Theology: September 2007 Archives

Imprecatory Prayer

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Justin Taylor had some great posts not too long ago on imprecatory prayer (i.e. praying against someone). I was particularly impressed by Crying for Justice. The main difficulty is that these prayers occur throughout the psalms (and elsewhere in the Bible), and yet they seem to offend modern moral sensibilities. Justin gives three approaches people have taken that minimize the role of imprecatory prayers in the Bible and why those views are misguided:
1. Imprecatory psalms express evil emotions that should be suppressed or confessed as sin (C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann).

2. They are utterances consonant with old covenant morality but inconsistent with new covenant ethics (Roy Zuck, J. Carl Laney, Meredith Kline).

3. Such words may be appropriately spoken only by Christ in relation to his work on the cross and only by his followers through him (James Adams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Justin gives a brief but good account of why all three views are unsatisfactory and offers a better approach that takes these psalms as legitimate prayers in certain contexts, even if such contexts are more rare in contemporary North American life. I won't repeat his reasoning, but I think he's right.

I think it's worth thinking through the possibility that love and hate are simultaneously possible and in fact even good in certain contexts. We assume that love and hate are opposites, and thus love for enemies requires not hating anyone. But there are clear biblical statements of hate for people, which Justin in an earlier post explains and defends in the context of loving enemies. Augustine's way of thinking through this issue has seemed to me to be the best way to work together these two seemingly contradictory themes. Love is our obligation, always, to any human being, whether we see the person as an enemy or not. With respect to the gospel, no one is our enemy. Everyone is a person in need of repentance. At the same time, we ought to hate evil, and people can be pretty evil. Everyone is evil in some significant ways, and we ought to hate what is evil in people.

This isn't just hating actions that are bad, since actions aren't all that makes us bad. Evil is within us, worked into the very fiber of our moral thinking, our character, our hearts and minds. We ought to hate that in anyone, and that does mean hating individual people with respect to the things in them that are evil. But what is redeemable, what will still be there if the person is transformed by God's grace, is always lovable, is always worthy of love. We aren't worthy in ourselves, without God, of any love, but what remains of God's original work (and something must, or regeneration would actually produce a new person, with the original ceasing to exist) is good. What God will do in transforming someone's mind and heart is good, and that is worth seeing as deserving of love. This is so even with the worst persecutors of Christians. Consider the example of the worst of such persecutors in ancient times, Saul of Tarsus, who was so transformed.

I mentioned in this post the one place I've found something in D.A. Carson's writings that I disagree with, and I wanted to explain in detail what that is and why I disagree with him. I've summarized Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in this post, so I refer you to that for the basics of the view. Carson discusses the view in Letters Along the Way, pp.151-156 and in The Gagging of God pp.186, 188. In the first book, some of his critique is from what he (or possibly Woodbridge) thinks Plantinga gets wrong about Calvin. I have little to say about that, since I haven't read Calvin on the issue and am not interested in what he said for the sake of getting him right, at least not with respect to this issue. I do think Carson (and Woodbridge) ought to get Plantinga right if they're going to critique him in print, and I don't think that actually happened in this case.

In Letters Along the Way, Plantinga comes off as if he denies the possibility of establishing the existence of God with evidence, as if he doesn't think there is any evidence whatsoever to support Christian belief. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plantinga thinks several arguments for the existence of God are convincing. He thinks there is good evidence to support belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I'm not sure where this understanding of Plantinga is coming from, but it doesn't fit with Plantinga's actual beliefs or his discussion in the piece Carson and Woodbridge cite ("Reason and Belief in God", in Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga and Wolterstorff).

What Plantinga does say is that evidentialism is false as a requirement on knowledge. Evidentialism takes knowledge to be impossible without either evidence or self-evident truths. He allows that people disagree on the value of the evidence, and so he doesn't think evidential arguments will be convincing enough to those with highly skeptical standards. I don't know of anywhere where he simply denies the possibility of gaining support for Christian beliefs with evidence, however. He just doesn't think you need evidence to have knowledge of God. Plantinga does recognize (rightly) that there are no standards agreed on by all sides that we can use as the basis of rational arguments for God. The atheist can just deny any premise necessary to get out of the argument. That's how philosophical arguments work, no matter what the conclusion is. But that's a far cry from thinking such arguments are inconclusive or unsound. To make that jump would require making it in every area of philosophy, making no argument successful or sound. This is simply not Plantinga.

The discussion continues with a number of claims that I find it hard to see as responsible Plantinga exegesis. Woodbridge and Carson compare Plantinga with Barth, with whom I see no comparison. Barth rejects the kind of natural theology that Plantinga has spent a good deal of time defending, even if he's recognized that atheists can deny a premise to any valid argument to get out of accepting the conclusion. Plantinga does discuss the objections he sees to natural theology in the works of Bavinck, Calvin, and Barth. But he does so in order to show that his rejection of evidentialism is in the general Reformed tradition, not to agree with everything in those thinkers' rejection of natural theology. He in fact says that the natural theologian can respond to some of their complaints, and he gives a defense of natural theology before going on to continue his critique of evidentialism and response to the no-evidence argument.

Pass the Port

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This is funny coming from a Baptist theologian and biblical scholar:

If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.”

For context and explanation, see the whole quote. It's just funny seeing this from a committed Baptist like Carson, but then again there's only been one time I've seen anything in Carson's writings that I disagree with, and I've read a lot of Carson. In that case he did get it about as wrong as it could be gotten, but it really is the only time I remember thinking that something Carson was writing was surely wrong. (There have been things he's defended that I've had no view on, but that doesn't count as disagreeing with him. There have also been times he's said things I disagreed with, until I finished seeing his arguments, and then I was convinced. But I don't remain in disagreement with him in such cases.)

But there aren't that many Baptists, even Reformed Baptists, with absolutely no qualms about the fundamental morality of drinking alcohol. I'm a complete teetotaler myself, but my reasons for not drinking alcohol have nothing to do with thinking it's wrong to do so. I just think it smells so unappetizing that I've never wanted even to taste it, and so it isn't very tempting to try to develop a taste for something that, given my hypoglycemia, would be extremely unhealthy to drink regularly. I do find myself regularly purchasing 12-packs of Saranac or Sam Adams, however, because someone in the family does happen to have a fondness for those particular beers. I don't think I'd pull one out and start drinking it if I encountered someone claiming that not drinking was essential to being a Christian, but maybe I could pull one out and hand it to someone who would drink it.

One of the arguments open theists give for the view that God doesn't know the future exhaustively is that several biblical passages seem to indicate God changing his mind. This is indeed how the text is worded in several places. In Genesis 18, God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham pleads with him to spare it even if there are ten righteous people there. As it turns out, there's just one, Abraham's nephew Lot. So God still destroys it, but he spares Lot. You might get the impression from the passage that God wasn't originally going to save Lot (although the text never says that).

Several times during the wilderness wanderings, you have similar events. After the golden calf incident in Exodus 32, Moses intercedes for Israel more than once within a few chapters. Each time, the text seems to say that God changes his plan about what he intends to do with Israel. First he intends to destroy all Israel and then make a new people out of Moses as he had done with Abraham before. Then God agrees to spare Israel, but he won't be with them in the same kind of manner as he had been (with the pillar of fire and cloud). Then he eventually agrees to be with them as he had before. There are a couple more shortened accounts of similar things with the rebellions in Numbers, and other examples appear throughout the Bible. 

Now there's always been a way to take these passages that's consistent with classical theism. God knew what he intended to do all along, and that never changed, but the language about God changing his mind is really not about God having one intent and then changing it. It's about God's policy during one time being one thing and then the policy during the next time being something else, and what someone does at some time in between is God's reason for having a different policy. So God's policy in Exodus 32 is that he's telling Moses a plan (one he never intends to carry out, because he knows how Moses will respond) and then by the end of Exodus 34 is telling Moses his real plan, but he frames it in language Moses can understand so that Moses can see that he's really interacting with God. Describing it in atemporal language or explaining the final result before Moses has been brought to where God wants him is counterproductive. It doesn't allow Moses to experience the succession of states that he needs to experience.

But I'm not interested here in arguing exegetically for the traditional interpretation, even though I think it's the best way to make sense of these texts, often because of signs within the texts but especially in the light of the wider scriptures. What prompted me to write about these passages is something that occurred to me as I was reading one of these kinds of passages in Numbers last week. Look at the examples of God changing his mind that open theists claim as evidence for open theism. It their interpretation is true, then God initially has some plan he wants to carry out, and Abraham, Moses, or some other righteous figure comes along to convince God that his plan is bad. It violates God's character in some of these instances, particularly in the case of God saying he'll go against his promises to Abraham and destroy Israel. That's Moses' very argument. So if the open theistic interpretation of these passages is correct, it isn't just the metaphysical status of God's nature that they're revising. It isn't just the issue of God's exhaustive foreknowledge that's at stake in this debate. If the open theistic interpretation is correct, then God has some pretty seriously immoral tendencies that these wonderful people like Abraham and Moses then come along and help God to overcome by standing up against God's evil.

I think, then, that most classical theists who complain about open theism's biblical revisionism are missing the most revisionary aspect of open theism. It's not that open theists' view of God contradicts the plain statements of scripture (although I think it does) in order to take narrative passages told from a phenomenological perspective as if they are reporting the most basic metaphysical reality in careful, philosophical language. (If we did that with another passage, we'd end up with the view that the sun goes around the earth.) It's that open theistic interpretation of the very passages most commonly used to argue for open theism make God out to be thoroughly immoral in a way that it requires human righteousness to temper God's passions. Doesn't this get the Christian gospel upside-down?

What's your eschatology?

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 You scored as Amillenialist, Amillenialism believes that the 1000 year reign is not literal but figurative, and that Christ began to reign at his ascension. People take some prophetic scripture far too literally in your view.

Amillenialist

 
75%

Moltmannian Eschatology

 
55%

Premillenialist

 
45%

Postmillenialist

 
30%

Preterist

 
25%

Left Behind

 
25%

Dispensationalist

 
15%

What's your eschatology?
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