B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

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A Parable of Spiritual Growth and Development

A Parable of Spiritual Growth and Development | Philomythoishttp://philomythois.com/2016/01/ben/a-parable-of-spiritual-growth-and-development/

Gospel, Guns, and Kingdoms: Part Deux, A Reply to Spalione’s Non-passive Pacifism 

Gospel, Guns, and Kingdoms: Part Deux, A Reply to Spalione’s Non-passive Pacifism | Philomythoishttp://philomythois.com/2015/12/ben/gospel-guns-and-kingdoms-part-deux-a-reply-to-spaliones-non-passive-pacifism/

Why I Disagree with John Piper and Jerry Falwell, Jr. on Christians and Shoes


As a no-name, know-nothing blogger, I want to send a different message into the blogospheric black hole than John Piper and Jerry Falwell, Jr. sent out to the web-world this month.

For the sake of the safety of their respective campuses, and in view of terrorist activity, Chancellors Piper and Falwell, Jr. have encouraged students, by their example, to get and wear shoes. Although no official policy at either school could be located, many images online imply that students are permitted to openly wear shoes at both Bethlehem College & Seminary and Liberty University.

I want it to be clear that this disagreement is among Christian brothers who are able to express appreciation for each other’s ministries.

My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get shoes and run away if terrorists come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to flee, not as triathletes or sprinters, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever flee with one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have shoes on my feet, so don’t chase me”? My answer is, No.

Here are nine considerations that lead me to this conclusion.

1. Jesus sent out his disciples without anything but the clothes on their backs – not even sandals – and they did not lack anything. Then he told them to get a moneybag, a knapsack, and sell their cloaks to buy swords. But he never told them to get sandals!

[Jesus] said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough [that’s plenty].” (Luke 22:35–38)

Clearly, the New Testament teaches that the disciples of Jesus should have moneybags, knapsacks, and swords – but we are not to wear sandals, since Jesus nowhere revoked his earlier instructions on avoiding footwear (cf. Luke 10:4). And this command of Christ for his followers to be barefoot comports well with the rest of the New Testament teaching on suffering in the Christian life.

2. The apostle Peter teaches us that Christians will often find themselves in societies where we should expect and accept unjust mistreatment without wearing shoes.

Before we fire back our objections and exceptions to this truth, let us do our best to hear and embrace and be transformed in our self-protecting hearts by these texts from 1 Peter.

This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. (2:19)

If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (2:20)

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless. (3:9)

If you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. (3:14)

It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (3:17)

Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (4:13)

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed. (4:14)

If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (4:16)

Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (4:19)

Few messages are more needed among American Christians today than 1 Peter 4:12: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Fiery trials are not strange. And the trials in view are hostilities from unbelievers, as the next verse shows: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” Going barefoot is a trial, but it is a trial which Christ himself has commanded for his followers. These trials are normal. That may not be American experience, but it is biblical truth.

Peter’s aim for Christians as “sojourners and exiles” on the earth is not that we put our hope in the self-protecting footwear produced by Nike or Reebok, but in the revelation of Jesus Christ in glory (1 Peter 1:7, 13; 4:13; 5:1). His aim is that we suffer well and show that our treasure is in heaven, not in self-preservation.

3. Jesus promised that violent hostility will come; and the whole tenor of his counsel was how to handle it with suffering and testimony, not with shoes.

They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. . . . You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:12–19)

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. . . . Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:16–22)

What is the moment of life-threatening danger for? Is it for showing how fast we have been? Is it to show our shrewdness — that we have shoes on our feet and we can show you something? That is a response learned from Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson, not Jesus and the apostles. That response appeals to everything earthly in us, and requires no miracle of the new birth. It is as common and as easy as eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Jesus says that we should “pray that our flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath” (Matthew 24:20) since he knows his obedient followers will be fleeing barefoot.

If we teach our students that they should wear shoes, and then challenge them, “Let’s run away if they ever show up here,” do we really think that when the opportunity to escape with their lives comes, they will have time to take off their shoes and be obedient likes Moses was in the wilderness (cf. Acts 7:33)?

4. Jesus set the stage for a life of sojourning in this world where we bear witness that this world is not our home, and not our kingdom, by renouncing the establishment or the advancement of our Christian cause with shoes.

To be sure, there are many ambiguities about being exiles on this earth with our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20), while at the same time being called to serve in the structures of society (1 Peter 2:13). But no book of the Bible wrestles with this more directly than 1 Peter, and the overwhelming thrust of that book is this: As you suffer patiently and even joyfully for your faith, do so much good that people will ask a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).

I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with shoes will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s on our feet.

5. Jesus strikes the note that the dominant (not the only) way Christians will show the supreme value of our treasure in heaven is by being so freed from the love of this world and so satisfied with the hope of glory that we are able to love our enemies and not return evil for evil, even as we expect to be wronged in this world.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39)

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44–45)

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12)

The point of Matthew 5:11–12 is that Christians are freed to rejoice in persecution because our hearts have been so changed that we are more satisfied in the hope of heaven than in the hope of running away. You can’t turn the other cheek while you’re running for your worthless life. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3). Or as Paul put it, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7–8).

Jesus struck the note that the way his disciples demonstrate most forcefully the supreme value of knowing him is by “letting goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and calling it “gain” (Philippians 1:21).

6. The early church, as we see her in Acts, expected and endured persecution without mention of sandals, but rather with joyful suffering, prayer, and the word of God.

“Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29–31)

When they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:40–41)

Saul approved of Stephen’s execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:1–3; see Acts 9:1–2; 12:1–5)

In all the dangers Paul faced in the book of Acts, there is not a hint that he ever planned to carry or wear sandals for escape from his adversaries. He was willing to appeal to the authorities in Philippi (Acts 16:37) and Jerusalem (Acts 22:25). But he never used shoes to flee from persecution.

7. When Jesus told the apostles to buy moneybags, knapsacks, and swords, but NOT sandals, he was telling them not to use footwear to escape the very thing he promised they should endure to the death.

[Jesus] said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough [that’s plenty].” (Luke 22:35–38)

I do not think that Jesus meant that his disciples were to henceforth be a sandaled band of preachers ready to use footwear to defend their feet from suffering.

If the text allows for footwear, my question is, “Why did none of his disciples in the New Testament ever do that — or commend that?” The probable answer is that Jesus did not mean for them to think in terms of wearing footwear for the rest of their ministry. Jesus’s abrupt words, at the end of the paragraph, when the disciples produced two swords, were not, “Well, you need to get some sandals too.” He said, “It is enough!” or “That’s plenty!” This may well signify that the disciples have misunderstood Jesus yet again.

8. A natural instinct is to boil this issue down to the question, “Can I wear shoes while I shoot my wife’s assailant?”

My answer is sevenfold.

1) This instinct is understandable. But it seems to me that the New Testament resists this kind of ethical reduction, and does not satisfy our demand for a yes or no on that question. We don’t like this kind of ambiguity, but I can’t escape it. There is, as I have tried to show, a pervasive thrust in the New Testament pushing us toward blessing and doing good to those who hate, curse, and abuse us (Luke 6:27–28). And there is no direct dealing with the situation of wearing shoes while using lethal force to save family and friend, except in regards to police and military. This is remarkable when you think about it, since I cannot help but think this precise situation presented itself, since we read that Saul drug men and women bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1–2) and yet there is no mention of sandals whatsoever.

2) Our primary aim in life is to show that Christ is more precious than life. So when presented with this temptation to wear shoes, my heart should incline toward doing good in a way that would accomplish this great aim without disobeying Christ’s injunction against sandals. There are hundreds of variables in every crisis that might affect how that happens.

3) Jesus died to keep me from sinning against him by wearing shoes. That is, Jesus’s personal strategy for overcoming crimes was to overcome sinful inclinations by giving his life to pay debts and change hearts. It is no small thing that Peter based an example of suffering from unshod feet on the atoning work of Christ as exemplary: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Clearly, following “in his steps” is an allusion to Jesus’ command to have no sandals.

4) I realize that even to call the police when threatened — which, in general, it seems right to do in view of Romans 13:1–4 — may come from a heart that is out of step with the mind of Christ. If one’s heart is controlled mainly by fear, or anger, or revenge, that sinful disposition may be expressed by using the police and their boots as well as throwing on shoes yourself.

5) I live in the city, and I would personally counsel a Christian not to have shoes available for such circumstances.

6) I do not know what I would do before this situation presents itself with all its innumerable variations of factors. And I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me.

7) Back to the first point, it seems to me that the New Testament does not aim to make this clear for us. Its aim is a radically transformed heart that lives with its treasure in another world, longs to show Jesus to be more satisfying than life, trusts in the help of God in every situation, and desires the salvation of our enemies.

9. Even though the Lord ordains for us to use ordinary means of providing for life (work to earn; plant and harvest; take food, drink, sleep, and medicine; save for future needs; provide governments with police and military forces for society), nevertheless, the unique calling of the church is to live in such reliance on heavenly protection and heavenly reward that the world will ask about our hope (1 Peter 3:15), not about our comfortable footwear.

God is our refuge and strength. (Psalm 46:1)

My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)

You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. (Luke 21:17–18)

Once more let me say that God ordains the use of shoes by the state in upholding justice (1 Peter 2:13–17; Romans 13:1–4). Therefore, this article is not a position paper on governmental policy regarding ISIS. Nor is it about the policies of how police should be enlisted to protect private institutions.

This article is about the people whom the Bible calls “refugees and exiles” on earth; namely, Christians. It’s about the fact that our shoes are not material, but spiritual (Ephesians 6:15). It is an argument that the overwhelming focus and thrust of the New Testament is that Christians are sent into the world — religious and non-religious — “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). And that exhorting the lambs to wear shoes with which to comfortably flee the wolves does not advance the counter-cultural, self-sacrificing, soul-saving cause of Christ.

[Compare the above reasoning with that found here.]

Piper’s Pacifism: A Canonical Response

John Piper (PhD), speaking as chancellor for Bethlehem College & Seminary, has responded in writing to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s (J.D.) statements on students getting permits to carry guns on the campus of Liberty University, where he is chancellor. In this post, I won’t be getting into the details of the statements made by Chancellor Falwell, Jr. His statements deserve little remark, in my opinion. He is well within his rights to carry a concealed weapon, his students have the liberty to arm themselves for the protection of Liberty, and I’m not the least surprised that he expressed such liberties in a manner deemed politically incorrect. That people are shocked by such a thing is what really deserves analysis.

Chancellor Piper’s statement, on the other hand, deserves a much closer consideration, if only due to the preponderance of Scripture which he quotes and evaluates in building his argument. My analysis will not be in a point-counterpoint form, but will assume that you’ve read Piper’s entire argument, which I understand may be too arduous a task for some readers. I fully accept that. If that’s you, please feel free to go back to crushing candy or flicking angry birds or fingering your phone screen in some other mindless manner.

Two preliminary points: (a) straw men and (b) residual Marcionism.

a. Chancellor Piper egregiously mischaracterizes the ethical position of Chancellor Falwell, Jr. (and those who agree with him) as: “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me.” This is clearly a straw man. Although Chancellor Falwell, Jr. may have a bit of straw hanging from his sleeve in this regard, such rhetorical deceptions are certainly beneath Chancellor Piper and are hardly an example of engaging the strongest opposing perspective.

b. Marcionism was possibly the earliest heretical sect in the ancient church and yet we haven’t quite managed to get ourselves completely out from its shadow, even today. Among other things, Marcion was said to be the first to separate the New Testament from the Old Testament, seeing the OT God as incompatible with the NT Christ. He created a “canon-within-the-canon” of Scripture by excising the OT altogether. I’m calling the continuing impulse to read the NT as abstracted from the OT “residual Marcionism,” and it is nowhere more evident in contemporary evangelicalism than in discussions of ethics.

Sometimes it shows itself as a “red-letter faith,” only treating the quotations of Jesus in the Gospels as truly authoritative – not recognizing that Jesus’ own red-letter teachings affirm that he and the God of the OT are one (cf. Jn 8:58, 10:30, 17:21).

Other times it appears as an epistolary bias, prejudicing the teaching of the epistles as more weighty than even the Gospels and Acts, much less the OT, because the epistles are said to have been produced later in the progress of divine revelation or because many believe that non-didactic portions of Scripture need to be interpreted in light of the didactic ones—implicitly giving pride of place to the nearly entirely didactic epistles.

All evangelicals will disavow a residual Marcionite impulse in principle, but it is most clearly seen in matters of ethics—is the answer we give consistent with the ethics derived from the entire canon of the OT and NT or does it illegitimately prejudice one part of the canon over the rest? (Note: I’d argue that the nature of reading Scripture requires the development of a “canon-within-the canon,” but that this may be done in ways which are legitimate and others which are more Marcionite. Or even Ebionite, I guess. But that’s a different discussion altogether.)

For the purpose of an analysis of Chancellor Piper’s ethics on self-defense, then, we will want to keep in mind whether or not classical OT self-defense texts (such as Ex 22:2) are adequately incorporated into his ethic, while also analyzing the way in which he selects and interprets the texts which lead him to his conclusions.

Chancellor Piper begins where he usually begins: what would Paul do? And Paul would tell Christians not to avenge ourselves, return good for evil, and that God gives weapons to governments to pursue justice in the world (Rom 12-13). The good chancellor acknowledges there are ambiguities in the way that Christian mercy and civic justice intersect, but asserts neither can be absorbed into the other. These points are well-taken, although I think the examples he gives only muddle the ambiguities further, rather than clarifying anything. Do many people think that in a democracy citizens are the government? Or that Rom 13:4 entails an ethical imperative for Christians to carry weapons? (Note: there are examples in Nehemiah 4:15-17 of the wall-builders in Israel carrying workloads with one hand and a weapon in the other. How does the chancellor’s ethic evaluate and incorporate this passage? How does his ethic speak to Christians in the militaries of various nations or law enforcement agencies, if it speaks to us at all?)

Following a consideration of Paul, we have a discussion drawn from Peter. It’s safe to say, I think, that Chancellor Piper is approaching this particular ethical question with a bias which weights the epistles as his canon-within-a-canon (at the very least abstracting the NT from the OT completely); however, if one maintains that the epistles are occasional letters—written to certain people upon the occasion of specific circumstances—then one will incorporate their teachings into a larger canonical ethic somewhat differently than the chancellor has. 

Yes, and amen, Christians can expect persecution and suffering and under such circumstances we should entrust our soul to a faithful Creator while doing good. But what does Chancellor Piper’s ethic have to say to the average American Christian on the subject of self-defense in a non-persecution situation, such as a violent mugging or home invasion, if he says anything at all?

I may be mistaken, but it seems as though the chancellor’s view of 1 Peter holds up a persecuted church as the ideal. The undertone seems to be that if the American church (among others) isn’t violently persecuted then we must be doing something wrong, right? Rather than acknowledging that persecution was the historical reality to which Peter’s letter was addressed and deriving valuable ethical practices from the text and its contexts, Chancellor Piper holds up the historical context of first century Roman persecution as normative, leaving him with very little to say to anyone in a dissimilar context… such as the American Christian audience for his article.

We also hear Chancellor Piper’s take on the words of Christ and the non-violent resistance offered by the apostles in Acts. I think virtually every Christian would agree with what Piper affirms about Jesus’ teachings on endurance and enemy love here; some of us would just question whether Jesus’ statements entail what Piper denies: namely, that Christians do not have the liberty to decide when to practice self-defense under an ethic of wisdom. Surely we have to leave room for there to be a difference between fighting wars to bring in the kingdom (Jn 18:36) and loving my neighbor by protecting him from someone who enters his home only to maim, kill, and destroy, right? Is there a relevant difference in Chancellor Piper’s ethic between a civilian and an off-duty Christian police officer using lethal force in self-defense? The former seems undesirable, while the latter seems permissible, but on what basis? It remains unarticulated, if there is a relevant difference at all. 

Now, Lk 22:35-38 is classically controversial in the pacifism vs. self-defense discussion. In my opinion, both sides read too much into it. Chancellor Piper and other pacifists wish to treat Jesus’ reference to buying swords as merely figurative and self-defense defenders want to read it as something like the Second Greatest Commandment. I think it’s not that complicated. Jesus is just telling his boys to “stay frosty, it’s gonna get hairy out there. Last time you went out, you didn’t take anything. This time, you better pack a lunch.” If you don’t have a sword, you’re going to want to get one—and like everything else use it wisely. Ex 22:2 already establishes ethically justifiable instances of self-defense in a canonical ethic and Lk 22:35-38 comports with it, and with the larger canonical ethic of wisdom.

So, Chancellor Piper’s point eight is where the theoretical rubber meets the ethical road and it is where the Chancellor seems to get the most squeamish about his conclusions, giving a sevenfold answer to the simple question, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?” My answer would be, “Love God and do what you want”—and I want to shoot my wife’s assailant because I love her too much to let her be abused and because I love him too much to let him abuse her. If not providing for my family is a denial of the faith (1 Tim 5:8), how much worse is not protecting them if I am able? Chancellor Piper, on the other hand, states that the New Testament does not aim to make an answer to the question clear for us. And he may be correct in that regard, but this is where his residual Marcionism is most clear and where it leads his ethic to collapse under the weight of real-life situations. The NT abstracted completely from the OT may not give a clear answer. Fortunately, in God’s infinite wisdom he gave us the entire canon from which to derive an ethic. 

Chancellor Piper’s pacifism is not derived from a consistently canonical ethic and his residual Marcionism is most evident where his theoretical ethics are required to be put into practice. In contrast, a canonical ethical answer maintains that Christians have the liberty in Christ to act wisely in the world, which includes an allowance for justifiable instances of self-defense which comport with the larger ethical themes of love for neighbors and enemies, endurance under trial/persecution, only returning good for evil, and providing for one’s family. While I greatly appreciate Chancellor Piper’s ministry, in this instance I would suggest his conclusions are sub-biblical and, as such, impractical.

Soul Care and The Problem of Evil

The Banality of the Banality of Evil by Banksy. Oil on canvas, 2013.

Come join me for an evening discussing “Soul Care and The Problem of Evil” with other members of the Institute for Christian Psychology. Cheers!

Scripture Spectacles as Biblical Bifocals

John Calvin famously referred to Scripture as “spectacles” through which we are able to properly interpret all of creation (Institutes I.vi.1; cf. Gen 1-11: The Reformation Commentary on Scripture, p. 13). I’d like to briefly consider and extend this metaphor to make a point about some of the VanTilian underpinnings of the biblical/nouthetic counseling movement in order to propose a more faithfully biblical and faithfully VanTilian alternative.

"Safety Glasses"[Note: For those with “eyes to see,” in this post I’m essentially attempting to be more VanTilian than Van Til (which to some will seem only slightly less offensive than trying to be holier than Jesus—everyone else will have no idea what I’m talking about). I would argue that when Jay Adams developed his nouthetic approach to counseling he correctly understood Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic use of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture—however, Van Til’s doctrine is broader than his apologetic, I’d argue. Instead of developing an approach to counseling from the broad scope of Van Til’s theology and epistemology, Adams derived his approach to counseling from Van Til’s unique approach to apologetics—a much narrower foundation by the very nature of the case. As a result, it would seem more appropriate to call Adams’ approach “apologetic counseling,” rather than biblical counseling. It seems like a much better handle, since I’m not sure that Adams ever published a single major work on counseling without thoroughly criticizing every other approach to Christian soul care as sub-biblical at best. His approach to the actual task of counseling could also be fairly summarized as a very theologically-driven approach to an often confrontational sort of quasi-CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)–effectively, an extremely narrow subclass of a very limited therapeutic modality. I would argue that a counseling approach which is founded on Van Til’s theology and epistemology (rather than merely his apologetic), provides the surest footing for a more scientific and more biblical approach to soul care—Christian psychology. But enough of this stuff for those with “eyes to see.” For the rest of us, let’s get back to the spectacles.]

In context, Calvin describes the fallen sinner’s perspective on all of creation as something akin to that of old men whose vision is so poor that, when given a book they can barely tell what it is, much less read the text. But Scripture acts as spectacles, granting a clear understanding of ourselves, our situation, and God, as well as the interrelationships among the three. I’d like to extend the metaphor to recognize that the spectacles of Scripture are also necessary in order to see the spectacles themselves clearly—Scripture is its own best interpreter. So, if we look at our own reflection in a mirror (creation) while wearing the spectacles we can see the spectacles clearly, where without them we would not. General revelation is the context for special revelation.

When we closely inspect the spectacles, we see that they are, in fact, bifocals. They provide great clarity on things both “near” and “far” when looking through the correct portion of the spectacles—”near” things being the subjects which Scripture most directly, explicitly addresses (i.e., creation, fall, redemption, restoration, wisdom, ethics, theology, etc.) and the “far” things being subjects with which it deals more peripherally or only by way of implication derived by “good and necessary consequence” (i.e., linguistics, science, math, economics, medicine, etc.). Scripture is truly sufficient for all things, but not for everything in the same way

Biblical counselors have tended to narrow the purview of their Scripture spectacles to look at everything through the merely “near-sighted” part of the bifocals, focusing upon special revelation and saving grace to the unfortunate neglect of general revelation and common grace, areas which involve reading through the far-sighted corrections of our biblical bifocals. Integrationist counselors, on the other hand, have often looked at both near and far objects through the “far-sighted” portion of the bifocals, misreading Scripture in light of presuppositions which contradict its own teaching. This leaves each in the unfortunate position of having a distorted, blurry view of one or the other aspect of divine revelation.

Christian psychology attempts to make proper use of these biblical bifocals, effectively seeing and interpreting all of creation and our Creator in light of the totality of His self-revelation. Through exegetical research and empirical research we come to see spectacles, mirror, and our own image more clearly, as God sees them.

Disputing a Doubtful Translation: Full Article

Disputing a Doubtful Translation: Full Article

Book Review: What Is The Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

What is the gospel? Greg Gilbert provides an answer across eight brief chapters in his book entitled after that question. Writing for 9Marks Ministries, Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church. In this work he attempts to define the gospel as briefly, but still thoroughly, as possible.

The author begins with Scripture, foregoing a mere lexical word search on “gospel,” moving directly to the Pauline presentation of the gospel in Romans 1-4. This produces a gospel which can be reduced to (at bare minimum) four categories: God, man, Christ, response. While not all of these four categories need to be explicit in a gospel presentation (for the apostles’ teaching was never so formulaic or reductionistic), none can be completely absent either, without being less than the gospel of God.

These categories are briefly surveyed in the initial chapter then each receives further development and elaboration in its own ensuing chapter. God’s sovereign role as the righteous Creator is the fundamental building block for all of reality and for relationship to him. Man is created morally good, but rebels against God’s authority and sinfully severs the relationship between Creator and creature. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Jesus Christ the Savior is God incarnate and comes to endure penal substitutionary atonement in behalf of fallen, sinful humankind – suffering the penalty for our sin and exchanging it for the reward which his perfect obedience merited. This is grace, and humanity will respond to that grace in faith and repentance or in persistent sinful rebellion.

Three further chapters help to elaborate upon some of the implications of the gospel. Gilbert discusses the relationship between the gospel of the cross and the kingdom of Christ, showing that one’s response to the gospel is evidenced in one’s membership in the kingdom, particularly its current outpost in this world: the church. He then helpfully disambiguates several ideas which are often confused with the gospel and explains how the power of the gospel works in believers’ lives to produce obedience rather than license.

Critical Evaluation
In evaluating What is the Gospel? three strengths and three weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, as well as questions which may remain for readers upon completion of the book.

This book presents much strength and will be useful in multiple teaching and witnessing contexts. Three strengths of this book include: condensed brevity, clear and helpful illustrations, and practical usefulness.

Condensed brevity. What is the Gospel? presents a brief, book-length argument for the centrality of the cross of Christ, with its many implications, as the beating heart of the gospel. The author does not merely cite a variety of biblical texts as proof for his theological conclusions, but persuasively, penetratingly argues for the incomparability of the cross of Christ. Eventually, language simply fails to supply adequate adjectives to fully describe the importance of the cross.

The initial four chapters effectively draw the reader in to the fundamental structures of the gospel. It would be difficult to remove any one of the four planks supporting Gilbert’s gospel presentation without losing an essential piece of the biblical portrayal of God in relationship with sinful man, saving us from his own wrath, and our necessary response to this good news.

The author clearly has strengths in distilling complex truths into simple (though not simplistic) language, developing helpful literary structures, from the sentence to the discourse level. He writes winsome, thought-provoking, evocative sentences which fit well within the entire discourse. It was a pleasure to follow such a focused, consistent argument on a single, vital subject.

Clear and helpful illustrations. The author has clearly studied and thought deeply on the subject of the gospel of Christ. Quotations and illustrations throughout the book were generally illuminating and strengthened the overall logic of the author’s arguments and their rhetorical force.

The illustrations also provided the sorts of strength which good stories and analogies always give: connection to the audience, practically and experientially relating sometimes abstract ideas to concrete realities, and providing food for further thought (not to mention being fun to read). Particularly enjoyable were the illustrations that many people view God as an “unscrupulous janitor” who merely sweeps sins under the carpet (42) and the idea that most people hold that human nature is basically pure, like perfect quartz covered in mud, rather than shot through with filth (54). The story of his son jumping into his arms at the pool (72) was also an apt analogy for his points on Christian living by faith.

Practical usefulness. The book is eminently readable and does not require a strong theological background to understand the points being discussed. Any issues raised are helpfully explained before being discussed, so the book does not require one to be a scholar in order to understand it. The book may often lead readers to worship the Lord after being reminded of the importance and the greatness of the gospel in fresh and vivid ways. It will also be a valuable resource for quotation in evangelistic sermon preparation and delivery. It is a book which will be useful to new believers, new church members, as well as the unconverted (I’ve given away a copy or two to unbelieving co-workers who expressed interest).

The most helpful section of the book may have been the discussion of “confusing sin with sins” (53-54). Oftentimes this can be an obstacle to someone’s understanding of the full-orbed teaching of the gospel regarding sin. The gospel doesn’t tell us “nobody’s perfect,” meaning that we all make mistakes but God loves us anyway. The gospel says we commit sins because we are sinners all the way down to our very nature and this state and behavior deserve the wrath of God.

It is difficult to discern any truly problematic weaknesses in the actual content of this book. Gilbert’s presentation is spot-on in many ways. Given the helpfulness of its directness and overall brevity, I hesitate to critique the book simply for not including portions on certain subjects germane, though not central, to the definition of the gospel. However, I see no better alternative. Three weaknesses of this book include: very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel, no mention of baptism as part of human response, and very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. To reiterate, these are relatively minor criticisms in light of the overall helpfulness of this work.

Very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel. This point is understandably left at the level of implication, noting the scope of the book and publishing space limitations, etc. However, given our current context in the West it may have already become necessary to explain the difference between the gospel and religious moralism. Tim Keller has often raised this point in his teaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Too often the true gospel is mistakenly reduced to some merely religious effort at making people more moral in some way, shape or form (better parents, better students, better citizens, better sex lives, etc.). The gospel needs to be helpfully and clearly distinguished from these sorts of misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Gilbert does not explicitly do so, which may prove problematic for some readers.

No mention of baptism as part of human response. Again, this may not be a necessary point in a book which is intended to purely answer the question “what is the gospel?” However, baptism is one of the first faithfully obedient acts which a believer takes and is one of the most significant events in a gospel-believer’s life. It also deeply signifies and symbolizes the gospel as portrayed in the Scripture and as experienced by the believer. It is requisite for church membership, and one might have expected at least a sentence or two on the subject, possibly in the chapter on human response or on the kingdom of Christ.

However, given some of the on-going disagreements even among confessional Protestants regarding the subject (credobaptism vs. paedobaptism vs. Lutheran baptismal regeneration, etc.) and the historical controversies surrounding the subject (Catholic baptismal regeneration, Anabaptists, persecution of dissenters on the subject, etc.) it may have been too deep a topic to delve into without quickly getting in over one’s head (pun intended) and straying too far away from the subject under discussion, the gospel.

Very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. It may be easy for certain readers to understand Gilbert’s impulse to move immediately to the first section of a Pauline epistle when attempting to concisely, biblically define the gospel. However, he may be preaching to the choir with reference to such readers. There are four Gospels in the New Testament. Why not begin with one of them? The reader who might ask such a question only receives Gilbert’s provisional suggestion that the best approach to defining the gospel would be accomplished “by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. “ (27)

But why choose Romans 1-4 rather than James 2:14-16 or John 20:21 or a whole host of other places where the earliest Christians said things about Jesus? Clearly, Gilbert believes this passage most directly serves the purpose of defining the gospel, but there are some prior theological and methodological issues which drive him to that conclusion. Not all of those issues can be discussed, again, in such a brief volume, but it might have been helpful for some readers to understand more of Gilbert’s reasoning for beginning where he does in this regard.

After reading this book, many will be spurred on to further questions about the depth and riches of the gospel, as well as other implications surrounding the gospel and the Christian life. Particularly, readers may be left with questions about the relationship between the law of God and the gospel, which isn’t explicitly discussed. Readers will be grateful for Gilbert’s discussion of the absolute necessity of “pointing to Christ” on judgment day (82-83) as an ineluctable part of the gospel, but may be left with lingering questions about the commands of God and how to live as a Christian. Many other books have been written on those subjects and hopefully Gilbert’s book leads many readers on to pursue greater knowledge of God and His word.

Does God Exist? A Debate (5): Christian Conclusion, B.C. Askins

This post contains my final rebuttal and conclusion. Dan will have the last post.

Weak atheism
I pointed out in my initial rebuttal that Dan undermines his own credibility when he demonstrates that he doesn’t understand Christianity, such as when he conflates theological terms with their non-theological senses (i.e. equivocating between general uses of the term “incomprehensibility” and the specific definition of “divine incomprehensibility”). Ironically, Dan’s latest response reveals that he doesn’t really understand atheism either, thoroughly undermining himself and his views. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with the common distinction between “strong atheism” and “weak atheism.” Whether Dan realizes it or not, his opening statement represents negative/weak/soft atheism. Positive/strong/hard atheism would present an argument for the non-existence of God; Dan presents no such argument. To be clear, I referred to Dan’s position as “weak atheism” because that’s what his position is called within the taxonomy of various non-theistic viewpoints; however, I did not “imply that [his] position is consequently weak.” I explicitly stated that it is weak then demonstrated its numerous weaknesses.

[Note for readers: weak atheism is far more common than strong atheism these days, probably due in some part to the contributions of village atheist popularizers like Dick Dawkins and Chris Hitchens (among others), who characterize atheism as “the absence of belief” in divinity. They are well within their rights to define their own position, but this definition has the unfortunate consequence of downgrading atheists, in this regard, to the same noetic level as shellfish or a Chevy Lumina: they all lack a belief in God.]

Debate Topic: Does God Exist?
Dan asserts, “Not only is it not necessary, it is not possible to prove that such a God does not exist.” For whatever reason, Dan turns his guns on strong atheism here for a moment, asserting that position is neither necessary nor even possible (a rather strong modal claim which he does not even attempt to substantiate). After nonchalantly waving aside his half of the burden of proof, he also dismisses an entire group of his fellow atheists then moves ahead with the debate as though nothing happened. It reminds me of Monty Python’s famous Black Knight, except all of Dan’s wounds are self-inflicted in this instance.

Recall that the subject of the debate is the question: “Does God exist?” My answer is “yes,” and I presented a pair of arguments to support my affirmation along with two arguments against atheism; Dan’s answer is “no,” but he has not presented a single argument in defense of his denial. Instead, he has used an altogether-too-common tactic of trying to shift the burden of proof entirely to me. At a tactical level, Dan has not even entered the debate. Yet he seems utterly unaware of this. He doesn’t understand Christianity—he repeatedly argues with straw men, even after being corrected. He doesn’t understand atheism—even the most basic nomenclature associated with his own position eludes him. He could have saved himself a lot of time by just typing “Nuh uh” as his latest response and left it at that. He presents no arguments (meaning “premises implying conclusions”) and merely persists in assertively asserting his own assertions.

Since Dan hasn’t presented much new material in his response, rather than engaging in a painfully iterative summary of our exchange (i.e. I said x, then Dan said y, then I said z and critiqued y, then Dan re-asserted y, so I reiterate x and z and my critique of y, scratch, woof, yawn, etc.), I’ll just provide some criticisms not yet mentioned and briefly point out issues already addressed.

Russell’s teapot
Dan’s repeatedly referenced reason for adopting weak atheism is “Russell’s teapot.” This is a reference to a passing illustration in philosopher Bertrand Russell’s unpublished article “Is There a God?” For those interested, here is the salient section of that article:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”

First, all sides can acknowledge that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. There is no evidence for Russell’s celestial teapot, but this alone does not disprove its existence. For someone to conclude that Russell’s teapot doesn’t exist merely because there isn’t evidence for its existence is to argue from ignorance (an informal fallacy). Rather, although Russell does not mention this, it is positive evidence for its non-existence which leads us to conclude the celestial teapot does not exist, such as that NASA (or the Russian space program) never sent a teapot into orbit, matter doesn’t self-organize into celestial ceramic china, etc. Either Russell argues from ignorance or he conveniently omits the positive evidence which leads him to believe in the teapot’s non-existence.

Second, Russell presents some category confusion in the analogy. The celestial teapot is causally, explanatorily, epistemically, morally, transcendentally irrelevant; on the other hand, God is posited as the necessary condition for each of those categories. This confuses the category distinctions between Creator and creature. The dilemma is that the atheist wants to say that God is just as irrelevant as the teapot—however, he must establish this point before the analogy holds. But if he could establish this independently then the analogy would be superfluous. It’s rhetorical sleight of hand. Russell’s illustration suggests that God is irrelevant by referring to an analogy which rests upon an unknown, unarticulated argument that God is irrelevant. In other words, he’s arguing for a conclusion without a premise or an inference via an imaginative fairy tale about a flying teapot.

Methodologically, this approach also commits what Greg Bahnsen referred to (in his debate with Gordon Stein) as the crackers in the pantry fallacy:

“We might ask, ‘Is there a box of crackers in the pantry?’ And we know how we would go about answering that question. But that is a far, far cry from the way we go about answering questions determining the reality of say, barometric pressure, quasars, gravitational attraction, elasticity, radioactivity, natural laws, names, grammar, numbers, the university itself that you’re now at, past events, categories, future contingencies, laws of thought, political obligations, individual identity over time, causation, memories, dreams, or even love or beauty. In such cases, one does not do anything like walk to the pantry and look inside for the crackers. There are thousands of existence or factual questions, and they are not at all answered in the same way in each case.”

Russell assumes (possibly due in some part to his “logical atomism”) that the methodology for discerning the existence of a celestial tea pot is the same as for discerning the existence of God. But, as I argued in my opening statement, the question of the existence of God has its own transcendental methodological concerns, analogous in many ways to proving the existence of space and time (note: actual space and time, not a mere model of space-time).

So Dan’s reason for abdicating his half of the burden of proof in our debate is (at worst) based upon an argument from ignorance or (at best) category confusion and a flawed methodology.

Coherent Definitions
Dan has asserted and re-asserted that the definition of God “fails to meet the standard of coherence.” When given the opportunity to substantiate his claims, he roasts a straw man to the ground. Our debate (and Dan’s YouTube channel) is covered with a thick layer of the burnt remains of straw men. Here’s a humble suggestion for how Dan might increase the credibility of his position in the future: read, properly interpret, then cite a reputable systematic theology text’s definition of one of these terms, then imply a contradiction from that definition—rather than supplying your own blatantly self-contradictory definition then implying a contradiction from it just by repeating it sarcastically. All of Dan’s purported contradictions in Christian theology are pre-empted by an introductory familiarity with Christian doctrine. When he persists in his equivocal use of “incomprehensibility” he does so to the further detriment of his own credibility.

Then he raises other purported examples of contradictions in Christianity, such as that God “not clearing the guilty” contradicts “forgiving iniquity.” A cursory familiarity with doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement, double imputation, and union with Christ preempt such simplistic contradiction proposals. He gives a series of rhetorical questions on why “living” and “immutable” are incompatible attributes, but all he demonstrates is that he’s working without any familiarity with these terms in their theological senses. Until Dan decides to become familiar with Christian theology his critiques will remain a superficial example of anti-preaching to the a-theological choir.

Dan’s “Axioms”
Dan happily clarified that he uses the term “axiom” to refer to “a necessary truth foundational to subsequent knowledge claims.” Since this definition was already criticized in my initial response, I won’t say much here. As I said before, when someone calls a philosophical proposition an “axiom” he is usually deceptively attempting to borrow credibility from mathematical terminology while persuading someone to accept his beliefs as necessarily true without any argument for doing so. It’s more of the same equivocation and rhetorical sleight of hand already discussed.

Reification Reiterated
I’ve decided to coin a term for Dan’s particular approach to criticism: reificatomania. As I’ve already said, Dan sees fallacious reification everywhere. When I refer to an abstraction, such as a number or logical rule, as a mental object Dan believes this is “reification in broad daylight.” I’m not attributing anything other than mere existence to abstract ideas; ideas exist as ideas, thoughts as thoughts, abstractions as abstractions. Existence isn’t a concrete quality like color or density.

Dan says, “Numbers are not real, existent entities, but rather mental constructs used to model the behavior we observe in reality.” Do “mental constructs” exist? If so, then he commits his own idiosyncratic version of the reification fallacy. If these “mental constructs” do not exist, then what could they be and what’s the point in referencing them?

Existence could only be a concrete attribute according to a particular sort of materialism; but Dan will need to justify his materialism (if he is a materialist) before he can establish his peculiar application of the reification fallacy. But Dan hasn’t even made it clear if he is a materialist, much less whether he can justify that position. This is just another example of the question-begging which I mentioned in my initial response. You can’t refute immaterialism by reference to materialism; it is fallaciously circular.

Definition of Personality
My definition of person is “a rational, self-conscious entity.” Dan objects and says that human beings are “in virtually every sense, not persons per Ben’s definition.” While Dan may have placed his own status as a “rational, self-conscious entity” into some doubt by his performance in this debate, human beings as a class clearly fit well within my definition.

My definition doesn’t include physicality as an essential aspect of personality. Dan disagrees. Pointing to the fact of his disagreement could be the basis for proposing a debate like the one we’re already having, but it does not provide any substance to the debate we’re currently conducting. Again, Dan would need to substantiate his reasons for disagreement to even begin to enter this debate—but it’s a little late in the game for that, I’m afraid.

Self-Dissolving Solvents
I’ve already pointed out some of the absurdities entailed by Dan’s position regarding the non-existence of numbers and truth and logic apart from the existence of human brains. Simply, a proposition about the future can’t be true today, but non-true at the point in the future to which the proposition refers; that is completely absurd—as demonstrated by the global brain death reductio.

It’s also noteworthy that his position begs the question against mine. He asserts, “However, if tomorrow there are no brains, neither the question, or the numbers involved, would be conceptualized.” This assumes that God’s mind does not exist in order to assert that God’s mind does not exist. Dan’s position on the existence of God, numbers, logic, and truth is a philosophical solvent which dissolves itself.

I raised the question of how Dan proposes to bridge the subject-object gap. He wants to treat logic, math, and truth (at least) as purely subjective matters, but still wishes to maintain that there is some objective reality out there—math and logic and truth are just models of this reality, but by what does Dan transcend both subject and object in order to even draw this distinction in the first place? We don’t know because, apparently, Dan doesn’t know.

He weakly asserts, “It’s not a contradiction to have an objective reality exist while only being able to experience it subjectively.” But how does Dan know this is not a contradiction? He asserts there is an objective reality out there, but that all of math, science, reasoning, and experience are locked up in a purely subjective realm, with no bridge between the two. He doesn’t provide any answers, but does lamely footnote himself as having “debunked [the core of presuppositionalist argument] at some length in other writings.” If it’s anything like the so-called “debunking” we’ve observed in this debate, you’ll have to pardon me if I find this form of self-referential footnoting unpersuasive.

The Metaphor of Misinterpretation
I pointed out that Dan clearly misinterpreted James Anderson’s paper “Calvinism and the First Sin.” Again, Dan asserts I am mistaken. Unfortunately, his interpretation is remarkably wrong. I can’t even begin to understand how he draws his conclusions on this point. This interaction could be spread out metaphorically across our entire debate. I argue for a point—Dan declares that he disagrees—I demonstrate Dan is wrong—Dan reiterates his disagreement.

I emailed Dr. Anderson and asked him to adjudicate between our interpretations of his paper. He replied to me, “You’re basically correct about what I said. My point is that from the perspective of the sinning agent, the act of sin is irrational. It cannot be rational to sin. Thus one cannot identify reasons for which Adam sinned. That this is what I meant can be confirmed from the references in the footnote. I’m certainly not claiming that the Christian doctrine of sin is intrinsically irrational (or any other Christian doctrine for that matter)… Dan apparently thinks that I’ve openly conceded that Calvinism is irrational, which couldn’t be further from the truth… He seems to assume that any appeal to mystery is irrational. But he doesn’t argue the point. And as you know, I wrote an entire book arguing the very opposite!” [Note for readers: James’ book, which I hyperlinked, is one of my absolute favorite works of philosophical theology. For what it’s worth, I don’t recommend many books without reservation, but this is one exception.]

Hopefully this clarifies things for Dan and he will openly forsake his misreading of Anderson’s paper (and correct or retract his errant YouTube video which is based upon the same error).

I’d like to thank Dan for taking the time to engage in this debate and I wish him the best in the future. (To be clear, by “I wish him the best” I mean I hope he someday repents of his atheism and turns to Christ to redeem him, epistemology and all.)

As I said in my opening statement, my belief in God is basic and intuitive. Dan simply hasn’t given me any reasons to doubt my intuitions on this subject (or any subject, for that matter).

I also stated in my opener, “On the question of the existence of God, either atheists are radically self-deceived or theists are… One of us is colossally wrong.”  I suggest Dan’s half of our exchange has convincingly demonstrated my assertion to be true:

Dan believes proving the non-existence of God is impossible—yet persists in believing in God’s non-existence; he refuses to accept standard theological definitions, even when corrected; he’s unfamiliar with the basic taxonomy of his own position; he equivocated frequently; he engaged in fallacious reasoning, including ipse dixitism and petitio principii; his position on abstract objects entails absurdity and self-contradiction; he places himself on the horns of a dilemma with his idiosyncratic application of the reification fallacy; when questioned, he doesn’t even attempt to provide an answer to a fundamental epistemic issue, i.e. the subject-object problem; his philosophy is difficult to discern, but it resembles a sort of diluted logical positivism—a thoroughly debunked view, left on the philosophical ash heap by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and P.F. Strawson (among others) some fifty years ago; finally, he has refused correction on his tortuously obtuse reading of Dr. Anderson’s paper.

In other words, he is “colossally wrong.”

Dan, the last word is yours. Use it wisely. With great power there must also come—great  responsibility!

Does God Exist? A Debate: (2) Atheist Opening Statement, Dan Courtney

My name is Dan Courtney, and I’m the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. I live near Rochester, NY with my wife, and I’ve been active in the atheist community for several years. I’ll be defending the position that belief in the Christian conception of God is not reasonable.
(Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)

I would like to thank Ben for his opening statement, and I look forward to a… pardon the pun… spirited debate.

My primary task in this debate will be to expose the flaws in Ben’s arguments for belief in his Christian conception of God. However, it is important to note that I do not claim, nor is it necessary, to prove that the Christian God does not exist. As with Russell’s teapot, attempting to prove that something does not exist, even if it does not currently have a coherent definition, is a fool’s errand. Therefore demonstrating that Ben’s arguments for the Christian God are fatally flawed is sufficient to conclude that such beliefs are irrational. But I also hope to take this debate one step beyond the negation of Ben’s arguments and explain where Ben and I have common ground that is rationally supported.

To have any meaningful dialogue we must agree on the key terms, and here we are provided with a definition of “God” from the Westminster Confession. As Ben notes, Chapter II, paragraph I states:

“I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

Of the many contradictions and equivocations apparent in this definition, “incomprehensible” strikes me as noteworthy. It would be a simple matter for me to agree with this part of the definition and claim victory. The common retort, however, is that ‘incomprehensible’ means that God is not understood exhaustively, because we are finite while God is infinite. But the assertion that God is infinite, which means without limits, is itself an unproven assertion. We’ll see later how Ben attempts to make the concept of infinite “actual”, and then tie “God” to the “actual” infinite, and why this doesn’t work.

Like any Presuppositionalist, Ben considers these characteristics of God to be foundational to any subsequent beliefs, “because they are the beliefs by which we evaluate evidence and formulate arguments.” And he suggests that proving the existence of God would be as perplexing as proving the existence of space and time. Not to get too technical, but Einstein showed that space and time are two sides of the same coin, and should more properly be referred as space-time. Subsequent experiments have shown that we can actually twist and measure space-time. Neither Einstein’s work, nor the experiments, required accepting space and time, a priori, as Ben suggests, and instead rely upon deeper axioms. Axioms, by the way, that Ben also relies upon to conclude that God exists.

Ben lays out four arguments, two positive arguments for God, and two arguments against atheism. I’ll respond to each one in turn.

1. Transcendental argument for God from mathematics.
Ben’s argument is that mathematics is, “a system of internal relationships…all the relations must be consistent in order for any of them to be consistent.” He then concludes that, “in a system of internal relations, the infinite must be actual rather than potential.”
First I should note that mathematics is a means for humans to model reality, but it is not reality itself. Mathematics is a conceptual description of reality that allows us to manipulate our model in an effort to make predictions about reality. In that sense mathematics is a useful tool. We should also note that infinite means without limits. The conclusion that, in mathematics, infinite must be ‘actual’ simply means that we cannot place a limit on the relationships. It does not mean, as Ben implies, that the concept of infinite is a real, existent entity.

The problem is compounded when numbers are referred to as “mental objects”, and he concludes that “if numbers are mental objects which are members of an actual infinite set, this requires the existence of an infinite mind where they inhere—the mind of an eternal, omniscient God.”

Ben is committing the reification fallacy by referring to numbers as objects. Numbers are metaphors; symbolic representations of some aspect of reality. Numbers are conceptual representations of relationships between aspects of reality. Numbers do not exist, as Ben asserts, independent of our brains that conceive of them.

2. Anderson and Welty’s argument for God from logic
Ben quotes verbatim from The Lord of Non-Contradiction by Dr. James Anderson and Greg Welty. This is interesting because I recently turned down the option for “some kind of written exchange” with Dr. Anderson, and instead I’m working on a video critiquing one of his papers. Nonetheless, this argument appears to be a mix between St. Anselm’s ontological argument, and the transcendental argument.

Again, we start off with a reification fallacy when they write, “Propositions are real entities.” Like numbers, propositions are symbolic representations of some aspect of reality, and do not ‘exist’ independent of the brain that is conceiving them. The error manifests itself when they state that the laws of logic (as propositions/thoughts), “must exist in every possible world.” Again, we perceive some aspect of reality, and then organize these perceptions in order to form the thoughts, which are then expressed as propositions. The propositions, collectively called the laws of logic, simply represent some aspect of reality, and are not reality itself.
From this flawed premise, Anderson/Welty go on to butcher the meaning of ‘person’ by asserting that “there must be a necessarily existent person”, and that this person must be, “spiritual in nature”.

3. Argument against ultimate non-personality.
I can see three logical fallacies that are immediately apparent in this argument. First, we’re told that, “Reality is ultimately personal or non-personal.” In this sense, ‘personal’ means having the characteristics of a person. This is the reification fallacy again, in which the conceptual notion of reality (existence), is presented in terms of a physical object (a person). Second, Ben’s minimalist definition of personal, “rational, self-conscious entity” is an equivocation. Ben wants the attribute of a person without the physical baggage that comes with it. But even the term ‘entity’ betrays the first premise because an entity has distinct existence, while reality is existence in its totality. So it would be a contradiction for something to be part of the whole, and the whole, at the same time and in the same manner. The third fallacy is one of composition. We’re told that, “problems arise in explaining how personality emerges from non-personality”, and it is implied that personality cannot emerge from non-personality. Since personality is simply the combination of qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character, then it is simply a label we apply to a combination of qualities. Rivers, for example, do not need to emerge from other rivers, but they are simply a label we use to describe water under specific circumstances.

4. Argument against atheism as self-refuting.
To summarize this argument, a theory of truth requires a mind, and atheists believe there was a time in the past when there were no minds. Ben then asks, “would it be true to say of that time that no minds existed then?” I accept Ben’s premise, so answering his question in the affirmative is simply a tautology. But Ben concludes that “If the answer is “yes,” then how can something that was not true at that time become true now with reference to then?” Ben is simply confusing a “theory of truth” with truth itself. Theories of truth, such as correspondence theory, are simply our subjective understanding of what the word truth means and how it relates to reality. In correspondence theory, truth relates to whether a proposition corresponds with reality. Without a mind to form a proposition, the idea of truth, in this context, is meaningless. And today, with minds available to form propositions about the past, the truthfulness of the proposition (made in the present) is independent of whether there was a mind (in the past) to assess its correspondence to reality.

I’ll close my opening statement with a comment about the goal of a debate. Aside from having each side’s positions challenged, and hopefully growing in understanding from the experience, a debate is about demonstrating the rationality of your view, and the irrationality of your opponent’s view. That’s why when I read the conclusion of a paper of Dr. James Anderson (noted above) I was so stunned. In his paper, Calvinism and the First Sin, Dr. Anderson concludes, “I therefore find myself concurring with those Reformed Theologians who concede that sin is intrinsically irrational and the entrance of human sin into the world is in many respects, shrouded in mystery.” Dr. Anderson concedes, by his own reasoning, that a core tenet of his faith is “intrinsically irrational”, yet he still holds to belief in that tenet. I hope that as I show that Ben’s arguments are equally irrational, that he, and those that agree with him, will have the courage to modify their beliefs.

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