Tuesday, July 17, 2018

So long, and thanks for all the friendships and edification

This is my last post. I have been blogging since 2002. If like me you think it can be embarrassing to read what you wrote last month, try reading what you wrote 16 years ago.

Things have changed.

In the early 2000's all the Christian bloggers knew one another. It was a kind of family. We all linked to one another. It was a lot more civil (most of the time) and less professional than it is now, and almost all the blogs were personal--there where no big networks like patheos. And there were no "big name" bloggers with paid advertisements.  (That said, I was the "theology editor" for one of the first Christian networks, Blogs4God. I think it lasted about 6 months or so. I'm not a big fan of blogging networks.)

In the mid 2000's we (the Christian blogosphere) landed smack-dab in the middle of the Intelligent Design debate. More specifically, the ID-as-part-of-the-science-curriculum debate. I went from an ID proponent to a harsh critic. That cost me some friends, who viewed me as a sell-out,  and a friend to atheists (which I often am.) It also gained me some new Christian friends who agreed with my criticism of the ID movement. But the big deal was: the ID debate changed the whole atmosphere of Christian blogging. It was suddenly politicized and very mean-spirited, even within the family. I would like to say I stayed above the fray--but I jumped right in. And I never fully recovered from the effects, or enjoyed blogging as much.

Along the way I was banned from exactly two blogs. Once as a heretic from a very fundamentalist YEC Christian site. And also from the ID Giant Bill Dembski's Uncommon Descent blog. Later I was asked by DaveScot (who remembers?) to reconcile with Dembski and write for UD, which would have brought some notoriety, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Now that would have been a sell-out.

Along the way I've taken down a total of three posts that, in hindsight, were nasty, hurtful pieces of work. Other than that--well there are plenty of embarrassing posts that still remain. So be it.

An anecdote from blogging since dinosaurs roamed the earth: When Google bought Blogger (2004? around then), they used their newly acquired pool of bloggers to test out a new product: gmail. I have one of the first gmail accounts. As evidence, I am one of the few that have my last name with no appended numbers  or characters as my username. I always regret not requesting "david@gmail.com". That would have been awesome. Google gave us each a sweatshirt (my son still wears it) and two invitations to gmail. I posted on my blog that I had invitations--and received the largest number of comments I had ever received: people from around the world were pleading for the gmail invites.

Did I make any lasting contributions? I'll claim one: I helped someone bigger and better get into the game. Here is Tim Challies writing in 2004, about the history of his blogging:

I also came across He Lives, the blog of David Heddle. I found it an excellent resource for Christian topics. It was really the first blog I had read and I was quite taken with the idea. From his site I connected with many other blogs and decided right away that I had to make my site into a blog. I went ahead and found some blogging software, got it installed and began to write.

A year or so ago I tried writing Tim an email. I only made as far as his assistant who screens his email. If it ever reached Tim he never replied. Blogging is now big business.

Blogging also gave me the writing practice and confidence to write a worst-selling novel. I didn't get much money from sales, but I sent a copy to my personal hero, R. C. Sproul (The novel takes place in Pittsburgh, and Dr. Sproul and I shared a Pittsburgh heritage.) I received a hand-written letter--perhaps my last hand-written letter, from Dr. Sproul thanking me and promising to read my book. Whether he ever did--well I'll ask him on the other side. If I think of it.

My favorite posts were not necessarily very popular. They were the posts that paralleled my classes when I was a frequent Sunday School teacher, from 2002 to about 2013. Getting that material ready for class and yet tight enough for publication caused me to approach those subjects with great care. It was during those times when I benefited most from having a blog.

I have tried, at times, to restart this blog but it never lasted more than a few months. Also, I really do not like my blogs from the last few years. They tend to be combative, critical, and downright mean.

Enough is enough.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Are Seminaries Worth It?

Seminaries, as with most all parachurch organizations, it seems to me, often represent "Good intentions gone awry. " I'm talking right out of central casting.

There is no biblical call for seminaries--any more than there is a biblical call to create, say, Promise Keepers. Or all-powerful networks like the megelomaniac-led  Sovereign Grace Ministries. Whether or not seminaries are a net positive is quantitatively hard for me to judge. But just the fact that it is hard to be sure speaks volumes.

We can stipulate that these large organizations start with good intentions. But when they succeed, and perhaps because of their success, preservation of the organization takes precedence over any single incident of shepherding. The temptation to sweep dirty laundry under the rug because "we're doing a lot of good" becomes irresistible.

Not to mention egos. Lead a major seminary or network--well that represents a large constituancy of voters. You get invited to the White House. You get treated like royalty at conferences. You get to be in an inner-circle of other elites such as yourself.  An inner-circle that will rally around you and pronounce universal support and forgiveness, at least until the heat reaches the melting point of diamond at which point self-preservation finally kicks in. (See C. J. Mahaney). You get to write books--and if you are a seminary professor then the more controversial they are the more you'll sell and the more you get invited to conferences and the closer you'll inch to the power center. If you really make it, you get to pontificate on politics rather than the gospel. And people will actually care what you, who presumably started your career with the most blessed goal of being a pastor and shepherding a flock,  have to say about presidential politics and current affairs. How cool is that?

Freshly minted 20 year old gazillionare athletes often can't handle the money. Middle aged white men in charge of large parachurch organizations often can't handle the power and prestige, and yet will do almost anything to preserve it. They will metaphorically sell their souls. All for the greater good that they have accomplished. At least that's what they must tell themselves so that they can sleep at night.

I seriously do not think that organizations like the SBC (just to pick on the one that has been in the spotlight lately) and all its tentacles and seminaries are what Jesus had in mind when the disciples were Commissioned Greatly. I could be wrong--but it's my gut instinct.

This is all leading to read it an weep link, about a story of which you are no-doubt familiar.

Paige Patterson and the Rape Victim He Shamed

Hat Tip: Tried With Fire

Friday, May 18, 2018

Immutability in One Verse

6 “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. (Mal. 3:6)
There you have it in a nutshell. A clear declaration of immutability, and clear instruction as to our primary takeaway from this divine attribute: the sons of Jacob (the elect, as we reformed like to call them) are not consumed and will never be consumed. Immutability is the principal reason why we can have assurance and affirmation of the P in TULIP. God will not be less loving, less merciful, less wise, less truthful, less promise-keeping, etc. in the future than He was at any time in the past.

Immutability is a meta-attribute. It is an attribute about attributes. It states that those attributes will not change.

Over the last year I have struggled through a private study of the doctrine of Divine Impassibility and have come to embrace it. It took a while, because it tends to be presented to noobs in a much too trivial (and incorrect) way, something like:
  1. God is immutable
  2. Therefore: God does not change
  3. Therefore: God's disposition does not change
  4. Therefore: God cannot actually be pleased at some time and angry at another
  5. Therefore: the myriad of such descriptions in the bible are all (very misleading) anthropomorphisms
  6. Ergo: the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility
This is not a straw man. This is a fair representation of the how the doctrine of Divine Impassibility is  often presented.

I believed, intuitively, that this chain was wrong. So at first I foolishly jettisoned the conclusion: Impassibility. After study and over time I realized the obvious: the conclusion can be (and is) correct, in spite of the argument being wrong.

I was not alone. I don't always agree with R. C. Sproul  (probably around 97% of the time I do), but on this occasion I was especially  glad to see we had the same gut reaction against the argument as given above, while both affirming the conclusion:
When we speak of God’s will of disposition, we are quickly confronted with questions raised by the classic doctrine of the impassibility of God. Sometimes the impassibility of God is expressed philosophically in such a way as to describe God as being utterly incapable of feeling. In a desire to protect the immutability of God and to free Him from all passions that would be dependent upon the actions of the creature and to insure the constant and abiding state of pure and total felicity in God, the accent falls on His being feeling-less. This robs God of His personal character and reduces Him to an impersonal force or blob of cosmic energy. 
This kind of impassibility makes a mockery of the Biblical revelation of the character of God. It is one thing to insure that God is not subject to mood swings by which His beatific state is disturbed or destroyed or that His passions cause perturbations in His character. However, we must not let a speculative form of impassibility strip God of His personal attributes, especially His attribute of love. We do not need to embrace either the Patripassion heresy (whereby the Father suffers in the death of Christ), or the theopaschatist heresy (whereby the divine nature of Christ suffers and dies on the cross) in order to affirm the reality of affection in God. If there is no feeling in God, there can be no affection in Him. If He has no capacity for affection, He has no capacity for love. 
The Bible is filled with references to the feelings of God. Though they may represent anthropomorphic ideas and employ the language of analogy, they are certainly not meaningless.  (R. C. Sproul, Loved by God,Word Publishing, 2001, 132–134, emphasis added.)
Bingo. If you read this carefully you can infer the same chain as I presented above. In particular, you see that an incorrect view of impassibility results from an incorrect view of immutability, which Sproul expresses as "a desire to protect the immutability."

The verse from Malachi at the top of this post (and the rest of scripture) provides us with the proper understanding of immutability:

  • God is eternal
  • God is perfect and unchanging in His attributes
  • God is sovereign and His sovereign plan cannot be thwarted
  • God will never break a promise or violate a covenant

That is as far as we can go,  and and as far as we need to go on immutability. To go farther is to conflate philosophy with theology, which can be fruitful but it can also be risky. This purely scripture-based understanding of immutability leaves room for God's disposition to change in response to the action of his creatures, yet in a way that is never out of His control i.e. in an non-impassioned way or, synonymously, "without passions." It allows us to affirm that God is simple and without parts and without passions while at the same time not reducing God to, as Sproul so eloquently put it,  an "impersonal force or blob of cosmic energy". While it may be that such changes in disposition are an illusion or artifact based on our being within time while God is outside of time, in any case from our perspective God's disposition toward us can and does change, but as part of God's eternal plan for us, not in tension with that plan. He can, at times, be pleased or angry with me, even though pleased and angry may be quite different than the often impassioned human varieties (but with some similarities, lest we assert that the Holy Spirit is really inept at inspiring scripture.) The bottom line is this: whatever pleased and angry mean when attributed (in scripture) to God, it is certain that they mean something different, and we'd unanimously prefer God to be pleased with us rather than angry.

Really, nothing is more obvious. Before I was justified, God's disposition toward me was as to one who is unrighteous. After I was justified it is as to one who is righteous, albeit an alien righteousness.

The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility should not be presented as it often is, with an argument that shoe-horns it using a non-biblical, never-stated, overly simplistic and overly restrictive doctrine of immutability. Divine Impassibility does not need or deserve such a weak scaffolding.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Christians and Climate Change

I enjoyed this article about Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian climate scientist at Texas Tech. She spends part of her time in the looking-glass-world of speaking to largely skeptical conservative Christians about the reality of climate change, including anthropogenic climate change.

How difficult is this task? The invaluable Pew Research Center has the numbers:

White evangelicals (that's me) are the greatest deniers of climate change.

Does anybody understand why? I certainly do not.

I can understand Genesis related issues, like the age of the earth. I don't agree with young earth creationists, but I see where they are coming from; I understand the appeal of a plain reading of scripture. But nowhere in scripture does it tell us that the world could never warm. No passage indicates that God who, in his sovereignty, permits all manner of deadly natural disasters to occur, would suddenly draw the line at climate change. Or that man, who is capable of an impressive potpourri  of unholy mischief, is divinely incapable of contributing to climate change.

Unlike other (supposed) conflicts with science, the motivation cannot be theological.

Disregarding the possibility of woeful ignorance, that leaves, as the possible reason--politics. Yes it's that same-old, same-old weird American-only correlation that I've puzzled over for years, the provincial and bizarre correlation between conservative Christianity and conservative politics. I don't see this in my conservative Christian European friends--only in my countrymen.

When asked about the objections she hears from her fellow evangelicals, Hayhoe states:
It’s true that people often use science-y sounding objections to dismiss the reality that the climate is changing and humans are responsible. “The data are wrong,” they argue, or “We don’t know enough yet, we need to study it longer.” Or they use religious-y sounding objections like, “God would never let this happen,” or “The world will end anyways, so why care?”
I find the last answer: “The world will end anyways, so why care?” particularly disturbing. Because I have, on many occasions, had atheists tell me anecdotally that a Christian said that environmental issues are of no concern, because "Jesus would be coming soon." Having never heard such a sentiment, and finding it unimaginable that any Christian (regardless of eschatology) would utter such nonsense, I accused those atheists (with different phraseology) of making stuff up. I perhaps owe some apologies.

It's very strange. Why would the end of the world (as in Jesus returning) give you license for poor stewardship? There are of course many things that I would not want to be doing the moment Jesus returns. And while it might not be the most embarrassing, damaging the planet is definitely on the list of things I hope I'm not engaged in when I meet Jesus.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Musings on Immutability

This post is pure speculation!

I have been pondering the doctrine of immutability. Here are a couple of things I think I think.

Basic Immutability 
  • God is eternal 
  • God’s promises are sure 
This is sort of the bare bones minimum. Our faith would be pointless if it were in something for which the rug could be yanked from under our feet. I cannot possibly fathom why anyone would even contemplate worshipping a deity who was not trustworthy, and God’s trustworthiness depends on the fact that, contra Nietzsche, He won’t die on us and He won’t break his word. There is then no disagreement that I can imagine on the twin assertions that God’s aliveness is immutable and God’s integrity is immutable.

More Advanced Immutability 
  • God is not just eternal, he is “fullness in being” not “becoming,” and it is in this sense that He is both immutable and impassive.
  • As a consequence, no act of God’s creatures cannot add or subtract from him. 
The difficulty with more advanced immutability is that by all appearances God is quite mutable. I’m not talking about statements regarding God “changing His mind”, which we can attribute to a necessity (because we are finite) of relying anthropomorphic language. We can look at classic Reformed teachings that are not generally explained as anthropomorphic, most obviously the common teaching that we are justified at a moment in time.

From our perspective, there was period in which God regarded us by our (inadequate) righteousness—but the next instant he regarded us by Christ’s perfect righteousness. That’s a very big change, (again, from our perspective) --a very consequential mutation at an instant in time.

There are solutions to this problem, if it is a problem. I’ve come to believe that they are variations on the same theme, namely of God’s transcendence. His out-of-timeness. In God’s physics (and I’ll further speculate, because that’s all this is--pure speculation, in our physics in Glory as well) there is no arrow of time, no second Law of thermodynamics.

In this view, which of course I didn’t invent, God can (immutably) judge us as righteous and unrighteous, for time is axis upon which God can stroll (that's anthropomorphic!) in either direction. Our perspective, however, is a specific (and inexorably moving in one direction) time-slice through God’s—in which God’s immutable view of us has the appearance of changing. In fact, most of what is (I believe) too trivially dismissed as anthropomorphic language might actually be explained better as our reduced dimensional view of God's extra dimensionality.

The reason I don’t like "it's anthropomorphic" used as a rather blunt instrument is that to me it implies that the Holy Spirit inspired a tremendous amount of scripture that does not even come close to meaning what it says. In fact, my initial rejection of the doctrine of Impassibility was based, for the most part, on what I viewed as an unsatisfying tendency to relegate an enormous quantity of scripture to the relative dust bin (too harsh, but you hopefully get that I mean) on the basis of an argument-ending declaration of anthropomorphism. Like many others I believed (and still believe) that the text regarding God's mind-changing or changing emotion is, yes, anthropomorphic, but not to the extent that is is virtually meaningless. I feel more comfortable believing that God’s described change in disposition toward Israel reflects our reduced dimensional time-slice rather than “it’s just anthropomorphic." Yes it’s anthropomorphic, but it’s anthropomorphic with some bite to it. If God is extra dimensional, then I can grasp both immutability and impassibility. I'm going to hold on to the extra-dimensionality view of God's domain, even if only as a personal metaphor to help me feel comfortable.

Monday, April 02, 2018

I'm malleable (hopefully not to a fault)

OK, I was wrong. Or I should say: my view has changed. I never know if I’m right, but when I change my view (which is not all that rare) it is hoped that I end up in a state that is “righter” not “wronger”.

That may be the single clumsiest sentence I’ve penned in some time. So let’s just get to what I’m talking about. I'm talking about Hebrews, chapter the 4th, verses 9-10. Now, I always liked the ESV translation:
9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Heb. 4:9-10, ESV)
But... let's look at
9 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. (Heb. 4:9-10, NASB) 1
And just for fun, a translation I’ve been exploring recently, Young's Literal Translation:
9 there doth remain, then, a sabbatic rest to the people of God, 10 for he who did enter into his rest, he also rested from his works, as God from His own. (Heb. 4:9-10, YLT)
The ESV fit my interpretation that the “whoever” in v.10 refers to believers, and that the Sabbath rest refers to, well, the millennium in a post-millennial sense. I.e., the golden age that we are in, currently, because of the finished work of Christ.

But I think I was wrong.

Other translations, such as (but not limited to the NASB and YLT) are more consonant with the view that the one entering rest is not the believer, but Christ.

What really convinced me is not the weight of another translation, but the exposition on the analogy to God finishing the good work of creation and entering rest. It is much more fitting to compare this with Christ finishing His work and resting than to garden variety believers whose works, in terms of salvation, are of no merit.

My pastor won me over to his view.

But it wasn’t a total victory—he obliquely implied a late date for the penning of Revelation. I am holding fast to my belief that the late date is a tradition based on scant evidence—and that an early date is possible—until you pry my partial-preterism from my cold, dead hands.

1I’m nothing if not hip, so I now say “NAZ-BEE” not “N A S B”. Because that's what cool people say.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Christianity c. 350-450 (modified)

(Based in part on F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame).

The main aspects of Christian life from the mid fourth to the mid fifth centuries can be explored by examining the five leading church leaders of the era.

Chrysostom (347-407)

Also know by the more accurate St. John of Constantinople, this man became known as Chrysostom because of his great oratory skills. Chrysostom means “golden tongued.” He was an elder in the church of Antioch, but his fame arose when, in 397, at age fifty, he became bishop at Constantinople.

Before becoming an elder in Antioch, Chrysostom tried the ascetic life. Around age twenty he began to withdraw from his classical studies to devote himself to an ascetic and religious life. He studied Holy Scriptures and frequented the sermons of Meletius, the bishop of Antioch. About three years later he was baptized and ordained. But the young cleric, seized by the desire of a more perfect life, soon afterwards entered one of the ascetic societies near Antioch. Prayer, manual labor and the study of scripture were his chief occupations, and we may safely suppose that his first literary works date from this time, for nearly all his earlier writings deal with ascetic and monastic subjects. Four years later, Chrysostom resolved to further withdraw and live in one of the caves near Antioch. He remained there two years, but then, as his health deteriorated, he returned to Antioch to regain his health and resumed his office as lector in the church.

He achieved great influence there following riots over excessive imperial taxation, in which statues of the Emperor Theodosius and his family were mutilated. Fearful of a merciless reprisal by the emperor, who was known for his fiery nature, Chrysostom set out for the imperial courts to plead for moderation.

During the same period, more precisely during Lent in the year 387, Chrysostom gave twenty-one sermons in which he asked the people to consider the error of their ways.

Theodosius’s response to the defacing of his image was somewhat subdued, and Chrysostom’s sermons became legend for the level of their eloquence. It was said that many pagans converted upon hearing Chrysostom preach.

Upon arriving in Constantinople to assume the office of bishop, Chrysostom soon made enemies of the clergy because of his strict disciplinarian nature.

The necessity for reform was undeniable. Chrysostom began "sweeping the stairs from the top" He ordered a reduction in the expenses of the Episcopal household; he put an end to the frequent banquets. With regard to the clergy, Chrysostom had at first to forbid them to keep in their houses syneisactoe, i.e. women housekeepers who had vowed virginity. He also proceeded against others who, by avarice or luxury, had caused scandal. He even had to expel one deacon for murder and another for adultery. He also took corrective action in regards to the monks, very numerous since the time of Constantine. Some had taken to roaming about aimlessly and without discipline. Chrysostom confined them to their monasteries. Finally he took care of the ecclesiastical widows. Some of them were living in a worldly manner: he obliged them either to marry again, or to observe the rules of decorum demanded by their state. After the clergy, Chrysostom turned his attention to his flock. As he had done at Antioch, so at Constantinople and with more reason, he preached against the extravagances of the rich, and against the ridiculous finery in dress affected by women “whose age should have put them beyond such vanities.”

He also fell into disfavor with the court, due in large part to the influence of a rival, Theophilius, bishop of Alexandria. Even worse, he ran afoul of the Empress Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius. The animosity arose from Chrysostom’s intervention in abuses of power by members of the court, including important women who were friends of Eudoxia. Eudoxia may have also been offended when Chrysostom preached a sermon in which he stated “Again Herodias rages; again she is confounded; again she demands the head of John [the Baptist].”

Chrysostom was banished from Constantinople for a short time in 403, and again the following year to Armenia, where he died in 407.

Chrysostom’s gift to Christianity was his skilled biblical exegesis, given in commentaries and other writings, which were so vital that the Roman Catholic Church refers to him as one of the “Doctors of the Church”. His most valuable works are his Homilies on various books of the Bible.

Chrysostom’s career illustrates how, in the eastern empire, the church remained dominated by the secular powers. Part of this was due to the fact that in the east (unlike the west) there were several sees (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem) competing for dominance and the emperor leverage the rivalries so as to increase his own influence. In the west, Rome’s place at the head of the table was never challenged, especially after the decline of the great North African churches in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Ambrose (339-397)

“I have know no bishop but Ambrose,” said the emperor Theodosius, so impressed by Ambrose’s leadership and authority as bishop of Milan.

Ambrose’s rise to power was a circuitous one. Ambrose was a civil servant in North Italy. He had the responsibility to maintain civil order during the election of a new bishop (an event that often led to civil strife) in Milan in 373. The election was contentious, with no claimant achieving widespread popularity, when a child’s voice was heard saying “Ambrose for Bishop!” This was taken as a sign of divine guidance, and the Christian populace insisted that Ambrose should occupy the see. Ambrose, although the son of Christian parents, was, at thirty-four, not yet baptized. Nevertheless he accepted the position and in short order was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop.

In spite of his lack of ecclesiastical preparation, Ambrose served well. His first act in the episcopate, imitated by many a saintly successor, was to divest himself of his worldly goods. His personal property he gave to the poor and his landed possessions he turned over to the Church, making provision for the support of his beloved sister. He wrote a number of Latin commentaries of skillful, allegorical exegesis, and is credited with being a founder of Latin hymnody.

His relationship with the emperor demonstrates the greater independence from secular intrusion enjoyed by western bishops. When Theodosius massacred seven thousand inhabitants of Thessolonica, Ambrose excommunicated him. After eight months, the emperor submitted to Ambrose’s authority and did public penance for his sin on Christmas day, 390.

Not all of Ambrose’s use of his authority and influence over the secular realm was done wisely. When Christian monks in the Euphrates region burned down a synagogue, Theodosius justly ordered that restitution should be made, but Ambrose, when advised of the situation, ordered that Theodosius should do no such thing. Thus Ambrose, sadly, played a role in the church’s rising anti-Semitism.

On a happier note was Ambrose’s role in the Arian heresy. Due to the nature of his rise to power, starting not as a cleric but a “rational” and worldly civil servant, many Arians believed that Ambrose would prove a champion to their cause. They were mistaken. He supported the orthodox view of Christ’s divinity and labeled Arianism for what it was: heresy. Ten years after he became bishop, the Empress Justina, regent for her infant son Valentinian II, took control in Milan. She was a staunch Arian and had the support of the military. She claimed that one church in Milan should be reserved for the Arian position. Ambrose rejected her demand. Only his widespread popularity among the populace spared him from Justina’s wrath.

Jerome (347-420)

Jerome’s greatness does not stem from his influence in the sphere of public affairs. His fame results from the Latin translation of the Bible he produced. It wasn’t the first Latin translation, but was far superior to all others. The existing Latin translations diverged both from the Greek texts and from one another, and none had been authorized by the church. Jerome put it this way: “If we are to rely on the Latin versions, then let us be told which of these we are to rely on, for there are almost as many distinct versions as there are copies of Scripture.” In those days, anyone who knew both Greek and Latin, it seemed, produced his own translation.

Jerome, a native of Dalmatia (Croatia) was educated at Rome and spent much of his life in the east, where he mastered Greek and Hebrew. While a knowledge of Latin and Greek was fairly common, including Hebrew in the mix set Jerome apart. In 382 he returned to Rome and was charged by Damasus, bishop of Rome, with the job of revising the Latin New Testament. Jerome was reluctant, knowing that he would be “blamed” by those who found their favorite translations altered, and this time with the Church’s authority. (Indeed, “I think the original must be wrong,” said one such malcontent when told that his favorite translation had been undone by an appeal to the earliest manuscripts.)

Jerome’s translation of the Gospels appeared in 384, soon followed by the rest of the New Testament. Then he proceeded to revise the Old Testament. This was more challenging. Until this time, Latin versions of the Old Testament had been based on a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, produced in Alexandria in the last three centuries B.C. Jerome found this unsatisfactory and instead translated directly from the Hebrew. This caused a great deal of criticism to be unleashed upon Jerome, to which he responded in rather colorful language, calling his critics “two-legged donkeys” and “those who think ignorance is holiness.”

Jerome’s translation became the standard. It is known as the Vulgate, and the Council of Trent in 1546 declared it to be the one authoritative Latin version of Scripture, to which all theological disputes must make their appeal.

Unfortunately, while Jerome's translation was a masterpiece it wwas not without error, and one of his mistakes was costly. Jerome translated the Greek word “repent,” metanoeite, as "do penance". This aberrant recessive gene still lingers in Catholic bibles, for example contrast:
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt 4:17, Douay Rheims) 
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17, ESV)
Hence the Catholic system of penance has strong scriptural support, but it is due entirely to Jerome's error.

Leo the Great (c. 390 – 461)

Leo the Great was bishop of Rome from 440-461. He, in a very real sense, elevated the position of bishop of Rome to that of Pope.

It is true that from very early in Christian history, the church at Rome held a special place. However, this position of preeminence had always been honorary, not official.

At first, the seat of imperial power being in Rome lent prestige to the Roman church. And when Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, the resulting power vacuum in that most important city (Rome) actually resulted in an increase of the bishop’s power as the most powerful leader still there.

There were, of course, other reasons. Rome was the only church in the west that could claim apostolic foundation, and she was accorded special veneration on that account. And in matters relating to purity of doctrine, the church at Rome had consistently exhibited to the church at large a worthy example.

The acknowledgment of the Roman church as a model for other sees led to the practice of consulting the Roman bishop on various questions of doctrine, procedure, and discipline. The Roman bishop’s responses to these questions were known as decretals, the earliest of which that have been preserved date back to the episcopate of Damasus (366-384). While these decretals had no binding power, their advice was generally heeded which, in part, accounted for the uniformity that was present in the western church. Gradually, over time, they were regarded with increased moral authority.

The Council at Nicaea (325) which dealt with the Arian heresy recognized the churches at Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch as the leading sees of Christendom, and their bishops were given the title “patriarch.”

While councils and emperors and other bishops (at least in the west) agreed that Rome was preeminent, Leo sought a theological foundation for this belief. That he supposed he found in:
18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 18:18-20)
Leo argued that since Peter was the founder of the Roman church, the Roman bishop inherited his authority, including dominion over the keys of heaven.

Augustine (354-431)

Augustine was discussed at length in a previous lesson, including his debate with Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin and natural man’s moral inability to seek or obey God. Augustine had a strong view on the Sovereignty of God. Later, many who would come to be called Calvinists, would argue (while not at all insulted by the name) that, at the very least, accuracy demanded that the label Augustinian rather than Calvinist. In particular, they claim that in Augustine’s teachings one can find the thread that links all five “points of Calvinism.”

Original Sin implied (is synonymous) with the doctrine of Total Depravity.

If unconverted man cannot be a party to his own conversion, he must be of the Unconditionally elected, or predestined to use another biblical term. Otherwise the doctrine of Total Depravity (Original Sin) would mean that nobody was saved.

If a people have been chosen from the foundation of time, it meant that Christ’s atonement, while infinite in merit, was not efficacious for all men. Rather it achieved salvation for some rather than making salvation possible (but not certain) for everyone. This doctrine is rather unfortunately known as the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

If God is sovereign, and His will cannot be thwarted by man, and He has chosen a people, then when He calls His calling cannot ultimately be rejected, thus we have the doctrine of Irresistible Grace.

Likewise, having converted, called, and justified His people, God will lose none of them, preserving them to the end. This doctrine is unfortunately called Perseverance of the Saints, a name that mistakenly hints that the merit rests with the saint rather than for God. Accordingly, Preservation of the Saints is preferred, and it preserve both the saints and the TULIP acrostic.

Those whose adhere to the doctrines point to Augustine in support. It is generally agreed that Augustine did indeed hold to these positions, although the one for which there is some question (and for Calvin as well) is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Part of the problem is that this doctrine is often misrepresented. In truth, if neither Augustine nor Calvin wrote much on this doctrine, it is likely because the rules of logic dictate that you cannot really hold to four out of five—these doctrines stand or fall together—and so there was no point in belaboring the obvious. Still, it is useful to review Limited Atonement.

Limited Atonement

Everyone agrees that only believers are made acceptable before God by imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which was completed once and for all by His death on the cross. This is an important point: Both Augustinians and their detractors agree that Christ’s atonement is efficacious only for believers—hence both camps actually profess a form of “Limited Atonement”. Only Universalists do not limit the atonement.

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

The non-Augustinian (semi-Pelagian) view is that Christ’s atonement had to be big enough for the entire world because, in principle, the entire world could accept the Gospel call. Again, however, they agree that the atonement is effective only for believers. So the semi-Pelagian view of the atonement is:
  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world).
  • Indefinite in effect (there is no countable set of predestined “elect”) 
The incorrect representation of the Augustinian view is that the atonement is limited in extent and definite in effect. The first point is not part of the Augustinian view although it is frequently offered as the Augustinian or Calvinist position. Augustinians do not think that while Christ was on the cross there was a meter running counting the number of sinners that His suffering was sufficient to cover and, when the number reached the number of the elect, His suffering ended.

If you have to pick a single verse that is viewed as the most difficult to defend against (from an Augustinian perspective), it is found in chapter two of 1 John:
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.(1 John 2:1-2, NASB)
This seems to fly in the face of “the elect”, as evidenced by the phrase but also for those of the whole world. Obviously Augustinians cannot take this verse literally.

But neither can semi-Pelagians. The only people who can rejoice in taking this literally are Universalists. For, if Christ is literally the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world has had its ransom paid and the whole world will be saved. This is contrary to a plain reading the rest of scripture and thus is rightly rejected by all Christians. So what do Augustinians say about this verse?

One possibility is that John was talking to fellow (Christian) Jews and was pointing out that Christ’s death was atonement not only for “our” (believing Jews) sins but also for the sins of the world (believing Gentiles). This us/world = Jews/Gentiles identification is of course used in other places in Scripture.

Another possibility is related to the extent as opposed to the effect of the atonement. Somewhat in parallel with many are called but few are chosen-- it might be that Christ’s death was sufficient to save everyone in the whole world – but nevertheless will be efficacious only for the elect. If God wanted everyone to be saved he could do it, and Christ would not have had to suffer more—he already suffered enough for everyone. Yet God has chosen to save only some—for reasons that we will not fathom this side of glory (and perhaps not even on the other side).

While both points may be true, it is, in fact, this latter “possibility” the represents the actual Augustinian view of the Atonement:
  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world, Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism agree). 
  • Limited (or Particular or Definite) in effect (for the elect only)
The two views do not disagree on extent of the atonement—both agree that it was big enough for the whole world. In this sense it was unlimited—which is why the term Limited Atonement, because of the confusion it causes, was not a good choice.

Augustine asked himself, is there any passage of Scripture which can be taken unequivocally to mean that God has deliberately undertaken not to extend his saving grace to certain people who, if that grace had been extended to them, would have responded affirmatively? It appears that there is such a passage. Augustine (Enchiridion, Chap. 103) has this observation: "The Lord was unwilling to work miracles in the presence of some who, He said frankly, would have repented if He had worked them."
20Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt. 11:20-21)
And other, similar and difficult passages, such as
10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven." (Mark 4:10-12)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Apologetics Study Bible: Strike One

Recently I acquired the Apologetics Study Bible. Based on the editorial board and contributors I knew I wouldn’t agree with many of the essays. That’s OK; I love my Scofield Reference Bible while agreeing with almost none of the exceedingly cool footnotes. I’m one of those that, from a purely pedagogical standpoint, would rather engage with people I disagree with. That sounds lofty—but it can be ugly when you cross the threshold from an honest attempt to understand the point of view of others to outright sinful contentiousness (Titus 3:9). Been there, done that, got the unholy T-shirt.

I am confident that, sooner or later, I will get something out of reading the essays and commentaries. But it hasn’t gotten off to a good start. Because at the very least I reasonably expected the essays and commentaries to be scholarly. But right there, almost at the very beginning—an essay on the claim that macroevolution is a fantasy. (We’ll let the macro qualifier in front of evolution slide, even though scientifically it is fairly meaningless.) And it’s an essay from the non-scientific, young earth creationist, anti-theistic-evolution, lawyer, and  chief propagandist  Phillip E. Johnson.

Even in the genre of anti-evolution essays and arguments, Johnson’s contribution is poor. It comes complete, as expected, with an overdose of “scare quotes.” But its main flaw is that it is self-refuting. It allows that microevolution (grr) occurs, and gives the example of DDT resistance developing in insects, only to disappear when DDT is removed from the environment. This is true.

He then segues into his coup de grâce (with no grace) and states as fact that evolution cannot explain the creation of new information. This is demonstrably false, both experimentally and theoretically where information is explained in entropic terms. No need to go there, his own microevolution example refutes his claim.

Let’s take Johnson's proverbial bug. Before DDT was introduced the bug species had genome G0. After DDT was introduced, the bugs had genome G1, acquiring a mutation that made them resistant to DDT. By Johnson’s own argument the bugs reverted when DDT was removed. Thus we have two evolutionary transitions: 

G0 → G1
G1 → G0

Mathematically, one of those transitions, both caused by evolution, had to result in an increase in information, and the other a decrease. It doesn't matter which--whichever one increased information refutes Johnson's claim. Unless you want to make a rather self-evidently incorrect (in fact absurd) claim that any mutation results in a Genome with exactly the same amount of information.

Even if you were to make that claim, you’d still have to explain (good luck) how a duplication mutation followed by a second mutation has not increased information. Suppose part of a genome is represented by AABBCC. This produces some needed protein. Now suppose we have (what has been observed many times) a duplication mutation where the genome grows and now contains: 


This is generally harmless, because it is just duplicate instructions for the same protein. Kind of like having two square root methods in your computer program. No harm no foul. Now suppose one of the duplicates mutates and you have


Whether the second mutation is harmful or beneficial, it is obvious that the new genome has more information (more instructions) than the original. If we are lucky, our square root method has mutated into a cube root method. If we are unlucky it crashed the program. But in either case, information has been created, piece O' cake.

When will a certain type of Christian learn that Christianity is not advanced by bashing science using really, really, really dumb arguments? Guys, don't do that. If you can bash science with good arguments, then go for it.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Oh, that's why I feel nourished every Sunday

This falls into the very comprehensive exegetical category of: “how come I never noticed that before?”

We read:
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Cor 15 3b-4
That is a concise and perfect proclamation of the Gospel, from Paul to the Corinthians. It's what comes before that I never gave proper attention:
1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you (1 Cor 15:1-3a)
Namely that Paul was preaching the gospel to believers. Believers with troubles—i.e. Christians like the rest of us, but not believers (e.g., the Galatians) who were getting the basic gospel message wrong.

I know I am comforted when I hear the gospel every week in church—but in the depths of my puny brain I think I always pigeon-holed it as for any unbelievers in the room. After all, I know the gospel.

Of course it is for that, for unbelievers—but that mysterious comfort I’m feeling is because, duh, it’s for me too. Not that I have to hear it again in the sense that I’m getting it wrong, but because preaching is a common means of grace and while the gospel is life to the (spiritually) dead, it's spiritual nourishment for the quick.

Even for the dense among us who don't immediately see cause and effect.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Bavinck on the Cosmological Proof of God

In The Doctrine of God, Bavinck provides come clear thinking on the various “proofs” of God. I’ll try to summarize his arguments beginning with the Cosmological Argument.

In future posts I'll look at other so-called proofs.

All quotes attributed to Bavinck are from: Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, translated by William Hendriksen, Baker Book House, 1951, pp. 69-70.

There are actually quite a few forms of the Cosmological Argument, but they share the feature of rolling the cause and effect tape backwards until you get to the first cause, which was necessarily uncaused—it just was. It is then a seemingly small step (but is it logically valid?) to call this first cause God. 

Before any Cosmological Argument has any force, you must eliminate the obvious counter-argument: an infinite chain of causes with no beginning. Bavinck more or less dismisses this criticism as absurd:
Now an infinite series of causes is indeed inconceivable and impossible. Nobody accepts such a series: all recognize an absolute ground, a first being, whether this being be called God or the Absolute, substance or force, matter or will, etc. 
Let's take a look at the most common form of the Cosmological, with a preamble attributed to Kalām:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 
  2. The Universe began to exist. 
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause. 

 Bavinck agrees with this (so far), writing:
 It is correct to reason that even as all individual objects have a cause, so also the universe as a whole –whereas it consists of these objects—must also have a cause. 
But what comes next? As found in Wikipedia, Modern Christian philosopher William Lane Craig explains, by nature of the event (the Universe coming into existence), attributes unique to (the concept of) God must also be attributed to the cause of this event, including but not limited to: omnipotence, Creator, being eternal and absolute self-sufficiency. Since these attributes are unique to God, anything with these attributes must be God. Something does have these attributes: the cause; hence, the cause is God, the cause exists; hence, God exists.

Bavinck would disagree. After the Bavinck quote above, in which he concurs that the universe must have had a cause, he writes:
But further than that it [the argument] does not bring us. It tells us nothing about the character and nature of that cause. 
And he goes on to add:
[T]he cosmological proof does not tell us anything of the inner nature of such a first cause; that we have no right to apply the law of causality also to it; hence we can say nothing definite in regard to the first cause, Therefore we are forced to the conclusion that, at best, i.e., provided that we grant the impossibility of an infinite series of causes, the cosmological proof brings us to a first, independent, absolute world-cause. 
But beyond that—it’s pure speculation. The argument does not rule out God. Nor does it rule out a universe caused by a primordial quantum fluctuation.

What can I say? This has been my feeling regarding the Cosmological Argument from the very first time I heard it. It is not an argument devoid of comfort for the believer, but (unfortunately) it fails to rise anywhere close to the level of proof of any god, let alone The God.