Saturday, June 27, 2020

John Frame on Steve Hays

Posted on Behalf of Dr John Frame

I think I met Steve in the early 90s. When you teach theology, people come out of the blue and ask you questions. And that's what happened, in a way, with Steve. Typically, such correspondents want to ask about predestination or the millennium— the conventional topics of the day. But Steve's question was very different.

He asked something like "can a Reformed Christian be a Malebrancheian Occasionalist?"

When people try to understand causality, they think in terms of David Hume, and determinism, and freedom.

Malebranche was a philosophical predecessor to David Hume. Steve had been reading a history of philosophy, and Malebranche was kind of like a theistic Humean, except that he lived prior to Hume. His Occasionalism held that God is the only causal agent, and that creatures provide the "occasion" for divine action.

Steve's question threw me for a loop. I had never considered this question. I tried to persuade Steve that God did create the world with a real causal structure. That God causes things in such a way that the world does produce genuine causes.

According to my very fallible memory, after our brief correspondence, Steve joined us at WSCal as a student. He took some classes for about a year, and then he went back north.

Maybe a year later, I got a note from a former student and WSCal alumnus in the Northwest. He had become a pastor.

He wrote to me, "is it possible that there's such a thing as a theological prodigy?" He wrote about this fellow he knew, and, given the details, I knew it had to be Steve Hays.

Steve came back to WSCal in the late 1990s, and he took most of my classes. We became good friends.

On one occasion, my wife had Steve to dinner, and he seemed to trail me around the house, asking question after question, and writing my answers in a notebook.

Unfortunately, that was the time when things became sticky for me at WSCal. What had been a wonderful, congenial and collegial faculty in the eighties had become faction-ridden, and it seemed that everybody was at each other's throats. Steve was an encouragement to me, but he didn't take sides in the controversies. Looking back on the experience, Steve later described himself as neither confessional enough, nor Klinean enough, for the culture there. "I'd prefer to stay closer to the Scriptures," he said.

In 1999 I got my family together and moved to Orlando, Florida. Teaching at RTS [Reformed Theological Seminary] was the greatest 17 years of my life.

Around that same time, Steve and his mother decided to move east, to Charleston SC. Steve was close to his parents, and his father had died in 1999. [Steve's memoir notes "My father had died a month shy of my fortieth birthday".]

RTS also had a campus in Charlotte, NC, and Steve became associated there.

Together we became involved in producing a distance education program. I taught a number of courses, in theology, philosophy, ethics, and apologetics. Steve worked as my teaching assistant, as well as having worked on his own project.

Unfortunately, Steve became disassociated with RTS. I think he was in an online discussion that became a little too heated. I'm not sure what it was, but something happened, and he began blogging at Triablogue.

I've followed Steve over the years. In fact, Triablogue is the only blog that I've read consistently. When I went to my office each morning and turned on the computer, Triablogue was part of my regular routine.

Over the years, Steve has been helpful to me in a number of ways, such as in discussions with some of the neo-Thomists in recent years. For a while, it looked as if the whole Reformed world was about to go neo-Thomist. Paul Helm, Richard Muller, and many other Reformed thinkers joined the movement.

I recognized, and still do, that there are many good things in the work of Thomas Aquinas. But Thomas mixed up his good biblical theology with a lot of pagan philosophy from Plato, and especially Aristotle. I am a student of Cornelius Van Til, and like Van Til I have always been critical of Thomas's compromises with Greek Philosophy.

I wrote some brief essays such as "Two Models of Divine Transcendence: Pure Being vs. Divine Lordship," to indicate my view of things.

I realize that Thomas was trying to reconcile some Christian theologies with ideas from some of the great philosophies. It would be unthinkable for a Christian thinker living in his time not to do that. But "pure being" is not in the Bible. The biblical God is not Aristotle's "prime mover", although some try very hard to make that identification. God is YHWH, who makes covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Some time over the course of those early years, Steve became a very sophisticated philosopher. I've been at some of the leading seminaries and universities in the country, and I was amazed at how much philosophical reading Steve did. He was aware of philosophical conversations that I'd never heard of.

He had personal correspondence with many philosophers, as well as theologians, and he learned quickly how these professional thinkers discussed issues. Steve avoided stereotyped lists of talking points (alas, the common content of evangelical theology) and instead developed careful, cogent chains of argument, nuanced and qualified.

He tended to develop his arguments as I also do, with numbered lists of points. He'd develop one point, then another, indicating that he wanted to focus on this issue, rather than that. Whatever it was that Steve wrote, you always could tell that he knew what he was talking about.

I was interested that in our numbered-list approach, and in our way of approaching problems, Steve and I were very similar. I think he learned from me, but the reverse was also true.

In sum, I regarded Steve as a kindred spirit. He wasn't always on my side, but he was a Godly man, devoted to his family, seeking to think God's thoughts after Him.

He wasn't afraid to step outside of boundaries. So while he was always thoroughly Reformed in his thinking, he didn't use buzz words. He didn't always make conventional arguments. He wasn't afraid to delve into unpopular topics.

Look at the issue of cessationism. With me, the sufficiency of Scripture was always most important. Yes, natural revelation is helpful, and we learn that from Romans 1. We also know that God has spoken to people through dreams and visions. But Scripture is a sufficient source for doctrine.

So some Reformed thinkers have argued that at the death of the last apostle, God absolutely stopped speaking authoritatively to human beings. To many Reformed thinkers, the Charismatic tradition is entirely anathema.

My position was that yes, the canon of inspired Scripture is closed. That is to say, Scripture alone is God's "covenant document" (Kline) to rule his church. But Scripture never says that God's revelation will stop with the death of the last apostle. God communicates any way he chooses.

Natural revelation, for example, continues. We may legitimately make various distinctions within the concept of revelation, but in ordinary life we need not only to hear Scripture, but also to work in a godly way to APPLY Scripture to other forms of experience in which God makes himself known. So there is a bit of looseness here that we cannot avoid, a looseness hard for many Reformed thinkers to tolerate.

Steve, though a highly principled Calvinist, was willing to embrace that looseness. He did not feel bound by Reformed tradition to avoid anything that sounded Charismatic. Indeed, he maintained an independence from tradition that seemed to me to express sola Scriptura in the best possible sense.

Other Triabloggers write about paranormal phenomena, such as the Enfield poltergeist. [JB note: Steve has often told me that "naturalism" is the greatest enemy that we face.] I think God can work in unusual ways.

So over the years, even after our collaboration at RTS was over, Steve and I continued to be good friends. We were also part of a group that began at Westminster back in the 1990s. Philip Marshall, Greg Welty, later James Anderson, and I all stayed in touch, and every once in a while Steve would write to the whole group about philosophical and theological ideas that he was in touch with. We'd all get together by email and go over the issues.

I thought the world of Steve, and I will miss him very much. I look forward to resuming our conversations in glory (with so many more resources at our disposal!) Until then, I will still be reading Triablogue, where Steve's influence lives on, and where a number of godly thinkers remain to take up his torch.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Opportunities And Responsibilities In Evangelism

You can't say much about evangelism without discussing a lot of other topics as well. There's a lot of overlap, which is part of what makes addressing evangelism so difficult.

I can't be exhaustive. This is just a post, not a book. And there are some issues I'm undecided on or too hesitant to address here.

One of the factors we should take into account when deciding how to handle matters related to evangelism is the principle Paul discusses in Colossians 4:5. Start where you have the most opportunity, then work out from there. The large majority of professing Christians in places like the United States don't make much use of the opportunities they have, even where the conditions are most favorable.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Why Some People Hate Cops (An Ex-Con Explains)"

I saw Peter Pike mention David Wood's video here.

Also, Wood includes a lot of autobiographical material in his video. I think Wood is someone who was given so very little in life (albeit he's very intelligent), but who has turned his "little" into a tremendous harvest.

It's not about history...

I've seen several people posting this image in social media:

East Germany was unavailable for comment.

People have also compared the destruction of statues to the Boston Tea Party. The British Empire was likewise unavailable for comment.

When people destroy objects in their community, it is not because they want to distance themselves from history. They want to distance themselves from the government who built those objects.  That in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It's good that East Germany no longer exists.  It's good that the British Empire no longer exists.

Is it good if America no longer exists?  That depends on what replaces America.  But I find it pretty clear that those who tore down the Berlin Wall did so because they wanted more freedom for themselves, and those who dumped tea into the harbor did so because they wanted more freedom for themselves.  Those who are destroying statues of Jefferson, Washington, and Grant are the same people demanding that others bow to them, that you do not have the right to free speech (but they do), and that you do not have the right to freedom of religion or assembly (but they do).  After all, art is speech and they are destroying the art they disagree with, but if you tear down BLM posters you will get arrested.  And you don't have the right to sit in a car outside of church without getting a ticket because of COVID, but they have the right to gather face to face in the streets without risking jail.

I do not see how their replacement for America is objectively better than what we currently have; rather, it is objectively far worse.  But make no mistake, this isn't about history. It's about bringing down the United States and replacing it with something else.

Perceiving design

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies:

Perceiving Design?

In this chapter and the last we have been thinking about fine-tuning arguments for design, and Behe's biological arguments for design. We have been calling them, naturally enough, "arguments." But perhaps there is a better way to think about what is going on here. You are hiking up Ptarmigan Ridge towards Mt. Baker in the North Cascades; your partner points out a mountain goat on a crag about two hundred yards distant. She thus gets you to form a belief—that there is a mountain goat there. But of course she doesn't do so by giving you an argument (you are appeared to in such and such a way; most of the time when someone S is appeared to that way there is a mountain goat about two hundred yards distant in the direction S is looking). Perhaps what is going on in the arguments like Behe's, as well as the fine-tuning arguments of the last chapter, can be better thought of as like what is going on in this sort of case, where it is perception (or something like it) rather than argument that is involved.20

What is intelligent design?

William Dembski offers one definition:

Intelligent design is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence.

What is intelligence? Intelligence is teleological. It's basically about adapting means to ends. Intelligence is a causal power that can bring about purposes by arranging the means to bring those purposes about. An intelligence has to make choices. If it's adapting means, then it's this means, not that means. In fact, the very etymology of the word intelligence is inter lego - "to choose between". That's the characteristic of intelligence. Whereas something that operates by brute necessity always does the same sort of thing. Even chance is not really intelligence; it's not goal-directed. So it seems there's this fundamental distinction. Intelligence is about adapting means to ends.

The starting question for intelligent design is, what are the markers? How do we detect the effects of intelligence? There seem to be three main things we're looking for. Contingency: whether something happens that didn't have to happen. So it was optional. There are different live possibilities. Complexity: it was hard to reproduce by chance. If chance and necessity were operating, would it have been unlikely? And third specification: does it conform to some independently given pattern? So it's not just something we're imposing after the fact, that we're cherry-picking and looking for something that we're hoping is there, but that there's this independent pattern to which it conforms. If we have those three things that come into place, then it seems we're triangulated on the effects of intelligence.

So lots of questions are then open. What's the nature of that intelligence? What were the purposes of that intelligence? How did the intelligence implement that design?

Where intelligence design starts, not where it ends, is having reliable methods of design detection. Specifically: contingency, complexity, specification.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Is evolution a big deal?

I recently watched this informal debate or dialogue between Josh Swamidass and Doug Axe:

I thought it was pretty good on Axe's side. I'd recommend it for Axe's contributions.

Swamidass, however, was a challenge to listen to. For example, Swamidass frequently interrupted Axe (and Swamidass often interrupts others in several other videos I've seen). At times Swamidass didn't seem to try to make a good faith effort to try to understand Axe but perhaps even the opposite. Swamidass seemed condescending toward Axe around the 50 minute mark when he suggested to Axe that Axe's description of cancer is "not what we find" because Axe hadn't been through medical training (MD) or worked in a cancer lab. Axe's description of cancer was fine for his purposes.

At 56:20, Swamidass claimed "Dembski himself backed off from his book The Design Inference". However that's false. Dembski himself responded to Swamidass here.

Swamidass further questioned Dembski over on Peaceful Science. (By the way, the Peaceful Science forums seem anything but "peaceful" in my opinion.) Others replied including Paul Nelson. Nelson mentioned he'll do a 4-part series on Evolution News. This is the first one.

Jesus seminar renders Lewis' trilemma obsolete! And other tall tales

Esther O'Reilly:

Reminded today of just how awful this William Lane Craig quote from Reasonable Faith is [near the end of chapter 7]:

Often one hears people say, 'I don’t understand all those philosophical arguments for God’s existence and so forth. I prefer historical apologetics.' I suspect that those who say this think that historical apologetics is easy and will enable them to avoid the hard thinking involved in the philosophical arguments. But this section ought to teach us clearly that this is not so. It is naïve and outdated simply to trot out the dilemma 'Liar, Lunatic, or Lord' and adduce several proof texts where Jesus claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah, and so forth. The publicity generated by the Jesus Seminar and The DaVinci Code has rendered that approach forever obsolete. Rather, if an apologetic based on the claims of Christ is to work, we must do the requisite spadework of sorting out those claims of Jesus that can be established as authentic, and then drawing out their implications. This will involve not only mastering Greek but also the methods of modern criticism and the criteria of authenticity. Far from being easy, historical apologetics, if done right, is every bit as difficult as philosophical apologetics. The only reason most people think historical apologetics to be easier is because they do it superficially.

How awful is this passage? Let me count the ways:

  1. The Jesus Seminar renders Lewis obsolete? I'll let the self-defeating irony of this particular bit speak for itself.
  2. Are we doing sociology or epistemology here? Genuinely can't tell.
  3. Is there reasonable doubt that Jesus *did* make such explicit claims to deity as those we find in, say, John? If not, why not use them? Yet, significantly, Craig never does.
  4. Why the need for all this "spadework" if we can establish whole-gospel reliability?
  5. Yet further irony: In the intro to RF, Craig downplays "saddling" oneself with establishing whole-gospel reliability, then here proceeds to "saddle" his readers with all this "spadework" improvement?
  6. "This requires mastering Greek." So much for the "one-dollar apologist," eh?

I'm sorry to say it, but this really is the sort of rhetoric that gives big apologetics a bad name. Massively unhelpful, confusing, and does not reflect the actual state of the argument.

Yes, we really need to get out of this rigid rut where first you need to establish X, Y and Z arguments for general theism, and only then can you "move on" to the historical arguments. Says who? Written where?

How Much The Media Are Influencing You

You can disagree with their conclusions, but let them have too much influence on what you think about and what you discuss with other people. Disagreeing with them about the coronavirus, racial issues, or guns isn't enough if they're getting you to spend too much time thinking and talking about the coronavirus, racial issues, or guns.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The State Of The Culture

When we're doing work in apologetics, evangelism, politics, or some other context, it's important to be well informed about the state of the culture we're interacting with. I want to recommend some resources. I can't be exhaustive, and I won't be saying much about these sources. But you can search the Triablogue archives or my posts on Facebook, for example, to find further discussion of the significance of these sources and their findings. I won't always link the latest research. Some of these sources are ones I don't consult every year, and there's only so much that I've read from these sites.

The Pew Research Center publishes a lot of material on relevant subjects. Go here for an article on where Americans find meaning in life, for example. Among other results, they reported, "Overall, 20% of Americans say religion is the most meaningful aspect of their lives, second only to the share who say this about family (40%)."

Around this time every year, the Department of Labor publishes their annual research on how Americans spend their time. See here. I've been following their research for several years, and they've consistently found that the average American spends more than five hours a day on what they call leisure and sports and less than ten minutes a day on religious and spiritual activities. Here's one of many posts over the years in which I've discussed the implications of those findings.

Gallup has a lot of useful information. Here's a collection of resources on moral issues. The page here shows you how Americans' views on moral issues have changed over time. And here's an article that discusses why acceptance of polygamy has been growing.

There's been a major reduction in global poverty in recent decades. See here and here. That has major implications for how concerned we should be about poverty, how much attention we should give it, how much Christians should be focused on poverty in the local church and other contexts (e.g., financial giving), the proper size and role of government programs addressing poverty, etc. In my experience, the vast majority of people seem unaware of statistics like these or haven't thought much about the implications of them.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center does a lot of research on how much Americans know about civics issues. See here, for example. C-SPAN has commissioned polling related to the Supreme Court. Their 2018 poll was done at the time of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. A majority of Americans couldn't name a single Supreme Court justice.

Some of these sites have a lot of data on religious issues. See, for example, here on Bible reading, here on how Americans view the Bible, and here regarding their views on issues related to Christmas. On global percentages for religious affiliation, see here. One important fact to note from the page I just cited and others at these web sites is that atheists make up such a small percentage of the population. We should keep that in mind when considering issues like how much of our apologetic effort should be directed toward atheism. Barna does a lot of research on Evangelicals in particular. Another site has an article on church attendance numbers.