Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saint Jerome on the Bible Canon

"Therefore as the church indeed reads Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical books, so let it also read these two volumes [Sirach and Parables] for the edification of the people but not for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogma" (Prologue to the books of Wisdom).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Review of Peter van Inwagen's Book "The Problem of Evil"

The so-called logical problem of evil suggests that there's a marked inconsistency between the statement "Almighty God exists" and the utterance "evil exists." For if God is almighty and omnibenevolent, then why does evil obtain? This problem was raised long ago by the Greek philosopher Epicurus and the ancient Gnostics.

Notre Dame University Professor, Peter van Inwagen, offers a useful contribution to the growing literature about the logical problem of evil. His book is a solid collection of eight Gifford lectures delivered at the University of St Andrews in May 2003. The prose contained in the work is often impressive, the reasoning is starkly lucid and van Inwagen's philosophical arguments generally are compelling. Hence, these lectures carefully analyze "evil" in order to remove manifold confusions that surround the concept. There are contexts in which "evil" denotes "moral depravity" but other contexts where the denotation is possibly "the absence of good." Defining evil is an arduous task, but the clarification of ideas should precede genuine philosophical analysis.

Before showing the deficiencies evidently associated with the logical problem of evil, van Inwagen posits his idea of God. He reasons that there are certain attributes which God should possess in order to be the maximally excellent entity, that than which a greater cannot be conceived (according to Anselm of Canterbury). These divine qualities include omniscience, moral perfection and omnipotence. The reader is subsequently treated to a definition and insightful analysis of the expression "philosophical failure." What is philosophical failure? How does this notion affect the argument from evil? Those perusing the book have such questions answered. Additionally, they find new distinctions regarding evil (for example, local versus global evil).

In the final analysis, I believe that van Inwagen demonstrates how the argument from evil fails. He establishes (with a certain degree of plausibility) that one cannot rightly argue from evil to the non-existence of God. There are other ways to account for the permission of divinely-preventable evil. To this end, the book addresses animal suffering, predatory activities among beasts and the so-called hiddenness of God. The author wisely frames a number of his arguments in dialogical form by creating two characters known as Theist and Atheist, who argue about the logical problem of evil in front of an imaginary neutral crowd. The dialogue is interesting, to a point, although I believe that van Inwagen tries to be too clever at times.

This philosophical treatise is written for those who have some familiarity with the common vocabulary of metaphysics, the philosophy of religion, and systematic theology. Moreover, I would not call the arguments here conclusive, in any sense of the word, but the read is generally enjoyable and illuminating.

Commentator Joseph Alexander on Acts 2:23


Very incisive remarks.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Is It Reasonable to Believe That God Brings All Things to Pass?

If God has foreordained every event or action, then he not only causes evil through evil men like Hitler or Judas--but he also causes "evil" (along with good) through every human who has ever lived. According to this line of reasoning, God evidently brings it to pass that fetuses are aborted through humans. It also seems that God caused evil through humans when the ancient Israelites offered their innocent babies in the fire to the false god Molech. Yet, YHWH explicitly stated that he never commanded such actions, nor did these kinds of sacrifices ever come up into his heart (Jer 7:31; 32:35). In fact, God called such sacrifices an "abomination." I also judge (condemn) similar actions and I would never think that God moved someone to offer his/her child in sacrifice, nor would a righteous and good deity move one man to rape another man's wife. "There is no darkness" in God (1 John 1:5).

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Westminster Confession As It Pertains to Foreordination

Some people believe that God foreordains all that comes to pass--including the ungodly acts of those not serving him. The Westminster Confession of Faith (III.1) states:

"God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."

So God evidently foreordained the Edenic Fall and he ordained (eternally) the violent death of his Son and so many other historical atrocities. Yet God is not the Author of sin. How does this kind of reasoning logically work? I also wonder how this view comports with scripture.

Two points for now:

1) Why foreordain the Fall, yet warn Adam and Eve what would happen if they disobeyed and took fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden? Why sentence them to death if they were simply doing what had been foreordained? What would you think about me giving an assignment to my students, and telling them there would be a penalty for failure to do it, but then make the assignment undoable by dint of its design? I would probably not win professor of the year for such a move. And I can't help but wonder how God's name would be magnified by the foreordination of evil.

2) James 1:13-17 seems to contradict the Westminster Confession. God does not tempt (try) us with evil. He is perfect, just and good in all his ways. God did not foreordain the treacherous act of Judas Iscariot; nor did he bring to pass chattel slavery or the Holocaust. Each one is tried or enticed by his own sinful desire. As for the Edenic Fall, it occurred because of two humans who chose to misuse the free will granted them by our God and sovereign. He did not bring that event to pass.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Why Are Some Utterances of Paul "Hard to Understand"?

Paul's letters can often be difficult to understand (in Greek or English). The apostle was a profound thinker, a point that I think is borne out by looking at the illustrations he uses (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). Granted, he was writing under inspiration and by means of the wisdom that God gave him (2 Peter 3:15); nevertheless, the Bible allows human personalities and abilities to shine through the text too (1 Corinthians 7:12, 39-40).

But it is not always easy to follow Paul's involved line of reasoning (Romans 9:15-33); Gal 3:1-20). Why is he hard to understand at times (2 Pet 3:15-16)?

A.T. Robertson makes this observation:

"The style of Paul, like his theology, has challenged the attention of the greatest minds. Farrar calls his language 'the style of genius, if not the genius of style.' There is no doubt about its individuality" (A Grammar of the Greek NT, p. 128).

Robertson also mentions K.L. Bauer, who compares Paul's writings to the treatises written by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. And here is what one scholar (John H. Finley, Jr.) has to say about the historiographical style of Thucydides:

"At farthest remove from the nascent [earliest Greek] prose is the co-called periodic style of Plato, Isocrates and the writers of the fourth century generally. By studious subordination of minor points to the major idea of a sentence, it achieves impressive organic unity but commonly at the cost of sapping the vitality of subordinate ideas. This is the style, which, adopted from Isocrates by Cicero, passed from him into the English cadences of Gibbon and Burke. Thucydides' prose stands somewhere between these two, the simple and periodic, styles. His chief devices are antithesis, comparison and contrast. Within any given sentence, clause will be paired with clause, subject with subject, verb with verb. This elaborately antithetical method is more characteristic, to be sure, of the speeches than of the common narrative" (The Peloponnesian War, page x in the introduction).

With the foregoing in mind, read (in Greek) Ephesians 1:3-14; Rom 1:24-28; 5:12-21; Galatians 5:19-21.

In addition these points, it is important to remember that Paul employs a number of literary or rhetorical devices. His letters have even been compared to rhetorical or apologetic treatises of antiquity, though there may be some legitimate
differences between the Pauline letters and epistles penned in the ancient world.

Timothy George (see his commentary concerning Galatians) makes an interesting point regarding the Pauline letters when he reminds us that H.D. Betz outlines Galatians as follows:

Exordium: Gal 1:6-11

Narratio: Gal 1:12-2:!4

Propositio: Gal 2:15-21

Probatio: Gal 3:1-4:31

Paraenesis: Gal 5:1-6:10

Postscript: Gal 6:11-18.

While George believes that this analysis has some advantageous features, he nonetheless provides good reasons why "Betz seems to have gone too far in pressing Galatians into the rhetorical structure of apologetic letters" (Galatians, page 64).

This caveat should be duly noted, but I can also agree with Betz in other respects. I have worked with a number of Latin and Greek apologetico-rhetorical treatises (Tertullian, Lactantius, Cyprian, Tatian, Quintillian) as well as literary devices in general. The Apostle Paul is a master rhetor, as far as I can
tell, even if he appears to speak of rhetoric in pejorative terms at times.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Albert Barnes on Acts 19:9

Acts 19:9 casts doubt on the notion that all first century congregations/churches were house ecclesiae. Here is Barnes' remarks on this verse:

"In the school of one Tyrannus. Who this Tyrannus was, is not known. It is probable that he was a Jew, who was engaged in this employment, and who might not be unfavourable to Christians. In his school, or in the room which he occupied for teaching, Paul instructed the people when he was driven from the synagogue. Christians at that time had no churches, and they were obliged to assemble in any place where it might be convenient to conduct public worship" (Barnes NT Notes).