Friday, October 31, 2014

Does the Law Apply to Us?

Jesus said, in Matthew 5, that he did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. What did he mean here? What Law was he even talking about? Some have used this to claim that we are all still under the Law. Others have used it to emphasize that the Law is fulfilled, and thus we are no longer under the Law. The former approach is called the continuity approach. This approach has a variety of sub-approaches, but the general idea is that the Law of the Old Testament (OT) is fully binding on us today. There are two major ways the continuity approach tends to be applied. The first way is called theonomy, where the claim is that we ought to live, more or less, as OT Israel, and that the various OT laws ought to be not only practiced by us, but put into national law as well. The other way is to divide the Law up into ceremonial, moral, and civil, and claim that while Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial and civil laws, he did not destroy them, so that the moral law is binding.

The latter approach (of the two major approaches) is called the discontinuity approach. This approach teaches that the OT Law is totally unrelated to anything we are going through now, seeing that we are in a different dispensation. The major, or perhaps even only, reason we are required to fulfill any of the Ten Commandments is because they are generally repeated or endorsed in the New Testament.

Hermeneutically and theologically, continuity approaches have been favored by covenant theologians, and discontinuity approaches have been favored by dispensational theologians. I’m a big fan of middle ground (where I can), and it may be no surprise to those readers that I favor a semi-continuity approach, with a specific hermeneutic called principlism. First, however, let me list a few problems that tend to afflict the other two approaches. For continuity issues, the hermeneutic tends to be that the church is the new Israel, whereas national Israel has been completely cast off; the Abrahamic covenant is totally fulfilled in Christ, and there are no political or land promises for Israel yet future. Because the church has replaced Israel, the OT has a spiritual, or even allegorical, hermeneutic that applies to the church. This seems to me to be problematic, in that it seems to allow theology to drive the interpretation (more than it should, anyway). The discontinuity approach seems to leave the OT as irrelevant, at least with respect to grammatical-historical interpretation. Because the Law totally belongs to another dispensation, unrelated to the current one, there is one correct major interpretation that applies only to national Israel; thus, it has nothing to do with the church. Hence, when Jesus speaks of the new covenant, which seems to be almost obviously an allusion to Jeremiah, many here are forced to say Jesus was talking about a different new covenant, and not the new covenant in Jeremiah. On the other hand, in order to make the OT even remotely relevant for us (beyond mere academic/historical interest), a second hermeneutic takes place, one in which the content is spiritualized or allegorized in having meaning for the church. This is why Song of Solomon is often represented by some (though not all) as being about Christ and the Church. Essentially, it forces us to make some unwise hermeneutical choices, on both sides.

I’m still a dispensationalist (save your stones, people of both sides!), but I choose neither the continuity nor the discontinuity approach. I choose a semi-continuity approach. I believe the OT has a specific, grammatical-historical interpretation that applies to Israel, and that there are nationalistic/political promises to Israel that will be fulfilled in the future. However, I believe we need not resort to allegory to have the text have interpretive relevance for us. With the OT, this is where principlism comes in. Briefly, the view is that the Law is still in force, but not in the sense of the letter, but in the sense of the spirit of the Law. Every OT law had a “spirit” sense behind it, which is what the particulars of the law (the “letter” of the law, if you will) showed. For instance, there is the great example of the commandment forbidding Israel from cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk. Why would God forbid this? Or wearing mixed fabrics. Why is it wrong to wear cotton and polyester?!

The answer is because of what they symbolized: the ancient near east (ANE) cultures often boiled baby goats in their mother’s milk as a sacrifice to the pagan gods; Yahweh is saying, “You aren’t going to do that; you’re going to communicate by your actions that you serve one God.” So the symbolism involved here is not concerned with diet itself; it is concerned with the worship of the one true God, and thus is related to the first commandment. In not wearing mixed fabrics, Israel wanted to communicate they were a pure people to the cultures of the ANE, and that they served only one god, and they would not engage in syncretism (the fusing together of the true God and beliefs about him with pagan gods and beliefs). Again, this goes back to the first commandment.


So, semi-continuity says we are still under the spirit of these laws, and that they apply to everyone, everywhere. Idolatry was not morally permissible prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments, and neither was anything else listed there that would be forbidden. It’s the spirit of the law that is in view here, and the way we find that is by finding the correct principle behind these laws (the NT gives some great clues about some of these things, by the way), and obeying those principles of morality. The next post will tackle a common objection/issue: the Sabbath.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Three Problematic Premises and the Ontological Argument

In discussions on the Modal Ontological Argument (MOA) it is often pointed out that there is only one real premise; everything else is an entailed conclusion. That premise is, more or less:

1.     It is possible that God exists.

Now from this premise it follows that God does exist, by the rules of modal logic. Some people have suggested that the MOA does not truly succeed, since the opposite premise could be made:

2.     It is possible that God does not exist.

From the rules of modal logic and what we mean by God, this argument will have the conclusion that God does not exist. Since, for all we know (so the argument goes), either (1) or (2) is true, then the MOA must not be a good argument, since the proper response on these premises will be some kind of agnosticism (this would be true, so the argument goes, even if we have independently good reasons for thinking theism to be true, though I’m not sure how that works). But it’s worth noting that (2) is not the opposing premise to (1). So what is? Actually, it is this:

3.     It is not possible that God exists.[1]

This, I think, frames the discussion in the appropriate way. For now we want to weigh the opposing premises (not necessarily premises that entail each other’s falsehood) to see which of them bear the most plausibility, or from which we gather the most modal intuition. We may have an equal amount of intuition, initially, for (1) and (2) (I don’t, but that isn’t the point!). However, most people I know do not share an equal amount of intuition or prior plausibility for (1) and (3). Most people think that God’s existence is at least possible, at least stronger than they do think that God’s existence is impossible.

So what happens? If we deem the premise more plausibly true than false, or more plausible than its negation, then we find that the entailed conclusion of the MOA is that God actually exists! If that is the case, we actually have acquired a reason to think that (2) is false, or to prefer (1) to (2), thus breaking the stalemate we might have had. Why do I say that? Well, any reason for thinking God exists is a reason for thinking that the postulate that God’s existence is impossible is mistaken; but any reason for thinking that “God’s existence is impossible” is mistaken is a reason to think that (2) is false. This is because of the entailment commitments of (1) and (2). You could just as easily say by acquiring a reason to say God exists you’ve acquired a reason to say (2) is false, and because of entailments, any reason to think (2) is false is a reason to think (3) is false.

The takeaway is that someone will have to come up with a reason to embrace (3) in order to run the anti-MOA that results from (2). Someone will have to come up with a good reason to think God’s existence is impossible, or else we will be within our epistemic rights in believing that God’s existence is possible and, hence, God exists.



[1] Thus, we actually see the opposite of (2) is:

4. It is not possible that God does not exist.

Since (2) and (4) are entailments of (3) and (1), respectively (after all, if it is not possible that God exists, then, possibly, God does not exist; and if it is possible that God exists, then it is not possible that God does not exist, since God’s necessary existence turns out to be entailed by the MOA), then it only makes sense that it is (1) and (3) that oppose each other.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Video: Explaining some Christological Issues

Below is a video I recorded for a class I teach, just trying to discuss some issues in Christology. I hope you find this helpful, or at least interesting!

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.