Saturday, December 15, 2018

Bryan's stalled chess game

Bryan Cross recently reviewed Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation, by Kenneth Collins & Jerry Walls, in Faith and Philosophy 35/4 (October 2018), 485-491. 

i) It's worth noting who didn't write the review. It wasn't written by a cradle Catholic. It wasn't written by a graduate of a Catholic seminary. It wasn't written by a Catholic Bible scholar or church historians at a Catholic seminary or pontifical university. It wasn't written by a Catholic theologian. It wasn't written by a priest, monsignor, or bishop. It wasn't written by the prefect for the CDF. 

Rather, it was written by a Catholic layman and evangelical convert to Catholicism. It was written by a self-anointed spokesman for Catholicism. Whenever I read Bryan, I'm struck by how he presumes to pontificate (pun intended) for Catholic theology. But how representative are his views within the hierarchy or mainstream Catholic academia? Or is this an idealized abstraction that's out of step with official currents in Roman Catholicism? 

ii) I've skimmed the book Bryan is reading. I read the parts that interested me. For purposes of this post, I'll assume that Bryan accurately represents the stated positions of Walls and Collins in the book. I won't go back to compare his representations with theirs. They can do that on their own if they choose to respond to him. I did reread their section on the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture before writing this post. 

iii) It's somewhat roundabout to review a review. I don't necessarily frame the issues in the same way as Collins and Walls. And Bryan wasn't responding to me, so he can't be faulted for failing to engage my arguments, since that wasn't his aim. So my response is orthogonal to this particular exchange. I speak as an interested third party, overhearing their exchange. 

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Puritan cultural warrior:

Santa Hunted Down

Genesis in the church fathers

It seemed to me [reviewer James Pate] that a lot of the church fathers Allert profiled believed that the events of Genesis 1 occurred as narrated. Why seek to explain the light that existed before the sun, moon, and stars, if it is all just symbolic, anyway? They may have believed there was a deeper spiritual meaning to the details of Genesis 1, but they seem to have accepted Genesis 1 as history: a narrative about what happened in the past.

Invisible friends

Atheists mock Christian belief in their "invisible friend". 

i) Jesus is visible, not invisible. God Incarnate is visible. He was seen (heard, and touched) by thousands of observers in 1C Palestine.

ii) And that's not just a thing of the past. Consider many reported Christophanies in modern times:

iii) But suppose Jesus is invisible. Charlemagne is invisible. I never saw him. Never met him. There are no photographs of Charlemagne. Does that mean Charlemagne is a figment of the imagination? 

iv) Consider an anonymous benefactor. Take someone who endows a college scholarship. Although that's an invisible friend, it's not an imaginary friend.

Calvinism as devotional theology

From a devotional standpoint, Calvinism has two centripetal orientations:

i) Our absolute dependence on God as creatures

ii) Our absolute dependence on God as sinners

(ii) presupposes (i), but (ii) deepens the sense of helplessness and indebtedness. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Will John Chau help or harm missions in India?

Two missiologists address the question: "Will John Chau Help or Harm Missions in India?"

Reproduction machines

Had an impromptu debate with an apostate on Facebook

What Doctrines do Atheists hold? I would prefer to describe myself as a Humanist because that does tell you something about my beliefs and values. If I called you a non-Buddhist, all that would tell you is some of the things a don't believe.

Typically, atheists are physicalists. In addition, they believe the universe is a closed system:

Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities. 

In the final twentieth-century phase, the acceptance of the casual closure of the physical led to full-fledged physicalism. The causal closure thesis implied that, if mental and other special causes are to produce physical effects, they must themselves be physically constituted. It thus gave rise to the strong physicalist doctrine that anything that has physical effects must itself be physical. 

There is no ultimate reason for why things happen, although there are causes. This life is all there is. No immortality. No immortal soul. No resurrection of the body. Humans are fleeting, fortuitous combinations of particles. What we believe and cherish is the result of blind evolutionary conditioning and social conditioning. That's pretty standard. Some atheists toy with Platonic realism. Many atheists reject moral realism.

Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recently I read Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway 2018) by Peter Williams, a NT scholar and textual critic. 

Chap. 1 reviews the non-Christian sources. 

Chap. 2 provides an overview of the canonical Gospels.

Chap. 3 marshals a battery of evidence to demonstrate that the canonical Gospels reflect intimate knowledge of the time and place of Jesus, based on place names, proper names, bodies of water, roads, gardens, botanical terms, finance, local languages, Jewishness, and usual customs. 

It also compares the canonical gospels with apocryphal gospels to illustrate the dearth of such information in gospels from a later time and different place. 

Chap. 4 summarizes the argument from undesigned coincidences, drawing on Lydia McGrew's monograph.

Chap. 5 addresses the question of whether we have the actual words of Jesus, as well as harmonizing the Resurrection accounts of Matthew and John.

Chap. 6 debunks the textual skepticism of Bart Ehrman. 

Chap. 7 addresses the allegation that the Gospels are contradictory, appealing to literary paradox in John's Gospel. 

Chap. 8 applies the criterion of embarrassment, defends and sketches the argument from miracles, defends and sketches the argument from prophecy, as well as making a case for the Resurrection.

Despite the book's brevity, it's a fact-filled treatment. Highly recommended. Here's a sample:

What is Calvinism?

I. Preliminaries

I've discussed this before, but now I'd like to offer a more comprehensive statement. This will reflect my own understanding.

Calvinism is often defined by the "five points of Calvinism". But while that's an integral element of Calvinism, it's a reductionistic definition. 

There's a distinction between Reformed distinctives and Reformed essentials. Calvinism shares many essentials in common with other theological traditions. Usually the question "what is Calvinism" has reference to things that distinguish Calvinism from freewill theism or (traditionally) Catholicism. But it's misleading to define a theological tradition primarily by what makes it different from other theological traditions. 

Even in that respect, Reformed distinctives aren't necessarily unique to Calvinism. Calvinism is not the only predestinarian theological tradition. There's Augustinianism, classical Thomism, and Jansenism. 

This post is not a defense of Calvinism, but an exposition of some key tenets.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The mission of the church

Some Christians respond to the social justice movement by framing the issue in terms of the church's mission, or gospel/non-gospel categories. Now, there's certainly an important debate to be had regarding the mission of the church. And it's true that when the church suffers from mission creep, it loses focus, which contributes to doctrinal drift. 

That said, evaluating the social justice movement in terms of the church's mission or gospel/non-gospel categories is too abstract and roundabout. For the more direct issue is that Christian conservatives sharply disagree with secular progressives and progressive Christians on what the social issues should be. We don't see eye-to-eye with what's wrong. Off the top of my head, this is the agenda of the social justice movement:

Affirmative consent
Black Lives Matter
Climate justice (e.g. climate change, sustainability)
Economic justice (e.g. minium wage)
Gay rights
Gun ban/confiscation
Immigrant justice
Income redistribution
Reproductive rights (abortion, "free" contraception) 
Student debt
Toxic masculinity
Transgender rights
Universal basic income
Universal healthcare
White privilege 

Conversely, these are some social issues that concern many evangelicals, libertarians, and/or conservatives: 

Abortion (oppose)
Administrative state (oppose)
Affirmative action (oppose)
Capital punishment
Due process
Euthanasia (oppose)
Freedom of religion
Freedom of speech
Freedom of association
Illegal immigration (oppose)
Muslim immigration (oppose)
Police state (oppose)
Privacy rights
Property rights
School choice
Parental rights
Surveillance state (oppose)
Tech giant censorship (oppose)

Where the debate comes to a head is over specific issues and political philosophy. "Social justice" is a euphemism as well as an umbrella term. 

The primary reason that conservatives and Christians like me resist the social justice movement is not because I agree with their agenda but think that falls outside the mandate of the church. It's not as though I believe we need to work on those issues, but from a different platform than the church. No, the fundamental objection is that I don't agree with their menu. Indeed, I oppose their agenda. I oppose their priorities. I have a different menu. That's where the argument must be met. 

Boy Scouts goes belly up

This shows the progressive agenda is not unstoppable. People vote with their feet and their wallets as well as their ballots. The BSA snubbed its core constituency, and now is on the brink of extinction.

"Calvinism: A Doctrine of Devils" Documentary

To: Wormwood
From: Screwtape
Re: "Calvinism: A Doctrine of Devils" Documentary

I'm dismayed by your failure to preempt this exposé:

Our best field operatives have now been outed. His Infernal Majesty is displeased with your dereliction. I've convened the executive emergency committee, but the damage is already irreparable. This could all have been prevented by a few discreet freak accidents. 

Celibate Jesus

It's sometimes alleged that Jesus was a bachelor because Jesus was gay. 

Some people say Jesus was gay, not because they really believe that, but because they like to get a rise out of Christians. They know some Christians will wax indignant if they make outrageous statements about Christianity, and they like to push their buttons. 

Some people say Jesus was gay, not because they really believe that, but because they want to destroy Christianity, and one tactic is to redefine Jesus. They know a gay Jesus is inimical to biblical, orthodox Christianity. It's like a computer virus. 

I suppose one argument for the gay Jesus is that he spent so much time in the exclusive company of other men. That, however, would be a fallacious inference.

i) For instance, Jack and Warnie Lewis were middle-aged bachelors who spent lots of time in the exclusive company of other men, belonged to men's clubs, yet there's no evidence they were gay. (Jack eventually married, late in life and unexpectedly.)

ii) More to the point, in the context of 1C Palestinian Judaism, the fact that Jesus spent so much time in the exclusive company of other men is actually evidence that he wasn't gay. If Jesus was suspected of being homosexual, he'd have no disciples. Back then, normal Jewish men had an extreme aversion to sodomites. And in addition to their personal aversion, they'd avoid the company of known or suspected homosexuals to protect their own reputation. Associating with sodomites would invite gossip and innuendo that they were homosexual, too. If they suspected that Jesus was gay, they'd go out of their way to avoid being seen in his company. 

iii) To my knowledge the traditional Jewish polemic against Christianity doesn't allege that Jesus was homosexual. It accuses him of sorcery, blasphemy, or illegitimacy. If there were rumors that Jesus was homosexual, wouldn't that be a fixture of the traditional Jewish polemic against Christianity?

So why was Jesus a bachelor? The NT doesn't say, so we can only speculate. 

1. As God-Incarnate, Jesus has an anomalous psychological makeup. On a two-minds Christology, the human mind of Jesus is to some degree conditioned by the divine mind. God Incarnate may not be psychologically suited to marriage.

2. In paganism, male gods and demigods fraternize with human women. As God Incarnate, Jesus might wish to avoid heathen associations with licentious gods.

3. The notion of God Incarnate having a sexual relationship with a human woman seems analogous to other sexual sins which transgress natural boundaries, viz. parental incest, bestiality, and pedophilia. 

4. Jesus didn't come to have a normal social life or normal lifespan. Rather, he came to die. And he knew ahead of time when he was going to die. Even if there weren't theological impediments to Jesus getting married (see above), that might well be a major deterent.

Take single men and women diagnosed with an incurable degenerative illness. They may be asymptomatic at the time of diagnosis. Their illness is a time-bomb, just waiting to detonate. 

Or take someone who's diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm. In their head is a ticking time bomb. 

They may forego marriage and kids due to the prospect of incapacitation or premature death. They make a great personal sacrifice. 

5. Imagine the havoc it would wreak in church history if Jesus had kids. That would foster the cult of Christ's sons and daughters. There might be rival cults, since each dominical son or daughter would their own family tree. What if two or more dominical descendants had a theological dispute with each other?  

Imagine the theological clout the descendants of Jesus would have. Instead of following the Bible, Christianity would be diverted into a family cult. People with dominical bloodlines would command slavish followers. There'd be disputes over dominical lineage. 

6. If Jesus had a wife and kids, he'd be neglecting his family by spending so much time on the road. An absentee husband and father. 

7. Conversely, it would be quite impractical for Jesus to take his family with him as he traveled by foot all over Palestine. Exposure to the elements day and night. 

Some of his disciples may have been married while some of his disciples may have been bachelors. There's be no semblance of privacy, sleeping out of doors. That's not a problem if it's just a bunch of men. It is a problem when you throw men and women together, some married, some unmarried. 

Traditionally, men often team up for male-only expeditions. They can go at their own pace. Don't have to worry about protecting or providing for women and children in tow. Privacy is not an issue. 

That's true in historical explorations. Military situations. Some missionary situations. Take Mormon missionaries who pair off: two young guys. Nothing gay about that arrangement. 

(That's not a plug for Mormonism–just a sociological observation.) 

Pascal's Wager at the social level

Advice for undertrained missionaries like John Chau

From a Chinese missiologist:

I'd point out that historically, many missionaries were poorly prepared. It was on the job training. They learned about the unevangelized by living and working with the unevangelized. They learned how to do evangelize by hands-on experience.

Can a Calvinist honestly say “God loves you” to everyone and anyone?

I'll comment on a recent post by Arminian theologian Roger Olson:

Recently a leading American Calvinist pastor-theologian has asked and answered this all-important question on his blog: Can a Calvinist (and he means himself and those who agree with him) honestly say “God loves you” to everyone and anyone?

i) Why is Olson coy about identifying the individual in question? 

ii) Can a traditional freewill theist honestly say “God loves you” to everyone and anyone? If God makes a world containing many people who will suffer "eternal torment" (Olson's phrase), and if God knows full well that that's the end-result of his action, how is that loving to the damned? God wasn't forced to make them. No one put a gun to his head.  

Many freewill theists believe the vast majority of the human race is damned. That's why they allege that according to Calvinism, God only saves a "chosen few". So how is that the action of a loving God, if he could spare them that horrible fate by not making them in the first place? 

iii) Suppose, as a Calvinist, that I can't honestly say God loved Pablo Escobar. Is that a damaging admission? 

There is no analogy in human experience to determining a fellow human being to torment (let alone eternal torment) as punishment for doing what the fellow human being could not have avoided doing. Especially when what the fellow human being did was inwardly determined by the person doing the punishing.

That's a confused statement:

i) Of course there's no analogy in human experience for exacting eternal punishment on a human being, since humans lack that prerogative. 

ii) Isn't it redundant to say "determining" the individual to hell for doing what they could not avoid doing? Doesn't Olson think "determination" and the inability to avoid doing something are equivalent?

iii) Why does Olson think it has to be "inwardly" determined? In Calvinism, why can't that be "outwardly" (i.e. providentially) determined?

iv) But to get to the nub of his objection: "punishment for doing what the fellow human being could not have avoided doing."  

What's the general principle? Is Olson's position that you shouldn't be punished for doing something unless you could avoid doing it? 

Let's explore that principle. Does Olson mean an agent should be able to avoid doing something from start to finish? Or at the inception? Does he mean the decision to do something? Or the implementation? Some actions are momentary but other actions involve a process. Does he mean an agent should be able to exit the process at any step along the way?

Given the arrow of time, in a cause/effect world, many actions have a point of no return. Even if the agent could avoid an outcome prior to the point of no return, there's a turning-point beyond which it's too late to change your mind. Suppose you can choose whether or not to pull the trigger, but once you pull the trigger, there's no going back. 

For many human agents, the accidental necessity of the past is a source of regret. With the benefit of hindsight, they wish they made a different choice. But many actions have irreversible consequences. They wish they could step into the time machine and choose a different course of action. 

If Olson thinks agents can be blameworthy for actions that precipitate an inevitable chain reaction, why does he think that's consistent with moral responsibility? Where does he draw the line–and why?

Again, I have to remind Calvinists and everyone of the inextricable connection between the Calvinist doctrines of providence and predestination. According to classical, historical, consistent Calvinism (from Calvin to Edwards to Hodge to Piper), God has determined everything that happens to happen exactly as it does happen without any exceptions. And that includes the fall of Adam and all of his posterity.

No, he doesn't have to remind me of the inextricable connection between Reformed predestination and providence, although it would be more accurate to say God predetermined that outcome. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Curved grading

I have a beef about traditional grading. Let's use seminary as an example. Take comprehensive exams. Professors don't expect students to get 100%. Few students get a perfect score. 

Yet that means they don't expect students to remember everything they were taught. But what's the objective of teaching? The objective is not to pass the test, but to master the material. If, however, there's too much material to remember, then students aren't learning what you're teaching. But why teach more than they can learn? Why teach more than they can remember? Shouldn't mastery be the goal?

Consider an exam on internal anatomy, in which a med student scores 90%. Say that's a passing grade. 

Say that means he can identify 90% of your internal organs. It's the other 10% he's confused about. Would you undergo an operation by a surgeon who could identify 90% of your internal organs? What about the pesky 10%? Is that a kidney or the spleen? Flip a coin?

Someone might object that surgical knowledge is a life and death affair, so there's not the same margin for error. But does that mean seminaries teach students lots of irrelevant stuff? 

A better approach might be short, weekly quizzes. Passage requires a perfect score, but they can retake the quiz until they get 100%. At least that way they know it all. They mastered all the material. They remembered what they were taught. They may forget some of that at a later date, but that's better then never knowing it in the first place. 

Then there's the tradition of grading on a curve. That's unfair for two reasons.

To begin with, curved grading is, in effect, a group grade. You're not being graded on the quality of your own performance. Rather, your grade is dependent on how all the other students performed, even though you have no control over their performance. 

But it gets worse. Some students cheat. And that raises the bar for the honest students, since curved grading averages the grades. If students weren't graded on a curve, then each student's grade would be independent of the others. But if some students cheat, that raises the bar for the other students by distorting the curve. Honest students are downgraded by the cheaters. Honest students get a lower grade than they'd otherwise get because they're competing with students who take unfair advantage. 

I don't speak as a disgruntled student. I was a high-performing student in college and seminary. I'm speaking on behalf of other students. 

Predestination and prayer

A stock objection to Calvinism is that predestination makes prayer pointless. Ironically, there's a parallel objection based on the providential inutility of foreknowledge. So classical freewill theists are on the hook for an analogous objection.

But back to Calvinism. Let's take a comparison: a movie has plot. But the fact that it's scripted doesn't mean it makes no difference what the actors/characters do. Rather, the plot unfolds in a certain way because of what the actors/characters do, which in turn depends on the script. They follow the script. The plot doesn't play out in spite of what the actors/characters do, but rather, actors/characters have an instrumental role by enacting the script. 

Muslim Twitterati

Investing in the future

We have more evidence than we need to prove Christianity

Body, soul, and Incarnation

In some circles it's customary to say that at the Incarnation, God enters time and space. Other Christians say that happened at creation. That's okay for popular discourse, but theologically imprecise. 

If God exists outside of time and space, then there's no transfer of divine attributes to the human nature or human attributes to the divine nature. Rather, it's a relation between the transcendent nature of the Son and the immanent human nature. The two sides of the relation remain distinct. 

To take a comparison, if you're a Cartesian dualist, if you think a human being is an embodied agent consisting of an immaterial soul coupled with a physical body, then ordinarily, you can't directly interact with someone else's mind–unless you're telepathic. Rather, you interact with another person through the intervening medium of their body via the five senses. 

But even though that's indirect, embodied experience, mediated physical interaction, results in a rich, multilayered personal relationship with another individual. Indeed, there are dimensions to that which are missing if we were discarnate spirits with telepathic access to each other's minds. An eternalist model of the Incarnation isn't second best, but analogous to the closest human relationships (e.g. husband/wife, parent/child, siblings). 

Time's passage

We just see time passing in front us, in the movement of a second hand around a clock, or the falling of sand through an hourglass, or indeed any motion or change at all.

We are indirectly aware of the passage of time when we reflect on our memories, which present the world as it was, and so a contrast with how things are now. But much more immediate than this is seeing the second hand move around the clock, or hearing a succession of notes in a piece of music, or feeling a raindrop run down your neck. There is nothing inferential, it seems, about the perception of change and motion: it is simply given in experience. (Robin Le Poidevin, The Images of Time: An Essay on Temporal Representation (Oxford 2007), 76, 87.

I demure. Strictly speaking, we don't observe change. We see and hear things in the present. We remember the position of the second hand. We remember where it used to be. We remember that the clock struck four times. The apprehension of time's passage is a combination of sensory perception and recollection. We perceive moments as they happen. We don't directly perceive change. That's a necessary but insufficient ingredient. 

God and music

Suppose you think that God is the most perfect, or the greatest possible being. Then you might wonder: Isn’t timeless existence a more perfect mode of existence than being in time? Isn’t it greater for a being to be outside of time? If so, then it follows from God’s being the most perfect being that God is timeless. But why should you think timelessness a “more perfect” mode of existence than temporal existence? Consider, for instance, the enjoyment of music, which seems to be open only to temporal beings. Natalja Deng, God and Time (Cambridge 2019), 34. 

That's an appealing counter to the perfect being argument for divine timelessness. However, there's something ultimately unsatisfying about temporal experience–however enjoyable–precisely because it doesn't last. That gives rise to the insatiable desire to repeat a pleasant experience, or regret if a pleasant experience is unrepeatable. You never have enough. There's always an element of discontent. The pleasure peaks, then it's gone. 

So there are tradeoffs to temporal experience. It's good. A creaturely good. But it has distinct limitations. It's the only way creatures can experience anything at all. While it's good for creatures, would it be good for God? Would it be equal good for God? 

Put another way, there are different kinds of goods. What is good for God is distinct from what is good for creatures. And it's good to have a variety of goods. A world in which different kinds of goods are represented. 

Hitting back

I sometimes run across the slogan that "real men don't hit women". I've seen this slogan in evangelical circles as well. Usually the context involves domestic violence. The abusive boyfriend or wife-beater. Of course, abusive boyfriends and wife-beaters don't pay attention to this slogan.

In classic Hollywood movies there was the trope of the woman who slaps a man. But a man didn't slap a woman in return.

I think the cultural assumption behind this honor code is that because women are weaker than men, a woman slapping a man is physically harmless. A real man is tough enough to take a slap in the face by a woman. In addition, there's the traditional view that men have an asymmetrical duty to protect women. 

Logically, the double standard breaks down in feminism–which doesn't prevent feminists from exploiting double standards so long as they benefit women at the expense of men.

Carried to an extreme, the double standard means a man is supposed to forfeit the right of self-defense so long as the assailant is a woman. Conversely, that puts him in legal jeopardy he exercises the right of self-defense. The double standard creates a presumption of male domestic abuse in a physical altercation between the husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend. 

There are basically two potential standards:

1. A uniform standard

If violence against women is wrong, then violence against men is wrong, and the sex of the assailant is irrelevant. If a woman has a right to defend herself, then a man has a right to defend himself. 

2. Gender-specific standards

There are different rules for men and women. This breaks down in four ways:

i) How men relate to men

ii) How men relate to women

iii) How women relate to women

iv) How women relate to men

However, this honor code only works if both sides play by the rules for each sex. A man should treat a woman like a lady if she acts like a lady. If, however, a woman acts like a man, she's playing by male rules, in which case a man is free to treat her like a man. 

It violates the rules for a woman to play by male rules but forbid a man to play by male rules in return. Even if there are asymmetrical rules, it's cheating unless the rules are consistently applied. 

3. While a man has a right to protect himself from physical harm, if the assailant is a woman, and the man is stronger, then the amount of force needs to be calibrated. It would be inappropriate to use the same amount of force required to repel a male assailant. 

Mature creation and illusion

The stock objection to young-earth creationism is that mature creation implicates God in a web of deception. Ironically, even Jonathan Sarfati agrees with that objection. But let's take a comparison: a major interpretation of the B-theory of time appeals to illusion:

Consider the following quote by Robin Le Poidevin:

We are indirectly aware of the passage of time when we reflect on our memories, which present the world as it was, and so a contrast with how things are now. But much more immediate than this is seeing the second hand move around the clock, or hearing a succession of notes in a piece of music, or feeling a raindrop run down your neck. There is nothing inferential, it seems, about the perception of change and motion: it is simply given in experience. (Le Poidevin 2007, 87)


We just see time passing in front us, in the movement of a second hand around a clock, or the falling of sand through an hourglass, or indeed any motion or change at all (Le Poidevin 2007, 76).

[B-theory] Illusionists think that we have perceptual experiences as of time robustly passing, even though time does not robustly pass. Veridicalists think that we do not have perceptual experiences as of time robustly passing, and that time does not robustly pass.

Some illusionists have turned to cognitive science to try to explain away what they think of as the perceptual illusion of the robust passage of time. One example is Laurie Paul (Paul 2010). Paul suggests thinking the perception of change and motion in a B-theoretic universe as analogous to perceptual illusions of change and motion. The illusions she has in mind include flipbooks, as well as our perception of continuity rather than a series of still images in movies. But her central example is what in the philosophical literature has become known as the color phi phenomenon. Here, a subject is presented with a series of flashes of a differently colored dot on opposite sides of a screen (red dot top, green dot bottom, red dot top, etc.). If the flashes are timed and spaced appropriately, the subject can have an illusion as of a single dot moving back and forth continuously and changing its color abruptly, somewhere along the trajectory.

Paul's idea is that we should understand the veridical perception of motion and change in a B-theoretic world along similar lines. Consider a change in an object O, understood as the B-theorist thinks of it: O has property P at t1, and a different, incompatible property Q at t2. When we perceive these tenseless facts, our brain "fills in" information due to its limited powers of discrimination. So what we end up perceiving (or having perceptual experiences as of) are tensed facts, namely, first, the object's presently being P and then the object's presently being Q and having been P. Life as a whole, then, is a kind of film, on this view. Because of that, we are subject to a constant perceptual illusion of robust passage. But when we are undergoing a color phi experiment, or watching a film, then we are undergoing a second perceptual illusion, in addition to that of robust passage, namely that of change or motion. In both cases, the brain "responds to closely spaced inputs that have sufficient similarity (yet have qualitative contrasts of some sort) by accommodating and organizing the inputs," thereby creating a sense of "animated change," which is change that involves robust passage (Paul 2010, 22).


For example, many illusionist B-theorists think that due to the pervasive illusion of robust passage, we perceive the world to be very different from the way it really is. Some even think to a significant extent, we project motion and change onto the world (Le Poidevin 2007). On such a B theoretic view, the appearances are deceiving – reality is rather less changeable and dynamic than it seems ordinarily. This is somewhat similar to the eternal present* view, in the following way. On the eternal present* view too, reality is very much unlike it seems, because the second temporal* realm consists of something like a single time* point – a single eternal present*. If this realm is more fundamental than our ordinary temporal realm, then this, in a way, is how things really are. In a way, temporality – in the sense of a succession of times, as well as of a past, present, or future – is an illusion. I've argued that this view of time can, to an extent, offer comfort in the face of loss even to atheists (Deng 2015).8

8 Shortly after the death of his friend Michele Besso, Einstein remarked: "Now he has also gone ahead of me a little in departing from this peculiar world. This means nothing. For us believing physicists, the division between past, present and future has only the significance of a stubbornly persistent illusion." "parenthesis". Should read as: "Illusion."

Natalja Deng, God and Time (Cambridge 2019), 12-13, 29.

The immediate point at issue isn't whether you agree with the B-theory of time. The point, rather, is that it would be anti-intellectual to discount the B-theory if it entails a perceptual illusion. The B-theory should be accepted or rejected if it's a better overall explanation regarding our evidence for the nature of time. It can't be ruled out a priori on the moralistic grounds that reality mustn't deceive us.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

God in time

According to classical theism, God is timeless. In Reformed circles, a modern proponent is Paul Helm, who's presented a detailed model of divine timelessness. There are many  permutations to that issue in terms of hermeneutics and theological method:

1. W. L. Craig prooftexts divine timelessness from 1 Cor 2:7, 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2-3, & Jude 25. But that runs the risk of infusing those passages with a more technical sense than they may intend or imply. There's the danger of posing more specialized questions than they were meant to answer. 

2. It can also be argued that Gen 1 implies the creation of time. 

Prima Facie reservations on Thomism

Marian titles

A sample of a recent debate I had on Facebook:

or Mother of God?
or both?

I'll stick with "Mary"

Both are true, to deny either as they were meant at Ephesus and Chalcedon is heresy.

Yes, it's heretical to deny a made-up, manmade title.

Yes. The word Trinity is a man-made title...If you deny the trinity you are also a heretic.

Denying the concept of the Trinity is heretical. It's convenient to have a label for the concept, but from a Protestant perspective, the concept antedates the label or conciliar/patristic formulations.

We don't need to invent Marian titles to make Christological statements about Jesus. Guess what–we are able to coin Christological titles to make Christological statements about Jesus, like God-Man, God-Incarnate. We don't have to infer Christology from invented Marian titles. We can denote the person of Christ directly.

A problem with Marian titles is that it shifts the focus to exegeting a Marian title. That's a very roundabout way to do Christology. In addition, Marian titles are a wedge tactic into Roman Catholic Mariology.

It's also a simple formula for detecting heresy - applying the theology to a particular case study and working it out. 

You unwittingly illustrate the problem by making Marian titles a litmus test of Christological orthodoxy. That's unnecessary. Once again, we don't have to infer the person of Christ from invented Marian titles. The Bible provides copious direct material for the person of Christ. And that can be turned into direct theological formulations. It's a diversion to get bogged down into dissecting invented Marian titles. We don't require that detour to know who and what Jesus is. 

Church councils have no intrinsic authority. They are only authoritative insofar as they are true. There must be a litmus test for church councils independent of church councils.

Personally, I don't think it is "unnecessary" - Nestorius argued his case from copious direct biblical material and he turned it into direct theological formulation which seemed to many to be persuasive - but which in fact were heresy and were demonstrated to be so primarily in the context of running them out to their logical conclusion with regards to his mother and his cross. 

"Mother of God" is an ambiguous title, and Catholic apologists exploit that ambiguity. "Mother of God" muddies the theological waters rather than clarifying the theological waters.

Neglected Evidence For The Magi Account

I've been addressing several lines of evidence for the account in different contexts over the years, and I want to put them together in one place. Some of the posts I'll be linking below address other topics as well, so you may have to search within a post to find the relevant information.

- It's important to know who wrote the account and to have more information about him and the circumstances in which he wrote, such as when he authored the gospel. Here's a collection of articles we've written about those issues.

- We have good evidence for the historical genre of the gospel and the magi account in particular.

- The inclusion of magi in the account is significant for a few reasons. Magi had a highly negative reputation at the time, Matthew could have used an alternative group with a better reputation instead, and one such group had a close relationship with Abraham, a figure Matthew and the early Christians in general thought highly of. George van Kooten explains:

"The magi are still called 'magi,' [in Matthew] which is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, the framing of the Bethlehem narrative within the context of Matthew's depiction of Jesus as 'the son of Abraham' [Matthew 1:1] would have made it very easy for Matthew to have styled the magi as Chaldeans, who were primarily known as astronomers and would also have better fitted Abraham's original background amongst the Chaldeans. Secondly, as we have seen, the magi were receiving bad press in the Flavian era as magicians. The fact that Matthew did not use the term 'Chaldeans' seems to suggest that he received earlier, specific information about magi and consciously decided to maintain it." (in Peter Barthel and George van Kooten, edd., The Star Of Bethlehem And The Magi [Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015], 622)

Most of what's been said of Matthew here is applicable to other early Christians as well, including ones who lived earlier than when Matthew wrote.

- Critics often suggest that Matthew fabricated the magi account based on one or more passages in the Old Testament, but his scripture citations make that kind of scenario very unlikely.

- None of the Old Testament passages critics cite as a source that motivated the fabrication of the magi account and no combination of such passages is sufficient to explain what Matthew wrote.

- We have corroboration of the Slaughter of the Innocents from non-Christian sources.

- The two years reference in Matthew 2:16 is unlikely to have been made up and is inconsistent with popular skeptical arguments about the magi account. Read the comments section of the thread as well, since there's a lot of material there.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

Jarrod McKenna v. James White on social justice


I'm going to quote and comment on this essay: N. N. Trakakis, "Anti-Theodicy", The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (Cambridge 2018), chap 4. Trakakis is a protégé of atheist philosopher Graham Oppy, and they often collaborate. In the essay Trakakis indicates that at one point the problem of evil pushed him into the atheist camp, but he now has an alternative position: anti-theodicy. 

I first encountered the anti-theodicy position in Cornelius Berkouwer. David Bentley Hart is another exponent of anti-theodicy:

It may not be coincidental that Trakakis and Hart both have a Greek Orthodox frame of reference. 

The problem of evil often strikes people as irresolvable. No adequate or convincing solution to the problem seems forthcoming, and this despite numerous and often sophisticated attempts over the centuries and from highly trained and gifted philosophers and theologians. As John Cottingham recognizes, "The opponents of theism may devise ever more dramatic presentations of the problem of evil, and its defenders construct ever more ingenious rebuttals, but one has the sense that neither side in the argument has any real expectation of changing their opponent's mind, and that in the end they are succeeding in doing little more than upsetting each other". 

But, of course, that's hardly unique to debates over theodicy. That holds true for the whole range of philosophy. Typically, opposing positions in philosophy are constantly retooled rather than eliminated. 

It is also sometimes held that the theodicist's position of rejecting even the possibility of gratuitous evil–of holding, in other words, that every evil is always connected to a greater good and that we ought to believe (or can come to know) this to be so–has the objectionable consequence of reducing us to an attitude of passivity and fatalism in the face of evil. For why fight to eradicate evil if evil is a necessary or unavoidable part or byproduct of God's providential plan for the world. 

But that's dumb, for the second-order goods include the defeat of evil. Goods that derive from the struggle against evil. It's like saying that because challenges are built into sports and games, that reduces players to an attitude of passivity and fatalism in the face of challenges. But the obstacles exist to be overcome. They don't exist for their own sake. 

The teleological or instrumentalist conception of evil presupposed in theodicies, where evil is permitted by God for the sake of some higher end, is also open to the Kantian criticism that it negates the inherent world and dignity of persons by treating them as mere means to some end, rather than as ends in themselves. 

i) But Kantian strictures are not an unquestionable given. The onus lies on the Kantian deontologist to argue for his scruples. That's not something he can simply foist on others. 

ii) While, moreover, there's a floor to human rights, below which we shouldn't go, that doesn't mean everyone is entitled to the same treatment regardless of their behavior. People can forfeit their presumptive right not to be treated in certain ways. If a suicide bomber has designs on a kindergarten, he ought be stopped by any means necessary.  

I arrived at the conclusion that various recent theistic attempts to resolve the problem–including the skeptical theist response, and freewill and soul-making theodicies–fail to provide a satisfactory answer (at least with respect to certain types of evil). Absent any countervailing evidence in support of theistic belief, or without any good reason for continuing to uphold theism, "the only rational course of action left for the theist to take is to abandon theism and convert to atheism."

i) But there's enormous countervailing evidence.

ii) Evil is only a meaningful category within a Christian paradigm.

iii) Even if some theodicies fail to provide a satisfactory answer to certain types of evil, that hardly means they should be discounted for the types of evil they do explain. And what if a combination of theodicies suffices to cover all bases?

iv) Most philosophical positions face some recalcitrant objections. That's not unique to the problem of evil. If we jettison every philosophical position that has loose ends, there'd little left to believe. Although it's a bad sign when someone must introduce ad hoc loopholes to salvage his position, if you have good evidence that your position basically true, you should keep refining it. 

[Rowe] In the light of our own experience and knowledge of the variety and scale of human and animal suffering in our world, the idea that none of this suffering could have been prevented by an omnipotent being without thereby losing a greater good or permitting an evil at least as bad seems an extraordinary, absurd idea, quite beyond belief. 

Rowe's plausibility structure isn't something he can impose on everyone else. If he find it absurd, beyond belief, that's his opinion, but not everyone shares his impression. 

It may not be coincidental that Rowe was an apostate. Ironically, Christian idealism leads some professing Christians to abandon their faith, yet they wouldn't have that idealism  were it not for the faith they abandoned. Their conclusion negates their premise. So many apostates are like time-travelers in the Grandfather paradox, who wouldn't exist in the first place because they erase the future in which they originate. 

Rowe's almost instinctive reaction of incredulity about the claims of theodicists are wont to make (we might dub it, after Harry Frankfurt, a "bullshit detector") has proven to be an invaluable resource in my journey through the thickets of evil. What Rowe is contesting, and I with him still, is the strategy of reconciling God with evil by making appeal to greater goods, whether known or known, said to be yoked some necessary but unfortunate way to the myriad evils of the world. Even if some evils can be accounted for, what almost always gets placed in the mystery category are the "hard cases"... 

I, for one, don't think the hard cases must be relegated to the mystery box.