Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An excellent and thoughtful discussion on the "Unbelievable?" radio program between David Instone-Brewer and James White about Reformed theology versus the alternative over Instone-Brewer's new book, "The Jesus Scandals". From the Unbelievable? website:

David Instone-Brewer is a New Testament Scholar at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He returns to talk about his new book "The Jesus Scandals" and some of the reasons why he believes Jesus' theology doesn't conform to a Calvinist view of God's sovereignty.

Does the Parable of the Great Feast contradict the idea of an "elect", did Jesus in some sense believe in "luck", are disasters ordained by God?

James White of Alpha and Omega ministries is a Calvinist and responds to David's viewpoint.

Listen to the program here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Logic and the Light of the World

I want to react to something Dr. William Lane Craig has been discussing. I don’t want to particularly criticize him, although I think he is led in certain directions in this discussion because of a commitment to Arminianism. Otherwise, I think he’s right. But I want to take the opportunity his discourse affords and advance my own take on it.

Read his answer to the question a reader submitted here regarding the attack by some physicists on logic based on an apparent tension between theories and principles of quantum physics and basic math. You may not understand what they are talking about, so it may not be worth your time to read it. Nevertheless, I’ll try to explain it in its simplest form.

Quantum physics is that part of physics that deal with the way atoms and things even smaller than atoms interact with each other. It’s an interesting world when things get that small. It doesn’t seem to work the same way as things do up in the normal world where we can see people and other things our size, from large buildings and mountains down to small gears for watches, needles and threads. There’s just a certain way that the world works that we are familiar with. But atomic things don’t seem to work quite the same way.

But it’s similar. Maybe we can imagine that atoms are like billiard balls being hit against one another. Except that some of the billiard balls are attached to each other with strong rubber bands and they are all being thrown against each other with so much speed and force it’s like they were being shot out of a cannon at each other. So instead of a normal game of pool, it’s dangerous and extreme. Very small things move with great speed and force.

When you play pool or have seen it played, can you always predict where the balls will go when they are broken up at the first shot? It’s really hard to do. There are too many factors that are impossible to measure and calculate. But there is generally a pattern to the break that one can guess at. So the first person hits the cue ball hard and hopes that something good goes in one of the holes. Most of the time, if a ball goes in a hole on the break, it’s one of the holes behind the triangle of balls that have been racked together for the first shot. There’s a certain probability that can be calculated in an attempt to predict what might happen: “70% of the time, a ball will go into the back pocket on the break.” Something like that can be said. This is called Probability Theory.

So it is with quantum physics. We expect that we should be able to predict what will happen in most circumstances. What circumstances are we talking about? Generally we look at a small system. If we have our eye on a single atom, we look at the atoms nearby it to see what effect they will have on the one atom. If you are playing pool, you don’t expect that some ball on a pool table in another pool hall across town will have any effect on the balls on your table. So there is a theory regarding locality in quantum mechanics. We don’t think that an atom on the other side of the earth, much less the other side of the galaxy, will have any effect on the atoms under our microscope.

The problem is that what we figure will probably happen doesn’t happen. In fact, sometimes we see very small particles behaving in unpredictable ways. It’s like they have a mind of their own. So what could cause them to behave differently? Is the Probability Theory wrong? Or is it that the principle of locality is wrong. Could something be influencing the balls on our little microscopic pool table from across town? When Craig mentions Bell’s Theorem, this is what he’s talking about.

So there are physicists who look at this and question the Probability Theory. Their ultimate goal is to bring into question our understanding of logic. However, Bell’s Theorem depends on the logic that is being called into question. So if the logic is wrong, then so is Bell’s theory – as well as the basis for the speculations these physicists are making.

If Bell is right in that we can dismiss neither the Probability Theory nor the principle of locality then the only answer is that the particle is behaving in some way predetermined.  If I understand this correctly, Craig doesn’t like this because he’s set on libertarian free will. He doesn’t like things that are predetermined. Once again, if I understand correctly, he likes the Probability Theory for the same reason. It adds the element of luck into the universe. So I’ve heard it often said among Christians that there is no luck because of God’s sovereignty. In this regard I believe the matter to be merely epistemological rather than normative. That means that it seems like luck to us because we can’t know all the facts, but the facts are still there. There are tiny elements that play into the mechanics of the universe that generate the results that appear to us to be random. In other words, they are not without a cause. Given Craig’s Molinism, I wouldn’t expect him to have a problem with this. There must be a way that God selects one possible future from another in the Molinistic system.

But I agree that it is the principle of locality that needs to be challenged. Let me try to explain from here to the end a simplified form of relativity and what I’m thinking in terms of things that are not local that can influence quantum particles.

Let’s say we are standing on a shoreline. Out in the water is a motorboat that comes tooling by. A few moments later and we are inundated by small waves generated by the boat. The waves were generated a few moments ago, but it took those few moments to get to us. By the time they get to us we can turn and see how the position of the boat is different than it was when it generated the waves now lapping at our feet.

Now let us pretend that the waves that are lapping at our feet are light waves. We need them to see. So the waves being generated now by the boat are not to us yet. We don’t see the boat where it actually is. We see the boat where it was when it made the waves. If we had a clock that was synchronized with a clock on the boat, we could come back together and check those clocks. As slow as boats usually go, we would see that the clocks were still reading the same time.

Ah, but if the boat were to amazingly move at somewhere near the speed of light, something would be different. When we came back together, our clocks would read differently. They would now appear to run at the same speed, but it would be clear that they experienced a different amount of time. This is called “time dilation”. If we do that math to explain the difference between the clocks, we would learn that the distance the boat traveled appeared to be different between the shore where we were standing and on the boat.

The appearance of the difference is that the boat travels slower than it should, given the speed that it is travelling. So while energy is pushing the boat forward, that energy appears to be lost from the perspective of the shore. Where does that energy go? Let’s make the same observation if the boat were instead an electron. So now we’re looking at an atom that has some electrons in orbit. If you remember your physical science class, the electrons are in orbit at specific distances around the nucleus of the atom. These specific distances are often called shells. But it’s not quite as simple as they led us all to believe in class. The outer electrons can have fewer electrons or the outer shell have extra electrons. This makes the atom an ion of one sort or another.

But there might be some extra energy in the system so one of the outer electrons might be up in a higher shell it normally would be. Add some extra energy and the electron might increase in speed to near the speed of light. It’s already close to the speed of light anyway, but it just jumps up a bit closer. Suddenly, it appears to the rest of the atom that the electron slows down. The only way it could do that is if it lost energy. As it slows down, it drops into a lower shell.

So what happened to the extra energy? It went out as a photon. The energy was released in a specific direction with a specific wavelength. This is electromagnetic radiation. This includes visible light, radio waves, x-rays, the whole gamut. It travels at a measurable speed until it hits an object and transfers its energy to that other object.

So my next question is: What did the electron experience when it gained and lost energy at the same time? This is pure speculation, but I submit it for your consideration. I think that as far as the electron is concerned, the distance between it and the object that the photon eventually touched was instantly negated and the electron hit that object slowing it down and bringing it back within its original frame of reference. For that moment, distance became irrelevant. That electron became subject to a non-local event according to the outside observer. The path of negation is represented in that frame of reference by the photon, which is a distortion of the space and time between the electron and the distant object.

My last question is this: Could there be other types of distortions based on other types of actions involving subatomic particles approaching the speed of light? I don’t see why not. It is this direction I would like to see physicists go. I think there could be much benefit for communication technology or some other information transfer.

But I want to make one last point that brings us back to the created order of this world. The material things of this world are ultimately constructed of energy. The material is the existential. The energy is, in part, the substantial. The difference is their relative temporal placement. But there is a substantial power that exceeds all the energy represented in the matter and energy of this world on which this world rests and draws its power. That is who we call God. I don’t mean to argue for the existence of God based on this, but rather to demonstrate His necessary substance as the basis for the material world. And so it is that in the beginning of all things, God created all things with intent and purpose. This neither Calvinist nor Arminian can deny.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Kind of Time Do We Have?

William Lane Craig has recently been talking about theories of time. Listen to his recent podcasts. I’m going to talk about these theories, what Craig believes regarding these theories, what I believe about these theories, and the relationship these theories have with theology.

Most people reasonably perceive time as passing basically the same for everyone. This is reasonable because macroscopically that’s the only perception we need in order to function well in this world. But time is a little more complex than that in how it is integral to the form and function of the created order.

There are two basic sets of theories for how the universe functions. Craig goes into more detail, but I’ll try to explain them both here. The A Theory of time is that the past exists because it has happened and that the future is not fixed and determinate like the past. The B theory of time is that each moment of time is its own stand-alone slice of existence and that the future is as determinate as the past.

Craig goes into some detail about the difference between time passing and the measurement of time. Don’t get bogged down by this. Philosophers are good at using very specific language without specifically defining the language they are using. The specific definition may have been expounded on somewhere, but philosophers assume that everyone knows what those definitions are. I do the same thing, but at least I’m trying not to do that. In fact, there’s much to say on this, but it’s not relevant to the point I’m going to make here so I’ll refrain. When Craig starts talking about relative time, the clocks ticking, the Lorentz transformation, etc., don’t worry about trying to follow him. It’s not overly relevant to the point he’s ultimately driving at.

What is relevant, however, is that Craig makes some observations that imply that the A Theory and the B Theory are mutually exclusive. The debate may often go there, but for all the wrong reasons. He’s right to criticize B Theorists that dismisses the A Theory. Particularly, he gives as an example the one who on judgment day stands before God for judgment. The slice of a person standing before God is different than the slices who sinned against God. I would add that such a slice would be different than the slice who came to faith. How could God condemn a slice that didn’t sin?

One problem that Craig has with this argument is that he is using a false understanding of the nature of sin. I can see that if his exclusionary view of the B theory is true, that this may be the nature of sin. But it’s not the biblical nature of sin. And perhaps this is why Craig says that if the B theory is exclusive of the A theory that this denial of the biblical nature of sin, among other things, would negate the B theory in favor of the A theory.

But that’s the other problem. Although many may argue for mutual exclusion between the two theories, I don’t see why they are necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact the reason that Craig doesn’t like the B theory is given in the third podcast: If there is any truth to the B theory, then there can be no room for libertarian free will. The reason that this is a problem is that Craig dismisses it because of a conclusion that he doesn’t like, not because of some problem that is foundational to the theory. The only argument that he gives is that there is no evidence possible for the theory. But this is an argument from silence. Craig, himself, is a Molinist. Molinists believe that God chooses from the best possible outcome based on libertarian free will choices that He knows people will make. Molinism isn’t a view taught in the Bible and it’s not provable. So this particular argument that Craig makes is an argument against Molinism.

But there is another problem with his Molinism and what he criticizes in these podcasts. He also talks about the multiverse. This is a theory well represented in science fiction television programs and movies. He gives one example from one of the Star Trek episodes. The theory is that at every point where more than one thing could have happened, a new universe is formed to accommodate the decision that didn’t get made in this universe. He’s right to point out that materialists use this argument to make it possible for the universe to be fine-tuned in order to sustain biological life as we know it.

But there is a problem with his rejection of a multiverse as a Molinist. He likely considers that since God has chosen the best possible course of action for the universe, that there is only one universe. However, the Molinistic way that God does this is by considering all the other possible universes. Now, I could at this point argue that by simply considering them, they would exist at least with some limited ontological form. It’s a stronger observation, however, to note that if God controls secondarily at every libertarian decision, then there must be some truth to the B Theory. In fact, the B theory must be compatible with the A theory. They can’t be mutually exclusive.

The issue that Craig has with the B Theory exclusive to the A Theory is that it presumes hyper-predestination. But he never considers in these podcasts if it is possible that the A Theory and the B Theory are compatible. That’s what I believe. I believe that we experience the world God created as the A Theory considers it but that God creates it as the B Theory presents it. I consider that His creation, providence, and sustenance are all the same thing to God. But He also provides a continuity from one slice to the next. My slice now is the same spiritual and moral entity as my slice a moment ago. I’m mostly the same material being as well. I ingest food and drink and expel various wastes as I go along. So my body changes over time. Nevertheless, I am the same being albeit my decision-making ability is limited to the created order that God has provided. To what extent has God determined my choices? I don’t know, but He will glorify Himself in all of them.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Justin Taylor shared a list of Eight Reasons Why My Anxiety Is Pointless and Foolish. One commenter, Neil, wrote this:

Liberal Christian traditions understand this, but then water down the truth. There has to be a way for reformed pastors to get a grip on where their hurting church members are.
I responded:

I think you are onto something here. It’s somewhat helpful for people to simply be nice to depressed people so they get the idea that they are worth something. But it’s not deeply helpful because it doesn’t address the issue with truth. The fact is that Christians undergoing sanctification live in a tension between being so worthless we need Christ and being worth the blood of Christ. It’s like being a family of perpetual teenagers.

Depression among Christians feeds off of external and internal tracks of this pattern. Externally, the observation is that imperfect people strut around like they are perfect while internally, one may be burdened with excessive morbidity recognizing that it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise. The morbidity is exacerbated by the isolation of realizing (whether true, false or exaggerated) that others don’t understand this.

What is needed is a realistic understanding of our need for God, but also that God has called us to His service and will provide for that service with the gifts, abilities and opportunities that He has given us, including complimentary gifts that He has given others. If we are indeed inadequate, then it is realistic to recognize this. But it is also realistic to understand where God has gifted us whether He has provided immediately for the use of those gifts or not. One of the most therapeutic things to do is to get busy trying to plug those gifts in somewhere. At some point, one reaches a balance between being active in the Kingdom and having the time for necessary spiritual reflection through the scriptures without getting excessively morbid regarding one’s worthlessness.

When You Are Polarized, Is the Answer to Always Run to the Middle?

This mostly helpful article by guest blogger Ken Hamrick discusses a debate within the Southern Baptist Church and points out that Our Enemy is Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism, but Polarization. In it he uses an argument that I find troubling:

What many proponents of the polar extremes fail to realize is that the truth is in the middle. It is the nature of men to err and misunderstand, and every important truth seems to have a large group erring on either side. This no different. As Baptists and Biblicists, the extremes are easily recognized as foreign ideas.

 My short dialog with Ken explains the problem I have with this kind of argumentation:


I generally balk at language that posits the ends of a particular spectrum with the truth being “somewhere in the middle”. The problem is that people who argue this way tend to place their position as the middle and construct false extremes.

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism generally centers on the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s culpability or responsibility. The Bible is clear about those two things and our task is to hold both as true theologically. This can be done in a number of ways which fleshes out in more of a multidimensional array of spectra. So we end up defining people with how many points of Calvinism they hold. (Although I’ve never read anyone quantify how much of an Arminian someone is.)

So it’s generally good to focus on what we hold as true from scripture and enjoy the particulars as though we were children marveling at the indiscernible clouds, as though they looked like a rabbit or a snowman, that bring good rain instead of getting worked up over the debate. We are biblicists and should be grateful that we agree on that. There are people who aren’t biblicists and it’s far better to make the case for that to them than it is to fuss over whether someone lost their salvation or wasn’t truly a Christian to begin with. The result is the same; they are outside of Christ now and need the ministry of the gospel truth.

I generally balk when two extremes ignore the substantial middle and insist that we must choose between one or the other. My point was not to create a middle position from the two ends, but rather, to point out that the middle position exists on its own, overlapping some of Calvinism and some of Arminianism, and most Southern Baptists are found there. While I have not consulted any polls, it has been my experience that most Southern Baptist do hold to unconditional election, while also holding that men are free to choose or reject God. They hold that the gospel is a universal offer — implorative and not merely informative — imploring all men to believe and not merely informing that God will save the elect. They hold that all men have a genuine warrant to believe, since if even a nonelect man were to hypothetically believe, then he would be saved and would not find any lack of atonement. They hold that men who come to faith in Christ are THEN regenerated by the indwelling Holy Holy Spirit. They hold that what keeps men from Christ is first and foremost sin and not some corpse-like inability to understand, so that if a man is not saved he has only himself to blame.

We don’t need to give equal validity to the more extreme teachings as if these things were indiscernible. Exactly how God’s agency interacts with man’s agency in salvation might not be discernible, but the fact that both play a part is discernible.

I agree that we should be grateful that we are Biblicists. It is not the centrality of the main position, but the authority of Scripture that gives it its validity and strength.


It boils down to a relative position that says essentially, “Extreme people should stop saying that they are right and everyone else is wrong since the most peaceful solution is to say that everyone is a little bit right. Since my position is the balanced one, you are wrong and I am right.” It’s one of the most effective tactics used by political pundits to reframe a debate irrationally and make it sound rational. That’s why I balk at it.

The problem with this, especially in this case, is that it’s use typically results in the discussion to fail to accurately assess the beliefs that people have and subsequently address them on an ineffective level resulting in intensified frustration. For example, many people misconstrue Calvinism as denying moral responsibility and also misconstrue Arminianism as denying the sovereignty of God. There are biblical varieties of each that affirm both and I’m okay with the differences otherwise. I, for example, am a 5-point soteriological Calvinist and a Compatibilist. I’ve worked happily on the mission field with brothers in Christ who are Molinists. The only balance I can claim is what the Bible is particularly clear on.

A Couple of Helpful Analogies

In an article entitled "Understanding Antinomy: A Key to Peace in the Calvinism Debate?" commenter Doug Hibbard shared an analogy he's heard:

I’m sure this analogy breaks down along the way, but I was once told to view the two sides in this argument as you view a railroad track: both rails are there, both are necessary for the train to run smoothly.
Of course, one would have to view that concept without elevating the “man’s responsibility” rail to saying that man is equal to God–it’s an analogy. They don’t come perfectly, do they?

 I added a couple that I came up with:

There are many decent analogies that can be used. A couple that I use from time to time:

1. The Opposable Thumb: In order to pick something up, we employ two opposing forces. We have fingers that all move in the same general direction. But God has designed us with thumbs so that move in opposite the fingers on a hand so that we can pick something up. In the same hand one force from the thumb moves against the force of the fingers so that something can be grasped and manipulated effectively. This is the way it is with theological tension.

2. Here is a picture of God:
You can see that He is portrayed as white for His purity on a white background because He is His own context. he is so perfect that there is not even any shadow because even the light comes from Him. The thing is that this picture illustrates is that we have a problem discerning God without some contrast. So God provides something that is not Himself so that He can be seen clearly by His creatures whose minds are limited by the logic of this world.

Dave Miller rightly reminds that all analogies break down at some point, so don't use beyond the surface meaning. But these are helpful for conveying an understanding of theological tension, such as what is found in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism to people who tend to think metaphorically.