Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Preaching and Preachers
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written a very useful book on preaching, called Preaching and Preachers. If I could summarize the central theme of this book, it is that the preacher is called to communicate the truth of the Scripture to the people of God, so that they will be influenced and moved by that truth. This is the guiding principle of Lloyd-Jones’ approach to preaching, and he uses this principle to judge all other matters.
Lloyd-Jones says that preaching in his own day is in a terrible state, due to an overreaction to the overly formal style that came before, and to an overconfidence in science and psychology to solve all problems. The result was a feel-good preaching style that made heavy use of psychological principles to the detriment of applying the word. Ironically, in giving people what the preacher feels the people want, instead of what the Bible says they need, the churches were dwindling. If the preaching is irrelevant, why should people come? Lloyd-Jones insists that if preachers are going to be effective and the churches to be vital again, preachers are going to have to get back to preaching the word.
Lloyd-Jones’ book is a broad book, covering many topics. He started by establishing what he calls “the primacy of preaching”, which is just the idea that preaching must be at the center of everything we do in church. The worship service, the architecture of the building, the preparation of the minister- everything should reflect this. It is preaching which changes people, so preaching must be central.
Lloyd-Jones has many specific examples of things which detract from this primacy, most of which I agree with and some of which I do not. He says that taping sermons or responsive readings are detractions, the one because it destroys the freedom of the preacher and the interaction between preacher and congregation, and the other because it is based on the idea that the congregation ought to be more involved in the service. These are two examples of what I think are not necessary applications of the absolutely correct principle which Lloyd-Jones is advocating here. Yes, preaching must be primary, but tape recording doesn’t necessarily interfere with that. And responsive readings and music can be used to amplify the effect of the preaching, not hinder from it. And just because something is primary, doesn’t mean that nothing else is necessary. Confession, singing and public prayer are all commanded in Scripture, and therefore ought to be given due attention. But these two matters are relatively minor matters of opinion, compared to the many points on which Lloyd-Jones is perceptive and absolutely correct. In many ways, the church in his day through ours undermines and discounts the importance of preaching in favor of many other elements of worship (or non-worship). Even in the sermon itself, many things happen which are not preaching. Joke-telling, story-telling, flowery rhetoric, pithy quotations, psychologizing, talking about the issues of the day, all crowd out true preaching.
True preaching, on the other hand, is confronting and encouraging the people of God with the truth of Scripture. It is only the truth of Scripture that will change people's lives, and it is life change that we are looking for.
Lloyd-Jones also discusses at length the character of a pastor and what ought to be considered in a man before recognizing the call. This I think was the most perceptive part of the book, and also the most badly needed today. Little attention, even in many conservative circles, is given to the character of the man. Perhaps attention is given to the man’s scholarly abilities and theological acumen, but such a simple matter of whether the man is capable of speaking in public is frequently neglected.
Lloyd-Jones says that whenever a young man approaches him and expresses an interest in the ministry, he feels it is his obligation to put as many roadblocks as he can in the man’s way. He says if the man is called, then he will overcome these. But too many men are pursuing ministry for the wrong reasons, far more than don’t pursue the ministry although they are called. Men pursue it for vanity, for pride, out of guilt, or to run away from other failures. But Lloyd-Jones repeats Spurgeon’s admonition, that if a man can do anything else, he should. Anyone who is truly called will be unsatisfied doing any other work. Therefore, it will be the case that far more men ought to be discouraged from false feelings of ministry calling than will need to be encouraged to pursue a call that they are running away from.
But men do run away from calls too, and the church needs to be looking for that. The call is both outward and inward, so the church needs to confirm the true calls by identifying those who have gifts and encouraging it. Nobody ought to proceed in the absence of an inward call, but the church can confirm an inward call that is not recognized yet.
There is a great deal of helpful advice in this book regarding such matters as sermon outlines, preparation and delivery. Some of this kind of advice is not rooted deeply in principles, but is just based on what Lloyd-Jones has done himself and what he has seen work and fail to work in other men. It is very helpful for young pastors to hear suggestions and advice for how to steer away from some of the common icebergs in the ministry. All in all, Lloyd-Jones has produced an excellent and thorough book that should be of assistance to both students and experienced men.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Monday, August 23, 2004
Last week was Introduction to Missions, my last class. An odd class it was, too, since the professor didn't seem very Reformed and it's a Reformed seminary. Missions was quite a big deal for him, which you'd expect for a Missions professor. But his case was basically that doing foreign missions was the whole point of the church, because of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and Matthew 24:14, which he said taught that when the gospel had spread to all the nations, then Jesus would come again. Under this interpretation, of course, missions would be of chief importance.
But I noticed that many of the places that he was showing where missions work was being done (Turkey, North Africa, Middle East) were former Christian areas. They had already been evangelized once, and then lost to Christianity (mostly to Islam). So if we fail to pay attention to the health of the church in America, then won't we be in a position of re-evangelizing America one day too? Some say we're already there.
And a little Greek work showed the flaw in the exegesis anyway. The relevant phrase is ta ethne or, "the nations". It's frequently translated "the Gentiles" or "the heathens" as well. It's the phrase that appears in both the passages in Matthew mentioned earlier. The professor said that there had been a debate at a big missions conference whether that referred to nations as political entities, or rather to ethnolinguistic "people groups". The conference had decided it meant "people groups", so that the missions emphasis should be to get missions workers in every one of these people groups (of which there are many thousands) and then Jesus would come again.
But a little exegesis demonstrates that ta ethne, "the nations", is used by Jewish speakers to just mean everyone who's not a Jew. Combining that with Paul's and Jesus' teaching that what makes one a true Jew is having the faith of Abraham, not the genealogy of Abraham, the Christian understands "the nations" as meaning just everyone who's not a Christian. The Great Commission was not to any particular group or set of groups, but just to everyone who's not a Christian now. My neighbor fits into this just as much as a Muslim who's ten thousand miles away.
As I've been thinking more about this, I think one of the major problems with this attitude toward missions is that it's goal-oriented instead of people-oriented. We're called to witness to people because we love them. If we simply witness to people in order to instigate the second coming so we all can go off to heaven, then that's a selfish goal. We're doing it to gain some reward. That's not love.
Sometimes it seems like it's easier for people to think about doing missions, giving money to it or even going themselves for a while, than it is for them to actually witness to and love the people in their lives.
One final thought, from Matthew 23:15: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."
Doctrine matters. If I am going to do missions, correct doctrine must be part of it. I must make disciples, not just converts. When people go on about how many thousands of converts they've made here or there, that doesn't mean much unless you know they're being taught correctly, and that they're being discipled. Judaism was the fastest growing religion in the ancient world when Christ came. But what were they being converted to? They were just creating lots of little Pharisees, little children of hell, all over the Roman world.
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Saturday, August 14, 2004
An appropriate name for a blog by a medical doctor who is especially interested in bioethical questions.
I'd seen this blog before, but never spent much time there. I forget what, but something led me to check it out, and spend some time there. I'd look at it if I were you. It's quite interesting. Here's a post, for example, on the stem cell issue.
Friday, August 13, 2004
This just reinforces my belief in never going outside.
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Whenever I attack other systems of philosophy as having no proper basis for morality, I am frequently accused of attacking the adherents of that system as amoral. If I say that atheism has no basis for morality, some atheist will come along and think that he’s falsifying my point by saying that he’s a very moral guy, despite the fact that I never said anything at all about any individual’s morality.
Far from falsifying my point, that simple fact makes my point.
Since the time of the Greeks, civilized people have been seriously debating many different philosophical ideas. One of the ideas they bounced around was corporeal monism (everything is made of one thing- fire, water, earth, something else). Now, in the physical sciences we are so far ahead of the Greeks, it’s just ridiculous. They were no slouches, given that they had no microscopes or anything, and they got a lot farther than a lot of other people, but we run rings around them today.
But when you examine the dialogues of Socrates about morality, you discover that we are asking, and failing to answer, basically the same questions today that they were asking 2500 years ago. Is something wrong because it has bad effects? Or is it wrong just because it’s wrong? If God dictates right and wrong, is it moral because he decreed it, or did he decree it because it’s moral?
Now, despite all of those very different approaches to morality, most Greeks thought that stealing and lying and needlessly inflicting violence on others was wrong. Like all people, the Greeks nevertheless engaged in all of these activities, but they still condemned them in others.
Throughout history, we have continued to wrestle with these problems. And whether you were Hume or Kant or Aquinas or Occam, you tried to account for morality whenever you did any serious work in philosophy. A philosophy that doesn’t address morality isn’t much of a philosophy. And more often than not, the approach seems to have been, “Let’s try to discover a rational basis for the moral feelings that we already have.” And so great thinkers sweat and stew and work out a system that lets them start with “I think therefore I am” and deduce from there that people shouldn’t rob liquor stores. They then point to their philosophical system and say, “See, that’s why people shouldn’t rob liquor stores”. But they rarely seem to address the fact that everybody already knew that they shouldn’t rob liquor stores. Why do all the philosophies start at completely different points, use completely different methods, but in issues of moral theory usually end up in the same place?
It’s such an odd state of affairs that the very moral codes that the philosophers claim to be deducing can then be used to falsify the philosophical system that was supposed to underlie those same moral codes. One of the objections raised against Divine Command Theory, for example, is that it implies that God could command a great crime, and it would then be moral, an idea which most people would find repugnant. As another example, one of the charges against Utilitarianism (“greatest good for the greatest number”) is that it could be used to justify torture or slavery, if more benefit were accrued by more people than were harmed by it. But if the moral codes themselves can be used to falsify philosophy, and the philosophies tend to lead to the same moral codes anyway, then it seems to be very likely that the philosophers may have got it backward all these years. Rather than starting with some principle that they think makes sense, and deducing moral codes from them, perhaps the truth is that the moral codes themselves are logically prior to the philosophical truth. That is to say, our moral sense ought to be teaching us what the universe is all about, rather than our own speculations about the universe serving as the basis for determining our moral codes.
A very few people actually were consistent, and took the idea that our philosophy determines our moral sense to its logical conclusion. We call those people Nihilists. Nihilists realized that if our moral sense were the product of our philosophical speculations, then morality couldn’t be truly said to exist. Very few people wish to live in a world governed by those conclusions, and pure Nihilism (thankfully) has been very rare. When we got even close, we got World War II.
So then the moral question proves the failure of Rationalism and the Enlightenment to come up with a fully functioning epistemology. Reason and science simply cannot be the source of all knowledge, since the conclusions of reason and science are falsified if they disagree with “common sense” morality. The Nazis may have thought that their little project was rational. Many agreed with them at the time. But the results proved them wrong, on a moral basis. Nobody even asks the question whether the Holocaust made rational sense, and rightly so. It was a crime. Morality is a rather big part of our functioning as human beings, and our moral nature is not subject to the dictates of reason. Something that is wrong, is wrong, regardless of reasoning. I cannot ‘logic’ a crime into a virtue.
And more important than that, if we all share a relatively common moral framework, the question is “why”? Why does everyone think it’s wrong to kill innocent people? Even people who kill innocents usually have to justify it to themselves, by saying that they deserved it somehow. Why are humans hardwired with this basic sense of right and wrong, which is logically and epistemologically superior and prior to all religions and philosophies?
And if it’s just nature, like a bird that knows how to build a certain kind of nest, why does nobody actually follow that moral code that they all know about? “Nobody’s perfect”, “I’m only human”. These are clichés, so often are these sentiments expressed and so pervasively are they felt. What naturalistic explanation can be found for the universal existence of a moral code, and likewise universal failure to live up to that code? The common awareness of guilt, of moral failure, is what has spawned the existence of all the religions of the world, because the fact of that moral code points irrefutably to something which is external to me, which put that moral code there. It is that something which we call God. Some have told us that guilt is the product of those religions. But you can get rid of the religions and you will still have the guilt. You might have a few outliers who claim to be guilt-free, who claim to have freed themselves entirely from the shackles of morality, or who claim to perfectly live by whatever code they express. But don’t believe them. Spend a little time with such a person, and at their most consistent you will find a psychopath and at the least consistent, a simple liar.
Guilt is the thing. Guilt is the whole issue. It is guilt which fuels all political movements; all moral crusades (all actual crusades too); all religions; all philosophies. Freud was absolutely correct in recognizing the destructive effect that guilt has on human psychology, though he was utterly wrong in its nature, source, or what to do about it. In fact, everyone who proposed to do anything about it was likewise utterly wrong. Many religions and philosophies propose schemes by which man can expiate his guilt, somehow work his way out of the mess, and more and bloodier wars have been fought for this reason than any other, and people have still failed to find relief from their guilt. Many other philosophies and religions have attempted to define away the problem, leaving their adherents desperately and constantly searching for the secret, hidden wisdom that will finally tell them that there is no guilt. Trillions have been spent on psychologists, counselors, government programs, drugs and entertainment to try to talk us out of, distract us from, or give us false solutions to our guilt, with only very meager, temporary results.
But as the source of morality lies outside ourselves, so too does the guilt. We can’t just wish the guilt away, because it’s real, and it’s not just subjective. Guilt is not merely something that you feel, that you could talk yourself out of. We feel guilty because we are guilty. We are guilty because we were made with a conscience, a conscience that we have very badly abused and violated. That conscience testifies to us of an eternal standard of right and wrong, rooted in the very nature of the One who made us. Our offense therefore is against that One. And since that One is perfectly holy, and can never lie, and never for a second pretend that He’s not God, He can also never for a second pretend that we’re not guilty. The feeling of guilt that every man, woman and child has is the feeling of being alienated, separated from the One who created us, and is the feeling of being cut off from the source of our life and well-being because of that guilt. And it is the feeling of impending doom, the death that is the ultimate result of that guilt.
The source of the solution to the guilt problem therefore can never lie in us. It can only lie in God. There is only one philosophy, one religion, which both acknowledges the guilt problem and also acknowledges my inability to solve it.
And that’s why I’m a Christian.
But Katie got a tea set for her birthday (2!) and wanted someone to accompany her. So I had tea with Katie, and Pooh Bear, and several un-named baby dolls. It was quite the cultural experience. I definitely feel broadened.
So maybe I'm the only guy in the world who's never been to a tea party before, but I bet not. So for those of you out of the know, what you do at a tea party is, you have a little tray (no table yet), and everyone sits around the tray (or is propped up in some cases) and everyone has a different cup with matching saucer (some of the babies shared). Then you pour a little cream in the cups, spoon a little sugar, and pour some tea (Katie's teapot sings a song when you do this- no lousy non-singing teapots for my baby!). Then everyone drinks a little tea. Then, probably, someone might get a little overexcited and start throwing things and knocking the other babies over. I am told most tea parties end this way.
In this discussion, I’ll be referring to what ‘we’ would normally think. By this I mean people in general with a typical view of morality. I am not referring to any particular philosophy or religion. It is, by the way, very significant that most philosophies and religions share a pretty similar moral code, regardless of how they get there.
Morality can and does often coincide with what a person wants to do. We’d say that it was right for a mother to care for her child and yet many mothers care for their child because it gives them a deep sense of satisfaction. But morality must only coincide with that desire, rather than be equivalent to it, since if the mother desired to not take care of her child, and neglected it, we would say that was wrong. In fact, actions that we describe as wrong always are caused by someone’s desire. The thief desires to steal, and yet we say stealing is wrong.
If I don’t steal something because I don’t want it, we would not call that a morally significant action (or non-action). If I don’t steal something that I do want to steal, that might be moral, unless it is the fear of consequences that keep me from stealing. If I would steal it if I could but don’t because I can’t get away with it, then we don’t recognize that as being morally laudable. But if I have the opportunity to steal, would benefit by doing so, can see no consequences for stealing and yet don’t (I contemplate such a scenario here), then it seems to me logical to say that only a moral concern could have prompted such an action. That is to say, the only reason why I would not steal in such a hypothetical scenario is because I have a sense that to do so would be wrong. And of course, such a scenario is not truly hypothetical, for we find ourselves in those scenarios all the time. So morality can coincide with my desires, or not coincide with them, but they are not determined by them. Saying I really wanted to do something wrong is no justification for the wrong in anyone’s mind.
But that brings us back to the question of authority. Why is it wrong? The whole debate over abortion, for example, revolves around just this question. The pro-choice people say that only the woman in question can make the decision about whether it’s right or wrong, and that nobody has the right to tell her otherwise. “My body, my choice.” The pro-life side claims that there is a superior moral standard that says that it is wrong, regardless of the woman’s feelings or situation. The pro-choice side responds that they don’t accept that moral standard, which is to say they claim that such a moral standard has no authority over them, since they reject it. And round and round they go.
So who or what is that authority? The answer to that question will determine what kind of moral system you hold.
Since the enlightenment, the idea that reason is the source for all human knowledge has been extremely pervasive. It gave rise to rationalism, which was seen as the antidote for the superstition of the Dark Ages. It was believed that science would give us the answers to all of our problems. John Locke and David Hume said that the only source of information was our senses, and how our reason interpreted the information we got from those senses. And so, new moral theories were formed on the basis of reason. Utilitarianism in its various forms was one of the most popular of these theories, which held that reason dictated that the greatest good for the greatest number ought to be the rule. Parallel with the development in moral theory, religion was impacted very significantly. Thinkers such as Schleiermacher and, later, Bultmann expressed a belief that religion ought likewise to be reinterpreted in light of reason, with all that did not correspond to reason being rejected. And so the Bible was said to contain many fine moral principles, but the supernatural elements should be ignored since they could not be verified by reason. Revelation from God was rejected as an important source of knowledge, and science and reason were enthroned in its place.
But why is it that reason is judged to be the pinnacle of knowledge? What is it about reason that makes it the sole source of all knowledge? Can reason tell us about itself? Did reason tell me that reason was the best source of all knowledge? Did I learn reason by reasoning? And if not, how did I learn it? If reason is the highest form of knowledge, then nothing can lie prior to it or superior to it. But then how did I find out about reason? Reason applied to economics, for example, can tell me how to maximize the things that I value, but how do I determine what I value? One man might value material goods more than leisure time, and therefore work hard so as to have the wealth to acquire those goods. Another man might prefer to be lazy. Can reason tell me which of those two value systems is preferable?
And as the enlightenment wore on, more philosophers began to ask, if reason has eliminated the need for God in our morals and epistemology, on what basis are those morals even said to exist? How can I know anything outside of myself, if my own reason and senses are the source of that knowledge? Rene Descartes got as far as “I think, therefore I am”, but after that it got kind of sketchy. And if all that is truly real is me and what I perceive, then how can any authority outside of myself make any statement at all about what is right and wrong? Why should I not maximize my own pleasure all of the time, without regard for how it affects anyone else? What is it that tells me to value the welfare of other people? Is it not rational simply to do whatever I want all the time?
And that brings us to Nihilism, the teaching that there is no meaning or purpose to anything. Moral concepts are pure fiction, just one man’s attempt to have power over another. Only by recognizing that man had no purpose could man truly be free. Existentialism tried to pretty Nihilism up a little by saying that man could, in defiance of this meaningless reality, validate his own existence by living authentically, being ‘himself’, whatever that meant to him, but the same basic conclusion was there. Morality was just a fiction. We create our own reality. And if we are all just dreaming and none of this is real, who’s to know? And why would it matter? If we are all just artificial constructs in a giant and very sophisticated computer game, what difference would it actually make?
Ultimately, an abstract principle such as “reason” cannot be the source of morality. Reason does not simply exist in a vacuum, as if man could climb up a mountain, find “reason” and ask it questions. Reason is a tool used by thinking beings to analyze information. And reason depends on other things, a structure of knowledge in which to operate. Did reason teach me the difference between pleasure and pain? Or up and down? Did reason teach me to feel pity for someone else who is injured, or did I know that far before I ever learned to think clearly? Can reason teach me that other persons are even real?
And in regard to the moral question, will reason ever tell me to do something that is bad (in an ultimate sense) for me? If my reason tells me that something will benefit me more than it will hurt me (even if society says that it is a ‘wrong’ thing), would reason then also tell me not to do it?
Reason can only tell me how to pursue the values that I already possess. Utilitarianism, for example, claims that reason teaches us to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. But one must ask, why should I value the greatest number? Why should I not value myself over others? I feel my pain but I don’t feel theirs. If I am told that all men are equal and that I should therefore treat them as I would want to be treated, I would ask how I know that all men are equal? Many people disagree with that proposition. Did reason tell me that? Experience and sensory information would seem to suggest that all men are not equal. Some are rich or poor; some are smart or dull; some are powerful or weak. And if I am told that I ought to treat others as I would want to be treated, on the grounds that such behavior will likely secure the greatest welfare for me, then you have taught me to value myself above all others and to seek my own welfare, and have simply made a suggestion about how to go about it. My reason may provide me with alternative methods of maximizing my own happiness, such as stealing your car, and you might say this is irrational, but you could not say it was wrong.
So when we say reason is the source of morality, what we mean is that I am the source of morality. I determine for myself what is right and wrong. Most people, because they cannot live with the Nihilistic principle, profess certain principles of right and wrong, which roughly speaking are commonly held principles. The great majority of people believe that it’s wrong to steal, to lie, or to physically hurt people unless you absolutely have to. Nietzche would say that this is a simple failure of courage on their part, for failing to live up to what they say they believe, for fear of guilt, which is simply a phantom that society has imposed on you to control you. If there is no external measure of right and wrong, then I ought to please myself all the time. And when given the opportunity, when freed from external constraint, many people live out the truth of their rationalistic philosophy, more or less as Nietzche said they would. If someone contests that truth, then please account for the existence of all the security cameras, police, door locks and passwords.
Some resort to saying that society determines what is right, but nobody really believes this. Anyone who believed that would then be bound by their convictions never to attempt to change society; never to question a vote that was taken; never protest if that society stripped them of their possessions and freedom. Nobody would really believe that if society took a vote tomorrow and decided that for the good of society, you were to be tortured to death, that such a vote would therefore render such an action moral. .But that would be the implication of saying that society determines what is right. Pure democracy is just two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.
Therefore, at the end of the day there are really just two options. Either we posit a morality that is external to ourselves, an authority outside of all humanity who determines in some fashion what is right and wrong; or there is no authority outside of myself, and there is no right or wrong.
Monday, August 09, 2004
Friday, August 06, 2004
I'm not sure if I agree. Obviously I've been debating about God a lot lately, so I haven't been true to Lloyd-Jones' position. But Lloyd-Jones' position might be supported by my recent experiences in debating, which have not been very satisfying.
Ed Brayton from Dispatches from the Culture Wars is a very intelligent person. He debated me fiercely, refused to see any of my points, and had lengthy refutations for every one of my posts. After a certain point, I'd give up, at which point Ed would goad me into another confrontation where he would do the same thing. He tied me up in knots and deflected what I felt were the real issues with sidetracks and tangents. At the end of it, I felt like I'd been wrestling with a pig, with the only result being that we both got really muddy. His supporters on his site were naturally unanimous in declaring his victory and pronouncing me to be deluded, moronic, silly, and uninformed. And I became like the thing I criticized, becoming arrogant myself and making the argument about me, instead of about God, by the end of the discussion. At the end, I just felt vaguely soiled, and not just from all the personal abuse and name-calling I received. I have this vague feeling of having somehow demeaned the name of God, although it's difficult for me to pin down why. Perhaps Lloyd-Jones is right. Perhaps the act of engaging in debate about the righteousness of God's actions is itself unworthy of who God is. Who are we to question him? And as Van Til would have said, by even engaging in the debate, perhaps I justify the unbeliever's belief that God is subject to his judgment.
What was accomplished by all of this? I spent two weeks and thousands of words and got nowhere. As far as I know, nobody on either side of the debate learned a thing or moved in their positions at all. At best, I suppose I could say I learned from my mistakes. But what did I learn, exactly? Better debating techniques? Or the foolishness of getting into those kinds of debates at all? Those who already agreed with me said my arguments were bulletproof. Those who disagreed with me said my arguments were ridiculous and without any merit at all.
I think I need to just take a break from these debates for a while at least, and ponder these lessons. I'm just not sure what to take from all of this.
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.
According to Scripture, anyone who refuses to see the truth of the Bible is a fool. Therefore, when dealing with unbelievers, you are always on one side or the other of those two verses. How do you know? And how can you avoid both errors? Was I preventing Ed from being wise in his own eyes? If that's the goal, I failed miserably. Or, was I becoming like him? That alternative seems more likely.
This post may earn me the honor of being one of Ed's "Idiots of the Week". But if I suffer shame for Christ, it should be a glory to me. If the worst thing that happens to me is that a guy like that ridicules me, it's a small price to pay.
Thursday, August 05, 2004
We had a good week, and collected several hundred dollars for the Deaf Reformed Ministries group. I got a couple of kids to help me take the offering. They'd pass the hats, then meet me out back and hand the money over. I'd hold onto it until after the service, count it there in the hall and then carry it over to the office.
It was night, it was dark and I was alone, on three different occasions, with several hundred dollars. I could have easily pocketed five or ten dollars each night.
I thought about this at the time, because of the conversations I'd been having lately on the nature and origin of morality. The modern rationalist impulse seems to be to take reason as the source for all knowledge. And I tried to think about a reason why I shouldn't take that money.
I would definitely benefit, if only in a small way. Over the course of the week, I would have been $20 or $30 richer, with almost no effort. So there was something to gain.
There was, as far as I could see, nothing to lose. My chances of getting caught were pretty close to zero. I was alone in the dark with several hundred dollars. I was the only one who knew how much money was there. A small theft would never have been noticed. The camp director was surprised by how big the offerings were, making it even less likely that anyone would have noticed. So, society would have suffered almost no negative results, and certainly no negative results that it would have been aware of. If the Deaf Reformed Ministries had not yet even received the money, could they be said to have been hurt because they received a tiny amount less than they would have in a hypothetical situation that did not exist? And why should I be obliged to think of the good of society over my own good anyway?
If I felt the need, I could even provide justifications for taking the money. "Muzzle not the ox that treads out the corn", the Bible says, and "The laborer is worthy of his hire". I had worked hard to collect those offerings, and a tiny skim off the top would hurt no one. I deserved it.
The only reason why I didn't take the money was that it would have been wrong.
You might say that guilt prevented me from taking it, but if the guilt was simply an internal feeling, then it would have been weakness that prevented me from taking it. It would have been me allowing society's subjective disapproval keep me from doing something that was good for me.
You might say that the overall weakening of society's moral structure should prevent me from taking the money. But society would have to be aware of it in order for its moral structure to decay as a result, wouldn't it?
You might say that my own moral sense would suffer as a result. But that's just moving the question back a step. Why should I have a moral sense that forces me to hurt myself?
Most people, I think, would agree that it would be wrong for me to take that money. My question is, apart from a God who declares it to be wrong, what objective reason could be given for why it was wrong for me to take that money? This is a non-hypothetical situation, and one that people find themselves in all the time, and any moral theory, it seems to me, needs to have answers to questions like this.
Utilitarianism- fails since I would benefit and nobody else could meaningfully be seen to be harmed. From a pure welfare perspective, I would gain, the people who gave the money would still get their good feelings from having given the money, and the Deaf Reformed Ministries would never know they lost anything.
Objectivism- I ought to respect the property of others, but I was only taking a very small part, and that properly compensated me for my efforts. If nobody knew I had done anything, how could my theft hurt me, the only benchmark of harm in an objectivist system? It was immoral to guilt-manipulate me into doing work for which I was not properly compensated, anyway.
Deontology- probably the strongest case would be the categorical imperative- I should act as I would want everyone else to act. But I think I could honestly say I wouldn't care if everyone in the same position as I was in skimmed an equally small sum off the top, and no-one noticed, _from a pure welfare perspective_. And why should I be asked to consider the good of society rather than my own good? And again, how would society suffer if they never knew about it?
Update: On reflection and re-reading this, I think some of my objection to a deontological approach weren't quite accurate. A deontological approach based on the categorical imperative wouldn't be asking me to consider harm or good to society, but simply the obligation to follow my duty. But the first objection still holds, and if it's an absolute duty we still get back to where that duty comes from. And if you accept the criticism that deontological arguments are really just consequential arguments in disguise, then the objections I gave still hold. If a deontological argument is truly rooted in the nature of God then I wouldn't disagree, but if it's not then I would have to question where that duty comes from, and if it's not just another consequentialist argument calling itself something else.
I don't know how to avoid the conclusion that race is something the Democrats just use for political advantage. If Republicans were smarter, we'd be less scared of setting off the PC bulldogs, and figure out a way to show them up for the hypocrites that so many of them are.
Tuesday, August 03, 2004
Despite the fact that I let the argument go and let him have the last word, Ed has felt the need to take another crack at me. If you enjoy arguments that have far outlived their usefulness, read on. My reply is in the comments. Otherwise, go look at a tree or spend some time with the kids or something.
Sunday, August 01, 2004
My critics claim this is a 'might makes right' argument, or a 'divine command theory' of morality. But neither of these is the case. It's not God's right to give or take life just because he's strong. It's right because He created everything, and it all belongs to Him. And I reject a divine command theory of morality, which would teach that anything that God commanded is moral. Rather, I believe that the Bible teaches that morality flows from God's nature, and God cannot contradict his own nature. Therefore we avoid both saying that God could be absolutely capricious in His commands or decrees, and that God is subject to some prior or superior standard of morality. The first possibility could lead to the conclusion that God could command a heinous crime and it would then be good. Skeptics (including Ed) are right to assert that this means moral standards are impossible. If it could be shown that God gave commands that were contradictory, or issued moral principles that were contradictory, then that would be a strong objection to the truth of the Bible, I believe. I have never heard any such demonstration, however. And the second possibility fails to address the issue. If God is subject to some standard external to Him, then morally speaking He's in the same boat we are, and we still haven't addressed where morality comes from or what it is.
The issue of slavery is a little more complicated. The people of Israel were not allowed to own perpetual slaves that were fellow Israelites. Israelites could sell themselves and their families into slavery for seven years, but after that they were freed (with compensation) unless they wished to stay in the service of the master forever (see Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15). If a Jew bought a woman to be his wife, he had to treat her as a full wife with all of the wife's privileges. He could not sell her, and he could not refuse to take care of her. Perhaps the idea of buying a wife sounds very strange, but arranged marriages were the habit of the day. This was really no different.
Further, kidnapping and slave dealing were prohibited. You could sell slaves gotten in war, but you could not kidnap people in order to enslave them. Sexual slavery also did not exist within the law. A woman who was taken for that purpose was to be treated as a wife, with all of the protections and privileges of a wife. Everyone was commanded to take care of the poor, and assist them any way they could, even giving them money just before the sabbatical year when they probably would not get repaid.
Exodus 21:20-21 is cited as an example of the cruel regime of slavery. If a man beat his slave and he or she died, he was to be treated as a murderer. But if the slave did not die, there was no punishment. Ed has claimed that this means that if the slave died a few days later, then there was no punishment. But this is not what the passage means at all. Exodus and Deuteronomy is what we call case law, or principial law. It's not meant to cover every single case, but rather to establish principles. The principle clearly established here is that if it is clear that the slave died from harsh punishment, then the master is to be treated as a murderer. But if it is not clear (the slave lives for a while), then he is not to be punished for beating his slave. This is clearly the import of the passage, especially when combined with what comes later in the passage (Exodus 21:26-27), that if a man beats his servant hard enough even to knock out a tooth, the slave was free. The principle established is clearly that a man is not to beat his slave, or he risks loss of the slave (the slave would go free) or the possibility of criminal punishments, but that light physical discipline was permitted. Again, these laws establish principles. They do not attempt to describe every possible situation.
So, they could not own Israelite slaves permanently unless the slave agreed. The slave was to be compensated. And the slave could not be treated like an animal. He could not be beaten to death or even beaten enough to cause any permanent injury. They were not allowed to oppress or “rule over [a slave] with rigor” (Leviticus 25:43). Slavery was viewed as a way for a man to help out someone else in need. If a man had become poverty stricken, then he could sell himself and his family to another man, as a way of getting himself out of debt. This model of slavery looked nothing like the slavery that was practiced in the ancient world, or the black slavery that existed in this country for many years.
They were also allowed to buy slaves or capture slaves of non-Jewish people. These were permanent slaves that did not go free. But there is no indication that they were to be treated any different than other slaves. Further, they could join the Jewish faith, become proselytes and then they were treated as Jews. But they were still not allowed to kidnap them, kill them, or defraud them (see Exodus 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34). They were not allowed to have different laws for foreigners, but had to treat a foreigner traveling in their land the same as anyone else (Lev. 24:22). The only difference was that they were allowed to buy slaves or to take slaves in battle. So no free man could be made a slave- they could only take slaves that were already slaves, or had lost their freedom in battle. And this was not a free pass to attack other nations to get slaves. Their success in battle was dependent on God’s approval of the war, and many times in their history Israel lost in battle due to fighting without God’s approval.
In the Old Testament, God had declared the people of Israel to be His chosen people. There was therefore a distinction between the Jews and all other people in God’s decree. In God’s judgment then, the people of other nations were not equal to the Jews, in terms of what rights or privileges they had. Slavery existed because of the curse of sin that was on the world, and that curse was God’s doing. But God gave the people of Israel a foretaste of what would come in paradise by prohibiting permanent slavery among each other.
When Christ came, the distinction between Jew and Gentile was erased. No more was there just one nation or people that were esteemed by God, but all nations were brought into the kingdom of heaven (Eph 2:14, among many others). If all nations were therefore regarded as equal in God’s eyes, there would be no need for a command outlawing slavery. The prohibitions of the Old Testament on owning permanent slaves would now apply to all people.
Some have objected to the fact that Paul gives commands to slaves to obey their masters, as if this were an endorsement of slavery. But in fact, all it is is an injunction for all of us to submit to the situation God has put us in. Jesus also told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matthew 22:16-21), and Paul (Romans 13) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13) both tell us to submit to rulers. This was not a blanket endorsement of whatever rulers did, but Christians are forbidden to rebel against God-ordained authority, even when that authority is unjust. The principles were all there, and they were quickly applied.
Everywhere that Christianity advanced, slavery disappeared. Paul taught Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal brother in Christ, despite the fact that Paul was sending Onesimus back to serve Philemon. They not only could not teach rebellion against the Roman Empire, as it would have destroyed the early church, but it would have been wrong to do so by their own principles. But they constantly taught the equality of all before God, and this principle quickly led to the end of slavery.
Slavery in Christian lands made a brief (historically speaking) comeback due to Portuguese traders coming into contact with African tribes that made a habit of enslaving each other. The Portuguese were good at making a buck, and they recognized the business opportunity. It persisted for a few centuries, but it was again Christians who ended the practice. Yes, it’s true, Christians were on both sides of that argument, but the arguments of those supporting black slavery (principally the “Curse of Ham” argument) were ridiculously unbiblical and did not stand the test of time. Black slavery as it existed in this country and in Europe had nothing to do with Biblical slavery, and the Christian world came to recognize this, though it is certainly to our shame that it took as long as it did.
But Christians have often mis-applied the teachings of Scripture. This says a lot about Christians, but is not an argument against the morality of Scripture.
When you understand the division between Jew and Gentile that existed pre-Christ, and the disappearance of that division, and you really look closely at the laws governing slavery, you will recognize that the morality of the Bible again far surpasses anything that the world has ever invented. Slavery in Islam or the caste system in Hinduism or the slavery that existed and continue to exist under the Atheist systems of Communism, Fascism and Nazism that have existed in this century were and are horrible regimes of cruelty and oppression. Slavery in the Bible was nothing like that, and as it existed between the people of God was little more than a long-term economic contract.
But if morality is only discovered by reason, then reason has no good answer against slavery. Many regimes kept themselves in power for centuries by enslaving others. The ancient world was a world of slavery. Everywhere in that world, most of the people were slaves. It was slaves that built the Great Wall, the pyramids, and the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Slavery generated huge wealth for the South before they were forced to give it up, and the economic development of the colonies would not have occurred as fast as it did without it. It made rational sense on many levels. But it was still wrong.