Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Bacchanalian frenzy

The diabolical irony in the culture wars is that only one side has a real stake in the outcome. The innocent have everything to lose. Christians and observant Jews have everything to lose. But the progressives have nothing to gain. Yes, they can achieve power, but to what end? Their agenda won't usher in utopia. Their ideology isn't a recipe for happiness and personal fulfillment. It strews misery and destruction in its wake. It's like the October Revolution, Cuban Revolution, and Cultural Revolution. A bacchanalian frenzy culminating in partiers rending each other limb from limb.

It reminds me of Perelandra, where the Queen has everything to lose by succumbing while the Un-Man has nothing to gain by winning. Mindless destruction of the good because evil can't abide goodness. Destruction for its own sake. The fleeting thrill of vandalism. 

Grudem, Bird, and Trump

Wayne Grudem and Michael Bird's dueling op-eds over Trump:

This was ignited by the CT op-ed, designed to mobilize opposition to Trump, but it backfired. Although the op-ed in itself has no influence, a number of high-level spokesmen used it as a convenient foil to register a conservative Catholic/evangelical alignment behind Trump's reelection. 

As a reflexive Australian chauvinist who never misses a chance to take a swipe at the USA, Bird has no credibility. He's like Muslims who blame all their problems on the Jews. If his criticisms of American domestic and foreign policy were even-handed, he might have something worthwhile to contribute. But he's so predictable one-sided and question-begging that one tends to tune him out. 

As for Grudem, he's rather gullible and unnecessarily defensive, but he's right about Trump's achievements thus far. I agree with Grudem's overall conclusion. That said, Grudem is a man without guile, so he's apt to project his goodwill onto others. Trump is cynical, worldly, devious, and conniving. Grudem is too trusting in the purity of Trump's motives. It's possible that the phone call involved abuse of power, although that sort of horse-trading among heads-of-state is routine. In any case, we're not living in ordinary political times. The stakes are dire. In general, the policies of the Trump administration have been surprisingly good, and the political opposition is hellbent on installing a secular totalitarian regime. There's a reason why support for Trump has solidified in conservative circles. 

Human Genesis


Todd Wood is writing a new book. Working title Human Genesis. He tells me it will model human origins from a creationist, biblical, theological, and scientific perspective. Wood is one of the most sophisticated and independent YEC scientists on the scene, so this should be a landmark contribution when published.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A blind and deaf camcorder engineer

1. I'm going to revisit a pet issue of mine. I'm a realist about the external world. There's an extramental world, independent of observers. So I'm not a metaphysical idealist.

But in two respects I'm an antirealist. The uniformity of nature is an axiom of scientific realism. The physical world operates according to a continuous chain of physical cause and effect. It's like a machine. 

And I agree that the closed system view of nature is the default setting. But it has a manual override. There are personal agents with powers of mental causation who can  manipulate nature to produce outcomes that bypass natural processes. Take miraculous healing. That's discontinuous with antecedent conditions. It circumvents the chain of causes. It interjects a new cause, a new starting-point, that's not traceable to the causes leading up to that outcome. 

So that places limits on our ability to extrapolate from the present to the past or future. All things being equal, uniformity is the norm, but all things considered, we must always be open to the possibility of events that circumvent the default mode. 

2. The other is the issue of sensory perception. We don't perceive the physical world as is. Rather, that's mediated through the sensory processing system. 

It's like we have a camcorder in our minds/heads that records sights and sounds. What we see or hear is a mental copy of the external stimulus.

Recording is a representational process, where the copy is supposed to resemble the original. Now imagine a blind and deaf camcorder engineer. Because he can't see and hear, he can't compare the copy with the original. So he can't tell if they matchup. 

Consider naturalistic evolution producing a biological camcorder through dumb luck. And this would have to develop independently on countless occasions. The process can't compare the copy to the original to distinguish a match from a mismatch. It requires an outside observer to make that comparison. An observer who's not part of the circle.  

However, even if the designer can see and hear, there's another complication, because there are different ways to sample the same physical object. Two observers may see the same object: one has color-vision while the other is color-blind. They see the same thing but they don't perceive the same thing. Likewise, one observer may have the acuity to detect a camouflaged animal that's invisible to another observer. 

Some animals have different senses, like infrared perception, polarized light, scent trails, echolocation, and electromagnetic signals. So their inner camera takes different kinds of pictures. 

Science fiction posits superheroes with X-ray vision. Sensory relays can sample the same object at different scales of magnitude. It can peel back the layers to see the inside as well as the outside. So there's no one true viewpoint.  

Or take a music score. That's encoded music. An abstract record to reconstruct a musical performance. The score doesn't sound like anything. It's just a set of symbolic markings. 

Then there's the ineluctable circularity in the fact that we must use our senses to analyze our senses. We can never get behind our senses. My own description of the process is deceptively objective in that regard. 

Ultimately we're dependent on God to design a sensory perceptual system where the mental representation is an approximately accurate and adequate sample of the external stimulus.

Only God can break into the circle to provide an external check. It's like communication. If what you hear on the receiving end is gibberish, then the signal was garbled in transmission. But if an intelligible message comes through, that means there's a match between the input and the readout.  

So we depend on God to design a system in which the copy is an approximately accurate and adequate sample of the original. Even then, appearances may be several steps removed from reality. Mountains seem smaller and closer at a distance. So the mind must interpret what it perceives to make necessary corrections or adjustments. 

Science can never falsify revelation because science requires revelation to provide the intersubjectival benchmark. Only the Creator can stand back of the process to make perception correspond to reality. 

Saturday, December 28, 2019


I'd like to draw some distinctions in decision-making:

i) There's a difference between morally wrong decisions and mistaken decisions. You may have one or more morally right options. You may make the wrong decision, not because it was morally wrong, but because you had insufficient information to predict the consequences.

ii) Apropos (ii), there's a difference between making the right decision and making a reasonable decision. Because we don't know the future, we must make shortsighted choices. The choices have unforeseen, unintended consequences. That's part of human finitude, as well as the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We didn't choose the situation. The situation generates the options and the available information. 

iii) Apropos (ii), I mean reasonable at the time we made it. The decision may turn out to be mistaken in retrospect, but we didn't have the benefit of hindsight when we made it. We had to choose based on the information at our disposal at the time. It may be mistaken, but that's an innocent mistake. 

iv) Apropos (iii), a dilemma in decision-making is that we don't know in advance if we're making a good decision. We can only find out by acting on an option, after which it may be too late to fix it in case we made the wrong decision. 

Don't kick yourself if you made a thoughtful, conscientious decision that backfired. Ultimately, everyone is at the mercy of providence. 

Communion of the dying

There's the communion of the living. Human beings alive at the same time, who collectively experience the life on earth. 

There's the communion of the dead. The fellowship of the saints in glory who collectively experience heaven. 

Their counterpart is the fellowship of the damned. Hell may be compartmentalized, so that perdition varies. 

There's the communion of the glorified The fellowship of the saints who collective experience the world to come, on a renewed earth. 

There's the communion of the dying. I have in mind those who are lucid. The psychological experience of withdrawing from the world of the living. Who begin to withdraw psychologically before they withdraw physically. Or gradually withdraw in tandem. 

Unbelievers may react to this very differently from believers. But there's a shift in identity, where the dying have a special affinity with each other. Where they relate more to the dying, through the experience of the dying, which they now share in common, than to the living. It depends on part on whether they have the grace to cope with their impending farewell. 

Whatever you think of Trump

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump (and my own views about the President's delinquencies are well known) surely it's not hard to understand why large numbers of Evangelicals and Catholics favor him over any of the Democrats seeking their party's nomination (despite the fact that many Evangelicals and Catholics aren't happy about the President's character, coarse rhetoric, and some of his polices). There is the fealty of every single one of the Democratic nominees--every single one--to the abortion and sex lib lobbies. If you believe, as Evangelicals and Catholics believe, that abortion is the unjust killing of innocent and defenseless members of the human family, then it is nigh impossible to imagine circumstances under which one could support a politician who pledges to work night and day to deny unborn children any legal protection against the lethal violence now visited with impunity upon nearly a million of them each year. And that is precisely the pledge every Democratic candidate makes to Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the entire base of their party. But that's only for starters.
Evangelicals and Catholics have watched as Democrats and progressives across the country have worked to shut down Catholic and other religious foster care and adoption agencies because, as a matter of conscience, these agencies place children in homes with a mom and a dad. They have watched as cake bakers, florists, caterers, wedding planners, and others (even the pizza shop-owning O'Connor family ad the software designer Brendan Eich) have been harassed in efforts to drive them out of business and deprive them of their livelihoods because of their beliefs about marriage and sexual morality. They have watched as the Democratic and progressive mayor of Atlanta terminated the employment of Kelvin Cochran, the city's Fire Chief, for the same reason--he had published a book upholding Biblical teaching on marriage and sexual morality. They have watched as Democrats and progressives have tried to "cleanse" entire fields of medicine and healthcare of Evangelicals, Catholics, and other pro-life people by imposing on them requirements to implicate themselves in the taking of innocent life by abortion. They watched as Beto O'Rourke proposed--over no truly meaningful opposition from his fellow Democratic presidential aspirants--to selectively yank the tax exempt status from churches and other religious organizations that refused to fall in line with progressive ideological orthodoxy on sex and marriage.
I could go on.
Now, none of this is to deny that there are some Evangelicals and Catholics (and other Trump supporters) who seem entirely to overlook Donald Trump's faults and failings. They see nothing but good in the man. But at least in my experience these Evangelicals and Catholics are in the minority. Most recognize his faults and failings and wish he were better. Their support for him is based on a prudential judgment that the overall situation for the common good would be made much worse if he were to lose to one of the Democrats. And they fear--with justification--that the consequences for themselves and their religious institutions would be dire if such a thing were to happen. In this respect, their position is formally like that of their anti-Trump co-religionists who favor a Democrat because their prudential judgment is that, though a Democratic president would do great harm to values they cherish (such as the sanctity of human life, and religious liberty and the rights of conscience), the harm would be less than the harm Trump will do to those values and others in the long run.
My point here is not to try to adjudicate this dispute. (For what it's worth, I think that it's a more complicated business than most people on either side suppose. I may say more about that on another occasion after I've reflected on it a good deal more.) It is simply to say that no one should be surprised that many Evangelicals and Catholics (including some like my pal Keith Pavlischek who refused to vote for Trump in 2016) support the President over the Democratic alternatives. Whether one assesses and weights the reasons as they do or not, they do have reasons.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Trump is the wall

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

i) The editorialist begins with a tendentious, one-sided version of the impeachment allegations, then, based on his interpretation of the facts, accuses evangelical Trump supporters of presenting a bad witness to the world. His appeal is circular inasmuch as evangelical Trump supporters don't agree with his interpretation of the facts, or his priorities.

ii) Indeed, presidential image takes a backseat to substantive policy. And it's about far more than just abortion. This isn't about "political expediency" but protecting the innocent from secular totalitarians. The attitude of unbelievers is not my moral benchmark. That's mindless blackmail. 

iii) The editorialist says nothing about the Democrats vying for Trump's job. How very telling. 

iv) Thus far, Trump failed to build the border wall. Instead of a border wall, Trump is the wall. And not just or primarily a border wall. Trump is the wall standing between the secular totalitarian vandals on one side, and Christians, innocent children, &c., on the other side. Evangelicals are supposed to bulldoze the wall and let the vandals swarm in to impose their secular totalitarian regime? Really? 

These aren't ordinary times. It's like the difference between wartime and peacetime. 

v) The issue of Christian witness cuts both ways. On the one hand is the allegation that evangelical Trump supporters foster a bad image of Christianity, thereby driving people away. I'm dubious about that. Most of Trump's critics were already secular progressives or "Christian progressives." They never were part of or attracted to conservative evangelicalism.

On the other hand, NeverTrump evangelical leaders (e.g. Russell Moore, J. D. Greear, Christianity Today) are projecting a very damaging image of Christianity to the rank-and-file as out-of-touch elites who only identify with fellow elites and not with the plight of Christians, middle class Americans, and working class Americans facing the secular progressive juggernaut, spearheaded by the LGBT brownshirts.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Joseph's fiat

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

973 By pronouncing her "fiat" at the Annunciation and giving her consent to the Incarnation, Mary was already collaborating with the whole work her Son was to accomplish. She is mother wherever he is Savior and head of the Mystical Body.

The "fiat" alludes to the Vulgate rendering of Lk 1:38:

fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum

“let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). 

Catholic theologians act like this means God was putting the plan of redemption up for a vote by giving Mary a veto. Of course, the Annunciation is an announcement of what God will bring to pass. 

I've read Catholic apologists claim that if the virgin birth was nonconsensual, then it was rape. That overlooks the elementary fact that rape requires sex: penetration of sexual intercourse. But of course, the virginal conception is nonsexual. Sexless rape?  

Be that was it may, let's play along with the Catholic argument for its own sake by drawing a comparison. In Mt 2, Joseph receives some revelatory dreams. These are premonitions of danger. The dreams implicitly raise the specter of alternate futures. If Joseph stays, his young son will be murdered by Herod's henchmen. But he can avert that hypothetical outcome if he gets out of Dodge in time. If things continue as is, along their current trajectory, Jesus will die a premature death. 

iii) This raises a question for Christian libertarians. Was failure to heed the angelic warning a live option for Joseph? Pause to consider what that would entail. We're not just talking about the fate of a lone individual. The fate of the whole human race would hang in the balance. The Incarnation would be in vain. Centuries of providential preparation would go up in smoke. God would have to start from scratch. So by parity of argument, why does Catholicism single out Mary's "fiat" but ignore Joseph's "fiat"? 

For that matter, the logic of the Catholic argument extends to so many other players in the history of redemption. Take the call of Abraham. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Quasi-moral dilemmas

Moral dilemmas are interesting for several reasons. Catholic apologists assure us that a Magisterium can give us crucial moral guidance which Protestants lack. Yet in many cases, Catholic theologians don't even pretend that the Magisterium has all the answers. Traditionally, there are competing schools of casuistry in Catholicism–some stricter and some laxer. 

Moral dilemmas also raise questions about the kind of world we live in. Is it a world governed by divine providence–or a random universe where bad things happen for no reason at all? Calvinism may rule out moral dilemmas whereas freewill theism may generate them. 

Moral dilemmas a paradoxical inasmuch as it might be argued that if an agent, through no fault of his own, finds him thrust into a situation where no right course of action is open to him, then that absolves him of culpability. He ends up to doing something that would normally be wrong, even heinous, if he had a better option. 

From my reading, examples of moral dilemmas either involve doing something wrong or not doing the wrong thing, but if you don't, someone else will do it in your place. Suppose I'm a POW. Suppose two of my fellow POWs are caught stealing food. The prison guard gives me a choice: if I shoot one of them, he will spare the other. Up to me which one I shoot. If I don't shoot one of them, he will shoot both. 

Now let's switch to a different example. Suppose I'm a young bachelor who gets drunk, then drives home drunk, killing a cyclist on the way home. I don't turn myself in because I've got too much to lose, and I can't restore the life of the hit-and-run victim. And it remains an unsolved crime. Although that's a hypothetic case, there are many real-life examples. 

Putting aside what I ought to do in that situation, let's complicate it. A few years later I get married and have kids. Where does my duty lie now? I now have dependents. Prior obligations. So whatever I should have done before, it may now be too late for me to turn myself in, because to turn myself in at this stage conflicts with my present and future duty to my wife and kids. There's a conflict between past and future duties. 

This, however, is different from a moral dilemma in the usual sense. I'm not in a situation where I must do something wrong (or normally wrong). It's not a forced option where the only available alternatives are to do something wrong, or leave it to someone else to do it. 

Rather, it's about me not doing the right thing. Are there situations in which there's a moral distinction between doing the wrong thing and failing to do the right this? This example seems like a candidate. 

The point is that sometimes we may not know the right answer because there is no right answer. That are wrong courses of action, but not necessarily a right course of action moving forward. There are limitations to ethnics in a fallen world. In addition, this is why only God can exact perfect justice. 

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Much is made of whether modern science contradicts the Bible. But what about future developments? Does transhumanism pose a defeater for the Bible? 

What if scientists figure out the biological cause of death, and how to counteract it? Would scientifically-engineered immortality falsify the Bible? Here's an interesting passage:

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them (Rev 9:6).

Immortality can be blessing or a curse. 

What about human/animal hybrids? Although they aren't specifically human/animal hybrids, Revelation also describes cross-species hybrid monsters. 

Timeless cause/effect relation

I was asked a question about a timeless God's creative relation to the world.

i) It's  not so much that God exists before time but  that he exists apart from or outside of time.

ii) There's an asymmetrical relation. The world has a first moment. So on the mundane side of things, there was something new. 

But from the divine side of things, it's a timeless relation because God is timeless, so there was never time when God was not the Creator. There was no shift in God from when God was the sole existent to God and the world. No change in God. It's a one-sided change.

Here's another potential way to model the issue. Causation normally involves both an interval and a medium. A stock objection to Cartesian dualism is that there's nothing to mediate the cause/effect relation, since mind and matter are categorically distinct substances. 

However, a counter to that objection is that if effects are necessarily mediated effects, then that generates an infinite regress. 

So it seems inevitable that effects bottom out with direction causation. Nothing mediates the transaction. 

If, however, we eliminate the medium, then don't we also eliminate the interval? But if there's no medium, then it's a timeless cause/effect. There's nothing in-between the cause and effect, either substantially or temporally.

A Savior And Lord

"today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11)

"You are willing to have Christ to pardon you, but we cannot divide him, and therefore you must also have him to sanctify you. You must not take the crown from his head; but accept him as the monarch of your soul. If you would have his hand to help you, you must obey the scepter which it grasps. Blessed Immanuel, we are right glad to obey thee!" (Charles Spurgeon, The C.H. Spurgeon Collection [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 36, p. 635)

Monday, December 23, 2019

People of the lie

What does Rev 21:8 mean? It can't mean anyone who ever lied is doomed to hell. That would mean there's no point in unbelievers converting to Christianity. Most pagan gentiles lied on a regular basis. It can't mean it's too late for them to become Christian because their behavior as liars damns them in advance. 

In the larger context of Revelation, it has reference, not to tactful lies or altruistic lies (e.g. lying to protect the innocent). Rather, the "lie" in Revelation is false worship. Counterfeit religion. Diabolical heathenism, in defiance of the true faith. In Revelation, the "lie" is paganism. Idolatry. To be a devil-worshiper, under the guise of polytheism. You live in service of that lie. You live in service to a systematic lie about God. 

Not coincidentally, that's how the word is used in 1 Jn 2:22 & 5:10. A religious lie. Likewise, Jn 8:44. If's not as if Satan tells altruistic lies. That's not the kind of lie in view. Rather, he lies about God. He deceives people about God. He leads them astray from the one true God. 

The Light Of The World, In Word And Deed

One way to judge the historicity of something is by whether it's reported in multiple types of contexts. For example:

"Multiple forms. This criterion should not be confused with multiple attestation. Instead of appealing to a similar episode in independent traditions (à la multiple attestation), the criterion of multiple forms appeals to similar content that is featured in different kinds of genre. If similar content appears in a saying and also in a parable, or if similar content appears in the narration of Jesus' actions and also in dispute dialogue, this criterion is warranted. For example, Jesus' respect for John the Baptist appears both in logia and in the narration of his baptism. This, of course, does not speak to the historicity of the final form of these sayings/stories, it merely indicates that such respect was remembered of Jesus' historical life and ministry." (Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus [Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009], 89-90)

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Hyperbole and pacifism

The Sermon on the Mount is the primary prooftext for Christian pacifists. In my reading, a neglected consideration is the fact that hyperbole is a fixture of Christ's pedagogy. You find that throughout the Gospels as well as the Sermon on the Mount in particular. This doesn't mean we can impute hyperbole willy-nilly to whatever Jesus said. But it's something we must make allowance for. In some cases, hyperbolic is overt, but in other cases it's just understood. Take Christ's blanket statements about prayer promises. So we can't automatically take everything Jesus says at face value. There's no presumption in the abstract that the statements of Jesus on any particular occasions are or are not hyperbolic. But in some cases we may not be able to settle the question. 

The Importance Of The Conclusion Of Matthew 2

The end of Matthew 2 doesn't get as much attention as it should. I agree with D.A. Carson's view of what Matthew tells us about Nazareth:

"But the formula [citing scripture in Matthew 2:23] is unique in two respects: only here does Matthew use the plural 'prophets,' and only here does he omit the Greek equivalent of 'saying' and replace it with the conjunction hoti, which can introduce a direct quotation (NIV) but more probably should be rendered 'that,' making the quotation indirect: 'in order to fulfill what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene' (cf. W. Barnes Tatum Jr., 'Matthew 2:23,' BT 27 [1976]: 135-37). This suggests that Matthew had no specific OT quotation in mind; indeed, these words are found nowhere in the OT….We may exclude those [interpretations of Matthew 2:23] that see some wordplay connection with an OT Hebrew word but have no obvious connection with Nazareth….Nazareth was a despised place (Jn 7:42, 52), even to other Galileans (cf. Jn 1:46). Here Jesus grew up, not as 'Jesus the Bethlehemite,' with its Davidic overtones, but as 'Jesus the Nazarene,' with all the opprobrium of the sneer. When Christians were referred to in Acts as the 'Nazarene sect' (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew's point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss. 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Da 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., 8:20; 11:16-19; 15:7-8; see Turner). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation (so also Ezr 9:10-12; cf. Str-B, 1:92-93)." (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, Vol. 9: Matthew & Mark [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010], 124-25)

As W.D. Davies and Dale Allison note, "Moreover, given the belief in the significance of Bethlehem and in Jesus' birth there, the prominence of Nazareth in the gospel tradition would have been all the more puzzling. Mt 2.23 is, therefore, an attempt to come to grips with a difficult fact." (Matthew 1-7 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010], 274) Even in later centuries, Tertullian refers to how Jewish opponents of Christianity called Christians "Nazarenes" (Against Marcion, 4:8), and Julian the Apostate derisively gave his anti-Christian work the title Against The Galileans in the fourth century. In our day, critics of Christianity still make much of Jesus' Galilean background, often emphasizing how he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting that with the expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

Furthermore, Jesus and his family don't just go to Nazareth briefly, but instead apparently live there for the rest of his childhood. Consider the contrast between that setting for Jesus' childhood and something like Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, Samuel being raised in a sanctuary setting with Eli, or John the Baptist going into the wilderness early in his life. So, Jesus not only lives in Nazareth, but even does so from an early age without living in the sort of setting that distinguished figures like Moses, Samuel, and John the Baptist.

Matthew 2:23 is significant for meeting the criterion of embarrassment in so many ways. It's also significant in that critics of the infancy narratives often claim that Jesus is being paralleled to Old Testament figures like Moses and Samuel and that Jesus is being portrayed as superior to John the Baptist. Yet, Matthew (in agreement with Luke) portrays Jesus' childhood as a largely ordinary one spent in his parents' home in a small, disreputable town.

And the parenthetical comment I just made is important. Luke agrees with Matthew on these issues. Those kinds of agreements are often overlooked or underestimated in discussions about how much Matthew and Luke agree concerning Jesus' childhood.

We should also notice how Matthew 2:23 reflects a larger pattern we see in the early Christian accounts of the childhood of Jesus. The characteristics of 2:23 that I've described above are also seen elsewhere. Think of the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy, for instance. See the further examples I cited in an article I wrote on the magi account last year. And I discussed more examples in an article on Luke's material.

It's fitting for Matthew to conclude his account of Jesus' childhood with a passage like 2:23. Much of what he and other early Christian sources reported about the childhood of Jesus met with a lot of contempt because of characteristics like the ones discussed in this post. That doesn't sit well with the notion that they were writing fiction or erroneous history.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Assessing just war theory

A. In Christian tradition, the ethics of warfare centers on just-war theory. Indeed, for many Christian ethicists, just-war theory is treated as the unquestioned frame of reference. 

To their credit, theologians like Augustine and Aquinas were attempting to put warfare on a moral footing. Does warfare suspend Christian ethics, or is it possible, under certain circumstances, to wage war without committing murder? 

A moral difficulty in war is that you are harming individuals who didn't harm you directly, or harm you at all. The harm and counter-harm operate at a more anonymous, aggregate level, where one group endangers another group, even if no particular member of the group endangers an individual on the other side. It's the ensemble action that's threatening.  

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Hume-Inspired Transcendental Argument


The Strength Of The Evidence For Matthew's Authorship

If the gospel attributed to Matthew was written by him, then that's a good line of evidence for the historicity of what he reports about Jesus' childhood. Matthew's gospel and other early sources (e.g., Acts 1:13-14) put the apostle in contact with people who knew a lot about Jesus' background, such as Jesus himself, his mother, his brothers, and the people of Nazareth. But even conservative scholars don't say much about the evidence for Matthean authorship of the gospel, and the few arguments they bring forward don't get developed much. Here's a collection of articles on the evidence for Matthew's authorship.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Keeping clear about "transferral" and centurions


Dembski on Thurman Scrivner

I'm going to comment on Dembski's assessment of Thurman Scrivner:

i) I think Dembski sets the bar too high for miracles. The purpose of many miracles isn't to prove God's existence but to provide for a need that's humanly hopeless. Of course, miracles like that are still a witness to God's existence, omniscience, and omnipotence, but they're limited to the need.

ii) Apropos (i), even in the case of miracles whose primary purpose is evidentiary, they are not designed to satisfy a Cartesian skeptic. Setting the bar artificially high is like skeptical thought-experiments (e.g. the Matrix, brain-in-vat). 

Reported miracles vary in their conclusiveness, and in some cases we ought to grant a strong presumption that this was a miracle. It needn't rule out every conceivable naturalistic explanation–although some miracles do so. The issue is not whether it's the only possible explanation but the best explanation, given the evidence at hand. 

Many would argue that there’s no way to predict who will receive a miracle and who will ask in vain. The decision is God’s alone and God’s plans and reasons are beyond our ability to understand. 


Later in his professional life, Scrivner began a healing ministry after hearing God’s voice speak to him for the first time in 1977...When asked how he knew it was his prayers alone that led to healing, Scrivner answered, “I just know that. I just know. Because God speaks to me.” He adds that the sound of God’s voice is “just like a normal man,” just like the interviewer’s (AT).

i) I'm highly skeptical of people who say God speaks to them on a regular basis. I think God speaks to some Christians on rare occasion, like an emergency. 

ii) Moreover, his ministry is so dangerous and damaging that I think his impression is delusional. 

Scrivner bases his belief on several key Bible verses. Others often interpret these verses very differently, saying that they refer specifically to Jesus or his disciples or to specific situations, and that applying them without qualification takes them out of context and distorts their meaning. Scrivner, by contrast, accepts the words at their most literal face value. To him there is no room for debate or discussion: anything other than his reading is simply misguided and wrong.

In Deuteronomy 28:1-2, Moses promises the people of Israel, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I commanded you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations and the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you…” Moses then lists both the many blessings in store for those who obey God and the even greater multitude of curses that await the disobedient. According to Scrivner, this passage affirms his belief that you have to do exactly what God commands in order to get a miracle.

i) That's a corporate threat/promise.

ii) Moreover, it's a promise to OT Jews, not to Gentiles under the new covenant. Even if, for argument's sake, God restores the promised land to ethnic Jews in the world to come, the promise is irrelevant to Christian Gentiles. 

Scrivner believes that the message of Romans 10:17 is that the faith we need for healing comes from the teachings of Jesus: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” 

That's a promise for salvation–contingent on faith, not a promise for healing, contingent on faith. 

Faith makes it possible to please God, who then rewards us by healing us, as explained in Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

But that doesn't say or imply a promise to heal on condition of faith. 

Not only do Scriptures tell Scrivner he can heal, but they also tell him he can do a better job of it than Jesus. He derives this conclusion from John 14:12-14, Jesus’ words to His disciples following the Last Supper: “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

I'll revisit that. 

Furthermore, according to Scrivner, anyone, not just Jesus, has the power to forgive sin. To justify that claim, and thus his own authority to forgive sins, Scrivner points to John 20:23, in which Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection and declares, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

This verse gives a good example of how Scrivner interprets Scripture and why his approach is controversial. Backing up to verse 21, we read, “‘As the father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive … etc.’” To many biblical interpreters, Jesus appears to be saying these words specifically and exclusively to his disciples, not to you or Thurman Scrivner or anybody else. Scrivner politely but firmly disagrees.


Standing beside his granddaughter’s hospital bed, Scrivner recited John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Then he followed with an assurance of his own: “He is my God. He honors faith, and so I’m going to ask Him to raise that little girl up and make her well. And He will.”

Thurman fed his granddaughter by mouth against doctor’s orders based on his reading of Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” He prayed that she would be able to eat solid food and then gave it to her. He fed her applesauce and orange juice that day and she has been eating normally ever since. Furthermore, she seems to have recovered completely from her injuries.

Thurman Scrivner’s theology hinges on two points. First is absolute reliance on what the Bible literally says. The tricky part here is that people have to accept his interpretations of Scripture without question or variation, absolute and unwavering. Yet from Bible scholars on down, credible people see the meaning of Scripture very differently.

i). A basic problem with his face-value hermeneutic is the mismatch with his own experience. His prayers aren't uniformly answered. Even if he gets a few hits, that falls far short of how his prooftexts are worded. 

ii) He falls back on the lack of faith escape clause, yet his prooftexts don't condition the efficacy of healing prayer on the faith of who is prayed for but at best on who offers the prayer on their behalf.

What happens when you take the Bible out of context? We looked earlier at John 14:12-14, where Jesus speaks to his disciples following the Last Supper, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

Many Bible students and scholars agree that these words are specific to the disciples, who were invested with healing powers to demonstrate they were acting in Jesus’ name as human representatives — deputies, if you will — designated specifically and personally by Christ. Of course, other interpretations are possible. What if Jesus, in talking of greater works performed by his disciples, was referring not to healing but to the suffering of martyrdom? Indeed, it’s not clear that Jesus’ miracles have been exceeded by his disciples, but their suffering for his name has in some cases been more extreme than crucifixion.

i) I have serious reservations about that interpretation. It's true, of course, that some promises which Jesus addresses to the disciples are exclusive to the disciples and not Christians in general. Many readers stumble because they fail to make allowance for that distinction.

ii) In Johannine usage, the works denote miracles, not martyrdom. Just consult standard commentaries. Moreover, martyrdom is hardly exclusive to the Eleven. 

iii) If the promise is exclusive to the Eleven, that excludes St. Paul. 

iv) It's a misleading way to phrase a promise restricted to just eleven people. 

v) Consider other promises in the Upper Room Discourse:

13:34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

14: 2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me[e] anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 

Are these exclusive to the Eleven just because they were the initial audience? Do these not extend to Christians in general? 

A better explanation is that Jesus frequently employs hyperbole in his teaching. Although Jn 14:12 isn't confined to the Eleven, the promise is hyperbolic.  The promise includes garden-variety Christians but not all (or even most) Christians–and even among the subset, not all (or even most) of their petitions are granted.

Dembski on Eben Alexander's "heavenly" NDE

I'm going to discuss Dembski's analysis of Eben Alexander's reported NDE:

This is one of the most interesting cases for all the reasons detailed in Dembski's chapter. I'll begin by laying my cards on the table, although I'm not saying anything I haven't said before:

1. I think some people encounter God, heaven, or hell during NDEs. It's the real thing. 

2. I use the Bible as a benchmark to interpret and assess NDEs. 

3. Another consideration is what they come back as. Does an unbeliever prior to the NDE come back a Christian or a New Ager? That affects whether I think this is from God.

4. I think it's undoubtedly the case that at least some children have heavenly NDEs. That's not based on any particular report, but the fact that children have immortal souls. Their minds don't pass into temporarily oblivion during brain death.

5. That said, I put no stock in reported NDEs about kids. If it was my own kid, then depending on the details, I might find his report convincing–because I'm getting it in his own words. And he's telling me what he remembers right after the event. But when it comes to books by parents, I'm highly skeptical. 

6. Some NDEs reportedly penetrate much deeper into the beyond than others. In many cases it's the tunnel of light, meeting a luminous being, and not much more. In other cases the patient claims to have seen far more. 

7. Some Christians chalk it up to the demonic. That's worthy exploring, but I'm going to pursue a different approach.

8. From what I've read, there seems to be a false dichotomy in the explanatory options. According to physicalism, NDEs are hallucinations. Figments of a delirious brain. 

It is, of course, true, that people hallucinate under certain circumstances, but that typically involves an intact, functioning brain, not a brain with no higher cortical functions or no neurological activity at all.

Veridical NDEs pose another problem for a physicalist explanation. According to physicalism, the only sources of knowledge are instinct or sensory perception. But some NDEs report seeing or overhearing things in the ER, or other rooms of the hospital, or miles away at home. But that requires ESP, which physicalism disavows. Another cliche line of evidence is the patient discovering a relative in the afterlife they didn't know existed. 

9. As a result, Christian apologists argue that these experiences can't be subjective or merely psychological. They can't originate in the brain. So they must reflect objective encounters. 

And I think that's true in however many cases. But it overlooks a third explanation. Either memory and imagination are located in the brain or else they are located in the soul. If we have an immortal, immaterial mind, then in some cases the NDE could still be "imaginary". 

That would explain the cartoonish or unorthodox "heaven" that some patients report. When higher cortical functions shut down or when there's a complete cessation of neurological activity, the mind may remain active, and what they perceive is like a dream. 

Many unbelievers have a preconception of heaven. They don't believe in heaven, but they think that's what heaven is supposed to be like if only it was real. That's "heaven" in their imagination. In this case, the "heavenly" NDE doesn't originate in the brain but the mind. Their mind already has stock imagery and characters about heaven. A generic, pop cultural notion of heaven.