Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Principle of Charity

In one of my classes, one of my professors frequently mentions the Principle of Charity (a good kind of PC, if you will). What exactly is this principle, and for what is it to be used? Let’s stipulate that PC is the following: When evaluating a particular claim or set of claims, if a claim is ambiguous, give it the “best” possible meaning.

This would mean, for example, if a claim can be taken in one sense in which it is logically incoherent, or another sense in which it is coherent, it should be taken in the coherent sense. If I say “Jesus is God,” and you therefrom infer that I believe in modalism, you probably aren’t exercising PC. Why? Because there is a definite sense in which I can be interpreted to be saying something that does not entail modalism.

Why should we do this? Why should we use PC? Well, it seems obvious to me that if someone can be taken in a certain way that would make them look foolish or silly, it’s not typically a nice thing to do to make them look foolish. Second, it’s all too easy to jump in to strawmen and tear them apart. Without PC to guide us, it’s much easier for us to caricature an argument and make the person say what they did not intend to say. But what if it’s apparent that the person does in fact intend to say something incoherent, or that has absurd results, or patently false? Does PC have anything for us in these cases?

I think it does. I think PC should still apply to us, because we may be able to construct an even stronger argument against our position. Now why would we want to do that? First, because we must always be open to the possibility that we are wrong. None of us is perfect; all of us make mistakes in reasoning. If we can construct a strong biblical, theological, or philosophical argument that at least has its roots in our opponent’s reasoning such that we should abandon our earlier position, then so be it. PC has served us well. Second, using PC to construct a stronger argument means we may be able to make corrections or improvements to our argument or position that we may not have otherwise seen. We can, and should, always accept correction to make our position stronger, even if we do not change it, and PC facilitates that. Finally, using PC to construct a stronger argument means that, if our position wins out, we have beaten stronger objections to it than were first presented. In fact, if we always apply PC, this will ensure that we have faced (and overcome) the strongest objections to our positions that are out there. A tested position that comes out of such a fight intact and/or improved is a position that comes out stronger.

I believe the implications for both apologetics and theological discourse among Christians are obvious. The fact that we should engage in PC with our brothers and in evangelism strikes me as almost obvious. And the final, sad, but still obvious fact of the matter is that far too often, we do not exercise PC even with those who are of the household of faith (myself included). That must change!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mailbag: Natural Theology and Atheism

Jonathan writes, “Hi Randy :). Having dealt with a lot of Presuppositionalists in my spare time, one common objection that I hear to arguments from natural theology is that these arguments are unnecessary since Romans 1 teaches that everyone already knows that God exists. My question is whether or not you agree with this assessment.”

There’s a certain sense in which I agree with the claim that everyone already knows that God exists, but no, I do not agree with using that as an assessment of natural theology. Romans 1 is fundamentally about the Gospel, and Paul delves into an excursus (as is often his custom) to describe the need for the Gospel. In v. 18 he speaks of those who “suppress the truth.” This is going to be crucial for an understanding of “know.” In v. 19, the Bible says God has made knowledge of him evident to them. He then also references creation as mediating this knowledge (v. 20). But notice something interesting in vs. 21 and 28: that knowledge they have is suppressed, and they don’t like to retain God in their knowledge. As such, their understanding is “darkened” and they now have a “depraved” mind. Rom. 2:14-15 speaks of Gentiles’ conscience either accusing or else excusing (or alternatively “defending”) them.

Paul’s point in Romans 1 is that their knowledge is suppressed and is meant to condemn. Thus, I totally don’t understand any objection that says, “Everyone already knows God exists,” since it means nothing like, “Everyone already has knowledge sufficient for the acceptance of the Gospel, so natural theology is redundant.” How bizarre! The arguments of natural theology can be viewed as evangelistic, albeit on an intellectual level, when given to unbelievers. Why think that because they have sufficient knowledge so that suppression is culpable, we shouldn’t make any further effort? Is culpable unbelief the goal of natural theology? Surely not!

Now it’s worth asking if every atheist is therefore a lying, dishonest person, or else functioning poorly according to their design plan. I’m sure that some of them are dishonest, and I’m sure that some of them might be functioning poorly, but I’ve got no way of knowing what kind of percentages those might run us. As a matter of charity, it might be best not to presume these things. So how might we make sense of this? Well, it seems to me that this suppression could come as more or less a psychological side effect of living as though the Creator does not exist: worshipping the creation (look at the borderline-religious obsession that the culture at large superficially has with science), not having a thankful attitude toward God, idol worship (whether explicit or implicit), sexual immorality, sinful behavior, etc. Any one or all of these could be sufficient for such a side effect as this. And then, it’s quite easy to see how someone might come to doubt, intellectually, the existence of God. After all, most all of us, including myself, have to fight the psychological temptation to agree/disagree with someone based on whether I like the person enough (or dislike them enough). You like the person, you find ways to defend them. You hold that a position is immoral and think people who do that are bad, then you find that a good friend engages in this behavior—suddenly, you come to doubt that it is bad. No intellectual change in the information or argument took place; instead, a psychological side effect brought about a change in one’s knowledge. If the knowledge previously held was strong enough, there could even be a suppression of that knowledge for the sake of psychology. I’m sure no atheist will take kindly to what I’ve said here, though I do think it’s closer to correct than to say that all of them are consciously lying.

Finally, and to wrap it all up, it seems the critique of natural theology in Romans 1 both is not taught by the passage and seems utterly bizarre. The point of natural theology is not to condemn the unbeliever, but to utilize all of the evangelistic tools in our arsenal, intellectual, emotional, and volitional, in hopes that the unbeliever will respond to the work of the Spirit in his heart and mind. What could be wrong with that?!

This also seems like a good place to provide a link to a podcast covering some of these same issues. In it, William Lane Craig refers to me as “Andy Everist,” probably because Stephen Law originally did. Here’s the link! http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-reason-lead-to-atheism-or-theism

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Principle of Bivalence and Tensed Truths in Possible Worlds

The Principle of Bivalence (PB) says, basically, that for any proposition P, either P or not-P.[1] That is, PB says P is either true or false. A possible world is something like a maximal description of propositions (like P) or else states of affairs (which of course contain propositions). This can seem like a problem for the Molinist who embraces an A-theory of time (more on that later), since, if a possible world W contains a maximal description of all propositions, this will include tensed propositions. An A-theory of time states that tensed-talk, like “He will do such-and-such,” or “She was there,” etc., all express real features of objective reality, and not merely subjective experiences. That is to say, A-theorists about time think that tensed-talk is all true, instead of a literally false but linguistically unavoidable heuristic (as on a B-theory). So what’s supposed to be the problem?

Well, if an A-theory is true, then descriptions of W are going to include tensed truths like “Jim will eat a hot dog in one hour.” But what sense does that make in W, which is a complete description of all propositions? It seems that proposition would be both true and false. “I know how to solve this,” you might think, “Just point out that ‘Jim will eat a hot dog in one hour,’ is a tenseless statement roughly equivalent to, ‘Jim eats the hot dog at time t+1h,’ where t is some specific time, and the +1h is meant to indicate the tenseless ‘later-than’ relation.” I think that’s a very correct account of what’s going on. But then notice it seems that, if Molinism is true, tensed statements don’t appear to be a part of possible worlds. We thus seem to have to jettison A-theory, Molinism, this particular account of possible worlds, or some combination. None of that seems appealing.

So how can we solve this? This is where PB comes in. The objecting argument above has assumed something like this is true:

It must be the case that one of the following is true in W:

1.     Jim will eat a hot dog in one hour.


2.     Jim will not eat a hot dog in one hour.

To see why this is fallacious, consider this proposition: “I still beat my wife.” According to PB, supposedly anyway, it must be that either one of the following is true:

3.     I still beat my wife.
4.     I do not still beat my wife.

But notice the problem? This implies: a) that you beat your wife, and b) that you have a wife. Perhaps it is the case that one or both of these conditions is unsatisfied. So do we say PB has gone wrong? Not at all. Instead, PB actually isn’t saying, necessarily, either (3) or (4). Instead, what is necessary is either (3) or

5.     It is not the case that I still beat my wife.

Now (5) can be asserted just in the case that: a) you no longer beat your wife, b) you did not ever beat your wife, or c) you do not have a wife. And from this it becomes apparent that (3) or (5) is the state of affairs that PB demands, not (3) or (4). And from this, it becomes apparent what our application will be. For it is not (1) or (2) that is being demanded by PB, but instead (1) or

6.     It is not the case that Jim will eat a hot dog in one hour.

Taken this way, PB demanding (1) or (6) means (6) can be asserted under the following conditions: a) Jim does not exist in W (that is, he is uninstantiated in W); b) that tensed statements are false; c) hot dogs do not exist in W. Let’s stipulate (a) and (c) are unsatisfied (that is, Jim and hot dogs are instantiated in W). So, (b) isn’t open to the Molinist who is an A-theorist, right? Wrong!

The Molinist can just employ William Lane Craig’s strategy of saying that time had a first moment, and, thus, God is timeless without the creation, and in time subsequent to it.[2] This means that, logically prior to the first moment of time, no tensed propositions were true; nothing like (1) would be true, (6) would instead. Then, propositions like (1) would become true (see that objective becoming, just like A-theory says?!) upon both: a) God’s actualizing the world, and b) the relevant time applying. So (1), for example, would still be false, until one hour prior to the state of affairs of Jim’s eating a hot dog.[3] Thus, it seems the Molinist can have his cake and eat it too, at least with respect to the A-theory, a first moment in time, and possible worlds semantics.

[1] I am deliberately mixing this with the Law of Excluded Middle for simplicity; just take the not-propositions as affirming that the “false” side of the original proposition is true.

[2] William Lane Craig, “Timelessness and Omnitemporality,” Philosophia Christi, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2000:), 29-33.

[3] Interestingly, this type of proposition (1) can be false, become true, become false again, and then become true, because it’s not dependent on any specific hot dog; it is true just in case the state of affairs Jim’s eating a hot dog is true one hour from the point in time objectively considered.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My First Brush with Apologetics

It was Spring Break of 2002, and I was right in the middle of my freshman year at Trinity Baptist College. A group went to Daytona Beach every year during spring break to do some beach evangelism. It was a truly interesting experience. You’d think people would react negatively to us disrupting their good times, but this wasn’t always true. In fact, just as often as not, people were quite polite to us, and many were glad to have a simple conversation about God, Jesus, Christianity, and Heaven and Hell.

We were instructed to remain in pairs, but on the second day, a conversation naturally separated the person I was partnering with. I soon found myself literally surrounded by a half-dozen or so college students approximately my age. One or two of them was relatively nice, but quite adamant that “The New Testament can’t be trusted, because Paul didn’t even write any of the letters that it says he did. The whole thing was written like 200 years after Jesus was around!”

While they were relatively nice, they were adamant enough (and perhaps not self-aware enough) that they were almost literally in my face (I like my personal space, however, so this may be more a result of my memory of how I felt than my memory of what exactly happened). What I did, in response to being told this is what his professors taught at his university, was to shrug my shoulders. I remember clearly having no idea what to tell them, but also feeling that that accusation sounded ridiculous. All I said was, “I don’t know what to tell you guys, but Paul wrote that stuff in the 50s and 60s, not a couple hundred years later.” I had nothing really more to say, and they had nothing with which to give evidence to their statements either, so it really just ended as a stalemate of assertions, and they went on their way.

I look back now, and I know that I would have asked them for evidence demonstrating this, I would have pointed out that there’s no way the writings of Paul were written that late, we could have discussed manuscript fragments that date earlier than when they thought some of these things were written, we could have talked about 1 Corinthians being regarded by the vast majority of NT scholars as authentically Pauline, etc. Instead, I didn’t know any of these things. And, while my faith was not in any way shaken (because it really happened to be very little more than “My professor says you’re wrong”), I found myself frustrated because I had no idea what to say. While I didn’t start studying apologetics in any real fashion for several more years, that was an experience I will always carry with me. What was your first experience with Christian apologetics? Comment below!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How Should We Feel about False Doctrine?

How should we feel about false doctrine? That’s quite an interesting question. Many times, debates get out of hand precisely because we are reactive about our answer to this, instead of proactive. Why would that be a problem? Mainly because then our pride gets in the way. “He didn’t agree with me when I obviously am right—and he even seems to think my view is stupid! I’d better let him know who’s the real stupid one!” And off we go.

Doctrine in Christianity is very important. There’s no doubt about that. But there’s also a difference between disagreeing with someone about the identity of the two witnesses in Revelation and disagreeing with someone about who Jesus is! This is where “theological triage,” made popular by Al Mohler, really comes in handy. But I’m asking a slightly different question: How should we feel about false doctrine?

That naturally leads us to the question of what false doctrine is. Is it just any teaching that we believe is not true? In that case, there seems to be a variety of feelings we could (and probably even should) have. Is it any teaching that, by embracing, one has removed himself outside of Christian orthodoxy? Or is it any teaching that, by embracing, one has removed himself from the Gospel altogether (these are not all one and the same). I submit that “false doctrine” carries the connotation, in normal Christian usage, of deceptive teaching as it relates to the core doctrines and/or a false teaching about the Gospel message (with respect to salvation).

So how should we respond to this particular form of false teaching? There is a sense in which we can (and maybe even should) be angry. That someone would deceive others by false teaching straight into Hell should incense us! 2 John 9-10 says it well: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. . . . If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed.” However, this becomes tricky when we’re reactive. When we’re reactive, even in these situations, even though it is ostensibly about God, it’s really about us. We need to be willing to show the love and patience of God. We love them and treat them well, but we do not condone their actions nor give them aid in their work.

What about those with whom we disagree? Well, I think we ought to refrain from being angry with them. We have our reactive and pet doctrines/teachings, and we often say things to people online we never would say in real life (perhaps partially because we tend to objectify people [view them as objects]). This doesn’t mean we can never correct people, or instruct people in greater doctrinal truths. This doesn’t mean we must be passionless with respect to the things of God. This will mean a minimization of self, and it will mean a seeking to place the concerns of your brother or sister into full view (cf. Phil. 2:4).

I firmly believe this is the sticking point. We should not be seeking to tear down these others. We should not be seeking to lift up ourselves. We should not be angry with people for teaching things we do not necessarily embrace. We should seek the welfare of our fellow Christians, deeper understanding, and teachable moments, as well as being willing to change our own position if needed. What do you all think?