Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Matt 24 Watch, 81: On Acts 8:26 - 39, the message of Isaiah 52 - 53 and 1 Cor 15:1 - 11

I am a little late with a for-Easter discussion this year.

Pardon, though the matters focussed at that time are always relevant.

A good place to begin is Acts 8, thus about 35 AD, with the report of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza; doubtless returning from a pilgrimage, and probably bound for a ship to Egypt.

As Luke reports:
Ac 8:26Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."

30Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.

31"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:

"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth."

34The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized? 38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
Here, the Eunuch is deeply puzzled by a famous passage, Isaiah 53. We should particularly note that (a) he -- on a plain reading of the text -- immediately recognised that it spoke of an individual, the suffering servant of YHWH, and that (b) he was puzzled no end as to who this strange but important individual was.

Philip therefore began from the passage and taught the gospel, leading to the foundation of the Ethiopian church. (And yes, on an historical side-note, the Christian Faith was in Asia and Africa at least as early as it was deeply planted in Europe.)

So, too, we can see that Isaiah 52 - 53 -- of course, the chapter and verse numbers were inserted many centuries later -- played a pivotal role in the C1 church's understanding of the Old Testament, and of the gospel. A glance at the text -- with a few points of emphasis added for clarity of focus -- will at once show why:

ISA 52:13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

ISA 52:14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness

ISA 52:15 so will he sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

[What globally celebrated feast did we just have? Why?]

For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

ISA 53:1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

[ . . . ]

ISA 53:4 Surely he took up our infirmities [Cf Mt 8:15 - 17]
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

ISA 53:5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

ISA 53:6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

[ . . . . ]

ISA 53:8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

ISA 53:9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked

[cf. Jesus' condemnation in exchange for a malefactor and crucifixion between thieves],
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

[Cf Pilate's judicial findings on sentencing him to death]

ISA 53:10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

ISA 53:11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

ISA 53:12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Now, first, we must note that this text is self dating.

For, as Is 52:4 reads: "At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them . . . "

Which of course puts us near the time of the Assyrian invasion of Israel and Judah, that led to the exile of the Northern tribes in 721 BC and wreaked much havoc in the South. (It also helps to know that there are two Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, at least one dating to about 160 BC; which in all essentials read just as the above. Similarly, from the centuries just before Christ, the Greek language translation of the OT known as the Septuagint was in widespread circulation. The above text is not manipulated after the fact.)

That before the fact-ness is important, as the passage is plainly the direct "according to the Scriptures" context of the famous summary of the Church's official testimony to the gospel, in 1 Cor 15:1 - 11 (about 25 years after the event -- i.e. well within eyewtiness lifetime).

In the key parts of that summary we may read:

1CO 15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared . . . [lists the chief "official" witnesses: Peter, James [Jesus' brother], the twelve [less one of course . . . ], 500+ at one go, all the apostles, Paul himself]
So, now, we see that the C8 BC Isaiah 53 predicts a messianic suffering servant of YHWH, whoo would die for sins, pouring out his soul as a sin offering, would be assigned a place of death with the wicked, and would also be with the rich in his death, and yet would see the light of life thereafter and the will of the LORD would prosper in his hand.

So much so, that kings across the nations would look up to him.

As Isaiah 52 observes:
10 The LORD will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God . . . .

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him c]">[c]
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

15 so will he sprinkle many nations, d]">[d]
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

And yet -- oh how hard our hearts almost always are, we men in rebellion against God -- Isaiah 53 has to begin with a paradox:

1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

All of this has been fulfilled, all of it.

In just one individual (and the Ethiopian eunuch ws plainly right, we are dealing with an individual, not a nation or a group) in the long, long -- and ever so painful -- history of Israel. the one who, being despised and rejected, was crucified between brigands (literally taking he place of the ringleader), and who waas buried in a ricvh man's tomb. the same who was seen alive on the third day and thereafter by over five hundred people, of whom we can identify about twenty from the official list and the more detailed accounts int eh gospels and Acts.

So also we have a sign: a breaking into history seven hundred years in advance to predict what would be -- and was plainly beyond the power of one who was taken by force and pushed in front of one unjust and abusive kangaroo court after another (Judaean elites, Herod's Palace or the Roman Governor's seat makes but little difference: do lawyers and Judges today first reflect on this indictment on their professions, when they sit down to craft ever so clever arguments and to make judgements that can ever so easily unjustly take away liberty or life?) -- then was shunted off to die as the convenient solution to the problems of power.

Then, too, we have a second sign: even as the sickening play of injusticve in the halls of power and where it leads passes in front of us, the despised and rejected one does not react with rages and curses. Instead we see a sign of the God who loves. For, the unjustly dying servant of YHWH reaches out with forgiveness and intercession for us, even reachig out to the fellow dying man on the next cross over.

So, we learn the depth of God's love: even a self-confessedly guilty brigand, now a penitent at the last hour, can be saved by God!

And, it was Friday.

The now dead servant is taken down, mourned by broken-hearted followers -- notice, mostly the women [the men having (all but one) fled in fear for their lives] -- and buried by wealthy men fromt he same tribunal that unjustly first condemned him. men who werer plainly making a statement to the tribunal -- imagine having the unjustly condemned prophet's tomb jusrt outside your city gates -- but who may also have been subtly signalling their sympathy and discipleship.

But, Sunday was coming.

(As Tony Campolo is ever so fond of reminding us.)

Come Sunday Morning, some of the same women begin from Bethany at the crack of dawn, collecting others in Jerusalem, and reach the tomb site as the sun comes up. They were debating how they would be able to get into the tomb to do some last, pitiful acts of devotion by anointing the much-brutalised and broken body of the martyred prophet.

One of all too many across the course of history.

But, in the meanwhile, all Heaven had broken loose!

And ever since, history has not been the same.

So, now the Easter Morning challenge is to us today: whose report will we believe?

And, why? END

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Matt 24 Watch, 80: Is the God of the Bible (esp. the OT) a barbaric, genocidal "moral monster"?

In recent years a spate of "new atheist" books has popularised the often gleefully or spitefully put accusation that the God we find in the Old Testament is a "moral monster," the "obvious" creation of the barbarous people of that time; one best forgotten.

Of course, all of this is in service to evolutionary materialist atheism, which is severely challenged to ground either mind or morality. (And, as a relativistic, irrational, amoral system of thought, it then "enables' resort to habitually imomral behaviour. Pretty much as we are warned in Rom 1 and Eph 4:17 - 19.)

In the past few days, an exchange has developed on this subject at the blog UD, so it is worth putting up some key excerpts here; to help equip us to handle the accusation when -- not if -- we meet it. Similarly, Glenn Miller of the Christian thinktank has put up some fairly serious and thoughtful studies here and here, on the specific accusation.


EXCERPT 1: The challenge to ground morality on evolutionary materialism, from Hawthorne:
Assume (per impossibile) that atheistic naturalism [= evolutionary materialism] is true. Assume, furthermore, that one can’t infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ [the 'is' being in this context physicalist: matter-energy, space- time, chance and mechanical forces]. (Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.) Given our second assumption, there is no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer an ‘ought’. And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action. Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. (This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.) We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded in print. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action. If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan ‘if atheism is true, all things are permitted’. For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

Now, we all know that at least some actions are really not permissible (for example, racist actions). Since the conclusion of the argument denies this, there must be a problem somewhere in the argument. Could the argument be invalid? No. The argument has not violated a single rule of logic and all inferences were made explicit. Thus we are forced to deny the truth of one of the assumptions we started out with. That means we either deny atheistic naturalism or (the more intuitively appealing) principle that one can’t infer ‘ought’ from ‘is’.

1 –> The key issue here is that while evolutionary materialistic atheists [and their fellow travellers] are often fond of direct or indirect arguments from evil against God [e.g. the moral monster thesis of Dawkins et al], their own worldview is inescapably incoherent at this point: assuming and using the reality of objective morality, even as they hold to a worldview that entails amorality (and often thus enables immorality).

2 –> So, onward, we need to look at the issue of that incoherence as it seems a global consensus that human beings are morally mutually obligated: we all quarrel by in effect claiming “you unfair me.” (That is, we imply that we have rights that must be respected, based in the end on our dignity as persons . . .

3 –> . . . and so, materialists: what inherent dignity accrues to a bit of jumped up pond slime and its perceptions of emotions of outrage or sensations of pain — which are in any case inevitable to one degree or another?

4 –> In short, we have a global consensus that we are morally bound and hold some dignity, a dignity incompatible with our being jumped up pond slime.

5 –> We also have a global consensus that at least some of the time we think, reason and know objectively and even correctly.

6 –> But if we are jumped up pond slime, so-called thought is nothing but electro-chemical activity in neurons, which are in turn partly programmed genetically and partly programmed by whatever accidents of environment we encounter; in the end tracing to mental activity being produced and controlled by chance circumstances and mechanical material forces, however mediated. So, what controls our thought life has nothing whatsoever to do with (especially abstract) logical validity or truth.

7 –> Bn short the objectivity of morality and the credibility of mind both turn out to be facts that are not well accounted for by evolutionary materialist thought [and please notice my specificity, as is so for Mr Hawthorne too].

8 –> But, such thought and its zealous promotion by its true believers depend implicitly on the credibility of what it cannot account for as a theory and worldview of origins. In short, we see self-referential incoherence of an evidently inescapable kind. Reductio ad absurdum, unless a reasonable solution is forthcoming . . . and the burden of rebuttal is on the side of the evidently incoherent position.


EXCERPT 2: The challenge of the problem of evil:

9 –> But, does that not equally point to the need for Judaeo-Christian theists to rebut the problem of evil? Precisely: DONE, ever since Plantinga blew away the deductive dofrom and tamed the inductive form as a the turn of the 1970’s. (The existential/pastoral form is a matter for counselling not debate; go find yourself a good pastor or priest or rabbi, not a circle of Job’s false comforters.) For those who came in late:

a --> The Defense approach is more logically powerful than the theodicy approach, for it relies on mere validity to disestablish a contradiction, not truthfulness of premises. (And those who try to read it as a theodicy show their misunderstanding.)

b --> The classic posed and claimed contradictory theistic set is demonstrably not contradictory, and there are reasonable grounds on which a world in which there is significant suffering experienced by creatures, is morally justifiable, given inter alia that morality itself is premised on the power of choice. In short, a world in which love is possible is one that necessarily has hate — and worse, indifference [in the bad sense] — as possible too.

c --> Thence, the point that the lesser of evils may be a relative moral good; e.g. wars may be just and homicide excusable; in a further context where death of an “innocent” (even that is relative . . . ) is a tragedy but may in context offset far greater losses in both time and eternity.

d --> Such a world is one in which reformation is also possible — and important. So is containment of evil [a la Cold War], and if necessary, removal of otherwise virulently spreading and destructive contagion (of which Nazism is an excellent recent case in point) through just war that inescapably will kill significant numbers of innocents given the means available a the relevant time.

e --> And note the current resort of the Islamist terrorists and their fifth columnist friends in our civilisation, who make much of the inevitable loss of innocents in a war of containment or defense against attack, as if those who resist contagious and aggressive evils are to be equated to those who spread such while intentionally targetting civilians etc to terrorise and paralyse their intended victims, and inter alia binding generations to come into a blood feud to carry out the aggression as long as their culture endures as an entity holding significant power.

f --> If that sounds familiar, it should: this is materially the same dilemma faced by those confronting the Amorites c. 1,300 BC and who drove them out, breaking up the power centres and destroying the hard core who insisted on defending the indefensible to the bitter end. (And indeed, nearly 1,000 years later, a descendant-survivor of the elites of the Amorites sought to destroy all Jews in the Persian empire: Haman.)

g --> It is also the same dilemma that confronted the Spanish monarchs c. 1491 and impelled them to forcibly convert or exile what they viewed with some justification as an utterly irreconcilable and blood feud prone population descended from invaders. (NB: I am not defending Ferdinand and Isabella [much less, the notorious Inquisition . . . ], I am asking us to understand their dilemmas and ask ourselves whether we have reliably better solutions that we can present as at least the credibly lesser of evils. . . )

h --> It is not without relevance to note that after WW I, the German populace in certain key parts, denied the reality of military defeat . . . a defeat bought at ruinous cost by the Allies. 20 years later, we paid an even worse price, but after the utter devastation of Germany, the centuries long feud between germans and franks finally came to an end, after three wars in 70 years.

i --> History has some very sobering lessons for us . . .

Sobering and saddening lessons. but on pain of repeating utterly grim history, we dare not neglect such lessons.

EXCERPT 3: The very existence of evil has implications . . .

10 –> But also, there is the issue that the mere known existence of evil as an objectionable entity has implications, as Koukl pointed out:

Evil is real . . . That’s why people object to it. Therefore, objective moral standards must exist as well [i.e. as that which evil offends and violates] . . . . The first thing we observe about [such] moral rules is that, though they exist, they are not physical because they don’t seem to have physical properties. We won’t bump into them in the dark. They don’t extend into space. They have no weight. They have no chemical characteristics. Instead, they are immaterial things we discover through the process of thought, introspection, and reflection without the aid of our five senses . . . .

We have, with a high degree of certainty, stumbled upon something real. Yet it’s something that can’t be proven empirically or described in terms of natural laws. This teaches us there’s more to the world than just the physical universe. If non-physical things–like moral rules–truly exist, then materialism as a world view is false.

There seem to be many other things that populate the world, things like propositions, numbers, and the laws of logic. Values like happiness, friendship, and faithfulness are there, too, along with meanings and language. There may even be persons–souls, angels, and other divine beings.

Our discovery also tells us some things really exist that science has no access to, even in principle. Some things are not governed by natural laws. Science, therefore, is not the only discipline giving us true information about the world. It follows, then, that naturalism as a world view is also false.

Our discovery of moral rules forces us to expand our understanding of the nature of reality and open our minds to the possibility of a host of new things that populate the world in the invisible realm.

11 –> Thus, evil is now reduced to proper scope: a painful difficulty within the general face-validity of a theistic view. And, as Job’s case shows, it may be painful and hard to understand — perhaps even in part beyond our capacity to understand — but that does not give us leave to pretend to knowledge beyond our capacity, and to dismiss what we can otherwise know of God through personal encounter and/or from the characteristics of creation etc [Cf Job 38!]


EXCERPT 4: Euthryphro's dilemma:

12 –> Someone has raised that hoary, long past sell-date objection, the Euthryphro dilemma. But, it is fatally flawed: for, it inescapably depends for its rhetorical force on a long since discredited Greek concept of gods, i.e. in a context of the independent reality of the material and ideational worlds. (It is on that implicit base that it becomes persuasive to ask whether the gods command the good because they are good [a reference to the platonic Form of the Good], or because of their power, i.e arbitrarily.)

13 –> The Hebraic- Christian, revelationally anchored view of the Creator- Sustainer- Redeemer God is utterly different and is inherently not subject to such an objection.

14 –> For, we are contingent; it is in the Creator-God that we live, move and have our being, including that we live in a contingent cosmos, dependent for its origin on a necessary being, the Creator. And, that Creator — who is Reason Himself, Truth himself, Love Himself and Holiness Himself — by his necessary nature is both powerful and moral. So, he acts in ways that are both moral and moral in a context that they are also reasonable.

15 –> Thus morality is intelligible to us and we sense its compelling force as OUGHT, not just IS; i.e. we can understand core morality and see that its precepts are self-evident, on pain of hypocritically inconsistent absurdity on rejecting them. (Resemblance to the 2nd para of the 1776 US DOI is NOT coincidental.)

16 –> Indeed, let us see how Locke cites “the judicious [Richard] Hooker,” from that Anglican worthy’s Ecclesiastical Polity, when Locke set out to ground the natural law of liberty and justice for all — i.e Laws of [moral] nature and of nature’s God — in the 2nd chapter of his 2nd essay on civil govt:

. . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature [which of course in both Hooker's and Locke's contexts traces to the equality of our creation in God's image], as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant.

17 –> Thus we see articulated precisely the view of core morality that we find in Romans:

2: 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the [written Mosaic] law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) . . . .

RO 13:8b . . . he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

18 –> In short, core morality — not the mores of any given place or time, which often fail to be consistent with core morality 9which is why we need repentance and reform, and to listen to the pleading ever so sweetly reasonable voice of both conscience and true prophet [note the modifier!]) — is just as deeply and indelibly imprinted in our inner life as is core intelligence.

19 –> That is how we find it an objective, consensus obligation, and how we find it reasonable as well. That is OUGHT is objective truth, in a world created and sustained by the inherently moral and inherently necessary, inherently truthful and loving Creator God.

20 –> Thus also, why we find the objectivity of such core morality is a compass needle pointing to its Source.


EXCERPT 5: On the implications for our worldviews:

j –> We also — as a matter of fact — find ourselves bound to respect the truth and to seek it, though we often fall short thereof; especially where the truth affects matters of justice. (Just think about what happens when we quarrel.)

k –> So, again per brute experienced and observed fact, we find ourselves morally bound to one another; leading to the issue of equality of nature and moral obligation as an inherent part of that nature.

l –> Such of course leads to the criterion of worldview choice that no view that is amoral or immoral is credible. (Thus, en passant, the force of Hawthorne’s argument, and Koukl’s argument, as well as the impact of the moral argument to God; as well as the significance of Plantinga’s successful blunting of the problem of evil per the Free Will Defense.)

m –> As well, by the very nature of virtue, virtues rest on choice: one loves only because one has made a choice. A programmed robot cannot LOVE, though it may be an instrument of someone’s loving care. (And notice how virtue is a property of persons, indeed of intelligent agents.)

n –> Thus also a world in which virtues based on love are possible, is also a world in which vices based on hate or indifference are possible. And in such a world, especially if the in-group vs out-group trans-generational vengeful blood feud is a cultural prospect, we face sometimes grim choices of the lesser of evils. (NB: I cited some cases earlier this morning. Until the objectors who would paint God as a moral monster engage these issues, they have no right to claim that such putting of God into the dock is a responsible position.)

o –> If you have the lesser problem of being troubles by such grim realities, welcome to the club.

p –> Only, let us be humble enough to understand that we cannot calculate the balance of evils better than God. And then try to imagine a world in which ONLY an eye for an eye and ONLY a tooth for a tooth was an IMPROVEMENT.

q –> Then join me in shuddering as we contemplate what lurks in the depths of our hearts.

r –> Then, understand the love of God who came and bled for us.

s –> Then, join us in the call to mutual repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation leading to discipleship under the Teacher of Love and reform based on love, that are at the heart of the gospel.

Grace be with us all . . . that we may unstintingly look into our own hearts, and find a way to turn from evil and vengefulness to the good. END