Saturday, May 19, 2018

A horse of another color

1. I recently listened to the debate between Lydia McGrew and Craig Evans. The debate concerns the reliability of John's Gospel in relation to the Synoptics, with special emphasis on the sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:

Friday, May 18, 2018

Marriage to a Praying Mantis

I'll comment on this post:

Protestant ethics was centered on biblical authority, they argued, while Roman Catholic ethics, because of its natural law tradition, was far too enamored with the powers of human reason. Protestants emphasized the consistency of the Bible’s moral teaching, summarized in the Ten Commandments, while Roman Catholics wrongly contrasted the new law of the gospel with the old law of Israel.

In some ways, to be sure, the reformers themselves paved the way for this contrast. While they upheld the traditional Christian teaching that God’s moral will is written on the human heart and in the creation order (i.e., natural law), they expressed fresh skepticism regarding the capabilities of human reason. While they insisted that Christians were to interpret the Ten Commandments in light of the law’s fulfillment in Christ, they downplayed any meaningful contrast between the ethical teaching of the old and new testaments.

1. It oversimplifies the issue to say Protestant ethics centered on the Decalogue. 

i) Does Lutheran ethics center on the Decalogue? Does Anabaptist ethics center on the Decalogue? What about Anglican theology a la Hooker? 

ii) Even in Presbyterianism, there's the general equity of the Mosaic law in addition to the Decalogue. 

2. A common problem with natural law appeals is how Catholic apologists gerrymander natural law to retroactively defend positions that were arrived at independently of natural law, based on ecclesiastical authority. Case in point is the Catholic position on contraception. 

Over time, however, many evangelical Protestants virtually abandoned the concept of natural law altogether, in favor of an emphasis on biblical authority. And because of their emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the perfect expression of God’s moral will, they largely ignored the distinctiveness of the New Testament’s virtue-oriented, Christocentric approach to ethics. Thus one could look far and wide for any meaningful Protestant study of Christian virtues akin to that of Aquinas.

1. I don't object to natural law in principle, but it's usually bedeviled by lack of specificity.

2. Did Aquinas have a Christocentric approach to ethics?

3. The virtue-orientated aspect of Protestant ethics is indexed to a pastoral theology of mortification and sanctification (e.g. John Owen, Richard Sibbes). 

4. The relation between OT and NT ethics is a matter of perennial theological debate. 

5. Does Tuininga think NT ethics is virtue-oriented in contrast to OT ethics? Of course, the Mosaic law is largely a civil and penal code, so it's focussed on behavior. But there's also a recurring theme about circumcision of the heart in OT ethics. 

6. What about classic examples of Protestant casuistry by William Perkins, William Ames, and Richard Baxter? 

Yet even here, as Protestants we have much to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters. 

Bible scholars like Richard Bauckham, Gordon Wenham, and Christopher Wright have done yeoman work on OT ethics. Likewise, we have fine evangelical ethicists like John Frame, John Feinberg, and John Jefferson Davis. 

For example, the Catholic church has long promoted and protected Christian celibacy as an alternative to marriage, in line with the example and teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. 

The Catholic church has long promoted and protected clerical pederasty as an alternative to marriage, in line with the example of bacha bazi in Islam. 

Likewise, the Catholic church has held faithfully to the sanctity of marriage, insisting that divorce is profoundly incompatible with the sacramental meaning of marriage as an analogy for the unity between Christ and the church. 

Likewise, the Catholic church has skirted the sanctity of marriage through the loophole of annulment. The "sanctity of marriage" in Catholicism is a sham. 

In Scripture, marriage is a covenant, not a sacrament. 

In stark contrast, Protestants have tended to overemphasize marriage as the only ideal life plan for all Christians, while at the same time tolerating and even defending the prevalence of divorce.

In stark contrast, Protestants agree with Scripture that there are justifiable grounds for divorce.  

Protestants also have much to learn from Catholic social teaching as it pertains to poverty and oppression. 

Like how the Roman Catholic church used to oppress theological dissidents, viz. the Inquisition, Exsurge Domine? Like how the Catholic church exploited the poor through the sale of indulgences? 

Classic Christian thought taught that God has given the world to human beings in common. It affirmed the legitimacy of property subject to the requirement that those who have what they need share with those who do not, in order that the poor might receive justice. This has evolved into the modern Catholic concept of solidarity, which calls Christians to bear the burdens of those who are poor and oppressed. 

Poverty isn't always the result of injustice. 

Protestants would do well to emulate the Catholic conviction that the sanctity of life requires vigorous protection at every stage and in every form, like a “seamless garment” from beginning to end.

That's a euphemism for opposition to capital punishment. 

The gospel of the kingdom and its righteousness remains the same as it did one thousand and two thousand years ago…

The NT Gospel remains the same. But that's hardly the Gospel preached by Rome a 1000 years ago, or 500 years ago, or today. Catholicism is a different religion from biblical theism. 

…and faithful Protestants and Catholics of all denominations will increasingly find that, as pilgrims on the same journey, serving one Lord with one faith, they will come much nearer to their goal if they walk together than if they walk separately.

Oh, Gosh, all we need is a picture of a cowboy riding off into the sunset with an angel choir in the background. Catholic theology and Protestant theology represent divergent theological visions. A road sign pointing in different directions. 

Questions on the Trinity

An anonymous author asked me to comment on his post:

Before I ask my questions, allow me to clarify my position: I hold to what you refer to as “Nicene subordinationism,” which you call both “inherently unstable” and “a gateway drug to unitarianism.” As is probably quite clear, I subscribe to the Nicene Creed as adopted in 325. I’ve included Philip Schaff’s version of this creed in the sidebar of this site. My position is that of both Bp. George Bull and Samuel Clarke, though more-so that of Bp. Bull. 

Since Clarke was unitarian, I don't see how that's consistent with Nicene theology. 

Concerning your position, I would maintain that it is at times semi-modalistic, at times polytheistic, and (when considered as a whole)...

i) Since the author doesn't explain in what respect he finds my position to be by turns polytheistic and semi-modalistic, there's nothing for me to respond to on that front. In fairness, he didn't ask me about that. If he had, he might have provided more context.

ii) As I've often noted, discussions of the Trinity routinely suffer from a bias or prejudice by treating unity (the one God) as more fundamental than plurality (the three persons). However, I don't consider tritheism to be worse than unitarianism (or modalism). Both are equally erroneous. 

…at all times contrary to the understanding of the primitive body of believers. 

Is that code language for Nicene fathers/bishops? If so, my position is contrary to their position inasmuch as I reject the paradigm of eternal generation/procession. 

Out of a desire to have a proper dialogue, I will refer to your position as simply “trinitarian” rather than “neo-trinitarian,” which I think is a more proper description of your view.

I understand that most trinitarians (eg. B. B. Warfield, John Frame, John Feinberg, and Paul Helm) would assert that, in objection to their doctrine of the Trinity being polytheistic, that there is but one “essence” or “being” of God. Or, as James White says, “God is one what, and three whos.”

1. In Cyril of Alexandria’s letter to John of Antioch, he states that Christ is “of the same substance with his Father according to His Divinity, and of the same substance with us according to his humanity.” If Christ being of the same substance or essence with us does not necessitate that there is but one human, how does His being of the same substance or essence with the Father necessitate that there is but one God?1

i) Actually, I agree that consubstantiality is a necessary but insufficient condition for divine unicity. That amounts to generic unity rather than numerical identity.

ii) It isn't necessary for me to philosophically refute the charge that my view of the Trinity is tritheistic. The primary criterion is exegetical rather than philosophical. Even if my position had a tritheistic appearance, that's not a defeater or heretical if the NT theism has a tritheistic appearance. We must stay faithful to the revelatory witness whether or not we can tie up the loose ends into a nice little bow. 

iii) Moreover, the objection rebounds against Nicene theology. Grounding the unity of the Godhead in the Father as the fons deitas falls short of numerical identity. A shared essence is consistent with multiple instances or separate beings. So the Nicene alternative is subject to a similar objection. 

iv) Finally, on occasions when I do use models and analogies to illustrate how one God can be three persons, I don't rely on consubstantiality. 

2. When trinitarians use the word “God,” it often signifies the Trinity (all three persons) or the “essence/being” of God. Can you point me to one passage of scripture where the word “God” signifies a complex notion of more than one person at once. Put more succinctly, can you provide any place in the scripture where the word “God” signifies all three persons (the Trinity) in one singular usage of the word? And, if you say that this is not your predominate usage, that you prefer to use the term “God” to refer to the essence or being of God, can you provide me anywhere in scripture where the word “God” is used to signify such a concept?

3. If when you say “God” you mean three persons, how is it right to refer to them as a “he”? If when you say “God” you mean the essence or being of God, how is it right to refer to it as a “he”? Are either of these ways of using the term “God” supported in scripture?

i) I reject how that frames the issue. It's not primarily a question of how a particular word is used, but the concept of God in Scripture, which has a much broader database than occurrences of the word “God”. Not beginning with a word to map onto a concept but beginning with a concept to map onto one or more words–that's my methodology. 

ii) When speaking popularly, I can use "God" both collectively (the Trinity) and individually (the Father as God, the son as God, the Spirit as God). When speaking with greater technical or philosophical precision, I say the persons are "divine"–as well as the nature or essence. 

iii) As I've also noted, there are different kinds of nouns: proper, common, abstract, concrete. The same noun can have four different connotations in that respect. 

iv) I don't use “he” for the divine essence because that's confusing. As a general matter, we don't customarily use singular masculine pronouns to denote a nature, substance, essence. To take a comparison, we don't refer to the attribute of omniscience as “he”, or the attribute of omnipotence as “he”.

v) As a matter of linguistic convention, I might refer to the Trinity as “it” rather than “he” since that's a common way (in standard English usage) of denoting collectives, even in the case of personal collectives. Conversely, I might refer to the “Godhead” as “they”. But this concerns surface grammar. It doesn't carry a lot of theological freight (or ontological commitment).

vi) I usually avoid “being” in Trinitarian discussions because that's ambiguous. 

The Billy Graham rule

i) Vice President Pence revived debate over the Billy Graham rule. According to that rule, a man shouldn't be alone with a woman other than his wife. Presumably, the Graham rule has an implicit codicil for female relatives. 

I think the rule is extreme. In a way it's similar to Muslim sensibilities. According to Muslim mores, men and women are sexual animals with no more impulse control than an animal in heat. A woman is a seductress simply by virtue of being a woman. As such, it's necessity to protect men from women by putting women in burkas. Protect the roving eyes of men from moth-like attraction to the candle. By the same token, it's necessary to subject adolescent girls to cliorectomies, according to the savage logic that if they don't find sexual intercourse physically enjoyable, they won't be tempted to commit premarital or extramarital sex. It says something about Islam that Muslim men want sex with women who don't want sex with them. But that's one of the many cultural pathologies of Islam. 

ii) That said, while I don't defend the rule, I respect the motivation. The only thing that deters most men and women from promiscuity is religious restraint or fear of repercussions. Indeed, a major reason many people commit apostasy or never consider Christianity in the first place is due to Christian sexual ethics (i.e. monogamy). 

iii) Although the rule is an overreaction, it is prudent to avoid gratuitous sexual temptation.  

iv) Ironically, the people who mock Pence for following the Billy Graham rule are apt to be the very same people mocking Trump's Hollywood sexual lifestyle. No attempt to be logically or morally consistent. 

v) Finally, it's my impression that the Billy Graham rule had a specific background. When you consider the experience that gave rise to the rule, it's not so easy to ridicule. According to Templeton's memoir:

Billy and I had taken two days off in Copenhagen and were scheduled to join the others in Paris. We arrived a day early and wandered the streets, grateful that the city had not been pulverized as London had. Paris was thronging with Allied soldiers on leave and seemed a city of prostitutes. They paraded the main thoroughfares, soliciting openly. In civilian clothes, we were particular targets. On a daylight walk down the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to our hotel we were accosted at least fifty times. The girls stood in front of us, impeding our progress, whispering. One threw open her fur coat to reveal that she was wearing nothing but a garter belt and stocking. Billy's face was grim. "Chuck," he said, "we've got to get out of here." We set off at a half trot, literally shoving the girls aside.

Inside the hotel lobby, laughing and breathless, I turned to Billy and said, saying it for both of us, "My Lord!"

That evening we went looking for a restaurant. We chanced  upon an attractive and "very French" place. It had a fairly large room with a bar to one side, the tables arranged around a postage-stamp-size dance floor. A trio of blacks were playing American blues. We ordered Cokes and looked about. I'd told Billy not to worry about the menu; my high-school French would suffice. In fact, I was immediately at a loss when the waitress began to respond to my questions.

Two girls stopped at our table, and before we were quite aware of what was happening, joined us and ordered drinks. They were very young, not yet in their twenties, and quite beautiful. Neither spoke English. I tried to carry on a conversation but was soon at sea. Attempting a compliment, I said to one of them, "Vous avez tres beaux chevaux rouge." When they burst into laughter I realized that I had told her she had beautiful red horses, rather than beautiful red cheveux, hair.

Our meal came and we proceeded to eat it, two simultaneous conversations going on; Billy and I in English and the girls in French. As we paid the check, it became clear that they were planning to leave with us. I tired to make excuses but each had taken an arm and, as we emerged into the street, clutched tightly. My girl was pointing toward a massive apartment block across the street, Billy's was pulling him away. Over a shoulder, he gave me a despairing look. I grimaced and said, "Guess we'll have to walk  them home." In truth, we didn't know how to extricate ourselves. 

Inside the apartment building, a broad staircase led to the second floor. As we mounted the stairs- wanting to get out of my predicament but not sure how to-I spied a W.C. on the landing. I pointed and said, "Excusez." It occurred to me that I had wandered into danger and was at risk of being mugged. In the W.C. I looked for a place to hide my wallet; in it was all my money and identification. I stood on the toilet bowl, reached up and stashed it on top of the water chamber. As I emerged the girl was talking to a rough-looking man who turned and went quickly down the hall. She called out to me, "Viens ici." I shook my head, said, "Non, Non" and went down the stairs three at a time. Outside, I watched until I saw her come out and cross the street to the restaurant. I went back up the stairs, retrieved my wallet and returned to our hotel.

At the hotel, no Billy. An hour passed. When two hours had gone, I began to worry. I considered calling the police but realized that there was little I could tell them; I had no idea where he might be. Close to midnight, he burst through the door, panting, his face shining with perspiration, his hair dishevelled, his tie in a pocket, the collar of his shirt open. 

He threw himself on the bed breathing heavily. "Chuck, you have no idea what's happened to me. I thought I was going to walk the girl home and the leave her, but she hailed a cab. We drove and drove and drove. Somewhere outside the city in a dark little suburb, the cabby stopped. He didn't speak any English, neither did she, and I couldn't understand what he was saying about the fare. I took the money from my wallet and held it out, expecting him to do what the London cabbies do- take what was his and leave the rest. He took it all. 

"The girl had me by the arm and she led me toward this place where she lived. It was a dump. We got inside and she closed the door. I was trying to think of something I could say or do to let her know I was leaving. She went over to the bed, and without a word, unbuttoned her dress, tossed it aside and fell back on the bed. And Chuck, she was stark naked! 

"I turned, opened the door and got out of there. In the street, I started to run. I don't know how far I ran; it could have been a mile or two. When finally I stopped, I looked around. I had no idea where I was. I was going to hail a cab, and then realized I didn't have any money. I asked some people the way to the downtown area but they just looked at me or rattled on in French. So I started to walk. I walked and walked and walked until I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Then I knew where I was..."

The gods of open theism

There are roughly two different kinds of open theism based on two different starting-points or epistemological orientations. On the one hand there's philosophical open theism; on the other hand there's exegetical open theism.

Some people ground open theism primarily in philosophical considerations like the nature of the future and/or the nature of human freedom. These can be interrelated.

Other people ground open theism primarily in a kind of face-value hermeneutic that minimizes anthropomorphic readings of Scripture.

However, this generates a point of tension in open theism. In my experience, philosophical open theists posit that God knows all possibilities. Hence, God can't be surprised by anything. 

But that collides with exegetical open theism, which appeals to prooftexts in which God expresses surprise, regret, disappointment, even furious frustration at how things turned out. 

If we take open theist hermeneutics as our starting-point, then there's no justification to posit that God knows all possibilities. For the God who emerges from Scripture on open theist hermeneutics is psychologically humanoid. A figure like Zeus or Odin. A God who's not only in the dark regarding the future, but has to make things up as he goes along because he didn't even have contingency plans at the ready. Depending on their starting-point or epistemological orientation, open theism presents two different Gods. Divergent concepts of God. One is more recognizably pagan while the other is more abstract. 

This is ironic because one of the selling-points for atheism is the claim that classical theism is an artificial overlay on Scripture that filters Scripture through an alien interpretive grid. Yet there's a parallel clash between exegetical open theism and philosophical open theism. Philosophical open theism has its own extrinsic screen.

So consistent open theists need to pick one version and stick with it, since the two versions don't mesh. Preferably, they should just ditch open theism altogether. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Richard Dawkins comes to call

Hostile testimony

An irony in the Gospels is that sometimes the disciples misunderstand Jesus, and sometimes his enemies misunderstand Jesus, but sometimes his enemies are quicker to pick up on what he means than his disciples. 

There's a sense in which it's possible to agree with Jesus too soon. Where premature agreement is a way of keeping Jesus at a safe distance. 

The enemies of Jesus took him more seriously than some of his followers. They were quicker to discern that he posed a threat to what they represented. Sometimes, if a reader reflexively agrees with a statement in the Gospels, that means he didn't let the message get in. He simply greets it at the door. Shakes hands. Then shuts the door–with the message standing outside on the porch. That's why hostile testimony can have a particular value. 

Sweating in the vineyard

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:1-16).

i) This is similar to the parable of the prodigal son in Luke. In a way it's similar to Mary and Martha in Lk 10:38-42. How many readers have a sneaking sympathy for Martha? 

ii) I think commentators generally let us down on passages like this. They adopt blandly pious interpretations. But surely there are Christians who feel sympathetic to Martha's complaint, the complaint of the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, as well as the complaint of the disgruntled workers in this parable. Out of piety, they suppress their reaction, yet that leaves the cognitive dissonance unresolved. 

Too often, commentators, when remarking on this parable, take the easy way out. But that sabotages the parable. Jesus is banking on the fact that listeners will naturally side with the disgruntled workers. When the reader is too quick to acquiesce to the position of the employer, we short-circuit the parable. 

iii) The reason for piously bland interpretations is that we want to be on the right side. In the parable, the employer is what's called a normative character. He represents the viewpoint of the storyteller. A reader can sense that the employer stands for Jesus. 

In many parables, Jesus is an explicit or implicit character in his own parables. Sometimes there's a parabolic character who's a stand-in or mouthpiece for Jesus. In the parable of the prodigal son, that's the Father. Once we identify the normative character, we feel compelled to agree with him since he represents God or Jesus (same thing) in the parable. And surely it's important to be on the same side as Jesus.

In this parable, the disgruntled workers stand on one side while the employer and latecomers occupy the other side. Which side will you take? Even if you secretly sympathize with the disgruntled workers, you feel that you ought to side with the employer and the latecomers since the employer is a spokesman for Jesus. 

iv) And there's a grain of truth to that. You don't want to be on the wrong side of Jesus. You're supposed to agree with Jesus, right? 

But it's a more complex than that. When he tells a parable like this, Jesus is adopting the role of a provocative storyteller. He expects the listener to bristle. In a parable like this, he's daring the listener to protest. That's a rhetorical strategy.

Yet when Christians let that roll off their back, it eliminates a necessary phase in grappling with the message. I think we're meant to wrestle with parables like this. The parable is meant to be aggravating. The parable is meant to be a bit galling. If, for pious reasons, you don't allow yourself to be aggravated; if, for pious reasons, you don't allow yourself to identify with the disgruntled workers, then you're not allowing yourself to be challenged by the message. 

Jesus knows the listener will have instinctive sympathy for the disgruntled workers. He knows we're thinking that if we were in the same position, we'd naturally be resentful, too, and so the effectiveness of the parable depends on some pushback by the reader or listener. If we roll over right at the outset, we've failed to take the barbed message to heart. We didn't let the message sink in. We didn't let it rub us the wrong way. 

And a problem with that reaction is that it leaves Christians ill-prepared for when we feel that we've been shafted. Because we didn't resolve that tension in our minds. We just shelved it. And that can come back to hurt us. 

The danger in reading a parable like this is to instantly agree with the employer, then pat ourselves on the back for taking the right side. But at a certain level that's insincere. Deep down we may not be persuaded. Thin piety buckles under pressure. Sitting in the pew, you can nod your head at all the right places, but when life rubs your face in the dirt, thin piety may fail you. Cheap piety is no match for costly discipleship.

iv) Jesus often tells parables that leave unanswered questions. That leave some issues hanging in midair. I think that's deliberate. We're meant to keep reflecting on the story. We're meant to keep churning that over. That's why some parables leave some issues unresolved. 

In this parable, I think the reader's unspoken misgiving is not so much that employer was unfair. Rather, the question a parable like this leaves dangling is, Why be good? Why resist temptation, why deny yourself, if you can do whatever you want, then repent on your deathbed? Why patiently wait in line, defer to others, when you can cut in line at the late minute? 

When someone goes to the front of the line and gets in first, it's not just a question of fairness. It makes people who were waiting in line feeling like fools. There's a sense of betrayal. If people who break the rules get away with it, it's stupid to play by the rules. Why not live for instant gratification, then have a deathbed conversion? 

In the parable of the prodigal son, the father tells the resentful son, "all that is mine is yours". But isn't the obvious comeback, "No, dad, what's left over–after you gave my layabout brother his share of the estate–is mine!" 

And this isn't just an issue that's hovering in the background of two parables. Rather, this is a complaint that cycles through the Bible. So often the faithful get the short end of the stick. That's a recurring complaint in Scripture. 

v) One interpretive issue to keep in mind that Jesus is fond of hyperbole. He often overstates the case to make a point. I'm surprised by how many commentators take the explanation of the employer at face value. But that's tone-deaf to Christ's rhetorical modus operandi. He frequently creates unrealistic scenarios to dramatize certain issues.

vi) When we watch a movie we tend to subconsciously identify with certain characters. We root for the good guys.

One issue is which group the reader relates to in the parable. Western Christians may naturally see themselves as the early birds in the parable. We've been laboring faithfully from the crack of dawn. However, a Third-World Christian might see the western Christian as the latecomer who has it easy. Many Third-World Christians lead wretched lives. Compared to them, many of us have far less to complain about. 

Mind you, just to observe that some other people are far worse off than you isn't much of a theodicy. But that's an argument for another day.

vii) So who do the latecomers in the parable represent? That's intentionally ambiguous and open-ended. It would be wrong to equate them with deathbed converts, although that may be included. 

On the one hand there are cradle Christians who've been exposed to the Gospel under very favorable terms. Who've benefited from a Christian upbringing. 

Conversely, there are unbelievers who had a godless childhood, with clueless, aimless parents. Neglected children. For instance, Francis Chan lost both parents as a child. He lived with an aunt and uncle, until the uncle murdered his wife right in front of young Francis Chan. 

Some of them are latecomers to the faith, but one can hardly begrudge them since they didn't have the spiritual advantages some of us enjoyed. While it's advantageous to cut in line, sometimes that offsets a prior disadvantage. So there are situations in which the spiritually privileged and underprivileged balance out at different times of life. Both sides can feel cheated or slighted if they fail to take everything into account. Cutting in line may compensate for spiritual deprivation early on. 

viii) Then there's the question of what makes this life worthwhile. Ironically, so many hedonists are miserable. They deny themselves nothing, yet they're chronically dissatisfied. Often resort to drugs and alcohol to fill the void. Hedonism is not a recipe for happiness.  

ix) Then there's the question of what makes the afterlife fulfilling. What's the nature of heavenly rewards? What rewards are we seeking? Is our eternal bliss based on comparing our situation to another saint? Should we be looking at others? Should we care?

For many Christians, the hope of heaven includes a family reunion. Spending eternity with those we love. Those we like to be around. If that's in part our notion of a heavenly reward, why should we care how someone else was rewarded? We got what was important to us, didn't we? 

Likewise, some ailing Christians look forward to rejuvenation. Restoration of health. Not to mention Christians who were born disabled. For them, a normal body will be a first-time experience. Why should they be concerned with how someone else is rewarded?

It's like brothers comparing Christmas presents. Even if one got a more expensive gift than the other, that doesn't make it a better gift if it's not what you want. 

Heaven isn't competitive. Having your deepest needs met is independent of how someone else's deepest needs are met. Presumably, it's not a question of getting a bonus, over and above what you need to be happy. Is it not enough to be happy? Happy at long last? Is it not enough to have your unrequited yearnings ultimately fulfilled? What does it matter how someone else is rewarded so long as your belated longings are finally met? 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Celestial damage control

When Gregory Boyd died, he was expecting to go to heaven. He figured he had a good shot at the second sphere, or the first sphere in a pinch, but was rudely surprised, the moment after death, to find himself in the third circle of hell. Who assigned him to the third circle of hell? As fate would have it, his bunkmate was Clark Pinnock. Imagine Pinnock's shock at discovering that hell really existed! 

Having preceded Boyd by several years, Pinnock was up on the latest gossip about the Byzantine intricacies of the celestial bureaucracy. Rumor had it that because the God of open theism was fallible, the Book of Life was riddled with typographical errors. God was constantly blindsided by unforeseen events. He changed his mind at the drop of a hat. 

As a result, many saints were accidentally consigned to hell while many hellions and demons were accidentally reassigned to heaven. The booking errors got to be so bad that the celestial curia had an office staffed with angelic proofreaders to correct errata in the Book of Life. That, however, demanded utmost diplomacy. The God of open theism was notoriously short-tempered, prone to wild mood swings. Like an omnipotent adolescent. 

As a consequence, the celestial proofreaders had to be very discreet about correcting the Book of Life lest the Omnipotent fly off the handle at the insinuation of divine ineptitude. The celestial bureaucracy was backlogged with appeals from disgruntled decedents, complaining that they were assigned to the wrong room, due to typographical errors in the Book of Life. But the appellate process dragged on for centuries or millennia because celestial proofreaders had to be very artful about revising the Book of Life. They had to wait for God to be preoccupied by the latest unforeseen crisis to smuggle in corrections. 

Sometimes a well-placed bribe oiled the rusty cogs and wheels of the celestial curia. Borrowing a leaf from Gen 6:2,4, well-connected decedents offered libidinous angelic proofreaders nubile models from the Sport' Illustrated swimsuit edition in exchange for promotion in the Book of Life. Since, a la open theism, the Book of Life was written in pencil rather than ink, the proofreader with the biggest eraser acquired the largest harem. Postmortem social mobility in the Book of Life became a thriving entrepreneurial opportunity, with Tetzel supervising the operation. When he wasn't asleep at the switch, God sometimes skimmed the latest edition of the Book of Life, but the open theist deity was so forgetful that he didn't notice the emendations.   

Apparitions of Jesus

Recently I read Tom Doyle's book, Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World? (Thomas Nelson 2012). I also read Strobel's interview with Doyle in L. Strobel, The Case for Miracles (Zondervan 2018), chap. 8. In addition, I read or listened to some material by David Garrison, which covers much the same ground, but is independent of Doyle, and has different anecdotes. 

Doyle and Garrison document reported apparitions of Jesus to Muslims. However, the phenomenon isn't confined to Muslim converts to Christianity. For instance:

A few observations:

1. I don't automatically believe or disbelieve any particular report. I think there's cumulative plausibility, when you have multiple independent reports of the same kind of phenomenon. One doesn't have to credit all of them to think that, odds are, given that many reports, at least a fraction are probably authentic.

2. In many cases this involves individuals who have a incentive not to believe in Jesus. This happens in spite of their predisposition.

3. Of course, some people indulge in tall tales about supernatural encounters. We must always make allowance for that. Just as, odds are, a fraction are probably authentic, a fraction are inevitably fraudulent. 

4. By the same token, some people experience hallucinations. They are sincere, but mistaken.

5. However, some of the anecdotes, if reliably reported, have veridical elements. Information is imparted that they wouldn't be in a position to naturally know, but it's later confirmed. Strobel also mentions two people having the same dream the same night, although I didn't read any examples of that (unless I missed it). But if they happen, synchronized dreams would be veridical. Likewise, dreams that come true–if they're sufficiently specific and naturally improbable. 

6. How do we classify a Christophany? There seem to be two basic categories:

i) Jesus physically appearing to someone

ii) Jesus telepathically appearing to someone

Most of the cases I've read comport with (ii), although some cases have physical traces which might indicate (i). 

7. Given the number of reported encounters, if a subset of those involve Jesus physically appearing to people, then that implies bilocation, because Jesus would have to be in two or more places at once to appear to that many people. (I'm referring to modern-day reports.) 

If so, that might have implications for Gospel harmonization. If Jesus sometimes physically appears in two (or more) places at once, then "contradictory" reports of when, where, and to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection may have a neglected principle of harmonization. 

8. In modern-day Christian apologetics, there's an overemphasis on ancient documentary evidence. Although it's necessary to defend the inerrancy and historicity of Scripture, and while it's useful to make the Resurrection a component of Christian apologetics, the evidence for Christianity isn't confined to literary reports of biblical miracles. Christianity is a living faith. Throughout church history, some Christians encounter God in extraordinary ways. These reports need to be carefully sifted, but that's true for testimonial evidence generally. Modern-day Christian apologetics frequently suffers from tunnel vision in the sample of evidence it showcases. But the evidential database is much broader. 

Christian revival in the Muslim world

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

When the evangelical "vote" is conflated with Christian witness

Insofar as Christians conflate the causes of “the political left” with the witness of the Gospel, Christians are being manipulated into becoming “useful idiots”.

The evangelical support for Trump is a “sin [that] is collapsing the Evangelical moral witness,” says David French in a recently published open letter. “Moral witness” has become an important term in the evangelical NeverTrump rhetorical arsenal. Whatever it means, it has been lost or harmed since evangelicals chose to pursue “political expediency” at the expense of “moral principle,” as many have recently claimed. Evangelical politics ought to be witnessing faith and not have a lust for power.

Thomas Bradstreet has helpfully criticized some of the language of these evangelicals and has described the innovative theology that underpins it. Still, more needs to be said. In particular, this term, “moral witness” needs to be unpacked. What is the nature of “moral witness”? Who is the audience? Why is it so often juxtaposed with political ends and “political expediency”? What are its dangers and disadvantages? In this essay, I provide a theory on the meaning of “moral witness” in contemporary evangelicalism.


[Evangelical] political activity, ..., is ultimately a project of moral witness, calling for Christians to live up to a selected and particular set of moral principles/language intended for a particular audience as part of evangelism. Political activity itself is just another means of showcasing an other-worldly, Christian gospel-morality in order to demonstrate the winsomeness of Christianity.

So the governing principle of political action is not the necessities of civil order, but the necessities of witness; and those two – order and witness – are not entirely coextensive. In other words, the actions necessary to ensure order are not always the sort of actions that make for an effective witness. Consequently, the witnessing-purpose of Christian politics largely sidelines questions concerning civil order, for Christian politics just is evangelism by other means.


The evangelical moral platform then is highly constrained and partly dictated by secular moral posturing, since the winsomeness of Christianity is the ultimate end of the evangelical political platform. It seems inevitable then that the respectable evangelical moral platform will become and partly is already in conformity with the secular approved list of just social causes. In witnessing to them, evangelicals work for them, and in consequence become the unwitting advocates for and censors on behalf of secularist interests.


Deliverance from darkness

From time to time I consider the symbolic significance of day and night, light and darkness for people who lived before electrical lighting. Here's a helpful exposition:

Dreams and global evangelism

First Reformed

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cyclic cosmology

If we discovered evidence for cyclic cosmology, would that disprove biblical cosmology? For the original audience, Gen 1-2 describes the world they could see. The earth and the visible stars. Modern readers have a greater sense of scale. 

Yet that doesn't mean Yahweh only created what naked-eye astronomy can observe. It doesn't mean that if the universe extended far beyond what ancient Jewish readers would be able to see on a starry night, God was not the creator of what lay beyond the reach of naked-eye astronomy. What you could see was a synecdoche for what you couldn't. It was all of a piece.

Genesis sets the stage for human history, and God's activity in human history. In so doing, it places humans in a larger cosmic context, but that's undeveloped.

If, say, there are extraterrestrials tucked away in some indetectable corner of the universe or multiverse, their existence wouldn't mean God didn't make them, even if that falls outside the immediate purview of Genesis–or NT counterparts (e.g. Col 1:16). 

A cyclic cosmology is to time what a multiverse is to space. In both you have multiple worlds, but in a multiverse these are spread out over space whereas in cyclic cosmology these are spread out over time. A diachronic rather than a synchronic ensemble. But the principle is the same. God would be the creator of all–whether one or many. 

Mind you, I'm not aware of any evidence for cyclic cosmology. If such turned up, it would require Christian philosophers to retool some of their cosmological arguments, yet cosmological arguments from contingency (e.g. Leibniz, Pruss) would apply with equal force to cyclic cosmology.

Through the looking-glass

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father...No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known (Jn 1:1,14,18).

He is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).

He is the reflection of God's glory and stamp of his nature (Heb 1:3).

What these passages share in common is the principle of resemblance. The spoken or written word is the audible or visible counterpart to interior monologue or silent thought. 

No one is more like a father than his son, and vice versa. 

An image of something invisible. A bit paradoxical. 

Heb 1:3a could either mean reflection or radiance. It is probably trading on connotations of the Shekiah, which was an outward manifestation of the invisible, aniconic God.

A "stamp" (Heb 1:3b) is a facsimile or replica, indistinguishable from the original, archetype, or exemplar. A duplicate. 

The principle of resemblance is a useful way to model the Trinity. Let's explore that.

Suppose you're standing in front of a mirror, which reflects the room behind you. A mirror looks like a window. The room appears to be in front of you rather than behind you, as if you're peering into another room. 

Suppose you could pass through the mirror to the room on the other side of the mirror. Suppose the mirror was a portal, and you could walk into the counterpart. What would you find?

In one respect, everything would be identical. By walking through the mirror you enter a parallel universe. Same dimensions. Same furniture. Same size, shapes, and relative position. 

Suppose you went to bed in one world but woke up in the bedroom of the parallel world. Could you tell the difference? 

There'd be a subtle difference. Suppose you were transported from a right-handed room to a left-handed room. 

If you looked more closely, differences might be more dramatic. A reversal of the Coriolis effect as sink water drains. A piano keyboard with with a left-handed layout. Books with words and sentences written backwards. Cars with the steering wheel on the righthand side. There might be inverted color spectra. 

Would you notice the difference? That depends. Suppose, in passing from our world to the twin world, you undergo a psychological shift. For instance, mirror-writing is natural for southpaws. Likewise, I once read Paul Davies describe the Big Crunch, where, as cosmic expansion contracts, time reverses itself, and mental processes run in reverse. That depends on your theory of time and philosophy of mind, but if that was feasible, the difference would be indetectable. 

A pair of butterfly wings exhibits reflection symmetry. In plane geometry, they're nonsuperposable, but in solid geometry, they're superposable by rotating the orientation. Changing from two-dimensions to three dimensions makes them isomorphic. So the same thing can be symmetrical and asymmetrical depending on one's perspective. Likewise, Father and Son can be interchangeable from one perspective, yet distinct from another perspective.