Friday, July 28, 2017

A Double Bind for Determinists: Escaping Piper's Theodicy

There are some tough passages in the Old Testament. A good example is Joshua 8:16-25 (NRSV):
So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel; they left the city open, and pursued Israel.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the sword that was in his hand toward the city. As soon as he stretched out his hand, the troops in ambush rose quickly out of their place and rushed forward. They entered the city, took it, and at once set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, the smoke of the city was rising to the sky. They had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. But the king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua.
When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and when all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and attacked it with the edge of the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand—all the people of Ai.
 Christians have been wrestling with these passages and the tension they create with some of Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Some Christians, like Peter Enns, have straight up denied the historicity of these conquest accounts and made claims that Israel was merely projecting these commands onto God. Others, like Greg Boyd, have taken a "missionary God" approach paired with a "cruciform" hermeneutic that subverts violent imagery in the Old Testament through the cross (sort of a Barthian reading on steroids).

While both those attempts are severely lacking, deterministic theologian John Piper has an interesting way to handle this issue that may fail harder than the other two: 
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
To a determinist, whatever happens occurs because God willed it to be so. The problem is that there is no real stable basis for the categories "good" and "bad" (a critique I have made elsewhere).  On that basis alone, Piper's theology is problematic. However, this specific issue creates a double bind in which this lack of coherence in the nature of God is only one of the potential failures of his system.

In order to understand the problems, first, let's take a look at some of the surrounding facts of the conquest narratives:
  • God sends signs and plagues ahead of Israel to drive the pagans out of the land (Exodus 23). 
  • The rhetoric in most of the promises pertaining to the conquest seems more concerned with driving the other nations out of the land rather than extermination.
  • Rahab clearly responds to the revelation of God through his actions (Josh 2:11). 
True to his nature, God communicates to the pagan nations and gives them plenty of time to turn from their wicked ways. Of course, if you keep reading into the book of Joshua, it becomes evident that the people in the land did not listen to God and experienced his judgment as a result.

So here's the double bind. First, if Piper is right and God's eternal will before the foundation of the world was to "slaughter" the occupants of the land, he risks failing the Euthyphro dilemma because God willing mass killing is arbitrary. To reconcile this, one has to create an extra-biblical "hidden will" of God which can contradict his revealed will.

Second, if one avoids the arbitrariness argument, then it raises some issues for a doctrine like irresistible grace. God communicates to the people of the land through a series of warnings, expressing his desire that they need not be killed. The people fail to respond, however, creating serious cognitive dissonance.

If you're interested in getting a good answer to many of the problematic passages in the Old Testament, a good place to start might be Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan's book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. There's lots of good Christian responses to these issues. Don't fall into the Piper (or Enns or Boyd) trap.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Prevenient Grace According to Leo the Great

I have been discussing the concept of prevenient grace some on this blog. As a reminder, prevenient grace in non-Calvinistic soteriological systems is how God initiates relationship with humans. He enables them to accept his gift of salvation. One of the arguments levied against those who advocate prevenient grace is that it is unbiblical and a late invention. While the biblical debate is an important one, it is also important to establish a catholic foundation for prevenient grace through the writings of the Church Fathers. Today, we will look at an example of prevenient grace in a sermon by Leo the Great.

St. Leo the Great (400-461) was the Bishop of Rome. One of his major accomplishments was dissuading Atilla the Hun from invading Italy. He is also considered by Roman Catholics to be a Doctor of the Church and was an important rhetorical combatant against a number of heretics.

In his Sermon 22.5, he discusses the benefits of the Incarnation and Atonement for the Christian. Here is what he says (emphasis added):
Whoever you are, if you devoutly and faithfully boast in the name of Christian, value this atonement rightly. You were a castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying of your weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, with no more hope of living. But by the incarnation of the Word, you were given power to return from far away to your Maker, to recognize your parentage, to be free when you had been a slave, to be promoted from an outcast to a son. Now you, who were born of the flesh, may be reborn by the Spirit of God. You may gain by grace what you did not have by nature, and--if you acknowledge yourself as the child of God by the spirit of adoption--you may dare to call God Father.
Leo sees that Christ's Incarnation and death provides the means for God to make the first move towards us. Yet, according to Leo, this is a possibility, not an inevitable reality. One may not accept the gift but God gives us the ability to.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 6

Article 6: Whether This Doctrine is the Same as Wisdom?

So to the sixth question it proceeds. It is evident that this Doctrine is not Wisdom. Truly, no doctrine which adds to its principles from another science is worthy of the name Wisdom, "he who is wise directs, and is not directed" (I, Metaphysics). But this doctrine adds to its principles. Therefore, this doctrine is not Wisdom.

In addition to that, Wisdom extends to test the principles of other sciences whence it is spoken of as the head of sciences, as is clear in Ethics VI. But this Doctrine is not tested by the principles of other sciences. Therefore, it is not Wisdom. Moreover, this Doctrine is acquired through study, however Wisdom is to be had through infusion. It is counted as a gift of the Holy Spirit, as is clear in Isaiah 11. Therefore, this doctrine is not Wisdom.

But on the contrary, it is said in Deuteronomy 4:6, the original law, "This is your wisdom and understanding publicly for the nations."

I respond saying that this Doctrine is chiefly Wisdom above all human wisdom, indeed not in any type only, but simply. Truly, the Wise person is to order and to judge, however, inferior matters should be judged through a higher principle; anyone is said to be Wise who considers the highest principle in that order. Just as in building, he who arranges the shape of the house is called Wise and architect as opposed to the inferior builders who plane the wood and arrange the stones, whence it is said in 1 Corinthians 3:10, "as the wise builder I have laid the foundation." And again, in the order of all human life, the prudent man is said to be wise in as much as he orders his actions to a fitting end, whence is it said in Proverbs 10:23, "Wisdom is prudence to a man." Therefore, He who considers Himself the highest cause in the whole universe, that is God, is the most Wise. Whence Wisdom is said to be knowledge of the divine, just as Augustine makes clear in de Trinitate XII. However, Sacred Doctrine particularly treats of God that He is the highest cause, not only so far as He can be recognizable through creatures as philosophers recognized Him, "That which is known of God is manifest in them" (Rom 1:19), but truly as much as He is know to Himself solely and through the revelation communicated to others. Whence Sacred Doctrine is the most Wise science.

To the second objection it is said that either the principles of other sciences are noted by themselves and are not able to be tested or they are tested by natural reason through the means of some other sciences. However, the knowledge owned by this science is known by the means of revelation, not, however, by means of natural reason. Therefore, it does not extent to prove those principles of other sciences but only to judge them. Truly, whatever is found is found in other sciences contrary to the truth of this science is condemned as wholly false, whence it is said in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, "Destroying plans and all heights that exalts itself against the knowledge of God."

To the third objection it is said that since judgment extends to Wisdom, the twofold mode of judges creates a twofold Wisdom. Truly, anyone may judge by one mode through the means of inclination, just as whoever has the habit of virtue judges those things which concern virtue. Hence, it is the virtuous man, as it is said in Ethics X, that is the measure and rule of human acts. In another mode, by means of knowledge, just as whoever has been taught in moral science may be able to judge concerning moral actions even though he does not have virtue. Consequently, the first mode of judgment concerning divine things extends to Wisdom which is given by the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 2:15, "The spiritual man judges all things." And Dionysius says in Div. Nom. II, "Hierotheus ["sanctification by God] is taught not by mere learning, but by experience of divine things." However, the second mode of judging extends to this doctrine which is acquired by study though its principles are had by revelation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 5

Article 5: Whether Sacred Doctrine is Nobler than Other Sciences? 

So to the fifth question it proceeds. It is evident that Sacred Doctrine is not more worthy than other sciences. For certainty extends to the more worthy sciences. But the other sciences of which the principles are not able to be doubted are evidently more certain than Sacred Doctrine, whose principles are naturally articles of faith which receive doubt. Therefore, it is evident that other sciences are more worthy.

Moreover, the inferior sciences are received from the superior ones, just as music from arithmetic. But Sacred Doctrine is accepted somewhat from the philosophical disciplines, for Jerome says in his letter to the great orator of the city of Rome, "The doctors of antiquity so enriched their books with philosophical doctrines and ideas, that you don't know that which to admire in them, their profane erudition or their scriptural learning." Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is inferior to other sciences.

On the contrary, other sciences are declared to be handmaids to this Sacred Doctrine, "Wisdom sent her handmaids to beckon to the tower."
I respond saying that with this science, which is somewhat speculative and somewhat practical, it transcends all other sciences, speculative and practical. For one speculative science is said to be more worthy than another because of certainty or because of the dignity of the subject-matter. In both respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences. Indeed, the certainty held by other sciences comes out of the light of human reason which is able to wander, however the certainty this science has comes out of the light of divine knowledge which cannot be deceived. Truly, of the two, the more appropriate subject-matter is that knowledge which itself chiefly transcends the height of reason. Truly, other sciences are concerned with only that which can be subdued by reason.Truly of the practical sciences, that which is more noble is ordained to a further end, just as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the military is ordered to the good of the State. However, the end of this doctrine, in as much as it is practical, is eternal bliss, to which is the ultimate end to which all other practical sciences are ordered. Whence it is apparent from all modes, it is nobler than the others.

Therefore, to the first objection it is to be said that nothing is preserved because what si more certain is, to us, less certain on account of the weakness of our intellects, "which itself is dazzled by the most apparent qualities of nature just as the eyes of an owl are dazzled by the light of the sun," as is stated in Metaphysics II. Whence doubt which descends on someone concerning the articles of the faith is uncertain not on account of the matter but on account of the weakness of the human intellect. And nevertheless, the smallest knowledge that is able to be had of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge which had of the lowest things, as is stated in de Animalibus XI.
To the second objection it is to be said that the knowledge received is something for the philosophical disciplines, not out of necessity that it is lacking, but to make more apparent that which is handed down in this science. It is not accepted that its origin is from other sciences but immediately from God by way of revelation. And therefore it is not depednent on other sciences as the higher, but is employed of them as of the inferior, and as handmaids; just as master sciences use sciences that supply their materials, as politics of military science. And so that it uses them is not on account of its weakness or its insufficiencies but on account of the defects of our intellects which is more easily led by what is known through natural reason (out of which proceeds the other sciences) to that which is above reason, such as this science receives.