Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Love your enemies

Sorry, I promise this is the last one… for tonight…

One response to the pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount in the history of Christian ethics, especially the command to love our enemies, has been to argue that doing violence to our enemy can actually be a form of love.

But I have to be honest; I don’t think anyone would honestly believe this if it were not for the need to shore up a justification for war. Consider: what is the Christian argument against wife-beating? There’s no verse that explicitly says: “And thus saith the Lord: ‘Thou shalt not beat thy wife’.” Rather, the best and strongest argument against spousal abuse is that it is not loving to beat one’s wife. In fact it is exactly the opposite of love to beat one’s wife.

But the instinct that opposes love to wife-beating a fortiriori opposes love to killing.

A bad argument against pacifism

Sorry for the theme here, but I’ve got it on the brain…

One common argument against pacifism is: “If we actually took that position, much more evil would be perpetrated against innocents than if we didn’t.”

An example often is WWII: what would have happened to the Jews if the Allies hadn’t fought the Nazis?

The problem with this is that classical Christian theology, expressed perhaps most strongly in Calvin, teaches that all human actions are concurrently caused by God, as well as being caused by human agents. This means that while we can look at history as (containing) a series of human actions, we can also look at it as the outworking of divine providence.

This means that the Allied defeat of the Nazis is not just a human act, but a divine act. And this means that, at least in some sense, God did step in to stop the Nazis.

The basic point of this reply to the argument is to point out that a) the consequences of being a pacifist are not necessarily worse than not being a pacifist, and that b) one can condemn human actions (violence) while simultaneously seeing them as being used by God to prevent worse evils (as, e.g., a pacifist would perhaps see the Allied defeat of the Nazis in WWII).

This means, I think, that one cannot mount a consequentialist argument against a biblical pacifism; one will have to show that there is no good reason to believe God wants us to be pacifists, and to do that one would at minimum have to refute biblical arguments that God does want us to be pacifists.

A tentative biblico-theological thesis about pacifism

I think I’m the only one who would agree with the following, but, really, I’m just writing this to keep a record of it and see what kind of reaction it gets. So here goes nothing.

For a while I’ve been what I call a “tentative pacifist”, in that I think it’s the best of the options about social ethics as a model of what Scripture says, though I still have my questions in some areas. One of those areas is about the way in which this ethic would relate to the OT. For many Christian pacifists the answer has essentially been to write off the Old Testament as not authoritative, but with a high view of inspiration I don’t see that as an option.

A few different strands of biblical theology have presented themselves to me as a possible option for reconciling pacifism with the OT. They are essentially this:

  • The Bible presents the age of the OT as an age ruled by angels, or as the NT calls it, powers/elements/principalities; notably, in Galatians, Paul says that Israel under the Old Covenant was under these powers in being under the law (which should make clear that the powers are not inherently evil)
  • The Bible also presents violence as acceptable for the people of God in the OT (and even commands it on some occasions)
  • In the NT, the church is said to no longer be under the elementary principles/powers, but rather fighting/working against them to get them to submit to Christ the King

Perhaps the answer for the move from non-pacifism to pacifism is found in this change: in the OT, the people of God were under the powers, and thus rightly used the methods of the powers, which included violence. They were not at war with the powers, but totally under them; at most, they made war with human instruments of other powers. But now that the church is itself in conflict with the powers, it no longer makes sense to use their methods; rather, cosmic and carnal powers must be overcome with divine power.

Again, I’m sure this won’t convince anyone here, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot it! :-)

Saving the world by subduing it

Right now I’m prepping for teaching two blocks of grade 10 business at a Christian school in September by reading an ethics book called Beyond Integrity by Biola philosopher Scott Rae. I was surprised to find Rae favorably quoting Peter Leithart in the chapter on environmental stewardship. Leithart sounds much like Stephen Weinberg did in an article entitled, “Five and a half utopias” from the Atlantic.


“More precisely, in God’s wisdom, man best guards the world precisely by subduing it … Wild animals become safe and serviceable only after they are made submissive to human rule. Land becomes more productive under human care. Art and architecture are possible only becuase of human effort to transform the material of creation. Subduing the earth brings safety, prosperity and beauty. As the earth is subdued, it becomes something worth guarding; it becomes a sanctuary. By contrast, should man fail to exercise this royal mandate, the world will be less productive, safe and beautiful. This pattern implies a very different perspective from that of contemporary environmentalism. Instead of guarding the pristine creation, humanity is called to guard the world once it has been subdued to human rule, once it has been transformed into something like a sancturary. Man guards the garden and the city, not the wilderness.” Peter Leithart, “Snakes in the Garden: Sanctuaries, Sanctuary Pollution and the Global Environment,” Stewardship Journal (Fall 1993): 24 – 32.

Profound as always.

Modern attitudes in systematic theology

Michel Barnes is one of a few patristic scholars who is working to rehabilitate Augustine from of the nasty things that theologians have been saying about Augustine’s trinitarian theology. In the context of an article discussing where these nasty things have come from, he made an interesting comment about modern systematic theology in general which I thought was worth posting:

Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be distinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms. This confidence springs, I think, from two attitudes. First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of “paradigm shifts”; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves. Secondly, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that sufficient knowledge of “facts” can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any “fact” can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology. One can imagine that either or both of these attitudes would make historical judgments or characterizations more tentative and rare, but I think it is fair to conclude that this has not been the case. [Michel RenĂ© Barnes, "Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology," Theological Studies 56 (1995): 241.]


Apropos about Dan’s qualification on allowing gay-marriage (that it would not impinge on the rights of all religious groups), a Catholic adoption agency has now closed down in the UK because they refused to give children to gay couples, and the government both required that adoption agencies give children to gay couples, and refused to allow them an exemption for religious reasons.

HT: Craig Carter

A Sea-Change in American views on Gay Marriage

According to USA Today, same-sex marriage is increasingly viewed as a private matter. Indeed, for a while I have had an extremely hard time seeing why it ought to be otherwise. Provided that the rights of all religious groups are protected, I cannot fathom what the point would be in prohibiting same-sex marriage on the civil level. I know that this view isn’t shared by all the authors or readers of this blog, but on an intuitive level, I can’t seem to get upset about this. Moreover, I can’t imagine that there would emerge some kind of long-term societal damage as a result.

I know that the theology on this is a different matter all together (it’s been treated extensively elsewhere on this blog), but as a civic issue, I can’t see the point in a prohibition.


REAL Women of Canada, a group that has its share of connections to the Christian community in Canada is having a fit because the Vancouver safe-injection site, InSite, has been allowed to stay open.

I suppose if you were completely ignorant (or disingenuous) you might think that shutting down a service that prevents HIV transmission as well as overdoses, and attempts to put addicts into treatment, is a great idea. REAL Women have created this false dichotomy between InSite and rehab programs as a sort of rationale for their position. Given that InSite has been able to move people into treatment, I doubt that very much.

It’s beyond me why a group that purports to care about “life” and “family” wants to take a stance that smacks so much of cruelty towards hard core drug users.

Who is your neighbour?

What is Unconditional Election?

I have a fairly good idea what Arminians mean by their belief in conditional election, but Calvinists are not quite that clear. I have run across three separate definitions of unconditional election. All of these definitions were written by Calvinists. Classical Arminians would have no trouble agreeing with one them, while the other two would be problematic. I myself am inclined to agree with one of these two, but not the other.

One of these definitions was written by J. I. Packer. It is as follows: “This divine choice is an expression of free and sovereign grace, for it is unconstrained and unconditional, not merited by anything in those who are its subjects.” Classical Arminians agree that God’s choice in election of particular people was not based on good works, any merit in the creature or anything good that the creature could or was foreseen to do. Therefore an classical Arminian would agree with this while maintaining that election was conditioned on foreseen faith. This definition simply fails to distinguish the Calvinist position from the Arminian one.

A second definition is written by Spurgeon. It is as follows: “That God saves from corruption and damnation those whom He has chosen from the foundations of the world, not for any attitude, faith, or holiness that He foresaw in them, but of His mere mercy in Christ Jesus His Son, passing by all the rest, according to the blameless reason of His own free will and justice.” This definition is incompatible with Arminian teaching because it excludes foreseen faith as a condition of salvation. However, it does not exclude everything possible relating to the object of election. It is possible that he chose people in order to maximize the number saved by faith. This is a definition I favor.

A third definition is written by Loraine Boettner: “The Reformed Faith has held to the existence of an eternal, divine decree which, antecedently to any difference or desert in men themselves separates the human race into two portions and ordains one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting death.” This definition is also incompatible with Arminian theology. Although it could be interpreted the same as the above definition by Spurgeon; it seems best to interpret it as meaning that any differences, properties or relations at all in creatures, whether counterfactual or actual, played no part in God’s decision of election.

These three definitions are important. If the first definition is truly Calvinist, then the classical Arminian doctrine of election is also Calvinist! The second definition allows for a mediating position between Arminians and high Calvinists (third definition). So my question is this: is the second definition Calvinistic or not? If not, then would all Calvinists have to endorse the third definition as I have described it or would they instead be allowed a weaker definition?

A defense of allegorical interpretation

Richard B. Hays has elaborated in various places helpful methods for detecting intertextual echoes in texts. The basic criteria he gives for doing so are the following (HT: Joel Garver):

[1] availability of the source text to the author and his audience, [2] the volume of the echo in terms of its explicitness, [3] recurrence or clustering of allusions or echoes from the same text, [4] thematic coherence with the line of argument, [5] the historical plausibility of finding an intertextual reference given the original situation, [6] the subsequent history of interpretation finding the echo, and [7] the satisfaction given by the intertextual reference in reading the surrounding text.

For the second criteria, there are three sub-criteria:

[a] verbatim repetition of words from the source text, [b] the distinctiveness, prominence, or popular familiarity of the precursor text, and [c] the rhetorical stress placed upon the phrase in question

While one can dispute individual uses of these rules, I think it is fair to anticipate that the authors of the bible would be capable of allusion, and thus I think it is reasonable to use these in our interpretation.

Further, it is a general rule of interpretation that we interpret the words of an author in the context of what we know about them in general, especially including other things they have written (especially the immediate literary context of the text).

But, as Vern Poythress has explained in detail, whenever we read scripture (and if we believe it to be inspired), we have to reckon with two authors, not one. (And further, we have precedent for believing the the Scriptures can mean more than their human authors originally intended by the use of the OT by the NT, by the use of the OT by later parts of the OT, and by explicit teaching in 1 Peter 1:10-12)

All of these points actually, I think, allows us to justify the practice of “allegorical” interpretation as it appears in the Fathers (for the most part anyway). That is, if you actually look at the content of the allegories of most of the patristic writers, it is almost universally nothing you could not have learned from a literal interpretation of other scriptures.

And I think that an application of the above criteria can help us to justify that kind of reading, as well as prevent it from becoming completely arbitrary. As God knows everything and is eternal, [1] and [5] are already met automatically. But apart from that, one can use all the criteria on a particular passage, taking into account the whole canon.

Further, typological readings often interpret not just other texts, but present experiences according to older texts. I think this is even easier to justify than the previous kinds of readings; in this case, one simply needs to realize that the scriptures, even the narratival portions of the scriptures, were written for our benefit (as scripture constantly asserts, and Paul explicitly), this gives us justification for seeing certain events in the narratives as being a function of deeper principles (historical, moral, soteriological, etc.) which are still in operation today. Thus one can appeal to, for example, God’s judgment on Assyria for its arrogance as justification for interpreting the fall of an empire in one’s own era (if one is living in an era in which that is occuring), since the narrative tells us that God is the kind of God who judges arrogant empires.

Thus, I think there is sufficient justification for readings of scripture other than grammatico-historical readings of the original intention of the human author of a text, which also are not justifications for completely arbitrary readings of texts.