Archive for the ‘Responses’ Category

Church Authority: Argument 3

December 30, 2008

Accuracy, Authority, and the Visibility of the Church

In this post, I will argue that (1) There are some reasons to think the Church’s leaders have intrinsic authority, (2) Saying our parents have intrinisic authority is compatible with questioning our parents once we incorporate the concept of “insanity” into our model of authority, (3) Authority and accuracy are two distinct things, and this is implicitly accepted by Protestants, (4) Jesus thought the Scribes and Pharisees had intrinsic authority, (5) The Church continues the visible leadership structure and intrinsic authority that the Scribes and Pharisees had.

This post is a response to a comment in a very long discussion that can be found here on the blog By Whose Authority? about private judgment in the interpretation of the Bible. David Nilsen has been arguing that the gift of the illumination of the Holy Spirit helps individuals to interpret the Bible, and that the Spirit’s infallibility can speak directly to the soul of a Christian, binding his or her conscience to believe an interpretation of the Bible. Much of the discussion has already happened on his blog, and may be good background for this post.

(1) There are some reasons to think the Church’s leaders have intrinsic authority. (more…)

Church Authority: Reply 1

August 1, 2008

When engaging with a sophisticated and elaborate ancient worldview that has been held by thousands of brilliant minds and many a pure heart, it is important to give that tradition the benefit of the doubt. Giving someone or something the benefit of the doubt does not imply assuming it can answer all of the objections that can be leveled against it and make an airtight case for its plausibility. But it does imply assuming that the tradition one is critiquing has answers to what seem like obvious problems with its core teachings.

(Special thanks to a phantom menace for providing many of the resources and ideas for this post.)


Was the Author of the Gospel of Mark an Adoptionist?

January 18, 2008

A reader who calls himself “Hokku” on David’s Blog suggested that the Gospel of Mark teaches an adoptionist Christology and that this can be argued for exegetically. Adoptionism is the view that Jesus’ divinity is to be understood in terms of a man being adopted, due to his virtue and moral excellence, into the divine life. Jesus did not pre-exist his birth as God or anything else; rather he was born as a man (some adoptionists deny the virginal conception) and raised to deity.

As someone who believes in Incarnational Christology, I disagree with this view, and I was interested in whether or not there are textual reasons for denying it, considering Hokku’s claims that it can be argued from the Gospel of Mark. Here are the comments that argued for adoptionism and my proposed responses. For those interested in reading this, I would appreciate evaluation/criticism.

Hokku wrote:

“And what we do see in Mark is Jesus being declared son of God at his baptism when the heavens open and the Spirit descends into him (note that it is as though Jesus becomes possessed by the Spirit — we see later in Mark that the Spirit “casts him out” into the wilderness, a violent term that Matthew and Luke change to “led”). The voice from heaven declares “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased,” which is a reflection of Psalm 2:7: “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” On his elevation, the ancient king of Israel was believed to become the son of God, and in Mark, Jesus becomes the son of God at his baptism, thus no need for or interest in birth stories and virgin births, both things Matthew and Luke added to the Markan text, which again is why their two stories are so divergent and discrepant — they had no Markan model to follow, as they do with the rest of Mark up to the point where the women run from the tomb in fear and say nothing to anyone.”

“If there is no virgin birth in Mark (and there is not), no birth narrative in which Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit (and there is not), no pre-existent Logos who becomes flesh (as in John), and Mark’s “heavenly” declaration that Jesus is/has become God’s son takes place and is emphasized at his baptism — and Mark states the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” to be at the appearance of John and his baptism, then that alone provides substantial evidence. But further, we have the evidence of early Jewish Ebionite Christianity, as already mentioned, which held to a form of adoptionism, so we have extra-biblical evidence for this understanding as well.”

I wrote:


Here are a couple of possible problems that came to mind when I was thinking about the possibility of a Markan adoptionist Christology. I didn’t assume biblical inspiration or inerrancy or anything in making the arguments; I just tried to assume that the Markan narrative is somewhat internally consistent and had an audience of some kind. None of these is an argument that Mark’s beliefs were correct, just that its hard to see how we could claim that he had adoptionistic beliefs. None of the arguments is adequate by itself, but I think that taken jointly they make the adoptionist interpretation unlikely. Then again, Im not a biblical scholar, so I’d like your feedback. Tell me what you think:

1. When John speaks about the coming of Jesus in the prologue, he speaks of him as “The one who is more powerful than I” and says that he is not worthy to stoop and tie his sandals. This is hard to mesh with the idea that Jesus was not considered to be divine by the author of the Gospel of Mark prior to his baptism . How does an adoptionist exegesis explain Mark’s putting these words in John’s mouth in a way that isn’t ad hoc?

2. The language of John becomes even more problematic if we try to read it adoptionistically because if adoptionism is right, then Jesus had to prove his worthiness of divinity through effort and therefore to have had some kind of special life prior to his exaltation. This follows from the definition of adoptionism; after all, its not just any mortal who is worthy of becoming divine. This implies some kind of backstory that the readers of Mark would be familiar with. The existence of this backstory also seems to be implied by the total lack of clarification as to who Jesus is or where he comes from at the start of Mark’s narrative–something that other Jewish writers afford their readers when they are introducing an important character in their so-called salvation history. But if this assumption is granted–that according to the Christian story, Jesus had an incredible, powerful, or unusual life prior to baptism that made him worthy of somehow partaking of divinity–then invoking a virginal conception and Incarnation as being part of Mark’s background information becomes a lot more credible. It becomes one of many acceptable ways to explain Jesus’ worthiness to be given divinity (another way would be that he had some kind of incredible human virtue, a story that may have narrative difficulties of its own). But of course if he had divinity before the baptism via a virginal conception and Incarnation from pre-existence, then the argument for adoptionism collapses.

3. The actual events of the baptism and what immediately follows are peculiar if read through the lens of adoptionism. One big problem is where the author sees Jesus becoming exalted to divinity. Is it the Holy Spirit’s descent? This would be a strange place to identify the exaltation because the Holy Spirit seems to remain distinct from Jesus (the Spirit drives him into the wilderness in 12, implying a kind of distinction). If we were looking for evidence of exaltation, we would want to locate something that has specifically changed about Jesus’ position on the hierarchy of beings; but identifying the Spirit’s descent as embodying this is odd because of the subsequent distinction between the Spirit and Jesus. Also, there was a precedent in Jewish teaching for the descent of the Spirit being a royal anointing–giving a king rule over Israel–when accompanied by a washing in the river by a prophet; but its a huge stretch to see this as an enactment of divinization. Especially when we take into account John’s acknowledgment of the prior power and authority of Jesus, this is very awkward. Is the voice of the Father the point that we look to to see divinization happening? This is strange because the voice merely acknowledges, it doesn’t actually *do* anything from what we can tell. All the transformation that the author wants to get across seems to have already happened once the Holy Spirit comes down and rests over him. So where’s the exaltation to divinity from a previously non-divine state?

4. If we try to argue that the words “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” are an acknowledgment of present exaltation to divinity, then this sits very awkwardly with Mark’s account of the transfiguration later on, where similar language is used. With the transfiguration we have to grant that the voice from the cloud is recognizing a status that has been in Jesus’ possession at least since the time of his baptism. It is thus an acknowledgment of a state that Jesus has had for awhile–not recognition of something that has just been obtained, much less an actual act of conferring authority or power verbally. But if we are willing to grant this with respect to the transfiguration account, then why not assume that Mark’s meaning is the same in both cases? This is simpler. Is the only reason that we should prefer your exegesis of Mark 1:11 that the phrase “you are my Son…” here occurs for the first time? At this point the argument has become a stretch.

5. Your arguments from the lack of an Incarnational narrative or a virginal conception narrative seem to assume that these ideas weren’t in the b
ackground of the minds of the readership, and that Mark’s choice not to include them implies that he didn’t believe in them–two assumptions that I don’t see any good reason to grant. The argument from the baptismal proclamation is awkward for reasons I’ve explained above. And your argument from how Mark positions “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” seems unpersuasive because (a) Mark could just mean that this is the beginning of his telling of the Gospel (which seems in no way problematic as a read) and (b) as I argued above, Mark seems to assume his audience has some prior knowledge of the story of Jesus, which would include supplemental material about how Jesus confers salvation, etc.–more Gospel.

6. Finally, there may be arguments available that Mark believes in Jesus’ divinity in a sense that is stronger than that of adoptionism–a pre-existent sense, or a fully-divine sense. If you would like, I can attempt to locate these for you.


Dualism and Joint Causality

December 21, 2007

In his response to my argument against property dualism from its inadequate account of personal identity, Brett made a suggestion that if the soul together with the body is adequate to generate a continuity of consciousness, that the body alone is adequate to generate a continuity of consciousness. Here I will examine and critique these suggestions.

Brett wrote:

“I have no problem accepting a materialist account of the mind and here is why: if the dualist hold that certain material states of the brain “capture” or “hold in” the soul to the body, then they believe that it is sensible to say that some physical state causes the continuity of the soul’s interaction with the body. It appears to me that a dualist would have to accept this in light of what we know about labodomis: if dualism is true, then the altering, or rather severing, of the frontal lobe causes the aspect of the “soul” that causes emotion to vanish and go off somewhere else. Therefore, from this, we can draw a general principal (lets just assume that other phenomena of the mind like belief work in the same way emotion has been demonstrated to work) that physical states are a necessary factor for states of consciousness to endure continually. Well, if ((X and S)->continuous Y) where X is a certain chemical combination, S is some soulish agent, and Y is the consciousness being presently experienced, then it necessarily follows that (X->continuous Y) is also possible, where X and Y are the same things. If one is to say that X, since it is material and its parts are being replaced, cannot be one of the casual factors in bringing about uninterrupted consciousness because its token is changing constantly (X->continuous Y), then it follows that X should also be insufficient to continually “cage in”, or “hold onto” the soul in an uninterrupted fashion, as would occur in the case of ((X and S)->continuous Y). In short, it seems that the argument that Michael uses to critique the brand of materialism under question is either valid, and therefore the dualist and the monist account of consciousness are both incompetent, or the critique is invalid, and the dualist and monist models are both workable. I believe that both models, the dualist one and monist alike, are possible and that the critique does not show that either are incompetent, but I think the monist account wins because it does not multiply as many bodies to explain the phenomena as with the dualist account, when taking occum’s razor into consideration.”

I will try to analyze this part of Brett’s post in 3 segments.

(1) Brett first states that “if the dualist hold that certain material states of the brain “capture” or “hold in” the soul to the body, then they believe that it is sensible to say that some physical state causes the continuity of the soul’s interaction with the body. It appears to me that a dualist would have to accept this in light of what we know about labodomis: if dualism is true, then the altering, or rather severing, of the frontal lobe causes the aspect of the “soul” that causes emotion to vanish and go off somewhere else. Therefore, from this, we can draw a general principal (lets just assume that other phenomena of the mind like belief work in the same way emotion has been demonstrated to work) that physical states are a necessary factor for states of consciousness to endure continually.”

Brett uses language of “capturing” which seems to imply that on his view of dualism, the dualist is saying that the body is what causes the continual interaction between soul and body. But this is false. Dualists would hold that a precondition for the interaction of the soul with the body is the existence of specific physical states (the body, and more specifically, certain causal channels within the body). But preconditions (Brett’s “necessary factors”) aren’t causes. The example of lobotomy does show that the soul may have some powers that are inactive if certain physical states aren’t in place that the soul will normally act through. But that doesn’t imply that the body and specific brain states are efficient causes of the soul continually interacting with it–no more than the existence of a plaster surface is the efficient cause of a three week painting project.

It is the assumption that physical states cause the continual interaction that leads to Brett later arguing that “if the body can cause continual interaction, then the body can adequately cause continual consciousness”. I will continue to address the soul/brain relation below as related issues come up (see [3]).

(2) Next Brett says “Well, if ((X and S)->continuous Y) where X is a certain chemical combination, S is some soulish agent, and Y is the consciousness being presently experienced, then it necessarily follows that (X->continuous Y) is also possible, where X and Y are the same things.”

It seems to me that this is false–even obviously so. Take for instance the good ole’ volcano experiment that you did in fourth grade. You wanted to make foamy, fizzy bubbles. So you took vinegar (ingredient x) and baking soda (ingredient s) and you put them in the cheap paper-mache volcano sculpture. You got a whole ton of bubbles (continuous Y) and were a very happy kid.

But was it ever reasonable to believe that ingredient x was adequate on its own to give a continuous Y? I don’t see how. It is not in fact sufficient. The fact that X and S can lead to Y doesn’t imply by any known rules of inference that I’m aware of that X is sufficient by itself to generate continuous Y.

But, you might protest, we *know* this to be the case with baking soda and vinegar because we’ve *seen* the interaction between them and that both are joint causes of bubbling. But that isn’t true with the soul and brain states. We haven’t seen that they’re *both* jointly necessary. We just know that the brain states are necessary–the question of whether they are jointly necessary is something else. So its simpler, given this consideration, to assume that the soul is not a necessary factor and need not be postulated to explain consciousness.

I would agree with this (other things being equal–like assuming we don’t have any other arguments for the existence of a soul). But that last comment (“we know this to be the case with baking soda and vinegar… but that isn’t true with the soul and brain states…”) is the *real* intuition–a principle of parsimony–that motivates the assumption that a soul isn’t necessary to explain consciousness. All by itself, the assumption in the last comment (“we know…but this isn’t true…”) serves to undercut the assumption that a soul is necessary. But this is very different from the line of reasoning expressed in the argument for “possibly, X–>Y”. That original reasoning was what I have already criticized above; I thought it was more closely analogous to assuming that because baking soda and vinegar are jointly necessary and sufficient for bubbles, that vinegar by itself is necessary and sufficient for bubbles. Why incorporate that whole extra first part that is, by itself, fallacious reasoning until you add in the principle of parsimony to explain what you’re really trying to say (“we shouldn’t assume both are necessary for consciousness if we only experience one”) if the principle of parsimony would have got the job done in the first place?

(3) Next, Brett suggests that “If one is to say that X, since it is material and its parts are being replaced, cannot be one of the casual factors in bringing about uninterrupted consciousness because its token is changing constantly (X->continuous Y), then it follows that X should also be insufficient to continually “cage in”, or “hold onto” the soul in an uninterrupted fashion, as would occur in the case of ((X and S)->continuous Y).”

I think this assumes that on my account, a single continuous physical state is causally responsible for the
continual interaction between soul and body (I already discussed this above somewhat). But I deny this; I think that the soul by its nature interacts with its body so long as the body is available. The soul’s qualities are what cause the continual interaction with the brain, through the various causal channels in the brain.

You might think of it in terms of a computer–more specifically, a robot–like this: certain faculties of the soul are like USB ports. They can sense whether a USB drive (the body–specifically the brain) has entered into it (whether the soul and body are united). When the USB drive does enter into the port, it accesses it, (the soul is aware of the body) and displays it as available on the computer screen (kind of like the brain displaying sensory data [transmitted through the eyes] to the soul). Then the computer (soul) can interact with the USB drive (body/brain), transferring files on and off of it (causing brain events, and allowing physical/brain events to be preconditions to the soul causing mental events–if they are identified as the appropriate kind of physical events). But it is the computer’s robotic arm that goes through the process of inserting the USB drive (it is the soul that causes itself to be united to the body and keeps that union in place).

So some powers of the soul cause it to automatically be joined to the body if the right physical preconditions are in place.

Now, even if we grant the assumption that the body causes the soul to remain united to it, what follows? I’m not sure we can automatically go to Brett’s conclusion–that it follows that the body could be an adequate grounding for the continual existence of certain mental entities. Why would we have to assume that in order for the soul to remain united to the body, there must be the *same* body parts that cause it to be continually united? I don’t see why the physical states that causes soul-body union couldn’t be replaced over time slowly so that eventually they are totally replaced. It could be that every physical state of the type U (cause of the union between soul and body), whether it be U1, U2, or U3… Un, U[n+1], will automatically cause the union of what remains of the body with the soul that was united to it before. So why not think the soul remains united to the body so long as there is a state of type U?

For an analogy, think of a king’s throne that a servant has to carry on his shoulders to keep the king up. In order to keep the king supported, all you need is an entity of type S–a “strong servant type” of human being. There doesn’t have to be absolute numerical sameness throughout time–you can replace one servant with another after the first guy gets tired. All that has to be there is *someone* who can handle the load. Because we aren’t talking about an identity relation here (the servant example is illustrating continual causality, not sameness or identity) its okay for him to be replaced. He can uphold the king, who remains elevated in place the entire time.

So I think the problems with Brett’s arguments are numerous. Some of them seem to be fallacious (until coupled with considerations that would have illustrated the same point just fine on their own); others seem to be working off of assumptions that dualists aren’t willing to grant; while still others seem to be easily answerable.

Physicalism, Property Dualism, and Personal Identity (II)

December 21, 2007

Brett has suggested that my critique of property dualism as adequately grounding personal identity fails. Here I will attempt to respond to his criticisms of my argument.

Brett wrote:

Michael introduces this as a critique of type-property dualism, but this seems to be another critique of token-property dualism taken from a different angle. Michael points out that the second tape is a “different tape” from the first one, which seems analogous to the difference between the first token-molecules of the mind being different in token to the second token-molecules of the mind, even though they are the same type throughout. But as Michael himself points out the same image will pop up on the screen, and so he agrees that it is the same “type” and that nothing has changed as far as “type” even though, with the switching of tapes, things have changed with “token.” And since the “type” does show continuity between the exchanging of tapes, this hypothetical situation does correlate to what we experience phenomenological. So, in the instance of property dualism, where aspects of consciousness are the emergent property of brain chemicals, it seems that the changing of brain chemicals will not interfere with the belief, feeling, or image that it emergently creates.

Brett says that I am giving a critique here of token-property dualism. But what I am really arguing is that type-property dualism is counterintuitive. Its correct that I am pointing out that the second tape of the same type is a different token from the first one, analogous to the difference between physical state X token A and token B. And yes, the same type of image will appear on screen. So there is continuity of the type of image even though there’s two different tokens.

But that’s the whole problem. Personal identity, whatever it is, has to involve total continuity and sameness across time. Now think of how property dualism articulates personal identity. If a ship lost its mast and got a new mast, we wouldn’t say that it was exactly the same ship. Whatever we believe about personal identity, we can’t believe that its grounded in switching the ship’s mast every time it falls off; that’s precisely *not* a continuity of identity, but two totally different things. Similarly, two different showings of the same film are *not* the same film. They are two very different things.

Now, the continuity of mental states Brett is imagining that gives us personal identity is like the continuity between two different showings of the same film on a tv screen. Its two very different things, not having any of the exact same parts or properties in common with previous states of the mind. Two different video tapes have successively gone into the VCR, and now the image being projected on the screen is a different one from before. This is not a continuity but precisely a discontinuity of identity between this showing of the film and the previous one. It may be displaying the same image, but we would not say its the *exact same film*.

Its like the replacement mast on the ship: sure, its a mast–but its not the same one as before. And similarly this is not a continuity but precisely a discontinuity of identity between this mental state and the previous one. Thus the continuity that is suggested by this theory of personal identity is like the replacement of one mast on a boat with another mast–hardly adequate for claiming numerical sameness throughout time in the sense necessary for *identity*. At most, this theory of personal identity seems like it can be dubbed a theory of *personal similarity*.

In Brett’s next section he talks about how substance dualism is unparsimonious. This may be true if we have no arguments for it. But of course an argument for dualism from the inadequacy of non-dualist theories of personal identity would qualify to override this appeal to parsimony. For if materialists can’t explain personal identity, and property dualists can’t explain personal identity, then parsimony should be set aside for the explanatory power of substance dualism.

Some quick notes on TGD

July 11, 2007

Over at they are having “the great debate” which is a discussion between naturalists and theists on a host of issues. Some of the biggest names are participating, so this is very exciting. I am especially looking forward to the Smith vs. Collins debate, which will probably be nuts.

Anyways, my friend Brett mentioned some things about the responses of Taliafero and Goetz to Melynk on the case for physicalism. I thought I would quickly post my reply to what Brett told me. So this is kind of an informal note. Part of my motivation for posting it on this blog is that it was originally part of a myspace comment that became WAY too long and not very audience-appropriate for the rest of Brett’s myspace friends, who would probably cringe at my phrases like “localized sensation” and “functional unity”. 🙂

The points you brought up are very interesting; there are some issues about the location of subjective experience that I have not read enough about. For instance, I haven’t read any in-depth dualist (OR physicalist) treatments of the issue of localized sensation (how to understand “pain in my arm” etc. if my mind is not located in space) and I don’t understand what to make of it entirely. I don’t know how our experiences of localized sensations would really square with the self not being located in a physical place (so I’m actually bringing up an issue that I see with this argument for dualism). But on the other hand I think that its clear that we can’t literally observe the felt-quality of certain experiences when we examine a person’s anatomy, which seems to call into question the adequacy of saying our experiences are physically located, or at least identical to physical states (even if they are mental states that are spatially located) which is required by materialism (in the forms I’m familiar with). And besides, even on materialism if we identify the self with the brain (which is how its always done…) the issue of localized sensation is still there. After all, why do I get the impression that my self (mind/brain) is the possessor of the experience of pain in my arm if the sensation is a physical state occurring in a different part of my body? So I think the spatial localization aspect is mysterious, but because I think sensations have an intrinsic, felt quality and they (including their felt quality) are not observable physical events, it seems that what we DO know about them favors a form of dualism (at least property-dualism, if not substance dualism).

Regarding the issue of the unity of consciousness, yes, that’s a big motive for dualism about the mind. I think the suggestion you made about neurons is not very plausible. After all, if the brain-events are spread out like that in separate locations, then what is the common entity which links and synthesizes them and experiences them simultaneously? This nexus of experience should be a physical object if physicalism is true, but I can’t think of what it could be. The brain as a whole?

But this raises problems. The brain seems to be unified mereologically (it is a bunch of connected parts that compose a whole). There is an enormous cluster of various particles united through chemical bonds (if you want to reduce it all the way down). The brain is also unified functionally, ie. it works as a whole. But both of these are true of almost any piece of matter. It seems dubious to say that functional unity is sufficient for a unified consciousness. It also seems dubious to say that mereological unity is adequate to ground a unified consciousness. After all, the kind of unity postulated has to be [a] without spatial extension (because our consciousness does not seem to have spatial extension when we introspect–even if it does have spatial location), [b] numerically the same through change (because otherwise we would not be enduring objects, and hence not able to even to consider arguments because the particles that compose our brain are constantly shifting and relocating, and cells are dying and being spawned, so that the brain is constantly replacing itself with new material, which means we would have a totally new self frequently). This seems to rule out the adequacy of the mereological unity of the brain as a grounding for consciousness. As for functional unity, because the brain is a physical object that changes and the particles that compose it are frequently replaced, and because functional unity seems to be dependent on the physical unity of the brain as an object, it is difficult to see why functional unity would be an adequate ground for psychological unity; it raises the same problem of “what is the enduring self that is the possessor of experiences, if the entity that is functionally unified is constantly having its basic parts replaced?”.

The Taliafferro/Goetz argument in their own section is very interesting, especially in respect to introspection and the implications it. I think they might have a decent argument for libertarian freewill that doesn’t assume the objectivity of morality and the fact of moral responsibility or anything like that. And the way that they argue that “dualism, if true, supports theism” is not adequately dealt with, I don’t think, by Melynk. His way of responding (there are laws of mental causation…) seems to be problemmatic because it is [a] an ad hoc revision to the naturalistic hypothesis; [b] it still doesn’t situate the origination of mind adequately in a materialistic framework; [c] a similar line of reasoning could be used to encompass anything that would otherwise require an explanation so that it doesn’t have to be explained and is simply accepted as some kind of “necessary truth”; and [d] Melynk’s suggestion would not work on many construals of the ontology of laws of nature (and I think the ones that it could work on are the less-reputable construals).

So thats just an initial reaction to (some parts of) the debate and to your statements. Hopefully that all made sense.

On Romans 9:22

June 11, 2007

In the discussion on Romans 9 over at in my first post on the Romans 9 debate (its post 2) I engaged in a discussion with a commenter. One of the points brought up was whether or not Romans 9:22 could be considered evidence for a Calvinist/Reformed understanding of the reprobation of sinners. The fellow I was talking to said that the verb for “fitted” in 9:22 is in the passive voice, which implies an external actor is the one doing the action, not human beings doing the “fitting” to themselves. If this is so, then God is the cause of fitting human beings for destruction.

The Reformed teaching on God’s involvement in damnation is that in his eternal decrees God decides He will permit the reprobation of some human individuals, passing over them and not electing them to eternal salvation. These individuals He prepares for destruction by setting their character (or at least setting them up so that specific features of their character would later develop) at the beginning of their life; because human beings operate deterministically they therefore will sin as a result of their character. Here’s (the important parts of) my response:

First of all, if we assume the focus is on God alone as an external actor and take the verb in verse 22 as passive, there are a variety of alternative ways of looking at this verb that do not entail a Reformed understanding of election.

Some commentators would agree that “fitted” in Romans 9:22 should be translated as “were made fit for by an external agent”, and yet would still not affirm a Calvinistic understanding of this verse. In his commentary on Romans, James Dunn states that he believes the passive voice is in play. Then he points out the following considerations that favor an understanding of the passive as indicating an action subsequent to the initial creation of the vessels:

(i) Paul uses this verb in other places to describe not the initial preparatory act of forming something as it is coming into existence, but rather the effect of action in the period since then. Hence it wouldn’t be so much that the vessels were initially made ready for destruction at birth, much less pretemporally; rather it would be a preparation for destruction subsequent to their initial existence (such as hardening of the heart or some similar idea).

(ii) Paul made a deliberate choice not to use the “pro” prefix (which he uses in 2 Corinthians 9:5). The pro prefix would have indicated that the action was “beforehand” and would have lent itself more to the meaning congenial to strong forms of predestinarianism (like Qumran). The absence of this prefix could be considered a deliberate choice on Paul’s part to indicate one meaning as opposed to another.

Given these considerations and others, Dunn concludes that the meaning of this verse is not that God created people who were destined for damnation because of how God made them; rather God created these people and then acted on them at some time in a way that was preparatory for destruction. This leaves open interesting possibilities for what this divine action is:

(a) the divine action of hardening of the heart—this would fit with the surrounding discussion of the hardening of hearts in 9:18 and 11:7.

(b) Dunn suggests the following: the divine action is God’s wrath being exercised by permitting people to experience their own sinful desires and their consequences—this would fit with the language of wrath and the background of Romans 1:18-32.

Neither of these would require the Reformed understanding of verse 22; and yet both are fairly plausible ways of reading it if we assume the passive is what Paul is using here.

Second of all the Ephesians passage [2:3-4] is meant to clarify what Paul says in Romans… to state that there is some reason to think that the “objects of wrath” are not a completely pre-set group where they cannot move to being “objects of mercy”. This would challenge the idea that 9:22’s “fit” is talking about an irreversible initial divine action of setting a person’s character.

Third, as Reformed commentator Douglas Moo says in his Romans commentary on page 607,

“Much depends on our interpretation of the participle “prepared” that describes the vessels of wrath. For Paul does not tell us who has done the “preparing.” Many commentators argue that the parallel with vv. 17-18—where God “raises up” Pharaoh and hardens—and with v. 23—where the subject of “prepared beforehand” must be God—make clear that God is the agent of this “preparing.” The phrase “prepared for destruction” would then refer to God’s act of reprobation whereby he destines the vessels of wrath to eternal destruction. However, others argue that it is the difference between Paul’s description of the vessels of mercy in v. 23 and the vessels of wrath here that is significant. In contrast to the active participle “prepared beforehand” in v. 23, Paul here uses a middle/passive that does not clearly bring God into the picture.”

As it turns out, (to quote my friend Keith who helped with this reference for me) “the grammatical form of the verb is either middle or passive (actually perfect middle/passive participle accusative—direct object—neuter plural) and one must argue for which voice is true to the context.” Moo argues for the second interpretation according to which “fit” is supposed to be read in the middle voice and thus God is not the actor described in this verse.

This interpretation is affirmed by at least two major Reformed commentators that I am aware of (Moo and Morris) and two major non-Reformed commentators (Witherington and Chrysostom, and I’m sure there’s more). Part of the basis for the case for the middle voice is the use of two different verbs for “fit/prepared” in verses 22 and 23. This intentional use of different words by Paul is one of the indicators these commentators see for the difference in meaning. Indeed it is possible to reject the passive construal of “fit for destruction by an external agent (God)” and accept the middle voice understanding “fit themselves for destruction”.

A Response to Steve Hays

June 2, 2007

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.