Friday, December 30, 2011

On the Doctrine of Perspicuity

Sick as I've been this week, my writing muse will be the last thing to heal; nice again to have back issues of the E-Block to use. This one's from December 2008.

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Recently on the TheologyWeb forum, a (reputed) Christian made the following charge against me regarding my
explanations of the use of riposte in the Bible:
Ordinary believers are unable to discern the true doctrine of Riposte (insult) which requires JP Holding's Hebrew and Greek language skills to discern. He said of one protagonist "his knowledge of the Bible is essentially zero -- save what he reads of it in English." This contradicts the doctrine of perspicuity, which says that ordinary believers can understand the teaching of the Bible without needing a superior to tell them what it means.

This critic is not alone in making such appeals. One website discusses the "doctrine of perspicuity" thusly:

The question is asked, "Do you really understand the Bible? How can you be sure that what you think the Scriptures say is in fact what they do say?" These questions are directed not at the learned in the Scriptures, at ministers, professors of theology, and the educated, but at the common people of God, who place their simple trust and faith in the Scriptures as the Word of God. Such questions not only raise doubts in the minds of God's faithful people, which is in itself wrong, since the Bible stresses that the life of the
Christian is not one of doubt, but of faith. But even worse, these questions are meant to lead the people of God to the conclusions that after all the Scriptures are not understandable, contrary to what the church has always taught and thought. What is required to understand them is a great deal of education and learning, as well as intimate knowledge of the methods of interpretation and the historical and cultural conditions under which men wrote the Scriptures. The result of this is the conclusion that only the clergy, the favored few, are able to understand the Word and interpret it, while the laity, the ignorant masses of common folk, are really in the dark. Thus the door is opened to all sorts of corruption, heresy, and error, which is rampant also today.
In contrast to this, we wish to emphasize the Bible as we have it, and that means the King James Version, is perspicuous. Even a little child can read and understand the Word of God, as anyone with children knows.

I have received charges like this before, though not specifically mentioning the word "perspicuity," from others such as Mormon apologist Edward Watson, who insisted that the Bible was written so that "ordinary people" could understand it. In the past, my answer has been threefold:

  1. That what was understood by "ordinary" people in the first century is not known to "ordinary" people today. The argument essentially shifts the goalposts to our "ordinary" knowledge without concern for what was "ordinary" knowledge of specific subjects for the authors of the Bible.
  2. There is no sign of this doctrine in Scripture, and if anything, the opposite is indicated; for example, Peter acknowledges that Paul's letters are hard to understand at times (2 Peter 3:15-16), and there are several indications that believers are to mature in study and discipleship -- which implies that they begin in a state where they lack fullest understanding.
  3. Related to 1), the Bible obviously requires a certain level of knowledge to understand; to start, we must be literate! We also must know the meanings of the words it uses. Once again, how we define "ordinary" can vary according to social circumstances.

I have now decided to look more deeply into this "doctrine of perspicuity" to determine answers to these questions:

  1. Is this a true "doctrine," one adhered to by leading denominations?
  2. Does it have a true Biblical basis?
  3. Is it being properly used as an accusation against myself and, theoretically, other apologists who make use of Biblical scholarship?

To answer these questions, I sought out arguments and claims regarding this doctrine. The below represents a collation and summary of results. My conclusion is that my critic thoroughly misunderstood and misrepresented this doctrine, and that my own threefold reply is essentially correct, and is not at all in disagreement with those who do maintain a belief in the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Rather, the problem is one I have stated above: An inherent slipperiness in the defining of "ordinary" which has allowed it to be re-defined downwards by people like my critic.

Perspicuity: The True Doctrine?

It is clear that perspicuity was indeed a teaching of many early Church representatives. However, the origins of the doctrine also make it clear (or perhaps I should say, "perspicuous"!) that it was never intended to be used, as by my critic, against those who engage in serious exegetical or scholarly study.

In the church's earliest days, statements concerning the perspicuity of Scripture were made as a reaction to Gnostic heretics who claimed that "secret knowledge" (gnosis) was required to understand the Scriptures as they (the Gnostics) interpreted them. [1] The gnosis was mystically imparted to the Gnostic believer from outside; it was not received by study or via contextual exegesis.

Later, statements about the perspicuity of Scripture were made again as reactions, but this time by the Reformers as a counter to the Roman Catholic idea of a Magisterium. It is clear here as well that this was not a response to claims that one needed to engage in serious study to understand the Scriptures more fully. A frequently-used quote by Martin Luther speaks to this, from Bondage of the Will:

But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth..."

This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the things, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures . . .

All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures, are made manifest, although some places, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure . . .And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another . . . For Christ has opened our understanding to understand the Scriptures . . .

And this is also found from one of Luther's Table Talks:

Dr. Jonas Justus remarked at Luther's table: There is in the Holy Scripture a wisdom so profound, that no man may thoroughly study it or comprehend it. "Ay," said Luther, "we must ever remain scholars here; we cannot sound the depth of one single verse in Scripture; we get hold but of the A, B, C, and that imperfectly. Who can so exalt himself as to comprehend this one line of St Peter: 'Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings.' Here St Peter would have us rejoice in our deepest misery and trouble, like as a child kisses the rod.

In other words, statements about the perspicuity of the Scripture were made against claims that the meaning of the text was inaccessible to readers by any other means than revelational authority. This is quite sensible, for of course the means whereby scholars and students seek to better understand the Bible are not restricted to those are granted revelation. Anyone may go to a library, or go to Waldenbooks, and find the same resources I or anyone else has.[2]

One commentator in particular put it well: "The main idea here is not that it is easy to understand, but that it is free of unnecessary complications." [3] The same commentator put forth what I find to be an excellent analogy:

...[W]e can properly talk about someone giving a clear presentation of quantum electrodynamics, even though most people would not be able to understand a word of what was being said. Why wouldn't most people understand a wonderfully clear and precise presentation on quantum electrodynamics? Because they don't have the necessary prerequisites.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647, offers what may be taken as a "doctrinal statement" concerning the perspicuity of Scripture:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Notice that the Confession places limits on what is said to be "plain" - just "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation." With this I have no dispute. My argument would be that the Bible is designed to be understood on multiple levels. There are plain truths concerning salvation that all may easily understand. However, there are also more complex background issues which must be understood to achieve a full-orbed understanding of the Bible's complete message and teachings. To use a Biblical metaphor, there is milk and there is meat.

In summary: Perspicuity is nowhere that I have found taken to mean that the average reader will never have difficulty understanding a Biblical text. Nor is it ever claimed that it means that we cannot learn more deeply about it than a "plain reading" allows. Thus it is that in Point 1 alone, my critic has failed in his accusation.

In order to make a distinction between the doctrine of perspicuity as expressed by my opponent, as it is referred to by such documents as the Westminster Confession, I will hereafter refer to the former as radical perspicuity.

Radical Perspicuity: A Biblical Basis?

In seeking Biblical justifications for radical perspicuity, I found very little that commended itself for the doctrine the way my critic understood it.

  • Deuteronomy 30:11 For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.At best, this could argue for the perspicuity of the Deuteronomic contract, and I daresay based on experience that the qualification of clarity for the people of the 14th century BC is implied. Questions about obscurity in the laws of the Old Testament are some of the most common in apologetics, because these laws address social conditions taken for granted in Scripture. However, it should be added that "too hard" most likely refers to the difficulty of performing the law as opposed to understanding its contents.
  • Our KJV Onlyist proponent of radical perspicuity, in addition to making an incorrect assessment of the meaning of faith, offered this reasoning:
    The Bible itself claims perspicuity. Perhaps the clearest passage in this connection is one such as Psalm 119:105: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." A lamp or a light is that which shows the way, illumines the path of life which the Christian is called to walk. Such words of the Bible are a far cry from the assertion that the Bible is not understandable and leaves the people of God in the dark spiritually.

    However, Ps. 119:105 certainly cannot be appealing to a canonical collection of Scriptures which, at the time of the Psalms, would be as yet mostly unwritten! Contextually, reference to the commandments in v. 104 indicate that the "word" in question is the Deuteronomic law. Beyond this, we cannot make any assumptions (since this Psalm has no authorial credit) about the level of discipleship and knowledge of Psalm 119's author. Light comes with understanding, and we do not know where this author's level of understanding rested.

    I also found appeal to a text from Paul:

    Phil. 3:15-16 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

    This passage is not being applied correctly by radical perspicuists. Paul says that God will make things "clear" and this is not directly applied to Biblical exegesis, but rather to views held by Paul's readers.

    Finally, there are a cluster of texts appealed to by radical perspicuosts that are much less specific, such as appeals from Hebrews to the Word of God as "living and active" or 2 Peter's "no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation." Texts like these neither affirm nor deny perspicuity in any sense. They affirm certain points about the characteristics of Scripture, but clarity is not one of the characteristics referred to.

    In contrast, other texts are quite clear that growth in knowledge and understanding is expected of the disciples of Christ. The very word "disciple" implies a follower who will grow in knowledge and performance. Other texts clearly indicate stratification in understanding and knowledge:

    Ephesians 4:11-12 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ .
    Hebrews 5:11-12 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

    And of course, 2 Peter 3:15-16 makes it clear that some Christians did not understand Paul's writings. The response to this by the KJV Onlyist radical pespicuist is instructive:

    Peter himself says in II Peter 3:15-16 that some writings, especially those of Paul, are hard to understand. But notice that they are understandable nevertheless, and that Peter does not deny, but rather sets forth the truth of the perspicuity of Scripture.

    This is obviously not an answer, but a mere denial of that to which 2 Peter 3:15-16 witnesses (clearly, Peter knew of some people to whom the letters' contents were not understandable), and it is only imagination that sees Peter "setting forth" a doctrine of "radical perspicuity" in a sentence that clearly denies it.

  • Summary: Clearly A Misuse It is apparent that my TheologyWeb opponent was incorrect. He did not understand the origins and use of the doctrine of perspicuity, and that it was never meant to be applied to situations in which scholarship and study enable a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Biblical text. The Bible itself indicates that disciples of Christ will have varying levels of maturity and understanding. Radical perspicuity, the position formulated by my TheologyWeb opponent and by the KJV Onlyist website, is false.

  • Notes

    [1] "Belief in the perspicuity of the Bible is ancient, going back to Jesus himself, who reproached the scribes and Pharisees, for not understanding the plain meaning of the text. As a doctrine, the perspicuity of Scripture was expressed by many of the Church Fathers, who contrasted it with the mystical writings of the Gnostics, which only the initiated could fathom." Gerald Bray, The Clarity of Scripture, available here. Bray goes on to address more directly what would be closer to my view, which concerns greater knowledge of contexts. He says:

    As always in such matters, there is some truth to what is being said here, though it has been greatly exaggerated. It is true that our knowledge has expanded enormously since the sixteenth century, and that we now know much more about matters of background detail, for example, than we once did. In many cases, we can also produce more accurate translations of the original texts. These are important gains, and we must recognise and accept them gladly.

    However, it is a very different matter if we are considering the underlying meaning of the text as a whole...

    Bray goes on to give an example of how knowledge of how Pharisees were "highly respected member[s] of the religious community" has led some to say that the Bible's portrait of them is inaccurate. He also gives the examples of "structuralism, deconstructionism and so on" as ideas foreign to the authors of Scripture. What Bray refers to, then, is the radical application of modern categories to the text. In the end, I say as Bray does: "Hardly ever does it make any real difference to the overall meaning."

    [2]It will not here be my purpose to discuss or evaluate the Catholic idea of a Magisterium, or Catholic views on perspicuity. For my purposes, it is sufficient to know that statements like Luther's were a reaction to what they perceived to be untrue Catholic claims. Nor will I discuss to what extent the doctrine is applied (whether just to fundamentals or to secondary issues as well, which seems to be a major issue for the "Catholic vs. Protestant" incarnation of the debate), though I may do so in future research. My sole concern here will be with the larger question raised by my opponent, which is whether someone like a Christian apologist or teacher violates the sense of this doctrine by indicating that individual Christians need to "do their homework" about the Bible.

    [3] Found here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review of The Grand Design, Part 2

This is one of those days when I'm particularly glad to have guest writer Daniel Ventress offer Part 2 of his review of Hawking's The Grand Design. Christmas morning, I spent 5 hours (3-8 AM) in the emergency room when my kidney stone made what seems to have been it's last move -- and I hope it's gone now. Then, late Monday, I began a 36 hour stint in bed with food poisoning. I just ate my first meal in over 40 hours a few minutes ago.

So needless to say, I wouldn't have been up for writing an entry anyway. So, special thanks, Dan. :)

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Having reviewed the first chapter, we found Hawking and Mlodinow to be vastly ignorant of philosophy, and in the second chapter they extend this ignorance to history as they once again attempt to dabble in areas outside of their area of expertise. The thing that struck me as being particularly odd is how this book not only contains absolutely no footnotes or endnotes whatsoever, but does not even contain a bibliography. Such absence of reference is profoundly unscholarly and un-academic especially considering Hawking and Mlodinow’s frequent dabbling in areas in which they know absolutely nothing. In a breath-taking display of ignorance, bigotry, and historical illiteracy, Hawking and Mlodinow paint a picture of ignorant, simple-minded ancients who invented mythology, religion, and deities to explain the workings of the world and science arising from the astute deductions of the observant few:

“In ancient times it was natural to ascribe the violent acts of nature to a pantheon of mischievous or malevolent deities. Calamities were often taken as a sign that we had somehow offended the gods… Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, p25


“…once grasped, the patterns made it clear the eclipses were not dependent on the arbitrary whims of supernatural beings, but rather governed by laws… The idea arose that nature follows consistent principles that could be deciphered. And so began the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p24, 26

Whilst this ‘just-so’ account of the origins of science and religion are comforting to those inculcated with the pernicious myth that the two are at odds with another, the views presented in the first three pages of their second chapter are entirely at odds with the facts. The claim that belief in gods arose from ignorance and that science arose from intellectual curiosity opposed to this ignorance is complete and total nonsense. Starting with their proclamation that science did not begin until the classical Greek period in Ionia, Hawking and Mlodinow display throughout their chapter they have no knowledge about history whatsoever.

The claim that belief in deities, and thus religion, began through ignorance is simply purely speculative. The problem with trying to explore the origins of religion is that religion pre-dates writing and thus evidence is scanty and largely non-existent. Thus Hawking and Mlodinow’s proposed explanation is nothing more than baseless speculation. Secondly, how one comes to belief in something is irrelevant to the truth of that thing. Even if Hawking and Mlodinow were correct, then at best they would show that the ancients believed in deities for faulty reasons, but would do nothing to show that their beliefs were actually false. This is known as the genetic fallacy, which is an informal logical fallacy where a conclusion is assessed solely on its origin, rather than by its merits. Now, such accounts might actually be true, but are completely irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the conclusion itself. As for the claim that ancient people were ignorant of the workings of nature, this is totally and wholly absurd. Ancient persons were fully aware of the regularity of nature, as evidenced by their mythology. Ancient mythology reflected how the people in question understood the world around them. Pagan religions revolved entirely around such natural phenomenon. For example, a frequently occurring myth amongst pagan religions were based on vegetation cycles, such as the murder of Osiris, or Persephone being kidnapped by Hades.

These myths are meant to represent cyclical natural cycles, such as the flooding of the Nile in ancient Egypt, or the general pattern of seasons. Ancient people attributing certain theological interpretations to these natural events do not in any way make them stupid or ignorant of the workings on the universe. On the contrary, these myths reflect the inherent understanding of the regularity of nature. We can, on the other reject these theological interpretations by using philosophy. For example, the notion of simplicity in explanation, Vis a Vis Occam’s Razor, is a philosophical principle. Most pagan religions needlessly involve a pantheon of deities, as opposed to a single deity. In fact, in certain mythologies, the gods are not even responsible for creation, such as in Greek mythology, were everything, including the gods themselves, nucleate out of a primordial chaos. Thus involving deities would seem superfluous if everything came into being on its own. We would then be confronted by two rival hypotheses, the creation of everything out of pre-existing primordial chaos, or everything being the creation of a single deity. We could continue to shave away unnecessary features until we are left with an explanation that explains the data and nothing more. Note how I have not made recourse to science or scientific explanations at all. Science indeed makes use of such a principle, but such a principal is neither uniquely scientific nor is it inadmissible in other contexts.

Hawking and Mlodinow make the entirely unwarranted assumption that such theological explanations are somehow at odds with scientific explanations. That is to say, they make a false dichotomy between natural law and teleology. The ‘laws of nature’ are purely descriptive, and most certainly do not cause anything as to suggest otherwise would afford them an ontological status wholly at odds with Hawking and Mlodinow’s self-chosen naturalism (as it would imply platonic realism.) For in order to stand in causal relations, laws of nature, such as the laws of physics, would need some form of concrete existence in order to have properties that allow them to exert influence over other things. Thus, under a naturalistic, materialist philosophical framework, the only available explanations for why the universe behaves in the way that it does is either down to physical necessity or blind chance. Whereas if we do not a priori presuppose naturalism, we can admit intentional design into our pool of live options. Hawking and Mlodinow have most certainly not made any kind of case for why we should accept naturalism, and so why we should reject intentional design from the pool of live options is anybody’s guess. This actually forms the basis for the teleological argument for the existence of God. Either the complexity we observe is the result of design, or it is the result of either physical necessity or chance. This is a purely philosophical discussion, and whilst science can certainly help us in such a discussion, it does not have the final say on the matter.

What then of Hawking and Mlodinow’s views on the history of science? Once again we find nothing more than overweening ignorance in fields about which the authors do not have the faintest understanding. They make no reference whatsoever to any kind of historical source and just continue to assert their just-so stories about history as if their word was the final matter on the subject. Well, as a student of history, I can tell you that it isn’t ‘just-so’ and that the word of two physicists is not enough to overturn historical facts. Hawking and Mlodinow cite a number of classical Greek figures, whom they believe embody the modern scientific ideal as close as possible.

“Thales first developed the idea that the world could be understood, that the complex happenings around us could be reduced to simpler principles without resort to mythical or theological explanations.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p27

“According to legend, the first mathematical formulation of what we might call today a law of nature dates back to an Ionian named Pythagoras… the frequency… of a string is inversely proportional to the length of the string.” p27, 28-29

“Apart from the Pythagorean law of strings, the only physical laws known correctly to the ancients were three laws detailed by Archimedes… by far the most eminent physicist of antiquity.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p29


Their revisionist scheme of the history of science continues much in the same vein. Extolling the virtues of various Greek philosophers and promoting them to the rank of ‘scientist’ or ‘physicist’ purely down to the fact that Hawking and Mlodinow agree with their philosophical outlook. They go on to reference Anaximander, whom they refer to as being the first to refer to “humanity’s first inkling of evolution” (Hawking and Mlodinow, p30) Empedocles, and also to Democritus, who postulated the atom and believed that everything was the result of the collision of atoms, and Aristarchus, whom Hawking and Mlodinow claim was the first to challenge the idea that we are not special inhabitants at the centre of the universe. Hawking and Mlodinow’s version of the history is so skewed and out of touch with reality that I scarcely know where to even begin. Perhaps the first order of business is to point out that astronomy is a practice that archaeological evidence shows pre-dated writing itself.

Contrary to Hawking and Mlodinow, attempted explanations of natural phenomenon being based upon observations and numerical data can be traced back to the Sumerian period, roughly 5,500 years ago. Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Babylonian peoples had fairly accurate knowledge of agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, and even medicine in some respects. Not to say they had everything done and dusted, but Hawking and Mlodinow’s picture of ignorant simpletons stupefied by the workings of nature is simply wholly inaccurate. The Greek philosophers merely continued the endeavour that had long been established in human history, the effort of understanding the universe. Thales’ not making reference to “mythological explanations” is correct, however Thales, like other Greek philosophers, still believed in a supreme divine mind which gave order to the chaotic elements from which everything arose.

Hawking and Mlodinow claim that Democritus was the founder of atomism, when it actual fact it was Democritus’ teacher, Leucippus. However, this is only a minor blunder on their part. They falsely ascribe the philosophical notion of determinism as being part of atomism and in an incredible piece of irony, claim that atomist Epicurus opposed atomism on these grounds. I have to wonder how they managed to get things so completely wrong, when Epicurus was himself an atomist who, contrary to Hawking and Mlodinow, tried applying atomist principles to human behaviour. You can read more about Epicurus here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/ Hawking and Mlodinow also claim Aristotle opposed atomism on the grounds that he could not tolerate the idea that human beings are composed of soulless, inanimate objects. This is, of course, incorrect. Aristotle opposed atomism because he believed that the ‘void’ postulated and required by atomism violated physical principles. However, Hawking and Mlodinow’s ignorance of history does not end here.
“The Ionian idea that the universe is not human-centred was a milestone in our understanding of the cosmos, but it was an idea that would be dropped and not picked up again, or commonly accepted, until Galileo, almost twenty centuries later.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p32

This is another myth that has been doing the rounds recently in New Atheist literature. It is, for one reason or another, been claimed that the earth being the centre of the universe is somehow a central aspect of religion. Furthermore, it is claimed that since it has been shown that the earth is not the centre of the universe, than mankind has lost the special, privileged position it once thought it had, and thus religion is bunkum. Never mind that this is completely untrue, with absolutely zero basis in fact whatsoever. Indeed, this is one of the more peculiar and jarring myths propagated by the New Atheists, and one that has proven to be particularly hard to suppress despite its palpable falsehood. First of all, even if this were a belief of ancient and medieval persons, how would the falsehood of this ideal at all lead to the falsehood of any particularly religion, let alone theism as a whole? Secondly, the idea can be falsified without recourse to science at all. After all, centrality is not equal to importance, and one’s location in physical space does nothing to determine how important someone or something is.

However, it turns out that this idea was not one held by geocentrists at all. Ironically enough, prior to the advent of Copernicanism, the centre of the universe was considered the dumping ground at the bottom. As Peter S. Williams notes in A Sceptics Guide to Atheism, a common objection to Copernicus’ theory was that it elevated humanity above its station and Galileo argued that the Copernican theory promoted humanity. (Peter S. Williams, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism, Paternoster, (2009), p128-132) Secondly, earth is significant, not because of its location in space (which is wholly irrelevant) but due to its location within the solar system. It inhabits a region known colloquially as the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ and even this special place is only one of around 200 requirements for the development of life. Earth is privileged in that it is the only planet in our solar system that contains not just life, but intelligent life, and is likely the only habited planet in the galaxy.

Hawking and Mlodinow, however, are quick to denounce the Greek natural philosophers for what they see as their two most egregious shortcomings:
“As insightful as some of their speculations about nature were, most of the ideas of the ancient Greeks would not pass muster as valid science in modern times. For one, because the Greeks had not invented the scientific method, their theories were not developed with the goal of experimental verification… Also, there was no clear distinction between human and physical laws.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p32, 33

That’s right, despite trumping religion (at least according to Hawking and Mlodinow) the Greeks are stupid in a different way. They didn’t have the scientific method, and they ascribed agency to the laws of nature. In what can only be described as one of the most bizarre and palpably untrue historical claims made in the book so far, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that the people in ancient and medieval times believed that unconscious objects were conscious and that this view was adopted by Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. Of course, it is a little unclear if they mean Aquinas adopted this view, or if they just mean he believed that the laws of nature arose from the intentionality of a personal agent. They do, however, attribute the former view to Kepler bizarrely enough.

I shall deal with the issue of the Greek’s lack of the scientific method first. This is only a problem if your chief concern is finding out HOW things worked, yet, as Hawking and Mlodinow themselves note, the ancients were more concerned with WHY. Hawking and Mlodinow take issue with the fact that the ancients believed that the laws of nature were intentional. However, instead of explaining what is wrong with this idea, they spend the next few pages badmouthing Aristotle, claiming that his theories had “little predictive value.” Hawking and Mlodinow continue to perpetuate historical fables with no basis in fact:

“The Greeks’ Christian successors rejected the idea that the universe is governed by indifferent natural law. They also rejected the idea that humans do not hold a privileged place within the universe… a common theme was that the universe is God’s dollhouse and religion a far worthier study than the phenomena of nature… Among the heresies [condemned by Bishop Tempier in 1277 on the orders Pope John XXI] was the idea that nature follows laws, because this conflicts with God’s omnipotence.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p36

Hawing and Mlodinow still have not specifically outlined what is wrong with ascribing teleology to the laws of the nature, and, as we discussed earlier, the ancients and medievals did not think that humanity occupied a special place in the universe (although modern science has, ironically enough, shown that the earth is rather special indeed.) As for the rest of these claims, they are once again totally devoid of any familiarity with history whatsoever. Once again, their ‘just-so’ account of the Pope ordering the Parisian bishop, Tempier, to ban the idea of nature obeying laws is, as with their other attempts to dabble in the field of history, completely wrong.

What they are actually referring to are a series of condemnation between the 13th and 14th centuries, primarily those between the years 1210 and 1277. Roughly sixteen lists of censured theses were issued and put together into systematic collections. Whilst the condemnations of 1277 are linked to Pope John XXI, whether or not he actually supported them is unclear and has been disputed. Interestingly enough, among the teachings considered heretical were the physical treatises of Aristotle, whom Hawking and Mlodinow spent a good few pages badmouthing. Even more ironically, historians generally regard the condemnation of 1277 as being a step forward for science, as it allowed scholars to break free from the restrictions of Aristotelian science. So, despite their attempts to vilify the medieval scholars as being gullible followers of Aristotle, nothing could be further from the truth. Scholastic philosophers such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham noted the flaws in uncritically accepting Aristotelian philosophy and so began developing their own ideas (notably the principle of parsimony, Ockham’s Razor.)

Hawking and Mlodinow attribute to the origin of the concepts of laws of nature “as we understand them today” (Hawking and Mlodinow, p37) to a number of 17th century thinkers, notably Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and in particular, Descartes. Hawking and Mlodinow, however, seem to think that such views presented problems for the teleological view of God’s divine providence, and whilst this did perhaps bother Newton, this view is simply mistaken. Hawking and Mlodinow, of course, take issue with Newton, Descartes, et al. finding ways to include God in the running of nature. Having come to the climax of their blatantly false historical revisionism, Hawking and Mlodinow proceed to finally define natural laws:

“In modern science laws of nature are usually phrased in mathematics. They can either be exact or approximate, but they must have been observed to hold without exception – if not universally, then at least under a stipulated set of conditions.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p 41


They then ask three questions: what is the origin of the laws, are there exceptions to the laws, i.e. miracles, and is there only one set of possible laws? Hawking and Mlodinow note that Descartes, Newton, Kepler, and Galileo all believed that the laws came from God. They then complain, however, that unless God possesses properties other than merely being the originator of the laws of nature, then employing God as an answer to question 1 merely one-ups the problem. Of course, the only property we need attribute to God in addition to being an intelligent designer is that He is the uncaused first cause.

Regarding the second question, Hawking and Mlodinow make the rather odd claim that Christians stood in opposition to Descartes in supposing that God intervened in the goings on of the universe. It is an odd claim because Descartes was a Christian thinker, yet this is only a minor error in comparison to their other blunders so far. As if to remind us of their profound and monumental historical illiteracy, Hawking and Mlodinow, make the following claim in answer to question two:

“It is Laplace who is usually credited with first clearly postulating scientific determinism: given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. The scientific determinism that Laplace formulated is the modern scientist’s answer to question two. It is, in fact, the basis of all modern science, and a principle that is important throughout this book. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p43-44


Where do I even begin with such demonstrably false assertions? Their citation of Laplace as being the first to propose scientific determinism is, as usual, mistaken, and at odds with their earlier claim that the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus were deterministic. The context in which they bring up a quote by Laplace is also equally wrong. They seem to think that Laplace eliminated God entirely from the workings of the universe, when in reality Laplace really meant that no miracles are needed in keeping the universe going, a belief that is hardly controversial amongst Christians today. Sure, some Christians believe that God created the universe miraculously, but even they do not maintain that the regular goings on of the universe require God’s constant miraculous intervention. How this excludes the possibility of miracles or a “direct role for God” is not clear for if God is the author of the laws of nature, then surely He is free to intervene when He wishes?


Hawking and Mlodinow assert that scientific laws aren’t laws if a supernatural being can freely choose to intervene, but how this is so is never explained or argued for, it is just asserted to be true as if Hawking and Mlodinow’s word were enough to make this so. The law of gravity holds regardless of whether I let a ball fall to the ground, of if I choose to intervene to catch the ball. My act of catching the ball does not falsify the law of gravity, so why think that God acting in the world falsifies the laws of nature? Furthermore, the claim that the view that Hawking and Mlodinow espouse is a presumption of science is completely false. It is not at all a presumption of science as only are there are many scientists who are committed believers in God, many of whom specifically believing in the Judeo-Christian God. In reality, this is a philosophical issue that cannot be determined by science. Hawking and Mlodinow continue on, however, asserting that determinism can explain personal agency:

“Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets… It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p45


Once again, this is simply the result of sloppy philosophy. There is absolutely no amount of scientific evidence that suggests that determinism is true. Determinism is a philosophical position, and one that must be argued for, not merely assumed and lamely justified with the bare assertion: “science says.” Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “science shows” that humans are the helpless puppets of physical laws, and note experiments conducted where various sensations and desires can be simulated by stimulating the brain in different ways. Of course, how this proves determinism is not clear. For example, whilst a certain chemical might cause to feel the sensation I associate with love, this chemical does not cause me to love my girlfriend. Or a scientist might stimulate my brain in such a way that I strongly feel the desire to move my leg, but it does not follow that this stimulation will necessarily cause me to move my leg. These feelings and sensations need to be acted upon, and no scientific experiment has shown that our actions are the result of physical stimulus. We can readily defy sensations and desires, furthermore, this ‘just-so’ account does not account for our beliefs, the role our beliefs play in our decisions and actions and they do not account for consciousness.

The philosophical view that our mental states are the results of purely physical phenomenon is deeply problematic for the simply reason that no purely physical explanation of consciousness exists. Philosopher Jason Holt, himself a materialist, admits that this is a belief that is not widely held today:

“Materialism is a nice theory. It’s simple, elegant, fruitful, coheres well with out body of scientific knowledge, and relatedly, anchors the mind to the physical world. But materialism has its pitfalls. Practically no contemporary philosopher believes it. I’m an exception.” – Jason Holt, The Machine-Made Ghost, from William Irwin, ed., The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the Real, Open Court, (2002), p68-69


The problems with this purely philosophical view are legion, for instance, the problem of consciousness (as previously mentioned), Then there is the fact that such a view does not account for intentionality or qualia. Of course, true to their post-modernist philosophy, Hawking and Mlodinow go on to assert that it is still okay to go on believing in free will, since trying to calculate human behaviour via physical laws is too impractical and postulating free will is a good explanation for the apparently random behaviour of human beings. In other words, they are asserting that it is rational to hold to false beliefs if these beliefs are of practical, pragmatic benefit. Whilst such a view is once again asserted without argument, the main failing here is that such a view, ironically enough, would mean that it is rational to hold theism even if it were false, given that one of the pet theories of new atheism is that religion ‘evolved’ amongst humans for some kind of practical purpose.


Hawking and Mlodinow briefly discuss the third question by briefly referencing men such as Descartes and Einstein, whom Hawking and Mlodinow assert believed that the laws of nature were chosen for reasons of logical necessity. They, however, go on to say that answers to questions one and two will be left to further chapters, before repeating their bare assertion that miracles are impossible and that determinism is true. To sum up, this chapter is nothing more than an attempt at providing an account of the history of science in order to try and bolster Hawking and Mlodinow’s belief in determinism, yet they systematically managed to get just about everything about the history of science wrong whilst simultaneously making sloppy philosophical pronouncements under the pretence of being “scientific” when in actual fact they are nothing of the sort. What pains me more than their many egregious errors and palpable failures, however, is that there are probably a good number of gullible lickspittles and other mindless automatons will no doubt lap these falsehoods up as if they were fact. I truly weep for the world if the average person’s knowledge of history, philosophy, and science is this abysmally bad.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Scrooge's Christmas Eve Gift

Yes, I know. I wasn’t planning another entry, but some spare time opened up, and this was too good to pass up waiting on. ;)

On 12/22, Mrs H and I celebrated anniversary #21, and Norman Geisler laid a new egg in his efforts to outdo the stereotypical Inquisitor of the cartoon world. His latest effort, titled “Licona’s Denial of Inerrancy: The List Grows,” repeats a lot of the arguments we have already refuted here, and we can sum by saying that no – he still doesn’t get that you can't “dehistoricize” a text that wasn’t meant to be historical; he still thinks he can prop ICBI's 300+ 'scholars" as a counter (in spite of: many NOT being scholars; many of those who are scholars being scholars in specialities unrelated to Licona''s thesis; many being deceased; two of them openly disagreeing with him on this issue -- which he doesn't want to mention -- and even one of them having gone apostate). So there's a lot not new there, and there's also (again) a lot directed specifically to Licona's views on Matt 27, which we do not share. So again, our own comments on that will be limited to what is relevant to us.

In contrast, shortly thereafter, Geisler also uploaded a rather whiny piece on our video “Geisler’s Christmas Carol,” and we’ll consider that as well, but separately; it’s title is, “Statements on the Pro Licona YouTube Video Attack on Dr. Geisler.”

Geisler objects that he is concerned that "we have come to the point where one
cannot critique a position" without being accused of bullying. But of course, it is much more than that Geisler has "critiqued a position." He has also brought his influence to bear in such a way that Licona has been denied speaking engagements, had to resign certain positions, and has lost income. Geisler himself may not have himself wielded the knife, but he did provide the sharpening service; he is not merely "critiquing". As is typical, bullies attempt to minimize the damage they cause ("I only pushed him down!") as though that in some way relieves them of their responsibility for the injuries they cause. It does not. The aggravation caused to Licona (and others) lies as a debt on Geisler's shoulders; so likewise he will receive his reward for any who are driven from reading Licona's works because of his self-centered crusade. Geisler may well expect to join those whose fate is to scrub toilets in the New Jerusalem.


In the essay towards Licona, Geisler continues to deftly avoid confronting us directly. He expresses awareness of our video, which he calls "offensive" (chuckle!) and claims was "produced by his son-in-law and friend who falsely caricaturing scholarly critiques of his view and wrongly claiming that we said Licona had sinned.' " I'm afraid part of that is too incoherent to comment on, but two points in reply. First, the production credit is part of a covering of an obvious mistake in which Nick Peters at one point was reckoned to be the producer of the film, not me. I have no idea how this mistake came to pass on the part of Geisler's supporters, since Nick is listed only as a voice, and the film credits clearly list Tekton as the film producer. That means me. The emendation to "son-in-law and friend" fails to obscure this mistake. Nick can not in any sense be called a "producer" of the film. That was and is solely my designation. But
perhaps Geisler felt that a student was an easier target for him to bully than a "wildcard" apologist who isn't cowed by his bullying tactics, is not in thrall to any person whom he can influence, and doesn't grant him any of the inertial respect he has gathered over the years (in my view, mostly undeservedly, and oblivious to the actually generally low-level and basic quality of his apologetics).


Second, it is a wonder to note that Geisler apparently understands the video is
as grossly literalistic a fashion as he reads the Bible. What he apparently alludes to here is a scene in which the cartoon Licona asks why the cartoon Geisler posted all over town notices with Licona's picture that said, "Sinner repent!" Why Geisler takes this to mean that we think he literally called Licona a sinner I cannot imagine; next I suppose he'll think I meant to relate that he literally posted flyers all over town, literally kicked Licona 50 feet in the air (complete
with cartoon sound effect), and literally had to use a stepladder to speak to Licona face to face. (Well...maybe he did have to do that literally; after all, this whole incident has made him into rather a small person indeed.)


So what of that flyer then? The phrase "sinner repent" was chosen in order to draw an analogy between Geisler and hellfire fundamentalist preachers who mindlessly demand that "sinners repent" and use bullying tactics. The point being, while Geisler has not called Licona a sinner, he has treated him like one -- and that cannot be denied save with the most skilled of rationalizations covered (as indeed in the video) by gratuitous "I love you brother"s that ring as hollow as a chocolate Santa.

Geisler then notes:

Even Southern Evangelical Seminary, where Licona was once a faculty member,
condemned this approach in a letter from “the office of the president,” saying, “We believe this video was totally unnecessary and is in extremely poor taste” (12/9/2011). One influential alumnus wrote the school, saying, “It was immature, inappropriate and distasteful” and recommended that “whoever made this video needs to pull it down and apologize for doing it” (12/21/2011).


I find it odd that the office of the president was able to make such a comment on a video 7 days before it was released. Presumably this is a typo. In any event, all of this rhetoric is not supported here with any sort of reasoning why it is immature, inappropriate, etc. and I have news for Geisler and those who wrote
these things: "Because it gored my oxen" isn't a good enough reason -- and it will neither come down nor be the subject of any apology, unless and until Geisler undoes the damage he has done (and also, as noted, does an SR-71 wingwalk for me).


In light of his actions, Geisler's further request for a "reasoned reply to all the critiques that have been made" is itself more cartoonish that his Scrooge persona. This comes from a man who has deleted challenges containing just such replies from his Facebook page. Geisler is bothered by Licona's reported declination to read his critiques, and calls that "both unscholarly and insulting." I
have read the critiques. I think Licona has better ways to spend his time. Thomas Howe was the first to issue anything that even approached a scholarly and viable
critique, and that was just in the last few days; Geisler, for the most part, has done little more than repeat the same authoritarian nonsense and panic polemic time and time again, and for the most part, he continues to do so here.


Yet again, his argument appeals to ICBI; and it is Article 13 and his use of it to which I would devote some attention next:

Article 13: “We deny that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. Some, for
instance, take Adam to be a myth, whereas in Scripture he is presented as a real person. Others take Jonah to be an allegory when he is presented as a historical person and [is] so referred to by Christ.” This makes it unmistakable clear that myths, legends, and embellishments, such as Licona allows in the Gospels,
cannot be part of an inerrant (wholly truthful) book such as the Bible.


But hold on here. Apocalypse -- the genre in which Licona argued for the key text to be put -- is not a "generic category." Furthermore, the point of Licona's argument is that it does not "present itself as factual" once all the evidence is considered. It also attempts to argue that yes, there are good reasons for not taking the key text as literal, which is the very effort at a "hermenuetical test" Geisler says is required. If Geisler wanted to get it right, he would not say
Licona denied inerrancy, but that Licona tried and failed to offer a sufficient hermenuetical test for his reading to "pass" as a way to deliteralize the text.


Again, I must note for the record that I do not find Licona's arguments regarding Matt 27 persuasive. But I also find Geisler's arguments for a violation of ICBI even less persuasive. His attempt to draw an analogy between the biblical narrative and road signs (!) shows a remarkable lack of grasp of the complexity and richness of available genres and modes of expression in the Biblical world. Geisler is a hyper-literalist trapped in what N. T. Wright might call a hurricane of
first century literary production values. When he further insists that ICBI's framers were specifically out to stop the sort of thing Licona is doing, I can believe it - because if Geisler is typical of the framers, then they are mistaking Licona's views for something they are not, and made much the same mistake with Robert Gundry.

And yet again, Geisler finds it necessary to thump the panic button until it breaks; he again uses the outlandish example of Mary Baker Eddy, having ignored a point I made here some time ago that Eddy's methods, unlike Licona's, could link to no precedent in first century literature. But Geisler, of course, simply
rejects out of hand as "not a suitable model" Licona's effort to use such literature -- not because he has shown that it is actually unsuitable (eg, per my challenge on the Gospels being Greco-Roman bioi), but merely on his authoritarian say-so.


I would next comment on Geisler's complaints about "counting heads." After his repeat appeal to the "scholars" of ICBI, he also rather questionably appeals to this:

Second, if the circle of scholars is rightfully broadened to include academically
credentialed evangelical scholars, then the vote has already been taken, and it is not favorable to Licona. For after two years of discussion and scholarly interchange and at a regularly scheduled annual meeting of The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), the largest group of evangelical scholars in the world, voted in 1983 with an overwhelming 70% majority to ask Robert Gundry to resign from ETS for “dehistoricizing” parts of the Gospel record, as Licona has done.


70% majority? Not quite. The vote was 116 to 41, with a far greater combined number abstaining. Geisler is not telling the whole truth here: It was only 70% of the voting group that he is referring to, not the whole membership of ETS.

Geisler then reveals the results of the "survey" we have noted here before (and
which was effectivly critiqued by Max Andrews, and here as well, dismissed rightly as little more than an exercise akin to trusting Wikipedia). Not surprisingly, 76% of respondents voted against Licona, but given the loaded way he presented the matter, I would give that survey as much credence as i would the yes-no voting procedures on YouTube -- and for much the same reason: Insufficient indication of voting numbers (it is interesting that Geisler only presents percentages, and not number of votes -- what if only 100 people voted?), and no qualification of the voting population as qualified to assess the situation (as opposed to eg, voting as they did because they think aliens told them to vote a certain way). Geisler's "survey" is little more than a bad statistical joke.


I think an even bigger joke, however, is this commentary:

Furthermore, there is a latent but serious flaw in the contention that only a
specialized group of scholars are capable of determining what is meant by inerrancy. It is in fact a kind of scholarly elitism which denies the rest of the body of Christ have a valuable role to play in formulation what they are asked to confess. Or, to put it another way, it is a replacement of the Teaching Magisterium of the Roman Church with a Teaching Magisterium of biblical Scholars. This violates the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and excludes the very people for whom the confessions or statements of Faith are made. And the history of doctrinal declension has proven that it begins in the
pulpit, not the pews. It is generated in the seminaries, not in the sanctuaries.


Wowie zowie -- was Geisler trying to pack as much epic fail into one paragraph as he could with this one? If he was, it is one of the few things he's done right so far.

First: There's no "elitism" here because the sort of knowledge used by scholars to arrive at what is meant by inerrancy is available freely to all. If there is any "elitism" here, it is an elite of serious disciples -- and Jesus himself declared greater rewards for those who worked harder, and so to that extent, himself
indicated that an "elite" would exist -- one of merit and rewards -- within his Body. Paul also admonished Timothy to study to show himself approved -- and if we take that as exemplary, as I am sure Geisler does, then it is an example
which means we should all become the "elite".

Second: Despite Geisler's professions about "the rest of the Body of Christ," it is a brute fact that a body, as Paul says, has many parts. Not all can be the "brain" in the body. In fact I'd say most today want to be the backside in the Body of Christ, the part that remains seated. Still, there is no Biblical warrant for this
idea that everyone should have a say in formulating confessions. The appeal to the priesthood of believers is frankly inane; does this also make us all equally
competent at evangelism, preaching, teaching, apologetics, and all else? If it does, then why doesn't Geisler just find a Christian vagrant down at the Salvation Army and have them write his next book? Why does he appeal to the "scholars" at ICBI if their being "scholars" (haw haw!) doesn't make any difference? Why read Thomas Howe's critique of Licona when a critique by Elmo P. Thudpucker, Christian motorcycle mechanic -- a member of the same "priesthood" as Howe -- can do the same job? Geisler has no warrant for making the formulation and
understanding of doctrine an exception, save his own need to special plead his case.


In reality, the "priesthood of all believers" relates to one thing only -- our ability to directly engage in a covenant with God, and not rely on priests to broker the covenant apparatus for us. It doesn't make us all equals in ability or gifts.
Geisler is merely begging an exception for an area of his concern.


Finally on the above, I wonder about Geisler's profession that it is the pulpit and seminaries that generate doctrinal declension. I'd like to see some stats on that, because it doesn't quite ring true. Joseph Smith was a barely educated teenager who could have done better Biblical exegesis with a bucket of KFC chicken bones
than with his brain. Mary Baker Eddy, Geisler's fave whipping button for panic this round, didn’t have any serious education to speak of and was mainly self-taught. Jim Jones, head of the People's Temple, had a degree…in education. Ellen White of Adventism had no formal schooling.


Reaching back, we find that Arius, who started the Arian heresy, held some rank
in the church. However, so likewise did his opponent Athansius; if this proves anything, it is that the pulpits and seminaries police their ranks and provide the counter for deviancies within themselves -- and ironically, it is Geisler who has called on the "scholars" of ICBI, and it is a scholar, Thomas Howe, who so far has provided the one reasoned and scholarly critique of Licona from Geisler's camp. Why didn't Geisler link up with someone in the pews to do this job? We may add
that the example of Arius, and any other before the modern era, won't really work anyway; in ages prior to mass communication, it could only be members of an elite class (like Arius and Athanasius) who, being one of the few literate people around (literacy being around 5-10%) had the knowledge, power, and ability to spread doctrinal declension. Joe Pew, circa 300 AD, had very little chance of getting his personal declension past the front door. So such examples as Arius would not adequately serve to prove Geisler' s point.


I'm sure that some heresies or declensions somewhere did indeed begin with
either pulpit or seminary, but apart from Geisler assuming what he wants to prove with Licona and Gundry, the only examples that come to mind are Murray Harris and Clark Pinnock -- and one can hardly compare their deviancy and influence to the prior examples. It appears that Geisler was so anxious to provide a snappy consonance that would stick in readers' memories ("seminaries/sanctuaries", "pews/pulpits") that he forgot to validate his claim.


In close on Licona, Geisler offers props for his upcoming book on the subject of inerrancy. One is tempted to wonder at times whether Geisler's attack on Licona is some sort of attempt to draw attention to this new book and give it an early sales boost; it would be a much better explanation for why Licona has been singled out this round, than Geisler's hollow retort that he went after a lot of
people in his book -- after all, he still hasn't gone after me, and still hasn't gone
after William Lane Craig, and using examples from his book will spoil a surprise for those he hopes will read it. Such a stunt would not be beyond Geisler or many other authors. However, we can just about guarantee that it will do nothing to further informed, reasoned, and intelligent faith of the sort that can withstand the attacks of modern critics.


That leaves Geisler’s commentary on our video, and there’s not much more to it; it's shorter by far. It preserves the original error stating that “a student has made a video” and repeats some of the same ox-gored complaints we noted earlier, though again, actual explanations of why the video is in poor taste, unkind,
distasteful, etc. In all this, it is anonymous “Alumni” from Southern Evangelical Seminary who are quoted, though why anyone should give their opinions any credence is also not explained. Apparently, we’re supposed to submit like good
little authoritarian managed drones and shut up when some “alumnus” has
a hissy fit. So, here’s all I need to say, really, for example to the longest complaint:

1) They used the classical Christmas Carol story in a very distasteful way….


No I didn’t. There, that’s as much argument as they provided. End of discussion, I win. But really, since they don't explain what the Dickens they mean by this, at least in what is quoted, there's no more response warranted than that.

2) Like Dr. Geisler or not, he deserves respect. Furthermore, Dr. Geisler is far more accomplished than the youngens who made the video.


Bah humbug
is the best response to that one. Geisler has been giving up his
“respect” with bells on these days, between the embarrassing incident with Caner and now with Licona. As for “more accomplished,” I’m not sure what that means. Has he written more books than I have? That’s true. But Danielle Steel has us both beat. Has he produced better apologetics than I have? Actually – no, he hasn’t. In fact his type of apologetics has done more harm than good when it comes to protection from the Ehrman hyenas.

3) The video was sarcastic and put words into Dr. Geisler’s mouth. This shows
not only immaturity, but further strengthens Dr. Geisler’s position….


Sarcastic? That it was, and deservedly so; satire tends to be that way. after all. That’s an even exchange again. As for words in his mouth, unfortunately, we’re not told specifically where that was done, and yes, the ellipses is where the quote ends.

4) He makes the point repetitively that those who support Dr. Geisler’s view are clones of Dr. Geisler, eluding that all who hold to the position that Dr. Geisler does are non-thinkers….


Really? I can’t recall where that point was made once, much less “repetitively”
in the vid, and once again, unless it is hidden behind those triple dots, we’re not told how or when in the vid this happened. That said, I have said in other forums that Geisler does have a lot of “Kool Aid drinkers” behind him – I know because they’ve written to me.

5) This video seems to mock inerrancy despite the fact that it tries to skirt that it is the main issue…..


Nope. It doesn’t mock inerrancy at all and it doesn’t skirt any issues but addresses them directly. Maybe they should try watching it again, and pay attention this time.

6) Lastly, while he illustrates physical attacks on Dr. Geisler in humor, it is still depicting physical attacks. It also explicitly is threatening to take action against Dr. Geisler…. This is stooping to verbal threats and scare tactics.


Oh dear. Never mind that Mike Licona gets kicked 50 feet in the air; compared to that, all Geisler gets is a couple of snowballs to the noggin. Hey folks…it’s a CARTOON. Do these guys call ASPCA to complain about Wile E. Coyote?

Finally, one of these poor souls is quoted as saying that they “reported the
video to YouTube for a TOS violation” as being “like predatory behavior, stalking, threats, harassment, intimidation, invading privacy, revealing other people’s personal information, and inciting others to commit violent acts”.


Now that’s the biggest laugh riot at all. These poor fellows need to get on some big boy pants, because what I offered was exceptionally mild compared to what those fundy atheists have to offer on YouTube. And heck, you may as well report your local editorial cartoonist for all those horrible drawings of Obama.

Really though, that's a good way to close off this one -- because it shows how Geisler's camp deals with these issues: By squelching competing voices with authoritarian bullying. But it won't work this time -- not for a Christmas Carol minute.

See ya'll next week.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Geisler's Demand

Word has reached me through several channels that Norman Geisler isn't happy about Geisler's Christmas Carol and wants it taken down.

Oh dear. That's unfortunate.

But I'm not without sympathy for him. I'll be glad to do so...under the following conditions:

1) That he makes it so that Mike Licona is restored to his positions at SES and NAMB.

2) That he reimburse the speaking fees Licona lost in the interim and get him re-invited to any engagements still ahead (as well as any others like Habermas and Copan who were disinvited from events).

3) That he publicly apologize for dealing with this matter in an unscholarly way.

4) That he answers my challenge about Greco-Roman bioi (see earlier Ticker entry).

5) That he puts back all challenges to him that were posted on his Facebook page.

6) That he attend the scholarly conclave Licona was proposing.

7) And, while we're at it, I also want Geisler to videotape himself doing a triple backflip while wing-walking an SR-71 going at Mach 3. If I take down that vid, I have to replace it with something people will want to watch; and I figure since I'm asking the impossible of Geisler already, I might as well take it to the hilt.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Especially you, Dr. Geisler.

***

The Ticker will be off until Wednesday.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Snap: Killing the Buddha

A reader inquired about this book, saying that a relative had abandoned their Christian faith because of it. The cover quotes a newspaper review as saying it is a "hip-hop makeover" of the Bible, a "stab at saucy kind of spirituality that's as bold as it is refreshing."

Apparently, the standards for "bold and refreshing" recently plummeted beneath my notice.

It's not hard to find words to describe this book; among them I'd say are idiocy, irrelevant, and what the hell was that supposed to be about? It's a collection of miscellany that is mostly personal anecdotes, and I am hard pressed to see what point the authors or collators were trying to prove, apart from their ability to relate manifest stupidity in poetic language. The writing styles (of some chapters) are about all this book has to it in terms of substance; the editors say that they asked their contributors to rewrite some Biblical book as they were led, and the result is not surprisingly as chaotic as a thunderstorm, and with quite nearly the same level of practical utility. How anyone could lose their faith over such a book is something I can't imagine, but perhaps objectivity and critical thinking has reached such an all time low that even nonsense like this can affect people adversely.

The substance? By example: The book of Ruth is mutilated for the sake of relating a barely coherent story (written in Shatneresque rat-a-tat prose) about someone's mother ill with cancer, and her funeral. At least, that was what the coherent part of it was about; other parts of the story seemed to serve little other purpose than page filler, as in this sample:

One evening, shortly after I returned from the States, I accidentally knocked over a small water glass. Though there was time to catch it, I felt unable to do so. I watched as it rolled off the table; it seemed to roll very slowly. I thought, it will break. It will break. It will break. And then I thought, no it won't. It will roll like that forever. When it landed in broken bits at my feet, I burst into tears, surprised.

And on it goes, worse than Hemingway on morphine. By a few sentences into each story the only thing that becomes clear is that each contributor could use some psychological counseling. At best this book is an example of how many have been fooled into thinking that if some idiot balls up a bunch of old newspapers and throws them all over a room, that is somehow "art".

Another story tells of a man who drives a church bus which ran out of gas. This man simply waited with his bus until, so he thought, God would send someone to give him some gas or food. I suppose the authors take this to be some sort of meaningful story from which we are to take a thoughtful lesson about spirituality. I think we'd get more substantial messages out of an episode featuring cross dressers on Jerry Springer.

No doubt I'd be told I just don't get the point. Yes, I imagine I don't -- my standards are too high.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Howe Now, Have a Cow?

Updated 12/23/11 to reflect an update by Howe. Much of the update is directed to views uniquely held by Licona, and so not of my concern. However, much of what relates to my concerns remains the same.

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It seems my vid "Geisler's Christmas Carol" has provoked a response by Dr. Thomas Howe, who I gather is not aware that it's me who is the creative impetus behind it. He has a few comments I'll respond to here, though I will also be skipping much that has to do with Licona's readings of passages that I do not agree with.


First of all, it is unprecedented that an author, including Matthew, would stick a piece of apocalyptic literature in the midst of historical reports...

No, actually, it would have had a great deal of precedent. Licona's original volume argued that this sort of thing did indeed happen; and as I learned from my study of mimesis, ancient writers did stick in non-historical sidelights for artistic effect (just not to the enormous extent argued by Dennis MacDonald). So this "all or nothing" perception of the ancient craft of writing is not arrived at by way of serious consideration of ancient literary composition, and requires a great deal more argument to establish. 12/23: This as well, in spite of Howe's new quotation of Osborne expressing incredulity that Matthew might do such a thing. Authors did indeed do this without what we would call a "hint" -- an explicit indication. Indeed, in a high context society, the "hint" would be in the writing itself, an allusion the reader would be expected to recognize. (Though I reiterate, I do not agree Matthew did that in this case.)

By the same token, Jesus' own Resurrection was also unprecedented; and the logic Howe uses here is essentially the same as that of David Hume, who argued that the unprecedented experience of miracles counted as a strike against their historicity. That's not really a door we want to open in Christian apologetics.

Not only is it nearly impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the intent of an author was, it is even more difficult to prove one’s suppositions about an author’s intent.

I find it odd that Howe can say such a thing, since by this reckoning, we can have no idea what his intentions are by saying this either. But they are not said first from him anyway, for as he says further:

At one point, the ghost asks Geisler something like this: “Isn’t an author’s intent part of understanding the text?” The maker of the video has Geisler answering yes to this question. Unfortunately, the makers of this video did not bother to try to understand either Geisler or his position on such an issue, and Geisler has written enough that it would take far less energy to discover his position than to produce a video. Geisler would never have answered yes to such a question. All it would have taken for the makers of the video to understanding Geisler’s position would have been actually read some of his writings, especially his article on “Does Purpose Determine Meaning.”

Several points here.

First, I have in fact read Geisler's rather outlandish arguments in this regard from back when he was trying to turn Gundry into 7 layer dip, and consider them little more than an extended exercise in self-contradiction. Gundry rightly dismissed such shenanigans by Geisler, as I noted in a Ticker entry some months ago:

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...Geisler offers what can only be described as an astonishing analysis in which he argues that the purpose and intention of an author shouldn’t be part of our interpretive exercise. Gundry is accused of confusing the “what” of a passage with the “why” of a passage and it is argued that one does not need to know a “why” in order to understand a “what”.

This is misguided for a couple of reasons. One is that the Biblical text was written in a high context society, in which the audience is frequently assumed to be in on the “why” Therefore, the lack of a “why” in a text is not sufficient argument to say that there was not one that was understood. Geisler offers the example of Ex. 23:19 (“you are not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk”) and notes that commentators have offered multiple speculations as to the “why” of this verse. But, Geisler says, “the children of Israel did not need to know why; all they needed to know was what it meant, and that is clear without knowing the purpose.” Really? The false step here is that simply because we do not know the purpose, this means that they did not know it. When evaluating a high context text, that sort of hypothesis is without basis. But even if it were not, it would remain that the law did have some purpose, even if it were not revealed to Israel at any point in its history by whatever means.

Geisler’s most disturbing comment in this regard is, “No method is legitimate if it goes behind or beyond the text to find the meaning.” This sounds more like an obscurantist KJV Onlyist attitude than something that would be said by a serious disciple. In essence, it forbids us to seek defining contexts of all sorts – whether they involve insights from anthropology, from linguistics, or even from genre study. It goes further than that: To read our Bibles, we have to be literate in a language, and we learned that language from somewhere “beyond” the text. Gundry rightly replies: “I refuse to separate the text from the author’s mind, as Geisler does. To make such a separation is to empty the text of any meaning except what we read into it…”

In all of this, I cannot help but think that Geisler was in a mode of panic and could not see the deficiency in his reasoning and the inevitable results of his statement. In no place did he provide a serious, legitimate answer to why midrash is not compatible with inerrancy (as Moo allowed that it was!); indeed he did not even rightly grasp what midrash was. His stance has even broader implications beyond the Bible: It undercuts arguments about the “intent” of the authors of the Constitution, for example. But the critical issue here is one of classification and intent, and Geisler’s professions about intent amount to a scorched earth policy with respect to exegesis.

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A further irony is that those who say such things are also in no way able to assert, then, that Matthew would never insert a dash of apocalypse in an otherwise historical narrative -- they're no more able to discern intent than anyone else. Those who declare that we cannot know Matthew's intent undercut their own criticisms of Licona.

Second, Howe says that the question of the Ghost of Inerrancy Past was "something like this" –“Isn’t an author’s intent part of understanding the text?” I think "something like" is a rather generous way to put it. Here's the actual dialogue:

GIP: No. You see here. Does not inerrancy consider the intentions of the author?

NG: Well, yes...

So, no, the question was not exactly about understanding the text; it was about inerrancy. And I think it would be vain to argue that inerrancy doesn't take into account authorial intention: The ICBI statement quite clearly refers to this:

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

“Literary forms and devices” is something that can’t be considered without acknowledging awareness of authorial intention. The obvious answer then to the question asked of Geisler by the ghost is yes.

That said, we are assured by Howe that unlike in my vid, Geisler would never have answered “yes” to the question, as Howe puts it. Actually, I rather doubt that Geisler would have answered no, unless he found himself trapped and in over his head as he did in his exchange with Gundry. For example, I am quite sure that Geisler would argue vociferously against any notion that his “intent” in Chosen But Free could have been to enable others to become champion ping pong players. In turn, if Geisler disappeared and was unable to advise us, it would be entirely absurd to suggest that his intent in CBF was not (among other things) to respond to positions of James White. While some authorial intentions may be more obscure and difficult to discern than others, it is clear that to claim in a blanket fashion that author intent is not part of understanding a text, or that it is "nearly impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the intent of an author was," is simply abject, self-refuting nonsense.

In addition, since Geisler has repeatedly argued (whether soundly or not) that it was the intentions of the framers of ICBI to put a stop to the sort of interpretive work Gundry was doing then and Licona is doing now, he has already answered "yes" to the question Howe poses by his own actions.

Finally, we should note a statement in the ICBI’s statement on hermeneutics (or ICBH, written by JI Packer) which says, “The initial quest is always for what God’s penman meant by what he wrote.” He then goes on to say that one should not include attempts to go “behind the text.” In this regard it appears Geisler is in some way trying to conflate these two concepts, one that is allowed by ICBH and one that is not; alternatively, Geisler is arbitrarily deciding what he thinks is “getting behind the text” and what is not. Whatever the case, it seems again that this reveals that it is Geisler’s preferences, not ICBI or scholarship, that is deciding what is legitimate and what is not.

Howe goes on:

In defense of Licona’s claim, Licona and others have attempted to appeal to an analogy between statements in Revelation and the statements in Matthew’s Gospel. For example, some have argued that if we take Matthew’s statement literally, we would have to believe that Satan is a literal dragon. But this completely misses the point.

I don't know about "others" but the point of my analogy was nothing like that. Rather, it was:

1) Licona's argument is that Matt. 27:51-3 is a mini-apocalypse, like Revelation.

2) Given this view of his, accusing him of denying inerrancy would be like saying someone denied inerrancy because they didn't take Satan to be a literal dragon.

Indeed, Howe's criticisms even fail to accurately represent Licona's argument, which indeed is that Matt. 27:51-53 is an apocalyptic statement -- not that it didn't occur as a historical event. If also it is apocalyptic, then to suggest this means that Matthew was not telling the literal truth is also a misguided claim. The view Howe proposes comes of a binary reading of the text derived from modern fundamentalism -- not from the sort of serious study of genre and composition Licona offered.


Even in the wildly fantastic statements in Enoch, one can only assume that Enoch believed that the events he describes actually occurred. Whether they occurred or not, Enoch presents them as actual events. Nowhere does Enoch say he did not believe his apocalyptic descriptions and symbols referred to actual historical events, so we can only grant that he in fact did believe this.

That may be so, but in apocalyptic, as is implied here, what is described in the text -- the symbols -- are "code" (to put it simply) for some other event. In that respect, Licona would say that indeed, the event Mathew intended to indicate by his "code" in 27:51-3 actually did happen: namely, it accentuates that God’s Son had just been killed (the literal event).

As a final aspect of this issue, the charge has been laid that I and others “do not understand” inerrancy. Actually, I understand it all too well, and it is summed up well by this user comment by “JediMasterJarrett” on the video, and my reply (both edited for grammatical clarity):

JMJ: Different understanding of inerrancy. Norman Geisler and others believe in an absolute inerrancy and verbal inspiration; God dictated to man word for word. Therefore they see everything in the Bible as literal. Mike Licona and others believe in an full inerrancy and plenary inspiration; God inspired the teaching taught by the authors which are wholly true. Which deals with the problem of phenomenal language (sun setting and rising) and other biblical problems that absolute inerrancy cannot answer.

JPH: A good way to put it. Another is that Geisler and Co believe in a 21st century form of inerrancy, while Licona believes in a 1st century form. Now I wonder which one would apply...

Geisler's views are an example of the absurdity that results from a 21st century view of inerrancy. Another is of the sort I noted in a review of The Jesus Crisis some years ago -- a book with criticisms of scholars that resemble in many ways those of Geisler and Howe -- showing that indeed I understand inerrancy as both sides see it all too well:

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I've answered points claiming contradiction between Matt and Luke's versions of the Sermon on the Mount by noting that Matt's version is likely to be an anthology -- a collection of Jesus' teachings, organized by Matthew according to his purpose as the composer of a handbook of faith; whereas Luke is more on the historical side, and reports what was actually said on that occasion.

No big problem. Both writers were following standard literary and historical practices for the time. But Thomas insists that such an approach "inevitably leads to diminishing historical accuracy in the Gospels" -- for you see, Matthew 5:1-2 "indicates Jesus began at a certain point to give the Sermon's contents." And what of the literary-device explanation above? Thomas wonders, then, "why would (Matthew) mislead his readers" into thinking that Jesus made this full sermon on one occasion?

What is missing here: This was a normal practice for the day. No one would be "misled" into thinking this was a full sermon because no one would have thought it was meant to be recorded as such in the first place. But Thomas, clearly, does not agree, with comments like this in response to Blomberg's assertion that Biblical writers followed the typical practices for composers of the day: "Despite what the practice of ancient historians may have been, Matthew's intention to cite a continuous discourse from a single occasion is conspicuous. Was he mistaken?" "No matter what the alleged motives of the writers in so doing, that kind of action is fundamentally problematic at best and dishonest at worst." (!) The only difference between these comment and comments like C. Dennis McKinsey's "read the Bible like a newspaper" is that McKinsey is nastier in his formulations. And yet we are told that it is we who propose such solutions who are "run(ning) roughshod over the historicity of the Sermon's introductory and concluding formulas".

You might wonder, of course, how Thomas suggests that we resolve the differences in the Sermon, and his answer is: By harmonization -- of an extreme, unnecessary sort. Put it this way: Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor" or "Blessed are the poor in spirit"? Thomas replies: He said both, and on the same occasion. Matt and Luke just chose to report one or the other: "Most probably Jesus repeated this beatitude in at least two different forms when he preached His Sermon on the Mount/Plain, using the third person once and the second person another time and referring to the Kingdom of God by different titles." Odd here how omission is not a sin; but commission is. I thought it was Matthew's intent to show he was citing a continuous discourse? If that is the case, isn't he "misleading" his readers by not giving a full report and leaving things out?


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Understand that I am not saying here that the two types of inerrancy are poles apart on all issues. I expect they would agree on solutions to 85-90% of the standard “Bible contradictions and problem” produced by critics like C. Dennis McKinsey or Sam Harris. It is that remaining 10-15% that is the difference, and it is a huge, problematic difference. Explanations like Thomas' are contrived and absurd, and will do little to protect the flock from the critiques of our faith by the likes of Bart Ehrman, and I have for many years had to counsel Christians whose faith was in danger because they saw the weakness of such explanations. In offering these types of explanations, teachers like Thomas and Geisler are doing far more harm than good --- and that is a point I have been making repeatedly for many years now. I understand inerrancy -- very well.

In the end, I find it astonishing that such criticisms as these come from those who are acting as leaders in our churches and educational institutions. But as I also know well, there have also been, at the other extreme, atheists who make similar mistakes and argue in similarly outlandish ways; some (like the late Ken Pulliam) were even once fundamentalists themselves. The need is strong for us to cleanse ourselves of this sort of poor thinking if we want to protect the faith of future generations from those like Ehrman and Pulliam who have turned their evangelistic zeal in the wrong direction.