Monday, June 30, 2014

Houston, We Have a Perception Problem

We have a perception problem. By “we,” I mean Christian philosophers and apologetics. What is that problem, and is it a fair one? What should we do about it? While I won’t claim to have all the answers to these questions, I am hoping to get some discussion going with respect to these issues.

First, many of us don’t seem to be the most well-adjusted people, socially speaking. By this I mean that people are often flabbergasted by the way we interact with others, especially online. Hardly a Facebook status goes by that we don’t correct some “minor problem” or challenge something someone has said. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes this needs to be done. But I can tell you, if you have friends in the “real world,” it doesn’t need to be done that often. In fact, sometimes, if we have nothing “normal” to contribute, it’s best just to hit “like” and move on. People don’t care, frankly, whether numbers exist, or if their statement was precise enough. As long as you understand what is being said, my recommendation is not to bring it up. And if you don’t understand what is being said, philosophically, and it’s not meant to be philosophical, either think about it alone in private or else discuss it with someone who is interested in these issues. Right now, the perception is that Christian philosophy and apologetics is for weirdoes (smart ones, but still weirdoes). I believe this also can come down to a matter of pride. We want people to notice how smart we are. It feels good when they do. So we make something a complex issue so that we can hijack the conversation into something that’s more about us. That probably needs to stop!

Second, we have the perceived problem that our discipline is either irrelevant or largely irrelevant to everyday life. Sure, the thinking goes, apologetics and even Christian philosophy can keep good theology going, and answer doubts, and help along evangelism—but what about the committed Christian who does not have these doubts and who already has sound theology? What difference does all this make to the average man in the pew? Of what practical use is this?

Of course, I don’t think this thinking is correct; that’s why I said it was a perceived problem. Nonetheless, a perceived problem by the average man in the pew is ultimately an actual problem for us to overcome. What most people don’t realize, but many contemporary preachers do, is that good theology is practical. It works! It’s all a matter of conveying the point of theology and how to live it out. It was once said to me (something along the lines of) “If you don’t understand how to apply a particular point in theology, then you don’t fully understand that particular point in theology.” I think that’s quite true. For Christian philosophy, we need to be able to relate specific points in philosophy and apologetics to specific points of practicality for the average man. No, this cannot always be done in every post (this is because, inevitably, every post would be a popular-level post). But it should be done in the appropriate context. So, if you want to convince your church to take part in apologetics, you should not only extol the general intellectual benefits of apologetics, but link it to practical issues as well. This could be done by linking philosophy to theology and doctrine, and using those points of doctrine as applied in life. So, for example, knowing Christ is a divine person enables us to see that he could not sin; knowing Christ could not sin means it was never even possible that he would fail in his mission. A God who cannot fail morally is a God who is the perfect being, and Jesus could therefore be the sacrifice for sins. Following the example of Jesus Christ in submission to the Father, therefore, is the best example we could follow!

Finally, I want to give one last point. We don’t want to overplay our hand. We don’t want to say that everything is necessary to understanding theology, or the Christian life. Instead, we want to show that philosophy and apologetics are relevant to the Christian life; they can help not only the intellectually curious, but also the person in the pew who never does much with apologetics or philosophy at all! What do you guys think?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Don't Get Too Attached to Any One Scholar

Most anyone who has read my articles or blog posts for any length of time knows that I really like William Lane Craig. In point of fact, one of my projects this summer has been to read the extremely expensive scholarly works of Craig, that virtually no one I know has ever read. I do this via inter-library loan (hooray!), and I’ve read Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity (where Craig shows that the Einsteinian interpretation of spacetime and Special Relativity is fundamentally predicated on old-line verificationism, which has long since been shown to be incoherent), and I’m in the process of reading The Tensed Theory of Time, which will be followed by his The Tenseless Theory of Time. Craig has been a huge influence on my philosophical and apologetic thinking. I’m a Molinist, for crying out loud! Aside from my initial interaction with apologetics through Ravi Zacharias, he was the first apologist I read that dealt with the classical arguments for God’s existence.

All that said, I have to follow my own advice here: don’t get too attached to any one scholar. Why? Well, first, it’s not helpful to have a myopic view of any one man who isn’t the one and only Jesus Christ. As an example, I once checked out a school who was absolutely in love with a particular scholar (this fact was unbeknownst to me at the time). Although it wasn’t a policy or anything, every person I spoke with independently told me I should really read and absorb absolutely everything said by this one guy, and he was the greatest, and theology without this guy was pretty bad off, and so on. I’m not saying all this to insult the school (that’s why I’ve tried to give no dead give-away details); I’m just saying such a view of a finite person gives blind loyalty to someone for whom it is not due.

Second, even if you can overcome the first problem, having myopia with respect to a scholar can blind you to theological/philosophical insights from those whom you would not normally (or maybe ever) read. This is huge: why cut yourself off from insights into the truth? I used to preface nearly every quotation of a scholar with something like, “Now, I don’t necessarily agree with everything so-and-so says,” because I felt like if I quoted from someone, it implied I agreed with all sorts of things. Why would I think a thing like that? You don’t have to agree with everything (or even most things) in order to learn from someone.

So what should we do about it? We should seek to apply sound biblical, theological, and philosophical principles to people around us—especially other Christians. This will help us get at the truth—truth we may not ever have realized had we been so myopic. No, I am not saying you should wholesale agree with all sorts of things. And I do recognize that, occasionally, actually often, there are many sources that would have very little to say that could help you biblically, theologically, or philosophically. My major thrust is not for you to learn from every man, but rather for you to learn from more that one man, or more than one type of man.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Popular Level Conversations

Most of Internet debate is not scholarly wisdom seeking understanding and mutual respect. Instead, it tends to be an attempted validation of an already-acquired intellectual position, no matter the cost. What that translates to, unfortunately, is insults masquerading as intellectualism. People are, generally, less interested in the truth than in validating whatever worldview they happened to imbibe from the TV, college, and surrounding culture. There are, of course, many people who are exceptions (and it’s also true that the Internet tends to bring out the worst in us).

So what’s the alternative? Well, we could just take abuse on the Internet, but that doesn’t seem very appealing, or fruitful. We could just abandon the Internet. But then the only popular level treatments of things will be non-Christian, and we’ve already seen how disastrous it can be to leave an area of life without Christian influence. Instead, perhaps we can continue to progress in our scholarly goals, refuse to be drawn into fruitless engagements, and use the popular level to show people that it is at least rational to be a Christian. For those who don’t want to know, literally nothing we say will convince them. For those who are genuinely seeking for something, may this attitude and trajectory be what God uses to have them realize the truth. What do you all think about how we can do this?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

GotQuestions?' article on Molinism Misses the Mark

I want to write briefly on the popular website and their treatment of Molinism. As opposed to many who write popular level discussions on Molinism, this treatment understood Molinism (so I think)—at least on a basic level. I only have a few qualms about the article—really, I mostly take issue with the conclusion, which comes so far out of left field, it’s really quite inexplicable.

While it is true that GotQuestions really doesn’t get middle knowledge 100% correctly (e.g., the counterfactuals in middle knowledge are not just any counterfactuals, as some of these are not known in God’s middle knowledge, but instead are specifically counterfactuals of creaturely freedom), that little mistake doesn’t tend to affect any portion of their criticism.

So what is their criticism of Molinism? Well, first, they have a minor critique against the Molinist who “insists” that Molinism/middle knowledge is true on biblical grounds. In point of fact, while laymen may make this mistake, no scholarly defender of middle knowledge even “insists” Molinism or middle knowledge is true at all, regardless of the grounds! Further, Molinists who bring up the text usually argue that it is compatible with the text, and/or the text suggests it, and advise philosophical reflection. In point of fact, this is precisely how William Lane Craig argues the position—that one must have philosophical reflection to arrive at a conclusion with respect to Molinism.

The major criticism goes on to say, “Molinism is not the best way to think about God’s sovereignty and human free will,” and even “The biblical descriptions of God’s sovereignty appear to be more robust than the account given by the Molinist.” However, strangely, they affirm, in the very next sentence, “With that in mind, it should be noted that the Molinist would agree with everything said in the above paragraph” (emphasis added).

Given what was said, there’s really only one way that is true. That’s if they weren’t Molinists! Molinists don’t think that Molinism is not the best way to think about God’s sovereignty and human free will; it’s precisely the opposite. But let’s cut them a break. They seem to be acknowledging that Molinists affirm all of the biblical data and want to preserve both God’s sovereignty and human free will. So if that’s all true, then how is this an objection to Molinism? They don’t say. It just is. In point of fact, it can only be an objection to Molinism if those texts teach causal determinism, which is not even asserted by the GotQuestions article, much less argued for.

The final paragraph is a huge jumble of a mess. It is claimed that where Molinists and Calvinists disagree most is on the old lines of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. One might be able to accept that, except, bizarrely, they claim these lines are total depravity and limited atonement. I have two words: citation needed. Realistically, the big problem Molinists have with Calvinism is whether or not counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are known to God logically prior to the divine decree (Molinism and middle knowledge) or posterior to the decree (Calvinism); basically, it is whether or not causal determinism or libertarian free will is true.

Finally, and again out of left field, the supposed Calvinist criticism of Molinism is framed in terms of divine simplicity, divine timelessness, and immutability. But these are all incidental to Molinism! Not only can one take one side or the other and be a Molinist, but one can take one side or the other and be a causal determinist! There are those who believe in God’s omnitemporality, those who believe in God’s atemporality, and those who espouse a hybrid view who are all Molinists, and none of them is in conflict with one another with respect to middle knowledge. Second, this is just not the type of objection Calvinists bring against middle knowledge.

In short, the biblical text is granted as accepted by Molinists and the philosophical critiques are literally irrelevant. I was very surprised by this, because usually poor critiques of Molinism leave evidence of serious misunderstanding. On the contrary, I found their recapitulation of the basic idea of middle knowledge and Molinism to be correct in all of the relevant respects for this debate. Whatever the motivation, however, they don’t seem to have a good objection to Molinism.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What to Do with a PhD?

I’ve already written on a defense of the PhD in general before. This time, I’d rather write about why I am doing a PhD. That is, I will write about what I expect or what I’d like to do with such a degree, Lord willing.

In one of the points of that article, I said I would want to use my PhD in service of the church. I’ve come to realize how serious that is, and I want to think though, almost in a stream-of-consciousness post, how I might go about doing that.

My PhD would be in either philosophy or theology. So how might that help? Well, given my biblical studies and church ministries backgrounds, I would hope that rigorous philosophical thinking would contribute in some way. First, I could help teach believers how to think theologically, viewing the Bible as a whole. Second, I could help believers in the area of biblical interpretation. This second point is perhaps the biggest contribution I could make in the faith of the layman (depending on the person, of course). This is because believers can be taught basic doctrines, and even the basic reasoning behind these doctrines. This is surely important. However, in order to help them to take better steps in using the Scriptures themselves, they need to be able to understand how to interpret what they see before them. If there is one widespread error in the church today, it’s a failure to interpret properly.

Next, I can also assist in Christian apologetics and Christian philosophy. These two areas focus on every part of the Christian life. As the world around us turns more and more against the Christian faith, both in intellectual and cultural ways, Christians are going to want to know how their faith works in the world—or if it even does at all. A PhD in philosophy and theology is better equipped, on average, than laymen to help address these issues (please note this is stream-of-consciousness and not meant to impart an idea of superiority, any more than saying a pastor is better equipped to counsel implies pastoral superiority). It is perhaps the case that young people will not feel compelled to choose between what everything in the intellectual world is telling them and their Christian faith. As it turns out, they don’t have to!

All of this considered, I could do this as a Sunday school teacher, small group leader, conference speaker, and assistant pastor. Perhaps I will see all of these roles over the course of my ministry. I want to equip believers, and although a PhD is not necessary for any of these things, it will be a help for them.