We're Back….

On Monday the 20th of November (New Zealand Time) I got back from Washington DC, where I attended and spoke at the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society. Firstly, Francis Beckwith did a stellar job putting together a jam packed program. I don’t envy his role. As far as the actual content of the papers presented is concerned, on the whole, it was a reflection of evangelical scholarship in general – some of it truly excellent, some pointless, some of it encouraging, some disheartening.

Some of the more outstanding parts of the conference that I was fortunate enough to see included:

Robert Larme, “Interpreting Hume on Miracles.” Dr Larme presented an excellent and tightly argued rebuttal of the attempts to rescue David Hume from himself, showing that Hume’s claim was as outrageous as it sounds, saying that it is impossible in principle to be justified in believing that a miracle has occurred, even if one has in fact occurred.

Francis Beckwith, “Faith, Reason, and the Christian University: What John Paul II Can Teach Evangelicals.” In spite of the title, the talk really wasn’t about John Paul II at all, although it did at one point refer to a comment he had made about the place of creeds. Beckwith’s engaging session addressed the anti-creedalism that he routinely encounters at his Baptist University, Baylor. He responded to such ridiculous platitudes as “aint nobody gonna tell me what to believe but Jesus,” and, in a nutshell, put anti-creedalism in its place.

J. Budziszewski, “True Tolerance and the Failure of Liberal Neutrality.” To be honest this one was a bit of a yawner for me personally, since I’ve just spent the past three years working on, among other things, the material that Dr Budzeszewski spoke about, namely the failure of Rawlsian liberalism to attain a genuinely neutral and tolerant perspective in political philosophy. But at the same time, I could see that what he said was right on the mark, and certainly worth hearing for those who had not heard it before – which is most evangelicals.

Next came my own talk, “Theo-Ethical Equilibrium?” It was on at 8:30am, which proved to be not such a good thing. On reflection, the title was also not terribly helpful to anyone who is not already familiar with the subject area. The audience was small, but what I had to say was well received (and besides, it will still be on the conference CD that a lot of people are buying). And trust me, it was a great talk!

Gary Habermas, “Historical Rivals of Jesus? An Evaluation of Apollonius of Tyana and Sabbatai Sevi.” Dr Habermas gave a great talk on two supposed historical parallels of “the Jesus myth,” namely myths that are said to have a lot in common with stories of the life of Jesus, and – especially by online atheists who are suitably qualified with degrees in chemistry and the like (because you know, they help) – are advanced as evidence that the “Jesus myth” was just copied and pasted from other messiah traditions. Habermas puts this hopelessly uninformed nonsense to bed for good, showing that not only do many modern sources of such claims fudge the historical evidence to make the comparison more “perfect,” but the evidence is such that either no such comparisons are reasonable at all, or if there is a parallel, it suggests that these rival traditions drew on the life of Jesus.

John Piper (The Crossway Lecture), “William Tyndale and the Vernacular Bible.” This wasn’t meant to be an academic lecture, and it certainly wasn’t. But it was really good. John Piper discussed the life and legacy of Bible translator and martyr William Tyndale. Piper also spoke about the theological issues that got Tyndale killed, and how today so many of us are cavalier about those things.

John Makujina (Central Seminary), “The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong: A Critique.” As expected, critiquing the claims of John Shelby Spong is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Fish that are already dead, for that matter. But it sure is fun to hear!

There were plenty of other talks that were well worth the time to attend I’m sure, but with so many speakers and so little time, I didn’t attend a lot of talks that I would like to have listened to.

Then there was the “other side” of evangelical scholarship, also visible at the conference. I’m not sure that there’s a convenient way to sum up what that side represents in just a few words (perhaps and “unfair and partial partisan spirit” gets close), but examples of the kind of thing that it represents would include carelessness when representing those with whom one represents. John Warwick Mongomery, for example, well-know as an advocate of evidentialist apologetics and critic of presuppositional apologetics, engaged in the widely repeated misrepresentation of Cornelius Van Till, telling his audience that Van Til taught that the unbelieving man cannot really know anything. He is not alone, as the error is repeated by other apologists well known to evangelicalism, like James Kelly Clark. But it’s wrong (and obviously so, to anyone familiar with Van Til). Evangelical scholars ought to be better informed about the claims they make, especially when it comes to the way they portray their brethren. This wasn’t the only example of misrepresentation I encountered. In his talk, “Enlightenment Challenges to the Existence of God: The Inexcusability of Belief,” Owen Anderson claimed that Alvin Plantinga’s apologetic was weaker than a Christian apologetic ought to be because all it managed – and all it claimed – to do was “show that Christian belief can be as warranted as unbelief,” as though Plantinga only presumed to protect the faith from the charge of irrationality by showing that Christianity could climb up to the level of rationality that unbelief possesses! Anyone familiar with Plantinga’s arguments will immediately see the way this claim contrasts with the facts of what Plantinga actually does say about the relative rationality of atheism and theism.

I was also somewhat surprised when I perused the book stalls to see that a space had been rented by the International Preterist Association (IPA). This is the group that has employed the linguistic shift of calling “full preterism” or “hyper preterism” by the much more orthodox term “preterist,” and then by approaching evangelicals and trying to win them over to this view they call “preterism” which is really hyper-preterism, a heresy. In a nutshell, these guys claim that every prophecy of Scripture has been fulfilled, and they deny the historic creeds of the Christian faith by saying that there is no future return of Christ or resurrection of the dead. I was a little disturbed that they were allowed to even be there, but I guess that is one of the consequences of not having a statement of faith that affirms anything more than inerrancy and Trinitarianism. It’s a little ironic really – the Evangelical Theological Society is so conservative that belief in inerrancy is required for membership (something never affirmed in the ecumenical creeds), yet they are liberal enough to let people who deny the future resurrection and return of Christ – both of which have always been affirmed in the creeds of Christianity – peddle their wares at their annual conference! Without any stretch of language or overstatement at all, it was like having a Mormon Stall at a conference of Southern Baptists. I took one of the free books on offer from the IPA. I figured it’s one less book for them to give away to the unsuspecting.

So on the whole – am I glad I went? Yes, certainly. Some of the best that evangelical scholarship has to offer was there to be digested. Would I suggest any changes? Yes, certainly! For one, I’m inclined to think that papers for presentation at a conference like this should be subject to peer review or something similar – something, at any rate, to filter out some of the nonsense that people think counts as genuine Christian scholarship. There are a few examples that spring to mind, some involving correction of errors of fact so that papers could be brought up to a presentable standard, and some papers that simply did not deserve attention, like Stephen Parelli (from an organization called “Other Sheep”) who spoke on “How Baptist Doctrine May Obligate the Evangelical to View Same-Sex Union as Primarily a Civil Matter and a Matter of Individual Conscience.” In a nutshell, he argued that if you believe in separation of church and state then you should believe in state endorsement of homosexual marriage. So I think that a bit of forced careful preparation for some presenters and a tougher screening process on the part of ETS would have made a positive difference in spite of the extra time and effort. The trouble, of course is that this would require papers to be ready considerably further ahead of time and it would require the willingness of people to serve as reviewers (and a willingness to do so fairly), but then, my own take is that the payoff would be worth it.

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13 thoughts on “We're Back….

  1. Salvo does sound interesting and we must borrow it off you and have a good read when you are done with it.

    I would also like to read a blog post on the meat of the topic that you spoke on.

  2. Hello,
    I was told by a friend that I was mentioned on your page. I’m glad you attended my presentation, but you misrepresent me in your paragraph above about the problems of misrepresentation. Would you like to take the time to clear that up?

  3. Hi Owen. Actually I don’t see how I misrepresented your presentation. Essentially, you were taking apologists, including Plantinga, to task because they do not present an argument whereby unbelief is rationally inexcusable. You did represent Plantinga as failing to do this, by (allegedly) merely showing that belief can be as warranted as unbelief.

    Moreover, you appealed to Paul in the early chapters of Romans, when he said that the unbelieving man is “without excuse.” You translated this into the claim that we need to show that the unbelieving man is “rationally inexcusable” for not believing. I pointed out to you that actually in the passage, Paul says that the unbelieving man is morally inexcusable for not worshiping God as God, for as Paul says, they do already know that He is real. You indicated that you didn’t agree with that reading of Paul, but you’d explain more on that after the presentation, but unfortunately, as soon as the presentation was over, you were gone.

    If I’ve misrepresented you, I’d like to know how. I’m also still curious as to how you reached your understanding of Paul’s comments about people who do know God, but are without because because they don’t worship Him. How do you translate that into anything like “they have no rational excuse for not believing”?

  4. I don’t check your page very much so maybe after you correct this mistake about me we can continue the discussion below via e-mail. You can get my e-mail address from the ASU web page.

    I guess there are two questions here. One is about Paul and our contrary readings. I read Romans to say that while they knew God, they neither worship him nor glorify him as God nor gave thanks to him but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. They did not continue to know God, but exchanged this knowledge for falsehood, idolatry. They did not worship God as God because they no longer believed in God and had replaced God with images. There is no excuse for this misunderstanding on the part of idolators.

    I’m more concerned with your claim about my presentation because it is a misrepresentation of what I said. You claim I left right afterward but this is not true, I stood outside the door and talked with many others who had questions–I had to leave the room because another presentation was starting. You say above: “as though Plantinga only presumed to protect the faith from the charge of irrationality by showing that Christianity could climb up to the level of rationality that unbelief possesses! Anyone familiar with Plantinga’s arguments will immediately see the way this claim contrasts with the facts of what Plantinga actually does say.” I started out by noting that Platinga does aim at more, and that he allows for some level of natural theology and has given some good arguments in this area. Indeed, I represented him as arguing against the de jure objection in his most recent book, and commending him on this. I then gave encouragement to go further. I argued that the need to go further is based on taking sin as failure to know seriously, rather than locating sin merely in the will. Since you have misrepresented what I said on a web page I’d like to see that changed.

  5. Hi again Owen. Firstly, you say that Paul claims that “There is no excuse for this misunderstanding on the part of idolators.” But again, this isn’t what Paul says. He says that there is no excuse for their failure to worship God. Those are his very words:

    “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they o?became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

    They are without excuse “for” although they knew him, they didn’t worship him.

    But I agree that your charge of misrepresentation is the more serious matter. Firstly, you say you didn’t leave afterwards, you merely left the room and were standing outside, due to the room being vacated. Well, this may well simply be a misunderstanding, but after your talk there were people still hanging around in the room, and I was asking around where you were, and as far as everyone could tell, you were gone.

    But secondly, I still fail to see how I misrepresented you. Yes, you said that Plantinga engaged in natural theology, and still – just as I noted, you took Plantinga to task because he fails to argue for what you infer from Romans 1, that unbelieving man is rationally inexcusable. I’m not seeing the difference between this description and your description of yourself “encouraging” Plantinga to “go further.” Is it just that you didn’t mean to be quite as negative as I perceived you to be? The specific claim that Plantinga manages to argue that belief is as rational as unbelief is a claim that you made in your talk, and that this, specifically, is the way that he failed to argue for a Romans 1 view of unbelief. It is possible, of course, that you misspoke (I’ve done it publicly before), but I’m not the only one who heard you as making this claim about Plantinga.

    So it’s just not clear to me what you think I should change my claim to.

  6. One more thing, Owen. A Google search led me to your article, where you say:

    “For the purposes of this paper it can be granted that Plantinga has established that theists are within their epistemic rights. This paper is not an argument against that aspect of Plantinga’s work, and some might say that that is all Plantinga was trying to do.”

    So while you’ve toned it down to “some might say” in the article (whereas in your talk you said it was true), it looks like I was fair in my representation of your position after all.

  7. Thanks for your reply and for discussing this with me. I thought I’d try one more time. If we can’t clear it up I don’t want to belabor the point, and we can move on. There are lots of other interesting things to talk about.

    I didn’t say I left the room because it was being vacated, but because it appeared that another talk was starting.

    What I think was not fair in your representation was putting it in the negative context of the paragraph–as if I was attacking/misrepresenting Platinga the way the others in that paragraph were attacking/misrepresenting each other. And you say: “Anyone familiar with Plantinga’s arguments will immediately see the way this claim contrasts with the facts of what Plantinga actually does say about the relative rationality of atheism and theism.” And yet from what you quoted in your last reply, there is no such contrast, I point out myself what Plantinga says about the relative rationality of atheism and theism.

    My talk did mention Romans 1, but was not built on Romans 1. And I do take “their foolish hearts were darkened” and the exchanging of the glory of God for idols to be a loss of what knowledge of God they had. It may be like an atheist, who can say “theists believe this”, but who does not worship the God of theism–one wouldn’t say that such a person knows God. The act of worshiping an idol indicates that they do not know God as they should–none seek, none understand, and none do what is right describes such persons. I see a progression in these chapters from failing to know God as they should have to giving themselves over to dishonorable practices. The actions are indications of a failure to understand.

    You asked if my concern was that I did not intend to be as negative as you perceived me to be, and I think that it is, as well as the charge of misrepresentation. I did not intend to be as negative as you perceived me to be, and the others who spoke to me afterwards did not have the perception you did. Indeed, many of them were encouraged by my presentation to do further work on inexcusability. But it is also that you misrepresent my position in a paragraph where you describe how people misrepresented others. As you saw in what you quoted above, I do note Plantinga’s work in natural theology, and simply encourage going further–this means I could not have misrepresented him. I argue that warrant is insufficient for inexcusability, but I don’t say that Plantinga thinks it is sufficient, indeed from my conversations with him I don’t think he does and he has pointed out Romans 1 to me as proof.

    I appreciate your replies and our chance to correspond on the web. I’m glad you attended my talk and that we could discuss some of your impressions, but I do ask that you do not include me in your paragraph above where you charge that I misrepresent Plantinga, because this is simply not true. I can see why you thought that, but I hope that now that we’ve had a chance to correspond this has corrected your impression. Best wishes.

  8. Well, I’m sorry if it looks like I have misrepresented you. I confess that I still fail to see how. I do not pretend to pry into what a person actually knows and believes about Plantinga, and I can only commented on what was said on the day. Noting his natural theology does not, as far as I can tell, work against your claim on the day that Plantinga only really achieves the conclusion that belief is every bit as rational as unbelief.

    If you don’t really think this about Plantinga, and you think he really has successfully argued that unbelief is less rational than belief, then this is great. But it’s not what was presented on the day, and I’m not the only one to have noticed. I’m willing to grant the possibility that you never meant to say it, but you did. I’m careful about the claims that I attribute to people, and unfortunately, this is one that you made. I was there, I heard the claim and I made note of it at the time, which is why i attributed it to you in speech marks. I don’t know you, I don’t dislike you, I don’t tend to make up claims about people, and I would have no interest inventing this story. You said it. It’s quite fair to list it as one of the things at the conference that irked me. If you want to continue saying that you never said this, for whatever reason, then feel free.

  9. Fair enough, I don’t want to belabor the point. Perhaps by way of transition to a different subject I can suggest why you may have heard me the way you did. It would be a misrepresentation to say of Plantinga that he only thinks belief is as rational, or warranted, as unbelief. But I did argue in that paper that, while showing belief to be warranted, and even that many instances of unbelief are irrational, this is not the same as showing that unbelief is inexcusable. So you may have heard me say a comment to the effect that Plantinga has only established warrant, but not the inexcusability of unbelief, and that this leaves the impression that unbelief is as rational as belief since there are many instances of unbelief that appear to have the same merits of warrant as belief. Taken in one way, this could be heard to say that he has not shown that unbelief is irrational. But taken in the context of my argument, it is an encouragement to do more than simply aim at showing unbelief to be irrational or not warranted, but to show that it is inexcusable.

    Now, some have responded to this by saying that he was not trying to show unbelief to be inexcusable, thus the quote from my paper in one of your earlier comments where I say that some say he was not trying to do more than show the warrant of belief. Indeed, I haven’t found him to discuss inexcusability in much detail, so it is probably true that he has not attempted to show that unbelief is inexcusable.

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on inexcusability. How can we show that unbelief is inexcusable, and can you refer me to any discussions on this subject in contemporary philosophy of religion?

    Thanks again for the discussion, I hope you are doing well.

  10. Hey Owen – I’m doing OK, but not as well as usual (see today’s blog entry, “For Laura”).

    I don’t think Plantinga discusses rational or intellectual inexcusability. I’m not really sure who does, at least not explicitly – and it may be the “explicitly” caveat that conceals the issue here. Here’s why:

    What I actually suspect is that the “inexcusability” language may simply be another way of saying what many apologists from many backgrounds have said. Saying that a person is “inexcusable” for not assenting to a belief is just to say that they ought to assent to it, and they have no sufficient reason for not doing so. Plantinga definitely does argue that, for example, a naturalist is inexcusable in this sense for not holding to supernaturalism. His argument from warrant and his now notorious evolutionary argument are geared towards exactly this conclusion: If you believe in warrant, then you have no excuse for not being a supernaturalist. Similarly: If you are an evolutionist and put confidence in your belief forming structures, then you have no (plausible) excuse for not being a supernaturalist.

    So given this sense of “inexcusable,” practically all forms of positive Christian apologetic have, as their goal, the conclusion that belief in God (and perhaps the acceptance of other Christian claims) is such that denying it is rationally inexcusable. The weaker the inductive argument, the lower the degree of excusability.

    Do you mean something quite different when you use the term “inexcusable,” and if so, in what way is it different from saying “you have no plausible excuse for denying these beliefs”?

  11. I’m sorry to hear about your friend.

    I think you’re right that there is an implicit sense in which inexcusability is present, but even in your examples I’m not sure that it is what I’m asking about. Is there a difference between the requirement to believe what is true, and being inexcusable for being wrong? One might get something wrong, but have an excuse for having done so. This could apply in the case you mentioned above about Plantinga’s argument from evolution. This is why I’m not sure that inexcusability is implicit in what all apologists do. Do apologists show that there is no excuse, or do many of the arguments they give provide instances where persons nonetheless have excuses?

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