Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is God's Wrath an Essential Property?

I wanted to bring in a discussion I’ve been having on Facebook recently with a proponent of Reformed theology. One of the issues we’re discussing involves God’s wrath. I maintain that God’s wrath is a dispositional, as opposed to intrinsic or essential, property. That is, I maintain that God only is wrathful toward those who are unregenerate, and would not have been wrathful had he chosen not to create at all, or if he created no moral agents. The objection was that this violated the doctrine of immutability, which he defined as God’s experiencing no change within himself (he said “does not differ within himself”). I pick up on my response to this issue, and I think it might be of interest.

“I'll be happy to address the issues you raise. First, it's not clear what you mean by immutability as never differing ‘within himself.’ What does this mean? Do you mean intrinsic, or essential, properties? Well, fine then: my view has always been (see above) that wrath is not an essential property of God. If you mean that literally none of God's properties change in any circumstances, then you must believe that all of God's properties are essential. But that engenders many, many problems. I'll label some of them with letters: a) There is the problem of God's contingent creation. Most people, who are not Edwardsian, take it that God didn't have to create this world--indeed, most people take it that God was not forced to create at all. But if God holds all properties essentially, then that's not true--he was forced to create, and forced to create this specific world. I'd rather give up the radical belief that God holds all properties essentially than give up that God was sovereign over his choice to create. b) The Second Person of the Trinity was not always incarnate, meaning he took on human nature. But if God has all his properties essentially, then the Second Person never lacked human flesh, and thus never took it on. I'd rather give up the radical belief that God holds all properties essentially than give up that the Second Person took on flesh roughly 2,000 years ago. There are a ton of other problems, but they're all variants of the same property problem.

So that leads to the second part of my critique: if God was not forced to create (and forced to create this specific world), then there is a possible maximal set of circumstances wherein God does not create any beings in his image, and no moral agents. In these circumstances, there just is nothing on which to be merciful or wrathful. Literally the only way out is to deny God had a choice in creating, but that's too radical for me.

Lastly, but I think incidentally, Scripture very plausibly doesn't intend to teach us about the metaphysics of God and time when it uses these locutions. Why do I think that? Well, first of all, the context of these various passages tends not to support it. But second, it would engender biblical contradictions, which I'm not a big fan of. Consider the texts that say, for example, that God exists from everlasting to everlasting: if that is so, then God existed everlastingly in the past, and time had no beginning, and God is temporal (just everlastingly so). But then consider the statement that God has done some things ‘before there was time’--that implies time had a beginning. Worse than that, that verse is logically incoherent if taken completely literally as a metaphysical statement about time, since ‘before’ is a temporal concept! Finally, there is the famous verse about ‘a day with the Lord is as a thousand years’ in Psalms and Peter. But that is used to claim God is not temporal. So we have God's being temporal and time having no beginning, time's having a beginning and yet things coming temporally before it, and God's being atemporal altogether. Do I believe these are contradictory? No, but only because I don't take them to be trying to teach us about the metaphysics of God and time. The biblical data on this issue, as on many in philosophical or systematic theology, is underdetermined: that is, appeals to the texts alone do not solve the issue: we must integrate the text with our understanding of theology and see what emerges. Reformed and non-Reformed alike do this on many things.”

Now some of you may be confused as to my brief discussion on God, time, and the Bible, but in context, he brought up the idea that God is wrathful from “eternity past” on those who would reject him, and he appealed to the Bible. I also wanted to emphasize that using philosophy—something the Reformed are outwardly usually loathe to do—is not only unavoidable, it’s actually commendable when doing theology and biblical interpretation. The only way one can interpret the Bible while “not doing philosophy” is to front-load their philosophy into the text in the first place! Anyway, my only point is to say that any theology that says God created people in order to condemn them needs to check itself against good thinking and the biblical picture of God.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Objections to Knowing the History behind the Resurrection

Occasionally, I will hear some pretty weak a priori objections to Jesus’ Resurrection. Unless these objections are particularly good or appropriate, I call these “lazy man objections.” The reason is that it allows the objector to disbelieve the Resurrection without examining any evidence whatsoever. What is this particular objection?

Well, it is this: World War II historical documents vary, have personal biases, and overall skew the data. This event was only 70 years ago, and look how corrupted reports can be. Just imagine how much worse it must be for stories that have been repeated for the past 2,000 years!

This is a very weak objection, and there are a variety of reasons why. First, it’s a puzzling example. So what are we supposed to conclude from this? That World War II didn’t happen? That biases of historians make what really happened in World War II unknowable? Surely no one questions whether or not World War II, or the major events surrounding them, happened.[1] Perhaps it’s supposed to mean that particular events are questionable, and may even be influenced by biases or fabricated as a method of propaganda. No doubt this is true; however, what should we conclude from that? That historical data cannot tell us what really happened?

I think what this objection is happens to be more or less a dressed-up version of the Telephone Game objection. This objection states that when something is repeated long enough, under whispered conditions (I suppose the “bias”), then ultimately the message will be too mangled to know. This leads to our next objection.

If this were true, then no conclusions should be made on any historical event that has had both time and persons involved in its reporting. But why should we think we have no way of saying whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or Alexander the Great lived, etc.? It won’t do merely to bite the bullet on the issue and say that we cannot have historical knowledge after all. They must also give good reasons why the evidence given in those cases is not sufficient to establish a historical claim. In fact, they must do this for every case.

Next, it’s just not true that we do not know what the main sources said about Jesus of Nazareth. Most NT scholars, believers and unbelievers, are quite happy to grant that a majority of the New Testament text, as we have it across all manuscripts, is what was originally written. Even Bart Ehrman grants this. Basically, only seven passages are really in dispute, none of them affecting doctrine or the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So it’s just not true that the historical data cannot indicate what the earliest sources actually said about Jesus Christ. That is, this a priori claim flies in the face of the evidence, and that’s why it’s a lazy-man objection.

So what will you do with Jesus? The evidence suggests he was raised from the dead, by God, and if that is so, it most plausibly was a vindication of his message—that he was God! John 14:6 says that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes unto the Father but by him.

[1] Well, virtually no one. There are a handful who deny the Holocaust, but these scholars have poor arguments, more akin to conspiracy theories than actual scholarly work.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Quantum Events as an Objection to the Causal Premise

An advantage of blog posts is that we can focus on particular points within philosophy, theology, or apologetics. One of these things can be the kalam cosmological argument, as popularized by William Lane Craig. A very common formulation of his first premise is, “Whatever begins to exist had a cause.” One of the most common rebutting defeaters to that premise is to say, “But quantum events don’t have causes!” Craig usually has, as part of his response, “The virtual particles come from the quantum vacuum, and the quantum vacuum is a sea of energy, and not ‘nothing’.” I think many people are confused at this response, and don’t understand why it’s relevant. It’s my burden in this post to show why it is relevant, and why it means the skeptic’s objection here is the actual irrelevancy.

First, we have to explain what the first premise is actually claiming, and what it is not. This is crucial to a full understanding of the kalam. The “causal premise” claims that if something begins to exist, then it had a cause for its beginning to exist. It does not claim that “Whatever events occur had a cause,” or something like that. Why is this important?

Because the objection is that quantum events do not have causes for those events occurring. Now some of us will see right away the issue: the skeptic is responding to things beginning to exist in terms of events occurring; it’s a category mistake. What the skeptic would need is to be able to say that the virtual particles come into existence and do so from no cause, or from nothing whatsoever. However, the entire point of the quantum vacuum that produces these virtual particles is that it’s just not “nothing,” it is a sea of energy, which is in fact “something.”

So we can see here it’s through the connecting of the dots we do when we understand both Craig’s causal premise and the objection’s claim that we understand the objection is actually irrelevant. Moreover, and incidental to this critique, is the naïve philosophy of science often demonstrated in this objection. The objection assumes an indeterministic interpretation of the empirical data, when the data is actually equivalent with a variety of interpretations—some of which are indeterministic, and some of which are deterministic, and it’s not the data that can tell us which one is right. For all we know, the apparent indeterminacy is merely epistemological—that is, it merely appears to us as though these events have no causes. But beyond this, the whole point is that even if it turns out the events have absolutely no causes, it won’t follow the virtual particles have no causes for their beginning to exist; that cause will be the sea of energy of the quantum vacuum; the particles do come from somewhere.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Problem with Man Worship

Man-worship is a real problem in modern Christianity. And no, I don’t mean the explicit and obvious kind where people are actually bowing down and serving men, though I’m sure someone, somewhere in America actually does this. Rather, I’m talking about theological and philosophical heroes of the faith that we have propped up on a pedestal. This surely needs to stop, as there is only one God, and that is the God of Christianity.

Let me give you an example of something I need to be careful of. I’ve already written, in the past, about making sure we don’t get ourselves too attached to any one scholar. This is a very closely related topic. I want to put myself in the shoes of someone who might be accused of man worship. Specifically, I had to ask myself two questions. First, is there anything on which I disagree with William Lane Craig? If the answer is “no,” then I’m almost assuredly suffering from at least one of two maladies: I’ve either not thought hard enough about some issues, or else I’m engaging in man worship. Second, if someone were to disagree with William Lane Craig, what would be my first reaction?

To the first question, I can point to a few places where I either disagree with Craig or else haven’t firmly committed myself to his position. However, I tend to think he’s right far more often than he’s wrong!  To the second question, I have to admit that my initial reaction to hearing someone say Craig is wrong would be to attempt a defense of his view, whatever that might be. “Aha!” you might think. “Randy worships a man!” You never know: perhaps some of the time I may in fact be guilty of this. However, I believe the key is not having this natural reaction, but what we do with this natural reaction. Do we temper it, being willing to evaluate the claims and evidence and come to what we think is the right conclusion after all? Let’s be honest: we aren’t always interested in what’s true as much as what we would like to be true.

And here’s the kicker: at bottom, we worship men because we worship ourselves. It is we who are right; it is we who discovered the truth, on our own, thank you very much, and anyone who disagrees is either ignorant or insufficiently honest. This kind of pride can lead to a bizarre kind of pseudo-intellectualism, where we uncritically accept whatever a leading figure says about, say, inerrancy, and applaud away while he makes the case for a specific interpretation of a passage, then says that to deny that interpretation is to deny what God has said!

The point is not that we cannot trust things that people say, nor is it that we should trust everything that those same people say. Both extremes must be avoided. Rather, we must ask ourselves if a particular viewpoint is allowed by Scripture, and what philosophy and theology have to say about it if it might be. No man worship should ever enter the equation—not even worship of ourselves. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Two New Blogs!

There are a couple of new blogs I wanted to highlight briefly and encourage you to view on a regular basis. They are written by a couple of guys who, together with me, comprise a philosophy group that meets on a weekly basis (usually, anyway). The first blog is by Ethan Tittle, and he calls it “Apologia Aletheias,” or a defense of the truth. It’s brand new, and so only has two entries, but he plans on writing more. He’s starting with a kind of statement of the beliefs he holds to be true, including starting with a very important one: the truths of God’s existence. Ethan will be more likely to respond to issues, in my opinion, that affect the whole person. Thus, those with an existential bent, mixed with some early modern philosophy, will find a kindred spirit here. I encourage you to check it out, and keep going back!

The second new blog I’d like to share with you is from Matt Files (and it should be called “The Matt Files,” though I’m not in charge). It’s actually called “Faith and Knowledge,” and he too has two posts available currently. A feature of Matt’s posts is that they all reflect, in some way or another, his testimony. Thus, those who value honesty, and seeing how apologetics, doctrine, theology, and the Christian faith work themselves out in the lives of believers will find an insightful example here. Please read both of these guys, and respond to them. In this way, we can all sharpen each other, both intellectually and spiritually.