Friday, January 18, 2019

God's Incommunicable Attributes: One of these things, is not like the others...

Below is a table listing some of God’s incommunicable attributes. The italicized editorial comments in the second column are not meant to indicate that I call the attribute into question, because I most assuredly do not. They merely represent how the imponderability of the attribute might manifest itself in the form of questions that keep me up at night.

I have given, in the third column, a 0-10 mystery index to the attribute, where the higher the index the greater the mystery.

You will notice that one of these attributes is not like the others.

Mystery Index [0-10]
God can do anything He desires. Then why does God, if He is also good, permit such suffering?
God is always present in all places. What does that even mean? Is it his actual presence or “merely” that his senses reach everywhere? How to imagine anything that is infinite?
God has perfect, complete knowledge.  He never learns, nor does he forget.  God cannot grow in knowledge, understanding, or wisdom.  Is human fee will an illusion? If so, why are we accountable?
God is the supreme being who answers to no one and who has the absolute right to do with his creation as he desires. Why then is it apparently his will that some are lost and endure eternal damnation?
God is not dependent upon anything else for his existence.  He is uncaused--the infinite Being who has always existed.  It is unfathomable to imagine an existence that extends to the infinite past. Our mind demands that everything has a beginning.
God transcends space and time in that he is not dependent on them nor affected by them. God has no here nor there. God has no arrow of time, past, present, or future. God has no history. What do all the time references to God mean?
Why, tis simple! God doesn’t change!

The incommunicable attribute of immutability doesn’t appear to cause any furrowed brows. It is nothing more than “’God doesn’t change.’ Next question.”

Is this really the only incommunicable attribute of God with a three-word definition “God doesn’t change” that is immediately and perfectly understandable, even by a child? Or, is it possible that we trivialize it?

We trivialize it. We assume we know exactly what it means from our non-transcendental existence and forget, unforgivably, that God is transcendental. An immutable non-transcendental being would be a stone statue. But an immutable transcendent being—now that being can certainly appear to be changing to us all the time. An immutable transcendent being (God) can look at us one moment and deem us filthy and unacceptable in our own righteousness, and look at us, an instant later, as pure and acceptable in Christ’s righteousness. An immutable transcendent being (God) actually can, from our perspective (and so for us it is real) be pleased with us one moment and angry the next.  Such a being does, from our vantage point, have changing emotions. These emotions are undoubtedly anthropomorphic, but they mean something, lest we make the Holy Spirit the worse inspirer of scripture ever. For He inspired phrases like “God was angry/pleased” over and over, while seemingly incapable of inspiring, instead: “It was as if God was angry.”

I don’t know how to explain immutability. But when I consider it in light of God’s transcendence (and omniscience) the best model I can come with is to liken it to, in toto, the past.  Our past. We are in some manner transcendent of the past. We are, in principle, omniscient regarding the past. The past cannot change. It is immutable. And yet the past is a collection of threads that were in constant change. I think (just my model) that in a similar manner all time is already “laid out” for God. He is, if you will, also transcendent of our future, and so in that sense nothing about Him can change because everything already is.


Immutability, when thought of properly, will overload and break your mystery index meter. You’ll have to order a new one, preferably one with a logarithmic scale. Not only is it not the simplest of God’s attributes, It is so mysterious there is actually only one safe conclusion that we can draw from it, and that is this: God’s promises are true.

I am really annoyed when the trivial view of immutability is used to argue for Divine Impassibility. 1 Strip away the jargon and other pedantic window dressing from the way modern so-called theologians write about impassibility and you always, if you dig deep enough, find this argument:

P1: God is Immutable
P2: Emotions imply change
C: Therefore God has no emotions

Corollary: the myriad scripture passages attributing emotions to God are all anthropomorphisms.

This is a textbook example of a syllogistic fallacy.

1 After a great deal of study (and after removing the aftertaste of some really awful modern writing) I came to affirm the historic doctrine of Divine Impassibility. But not the way it is taught, with the syllogistic fallacy as described above, that forces one to argue that all references to God’s feelings are anthropomorphic. That is simply not true, and in fact it as dangerously wrong, and it is not the historic viewpoint. If you are reading a book that argues that way—get a better book. One that understands that passions are not the same thing as emotions. It is Divine Impassibility, not Divine Stoicism. God is not Spock.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The R2K Problem

We Calvinists can be, at times, the most boring of all creatures. Take a current debate among those Calvinists who are not happy unless they are arguing (in other words more or less all of us.) It is the Two Kingdom (2k) v. the Neo-Kuyperians Wars, which sounds like an episode of Star Trek. 1

Now, this is not your father’s Calvinistic debate, even if your father is quite young. Not long ago the game-changing kerfuffle was over the New Perspective on Paul. That was, at least, a juicy and substantive debate that you could really sink your teeth into. That got into the holy-of-holies issues of justification by faith alone and one-time justification. That was about whether the Reformation, to a certain extent, was a mistake traceable to Luther’s ignorance regarding 1st century Judaism and temple worship. 2

The 2k v. Neo-Kuyperians debate is not of the same substance. It is more or less this:

2kers: There are two kingdoms or realms. God reigns over both but they are distinct. There is the kingdom of God and there are the kingdoms (nations) of the world. The Church, in this view, should have its primary dwelling in the kingdom of God, and believers should think of themselves, first, as citizens/subjects in this Kingdom. The kingdoms of the world, at their best, are not about biblical law, but natural law.

The Neo-Kuyperians (cool name) acknowledge the unfortunate reality of two kingdoms but do not accept that this is as it should be or must be. They argue that the two kingdoms should morph into one, by means of Christians fully engaging in the culture and politics.

To me this debate is simply theological window dressing on the question of how extensively Christians should engage in the culture wars and enter civilian politics including running for office. The answers to this question on a survey would reveal, unsurprisingly, a spectrum. Divide it down the middle and we have 2k on the left and Neo-Kuyperians on the right, with lots of variation within each side. As Calvinists we take this simple reality and put theological lipstick on the pig to demonstrate that our side has more biblical support, so we win! Because that’s what Calvinists do. In this case, however, I think it is mostly a process of rationalization of one’s predetermined position, not inductive reasoning.

Both stands, like any two sides that must accommodate billions of people in one camp or the other, suffer chowderheads on the extremes. The extremists among the 2kers are essentially isolationists. They are Amish-esque. They totally disengage from the world. The extremists among the Neo-Kuyperians are the theonomists and the Christian reconstructionists  3 who advocate for a theocracy.

If I must pick a side, I'm a die-hard 2ker. (Because, dontcha know,  that's the side with the biblical support!) Three cheers for the separation of church and state.

1 2k theology is also known as R2k, where the R is for the magical adjective Reformed. Everything is automatically splediferous if it is tagged Reformed.

2 Answer: the Reformation was not a mistake, and on the topic of Justification-- well M. Luther, pardon the pun, nailed it.

3 (In Yosemite Sam voice) I hates theonomists. First I hates ‘em for their vile views and second, I hate ‘em because they have given postmillennialism a bad name. But postmillennialism does not imply theonomy (may it never be!) There is the bottom-up orthodox view of postmillennialism sometimes called the pietistic or revivalist view which is in direct contrast to the unorthodox top-down reconstructionist view. The latter takes the unbiblical position that, because reasons, Jesus is waiting around until we create a government worthy of his return.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fun with Fallacy (remix)

Some time ago I posted on the humorous book A Random Walk in Science. One of the better contributions contained therein is a reprint of The Uses of Fallacy by Paul V. Dunmore, New Zealand Mathematics Magazine, 7, 15 (1970). In the article Dunmore explains some of the better fallacies employed by creative teachers. Here is an excerpt:
There is a whole class of methods which can be applied when a lecturer can get from his premises P to a statement A, and from another statement B to the desired conclusion C, but he cannot bridge the gap from A to B. A number of techniques are available to the aggressive lecturer in this emergency. He can write down A, and without any hesitation put "therefore B". If the theorem is dull enough, it is unlikely that anyone will question the "therefore". This is the method of Proof by Omission, and is remarkably easy to get away with (sorry, "remarkably easy to apply with success").
Alternatively, there is the Proof by Misdirection, where some statement that looks rather like "A, therefore B" is proved. A good bet is to prove the converse "B, therefore A": this will always satisfy a first-year class. The Proof by Misdirection has a countably infinite analog, if the lecturer is not pressed for time, in the method of Proof by Convergent Irrelevancies.
Proof by Definition can sometimes be used: the lecturer defines a set S of whatever entities he is considering for which B is true, and announces that in future he will be concerned only with members of S. Even an Honours class will probably take this at face value, without enquiring whether the set S might not be empty.
Proof by Assertion is unanswerable. If some vague waffle about why B is true does not satisfy the class, the lecturer simply says, "This point should be intuitively obvious. I've explained it as clearly as I can. If you still cannot see it, you will just have to think very carefully about it yourselves, and then you will see how trivial and obvious it is."
The hallmark of a Proof by Admission of Ignorance is the statement, "None of the text-books makes this point clear. The result is certainly true, but I don't know why. We shall just have to accept it as it stands." This otherwise satisfactory method has the potential disadvantage that somebody in the class may know why the result is true (or, worse, know why it is false) and be prepared to say so.
A Proof by Non-Existent Reference will silence all but the most determined troublemaker. "You will find a proof of this given in Copson on page 445", which is in the middle of the index. An important variant of this technique can be used by lecturers in pairs. Dr. Jones assumes a result which Professor Smith will be proving later in the year--but Professor Smith, finding himself short of time, omits that theorem, since the class has already done it with Dr Jones...
The entire article is available here. Great stuff.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sabbath Rest (and recreation)

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. (Ex 20:8-10)

Within the Reformed confessional camp there is broad agreement that the New Covenant has not abrogated the 4th Commandment, i.e. the Sabbath. There is fairly universal acceptance that in there still is a day to set aside for our meager attempts at advanced holiness.  There is disagreement about whether that day must be the first day of the week, with some arguing that the practice of the early church to meet on the first day was prescriptive, and some arguing it was merely descriptive and/or of historical rather than scriptural origin.  Calvin 1 was of the latter point of view, arguing that any day of the week would be fine, except Saturday, because he wanted it to be distinguished from the Jewish Sabbath, which he thought of as burdened with too much ritualistic baggage.  He was fine with the first day, but for the practical reason that all Christendom (more or less) had (for whatever reason, as far as he was concerned) adopted it as the Sabbath. He wanted us to agree on the day. It was a Sabbath like the Jewish Sabbath, with regulations more complex than Fizzbin (or even the standard of complexity: the Official rules of Major League Baseball 2) that Calvin believed Paul was ix-naying in Col. 2:16-17.

So let’s stipulate that the Reformed agree. There remains a Sabbath day. And whether or not the first day was prescribed (I don’t think it was) it is, at a minimum, the de facto Sabbath day.

What about the activities that you can do on the Sabbath? There again we have, broadly speaking, two views, generally called the Puritan View and the Continental View.

Before distinguishing the two, if we wanted to list names of Reformed theologians in either camp (I’m not going to bother), both lists would end up looking like a who’s who. This is not a liberal-conservative divide. It boils down to different views of a single passage, and there are big-shots in both camps

The distinction arises in the treatment of recreation on the Sabbath. Both views affirm the Sabbath. Both affirm that you should rest from your work, do not engage in your private commerce for profit, and do not require work from any person in your employ. Both views affirm that you should take extra care to devote yourself to the Word and to meditation, contemplation, and prayer.

But what about, to put it in stark terms, a nice round of golf? (Though never, ever at the expense of attending church and increased scriptural study and meditation/prayer.)  For most of the continental camp that would be acceptable, with proper decorum, given that taking the day as a whole you did in fact sabbath (as a verb.)  The puritan view generally says no to all forms of recreation.

Another example is eating a contemplative Sunday lunch with family or fellow believers at a restaurant. The continental view would say it’s fine, while the puritan view would say: no, that’s not proper. 4

On a scale of recreational activities that runs from 0 to 10, where 10 is drunken Game of Thrones binge-watching, the continental threshold is around 1 (the round of golf or the lunch at a restaurant) while the puritan view has the needle pinned at 0.0. 5

The differences can be traced to a passage in Isaiah:

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isa 58:13-14)

The puritan view would seem to enjoy the plain reading upper-hand, given the “doing as you please” wording. Not so fast, says the continental view. If that were a prohibition against any and all recreation, they argue, then it amounts to new revelation and a modification of the 4th commandment. For neither the 4th commandment as given nor the previous Old Testament writings prior to this passage in Isaiah (i.e. around a millennium of writings) address the issue of recreation on the Sabbath. There is complete silence on the matter. Furthermore, in context of chapter 58 (see the preceding text regarding exploiting labor while fasting) it looks as if Isaiah is speaking to correction of clearly corrupting activities, and that “as you please” is not a universal prohibition against any modest recreation 6, but against beyond the pale practices such as exploiting your employees. The pleasure that one must refrain from, according to the continental view, is that which comes at the expense of corporate worship, rest from work, and increased (but not the impossible all woken hours) prayer, meditation, etc.

I think those who hold to the continental view have no problem with those who hold to the puritan view, except when it is elevated from agree-to-disagree to Reformed Dogma, in spite of the number of Reformed theologians who are/were continental. I do think those with the puritan view tend to think they are absolutely right and the continental view is not truly acceptable. They also tend to make the dreaded slippery slope argument: A nice contemplative meal with believing friends and family? Soon you’ll be playing Bingo and drinking mojitos.

UPDATE: I intended, but forgot, to point out what is written regarding recreation on the Sabbath in arguably the first systematic Reformed Theology white paper, the canons of the Synod of Dort (1618). Regarding recreation on the Sabbath, they wrote:
This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God. (Emphasis added)
It seems to me that the puritan view must either:

1) Disagree with this position or
2) Agree, but argue that all recreations impede the worship of God, i.e. that the text is an exercise in  redundancy. And also they might want speculate as to why the wording of the last phrase was not just "all recreations." or "all recreations, given that all recreations impede the worship of God." 

1 I think Calvin still counts as Reformed, doesn’t he? These days I’m never sure who’s in and who’s out

2 Example of MLB legalism: A ball hit outside of the boundary of the playing field, a foul ball, shall be considered a strike. Unless the batter already has two strikes, in which case the foul ball shall not be considered a strike.  With the following exceptions to the two strike limit: Exception 1) Should the foul ball be a very slight tip, then we must consider two further possibilities. 1a) Should the catcher catch this tip before it hits the ground, it shall be considered a strike and the batter has struck out. 1b) Should the catcher not catch the ball, or should the ball hit the ground first, it shall not count as a strike and the batter will not be out and the strike count shall remain at  two. Exception 2) Should the batter, with two strikes, position his bat so as to just hit the ball a small distance, deemed a bunt attempt, and in doing so then hit a foul ball, it shall be considered a strike and the batter has struck out. However, unlike all other strikeouts, runners cannot attempt to advance, nor can the batter attempt to reach first base, even though in all other occurrences of a third strike the batter can attempt to reach first, if the catcher does not catch the third strike, regardless of whether the ball first strikes the ground. Is that clear?

3  I hate golf.

4 Those who hold to the puritan view and argue that one should not eat at a restaurant because it is a form of recreation are admirably self-consistent. Those who argue against restaurant meals because you make other people work are self-delusional. To be self-consistent in the "don't make others work" reasoning one, for example, could not watch anything on television, listen to the radio, do anything involving digital streaming, any wireless data access, texting, tweeting, etc. etc. etc. All these voluntary activities (and semi-infinite others) contribute, however minutely, to others (e.g., network engineers) working on the Sabbath. Really, the “don’t make others work” argument is utterly without the merit of self-consistency, and least for most who make it. It boils down to: “the work I cause is acceptable, but the work you cause is not.”

5 Which of course is impossible. Not only from the nit-picking "is jumbo shrimp large or small?" objection (but, but what if I find reading Romans pleasurable? Must I refrain?  Or perhaps read only from Lamentations?) but from a realistic viewpoint. It is literally humanly impossible to refrain from doing one's pleasure at times on the Sabbath. Do I really have to give examples? No, I didn't think so. It boils down, once again, to accepting that the "small" pleasures I allow myself are acceptable, but surely nothing more.

6 Even in modern language, the admonition "you can't just do as you please!" does not mean you can't do anything pleasurable, but rather, for whatever reason, there is a moral or ethical limit as to what pleasurable activity is acceptable at that time and place.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

God has outliers. Deal with it. (Or: There be False Negatives!)

This will be an unsophisticated post related to election (as in Calvinism). It is unsophisticated because I’m not trained as a theologian. I’m one of those self-(mis)trained know-just-enough-to-be-dangerous Calvinist-lites whom I sure are something an embarrassment to the academic Calvinists. Most likely they wish we would stop talking/blogging and just listen. But where’s the fun in that? 

Please see this disclaimer. 1

This post is a follow up to my previous post on whether knowledge of creation can ever be necessary/sufficient for salvation. 3 I took the minority position that it can be; that there may be outliers who are saved having never heard the gospel but come to know God through creation. 

However, I don’t actually believe that. What I believe is more nuanced. Consider:

P1: Some knowledge is necessary/sufficient for salvation.
P2: If P1 is true, then knowledge of creation could, in outlier cases, be necessary/sufficient, from the “without excuse” argument I made in the previous post.

In that previous post I argued as if P1 = true. But now I reveal that I actually believe: 

P3: P1 = false

No knowledge is sufficient for salvation. No knowledge is necessary for salvation. A theology that argues certain knowledge is necessary/sufficient for salvation is not Calvinistic. It is not Arminian. It is not even Christian. It is Gnostic.

We confuse ourselves on this point, 3 and it is especially odd for Calvinists who love (I do!) the aphorism: we contribute nothing to our salvation except our sin. We don’t follow through. We teach that yes, we contribute our sin, but add a mix of knowledge into the requirements.

It must be the case—for every person who argues that the knowledge of God’s attributes made obvious in creation is not necessary/sufficient is either arguing “because no knowledge is necessary/sufficient” (but they aren’t arguing that are they?—however I am!) or that there is some other knowledge, generically “the gospel”, that is necessary/sufficient.

That’s a Gnostic argument, plain and simple. It may not be by-intent True Gnosticism ™, but it is “effective” Gnosticism. Knowledge is not necessary/sufficient for salvation. However in most (but I have no scriptural reason to demand all, lest I tell God whom He can and cannot save) cases God, through His Providence, supplies gospel knowledge (via secondary means e.g., missionaries) before, during, or after conversion. That this knowledge is not supplied to “all” is tacitly accepted if you believe that the elect includes children dead in infancy (even in the womb) and people with cognitive disabilities. 4

To summarize, my admittedly primitive Calvinistic theology screams this at me:

1) The mantra is correct. We contribute nothing to our salvation. Not our good works, and not our knowledge, even knowledge of the gospel.
2) The normative process includes that God, through secondary means, will ensure that the elect receive (and accept) gospel knowledge.
3) Some elect are incapable of comprehending that knowledge.
4) Some elect are not reached by secondary means. They are outliers.

I can’t prove 3 and 4 are correct. But you can’t prove that they aren’t. (Go ahead, I double-dog dare you!) So I’m going to run with the assumption/hope that there are outliers (and elect infants and disabled), but then work (inefficiently, as it were) to minimize the need for outliers.

1 DISCLAIMER: I absolutely agree that all salvation from Adam and Eve until the end of history is achieved by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Nobody goes to the Father except by the Son. However, I believe that in many instances the bible describes the normative process (hear the gospel, accept the gospel, profess Christ) but not the only process: we cannot and should not put God in a box.  I am not a hyper-Calvinist. (At least I don't want to be.)  I believe we must behave (because we are commanded) as if everyone in the world must hear the gospel (and assume they are capable of accepting) and (although we are not explicitly commanded) have the scriptures in the vernacular. That said, I believe many times when we successfully evangelize (including missionaries) we are not teaching something from which conversion then occurs, but rather giving someone God has already converted a context to understand what God has done to them. They are already saved, through Christ, even if they don’t fully understand. Again, this is not the normative process. But if dead infants are ever saved (as are we all) through God’s mercy yet without comprehension, as well as the intellectually handicapped, then I don’t find it crazy that another set of exceptional circumstances (outliers) are the elect in places that haven’t heard the gospel. But they, I believe Romans is telling us, would at least come, through grace, to grasp something of the true God from His creation.

2 The necessary or sufficient requirement on General Revelation is interesting. The majority position is that General Revelation is not sufficient. But I think it is also implied that it is not necessary. At least I’ve never heard anyone truly argue that while recognition of God’s attributes through creation will not save you, it is required that you seek God not just in scriptures but also in nature. The most I ever hear are side comments of the “isn’t creation marvelous?” variety. It’s not treated so much as important but as, if you will, a bonus.

3 Or more likely, I’m the only one confused.

4 However, since we have nothing else to go by, it is proper that we use a person’s knowledge of the gospel along with their works (fruit) to decide whether we should regard them as Christians. We all recognize that this process is fraught with false positives. In a sense my argument can be super-summarized that there may also be an occasional false negative.

Monday, January 07, 2019

St. Peter dontcha call me cuz I can't go...

I recently heard a discussion about the famous passage in Romans, chapter the first:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Rom 9:18-20, NIV)
The discussion concluded that creation, aka the book of nature, aka general revelation was important but never provided sufficient knowledge for one’s salvation. Salvific knowledge, the argument  goes, comes only from special revelation i.e., scripture.

Possibly in my familiar position of a minority of one, I disagree on a couple of levels.

For my first level of disagreement, let’s stipulate that knowledge is required for salvation. After all, the argument that the knowledge of creation is never sufficient for salvation implies that there is a necessary level of knowledge that is unattainable through general revelation alone. 

If so, I can’t parse this Romans passage without concluding that it must be the case, or at least the possibility, that the knowledge of creation is, in fact, sufficient. It is because of those two words at the end of v20: without excuse.

I apologize in advance that to explain my point I will have to draw upon that most sophisticated, theological, and epistemological allegory ever devised by man: that’s right, you guessed it: it’s St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

Let’s suppose two men, (let’s call them Tom and Jerry) neither of whom ever heard the gospel or had access to scripture, are in line at the gates. Tom is first:

St. Peter:  Hello Tom. I’m sorry, but only the saved pass through the gates.
Tom: But, but, I never heard the gospel! I never had access to scripture! That’s not fair!
St: Peter: You had your whole life to find God through His creation. You are without excuse!
Tom: But…
St. Peter: You go to hell!

St. Peter:  Hello Jerry. I’m sorry, but only the saved pass through the gates.
Jerry: But, but, I never heard the gospel! I never had access to scripture! That’s not fair!
St: Peter: You had your whole life to find God through His creation. You are with...
Jerry: (Interrupting) But I did find God, I did believe in God through the beauty and complexity of creation! I was a scientist and with every discovery I saw God's handiwork more clearly! 1
St. Peter: (Checking the Oracle Database) Um, right. So you did. Most unusual. My bad. Still, you go to hell!

There is no point, that I can discern, of telling Tom he is "without excuse", if Tom and Jerry suffer the same fate. 

I’ll discuss further disagreement in my next post. It will possibly be a more substantive argument.

1 Ok, the sentence starting with "I was a scientist.." was unforgivably gratuitous.