Nuts and Bolts 016: The Root Fallacy

Did you know that I’m an Apostle? It’s true! My ex sent me packing, and the word “apostle” in the Bible comes from a Greek word that means “sent one.” Don’t argue with the Bible, this is what the Greek means!

You probably haven’t heard anyone make an argument quite like this, because to do so would expose just how absurd this sort of reasoning is. This instalment of the “nuts and bolts” series is all about the root fallacy, one of the most common mistakes that a lot of sincere, well-meaning people make when interpreting the Bible. The root fallacy is committed where a person assumes that the meaning of a word must be bound to the meaning of its etymological root.

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Nuts and Bolts 015: The Original Position

In the Nuts and Bolts series I lay out some of the basic concepts thrown around in my areas of interest – philosophy, theology and biblical studies – and explain them for those unfamiliar with them.

This time I’m looking at the “Original Position,” a term that originates with John Rawls, one of the most significant political philosophers of the 20th century. Rawls, like many people in the Western democratic tradition, advanced a form of social contractarianism; the view that the principles of just government are grounded in an agreement (a “social contract”) between the governed and those who govern. Those who govern must govern according to the terms of that contract, and in fact fellow citizens should only support policies or laws that are in keeping with that contract.

But what sort of contract would that be? Is it an overtly stated contract that we all actually agree to? No. Like many other social contractarians (e.g. John Locke), Rawls realised that the types of contracts that everyone might actually agree to could be significantly flawed in all kinds of ways. We want to think of social arrangements in terms of contracts partly because it stresses the fact that each side has the power to negotiate with the other on equal footing with them. But this is often not the case. Simply out of ignorance, for example, we might agree to terms that are actually unjust to us and unfairly advantageous to others. What if members of an ethnic minority in your society were willing to agree to a social contract that, unbeknownst to them, actually had the consequence that they were exploited and seriously disadvantaged when it came to, say, employment? What if all the kind, gentle people were happy to endure conditions in, say, trade negotiations that were flagrantly unfair to them and helpful to cutthroat, assertive, dishonest swindlers? So the actual contracts that people happen to form aren’t really good enough here.

What is needed to come up with the standard of what sorts of laws and public policies are acceptable, then, is a kind of hypothetical social contract, one that we would arrive at under idealised conditions. And what sort of conditions are those, you might ask? Here is where the title of this blog comes into play: The constitutional basis of law and government in a just society, says Rawls, are those that we – or at least ideal versions of ourselves – would formulate from the perspective of the Original Position. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 015: The Original Position”

Nuts and Bolts 014: Relational Subordination Within the Trinity

In this instalment of the Nuts and Bolts series I thought I’d offer an outline of an issue that I was reminded of by some articles suggested to me recently. That issue is the Trinitarian notion of the subordination of the Son to the Father.

In one of these articles (by Ben Witherington), the writer denied that Christians ever believed in the eternal submission of Jesus the Son to his Father until 1977, when this “novel” suggestion was first made. I had to look twice to make sure I was reading it right! But there it was, this claim that simply flies in the face of historical fact. In context it was patently obvious that the goal of the article was not actually to explore or explain historical theology, but to make a claim for a position on a hot-button issue about gender and church (the claim was made that this doctrine was invented in 1977 to justify the oppression of women). The horse was before the cart, and theology in general was being re-read for the sake of a modern conflict. It’s the kind of thing that troubles me greatly, when people appear to approach an issue in theology with one eye looking back over their shoulder at a cultural issue where they feel obliged to come out on the “safe” side of an issue in the modern world, and the cultural pressure they are facing ends up controlling the theological outcome they reach. In light of the fact that such things go on all the time, I thought it would be a good idea to say a word or two to explain the historically orthodox view of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Whether you believe it or not is another matter, as is the question of what implications you think it has, but all I really want to do here is to explain that it really is a historically orthodox perspective, and has very plausible biblical support.

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Nuts and Bolts 013: Mere Christianity

I started the “Nuts and Bolts” series as a way of explaining some of the basic / common concepts in philosophy as well as theology at a fairly introductory level. Sometimes this is prompted by the realisation that online, often people refer to those concepts – even criticising or commending them – without actually having a firm grasp on them. It was an example like this that prompted me to start the series.

This instalment, on “Mere Christianity,” was prompted in a similar way. John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity doesn’t think much of the notion of “Mere Christianity.” In fact he really doesn’t think there is such a thing. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 013: Mere Christianity”

Nuts and Bolts 012: Kenosis

In the “Nuts and Bolts” series, I lay out some of the fundamental ideas and terms used in philosophy and theology for the lay person.

This time I’m looking at kenosis (also referred to less elegantly as kenoticism). Unfortunately, this is one of those terms which in some contexts generates more heat than light. If you search the internet for the term it’s likely that some of the first results you’ll find are extreme statements about the “heresy of kenosis.” Today I found one gem, for example, which claims that “The doctrinal heresy known as Kenoticism originated in the nineteenth century by the German theologians.”

Kenosis, however, is neither heretical nor German, and certainly did not arise in the nineteenth century, even though some nineteenth century German theologians may have formulated the idea in ways that others had not. Far from being an invention of modern Europe, kenosis has a long history in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a significant branch of the church that many moderns are frankly ignorant of (moderns often including myself). Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 012: Kenosis”

Nuts and Bolts 011: Ethical Intuitionism

G. E. MooreIn the “nuts and bolts” series, I explain and discuss some of the fundamental ideas in philosophy (and theology sometimes) that are taken for granted within the discipline, but which might not be very well known to ordinary human beings. This time the subject is ethical intuitionism (or moral intuitionism).

Firstly, and this cannot be emphasised strongly enough, moral intuitionism is not and has never been a theory about how moral facts are grounded. It is not a meta-ethical theory and it is not an ethical theory. It does not try to explain what makes anything right or wrong, nor does it try to tell us which particular actions are right and which are wrong. If you ever hear someone say “so your intuitions tell you that it’s wrong. That doesn’t make it wrong!” then you have my permission to do something unpleasant to them. Moral intuitionism is not meant to be about what makes things wrong – or right.

So if it’s not a theory of morality, what is it? Moral intuitionism is a moral epistemology. It is no more and no less than a theory about how we can come to know certain things, in this case certain moral facts. We can know them, according to this theory, by intuiting them, by experiencing the intuition that they are true. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 011: Ethical Intuitionism”

Nuts and Bolts 010: Theological Liberalism

I thought it was high time we had another “nuts and bolts” blog, part of a series where I unpack some of the basic terms and concepts used in either theology or philosophy. This time we’re in theological territory, looking at the question of what this thing called Liberal Theology (or “theological liberalism”) is.

As I’ve noted before when discussing the issue of inerrancy, Martin Luther said that the Bible made statements that weren’t correct about the number of people involved in battles. John Calvin said that the Bible made statements that weren’t correct about a bright star in the sky when Jesus was born. Charles Hodge* said that when it comes to truth and error, the Bible was like a marble building, where marble is truth and sand is not. Sure the building might contain the occasional speck of sand which isn’t marble, but we can still call it marble overall.

Now as I look around the world of conservative evangelicalism, I notice that nobody calls Luther, Calvin or Warfield a liberal (or at least, nobody that I am aware of). And yet for expressing this sort of thought about the Bible myself (namely that everything it teaches is true, but it contains incidental claims that are not factually correct), I’ve recently been called a theological liberal (albeit by a very small number of people whom I can count on the fingers one hand and still have a couple of fingers left over). Theological liberalism is the movement represented by the likes of John Shelby Spong, Lloyd Geering in New Zealand, or historically by folk like Rudolph Bultmann or Friedrich Schleiermacher. I wonder how these guys would feel at being lumped in with Calvin and Warfield?

Moving on to the issue of the afterlife, well known evangelical scholar John Stott claimed, on exegetical grounds, that the lost will one day be no more and that only those people who have eternal life in Christ will live forever. The same position was expressed by other evangelical authors like Michael Green, Philip Edgecumbe Hughes and John Wenham. The church father Arnobius of Sicca taught the same thing (this is just meant as a tiny list of examples).

And yet, for defending this same doctrine – on the basis of detailed exegesis of many parts of Scripture – I’ve been dubbed by one or two people in recent times a theological liberal. I wonder how John Spong would feel being told that he was in the same camp as John Stott!

Of course as many readers will see right away, something has gone askew here. All of this is just a case of confusion. Unfortunately there’s a tendency for some evangelicals (although fortunately not the majority) to think that their stance on any theological issue is the default conservative one (naturally!), and that if a person doesn’t hold their view then they must (obviously) hold a view that makes them a liberal. What’s on display when this happens is actually just historical ignorance of what theological liberalism actually is, combined with confusion over the difference between erroneous beliefs and a theologically liberal stance. As I said when I started the “nuts and bolts” series, rather than just getting frustrated at ignorance, it’s better to become part of the solution. So today I’ll be answering the questions: what is theological liberalism, and how is it distinguished from say, error or heresy? Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 010: Theological Liberalism”

Nuts and Bolts 009: Validity and Soundness

“You make a valid point.” Have you ever heard anyone say this? When people say this they probably mean something like “you make a good point,” but when you enter the world of philosophy, you realise that the word “valid” is reserved for a different purpose. Similarly, in everyday speech when someone says “He has convinced me, because he made a valid argument,” they probably mean that someone has made a convincing argument. But in logic, the fact that an argument is valid certainly doesn’t indicate that it’s persuasive – or even good. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 009: Validity and Soundness”

Nuts and Bolts 008: Nominalism

In the “nuts and bolts” series, I explain and discuss some of the fundamental ideas in philosophy (and theology sometimes) that are taken for granted within the discipline, but which might not be very well known to ordinary human beings. This time the subject is nominalism.

Do tables exist? Do all red apples (assuming that apples exist) have something called “redness” in common? These might strike most people as pretty weird questions, but questions like these are at the heart of the distinction between realism and nominalism. They’re both ways of addressing the problem of universals. We classify things all the time; as circular, as yellow, as an elephant, as a mountain, as a snail, as wooden, as evil, and so on. Nominalism and realism are alternative ways of thinking about what we’re actually doing when we classify things this way. I’m going to be zooming in on nominalism here, but I’ll be simplifying heavily in the spirit of only attempting to provide the nuts and bolts, without going into a whole lot of depth. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 008: Nominalism”

Nuts and Bolts 007: The King James Only Movement

I recently had an encounter that reminded me of the existence of the “King James Only” movement. Spend a few years intently engaged in serious scholarship in theology and biblical studies, and you could easily forget that the movement is even there, because it’s a movement that is not relevant to such study. You’ll never see a reference to the movement or any contributions from it – but it’s there, and now in the age of the internet it has an audience like never before.

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