Wednesday, June 13, 2018

David Bentley Hart’s Inconsistent Triad (1)

It’d be hard to overstate how important the essay “God,Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo” by David Bentley Hart has been for me.  I’ve read it maybe 10 times and each time it yields some new insight that, having seen it, I can’t unsee it.    

Just recently I noticed something at the end of the essay that I hadn’t noticed before: an inconsistent triad.

While the essay itself is a fairly grueling (though highly rewarding) read for us non-academics, the triad itself is quite accessible.  Not only that, but in my reading the entirety of the essay is an exercise in sober semantic precision in support of the argument present in this sentence:
We are presented by what has become the majority tradition with three fundamental claims, any two of which might be true simultaneously, but never all three: that God freely created all things out of nothingness; that God is the Good itself, and that it is certain or at least possible that some rational creatures will endure eternal loss of God. (p 16)
To visually break up the three claims:
  1. God freely created all things out of nothingness
  2. God is the Good itself
  3. It is certain or at least possible that some rational creatures will endure eternal loss of God
So the inconsistent triad is both a helpful lens through which to read the essay and the end to which the various arguments aim and find a simple and powerful expression.

Is Hart’s analysis sound?  That any two of these statements can be true but never all three? 

That’s the big question, of course.  What do you think?

In the next post I’d like to compare Hart’s inconsistent triad to that of another well-known and influential Christian universalist – Thomas Talbott.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Love of Neighbor as Hermeneutical Key

Therefore, all such things as you wish men might do to you, so do to them as well; for this is the Law and the prophets.
 -Matthew 7:12 (DB Hart, emphasis mine)

I don't mean to be a stickler.... but here's where a guy, per divine ordinance, gets stoned for picking up sticks on the sabbath:

Then the Lord said to Moses, "The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp."  So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones and he died."
 -Numbers 15:35-36 (NKJV)

Here’s where Paul affirms the love of neighbor hermeneutic:
For the whole Law is summed up in a single utterance to wit: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
 -Galatians 5:14 (DB Hart)

Here's a blessing being pronounced upon infanticide:

How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them against the rock!
-Psalm 137:9 (NET)

Back and forth we go.  So my question is.....really?  Do unto others is the Law and the prophets?  Am I reading the same Law and prophets?

I mean, I could understand if he said, "While the ultimate goal of the Law and prophets is to form a moral world in which people are loving others as themselves (as instituted through sacrificial and ceremonial laws, etc) much of the Law and prophets prescribe what happens in the event that you don't."  Or more crudely, "the Law and prophets are about loving your neighbor as yourself.  And if you don't, we will kill you."

That is a much different that saying that "do unto others" is the Law and the prophets.  Doing unto others as they would do unto you unless they do something wrong or are in some way unworthy would be a pretty big asterisk.

I realize that there are ways to spin all of this, to salvage Jesus's words in the historical-critical sense (not an allegorical sense) of the text and make them perfectly compatible with the Golden Rule.  I happen to think that this is where things have the potential to get really, really dangerous.  The rationalizations.  The twisting of language to sound pious.

"To tolerate sin is not loving at all."

"God is loving, but He is also holy."

"We don't get to choose what 'good' is."

"Sin is very serious."

These include some truth.  They just don't resolve the issue at hand.  It's difficult to equivocate around doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Stoning a person is not doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Not in any meaningful sense.  Any moral imperative is lost in pure equivocation.

So I don't see these resolving the issue at hand for several reasons, not the least of which is the immediately prior verses in the Gospel of Matthew:

Or is it not the case that no man among you, if his son should ask for a loaf of bread, would give him a stone?  Or, if he should also ask for a fish, would give him a serpent?  If you, therefore, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in the heavens give good things to those who ask him.
 -Matthew 7:9-11 (DB Hart)

Jesus doesn't present some inaccessible understanding of "doing unto others as you wish them to do unto you."  It is as plain as a man giving a gift to his son.  At least for Jesus, a so-called "total depravity" has not snuffed out the ability to recognize a "good gift."  He appeals precisely to this recognition.

So I'm back to my original questions:

Really?  This is the Law and the prophets?

My tone is not to be misinterpreted here.  It's not one of cynicism (well, not only cynicism!) but of wonder.

What is Jesus's hermeneutic?  How does he interpret?  How can 'I' as individual and 'we' as a collective learn this hermeneutic in a deep and formative way?

Two main points then:

One, whatever theories exist as to the nature of the Biblical texts, they need to be fully informed by this vision of Law and prophet as love your neighbor as yourself.  And not in a twisted and inaccessible way, but in a way that does justice to the simple kindness of a parent giving a gift to child.

And two, I don't think it's possible to understand Jesus without wrestling with his hermeneutic.  To Jesus, each iota and serif is only truly 'fulfilled' when viewed through the lens of the law of love.  Any other 'fulfillment' is to miss the point.

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law and the prophets; I came not to destroy but to fulfill.  For, amen, I tell you, until heaven and earth shall pass away, not a single iota or single serif must vanish from the Law, until all things come to pass.
 -Matthew 5:17 (DB Hart)

When all things come to pass, when humanity is roused from sleep and caught up in the life of God, this fulfillment will be manifest precisely as love of neighbor, and love without mixture.

Love does not work evil against the neighbor; hence love is the full totality of the Law.  This moreover, knowing the time: Now is the hour for you to be roused from sleep, for our salvation is nearer now than when we came to faith."
 -Romans 13:10-11 (DB Hart)

May this 'fulfilling' invade the present.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

What kind of blessedness is it that luxuriates in revenge? (Jurgen Moltmann)

There are certainly many other movements, and much fervent zeal for the liberation of the masses.  It certainly sounds more realistic for people in darkness to dream of God's day of vengeance, finding satisfaction in the hope that at the Last Judgment all the godless enemies who oppress us here will be cast into hellfire.  But what kind of blessedness is it that luxuriates in revenge and needs the groans of the damned as background to its own joy?  To us a child is born, not an embittered old man.  God in a child, not as hangman.  That is why he prayed on his cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."  It sounded more heroic when, forty years ago, in 1934, Hitler's columns marched through Tubingen, singing with fanatical zeal: "One day, the day of revenge.  One day, and we shall be free."  It was a zeal that led to Auschwitz and Stalingrad...

-Jurgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (taken from Watch for the Light)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (5): Restricting the Scope of God's Love

The Inconsistent Triad

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Return to Part 1
Back to Part 4


Let's now look at how Talbott addresses the Augustinian notion of God's "restricted love".

The Augustinian reasons as follows:
God's saving grace is irresistible in the end, and yet everlasting torment in hell will nonetheless be the terrible fate of some; therefore, God does not love all created persons equally and his (electing) love is thus limited in its scope.
In the end, it's fairly simple.  Grace is "irresistible" (proposition 2), yet everlasting separation is true (proposition 3).  Therefore, it must be the case that God does not love all people equally in the sense that God wills their salvation.

If a person is not saved it is because God doesn't want them to be saved.  His electing love, being irresistible, cannot and must not extend to them.  Period.

For some people this salvation equation is sheer theological fact.  "Mysterious" as to the reasons for God's "free" choice to save some and not others, but not mysterious in it's sheer necessity.  On the other hand, for those who either (1) come from a tradition that doesn't hold to the Augustinian version of "irresistible" grace or (2)come from a tradition that does view salvation through the lens of the Augustinian version of "irresistible" grace but didn't realize the necessity of this limited scope of God's salvific will, this is a scandalous assertion.  Shocking.  For some, heretical.

The assertion naturally leads to some important theological questions like:


God doesn't want all people to be "saved"?  

How and where do we see such an idea defended philosophically?  Biblically?  Theologically?

What about those parts of scripture that would seem to indicate that God does indeed want all to be "saved"?

1 Timothy 2:4 is one example of an isolated verse commonly used to affirm God's desire to save all people without exception:
who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (NRSV)
For a person who needs to restrict the scope of God's (electing) love and sees this verse as holding some sort of authority, this verse is a problem.  What can be done?  But here is how Augustine explains it :
"the word concerning concerning God, 'who will have all men to be saved,' does not mean that there is no one whose salvation he doth not will...but by 'all men' we are to understand the whole of mankind, in every single group into which it can be divided...For from which of these groups doth not God will that some men from every nation should be saved through his only-begotten Son our Lord."  (Enchiridion) 
So for Augustine, "all" must merely mean "all kinds" or "some" individuals from "every group".  This is the necessary exegetical move.  God simply cannot be said to will the salvation of all people (as defined in proposition 1) and maintain any Augustinian theological coherence as defined by the acceptance of propositions 2 & 3.  So any Bible verse that seems to say otherwise ("all" as meaning literally "all people") cannot really be doing so.  It must be shoved off to the side or dismantled.

The logic of it is not difficult to see.  Simple.

Now some proponents of the Augustinian view of "limited election"argue, quite simply, that God does not love the non-elect at all.  Others, like the contemporary philosopher Paul Helm don't argue that God doesn't "love" all people or that "love" is not of God's very essence.  Instead, Helm seems to dismantle the connection between God's love and God's salvific will.  Helm argues that God's loving nature or God's loving actions towards human beings do not necessitate that God's redemptive love extends equally to all people.  The argument goes, just as there are differences within the created order (male/female, etc), there can be differentiations with respect to God's redemptive purposes.  Essentially, God being love in God's essence and being loving towards God's creation does not mean that this love is necessarily and finally redemptive in nature.

Helm does not here seek to throw out the language of "love" but rather to rework it's semantic content to fit into an Augustinian framework by:
  1. creating a special category of "love" called "redemptive love" and arguing that the former does not necessarily entail the latter
  2. viewing divine love on a sort of sliding scale, the minimum level of which may be called "love" but doesn't include the will to save
Jeff Jordan takes a similar approach.  He argues that God's love need not be maximally extended for it to be love.  He finds the idea of "equal love" to be an impossibility because love is not defined by uniformity.  In other words, divine love need not be salvific in it's aims for it to be divine "love".


A lot of foundational things to work through here.  Personally, I'd prefer to see the language of "love" thrown out all together than see it's semantic content be reduced to a rubble of Augustinian equivocation.  Preference aside, the implications of going down this path are, I think, stunning and disastrous.

For me, the questions that arise out of this section are:
  1. When does "all" mean "all"?
  2. What is the connection between who God is and what God does?
  3. We may very well be dealing with definitions of "love" that are are semantically different.  So what do we mean by the word "love"?  
  4. Does God being "loving" entail that God wills the ultimate good of the object(s) of his love?  Or can "love" will something less (and far worse) that the ultimate good of the beloved and still be called "love"?
  5. What are the protological (in-the-beginning) implications of a limited love?


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (4): Postulating a Final and Irreversible Division within the Human Race

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Back to part 3


You may notice that proposition (3) is fairly unspecific:
Some humans will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever. 
This is by design.  It could mean a lot of different things.
  • Hell as a realm where the wicked receive retribution in the form of everlasting torment.
  •  A place of "spiritual torment" experienced as despair and anger, etc.
  • Annihilation (cease to exist).
  • A self-created hell sustained by rejecting God (the "doors locked on the inside" per C.S. Lewis)
  • A realm in which God will try to make people as "comfortable" as possible.
  • The experience of God's love as wrath.
  • Etc.
Any of these viewpoints accept (3) as true.  All represent a form of a final and irrevocable division in humanity - a division between those who are reconciled to God and those who are not.  No doubt there could be more.

But let us put aside the nature or experience of this "separation" or "non-reconciliation" for the moment and instead ask the following question:
If there is to be such a final and irreversible division within the human race, just what accounts for it?
Recall Talbott's Inconsistent Triad:

There are two very different explanations for this final division.
For Augustinians, the explanation lies in the mystery of God's freedom to extend his love and mercy to a limited elect and to withhold it from the rest of humanity. 
For the Augustinian, God owes humanity nothing and is perfectly free to give grace to whom he chooses and withhold it from whom he chooses.  Talbott references Calvin's interpretation of Romans 9.  Jacob is taken into grace.  Esau is hated.  And this outside of ANYTHING that either of these two individuals had done, good or bad.  God, in his sovereignty, does not want to save Esau.  Period.  (We'll come back to this view of God's "freedom" later on).

In contrast to the Augustinian view, we have (what Talbott calls) the Arminian view.
According to the Arminians, the explanation lies in our human free choices.  Thanks to God's grace, we ultimately determine our own destiny in heaven or hell.
Arminians hold that God offers his grace to all, but that people freely reject it thus securing their separation.  God would save all and is not willing that any should perish, but the effectiveness of grace requires a certain "acceptance".  God can't just "override free-will", which would be "unloving".

Given the staunch disagreement as to the reasons for this "final and irreversible division", it shouldn't be surprising that each side critiques the framework, intelligibility, and implications of the other.

Arminians portray the Augustinian view as inherently unjust, even monstrous.  They point towards the scripture verses that posit God's universal salvific will and love.

Augustinians critique the Arminian explanation as contradicting St. Paul's clear teaching that salvation is wholly a matter of grace.  Even an "acceptance" of grace constitutes a sort of earning.
If the ultimate difference between the saved and the lost lies in their superior free choices that the saved have made during their earthly lives, then why shouldn't they take credit for this difference or even boast about it?  Why shouldn't they say: "Well, at least I'm not as bad as those miserable people in hell who were so stupid as to have freely rejected the grace that God offers to all." 
Nor could a sovereign God fail to reconcile the chosen objects of his love.  Such a defeat is inconceivable.

While the theology and terminology contained in these two very different approaches requires elaboration, both are compelling.

As such, a universalist would agree with their critiques of one other, arguing that the problem lies in their prior and largely unquestioned commitment to the acceptance of proposition (3).


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought - Thomas Talbott (3): Three Primary Eschatological Views & The Inconsistent Triad (One More Time)

These posts relate to the article "Heaven and Hell in Christian Thought" by Dr. Thomas Talbott as published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

This essay strikes an excellent balance between being concise and being thorough in laying out the arguments and viewpoints of various Christian schools of eschatological thought without resorting to caricatures.  His project is careful to present each of these viewpoints at their strongest, for only then can productive dialogue occur.

Back to part 2


Before looking at each of the three primary eschatological views in greater detail, let’s look once more at the Inconsistent Triad with the aid of a diagram:

A few notes:

  • The 3 primary eschatological views are placed on the length of the triangle that connects the two points (the propositions) that each view accepts.  The 3rd point represents the proposition that is rejected.
  • The proposition labels (Sovereignty, Unconditional Love, Everlasting Separation) are obviously not without ambiguity, and each of the 3 primary eschatological views may argue that their “rejection” of the label is either inaccurate or subject to clarification.  The meaning of these terms is, of course, very much a part of the essay.  In any case, I think that these 1-2 word descriptions are helpful.
  • When considering the word “separation” in proposition 3, bear in mind Talbott’s definition of salvation as reconciliation, or “even a kind of union”.  “Separation” need not be geographical, but is rather a “disunion” or “estrangement”.

Talbott summarizes:
"Augustinians (named after St. Augustine of Hippo) believe strongly in both the sovereignty of God’s will (proposition 2) and the reality of an everlasting separation from God (proposition 3), they finally reject the idea that God’s unconditional (or electing) love extends to all humans equally (proposition 1)."
"The Arminians (named after Jacob Arminius for his opposition to the Augustinian understanding of limited election) believe in both God’s equal love for all (proposition 1) and the reality of an everlasting separation from God (proposition 3), they finally reject the idea that God’s desire to win over all will by fully satisfied (proposition 2)." 
"Christian universalists believe in both God’s equal love for all (proposition 1) and the ultimate triumph of his loving will (proposition 2), they finally reject altogether the idea of an everlasting separation from God (proposition 3)."

Consider, once again, just how different these 3 views are.

Talbott concludes the Three Primary Eschatological Views section with a penetrating question:
“Which system of theology best preserves the praiseworthy character and the glory of the divine nature?”
Does this question make you squirm a little bit?  Does it make you uneasy?

Given the possible variety of things that might constitute "praiseworthy character", perhaps you find it hopelessly subjective.  You may be tempted to argue that a particular view is objectively "right" thereby dismissing the questions of "praiseworthy character" and "glory" as subjective and twisted by "modern sentimentality".  Or perhaps you sense a certain tension between divine attributes (like justice and mercy).  Or perhaps you view God's "goodness" and man's "goodness" as completely different.

Despite these (or a great many other) protests, it is a paradigm shaping question.  It requires humility.  And yet we must ask and answer as best we know how.  We have moved to precarious territory if we argue that the truth does not "preserve the praiseworthy character of God" or conflate goodness with sheer power.  Always keep this question in mind as we move forward, because it is the deeper question to which all the philosophical language and precision points.  We shall see how the various eschatological views address the question as we proceed.

We'll now move into the meat of the essay.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“God isn’t here yet. Why can’t I see him?” (A 4 year old asks)

“God isn’t here yet.  Why can’t I see him?”

My 4 year old daughter uttered these words a few nights ago.

She lacks the vocabulary to describe it in these terms, but it was the first time I've heard her speak of God's perceived absence in a way that was inextricable linked with anxiety.

The days and nights leading up to Halloween provided new and imaginative ways for her to be scared.  TV shows (especially the kids shows), commercials, decorations, store displays – all of it seeped into her mind.  It’s made our bedtime routine a little tricky….and quite long.  She’s scared, and it can take her awhile to settle down.

Her primary nemesis is “Birthday Man”.  Birthday Man has sharp teeth and he eats your birthday cake.  He comes at night.  Possibly from her closet. 

I mean, it’s cute in a way.  This is about the scariest thing that her 4 year old mind can come up with. 

The thing is, this genuinely terrifies her.  Forget about the birthday cake part.  Think of a man with sharp teeth who shows up at night, emerging from your closet.  I can see why it scares her.

So bedtime has been a little rough.  We check her closet.  We’ve said prayers with her and for her.  We make fun of birthday man, arguing that he can’t have teeth because all of that cake would have rotted them and they’d fall out (we get to plug the benefits of brushing your teeth here).  We’ve convinced her that her blanket makes her invisible which seems to have worked the best.  She crawls deep underneath her blanket, just a few inches of her face exposed.  Just enough to breathe.  Again, somewhat cute.  But imagine being so scared that you wanted to be invisible.  I can relate.  It makes me sad that she’s experiencing this fear.

She wants the fear to go away before my wife or I leave the room.  God is supposed to be nice.  God is supposed to always be watching and protecting.  When we leave God should stay with her.

“God isn’t here yet.  Why can’t I see him?”

Where is God?  Why can't I see him?  Are you seeing something that I'm not?  Is something wrong with me?

I wonder if any of those questions darted around in her mind.

All I said was, “I don’t know”.

I was really hoping that, as a parent, I would have good answers for questions like these.  Answers that would be age-appropriate but also honest and true.  Answers that would grow and expand as she grew.  But I didn’t.  And I don’t.  A few days to process this hasn’t made much of a difference.

I’ve tried to think through it theologically, but basically everything that I think up seems like a way to explain away her dilemma.  Answers seems empty.  It’d basically be: Don’t expect God to be here or to “see him’ in any way that resembles what you mean by the words “see him”.  It becomes a game of words.  Redefine them until you can use them.

Sometimes the best “answers” just cloak our pain and disappointment.  I want to be truthful.  I don’t want her faith-world to be a fiction, a house of cards.

“God isn’t here yet.  Why can’t I see him?”

She’s asking about God’s absence.  I must speak to her.  I must start somewhere.

How do you answer this question for a 4 year old?  (Or for a 37 year old for that matter)?!
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David Bentley Hart’s Inconsistent Triad (1)

It’d be hard to overstate how important the essay “God,Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo” by David Bentley Hart...