Monday, October 31, 2005

Reformation Day

"The Reformation went back to first principles in order to go forward. It struck its roots deep in the past and bore rich fruits for the future. It sprang forth almost simultaneously from different parts of Europe and was enthusiastically hailed by the leading minds of the age in church and state. No great movement in history - except Christianity itself - was so widely and thoroughly prepared as the Protestant Reformation. The reformatory Councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basel; the conflict of the Emperors with the Popes; the contemplative piety of the mystics with their thirst after direct communion with God; the revival of classical literature; the general intellectual awakening; the biblical studies of Reuchlin, and Erasmus; the rising spirit of national independence; Wiclif, and the Lollards in England; Hus, and the Hussites in Bohemia; John von Goch, John von Wesel, and Johann Wessel in Germany and the Netherlands; Savonarola in Italy; the Brethren of the Common Life, the Waldenses, the Friends of God, - contributed their share towards the great change and paved the way for a new era of Christianity. The innermost life of the church was pressing forward to a new era. There is scarcely a principle or doctrine of the Reformation which was not anticipated and advocated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Luther made the remark that his opponents might charge him with having borrowed everything from John Wessel if he had known his writings earlier. The fuel was abundant all over Europe, but it required the spark which would set it ablaze. Violent passions, political intrigues, the ambition and avarice of princes, and all sorts of selfish and worldly motives were mixed up with the war against the papacy. But they were at work likewise in the introduction of Christianity among the heathen barbarians. 'Wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel close by.' Human nature is terribly corrupt and leaves its stains on the noblest movements in history. But, after all, the religious leaders of the Reformation, while not free from faults, were men of the purest motives and highest aims, and there is no nation which has not been benefited by the change they introduced....The Reformation was a grand act of emancipation from spiritual tyranny, and a vindication of the sacred rights of conscience in matters of religious belief. Luther's bold stand at the Diet of Worms, in the face of the pope and the emperor, is one of the sublimest events in the history of liberty, and the eloquence of his testimony rings through the centuries. To break the force of the pope, who called himself and was believed to be, the visible vicar of God on earth, and who held in his hands the keys of the kingdom of heaven, required more moral courage than to fight a hundred battles, and it was done by an humble monk in the might of faith. If liberty, both civil and religious, has since made progress, it is due in large measure to the inspiration of that heroic act. But the progress was slow and passed through many obstructions and reactions. 'The mills of God grind slowly, but wonderfully fine.'" (Philip Schaff, The Master Christian Library [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7, pp. 20-21, 48)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (10/30/05)

"As the fabric of the world totters, let us quickly transfer our treasure to a world which will know no shock." (Augustine, cited in I.D.E. Thomas, The Golden Treasury of Patristic Quotations [Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Hearthstone Publishing, 1996], p. 238)

Moments of Honesty Among Advocates of Homosexuality

The Ledger in Florida recently ran an article about a symposium on homosexuality at Florida Southern College. The article quotes scholars arguing against the traditional Christian view of homosexuality, without giving much of the other side. But one of the quotes from one the scholars was unusually revealing:

"With respect to homosexuality, Crenshaw said it is forbidden in the book of Leviticus, along with bestiality and cross-dressing. However, he said the biblical prohibitions should not necessarily be taken as final. 'We must reject at the outset any notion of the supreme authority of scripture. . . . Even those who take most literal interpretation of biblical texts, who claim to believe everything literally, nevertheless sit in judgment on their meaning at every juncture because readers determine meaning,' he said. As a result, Crenshaw said, 'those who practice alternative sexual lifestyles' should not be condemned. 'Is God more interested in our sex lives than in our integrity, our good deeds and our chaste thoughts?' he said."

The fact that one thing is more important than another wouldn't prove that the less important matter is to be ignored. Would bestiality, polygamy, and incest, for example, be included among the "alternative sexual lifestyles" that aren't to be condemned? Crenshaw's argument doesn't make sense.

But what I'm primarily concerned about here is his admission that "We must reject at the outset any notion of the supreme authority of scripture". More advocates of homosexuality should be so honest about their view of the Bible.

The thrust of The Ledger's article, though, leans in the direction of trying to reconcile homosexuality with scripture. For a refutation of that sort of argumentation, see here.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (10/29/05)

John Chrysostom on the public reading of scripture:

"while God is commanding us not only to hear, but also to do what He saith, we do not submit so much as to hearken. When then, I pray thee, are we to do what is commanded, and to put our hand to the works, if we do not endure so much as to hear the words that relate to them, but are impatient and restless about the time we stay here, although it be exceedingly short? And besides, when we are talking of indifferent matters, if we see those that are in company do not attend, we call what they do an insult; but do we consider that we are provoking God, if, while He is discoursing of such things as these, we despise what is said, and look another way?…For if in a theatre, when a great silence hath been made, then the letters of the king are read, much more in this city must all be composed, and stand with soul and ear erect. For it is not the letters of any earthly master, but of the Lord of angels, which are on the point of being read." (Homilies on Matthew, 1:15-17)

That Passage in 1 John Where Jesus Tells Funny Stories About Sheep

The Journal Gazette in Indiana has run another article promoting the Jesus Seminar. This time we learn that Jesus "tells funny stories about sheep", that 1 John is part of John's gospel, and that it's logically contradictory for a book to be both God's word and historically accurate. The author, Emma Downs, tells us that:

"To many people, the Jesus Christ portrayed in the Bible seems filled with contradictions."

This is especially true of people who have never read the parts of the Bible they're criticizing. It's also true of scholars who hate what the Bible teaches and are looking for reasons to criticize it, even when they have to involve themselves in a lot of bad reasoning in order to get to their desired conclusion.

Friday, October 28, 2005


Below are some of the comments of D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo on the subject of pseudonymity, from An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005). These comments are especially relevant at a time when so many scholars are suggesting that something like half or more of the New Testament is falsely attributed:

"Whatever the reason, pseudepigraphic letters among the Jews are extremely rare....Referring both to Christian and non-Christian sources, Donelson goes so far as to say, 'No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example.'...[quoting Philip Carrington] 'There seems to be no evidence at all that such missives [viz. letters] were freely composed in the names of contemporary persons who had recently died.' far as the evidence of the Fathers goes, when they explicitly evaluated a work for its authenticity, canonicity and pseudonymity proved mutually exclusive....The onus is on those who uphold the idea that the writing of pseudonymous letters was an accepted practice among the early Christians to produce some evidence for their view. On the contrary, the evidence we have is that every time such a writing could be identified with any certainty, it was rejected. Inevitably, this means that many scholars seek to establish the pseudepigraphical character of a particular document on purely internal grounds...More than half of the New Testament consists of books that do not bear the names of their authors...The onus is on the upholders of theories of pseudonymous authorship to explain why this strong tradition of [internal] anonymity was discarded in favor, not of authors attaching their own names to what they wrote (as Paul did), but of other people's names....If the 'school' mode of transmission [whereby a school of a teacher's followers composed documents in his name] was so ubiquitous and easily understood, why did none of the church fathers who addressed questions of authenticity view it as an appropriate model for their grasp of the New Testament documents?" (pp. 341-342, n. 39 on p. 342, pp. 343-344, 346, 350)

I also recommend Glenn Miller's treatment of this subject.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Carson and Moo on New Perspectivism

Here are some of the comments of D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, from their recently released An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), on the subject of New Perspectivism:

"There were, in fact, many different Roman Catholic perspectives [on justification], as there were many different nuances in the Reformers' viewpoints - especially when we consider the so-called Radical Reformation....the general Reformation tendency to view the first-century Judaism which Jesus criticized and with which Paul interacted as legalistic became deeply embedded in New Testament scholarship of all varieties - including much traditional Roman Catholic scholarship....But in 1977 a book was published that was destined to change the landscape dramatically. E.P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism marks a watershed in interpretations of Judaism as a backdrop for Paul's theology. What Sanders argued (at least in the main) was not new, but the time was apparently ripe for a sea change in the way New Testament scholars viewed first-century Judaism....Essentially, Sanders claims that the traditional view of first-century Judaism as a legalistic religion is wrong....As Sanders put it, Jews did not do the law to 'get in' [the covenant] (which would be legalism) but to 'stay in' ('nomism')....Among other points, Sanders argued that Paul rejected covenantal nomism because of his 'exclusivist soteriology': since salvation was, by definition, to be found in Christ alone, the law and its underlying covenant could not be a means of salvation. Most scholars, even those who agreed with Sanders' portrayal of first-century Judaism, were not satisfied with this response....[James D.G.] Dunn was the first to use the language of 'new perspective' to describe the impact of Sanders' view of Judaism on Pauline studies...Essentially, Dunn claims that what Paul opposes is the tendency of the Jews to confine salvation to their own nation. It is ethnic exclusivism, not personal legalism, that Paul finds wrong with Judaism....[According to Dunn] The phrase 'works of the law' [in passages like Romans 3:20] cannot be reduced to the simple 'works,' as the Reformers did. The 'law' in the phrase is the Jewish Torah; and what Paul signifies by the phrase is Torah-faithfulness - and Torah-faithfulness understood as a means of setting Jews off from all other people....The Jewish claim Paul opposes in Romans 3:20 and other such verses is not, then, that a person can be justified by what he or she does ('works'), but the typically Jewish claim that a person is justified by maintenance of covenant status through adherence to Torah....Of course, scholars who might generally be categorized as favoring the 'new perspective' differ considerably on their interpretations of specific texts and theological issues....As we have seen, covenantal nomism and the reinterpretation of Paul's theology that ensued have quickly become the dominant force in academic studies - so much so that observers speak of a 'paradigm shift' in Pauline interpretation. Nevertheless, ever since the publication of Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism, isolated voices have been raised in protest against one or more elements of the new paradigm. And in recent years, these voices have swelled to a chorus. As Charles H. Talbert put it, 'As many Pauline scholars celebrate the paradigm shift associated with Sanders' work, another shift of equal import seems to be occurring.'...There is no doubt but that traditional interpretations of Paul have focused on questions of anthropology at the expense of salvation-history. Nevertheless, Sanders' interpretation of Judaism and the 'new perspective' is an over-reaction in the other direction....Recent study is revealing the complexities of Second Temple Judaism and the divergent theological viewpoints and perspectives found in the material. Sanders himself admitted that the late-first-century Jewish apocalyptic book 4 Ezra did not fit the covenantal nomism paradigm; and it is likely that the book offers a viewpoint that existed in the time of Paul....the two strands of soteriological teaching - salvation by election and salvation by 'recompense' - run side by side in rabbinic literature as two alternative schemes. And other scholars have argued that several Jewish writings from the New Testament period lack the undergirding covenantal structure that Sanders claims to be omnipresent....the New Testament [suggests the same]...[as the disputes between the Qumran covenanters and the Pharisees show] for many Jewish groups in Paul's day, national election had been replaced by a form of individual election. And one's elect status was determined on the basis of adherence to the Torah as interpreted and practiced by the particular community. For such groups, 'getting in' is not simply a matter of God's grace revealed in the covenant. More is involved, and at least some of that 'more' appears to involve human works....first-century Judaism was synergistic...In practice, then, Jews were saved through both grace and works. And it is just this synergism that Paul seems to be attacking in a number of passages. As one of the conclusions in the most comprehensive review of covenantal nomism to date has it, 'The category of covenantal nomism cannot itself accomplish what Sanders wants it to accomplish, viz. serve as an explanatory bulwark against all suggestions that some of this literature embraces works-righteousness and merit theology, precisely because covenantal nomism embraces the same phenomena.'...Rather than taking 'works' in passages such as Romans 4, 9, and 11 to be an abbreviation for 'works of the law,' we should rather see 'works of the law' as a subset of the more general 'works.'...Ultimately, therefore, while the Reformers may have missed some of the salvation-historical nuances and implications of Paul's argument, they were right to discern in Paul a key antithesis between human doing and human believing as the means of accessing God's salvation....To be justified is primarily to be put in right relationship with God. The consequence of that justifying action is, of course, that the person enters into the people of God. But to make the latter primary is to miss the emphasis in Paul's own writings on the primacy of the question of the sinful human being faced with a wrathful God. Luther's own experience led him to find in this issue the heart of Paul's gospel. And he was right to do so. Luther, of course, also made justification by faith the center of Pauline and New Testament theology. Here we may not agree with him; while justification by faith is a critical doctrine for Paul, guarding the grace and power of the gospel from any kind of legalistic or syncretistic modification, it probably cannot be elevated to the status of the central New Testament or even Pauline doctrine. But he was right to single out the doctrine as a critical one for Paul; and recent scholarship has tended to emphasize that, contrary to advocates of the new perspective, justification by faith was an important component of Paul's gospel from the beginning." (pp. 375-385)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Emotionalism, Misrepresentation, and False Arguments: The Case for Homosexual Marriage

Jeninne Lee-St. John wrote an editorial on homosexual marriage posted at Time's web site yesterday. She said:

"The anti-miscegenation laws that were enacted in much of the South were rooted in interpretations of the Bible. Interracial intimacy was seen as unnatural. Blacks were put forth as filthy sub-humans who wanted to muddy white bloodlines and thus destroy the goodness of the white race. Race mixing was akin to bestiality. Sound familiar? 'Defenders' of marriage, from Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to Justice Antonin Scalia to Pope Benedict, have tossed out arguments just like these in their quest to keep same-sex couples from the altar....Anti-integrationists were plain wrong then; black people had no master plan to destroy the institution of the white family. Who's to say the forces against gay marriage won't be proven Chicken Littles as well?"

I must have missed all of the examples of Santorum, Scalia, and Ratzinger using arguments along the lines of portraying homosexuals as "filthy sub-humans". I live in Pennsylvania, and I've followed Santorum's campaigns for the Senate to some extent. You would think that his opponents would have quoted him making these comments, if he'd ever made them. You'd also think that Ratzinger's comments, for example, would have been in the news earlier this year, when he was chosen as Pope. Lee-St. John ought to give some examples.

And which opponents of homosexual marriage have been arguing for a "master plan" to "destroy" heterosexual marriage? Some opponents of homosexual marriage may carelessly make such comments occasionally, but I don't think it's something that can be considered a popular argument. You don't have to believe in a "master plan" in order to think that a group of people is attempting to do something that's wrong.

As is so common with proponents of homosexual marriage, Lee-St. John doesn't address the Biblical evidence against the practice (which would have to include an addressing of the evidence for the Divine inspiration of the Bible), but instead makes dismissive comments like:

"But let's set aside the moral question of gayness."

No, let's not. And let's also not set aside the larger implications of arguments like those of Lee-St. John, such as the applicability of her arguments to polygamous marriage, incestuous marriage, and marriage to animals, for example. Let's also consider the implications of disregarding the revealed will of God on this issue, for which we have a large amount of verifiable evidence.

Worldview and Population

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Limited Religious Pluralism is Not Secularism

Stories like this one seem to be appearing more and more often. Keep in mind that many of the people involved in these cases, whether lawyers, judges, law professors, or other individuals, are highly educated and experienced. You have to ask, then, why it is that they repeatedly put forward such poor arguments and are so inconsistent.

Religious pluralism is not secularism. To equate the two is fallacious. If mentioning "God" in a prayer is consistent with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other monotheistic religions, and it can in some prayers be considered consistent with polytheism, for example, the fact remains that it can be or is (depending on the form it takes from one prayer to another) inconsistent with other religions and the belief systems of atheists and agnostics. What a lot of these people are arguing for is a limited religious pluralism, a religious pluralism that includes a large variety of religions, but not all religions or belief systems. To acknowledge any god or God is to promote a religious concept and denounce any opposing belief system. Again, religious pluralism is not equivalent to secularism. Surely these judges, lawyers, and other individuals involved in these cases understand these things. They ought to acknowledge that what they want is a limited religious pluralism, not secularism, neutrality, or any other such thing.

But maybe what some of these people actually want is something more secular. I think it was Barry Lynn who I heard, on CNN's "Crossfire" several years ago, say that he would like to see "In God We Trust" removed from all currency. People who have that sort of objective ought to say so rather than acting as if a limited religious pluralism is their objective. If it's just a stepping stone along the way, leading to an objective more like Barry Lynn's, then they ought to say so and act accordingly. They're opposed to any acknowledgment of God, and they think that the American founders were wrong in their intentions in framing the First Amendment.

Finding the "Historical" Jesus in Your Mirror

When you start reading this article, you almost think that it was written by a member of the Jesus Seminar. Then you get to the end of the article and find out that it was written by an associate member of the Jesus Seminar. The author tells us about "how the teachings of Jesus were changed into a religion about Jesus". And:

"The seminar’s scholars have published scores of works on what has come to be called the 'historical' Jesus. Their completely new translation of the New Testament gospels into contemporary American English needed to pass no doctrinal litmus tests. The voice of this more authentic Jesus who has been 'resurrected' along the way is fresher and more vivid. His focus is on the 'here and now' issues of life, on compassion and concern for the outcasts and helpless in society, not on sin, hell fire and damnation."

At least he put "historical" in quotes. This "historical" Jesus must have been misunderstood almost as soon as his words left his lips. The earliest material in the New Testament is focused on the person of Jesus and His atoning death, an atonement for sin to deliver people from condemnation, resulting in a resurrection that goes beyond the here and now (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Monday, October 24, 2005

Mary and the Ark of the Covenant

Because of the lack of evidence for the Roman Catholic view of Mary, Catholics often appeal to unverifiable typology in order to argue for a Marian doctrine such as the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary. Supposedly, Mary is the ark in Psalm 132:8, which means that the passage is referring to a bodily assumption of Mary. In Luke 1, Mary is like the ark, which means that she, like the ark, is pure, thus leading to the conclusion that she was immaculately conceived. Etc.

In response to such argumentation, Evangelicals often cite examples of the church fathers identifying some entity other than Mary as the ark. As a recent thread on the NTRM boards illustrates, Catholics often misunderstand this argument.

A citation of a church father identifying the ark as an entity other than Mary doesn't prove that the church father in question couldn't possibly have thought that Mary was the ark. It's possible that he saw multiple entities filling that role, and that Mary was one of the fulfillments. That's possible, but how likely is it?

The earliest patristic sources who see the ark of the covenant as a type 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. 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?

Similarly, when Irenaeus, Tertullian, and other early fathers repeatedly comment on the subject of people who have been bodily assumed to Heaven, and they repeatedly cite Enoch, Elijah, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2), without ever citing Mary, then we have reason to think that they probably had no concept of Mary being bodily assumed. It's possible that they believed in the doctrine without mentioning it, but how likely is it that one father after another, century after century, would discuss the subject of bodily assumptions without any of them using Mary as an example? Catholics tell us that Mary is God's greatest creation, above all men and angels, so it wouldn't make sense to argue that these fathers kept overlooking Mary because she's such an obscure figure.

On the subject of Mary as the ark in Luke 1, a group of some of the leading Catholic and Lutheran scholars in the world concluded:

"However, in our judgment there is no convincing evidence that Luke specifically identified Mary with the symbolism of the Daughter of Zion or the Ark of the Covenant." (Raymond Brown, et al., editors, Mary in the New Testament [Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978] p. 134)

Is Jesus the Word of God who was carried in Mary's womb, and did the ark of the covenant carry the word of God? Yes, but Jesus is the Word in a different sense, and Mary isn't the only entity or person who carried Jesus in some way. Why wouldn't the cross that carried Jesus, the tomb that carried Him, or Joseph of Arimathea and the other people who carried Him from the cross to the tomb be the New Testament parallel to the ark of the covenant? Why should we think that there is any New Testament parallel? If there is a parallel, nothing in scripture leads us to the conclusion that it's Mary, the earliest church fathers to write on the subject named an entity other than Mary, and Mary's being the ark wouldn't logically lead to the Roman Catholic view of Mary anyway.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (10/23/05)

"But should Marcion's gospel succeed in filling the whole world, it would not even in that case be entitled to the character of apostolic. For this quality, it will be evident, can only belong to that gospel which was the first to fill the world" (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5:19)

Jonathan Prejean, Tertullian, and Roman Catholicism

In a recent blog entry, less than a day after discussing scripture with a Protestant (Paul Manata) on Steve Hays' blog, Jonathan Prejean wrote:

"The moral of the story for Catholics: it is pointless to dispute the Scriptures with those who don't even claim apostolic succession, including most prominently Protestants. To concede their authority to interpret Scripture is to yield more than they deserve."

Those familiar with Prejean's past behavior will know that this sort of inconsistency isn't new for him. He frequently claims to be finished interacting with Protestants, only to go on to interact further with them, sometimes later that same day. How many times now has Prejean "retired", only to come out of retirement, then retire again?

He also changes his mind a lot on other issues. On October 6, Prejean dismissed as "fundie hicks" all people who subscribe to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In recent days, Biblical inerrancy has been the latest Heresy of the Month for which Prejean has been criticizing Protestants, with his usual references to how this latest Protestant heresy allegedly undermines the foundations of Christianity. Prejean advises people to not even have discussions with those who hold the Chicago view of inerrancy. He then goes on to appeal to the guidance of recent Popes on such issues. Some of Prejean's fellow Catholics hold a view of inerrancy similar to what Prejean is denouncing, and many Catholics, including Catholic leaders, carry on discussions with Protestants who hold a view of inerrancy like what Prejean is condemning. But, as Prejean tells us elsewhere, these Catholic leaders probably don't understand the issues as well as he does:

"As in the case of Nestorianism (with which is bears a disturbing resemblance if not identity), there are large numbers of Catholics and Orthodox Christians who do not seem to perceive that what conservative Evangelicals teach is a negation of the apostolic kerygma....Quite honestly, I’m not even sure if they [Popes and other Catholic and Orthodox leaders] are aware of the problem."

On October 11, just a few days after his October 6 blog entry quoted earlier, Prejean had changed his mind:

"On further reflection, I have another clarification on my preceding post, 'Fundie Hicks.' I suppose that technically, it isn't the affirmation of the Chicago Statement, but the affirmation of the Chicago Statement as a necessary condition of Scriptural truth that defines the fundamentalist mindset."

This past August, in a discussion on Greg Krehbiel's board, Prejean said the following about what position he'd take on the historicity of the Bible:

"I'm indifferent as between the two [an Evangelical view of Biblical inerrancy and Raymond Brown's view] as a theological principle, actually, although I think it more likely than not that there is historical truth in the Bible."

Clear as mud? It should be, since Prejean apparently doesn't want people to know what position he holds on some of these issues, and he frequently uses vague or incoherent language. He's repeatedly refused to make a case for Roman Catholicism. He frequently changes his arguments in the middle of a discussion. At one point, he'll say that the infallibility of the church is "axiomatic" for him, and he'll acknowledge that he doesn't have an argument for Catholicism, yet at another point he'll criticize Evangelicals for allegedly being fideistic and not supporting their beliefs with evidence. He'll demand that his opponent document scholars agreeing with his views while, in that same post, Prejean will himself make many claims without any attempt to document any support from scholarship. He tells us that we should interpret scripture allegorically because Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria did so, yet he acknowledges that he doesn't agree with all of the allegorical interpretations of those men, and when asked he doesn't give us any verifiable standard by which to determine how to arrive at the correct allegorical interpretation.

Anybody who has read Prejean's exchanges with Steve Hays and me this past summer, which led to Prejean's "retirement", will have seen many examples of Prejean's irrationality, inconsistency, and short temper. In a reply to me last month, in a post he titled "Lowering the boom on Boy Engwer", Prejean wrote (see my response here):

"You dishonest, conniving lowlives don't deserve any more of my time, and I refuse to give it to you."

Of course, this resolution to no longer respond to me came after Prejean had repeatedly broken prior resolutions. We'll see how long his latest resolution, posted just yesterday, lasts. Even when he doesn't respond directly to Protestants, he still looks for opportunities to respond to them indirectly by working in references to them in his blog entries or in posts in other forums. Prejean often comments on how little he's concerned about Protestants and how disreputable they are, yet he so often writes about them. Judging from the comments he continues to make in various forums, it seems that Prejean reads blogs like this one and Steve Hays' just about every day.

What Prejean's blog entry yesterday consists of is a quotation from Tertullian, followed by Prejean's comments quoted at the beginning of this post. Much of what Roman Catholicism teaches is absent in or contradicted by Tertullian, and I've repeatedly given Prejean examples of Tertullian and other church fathers contradicting his view of apostolic succession. In his discussion with me on Greg Krehbiel's board this past summer, Prejean argued that the church fathers always agreed with his view of apostolic succession. Then, when I gave some examples of the earliest fathers not agreeing with Prejean's view, he changed his argument to the claim that there was agreement among the fathers after Nicaea. And, no, he didn't document that claim either. Of course, these fathers, including the ones after Nicaea, made their comments in historical contexts significantly different from ours and with qualifiers that we never hear from the likes of Jonathan Prejean.

Was Tertullian a Roman Catholic? No. Did he define the terminology he has in common with Jonathan Prejean the same way that Jonathan Prejean does? No. Does Prejean add the same qualifiers that Tertullian added? No. Is our context radically different from Tertullian's context, writing about 100 years after the apostle John had died? Yes, it is.

This past August, I wrote a response to Prejean in which I gave examples of Tertullian contradicting him, including in the treatise of Tertullian that Prejean is now quoting. In other words, when Tertullian makes references to the church, tradition, the rule of faith, etc., he's not only defining his terms differently than Prejean, but even in a way that contradicts what Prejean believes.

Jonathan Prejean's denomination claims to be the one true church founded by Jesus and the apostles, and it claims to have maintained all apostolic traditions in unbroken succession throughout church history. Thus, under the Catholic view of church history, the church Tertullian refers to is supposed to be the Roman Catholic Church. I, on the other hand, don't suggest that Tertullian had been a member of my denomination. My view is that the church fathers held a large variety of doctrines and rules of faith, sometimes even being inconsistent with themselves. However, there is much in Tertullian that I agree with, and when we take more of his comments into account, we see that Prejean's quote is misleading.

What he quoted was chapters 15-19 in Tertullian's The Prescription Against Heretics. As you read through this treatise, if you have the claims of Catholicism in mind, one thing that should quickly come to your attention is that Tertullian doesn't argue as a modern Roman Catholic would. The editors of the Roberts and Donaldson translation of this treatise rightly ask why Tertullian doesn't say "Rome is the touchstone of dogma, and to its bishop we refer you." The church of Rome is mentioned in chapter 36, along with other churches, but the bishop of Rome isn't singled out, much less is he referred to as the foundation of orthodoxy, and the reasons mentioned for the Roman church's importance are non-papal. Modern Catholic apologists, like Jonathan Prejean, will dismiss this fact with a reference to development of doctrine or some other excuse, but it is significant that Tertullian says nothing of the foundational doctrine of Roman Catholicism.

And Tertullian contradicts some of the teachings of Catholicism in this treatise, such as the sinlessness of Mary. "For to the Son of God alone was it reserved to persevere to the last without sin." (3) Elsewhere, Tertullian describes some of the sins he thinks Mary committed (On the Flesh of Christ, 7).

Prejean quotes Tertullian referring to the rule of faith of the churches, but he doesn't quote Tertullian defining that rule of faith for us. Here, below, is Tertullian's definition. Notice the absence of the papacy, the veneration of images, prayers to the dead, the Assumption of Mary, etc.:

"Now, with regard to this rule of faith - that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend - it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen 'in diverse manners' by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; then having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics." (13)

There's nothing in Tertullian's description that Evangelicals reject. And he goes on to explain that the heretics he's writing against not only contradict such doctrines, but also accuse the apostles of teaching error (23). Evangelicals are not comparable to these heretics. To the contrary, since Evangelicals agree with this rule of faith Tertullian puts forward, Tertullian's assessment can be applied to them: "For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions." (19)

Tertullian did believe in a form of apostolic succession, but he defined it in a way that contradicts Jonathan Prejean's beliefs. Keep in mind that Tertullian was living just several decades after the death of the apostle John. Historical successions carried far more evidential weight during Tertullian's day than they do today. Yet, even living as early in church history as he did, Tertullian added qualifiers that Jonathan Prejean rejects. For Tertullian, historical successions are significant, but they aren't necessary. Bishops are proven by the faith rather than the faith being proven by bishops. He explains that the heretics would be refuted by their doctrines even if they had an apostolic succession. Tertullian tells us that we can test the churches by consulting scripture, a practice that Jonathan Prejean rejects and condemns:

"But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor, if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule of faith, will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth? Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith?...We, however, are not permitted to cherish any object after our own will, nor yet to make choice of that which another has introduced of his private fancy. In the Lord's apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations of mankind the doctrine which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even 'an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel' than theirs, he would be called accursed by us....When, indeed, any man doubts about this, proof will be forthcoming, that we have in our possession that which was taught by Christ....But should they [the heretics] even effect the contrivance [of producing a list of bishops from the apostles], they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine....Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, 'as many as walk according to the rule,' which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures...I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the apostles....Now, what is there in our Scriptures which is contrary to us?" (3, 6, 9, 32, 37-38)

Jonathan Prejean has said in the past that we can't derive theological conclusions from scripture if we read it apart from the church's interpretation. But if Tertullian is using scripture to test the churches, and the Christian status of churches is a theological issue, then Tertullian is using the scriptures in a way that Prejean's line of reasoning would have to condemn. See also my response to Jonathan Prejean this past August, in which I give more examples of Tertullian disagreeing with Prejean.

Tertullian did believe that historical successions carried a lot of evidential significance, and he believed that the widespread acceptance of a doctrine was significant. These are old arguments that predate Tertullian and predate Christianity. Arguments from succession and popularity have been used by all sorts of groups in all sorts of contexts. Modern Roman Catholics do sometimes selectively appeal to similar arguments, but without the same qualifiers that Tertullian and other patristic sources added.

I don't know if Prejean will keep his latest commitment to not interact with Protestants. I don't know if he'll change his arguments again so as to avoid some of my criticisms in this article. Whatever he does on those matters, we can be sure that he'll continue to criticize Protestantism without making a case for Catholicism, since no such case is to be had.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Through Faith They Still Speak (10/22/05)

"For he prays too little, who is accustomed only to pray at the times when he bends his knees." (John Cassian, Conferences, 1:10, The Second Conference of Abbot Isaac, 14)

How the Video Game Industry Has Been "Maturing"

Next week, there's going to be a Women's Game Conference in Texas. One of the speakers at the conference is Brenda Brathwaite, who will be discussing the relationship between sex and video games. If you read about her background at the previous link and search the web for more information, such as her blog for the Sex Special Interest Group (affiliated with the International Game Developers Association), you'll get an idea of where the video game industry is headed. As one of the other contributors to the Sex & Games blog explains on their message board, they're "progressive". Here are some of Brathwaite's comments on Hugh Hefner, when she was working on a game about him:

"Believe it or not, I'm really grateful to him, as a woman. I don't know if you've seen the movie Mona Lisa Smile. It starts in December 1953 when a woman's job was to go to college so she could be a better wife. Hugh Hefner said that a woman's job just wasn't about pleasing men, she's also a sexual being. That's what Playboy was trying to say, that the girl next door is also a sexual being. And Hugh Hefner has done so much on the front lines of civil rights, with women's rights, he's done so many things. The Playboy Foundation has donated tons of money and I really respect that he got out there and did all the things that he did. Especially because it wasn't at all popular. He could've been vilified for doing that kind of stuff. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him."

Brathwaite spoke at a gaming conference earlier this year. SF Weekly reported on that conference:

"A striking woman wearing a short black skirt, high black boots, and a knotted Nintendo T-shirt...We notice a half-dozen other identically dressed women, working the crowd with identically broad smiles. Men surround a blonde, gripping the portable games wired to her belt. Ah. The scene exemplifies the way sex mixes with gaming: as a hook, a visual thrill....Later that night at the awards show, applause erupts as the freewheeling steer appears on-screen [in a PETA-supported video game that promotes animal rights and vegetarianism]. Everyone is slightly drunk, thanks to free booze at an earlier Booth Crawl. Steer Madness wins its category, Skinner's indie-band soundtrack scoring him an award for Innovation in Audio. He hustles to the stage, says a few inaudible words into a dead microphone, and the animal-activist genre is born, proof positive that in gaming, anything can, and eventually will, come to pass."

I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in the spring of 1992, and the atmosphere was bad even then, though I don't think it was as bad as what SF Weekly describes.

This article in SF Weekly also discusses a round table on sex in video games held at the same conference mentioned above. The round table was headed by Brenda Brathwaite:

"The religious right is duly attacked. A former ESRB rep is stirred to action. 'It's not just the religious right,' he says. 'Even blue states hate sex in video games. People just don't like it.'...It's day two of 'Sexuality in Games,' and Brathwaite is holding up a magazine ad of a woman in muddy lingerie. It's an ad for a motocross game, of course....No other medium has quite this power. In gaming, you swing the sword that severs the head that topples the enemy, not an actor. You cause the bloody chaos, not Uma Thurman. It's this power that makes people nervous. No one wants kids simulating sex, and to Wal-Mart and most of America, games, even when stamped with an M rating, are still for kids."

Expect some changes in the future. People like Brenda Brathwaite are working on it. Expect the gaming industry to become more and more like Hollywood, with increasingly immoral content and antagonism toward Christianity. Most of the popular games will continue to have little or no objectionable content, but we'll probably see more games like Grand Theft Auto and a larger niche market for pornographic games, for example. I don't know how many more animal-rights-vegetarian-PETA games we'll see, like the one SF Weekly described. But, as SF Weekly said, "anything can, and eventually will, come to pass". The video game industry has "matured" into vulgarity.

I doubt that the fact that a change has occurred is news to many people, but the extent of the change probably is. When games like Grand Theft Auto are being made and are so popular, and people in the industry are making derisive comments about "the religious right", we're a long way from Pitfall and Super Mario Bros. This is part of a problem with the larger society, but parents, pastors, and others in positions of influence, as well as consumers, should realize how far it's gone. The video game industry isn't yet as bad as the movie industry, but the gap is narrowing.

The Historical Reliability of Matthew and Luke

I've posted the third segment in my Apologetics Log series on the infancy narratives.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The "Best Book" of the Year, Which Has a "History Book" as One of Its Sources

Dan Brown has been sued again, this time for similarities between his book and one of his sources. In this BBC story on the lawsuit, we read that Brown's book "won best book at this year's British Book Awards". They must not have high standards. The story also refers to the book Brown used as a source as a "history book". This is another illustration of how Brown's book is being portrayed as fiction based on history. People are being told that this book is largely factual, and there surely will continue to be many people who think that large portions of it reflect historical fact.

Can an Atheist Judge Who Hates Your Belief System be Trusted?

A column today in The News & Observer in North Carolina illustrates what a lot of people think of Evangelicals. Notice the double standards, the failure to apply his reasoning to people with his beliefs, for example.

It's Not So Difficult, If You're a Skeptic

When it comes to fabricating prophecy fulfillment, these Indian astrologers are amateurs. They could learn a lot from skeptics, who could show them how to fabricate everything from Micah 5:2 to Daniel's 70 weeks prophecy to Isaiah's Suffering Servant prophecy in a single life.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Second Thoughts About Abortion

Richard Cohen has a column about abortion in today's Washington Post, and I recommend reading it. He's still pro-choice, and he repeatedly fails to carry through with some of his logic and still puts forward some bad reasoning, but he also distances himself from some of the popular pro-choice arguments. I often wonder how much pro-choice advocates have thought through the issues, and Cohen's article is another indication that a lot of these people haven't been making much of an effort to think through these things. People often know more than they let on (Romans 1:32).

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Judgments About Emphasis in a Historical Context

The Lawrence Journal-World has a story today about the "top Methodist bishop" in Kansas:

"The Bible gives much more attention to poverty and its related issues than it does to sex," Scott Jones said, prompting applause from the audience of 140 pastors, activists and social workers gathered at a Methodist-sponsored conference....

Jones vowed to lead a church-based initiative aimed at reminding the state’s conservative politicians that as Christians, they ought to care less about issues such as banning gay marriage, and more about ensuring health care and justice for the poor.

“I am convinced that God cares deeply how we treat persons who are in need and that a faithful, holistic reading of the Bible will lead us to give a much higher degree of attention to issues of poverty than they have been getting in recent political debates.”

The state’s poor, Jones said, warrant the same level of compassion as do victims of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that struck South Asia late last year.

We hear this sort of argument a lot, especially from religious liberals, and the criticism is often directed at religious conservatives in particular. Sometimes the conservatives will even be named in the criticism (Jerry Falwell, etc.). I'm somebody who would give more emphasis to issues of sexuality in today's atmosphere, so the criticism from Scott Jones would be largely applicable to me, from his point of view.

The Bible does give a lot of attention to the poor and the appropriateness of our caring for them. So does our government. We spend many billions of dollars on various programs to assist the poor. And I personally contribute to ministries that are partly or entirely dedicated to helping the poor, as do many other conservatives. Jones' reference to the response to the recent natural disasters is a good illustration. Americans across the political spectrum gave large amounts of money and other forms of assistance to the people affected by those events.

In contrast, only a minority of Americans, though a large minority, have shown a high degree of concern about homosexual marriage. A larger percentage would vote against homosexual marriage, though they apparently aren't willing to do much more than that about it. I doubt that there are nearly as many discussions in American homes, around the dinner table or in other settings, about homosexual marriage as there are about various methods of helping the poor. Many American families help the poor in some way, whether through a local church, through a charity, or by some other means, and I doubt that even half as much effort goes into opposing homosexuality, fornication, and other sexual sins. Public schools and universities will encourage students to help the poor and may set up programs to give them an opportunity to do it, but you can be sure that they aren't doing the same to oppose homosexual marriage or to teach against un-Biblical forms of divorce, for example. How many of you who went to college can remember teachers taking up class time to speak about poverty, call for larger government programs to help the poor, criticize political conservatives for not doing enough, etc.? And how many of you can remember even half as much time being taken up in class to condemn fornication or warn against homosexual marriage? I went to Penn State, and I can remember a lot of discussions related to the poor. I can't recall a single class discussion related to sexual sin from a Biblical perspective.

In contrast, the Biblical authors weren't living in the wealthiest nation in world history, with a government spending many billions of dollars on the poor and the two major political parties arguing over the rate of increase for those programs. They weren't living in a nation where an event such as Hurricane Katrina would be followed by government spending and donations that far exceeded the amount of money needed, with news reports about people using such money for alcohol and strippers (see here and here). They weren't living at a time when many clergymen, universities, segments of the media, government officials, psychologists, scientists, and other elements of society were working together in such an effective way to try to bring about the acceptance of homosexuality and other sexual sins, with public opinion polls indicating that they were achieving a lot of success.

We can always make improvements in how we attempt to assist the poor, but there's already a general consensus about the need to help the poor, and there's widespread willingness to do it. But there isn't such a consensus about issues of sex, and there isn't such a widespread willingness to do what needs to be done. Giving more attention to sexual issues makes sense in our current environment.

People like Scott Jones are in large part addressing what people speak about in public settings. A lot more happens in life than what we hear people speaking about in public. We don't need to speak as much about helping the poor, because so many people are already in a high degree of agreement on that issue, and helping the poor is such an established part of how the average church, home, community, government, etc. operates. Scott Jones can pick any city he wants to pick in this nation, ask the people coming out of every church in that city on a Sunday morning what they think of issues of poverty and sexuality, and he'll find far more agreement and Biblical knowledge on the former issue than on the latter.

An Introduction to the New Testament

I recently got the updated version of An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005) by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo. The first edition came out in 1992, and Leon Morris was one of the contributors. He isn't a contributor for this second edition. I've only had time to read a little of the new edition so far, but it looks good, and I'd recommend it.

It's about 250 pages longer than the first edition. It interacts with a lot of recent sources. There's a new section on New Perspectivism, and the material on pseudonymity has been expanded. There's a new chapter on how the New Testament has been studied throughout church history. Judging from the table of contents, it looks like there's significant expansion throughout the book. The section on Acts is 12 pages longer, the section on 2 Peter is 3 pages longer, the section on the New Testament canon is 4 pages longer, etc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Roman Catholics' Selective Use of Historical Majorities

Roman Catholics often argue for their doctrines by an appeal to popularity or with a claim that the doctrine has been held for two thousand years. The argument varies from Catholic to Catholic. One Catholic may appeal to the fact that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox agree on the doctrine in question, while another Catholic will go even further by arguing that the doctrine has been held throughout church history. This sort of argumentation will often be accompanied by criticism of Protestants for their alleged historical ignorance, disrespect of their forefathers, arrogance, blasphemy, etc. When a large number of Catholics are gathered together in an online forum, with few or no dissenting voices among them, this sort of discussion can keep escalating to higher and higher degrees of absurdity.

I want to address some of the issues involved in this sort of argumentation. The closer you look at the arguments, the less convincing they become.

What does agreement between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox prove? Both groups claim a succession from the apostles. But a succession of bishops, often maintained by different standards at different times in history, doesn't prove that all of the bishops in that line of succession have held the same beliefs. To the contrary, we have many examples of one contradicting another, even within a single line of succession. There are many contradictions among the bishops of Rome, for example. And Catholicism and Orthodoxy aren't the only groups that claim a succession. Apostolic succession has been defined in different ways at different times in history, and we don't have good reason to believe that all Christians of the patristic era, for example, held to any of the modern concepts of apostolic succession. If the bishops of modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy agree about the veneration of images, for instance, that agreement doesn't prove that the bishops of the second or third century held the same view.

Some Catholics seem to realize that agreement between Catholicism and Orthodoxy isn't enough, so they make a claim about the doctrine being held throughout church history or at least from the time of the church fathers onward. How we ought to respond to this argument depends on the particular form it takes.

If a claim is going to be made about a doctrine's being held throughout church history, the apostolic Christians will have to be included. Biblical evidence will have to be addressed. Church history didn't begin after the apostles died.

If a Catholic wants to argue that the New Testament documents must be interpreted for us by some later entity, that claim will have to be demonstrated, not just asserted. Appeals to "the church", "tradition", etc. will have to take into account the fact that not all of the patristic sources commented on such subjects, as well as the fact that those who did comment gave different definitions of the terms in question. If a Catholic is going to accept only some of Irenaeus' comments about issues of the church, tradition, and authority, for example, while rejecting other elements of what Irenaeus said on these matters, then he needs to give us a verifiable standard by which he determines what to accept and what to reject. If they're going to say that we can accept a particular element of Irenaeus' view because a lot of other church fathers agreed with it, then they need to explain to us how such popularity proves correctness. If a lot of church fathers agreed about something that Catholics reject, does that patristic popularity prove correctness?

And what do Catholics mean when they claim that a doctrine has been held throughout church history? The church fathers held a variety of views of the eucharist, for example, including views that contradict Roman Catholicism. And although the perpetual virginity of Mary eventually became popular, it wasn't universal among the fathers. Even when the doctrine was widespread in the fourth century, we see many people still rejecting it. 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). So, when Catholics refer to something like a presence of Christ in the eucharist or the perpetual virginity of Mary having always been held by the church, they can't appeal to universal agreement from the first century onward. Rather, it seems that what at least most Catholics have in mind is a majority opinion that arose sometime during the first few or first several centuries of church history. But does such a majority view prove the correctness of a doctrine? No, it doesn't.

And Catholics aren't consistent in appealing to such majorities. The veneration of images was so opposed by the ante-Nicene church fathers, that the conservative Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott would comment:

"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)

If Protestants are historically ignorant, arrogant, disrespectful of their forefathers, etc. for disagreeing with popular belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary in the fifth century or popular belief in a presence of Christ in the eucharist among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example, then should we conclude the same about Catholics when they disagree with the popular view of the veneration of images among the ante-Nicene fathers? Should we accuse them of committing "blasphemy" against "the body of Christ"? Should we accuse them of being "arrogant"?

What about the high view of scripture held by the fathers (see here, for example)? They often referred to Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch, Paul's authorship of the pastorals, a high view of the Bible's historicity, etc., concepts that are widely rejected in modern Catholicism, sometimes even among the current Pope and conservative Catholics. While the church fathers responded negatively to Porphyry's attempt to date the book of Daniel to the second century B.C., modern Catholic scholarship has hopped on the Porphyry bandwagon, and so have even some conservative Catholics. The historian Robert Wilken refers to Porphyry's arguments as "revolutionary" and "disturbing" to the Christians of his day (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 138). For today's Roman Catholics, on the other hand, Porphyry's arguments are acceptable and can be promoted at Catholic universities, in books bearing the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, etc.

What about the age of the earth, another issue many Catholics are willing to disagree with the church fathers about (see here and here)? The issue involves scripture interpretation and has theological implications (whether there was animal death before the fall, for example). The church fathers widely associated the age of the earth with eschatology. Should we criticize modern Catholics who advocate an old earth for their ignorance of history, disrespect toward their forefathers, arrogance, etc.?

Or what about prayers to the dead, a concept absent from and contradicted by the earliest fathers, including when they wrote entire treatises on the subject of prayer? What about the widespread patristic belief that Mary was a sinner? What about the opposition to the doctrine of the papacy among some of the ecumenical councils? Etc.

Any Catholic thinking through these issues will have to acknowledge that it's not enough to just refer to a doctrine being held by both Catholicism and Orthodoxy or to refer to the doctrine having been popular in some earlier era of church history. Because they know that such arguments aren't sufficient, some Catholics modify the arguments by adding qualifiers. They'll argue, for example, that the issue is whether a doctrine became popular under particular circumstances, such as with the approval of a Pope or an ecumenical council. But where does such a standard come from? How do you know what is and isn't an ecumenical council, and how do you know what authority it has, for example? When you ask Catholics questions like these, they resort to an appeal to popularity, ending the discussion, or doing something else that doesn't prove their case.

There's a lot of criticism these days of Protestants who take a grammatical-historical approach toward scripture and toward publicly verifying doctrinal claims. But the alternatives we're given, when any alternative is even offered, fail. Why should we abandon the grammatical-historical approach for some unverifiable, meandering, incoherent, selective appeal to historical majorities and vague references to "tradition", "the body of Christ", etc.? These critics of the grammatical-historical approach will use that approach on other matters, such as in trying to determine what a church father or Pope believed. If we're all in agreement about the reliability of the grammatical-historical approach in discerning what historical figures believed, then the ball is in the court of those who want us to go beyond that approach and accept some other method. So far, they've failed to come up with a coherent and verifiable alternative. When they come up with one, they should let us know. Until then, we'll go with what we have. And we aren't holding our breath while we wait for their alternative.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Skepticism and the Incarnation (Part 2)

Having become accustomed to Christianity and much of the evidence for it, we tend to under appreciate the significance of Christianity's claims and the evidence for those claims. We also tend to accept some of the double standards that critics of Christianity employ, so that we end up being more critical of Christian claims than we are of other worldview claims. Martin Hengel writes:

"Thus we have only one biography of Muhammad (who died in 632), by Ibn Hisham (who died in 834, 212 years after the Hijra), which has incorporated parts of the lost earlier biography by Ibn Ishaq (died 767). Although the chronological distance from the historical subject in the Muhammad biography is much greater [than it is with Jesus], the historical scepticism of critical European scholarship is substantially less here....Already for him [Paul] the eternal Son of God had become a real man in space and time, in Judaea, and only a few years previously. This is a quite incredible and revolutionary message, without analogy in the ancient world!" (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 6, 151)

People often make much of what an author like Paul doesn't say. Some people will even argue, absurdly, that Jesus may not have existed on earth, since Paul doesn't give many details in his writings about the earthly life of Jesus. And people will sometimes claim, for example, that the virgin birth may not have occurred, because Paul doesn't mention it. (But Luke does mention it, and he was a close companion of Paul. If Luke knew of it, Paul most likely did as well. And Paul seems to cite Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18.) But what about the significance of what Paul does mention?

An often-overlooked example is the sinlessness of Jesus. Paul refers to Jesus as sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21). Think about the context in which the claim was made. Paul wasn't just a contemporary of Jesus. He was also a former enemy of Christianity and persecutor with a high ranking in Jewish circles. If there had been convincing Jewish arguments against the sinlessness of Jesus, Paul surely would have known of them. Instead, he refers to Jesus as sinless and even cites His behavior under the most difficult of circumstances as an example for others to follow (Philippians 2:5-8).

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 author of Hebrews knew of many of the details of Jesus' suffering (Hebrews 5:7-8). He refers to Jesus as sinless (Hebrews 4:15, 7:26).

John not only had many of the same experiences with Jesus that Peter and the other disciples had, but also was an eyewitness of Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:26-35). He refers to Jesus as sinless (John 7:18, 8:29, 8:46, 15:10, 1 John 3:5, Revelation 3:7).

Who else would have seen how Jesus behaved? The people who spoke against Him during His earthly ministry would have, and so would the people who tortured and crucified Him. Certainly those are circumstances under which we would expect any mere human to sin. The first century Jewish historian Josephus, while not referring to Jesus as sinless, does call Him "a wise man", suggesting that even Jewish sources hostile to Jesus recognized a significant positive quality to His character.

Jesus Himself held high moral standards, as even many modern critics of Christianity will acknowledge. When He referred to Himself as sinless, He was doing so in a way that set Him apart from every other human He was interacting with. He often rebuked His own followers for their sin (Matthew 16:23, Luke 24:25), and He expected every one of His followers to acknowledge his own sinfulness. He gave them a repentant tax collector as an example for all of them to follow (Luke 18:10-14). He came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). When Jesus claimed to be sinless, He made that claim in the context of holding a high moral standard, not a low standard.

We know that the early Christians had high moral standards (Ephesians 5:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7, 5:21-22, Titus 1:15), even to the point of referring to themselves "stumbling in many ways" (James 3:2). They wouldn't have been evaluating Jesus by a low standard. If they had wanted to call Him righteous without claiming that He was sinless, they could have done so.

They don’t just refer to Jesus as sinless when somebody raises the issue. They bring the issue up themselves, state it repeatedly and emphatically, and tell people to emulate Jesus as a moral example, even singling out His behavior during times of suffering, as we see in 1 Peter.

We might expect some careless people to refer to a sinful human as sinless in rare circumstances. But the larger the number of early Christian sources there are who refer to Jesus as sinless, and the more emphatic they are on the point, the more difficult it would be to explain that claim on naturalistic grounds. 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” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 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.

Of course, there would be no way for us to verify Jesus' sinlessness throughout His life in the sense of having evidence that He never had a sinful thought, never had bad motives, etc. But if He behaved in such a way as to lead eyewitnesses and contemporaries to respond as I've outlined above, that's highly significant. These were, after all, eyewitnesses and contemporaries, including people suffering and dying for their view of Jesus, not people living hundreds of years later in comfort and convenience. Speculating that all of these sources might have been mistaken is easy. But living your life in such a way as to lead eyewitnesses and contemporaries to think that you were sinless isn't so easy.

When we consider the evidence for Christianity, we ought to consider prophecy, Jesus' healings, the miracles performed by the apostles, and other such well known and often cited data. But we should also consider the high view of Jesus held by eyewitnesses and contemporaries of His life, such as belief in His deity and sinlessness. Those claims couldn't have been made so early and so widely without comparisons being made between those claims and what was known about how Jesus lived. Why, then, would they conclude that Jesus was God incarnate?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Mary's Perpetual Virginity in Light of the New Testament Evidence (Part IV)

Continuing from Part I, Part II, and Part III, Paul Owen next introduces Revelation 12 as evidence of his point that Mary:

Revelation 12:1-6 describes a woman “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet,” with “a crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:1). The woman’s pregnancy plainly symbolizes the birth of the people of Israel (cf. Isa. 66:7-8), and yet she is also identified with Mary in 12:5. The correspondence is rooted in the fact that just as in the Old Testament, Eve gave birth to a nation of twelve tribes (the old Israel), so in the New Testament, Mary gave birth to the Messiah (in whom the Church becomes the new Israel). The cosmic struggle between the Serpent and the seed of the Woman is begun in Eve and consummated in Mary (Gen. 3:15).
I confess, it is difficult to know just where Owen is getting all this. First, the view that the woman’s pregnancy “symbolizes the birth of the people of Israel” is far from the common view of scholars on this passage. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing in the text that lends itself to viewing the woman as Eve giving birth to Israel. Rather, the woman herself is Israel, and the entire scene is an allusion to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37. In Joseph’s dream, the sun is Jacob/Israel, the moon is Rachel, and the stars are the sons of Jacob who are patriarchs of the twelve tribes (Brown et al, 1978:230). The fact that Joseph counts eleven stars whereas John has twelve should not cause us concern. Joseph could not have made himself one of the stars in his dream, for the dream was intended to show that he was exalted higher than the stars as well as the sun and moon. John’s vision, on the other hand, must have twelve in order to correspond to all twelve tribes of Israel. This is the simplest solution because it is the one that best explains the passage in both its immediate context and its apocalyptic context vis-à-vis Daniel. As such, it renders any allusion to Mary here as little more than a foreign contrivance.

Second, the woman gives birth to the Messiah, not to Israel: “She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”

Third, contra Owen the woman is never identified as Mary. She is always the "people of God," particularly as she gives birth to the Messiah in v. 5, as well as later when she (in the form of her offspring) is persecuted.

Fourth, and more importantly for purposes of demonstrating “catholicity,” it is significant that no one for the first five centuries of the church held to a Marian interpretation of Revelation 12, not even in a secondary sense. It isn’t until the fifth century (with Quodvultdeus) that we find the first identification of the Woman of Revelation 12 with Mary, and even then it is only in a secondary sense. And the number of patristic writers in the first six centuries who subscribe to the people of God view of Revelation 12 (at least sixteen known to us, counting Quodvultdeus, nine of whom are canonized saints) far exceeds the number of those who see Mary as the primary or secondary referent (only two, none of whom are canonized fathers of the Roman church).

This is quite telling against the Owen's view of this passage. As even Raymond Brown concedes, “The fact that the mariological emphasis on Revelation 12 is relatively recent raises the question of whether it represents an exegesis of the text itself or simply an imaginative theological application as part of a search for biblical support for Marian doctrine” (Brown et al, 1978:236). I suspect Brown's instinct is right. The patristic interpretation of this passage uniformly leans toward identifying the “Woman” as the people of God, not as Mary. And that interpretation is still prevalent today among scholars who comment on this passage. Hence, the question of catholity, originally raised by Owen as a primary reason for his adoptation of this view, ends up militating against him.

Mary's Perpetual Virginity in Light of the New Testament Evidence (Part III)

Continuing from Part I and Part II of this series, Paul Owen cites several points that he thinks confirms his thesis that Mary was dedicated as a “virgin temple servant”:
1) Mary calls herself the doule ( “female servant”) of the Lord in Luke 1:38.
The word doulos and its feminine cognate doule is so common in the NT (although the feminine form occurs only a few times) that it’s difficult to understand how Owen could see any significance in this word. There is certainly nothing inherent in the word that supports the notion of temple dedication. Moreover, the word is never used in the context of “virgin temple dedication,” which is really what Owen needs to show to advance his point. And so this point really cannot stand apart from the validity of the subsequent points that Owen argues. Indeed, Owen’s second point militates against his first. He writes:
2) Luke mentions another woman named Anna who in her old age “never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers” (Lk. 2:37). Apparently, such female Temple servants were not prohibited from marrying, though they maintained their virginity. There is no mention of Anna having children, though she “lived with a husband” (2:36). These women apparently did not spend all their time at the Temple during their younger years (until age 60? cf. 1 Tim. 5:9), but performed their service only when called upon, much like the priests (cf. Lk.
). In the case of married Temple servants, their husbands would have provided them with a home and companionship when they were not serving at the Temple.
Owen points to the single case of Anna as an example of virgin temple dedication; yet, not insignificantly, Anna is never called a doule. And although Owen argues that Anna was an example of a “married virgin,” he deduces this based solely on the lack of any mention of Anna having children. On this view, whether Owen thinks the husband was also a virgin dedicated to the temple we are not told. What we do know from both the NT and the OT is that those expressly dedicated to temple service were priests, and there was no rule of celibacy concerning them.

Yet there are so many other simpler explanations of this that Owen’s solution seems not only unnecessary, but far fetched. Perhaps Anna, like a host of her biblical predecessors, was barren. Or, perhaps she had many children and Luke simply does not mention them (Luke’s purpose in this narrative is not to give an exhaustive biography for Anna). In any case, to conclude from the lack of any mention of children an entire reconstruction that sees Anna as a perpetual virgin and her husband as a mere “protectorate,” is absurd on its face.

Owen turns next to the Protevangelium of James for support:

3) A very early Christian text, the Protoevangelium of James (ca. 125) preserves a tradition that Mary’s parents dedicated her to the service of the Temple from her earliest childhood. This tradition appears to be firmly grounded in Luke’s narration of Jesus’ infancy. According to this early Christian text, Mary’s barren mother vowed in a manner recalling the words of Samuel’s mother Hannah (cf. 1 Sam. 1:11): “As the Lord lives, if I bring forth either male or female, I will bring it for a gift unto the Lord my God, and it shall be ministering unto him all the days of its life.”
On this point Owen could have also cited the Ascension of Isaiah, the Gospel of Peter, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, each of which preserves a similar tradition, and each of which is absolutely steeped in Gnosticism. Moreover, the historical value of all these writings is suspect. Both the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are, according to Richard Bauckham, “certainly works of imagination, not of historiography” (1994:696); and both of these, along with the Gospel of Peter, are apocryphal works of dubious historical value (Meier, 1992:6). Meier characterizes the Protevangelium of James as “a wildly imaginative folk-narrative that is outrageously inaccurate about NT events as well as things Jewish” (1992:16). Similarly, Elliott (1993:51) tells us in his preface to the Protevangelium of James that its historical value is “insignificant,” citing numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Graef (1964:36), who is sympathetic with the Roman Catholic view of Mary, notes that this writing betrays “great ignorance of Jewish conditions” and is therefore of “little theological significance.” Notwithstanding the consensus of scholars on this point, this writing stands as a major support for Owen’s view.

Owen next cites John 19:27 in support of his view:

2. John 19:27 tells us that Jesus committed Mary into the care of the apostle John at the time of his death. His words to Mary, “behold your son,” strongly imply that the loss of Jesus would leave Mary without a son. This, in addition to the fact that the commandment to honor your parents (Exod. 20:12) would have obligated Mary’s other sons to care for their aging mother (cf. Matt. 15:4-6), strongly implies that Jesus was Mary’s only son, which in part explains why Jesus entrusted her into John’s care.
On the contrary; all it implies is that Jesus is severing biological ties in favor of spiritual ones. By telling Mary that John was now her son and John that Mary was now his mother, He establishes the eschatological family. Jesus had biological brothers, but at this point they were unbelievers (John 7:5). Jesus would have been remiss not to have provided for the spiritual welfare of his mother (who was by this time a disciple); and leaving her in the hands of his unbelieving brothers would have contributed nothing to her spiritual welfare even if her material needs had been fully met.

Owen continues:
The objection that Mary’s other sons were not believers at this time holds no merit, for the obligation to care for one’s mother is rooted in the Law of Moses, not in a distinctive Christian ethic.
Owen’s reasoning is deeply flawed here and betrays a marked lack of awareness of Jesus’ teaching about biological vs. eschatological relationships in the kingdom. First of all, whether the brothers of Jesus would have been willing to care for their mother is not what is at issue. Let’s grant for the moment that Jesus’ brothers were not only willing to do this based on the law of Moses, but that they even eager to do so. That doesn’t change the fact that in the new eschatological family believers are obligated to provide for the material and spiritual welfare of one another in spite of any other obligations (by “law” or otherwise) their biological family members may be under, all the while “accepting nothing from the pagans” (3 John 7; in context, “Pagan” or “Gentile” is synonymous with “unbeliever”). There is no “law of Moses” that prohibits John from taking Mary into his house, and indeed the “law of Christ” demands it, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching that kingdom relationships are not based on biological ties. The unbelieving brothers of Jesus, as well-meaning as they may have been at the time, simply could not provide for Mary's spiritual need and emotional consolation. That required a believer, and one close to the Lord himself. Neither time nor space allows me to reproduce the relevant points made in my book on this issue, and I will refer the reader there.

Owen cites one final passage in support of his view; namely, Revelation 12, which he believes is a reference to Mary. Due to the many issues surrounding the interpretation of this passage, I will address it separately in the final installment.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Big Argument

About a year ago I was asked by Michael Westacott to contribute to a book he and John Ashton were putting together. The book, just recently released by Strand Publishing in Australian, is titled The Big Argument: Twenty-Four Scholars Explore Why Science, Archaeology, and Philosophy Haven't Disproved God. I contributed a chapter originally titled "Will the Real God Please Stand Up?" Though I have not yet seen the book (a copy is being sent to me as I write this), I'm sure the chapter title has changed. The thrust of my contribution deals with the attributes of God, the sovereignty of God, and the justice of God vis-a-vis the death of Christ and the stipulations of the gospel. I have no idea what the other chapters are since I did not have an opportunity to read them prior to publication, though I can tell you that most of them deal with answering atheists and skeptics. As soon as the book has been distributed to the usual clearing houses, I will anounce its availability.

Mary's Perpetual Virginity in Light of the New Testament Evidence (Part II)

Continuing on from Part I of our response to Paul Owen, Owen writes:
Luke’s description of Mary in his infancy narrative is very carefully crafted. When he records the angel Gabriel being sent to her, he doesn’t call her a woman, but a “virgin” (1:27). Why would he need to highlight this fact? We get a clue in 1:34, where Mary asks Gabriel how it is possible for her to have a child: “How can this be when I do not know a man?” It is important to keep in mind that Gabriel did not announce to Mary that she was pregnant. He announced to her that she would become pregnant in the future (1:31). If all Mary means in verse 34 is that she has not been intimate with a man yet, then her question makes no sense. Obviously, in that case she would simply assume that she will become pregnant after she physically consummates her marriage with Joseph. Since Gabriel’s announcement speaks to a future pregnancy, Mary’s question can only make sense on the assumption that she never will be physically intimate with a man.
This argument could have come from the pen of any Roman Catholic apologist, and in fact appears to have come directly from the transcript of my debate with Gerry Matatics—he made this point nearly verbatim. Owen is a better scholar than that, and it is disappointing to know this is coming from him. What is even more disappointing is that I specifically addressed this argument in my book on Mary, which I know Dr. Owen has. He might have at least conferred with my book to see what the scholarly opinion is on this issue. And if after reading it he was still convinced of his own view, he might at least have interacted with the arguments against it.

Moreover, Owen has insisted that he is a “Reformational Christian,” and that his mentors include Calvin, Luther, et al. Calvin’s comments on this view are therefore of special significance:
The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews (Harmony of the Gospels, vol. 1).
So, the view to which a “Reformational Christian” like Dr. Owen subscribes is characterized by Calvin himself as “unfounded and altogether absurd.” Moreover, this view is expressly rejected by scholarship. I will reproduce below an abridged version of the relevant section of my book, Who Is My Mother?, to show just why Owen’s view is rejected by the majority of NT scholars who specialize in this issue, including Roman Catholic scholars.


c. “How will this be since I do not know a man?”

The RSV translation of Luke 1:34, “since I have no husband,” is misleading since Mary did indeed have a husband at that time (cf. Luke 1:27; Fitzmyer, 1981:348). In Matthew 1:19 Joseph is called Mary’s “husband” (ho aner autes) while still in the betrothal stage. Both Matthew and Luke presuppose the two-step marriage process of that day. In the first step, ’êrûsîn (betrothal), which is a “legally ratified marriage” (Brown et al, 1978:114), the couple exchanged vows before witnesses but continued to live separately for a period of about a year, although at least one conjugal visit by the husband during the interim period was not uncommon (Brown et al, 1978:83). In the second step, nîśű’în, the husband received the woman into his home, initiated regular marital relations with her, and took financial responsibility for her (Brown et al, 1978:84).

McHugh has shown from Mishnahic sources (Kiddushin “Betrothals,” and Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds”) that sexual relations between the betrothed were allowed in Judaism, at least after the Jewish Revolt of AD 132-135. He notes that a betrothed girl whose fiancé had died was to wait a period of three months before marrying again in order to ascertain whether or not she had conceived a child (McHugh, 1975:161). However, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Ketuboth 3b) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketuboth 1:25c) the apparent reason for this allowance of sexual activity prior to the second step of the marriage process was to prevent Roman soldiers in Judaea from seizing a girl on her wedding day whom they assumed to be a virgin. Around AD 150, R. Judah (in Yebamoth 4:10) indicates that the practice of sexual relations during betrothal had diminished except in Judaea. The normal practice by and large was to abstain from normal sexual relations until nîśű’în. This is assumed in Ketuboth 1:1-5 where instructions are given for legal action to be taken by the man if after the wedding it is discovered that the girl is not truly a virgin.

Mary’s words in this passage (“I do not know a man”) indicate that she and Joseph abstained from sexual relations during the ’­êrûsîn (“betrothal”) period of their relationship. Yet some Catholic exegetes go even farther and suggest that Mary, by these words, indicates that she had taken a prior vow of virginity. This view, first posited by fourth-century fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine, argues that Mary’s question makes sense only if Mary had already made up her mind to remain a virgin, “so that her objection takes on the tone of a resolve: ‘How can this be since I shall not know a man?’” (Brown et al, 1978:114-115).

Keating (1988:283) goes so far as to suggest that any opposing view encounters “insuperable” problems. According to Keating, Mary’s response would make no sense if she had not taken such a vow, for why would Mary ask “how” she would be pregnant if she knew she would be having sexual relations upon marrying Joseph (1988:283)? There is no reason to assume Mary was wholly ignorant of the rudiments of biology. She presumably knew the normal way in which children are conceived. If she anticipated having children and did not intend to maintain a vow of virginity, she would hardly have to ask “how” she was to have a child, since having a child the normal way would be expected by a newlywed (1988:283).

Keating cannot understand how Mary’s response could make sense in light of the angel’s announcement that she would bear a child. But Keating’s objection assumes that Mary is thinking of her future relations with Joseph and does not understand the conception to be immediate. Yet we have every indication that Mary does understand the angel to mean that she would conceive immediately. First, Mary does not say, “How can this be, since I will not know a man,” which is what we might expect if Mary had taken a vow of lifelong virginity. Instead, she says, “How can this be, since I am not knowing a man.” The present tense, not the future, is used in this statement. Many modern-day Catholic apologists, including Keating, argue that the present tense here is to be taken as a futuristic present. Yet they do so without warrant. A present tense verb can be labeled a futuristic present only when it is obvious from the context that the verb is future referring. For instance, in John 14:2-3 Jesus tells his disciples: “I am going [poreuomai] to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back [erchomai] and take you to be with.” Both “I am going” and “I am coming” are present-tense verbs, but both are unambiguously future referring and are therefore futuristic presents. Such is not the case with ginosko (“I am knowing”) in Luke 1:34. The present tense makes good sense in its context as a present-referring verb, and so is not a legitimate example of a futuristic present. Mary could not fathom how she was going to become pregnant in the present situation since in the present situation she was not currently having sexual relations with Joseph. In light of our earlier observation that sexual relations were not uncommon for a betrothed Jewish couple in the first century, it would make perfect sense (in spite of Keating’s insistence to the contrary) for Mary to ask “how” this would happen since she and Joseph were not engaging in what was otherwise considered an acceptable practice: “How will this happen, since (unlike some other betrothed couples) we are not having sexual relations?”

Second, the subsequent narrative indicates that Mary did conceive immediately. She is already pregnant when she visits Elizabeth—who, according to v. 36, is six months pregnant at Mary’s Annunciation—for Elizabeth blesses the “fruit of [Mary’s] womb” (v. 42). We are further informed that Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months (v. 56), but left before Elizabeth’s child was born (v. 57). If Elizabeth was six months pregnant at Mary’s Annunciation, and Mary was able to be with her for three full months afterward—but before Elizabeth gave birth—then Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth (as well as her pregnancy) could only have been immediately after her Annunciation. This is borne out by v. 39, which tells us that Mary went to Elizabeth “with haste.” If Mary asks her question under the assumption that the angel is referring to the immediate future, then, in the words of Landry, “she turns out to be right” (Landry, 1995:74).

Both Fitzmyer (1981:348-350) and Brown (1977:303-308) reject the historical reading of Mary’s question, seeing it instead as a literary device intended to introduce to the reader how the birth would take place. However, both agree that of all the “psychological” explanations, the immediate-conception view is the strongest, and their only objection to this interpretation seems to be that the angel’s words are in the future tense (“you will conceive”): “But Luke’s Greek is clearly future. . . . The conception is yet to happen” (Brown, 1977:306); “[The immediate-conception view] tends to obscure the future tense that the angel used in v. 32 and will use in v. 35” (Fitzmyer, 1981:350). Yet, curiously enough, both of these scholars seem to miss the point of the immediate-conception view. Landry takes Fitzmyer to task for this objection by noting the (seemingly) obvious. Quoting J. Schaberg’s work, Landry notes that Fitzmyer’s objection is valid only if “the conception is thought of as ‘then and now’ but not if [it is thought of] in the future before the still distant home-taking” (Landry, 1995:75): Landry sums up the matter this way:
After considering the various alternatives, it seems clear that an ancient reader would conclude that as a betrothed virgin, Mary objects because she assumes that the angel is telling her that she will become pregnant almost immediately, before she could possibly have sexual relations legally with her husband (Landry, 1995:73) (emphasis in original).
Mary’s question, therefore, “certainly cannot be read as a vow of virginity: There are far too many more obvious senses of the statement to make that probable” (Wansbrough, 1988:128). Calvin’s comments on this phrase of Mary are lucid:
The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews (Harmony of the Gospels, vol. 1).
The underlying assumption that leads Keating to his conclusions is that virginity is somehow a higher calling than marital relations. But just what this assumption is based on is not readily apparent. No appeal can legitimately be made to 1 Corinthians 7 in support of Keating’s position. There Paul tells his readers that it is better to remain single so that one can serve the Lord in an undistracted way. The text is referring to singleness, however, not virginity per se. Even if we were to grant that Mary took a vow of virginity, she was, nevertheless, still a married woman with a son, and so was obligated to devote herself to the mundane distractions of life to which Paul refers in this text. It is singleness, not married virginity that is the higher calling here.

Senior (1989:104) explains where this teaching may be based: “Traditional mariology has presumed that the virginity of Mary is presented in Luke’s text as treasured virtue. But there is reason to suggest that Luke considers it an impoverishment, a promise unfulfilled and with prospect in sight.” Senior shows the link between Elizabeth’s circumstance as a “barren woman” who is promised a son, and Mary’s circumstance as a virgin with no husband who is promised a son. The angel counters Mary’s protest of impossibility (“how will this be since I am not sexually active,” translation mine) by noting Elizabeth’s “impossible” conception (v. 36), and reminding Mary that nothing is impossible with God (v. 37) (Senior, 1989:104-105). Mary’s designation of herself as “the Lord’s servant” (v. 38) may echo the words of the mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1:18) who was also the recipient of divine intervention in regard to her pregnancy; and the angel’s words, “not any word [rema] will be impossible with God” may be an allusion to the LXX of Gen 18:14: “Is a word [rema] impossible with God?” Both “words” are promises of an otherwise impossible pregnancy. “The ‘low estate’ of Mary in Luke’s narrative is her virginity. She is destined to bear the messiah but she has no husband” (Senior, 1989:106)—that is, she was not yet married.

Keating (by positing a married virgin) has, moreover, introduced a historical novum; namely, that there was such a thing as a married virgin. Yet, such a notion cannot be supported either biblically or historically: “Such an interpretation of 1:34 reads into the text later concerns; and the idea that a Galilean village girl, who had already entered into marriage, did so intending to remain a virgin and childless is out of harmony with the Jewish mentality of Jesus’ time” (Brown et al, 1978:114-115). Jewish culture looked to the bearing of children as a great blessing and considered childlessness a disgrace—hence, Elizabeth’s remark that God had “taken away [her] disgrace” by giving her a son (Luke 1:25; cf. the cases of Rachel, Sarah and Hannah). Moreover, though some have attempted to marshal historical evidence for this interpretation by appealing to the Qumran practice of celibacy, this offers no real support since the practice itself is uncertain and is unrelated to virginity within marriage in any case (Brown et al, 1978:115). Brown (1977:304), goes so far as to insist that the “vow of virginity” view is “totally implausible” because, “in our knowledge of Palestinian Judaism, there is nothing that would explain why a twelve-year-old girl would have entered marriage with the intention to preserve virginity and thus not to have children.” What is more, the celibacy practiced at Qumran “throws no light whatsoever on the supposed resolve of virginity made by a young village girl who had entered matrimony” (Brown, 1977:305) (emphasis in original).

Even more importantly, the idea of a married virgin is biblically untenable. There is never any indication from the Old or New Testaments that it is acceptable to be married and at the same time a virgin. Commenting on Luke 1:34, Fitzmyer (1981:349) says that “the words in themselves merely express a simple denial of sexual intercourse and have nothing to do with an antecedent vow or resolve of perpetual virginity; the context in which they occur scarcely implies anything of the sort. . . . A vow of virginity is unknown in the OT.” Catholic apologists often argue that Mary and Joseph planned to be married—even though Mary had taken a vow of virginity—for reasons of financial expediency, or so that Mary would have a protectorate to provide for Mary and to protect her from other suitors. Yet Paul gives just the opposite directive for virgins in 1 Corinthians 7. There he tells us that, while it is ideal to remain unmarried (agamos) so that one can better serve the Lord (vv. 32-35), this would be impractical for those not having the “gift” of celibacy (vv. 7-9). However, if one does marry, that person has a marital debt (v. 3; opheilen, “that which is owed”) that is owed to his or her spouse; namely, not to deprive the spouse of his or her body—which, by virtue of marriage, no longer belongs to him or her, but to the spouse (vv. 4-5). He would like unmarried widows and virgins to remain unmarried (agamos), but if their passions flare up they too should marry (vv. 8-9, 25-28).

Several points need to be made about Paul’s words here. First, it is clear by these passages that Paul assumes that if one is married, he or she is also sexually active. Second, Paul maintains that if one is not sexually active within a marriage, that person is depriving his or her spouse of what is "owed" (opheilen). Moreover, if one wants to live a life of sexual inactivity and undistracted devotion to the Lord, that person is to remain "unmarried" (agamos)—not to marry for financial expediency. Marriage between two avowed virgins violates the divinely instituted intent of marriage, which is to demonstrate the intimate relationship between Christ and his church (Eph 5:22-32). To marry for reasons of financial expediency, or the like, is to misrepresent that original intent. Unconsummated marriage, therefore, is not only unsupported biblically and historically, but also seems to be averse to biblical teaching. If this was Mary’s practice, then Mary is open to these charges. In any case, as Landry notes, though the “vow of virginity” interpretation has been popular among Roman Catholics in the past, its adherents are waning: “One seldom hears this line of thought in more recent scholarship. Many scholars regard the idea of a vow of perpetual virginity in the first century as an anachronism” (Landry, 1995:66).


Owen continues:
This provides us with a clue as to why Luke calls her a virgin in verse 27. It is not simply that she is a virtuous woman who has abstained from sexual intercourse prior to marriage; rather, she is a virgin whose dedication to the Lord involves the renunciation of sexual intercourse.
She is called a virgin, rather, to set the context for the virgin birth. To adduce from this text evidence for any other point is to engage in eisegesis, which contradicts the majority opinion of scholars as well as the Reformers themselves. No one holds the “vow of virginity” view today except for the most polemic of Roman Catholic scholars and apologists. Why Owen would choose to adopt a view that is on cusp of dying off altogether is baffling. Owen continues:
We get a few brief glimpses of such virgins in the Old Testament. According to one interpretation of Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:31, Jephthah dedicates his daughter to serve the Lord at the tabernacle. This dedication causes the young girl to weep, because of her virginity (Judg. 11:37). Once the time came for the vow to be fulfilled, from that time forward “she knew no man” (11:39). Jephthah’s daughter became one of “the serving women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting” (Exod. 38:8). It is these holy women whose virginity was defiled by Eli’s wicked sons, who “lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting” (1 Sam. 2:22).
No one denies that one might have chosen a life of celebacy (not a "vow of virginity" per se) in dedication to the Lord—Paul himself chose that lifestyle and encouraged others to do so as well. The difference between the case of Jephthah’s daughter and that of Mary is that Mary was engaged to be married during the same time period as her supposed “vow of virginity” and temple dedication. And she entered into the confirmation stage of that marriage in spite of the fact that she was now supposedly “dedicated to temple service” (i.e., virginity). We have already seen Paul’s view of such an arrangement. We have already noted that there is no precedence for such an arrangement. And we have already shown that such an arrangement would make absolutely no sense before or after the angel’s visitation to Mary.

I will address Owen’s reading of Luke 1:38, 2:37, John 19:25-27, and Revelation 12, as well as his reliance on the Protoevangelium of James our next installment.