood. Seeing both other prophetic appeals to Israel's youthfulness as a sexual promiscuous woman (cf. Hos. 1-2) as well as the immediate context, which talks how God will be the faithful husband and make her glorious (Isa. 54:5-12). Zion's perversity as the shame of her youthfulness reinforces the notion of virginity rather than counters it. Similarly, if one takes Proverbs 30:19-20 as the adulterous woman perverting the purity of relationship between man and עַלְמָ֗ה, then it implies the chastity/purity of the עַלְמָ֗ה. That too harmonizes with the notion of implied virginity in the term.
82. Wegner, "How Many Virgin Births?" 467; Walton, "Isaiah 7:14," 297; Oswalt Isaiah 1-39, 210-11.
83. Genesis 16:11 uses a weqatal construction, instead of a participle found in Judges 13:5 and Isaiah 7:14. The use of weqatal probably accommodates Hagar's current pregnant state whereas the participle instans refers to a future event (i.e., that both conception and birth are future). See GKC §112.d (332); IBHS §32.2.4 (535); 37.6f (628). The implication in both Judges 13:5 and Isaiah 7:14 is that the women were not pregnant but would become so in their barren state or in their state as an עַלְמָ֗ה.
84. occurs in three hundred sixty verses without . Hence, the "conceive and give birth" formula is not just colloquial but a subset of communicating unique births.

(Chou, Abner. The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles, pp 113-19.)

Is Compatibilism Unfounded?

The origin of this post is from a question I asked my friends on Facebook, but I figured it would be worth expanding the audience a bit.  I have heard a lot of people criticize compatibilism as being incoherent, self-contradictory, and the like, but I think it’s relatively easy to establish at least one type of compatibilism that is coherent and ought not be controversial, even.

But first, what do we mean by compatibilism?  I take the definition here as: “God’s determining of an action is compatible with man’s moral responsibility for having performed that action.”  And by “moral responsibility” I mean that man is praiseworthy or blameworthy for performing the action that was determined. 

It’s easy to see why this causes some surface level tension for most of us.  If God determines that something will happen, how can we be responsible for it when we are doing what He determined?  So let me put forth the question I asked on Facebook: 

“Suppose that there is an action (A) that God has determined you will do.  God intends A because He’s got a good reason for doing so.  But you decide to do A because of a sinful reason.  Are you morally responsible for doing A even though A itself was determined by someone other than you?”

Or to put it another way:

1. God determines you will (A) because of morally good reason (G).
2. You (A) because of morally evil reason (E).

Under this scenario, I conclude you are therefore held morally responsible for your actions even though you did what was determined for you to do.

The Bible gives us (at least) two full examples where this format happens, and makes several allusions that appear to back it up as well.  The first example is when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; the second when God used Assyria to punish Israel.  So in the first case, we have:

1. God determines that Joseph’s brothers will sell Joseph into slavery because He intends to save lives.
2. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery because they hate Joseph.

We can establish each part of these claims from Scripture.  First, we know that God determined that Joseph’s brothers would sell Joseph into slavery because of Genesis 45:8a, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”  We know He did so for a good reason because of Genesis 50:20b, “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Finally, we know that Joseph’s brothers did so for an evil reason from the first half of that verse: “As for you, you meant evil against me.”

In the second example with Assyria, we have this structure:

1. God determines that Assyria will conquer Israel in order to punish evil and bring her to repentance.
2. Assyria conquers Israel because Assyria wishes to plunder and destroy.

Each of these is established in Isaiah 10.  Verse 6 informs us what the determined action and a partial reason for it is: “Against a godless nation I send [Assyria], and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.”  Verse 7 gives us Assyria’s evil reason for doing so: “But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few.”  Finally, the ultimate good reason for why God acts is found in verse 20: “In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.”

In addition to these full examples, we have a multitude of examples that show part of the structure and by which we can infer the same result, such as in Acts 4:27-28, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”  And we even have the inverse, where instead of being morally blamed for sinful actions, we are morally praised for doing good that was determined for us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

So looking at this, I think it’s safe to say that there is plenty of Biblical evidence that God can determine an action and the person who does the action can still be held morally responsible for having done that action, which is all that compatibilism requires to be established.  But what are some possible rejoinders to this?

First, I can imagine someone saying that the person is not actually held morally responsible for the action itself, but rather for the intent of the action.  To that I would say that this just is the manner in which most, if not all, actions are judged.  Take a man who cuts open the abdomen of another man and removes an organ.  This is an immoral action if the original man intends to torture or kill the victim, but it’s a morally praiseworthy action if the original man is performing life-saving surgery on the patient (no longer a victim).  To look at it from a different angle, suppose someone is insane and therefore incapable of understanding his own actions.  We do not typically hold such a person responsible for his actions, not because the action itself is different but because of why the action was performed.

Secondly, I can also imagine someone objecting: “But God decreed that they should have the intent they did.”  But where does compatibilism require God decree intents?  Even looking at the broader subject of Calvinism, having God ordain the actions but not ordaining the intent is at least not inconsistent with WCF 3.1, “God from all eterinity, did…ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”  Ordaining what someone will do is distinct from ordaining the reason why someone will do what they will do.  It is certainly logically possible to hold to the belief that God ordains all actions without ordaining even a single intention and still be consistent with the WCF.  And this view would fit in with several Scriptures too.  For example, Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

But in reality, we do not need to counter any of these objections, because neither of them would overthrow the fact that all we need is one instance where God determines an action (A) while holding a moral agent responsible for (A)-ing in order to establish that compatibilism can occur.  And we have two definite examples, plus a multitude that are highly suggestive in reserve, to do that for us here.


This is a sequel to my previous post:

Given popular interest in some of these FAQs:

I decided to give some of my own answers. I've been selective. Some of the Got Questions are unimportant while others are important, but I've discussed them in detail before, and I don't feel the need to recycle my answers. 

As a general point, we can think of lots of questions the Bible doesn't answer. Some of these questions are unanswerable, although we can speculate. Some conjectures are more reasonable than others.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Dismal prospects for secular ethics

Catholic suicide

Here's the traditional Catholic position on suicide:

Q. 1274. What sin is it to destroy one's own life, or commit suicide, as this act is called?

A. It is a mortal sin to destroy one's own life or commit suicide, as this act is called, and persons who willfully and knowingly commit such an act die in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of Christian burial. 

Unsurprisingly, post-Vatican II theology smudges the original clarity:

2282 Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

But there are tensions in the current position. Does the CCC mean that suicide is never a mortal sin? Or does it mean that in some cases, there are extenuating circumstances that mitigate what would otherwise be a mortal sin? 

If suicide is a mortal sin, and by that very act, the suicide dies in a state of mortal sin, then it's too late for him to confess to a priest and receive absolution. By that logic, suicide is a damnable sin. There's is no second chance between the suicide ran out the clock. That's the traditional logic of the Baltimore catechism. 

Suicide is unforgivable if you can't receive forgiveness direct from God. If you can only be forgiven by a priest, then suicide uniquely eliminates that opportunity. 

But if forgiveness needn't be mediated by a priest, then it's not unforgivable on those grounds. So does the CCC mean sinners, or Christians in particular, can receive direct divine forgiveness? But in that event, the sacrament of penance is superfluous. 

This is the studied fuzziness we find in contemporary Catholic theology, even at the highest levels. 

The traditional position presumes that you need to maintain a running checklist of sins. When you go to confession, you cross out the sins for that week, then begin compiling a new list. 

No doubt Christians should be contrite and confess their sins (to God). But the nature of sin is to be morally numbing to some degree, so that we don't remember or are even aware of all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. 

Does God still speak?

How to suffer well

His father died in an airplane crash when Groothuis was eleven.

The particular cruelty of this disease is that you slowly lose your mind–and you're aware of it slipping away [in reference to his wife].

We have hope, but it's deferred.

Sixty of the psalms are laments…I'm grateful for the lament we see in Scripture–it's God helping us learn how to suffer well.

Compare Jesus with Buddha. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is suffering. It's not that there is suffering in a good world, but life is suffering. The Buddha's answer is to escape the world and enter nirvana through a change of consciousness–to depersonalize yourself and sort of float out of the world. There's no resurrection, no redemption, no savior. 

There's a difference between meaningless suffering and inscrutable suffering.

There's a verse in Ecclesiastes that says there's a time to give up [Eccl 3:1,6]…The Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier said that wisdom is knowing when to resist and when to surrender. 

I know too much to turn back from being a Christian.

Time after time, when I begin to lose sight of that [hope], I go back to apologetics–to the clear and compelling reasons to be confident that God exists, that Jesus is his unique Son, that the resurrection actually occurred, and therefore his promises to us–promises of hope and eventual healing–are true.

God has allowed me to see the world through tears, which is maybe the most authentic way to experience it.

I'm hanging by a thread, but, fortunately, the thread is knit by God. 

Doug Groothuis, "When Miracles Don't Happen," L. Strobel, The Case for Miracles (Zondervan 2018), chap. 13.

Whoever him

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

From Adam to Hobbits

Methodology in prayer studies

Anderson vs. Abasciano on John 3:16

James Anderson has responded to Abasciano on John 3:16.

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 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.