Monday, October 16, 2017

Schreiner on Rom 2:14-15

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2017/10/tom-schreiner-changes-mind-rom-2-14-15/

Praying for stalled cars and frozen computer screens

http://www.craigkeener.com/the-staff-of-moses-becomes-the-staff-of-god-exodus-42-17-20/

The lonely god

A. Some Christian philosophers and theologians have proposed a priori arguments (i.e. arguments from reason) for the Trinity. And this has relevance to Islam, rabbinical Judaism, and the oxymoronic "Christian unitarianism" alike. 

Apostate Dale Tuggy has attempted to debunk these arguments on more than one occasion:




B. Let's reframe the issue. Instead of considering a priori arguments for Trinitarianism, suppose we consider a priori undercutters for unitarianism. These don't propose to directly prove the Trinity. Rather, if successful, they provide indirect support for the Trinity by undermining unitarianism. 

Take an eyewitness to a crime. Turns out he's known to drop acid. That doesn't falsify his testimony. It doesn't prove he was high at the time he allegedly witnessed the crime. It is, however, reason to impugn his credibility.

Suppose these arguments fall short of proving that God must be no less than three persons and no more than three persons. Although they fail to prove that God is tripersonal, if they undermine the grounds for believing that God might be unipersonal, then they are successful undercutters for unitarianism. That's analogous to a Christian apologist who proposes an undercutter for atheism. If successful, the logical alternative isn't necessarily Christianity. So additional arguments would be required to narrow the field down to Christianity. However, to eliminate atheism from rational consideration is a significant first step. 

C. The nature of proof

We need to define what we mean by proof. Traditionally, I think some philosophers and theologians regarded theistic proofs as "demonstrations". These were thought to have apodictic force. 

But there's an influential alternative, promoted by philosophers and theologians like Locke, Butler, Newman, and Plantinga, who regard that criterion as artificially stringent. Hardly any of the important beliefs we most care about are susceptible to rigorous proof, so why should we hold theistic proofs to that austere and inhuman standard? Instead, they recast the criterion in terms of what is rational, probable, or warranted. 

D. The nature of love

1. How can God be love if he has no one to love? In the nature of the case, love is a relation. 

Notice what this argument doesn't claim. It doesn't claim that love must be generous. It doesn't claim that love is diffusive. 

It doesn't claim that God would be imperfect if he had no one to love. It doesn't even claim that God would be imperfect unless he was loving by nature. 

Rather, it's a conditional claim: If God is love, then given that postulate, divine love must have an object–because love is a relation. 

2. Dale might respond that God does have something to love. God loves his creatures. 

That, however, raises another issue. If creatures are all God has to love, then there's a lack of parity between the lover and the beloved. A unitarian god relates to humans the way a boy related to his pet lizard. Christians are rightly critical of couples who choose to have pets as an alternative to kids. If love is an essential divine attribute, can that be satisfied by a contingent and inferior corollary? 

3. Dale might respond that self-love is adequate. If so, one problem with that response is that it's equivocal. To be loving in the sense of self-love isn't the same kind of love as loving another. 

We could pursue this general line of argument in additional directions, but let's save that for a related argument:

E. The nature of personhood

1. Does the very idea of a person necessitate interpersonal relationships? Is personhood intrinsically relational? 

2. One of Dale's counterarguments is that love is a character trait, not an action. An agent can possess that disposition or virtue even if he never has a chance to actually manifest that virtue.

But there are problems with that counterargument:

i) Although love is a disposition or character trait, personhood is not. Rather, personhood is the basis for dispositions or character traits, which inhere in personhood. So that's more fundamental. 

ii) Perhaps even more to the point, why would God have an intrinsic capacity for something merely contingent? For something that God can do without? Humans can have an unrealized potential for interpersonal relationships, but that's because humans are essentially social beings.  Why would a unipersonal God have that innate capacity in the first place, if his ability to socialize is inessential to who or what he is? In unitarianism, the existence of other persons is a contingent fact.

3. Dale has leveled another counterargument:

The same point can be made with a simpler, more chilling story. Some have speculated that those who are sent to Hell are neither literally burned nor actively tormented, but are simply cast into permanent, utter isolation. Imagine this happening to you; you are judged for your deeds, and then find your self in an empty, dark place. You call out, “Hello? Is anyone there?” Days, weeks, months pass, and your sanity hangs by a thread, for you are deprived of any degree of attention, as far as you can tell, from anyone. (If God is aware of you, you have no hint of this – he has seemingly abandoned you.) You are devoid of any sort of friendship or communion. But, you are as much a self as you ever were – not a thriving one, to be sure, but a self nonetheless. 

But ironically, his counterargument is self-defeating:

i) Let's play along with the notion of solitary confinement. In this case, unitarian solipsism. 

Suppose you put a person in a windowless cell. No companions. No movies. All he had was his own mind to entertain him. 

And suppose this person was immortal. Remember that Dale regards God as everlasting rather than timeless. For him, God has no beginning or ending. So God experiences the (psychological) passage of time.

Suppose, after a century, or millennium, or million years, or billion years, or trillion years, you open the door and let the inmate leave solitary confinement. What will his mental condition be like? To judge by a human standard of comparison, he'd be catatonic or stark raving mad. 

So it's not just a question of whether a unitarian deity can initially be a person, but whether the psychological integrity of personhood requires companionship, in whose absence it will deteriorate. 

4. Perhaps Dale would say that's too anthropomorphic. That illicitly extrapolates from human nature to the divine nature. 

If so, there are problems with that rejoinder:

i) Dale is an open theist, so he already has a far more anthropomorphic view of the deity than classical theism.

ii) What are the limitations of an argument by analogy from man to God? God and man are different in two ways: some things are true of God that can't be true of man while some things are true of man that can't be true of God. For the extrapolation to be vitiated by disanalogy, Dale needs to show that one of those two things limitations applies in reference to the argument at hand. 

iii) It isn't simply an extrapolation from the creature to the Creator. The comparison is more specific. Of all God's creatures (that we know about), man is the most godlike. Angels may be comparable, but they too, like man, are interpersonal agents. 

Indeed, there's a certain hierarchy wherein the more sophisticated the creature, the more socially complex. So there's a kind of trajectory leading up to God. 

ii) Dale constantly impugns Incarnational, Trinitarian theism for taking refuge in mystery or paradox, but if unitarianism posits a God for which there's no analogy in human experience, then unitarianism is apophatic, which is an appeal to mystery. An ineffable, inscrutable God.


A being that's said to be essentially personal or unipersonal without being essentially interpersonal is opaque to human understanding. That doesn't correspond to our grasp of what it means to be a person. When the unitarian makes God that remote to human understanding, that inapprehensible, then what does his concept of God amount to? What's the difference between God and no God?  

The preacher as sacrament

1. When I was younger I made of point of listening to some famous preachers to find out what made them famous preachers. What was their reputation as great preachers based on? I've since forgotten who most of them were, although the list included W. A. Criswell and George W. Truett. 

2. Recently, out of curiosity, I've been catching up on the current crop of famous Reformed preachers. Outside of church attendance I don't normally listen to preachers. I focus on reading. 

It's my impression that Paul Washer has quite a following in Reformed circles. I've seen some excerpts. It may not be a representative sample. But this is my cursory impression. I may step on some toes, but in that event, don't walk barefoot through my post.

3. I agree with just about everything he says about the altar call, sinner's prayer, easybelievism, decisional evangelism. 

In one clip he makes a hyperbolic statement about how that's sent more people to hell than anything else. Really? That's sent more people to hell than Islam, Catholicism, Communism, Buddhism, Hinduism? There's a danger of getting caught up in his own rhetoric.

Although I don't agree with him that infant baptism in principle is a source of false assurance, it's undoubtedly the case that many people vest false assurance in the sacraments. 

4. That said, to judge by what I've seen, I wouldn't recommend Washer. For starters, take this example:


That's either fake emotion or manufactured sentiment. If this was, say, Steven Furtick, Rod Parsley, or Jimmy Swaggart (before his downfall), I don't think most Calvinists would hesitate to dismiss that as a put-on. But if it's one of our own, the temptation is to drop our guard. 

Perhaps he's sincere, but even so, it should be obvious that he is working himself into a frenzied state of mind, the way athletes psych themselves up for a performance to get the adrenaline pumping. There's nothing supernatural about this. It's not the unction of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it's trying to work yourself into a highly agitated state of mind. 

Notice, too, the three-hanky musical accompaniment. If his delivery alone doesn't get the viewer in the right mood, then his delivery in combination with the musical background should do the trick. That's calculated emotional manipulation. And a lot of his video clips have musical accompaniment.  

I don't object to passionate preaching. Up to a point, I don't object to weepy preachers. But that should be spontaneous. 

And this isn't an isolated case. From a lot of other clips I've seen, he has a very studied delivery. Straining for effect. The tremulous voice. The lump in the throat. Like hearing an Italian tenor sing Vesti la giubba with the interjected sobs. 

His preaching style is self-conscious. And that's not a good thing. The focus ought to be on the message, not the messenger. Yet in a lot of clips I've seen, he's constantly drawing attention to himself. 

The most charitable interpretation is that he's cast himself in a Puritan script. He thinks that's how he's supposed to feel, so he aspires to play that role. 

It's dangerous if we confuse that with sanctification. Even if the motivation is well-meant, hamminess isn't holiness. 

It's striking to compare this with an interview of Martyn Lloyd-Jones:


Towards the beginning, he says he wasn't thinking about himself or his qualifications. Rather, he was convinced that something needed to be said. 

4. I don't deny that preaching can sometimes have a supernatural element. But as a rule, preaching makes use of sanctified natural abilities. There's nothing wrong with a preacher who simply exegetes the text, then applies it to the situation of his parishioners. 

5. In one clip, Washer talked about how, as a young man, he spent hours a day in his prayer closet, for about four months, hankering after a particular experience from God:


In charismatic lingo, he sought the "anointing"–although he avoids that association. His orientation is very self-centered, as if the preacher is supposed to be a theophany. 

6. Given how much time he spends on the sawdust trail, I wonder how much time he has for his wife and kids. Did he take them along on these preaching junkets, or leave them behind? 

Just to be a faithful Christian spouse and parent is a laboratory for sanctification. Just to cope with the disappointments, aggravations, deprivations, anxieties and demands of life in a fallen work is a laboratory for sanctification. Sainthood isn't something apart from mundane, day-to-day, down-to-earth experience. Rather, that's how to live out the Christian faith. You don't have to cry out all night in the snowy woods. Rather, it's the marathon of faith. To be faithful day in and day out. To repent when you fail, and keep stepping. 

Consider this clip, complete with the tearful violin accompaniment:


Frankly, his notion of having to "tarry" until God comes down can easily be mock pious escapism. Running off to chase a feeling as a substitute for facing the relentless,   grinding demands of ordinary Christian existence. 

7. Finally, for a Calvinist, there's a synergistic quality to his notion of piety. According to Calvinism, we're saved by grace alone. It's ultimately up to God.

Yet Washer often makes the walk of faith sound extremely precarious. We're walking a tightrope from start to finish. We could fall off at anytime. 

But is the Christian faith really that hard? Life can be very hard. But does Christianity make life harder? If you suffer persecution, perhaps. Unanswered prayer is frustrating. Resisting temptation is a struggle. But in general, Christianity has resources that make life so easier to take. So much easier to get through. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Saving Catholicism from the pope

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2017/10/15/the-popes-remarks-on-capital-punishment-need-to-be-clarified/

The Power Of Christ's Righteousness Imputed

"For, even as Jesus Christ is stronger than Adam was, so is his righteousness more mighty than the sin of Adam. And, if the sin of Adam was sufficient enough to make all men sinners and children of wrath, without any misdeed of our own, much more shall Christ's righteousness be of greater force to make us all righteous, and the children of grace, without any of our own good works; which cannot be good unless that, before we do them, we ourselves be made good" (The Benefit Of Christ's Death, 19)

"Hence also it is proved, that it is entirely by the intervention of Christ's righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment….This is most clearly declared by the Apostle, when he says, that he who knew no sin was made an expiatory victim for sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21). You see that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in Christ; that the only way in which we become possessed of it is by being made partakers with Christ, since with him we possess all riches….'As by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous,' (Rom. 5:19). To declare that we are deemed righteous, solely because the obedience of Christ is imputed to us as if it were our own, is just to place our righteousness in the obedience of Christ. Wherefore, Ambrose appears to me to have most elegantly adverted to the blessing of Jacob as an illustration of this righteousness, when he says that as he who did not merit the birthright in himself personated his brother, put on his garments which gave forth a most pleasant odour, and thus introduced himself to his father that he might receive a blessing to his own advantage, though under the person of another [Genesis 27:1-29], so we conceal ourselves under the precious purity of Christ, our first-born brother, that we may obtain an attestation of righteousness from the presence of God." (John Calvin, Institutes Of The Christian Religion, 3:11:23)

"The righteousness of God here spoken of is just the doing and dying of the Lord Jesus. It is called the righteousness of God, because it is that of God himself. You remember when Christ was a child, it is said he was 'the mighty God' [Isaiah 9:6]…And, in the same manner, the obedience of Christ was the obedience of one who was God; and when he obeyed his parents [Luke 2:51-52], it was the obedience of one who was God….Those of you who are awakened sinners, here is a righteousness that can cover you; behold, for each of your crimson sins, here is a stripe of one who is God. And, brethren, more than that, here are acts of holy obedience to cover your naked soul, here are holy words to cover your unholy words, here are holy deeds to cover your unholy deeds. O brethren! here is a lifetime of obedience to cover your soul….So it is with you; if you have on this righteousness you will be covered, and when God looks down, he will see nothing but the glassy sea of his Son's obedience….When Paul approached the gates of Rome, when he looked at its marble baths, when he saw the multitudes flocking to the theatre, and when he saw the crowds bowing down to the statue of Jupiter or Minerva, the heart of Paul was touched, and why? Because the wrath of God was revealed from heaven against them, and he knew that he had in his hand that which could cover every sinner. O, said Paul, if I could get them to put on this righteousness!…It is like casting a stone into the deep; it sinks, and it is not seen." (Robert McCheyne, A Basket Of Fragments [Scotland: Christian Focus, 2001], 99-101)

Did sacrificial animals die in place of people?

A while back, Bnonn Tennant did a provocative post. I won't link to it because, in preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse, his estimable blog has gone underground, but I will quote what I take to be some representative samples of his argument, then comment on them:

The Levitical system of sacrifices was not intended to model substitutionary atonement; it was about sanctifying the space and the people that God dwelt in the midst of.

When we read Leviticus, we read it through the lens of the cross. This is good, because Leviticus points to the cross; it was fulfilled there. However, the cross did more than one thing. Our default view is penal substitution—but I don’t believe that is how it fulfilledLeviticus. If we read Leviticus with substitution in mind, our interpretation becomes quite confused, and we miss what it is actually all about.

my contention is that they needed to cleanse it of ritual impurity. That is really the only reason that makes sense. They were purifying it to ensure it remained fit for God’s habitation.

The bull is for decontaminating the high priest; one goat is for decontaminating the people; another is for Azazel, a spiritual being; and the ram is for a burnt offering, which reestablished a relationship between the people and God.

the defilement is of a symbolic nature rather than a moral one.

In ritual settings, both words refer to purging or purifying. In Leviticus, therefore, I think we should translate kipper as “to make a purging,” rather than “to make atonement.” This is because, just as with the “sin offering,” it is clearly not referring to moral guilt; it is referring to decontamination. Obviously a place cannot incur, nor be purged of guilt. Rather, what is in view is the restoring of this space to a state fit for God to dwell in, by sprinkling God’s throne (the lid of the ark) with blood. The same thing happens in verse 18 with the altar: the priest “makes atonement for” the altar by sprinkling it with blood. He is not removing moral guilt; he is purging it from ritual uncleanness.

This understanding of atonement is corroborated in what happens next: the other goat is sent away. It is not sacrificed; its blood is never applied to anyone or anything. Rather, the ritual impurity of the people is symbolically transferred to it, and it is driven out of sacred space

The goat doesn’t “pay for” the impurity with its life; rather, it removes the impurity from the borders of the camp, carrying it into the wilderness, which was the domain of Azazel.

So what the Levitical system is modeling for us is not substitution; it is the need for forensic justification—for being declared fit for God’s presence purely on the basis of faith, as demonstrated in obedience to the cultic laws.

The connection between the blood of animals, and the blood of Jesus, is not that animals had to die in the place of people to turn away God’s wrath. Indeed, as any Christian knows—but hasn’t necessarily thought through—“it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Rather, the blood made the area symbolically suitable, clean, for habitation by God. The point is not to turn away God’s wrath through a substitutionary sacrifice, nor to model the turning away of God’s wrath through a substitutionary sacrifice. It is to demonstrate the extreme unapproachableness of God in view of the depravity of man. 

i) Whether Azazel is a demonic being in Leviticus is highly disputable. However, it isn't clear to me that Bnonn's argument depends on that identification. And my response doesn't require me to refute that identification.

ii) I can't help wondering if Bnonn's argument isn't designed to undergird his Amyraldism and sidestep Owen's double jeopardy argument. If you believe that Christ died for everyone, and if you construe his death in penal substitutionary terms, the question is whether penal substitution in tandem with universal atonement entails universal salvation. Historically, many Arminians reject penal substitution for that very reason. 

iii) Since I'm not a traditionalist, I don't objection to iconoclastic interpretations, per se. And I agree with Bnonn that conventional translations can be prejudicial. 

iv) I don't see how one can avoid a vicarious transaction in some of these examples, where the offering is a stand-in for the sinner or worshiper. A graphic example is the scapegoat, where the guilt of the Israelites is symbolically transferred to the scapegoat, via the gesture of the priest, then the scapegoat is driven out of the camp, symbolically separating guilt from the guilty. 

Penal substitution builds on the generic vicarious principle, but adds a more specific nuance, where one thing is punished in place of another. To put the matter in reverse, absent a surrogate, the sinner or worshipper would suffer punishment in his own person.

v) Although I don't assume that every offering in Leviticus foreshadows the Cross, I think Leviticus is using several different pictures to foreshadow the redemptive significance of the Cross. No one picture is intended to capture in full the concept of penal substitution. Rather, these need to be viewed in combination. Different pictures to illustrate different facets of vicarious atonement and penal substitution. To say, therefore, that the scapegoat wasn't sacrificed misses the point. No one type of offering was meant to cover the entire idea. 

vi) The fundamental problem I have with Bnonn's analysis is that he erects a false dichotomy. I can grant the distinction between moral and ritual purity/impurity. I can grant the sacred spatial framework. 

Problem though, is that his dichotomy only pushes the question back a step. So what does sacred space signify? What does ritual defilement signify? Cultic holiness represents actual holiness. Cultic unholiness represents actual unholiness. These are emblematic pictures or enacted parables. You don't literally enter God's presence by entering the tabernacle or the inner sanctum. Rather, that's a pictorial representation. Concrete spatial metaphors or figurative tokens that stand for real good and evil. 

It's entirely consistent with the symbolic nature of the Levitical cultus that these gestures and actions symbolize vicarious atonement, penal substitution, thereby prefiguring the redemptive death of Christ on behalf of and in place of (elect) sinners. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Joel Green on penal substitution

Joel Green is a leading Arminian NT scholar and critic of penal substitution. I'm going to comment on some of his objections to Tom Schreiner's exposition of penal substitution in J. Beilby & P. Eddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (IVP 2006).

By what logic can it be assumed that anger is quenched by acting on it in this way? That is, even if we grant these two claims regarding the divine "penalty," on what basis does it follow that Jesus' dying quenches the anger directed at us by God? Does the transfer of guilt satisfy the demands of justice? (112).

i) Problem with Green's criticism is that he's raising a philosophical objection to an exegetical question. Schreiner is doing exegesis, not apologetics. Schreiner's aim is not to defend what the Bible says; he takes the revelatory status of Scripture as a starting-point in this discussion. His aim is to interpret the witness of Scripture regarding penal substitution. There are well-worn objections to whether guilt is transferable from one party to another, but while that's worth discussing, that's a separate issue. That can be a question of inerrancy, where a critic of penal substitution admits and rejects the witness of Scripture.

ii) Also, even at a philosophical level, it isn't necessary to defend penal substitution directly (which doesn't mean that can't be done). If, say, one can defend the revelatory status of Scripture, then that indirectly defends whatever Scripture teaches. 

Given the anthropathy at work in attributing this sort of anger to Yahweh, can we so easily escape the reality that redirecting anger at an innocent party does not (or at least need not) return the guilty party to good graces? (112).

The human family, not God, needs transformation, a reading that does not mesh well with this emphasis on the atonement as assuaging God's anger (114).

Penal substitution doesn't require a category of literal divine anger or wrath, &c. It can easily translate that colorful language into a more abstract concept like divine justice. Indeed, the necessary presupposition of penal substitution isn't divine wrath, but divine justice. That's the essential principle. 

If this logic is explanatory of the divine economy, how are we to understand those biblical accounts in which forgiveness is extended apart from the satisfaction of wrath (e.g., Mk 2:1-11)? (112).

That's a dubious argument from silence. The fact that Jesus forgave sinners like the paralytic without explicit reference to penal substitution or vicarious atonement doesn't imply that remission is independent of penal substitution or vicarious atonement. Indeed, Jesus would be working at cross-purposes to extend forgiveness apart from his redemptive death. It's more logical to infer that when Jesus forgave the paralytic, that was with a view to his impending death on the cross. That's why he came from heaven in the first place. His redemptive death is the presumptive basis for forgiving sins, in advance of his redemptive death. The relationship is teleological rather than chronological. That's why OT saints can be forgiven ahead of time. 

And although that's more abstract, it remains personal. Justice and injustice are properties of moral agents. 

Green's alternative disconnects the forgiveness which Christ extended to sinners like the paralytic from his death on the cross, as if Christ didn't have that in mind. It is in his proleptic capacity as the Redeemer that Christ forgave the paralytic. It makes no sense to disengage forgiveness from atonement. That renders the atonement superfluous. 

Schreiner has not addressed one of the principal questions raised against the model of penal substitutionary atonement, namely, that it presumes a breakdown of the inner-trinitarian life of God…How can one claim that the Son had to die on the cross in order to propitiate God's anger? (114).

That objection is misconceived. The Son didn't die to placate the Father's wrath. Divine justice is an attribute which the Trinitarian persons share in common. Although vicarious atonement to satisfy divine justice involves a contrast between Father and Son at the level of action, it does not involve a contrast between Father and Son at the level of justice. It's not as if the Father is the repository of divine justice, rather than the Son. No one person of the Trinity is sole custodian of cosmic justice. As an essential divine attribute, justice is common property of the Father, Son, and Spirit alike. 

I'm unsure how the model of penal substitutionary atonement generates transformed life (114).

Green acts as though penal substitution is defective if it fails to address salvation as transformation. But that assumes salvation should be reducible to a single overarching principle. Likewise, it assumes that salvation and atonement ought to be conterminous. 

If, however, sin has two basic components–moral corruption and culpability–then it's logical for salvation to have corresponding components. Penal substitution atones for guilt. That's the work of the Son. Sanctification generates transformation. That's the work of the Spirit. These are distinct, but complementary categories. It would be pointless to sanctify hellbound sinners. 

Focussed as it is on the individual, on forensic judgment and on the moment of justification, how can this model keep from undermining any emphasis on salvation as transformation and from obscuring the social and cosmological dimensions of salvation? If the purpose of God will be actualized in the restoration of all things, then how is this purpose served by a theory of penal substitution? How does the model of penal substitutionary atonement carry within itself the theological resolution of racism? What becomes of the soteriological motivation for engaging in the care of God's creation? Against the backdrop of texts like Col 1:15-20 and Eph 2, these are not peripheral questions (114). 

i) It's unclear what Green means by the restoration of all things. Only a universalist subscribes to that imagery without qualification. But in orthodox theology, not all agents will be reconciled to God. The damned are permanently alienated from God.

ii) It's unclear what Green means by the "cosmological dimension of salvation" and the "care of God's creation". Although the NT uses "cosmological" language, it doesn't use that in the modern astronomical sense. Most of the universe is lifeless and inhospitable to biological life. 

If he's indulging in a radical chic allusion to ecology, that stretches the concept of salvation. It's anachronistic to act as though the NT rubberstamps modern environmentalism, green energy, anthropogenic global warming, &c. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Honor your mummy

On Facebook, I answered some questions from a curious unbeliever:

1.) Is there a “proper” Christian way to dispose of a body? 
Or is it all good, so long as there’s at least some well-meant attempt at a funeral rite?
Or is the notion of a “proper Christian burial” a more modern (man-made) idea.
2.) How come? 
Specifically, if there is a divine command to treat bodies in such a way, is there a “reason” given.
3.) If the soul is what’s important, and the flesh is — I’m not religious so forgive the words — dirty, or sinful or mostly irrelevant, etc. wouldn’t that leave treatment of the corpse kind of unimportant (spiritually speaking).

i) I consider cremation to be a legitimate way to dispose of the body. 

ii) Christian theology doesn't regard the body as dirty or sinful. Indeed, the body qua body can't be sinful: only agents can sin.

iii) Customs like a Christian funeral, memorial service, and/or graveyard service are ways to put death in a theological context, as well as honoring the life of the particular decedent (if his life was honorable), consoling mourners, as well as evangelizing attendees who don't normally come to church.

If incineration and burial are both on the table, is there anything that is particularly off the table?

Before commenting on specifics, there's the issue of symbolic reverence. For instance, a picture of your wife is not your wife, but if someone vandalized a picture of your wife, you'd resent that because the picture represents your wife. To vandalize a picture of your wife is to symbolically dishonor your wife.

It's analogous to funereal customs. The body of the decedent represents the decedent. If it's the body of a serial killer (say), there might be something to be said for ignominious disposal of the remains. But that aside, Christian funereal customs are designed to honor the memory of the decedent–among other things. 

Mummification?

From a Christian standpoint, that clings too much to this life. We need to be more heavenly-minded. 

Christians believe in honoring your mummy, just not mummifying her.

Sky burial?

i) To my knowledge, that's associated with Buddhism. Buddhism has a tragic worldview. Nothing lasts. Nothing we care about is permanent. So we should practice detachment. 

Sky burial represents the opposite extreme of mummification. It views the life history of individuals as essentially dispensable and disposable. That's in part because Buddhism is atheistic. 

ii) In addition, Buddhism subscribes to reincarnation, so there's nothing special about the decedent's body, since there is no one body that uniquely matches his body. He will have many unrelated bodies over the course of many lives. 

Donating one’s body to science?

Organ donation is morally commendable in principle. However, that's becoming abused. There's a trend to euthanize patients to harvest their organs. 

Burial at sea?

That can be appropriate for sailers and fishermen. Reflects their livelihood. And sometimes that's a necessary alternative to burial. 

Butchered and cleaned for consumption?

That goes to the ethics of cannibalism in general.

Taboo Calvinism

Most Calvinists I have ever read or heard or spoken to will insist that God is not the author of sin and evil. But can they, real Calvinists, say that with logic on their side? Or, when they say that, from within their own theological system, are they simply sacrificing logic entirely?

Calvin, Edwards, Sproul and Piper, just to name a few leading Calvinist theologians, affirmed that God foreordained the fall of Adam and Eve and thereby all of its consequences. According to one of them, put very bluntly but helpfully, God “designed, ordained, and governs” everything that happens without exception—including sin and its consequences (evil decisions and actions by fallen people).

The question that should automatically arise, then, is how does this avoid making God the author of sin and evil? I don’t think it can—from within the common Calvinist system of God’s sovereignty, providence and predestination of all things.

When asked to explain, to relieve the apparent contradiction, most Calvinists appeal to “secondary causes.” God renders sin and evil certain only through secondary causes. Two come to mind: Satan and fallen human beings. But we cannot avoid going “back” in our thoughts to how Satan came to be evil and how Adam and Eve fell into sin when they had fellowship with God—given that God “designed, ordained, and governed” (and rendered certain) even their evil decisions and deeds.

If Satan (Lucifer) and Adam and Eve fell into sin and evil because God foreordained it and rendered it certain, how is it possible to “get God off the hook?” It isn’t. In every intelligible sense, this view of God and evil traces evil back to God’s intentions.

Ah! Some Calvinists will say: God is not guilty because his intentions in foreordaining and rendering sin and evil and all their consequences certain are good. Satan’s and Adam’s and Eve’s (and ours) are not good. But that’s not the point here. (I could argue that one into the ground also, but I’ll leave that for another time.) Back to the point: It is simply illogical to say that God is not the author of evil insofar as one also believes God “designed, ordained” and rendered it certain—even if through secondary causes and with good intentions.

Two points here. First, in my experience, most young, impressionable evangelical Calvinists have not thought this through. As soon as it is pointed out to them (viz., that logically Calvinism makes God the author of sin and evil no matter what their favorite Calvinist pastor or theologian says) they either say 1) Oh, I hadn’t thought that, or 2) Whatever God does is good just because God does it. The latter is what their Calvinist mentors should say, but usually don’t because it doesn’t answer how God is not the author of sin and evil and it makes God morally ambiguous.

Occasionally a Calvinist theologian, pastor, teacher, writer, will bite the bullet and admit that, from within the Calvinist system, as explicated by Calvin, Edwards, Sproul, and Piper, God is the author of sin and evil. Then, suddenly, he is harshly criticized for falling into heresy.

Logic matters—in every theological system and even in the pulpits. If Calvinists want to avoid logical contradiction they need to “back up” and re-think their whole explanation of God’s meticulous sovereignty in which God designs, ordains and renders certain everything that happens without exception or else admit that they do believe (whether consciously or hidden even from themselves) that God is the author of sin and evil.

(Footnote: I do not consider anyone a consistent, true Calvinist who does not believe God foreordained the fall of humanity and rendered it certain. Here, in this essay, I am addressing only those true, consistent Calvinists who, together with Calvin, believe God foreordained the fall of humanity and everything else and rendered everything certain according to a divine plan. There are all kinds of people who call themselves “Calvinists” who I do not consider “real Calvinists” and there are all kinds of people who call themselves “Arminians” who I do not consider “real Arminians.”)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoe-leather evangelism

Recently I've been listening to some Francis Chan clips on YouTube. I should preface my comments by saying my knowledge of Francis is quite cursory, so it's entirely possible that what I've seen and read doesn't reflect a representative sample, in which case my observations may be off-the-mark. Those who are more conversant with his ministry than me can correct or supplement my observations:

i) He strikes me as one of those communicators, like Jeremiah, St. Paul, and some of the Psalmists, who wears his heart on his sleeve. That makes him very engaging.

ii) Apropos (i), some preachers have a textual or doctrinal emphasis, whereas he seems to have an existential emphasis. Up to a point that's good. We're supposed to internalize the Gospel. Become what we believe. There's a danger, in theology and apologetics, where orthodoxy can be a substitute for application. 

The church needs different kinds of preachers. Preachers like Francis fill a necessary niche.  

iii) Apropos (i-ii), from what I've seen, he likes to use personal anecdotes as sermon illustrations. That's very engaging. Everyone likes to hear a good story. It can be edifying and inspirational. 

That said, over-reliance on personal anecdotes can be hazardous. That might contribute to pastoral burnout. 

If you keep dipping into the well of your personal experience for sermon illustrations, it won't be long before the dipper scrapes bottom. Each individual only has so many fresh, exciting anecdotes to share. In general, life is fairly mundane.

To vary the metaphor, over-reliance on personal anecdotes is like self-cannibalism. If you over-use your own experience, it's like feeding off of yourself, because you only have so much to spare. 

Imagine being stranded on a desert island. There's nothing to eat. To forestall starvation, you begin consuming "expendable" parts of your own body. You have ten fingers. Ten toes. Two arms. Two legs. How much of yourself can you consume and still survive?

I'm not saying for a fact that he has that problem. Perhaps his experience is sufficiently varied that he doesn't run dry. But there is a risk, if a preacher feels the need to spice up his sermons with new, thrilling personal anecdotes, that he will eat himself alive (as it were).

iv) Apropos (iii), Francis has a particular skill set. It would be a mistake for a greenhorn preacher to imitate Francis. As a natural public speaker, he can pull things off that somebody without his talent can't get away with.  

v) Apropos (iv), because the church has many members, the strengths and weakness of one member ought to be balanced out by the strengths and weaknesses of other members. Everyone has limitations. Don't try to be more than you are. Rather, make the most of whatever you are. 

vi) Apropos (v), Francis can reach many people in some demographic groups that old square white guys like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Charles Stanley can't. We need the variety.

vii) From what I've seen, Francis seems to have an appetite for modern miracles. And he has some striking anecdotes of special providence. For instance:





That's encouraging. There is, though, the danger of becoming deflated if you feel that you need to witness a new miracle every so often. Like, "Okay, God, that was sensational! But that's so last week. What have you done lately?" 

viii) Apropos (vii), the church needs people like Francis to shake things up. Keep devotional life from becoming too mechanical, perfunctory, complacent, set in our ways.

On the other hand, a large part of perseverance, of spiritual maturity, is coping with the hum drum of so much we have to do. Life can be grueling enough without having Olympic expectations. It's an achievement just to get across the finish line. 

ix) Francis has been criticized for quitting a megachurch that he started. I think one reason he quit is that he has a heart for personal evangelism. He feels a duty to connect with people face-to-face and one-on-one. That's not something the senior pastor of a megachurch has time for. The pastor to parishioner ratio prohibits much individualized ministry. That's delegated to associate pastors who do visitation and small-group ministry.

I can understand if Francis felt his church outgrew his sense of vocation. He wanted to get back to shoe-leather evangelism. And he has a knack for that. Can you imagine John MacArthur or Charles Stanley doing street evangelism in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco? Likewise, Francis recently addressed a high school audience. Even though he's already 50, he's naturally in his element with that demographic. 

And it seems to recharge his batteries. Gives him a chance to see God at work, transforming individuals. 

x) Francis became uneasy with his celebrity. In part, I think he felt unworthy. People were coming just to hear him.

And it's true that, ideally, people should come for the message, not the messenger. If, however, the messenger is what draws them to the messenger, then I don't think a preacher should feel guilty about their motivations. 

There a paradox about great actors and speakers: they have a natural talent, but once they get a reputation, it's hard for them not to become self-conscious of their talent. Instead of just doing what made them famous before they became famous, there's a temptation to live up to their reputation. They may lose some of the focus and spontaneity  that made the popular in the first place. 

For instance, Laurence Olivier was widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation. Yet he got to a point in his career when he suffered from crippling stage fright. How can the world's greatest actor suffer from stage right, you ask? By having that hanging over your head every time you walk out on stage.   
It's a greater challenge for conscientious preachers, since their aim is not to impress an audience. They don't want to be the center of attention. They don't want to be the object of adulation. It's a dilemma for great preachers. They should just accept the fact that God is using them as instruments. God usually works through creaturely media. And he created the medium. 

Etch A Sketch theology

Catholic theology is written on an Etch A Sketch:

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/10/11/pope-francis-death-penalty-contrary-gospel


Circumscribing violence

One of the popular moralistic objections to the Bible concerns the holy war commands and holy war accounts. That's a popular trope among village atheists and "progressive Christians," as well as many OT scholars. My main point is that I think this objection has the issue backwards, but before addressing the main point, a few subsidiary observations:

i) War is brutal. I don't think the reader is expected to find this material uplifting. The ugliness is part and parcel of life in a fallen world.

ii) The hand-wringing and moralizing is a luxury of people who feel safe and secure. People writing in peacetime. 

Not surprisingly, people who find themselves in a war for natural survival are far more hard-nosed. A lot of disapproval heaped on the OT is a reflection of decadent culture elites in gated communities.

Mind you, it can be useful to live at a time and place where we are able to practice critical detachment. I'm not saying that automatically disqualifies the critic. But it also fosters self-deception, as people say things they don't really believe, if they found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. They can talk that way because it's a safe abstraction. They can afford to make disingenuous, unrealistic statements because it doesn't cost them anything. 

iii) Now to my main point: the holy war commands are countercultural. They reflect a dramatic restriction on what is permissible in warfare. 

Historically, many or most cultures, if they had the wherewithal, had no compunction about invading other countries or raiding other tribes for land, women, war captives, loot. They didn't think there was anything wrong with wars of aggression and conquest. Might made right. 

And they invented war gods to rubber-stamped their military campaigns. They just assumed they had divine sanction for military expeditions and raiding parties. 

Likewise, take the glorification of war in the Iliad. For centuries, that was a paradigmatic honor code. An ideal that young men aspired to. 

In the OT, by contrast, God does not endorse war in general. There's defensive war, with rules of warfare. And the only war of conquest was the occupation of Israel. 

So there was a drastic reduction in the kinds of wars deemed to be permissible. Moreover, the enemy was allowed to survive if he submitted to the God of Israel (e.g. Rahab, Gibeonites). So the OT massively curtails the scope of licit violence.