Saturday, November 16, 2019

On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand

Dark City

If naturalistic evolution is true, then human beings are like the characters in Dark City who have false implanted memories. The characters have beliefs about their past, but their beliefs don't map onto reality.

Likewise, if naturalistic evolution is true, we've been brainwashed to value kin altruism, but that's a projection which doesn't map onto reality. Nothing is actually good or bad, right or wrong. It's just how our brains were wired by blind evolution. The valuation is arbitrary. We could just as well be rewired to value cannibalism. 

Color-coded Bible

My post

provoked a conversation in the combox which I'm posting separately because it offers a high-level comparison and contrast between the respective positions:

Lydia McGrew
I would say that evidentialism per se doesn't tell us anything about any of those specific things. If we imagine an evidentialist who is convinced of the most conservative position on all of those specific things, and thinks he has extremely strong evidence for them, then there is no reason to talk about a "floor" at all anymore, unless we assume that he's just missing some significant piece of evidence right now.

I would put the marriage analogy a little differently: Suppose that I say that I believe that my husband exists based upon evidence, not as a presupposition.

And suppose someone says, "Well, then, you could in theory become convinced that your husband doesn't exist? So it could go that low, there's no floor?"

How would one answer this? Presumably one would say, "Well, that's a crazy scenario. Are we imagining that I get some almost unimaginably bizarre influx of new evidence in which I become rationally convinced that my husband is really a robot inserted into our country by space aliens, or what?"

In other words, there are tons of things that we are so over-justified in believing by evidence that we can only envisage becoming convinced that they are false if we make up the wildest of future evidential scenarios, which we'd have to be crazy to lose sleep over.

Does that mean that we are "presuppositionalists" about those things? No, of course not. It means that our evidence is so mountainous and overwhelming that we have, by evidential means, a kind of "practical certainty" about them so that we would have to rip up huge amounts of our other justified beliefs (in this case, our justified confidence that space alien robots are not successfully impersonating humans over many decades, etc.) in order to change our minds about them.

In that trivial sense one can say that there is "no floor" on whether, in principle, one could abandon such a belief, as long as it isn't something known a priori. 1 + 1 = 2 is more justified than "I have a hand" or "My husband is not a robot." But that's not an argument against being an evidentialist about such propositions.

A problem I have with that response is that while I used some picturesque metaphors to illustrate the principle, my primary examples aren't hypothetical, much less farfetched hypotheticals, but real-life examples, and not exceptional but commonplace. Lots of folks who used to be conservative Christians but over time the content of their faith atrophies along the pattern I describe. It's not so much that the bottom fell out of their faith, but that their faith had no bottom to begin with.

Lydia McGrew
Sure, but presumably presupps don't have particular positions on all of those things as part of their "floor." At least I wouldn't imagine that they do. There's nothing about being a presupp per se that means you have to have one particular position on the ages of the patriarchs or Noah's flood. I can easily imagine presupps disagreeing among themselves about those issues.

Nor is there anything especially friendly to "myth or legend" in the evidentialist position.

I can easily imagine a presupp who takes a more "liberal" position on those particular issues than an evidentialist. Or I can imagine a presupp. and an evidentialist having exactly the same set of things where they draw a line and say, "No, I'm not going to change my mind on that."

The meta-level positions don't really tell us where someone's "floor" is going to fall. I have a really strong position on the historical Adam. I can easily imagine a presupp. who would be more friendly than I am to theistic evolution for the body of man.

In practice, I suspect that both presupps and evidentialists have as their practical "floor" those things that they tacitly or explicitly believe are extremely strongly justified by the data, including the data of Scripture. The reason that a particular position on the deity of Christ is a non-negotiable is (in no small measure) because we all recognize that it is over-justified by the Scriptural data as a tenet of Christianity. But that's not the case on, e.g., a local vs. a universal flood.

I would instance here Paul Moser as a guy who is a sort of rabid neo-Barthian and hates evidentialism with the passion of a thousand burning suns. I'd be willing to bet a sum of money that his positions are far more liberal on all of those issues than mine and that he has a lower "floor" than mine on other issues as well.

To generalize, presuppers have a more theological orientation whereas evidentialists have a more historical orientation. By that I mean, evidentialists approach the Bible as historians–in contrast to presuppers who approach the Bible as a religious document (as well as a historical document), so that, as a matter of principle, presuppers treat Christian theology and Bible narratives as a unit–rather than an assemblage of separable parts, to be individually reaffirmed or discarded. (Which doesn't mean presuppers, or at least the most intelligent representatives, are unconcerned with the value of corroborative evidence, where available.)

As long as we're toying with hypotheticals, here's another hypothetical way to frame the difference between presuppers and evidentialists:

i) Suppose the Book of Esther made demonstrably false historical claims. An evidentialist might say that just means we should dispense with inerrancy. The Book of Esther might still be a historically useful witness to an especially trying time in Jewish history, but it's not infallible. It's comparable to 1 Maccabees.

By contrast, a presupper might say in that case it's not that Scripture is fallible, but that Esther isn't Scripture. Scripture wasn't mistaken; rather, the canonization of Esther was mistaken. We don't dispense with inerrancy but with errant books. 

ii) Put another way, presuppers accept or reject books as a unit rather than accepting or rejecting parts of (the same) books. 

iii) That's because presuppers regard Scripture as a religious document (as well as a historical document). A supernatural rather than naturalistic product.

iv) BTW, this isn't a uniquely presuppositional approach to the Bible. I also approach the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Arcana Cœlestia (to cite three representatives examples) as religious documents. They purportedly originate in supernatural encounters, and that's how I evaluate them (although historical analysis is certainly pertinent, where possible). As such, I accept or reject them as a unit. I don't affirm parts of them while discarding other parts. Rather, I accept or reject them in toto.

Of course, the Koran does have some incidental historical and autobiographical value regarding the life and times of Muhammad. It's worthless on Bible history, but does shed light on a particular period in Middle Eastern history.

To illustrate the contrast from different, but related examples, here are some more comparisons:

i) As I presupper, I don't approach the Koran the same way I approach the Jewish Wars by Josephus. Josephus wrote a historical account, not a religious document. It doesn't claim to be Scripture or divine revelation. 

I can accept or reject parts of the Jewish Wars, if some parts are of dubious historicity. 

By contrast, the Koran is first and foremost a revelatory claimant. Considered on those terms, it reject it in toto. 

ii) Considered as a canonical candidate, I reject 1 Maccabees in toto. That's if I judge it on Catholic grounds.

iii) However, 1 Maccabees isn't a Catholic document. It was appropriated by the Catholic church, but it didn't originate in Catholicism. It's a pre-Catholic, pre-Christian document. A historical document about the Maccabean revolt. It doesn't claim to be Scripture. So at that level, I can accept parts of it and reject parts of it, if some parts are of dubious historicity. 

iv) Consider the scribal/apocryphal additions to Daniel, Mark, and John. I don't accept some parts of Daniel, Mark, and John while rejecting other parts. Rather, I don't regard the apocryphal additions to Daniel, or the scribal interpolations to Mark and John (the Long Ending of Mark, the Pericope Adulterae) to be parts of those books in the first place. They're not original to Daniel, Mark, and John. 

v) This is not to deny that the same document can be both historical and religious. But if a document puts itself forward as a candidate for Scripture, then I'll assess the status of the document on religious terms rather than historical terms. Of course, if the revelatory claimant makes blatantly false historical claims, that doesn't help its case!

Lydia McGrew
What I'm pushing back against here is the to my mind mistaken view that evidentialism says, "Never come to a strong conclusion about anything" or "always hold a lower-than-really-high probability for all religious propositions." There is nothing about evidentialism that says that. That's maybe a caricature that arises understandably from statements like, "Always follow the evidence," but my point is that you can follow the evidence and thereby come to an extremely high confidence in a proposition such that you don't envisage changing your mind on it ever. It's not like evidentialism puts some kind of artificial "ceiling" on the degree of confidence you can have in any religious proposition, like you have to hang around in a state of semi-uncertainty about the deity of Christ (or whatever) all your life so that you can prove to yourself that you're open-minded and ready to follow the evidence. I forget if it's GK Chesterton who has that famous quotation about how open-mindedness is fine so long as it doesn't prevent us from closing our minds upon the truth when we find it. An evidentialist can say "amen" to that at least as loudly as a presuppositionalist.

There's the question of what motivates a reinterpretation. For instance, the reason people question or outright deny the longevity of the antediluvians is because they think that's unrealistic. Whereas a presupper would say it's realistic because that's attested in Scripture. 

Now, I agree with you that one can postulate hypothetical scenarios which create untenable dilemmas for presuppers. But like hypothetical moral dilemmas, that ultimately becomes a question of divine providence in real life. Will God allow believers to be confronted with untenable intellectual dilemmas? That also depends on how much control we think God has over world history. So the debate spills over into other theological commitments.

Lydia McGrew
Is it your position that presuppositionalism per se contains a position on the meaning of the ages of the antediluvians? Because I would bet there are presuppers who would disagree with you on that.

I was under the impression that presuppositionalism had various issues where various interpretations of Scripture's literalness was allowed in a generally evidential manner just as it is for evidentialists, not that presuppositionalism per se is committed to a more literal hermeneutic.

For example, I think there are presupp OECs as well as presupp YECs.

(I'm inclined to take the ages of the antediluvians as literal, btw.)

Maybe we should distinguish presuppers from "people who take some non-evidentialist approach to apologetics." Perhaps one wouldn't say William Lane Craig is a presupper. See my comment below. He's not an evidentialist, though. But evidently the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" isn't telling him that Genesis 1-11 are not "mytho-history," even though the IWHS is telling him that the Bible as a whole is true!

So it's not just hypothetical but actual for someone to have a commitment, even what that person characterizes as a whole-book, non-evidentialist commitment, to the truth of the Bible as Scripture, and to reinterpret segments as non-historical in fairly radical ways just as you are bringing up here, even more so than a given evidentialist (like me) does. Again, this isn't just a hypothetical scenario.

i) When I contrast presuppers with evidentialists, that doesn't mean I'm exempting classical apologists (e.g. Craig) from the contrast. I'm just using evidentialism as a representative point of contrast.

ii) Especially among the laity, some Christians appeal to the IWHS as a hermeneutical shortcut. The Holy Spirit gives Spirit-filled Christians the correct interpretation of Scripture.

However, that's just folk theology. The Bible itself never makes that promise. It's convenient for lay Christians who don't have access to academic Bible commentaries or the aptitude to process them. But the appeal is misguided. 

iii) In terms of historical theology, the IWHS wasn't used as a hermeneutical shortcut but to undergird the assurance of salvation and/or conviction that the Bible is the word of God.

On the one hand, the principle has some value, possibly indispensable, because most Christians lack the aptitude to justify their faith through rigorous argumentation, so they must have an alternate mode of access to ground their faith. For a fairly sophisticated formulation of the IWHS:

iv) However, the IWHS, if valid as a general principle, is too coarse-grained to function as a criterion for the canonical candidates (or textual criticism). 

We might compare it to the argument from miracles, which eliminates conventional naturalism, and creates a presumption in favor of Christianity compared to non-Christian religions (because miracles cluster around Christianity), but is too indiscriminate to eliminate intra-Christian rivals. 

v) In principle, the IWHS isn't the only epistemological paradigm that could perform the role assigned to it. An alternative might be a providential paradigm where God instils Christian faith by arranging for people to be exposed to good religious conditioning, as well as miracles, special providences, or answered prayers.

vi) The IWHS could be expanded into the argument from religious experience.

vii) As you know, "reinterpreting" the Bible is sometimes a euphemism for "the Bible got it wrong", but it would be controversial to say that, so a reinterpretation is more politic. 

viii) As I said before, the primary issue isn't reinterpretation per se, but what motivates reinterpretation. If I question or reject a traditional interpretation, I didn't personally change my mind. That interpretation was around long before I was born. Every new Christian generation must assess traditional interpretations. Christians in different times and places may find themselves in different epistemic situations. A cliche example is geocentrism. 

ix) Moreover, it's not always a case of revising the interpretation under pressure from factual challenges. For instance, biblical archeology may provide new evidence that invites an alternative interpretation. 

x) My primary target is an approach to Scripture like the Jesus Seminar. A color-coded Bible in which we go through the Bible rating various statement as probably true, probably false, definitely false. 

And that also happens under the guise of "reinterpretation," where reinterpreting a passage of Scripture is functionally equivalent to saying it's wrong. The revised interpretation is face-saving device. 

This dovetails with your criticism of token inerrancy, where lip-service is paid to inerrancy but the affirmation is vacuous because it strips historicity out of inerrancy. Inerrancy becomes an empty suit.

Lydia McGrew
Just thought of this: Bill Craig has critiqued evidentialism and doesn't consider himself an evidentialist, and he's out there saying that Gen. 1-11 is "mytho-history." I don't know if you just think WLC is an outlier or something, but he really is an example of someone who both a) has distanced himself explicitly from evidentialism (I guess he'd be more of a Plantingian in certain ways) and b) has engaged in reinterpretation in exactly the way you are talking about and, I would say, for the same motives, though perhaps he would dispute the motive claim.

I don't really think he's all that unusual among non-evidentialists and anti-evidentialists. But perhaps you're just making generalizations about presuppositionalists more narrowly conceived and saying that those in that group are more inclined to stick with a more literal hermeneutic and not to engage in reinterpretation based on outside evidence or judgements of probability than self-styled evidentialists. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

Keener's conversion testimony

Drag queen patriarchalism

Transgenderism is the new misogyny. We've come full circle from historic discrimination against women through the woman's lib movement and equality laws to the oppression of women under the guise of transgenderism. Drag queen patriarchalism.

Theistic conceptual realism

Recently, Greg Welty debated Peter van Inwagen and William Lane Craig on abstract objects. That will be published in the Winter issue of Philosophia Christi. Here is Welty's title and abstract:

Title: “Do Divine Conceptualist Accounts Fail? A Response to Chapter 5 of God Over All”.

Abstract: "William Lane Craig’s God Over All argues against the kind of ‘divine conceptualism’ about abstract objects which I defend. In this conference presentation I note several points of agreement with and appreciation for Craig’s important work. I then turn to five points of critique and response pertaining to: the sovereignty-aseity intuition, the reality of false propositions, God’s having ‘inappropriate’ thoughts, propositions being purely private and incommunicable, and a consistent view of God’s own ontological commitments. I conclude by summarizing our two key differences, indicating that we may have much more in common than first appears (both theologically and metaphysically)."

In the final footnote, Welty mentions five more criticisms that weren't read out. 

In addition, Dr. Welty will be updating his arguments in Colin Ruloff (ed.), Contemporary Arguments in Natural Theology (Bloomsbury Press, forthcoming).

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The intellectual lifecycle

There's an interesting cycle in the intellectual life of some people. When they're teenagers, they have an existential outlook, as they ask the big meaning-of-life questions. And it's a natural time of life to begin thinking about that. Not coincidentally, that's when many people either convert to Christianity or else personally appropriate the Christian faith they were raised in.

But in their 20s and 30s they may shift away from that to more abstract intellectual pursuits like math, science, and philosophy. In the case of Christian men, there's often a focus on apologetics and theological debate. Christianity and atheism. Calvinism and freewill theism. Amillennialism and premillennialism. And so on and so forth. 

Yet when they hit middle age, that's a natural time to take stock of where they are in life. Reassess their goals. Recalibrate. 

Have they achieved their goals? Were their goals worth achieving? They set goals when they were younger, but with the benefit of hindsight, maybe their priorities seem less important now. 

Assuming they achieved their goals, what do they do next? Is that what gave them a sense of purpose? If so, what's left to live for? 

Or do they recognize that their goals were unrealistic? Or realize they they are running out of time to achieve their goals? They will have to scale back and lower their ambitions and expectations. 

So middle age can redirect them back to an existential focus. And if that doesn't do it, old age is apt to give them a more existential outlook, as they look back over their lives and consider if they led fulfilling, worthwhile lives, and what, if anything, lies ahead. At that point youth and old age come full circle. You might say that as teenagers they were existential philosophers. Then, in their prime they became analytic philosophers. Finally, as they hit the summit, with the downhill side ahead of them, they revert to being existential philosophers. BTW, I think women naturally have an existential orientation. 

Degenerative disease

Few things can be as bad as having a degenerative illness. So this dramatically illustrates the problem of evil. Why would an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God permit degenerative diseases? 

Consider two related cases. A medical test for something unrelated on a healthy, asymptomatic teenage boy or girl, adult man or woman turns up the fact that they have a gene for a genetic disorder. This could take two forms. In one case the genetic defect makes it inevitable that they will develop the disease. In the other case the genetic defect makes it likely that they will develop the disease. Say a 50/50 chance.

The results in themselves generate a psychological dilemma. The patient would be relieved to know they don't have the fateful gene. But hearing the results carries the risk that they do have the fateful gene. 

That completely changes their outlook on life. Before they got the news, the presumption was that they'd have a normal healthy lifespan. But that's been abruptly and brutally replaced by terrible foreboding. 

There is, however, another way to look at this. Thanks to modern medicine, many people are presumptuous about the life ahead of them. They take life for granted. So they squander the gift of life on frivolity. Ephemeral, trivial pursuits, because they have time to burn. The prospect of death or the ravages of old age lie decades away.

If the prognosis is inevitable, the patient lives with a sense of doom. If the prognosis is 50/50, there is still an unshakable sense of dead.

But having a preview of the future gives them time to reflect on what makes life important. What should we live for? Likewise, it gives them an incentive to view this life from the perspective of eternity. Even at its best, this life can only be so good, and even then the good comes to an end. 

So while the prognosis is devastating, it concentrates the mind on what matters. It gives them lead-time reorient their lives while they're still healthy. It gives them advance notice to prepare for the afterlife, since they have nothing to hope for in this life. Things won't get better, or even stay the same, but become inexorably and horribly worse until they die. 

The Bible and mythology

According to the Bible, human beings can be possessed by disembodied evil spirits. And while the Bible is a bit sketchy on the next part, the backstory seems to be that demonic evil spirits are the losers in a primeval civil war in heaven. Now if that's not mythological, what is? Certainly it seems that way to progressive theologians and atheists. These are the superstitious talltales of Bronze Age goatherds. 

But here's the catch: there's lots of direct empirical evidence that some human beings are possessed by evil spirits. Not just the stuff of ancient books or medieval monks. 

And if that's the case, then purely as a matter of logical elimination, there are only so many explanations. Either the evil spirits always existed or else they came into existence. Either they were always evil or else they became evil. 

So we could turn the exclamation around: if that's not mythological, where does that leave the rest of Scripture? 

"Hints" of the Trinity

Part of Dale Tuggy's stump speech is that he objects to Christians finding "hints" of the Trinity in the OT. He thinks that's special pleading. They begin with their dogma, then cast about for prooftexts. 

I'd simply point out that Christians aren't doing anything exceptional when it come to the Trinity. Christians have always taken the position that OT theology is less developed than NT theology. That's a given. Although there's continuity between OT theology and NT theology, in many cases you won't find full-orbed NT theology in the OT. Rather, you'll find adumbrations of NT theology in the OT.

That's because, unlike Buddhism, Christianity is a religion of events as well as ideas, and God didn't do everything at once. Biblical revelation is progressive in large part because theology runs in tandem with redemptive events. Doctrine provides a theological interpretation of redemptive events.

So it's not as if Christians use one basic methodology for relating OT theology to NT theology in general, but switch to something completely different when it comes to the Trinity and the Incarnation. Rather, it's the same methodology throughout. 

Suffering saints

Among Christians there's a range of suffering. If, say, a young Christian pastor is too green, then that limits his ability to counsel suffering parishioners. It also limits his ability to identify with passages of Scripture about suffering. If, conversely, a Christian is overwhelmed by suffering, then that stifles his ability to be an articulate witness to his experience. God gives some saints enough firsthand experience with suffering to enable them to relate to the plight of others, but not so much to leave them stupefied by suffering. 

The Trinity in the OT

There are different views regarding the revelation of the Trinity in the OT:

1. At one extreme are Catholics and unitarians who don't think the Trinity is in the OT because they don't think the Trinity is NT. If it's not even in the NT, it can hardly be in the OT! Rather, they think the Nicene Fathers and Nicene/post-Nicene councils invented the Trinity.

2. At the other end of the spectrum are Christians who suppose you can directly prooftext the Trinity from passages like Gen 1:26 and Isa 6:3. I think traditional prooftexts like that should be retired. On the other hand, some traditional prooftexts are strong, as far as they go. 

3. Retiring a few traditional prooftexts doesn't mean we have less to work with. A problem with bad prooftexts is how they get in the way of developing better exegetical arguments. Some Christians just park on those prooftexts. That's where they stop.

Retiring a few traditional prooftexts frees up room to bring in neglected lines of evidence. The traditional methodology appealed to pinpoint prooftexts. While some individual texts are strong, modern evangelical scholars often take a diachronic approach where they trace messianic motifs as they unfold through a series of OT books. 

Other important developments involve the two-Yahweh doctrine in Second Temple Judaism and the phenomenon  of illeism in the OT and its NT counterparts. 

4. There's also some ambiguity in what it means to say we can find the Trinity in the OT. Does that mean we can find individual texts where it's all put together? Or does that mean the OT has the parts without the instruction sheet, and the NT provides the instructions on how to assemble the parts?

5. To take another example, some Christians think the Angel of the Lord is a theophany while others think that's a Christophany. Those aren't mutually exclusive interpretations: it could be a theophanic Christophany. The point, though, is that the Christophanic identification is more specific than the merely theophanic identification. 

5. Another issue is whether it's illicit to interpret OT statements in light of NT revelation. Here's another way to frame the issue? Is the Trinity recognizable in the OT if that's all you have to go by? Or does the NT create the shock of recognition? 

6. Apropos (5), let's take a comparison: 

i) In many stories (plays, novels, movies, TV dramas), some characters are related to each other while others are not. In some of these stories, the related characters are explicitly identified, viz. mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters. 

ii) In real life, there are certain clues that people are related, even if the relationship isn't explicitly identified. That includes visual clues. The most obvious is family resemblance in the case of close blood relatives. Or there can be subtler clues, like having the same idiosyncratic accent. 

Or, when you see two people together, there's a particular dynamic if they're related. That's not something you could discern in isolation.

iii) But in plays, movies, and TV dramas, actors who play blood relatives are usually unrelated in real life. Yet the audience is expected to suspend disbelief. It's a necessary convention. 

iv) In some cases the relationships are explicitly stated. It is, however, possible to have a story in which their identity is left unstated. Where it's up to the reader or audience to tease that out.

And that's more dramatically interesting. You start out knowing nothing about the characters. But as the story unfolds, especially in extended narratives like novels and TV dramas, the attentive viewer or reader will pick up on certain suggestive clues that particular characters are relatives, even if they're never explicitly identified as such. They behave around each other in ways typical of family members. They take certain liberties with each other, freely entering one another's personal space. 

That may be inconclusive, but there's a sorting process where it dawns on the audience that the characters interact with each other in ways that make a lot of sense if they belong to the same family, but make less sense if they're unrelated. 

And if, as the story progresses, the relationships are made explicit, that confirms what the audience suspected. The characters were recognizably related to each other, and when the relationships are named, everything falls into place. The story began as a riddle in that regard, but a telltale pattern emerges as the narration continues. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Jews and Jesus

I think it is far more plausible to think that God has the sovereign freedom to do something new and unexpected in Jesus than to think that He has the character of a Deceiver such as you describe. How confident are you that you’ve got it all sewed up so nice and neat that you know that God would not bring along a Messiah like Jesus? Maybe you’re mistaken about that. How can you be so sure? 

That's a variation on the same bad argument Craig used in his dialogue with Ben Shapiro. But the messiah is supposed to correspond to OT paradigms. The messiah might do some new and unexpected things in addition to OT paradigms, but not as a substitute. 

Part of the difficulty here is that I don’t think we have any good reason to think that the God of the Hebrew Bible exists apart from Jesus and his resurrection. It’s because I believe in Jesus that I believe in the Jewish God. For that reason, it’s not correct to equate Jesus with a false prophet who says “Let us follow and worship another god” (Deuteronomy 13.1), for the God worshipped and proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth was the God of the Hebrew Bible! It’s because of Jesus that I believe in the Jewish God. But take away Jesus and his resurrection, and what’s left? Then we must ask, why believe that the God of the Old Testament exists? There just aren’t many proofs of Judaism apart from Jesus. So it’s hard to see why, if Jesus was a deceiver or a fanatic, one should be Jewish.

i) Now that's a marked improvement over what he told Shapiro. That's a powerful argument. Pity he didn't challenge Shapiro with that argument. 

ii) At the same time, we'd need to distinguish between the epistemic situation of pre-Christian Jews and post-Christian Jews. Surely Jews during the OT period and Inter-testamental period had good reason to believe in Yahweh's existence.  

On the other hand, to admit that God, the God of the Hebrew Bible, actually raised Jesus from the dead but was just testing people strikes me as rather desperate. It reminds me of saying that God placed the alleged fossil remains of prehistoric life in the rocks in order to test our faith in a 6,000 year old creation. Neither the God of the Bible nor of natural theology is that kind of Deceiver. Think of what you’re implying about the character of God! Would God mislead billions of the world’s people to believe in Jesus by raising him from the dead, knowing that they thereby be alienated from the life of God and His covenant? 

i) It would be better to argue that Deut 13 can't be used to subvert OT theism. That would be self-defeating. That's the opposite of what was intended. 

ii) So one issue is whether, even if billions are deceived by a false religion, it's possible to discern the true religion. Has God left evidence sufficient to make that discrimination? The issue is not confined to Judaism. What about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Mormonism (or Catholicism)? 

iii) Another issue is whether those who adhere to a false religion because they were in some sense divinely deceived (it might be indirect) are still culpable? We might distinguish between those who were already blameworthy on other grounds, so that religious delusion is punitive for their prior culpability. 

Premature death

An argument I often use in my overall theodicy is that no possible world is the best possible world. While some are definitely worse while others are definitely better, there's a cut above which no single timeline, no one world history, maximizes all the second-order goods while eliminating all or most evils. And I often use the example of different children conceived in different world histories. 

A stock objection is the Epicurean principle. Those who never exist have nothing at stake. You can only exist to have something to lose.

But I've always found that terribly shortsighted. For instance, someone who dies at 40 instead of 60 misses out on an extra 20 years of experience. Someone to dies at 20 instead of 60 misses out on an extra 40 years of experience. We think it's tragic when someone dies at ten because they lost so much of their potential future. It's an a fortiori argument from the lesser to the greater. Missing out on more and more. 

Or take someone who's blind. That's a deprivation. Or someone who's deaf. What about someone both blind and deaf? That's a greater deprivation. Or someone with no sense of taste. Or Nathan Wuornos, the character in Haven who has no tactile sense. Three sensory deprivations amount to a greater loss than two. They are missing out on sensory opportunities. The more the worse. 

But how is the a fortiori argument suddenly nullified when we move it up to those who never exist, which is total loss of opportunity? That's the a fortiori argument taken to the max. How can an argument from the lesser to the greater be solid up to a point, but peter out when it rises from the greater to the greatest? The principle involves a continuum. The force of the principle doesn't cease at the extreme end of the continuum. Rather, that's the limiting case. Other examples implicitly work back from that benchmark. 

Right setting, wrong story

 I'd like to revisit one issue in the recent Ehrman/Williams debate:

Ehrman dismissed the copious evidence provided by Williams on the grounds that even if the background information in the Gospels is accurate, that has no bearing on whether the accounts of Jesus are accurate. For instance, a columnist can get the background details right on a story but get the story wrong. 

But there are some basic problems with that objection:

i) For many years, Ehrman's schtick has been to claim that the Gospels are unreliable because they were written by anonymous authors decades after the fact who never lived in Palestine, weren't eyewitnesses to the life of Christ, and knew no eyewitnesses to the life of Christ.

Now, however, Ehrman does an about-face. Williams marshals multiple lines of evidence to demonstrate that the Gospel authors either lived in Palestine or interviewed people who did. 

So where does that leave Ehrman's original argument that the Gospel authors were out of touch with the facts on the ground? That they were too far-removed from the time and place to be in a position to accurately report what happened? Having lost the first football game, he moves the goalpost under cover of darkness to help his team for the rematch. 

ii) Sure, it's possible for an eyewitness to willfully misrepresent what happened. But that's a drastic shift from the argument Ehrman has been hawking for years. 

And there are problems with the new argument. If the Gospel authors were in a position to know what happened, why would they misrepresent events when they had so much on the line? It was very risky to be a Christian back them. 

iii) In addition, Jesus has a polarizing effect on people. If, say, you witnessed him perform exorcisms or nature miracles, you're forced to draw some conclusions. You're forced to take sides. On the one hand, his enemies admitted that he did those things. They heard what he said and saw what he did, right before their eyes. So they couldn't remain neutral. They attributed his supernatural abilities to witchcraft. 

But what would motivate the Gospel authors to misrepresent Jesus favorably if they knew what he did, even from their own firsthand observation or the eyewitness testimony of their informants? 

iv) Ehrman posits that the sources for the Gospels passed by word-of-mouth through many links before the authors wrote down the latest oral traditions. But there's no presumption that that's the case.

If, however, traditional authorship is correct–and Williams provides some direct evidence as well as alluding to other evidence–then Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. For that matter, Mark was probably an eyewitness. He's a younger contemporary of Jesus living in Jerusalem at the time of Christ's public ministry.  

Moreover, there's no presumption that Luke's sources involve a chain of transmission. He could easily interview eyewitnesses to the life of Christ. Many were still alive at the time he conducted his investigations. So there's no justification to stipulate a series of intervening links. The same holds true if Matthew, Mark, or John supplement their firsthand observation with testimony from other informants. The same holds true even if Matthew, Mark, and John weren't eyewitnesses. 

Is 2+2=4 more certain than God's existence?

Some Christian apologists say 2+2=4 is more certain than God's existence. But is that true? 

2+2=4 may be more evident than God's existence, but is it more certain? Usually, God's existence isn't directly evident because God provides the background conditions for everything else. Of course, there are situations where God can and does make himself directly evident.

Now, it seems to be the case that 2+2=4 is a paradigm-example of a necessary truth. Nothing can be more certain than that. 

However, it's easy to imagine an evolutionary scenario in which we were arbitrarily hardwired to think 2+2=4. We can't help thinking that's the case, we can't doubt it, even if that doesn't correspond to reality. That's just how we were programmed by blind evolution.

Sure, we number things, we count things, but that's because we think they can be grouped into collections of twos and fours. But again, what if that's something we project onto physical objects (or events)?

So the deeper question is whether there's something that makes it the case that 2+2=4? And is that something God? 

I don't mean in a voluntaristic sense, as if that equation is "true" by divine fiat. Rather, mathematical structures are an aspect of God's own mind.

My objective isn't to lay out the argument for that. I'm just pointing out that as a matter of principle, God's existence may be more fundamental than mathematical equations. If so, then God's existence is more certain than mathematical equations. Their certainty is derivative. It depends on God's existence. Again, that requires an argument, and there's an argument to be had for that. 

"Ehrman's Equivocation and the Inerrancy of the Original Text"

By Peter J. Williams

The idea of an inerrant or even an infallible original text of Scripture has been a matter of wide controversy. In part such controversy has merely reflected fundamental divisions over the nature of Scripture, its historical reliability, and the extent and essence of its authority. However, it is the contention here that the controversy has partly been complicated by the multivalence of key terms being used by advocates of inerrancy. This means that, while advocates of inerrancy are carefully presenting nuanced arguments that are exegetically well grounded and logically compelling, there are stumbling blocks to their message other than the sheer offensiveness of a doctrine of inerrancy. Advocates of inerrancy need to adopt clearer terminology to ensure that the doctrine is correctly understood at the popular level. In addition, this essay argues that the burden of proof should be on those who distrust the basic integrity of the New Testament text. The work of Bart D. Ehrman is used to illustrate the problems that can arise through terminological confusion and when the burden of proof is wrongly shifted onto those who maintain the basic integrity of the New Testament text.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Faith without a floor

1. I typically avoid debating apologetic method, not because I think it's unimportant, but in part because it's usually an onramp without an offramp. Both sides just keep going in circles. Likewise, having worked out my own methodology years ago, I prefer to act on that rather than talk about it. However, I make the occasional exception. 

Evidentialist apologists have made, and continue to make, tremendous contributions to Christian apologetics. Contributions which can be shamelessly appropriated by presuppositional apologetics! 

That said, a fundamental objection I have to evidentialism is that it has no theological floor. Because everything is based on prima facie evidence, everything is up for grabs. And that's not just hypothetical. 

• If Gen 1 appears to be unscientific, then the evidentialist reinterprets it as fiction or legend. 

• If the ages of the antediluvians appear to be naturally unrealistic, the evidentialist reinterprets them as symbolic or legendary. 

• If Noah's flood appears to be unscientific, the evidentialist reinterprets that as fiction or legend. 

• If the Exodus lacks independent corroboration, the evidentialist reinterprets that as fiction or legend. 

• If the new temple in Ezekiel appears to be a disappointed expectation, the evidentialist interprets that as prophetic failure. 

• If the Book of Daniel appears to be unhistorical, the evidentialist reinterprets that as fiction or prophecy after the fact. 

• If some end-of-the-world prophecies in the Gospels appear to be wrong, the evidentialist lowers his Christology. 

These are just samples. The list could be multiplied. 

2. Now in fairness, reexamining traditional interpretations is not unique to evidentialists. Christians in general feel some pressure for our understanding of Scripture and our understanding of the world to match. 

But in the case of evidentialism, there's a pattern–indeed a policy–of abandoning one outpost after another. Nothing is nonnegotiable. The border keeps contracting. Christian theology fades away, piece-by-piece. 

3. An evidentialist might counter, so is your position that we should continue believing despite the evidence? We should simply ignore the evidence?

Well, I don't think Christianity suffers from a lack of evidence. Quite the contrary. 

But the problem with the evidentialist is their failure to appreciate that the Christian faith is a unit. You can't keep moving the landmarks. What you believe isn't Christianity. A Christian faith without a floor isn't a Christian alternative. 

Christian faith requires a baseline commitment. It demands personal tenacity. It's what you're supposed to live by, die by, or die for. 

Of course, evidentialists range along a continuum. But it's like the moving walkway at airports. You may get off before you reach the end, but stepping on the autowalk signifies consent to go the whole way. 

Or, to vary the metaphor, it's like getting married, where bride and groom both make allowance for an open marriage. They may not actually have extramarital affairs, but they're prepared to. They've given themselves permission. That's understood by both of them going into the wedding ceremony. 

Picking a faith-tradition

It's really simple. I have a threefold criterion (or three criteria, if you wish to be annoyingly pedantic): any candidate that drives a wedge between the good, the true, and the beautiful can be preemptively discounted:

1. Lutheranism drives a wedge between the good and the true, on the one hand, and the beautiful, on the other. The mother tongue of Lutheranism is the world's ugliest language. So you have to believe God is a prankster to be Lutheran.

(Don't talk to me about Bach, Handel, Pachelbel, Mendelssohn, and Brahms cuz that would be distracting!)

2. Like Lutheranism, Catholicism drives a wedge between the good, the true, and the beautiful, but in the opposite direction. It gets high marks for beauty (Latin, Italian), but flunks out on the good and the true.

3. Calvinism has the beautiful (Latin/French/Italian/English a la Calvin, Nicole, Turretin, Zanchi, Peter Vermigli, Bunyan, Cowper) in union with the good and the true. 

So by process of elimination, Calvinism is the winner!