Monday, August 31, 2009

Birch on Calvinist Hermeneutics

The suggestion was made to me over at Triablogue that I somehow have to submit my moral intuitions to Scripture, and that the way to really be in submission to biblical authority is to come with no presuppositions whatsoever.

But does anyone really do that? Does anyone come to Scripture without some kind of hermeneutical center? Somehow, there is something terribly wrong with coming to the Bible with an initial set of perspectives as to what we should expect to find in Scripture. I admit that I come to Scripture with a hermeneutical center grounded in the love of God. As such, interpretations that conflict with that hermeneutical center, for me, carry a higher burden of proof than those that don't.

Now, of course, the paradigm can shift. I happen to have trouble imagining making that paradigm shift myself, but what I can imagine and what is possible are two different things.

But do Calvinists have a hermeneutical center? Are they more truly submissive to Scripture? Despite their moralizing about this, I doubt it. And apparently Calvinist Silva, quoted here by Birch, says that sovereignty is the underlying principle behind all Calvinist biblical interpretation.

I wish people who debate theology would study the philosophy of science. I think biblical positivism is as much a pretense in theology as logical positivism was in the philosophy of science.

Scripture doesn't speak to us in a vacuum, nor should it.

Neutrality, moral intuitions, and Calvinism

Gene M. Bridges: You've admitted in the past that you begin with your moral intuitions, not the Bible. It seems to me, you have the cart before the horse. You should submit your intuitions to the Bible first...figure out what is moral according to Scripture, then decide if what Calvinism teaches is moral or immoral.

Theoretically, that sounds good. It's kind of like Cartesian doubt in philosophy: doubt everything, and believe only what you can be sure of. Classical foundationalism it is sometimes called. But nobody really comes to the Bible, or to the study of nature for that matter, with an empty mind, but some people pretend that they do.

First, Scripture is largley responsible for how I got my intuitions in the first place. Scripture taught me that I ought to love everyone, that I ought to be like Jesus, that Jesus was God, so it looks like I ought to expect that God will love everyone. Now you're telling me that I care a lot more about my non-Christian friend's salvation than God does??

Second, my moral beliefs are part of why I believe Christianity to be true. As I understand Christianity, God's consistently loving character gives me a moral reason, as opposed to a merely prudential reason, to worship and obey him. I don't worship him because he's bigger than I am and can beat me up (the logic of the schoolyard bully) I worship him because I know that he pursues my good and the good of all whom I love.

Third Scripture deepens my moral convictions and intuitions. What I find there builds on what I believe already, and helps me see things I might have overlooked and misunderstood about what is good.

Fourth, when you use the word "intuitions" it seems always implied that these are gut feelings of some kind, when in point of fact as I understand it there is a kind of "intuition" that permits me to rationally perceive that 2 + 2 = 4. On my view, our knowledge of right and wrong is rational, not emotional. Fifth, if I were in a tradition that used a different Scripture, (the Qu'ran for instance) you would expect me to start doubting that Scripture because of its moral failings and start looking at the possibility of believing something else. If I happen to have been born in Saudi Arabia, does that mean I should submit myself to the Qu'ran and lock in my moral views based on what the Qu'ran teaches?

Finally, Scripture can certainly change my moral beliefs. But I am more sure of some of those moral beliefs than I am that such-and-such a verse was exegeted correctly by so-and-so. So in the face of at least some biblical evidence, it might be rational to believe that I don't understand everything I need to about that verse than it would be. as Lewis would say, to start believing that what I think of as black is really God's white. Opennness to God and obedience to God does not require neutrality.

I think of my belief system as a boat, not a house. You can't take out all the planks of your boat, or you will sink.

The Doctrine of Universal Compassion

Steve Hays has responded to me on Triablogue, with his usual tone and his usual tendency to read into the text all sorts of things I didn't say. I won't comment on his tone, except to say that no matter how strong his case is, he certainly makes Calvinism unattractive by the way he argues. But I am far more concerned with his eisegesis of my arguments than with whatever names he might call me.

In the debate on Calvinism, I would have to admit that the Calvinists have more debating endurance that I have, so I may not end up tracking down and responding to all the responses on the Reformed side, which will no doubt result in a claim of victory for their side. I will admit, further, that I have learned a great deal about how Calvinist think, and how they set up and understand the issue. As you know, my background is in philosophy; I have studied biblical scholarship some, and theology some as well, but that is not my area of specialization by any means. I hope I have managed to advance some considerations on the basis of my specializations that have been helpful to critics of Calvinism. However, there are some aspects of the critique of Calvinism that are better left in the hands of other than in mine.

I hold that since I find Calvinism to be morally repugnant, you need an overwhelming biblical argument to persuade me of it. That means, when it comes to the Calvinist proof texts, there has to be no logical way for the passage to be understood as teaching anything but Calvinism, and the anti-Calvinist texts have to provide no evidence whatsoever against Calvinism. I know you think this shows a lack of respect for biblical authority, but to me it's just good Bayesian epistemology.
I don't think you have to be a biblical positivist in order to accept biblical authority, or even to accept inerrancy. It's just a fact that no one comes to the Bible as a tabula rasa to be written upon by Scripture, however much they might pretend otherwise. We just have to agree to disagree on this one.

We also have to consider the possibility that a full case for or against Calvinism is not given by Scripture.

Steve says: In order to make an exegetical case for Calvinism, two and only two conditions must be met.

a) Calvinists must furnish prooftexts which, on the best interpretation, positively teach Calvinism.

b) Calvinists must show that other passages are neutral on Calvinism.

Now exactly what we mean by the "best" interpretation is going to be open to debate. Does it mean that P (the biblical passage) entails Calvinism? Or that P is more probable given Calvinism than given non-Calvinism? And what does it take to show that passages are neutral on Calvinism? Does it mean that they just have to be logically compatible with Calvinism? Or the truth of the statement is a likely given Calvinism as given non-Calvinism?

But now let's get down to what I really want to talk about.

Before you start name-calling, you might want to be a little more careful in "exegeting" what your opponent has said. What I was defending was the doctrine of divine compassion for all persons, including those alienated from God. Let's call it DUC, for Doctrine of Universal Compassion. Now the doctrine of universal compassion is held by some Calvinists, apparently including some as high up the Calvinist food chain as Carson and Piper. Bnonn seems to buy it also. I was also very explicit in saying that, up to this point, I am not claiming a proof that Calvinism is false. Now I did read your reply to Walls and Dongell and it looks as if you don't hold the doctrine of universal compassion. But some Calvinists do, and in order to provide an complete argument against Calvinism, these people have to be answered. In short I am doing the same thing that you are here, I am showing what would ordinarily be thought of as "Arminian" interpretations of these texts are in fact held by Calvinists. So let's get the issue right. The issue is the doctrine of universal compassion, not Calvinism itself. Are we clear on this?

Further, did I ever deny the doctrine of divine judgment? No.

Yes, there's going to be an argument that looks like this.

1) The doctrine of universal compassion is clearly taught by Scripture, and is therefore true.
2) If the doctrine of universal compassion is true, then Calvinism is false.
3) Therefore, Calvinism is false.

But since I'm an inductivist, you probably need a "probably" or two in there. But so far all I have defended is 1. You can be a Calvinist and accept 1. That's going to involve you in some inconsistencies, on my view, but it harmonizes better with Scripture than its denial.

But can we please correctly identify the topic under discussion?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is heaven just a bribe?

One might ask, are people really moral if they are told that they will be rewarded in heaven for what they do? Wouldn't that be like offering someone $50 to be kind to their annoying little sister for a week?

In the $50 case, the reward is extrinsic to the deed, or the character necessary to do the deed. One idea that, for example, comes out of C. S. Lewis, is that if we are going to live forever, then unless our characters are properly formed, they will cause more and more harm to ourselves and others. The only way to be the kind of person who can enjoy eternity is someone allows God to create in him a Christlike character. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll will become boring or worse after a million years. So on this view, heaven isn't just a cash reward, it becomes possible for a person because they open themselves up to character transformation. Morally good acts reflect the kind of character that will make a heavenly life possible for a person.

HT: Steven Clauer

John Piper, or Mr. Subliminal?

But let us bring the discussion back to the original intent of the post. My claim is that if you are a Calvinist, and you are trying to be biblical (I've never heard one not say that) the approach that has the most plausibility has to be one which affirms that God loves every person and desires the salvation of every person. Some Calvinists try to exegete their way out of this conclusion by making the Bible sound like Mr. Subliminal from Saturday Night Live. The idea is that when it says God loves the whole world, or isn't willing that any should perish, or he is the savior of all, Mr. Subliminal slips in the words "just the elect."

So the Calvinist can respond by saying "We need to keep our options open," or just say the strategy that seem to be employed by Calvinists like Piper and Carson constitute the Calvinists' best shot. It's the latter option that I find more interesting. But it does put the Calvinist at the fork in the road.

We don't, of course, have an argument against Calvinism quite yet.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Can you follow Jesus without believing in God?

The information we have about what Jesus did comes from the Bible. The Bible has Jesus performing miracles and making statements that imply that he thinks he's God. He never acts as if he's just a humble carpenter's boy, he acts as if he has the right to forgive the sins of others, he says he's going to come and judge the world, he predicts his own resurrection, he goes into the temple and acts as if the place belongs to Him, he teaches the Torah without feeling that he has to refer to anything the rabbis had said about it in the past, and in some cases actually say "It says in the law of Moses X, but I say Y" suggesting that his own words supersede the Mosaic law. So the Jewish leaders asked the perfectly natural question "who in the Sam Hill do you think you are?"

None of this makes sense of course, if there is no God, and if Jesus has no special status or miraculous powers. C. S. Lewis argued that Jesus had to be liar, a lunatic, or else he had to be right and really was God. You can dodge Lewis's conclusion by arguing that the biblical sources are not accurate, and the Jesus never said or did anything that implied that he was anything more than a carpenter's son who became a charismatic Jewish preacher. But what that is going to do is leave you with no accurate sources with respect to what Jesus said and did. In which case, it's going to be hard to follow Jesus.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Piper on Divine Compassion for the Lost

The debate about Calvinism is hinges heavily, of course, on Scripture passages. To me, one of the most fundamental themes of Scripture is the universality of God's love, which is manifested in acts intended for our salvation. John 3:16 is only the tip of the iceberg. Passages like Ezekiel 18:23, I Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9 can be advanced. And there's more. I mean, there is joy amongst the angels when one sinner repents (Luke 15:10). But why, if God made the sovereign choice to bring about the repentance before the foundation of the world? Jesus wept over Jerusalem. What would there be to weep about if Jesus had the power to hit everyone in Jerusalem over the head with irresistible grace and bring them to repentance, which after all is how anybody comes to repentance, on the Calvinistic scheme. Ephesians 4:30 talks about grieving the Holy Spirit. How can you grieve someone who is unilaterally causing you to do everything you do?

The attempt to provide "Calvinist" interpretations of these passages which index God's love and compassion to the elect and only the elect strike me as just plain desperate. In the exegesis of John 3: 16, for example, it is argued that the most impressive thing about God's love for the world is God's loving that world in spite of its rebelliousness. The idea is that if we are sufficiently impressed by the fact that God loves humans even though they are sinners, we can somehow limit the scope of God's love to the elect only and still accept the sense of the text. There seem to be plenty of Calvinists who think that "world" cannot be indexed to the elect; I even recall Manata writing that D. A. Carson thinks that "world" cannot be limited in scope.

Apparently God wants us to preach the gospel to every living creature. Why? Is the offer made in good faith? How can it be if the people to whom it was made were reprobated by a sovereign choice before the foundation of the world?

There is a Calvinist response to all of this that I do think is interesting, although, at the end of the day, it doesn't work. Dongell and Walls, in Why I am Not a Calvinist (p.174) writes:

Let's turn to a more intensive effort to show that the offer of salvation for all persons can be sincere for Calvinists. This challenge is met head-on by Piper who affirms both that God unconditionally elects who will be saved and yet has compassion for and desires all people to be saved. Piper begins by citing some of the well-known texts that seem to teach God desires the salvation of all persons, such as Ezekiel 18:23, I Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9. Unlike many Calvinist exegetes, Piper does to attempt to circumvent the straightforward meaning of these texts by saying that all means "all the elect." and not all persons without qualification. But by conceding this point, Piper has set himself a formidable project.

Yes, it's a formidable project. But the Calvinist claim that Calvinism has the full support of Scripture hinges on the success of this project. I will be talking about the project in susbsequent posts, as it is the aspect of the issue of Calvinism that really interests me. But do notice that this involves the interpretations of some passages that are more typical of Arminians than of Calvinists.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

We are God's Chosen Few

Jonathan Swift penned this piece of satire centuries ago.

We are God's chosen few ;
All others will be damned.
There is no place in heaven for you :
We can't have heaven crammed.

This attitude seems prevalent still today.

Are we conquering nature?

Or is nature conquering us?

HT: Helen Flaherty-Hammond.

From Lewis's The Abolition of Man.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church, and the definition of marriage

I'd love to write a dialogue between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, who rise from their graves in fury because of the Mormon church's support for Prop 8 in California, and the present-day leaders of the Mormon Church. "You want marriage defined as a relation between one man and one woman? HOW DARE YOU? It's sure not how we defined it in our day!"

Some clarifications on the authorship of sin

OK, let me make a clarification. Indeed, the phrase "author of sin" does really need clarification. This is one way of clarifying the idea, by pointing out that on a Calvinist view the difference between a world in which I sin and one in which I don't is the result of action by God, while on an Arminian view, it looks like a world in which I don't sin is not a world that God has the power to actualize. I mean here a world identical to this one up to t. God may know this by consulting his middle knowledge, he may know it by simple foreknowledge, or he may not find out about it until it happens (open theism).

On some libertarian views, my decision today affects God's decision to instantiate the world, even though that took place before the foundation of the world. George Mavrodes, for example, is a defender of backwards causation. But all these views make my choice the deciding factor in whether I sin or not.

I take it that when the Calvinistic God is called the author of sin, however, the intent is either to argue either that God is morally blameworthy for sin, or that humans are not blameworthy for sin. The second of these claims requires an incompatibilist account of blameworthiness and, in particular, fitness for retribution.

I think a lot of secular compatibilists, such as Dennett or Schlick, see retribution as a barbarous notion, and think that holding a person morally responsible is a matter of behavior modification. In fact, my master's thesis in philosophy at Arizona State developed that idea. A person could accept some forms of compatibilism while being a cheerful incompatibilist (or incoherentist--the idea of retribution makes no sense) about retribution. A Calvinist doesn't have those options open to him. He is committed to the idea that compatibilist freedom is sufficient to make a sinner fit for retribution.

The first of these claims is that God being the author of sin in the sense described makes him blameworthy for sin. Now the point made by then-atheist/compatibilist Flew would hold if compatibilism were true, namely, that God could have created the world in such a way that everyone freely does what is right. That Calvinist will have to argue that could have does not mean should have, and that God has a reason for creating a world with sinners and even reprobates as opposed to the world of Mr. Rogers, where everyone freely does what is right.

The Calvinist response is typically that God decrees sin so that the sacrifice of Christ can be possible, and God decrees reprobation because the existence of reprobates gives God the opportunity to glorify himself through his wrath against unrepentant sin. This glorification is explained either by saying that it makes the blessed in heaven more grateful for their salvation, or by saying that it is intrinsically good for God to display his wrath as well as his mercy. I find both of these responses perverse in the extreme. But maybe that's just because I suffer from a bad case of Calvin Derangement Syndrome.

Of course, the Calvinist can also say that this is all part of God's secret will, so of course we have no idea why He does it.

Christianity and moral objectivity

One thing that Christianity brings to the table morally is the existence of commandments that humans have broken. While everyone has their own definition of morality, the existence of a commandment (as opposed to, say, the Ten Suggestions) seems to suggest that this is something that human beings have to do whether they like it or not or whether they agree with it or not. So if, let's say, the President of the United States has a problem accepting the commandment not to commit adultery (I think this actually happened a few years back), if he believes in a God who gives commandments, he cannot reasonably say that his opinion of adultery is as legitimate as God's. This seems to suggest that Christianity is committed to the idea of an objective right and wrong.

This point seems to be lost on some Christians, who when questioned in polling a few years back, accepted moral relativism.

There is, of course, the further question of whether being commanded by God is what it is for an act to be moral. One possibility is this: God makes humans in such a way that they will be happy (or perhaps, happy for an eternity) only if they behave in certain ways, and then God commands what is going to be conducive to human eternal happiness. If that were true, then being commanded, by itself, doesn't create rightness.

The other point to make is that commandments are not going to settle all of the debatable philosophical issues. The Sixth Commandment says "Thou shalt not commit murder." But that leaves the question of whether, capital punishment, war, or abortion are in fact murders. Since murder is definable as intentional homicide without moral justification, the question is still open for debate as to whether capital punishment and war have moral justifications, or whether abortions (or some of them) are homicides. (I'm not saying there's no correct answer to these questions, but you have to examine the pros and cons on these issues to reach a conclusion).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Does Calvinism make God the author of sin

This looks right to me. Consider.

Arminianism is true.

W1 is a world in which I do sin at 8:15 PM on Mon. Aug. 24, 2009 (henceforth known as time t).
W2 is a world in which I do not sin at time t.

Assuming I made a moral choice at time t, the difference between these worlds is traceable to my free choice. (It's a little more complicated on Molinist Arminianism, but it still holds.) The difference is my free decision.

Calvinism is true.

Same two worlds.

The difference is the result of what God, before the foundation of the world, decreed would happen. I may have wanted to do what I did, but given what God chose to have happen, I either acted on the desire to sin or acted on the desire not to sin.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Psychologist Thomas Szasz criticizes Lewis's trilemma

But it doesn't seem to me that Szasz's "third alternative" isn't just the liar option.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Taking Calvinism too far?

Or just to its logical conclusions? Copan on Sproul Jr.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Theodicists and Job's comforters

A redated post.

Charles Williams was a great friend of C. S. Lewis who died prematurely in 1945. Lewis edited a set of essays in his honor in 1947, entitled Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Eerdmans, 1974, originally Oxford University Press, 1947) (one year before the Anscombe exchange), and included the following in the preface. p. xiii.

But that was only one side of him. This scepticism and pessimism were the expression of his feelings. High above them, overarching themn like the sky, were the things he believed, and they were wholly optimistic. the did not negate his feelings; they mocked them. To the Wiliams who had accepted the fruition of Deity itself as the true goal of man, and who deeply believed that the sufferings of this present time were as nothing in comparison, the other Williams, the Williams who wished to be annihilated, who would rather not have been born, was in the last resort a comic fugure. He did not struggle to crush it as many religious people would have done. He saw its point of view. All that it said was, on a certain level, so very reasonable. He did not believe that God Himself wanted that frightened, indignant, and voluble creature to be annihilated; or even silenced. If it wanted to carry its hot complaints to the very Throne, even that, he felt, would be a permitted absurdity. It was true, Williams added, that the Divine answer had taken the surprising form of inviting Job to study the hippopotamus and the crocodile. But Job's impatience had been approved. The weight of the divine displeasure had been reserved for the 'comforters', the self-appointed advocates on God's side, the people who tried to show that all was well--'the sort of people', he said, immeasurably dropping his lower jaw and fixing me with his eyes--'the sort of people who wrote books on the Problem of Pain'.
In his essay "De Futilitate," (William B. Eerdmans, Christian Reflections, p. 70), which was a presentation given during the Second World War but written after the Problem of Pain, he seems to echo Williams' comments:

I cannot and never could persuade myself that such defiance is displeasing to the supreme mind. There is something holier about the atheism of a Shelley than about the theism of a Paley. That is the lesson of the book of Job. No explanation of the problem of unjust suffering there given: that is not the point of the poem. The point is that the man who accepts our ordinary standard of good and by it hotly criticizes divine justice receives the divine approval: the orthodox, pious psople who palter with that standard in the attempt to justify God are condemned. Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice is not tot hrow our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them. Just as the pupil advances to more perfect arithmetic not by throwing the multiplication table away but by working it for all it is worth.

So is Lewis pleading guilty to the charge of being a Job's comforter in PP? In one sense he could plead innocent; he could point out that the book is designed first and foremost to prevent us from drawing the conclusion, which Williams also does not draw, that God does not exist. The book frequently offers possible, rather than actual solutions to the problem of suffering, and is not designed to allow someone to go to someone undergoing immeasurable suffering: "Look, this is why you are having such a hard time now."

But while not condemning his previous book, Lewis seems to think that Williams had a point that he ought to have taken more seriously when he became "the sort of person who writes a book about the Problem of Pain."

In much of Lewis's work, he allows a considerable constructive role to be played by what I like to call the believer's "inner atheist." He remained firmly convinced that actual atheism was self-refuting (see Reason, Argument From) and undermining to the very moral foundation of the criticism directed at God. But even so, Lewis would, I think, have to agree that a lot of people died and suffered because of Hurricane Katrina who did not deserve to and that we really don't know, specifically, why God allowed this to happen. This response to Charles Williams, I think, is an excellent lens through which we can better understand A Grief Observed.

Calvinism and the philosophy of science

I have a stronger background in the philosophy of science than I have in biblical exegesis, so maybe I can explain my views in terms familiar to philosophers of science in order to make them clear.

One way of putting the point I was trying to get across is that biblical studies is perforce inductive in nature. Theologies are something like theories, Scripture is like the a database, and further historcial information is helpful in making an inference to the best explanation.

We come into this discussion with prior probabilities which differ. This is what I accept with respect to scientific theories, this is what I accept with respect to theological theories.

For me, the Calvinist has the burden of proof. Why? I'm not a Calvinist. You've got to show me. And I consider the Calvinist position to introduce a moral incoherence into the character of God. That's the nature of reason. We begin where we are, not some ideal, neutral starting point.

With respect to Calvinism, I am expected to throw away all predispositions and be "objective" about the text. Why? Even in the hardest of hard sciences, it doesn't work that way. It seems to me as if positivism is dead everywhere else, but alive and well in biblical theology.

Calvinists seem to be deductivists with respect to their arguments from Scripture. They present their passages, they summon up their exegetes, and say that this deductively entails Calvinism. But there is a lot of Scripture out there.

I have responded to the Calvinist counter-argument on John 3:16, which I find less than satisfactory simply because even if "world" doesn't mean everybody, it seems to mean everyone who's alienated from God. I don't think the most natural reading of this is that given the depravity of man, we should just be amazed that God had enough love to save anyone. The object of that love is supposed to be the Kosmos, which is either the whole world or the world alienated from God. If that love just picks the elect out of that world, then the love doesn't extend to the whole world, but only to the elect within it.

However, I have not gone into detail about the most interesting Calvinist response here. I think it won't do to deny that God loves every person, I think it far more reasonable from a Calvinist standpoint to say God does love everyone, but doesn't elect everyone. That is what Piper tries to do. If this claim can be made consistent, then this would improve the Calvinist case. I do this does violence to the meanings of terms, but there is an argument to that effect out there that has to be considered. My main concern in talking about Calvinism lately was to get to that issue. I hope soon to start going through Walls and Dongell's treatment of this, in a section entitled "Is God's Compassion for the Lost Sincere?"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Robert Hamilton's "Election in Romans Chapter 9"

I had to put the quote marks in the title, or it would look like Hamilton became one of the elect in Romans 9.

I will have to admit that Romans 9 sounded Calvinistic to me when I read it back in college. But then Romans 11:32 sounded universalistic to me, and still does.

I should point out that it seems to me to be a mistake to think of exegesis as an exact science, and an even bigger mistake to treat exegetical conclusions as having the same inspiration and authority as Scripture itself.

If Hawking were British he'd be dead

A refutation of the AFR

This atheist website offers a refutation of the AFR, going not from actually reading my book, but from the Wikipedia commentary.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is there a moral obligation to worship a Calvinistic God? Or any other God for that matter?

A Catholic friend of mine once said "If Calvin's God exists, I would insist on being damned. But it would do me no good."

This of course presupposes that if God determines your fate before the foundation of the world, your actions then do not determine it, since if your actions had been different in 2009, it would have changed something that occurred before the foundation of the world, which would be changing the past and therefore impossible.

Let us set that aside for a moment, however. And let's not make this exclusively about Calvinism. Someone could say "If Wesley's God exists, I would insist on being damned" or even "If Talbott's God exist, I would insist on being damned" since you could argue that even in Talbott's universalist world, there is gratuitous evil that God should not have permitted. And let us assume further that refusing to worship an all-powerful being is the supreme sin against prudence.

The question I have, for any theology, has to do whether we have a moral obligation, as opposed to a merely prudential obligation, to worship an infinite being. If so, where does that moral obligation come from?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

New Lewis Manuscript Found

Apparently he had a project in the works with Tolkien.

Do we already have "death panels?"

This suggests that they do exist, only they are run by private insurance companies. A simple question: both the insurance companies and the government are interested in controlling costs. Why suppose that the government is more likely to deny end-of-life care than private insurance compaines.

In case anyone might get the wrong idea, let me reiterate that I am posting this to ask a question, not to defend an argument for government-run health care.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The explanation that doesn't explain: Hays on the argument from appreciation

Steve: You just don't get it. You just don't get it. What I presented was an *argument* against the claim that the argument from appreciation explains why God reprobates some people. A reductio ad absurdum as it were. I elaborated the argument in a comment in response to Bnonn, but let we spell it out here.

1) If Calvinism is true, then God can, by his sovereign will, determine whether there will be reprobates or whether universalism is true. (I don't have to believe that this is sovereignly up to God, but you do).

2) God has selected that there be millions of reprobates.

3) You say Scripture teaches that this choice of a reprobate world is explained by the fact that in a reprobate world the blessed in heaven will appreciate the graciousness of their salvation to a greater extent than in a non-reprobate world.

My claim is that this would not be an explanation. The blessed in heaven have received God's gift of salvation through Christ. They are as open to God's teaching as they can be. God can produce in them all the appreciation he wants to of the graciousness of their salvation without damning anybody. God can show movies of fictitious persons in hell if he wants to, but even that doesn't seem necessary. God, after all, is supposed to be absolutely sovereign. So it stands to reason that God could use a little of that sovereignty to produce whatever appreciation the blessed he might need, even if universalism is true. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that this "explanation" explains anything. We might, paradoxically, ask the Calvinist "What part of sovereign don't you understand?"

I had been arguing that there is no explanation available to us for God's choice of a reprobate world over a universalist world. By the way, I am not arguing that God couldn't possibly have a reason for reprobating people. What I am saying is that the position requires a mystery maneuver at this point, and that mystery maneuvers are invariable epistemically expensive. If there is a mystery, why not it be in our understanding of the passage (notice I don't even need to break with inerrancy here) rather than in the character of God.

I said nothing about not using the grammatico-historical method. I just said I hoped we could avoid interpretations of Scripture that commit biblical authors to absurd statements. And I gave an argument for why such an explanation would be absurd.

As you rightly point out with the missed plane story, seeing others killed in a plane accident is one way that someone might appreciate their earthly life. But a sovereign God has other ways to of producing in the blessed an appreciation for the graciousness of their salvation, so as an explanation for why God reprobates, it is completely worthless.

Now in fact, you really have to stretch the interpretation of the Romans passage you cite to get an actual teaching of this doctrine. After all, the passage begins with the phrase "What if," and is loaded with figurative language. If any other possible interpretation of the passage can be offered on the basis of exegesis, then that explanation would have to be preferred to this one. In fact, it would be preferable to say that we do not understand the passage than to give it this kind of an interpretation. It's the principle of charity.

Is there a consensus amongst competent exegetes on this passage? Thought not.

What about a sensible inerrancy?

A redated post.

I have recently read Don Williams essay in the Lewis encyclopedia on
Reflections on the Psalms and find it interesting. Lewis, as we know,
rejected what he called "fundamentalism. " I think what he called
fundamentalism exists in the real world (found, for example, in the
insistence on Young Earth Creationism as the only doctrine acceptable
to Bible-believing Christians). I have often struggled with the whole
issue of inerrancy because I think that the word is just a shibboleth
until we spell out what hermeneutical constraints follow from it. I
could use the word inerrancy if I wanted to and be a Bultmannian,
(that would require some doublethink, to be sure), or I could use it
and insist that literal six-day creation follows from it. The Chicago
Statement is a helpful tool to understand the doctrine as it is
currently defended, and Don is right in saying that Lewis was not
familiar with more nuanced explications of the doctrine.

But how do you answer questions like:

Can you reject Young Earth Creationism and still be an inerrantist.
(as prestigious a preacher as John McArthur has insisted that you can't): com/Battle- Beginning- John-MacArthur/ dp/0849916259
Can you describe the Psalmists as expressing sinful passions and still
be an inerrantist.
Can you believe that Ruth is fictional and be an inerrantist? (I am not saying you couldn't have other reasons for thinking that Ruth is historical, but the question is whether inerrancy requires that it be historical).
Can you beileve that Darius was a Persian, not a Mede, and be an

Some of the moves Lewis makes with respect to Scripture probably could
be accepted by your typical present-day inerrantist. Others, I
suspect, would not be acceptable.


I think that sensible inerrancy does mean that quick scripture-to-doctrine moves have to be considered a little suspect.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You can find the Chicago inerrancy statement here

Purpose for Reprobation? Not this one

“Victor Reppert said...

“Do we really need reprobates over in hell so that the blessed can appreciate the graciousness of their salvation? God can't impress it on them any other way? You've got to be kidding me.””

Hays then writes:

“Which is exactly what the Bible says.”

VR: I hope that we can avoid interpreting the Bible as saying something that absurd. Are we being told that Almighty God, in dealing with those who have voluntarily submitted their wills to Him, has to have damned souls in existence so that the blessed can appreciate the graciousness of their salvation? These are people, presumably, who in the course of being saved, have recognized their need for, and have received, the Redemption of Christ. People whose arms are open to receive whatever God has for them. But, if universalism turns out to be true, they're all going to think they earned their way into heaven even though God has explicitly told them otherwise???

If such a claim were biblical, it would be a case against inerrancy. Fortunately I think we can interpret the relevant passages differently.

Perfect Guide and Perfect Truth Inerrancy

Franklin Mason argues that Perfect Guide Inerrancy, as opposed to perfect truth inerrancy, is what is needed. Please do follow the link back to his original discussion of Perfect Guide Inerrancy,

This is an attempt to avoid the conclusion of what I call the inerrancy or chaos argument. The idea of the inerrancy or chaos argument is that without some firm doctrine of biblical inerrancy, theology will sooner or later give away the store. Everything that our sinful hearts don't want to believe, or whatever doesn't fit with the Zeitgeist, will be swept aside, and Christianity reduced to platitudes.

On the other hand, we want to avoid the kind of literalism that led Martin Luther to condemn heliocentrism because it conflicted with a literal reading of the sun standing still for Joshua, which of course also led the Church to make Galileo be silent about heliocentrism.

C. S. Lewis wrote two letters two American writers relevant to the inerrancy issue, which might be helpful in developing Mason's project. As would his chapter on Scripture in Reflections on the Psalsm.

Monday, August 10, 2009

An exegesis of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart

From 1996 in Biblioteca Sacra.

The Hard Problem of Abortion

Let me repeat my views on abortion, in case people don't know what I have said. There are two conceptions of the career of humans which strike me as being positions a reasonable person could take. A reasonable person could take the view that the career of life of a human is defined by biological identity, which goes from conception to death. How one defines death on this view is difficult, since the brain death criteria used at the end of life would, if applied to the beginning of life, would say life begins with "brain birth," when brain activity begins.

The other view is to see the life of a person as a series of mental states, which means that taking the life of the person before mental states begin is morally different from interrupting the series of mental events. (Which, BTW, is what killing a sleeping or comatose person would do). This does comport with the "brain death" view of death. It has the disadvantage of making the beginning of life more difficult to define.

My point here is that each of these views has advantages, and neither of them seems provably wrong. I can't resolve the question conclusively one way or the other. I haven't endorsed the second criterion, I have just said that it's one of two plausible options. As I see it, we are in a position of reasonable doubt. Maybe you think you can dispel this doubt with some great argument. But so far, it seems to me to be above my pay grade.

But here the Deer Hunter argument comes into play. If you're deer hunting, and you are in doubt as to whether something is a deer or a person, don't shoot. (Maybe I should call this the quail hunter argument, in honor of Dick Cheney). So if someone is wondering whether to get an abortion or not, I would say that you may turn out to be killing a person, so without a very powerful moral reason to abort, don't do it.

When it comes to the legal side, however, I remember that we don't put people in jail if we can't prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We are willing to let people loose who have killed someone, if we aren't sure. Then I have to ask what effect it would have to actually outlaw abortion. If we knew for sure that all abortion were homicides, that would be one thing. But in the light of reasonable doubt concerning the status of the fetus, the attempt to discourage abortion should be through moral persuasion rather than the coercive power of government. In a different world I might see the legal situation differently, but under the circumstances, this may be the best we can do.

Except when it comes to late-term abortions. Those should be outlawed, period.

I wish the issue were clearer and easier than it is. I know for some of you this is an easy question. Maybe I am overlooking the obvious in some way. But that is how I see it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Against Biblical Positivism

Franklin Mason argues here that orthdox Christianity requires us to go beyond the words of Scripture to reach some essential Christian truths.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Why Believe in Satan? Look around the world

This is a nice post by J. D. Walters.

Is Capital Punishment Cheaper?

Not now, apparently, if you add in all the expenses required for appeals.

Pro-choice vs. Pro-abortion

The strategy that seems to be at work in some of the pro-life responses to my attempts to a) make sense of the highly difficult abortion issue and b) understand how those views relate to the issue of voting, is to conflate all deviance from the standard pro-life position into the most extreme version of the pro-abortion view possible. What results is a kind of pro-life purism, either you are for us or you are against us. The pro-life position here means a) fetal life has the same value as life after birth, b) therefore all abortions are murders, c) Roe v. Wade was wrong, not because the Court failed to affirm the right of the fetus to life, but because it overstepped its boundaries and affirmed the right of the pregnant woman to privacy
d) the way to fight against abortion is to vote for Republican candidates, who will not only have a more restrictive executive abortion policy, but will nominate "strict constructionist" or "originalist: justices to the Supreme Court who will reverse Roe and empower states to enact abti-abortion legislation. Any skepticism about any of these propositions makes one a fellow traveler of Peter Singer and George Tiller.

But you can push pro-life purism even further. You can refuse to support anti-abortion legislation that leaves an exception for rape and incest. You won't save very many fetuses that way, but at least you'll keep your moral purity. I suppose if you follow the logic of "abortion is murder" to its logical conclusion, you would have to make abortion a capital crime and try both the pregnant mother and the abortion doctor for murder. I don't see any pro-lifers advocating that.

Now there are people who simply do not value fetal life. A good example would be the person I quoted who wrote a review of Pro-Life 101, who said that if the fetus is in the woman's body, she has the right to kill it, period, end of story,, and if there were a million people housed in his body, he would have the right to holocaust them. Or Barbara Ehrenreich, who said “The one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks.”

And then there's Obama, whose pro-choice credentials have certainly been touted, and who has earned those creditials with some of his statements and actions, but has also said this:

"...I have repeatedly said that I think it's entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don't think that "mental distress" qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions."

Does this sound like someone who just loves to see fetuses die? And yes, I know about BAIPA, etc.

Strict pro-lifers are in the minority in America, and I think they always will be. However, pro-lifers, plus all the people who might recoil at abortion legislation but consider the loss of unborn life as genuinely tragic, constitute a majority in America. Sometimes the criminal aw is the best tool in response to a moral problem, and sometimes it isn't. There seem to be many things we can do to bring the number of abortions in America as close to zero as possible. Unfortunately, when you vote, you've got to consider all the issues. I am sure there were plenty of people who voted for Obama who held their noses when it came to his views on abortion. But if your overall political sympathies are closer to Obama than to McCain, I can't see holding your nose about everything else in order not to hold your nose on abortion.

Many people who are, strictly speaking, pro-choice, hate abortion. They want to see the number of abortions brought as close to zero as possible. To call them friends of baby-butchers is the triumph of ideology over common sense.

This is Plantinga's spiritual bio

A redated post.

I was able to find this online. The stuff about the he-goat is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Friday, August 07, 2009

A friend of mine is having trouble putting his comments on this blog

Here is what he wrote to me, on two occasions.

Victor, what is with your blog? Each and every time I attempt to comment on something, I am not allowed to. I am giving up, as of now.

The problem is not so much with the letters, although they are not easy for my eyesight. But the Yahoo account I set up NEVER recognizes my password. I have tried setting up an account about 5 times now - each time, it tells me I have done so sucessfully, but when I attempt to log in, I am never able to.

Have any of you commentators had this problem, and worked your way around it? Any suggestions?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Do Arminians claim that the Calvinistic God is the Devil?

I think some of the angry responses on the part of Calvinists to Arminians has to do with the moral objection to Calvinism that Arminians often use, which sometimes is expressed by the claim that the Calvinistic God is as bad or worse than the devil.

This is tricky and something I should probably address. I take it Calvinists say that the actions of Satan are predestined before the foundation of the world by God. That being the case, if you buy into the kind of incompatibilist theory of moral responsibility that an Arminian typically does (responsibility is traceable to the originating cause), then God is responsible for everything the devil does. Given this picture of things (and an Arminian might agree with Kant that compatibilism is a "wretched subterfuge"),

Now Calvinists think that intermediate causal agents are responsible for their actions, and, at the same time, God does have a good reason for predestining Satan to perform all the evil actions he performs, including those actions which cause people to sin their way into hell. So, God is in the clear, and Satan is not.

Working from their own understanding of moral responsibility, it is easy to see why Arminians can end up saying "Your God is the devil." The Wesleys did that, and it cost them their friendship with Whitefield. Put thus, the objection puts the Calvinist's back up, and things tend to get acrimonious from there.

Maybe the Arminian should say "Given our understanding of who is responsible for what, an understanding we consider to be the fact of the matter, the Calvinistic God turns out to be as bad as the devil." I think that is not quite the same as saying "Your God is the devil."

As strongly as I object to Calvinism, I see no good reason to suppose that Calvinists did not come to be Calvinists out of a Berean intent to search the Scriptures to see if these things are true. Of course there are psychological motives on all sides that are not transparent even to ourselves, but I have no more reason to doubt a Calvinist's account of why he is a Calvinists as I am to doubt an Arminian's account of why he is an Arminian.

C. S. Lewis on Demonizing Our Opponents: A Universe of Pure Hatred

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred." — C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity: A Revised and Enlarged Edition, With a New Introduction, of the Three Books the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Debating Calvinism: The Lessons of History

Fractured relationships and anger over the Calvinist debate? It fractured the relationship between two great men of God.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Agenda Fallacy

Ilion: VR: "The Triabloggers can start by showing anywhere in my recent posts where I have advocated Obamacare. I'm not sure if anyone can tell me what Obamacare is."

But you advocated for Obama (and it was clear all along that he does not have America's best interests at heart). And, more importantly, continuously advocate for leftism. And worse, you conflate that leftism with Christianity.

"Hillarycare," "Obamacare," it's all the same ... the *point* it to expand the government and make serfs and subjects of the erstwhile free citizens.

I supported Obama's election. I don't conflate leftism with Christianity, although some concerns the Left has are concerns that Christians should have. We should be concerned about the poor, the debate is over whether we shoot ourselves in the foot by enlisting the government to be involved, and how involved the government should be. Apparently you don't think the public school system should be dismantled. Or do you? That's a socialistic instituion, in that it distributes education in accordance with need to all, regardless of the ability to pay, and taxes the populace in order to get it done. In fact, that's a single payer program, something not even Obama is advocating when it comes to health care.

My objection to the T-bloggers was that they presumed that I had made an argument for Obamacare when I had made none, and then implied that it was a bad argument that earned me the title of charlatan (their weaseling attempts to deny this are simply absurd-if you put up two pieces, one by me and one by Vallicella attacking health reform, and say one of them is a charlatan, I guarantee you it won't be Vallicella). I may believe that something like health care reform ought to take place, but you can't read my mind and attack me for inadequately arguing for something I didn't argue for. Just as, nowadays, if I make an observation about Calvinism, but I am not arguing against Calvinism, I now have to say this is not an argument against Calvinism or there will be a post on you-know-where refuting my supposed (and failed) attack on Calvinism.

I've seen this elsewhere, and I call it the agenda fallacy. If you think I have a Christian agenda, and I produce an argument for objective moral values, atheists will present arguments against a Bible-based moral code as an argument against what I have said. This in spite of the fact that C. S. Lewis wrote an entire book defending moral objectivity, The Abolition of Man, that made not one single, solitary, theological appeal. I saw this recently when I talked about relativism and rape a few posts back.

The Agenda Fallacy goes like this.

S has defended something along the lines of P in the past, or we have good reason to suppose that S believes that P.

S makes a statement relevant to P.

Therefore, S's remarks should be treated as an argument for P.

No. Maybe S has something else in mind. Or maybe S is attempting to rebut some misguided efforts to defend not-P. That is different from actually arguing that P is true.

They're all individuals over at Triablogue

I should point out that people who post on Triablogue are different people, and in fact the "point man" in the Calvinist dialogue we had a little over a year ago, Paul Manata, doesn't post there now.

I even heard once that one of the people who posts there is not a Calvinist, although Calvinism is the primary theological perspective of the blog, surely.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Calvinism, Dirty Laundry and Christian Catfights

I noticed an agnostic in the combox who said he (or she) enjoyed this Christian catfight. Could have been a sock puppet, but I doubt it.

When we discuss doctrinal matters online we are hanging out our dirty laundry where nonbelievers can see it. How we conduct ourselves matters. I wouldn't even say denunciations are always wrong, and the Triabloggers are right in pointing out that denunciatory rhetoric does appear in Scripture. Jude, for example, directs extremely harsh rhetoric toward people he considers to be enemies of the Gospel. The problem I have with Triablogue is that not only anti-Calvinists like myself, but defenders of Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, and people who differ with them politically are treated in the same way. Even if Calvinism is true, isn't it at least possible that people who differ with them theological or politically are merely erring believers who still love Christ, as opposed to enemies of the Gospel.

The Triabloggers are bright guys, but no one who disagrees with them comes out feeling as if they had an interesting, worthwhile exchange of ideas about which they happen to disagree.

I don't always maintain a proper tone myself, but my blog is known as a place where we try to provide open and fair discussion. People taking numerous positions will tell me they disagree with me but they enjoy the dialogue. I never hear anyone say that kind of thing after an exchange with the Triabloggers.

It's not a question of being nice. Harsh rhetoric and cheap shots don't bring out the best in people. They don't sustain the dialogue. There's a time and a place for harsh rhetoric, but I think it is overused on Triablogue.

I think there are features of the Calvinism debate that tend to make it acrimonious. Perhaps in a future post I can lay out what I think the problem is.

But biblically, I think we have to weigh our speech by asking if it builds up the body of Christ. I think it's not enough to find people in Scripture who spoke harshly. Paul can be very harsh, but you know he has the health of the body of Christ at heart at all times. With the Triabloggers, I don't see that same spirit.

And I am not whitewashing their opponents, either. As I said, the Calvinism issue can make people mad, which is the reason we all, starting with me, have to watch it.

Theological arguments in the defense of evolution

If evolution is science and not religion, why to theological arguments keep cropping up in the defense of evolutionary biology?