Sunday, July 31, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/31/05)

"So the faith of the church must be sought first and foremost. If Christ is to dwell in a house, it undoubtedly must be chosen. But lest an unbelieving people or a heretical teacher deface its home, the church is commanded that the fellowship of heretics be avoided and the synagogue shunned. The dust is to be shaken off your feet lest when the dryness of barren unbelief crumbles the sole of your mind it is stained as if by a dry and sandy soil. A preacher of the gospel must take on himself the bodily weaknesses of a faithful people, so to speak. He must lift up and remove from his own soles worthless actions as if they were dust. For it is written: 'Who is weak, and I am not weak?' Any church which rejects faith and does not possess the foundations of apostolic preaching is to be abandoned lest it be able to stain others with unbelief. The apostle also clearly affirmed this by saying 'Reject a man that is a heretic after the first admonition.'" (Ambrose, cited in Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, Anicent Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III: Luke [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003], p. 149)

A Few Links

I want to link to a few articles I read recently, for those who may be interested. The Daily Telegraph has an article on Christianity in China. Here are some highlights:

"Buddhism and Taoism claim most worshippers but the state-sanctioned churches count up to 35 million followers. More significant are the underground or 'house' churches, which are said to have 80 or even 100 million members....House churches which go along with the authority and theology of the official organisations are often left alone. But many reject the party's control over Christian practice and doctrine, and these are seen as a threat. After all, 80 million members would mean there are now more Christians than Communists in China. Few believe that many of the party's 70 million members keep the faith burning any more. This year the Politburo made it easier for churches to register, but at the same time launched a wave of persecution of those which refused....Mr Xun, the beauty salon evangelist, has never been in trouble. But perhaps by coincidence, a week after he fired an anti-Christian employee, there was a police raid. It turned out the salon's acupuncture service lacked a proper licence. Mr Xun received a heavy fine, which he could not pay, and he was forced to hand over the running of the business to others. He wonders whether it was acupuncture that upset the authorities, or the Gospel."

And here's an article on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts' conservative Catholic church and his conservative Catholic background.

Newsweek has an article on the pro-choice movement reconsidering its approach toward abortion. The story mentions George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguist who has been advising pro-choice advocates:

"In one of his more controversial suggestions, he advised the activists to reclaim the 'life' issue by blaming Republicans for high U.S. infant-mortality rates and mercury pollution that can cause birth defects. 'Basically what I'm saying is that conservatives are killing babies,' he says."

That's not a particularly convincing argument. It's not particularly consistent either.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/30/05)

"In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed." (Tertullian, Apology, 9)

Bad Motives, Bad Arguments, and the Destruction of Life

A lot of people have a lot of reasons for wanting embryonic stem cell research expanded. I think one of the primary motives is a desire to devalue human life so as to make abortion seem more acceptable, which in turn makes it easier for people to engage in the sexual immorality that interests them. And some people, like the editorialists for the New York Times and the Boston Globe, probably also want to see the Bush administration and religious conservatives defeated and weakened as much as possible. Whatever their motivations, the reactions to Bill Frist's speech yesterday on embryonic stem cell research are typical and, thus, typically shallow.

The Boston Globe, for example, in an editorial today, gives no coherent defense of the concept that life begins sometime after conception, yet comments that "By any reasonable standard, these are not human beings...If surplus embryos are human beings, they deserve legal protection, but they are an aggregation of cells, not yet implanted in the womb." If you read the Boston Globe editorial and see nothing close to a logical defense of their view of when life begins, you're not alone. This isn't the first time the Boston Globe editorial page has sounded confident without having any reason to be confident.

Similarly, an editorial today in the New York Times comments that embryonic stem cell research "is anathema to the religious right because the stem cells are extracted from microscopic embryos that are destroyed in the process". I guess that the adjective "microscopic" is supposed to be a convincing argument against the human status of the embryos. You certainly won't find anything else in the editorial that supports the Times' view of when life begins, whatever that view might be. Maybe they don't know what it is themselves. They're just confident that life begins sometime after conception, probably sometime late enough to accommodate most desired abortions.

The Weekly Standard has a good response to Frist's speech, and here are some portions of it:

In fact, for all the complaints of scientists that the American government is standing in the way of their pioneering efforts, the striking fact about the present situation is that there are virtually no legal prohibitions on many radical areas of biotechnology. There are no limits on human cloning, no limits on fetal farming, no limits on the creation of man-animal hybrids, and no limits on the creation of human embryos solely for research and destruction. It is in this rather permissive moral and legal climate that Frist seeks to remove one of the few public boundaries that still exist....

When it comes to stem cell research, there are many sources of support, some of them from other levels of government. In 2004 (to our regret), California passed a law providing $3 billion in funding for embryo research and research cloning--far more money than even the most pro-stem cell administration would ever provide through the NIH. Meanwhile, embryo destruction proceeds apace in private laboratories around the country, and in some states beyond California with generous public funding. So why does it make sense to force citizens to become complicit in an activity they see as wrong, when funding for such research is readily available from nonfederal sources?...

Frist called on the federal government to promote, with taxpayer dollars, the ongoing destruction of human embryos. In a television interview that day, he said that research using and destroying the "spares" can be done ethically so long as there is a "moral framework around informed consent." But if embryos deserve respect as nascent human lives, as Frist says he believes, it should not matter whether researchers have permission from their parents to destroy them. If embryos are "human life at its earliest stage," as Frist says he believes, then none of us possesses the authority to consent to their destruction. To promote embryo destruction and still claim to be "pro-life," as Frist did throughout his speech, is absurd.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/29/05)

"When God wills to answer, the answer may come as soon as the desire is given. And if it delay, it is only that it may come at a better time--like some ships that come home more slowly because they bring the heavier cargo. Delayed prayers are prayers that are put out to interest awhile, to come home, not only with the capital, but with the compound interest too. Oh! prayer cannot fail--prayer cannot fail. Heaven may as soon fall as prayer fail. God may sooner change the ordinances of day and night, than he can cease to reply to the faithful, believing spirit-wrought prayer of his own quickened, earnest, importunate people. Therefore, because he sends success, brethren, pray much." (Charles Spurgeon)

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews

The latest book in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series recently came out, the volume on Hebrews, and I received my copy today. It's edited by Erik M. Heen and Philip D.W. Krey, both from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The section quoting the fathers is 239 pages long, and a larger number of patristic sources is included than in some previous volumes. The index cites 51 patristic sources. They find some reflections of Hebrews in some of the earliest fathers, including Clement of Rome and Ignatius. Here are some excerpts.

Jerome on Hebrews 1:2 (from his Homilies on the Psalms, Alternate Series 66 [Psalm 88]):

"He, who first spoke through patriarchs and prophets, afterwards spoke in his own person. As the Song of Songs says, 'that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.' He is saying, therefore, 'Now, in my own person, I speak of him of whom I spoke through the prophets.' The world could not hear him in his thundering, but may it hear him, at least, in his crying." (Erik M. Heen and Philip D.W. Krey, editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament X: Hebrews [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005], p. 9)

Theodore of Mopsuestia on Hebrews 1:3 (from his Fragments on the Epistle to the Hebrews 1.2-3):

"'Who, being the radiance of glory and the exact representation of his substance.' Quite appropriately he does not say 'God' but 'glory.' In this way he does not allow us to meddle in the things of that nature when we are thunderstruck by his name, since of course the only 'glory' worth mentioning is God's nature. Paul uses the analogy of 'radiance' for that which he deemed most essential, and by the next phrase he explicates the point of the analogy. For he says that Christ preserves an accurate representation of God's nature, so that whatever you would think God's nature to be, so you must also think Christ's nature to be, inasmuch as Christ's nature bears the accurate representation of God's nature since Christ's nature does not differ from God's in the least." (p. 10)

Augustine on Hebrews 4:12-13 (from his City of God 20.21):

"He did not come 'to bring peace on earth...but a sword,' and Scripture calls the Word of God a 'two-edged sword' because of the two Testaments." (p. 62)

Photius on Hebrews 10:3-11 (from his Fragments on the Epistle to the Hebrews 10.11):

"He calls them 'the same sacrifices' because they are always being offered for the same things, since those sacrifices and offerings which have taken place and are taking place are not strong enough to strip away any sin purely and completely." (p. 156)

Augustine on Hebrews 11:1-3 (from his Sermon 126.3):

"If they are not seen, how can you be convinced that they exist? Well, where do these things that you see come from, if not from one whom you cannot see? Yes, of course you see something in order to believe something, and from what you can see to believe what you cannot see. Please do not be ungrateful to the one who made you able to see; this is why you are able to believe what you are not yet able to see. God gave you eyes in your head, reason in your heart. Arouse the reason in your heart, get the inner inhabitant behind your inner eyes on his feet, let him take to his windows, let him inspect God's creation." (p. 174)

Oecumenius on Hebrews 12:7-10 (from his Fragments on the Epistle to the Hebrews 12.9):

"For human fathers do not always prevail to discipline us so that they can render us perfect, but God always disciplines us and makes us perfect. For the process of discipline stops when the father dies or the child comes of age." (p. 215)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/28/05)

"we do not make mere assertions without being able to produce proof, like those fables that are told of the so-called sons of Jupiter. For with what reason should we believe of a crucified man that He is the first-born of the unbegotten God, and Himself will pass judgment on the whole human race, unless we had found testimonies concerning Him published before He came and was born as man, and unless we saw that things had happened accordingly" (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 53)

The Significance of Prophecy

Prophecy is a neglected field in apologetics. It's not neglected in the sense of not being mentioned. It is mentioned often. But it's neglected in the sense that it isn't often addressed in much depth. It's common for Christians to make vague references to hundreds of Old Testament passages Jesus supposedly fulfilled, for example, without differentiating between different types of prophecy and without addressing many of the critical objections to the Christian use of these passages. Some Christian scholars, such as Robert Newman and John Bloom, have taken up this issue and given it the sort of treatment it deserves. (See, for example, the article by Robert Newman, John Bloom, and Hugh Gauch, Jr. here.) But, in general, Christian apologists haven't developed the apologetic use of prophecy as well as they could and should. This is disappointing given the evidential weight of prophecy, its prominence in scripture, and its prominence among the earliest patristic apologists.

In a recent blog entry, James White quoted John Crossan commenting:

"The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus' last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God."

I don't own the book by Crossan that James White is quoting, and I don't know the details of the context. But the general sentiments expressed in Crossan's comments above are common among critics of Christianity. Crossan is addressing the events surrounding Jesus' death, but his argument is a popular response to Biblical prophecy in general.

Despite the suggestion that the early Christians fabricated stories to make it seem as if Jesus fulfilled prophecy, it's doubtful that they would have had any such prophetic expectation to begin with. There were many views of what the Messiah would be, and nobody was expecting all of the details that we see asserted in the New Testament record. Craig Keener comments that “It is unlikely that a specific suffering-Messiah view existed in the first century.” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 288) To whatever extent the Messiah was expected to possibly suffer, we have no reason to think that anything close to the New Testament account of Jesus' life was expected. Critics could argue that the details of Jesus' life were fabricated anyway, but then we would have to ask what reason we have to reach that conclusion, and the answer is that we have no reason for it.

Some of the prophecy fulfillments would be out of Jesus' control from a naturalistic standpoint. He couldn't have determined the timing of His life (Daniel 9:24-27), His birthplace (Micah 5:2), how Gentile rulers would respond to Him (Isaiah 52:15), etc. How would He arrange to have His enemies take decisive action during a particular year or a particular seven-year time span, in line with Daniel's 70 weeks prophecy? How would He be sure that His enemies would respond to Him by executing Him in a way consistent with Daniel 9:26, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy, etc.? What if His enemies chose, instead, to just speak out against Him or arrange for something else other than execution? How could David, in writing Psalm 22, have naturalistically described a crucifixion scene that includes such unusual details? (For a defense of the Christian rendering of the most controversial detail, see here.) How would Jesus arrange for a widespread belief that He was unusually righteous (Isaiah 53:9), convince so many people that His death made atonement for sin (Isaiah 53:6, Daniel 9:24), and make sure that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed afterward (Daniel 9:26), for example? It wouldn’t have been possible for a merely human Jesus to arrange all of these things. And the fact that He could have arranged some of these things naturalistically doesn’t make it probable that He did. Many of the prophecies of the Bible, such as the predictions about nations, empires, and non-Jewish and non-Christian individuals, either would be too complicated for fulfillment by naturalistic arrangement or involved people who wouldn’t have had any motive to make such an arrangement.

We ought to be as critical of skeptical attempts to dismiss Biblical prophecy as we are of the prophecies themselves. I remember reading a web site that addressed Daniel's 70 weeks prophecy at length, attempting to give an explanation of the passage that didn't involve Jesus fulfilling it. Of course, putting forward a second candidate for fulfillment lessens the significance of Jesus' fulfillment, but doesn't eliminate its significance. If a few individuals could plausibly be said to fulfill Daniel's prophecy rather than just one person fulfilling it, the fact would remain that the prophecy is detailed enough to single out only a few individuals. But the web site I'm referring to wasn't even able to make a plausible case for anybody other than Jesus fulfilling the prophecy. What this web site did was to define the "sevens" in Daniel's prophecy as numerals rather than time spans. So, after 177 years passed, two more sevens would be fulfilled, since the number 177 contains two numeral 7's. But if you read the text of Daniel 9 carefully, you see that Daniel refers to an event happening in the midst of a seven (Daniel 9:27). Events don't happen in the midst of numerals. Daniel is referring to time spans, not numerals.

Over the years, I've seen many examples of critics being willing to put forward that sort of errant alternative interpretation, often relying on highly implausible translations, when the traditional Christian interpretation is far more plausible. The intent seems to be to reach the best naturalistic explanation of the data, not the best explanation without the "naturalistic" qualifier.

Even when an alleged prophecy fulfillment could possibly be explained naturalistically, we ought to ask whether a naturalistic explanation is the best one. For example, would it be possible for the earliest Christians to refer to Jesus as sinless without Him being sinless? Yes, but how likely would it be?

The early Christians came from a Jewish background and held a high view of the Old Testament scriptures. The Old Testament is emphatic about the universal sinfulness of mankind (1 Kings 8:46, Psalm 14:3, 130:3, 143:2, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Isaiah 64:6). Even a righteous man such as Isaiah or Daniel is referred to as a sinner (Isaiah 6:5, Daniel 9:20). Craig Keener writes:

“Because most early Jewish circles acknowledged that everyone, occasionally barring at most some extremely rare saints like one of the patriarchs, had sinned, Jesus’ claim [in John 8:46] would appear remarkable….normally even the patriarchs were not thought completely sinless” (Ibid., p. 763 and n. 601)

We know that the early Christians agreed with the Old Testament emphasis on universal sinfulness (Romans 3:9-23, Galatians 3:22, James 3:2, 1 John 1:8-10). Any Jewish people alive at the time of Jesus’ earthly life who didn’t hold such a view would have been few and far between.

Jesus made His sinlessness an issue, even to the point of challenging His opponents about it (Matthew 3:15, John 7:18, 8:29, 8:46, 15:10, Revelation 3:7). His Messianic claims and the early Christian association of Jesus with Isaiah's Suffering Servant would have raised expectations for Jesus' behavior (Isaiah 53:9). His enemies would have had motivation to look for sin in His life. We know that Jesus went through many circumstances that would have tempted Him or any other human to sin. He was frequently in public, and He had people near Him who "stood by Me in My trials" (Luke 22:28), not just in good times. One of them was Peter. He not only was with Jesus often, including when He was being led to crucifixion (John 18:3-27), but also was a cause of difficulty for Jesus and saw how Jesus responded (Matthew 16:22-23, Luke 22:61). He refers to Jesus as sinless, repeatedly and emphatically (1 Peter 1:19, 2:22, 3:18), even citing Jesus as an example of how to undergo suffering without sin (1 Peter 2:21-25). Matthew also was a disciple of Jesus who was with Him under many circumstances. He refers to Jesus "fulfilling all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15) and refers to Him as Yahweh incarnate (Matthew 18:20, 28:20). The apostle Paul had been a high-ranking enemy of Christianity, so he would have known of any plausible Jewish arguments about Jesus sinning, yet he refers to Jesus as sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21). It's easy for critics to make vague references to the early Christians fabricating a doctrine of Jesus' sinlessness, but anybody looking at the details of the historical data would have to conclude that the early Christian belief in Jesus' sinlessness isn't so easy to explain.

In addition to Old Testament prophecies Jesus fulfilled, what about the prophecies made by Jesus Himself? For example, what about His prediction of Peter's triple denial, something that would be highly unlikely to have been done naturalistically? The account is included in all four gospels. Two of those gospels were written by eyewitnesses who heard Jesus give the prophecy (Matthew and John), one of the gospels was written by a disciple who got his information primarily from Peter himself (Mark), and the other gospel was written by a demonstrably reliable historian (Luke). The prophecy has details unlikely to be fabricated (it embarrasses Peter, a person who makes Peter deny Christ is a girl, etc.), and other gospel material assumes the historicity of the account (John 21:15-17). Most likely, Jesus did make this detailed prophecy, and most likely it was fulfilled.

So many other examples could be discussed, but I would encourage every Christian to make more of an effort to develop the use of prophecy in apologetics. Just giving people a list of Old Testament passages, without differentiating between a passage like Micah 5:2 and a passage like Hosea 11:1, isn't going to withstand much scrutiny. We have far better evidence to offer than most Christians are presenting.

"And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.'...he [Apollos] powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 17:2-3, 18:28)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Numbers on Internet Use

From a story about a recent survey on Internet use:

The report compiled for the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that nearly nine out of 10 young people, ages 12 through 17, have online access - up from about three-quarters of young people in 2000.

By comparison, about 66 percent of American adults now use the Internet....

He [a teenager] also gets his news online, as do about three-quarters of teen Internet users who were surveyed. That's an increase of about 38 percent, compared with 2000 results....

Of those surveyed, 87 percent said they use the Internet. About half of the young people who have online access say they go on the Internet every day, up from 42 percent in 2000....

Older teen girls who were surveyed, ages 15 to 17, are among the most intense users of the Internet and cell phones, including text messaging.

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/27/05)

"The insignificances of daily life are the importances and the tests of eternity because they prove what spirit really possesses us. It is in our most unguarded moments that we really show and see what we are. To know the humble man, to know how the humble man behaves, you must follow him in the common course of daily life." (Andrew Murray, Humility [New Kensington, Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, 1982], p. 44)

"Everything Rather Than the Bible"

As we see the latest Harry Potter book selling so well, and we look at the sort of books people are purchasing from, and we consider how ignorant of the Bible Americans are, John Chrysostom's words more than 1500 years ago are applicable:

"But many in these times, even when they come to church, do not know what is read; whereas the eunuch [in Acts 8], even in public and riding in his chariot, applied himself to the reading of the Scriptures. Not so you: none takes the Bible in hand: nay, everything rather than the Bible. Say, what are the Scriptures for? For as much as in you lies, it is all undone. What is the Church for? Tie up the Bibles: perhaps the judgment would not be such, not such the punishment: if one were to bury them in dung, that he might not hear them, he would not so insult them as you do now. For say, what is the insult there? That the man has buried them. And what here? That we do not hear them. Say, when is a person most insulted-when he is silent, and one makes no answer, or, when he does speak (and is unheeded)? So that the insult is greater in the present case, when He does speak and thou wilt not hear: greater the contempt. 'Speak not to us' (Is. xxx. 10), we read, they said of old to the Prophets: but ye do worse, saying, Speak: we will not do....But what is the common excuse? 'It is always the same things over again.' This it is most of all, that ruins you. Suppose you knew the things, even so you certainly ought not to turn away: since in the theatres also, is it not always the same things acted over again, and still you take no disgust? How dare you talk about 'the same things,' you who know not so much as the names of the Prophets? Are you not ashamed to say, that this is why you do not listen, because it is 'the same things over again,' while you do not know the names of those who are read, and this, though always hearing the same things? You have yourself confessed that the same things are said. Were I to say this as a reason for finding fault with you, you would need to have recourse to quite a different excuse, instead of this which is the very thing you find fault with.-Do not you exhort your son? Now if he should say, 'Always the same things!' would not you count it an insult? It would be time enough to talk of 'the same things,' when we both knew the things, and exhibited them in our practice. Or rather, even then, the reading of them would not be superfluous. What equal to Timothy? tell me that: and yet to him says Paul, 'Give attention to reading, to exhortation.' (1Tim. iv. 13.) For it is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom." (Homilies on Acts, 19)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/26/05)

"A woman said to me after hearing me preach on sin, 'You make me feel so big (holding her fingers an inch apart).' I was shocked and replied, 'Lady, that is too big; much too big, fatally big. You and I are a minus quantity, and all fallen mankind with us. Justification can only be by faith alone.'" (John Gerstner, in Don Kistler, editor, Justification by Faith ALONE [Morgan, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996], p. 108)

A Mormon Leader for a Theologically Careless People

Anybody who has read the Old Testament should know that God is concerned with whether government leaders acknowledge Him, whether they serve Him or serve an idol. God is concerned with whether all people, whoever they may be, acknowledge Him. While it's true that we often have to choose the lesser of two evils in an election, the fact that we prefer the lesser evil doesn't mean that we should deny that evil is involved.

Today's Boston Globe has another article on Mitt Romney's Mormonism, and it closes with these lines:

In the same article, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, brought up Romney's Mormon faith with the Atlantic interviewer. ''The question you didn't ask," Kennedy said, ''was about Mormonism, whether it would hurt him in a national campaign."

''The answer is no," Kennedy answered. ''We've moved on. That died with my brother Jack."

Of course, closing the article with that sort of line from President Kennedy's brother is effective in moving people's emotions. I give the Boston Globe credit for good theater, but their reasoning isn't so good.

If Romney would be chosen as the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, and he would be significantly better than his Democratic opponent, I would be willing to vote for him. But let's not act as if being Mormon is no problem or just a minor problem. However America has "moved on", as Ted Kennedy puts it, probably has a lot to do with Americans becoming less concerned with truth and less concerned with pleasing God. We live in a trivializing age, when we're encouraged to be short-sighted and to not think highly of many things. Nobody who wants to hold a Biblical worldview can go along with that sort of carelessness (Matthew 12:36, Titus 1:15).

Monday, July 25, 2005

Checking In

Many thanks to Jason Engwer, who did such a great job with the blog last week. I have to confess, I didn't realize how much I needed time away from the blog until I took it . . . and it has left me craving more. In any case, I've asked Jason to fill in for another week, and he has graciously accepted. If all goes as planned, I will be back next Monday.

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/25/05)

"And this is the crowning guilt of men, that they will not recognize One, of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant." (Tertullian, Apology, 17)

Christmas in July

Christmas is five months from today, and I'm in the process of putting together the Christmas segments for my Apologetics Log series on the NTRM boards. Christmas is a holiday that receives a lot of attention from the non-Christian world. Many unbelievers enjoy the Christmas season, even if they don't believe in much that's involved in the Christian view of Jesus' birth. The holiday is an opportunity for evangelism and apologetics. Yet, how well do we use that opportunity? The church has responded well to Easter. We can think of a lot of books that have been published on the resurrection of Christ, and a lot of good arguments for the resurrection have been popularized. The same can't be said, to the same degree, for Christmas.

A few years ago, a relative gave me an article from The Washington Post that opens with these lines:

At the risk of being called the Grinch Who Stole Bethlehem, Paula Fredriksen states emphatically: Jesus was born in Nazareth, not the "little town" of the Christmas carol.

"I can't think of any New Testament scholar who takes [the Gospel accounts of Jesus's birth] to be historically reliable," said Fredriksen, a Boston University professor who specializes in early Christianity. "Most believe he was born in Nazareth."

As you go on to read the rest of this error-filled article in The Washington Post, you realize that although relatively few people read such articles in The Washington Post, the cumulative effect from all such publications, television broadcasts, etc. combined has to be highly significant. How well prepared are you to respond to this sort of material? What would you do if a friend or relative who isn't a Christian, or is an immature Christian, asked you about an article like this one in The Washington Post?

I'll be addressing these issues in more depth later this year in the Apologetics Log series. But I recommend that all of you do some research on your own long before the next Christmas season arrives.

The best general overview of the data that I've seen is Ben Witherington's article in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel B. Green, et al., editors (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), pp. 60-74. Craig Keener has a good commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999), and Darrell Bock has a good commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994). Once you understand the issues involved, I'd also recommended reading the earliest church fathers (something you ought to do anyway) with those issues in mind (go here, here, and here, for example). They have some relevant information that's often overlooked in apologetic material on Christmas issues.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/24/05)

"But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law. Whoever, therefore, is anxious to observe the obligations to which man is liable, and to maintain a regard for his nature, let him raise himself from the ground, and, with mind lifted up, let him direct his eyes to heaven: let him not seek God under his feet, nor dig up from his footprints an object of veneration, for whatever lies beneath man must necessarily be inferior to man; but let him seek it aloft, let him seek it in the highest place: for nothing can be greater than man, except that which is above man. But God is greater than man: therefore He is above, and not below; nor is He to be sought in the lowest, but rather in the highest region." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 2:18-19)

Revelation 5:8 and Prayers to the Dead

Prayer is a significant part of the Christian life, and there are hundreds of passages on the subject in scripture and the writings of the earliest church fathers. God is the recipient of those prayers, and praying to the deceased is never encouraged. Instead, it's repeatedly either directly or indirectly condemned.

Sometimes those who advocate the practice will attempt to defend it by appealing to doctrinal development or the authority of some group, such as the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to teach the concept. But nothing in the earliest sources would logically develop into the concept of praying to the dead, and there's no reason to believe that the Catholic hierarchy has the authority it claims to have. Appealing to doctrinal development or Roman Catholic authority can't justify praying to the deceased.

Other advocates of the practice will attempt to defend it by claiming that it is, in fact, taught in scripture. One of the most popular passages cited to this end is Revelation 5:8. Supposedly, the fact that the elders possess bowls of prayer suggests that they're the recipients of prayer.

But the elders in that passage are referred to as carrying the prayers, not as the recipients of the prayers. Revelation 8:4, which uses similar imagery, refers to the prayers going to God. Just as the harps in Revelation 5:8 are likely used to play music to God, the prayers mentioned in the same passage most likely are directed to God, not to the elders. The elders are presenters of the prayers, not recipients of them. Similarly, when angels are referred to as carrying bowls of wrath (Revelation 16:2), we don’t conclude that the angels therefore are the recipients of the wrath.

Furthermore, when other passages in Revelation allude to the prayers of Revelation 5, the most natural implication is that the prayers were addressed to God and were asking Him for justice on earth. This is documented by Richard Bauckham in his chapter on prayer in Into God’s Presence, Richard Longenecker, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 252-271. As Bauckham explains, Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4, 9:13-14, and 14:18 have similar terminology and imagery. The phrase “golden bowl full” is used in both Revelation 5:8 and 15:7. It seems that the wrath described in 15:7 is in response to the prayers of the saints. In 6:9-10, we see the martyred saints asking God for justice. And the incense altar associated with the prayers of the saints in 8:3-4 is referred to again in 9:13-14 and 14:18 in connection with God exercising justice on earth. It seems that the best explanation of the prayers in Revelation 5 and Revelation 8 is that they’re prayers to God, asking for justice on earth. They aren’t prayers to the dead.

The earliest patristic commentators on Revelation 5:8 refer to the prayers in that passage as being offered to God, not to the elders. We see this in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 4:17:6-4:18:1), Origen (Against Celsus, 8:17), and Methodius (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, 5:8), for instance. Many of the people who advocate praying to the dead are the same people who often tell us that we should let the church fathers have a much larger role in our scripture interpretation than Evangelicals usually allow. Yet, when the fathers contradict their view of scripture, they don't seem to have as much concern about it.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/23/05)

"I am not in the least ashamed of the object aimed at in the Roman Catholic controversy. I believe that the Church of Rome teaches false doctrine on many points which must be called important, if anything in religion can be called important; and it is not merely that on some particular points the teaching of that Church is erroneous; but they who submit to her are obliged to surrender their understanding to her, and submit to be led blindfold they know not whither. I count it, then, a very good work to release a man from Roman bondage - a release of which I think he will be the better, both as regards the things of eternity and those of time....I hold that it is unworthy of any man who possesses knowledge to keep his knowledge to himself, and rejoice in his own enlightenment, without making any effort to bring others to share in his privileges. Justly did the four lepers at the gate of Samaria feel their conscience smite them: 'We do not well; this is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace.' Had those to whom the light of Christianity was first given dealt so with our ancestors, we should still be lying in heathen darkness....When we must engage in controversy, it is not that we love contention, but that we love the truth which is at stake. Seek, then, in study of the Scriptures to know the truth, and pray that God will inspire you with a sincere love of it - of the whole truth, and not merely of that portion of it which it may be your duty to defend - and ask Him also to inspire you with a sincere love of your brethren: so that the end of all your controversy may be, not the display of your own skill in arguing, not the obtaining of victory for yourself or for your party, but the mutual edification of all who take part in it, and their growth in likeness to Christ....An unlearned Protestant perceives that the doctrine of Rome is not the doctrine of the Bible. A learned Protestant adds that neither is it the doctrine of the primitive Church. These assertions are no longer denied, as in former days. Putting the concessions made us at the lowest, it is at least owned that the doctrine of Rome is as unlike that of early times as an oak is unlike an acorn, or a butterfly unlike a caterpillar. The unlikeness is admitted: and the only question remaining is whether that unlikeness is absolutely inconsistent with substantial identity. In other words, it is owned that there has been a change, and the question is whether we are to call it development or corruption....I think it much better, then, instead of running away from this ghost of tradition which Roman Catholic controversialists dress up to frighten us with, to walk up to it, and pull it to pieces, when it is found to be a mere bogey. You say that you have other evidence as to the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles as trustworthy as the Books of the New Testament. Well, produce your evidence, and let us see what it is worth. When the question is looked at in this way it will be found that the appeal to tradition by Roman Catholics means no more than this: that there are doctrines taught by the Church of Rome which, it must be acknowledged, cannot be found in Scripture, and which she is unwilling to own that she invented, or to pretend that they were made known to her by a new revelation. It remains, then, that she must have received them by tradition. But the baselessness of this pretence appears when we come to look into the testimony of antiquity with respect to each of the peculiar doctrines of Romanism." (George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church [London, England: John Murray, 1914], pp. 6-7, 16, 39, 133)

Hair-Splitting Bigotry or Loving Discernment?

Some of you may have heard of a recent controversy involving a Bethany Christian Services office in Mississippi, regarding their decision to not allow Roman Catholics to adopt children through their services. They reversed that decision recently, and Jim Ketchum of the Port Huron Times-Herald has an article on the subject that reflects the common undiscerning ecumenical spirit of our age.

In the article, Ketchum misleadingly writes:

Part of Bethany's Statement of Faith said adoption applicants must believe in the Christian Church and Scripture. OK so far.

It also said Jesus "takes away the sins of the world," and he is "our only hope to forgiveness of sin and of reconciliation with God and with one another."

And, since the agency takes money for a license plate that says "Choose Life," you'd assume they'd take an anti-abortion stance.

Hmmm ... now let's see. Roman Catholicism is anti-abortion, it believes in Jesus as the savior of the world and the reconciler with God and one another.

So what's the problem? I get the feeling the problem is that Roman Catholics are, well, Roman Catholics and the folks who run Bethany, for reasons known only to themselves, seemed not to like Catholics.

But if you go to Bethany Christian Services' statement of faith, you see something significantly different from what Jim Ketchum describes. The statement reads:

"I believe that in all matters of faith and life, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final authority. The Scriptures point us with full reliability to Jesus, God’s Son. The Scriptures tell us that we receive forgiveness of sins by faith in Jesus Christ, and that God provides salvation by grace alone for those who repent and believe."

However anybody may want to interpret these words in a less natural sense, it can't reasonably be denied that the more natural reading and the original intent is to convey sola scriptura, Biblical inerrancy, and sola fide. And while some Catholics do believe in Biblical inerrancy, Roman Catholicism rejects sola scriptura and sola fide, and its position on Biblical inerrancy has been unclear in recent times. Many of the Roman Catholic Church's leading scholars reject the concept, and recent statements on the subject put out by the hierarchy are ambiguous.

When a child is adopted into a Roman Catholic family, what difference will there be? The system of authority will be much different. Their view of Mary will be unhistorical and highly unhealthy. The child probably will be taught and encouraged to pray to the dead every day of his life. He'll be taught to venerate images in a Roman Catholic context. He'll be taught justification through works, the doctrines associated with mass, Purgatory, etc. The child will be surrounded by many liberal and moderate clergymen who either explicitly deny or unreasonably reinterpret traditional doctrines, and there will be little or no discipline of these leaders. This child will be part of a denomination that has major self-disciplining problems, allows a wide variety of corruption among its leaders and scholars, and frequently participates in undiscerning ecumenical events like the 1986 gathering in Assisi. Will these things have a significant effect on this child's life? Yes, a highly significant effect.

An Associated Press story carried by the Boston Globe reports:

"Sandy and Robert Steadman, who learned of Bethany's decision in a July 8 letter, said their priest told them that the faith statement did not conflict with Catholic teaching."

The only way that priest could say such a thing was by interpreting either Bethany's statement of faith or Roman Catholic teaching in an unnatural sense.

Whatever changes Bethany Christian Services decided to make and whatever legal issues were involved, the fact remains that the original decision by their Mississippi office made doctrinal, moral, and practical sense. But the response of Jim Ketchum probably reflects how most people would respond, and it tells us something about what has to be given up in order to achieve these ecumenical objectives. The more honest, careful, discerning, and loving approach is to acknowledge that the differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are of major significance.

WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi quotes one of the Catholic women who was turned away by Bethany:

"'We shouldn't split hairs over something so special and sweet as adopting a baby,' said Sandy Stedman. Sandy and her husband were turned away by the Jackson chapter, because, as Catholics, they conflict with the group's statement of faith."

Issues similar to what led to Paul's anathema in Galatians, issues that have a major influence on how people live their lives and for which martyrs shed their blood, are now considered matters of "splitting hairs".

A Clarion-Ledger editorial on this controversy reads:

"Such blatant religious bigotry, especially from an organization that has 'Christian' in its name, is shocking in these days and times....Now, apparently, the state is collecting money to benefit a private adoption agency that discriminates in its adoption policies based on religion....There are many children who need homes. For dedicated, capable couples to be denied that opportunity because of their faith — a faith that teaches the very principles of love and family commitment — is outrageous."

Presumably, that would include faiths such as Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/22/05)

"Remember it is not your own natural goodness, nor your tears, nor your sanctification that will justify you before God. It is Christ's sufferings and obedience alone." (Robert McCheyne, Pastoral Letters [Shoals, Indiana: Kingsley Press, 2003], p. 66)

Excavating Colossae

Ben Witherington posted an interesting article at his blog yesterday. You wonder why this sort of excavation isn't done more often and why there isn't a more methodical approach toward all of the Biblical sites where an excavation would be possible.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Rating Games and Rating Parents

The Associated Press has an article today on video games that have content similar to Grand Theft Auto. The article includes a breakdown of the percentage of games that get the different ratings available. Of course, not all content that a Christian would consider objectionable is included in the ratings evaluation, and, as the Associated Press notes, it's sometimes questionable why a game is given one rating rather than another. I think the problem is worse than the Associated Press' breakdown of percentages suggests.

The New York Times has an article on the latest explanation being given by Rockstar Games (the producer of Grand Theft Auto), as well as the response of retailers such as Wal-Mart. The Associated Press article describes the content of Grand Theft Auto as "blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content and use of drugs". The New York Times reports that Wal-Mart will no longer carry the old version of the game, but will carry the new version with the sex segments removed. Apparently, Wal-Mart doesn't want to be associated with interactive sex scenes, but they are willing to sell the "blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and use of drugs". Best Buy, Target, and other retailers seem to be taking a similar approach. I'm glad that these retailers are refusing to stock some games, but their standards aren't particularly high. Neither are the standards of many of their shoppers, including parents.

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/21/05)

"As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!" (Mathetes, The Epistle to Diognetus, 9)

The Love of the Man of Sorrows

"our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried" (Isaiah 53:4)

"Jesus spent a tremendous amount of his time pouring himself out for those who were severely ill, crippled, lame, blind, and even demonized - a ministry not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. These were often the outcasts, the untouchables, the beggars, the wretched; people with terrible wounds and sores and disfiguring skin conditions; screaming lunatics and wild men; epileptics tormented with seizures, foaming at the mouth. At times the stench of sickness and death must have been unbearable. At other times the horrific sights of twisted bodies and sightless eyes must have been overwhelming. And the crowds never stopped coming to him with their sick and dying family members and friends, even removing the roof of a house to get a paralytic to Jesus when there was no other way to reach him because of the throngs (Mark 2:1-12). And the text records that Yeshua healed them all!" (Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003], p. 74)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/20/05)

"For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place [John 2:4], and again elsewhere, 'Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?' (Matt. xii. 48), because they did not yet think rightly of Him...And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' [John 2:4] instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much for the salvation of her soul" (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel According to St. John, 21)

Another Response to Kevin Johnson on Mary

Kevin Johnson has posted another response to me on the subject of Mary, and that response doesn't refute anything I wrote. He comments:

"But, I wasn’t arguing with Jason’s read of the Fathers (though his take on things are decidedly one-sided and obviously prejudicial) and I have no interest in arguing whether or not Mary was perpetually a virgin, sinless, or assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life....Nor am I interested in arguing whether the early Fathers believed this or that and my personal opinion of certain Marian doctrines is frankly unimportant."

If you go back to Kevin's earlier posts, you see him making comments like:

"And, anyone who studies the fathers knows well that the Marian doctrines in question did develop naturally and almost without resistance over the next thousand years after the Apostles passed from the scene–so much so that Mary made her way into the creeds and the early councils of the Church."

Are those not historical claims about the church fathers and other patristic sources? Kevin also wrote:

"We forget too that Athanasius and other greats of the Christian faith clearly involved themselves in commemorating Mary and honoring her beyond what certain fundamentalist types deem as acceptable orthopraxy. These things are conveniently left out of Mr. Engwer’s post on the matter."

Again, isn't Kevin making historical claims about the fathers, and isn't he criticizing what I said about them? (His claim about what I "left out" is false, since I repeatedly mentioned that concepts such as the perpetual virginity of Mary did eventually become popular.)

Kevin goes on, in his latest reply, to refer to how Roman Catholics could appeal to the authority of their denomination to support the Marian concepts being discussed, how we don't have a lot of material from the people who lived during the timeframe in question, etc. But I was addressing the Marian views of the early fathers. I wasn't discussing how to refute the entire Roman Catholic system or what people who left no trace in the historical record might have believed. If Kevin doesn't like the topic I chose to discuss, then he can begin his own discussion rather than posting several critical responses to my material without refuting anything I said.

Is it true that we only have writings from a small portion of the people who lived in ancient times? Yes, but those writings give us many indications about what other people believed as well. We know what arguments these people were responding to, what fellowship they had with other church leaders, what some of their enemies were saying about them, etc.

However small the portion of ancient sources we have access to, Roman Catholics have made claims about those sources. If Kevin doesn't understand the significance of people making false historical claims or the significance of a denomination falsely claiming something as an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, then Kevin shouldn't be involved in these sorts of discussions. He doesn't seem to understand even some of the most basic issues involved. Or maybe he does understand the issues, but has reasons for wanting to act as if he doesn't.

He writes:

"Engwer’s argument is just bad because it is largely an argument from silence."

I've cited church fathers directly or indirectly denying that Mary was sinless. That's not silence. I've cited church fathers denying that any apostolic tradition had been handed down regarding the end of Mary's life. That's not silence. I've referred to church fathers condemning the veneration of images. That isn't silence. And when I referred to fathers condemning prayers to the deceased, that wasn't an appeal to silence. When I cite the fathers commenting on a New Testament parallel to the ark of the covenant, explaining who the woman of Revelation 12 is, etc., those comments aren't silence.

But where there is silence, it isn't always irrelevant. If a group is going to claim that a doctrine is an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, it's significant if that doctrine is unmentioned for hundreds of years, including in contexts in which it would have been appropriate to mention the doctrine. Kevin writes that "An argument from silence goes both ways", but only one of the two groups in question here (Protestants and Catholics) claims that doctrines such as the sinlessness of Mary and the Assumption of Mary are apostolic traditions always held and taught by the church. If the doctrines are absent in the historical record for hundreds of years, accompanied by widespread contradiction of those doctrines, that fact doesn't "go both ways". It goes one way. It goes contrary to what Roman Catholicism has claimed.

A Reply to Kevin Johnson, Regarding Mary

Kevin Johnson has written four responses to my article yesterday on Mary and the earlier church fathers. Kevin linked to three of his four responses in the comment box of yesterday's article, and I replied to him there. What I want to do here is reply to his fourth article.

In that article, Kevin refers to "whether Mary was a perpetual virgin, sinless, or whether she was assumed". But those aren't the only issues I addressed. I also discussed Marian typology, praying to Mary, and the veneration of images of Mary, for example.

The opening of his article explains:

"The fact is that very few statements regarding Mary exist in the earliest fathers and generally those statements are connected to Christological formulations."

The comments of the fathers can be relevant to Mary without Mary being the focus, even without Mary being mentioned by name. When Clement of Alexandria and Origen deny that anybody other than Jesus was sinless, for example, the natural implication is that they didn't think of Mary as sinless. And some of the fathers even describe sins they think Mary committed. Tertullian, for example, refers to her "keeping aloof" from Christ and her "want of adherence" to Christ, and he refers to Mary's "unbelief" (On the Flesh of Christ, 7).

Anybody who read my article yesterday knows that I cited a variety of evidences, with differing degrees of probability and significance. As I explained yesterday, it's possible that the earliest fathers viewed Mary as a New Testament parallel to the ark of the covenant, for example, without ever saying so in their writings. But since the fathers repeatedly comment on the subject, and they refer to Jesus or some other entity as the ark rather than Mary, why would we think that they held the Marian view, yet repeatedly mentioned a different view instead when commenting on the subject? The best that can be said for the Roman Catholic view is that it's a speculative possibility. If a few different ante-Nicene sources discuss a New Testament parallel to the ark of the covenant, and they all mention some entity other than Mary, that's closer to what we see in Protestantism than what we see in Roman Catholicism. Similarly, when so many fathers comment on the subject of bodily assumptions, and they repeatedly give the examples of Enoch, Elijah, and Paul, without mentioning Mary as an example, is it possible that they thought Mary was bodily assumed? Yes. Is it likely? No.

Kevin continues:

"And, anyone who studies the fathers knows well that the Marian doctrines in question did develop naturally and almost without resistance over the next thousand years after the Apostles passed from the scene–so much so that Mary made her way into the creeds and the early councils of the Church."

I was focusing on the earlier church fathers, but let's include the later fathers for the moment in order to evaluate Kevin's assertion. Does the view that Mary was sinless from conception onward "develop naturally" from the widespread patristic belief that Mary sinned in her behavior? Does the view that Mary was sinless from conception onward "develop naturally" from Augustine's denial that Mary was immaculately conceived? When Philip Schaff writes...

"Henceforward the Immaculate Conception became an apple of discord between rival schools of Thomists and Scotists, and the rival orders of the Dominicans and Franciscans. They charged each other with heresy, and even with mortal sin for holding the one view or the other. Visions, marvelous fictions, weeping pictures of Mary, and letters from heaven were called in to help the argument for or against a fact which no human being, not even Mary herself, can know without a divine revelation. Four Dominicans, who were discovered in a pious fraud against the Franciscan doctrine, were burned, by order of a papal court, in Berne, on the eve of the Reformation. The Swedish prophetess, St. Birgitte, was assured in a vision by the Mother of God that she was conceived without original sin; while St. Catherine of Siena prophesied for the Dominicans that Mary was sanctified in the third hour after her conception." (The Creeds of Christendom [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998], Vol. I, pp. 123-124)

...are we to conclude that the Immaculate Conception developed "almost without resistance"? Or when the conservative Roman Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott tells us...

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 320)

...are we to conclude that the veneration of images of Mary developed "almost without resistance"? Remember, if Kevin chooses to limit himself to only some Marian doctrines, his arbitrary choice to do so doesn't change the fact that I was discussing other Marian issues as well in my original article.

One of the issues I was discussing was praying to Mary. When the earlier fathers condemn praying to the deceased, are we to conclude that the later practice of praying to the deceased, including Mary, developed "naturally and almost without resistance"?

When Epiphanius writes that nobody knows what happened to Mary at the end of her life, are we to conclude that the Roman Catholic assertion that Mary's bodily assumption is an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church is something that developed "naturally and almost without resistance"? Anybody who has read my article on the Assumption, linked in my article yesterday, will know that multiple church fathers denied knowing of any apostolic tradition of an assumption. Even if none of these church fathers had made such comments, what reason would we have for believing in a bodily assumption of Mary?

The earlier church fathers repeatedly either don't mention or contradict modern Catholic claims about Mary. If they don't mention something like Mary being bodily assumed, why would anybody conclude that they would approve of the later development of such a concept? And if they contradict concepts such as Mary being sinless from conception, praying to Mary, and venerating images of Mary, how can contradictions be considered natural developments?

Kevin goes on:

"We forget too that Athanasius and other greats of the Christian faith clearly involved themselves in commemorating Mary and honoring her beyond what certain fundamentalist types deem as acceptable orthopraxy."

I was addressing earlier fathers, and I was making a comparison to Roman Catholicism, not Reformed Catholics who hold a view of Mary that's somewhere in the middleground. Kevin cites Athanasius, but I could cite Epiphanius denying that any apostolic tradition had been handed down regarding the end of Mary's life, John Chrysostom referring to Mary sinning, Augustine denying that she was immaculately conceived, etc. The fathers held a variety of views of Mary. But the earlier fathers are far from the Roman Catholic view of her, and even many of the later fathers contradict what Catholicism claims about her.

Kevin concludes:

"Incidentally, the early fathers didn’t interpret the Bible the same way most Protestants (scholars or not) do today. What is good for the goose is…well you know."

How do you know how the early fathers interpreted the Bible? By applying a historical-grammatical method to their writings? Or can we interpret the fathers in the same way you interpret the Bible? If you think it's acceptable for Roman Catholics to see the Immaculate Conception in Luke 1:28, for instance, would it be acceptable for me to interpret the church fathers in such a speculative way in order to conclude that they agreed with me? I doubt that you're applying the same method to the fathers that you're applying to the Bible.

I have no objection to seeing typology, allegories, etc. in scripture, as long as everything is given its proper weight and place. For example, we may comment on parallels we see between the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis and the life of Jesus, but we can't claim to know that an event occurred in Jesus' life just because that event would be needed in order to further the parallel between Joseph and Jesus. Nor can we claim to know that a parallel was intended by God if God hasn't told us that the parallel is intended. When the Roman Catholic Church dogmatizes something like the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary, and it commands all Christians to accept it and refers to the doctrine as an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, we're not dealing with a church father who reads the book of Genesis and comments that he sees some parallels between Joseph and Jesus. You'll find many Evagelicals doing the latter. No Evangelical, however, should do the former. The issue isn't whether we can go beyond the grammatical-historical method. We can, and Evangelicals often do. The issue is whether we can dogmatize on the basis of such unverifiable methods. We can't.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Early Patristic View of Mary

In an article this past Saturday, I mentioned that critics of Evangelicalism are often unreasonably selective in their discussions of what the church fathers believed, and they often have false priorities. An example is the patristic view of Mary as contrasted with the Roman Catholic view. Catholics will often cite some fathers referring to Mary as a Second Eve, for example, and suggest that the fathers therefore venerated Mary and had a higher Mariology than Protestants.

It is true that the perpetual virginity of Mary was popular among the later church fathers, and there were some fathers who viewed Mary as sinless in later centuries, for example, whether sinless from conception or sinless sometime after conception. But there's no reason to assume that the later fathers always agreed with the earlier fathers. Sometimes differences can be demonstrated between the beliefs of the earlier fathers and those of the fathers of later centuries. When we look at the views of the earlier fathers, it can't reasonably be denied that their perspective of Mary was much closer to Protestantism than Roman Catholicism. And even the later fathers often said nothing about or contradicted popular Catholic views of Mary.

I'm going to be giving some examples of what I have in mind in the remainder of this post, but fuller documentation can be found in my Apologetics Log series on the NTRM Areopagus discussion board. See, for example, here and here on the sinlessness of Mary and here on the Assumption of Mary.

Catholic apologists put a lot of emphasis on the patristic belief that Mary was a Second Eve or New Eve. They often cite early fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian referring to Mary in such a way. But the Second Eve concept doesn't logically lead to a Roman Catholic view of Mary. Some of these same fathers who refer to Mary as a Second Eve refer to her as a sinner, directly or indirectly, elsewhere. Tertullian, for example, describes Mary as a Second Eve in chapter 17 of his treatise On the Flesh of Christ, but describes her committing various sins in chapter 7 of that same document. Justin Martyr describes Jesus as "the only blameless and righteous Man...the only blameless and righteous Light sent by God" and denies that his Jewish opponent Trypho can cite any human who completely obeyed God so as to not need the salvation Christ offers (Dialogue with Trypho, 17, 88, 95). The same sort of view is found in Clement of Alexandria and other ante-Nicene sources.

Although the concept of Mary being a perpetual virgin eventually became popular among the fathers, the most natural reading of men like Hegesippus and Tertullian is that they viewed her as having other children after Jesus (which is also the most natural reading of the New Testament and Josephus). The earliest fathers have no concept of praying to the deceased, but instead repeatedly condemn the practice, which would include praying to Mary. The ante-Nicene fathers opposed the veneration of images as well, which, again, would include images of Mary. The earliest fathers not only have no concept of Mary being bodily assumed, but also repeatedly discuss historical figures who have been bodily assumed without mentioning Mary as an example. They repeatedly mention Enoch, Elijah, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), but they never use Mary as an example.

A significant contrast between the earliest fathers and modern Catholicism, a contrast not often mentioned, is how Biblical passages and imagery often associated with later Catholic doctrines were interpreted differently by the earliest fathers. For example, while Catholic apologists often argue for a Marian interpretation of Psalm 45, Justin Martyr comments that the woman of Psalm 45 is the church (Dialogue with Trypho, 63). The earliest patristic sources who see the ark of the covenant as a foreshadowing of a New Testament entity identify Jesus or something else, not Mary, as the parallel to the ark: Irenaeus (Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, 48), Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 5:6), Tertullian (The Chaplet, 9), The Five Books in Reply to Marcion (4), Hippolytus (On Daniel, 2:6), and Victorinus (Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, 11:19), for example. The earliest interpreters of Revelation 12 see the woman as some entity other than Mary (Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 61; Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 8:5; Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, 12:1-2).

Catholics often respond by arguing that the fathers might have believed that these passages refer to Mary, even though they don't say so in their writings. That's possible, but how likely is it? For example, if so many ante-Nicene fathers comment on the ark of the covenant, and none of them draw the parallels that modern Catholic apologists are drawing, how likely is it that they held the modern Catholic view, but just happened to repeatedly mention some other interpretation instead? As these fathers show us, we can make sense of these passages of scripture without appealing to a Marian interpretation. Why, then, should we think that some additional Marian interpretation is appropriate?

Even among the later fathers, we often find references to Mary sinning in her behavior, denials that she was conceived without sin among those who viewed her as sinless later in life, denials that she had the mediatorial role Catholics often associate with her, denials that any apostolic tradition had been handed down regarding the end of her life (whether she was bodily assumed), etc.

If the evidence suggests that the earliest fathers widely or universally viewed Mary as a sinner, had no concept of her being a perpetual virgin, had no concept of a bodily assumption, didn't pray to her, didn't venerate images of her, didn't view her as having the mediatorial role often assigned to her by modern Catholics, and interpreted passages of scripture associated with her differently than modern Catholics do, then why should we consider these church fathers to be the predecessors of Roman Catholicism? They didn't believe in the Roman Catholic system of authority, so it can't be argued that they would accept whatever Marian doctrines the Catholic system of authority eventually developed. Besides, Catholics have often claimed that some of their Marian beliefs have always been held and taught by the church, so how much of an appeal can be made to development? Instead of just making vague citations of the earliest fathers viewing Mary as a Second Eve, we ought to examine the specific claims they made, and those specific claims aren't just non-Roman-Catholic. They're often anti-Roman-Catholic.

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/19/05)

"For no one man is free from sin, excepting Him that was made man for us; since it is written: 'No man is pure from filthiness; no, not though he be but one day old.'" (Apostolic Constitutions, 2:3:18)

Crunch Time

I have several things I am juggling at present, and probably will be for the entire week. Expect my participation on the blog to be sparse, at least for this week. Hopefully. I can get a fill-in while I'm away. Will let you know.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Grand Theft Auto and Harry Potter: Our Baby-Sitters

Having grown up with video games in the 70s and 80s and having been significantly involved in video games well into the 90s, I wasn't surprised by the recent news surrounding the sexual content in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The company that produced the game surely put the sexual material there on purpose (see, for example, here and here). The video game industry, like the music and movie industries, is largely corrupt. The games of the past weren't as bad as Grand Theft Auto, but I had been noticing trends toward more and more immoral content (and immoral advertising, trade show promotions, etc.) for years. I expect it to get worse.

Another problem is irresponsible parents, as this story in The Christian Science Monitor illustrates:

"Many of these parents and politicians still view games as toys for kids," says Della Rocca, "and if that's your model, and you're presented with such an adult game as 'GTA,' of course, you're going to freak out."

The sophistication and speed of developments in the video-game industry have made the task of choosing age-appropriate games extremely difficult for most parents, Della Rocca adds. "We're talking about technophobia at a fundamental level," he says, "fear of new technology and ignorance of what games really are."...

"Parents just don't understand," Mr. Olson says. "The message is that it's time to watch what these kids are buying and what they're playing."

Shouldn't parents have enough discernment to be doing that already? Apparently, many of them don't. Doesn't Grand Theft Auto already have enough unacceptable content to justify avoiding it, even without interactive sex segments?

A Gallup poll found that more than 70% of teenage boys have played Grand Theft Auto. I think this story carried by CBS earlier this year illustrates part of the problem. American families are busy. They're busy with soccer practice, piano lessons, gardening, watching television, working longer hours to get additional money they don't need, and doing other less important things while matters that are far more important are neglected. Parents need to stop being so materialistic and shortsighted. They need to stop letting Grand Theft Auto, Harry Potter, and the soccer coach baby-sit their children. They ought to start using their time and influence more wisely (Deuteronomy 6:7, Ephesians 6:4).

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/17/05)

"Even though fire destroy all traces of my flesh, the world receives the vaporized matter; and though dispersed through rivers and seas, or torn in pieces by wild beasts, I am laid up in the storehouses of a wealthy Lord. And, although the poor and the godless know not what is stored up, yet God the Sovereign, when He pleases, will restore the substance that is visible to Him alone to its pristine condition." (Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 6)

Christian Scholars on the Web

Here's a blog that links to Christian scholars' web sites, including blogs. The list is incomplete and unorganized, but I found some sites there that I hadn't known about previously.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (7/16/05)

"Let no day pass by without reading some portion of the Sacred Scriptures, at such convenient hour as offers, and giving some space to meditation. And never cast off the habit of reading in the Holy Scriptures; for nothing feeds the soul and enriches the mind so well as those sacred studies do. But look to this as the chief gain you are to make by them, that, in all due patience, ye may discharge the duties of your office religiously and piously - that is, in the love of Christ - and despise all transitory objects for the sake of His eternal promises, which in truth surpass all human comprehension and understanding, and shall conduct you into everlasting felicity." (Theonas of Alexandria, The Epistle of Theonas, Bishop of Alexandria, to Lucianus, the Chief Chamberlain, 9)

The Weight of the Bible and Its Historical Context

Lately I've been reading the writings of a man who has taken up some of the arguments of David Bercot to advocate a larger role for the ante-Nicene church fathers in interpreting scripture. I've also, recently and over the years, been seeing similar arguments coming from Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and other groups that are critical of mainstream Evangelicalism. Since many Evangelicals do have too little an appreciation of the historical context of scripture (patristic context and other contexts), the criticism has some general merit to it, but it's also sometimes taken too far. And some of the people issuing the criticism ought to take their own medicine.

Christianity is a historical religion. Sources outside of the Bible have relevance in defining the terminology of scripture, informing us of the societal context in which the books were written, etc. Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, or anybody else who believes that public revelation ceased with the death of the apostles has to appeal to ancient history in order to make an objective case for their belief system. If an Eastern Orthodox, Reformed Catholic, or Roman Catholic, for example, wants to appeal to the church to interpret scripture for him in some sense, he still has to argue for concepts such as the historicity of Jesus, His Messiahship, and the identity of the church before he can appeal to that church to assist him in understanding scripture. And when these people make a historical case for their system of authority, that case is often far more questionable than the Evangelical doctrines that they dismiss as allegedly so unclear in scripture. Nobody who has difficulty seeing justification through faith alone in Acts 15:7-11 or Galatians 3:2-9 should expect people to let his church interpret those passages for us on the basis of Matthew 16:18-19 or Luke 10:16. The alleged Biblical evidence for the Roman Catholic system of authority, for example, is far weaker than the Biblical evidence for Evangelical doctrines that Catholics often dismiss as unclear.

Catholics have often argued that doctrines such as the papacy and the Immaculate Conception can be derived from the Bible and other ancient documents in the same manner in which we would derive any other concept from any other historical document. However, it's become increasingly popular for Catholic apologists to argue that such doctrines can't be derived from these ancient documents using a grammatical-historical approach, but rather are derived from the church's authority in interpreting those documents. It's similar to Evangelicals' accepting Matthew's interpretation of Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:15), even though we couldn't justify that interpretation of Hosea 11 from the text and immediate context of Hosea itself. The question is whether Catholics have reasons for viewing their denomination's authority in a way similar to how Evangelicals view the authority of Matthew. And they don't. Often, the same Catholic who appeals to a speculative interpretation of scripture to support private confession to a priest or the Immaculate Conception, for example, will appeal to a comparably speculative interpretation of Matthew 16, Matthew 28, Luke 10, or some other passage in order to argue for the alleged authority of their denomination. All that they're doing is arguing for one speculative doctrine on the basis of another.

When somebody criticizes Evangelicalism with an appeal to some entity outside of scripture to give us an interpretation of the Bible different from what Evangelicals are arguing for, we should ask some questions. For example:

- Is the Biblical doctrine under discussion as unclear in the Bible as the person is alleging? For example, if there are hundreds of Biblical passages addressing a subject like the deity of Christ, prayer, or justification from a wide variety of angles, just how much lack of clarity actually exists? Could it be that the person claiming a lack of clarity just doesn't like what the Bible does say?

- Does the extra-Biblical source have the degree of relevance being suggested? I can understand appealing to Josephus to help us define first century Israel. I can't understand appealing to the Second Council of Nicaea to interpret the ante-Nicene fathers' view of the veneration of images for us. Similarly, Justin Martyr lived close to the time of the apostle John, but he didn't live close to the time of Moses or David. Justin might be using apostolic interpretations of Moses or David, but his closeness to the apostles can't be assumed to include closeness to all Biblical documents. The last book of the Bible was written in the first century, but some of the books were written far earlier.

- Is this person defining his terms the same way these extra-Biblical sources did? When we look at how people like Papias and Hippolytus defined "tradition", what logical connection does it have with the groups that so often cite such men to support their concept of tradition?

- Is the person appealing to extra-Biblical sources consistent? Does the same person who thinks that the writings of the apostle John are so unclear and need to be interpreted for us by later sources then go on to cite the writings of men like Clement of Rome and Ignatius as if they're far more clear and in far less need of interpretive sources, even though men like Clement and Ignatius wrote close to the time when John wrote? Does the same person who cites Papias' reliance on oral tradition to argue against sola scriptura then proceed to reject Papias' oral tradition when he's told about its content, such as its premillennialism? Does the same person who wants men like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus to tell us how we should view the relation between justification and baptism also want those same men to tell us how to view eschatology, the existence of Purgatory, and other concepts? Does somebody who cites church fathers to argue for a presence of Christ in the eucharist have as much interest in the fathers when they write treatises on the subject of prayer and say nothing of praying to the dead or angels, sometimes even condemning the practice?

- Are all of the relevant sources being taken into account? Advocates of the perpetual virginity of Mary will often appeal to the popularity of the doctrine among the later church fathers, but the earliest patristic evidence is against the doctrine, and the church fathers aren't the only extra-Biblical sources to be taken into consideration. We often see Jerome cited for his comments condemning anybody who would deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. But Basil of Caesarea commented that the view that Mary had other children after Jesus "was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy" (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 495). We don't have to possess the writings of these people Basil was referring to in order to know that they existed.

- Is this person consistent with his own system? For example, does somebody who argues that a doctrine must be true because it was popular among professing Christians in the past apply that same reasoning to the modern popularity of doctrines? Would this person be willing to change his views to align with what a majority of professing Christians in the world today believe about an issue? Or when a Roman Catholic argues that a Catholic doctrine can be absent or widely contradicted among the church fathers for hundreds of years, yet still be an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, is he being consistent with what his denomination has taught in the past?

- Are the priorities of this person reasonable? For example, does he tell you that whether Christ is physically present in the eucharist is a highly important issue, whereas he dismisses as far less significant issues that logically seem to be more important? If a church father makes one brief comment on Christ's presence in the eucharist, whereas he comments at much more length about eschatology and its implications for how we interpret scripture, how we live the Christian life, etc., is it reasonable for somebody to act as if those comments on the eucharist are of high importance while giving little or no attention to that same father's comments on other subjects?

No reasonable person ought to deny that extra-Biblical sources carry some weight in how we interpret scripture. But while Evangelicals sometimes don't give extra-Biblical sources the weight they deserve, I think many of the people who make that point aren't as interested in correcting that Evangelical error as they are in furthering their own errors. Giving the Bible too little weight and giving your preferred extra-Biblical sources too much weight are problematic as well.

Friday, July 15, 2005

A Second Response to Enloe

Here is Tim McGrew's response to Tim Enloe's most recent blog entry:


Thanks for the response to my critique of your summary of Clapp. I'm happy to interact a bit with you on the subject, but I'll say up front that I'm reluctant to get into "open-ended" online discussions because they can get really time consuming and I have some extra responsibilities looming as the fall semester approaches. I hope you'll understand that if I fall silent, it isn't necessarily because I have nothing more to say. And I will extend the same understanding to you.

Before we begin: I understand that there's some bad blood between you and Eric Svendsen. I've never met either of you, I had never seen either of your blogs before this month, and I'm not party to all that. I propose that we leave that issue aside. One effect of this proposal is that I will decline to get involved in (from what little I've seen, not always edifying) arguments over whether Svendsen is or isn't methodologically "simplistic" – I simply haven't read the relevant debates between "your people" and "his people," and any opinions I might form if I did read them would in my judgment be independent of the philosophical topics that drew me into this discussion into the first place.

Now onward to the substantive issues!

You write:

First, in taking issue with the second half of my definition of "foundationalism", Dr. McGrew writes "The foundations do not, for any foundationalist I’m aware of, 'constitute' the definition of rationality." One suspects that since Dr. McGrew placed "constitute" in quotation marks, he has another definitional complaint on the order of "Enloe doesn't define terms the way Ph.Ds do in academic journals." That is well and good, and it is surely correct, but beyond that I will admit that I collapsed a distinction between "the position proper" and "the behavior of some advocates of the position."
This is a fair admission on your part. I have just two comments. First, since Clapp aims to tell us what foundationalism is, he presumably means to tell us what its supporters hold. Now foundationalism is a technical position in epistemology; for better or worse, it is mostly professional epistemologists and aspiring epistemologists who self-consciously endorse that position. So we can't appeal to "man-on-the-street" surveys to find out what it means.

Second, it's a tricky business to pick up on the behavior B of some advocates of X and to move from that to a critique of X. This is particularly true when position X is a technical position and B is a practical methodology.

Here you turn to a critique of Svendsen, and I'm not going to follow. There's nothing necessarily wrong with speaking in stark absolutes about methods; it all depends on what the methods are. I don't see how one could hope to make any progress at this point without getting down to details.

As far as the definition of "truth," would it perhaps be more productive for you to say, "I'm interested in exploring something that doesn't quite fit the propositional definition of 'truth' but has some analogies to it"? That way we can avoid reifying our concepts as if they were presents under the tree and we were kids arguing over what's under the wrapping paper. It seems plausible to me that you're just looking at a different (and perhaps interesting) concept. Of course, it's a difficult task to clarify the notion you've got in mind and to investigate just what the relationship might be between that concept and the propositional concept. But surely two people could have a vigorous discussion over that set of problems without denying that there is such a thing as propositional truth.

I'm very familiar with Reformed Epistemology and with the works of Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Clark. You're right that these folks are issuing a challenge to old-fashioned evidentialism in the theory of knowledge (as well as to evidentialism in apologetics, which is a slightly different thing). But I was making a point about the way that self-described foundationalists think of the relationship between the grounding of high-level beliefs in foundations, on the one hand, and rational belief, on the other. I certainly was not trying to answer the critiques of the REs. In fact, one way of looking at their position is that they're foundationalists for whom belief in God is, as Plantinga likes to say, "properly basic" – it is foundational and therefore rational. Questions of foundationalist structure aren't really the issue in this set of debates.

You're right to point out that there is a major ongoing argument regarding the Lockean position that rational belief requires proportioning one's beliefs to the evidence. Plantinga has issued by far the best, most sophisticated version of the challenge in his Warrant trilogy. I find myself completely unmoved by his arguments, but they are the product of a powerful and well-informed mind and certainly deserve an answer from the evidentialists. I've taken a first step by critiquing Plantinga's attack (WCB, 268-80) on the historical argument for Christianity. If you're interested, you can check it out here. Think of it as a first shot across the bow of the RE ship. I'm told that Plantinga has written a reply, though I haven't seen it yet.

On the historical sketch, you indicate that you weren't trying to write a full history and that you weren't trying to pin it all on Descartes. Not a problem. I appreciate your clarification of the disputes you had in mind, though I think your mention of Galileo and Newton was somewhat misleading in that case. Popkin's History of Skepticism is one of my favorite books. I haven't read Rex, but I can warmly recommend Henry van Leeuwen's monograph The Problem of Certainty in English Thought, which makes a persuasive case for the claim that the rise of probabilism in theology was a direct response to Counter-Reformation Pyrrhonist apologetics.

Again, I'm going to set aside the matter of whether Svendsen and White are "Cartesian" in their hermeneutics – by which I suppose you mean something like "suffering from a form of tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing any possible merit in the views of those who disagree with their interpretations." But one reason Clapp's presentation sent up red flags is that he seemed prepared to apply the term "foundationalism" – in the sense of an intellectual tunnel vision leading to paranoia – to any confident methodological claims. Such claims, even overconfident ones, needn't be foundationalist, and confidence needn't be misplaced. We'd have to turn to specific issues and arguments here rather than trying to play verbal tag. Clapp's use of the term "foundationalism" is a red herring.

You ask:
I wonder what Dr. McGrew would think if I was to tell him that his "well trained" friend Svendsen once claimed that his exegetical prowess enables him to divorce his mind from all preconceived biases when he sits down to do exegesis, so that what he does in his exegesis is just get directly at divine truth itself. Is that a respectable epistemological position for a man to take, Dr. McGrew?
Once again, I am not interested in stepping into your argument with Eric Svendsen, so I will leave the personal element out of it. It seems to me that the answer to your question depends a great deal on what it means to be unbiased. Can I, by dint of hard scholarship, bring it about that I have been born at no particular time, been raised in no particular environment, been exposed to no particular books or learning? Of course not – to ask that question is to answer it. But it does not follow that proper training cannot enable one to determine what a particular text means and to put forth the case for that meaning in such a fashion that any other reasonable person who takes the time to become fully informed should agree.

I'm not saying that all hermeneutical problems are easy. Some are clearly difficult, and in those cases it might turn out that the best thing to do is to suspend judgment pending further information. But many interpretive questions do, I think, yield to careful and deeply informed scholarship. Some of the work of Bishop Lightfoot from the last century comes to mind here.

Turning to postmodernism, I should make an immediate and full disclosure and tell you that I'm an impenitent critic of all forms of it that I've encountered. When I was at Vanderbilt in the early 90's, the department was split between "analytics" and "continentals," so I saw a lot of postmodernism up close and spent many hours reading it and discussing it with my professors and peers. Just to make sure that you are under no illusions about the sort of "extremist" I am on these issues, I'll admit that my chief complaint about D. A. Carson's treatment of the topic in The Gagging of God is that he concedes too much to the postmodernists.

You have been warned!

I make no apology for treating Clapp's attempted connection between epistemological foundationalism and state absolutism as a blunder. Hand-waving "connections" like this abound in the postmodern literature (Milbank is an egregious example), and they often amount to nothing more than loose verbal connections bordering on puns. The antidote to much of this stuff is to try to lay out the argument in a step-by-step way. One runs into problems immediately. Just how is Clapp's argument supposed to go? Let's try this:

1. Foundationalists believe there is something secure that they can rely on epistemically and that if there were not, reasonable belief would be impossible.

2. State absolutists believe there is something secure that they can rely on politically and that if there were not, political stability would be impossible.

Therefore ... um ...

Therefore nothing. This weak isomorphism doesn't take us anywhere and doesn't indicate that the two positions are linked in any interesting way.

Perhaps it is unfair to attribute even an attempt at argument to Clapp. But that does leave us without an answer to a very reasonable question – why on Earth is he dragging this issue into a discussion of foundationalism, or foundationalism into a discussion of politics? This isn't a responsible way to do historical or cultural analysis. When one compares this sort of hand waving to the detailed and informed analysis in Popkin's book, which we both admire, the difference is striking.

As I've said in comments on some other blogs, I understood from the outset that you were summarizing Clapp's paper. I think this puts more of the blame on Clapp. I think your summary of his article displays a combination of energy and interest worthy of a better object.