Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch

This post is a spin-off of a two part sermon on the reliability and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch preached by Pastor Bill Connell at Grace Bible Church the past couple of weeks. The sermons are not necessary to an understanding of what is posted here but they provide support for the Mosaic authorship I am defending and can be heard here… part1, part2.

By far the most popular view of the authorship of the Pentateuch held outside of conservative circles over the past couple hundred years is known as the documentary or Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. This is the view that what we now know as the Pentateuch, or first five books of the bible, are not the result of a single author such as Moses but rather they are an editorial compilation of works by a series of authors writing over a period of time. According to this theory these books; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in their current form date from many centuries after Moses lived and could not have been written by him as the text of the bible claims and are instead the work of a redactor, that is an editor that pieced together parts of other separate writings into a new form. There are many competing theories on the details of how and when this redaction was done and what the origin of his or her source material might have been but essentially the bottom line is that the claims for the date and authorship given in the text itself is unreliable.

This hypothesis developed as a result of applying source-criticism to those documents and identifying the fact that there are a number of different names used for God and that each of the names tended to be associated with a different view of God. Rather than seeing this as the work of a single author providing different emphasis to various aspects of God in a single literary work they saw this as evidence of separate authors. The most common delineation (though not always) was the identification of four separate sources known as J, E, D, and P respectively. The theory is that a series of later redactors (editors) known as R wove together documents written by JEDP to produce the Pentateuch we now have. The result is a quite cumbersome and sophisticated splicing of texts as the following illustration shows.

Once these scholars decided that Moses was not the author of the texts in questions and that a series of source documents were involved the next question became the question as to the date of the composition of those various documents and the final editing. As a result of various verses that they considered anachronistic, the scholars concluded that the source documents were written between 1,000 and 500 B.C. (depending upon the source) and that the final editing took place somewhere between 500 and 350 B.C.

To be sure there are a number of difficulties that those holding to a traditional view of Mosaic authorship have to contend with such as examples where cities are listed with names that, as far as we know, they did not have until later periods etc. Whatever those difficulties, however, there are plausible explanations for them that do not require jettisoning both the plain testimony of the books themselves as well as that of Christ and other biblical writers as to who wrote them. The various textual indicators supporting early authorship by Moses are strong and I would suggest that the development of these complex literary theories have more to do with a rejection of supernaturalism than with the historical or grammatical concerns of the text. Nevertheless, I would like to consider two of the passages that these scholars often point to as evidence that these books could not have been written by Moses.

Genesis 36:31

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.
(Genesis 36:31 ESV)

Critics point to this verse as evidence that Moses could not be the author of this text. The statement “before any king reigned over the Israelites” is seen to be conclusive evidence of late authorship because the monarchy was not established in Israel until the time of Saul (around 1,000 B.C.), between 300 and 500 years after the time of Moses. This verse does raise some interesting questions. How do those of us who believe that the predominance of the internal evidence of the text is in harmony with its own claims to have been written by Moses approach a text like this? Is this an unexplainable or irreconcilable problem for the traditional view?

Like any other verse of scripture we need to try and understand it through an analysis of its function in the broader context of the passage and book in which it appears being careful to ask appropriate observational questions pertaining to the historical, grammatical, and contextual elements that are included in it and surrounding it. In this case doing that leads to a conclusion that explains this seeming difficulty in a rather simple way.

God’s promise of redemption is the central theme developed in the Pentateuch and among the many developments of this promise in the text is that there would be a great king who would come and reign justly over his people. Moses, as a prophet looked forward to this coming king and as he recorded the development of an elective monarchy in the southern territory of Edom he no doubt had in mind the coming king who was promised for his own people. In the chapter just prior to the verse in question Moses recorded the promise given to his ancestor Jacob regarding this coming king.

And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.
(Genesis 35:11 ESV)

This was a reiteration of the earlier promise God had made to Abraham which Moses had recorded in chapter 17:

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
(Genesis 17:4-8 ESV)

The promise of a king coming out of Abraham, through Jacob, in the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10) was a promise that Moses was familiar with, recorded, and believed in. Although he did not witness the establishment of the monarchy in Israel it was an anticipated reality for him no less real than the promises of deliverance from Egyptian bondage for which he risked his life. Genesis 36:31 is simply a recognition that monarchy came to Edom before it was established (as it inevitably would be) in Israel.

Deuteronomy Chapter 34

Perhaps the most famous and obvious passage that critics use to support their view that Moses could not be the author of the Pentateuch is the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy which records the death of Moses. Even the most conservative scholars admit that that this chapter could not come from the hand of Moses but they do not believe that this implies that the claim of Mosaic authorship for the rest of the law is also questionable.

If it is true that here we have an undoubted example of a redaction then how can we, who believe the traditional view, make a case that this example is an exception and not a clear example of the rule? The chapter begins with the following words:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. [8] And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.

(Deuteronomy 34:1-8 ESV)

Critics point out that not only did this have to be written at least 30 days after Moses died, thus clearly excluding him as the author since someone cannot record their own death, but also that the statement “no one knows the place of his burial to this day is another clue that this was written much later. What is often neglected is that the very next verse says And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.. As you read on into the book of Joshua it is clear that Joshua is to continue as the successor of Moses and was gifted by God with the wisdom to fulfill that commission. We know from Joshua 8:32 and 24:26 that Joshua was literate and was familiar with the writings of Moses so it is entirely plausible that under inspiration it was he who recorded the events in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy.


A person’s position on these issues will be essentially determined by the presuppositions that are brought to the text. If one believes that there can be no supernatural or prophetic utterances regarding future events then they will have difficulty with much of what appears in these first five books of the bible. There will be a natural desire to account for such statements by placing the author within later contexts where the events discussed are contemporary or at least more fully developed theologically in the contemporary writing or worship. If, however, we accept that certain allusions, such as Genesis 36:31, are consistent with prophetic wisdom bestowed by God then the number of difficulties diminishes quickly. If we maintain a supernatural outlook and accept the revelation of God as the foundation for our understanding of Truth then reconciling various textual emphases is much more straightforward and does not require complex literary theories.

We certainly agree that careful analysis of the text is an important discipline and some of what the critics have identified in the shifting vocabulary and focus of the various texts is valuable in that it helps us to identify shifts in the teaching segments within those works. We do not, however, have to assume that this is evidence of multiple authors that have been spliced together. Even many modern critics recognize that these texts function as coherent and complete literary units and the scattered sequencing of the documentary hypothesis is being challenged even by literary scholars who are unbelievers. Regarding stylistic shifts It is possible that Moses, like Luke, had access to other records and documents as he produced his inspired accounts but ultimately we accept the testimony of the books themselves and of Jesus that the first five books of the bible were the work of Moses.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Perhaps the most substantial challenge to the Christian worldview over the past century and a half, at least in the west, has been atheistic materialism. According to this view nothing that exists is composed of anything that is not composed of physical material. The existence of non-material objects such as souls, spirits, or God is an impossibility. This view became more plausible after Charles Darwin introduced a theoretical framework that could potentially explain the diversity of the biological world. If there are natural processes working within the physical or material world that could explain the world around us then the theoretical need for a non-material agent such as God becomes unnecessary.

One of the most interesting developments, at least in my mind, over the past few years has been various challenges to that evolutionary framework such as irreducible complexity, the probability of anthropic “fine tuning” etc. Despite these assaults, however, the orthodoxy of evolution by natural selection is essentially unchallenged orthodoxy within the scientific community. In addition to the questions raised by a minority of scientists there are also certain philosophical challenges against materialism that are perhaps more significant. Many of those philosophical challenges are refinements of very old arguments, some dating back to ancient Greece. There is, however, a very interesting argument best articulated (in my mind) by Alvin Plantinga that actually uses evolution as an argument against materialism. It is a form of argument known as reduction ad absurdum where a debater assumes some premise of their opponent and then reasons from that position to demonstrate a contradiction in the system or some other conclusion that the opponent cannot accept. When done successfully it is a very effective way to argue.

Plantinga uses this approach in his evolutionary argument against naturalism (materialism). The full argument can get a bit complicated and I am only going to give a simplistic and basic overview so for those who are interested in learning more you can hear Dr. Plantinga explain it himself in a 5 part series here.

The argument is essentially that in order to have a naturalistic or materialistic view of the universe one is likely to accept evolution because it provides an important (almost necessary) explanation for biological life and diversity. Evolution, however, provides a defeater for the materialist, however, because, if true, it is likely to result in a low probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Therefore, if evolution is true, the materialist has no basis for being confident that his or her processes for coming to true conclusions are reliable (thus undermining their confidence in materialism).  I will try to explain a bit more.

Evolution holds that over time certain characteristics that give a creature a survival advantage will be “selected” for and those that reduce that advantage will be weeded out. The theory relies upon the ability of creatures to survive and reproduce and pass on those characteristics to their offspring so certain abilities such as feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction are the determinative factors driving natural selection. Only those cognitive faculties that lead to advantages in those behaviors (such as a frog being able to determine the correct location of a fly it wanted to catch) will be selected for in the evolutionary process. Other cognitive faculties, such as the ability to perform abstract thinking, are not as likely to be reproduced. Since evolution is blind and unguided then cognitive faculties, such as human reason, which have developed via evolutionary processes have a low probability of being reliable because evolution is concerned only with behavior and not with belief.

Therefore, a Christian has within his or her system a rational basis for believing that our minds are trustworthy because of the assumption that we are created in the image of God, who is Truth. Naturalists, according to this argument, however, have no such rational basis for believing that their minds are trustworthy because their assumption is that the primary forces which formed them were focused not on producing a mind that has true beliefs but rather on producing an organism that is effective at feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.

There have been many philosophers who have responded to Plantinga’s argument as it was first proposed in the early 1990’s and he has since reformulated it (as recently as 2008) but, as expected, the debate continues. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christianity Today's view of Al Mohler

I just read Christianity Today’s cover story for October 2010 written by Molly Worthen. It is a brief biographical sketch of Dr. Albert Mohler a leading evangelical thinker who is the head of Southern Seminary and who is an important figure in the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention. Although the article includes descriptions of the importance of Mohler to conservative evangelicals there is a general tone of condescension in the piece. Worthen, it seems, considers Mohler a fundamentalist and it is reasonably clear that she doesn’t see this as a good thing. Although it is subtle, Worthen does not portray Mohler in a positive light.

Whether you agree with him or not Al Mohler is a remarkable person in many ways. He has accomplished a number of things that were only dreamed of by many conservative theologians before him. He has a successful and broad ministry in the general culture with his radio program and blog. He has been able to make a tremendous impact at Southern Seminary in shifting it from liberal and neo-orthodox theological positions to a more traditional and conservative direction. Along with this, and partly as a result, Mohler has been part of a conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Denomination as a whole. While Worthen is correct in identifying the fact that Mohler holds to fundamentals in theology such as the inerrancy of the bible, complementation roles for men and women etc, he cannot properly be considered a fundamentalist.

Mohler is carrying out his conservative revolution from within the Southern Baptist denomination. Separatism is the position that most clearly defines modern fundamentalists and Mohler never withdrew from the SBC but rather chose to work from within the denomination. In addition to remaining in broad fellowship in the SBC with those who may not share his conservative theology Mohler has also engaged in measured ecumenical activities that virtually no fundamentalist would. Mohler is a cofounder of Together for the Gospel along with Presbyterian Ligon Duncan and charismatic C.J. Mahaney. One would be hard pressed to find any fundamentalist Baptist engaged in mutual ministry with one partner that holds to infant baptism and another that believes in the gift of tongues for today. Mohler also signed the Manhattan Declaration which is a joint declaration of both Protestant and Catholic leaders on various issues such as abortion, gay marriage, etc. Many of his colleagues refused to sign and Mohler explained that his signature was not an endorsement of the theological positions of the Catholic Church broadly, but rather agreement on the specific issues mentioned.

It is therefore further testimony about how far Christianity Today has fallen from its original purpose that a Christian leader who holds to fundamental doctrines and yet is attempting to engage the broader culture and reform an old-line denomination would receive such condescending treatment. It is even more remarkable when one considers (as reported in the article) that it was Carl Henry, former editor of Christianity Today, who was an important influence in turning Mohler more conservative.

When Karl Barth, the leading Neo-Orthodox theologian, came to the U.S. to deliver lectures he made a stop at George Washington University where 200 or so religious leaders were invited to come and ask him questions. One of them was Dr. Carl Henry. Dr. Henry rose to ask a question and identified himself as the editor of Christianity Today. Barth sarcastically asked “did you say Christianity today or Christianity yesterday” referring to Dr. Henry’s conservative theological views. Dr. Henry replied “yesterday, today, and forever”. A lot of history has happened since that time but I still find it ironic that in our time it is Dr. Henry’s old magazine that seems to exhibit Barth’s attitude toward those who have the audacity to believe wholly in the truth of the scriptures.

I recommend the article but caution the reader to recognize what I believe to be an obvious bias. By the way, I almost chose to review an article written by Dr. Mohler instead of this one. Since in this case the topics nearly overlap I have linked that article here and recommend you read that as well to give some depth to the views of the person described in the Christianity Today article.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 4

This is the fourth and final post in a series introducing the problem of evil to those who are not familiar with it or the Christian responses to it. Please see the previous posts for more background.

The final response to the problem of evil that one is likely to hear from Christians is less of a defense than an appeal to look at the problem from a different perspective. There are a lot of variations on this kind of explanation but I call this the sovereign defense response. Similar to the free will defense (FWD) the sovereign defense (SD) holds that evil exists as a result of some purpose in Gods creative economy. Unlike the FWD, however, the sovereign defense does not teach that evil is a necessary byproduct of some higher purpose in Gods creation. The SD teaches rather that God uses evil in His creation to bring about His purposes. In this view evil is opposed to God but is not outside of His sovereign control and all events, good and evil, are part of the unfolding plan of God.

The Primacy of a Biblical View

The SD does not try and argue from some supposedly neutral premise to a justification of God. It is a presuppositional argument meaning that it assumes the truth of scripture as its starting point. Opponents claim that such a response fails because it is an example of the logical fallacy of begging the question and see it as simply a more sophisticated way of presenting an obviously fallacious argument such as:

Christian:         God certainly exists
Doubter:          How do you know?
Christian:         The bible says that He does.
Doubter:          Why should I believe the bible?
Christian:         Because God wrote it!

Supporters of this view point out that every philosophical system including materialism, atheism, and all other religions must assume the truth of some initial ideas that they then reason from. They point out that the problem of evil derives its power from the apparent contradiction of certain elements of the Christian system such as God’s omnipotence and His love. SD supporters say that since the criticism itself derives from claims about God made by the bible it is perfectly appropriate and consistent to argue that a more complete understanding of the biblical system removes those apparent contradictions. This makes the SD argument different from the fallacious argument listed above because SD is simply attempting to show that the Christian view of evil is consistent and non-contradictory.

There are few different elements to this argument that we will consider.

The bible as an Answer to the Problem of Evil

The first aspect of this argument is to turn the premises of the original argument from evil back upon themselves in the following way:

1)      Evil exists

2)      God is perfectly good, all powerful, and that He knows everything
a.      Since God is perfectly good He has the desire to eliminate evil
b.      Since God is all powerful He has the ability to eliminate evil
c.       Since If God is all knowing then He knows how to eliminate evil

3)      Therefore God will eliminate evil 

Those who hold to an SD argue that God will ultimately deal with evil and that, in fact, He has done so in Christ. The bible is the record of God’s plan of redemption and is God’s answer to the problem of evil. God reveals to us that He has a plan of redemption and that He is working in a particular way to eliminate evil and judge those who partake in it. Most of the people who use the problem of evil as an argument against Christianity make the assumption that the existence of God is inconsistent with evil if it exists for any duration of time. They seem to wish for a God who instantaneously acts to eliminate evil from His creation. While God certainly has the power to do this He has determined rather to triumph over evil by working through the created order to redeem what He has created. His purposes in doing this are not shared with us but He promised to bring victory through the seed of a woman. Just as evil entered through creation He has determined to deal with it through the creation. In fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve God established a lineage that culminated in the God-man Jesus Christ in whom the ultimate triumph over evil was accomplished. The biblical answer to the problem of evil is that God has, and will, vindicate His righteousness and judge evildoers. The solution and culmination of this work is the sacrifice of His son Jesus Christ. The battle is already won but He continues to work through creation toward final redemption. His doing so, however, is not instantaneous but is a process. He does not share with us why He chooses to work this way but we are able to trust in Him by virtue of who He is.

God’s Relation to Evil

The second attribute of the SD is that problem of evil contains certain assumptions about the relation between God and evil that is either incorrect or oversimplified. There is the implication in the problem that somehow evil is an independent power outside of God that He either cannot or will not overcome. Those who hold to the SD point out that the biblical relationship of God and evil is more complicated. Although evil is certainly opposed to God it is never independent from Him. They teach that God ordains evil events in order to bring about His sovereign purposes. There are many biblical examples of this, however, one will likely suffice for our purpose because it at once an example of the most evil act ever committed and also a tremendous demonstration of God’s sovereignty and the basis for His ultimate triumph over evil itself. I am referring to the crucifixion of Christ.

God planned from eternity past that this sacrifice should be made. John tells us in Revelation that Christ was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world and many years before He was even born Isaiah said of Christ “It was the will of the LORD to crush Him”. It was absolutely certain that this event was going to happen and even many important details of it were prophesied long before they happened. It is clear that God has planned and ordained these events to come to pass. The decisions that bring it about, however, are clearly evil and sinful. Peter sums up the tension of these truths after being released from custody in Acts: “truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28 ESV)

This demonstrates that at the very least there is a complexity in the relationship between God’s purposes and the particular evil acts of moral agents. What is more, based upon the biblical view of God’s ultimate power over all things including creatures, weather, and contingencies this complexity extends beyond moral acts to also include natural occurrences of evil. The disease, fire, and other calamities that afflicted Job for example were done with the consent of God (it is God who points Job out to Satan and extends permission to Satan to afflict him). Since those who hold to the SD maintain that nothing happens outside of God’s purposes they must explain how God can ordain and use particular evil events such as the treachery of Judas as well as earthquakes etc. without being considered blameworthy for those evil acts.

God and the Authorship of Sin

The major criticism of this approach from within the church is that it seems to “make God the author of sin”. There are a few different ways that those who hold to the SD respond to this. Most make a distinction between God ordaining an event and God being the efficient cause of an event. For example, God ordained that Christ would be betrayed by Judas and offered up to be crucified etc. but while God was the ultimate cause of this He was not the efficient cause. The evil in Judas’ heart and the sinful motives in the hearts of the leaders were the efficient cause of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this view, God has a redeeming purpose for working through secondary causes, even when those secondary causes perform evil actions. God therefore cannot be said to have been the cause of the evil directly because He always works through creatures according to their natural desires. In this case, God did not force Judas to do anything, rather Judas acted in accordance with his own evil desire. God therefore could ordain with certainty His ends while not violating the freedom of any particular agent such as Judas. The result is that God ordained that a particular person (Judas) perform an evil act but the evil choice originated within the will of the person without coercion or restraint. This presupposes a compatibilist view of human freedom that retains God’s justice in holding people accountable for actions that He ordains because they flow unimpeded from their own will and desires.

A second way that some that hold the SD respond is to simply assert that there is no problem for God’s justice or righteousness even if He were the efficient cause of evil acts. In their view responsibility, in the sense of being blameworthy, cannot apply to God in any sense because He is “Ex Lex”, meaning that there is simply no law or standard to which He can be held accountable outside of Himself. Culpability is seen in this view as simply the result of being held under a standard of law. God is just in holding creatures accountable for things that He, Himself, can do without culpability simply as a result of the fact that we are subject to Him and He is subject to nothing outside of Himself. They respond to the criticism that this is an unbiblical view by asserting that the bible repeatedly claims that God is sovereign over all things and that there is no biblical passage that teaches that God is not the author of sin. They claim that verses such as James 1:13, 1 Corinthians 14:33, and others are often interpreted as biblical support of that position but that these verses are addressing specific circumstances are not dealing primarily with the metaphysical issues involved in this argument. They point to passages of scripture such 1 Kings 22:19-22 and others as counter-examples to show that God retains His sovereignty even in ordaining evil acts. He is just in doing so as a result of His position as God and His judgment is just because it flows perfectly from the divine nature. Ultimately they teach that God does as He pleases with His creation and for us to question those choices is an example of arrogance and pride.


This argument, like all the other responses to the problem of evil that we have covered, is much more nuanced in its details than what I have presented here. There is some strength to this argument in that it recognizes that approaching the problem without a consideration of the broader doctrine of God and His relationship to His creation is problematic. There is no neutral ground with which to consider this problem despite the best efforts of philosophers through the years. J.I. Packer explains that for many years there was no problem of evil because believers simply understood that God was in control and that we were responsible for our actions. Although that is an exaggeration there is wisdom in that simplicity. By trying to analyze the problem without the broader context of the Christian message we inevitably import certain assumptions into our thinking that influence our logical progression. If the complaint is that the God of the bible is inconsistent with evil then all of the biblical data about that God and His relationship to this world must be considered when evaluating that claim. We must not try to resolve this problem without considering carefully who God is and everything He says about Himself.

The weakness of the argument is that it adds little to the philosophical discussion. It may be a logically consistent response of someone who has faith but it is unlikely to be very effective as a defense because it requires the importation of an entire set of presuppositions that are all in question for those who typically bring up the problem of evil. Of course, those who hold this view do not feel that they should put themselves on the defensive and prefer to proclaim rather than explain the God they believe in. Either way, though this argument is compelling to those who accept the scriptures it can sound a lot like fideism despite the best efforts of those who support it to present it in a rational way. Therefore it works well for presuppositionalists but is unlikely to be of much value to classic apologists.

There is certainly much more that has been said about the problem of evil than we have covered in this series but my intention was to try and write a simple introduction to the major views. For those interested in studying the topic further we recommend that you consult the starter kit and advanced study resources.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Unhelpful Answers: God outside of time

One of the more challenging aspects of Christian theology is reconciling the relationship between God’s omniscience and human choices. This topic provides us with many “unhelpful” answers that we could examine but I would like to focus on one in particular that seems to be very popular. Although I have heard it many times I am still a bit surprised every time I hear it because I wonder if the people who use the argument have ever really thought about it. I am referring to the “God is outside of time” answer.

When faced with the question of how people can be making legitimate free choices even though God knows exactly what is going to happen before it actually does, many people respond by saying that unlike human beings God is outside of time and so the logical problem is overcome. This, like most of the answers that will be included under this category, sounds on the surface like an insightful and reasonable answer. In fact, this view isn’t only popular with the average Christian on the street. Many popular Christian apologists and writers have also appealed to this type of logic. In his book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis explains the position in this way:

“Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise? Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call "tomorrow" is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call "today." All the days are "Now" for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because, though you have lost yesterday. He has not. He does not "foresee" you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already "Now" for Him.” 
                                                                                                  -Mere Christianity Book 4, chapter 3

If, however, we think carefully about this argument we will notice that there are a couple of difficulties with it. First, I do not think that it is wise for people to confidently advance an argument that they do not understand. I do not believe that I have ever met a person who has made this claim who was able to adequately explain even the most basic elements of the argument. I am not saying this to be arrogant, rather the opposite. I have studied and thought about the nature of time over the years and it is among the most challenging and complex subjects that can be tackled. When someone makes this argument to me (and many have) I tell them that rather than start by arguing about something as difficult as the nature of God we should start with the easy part first and then I ask them to explain to me what they mean by “time”. After about 10 minutes of failed attempts they usually recognize that they need to think about it some more. I don’t say that to be critical, the concept of time is a very difficult thing to define. In fact, the greatest minds in human history have not been able to do it convincingly with any consensus or agreement. Even those who have spent many years studying the issue confess the difficulty of the task. Augustine, who made important contributions to at least one major theory of time, said:

“For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”
                                                                                                            Confessions Book 11

It seems philosophers cannot agree on what exactly time is. Some see it as a real “thing” others see it simply as a property or extension of a mind. The scientists are not much more help. Some claim that time consists of discontinuous packages, others claim that it doesn’t even apply to certain non-material objects such as photons that are time-null and virtually all scientists accept that it is relative. Einstein famously remarked in a letter that ”the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one." It seems that even when they try and give an answer, those who study time usually do not think of it in the same way as the average person does. For those interested in getting more information about the philosophical and scientific definitions of time a good place to start is here.

Given all this confusion it is difficult to see how one could confidently make an argument that relies so heavily on an understanding of the relation of the divine nature to the nature of time without a lot of consideration of the problems involved just in defining the basic terms.

Perhaps more important than the difficulty of defining important elements of the argument is the fact that even if the most simple definition of time is accepted the answer still does not solve the difficulty. Let us assume for the sake of argument that time is simply “a sequence of events, some prior to and or subsequent to one another”. There are weaknesses to this definition but I think it is probably a simple summary of what most people essentially mean when they use the term. Second, let us assume that our actions and choices take place in time… that is that some things are prior and some are subsequent to the moment of our choice in our experience. Finally, let’s assume that God is outside of this sequence and either knows, observes, or experiences all of these not in sequence but in the present as Lewis and others claim. The question must now be raised as to how this bears upon the relation of our sequenced choices to God’s un-sequential knowledge, observation, or experience.

It might be helpful to focus on a particular choice that we make. If God has a knowledge, observation, or experience, that we will have a sandwich for lunch and it is eternally present for Him then long before we made the choice within our time sequence it was certain that we would have chosen the way we did. To conclude otherwise is to assert that God could be incorrect in what He perceives or knows in His eternally present state. It doesn’t matter if God is inside of or outside of time because His knowledge of our time-bound choice is not constrained by the same time sequence as we are. As long as He is omniscient the difficulty remains because before we make any choices, indeed before we were born, God already knows perfectly what choices we will make. This doesn’t imply a necessary determination on His part but it does imply that there is a certainty about the choices that will be made which is fixed with regard to our sequence of events. Regardless of how God knows this (eternal present, perfect future knowledge, causal decree, etc) the fact that He knows it renders it certain prior to our voluntary choice being made.

What bothers people about the problem of free will and God’s omniscience isn’t how God comes to know things but rather the realization that if God knows perfectly what we are going to do before we do it then it is certain we will not logically choose to do anything other than what He knows we will do. The “God out of time” explanation does nothing to change that. As long as humans exist in time and God’s knowledge of our future is perfect at a point prior to our moment of decision the complexity remains.

It is quite possible that God does in fact exist outside of time. There are many scholars with different opinions on this issue. In fact, it seems to be becoming a more relevant topic of discussion since some people like William Hasker and others have rejected traditional Christian theological views and embraced an “open” view of God, teaching that God doesn’t know the future perfectly but only as a set of probabilities. Others like William Lane Craig teach that God was outside of time but chose through creation to experience relational time. There are various other views as well each of which must be culled from other teachings in the scriptures since this issue isn’t directly addressed. Whatever the relationship between God and time is it is complex and requires thoughtful consideration and much study before coming to any conclusions. Many embrace the “God out of time” view because they think it provides some solution to certain free will questions but unfortunately it does not.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

1 Peter 4:6 The Harrowing of Hell?

“For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”                                                                                          (1 Peter 4:6 ESV)

This verse has generated a lot of interesting interpretations through the years. Many people believe that this verse, in its immediate context, simply means that the Gospel was previously preached to people who are now dead and translations such as the NIV, the NLT, Holman and some others render it that way. Some others take this verse to mean that there is an additional opportunity for people to hear the gospel after they die. This is one solution proposed by theologians such as Donald Bloesch for what happens to people who die without ever hearing the gospel. Some early writers such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria also seem to have held similar views. The most common view historically, however, has been that this verse is a reference to what is known as the harrowing of Hell. This is the teaching that Jesus Christ, after His crucifixion, descended into Hell prior to His resurrection and in one sense or another conquered it.

The Apostles Creed which is recognized by not only Roman Catholics but also by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, as well as many other denominations explicitly teaches this doctrine:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell and the third day arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen."                                                           (Apostles Creed)

Based upon the antiquity of the creed and the ubiquity of its acceptance one is tempted to simply accept the doctrine of the harrowing of Hell at face value and move on. But, what is meant by the words “He descended into Hell” is open to debate and some early versions of the creed do not contain that line.

Although the term “Hell” is usually associated these days with the place of eternal torment this is not necessarily what is referred to in the creed. The terms translated as Hell can also simply mean the underworld, the place of the dead etc. The most common teaching among Catholics is that Hell here refers to the place of the dead. The harrowing of Hell, allegedly alluded to in passages like 1 Peter 4:6 is said to be a reference to Christ going into Abraham’s bosom to those who had believed prior to the gospel ministry of Christ and loosing the bonds of death that held them. This means that Christ made it possible for those in that place to overcome death and enter Heaven at the appointed time. Other Catholic’s have taught that in addition to this work the descent into Hell involves suffering on the part of Christ or that rather than a place Hell should be understood as a state of being.

In the Protestant church the two main traditions have held to slightly different views. Martin Luther taught a version of the harrowing of hell doctrine somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic view although he characteristically combined the suffering of Christ in this event with His triumph over the power of Hell. The ninth article of the formula of Concord, an early Lutheran Confession, says:

…we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God's Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. (Formula of Concord, Article IX)

The Reformed churches have mostly followed Calvin in teaching that Christ experienced Hell on the cross and that this was a necessary suffering as a substitution for us in order to atone for our sins. The descent into Hell is seen not to be a physical journey but rather the bearing of the curse and being cut off during the imputation to Christ by the Father the sins of the world. Upon His death, Christ ascended into heaven having experienced Hell in His suffering. In his Institutes Calvin explains it this way:

”If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. A little while ago we referred to the prophet’s statement that "the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him," "he was wounded for our transgressions" by the Father, "he was bruised for our infirmities" [Isaiah 53:5 p.]. By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge — submitting himself even as the accused — to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All — with this one exception: "He could not be held by the pangs of death" [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who — on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it — say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (Calvin, Institutes)

Virtually nobody argues that Christ entered the place of eternal torment. Satan, himself has not yet been cast into the lake of fire and obviously the harrowing of Hell could have no benefit to anyone who is not going to be saved. The references are either to the release of those imprisoned in some kind of underworld awaiting the victory of Christ or the suffering of the curse by Jesus upon the cross. Which of these seems more likely and if it is the second option then what is Peter talking about?

There are other verses in addition to 1 Peter 4:6 used to support the doctrine. In each case, however, there are also other plausible interpretations for the verses used. Let’s look at the major examples in addition to 1 Peter 4:6.

1 Peter 3:18-19

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, …

Some teach that this is a reference to Christ ministering to and releasing the spirits of people who were in prison (perhaps waiting in Abraham’s bosom) waiting for Christ to defeat the forces of Hell. It is also possible, however, that this is a reference to Christ’s work through Noah in his day (look at the context) or that the “message” proclaimed is a message of triumph by Christ to those disobedient fallen spirits upon His victory.

Ephesians 4:8-10

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Some see this descending into the lower regions as a picture of his going down to the place of the dead and the leading out a host of captives as a reference to the freeing of those whom Satan had held. The context in Ephesians, however, just as easily supports this as a reference to Christ’s incarnation, His coming to earth and the salvation of the Church, who were formerly in bondage to sin.

John 5:25

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

Some teach this as a reference to Christ having a ministry to those righteous who had passed prior to his victory on the cross. The context in John, however, seems to support the idea that the “dead” in this verse is a reference to spiritual deadness (see the previous verse).

Acts 2:27,31

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. …       He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”

The implication is that Christ was in Hades although He could not be kept there. Of course this could simply be pointing out that Christ would not stay dead and doesn’t necessarily imply any additional work journey on His part.

The concept that the gospel will be preached to people after they die runs counter to so much of the other biblical teaching that we can safely reject that as a possibility. Sorting through the other views, however, requires a bit more work. Certainly Christ cannot be said to have entered into the place of eternal torment as some today misunderstand the teaching to be. It is reasonable that Christ went to the place of the dead since He experienced death, but whether He went there to do battle for two or three days is not clear. He tells the thief on the cross next to Him that He would see Him that evening in Paradise. If we assume that Christ was in Paradise that very evening then it seems to limit the timeline in the place of the dead. I didn’t have room here to give exegetical details regarding each of the verses used to support the harrowing of Hell doctrine but in each case I believe there is enough grammatical and contextual evidence for coming to the alternative interpretations I allude to above.

1 Peter 4:6 seems to me to simply be stating that God is the judge of both the living and the dead and that although some who heard the gospel died in the flesh they can live in the spirit just as God does. Because of what Christ told the thief on the cross I am inclined to a view closer to what Calvin held than to the Lutheran or Catholic view but I am open to change my mind on this issue should I be instructed more adequately from the Word of God. What I know for sure is that I have heard the gospel and because of the power of Christ I am set free from Satan even now. I pray that in His power I may put off the old self and live a life that is pleasing and glorifying to Him.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Atheists & Agnostics More Knowledgeable about Religion?

There was a strangely interesting article in the LA Times this week that reported the results of a survey on religion. According to the article, which can be read here, atheists and agnostics scored higher than Protestant Christians with regard to their basic knowledge of the teaching of Christianity.

I was not able to see the questions, however, the examples given in the article were things that one would certainly expect the average Christian to know. There are a lot of different things that can influence the outcome of these kinds of surveys such as how they define the groups, how they word the questions, and how they perform the analysis. I am not sure how they defined the representatives of each of the groups but assuming that they used fairly objective criteria or based it upon peoples self-identification then this is a disturbing story.

It makes me wonder what is being discussed and taught each week in many of our churches. It is particularly important in Protestant churches that people understand the doctrines and the biblical foundations for them. There is no infallible human authority that can give the "official" interpretation of the text so each person is expected to engage with God's word directly. This survey seems to reinforce my view that we are not adequately preparing people to do this. 

There is a desire on the part of teachers and preachers to be engaging and relevant and so we are tempted to avoid repeating plain teaching that we assume people know. We are often looking for new insights and powerful applications of these basic truths without necessarily adequately teaching and preaching those truths in themselves. We should never assume that people have the basics down or that if they do that they somehow do not need to hear it again. I am not advocating boring or repetitive sermons or classes but rather that the most relevant and powerful thing we can do is to always cover the foundations prior to building upon them. The neglect of foundational doctrines is dangerous because it is precisely those teachings that tie together and unify the other teachings.

Do you know and understand your church's doctrinal positions? If not, you should ask to have them clarified. If you are a teacher or a preacher, does your congregation know and understand your church's doctrinal positions? If not, why not?