Saturday, December 31, 2016


A friend recently asked me about apostasy in relation to the film Silence. Here's an interesting analysis of the novel on which the film is based:

In response to my friend's inquiry, I said the following:

i) "Apostasy" is a term of art. It didn't fall from the sky. And it can be used to cover a variety of different phenomena. 

ii) We can draw a rough-cut distinction between doxastic apostasy and behavioral apostasy. Up to a point, psychological apostasy involves loss of faith. A professing Christian ceases to believe the essentials of the faith. 

iii) That would be a necessary, rather than sufficient condition inasmuch as that can be a temporary condition. It goes to a distinction in Reformed theology between apostates and backsliders, where a backslider may suffer a temporary loss of faith.

iv) Apropos (iii), there is also the distinction between the emotional problem of suffering and the intellectual problem of suffering. A professing believer may suffer a crisis of faith due to personal tragedy. It's not so much loss of belief, but loss of trust. Anger. Disillusionment. He may not have reassessed his views regarding the evidence for Christianity. Rather, he no longer cares whether or not God exists, because God let him down. 

v) You also have people with a default faith because they grew up in a religious community. They shed that when they find themselves in a different community. There was never much conviction to it. They are social chameleons. Their stated beliefs blend into the social background of whatever peer group you put them in.

vi) On a behavior definition, apostasy is the public recantation of the Christian faith. The individual doesn't quietly lose his faith and keep it to himself, or privately share his loss of faith when questioned. Rather, it's more like a conversion experience where he replaces Christian faith by adopting something else: usually militant atheism.

vii) Or someone might openly renounce the faith out of fear. And sometimes behavior mirrors lack of conviction and commitment. They were never that attached to Christianity. It's circumstances that forced the issue. 

viii) In that respect, some of them are freeze-dried apostates: just add water.

By that I mean, depending on the situation, they might be lifelong professing believers, because it was never put to the test. Or they never had occasion to question their faith. They lived and died in homogenous communities where their nominal faith was constantly reinforced. Yet they were apostates just waiting to happen.

ix) However, if we consider the doxastic makeup to be a necessary condition, then that's an insufficient condition. Repudiating the faith under duress doesn't necessary mean any change in what you believe. Conviction and conformity are separable in principle, and sometimes in practice. 

To take a comparison, consider people living under communism who go through the motions to survive. They say whatever's needed to keep up appearances, but they don't take communist ideology seriously, and they will drop the pose the moment they are free to do so without fear of reprisal.

x) Or suppose you have an Arab Christian whose recruited by the military or law enforcement to infiltrate a jihadist network. He can pass for a Muslim. He speaks fluent Arabic. He's conversant with Muslim culture. 

As an infiltrator, he must pretend to be a Muslim. Recite Muslim prayers. 

Suppose, as a rite of initiation, leaders of the jihadist network require him to urinate on a Bible or an icon of Jesus. That's sacrilegious, but he does so to maintain his cover. 

xi) One final point: it wouldn't surprise me if many people in the past had a somewhat higher pain tolerance than moderns do. Life was physically more painful back then. No anesthetic. 

Likewise, there were many painful, but untreatable and incurable diseases. If you got one, you had to live with it. No symptom relief. Moreover, it could be cumulative, if you developed one painful condition after another. 

Point being: contemporary Christians might be more likely to break under torture or even the threat of torture than their forebears. 

Cross-eyed objections to the virgin birth

Unbelievers reject the virgin birth of Christ. Let's consider two theories they propose to account for why Matthew and Luke (allegedly) made up the story of the virgin birth:

i) It's a cover story to conceal a prenuptial scandal. Either Mary and Joseph had premarital sex or else she had premarital sex with someone other than her fiancé. The story of the virgin birth was fabricated to quell damaging rumors. Not only would such rumors sully her own reputation, but more importantly, sully the reputation of her son. 

ii) It's just a variation on the conventional heathen motif about gods (or goddesses) who sire demigods by having sex with human mortals. Matthew and Luke adapted this motif to give Jesus instant exalted status. 

Now, other issues aside, notice that these two theories are mutually contradictory. According to the first theory, the story of the virgin birth was invented to destigmatize Jesus. At that time and place, his out-of-wedlock conception and birth would tarnish his reputation. He could never live down the disgrace of his illegitimacy.

According to the second theory, the story of the virgin birth was invented to enhance his status. In Greco-Roman mythology, gods often had extramarital affairs, be it with virgins or married women. Children born of such unions were demigods. They enjoyed divine pedigree and superhuman abilities that made them heroes. They were a cut above ordinary mortals.

So these two theories pull in opposing directions. The first theory is based on Jewish social mores, where to be conceived out of wedlock, whether by premarital or extramarital sex, is shameful.

The second theory is based on pagan social mores, where to be conceived out of wedlock can be ennobling, even if that's due to an extramarital liaison, so long as one of the parents is a god (or goddess). That automatically confers both ascribed status (divine paternity) as well as achieved status (superhuman abilities) on the child. To put it bluntly, to be the bastard son of a god (or goddess) put you higher on the pecking order than to be the legitimate son of a human king. Bastard demigods outrank legitimate princes. 

But, of course, that entire framework is ethically and theologically anathema to Judaism. So they can't both be right, although both can most certainly be wrong. 

Would a good God prevent WWII?

As I discuss from time to time, atheists raise contradictory objections to Christianity. Here's another example:

i) On the one hand, atheists say that if there were an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, no child would ever die of cancer (or whatever).

ii) On the other hand, atheists say that if there were an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, then horrendous evils like WWII would never occur.

But let's think about that for a moment. What would be the simplest way to prevent WWII? If Hitler died as a child, or his would-be mother or his would-be grandmother, then there'd be no Hitler, no Third Reich, no WWII. The death of Hitler as an infant, or any of his linear ancestors as infants, would preempt WWII at one stroke. 

So, if you think God ought to prevent WWII, then God ought to let children die of cancer (or whatever). Namely, children whose existence will be a necessary condition for WWII to eventuate. That's the most economical preventive measure. One death to save millions. 

(I'm not endorsing consequentialism. I'm just responding to the atheist on his own grounds.)

And while that's just one example, the same can be said for genocidal dictators generally. Therefore, a consistent atheist can't object in principle to the death of children.  They can't object to God permitting atrocities whose occurrence depends on the perpetrator or one of his lineal forebears surviving to adulthood while they simultaneously object to God permitting the death of children in principle.  

Conversely, we could turn that around. Suppose Hitler (or one of his lineal ancestors) had a life-threatening illness as a child. And suppose God let the child die. That would forestall WWII. 

Would the world be better off in that event? That depends. From what I've read, the reason we developed the bomb was fear that Germany would get the bomb first. Indeed, they had a head start. As it turns out, their experiments were a dead-end, but we didn't know that at the time. Because we were afraid they might beat us to the punch, FDR authorized the Manhattan Project. 

Suppose, though, Hitler never existed because he or one of his lineal forebears died in childhood. That would sap the urgency for us to develop the bomb. Absent that catalyst, what if Russia or China got the bomb before we did. They could then use that as nuclear blackmail to impose Maoism or Stalinism worldwide. And that would be even worse that WWII. 

For atheists, if children die, that's evidence for the nonexistence of God. Yet if some children don't die (e.g. baby Mao, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin)–resulting in massive, horrific evils–that's evidence for the nonexistence of God. But in that case, atheists have contradictory objections. Letting children die disproves his existence while not letting children die disproves his existence!  

There's the further paradox that if God preempted some massive atrocity by permitting the perpetrator (or a lineal forebear) to die in childhood, there'd be no evidence that God preempted that eventuality. God never gets credit for a nonevent. For all we know, God has, in fact, prevented many a Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot from rising to power because they died in childhood. No one remembers because they didn't live to do anything memorable. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Beardless ‘Calvinist’ Outed As Arminian Spy

Merlin in That Hideous Strength

Why does Merlin figure in That Hideous Strength? I've read some intricate explanations about Lewis's sources of influence (e.g. Tolkien, Charles Williams, George McDonald). I'm not a Lewis scholar, so those explanations may be correct. Of course, Lewis was a complex and impressionable thinker who sponged up many ideas from his wide and deep reading, so these are not mutually exclusive explanations.

However, it's my guess that there's a more straightforward explanation:

i) For starters, Lewis is a British fantasy writer with an antiquarian interest. That alone predisposes him to present his own creative reinterpretation of the Arthurian legend. He was spoiling for an opportunity, and That Hideous Strength gave him an opening.

ii) But over and above that, Merlin is a transitional figure with one foot in the old pagan order and another foot in the new Christian order. That may be appealing to Lewis, who saw an overlap between Christianity and paganism. For Lewis, "myth became fact" in Christianity. So Merlin may function as an evocative emblem of his theory regarding the relationship between history and mythology.

iii) Finally, Lewis has an aversion to technocracies. That already comes through in Out of the Silent Planet. And N.I.C.E. represents technocratic transhumanism.

But over and against that is something more powerful than technology: magic. That's ironic because it's older. Primitive. A throwback to something prescientific. 

So Lewis may be using the figure of Merlin to take a swipe at scientific humanism and technological triumphalism. There's something in the world more powerful than science and technology. 

"The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person"

492 The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person "in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" and chose her "in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love".137 [Cf. Eph 1:3-4]

See anything wrong with that statement? Let's compare it to the wording of their prooftext:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:3-4).

Eph 1:3-4 doesn't single out Mary as the object of Eph 1:3-4, but Christians in general. The elect. 

Indeed, it says absolutely nothing about Mary. At best, she would be included among other Christians. 

Ever since Newman, Catholics appeal to the theory of development. Here we see a passage of Scripture decoupled from its context, to prop up Marian dogma. Once Scripture is decoupled from context, the process takes on a life of its own. 

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with theological development, but it has to be logically valid. Problem is, Catholic theology develops in the same way a seminal fictional motif develops over time. Take the literary evolution of the Faust legend or the Arthurian legend, or the cinematic evolution of Batman, Superman, the vampire mythos, or the permutations of the Star Trek canon. Because fiction isn't subject to factual constraints, it can change. The only limit is consistency and is the imagination of the storyteller.

But historical events can't change. They are what they were. Frozen in time.

Catholic theology undergoes the kind of legendary embellishment that's characteristic of fiction. Uncontrolled development, because reality poses no check on where it can go.   

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Wherever the wind blows

At least until recently, I think Peter Enns has tried to strike the pose that you can maintain the essentials of the Christian faith without being a "fundamentalist" or inerrantist. There's a middle ground. 

Now, I don't read his blog on a regular basis, but to my knowledge, this is the first time he's publicly expressed misgivings about the Resurrection:

Despite Keller’s protests, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus invite genuine intellectual skepticism, not simply because of the nature of these events, but precisely because of the Bible’s varied and even confusing reports of them. The resurrection accounts differ considerably from one another and cannot be merged—they were not meant to be. The virgin birth is known only to Luke and Matthew—Mark and John don’t mention it and Paul, though given ample opportunity, never even alludes to it. Simply reading the Bible raises the concerns and, intellectually speaking, they are not easily solved.

Moreover, he frames his current position as an odyssey to an unknown destination. No star chart. Wherever the wind blows. 

Theistic evolution

Dembski reviews a theistic evolutionist:

Are serial killers entitled to respect?

Atheist Jason Thibodeau left some comments on my post:

I'm posting a separate response, in part because the original post is heading into the archive. But you can refer to the original post for contextual background:

"Saying that a person has infinite value is just a way of saying that the value of a person is not measurable or comparable to other things of value."

If that's how you wish to define your usage, fine. But in that case, "incommensurable" or "incomparable" would be more accurate than "infinite".

"There is nothing that is more valuable than the value of a person. We don't know how to measure it and it is inappropriate to put a numerical value on it."

Or course, I never suggested putting a "numerical" value on human life.

"I don't think you have shown that any person can forfeit the respect to which they are entitled. Even serial killers have dignity and their dignity deserves to be respected."

1. That remark is unresponsive to what I wrote. Here's what I wrote:

"Moreover, what's wrong with saying some lives are less valuable than others? What about the possibility that some people devalue their lives through their misconduct? Take serial killers…some people can forfeit their prima facie right to life. Take serial killers."

Thibodeau recasts the issue in terms of "respect" and "dignity". He's free to frame the issue however he sees fit, but those weren't my categories, so his remark fails to engage or counter what I actually said. His categories are not equivalent to mine.

2. I don't think serial killers are entitled to "respect". 

3. Although it's fashionable in some circles to frame human rights in terms of "dignity," that's a terribly vague designator. 

4. To say I haven't shown that "any person can forfeit the respect to which they are entitled" (even if we bracket "respect") is a tendentious way of framing the issue, for I don't grant that's an inalienable entitlement. 

I agree that people can't forfeit an entitlement; by definition, an entitlement is something you're entitled to receive. So on that tautological level, it's something that can't lost or denied. But that begs the question of whether, in fact, this is something to which they are entitled. 

5. I think there's a baseline for how humans should treat other humans. But I say that as a Christian. From a secular standpoint, anything goes.

6. It's true that I didn't argue for my contentions, but I was responding to Thibodeau, who didn't argue for his contentions, either. It's not as if the onus is on me but not on him. 

7. To flesh out my position a bit more, one of my moral principles is the Aristotelian principle that we ought to treat like cases alike and unlike cases unalike. Apropos that distinction, the essence of justice is to distinguish between innocence and guilt, good and evil. 

Hence, serial killers should not be treated the same way as people who exhibit common decency, for that would be treating unlike cases alike, and erasing a necessary distinction between justice and injustice. 

It follows that people can, through misconduct, lose a prima facie status (i.e. immunity to harm). Put less abstractly, someone who commits murder (to take one example) has crossed a moral threshold from innocence to guilt, in that regard–which demands a correspondingly differential treatment. 

I could say more, but that's a start, and that's more than Thibodeau is said in defense of his own position. So the ball is back in his court.

"ii) I have no idea what point you are trying to make here."

That's too vague to respond to.

"Suppose McCoy had reason to believe that his judgements about what is good and bad (including his comparative judgements) are not reliable. He might have this reason if he had good reason to believe that there are things the existence and value of which we are ignorant. In this case, for all he knows, the death of Edith Keeler is a very good thing. This must be McCoy's judgement. Notice that this is true regardless of Kirk's viewpoint. We don't have to even suppose that Kirk is involved to see that, if McCoy is a skeptical theist, he must believe that, for all he knows, Edith's death is very good indeed. If this is so, then he must believe that he is not in a position to know whether it is his prima facie duty to try to save her life. 
According to skeptical theism, Kirk's viewpoint is not superior to McCoy's. Kirk knows things that McCoy does not. However, if skeptical theism is true, then for all Kirk knows, there are things the existence and value of which he is ignorant. For example, it is possible that the nazi conquest is necessary for the realization of something that is much more valuable than the elimination of Nazi Germany. Thus, given Kirk's viewpoint, it is possible that nazi conquest is not bad; it is possible that it is very good indeed. Thus, if skeptical theism is true, Kirk must be agnostic about his moral duty. He has no reason to think that he ought to let Edith die."

A number of confusions on Thibodeau's part:

1. As I already pointed out, but Thibodeau ignores, this is not unique to skeptical theism. Rather, this can be a quandary for any ethical system where the impact of our actions should be a factor in our moral deliberations. Does Thibodeau suppose we should never take the expected effects of our actions into account when we compare and contrast different courses of action? So that's not a predicament for skeptical theism in particular, but for moral deliberation in generation, of which skeptical theism is a special case. 

2. Keep in mind that some secular ethicists think genuine moral dilemmas are sometimes unavoidable. Cf. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, Moral Dilemmas (Blackwell, 1988). So why does Thibodeau act as though skeptical theism generates a unique challenge in that respect? Indeed, part of the appeal of time-travel stories is to illustrate moral dilemmas. 

3. Thibodeau repeats his simplistic classification, according to which something is either good or bad. But as I already explained, it's more complicated than that. A particular event can be good or bad in its own right. Yet that's in distinction to good or bad side-effects of the precipitating event. And, again, this is by no means exclusive to skeptical theism. 

4. I think some actions are intrinsically right or wrong. In that case, a good outcome can't override an intrinsically prohibitory action while a bad outcome can't override an intrinsically obligatory outcome. So those need to be separated from cases where something that's prima facie right or wrong might be overridden by circumstances.

5. There's also the question of our moral responsibilities. From a Christian perspective, I'd say there are many cases where we need to take the intended or foreseeable impact of our actions into consideration. But we're not responsible or blameworthy for unpredictable consequences. Our duty is to make decisions based on the available evidence. 

If Thibodeau disagrees, he needs to show how that's inconsistent with Christian ethics. 

6. Apropos (5), when we talk about doing the right thing, that's ambiguous. That can mean either of two different things:

i) Right in the sense of morally right 

ii) Right in the sense of doing what's best, or making a factually correct decision

Put another way, there's an elementary difference between what's morally good or bad, and what's better or worse–in the sense of more ideal or less ideal. 

These are distinct and separable considerations. I have a obligation to do what's morally right and avoid doing what's morally wrong.

It doesn't follow that I have an obligation to do what's best or be correct:

a) To begin with, I may be in no position to know what's best. The future is unpredictable.

b) In addition, there may be no single best outcome. Different outcomes each have tradeoffs. 

c) It may not be possible for me to be factually correct if the evidence at my disposal is inadequate. 

I don't think it's blameworthy to do the "wrong" thing in the sense of (ii) if I lack the evidence to make a better-informed decision. And it's a commonplace of human experience that we must often make decisions, including momentous decisions, despite insufficient information. We can't be sure that we made the "right" choice–in the sense of (ii). But I don't consider that culpable. 

If Thibodeau disagrees, he needs to show how that's inconsistent with Christian ethics. 

7. From a Calvinistic perspective, our actions never thwart the good that God is aiming for. Rather, God uses our fallible decisions to further his goal. Even though our decisions may be individually unwise, they unintentionally contribute to a wise  and worthwhile outcome. (Unintentional from our blinkered viewpoint.) 

Is the virgin birth poorly attested?

1. A stereotypical objection to the virgin birth is that it's only attested in two of the four Gospels. Likewise, Paul is silent on the subject. 

A potential problem with stereotypical objections is how they condition people who view an issue. If an issue is routinely framed in a particular way, it may not occur to people to think outside that framework. 

2. Before getting to my main point, Paul's silence is to be expected. He was an adult living in Jerusalem at the time of Christ's public ministry. It's hardly surprising that he talks about events so close to his own time and place, in the life of Christ. By contrast, the birth of Christ probably took place several years before Paul was born. 

3 Apropos (1), I'd recast the issue. If anything, what's striking is not that the virgin birth wasn't recorded in more than two Gospels, but that's recorded at all. Reporting the circumstances of his conception poses a dilemma. In the nature of the case, a NT author can't mention the virgin birth without simultaneously informing his readers that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. After all, you can't have one without the other. 

But the moment he says Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, that opens a can of worms. Only people who are already Christian believe the story of the virgin birth. By contrast, people who aren't Christian are inclined to view the virgin birth as a cover story for a prenuptial scandal.

Indeed, that was Joseph's initial reaction. When he discovered that she was pregnant, he was planning to divorce her, on the assumption that she had a child by another man. 

So why would Matthew and Luke record the virgin birth unless they thought it happened? You might say the reported the virgin birth despite the virgin birth. For surely they knew that by recording that story, their account invited a contrary interpretation. 

By narrating the virginal conception of Christ, they were starting a fire they couldn't extinguish. Enemies of the faith will seize on that to discredit Jesus. They will say this is a transparent alibi to camouflage the fact that Mary had premarital sex. Not only would that stigmatize the mother, but stigmatize the illegitimate child. 

So, if you think about it, NT writers had to overcome a disincentive to report it at all, since the very mention of it would play into the hands of their enemies. They only record it because that's what happened, even though it hands enemies of the faith a propaganda coup. Sometimes you have to tell a true story knowing that people will twist the truth. 

4. Now, a critic might object that my explanation misses the point. Given the rumors of a prenuptial scandal, they had to say something to squelch the rumors. But there are problems with that objection. For instance:

i) That would be a counterproductive alibi. Rather than draw attention away from the specter of a prenuptial scandal, it would draw attention to the specter of a prenuptial scandal. Hostile readers will view this as a coverup. 

ii) If the Gospel writers were attempting to conceal a prenuptial scandal, and if they felt free to invent a cover story, why not just say Jesus was conceived after Mary and Joseph got married? After all, the Incarnation doesn't require a virgin birth. The sinlessness of Jesus doesn't require a virgin birth.

If some people find the story of the virgin birth fishy, there's nothing suspicious about saying he was born to married parents. So that would be a better cover story. 

5. But a critic might say that misses the point. If Mary was known to be pregnant out of wedlock, then it's too late for Matthew and Luke to fabricate a cover story that denies that fact. The best they can do is to spray paint it with miraculous whitewash. But there are problems with that objection, even on its own grounds:

i) People who deny the virgin birth typically think Matthew and Luke were written about a century after the birth of Christ. They don't think Matthew or Luke had access to firsthand information about the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. So what, exactly, is there to rationalize or cover up? By that late date, who knews any better what really happened? 

ii) Likewise, even if we take the historicity of Matthew and Luke far more seriously, how many people were really privy to the timing of Mary's pregnancy in relation to her engagement and marriage? Other than some relatives and villagers, who else would know about it? Mary wasn't born famous. She was a nobody. She's one of those people who becomes retroactively famous in association with a famous person. Jesus himself only became relatively famous towards the end of his short life, and even then he was just a local celebrity at the time of his death. Had anyone heard of him outside some pockets in Palestine? So why assume, decades later–when Matthew and Luke were written–that there'd be a widespread rumor about the illegitimacy of Jesus? 

iii) Presumably, the target audience for Matthew and Luke are people who don't already know about the life of Christ. So what would possess Matthew and Luke to introduce a cover story about the circumstances of his conception? That would create a problem that hadn't existed before in the mind of the reader. For the average reader would never have reason to suspect anything untoward unless Matthew and Luke gratuitously interject this subterfuge. 

Left to their druthers, I wouldn't expect any NT writer to mention the circumstances of Christ's conception if they could avoid it, since the story of the virgin birth will be used against them. It's one of those dilemmas where doing the right thing looks like doing the wrong thing. What's striking, therefore, is that we have even one, much less two Gospels, that record the virgin birth. For they must do that despite the derision which that will provoke. 

Stop the clock

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mt 16:28, par. Mk 9:1; Lk 9:27).

i) "Skeptics" think Jesus mispredicted the end of the world. In this post I won't attempt to discuss what I think Mt 16:28 means. Rather, I'll discuss what it can't mean. My argument doesn't depend on explaining what I think it means. Rather, it's enough to show what it can't mean.

ii) Many scholars think Mt 10:23 & 24:34 refer to the same event as 16:28. Let's grant that for discussion purposes.

iii) Minimally, Jesus appears to be saying that some of his contemporaries will still be alive at the time of the "coming" (whatever that means). It's possible that his statement has a narrower scope–in reference to the disciples–rather than his contemporaries in general. 

iv) "Skeptics" think the "coming" denotes the end of the world. The problem, though, is whether that's how Mark, and especially Matthew and Luke understood the prediction. Let's say Jesus uttered this prediction c. 30. Conservatives generally date Mark to the 50s, while dating Matthew and Luke to the 60s. That would mean Matthew and Luke were written over a generation after Jesus uttered that prediction.

Liberals generally date Mark to the 70s while dating Matthew and Luke to 80-100. That would mean Matthew and Luke were written two or three generations after Jesus uttered that prediction. 

That, however, generates internal tension for the liberal position. At the time of writing (80-100), how many of Christ's contemporaries were still alive? How many people who were standing there, some 70 years earlier, were still alive? How many people who were old enough to follow him around and hear that prophecy were still alive at the time Matthew and Luke were composed, according to liberal dating schemes?

What would motivate Matthew and Luke to copy a prophecy from Mark which appeared to be untenable by the time they got around to composing their Gospels? What gives? Did they understand this to be an end-of-the-world prophecy? Sometimes Matthew and Luke edit Mark, so they don't feel compelled to reproduce what they find in Mark. 

v) If, moreover, they thought the end of the world was just a few years away, why even bother to write such lengthy Gospels? Their Gospels are stuffed with material that's pretty pointless if there's just minutes remaining on the timer before the bomb goes off. 

Why do people need to know all that? When will they be able to make use of that? 

Indeed, that's a distraction. If their readers are down to the wire, then clogging the Gospels with all this extraneous material is counterproductive. You need to warn people clearly and succinctly how to get right with God. Cluttering the Gospels with so much diverse material impedes the urgency of the warning, if the world is about to end. 

By contrast, Matthew and Luke read very much like they were written for the long haul. Written for posterity. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher and Helen Roseveare

I'd like to make one more point about Carrie Fisher. I don't have a problem with people who are saddened by her death. And I don't think it's a zero sum game, where you have to be terribly finicky about whose life and death you comment on. But we do need to raise the bar so that we have a standard of comparison. For instance, here's a truly admirable woman, who died this year. Indeed, died the very same month as Carrie Fischer:

The cult of dead celebrities

Our culture has developed something of a cult of dead celebrities, where there's national mourning when favorite pop stars die. 

Up to a point, that's understandable. You can wax nostalgic about a celebrity you associate with your coming of age. 

Likewise, the nature of drama is for the audience to vicariously identify with the characters. That's fine so long as we retain the critical detachment to realize that this is, after all, just fiction. 

To some extent, though, this reflects a displaced religious impulse. Absent of a Christian center of gravity, celebrities are something many people share in common, because we saw the same movies and TV shows. 

When a popular movie star (or rock star, or whatever) dies, people go on social media and share their experiences. Their favorite songs, movies, &c. 

That can be fine up to a point, but it often reflects the vacuity of people who have no deeper social bond. The lack of shared vision and values in something–or someone–transcendent. This is accompanied by making the lives of dead celebrities more significant than they really were. 

Perhaps this also reflects a culture of broken homes and mobility. In the past, it was more common for close relatives to be heroes and heroines. That's harder for kids whose parents divorced, or whose grandparents, aunts, and uncles live out of state. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher

Newsfeeds are clogged with headlines and eulogies regarding Carrie Fisher's death.

Some performers make a film famous while some films make a performer famous. She became famous, not because she was a great actress, but because she acted in a famous film (or franchise). Neither she nor Hamill had the starpower to sustain a career–unlike Ford. 

That said, making allowance for Lucas's juvenile sense of humor and  cliche-ridden situations, I thought she was good in The New Hope. There's only so much you can do with the sophomoric dialogue. 

She was miscast as a sex slave in Return of the Jedi. That's not something she can pull off. But then, that entire film was consistently abysmal. 

I don't recall her in The Empire Strikes Back, but that's because it was mainly about Luke Skywalker's inward and outward odyssey.

I see many people praising her for mitigating the stigma of mental illness by openly discussing her bouts of depression and bipolar disorder. 

That would be a significant contribution, if true. But is there any hard evidence that mental illness was widely stigmatized before she went public, destigmatized after she went public, and destigmatized due to her going public? Or is that just something people say to make her life seem more consequential? 

Finally, she predeceased her mother. That will be extremely hard on her mother. 

The law of large numbers

Unbelievers often raise contradictory objections to Christianity. I've noted some of these in the past. Here's another example:

On the one hand, you have debunkers (e.g. James Frazer, Joseph Campbell, Robert Price, Richard Carrier) who draw attention to alleged parallels between Bible narratives and heathen mythology. They cite these to show that Bible writers borrowed their material, in which case their own accounts are fictitious. 

On the other hand, you have debunkers (e.g. David Hand, John Littlewood) who dismiss reported miracles, answers to prayer, and cases of special providence on the grounds that coincidences are bound to happen, and happen with some frequency. 

But these two objections cancel each other out. If, according to the law of large numbers, coincidences are inevitable and commonplace, then even assuming there are genuine parallels between Biblical narratives and heathen mythology, that's consistent with the historicity of the Biblical narratives. That's to be expected. That happens in real life. So that, by itself, creates no presumption that Biblical narratives are fictitious. 

If, on the other hand, alleged parallels between Biblical narratives and heathen mythology are deemed to be too unlikely to be coincidental, then the same can be said for some reported miracles, answered prayers, and cases of special pleading.

So this poses a dilemma for secular debunkers. Either they must make a damaging concession to the historicity of Scripture or make a damaging concession to the credibility of miracles. 

And this assumes, for the sake of argument, that these are genuine parallels. Of course, that's very dubious. If so, then Christians don't suffer from a comparable dilemma. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Bayesian epistemology

Bayesian epistemology has a following both among some Christian philosophers and among some secular philosophers. Now perhaps I just don't get it, but I don't share their enthusiasm:

1. I've always found it artificial to divvy up probability into prior and posterior probability. I guess the idea goes like this: What are the odds that a car with a particular license plate will be in the airport parking garage? 

Well, you could begin with an abstract figure, based on general background information. Say, the total number of cars in the US (plus a few from Canada). Or perhaps you could narrow it down to the total number of cars in the geographical region serviced by that airport. The odds of a car with that license plate would be 1 out of that total. That would be the prior probability. And it would be staggeringly low.

But suppose you know that car belongs to an airport employee. Based on that specific information, you now update the probability. That's the posterior probability.

Okay, but if you already have all the available information, why even begin with a prior probability, as if you don't know that the car belongs to an airport employee? 

Why set it up so that you begin with something astronomically unlikely, which must then be overcome by the addition of specific information? If you already have the specific information at your fingertips, why the two-step process? Why pretend that the odds of a car in the parking garage with that license plate must meet some abstract threshold if you knew all along that it belongs to an airport employee? 

And in that event, aren't the abstract odds simply irrelevant? That would only be a starting-point if you didn't have specific  information. But if you happen to know that the car belongs to an airport employee, aren't the odds a distraction? Aren't probabilities beside the point? You don't need to offset the prior improbability to believe there's a car in the parking garage with that license plate. You can just see that it's there. Or, if that's reported to you, and if, in addition, you're told the  it belongs to an airport employee, then there's nothing unlikely about the fact there's a car in the parking garage with that license plate–since that's his car! 

And that that point, why would the prior probability even figure in the overall assessment? Seems to me that's only germane if all you have to work with is general background knowledge. 

2. I also agree with critics like William Dembski and W. L. Craig that we can't assign prior probability values to divine intent. Personal agency is unpredictable in a way that natural processes are not. 

3. Finally, I disagree with apologists who think reported miracles must meet a higher evidential threshold to be credited. Higher than mundane claims. (Perhaps, though, that's not intrinsic to Bayesian epistemology.) 

If a classmate tells he that he saw his sister levitating in the bedroom, and that's all I have to go by, I discount the claim. Unless I have reason to think there's no natural explanation, I don't find claims like that credible.

If, however, there's evidence that his sister is a demoniac, then (assuming levitation is symptomatic of demonic possession) the report becomes credible. However, I wouldn't say that demands a higher standard of evidence. Rather, it simply demands relevant evidence. 

Perhaps the apologists would say that proves there point. The prior probability of levitation is remote. If, however, I have countervailing evidence, that may shift the probability. 

And that makes sense if I don't know any more about it. If, though, I happen to have that additional evidence, why should I separate the total evidence into prior and posterior probability? Why compartmentalize the evidence when I have the extra evidence to better assess the claim?  

The big casino

I often use poker to field objections to miracles. That single metaphor can illustrate multiple points. In this post I'd like to collect my previous thoughts on the matter into one place, as well as making a couple of newer points. 

i) Let's begin with Sagan's oft-quoted trope that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. There are several problems with that assertion. He fails to explain what makes a claim extraordinary. He fails to explain why an extraordinary claim demands extraordinary evidence. And he fails to define extraordinary evidence. Yet atheists routinely quote his statement as if that's a knockdown objection to miracles. 

What does he mean by an "extraordinary claim"? Since he's attacking miracles (or supernaturalism), he's apparently using "extraordinary claims" as a synonym for miracles. But that would amount to saying a claim is extraordinary if miraculous, and miraculous if extraordinary. If so, that does nothing to explicate what makes something extraordinary. 

ii) What are the odds that a player will dealt three royal flushes in three consecutive games? That's a deceptively simple question. Seems like a simple question of math. But the question is ambiguous. It contains a hidden premise. The odds depend on whether the deck is fair or stacked. If the deck is fair, then the odds are astronomically improbable. If, however, the deck is stacked, then it's a dead certainty that a player will be dealt three royal flushes in three consecutive games. Therefore, it's a question that can't be answered in the abstract, because it depends on how we answer a preliminary question. 

iii) Apropos (i-ii), a fair deck is analogous to a closed system. The odds in case the deck is randomly shuffled. That's what happens in the natural course of events. 

A stacked deck is analogous to an open system in which an outside agent manipulates the variables to produce a more discriminating outcome. 

iv) Assuming that it's extraordinary to be dealt three royal flushes in three consecutive games, what kind of evidence would suffice to establish that fact? Does it require extraordinary evidence that a player was dealt three royal flushes in three consecutive games? I don't see any logical connection. Wouldn't eyewitness testimony or security footage from casino cameras suffice? 

v) Apropos (ii-iv), verifying the "extraordinary" feat that a player received three royal flushes in three consecutive games needn't meet a higher evidential threshold than verifying an ordinary hand. For one thing, whether or not that's extraordinary depends on the cause. If the deck was stacked, that's an ordinary explanation. It needn't meet a higher evidential threshold to account for that outcome given that utterly mundane cause. 

"Mundane" in the sense that personal agency can take shortcuts. Events that are naturally improbable or even impossible may be possible or probable given personal agency. 

v) Some Christians, as well as many atheists, think you first need to establish the existence of God before you can justifiably entertain the possibility that a given event is miraculous. But let's revert to our illustration. Must I establish in advance that the dealer is a cardsharp before I'm entitled to infer that the deck is stacked? Surely not. If a player is dealt three royal flushes in three consecutive games, that, in itself, is reason suspect cheating. 

vi) Some critics object to intelligent design theory on the grounds that we can't infer design unless we know the intentions of the designer. An analogous objection could be raised to the recognition of miracles. 

Using the poker analogy, must we know the motives of the dealer to infer that he stacked the deck? Surely not. The fact that the same player was dealt three royal flushes by the same dealer is sufficient evidence of cheating, regardless of his motives. Indeed, we'd expect his motives to be hidden. 

Perhaps the player and the dealer are colluding. They will split the profits. A voluntary partnership. Maybe the player took the initiative. He made the dealer an offer.

Or maybe the dealer is in debt, so he took the initiative. He made the player an offer.

Perhaps the player put a squeeze on the dealer. The player kidnapped his family. Threatened to harm the hostages unless the dealer helps him win. 

Or maybe the dealer hates the player, and deals him winning cards to get him in trouble with the mob boss who runs the casino. 

vii) Atheists often say appeal to divine agency is a God-of-the-gaps argument. By that logic, we should never infer that the deck is stacked. To be dealt three royal flushes in three consecutive games is sheer coincidence. To conclude that the dealer was a cardsharp is cheating-of-the-gaps. 

Or they might say that's sample selection bias. Sure, it looks suspicious, considered in isolation, but when you compare it to all other the hands in which players don't receive three royal flushes in three consecutive games, that's just a random anomaly. Flukes happen. 

Can We Trust the Bible Over Evolutionary Science?

An excellent article from Prof. James Anderson:

"Can We Trust the Bible Over Evolutionary Science?"

Sunday, December 25, 2016

How December 25 became Christmas

Christ and Caesar

Are the nativity accounts pious fiction?

Unbelievers regard the nativity accounts as pious fiction. For the sake of argument, let's bracket the supernatural elements and consider the realistic elements that remain:

i) If Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, we'd expect Joseph to divorce her. In that culture, not only would her condition bring shame on herself, but dishonor her fiancé. So that's realistic. 

ii) An angel appears to Joseph in a dream. In that culture, people believed that God sometimes communicated to individuals through dreams. Even if you don't believe in revelatory dreams, there's no reason to think the narrator invented that, since ancient Jews and pagans had dreams which they took to be omens, &c. There's nothing unrealistic about Joseph having dreams which he interprets as divine messages. 

iii) Ancient people believed in portents and prodigies. If, therefore, the magi saw something in the sky which they took to be significant, it's not surprising that they acted on it. That's realistic, given cultural assumptions.

iv) Even if modern unbelievers deny predictive prophecy, ancient Jews did believe in prophecy. That included belief in a promised messiah. So there's nothing unrealistic about Herod consulting priests and scribes, who, in turn, quote an oracle. 

v) Even if Herod didn't believe in prophecy, his subjects believed in prophecy. He was an unpopular ruler. His subjects considered him to be a usurper. So he'd be paranoid about a perceived rival. That's realistic. 

vi) Even if unbelievers don't think Matthew's prooftexts are really about the messiah, it doesn't follow that ancient Jews didn't think his prooftexts were about the messiah. So that's realistic. 

vii) Likewise, assassinating the child at the site where Jews believed the messiah would be born would be a logical way to squelch the rumor. So that's realistic.

viii) Killing all the boys 2 years and under gave him a margin of error to ensure that he eliminated his rival. So that's ruthlessly realistic. 

ix) If Herod was known to be a threat to Jesus, his parents had no choice but to flee for their lives. So that's realistic.

And if they fled the country, to escape Herod's jurisdiction, why not take refuge in Egypt? Indeed, God protected the Patriarchs in Egypt, so there'd be divine precedent. That would make sense to Joseph. 

x) If Joseph thought Herod's son (Archelaus) posed a threat to Jesus, it makes sense that he'd relocate to Galilee rather than Judea. So that's realistic. 

When you think about it, some of Matthew's prooftexts could derive from Joseph's understanding of prophecy. Joseph's actions might be guided by his own understanding of ancient Jewish oracles. 

As a refugee in Egypt, he might well reflect on Bible prophecies about Egypt, especially concerning God's son (Hos 11:1). 

Likewise, suppose that Mt 2:23 is based on folk etymology. You have folk etymologies in the OT. So it's possible that Joseph's choice of where to reside was guided by that conventional hermeneutic. 

xi) If there was a census requiring the tribe of David to rendez-vous at their ancestral hometown, the custom of ancient hospitality would mean lodging with relatives. There were no hotels. But by the same token, homes of relatives would rapidly fill up, so it's realistic that Mary and Joseph had difficulty securing accommodations with their kinfolk. 

Now, if so many elements of the nativity accounts are realistic, then it's unreasonable to assume that Matthew and Luke fabricated this material–even if you don't approach it from Christian presuppositions. That's a gratuitous assumption, because it isn't necessary to explain the material. If an account is realistic, our default premise is that it's realistic because it really happened. Moreover, it's realistic based on what would motivate the participants, and not necessarily what would motivate a modern reader in their position. 

Finally, if the accounts have that much realistic detail, then that lends credence to the supernatural elements. 

He Gave You Himself

"When he could give you no more - and the fathomless depths of his love, and the boundless resources of his grace, would not be satisfied by giving you less - he gave you himself. Robed in your nature, laden with your curse, oppressed with your sorrows, wounded for your transgressions, and slain for your sins, he gave his entire self for you. And let it be remembered that it is a continuous presentation of the hoarded and exhaustless treasures of his love. His redeeming work now finished, he is perpetually engaged in meting out to his church the blessings of the 'offering made once for all.' He constantly asks your faith, - woos your affection, - invites your grief, - and bids you repair with your daily trials to his sympathy, and with your hourly guilt to his blood. You cannot in your drafts upon Christ's fulness be too covetous, nor in your expectations of supply be too extravagant. You may fail, as, alas! the most of us do, in making too little of Christ, - you cannot fail, in making too much of him." (Octavius Winslow, A Pastoral Letter [London, England: Houlston and Stoneman, 1852], 7)

Is Christmas verboten?

The regulative principle is used to forbid traditional customs like Christmas. One of the prooftexts for the regulative principle is the cautionary tale of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-2; Num 3:4; 26:61). 

What they did wrong depends in part on which version you quote. The NIV says "contrary to his command" whereas the ESV (and NASB) says "which he had not commanded". 

There's an elementary difference between doing something that God has not commanded and doing something contrary to what God has commanded. 

There are, however, some other textual clues:

i) The fact that they resorted to "unauthorized fire" suggests that they violated Lev 16:12. Instead of getting kosher coals from the high altar, they took coals from some other source. Maybe a campfire. 

The significance of coals from the high alter derives from the fact that God himself ignited the altar. So that would be supernatural fire which signifies God himself (God is light), rather than a human fire.

In that event, their transgression lay not in doing something that God hadn't commanded, but in disobeying something that God had commanded. 

ii) Another possibility is that they usurped the role of the high priest by entering the inner sanctum. If so, their transgression lay not in doing something that God hadn't prescribed, but in something that God had proscribed. 

It's possible that they were guilty of both. And there are other explanations, although the evidence is more tenuous. 

In any case, I don't see any exegetical evidence that they were punished for merely doing something not commanded, but for doing something they were commanded not to do. On the face of it, prootexting the regulative principle from the fate of Nadab and Abihu is a bait-n-switch. Note the slippage from what is not commanded to what is prohibited, as if those are equivalent concepts. 

iii) The accounts of what they did wrong are sketchy, but the gist of it seems to be that they brought something profane into contact with something holy. In the Mosaic cultus, there were ritually pure inanimate objects. Holy furniture, holy utensils, holy vestments, holy places, &c. Mingling what was unholy with what was holy, in this sense, was forbidden.

However, we don't have holy inanimate objects under the new covenant. We don't have the purity codes and kosher laws. 

iv) In addition, the Puritan position reduces to the notion that we should only celebrate Jesus once every 7 days. Not celebrate him the other 6 days of the week. But surely Christians should celebrate Jesus all the time.