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. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Facing temptation

A common assumption is that temptation isn't real unless you are free either to withstand or succumb to temptation. Many Christians find that persuasive, even self-evident. I don't. 

To me, the key dynamic in moral temptation is the psychological tension between duty and desire. You want to do one thing but you'e morally compelled to refrain. 

A classic example is missionary Eric Liddell. Both before and after the initial Japanese invasion of China, he has a chance escape. Instead, he sent his wife and daughter out of the country while he stayed behind. As a result, he became a captive in a civilian war camp, where he died. He undoubtedly felt an overwhelming urge to be with his wife and kids, not to mention putting the Japanese invasion at a comfortable distance. 

But as a devout Christian, it was unthinkable to abandon his students in their dire hour. A betray of trust. Imagine the message that would send if him left them behind to elude suffering while leaving them to face the Japanese army. They'd conclude that he didn't take seriously the faith he  taught them. His sense of Christian honor and Christian witness made that prospect inconceivable. The precise point of tension lay in the unresolvable emotional conflict.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The genealogies of Jesus

Some Enfield Photos Rarely Seen

In 1983, the now-defunct magazine The Unexplained ran a series of articles on the Enfield Poltergeist. The first two were written by Guy Playfair, and the third was written by Anita Gregory (vol. 11, issue 121, "Enfield: The Trouble Begins", 2401-5; vol. 11, issue 122, "Enfield: Whatever Next?", 2426-29; vol. 11, issue 123, "Enfield On Trial", 2458-60). All three articles feature a lot of photographs, with accompanying captions providing some context. Many of the photos are ones I'd never seen before. What I want to do here is post several that I consider the most significant ones. I don't think they're available anywhere else on the web. I'll provide some additional information based on what I know of the context of the photos. I also want to discuss some significant information provided in the caption for one of the photos that's better known.

Go here to see a floor plan of the house where the poltergeist's activities typically occurred. References to Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair's tapes will use "MG" to designate Grosse's tapes and "GP" to designate Playfair's. MG43A is Grosse's tape 43A, GP32A is Playfair's tape 32A, etc.

What's below is a picture of Janet Hodgson either leaving a bed or landing (on her neck or head) during a throwing incident. The photo is attributed to Grosse. I doubt he'd have told the magazine (or have told Playfair, if Playfair gave Grosse's photo to the magazine) that Janet was being thrown if that wasn't the context. Based on what I know of his behavior on his tapes and elsewhere, I'd expect him to have had good evidence that what he was photographing was a throwing incident. When the subject of levitation comes up, people usually talk about the photos of Janet in a posture that resembles jumping, but the poltergeist lifted her or threw her in a large variety of ways. There are some photographs, like the one below, in which Janet's posture doesn't resemble jumping. (And see here for evidence that the ones with a jumping posture are authentic.) The magazine has two photos overlapping. The upper right portion of the photo below is covered by the bottom left of another one:

Monday, December 16, 2019

How Much Did Papias Influence Gospel Authorship Attributions?

I just had an exchange on Facebook regarding the popular claim that a large percentage of ancient gospel authorship attributions, if not all of them, were based on the testimony of Papias. I'll indent the other person's comments and leave mine without indentation.

Jason, I hope you don't mind me asking, but I was wondering if in your studies on Origen of Alexandria you ever came across discussions of what sources were behind Origen's Gospel attributions. I checked Monte Shank's book on Papian fragments and it looks like Origen never mentioned Papias anywhere in his writings - so it seems like Origen was naming the Gospels independent of Papias. Thanks for any information you may be able to relay.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

John Lennox: I’m a Christian because I was encouraged to think

Ruth 4 And Christmas

The last chapter of Ruth should get more attention than it does during the Christmas season. Notice the references to Gentile inclusion, building the house of Israel, fame related to Bethlehem, a supernatural conception, and Davidic ancestry, for example. Much of what's in the passage is somewhat reminiscent of Christmas themes, and some of what's anticipated has been fulfilled more by Jesus than by David:

"'I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess [a Gentile]'…'May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; and may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem.'…So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, 'Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer'…to Boaz [was born], Obed, and to Obed was born Jesse, and to Jesse, David." (Ruth 4:10-11, 4:13-14, 4:21-22)

"The stories of Jesus's birth are the foundation of the world's most widely observed holiday. Christmas is celebrated by the world's two billion Christians, a number about twice that of the next largest religion, Islam. Moreover, because of the cultural and commercial importance of Christmas in Western culture and beyond, it is observed by many non-Christians as well. Indeed, no other religious holiday is so widely commemorated by people who are outside of the tradition that originated it....Since Matthew and Luke agree independently on those two points about Jesus - that he was descended from David's lineage and born in David's city [Bethlehem] - those must come from an earlier tradition than either of their Christmas stories. And, in fact, we find both of those points elsewhere in the New Testament." (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], vii, 130)