Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Excellent Posts on the Problem of Genocide in the OT

July 23, 2010

The following posts by New Zealand philosopher-theologian Matthew Flannagan  give an excellent defense of the goodness of God in light of the history of the Old Testament, focusing on the Canaanite Genocide in Joshua:

Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites (Part 1)

Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites (Part 2)

The author’s argument basically goes like this.  Most of us come to the text of Joshua and assume that the historical intention of the human writer was that the divine commands to (paraphrase) “kill everything: men, women, children, animals…” should be read with full, literal force as mandating the killing of children.  The problem with this is not only that it seems to conflict with the character of God that we see revealed in Christ.  There are internal, textual reasons to doubt that this command was meant to be taken literally–textual reasons that do not assume the authority or inspiration or inerrancy (or even extremely high historical accuracy) of the book of Joshua.  The textual reasons are that the people groups that Israel is commanded to “exterminate” persist after the command is allegedly fulfilled.  Given the prominence and frequency of significant hyperbole/exaggeration in the ancient near east’s accounts of wars and conquests, and the unlikeliness that the author would write such blatant contradictions within a relatively short space of text, an alternative hypothesis recommends itself.  We can reconcile all of this data if we read the commands to “kill everything” as hyperbole.  On this view, it is kind of similar to a coach telling his team to “go exterminate the opponents” or to a basketball player bragging about how his team “totally annihilated those dudes”.  This is compatible with saying that the Israelites waged violent war on the Canaanites, but did not necessarily kill innocent women and children.

Though I don’t think this is the only possible solution to the problem of the Canaanite Genocide (because I hold to the moderate allegorism defended by Swinburne and used by some of the Church Fathers), I think this is a very plausible explanation of the text that will be more acceptable for Evangelical apologists and others who are commited to the historical grammatical method.  It also fits with the broader approach to the OT as best understood in light of the New Testament and the revelation of God’s love in Christ (Swinburne’s moderate allegorism is a variety of this approach).

I haven’t read much from the Fathers about the Canaanite genocide specifically, so I’m interested to hear if any Orthodox or other students of patristics have insight about this.  Is it possible, for instance, that the Fathers themselves were aware of this approach and used (or just assumed) it?

Hat tip to Aaron Gleason for suggesting these posts.

Advertisements

Church Authority, Argument 5: Private Judgment and Authority

September 24, 2009

In two recent posts on separate blogs, Catz and David Nilsen both responded to my arguments concerning private judgment and church authority.  They articulated similar positions, trying to present an alternative to either (a) the idea that believers are entitled to an unqualified private judgment, or (b) the idea that the Church has inherent authority.  In this post, I will argue that their responses are unsatisfactory because they (1) ultimately affirm that private judgment is the final word in doctrine, (2) fail to correctly distinguish “inherent” from “underived”, and (3) falsely charge Catholic Christians with the use of private judgment.

(A note of encouragement to the reader: this post is fairly short–by my standards, at least–but has long footnotes.  Do not be alarmed by the size of the scroll bar, because roughly half the space in this post is occupied by footnotes.) (more…)

Swinburne on Interpretation of the Old Testament

January 10, 2009

The modern world… has become very conscious of the fact that some passages of the Old Testament cannot be treated [in a literal or straightly historical way]; for they state (and not merely presuppose) scientific and historical falsities, or they represent God as commanding immoral conduct (not merely conduct which might seem less than the best), or otherwise behaving immorally. It has therefore tended to say that the Old Testament contains a mixture of truth and falsity, revelation and misunderstanding; and that attitude of course leads to a fairly low view of the sacredness of Scripture. And if one reads the books of the Old Testament on their own, either straight or historically, one must certainly say that, if God was inspiring the development of Israel and its recording in the Old Testament, his inspiration got mixed with much error. But what the modern world has forgotten is that the Church, which followed Irenaeus and subsequent Fathers in proclaiming the Old Testament to be Scripture, also followed the way which he initiated in interpreting in metaphorical senses many passages of that Testament which were not edifying if taken in straight or historical senses. As noted above, Irenaeus himself tends to assume that all such passages are to be understood in straight or historical ways, even if they had also a more important metaphorical meaning. But his successors took the logical step of maintaining that these passages had only a metaphorical meaning (or more than one metaphorical meaning). This metaphorical meaning is a meaning forced on the passage, not by considerations of the need to make sense of that passage as a passage of the biblical book taken on its own, but by the need to make sense of it as part of a Christian Scripture.

Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy p 265

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…)

Issues in Reformed theology and exegesis

June 23, 2007

This post was prompted by the requests of fellow blog-commenter. It is specifically for comment-based discussions regarding Reformed theology and exegesis. Anyone is welcome to come and discuss.

To preface the discussion I will distinguish between theological and exegetical argument. This preface doesn’t mean we have to only discuss the distinction I make; but they are important, I think, and may be crucial in weeding out good arguments from bad ones.

-An exegetical argument begins with a verse or group of verses in Scripture and attempts to argue that the meaning of those verses is conducive to a certain theological system or belief.

Sometimes an exegetical argument correctly understands the implications of a certain Bible verse; other times it does not.

For example, if part of the meaning of a certain Bible verse is “human agency without grace cannot bring about salvation” sometimes this verse is taken to entail that human agency has no role in salvation. But this does not follow; perhaps human agency with divine grace can have a role in salvation. This exegetical argument would be going beyond the text if all that was taught is “human agency without grace cannot bring about salvation”.

-A theological argument begins with the assumptions or tenets of a theological system, and attempts to argue for an additional tenet or principle.

Sometimes the principles used in the premises of a theological argument are biblically-grounded; other times they are not.

For instance, the principle “If salvation is in any way based on human decision it is not by God’s choice and is man-centered” is sometimes assumed to be true. However, this does not seem to be obviously taught in Scripture.

Sometimes the principles used in the premises of a theological argument correctly understand the implications of the tenets of a theological system or Bible verse; other times they do not. Not all applications of true principles are done correctly; and not all principles assumed to be true are in fact true.

For instance, the principle that salvation is by God’s sovereign choice is sometimes taken to imply the principle that “If salvation is in any way based on human decision it is not by God’s choice and is man-centered”. After all, if God is ultimately responsible for our salvation then we have to have no part in causing it; otherwise it would depend on us and we would merit salvation and it would be man-centered. However, this doesn’t obviously follow. First of all, some choices we make are non-meritorious. For instance, the choice of accepting a gift from someone seems to be a non-meritorious choice. Also, even if we say that salvation depends on us in some sense, we need an argument for why this dependency would be a bad thing. The only argument I can think of is “if it depends on one person, it doesn’t depend on the other”. But it seems that sometimes an activity can be dependent on two persons at once without there being a conflict between the fact that it depends on one and the fact that it depends on the other too. Why should we assume, for instance, that the fact that I will pass my math test depending on whether or not I study somehow detracts from the fact of my passing the math test also depends on whether or not my teacher teaches me math? Finally, if the very possibility of an agent C making a good choice rests on an infinite number of more significant choices made by another agent D with the express intent of making it possible for C to choose to receive a gift, then it is clear that the primary, initial, and most significant actor in bringing about agent C’s good choice of receiving a gift is actually D. Even if C played a necessary role, D is the only one to actually be praised and credited for C’s choice.

After much consideration, I have come to believe that some of the arguments for the Reformed position on salvation are based on shakey inferences from theological principles–some of which are neither biblical nor implied by biblical teaching. I also believe this is the case with a great many arguments against the Reformed position. What I hope to do is sort out good from bad arguments within the context of this post and future posts on this subject as well.

–MG

2nd Response to Steve Hays

June 4, 2007

Here’s my second response to Hays

“No one can be certain of what they believe.”

i) I disagree. In fact, the statement is self-refuting. Are you certain that you can’t be certain?

ii) We need to distinguish between first-order knowledge and second-order knowledge. I can know something without proving it. Indeed, I can know something without being able to prove it.

So I reject an internalist constraint on knowledge, according to which I can’t know something unless I can prove what I know.

Rather, I’d distinguish between prereflective (i.e. intuitive, pretheoretical or tacit) knowledge and reflective (i.e. analytical) knowledge.

Even doubt presupposes belief. We may doubt something because it conflicts with something else we believe. So doubt does not exist in a vacuum. One thing is only doubtful in relation to something else which is not doubtful.

I agree with everything you say about knowledge. It appears I have (as often happens) misspoken. What I actually wanted to say is that certainty is not a necessary goal when assessing truth claims; nor is it usually possible. Instead, probabilistic judgment suffices. Of course in reality I said something very different; sorry for being so unclear (so as to apparently contradict my own beliefs).

“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.”

i) Other issues aside, you seem to believe in continuous revelation, which amounts to an open canon. And this courts a regressive fallacy, because you are using ecclesiastical revelation to ground canonical revelation. So what grounds ecclesiastical revelation? If the church authorizes the Bible, what authorizes the church?

ii) What is the locus of infallible authority in the church? And how do you establish that claim?

Regarding the infallibility of the Church, I’ll address that below.

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

But evangelicals don’t make the same claims for our spokesman that the Orthodox make for theirs. Orthodoxy ascribes an institutional authority to certain representatives (e.g. patriarchs, metropolitans) that is not equivalent to the role of pastors or theologians or Bible scholars in a low-church polity. So it is certainly germane to ask, in a high-church polity, who speaks for the faith.

The only infallible authority in Orthodoxy is the Church as a whole. Individuals can have some kind of authority but that doesn’t amount to infallibility, and it doesn’t make them the unique sole representative of Orthodoxy. There may be more or less accuracy among the hierarchy in terms of the ability of individuals to correctly present and implement the content of ecumenical councils; but that doesn’t mean anyone in the hierarchy can actually represent Orthodoxy in that way. Individuals can interpret infallible doctrine with more or less accuracy and so I think its safe to say that the best interpeter could often be considered to most accurately represent Orthodoxy (INSOFAR as it is possible to speak of representing Orthodoxy).

“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 don’t agree. I wouldn’t assume the best when dealing with Mormons or Moonies or Scientology. It depends on what we know about these movements or individuals.

Of course if you operate that way too strictly, there’s the potential for dismissing one’s opponents too quickly. And likewise if you take my principle too strictly then you will never be able to ultimately reject another person’s position. I suppose you’re entitled to disagree with me. I don’t think I can prove this principle must be used; I just think it’s the most gracious way of searching for truth or engaging others in intellectual discourse to use it in a moderate manner.

“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’.”

I don’t disagree with this. The problem, though, is that you’re operating with an essentially Protestant criterion.

In a high-church polity, the individual who happens to be the best representative or most authoritative spokesmen for the faith is not the most intellectually competent spokesman, but the spokesman with a certain institutional standing.

This may be true in some sense, ie. when Eastern Christian leaders are talking to the public. But even this activity isn’t infallible. Just because an individual hierarch said so doesn’t mean it is so. If they are correctly interpreting infallible doctrine then they are correctly representing the Church (again insofar as it is possible to speak of “representing”). In this way, a “Protestant-like” criteria of “who has the best interpretation” could be used to adjudicate between conflicting claims by hierarchs to represent Orthodox teaching.

You’re suggesting an intellectual meritocracy in which the spokesman with the best argument wins the argument. I’m very sympathetic to that approach. But it reflects a low-church, Protestant outlook.

A high-church polity is inherently authoritarian. It’s an appeal to authority rather than reason.

As I pointed out above, this is compatible in a revised sense with Orthodoxy.

However, the limited authority of the individual hierarchs may be possible to establish on a Protestant epistemology. This would follow if there were successful arguments for Eastern Orthodoxy from a Protestant epistemology, for instance.

“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’.”

The question of who is true to tradition begs the question in favor of tradition, and only pushes the question back step. I can be true to tradition without tradition being true.

Definitely; I agree with you here. But my
point was about assessing who is the representative of a tradition—not about whether or not the tradition is actually true. I was saying we should assume the most truth-favoring view is the most accurate expression of the tradition. But the question of whether that tradition is true or not is a whole other matter.

“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.”

But that isn’t how Orthodoxy is set up. Orthodoxy is hierarchical. It is predicated on the principle of ascribed status rather than achieved status. The Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys a certain authority, not because of who he is, but because of what he is. He enjoys a measure of official authority—authority that comes with the office. It is the office, and not the official, which confers authority. The office confers authority on the office-holder, not vice versa.

Now, some hierarchs may be very gifted, and they may rise through the ranks due to their intellectual attainments. But that is not the source of their authority.

I am fine with having a Protestant epistemology operate in a certain sphere of inquiry (ie. establishing which organization accurately represents Christianity, adjudicating between conflicting interpretations of infallible doctrine). But if we find out that a certain organization accurately represents Christianity, namely Orthodoxy, then it would be appropriate to start operating with an Orthodox epistemology. And that’s exactly what happened in my case. That doesn’t mean I can no longer choose to think from a Protestant perspective (so for instance asking questions like “What argument for belief x would be convincing to a Protestant?”). It just means that I am not confined to thinking that way.

“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.”

This is a pomo caricature of modernism. The question for certainty antedates the Enlightenment. Scholastic theologians were concerned with certainty. Augustine was concerned with certainty. Plato was concerned with certainty.

Surely pre-enlightenment thinkers were concerned with certainty to some degree and had some desire for it. But I think we can both agree that the enlightenment emphasized it much more heavily. It seems accurate to say that modern thought had(/has) an epistemological goal that is slightly different from pre-moderns. The emphasis in modern philosophy seems to be on having a specific degree of confidence in knowledge, namely certainty. The emphasis in pre-modern philosophy seems to be on having knowledge of a specific thing, namely “the Good” (or “those things that are the greatest goods, most valuable things to know about, etc.”).

“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?”

i) We should think Jesus means this in an unqualified way because he speaks without qualification.

ii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we take it in a qualified way. Tell me what percentage or fraction of the Orthodox exhibit any of these signs. How common is exorcism and glossolalia in modern Orthodoxy? How common is faith-healing in modern Orthodoxy? How many Orthodox believers imbibe poison or handle venomous snakes?

I still don’t agree with i). How does “no qualification is mentioned” imply “there are no qualifications”?

As it turns out many Orthodox clergy have been known to have such spiritual gifts. If you would like me to provide you with evidence of this, then please ask and I can give more details.

“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?”

i) Isn’t this circular? If you need revelation to authenticate revelation, then where do you begin or end?

ii) Are you saying that the Bible has no inherent divine indicia? That, taken by itself, Scripture is on the same plane as the Wall Street Journal, Gospel of Judas, Book of Mormon, or Celestine Prophecy?

Are you saying that the only thing which distinguishes the Bible from these other works is the extrinsic authorization of the church? That, in principle, the church could just as well have canonized the Gospel of Judas or Book of Mormon?

In response to i), I think the Church was given its authority directly by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. More on this later.

In response to ii) I defiantly wouldn’t say the Bible is at that kind of level. I just don’t think its self-authentication (if it has that) could establish its authority. Perhaps some people can realize it is God’s revelation by just reading it; but that doesn’t seem to be a sufficient grounding for biblical authority that can really bind all of our consciences.

And of course the Church couldn’t have canonized either of those texts, because they do not contain the content of Christian revelation or even worthwhile reading that can be read in Church to encourage Christians. Because God is a certain way and Jesus is a certain way, the Church could never accept books that are contrary to how God and Jesus are.

“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.”

Several issues:

i) Where has the Holy Spirit been given to the church? Are you alluding to some verse of Scripture?

ii) If you’re invoking some Scriptural promise made to the church, then Scripture authenticates the church, not vice versa.

It is not necessarily true that I have to presuppose the authority of Scripture in order to establish the authority of the Church. At this stage in the discussion, it isn’t necessary that the Bible be an authority, just that it accurately reflect history to some degree. If this can be established (and of course it can) then two things follow:

1. Jesus’ own statements should be taken as accurate.
And if they imply the infallibility of the Church then we can say that the Church’s authority is directly established by Jesus’ authority.

2. The interpretation that his followers gave to Jesus’ teaching about the Church becomes relevant. If they are generally accurate when it comes to preserving data about Jesus’ life, then it seems like their actions and words would probably be consistent with what Jesus taught.

So one could argue, without assuming the authority of Scripture, that Jesus gave the Church infallibility, and that this is clarified and also made more probable by how his followers interpreted the infallibility they had been given.

There are a variety of verses that seem to teach the authority of the Church. Some of them directly have to do with the Holy Spirit being given to the Church; others don’t. Some seem to directly teach the infallibility of the Church; others don’t entail it as clearly.

So for instance, one might argue that Jesus predicates the property of infallibility of the Church in Matthew 16:18 by saying that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This would necessitate that the Church not fall into complete error, because error/lies are a work of hell. But on the other hand I’m not sure this verse absolutely demands full infallibility—just reliability perhaps.

John 14:16 establishes the permanent presence of the Holy Spirit with the apostles, who is called the Spirit of truth. Later in verse 26, John says that the Holy Spirit will teach the apostles everything and remind them of what Jesus had said. In John 16:12-13 Jesus promises the disciples that the Holy Spirit will tell them what Jesus has not yet said. Furthermore, they will be led into all truth. This seems to imply that the disciples were entrusted with knowledge and the truth about God.

Jesus also charges the apostles with a task, or responsibility. In Matthew 28:18-20 He says that they must now go make disciples of all nations. This presupposes that the authority has been conferred on them to actually go and make disciples by teaching and baptizing.

The question then becomes how the early Christians understood the relationship between the apostles’ authority and gift of the Holy Spirit and the nature of the Church. Our best bet is to assume that what happened in the early Church accurately reflects the kind of authority the apostles had and the actual consequences of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Witnesses to the understanding that early Christians had of the relationship between the apostles and the Church include Paul, John, and Luke.

Paul also calls the Church “the household of God” and says it is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20). John says that the apostles are the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:14). Clearly the apostles’ gifts and authority are part of what grounds the Church according to these writers.

We see the authority of the apostles exercised in Acts 15 with the apostolic decree. The early Christian Church understood its decrees as being divine revelation. Hence the statement “it seemed fit to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

So the early Church understood itself as founded on Christ and the apostles, and as having the power to decree things with divine authority. If this accurately represents and interprets the teaching of Jesus (which is likely) then we have good grounds for believing in the infallibility of the Church. This also coheres well with other Pauline statements about the Church revealing divine wisdom (Ephesians 3:9-10) and being the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

So the argument for grounding the authority of the Church is as follows:

1. Without presupposing the authority of Scripture, we can know that Jesus conferred to his disciples both authority and a promise that they would learn true teachings.

2. The way this authority and these true teachings were understood in relation to the Church was in terms of ecclesial infallibility and the power to decree divine doctrine. Because this is the only interpretation we have from early Christians about the nature of the Church, absent evidence to the contrary, we should assume this accurately reflects and appropriates Jesus’ own understanding.

3. It is therefore plausible to think that the infallibility of Jesus and the Holy Spirit was conferred directly to the Church.

iii) To which ecclesiastical claimant does the pneumatic promise apply? How do you establish which church the Holy Spirit guides?

I think the criteria would be that the best claimant to being the Church is whoever

1. Understands itself in the same way that Jesus and the apostles understood the Church.

2. Seems to in fact operate and exist in the same way that the original Church operated and existed.

The Church’s understanding of itself would seem to include:

1. Being founded upon the apostles. (Acts 15, Ephesians 2, Revelation 21)

2. Being an instrument for the establishment of divine truth/infallible (Acts 15, Ephesians 2, 1 Timothy 3, John 14-16)

The Church’s operations would have to include:

3. Consistency with apostolic teaching (as witnessed in the New Testament)

4. Consistency with the apostolic way of exercising authority (Acts 15)

5. and perhaps other criteria.

I think that Eastern Orthodoxy more adequately fulfills these criteria than Protestantism or Roman Catholicism because (to list a few reasons)

1. Protestantism as I understand it precludes the infallibility of the Church, and all of the important things that follow necessarily from that.

2. Catholicism operates according to a monarchial model of authority, whereas the way authority is exercised in the early Church is collegial (Acts 15).

And of course that’s just a very brief summary.

iv) You equivocate over the identity of “the Church.” In one sentence you go from “the church as a whole” to “the majority of the hierarchy.” But these are hardly convertible entities. At most, the majority of the hierarchy would only be a subset of the church as a whole.

Well I can’t be certain that Jesus and the apostles taught that “the majority of the hierarchy can make infallible decisions when in consensus”. But if the early Church was at all consistent with what Jesus had actually said, then it seems that a collegial/consensus model of authority should be the most likely framework for Church authority.

v) Moreover, what about the Arian controversy, when the majority of the hierarchy were Arian while the majority of the laity were orthodox?

Well I would say that if a person believes something contrary to the teaching of the apostles they are not actually a part of the Church. Arianism is clearly contrary to the teaching of the apostles so I don’t see any need to ask questions about whether or not an Arian council or an Arian consensus would be valid.

By your majoritarian yardstick (“consent of the majority of the hierarchy,” the council of Florence (1438-39) should be an ecumenical council. Is that your opinion? If not, why not?

Could you provide documentation for the idea that the majority of the hierarchy agreed to the council?

“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.”

Sorry, but this is far too facile. What makes the Russian Orthodox church to be a true church? Apostolic succession, yes? It’s in valid succession to the Greek Orthodox church, which is in valid succession to the apostles. Isn’t that the basic argument?

So which claimant is in valid succession? Is it the Metropolitan of ROCOR or the Patriarch of Moscow? If you can’t answer questions like these, then apostolic succession is unverifiable.

In response:

1. It doesn’t seem illogical to think that both groups were in succession in the past. At least, I would like to be given a reason for thinking this. I think I might be missing something… I suppose you are trying to make a methodological point and I’m not sure I see what it is.

2. In any case, right now it seems probable they both have apostolic succession (seeing as how they got back together and all that).

“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.”

From an evangelical perspective, the short answer is: whoever truly speaks for Scripture truly speaks for Christianity. It comes down to who has the right interpretation. And the best supporting argument for his position.

Like I said above, I don’t see why an Evangelical couldn’t evaluate who speaks for Orthodoxy by the standards of “whoever seems to be saying whatever is most favorable to the truth of Orthodoxy”. This might amount to “whoever seems to be correctly interpreting infallible doctrine has the best claim to be representing Orthodoxy”.

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

I’ve discussed this in some detail on various occasions. The evidence for the canon involves internal and external lines of evidence.

i) The self-witness of Scripture, in the form of authorial ascriptions as well as intertextual connections, constitutes the direct, internal evidence.

However this would seem to only apply to a few books. And in any case it presupposes the divine authority of the authors

ii) Textual criticism and historical testimony constitute the external evidence.

This wouldn’t imply that the Bible is authoritative, just that it is accurate. What grounds the authority of the Bible?

iii) There’s also the argument from religious experience. Christians find the Bible believable.

Being an argument from experience, it’s limited to insiders rather than outsiders. So it will only work in defensive rather than offensive apologetics.

Agreed; this doesn’t seem to be a conscience-binding kind of grounding for authority. It might give an individual access to the fact that the Bible has authority; but what about individuals who don’t have a confirming religious experience when they ask if the Bible is true? By what authority are they commanded to assent to the truth of the inspired Scriptures?

Also, spiritual experience is person-variable. Nonetheless, this is an important element in the case for canonicity, even if it needs to be supplemented.

Though I think you may be right about religious experience, I don’t see how any of this would ground the publicly-revealed authority of the Scriptures. Is there a publicly-accessible basis then is there for the Evangelical belief in the infallibility and authority of the Bible?

“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).”

Sufficient for you, but not for me—since I’ve critiqued his “exegesis.”

I don’t find your critique to be particularly compelling. Surely J. P. hasn’t given a clear and unambiguous refutation of Calvinist exegesis of Romans 9. But he has probably given an exegesis that is just as good as that of the standard reformed interpretation.

“This becomes even more clear if you add on a couple more points from Forster and Marston’s God’s Strategy in Human History.”

I read this book years ago. It’s hardly a masterpiece of scholarship. For starters, just compare their treatment of the hardening of Pharaoh’s hard with Beale’s monograph or John Currid’s article.

Not being a masterpiece of scholarship in no way implies the falsity of what it argues for. I think they give about as credible an exegesis as Schreiner or Piper. I’ll look into the two things you referenced though.

“And Witherington’s Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary,”

Once again, sufficient for you, but not for me—since I’ve critiqued his exegesis.

Where can I find your critique?

“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.”

I’ll deal with Abasciano in a separate post.

“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.”

Frequency is irrelevant to meaning. A rare meaning is still a real meaning.

For example, homosexual activists claim, using your statistical standard, that Gen 19 has no reference to homosexuality since, in the vast majority of its occurrences, yada simply means to “know.”

Yet, in context, yada clearly denotes sexual activity in Gen 19.

I see your point about frequency. Can you provide me with some examples where yada means “choice”?

And also, if yada can mean “choose” or “know cognitively about the qualities of a person or thing” then doesn’t this just put the two meanings on equal footing? That doesn’t seem to provide us with reason to prefer the reformed interpretation over the non-Calvinist view. If it can mean either one, then why couldn’t it be talking about knowledge in the sense of “knowing cognitively about the qualities of a person or thing”?

“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 legiti
mately 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.”

This is a circular argument because you’re assuming your “Arminian” interpretation of proginosko in 1:20, and then mapping that back on 1:2.

That’s correct, it is assuming an “Arminian” view of verse 20. But I don’t see any reason to prefer the Reformed interpretation of that verse; hence I think I’m within my epistemic rights to hold to an Arminain view of proginosko in 1:20.

“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)”

Two problems:

i) In the passage, proegno functions as the antonym of aposato. Since the latter means “to reject,” the former means “to choose” (beforehand).

Why do you think proegno here functions as an antonym for aposato?

ii) Proginosko applies to the remnant. You and Witherington fail to distinguish between ethnic Israel as a whole and the remnant (v5). It is not the remnant that commits apostasy. To the contrary, the remnant is faithful.

Why do you think proginosko applies to the remnant?

“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.”

My point is that in the contrast between Essene predestination and Sadducean libertarianism, Paul’s words would clearly range along the Essence end of the spectrum.

Wouldn’t it be better to compare Pauline theology to the Pharisees? That would make more sense. They of course held a middle ground between the Essenes and the Sadducees (as you well know). So I think its up to the Reformed person who wants to argue that Paul was a heavily-deterministic predestinarian to show that Phariseeism was closer to Reformed theology than, say, Arminianism. I won’t claim (here at least) that “Pharisees were very clearly more like Arminians”; but we need some reason to think they would have agreed with Calvinists about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human agency before we can have an adequate basis for arguing “Paul’s hearers would have thought he was being heavily predestinarian”.

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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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.

MG SAID:

“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?

MG SAID:

“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:

http://public.csusm.edu/guests/rsclark/smbrom9.html

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.