Friday, November 27, 2020

Does God Hear the Prayers of Unbelievers?

This question comes up from time to time and it seems important to address for several reasons. From a Christian perspective, it first speaks to the goodness/benevolence of God. For example, one can imagine a person wondering how an all-loving God could not hear the prayers of an orphan child in a war-torn country, the child not knowing a thing about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, maybe the question hints at the evil/hiddenness objections to God. Secondly, the question gets at the notion of prayer itself. We need to inquire into the nature of prayer, how it works, and so forth. Further, when thinking about this issue, we must consider certain distinctions often thought to exist between believers and unbelievers. Christians might think it problematic if believers and unbelievers were both on the same plane in terms of prayer. If they were, at least some promised benefit of being a believer would be voided or diminished.



In this post, I hope to sketch out some basic answers to the question of whether God hears the prayers of unbelievers. My answer is that God does hear the prayers of the unbeliever, and this should cause us to rejoice in His goodness. God’s hearing the prayers of unbelievers in no way diminishes those of the believer. Even a long series of blog posts could not address all the antecedent questions and implications. However, I will do my best to also address some objections to my affirmative answer. 

We might first say that in His omniscient and omnipresent nature, nothing is unknown to God. Thus, any utterance of a believer or unbeliever is known to God and thus ‘heard’ by God. The matter at issue is whether God might grant the petitionary or intercessory prayers of unbelievers. By believer, we mean one who is a Christian. In several New Testament passages, viz. Luke 18:13 and Acts 10:1-33, an unbeliever prays and God hears and honors or grants the petition. 

Here one might claim that God the Holy Spirit had first regenerated the heart of the sinner in these instances so that we simply have only believers are praying to God. But this rendering goes far beyond the biblical text, especially Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius and his house as a consequence of his prayers. This approach would turn on a combination of equivocation on the term ‘pray’ and a disjointed, perhaps question-begging, argument in favor of a negative answer to the inquiry. Something along the lines of “only believers can truly pray, therefore only believers’ prayers can be answered.” The price tag for such a position would be far too high, assuming what it seeks to prove and further presuming the petitionary utterances of a believer and an unbeliever directed to the transcendent are two essentially different things.* The act of prayer itself, in terms of communication of a need, desire, etc. cannot be rendered essentially different based on the eternal state of the person when they are communicating it. For if they are essentially different things, then the question cannot even be raised. If only believers can pray, then it would make no sense to ask if God can hear the prayers of unbelievers, because unbelievers cannot perform the act. So, asking the question presupposes that, in a general sense of the term, both believers and unbelievers can pray. 

We can furthermore look to the Old Testament where the people of Nineveh prayed that they might be spared (Jonah 3:5-10), where Hagar asked God to protect Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-19), and in 1 Kings 21:17-29, where Ahab fasts and mourns over Elijah’s prophecy concerning his posterity. In each of these cases, the petition requested by the unbeliever was granted by God. It would be spurious to suggest the events/outcomes asked for in these cases happened by chance or other reasons not related to the prayer. Such a suggestion would strain exegetical credulity beyond the breaking point, representing an ad hoc approach ultimately leading to incoherence by undermining consistent interpretative methodology. For example, if we explained away the prayers of the people of Nineveh in some other way as God not hearing (and granting them), then whatever means of explanation would introduce extra-textual speculation that could be inserted at any juncture to fit one’s desired end. 

We must say that God indeed hears the prayers of unbelievers and may answer them in the affirmative or negative in accordance with His abundance of mercy, grace, and justice. 2 Peter 3:9 tell us that God is not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance. In view of this passage and others, in the providence of God, He may grant or will the efficacy of any prayers for this purpose. To say that God cannot use the means of hearing and answering prayers of the impenitent to bring about His unfolding plan for creation would be to presume far too much upon the grace and goodness of God that we impugn His character. In the Summa Theologiae II.II.83.16, Thomas Aquinas argues that if an unbeliever prays in accordance with sinful desire, God may grant the petition so as to bring about or accelerate the end (telos/purpose) of justice (or events leading to it). But if the unbeliever prays from a good desire, out of pure His mercy God may hear the prayer if the one praying beseeches God for certain things. 

Aquinas' distinction is helpful in showing how we can exclude idle words or figures of speech from our evaluation. A robber muttering "I hope the big guy upstairs is taking a snooze right now" immediately before a bank heist is not praying. Neither would someone using the Lord's name in vain or uttering other euphemisms. Neither a believer nor an unbeliever is praying when speaking or thinking this way. As commonly understood, prayer is an act of religious piety or reverence, directed toward something beyond or greater than oneself. 

I will now consider some objections to God hearing the prayers of unbelievers, proceeding in a Summa Theologiae style for the sake of brevity and (hopefully) clarity. 

Objection 1: It seems God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because unbelievers are separated from God by their sins (which are not forgiven), and God can only hear the prayers of those whose sins are forgiven. 

Reply to Objection 1: This reasoning fails to take divine benevolence and providence fully into account. God may hear (and answer) prayers of the impenitent for providential reasons, to bring about effects through both His primary causal efficacy or via secondary causes. Further, this objection presupposes a certain soteriological framework which need not be conceded.

Objection 2: God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because these prayers are typically uttered in pagan or cultic practices. It is not befitting of God to hear prayers offered to demons, Satan, other deities, or physical objects and manifestations of nature.

Reply to Objection 2: In their ignorance, some unbelievers pray to things like statues, demons, natural forces, and the like. God can use these prayers to providentially bring about effects that further His benevolent and just ends for creatures. He can will that a pagan prayer be answered to a cultic deity for purposes of that person’s ultimate repentance or for purposes of bringing about temporal consequences and justice for wicked acts. 

Objection 3: Moreover, unbelievers pray for evil things that are not the proper objects of prayer. 

Reply to Objection 3: We know only good things come from God (James 1:17). So, we can say God does not affirmatively answer prayers which are for evil ends/means. All things in creation operate under the auspices of divine providence. If, for example, the demise of a man comes after the prayers of another man asked for that outcome, it is for some other providential reason the event occurred and not because the prayer has been answered affirmatively.

Objection 4: Prayer is an act of worship, and unbelievers cannot worship that which they hate or do not know. 

Reply to Objection 4: Whenever someone prays, an act of worship is being done in a manner of speaking. For the unbeliever, they pray in ignorance of ultimate truth. Yet, in such an act, if they are praying, they are worshipping something or someone. Such an act might be misdirected or disordered, but it does not follow that God, therefore, does not hear them. 

Objection 5: God hearing the prayers of unbelievers would diminish the prayers of believers.
 
Reply to Objection 5: There is a manifold purpose in prayer, as there are manifold types of prayer. We are primarily focused on petitionary and intercessory prayer, which when uttered by an unbeliever do not detract from those of believers. As Aquinas says, the prayers of the believer may be meritorious for them, whereas the prayers of the unbeliever cannot be (even if God hears/answers). Further, nothing can diminish the beatitude of those in Christ, because of the infinite love of God that abides in them. In the incomprehensible plenitude of His being, God is able to hear the prayers of the unbeliever without diminishing the grace He bestows upon those who love Him.

Objection 6: James 4:3 says “you ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” This letter is addressed to believers. Thus, how much more an unbeliever cannot receive because their motives are worse than a believer. 

Reply to Objection 6: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.

Objection 7: Psalm 66:18 says “if I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” It must be said the unbeliever often, or always, prays with wickedness in their heart because of their sins. 

Reply to Objection 7: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.

Conclusion

That God hears the prayers of unbelievers should redound to His glory and praise. In His eternal benevolence, God can use the means of such prayers to bring about His ends. We know God loves His creation and delights in using divergent means, some of which are far beyond our comprehension, to attain His desired outcome. Isaiah 55:11-12 helpfully reminds us that God’s ways are higher and better than our ways. Such ways include the prayers of unbelievers. 


*Such an argument would presuppose a soteriological construct on which one cannot even pray to be saved but is saved first to enable them to pray. If one does not grant these theological precommitments, which would need to be successfully argued, then one cannot use this in support of a negative answer to the question at hand. For example, I surmise on perhaps some forms of Calvinism, one might hold that only believers can pray because God has enabled them to pray by unconditionally regenerating them. But this position would still run afoul of the issues mentioned. I see such a move as unhelpful in ultimately answering the question, because it undermines the question and further muddies the water with upstream debates. It is hard to see anything inherently problematic for the Calvinist to affirm God hearing or even answering the prayers of the unregenerate.
















Monday, May 11, 2020

Tainted Love?


This is not a post about the early 1980s cover song by the English synth-pop group Soft Cell. Rather, it is about something I heard in a sermon on Mother’s Day which advanced the claim that the love of an earthly mother is great, but such love is tainted. Tainted by sin. The only untainted love is from God.

Is this right?

And if so, what exactly is supposed to be the insight? Can it be anything other than to remind the listener that they are only, at best, perpetually “snow-covered dunghills” (to borrow an analogy from Luther that has permeated post-16th-century Christian thought)? Another mere platitude? Can it be anything other than a pious affirmation from the pulpit that everything a human person does is spoiled and tainted by sin? Because we are born in sin, want to wallow in sin, and never escape sin until death frees us from the shackles of our rotten flesh. Because we are on the wrong side of glory, nothing we do is without some flaw or ulterior selfish motive. Or so the thought process goes.

This cannot be right.

First, we must ask how it is that a term like love can be understood to entail privation, lack, or defect. Love is best and most coherently understood as "willing the good of the other." It is sometimes helpfully expanded to "willing the good of the other, for the sake of the other." And good is typically understood as that which is intrinsically good for the other as such, which entails both temporal and eternal goods. In other words, that which is genuinely perfective of the other person as a body/soul unity. When we read the oft-quoted “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, we see that love is patient, kind, not boastful, etc. All these actions are directed toward the good of the other and show the giving away of the self for the other. 

Thus, if we accept the Christian traditional and biblical definition of love, and there are many good reasons to do so, then love cannot be tainted. It cannot be tainted because a tainted love is not loving at all. It would fail to meet the criteria (it would not be willing the good of the other, selfless, kind, and so on.). So, we must either acknowledge that a mother can love, or she cannot love. If sin taints love, then the act is not love. Sin-tainted actions toward another are something else other than love. They might resemble love in many ways but will not be love.

Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); it is His essence. We believe that divine love can be participated in. To a finite degree, just like existence itself, rational creatures participate in the love that is God. Therefore, we should think of love in terms of degree rather than kind. When we love, if it is indeed love, we dip our toe into the infinite pool of the divine. Or we can dive in. We can swim forever. It is still the incomprehensible bliss of God in which we participate. Nothing about this pool can be tainted. The water is pure and warm.

In much of the Christian tradition, love is conceived as a divine gift. If this is in any way true, then it becomes even more improper to think it is tainted. It is a gift from the giver who has no limit or imperfection. The perfect giver cannot give what He does not have, and He does not have imperfection. What is more, we can pour out love to others without limit because love (God) is the infinite wellspring of goodness.  

When an earthly mother loves, she most definitely loves without blemish. She may not love all the time. There are times, perhaps many, when she is imperfect. But her selflessness, kindness, patience, and all she does for her children (or grandchildren, adopted children, foster children, sponsor children…) in love are glimmers of the divine light, splashes from the pool of blessedness. Sometimes the splash is larger, but the water is the same. The act of love, if it is love, is not something that admits of flaw. It may be a kernel, but it is there nonetheless. It will be lesser in magnitude than Love itself, but there is at least an analog, lest our understanding of love evaporates into the aether of equivocation and nothingness. We can love in a finite, participated way. Yet we love all the same, and with no reason to think acts of love are less because we are less than we will, in totality, one day be.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Dialogue on Divine Impassibility

Conciliar Post has been very kind in posting my dialogue with Christopher Warne on divine impassibility. Chris was very gracious in his replies and addressing my points. He addresses my most recent post in the comments at the link above. I am very grateful to him and Conciliar Post for the opportunity. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Further Response to "The Passibility of God - Part 1" at Conciliar Post

Christopher Warne has kindly responded to my critique of his essay at Conciliar Post on divine impassibility. I thank him for that and have appreciated this exchange. In what follows I will offer a response to his follow-up. If he responds further, I will post a link and leave the last word with him out of respect for his writing the thought-provoking originating essay and our points of departure being well-sketched by now.  


Warne takes up three points from my response. The first concerns my comments on Greek philosophy, which leads him to set forth a crucial aspect of Moltmann’s argument against divine impassibility. Warne follows Moltmann in denying impassibility because only a passable God can love, as he writes “To ignore or explain away this biblical evidence [for passibility via love] through greek philosophy or ‘Church Tradition’ is to surrender the Triune God for the impassible God of Greek Philosophy.” I respectfully disagree with this for several reasons. 

First, it turns on a highly idiosyncratic and inadequate conception of divine love. Warne quotes Moltmann as follows “If love is the acceptance of the other without regard to one’s own well-being, then it contains within itself the possibility of sharing in suffering and freedom to suffer as a result of the otherness of the other (Crucified God. 230)”. One problem with this definition is that we are told that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is predicated of the Triune Divine Essence itself, and not as a contingent attribute. Divine love on Moltmann’s view, as explicated by Warne, collapses into the creaturely. On such a view, sans creation, God would have at best incomplete love in Himself. But we should not think there is anything in the Divine Essence that would have the potential for suffering. As I argued earlier, suffering is a form of evil, a lack of some good or a desire for something one does not have, and thus cannot be predicated of a perfect God. God sans creation is perfect love; He does not need creatures to be love itself and to love Himself. Yet the only direction Moltmann’s definition can take us is toward a deficiency in God. It flattens the actuality of divine love and further threatens the ontological hierarchy (as it were) of Creature/creature. The “acceptance of the other” aspect in the definition of love given is also curious. I submit such phraseology would be an incorrect understanding of human love, let alone divine love. 

Further, there are thus far no good arguments or reasons to think it is true or necessary that for God to love us He must suffer. It does not follow that suffering and love necessarily go together in God. The positive case cannot be because suffering and love run together in man. Even if mutual suffering were a necessary condition for human love, which is contestable in itself, we would need further reasons to think it was the same in God, either in Himself or toward man. The proof texts on offer for this put us in the same place as the other proof texts for divine passibility; we are forced to interpret, judge, and rightly order them in light of the full revelation of God. And I argue that the texts offered in support of a passibility in God are best understood as not making literal metaphysical predications of the Divine Essence. For one thing, as I argued in my first response, an impassible God is the only God who can unconditionally love us and redeem us. So the only way to make systematic sense out of the entirety of redemptive revelation is to affirm impassibility in God. 

It also remains to be shown how suffering which spills over from the human to divine nature in Christ is biblical and within the bounds of orthodox Christology. That was one of the points I was driving at by citing part of the Athanasian Creed. Chalcedon might be of further help in clarifying this point

“...Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son…”

I fail to see how Moltmann’s view does not comingle and therefore confuse the divine and human natures of Christ. The passibility via love position demands that the human and divine natures suffer on the cross and that the Father and Holy Spirit suffer as well. It is puzzling that Moltmann finds the passibility of Christ in His human nature insufficient to reconcile love and human suffering. 

The next point taken up by Warne is that impassibility is unbiblical. He references a point I made on biblical passages often used as proof texts for divine passibility. Yet, there are also passages that speak of God having eyes (Habakkuk 1:13), arms (Deuteronomy 26:8), legs (Genesis 3:8), and lungs (Genesis 2:7, Job 27:3). Surely these passages are not communicating a literal truth about the Divine Nature itself. For if one opted for such a wooden understanding of these texts, we might be left with a very powerful creature, but not a Creator. We must adjudicate the texts speaking about God in metaphorical or anthropomorphic language with a view toward internal coherence and consistency. 

What I aimed for in my initial response was an acknowledgment that these passages have been understood to communicate things like mutability and passibility in God. The arguments for such an interpretation are not good. One of the main reasons is that they force contradictions upon the Bible about the nature of God because we would be forced to affirm and deny things about God in the same sense and at the same time (i.e. is He spatially extended, with large feet, or is He spirit and omnipresent?). If the Bible is the Word of God, it cannot contradict itself about the nature of its divine author. In sum, one can read the Bible and arrive at many divergent conceptions of God. Which one wins out? This is precisely where theology’s handmaiden comes to our aid. Psalm 18:2 tells us that God is our rock and fortress. Other passages say the same. Metaphorical language, to be sure. But it communicates a core truth to us about God; He is not shaken nor moved. This is why we can go to Him for refuge. Yet, if our fortress is being damaged, how can we confidently flee there? We could not. God is our help (Psalm 54:4, Hebrews 13:6) but He really cannot be if He needs help from suffering. 

Warne then argues that divine passibility does not entail mutability. I understand this to mean that God has passions and suffers but does not undergo change. Warne’s argument here ultimately appeals to paradox, God is unchanging yet somehow also suffers. The difference between paradox and contradiction has been well noted in these types of discussions. However, I cannot see anything but a contradiction here. If God in His essence is passible, immutability must be given up. There is no other coherent way to understand suffering without some kind of change in God. 

Much more could be said in response. I am grateful to the Lord for the opportunity to discuss a wonderful and challenging subject. I would like to thank Christoper Warne again for his writing and time spent in his response. And I hope we can shake hands and discuss this and other matters in person one day.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Response to "The Passibility of God Part 1" - Conciliar Post

In an essay dated September 18, 2019, Conciliar Post guest writer Christopher Warne addresses the attribute of divine impassibility. Warne’s writing is critical of impassibility, leaning heavily on the theology of Jurgen Moltmann. The purpose of this article is to respond to Warne and briefly sketch some reasons why Christians should embrace divine impassibility as an essential attribute of God. 

Warne argues almost exclusively from Moltmann and Richard Buakham’s analysis of Moltmann. The argument is not broken down formally, but for the sake of brevity could be rendered as follows: 

  1. If divine impassibility is true, God could not suffer. 
  2. God suffered on the cross of Christ.
  3. Divine impassibility is not true.

[1] is just a simplified stratum of divine impassibility. There are deep metaphysical roots to this divine attribute, it does not stand in isolation from antecedent predications of God and His attributes developed through a combination of robust natural and revealed theology. In this context, passibility can be understood to carry with it the connotation of a patient in a doctor/patient relationship. The doctor (or agent) acts upon the patient to bring about health (a change in state). For one to be a patiens, to endure or suffer, means that one must be capable of change. The adherent of divine impassibility argues that there is nothing in God that is changeable in principle. It is not that God merely cannot suffer in an emotional way, but that God is not acted upon by extrinsic forces whatsoever. 

It appears from Warne’s implicit endorsement of Moltmann that impassibility is first ruled out by way of prolegomena. Impassibility imbibes too much of a Greek flavor for reconciliation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One cannot help but pause at this well-poisoning rhetorical device. The specter of Greek philosophy spoiling Christian theology is often addressed with simple hand-waving. Instead of acknowledging the possibility that the Greek philosophical schools could have latched onto some potentially helpful facts about God and the world (however incorrect or incomplete some their thought might be in light of biblical revelation), some theologians insist on a false dichotomy.  “Jerusalem vs. Athens” is issued forth by pious fiat. If one agrees that all truth is God’s truth, then the extent that thinkers in the Platonic or Aristotelian traditions arrived at truths by natural reason should be thought of as an aid to the Christian faith instead of an impediment.

The impassibility of God has been defended by many theologians, from the patristics to the scholastics to the Reformed divines. These thinkers have addressed the significant Trinitarian and Christological questions that naturally arise in such a discourse. Perhaps they argued wrongly, but the reader is due more than a quick dismissal of these historical thinkers and the doctrine of divine impassibility under the guise of ideas being infected by pagan philosophy. There is a genetic fallacy lurking here. 

Leaving prolegomena to the side for the moment, the key point of departure would be on [2] in the above argument. For the argument to go through, this premise would need to be true or at least more plausibly true than false. For this premise to be true, the defender of this argument - or any Moltmann-esque position - would have to demonstrate that God in His Divine Essence suffered at Calvary. It is to argue that God per se suffers. By arguing this way, Moltmann (and possibly Warne by endorsement) conflates the two natures of Christ in direct contradiction to revelation and orthodoxy. 

To quote from the Athanasian Creed (emphasis is the authors)

For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man. God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of His mother, born into the world. Perfect God and Perfect Man, of a reasonable Soul and human Flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood. Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but One Christ.

This creed nicely summarizes key aspects of orthodox Christology, spanning the panoply of biblical revelation and apostolic teaching. The emphasis on the human nature of Christ is especially important for the present case. For nothing precludes us from affirming Christ’s suffering, undergoing change, or being passible in His human nature. But Moltmann’s argument is not that Christ suffered merely in His human nature, but that He suffered in totality (divine and human). Moreover, for Moltmann, each divine Person suffers in their divine nature. From his view, for God per se to not suffer with man would mean God could not be loving or omnibenevolent. A loving God does not stand apathetically unaffected by the sufferings of His beloved. This is the meta-position Moltmann brings to exegesis and what militates against divine impassibility. Yet, it is only by conflating the divine and human natures in Christ that [2] can be affirmed, and this is precisely what the defender of impassibility - and orthodoxy - must deny. Moltmann’s argument falls apart on pain of contradicting biblical revelation about the two natures of Christ. His argument can also be shown to fail because the impassibility of God is demonstrated independent of biblical revelation. 

For Moltmann, traditional Christology is deficient in the face of evil and suffering. He demands that the Divine Essence itself be moved by His creatures, lest God be apathetic, distant, cold, uncaring. However, in so arguing, Moltmann (and Warne perhaps) undermines the very attributes he seeks to uphold. There are several important aspects of divine impassibility that safeguard our salvation and guarantee God’s unchanging love for us. 

If God is passible, He is changeable. There would then be things outside God (humans, at least), that bring about processes in Him (shifting mental/emotional states). God would then be in process and subject to the whims of created beings. He would be mutable, and radically so. The implications for divine sovereignty would be dire, for some things are necessarily outside of His control and discretion. For God to suffer would mean that He would lack something or have something taken away from Him, joy or happiness perhaps. He would have emotional needs and He would be deprived of some good by virtue of suffering and therefore we could not say He is perfectly good in His essence, but only contingently good (and never actually so post-human creation, because humans would always be causing His suffering with their sinfulness). A passible God would necessarily be on the same ontological plane as creation and would exist in a proverbial back and forth that would be eerily similar to the non-Christian religions and philosophy which advocates of divine passibility try to eschew. The attribute of divine transcendence is lost if God is passible. A passible God is finite. For these reasons and many others, affirming divine passibility is highly problematic.

On the other hand, if God is impassible, then He retains transcendence over the created order. He retains His unique ontological status, and thus He is fully able to stand apart from and rectify evil and injustice. The impassible God is One who can unceasingly love man, for He is not subject to shifting feelings. The impassible God loves with a perfect love. He can only love those who suffer,  which is all mankind to varying degrees because He is free from any need. He is infinite love, He is love itself. He does not love because of something extrinsic to Himself, but because it is His very unchanging, unaffected essence. As David Bentley Hart writes, “no pathos is possible for God because pathos is, by definition, a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualising some potential, whereas God's love is pure positivity and pure activity.” (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 167). 

To be sure, divine impassibility has a venerable cadre of critics. In addition to the arguments Warne presents from Moltmann, detractors of impassibility often cite a lack of support in the biblical texts and philosophical problems with the metaphysics and implications of the doctrine. For example, the Bible describes God as suffering (Genesis 6:6, Psalm 78:40, Ephesians 4:30) and there may be a exegetical limit to how much of this can be situated in metaphorical or anthropomorphic language.  And it may be argued that the underlying metaphysics (God as Actus Purus, etc.) of impassibility would preclude any change whatsoever, even Cambridge changes, or that impassibility results in some variation of modal collapse. Space constraints will preclude an explication of these criticisms and defense of impassibility against them, but they have been addressed at length elsewhere (see for example Weinandy Does God Suffer). More could also be said on the arguments from natural theology that support impassibility, the language of predication of divine attributes, and so forth. It should suffice for now that the historical-theological arguments of Moltmann, et. al. offered by Warne are not at all injurious to divine impassibility. Instead, the idiosyncratic tendencies, structural weakness, and heterodoxy of these positions show the strengths of upholding impassibility in God.

That there is an inherent limitation in human understanding of the divine and human natures in Christ and intra-Trinitarian relations should not lead us to question what revelation provides. When we abandon divine impassibility, we give up far more than we could ever gain. We turn away from the God who said to Moses “I AM, “ we turn away from the God who upholds the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3), and we, therefore, end up turning away from the Lord Jesus Christ who is true God and True man. Our Lord did suffer along with us in His human nature while remaining perfectly, beautifully, transcendently, and redemptively loving in His impassible divine nature. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Is It 'Time' for Young Earth Creationists to Change?

Within the Christian community, there is a notable contingent of “Young Earth Creationists” (hereafter YEC). These Christians believe the Bible, particularly Genesis 1-11, teaches the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old, and that Genesis 1 describes cosmic and terrestrial creation taking place over six consecutive 24-hour days. Although many evangelical Christians identify with the YEC view, there is a spectrum. On one side are those who hold to YEC but do not think there are any doctrinal problems with contrary views, assuming those holding a different view affirm the authority of the Bible for faith & life and agree with individual church/fellowship distinctives. On the other side of the YEC spectrum are those who believe any opposing view of Genesis presents significant, perhaps insurmountable, doctrinal problems and that any non-YEC (professing) Christian is compromising biblical truth. Examples of the latter camp would be ministries like Answers in Genesis (AIG) and Institute for Creation Research (ICR).


What I would like to argue in this post is that the efforts of this latter group of YEC advocates and ministries would be better served to focus solely on biblical exegesis and to disengage from dialogue on the scientific aspects of the issue. I do not mean to imply this type of YEC position ignores exegetical arguments, but it is indisputable that significant time and resources are dedicated to countering and putting forth alternative scientific claims in areas like geology, biology, physics, and astronomy. I submit this effort is a waste of time and resources. Those in the YEC group should completely pivot to exegetical arguments. Such a move would represent a more intellectually honest approach and would allow for better overall dialogue. Instead of trying to persuade Christians and non-Christians that “Old Earth” science is wrong or deceptive, the YEC will benefit themselves and their listeners by engaging in respectful discussion on what they take as the correct interpretation of Genesis 1-11 (and other passages, like Exodus 20:11).


Note that what I mean by being more intellectually honest is that YEC’s are ultimately trying to defend their understanding of the Bible. They are trying to uphold key biblical truths they take as contingent on the young earth interpretation, such as original sin and the lineage of Jesus. Their position is ultimately that it really does not matter what science says because God has spoken finally and unequivocally on the subject. God’s Word will supersede man’s word at all times. So if this is really the case, one must ask why bring up anything else? Tangential subjects can only detract from the core message.


The YEC should not think they have a dog in the scientific fight. Engaging on the scientific side is unnecessary for several reasons in addition to those mentioned above. First, the vast majority of those with whom the YEC interacts are believing Christians. I would argue that the primary focus of YEC ministries, such as those mentioned by name above, is to minister to Christian parents and evangelical churches in order to guard the flock (especially younger believers) from apostasy and heresy. The majority of this audience would already agree with their most basic and fundamental premise, the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Thus, in this case, the scientific aspect is trivial. If science contradicts the Bible, so much the worse for science. No doubt this claim is in fact made at times by the likes of Answers in Genesis. But why pay attention to the science at all if it really does not matter in the final analysis? This is what I understand this YEC camp as doing; fighting a two-pronged battle when only one is needed.

One reason I can see for interjecting YEC scientific-based arguments is polemical; to show the purported absurdity of the other view so as to undermine its credibility. But such a move seems unnecessary if there was confidence in biblical revelation. So it would appear that the YEC view feels the need to buttress their exegetical case with scientific rationale. Just in case someone doubted their understanding of Genesis 1, their scientific arguments could come to the rescue and prop up the case or plug any holes.


Yet, this is clearly a flawed methodology. First, the YEC camp places a heavy premium on never taking ‘man’s word’ for things. And this is just what science would be for them in any case. Secondly, trying to counter largely unquestioned scientific facts, on the most simple of things, like the age of certain trees, rocks, and fossils, does not make sense to the biblical skeptic nor the non-YEC Christian. For one thing, the (contra) modern science YEC argument necessarily incorporates a biblical presuppositionalism that is often smuggled into the argument. The YEC position of a ministry like Answers in Genesis is one that entails methodological commitments that preclude connecting on the scientific front with anyone who does not adopt their presuppositional view. They take a certain interpretation of the Bible as their starting point for scientific inquiry (or any inquiry, for that matter) and interpret science through that lens.  Any other approach would, for them, fail to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. On their view, the Bible says the earth cannot be more than 6,000 - 10,000 years old, so there must be a way to interpret scientific research and findings consistent with this. And so it goes. Competing claims are first dismissed as false because they conflict with the Bible. The competing claim is then attacked on scientific grounds and found wanting.


Not only is this method difficult to defend theologically, but it is also difficult to defend scientifically. I will note that not all YEC advocates adopt this presuppositional view, and those who do not, incidentally, seem to fall more into the exegetical camp and lean toward scientific agnosticism about contravening claims.


It is completely unnecessary for the YEC to attack modern scientific research and theories. It is completely unnecessary for this group to attempt putting forth competing scientific explanations of various phenomena. The conflation, misdirection, and apples-to-oranges nature of comparison in many of these competing explanations does no good to the scientifically informed Christian or skeptic. Time would be much better spent on the exegetical case for a young earth, establishing the historicity of the Bible from an apologetic standpoint, and so forth.  Besides the many nuances of the philosophy of science that I have not seen considered from the YEC camp, such as theory-choice, realism versus antirealism, paradigm shifts relating to revolutions in science, etc., it does not really matter at all to their case what science claims or does not claim. They should leave it alone for the good of everyone.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Reflections on William Lane Craig and Jeff Hester Debate at Holy Cross

I recently watched the debate/dialogue between William Lane Craig and Jeff Hester at Holy Cross. You can watch the event here. It was titled "Is theistic belief rational in a scientific age?" What follows are some reflections on the debate. My aim here is not to critique the entire debate. Rather, I will merely seek to address some aspects that stood out to me as interesting or important.


Both men gave opening statements and sketched their main arguments. As usual, Craig's speech was very crisp and clear; straight to the point with strong argumentation. Nothing he has not defended at length in other places. I was impressed by the list of specific theist astrophysicists and astronomers that Craig cited. By contrast, Hester's opening was more casual and seemed disjointed. He made some basic points to his position, most of which were standard atheist talking tracks, though said in a congenial manner. Hester provided his own deconversion story, where we hear about a scientifically inquisitive youth who found answers outside of theism. If there was anything noteworthy in Hester's opening, it was the broad range of scientific fields in which he has a strong knowledge base. That Hester can credibly speak about evolution and morality in a scientifically informed way while also falling back into his field in astrophysics is a great credit to him.


From the start of their moderated exchange, Craig repeatedly emphasized Hester’s committing the genetic fallacy. In a strict sense, this happens when the truth value of a belief is thrown into question by how a person came to hold the belief. How A came to believe X has no bearing on the truth of X. I might believe that God exists because my father told me so, but that does not mean it is false that God exists. In a similar vein, Hester cited the evolutionary origin of theistic belief as a means of dismissing its contemporary rationality for the scientifically informed. As I understood it, the argument seemed to be that because theistic belief is an evolutionary outcome (adaptive, it seems on Hester’s view), one cannot be rational in holding the belief once one is scientifically informed about evolution. Since evolution gets us to where we are, once we are here we can reflect on the process and see what kind of dross accumulated along the way and shave it off.  


From the standpoint of this dialogue, the epistemic basis for theistic belief was at issue. Returning to the prior example, A believes X because A’s culture or family provides this information to him. Some critics will argue that X might be true, but A is not rational to believe X because of some deficiency in the belief-forming mechanism, violation of epistemic duty, lack of potential to falsify, or some other related criteria. Regarding theism, the argument typically comes from the non-theist to the effect that the theist holds these beliefs because of his family or culture. If you were born in India, you would be a Hindu. If you were born into a Muslim family, you would be a Muslim. Hester argues that tribalism, as an evolutionary outcome, is what drives people to hold to the beliefs of their tribe or people group. Based on Hester’s arguments, certain tribal beliefs are not necessarily rational but are held anyway, presumably because of evolutionary pressures. The existence of God would be one of these beliefs. This is where Craig holds Hester to commit the genetic fallacy. The fact of whether God exists is not false simply because a person believes it based on their tribal affirmations or evolutionary pressure. I think this issue was worth raising but was not as significant as the time allotment to it dictated.


The question at issue was whether or not believing in the existence God is rational in our scientific age. The question was not whether God exists. Hester was offering a critique of theistic belief from a very narrow epistemological perspective. He argued that adaptive tribal beliefs may have/have had a place in the evolutionary process, but these might not obtain to truth. The reason people believe in God is evolutionarily determined, where most of the tribe will believe and a select few will not and/or will be inclined toward questioning the status quo of the tribe. Hester and many of his scientific sympathizers fit into this latter camp. And this camp is important to balance the overall well-being of the tribe. Or so Hester argues.


Hester thinks that theistic belief is not rational because it is largely due to evolutionary processes within a population of a tribe. And the majority of this population group may not ever even be able to ‘break out’ of this belief based on evolutionary pressures and factors.

Set in this context, the genetic fallacy does not seem as relevant. It is the belief-forming process itself that Hester is calling into question. So it seems that how a person came to believe something could be a relevant factor in his presentation. One might understand Hester as not arguing against the truth or falsity of theism per se, but that theistic belief is not rational for the aforementioned evolutionary reasons. The extent this actually commits as strong of a genetic fallacy appears may be questionable.


To his credit, Craig did seize upon the problematic set of conflated arguments made by Hester. First, the epistemic elitism was rightly attacked. What is to say that the religiously skeptical tribal sub-group has not selected for irrationality? Given that Hester later argues for a type of projection theater of the brain, where the brain predisposes us to experience and perceive certain things, by what basis does he make the claim that his beliefs have evolutionarily adapted to attain truth as opposed to falsehoods that aided in survival? Hester cites testability and falsifiability, but these are philosophical positions brought to bear on science itself, thus not escaping the dilemma. I think Craig missed the opportunity to raise some solid evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs), which he has helpfully raised elsewhere (cf. Reasonable Faith). EDAs do not purport to debunk evolution as a scientific paradigm. Rather, these arguments demonstrate the incompatibility of naturalism and evolution (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) or the inconsistency in things like moral realism and evolution (e.g. Sharon Street).


We can briefly see where EDAs might come into play in this aspect of the Hester-Craig dialog. To do so, we can break Hester’s leading argument down as follows:


  1. Everything in physical reality is subject to evolutionary forces
  2. Beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms in humans are part of physical reality (by implication of Hester’s reductionism)
  3. Beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms in humans are the product of evolution (from 1 and 2)
  4. Some humans believe in God
  5. That some humans believe in God is a product of evolution (from 3 and 4)
  6. Belief in God is not rational
6 clearly does not follow at all from 1-5. So what Hester needs to inject between 5 and 6 are the following:
  • 5a. Some evolution-delivered beliefs are not rational
  • 5b. Science shows us which beliefs are rational and which are not
  • 6 (modified). Science shows us that belief in God is not rational


What is worrying about this is that “Science” in 5b would fall under the auspices of 3. Science would be a set of beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms that are the product of evolution. What Hester then seems to argue is that some evolutionarily delivered beliefs allow us to adjudicate other evolutionarily delivered beliefs. Further, it is taken for granted that some evolutionary beliefs selected for truth (science-like beliefs). But the weight of these claims cannot be borne by a reductionist evolutionary theory which can only reply to the self-defeat issue and maintain realism about itself by answering in an ad hoc way or by special pleading.


It could have been due to scope and time constraint issues that Craig chose to not to press Hester further on the former's epistemology. Hester referred to the term often but was very vague on how far he leaned on deontological versus externalist versus internalist theories (or some other). Not that he referred to these views in name, but at various times he clearly inferred them in his statements. For example, the scientistic notion he relied upon seemed deontological, whereas the tribal notion seemed more externalist. He later argued for a projection-based perceptual subjectivity that had some internalist overtones. This underdeveloped eclecticism undermined his claims to the rationality of his version of non-theism. Without setting forth a clear epistemic standard and showing how it is right and how theism does not meet it, Hester continually set new bars in various areas and then seemed to move the bars when it suited him. For example, in reference to his deontological epistemic bar - the duty to abandon certain beliefs in light of scientific consensus - seemed to have a great deal relativity. When exactly would it be irrational to maintain against consensus? On Hester’s view, Einstein was irrational to reject quantum indeterminacy in light of consensus, but at what point did Einstein shuck his duty? Was it when 51% of scientist affirmed it? Was it when only the most notable scientists did? Was it when a certain volume of research was published? Without a clear answer on this, it seems like there is not any good way to claim a perfectly sane man, one of the most genius in the history of physics, was irrational in rejecting quantum indeterminacy. And if this is the case, one of Hester’s own criteria for rationality is demonstrably wrong. Moreover, I am sure Hester would not want to maintain a hard line that going against scientific consensus as Einstein did in the indeterminacy case was irrational because the idea of breakthroughs and revolutions in science has always been situated in the context of going against consensus.


What was particularly striking in this dialog was not the genetic fallacy, but the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. Hester seized upon Craig’s phraseology of ‘best explanation’ in the latter’s theistic arguments and took this as a competing claim against physical science. Thus, one of Hester’s main points was that positing God as an explanation has failed as science has advanced. As physical science has progressed, explanations of phenomena that were once thought to be only within divine providence have been explained in a purely physical, mechanistic, way. This something akin to a pessimistic ‘meta-induction’, where the theist is allegedly irrational because physical science has repeatedly shown that it can succeed in narrowing down the phenomena within God’s providence, and will likely one day provide an exhaustive explanation of all physical reality and “God as an explanation for X” will be meaningless to the scientifically informed. Hester seems to argue that science continually explains in a more satisfactory way what theists assert God to explain.


Hester’s argument on the 'gaps' betrays a deep misunderstanding of any reflective theistic position; especially as argued by Craig. For instance, the theist is not saying that physics has not yet come up with a satisfactory explanation for the beginning of the universe. Rather, the theist argues that physics cannot in principle explain the coming to be of the cosmos. The unreflective physicist sees this position as anti-science because it allegedly squashes inquiry. But the theist is not squashing inquiry, he is liberating and setting the logically consistent bounds for inquiry. The theist actually saves physics from absurdity by self-contradiction and overstepping the bounds of what it can actually demonstrate, a warning which certain physicists (cough...Krauss...cough) tend to ignore.

Physics can describe the Big Bang singularity looking backward, what happened afterward, and perhaps much more. But what physics cannot do is appeal to itself to explain the fact of its own subject of study. If physical reality demonstrably came into existence, then physics cannot appeal to itself to explain its own existence on pain of contradiction and doing extreme violence to the principle of sufficient reason. Arguing the contrary would equate to a denial of P1 of the Kalam (anything that begins to exist has a cause), and would be a defacto affirmation of an eternal universe - one with no finite past.  


If the totality of physical reality is what physics studies and this reality came into existence, then it cannot be within the realm of physics to explain how it came into existence. Physics cannot study what is not there, and if Big Bang cosmology is correct, there was no physical reality (e.g. nothing physical existed prior to the Big Bang, or multi-verse origin) prior to the singularity. This is the point at which the Kalam argument infers the metaphysical and why I believe Craig goes the route of abduction in his argumentation.


Per Craig, the best explanation of the coming to be of physical reality is an unimaginably powerful, uncaused (by logical implication) non-physical reality, a reality that is spaceless, timeless, and so forth. I am sure Craig would concede that there could be other explanations for the beginning of the universe. However, if the beginning of physical reality is, in fact, the case, the cause of its existence cannot be anything physical (again, on pain of contradiction). Craig argues that theism, understood as the existence of a being with certain attributes and properties, is the best explanation. It is only by gross misunderstanding or purposeful caricature of the theistic position that one can attribute ‘god of the gaps’ to the theistic arguments offered by Craig.


The non-theist of Hester’s persuasion should simply make the more logical and intellectually honest claim that the universe - or multiverse - is eternal. This is at least a consistent view, and one that some prominent non-theists have explicitly taken (e.g. Bertrand Russell). One problem with this position is the compelling evidence, which Craig and defenders of the Kalam argument show with vigor, that the research from within physical science itself points to an absolute beginning of physical reality. And by ‘absolute beginning’, the non-theist cannot punt to quantum vacuum fluctuations, a la Krauss and Hester, because the quantum vacuum is clearly not nothing. Moreover, the quantum vacuum is an implicit argument for a past eternal universe; a universe that did not come into being but has always been. What these non-theists argue in effect is the quantum vacuum just was until there was a random fluctuation that resulted in a restructured physical reality and setting us on the path to our current universe.  On this view, it was never the case that something was not present. Thus, in philosophical and religious dialogue, the universe should simply be argued as eternal. An eternal universe might be scientifically problematic in light of consensus, but the position itself is much more defensible than denying P1 of the Kalam.


One thing that is very evident from Hester’s arguments is implicit scientism that avoids any metaphysical discussion. There exists in his dialogue a tacit assumption that testable, quantifiable physical reality is all that exists (or is all that is interesting or meaningful). When the theist makes metaphysical arguments, which is what theistic arguments are by definition, the scientist like Hester will not interact with them except on the plane of physics. He will only discuss them from the standpoint of quantifiable science. This type of scientist can and will only play within the bounds of what physical science alone (presently) allows. On this view, if a proposition is not reducible to quantification and testable physical hypothesis, the proposition is useless. Hester goes so far as to make this notion part of his criteria for rationality when early in the dialog he essentially defines rationality as the acceptance of a claim that is testable and successfully passes the experimental gauntlets of science. Irrationality for Hester is denial or agnosticism about something that has reached scientific consensus. Thus, he argues Einstein was irrational in rejecting quantum indeterminacy. Such a position advocated by Hester is reminiscent of Ayer and Carnap. The philosophical world has largely abandoned this type of positivism for many reasons, including futility, but it remains alive and well in some contemporary scientists like Hester and Peter Atkins.


By way of rebuttal, one might say that Hester has not explicitly stated the scientistic, positivist view and it is, therefore, uncharitable to ascribe it to him. This would be reasonable pushback if Hester had not repeatedly gone to the well of physical reductionism at every turn. It did not matter whether the subject was biological evolution (including mutation/selection algorithms), physics, or neuroscience, every aspect of his arguments was predicated on such reductionism. Without the reductionist foundation, Hester’s arguments make no sense against theism. His focus on the ultimate explanatory power of these scientific fields in eradicating theistic explanations was thorough. For Hester, whatever needs an answer will be answered by a branch of science, with physics providing the backdrop.


It is worth noting that Craig uses scientific research in support of P2 of the Kalam, and this is perhaps methodologically problematic because it might convey a flat-plane of discussion (e.g. the physical only as opposed to using the physical to lead to the metaphysical) to the scientist. It seems to allow for the scientist to assume the theist is trying to argue in an identical context as when the theist argues for a metaphysical reality which underwrites the physical reality. The theist makes an argument that there must be something metaphysically ultimate to account for physical reality.


Hester also begs the question in his own favor by framing rationality within the confines of physical science. On his view, the theist can never be rational because the theist is not making his decision about the existence of God based on anything within the physical scientific realm. The theist is not making quantifiable predictions and testing it with mathematical models so it cannot be rational. What Hester fails to realize or acknowledge is that his definition of rationality is itself pre-scientific. He foists a burden on his opponent that his own position cannot bear. It is, in fact, a philosophical position about science, how one should approach science, etc. as opposed to an output from science.

Overall, this was a very beneficial dialogue between two very bright minds in their field. It will be instructive for both sides of the debate to watch and learn from these scholars. Those hoping for a more scientifically-focused debate will probably be more pleased than those (like me) who lean heavily toward the philosophical side. I hope we see a "Part 2' of this debate in the near future. Thanks to both men for their efforts and time.