And now for something completely different. This blog post wasn’t my idea at all. Roy, a reader and supporter of the blog, contacted me recently asking if he could present some questions to me as a kind of written interview for the blog. Sure, why not? That interview follows.
Have you always been a Christian? How/when did you become a Christian?
I’ve always been exposed to the Christian faith, yes. I was raised in the Catholic Church, and I guess my initial or “default” view of the Christian view of things was formed in that context. I started to get interested in theology and really taking apart what I believed at quite a young age – certainly too young for my parents’ liking at the time! When I was fourteen I left the Catholic Church over some doctrinal qualms that I just couldn’t see being resolved. I was baptised (which made things worse in the view of some people!) and started going to a local Baptist church where I was blessed to have a really great youth group leader who placed a strong emphasis on discipling young people and helping them to understand the Scripture and a Christian worldview. Not that I have any particular allegiance to Baptist churches, denominationally. I think of myself as a very ecumenical evangelical. Like a number of former Catholics I did the whole “Catholicism is the gateway to hell” thing for a short while (read: teenage years), but I recovered when I grew up a little. Depending on your view of when you can really say that a person “becomes” a Christian, you might say that for me my real journey was in my mid to late teens as I really started putting the pieces together and deciding that this really mattered to me – that this is what I was, that Christ makes all the difference and that God is the centre of it all.
How do you serve at church?
Right now we (my wife Ruth and I and our children) are members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, New Zealand. I do a few things there. Actually – and this amuses some people – I teach “kids’ church,” a Sunday School for children. I’m also involved in the music team, and every now and then I speak on Sunday evenings (some call it “preaching,” but for some reason that doesn’t sit well with me. I try to share biblical insights with the church).
When did you lose your soul? (ie, when did you discover we’re just material?).
Well, you could say “when did you start thinking that you WERE” a soul. For me that’s the language that I started to become familiar with when I started to change my mind about human nature in the Bible. The phrase that first got me thinking about this was the King James Bible’s somewhat obsolete translation of Genesis 2:7, which says that the first man was “a living soul.” Although I had never heard of “philosophy of mind,” it was in my late teens that I started to think more about what the Bible says we are – and about the theological implications of thinking of human beings more holistically, as unified beings rather than a duality of body and soul. The first book I ever read on the subject was by Sidney Hatch – a pastor with whom I was later to learn that I disagreed with on quite a few things. The book was called Daring to Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality. It wasn’t really an in depth scholarly book, but it got me thinking and looking more closely at the assumptions I had held by default (something that can be life-changing), and quite without wanting to (no really – I did not want to, initially), I changed my mind. But it wasn’t until much later that I thought at all beyond the biblical theological issue and more in terms of philosophy of mind.
I didn’t generally say much about my change of mind to my Christian friends, because they were usually either not interested in theology or they viewed me with suspicion because of it. It’s only more recently (since going to Bible College and University) that I’ve started making a bit more noise about it. I think it’s an important issue because it involves understanding human beings better. It can tell us more about what’s good for us, what harms us, how to help people, how people change, and ultimately what salvation itself is. Those are the sorts of things that Christians should really care about.
The truth is that I’ve rather unwillingly become (in the minds of some people) sort of a poster child for Christian physicalism. My first interests were elsewhere – philosophy of religion in general, meta ethics and other things, but people just seemed to want to ask me about my views in this area, so it got larger and larger on the agenda without me really intending for it to be. That’s just because a lot of everyday evangelicals aren’t familiar with the idea. They’ve certainly never heard about it in their own churches (apart from, perhaps, hearing the occasional comment to the effect that “it’s what non-believers think about people”). They likely haven’t read any books by Christians advocating that view (although there are quite a few out there now), so when they come across the things that I say at the blog and podcast, it’s new, and they see me as saying something that other people aren’t. But my expertise in this area really pales in comparison to some of the really fine authors on this: Nancey Murphy, Joel Green, Trenton Merricks, Peter Van Inwagen, Warren Brown, Kevin Corcoran and others. But I think it’s great that – if I may be so bold – God has used me to stimulate people’s thinking in this area, to challenge them to think more about what – if anything – their Christian commitments should lead them to think about human nature.
What is a typical week like for you?
Oh, one side of it is probably pretty similar to a lot of people: Five days a week I get up, have breakfast, go to work, do nothing remotely academic, come home, hang out with my wife and kids, have dinner, then in the evening I spend time with my wife, and also fit in any writing I do – usually blogging or writing the next podcast. I manage to squeeze in a little reading during my lunch break at work, but apart from that it happens in the evening as well. As for the weekends, well, there was precious little time to devote to reading and writing during the week, so I try to squeeze that in here. Plus (of course!) this is when we have most of our family time.
So basically, I’m trying to fit in two lives into one lifetime: Someone with a regular, non-academic job on the one hand who needs to pay the bills, and someone whose passion is in philosophy and theology, reading and writing on the other.
What do you do for fun?
You’re reading it right now! No seriously, you are. But in addition to the blog and podcast of course there’s philosophy and theology more broadly. Reading, writing and getting published where possible in these areas is a great escape from some of the more mundane aspects of the daily grind. Plus I’m a musical sort – in fact I studied music before I studied theology, so I make music (I make the music you hear in the podcast) and I actually have a site where I display some of what I do, called Theme Music New Zealand. Also – some years ago I was into weight training, and I’m about to launch back into that this year (this month actually). That’s something I really enjoy but circumstances made it difficult to do for a while. Plus I like the same stuff most people like – movies, going out with my significant other, the usual. I’m fairly unremarkable.
How many papers have you published so far? What were they on?
When it comes to making oneself more appealing to university hiring committees, I’m told that getting published is where it’s at, which makes it all the more frustrating that I don’t have a lot of time for serious research and writing, given my regular job. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle – those who already have the kinds of jobs I want have time built into their weekly professional routine for research – the very sort of time that one needs to invest in research and writing in order to land one of those jobs.
I’ve had five articles published in peer-reviewed journals so far (these are listed in my CV), and I’ve managed to cover some of my main subject areas of interest as well: The relationship between God and morality (“The Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Ethics” and “A New Euthyphro”), Philosophy of Mind (“William Hasker at the Bridge of Death”), Theology, and personal eschatology in particular (“Fallacies in the Annihilationism Debate”), and Religion in the Public Square (“Faith in Public”). Over the last few years I’ve probably been more involved in public speaking than publishing, speaking on religion in public life (including a conference at the University of Oxford), Abortion, Meta-ethics, the New Atheism and (its lack of understanding of) the relationship between science and morality, and theology.
What other papers are you working on at the moment?
At any given time there are always a few pieces of work on the go. Some of them I decide are probably not going to go anywhere and I shelve them, but there are some that I do plan on using. One is a paper called “The Non-Moral Goodness of God” where I lay out a view of divine goodness (and of moral goodness) such that God is not morally good at all, and that his goodness is of a more general kind. I limit moral goodness to the fulfilment of duty (which is what I take morality to be all about). I think this removes some of the problems that theistic philosophers sometimes get into when talking about God as “morally good” while also grounding morality in God’s commands. This also defuses some objections to divine commands (such as one raised by Eric Wielenberg), because once we say that moral goodness is what is brought about by God’s commands and not any other sort of goodness, we can recognise that God’s will would not make, for example, extreme pain and suffering, “good.” I’m also chipping away at a paper that is an adapted version of a chapter from my PhD dissertation on “Secularism and Equality,” where I argue that while theistic accounts of basic human equality can be grounded without too much trouble, it’s difficult to see how we could frame a basic doctrine of equality that is realist and yet purged of all religious doctrines, which raises some interesting problems in a context where public policy and law is seen by many to be ideally religiously neutral. I’ve got a couple of other papers I’m working on as well looking at Divine Command Ethics as well as biblical studies and theology, but I don’t want to give too much away. My enemies are always watching!
Have you Googled Glenn Peoples lately? You seem to be held in very high regard and you have lots of people interacting with your stuff. That you know of, what’s the coolest place/person that has interacted with some of your work?
Ah, self-Googling. I hadn’t done that for quite some time actually, but after getting this question I did! I guess the kind of regard I’m held in will always depend on who you ask. I really like the fact that a lot of people who are wanting to explore issues in philosophy and theology for the first time are finding the site or the podcast, and I get a lot of really encouraging feedback about what I do, which is always appreciated. There will always be cases of bloggers whose reaction to some of the things I say I can predict quite well – and it’s not because I’m a prophet. I believe that religion can be rational and that the rejection of all religious beliefs is in general not rational. I am persuaded that the modern liberal conviction that religious beliefs have no place in public or political life is mistaken. I think abortion is prima facie unjustifiable homicide – and so on. No matter how I reach those conclusions I can expect the same sort of responses. As in a lot of other areas, the blogosphere is a pretty partisan place, and sometimes you get people attacking your arguments because it’s their job to: They speak for “the other side.” And that’s not always because they’re an atheist or their team thinks Christianity is untrue. I find when I’m talking about issues like hell or dualism, for example, I get people attacking me as though they’re doing their Christian duty. Overbearing partisanship is one of my bugbears.
But of course it’s not all like that. By far most of the interaction that I see with my work is very positive and constructive. It gets used as the springboard for discussions at other blogs, people contact me and ask for copies of talks I’ve referred to or transcripts of podcast episodes to help with their studies, all of which is encouraging to see. A professor of law in Michigan contacted me to say that he would be using selections from a podcast of mine on Secularism and Equality in his teaching. Part of what’s cool about interacting with the ideas of other people (whether in agreement or disagreement) is that often those people come out of the woodwork and interact with you about it personally, whether here at the blog or in private. When I was discussing emergentism in philosophy of mind William Hasker dropped by the blog. When I had something to say about the Evil God Challenge Stephen law started visiting. I’ve been able to meet leaders of various campus groups that look at Christian apologetics (e.g. Reasonable Faith and Ratio Christi to name a couple). From memory the blog is how I met Tim McGrew. While I was writing these responses to your questions, for example, I got an email asking me to speak (via Skype video chat) to a chapter of Reasonable Faith in California. I don’t know that I’d want to pick the coolest such encounter or interaction, but there have been a lot of really positive examples.
I hear you’re writing a book. What’s it about? When should we expect this to come out? How can we best support you?
Wow, yeah the book. I wonder who you heard that from! It’s true that I’m writing it (or attempting to), but very slowly. The book is on the moral argument for theism (generally but not necessarily within a Christian context). It’s a survey and discussion of the history of moral arguments, as well as my own attempt to articulate and defend the argument in light of the burgeoning 20th and 21st century literature on meta-ethics.
It’s a bit of an agonising project really. I love the subject matter and reading and writing about it, that’s no issue at all. But it’s a project that really demands a substantial and sustained investment of time focused on the work if it is to be of the kind of depth and quality that I think it requires, and that’s time that I just don’t have. At all. For some people this is the kind of thing they might produce during a one-year research fellowship where they’re doing nothing but focusing on the project. There just aren’t opportunities like that in my neck of the woods, and landing one overseas for a project like this isn’t terribly likely. People who have been in academia for some time might put out a work like this after a sabbatical. But given my status quo I really dare not guess when it’ll be done, if at all. It’s just about time. Maybe that will change if I find my way into an academic job that allows some time for research, who knows? I’d certainly like to think so.
As to how people can support me, if you’re reading this and you’re in a position to offer a research fellowship or anything along those lines, drop me a line!
I got into a tangle with a friend of mine, who was trying to collapse the moral argument to make it circular:
1. Moral facts can only exist if God exists
2. There are moral facts.
3. Therefore, God exists.
If you define moral facts in terms of ‘things that are commanded by God’ then the argument becomes circular. What are the flaws in this counter-argument?
That kind of objection crops up from time to time in popular level discussion –internet forums are a breeding ground for this sort of thing. Fortunately as soon as you spend any amount of time in the scholarly literature on, for example, divine command ethics you realise that those who take part know a little (or a lot) better. It could be a reply to the moral argument as described above, or it could be a method of trying to undermine divine command ethics, where people claim that the statement “The things that God commands are morally right” is vacuous because the proponent of this claim just defines the phrase “morally right” as “commanded by God.” The problem with any critique like this is that virtually nobody who employs the moral argument or who defends divine command ethics defines “morally right” this way. The relationship between those two terms is not seen as a semantic relationship. Perhaps it’s a relationship of identity, where the things that God commands are the things that are right. Or perhaps the relationship is causal, where things are morally right because they are commanded by God. But anyone who thinks they have a knock-down argument because they accuse theists of saying that “morally right” is by definition the same as “commanded by God” simply hasn’t done any homework. It’s a straw man argument that reveals the ignorance of the person who uses it.
What do you make of Near Death Experiences as evidence for the ‘soul’?
I’ll admit that I have not invested a lot of time reading about “Near Death Experiences.” At the risk of sounding a little impatient, I regard it as crackpot material if it’s taken as proof of the existence of disembodied souls. What little I have seen suggests no such thing. Self-reported cases of recalling being conscious during surgery where there was no little or no brain activity and the like – I don’t see that as carrying a lot of weight. For one, the people in question have no way of knowing that the period they are remembering being conscious coincides with the period where there was little or no brain activity. Those experiences don’t come with time stamps. But also from a theological point of view I think evangelicals should be more wary than many are of appealing to near death experiences. Evangelicals are committed to the belief that salvation comes only through Christ and that those who knowingly reject the Gospel don’t end up in heaven (for argument’s sake I’m indulging the notion of heaven held by many Christians). And yet reports of NDEs, if reliable and as indicative of what happens at death as some Christians think, would tell us that people who aren’t Christians at all are all welcomed into heaven at death. Rarely do you hear stories of people who say “yeah, I’m hell bound because I’m such a sinner, and I saw my fate when I died on the operating table.” Sure, there’s the odd anecdote, but generally (as far as I know) the NDE experience describes being received into the light, into a good place. And contrary to what some Christian advocates of the use of NDE accounts will say, this is not just a matter of interpreting the same evidence in light of a different (e.g. Muslim, pantheist, Hindu etc) worldview. This is the actual experience that is recalled, regardless of what people make of it. So while I do plan on reading more about it and I openly admit to not having looked into it much, my initial impression is that it’s not a very credible source of arguments for dualism, much less so from a Christian point of view. I’ll see if that perspective changes once I’ve had a closer look.
I’m not content to just use what I currently know to come to a settled view of this. A couple of people recently have asked me what I think about NDE claims, so I’m getting hold of some work by Christians who defend this phenomenon as evidence for dualism and life after death (and prior to resurrection) – people like J. P. Moreland, Gary Habermas and Dinesh D’Souza.
Biblical inspiration and inerrancy
What does it mean to say the ‘Bible is inspired’?
Good question! A lot of things are inspired in some very meaningful sense – plenty of great stories, poems, songs, works of art, speeches, acts of valour, acts of love, and probably plenty of other things. Of course there are parts of the Bible that seem “inspired” in this broader sense as well (since the Bible contains plenty of great stories, poems, songs, speeches, brave deeds etc). But when I say “the Bible is inspired by God” I (like other Christians) usually mean something stronger. I’ve occasionally commented at the blog on what I don’t think it means. I think it’s really unhelpful, for example, to use phrases like “full, plenary verbal inspiration,” which literally means that the Bible is fully inspired in all of its words. When you put someone on the spot and ask them to explain what they mean when they affirm that, it becomes very clear very quickly that they didn’t really mean what they said. They end up describing inspiration that’s not verbal. Certainly they won’t say that God dictated the Bible word for word. They’ll agree that actually the writer chose the words, and that even if God was behind the choice somehow, God’s influence wasn’t “verbal.” I said more about this in a blog post on the notion of Verbal, Plenary Inspiration.
What I do mean when I talk about the inspiration of Scripture is fairly broad, and there may be a number of ways that God might have gotten the same result. I have a pretty strong view of divine providence, and I would frame my understanding of the inspiration of the Bible something like this: In God’s providence, he brought it about that the biblical writers, often individually but also (and maybe more importantly) collectively, present the message that God wants us to hear, to the point where we can truthfully say that it is a message from God. It is God’s word to us. I say individually and collectively for this reason: There are times when specific passages, specific phrases, word choices and so forth, really make a big difference, and complex ideas are spelled out in them that form part of doctrines that God wants to impart to us. Reading through 1 Corinthians 15, for example, it’s clear that virtually every statement made there is made to teach something. The message that God wants us to hear is in the details. But take one of the longer stories in the Old Testament, like Joseph and his brothers, or perhaps even the patriarchal narratives considered as a whole – while there may be some details in there that stand out as making a particularly important point, as a whole, as the writer covers a sweeping history, the message is much bigger than that.
God is in the overall outcomes, the big pictures that emerge from all the stories combined.
God is in the overall outcomes, the big pictures that emerge from all the stories combined. In each case but in different ways, there’s a message in the text, and the author of that message is God, and God has, in virtue of God’s oversight of everything that exists, appropriated the events of history and the actions of a human author to get that message across. Sometimes the author would have been quite well aware of what God was saying or would say with the author’s work in conjunction with that of other authors, other times perhaps barely at all. As far as specific mechanisms of how God interacted with authors, pass. Somehow, God gave them the message without giving them the exact words, and they wrote it down. If God exercises providential control of all of creation, all the time, that’s not going to be a problem.
Why do you hold the Bible as inspired?
That’s another great question because it points to an important difference in the way that people might approach the relationship between the authority of the Bible and its witness to the person and work of Jesus (which in my view is obviously the most important thing the Bible does). Every now and then I hear people say that they don’t believe what the bible says about the life of Jesus, because it’s just written in a book, and they have no reason to believe what that book says. I get what they mean of course: They think we first need a ground-up case for the inspiration of all of Scripture, and then they can reason deductively to the reliability of what the New Testament says about Jesus, and then they’d have enough reasons to seriously consider the Christian faith. I often hear examples of this kind of thinking when discussing the resurrection of Jesus. I hear comments like “You only believe the stories about Jesus’ resurrection because they come from the Bible, and you think the Bible is inspired by God so it must be true. Only Christians could take your evidence seriously.”
Belief in biblical inspiration does not, logically, come before acceptance of the Gospel.
This is a mistake. Belief in biblical inspiration does not, logically, come before acceptance of the Gospel. If it did, nobody would ever become a Christian until they already believed in biblical inspiration, which is wildly implausible. No, believing in biblical inspiration is something that – in logical order, anyway – comes about after a person has accepted the first thing: That Christ is the answer, that God has done something spectacular through him, and that it makes all the difference in the world. Piecing together an understanding of what the Scripture is and how it came to be is then done in a new way – with new eyes, so to speak. Now it’s not just a collection of old writings. It’s the larger body of revelation that points to Christ and has its climax in revealing Christ to us. We start to see it as special because of the crucial truth that we’ve found in it. Once we’ve come to see that Christ is who Scripture claims him to be, then Scripture becomes something else. What Jesus’ first followers saw in the Bible in connection to their knowledge of Jesus is that it was really all about him. And for that reason, we – Jesus’ followers today – take it very seriously. Because Jesus is who Scripture says he is, then the Hebrew Scripture (the “Old Testament”) has the value that Jesus says, and when it foreshadows him, anticipates him and reveals the work of his Father, that matters. Because Jesus is who Scripture says he is, what his first followers passed on about him has real value, and it would make sense that God wants us to know what they had to say. In slogan form – Christ comes first, then Scripture – but only because of Christ.
You believe the Bible is not inerrant (ie, has some errors) – how do you regard this? For example: in Mark’s gospel the Passover is the day before Jesus dies, whereas in John’s gospel the Passover is the day of Jesus’ death. I believe Mike Licona ‘resolves’ this by saying John is making a theological point in changing the Passover. But putting it more bluntly, what do you do with passages when the author blatantly lies to make a theological point? (I think this example is a favourite of Ehrmans :))
Oh, I can imagine Ehrman loving this one. This is the kind of very popular-level “exposé” that he does all the time: Start with a very mundane, widely known phenomenon that is fairly well understood and accepted by evangelicals already (e.g. textual variants, other written Gospels that were not deemed to be authentic, or as in this case, a writing technique that clearly is not the recording of history in a straight forward modern way), present it to a public that has probably never heard of and just isn’t familiar with the subject matter, and come across like you’re lifting the lid on a scandal, usually adding a bit of a wide-eyed credulity to the mix (e.g. wow, maybe this Gospel that looks like it was written a hundred years after the biblical Gospels is genuine!”).
In reality, finding this kind of thing in Scripture shouldn’t bother us. But to get to your first comment, you’re right, I have a problem with the idea of “inerrancy” because I think it sounds much more impressive than it really is. It sounds like there are just no errors at all in the Bible, until we press proponents of inerrancy on some details (like this one in John), and they suddenly get very flexible in the way they use words like “error” or “fact,” generally saying that they just think the Bible tells the truth but is allowed to contain the same level of truthfulness or accuracy as anything that was written in a culture where accuracy wasn’t all that important! I try to avoid that doublespeak altogether. What I’ve always said on this issue is that I believe that what Scripture teaches is all true. I just think that some of the details in Scripture aren’t part of what it teaches. For example if somebody could make the case that the Old Testament clearly supposes a mistaken view of what the physical universe – and even the earth – is like (as I suspect people can), my view is that this just doesn’t matter. Those details are not why we have the Bible. The biblical message has nothing to do with those claims. Those features of the text are just a consequence of who wrote it and when they wrote. This applies to all sorts of peripheral details: geographical features, numbers of people present, accounts of battles that were prone to wild exaggeration as was common at the time those events were recorded and so on. So I think it’s unhelpful to say that the Bible is “inerrant.” Now I know, there are some people who distance themselves from an extreme inerrantist view, they allow for the kinds of errors that I’m talking about here, they agree with me that that sort of error just doesn’t matter, but then they go ahead and call themselves inerrantists on the grounds that those sorts of error are to be expected. Inerrancy is the view that there are no errors. Calling this view inerrancy reminds me of the episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus where the running gag was all about cannibalism in the British Navy. We were told by an officer: “May I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no cannibalism in the British Navy. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount.” I think Michael Bird’s comments are on the mark here:
when we say that the Gospels are historically reliable, we do not mean that they were intended to be judged by the standards of modern historiography or that they are the ancient equivalent of what it would have been like to follow Jesus around with a hidden video camera. They are historically rooted in the memories of the earliest eyewitnesses. Let me say also that even if ancient writers did not have the apparatus of modern history writing –footnotes, plagiarism software, video footage, and editorial boards –they still knew the difference between events purported to have happened, but didn’t, and events purported to have happened and did happen. St. Luke, the Beloved Disciple, and the author of 2 Peter, all believe that the Jesus-story is not make-believe (Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 20:31; 2 Pet 1:16). After due allowances are made for the artistic license, theological embellishment, and inherent biases of the tradents of the tradition, our witnesses to Jesus remain steadfast in their conviction that the Jesus whom they narrate is historically authentic as much as he is personally confronting.
The issue of when Jesus died is more than just a peripheral detail though. If you read Matthew, Mark and Luke, it’s as clear as anything: Jesus celebrated the last Supper with his disciples the evening before the crucifixion. This was the Passover where the bread of the Passover took on a whole new meaning – Jesus took that bread and said “this is my body,” foreshadowing what was about to happen. But John’s Gospel removes all of this. There’s no famous “last supper.” You don’t get to read that famous line “this is my body.” There’s no Passover meal! It’s just not in John’s Gospel at all, and the night before Jesus is crucified John is still referring to the feast day as in the future (e.g. John 13:29). In fact the Jewish leaders who had Jesus arrested didn’t want to go into the Roman Governor’s headquarters on Friday morning because it would defile them, and they wanted to eat the Passover (John 18:28). And yet as you read through John’s account, Jesus still dies on Friday as in the other Gospels (the day before the Sabbath). So where did the Passover go in John’s account? He doesn’t say explicitly, but it looks like it has been pushed forward to the Sabbath Day itself after Jesus had been buried (since John describes that Friday as the preparation for the Passover, and says in John 19:31 that this Sabbath was a special one). There’s no way around it: The most natural reading of all four Gospel accounts shows John saying one thing about when the Passover fell, and all three Synoptic authors saying another.
Having said that, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the author “lied” here. An author is only lying when he’s trying to get his audience to believe something that he himself thinks is false. I don’t think that was happening in this case. John’s Gospel was fairly likely to have been written late in the first century, in the 80s or even 90s. The Christian community had known for some time when Jesus died. The Synoptic Gospels were already in circulation. John can’t seriously have thought that he was going to trick them unawares. John’s Gospel is a later theological reflection on the meaning of these events. That’s one of the distinctive features of John’s Gospel. His theology is much more developed. If the other Gospels are earthy or gritty, showing Jesus with dirty sandals and rough carpenter’s skin, John’s Gospel practically shows him as you’d see him in an icon, with a halo! John is theologically interpreting the Passover. At Passover time, The Passover lamb is slaughtered prior to the Passover meal (obviously!). John is trying to get the message across that Jesus is our Passover lamb, so he portrays him as being killed prior to Passover. The theological point was not new. Decades earlier Paul wrote the same thing, saying in 1 Corinthians 5:7 that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed,” so we can celebrate the festival. Reflecting theologically on the meaning of Jesus’ death, John doesn’t just say that Jesus is our Passover Lamb, he actually shapes his historical material to portray that: He portrays Jesus dying on the day the Passover lambs were killed prior to Passover.
I don’t think it’s helpful to affirm things like this and yet still say that you believe in “inerrancy.” It’s not a clear way of describing things at all. But was John lying? I don’t think so. For one thing, the Christian community wasn’t about to be fooled by it if they had had any contact with the Synoptic Gospels or the letters of Paul. John couldn’t seriously have thought otherwise. And secondly, John’s Gospel is clearly – and would have been seen by the early church to be – a doctrinal interpretation of the events of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. So it’s perfectly plausible that it was written this way so that the audience would have seen what he was doing. And I have no problem with that.
This is why I say that what is actually without error – what is actually inspired – is the message of Scripture, not necessarily the precise form in which that message comes to us. John’s message is that Jesus died for our deliverance just as the Passover lamb was killed as part of Israel’s deliverance. And that message is true.
What is the Gospel?
Phew! That could be answered in a lot of different ways. “God saves sinners” works, but it doesn’t tell us much (other than that it’s God who does it and not us, and God doesn’t just make it possible, he really does it). Maybe the way that I favour looking at it is this: Life in Christ alone. Things are not as they should be. We’re at odds with God and with each other. Things are broken, and they are breaking down – including us. In the end, the result for everyone and everything, apart from Christ, would be death. But God in Christ is doing a transforming work, making “all things new” as the Bible puts it. We can be part of that, or we can miss out. There’s no plan B. God doesn’t say “Here’s a place where you go to live in the alternative future if you don’t want God’s future. I’ll accommodate that.” No, God is making all things new and he gives eternal life to those who will be a part of what God is doing, who will be a part of God’s “new creation” and enjoy God forever. And God has made that possible by coming to the world in Christ and bearing away (to use a metaphor) all the garbage in his own body. All the hate, all the violence, the rejection of God, and ultimately death itself; It was all thrown at him and he took it on board, destroying it on the cross through his own death. God raised him from the dead, signalling the start of something new. In taking our burden from us like this and rising again, Christ shows us what our future holds. Can I say a whole lot about that future in detail? No. But I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
Beyond living morally and having the power to live morally, what difference does the gospel make to everyday life?
First I’ll say something about Christian living, which I think is what you’re referring to when you talk about morality, then I’ll say something on another important difference. Living “morally” really doesn’t do justice to Christian ethics, to the whole idea of biblical justice that I believe God is calling us to. Sure, God wants us to live morally rather than immorally, but when the way God calls us to live is connected to the Gospel rationale for that living that way, it’s much more than morality. God is making all things new, and that’s not all in the future. It has already begun in the lives of the people who have responded to the call to communion with God. When we obey God’s commands, we’re not just living up to a faceless law of morality. We’re modelling the kingdom that God is building. We’re actually – or should be – showing the inhabitants of this world the world that God is bringing about. We’re not living as best we can in the hopes of ending up somewhere else. We live as members of God’s kingdom in this world because this is the location of God’s kingdom, and one day God’s kingdom will be all that there is. So I’m not just talking about personal or private piety. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s about that too of course (and I get it very wrong plenty of times), but it’s also about working at being doctors, lawyers, accountants, builders, police officers, lawmakers, interior decorators, street sweepers, you name it. We’re whole people, not Christian people living a secular life. So all parts of life can and should be brought under Christ’s reign.
I guess that leads naturally into the next difference the Gospel makes: Hope. The Gospel tells us that God has done something history-changing in Christ, and because of that God is building a kingdom that will have no end, and all opposition to that kingdom will be overcome, the scales of justice in the world will be put right, oppression will end, sickness will be no more, we ourselves will be transformed and even death itself will have its end. That is a lot to take in, and as we do take it in we gain a new perspective on life. Living in light of that reality brings a hope to which nothing can possibly compare. The other side of the Gospel makes a difference too. Consider all of what I’ve just described, and then take it away. There are people living in this “present order,” as St Paul calls it, which, along with them is “passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). In the same letter he describes them, tragically, as “those who are perishing” (1:18). You can see here what I was getting at earlier when I said that there’s no plan B. You’ve either bought into God’s plan, or you haven’t. This is an area where I know I fall so terribly far short, but I know it’s so important. I realise the importance of doing it, but like a lot of people I find it so hard in the world in which we live – maybe what I do online might play some small part of that, but I need to do it in other ways. What am I talking about? I’m talking what is summed up in the first verse of the Hymn, Rescue the perishing:
Rescue the perishing, Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.
That’s more about pro-active, direct evangelism, but there are other ways in which this hits home to the kind of thing I do. Those influences that undermine the truth of the Gospel, once we see what’s at stake, isn’t just intellectually vapid or academically unrespectable (as we might naturally think, for example, of the whole “Christ myth” perspective on the New Testament). They ultimately promote the undermining of human wellbeing and the undoing of our being. They are anti-human influences, and taking them apart is not just an intellectual exercise, it is the promotion of the good of our fellow human beings.
What are some of the principles for thinking through ethical situations like these? What role does the Bible play in this scenario?
Here are a couple of ethical situations which might help contextualise the sorts of things I’m thinking about.
I borrowed this one from an ‘ethics classes’ at a primary school: A friend invites you to their birthday party, you tell them you’ll be there; a few days later another friend asks if you want to go to Luna Park (on the same day as the party), and you really want to go to Luna Park. What should you do? [I’m not really asking about a resolution to these ethical dilemmas (although you’re welcome to give one) it’s more about the principles of thinking through these]
Here’s another example – my eleven-year old cousin has a mitochondrial (genetic) disorder which will ultimately be fatal for her. Some researchers have suggested that perhaps when they’re making a lab baby, they can take Dad’s sperm with Mum’s ovaries and substitute another Mum’s mitochondrial DNA. However, Australian law currently forbids research with genes from three people. Should the Aussie government change their laws to avoid disorders like that of my cousin being passed on?
Well, since the question is what role the Bible plays, you can think of it like concentric circles. In the very middle circle we have to start by saying: Does the Bible have anything directly to say about the situation we’re considering? So if you were wondering whether or not you should be faithful to your wife, quite apart from any other reasons you had, the Bible is explicit about that, so if your concern is to do what the Bile says, the question can be answered very easily. But obviously when you have very specifically described examples, or examples involving modern technology and medicine, the answer is no. Then you move to the next circle: Does the Bible address any clearly analogous scenario? For example the Bible doesn’t say anything about what should happen if your dog gets loose and bites somebody, but it does talk about a situation where a person’s ox gores somebody, and obviously you can compare the two scenarios. Other examples would include the Israelite law about putting a fence around your roof (since people walked on the roof), and putting a fence around a swimming pool. That kind of thing is what the Reformed theologians call the “general equity” of biblical instructions – figuring out what the point is that the instruction was getting at, and applying that same point in different situations. Then moving out another level we get to much broader biblical injunctions: Love your neighbour as yourself, for example (which is not so broad that we get to make it up for ourselves – Jesus said that the law and the prophets all hinge on the duty to love God and love our neighbour, so we have plenty of biblical examples of these duties in action). At this level we also look at the things that, as far as we can tell, the Bible “normalises” like family models, attitudes to creation, or the treatment of people of different gender or colour from us.
If you want to be able to safely say that “the Bible tells us not to do X,” then you’ve got to be able to show that it does, somewhere. But if it doesn’t, then you’re free to do whatever you like, provided you take biblical principles into account: Is this loving? Does it put people (or me) into bondage? Does it help or harm? These are all clearly stated biblical concerns if you read through, for example, the letters of Paul to young churches. Ultimately I think the right thing to do is the thing that God wants us to do, but there are times when that’s not going to be clear. For what it’s worth, I’d say the first example you gave about the party is like that. I can imagine Christians thinking they have good reasons for choosing either option. As far as the second option is concerned, I think it’s clear that there’s no biblical reason for thinking that the proposed treatment is wrong, and plenty of reason for thinking that it’s right. I think human life begins at conception, so no human lives are put at risk (no harm is done), and I think it’s loving to the child to ensure their best health possible.
If you had to pick the top two or three of your blog posts – your all-time favourites – which ones would they be and why are these your favourites?
That’s hard, because I write different posts for really different reasons. So in some ways this one might be one that I like, but for very different reasons it’ll be a different one. If I did write a list of the top five, I would be forever changing it as I changed my mind! But that being said, here’s a short list:
A couple of posts that I really enjoyed writing were “What ‘The Little Prince’ can Teach Philosophers (and Some Normal people Too),” and “The Little Prince and Psalm 19.” They’re actually pretty short blog entries, but I liked those for a couple of reasons. For one entirely non-academic reason – they will remind me of the time when my son, our oldest child, was ten years old and I was reading him stories. He’s fourteen now and probably a bit cool for that. But I really enjoyed doing it. I also think it’s really cool when great art, especially stories, are able to capture profound philosophical or theological ideas so beautifully and simply. There’s something in stories like that to keep children happy and to move and teach PhD graduates as well.
An Open Letter to my Traditionalist Friends – I still get emails about this one, from people who have just discovered it, telling me how it has helped them. It’s a post venting some of my frustrations with those evangelicals who defend the doctrine of the eternal torments of hell. I’m basically pleading with them to see how terrible their arguments for their position (and their arguments against annihilationism) look to those who don’t hold their view already. For a number of readers, reading through this was something of a breakthrough. The penny dropped and they tell me that they were able to see something they never saw before, and that’s a really satisfying thing to hear. When it comes to doctrinal issues over which people can be blindingly partisan, finding a way to break though that and to get people to just see something doesn’t happen very often, so it’s rewarding to be a part of it when it happens.
Those would definitely be among my favourites. But by far the best feedback I get is about the podcast, which is what I enjoy most. I feel like I’m connecting more with the audience when I’m actually speaking to them. I did especially like the podcast episode on Divine Command Ethics, as well as the podcast on secularism and equality, if for no other reason than that they represent the kind of public speaking or teaching that I really like to engage in – unpacking and explaining subject matter that really gets my mental cogs turning and that I can get excited about sharing.
What are some of the things we should expect to see this year on your blog and podcast?
There are a few things I’m working on – a blog post on the supposed problem of interaction had by mind-body dualism, another couple of blog posts on Richard Carrier’s arguments about the resurrection Jesus (I’ve been meaning to get these out for some time), and a podcast offering an overall perspective on the human condition and salvation from a Christian physicalist perspective. I’m also going to implement a new category in the blog, a Q and A archive. Whether or not this is a success will naturally depend on whether or not anyone actually care about what I think, but it’ll basically be a forum for people to ask a question and then my blog post will be my response to it – assuming of course that I have a response.
What are your hopes for SHTMLF long-term?
Well, as long as I’m fulfilling the Mission Statement of the blog, I’ll be happy with what the blog is doing, so just doing that for the foreseeable future is fine. But I’d like to be able to do more. It was always my hope that the website can be a portal to bigger things, mostly connecting with people. Making connections that lead to more in person interactions, visiting and speaking to groups of people on the subjects I cover here, or even connecting with people or organisations where there are possible professional possibilities, who knows what might come of it. But even if that eventuates, I’d still plan on running the blog and podcast, just because I’ve found it so fruitful. I’m certainly open to having other people come on board, and I’m definitely open to networking with organisations that do the sorts of things that I want to do and affiliate my work with theirs. So the future of this website is pretty open.
I often toy with the idea that maybe you could be completely sustained for a year by your audience. Do you like that idea? What would you do?
I’m in two minds about that idea. I don’t know how many readers would be aware of this, but in New Zealand there’s a very strong culture of not wanting to really put yourself out there, not wanting to ask for anything, not wanting others to give you things, that sort of thing. That can be a good thing, because it can push us to err on the side of humility and self-sufficiency, which is great. But it can also be a hindrance as well, as it can also mean missing out on opportunities or not being noticed when actually it’s appropriate to step up, get some attention and do something. This cultural mindset has me thinking – What? People supporting me to do something I love? I couldn’t accept that. I’d feel like a swindler. If I showed them what I was doing with that time and support (and I’d have to, in order to be accountable and transparent), it would look like I wasn’t doing anything!
But I know that’s not necessarily very helpful. Universities offer this sort of thing to their people (fellowships, Sabbaticals), organisations do it too, so it’s not really that far out there. It’s just a question of getting the arrangement set up, getting enough people who thought it would be worthwhile. The truth is, that would be wonderful if it were possible. It would provide precious time to do a few things. Firstly there’s a certain book project I mentioned earlier. Given, say, twelve months, I could get that – at very least – mostly written if not completed (assuming I was working on other things at the same time). Secondly there are some organisational things I’d like to work on; networking and working on setting up more formal relationships with apologetics oriented organisations in the hope of seeing similar organisations in New Zealand really take off, but that requires the kind of attention I can’t even think about investing at the moment. So if this were a possibility, I’m sure it would bear great fruit.
But is it feasible? I don’t know. Would I actually want to ask people to do that? Again, I don’t know. While I’ll admit that every now and then the idea occurs to me, it quickly gets shut down with things like “But people would never do that. What’s in it for them? I have a family – Is that really liveable and dependable? Do I want to really ask people for this kind of support? Could I even ask that question?” Also, I know myself and I know my weaknesses. Being an organiser or entrepreneur is one of those weaknesses – it’s not a skill I’m particularly blessed with – and neither is the practice of asking for support – so making something like this happen wouldn’t be easy for me. When I look at people who have really had success in this area, at people like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Craig or others, they’ve had great people and organisations around them – teams of people who have worked like a well-oiled machine. Maybe that’s not the solution, maybe it will involve just fitting this stuff in around my nine to five life. I really don’t know at this stage. I do know that there’s so much more than I could be doing and would love to be doing beyond what I’m doing now. We’ll see what unfolds.
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