Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Law? Or just a good idea?

In Matthew 28, Jesus gives his commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matt 28:19-20,)

It is significant, I think, that we are commanded to make disciples, not converts, but that is a theme for another day. 

Here I want to discuss the instruction: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I would never, ever, advocate baptizing any other way other than in the name of the Triune God. But the question is interesting: is this descriptive or prescriptive? Are we being told that this was a good practice, especially for the context in which it was given, or are we being told that this is the one and only correct way to baptize?

The majority view is the latter, sometimes to extreme--at which point we arrive at an incantation rather than a practice. However this majority view is not without legitimate challenge. For we find these verses describing baptisms:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38) 

And he [Peter] commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:48) 

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:5)

Those insisting that the only acceptable baptismal creed is "
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" must answer why these early-church baptisms, which appear to be acceptable, were in the name of Jesus only. One argument is: just because only the name of Jesus was recorded it it doesn't mean the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit were not included. I find that to be weak. If there is one and only one baptismal creed, I would have (perhaps unreasonably) expected the Holy Spirit to inspire Luke to give the fullest expression.

An alternative viewpoint is historical and practical. The earliest converts were Jews and Godfearers (roughly speaking, those gentiles who partially converted to Judaism.) They already understood about monotheism. They had some concept of the Spirit. The new element for them was the Son, and so to be explicit and for emphasis they were baptized in His name. However the Great Commission was for all nations. Pagans were further behind than Jews. The creed for them, this argument suggests, was meant to teach them even more--to have them affirm all three persons of the Godhead, all of whom were, perhaps, equally new and mysterious.

Having said all that-- I completely support the common baptismal creed invoking the full God Head. I just can't go so far as to say it is the only acceptable practice.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The New Community, Part 3

The New Community
The Church up to ~45 AD
Primary Source: F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame

The New Community, Part 1
The New Community, Part 2

The Hellenists

Although there were no Gentiles at first, there was more than just Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews. There were the “Hellenists”. Hellenists were Jews whose roots were outside Palestine as a result of the diaspora (the dispersion of Jews from Palestine, beginning with the Babylonian captivity. So vast was this scattering that in the first century there were a dozen synagogues in Rome.)1 Hellenists adopted Greek language and culture, which put them at odds with the Palestinian Jews.
Often overlooked is the critical role played by the Hellenists in spreading the gospel beyond Jerusalem. And the very man who persecutes them, and whom they then seek to kill, takes up their cause as his life’s work.

The first need for administration and the first internal problem in the church is traceable to the tension between “Hebrews” and Hellinists.

One early logistical problem was the distribution of food to the poor. Problems arose:

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. (Acts 6:1)

The twelve apostles (Judas having been replaced by Matthias) appointed seven deacons to attend to lower-level duties. Probably all were Hellenists (all had Greek names, see Acts 6:5), and at least one, Nicolas of Antioch was not even a Jew. (He was, however, a proselyte, meaning he had previously converted to Judaism, was circumcised, and then became a Nazarene—as contrasted with the as yet nonexistent Gentile converts, who did not convert to Judaism but directly to Christianity.) No doubt the selection of the seven was made in part to placate the Hellenists.

Two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, surpassed expectations and became great teachers. In his amazing speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), prior to being martyred, Stephen said:

But it was Solomon who built the house for him. "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. (Acts 7:47-48)

This bold swipe at the temple, which enraged the Sanhedrin, may have been impossible for any of the Hebrews to make.  Some charges against Stephen, although brought by false witnesses, may have accurately reflected his teachings:

They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." (Acts 6:13-14)

Consider the amazing encounter of Paul, in Corinth,  with Priscilla and Aquila. (Acts 18)


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The New Community, Part 2

The New Community
The Church up to ~45 AD
Primary Source: F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame

The New Community, Part 1

The Sadducees did believe in an after-life, but they did not anticipate bodily resurrection, arguing that the first mention of it comes in Daniel which, not having been penned by Moses, was non-authoritative.

In a classic Perry Mason move, Paul later uses the stark differences in their views to save himself in a touchy situation when on trial in the Sanhedrin:

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (Acts 23:6-7)

In particular, one revered Pharisee named Gamaliel  pushed for restraint in oppressing the Nazarenes, arguing with inescapable logic that if the movement is not of God it would die in spite of their tolerance, and if it is from God it would thrive in spite of their suppression. (see Acts 5:33-38).

Gamaliel is quoted in the Talmud (a collection of rabbinical writings) as discussing an unnamed “impudent student.” Some have speculated that the student is Saul of Tarsus. It is easy to imagine: Saul (Paul) must never have been a very rewarding student, for contrary to Gamaliel’s teaching Saul oppressed the Nazarenes far more effectively than the Sadducees, only to then cross over in an instant to become their greatest teacher and evangelist. On one day Gamaliel may have been upset at Paul's severe tactics, and on the next day appalled by his total conversion.

The Nazarenes met in homes where they remembered Jesus’ death through a simple meal of bread and wine. Those who had been with Jesus taught the others what they had learned first-hand. New members were baptized in the name of Jesus. Considering themselves Jews, they kept the Sabbath and still kept to appointed hours of prayer at the temple. The new meal of bread and wine was partaken on the day after the Sabbath, i.e., the first day of the week, Sunday.

The importance of the Nazarenes living as good Jews cannot be overemphasized. It marked them as relatively harmless by the Pharisees, saving them from swift and sure persecution had they had no friends in the Sanhedrin. This early group of Nazarenes, in Jerusalem, is what we often call the Jerusalem church.


Jump to Part 3

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Deconstructing Al Mohler

A Baptist wrote:
But if you look in the first chapter of Genesis, you will there see more particularly set forth that peculiar operation of power upon the universe which was put forth by the Holy Spirit; you will then discover what was his special work. In the 2d verse of the first chapter of Genesis, we read, "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." We know not how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be—certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam. Our planet has passed through various stages of existence, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God. But before that era came, wherein man should be its principal tenant and monarch, the Creator gave up the world to confusion.
(Boldface added.)

That was written (and spoken) by the greatest Baptist preacher of all time, Charles Spurgeon.1 In 1855. That's right, 1855!

How we have fallen. How awful that we allowed ourselves to create a line in the sand where previously there was none. How we have made an enemy and a villain of science, which in Christian terms, is simply the study of God's general revelation--a complement (not a threat) to theology, the study of special revelation.

Al Mohler, who has done so many great things at Southern, is, on this issue, a big part of the problem. Here he is touting a truly bizarre apparent age theory.

It's not a problem that he believes in a young earth. It's a problem that he makes it a line-in-the-sand issue.

Digging in your heels on a young age should no longer be looked at as a quaint virtue. It is as harmful (probably more so) to Christianity as those who insisted, long after the case was settled, that our solar system was not heliocentric. Because the bible said so--or so they thought.

Love God with all your heart, soul, and ... what was that other thing?... oh yeah, mind.

1 The Complete Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon. Book 1 (Vol. 1-3), Sermon 30.

Supplee's Submarine Paradox

The submarine paradox is quite interesting.

A pair of docs
Imagine a submarine with neutral buoyancy, i.e., it maintains a constant depth. Now imagine it takes off at a horizontal, relativistic speed.

• An observer in the water would say: the submarine Lorentz contracts (unofficially the well known "shrinkage" problem in the ocean)  so its density increases and the sub sinks.

• An observer on the submarine would say: the ocean is coming at me at high speed. The water Lorentz contracts, thereby increasing its density, so the buoyancy force increases, and the sub rises.

Ruh roh. As weird as relativity is, it cannot account for the sub crashing into the sea floor in one reference frame and bursting through the surface like a sperm whale in another. No, that just will not do.

Here is the result of a General Relativity calculation that concludes the sub will sink. I'm not sure I believe it is robust. A Special Relativity calculation also (in a more round-about way) also concludes that the sub will sink.

These agree, of course, with the engineering calculation that says in pushing to such speeds either the engines will explode or the sub will crash, in either case the sub will sink.

A really awful argument for divine impassibility

This is a common negative argument in support of Divine Impassibility, from Paul Helm at  Triablogue. By negative, I mean it is not an argument why you should support it, but why you shouldn't oppose it. 

The post reads:

Is divine impassibility Scriptural? 
This, for Christians, is of course the chief question, and we have already begun to offer an answer to it. But it is currently taken for granted by many Christians that the question is easily answered. Many are quick to say that divine impassibility is not and could not be Scriptural. For does not Scripture assert that God suffers, that he is angry, that he expresses surprise, that he fears, and laughs, and repents? Did not Christ, the Son of God, suffer? How could such a God be impassible? Then quickly—all too quickly—it is concluded that the idea of divine impassibility is the result of imposition of Scripture rather than exposition of it, of eisegesis rather than exegesis. It's part of an attempted theological takeover by Greek ideas. But now, it is proudly claimed, we have learned to “take the Bible seriously!” 

There are a number of reasons why we should be cautious about this all too common reaction. One is historical. The anthropopathisms of the Bible are not new, nor newly discovered, any more than its anthropomorphisms are. They loom large. Those who affirmed divine impassibility—the theological mainstream from (say) Augustine to Jonathan Edwards—were aware of them. Yet the presence of these data in Scripture was not a sufficient reason for them to deny impassibility. Did they not take the Bible seriously? Why then did they come to the view that God is impassible? 

Secondly, this approach to Scripture, if carried out consistently, has rather embarrassing consequences. For Scripture also says that God has eyes, ears, a backside—anthropomorphic language, as we quickly say. And we say that God uses such language in Scripture not because he in fact has eyes, ears and a backside but because by the use of such terms he adapts himself vividly to our way of thinking. There is something in God that corresponds to this language, which it draws attention to, even though it is not literally descriptive of God. God sees—what does this mean? That he has eyes? And if he eyes, does he have eyelashes and eyebrows? How many eyes does he have? Does he have 20/20 vision? None of this is appropriate. Talking in this way about God would be absurd. In saying that God sees, Scripture means (something like) God has immediate, unimpaired knowledge of what he allegedly sees. A child will readily understand this.

Arggh. So much wrong here--independent of rather the doctrine is true or false. This is a lousy way to argue.

The first paragraph is a thinly veiled argument from intimidation. It sends the message that the simpleminded, non-thinking, superficial bible readers will be against the doctrine because they rely too heavily on a plain reading of scripture. They are unwilling to listen to the elites who have mined the depths and nuances of this doctrine (perhaps at the expense of a forgotten doctrine.) It is condescending, and not the last time the author stoops to that tactic. It argues for two types of people: those who do their homework and get it, and those who are incapable or lazy. (GRADE: C)

The second paragraph has components of an argument from authority. Augustine and Jonathan Edwards affirmed the doctrine. We should take it seriously. Well, John Calvin and Martin Luther affirmed the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. We should take that seriously too?

Okay, there is some validity to arguing that, short of the fallacy of arguing from authority, we should take notice when titans of Christian theology affirm (or refute)  a doctrine. Absolutely true. And we should pay attention to their scholarship. Fair enough. But we need to remember that they are neither individually nor collectively infallible. And we need to investigate what version of the doctrine (or any doctrine like this one, for which there is a spectrum) do they affirm? (GRADE: B)

The third paragraph is an epic FAIL. It is a caricature. It is the flimsiest of straw-men. Nobody, and I mean nobody, who argues against Impassibility denies that statements regarding God's emotions are anthropomorphic. For crying out loud, denying the doctrine of Impassibility does not demand that you  must take "God sees" to mean God has eyes. How unbelievably childish and condescending to write "And if he eyes, does he have eyelashes and eyebrows? How many eyes does he have? Does he have 20/20 vision? ". Grr. That really pisses me off.

Opponents of Impassibility (or at least the most extreme version) do not demand that when we read "So the anger of the LORD burned against them" (Numbers 12:9)  that it means that the Lord's burning anger was just like our burning anger. But they argue that it means something, and that God's disposition toward Aaron and Miriam was, in a controlled way, different at that time than at other times, and that this would not violate the Immutability of God. And that the most accurate anthropomorphism possible, since it was the one inspired by the Holy Spirit, was that God had a burning anger. Now maybe that's all wrong, but it is not cavalierly dismissed by the mocking tones of the last quoted paragraph above.  (GRADE: F)

We are the most biased of people

As Christians, we must proudly proclaim the mantle of the most biased of people. More on that in a minute. It's a teaser. Right now I want to propose the mythical unbiased unbeliever.

The Unbiased Unbeliever

The unbiased unbeliever is one who accepts your presupposition (at face value), listens to what you have to say, and evaluates it critically. You will never turn an unbiased unbeliever into a believer. (Such a person must first be biased, supernaturally, in the right way.) What I am talking about is in regards to what the bible teaches about the truths of our faith. The doctrines, if you will. The unbiased unbeliever will, for the sake of argument, accept the bible as the Word of God (or the words of our god)  and examine whether what you claim the bible teaches is supportable from the text. They will evaluate not truth, but self-consistency.

Such people are hard to find. Most garden-variety atheists are not willing to play this game; most are extreme in their cherry picking. They will take whatever isolated passages are at their disposal and are advantageous with respect to the immediate discussion point. If you argue something is sinful, they will tell you that our holy book says to "judge not." If you argue we should be loving and tolerant, they will reply that our holy book instructs us to stone adulterers and we're just too pusillanimous to follow up.1

But occasionally you do come across someone who is, in this sense, of good faith and character. For example when I used to venture into Pharyngula, that cesspool of enslaved thought, unwavering dogma, irrationality, and confirmation bias, there was one commenter named owlmirror who was engaging and formidable in this regard. I miss dialoging with owlmirror.

So, for future reference (in future posts), I will have occasion to refer to the unbiased unbeliever, and will you refer back to this post.

The Biased Believer

The believer, on the other hand, is biased by the Holy Spirit. There is a synergistic interaction. There is our reason, whereby we can evaluate doctrines based on the normal rules of critical analysis applied to our text, and there is the Holy Spirit which will make us believe even when our formal argument does not reach the threshold of undeniable truth.

Take the doctrine of the Trinity. There is a certain "degree of certainty" that we can demonstrate the Trinity from the text, and is not (in my opinion) 100%. Let's pick a number out of our derrieres, and assume that we can demonstrate the Trinity at, say, the 70% level of certainty. Meaning that if we have an intelligent unbiased unbeliever, she would tend to agree that the Christian holy book supports the doctrine of the Trinity at around that level of confidence. (We are not asking her to believe the doctrine, just evaluate how much the text supports it.)

For we as Christians to believe this doctrine (as opposed to just accepting it as plausible) we must either delude ourselves or, I would prefer to think, are biased through the undecipherable uttering and urging of the Holy Spirit. There is a voice in our heads, if you will, telling us to go ahead, believe!

So in this made up example, our belief in the Trinity is 70% derived from the text, and 30% from Holy Spirit bias.

The question I'd like to propose in the future is this: Is there a threshold on the "derived from text" part. Are there doctrines that are 2% text driven and 98% indemonstrable from the scriptures?

1 This is codified here. See Law 14: The Law of the Atheist Hermeneutic and Law 15: The Ruby Tuesday Law.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Friends from the Past

I am googling for any Christian blogs that I used to read daily. Many appear to be extinct. I am so happy that one of my personal favorites,  Rebecca Writes is still active. I guess if you live where there is only one person per 100 miles2 there is not much else to do.

That Forgotten Reformed Doctrine

When I first starting blogging, I had an interaction with a Reformed blogger and theology professor considered by many, with good cause, to be one of the more erudite Christian bloggers. (Like many of us early Christian bloggers from the start of the millennium, he has since stopped blogging.) In support of our different positions he quoted a sixteenth century Reformed theologian and I quoted R. C. Sproul1. He responded that personally he didn't "think much" of R. C. Sproul. To me that encapsulated what is wrong about academic theology. It's of little use to people in the pews, and it flies in the face of the previously cherished (and now largely ignored) Reformed doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture.

The London Baptist Confession (1689) writes
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them. (LBCF 1.7)

The Perspicuity of Scripture asserts: If a doctrine is not reasonably clear to a reasonable reader, then there is no reason to assume that it is important. It may be interesting, and it may be right, but it is not important. As a corollary, you can't prove it to be correct, you can only present plausibility arguments. And failure to affirm such derived doctrines is not heresy or blasphemy, regardless of what any dead white Reformed scholar claims. For if it were a bulwark against blasphemy and heresy, then it would presumably be important and so, by the Perspicuity of Scripture, it would be clear.

The Perspicuity of Scripture and complex, vital, derived doctrines are mutually exclusive. And you can't criticize the Catholics for their derived dogma when you have a corpus of your own.

1 Disclaimer: I am an R.C. fan-boy. I don't always agree with him, but he makes me think. And like any good teacher, he presents material clearly, concisely, and relatively jargon-free. This is a feature, not a bug.

2 What of the Trinity you say? It is a fair question. I have no good defense other than to say that while the Trinity is a derived doctrine, it is on far more solid ground that many of the esoteric doctrines debated among the uber-reformed. 

Yup, I was there! (Reposted from 2007, links updated)

Wow, I have all sorts of connections to emoticons that I didn't know about: they were invented at Carnegie Mellon, when I was there, and have a tie-in to the physics department where I was a student. Who'd of thunk it!

And here I thought that our most famous claim to fame is that we were on the winning side of one of the greatest college football upsets of all time: Carnegie Tech 19, Knute Rockne's Notre Dame 0. Although I think we might be able to beat them again if we had them on our schedule this year.

UPDATE: Here is the official CMU tribute (the real CMU, not Central Michigan University, those wannabes.) Man, I recognize some of those names. Michael Shamos taught my FORTRAN class! FORTRAN--now that's a language where you need to check your Y chromosome at the door. Whoo-A. GOTO 143.