Friday, June 30, 2006

Grace to All

As I said in a prior post, most if not all Protestants hold that those who do not put their trust in Christ will suffer eternal torment. I there asked how this could be just given that many have never heard the name of Christ. I'd like now to sketch an Augustinian response to this question. After I'll explain why I think it must be rejected.

What form does that Augustinian response take? (I don't mean to say that this is precisely what Augustine himself says. I'm no exegete and will not pretend that I am. But if what I say deviates from the line followed by Augustine, it is still like that line.) The Augustinian response says first that, in this post-Fall world, all are sinners and all are need in God's mercy. It infers from this that all, if condemned to eternal torment, are justly condemned. But why then are some saved from this fate? God's holds out his mercy to some and not to others and thereby makes a faith that will save them possible. How might he do this? He comes to some as He came to Saul on the road to Damascus. To others He gives pious parents who raise them up in the Faith. But no matter how He makes their faith possible, mercy is His reason, for all are sinners and all deserve damnation. Only by His mercy does God save some from this fate.

Of course we must now ask this of the Augustinian: Why does God choose only some and not others on which to bestow his grace? The answer cannot be that those whom He chooses deserved what was given them. No one deserves such a thing. It is a gift freely bestowed. It is not something in any way owed. Nor can the answer be that God makes mercy possible so that he might thereby increase the amount of good within the world, for if that were His motive He would surely grant the gift of faith to all. A world in which all are saved is surely in total better than a world in which only some are saved. But if our question cannot be answered in either of these two ways, it cannot be answered at all. No other answers present themselves.

(Might we say that a world in which some are saved and some damned is better than a world in which all are saved? Might it be that just punishment is such a great good that any very good world must contain many instances of it? This seems to run counter to the love ethic that is so clearly articulated in the New Testament. God wishes that all will be saved; and the damnation of even a single one is a very great tragedy, is something always to be greatly regretted.)

So then God's reason to bestow His grace upon these but not those is left a mystery.

Before I begin to lay out my objection to this, let me give the Augustinian response to the complaint that God acts unfairly when He bestows His grace upon some but not all. All are inveterate sinners; no one can raise himself out the morass of sin by himself. Rather every man, if left to himself, will sin without cessation. Thus if God damns you, you only get what you deserve; and the fact that some are shown mercy does not change the fact that, if He damns you, you were treated just as you deserve. Put a bit differently: that God shows mercy to one who has sinned sets up no obligation to show mercy to all who have sinned. Rather the mercy God shows is a purely gratuitous act and in no way lessens the guilt of those to whom He shows no mercy.

Let me now turn to my objection to this Augustinian story. It was hinted at above and is really quite simple. It is much better that all be saved than that only some be saved. Indeed of all the goods that are contingent, i.e that could either come to pass or not, it is one of the greatest. (The only greater of which I can think is the Incarnation.) Moreover, all could be saved and yet it not be the case that some greater good would thereby be sacrificed. Thus God, who of necessity acts so as to bring about a very good world, will act so as to insure that all are saved.

I do not pretend to know how this will happen. Perhaps those who are not saved in this world are saved in the next. Perhaps those who are not saved in this life will live another (and another and another . . .) until they are saved. But however it will be done, to let even a single one be damned is contrary to God's essential goodness. Thus all will be saved.

This is one of the elements of my faith, such as it is. Indeed in a way it is the foundation of my faith, its central tenet.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Is God Male?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has stirred up a bit of controversy. They have given their imprimatur to a host of new names for the Trinity. I'd like to focus upon one. It is this: Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-Giving Womb. Many conservatives, Albert Mohler and Joe Carter among them, have condemned the terminological novelty. They ask us instead to use only the names of God that God Himself uses in Scripture and thus ask us to reject the use of such feminine names for the Trinity.

My point of entry into this debate is the question, Is God male?

The simple answer of course is 'No'. God is not male. Male is a biological category; it is the category of life-forms whose organs of reproduction create sperm for the fertilization of ova. God does no such thing as this. Thus He is not male. (Christ was male. But does this imply that any of the three persons of the Trinity is male? Surely not. To use the language of John, Christ was the union of the Logos and a particular human male. Christ qua human was male. Christ qua Logos was not. The Logos - the second person of the Trinity - is not itself male, for like the other two persons of the Trinity it is not physical.)

But why then when Scripture speaks of God does it make persistent use of masculine language? One conclusion is immediate and obvious. If God is not male, when God is referred to with a masculine pronoun (or some other bit of masculine language), that pronoun (or other bit of language) is not literal. It is rather in some way figurative.

But in what way is it figurative? How are we to understand it? Here we must begin theological speculation, for Scripture does not provide a direct answer to our question.

I can think of only one answer to our question. It is this: God must be more male-like than He is female-like in some significant regard. Only if this is true is the use of 'He'-metaphor appropriate; if it were not true, i.e. if God were more female-like than male-like, it would be appropriate not to use 'He' in reference to God but rather 'She'.

So then we are driven to ask a second question. In what way is God is more male-like than female-like? Here Scripture gives us a hint. The man, we are told, is to rule over the woman in a marriage. He is sovereign there. (Ephesians 5.22 ff, Colossians 3.18 ff and I Peter 3.1 ff. I know that some attempt to interpret these passages so that they say that husband and wife are to submit to one other equally. This does violence to the texts. If left to speak for themselves, they make clear that the husband is at the head of the family and that the wife stands behind.) Moreover, men are sovereign within the Church (1 Corinthians 14:34 and 35 e.g.); women's roles within it are quite severely restricted, for they are commanded not to speak there. Indeed his sovereignty within both family and Church is what, from a spiritual point of view, is distinctive about man; if we put this characteristic aside, there is nothing to distinguish man spiritually from woman.

Second point: God too is sovereign. His sovereignty is of course infinitely greater than that of a mere man, for it extends over the whole of creation. Moreover, a man's sovereignty within Church and home is subordinate to God's; a man is, as it were, but a lieutenant to God the general. But nonetheless both man and God are sovereign within their particular domains.

My suggestion is this: it is the sovereignty evinced by both man and God that makes use of the masculine pronoun 'He' appropriate of God. I know that this is a mere suggestion. Nothing I've said amounts to a proof. But I do find appeal in the above line of thought; it is plausible. (It is no doubt accepted by many Christians of an especially conservative bent of mind.)

If my suggestion should prove true, we have a condemnation of Biblical theology. Woman is relegated to a lesser status; she is more animal-like than God-like, for like an animal she is not to rule but to be ruled over. She is less than fully rational, for if man is to stand as sovereign in Church and home it must be because his rational faculties make him suited for that role.

One last word and I'll be done. Perhaps we should pursue another exegetical strategy here. We've assumed throughout that a certain model of Scripture's inspiration. We've assumed that God Himself has made the choice to use masculine language in description of Himself, and we've attempted to find His reason for this. But what if it was not God but was rather man who chose to use 'He' of God? Of course conservatives will not accept this; they read Scripture in such a way that it is always God and never man who chooses the manner of Scripture's composition. But I take the argument of the above to show that this conservative view is likely untenable. If we accept the conservative exegetical strategy, we find that we must attribute a most pernicious sexism to God. I'll not mince words. This is heresy. Thus the conservative exegetical strategy is likely flawed and so should be rejected.

Monday, June 26, 2006


I recently had the pleasure to read Morris Dees' account the civil rights trial of James Knowles. Michael Donald, a young black man from Mobile, Alabama, had been lynched. Knowles was charged with his murder. On the stand, Knowles turned to Donald's mother and asked her forgiveness. In a quiet voice, she replied that she already had.

She already had. She had forgiven him before he had asked forgiveness.

What do we say of Donald's mother and her act of forgiveness? I can think to say only this: she was a great woman.

One can be forgiven and yet never have asked for forgiveness. Moreover, if one waits to forgive, one is not as great as those who forgive immediately. The great forgive even when forgiveness is not asked.

Why then do so many insist that God does not forgive unless we do some such thing as place our trust in Christ? This makes God seem less good than Donald's mother. God forgives all immediately.

I know the reply that will be made: God's justice demands that a price be paid for every sin. But this makes God's mercy subordinate to God's justice, and thus is just backwards. Before all else, God is love and thus His justice is subordinated to His love.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Questions about Sin and Grace

Over the past year here at The Philosophical Midwife, I've taken as my target the fundamental dogmas of Protestant Christianity. But I've really only scratched the surface. There's much there about which I've said nothing or only very little.

Perhaps before I launch yet another broadside, I should ask a few questions. I might well harbor certain misconceptions about Protestantism. If they are cleared up for me, I can invest my time here more wisely.

I have two questions. The first concerns sin and the second grace.

1. We live in a world ruined by the Fall. The ruin is not merely around us. It is within us. We ourselves were ruined by Adam and Eve's sin. As a result, sin is quite inevitable for us. We come into the world unable not to sin. All who have come after Adam and Eve have sinned. All who will come after us will sin.

But how then can we be held responsible for our sins? Indeed if they are inevitable, it seems a mistake to call them 'sins'. They are more like disabilities, something that we cannot help, something that it would be perverse to hold us responsible for.

In the above, I rely upon the premise that if we cannot help but do a thing, we cannot be rightly held responsible for it. I you deny it, all I can think to say is that here we must part company. It seems to me as obvious as any moral truth. I say to you that, if you feel it necessary to deny it, you should trace backwards and find the belief that leads you to deny it; and then give up that belief.

2. It is characteristic of Protestant Christianity to hold that only those who know Christ and put their faith in Him will be saved. But what are we to say of those who've never heard the name of Christ? What do we say of those who, though they've heard the name, do not know who He is? Will they be damned? Will they suffer because of an ignorance for which they cannot be faulted?

(This question occurred to me very early on in my religious education. I was brought up Church of Christ, and like most Protestant denominations, it taught that those who did not put their faith in Christ were lost.)

God surely could have insured that all would have come to know who Christ was and thus would have had the choice to either accept or reject Him. But He did not. How then can He hold those responsible who, through no fault of their own, do not know who Christ was?

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Biblical Inerrancy and Errors of Transmission

Let me again take up my assault on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. (As before, I say that it is the doctrine that the Bible, when interpreted appropriately at every point, is at every point wholly without error.)

But let us take a bit more care than we have before when we state the doctrine. In particular let us ask, What version of the Bible do we mean?

Versions of course exist. Not all include the same texts in the canonical set of Biblical texts. But let us put that issue to the side. Perhaps we'll return to it at a later time.

I wish to concentrate now upon errors in the transmission of Biblical texts. These can be of various sorts. When a text is copied, deletions might be made. Additions might be made. Changes might be made.

Such errors inevitably result in versions of the Bible. An error in transmission creates a new Bible. The new one of course overlaps with the old. But because it is not wholly overlap the old, it is not identical to the old.

I expect that my readers will be familiar with the Pericope Adulterae. It is the story told in John 7:53–8:11. There a young adulteress who the Pharisees are ready to stone is saved by Christ. Christ in her defense utters that famous sentence "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her".

This is my favorite of the Christ-narratives. He is there at once wise and compassionate. But alas, it is not authentic. It is not in the earliest of the New Testament manuscripts and thus was very likely inserted into John's gospel by a later scribe.

How does this amount to an objection to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy? In this way. How does the inerrantist explain the inerrancy of Scripture? How does she believe it came to be wholly without error? Inerrantists answer in a single voice. It is inerrant because it is Spirit-breathed. It was, when first composed, so guided by the Spirit in its composition that it contains no error. But note that this alone is not sufficient to explain the inerrancy of the Bible we now possess. We do not have the original Bible manuscripts. Rather we have but copies of (copies of copies . . .) of the originals. (Moreover, we have not the total set of texts that some thought deserved a place in the canonical set. Rather the texts of the Bible we now possess were selected from a much larger set of texts. But let us put that issue to the side.) But as the example of the Pericope Adulterae makes clear, those who copied the Biblical texts were not wholly faithful to the texts before them. They made additions (and deletions and changes, too).

Now, my question for inerrantists is this: Why would the Spirit allow such copy errors? The Spirit wished to produce a Bible wholly inerrant. The Spirit guided the authors of Biblical texts so that their manuscripts would be inerrant. The Spirit of course could have so guided the scribes whose task it was to copy Biblical texts that their work would have introduced no error into their product. But the Spirit did not do this.
This is an inexplicable oversight on the part of the Spirit. Indeed, given how the inerrantist portrays the work of the Spirit, it seems quite un-Spirit-like. What might be said in response? Was the Spirit simply inconsistent in its actions? This is hardly consistent with divinity. Did the Spirit perhaps lack the ability to guide thescribess as they made their copies? The Spirit is God and so lacks the ability to do nothing. Might the Spirit have been ignorant of the errors of the scribes? Again we must say that the Spirit is God and thus lacks knowledge of nothing.

There is nothing for the inerrantist left to say.

The conclusion is obvious. We must assume that the Spirit is consistent in its actions, and it is moreover both perfectly knowledgeable and perfectly powerful. Thus since it did not act so as insure that the scribes who copied Biblical texts did not introduce any error, it did not act so as to insure that the authors of the Biblical texts made no errors when they wrote. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy must be abandoned.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Sola Scriptura, Part I

Sola scriptura is a pillar of Protestant Christianity. It is exceeded in importance only by the doctrine of Sola fide.

What is Sola scriptura? It is that one need not look outside the Bible for direction in matters either moral or spiritual. It is the doctrine that if one is in search of direction in some matter either spiritual or moral, one will find all that one needs in the Bible. (Be careful. It's not the doctrine that all that one needs will be explicitly said in Scripture. It is rather that one will find that materials to assemble what one needs within Scripture. How difficult will be the assembly? Not overly difficult. It's supposed to be something that anyone with even a modicum of intelligence can do. For the Protestant, we need no priesthood to interpret the Bible for us. We are quite capable to do it on our own.)

Sola scriptura is demonstrably false. Its falsity can be proved in a number of ways. Here I build my argument upon a what I think is a uncontroversial view of our obligations to nonhuman animals.

The Bible has very little to say about our obligations to nonhuman animals and what it does say is often either quite difficult to interpret or is so succinct that it is of little use. (I direct you to Proverbs 12:10, Isaiah 11:6-9, Genesis 9:1-3, Genesis 1:20-31. I know of no other verses relevant in this regard.) From these verses we get nothing like a complete view of our obligations to nonhuman animals. We do not get even an idea about how to begin to build such a view.

Of course much is said in the Bible about what we owe to other human beings, and to God. But the Bible fails to say how much of this, if any, is also applicable to nonhuman animals. It does seem that the Bible condones the consumption of animal flesh (at least of certain types). (Let us stress 'seems'. Some take Isiah 11 to show us that consumption of animal flesh is not part of God's original purpose for the world. It is rather a sign of its corruption, of its degradation.) But it says nothing about the kind of life, or death, we owe to those we eat. On that question, we are on our own.

One might perhaps say (Immanuel Kant said it) that we have no real obligations to nonhuman animals. If this were so, the Bible's silence on the matter would in no way undermine Sola scriptura. But Kant was quite self-evidently wrong. He do have real duties to nonhuman animals. We cannot torture them for pleasure. We cannot treat them as mere things and harm them unnecessarily as we would destroy a mere thing. We must pay heed to their needs, even when those exceed the need for the basics of survival. Some animals needs space to roam and the autonomy to roam it as they will. Some animals are intensely social and thus evince a need for the presence of others of their kind.

I do not intend here to even so much as sketch a complete theory of our obligations to nonhuman animals. Rather all that I wish to say is that we many such obligations.

The argument is complete. To sum: The Bible provides little to no guidance when the issue arises of our obligations to nonhuman animals. But we do have many such obligations. Thus Sola scriptura is false.

(I expect that most if not all Prostestants will at this point reply that if we cannot look to the Bible for the final word on all matters moral and spiritual, we will have no guidance on these matters at all and will thus lapse into a relativism of personal preference. I don't agree. I think that the only reason we can have to think the Bible God-breathed is that it concords with our own deepest moral intuitions. Moral intuition comes first. Belief in the Biblical truth is derivative and comes after. Expect a post on this in the future.)

Prophecy and Biblical Authority

For reasons inscrutable to my wife, I often listen to local Evangelical radio. On purely moral matters, I sometimes hear something wise, something of use. But when talk turns to the authority of Scripture, the relation of science to religion, such basic theological issues as the purpose of Christ's passion and death, I almost never find anything to uplift or enlighten.

Yesterday I caught a bit of an argument for the authority of Scripture. It concerned prophecy.

Let me make clear that the argument was aimed at ones such as me, ones who either doubt or reject the truth of Scripture. It is an argument meant to persuade the doubters and the rejecters. Thus it cannot assume the truth of any part of Scripture. Rather that it what is was intended to prove.

The argument's author (an evangelical minister - forgive me but I can't now recall his name) says that fulfillment of prophecy is the best evidence of Scripture's truth. Indeed prophecy's fulfillment he called the very 'signature' of God. (Other forms of evidence of Biblical truth were relegated to a lesser status. They were called 'fingerprints of God'.)

What are the prophesies of which he speaks? We need not say specifically. Rather all we need say is that they are prophesies recounted in the Bible itself. Moreover, their fulfillment is too recounted in the Bible. Do we have any other source for these prophecies? No. All are recounted only in the Bible. Do we have any other account of their fulfillment? Again no. All are recounted only in the Bible.

What then will our evangelical say if we ask him why we should believe these Biblical accounts? He cannot merely assume that we believe them, for he undertake to prove that the Bible is true. But assume this he did. He had nothing to say in response to this question.

This is a quite egregious error. In his attempt to prove the veracity of Scripture, he assumed that very thing. He assumed the veracity of the Scriptural accounts of prophesy and its fulfillment to prove the veracity of Scripture.

Logicians have a name for a fallacy of this sort. It is called 'circularity'. Circular arguments, needless to say, prove nothing at all, for the very thing that they hope to prove they assume in the course of that proof.

We have an irony here as well. Our evangelical no doubt believes - indeed he said in his discourse - that Christianity is paradigm rationality. But at the very start of his defense of it, he quite obviously commits one of the most basic of logical errors. Of course this does not imply that Christianity itself is irrational. But it does cast grave doubt upon the rationality of our evangelical, at least in theological matters. (He might act perfectly rationally when no engaged in theological discourse. I of course have no idea.) He claim to a more perfect rationality is pure pretense, pure bluff.