Saturday, March 07, 2020

Thoughts on clerical celibacy

His position, as a lapsed Catholic, is ambivalent but interesting.

"Death is what gives life meaning"

Death is what gives life meaning.

The fact that life can be lost is what makes life meaningful.

It’s the risk of loss of one’s own life that gives the other things meaning.

1. You can file this under: if you want a shallow answer to an existential question, ask an atheist.  

Atheists face a dilemma of their own making. How do they play the losing hand they dealt themselves? Some of them are more forthright about the consequences. By contrast, Jeff's strategy is to make a virtue of necessity.  

Why Did Polycrates Refer To John As A High Priest?

Critics of the attribution of the fourth gospel to John the son of Zebedee often cite Polycrates as a witness against that attribution. Polycrates referred to the Beloved Disciple as "a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet" (in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:2). In an article here, I argue against Richard Bauckham's formulation of the objection. I'm not aware of any easy explanation for why Polycrates referred to the Beloved Disciple as he did. We have to choose among options that are all difficult to some degree. But I proposed some possible explanations that I consider less problematic than Bauckham's. What I want to do here is expand on one of those alternatives to Bauckham's view.

How plausible is it that Polycrates was referring to the son of Zebedee as a high priest in a metaphorical sense? Notice that one of the Johannine documents, Revelation, puts substantial emphasis on the theme of the priesthood of all believers (1:6, 5:10, 20:6). And notice that the theme appears early, within the first several verses, in addition to being spread out over a few segments of the book. It's a somewhat prominent theme. Similarly, both the fourth gospel and Revelation make much of Jesus' role as a sacrificial lamb, which has priestly associations, especially given the Johannine emphasis on how Jesus offered himself rather than having his life taken unwillingly. And the lamb of God theme appears early in the fourth gospel, in the first chapter (1:29). So, both of these Johannine documents put a lot of emphasis on priestly themes, even referring to them near the beginning, and Revelation emphasizes the theme of a metaphorical priesthood in particular.

If all believers are viewed as priests, it's not much of a further step to think of somebody like an apostle as a priest in a higher sense, such as being a high priest. In fact, Polycrates starts with a reference to the Beloved Disciple as a priest, then qualifies it with a reference to being a high priest. He may have had the Johannine concept of the priesthood of all believers in mind, which he then expanded into a metaphorical high priesthood for John.

Keep in mind, too, that the passage in Polycrates begins with a reference to figures like John as "great lights". There's no question that Polycrates is being metaphorical to some extent.

Much more can be said about Polycrates' comments. I'm not trying to be exhaustive here. Those who want to read more about the subject can consult my post responding to Bauckham linked above, his book, or Dean Furlong's recent book that I referred to earlier.

Virtual necromancy

This pitifully illustrates Paul's adage about the despairing grief of unbelievers (1 Thes 4:13). Only the Gospel offers the real possibility of reunion. 

Panic attacks

I've noticed lots of people are all but panicking over the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19). For example, I think Liz Specht's Twitterstorm over the coronavirus is on the unduly alarmist side.

Not saying Specht isn't correct about some things (e.g. exponential growth), not saying there isn't some warrant for what she says (though I think it's insufficient to justify her main message), but even she points out she's not a physician or epidemiologist, but a biologist. And even she points out she could be "VERY wrong" about the whole thing. Yet, if so, then I think she should be more modest or circumspect in her remarks about the coronavirus. Take a more balanced stance. At present, I think her overall message risks causing mass hysteria.

Now, I grant the coronavirus could become quite bad. Many infected, many fatalities. Certainly it looks like things will get worse before they get better. However, I doubt the virus itself is going to be cataclysmic for humanity or even the US. Especially if most people take reasonable measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus (e.g. regular hand-washing, self-isolation, avoiding crowds).

Besides, it rarely helps to panic. Just be smart, take the necessary precautions, have enough basic supplies (including basic medical supplies) to last through a long winter, so to speak.

I think the basic problem is that panic feeds on itself. The more people panic, the more panicky people become. Like a shark feeding frenzy. In short, I don't fear the coronavirus as much as I fear what will happen if our nation and/or other nations collectively panic about this.

Why Doesn't John Say More About James?

If the fourth gospel was written by John the son of Zebedee, why does the gospel say so little about John's brother, James? The two are mentioned prominently, typically together, in the Synoptics. I addressed the subject to some extent in my response to Richard Bauckham a few years ago. Steve addressed it in a post earlier today. I won't repeat everything that's been said already, but I want to supplement those previous comments.

Part of what makes Luke's writings so valuable is that we can compare and contrast what he wrote in his gospel and Acts. The similarities and differences are often significant. In his gospel, James and John are prominent and keep getting mentioned together. They're not always mentioned together (9:49, 22:8-13), but usually are. In Acts, however, they're mentioned apart from one another more often (3:1-4:31, 8:14-25, 12:2). And much of what the author of the fourth gospel says about himself involves contexts James probably wouldn't have been involved with. It's unlikely that James also leaned on Jesus' breast, was at the cross, went to the tomb of Jesus with Peter, etc. John and James likely acted independently of one another to a larger extent than the Synoptics report. It's natural to place brothers together, and once the early Christians noticed multiple significant events in Jesus' life that involved both James and John in some important way (the Mount of Transfiguration, etc.), they may have developed a tendency to focus on those events. The Synoptics reflect that tendency, whereas the fourth gospel, which was intended to supplement the Synoptics and was written decades later and in a significantly different context in other ways, doesn't. To some extent, Acts corroborates the fourth gospel's portrayal of James and John as more often acting independently of one another.

As I mentioned in my article responding to Bauckham, there's probably an element of humility both in Peter's lack of reference to Andrew, as reflected in the gospel of Mark, and John's lack of reference to James. If you're providing testimony of what you experienced, you have to mention yourself to a large extent, but you can more easily avoid giving prominence to somebody like a close relative. Giving a lot of attention to somebody like a brother isn't necessarily inappropriate, but it's something that can easily be misunderstood or misrepresented, in the context of humility and in other contexts.

Not only had James already received a lot of attention in the Synoptics, but he'd also been dead for close to half a century. In some ways, John's audience probably had less interest in him than they had in other disciples who had lived among them and their predecessors longer, were more remembered, etc.

It would make sense for the Christians of John's time to have wanted more information about James if John could provide it, but James wasn't their primary or even secondary interest. Jesus was of the most interest, and, after Jesus, they wanted John's testimony more than they wanted to get additional information about James.

We don't know that James did much of significance beyond what the Synoptics report. If John was involved in some significant activities independent of James, whereas there wasn't much to report about James' activities that was independent of John (in the relevant timeframe), then John may not have had much to offer about James, even if his audience had wanted that sort of information.

The apostle John and the Chief Priest

15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in (Jn 18:15-16).

1. This enigmatic statement raises some issues germane to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel: 

i) Is the anonymous disciple the Beloved Disciple? 

ii) Is the Beloved Disciple just a character in the Gospel, or is he the eyewitness narrator? 

iii) Is the Beloved Disciple the apostle John? 

Last year the White Horse Inn had a roundtable discussion regarding the authorship of the Fourth Gospel:

2. One issue is how it came to be that the apostle John might be known to the high priest? Some scholars postulate that his father's fishing business supplied food to the household of the high priest. I think they lean too heavily on that speculation, and even if it was the case, it may not be the right kind of familiarity to explain his access. There are two distinct issues here:

i) His relationship to the high priest

I think a kinsmen angle (which Keener entertains) is more promising than the fishing business angle–which some scholars push that much too hard.  Both Wenham and J. A. T. Robinson document that John Zebedee may have had a priestly lineage (via a Salome/Elizabeth connection). If so, that raises the question of whether he was related to the high priest. 

If, say, John was a young (upper teens, early 20s) nephew of the high priest, I don't find anything implausible about his uncle inviting him to sit in (quietly) on family business. Those are the kinds of informal perks that often come with extended families. Servants, consigns et al. hang around. And on this occasion, it wasn't even an official trial, but a last-minute, extralegal inquest. Official business and family business would tend to blend in the household of the high priest. It's a headquarters for both. 

ii) His relationship to the doorkeeper 

It's possible that John and the servant girl had a natural youthful attraction to each other, and so it was boy charming a girl and a girl charming a boy. That happens all the time in ordinary life. Young men and women who have instant rapport or "chemistry". Innocent flirtations. She thinks he's cute. He thinks she's cute. It's playful. Or maybe they're related (e.g. cousins). 

In fact, it wouldn't have to be a direct invitation from the high priest. If John's a relative, he'd be known to the entourage of the high priest, and have ways to get himself invited to religious or household events by other age-mates who tag along with the retinue–the way young people hang out. 

At one level the only entrée he needs is to get past the doorkeeper. But once inside, if his presence was detected, he might be challenged as unauthorized personnel  unless he enjoys some deeper kind of entrée, which might be the case if he's a young kinsman and/or has priestly lineage. 

3. Richard  Bauckham says: 

in  the  synoptic  gospels,  John  is  always  mentioned  along  with   his  brother  James, James  and  John, the  sons  of  Zebedee. They're  an  inseparable  pair  in  the   synoptic  gospels. In  John's  gospel,  James does  not  appear  at  all  until  in  chapter  21. Chapter   21  has  a  single  reference  to  the  sons of Zebedee. They're  not  named,  but  the  sons  of   Zebedee  are  in  chapter  21. So,  both  sons  of Zebedee  are  named  there. But  if  the  beloved   disciple  is  John,  the  son  of  Zebedee,  we  would expect his  brother,  James,  to  come  into  the   picture  from  time  to  time,  at  least,  whereas,  he's  notably absent  from  this  narrative.

That's an interesting objection. I'd just say two things:

i) In the case of the Synoptics, you have a narrator writing about the two brothers. That's biographical. If, however, the Fourth Gospel is written by one of the two brothers, then it's not surprising if it has a different perspective. That's autobiographical.

ii) Familial relationships can be notorious for their emotional complication. I knew my maternal grandmother fairly well. She lived in town until I started junior high. We saw her a few times after she moved away. I was 19 when she died.

She adored her father. She had a sister she never said anything about. As I recall, she had a brother she never said anything about. And most conspicuous, she never talked about her mother. But she never tired of talking about what a wonderful father she had. 

The fact that James and John were brothers says nothing about how close they were. Mainly they're together because Jesus called them both. 

iii) And Lydia McGrew has her own argument: 

One  could  argue  that  he's  made  this  decision  to  not  name  himself,  and  therefore,  he  can't   name  his  brother  either  because  it  would  be  awkward,  because  they're  generally  named   together  and  so  he just leaves him out.

I think Lydia's point is that if John wishes to preserve his role as the anonymous eyewitness narrator, he keeps his relation with James out of the picture since that association would blow his anonymity. He can't keep his true identity oblique if he's recognizably the brother of James. If readers make that connection. 

Friday, March 06, 2020

The identity of the Beloved Disciple

Last year the White Horse Inn had a roundtable discussion regarding the authorship of the Fourth Gospel:

I'm going to quote some excerpts:

[Do  you  believe  that  it  was   written  by  John  the  Apostle?]

Craig Blomberg:  I  think  that  is  still  probably  the  most  likely  case. There  is  some   uncertainty  in  some  of  the  early  church  tradition,  not  about  the  name  of  the  author  but   about  whether  there  was  an  elder  John,  perhaps  a  disciple,  a  second  generation  follower  of   John  the  Apostle, but  that  evidence  isn't  all  that  strong,  and  I  see  no  reason  to  contradict   the  early  church  short  of  having  compelling  evidence  otherwise. 

[The  first  scholar  you  will  hear  from  is   D.  A.  Carson  and  I  asked  him  why  he  thought  it  was  that  the  Apostle  John  referred  to   himself  using  this  strange  language  of  the  disciple  whom  Jesus  loved]  

Was The Fourth Gospel Written By A John Other Than The Son Of Zebedee?

Steve Hays recently pointed me to a post by Michael Bird regarding the authorship of the fourth gospel. In that post, Bird refers to a White Horse Inn radio program that features interviews with several scholars commenting on the gospel's authorship (Craig Blomberg, G.K. Beale, Justin Holcomb, Richard Bauckham, D.A. Carson, Andreas Kostenberger, and Lydia McGrew). The page Bird links doesn't seem to contain the relevant audio, but Patrick Chan found it here. I looked for the program through the White Horse Inn search engine, and it appears that the program originally aired in December of 2019. Apparently, you can't listen to the program at the White Horse Inn site, but you can listen at the site Patrick found. Contrary to what Bird reported, the host who favored something like Richard Bauckham's view of the gospel's authorship was Shane Rosenthal, not Michael Horton.

Some good points are made during the program, but some of the best arguments for authorship by the son of Zebedee aren't mentioned. Here's an article I wrote in 2017 in response to the second edition of Bauckham's book, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2017). In that article, I discuss a lot of New Testament and patristic evidence not addressed by the White Horse Inn program.

I should add that Dean Furlong recently published a book that's relevant, based on his doctoral thesis, The Identity Of John The Evangelist (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020). His book doesn't say much about the New Testament, but is instead focused on the extrabiblical evidence. He argues that the John of Papias and other early sources was somebody other than the son of Zebedee. I disagree with him, for reasons like the ones referred to in my response to Bauckham linked above. But he makes a better case than Bauckham does, and I agree with some of the other points Furlong makes (the strength of the evidence for the martyrdom of John the son of Zebedee, the fact that Papias attributed the fourth gospel's authorship to his John the Elder, etc.). He provides a large amount of information on Johannine issues, and you don't have to agree with him about everything to find his book useful in a lot of contexts. It's a good resource to have, no matter what position you take on the identity of the author of the fourth gospel, who Papias' elder was, when Revelation was written, and the other issues involved.

Authorship of the Fourth Gospel

I cannot imagine the Jerusalem high priest knowing, in a familial or professional sense, a Galilean fisherman and letting him into his HQ to hear a capital trial against a prophetic agitator and messianic claimant. If you are about to adjudicate a case against a possible enemy of the state, you don’t let in your fishmonger!

Bird has a more limited imagination than me. If, say, John was a young (upper teens, early 20s) nephew of the high priest, I don't find anything implausible about his uncle inviting him to sit in (quietly) on official gatherings. Those are the kinds of informal perks that often come with extended families. And it wasn't even an official trial.

In fact, it wouldn't have to be a direct invitation from the high priest. If John's a relative, he'd be known to the entourage of the high priest, and have ways to get himself invited to religious events by other age-mates who tag along with the retinue.  

Both Wenham and J. A. T. Robinson argue that John may have had a priestly lineage (through a Salome/Elizabeth connection). If so, that raises the question of whether he was related to the high priest. Keener entertains the possibility that the disciple was a kinsman of the high priest, which gave him entrée.

Why does an omniscient God test people?

My answer to a question from a friend:
What’s your thoughts on why an omniscient God gives people tests throughout the whole Bible already knowing what they’ll do?
i) Although he knows what they will do, they don't know what they will do, and the very test may influence what they will do. There's a sense in which the exercise can make a contribution to its own outcome. Having to actually through the ordeal or experience may change the individual in the process. He ends up in a different place than where he started. The challenge is transformative. 

ii) In addition, there's a reason these events are recorded. They are not primarily for the benefit of the test-subject but the reader. It's a way for readers to learn about God's M.O. The reader is learning about God's character through the experience of the Patriarchs (among others). 

iii) People like Abraham had a pagan background. So they didn't know if Yahweh was trustworthy. They had to learn from experience what kind of God Yahweh was. Is he like the fickle, malicious gods of the pagan pantheon, or is he different? 

No love in the time of cholera

I find it amusing that liberals/progressives are apoplectic over how our government is allegedly botching the response to the coronavirus. I find that amusing because these are the very same people who think we should have government-run healthcare. Medicare for all! :)

(Of course, that's not to say Trump's administration couldn't do better, or that he hasn't made mistakes. I'm simply referring to the liberal/progressive reaction.)

Wrath and redemption

These are very confused objections to Calvinism:

1. The Bible is written in popular language, so Reformed theology often uses biblical language and imagery about God's wrath. Nothing wrong with that.

2. When, however, it comes to systematic and philosophical theology, greater precision is required. What does God's "wrath" stand for? Is that essentially an emotional state? Or is it a colorful, anthropomorphic way to express God's disapproval of sin?

Likewise, does the atonement pacify God's emotional state, or does it satisfy divine justice? Is it psychological or ethical? The literal attribute isn't anger but justice. 

3. The point is not that the atonement is anthropomorphic, but that scripture sometimes uses anthropomorphic descriptions to represent divine salvation and judgment. That understanding is hardly unique to Calvinism. Unless you think Yahweh is actually like the pagan gods of the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman mythology, with their recognizably humanoid psychological makeup, some adjustment is required. To take a comparison, Jesus isn't literally a pascal lamb, but his redemption action is symbolized by the pascal lamb. 

4. The atonement doesn't change God's mind. It's not as if there's a prior time when he's "literally angry with sinners," and a later time when he's pacified. If God is timeless, if God knows the future, then it's not as if he has to wait for the atonement to take effect to make up his mind. Indeed, if God planned the atonement, then there was never a time when that wasn't a factor in his view of the elect. 

So it's hypothetical. Absent the atonement, all sinners would face eschatological justice. The atonement doesn't change God's mind or attitude. Rather, it changes the outcome in the counterfactual sense that absent the atonement, there'd be a different outcome: universal damnation.

There's nothing contradictory about the Reformed position in this regard, if you allow a modicum of intelligence to influence your hermeneutics. Critics may disagree with that explanation, but if you're going to accuse of position of internal contradiction, then the question at issue is whether it's consistent on it is own grounds and not whether you reject the paradigm. 

The style of Bible translation

I want to piggyback off Steve's post "The art of Bible translation":

1. To my knowledge, Bible translators attempt to balance accuracy, clarity, and naturalness in translation. I've sometimes seen other elements, but these seem to be the main ones. However, I don't know where things like style, tone, or voice would slot under. Perhaps naturalness?

2. In any case, I would think the main aim of a translation into its receptor language would be to reflect the fullness of the original as much as possible. For instance, if a text is elegant, then its translation should be elegant too. If a text is vulgar, then its translation should be vulgar too. All things equal, this seems to better reflect the original than (say) slavishly translating word-for-word, then flattening the entire translation into a uniform style.

3. On this note, I think one problem with Bible translators is that they may be fine biblical scholars, but (forgive me) usually they're not very literary or poetic. I'm sure there are exceptions.

4. Of course, the Bible translation committee or team could bring in a stylist(s). However, at least to my knowledge, it seems the stylist is typically brought in after the fact. That is, after the biblical scholars have translated a book of the Bible, it's the stylist's turn to make it sound stylish in the receptor language. Maybe I'm mistaken and it doesn't work like this. However, if it does work like this, then I don't know if that's necessarily the best approach.

5. In addition, not all stylists necessarily have a style that fits every book of the Bible. One person's style may be better suited for some books of the Bible than others. For instance, I imagine Cormac McCarthy's brutal, spare style might be suited to the book of Judges, and even certain parts of Revelation, but his style might be ill-suited for Rev 21. By contrast, C. S. Lewis might be able to do justice to a translation of Rev 21, judging by the sublime passages in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Perelandra. (It might be fun to try to match various styles of past or present literary figures with various passages or books of the Bible to see who might be the best stylist for a given biblical text.)

6. If the scholar and stylist can't be the same person, then I would think it might be better to have the scholar and stylist work together on the translation. The one informs the other as both translate the text. Maybe that's already how it works in Bible translation efforts.

7. As I'm sure all good translators know (and far better than I do), translation shouldn't be strictly about translating words, but translation should also be about finding the right tone or voice for the work that's being translated. Moreover, it's about grasping the mood or atmosphere in the original work and evoking it in translation. In other words, unless we're translating something mundane like a shopping list or how-to manual, there's typically something above and beyond the words themselves that likewise needs to be "translated" as well. That strikes me as more difficult to capture well than (say) syntax. One needs an ear attuned to hear the music, as it were, then the skill to render it into song.

8. Consider translations of Dante's Divine Comedy. How best to translate Dante? Free verse, blank verse, terza rima, iambic pentameter? A mixture? Perhaps even (gasp!) prose?

John Ciardi's translation has been called the poet's Dante. Ciardi often sings in a way other translations don't. One sometimes even has a better sense of Dante's voice in Ciardi than in other translations. However, many scholars don't like Ciardi because he takes too much license in translation whereas scholars want to see more fidelity to the original text. Ciardi isn't always accurate to Dante's Italian. As such, scholars might prefer Allen Mandelbaum or Robert & Jean Hollander despite the fact that the latter two come across a bit more stiff or wooden and stilted at times.

In this respect, Ciardi is not unlike Seamus Heaney's beautiful translation of Beowulf which many scholars nevertheless sniff at and deride as "Heaneywulf" since the poet's mark is so distinctly stamped on the translation. Perhaps they would say Heaneywulf threatens to drown out Beowulf. Yet Heaney captures something significant that more formal translations fail to do, even as it lacks other qualities. So there's a tradeoff.

9. Thankfully, as Steve points out in his post, we don't have to choose between Bible translations. The English language has been blessed with scores of translations. What's more, people who can read other languages might do well to consult Bible translations in other languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian, French, Chinese).

With this in mind, I think there are at least four different types of translations: interlinear, formal, functional, and paraphrase. It might do well to have a different English translation in each of these categories, depending on one's goals (e.g. Bible study, devotional reading, public reading).

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Is Omphalism ad hoc?

Gosse’s apparent age thesis never won much support for one good reason: it is baldly ad hoc. In other words, the apparent age supposition is offered only to explain away the great age of the earth. Thus, there is no independent reason to adopt the thesis.

I believe that's incorrect. Although it's been many years since I read him, Gosse's argument, as I recall, is that nature is cyclical, so that absolute creation must initiate creation at some point in the ongoing cycle, as if the cycle is already in process. There is no logical place to break into the cycle. It could be further into the cycle or earlier in the cycle. So any entry point will be arbitrary. To exist at all, the world must come into being at some stage in the cycle. 

Now, you can try to challenge the presupposition of Gosse's argument, but it's not ad hoc in the sense of having no independent reason for its adoption. Or you might allege that it's an ad hoc solution to salvage YEC chronology. That it was only motivated with that in mind. But the theory must be assessed on the merits, because it is a philosophically significant proposal. 

Rauser follows this up with a useful comparison: 

And what about the fact that colors are not in the things we perceive but rather are only in our minds? That firetruck isn’t “red”, for example. Rather, the fire truck has the dispositional property that produces a quale in my mind when I see it and I call that experience “red”. But there are no colors, as such, in nature. There are only dispositional properties to produce particular types of subjective experiences in conscious perceivers.

We could go on enumerating such examples of nature misleading us.

Suffice it to say, however, that it would be grossly overreaching to conclude that God was thereby deceiving people by creating the world with the actual characteristics that we have discovered it to have. Mutatis mutandis, it could well be that the universe appears to be old when, in fact, it is not so at all. It hardly follows that God would thereby be deceiving us.

To be sure, it might still be the case that God is deceiving us. That would depend on the divine intent in creating the world as God created it. But we can at least conclude that even if God created a young universe with the appearance of great age, it does not follow that God’s action was thereby deceptive.

Boiling a kid in its mother's milk

Some OT laws are easy to ridicule because at this distance they seem arbitrary and preposterous. A classic example is the prohibition against boiling a kid [goat] in its mother's milk. 

Interestingly, this is not an incidental reference but is explicitly repeated three times in the Mosaic law (Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21), with another allusion in Amos 6:4. 

The passage has baffled rabbis as well as modern-day OT scholars. What's the rationale? We lost the key.

So we can only speculate. But hypothetically speaking, there's nothing intrinsically ludicrous about the prohibition. Perhaps that's a forbidden activity because it had associations with pagan rituals in the ancient Near East. 

To take a comparison, suppose I ware a swastika armband into a synagogue. That would certainly send a message. 

Now the swastika has no intrinsic meaning. It's an arbitrary emblem. The symbolism is culturally assigned. That doesn't change the fact that its historical associations with the Final Solution would make it outrageous or even sacrilegious to wear in a synagogue or yeshivah, although it would be appropriate for an actor to wear a swastika if he plays a Nazi soldier in a WWII movie. 

The art of Bible translation

1. I'm ambivalent about this. I suppose that's inevitable since translations involve necessary, unavoidable compromises. Sometimes the inability to capture the original in the receptor language. Sometimes a tradeoff. A choice where you'd like to do two things at once, but you can't.

2. In general, I dislike the modern practice of substituting bland abstract synonyms for concrete metaphors.

But there may be exceptions to that if the original metaphor has incongruous connotations in the receptor language. For instance, Bill Mounce says divine "long-suffering" in Hebrew is literally God has a "long nose". It would be a mistake to carry that over into English because it generates an unintentionally comical and irreverent impression.

3. That said, I remain unconvinced that the job of a translator is to preserve as much as possible the original syntax. It seems to me that the basic job of an English translator is to render the Greek and Hebrew into idiomatic English. Not just because that's stylistically superior, but as a rule, is a more accurate way to convey the original meaning.

4. However, there's a lot to be said for preserving as much of the original "flavor" as possible. For instance, it would be subversive to translate the rugged Old English of Beowulf into the courtly, elegant English of Alexander Pope. 

5. Finally, we don't have to choose. You can have a default translation like the ESV or early version of the NIV, but supplement that with other versions.

Even if you have a working knowledge of NT Greek or OT Hebrew, reading competent translations will aid your understanding of the original, since these are produced by scholars who specialize in Greek and Hebrew and struggle to grasp and capture the nuances of the original. 

Answering Swamidass on Theistic Evolution

Ann Gauger has a 3-part series responding to Joshua Swamidass' review of the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique:

  1. Answering Joshua Swamidass on Theistic Evolution: A Religious Agenda?

  2. Answering Joshua Swamidass on Theistic Evolution: What Do Theistic Evolutionists Believe?

  3. Answering Joshua Swamidass on Theistic Evolution: Sketchy Science, and a Swerve into Metaphysics

I don't agree with everything, but I still think the entire series is worth reading. Gauger lands several solid punches. Here are a few excerpts:

Keeping the faith

Itchy ear biscuits

Rhett (from Rhett & Link) responds to his critics. I want to comment on these paragraphs:

However, being misrepresented and having your motives not only questioned but confidently assumed, does. Link and I have been accused of walking away from the faith in pursuit of cultural acceptance, never truly grasping the undeserved grace of God through Christ’s sacrifice, and never having had a sincere interest in seeking the truth. We’ve been reduced to convenient illustrations that can be nicely folded into twenty minute sermons, held up as examples of exactly what can go wrong with your children if they aren’t properly grounded in the faith, and cast as two more sad cases who followed the tired Hollywood script of putting fame and fortune before the pursuit of God...

I understand that neatly condensing me and Link down to theological footnotes is the easiest way to deal with us. If we simply fell victim to the seductive ways of the world and our doubts were based on misunderstandings and false information, then the youth group faith-grounding curriculum pretty much writes itself. But if you take our stories at face value or recognize the sincere nature of our journeys, things get complicated and cumbersome. We become significantly more inconvenient if we went from having a rich and personal faith, and then, after a long and painful grappling with legitimate questions, made the excruciating decision to depart.

1. From the perspective of progressives, I think one of the worst sins someone can commit against them is if people "reduce" their life-stories into convenient labels. If we don't "understand" them. If we can't entirely grasp or appreciate their "rich and personal" stories. However, at the end of the day, what unique stories do Rhett & Link have to tell about their leaving Christianity? How do their stories depart in significant ways from the stories of other apostates from the same or similar background as them? I don't see any fundamental differences, only differences at the eye level, so to speak. Think about it this way. If their story (including "deconstruction") was made into a movie, what would be all that unique about it? That's not to say it wouldn't be a good movie, just like how there are many good Marvel superhero movies, but Marvel superhero movies are formulaic too.

2. On the one hand, it sounds like Rhett wishes to build a bridge so he can have a conversation with people. His words appear to be kind and gracious to some degree. On the other hand, he's actually erecting a wall with this kind of attitude. That's because it sounds to me like Rhett is using this kind of rationale as a reason not to have to engage with the actual reasons and evidences for Christianity - which is what the actual issue should be. It's as if we first have to better "understand" his "story" as the "rich" individual that he is before he'll hear us. Otherwise, he acts like we're just "reducing" him to a label and that's not fair!

3. However, if I'm mistaken, then here's a way forward. Why don't Rhett & Link interview Christian intellectuals on their show? Not popularizers, but intellectuals. Talk to them for however long they want and ask them whatever questions they want. After all, Rhett & Link have invited scores of celebrities onto their show. Why not invite Christian intellectuals too? I'd recommend Rhett & Link consider asking people like: James Anderson, Greg Welty, John Frame, Vern Poythress, Jeremy Pierce, Paul Manata, Tim Hsiao, Tim McGrew, Lydia McGrew, Jonathan McLatchie, Esther O'Reilly, John Lennox, Neil Shenvi, David Wood, Rebecca MacLaughlin, Amy Orr-Ewing, Doug Groothuis, Bill Dembski, Stephen Meyer, Luke Barnes, Sarah Salviander, Richard Klaus.


My comments on this Facebook thread: Unbelievable? March 3 at 5:40 PM 

"If y'all had been listening to Ear Biscuits, you would know that Rhett and Linc's desire is a search for truth, and that my dears is what Christianity is all about, so get off your high horses and actually pay attention."

Christianity is not about a search for truth that terminates in rejecting Christianity. And truth is worthless without an ultimate good.

Is the coronavirus a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I got thinking today about a way to deal with preventing the worse effects of the coronavirus if you end up getting it, which we all likely will in due course.

Good immunity is of course your number one defense to the coronavirus if you end up contracting it (it's a no brainer that you should be doing prolonged fasting, taking Vitamin A, C, D, Zinc, probiotics, etc).

However, a major killer of good immunity is anxiety, which spikes your cortisone levels that can only be sustained for so long before your immunity is shot.

Consequently, if you contract the coronavirus, you will likely have high anxiety given the fearmongering of the media. This will kill your immunity and then you will really get sick—thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy. So perhaps one of the best things you can do—and its free!—if you end up contracting the virus is . . . to chill out.

André Kole on faith healers

This is much better than a previous installment on James Randi

Peregrinations of infallibility

According to the traditional Catholic apologetic, Rome provides infallible interpretations of an infallible book whereas Protestants only provide fallible interpretations of an infallible book. However, at Vatican II, Rome downshifted to limited inerrancy, so she now holds the anomalous position that Rome provides infallible interpretations of a fallible book!

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Top 3 reasons I became Catholic

I recently watched John Bergsma's testimony about his conversion to Catholicism:

He's a theology prof. at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I'd just note in passing that his father was a Navy chaplain. So he probably suffered from a certain amount of paternal neglect as a boy due to family separation when his dad was on tours of duty. That can impact a boy's social and psychological maturation. 

Bergsma gives three reason for his conversion:

1. Jas 5:14-16

Several problems:

i) If that's a legitimate prooftext for Catholicism, then why aren't healing miracles a regular occurrence when Last Rites is administered?

He reinterprets that verse in terms of "spiritual healing" or "victory" over sin. Yet in context it clearly includes physical healing.

ii) It doesn't say confess your sins to a priest.

iii) He says he didn't have a Protestant way to obey that verse. Here's an idea: what about confessing your sin to the person you wronged? 

iv) He says confessing your sins to a priest is confessing to the whole church through him. That's so sophistical. A convenient way to evade your duty to confess your sin to the individual you actually sinned against.  

He says the priest represents Christ. That begs the question. 

v) He says auricular confession sidesteps confidentiality issues. But confessing your sin to the person you wronged is confidential, too. And in many cases, they already know you wronged them. 

vi) He mentions that pastors need someone they can confide in. Sure. But that confuses confession with friendship 

2. At Notre Dame, he was exposed to Rev 12 as a Marian prooftext. Despite already having an MA in Scripture as well as an MDiv., this was the first time he became aware of the fact that Rev 12 is a Marian prooftext. That shows you how deficient his seminary education was. And it illustrates the fact that it's easier to convert the uninformed. 

There are several problems with viewing Rev 12 as a Marian prooftext, but for now I'll focus on two:

i) In terms of Catholic Mariology, the chronology is backwards. Mary is assumed to heaven at the end of her life. But in Rev 12, the woman is up there at the outset, then comes down to earth. In Catholic theology, Mary is not a celestial being who originates in heaven. Rather, she's an earthling to ascends to heaven. But the imagery and sequence of Rev 12 are just the opposite.

ii) Although "sky" and "heaven" are sometimes synonymous, at other times they represent two essentially different domains. The sky contains the sun, moon, stars, and clouds–whereas heaven contains God, saints, and angels. 

That's not the same place, but two different places. "Heaven", in the sense of God's abode, doesn't have day and night, sunshine or lunar phases. Heaven doesn't have rainclouds, hailstorms or blizzards. The saints and angels don't need umbrellas. Heaven isn't outer space. It's not a vacuum at near absolute zero. 

Rev 12 doesn't depict a woman in heaven, but a woman in the sky. So using Rev 12 to prooftext Mary's role as Queen of Heaven is vitiated by fatal equivocation. 

3. Finally, it was at Notre Dame that he first learned about the existence of the apostolic fathers. He never knew there were any Christian writers before Nicea. Once more, that shows you how deficient his seminary education was. And it again illustrates the fact that it's easier to convert the uninformed. 

He then infers that whatever the apostolic fathers teach reflects the original intention of the apostles, since they were in living contact with the apostles. That includes belief in the real presence. But that's a very slippery inference:

i) For one thing, you have to consider the age of an apostolic father at the time he may have encountered an apostle. How much did they remember at that age?

You can't presume that the apostolic fathers were personally mentored by the apostles, just because they may have heard them speak on one occasion or another. Consider large crowds that gathered to hear the apostle John in old age. Not much opportunity for individualized tutorials. 

ii) To take a comparison, I knew my maternal grandmother as well as some aunts and uncles. But what I know about them is pretty limited because I was young and I didn't think to ask many questions. Many of us wish we'd asked our elderly relatives more questions when they were still alive, but it didn't occur to us at the time. 

iii) Catholic appeal to the apostolic fathers is usually quite careless, but the appeal needs to be far more discriminating: 

The Silver Chair

This may have been my least favorite of the Narnia stories, but Dr. Masson provides a lot of useful background and analysis which shows the unsuspected depth of the storytelling, including the lunar symbolism and Odyssean motifs:

Rhett & Link's buddy system

I realize the irony in my doing another post on Rhett & Link given what I say below and what I've said in the past about them. The context is I was responding to another Christian's analysis of Rhett & Link.

I think we as Christians are spilling way too much ink over Rhett & Link's apostasy. For one thing, their objections to Christianity are (largely) jejune.

More to the point, Rhett & Link could have gotten answers if they really wanted to since they are well poised to get answers from others. Certainly more so than most other people. For example, why don't Rhett & Link reach out to someone like Jonathan McLatchie or any number of Christian apologists and put them on their show so they can ask whatever questions they wish? Indeed, Rhett & Link have had tons of guests (celebrities) on their show, so why not a Christian intellectual too?

Of course, I suspect one reason they don't do this is because that might cause Rhett & Link to lose credibility with their largely secular audience if they were to host a Christian apologist on their show. However, if they really want to know the truth, why not do it? If they're not play-acting or somesuch, but really want to know the truth, then why don't they care far more about asking questions of potentially eternal significance than they care about how many YouTube subscribers or Twitter followers they have? Besides, as far as this objection goes, even if they lose one audience, who knows? They might gain another.

Instead, it appears Rhett & Link have done several videos (like 5 or 6 hours' worth) featuring themselves talking about themselves, agonizing about how it might affect them in this or that way, wringing their hands over their apostasy, etc. That's what it looks like when I watch clips, but I have no desire to sit through all their videos. Anyway I think it'd be much better if they used that time to interview people who could answer their questions. For example, Ben Shapiro has invited Christian apologists and intellectuals onto his show to ask them why they believe and otherwise ask them a bunch of questions. Rhett & Link could do the same if they really wanted to know.

If, as Christians, we don't care for Rhett & Link, per se, but we want to help others like them, then even within Rhett & Link's own hipster demographic it's not as if they all have the same kinds of questions as Rhett & Link do. Not all of them were raised in fundy environments in rural areas or small towns where everyone was told to be a YEC. If anything, I suspect most come from a far more secular background where ideas like atheism or agnosticism and neo-Darwinism predominate.

Is homosexuality genetic or learned?

Someone at Apologetics Academy asked "Is homosexuality genetic or learned?". My response:

1. So a more technical answer is it's multifactorial and polygenic. At the same time, the same could be said for any sexuality (e.g. heterosexuality, bisexuality).

2. Moreover, sexuality (in the way it's used in the post) isn't limited to physical properties alone. There are also significant psychological elements in sexuality. It's the distinction between biological male/female (which is physical and physiological) vs. what does it mean to be masculine/feminine (which is more psychological), even though the one can influence the other.

3. In fact, homosexuals and transgendered persons debate this. Many people aren't aware, but there's an internecine battle waged within the LGBTQ umbrella. In general, homosexuals want to argue biological sex is fixed, whereas sexuality is fluid. (I think I use "sexuality" differently from the way it's used in the post.) So one is a biological male since our genes are fixed, but sexual orientation, behavior, attraction, and so on are e fluid (e.g. butch, femme, dyke, boi, stud, top/bottom).

By contrast, in general, transgendered persons want to argue biological sex is fluid, while sexuality is (usually) fixed. So, for example, a biological man can have sex reassignment surgery and become a biological woman. This would mean biological sex is fluid. However, though they are now a (transgendered) woman, they will argue they continue to have sexual desires for women, hence they are akin to lesbians.

This, of course, angers the homosexual community in general. Such as lesbians. Lesbians don't wish to have sexual relations with a transgendered woman who used to be a man but now believes they are akin to a lesbian.

4. Finally, it depends on one's underlying worldview. If one is an atheist materialist (naturalism), then they might argue we can reduce everything to the physical. That presumably includes psychological properties being reducible to physical properties. Like how the mind is reducible to the brain.

The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture

I've quoted and/or interacted with Iain Provan's The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, which was published, not coincidentally, during the 500th anniversary or the Reformation. 

i) It's an uneven book. On the plus side, it makes some important contributions to the case for the Protestant canon, literal interpretation (as Provan defines it), and typology. And it's very well documented.

ii) On the minus side, he rejects inerrancy. In addition, he fails to directly rebut or solve the alleged problem of "pervasive interpretive pluralism" spawned by sola scriptura. He doesn't seem to have a full-blown answer to that. He stakes out a compromise position similar to Keith Mathison, as well as Allen and Swain in Reformed Catholicity. For reasons I've detailed on other occasions, I think that's a conceptually confused and unstable mediating position. 

iii) However, he doesn't seem to think it's that big a deal. For one thing, he doesn't seem to think the Bible is that ambiguous or obscure. He remarks on how Jesus and Paul directly appeal to the OT to prooftext their positions. And they do this in public speeches to rank-and-file Jews, not just the experts. Likewise, Paul takes for granted that a Gentile audience should be able to follow his OT-based arguments.

iv) In addition, since Provan doesn't think the Church of Rome has a living oracle, the invidious contrast between fallible Protestant interpretation and infallible Catholic interpretation is illusory. Catholics are in the same boat as Protestants: they just pretend that they occupy a different boat. If interpretive pluralism is a problem, that's a problem for both sides. It's just that Rome tries to camouflage the problem. 

v) Provan also notes that the Catholic church has come around to Protestant positions on hermeneutics and textual criticism, so that diminishes the contrast. 

vi) There's the further fact that Provan is an academic whose Catholic dialogue partners are fellow academics. There's a difference between the quaint Catholicism of lay Catholic pop apologists and mainstream Catholic Bible scholarship representing spokesmen with Catholic training and institutional positions. The reactionary antimodernist scholarship of Brandt Pitre (and his sidekick John Bergsma, a convert to Catholicism) is virtually a lone exception.

So to some extent I think Provan's book is a failure. It doesn't provide a fully-satisfactory alternative to Catholicism (although that wasn't it's only aim). It can, however, be cannibalized from some very useful spare parts. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Is Christian opposition to science artificially selective?

Other 19C Bible readers, while comfortable with the general idea "that the Bible was written in terms accommodated to human understanding" and while generally seeking "to reconcile apparent discrepancies between science and Scripture by careful reinterpretation of one or the other," were nevertheless uncomfortable with recourse to the idea of divine accommodation in Scripture when it came to the new biology. Scholars like Edward Pusey (1800-1882), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), and John Dawson (1820-1899) accepted the reinterpretations of Scripture that had arisen as a result of Copernicus' work on cosmology and even the more recent discoveries of the new geology–at least insofar as these established an ancient age for the earth…With respect to Darwinian biology, however, these same scholars were generally opposed to making a similar move–at least given the present state of scientific knowledge.

…there do remain in the modern world not only young-earthers who regard old-earthers as "unbiblical," but also geocentrists and flat-earthers who regard everyone to their "left" (including both old- and young-earthers) the same way–as dangerously liberal in their approach to Scripture. The Bible, these Christians insist, must trump in all cases what unbelieving scientists says; we cannot pick and choose. Those who no longer believe in geocentrism (or flat-earthism), they allege, have capitulated to science even while pretending that they have not. They no longer adhere to what the Bible clearly teaches–in passages like Joshua, for example, where the sun indisputably stands still. I. Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Baylor 2017), 408, 434.

1. This raises a legitimate issue that deserves to be met head-on. Theologically, evolution raises the stakes in a way that antiquity of the universe does not. Human anthropology is central to Christian theology in a way that geology or geocentrism is not. So it may well be that some Christians are inconsistent on this point. 

2. However, even if where they draw the line is driven by theological motives, and to that degree, arbitrary, it doesn't follow that such distinctions are necessarily arbitrary. Indeed, it begs the question to treat all cases alike unless they are alike. That's not something we an settle in advance, apart from exegetical scrutiny. So there's nothing intrinsically ad hoc about treating these issues on a case-by-case basis, because we don't know if they're all of a kind unless and until we examine them. Even if theological motives sometimes exert undue influence, it's logically fallacious to invalidate a position for that reason alone. We must still evaluate the interpretation on the merits, whether or not impure motives played a role in the conclusion. 

3. The theory of evolution remains scientifically–and not just theologically–controversial in a way that astronomy and geology do not. So at that level alone, the comparison is inapt. It's very difficult to turn evolution into a workable theory. You don't have to be a Christian fundamentalist to say that or see that. 

4. As I've often detailed, questioning flat-earth cosmography doesn't require any knowledge of modern science. The endlessly reproduced three-story mockup wouldn't jive for attentive observers in the ancient Near East. 

5. Modern readers don't come to the geocentric prooftexs as a blank slate. We're inclined to consciously or unconsciously filter that through Ptolemaic astronomy and the Galileo affair. But the OT wasn't using that paradigm. There's precious little evidence that OT writers shared the Hellenistic Greek theoretical interest in celestial mechanics. 

6. The meaning of Joshua's Long Day is far from straightforward. 

i) Joshua's statement is poetic. Notice the parallelism. 

ii) In addition, the narrator is summarizing a description from a book that no longer exists. So we can't compare his summary with the full text of the primary source. We lack the larger context. 

iii) The miracle is describe from the phenomenological standpoint of an earthbound observer: the position of the sun at Gibeon, and the position of the moon in the Valley of Aijalon. That's a perceptual, local frame of reference. 

At the very least it describes a supernatural or preternatural optical astronomical illusion. Maybe something more. But the details can't be reconstructed from the poetry or the summary of primary source that no longer exists. 

Swamidass on human evolution

A Christian physician-scientist named Joshua Swamidass published a book at the tail end of last year (Dec 2019) called The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry. Granted, I haven't read the book, but I've heard reliable summaries of its main argument. Indeed, from the mouth of Swamidass himself (e.g. see Swamidass' interview with Cameron Bertuzzi of Capturing Christianity and Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy).

Swamidass' main argument is it's possible Adam and Eve were created de novo in the garden of Eden 6,000 years ago, but at the same time there are hominids outside the garden of Eden. These hominids evolved through standard evolutionary processes. This includes hominids like Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and so on. However, after Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, they interbred with these hominids. Modern humans are their descendents. This in turn explains, for example, why there is a certain percentage (1-5%) of Neanderthal DNA in humans today. That's Swamidass' central argument.

This position raises several questions:

1. For one thing, are these hominids human like us? Were they created in the image of God?

2. If the answer is yes, how could there have been humans made in the image of God outside the garden of Eden? Did God create multiple humans in his image, two in the garden, but many others outside it? Yet these humans outside the garden evolved, but can one evolve from non-human to human (made in the image of God)? How would that work?

3. If the answer is no, which is presumably the answer, then these hominids were highly sophisticated primates closely resembling humans, but not human. So would Adam and Eve and their descendents have been committing bestiality by interbreeding with these hominids? Would Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, and Noah have been interbreeding with them?

4. Taking a step back, could these hominids even produce viable offspring with humans? Swamidass would have to say yes because that's how he explains the presence of Neanderthal DNA in humans today. So, are we part human and part beast? If one parent is human, but the other parent is a non-human hominid, then what would that mean for the child? Would they still be human made in the image of God?

5. Swamidass argues he believes the imago dei is not the best way to understand what it means to be human if the imago dei is taken to refer to something like a rational soul or human exceptionalism. Instead, Swamidass argues, he believes we need to take a "vocational" view of what it means to be created in the image of God. By this Swamidass means we might regard the imago dei as a God-given calling or role to represent God in the world. In addition, Swamidass talks about a third view of the imago dei known as the relational view, but he says this is the least common view.

In any case, it seems to me Swamidass hones in on the vocational view for the imago dei. I think he does this because that makes room for the fact that humans interbreeding with hominids could still be human. If what it fundamentally means to be human is a matter of "calling", then God can call hominids to be human too. I think that's roughly speaking Swamidass' reasoning. By contrast, if we say there's something unique or exceptional about humans, then that would not apply to non-human animals like Swamidass' hominids.

I don't know that I agree with these three ways of looking at what it means to be created in God's image. However, suppose we agree with this way of looking at the imago dei at least for the sake of argument. Why does Swamidass single out the vocational view? Why not all three at the same time? These could be three different perspectives of looking at the imago dei, all of which have some merit to them, but none to be favored over another.

6. If the hominids outside the garden are not humans, then they're akin to animals. They may have a soul, but would they be able to go to heaven? Perhaps only in the sense that God might allow some animals (e.g. pets) to go to heaven. But it's not as if they could be tempted, sin, and fall. Yet if we interbreed with these animals, and have offspring who are part hominid, then how would that influence Christian soteriology? Did Christ die for people who are half-hominid?

Look at it this way. Suppose humans could breed with other animals. Suppose humans could breed with dogs. We'd have dog-men. If so, then did Christ come to die for dog-men too? Did Christ take on dog-man flesh? Is Christ fully God, fully man, and fully dog? That seems absurd if not blasphemous.

7. Given Swamidass' argument, it's possible there are some humans living today who are not human at all. It's possible they could be fully hominid. Who were not made in the image of God. Nevertheless they look, think, talk, and behave indistinguishably from us. In fact, Swamidass mentions that's possible but it'd only apply to less than 1% of all humans. Nevertheless, they would still exist! And if so, then it wouldn't necessarily be immoral to kill them. At least no more immoral than killing a dog or horse or other animal if it must be done. Yet we couldn't distinguish between them and us.

8. Importantly, if we're the descendents of Adam and Eve interbreeding with these hominids, then we are not exclusively descendents of Adam and Eve. Rather we are descendents of Adam, Eve, and other hominids. This would have tremendous theological ramifications, no matter how much Swamidass wishes to underplay it.

9. All this relies on Swamidass' interpretation of the scientific evidence. Swamidass makes it sound like he's the only one who has the correct understanding of the scientific evidence. Despite the fact that there are other scientists who look at the same scientific evidence but draw different conclusions. Swamidass knows many of these scientists in person. He's well aware of their work. I'm referring to people like Ann Gauger, James Tour, Michael Behe, and Doug Axe.

Point being, there's debate over the scientific evidence. There are reasonable arguments to consider that some hominids could be part of humanity. For example, many have argued some hominids may in fact be human. This includes Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. See the book Science and Human Origins for starters.