Friday, October 31, 2014

Are miracles extraordinary?


One often  encounters the claim that "by definition," miracles are "extraordinary." Both atheists and some theologians/Christian apologists take that position. Atheists say miracles are extraordinary by definition to create an insuperable presumption against their occurrence–or belief in their occurrence. Some Christians apologists say miracles are extraordinary by definition because their evidentiary value supposedly lies in their extraordinary nature. One problem is how to define "extraordinary" in this context. 
1. Quantitatively extraordinary
i) One possibility is to define miracles as quantitatively extraordinary events. Very rare, exceptional events. That, however, seems to be inadequate. Surely there are very rare naturally occurring events which atheists and Christian apologists don't classify as miraculous. A freak mutation might be a unique, one-off event. But that, by itself, wouldn't make it miraculous. 
ii) In addition, the quantitative definition is vague. What's the frame of reference? For instance, in the OT, some men (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Elisha) reportedly perform miracles. They are exceptional in the sense that most Jews did not (even reportedly) perform miracles. Miracles are statically rare in the sense that only a tiny minority of the (OT Jewish) population performs them. 
Yet, if you're one of the rare individuals who performs miracles, you may frequently perform miracles. It is not out-of-the-ordinary for you to perform miracles. So it's not extraordinary in reference to the miracle-worker. Yet atheists and Christian apologists alike would say the feats attributed to these singular individuals are still miraculous–if true. 
iii) Take Acts 2:17-18. The scope of that promise is disputed. However, my argument doesn't turn on the correct interpretation. For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that according to this promise, most Christians will experience revelatory dreams and visions. Let's treat that as a hypothetical case. By a revelatory dream, I mean, for instance, premonitions that come true. These are too specific, and come true too often, to be coincidental. An atheist would typically say that's incompatible with naturalism. If that really happens, then it must be supernatural. Miraculous.
But is it extraordinary? If this happened to most Christians, then it would be the norm. It would be an ordinary part of Christian experience. It wouldn't be extraordinary in the quantitative sense. Yet, presumably, a typical atheist would classify revelatory dreams and visions as miraculous–as would a Christian apologist.   
iv) According to Biblical eschatology, there will be a general resurrection on the day of judgment. Everyone who died will be raised from the dead. Their souls will be reunited with their bodies. The only exception will be the humans who are still alive at the time of the Parousia. 
That ranges along a continuum. At one end of the continuum you might have the corpse of somebody who died an hour before. His corpse lies in the morgue. It's undergone some necrosis. It can't be naturally resuscitated. A resurrection requires God to repair the corpse. But the body is still intact. Further along the continuum are skeletal remains. At the other hand of the spectrum you have decedents whose bodies have disintegrated. A resurrection requires God to recreate the body from scratch. Recreate that unique arrangement of particles. 
Quantitatively speaking, the general resurrection is not extraordinary. It will happen to every man, women, and while who died. The cumulative mortality of the whole human race. Most people who ever lived will experience the general resurrection. So that isn't a rare event. Or even unusual. The majority of the human race will experience the general resurrection.
Of course, an atheist doesn't believe that will happen. But that's not my point. I'm discussing this from hypothetic standpoint to probe the definition of a miracle. If that were to happen, would it not be miraculous because it is so commonplace?
2. Qualitatively extraordinary
Assuming that the quantitative definition is a failure, what about a qualitative definition? What makes a miracle miraculous? 
i) One might try to define a miracle as extraordinary in the sense that it's naturally or scientifically inexplicable. Of course, that only pushes the question back a step. What makes an event naturally or scientifically inexplicable? Perhaps we might try to unpack that definition by invoking the principle of causal closure. We might define causal closure to mean "every physical change has a purely physical cause." Put another way, "everything that happens in the physical universe is caused by something else in the physical universe." 
On that definition, an event is miraculous or extraordinary if it violates causal closure (thus defined). 
Certainly, this definition may better capture the intuitive definition of miracles that many atheists work with. However, a glaring problem with this definition is that it begs the question by assuming that physicalism is true. Or that physicalism is the default assumption. 
To say that miracles face an insuperable presumption against their occurrence (or belief in their occurrence) because they violate causal closure is viciously circular. For if miracles do, in fact, occur, then causal closure is either false or not a universal principle. At a minimum, an objector to miracles must first establish causal closure. 
ii) In addition, some kinds of miracles don't seem to violate causal closure. Take coincidence miracles. For instance:
R.F. Holland (1965) has suggested that a religiously significant coincidence may qualify as a miracle. Suppose a child who is riding a toy motor-car gets stuck on the track at a train crossing. A train is approaching from around a curve, and the engineer who is driving it will not be able to see the child until it is too late to stop. By coincidence, the engineer faints at just the right moment, releasing his hand on the control lever, which causes the train to stop automatically. The child, against all expectations, is saved, and his mother thanks God for his providence; she continues to insist that a miracle has occurred even after hearing the explanation of how the train came to stop when it did. Interestingly, when the mother attributes the stopping of the train to God she is not identifying God as its cause; the cause of the train's stopping is the engineer's fainting. Nor is she, in any obvious way, offering an explanation for the event—at least none that is intended to compete with the naturalistic explanation made possible by reference to the engineer's medical condition. What makes this event a miracle, if it is, is its significance, which is given at least in part by its being an apparent response to a human need Like a violation miracle, such a coincidence occurs contrary to our expectations, yet it does this without standing in opposition to our understanding of natural law.  
http://www.iep.utm.edu/miracles/#H9
Admittedly, this is a hypothetical case. But for now I'm just testing the definition of a miracle. Moreover, there are real examples of reported coincidence miracles. 
In the aforesaid example, nowhere is the chain of physical cause and effect interrupted. At that level, it's all explicable by reference to physical factors. What makes it naturally inexplicable is not the means, but the opportune timing. 
Likewise, take some examples of retroactive prayer:
Once again, this doesn't violate causal closure. An atheist may object that it breaks causal closure in the ulterior sense that God prearranged that outcome, and God is not a physical agent. 
True, and, of course, many miracles presuppose the existence of God. However, in these cases the miraculous outcome is effected through physical means. Although the outcome reflects divine premeditation, the plan is implemented through ordinary providential factors or second-causes. God not only planned the event, but planned the event to eventuate through intramundane causation.  
So coincidence miracles and retroactive prayers aren't qualitatively extraordinary, in terms of how they come about. They are mediated by the causal continuum, rather than operating outside the causal continuum.
BTW, I'm not suggesting there's anything sacrosanct about causal closure. I'm framing the issue in those terms for the sake of argument. Certainly there are kinds of miracles which involve direct mental agency rather than physical agency. Types of miracles which are discontinuous with a physical chain of cause and effect. I have no problem with that.
I'm simply discussing, whether, as a matter of principle, miracles are "extraordinary." What does that mean? If it's meaningful, does it cover all miracles, or only some? And how does that affect the burden of proof?   

Thomas Aquinas was the Problem; the Reformation was the Solution

Roman Catholics claim that Martin Luther was the innovator, but in reality, Thomas Aquinas was a far more extensive innovator than Luther ever was. The problem was, “The Church of Rome” liked what Aquinas had to say, and they canonized it.

The Reformers sought to roll back many of the changes that Aquinas put into place. And in doing so, they relied on earlier traditions than did Aquinas.

It was Aquinas who not only introduced Aristotle to the Roman church, but he wrapped Aristotelian philosophy around Christian doctrine and handed it to “the Church” as a complete package. One that supported the Roman Church’s view of its own authority necessity and authority.

* * *

Here’s why “Thomism” works today: Roman Catholicism is built on “Thomism”. That is, from, say, the late middle ages all the way through to about 1900, “Thomism” provided the philosophical (and theological) building blocks for Roman Catholicism. At the Council of Trent, Thomism ruled the thinking of the day. At the Vatican I Council, Thomism ruled the thinking of the day.

When you see a phrase like “Thomas Aquinas points out … ”, as you do in the article that Steve linked below, keep in mind that if Thomas said it, then somebody else most likely said it first. And they frequently said it in a different context.

Thomas was a solid thinker, to be sure. But many of the thoughts that he built with were not his own. They were an amalgamation of other sources. And frequently, those sources were not sound sources. Much of what he said had an “early church” (i.e. “neo-Platonic”) philosophical foundation.

And much of this came in the form of a reliance on Pseudo-Dionysius (a 6th century neo-Platonic writer who either portrayed himself or whose works were falsely portrayed as having been written by the 1st century companion of Paul from Acts 17).

Aquinas’s writings on the papacy were also shaped by forgeries such as the 9th century Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals – Aquinas was a great “synthesizer” and he synthesized such things into other, more legitimate writings.

Perhaps the “synthesis” that Aquinas is best known for is his grand synthesis with Aristotelian philosophy.

Ancient Greece had an abundance of philosophers, most famously, Socrates, his pupil Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle.

Of course, each of these men had their own followings, and by the time the early church was spreading out in the Greek-thinking Roman empire (the Romans had very few thoughts of their own), much of Aristotle was lost, except to some in the Persian hinterlands.

After the Crusades, Aristotle was brought back into the Roman sphere, and for a while, Aristotelian thinking was causing quite a stir.

Albert the Great was probably the first European Medieval thinker to study Aristotle – and Aquinas was his student. It was Aquinas who put into place “the Synthesis”.

Here is what Steven Ozment (“The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe” New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, ©1980) had to say about Aquinas’s synthesis:

Before the Ockhamists (Ockham: 1288-1347) made Pelagianism a major issue in medieval theology, the scholastic debate over religious justification focused on the question of how grace could be present in man’s soul. How can something divine be within human nature? If medieval philosophers had problems conceiving the existence of a universal within a particular, there were even greater difficulties for theologians who tried to imagine godly purity within a finite sinful creature.

Peter Lombard determined the direction of this prolonged debate. In book 1, Distinction 17 of his famed Sentences, Lombard, discussing religious justification, asked: “Is the love by which we are saved a created habit in our soul, or is it the very person of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us?” Is that which heals and saves a person part of his own nature, something he himself has developed as his own possession, or is it the indwelling spirit of God, a divine power in him but not of him? Lombard opted for the latter solution.

Here we see Luther’s extra nos justification. Lombard (1100-1160) had agreed with Luther’s solution.

Lombard opted for the latter solution, maintaining that the love by which people love God and their fellow man so as to merit salvation [“merit” being a whole ’nother story] was the spirit of God working internally, without their aid or volition. Man is saved by an uncreated, not a created habit, by uncreated, not created, love, by the holy spirit within, not by an acquired talent he can call his very own. When the young Luther wrote hs commentary on the Sentences in 1509/10, he strongly agreed, against the majority of scholastics, with this interpretation by Lombard.

Thomas Aquinas opposed Lombard in this issue, arguing that saving charity [“charity” being “love”in the Roman Catholic schema] must be a voluntary act arising from a disposition man could call his own.

So here is Aquinas, insisting (contra everything that the prior church had taught) that man’s salvation must be intrinsic to himself, not “extrinsic” – that is, it’s not the indwelling Holy Spirit that provides man’s salvation – but rather, it’s man’s own acts which must make him righteous.

This is where “Augustine’s Goof” finds itself in the middle ages – in a kind of hangover from Augustine’s iustificare it’s “the bookend” on another turning point in “Roman” “Catholic” history. Continuing with Ozment:

[Aquinas] wrote in pointed summary:

Peter Lombard held that charity was not a created reality, but the Holy Spirit dwelling in the soul. He did not mean that the Holy Spirit was identified with our movement of love, but that charity, unlike the other virtues, such as faith and hope, was not elicited from a habit which was really our own. [In this] he was trying to enhance charity …. This opinion [however] tends rather to discredit charity. It would mean that active charity rises from the Holy Spirit so moving the in that we are merely passive, and not responsible for our loving or otherwise. This militates against the character of a voluntary act. Charity would not then be a voluntary act. There is a problem here, for our loving is very much our own.

According to Aquinas, grace is in the soul as a reality connatural [innate] to man; otherwise, saving acts of charity [again, the whole “merit” thing] would be done involuntarily and, as it were, by another. Although its ultimate origin is divine, the love by which people love God and their fellow man in a saving way is created love, a truly human habit.

We see here where the Reformed responses then, come, vs Aquinas.

Individuals of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods actually spent the time to sort out all of these things – that’s why their writings are so voluminous, and that’s why we don’t really understand what they were saying. It’s because the medieval writers were seemingly so far afield, so much of the time, that it is (in our age) just simpler to chuck them out the window.


William Edgar (in “A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institues”, eds. Hall and Lillback, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, ©2008) points out that “What [Calvin] attacks most in his admonitions to properly respect others [“love of God and neighbors”] is pride”. Edgar continues:

Following tradition, [Calvin] recognizes this greatest vice [pride] as the mother of all sins. Throughout the Institutes Calvin stresses the importance of considering our tendency to arrogance and merit. He reminds us that any talent that we have received is from the Lord, a gift, not a meritorious accomplishment. When we realize that we have nothing that we have not received, then we may bestow to others the honor that they are due, being properly reverent and lowly toward them.

He goes on … to remind us that any gift we have is for the sake of the church. Following Paul in his letters to the Corinthians, and many other biblical passages, he explains that every good gift we have is meant not for ourselves, but to be distributed for our neighbor’s good. He introduces the notion of stewardship, which is so strongly present in his any works, which would become so central to later Reformed theology (326-327).

The discussion here involves a whole range of theological topics – the Image of God in man, nature and grace, the state of fallen man, the freedom vs the bondage of the human will. Each of these topics has its own historical trajectories.

Edgar notes in a footnote, “while reminding the reader about the nobility of the human race and our free will, [Calvin] explains that the original sin has damaged our grandeur through price. In his long and thoughtful defense of free will, his chief concern is that we distinguish between our natural free will and the part of freedom which has been lost through sin (see 2.1.4) (pg 326).

But the bottom line is that Aquinas followed an Aristotelian notion of affixing “forms” within “the thing itself”, and thus, the “love” with which man loves (and with which he obtains inherent merit) must itself inhere within the person. But Rome and its hierarchy, its sacerdotal priesthood, is made more important in this scheme, and the work of the Holy Spirit in man is reduced. The intitiative of God is made subservient to the sacraments of Rome. Thus, as Ozment continues with Aquinas:

Aquinas found a solution in Aristotelian philosophy. Grace, he argued, is in the soul not as a substantial form, but as an accidental form (forma accidentalis). In Aristotelian philosophy a substantial form denotes the essence of a thing, that which makes it what it is or in terms of which it is defined. Man’s substantial form, for example, is his reason; reason makes man a unique creature and defines his nature. An accidental form, by contrast, while very much a part of an individual, remains nonessential to its definition as the particular thing that it is. A man’s color, height, and such acquired abilities as running and singing, for example, are accidental forms, nonessential to his being as a rational creature (Ozment, pgs. 31-32).

What this leads to is the concept of “the infused habit of grace”. It is with this infusion (for Rome, it comes at baptism) that makes one a Christian. (In Aquinas’s day, only those within the Church, or desiring to be so – having a “baptism of desire” – could be saved). For Aquinas, someone not having this “infused habit of grace” would not be a Christian – this is how Rome avoids the notion that it is a Pelagian system.

However, after baptism, whereas this “infused habit of grace” could never be completely lost, it could still “for long periods of time go unexercised”. And if it lasted long enough, and if you died outside this “state of grace”, you don’t end up in heaven when you die.

This state of affairs is enabled by the “accidental” concept: “grace is not in the soul as its substance; neither is it there so as to be absolutely no part of it; it is really but accidentally there (Ozment, 33).

So you get this infusion “accidental grace”, and it is yours then, throughout your lifetime, either to work to increase it (as a habit), or to let it go dormant. Mortal sin would make it go away, and ONLY the sacrament of penance (mediated ONLY through the Roman priesthood) could bring it back.

This is why the Roman Church glommed onto Aquinas – because Aquinas made them be important.

* * *

Aquinas – “Thomism” – didn’t win the day because it was the most brilliant or sensible thinking of the middle ages. It won the day because Rome saw that his “synthesis” gave the most enablement to its own evolving theory of how the sacraments worked (and provided “a reason why” for the Sacerdotal system of mediation) – that’s why Thomism is still with us today.

Not only did Thomas disagree with earlier understandings of grace (see Lombard, above), but in his own time, he had fierce opponents. Duns Scotus was one of these. Here is how Scotus perceived Aquinas:

Duns Scotus (ca 1265-1308) led a critical Franciscan reaction to Aquinas’s views on the infused habit of grace. Strongly influenced by Augustine’s teaching on predestination, Scotus looked with suspicion on the definition of Christians in terms of something they could possess as their own within their souls. Did this mean that God, who is omnipotent and free over creation, was in some way bound to accidental forms within the souls of mere creatures, obliged to save any and all who tried to love him habitually? Was not God free to be where and with whom he pleased, regardless of the qualifying circumstances? (Ozment 33)

We see this question asked over and over again in Christian history.

What God decreed in man’s regard was far more important to his salvation than any quality of soul he might come to possess; people were saved only because God first willed it, never because they were intrinsically worth it.

Before Ockham turned his razor against Scotist and Thomist epistemology, Scotus applied a razor of his own to Thomist soteriology on this particular issue. Scotus stated his principle of theological economy in the axiom “Nothing created must, for reasons intrinsic to it, be accepted by God” (nihil creatum formaliter est a deo acceptandum). This meant that created and finite could in no way could determine what was uncreated and infinite. Every relationship God had outside himself was, by definition, absolutely free, contingent, unconditioned, in no way obligatory. From Scotus’s perspective, Aquinas bound God too closely to the church’s system of grace and tended to lose sight of the great distance that obtained between God’s eternal will and its execution in time through created orders and finite agents. (Ozment 33)

One might go further and suggest that not only did Aquinas bind God too closely to the church’s system of grace, but he also bound it too closely, not only to “created orders and finite agents”, but to the most wicked scum of the earth popes who ever lived.

Here is where a study of God’s holiness, of his holy character, are highly in order. This is a matter of Who God is.

Continuing with Ozment:

Thomist theology seemed to run the danger of entangling the divine will in the secondary causation of the church, priests, sacraments, and accidental forms of grace. While Aquinas believed with every medieval theologian that God could never properly be called a debtor to man, he did argue that God was a debtor to himself, to what he, as First Cause, had established. In this sense God remained obligated to himself to carry through to a salutary conclusion what he had freely set in motion, a debtor to his chosen system of salvation.

Scotus certainly had no desire to place God’s ordinations in doubt, but he did look on them as utterly contingent and playing only a secondary role in the economy of salvation. Severe qualifications were theoretically placed on the media of salvation—churches priests, sacraments, and infused grace—lest they presume upon God’s sovereignty over his creation and the primacy of his will in salvation (Ozment 33-34) ….

This subtle but important difference between Scotus and Aquinas on the nature and role of secondary causes in salvation found expression also in their understanding of the way sacraments work. For Aquinas, sacraments were instrumental causes of grace and salvation. They really contained and communicated grace; that was why they were so indispensable to salvation. A parallel may here be drawn with Thomist epistemology: as Aquinas believed that universals were really in things and, as so-called intelligible species, also really in the mind, so he believed that grace was really in sacramental rituals and elements and, as an accidental form, also really in the soul. Scotus, by contrast, identified with a tradition that explained the efficacy of the sacraments in terms of a covenant made by God.

Sacraments work not because they intrinsically convey grace, as a cause intrinsically contains and conveys its effects (Aquinas), but because God has agreed to be present with his grace when the sacraments are performed; they are conditiones sine quibus not (“conditions without which not”) for the reception of grace. Where Aquinas placed the secondary cause, the sacrament itself, in the foreground, Scotus placed the will of God. Sacraments were efficacious media of grace for both, but for Scotus they were emphatically subordinate to the divine will (Ozment 35).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Grafted in

http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?ca=2026c32b-68b6-4e17-a887-ca18a0420b68&c=c40802f0-2987-11e3-b570-d4ae529a848a&ch=c443fa80-2987-11e3-b5a5-d4ae529a848a

Editorial discrepancies


Jason Engwer recently referred to this article–which includes the following statement:
Accordingly, the postulation of a pre-existing, forty-member genealogy structured around Abraham, David, Josiah, and Joseph does more than merely solve a math problem. 
http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2014/10/cbq-article-on-matt-117-published.html

I haven't read Carlson's article. But I'd like to make a general observation. As is widely documented, the Bible contains some apparent discrepancies. Discrepancies about names and numbers, times and places. That's not a novel observation on my part. And there are various proposals to harmonize these apparently discrepancies. 

Now I'd like to make a neglected point: some Bible writers undoubtedly use written sources. And in so doing, they make selective use of their sources. Once again, that's not a novel observation on my part. Historians typically use written sources. And when a historian quotes from a source, he doesn't normally quote the whole text. He only quotes what's relevant.

This, however, invites what I'll call editorial discrepancies. Editorial discrepancies aren't the same as factual discrepancies.

Say a written source mentions a certain number of people. Say it totals their number. 

When a historian excerpts that source, he may only quote what it says about the people of interest to him. Yet when he copies the original source, he may include the total. 

That creates a discrepancy, because he mentions fewer people than the total. The discrepancy is generated by the fact that he's omitted some information. The total is correct, but if you add it up yourself, based on what he shows you, it doesn't add up. Yet that's not a mistake. He didn't make a mistake. Rather, the discrepancy is due to missing information. If he copied the total, but he didn't copy every name, then the total number doesn't match what's on display. Yet what he wrote is factually accurate. It's just that the reader lacks access to the original source, which contains the missing information. If you could compare the original source with the redacted document, it would fall right into place. 

Take another example. When we write about someone, we may give their full name at the outset. Their first and last name. Having, however, initially identified them, we don't continue to give their full name. Thereafter, we refer to them either by their first or last name. 

If, however, you were to copy part of what a biographer or historian wrote about someone, that might be confusing, because the part you copy may only use the first or last name. That can be even more confusing if there are two people with the same first or last name. To the reader, it may seem like you confused two different people. But that's simply an editorial discrepancy, not a factual discrepancy. 

For instance, in Bible times, people could be referred to by first or last name. Sometimes both. And I think the surname was generally more important in Bible times. Who was your father? What was your clan? 

It also wouldn't surprise me if, in Bible times, more people went by the same name. In the US, because we're so multiethnic, there's probably a greater variety of names than in a more linguistically homogenous culture. 

If a Bible writer selectively quotes from a written sources, it's easy to see how the source might mention two people who share the same name. The original source might initially distinguish them by giving their full names, but that's something it only does once. The first time they are introduced. After than, they are distinguished by context. 

If, however, a Bible writer is only quoting the relevant part of his source, then the excerpt may not include their full names. But that could be confusing to the reader.

Let's take a concrete example. There's a famous Muslim philosopher who's commonly referred to simply as Al-Ghazâlî. However, his full name is Abû Hâmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazâlî. Quite a mouthful! 

A writer won't give the full name every time he mentions to him. At most, he will only give the full name when he introduces him to the reader. Thereafter, he will use the simplified designation. 

In fact, editorial discrepancies are commonplace in the computer age, where we often copy/paste from electronic texts. I suspect the Bible contains quite a few editorial discrepancies. These are not errors. They are simply an artifact of incorporating written source material into a historical account. 

Since, however, the reader doesn't have access to the original source, it may not be possible to harmonize an editorial discrepancy. We can't see what the author saw. We can't see what he left out. All we have is the end-product of his editorial process. So we're often in no position to reconstruct the original. Yet that doesn't mean he made a mistake. To the contrary, editorial discrepancies are to be expected. And that's entirely consistent with inerrancy. 

‪Every Grunt from Home Improvement‬


Every so often, Jason Engwer does a post on people who fritter away their lives in ephemeral, trivial diversions. Here's something I just ran across. No, I didn't watch it:
Every Grunt from Home Improvementkoonjam215,924
Published on Jun 14, 2013This is every grunt (662), in order, from all 203 episodes of Home Improvement, with the exception of intro grunts and any other repeated grunts.

Think how much time it took to excerpt every grunt from Home Improvement

If koonjam was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 6 months to live, is that how he'd spend his remaining time on earth? I'm afraid some people would.

But some people, who take life for granted, are shaken up by a life-threatening experience. It changes their priorities. 

My point is: why wait for a cancer diagnosis?  

Matthew's Counting In Matthew 1:17

Stephen Carlson just published an article about Matthew 1:17 and how Matthew arrived at his count of three sets of 14 generations.

Arminians and Calvinists on inerrancy


As I've noted on more than one occasion, Arminians–especially in academia–have a center of gravity that's typically to the left of Calvinists. It's interesting to see Ben Witherington admit this, as well as Blomberg's explanation:
6) Inerrancy is an issue that seems to be more of an issue among Reformed Evangelicals than Arminian ones. Why do you think that is? 

The classic exponent of comparatively recent American inerrantism was B. B. Warfield, a Princeton theologian and Presbyterian and Reformed scholar of about a century ago. Mark Noll, a prolific American evangelical church historian, has pointed out that the more Calvinistic wing of Christianity valued higher education and theological education earlier and more widely in the settling of American than the more Wesleyan-Arminian wing. And these debates tend to go on among scholars much more so than among the average Christian, unless those Christians have been provoked by scholars they trust into making it a big issue. That doesn’t mean inerrancy isn’t a very important topic, but it is at least, I think, a partial answer to the question of why it is more of an issue among Reformed than among Arminian evangelicals. 
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2014/10/22/blombergs-can-we-still-believe-the-bible-part-one/

Burnt to a Crisp


I'm going to comment on an interview with Oliver Crisp:


There are many tensions in his interview, but one in particular is the tension between ecumenism and the progress of dogma. The progress of dogma is divisive and sectarian rather than ecumenical. The progress of dogma generates increasing theological divergence rather than convergence over time.

The less people are required to agree about, the more they agree. It's easy to agree with the uninterpreted statements in the Apostles' creed. That conceals a lot of latent disagreement. It's easy to agree with the Nicene Creed, because it only covers a few topics.

The Westminster Confession is more sectarian because it covers far more ground. The more theological questions you presume to answer, the more room for disagreement that creates or exposes. 

The progress of dogma begins with many open questions in theology. Over the centuries, more questions are given official answers. There are ever fewer open questions. People takes sides. That's moving apart. 

The catholic creeds of the first few centuries of the church are a secondary tier of norm that witnesses to Scripture. Then we have confessions that represent particular church bodies, like the 39 Articles of Anglicanism—which are very Reformed, I might add—and the Westminster Confession for Presbyterians. Confessions are a third tier of witness, norms that stand under Scripture and the catholic creeds.

I understand that that ranking system is appealing to an ecumenist. But if we're truth-seekers, why would the earliest creeds, the most theologically underdeveloped creeds, outrank later, more theologically reflective creeds?

Or one might end up cherry-picking some things and not others.

What about a different agricultural metaphor? Winnowing the wheat from the chaff?

No one theologian, however important, can trump the voice of the church expressed in the creeds or confessions. 

Are creeds or confessions "the voice of the church"? Creeds and confessions are formulated by a handful of bishops or theologians. They can be appropriated by "the church." Christians can embrace them. But they don't start out as "the voice of the church." They must earn that right. They must be true. A creed can speak on my behalf if it's true. 

But in that respect, a theologian a trump a creed. It just depends on who is right. 

There's no tradition of universalism in Calvinism. No universalism in Reformed confessions. Heck, no Reformed theologians of any note who espouse universalism. 

Perhaps that's why he tries to classify Barth as a Reformed theologian. To use Barth's implicit universalism as a foothold. But that's circular. That begs the question of whether Barth is Reformed.

And tradition aside, reprobation goes to the deep structure of Reformed theology. It's not just a historical accident–like some inherited doctrines. 

Although universal unconditional election is theoretically possible, reprobation concretely demonstrates the unconditionality of election. God doesn't have to save everyone, and he proves it directly by not in fact saving everyone. 

Moreover, this isn't just a question of different possible ways to combine different ideas. There are factual constraints on Calvinism. Calvinism is guided by its understanding of revealed truth. 

Does he mean universalism is compatible with Calvinism because Calvinism has the internal resources to pull it off? If predestination is true, then God can predestine everyone to be saved? (Which would require other adjustments, like universal atonement.)

If so, how does that fit into his libertarian Calvinism?

Finally, yes, all things being equal, God could save everyone. But what if, all things considered, God has objectives which conflict with universal salvation? 

It's not just a matter of extending the scope of election, while leaving everything else intact. There are tradeoffs.

For that matter, why would God predestine the Fall in the first place if he intended to save everyone? 

Two 19th-century Reformed theologians come to mind. The first is William Cunningham, who was a professor at the University of Edinburgh and one of the founding fathers of the Free Church of Scotland. He wrote an important essay on this topic, arguing that the Westminster Confession neither requires nor denies “philosophical determinism,” as he called it. He believed the Confession is conceptually porous on the matter and doesn’t commit its adherents to determinism, though it doesn’t exclude it either.

He's wrong about that. Cunningham was distinguishing between spiritual inability due to original sin, and Edwardian necessitarianism. Edwards isn't just a divine determinist. Arguably, he's a divine necessitarian. 

It isn't just a question of whether humans could do otherwise, but whether God could do otherwise. I think this is related to his appeal to the principle of sufficient reason which he deployed against Arminians. God must have a sufficient reason for what he does. And that means God can't do otherwise. Alternate possibilities aren't live possibilities–even for God.

You have that tension in Leibniz, as well as Aquinas. Cunningham is noncommittal on metaphysical necessity. That's a very strong version of determinism. 

One question is what is he opposing? William Hamilton is one of his foils, whom he quotes:

That man has no will, agency, moral personality of his own, God being the only real agent in every apparent act of His creatures…that the theological scheme of the absolute decrees implies fatalism, pantheism, the negation of a moral governor, as of a moral world (471).

Clearly, to reject that is not to endorse either libertarian freewill or merely partial predestination (pace Crisp).

Cunningham then defines his terms:

The advocates of this doctrine [philosophical necessity] maintain that there is an invariable and necessary connection between men's motives and their volitions,–between objects of desire and pursuit as seen and apprehended by them and all their acts of volition or choice; or that our volitions and choices are invariably determined by the last practical judgment of the understanding.The invariable and necessary influence of motives in determining volitions,–and a  liberty of indifference, combined with a self-determining power in the will itself,–are thus the opposite positions of the contending parties on this question.  The dispute manifestly turns wholly upon a question as to what is the law which regulates those mental processes that result in, or constitute, volitions or choices (484).

Throughout the essays he refers to a "system of necessity" or psychological "laws." He associates philosophical necessity with a regime of psychological laws.

It's an interesting question where that framework comes from. Does that involve a parallel between physics and psychology? Does that involve an extension of Newtonian physics to psychology? Just as there are laws of nature, there are laws of the mind? 

On that model, philosophical necessity suggests that God determines human choices through the mediation of psychological laws. I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, but in any event, the logical alternative to that framework isn't libertarian freedom. It's not as if "psychological laws" are the only way God could determine human choices. 

Cunningham says:

Predestination implies that the end or result is certain, and that adequate provision has been made for bringing it about. But it does not indicate anything as to what must be the nature of this provision in regard to the different classes of events which are taking place under God's government, including the volitions of rational and responsible beings (509).

Here he distinguishes between what God predetermines and how he brings it about. He's noncommittal on the mode of execution, but not on the scope or inevitability of predestination. 

It [the will] is not emancipated from the influence of God's decrees foreordaining whatever comes to pass. It is not placed beyond the control of HIs providence,–whereby in the execution of His decrees He ever rules and governs all His creatures and all their actions. It is not set free from the operation of those general laws which God has impressed upon man's mental constitution, for directing the exercise of his faculties and regulating his mental processes. But it is set free from the dominion of depravity; and thereby it is exempted from the necessity of willing only what is evil… (521).

Here Cunningham affirms the universality of predestination. Everything is foreordained. Everything comes to pass by God's providence. 

The closest thing Cunningham says which might give Crisp is "wiggle room" is:

The doctrine of necessity, when once established, leads by strict logical sequence to predestination, unless men take refuge in atheism. But it does not seem to follow e converso, that the doctrine of predestination leads necessarily to the doctrine of necessity; as men may hold, that God could certainly execute His decrees and infallibly accomplish His purposes in and by the volitions of men, even though he had not impressed upon their mental constitution the law of necessity, as that by which its processes are regulated and its volitions determined (513).

But that doesn't reject divine determinism. Rather, it's noncommittal on a model of divine determinism based on "law-like" mechanism. 

He does say, two pages earlier, that:

...we think, unwarranted and presumptuous to assert, that even a self-determining power in the will would place it beyond the sphere of the divine control,–would prevent [God]…from superintending and directing all its movements according to the counsel of His own will (511). 

Although taken by itself, a "self-determining power of the will" suggests autonomy, he couches that as a hypothetical position, and even so, he states that in the context of God's ability, even in that hypothetical situation, to control the outcome.  

Cunningham distinguishes lack of freedom due to original sin from lack of freedom due to psychological laws. Although he discusses Edwards, one limitation of his analysis is that his interpretation of Edwardian philosophical necessity doesn't consider another definition of philosophical necessity: the principle of sufficient reason.

However, I don't think commitment to the PSR commits one to metaphysical necessity. At most, God must choose the best provided that there's one best thing to choose. But that seems equivocal. Since not all possible goods are compossible, some possible goods must be sacrificed to achieve other possible goods. In that event it's not clear that there is one best choice. The distinctive goods of one possible world are gained at the loss of other distinctive goods. So God is never confronted with a forced option. 

Back to Crisp:

On one hand, I am concerned about ecumenical theology and the place of Reformed theology relative to other communions within Christianity. But I am also trying to show there is a significant breadth to the Reformed tradition that is often overlooked, that there is more wiggle room than is often perceived.

Ecumenists are such silly people. Every generation has ecumenists. They fail, just like the previous generation.

That's because ecumenical dialogue consists of ecumenists dialoguing with fellow ecumenists. It's circular from start to finish. 

Ecumenists don't really come to agreement. Rather, they wouldn't be ecumenists in the first place unless they were noncommittal on some doctrines. Those are the bargaining chips. That's what they are prepared to give away. Those were always negotiable. Their commitment to ecumenism precommits them to find areas of agreement. Their agreement was a foregone conclusion. So they end where they began. There's no real progress (even if that was a good thing).

Ecumenists remind me of women who knowingly marry philanderers. They think to themselves, "But this time it will be different. He won't cheat on me, because he truly loves me. I'm special. Why, he looked in my eyes and told me that never met anyone like me." Yeah...which is something he says to every woman. 

Take, for example, the Book of Confessions of the PCUSA, my own denomination. 

Well, I'd say he just tipped his hand. 

God and Corn Flakes


One is the question of free will and salvation. Reformed theology is often identified with determinism—the idea that God determines everything, and we don’t really have free choice. From my eating Corn Flakes for breakfast to my having faith in Christ, all of these decisions are determined by God, and if we’re not automatons or robots at least, my decisions are only free in some very minimal sense. Well, historical material suggests there is a broader way of thinking about this within Reformed theology. 
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/september-web-only/softer-face-of-calvinism.html
Critics of predestination use examples like one's choice of cereal to belittle predestination. Does God really predestine what I eat for breakfast? How silly! Surely God has more important things to predestine. He can leave the little choices up to us. 

The problem with that objection is that it's so shortsighted. Small innocuous changes in the present can generate huge changes in the future. In a case/effect world, changing a variable in the past can snowball. 

Corn Flakes is a Kellogg's product. Kellogg's is headquartered in Battle Creek, Michigan. That makes it the largest local employer (in Battle Creek). But the primary production center for Corn Flakes is Manchester, England. In the US, corn production is centered in illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Texas. 
Compare that to Wheaties. That's a General Mills' product. General Mills is headquartered in Golden Valley, Minnesota. In the US, white wheat production is centered in Idaho, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

If more people eat Corn Flakes, that benefits the economies of Battle Creek, Michigan, Manchester, England, and corn-producing states. If, by contrast, more people eat Wheaties, that depresses the the economies of Battle Creek, Michigan, Manchester, England, and corn-producting states, but benefits the economies of Golden Valley, Minnesota and white wheat-producing states.

If Kellogg's is prosperous, that benefits its employees and shareholders. If General Mills is prosperous, that benefits its employees and shareholders. If Kellogg's does better, it can hire more people. If General Mills does better, Kellogg's has to lay people off. 

People usually live within commuting distance of where they work. As a consumer, you will patronize local businesses. The local supermarket will benefit from your presence. And so on and so forth. 

Where you live impacts who you meet and mate with. If you grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, you will probably have kids by someone else from Michigan. If, by contrast, you grew up in Golden Valley, MInnesota, you will probably have kids by someone else from Minnesota. Same thing with corn and wheat producing states. 

How many people choose Corn Flakes over Wheaties, or vice versa, affects who will or will not be born. It affects where various crimes like murder will occur. If affects where–or whether–you will attend church. That, in turn, can affect whether you go to heaven or hell. 

This generates two diverging timelines. The existence or nonexistence of some humans in relation to other humans who take their place. Increasingly different events the further into the future past changes ramify. Alternate histories. What might seem like a trivial choice in the present has vast, complex consequences down the line–for good and ill. 

Debating moral relativists

I'm not a big fan of Thomism, although I think natural law theory has some merit. This, however, is a useful example of dialoguing with moral relativists:

http://www.undergroundthomist.org/an-angry-professor

http://www.undergroundthomist.org/dredging-the-sunken-conscience

http://www.undergroundthomist.org/conviction

HT: Andrew Fulford

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The world is not enough


Some readers may well consider Ecclesiastes to be the most worldly book of the Bible. And there's a grain of truth to that. It's focused on what happens "under the sun."

Even so, there's an implicit doctrine of the afterlife. There's a doctrine of final judgment. Ecclesiastes notes the deplorable fact that in this life the wicked often elude justice while the righteous are often denied justice. A reversal of fortunes in the afterlife could be the only compensation.

However, I'd like to draw attention to a somewhat different point. Ecclesiastes encourages people to make the most of what this life has to offer. Earthly goods are good. Enjoy it while you have it. 

At the same time, no book of the Bible is more dissatisfied with what this fallen world has to offer. Throughout Ecclesiastes is an unrequited yearning for something greater, something better, than this fleeting, fallen world has to offer. In that respect, Ecclesiastes is one of the most heavenly-minded books of the Bible. This life is unfulfilling. The world is not enough. It longs for more than life "under the sun" can furnish–even at its best. In that respect, Ecclesiastes is a preparation for the Gospel.

Canaanite babies


i) Some Christian apologists defend the OT holy war commands by appealing to universal infant salvation. I'm skeptical about that postulate. However, it's pretty speculative either way. Certainly Calvinism has the internal resources to make that possible.

Keep in mind that denying universal infant salvation doesn't preclude God from saving some Canaanite babies. It's not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. (I'm using "babies" to cover anyone below the age of reason.)

ii) One objection to this appeal is that it's ad hoc. It superimposes on the texts something that isn't even hinted at. I'd like to comment on that objection.

iii) To begin with, suppose God planned to save Canaanite babies through the retroactive merit of the atonement. Would we expect Deuteronomy to say babies are saved by Jesus dying on the cross? Clearly that would be quite anachronistic. Indeed, it would be unintelligible to readers in the 2nd millennium BC. 

iv) In addition, the retroactive merit of the atonement is the way anyone was saved before the death of Christ. That's the way all OT saints were saved. To suggest that that's how Canaanite babies were saved is not carving out a special exception in their case. It's not concocting a mechanism just for them. Rather, that's a general principle.

v) In considering the silence of Scripture regarding the eternal fate of Canaanite babies, that silence isn't confined to them. What do the holy war commands say about the eternal fate of Jewish soldiers who die in battle? Precisely nothing. The holy war passages don't speak to that issue in reference to anyone. Not just Canaanite babies, but Jewish combatants. But surely some Jewish soldiers were devout Jews. Surely some of them were heavenbound. 

Indeed, it's a bit surprising that doesn't offer Jewish soldiers any hope beyond the grave. Perhaps that's to discourage belief that death in battle is a ticket to heaven.  

There are some OT texts that explicitly or implicitly teach the afterlife. But they don't figure in the conquest narratives or the holy war commands. So I don't think the silence of Scripture regarding the eternal fate of Canaanite babies is prejudicial. If so, that would be equally prejudicial to Jewish combatants who perish in holy war.

vi) Finally, there's nothing about Canaanite babies qua babies that essentially distinguishes them from other dying babies. So there's no antecedent reason, that I can see, why God would save non-Canaanite babies but not save Canaanite babies. 

"Open Theism and Past-Directed Prayers"

Prof. James Anderson has a forthcoming paper worth checking out.

An apologetic of horror

Since All Hallows' Eve is almost upon us, here is an article by Brian Godawa on the subject of horror. (He also appears to have an out-of-print lecture on DVD titled "Horror: A Biblical Genre.")

Here's an interview with Godawa on the same topic as well:

All good things must end


i) Scholars debate the meaning of hebel in Ecclesiastes. Popular offerings include fleeting, futile, enigmatic, and meaningless.

ii) One source of ambiguity is that we need to distinguish between appearance and reality in Ecclesiastes. Life could be "meaningless," not in the sense that it has no intrinsic purpose, but that it's ultimate is elusive. Everything happens for a reason, but we can't figure that out. In that respect, "enigmatic" is clearer than "meaningless." 

iii) Likewise, there are two senses in which it could be futile. It could be futile in the sense that trying to understand divine providence is an exercise in futility. Futility in an epistemic sense. Ecclesiastes is, in part, a frustrated quest for the meaning of life. He senses that there's more to reality than meets the eye, but providence is perplexing. 

Or it could be futile in the sense that even though we can plan for the future, even though we ought to plan for the future, life is fickle and unpredictable. Life is unfair. You can be responsible, do all the right things, yet lose the race. In addition, everything we have and do is ephemeral. Futility in a metaphysical, mundane sense. This life is futile. 

iv) Fredericks makes a strong case that hebel means fleeting. However, he admits that hebel (lit. "breath") is used metaphorically. So the question concerns the figurative connotations of the word.

v) There's also the danger of committing the word-concept fallacy, as well as the illegitimate totality transfer fallacy. The meaning of one oft-used word in Ecclesiastes isn't necessarily the interpretive key to the whole book. Moreover, whatever the word means, the concepts of life as fleeting and inscrutable are certainly pervasive in Ecclesiastes.

vi) One challenge for translators is whether to use the same English synonym throughout, or more than one synonym if they think the sense varies with the context. Using different English synonyms for the same Hebrew word will obscuring the function of the Hebrew term as a leading word. If, however, the sense varies, then it's inaccurate to settle on one synonym. 

vii) In addition, what we think hebel means (or connotes) in Ecclesiastes depends in part on how we interpret the writer's worldview. For instance, Fredericks' commentary is one of the best. But he pursues a relentlessly claustrophobic, this-worldly interpretation. That forces a simplistic consistency onto the book, as if the author's outlook must be one-dimensional. 

In this life, all good things must end. Yet death is not the end–but a new beginning. 

The seasons of life


11 Cast your bread upon the waters,    for you will find it after many days.Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.If the clouds are full of rain,    they empty themselves on the earth,and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,    in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.He who observes the wind will not sow,    and he who regards the clouds will not reap.As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.12 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.
Eccl 12 is a famous passage about aging and death. It's usually taken to be an allegorical description of the aging body. However, the anatomical interpretation is difficult to carry through consistently. For that reason, some commentators reject the allegorical understanding. 
I think the problem is not with the allegorical understanding, but identifying a single controlling metaphor. Fredericks has argued, the dominant metaphor is the storm. The direct comparison is not between a house, birds, trees, grasshoppers, and the aging body, but between the approaching storm or its aftermath and the aging process. 
This also means we should interpret chap. 12 in conjunction with chap. 11, as part of a thematic unit. They share a common meteorological motif. 
So this involves a poetic comparison between the cycle of life and the seasons of life. Unfortunately, that's such a cliche that it's lost some of its power. Yet when this was originally written, about 3000 years ago, it wasn't such a cliche! 
In this metaphor, Spring and Summer represent youth and the prime of life, while Fall and Winter represent middle age and old age. You can have Spring and Summer storms, but after the storm, the sun returns. Yet there comes a time when the weather turns. When the sun doesn't return after the rain. There are parts of the world where the sun doesn't shine in winter. It disappears behind the clouds and remains out of sight until next Spring. 
Unfortunately, the aging process can be like that. In youth you have mostly good days–with a few stormy days. In old age, you alternate between good days and bad days, then bad days and worse days. 
The skies darkens with the approaching storm front. The sun disappears behind the lowering clouds. In a dry, sunny climate like Palestine, people generally work out of doors. But when a storm front approaches, the noisy, busy streets empty as people take shelter indoors–peering through windows at the angry skies. Even the songbirds fly away. Houses are buffeted by high winds. 
After the storm has passed, people emerge to survey the damage. The battered landscape. Lighting or whirlwinds can down trees, ruin crops, or smash hanging pottery, If they live by a river, torrential rain can cause flooding. 
That, in turn, becomes an allegory (or partial allegory) for the aging process. The elderly withdraw from public life. Spend more time indoors. Their eyes dim, their hearing hardens, their hands tremble. They lose balance. They suffer from sensory deprivation and social isolation. Living alone, they suffer the loss of physical affection. A simple hug. Their world grows ever smaller. 

Gagnon v. Vines



I am copying here the conversation between Matthew Vines and me at Preston Sprinkle's website:https://www.facebook.com/preston.sprinkle.7/posts/10152838151004859?notif_t=comment_mention . Preston is a professor of New Testament at Eternity Bible College, currently working on a book about homosexuality. Matthew Vines, as doubtless you know, is a young (24 year-old) same-sex attracted Harvard guy (not graduated, though; quit after 2 years to pursue his objective to convert Christians to his view) who is heading up a "Reformation Project" to convince the church that Jesus and the writers of Scripture were not opposed to committed homosexual unions entered into by homosexually oriented people. Here it is (for now at least):
1. Matthew Vines:
I disagree about Brownson. Gagnon's interpretation of Genesis 1-2 lies at the heart of all of his other exegesis of Scripture re: same-sex relations. That is the very foundation of his scriptural argument, and Brownson quite thoroughly dismantled it. Notably, Gagnon has not responded at all to that core challenge -- in fact, he's completely ignored it. Personally, I think that's because his reading of Genesis 1-2 can't be put back together again after Brownson's response. And that is not a good sign for the rest of Gagnon's case.
2. Preston Sprinkle:
Matthew, .... I'll let Robert chime in if he wants, but I don't see his arguments resting on Gen 1-2 at all. In fact, his book is nearly 500 pages and he only devotes 6 pages to Gen 1-3. Anyway, no need for me to defend Gagnon. It's just my impression.
I actually agree with Brownson's view of "one flesh" and several other points he made in Gen 1-2. I just think he stretches some of their implications. And he didn't deal with other issues in Gen 1-2 (e.g. the use of kenagdo in 2:18, 20; the underlying emphasis on creational complimentarity, etc.) in that passage. Of course, you can't do it all. But I would hardly say that Brownson's reading of Gen 1-2 ends up dismantling Gagnon's 494 other pages of exegesis.
3. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
Hey Matthew Vines, where do you think Brownson dismantled my argument on Gen 1-2? I don't see it. Be specific, right here. What is his argument that you find convincing and what is the evidence? I will be responding to Brownson in due course. Other more pressing obligations have taken up my time. There is so much that is wrong in Brownson's work that it will take a significant chunk of my time to point it all out and resupply the evidence that I have already supplied but which he (and you) have ignored.
If Brownson has dismantled my work, and you believe this to be the case, why won't you debate or dialogue with me in a public forum. Brownson has repeatedly refused such requests. What are you guys afraid of? I should be easy pickings, based on your comments above. The fact that you two (or anyone else) won't engage me in a real-time public debate, filmed, and available for others to watch, is self-evident, isn't it? If I were as worried or stumped as you say that I am, I would be terrified at the prospect of folding like a house of cards in public debate or dialogue. But that seems rather to characterize the actions of Brownson and yourself in ducking a debate.
Don't worry. It will be a friendly discussion. No name calling. Just lay out the evidence and let the audience decide. Nobody has anything to fear insofar as neither you nor I (nor Brownson) should be making false representations of Scripture, right? I mean, we would want to be corrected if we were misrepresenting God, wouldn't we? A problem would only come if we deep down know that we are misrepresenting Scripture and the hermeneutical application of it to others but feel compelled to misrepresent it in order to maintain an ideological objective more important to us than speaking truthfully about what Scripture says and what it means.
4. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
I've already addressed the "one flesh" thing in my Scottish Journal of Theology article rebutting Prof. Stacy Johnson of Princeton Seminary. I have a copy of the article on my website:http://www.robgagnon.net/arti.../homosexStacyJohnsonSJT2.pdf. See pp. 10-11:
"Johnson argues that ‘one flesh’ in Gen 2:24 has the asexual meaning ‘the same family’ since the formula ‘you are my bone and my flesh’ is ‘more about kinship than sexuality’ (Gen 29:14; et al.; 145-47). In response:
"First, introducing a sexual dimension in some covenantal relationships violates the covenant. An obvious case in point is the very example that Johnson uses to validate homosexual unions, Ruth and Naomi. Had Ruth and Naomi engaged in sexual intercourse they would have committed a capital offense of incest between parent and daughter-in-law, irrespective of their loving commitment (Lev 18:15; 20:12). Sexual bonds have their own distinct set of requirements.
"Second, context dictates meaning. When we use the comparable phrase ‘you are my flesh and blood,’ it means something different when spoken by a husband to his wife (a sexual context) than when spoken by a parent to a child, a brother to a sister, or a friend to a friend.
"Third, the specific expression ‘one flesh’ does not appear anywhere else in the OT or in early Jewish or early rabbinic texts apart from a reference to Gen 2:24. This makes it unlikely to have been an expression for denoting covenant bonds outside a context of man-woman marriage.
"Fourth, it takes a determined effort to ignore the fivefold reference in 2:21-23 to forming woman by taking from the ’ādām a part of him. The ’ādām declares not merely that the woman ‘is my bone and my flesh’ but, more, that the woman ‘is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh … for from man this one was taken’ (2:23). What is missing from the ’ādām (human), who is now an ’îš (man), is the part that God has built into a woman. In this context ‘one flesh’ clearly implies the restoration of the two divisible parts into an indivisible whole, not just ‘the same family.’
This is certainly how Jesus and Paul understood Gen 2:24. The meaning ‘same family’ would not restrict the number of participants to two, since families are not limited to two members. Yet both Jesus and Paul (1 Cor 6:16) understood ‘one flesh’ unions as properly restricted to two. Having additional sexual partners violates the principle that a man-woman sexual bond creates a self-contained whole that ought to admit of no third parties. In this context talk of ‘cleaving’ must have its deepest sense of reuniting through a committed sexual bond what was once a single entity: the two, ‘male and female’ or ‘a man’ and ‘his woman/wife.’
Jesus himself clearly understood ‘two becoming one flesh’ in the sense of an exclusive sexual bond between two and only two people. If the meaning of ‘one flesh’ were merely ‘the same family’ as Johnson thinks, there would be no reason to restrict the number of participants in the sexual union to two, since there is no criterion that families can only have two members. The sexual act is obviously part of, and emblematic or symbolic of, two persons merging into a single, exclusive entity that admits of no third parties in the sexual relationship. In this context talk of ‘cleaving’ (i.e., sticking, joining, uniting) must have its deepest sense of bringing back together through a committed sexual bond what was once a single entity: the two, ‘male and female’ or ‘a man’ and ‘his woman/wife,’ remerging as one.
What is your next point, Matthew Vines?
5. Matthew Vines:
Hi, Dr. Gagnon-- thank you for your comment. First, Brownson offers an extended critique of your reading of the creation texts in chapter two of "Bible, Gender, Sexuality." In particular, he argues against your view that the Yahwist treats marriage as a "reunion of the sexual unity of the original adam," pointing out that your evidence for interpreting the text that way rests largely on the third-century AD rabbi Samuel bar Nahman rather than any commentary within Scripture itself. His chapter obviously goes into considerably more detail than I can recap here, and I think it deserves a response.
Moreover, he makes what I believe is a compelling case against your view that Paul invokes same-sex relations in Romans 1:26-27 in part because of that which is "plainly" or "visibly" wrong about such relationships -- i.e., the alleged anatomical discomplementarity of same-sex relations. As Brownson writes on p. 241, "Gagnon argues that this text focuses on what is visible, or 'plain.' Therefore, what is contrary to nature about same-sex eroticism must focus on plain or visible differences between men and women. But this reading confuses Paul's meaning. What Paul actually says in these two verses is that what can be known about God is plain or visible in the creation, specifically God's eternal power and divine nature. The focus here is not on knowledge of human things, but on the knowledge of God. The text goes on to say that when this knowledge of God is suppressed through idolatry, the consequences are that God 'hands over' idolatrous humans to lust and the degrading of their bodies (Rom. 1:24). Gagnon confuses the initial revelation about God suppressed by idolatrous humans (which focuses on visible things) with the later 'handing over' of humans into depravity (which focuses on lust, shame, and the violation of what is 'natural'). Romans 1 says nothing particular at all about the 'visible' quality of nature...."
Another example is what Brownson writes on p. 200 about your argument that "Scripture avoids the twin extremes of too much structural identity between sex partners and too little." He says, "Gagnon attempts to make this case by appealing to Lev. 18:6, where prohibited incestuous relationships are characterized as relations with the 'flesh of one's flesh.'... But this argument is unsustainable when we bring forward analogous texts. The man in Gen. 2:23 speaks of the newly created woman as 'flesh of my flesh.' How can 'flesh of my flesh' denote appropriate gender complementarity in Gen. 2:23, but an almost identical phrase connote 'too much structural identity' in Lev. 18:6? These problems suggest that this entire line of reasoning ('too much' or 'too little' difference) is foreign to the logic of Scripture itself. In both cases, the issue is not the ratio of similarity and difference, but the recognition of kinship bonds."
These are just several examples. To my knowledge, Brownson was invited to a debate with you prior to his book's publication, but declined then as he wanted his work to be published before doing a debate. I am not aware of any invitations you or other organizations have issued to him since the publication of his book for you both to debate. I know that is a conversation he would be open to considering. But I also think it would make the most sense for you to publish a detailed written response (as you often do) to his specific exegetical and academic contentions prior to a debate in order to have a potential event be as productive as possible. And while I am open to doing public dialogues, debates, etc., in this situation, I think it would be more appropriate for Brownson to do that instead, as he has important scholarly credentials I do not have, and as he is the one who has most extensively critiqued your work. In fact, given that his book is increasingly regarded as perhaps the most thorough academic rebuttal to your own, it surprises me that you have not published a detailed written response yet, as you do in so many other cases. I know I and many others would appreciate seeing such a response.
6. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
Matthew, I will deal with your other points later today. But, regarding debates with Jim Brownson, he declined that debate (to which you refer) on the grounds that he didn't want this to turn into a debate but rather wanted to bring unity to the church. But since I wasn't asking for us to come to blows but simply respond to each other's arguments, he gave nothing more than an excuse. Since that time there have been a couple of occasions when people have approached me about a debate and I immediately suggest Brownson and then they come back and tell me that he doesn't want to debate Gagnon. So I will say again publicly, as I have said on many occasions, that I will be delighted to debate or dialogue with Dr. Brownson at any occasion where we have equal time to present our positions, and preferably adequate time for rebuttal arguments. You know Jim, Matthew. Ask him yourself if he is willing to debate or dialogue with me in a public forum. If Jim is willing to do it, I'm sure some theological institution would love to sponsor this kind of event.
And let me also take up your statement, Matthew: "I am open to doing public dialogues, debates, etc." Are you willing then to engage me in a church, college, or seminary forum? If so, I'm sure we can make that happen. This is not to the exclusion of debating Jim Brownson. I would love to debate him too, separately from you, though again you will find that Jim doesn't want to do it.
7. Preston Sprinkle: Whoa...and here we go
8. Matthew Vines:
I am open to considering that, yes. But I think Brownson would be a better debate partner than I. I will see him next week and gauge his interest level. That said, I still think a written response from you would be quite helpful prior to the arranging of any formal event.
9. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
I'll start with your 2nd paragraph, Matthew. Brownson's argument is flawed because the fact that Rom 1:24-27 speaks about desires is not antithetical to the argument about visible structures in creation. On the contrary, Paul's point is precisely that these desires are opposed to the visible structures observable in nature. "Nature" in context is simply the well-working processes set in motion at creation. The nature argument in 1:24-27 clearly coordinates with the creation argument in 1:29-23. The desires for "use (intercourse) contrary to nature." The reason why Paul selects homosexual practice among all other sexual offences in this particular context is precisely because it affords the best parallel on the horizontal level to the deliberate "suppressing of the truth" (1:18) laid out in the vertical dimension of idolatry in 1:19-23.
In other words, those who had suppressed the truth about God visible in creation went on to suppress the truth about themselves visible in nature. It is not just a matter of dishonoring but of dishonoring that comes about by suppressing foundational knowledge of the truth that is clearly accessible through a proper perception of the still-intact material structures of creation (i.e., seen in nature). The key parallel is the absurd denial of natural revelation in one’s worship of God and intercourse with other humans.
The case for nature in Rom 1:26-27 referring to male-female embodied complementarity is cinched by the use of just such arguments by Greco-Roman philosophers, moralists, and physicians. According to the classicist Thomas K. Hubbard, “basic to the heterosexual position [against homosexual practice in the Greco-Roman world of the first few centuries C.E.] is the characteristic Stoic appeal to the providence of Nature, which has matched and fitted the sexes to each other.” Similarly, classicist Craig Williams, who has written what many regard as the premiere book on Roman homosexuality, concedes: “Some kind of argument from ‘design’ seems to lurk in the background of Cicero’s, Seneca’s, and Musonius’ claims [against homosexual practice].” Also classicist William Schoedel, emeritus of the University of Illinois, acknowledges that ancient writers “who appeal to nature against same-sex eros find it convenient to concentrate on the more or less obvious uses of the orifices of the body to suggest the proper channel for the more diffused sexual impulses of the body.”
The second-century physician Soranus (or his later “translator” Caelius Aurelianus) referred to molles, “soft men” eager for penetration (the Latin equivalent for the term malakoi in 1 Cor 6:9), as those who “subjugated to obscene uses parts not so intended” and disregarded “the places of our body which divine providence destined for definite functions” (On Chronic Diseases 4.9.131). Part of Charicles’ attack on all homosexual practice in the pseudo-Lucianic text Affairs of the Heart, a work that contains a debate about the respective merits of heterosexual love and homosexual love, is the assertion that male-male love is an erotic attraction for what one already is as a sexual being: “Then wantonness, daring all, transgressed the laws of nature. . . . And who then first looked with the eyes at the male as at a female . . . ? One nature came together in one bed. But seeing themselves in one another they were ashamed neither of what they were doing nor of what they were having done to them” (19-20; my translation).
Appealing to the material structures obvious to view is a common trope of Stoic moral discourse. Jews and Christians appropriated this trope in their own discussions of nature. It is hardly surprising that Paul does so here.
Care to respond, Matthew? If not, let's bring James Brownson in, if he is on FB.
10. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
Matthew, in your third paragraph above you say:
'Another example is what Brownson writes on p. 200 about your argument that "Scripture avoids the twin extremes of too much structural identity between sex partners and too little." He says, "Gagnon attempts to make this case by appealing to Lev. 18:6, where prohibited incestuous relationships are characterized as relations with the 'flesh of one's flesh.'... But this argument is unsustainable when we bring forward analogous texts. The man in Gen. 2:23 speaks of the newly created woman as 'flesh of my flesh.' How can 'flesh of my flesh' denote appropriate gender complementarity in Gen. 2:23, but an almost identical phrase connote 'too much structural identity' in Lev. 18:6? These problems suggest that this entire line of reasoning ('too much' or 'too little' difference) is foreign to the logic of Scripture itself. In both cases, the issue is not the ratio of similarity and difference, but the recognition of kinship bonds."'
Unfortunately, Brownson seems to think that I've written nothing about the Bible and homosexual practice since the 2001 book. Prof. Stacy Johnson made the same argument that Brownson made and my response to Johnson in the Scottish Journal of Theology article (all cited above) remains the same:
"As regards Gen 2:18-24, Johnson argues that the 'adam’s exclamation at the creation of woman (2:23) ‘does not celebrate her otherness but her sameness’ (120): ‘This one at last is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! To this one shall be given the name “woman” ('isshah) for from man ('ish) this one was taken.’
"Johnson’s argument makes an either-or out of a both-and. The first half of Gen 2:23 does stress, in part, human sameness in contrast to the animals, among which God had not found ‘a helper as [the 'adam's] counterpart.’ Yet Johnson ignores the repeated references in 2:21-23 to woman being formed by a ‘taking from’ 'adam. As a ‘counterpart’ or ‘complement’ to man (kenegdo), woman is both similar as human (‘corresponding to him’) and different as a distinct sex extracted from him (‘opposite him’). There is also some basis for translating Hebrew tsela‘ as ‘side’ rather than ‘rib’ or at least as an indeterminate amount of bone and flesh on one of adam’s sides, from which is formed man’s sacred side or complement, woman. The principle of two sexes becoming one flesh is correlated with the picture of two sexes being formed from one flesh. It is not another man that is the missing part or sexual complement of a man but rather a woman, a point reflected in several early Jewish texts (Philo of Alexandria, Allegorical Interpretation 2.19-21 and Creation 152; 4 Macc 18:7; Apocalypse of Moses 29:9-10)."
The fact that 4 times in the short space of Gen 2:21-23 the text emphasizes that something was extracted from the human surely indicates that man and woman are complementary parts of the same sexual whole.
-God ‘took one of [literally: one from] the 'adam’s sides/ribs’ (2:21).
-God ‘built the side/rib that he took from the 'adam into a woman (2:22).
-The 'adam declares not merely that the woman ‘is my bone and my flesh’ but something more, namely, that the woman ‘is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh … for from man this one was taken’ (2:23).
This idea of woman being made from an original human/man is important because it diverges from the traditional Mesopotamian story of the creation of woman, written a few generations after Hammurabi. In Atra-hasīs seven human males and seven human females are formed separately from a mixture of clay and the flesh/blood of a slaughtered god. Woman is not molded from material extracted from man and so there isn’t anything missing from man.
It is probably not mere coincidence that the gender specific word 'ish, ‘man,’ does not appear until after material is taken from the 'adam, ‘human’ or ‘ground creature.’ True, Gen 2:23 states that woman was taken ‘from man’ (me'ish). Yet this appears to be a statement formulated in retrospect. ‘Thus he discovers his own manhood and fulfillment only when he faces the woman, the human being who is to be his partner in life’ (Nahum Sarna, Genesis, 23).
Woman relates to man “as his counterpart” or “complement” (Gen 2:18, 20). The Hebrew term here is kenegdo, which consists of ke- meaning "as, like"; suffix -o meaning "(of) him, his"; and neged connoting both "corresponding to" (i.e., similarity as humans) and "opposite" (i.e. difference as regards a distinct sex extracted from him). Translations that correctly capture this sense of difference within sameness are “counterpart” and “complement.” A woman is man’s sexual counterpart or complement. A man is not another man’s sexual complement or counterpart, nor a woman a woman’s—anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically—no matter how hard the same-sex partner may try to simulate that role.
Context indicates that Lev 18:6 identifies as the key problem of incest that of attempting a sexual union with "the flesh of one's flesh," someone who is too much of a formal same as regards kinship. Brownson's translation of Gen 2:23 ("flesh of my flesh") obscures a key difference in the Hebrew text with Lev 18:6 ("flesh of one's flesh," in addition to Lev 18:6 using 2 different words for "flesh"). In Gen 2:23 the preposition min is used: "flesh from my flesh." Lev 18:6 simply uses a construct chain denoting possession. Flesh is extracted from the human ('adam) to form woman and thereafter the human is also designated an 'ish, a gender-specific man. As with the term kenegdo (see paragraph above), that image conveys not just sameness but difference because it denotes a now missing part. There is an appropriate sameness so far as a fellow human is concerned; but there is equally appropriate difference so far as sex or gender is concerned.
The problematic dimension of sex-sameness is conveyed both in the Levitical prohibitions and in Paul's treatments in Rom 1:26-27 and 1 Cor 6:9. The Levitical prohibitions forbid a man from lying with another male as though lying with a sexual counterpart, a woman. Inferred in the prohibition is a structural compatibility between man and woman and thus a structural incompatibility with another male. The term arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 makes the same point: "men who lie with a male," someone who in terms of sex/gender is a same rather than a complementary other. Romans 1:27 refers to "males (having sex) with males," an obvious allusion to much gender sameness, especially given the explicit contrast with "the natural use of the female." So Brownson thinks the concept of uber-sameness is "foreign to the logic of Scripture"? Really? "Males with males" as opposed to "males with females"? That's not connoting too much gender sameness?
The point of too much embodied sameness, not enough structural otherness, is confirmed in the complementarity arguments from the Greco-Roman milieu that I cite in the previous comment, including Charicles’ attack on all homosexual practice in the pseudo-Lucianic text Affairs of the Heart: “Then wantonness, daring all, transgressed the laws of nature. . . . One nature came together in one bed. But seeing themselves in one another they were ashamed neither of what they were doing nor of what they were having done to them” (19-20; my translation).
As by now this discussion, along with my "one flesh" discussion in a previous comment here, should provide a clear answer to your first paragraph. You say: Brownson "argues against your view that the Yahwist treats marriage as a 'reunion of the sexual unity of the original adam,' pointing out that your evidence for interpreting the text that way rests largely on the third-century AD rabbi Samuel bar Nahman rather than any commentary within Scripture itself." I've cited other Jewish texts above from the first century above, but all of these simply reinforce a point that is self-evident in the narrative of Genesis 2:21-24. Something is extracted from the human. That's now missing from what can appropriately be called a man. That something missing is formed into a woman who is referred to as a "counterpart" or "complement" to the man, a person both like (as a human) and different (in terms of sex/gender). It is clear from this that the sexual bonding of the two reunites the sexual whole. The two halves of the sexual spectrum join into a single sexual whole, "one flesh."
11. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
Okay, Matthew, I've now dealt with what you apparently regard as the salient arguments in Brownson's arsenal. To me it doesn't seem like Brownson's arguments are at all persuasive. As Preston has noted, this only begins to unload the evidence on a host of other missteps on Jim Brownson's part. I really hope we can work out an occasion where you and I and also Jim and I can publicly discuss this issue in videotaped forums. You or Jim present for 40 minutes, I present for 40, break, each of us have a rebuttal for 20 minutes, perhaps a short 5-minute rejoinder from each to wrap up, short break, then open to questions from an audience. Should be lots of fun. Civility will of course rule the time together. I think this will help people decide whether the case from Scripture (including Jesus) really does decisively rule out every and any form of same-sex relations.
12. David Nash:
If this were to happen Robert A. J. Gagnon, please make time for cross examination. In the debates that I've watched, this is really where the rubber meets the road.
13. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
I fully agree. In fact that is the whole point in having a real-time interaction. James Brownson and Matthew Vines can say when I'm not standing next to them that Gagnon does not address so and so, or Gagnon overlooked this or that point, or Gagnon claims this (when that is exactly what I claim), or (the more usual route) just plain ignore a truckload of evidence that I do provide. Jim and Matt can likewise do the same for me, though be assured that I will not be overlooking their best arguments. The conversation can be done constructively (what does Scripture say with clarity and where shall we go from here?), respectfully (no yelling, name-calling, personal attacks), and even hopefully to build relationships (Matt and Jim are not enemies, even though they promote views that I think are harmful, as doubtless they think the same about me).
Once debated David Bartlett (NT, homiletics) of Yale, where he claimed (as Jim and Matt do) that Jesus and the authors of Scripture are not opposed to committed homosexual relationships. After he and I had made our initial presentations, the opportunity came for 15-minute rebuttals. Bartlett got up and said, "Well, it is not really about Scripture for me anyways," and after another 2 minutes of comments sat down. That is helpful for people to know in making their decision about which direction they want to go in.
William Loader, NT scholar from Australian who has written 9 or so books on sexual ethics in early Judaism and Christianity (the only biblical scholar who has written more on sex than I have, though not about homosexuality), who, though an advocate for gay marriage, already agreed with me that the indictments of homosexual practice in Scripture include committed same-sex unions, said after my critique of his orientation and misogyny "new knowledge" arguments, "Well, we are not that far apart after all." He even agreed that Jesus believed strongly in a male-female requirement for sexual relations but added, "I disagree with Jesus because I can't share his acceptance of the creation myth in Genesis." That too is helpful for people to know in deciding which direction to go in.
As it now stands, Jim and Matt make the public case that Jesus and the writers of Scripture were not (and would not be) opposed to committed homosexual unions entered into by homosexually oriented persons. That is a thesis that can be tested and evaluated. If their thesis is true, it has significant implications for the church. I contend that a male-female requirement for sexual relations is viewed by Jesus and the writers of Scripture generally as foundational. If true, that has significant implications for the church. Either way an evening of this sort can be a constructive enterprise in having people think through these crucial concerns.
Beyond all that, it would be good to meet young Matt and renew acquaintances with old Jim (who was a couple of years ahead of me in the doctoral program at Princeton Theological Seminary; we overlapped for a time).
14. Preston Sprinkle:
Robert, I really like your proposal for a dialogue between you and Jim. My only request is that we all go for beers afterwards, which, as a Lutheran, I'm sure you would gladly accept. Matthew Vines and I will buy. He doesn't know it yet, but I'm sure he would concur.
Salting our "debates" with a bit of relational flesh could actually further the discussion and put flesh on the "issue."
As we banter around with Greek words and verses, we all need to keep in mind that we're talking about real people with a myriad of joys and pains, fears and struggles. Like Maddie, who was chained to a toilet for 3 months by her father when she was 9, then raped for the next 4 years, by her father, and then told she would be killed if she told anyone. Maddie isn't attracted to women, but she's a self-professed Lesbian because "no man will ever touch me again."
This doesn't change my theological position. But it does temper my rhetoric and sharpen my pastoral heart. I now read Romans 1 with tears and an anxious heart.
So let's make sure we go for beers after the debate.
15. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
Agreed, Preston. Only (and don't hate me for this) I don't drink beer. Never developed a taste for it. (Root beer, yes.) I'll drink a little wine now and then, but not too much. To me it is more tempting to have a root beer float, a banana split with all the toppings, or a nice big chocolate cake (and when I say chocolate, I mean chocolate). Oh, and I'm Presbyterian, not Lutheran, with a Baptist and Charismatic streak.
16. Robert A. J. Gagnon:
Just saw this posted on the Wikipedia page for Matthew: "Requests for public debates with Vines have tended to be declined or ignored." Shouldn't that rather be posted about me?