B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

Archive for the tag “criticism”

Executive Summary of The Noetic Effects of Sin by Stephen K. Moroney

https://bcaskins.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/executive-summary-of-the-noetic-effects-of-sin.pdf

The Noah Movie: An Apologia

Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has stirred up quite the storm of strong criticism and counter-criticism from various evangelical Christian reviewers. As one Gospel Coalition reviewer astutely noted, “Not surprisingly, many Christians have been harshly critical because the film is insufficiently faithful to the biblical source. And also not surprisingly, many others have over-praised the film, I think, more as a counter-reaction to the responses of their fellow Christians than to anything they found on the screen.”

I will attempt to “walk between the raindrops,” so to speak, in this brief review.

There are a host of easy targets for criticism in the film, such as the anachrony of including Tubal-Cain or the insertion of the half-baked-yet-somehow-overcooked fallen angels (the “Watchers”) or the producers’ environmentalistic emphasis. However, the strongest criticisms have been reserved for the portrayal of Noah himself. As Al Mohler put it in his review, “Aronofsky introduces Noah as a kind and caring family man, but his divine assignment turns the movie’s Noah into a sociopathic monster. At this point the movie veers into a radical distortion of the biblical account. Noah is now depicted as a madman ready to murder his own grandchildren in order to end humanity and rid creation of the human threat… This not only misses the point of the Genesis narrative, it corrupts it. Aronofsky is telling a truly fascinating story in these segments of the film, but it is not the story of Noah as found in the Bible. Totally missing from the movie is the understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving, ready to make a covenant with Noah that will turn the biblical narrative toward Abraham and the founding of Israel.”

I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mohler and while I completely agree with him that this portrayal of Noah is a distortion of biblical history, I also must disagree with his final assessment. The understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving is not “totally missing” from the film – it just appears that Dr. Mohler is totally missing the point of this particular depiction of Noah.

Despite their love and care for life of all kinds, Noah recognizes that he and his family have the same nature and commit the same sins as the people whom God will destroy in the flood. If God is destroying all sinners, why should Noah and his family be spared? At a superficial level, Noah’s anti-natalism is a logical conclusion from the premises of his particular stripe of environmentalism. People harm and ruin creation (including each other), so the only way to save creation is to destroy all people.

But, at a more significant level of the story, the filmmakers are producing a theodicy. God destroyed the world, killing (nearly) everyone because they are sinners and we are amused by the special effects. Noah vows to kill his grandchildren because they are sinners and we become sickened and call him a “sociopathic monster.” But Noah’s opposition to human life mimics God’s opposition to human life – it’s anthropomorphism.

At the climax of the film, Noah stands with his knife hovering over his newborn grandchildren, ready to kill them. The dramatic tension builds – everybody familiar with the story knows this wasn’t in the Bible, so nobody knows what this fictional Noah will do. And he relents. He throws the knife into the ark and the babies live. When asked later why he chose not to kill the children, Noah responds, “When I looked down at them, all I had in my heart was love.” God’s electing love is the ultimate reason that his wrath was not poured out upon Noah and his family – depicted vividly, if imperfectly, by Noah’s mercy.

The filmmakers’ repeated emphasis on the lineages of Seth and Cain (the seed of the woman and the serpent, respectively [Genesis 3:15]) sets the table for this revelation of God’s electing love as the basis for mingling mercy with wrath – He looked down on his children and had nothing but love in his heart. The use of theological anthropomorphism is always a risky decision. God frequently used anthropormorphic language in his self-revelation in Scripture – and it is frequently misunderstood by interpreters. I suspect that many reviewers of Aronofsky’s Noah have misunderstood his use of anthropormorphism as well. I think once one recognizes this literary device at work in the film it helps to redeem what would otherwise be a confusing and troubling addition to the narrative of Noah and the flood.

Book Review: Putting the Truth to Work by Daniel M. Doriani

Doriani, Daniel M. Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application. Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing, 2001.

Introduction

Putting the Truth to Work is a helpful book which presents practical approaches and theoretical methods for developing faithful biblical applications in sermon preparation and delivery. The author provides an introduction to hermeneutics with an eye toward developing sermon applications. Once the groundwork has been laid, he then develops distinct plans for applying unique genres of Scripture in a Christocentric fashion.

Dr. Daniel M. Doriani was a professor of New Testament, Dean of the Faculty, and Vice President of Academics at Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri from 1991 to 2003. He transitioned into the senior pastor role at Central Presbyterian Church (PCA), a 1700-member church in Clayton, Missouri. Last year, he returned to Covenant Theological Seminary as Vice President of Strategic Academic Projects and professor of theology. He has authored many books on a variety of subjects, including hermeneutics, homiletics, and some New Testament commentaries.

Summary

“If a teacher’s ultimate crime is to propound heresy, the penultimate crime is to make biblical truth sound boring” (121). This book is strong medicine for an epidemic of boring preaching. Putting the Truth to Work is written in two sections, divided by a brief interlude. The first section of the book focuses on the nature, sources, and methods of discerning biblical applications. The second section gives plans for applying narrative, doctrinal, and ethical texts, considers issues with applying these texts Christocentrically, and concludes with a method for selecting a sermon text.

The initial chapter dialectically considers three proposed theories for interpretation and application. The thesis is the traditional view that exegesis precedes application in a two-step process, so that application rests upon exegesis. The antithesis theory proposes to erase the distinction between meaning and application, since “Scripture itself links interpretation with relevance” (20). On this view, exegesis is inextricably linked to application, such that meaning is application. Finally, the author proposes a synthesis of these two theories as “a permeable barrier between exegesis and application” (22). This “fuzzy boundary” maintains the primacy of exegesis in the applicative task, but also acknowledges the interdependent relationship between meaning and application. The author then argues that a theory of application is both necessary and desirable, and that a consideration of the communicative context is also essential to the nature of sermon application.

The second chapter develops a God-centered theology of application, using Scripture’s own use of Scripture, particularly Jesus’ use of Scripture in the Gospels, as an exemplar. Jesus’ example gives us insight into the proper use and the misuse of the Bible in application. Christ demonstrates what Paul later asserts in 2 Tim 3:16-17, that all Scripture is profitable.

The following chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the role of the interpreter in the interpretive and applicative tasks. The author outlines a general model for application which displays the various interrelations between the text, the interpreter, and the audience. Doriani then examines the different perspectives on reading a text, the relationship between knowledge and action, and the hermeneutical spiral—all within a discussion of the courage, character, and credibility necessary to faithful biblical application. This chapter is simply brilliant.

The fourth chapter discusses the seven biblical sources of application: rules, ideals, doctrine, redemptive acts in narrative, exemplary acts in narrative, biblical images or symbols, and, finally, songs and prayers. The author highlights that this list is not co-extensive with the genres of literature found in Scripture, though there is significant overlap. A rubric is also provided for discerning twenty-eight options for the relevance of a text.

Then the next chapter gives four aspects of application for consideration. These are four categories of questions which should be highlighted for the audience in the development of applications. The preacher should consider questions about duty, character, goals, and discernment for the audience. These four categories of questions combined with the seven sources from the previous chapter form the rubric of twenty-eight relevant applications for a given text. The tendency of many evangelical preachers is to ask duty-related questions, to the detriment or disuse of character, goal, and discernment-related questions. The author suggests “going beyond law” (98) is crucial to faithful biblical application.

The final chapter of the first section further considers the use of the four categories from the preceding chapter. The author considers the misuse and the proper use of each of the categories of questions, and also provides a two-page critique of utilitarianism in preaching.

After an interlude which briefly reminds the reader about the importance of proper interpretation and understanding contexts (biblical and homiletical), the second section of the book begins with a plan for applying narrative texts. The types of narrative (drama, reports, speech stories) are surveyed and the components of dramatic analysis are rehearsed. The remainder of the chapter gives specific examples of narrative analysis from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Acts. The following chapter gives six theses to correct certain misbegotten theories on interpreting and applying narrative texts.

Chapter nine gives a plan for the application of doctrinal passages by proposing “a check list for preachers” (225-6) and surveying several case studies in doctrinal sermon application.

The next chapter presents a plan for applying ethical texts. Biblical law can be applied identically, analogously, and typologically (241). Seven questions for “harder cases” are considered and then applied to two test cases from the Mosaic law. The subsequent chapter considers issues faced in applying ethical texts. The author suggests that the three uses of the law and the tripartite view of OT law are useful pedagogical and interpretive tools for the preacher, with some noteworthy caveats.
The twelfth chapter provides a review of the preceding chapters inasmuch as they were pertinent to a consideration of Christocentric preaching. The author presents Christocentric application as a way of bridging redemptive-historical and needs-sensitive preaching. The final chapter of the book concludes with general principles for sermon text selection.

Critical Evaluation

In evaluating Putting the Truth to Work two strengths and one weakness will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some concluding remarks which discuss the usefulness of this book.

Strengths

This book will provide many readers with valuable insights for developing biblically-faithful sermon applications. Two strengths of this book are: the “how-to” chapters in the book (7, 9, 10, 12) give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application, and the third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion.

The “how-to” chapters in the book give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application. In the preface, the author highlights the “how-to” chapters as the “capstone” of the book, because they review the theoretical chapters while exemplifying how to compellingly present Christ to the audience (9). These chapters are the result of over two decades of academic ministry and nearly a decade-and-a-half of pastoral preaching ministry. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these chapters for a young, inexperienced preacher like this reviewer.

For example, Chapters Ten and Eleven function together as a strong corrective for moralistic/legalistic preaching, for merely redemptive-historical application, as well as the often oversimplified relationship between law and grace. One on side are preachers who struggle to find applications which are anything more than an injunction to “do better,” and on the other side are preachers who struggle to present applications which are anything more than an encouragement to “believe more.”

Doriani tells the former, “Not all Christians who want to obey know how to do it,” and the latter, “…however, sophisticated we are, there is a time to tell people what to do.” He continues, “If a theologian thinks people need metaphors and not mandates, he ought to get out more often” (263-4). These two chapters contain principles which can help set pastors free to preach the gospel as spiritually transformative in specific ways.

The third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion. The third chapter of the book highlights several major theoretical issues in hermeneutics by considering the character and virtue needed to rightly resolve these issues and faithfully apply those resolutions. Many readers will find the practical chapters of the second section of the book to be worth their weight in gold; however, this theoretical chapter would be worth the price of the book, even if its cost was its weight in gold!

Theoretical texts on hermeneutics will often discuss the distinctions between a critical, dialogical, and submissive view of reading Scripture or present a particular perspective on the nature of the hermeneutical spiral. Homiletical texts will often discuss the importance of the biblical qualifications of eldership or the role of a preacher’s character in ministry. Doriani manages to weave theory and virtue together in a holistic manner that demonstrates how fluidly he is able to move between the ivory tower of academics and the concrete jungle of pastoral ministry. Readers will benefit greatly from his insights.

Weakness

Despite providing a host of insights on the nature and task of biblical application, this book also had some weaknesses. One weakness in this book was the inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law.

The inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law. As the author is concluding his evaluation of the relative merits and demerits of the classical tripartite view of the OT law as moral, civil, and ceremonial, he takes an aside to briefly discuss Christopher J. H. Wright’s five-part view of the OT law (273-5).

Wright seeks to situate his taxonomy of OT law (civil, family, cultic, criminal, and charitable) within its redemptive-historical epoch (creation, fall, redemption, new creation) in order to emphasize the unity of divine revelation while putting a finer point on the distinctions between various biblical laws. While this gives an interesting scholarly brief on a way of potentially improving upon the classical tripartite division of the OT law, there is very little payoff for the reader with regard to the thesis of the book and chapter—namely, the application of ethical texts.
The point of the analysis is that “all laws retain some form of authority,” (275) but this point is almost lost in the tangential discussion of Wright’s view after the lengthy pedagogical and apologetic discussion of the tripartite view. In the opinion of this reviewer, the point could be made more clearly and directly by foregoing the analysis of Wright’s view. Admittedly, this is a relatively minor editorial criticism.

Conclusion

Putting the Truth to Work is a book which this reviewer will return to in the future as a resource for developing biblical applications in a variety of creative but faithful ways. This book stands as a testimony to the reality that all Scripture is profitable and applicable. It also functions as a guide for how to discern those applications in practice. Faithful application of this book will result in faithful application of Scripture, to the glory of God.

Book Review: Rediscovering the Church Fathers by Michael A. G. Haykin

Introduction

Rediscovering the Church Fathers is a convenient and accessible distillation of a selection of the important primary source documents from the first five centuries of church history. The author gives biographical sketches, theological overviews, and aids for properly interpreting and applying the writings of early Patristic writers such as Ignatius, Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose.

Dr. Haykin is a noteworthy professor with decades of teaching experience and an authoritative researcher in the Patristics with a Th.D. in Church History from the University of Toronto. He has also authored or edited over twenty-five books in history and theology. Engaging with his perspective will help evangelical readers to broaden their historical and theological horizons.

Summary

Contemporary evangelicalism often acts as though it was born yesterday—although Christianity is a strongly historically-rooted religion. The literature and music of the twenty-first century North American church is rarely more than a few decades old. The life-or-death theological controversies of yesterday are ignored while ancient errors are expressed by the latest hip Christian teachers as merely a “fresh perspective” on the matter. Rediscovering the Church Fathers offers a thorough corrective to the historical myopathy of our age. As the author says, “Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.” (17)

According to the author’s assessment, “Far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers.” (13) In his own words, he wrote this book to address the question, “Why should evangelical Christians engage the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses?” (17) Haykin then provides solid reasons for studying the early church fathers, including: “to aid [the church] in her liberation from the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the ancient church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.” (28-29)

The author substantiates his case for studying the Patristics by providing a series of vignettes on the lives and theologies of various church fathers from the first five centuries of church history. The individuals included in this book are: Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, and Patrick. There is also a concluding autobiographical chapter on the author’s own lifelong journey in Patristic studies, which highlights much of the fruit of this endeavor for his spiritual vitality and perseverance in faith.

The book is a helpful and brief introduction to its subject, weighing in at a mere 176 pages of text. It serves as an excellent introductory work due to the author’s ability to weave accessible language together with elaborative content footnotes and primary source citation. Even when the author diverges from common evaluations (as with his perspective on Origen’s hermeneutics) he does so without guile and thoroughly explains his reasoning.

Although this book is primarily introductory, it does offer trenchant insights for more advanced readers of church history as well. With only six case studies presented, the author foregoes providing large portions of biographical information, giving only as much as is related to the specific chapter topic. Given his extensive study in the primary sources, he also has the ability to quote and explain them in significantly condensed detail. As mentioned above, even when defending a contemporary minority report on Origen’s hermeneutics, the strength of his position is that it is drawn from the original sources, rather than the usual oversimplified regurgitations on the harmfulness of allegorical interpretations of Scripture. The author’s incorporation of over five hundred citations into such a brief introduction is just one piece of evidence which points to the book’s excellent scholarship.

The first survey chapter discusses the thought of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius’ letters provide some of the greatest extant insights on life for Christians in the post-apostolic era—a life marked by suffering and persecution. Ignatius wrote to encourage unity despite the threats of persecution, on one hand, and the false teaching of the Docetists on the other. His letters also reveal that Ignatius believed he was called to martyrdom, and he sought aid and support in his vocation.

Ignatius’ sense of calling to martyrdom has been the source of his strongest criticisms from some scholars, though Haykin interacts sympathetically with the bishop’s letter to the Roman church. The author provides significant linguistic background regarding the development of the term “martyr,” from mere “witness” to “bearing witness to the person and work of Christ to the point of death.” (34) He also gives the general historical background regarding the persecution of the first century church under the Roman Empire and outlines the details available regarding Ignatius’ own arrest. Ignatius’ letters are thus interpreted, not as the unbalanced thoughts of a mentally ill person (as some critics have suggested), but as the intense struggles of a man faced with death or dishonor, who chose to renounce his own life in imitation of Christ.

The next chapter presents the apologetic value of the Letter to Diognetus. The anonymous author of this letter seeks to persuade a Greco-Roman pagan, Digonetus, to embrace faith in Christ. The letter serves as an example of the piety and reason found among the apostles’ successors. It begins with a prayer that God would convert Diognetus, then proceeds into a diatribe against the distinct idolatries associated with both paganism and Judaism. This section is reminiscent of 1 Cor 8 and Acts 17, where Paul argues against the polytheism of the culture.

After completing his reductio against the rival religions of the day, the author of the letter begins to extol the majesty of Christ, presenting his case for accepting Christianity and rejecting its competitors. This case is built firmly upon the revelatory nature of Christianity, with Christ himself at the center as the pinnacle of divine self-revelation. Haykin helpfully points out that the only apparent weakness in the author’s case stems from his wholesale rejection of Judaism, leaving Christianity as something of a novel revelation—rather than being rooted in the prior revelation of the Old Testament. Despite this flaw, the letter presents a strong example of worshipful apologetics, what John Frame calls “a presuppositionalism of the heart.”

The succeeding chapter gives a very interesting presentation on the exegesis of Origen. As Shawn Wilhite points out in his review, “Modern interpreters of Origen frequently dismiss his hermeneutics without analysis.” In contrast, Haykin presents a more nuanced understanding of Origen’s three levels of Scripture interpretation, a view which has exerted influence upon biblical exegesis ever since (particularly the medieval Quadriga). Origen’s hermeneutic is not as easily dispensed with as its modern caricature and his understanding of allegory was not as central to his exegesis as some have claimed. He was the pioneering Christian exegete of the Old Testament.

The subsequent chapter surveys the Eucharistic piety shared by Cyprian and Ambrose. These two Latin Fathers played key roles in the development of the church’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, it was the drinking of communion wine which produced in Cyprian a “Eucharistic insobriety” distinct from worldly drunkenness, revealing to us the “richness of [his] experience of the Lord’s Table.” (96) This experience of the Eucharist was spiritually sobering, drawing believers’ hearts back to spiritual wisdom and away from the distractions of that age.

Ambrose of Milan was one of the key defenders of Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism. He found a Eucharistic typology in the OT accounts of Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine to Abraham. He also drew several arguments from OT miracles in favor of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For him, the importance of union with Christ by faith was fulfilled in participation in the Lord’s Supper. He was also among the first to present an interpretation of the Song of Songs as an expression of the experience of the Eucharist.

Basil of Caesarea’s monastic reforms and influence in theological controversies are also discussed in their own chapter. He was influential in refuting Arianism and providing a defense of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against semi-Arians and the Pneumatomachians.

The final survey chapter provides an analysis of the mission of Patrick of Ireland. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity on the British Isles persisted, largely due to the legacy of Patrick’s missionary efforts. In his youth he was taken to Ireland as a captive, where he met the Lord and strove for daily communion with him while tending sheep. After escaping from slavery he pursued a theological education and returned to Ireland to preach to those who had formerly enslaved him.

His missionary zeal was driven in some part by his belief that he was living in the “last days,” a commonly-held view during the fall of the Roman Empire. He also had a dream in which God strongly called him to evangelize Ireland. Patrick speaks of thousands converted under his ministry, despite strong opposition from Celtic pagans. He was taken into captivity twice more and mentions being near death a dozen times. The Celtic church inherited Patrick’s missionary spirit, spreading the gospel throughout Western Europe for centuries thereafter.

The book concludes with a motivating autobiographical picture of the author’s own engagement with the writings of the church fathers, followed by two appendices. The first appendix acts as a beginner’s guide to reading the Patristics, while the second is a critical reflection on the influential text The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) by Jaroslav Pelikan.

Critical Evaluation

In evaluating Rediscovering the Church Fathers, two strengths and two weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks on the overall value of the book.

Strengths

This book provides evangelical readers with a valuable introduction to an era of church history which is often overlooked, if not altogether rejected as unhelpful. It deserves a wide reading. Two strengths of the book include: the author’s engaging writing style and the introductory chapter provides an excellent apologetic for reading early Christian authors.

Engaging writing style. The author’s writing style is engaging and personable throughout, but the introduction was particularly disarming, helpfully addressing the concerns which often preclude evangelicals from reading the church fathers. While the concluding chapter brings the book itself to an end, it also functions rather unexpectedly as yet another introduction. In this case, it introduces the reader to a lifetime of engagement in fruitful study of the church fathers. As will be discussed later, the editing of the survey chapters might have been stronger, but the introductory and concluding chapters were rhetorically brilliant, providing literary structure to a collection of otherwise seemingly unconnected chapters.

The book is structured to provide an introductory apologetic for evangelical readers to engage the church fathers, then gives a sample of the early Patristics with some aids in interpretation in order to whet the readers’ appetites, concluding with an appetizing example of a life lived enjoying the fruits of studying the early church fathers.

Excellent apologetic for reading early church history. While the primary content of this book is found in the survey chapters, the introductory and concluding chapters were worth the price of the book alone. As discussed above, in his introductory chapter the author provides a strong apologetic for studying early church history. Several of these points have already been highlighted in this paper, such as the way in which studying church history helps to illumine otherwise unrecognized presuppositions commonly held in our contemporary context.

A more potentially controversial assertion is that the writings of the Fathers will help to illuminate the intent of the NT authors. While the exegesis of the Fathers has often been disparaged, particularly in Protestant circles, it is an incontrovertible fact that the early Greek Fathers had a far better grasp of the Greek of the NT than contemporary scholarship (if only due to their historical proximity and common language). Haykin gives two brief but specific examples of ways in which the exegesis of the Fathers might act as a corrective to twenty-first century interpreters: the first regards Cyril’s understanding of 1 Cor 7:5 as a reference to liturgical, rather than individualistic, prayer; and the second draws insight from the Epistle to Diognetus for addressing the justification controversies associated with the New Perspective on Paul. (19-20)

The exegesis of the church fathers is a veritable gold mine of grammatical, syntactical, and linguistic aids for the contemporary exegete. As with mining, discovering this exegetical gold will be a process of hard work, heavy lifting, careful sifting, and thorough polishing—but well worth the efforts for the payoff of understanding the language of the NT with greater clarity and broader applicability.

Weaknesses

Despite providing an insightful introduction and valuable survey, the book also had some drawbacks. Admittedly, these issues are comparatively minor in the context of the overall usefulness of this text. The many strengths of the book far outmatch its few weaknesses; however, two problems in this book include: discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level and the editorial flow of the chapters resemble six unrelated journal articles presented in succession rather than a single, continuous text on the subject.

Discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level. Allen Ray Mickle has argued in his book review that “the language and details offered put this book out of reach of most average Christians.” Mickle overstates his case, since the concept of the “average Christian” is fuzzy at best and what language is and is not “out of reach” for them is an even more subjective matter; however, there were still a few points in the text where more than an introductory familiarity with church history would be required in order to understand the author’s contentions.

An example of this problem occurred in the discussion of Origen’s theology, where the “uncreated/unbegotten” versus “created/begotten” debate in the Christological controversies of that time was mentioned without any explanation. (73) This is problematic, in part because the distinction is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers who are not already well-versed in the theological controversies of the early church period, but also because the term “begotten” is no longer commonplace in contemporary English discourse. The problem of discerning the definition of an unfamiliar term (such as “begotten”) is easily resolved by reference to a dictionary; however, many readers would likely be grateful for a brief content note on the nature and significance of the theological controversy mentioned.

Somewhat disjointed editorial flow. It is quite clear that the main survey chapters in this book are generally unrelated articles which have been edited together for a single volume. This was not deeply problematic for an introductory historical text such as this one, because it is based on selected writings rather than chronology or a unifying theme. The introduction and conclusion help to hold the book together and provide useful intratextual cataphoric and anaphoric references, respectively. Those chapters do provide some editorial cohesion (where there would have been little without them), but there was no engagement of the subject matter between chapters, even via footnote.

For example, the low views of Judaism found in the Epistle to Diognetus contrasts sharply with Origen’s devout exegesis of the OT, presenting an opportunity for greater critical engagement between the chapters at some level. This is a minor point of criticism in contrast with the overall usefulness of the book, and may simply be an example of certain strengths entailing certain other weaknesses.

Conclusion

This book was roundly successful as an engaging introduction to the Patristics. It provides vignettes which focus on some historically influential but contemporarily overlooked church fathers. More well-documented churchmen, such as Augustine and Athanasius, were omitted while the apologetic value of the Epistle to Diognetus and the hermeneutical influence of Origen was extolled.

The book fills a valuable niche in the broader category of church history, serving to “whet the appetite” for deeper reading in the Patristics. In a time when much of evangelicalism appears to have lost its historical roots, this book provides fresh discussions of some of the earliest leaders in the church, some of their theological insights, and devotional fervor drawn from their examples. May Rediscovering the Church Fathers be the gateway to many readers’ lifelong engagement with the faith of our fathers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1994.

Book Reviews

Claiborne, Nathaniel. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Nate Claiborne, April 14, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://nathanielclaiborne.com/rediscovering-the-church-fathers/.

Mickle, Allen Ray, Jr. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Working Out Salvation with Fear and Trembling, June 8, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://allenmickle.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/book-review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers.

Wilhite, Shawn. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 17, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 93.

Repost: A Case Study in Apostasy

Here’s one from the archives that I’ve been thinking over during some sermon preparation:

I had planned to write a chapter-by-chapter critical review of prominent atheist John Loftus’ book, Why I Am an Atheist; however, upon reading the book I believed that such an analysis was overkill and unnecessary in refuting Loftus’ claims. Providentially, shortly after I finished reading Loftus’ three books the fellas over at Triablogue released their collaboration, The Infidel Delusion, in response to Loftus, et al. So I thought my little collection of posts might just be blogospheric white noise in the flurry of responses exchanged.

So I reworked the bit that I had written in response to Loftus as a brief case study in apostasy, viewed from an apologetic perspective. I hope that some might find it useful in recognizing and avoiding some of the pitfalls which may lead to apostasy. Some may object that doing a case study in apostasy is too critical or harsh. They would prefer to speak merely in categories or generalities about such issues. However, since he believes this chapter contains salient facts related to his cumulative case argument against Christianity, Loftus opens up his experience for critical analysis, which I will cautiously provide. Ad hominem fallacies will be consciously avoided, since the truth value of Loftus’ argumentation should be considered independently from his biographical data.

They were sad chapters to read, in many ways and for many reasons. It’s always sad to read of the failures of others. And these chapters were full of failures of many kinds.

Loftus begins the book with a challenge for Christians: “Anyway, Christian, for once in your life, you need to seriously examine your faith. By virtue of the fact that your faith is something you prefer to be true, you should subject it to critical analysis at least once in your life. If you laid aside the fact that you think Christianity is true and merely asked yourself if you prefer that it’s true, you’ll see quite plainly that you do. How do you know you don’t believe what you prefer to be true?” (12)

In the above quote, take out the words “Christian/ity” and replace it with “atheist/atheism.” It makes equal sense. This is what’s called a double-edged criticism. There’s no reason to grant presumptively that any given instance of atheism involves more examination than any given instance of Christianity; this is the author simply projecting his own experience onto his audience. If the criticism that “beliefs are based on preference” applies to Christianity, it applies equally to atheism, polytheism, and fern worship. Either Loftus’ criticism above is valid and he is an atheist because he prefers to believe atheism is true or he’s guilty of granting atheism a special status that he doesn’t grant to Christianity without providing any argumentation supporting that position. This is tendentious from the outset; however, no apologist familiar with the non-neutrality principle of covenantal apologetics should be surprised by this (for those unfamiliar read this, particularly pp. 447-448).

The problem is not that Loftus is not neutral in his statements; it’s that he thinks he is and he purports to be while he is not. This is especially worth noting since many of his readers (regardless of their varied theistic commitments) will tend to grant that neutrality is possible, even desirable at times, and that many of Loftus’ statements exemplify such neutrality. But neutrality is impossible; if Christ is Lord of all, nothing is neutral.

“…I consider part 1, “The Basis for My Control Beliefs,” to be the most significant part of my whole case… But since my skeptical control beliefs don’t tell me what to think about the specific evidence itself, I’ll also examine the biblical evidence in part 2, and then conclude with what I believe today in part 3.” (emphasis added, 12)

It seems like it should be too early in the book for the author to have made such a complete blunder. Loftus asserts that his “skeptical control beliefs don’t tell (him) what to think about the specific evidence itself,” essentially stating that his control beliefs don’t control his beliefs about evidence. Either the beliefs control or they don’t. This is flagrantly self-contradictory and demonstrates a deep lack of epistemological self-consciousness. This is further exemplified by simply citing the author’s own definition of “control beliefs” given later in the book: “Control beliefs are those beliefs that control how we view the evidence… Since how we each look at the evidence is controlled to a large degree by certain control beliefs of ours, I want to know how to justify those control beliefs themselves.” (emphasis added, 59)

This error reflects the same problem of non-neutrality mentioned above. Loftus wishes to present himself as objective and neutral regarding the biblical evidence he surveys in part 2 of the book, but this contradicts his stated recognition that control beliefs exert control over other beliefs. Skeptical control beliefs control his view of the biblical evidence; to admit this is to admit that part 2 of the book is entirely question-begging (and little worth reading, therefore). It’s either dishonest or naive to recognize the role “control beliefs” or presuppositions play in examining evidence, then to declare the opposite when it is convenient for one’s own position.

Loftus then gives us his bona fides as a Christian apologist, having (among other things) earned a Th.M. under William Lane Craig at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in ’85. “I was a Christian apologist with the equivalent of a PhD degree in the philosophy of religion, set for the express purpose of defending Christianity from intellectual attacks. I was not afraid of any idea because I was convinced that Christianity was true and could withstand all attacks.” (13)

The reader should recognize that Loftus failed in his “express purpose of defending Christianity from intellectual attacks,” and is in this very significant respect nothing like “us.” He was “convinced that Christianity was true”… until he wasn’t. He proved that, in fact, he wasn’t just like “us,” and no Christian should be tricked by such attempts at short-circuiting our critical thinking with biographical narratives.

Loftus imports many biographical tidbits into his argumentation, attempting subversive persuasion based on his superficial once-Christian credentials. How can I call a Th.M from TEDS a superficial mark of Christianity? Well, quite easily, actually, since, the most significant Christian credential is persevering faith, which Loftus never had, and his Christian readers would do well to keep that in mind. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 Jn 2:19)

Loftus was “a problem teenager” (20), who came to Christianity through a Pentecostal ministry in Ft. Wayne, IN, where his life was “radically changed” (20). Shortly thereafter he was introduced to the evidentialism of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Hal Lindsey’s predictive dispensational premillennialism, the pragmatistic presuppositionalism of Francis Schaeffer, and the ubiquitous works of C.S. Lewis. Sounds like a fairly standard 20th century evangelical experience. Loftus is briefly critical of each author and footnotes various criticisms he believes conclusively demonstrate problems with each. Apart from the varied merits (or lack of merits, as would apply) of each theologian mentioned, one could be critical of each and still remain a Christian. In fact, I would recommend it. Of those mentioned, I have benefited most from Schaeffer’s work, though I do recognize the validity of Thomas V. Morris’ criticisms (as cited by Loftus). So much the worse for Schaeffer’s particular methodology and so much the better for mine.

Loftus wants to look at some key initial questions: “…what bias or presumption is the correct one when approaching the Christian faith? None of us sets out to study Christianity without some bias one way or another.” (22)

This is a valid and important question for us all, and it appears to recognize the nature of the antithesis mentioned above. Briefly, I will propose that there are only two options: one will approach Christianity either presuming its claims to be true or false. This sounds a bit outlandish at first, doesn’t it? Can’t someone approach Christianity as possibly true or false? This is a very reasonable question.

There is no third option as the result of the all-encompassing nature of the claims of Christianity. The de jure question is not independent of the de facto question. To assume that one is “objectively” judging the claims of Christianity is to assume an autonomy from Christ which contradicts Christianity; meaning that one is assuming that Christianity is false in order to conclude that it is false.

But, if this is the case, musn’t the Christian be guilty of fallacious circular reasoning in assuming the truth of Christianity? For brevity’s sake, I’ll answer this question with an argument from the lesser to the greater by analogy. Imagine you are called upon to prove the existence of space or time to someone who doubts or denies their existence. How would you do it without assuming the existence of space or time? The short answer is, you couldn’t. Even more so regarding arguing for the existence of the Creator of space and time.

Loftus mentions that a professor of his “drummed into his students the perfectly reasonable Christian idea that ‘all truth is God’s truth’ – that all truth comes from God whether considered sacred or secular.” (23) I take note of this statement because the idea that “all truth is God’s truth” is as common as it is misbegotten. While it may have meant one thing when Augustine first said it (in book two of De Doctrina Christiana, “A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”), it has come to be something of a wax nose today, used to justify any anti-Christian position which one desires to synthesize with biblical Christianity.

We also see in Loftus’ quoted statement above an example of inconsistent thinking which is wide-spread in contemporary evangelical worldviews. If all truth really is God’s truth then a distinction between sacred and secular makes no sense, since it would clearly follow that all truth is sacred truth. Loftus’ sacred-secular dualism was anti-biblical and a philosophical wedge in his thinking, waiting to be driven home, separating him from Christ. Where has dualism crept into your worldview?

Loftus’ stated deconversion story begins when he commits adultery with a woman, Linda, with whom he worked in ministry. Immediately, Loftus shifts the blame to Linda, stating that “she had it in for preachers, and she took out her wrath on me… There are mitigating factors here, even if I did do wrong. And I did do wrong. But until you experience something like this you will never understand.” (25) Even if he did do wrong? Why must I commit adultery and take no responsibility for it in order to understand that adultery is a sin and the fallout from sin is horrendously undesirable? It requires a hardened, irrational heart to admit guilt and provide self-justification in the same breath.

Loftus even blames God for his sin: “The biggest question of all was why God tested me by allowing her to come into my life when she did if he knew in advance I would fail the test?”(26) Loftus portrays himself as a cosmic victim. However, an even bigger question might be, since Loftus was a highly-educated Christian minister, why hadn’t he thought about such matters (God’s sovereignty over sin) before this, maybe when he had committed other (albeit less consequentially painful) sins? Finding a biblical answer to questions of this nature is one major step toward apostasy-proofing one’s self. Fleeing adultery would be another aid. “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.” (Pr 6:27-29)

It appears that after the adultery, at a time when resolving marital issues might have wisely been a top priority, Loftus chose rather to investigate the theological implications of the age of the universe, engaging in a correspondence debate with his biochemist cousin. It’s hard to imagine a subject which has less to do with repenting from adultery and restoring a gutted marriage than academically investigating the age of the universe for the first time. A word for theologians and students: repentance must always precede research. You cannot move directly from bickering with your spouse or slandering an associate to unrepentantly studying God’s word without consequences on your heart and mind.

Loftus recognized that the biblical pattern for creation “doesn’t square with astronomy,” (26) as its been most recently formulated and adopts the position that the early chapters of Genesis are myth. He then projects onto the sky various intuitions about what he would do if he created the universe, and “nearly two years later, (he) came to deny the Christian faith.” He states that “it required too much intellectual gerrymandering to believe.” (27)

For those interested in the age of the universe controversy, see Harvard PhD geologist Kurt Wise’s article here. It’s a “gerrymandering”-free article, which presents the consistent antithesis between Christianity and unbelief.

It appears that Loftus remained in the pulpit of his church and various other ministries during this period; this was an utter failure of church discipline, which is ultimately a failure of love. It’s sad to read a story of such thorough faithlessness on so many levels, involving so many people. He outlines various “he said – she said” situations of small church and broader denominational politics which led him to eventually leave the church altogether. “I often ask myself why Christians don’t seem to act any better than others when they alone claim to have the power, wisdom, and guidance of God right there within them.” (30) Intellectually, that sinners (even redeemed ones) still act like sinners is not problematic, but it can produce some of the greatest suffering in life; and sin and suffering combine well to short-circuit reason.

Loftus’ story presents a “sincere and honest” picture of apostasy. It shows clearly the irrationality of sin and the inextricable link between moral and theological failure. It is a cautionary tale for all Christians, and the Bible is not silent on matters such as these either. 1 Timothy 1 closes with these words, “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

By rejecting faith and a good conscience some have made shipwreck of their faith. A characteristic of Christian ministry is waging good warfare, “fighting the good fight.” It is a struggle, a battle, a way of life; and the weapons of this good warfare are holding faith and a good conscience. Faith is never an end in itself, it doesn’t mean anything by itself. When the NT refers to “faith” it is referring to more than mere belief, because belief in itself is nothing. It is inseparable from its object: Christ. Paul is telling Timothy to hold on to Christ. A “good conscience” is not merely finding peace with one’s self by appealing to universal guilt or the specific guilt of others (as Loftus does), but results from a careful, sensitive application of the Gospel to our lives, to our sins. Christ bears our guilt and produces in us a good conscience, so that we can have hope and begin to act like who we are in Him.

Paul goes on and shows the opposite of this good warfare, those who have not kept faith and a good conscience. The rejection, the shipwreck of the faith begins with a certain carelessness or indifference in Christian living and in applying the Gospel to ourselves. It begins with a careless conscience and it ends with a “seared conscience” (1 Tim 4:2). The result of stifling one’s conscience produces a moral derailment which more and more eats away at our sensitivity to truth. Violating one’s conscience in one way or another undermines our ability to discern true from false, right from wrong, through a process of self-justification (e.g. Loftus’ blame-shifting or his sudden desire to investigate the age of the universe, etc.), rather than seeking justification in Christ.

This violation persists until it is as if the conscience were seared with a hot iron, so that one can blaspheme openly and unabashedly in a “good conscience” (e.g. Loftus’ entire book).

Moral and theological decline go together. We need to recognize there is no such thing as a purely theological controversy. And we must not underestimate the centrality of the Gospel in all of life, including our philosophy and apologetics. Moral decay breeds rational decline. “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” (Ps 2:11)

The Liar Paradox and Presuppositional Apologetics 4: Defending Classical Logic

This post will be an overly-brief thumbnail sketch of a response to a broad and complex philosophical topic: dialetheism. From SEP: “A dialetheia is a sentence, A, such that both it and its negation, ¬A, are true… dialetheism opposes the so-called Law of Non-Contradiction (LNC),” (i.e. for any A, it is impossible for both A and not-A to be true).

The Liar Sentence (“This sentence is false.”), considered as a semantic paradox, is the most common example of a proposed dialetheia, and has been the subject of my most recent blog series. A notional objection to presuppositional apologetics was proposed by atheist philosopher Patrick Mefford, roughly stating that the Liar Paradox presents a problem for the presuppositional apologist’s use of the LNC in arguing for the existence of God. Mefford proposed that the adoption of a multi-valued logic (rather than the classical binary logic) might blunt the force of the apologist’s reliance on the LNC in his argumentation. (Or possibly the objection was that if there are true dialetheias then God must believe falsehoods or create contradictions or some other such untrustworthy or nefarious thing… as I said, the objection wasn’t clearly stated).

In response to the objection, I proposed that the adoption of a multi-valued logic wouldn’t be as problematic as Mefford supposed (and I criticized his proposed solution as well).

However, there seems to have been some confusion surrounding what a multi-valued logic actually is. (This seems to have been due to Mefford’s recent familiarity with the subject, as evidenced by his acknowledged unfamiliarity with dialetheism and paraconsistency.) So, to be clear:

A classical binary logic has two truth-values: true and false.

A multi-valued logic (MVL) contains multiple truth-values: true, false, and at least one other value – such as “both,” “neither,” “undefined,” “unknown,” etc.

There are also infinite-valued logics, such as fuzzy logic, with truth-degrees between 0 and 1.

There are many different multi-valued logics and I have neither the time, desire, nor the expertise to discuss them all at length here. I would simply note that even Asenjo’s Logic of Paradox (promulgated by the foremost dialetheist Graham Priest) doesn’t deny the LNC outright, but seeks to outline a logic which incorporates the LNC with sentences that are inconsistent with it (i.e. dialetheias). To attempt to put it more simply, a classical, binary logic seeks to maintain logical consistency in light of the LNC, while certain multi-valued logics seek to maintain a kind of logical consistency (paraconsistency) which takes into consideration the LNC and certain, specific dialetheias – while not succumbing to the problem of trivialism (the undesirable view that all contradictions are true) through logical explosion (when the truth blows up and gets everywhere).

Dialetheism is an extreme minority position in the history of Western philosophy, but in its more robust forms it is a difficult theory to overturn. There are many complex and thorny philosophical issues in this regard which, again, go beyond the scope of a blog post. While there are many motives proposed for adopting dialetheism, it would not be inaccurate to say that the Liar Paradox is the central reason proffered for the position.

The most common (and misbegotten) objection to dialetheism is that it entails trivialism via logical explosion – that any sentence can be materially implied from a contradiction via disjunctive syllogism.

An example:

Assume that (A) “All cats go to hell” and (¬A) “All cats do not go to hell” are both true. From this we can validly infer anything, such as (B) “David Hume is David Bowie.”

(P1) Either all cats go to hell or David Hume is David Bowie (A v B)

(P2) All cats do not go to hell (¬A)

(C) Therefore, David Hume is David Bowie. (B by DS)

If dialetheism produces these sorts of logical conclusions then it would appear to be deeply flawed. However, paraconsistent logics are constructed purposefully to avoid triviality. So the argument that dialetheism entails triviality fails because paraconsistent logics are non-explosive (though the details in this regard can be quite technical and are not entirely uncontested).

A stronger response to paradoxes of self-reference is the proposal of MVLs which can account for sentences which appear to be both true and false (or neither true nor false, by intersubstitutivity). So a sentence like the Liar is accounted for by giving it a third truth-value (as described above). However, these MVLs all ostensibly fall prey to various “Revenge Paradoxes,” such as the “Strengthened Liar.”

The Strengthened Liar accepts the truth-values of whatever multi-valued logic may be proposed, but then reproduces the paradox of self-reference within the truth-values of that logic (i.e. “This sentence is not true” or “This sentence is neither true nor false nor both,” etc.). So even the adoption of MVLs with truth-value gaps (neither true nor false) or gluts (both true and false) falls prey to various Strengthened Liars. Whatever truth-values a given logic may contain, a Liar Sentence can be produced for those values. These sentences have been called “Revenge Paradoxes,” in that they respond to proposed solutions to the semantic paradoxes with a reformulation of the original paradox, seeking semantic vengeance on their objectors. (“Semantic Vengeance” would be a pretty good band name for a progressive metal group, don’t you think?)

To summarize, semantic paradoxes (such as the Liar) provide evidence for the dialetheistic cornerstone position that there are true contradictions. The paradoxical characteristics of sentences like the Strengthened Liar(s) are due to the ordinary features of natural language, such as self-reference and the presence of truth predicates (i.e. “is true”). Various proposed solutions fail, such as Tarskian metalinguistic hierarchies, since they only produce languages that are expressively weaker than English. MVLs are non-explosive but still fall prey to Strengthened Liars. Several other solutions have been proposed, but most simply beg the question in favor of classical logic. As I said, dialetheism is a difficult theory to overturn.

So what recourse is there for the defender of classical binary logic in the face of the Liar Paradox?

Recently, a defense of monaletheism has been advocated by Benjamin Burgis, in his doctoral dissertation (HT: Paul Manata). The essence of Burgis’ argument, as I understand it, is that sentences with truth-value ascriptions are meaningless unless they are “grounded-out” in sentences which contain no truth predicate (p. 112f., esp. n. 101).

The problem for the Liar is that this semantic paradox doesn’t ground its truth attributions in extra-semantic reality. Burgis alternatingly (and somewhat confusingly) calls this the “meaningfulness solution” or the “meaninglessness solution.” He states it more explicitly as the “Kripke/Tarski Thesis: We are making some sort of mistake when we attribute truth or falsity to a sentence that isn’t (directly or indirectly) about something other than truth” (p. 116). He argues that sentences like the Liar are actually meaningless (and thus not true dialetheias), though they give an initially plausible appearance of meaningfulness because they contain many of the characteristics of meaningful sentences, such as being grammatically well-formed, self-referential, truth-ascribing, etc.

The argumentation he presents is extensive and I would commend it to any with the time and interest in reading it. He seems to have a good case for a non-question-begging response to dialetheism, which is easier stated than demonstrated. Given our discussion above, it seems best then to briefly consider whether or not Burgis’ defense of monaletheism falls prey to any sort of Revenge Paradoxes.

A Revenge Paradox to Burgis’ meaningfulness solution could be formulated as: “It would be a mistake of some sort to call this sentence true.” If we say the sentence is true, we are mistaken – since it’s meaningless (per Burgis’ solution). If we say it is false, then we commit no mistake when we say it is true – but that’s exactly what the sentence says is a mistake. We make one kind of mistake in ascribing truth to a meaningless sentence, and another kind of mistake in ascribing falsehood to a true sentence. If it’s true, then we’re mistaken, if it’s false, then it’s true (and we’re mistaken), and if it’s meaningless then it’s true (and we’re still mistaken). There doesn’t appear to be a non-mistaken way to refer to the truth-value associated with this Revenge Paradox sentence.

So, given this analysis, a way of reformulating this sentence would be “This sentence is either false or meaningless.” It’s this disjunction which allows Burgis’ meaningfulness solution to escape the Revenge Paradox, since the first disjunct (“This sentence is false”) is meaningless and a disjunction must have two meaningful disjuncts in order to ascribe truth-value to it (per the meaningfulness solution). So if the disjunct is meaningless and it is saying the same thing as the Revenge Paradox above, then this Revenge Paradox is also meaningless (or begs the question against the meaningfulness solution).

So if the strongest candidate for a proposed dialetheia, the Liar Paradox, is meaningless, then one (the?) major objection to classical logic has been de-fanged.

In my limited and humble estimation, Burgis’ proposals give the strongest non-question-begging, non-ad hoc, intuitively plausible defense of monaletheism (and concomitant critique of dialetheism) available for pursuing a defense of classical binary logic in the face of semantic paradoxes such as the Liar.

So, to conclude this series, Mefford’s original objection can be answered by the presuppositional apologist through (1) demonstrating his dilemma is hornless by adopting a multi-valued logic (maintaining the same thesis-antithesis approach which incorporates the LNC but adopting an MVL as concerning the semantic paradoxes where necessary) – this is not problematic since the presuppositionalist in particular understands the relationship between divine and human logic as analogical; (2) criticizing his proposed solution in the Tarskian hierarchy; and (3) by defending classical logic, arguing that the semantic paradoxes like the Liar are meaningless.

In any case, it would hardly seem that the presuppositional apologist (or any apologist in general, I think) need fear anything from a consideration of the Liar Paradox.

The Liar Paradox and Presuppositional Apologetics 3: A “Final” Reply to Patrick Mefford

A good link-history of the recent discussion surrounding the Liar Paradox and presuppositional apologetics can be found at the beginning of Chris Bolt’s latest post. So I won’t re-tread any of that here.

It appears that Patrick Mefford has decided to take his ball and go home. Entirely his prerogative. We salute your service, Mr. Mefford, and wish you a happy new year.

In his final post to Chris Bolt, he did respond to me as well – so I’ll give some final thoughts in return. ‘Tis the season for giving and all…

Misreading Paul?

There was a bit of exegetical back-and-forth between Chris and Patrick over Titus 1:12-13a, specifically regarding whether or not Paul presents a case of the Liar Paradox when he quotes a Cretan prophet stating, “Cretans are always liars.”

Given that the broader context of Titus 1 has to do with the careful selection of church leaders according to certain character qualities, it makes the best sense to understand Paul’s quotation of Epimenides as proving his point – that close evaluation of men from Crete would be necessary in choosing church leaders. Cretans were notorious scoundrels, and even their own prophets (whom one might expect to evaluate their own heritage and culture patriotically) can be called as witnesses to the fact – “we’re all liars, gluttons and monsters.” This seems more in line with the whole letter to Titus – rather than the introduction of dialetheism without further commentary of any sort from the author.

However, I don’t think Patrick intended to get into an extended exegetical debate over the issue. His point seems to me to have been an attempt at providing a stronger reason for a Christian apologist to want to resolve the Liar Paradox – “look, it’s even in the Bible.” I’ll give Patrick credit for trying to bring some further rhetorical force to his objection, but his conclusion (unfortunately) requires a rather forced interpretation of Titus – which Chris, to his credit, resisted.

Regardless of the exegesis of Titus, the Liar Paradox remains an issue for both parties, since Chris desires to maintain a classical binary logic and there’s a few problems with Tarski’s position (which Mefford has proposed).

Misreading me?

Patrick quotes a section of this post, where I’m attempting to summarize Tarski’s semantic hierarchy as relevant to the issue of the Liar Paradox. He quotes me summarizing Tarski, then points out that “this does not accurately describe what I laid out.” Nor was it meant to. It’s a summary of Tarski, not Mefford.

Admittedly, my summary borders on an oversimplification of Tarski, but it was an attempt to break things down to laymen’s terms (as much as I might be able); but to criticize it for not being something it was never intended to be is hardly appropriate. So he misread me.

Misreading me… or Tarski… or himself?

Regarding his own formulation, Mefford states: “There is no bottom level object language that does not contains (sic) words like ‘true’ or ‘false’. This is made explicit.”

However, quoting Mefford’s original post, he formulates the Liar Sentence within the hierarchy as:

(A1b) “P2 is false” [ln] is true [Tn+1] if and only if P2 is false [ln]

He explains, “The liar paradox cannot be stated in this hierarchy, because any language it is written in will not have the proper truth predicate.”

So, on the one hand, he says: (X) the bottom-level object language (ln-1) does not contain the proper truth predicate (i.e. words like ‘true’ or ‘false’), which is how the hierarchy eludes the paradox.

Or, on the other hand, he says: (Y) “there is no bottom level object language that does not contains (sic) words like ‘true’ or ‘false’.” So which is it, (X) or (Y)?

These propositions exist. They are a contradiction. How do they stand in relation to Patrick Mefford?

Well, most likely, he has either misread me or Tarski (or himself?) or some combination thereof. I don’t know which.

(Let me make the point more explicitly: if Mefford’s object language contains a truth predicate then it is susceptible to the Liar Paradox; if it does not contain the relevant truth predicate then he has no basis for his objection to my summary.)

Misreading me again?

Mefford goes on to quote my point regarding the infinite nature of Tarski’s hierarchy. But for some reason he thinks I’m raising this as a “mistake or problem.” He says, “…asking me where the hierarchy stops is to assume to (sic) the collection is finite instead of infinite.” But I never asked where the hierarchy stops. I didn’t ask, because that’s a dumb question. I was merely pointing out that Tarski’s hierarchy is infinite. I agree with Mefford when he says, “An infinite regress isn’t a mistake or a problem. Infinite regression is fine n dandy in mathematics…” So, I’m not sure why he disagrees with me, unless it’s due to the jocular reference to “turtles all the way down.”

It’s my understanding that the phrase “turtles all the way down” has specific historical reference to the infinite regress problem within the domain of cosmology – but when used outside of that domain it can refer to an infinite regress of whatever kind (in this case a non-problematic infinite regress). Since we weren’t at all discussing cosmology, I assumed Mefford would know that I was merely referencing a colorful illustration of the infinite recourse within Tarski’s hierarchy.

However, if Mefford objects that I shouldn’t have borrowed a term from cosmology for illustrative purposes, then I’ll simply point out (in good fun) that his illustration from Tristram Shandy is a pure cock and bull story.

Bottom line

Unfortunately, Mefford chose not to interact with any of my actual criticisms of Tarski’s hierarchy (such as that the semantic hierarchy is incapable of useful self-reference, it relies on natural language in a problematic way, and that it doesn’t resolve the Liar Paradox for natural languages). Rather, it would appear that his engagement with presuppositional apologetics in general could be characterized by the sorts of misreadings outlined above.

Since C.L. Bolt was kind enough to “leave the rest” to me, I’ll be following this post with a (brief) defense of classical logic, Lord willing.

The Liar Paradox and Presuppositional Apologetics 2: A Critique

English: The Pinocchio paradox. When Pinocchio...

The Pinocchio paradox. When Pinocchio says “My nose grows now” it creates a Liar sentence and makes Pinocchio’s nose to grow if and only if it does not grow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pat Mefford has said that “conventional notions of truth and falsity in our natural language and in our everyday discourse are what I consider to be a useful fiction.” He proposes the adoption of Alfred Tarski’s semantic conception of truth, an artificial hierarchy of languages whereby the truth predicate for an initial “object-language” is only found in a “meta-language” (neatly escaping the Liar Paradox, i.e. “This sentence is false.”). However, as we’ll see momentarily, if the intuitively appealing use of “true” and “false” in our natural language is a “useful fiction,” as Mefford put it, then Tarski’s hierarchy could be considered a “useless fiction” in contrast.

Tarski’s proposal is that we can save consistency in the face of the Liar Paradox, not for natural languages, but for restricted and regimented artificial languages, wherein no language contains its own truth predicate. At the bottom level, we have the “object language,” which does not contain words like “true” or “false” at all. Above that we have the “meta-language,” which contains such words, but where they can only be applied to object language sentences. It really is a very clever way of avoiding the Liar, since no self-referential, truth-value-ascribing sentences are possible within any given language.

However, if we want to contend with the truth-value of an assertion made in the meta-language, we would need further recourse to a meta-meta-language to consider whether or not the truth predication of the meta-language (regarding the object-language) is correct. What if there’s a question regarding the truth ascribed in the meta-meta-language? Well, we need a meta-meta-meta-language. See the pattern? It’s turtles all the way down.

Consider the following example:

(1) All dogs go to heaven.

(2) It is true that “all dogs go to heaven.”

(3) It is false that “all dogs go to heaven.”

Sentence (1) is written in the object-language while (2) and (3) are in the meta-language. How do we express the disagreement between (2) and (3)? If we were allowed to do that in the meta-language, then the meta-language would contain its own truth predicate, and we could construct a meta-language sentence like (1), but the problem of the Liar wouldn’t have been avoided. So we have to step up into a meta-meta-language to make a statement like:

(4) It is false that “it is true that ‘all dogs go to heaven.’”

Note that most explanations of Tarski’s linguistic hierarchy are commonly made in our natural language, not within the hierarchy itself. This isn’t clearly self-refuting, since such a project appears possible, but it would seem awkward and impractical to parse out each sentence’s place within the hierarchy while explaining the hierarchy itself; consistency would require such a task though. So, while this hierarchy of languages presents a resolution for the special case of the semantics associated with the Liar Paradox it makes the semantics associated with the rest of discourse cumbersome and unnatural.

Further, there are statements which seem intuitively true and which would be useful in discussing Tarski’s hierarchy but which simply can’t be said in any of his artificial languages. For instance:

(5) No sentence anywhere in the hierarchy says of itself that it is false.

(6) No sentence anywhere in the hierarchy is both true and false.

Sentences like (5) and (6) are commonly used in persuading someone to employ Tarski’s hierarchy, but have no place within the hierarchy itself. There is no “ultimate-meta-language” or “trans-meta-language” which can use a truth predicate in reference to itself (much less to the entire hierarchy). This is a severe problem for the theory, since the principle which helps it to escape the Liar Paradox also prevents it from being useful in broader discourse, especially when attempting to demonstrate the value of its proposed solution.

To add insult to injury, the Liar Paradox may not be predicable in Tarski’s hierarchy, but it is still present in English – and Tarski’s solution says nothing about that.

In fact, some* interpret Tarski to be a “proto-dialetheist” of sorts, in that he believed semantic paradoxes of self-reference within natural languages were inescapable (he famously, and controversially, stated that natural languages were “inconsistent”). This may be why he was willing to abandon natural languages to preserve logical consistency (albeit of an artificial sort). (*See The Law of Non-Contradiction: New Philosophical Essays by Graham Priest, et al, p. 118f.)

So, with regard to Mefford’s proposed solution to the Liar Paradox (which he raised as an objection to Chris Bolt’s presuppositional/covenantal apologetic) there are some severe problems which leave him in the regrettable position of having no answer for his own objection.

As I said in my last post, (if I get the time and people seem interested) I’ll propose a solution to the Liar Paradox, as well as some ethical considerations on the whole issue.

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