Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Common Grace and the ‘Already and Not Yet’ Theme of Scripture

Already spring, and not yet finished shoveling snow.
We’ve been treated to at least one more snowfall, this one having been “inaugurated” on the first day of spring. It looks as if the snowfall will continue for another day or so.

While I was out shoveling, I was reminded of the phrase “already and not yet” as it applies to our redemption in Christ, as we still live in this fallen world.

It’s already spring, but I’m still shoveling.

One of the striking themes in the NT is that of the “already–not yet.” God has inaugurated his kingdom, but he has not consummated it. He has begun to fulfil his saving promises, but he has not yet completed all that he has started. No one can grasp the message of the NT if redemptive history is slighted. The NT does not negate the OT but fulfills it (Thomas Schreiner, “New Testament Theology”, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2001, p. 14).

I’m amazed at the common grace of God, enabling us to see (foresee) traces of His plan in the midst of common, everyday life. I wonder how many people will be complaining of the snow, all the while, missing this quite evident symbol of our current place in redemptive history.

The promised new creation will become a reality at the coming of Jesus Christ. God’s covenantal promises will then be fulfilled, and the groaning of the old creation will end when the new world dawns with all its stunning beauty.

What will make the new creation so ravishing is a vision of God and his dwelling with his people. Believers will enter the new creation with the resurrected bodies that they have been awaiting eagerly in the interval between the already and the not yet.

They will receive the reward of eternal life and the kingdom promises that they grasped by faith while on this earth. The final inheritance and salvation that were longed for will then become a reality (p. 864).

We are already redeemed. Until then, the task of shoveling snow is made lighter, knowing that it’s already spring, and the snow won’t last long at all.

Nature miracles

Graham H. Twelftree, ed.  The Nature Miracles of Jesus: Problems, Perspectives, and Prospects.  Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017

Craig Keener offers what is the most impressive chapter in the volume.  As he has done in his major two-volume work on miracles and in several subsequent journal articles, Keener offers a representative collection of examples (including some new ones) of well-documented and very credible contemporary parallels to the major categories of the nature miracles in the Gospels:  instantaneous, helpful changes in the weather after public Christian prayer or prophecy, multiplication of food, extraordinary fish catches, water turning into wine, and walking on water.  Other miracles could only happen after certain modern inventions—a life-saving journey in a car filled only with water after it had run out of gas to make it safely to the next village in the central African bush, for example.  

Tim McGrew focuses on the resurrection of Humean arguments in New Testament scholarship in an age when most philosophers have recognized their illegitimacy.  He rehearses the major fallacies in each of them and reminds us that Hume’s critics in the eighteenth and nineteenth century already highlighted these flaws.  More interdisciplinary work is needed so that scholars in one discipline will come to recognize the contributions of the other.  But McGrew also finds Keener’s approach part of a growing body of literature that has documented miracles even in the Western world, even under the scrutiny of hospital doctors.  Ironically, it may turn out that we can accept Hume’s stricture that we must have analogies in our own experience of reported events to be able to accept them because of the mounting contemporary evidence that miracles like those in the Gospels still happen.

It should come as no surprise, in light of my own writings, that I find Keener’s and McGrew’s contributions the most valuable of the collection.  I have personally witnessed inexplicable healings and have had analogies to nature miracles described to me by close friends and family members in contexts that make them virtually impossible to doubt. 

Craig Blomberg

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Are miracles still happening?

How do you know if what you believe is true?


In his book On the Historicity of Jesus (Sheffield 2014), one of Carrier's showcase examples is his claim that the Synoptic Jesus is modeled on Romulus. He discusses this at length in two different chapters. But ironically, Carrier himself is guilty of legendary embellishment. Carrier confabulates a legend about Jesus as a variation on Romulus by how Carrier selectively summarizes his sources, redacts his sources, and indulges in equivocations. Let's begin with Carrier's claims:

Monday, March 19, 2018

3 Reasons I’d (Still) Let My Sons Play Tackle Football

Let kids be kids

Presuppositional Catholicism

In my experience, Bryan Cross never begins with evidence; rather, he always begins with his preconception of what "the Church" must be like. By definition, "the Church" must be such-and-such. He has an unfalsifiable paradigm. Kinda like Barth's concept of suprahistory, where Christian essentials safely exist in a Never-never land sealed off from the risk of empirical or historical disconfirmation.

Even if he occasionally appeals to the church fathers, I suspect that's filtered through his Catholic paradigm. The Roman Magisterium has the "final interpretive authority" regarding the consensus patrum. So there is no independent evidence for Catholicism, only value-laden evidence that takes the Catholic paradigm for granted. It's a kind of Catholic presuppositionalism. An axiomatic system in which the "the Church" is axiomatic, but the axioms are indemonstrable. 

The address of the "visible" Church is Shangri-La. Although you can't find it on the map, it's oh-so visible–unlike those hapless Protestant denominations. 

Resurrection Witnesses Lived More Than Half A Century

Resurrections, both in the sense of resuscitation and in the higher sense of transformation into an immortal state, are often considered the greatest of the miracles attributed to Jesus and the apostles. But the documents that attribute those miracles to them are often dated to the closing decades of the first century or later. I've argued elsewhere that three of the gospels and Acts were written in the mid sixties or earlier. But even if we dated them to later decades, would their testimony about resurrections be too late to be credible? One way of approaching that issue is to ask how many resurrection witnesses would still have been alive in those later decades.

The claims of resurrection come from a large number and variety of sources, and the claims are placed in highly public settings. There's no effort to explain a lack of evidence by claiming that the resurrections were more private. Jesus' reputation as somebody who raised the dead in Matthew 11:5 comes in the midst of a context unlikely to be made up (the doubts of John the Baptist) and is often considered early Q material. (See the discussion in Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 333-34, where he mentions that most scholars accept the historicity of Jesus' comments in Matthew 11:5-6.) The raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) is highly public. Its public nature is mentioned frequently and emphatically (7:11-12, 7:17-18, 7:24). Paul refers to hundreds of witnesses of Jesus' resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). And so on.

Quandary ethics

Arminian theologian Roger Olson recently did a predictable post on "torture": 

1. Before getting to my main point, I'm going to comment on his arguments (such as they are):

Here, for purposes of this particular argument, I am not going to appeal specifically to Christian ethical norms; I will only say that if I were pastor of a person who engaged in torture of another human being (or even of an animal) I would confront him or her and ask him or her to stop, repent, and undergo a restoration process. Torture is so obviously contrary to Christian love that it cannot be justified under any circumstances. 

It's true that waterboarding is an unloving way to treat the terrorist, but that misses the point. The overriding duty is to protect innocent lives from harm. Waterboarding is unloving in reference to the terrorist, but loving in reference to the innocent. For instance, consider the Boston bombing, where runners were killed or maimed for life due to jihadis. 

However, in addition to Christian love, there are excellent, powerful secular reasons why torture is always, unconditionally wrong and even evil.

First, however, something else needs to be pointed out about this specific action (as described above). That the CIA had to use “secret prisons” set up in countries where, apparently, torture is not illegal, to “interrogate” American prisoners (by which I mean people taken into custody by Americans—wherever, whenever) demonstrates a lack of concern for U.S. law. It was a way around it; a circumventing of the clear social contract that we Americans have among ourselves and with our government.

I agree with Olson that different rules apply to American citizens. Citizenship confers certain due process rights and immunities. That's why we should deport Muslim foreign nationals and have a moratorium on Muslim immigration, since once Muslims are naturalized, they game the system. 

Second, and getting more to the point, torture (including “enhanced interrogation techniques” which is just a euphemism for torture) is always wrong because one can never know with absolute certainty that the person has the information in his or her head that the torturer wants. It is an extreme measure for attempting to gain needed, perhaps even necessary information, that assumes the person being tortured knows that information. It is simply impossible ever to know that with absolute certainty.

i) I agree with Olson that "enhanced interrogation" is a euphemism. I prefer the term "coercive interrogation". That's more accurate. 

Notice, though, that just as the Bush administration used a euphemism to defend its policy, critics use a dysphemism to attack its policy. The actual issue which gave rise to Olson's post is waterboarding. Have you observed that critics of waterboarding always change the subject? Instead of talking about waterboarding in particular, they invariably recast the issue in terms of "torture". Rather, that discuss waterboarding, they substitute a dysphemism. They characterize waterboarding  as "torture" because that has pejorative connotations, so it prejudges the issue. Euphemisms and dysphemisms have the same polemical function in that regard. 

ii) Apropos (i), a problem with (re-)classifying waterboarding as "torture" is that you're substituting a less accurate category for a more accurate category. Waterboarding is a specific technique. Why not discuss that, since that's what we're really talking about, rather than "torture"? The word "torture" evokes a wide range of methods and motivations, most of which are irrelevant to the use of waterboarding to compel information from high-value terrorists. Rather than clarifying the analysis, it deliberately obscures the analysis by interjecting and triggering many associations that are extraneous to the specific context under review. Ironically, it's unethical for critics of waterboarding to recast the issue in the name of morality. They're intentionally trying to discredit the opposing position through the fallacy of guilt by association. It's a smear. And if waterboarding is wrong, it should be possible to demonstrate that point on its own terms, without resorting to sophistry.  

iii) "Absolute certainty" isn't a sine qua non for coercive interrogation. The individuals were leaders of terrorist networks. Given their position in the organization, of course they'd have information about future plots as well as operatives. 

iv) Notice Olson's admission that this may be "necessary information". He's conceding that even though, or even if, this is necessary information to thwart a terrorist attack, it's morally forbidden to extract that information by waterboarding a terrorist. 

Third, torture is always wrong because it is simply barbaric, a crime against humanity. Almost all civilized countries of the world have known this for a very long time and have outlawed torture to protect and preserve themselves from falling into the same barbarity of the person(s) they want to interrogate.

Of course, that simply begs the question. And it deliberately ignores necessary moral distinctions regarding methods and motivations. Not all methods or motivations are morally equivalent. If say, a terrorist suffers from arachnophobia, and the interrogator exploits that to extract information about terrorist plots and terrorist sleeper cells, that's hardly equivalent to electric shock torture. Likewise, that's hardly equivalent to sadistic torture, torture to extract a criminal confession, or torture as a deterrent to keep citizens under the heel of a totalitarian state. 

Fourth, torture is always wrong because the person being tortured will always say whatever he or she thinks the torturers want to hear. In other words, there is no way to know if the person being tortured is giving the right needed information or whether he or she is simply succumbing to the pain of torture and offering up false information.

Of course there's a way to find out. You follow up on the lead. Does their answer check out? If it turns out to be a false lead, then the interrogation process resumes until the terrorist gives honest answers. 

Fifth, torture is always wrong because…it steps over a line into territory at the top (or part-way down) of a slippery slope that could very well justify much worse. Explanation: What if the person being tortured does not give the information being sought by the torturers—even under the worst torture? What if “time is of the essence” to avoid some catastrophe and the suspect is not forthcoming? Torturers could eventually (and I predict will eventually) give up torturing the individual and bring in his family—wife, children—and torture them in front of him.

You say “Well, that hasn’t happened.” I say “Once you step over that line into justifying torture as evil but necessary you make that justifiable. And I’m sure it has happened somewhere, at some time.

i) That only follows if the justification for coercive interrogation is purely utilitarian. However, there's no logical connection between subjecting a high-value terrorist to coercive interrogation and doing the same to innocent relatives or kids. The terrorist, by virtue of being a terrorist, has forfeited certain prima facie immunities which, by the same token, an innocent relative or child has not. 

ii) Likewise, I agree that there are certain universal norms regarding the treatment of human beings, however evil. A threshold below which we shouldn't go–regardless of the consequences. But waterboarding a terrorist doesn't qualify. That exploits the gag reflex. That exploits an involuntary reaction which people find unbearable. It's a pity we have to resort to that to force information out of a terrorist, but that's only if the terrorist is unwilling to volunteer the information. Sorry, but I have no sympathy for a terrorist. 

Finally, torturing people WE suspect of having needed information gives our enemies and everyone permission to use torture as well—even against our own citizens captured by them. It is simply duplicitous for us to say “We can use torture, but you cannot.” And the “you cannot” will be ignored.

That's so willfully obtuse on several grounds:

i) The bad guys don't wait for permission. They don't play by the rules. If we refrain from coercive interrogation, that doesn't mean they will reciprocate. Is Olson really that childishly naive?

ii) This isn't about "torture" in general, but using the least coercive techniques necessary to compel information from an unwilling terrorist. 

iii) And motivations are a morally salient considerations. There's a world of difference between coercive interrogation to save innocent lives and sadistic torture, deterrent torture, or judicial torture. 

2. But that's all preliminary to my main point. Olson's position is incoherent. For Olson takes the position that Christians, or human agents generally, are sometimes confronted with genuine moral dilemmas, where you can't do the right thing. Whatever you do will be morally wrong. For instance:

I respect pacifists, but I know I’m not one. How do I know that? Because I know I would use deadly force to protect my granddaughter or grandson from a would-be rapist or murderer. On the other hand, I also believe it would be a sin. And, yet on the other hand, again, I believe God understands our frailty and the condition of our world and the need to protect the helpless innocents. I do not think Christ expects his followers in this time between the times to eschew all violence; sometimes violence is a necessary evil and, when it is, God forgives.

i) That's just one example. He's said that sort of thing on multiple occasions. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant Olson's contention that coercive interrogation is unconditionally wrong. But by Olson's own admission, human agents generally, as well as Christians in particular, sometimes find themselves in situations where wrongdoing is unavoidable. There are no morally licit options. 

ii) BTW, it's not coincidental that Olson is a freewill theist. Freewill theism generates irreconcilable tension between deontology and moral dilemmas. In freewill theism, God lacks sufficient control over the necessary variables to ensure that human agents will always have a morally licit alternative available to them. 

Since by Olson's own admission, we sometimes find ourselves in a moral predicament where there is no sinless course of action, that applies mutatis mutandis to the ethics of "torture", like ticking timebomb scenarios. He subscribes to "quandary ethics". We sometimes have conflicting intrinsic duties. We can't do both. So he can't forbid "torture" under all circumstances any more than he can forbid lethal force under all circumstances. His ethical and theological conundrum applies with equal force to coercive interrogation. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Carrier's allegorical method

i) In this post I'm going to quote and comment on chap. 10 of Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus (Sheffield 2014). He keeps daring critics to read his book. And he did that with me on Facebook. Fine. I'm happy to meet the challenge. 

That said, responding to his book is tedious because it's a jungle packed with dead wood. You have to carpet-bomb his book with Agent Orange to clear out all the dead wood, and once the defoliant has done its job, you discover that it was nothing but dead wood. 

Although I've read other chapters, I'll comment on chap. 10 because that's the central chapter of his magnum opus for Christ mythicism. The excerpts constitute representative samples of Carrier's methodology. I may do another post as a mopping up operation, but this post will focus on chap. 10. 

If the four Gospels are true accounts, then at one stroke that proves Christianity and disproves atheism. That moots everything else in Carrier's overstuffed book. 

ii) One preliminary observation. Carrier routinely assumes that if various features or incidents in the life of Christ have OT parallels, that goes to show that the Gospel rewrote an OT story to make it a story about Jesus. Carrier acts as though OT parallels ipso facto disprove the historicity of the Gospels. 

This is amusing because Christians have always made a point of documenting OT parallels. It's not as if Carrier is drawing our attention to something neglected or damaging. 

iii) The fact that Jesus fulfills OT prophecy confirms rather than undercuts the historicity of the Gospels. In addition, typology is based on the principle that there's a God who directs the course of history, a God who prearranges some events to foreshadow later events. The similarities are by design. As an atheist, Carrier rejects that, but typology is entirely consistent with historicity. There's nothing about typology which implies that the antitype is fictitious. That's not an implication of typology, but atheism. Given atheism, then we wouldn't expect history to have these mirror images. 

vi) I'd add that even apart from typology, if OT prophets performed miracles, then it's to be expected that Jesus will perform similar or greater miracles. If Jesus is the Son of God, he's not going to do less than OT prophets. So it's consistent with the historicity of the Gospels that Jesus perform the same kinds of miracles as OT prophets.