Monday 26 October 2015

Monday quote

Tolerance used to be the attitude that we took toward one another when we disagreed about an important issue; we would agree to treat each other with respect even though we refused to embrace each other’s view on a particular topic. Tolerance is now the act of recognizing and embracing all views as equally valuable and true, even though they often make opposite truth claims.

J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Was Mary a perpetual virgin?

Catholic doctrine and many church fathers believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. That Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus is explicitly documented in the Bible and is universally believed by Christians. The doctrine of perpetual virginity is early but more contentious. It is defended by appealing to its wide support in the early church and for many years, even believed by some protestants such as Luther, Zwingli, and Wesley.

It is claimed that Mary took a vow of perpetual virginity and that a guardian was appointed her, an old widower who would marry her but not consummate the marriage. Thus Joseph was betrothed to her then married her but never consummated the marriage. Jesus' brothers were either his half brothers through Joseph, or Jesus' cousins.

Biblically the defence is much weaker. The relevant verses are
but [Joseph] knew her not until (ἕως) she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:25)

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)
Matthew is interpreted to mean Joseph did not know her before the birth and thenceforth. Luke is read as a vow of perpetual virginity. John is read as implying Mary had no other sons therefore Jesus handed his responsibility for his mother to John.

I hold tradition in some regard but hold Scripture higher. I think the verses espoused as proof of Mary's ongoing virginity as weak, and other verses suggest otherwise. Dealing with the above verses first.

Matthew 1:25 is usually translated as until. Most versions do this. Some argue that a translation such as
but [Joseph] knew her not before she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:25)
is allowed. "Until" implying that Joseph abstained from sex prior to but not after the birth, whereas "before" only makes claims of abstinence up until to the birth and doesn't imply anything about their conjugal activity after the birth. The problem with this is even if we accept a translation using a more neutral preposition, the context implies sexual activity after the birth. Coitus is so connected to marriage that it is assumed without any information. For coitus to not be part of marriage requires an explicit denial. For there to be no sex would require the sentence to say
but [Joseph] knew her not before she had given birth to a son; nor did he know her after the birth of her son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:25)
Such a situation is so unusual that further clarification may be given along the lines of
and Joseph knew Mary not for their entire marriage, Mary remaining a virgin until her death.
As to the Lukan passage, there is nothing suggesting this is a vow. And the context reads that Mary cannot conceive because she is a virgin, not because she has taken a vow of virginity.

John is an argument against Jesus having brothers, not for Mary being a virgin. That is, if Jesus has brothers (Mary has children) that is evidence against Mary's virginity, but Jesus not having brothers is not evidence for her virginity.

Nevertheless, Jesus likely had brothers. These passages all mention Jesus' brothers:
Matthew 13:55; Mark 3:31; 6:3; John 7:3; Acts 1:14; and 1 Corinthians 9:5. Note especially what the people at Nazareth ask,
Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? (Matthew 13:55-56)
These are rhetorical questions from people who grew up in the same town as Jesus. They are accurate, and the terms "brothers" or "sisters" can hardly mean "cousins" here.

This counts against Mary being a perpetual virgin (unless the siblings are Joseph's children from a prior marriage). Jesus being the firstborn and thus eldest would be responsible for his mother. The reason for asking John to take care of his mother may have been because at that stage even Jesus brothers did not believe him. In wasn't until after the resurrection that they had faith in Jesus.

What Scriptural evidence is there that Mary did not remain a virgin?
  1. The evidence given above that Matthew 1:25 is contextually definitive evidence of subsequent coitus however we translate the preposition.
  2. The evidence above that Jesus had siblings.
  3. Paul's command concerning marriage in 1 Corinthians.
Paul commands men and women to give each other their conjugal rights. He specifically tells them not to abstain from sex other than for short periods of time for the sake of prayer. Conjugal rights are normative for marriage since creation and Paul reminds the Corinthians that this remains the case. It has always been important for marriage to have regular sexual expression. The command for Mary to not have sex with Joseph goes against not only the creation mandate, but also the specific command (a reminder) Paul gave to the Corinthians.

Monday 19 October 2015

Sunday 18 October 2015

Hierarchal structures and submission

I was discussing the nature of authority to my daughter several years ago, and who she is to obey when she gets conflicting requests by those in authority over her.

Scripture teaches that people are to submit to authority as is appropriate. There are several examples given in the Bible. Men to God, citizens to the king or the state, children to parents, slaves to masters, church members to elders. And by analogy other situations such as employees to employers.

I think there is a good argument to be made to obey authorities in most situations, even if the authority is not righteous. I will not defend this position here, it is a common position among Christians, though I am aware there are arguments otherwise.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13)
The question arises about what someone should do when he is commanded something that conflicts with a higher authority he is answerable to.

While we are answerable to those above us, we may also be answerable to those above them. The basic structure I see is this:
  1. God
  2. Government
  3. Citizens
  4. Children
And there are different structures within this. The church as a whole is not under the government, but individuals within the church are (in this age).

Some structures are voluntary and others compulsory. Compulsory structures may change. All governments are always under God, as are all men. Christians are under their elders, but they are free to leave their local church, or even Christianity. Slaves are not free to leave, but employees are. Children become adults and are no longer answerable to their parents. A voluntary structure does not permit you to disobey your superiors, though you are free to leave the structure if you find their requirements repulsive.

The flow of authority means that people are permitted to disobey an immediate authority if obedience to him means disobedience to a higher authority. However it must result in disobedience to the higher authority, not just inconsistent with his preferences. Further, you must also be under the higher authority.

So if you are a slave to a soldier who is under a commander, but you are not answerable to the commander in any way, then you do not need to take the commander's objection into consideration in your obedience to the soldier. Though it may be prudent to consider the likely consequences.

If you are also answerable to the commander, and the request of the soldier is inconsistent with how the commander would act, but performing such a task would not mean you are disobeying the commander, then the duty to obey remains in effect.

One can transfer authority. When discussing this with my daughter I used the example of school. I transfer my authority over my daughter to the teachers and principal during her time at school. The teachers are not under my authority at all. Still, because I am the primary authority over my daughter, she is allowed to disobey her teachers in deference to me.

It is also important to note that people have authority if they are delegated it, not because they are part of a structure. In a monarchy the king is the ultimate authority (under God), but the king's attendants do not necessarily carry any power. A person working for the state does not have intrinsic authority based on his employment, it is based on his position. So a policeman or a judge has authority delegated by the state, and government teacher does not.

This is how I see God has set up the authority structures on earth. And while it is appropriate to disobey an authority to obey a higher one,
But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men...." (Acts 5),
it is important that this only be the case when obedience to the lower authority would constitute active disobedience to higher one. There are many situations where authorities abuse their power and request things that are not ideal, things that a better steward would not command of his subjects. But it is these authorities who are answerable to those above them. It is no sin to obey a wicked ruler in some of his poorer rulings, in fact it may be a sin not to obey him.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Rightly discerning the issue

We frequently need to weigh up actions to be undertaken while considering several competing issues. Different people weight the various considerations differently based on things like the importance they place on the relevant (and sometimes irrelevant) issues, or their depth of knowledge of relevant issues.

Often more information is very helpful. Many people realise this and sometimes seek it. What seems less common is thinking through how an issue is relevant. Recently I heard a conversation concerning how many people to train for the work force and weighing up issues like,
  1. Quality of training
  2. (Future) workforce requirements
  3. Number we can train
  4. Number who want to train
In unrelated reading on unemployment I came across this quote,
People don’t need to be forced to work. People need to be helped to find a job.
This sentence reminded me of the earlier conversation as neither speaker had rightly divided the issue.

Talking the second one, the speaker is (or may be*) falsely contrasting the issue. It is not just that a carrot is more effective (according to the speaker) than a stick, rather both can be true depending on what the problem is. So within a community there exist people who do not wish to work and for them a policy that forces them to earn their income is important. Even if there were jobs, the lack of desire to work prevents them taking one up. Within the same community are people who want to work but are unable to find a job. For them the motivation is there, and forcing them to work is less helpful when there are no jobs to be had. Presumably for many people both factors may be at play: they desire not to work but think they should; and jobs are difficult to find.

The relevant point is that the quote reveals inadequate depth of assessing the problem: thinking something is either/ or when it is both/ and.

The first example was about determining which of the issues is most important in addressing the training problem. Being a free-market type guy I think train who you can and let the market sort out the issues. Nevertheless, let's consider the problem as it was posed. The failure of the speaker here is equating all these variables to the total number of trainees rather than recognising they relate to either maximum or minimum numbers of trainees. Let's say that we could estimate these numbers (which we probably can't as they derive from several factors that we cannot determine; further they are dynamic). Even so, they put different constraints on the trainee number. Taking item #1. Assuming that high quality (or a minimum standard) is what is being sort, this means that the system will have a maximum number of workers it can train. Workforce requirements however is a minimum number: they will want to train at least that many workers. Total capacity to train is a maximum number, and number who wish to train is also a (different) maximum number.

These examples illustrate the common problem of failing to fully analyse an issue. Many a discussion or argument is at cross purposes because of superficial assessment.†

*The author may be saying that people do not need to be forced to work because they all want to work; they just cannot find a job.

†The opposite tendency is to make distinctions when they are irrelevant. This does not necessarily relate to the degree of division but rather whether it is relevant. The question to ask what is being assessed or compared here.

Monday 12 October 2015

Monday quote

The issues under discussion will seldom be settled primarily by appeal to first person experience. While a court should listen to eye-witnesses, for instance, it does not follow that a court would be better off if it were run by eye-witnesses.

Alastair Roberts

Sunday 11 October 2015

Uncharitable Bible critics

Critics of the Bible frequently have a wooden approach to reading—they do not understand nuance or context, and frequently do not even understand what the passage is even saying. They often also assume the most uncharitable interpretation: if an ambiguous passage can be interpreted in several ways and all but one of the them make sense, then it is claimed that the nonsensical interpretation is the definitive meaning.

To be sure, the Bible has some difficult passages. Some appear contradictory, some appear harsh (especially to modern sensibilities), some seem impossible to obey. And these should be considered thoughtfully. Yet many "discrepancies" are of little, if any significance.

What are we to do with the man who states that non-issues are mortal contradictions that destroy the Bible's credibility? Or him who insists that all ambiguities be resolved by assuming error? It is to realise that this position is not one of doubt and incertitude, rather it is a response of disdain toward God. The Bible difficulties are not the issue, rebellion is.

Monday 5 October 2015

Monday quote

An overly sensitive conscience is not the same thing as a properly discerning one.

Jane Dunsworth

Sunday 4 October 2015

Harris begs the question

Sam Harris posted this on Facebook.
No rational atheist (or “New Atheist”) holds religion accountable for every idiotic or unethical thing religious people do. We blame a religion only for what its adherents do as a direct result of its doctrines, such as opposing gay marriage or killing apostates.

Atheism has no doctrines. It does not demand that a person do anything, or refrain from doing anything, on the basis of his unbelief. Consequently, to know that someone is an atheist is to know almost nothing about him—apart from the fact that he does not accept the unwarranted claims of any religion.

Atheism is simply the condition of not believing in Poseidon, Thor, or any of the thousands of dead gods that lie in the graveyard we call mythology. To that extent, everyone knows exactly what it is to be an atheist—he has simply added the god of Abraham to the list of the dead.

If a belief in astrology were causing people to go berserk—to deny medical care to their children or to murder unbelievers—many of us would speak and write about the dangerous stupidity of astrology. This would not be bigotry or intolerance on our part. It would be a plea for basic human sanity. And that is all that an atheist’s criticism of religious tribalism and superstition ever is.

If you understand this, you will recognize any attempt to blame atheism for specific crimes, great or small, for what it is: A fresh act of religious demagoguery.
Harris is saying that failure to believe in God is a single item of belief that does not have uniform consequences for all people who hold this belief. However this is not true. Certain other beliefs and behaviours are logically consequent for any single belief. While this may not be universally the case for every person, it is the case for groups of people who hold a belief. Do other beliefs and behaviours logically follow from any particular belief? Yes they do. Atheism may have no other doctrines but certain things follow such as the idea that consciousness has a naturalistic explanation.

More importantly is the assumption of atheism here. If atheism happens to be true then atheists who are nasty may be just nasty, but not because of atheism. Consider the alternative assumption though, that theism is true. If theism is true and there is a God, a creator who owns us and we are accountable to. What does this say about those who do not believe in this God. The position of atheism in this scenario is not neutral, it is a position disbelieving the truth. It is also a position of refusing to acknowledge God's authority. Disobedience to God in other areas is also more likely, especially the more vehemently an atheist rejects his creator.

Assuming no God, the atheist is more likely to have a specific set of views and behaviours (based on his atheism) than the person who believes in God. Assuming there is a God, then the atheist is more likely to rebel against God in many ways.


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