Sunday, January 24, 2016

You can trust God, but men are fallible

Having been raised as a conservative Baptist, I'm surprised that I only just last week ran across the following saying:
If we can't trust God about Genesis 1, how can we trust him about John 3:16?
A moment's googling shows that this question (or some version of it) is used by Answers in Genesis, the young-earth creationist organization, and specifically by Ken Ham of that organization. The concept was not new to me, but that wording was something I hadn't heard before.

To lay my cards on the table, I'm pretty sure the earth and the cosmos are very old. I would call myself an old-earth progressive creationist--a category not very well-known in YEC camps, where everyone who is not young-earth is generally thought of as an evolutionist. Actually, as readers of this blog know, I'm an outspoken advocate of intelligent design theory, and I'm also quite willing to come out and say (more so than some authors in the ID camp) that I think this evidence supports repeated intelligent interventions in the making of various species and animals, not merely in the origin of life or some other major transition. I don't have enough expertise to state precisely how often God probably created new species, but I'd be willing to lay bets that mammals didn't evolve by purely natural processes from reptiles, for example. I'm also an extremely strong supporter of the historical Adam, though I think he lived a lot longer ago than 6,000 years. (And no, I don't know exactly how long ago. And that's actually okay.) By "the historical Adam" I mean a real man, the one and only male progenitor of the human race, from whom, with Eve his wife, all of us are biologically descended, without interbreeding with non-human animals. I think that God made him by miraculous means and that there was strong physical as well as spiritual and mental discontinuity with all animal species. I've argued for the theological and even ethical importance of this view, here. I've also strongly opposed the recent work of John H. Walton in proposing a radically different view which he calls "an historical Adam" but which is not "the historical Adam" in the strong sense I have just defined. See my posts contra Walton  here, here, here, and here. And I've argued that the scientific claims that it is impossible for one couple to be the progenitors of the whole human race are shaky, here. So I don't at all shrink from the creationist label, and I'll admit to being more than a little impatient with John H. Walton, and even more so with Peter Enns, whom I find annoying.

All of that, I admit, may not be enough to establish my creationist "creds" with a real hard-liner on the age of the earth, but I'd like to think it would be a start.

With all that out of the way, let me go back to the saying at the beginning of this post and say this: It's wrong.

Why is it wrong? After all, on its face it almost sounds like a tautology. Either we do or don't worship a deity who is, by his very nature, not a deceiver. If we do, then we can trust him about everything, right? Including various parts of the Bible. And if we worship a being who might deceive us, then how can we trust him about anything?

But the saying is still wrong. It's wrong, to begin with, because it confuses God with man. What Ham is doing there is identifying his interpretation of Genesis 1 with "God's word" and insisting that, if Ken Ham is not infallible in his interpretation of Genesis 1, then God is a liar.

Mind you, I can well imagine that Ken Ham and I would have a lot more in common than I would have with his critics. To me, the comments by the Gungors (some musicians), to whom Ham is responding in that particular blog post, sound over-wrought and snobbish. They give the distinct impression that anyone who isn't an evolutionist is a contemptible knuckle-dragger. I have no patience with that kind of thing.

But the fact remains that it is a perilous and a misguided matter to identify your interpretation of one passage of Scripture with what God says, with no questions or differences of opinion allowed. All the more so when the question at issue is one where scientific evidence also comes into play. We absolutely must be willing to admit to our young people that there is such a thing as biblical interpretation, that controversy about biblical interpretation isn't per se a bad thing, that human interpretations are fallible, and that our interpretation of Genesis 1 is not equivalent to "God's word." Yes, that means admitting that you could be wrong about it. I think you should be willing to tell kids that this is what you think, but that you could be wrong. You can even be a young-earth creationist and tell them that.

This issue of varying interpretation comes up in many places in Scripture. You aren't turning into a Christianity-denying liberal if you think the story of the rich man and Lazarus was a parable that Jesus was telling and that Jesus wasn't actually affirming that it happened. Jesus often told parables. This looks like one of them. Another example: It is a completely viable possibility that the flames of hell in various biblical passages are a metaphor for the horror of eternal separation from God rather than describing a physical state of the damned. There can be legitimate difference of opinion on that point among those who take the Bible very seriously indeed as God's Word.

There are also textual areas where we as Christians need to be able to keep our heads and handle some uncertainty. It is not an abandonment of the Bible to recognize that the long ending of Mark may not have been there in the original text that Mark wrote; in fact, there is solid textual reason to doubt that it was. There is even reason to believe that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark may have been lost. That's okay.

Our faith shouldn't be shaken by such points. There is room for both human error and difference of opinion among solid Christians on all of these matters and more. These issues should not be presented to congregations or to young people as "trusting God's Word" vs. "not trusting God's Word."

There are more problems with the statement about Genesis 1 and John 3:16: It strongly implies that there are no levels of importance amongst doctrinal statements. It gives the impression that either all the views that Ken Ham (or your particular church) holds about God and theology are right or they are all wrong, dubious, or up for grabs. It certainly implies that a young-earth position is right up there in importance with, say, the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins, taught in John 3:16.

That's not true. Nowhere in the Bible does anyone say to anyone else, "Believe that the earth is 4,000 years old [or whatever it would have been at the time], and thou shalt be saved." But people are told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. When the Apostle Paul gives a creed in I Corinthians 15, he doesn't include anything about the age of the earth, but he does talk a lot about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandments are, he lists loving the Lord God with all your heart and soul.

I don't want to be misunderstood. This isn't meant to encourage a facile argument of the sort one hears from social liberals nowadays, "Jesus never condemned homosexuality, so why are you Christians getting so het up about it?" Jesus explicitly taught that God made male and female and created marriage between them. The Apostle Paul again and again condemns homosexual practice. And then there is the natural law, which is another topic altogether.

My point is that biblical authorities do have priorities, and there is not the slightest indication whatsoever that the age of the earth is one of the high priorities. The existence of Adam, I'll grant, is given prominence in several important Biblical teachings, such as Paul's teaching about the origin of sin and death. But not the age of the earth, nor the creation within six twenty-four hour days.

Some doctrines are more important than others. You can still be a Christian and even get some things wrong. Most of us probably do have some things wrong, though we should do our conscientious best to interpret Scripture accurately.

Another, related problem with the statement is this: It teaches that all literal biblical interpretations stand or fall together. It strongly implies that, if the most natural, literal, on-the-face-of-it interpretation of Genesis 1 is called into question, it becomes impossible to know what any other part of the Bible means. But that's not true. I might be wrong about whether the days in Genesis 1 are ages or 24-hour days, but I can say with much greater confidence that the Gospels are asserting that Jesus really lived, really walked on this earth, really said various things, really died on the cross, and really rose again. The genre of the gospels is different. The sources of information are different. The nature of the claims is more tied into known history. (He was crucified under Pontius  Pilate, etc.) We should not think or teach that a wide-ranging skepticism about all Biblical meaning is the only alternative to a 24-hour-day interpretation of Genesis 1. That's incorrect.

And finally, perhaps my most controversial claim: That slogan communicates to young people that, if they are not young-earth creationists, they might as well be atheists, because they have "stopped trusting God." It teaches an inflexible theology that presents apostasy as the stark alternative to an acceptance of precisely this interpretation of this passage.

As I've indicated above, I think it's deeply and importantly misguided to believe that Adam was just the head of a clan of hominids and that man came into existence by natural, evolutionary processes from non-human animals. I think it creates all kinds of problems for one's theology of the fall and sin and for one's view of the image of God. I've put lots of energy into arguing against it. But if someone comes to hold that seriously mistaken view about Adam, he can still be going to heaven. Would I argue with a daughter of mine who was influenced by people who teach that? Sure, of course I would. I'm an argumentative person anyway, and I think this is important. Would I be concerned about possible other sociological "domino effects," causing someone to fall into theological and/or moral liberalism? Yes, I would. If you run with a certain crowd that sneers at special creation, you may pick up other things from them. But despite all of that, I would rather that someone I love were wrong about Adam and still believed that Jesus Christ is God the Son who came to this earth to die for our sins and to rise for our justification than that he decided he might as well go whole hog and become an agnostic or an atheist because of an all-or-nothing theological system! All the more so should we take such an attitude concerning the age of the earth all by itself.

Some years ago I knew of a man who lost his faith in Christ. His Christian parents were deeply distressed, of course. They were strong young-earth creationists and said that their son (then in his twenties) had begun sneering about "not believing all of that" and then had made it clear that he didn't believe Christianity at all, that he no longer regarded himself as a Christian. They were asked this question: Would you rather that your son believed in an old earth and were still a Christian, still a follower of Jesus Christ, still believed in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and in Jesus' death and resurrection for sin? They said yes, of course! But by then it was too late. Their son never gave anyone a chance to present that alternative to him, to show him the direct, powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the other truths of Christianity, quite independent of one's views on the interpretation of Genesis 1. He was an adult by then, and a highly intelligent adult. He was responsible, because he could have figured out for himself that it didn't all have to stand or fall together. He could have asked more questions, sought for more light, looked into the evidences of Christianity. He chose to apostasize instead. I would not for the world heap blame upon the heads of his heart-broken parents.

But let's get this issue clearer--in our own minds, in our churches, and in our families. If you, dear parents, think that Ken Ham is right about the saying at the top of this post, and all that it implies, I most earnestly urge you, in Christ, to reconsider.


Joshua P said...

Great post, making clear important points about doctrinal truths and their relative importance. Also useful to have read your post on a historical Adam- I'm agnostic for the moment, not because of the evidence, but because I'm unsure as to how the Genesis passages should be interpreted. So though I lean towards a historical Adam, particularly based on Luke's use of him in a genealogy, I absolutely wouldn't call who don't believe in one heretics...

Interesting to note- you seemed fairly inerrantist in your post, don't know if that's just my perception? I am an inerrantist, and think that it's fairly important to affirm that, but am actually asking because it seemed like Tim doesn't put a lot of weight on that, and wondering if you differ and if so why/why not?

Pons Alvarez said...

I just love the way you manage to capture your thoughts with the crosshairs of your keyboard!

This is the kind of thing that both skeptics and befuddled believers keep bringing up and are open mouth shocked when I point to places where the OT doesn't match up with corresponding verses in the NT.

(Details on my blogpost here: And just in case you noticed, your roommate helped me out quite a lot here!)

But does that derail me from continuing in my belief? No.

Try remaining faithful to the Living God and being subjected to more than three years without steady work, no visible means of steady income, a mounting pile of debt, other challenges including your own daughter being bullied by both students and some teachers in a school that supposedly upholds the Lordship of the Risen King. And that's just for starters.

It's made me despair, get depressed, cry out in the wee small hours of the morning to the God who I know sees, but I'm not sure about HIs replies.

Yet I persist. Simply because everything I know about Him is true.

Though it doesn't feel like it now.

Lydia McGrew said...

Joshua, what I usually say is that I would probably not "count" as an inerrantist in the sense that many use that term, if for no other reason than this: I don't think it is _impossible_ that there should be _any_ error, however trivial, in what is asserted in Scripture. Thus I take it on a case-by-case basis. I have, for example, a few cases in the NT where I would consider there to be a "candidate" place for a small discrepancy that doesn't have a plausible resolution. However, I'm actually *all in favor* of harmonization. I think harmonization gets a bad rap, and it really is interesting and good to bear in mind how often claimed contradictions or errors turn out to be plausibly resolvable. I'm really opposed to the modern disdain for harmonization. It's just that I'm not always fully convinced that harmonization works well in a particular case. The term "inerrantist" is usually taken to apply to someone who is bound and determined that he will never conclude that there is an error, however minor, that this is an a priori position. I don't take that a priori position.

Interestingly, I think the current situation in evangelical circles bears watching, because I think a desire to hang onto the inerrantist label is actually causing people to do rather dubious things in order to say they are "understanding the authors as they understood themselves" and that they remain "inerrantists." I think it's *extremely* doubtful that *any* of the gospel authors *ever deliberately* "put things in the mouths" of someone other than the person who actually said them, or inserted incidents that didn't actually happen, for some literary reason, and I think it would be better for someone who thinks that _not_ to claim to be an inerrantist. I'm sympathetic with some of Geisler's frustration over such shenanigans with the term "inerrantist," when he and others who defined the term for evangelicalism explicitly tried to rule out such "literary" run-arounds concerning manifestly historical-genre texts, though I am not always sympathetic with his ways of manifesting that frustration.

My own position is that it's possible that there are some minor errors, including in the gospels, but that if a gospel author made some minor error, it was made while attempting (quite successfully, in general) to write a true, reliable, historical memoir either from his own perspective as an eye witness or using eyewitness sources.

In many ways, I think as time goes on it will turn out that someone like me who probably wouldn't feel that I could claim the *label* of "inerrantist" (for the reasons just given) has a higher view of Scripture and a greater resistance to treating this or that as a "literary modification" than some who claim the label! In that sense, the label is losing its effectiveness as a stand-in for orthodoxy and for a high view of the authority and even the perspicuity of Scripture.

Lydia McGrew said...

Alfonzo, your blog post gives good examples of my previous comment about harmonization and how we shouldn't give it a bad rap--as true between OT and NT as among NT accounts.

I will pray for your situation and am glad to see your faith founded on fact rather than on feeling. That will sustain you through much, I predict. God bless.

Matt said...

have enjoyed reading your posts as I've recently stumbled upon them. Lots of good points brought up here...leads me to think about how "literal" doesn't quite carry as much freight as sometimes it's made to bear in terms of interpretation. Maybe "natural within the specific genre" is something a bit closer; but perhaps "natural" doesn't so much help to clarify the issue as it does just defer the question...

Tony said...

But let's get this issue clearer--in our own minds, in our churches, and in our families. If you, dear parents, think that Ken Ham is right about the saying at the top of this post, and all that it implies, I most earnestly urge you, in Christ, to reconsider.

Right on, sister!

One of the most common things we should be saying to our kids in talking about the Bible is "I think...but that might be wrong." We should NOT be afraid to identify what WE think about a passage, and then to allow that what we think is shaky, doubtful, debatable, hotly debated, whatever. In fact, any decent Christian should be aware of many places where he doesn't quite know what to think, and should be teaching his kids how to work at such places - which, necessarily, involves accepting doubt for a time (sometimes for a time that runs right through to death). If you haven't recognized places where you need to reserve some discomfort for any position you feel you might take on it, you need to study more - and read more of the great Christians' own works on the Bible, including the early Fathers of the Church. THEY had places where they had doubts about the best take on a passage, and certainly there were disputed positions even among men whom all considered to be holy and devout Christians.

And while training your children to take on the challenge of not being sure of a passage, you are also training them to consider some passages more important than others, as well as treating some passages as more CLEAR than others. You use the clearer passages to shed light on the more obscure, you use the more bedrock passages as a touchstone for allowable ways to interpret the troublesome passages. All of which means that not every passage bears the same freight as every other.

what I usually say is that I would probably not "count" as an inerrantist in the sense that many use that term, if for no other reason than this: I don't think it is _impossible_ that there should be _any_ error, however trivial, in what is asserted in Scripture.

I am probably more of an inerrantist than you are, but I doubt that it amounts to all that many passages where you and I would differ on an interpretation. As I understand it, inerrancy is the official Catholic stance on the Bible, along with a 2-toned notion of the "literal" sense of Scripture that takes into account genres. Like you, though, I would be much more inclined to denounce the modern "inerrantist" (so-called) exegetes who would mythologize the Gospels, or would reverse-engineer the time-line of when the Gospels were written so that prophecies of future events (the destruction of Jerusalem) could be non-miraculous, as being neither inerrant nor really even Christian.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lydia,

You write: "I don't think it is _impossible_ that there should be _any_ error, however trivial, in what is asserted in Scripture."

As one who struggles with the issue of inerrancy, it is comforting to know some Christians leave room for the possibility of Scriptural error.

Sometimes I wonder if our faith should stand on the issue of inerrancy. For if the Bible is errant, then how can we be *certain* (or almost certain) about how to be saved? Maybe we could have justified beliefs about salvation, but it seems more is needed to justify the kind of commitment required by Christianity. (Or perhaps we should wager here, a la Pascal?)

In any case, given your position on inerrancy, what is your default view of a given passage of Scripture - would you be agnostic about the passage's truth, or would you presume the passage to be true absent defeaters, or would you presume the passage to be false absent supporting evidence?

Any thoughts would be helpful.

Lydia McGrew said...

Probability is indeed the very guide of life. You rest your life on probability every day, all day. And indeed more than your life. If you are married, you could not have Cartesian, mathematical certainty that your wife was not in a secret conspiracy with the Masons to murder you in your sleep. (I am deliberately making this a silly example.) The old-time apologists spoke of "moral certainty." By this they meant that certainty which every man uses in the important matters of life. We can undeniably have this for the matters pertaining to our salvation. Indeed, I have a great deal more confidence in the truth of the gospel than I have in, say, the long-term security of the banking system or many another thing on which I daily place much reliance.

I unabashedly take a default view that a passage of Scripture is true absent reason to think otherwise--and it would take strong reason, too. (See my comments above on harmonization.) This both for secular and Christian reasons, by the way. To take the gospels and Acts as the example about which I have the most knowledge: I have purely secular reasons for taking these to be highly reliable documents. And as a Christian, of course I have no presumption against the miraculous, when that arises in a passage.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts. While I can imagine having 'moral certainty' about the *historical* claims of the gospels and Acts, what worries me most are its *theological* claims, particularly soteriological claims. How can we have moral certainty that the apostles and Paul got things right about salvation? Or at the very least, why take the default view that these *theological* claims are true absent strong contrary evidence?

This question has broader relevance - in talking about historical apologetics with non-Christian friends, I realize there's a disquieting gap between showing Jesus rose from the dead and showing that a particular theology (and consequent way of life) should be accepted.

Lydia McGrew said...

I see no great gap at all. Jesus' teachings alone are emphatic on the relevant points. For example,

1) Jesus is Yahweh.
2) Jesus came down from heaven, sent by the Father.
3) Jesus has the power to forgive sins.
4) Jesus will raise his followers from the dead at the "last day."
5) Jesus rose from the dead.
6) Jesus will send the Holy Ghost after returning to heaven.

You get the idea. None of this depends upon trivial differences among the gospels. It doesn't change any of these teachings if Jesus' feet were anointed in Bethany on a Wednesday rather than a Saturday. And many of them can be shown from multiple passages. Nor do they vary depending on your interpretation of, say, Paul's teaching in Romans 9 (whether or not you accept the Calvinist interpretation of that passage).

There is a reason why you don't find people walking around saying, "I believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, but I'm an atheist."

Lydia McGrew said...

As to the apostles and Paul: Jesus taught as recorded in John and as implied in the great commission in Matthew and implied elsewhere that the inner ring of his disciples (referred to as "the twelve," though of course not literally including Judas after his betrayal) were to spread his teachings after he returned to heaven and that they had authority to do so. The position taken up by the apostles in the early church, and their explicit sense of this role (see the choosing of Matthias in Acts 1) makes it clear that this is how they understood what Jesus taught, and there is a perfect congruence there between statements about the teaching of the Holy Ghost (which I take primarily to be directed to the disciples, especially since Jesus says there are doctrines that they are not ready to receive until after the Holy Ghost comes) and other statements and the role of the apostles in the early church. Therefore, prima facie, express theological teachings of the apostles have divine sanction, absent reason to think otherwise. (The Apostle Paul puts an explicit limitation on this in Galatians when he tells them to take the core of the gospel as taught and to reject teachings clearly at odds with it no matter who teaches them.)

The facts recounted in Acts surrounding the conversion of the Apostle Paul have, as their best explanation, that Jesus really did appear in a veridical vision to Paul and call him. If so, then Paul was also commissioned by Jesus, giving him prima facie doctrinal authority.

Naturally, there will be fuzzy areas. Paul himself in I Corinthians says that some teachings are "from him" not "from the Lord," and none of this implies absolute infallibility in either the other apostles or Paul. That would be impossible, since we're told of an occasion where Peter and Paul disagreed with each other over eating with Gentiles. But the great truths of the gospel are not in dispute. Even the truth that the Gentiles were to be received into the church was first taught by Peter and then became the focus of Paul's whole ministry. And of course the apostles' and Paul's teachings confirm the basic need to believe on Jesus, the Son of God, for salvation and forgiveness of sin.

Matt said...


I am struggling to understand how probability is "the very guide of life"? I mean, I am not sure that absent Cartesian mathematical certainty one is left with probability as the guide of life. It seems that sort of thing cedes a sort of hegemony to empiricism that we [Christians] wouldn't want to cede.

I would certainly agree that I daily live in the face of many things that have -from a merely human perspective- varying degrees of probability. I do not see how it can be said that my life rests on probability.

Perhaps I am just misunderstanding what you're getting at here [investing too strict a sense in what you've written]?

Lydia McGrew said...

Matt,it's possible that you are misunderstanding me. But think of all manner of daily decisions that you make, some of them extremely important. Should I have this surgery? Is this a good person to marry? Is it safe to drive in this weather? And so on and so forth. Or even just more mundane stuff, such as "Will this restaurant have food that I will enjoy?" Things from the trivial to the absolutely crucial and life-changing. In all of these you have to depend, tacitly or explicitly, on notions of what is plausible, likely, more likely than something else, etc. Most of the time we do this almost instinctively. But mentally healthy people never say, "I'm just going to crawl under my bed and do nothing all day because I can't be certain that I won't get killed."

In discussing probability, I was responding to this question, from Anon.

"For if the Bible is errant, then how can we be *certain* (or almost certain) about how to be saved? Maybe we could have justified beliefs about salvation, but it seems more is needed to justify the kind of commitment required by Christianity."

I was disputing the notion that only certainty will do for something of this vast importance. Almost everything of vast importance has to be decided on the basis of evidence, non-deductively, and hence at least tacitly on the basis of probability, without absolute certainty.

Matt said...

Agree entirely with your examples in daily living about all those decisions in which we do not have certainty. And as yes, as you say, mentally healthy people don’t become paralyzed because they can’t be certain they won’t be killed.
I still don’t see how that amounts to making decisions on the basis of probability, at least not for the Christian. And here let me say that I am not at all uncomfortable with the notion of not having “absolute certainty”. Strictly speaking it would seem that it requires the divine essence to have absolute certainty about anything; so if all you mean is that a creature will never have absolute certainty given the nature of the case then I agree entirely. But that doesn’t seem to be what you mean since –if I’m understanding you correctly- you grant absolute certainly to man in certain cases [deductively held, empirically based conclusions?].
That swings back to my comment about ceding something to empiricism that I wouldn’t want to cede. I am not at all opposed to empiricism; I just don’t think it has the best seats in the house. I mean, arguably the most sane man goes out into the world with mirth –mingled with lament of course- because the worse that can happen to him is that he will be killed [Lk. 12:4]. He has a sure and firm hope in the resurrection. It becomes very strained for me to understand how, in any sense, such a man lives on the basis of probability.
I doubt you’d disagree with anything in the paragraph immediately above, but all the same I can’t make sense of your comments with regard to equating [?] evidence based decisions to having a *basis* of probability and yet it seems you grant deductively wrought empirical conclusions the status of absolute certainty. I may be conflating things here, I’m still not sure I’m understanding you well, but appreciate the interaction.

Lydia McGrew said...

Actually, absolute (or, as I called it above, Cartesian) certainty would not apply to any large class of empirically *based* conclusions, even those derived deductively, unless they were conclusions about one's own immediate experience and hence fairly trivial. For example, "I'm in pain; therefore I'm not comfortable."

Generally, one has absolute certainty only about foundational beliefs about one's own immediate experiences, mathematical truths that one can grasp completely, or "relations of ideas" that one can grasp perfectly.

In our daily lives, the vast majority of the things that we believe are known probabilistically. That doesn't mean that we think of numbers explicitly, but even judgements like, "That's reasonable," "That makes sense" or "That seems most likely" are probabilistic judgements. They are couched in non-numerical terms.

Matt said...

In my previous post my second paragraph began with the sentence “I still don’t see…” which was a sloppy sentence. What I meant to say was that I don’t “how that amounts to making decisions *regarding salvation* on the basis of probability.” In other words I agree entirely that for Christians and non-Christians alike we make all sorts of decisions everyday on the basis of probability.
From your first reply to me and your comments re: Anon. you were “disputing the notion that only certainty will do for something of this vast importance.” I am understanding the “something” in that sentence to refer to distinctly Christian beliefs about salvation. In seems in the sentence after “I was disputing…” that something [i.e. belief about salvation] is decided on the basis –even if tacitly- of probability. Am I understanding you correctly?
In response to the assertions of, say, the Apostle’s creed are you suggesting that if one believes them it is in some substantial sense on the basis of probability? That is what is strained to me. If I have the sort of Christian belief that matters in the sight of God it is because He has called forth what is from what wasn’t such that I wouldn’t say that my beliefs concerning salvation existed in any sense on the basis of probability. The assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen seems absent probability [not struggles and doubt, but I think that’s different].

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, it's important to remember here that, as I'm using the terms, it is probable rather than _absolutely_ certain that Abraham Lincoln existed or that the sun will rise tomorrow. As you'll recall, I used above the phrase "moral certainty" to apply to those things that are *so highly probable* that we do not have to fret or worry about them or consider them shaky--that we can rely on them. I would consider the truths of salvation to fall into this category of "moral certainty," which means that in the stricter sense they are probable rather than certain (with absolute or Cartesian certainty). Since, as I'm using the term, we don't have the latter even for such propositions as that the city of New York exists, we obviously don't have _Cartesian_ certainty that Jesus existed, though I yield to none in my assertion that Christ-mythers are nuts.

So if it's, in this extremely strict sense, probable rather than (absolutely) certain that Jesus existed, that is also the case for his specific teachings (all the more so), for the authorship of various epistles, for the statement that the apostles taught this or that, and so forth. These are all matters of probability. And that, therefore, is relevant to the question, "What must I do to be saved?" since it is through special revelation that we know the answer to that question.

If we don't have absolute or Cartesian certainty that the external world even exists (hence, that there even is such a book as the Bible!) or that historical figures even exist, *of course* we don't have that kind of certainty for the specifics of the message that God has sent to us through our Lord and his apostles about what we must do to be saved.

But that isn't any kind of deprecatory remark nor an attempt to cast doubt upon the great truths of salvation, since almost nothing of that vast importance (except one's own existence) is known with that sort of absolute certainty in any event. Rather, very high probability suffices and can be rested upon for all such matters.

Matt said...

I don’t at all take your remarks on probability, or anything else really, to be deprecatory regarding the truth. Quite the opposite. I’m argumentative enough to quibble with things I don’t agree with, or don’t understand. If nothing else my quibbling helps me understand and I always hope it’s not too disruptive to others.
In any case, it is still unclear then why absolute, or Cartesian certainty would apply then to statements like, “I’m in pain; therefore I’m not comfortable” without the definition of “absolute certainty” collapsing into something like a tautology with regard to statements about one’s immediate experience. I suppose if knowledge, or at least knowledge of one’s self, really starts with “I” the knower then one’s existence becomes a datum of absolute certainty. However, I would reject the notion that knowledge begins with “I” the knower in a generalized way, or even specifically with regard to one’s own existence, or immediate experiences.
Rather, it would seem to begin with God the revealer both in a generalized sense and also with regard to my own existence, or immediate experience. I don’t mean that merely with regard to distinctly Christian belief, or special revelation, but that seems to be the case of all human knowledge at bottom. For example I can’t even rebel against God apart from making use of some of the basic in-built knowledge that I already have of God, man, etc… that fundamentally comes from God. In that matter rejecting God strikes me like liquid water refusing to be wet. It seems to me I can only try to refuse to be wet with his truth based on a [more than highly probable] knowledge -however basic- of what being human ought to be [whether I admit that or not]. In fact, the grasp I have of truth apart from special revelation seems to be enough to leave me guilty before God. If the creature can have such a thing as _absolute certainty_ how would it not apply to the knowledge that leaves me guilty before a just God? Is the creature indicted based on knowledge that is any less than absolutely certain? Of course, I would see that having implications for other things as well [at least if one grants absolute certainty as something available to the creature to begin with].
In that manner I don’t understand the meaningful distinction between the sort of high probability that suffices for reliability and absolute certainty. What is the importance of preserving that distinction within the context of our knowledge of God?

Lydia McGrew said...

As to your second-to-last question, the distinction is meaningful just because it is there in epistemology. It is possible, however implausible and absurd, to be wrong about a gazillion things, including very obvious things such as the existence of one's own hands, but not possible to be wrong about some things. The things that you know that it is *quite literally* impossible for you to be wrong about, when you believe them, are the ones that get designated with the "absolute certainty" label.

As to your last question, it's always good to incorporate correct epistemology into the context of discussing our knowledge of God. However, it's also important not to put the wrong kind of weight on it, so that, by saying something like, "We don't have *absolute* certainty that God loves us" (or what-not) we are misunderstood or communicate the wrong thing. That's why I've tried to emphasizes the strictly _technical_ use of "absolute certainty" that I'm making here and the reason why it isn't a problem.

I am an evidentialist, not a presuppositionalist, and so I do not agree that "all knowledge starts with God" *in the order of knowing*. I often find that those who use this saying do not distinguish the order of being from the order of knowing. In the order of being, God comes first and is metaphysically prior to everything else, metaphysically ultimate. We could not exist without him, could not know anything if he had not made us capable of knowing, etc. But in the order of knowing, we do not in fact know God before we are aware of our own existence, our own experiences, etc., nor (and this is important) does our knowledge of these other things depend on the proposition "God exists" as a premise.

Matt said...

Sounds like I am giving a presuppositionalist argument and I'll take your word for it. I am not a philosopher, at least not in the technical sense.

Your reply is clarifying and also raises more questions. In short, I'd be interested in knowing what books/articles you'd recommend for understanding the evidentialist position with regard to epistemology, the arguments for distinguishing between the order of being and the order of knowing, implications, etc...

For that matter, I'd be interested in any resources you'd recommend that give the best crack at the presuppositionalist position as well.

Thank you, for your gracious interaction.

Lydia McGrew said...

There's quite a bit of content on Christian evidences and on evidentialism as an approach to apologetics under the tag "evidentialism" at this blog and at What's Wrong With the World. Here's that tag at the other blog

And here's the tag here

You can browse or search for the word in the titles and see if you find material that is useful.

Gyan said...

If you really think that
"If we don't have absolute or Cartesian certainty that the external world even exists"
then I suggest you have philosophized into incoherence. True philosophy begins with the affirmation of things. As Gilson puts it "Things exist and we can know them".
An infant may not know that he exists but he knows that the things exist--the things he sees or touches.

Gyan said...

The Buddhists and the eliminative materialists both deny "I exists". The Cartesian certainty about oneself is an illusion. And it can be argued that the skepticism about oneself is a product of a prior skepticism about the external world. That is, philosophically speaking, the Cartesian skepticism about the external world is an unstable position and leads to erosion of Cartesian certainty about oneself.

The only consistent position is to have same amount of certainty about the self and the external world.

Lydia McGrew said...

Gyan, well, I didn't really mean to have this turn into a general discussion of epistemology. In fact, I thought I would get more challenges from people who affirm the proposition I was criticizing in the main post--that is, that you have to accept a certain interpretation of Genesis or deny John 3:16!

But, very briefly: The first of your two comments shows the usual misunderstanding, which I have attempted to head off by _repeated_ comments here. I'll repeat myself only once more: I _do_ "affirm things." I emphatically affirm that we are massively overjustified in believing in the existence of the external world. Things do exist, and we can know them. The use of "absolute certainty" is a technical use that does _not_ mean that we can't know things about which we don't have this highly technical "absolute certainty." I've said that again and again. I agree that this is also true about a very young child.

To your second comment, Buddhists who deny their own existence are just incoherent, and the fact that such theorists exist doesn't make their position philosophically reasonable in the slightest nor mean that we have to "do something" (e.g., deny the distinction between knowledge of the self and knowledge of the external world) in order to somehow "fend off" their particular brand of incoherence. The fact remains that there are things that it is possible one could be wrong about and things that one could not possibly be wrong about. Foot stomping (even of a Thomistic variety) won't change that fact. Nor will misrepresentation to the effect that someone who makes the distinction is denying that "things exist and we can know them."

Gyan said...

The affirmation that things exist needs to be made prior to any reasoning since this affirmation is required for any reasoning It is not a question of justification
There is also an affirmation that my body exists. Descartes only gives that my thinking self exists. You can read Oliver Sacks for case histories where people were unable to make this affirmation

Lydia McGrew said...

I don't know if you are asserting that Descartes thought his body didn't exist, but if so, you are incorrect.

In any event, I'm afraid that mere insistence cannot make it the case that indubitable, technical, absolute certainty of the sort that means that it is *impossible* for one to be wrong applies to the existence of one's body or to many other things, including the existence of God or the truth of Christianity. Nor can mere insistence (nor silly allusions to books about people with mental problems) impose upon a trained epistemologist a duty to say that such a belief has no (tacit) reasoning) behind it or that it is the required ground of *all* other reasoning. (Much or most other reasoning, I will be happy to grant.) Indeed, those with missing limbs sometimes still think they have them, erroneously. Again, this is not something to be worried about. The very reason that this all seems so obvious is because of the enormous reasonableness of it. It is over-justified. But the fact remains that there are different kinds of knowledge and that some is direct and (literally) indubitable while other knowledge is morally certain instead, still other knowledge (e.g., reasonable conjecture) is less justified still, and so forth.

Gyan said...

True but My point is that certainity of the external world is of the same order as certainity about the self. Descartes was simply mistaken and modern neurology shows that certainity about the self disappears or is horribly distorted when one suffers exreme sensory deprivation.

Lydia McGrew said...

I am not at all denying that terrible things happen with sensory deprivation or that we have an enormously high psychological commitment to the external world's existence and that this is healthy. I am not promoting actual doubt about its existence. I am making a technical point about probability and epistemic structure.

Gyan said...

I entirely understand that neither you nor Descartes intend to promote doubt about the external world.
However, as a matter of principle, the method that Descartes employed inevitably yields Humean skepticism about the very Self. Hume does not perceive an enduring self but a flux of bundles of thoughts and perceptions,
Thus, it is needed to affirm existence of the self. body of the self and external things prior to any reasoning. It is not the question of being (over)justified or having overwhelming probability but the sine qua non of the project of philosophizing.

Lydia McGrew said...

That's not correct, either. There are actually good ways to show why a) Hume is wrong about the self (and by the way, totally un-Cartesian anyway) and b) belief in the external world is indeed well-justified by our immediate experience. Naturally, there is no need for the layman to go through that reasoning explicitly. But the structure is all available, implicitly.

Gyan said...

I would say that the notion of "evidence" already presupposes existence of things external to the self--the kind of things that could be "evidence" for some belief.
The notion of probability requires notion of numbers and that in turn requires affirmation of external things. You could not talk of probability unless you first affirmed external existing things.

Anonymous said...

Your views ("old-earth progressive creationist") are actually very well known in YEC camps, e.g. see these:

I think the best refutation of the position you set out in your post can be found in this book
Jason Lisle is a very clear writer and uses logic and philosophy well, so I think you'd enjoy it.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, I should clarify. When I said "doesn't seem to be well-known in YEC circles" I was referring to laymen I have talked with. That is to say, when one brings up this position, they seem puzzled and seem never to have heard of it, associating it with theistic evolution.

Lydia McGrew said...

By the way, I don't affirm that "Manlike creatures that looked and behaved much like us (and painted on cave walls) existed before Adam and Eve but did not have a spirit that was made in the image of God, and thus had no hope of salvation." (This is stated to be something that "old-earth creationism teaches" at the AIG link.) In fact, I very much doubt that anyone who came before Adam was very "manlike" (I don't consider apes to be manlike in any event), and I would be willing to lay large bets that they didn't paint on cave walls. This is probably based on some highly particular OEC view of when Adam was created.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarification. I plan to read your other posts on this topic.

barry said...

I was just wondering:

You mention Christian disagreement about the nature of hell.

If it is at least possible that the literal fire and smoke eternal conscious torment version of hell is the one that is real, and if it is true that the unbeliever researching the nature of hell and Jesus' resurrection could die at any moment, then...

...doesn't this counsel against McGrew and other Christians telling unbelievers to take the time to examine Christian claims?

The way the bible puts things, you could die in a car wreck somewhere between Lydia's gospel lecture and your attempt to locate the nearest library to follower her advice to study the gospel more.

And yet the bible nowhere expresses or implies how the unbeliever is supposed to balance the obvious need to avoid picking the wrong gospel, with the obvious urgency to get saved and quash the risk of hell as soon as possible.

Lydia, if you believe the literal fire interpretation of hell could possibly be correct, I'd like to ask you: do you ever tell unbelievers to take the time to examine Christianity? If so, doesn't the threat of hell represent such an unspeakably infinite risk, that actually getting saved ASAP is more important than taking time to investigate? We don't take time to investigate when the police tell us to move away from a bomb that might explode at any we?

What would you think of an atheist mother with no parenting issues, who became so worried about the possibility of hell being real, that she considered her job, kids and husband as mere distractions, and so gave up custody of the kid, divorced the husband, quit her job, and just sat in a local library all day long for years, researching the conflicting claims of Christian scholars on the person and nature of Jesus, visiting local church pastors, and not being very successful given that she isn't a bible scholar?

Would you praise her for doing what makes biblical sense (Matthew 19:29)?

Or would you condemn her for violating common sense (i.e., abandoning her family due to religious fanaticism)?

Lydia McGrew said...

God is a) outside of time, b) not willing that any should perish, c) all-just, and d) all-powerful. If a person who does not presently know Christ seeks Christ and seeks the truth, he will find the truth. Just exactly how this works out it isn't my business to predict. God might miraculously preserve the person's life as he seeks here on earth. God might give a truly sincere seeker who wishes to know if God is real *and is prepared to submit to him* a second chance after death. God might send someone to the person. And so forth. Of course none of this means that a person should do intrinsically wrong things such as divorcing an innocent spouse (which Jesus himself commanded against), etc., in order to spend more time investigating Christianity. Nor is this necessary. Nor is that what that verse means. Virtually any non-believer has some opportunity in his life to ponder, to think, to pray ("God, if you are real," etc.), and, in our society, to investigate. Such a person might use the time that he's spending trolling Christian bloggers and asking them silly, hyperbolic questions, for example, and use that time instead seriously to investigate the evidence for Christianity. Most people have hobbies. Finding out if Christianity is true isn't more important than loving one's spouse and children, but it is more important than golf, TV, Facebook, etc., etc.

As for urging a person to "get saved ASAP" no matter what his actual state of mind, his heart, and his questions, of course I do not do that because "getting saved" is not some magic formula but a true request, made to a person (God, through his Son Jesus Christ), for a relationship with him and for forgiveness of sins. God would know if the person were faking it. I'm not going to urge someone to say a prayer like nailing a horseshoe over his door even though he doesn't believe in it. That would be pointless superstition and have no theological value or power to save. Which is what any moderately well-informed, intelligent Christian who knows a modicum of Christian theology should say, which makes the question quite pointless.

In short, I won't indefinitely answer such things, as both my time *and yours* could be better used.