A Response to Steve Hays


Recently I’ve been interacting with the Reformed folk over at Triablog. They’ve been responding extensively to the arguments of a fellow who identifies himself as “Orthodox” (that’s his blog name, I guess) as well as other Eastern Christians who have been commenting on Triablog. Personally I dislike the style of presentation being used by some of the Eastern Christians over there, and I hope that there can be more diplomatic tones in the future between the Calvinistic camp and the Eastern commenters. I also think that some of the arguments being used by Eastern Christians (for why Orthodoxy is better than Protestantism) are invalid, or at least cannot be clearly won without presupposing the authority of the Orthodox Church.

That being said, I will respond to Hay’s post “MG”. He was gracious enough to take the time out of a rather busy schedule to deal with my little comments, so I hope my response is equally grateful.

SH said:

Because I’ve had some other battles to fight, I’ve been neglecting MG’s questions—no relation to the classic sports car, I presume! 🙂

We’re second cousins, actually.

SH said:

BTW, I don’t monitor all the feedback in every thread, so there maybe some other questions of his I’m overlooking.

Technically there’s some other stuff I had posted such as in the thread “Draw Him… Raise Him”, but I probably have just overlooked your responses.

Just to let you know, I don’t blog as fast as you Triablogers do. You guys are the lightning speed Calvinists of the internet. And I’m neither lightning speed nor Calvinist.


“What specific problems would follow from this? What argument by Orthodox are you criticizing?”

SH said:

Among other things, Orthodox has been arguing that evangelicals cannot be certain of what they believe, whereas sacred tradition or living tradition in EO is the makeweight.
If, however, the Orthodox Communion cannot even agree on the boundaries of the canon, then what becomes of his appeal to religious certainty?

I think it is unfortunate that Orthodox has been arguing that “evangelicals cannot be certain of what they believe.” No one can be certain of what they believe.

The difference that I think exists between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism is that one sees the authority of the New and Old Testament canons grounded in public, infallible, divine revelation (the Orthodox Church) whereas the other does not see the authority of the New and Old Testament canons being publicly revealed by an infallible authority. Neither side grants certainty, but the Orthodox side does seem to have a kind of authority behind the canon that is different. And I would say that this authority puts Orthodoxy in a better place in terms of being more consistent with basic Christian assumptions, ie. revelation is public and its truth based on infallible authority.


“What kinds of disadvantages follow for Orthodoxy if there is disagreement between the different parts of the church on the extended OT canon?”

SH said:

Two issues:

i) If EO appeals to some form of tradition to ground the canon, if that appeal is flawed, and if, by relying tradition alone to establish the canon, it thereby cuts itself off from alternative methods of ascertaining the canon, then it’s at a disadvantage vis-à-vis evangelicalism, which does have a fallback option—indeed, more than one.

ii) This also goes to the larger question of who speaks for Orthodoxy?

I understand point i) but disagree with it.

The issue of who speaks for Orthodoxy is an odd one. Its kind of like asking who speaks for Christianity.

The principle that I operated on when I was testing Orthodox claims (in my Protestant days of not-so-long ago) was the principle of generosity. What this basically means is “I should assume the best things—within reason—about my opponents and people I disagree with”. I also use this principle in dealing with Calvinists, Roman Catholics, and naturalists. This means, when translated to theological and philosophical argument, that I always assume “the most credible person/claim/belief/argument should be considered to represent the group that is presenting its claims”.

If we wish to get at truth, it seems to make the most sense to do this. So I think that when we are in a position to assess which of several conflicting claims to correctly represent a tradition is the most likely correct representative, we should go with “whichever claim is the most favorable to that position being true”.

I realize that this isn’t a wholly unproblematic attitude; for instance, we need a standard by which to evaluate what “favorable to that position being true” means. But this rule does seem to be the best way to approach these issues.

In light of all of this, I would say that we should assume that whoever speaks for Orthodoxy is whoever presents the most credible view/argument/claim. This doesn’t imply the person is an authority; it just forces us to deal with the best version/interpretation of a certain position.


“I just wonder how big of a deal it is that there is disagreement about the contents of the canon; Im not sure its an issue, really.”

See above and below.


“Unlike Orthodox, I see the point that you guys are trying to make here. Orthodoxy is not as united as it claims to be, and hence one of its claims to superiority is false. However, I think that in a certain sense, Orthodox is on to something. I know what you guys are trying to say, but I would like to see it formulated as an argument. That way we can better assess whether or not it succeeds or fails.”

SH said

i) That depends, in part, on whether or not you agree with him. We’re getting mixed signals from different EO commenters. That, of itself, is problematic. Does Orthodoxy speak with one voice, or several conflicting voices? Harmony or cacophony?

See above.

ii) Where Orthodox is concerned, the question is whether EO confers an epistemic advantage. Gene, Jason, and I have argued that it’s actually disadvantageous (see above).

See above. For me, the question is not epistemic in the sense of a desire for certainty (the project of modernism) but instead is based on a desire for proper authority.


“Well though the Quinisext Ecumenical Council says that these books are canonical, it doesn’t say they are inspired as far as I know. Ecumenical Councils are the place from which authority is expressed in the Church. Its too bad that some individuals are disagreeing on this subject.”

SH said:

But that raises a fresh set of issues. Take the long ending of Mark. Did Jesu
s really speak those words or not?

The words attributed to him lay down criteria for what makes a professing believer to be a true believer. Now, if the EO tradition affirms the authenticity of these words, and if these signs do not accompany EO believers, then EO believers are self-deluded.

So it makes a big difference whether someone put these words in his mouth or not. Your eternal fate hangs in the balance.

I’m not sure the issues you raise here are as serious as the issues in a Protestant view of authority. In Mark 16:17 Jesus says that the signs will accompany those who believe; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is meant in an unqualified way such that these signs necessarily accompany those saved and only if one can do these signs does that imply a person is saved. Why should we think Jesus means this in an unqualified way?

Again, what I’m not going for is certainty. Rather it’s a matter of public infallible authority: is divine revelation authenticated and taught by public infallible authority, or not? The question isn’t “can I be certain about x?” I’m sorry if other people have been giving a similar argument that says Orthodoxy lets you be certain of the canon of Scripture; it seems preposterous to me to claim that anyone could ever be absolutely certain of much of anything, but especially the canon of Scripture.


“Things that are outside of the scope of ecumenical councils are up for grabs and not necessary for unity.”

SH said:

i) Is EO tradition backward looking? What about the appeal of writers like Meyendorff to “living tradition”?

ii) And what’s your reason for taking the ecumenical councils as having the last word? By what criteria do you identify an ecumenical council? Why do you attribute infallibility to an ecumenical council? Or do you?

I don’t know about whether or not “living tradition” is infallible or not.

Regarding the issue of ecumenical councils, I don’t have any criteria for an ecumenical council that I can be absolutely sure of. It seems to me least arbitrary to think that if the Church has been given the Holy Spirit, and the Church as a whole seems to have made a certain decision (by the consent of the majority of the hierarchy) that the Holy Spirit has indeed led the Church to make that decision with authority. This may seem arbitrary to you; but it doesn’t seem arbitrary to me. This is at least one possible way of understanding how the Holy Spirit functions in the Church. It seems to me to provide a proper grounding for the truth of the biblical canon and the infallible, revealed status of doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation. Hence I think it’s a good model for delineating which decisions are ecumenical/authoritative.


“Certainly there is disagreement over this issue, but that doesn’t mean that communion is being withheld; and that’s what is crucial to unity in the Orthodox Church. Individual opinions coming into conflict don’t necessarily entail that the Church as a whole has disunity. That’s what I meant by ‘dispute’; I guess I should have said ‘Eucharistic disunity’.’

SH said:

But don’t the disputes cut much deeper than that? Consider the dispute between ROCOR and the rest of the OE communion. This raises a couple of fundamental issues:

i) What’s the authentic voice of Orthodoxy? Indeed, what’s the authentic voice of Russian Orthodoxy, just for starters? Is it the Metropolitan of ROCOR or the Patriarch of Moscow? Who adjudicates a dispute like that?

ii) Moreover, ROCOR is accusing the rest of the Orthodox communion of heresy and apostasy. For him, “ecumania” is the “heresy of heresies.”

a) And, given his EO assumptions, he has a point, does he not? If the EO communion represents the one true church, then ecumenical syncretism denies the identity of the one true church.

b) Yet his allegation is also in tension with apostolic succession, is it not? If the entire Orthodox communion could defect from the true faith, except for a Russian splinter group, then isn’t the appeal to apostolic succession to ground sacred tradition thereby nullified?

So both sides of this dispute have a point, but it takes the form of mutually assured destruction. They end up disproving each other. Reciprocal falsification.

I don’t see any reason to think that either side by itself speaks for the whole Church. Individuals and sub-groups within the Church can be fallible and dead wrong, according to this understanding. It is the Church in ecumenical consensus that is infallible. These disputes don’t seem to mean much of anything in terms of the integrity of the Church as a whole.

Regarding the issue of ecumenical syncretism, there are a variety of different attitudes that Orthodox take toward other religious groups. Some of these approaches uphold the traditional understanding of Orthodoxy as the One True Church; others do not. I think it may be compatible with the uniqueness of Orthodoxy to say that there can be (heterodox) saved Christians outside the Orthodox Church. If you would like me to argue for this, I would be willing to give it a try.


“I definately see the point you are trying to get at. There might be a problem with Orthodoxy for this reason. I don’t mean to sound inflammatory, (which is how questions like these sometimes sound…) but doesn’t your argument cut both ways? Can’t I even use your argument to point out the vagueness of Christianity in general? So for instance I could ask this: who speaks for Christians? Again, Im not trying to sound like a jerk. But I do want to know why these kinds of questions don’t put all Christians in an equal amount of trouble. Thanks for the interesting post.”

SH said:

To reiterate a couple of points:

i) If certain Orthodox believers try to falsify Evangelicalism by raising a given objection, and if a parallel objection can be leveled against EO, then they’ve undercut their own position.

ii) But that, of itself, doesn’t undercut the evangelical option, for we may have alternative methods of grounding our belief-system which are insusceptible to the same objections. And, indeed, Jason, Gene, and I (among others) have explicated the alternatives in some detail.

What I was specifically dealing with when I said “Can’t your argument be used to point out the vagueness of Christianity in general?” was the issue of “who speaks for Christianity?” Your response, however, did not explain why the question “Who speaks for Orthodoxy?” couldn’t be applied with equal force to an evangelical in the form of “Who speaks for Christianity?” This doesn’t directly have to do with the canon arguments that some Orthodox people have been making; it is rather a rebuttal to your point about the vagueness of Orthodoxy.

Regarding what the alternative grounds are for establishing evangelicalism, could you summarize your approach, and explain in what sense the contents o
f the canon of the Old and New Testaments are considered to be public, infallible, divine revelation on your view?


“I assume you are talking about the doctrine of unconditional election of individuals to eternal salvation, which is the position of Augustinian and Reformed theology. Where do you see this doctrine taught in Scripture?”

SH responded:

It’s a theological construct with many lines of evidence feeding into it from Paul and John. One place to start is:


I am very aware of such arguments. I think that J. P. Holding’s exegesis is quite sufficient in showing that it is not necessary to infer Calvinism from Romans 9 (and you are very aware of Holding’s exegesis). This becomes even more clear if you add on a couple more points from Forster and Marston’s God’s Strategy in Human History and Witherington’s Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary and Brian J. Abasciano’s “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Response to Thomas R. Schreiner” in the JETS. These are more than sufficient to answer the arguments of Calvinist exegetes such as the one you linked to, Schreiner, or Piper.

“Also, what do you make of 1 Peter 1:2 where it says that there are people ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father’? This seems to ground election in foreknowledge of some kind.”

SH said:

i) No, because the meaning of a word is determined by usage rather than etymology. Petrine usage has its background in OT usage, where, in covenantal settings, the Hebrew counterpart (yada) is a synonym for “choice” rather than “knowledge.

Can you provide some of the background information on this? I have read a little bit about yada in the OT, but I was under the impression that it is rarely used to unambiguously mean “choose” “chose” etc. when talking about God and his people.

Furthermore, the context within 1 Peter includes verses about prophetic anticipation of the future and God’s foreknowledge of Christ’s appearing. These can both be legitimately interpreted as teaching that foreknowledge involves cognitive awareness of truths about the future; I see no reason this could not also apply to 1 Peter 1:2.

SH said:

ii) This carries over into NT usage (as well as Qumranic usage), in analogous settings (e.g. Acts 2:23; Rom 8:29; 11:2).

All of these passages cited are actually very compatible with reading foreknowledge as meaning “knowledge about facts about a person’s/group’s properties/activities beforehand”.

And as Witherington would be quick to point out, God’s foreknowledge in Romans 11:2, if it does mean choice, did not preclude the apostasy of ethnic Israel. Foreknowledge, if taken to mean choice, would not necessarily require perseverance of the saints, and hence wouldn’t itself have to be unconditional election that can’t be reversed by human sin. (though because the election of Christians is different than that of Israel, perserverance is not precluded)

SH said:

iii) And the prefix accentuates the unconditional aspect of this choice, since it was made before its objects came into being—thereby denoting God’s causal priority in choosing whom he did (and, by implication, excluding others).

The prefix could just as easily entail God’s temporal priority in knowing about a choice or property of something beforehand.

iv) In addition, certain words and phrases have a cultural resonance. There were both “libertarian” and “predestinarian” Jewish groups in 2nd temple Judaism. So we have to ask how Petrine usage would have been “heard” by the original audience against that social backdrop. It would have triggered associations with the predestinarian schools of thought.

This may or may not be correct; it definitely assumes Christianity was on the more hardcore side in terms of predestinarianism in early Judaism. Can reasons be given independently of biblical evidence for assuming that Christianity was a more extreme predestinarian group? I thought that Christians would be more moderate, given their close relation to Phariseeism.

Taken by itself, 1 Pet 1:2 doesn’t necessarily prove unconditional election, but it’s both consistent with unconditional election and is tilted in that direction. Yet the doctrine of unconditional election is also founded on a larger database.

I disagree that 1 Peter 1:2 is tilted in favor of unconditional election. It may not prove conditional election but it at least provides a possible ground for affirming conditional election.

Anyways, thanks for a civil, courteous, and responsible discussion. Hopefully the differences between my arguments about the canon and those of certain other EO people are now more obvious.


One Response to “A Response to Steve Hays”

  1. MG Says:

    Jackie–Thanks for stopping by. I would be glad to talk about skepticism with you.That’s really cool that your’e going to UC Santa Cruz. I’m going to be a junior in the classical literature/honors program at Biola University. I study philosophy as one of my main passtimes, and reading classical literature is a big part of my education.You say “I have never encountered a truly respectable Christian position before”. You’ve definately come to the right place. Though I’m only an amateur, I would be glad to introduce you to the philosophical issues related to Christianity. I would be glad to try and show you the intellectual rigor and strength of Christian thought. (Be careful though, because many of my blog entries are discussions within Christianity itself, as opposed to discussions between Christian views and atheistic or other views; and I figure that these inter-Christian debates wouldn’t have much value to you)You can view some of my posts concerning God’s existence under the heading “Natural Theology” on my sidebar. I especially recommend “Three Moral Arguments for God’s Existence”, where I argue that the existence of truths about right and wrong provides strong evidence for God’s existence.One post that I made awhile back about skepticism is “Skepticism and Being Practical”; you might find it interesting but it doesn’t contain arguments against skepticism per se. If you want to discuss skepticism with me in more depth then please say so; I would be glad to give you a post explaining what I see are the strengths and weaknesses of skeptical epistemology.In the near future I will be making posts over at this blog: http://www.faceofgod.wordpress.com in a series titled “God and Reality” where I will argue that our experience of some of reality’s most basic features–matter, life, consciousness, good, evil, and mystical experience–is best explained by the existence of a God. You might find that discussion interesting.If you could do me a favor and relocate our comment-discussion to my post on “Skepticism and Being Practical” that would be very helpful.Again, thanks for commenting and I look forward to talking to you more.

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