Saturday, January 04, 2020

Models of providence

Open theism is a view relatively easy to understand. According to open theism, God simply created a world with many libertarian-free agents in it and turned them loose. Their free choices were ultimately contingent, and–the hallmark of the view–God did not know ahead of time what they would do. (A primary motivation for open theism is the conviction that, if God did know what agents  were going to do ahead of time, they would not be free.) Thus they are responsible for their deeds and, to a large extent, God is not. God governs the world by controlling the nonfree aspects of creation and by being vastly more intelligent than his creatures the way a chess grandmaster might outplay a tyro. Divine providence is exercised through God's fantastic chessmaster skills, but open theists admit that God "takes risks" in creating and in further interacting with the creation…Open theism is incompatible with divine eternity, and there is a vast swath of knowledge–knowledge of future contingents–that it entails that God does not know…

For the Molinist picture of God's creative choice can be famed this way. Imagine that, prior to creation, the set of possible free creatures forms a union and comes to God with their employment demands…Or imagine a little differently, that they have a long list of all the possible worlds, and they have crossed off a number that they refuse to cooperate with. God, then, has to work within the boundaries his "employees" have set. Less picturesquely, he has to work within the boundaries of CCFs he did not choose to be saddled with.

One way of thinking about God's relationship to his creation goes like this God created seven billion or so other agents, all with libertarian free will, and turned them loose. These seven billion agents tend to get in each other's way. We are all quite familiar with our projects' being frustrated by our recalcitrant fellow human beings. God is in much the same situation, except that he is vastly more powerful, intelligent, and long-lived than the seven billion others that he must outwit, outplay, and outlast. 

According to the theological determinist…God's position vis-a-vis other agents is not that of a grandmaster playing a ninety-dimensional chess match against seven billion opponents, not even if we add that he somehow has advance knowledge of what moves they will or would make. 

Traditionally, God is held to be not only omniscient but essentially omniscient. TD not only embraces these attributes but also has a very clear explanation of both how God is omniscient and why he is essentially omniscient. God knows what happens because he makes it happen; his knowledge of the world is through (or just is) his knowledge of his plan for the world. Since his plan is comprehensive and his power is almighty, there is no possibility of his foresight's going wrong. 

Providence is the divine attribute that says God orders the world wisely and well. It is the attribute that allows the theist to trust God and to believe that, however unwisely or badly the world seems to be going at a particular time and place, in the end God's presently hidden goodness will overcome the apparent evil. Devotionally speaking, providence is one of the most important of the divine attributes.

In No-Risk views of God's relationship to his creation (i.e., those of TD and Molinism), God knows the end from the beginning, and his creation proceeds exactly as he wills it to at all times.  This means that evils done or suffered early in the narrative of a life or a world can be planned out so as to play a positive role later on. 

[In Risk-Taking views] the analogy of an adult supervising children at a playground captures the basic idea. The adult observes from the sidelines the melee of free-willed children running around a jungle gym. She has some idea of how the children are likely to behave, without perfect powers of prediction. She may step in if the play seems to be getting too dangerous or damaging, and she may punish children who do harm to others and comfort or compensate those who have harm done to them…On the other end of the spectrum, God could just let the chips of this life fall where they may–he might turn a blind eye to the bullies on the playground, so to speak–so that sublunary life is not ordered particularly wisely or well, but then set everything right, somehow, in the next life. 

My point in going through this difference between No-Risk and Risk-Taking views of divine providence is that I believe they generate, or are capable of generating, quite different attitudes toward evil and suffering in believers. Let me illustrate this with the biblical story of Joseph. 

In the narrative, Joseph begins as an arrogant young man and parental favorite. His brothers, envious and angry, eventually retaliate by selling him into slavery and convincing their father that Joseph is dead. Joseph is enslaved in Egypt, is unjustly accused of attempting to rape his master's wife, is jailed as a result, is forgotten by a friend he helps while in jail, and then is finally released to serve Pharaoh. He rises to be Pharaohs' chief minister and provides for the country during famine. His brothers, suffering under the famine in Canaan, travel to Egypt to procure food, not knowing Joseph's fate. Incognito, he provides for them, eventually reveals himself, and the family is reunited, with Joseph forgiving his repentant brothers.

In the course of reassuring his brothers of his good intentions at the end of the narrative, Joseph makes a remarkable theological assertion: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today". That is, Joseph views his kidnapping and enslavement not, or not merely, as the results of created free wills acting contrary to God's desires, but as part of a divine plan to provide for his family during famine and to ensure their prosperity across generations. God does not intervene to prevent these evils, and he does not compensate for them afterward. Rather, they form an intrinsic part of a narrative in which even the events that we would ordinarily describe as evil are revealed to have good aspects, planned from the beginning by the divine mind though inscrutable to the humans in the midst of events. 

This is a view that can really be held only with No-Risk assumptions. It gives suffering a meaning in a way that Risk-Taking views cannot do, I think, for in Risk-taking views, the bullies on the playground or the slavetraders in the desert are not agents of the divine plan but confounding factors God has to work around. There is no point, no deeper meaning, in the suffering they inflict. There can only be the promise that its victims will not be forgotten. Heath White, Fate and Free Will: A Defense of Theological Determinism  (Notre Dame 2019).

Is inerrancy expendable?

I'm struck by how it's becoming fashionable for some evangelical apologists to trivialize or jettison inerrancy. Let's take a comparison: consider the dispute between Calvinists and open theists. Now open theists have a number of straightforward prooftexts for their position. There's nothing subtle about their prooftexts. What they claim lies right on the surface of the text. Therein lies the appeal.

Calvinists reply in various ways. The open theist interpretation runs counter to other things the Bible says about God. In addition, it fails to take anthropomorphism into consideration–as well as the distinction between propositional and performative language.

The basis of the dispute is that Calvinism and open theism represent incompatible views of God. If Scripture is true, then both interpretations can't be true. So the question is how to harmonize these prima facie contradictory representations of God. 

If, however, Scripture is fallible, then Scripture may teach both open theism and Calvinism. Different Bible writers with inconsistent opinions of God. Or even the same Bible writer with inconsistent opinions of God, depending on his mood or situation in life.

So on that view, the Bible doesn't show us what God is really like. It only shows us what Bible writers thought God was like. It reduces biblical teaching to a collection of theological opinions. Indeed, divergent opinions. But that makes the Bible worse than useless. 

What good does it say that if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, so we can dispense with inerrancy? But if we dispense with inerrancy, then what is Christianity? If you ditch inerrancy, then Catholics, Calvinists, Arminians, open theists, and so on may all be justified in finding their theology taught somewhere in Scripture. There's nothing to harmonize. And there's no way of telling which, if any, of these disparate positions, is true or truer. When you repudiate inerrancy, that's a recipe for religious pluralism. 

Why I'm not Eastern Orthodox

1. Recently I was asked why I'm not Eastern Orthodox. I've studied Roman Catholicism in far more depth than EO, and I have a clear bead on what Catholicism represents. I find it harder to get inside the conceptual world of EO. That's in part because, in my reading, the exposition is often metaphorical. So the question is what the picture language stand for.

2. That said, even if I'm unclear on what something is, I can be fairly clear on what it's not. Whatever EO represents, it's not NT Christianity. When I compare the two, these are different and divergent paradigms. 

3. EO rejects the pervasive penal forensic concept of salvation in Scripture. That's not all there is to Biblical salvation. There's also sanctification. But EO rejects a key plank of biblical soteriology. This isn't confined to Pauline theology or sola fide. The sustained model of the atonement in the NT (presaged in the OT) is penal and sacrificial. Sin violates divine justice. Sin is culpable and blameworthy. That's not all sin is. Sin is moral corruption as well. But in my reading, EO blanks out the primary model of NT atonement.

4. The alternative is the EO concept of theosis. I'm not entirely sure what that means. As I understand it, EO salvation is a metaphysical category. Sin involves alienation from the life of God. Salvation involves participation in the life of God. We're delivered from sin when we are taken up into very life of God. We share, not in his essence, but in his energies. 

5. Now, there's a sense in which NT salvation also has an ontological dimension: sanctification and glorification. And there's a roundtable sense in which Christians participate in the life of God. But God and man don't range along a common metaphysical continuum. There's a qualitative, categorical difference between God's necessary, incomparable, transcendent mode of subsistence and the existence of contingent, finite, timebound, embodied agents. Our mode of subsistence never intersects with God's mode of subsistence. God shares his life with us in the sense that he's the source of our being and well-being. All the goodness flows from him. 

6. It's my impression that EO creates a buffer by positing the essence/energy dichotomy/distinction. That strikes me as an ad hoc, unstable distinction. Are the energies God or not God? Identical with God or something other than God? If other than God, then the energies are part of the world. They fall on the side of creation. 

7. In NT soteriology, the Incarnation is a necessary precondition of the atonement, but not atoning in its own right. It's the sacrificial death of Christ's that's redemptive. And the necessity of moral/psychological renewal is supplied by the agency of the Holy Spirit.

8. From what I've read, OE theologians sometimes speak as if the Incarnation is not only a relation confined a unique individual (Jesus), but that somehow the Incarnation unites God and man at a universal level. As if all humans are plugged into the life of God by virtue of the Incarnate Son.  

9. On the face of it, that stands in tension with the particularity of the sacraments. Presumably OE theologians have strategies to finesse that tension, but can it be squared? 

10. Apropos (9), 5. there's the smothering sacramentalism, where salvation is channelled through the sacraments. That, in turn, necessitates priestcraft. Like Catholicism, EO operates with a priest-sacrament paradigm whereas evangelical theology operates with a Word-Spirit paradigm. 

11. Then there's the superstitious role of icons, which seem to function as projections or extensions of the Incarnation. 

12. On top of that is the fiction of an infallible church. 

The whole system is far-removed from NT theology and piety. Of course, EO theologians try to prooftext their position from Scripture, but in my observation their exegesis is meager, strained, and circular as they appeal to the authority of the Greek fathers to leverage their interpretations of Scripture (e.g. the Tabor light as uncreated light). 

13. I have other objections, not unique to EO. I'm predestinarian whereas EO is libertarian.

14. I disagree with the EO doctrine of God. I reject its hierarchical concept of the Trinity, where the Father is the primary God and metaphysical source of the Son and Spirit.

It might be objected that traditionally, many Protestant denominations have inherited a hierarchical concept of the Trinity, so why is that a reason for me to reject EO but not Protestant counterparts? One reason is that you can't be EO in good faith unless you affirm EO dogmas. You can't be EO in good faith if you reject the EO doctrine of God.

By contrast, there's more freedom within evangelicalism. I can be a Protestant in good faith without reaffirming every reflexive carryover from Greek Orthodoxy or Latin theology 

15. Finally, I adhere to a two-minds Christology. Their interrelationship is asymmetrical. The Son is independent of the human soul whereas the soul is contingent. The Son controls the human soul. The Son has complete access to the human soul. The soul has no access to the mind of the Son except when the Son shares his knowledge with the human soul of Christ. I'm not sure that a two-minds Christology is compatible with Cyrillian Christology, and I don't really care since I'm not accountable to the Greek Fathers. 

Friday, January 03, 2020

Matthew: disciple and scribe

Facing the flames

I think one reason some Christians suffer more than others is  because some Christians are called to be buffers for other Christians. They take the heat to shield their brethren from the fire. But that comes at a personal cost, leaving them with burn marks where the hair won't grow back. Only in the world to come will they be healed. This isn't an explanation for the disparities of Christian suffering in general, but a partial explanation.

Allergic to inerrancy

In some evangelical apologetic circles there's a pronounced aversion to inerrancy. What accounts for the resistance to inerrancyand is it reasonable?

1. An obvious motive for a Christian apologist to reject in errancy is that he has less to defend. When an atheist challenges him on some "problem passage" of Scripture, he can always say the Bible might be wrong about that, and his faith doesn't hinge on Scripture getting everything right. So this strategy minimizes his defensive flank. It relieves him of having to defend the Bible on so many fronts, which can be daunting or intellectually exhausting. 

In addition, it's not just a question of apologetic strategy. It may seem to be a way to protect his own faith as his struggles with "problem passages" in the Bible. So rejecting inerrancy can be very appealing. It makes everything so much easier. 

2. At a time, moreover, when Christian faith is controversial and subject to persecution, rejecting inerrancy enables professing Christians to go soft on hot-bottom social issues. 

3. However, that's a problem. It makes things too easy. If you feel free not to defend this or that teaching of Scripture, then what do you defend? It becomes completely arbitrary, based on convenience. 

This can also backfire in terms of apologetic strategy. On the one hand there's the claim that we should avoid putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of seekers. If, on the other hand, a seeker notices that a Christian folds whenever something in the Bible is challenged, it will be hard to take Christian faith seriously. They don't stand for anything. When you push them, there's no pushback. You just keep pushing them until they fall over. So what's the basis, if any, for their beliefs?  

4. What is the point of the Bible if not to provide reliable guidance for God's people until the end of the church age? A public record for the benefit of posterity. A public revelation for Christians at every time and place. A roadmap through life into heaven. But if it's fallible and apt to lead us astray at different junctures, is it not worse than useless? Like a watch that's sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Too unpredictable to be on time. Either you're too late or too early. You miss connections. It fails to tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. So you're really on your own. 

5. In addition, the Bible is supposed to be challenging. If you dissolve all the difficulties by writing them off as mistakes, then you will have a very superficial understanding of Scripture. And you won't let it change you. 

6. Why are there Christians who say they believe in a God who sometimes speaks to people, answers prayer, and performs miracles, but doesn't inspire the Bible to give all Christians a common standard of comparison? Why the reluctance to grant divine agency in the composition of Scripture? Why can God do other things but leave that hanging in midair? They seem to view God as friendly uncle who pops in unexpectedly, but is absent most of the time. Not even working behind-the-scenes. 

7. The Bible says there are damnable sins. If so, then the stakes could not be higher, and the actual wording of Scripture is often of paramount importance.

8. Many scholars say the Gospels give us the gist of what Jesus said rather than a verbatim transcript. No doubt that's true some of the time, but the issue is more complex. For one thing, important issues sometimes turn on the exact wording of what Jesus said. For instance, did Jesus say there are exceptions for divorce? That's a very practical issue in Christian ethics and pastoral ministry.

Or what did Jesus say about himself? Take the famous "I am" sayings. Are those verbatim quotes–or did the narrator embellish them or even invent them? 

9. In addition, there's a fundamental difference between saying the narrator gave us the inspired gist of what Jesus said, and the narrator gave us the gist because that's he or his sources or informants remember. To say the Gospels give us the gist of what Jesus said because, to the best of somebody recollection, that's all they remember, isn't very reliable. They may omit key qualifications or substitute misleading synonyms. The gist can be crucially inaccurate if it's just somebody's fallible passing memory. 

Indeed, accuracy is even more important when summarizing what was said rather than quoting them verbatim. If you have the full verbatim statement to go by, that gives you more context. But because a summary is abbreviated, what is included or excluded from the summary is critical to the meaning and accuracy or inaccuracy of the summery.

That's very different from the gist in the sense of an inspired summary of what Jesus said. It's not the gist of what he said because the narrator must rely on faded memories. 

10. If Jesus had a stump speech, and you followed him around, hearing him deliver variations on the same stump speech day after day or week after week, your recollection might be a close verbal approximation to the original. But the Gospels also contain many unique speeches and conversations. These were occasioned by one-time encounters. Unrepeated speeches and conversations. And the dialogues are complicated because they build on what each speaker says to the other. There's a cut and thrust and flow that's hard to remember in detail. Consider digressions in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus or Jesus and the Samaritan woman, or the caustic debate in John 9. It's hard to simplify. These aren't reducible to catchy self-contained adages, like a Buddhist pundit. Rather, they grow out of each other.

11. Then there's the phenomenon of the omniscient narrator. An omniscient narrator is a shadowy observer. An invisible witness to everything he relates. He sees everything but no one sees him. Not only does he see and hear what others say and do, but he reads their minds. He overhears their unspoken thoughts. 

In some cases we can postulate the unstated presence of witness or informant. In some cases we can postulate that what an individual thought or did in private he later shared with a friend, which the narrator somehow got hold off. But the phenomenon of the omniscient narrator in the Gospels (and Scripture generally) is too pervasive for that to be a plausible general explanation. Either the ubiquity of the omniscient narrator is a stock convention of fiction or else the narrator is privy to inspiration and direct revelation. That's the only realistic explanation. And there's no reason a Christian should balk at that explanation. 

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Mask or Mirror?

1. I'm going to comment on Lydia McGrew's The Mirror or the Mask (DeWard). This won't a formal review in the sense of a chapter-by-chapter synopsis followed by an evaluation. Rather, I'll concentrate on the gist of the argument, and the sections of greatest interest to me.

2. In this book, Lydia's principal foils are Craig Keener, Craig Evans, to a lesser degree Dan Wallace, and to a greater degree Mike Licona. 

It may be useful to classify them. On the pecking order. Keener is the preeminent scholar. Evans is a very capable scholar, but spreads himself too thin. He tried to bluff his way through a debate with Lydia on Unbelievable and committed basic factual blunders about the Gospels. 

Wallace is NT scholar and self-taught NT textual critic. He rose to greater prominence as a critic of Ehrman. 

Licona is a popular Christian apologist with a doctorate in NT studies. 

Evans openly repudiates inerrancy. Wallace is formally committed to inerrancy. Keener takes a largely historical approach to the Gospels, although he's a charismatic scholar with in-depth research on ancient and modern miracles, so while he doesn't seem to be committed to inerrancy, he is strong on the supernatural as well as historical components of the Gospels (and Acts).

Licona pays lip-service to inerrancy, but he talks out of both sides of his mouth, depending on the audience. His default position is to put little stock in inerrancy. Except when he's on the defensive, that's the position he naturally reverts to. 

3. Because some of these men are colleagues or move in the same professional circles, a buddy system naturally develops where they avoid public criticism.

In addition, NT studies can operate like a social contagion, where academic fads catch on and go unchallenged within the guild. 

An outsider may bring a fresh and necessary skill set to the debate. For instance, philosopher Peter van Inwagen is critical of the logically naive reasoning he finds in Bible studies:

Third, a really substantial proportion of the arguments the skeptics employ are very bad arguments. (For example: if one of the Gospels says that Jesus said thus-and-so, and if his having said thus-and-so was useful to the early church, then he probably didn't say thus-and-so.) 

Fourth, the arguments of many of the skeptics have premises that are philosophical rather than historical–that miracles are impossible, for example, or that it is methodologically essential to objective historical writing that it regard any miraculous narrative as unhistorical. These philosophical premises may be defensible, but they are rarely defended. And when they are–well, as a philosopher, I can testify that I have never seen a defense of them by a historical scholar that I would regard as philosophically competent. 

Finally, the community of skeptical critics is entirely naive and unself-critical as regards its own claims to objectivity. Its members regard the New Testament authors and the students of the Bible who lived before the advent of modern scholarship as simply creatures of their time and culture; the idea that skeptical twentieth-century scholars might be creatures of their time and culture is an idea that they seem not to have considered. 

I have few of the skills and little of the knowledge New Testament criticism requires…But I do know something about reasoning, and I have been simply amazed by some of the arguments employed by redaction critics. My first reaction to these arguments, written up a bit, could be put in these words: "I'm missing something here. These appear to be glaringly invalid arguments, employing methods transparently engineered to produce negative judgments of authenticity. But no one, however badly he might want to produce a given set of conclusions, would "cook" his methods to produce the desired results quite so transparently. These arguments must depend on tacit premises, premises the reaction critics regard as so obvious that they don't bother to mention them." Peter van Inwagen, "Do You Want us to Listen to You?" C. Bartholomew et al. eds. "Behind" the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 2003), 127.

By contrast, Richard Bauckham is a maverick who conducts his own independent research and arrives at concludes without regard to status quo scholarship. 

4. There's the question of Lydia's qualifications. She's polymath. 

She doesn't read the Gospels in Greek. While that's disadvantageous in one respect it can be advantageous in other respect. To begin with, many NT scholars aren't Greek scholars like F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger, Stephen Baugh, Colin Hemer, and Stanley Porter. They just get by. NT commentators are often unreliable guides on the nuances of Greek. 

In addition, a focus on Greek grammar can be a distraction when reading narratives. There's value in becoming thoroughly immersed in the plot, so that you internalize the narrative flow. That enables the alert reader to notice details and interconnections that might be lost on a scholar with an eye to Greek construction. I daresay that knowing the text of the Gospels backwards and forwards, insight and out, has made Lydia very sensitive to undesigned coincidences, among other things. 

There are different, complementary ways to read the Bible. Take the narratological approach inaugurated by Robert Altar and Frank Kermode. Because so much scripture consists of historical narrative and narrative theology, it's important to use more than one tool kit. Take John Collins, Reading Genesis Well

A neglected approach in Gospels studies is oral history. On the one hand this can involve informants sharing anecdotes with Mark or Luke. On the other hand, this can involve John dictating his reminiscences to a scribe. 

At present, NT studies approach the Gospels from an overly-literary perspective, as if these are carefully crafted documents to further the rhetorical and theological strategy of the narrator. 

5. The issue of inerrancy crops up in Lydia's book. It's become a slippery concept. There's a distinction between abstract inerrancy and substantive inerrancy. An abstract definition stipulates that Biblical teaching is inerrant. That, however, is just a blank to fill in. The definition in itself doesn't predict or select for the inerrant intention. Is a particular account in Scripture meant to be realistic? 

Traditionally, inerrancy is shorthand for a substantive claim. Framers have specific examples in mind. The moral and theological teaching of Scripture is true. The historical narratives correspond to real events and describe them in recognizable terms. The prophecies of scripture were delivered ahead of time. 

On a traditional, robust view of inerrancy, "inerrancy" typically includes historicity, apart from standard fictional exceptions like the parables of Jesus.

What is happening in some evangelical circles is splitting inerrancy from historicity. Inerrancy stripped of historicity. So we have proponents of empty shell inerrancy. 

6. Lydia's basic position is that given a choice, it's far preferable to have a narrator who makes innocent mistakes, little slips of memory, to a narrator who creatively misrepresents what really happened to make apparent events further a theological agenda. Where theology gets ahead of the reality on the ground. There's nothing underneath the theology but the narrator's imagination. 

It reduces the Gospels to historical fiction, like a movie adaptation based on a "true story". A historical core intertwined with imaginary scenes, speeches, and characters. And there's no way to distinguish which is which because the Gospels are the primary sources. Although there's corroborative evidence for the Gospels, these are the only 1C documents we have on the life of Christ, so there's no independent source to compare them to if the narrators indulge in fabrication and legendary embellishment. We can't get back to what really happened, because we have nothing behind the Gospels. 

7. A standing irony in the current debate is the overlap between Bart Ehrman's position and the position of the scholars Lydia targets. Ehrman himself views the Gospels as historical fiction, containing residual facts about Jesus along with legendary embellishment. He has no problem with the notion that Gospel narrators resort to rhetorical devices which sacrifice historicity for theology.  

8. On p10, Lydia delineates and defines what she means by fictionalizing literary devices. 

This is followed by a list of 20 actual examples from the scholars under review. Disturbing as these examples are, I think Lydia's larger point is that once you adopt this hermeneutic, then it has no brakes to slow the momentum as it careens down the Grande Corniche. Ever more scenes and sayings in life of Christ can be relegated to confabulation and legendary embellishment. The account is not a window into what happened, but into the narrator's imagination. 

9. Lydia distinguishes between achronological narration, where the narrator bunches materially topically, from dyschronological narration, where the narrator creates an alternate sequence, deviating from the original sequence, to convey to the reader that this is how it happened. 

By the same token, Lydia critiques the rubbery, equivocal way some scholars redefine a paraphrase, where it bears no recognizable resemblance to the original statement, whether verbally or conceptually. Where it's just the narrator's gloss, or the narrator writing speech for Jesus to recite, like a character in play. 

10. Another problem with this approach is that Gospel accounts frequently involve statements or dialogues embedded in a setting which supplies the occasion for the statements and dialogues. A particular incident gives rise to the conversation. Speakers respond to each other, in a conversation thread. 

But on the compositional device theory, was there a precipitating event that gave rise to subsequence statements and actions? Or does the whole thing unravel? Did the scene ever happen, or is the scene concocted to provide a backstory for a theological lesson? Are the speakers real participants or fictional mouthpieces? 

11. Lydia has a very useful section on the argument from unnecessary details,viz. 306-16. Her monograph isn't just a critique of the deficiencies in Licona et al., but here she begins to systematize a positive, but neglected line of evidence for the historicity of the Gospels. 

12. Likewise, Lydia proposes her own harmonizations. In some cases these may include her husband's harmonizations. This provides a counter to Bart Ehrman's dogeared list of contradictions. 

13. Lydia's position isn't primarily that we should reject the approach of the scholars in question between it leads to skeptical consequences. Her position, rather, is that the approach generates gratuitous skepticism unjustified by the historical evidence we have. These are bad solutions. Bad solutions obscure good solutions. And the effect is to divert attention away from multiple lines of evidence for the historicity of the Gospels. 

14. In the case of secular writers like Plutarch, Lydia makes what ought to be the obvious point that a mistake is often the most plausible explanation, rather than a compositional device. Speaking for myself, there's also the question of how seriously to take Plutarch. He's writing to entertain his wealthy patrons. So he's not a historian in the strict sense. We'd expect him to indulge in great literary license. How does humoring his clients make him comparable to the authors of the Gospels? 

15. The question of whether the Gospels are Greco-Roman bioi. Of the four Gospels, Luke is the only one who writes with any sense of self-conscious literary culture and tradition. And even that's not a style he sustains. As commentators routinely note, his prologue seems to be modeled on the LXX, but he doesn't maintain that rhetorical register. Either he lacks the literary ability to consistently write at that level or he else just doesn't care. He wrote the introduction that way to gain a hearing, but what he really cares about are the events themselves, so that interest quickly takes over. He's a part of this. That's what excites him. To see God at work. It's not a detached account. Luke is field missionary. It's a gripping experience.

Moreover, as commentators note, his style is uneven because he absorbs the style of his sources or informants. That shows you how close he is to his evidence. He doesn't put it into a blender to produce a smooth homogenous style. 

16. One question is whether the Gospels are even written in a self-conscious literary genre. Which comes first? You pick a genre and then shoehorn the material into the genre–or you write what you know about someone, which has the incidental rather than premeditated effect of prodding a biography? Consider oral histories in which the informant has no literary culture. They just talk about their life and experience. Or a reporter who interviews informants. It isn't in the first instance directed towards by a preconceived genre. Rather, they just set out to record whatever informants tell them. The genre will be the incidental outcome of the process. Keep in mind that none of the Gospel authors are professional writers. 

17. To the extent, moreover, that Gospel authors had historical and biographical models in mind, wouldn't OT narratives furnish more immediate precedents? All four Gospel authors were steeped in the OT. 

18. I'd add that writing has changed over the years. For instance, the Puritans have a choppy style because they didn't write everything out at one sitting. They wrote for a while, got up, did something else, resumed writing. Their writings often contain maddening digressions. But that's because they don't go through drafting process. Or just consider how long it took for Augustine to write The City of God. All the interruptions. 

19. Harmonistic debates over the number of angels at the tomb are complicated by the fact that some commentators don't believe in angels. They regard them as part of the genre, like the supernatural denizens of the Odyssey, Argonautica, Beowulf, or Dante's Inferno. So the whole harmonistic question is artificial or ridiculous if taken seriously from their standpoint. 

In addition, even for commentators whose abstract theology includes a realm of angels, how many have given much through to the nature of angelic apparitions? So this limits the harmonistic resources. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Bacchanalian frenzy

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

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

Grudem, Bird, and Trump

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

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

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

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

Human Genesis

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

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A blind and deaf camcorder engineer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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