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Monday, September 16, 2019

Freedway Thinker #3 - Did Paul Really Mean What He Said in Romans 9?

A bit longer for a "brief" reflection but here I discuss some of the issues with non-Calvinistic (specifically Provisionistic) readings of Romans 9.

Freedway Thinker #2 - Untangling Entailment

In this brief edition of the show, I talk about the difference between the affirmations of a position and what certain entailments of those affirmations may be, as well as how to handle arguing against each at different levels.

Freedway Thinker #1 - So Called Skepticism

In this episode I talk about "so-called skepticism" and the rather inconsistent hyper-skepticism of many online atheists.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

CosmicSkeptic Debate Prep Fails Him In Cosmic Proportions

In a recent debate betweenJonathan McLatchie and Alex J. O’Connor (Cosmic Skeptic), O’Connor made numerous problematic assertions that I would like to address. While I thought McLatchie handled many of these objections well, because of the short timing of the debate and the structure, he was not able to address many of the root cause problems, nor offer substantive rebuttals to everything O’Connor had said. I will briefly respond to his overall methodological problem, list some problems that I think McLatchie dispatched rather easily, and then focus on one claim as the paradigmatic example of the level of research and quality of evidence that often undergirds the atheistic position, even when they appear erudite, confident and oh so very British.

I am here only going to examine the opening statement and initial rebuttal section of the debate (and even here will only address specific parts of that). I may write a part 2 of this which will handle other issues raised in the debate, such as the hypothetical of if I would obey if I thought God was telling me to shoot up a school. Here I am going to address these few issues from that section.

First, O’Connor’s main methodological problem is not unique to him. It is nearly universally the stock and trade of the online infidel community in the 21st century thus far, and, ironically, there is nothing really new about the “New Atheists” in this regard. It really is the quite old hat of Logical Positivism wedded to a kind of Philosophical Naturalism and defended (if we can call it that) with an arsenal of hyper-skeptical memes to be Gished out upon an unsuspecting opponent. Anyone even remotely familiar with the tactics of YouTube atheists like O’Conner and kin, this should not be a new summary so I will not bore with details here. The one that I would like to address briefly, because it was more than prominent in the debate strategy employed by O’Connor, is the use hyper-skepticism to avoid presenting reasonable alternatives.

Daniel Dennett once called evolution a “universal acid” – an acid that is so powerful that it could corrode any container that one could try and keep it in. For Dennett, this was an apt illustration for evolution because he thought evolution, when applied to any area of knowledge, would radically alter it. Besides that actually being disanalogous to his own original analogy, there were also major criticisms of the kind of Scientism of Logical Positivism needed to take a theory of biological speciation and diversity (even if a good one), and apply it to even other areas of biology (such as abiogenesis) let alone non-biological and even non-scientific/empirical questions and disciplines. However, the analogy is a good one for something like hyper-skepticism precisely because both would destroy any container that attempts to hold it. Hyper-skepticism is quite rightly compared to the child’s insufferably repeated question, “why.” The child does not yet grasp different levels of explanations and causation; they do not understand when burden has been met for warrant and which does not need to be exceeded; they do not have the awareness of concepts like conceptual justification in which one need not have an explanation for an explanation for it to yet be the most adequate one. Children do not yet know the difference between deduction, induction, and abduction for example.

Atheists will often say things like, “when I was a child I had an imaginary friend, but I left that behind as a child and I do not want a god-sized imaginary friend as an adult.” Well, one can quite easily look at much of what passes for warrant these days for atheists and say, “when I was child a had children’s questions that didn’t understand warrant, and as an adult I don’t want to keep reasoning like a child.” Simply asking “why” or “what is your evidence of that claim… and that claim… and that claim… and that claim… and that claim… and that claim….” ad nauseum, may help the online infidel community reassure themselves that they have the evidence while theists eschew it because it’s “why’s” all the way down, but it’s not actually good epistemic methodology. This is because it is a universal acid which destroys any worldview or conceptual contain which holds it – even the attempt to justify using it. Why should we ask for evidence? Well because we want to have evidenced beliefs. What evidence do you have that we should want to have evidenced beliefs? Well because when we don’t have evidenced beliefs we believe false things. Well do you have evidence that when we have no evidence we believe false things? Yes, here is a case X. Well do you have evidence that case X is a case of something that is false with no evidence? And on and on. That kind of skepticism is totes adorbs when it can be parroted under the guise of the Fly Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Tea Pot, or Maximally Great Law of Nature (all of which reveal a startling lack of understanding on the part of the atheist), but really it’s a methodology that would cut in all directions. The instant that we even ask the atheist trying to wield it to defend even their use of it, even that use is dissolved – and a method that falsifies everything is useful nothing.

So when O’Connor attempts to use this kind of method of “yeah but how do you know that,” or the “well I can think of any absurd counter possibility and no matter how obtuse, it’s clearly evidence that you’re wrong” then all he is doing is showing that very well spoken young British chaps may still have some intellectual growing up to do.

Second, there are problems with how O’Connor not only attempted to reject the Biblical evidence of the resurrection, but also in how he responded the McLatchie’s rejoinders. For example, O’Connor made the claim that the gospels contradict on the number of the women at the tomb. McLatchie showed that in John, while only one woman is expressly mentioned, the pronouns being in the plural showed that there were more than one in mind. O’Connor’s hyper-skepticism here attempts to defend this as a “contradiction” that lends itself as evidence that the Bible is not trustworthy. Why? Because, he says, that even though it’s not technically a “contradiction” anymore, surely the transcendent God of the universe would have made it more clear because it’s the most important event in history. This make several errors.

1.       The number of women at the tomb is not the most important event in history. The resurrection may have been, but that would simply commit the composition fallacy to think that just because the major event was so important, that every detail carries the same importance such that anyone telling it would all tell the exact same details.

2.       We do not tell stories, even true ones, this way. I may tell one person that I went to the store and bought oranges. I may tell another that this weekend I went with my son to the store because we had to get a lot of groceries. I may tell another that my wife and I, after going to the park, took both of our sons to Vons to buy groceries for the week. Does the fact that I did not include the same details, did not include everyone involved or every place or time reference mean that this is evidence that somehow the story is an invention or that they are evidence that I am not a trustworthy narrator? Of course not. That kind of standard would just be asinine and no one outside of a band of merry atheists ever use such a standard.

3.       O’Connor seems to have a view of inspiration that only the most anti-intellectual and hardline literalistic fundamentalist would defend. Nearly every historical statement on inspiration and the authority of the Bible denies a kind of mechanistic dictation of the Bible by God and sees God as using the culture, motifs, literary devices, worldview, backgrounds, customs, etc. of the people to which the original documents were written and of those who composed them. To think that “God would write it differently” just is for O’Connor to say that he would write it differently. However, if all the narratives agreed on every detail, as McLatchie and others have often pointed out, we would then be defending the gospels against an accusation of collusion and deception to “get their story straight.” In fact, these kinds of varied details in eyewitness accounts is precisely the kinds of things that detectives, reporters, and lawyers look for in authentic testimony. When everyone agrees too much on ancillary details, collusion is often the prime suspect.
Third, O’Connor then makes one of the weakest attempts to avoid admitting error that I think I have heard. He had made the original claim that the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a contradiction of the story of Lazarus and the rich man where Jesus did not raise him from the dead - the exact structure of his argument was quite garbled to begin with if I ‘m being honest and I have a hard time thinking that he really thought a narrative was in contradiction to a parable in the historical sense. I think likely he was trying to make a Carrier type myth development argument and got lost in the weeds. While McLatchie did an adequate job responding, I think he could have pushed this far more forcefully. He got O’Connor to admit that these were likely not the same person (Lazarus was actually a common name in 1st century Palestine). However, instead of simply admitting that it wasn’t a contradiction, he admitted that they could be different men but that the contradiction still existed because in one Jesus intended to raise Lazarus and in the other, he didn’t. So there is, he claims, a contradiction of intent. This seems one of the most obtuse things he said in the entire debate. For what contradiction in intent could there be in Jesus intentions to raise, in real life based on his ministry and mission to demonstrate that he is the giver of life, his real friend who really died, and to a person in a parable used to simply illustrate a point about the efficacy of the word of God in warranting trust and righteousness, precisely over miracles like raising someone from the dead? I thought that if I were debating O’Connor that I would have stopped the debate and asked him to go, in that precise moment, to get a cup of tea with me. Surely he would have said no, he was in the middle of something. Well then I could ask if he has ever agreed in a moment to go get a cup of tea with someone. If he had, then wouldn’t that be contradiction of intent by his standards? It’s obviously silly. Different intent in radically different contexts with different people at different times do not make contradictions. Plus, one of the contexts was a parable. I don’t even know what it would mean to say that Jesus intended to raise Lazarus in the parable… it’s a parable. Jesus isn’t in the parable. There is no intent within the parable. It’s a parable…

Finally, O’Connor made a claim about the gospels being “riddled with myth” and his best example of this was to say that the narrative of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 follows/borrows from the mythic archetype seen in the myth of Romulus and Remus and the vision of Romulus seen by Proculus on the road to Rome. The reason that this argument by O’Connor is so important to note is because it shows the kind of dubious research and pseudo-scholars he is willing to use (clearly without fact checking). This demonstrates that while he employs hyper-Skepticism against the theist, he has zero skepticism for anything or anyone that affirms a position that he desires to be true.

O’Connor’s source for this claim is none other than the unemployed blogger himself, Richard Carrier – the darling of Jesus Mythicists everywhere. Any time an atheist seeks to handle a Biblical text, one will find that they often never go to the academic literature, exegetical commentaries, peer reviewed literature on Biblical languages or backgrounds, etc. but will go to things internet infidel blogs, Reddit, and YouTube, but when they need to rubber stamp a PhD. on something, they will go to people with unrelated academic specialties like Dawkins and Hitchens, or to known fringe kooks like Carrier and Price – who quite literally couldn’t get hired or peer reviewed by any actual institutions of higher learning, so created their own “think tank” to self-publish and “peer review” each other’s writings. And this is who O’Connor turns to, and as such it is not a surprise that he gets carried away by fits of whimsy and the deep imagination of Carrier.

To make this claim, O’Connor (really just parroting Carrier’s earlier debate), says that we can see that this is a mythical borrowing by seeing three facts about both stories:

CLAIM 1: Cleopas means “to tell” and Proculus means “to proclaim” and thus both give functional names to describe their role.

REBUTTAL: For anyone familiar with Koine Greek and Latin, this is laughably false. Cleopas does not mean “to tell.” Not even close actually. Most think that the name is a contraction of the common name, Cleopatros (the male version of the name we often know: Cleopatra). This was a name known at that time and was actually a contraction of two words κλεός + πατρός which would be literaly, “the glory of/to the father.” Cleopas is almost certainly a contraction of Cleopatros. These kinds of names that were original contractions but then themselves become standalone names are called hypocoristic names and are common in the New Testament and broader 1st century period (they still occur today such as anyone with a last name like “Smith” or even my first name, “Tyler.”) Those who doubt this or who think this is an all to convenient response simply need to look at the other names in the book of Luke that are examples of this common practice. The person ascribed to the book as its author, Loukas (Λουκᾶς), is the shortenedfor of the name(s) Loukanos (Λουκανός) and Loukios (Λούκιος). The same author, writing in the books of acts has others such as Silas (Σίλας), which is a contracted version of Silvanos (Σιλουανός) and, man ythink that possibly Theudas (θευδᾶς) in a contraction for Theodōros (θεόδωρος).

So, we can see that Cleopas does not mean “to tell.” While there are a couple of theories about its etymology not listed here (such as it being a patronym for his city of origin – Clophas), one thing we do know is that it does not mean “to tell.” But what about Proculus? Does it mean “to proclaim?” From what I can tell it does not. In fact we have two ancient sources that tell us the etymology of the word. Plutarch tells us of one the customs on the Romans in how they named their children. He writes,

“Another of the same family was named Celer (the Swift), because of the wonderful quickness with which he provided a show of gladiators on the occasion of his father's funeral. Some even to the present day derive their names from the circumstances of their birth, as for instance a child is named Proculus if his father be abroad when he is born, and Postumus if he be dead. If one of twins survive, he is named Vopiscus. Of names taken from bodily peculiarities they use not only Sulla (the Pimply), Niger (the Swarthy), Rufus (the Red-haired), but even such as Caecus (the Blind), and Claudus (the Lame), wisely endeavouring to accustom men to consider neither blindness nor any other bodily defect to be any disgrace or matter of reproach, but to answer to these names as if they were their own. However, this belongs to a different branch of study.”

Here, Proculus is used of a child conceived and born while the father was away – the Latin literally meaning “as from behind” or something close to that (it could literally be “like the anus”), but likely refers to it either being done while the father’s back is turned (not a pejorative) or something like it being done in secret behind his back while he was away.

Another option given to us by Festus is that the name is a diminiutive of the term Procus which can mean either a suitor (possibly again referring to the illegitimacy of being from a suitor and not the husband who is away), or even a term meaning a prince (think of parents calling their son, “our little prince.”)

Here we find that neither Cleopas nor Proculus means anything like “to tell” or “to proclaim.”

CLAIM 2: Both Cleopas (Emmaus to Jerusalem) and Proculus (Alba Longa to Roma) were traveling in a westerly direction.  

REBUTTAL: Alba Longa was South East of Rome. This would mean Proculus was traveling North West-ish. While we do not know the exact location of Emmaus (we have about 9 candidate location) the various contenders for the location of Emmaus are mostly to the West of Jerusalem – 6 out of 9 are to the west, but if they meant cites like Ram, Chemesh, or Artas then it would have been either North or South. Since the text says that Cleopas and his companion were going toward Emmaus they would also be traveling in a westerly direction, though depending on the location, they could be going Northwest, West, or Southwest for five of the possible locations but not the other three. This means that in this case, maybe they were traveling in the same direction, but maybe not. At best, this claim is dubious, and given the range of possibilities that would be considered “westerly” this would be approximately 1/4th of travel narratives – hardly a motif making feature of a story.

CLAIM 3: Both trips would have been 14 miles.   

REBUTTAL: This is strange because Carrier (and thus O’Connor) get it wrong on both accounts. The distance from Alba Long to Rome was only about 12 miles. In Luke 24:13 we are told that the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus was sixty stadia. A stadia was equivalent to about 607 feet/185 meters for us, meaning that the distance from Jerusalem to the location referred to as Emmaus in the text would have been just under 7 miles. This comports with 8 out of 9 of the possibilities that archaeologists give for the site of Emmaus. So not only does Carrier get the distance of both of them wrong, but they are not even the same distance.

In addition, Luke gives the distance, while Plutarch does not. It would be the most obscure kind of myth making motif parallel if the distance had to be 14 miles but not only does a text not even need to mention distance and fit the motif, but another text could mention a different distance and still meet the requirement of the motif. This kind of absurdly misleading parallelism is precisely why no one takes Jesus Mythicists seriously… well… no one except online atheists like O’Connor.

(UNSTATED) CLAIM 4: We can see that Luke was borrowing these mythic details from a motif established by Plutarch’s account of Romulus.

REBUTTAL: This kind of assumption on the part of Mythicists reveals that in their hunt to find vague parallels to prop up, basic chronology is left by the wayside. Even if we grant the critical late dating for the gospel of Luke into the late 70’s, this would be almost certainly at least a decade prior to Plutarch’s writing, but probably more (since he probably wrote it in the 1st decade of the 2nd century). While I could argue for a dating of Luke’s gospel into the 50’s, I do not need to present that here since even the late dating is almost certainly pre-Plutarch. So not only is this series of “facts” debunked and does not present a known mythic motif in 1st century biographical literature, but if there was any borrowing to bolster a story, the causal arrow would be exactly reversed from the direction that Carrier, O’Connor and the other mythicists wish us to accept.

With that, I think I have shown that not only is O’Connor’s epistemic methodology wildly problematic and not actually the rationally responsible method to compare and evaluate competing worldviews or explanations, but also his engagement with Biblical/ancient literature, historiography, and historical facts is done in the irresponsible manner of the Jesus Mythicists. This may fly at places like the University of Northern New Jersey and the Center for Inquiry Institute, but they should not be accepted by any rational, truth seeking individuals.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Argument from Orthodoxy for Soft Determinism

Possible world: a manner/state in which the actual world could have been. The set of propositions that are or would be true in each possible world. Thus W1 will be an expression of the set of all propositions (N) that are true IF W1 was the actual world (N1, N2, N3, N4,… Nx.) 

Let me give a quick argument on why I think that any and all orthodox conception of God as an omnimax being who is the Creator of the actual world will necessarily entail, at minimim, soft determinism. 

God created/actualized (either weakly or strongly) the actual world (W1). In actualizing W1, God has created/actualized all propositions that are true which are labeled, as a set, “W1.” 

Let N666 be some instance of evil that obtains in only W1. God, in creating/actualized W1, has determined that N666 will obtain and cannot fail to obtain. For if N666 failed to obtain, then W1 would no longer be W1 but some other world (W1939) where ~N666 would obtain. If this were the case, God would have intended to create W1 but would have failed to do so when W1939 obtains contrary to his intention. This would result in a God who is not omnipotent. 

In addition, God, in actualizing/creating W1, at the moment of creation (T1), foreknew that N666 would obtain because he was intending to create W1. If ~N666 obtained, then God’s knowledge would be incorrect. Even if ~N666 did not obtain, but had a real metaphysical possibility to obtain, that would mean it would be possible for N666 to not obtain in the actual world. This means that God’s foreknowledge at T1 could possibly be wrong. If God’s foreknowledge could possibly be wrong, then God cannot know that he knows (since it would be precisely the thing that he would not know). This would result in a God who is not omniscient. 

The only consistent way to maintain the orthodox view of God as the omnimax Creator, is to affirm that God has actualized/created W1 and in doing so has determined, unalterably, whatsoever comes to pass as true propositions in the W1 which have no metaphysically meaningful ability to fail to come to pass. As such, God has determined N1 through Nx that are true given his creation/actualizion of W1, as opposed to any other propositions in other possible worlds. This results in, at minimum, soft determinism. 

Therefore, orthodox Christian conceptions of an omnimax being who is Creator of the world logically result in, at minimum, soft determinism. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Sovereignty and Conversational Confusion

Image result for divine sovereignty

This is a corrective and a challenge for both Reformed/Calvinists and non-Calvinists to be clearer when we talk about sovereignty with each other. I’m not going to here be arguing that Reformed theology/Calvinism is true or non-Calvinism is false. Rather I’m going to try to untie part of the Gordian knot that exists between us in how we understand each other.

Often the Reformed/Calvinist will accuse (sometimes rightly) the non-Calvinist have having a deficient view of sovereignty while the non-Calvinist will hear the Reformed/Calvinist talk about the implications of sovereignty as being some form of Compatiblism (which entails determinism) and then fail to make the necessary disambiguation in Reformed/Calvinistic thought between Sovereignty, Predestination, and Determinism.

Sovereignty on the Reformed view is rather mundane. Sovereignty simply has to do with God’s RIGHT to rule over all of his creation. God is the sovereign over all things, not most things. God is ALL-mighty, not MOSTLY-mighty. He has the right as king over all things. This is why in the WCF talks of sovereignty as:

“he hath most sovereign dominion over (all things), to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth.”

Sovereignty then has to do with his RIGHT as Sovereign over all. However, this is where the disambiguation in Reformed theology comes in and starts to cause confusion for those who do not properly draw appropriate distinctions. Sovereignty means that God is the sovereign over ALL of his creation. This is why the Bible can talk about God working all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Notice that ALL things are worked out and are under the oversight and purpose of God. Not most things. Not some things. Not the things that he can control but not the freewill decisions that we do that go against his plan. All things. Nothing happens in his kingdom that is not permitted by him and all things are under the direction and control of his plan and purpose – his sovereign right as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, plan and purpose. The confusion arises at this point for many Reformed/Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike. Because, on the Reformed view, we believe that God has predestined and predetermined all things BECAUSE God is sovereign, we will often state God’s predestining of all things just AS, definitionally, God’s sovereignty. God sovereignly predestines all things but his predestination is not synonymous with his sovereignty. His sovereignty is dispositional – he has a right to rule over all. His predestination is active – he acts, because he IS sovereign, over all. God can predestine rightly, at least in part, because he is sovereign. Not vice versa.

This is further compounded because of how Reformed Christians will often critique non-Reformed positions. For example, when a misinformed Arminian (misinformed because Arminianism does not historically affirm Libertarian freedom) or an SBC Provisionist affirm Libertarian freedom and say that IF God predestined the person or acted irresistibly on the will that God would then be “controlling” (in the directly causal sense) or the “author of sin” or in some way that God is not permitted to do so, the Reformed person will see this person as saying that there is an area of God’s own creation that he is NOT sovereign over – that he does not have the absolute right as King over to do by, for, and upon it whatever he desires to do. So while the Libertarian may think that they are attacking Predestination or Determinism, the Reformed/Calvinist hears the objection as assuming some area that is not under God’s sovereign kingship. Thus, an objection against Determinism is given a rejoinder that the person is actually objecting to Sovereignty. This then fuels the confusion. The non-Calvinist will then hear that Reformed theology just defines Sovereignty AS Determinism.

This is further fueled by how each person understands the word “control.” Think of how I can say “nothing at my work is out of my control” and “I control the character in the video game with the joystick.” In the first, I may mean that there is nothing that goes on in my office that is without my notice or permission or power to direct, fix, act upon, anticipate, etc. It may even mean everything that happens is planned and directed by me. However, no one would understand that to mean that I am the primary causal agent meticulously and directly causing everything to happen. I am not the efficient cause of every last thing. And yet when I am controlling a character I am just such a cause. When the Reformed/Calvinist talks about nothing being out of God’s control, we mean it as an analog to the first kind of use of the term because we are Compatiblists. We understand that God, though the first mover, works in sovereign administration through the means of secondary causal conditions and agents. He determines whatsoever comes to pass, but that is providentially worked out via means.

However, because our critics in this discussion are Incompatiblists of the Libertarian variety, and often fail to disambiguate between external criticisms and internal ones, they will take an externalist critique of Compatiblism’s Soft Determinism which thinks it unavoidably and definitionally entails Incompatiblism’s Hard Determinism, and then use that as if that is what Reformed/Calvinism AFFIRMS, and move into an internal criticism of saying that on Reformed/Calvinism God controls all things in the SECOND sense of the term. This however, because it moved from an external critique to an internal critique not only begs the question of Incompatiblistic Libertarian Freedom, but it also sets up a strawman of Reformed/Calvinism that is different from what we actually affirm.

Notice then what a simple definitional usage of a term like sovereignty can do and how the role it plays in dialogue can so quickly make communication derail. We need to be far more self-aware of how we use and understand terms and how other people, from within their own systems, use and understand those same terms. Without it, we will simply be in a grand narrative of talking past each other.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Can a Calvinist be certain of their salvation?

Can a Calvinist be certain of their salvation? (internal critique)

An important thing to note is that we do not place our hope or faith in our election – we place our faith and hope in Jesus Christ and him crucified as a fulfillment of the good promises of God. He has promised good to us and by our faith in him, we cling to his promises.

Why do I have assurance? Because God is good and faithful and has given certain means of grace to his people – word and sacrament, sanctification and the inner witness of the Spirit to me. We should not conflate a strong and confident assurance with a kind of epistemic certainty that is not susceptible to solipsism. ALL views are susceptible to solipsism. I do not need to know that I know that I am elect in Christ. I need to know that God has made promises to his people and described what his people will experience upon true conversion, and have given means of grace and assurance to his people to build them up in the faith. THE GROUNDS OF ASSURANCE ARE CUMULATIVE but rooted in God’s covenant love.

We could ask, how does the Arminian or the Provisionist know that they have the right kind of faith that will finish the work of redemption and please God enough to make his provision actual for them? How do they know that they wont walk away from it tomorrow if tragedy strikes and be removed from the body forever? How do they know that they are not a butterfly dreaming?

The question before us is already a poorly formed objection to Calvinism. Inherent in the question is a kind of decisional theology advocated by semi-pelagians like Finney and company. It looks to you and your own sincerity and conviction as the grounds for your assurance and hope. This is exactly the wrong place to look. We do not look to ourselves as the final cause of our hope, but to Christ.

Tim Challis writes of this kind of baseless assurance:

“When you seek assurance of your salvation, where do you look? Will you take refuge in the sincerity of your prayer? Will you comfort yourself by saying, “I meant it with all my heart”? If you take refuge in your own sincerity or in the passion you felt years ago when you prayed a prayer, you are building your assurance on shakey ground.”

And let me add, if you look to the conviction and passion of your prayer from this morning, the ground is just as shakey. The Reformed tradition is gritty and real and true to life. It recognizes that our assurance may wax and wane. We may go through dark nights of the soul. To try and demand a kind of epistemic certainty of Calvinism that is beyond all real Christian experience, or else throw it to the waste bin, is the height of a special pleading objection – to set the standard of expectation so high, beyond what even the objector’s own theological system would permit, is an obscenely uncharitable and flat out naïve way to engage in theological reflection.

We can ask these questions of epistemology of ANY view. There is nothing special or unique about Reformed soteriology in this regard.

We can have reasonable assurance by looking to God, his promise and covenant keeping nature, his glory in the finished work of Christ, and pressed to our souls by word and Sacrament, church and Spirit. We continue to work out our salvation, or the assurance thereof, with fear and trembling, but we know that God has said that those who love him love his word, love his body, love their neighbors, mortify the flesh, grow in prayer, display the fruit of the Spirit more as they mature, and long for deeper fellowship with God. Without some kind of defeater for the faithfulness of God, the work of the Spirit in my life, and the promises that accompany them, I have no reason to doubt my inclusion in the people of God. Simply asking “yeah but do you know that you know” is not an objection. It’s posturing. Look to Christ and his life, death, burial and resurrection, and the promises of God for his people that accompany them, and you will have assurance because God cannot lie. But you can… if you navel gaze and look to your own faithfulness, you will have no reason for hope and only cause for despair.  

The Grounds of Assurance

The Westminster Confession of Faith says in chapter 18:
This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.

Similarly, the Belgic Confession says in article 24:
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.

And the Canons of Dort say in articles 12 and 13 of section 1:
Assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation is given to the chosen in due time, though by various stages and in differing measure. Such assurance comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God, but by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word—such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.
In their awareness and assurance of this election, God’s children daily find greater cause to humble themselves before God, to adore the fathomless depth of God’s mercies, to cleanse themselves, and to give fervent love in return to the One who first so greatly loved them. This is far from saying that this teaching concerning election, and reflection upon it, make God’s children lax in observing his commandments or carnally self-assured. By God’s just judgment this does usually happen to those who casually take for granted the grace of election or engage in idle and brazen talk about it but are unwilling to walk in the ways of the chosen.

So we see several sources of assurance:
·         Westminster points to "the divine truth of the promises of salvation," and the Belgic Confession specifies "the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior" upon which those promises rest. Westminster cites these Scriptures for support:
·         Hebrews 6:17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast, which reaches inside behind the curtain
·         Westminster continues, "the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made," specified by Dort as "a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on," and Westminster cites:
·         2 Peter 1:4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence, knowledge. 10 Therefore, brothers and sisters, make every effort to be sure of your calling and election. For by doing this you will never stumble into sin. 11 For thus an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be richly provided for you.
·         1 John 2:3 Now by this we know that we have come to know God: if we keep his commandments.
·         1 John 3:14 We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death.
·         2 Corinthians 1:12 For our reason for confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that with pure motives and sincerity which are from God—not by human wisdom but by the grace of God—we conducted ourselves in the world, and all the more toward you.
·         Westminster wraps it up with, "The testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God," referring to Romans 8:15-16, "which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption," citing these verses:
·         Ephesians 1:13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.
·         Ephesians 4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
·         2 Corinthians 1:21 But it is God who establishes us together with you in Christ and who anointed us, 22 who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a down payment.

Distinguishing True Assurance from False
The Canons of Dort say that "by God's just judgment" some "who casually take for granted the grace of election or engage in idle and brazen talk about it but are unwilling to walk in the ways of the chosen" become "carnally self-assured" rather than having an actual assurance of faith. So how can an "infallible assurance" (in Westminster's language) and this "carnal self-assurance" be distinguished?
True assurance, however, may be distinguished from that which is false by the following tests:
  1. True assurance begets unfeigned humility; false assurance begets spiritual pride. 1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 6:14.
  2. The true leads to increased diligence in the practice of holiness; the false leads to sloth and self-indulgence. Psalm 51:12-13,19.
  3. The true leads to candid self-examination and to a desire to be searched and corrected by God; the false leads to a disposition to be satisfied with appearance and to avoid accurate investigation. Psalm 139:23-24.
  4. The true leads to constant aspirations after more intimate fellowship with God. 1 John 3:2-3.
It is common for Calvinists to cite 1 John 2:19 in the case of those who either were falsely assured or who deceived others (knowingly or not) into believing they were saved:
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us.

Calvinists teach that to be assured of salvation, you must look first to Christ, his merits, and his promises, then to the fruits of faith that he has granted you. It is not found by inquiring into the decree of election, nor by looking chiefly to yourself. It is not necessary to be assured of salvation in order to be saved, but it is a good thing to strive for nonetheless. There are ways of distinguishing it from "carnal self-assurance," and those who have such false assurance are mistaken about their salvation.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Christianity is False Because... Denominations.

Image result for 33,000 denominations

In debating with atheists, we have all heard something like this:

“Yeah but you Christians cant even agree on what it means to be a Christian? Why should I be your kind of Christian and not one of the other 40,000 denominations out there?”

This is a bad argument from the atheist for several reasons.

First, even if there were 40,000 denominations, and even if they were all uniquely different in substantive ways, it does not follow that the Christian that they are talking to believes that all or most of the other ones that they do not belong to are not Christians or not real Christians or whatever. For example, I belong to a rather small American denomination within the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian tradition called the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA). I have no problem saying that I have Christian brothers and sisters (even theologically incorrect ones) who hold to the core aspects of the Christian faith in nearly all other orthodox denominations – Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and so forth. We have some disagreements to be sure, but we can all stand shoulder to shoulder on the core aspects of the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ (namely expressed in his death, burial and bodily resurrection), and the commission to share the gospel to the world as much as we can before the return of Christ at the end of the present world.

Second, the existence of disagreement does not necessarily count as evidence against a view or in favor of its opposition. There are at least 10 different interpretations of Quantum Mechanics that are all consonant with the observable data. The fact that scientists disagree about the interpretation is not evidence against the existence of a quantum world, nor can the mere presence of disagreement with other views be an argument against any one view over the other. It also cannot be used reasonably as evidence in favor of a position that would deny quantum mechanics altogether. So, the existence of theological disagreement between denominations cannot function as an objection to Christianity or in favor of atheism. This about if we allowed this kind of argument for worldviews more broadly. Would the existence of the mere disagreement between worldviews mean that ALL worldviews are wrong? Or could we, in a debate, tell one side that they are probably wrong simply because other worldview advocates disagree with them?

Third, when someone makes a claim like this, we should always check the sources. The statistic for this number appears to be from the World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson (Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001). While it does come to a total of 33,000 denominations, the problem with how the atheist uses the stat is in how they understand what a denomination is. They are using the objection to try and say that we all do not agree and that each denomination is an instance of evidence for that. However, that is not how the WCE defines what a denomination is in their study. WCE defines a denomination as follows:

'Denominations. A denomination is defined in this Encyclopedia as an organized aggregate of worship centers or congregations of similar ecclesiastical tradition within a specific country; i.e. as an organized Christian church or tradition or religious group or community of believers, within a specific country, whose component congregations and members are called by the same denominational name in different areas, regarding themselves as one autonomous Christian church distinct from other denominations, churches and traditions. As defined here, world Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, these denominations themselves being composed of over 3,400,000 worship centers, churches or congregations.' (Barrett et al, volume 1, page 16, Table 1-5, emphasis added)

From this definition, two things should be brought into focus about how WCE is defining a Christian denomination,

1.      Denominations are defined primarily geographically. That is, there may be one denominational body but it is counted as a new denomination for every country that it operates in. I mentioned my denomination, the PCA, previously. The PCA has church plants in a couple dozen countries. This means that while the PCA is the main ecclesiastical body, and we all agree and adhere to the same confessional standards, this one denomination will be counted as a couple dozen denomination in the WCE survey.
2.      The WCE has no problem classifying these 33,000 denominations into 6 “ecclesiastico-cultural blocs.” This means that the vast majority of these fall into just a handful of buckets.

One of the main problems with how the atheists use the final number from this list is that they completely ignore the causal factors that lead to denominationalism in the first place. Often the dividing line between denominations or for why one church will plant a new one that is unaffiliated with itself (either peacefully or by a split) has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely like substantive theology. Denominations and churches are established as distinct from others because of language barriers, cultural distinctive, personality differences, geographical differences, socio-economic, missional, stylistic differences (such as the kind of music played or even, sadly, the kind of carpet that got installed) as well as a whole host other reasons. There are even micro-geographical reasons since the advent of the automobile and the invention of the suburb. We no longer see new churches being called “The 1st Methodist Church of Townsville” but rather “Curve” or something trendy like that. This is because people now have options. There are churches for Baby Boomers and Millennials and everything beyond and between. While many bemoan this kind of consumeristic segmentation and its effects on the church to water it down and juvenilize the church (myself included) this cannot be denied as a real factor in the segmentation of denominations even in small geographical areas. Within my rather small town, there are approximately 2 dozen baptistic churches that likely believe almost identical things doctrinally (at least on core essentials). But one may be a mega church because it was more successful in implementing modern church grown tactics while another fills a need for those with families but who may not like the faceless environment of a megachurch, and another may appeal to those who want to sings hymns and another those who want to sing contemporary songs, and so forth. Many of these churches are Independent, which lease to the next issue with the atheistic use of these statistics.

Sometimes, a certain strong view on the independent nature of the church, that is, that as a matter of course, these Christians may think that the most ethical, functional, and pure way to organize and lead a church just is for it to be independent of the institutional structures that we have seen in history can potentially lead to so much division. We can see this further in the list of denominations that the WCE labels as “Independents” where over 8,000 of the denominations listed just were independent (that is, entirely unaffiliated) Baptist churches. These churches would in most cases be almost doctrinally identical to what we would find in the American free conference of churches known as the Southern Baptist Convention. In addition, the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are counted by their various Rites and Orders even though they all are part of one institutional denomination.

Another problem with trying to use the list provided by the WCE the way atheists do, is that the list includes any group that self-identifies as a Christian church (e.g. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Oneness Pentecostals, Gnostics, Unitarians, Prosperity cults, Divine Science, Swedenborgian, Universalist Unitarians, etc.) This means that groups which are historically not part of orthodox Christianity and have been identified as cults (multiplied by their various country counts) are included in the list to the tune of several thousands.

I would then recommend a taxonomy of Christian Churches as follows (here I am even allowing the taxonomy to include self-identification as a means of entry to the list):

1. Roman Catholic
2. Eastern Churches
3. Reformed/Lutheran Protestant
4. Arminian/Anabaptist Protestant
5. Pentecostal/Charismatic
6. Theologically Liberal Churches
7. Cultic/Marginal Churches

This is simply a far more accurate way of looking at the various denominational traditions in a way that best eliminates the noise from the statistics dealing with geographical, linguistic, cultural, stylistic, personality, etc. differences that actual drive most of the denominationalism that we observe in reality.

The great irony of all of this for us who are watching the rise of atheist groups, churches and Sunday assemblies, is that they are already showing the early signs of denominationalism. They form in different areas because of geography; several will form in the same area due to demographic or missional differences; some are parts of broader national affiliations, and some are not; some are active politically and some want to be intentionally non-partisan; some are geared toward involvement in education and local schools and colleges while some want to equip the “every man”; and we have even started to see church splits in groups like the Sunday Assembly and the Godless Revival. If we started counting atheist groups and assemblies like the WCE does with denominations, we would see the early seeds of denominationalism on a global scale. I wonder what will happen with a group that generally prides itself on independence and having no creedal foundation that ties them all together. Give atheism the 2000 years that Christianity has had, and I wonder just how many denominations such a group will have.