Theology: March 2006 Archives

In a discussion I was in recently, someone made the common claim that it would be morally abominable for God to have the ability to save all people but only in fact save some. If God has a plan of providence, as Christianity traditionally has said, and that plan includes exactly what will happen down to the level of what sparrows will eat on any given day (as Jesus seems to me to state in the sermon on the mount), what evil kings will do in their pride in order to punish God's people (as the prophets seem to me to state), and which people will be counted among those who believe (as the book of Acts seems to me to state), then if it also includes which people won't believe Christian thinks God is morally abominable, whether that leads to an eternal hell or just annihilation. The claim is something like that, anyway.

There's a lot that could be said about this claim, and I don't have the time to treat it comprehensively, but I find the move to be interesting given another common philosophical claim that I've seen made against the most common Christian view historically on the atonement, i.e. penal substitution. The claim is often made that it would be wrong for God to use Jesus, an innocent, to take the sins of humanity, because then we're not really being atoned for. It's true that someone is dying for our sins, but it's not justice according to this objection, because no one is getting what they deserve. Jesus is wrongly killed, and we're unjustly not getting what we deserve. How could a just God allow that?

What's interesting about these two objections to what I consider to be standard Christian views is that they can't both be right. If it's wrong to allow Jesus to die for people and thus have the people not get what they deserve, then it can't be wrong to allow people to go to hell when they could be saved. If it's wrong to allow people to go to hell when they can be saved, then it can't be wrong to allow Jesus to die in the place of sinners who would otherwise deserve to suffer eternally in hell. Those who find themselves attracted to both objections face a serious inconsistency. I can't even imagine how the same motivational structure could produce both objections unless they stem just from the motivation just to undermine Christianity at whatever cost, even if it's the cost of inconsistency.

Several posts at Prosblogion might be of interest to those who are more philosophically inclined. Matthew points out a response by Alvin Plantinga to the Dover Intelligent Design decision. Basically he points out that this judge has used his judicial authority to settle ongoing philosophical debates by defining the answer into the terms being used. I think I agree with everything Plantinga says, but I think he's too nice. This judge just accepts the philosophical claims of the scientific orthodoxy, even if that scientific orthodoxy is philosophically uninformed on most of the important points. His ignorance of important philosophical distinctions would lead to a failing grade in any good philosophy course, and yet he's the one who decides that this clearly philosophical argument is religion. I'd go so far as to say that the judge's decision is anti-intellectual, largely because he couldn't make such a decision and say the things he said without deliberately ignoring all kinds of important distinctions that anyone honestly considering the facts should bear in mind. Anyway, Plantinga says what I want to say and probably a lot better, so stop reading me and read him.

Also at Prosblogion are two posts in the general area of God's atemporality and omniscience, human freedom, and the character of time. Kevin Timpe defends divine timelessness from the objection that it doesn't allow libertarian free will. I'm no libertarian, but I could never see how these two views are inconsistent, and the comments that follow raise a number of other interesting issues, including some philosophy of time. That thread has been the main reason I haven't posted anything here since just after midnight two days ago. One comment I was writing got long enough that I turned it into a whole post on the supposed inconsistency of divine timelessness, omniscience, and a tensed view of time. There are several ways out of the argument, including my preferred non-tensed view of time, but there are things someone who holds all three views can say to avoid contradiction, so I don't think there's really an inconsistency. Anyway, since I haven't been writing much here, I thought I'd direct you to what I've been writing over there.

Joy

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Our congregation is working through John 13-17 in our sermons right now. Jeremy Jackson, one of our elders, was teaching on John 15:9-17 a couple weeks ago, and he presented a very interesting definition of joy. Joy can't be mere pleasure, because you wouldn't then have it while experiencing severe persecution. But it also seems to be an emotion of some sort. So many of the biblical discussions of joy seem to involve overflowing with some kind of excitement. It can't be mere resignation to the difficult things in life. It's certainly not the outward look of happiness that many have meant when they've told me I should show more joy when leading worship.

So what is joy? Jeremy defined it as the exhilaration of the accomplishment of something worthwhile, in particular of God's accomplishment of something worthwhile in whatever situation we are in. He also likened it to spiritual adrenaline for Christ. When we were looking at Habakkuk at a one-day retreat about a week later, he recast his definition as conscious experience of the fact that God delivers you and the sober exhilaration in the awareness that God's purposes are being worked out. I think this is it exactly. This not only avoids the various things I said above that joy isn't but also explains how someone can be sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as Paul described his own life (II Cor 6:10). I was going to connect this up with some of the ancient philosophers' views on the good life (in particular the Greek concept of eudaimonia), but I think it's more important right now that I finish grading some papers on the ancient philosophers so I can hand them back tomorrow, and maybe this will go into the growing file of things to finish blogging about.

In Emergent Church: Apostate or Nothing New Under the Sun?, I addressed the Emergent Church Movement primarily in terms of what's going on with its key philosophical claims, especially its epistemological claims. For non-philosophers, epistemology is the theory of knowledge, justification for belief, and other questions related to our understanding of the world, how we get it, and what makes it a good or bad state of mind regarding a particular belief or set of beliefs. Epistemological issues in the context of Christian belief thus deal with whether we can be certain that Christianity is true, what gives us good reasons to believe it, the status of the Bible as revelation from God, and the nature of truth itself. I ignored many crucial elements of this movement, and I'd like to remedy that now.

Ed Stetzer discusses three strains with the so-called Emergent Church: Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists [hat tip: Mickey McLean]. My previous post left us with a choice in how evangelical Christians should evaluate this movement, and I suggest that either there's very little new at all about this movement, and it's classic evangelicalism, or it's heresy and/or heteropraxy. There's probably some of both in the movement. What we need to do is isolate strains with it and then consider each separately. Stetzer's three categories provide one categorizing system to begin this work.

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