Sunday, February 22, 2015

What's Wrong with Prooftexting?

So what is prooftexting? When I was younger, it seemed to me that prooftexting was a good thing. It is, at its root, finding biblical support for a theological or doctrinal idea. What could be wrong with that? Plenty, as it turns out. This article will explore some reasons why and some examples.

First, prooftexting is problematic because it seeks to justify an idea as taught in the Bible that was likely formed without the Bible. Now I’m not an advocate of the view that says the only truths we can know about God are explicitly taught in His Word. However, I do think if you want to claim the Bible teaches something, you cannot decide what it teaches beforehand and then go try to find it in the Bible. Most often, this is what is being done with prooftexting.

Second, prooftexting is often done without any (or at least with very little) regard for the context and intent of the passage. The most egregious (and, sadly, most common) examples of this include what is often called “shotgun prooftexting,” where people mention a teaching or idea and follow it up with a series of references, sometimes containing no quotations (or just a brief phrase) and no explanation whatsoever. Some very prominent and popular theologians do this an alarming number of times in some very popular systematic theology books. What follows are types or kinds of prooftexting.

1.     “So what do you do with…?” Prooftexting

This is most often done as an attempt to prove a doctrinal or theological position without actually giving a positive explanation of the text. The onus is squarely placed on the opponent; the underlying claim is that if the person does not have an adequate explanation, then the questioner wins by default, without having to do any work whatsoever. The problem presents itself immediately with a counter-question: Suppose I don’t do anything with it. Now what? Well, now it’s up to the original questioner to do more work, that’s what. Merely saying, “What do you do with Psalm 90:2?” won’t cut it as an argument.

2.     Quoting-the-verse Prooftexting

This is done usually with one sentence or so of explanation (which really amounts to a claim) and then the quotation of a verse, or even just part of one. So, continuing to use Psalm 90:2, here’s what it would look like: “Timeless views of God are unable to be reconciled with the plain teaching of Scripture. Psalm 90:2 says, ‘From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.’” This type of prooftexting, like all others, is a failure to acknowledge theological and philosophical presuppositions, a failure to draw inferences, and a failure to consider the exegetical study of the actual text. It doesn’t make the view that God is in time right or wrong, but it does mean merely doing this isn’t going to work.

3.     Shotgun (Citation) Prooftexting

One would think this wouldn’t be as prominent among professional theologians, but it is surprisingly common. The idea is that if one shows several, if not dozens, of Scripture references that seem to teach the idea, then how could any Bible-believing, God-fearing Christian disagree? There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work: first, because it’s not always (or even usually) clear on why particular passages are being used (or how they are being used). Since no explanation is given, it’s up to one’s imagination far too often. Second, it shows literally no work in trying to understand the intent of the text. The defense for this is often “Well, this is the obvious and clear meaning of Scripture,” but that’s a lazy-man’s defense (in most cases). Third, it has no regard for the immediate and broader context. If you don’t know the message of the book nor the immediately surrounding contents of the book where the reference is found, you could be mistaken in your interpretation: what was once clear and obvious becomes clouded, and, eventually (sometimes), it becomes clear that what you once thought the passage taught is false. Shotgun prooftexting is the worst, because it can’t even be bothered to tell you which part of the reference supports what they claim. If you have other examples, feel free to chime in!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Critique of "Why I Reject Molinism"

When I want to view a critique of Molinism and give it a critique itself, it’s often very difficult for me not to analyze and critique the entire piece, bit-by-bit. However, for this particular piece about rejecting Molinism, I will try to restrain myself. I hope this critique comes off as loving a fellow brother, and not too adversarial.

While there are a couple of questionable statements/claims made in the first paragraph, I will move on to his actual discussion on Molinism. He lays out the three logical moments, but I can’t help but notice his discussion on natural knowledge is incorrect. He writes of the content of natural knowledge: “facts that are simply true, like 2+2=4.” But this is not quite right. They’re not “simply” true: they’re necessarily true. It’s also vitally important to note that two of the three logical moments are utilized by every scholarly faction from the Aquinas-era onward (natural and free) and are largely non-controversial. It was only middle knowledge that served a controversy. Thus, in rejecting natural knowledge (if that crops up again) one is only rejecting Molinism insofar as one is rejecting, well, virtually everyone but William of Ockham.

Another potential issue—and this is one that many lay-Molinists have not done a good job on—is that there isn’t, at this juncture, any discussion on why it is called “natural knowledge.” It’s called natural knowledge because it relates to what is known in God’s nature itself. Many theologians and most Molinists take this to mean that God’s nature is the ground of or is the content of these truths (which include truths of objective moral values, mathematical truths, and other necessary truths, including all possibilities, since whatever is possible is necessarily possible). This may become vitally important later on.

He then lists middle knowledge and says a discussion shall be had on it later, and does not offer anything on free knowledge at this point. While giving a slightly malformed first definition of middle knowledge, he does get the second one right by discussing God’s knowledge of what anyone would do if they were placed into a set of circumstances. There is, however, a bit of ambiguity in his initial summary statement. “And God didn’t get to decide these things.” Which things? The truth-values of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (hereafter CCFs)? The Molinist will agree. Whether or not a world obtains where some specific CCFs come into play? The Molinist will disagree. It is up to God which world is actual.

In his first passing critique of Molinism, he overstates his case a bit. I think this is plausibly more due to careless wording than an actual implication he was trying to make. He said that if one gives forth “enough mental effort,” then one will see Molinism is self-contradictory. But that’s plainly false: plenty of people have put in vast amounts of mental effort, and they’re not lacking in intellectual ability. So the best of what he could mean is that some people believe Molinism is self-contradictory, and he offers no reasons why.

It turns out that the natural knowledge critique comes back after all, when the author insists that there are facts that are “simply true” and God has nothing to do with them. But we’ve already seen that’s just a misunderstanding of Molinism, probably due to unfamiliarity with more academic sources. However, another problem that plagues this critique is that it seems to import notions into theological terms that many Christians may not agree with. For example, by “coming from God,” and “sovereignty,” he seems to mean something like “God’s will.” Thus, if there are things that are not up to God’s will, then it is outside of his sovereignty, and thus is denying God’s sovereignty. If this is not what is meant, it’s just not clear what the critique is supposed to be.

However, this is a misunderstanding of his own tradition (assuming he is either Calvinist or otherwise Reformed), as well as most Christian thought. Christians have not generally supposed, nor argued, that God should do the logically impossible; that is, logical “limits” have not traditionally actually been considered limits. In fact, as was mentioned, if God’s nature is identified with logic, it’s just consistent with the Biblical witness: it explains why God cannot lie, why he cannot deny himself, etc. If one wants to say God could create his own nature, we’ll be talking gibberish before the end of the first paragraph (since in order to create his own nature, he must first have the ability to create his own nature, which property will itself be part of his own nature). So it is, I take it, almost obvious that logical “limits” are really just God being who he is, and none other.

Now let’s apply this to discussions on CCFs. Who actually gives man libertarian freedom, on Molinism? God did. He sovereignly chose to give man his freedom. Why can God not do that, again? Next, we must consider the truths of CCFs. Consider worlds W and W-1, where Randy exists in a particular set of circumstances in both. Now it is either true or false that, if Randy were in those circumstances, then he would either freely do X or not do X. Suppose that Randy would not freely do X in W-1, and further suppose God wants Randy to do X in precisely those exact same set of circumstances. Well, God could force Randy to do X in exactly those circumstances. Or he could allow Randy to act freely, and Randy won’t do it (or he could alter the circumstances if relevant CCFs are true such that he could accomplish the goal of Randy doing X, but that’s not germane to this particular point). But notice what logic tells us cannot be the case: God cannot both bring about that exact set of circumstances and have Randy act freely and get world W. What he will get is—again, by logic—world W-1. This is huge, for it is clear there is no non-logical limit, and thus is just an expression of who God is, not a factor against him.

His next critique is that Molinism’s discussion of soteriology (which is really just William Lane Craig appropriating Molinism, but whatever) is impossible to reconcile with Isaiah 46:9-10, which states that God is declaring the end from the beginning. But why does he say this? He says the Bible does not portray God as knowing things. Surely he is mistaken here. However, I think we can be more charitable on a second glance: he probably means God is not portrayed as merely knowing, or being completely passive in the events of the world. And a Molinist can easily agree. Remember free knowledge? It’s knowledge of how God has ordered the world, based on his free choice (hence the name). Truths of natural and middle knowledge help inform what worlds are feasibly instantiated, and God freely chooses the world. But what is this world? Well, it’s a maximal set of circumstances: or, in other words, it declares, from the beginning to the end, precisely what will be the case. It is God’s purposing that every proposition in such a world be true, and will come to pass. And the Molinist can easily say “this is what Molinism teaches.” So what’s supposed to be the problem? He doesn’t say, and while I have my speculations on what philosophical ideas he has likely imported into his hermeneutic, I figure I’ll remain silent for now.

Another critique I have, and I hope he takes this well, is that he uses rhetoric that is not claimed by the Molinist. For example, he suggests Molinists believe God is “not up to snuff,” but no Molinist thinks that. Now an anti-Molinist may think that, because it denies God’s sovereignty, but this is precisely the point they are supposed to be proving by making this statement. Thus, it serves as a piece of rhetoric only.

In his second major critique, he claims Molinism views God and man as “autonomous” (able to make unconstrained choices). This, however, is wholly inconsistent with his earlier discussion that Molinism teaches that God is constrained. So which one is it? Will he abandon his earlier critique, or this one? Surely, if Molinists think that God is constrained, then so much the more for man. What he might mean, however, is “uncaused” choices. He then claims, however, that salvation is thereby “reduced” to a person’s response. But this conclusion doesn’t follow from any of the premises; there’s just no reduction. Why would it follow from libertarian freedom that salvation doesn’t entail Christ’s atoning work on the cross, or prevenient grace, or corporate or individual election, etc.? He doesn’t say.

However, there is another interpretation: he just meant that the idea of man having faith unto salvation is actually God having faith for them. He cites Ephesians 2:8, but he has an implicit understanding of that verse that is highly controversial, to say the least. Essentially, when it says “this is not of yourselves,” he is taking it to mean the faith of the person is not of yourselves. Many see “this” as referring to “saved;” this being saved is not of yourselves. Interestingly, he did not quote verse 9, which says “not of works, lest any man should boast.” This is interesting because everywhere, when the New Testament refers to justifying, converting faith, it contrasts it with works (James is not an exception—see how he is understanding “justified”). Thus, it is the issue of salvation and grace that fits the context. Thus, if faith is not a work, and we are exhorted to have justifying faith (numerous examples abound), then it is a purely theological import into the text to argue that faith must be from God.

His remark about God’s success with respect to those he wants to have saved is truly odd in light of the verse he chose. Philippians 1:6 only refers to believers, not unbelievers, and so has no application to God’s “success” rate with respect to those for whom Christ died. It’s an interesting term, “success.” He doesn’t really delve much into it; I suspect the term has more rhetorical use than substance.

The final prooftext is of the true fallacious variety. That is, it just quotes the verse and runs away. Without delving into it, since he didn’t, it’s worth noting that there are several exegeses of Romans 9 that do not agree with whatever conclusion he’s offering. It’s also worth noting one can say that the idea that people do not choose Hell contradicts Romans 9 itself: verses 31-32, which do say someone is condemned due to their rejection of faith.

The last critique is both rehashed and misguided. First, it is rehashed because it goes back to the discussion on God doing all he pleases. The idea is that if Molinists say God would like all to be saved, but can’t, then this contradicts Scripture. But this tends to treat words like “purpose, will, desire, please” as all perfectly synonymous, and that’s biblically dubious and philosophically flatly false. Take “God does all he pleases.” Why is this inconsistent with Molinism? By definition, God chose to instantiate this world over others, and other none at all. By definition, he is doing what he has pleased to do. It by no means follows that God is pleased by every event: that is biblically false (see where God is angry with sinners many, many times—he’s not pleased by their acts). So what’s supposed to be the problem?

Next, the critique is misguided, because he claims Molinists think there’s no purpose behind evil. Why he says this is mind-boggling. The only thing I can think of is that he thinks God has no control over whatever world comes to pass or something. But a simple reading of William Lane Craig and most Molinists will show that they do think God has purposes for allowing evil. So, why think that Molinists think God has no purpose in allowing evil?

I know this was a long critique, but the examples of the confusion surrounding Molinism abound. My personal belief is that it stems from a lack of theological and philosophical education, and is borne on the wings of the Internet. May God have mercy on us all! ;)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pet Peeve Words

This brief post will be on a series of words used in theological and philosophical discussions that I think should be banished, or only used with great care. I will list the word, and then why I think it’s time for it to go. Let me know if you’d like to add any more words, and why, below in the comments!

1.     Clearly/Obviously

Example: “The Bible clearly teaches that God is in time,” or “It is obviously the case that God causes humans to will what they do.”

Why it’s a problem: If the issue is controversial, then chances are it’s not so obvious or clear. In fact, this is usually done with one of the most controversial premises in the entire discussion with the effect of overstating the case. After all, since this is so clear and obvious, why can’t you see it, debate opponent? Perhaps it’s because you’re unintelligent, or you don’t care to see it, or you’re not Spirit-led! There are definitely some things that are clear and obvious in life, and in the Scriptures, but if there’s a genuine disagreement, then it’s probably not so obvious. This can also be used to cover for a lack of in-depth knowledge about a subject. That is, when someone doesn’t really have a whole lot to say to a counter-assertion, coming back with “Well, it’s just…obvious!” is a good way to cover. Again, sometimes it really is just obvious. But look at it this way: if you want your discussion partner to believe you, then you should provide a reason.

2.     Sovereign

Example: “God is sovereign, and so no human will can ever overcome his!”

Why it’s a problem: OK, so I’m being a little dramatic in saying this term should “go.” Rather, this is where I think this term should also be used with great care. I’ve found that, typically, people have trouble articulating exactly what they think “sovereignty” means, and even more trouble with arguing for what it entails. Some use it to mean something like “God’s absolute right to rule the universe and everything therein,” while others seem to take it to be synonymous with “providence,” while others take it to mean causal determinism. Too often, it’s just a loaded theological term imposed on a text rather than drawn out from it (bonus points if “obviously” or “clearly” is used once the theological import has been done). If we aren’t careful to tell each other what we mean by our terms, we run the very real risk of talking past one another.

3.     Autonomous

Example: “Man’s attempts at proofs for God’s existence are examples of autonomous reasoning that gets him to a pagan god only.”

Why it should go: “Autonomous” means a law unto oneself, and thus the idea is that doing whatever it is autonomously is attempting to do something away from the authority or rule of God, and is ipso facto sinful. It’s basically an attempt to win inter-Christian debates by definition. After all, if even engaging in whatever discussion on whatever side you’re on is sinful, then you have no choice but to be in agreement with your discussion partner, right? Virtually nothing makes my eyes roll faster. The fact of the matter is that our rational faculties are not a result of the Fall. They have been impacted, sure, but one cannot extrapolate to a general skepticism about theological knowledge. I think, in order to be charitable, I should point out that usually people who say this are careful to preserve the Scriptures as our final rule of faith and practice. That is, if we have an idea, and we search the Scriptures, and we’re really sure the Scriptures are incompatible with the idea, then it’s the idea that should go. This process becomes very, very tricky, since none of us can come to the text without presuppositions, background knowledge, etc. Because of this difficulty, some people perceive an adversarial relationship between human reasoning processes and the text. Surely, we need the Bible as the final rule of faith and practice—but it is just not the only source of any knowledge about God, and taken literally is incoherent.[1] Anyway, people aren’t usually trying to live free of God and his law when trying to reason about him. It’s better that we all just engage in whatever discussion is being had about God, instead of judging the heart motives of the other person.

[1] The nature of Sola Scriptura works only if we assume that humans are able to bring reasoning to bear on the text, and import that as part of the definition. If we cannot even reason about the text in order to derive its direct meaning, then we are forced to have an infallible interpreter, which none of us are, whom the Spirit acts on in revealing it specially to them. Since Protestants reject this, either Sola Scriptura is false or else it carries the idea of human reasoning with it. It’s also worth noting that God revealed himself in his act of creation prior to the Word of God, and also revealed himself specially to his creatures. Without God’s revelation, we would know nothing of him, but he has revealed himself!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Where Have I Been?!

I know it’s been quite some time since I have blogged about anything, but I wanted to give a brief update on what I have been doing!

First, I’ve been going to school. I know, I know, big surprise. I have nine credit hours on the docket this semester, but I’m taking the classes in interesting formats. For the regular, once-a-week three-hour-block classes, I’m taking a course on the Problem of Evil. That class has a ton of interesting reading, and requires us to write reading reviews on various essays. I’m also taking a class called Systems of Moral Philosophy, which is requiring (as my friends in the class can attest) a very large load of reading and writing on philosophers from the Pre-Socratics up through the modern day. My favorites were Plato and Aristotle, who were so close, and Hume, who was crazy. This class comes in the format of five consecutive Mondays from 8am-5pm, and then it’s over; it’s quite intense! I’m also taking a theology elective online, and that’s been fun.

In the midst of all of this, I work in the distance learning department of my school, and I’m trying to help train some new employees and contribute to a great learning environment for our students who live away from campus. I’m attempting to be a research assistant for Dr. Keathley, and I’m grading for him as well.

I’m also teaching two online courses this semester for Trinity Baptist College. The classes come in eight-week formats with very little overlap. I’ve been teaching Poetic Books, and next term it will be Doctrines 1 (starting the first week of March, I believe). It’s really fun to see the intellectual and spiritual growth that happens over the course of these short times. It really plants the seed for further ministry!

I’m coming relatively close to the end of my MA in Philosophy of Religion program—I’m set to graduate in December, Lord willing. Because of that, I need to get moving on my thesis. I have a tentative topic (can theistic conceptual realist accounts of God and abstract objects be compatible with Molinism?), but I have to get a prospectus together and get it approved. Speaking of graduation, I need to work toward applying to PhD programs, and in order to do that I must take the MAT and GRE. These tests can be very challenging, and so I need your prayers to do as well as I can!

On top of all of this, Jodi and I are about to start attending a training class leading to licensure for foster care in the state of North Carolina. We are excited, and a little nervous, about this kind of undertaking. We ask for your prayers for God’s blessing and power in our lives as we try to balance everything.

All this to say thanks so much for reading! I’ll post as much as I can as time goes on, and try not to allow large chunks of time to go between writing posts. God bless you all!