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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Monday, 29 June 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Case Against Twitter by James Anderson

Here is a great post from James Anderson's blog. Whilst you'll enjoy it most if you have some familiarity with moral philosophy I think that a lack of familiarity should not stop one enjoying the feast.

Against All Tweets
24 June 2009 by James

Semi-Serious Warm-Up Argument
(1) Twittering requires communication in 140 characters or less.
(2) Almost nothing of substance can be adequately communicated in 140 characters or less.
(3) Therefore, almost nothing of substance can be adequately communicated by Twittering.
(4) A method of communication is intrinsically flawed if almost nothing of substance can be adequately communicated by it.
(5) Therefore, Twittering is an intrinsically flawed method of communication.
(6) One ought not to act in such a way as to participate in, promote, or legitimize an intrinsically flawed method of communication.
(7) Therefore, one ought not to Twitter.

Virtue Ethics Argument
(1) One ought always to act in good faith.
(2) Therefore, if one Twitters, one ought always to Twitter in good faith.
(3) One can Twitter in good faith only if one believes one’s life to be so important as to merit the attention of others.
(4) It is narcissistic to believe one’s life to be so important as to merit the attention of others.
(5) Therefore, one can Twitter in good faith only if one is narcissistic.
(6) Narcissism is not a virtue.
(7) Therefore, one can Twitter only if one is unvirtuous.
(8) Therefore, one ought not to Twitter.

Aristotelian Argument
(1) One ought to aim for the Golden Mean between two extremes.
(2) Twittering all the time is one extreme.
(3) Not using the Internet at all is another extreme.
(4) Using the Internet without Twittering is the Golden Mean between those two extremes.
(5) Therefore, one ought to use the Internet without Twittering.

Augustinian Argument
(1) Evil is essentially the lack of goodness.
(2) It is good to be able to use more than 140 characters to communicate.
(3) Twitter prevents one from using more than 140 characters to communicate.
(4) Therefore, Twitter lacks goodness.
(5) Therefore, Twitter is evil.

Leibnizian Argument
(1) This is the best of all possible worlds.
(2) All else being equal, a world in which Twittering is morally impermissible is better than a world in which Twittering is morally permissible, for numerous reasons that are too obvious to spell out here.
(3) Therefore, this is a world in which Twittering is morally impermissible.
(4) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Plantingan Modal Argument
(1) It is at least possible that all moral truths are necessary truths.
(2) It is at least possible that Twittering is wrong.
(3) Therefore, it is possible that, necessarily, Twittering is wrong.
(4) According to modal system S5, what is possibly necessary is necessary.
(5) Therefore, necessarily, Twittering is wrong.
(6) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Kantian Argument
(1) Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
(2) I can will that it should become a universal law that no one Twitters; indeed, I can do so with ease and without the slightest whiff of self-contradiction.
(3) Therefore, no one should Twitter.

Utilitarian Argument
(1) It is wrong to act in such a way as to reduce the overall net happiness of the human race.
(2) Twittering not only keeps people from countless other activities that might actually increase the overall net happiness of the human race, it also makes people more aware than they otherwise would be of just how banal other people’s lives are.
(3) Therefore, Twittering reduces the overall net happiness of the human race.
(4) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Natural Law Argument
(1) It is wrong to do what is not natural.
(2) There is nothing remotely natural about broadcasting the minutiae of your life to all and sundry whenever it takes your fancy.
(3) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Emotivist Argument
(1) I strongly dislike the idea of Twittering and I strongly dislike hearing about Twittering.
(2) Therefore, you should stop Twittering and stop talking about Twittering.

Alternative Emotivist Argument
(1) Boo to Twittering!
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Prescriptivist Argument
(1) Don’t Twitter!
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Intuitionist Argument
(1) I just know that Twittering is wrong.
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Subjectivist Argument
(1) Twittering is wrong for me.
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Cultural Relativist Argument
(1) I believe Twittering is wrong and the people I hang out with agree with me.
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Rortian Argument
(1) Truth is whatever your peers will let you get away with saying.
(2) My peers will let me get away with saying that Twittering is wrong.
(3) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Divine Command Theorist Argument
(1) “Thou shalt not Twitter.”
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Pop Christianity Argument
(1) Would Jesus Twitter? Probably not.
(2) Therefore, Twittering is wrong.

Inductive Argument
(1) As demonstrated above, according to (nearly) all known moral theories, Twittering is wrong.
(2) Therefore, Twittering is (probably) wrong.

Postscript
I have every confidence that these arguments are no less cogent than those I raised against blogging ten years ago.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A Great Sermon from 1782 (Philadelphia)

Coming back on the train from Milton Keynes on Wednesday this week I read a sermon preached by Elhanan Winchester in 1782.

Don't switch off yet.

Winchester was a Baptist pastor who provoked some powerful indivudals in his church (First Baptist Church Philadelphia) because of his Christian universalism. This powerful minority took control of the building and dismissed him in 1781. Winchester and his supporters set up the Society of Universal Baptists and met in the Hall of the University of Pennsylvania. I just love the idea of universalist Baptists! How funny is that!

This sermon entitled "The Outcasts Comforted" from 1782 was preached to his congregation of universalist Baptists (sorry - I just had to say it again).

It is really fabulous. His gentle spirit, his pastoral concern, his strong biblical faith, his evangelical zeal and his passion for the God of the gospels comes across so clear. He also makes a pretty good case (given the space limits of a sermon) for the compatibility of universalism with orthodox evangelical faith. It is funny how his arguments anticipate arguments of later generations.

It made me think that if one was to follow the universalist road Winchester is a good role model to have.

(And, even more in his favour, is that he preached out of London from 1787-1794. A man of some taste perhaps?)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Crappy Christian Album Covers

Yes - check out some crappy Christian album covers here.

Paul Helm reviews "Paradox in Christian Theology"

Here is a review from Professor Paul Helm of James Anderson's great book Paradox in Christian Theology (borrowed from his blog).

Some ships, decked in bunting, set sail with a great fanfare and to the sounds of a brass band. Others, carrying an equally valuable cargo, weigh anchor and make for the open sea unnoticed. James Anderson’s book, Paradox in Christian Theology, (Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2007) has slipped out almost unnoticed. There has certainly been no fanfare, and though it has received several favourable reviews as far as I can tell it has not yet been much appreciated by that sector of the Christian public likely to enjoy and benefit from it.

This is a pity. For what Anderson has written is a book of great importance to those concerned both with the relation of Christian theology to reason, and with the question of the reasonableness of Christian belief. In the first half of the book he raises questions about doctrinal coherence, and in the second half he raises how deep our understanding of the mysteries of the faith can hope to be, and whether it is reasonable to believe what we cannot understand. Anderson has admirable contributions to each of these areas. His treatments of the questions are thorough and clear, with a good theological grasp and a philosophical mind. A rare combination. He writes clearly and carefully, with no inclination to fudge or equivocate over the central questions that he raises. He and shows a good knowledge of the primary and secondary sources. His treatment also raises further questions for discussion. My aim here is simply to note some of its main features in the hope that it will whet some appetites. Though it is written from an avowed Reformed perspective, (Anderson is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy, R. T. S., Charlotte, North Carolina), the theses of the book are intended by the author for wider consumption, so this is not by no means a mere ‘in house’ Reformed production.

Anderson is chiefly concerned with what are usually called the mysteries of our faith, with what he calls paradoxes. He understands paradoxes to be sets of statements that are apparently contradictory. (The way that the author ties 'mystery' to the test of logic, and does not treat it as a hold-all for any theological difficulty, is excellent). Take for example the dogma of the Holy Trinity. This states, inter alia, that the one God exists in three persons each of whom is wholly divine. The fact that the church denotes this state of affairs as one substance (or essence) in three persons (or hypostates) prevents the doctrine from falling to the immediate self-contradiction that ‘God is one person in three persons’ would entail. God is one substance (or essence) in three persons. But that is not the end of the matter. For each of these persons is God, fully God, not divine in some watered-down sense: the Father is fully, wholly, God; and the Son, and the Spirit. And yet the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, and so on. The three persons are wholly God, but distinct, having distinct properties. The Son could not be the Father, nor the Father the Spirit, and so on. So each of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is one and the same God, yet each person has distinct properties. This flouts the principle that if X is identical with Y then necessarily whatever is true of X is true of Y. Not in the case of the Trinity, or so it seems. An apparent self-contradiction.

Anderson clearly expounds this paradox, as well as that arising from the Incarnation, though these are not the only paradoxes, of course. He surveys the chief attempts that have been made in the history of dogmatic discussion to soften or eliminate the appearance of incoherence. In the case of the Trinity one move is to argue that ‘being fully divine’ operates rather like ‘being fully human’. Tom, Dick and Harry are three individuals, each fully human. They are distinct individuals, but share this common nature, human nature. But the consequence of this is tri-theism, or at least of a godhead of three individuals having a common divine nature, none of them being numerically identical with the one divine essence. In the case of the incarnation, the thesis of kenoticism typically argues that in becoming human the Son divests himself of some divine properties, making him less than fully divine, and so not truly divine.

It is in this sense that Anderson demonstrates that essential Christian doctrines, the doctrines formulated in the great Creeds of the Church and taken over largely unmodified by the magisterial Reformers, are paradoxical. The cost of strategies that are designed to remove or lessen the paradoxical element outweigh the benefits. The appearance of self-contradiction resists the best efforts of the most insightful believer, but actual inconsistency has not been demonstrated either. To suppose that there was actual and demonstrable inconsistency at the doctrinal centre of the Christian Faith would be to suppose the logical incoherence of the Faith; in fact to suppose that the Faith was no Faith.

That’s the problem, an abiding problem, the paradoxes at the centre of the Faith. Anderson then turns his attention to the question of whether it is rational to adhere to a faith which has paradoxes at its heart. So the author's question is: does belief in the mysteries of the faith, or beliefs which entail such mysteries, have warrant for the believer? ‘Warrant’ signifies reliance upon the epistemology of Alvin Plantinga (Warranted Christian Belief, NY, Oxford University Press, 2000, and elsewhere). As befits his project, this part of the book is written in a more purely philosophical style which makes some assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of modern epistemology, for example, modern attempts to analyse the concept of knowledge. The reader without such a background will need to exercise some patience at this point, but patience will be rewarded. The chapters are a good summary introduction to the work of Plantinga, and to what he has to say about basic theistic belief, and more especially about the operation of the Spirit upon the testimonial evidence of Scripture in properly forming convictions about ‘the great things of the Gospel’, as Plantinga himself puts it.

Anderson in effect is extending Plantinga's argument to belief in creedal formula which rest purely on a foundation of Scriptural testimony. The argument (roughly) is : If belief in the great things of the Gospel is warranted by the testimony of Scripture, as Plantinga plausibly argues, then doctrines adequately based on that testimony are also belief-worthy, even though they contain paradoxical elements. Anderson’s distinctively Reformed conviction about the necessity and sufficiency of Scripture become evident here. So he links his idea of paradox to biblical testimony regarding divine incomprehensibility. It is because God’s nature and his ways are past finding out that our present understanding of the divine nature contains paradoxical elements. But these are due, Anderson in effect argues, to the present limitations of our cognitive apparatus (and not, for example, to our creatureliness.) In defending his position Anderson has interesting things to say about the relation of doctrine to Scripture, logic as a hermeneutical tool, and much else.

Some further questions may be raised about the central claim of the book. Is Anderson’s argument not in effect an endorsement of implicit faith? For he is defending the view that it is reasonable to believe what we may not understand, which is another way of saying we may believe a statement whose meaning is known to be unclear. And does holding that there are paradoxes (in Anderson’s sense) at the heart of the Faith not inhibit the pursuit of that greater understanding that is characteristic of the great tradition of Faith Seeking Understanding from Augustine onwards? For what is the point of seeking further understanding of matters which we know are, under present circumstances, beyond our comprehension? The answer presumably is: we may seek and gain more understanding while still falling short of a full understanding.

There is much to learn and to ponder from Anderson’s book.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Faith out of Focus: a thought from Andrew Fuller

I'm reading Peter Morden's book on Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), Offering Christ to the World. Fuller was a Calvinistic Baptist who played a key role in rescuing the Particular Baptists from the Hyper Calvinism of John Gill (1697-1771).

One issue of major importance for Fuller was that faith was not an 'inner persuasion' given by the Spirit of having an 'interest in Christ' (contra Hyper Calvinism). This would make faith into a subjective feeling that "God is at work in me."

Faith, said Fuller, is not about my inner feelings but is fixed on an external object - Jesus himself.

Fuller was right.

Moving away from the specific issue Fuller was concerned with (Hyper Calvinism) this made me think how easy it is to have faith in faith. When we focus in on our faith and how much we have we find ourselves thinking that everything depends on us and on our faith. If only we had a bit more. If only we had held on in faith for a little longer.

Faith is a bit like those swirly things in the corner of your eye - if you try to look at them you lose them.

Faith grows strong when you forget all about it and focus on God-in-Christ. Focus on God, on what he has done for us. Suddenly, when faith is out of focus, it grows strong.

Faith in faith is no more than good works - everything depends on us to have enough of it. Faith in God is life and peace.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Immanent-Transcendent God

My brain is currently mush so here is a thought that occarred to me the other day. I have always thought that it was important to hold the immanence and transcendence of God in balance and tension. God is immanent but he is also transcendent.

So there I was in the bath a couple of days ago and I thought that we need to go a step further than this. We need to appreciate that God is transcendent in his immanence and immanent in his transcendance. In other words, the God who is immanent in creation is the transcendent God. The God who transcends creation is the immanent God.

I have no doubt that this is not an original thought ... but it was new to me and I found it inspiring and rich.

Must fly - brain collapse in progresssssssssss (urgh!)

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Should we stone Daniel as a false prophet? A brief theological thought on a problem in Daniel 11

I'll very briefly indicate a problem with Daniel 11:40-45.

In a nutshell Dan 11:2-12:4 is a revelation about the turbulent relations between the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt (the king of the south) and the Seleucid dynasty in Syria (the king of the north). It is a symbolic and theological account of history but it maps very well in its details onto what we know of the history from other sources ... that is until we get to 11:40-45 in which the last days of Antiochus IV are told. At that point the story seems to depart from what we know of his actual history.

The standard explanation for this is as follows. The vision is a pseudo-prophesy in that it was written at the time of the persecution of Jews by Antiochus IV (2nd C BC) but set at the time of Daniel (6th C BC). The history that it symbolically recounts is actually in the past from the time of the author(s) but future from the time of the narrative. That is not at all unusual - it is a regular feature of apocalyptic texts to recount past history in such a pseudo-prophetic way (and it is perfectly consistent with biblical inspiration, etc).

So 11:40-45 is still future from the perspective of the writers. And they get the details wrong!

OK - to save time I am simply going to accept that account of why the 'prophecy' and history pull apart at this point. And in fact I suspect that it is indeed correct (I know that more conservative readers will disagree).

But this account is somewhat problematic. God could have given the author an accurate, detailed prediction of what will happen (I am no Open Theist and I think that God knows the future absolutely). Why did he not do so?

So here is my brief theological thought. First a thought from Origen. Origen was very attentive to 'problems' in biblical texts. But he was convinced that the Holy Spirit put such problems there on purpose to invite readers to press beyond the surface level of the text to a deeper, spiritual meaning. So thought 1 is this: is the problem an invitation for us to consider the text in a different way?

The message of the text is that God will humble the proud and that those who set themselves up against God's purposes will be crushed. The Daniel text draws on patterns of divine action in the past (there are allusions to Isaianic texts in Dan 11:40-45 which model Antiochus' fate on God's dealings with Assyria) as a basis for the confident expectation that God will do it again. He did. Antiochus IV was indeed crushed - Daniel does get it right (even if the actual events do not happen as Daniel recounts them).

So getting back to Origen, perhaps the 'error' is there for a purpose. What? Ernest Lucas suggested to me that it might be an invitation to open up the application beyond the fate of Antiochus to other oppressors of God's people through history. Could be.

Now let's bring in Nicholas Wolterstorff's model of divine discourse. Wolterstorff says that God appropriates certain human speech acts as a means of articulating his own divine speech acts. He thinks that God can appropriate a speech act without appropriating everything that the author might have been saying.

So let's suppose that the author of Daniel really did mean to assert that the future of Antiochus IV would be such and such. Even if the author got the details wrong, God could still appropriate that speech act as a means of divine discourse without himself asserting that the future of Antiochus would be such and such. God would simply be saying, "Antiochus set himself against me and will be brought down." And God could be inviting readers to see the same pattern repeated in their own experience.

This is just a tentative and slightly risky (= flaming liberal, burn me at the stake) approach I wondered about today.

Thoughts?

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Cleopatra in the Bible

How did I not know that Cleopatra is in the book of Daniel? I've read commentaries on Daniel before and they contain this information (I've checked them again) so how did I miss it first time around? Nice but dim!

I guess that you all knew the lady of the milk baths was there in the good book but somehow it passed me by!

For those of you who did not know - here is the verse.

"He will determine to come into control of his whole empire and will make an agreement with him and give him a wife in order to destroy it." (Daniel 11:17)

This is about Antiochus III who made peace with Egypt in 197 BC and married his daughter Cleopatra to Ptolemy V. Antiochus hoped to get his way in Egypt through his daughter. Sadly for him she was loyal to her husband and encouraged Egypt to join with Rome against her father.

And, of course, Cleopatra's brother was the infamous Antiochus IV whose persecution of faithful Jews has become the stuff of legend.

This is not a theological scribble just a confession of ignorance and a cry of, "Oh! That's interesting!"

APPENDIX: ROBIN, YOU PLONKER!
OK - now I am doubly embarrased. I post a comment exposing my embarrasing ignorance of Cleopatra in the Bible. A few hours later I am discussing this with my 14 year old daughter Hannah and she gently explains to me that I have the wrong Cleopatra. The lady of the milky baths was Cleopatra VII (51-30BC). She may not have a PhD but she knows her Cleopatras. I should have known this as the dates were all wrong but I was too eager!

Oh well.

Friday, 12 June 2009

MPs' expenses: Let him who is without sin ...

I don't know how many weeks the UK have been living through a constant barrage of media comment on the scandal of MP's expenses.

I want to throw my hands up and shout, 'Yes - we got the message weeks ago. You can stop now! There are other things happening in the world other than the construction of duck islands!!!'

But it has made me think a little about hypocrisy. There is no doubt that lots of British MPs have violated the spirit of the law even if not the letter. There is no doubt that they have played the system for their own benefit and that people are right to be angry.

What annoys me is the moral superiority that so many people seem to be taking on this issue. They are 'outraged' at the 'despicable behaviour' of the MPs. According to some the British public rightly wants to see MPs publically executed (I presume that this is just rhetoric). But I have little doubt that many of those taking the moral high ground condemn themselves with their own words.

Do they ever illegally copy music?
Do they ever fiddle their work expenses?
Do they claim for things that are against the spirit if not the letter of their company's guidelines?
Would they not have used the system in exactly the same way as many current MPs if no rules were being broken?

I do not doubt that in all the angry rhetoric that has been flying around there have been bucket loads of hypocrisy. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

The current scandal invites us all, amongst other things, to look again at our own behaviour and to make sure that it is straight before we start hurling abuse at others for doing things that have uncomfortable analogies to things that we ourselves do.

I think that I would have found the unceasing moral outrage more palatable if it was accompanied by some more humility, introspection, and a desire to set our own houses in order.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Doing Theology in a Fast-Changing World

If you were going to make a theological comment on this what would it be?

Marmite Jesus?


A family's breakfast turned into a religious experience when they spotted what they believe is the face of Jesus in a jar of Marmite.

Claire Allen, 36, was the first to notice the image, on the underside of the lid, as she was putting the yeast spread on her son's toast.
And husband Gareth, 37, said he could not believe his eyes when she showed him.
Mr Allen, of Ystrad, Rhondda, south Wales, said: "Claire saw it first and called her dad to come and take a photo of it.
"When I first looked at it I wasn't sure, but when I moved it away from me it started coming out. I thought Christ, yeah, she's right - that's the image of Jesus.
"The kids are still eating it, but we kept the lid."
Mrs Allen said her 14-year-old son Jamie had also remarked on the likeness.
She told the South Wales Echo: "Straight away Jamie said 'that looks like God', and my other boys (Robbie, four, and Tomas, 11) even said they could see a face.
"People might think I'm nuts, but I like to think it's Jesus looking out for us.
"We've had a tough couple of months; my mum's been really ill and it's comforting to think that if he is there, he's watching over us."

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