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Scripture and Authority

October 20, 2014

I recently read two short articles by Fr. Stephen Freeman about the Orthodox view of Scripture. The first was a comparison of how Christians handle and handled the Bible versus how Muslims handle and handled the Qu’ran. The second was a response to some of the criticism leveled at the first article by Protestants who objected that Fr. Freeman had lowered Scripture and placed it under the Church. These were interesting articles that got me thinking about one of my favorite topics, how we read the Bible. (Unlike God Himself the Bible is a book and I can put it down when it scares me too much. It’s also a document and susceptible to academic study. With those two advantages it’s no wonder I frequently prefer to deal with the Bible than any other form of knowledge about God.) While I was forming vague ideas for some sort of a blog article about this I also read an article by the always-fascinating brambonius about the Islamic State. Bram’s article is split roughly in half: the first part discusses what is and is not Islamic about the Islamic State and the second part deals with the state aspect of said State. It’s this second aspect that caught my attention – modern Islamic theocracy combines modern ideas of a state with Islamic ideas of governance while rejecting (perhaps unconsciously) a medieval world in which power was less concentrated. Naturally, these articles all inform one another in interesting ways.

Let’s start with Bram’s article. The argument (which I can’t fact check but which draws from some authoritative-sounding sources) is that the French Revolution invented the idea of a modern state that intervened and interfered with everything its citizens did. Previously many sources of power competed for allegiance with one another and so a person might move from the power of the church to the power of the feudal lord to the power of the King and back again. Who had power in a given situation depended on who was able to exert it and whose sphere of influence it fell into. (This part all makes sense – the divine right of kings was invented by monarchs in an attempt to claim that they could act within the church’s sphere of power and were not subject to being blocked by the Pope. It never really worked all that well.) However, the French Revolution invented the idea of a “flat” state that did not have the levels of feudal society and which ran everything that needed running in a more or less direct way. Modern Islamic theocracy supposedly took this idea (anything that needs to be organized in society should be organized through or with the approval and oversight of the state) and combined it with some long-held ideas about Islam and governance and arrived at the conclusion that if the state ran everything and God also ran everything then the state must be theocratic. One of the main thinkers in this line of Islamic radicalism actually claimed that no one could be Muslim outside a Muslim theocracy, a crazy statement that makes perfect sense if the state really does exercise such great control over its citizens.

So, simple enough. We move from a world of many sources of power to a centralized modern world and certain parts of Islam (mistakenly) follow suite. Now is when we return to Fr. Freeman. In Freeman’s second article where he responded to criticism of his first article he takes great pains to address the complaint that he has lowered Scripture and placed the Church above it. No, he says, it just doesn’t work like that. One isn’t above the other, they are part of one whole. The Scriptures inform the Church but the Scriptures exist because the Church collected them and denoted them as such. Moreover, the Scriptures didn’t really exist outside of a church context much at all until the invention of the printing press. Instead, the Scriptures were read in church, discussed in church, and interpreted in church. Immediately I saw a link between this and Bram’s article: in both cases someone is over-centralizing authority. In one case it is Islamic thinkers adopting a centralized world from the West and centralizing their own world in response. In the other a Reformed thinker reads Fr. Freeman and attempts to identify the central authority (because there must be one!) and identifies it as the Church – except that Fr. Freeman does not think there is a central authority like that.

Let’s play with this idea a bit more. What are the Scriptures of religions outside of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim line (each of which builds on the previous one and might be expected to inherit some ideas about having Scriptures)? It’s not hard to find some collection of text for a given religion. For instance, Hindus have the Vedas. However, this is not enough. Do these texts act in the same manner as Christian Scripture? It’s not at all clear that they do. Modern Protestants expect that individual believers have copies of the Bible, that they read it, and that corporate religious life includes group study of the Bible. Do Hindus expect the same of the Vedas? What about a religions like Native American religions? These religions appeared in pre-literate societies for the most part. If they now have sacred writings those writings exist as a testament to past practice but not as the foundational documents of the religion.

In fact, this is much like what happened with Christianity. Jesus did not swing by earth to hand out New Testaments. Instead, what Jesus did was written down to aid in its transmission. Other parts of the transmission of the Messianic beliefs centered around Jesus were also written down – letters and even accounts of the early church. However, these documents were not foundational for their authors. When Luke writes the book of Acts he writes about a community that responds to God’s action as revealed by the Spirit. He records past decisions but those past decisions were not steered primarily by writing. Even these early written accounts existed alongside oral accounts and sometimes witnesses to the relevant material.

If you lived in the year 100 in the Mediterranean world you might, as a Christian, have access to Scriptures, oral tradition, and people who had at least learned from direct witnesses to some of the events of the New Testament. Which one would you trust? All of them, probably. If you had several oral traditions you would weight them against each other and against the written tradition and against any information you could get from people who should be in the know.

Even today this is how Catholic and Orthodox thinkers handle these issues. What do the Church Fathers say? Well, they don’t always agree. When they don’t agree there isn’t a list to consult that says, “Irenaeus beats Clement, Clement beats Polycarp, Polycarp beats Tertullian.” Instead, one listens to the counsel of all the Fathers, and the tradition as passed down (which hopefully carries the results of other people listening to all the Fathers), and makes a decision. If the Bible is unclear at a point the same issue arises – what other sources might clarify this issue? When those sources disagree how do we know who to trust?

(While Protestants tend to dislike this approach almost all Protestants engage in it. What does John Calvin say about this passage? How about Luther? C.S. Lewis? Spurgeon?)

I opened this article discussing the odd fusion of post-Enlightenment ideas of statehood with Islam. I did this because this is a lot like the insistence on a single source of authority, preferably written down. That’s an Enlightenment idea. Find a body of knowledge, write down something authoritative, and then consult that known authority. The Enlightenment didn’t invent the idea of attempting to synthesize all knowledge and debate on a subject into a single authoritative source but it did strongly emphasize clearly-delineated and centralized authorities. How do you know X? Because it’s written in this well-regarded source, it comes from this authority, etc. The Enlightenment created an environment where a large number of sources which all hold authority and are in dialog just seems messy and inconsistent. Surely if you know something you’ve neatened up the structure by which you know it more than that!

Fr. Freeman’s Reformed critic is making two mistakes. The first is missing the real point of divergence. If I ask you what color your car is because I think it’s a different color than my car is and you don’t have a car I’ve missed the point at which we diverge. We diverge in car ownership, not car color. The second mistake is tied to the first – by importing a concept about how knowledge should be arranged in from outside Christianity Freeman’s critic makes a bad assumption. The point of divergence is at this assumption, that religious knowledge is well-centralized with a clear (and clearly-accessible) final arbiter. If that assumption came from within Christianity it might be a good one since both parties to the debate are Christian. However, it comes from elsewhere and is apparently imported as “basic knowledge”.

Now, I don’t have time to get into the question of whether I completely agree with Freeman. However, I think the debate is important in and of itself. Why do we believe that authority exists in this centralized form? The Orthodox sometimes accuse Catholics and Protestants of being two sides of the same centralized-authority coin with Catholics saying, “The Pope!” while Protestants say, “The Bible!” but neither stopping to ask whether there should be one answer. Whatever we end up concluding about the issue of authority it’s worth asking the question: should we expect Christianity to find a central, accessible authority short of God Himself?

I’m Right but I’m Not Happy

October 13, 2014

Just under two and a half years ago I wrote an article about North Carolina’s constitutional amendment (Amendment One) to prohibit same-sex marriages and civil unions. In that article I criticized the simplistic reasoning behind the amendment: asking the government to define marriage in a particular way involves defining marriage and claiming that the government should be the final arbiter of the marriage agreement. I believe that most Christians would not be comfortable with this outside of a situation in which this accomplished some short-term goals for those same Christians. I did not expect those goals to be quite as short-term as they were though – the amendment has now been ruled unconstitutional and same-sex marriages are occurring in North Carolina. The amendment had an active lifespan of less than two and a half years.

When I wrote my initial article I left off a lot of practical concerns and focused on theoretical issues that get mishandled when people discuss same-sex marriage. In this article I will ignore the theoretical concerns about the nature of marriage, the government, and sin and I will address a series of practical concerns from a standpoint that assumes that a ban on same-sex marriage is good and proper. (This is not because I don’t care about those theoretical concerns but because if you got to those and decided that a government ban on same-sex marriage was incorrect the practical issues are immaterial to you.)

The practical issues focus on cost and benefit. Let’s examine the benefit first (again with the assumption that stopping same-sex unions by law is beneficial). Amendment One was in effect for approximately twenty-nine months. How many same-sex unions did it prevent? In Massachusetts (the state which has performed same-sex marriages for the longest amount of time) the current rate of same-sex unions is approximately 1 per 4,460 people living in the state per year. The earlier rate was much higher (we’ll return to this) but it’s leveled off now. It may still be a bit high for North Carolina since Massachusetts is probably a destination for out-of-state same-sex couples but if we use that rate and apply it to North Carolina’s population we get 5,334 weddings blocked. Except, of course, we don’t – Massachusetts saw an early spike because many people had long wanted to get married, had been unable to, and put off their weddings until same-sex marriage became legal in the state. The real total for North Carolina is harder to know but the number of marriages that actually never happened and never will happen is a smaller fraction, the fraction of those 5,334 couples who are not together anymore. The rest of those unions were merely delayed. (We should be clear that even the authors of Amendment One thought it would not stand forever – both they and I are surprised at how quickly it fell but the fact that it did fall is not surprising.)

What about the costs? Well, the pro-Amendment One groups raised more than one million dollars in funds to get votes. Then the state of North Carolina paid some unknown (to me) amount to defend the law against at least three separate suits. The vote-getting figure works out to about $6.25 per union blocked/delayed, or $34,480 per month. Now, I’d say that this was absolutely worth the cost if the law was one against murder, rape, slavery, domestic abuse, beating people with a crowbar, and dozens of other evils. However, there are plenty of things I don’t like for which I would not want to raise that amount of funding to stop. That’s enough funding to send eight students to North Carolina State University on a full-ride scholarship every month (and I’m all about scholarships for deserving, low-income children). If you can find a charity that thinks $34,000 is chump change then I’ll be amazed. There is a lot of good that Christians could be doing with that money and there’s a question about stewardship of resources here.

A more serious cost is one of public reputation. This law was always about public reputation. Orthodox Christianity has a lot to say about same-sex sexual relationships but has only recently had anything to say about same-sex marriages. A law against same-sex marriages does not prevent any sin mentioned in the Bible – unmarried same-sex couples are not prevented from having a sexual relationship in any state. Instead, laws against same-sex marriages and unions are a statement about what the state thinks people should be doing. We recognize and make official behaviors that we think are good and we refuse recognition and official status to behaviors that we merely tolerate. The fight about same-sex marriage in North Carolina was not mostly a fight about preventing sin but about saying that North Carolina does not condone specific sorts of sins. This causes two issues.

The first issue is simple: a lot of Christians spent a lot of money to say that it is extremely important that the state not condone same-sex unions. There are a lot of issues to choose from: divorce, abuse, homelessness, racism, poverty, etc., but the banner issue that needed to be publicly addressed in a major way was, apparently, gay people marrying each other. This serves as public advertising about the values that Christians have and the ones they merely say they have. I don’t think it was good advertising.

The second issue is also simple: a lot of people disagreed. A lot of people see the repeal of the effects of Amendment One as a victory of progress over religion. Christians advertised that this was a hill to die on and then died on it – to a lot of cheering. A million dollars is a lot of money but people will make more money. The people who decided that Christians are nasty, backwards bigots because this was the fight that went public (without any other fight, like one against homelessness, to counterbalance that impression) will not magically return to their former disinterested stances.

The rise and fall of Amendment One is a case study in the culture war issues I’ve written about: the sort of “victory” we saw with Amendment One is now a liability. If you are so tied to the old way of being Christian in a society that agrees with you in broad outline then perhaps it doesn’t matter – perhaps the death of that social order is your death as well. However, most of us have to get up and face the world tomorrow. We have to walk out into a world that has bad blood towards us because of that fighting retreat. As Christians we need to start thinking about the future. We need to think about what it costs us to try to hold on to power both in terms of money and in terms of social capital and what else we could be doing with that capital. We need to think about what the next chapter looks like because the page is turning and this chapter is ending. Delaying that change may seem comfortable but it may be making it a lot worse for us all in the long run.

Let Us Reason Together

October 6, 2014

I have been reading through the book of Isaiah with my Bible Study recently and an interesting line caught my eye. It’s a well-known line, Isaiah 1:18 – “Come, let us reason together. Even though your sins are as crimson they will be white like snow. Though they are red as [some kind of bright red worm, apparently] they will be like wool.” While the bright red worm is sort of fascinating in its own way what caught my attention was “let us reason together”. When I think of reasoning together with someone I generally think of figuring out some sort of problem with them that affects us both. For instance, I might sit down with a collaborator and reason together about the correct way to fix a piece of lab equipment. This does not make a great deal of sense out of this verse, though.

Hebrew is notoriously vague with some words. Some Hebrew words have a huge range of meanings and some have large ranges of meaning that still don’t line up with any English meaning clearly. The verb in question is יכח (yakach) and it’s a reasonably common verb root[1]. Interestingly it is not normally translated as “reason”. Instead, it gets translated as “decide”, “condemn” (or “reprove”), and various words for arguing. It actually shows up six times in the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 1:18 (under discussion), 2:4, 11:3, 11:4, 29:21, and 37:4. In these instances the NIV renders יכח as “settle disputes”, “decide”, “give decisions”, “defender in court” (the root has been transformed into a noun here), and “rebuke”. In all but the last instance the context is clearly judicial (and it is merely unclear in the last instance, rather than being clearly not true). Isaiah is mostly Hebrew poetry which makes extensive use of parallelism (again, Isaiah 37:4 is not in poetry) and in most of these instances the parallel explicitly references a legal court. (The list of parallels is, in order, “judge between the nations”, “judge by what his eyes see” which is followed immediately by the next pair which includes “judge the poor”, and finally “cause a person to be indicted”.)

This may clear up this odd verse a bit. The Lord is not offering to sit down over coffee to work out a vexing issue of mutual interest but to settle out of court. (Indeed, the NIV renders the key word here “settle the matter”.) I say that the Lord is offering to settle out of court because what comes next is a description of two options. If Israel opts to settle then they will eat the good food of the land. If they do not settle they will be eaten by the sword (most translations opt for something like “devoured by the sword” which makes more English sense but loses the parallel a bit more).

Indeed, this ongoing idea of a court case against Israel crops up again and again in early Isaiah, at least as far as the break at Isaiah 6 where Isaiah describes his vision of the Lord in the Temple. Parts of this case are explicit: in Isaiah 3:13 doom is announced as the Lord takes his seat in court to condemn the leaders of Israel. In 4:4 a spirit of “judgment and fire” will cleanse Israel specifically of some of the sins mentioned in the previous judgment passage. In 5:3 the Lord invites the people to judge in a case between Him and His vine in a story where the vine stands for Israel. In 5:16 the Lord will be glorified by His justice and lifted up by His righteous acts (righteousness is also a judicial term denoting either the rendering of correct verdicts or of being found on the right side of the law). However, these explicit sections are interwoven with pronouncements that seem more like Old Testament wrath and doom. It probably makes most sense to see these as the pronouncements of the court: you have been found guilty and this is your punishment. Indeed, some law-court features appear in these places too. Isaiah 1:17, 1:21, 1:23, 5:7, and 5:23 all discuss how Israel either must do justice or has been found to be full of injustice. In Isaiah 3:10-11 a short interjection assures us that the coming doom will be just – the righteous (again, those found to be innocent or the victim by the court who require acquittal or redress) will be fine but the wicked will receive all the doom that fills up the rest of the chapter.

Other features probably make sense within this court-case context. In several places God lays out His vision for what Israel should be or will be and contrasts it to what Israel is. Viewed from within the context of a legal case this makes sense – Israel is required by law to do X and is instead doing the exact opposite. In Isaiah 2:11-18 there is a great reversal – the Lord strikes down everything that is lifted up and He alone remains exalted. (Hints of this also appear in Isaiah 1:31 and 5:15.) This is also classical judgment language in the Old Testament – God comes and ruins those who have risen because of their crimes and exalts those who were their victims. This is the work of the law-court, to demand penalties of the wicked and to restore to the victims what was taken.

Not all of Isaiah 1-5 is a court case, of course. I don’t see much point in trying to shoehorn God’s diatribe against Israel’s religious rituals (1:10-15) into a court case. Instead, it seems to be a reasonable lead-up to the case: despite Israel’s religious observances God is still angry with them and their religious observances mean nothing while these larger problems are going on. However, despite some exceptions I think the larger idea of a court case against Israel is a good frame to read Isaiah 1-5.

If my claim is correct who exactly is God in the court? Is He the judge, the plaintiff, or the prosecutor? I think the answer probably goes back to the important role of a king in ensuring justice for his people (and the fact that these modern roles aren’t really correct to bring to the Old Testament). A king served as a judge (some of which I discussed when I discussed the judges of the book of Judges) and often legitimatized his reign by referencing his role in bringing about justice. However, kings are not passive judges who wait for cases to be brought to them but are also engaged in actively prosecuting cases. Part of the role of a king in bringing about justice is to seek out and remove injustice (or other legal transgressions – see the responsibility that the books of Kings assign to kings in removing places of idol worship). In this case I believe that God is acting in His role as King of Israel. In fact, I believe He is more specifically acting as a great king (or emperor) under whom serve other kings including Israel’s king.

This, I believe, is where all of this notion of law-courts begins to be directly applicable to us. God’s complaint against Israel is that He charged it with creating a particular sort of society. This society was supposed to be just (especially towards those who lack power and are easy to oppress), it was supposed to be free of idols, and it was clearly supposed to be less focused on money than it ended up being. Indeed, a lot of Isaiah 1-5 focused on the fact that the upper levels of society have become rich by impoverishing the poor. While the rich drink and “join house to house” (which is probably tied to taking land and other essentials from the poor ) the poor are denied justice. While the Law demanded a year of Jubilee in which society would be reset and everyone gets to start over with some land of their own the society has become one of rich people and the generationally poor. Some of this involves direct commission of sin on Israel’s part – like taking bribes. Other parts of this appear to involve a failing to do what is right without any direct embrace of what is wrong. For instance, the indolent rich don’t necessarily do anything directly wrong but they do get condemned apparently for not fixing things.

This is a more active concept of good than the one we tend to have. We tend to think of being innocent as simply not engaging in evil (which can give us theological trouble as we seek to convince others that they engage in active and deliberate evil on a frequent basis [which people do but it’s a hard sell]). Instead, the book of Isaiah paints a picture where the innocent actively engage in doing God’s will and the guilty are those who don’t. Evil is presented as potentially passive – the Lord told you to set things right and you sat around drinking instead. Good is active.

The other part of this that I think is valuable is that it places God’s uncomfortable Old-Testament wrath in a very understandable context. God’s wrath isn’t God getting angry and flying off the handle but is the sentence of the divine court passed down on a wicked society that has actually refused a previous offer to settle the matter out of court. Part of the purpose of the prophet Isaiah is to ask Israel to deal with this issue before it lands in court and delivers a crushing verdict. Yes, God as judge does deliver a harsh sentence to Israel but God as plaintiff also entreats Israel not to let the matter get that far out of control.

Read more…

Because I Said So

September 29, 2014

Since I covered evolution last week I thought it would be appropriate to put up this short thought this week. This thought starts with a simple incident every biology professor seems to have experienced. You put a “why” question on a test. It may be, “Why do flowers have brightly colored petals?” or, “Why do cell membranes need protein ‘gates’?” but it’s a “why” question. It’s also a question that is supposed to be answered in an evolutionary context where a more efficient or effective design outcompetes a less efficient and effective design. However, someone in your class dislikes this evolutionary line of thought even though it isn’t explicit in the question or answer and just writes, “Because God made it that way.”

It’s a bad answer. In fact, it’s not merely bad but bad in a multifaceted way. First, it’s obviously not the answer that the question is looking for. Second, it’s generally not advisable to both blow off studying and then cover for not knowing the answer by trying to obliquely engage the professor in a fight about evolution. Thirdly, it’s crappy theology.

There are a lot of ways to answer “why” questions that are technically correct. For instance, the expected answer to, “Why do flowers have brightly colored petals?” is something like, “To attract pollinators so that the plant increases its odds of reproducing.” However, “Because they grow that way,” is also technically an answer to the question. Most of us would realize that it’s not a good answer though – we want to know why plants grow brightly colored petals rather than dull petals and simply stating that they have them because they grow them never touches on the crucial comparison. Similarly, “Because God made it that way,” avoids the crucial comparison. Much like, “Because they grow that way,” it is a statement about how something came to exist that never explains why it came to exist in the way that it is rather than some other way. This is where the bad theology comes in. “Because God made it that way,” is a good answer under only one scenario: God’s motives are beyond knowing.

In some sense it is of course fine to say that God’s motives are beyond knowing. God is not immediately comprehensible to us and no amount of study reveals to us all that God is and knows. However, when one is faced with two alternative designs for a biological part and one is clearly more efficient or effective than the other claiming ignorance of God’s reasons for going with the more efficient and effective design constitutes not merely a denial of having knowledge but of actually knowing that whatever God’s motives are efficiency and effectiveness could have had nothing to do with them. In other words, if X is clearly more efficient than Y and we believe that God chose X saying that we don’t know why God chose X means specifically that God is not interested in efficiency and so our knowledge about the efficiency of X is worthless.

While this is odd theology I actually think it is fairly common. A lot of people seem to think of God not as a being with reasonable motives but as a black box out of which come decisions with no clear internal logic. Why did God give us the Bible mostly as narrative? Because He did. No need to ask whether narrative is especially appropriate to God’s work because God isn’t comprehensible like that. Why didn’t Jesus use his powers to seat himself on the throne of Rome and fix the Roman social order before he was crucified? No reason, he just did it that way. There’s nothing to be learned about the limits of governing power here.

The odd thing about all of this is that it actually undermines God as an authority figure. Some time ago I discussed the nature of authority and the fact that authority exists in at least two pretty distinct flavors. Command authority forces compliance whereas expert authority is followed because following experts produces better results than ignoring experts. If God’s main answer to many problems are “Because I said so” (as this theology I have been outlining suggests) then God has command authority without expert authority. “Because I said so,” is a mere assertion of power to command without any rationale. Asserting that God has command authority but not expert authority takes some of God’s authority away – orthodox theologians have always claimed that God has both sorts of authority. The trick to taking away God’s expert authority is that God has not issued precise commands about everything. Instead, God has taught us about the nature of things. If we must listen to God as an expert and not just a commander we must listen to a great deal more.

There’s one more troublesome aspect to this. People with command authority but no expert authority are usually bad commanders. They tell you to do things that turn out to be really stupid. It’s hard to trust a commander who isn’t also an expert in the area in which they command you. A God Who is a black box from which arbitrary commands are issued isn’t nearly as trustworthy as a God Who is an expert on the universe He has shaped and is guiding you with His expertise.

Evolution and Sin

September 22, 2014

I know plenty of people who believe that one cannot be a Christian and believe in evolution. I know plenty more people who believe that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution but regard these beliefs as belonging to essentially separate spheres of knowledge. I don’t know all that many people who believe that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution and have these ideas interact significantly without seriously modifying one or the other belief. Despite this, I find that my evolutionary thinking and my Christianity frequently run together.

Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist who wrote many books and articles aimed at laypeople, referred to the relationship of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria”. In this idea science and religion both have a place but they have separate places that do not interact. A great deal of Christians think about evolution in these terms. They may permit evolutionary thinking but it is supposed to stay on its side of the line between theology and science. One may argue that the creation accounts in Genesis are not world-building guides (I’ve done this at some length) but often the goal is not to let evolution touch anything else.

I find this rather odd. I find it odd first because this is just not how we handle knowledge. If I learn that people work a certain way then I incorporate that into my Christian anthropology. If I learn that a particular economic policy has a certain effect then I use that knowledge when reading the Torah’s guidelines on trade. I also find this odd because I use evolutionary thinking all the time.

Christians talk about the Fall and sin quite a lot. The sinfulness of humanity is a central Christian doctrine and one that I think is hard for anyone with eyeballs to deny. Despite this, there are people who deny this doctrine. The idea that we are all pulled towards evil seems to be a stretch for them. Where are the societies that have devolved into endless torture and murder? Part of this is historical illiteracy – there have been some truly horrific cultures on earth. However, part of this can be attributed to expectations. If we are all drawn to evil are we all drawn to maximize evil? If we were all cut loose from all our better impulses, if common grace failed us entirely, would we all immediately begin plotting the most intricate tortures and betrayals?

I think not. I think, instead, that we should consider evolution for a minute. Evolution tells us that creatures do whatever maximizes their reproduction. Within evolutionary thinking altruism does not exist. Cooperation exists if it aids both parties but true altruism, where a creature puts itself at risk or endures a loss to benefit another creature without any return benefit, cannot. Ultimately evolution tells us that creatures should be supremely selfish. This doesn’t always look like maximizing evil – in modern society the best selfish action is often to stay within the legal and societal rules so that one does not suffer the consequences of breaking those rules. However, in societies where these safeguards fail, or for individuals for whom the safeguards do not work, this does lead to evil. Does evolution push a victor in war to be merciful to the defeated? Only if this is directly beneficial for the victor. More often it makes more sense to loot everything the loser has, kill any of the losing population who might pose a threat, and engage in rather indiscriminate rape to up the odds of successfully passing those winning genes on. This looks a lot like most of warfare in most of history.

Warfare isn’t the only example (although I’ve just been reading about ancient warfare so it’s on my mind). Evolutionary thinking finds sexual harassment unsurprising. It finds greed unsurprising. Nepotism makes perfect sense if all one is ultimately concerned with is the perpetuation of one’s genes. Short-sighted thinking that produces gains for you now but hurts other people down the road is perfectly natural in evolutionary thinking.

I think that one of the great advantages to evolutionary thinking is that it explains what sin is about. If you strip away noble goals and religious commitment you get predictably selfish creatures – creatures that have crawled right out of any evolutionary biology textbook. In some sense sin is a reversion to this state, a rejection of these odd human things we bring with us like moral consciousness and philosophical probings of the meaning of goodness.

I’m not sure how much of this would have actually been news to anyone in the ancient world. I have a sense that the edge-of-survival type of life of ancient people put them into much closer contact with a world in which you making choices to better yourself and your family at the expense of others is more clear. However, for people who feel a long way away from a world of constant struggle to survive I think it is useful to stop and think about who we are with our best intentions stripped away. What do we look like when we become depraved? Are we perhaps exactly what a good evolutionary biologist would have predicted?

What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity? Part II: Divinity

September 15, 2014

In part one of this short series I examined the issues involved in splitting the Trinity into three separate gods. In this one I will address a different approach to resolving another problematic aspect of the Trinity: demoting Jesus to a secondary figure, perhaps a powerful angel.

This idea is quite old and is one of the most famous heresies in Christianity, Arianism. However, while its fame may cause people to steer away from it is not always clear to everyone why Arianism is such a problem. One way to address this is to start from an even less Trinitarian proposal, Adoptionism. In Adoptionism Jesus’ status was granted to him by the Father at some point during his life on earth. That is, Jesus was not always the Messiah but was adopted as the Messiah. Most people can see why this is problematic. For one thing is makes God seem rather poorly planned. For another it means that God adopted some poor sap and sent him to the cross. One of the worst of the bad atheist arguments against Christianity is that Christians believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy His wrath, somewhat like a drunk father coming home and beating the family dog instead of his children. Adoptionism has very little defense against this argument. However, I’m not sure classical Arianism does either. In both cases God is selecting some other being to be killed to make things right. God is not fixing the situation personally but doing so by proxy. There are times when this makes sense but in this case it would look like God was not willing to get His hands dirty and used His power to make someone else put up with the worst parts of His plan.

Part of the power of Christianity is that God Himself took on our sufferings. God did not merely arrange for a lifeboat for us but actually came to bear our burdens with us. Arianism removes this – God just sent someone else. While this sometimes seems like a nice way to deal with the issues of Trinitarianism it’s a radically different view of God. It’s a picture of a puppetmaster God Who never involves Himself directly in the puppet show but merely steers other characters around the stage. This is an idea that’s actually very common in the modern world but not one that fits well with traditional Christianity. In many ways it’s a more Islamic picture where some tasks are too demeaning for God, one where God would never let his prophet die a demeaning death. It’s a vision that runs contrary to Jesus’ own teaching on servant leadership unless we assume that servant leadership is a “because I said so” rule and not a reflection of the true nature of God’s power. (This probably deserves a great deal of expansion but I think that Jesus is telling us something about God’s nature when he tells us that the greatest is a servant. After all, orthodox theologians all assert that if God ceased His continual care of us we would simply cease to exist.)

There’s another major argument that I find less compelling. It’s often stated that since only God is sinless then God Himself must be the sinless atoning sacrifice. However, most Christian theologians also think that at least some angels are sinless (this mostly depends on whether you lump demons in with angels) and so it would appear that archangels would fit the bill as well. More compelling, I think, is a view coming from a Christus Victor model of salvation. Here the emphasis is not on Christ’s sinless status as sacrifice but on his great power and the impossibility of his death. When death tries to claim God it fails and in failing breaks itself. It’s less clear that this would make sense if Christ were an archangel or similar being.

One of the interesting things about all of these arguments is that it’s easier to show why the alternatives to the Trinity have problems than why the Trinity itself makes sense. Indeed, the reason there are alternatives to the Trinity is because the Trinity doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This is often a major objection to the Trinity but I think that it is actually a selling point. As I’ve discussed before we sometimes imagine that major doctrines came into being “just because” and without any thought. In reality we know that doctrines all came about through discussion and debate. For the Trinity some of this debate is even recorded for us. So why did discussion and debate land on this odd statement about three persons in one that most people can’t even properly comprehend? I would say that this is a strong suggestion that the other solutions were worse. If you can’t split the Trinity into three gods and you can’t demote Jesus to a non-divine being you have to compromise. That compromise is the Trinity. In some sense I think early theologians were backed into a corner by the obvious flaws with other proposals.

Does this impact us any? I think it does. Yes, the Trinity is hard to understand. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe we can understand why the Trinity is still a better solution than any other idea even if we find the Trinity itself to be confusing.

Mythbusting Jesus as Myth

September 8, 2014

I promised part two of “What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity?” today but events have intervened. Specifically, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles suggesting that some noticeable number of biblical scholars have decided that Jesus is probably entirely made up. Since these seem to be a popular topic right now I’m going to interrupt my other series to make my comments now.

So, what should we make of these claims? The short version is that they are severely lacking. There are several reasons for this.

The first reason is simple: the media is, in general, terrible about reporting issues of serious scholarship. This goes for science, for scholarly discussion on literature, and for Biblical studies. Real scholarship takes time and often edges slowly towards consensus without dramatic fireworks. (Sometimes not – there are some great examples of fireworks as well.) It’s not uncommon to find that reporting in my field has failed to identify who is an expert, who has published in peer-reviewed literature and who has published a study elsewhere because none of their peers took it seriously, what the conclusion of the research was, and how widely-accepted the claims are. I have little reason to think that the media will do a better job in Biblical studies. In fact, several of these errors have cropped up in articles I’ve read. For instance, one article listed scholarly experts who believed Jesus was a myth and pointed out that one of them even had a PhD in a relevant field. In other words, the list of scholarly experts included only one scholar in the field. So the fact that there have been several media reports this week that Jesus-as-myth thinking is on the rise may not actually mean anything.

The second reason we should think very little of the claims made about the non-existence of any sort of historical Jesus is linked to a larger problem in Biblical scholarship: very little quality control is done on methods. In science one can publish an entire paper just on a new method for finding something out. One does not need to find anything new, one can test a method on a set of data that everyone already knows backwards and forwards, but merely developing a new method to analyze or collect data is worth publishing. (For those unfamiliar with academia the whole point of research is to publish a paper. It is in prestige terms the equivalent of coming up with a patentable invention for an engineer.)

Biblical scholarship often lacks methods testing. Methods are proposed based on the thinking of the authors and very rarely put to rigorous tests. Most of the claims that are supposed to back up the idea that there never was a historical Jesus suffer from this problem. Let’s look at a two examples.

  • There are no non-religious records of Jesus for quite a long time after he dies. This sounds pertinent but it’s actually unclear if we should expect any. Ideally we’d have a set of similar figures we knew existed and we could examine the records of their existence to determine how many records we should expect of Jesus but we can’t really do this (in part because the figures we know existed may just be the ones who had unusually large numbers of records about them survive to the present day). Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish Messianic figures may be generally under-reported. There’s reason to suspect that there were a number of them around the time of Jesus but there are very, very few records pertaining to any of them.


  • The existing records don’t match well. Again, this assumes that we know how well ancient records of someone should match. In fact, this particular claim involves a huge amount of highly subjective interpretation. For instance, some of the people making this claim attempt to deduce an idea about what Paul knew about Jesus. To do this they must decide on Paul’s theology (a controversial matter even amongst Christians), decide on how he will argue, and then infer what he did or did not know by what he mentions and what he didn’t. Ideally we would take a known figure and find some objective way to compare the accounts of their lives to give us a baseline. This does not appear to have been done.

The third reason not to take these claims seriously is that the mechanism they propose has never been shown to be possible. If there never was a Jesus then Christianity arose out of something else but invented a central (and non-existent) figure. Moreover, early Christians put a great deal of weight on the existence of this figure and frequently spoke of witnesses to this figure. This seems fairly odd. It’s one thing to make up a figure who lived and died centuries ago and is beyond the reach of eyewitnesses but making up a figure who is supposed to have lived recently and been seen by many living people seems extremely incautious. (So, for instance, the relatively popular claim in some circles that Jews invented Abraham and Moses from whole cloth does not run afoul of this problem because that claim also involves the invention of Abraham and Moses centuries after both men would have been dead. That sort of invention is more like renaissance writers inventing pre-medieval kings.) Now, if this is all I had to say I would be offering evidence of the same quality as those who think Jesus was entirely made up. However, my point is that we cannot name a religion with such a central figure who was entirely made up. We can name a number of religions with important prophets or other central figures (Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, Mormonism, and dozens of cults) but which ones made those figures up? For some of these I’m sure someone will claim that the central figure is made up but again the evidence will be of the same quality as the evidence that Jesus was made up. Find me some modern cults that made up central figures – new religious movements spring up constantly and we really can observe the methods by which they form. For instance, most people think Scientology makes some pretty strange claims but nobody thinks that L. Ron Hubbard didn’t exist.

In short, I doubt that these mutterings will turn out to be much of anything. In fact, since these articles coincide with one of the central figures in the Jesus-as-myth movement releasing a new book I suspect that this is more book review hype than scholarly reporting. The rise of more militant flavors of atheism also makes it more likely that we will continue to see extreme denials of Christianity on the rise in popular writing. However, the evidence behind these claims is lacking.


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