Thursday, July 26, 2007

Birth Control

I've struggled for some time with the Catholic Church's rejection of all artificial means of birth control. It is not dogma, that is, it isn't something about which the Church has taken itself to speak infallibly. But the Church does recommend the rejection of birth control. It recommends its rejection strongly.

Let me take a few moments to explain (humbly, ever so humbly) why I think that the Church is mistaken about the matter. I'll be as concise as I can be.

The Church (and by "Church" here, I mean the sequence of theologians, ordained or not, whose views have been adopted by the Church) derives its view from the so-called "Natural Law Ethic". This ethic looks to the natural purposes of things and seeks to derive from them moral dictates about how the thing can and cannot be used. It is natural (or so it is said) for a man to marry a woman and remain with her so long as both live. Thus it is concluded that it is right for a man to marry only a woman; and it is right for them to remain together so long as either lives.

The variety of NLE promulgated by the Church is of course the theistic variety. The natural purposes of things were implanted in them by God, and this divine act thus serves to define for human beings what they ought and ought not do. (For Thomas, it does not define all that they must do, for he claimed that there were duties of a higher sort, spiritual duties to God and neighbor, that come to us only by revelation and are not, as it were, written into our natural constitution.)

How might the NLE (of the theistic variety) be put to use to condemn the use of birth control? The defenders of NLE would ask us to consider the act of copulation. What, they would ask, do we find its purpose to be? They answer (and not implausibly) that its purpose is procreation. (We'll return in a moment to the question of whether this is the whole of its purpose. But let us pass by that for now.) If this is the right answer, then the NLE licenses the conclusion that copulation ought to be allowed to bring about its natural purpose. But of course birth control does not allow copulation to bring about its natural purpose, and thus we seem forced to say that its use ought to be rejected. (I've sometimes heard that the Church condemns birth control because of the intent of those who use it. This is a mistake. The moral error for the Church does not derive from the intent of those who use birth control. One is allowed to act with the intent to prevent pregnancy, for instance in an extended period of celibacy. For the Church, the moral error derives from the very nature of the act itself. When birth control is used, the natural purpose of copulation is impeded, and this alone - not the intent - makes it wrong.)

But let us return to the question of the purpose of copulation. How might we find what that purpose is? As with the purpose of any natural object or act, we look and see. (I don't ask you to go peep in the neighbor's window. Instead I ask you to reflect upon what your experience, and reports of the experience of others, have taught you. The question is to be answered empirically.) What do we find? We find that copulation seems to have a second purpose in addition to procreation. It creates an emotional bond between man and woman (or, if that bond is already in place, it renews or strengthens that bond).

Now we must ask what is the relation of these two purposes. (Call "procreation", "P". Call "creation of emotional bond", "B".) One might hold that B is subordinate to P. This would be so, presumably, if the bond between man and woman is important solely insofar as it creates the proper environment into which a child will be born. But is this so? Are man and woman to become bonded emotionally only so that they might make a good home in which to bring up a child? I think not. I do not deny that the emotional bond between man and woman is in part important for this reason. But I do not think that it is important for that reason alone. The emotional bond between man and woman is a good in its own right, i.e. it is good to have it even if it were not to bear the fruit of a well brought up child. Indeed, if anything, I would think that P is subordinate to B. We bring children into the world so that we might love, and be loved by, then. Procreation, then, is for the new emotional bonds that new life makes possible.

What has this to do with the NL ethic? That ethic, recall, tells us that we must not so act that we subvert the natural purposes of things. But a certain possibility has now emerged - the possibility that copulation should achieve its first, or higher, purpose even when birth control is used. For B is surely independent of P. It can be achieved even if all possibility of P is precluded. (Indeed the Church itself admits this possibility. The so-called "rhythm method", if carefully followed, cements an emotional bond though it will not lead to conception.) Moreover, as said above, B is the higher, or better purpose. It expresses that which P is ultimately for.

What, in light of this conclusion, would the NL ethic tell us about an act of copulation in which (i) birth control is used, and (ii) man and woman, already within the bonds of marriage, serve thereby to strengthen those bonds? Surely it would have to say that it's permissible. When an act has two independent purposes, and one is higher or better than the other, surely it is permissible to act in accordance with the higher alone. Of course on the NL ethic it would be wrong to act in a way contrary to both B and P. This would be a genuinely disordered act. But so long as one is pursued - in particular so long as the higher is pursued - there is no disorder.

Notice that my conclusion concerns only a single act of copulation, and what it says about that it need not say about the set of every act of copulation between man and wife. Procreation is a very great good, and one not, I think, except perhaps in quite extraordinary circumstances, always so act to preclude its possibility. But that one not always do this does not imply that one ought never do it.

Let me end with a word about B. (What I'll say is a series of impressions only. There's no tight argument. I hope to remedy that flaw later.) Marriage is, in part, the deep emotional bond that secures man to wife. Thus, I would think, copulation is the marital act. Copulation, with greater speed and efficacy than any other act, binds a man to a woman (at least when not disordered). Copulation (at least when not disordered) thus creates a marriage. This explains why Christ said that only adultery can destroy a marriage. Copulation creates a marriage and thus only it has the power to destroy it.

The Highest Good

We pursue many perceived goods. (Whether what will call "goods" are really so I will not consider.) But we do not think that all the goods we pursue are of equal worth. A full belly is, in times of want, more important than a glass of wine. The happiness of my children is more important to me than my own. Aristotle thought the contemplation of eternal verities more important than any other intellectual act.

But though we rank goods, must we place one above all others? There are two ways that we might attempt to avoid this. (i) We might rank a number of goods the same, and place their set above all others. Each will be surpassed by none, but will be equaled by some. (ii) We might make each of our goods so time- and place-relative that they will forever change places in the rank-order. One might be highest for a time, but if it is, it will not remain so.

I contend that neither is acceptable. The first renders moral action either impossible or a matter of arbitrary decision. For it is quite possible that two or more of the goods we place above all others - the "super set" we might all it - will come into conflict with one another, and if they do, then since there exists no good outside the super set to guide us, we will be without guide. Without guide, we will either not act, or we will arbitrarily choose to act in one way instead of another.

The second - the claim that no good can forever remain at the top of the rank-order - seems to imply that moral judgment has no place in the determination of the rank-order of goods. For if moral judgment did have such a place, it would derive its judgments from commitment to some vision of the good; and that vision of the good would then itself constitute a fixed highest good.

So it seems, then, that at least insofar as our moral house is in good order, we must posit a highest good. The highest good will be that which, if it does not guide us at a particular moment, at least holds veto power over anything we do. If, on reflection, you can find in yourself no commitment to a highest good, I contend that, at least at times, you act arbitrarily and without guide.

What for me is the highest good? The community of all sentient beings bound together by a perfect love of one another and a perfect love of God. Though I often fall short of the ideal implied is this good, I still project it as a guide (or at least a veto) to all that I do. My continual prayer is that I should be made fit for life in such a community.

Dewey on Truth

I've just completed a draft of a paper titled "Dewey on Truth". (John Dewey was the great American educator and philosopher of the early 20th century. His philosophical outlook - so-called "pragmatism" - dominated the American philosophical scene for roughly the first third of the 20th century.)

The paper is available here. Its aim is to present and then refute Dewey's theory of truth. Dewey's view - roughly put - is that a proposition is a plan of action and that it is only judged true when that plan of action has proven successful when put into action. The paper ends with the suggestion that Dewey ought to follow later pragmatists and become a truth-eliminativist.

If you're curious about current philosophical debates about the nature of truth, you might just find the paper worth your time.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Luck or Power?

For what should we wish, the power to resist temptation or the good fortune never to encounter it? The result will be the same: we will not sin. But the quality of the man will not be the same. A man able to resist is better than one who is merely lucky.

This is why I am puzzled when, in the Lord's Prayer, we are told to ask that we not be led into temptation. Shouldn't we ask for the power to resist it instead?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reflections on the Church of Christ: The Great Apostasy

The church of Christ (cofC) shares with many Protestant sects that arose out of the 19th century Restoration Movement the belief that, between the end of the 1st century and the middles years of the 19th, there existed a period called "The Great Apostasy". In this period , it is said, the church fell away from the strictures instituted by Christ and the apostles and entered a time of deep heresy. The heresy came to an end, says the cofC, only when the church rejected mere human tradition and returned to the Bible as the foundation of all doctrine and practice.

I have little to say about this view - no subtle arguments, no lengthy refutations. I simply want us to think for a moment about a certain consequence of the view. This view entails that God abandoned the church for nearly two millennia. Do not answer that it was man who abandoned God. For we come to God only through his grace - the very first hint of faith is as much a product of grace as is the sanctity of Peter or of Paul. (We may resist that grace in our wickedness. But we cannot bridge that infinite divide that the Fall opened between us and God. God comes down. We do not go up except we take his hand.)

You, the cofC, do you think that you merit God's grace more than do all who came before? You, the cofC, do you think God so loveless that he would allow his church to simply cease to exist so soon after it began?

The Great Apostasy is great absurdity. You malign God if you hold to it.

(My objection here to the cofC is much like Augustine's objection to Donatism. Augustine argued that the Donatists, in their attempt to maintain a morally pristine church, maligned God and his power to heal the souls within it. Donatists, Augustine argued, make God out to be much weaker than in fact he is. I contend that the cofC does so as well.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Christianity and the Rise of Science

As I said in Why I Am a Christian, certain men and women of faith have exercised an extraordinary influence on me. They made me understand what Christianity is, and why it is a world-view to be reckoned with. The single most influential of all those many voices is Peter van Inwagen, now professor at Notre Dame University. I think him the best of his generation of metaphysicians.

In a lengthy footnote to his essay "Non Est Hick", he explains why he holds that the Church gave rise to modern science. (The essay is found in his book God, Knowledge and Mystery.) His argument takes the form of a set of fundamental Christian posits about God, man, the world, and their relation, posits that he thinks explain the emergence of modern science.

I find his argument persuasive. In this post, I will give and then comment on his argument. (Everything italicized is van Inwagen.) I hope that, by the end, I will have put to rest the oft-made claim that Christianity has served only to impede the progress of science. There are of course instances where this is true, but all are overshadowed - greatly overshadowed, we should say - by the contribution that Christianity has made to the rise of science.

1. The Church taught that the material world is not an illusion. Hence it taught, in effect, that there was something for science to investigate.

Not all religions, not all philosophies, teach that the material world is non-illusory. Strains of both Buddhism and Hinduism teach that the material world is illusory and that one ought to escape it. Platonism teaches the same.

One who is enjoined to escape the material world, to find salvation outside it, will likely pay little attention to its behavior. They are likely to live as ascetics, not as scientists.

2. The Church taught that the material world was not evil, and hence that it could be investigated without moral contamination.

In its early days, the Church has to contend first with the Gnostics and then with their spiritual successors, the Manichees. Both taught that the matter of the physical world was shot through with evil, and that the task of the initiate was to escape that evil by mortification of the body. This doctrine was branded as heresy by the Church, and its influence on the Western mind became negligible. But if it had not, the scientific enterprise would have never got off the ground. The idea that there are laws of nature that provide a intelligible structure to the physical world is fundamentally anti-Gnostic.

3. The Church taught that no part of the material world was a divine being (as many of the ancients had thought the stars and planets to be) and thus that it could be investigated without impiety.

Any form of pantheism, i.e. any religion that invests nature itself with deity, would say that the scientific study was nature was impious. But more than this, it would likely say that it couldn't possibly yield fruit. The behavior of the gods is impossible to predict, and it seems to us fickle and without pattern. We might attempt to influence their behavior through prayer or ritual, but the gods choose what to do in response. The gods' freedom, when they are thought to be part of nature, makes prediction and control (the hallmarks of science) impossible.

4. The Church taught that the material world was the creation of a single perfectly rational mind, and thus that it was not simply a jumble of things that has no significant relation to one another; it thus taught that the material world made sense, and that croquet balls would not turn into hedgehogs.

Would anyone undertake a project if there was no hope of success? Would anyone undertake a project is there was not at least some reason to suppose that it might end in success? The Church provided that hope and that reason. A material world that is the creation of a perfectly rational mind is one that is intelligible. Moreover, it is likely one that, though it contains a rich variety of phenomena, generates that variety out of a small number of physical laws. For it is likely that a perfectly rational mind will operate in accordance with Occam's Razor. It will act in the most economical way possible consistent with its desire to bring about the sorts of phenomena that we see about us. Thus theism not only gives hope of success. It gives good reason to think that success is likely.

One sometimes hears the objection that God's miraculous intervention in the affairs of the material world render its behavior unpredictable and thus unintelligible. This might be true if God intervened continually or more often than not. But He does not. The miracles reported by Christianity are a tiny percentage of the total number of physical events.

5. The Church taught that the material world was a contingent object, and hence that the nature of the world could not be discovered by a priori reason alone.

The point here is made with a bit of philosophical jargon. A contingent object is one whose existence is not necessary. It is an object that might not have existed, an object that might cease to exist. A priori reason is reason that makes us of no premise drawn from any sort of empirical inquiry (construed broadly so that, for instance, a glance into the closet to discover whether my boots are there is an empirical inquiry). For a very long time now, philosophers (at least those in the West) have thought that reason is able to discover truths a priori. Examples adduced by one or another philosopher in the past: mathematical truths, moral truths and metaphysical truths. (One sees the point, at least with mathematical truth. Mathematicians don't run experiments. They don't make observations. On the contrary, they simply prove theorems by a purely rational, non-empirical process.)

Why say that, if the material world is contingent, its nature cannot be discovered a priori? Think again of the example of mathematical truths. They are proven a priori, i.e. by reason unaided by empirical inquiry. Those proofs, then, don't in any way depend upon observation one or another contingent feature of the material world. Rather they proceed in complete independence of the particular contingent features of the material world. This is true of all a priori reason. It takes no account of the contingent.

6. The Church taught that humanity was made in the image and likeness of God, and thus encouraged the belief that the human mind, being a copy of the mind of the Creator, might be able to discover the nature of the Creation.

Of course we have no guarantee here. We live in a post-Fall world, and in the Fall not only the moral but the cognitive faculties of humanity were degraded. But we still retain some measure of our original cognitive powers, and there is no a priori reason to assume that they are not equal to the task that science sets them.

7. The Church taught that not only humanity but the whole physical universe was redeemed in Christ ("For God so loved the kosmos . . ."), and thus that the investigation of that universe could be a Christian vocation, a way to glorify its Creator and Redeemer.

With this, we reach the end of the explanation. It shows that, in the Christianity promulgated by the Church, there exist certain fundamental attitudes, certain fundamental habits of thought, that made the rise of science a very real possibility. Indeed, given the Christianity evinced by many of the first scientists, we should conclude, I think, that Christianity was the fertile soil from which science sprang. The pre-scientific Christian mind-set was in no way hostile to the rise of science. On the contrary, it included much that was necessary to make its early practitioners hope for, and expect, success.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Beyond Even Being

No matter how often I turn the question over in my mind, I cannot entertain for even a moment that the Good is impotent. It must be mighty. But it is not mighty as this or that mighty thing is mighty. The Good must be Might Itself.

Thus, as Plato said, the Good is beyond even Being. It is that which brings all things into being, and it is that which orders them so that together they might achieve both their and the world's good.

God and the Good are one. For the philosopher, Good is the first of His names. His other names are subordinate to "Good".

For the mystic, the first of His names is Beloved. But the day will come when we will behold Him in the clear noonday sun, and on that day, heart and mind will together call Him by a single name. We do not yet know that name. We know it only refracted, so that its unity appears to us as the duality of Good and Beloved.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Cupcake Fallacy

I apologize to my little girl, but I can't resist the temptation to put to philosophical use something she said today.

First, a definition.

The Cupcake Fallacy =df In the attempt to explain what's meant by a expression, one merely separates and then states in order the terms within it.

Example. (My kids do this a lot, but the best example comes from my little girl. She wanted to explain what "cupcake" means.) "A cupcake is a kind cake that comes in a cup - the kind of cup that's used for cake."

Religion in the Public Sphere, Rev. 1

(I've resurrected a prior post and given it a substantial rewrite. I hope to get it published as an opinion piece in a local newspaper. Any suggestions would be welcome.)

There's been much uproar lately about purported attempts by both Left and Right to shape public policy in ways that critics charge are undemocratic. James Dobson of Focus on the Family condemns so-called “activist” judges who he says put personal ideology over loyalty to the Constitution. The so-called “New Atheists” – men like Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – decry religion and argue that it has a corrosive effect on the democratic ideals of society. The Left accuses the religious Right of a conspiracy to impose a Christian world-view on non-Christians and cite the efforts to outlaw abortion and stem-cell research as evidence of this. The religious Right accuses the secular Left of conspiracy too, a conspiracy to wipe out all trace of Christianity from the public sphere.

Examples could be multiplied. We live in a society where a secular Left and a religious Right hurl accusations across what might seem an unbridgeable political divide. My intent is not to weigh in on this or that particular issue but rather to say something about the place of religion in the public sphere. Some say that when we enter into public debate about public policy, we must leave our religion behind. (I've heard this said both by the Right and the Left, but the charge seems more often to originate from the Left.) Others say that religious belief must be the primary if not the sole source of one's political views.

These two opinions about the place of religion in the public sphere are the extremes, and as is so often the case with extremes, both must be rejected. The secular extreme requires the impossible. Religious folk can't simply shed their religious beliefs when they enter into political debate. The religious beliefs of religious folk penetrate to the very core of their being. They can no more shed them than they can shed their skin. But this is no reason to embrace the religious extreme. Much that religious folk here in the U.S. believe should not be written into law. Christians hold that they must attend church, and yet I expect everyone will agree that church attendance should not be mandated by law. I don’t mean to suggest that Christians hold that any purely religious duty should be written into law. Indeed most say precisely the opposite. No Christian of whom I know hopes for the emergence of a Christian body of law – a kind of Christian correlate of Muslim sharia - that will control behavior in minute detail. My point is only that we must reject both the secular and the religious extremes. Religion can’t be forbidden a place in the public sphere, but neither can it be allowed to dictate the practices of non-religious folk.

So then we must seek for an intermediate view – a view that lies between the secular and religious extremes. But where is that mean between the two extremes? What is the reasonable compromise, the compromise to which all parties can agree?

My suggestion is this. It is quite legitimate to bring your religious beliefs to bear in political debate. But if you do so, you must give arguments that do not presuppose loyalty to your religious world-view. Rather your reasons must be, insofar as this is possible, universal in the sense that they have the potential to sway everyone who hears. If you have no universal reasons to give, you must no longer attempt to write your views into law. We live in a democratic society. When issues to do with the common good arise, no one group may simply impose its views on another. Rather each group must enter into the realm of public debate and there give reasons that have at least the potential to sway its opponents. But reasons like that – reasons that have the potential to sway one’s opponents – must be universal. They must be reasonable in themselves and not presuppose commitment to one or another religious world-view.

Consider the example of abortion. For many, their opposition to abortion has its foundation in their religious world-view. Should opposition to abortion that has a religious source have a place in political debate? Of course it should. (We might say as well that it will inevitably have a place there. As said, no one can simply shed a deeply held belief.) But how ought opposition to abortion be justified in political debate? Is it legitimate for religious folk to say that it ought to be outlawed because it's contrary to God's will as revealed in Scripture? It most certainly is not, for that justification presupposes a Christian commitment to the truth of the Bible, and that commitment is not universally held. A legitimate justification is one that makes appeal to some universal moral principle to which everyone can be expected to agree. Perhaps that principle is that it's wrong for anyone anywhere to intentionally kill an innocent human being. But no matter what we think about this matter (and even if we think that abortion should not be illegal), we must say that in the public sphere, reasons must be universal.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Mason Catechism

Catechism sometimes takes the form of question and answer. In our home, I often run through a little moral catechism with my children. I ask the questions, and my children answer.

Q: What's more important: being strong or being smart?
A: Being smart.
Q: What's more important: being smart or being good?
A: Being good.
Q: What is it to be good?
A: To treat others the right way.
Q: What is it to treat others the right way?
A: To treat them the way that I want to be treated.

I do this because I want for my children to first have a firm grasp of right and wrong. Religious education should, I think, only follow on this, for if it does not, a child might wrongly conclude that the sole motive to do what's right is divine reward and punishment. We do what's right because it's right - no other reason.

The Q and A above is incomplete, and my older children have, I think, begun to realize why. My little girl recently asked if she could hurt someone if she herself wanted to be hurt. (I don't think she meant that she really did want to be hurt. Her question was hypothetical.) The answer of course is "No, you may not." But if the last A - treat others the way that you want to be treated - were in all strictness true, one may hurt others if one oneself wishes to be hurt.

So then that last A has to be fixed. But how? Should we say this: "Treat others the way that you would want to be treated if you wanted to be treated the right way." True enough, but it doesn't really help us get clear about what it is to treat others in the right way. Rather it presupposes that we already understand it.

How about this: "Treat others in such a way that the goals they pursue are to you as important as the goals you pursue". I very much like the idea here, but the formulation just won't do. Some goals are quite wicked and should be given no weight at all. Nor can we add that the goals must be good ones. If we did, we would be as much in the dark as we were before; "good goal" is as much in need of explanation as is "right action".

So, then, my question is this: What really should be the last A? Can the Golden Rule be rescued? Any suggestions would be most welcome.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sola Scriptura, Part II

I took a few minutes to scan old posts, and found that I'd not said all that I might about Sola scriptura. I did take it on once here. But I should take it on again. I've not stated my best arguments against it (though no doubt the materials for those arguments are scattered throughout The Philosophical Midwife.)

Before I defined Sola scriptura in this way, and the definition still seems good to me:

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, there's no need for a priesthood to interpret the Bible for us. We are quite able to do it on our own.)

Here are three quick and dirty arguments against this doctrine.

1. Tradition, in the form of the oral transmission of the materials that became the gospels, the books of the Old Testament, etc. preceded Scripture. Indeed Tradition gave us Scripture. Why assume that in our time tradition has lost all value or importance? Why for instance assume that the Spirit does less for us that was done for the 1st century Christians. To assume that the Spirit acts now only as an aid to Scriptural interpretation (as so many now assume) seems to arbitrarily limit the activity of the Spirit.

2. One might also ask about the process whereby the books of our Bible were declared canonical. The Bible did not drop whole from heaven. Rather it did not assume final form until the late 4th century after many years of debate about what books to include in it. I don’t mean to cast doubt upon it; I do accept it as authoritative. Rather I mean to say that its editors - those men of the church who brought its books together and declared it finished - can’t have been guided, at least not completely, by the Bible, for no book of the Bible says what books are to be included in the Bible. Thus the editors must have had extra-Biblical guidance, and as before that guidance came in the form of God’s Spirit. So at that time Sola scriptura was surely false. Why assume that it became true? Why, as before, assume that at the end of the 4th century the Spirit suddenly curtailed its activity so that it came only to aid in the interpretation of the Bible? That seems arbitrary and indefensible. Indeed the assumption that the Spirit did so curtail its activity is extra-Scriptural, and thus seems an assumption that the defenders of Sola scriptura cannot defend.

3. Last let us ask about the justification of Sola scriptura. The defender of Sola Scriptura would of course look to the Bible itself for that justification, for she holds that no religious doctrine can be defended except by reference to Scripture. So then the defender of Sola Scriptura will very likely assume the inerrancy of Scripture too, for she needs that inerrancy to justify her Sola Scriptura. (Indeed history shows that defenders of Sola scriptura almost always also defend Biblical Inerrancy.) Thus to justify Sola scriptura, we must first justify Biblical Inerrancy. But here’s where we get into trouble. For how would Biblical Inerrancy be defended? Sola scriptura requires that we look only to the Bible to defend Biblical Inerrancy. But that means that we must assume Biblical Inerrancy in the defense of Biblical Inerrancy. Such obviously circular arguments establish nothing.

The conclusion of course is that the Christian need not look only to the Bible for moral and spiritual direction. It is to be found elsewhere too. (Where would that elsewhere be if not in the stable Spirit-guided traditions of the Church?)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Test of Scripture

In a prior post, I explored what I there called "Perfect Guide Inerrancy". It was a response to those who defend a much stronger sort of inerrancy, a sort that I called "Perfect Truth Inerrancy".

I characterized PG Inerrancy in this way:
(i) We mean [by PG Inerrancy] that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about how to reconcile ourselves to God. (ii) We also mean that, in its primary purpose, the purpose of reconciliation, the Bible will never lead us astray. It will, if followed, always help us along on the path to reconciliation. (iii) Finally, we mean that the Bible's plan of reconciliation is optimal. There could be no better.
Before I presented this as a mere hypothesis. Now I think that I must embrace it.

There is much in the Old Testament, and a little in the New, that I find morally abhorrent. In the Old, we are told that disrespectful children should be stoned. In the new, we are told that women should not speak in church. (I do not think that the two are equally abhorrent. The former is much worse than the latter.) What is the Christian to do? There seem to be two possibilities. He might so transform his moral view that it becomes permissible to stone a child, or he might reject the bit of Scripture where a parent is told to stone a disrespectful child. Let us say that we do that latter. This worry will now inevitably arise: if Scripture makes such a serious moral error as this, how do we know that it isn't rife with error, moral and otherwise?

In answer, we must find a foundation for our faith - a foundation outside simple trust in Scripture - that would allow us to distinguish those parts of Scripture that are authoritative from those that are not. But where is this foundation? Where are we to begin if we attempt to build up our faith from what is most certain?

My answer is this:
The foundation of our Faith is not the Bible alone. Instead the foundation of Christianity lies in God and His salvific work in the world, and though this includes Scripture, it is greater than Scripture. The book that we call the Bible is simply the record - the human record - of that work. It is a guide to our salvation, to be sure; and it is authoritative at points. But one doesn't simply surrender to whatever it says; rather what is says must be tested, sifted. The tradition of Christian reflection - a Spirit guided affair the Christian must say - is in part the history of this; and its conclusions must be accepted by the Christian. The primary conclusion of this tradition of reflection - and this is surely the primary message of the New Testament - is that Christianity is a religion of love, of God's love for humanity, our love for him, and our love for one another. Scripture must be read through that lens, and when one does, one has no choice but to reject certain things.
This is my exegetical principle. The Bible is a work whose primary purpose is to aid humanity's salvation (and it is, of course, not the only aid - the Spirit is at work in many ways in the world); and that salvation consists in the perfection of love of God and neighbor. So then I think it necessary to embrace PG Inerrancy. We cannot do more, for Scripture contains moral absurdity (absurdity that does not bear ultimately upon what it has to teach us of the way of salvation). But neither can we do less, for if the Bible we not a sure guide to salvation the Christian would have no use for it at all.

I find that, if I keep this exegetical principle firmly in mind, much that once worried me about Scripture worries me no more. If one were to read the Genesis creation stories in accordance with this principle, for instance, one would ask this: what is this story is essential for us to believe if we are to be brought to the perfection of love? It seems clear to me - indeed patently obvious - that belief in a six-day creation is inessential. But it seems equally obvious that we must believe that the world is has it source in God and God alone. To love God as we ought, we must believe that are from him and him alone. But to love God as we ought, we need not believe that the world was created in six days.

Apply this now to the command to stone a disrespectful child. Must we believe this if we are to be perfected? Or course not. Or must we believe that it is right for women to keep silent in church. Again, of course not.

Is there any Scriptural basis for the view I put forward? I think that there is. Most relevant is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: ""All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be equipped, prepared for every good work." I do realize of course that the passage speaks of all Scripture; that does seem to count against my view. But notice what the stated purpose of Scripture is here: to teach and to correct. It is then pedagogy of a practical sort. It is written so that we might know better how to live. This is precisely the view I have adopted. Indeed one might say that this passage from Timothy tells us that genuine Scripture must have this pedagogical purpose, and that the parts which plainly do not are not to be thought authoritative. I'm out on a hermeneutic limb I know, but what I say does seem to keep with the spirit of the passage.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Vice and Virtue

How much of what passes for virtue is simply lack of appetite for vice?

Reflections on the Church of Christ: Instrumental Music in Worship

(Note bene: as I've continued to poke around for recent commentary on church of Christ theology, I've come to realize that the more progressive elements within that church already admit to what I say. My posts then constitute not a novel attack upon the traditional church of Christ. Rather they constitute my attempt to work through a certain theology that I imbibed (literally) at my mother's knee, a theology that no doubt stills colors much of what I write.)

The church of Christ (cofC) is, from the perspective of one ignorant of its practices, quite quirky. For instance, there is, at least in the traditional cofC congregations, no instrumental music. Congregations sing, but they sing a cappella.

I came across this explanation of why the church of Christ eschews instrumental music in worship. It comes from Instrumental Music in Public Worship by John L. Girardeau.

A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the Scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence from their statements is forbidden.
Let us concentrate upon worship. The view expressed by Girardeau is characteristic of churches of Christ. Indeed it is their fundamental liturgical principle. (It is of course closely allied to the principle of Biblical Positivism. It is, as it were, Biblical Positivism's liturgical correlate.) In worship nothing is permissible unless it is either expressly commanded in Scripture or follows of necessity from something expressly commanded in Scripture.

I intend to prove that this principle (and let us call it "L" for short) suffers from severe logical defect. I'll state the argument as pithily and forcefully as I can. It seems to me utterly decisive.

How is it that L functions in the cofC condemnation of instrumental music in worship? Instrumental music is nowhere condemned in Scripture, but from this it does not follow that the cofC must endorse it. Rather the sole relevant premise is this: nowhere in Scripture is the use of musical instruments in worship either expressly endorsed or endorsed by necessary inference. Thus L is taken to imply that musical instruments should not be used in worship.

But there is much done in worship that is not commanded in Scripture. (From here on, when I speak of what's commanded in Scripture, I mean both what's expressly commanded and what follows by necessary inference from what's expressly commanded.) In the cofC of my youth, the pews were padded (thank goodness). Now, are padded pews commanded in Scripture? Of course not. Should we then say that they are not permitted? L would seem to require that we say just that.

What is a good cofCer to do? Surely it would be silly to throw out the pads. The only choice, then, is to restrict the scope of L. L shouldn't be taken to imply that just anything not expressly commanded is forbidden. Only certain things are forbidden if not expressly commanded.

But how is the cofCer to distinguish those things to which L applies from those to which it does not? How is the cofCer to distinguish pew pads from musical instruments? Look again at the passage from Girardeau. It entails that the cofCer must rely solely upon the pronouncements of Scripture to distinguish those things to which L applies from those to which it does not. However, she will search in vain. Scripture gives no guidance in this regard.

Our conclusion is that, in the attempt to apply L, we must look outside Scripture. But the cofC expressly forbids this! It tells us that we may never look outside Scripture to determine whether any object or act is permissible in worship. This is our reduction to absurdity. The cofCer must do - indeed invariably does - what she tells us that one may never do. She tells us that we may never look outside Scripture, but in that application of that very doctrine to liturgy she must look outside Scripture.

My argument is not novel in all respects. See here and here for variants that I endorse.

(As you might guess, I'm not at all troubled by the conclusion that one must look outside Scripture to resolve issues to do with liturgy, doctrine, governance, etc. Why would one think that the Spirit is so limited in power that it guides us only in interpretation of Scripture? Surely the Spirit is at work at other times as well. Indeed I've argued for just that conclusion here.)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

What is Sin?

An action or a thought is sinful to just the degree that it impedes humanity's approach to God. The effects of some sins are primarily upon the ones who commit them. They constitute harm done to the self. The effects of others are primarily upon others, though every sin has an effect upon the self. In my case, the sin of anger seems primarily to effect myself; it does have an effect upon others, but since I largely hide my anger that effect is small in comparison to the effect upon me. On the contrary, my predilection to attend to my own work and ignore my wife and children is a sin that most effects others.

Contrast this definition of sin to one on which a sin is, in essence, a rebellion against the just authority of God. On this second sense (an illegitimate sense, say I), we treat God's authority over us as foundation, and upon it construct our definition of sin. God's authority is the fact, basic and underived. Sin is the failure to give that authority its due; it is the failure to, as it were, bend the knee to it.

Thus to justify my definition of sin, I must turn to the issue of divine authority. Is it, as the second definition assumes, basic and underived? Or is it perhaps to be explained in terms of something yet more basic? Here I think that the analogy of parental authority is helpful. Parents of course do have authority over their children, and this is not merely a fact but is how it ought to be. But is this authority legitimate simply because the parent is the parent and the child is the child (as some suppose that God's authority over us is legitimate simply because God is God and we are His creatures)? Or is it to be explained in terms of something more basic? Surely the latter. The authority of parent over child derives wholly from the need of the child for care and the parents' natural position as those best able to render up that care. But to give care is of course to love. Thus legitimate authority has its roots in love, and in the case of God's authority over us, it has its roots in our need for God and in God's desire to fulfill that need. (Do I need Biblical justification of this view? If so, it is found in those many passages where we are told that the essence and foundation of the law is love.)

Thus we return again to the first definition of sin. We need God, and God desires to fulfill that need. If not for the Fall, that need would have led inexorably and without pause to union with God. But we sin and thus fell, and our fall is a retreat from God.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Reflections on the Church of Christ: Biblical Positivism

In a prior post, I said a little about a certain doctrine that holds sway in the Church of Christ (CofC from here on). I called it Biblical Positivism and described it thus:
It [the CofC] treats Scripture like a great storehouse of spiritual and moral truth, and thinks that all the Christian may say is already explicitly said there. Thus in the CofC, all that one may do is gather together texts. One does not attempt to discern how they hang together; one does not attempt to state the Bible's most important doctrines in the form of creeds, and (heaven forbid) one does not attempt to engage in scriptural interpretation if that requires that one do more than simply restate (perhaps in a folksy way) what's already said there in exactly the way it's said. In the church of Christ, one just assembles verses, without, I should add, much regard for context.
If we carve through to the heart of the doctrine, we find that Biblical Positivism is this: in the interpretation and promulgation of Scripture, all that one is allowed to do is state what Scripture already says in the ways that it says it. One cannot introduce distinctions not already there. One cannot introduce language not already there. Instead one just says what it says in the language and with the conceptual apparatus it says it.

Biblical Positivism of course assumes the inerrancy and the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture, it assumes, contains not even a hint of error, and is sufficient to answer all questions of a moral or spiritual nature. But it also assumes more than inerrancy and sufficiency. It is at bottom a linguistic/conceptual sufficiency thesis. It says not only that Scripture is sufficient to answers all moral/spiritual questions. It says also that mere repetition of Biblical assertions, in the very language that they're made, is sufficient to answer all moral/spiritual questions. One then never need extend the Biblical vocabulary in any way. Indeed to do so is to fall into serious error.

This doctrine may be attacked in various ways. One may for instance ask for the Scriptural sanction for this principle. (There is none. Nowhere in the Bible will you find the claim of the linguistic sufficiency of Scripture. Thus Biblical Positivism seems to self-refute in much the way that Logical Positivism self-refutes. Apply the doctrine to itself and you find that it must be rejected.) But I wish to consider Biblical Positivism's consequence for Christian doctrine.

Consider first the doctrine of the Trinity. It surely has Biblical roots. (The Gospel of John stands out in this regard. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God" is but one of may assertions found there relevant to the doctrine of the trinity.) But those Biblical roots are not linguistically sufficient to generate the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, for they do not tell us the precise sense in which the three persons of the trinity are one. Might Father, Son and Spirit be one in the sense of essence only? If so, they need not be one in number, for essence is something that can be shared among a number of entities. (You and I share an essence - humanity - but are two, not one.) Might they be one in the sense of some shared property - perhaps of goodness, power or some such thing? Again if so, they need not be one in number, for goodness is something that can be shared among a number of entities. Scripture provides no explicit answer to these questions. Indeed it nowhere states the orthodox doctrine, that Father, Son and Spirit are one in substance and so in number. The language of substance is foreign to Scripture. The result is that if one assume the linguistic sufficiency of Scripture, one does not even have the vocabulary to state the orthodox doctrine.

This state of affairs is dangerous, for it can very easily descend into heresy. If we cannot say that the three persons of the trinity are one in substance and so in number, the possibility is left open that they differ in substance and so in number. But if this possibility is embraced, monotheism has been abandoned. So too is the possibility left open that only the Father is God, and that Son and Spirit are mere creations who have no share in the Godhead.

The same can be said about the Incarnation. The orthodox doctrine - shared in common by Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestants - is that Christ is the hypostatic union of divine and human nature. But you will search in vain for this language in Scripture. No doubt Scripture alludes to this truth; no doubt it naturally - indeed I would say inevitably - leads to this truth when interpreted properly. Nonetheless, it does not explicitly state it. Thus heresy lurks. If we cannot say of Christ that he is the hypostatic union of divine and human nature, many possibilities are left open: that Christ was merely human, that he was merely divine, that he was two natures, as it were, side by side but not joined into a single human-divine nature. All are heretical, and all are to be rejected.

Now, I don't doubt that the CofC does for the most part reject these heresies. But this shows not that Biblical Positivism is sufficient for the articulation of a fully orthodox Christian world-view. On the contrary all it shows is that CofCers do not consistently adhere to Biblical Positivism. They take over many of the conclusions of past Christian thought - that Christ is fully human and fully divine, and is of one, undivided nature; that God is one god but three persons; etc. - but do not acknowledge the origin of these conclusions. As I said, these conclusions are not extra-Biblical; rather they represent inevitable conclusions derived from reflection upon Scripture. But they do go beyond the language of Scripture.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

True Desire

Some desires are true and some false. The true in their fulfillment lead towards God; the false lead away.

I have desires, deep but unfulfilled, that I believe are true. I'll begin with the one that burns most at present. Later I'll come around to others.

I desire close, continual communion with a small group of friends, all kind and intelligent, all passionately devoted to the pursuit of truth.

The Meticulous Conscience: Downward Spiral

The title is overstatement. My conscience isn't really meticulous. But I have begun to search it more diligently than I have since I was in the late teens. I search it now with a seasoned eye, an eye that sees deeper that it could before, and eye that is less likely to believe a lie than it was before.

I often have evil little thoughts. (I'm deeply ashamed of them and cannot bring myself to say what they are.) I am able to put them away almost instantly, but to my chagrin I commit a second little sin as soon as the thought is supressed. I congratulate myself on my ability to catch the evil thought and put it away.

A third sin soon follows. I excoriate myself for the self-congratulation, and then almost immediately after congratulate myself once again, this time for the self-excoriation.

No matter how wicked the thought, I always seem to find the good in myself. I'm such a good man, I tell myself, else I never would have realized just how wicked I am.

Thus I spiral downward. Self-congratulation follows upon self-congratulation. The evil of the thought is smothered in the self-created illusion of goodness. Indeed the "goodness" consists in the repudiation of the evil.

Even now I congratulate myself for the ability to discern my predicament. I just can't seem to get away from it, this thought of mine that I am so wise and so good. I've always been like that.

What's worse is that, when I congrulate myself, I often compare myself to others. I tell myself how much better I must be because, unlike them, I harbor no illusions about myself.

How absurd this all is! This need of mine to pat myself on the back, to tell myself how much better I am than those around me - this, I think, is the sin most deeply rooted in me. I pray that God will rip it out.