May 04, 2006

Why Believe the Bible?
Part 1: Plan of Attack

There has been a lot floating around about the doctrine of inerrancy recently. I posted on this subject not long ago, responding to a post at World of Sven and a lengthy series at Chrisendom. Since then, there has been a second World of Sven post, and also a post from the No Kool-Aid Zone about just how important inerrancy is.

This is a problem that I've been thinking seriously about for some time. Actually, I started by asking the question "just why do I believe in the Bible?" then realized that the answer to that question would have a big effect on exactly what I should believe ABOUT the Bible. I do believe that there is good reason to accept Scripture as an authoritative source of divinely revealed truth. I haven't got all the kinks out of the arguments, so I'm hoping for a little help along the way, but what I propose to do is a five (or more?) part series laying out an argument for the authoritative nature of the canonical Christian Scriptures (we'll get into what counts as 'canonical' along the way). This may take me quite a while to get through, as I'm about to start finals, and still have one more term paper to write here in Athens, then will be moving back to the States on the 19th, but by breaking it into so many pieces, I hope to have manageable chunks and be able to keep working on it. Major influences on the arguments I'm going to make are Richard Swinburne's book Revelation (I posted my first response immediately after finishing it here) and a series of teachings on the subject by John Piper, which I downloaded from the Theopedia article on the inerrancy of the Bible. I hope to accumulate more sources along the way. In particular I'm planning on reading Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy on this subject.

My plan for this series is outlined below. If I change my plan, I will update this post to reflect it. I will also link each post from here.

  • Part 1: Plan of Attack is the post you are reading right now, which outlines how the subject will be pursued.
  • Part 2: The Life and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth will argue in a manner based heavily on Swinburne that there is good reason to suppose that the life and teachings of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth represent a revelation of God to mankind. The canonical gospels will be used in the same way we use any other historical sources, but not assumed to be inerrant. The legitimacy of this usage will be discussed briefly.
  • Part 3: Jesus' Witness to the Hebrew Bible will argue, still treating the gospels as fallible historical sources, that part of the content of Jesus' teaching was that the Hebrew Bible as used in the original Hebrew (NOT the Septuagint, and NOT including the 'Apocrypha or 'deuterocanon') by the Jewish community in Palestine was also a revelation of God. How exactly he treated this revelation will be examined. One of the kinks arises here: it is difficult to determine the specifics of Jesus' theory of revelation, but an argument can be made that he accepted a traditional Jewish view which claims that the Hebrew Bible is divided into three sections (Torah, or Law, Neviim, or Prophets, and Ketuvim, or Writings - whence the ackronym "Tanakh"), each of which possesses a different degree of inspiration. This argument is troubling (for Evangelicals who see the whole Bible as equally inspired) but at this stage, I think, ultimately inconclusive. It may come back to haunt us in part 4 after we've established that the gospels are more than just historical sources and are forced to take every sentence of them more seriously.
  • Part 4: The Church's Witness to the Scriptures will examine the status of the Church as a divinely authorized authoritative herald of the revelation of God to man in Christ, using Jesus' own words in the gospels (still treated as mere historical sources at this point) to back this up. It will then ask just what the Church has witnessed about the Scriptures and the canon. The big problems come along here, as it is extremely difficult to determine just what the Church is and what it has proclaimed. For purposes of the argument, the Church is the continuation of the group Jesus founded when he appointed the apostles to spread his message, but which groups are continuous? The Bible's witness is, of course, decisive, since it tells us how Jesus and the apostles conceived of the Church, and it doesn't tend to support the idea of the Church being some specific hierarchy or institution, but it does support the idea that the Church is manifested in the world in the form of local gatherings of believers. There are groups that have at least SOME historical claim to continuity with the apostles (note that I'm not talking about the doctrine of apostolic succession as it is understood by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches) which have different canons and different views of what it means for a book to be canonical. However, there are certain books that all of the important candidates for this continuity agree are divinely inspired, and we can get a pretty good idea, from the writings of the apostles themselves and from Christian writers close to them what the true Church must mean when it declares a collection of books to be "God-breathed." All in all, I think this historical argument, when it has the others to build on, gets us very close to the view of (small o) orthodox Christianity, as I understand it, but it doesn't quite get us there. I'm hoping others will be able to offer improvements upon it.
  • Part 5: The Argument From Religious Experience will examine religious experiences connected with the Bible, and ask what they might tell us about its inspired status. I will necessarily focus on my own experience, but will try to keep my statements general enough that some other people out there will have had similar experiences so that the argument applies to them as well. This argument can serve as a verification of a canon once we've got it, but I don't think it is much help establishing a canon in the first place, because we can't experiment on each book individually. Of course, there are some exceptions. For instance, the canonicity of the Epistle of Jude is disputed, and I have had 'religious experiences' connected specifically with that book, which helps to make me more certain of its canonicity (though if I had the same experience with a book that, as far as the witness of the Church, was undisputedly NOT part of the canon, it wouldn't be enough for me to even consider the possibility of THAT book being inspired in the way that the canonical books are).

And that's the argument. If you have any suggestions of issues to deal with, directions to take, or sources to read along the way, please let me know. I expect to write part 2 some time in the next two weeks (before I leave Greece), but no promises.

Posted by kpearce at 02:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 02, 2006

"Three Persons, One Substance" - Paradox or Solution?

I seem to have opened quite the can of worms in my post on Church dogma the other day when I said:

There seem to be some clear (to me) cases of Christian dogma that are not obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture. For example, consider the formulation of the trinity as three persons (Greek hupostaseis and/or prosopa, Latin personae) in one substance/essence (Greek ousia, Latin essentia and/or substantia). This type of formulation is extremely common in the Christian tradition, and is derived primarily from the Chalcedonian Creed. However, I don't think we can say that it is obviously uniquely deriveable from Scripture; that is, there is no reason to say that someone looking at Scripture by some particular method that did not include granting some authority to tradition would lead many people to come independently to this conclusion. What is in Scripture is this paradox: the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, there is only one God. Any number of formulations of the solution could be compatible with the Scripture, but one in particular is generally believed to be part of Christian dogma.

There were many good responses to this, but the one I want to talk about is these few lines from vangelicmonk:
I would posit that the doctrine of the Trinity of three persons and one substance is not a solution for the paradox, but just a restating of what the paradox is from scripture. I don't think Orthodoxy has gone too far from that. Just a restatement that we mostly accept as mystery.

I think the danger comes to when we do try to explain that mystery. Like modalism where we say that the Father becomes Jesus and then the Holy Spirit. Or JW answer which is Jesus is not God but something else and the H.S. is just a power. In this particular dogma, when the mystery is tried to be solved, it creates problems.

Now let me be perfectly clear here: I absolutely do believe and am convinced that God exists as three co-equal and co-eternal Persons in a single Substance or Essence. It'sjust that I'm not always sure what I mean when I say that, and I've recently had some doubts about where that doctrine comes from. It seems to me, as I said, to be a clear case of Christian dogma, but what do we mean by it? Is it just a restatement of the paradox from Scripture?

As I see it, there are two ways that we can treat this statement. First, we can say something like "we know from Scripture that God is three in one sense, and yet one in another sense; let's call the concept under which he is three 'person' and the concept under which he is one 'substance.'" If we do this, we are doing nothing but restating the paradox from Scripture, as vangelicmonk says. However, we can't be sure that we are using the words 'person' and 'substance' in this context in the same way we use them in other contexts. This is perfectly ok with a lot of Christian thinkers. For instance, Thomas Aquinas thinks that when we speak about God we are always speaking by analogy. So, a Thomist could say some thing like: "when we say that God is three persons in one substance, we mean that there is some concept roughly analogous to the concept of 'person' as we ordinarily use it, such that if we consider God under that concept we will rightly state that he is three, but there is another concept, one roughly analogous to the concept of 'substance' such that if we consider God under it we will rightly say that God is one." (I'm not a Thomist, nor have I studied a lot of Medieval philosophy, so I'm not saying that a Thomist would say precisely that, but merely someone who agrees with Aquinas on this particular point could say that sort of thing.) Now, this makes a good deal of sense. Furthermore, the part where the threeness is analogous to 'person' can indeed be supported, to some degree, in Scripture: the Father and the Son are pictured talking to each other (e.g. in John 17) not in the way we talk to ourselves, but in the way we talk to others, and Jesus seems to speak of the Holy Spirit as though he were at least "roughly analogous" to a person in these latter chapters of John as well. There are other similar examples throughout Scripture. The concept of 'substance' is a much more difficult one; sometimes I'm not even sure I know what a substance (in the metaphysics sense, as opposed to the chemistry sense) is, but we can just go with it for now. So, perhaps we should say that a statement like the one above is a matter of dogma, but there is room for a great deal of disagreement as to just how good the analogies are. This seems like a very defensible position to me.

Alternatively, we could say that when we say that God exists as three Persons in one Substance we mean these words in the same way we mean them whenever we use them rigorously in this kind of metaphysical context (and statements about God are metaphysical statements). This needn't make any particular metaphysical system a matter of dogma (in fact, it had better not), it would simply say that if you are an orthodox Christian and you have a metaphysical system, your metaphysical system had better be able to account for this in its definitions of persons and substance. Now, the Bible doesn't use this kind of language (in fact, it doesn't even use English), so this couldn't possibly come from the Bible, and therefore can't be dogma under the Protestant idea, unless we think that Protestantism has room for saying that a disputable interpretation of Scripture can become dogma due to the authoritative status of the Church (that is, the true spiritual Church, not any particular hierarchy) as an interpreter, provided we realize that the Church continues to be less authoritative than the Bible itself. In this case, we might say that the formulation in English "three Persons, one Substance" was a matter of dogma, since all legitimate Christian communities that speak English affirm this (if, in fact, the broad, sweeping statement I've just made is true). Alternatively, of course, it could be that the Council of Chalcedon is an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, which might make its formulation, in the original Greek, a matter of dogma. I am of the belief that the word choice in the Chalcedonian Creed comes from Aristotle, so I hope eventually to go through Aristotle's Metaphysics and look at how each of the terms is used and see what meaning I can derive from Chalcedon on that basis, but I have no time right now, so let's assume for the sake of argument that the English formulation "three Persons in one Substance," where Person and Substance are used in precisely the same sense as in other metaphysical assertions, is a matter of dogma.

If this is the case, what we will do is proceed with an inquiry into the meaning of these terms by the methodology of analytic metaphysics (or some such) and then apply the results to doctrine. Note that, in this case, what the results have to be is not proscribed by dogma, but merely that if we get our metaphysics right with regard to other persons and substances, then we can apply the same definitions to God. It doesn't say under what circumstances our metaphysics is 'right.'

Now, I have argued previously that persons are in fact events, or, more specifically, connected series of mental states. A common definition of substance in metaphysics is "a center of causal power." Furthermore, I believe that God is atemporal, rather than merely everlasting. If we combine all three of these claims, we can get a very clear picture of God as Trinity: God, we will say, is a single center of causal power, existing in three separate eternal complex mental states. This is roughly analogous (here we go back to analogy) to three minds controlling a single body, but always agreeing on how to move it. God is only one set of causal powers, so it is a metaphysical impossibility that any Person of the Trinity should will anything by himself, without the other two. They must all will in unison. Since they cannot, metaphysically, act other than in unison, only having one set of causal powers, they are a single Being or Substance, but since there are three mental states, there are three Persons.

Now, even this detailed explanation doesn't really solve the mystery, it merely speculates on the meaning of three Persons in one Substance. I hope that it falls within the realm of orthodoxy, because I sort of tentatively accept it, and I would like to think that I am not a heretic, but it is certainly closer to wild speculation than to dogma.

The point that I'm trying to make is this: if God has in fact revealed that he exists as three Persons in one Substance, then he must expect us to understand something by the words 'person' and 'substance' in this context, and we should try to figure out what that is, as I did briefly above. If, on the other hand, God has revealed to us only that he is three in one, and we have simply plugged in the words 'person' and 'substance' as ciphers having no meaning external to the formulation in order to help us talk about it, then we should totally abandon this line of inquiry, because there is no way we can no anything about the internal nature of God apart from revelation. So this gives us basically three possible understandings of the formulation: (1) 'person' and 'substance' carry no external meaning into the formulat and are merely plugged in as a matter of convenience, (2) 'person' and 'substance' carry external meaning only by analogy to their ordinary usage, or (3) 'person' and 'substance' are used within the formulation in the same way they are ordinarily used outside of it. For each of these it is fair to ask whether the formulation is true under it, and also whether it is a matter of dogma under it. Each has problems.

Interpretation (1) can certainly be proven from Scripture, and is therefore certainly true and a matter of Christian dogma. However, if (1) is dogma and neither of the others are, then someone might refuse to say that God was "three Persons in one Substance," on account of the fact that it was misleading since these words had outside usages and we were here using them in ways unrelated to those outside usages. This person might wish instead to say that God was "three Wizboons in one Poobam" or some such, and we could not then consider this person a heretic. Does anyone else think this is a problem?

Interpretation (2) can be supported from Scripture, and I think the 'person' part can probably even be proven. However, I'm not sure the substance part can, but maybe I should ask someone who has a better idea what the heck a metaphysical substance is to figure that out. Besides this, you could still have someone insisting on saying that God was "three Wizboons in one Poobam" be orthodox, he would just have to acknowledge that a wizboon is sort of like a person, and a poobam is sort of like a substance. That actually doesn't seem that problematic to me, on the whole. I think interpretation (2) may be the best alternative.

I don't think interpretation (3) can be proven from Scripture, and the Scriptural support for it is very limited. However, it certainly doesn't contradict Scripture, and it may have the authority of the true Church behind it (though my Protestant ecclesiology makes that very difficult to determine).

So, to all of you who commented on the Church dogma post, and to all of you who didn't, which alternative do you take? Can the problems I've listed be solved, or are they not really problems? Or is there another alternative I'm not seeing?

Posted by kpearce at 03:46 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

April 17, 2006

Biblical Inerrancy

Update (4/17/2006)
There seem to have been some errors in my post on inerrancy. (How ironic!) I would like to take some steps to correct these.

First: the Council of Nicaea did NOT proclaim that canon of Scripture. This is a widely circulated myth (google it, and see esp. this article). In fact, the canon of Scripture we have was never proclaimed by any ecumenical council, and several books continue to be disputed (see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Canon of the New Testament". I'm still working on what this means theologically.

Second: as you can see from the comments, there is some dispute about what is meant by inerrancy as opposed to infallibility. Based on a quick survey, it seems that many dictionaries define the two terms interchangeably, but those that distinguish between them give something infallibility if it is impossible that it should go wrong, and inerrancy if it does not actually go wrong. However, in popular theological discourse (including at least some writings of professional theologians - at any rate, according to Theopedia F.F. Bruce, et al., in their book The Origin of the Bible argue that the Bible could conceivably be infallible without being free of error, implying that inerrancy is in fact the stronger term) the terms are often used in ways similar to my definitions below. This does indeed confuse the issue immensely. Of course, for purposes of this post you'll have to just take these terms the way I've defined them. In the future, I'll be sure not to use them without explicitly deifining them, and work harder to make sure that I'm using them in the most precise and least misleading way possible.

Original Post (4/4/2006)
World of Sven's Theology and Biblical Studies blog is responding (with general agreement) to a six part series at Chrisendom arguing against the inerrancy of Scripture (both writers are believers, and Chris at least self-identifies as an Evangelical). Since I'm coming into this discussion late (after it seems to be over, in fact) I'm going to go through each stage of the argument in turn.

First, let me begin by saying that my view of Scripture is something that I've been thinking long and hard about recently, and I am seriously struggling with the question of why exactly we should believe in it, and what else we should believe as a result. To be more clear, it is quite apparent to me, from experience, that there is something unique, miraculous, supernatural about the text of the Bible, but I am reevaluating exactly how we should understand this. I think the best argument that I have heard for belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture is something along the lines of that given in Richard Swinburne's book, Revelation. I discussed a modified version, which corrected for what I see as ecclesiological errors in Swinburne, some time ago here. The thing that has led me to a serious reevaluation of my views is the fact that this argument necessarily also establishes the authoritative (infallibe?) character of at least some elements of Christian 'tradition.' Certainly it gives at least 'quasi-scriptural status' to the proclamations of the First Council of Nicaea (325 - this is where we have the Canon of Scripture first proclaimed; the Nicene Creed as we have it today was actually proclaimed at a later council, but an early form of it, with less detail on the Church and the Holy Spirit, was proclaimed here), and I'm not at all certain how much else tradition comes along with it. The further forward in history we go, it becomes more and more difficult to identify the proclamation of the true Church, and I'm not even sure what the status of that proclamation is.

Meanwhile, back on inerrancy. Chris seems to understand inerrancy in a fairly weak form, as simply saying that the Bible is always right about everything (see part 1). I would call this something like 'total infallibility,' and oppose it to (1) qualified infallibility, or (2) inerrancy. I understand qualified infallibility to mean that the Bible is never wrong about certain things (e.g. theology, salvation, ethics, etc.) but may be wrong about other things (e.g. history, science, etc.). I understand inerrancy to mean that the Bible (whether we mean the autographs, the Masoretic Text + Textus Receptus, the Septuagint + Textus Receptus, or something else) is exactly letter-perfect what God wanted to say (what, precisely, that means as far as the content and style is questionable, but certainly, from the perspective of the Christian doctrines on the character of God, it will imply total infallibility).

A further distinction, drawn from Swinburne, is needed: if God chooses to state things in terms of false cultural assumptions, he does not err, provided that the false assumptions are part of the form and not part of the content. For instance, when English speakers say "the sun came up," we do not state what is false, despite the fact that the sun remained stationary while the earth rotated. The 'flat earth' implications of certain Scriptural passages can be, in my opinion, dismissed in this way, as can the implications that one thinks with his large intestine or feels with his spleen.

Now, as long as this proviso is taken into account, I'm committed to either inerrancy or total infallibility (I presently accept the former, but wouldn't be terribly upset if some argument persuaded me to switch to the latter), so let me see if I can respond to the objections, at least in some limited form.

First, Chris, part 1: here Chris argues that inerrancy has not always been believed by Christians. He cites Origen and Luther, which isn't going to get him anywhere with me. Both say a lot of heretical things, in my opinion. Calvin certainly believed in inerrancy, or at least total infallibility. (Note: please do not assume from the fact that I think Calvin is a much better theologian than Luther that I am a Calvinist. I am not.) Let's look briefly at what some early Christians say.

First, there is the Apostle Paul. When he refers to 'Scripture' we can assume that he means at least the Hebrew Bible (in the original Hebrew, or in the Septuagint? It isn't clear). There is reason to suppose that he also views Luke as 'Scripture,' from 1 Timothy 5:18 where he begins "For the Scripture says," and proceeds to quote first Deuteronomy 25:4 and then Luke 10:7. I suppose it is possible that Paul and Luke are quoting a common source, but if so, that source is neither the Hebrew Bible nor the Septuagint. Since Paul accepted Luke as Scripture it is likely he accepted some other early Christian writings, but we have no way of knowing which ones. Paul then gives us 2 Timothy 3:16. This verse, however, does not state inerrancy. Rather, it says that Scripture is 'God-breathed' (Gr. theopneustos) and useful for various purposes. What exactly 'God-breathed' means is a difficult question, as the compound is an apparent coinage, and the verb pneo, from which it is compounded, simply means 'breathe' and has no deep spiritual connotations in ordinary Greek. So, all we can really say about Paul is that he believes Scripture and the Holy Spirit (pneuma is indeed derived from pneo) to be intimately related, and he believes Scripture to be sufficient for our spiritual needs.

Second there are the early Patristics. (Note: I'm working from the book A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David Bercott) Clement of Rome refers to some Scriptures being "true utterances of the Holy Spirit." (1.17) Justin Martyr says that the Holy Spirit "descend[ed] from heaven and use[d] these righteous mean as an instrument like a harp or lyre" to reveal the truth of God to us (1.276). This sounds an aweful lot like inerrancy (as opposed to either qualified or total infallibility) to me: the writers of Scripture are tools (presenting themselves willingly) used by God to present his Word. God uses, rather than ignores, their individual characteristics, but nevertheless he brings it about that his Word is written. Again, Athenagoras also uses the image of a musical instrument (2.132-133). The first clear statement of something like 'qualified infallibility' I have in my book is from the Muratorian Fragment (c. 200 AD) which says that although in the various gospels "different matters are taught us," the differences are not important because "all things are related under one imperial Spirit." (5.603) Hippolytus, a western writer of the late 2nd/early 3rd centuries, again uses the musical instrument metaphor (5.204). The Fathers have a great deal to say about Scripture, but what the above shows is that the sort of account of inspiration that leads to inerrancy is NOT new (although the explicit statement of something like inerrancy probably occurs for the first time fairly late). The early Christians (as early as the second century!) believed that the Scriptures were 'God-breathed,' and that this meant that the human writers were instruments with which God played the symphony that is Scripture. Every writer's individual character is used to good effect, but God is nonetheless the musician, the author, and the authority behind the end result.

In part 2, Chris claims that the Bible itself does not directly assert it's own inerrancy. I concede this point (see the above discussion of Paul). However, he never presents an argument for his claim that "it can be conclusively proved that scripture is not inerrant, and the bible's own witness to this is decisive!" He makes this claim again in part 6, but again fails to support it. I would be very interesting to hear this argument in more detail.

In part 3 of Chris's series, he points to a collection of alleged contradictions in Scripture. This is a topic exegetes have dealth with ad nauseam, so I'm not going to try here. Suffice it to say that nearly all of the issues brought up have, in my opinion, acceptable solutions, but the genealogical discrepancies are genuinely troubling to me. If one has strong enough reason to believe in inerrancy then the difficulties can be overcome. However, the solutions are sometimes convoluted enough as to require very strong reasons for inerrancy, so the objection is not something to be ignored.

In part 4, Chris argues that not all of the alleged errors/contradictions can be attributed to scribal mistakes. I concede. However, as I have said, I think that in general other solutions exist.

It seems to have been at this point that Sven jumped in. In Sven's post, two additional objections to inerrancy are brought up:

  1. "Most views of inerrancy and inspiration are a kind of scriptural Apolinarianism." What he means to say is that people often lose sight of the human element in the Scriptures, and the human element of the Scriptures is just as important to a Christian understanding of Scripture as the human element of Christ is to our Christology. I think that this is a legitimate concern, but applies only to sloppy formulations and sloppy thinking about the subject. Most Evangelicals I know affirm that God used the individuating characteristics of the human authors to bring it about that His Word would be written. This is not a doctrinal problem, but more of a 'devotional' problem; that is, it has to do not with the abstract formulations but with the thinking habits certain Christains get into.

  2. "Views of inerrancy do not arise in the biblical texts or the biblical period themselves, they arise from modernist dualism." This is similar to the claim from Chris's part 1 (see above). I think Sven's statements are helpful and bring up important points, but I have to take exception to his way of framing the issue. He begins with this: "By 'modernist dualism' I mean the Enlightenment worldview in which God (if he existed at all) was 'up there' in some transcendent sense whilst human beings remained 'down below', quite separate from the divine dwelling." This view has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. It comes from ancient (pre-Christian) Greek philosophy, and came to the fore in Christian theological disputes in the Greek East in the 14th century, long before the enlightenment. Thomas Aquinas also is 'guilty,' if it is in fact guilt, of this kind of thinking. However, what Sven says next, is that certain forms of inerrancy have been developed in order to 'divinize' Scripture in order to bring the divine to earth. From a Christian perspective this is seen to be ludicrous as soon as it is clearly stated. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ in whom God is revealed to all, and Scripture is not a replacement for Christ (although depending on our reading of John 1 it may be identical with Christ in some very confusing sense). I do think Sven is right to say that the real revelation of God is Jesus Christ himself, but this view needn't undermine inerrancy.

In part 5, Chris argues that inerrancy promotes a generally low view of Scripture, because we view all revelation as propositional and cease to have a living encounter. I do not think this criticism is valid. The Protestant/Evangelical emphasis on propositional infallibility has quite likely had this effect, but that does not make the doctrine itself flawed. It may well be true that the Bible is propositionally infallible but nevertheless "living and active." The important - even critical - truth that this criticism does point to is that the Bible is not only a repository of propositional truth but rather a living encounter with God.

Finally, in part 6, the podcast, Chris sets forth the doctrine of Scripture that he accepts, which is the proclamation of the Second Vatican Council: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." I think Chris understands this passage as a form of what I have called qualified infallibility. He understands the word 'salvation' very broadly to mean not merely a path to heaven, but God's total rescue of mankind from corruption (that is, to include both salvation and sanctification). He also points out that Scripture is (as discussed above) more than merely a repository of propositional truth. He says, "these texts, then, need to be treated as an invitation to trusting belief in that to which they point." He also asserts that the inspiration of Scripture is not simply a statement about how the texts came about, but also has to do with what happens when individuals and communities of believers read the text and God speaks through it. Chris says that a high view of Scripture will mean that we trust that God speaks to us through the text, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we can analyze the Bible scientifically or philosophically by taking it apart piece by piece with our intellect and come to absolute truth in this way. He speaks repeatedly of "the God-givenness of a generally accurate text."

In general, these arguments have not had the effect of shaking my belief in inerrancy. However, I think it is important that we engage some of the issue brought up here. In particular, we must not limit our understanding of Scripture to its propositional value. It is a tool by which God reveals himself to individuals. It is not a dead thing, but the Living Word of God. However, I believe that one of the primary reasons God chose to reveal his Word in written form was to endow the revelation with a degree of obejectivity (see my previous post), and this will fail if it is not reliable as a source of propositional truth (at least as far as I can see). If Chris were right in his characterization of Scripture, it would not be clear to me why it was put in written form at all. Furthermore, I think that Sven and Chris both limit God too much in assuming that inerrancy necessarily eliminates the human element. God is quite capable of working with the human element to bring his Word into the world without error. There is a fine line to be drawn. Scripture is both human and divine in its content, and it is both a source of objective propositional truth and an invitation to and means of experience of the Living God.

Well, I think this post is more than long enough, but it hasn't begun to address the issue. I suppose that means that more posts on this subject will have to follow. I am not presently prepared to present my view as such (it is in flux to too large a degree), but I may soon be ready to publish some speculations. Stay tuned.

Posted by kpearce at 08:56 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

March 15, 2006

"Tradition as the 'Platonic Form' of Christian Faith and Practice in Orthodoxy"

I have just posted on my writings page a new essay, "Tradition as the 'Platonic Form' of Christian Faith and Practice in Orthodoxy." This served as my mid-term essay in my class on the Greek Orthodox Church here at DIKEMES in Athens where I am studying this semester. I have attached a short preface explaining the relationship of the views presented in my essay (realizing that the essay is supposed to explain the teaching of the Orthodox Church) to my actual beliefs and my reasons for deciding to publish the essay. Please post here with any comments or objections. If I edit the essay at any time in the future, I will document that here as well. The essay is located here.

Posted by kpearce at 07:49 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 02, 2006

Dennett v. Swinburne on the Origin of Religion and the Existence of God

Prospect Magazine has published a series of letters between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Dennett regarding the existence of God and the historical origin of religious belief, following the publication of Dennett's new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett's book argues that an evolutionary explanation for religious belief exists, and that religion can and should be examined empirically by science with the initial presumption of "methodological naturalism" (i.e. we must assume for the sake of argument that God does not exist in order to take on this investigation). Swinburne argues that no such investigation can be adequately undertaken without first determining whether the evidence supports belief in the existence of God and his activity in the world, especially with regard to the formation of religious belief. "Methodological naturalism," Swinburne claims, must first be justified by an argument showing that such a method leads to truth, and this will only be the case if its naturalistic assumptions are, in fact, correct.

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January 31, 2006

Uncredible Double Carnival

Both the Philosopher's Carnival and the GOD or NOT Carnival are up at The Uncredible Hallq. I didn't get a submission in for this month's GOD or NOT, on the theme of "Definition of God," but the philosopher's carnival contains a link to my recent post on persons as events.

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January 30, 2006

"Theism and Mechanism in Leibniz"

I've just posted a new paper to my writings page, entitled "Theism and Mechanism in Leibniz." This is a topic that I've discussed quite a bit in the past few months, and this may be the end of it for a while.

An earlier version served as a term paper for Professor Karen Detlefsen's undergraduate seminar on Leibniz at Penn last semester. It has undergone slight revision based on her comments. Please feel free to offer any responses or discussion you have in the comments section of this post. Any revisions made will be documented in the comments here as well.

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January 14, 2006

Tying Up Some Loose Ends: Greek Musterion in the New Testament

I've been meaning for some time to write a post tying together two topics that I had previously discussed. The items in question are my discussion of translation and transliteration and my suggestion in this post that Pagan religion might have had an influence on the New Testament's mode of expression. The common tie? The word "mystery."

This word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is first attested with the definition "A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving" in the Wyclif Bible of 1384. The same Bible introduces the meaning "A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma." There does exist one usage of the word in poetry prior to this time, but it appears that the word has expanded to its present meaning primarily from this point; that is, it was transliterated into the language from the New Testament. You can see how much the meaning of the word has changed. It has virtually no religious connotation today. Now, there are two questions here that have a bearing on translation: first, do the OED's early definitions correspond to the meaning of the Greek word in the context of the New Testament? Second, does the present-day meaning of the word mystery correspond to its usage in the New Testament?

In fact, the original Greek word musterion is also a religious word (note that it is also the root of the word "mystic"), and it is here that we intercept the question of whether and how the New Testament's mode of communication was effected by Greek Paganism. In the previous post, I suggested that the resemblance of Luke's account of the Emmaus road to certain Greek myths may have been intentional, but I didn't have enough background to explain exactly how. Musterion is, in fact, a much better example. Let's look first at its usage in Greek Paganism.

A detailed discussion of this issue is found in the book A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (online edition at Perseus), under the heading mysteria. I recommend reading the article, but I will present the important core ideas. The Greeks had many "mystery cults," as classicists often call them. The closest modern equivalent to the mystery cults of which I am aware is Freemasonry (it is in fact a very close equivalent). The "initiates" of the mystery cults would watch a sort of ritual drama which was intended to reveal truth about the universe through allegory and symbolism. These were supposed to reveal divine truth directly from the relevant god. The truth could only be learned at a particular shrine (the most famous being that of Eleusis) and communicating it was forbidden. There were various mysteries at different shrines where people of different ages and genders went. For instance, at one shrine young girls, ages 5 to 12, I believe, "played the bear for Artemis." No, we don't really know what that means. Only a few, like Eleusis, were open to all Greeks. Some of the mystery cults had multiple levels, each of which had different "mysteries" (remember, these are rituals and/or dramas that are intended to reveal truth to the initiate) at different levels of initiation, as, indeed, the Freemasons do.

There are a handful of cases in classical Greek literature where the word is used to speak of "secrets" more generally, but these are so rare that they ought to be taken metaphorically. It may be that the metaphor was "dead" by the time of the NT so that no reference is intended. It may also be that a new definition cropped up in between. I simply don't have the information on which to judge this. However, the word musterion itself was a relatively late development in Greek religious language (at any rate, Homer uses different words for similar things). Furthermore, we know that the word was still in use in this meaning in the first century, so even if it had acquired a more general meaning, the phrase "I reveal to you a mystery," often used by Paul, said in a theological context, would almost certainly bring the Greek mystery cults to the minds of Greek readers, and all of Paul's epistles except Romans are addressed to Greek cities.

Now the question is: why? What is the meaning and purpose of this Pagan reference in the New Testament? To examine this, let's look at the New Testament's use of the word.

20 of the words 27 uses in the New Testament occur in the Pauline epistles; 3 are in parallel passages in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 13:11, Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10) where Jesus speaks of the "mysteries" of the kingdom of heaven being revealed to the disciples; the remaining 4 are in the Revelation. The usage in the gospels and Revelation are straightforward: in the gospels the word refers to special knowledge revealed only to Jesus' disciples, in the Revelation it refers to the interpretation of symbolic or allegorical content. Paul's usage, however, is slightly more complicated.

Paul's "mysteries" seem to be doctrines of Christianity. He identifies the following as mysteries:

  • "that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Istrael will be saved." (Romans 11:25-26)

  • the gospel (apparently as a whole - Romans 16:25-26 [those verses are located at 14:24-26 in some texts], Ephesians 6:19. See also the summary of the Gospel at 1 Timothy 3:16.)

  • "[God] purposed in Hmself that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10)

  • "that the gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel." (Ephesians 3:3-7)

  • The "marriage" of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32)

  • "Lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7)

Only one of these (the "marriage" of Christ and the Church) has an obvious symbolic/allegorical interpretation, so Paul apparently does not, by musterion mean, generally speaking, the correct interprettation of religious symbols/allegories. Fortunately, Paul gives us substantial hints at his meaning in Ephesians 3 (see also Romans 16:25, Colossians 1:26) when he says (vv. 5) that the mystery "in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets." We see, then, that just as in the Greek religious context, Paul is talking about truth that is revealed supernaturally to certain people at certain times, but not part of general human knowledge. Is Christianity, then, a mystery cult? Certainly not! The mystery was not revealed in former times, but it has now been revealed by the Spirit, and Jesus gave us special instructions as to what to do with His secrets: "Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops" (Matthew 10:27, cf. Luke 12:3). I conclude, therefore, that the New Testament's use of this word implicitly sets up a contrast between Christianity and the Pagan mystery cults: whereas the Pagans carefully guard their mysteries, the Christians are eager to announce them from the housetops! God's revelation, once given, is given to all mankind. All are welcome and invited to come and learn the mysteries of God. You need not go to any particular location or perform any particular ritual: we, the Church, will come to you to teach you the mysteries God has revealed to us.

This creates something of a difficulty for the translator, because modern audiences do not have familiarity with these kinds of religious "mysteries." As I mentioned, we have some secret societies that resemble the mystery cults, but modern religions tend not to work this way (although Mormonism does have some rituals that are open only to higher-level members of the church). As such, we do not have a term for this. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to use the word "mystery" to refer to a mystical ritual, but this isn't quite right for Paul's usage either. Mystery is the word used in references to these things in writing about Greek culture and religion, so if the target audience of a translation is made up of hellenists, then keeping the word mystery is appropriate. Also, many "church people" have been taught the Pauline meanin of mystery as something that had never before been revealed to mankind, so this audience, although it doesn't catch the implicit contrast with Paganism, does get the correct meaning. But what about translations for more "mainstream" audiences? Is there a good translation of this word for that context, or is the best we can do something like the HCSB's "bullet notes?"

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January 07, 2006

Christianity and Aristotelian Metaphysics

In a recent discussion with Suzanne McCarthy, my views were compared to Aristotle's, and I pointed out that I am really more of a Platonist and am often irritated at the continuing dominance of basically Aristotelian metaphysical ideas in Christian philosophy. In this post I will discuss the nature of these Aristotelian metaphysical claims, the manner in which they have been incorporated into Christian thought, and my reasons for objecting to said incorporation.

Before I start, I should note that I am not an expert on Aristotle, so I will be examining only basic points of Aristotelian metaphysics, and relying on interpretations that I take to be fairly uncontroversial. Of course, since I am not an expert, I could also be wrong in taking my interpretations to be uncontroversial. This is a blog discussion, not a research paper.

Aristotle is a "common sense" philosopher. In stark contrast to Plato, his teacher, he is eager to embrace the basic assumptions of his culture, and even searches for truth in facts about the Greek language. (See especially the Categories.) He is responsible for the "subject/predicate" distinction in grammar (that is, the so-called "Aristotelian predicate" which consists of the part of the sentence which is not the subject, as opposed to the "Fregean predicate," which is a somewhat different concept), and he saw this as a window to the way the world works. He claimed that the world consisted of "substances" (the things that can be subjects of sentences) and that these substances have properties. The properties are the things that might be predicated of the substance. That is, in sentences like "I am a philosophy student," we state that some substance ("I") has a particular property (belongs to the class of substances which are philosophy students). Some properties are essential - that is, if they changed the substance would lose its identity and become a different substance. Others are accidental - that is, the substance retains its identity if they change over time. If I was a philosophy student essentially then when I graduated I would become a different person. Since this is not the case, it is safe to say that I am a philosophy student only accidentally. (Although I can assure you that I became a philosophy student quite intentionally and with much effort! "Accidentally" in this context merely means non-essentially.) These essences, that is, collections of properties which define what it is to be something, are logical entities which are instantiated by certain individuals (but, again in contrast to Plato, Aristotle holds that the actual individuals are the "real" things, not the essences).

According to Aristotle, substances have a two-fold nature: they are "form" and "matter." Aristotelian theories that posit this two-fold nature are called hylomorphic theories. Matter, on this view, is the basic "stuff" of the world. "Form" is what gives it its identity as a unique entity. This exists in a sort of hierarchy. For instance, my form is my soul, and my matter is my body. The form of my body is its "vegatative soul," which is the organizing principle that takes care of blood flow, growth, digestion, etc. (but not motion - there is an "animal soul" in between the vegetative and rational souls). The matter of my body is the organs of which is made. Each organ, in turn, has form and matter, and so on.

The school of Medieval Christian philosophers known as the Scholastics were Aristotelians. During this time, Aristotelian metaphysics became a part of Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, this started very early.

The earliest example of which I am aware is the Chalcedonian Declaration of 451 AD. The Greek text of the Creed is available, with some glossary and commentary here, and there is an English translation in the Wikipedia article. This creed contains many technical terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, and by their use becomes dependent on this type of metaphysical theory. For instance, the Creed affirms that Christ is "co-essential [Gr. homoiousion] with the Father according to divinity." The claim is that Christ, considered in terms of his divinity, has the same Aristotelian essence as the Father (more on this later). Next, it claims that he is "co-essential with us according to humanity." Christ, then, instantiates two disparate Aristotelian essences: the essence of divinity and the essence of humanity. This means that he has all the properties one must have to be divine, and also all the properties one must have to be human. Note, however, that I have just stated this in non-Aristotelian language, so thus far we are merely using the apparatus of Aristotelian metaphysics, but have not made ourselves dependent on it.

Later the Creed affirms that Christ exists as two natures (phuseis) united in one person (prosopon) and one substance (hupostasis). In Aristotle, a phusis is "nature as an originating power" (LSJ, s.v. 4.1). prosopon meaning person is a later usage and is not found in Aristotle. (The word literally means "face" and in Aristotle's time the widespread figurative use was for "appearance," but by the time of the New Testament and all the more so in the later time of the Chalcedonian Creed, the word had come to mean "person.") Aristotelian hupostasis is the ontologically fundamental substance, the really real thing. I think a contrast between prosopon and hupostasis is probably intended here, meaning that Christ, despite having two essences and two natures (the latter can, I suppose, be interpreted as saying merely that Christ has both a divine origin as the only begotten of the Father existing from eternity, and a human origin as a man born from the womb of a human woman at a specific moment in history), is united both as to his outward manifestation and as to his fundamental nature.

Still, one need not affirm all of Aristotelian metaphysics to accept the Council of Chalcedon. One need only accept some metaphysical theory on which all of the concepts just mentioned (ousia, phusis, prosopon, and hupostasis) have meaning. This can probably be done, with a bit of finagling, on any theory that accepts the substance/property model of the world, which is so deeply ingrained in most (all?) human languages that it is nearly impossible to think or act without implicitly assuming it, so this is a fairly minimal requirement.

Later on, the Scholastics made good use of Aristotelian language in examining theological questions. For instance, they stated that God's essence includes existence, and so God is identical with his essence, whereas we are merely instantiations of our essence (or essences - there is and always has been some dispute between Aristotelians as to whether there is a single essence of humanity, or a unique essence of every human being or both).

However, the Scholastics and other Medieval theologians and Church leaders also constructed doctrines that depended far more heavily on actually believing the substance of Aristotle's metaphysics than does the Chalcedonian Creed. The most egregious example is the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. In the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent Session 13, Canon 2, a strict definition of orthodoxy is given stating,

If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

I was unable to find the Latin text of this online (and my Latin is really bad anyway), but the standard explanation of transubstatiation (see, e.g., Wikipedia) seems to be that "substance" here is the Aristotelian hupostasis previously discussed, and the "species" of the bread and wine which remains is the collection of properties associated with the bread and wine, so that the bread and wine takes on the real substance of the body and blood of Christ, displacing the substance of bread and wine entirely. The substances of the body and blood of Christ are apparently able to take on the form of bread and wine without losing their essences. This requires a host (no pun intended) of metaphysical assumptions. For instance, there must be fundamental "substances" of the body and blood of Christ which do not have any observable essential properties. (What are their non-observable essential properties? If they don't have any, in what does their essence consist?) Furthermore, we must believe that it is possible for one substance to transmute into another, which seems to require that there be some kind of basic matter which is independent of the substances, as there might be on a hylomorphic view. This metaphysical picture is getting to be detailed and complicated, and this is only the beginning. Anyone who does not hold such a metaphysical view is implicitly also declared anathema by the Council.

This is my primary objection to the importation of Aristotelian metaphysics to Christian doctrine: a complicated and detailed metaphysical system which is in no way essential to the Christian revelation becomes part of a test of orthodoxy. However, my difficulty accepting it goes further.

Today, Christian philosophers continue to be predominantly Aristotelian. I haven't made an exhaustive statistical survey to show this or anything, so it may be merely that the Christian philosophy I have read is not a representative sample, but I don't think so. For instance, a look at part one of Richard Swinburne's The Christian God shows that Swinburne, one of the dominant figures of Christian philosophy today, retains many metaphysical assumptions from Aristotle. In that book, he does not even discuss any of the objections to them. Furthermore, looking over a few issues of the journal Faith and Philosophy, which is published by the Society of Christian Philosophers, will show that Medieval Aristotelians, especially Thomas Aquinas, receive far more attention than the early moderns, although the latter group was composed almost entirely of Christians.

This is deeply troubling to me for a number of reasons. The first is that it is extremely problematic to allow views to appear to be essential to Christianity when they are not. For instance, think of the number of people who have been turned off to Christianity because they think it means supporting all of the policies of the Republican party, when this in fact has nothing to do with the basic message of faith. This is especially important in light of the fact that modern science requires the rejection of many points of Aristotelianism which to the modern thinker can make a system that requires one to accept any part of Aristotelian metaphysics suspect. But Christianity is not such a system. The second critical point is that I believe these Aristotelian views to be just plain wrong (the reasons why are a topic for another post).

I can only speculate as to the reasons for the continuing prevalence of these views. One speculation I might make is that the Catholic and Episcopal churches are more encouraging of philosophical pursuits than most other churches, and so Christian philosophy tends to have a Catholic/Episcopal bias. (I have reason to suspect that there might be a Calvinist bias in academic theology for similar reasons.) Whatever the case, I believe it is extremely important for Christians to critically examine these assumptions and engage with the world of secular metaphysics, as Peter van Inwagen has so admirably done. While Aristotle's influence persists, serious Aristotelianism seems to be rare in secular metaphysics (again, I haven't done an exhaustive survey, I'm just drawing on what I've read), so the assumptions made by Christian metaphysicians, or the things they are unwilling to challenge, may be hindering them from having effective dialog with the rest of the world of philosophy.

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December 22, 2005

Let's Make Creation Science Not Suck

Nearly a month ago, I posted without commentary a Leibniz quote about materialism and supernaturalism. At the time I was busy with classes and didn't have time to really address the issue I saw the quote raising, but now that finals are over, I'd like to take a minute and look at this.

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of "creation science." Leibniz here describes what he sees as two false extremes: the one is represented today by the likes of Peter Atkins, the Oxford Chemist who insists that in order to properly follow scientific methodology one must believe that the ultimate physical laws of nature are logically necessary (which, let me interject, they obviously are not!) and that there exists nothing beyond the physical. The other extreme is represented by the so-called "creation science" movement (and some, but not all, proponents of intelligent design) who claim that the events of the natural world cannot all be explained by physical laws, and so oppose science. (Other intelligent design people merely intend to say that we ought not to think that the laws themselves are the result of chance, because there seems to be a sort of inherent purposiveness about them; I do personally endorse this position, as does Leibniz.) I have been arguing on this blog for some time that this is bad theology, and I've just recently finished writing a term paper arguing that Leibniz's mechanistic views are motivated primarily by theology - and good theology at that. (I plan to post this paper once I've received feedback from my professor and given it another edit.)

Between these two extremes, Leibniz plots a middle course: "all natural phenomena could be explained mechanically if we understood them well enough, but the principles of mechanics themselves cannot be explained geometrically, since they depend on more sublime principles which show the wisdom of the Author in the order and perfection of his work."

In Discourse on Metaphysics 19 (which I discussed here) and in many other places, Leibniz argues for the use of "final causes" in physics. In particular, he is constantly claiming the Snell would never have discovered his laws of optics had he not considered that God does everything in the most perfect way possible.

Now, to the heading of this post: creation science, as it exists today, is bad for several reasons. Because creation scientists "do not reason with exactness in this matter, and it is easy for [their opponents] to reply to them, they injure religion in trying to render it service, for they merely confirm those in their error who recognize only material principles." Basically, they tend to make Christians look like idiots, and so atheists become all the more certain of their atheism. Creation scientists go around claiming that they are doing "science," but science, by definition, is concerned with "efficient causes" - it wants to find out the physical, not spiritual or metaphysical, reasons for events. And there are physical reasons for events. I continue to hold that it would essentially amount to God making a mistake if he had to break his own physical laws in order to bring about his will miraculously. Rather, the perfect wisdom and infinite power of God should lead us to conclude that he made a world in which his laws hold always, and that he is able to bring about his will, even in those things we consider miraculous, without breaking physical laws. If I am right about this, then the enterprise of science seen as the attempt to explain everything in the physical world by efficient causes is theologically legitimate. Furthermore, I think it is clear that the scientific method is a valid way of seeking truth and in particular of pursuing these kinds of investigations. Creation science, as it now exists, denies this. Instead, it claims that we must look to divine revelation, etc., in order to do science properly, and it often also claims that we should reject the idea that we can explain everything by efficient causes at all. Furthermore, it has been my experience that the people pursuing creation science rarely have sufficient theology/biblical studies backgrounds to make the kind of theological judgments needed for their field. Because of this, when it is accepted by the mainstream of Christianity, it can be theologically damaging as well.

However, I promised in the post title to explain how creation science could not suck, and I intend to do just that. You see, Leibniz was right, I think, in claiming that theists should make use of final causes in their investigations of nature. This cuts two ways: first, when we see that the world is a certain way, when we discover a scientific law or a theory, we should ask, why did God do things this way? Second, there are some cases in which we already have a pretty good idea, either through revelation or through reasoning about the nature of God, what God probably wanted to do with regard to some natural event, or we may know through revelation that some event occurred, and in these cases we can reason backward from the final cause and try to determine the efficient cause, and this may in some cases turn out to be a useful heuristic device in searching for knowledge of natural laws. Note that the aesthetic criteria which mathematicians and physicists increasingly make heuristic use of are of this nature.

However, these things are not science, and it is critical that we recognize this so we are able to communicate with the rest of the world. Michael Behe doesn't get to walk around with his own private definition of theory, and we can't just go around redefining science. If we do, then we won't be able to enter debate with non-Christians, because we won't be speaking the same language.

This is what I suggest we do: first, let's rename this field "theology of nature" (and try not to confuse it with natural theology). Then, let's take some Christians with strong science background (by which I mean, with Ph.Ds in the natural sciences) and send them to school for theology and/or biblical studies and/or philosophy of religion. Then, let's give them appointments in the theology or religious studies departments - not the departments of their scientific fields! - at universities as professors of the theology of nature. Then they can pursue their investigations of final causes, and we can all benefit from the knowledge they gain, and Christians can have a better understanding of the relationship of our faith to modern science. This idea of "theology of nature" is a perfectly legitimate academic pursuit and, Christians must believe, also a legitimate method of pursuing truth. Also, by placing this in the theology department and attracting more competent people to the serious study of it, we may have the effect of making Christianity more rather than less plausible to modern intellectuals.

Note: The title of this post is a reference to Miguel de Icaza's infamous talk, "Let's Make Unix Not Suck".

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December 12, 2005

The Myth of Narnia

I'm studying for finals right now, and don't have time for a full discussion, but I want to give a quick note on this New York Times editorial on the commericalization of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe," and the ensuing fight between the Christian right and secular Narnia lovers. I think the author of this editorial is right on in taking the middle road with her claim that, on the one hand, the "religious subtext" is obviously present but, on the other hand, C.S. Lewis would not appreciate attempts by Christians to make that subtext overt or to see the purpose of Narnia as "proselytizing" children (much less to capitalize on it financially). I would like to make one further point on this subject: C.S. Lewis would have seen the huge success of Narnia and its ability to reach non-Christians as an argument in favor of Christianity. Lewis believed that God had implanted deep drives and desires in the human soul which are filled only by relationship with God, and that humans have an instinctive understanding of and longing for the things Christianity claims to provide. Lewis, a scholar of Medieval literature, understood myth as being an appeal to these sorts of universal desires and Narnia is, in some degree, a test of this hypothesis (although I do not claim that that is why Lewis wrote them, or what he would have us take from them). The Narnia story takes the themes of Christianity outside of any Christian context, into a fantasy story, and it has been seen that these themes resound deeply with people. Lewis's explanation is that this is due to a deep desire we all have for what Christianity claims to provide, and he hoped that the Narnia stories would awaken these desires in their readers. This may draw people a step closer to Christian faith, and that may have been part of Lewis's intention, but this is much different than "proselytizing" and it is ruined if people go around handing out tracts on the Christian symbolism to secular movie-goers.

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November 29, 2005

Quote of the Day

"We know that while there have been, on the one hand, able philosophers who recognized nothing except what is material in the universe, there are, on the other hand, learned and zealous theologians who, shocked at the corpuscular philosophy and not content with checking it's misuse, have felt obliged to maintain tha tthere are phenomena in nature which cannot be explained by mechanical principles; as for example, light, weight, and elastic force. But since they do not reason with exactness in this matter, and it is easy for the corpuscular philosophers to reply to them, they injure religion in trying to render it service, for they merely confirm those in their error who recognize only material principles. The true middle term for satisfying both truth and piety is this: all natural phenomena could be explained mechanically if we understood them well enough, but the principles of mechanics themselves cannot be explained geometrically, since they depend on more sublime principles which show the wisdom of the Author in the order and perfection of his work." - G.W. Leibniz, "Tentanem Anagogicum: An Anagogical Essay in the Investigation of Causes," c. 1696 (tr. Leroy F. Loemaker).

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November 28, 2005

Can The New Testament Be Both Influenced By Plato and Inspired by God?

The God Or Not Blog Carnival is a cool idea. It happens once or twice a month. For each carnival, there is a theme and the carnival host selects an approximately equal number of posts on that theme by atheists and theists for inclusion. The theme of the December 12 carnival is miracles. I have dealt substantially with miracles on this blog in a general way already, and so I've decided to post on applying my views to one very specific miracle which is central to the claims of Christianity and especially Evangelicalism: the inspiration of Scripture.

The story so far: nearly a year ago, I posted on what I referred to as "Christian naturalism". In this post I argued for a view that I continue to hold quite strongly: the view that traditional monotheists should not believe in exceptions to the laws of nature, as this would undermine the constancy of God. This, of course, creates a problem for miracles. I addressed that problem briefly in that post, but dealt with it more precisely in a recent post on Leibniz's discussion of efficient and final causes. In that post, I showed how the efficient/final cause distinction could be used to differentiate the miraculous from the mundane. I argued that the distinction was purely subjective, so that every event could be viewed as either miraculous or mundane depending on the disposition of the observer.

In the latter of these two posts, I briefly mentioned that fellow Christians, especially Evangelicals, with whom I have discussed this tend to be especially uneasy with my application of this theory to the inspiration of Scripture. This is the issue I intend to discuss here.

In Donald Bloesch's book, The Essentials of Evangelical Theology, he says, "the Bible is not partly the Word of God and partly the word of man: it is in its entirety the very Word of God and the very word of man" (vol. 1, p. 52). He goes on to say that, "inspiration is both conceptual and verbal, since it signifies that the Spirit was active both in shaping the thoughts and imagination of the biblical writers and also in guiding them in their actual writing ... The divine activity does not supersed the human but works confluently with the human so that the Scriptures are the joint product of both God and man. The writers are not to be thought of as simply the pens of the Holy Spirit ... but as partners with the Spirit so that the end product can be attributed to coauthorship" (p. 55).

Like Bloesch, I believe that, from one perspective, it is the case that the writings which came to be included in the Christian Bible came about in precisely the same fashion as any other books: that is, human authors sat down and wrote, and when they wrote they had particular views, thoughts, current issues, and so forth in mind which they wished to address. Their thoughts were influenced by those that came before them. I think, for instance, that it is clear that the theory of the self contained in the Pauline epistles must have been influenced by Plato's Republic (compare Paul's division into pneuma [spirit], psuche [soul], and sarx [flesh] with Plato's division into the philosophos [wisdom-loving], philotimos [honor-loving], and philochrematos [money-loving] psuchai [souls]), and the Johannine literature must have been influenced by Heraclitus (compare the use of logos [word]), although this influence may have been indirect (it has been suggested that it may have come through Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived from about 20 BC to about 40 AD). However, this does not undermine inspiration. The Holy Spirit was active in shaping their life experiences so that their beliefs, ideas, thoughts, intentions, etc. would be such as to write down the Word of God, and also in imparting ideas to them at the time of writing.

Christians often seem to assume that if they Bible is inspired by God it must have come from nowhere - that is, it must have fallen from the sky (in the King James Version, of course), or the human authors must have experienced a sort of divine possession in which they did not write anything that they wanted to write or that they would have thought of, but merely "channeled" God's word in a highly supernatural way. Now, clergy, theologians, and others who have devoted a great deal of time to serious study of Scripture, tend not to take views that are so extreme as all of this (and I'm exaggerating even the popular view here), but they still seem to think that if the New Testament was influenced by Greek Pagans this would undermine its spiritual authority. But why should it?

Those who believe in the truth of the Christian Scriptures believe that Pauline Christianity is an accurate representation of Christ's intentions for the Church. What is the chief thrust of Pauline Christianity? It is nothing other than the God of the Hebrews reaching out to the Gentile (in that time, primarily Hellenistic) world. I do not mean to say that this is the only thing Christianity is about, or even the core of the message, but the idea that God has taken action to reach the whole world and not only Israel is certainly the thing that Paul was most surprised by and continued to be most excited about. We often talk about, for instance, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as being a symbolic action based on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible in which Jesus declared himself to be Messiah. Now, in light of the thrust toward reaching the Greeks, consider the story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Remind you of Greek mythology? How often do Greek gods disguise themselves as mortals, enter a home, and make their identities known only after eating dinner? The meaning of this story in light of Greek myth is outisde the scope of this post (and really beyond my knowledge - I don't know my mythology very well), but my point is, doesn't it make perfect sense that in the same way Jesus takes symbolic actions to reveal himself to the Jews, he would take symbolic actions to reveal himself to the Greeks?

If, then, Christianity can be influenced by Greek Pagan religion in this way, why should it not be influenced by the likes of Plato? If Plato is right about something (and can someone as smart as Plato possibly be wrong about absolutely everything?), or provides a good vocabulary for speaking in very precise terms about an issue important to Christianity, why shouldn't God use Plato's writings to form the views of the authors of Scripture in order to bring it about that they write down his word?

The objection that Scripture can't be inspired if it has outside influcences is essentially the same as the objection that the parting of the Red Sea wasn't a miracle if it had a naturalistic explanation, and this is simply false. A world in which physical laws were broken ad hoc would be a world unworthy of the Christian God. Why should the miracle of inspiration of Scripture be any different? Are there not "laws" about the ways human beings come to knowledge and form opinions, just as there are laws about how physical objects behave? Couldn't God construct the circumstances in the lives of the authors of Scripture in such a way that their words would coincide with his? And wouldn't this be a much greater miracle than his using his unlimited power to override the free will and individuality of the Biblical authors in order to "channel" his thoughts through them?

According to the definition I gave previously, if the Bible is the living word of God it should be easy for those who have been affected by it to see the miraculous nature of its inspirtation: its effect on us is clearly miraculous, in so far as it changes our lives by drawing us into relationship with God. This is its final cause, and it is immediately apparent to those who have had this experience. It's efficient causes, however, require extensive historical research and literary study to ascertain. In this sense, the Bible is a very miraculous collection of literature.

Finally, a word on use of miracles as proof of the existence of God: David Hume argued that we are never justified in believing a miracle has occurred. I'm undecided as to whether his reasoning is valid, but it is based on his (in my view, flawed) conception of miracles as exceptions to the laws of nature. Suppose we concede Hume this point. On my view, no such miracles occur anyway. But "miraculous" (in my teleological sense) events can still be accepted as proof of the existence of God. When the world seems to manifest purpose where humans have none, there may be a miracle. If many such events occur, such that the world appears to have a direction, a purpose, an intention, this may be evidence for God. Furthermore, as to the miracle of the inspiration of Scripture, we can be justified in believing it is inspired and hence miraculous because of a strange series of coincidences surrounding it (consider, for instance, the detailed discussion of the conflict between the Ptolemy and Seleucid dynasties at the end of Daniel, and consider the fact that the book of Daniel was translated from Hebrew into Greek decades before said conflict occurred. Consider also the events surrounding the foundation of the Christian church, and the various miracles reported in that connection). But all of these things require detailed historical analysis and there is a great deal of uncertainty about them. More immediately there is, along the lines of the argument from "religious experience," the fact that the text of the Bible has impacted the lives of millions in ways that are in line with the effects the God depicted in the Bible would want to bring about. There is a sort of inherent purposiveness to the Christian Scriptures that exceeds the purpose and planning of the original authors and compilers and reaches forward to present day circumstances the authors and compilers could not have had any knowledge of. This, above all, is evidence for the miraculous nature of Scripture, and if it is miraculous then it serves as an argument for God. Don't understand what I'm talking about? Go read it.

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October 12, 2005

Leibniz on "Efficient" vs. "Final" Causes in Physics: Its Application to God, Science, and Miracles

So I'm taking this class on Leibniz this semester (for those of you who may be unfamiliar, that is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the 17th century philosopher/scientist/mathematician, and the "other" discoverer of calculus), and I was reading his Discourse on Metaphysics today and came across this fantastic passage in section 19:

Moreover, it is unreasonable to introduce a supreme intelligence as orderer of things and then, instead of using his wisdom, use only the properties of matter to explain the phenomena. This is as if, in order to account for the conquest of an important place by a great prince, a historian were to claim that it occurred because the small particles of gunpowder, set off by the contact of a spark, escaped with sufficient speed to push a hard and heavy body against the walls of the place, while the little particles that make up the brass of the cannon were so firmly interlaced that this speed did not separate them, instead of showing how the foresight of the conqueror enabled him to choose suitable means and times and how his power overcame all obstacles.

The heading of this section is "The Utility of Final Causes in Physics." Now Leibniz, like me, sees no conflict between an event's being "miraculous" and its being explainable in terms of physics: as in the case of the conqueror, both explanations are correct, but only one is relevant. Leibniz borrows from Aristotle the terminology of "efficient" and "final" causes (Aristotle has two more types of causes, "formal" and "material," which are not relevant here). Today, we use the word "cause" to refer only to what Aristotle and later philosophers, including Leibniz, called the "efficient cause." The "final cause" is the purpose of a thing or event. For instance, the final cause of this post is (in part) to be read.

Now, for anyone who, like Leibniz and like myself, is a theist, the world is full of final causes. There are reasons why things are as they are. God has a design for the world. Leibniz, in this passage, tells us that it would be ridiculous to believe in God and not see final causes throughout the world. He also says, in a nearby section, that it is silly for those who study final causes of things to ridicule those who study their efficient causes, and vice versa. Both explanations are correct, but in a given situation one may be more relevant than another.

A while back, I wrote a post on Christian Naturalism. In it, I argued that Christians should not believe in exceptions to the laws of nature. This then leaves the problem of how to deal with miracles. In that post I said "A miracle is an event in which the 'higher functions' of the divine consciousness, i.e. the part equivalent to the conscious functioning of the human mind, that makes plans and designs regarding human lives and the like, are more apparent than the 'lower functions' which are the laws of nature. To put it more simply (but less precisely) a miracle occurs when the laws of nature conspire together to acheive some intelligent end." (Yes, the "conspire" language was in part a reference to Stephen Hawking's "Chronology Protection Conjecture.") Using the language of Aristotle and Leibniz I can now state this more precisely.

The difference between the "miraculous" and the "mundane" is purely subjective. A miracle is an event in which the "final cause" - the divine purpose behind it (or at least a part of that purpose) - is more readily apparent to the observer than the "efficient cause" - the physical laws which require that the event occurs. In this way, there is no contradiction between belief in the miraculous and naturalism.

A brief note on a related topic: I apply this same doctrine to all miracles, but one in which I have gotten very negative responses is in its application to the revelation of the Christian Scriptures. I believe that these are miraculous in precisely this sense: what came down to us turned out (not by any accident, but by divine purpose) to be the Living Word of God. This does not, however, mean that it was not produced in precisely the same way as any other work of literature. Therefore it is consistent with belief in the inspiration of Scripture to talk about the influence of earlier non-inspired writers (e.g. Plato, Philo of Alexandria, or Heraclitus) on the authors of Scripture, as I often do. I believe that the Scriptures are miraculously inspired, I just don't believe that they were inspired "in a vacuum" as it were, independent of the surrounding thought patterns. Where previous writers were correct, or almost correct, or provided good terminology for discussing a subject, God used their writings to bring it about that the authors of Scripture would write down the Living Word of God.

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August 31, 2005

Ecclesiology in Swinburne's Revelation

I've just finished reading Richard Swinburne's Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, in which he strives to create a rational foundation for belief in (a particular understanding of) "the Christian revelation" (which, on Swinburne's account is not exactly equivalent with the Bible, but we'll get there). The beginning of this book is very good. Swinburne argues forcefully that if the God of traditional Western monotheism exists, then there is good reason to expect that He would reveal Himself to mankind, and, of course, if we have an a priori expectation that there is probably a revelation out there somewhere, then much less evidence is required to identify some specific item as that revelation than if we had a view of the world which makes such a revelation unlikely (note that Swinburne establishes the authority of the Bible on the basis of the existence of God, not vice versa). However, as one moves on further in Swinburne's book, into the specifics of his theory of revelation, his statements become increasingly problematic (read: false). Swinburne's departure from sound doctrine is not due to flawed philosophical reasoning, but rather to correct reasoning from a false premise. The departure occurs at a very definite point and comes from a very definite cause: the horrible ecclesiology assumed, not argued for, in chapter 8. Some hints of this problem occur earlier, but so far as the course of Swinburne's argument is concerned he does well up to this point, but as soon as he allows this false premise to enter he departs from the "straight and narrow" and the rest of his argument, following this premise, moves him farther and farther away.

Now, let us be clear here: this is not so much a (theologically) liberal/conservative dispute as a Roman Catholic/Protestant dispute. Swinburne does ultimately allow some rather liberal conclusions about the proper interpretation of Scripture, but these are well argued for (I do not know the Roman Catholic tradition well enough to tell if they are established or if he is omitting crucial evidence) and stem from proper conservative Catholic doctrine.

The crucial assumption is this: that the Church is an earthly institution, with a unified human authority structure, with buildings, meetings, etc. Since Swinburne's argument shows that Jesus of Nazareth (whose life and teachings are taken to be the "original Christian revelation") established the Church and that the resurrection, which Swinburne takes to be God's "signature" on the revelation (I like that part, by the way - Swinburne argues that, just as human beings sign letters so others will know they are legitimate by performing and action easy for the real author but impossible or nearly so for others, God would authenticate His revelation by performing some act which is easy for Him but impossible for anyone else. This act was the resurrection of Jesus. Again, Swinburne establishes the authority of Scripture from the resurrection as an historical occurrence, not vice versa), validated the church as the body God had appointed to interpret the revelation. Swinburne does have arguments which show that, due to the culture- and language-specific nature of human communication, a once-for-all revelation would be likely to have an interpreting body to make it accessible for future generations, and the New Testament itself does seem to have such a conception, but we are getting to that. Now, because of Swinburne's ecclesiological assumption, it becomes necessary to find the church (or churches - he leaves open the possibility that due to splits there may be more than one) which is the true successor of the Church which Jesus founded with His twelve disciples, i.e. the one that has true apostolic succession, and to believe the teachings of that church. Of couse, apart from Swinburne's (in my view false) assumptions about the sort of Church Jesus founded, why should there be such a church, in our modern sense which gives us options like (to name a few) the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, Calvary Chapel, or some combination of the above. Why should we suppose that ANY of these are the sort of thing meant by "the Church" in the New Testament? All of the Protestant denominations can be traced to founding by a distinct human individual. Nothing recognizable as the Roman Catholic Church existed AT LEAST until the Council of Chalcedon gave (honorary only, according to the Eastern Orthodox Church) primacy to the patriarch of Rome (later called the Pope) over the other patriarchs in 451, and probably not really until the Great Schism permanently separated it from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. It is my view (based on my limited knowledge) that, although I do not believe in apostolic succession per se, if any modern institution church has a legitimate historical claim to it it must be the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, once again, I see no reason to suppose that that is at all the sort of thing that the "one holy catholic [i.e. universal] and apostolic Church" of the Nicene Creed is.

As I suggested previously, the Bible has a different view of the ekklesia, or Church, which it often refers to as "the Body of Christ." Firstly, the word itself has the primary meaning "assembly," but more particularly it is etymologically related to kaleo, "I call". It is "the assembly of the called." In the Athenian government, it was the assembly of all citizens, which was called together by the town crier. In this case, it is the assembly (gathering together) of all those who have responded to God's call to the world. It may very well be significant that the early believers used this word rather than the word "synagogue" (Greek: sunagogos), which also means "coming together" but did not have the idea of being called or chosen in its connotation (note that ekklesia is cognate with the English "eclectic"). Take into account Jesus' own words in Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together [Gr. sunegmenoi, from the verb form of sunagogos] in My name, I am there in the midst of them." THIS is Jesus' concept of the Church. Furthermore, we know that in the first century new believers were inducted into the Church by baptism (see e.g. Acts 2:38-39), and in Paul's discussion of baptism he says, "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13), and that body is clearly the Church in Paul's thought. That is, Paul identifies the members of the Church as those who have received the promise of baptism "with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16), and this is not a matter of membership in some specific earthly institution. After all, consider the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). What earthly institution did he join? After baptizing him, Philip disappeared! Did he even know about the (lower c) church in Jerusalem, or anywhere else?

Now, as to Swinburne's assertion that the Church is the interpreter of revelation, this is true, but not in the way he thinks. Paul says, "These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:13-14). The Church is just that group of people that is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16 teaches that the Holy Spirit testifies to each believer that he is a "child of God", i.e. a member of the Church), and, therefore, just the group of people capable of understanding and interpreting "the thing of the Spirit of God," which includes the Bible. Also, John 16:13, which Swinburne cites to this effect on the last page of his book, specifically discusses the Holy Spirit guiding us into "all truth." Thus the putative revelation, the Bible (which Swinburne says is merely a correct interpretation of the true revelation, the life and teachings of Jesus - let us concede that point, as I simply don't think its worth arguing about, provided "correct" is understood strongly enough), actually tells us what the interpreting body will look like, and therefore if such a body exists and the revelation is legitimate then the body will be the proper interpreter.

What does that mean? Baptists have traditionally affirmed the right and responsibility of each believer to interpret the Bible for himself within a community of believers, and I think this is the correct direction to take. The Bible is, primarily, a tool by which God the Holy Spirit reveals the same truth to different people at different times in different ways, but the tool is public because of the dangerously subjective nature of individual revelations. Thus the Holy Spirit makes special revelation to each individual in the Church, but He does so through a public tool which admits to a degree of objectivity so that there is a means of distinguishing the true revelation of the Spirit from the wishful thinking or invention of the individual. It takes time to learn to hear God's voice and follow Him as our Shepherd (John 10:27), and in order to do this we need "training data", so to speak, for our "spiritual sense" - that is, we need well known, public examples of things that God has said so that we can learn to discern his voice from our own (or that of the devil). Thus the Bible contains the revelation which is universally applicable, communicated in such a way that it can be properly interpreted only with divine guidance, but nevertheless admits to publicly verifiable analysis. This is what it means that the Bible can only be properly interpreted by the Church. Swinburne may even be right that it is the Church's status as interpreter of the revelation which came in the life and teachings of Christ, signed by God with the resurrection (but do not read either Swinburne or myself as claiming that this is the SOLE purpose of the resurrection - God never does anything for only one purpose), that tells us that the canon of Scripture is a further revelation (or correct interpretation of the original revelation, or whatever).

It follows then that an individual currently outside the Church seeking to understand the Christian revelation, must consult the Church. But how does one find the true Church? Jesus tells us "you will know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:16), and this is clearly the central criterion. Swinburnes other criteria, continuity of organization and purpose, are also important. Swinburne says that one criterion is in fact that the true Church will have sound doctrine, continuous with the teaching of Jesus, but since we are, in this case, attempting to find the true Church in order to figure out what Jesus taught, this is only helpful for what little we can determine by normal historical inquiry, without treating Scripture as a revelation. Clearly the modern Church will in some sense "look like" the Church in the first century. However, if the central definition of the Church is "the gathering together of those called out of the world by God and filled with the Holy Spirit" then the primary characteristics will be those the Bible associates with this change, which includes "signs following" (Mark 16:17-18), power to witness for Jesus (Acts 1:8), changed lives (see esp. the change from the frightened disciples before Pentecost, to the fearless preachers after), and, above all, the "fruits of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the crucial mark of the true Church, the gaurdian of the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is not a human institution, nor need it have a central human authority structure; only Jesus Himself is its head (Colossians 1:18).

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August 28, 2005

Christian Faith is No Good Unless It's True!

Professor Douglas Groothuis of Culture Watch: Thoughts of a Constructive Curmudgeon has a post arguing primarily that Christianity is incompatible with postmodernism (I would have thought this point was obvious, but apparently not). I wanted to post a link to it here because Professor Groothuis spends some time arguing for a point much-belabored on this blog and in my life: Christian faith is no good unless its content is true. He even cites 1 Corinthians 15, as I often do. If you take away one point from Professor Groothuis's writing or mine, let it be this: in order for Christian faith to be valuable, in order for Christianity to be meaningful, there must be such a thing as the Absolute Truth, and the central claims of Christianity, about the identity, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, must belong to it. If this is not so then, as Paul would say (in the King James Version), "our faith is in vain."

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July 19, 2005

God, Science, and the Teleological (Design) Argument Revisited

I've just finished the deeply moving experience of reading one of the most brilliant, and beautiful, philosophy papers I have been exposed to to date. The paper, "Natural Theology, Methodological Naturalism, and 'Turtles all the Way Down'" by Dr. Del Ratzsch, a philosopher of science at Calvin College, appears in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy, and academic journal published by the Society of Christian Philosophers. (The latest issue is dated October 2004 - they're a little behind.) The paper discusses a broad range of issues related to the interaction between theology and science. There are two points that I find particularly beautiful and compelling and would like to discuss. The first is his argument that the success of science (not any particular scientific endeavor, but the entire enterprise) actually amounts to experimental support (albeit inconclusive) for traditional monotheism. The second is his discussion of "infinite regression" of naturalistic explanations. I encourage anyone reading this to read the paper if you can get your hands on it (I myself will be finishing the rest of the journal ASAP so that I can begin loaning out this article). For those of you who are here at Penn, the library does receive the journal.

Science as Evidence of God. The role of Christianity in the history and early development of science has been much discussed. Judaism and Islam deserve credit for major developments in human thought that moved in the direction of science in earlier periods, so perhaps the credit should really go to the entire Western monotheistic tradition, but it was first and foremost Christianity (perhaps due to facts about distinctive Christian beliefs, perhaps due to historical accident) that provided the foundation for the genesis of modern science in the early modern era. The development of the scientific method and philosophy of science more generally is accredited to characters like Galileo, Newton, and Boyle, who adhered strongly to the basic doctrines of Christianity (though their "free-thinking" in other areas often got them in trouble with the established Church). These philosophies and methodologies, Ratzsch argues, actually grew out of the Christian commitments of these thinkers, rather than being in opposition to them as many secular humanist thinkers would have us believe. In particular, he claims that there was probably a line of reasoning much like the following:

1) The world was created by an intelligent and perfectly rational Being
2) We are created in the image of that Being, meaning that we have intelligent minds like His, though of course ours are finite and quite limited, whereas His is infinite.
:. 3) Therefore, the universe is such as to be intelligible to us: it is a true cosmos, being ordered according to rational principles which are of the sort that we should expect to be able to discover and understand them (though of course our limited intellect may prevent perfect and ultimate understanding).

Based on these ideas, these early scientist-philosopher-theologians (which is indeed what each of the men mentioned, and many other pioneers of science, were) concluded that the task of scientific enquiry should be possible. That is: we should be able to do experiments and formulate equations and use rational patterns of thoughts in order to successfully understand and describe the universe. What this means is that the theory of traditional Western monotheism has as a consequence the success of science! Science is predicted by monotheism in its familiar form. Within science, when a theory or hypothesis predicts an outcome and, when the experiment is performed, the outcome eventuates, this is counted as evidence for the theory or hypothesis. Why, Ratzsch asks, do scientists neglect to apply this principle to theories outside the traditional realm of science? If this is a general principle of reasoning, ought it not to apply elsewhere?

This, of course, is not a conclusive argument, but the fact that the basic premises that underlie the very possibility of doing science "fall out" of monotheism at the very least makes the success of science a contributor to whatever epistemic warrant there may be for belief in God. Furthermore, this completely undermines any claim that science must make some presumption of philosophical naturalism (where naturalism is used in a stronger sense than that in which I used it here where I meant only the belief that whatever natural laws there are have no exceptions. Ratzsch, and most others, use naturalism in a strong sense as the denial of the existence of anything supernatual, as e.g. God or the soul). After all, it was a form of supernaturalism that enabled the development of science in the first place.

It is important to keep track of what this argument justifies ("proves" is perhaps too strong a word for it, though I find it extremely compelling). Science, under this argument, provides direct support for only that part of Christian belief which predicted the success of science - namely, the belief that a being who is or was intelligent and rational is or was the creator and/or sustainer of the universe. This, however, is a big step.

Infinite Regress of Naturalistic Explanations: So What About Those Turtles? Ratzsch's turtle reference was familiar to me from a passage in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding which he does not cite and which I am too lazy to look up [UPDATE (7/20, 17:34): the citation is EHU II.xxiii.2. Thanks, Lauren.]. Apparently it is discussed elsewhere as well, and is generally fairly widely known. The idea is this: a sage was once asked what the world rested upon, and he answered that it resed upon an elephant. When asked what the elephant rested on, he said it was a turtle. When asked what the turtle rested on, he said it was another turtle. When asked what that turtle rested on he, exasperated, exclaimed that it was "turtles all the way down" (note: in Locke's version, the sage says that the first turtle rests upon "a thing, I know not what"). This, according to Ratzsch, is the position of many naturalists with regard to explaining away what appear to be design features (what Ratzsch and others sometimes call the "fine-tuning" of the universe). Ratzsch neatly side-steps evolution to discuss cosmology instead (noting that the Big Bang theory postulates creation, or at least generation, ex nihilo on the most obvious interpretation). The odds are strongly against there being an earth-like planet that can support life like us, and scientific thought does not like to see this as being a brutely contingent fact, so they explain that there are many billions of planets in the universe and the odds are not against one of these having the right conditions. However, the odds are strongly against there being a universe with the proper physical constants to generate any planets at all. Some thinkers have then retreated to saying that there are millions of universes, or even infinitely many (either concurrently as in multiverse theory, or occurring successively with multiple "Bangs" followed by collapses - although I understand that the latest data from those who study cosmic background radiation militates against the latter), and that one of these had to have the right rules. And so on. We arrive at classical (Newtonian) mechanics as an explanation of physical activity, but want a deeper explanation. Soon we have special relativity and quantum mechanics. We hope it won't be long before we've got a workable and widely accepted version of String theory/quantum gravity/"ultimate theory of everything"/pick your favorite idea, because point particle quantum mechanics, and in particular the properties of the fundamental particles, is too complex and arbitrary, and there must be something simpler and more beautiful (again, thoughts of a designer creep in) underlying it.

Ratzsch can be read as suggesting that this regression has to stop somewhere, but I don't think that reading is necessary. What is most important is that at every level there is the appearance of a designer. With cosmology it is more apparent than with the more traditional areas of physics that as the explanations take further steps back they become more, rather than less, complicated, and no matter how far you go there is still the suggestion of teleology - that the universe was designed intentionally to support life. The same explanation is available to those who will be open to the possibility of the supernatural at every level, but the pure naturalist must make every more complex assertions to explain away the evidence of design.

The true stroke of brilliance in Ratzsch's article is his suggestion that this regression resembles a Mandelbrot shape - a fractal. The same pattern is visible at every level: the pattern of an intelligent, rational designer, with an intelligent, rational purpose in mind. The pattern becomes more intricate and more beautiful at every level, but it is always the same pattern. Ratzsch does seem to think that there is some point where science must stop; some final equation or explanation beyond which is nothing but divine fiat. I am inclined to agree, and the primary reason I think that there must be something deeper than our current understanding is "God can do better." Ultimately I expect that there is a very simple equation following this "fractal pattern" - another f=ma or e=mc^2 waiting to be discovered at the next level, and perhaps the level after that, and perhaps the level after that, and so on, that will be an ultimate testimony to the brilliance of God's design. But I am also intrigued by the possibility that the pattern may actually regress to infinity (my girlfriend, a physics major, suggested a similar idea to me prior to my reading Ratzsch's article), forming this fractal pattern to ultimate perfection, and leaving the human race with always another puzzle to unlock, for a deeper and deeper understanding of the nature and character of God and His design for the universe.

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