Friday, April 12, 2019

Unplanned pregnancies

Critics of Calvinism like to bring up hard cases. That's legitimate inasmuch as Calvinism can't duck the hard cases. It is, however, self-deluded for freewill theists to imagine that their alternative exempts themselves from equally hard cases. 

Let's take the case of "unplanned pregnancies". From a theological perspective, are unplanned pregnancies good or evil? 

In popular parlance, I think an "unplanned pregnancy"is generally a euphemism for a pregnancy resulting from premarital sex, extramarital sex, failure to use contraception (even though the couple didn't want a child), or contraceptive failure. From the standpoint of the couple, the pregnancy was unintended and usually undesirable. The most extreme example is a child conceived in rape.

From a human perspective, such pregnancies are unintended. But are they unintended from a divine perspective? According to open theism, just about every pregnancy is unplanned from God's viewpoint since God doesn't know the future. Exceptions might be Isaac and Jesus, although it's an interesting question how the God of open theism could promise Abraham a child if God doesn't know or control what human beings will do, including sex.

However, it's hard to see how any pregnancy can be unplanned under Molinism or Arminianism, for God's actions in creation and providence are necessary causes of every particular pregnancy, and God knows the end-results of his actions in creation and providence.

From a Reformed perspective, every pregnancy is predestined. Do freewill theists think humanly unplanned pregnancies are evil? Freewill theists often charge the God of Calvinism with hypocrisy for decreeing what he forbids. 

But that's morally complex. If a child is conceived in sin, the process is evil, but does that mean the product is evil? Do freewill theists think the child is tainted by the process (e.g. premarital or extramarital sex)? Presumably not. Does it impugn divine benevolence if God welcomes every child into the world? Presumably not. 

Assuming that every pregnancy is a providentially planned pregnancy, even if many pregnancies are humanly unplanned, the good outcome is inextricably linked to sinful causes in however many cases. Do freewill theists regret the outcome? Open theists might. 

Black holes

An Upcoming Book On Papias

Stephen Carlson is nearing completion of a book on Papias. Bart Ehrman recently put up two guest posts from Carlson on his blog, here and here, and it looks like at least one more is on the way. I've recommended Carlson's material in the past, especially on Christmas issues. I expect his book on Papias to be good, and Ehrman anticipates that the book will be "a definitive, full-length study of Papias". Judging by what I've read of Carlson's views so far (at Ehrman's blog and elsewhere, including in an email exchange), I expect to agree with most of what Carlson has to say about Papias, but not all of it. And we need to be careful to distinguish Carlson's views from Ehrman's.

In the introduction to his first guest post by Carlson, Ehrman refers to how Papias "claims to have known and interviewed the companions of disciples of Jesus’ own apostles (it’s a bit confusing: but Jesus had his apostles; after his death they themselves had disciples; Papias knew people who knew these disciples of the apostles)". It's highly unlikely that Papias was always so far removed from the apostles, though, as I explained in a response to Richard Bauckham a couple of years ago. (To get to the most relevant section of the post, do a Ctrl F search for "beginning with Papias", and start reading at that paragraph.) Most likely, Papias was a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, the apostle, and consulted other people who had been in contact with John and the other apostles. And he probably relied on sources further removed from the apostles on other occasions. So, the degree to which Papias was removed from the apostles varied from one situation to another. But he did on some occasions have closer contact with the apostles than Ehrman refers to. Remember, Ehrman's views aren't equivalent to Carlson's. But I recommend reading Ehrman's posts and Carlson's book when it comes out.

The Bible and The Tempest

Is there a point of tension between the perspicuity of Scripture and the grammatico-historical method? To the extent that correct exegesis requires background information about the text, does that undercut the perspicuity of Scripture? A few points:

i) It's possible that the Protestant Reformers exaggerated the perspicuity of Scripture. That's not a fatal concession to Catholicism unless Catholicism is a viable alternative. Moreover, that just shifts the issue, since exegeting church fathers, papacy encyclicals, conciliar documents, Aquinas et al. raises the same need for background information. Catholic sources can't be interpreted in a historical vacuum. 

It's not as if popes, church fathers, and Scholastic theologians are more perspicuous than the Bible. Indeed, that adds 2000 years of additional layers to sift through. 

ii) The Protestant claim is not that Scripture is uniformly perspicuous. To say background information is sometimes necessary to exegete a particular passage doesn't imply that all of Scripture or most of Scripture is obscure without the illumination and clarification of background information. 

iii) Apropos (ii), it's possible both to overemphasize and underemphasize the necessity of background information. Let's take a comparison. To understand the language in The Tempest, it helps to have an annotated edition, like A. L. Rowse. But once you known the language, the basic plot and motives of the characters are comprehensible. Indeed, Shakespeare wrote it to make sense on its own terms, at the level of the story. 

But according to Renaissance historian Frances Yates, The Tempest is a political allegory. Cf. The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age (Routledge, 1979), based on court wizard John Dee. Suppose we grant that interpretation for the sake of argument. That would mean there's a whole hidden dimension to The Tempest. It moves on two levels. There's the overt story, and then there's a parallel story it alludes to. A story behind the story. If true, that would certainly fill in our interpretation of The Tempest. It would go two-levels deep. 

But even if that's true, it doesn't invalidate the overt meaning of the story. The overt meaning of the story is independent of the subtext, in the sense that it's a self-contained story with a dramatic logic all its own. It can stand alone without any reference to the underlying allegory. It enjoys a certain interpretive autonomy in that regard. The story is complete without the allegory. 

By comparison, even if the reader is missing the subtext of certain biblical passages, that doesn't ipso facto falsify a textual reading. Knowledge of the subtext may enrich the overall interpretation, but it doesn't necessarily correct a textual reading.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

John Newton on providence

When we have done our planning, his plan in our favor gradually opens, and he does more and better for us than we could either ask or imagine. I can hardly recollect a single plan of mine, of which I have not since seen reason to be satisfied, that had it taken place in season and circumstance just as I proposed, it would, humanly speaking, have proved my ruin; or, at least, it would have deprived me of the greater good the Lord had designed for me. Letters of John Newton (Banner of Truth, 1984), 188.

An apology for thinking

Dereliction of duty

Benedict XVI has released what amounts to an informal encyclical: 

He confirms the sodomite establishment in Catholic clerical circles. More damning evidence from an insider who occupied the highest echelons of the Catholic church. 

Yet the problem with his lament is that he writes like a spectator witnessing an accident scene, while first responders intervene. But in addition to his admittedly brief pontificate, he was Prefect for the CDF from 1982-2005. He was JP2's righthand man. So where was the church discipline from the top down? Why does he act like a helpless bystander? 

Is the Second Coming obsolete?

It's no more or less "awkward" than the Ascension. It's the Ascension in reverse (Acts 1:9-11). Once again, why is Rauser a contributor to The Christian Post? What does that tell you about the editorial oversight of Richard Land? 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Bible is a dangerous book

A stock objection to the Protestant faith is the rote claim that Scripture is a blueprint for anarchy without an infallible interpreter. It's dangerous to put the Bible in the hands of the laity. 

There's a gain of truth to that. There are readers who lack a responsible hermeneutic. Making the Bible as an open book is risky.

However, we can turn that around. It's dangerous when a particular class has a monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture. For instance, Southern slave masters wanted to keep slaves illiterate. Wanted to keep the Bible out of the hands of slaves. They wanted to retain hermeneutical hegemony. That ultimately failed because it was in direct conflict with nature of the Protestant faith. 

Slave masters were right to fear what would happen when slaves could read the Bible for themselves. When they suddenly had access to the entire Bible, and not just safe prooftexts spoonfed to them by their masters. The Bible was a threat to the status quo; a threat to the ruling class. 

Scripture is often attacked for failing to offer an explicit, blanket condemnation of slavery. Ironically, I always see this objection lodged by white atheists. By contrast, Southern slaves were quick to pick up on the countercultural message of Scripture. Quick to discern an analogy between the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt and Ole Massa as Pharaoh. The Bible in the hands of a slave was a loaded gun pointed at the head of the Antebellum establishment. 

The Bible is a dangerous book. That's why secular regimes outlaw the Bible. They know that putting a Bible in the hands of the proletariat is subversive to the totalitarian pretensions of the regime. That's a recipe for revolution. 

The truth that dare not speak its name

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The art of the autobiography

The canonical Gospels are often classified as Greco-Roman bio. How the Gospels are classified goes to the question of their historicity. And that can go either way. If you classify them as historical by literary genre, then by definition they're historical. Or you might classify them as historical based on the contents and corroboration. 

There are, however, many different kinds of biographical and autobiographical writing. To my knowledge, this is a severely neglected topic in Gospel criticism. This is my off-the-cuff taxonomy. There may be other examples I've overlooked since I haven't done in-depth research on the issue. My immediate purpose isn't to peg the Gospels according to this taxonomy, but to briefly explore how Gospel criticism typically oversimplifies the range of genre. 

1. Critical biography

An academic tome intended to be excruciatingly exhaustive. Usually about a public figure. Documents every detail as equally important. Nothing too trivial to escape notice. A reference work for fellow historians or diehard fans. 

2. Official propaganga

Stuff churned out by court historians to embellish the image of the glorious leader.

3. Hagiography 

An image-conscious autobiography designed to control how he will be remembered by posterity. A crafted reputation.

4. Hatchet-job

An anti-hagiography. Tries to debunk someone's reputation. Dig up dirt. Peddle rumor, gossip, and innuendo. A. N. Wilson's biography of C. S. Lewis is a case in point.

5. Nice guys finish last

In the entertainment industry, polishing your bad boy/bad girl credentials is a career booster. The star goes out of their way to be be sensational and scandalous.  

6. Exposé

Designed to settle old scores with political enemies or professional rivals. 

7. Apologetic

Defending one's reputation and the pristine purity of one's motives. Examples include Josephus and Newman's Apologia

8. The Wit and Wisdom

A subdivision of hagiography, with catchy quips and one-liners

8. Confessional

Often documents the before and after of a dramatic conversion experience. Classic examples include Augustine and Bunyan.

However, it can also be by infidels who aspire to authenticity and transparency (e.g. Sartre). 

9. Underdog

Heroic tale of somebody who overcomes adversity. Booker T. Washington is a classic example. 

10. Witness

The testament of an eyewitness to institutional evil. Examples include Elie Wiesel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

11. Self-promotional propaganda

Mein Kampf

12. Memoir

A selective autobiography. Not selective based on some agenda, but simply what the writer finds personally significant. Defining incidents in his life. Not so much about himself, but using his experience and observation to comment on the world. Heavy on interpretation. The reader views a particular time and place through the eyes of the autobiographer. An extreme example is Proust.

13. Diaries

In cases where the diarist is famous, he may write self-consciously in anticipation that his "private" diaries will someday come to light–in which case the diary may be less forthcoming. If the diarist is not a public figure, the entries are more likely to be candid, unguarded, and revealing. 

14. Intellectual autobiography

Typically in a festschrift for a philosopher, with a focus on his intellectual development. Thinkers who influenced his outlook. Sparring partners.

15. Travelogue

By explorers who travel the world or discover the world. Their life is defined where they've been. The places make their lives interesting to read about. 

16. Pioneers

By desperate or adventurous people who settle an area, then write about their risky, arduous experience bringing civilization to the wilderness.  

17. War journals

Some folks live in exciting, harrowing, hazardous times. The circumstances make their lives gripping to read about.

18. Autobiographical fiction

Mark Twain, Larry McMurtry, Giorgio Bassani, Thomas Hughes (Tom Brown's School Days).

A Caution About Ben Shapiro's New PragerU Video And Book

You can view the video here. It centers around the Athens/Jerusalem distinction made by Tertullian. I haven't read Shapiro's book, though I did look up his citation of Tertullian there and read the surrounding context. I can't evaluate his book as a whole, but the video is misleading, as is the portion of the book I read. Shapiro does a lot of good work, and I suspect the book as a whole has a lot of good qualities. But the video is problematic, and what little I've seen of the book raises some concerns about it.

I wrote an article several years ago about misrepresentations of Tertullian's comments on Athens and Jerusalem and another passage in Tertullian that's often misrepresented. Go here to find an index of responses to many other misconceptions about the church fathers, including other ones about the supposed intellectual negligence of the early Christians. And here's an article I wrote about the intellectual nature of Christianity and the importance of apologetics.

Monday, April 08, 2019

The appeal of Catholicism

I think the appeal of Catholicism for some cradle Catholics and converts to Catholicism is that you can lose yourself in Catholicism because it's so all-encompassing. There are Catholic philosophers, novelists, poets, painters, playwrights, composers, sculptors, filmmakers, mystics, architects, ethicists, &c. In that regard, Catholicism is one-stop shopping. There's a sense in which you could be intellectually and aesthetically fulfilled without ever leaving the Catholic compound, because there's Catholic everything. You'd never know what you were missing, because every slot has Catholic representation. So you never run out of Catholic trails to explore. You just keep going deeper into Catholicism. In a human lifespan, it's inexhaustible. Mind you, there are some problems with that:

i) It's quite possible for someone to be eclectic and cherry-pick the best from every culture. You can mix and match. You can like a lot of stuff by Catholics without any commitment to Catholic theology. We do that with ancient Greek and Roman art and literature, which is often pagan on the face of it. 

ii) A very impressive edifice can be built on nonsense. If there's enough talent feeding into Catholicism, it will build an impressive edifice, even if the foundation is legendary embellishment.

For instance, I enjoy Poulenc's Stabat Mater. Especially the performance conducted by Georges Prêtre with Régine Crespin as soloist. From somebody with my musical sensibilities, it's a powerful experience. The tonal aura of a dying world. Yet the text he set to music is pious nonsense. In principle, he could set a Buddhist poem to the same kind of music with the same elegiac effect. 

iii) In addition, you can lose yourself in something to the point where you never find your way out of the forest. You keep walking in circles, impervious to correctives, because you stopped reading the critics. You just go ever-deeper into error. 

The dispute over evolution and theology is asymmetric

I think the dispute over evolution and theology is not a symmetric one, as my friend Paul Garner would say.  My own efforts to understand God's creation from a creationist perspective could very well be wrong.  But if I am wrong, I have made mistakes about science because of my adherence to what I believe to be the Word of God.  On the other hand, if BioLogos and their followers are wrong, that seems to be a more serious matter.  They offer us a rather radically different vision of the Bible and the Christian message of sin, its source, and its consequences.  These strike me as far weightier matters that warrant great fear and trembling rather than cavalier enthusiasm.

My intellectual development

Having been a Christian blogger and apologist, this might be a good time to say something about my intellectual development and predilections:

• I never pursued an academic career because that requires a field of specialization, and my interests are too varied to sacrifice. Moreover, I think my wide-ranging interests enrich my apologetic resources. 

• Everything I care about ties into Christian theology. All my varied interests tie into Christian theology. That provides a unifying principle. I don't have a fallback position. I can't detach Christianity from what matters. I have no positions independent of Christianity. It's Christianity all the way down. All my positions in ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are guided by or grounded in Christian theology. 

• I backed into apologetics to answer other people's questions rather than my own. However, there came a point in life where it was helpful having that in reserve.

• I think naturalism is a recipe for moral nihilism, existential nihilism, and epistemic nihilism. As such, naturalism is a backstop against apostasy because there is no alternative to Christian reality.  

• Because apologists influence each other, apologetics can get stuck in a rut. It becomes too stereotypical and repetitive. One thing I've tried to do is to explore neglected lines of evidence for the Christian faith, thereby broadening the evidential basis for Christianity. 

• I became a Calvinist for what at the time were inadequate reasons. However, I made the right call. My initial understanding of Calvinism was formed and informed by reading Warfield and Cunningham. Paul Helm has also been useful over the years. 

• Although freewill theism has produced a number of eminent thinkers, I just can't take it seriously as a solution to the problem of evil. And the God of freewill theism is a smaller God than the God of Calvinism. Not the greatest conceivable being. 

• As a young Christian I explored Catholicism, but I was always too Bible-centered to find Catholicism satisfactory. Aesthetically I identify with the high-church tradition but theologically I identify with the low-church tradition. 

• Correspondence with Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Vern Poythress, and William Young served as sounding boards in the initial formulation of my theology. 

• I'm basically a classical theist, although I reject Thomistic simplicity 

• I prefer exegetical theology and philosophical theology to historical theology

• I prefer metaphysics to epistemology

• I prefer the principle of plenitude to the principle of parsimony 

• I prefer rationalism to empiricism. I like philosophical and scientific thought-experiments. However, the empiricist emphasis on sense knowledge is a salutary corrective to the rationalist derogation of sense knowledge. 

• I subscribe to the Medieval exemplarist tradition

• I find symmetries interesting, especially reflection symmetries, crystallography, tessellation, infinity mirrors, Pachelbel's canon, &c. The Trinity is the paradigm symmetry. Reality is ultimately complex rather than simple. 

• I'm an indirect realist. To that extent, I'm a scientific antirealist. Appearances all the way down. Layered appearances. In that regard, divine revelation is necessary to provide an intersubjectival check on sensory perception. 

• The philosophy of time is an interest of mine 

• John Ruskin and Christina Rossetti are side interests

• Historic thinkers I find stimulating include Anselm, Berkeley, Descartes, Leibniz, Newman, Philoponus, and Pascal.

• Recent thinkers I find stimulating include Robert Adams, Dembski, Geach, Gödel, David Lewis, Le Poindevin, Thomas Nagel, Plantinga, Pruss, Poincaré, Josh Rasmussen, Sheldrake, van Fraassen, van Inwagen, Van Til. 

• I often correspond with Greg Welty, Paul Manata, James Anderson, Tim and Lydia McGrew

• When I was younger I used to think ethicists were philosophers who lack the acumen to do metaphysics, or aging philosophers who lost their intellectual edge. However, I developed a greater appreciation for ethics as I came to view it in a broader existential light: what makes life meaningful. 

• Favorite theistic proofs:

Argument from miracles

Argument from numbers

Argument from counterfactuals

Argument from truth (Aquinas)

Argument from logic

Argument from reason (Rasmussen)

Argument from contingency (Leibniz)

Evolutionary argument against naturalism

Pascal's Wager

An Antiracism Glossary

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Reframing the problem of evil

In standard philosophical discussions regarding the problem of evil, the nature and occurrence of evil is typically held to be prima facie evidence against God's existence, although that can be offset by other kinds of evidence for God's existence. 

Put another way, God's benevolence and existence are linked. If the problem of evil calls into question God's benevolence, that in turn calls into question God's existence. 

It's striking that the stereotypical way of casting the issue is so different from Scripture. In Scripture, God's existence is never in doubt. However, prophets and psalmists sometimes express frustrations or misgivings about God's benevolence. To that extent, God's existence and goodness aren't tightly linked. 

To be sure, it's not that God's goodness is questionable from the viewpoint of Scripture. But there are speakers within Scripture that voice a perceived tension between God's existence and his benevolence. So that reframes the issue. 

Do men talk about their feelings?

Women complain that men don't talk about their feelings. At least that's a cliche I've heard for as long as I can remember. However, in my admittedly anecdotal experience, many men do talk about their feelings. The reason more women aren't aware of that is because men generally share their feelings with other men! They confide in male friends.

Assuming that men are less likely to express their feelings with women, why is that? Again, I'm no expert, but women have a reputation for dredging up the past when they argue with their husband or boyfriend. I can't say how representative that is, but it's not based on nothing.

A man would be foolish to open up to a woman if he knows she's going to use that against him to win an argument. So I suspect that may be a major reason why men are more likely to open up around other men than with their wife or girlfriend. Just a hunch. 

In addition, there's a certain paradox in male friendship. On the one hand, men are naturally competitive with other men, so you might think they'd be reticent about letting down their guard and showing any sign of weakness. On the other hand, since men are psychologically alike, there's no particular shame in sharing emotions and experiences that are common to men. Moreover, I think men are more inclined to put things behind them rather than having a mental record of every word, deed, misdeed, or perceived failure on instant replay. 

These are, of course, broad generalizations with many exceptions. But if a wife or girlfriend wants a guy to let her on how he's feeling, she can't simultaneously turn that against him to win an argument. That's a betrayal of trust. It will be rewarded with resentment, and drive guys to confide in other guys. 

BTW, my enecounters with women over the years has generally been quite positive, so I'm not speaking from bitter personal experience. I'm not unloading or venting. Rather, I'm speaking on behalf of other guys whose experience is less agreeable than mine.