This post is the second epsiode of my new podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. Again, there’s not much for me to introduce, and if the title has you prepared for outrage, I give you my kind-hearted laughter. This episode is the result of some recent reflections on the nature and purpose of marriage, along with its problems today.
The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).
- No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
- Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
- In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
- Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
- The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
- Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
- Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
- If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
- Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
- Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
- Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
- Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
- Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
- Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
- …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
- Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
- Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
- Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
- The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
- …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
- Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
- Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
- Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
- Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
- Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
- Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
- Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
- Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
- If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
- Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
- Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
- No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
- Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
- Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
- Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
- If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
- Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.
“God wouldn’t…” This unfortunate phrase appears fairly often in theological debate. Along with this one come on occasion “God couldn’t” or, more rarely, “God shouldn’t.” Yet to me reasoning which starts in this way seems somewhat misguided at best and dangerous at worst. To explain why, I shall first provide some examples of what I dislike.
- A theistic evolutionist might say, “God wouldn’t create the natural world in a God-of-the-gaps manner.”
- A young earth creationist might say, “God wouldn’t create life by such a violent and inefficient process as evolution.”
- A Calvinist might say, “God wouldn’t waste any of Jesus’ blood dying for those who won’t be saved.”
- An Arminian might say, “God couldn’t save everyone without violating their free will.”
- A theological progressive might say, “God wouldn’t oppose people of any sex who love each other getting married.”
- A theological conservative might say, “God wouldn’t [maybe couldn’t] provide us with a Bible anything less than 100% inerrant.”
- A universalist might say, “God couldn’t send Jesus to die for everyone but everyone not be saved.”
- An exclusivist might say, “God wouldn’t save those who reject His Son.”
What do these all have in common? They all seem entitled to be overly presumptuous in discussing God. I take it as an absolute axiom that God is utterly, sovereignly free. God is under no obligations outside of Himself, and is not bound to any structures, logics, or rules beyond those to which He freely chooses to bind Himself. If this is the case to, in my opinion, any meaningful extent at all, then what use is a “wouldn’t” or a “couldn’t?”
The fundamental problem with trying to reason out such controls over God’s activity is that of the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is above; we are below. God is infinite; we are finite. God created and transcends the natural order; we were created and are radically contingent within the natural order. All of this adds us to that God’s famous declaration in Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”
Given Jesus’ own life (among other realities), this radical disjunction between human expectations and divine actions should be entirely unsurprising. How hard-pressed would one be to imagine a Jew before Christ saying, “God would never become a man?” Or perhaps one did expect that God would come in a human form or something, but might have thought, “When God comes, He will come in glory and power, certainly not in a lowly manger.” Indeed, when Jerusalem was abuzz with the hope that Jesus would take up the Messianic role and set Himself up as God’s king against Rome, did He not instead take the humble role of the suffering servant? Who before this happened would have said anything but, “God could not die!”
The pattern is clear. God has revealed that His normal practice is overturning human expectations, shattering our ideas of what He could or would do. His ways have appeared startling and paradoxical throughout His whole history of dealings with mankind, Israel, His own Son, and the Church. With such a free, sovereign, and surprising God, how could we ever presume to figure out His truths by way of reasoning what He could or would do? This would be akin to predicting what a cunning, master chess player would do when you yourself barely even know the rules of the game.
Instead, I believe we should restrict ourselves to the question of only what God has done, or promised to do. An examples, what if we reframed the earlier example debates this way exclusively?
- Did God create life by evolutionary, biological means, or by immediate miracle?
- Has God provided His Son as atonement for all people, or only some?
- Has God said that homosexuality is sinful, or has He left this open?
- Did God inspire Scripture in an inerrant way, or in another way?
- Has God said He will save all or some, and if some who has God said He will save?
None of the answers to these questions are important to this present post (and I can tell you now that you will not be able to use this list to figure out my stances on anything you do not already know). What matters is cutting away the “would” and “could” to focus on what God has actually done. Trying to work the other way, making the arguments I sampled at the beginning of this post, works as an effective red herring, taking our attention away from reality where God has truly done this or that, and instead pulling us into a vain world of hypotheticals and insolent speculation on the divine purposes. If we are to let God simply be God, and do as He wishes, then we should make a rule to assess His deeds a posteriori, not a priori.
On the other hand, I am not issuing a blanket condemnation on all attempts to reason about less clear areas of God’s activity from more clear ones. Obviously that is necessary in some way and to some degree. For example, if someone was arguing that God lied, we would be perfectly justified in responding “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Yet if we are to reason in this way, we must do so only on the foundations of what God has already clearly done and said, not inferences from the abstract, provisional, philosophical, and analogical side in our notions of who/what God is. On this latter ground there is simply far too much wiggle room, too many chances to go down a mental wrong turn without enough light to ever tell. Who is, after all, qualified to understand God’s ways anywhere but within the parameters set by God’s ways?
On this note, I shall end with this simply inexhaustible quote from Paul:
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
What does it mean to be consistently pro-life? Some things I think obviously fall short of consistency (e.g. exceptions for rape). But some problems are far more vexing and complicated. Not everything is clear.
Recently I’ve been dealing with this issue for the 2016 election. I don’t like one single candidate enough to actually vote for them so far. But thinking about my options has led to a curious and difficult question. Who do you do when you think a pro-life candidate will lead to more killings if elected, and a pro-choice one will lead to less?
For example, say candidate A is pro-life, but otherwise is an awful candidate. You suspect both that he will not do anything about abortion, and that in fact his policies are so bad that many more people will be driven into poverty and despair, and thus seek abortions. On the other hand, candidate B is pro-choice, but otherwise is an excellent candidate. You suspect that he also will do nothing about abortion, for or against, and that in fact his policies are so good that many people are lifted out of poverty and despair, and thus many fewer will seek abortions.
My first instinct is to go with candidate A. After all, I can’t know for sure what will happen, and I wouldn’t want my vote in any way to go behind a pro-choice policy, even if it doesn’t actually do anything. How can I compromise on human life?
But imagine this scenario is tweaked. This time, the Doctor comes from the future and gives you access to statistical data at the end of the next Presidency for each option. As it turns out, you were right. If pro-life candidate A wins, his awful policies will lead to twice as many abortions as candidate B’s. Twice as many children will be brutally murdered if candidate A becomes President.
Back in the present, does this affect your vote? If you know that twice as many children will be aborted if the pro-life candidate A wins the election, will you instead vote for pro-choice candidate B, even if that means in some sense compromising your values? Will you put your vote behind someone who supports the right to kill infants if it will save the lives of many infants?
I don’t know about you, but if I had such future knowledge settled I would vote for candidate B in a heartbeat. Not only are most of his policies good, but even though he supports a pro-choice policy I could still help save hundreds, even thousands, of children. But this becomes much more difficult when brought back to the real world, where such foreknowledge is hidden. We don’t know what effects any given President will have on abortion rates, assuming that none of them will/can do anything about abortion itself (which is probably true of all the candidates running right now). We can only guess. But how certain or uncertain must we be to decide? Maybe you don’t know that candidate B will lead to way less abortions, but you’re pretty convinced. Maybe you’re 80% certain, or even 90%. Then how do you vote?
This is the problem I’ve been wrestling with. Right now there is no resolution in sight. I don’t like anyone in the running right now, but abortion could swing me if I had good reason to believe children might benefit from any particular candidate’s Presidency. So I don’t know what I will do.
How about you? What do you think about this dilemma? Would you vote for A or B? If you had that hypothetical future knowledge, would you vote for A or B? What is the right way to handle this?
As Christians, we sometimes debate things. Usually doctrines or practices, mainly because those are the only real categories. But alas, often in these debates people use terrible arguments and logical fallacies. So I’m just going to review a few common logical fallacies I’ve seen used in Christian debate in alphabetical order, and show some example problems involving them.
(Also, before you read all of these, don’t even bother trying to deduce things about what I think from the examples I use. People on all sides of every aisle use bad arguments, and I select whatever comes to mind.)
Anecdotal Fallacy: Well, In My Experience…
An anecdotal fallacy is when you simply use an example of something that happened, especially one from your own experiences, as evidence instead of any rational argument. “My interpretation of my experience” becomes enough to settle the debate.
- My leg was healed, so the Charismatics are right!
- I’ve spoken in tongues before, so I know it’s real.
- I’ve seen a lot of evil in my lifetime, so I know total depravity is true.
Ad Hominem: You Have Problems, So Your Argument Does, Too
An ad hominem fallacy is when you attack the person instead of the argument. Just because the person you’re debating has flaws does not make you right.
- You skipped church last week, so you’re wrong!
- You don’t have a degree, so I won’t listen to your arguments.
- You like Rob Bell, so your belief in the Trinity is mistaken. (Ad hominem-ception!)
Appeal to Consequences: If You Are Right, Then Bad Things
Appeal to consequences is the mistake of saying someone’s position is right or wrong just because of what it might lead to. Even if something unfortunate or bad would be the result of a position, the position might still be right. Likewise, even if a position leads to something good, it might be wrong.
- If all your past, present, and future sins are forgiven when you’re saved, then people can sin all they want! So that can’t be right.
- Jesus couldn’t have died for all people because then some of His blood would be wasted on those who aren’t saved.
- If Hell isn’t real, more people will want to be Christians, so it must not be real!
Appeal to Emotion: That Just Doesn’t Feel Right
An appeal to emotion is an argument which using emotions to force the point instead of any actual reasons. It can work with anything from intuitive tension to outright horror.
- Would you really want to worship a God who sends people to Hell forever?
- There’s no way that sweet little babies go anywhere but Heaven!
- Calvinism is disturbing, and so must not be true.
Begging the Question: (Assuming One Thing) This Must Be True!
Begging the question is when you make a claim or present a set of choices which actually rely on a hidden assumption. By saying what you do, you actually raise a new question which you might not acknowledge.
- If there is no free will, people are robots. (Begs the question: Is free will the important difference between people and robots?)
- Love must be freely chosen to be love, so Calvinism is false. (Begs the question: What kind of freedom is necessary for love, and is this kind of freedom not present in Calvinism?)
- Humans were involved in writing the Bible, so there must be errors. (Begs the question: What is the relationship between the divine and the human roles in the Bible?)
Circular Reasoning: This Is True Because That Is True Because This Is True
Circular reasoning is when you try to prove one point by another point which actually relies on the first point. A because B because A.
- God must control all decisions to be sovereign, because He would not be truly sovereign if He did not control all decisions.
- Free will must not be determined by God, because if they were determined by God they would not be free.
- The KJV is the only pure Bible because modern translations are corrupt. Modern translations are corrupt because they are different from the KJV.
Etymological Fallacy: This Word Meant This
An etymological fallacy is when you take the meaning of a word in modern day use and project it back onto the word’s history or roots. This is something used frequently in informal Bible studies.
- The Greek word translated “power” is where we get our word “dynamite.” So it means an explosive power!
- Predestination since the Reformation refers to God choosing specific individuals for salvation, so that’s what Paul meant when he said we were predestined.
False Dichotomy: This or That, No Other Option!
A false dichotomy, also called the false dilemma, black-or-white, or excluded middle fallacy, is when you force an issue into only two choices, even though there are or might be other options.
- Does God love everyone, or does He condemn gays?
- The Bible is either 100% inerrant or totally worthless.
- You must pick: either Jesus died for only the elect or everyone will be saved.
Red Herring: Squirrel!
A red herring is a statement or question thrown into an argument to change the subject or switch the attention from one thing to another. It sends you down a rabbit trail so you don’t have to keep following whatever reasoning is threatening.
- Regardless of whether Jesus died for everyone or not, Calvin murdered Servetus!
- I don’t know about that omnipotence paradox, but atheism takes as much faith as Christianity.
- Did Jesus rise from the dead? But the Exodus never happened!
Slippery Slope: Next Thing You Know…
A slippery slope argument is when you try to say that if one thing happens or is true, the next thing you know some crazy catastrophe will be the end of it. Slippery slope arguments act as if one step in a possibly wrong direction necessitates you falling down to the bottom of the well.
- If you think there is one error in the Bible, then you will inevitably have to question the whole thing.
- If Genesis 1 isn’t literal, then where does it stop? Genesis 2? 5? 11? John 13? You’ll lose the whole Bible!
- As soon as you say drinking alcohol isn’t a sin, you’re opening the door to rampant debauchery and drug abuse.
Straw Man: No, You Really Think…
A straw man argument is when you caricature your opponent’s position so that it is easy to defeat. You turn their real position into a fake version, a straw man, with obvious weaknesses.
- Calvinists believe that the Bible was just mistaken when it says, “He died for all!” But the Bible is not mistaken, so Calvinism is false.
- Arminians say that man’s free will isn’t hurt by sin. But Romans teaches we are slaves to sin. (Hint: If you don’t get what’s wrong, Arminians affirm that man’s free will is totally enslaved to sin until God sends prevenient grace.)
- Evolutionists think that God couldn’t have created the world in 6 days. But He can!
There are, of course, many other fallacies out there, many used in Christian debate, but I don’t wish to go on for now. If you are interested, you can look up some other fallacies I see used a lot including the genetic fallacy, poisoning the well, retrospective determinism, kettle logic, and the fallacy of the single cause. Hopefully, paying attention to these things will bring greater clarity and charity to all Christian discourse. Peace and grace!
People have a lot of funky ideas about the Bible. And it’s no wonder, given that it is the worldwide bestseller, was completed 2000 years ago, and is revered as God’s word by many millions of people. Anything with that kind of place in the world is bound to find several strange receptions.
One thing which frequently happens with the Bible is the publishing of articles in print and online which claim to reveal the truth about misconceptions people have regarding the Bible. A quick Google search proves this. This is unsurprising and often necessary. After all, there’s quite a bit of nonsense the average Joe, and even the average born-and-bred Christian, believes about the Bible that is not true at all. So let those with knowledge correct the ignorant. Deal with misconceptions about the Bible.
But there is a troubling trend which is evident from even the top search results. Many of the so-called “misconceptions” the top articles correct are in fact orthodox Christian teachings, or at least something closely related. Here’s an example from one of the articles on Google’s first page of results:
The character “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as “God”). The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians — such as omniscience and immutability — are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category “God.”
Um, is that okay? Of course there are lots of people who argue this, even some within Christianity, but is that really a misconception about the Bible, or the result of different worldviews and how they address the questions surrounding the Bible, divine revelation, and the divine nature? After all, Calvin and Bavnick handled the OT weirdness pretty handily with their theology of accommodation. But here it is asserted without consideration of debate that a traditional view is one of people’s misconceptions about the Bible.
The problem I’m seeing is how many people use the guise of “Guess what you never knew about the Bible?” to promote skeptical, anti-Christian views as the facts. This is standard fare. I could multiply the examples:
- Lots of articles says, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch!” (the first five books of the Bible), “We now know that it came way later from four distinct and contradictory sources edited into one book.” This is far from settled, except in the minds of people who have ruled out a priori the possibility that the Creator God really did reveal Himself to the people of Israel in word and powerful deeds. And this isn’t merely a conservative Christian vs. the rest of the world matter, either. The popular JEDP theory touted by blogs and magazines galore has been under increasing question in recent years, partially due to the way that a robustly historical and contextual reading of the Pentateuch seems to work best if it is taken as a whole.
- Many will say, “Guess what? The word for ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:10 actually meant ‘young women’ and was mistranslated into Greek, so Matthew and Luke actually invented the virgin birth to fulfill a mistranslated prophecy!” In fact, a large number of people consider this a settled fact. Yet the debate continues, even among real scholars, over the meaning of the word almah and, perhaps more importantly, the way that the NT authors cited the OT. This is not a settled matter by any means.
- Of course, there’s also the classic “The Bible has really changed from the originals,” which is patently false as far the evidence can lead us. Every new discovery leads towards the opposite conclusion, but that doesn’t stop bloggers and journalists from reporting it as a scholarly consensus and fact that the Bible we have is totally unreliable.
I could go on, but I would risk making a fool of myself by speaking on matters above my pay grade (as if I’ve completely refrained from doing so already). My goal here certainly isn’t to prove the skeptics and secular scholars wrong. I merely want to point out the secret you won’t find in popular writings: none of these misconceptions about the Bible are as settled or certain as people on either side of the aisle would like to pretend.
I say “either side of the aisle” for good reason, too. There’s no airtight case for most of what we believe about the Bible and history as Christians. Yes, there are rational reasons to believe, but the evidence isn’t overwhelming and demanding. But likewise, the consensus among many who aren’t orthodox Christians is far from guaranteed. There are compelling arguments, but no proof which can force the hand away from faith.
This brings me to the crux of the matter, namely the spiritual perspective. Despite what we assume about matters of facts, proofs, and evidence in today’s scientific and technological world, there is no objective and impartial judge over all these matters. Everyone stands either from a place of faith or of unbelief, either thinking as one united to the mind of Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit or thinking according to the wisdom of this world in resistance to the One who is Truth. Therefore we have to own up to that, and in the case of sensationalist bloggers and reporters claiming to know why classical Christianity is false we must hold them accountable. They are not objective, and their claims are not settled reality. There is debate and, although it sounds awfully silly to those without the rule of faith, spiritual warfare going on.
Basically, don’t believe the common misconception that basic Christian doctrine is a misconception about the Bible. ‘Cause that’s not necessarily true.