Saturday, August 05, 2017

If I knew then what I know now

That's a common sentiment. It's good for people to reflect on the wrong turns they've made in life. Sometimes that's due to impetuous, foolhardy choices. This can be a source of contrition. Learning wisdom through sorry experience. But sometimes things turn out badly through no fault of their own. If only we had the benefit of hindsight at the time we were at that fork in the road, we'd opt for the road not taken. 

However, we can flip that around. Sometimes we might make the same choice, despite painful or frustrating consequences, even though, or even because we had the benefit of hindsight. 

For instance, suppose a man is a conscientious husband, yet in spite of that, his wife deserts him. Suppose the angel Gabriel appears to him and offers him a chance to go back in time and make a different choice. This time around, forearmed with the knowledge of how that marriage would turn out, he now has a second chance to finally have the life he planned and wanted. Wouldn't you jump at the offer?

But let's complicate the offer. Suppose he fathered two sons by that ill-fated marriage. When his wife walked out on the marriage, she left him with his two sons. 

Would he still take God up on the offer? Would he exchange his two sons for an alternate timeline with a happy marriage, and, perhaps, sons by a different wife? Let's say he won't even recall the troubled marriage. God will erase his memory. He will start from scratch, as if that never happened.

Yet I suspect most men would refuse. Although that alternative might be hypothetically preferable, you've formed an unbreakable bond with your actual sons, and you wouldn't trade that experience for anything. The ill-fated marriage was worth it on their account. 

By the same token, consider mothers who've had abortions. But suppose, instead, that at the last minute, they changed their mind and raised the child. Suppose they decided to keep the child for a perfectly frivolous reason. But having raised the child, suppose Mephistopheles appears to them and offers them a chance to step into the time machine and have the abortion they originally contemplated. I suspect most mothers would refuse. Because they didn't go through with an abortion, they formed a unique maternal bond with their child. 

Abortion is like shooting someone with a sack over his head. That makes it easier to shoot the victim. An anonymous victim. Can't even see his face. Can't see his pleading eyes.

But suppose, after pulling the trigger, you remove the sack over their head and see that you just shot your father or mother or brother. 

When we say, "If I knew then what I know now," we usually mean that given a chance, we'd make a different choice. Yet there are situations in which we wouldn't make a different choice. For retrospection cuts both ways. Paradoxically, we may come to appreciate the outcome, even though it's not the choice we would have made if, at the time, we were better informed about the consequences of the choice. For the consequences may be both good and bad. The good consequences may outweigh the bad consequences. Depends on whether we're privy to the good consequences as well as the bad consequences. And it depends on actual experience. 

Looking back on evil

John Feinberg is a Christian philosopher and theologian with more firsthand experience of suffering than most Christian academics. I'm going to quote some of his material. I will rearrange the material. First section will present his outlook before adversity began to pile on. Second section will describe the adversities. Third section will describe his initial reaction. Fourth section will describe his adjusted outlook. The final section will be a quote from Robert Adams.


I had always viewed the problem of evil as a major hindrance that keeps unbelievers from turning to Christ and sometimes causes believers to turn away. I thought that as long as one had intellectual answers that explained why God allowed evil in the world and as long as one could point to specific benefits that might accrue in the life of the sufferer, the sufferer would be satisfied. When I saw others struggle over their relationship with God because of some tragedy, I naively thought that if I could just offer them some answers, that would resolve everything. I was somewhat impatient with those who seemed unable to move past their struggles. In principle, I agreed that the sufferers need pastoral care, but I thought that a lot of that care involved explaining intellectually God's purpose in allowing evil…After all, I reasoned, once one goes a certain distance with Christ and reaches a certain level of spiritual maturity, even really big problems aren't likely to derail spiritual growth. there might be temporary disruption in one's relation to the Lord, but that would soon be put to rest. John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil (Zondervan, 2nd ed., 1994), chap. 13.


In the midst of dealing with these events, we [John and Paul Feinberg] were overwhelmed by another set of events. In late spring of 1988, our mother suffered a stroke as a result of complications from diabetes. By the end of that year she had suffered another stroke and had to be moved to a nursing home. As a result of the stroke, she was unable to feed herself, so a feeding tube was inserted into her stomach. Though she was not continually comatose, she fundamentally did not interact with the external world. At the same time, the aging process in our father was having a rather dramatic impact. By early 1990 it became clear that he no longer could care for himself…Dad is still in a nursing home, but his condition continues to deteriorate as the aging process takes its toll. John & Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Crossway, 2nd ed., 2010), Preface to First Edition (October 1992), 17. 

In August of 1995, our father, Charles Lee Feinberg, went to be with the Lord after many years of declining health. Second, Paul had diabetes, and over the ensuing years the disease began to take its toll. The first major complication was heart problems, and that was followed some years later with kidney problems…Very sadly and unexpectedly, in February 2004, after Paul had hip surgery, his heart and kidneys gave out and he entered into the presence of our Lord.

Third, my wife Pat's Huntington's disease has continued to develop over the years since we first wrote this book. In the last eight to ten years there have been major complications in her condition as the disease takes its toll. After many years of caring for her needs, it became increasingly clear that I no longer had the physical strength to do everything she needs. With great reluctance, in November 2007 we moved Pat into a skilled nursing home where she is now. Her condition continues to deteriorate. Ibid., Preface to Second Edition (January 2010), 11.

My wife eventually wound up at a neurologist who made the diagnosis–Huntington's chorea….On the physical side, it involves the gradual loss of control of all voluntary bodily movement. Psychologically, it involves memory loss and depression, and as the disease progresses, it can lead to hallucinations and paranoid schizophrenia.  

As bad as that news was, the story gets even worse. Huntington's disease is controlled by a dominant gene. This means that only one parent needs to have it in order to transfer it to their children. Each child has a fifty-fifty chance of getting it, but as mentioned, symptoms don't' show up until about thirty at the earliest. We have three children, all born prior to Pat's diagnosis. The Many Faces of Evil, chap. 13.


After this news came, my immediate response was shock and confusion. How could this be happening? Before we were married, we knew that my wife's mother had mental problems. At the time of our wedding, she had been in a mental institution for five years. We asked several people, including doctors, how likely it was that this might happen to my wife, believing all along that it was a purely psychological problem. Psychologists assured us that if my wife were to have such problems, they would have already surfaced. Since she was in her twenties and nothing had happened, there was no need to worry. 

Along with those feelings [of hopelessness] came a sense of abandonment. There seemed to be no answer and no one to help. Yes, there were friends and family, but what could they do? 

Given that mindset, had I known the truth about my wife's family medical history, I wouldn't have married her. Pat has said that had she known, she probably wouldn't have married at all. If we had known, we wouldn't have had children. Nobody wants to put people they most love in this kind of jeopardy! I was angry at family members who knew and didn't tell us, at the doctors who knew and never explained it to the family…If anyone had give us the information before we married, I could have avoided this situation.

Though I didn't want to admit it, I was also angry at God…I felt that God had somehow misled me, even tricked me. 

I was also confused for another reason. I was raised around people who suffered greatly; my mother had one physical problem after another and this in part sparked my interest at an early age in the problem of pain and suffering. In seminary, I wrote my master of divinity thesis on Job. Later, my master of theology thesis was on God's sovereign control  of all things and how that relates to human freedom. My doctoral dissertation even focused on the problems of evil and led to my book The Many  Faces of Evil. If anyone had thought about this and was prepared to face affliction, surely it was I. And yet when the events I have recounted happened, I found little comfort in any of it. I had all these intellectual answers, but none of them made any difference in how I felt. The emotional and psychological pain was unrelenting, and the physical results from the stress and mental pain were devastating. Ibid., chap. 13. 


After my wife was first diagnosed, and before we went for a second opinion, we requested a copy of my mother-in-law's chart from the hospital in New York…As I read the chart, I didn't understand much of it, but one thing I saw horrified me: the family medical history and the diagnosis of Huntington's disease were recorded in her chart. The information that could have saved me from this situation was there for five years before I even met my wife. The information could have kept us from having children and saddling them with this burden was right there from 1967 onward. It had been there for twenty years, and no one had told us about it. I was furious. 

But in the months and years that have passed, I have come to see this in a different way. For twenty years that information had been there, and at any time we could have found out. Why, then, did God not give it to us until 1987? 

As I wrestled with that question, I began to see his love and concern for us. God kept it hidden because he wanted me to marry Pat, who is a great woman and a wonderful wife. My life would be impoverished without her, and I would have missed the blessing of being married to her had I known earlier. God wanted our three sons to be born. Each is a blessing and a treasure, but we would have missed that had we known earlier…There is never a good time to receive such news, but God knew that this was exactly the right time. 

At various points along the way when we are ready to hear it, God adds a further word. One of those words of help comes from Ecclesiastes 7:13-14; the thrust of the passage is that God hides the future from us so that we will trust him. 

Why does God give this alternation of good and bad? Why doesn't he always reveal how things will turn out? The writer says God does this to conceal the future. But why would God do that?…If we don't know what to expect, we must just simply wait on the Lord for what will come next and entrust it all to him. 

If we knew how or when life would end or even what evils would befall us along the way, we mighty be totally horrified and unable to act as fear paralyzed us. Hiding the future is compassionate because knowing it could easily harm us. 

Hiding the future is also compassionate because we must not ignore the present. One of the things that our experiences have done for me is to focus my attention on the present. I have always been a goal-oriented person with a focus on the future. I still plan for the future but now for the near future, not the distant future. I don't want to know any more about the distant future than I already do. I find myself focussing more on the present and enjoying it more. In fact, I am better able to cope when I focus on where my wife is today, rather than on where she may be in her condition somewhere down the road. 

At that point Dad said, "John, God never promised to give you tomorrow's grace for today. He only promised today's grace for today, and that's all you need!" Ibid, chap. 13. 

My wife still needed a husband, my children a father, and my students a teacher. Falling apart wouldn't help any of them…I realized that I couldn't wait until all those answers arrived to continue with life. Too many people needed me, and I needed to be there for them. 

There is a sense in which one never completely recovers from tragedy and always needs the love and concern of others. Ibid, chap. 13.

Counting one's blessings may seem trite, but it does in fact give a different perspective on what is happening to you. Ibid., chap. 13.

I had seen too many evidences of God's work in my life to decide there was no God. Ibid. chap. 13.


You may still think, for example, that the life you had planned or hoped for before an evil befell you ten years ago would have been better than your actual life. Yet you may be so attached to actual projects, friendships, and experience that would not have been part of that other life that you would not now wish to have had it instead of your actual life. R. Adams, The Virtue of Faith (Oxford, 1987), 74.

Friday, August 04, 2017

What to do with Jude

9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you” (Jude 9). 
14 It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14-15).

Over the years I've discussed Jude's use of apocryphal sources. I find both conventionally conservative and liberal explanations implausible. I'll take another stab at the issue. Before offering my proposal, I'll put the issue in a larger context.

1. The prima facie problem is that, on the one hand, it's unquestionable that Jude thought Adam, Enoch, Moses, the Devil, and the Archangel Michael were real people. On the other hand, his sources are apocryphal, in both the technical and informal sense of the word. To our knowledge, they were never part of the Jewish canon. And they are pious fiction. Seems like special pleading to suggest these two excerpts just happen to be historical, while everything else is fictional.  

2. One explanation was the Jude was gullible in his use of source material. If so, that would have far-reaching theological ramifications. It would mean God didn't protect Bible writers from error. If he didn't protect Jude from error, there's no presumption that he protected other Bible writers from error. Where does that leave, let us say, the historicity of the Gospels? 

3. Another related explanation is that it was a mistake to canonize Jude. If so, that, too, would have far-reaching theological ramifications. If that was a mistake, it's not confined to just one denomination or theological tradition. All the major theological traditions (e.g. Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox) include Jude in the canon. That leaves no one off the hook. That means God allowed Christians en masse to be in error on this issue. And if Jude's canonical status is spurious, what about other canonical books? (In fairness, some books of the Bible have more corroborative evidence than others.)

4. Let's consider some genres. Take the historical genre. What makes an account historical? 

i) Based on real events

ii) Faithful representation of real events

In a sense, any account of the past will deviate from the past because an account of the past is not the event in itself, but a representation of the event. In that respect, no historical account exactly corresponds to what happened. Rather, it approximates what happened.

Take a documentary with dramatic recreations. The actors aren't the original agents. They may not even look or sound like the original agents, even if they are quoting them verbatim. We allow a director to take a degree of artistic license. 

Or consider a movie adaptation of the Exodus or the life of Christ. Suppose the director uses CGI to show the miracles. Obviously, the original event didn't happen just like the director visualizes the original event, since he wasn't there. But it's historical in the sense that he's attempting to be faithful to that kind of event. 

5. Some novels, short stories, movies, dramas, and characters attain culturally iconic status. They may become part of the national or cultural mythos. People quote them or refer to them and the audience is expected to recognize the allusion–even if they haven't seen it or read it. Depending on the culture and the social class, examples include Star Wars, Star Trek, Moby-Dick, Dracula, The Matrix, The Terminator, The Wizard of Oz, Carrie, Casablanca, Sophie's Choice, Night of the Living Dead, Superman, the Arthurian legend, Brave New World, Alice in Wonderland, and the plays of Shakespeare. 

6. Between history and fiction is the intermediate category of historical fiction. These are based on a true story, but they include imaginary elements. Examples are legion. Consider movies like Tombstone, Patton, Beckett, Miracle, Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, Ike: Countdown to D-Day, The Scarlet and the Black, A Man for All Seasons, or plays like Richard III, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. 

A variation on this is John le Carré's spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That's a political allegory of the Cambridge spy ring. 

In historical fiction, it's necessary to distinguish between the historical Doc Holliday, Patton, Herb Brooks, Julius Caesar et al. and the literary or cinematic Doc Holliday, Patton, Herb Brooks, Julius Caesar. Although these refer to historical figures, the literary or cinematic adaptation may take considerable artistic liberties. Write lines for a character which he never spoke in real life. Put him in imaginary situations. 

It's possible as well as commonplace to refer to actual figures through a fictional medium. And there are situations where the target audience is expected to know the difference. At least the audience is supposed to know the difference. Perhaps that's what's going on in the case of Jude 9, 14-15. 

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Without excuse

 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:20).

Scripture lists a number of divine attributes. So why does Paul say nature reveals these particular attributes rather than some other attributes or additional attributes?

i) Before answering that question, there's the preliminary issues of how these attributes are interrelated. Are there three distinct attributes: power, eternality, and divinity? 

According to Jewett (156), syntactically, divinity modifies power: "God-power". So we might render the combination as "his eternally divine power." Something like that. 

ii) What these share in common are the attributes which identify the absolute Creator of the world. Not just any kind of power, but divine power. Moreover, to be the Creator of everything, God must both preexist creation and have sufficient creative power or ability.   

What no eye has seen

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him
(2 Cor 2:9).

That's a tantalizing promise. But Paul can't spell out what he means, for in the nature of the case, that's not something we can know in advance or experience in this life. At least not ordinarily.

Perhaps Paul is alluding to his "third-heaven visions" (2 Cor 12:2-4)–which gave him a glimpse of that unimaginable future. Maybe his visions were indescribable in principle. Or maybe they were describable in principle, but incommunicable in practice because an intelligible description requires a common frame of reference. Since his readers didn't share his visionary experience, there's nothing analogous he can point to.

Obviously I don't know something Paul didn't know. However, I'd like to venture a comparison. Some people are born deaf or blind. There's a major aspect of reality they're unable to experience. Indeed, it's an aspect of reality they're unable to fathom. It's striking how dissimilar the five senses are to each other. You can't infer what one sense is like from another sense. There's a whole nother world out there to be discovered, but they lack the sensory aptitude to perceive it. Birdsong. A mother's voice. Music. The sound of surf. A kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. Overwhelming. 

They know they're missing out on something, something very significant, without knowing what that something is. 

Suppose they suddenly gain their sight or hearing. Like awakening to a world that's both familiar and strangely unfamiliar. Imagine the thrill of hearing or seeing for the first time. For the first few days and weeks and months.

Another example, even for sighted people, is natural wonders of the world. Towards the end of his great story, the climax, Bunyan attempts to describe the Delectable Mountains. Yet it's obvious to many readers that he's never seen a real mountain range. Try as he might, he can't visualize mountain grandeur. What he hasn't seen, he can't conceive. 

In his autobiography, Ruskin describes how, as a teenager, he saw the Alps for the first time: "They were clear as crystal, sharp on the pure horizon sky, and already tinged with rose by the sinking sun.... I went down that evening from the garden-terrace at Schaffhausen with my destiny fixed in all of it that was to be sacred and useful..." 

Or suppose you had a world in which everyone was deaf. No one even suspected there was more than four senses. No one even suspected there was a whole nother perceptual vantage-point on the world. A fabulous aspect to the world hidden from their experience. They had no inkling that anything like that was even waiting to be found. Imagine the impact if a world of sounds suddenly opened up to them. For the first time they'd realize what they were missing all along. They could never go back to how they felt before. One thing to lose what you had–quite another to stumble upon what you never knew was there. 

What is a canon?

Growing old

Many people treat dying young as uniquely tragic. Death in general is usually tragic, although the sooner a villain dies, the better. But there are far worse things that can befall a person than dying young.

Fear of death receives much attention, but I suspect that for lots of folks who reach a certain point in life, their greatest fear isn't fear of death but fear of old age. And for many people, their worst fears come true.

There are many potential sources. Fear of physical and/or mental incapacitation from ravaging maladies like Parkinson's, senile dementia, stroke, and macular degeneration.

Fear of penury. Social Security is insolvent. Public-sector pension funds can go belly up. Corporations sometimes buy out other corporations, but refuse to honor the pensioners. 

Fear of abandonment in a nursing home. 

Fear of loneliness if a spouse dies or divorces. Estranged children or children living out of state. You may only see them once a year. 

From what I've read, women divorce at much higher rates than men, and get custody at higher rates than men. A faithful father and husband can wind up alone with nothing but child support payments. 

This is not to deny that dying young is often tragic, but sometimes dying young is a mercy. They are spared the dire consequences that await many who have a normal lifespan. 

Status quo appeals

An impromptu debate I had on Facebook (with minor editorial revisions):

To begin with, evangelicals aren't bound by that article of the creed ("he descended into hell"). It's just a dubious tradition. I think evangelicals should edit it out of the creed. However, if you wish to read an evangelical defense of that article,

If evangelicals aren't bound by the ancient creeds, how is that not "solo scriptura"?

Also: dubious tradition attested to unanimously by the fathers. About which Augustine said only a heretic would deny.

I don't agree with the sola/solo dichotomy of Mathison et al. Also depends on what you mean by "solo scriptura". That's generally a term of abuse.

From a Protestant standpoint, the church fathers aren't authority figures. I don't pretend that they are in a position to know more than they did.

You probably shouldn't pretend to speak for all Protestants.

So you labor under the illusion that according to Protestant epistemology, the church fathers are authority figures? Where did you come up with that?

Um Calvin, Luther, etc etc etc You're kidding right?

Luther and Calvin cite the church fathers because they are responding to Catholic theologians on their own grounds. They're documenting that it's Rome that changed. In addition, church fathers like Augustine say things they often agree with. That's not the same thing as making church fathers authority figures. Don't you know the difference?

And you seem to be using one illicit argument from authority (e.g. Luther/Calvin say so!") to prop up another illicit argument from authority ("the church fathers say so!").

The typical reformed answer that I've read and heard is that the fathers, councils, creeds, etc are an authority but not THE authority. 

i) Uninspired creeds and councils have no intrinsic authority. If you wish to frame the issue in terms of authority, they are only authoritative insofar as they are true. And their truth is derivative.

ii) A denomination can treat a creed as authoritative. It can use a creed as a standard for ordination, church membership, hiring/firing seminary professors, &c. That's a kind of social contract.

iii) The descent into hell shouldn't be in a creed. No point reinterpreting it. Just admit it was a mistake and move on.

I'm glad that you admit that it's just you and Jesus.

That's the kind of caricature I expected. Your illogical notion that the alternative to the church fathers as authority figures is "just you and Jesus". That's so simplistic. Rather, it's a question of reason and evidence. If a church father has a good argument, then we go with the best argument, whatever the source, whether it's a church father or modern commentator. There's an elementary distinction between opinions and arguments. The mere opinion of a church father isn't presumptively true.

Of course it is just you and Jesus. While you think that it might be a "caricature", you've just defended the idea that creeds, councils, fathers, nothing has any authority over your understanding of scripture but your own conscience. It isn't illogical but the logical conclusion of what you're suggesting. You and Jesus.

Now you're trotting out the hackneyed argument of dime-a-dozen Catholic apologists who imagine there's an alternative to reliance on one's own understanding. That, however, is self-defeating, for their preference for Catholicism ultimately boils down to their personal perception of where the truth lies. That's unavoidable. You're no exception.

Okay let's take it back to the creed then. The fathers, absolutely unanimously, east and west, suggest that scripture teaches Christ descended to the dead. The clause is in both the apostles creed and the Athanasian Creed. Are you really suggesting that something so universally believed by Christians for 1800 years is incorrect? And if you believe it is incorrect, and that the individual has the right to throw out the clause, do you not see the epistemic problem for the Protestant? It puts one in a position where no single article of faith is accepted but everything believed can be reimagined or ejected on the basis of not appealing to the individual conscience.

i) To begin with, appeals to the consensus patrum are often inaccurate.

ii) Keep in mind that even if (ex hypothesi) Jesus went to hell when he died, there could be no eyewitnesses to that event this side of the grave.

iii) Most Christians back then were uneducated. So you're appealing to a tiny subset of Christians. That's a very unrepresentative sample.

iv) Do recall that "heresy" was punishable as a crime. That discourages public dissent.

v) It's no more of a problem to say the church fathers are wrong than to say evangelicals are wrong. However you slice it, someone is mistaken. God has not ensured uniformity in Christian belief. God allows some class of Christians to be mistaken. If Lutherans are right on some issues, then Roman Catholics are wrong, and vice versa (to take one example). 

Suppose an Orthodox Jew tells a Christian, "Are you really suggesting that God failed to protect the Chosen People from disbelieving the true messiah?"

Why is it unacceptable for you suppose that God failed to protect the church fathers from falsely believing the descensus ad infernos, but acceptable for you to suppose that God failed to protect the vast majority of Jews from repudiating the prophesied messiah?

Whatever side come down on, God fails to protect large bodies of professing Christians from a serious error. Consider Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox. They have fundamental disagreements with each other. Minimally, God failed to protect two of the three groups from falling into serious doctrinal error. Possibly he failed to protect all three groups. Not to mention dissension within those groups, viz. Old Calendarists, Hesychast controversy.

How is that not an epistemic problem for the high-church tradition? 

So the idea that there's a problem if God allows many professing Christians to be in error is unavoidable, since that's going to be the case regardless of which side you take.

vi) I haven't appealed to "individual conscience". That's your lingo. I didn't make this an issue of conscience.

If you distrust the adequacy of reason, then you disqualify yourself from arguing for your own position. Take an evangelical convert to Rome. They interpret the Bible and church fathers to support Roman Catholicism. It seems to them that Catholicism is true. That's irreducibly an exercise in private judgment. You can't get around that.

It puts one in a position where no single article of faith is accepted but everything believed can be reimagined or ejected on the basis of not appealing to the individual conscience.

Creeds are not the ultimate standard of comparison. Only revelation enjoys that distinction.

They'll never win the continuity argument, but if Protestants can pretend to care about it, it can trick a ton of people.

Catholics will never win the continuity argument either. Newman chucked the continuity argument for what he euphemistically dubbed the theory of development.

Newman didn't create the idea of the development of Christian doctrine. The idea is present in Origen, Augustine, and probably most clearly St. Vincent of Lerins. Heck, even Aquinas speaks on it.

The Vincentian canon is the polar opposite of development. Try to differentiate between what they claim and the reality.

Oldest OT MS

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Even atheists must believe in something

New atheism=alt right

McGrew on historicity of NT

The argument from reason

Elizabeth Anscombe, then an up-and-coming Catholic philosopher, had a celebrated disagreement with C. S. Lewis at the Socratic Club. As a result, Lewis reformulated one of his arguments in Miracles. Years later, Anscombe offered her assessment of Lewis's reformulation:

There is one thing I will say, which is that there is a quotation by J. B. S. Haldane...The quotation runs like this: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true...and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms."

Now I want to consider the quotation all by itself. Let us suppose that it makes sense to say that mental processes–and this means everything they are inclined to call mental processes–are determined, determined wholly, by the motions of atoms in one's brain. That is, let us forget about the difficulties that might be raised about this. I mean the difficulties of taking about mental processes and when they are supposed to be determined.

In order to keep any such difficulties out of view, let us consider an analogous supposition, namely that it makes sense to say that linguistic marks–that is, marks that are parts of a language as they occur in a printed book–are wholly determined by the machinery that printed the book. Well, it might be a book. I don't think this book [in my hand] has got any pencil notes in it or anything that might be linguistic matter that isn't printed.

This analogue has the advantage of certainly making sense, that is, that the linguistic marks occurring in this book are wholly determined by the machinery that printed the book. And indeed, it's got the advantage of not just certainly making sense, but of being true. Only we wouldn't dream of saying: if that is true, we have no reason to suppose that any of the things said in the book are true or are false, or anything like that.

Well, this illustrates the way in which a thought–a thought that somebody puts forward–trades on a mysteriousness about its objects. In the case of Haldane's remark, the mysterious objects are "mental processes"; "If every bit of every mental process is determined by motions of atoms, then I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true". If we change the example to something lacking the mysteriousness of "mental processes", for example to the existence of the print in a printed book, as I have in my analogue, then we observe two things. First, that the supposition that this is wholly determined by the machinery, the printing machinery, is true. And second, that that has no bearing whatever on whether anything said in the book is true, or whether we have reason or no reason to think so. Elizabeth Anscombe, "C. S. "Lewis's Rewrite of Chapter III of Miracles." Roger White, Judith Wolfe, & Brendan Wolfe, C. S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society (Oxford University Press 2015), 15-16.

I think both she and Lewis are right in different respects:

i) She's right to point out that determinism as such doesn't undermine reason. It depends on what lies behind the determinate outcome. And her example nicely illustrates why it would be fallacious to infer that determinism per se undermines reason. 

ii) However, I don't know that Lewis intended to show that determinism in general undercuts reason. In context, he's targeting atheism. He uses Haldane's statement as a frame of reference. Haldane was an atheist. Lewis's contention, as I see it, is that determinism in combination with naturalism undercuts reason. In particular, that blind physical determinism undercuts reason.

I think his intuition is sound, and subsequent philosophers like Victor Reppert (i.e. the argument from reason) and Alvin Plantinga (i.e. the evolutionary argument against naturalism) have developed more sophisticated versions of his rudimentary argument. 

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Locke on reason and revelation

John Locke was the major English philosopher of the Enlightenment. I'll be quoting from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

A forwardness to dictate another's beliefs, from whence. The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another's belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it (4.19.2).

Immediate revelation is a much easier way for men to establish their opinions and regulate their conduct than the boring and not always successful labour of strict reasoning. So it is no wonder that some people have claimed to have received revelations, and have persuaded themselves that they are under the special guidance of heaven in their actions and opinions, especially in opinions that they can’t account for by the ordinary methods of knowledge and principles of reason. Thus we see that in all ages men in whom melancholy has mixed with devotion, or whose self-importance has led them to think they have a greater familiarity with God than others and are more favoured by him than others are, have often flattered themselves with the conviction that they are in immediate communication with the Deity and receive frequent messages from the Divine Spirit (4.19.5).

Once their minds have been prepared in this way, any baseless opinion that comes to settle itself strongly on their imaginations is ·taken by them to be· an illumination from the spirit of God. And when they find themselves strongly inclined to perform some strange action, they conclude that this impulse is a call or direction from heaven, and must be obeyed (4.19.6).

These men accept a certain proposition as true because they presume that God revealed it. So oughtn’t they to examine what grounds they have for presuming that? If they don’t, their confidence is only presumption, and this ‘light’ they are so dazzled with is nothing but a will-o’-the-wisp that leads them constantly round in this circle: it is a revelation because they firmly believe it, and they believe it because it is a revelation (4.19.10).

Reason and faith not opposite, for faith must be regulated by reason. There is another use of the word reason, wherein it is opposed to faith: which, though it be in itself a very improper way of speaking, yet common use has so authorized it, that it would be folly either to oppose or hope to remedy it. Only I think it may not be amiss to take notice that, however faith be opposed to reason, faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of the accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding (4.17.24).

i) Here he's assailing "enthusiasts". These were the 17C counterpart to modern-day charismatics. And his strictures are applicable to many modern-day charismatics. 

ii) However, his strictures overlook the possibility that some contemporary Christians might enjoy veridical private revelations. Not just spiritual impressions, but something for which there's corroborative evidence, viz. a premonitory dream. 

Thus, someone who takes away reason to make way for revelation puts out the light of both—like persuading a man to put out his eyes so that he can better to receive the remote light of an invisible star through a telescope! (4.19.4).

That's pithy and quotable. And it's applicable to fideists. But it depends on how Locke defines and relates the concepts of reason and revelation, faith and knowledge. 

These are two wholly distinct ways by which truth comes into the mind: what I see I know to be so by the evidence of the thing itself; what I believe I take to be so upon the testimony of someone else. But I must know that this testimony has been given, for otherwise what ground have I for believing? (4.19.10).

This is a crucial Lockean distinction. He dichotomizes faith and knowledge. Knowledge is something we know from firsthand experience whereas faith is something we believe based on testimonial evidence. Faith falls short of knowledge. At best, faith is warranted opinion. 

But why is testimonial evidence necessarily inferior to sensory evidence? Both are fallible. And there are cases in which testimonial evidence can correct our sensory misimpressions or misinterpretations of sensory impressions. Likewise, memory is fallible. 

So if you don’t want to give yourself up to all the extravagances of delusion and error, you must make critical use of this guide of your light within. God, when he makes the prophet, doesn’t unmake the man. He leaves all his faculties in their natural state so that he can judge whether his inspirations are of divine origin. When he illuminates the mind with supernatural light, he doesn’t extinguish the light that is natural. If he wants us to assent to the truth of a proposition, he either makes its truth evident by the usual methods of natural reason, or else makes it known to be a truth which wants us to assent to because of his authority, and convinces us that it is from him by some marks that reason can’t be mistaken about. Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I don’t mean that we must consult reason and use it to· examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be justified by natural principles and reject it if it can’t. But we must consult it and use it to examine whether the proposition in question is a revelation from God. And if reason finds that it is revealed by God, reason then declares in its favour as much as it does for any other truth, and makes it one of her own dictates. If we have nothing by which to judge our opinions except the strength with which we have them, every thought thrown up by a heated imagination will count as an inspiration. If reason can’t examine their truth of our opinions by some external standard, inspirations will have the same measure as delusions, and truth the same as falsehood, and there will be no way to distinguish one from the other (4.19.14).

This may be true as Locke defines reason and revelation, but the problem is that "reason" can be a euphemism for opinion or certainty. Yet certitude is not the same thing as knowledge. The most intellectually gifted representatives of the Enlightenment era had wildly divergent views regarding what reason could prove or disprove, viz. Bach, Baxter, Bentley, Berkeley, Butler, Descartes, Edwards, Euler, Gill, Handel, Hume, Johnson, Kant, Leibniz, Mather, Milton, Newton, Owen, Pascal, Racine, Reid, Rutherford, Spinoza, Swift, Voltaire, Wesley.

Thus we see the holy men of old, who had revelations from God, had something else besides that internal light of assurance in their own minds, to testify to them that it was from God. They were not left to their own persuasions alone, that those persuasions were from God, but had outward signs to convince them of the Author of those revelations. And when they were to convince others, they had a power given them to justify the truth of their commission from heaven, and by visible signs to assert the divine authority of a message they were sent with. Moses saw the bush burn without being consumed, and heard a voice out of it: this was something besides finding an impulse upon his mind to go to Pharaoh, that he might bring his brethren out of Egypt: and yet he thought not this enough to authorize him to go with that message, till God, by another miracle of his rod turned into a serpent, had assured him of a power to testify his mission, by the same miracle repeated before them whom he was sent to. Gideon was sent by an angel to deliver Israel from the Midianites, and yet he desired a sign to convince him that this commission was from God. These, and several the like instances to be found among the prophets of old, are enough to show that they thought not an inward seeing or persuasion of their own minds, without any other proof, a sufficient evidence that it was from God; though the Scripture does not everywhere mention their demanding or having such proofs (4.19.15).

There's some truth to that, although there's no evidence that all biblical prophets received miraculous confirmation of their revelations. Conversely, Locke doesn't address the possibility that contemporary Christians might have corroboration for their "revelations". 

For whatsoever truth we come to the clear discovery of, from the knowledge and contemplation of our own ideas, will always be certainer to us, than those which are conveyed to us by traditional revelation. For the knowledge we have, that this revelation came at first from God, can never be so sure, as the knowledge we have from the clear and distinct perception of the agreement or disagreement of our own ideas; v.g. if it were revealed some ages since, that the three angles of a triangle were equal to two right ones, I might assent to the truth of that proposition, upon the credit of the tradition, that it was revealed; but that would never amount to so great a certainty, as the knowledge of it, upon the comparing and measuring my own ideas of two right angles, and the three angles of a triangle. The like holds in matter of fact, knowable by our senses; v. g. the history of the deluge is conveyed to us by writings, which had their original from revelation: and yet nobody, I think, will say he has as certain and clear a knowledge of the flood, as Noah that saw it; or that he himself would have had, had he then been alive and seen it. For he has no greater assurance than that of his senses, that it is writ in the book supposed writ by Moses inspired: but he has not so great an assurance that Moses writ that book, as if he had seen Moses write it. So that the assurance of its being a revelation is less still than the assurance of his senses (4.18.4).

i) By "traditional revelation," he means the transmission of revelation–in contrast to the firsthand experience of the original recipient. One problem with his dichotomy is failure to consider the possibility of contemporary confirmation for biblical revelation. Take answered prayer. A Christian prays to the Christian God, based on Bible promises. If the answer is unmistakable, then that's independent of whatever miracles, if any, originally attested a biblical prophet. Similarly, Locke antedates Biblical archeology, which often provides independent corroboration for the historicity (or prophecies) of Scripture.

ii) If, moreover, God has indeed chosen to reveal himself and rule his people by means of "traditional revelation," then should it not rank higher than Locke rates it? 

But yet nothing, I think, can, under that title, shake or over-rule plain knowledge; or rationally prevail with any man to admit it for true, in a direct contradiction to the clear evidence of his own understanding. For since no evidence of our faculties, by which we receive such revelations, can exceed, if equal, the certainty of our intuitive knowledge, we can never receive for a truth any thing that is directly contrary to our clear and distinct knowledge: v. g. the ideas of one body, and one place, do so clearly agree, and the mind has so evident a perception of their agreement, that we can never assent to a proposition, that affirms the same body to be in two distant places at once, however it should pretend to the authority of a divine revelation: since the evidence, first, that we deceive not ourselves, in ascribing it to God; secondly, that we understand it right; can never be so great, as the evidence of our own intuitive knowledge, whereby we discern it impossible for the same body to be in two places at once. And therefore no proposition can be received for divine revelation, or obtain the assent due to all such, if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive knowledge. Because this would be to subvert the principles and foundations of all knowledge, evidence, and assent whatsoever: and there would be left no difference between truth and falsehood, no measures of credible and incredible in the world, if doubtful propositions shall take place before self-evident; and what we certainly know give way to what we may possibly be mistaken in. In propositions therefore contrary to the clear perception of the agreement or disagreement of any of our ideas, it will be in vain to urge them as matters of faith. They cannot move our assent, under that or any other title whatsoever. For faith can never convince us of any thing that contradicts our knowledge. Because though faith be founded on the testimony of God (who cannot lye) revealing any proposition to us; yet we cannot have an assurance of the truth of its being a divine revelation, greater than our own knowledge: since the whole strength of the certainty depends upon our knowledge that God revealed it, which in this case, where the proposition supposed revealed contradicts our knowledge or reason, will always have this objection hanging to it, viz. that we cannot tell how to conceive that to come from God, the bountiful Author of our being, which, if received for true, must overturn all the principles and foundations of knowledge he has given us; render all our faculties useless; wholly destroy the most excellent part of his workmanship, our understandings; and put a man in a condition, wherein he will have less light, less conduct than the beast that perisheth. For if the mind of man can never have a clearer (and perhaps not so clear) evidence of any thing to be a divine revelation, as it has of the principles of its own reason, it can never have a ground to quit the clear evidence of its reason, to give a place to a proposition, whose revelation has not a greater evidence than those principles have (4.18.5).

i) In a sense, what he says is irrefutable. True by definition. But that's an artifact of how he frames the alternatives. He has no category for revelation as a rational norm. No room for the possibility that revelation might function as a standard of comparison to correct fallible reason. Indeed, divine revelation is higher reason–divine reason! A disclosure of divine reason to man. In that respect, revelation has a superior rational pedigree than unaided reason. 

ii) There is, of course, the question of how to verify revelatory claimants. In that regard, there's a symbiotic relationship between reason and revelation. Reason evaluates revelation while revelation underwrites reason. 


Recently, James White said the primary threat to freedom in America isn't coming from Muslims but from secular progressives. But there are several problems with that claim:

i) If we continue the status quo immigration policy, combined with the fact that Muslims have higher fertility rates than most natives, the threat that Muslims in American pose to our Constitutional republic will rapidly expand. (BTW, I don't object to big families.)

ii) White erects a false dichotomy between Islam and the liberal establishment. Yet it's well-known that the Left protects Islam. A recent example is how Berkeley canceled the scheduled speech by Richard Dawkins. 

iii) Ironically, Islam is using secular academia as a front organization:

Another example how Brandeis disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Secular academia facilitates sharia and jihad by acting as a buffer between Muslim activists and their critics.

iv) In addition, the major internet providers and search engines are censoring criticism or information about Islam. For instance:

Stop to consider the implications of that. The Internet is now a major source of news. Perhaps the major source of news. People do online searches to get information about Islam. But if search results now filter out evidence that Islam is dangerous, then the general public won't be able to fact-check Islam. Likewise, social media has become the primary means of sharing information and mobilizing social activism. If that is blocked, what's the recourse? These are powerful, insidious ways to silence and shut down opposition.

What we have, then, is an emerging alliance between Muslims and the liberal establishment. A silent revolution.