argue

Thoughts on Charity and Argumentation

Argumentation is an unavoidable part of apologetics, and, when doing apologetics, it’s crucial to note the difference between an argument in the everyday sense and an argument in the philosophical sense. While the former is a heated and aggressive clash of opinions, the latter is simply a set of statements that lead to a conclusion. Nonetheless, sometimes arguments of the first sort occur over arguments of the second sort. There are a number of reasons why these clashes take place, one of which is this: often apologists and sceptics alike fail to treat their interlocuter’s arguments, ideas, and opinions with charity. Conflict may be avoided if each party is guided by the “principle of charity”.

What is the principle of charity?

In a nutshell, the principle of charity is a principle that (ideally) guides philosophical dialogue, and, by extension, apologetic endeavours. It states that, when representing an argument or idea that you don’t agree with and are evaluating, you should represent that it in (i) the strongest form possible, and (ii) a way that is faithful to the argument/idea as originally presented. Here’s an everyday example of an uncharitable representation:

Sam: “Mum, I feel sick and I don’t like to eat junk food when I’m sick, so I think we should eat at home tonight” (said no child ever).

Sally: “Mum, Sam always feels sick, and besides, he won’t die from having KFC this once. I’ve been wanting it for weeks, so let’s eat out”.

Notice how Sally misrepresented Sam’s argument, then countered that misrepresentation with her own reason for the opposite course of action. Sam never said he’d die if he ate out—that’s an unfair caricature of his statement. Unfortunately, this sort of distortion occurs in serious dialogue as well, but more on that later. A more charitable conversation might run like this:

Sam: “Mum, I feel sick and I don’t like to eat junk food when I’m sick, so I think we should eat at home tonight”.

Sally: “Mum, it’s true that Sam is feeling sick and that he doesn’t like junk food when he’s ill. But he’s feeling sick because he hasn’t eaten all day, and since we’re out already, he’ll feel better sooner if we get some sushi before going home”.

In which of these examples is Sally’s case strongest? Granted, these examples are somewhat corny, but they illustrate well the difference between charitable and uncharitable representations of arguments.

Why be charitable?

Now, one might ask, why be charitable? Well, there are a number of reasons to do so. Firstly, as we noted earlier, treating peoples’ ideas and arguments charitably helps to avoid unnecessary conflict. No one likes to be misrepresented!  Secondly, as apologists, 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to be respectful in our interactions with non-believers. Peter writes “in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience” (ESV, emphasis added). Respecting non-believers entails representing their views accurately and charitably. Remember, as apologists we’re not dealing solely with ideas and concepts—our goal is to win people to Christ, and uncharitable refutations are unlikely to direct people to Him. By being respectful and charitable with people’s arguments and opinions, we better represent God’s character and His work in our lives.

A third reason to treat others’ arguments charitably is this: if you represent the strongest form of an opponent’s argument, and then refute that, your own case is strengthened. Think about it for a moment; suppose you’re in conversation with someone who raises a number of arguments against God’s existence. In response, you misrepresent his or her arguments and refute them. When responding, your interlocuter can simply reply “that’s not actually what I think, so my arguments still stand”. As such, their case remains untouched, while yours struggles under the weight of their objections. In contrast, if, when they present their arguments, you take the time to properly understand what they’re stating and to present those arguments in their strongest form, your refutation will strengthen your case, while simultaneously weakening your opponent’s.

Attacking a Straw Man

The principle of charity is closely tied to a logical misstep known as the “strawman” fallacy. The strawman fallacy occurs when someone intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents an argument, refutes the misrepresentation, then proceeds as though the original argument has been dealt with. When people do this, they can be said to have “attacked a straw man”. Sadly, this fallacy crops up (pun intended) all the time in news reports, blogs, books, opinion pieces, and the like. One example I recently stumbled across can be found in Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists.

The prominent sceptic Michael Shermer introduces Boghossian’s book with a fleeting but fiery foreword. In assessing the claims of Christianity, Shermer describes the Trinity as follows:

God could just forgive the sin we never committed, but instead he sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually just himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one god—that’s what monotheism means—of which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just different manifestations. Three in One and One in Three[i].

If you’ve done any study on the doctrine of the Trinity, you’ll see the problems immediately. Shermer has uncharitably misstated the doctrine, thereby making it seem absurd. This leads him to conclude that the doctrine is “barking mad!”[ii]. For the sake of brevity I won’t outline Trinitarian doctrine here, but if you’re baffled and can’t spot Shermer’s error, I’ll leave links to helpful resources in the endnotes[iii].

In response to Shermer’s attack, the Christian can respond “wait a second—that’s not what I believe!”. Shermer has attacked a straw man, and has failed to truly show that the Trinity is absurd. If, on the other hand, he had charitably represented the doctrine and responsibly responded to that, then he and his conversant could have a productive discussion, and perhaps one or both of the parties would adjust their view accordingly.

The Importance of Charity

Hopefully you can now see how important it is to be charitable in representing other peoples’ arguments, opinions, and ideas. Next time you’re interacting with non-believers, keep in mind the benefits of being guided by the principle of charity:

  1. The principle of charity helps avoid unnecessary conflict.
  2. 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to be respectful when doing apologetics. This entails being charitable.
  3. Your own case will be strengthened if you refute a charitable representation of your opponent’s argument.
  4. If you treat others’ ideas and arguments charitably, you’ll avoid committing the strawman fallacy.

Remember, apologetics is about winning people to Christ, not just scoring debate points or winning arguments. This task is best carried out gently, respectfully, and charitably.


Endnotes

[i] Boghossian, P. (2013). A manual for creating atheists, p. 12. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] For information on the doctrine of the Trinity, I recommend Greg Koukl’s two part series “The Trinity: A Solution, Not a Problem” which can be found here (pt. 1) and here (pt. 2). For a more in-depth study, try William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcasts, available here.

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A mid-week meditation

A thought to think.

The Bible, the norming norm of God, tells us that man is:

  1. Dead in his sins
  2. Filled with hatred for God
  3. Void of righteousness
  4. Destined for wrath

Even when we look deep down for the good that pop culture tells us is definitely there, we find filth all the way (if we are honest).

Our hearts are deceitful, our wills are enslaved, our affections perverted. The damage of the Fall is total – infiltrating and corrupting every part of what makes us human. But what of our minds? Yep. They are messed up too.

Dissenter (potentially played by you): Hold up. I thought this was an apologetics website? Thanks for the theological dissertation but what has this got to do with defending the faith?

Me: Everything (emphasis included).

Sin is not concerned with borders – geographical, physiological and metaphysical boundaries will not prevent it from pillaging all it touches. Our minds are no exception. Rather than unique compartments, all of our faculties are to work together. And all of these faculties have been dramatically altered by a dark descent.

When we attempt to convince non-believers of the truth claims of Christianity and stand confounded as they refuse to believe, it can become far too easy to attribute this either to a lack of consistent education on their part, or a lack of clarity on ours. Never does it cross our minds that the human mind has been mangled – in one sense, it operates as designed and on the other, joyful suppression and consistent inconsistency abound.

A thought to think – sinners hate God. They don’t know Him, nor do they want to. A thousand and one foolproof points will not change the fool.  New hearts, not new arguments, are the goal.

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Fool’s Gold

This is a guest post by Lachlan Gordon, one of our newest writers at TM.


The Psalmist reports the fool saying there is no God. The Atheist, meanwhile, declares the Christian the fool. Who, then, is the fool?

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was, according to Voltaire, the ‘father’ of the scientific method – the method of modern science. In observing the order in the universe Bacon wrote, ‘I had rather believe all the fables…then that this universal frame is without a mind.’ He also wrote that ‘God never wrought miracle[s] to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it.’ For Bacon that God existed was a self-evident fact. To this Isaac Newton (1642-1726), the founder of classical physics, adds that, ‘this most beautiful system of the sun, planet and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.’ He also stated that, if nothing else, the thumb alone would convince him of God’s existence.

Both Bacon and Newton believed in a rational god: because God was rational so to was his creation. And because a rational creation is coherent it can be studied. Scientists like Bacon and Newton did what they did precisely because of their belief in God, not in spite of it. In the case of Michael Faraday (1791-1897) is was because of his particular theology that lead to his discovery of electromagnetic induction – a discovery that lead to the development of the electric motor. Faraday was a devout Christian, and a member of a small (Presbyterian) sect known as the Sandemanians, who believed that because God created the world then everything must be interconnected. Faraday had been given an apparatus consisting of a magnet and a wire. When the wire was dangled over the magnet and had an electric current applied to it, the wire rotated around the magnet as if carried by an invisible wind. Faraday applied his theology to this phenomena and imagined an invisible force (the interconnection of electricity and magnetism) swirling around the magnet, and discovered the magnetic field. Richard Dawkins, the notorious atheist, has stated that he is against religion because ‘it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.’ Dawkins’ premise is rebutted by the scientists mentioned above, all of whom believed in God, and yet made very important scientific discoveries.

It may be that Christians are indeed foolish, but if that is the case then there have been some very intelligent fools.

Further Reading : Francis Bacon, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/ scholarsandscientists/francis-bacon.html . Isaac Newton, http://www.christianitytoday.com/
history/issues/issue-30/faith-behind-famous-isaac-newton.html
. Michael Faraday, http://
www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-genius-and-faith-of-faraday-and-maxwell
.

Earth View From Sapce And Black Background

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

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The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. In Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. The objective of this week’s post is to examine the scientific data relevant to the question, and to demonstrate that the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being.


Defining the Pro-life Position

Before delving into the question of the nature of the unborn, let’s define two key terms: “abortion”, and “human being”. Abortion is the intentional killing of a human foetus[i], while a human being is a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens. Typically, ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that the unborn, though a human being in the biological sense, lacks some further property or capacity which grants them personhood. Such arguments will be considered in future posts; this post will deal solely with scientific evidence.

The pro-life position can be clearly and concisely laid out as follows:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Over the course of this series we’ll examine the premises of this argument, and I’ll offer a defence of each by appealing to science and philosophy.


The Scientific Case[ii]

Now we come to the question outlined in Part 1: what is the unborn? Upon reflection, there seem to be two options. Firstly, the unborn could be a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens from the moment of conception; that is, a human being. Alternatively, it could be some other kind of entity that becomes a human being at birth or at some other stage during pregnancy. Obvious candidates for this kind of entity include (1) a mere clump of cells that do not function in a coordinated manner, (2) a living but non-human being, or (3) a part of the woman’s body. The following paragraphs will outline several scientific facts that undermine these three options and demonstrate that the unborn is a human being.

  • The unborn is alive

A common misconception regarding abortion is that no one knows when life begins. Insofar as one uses “life” in the biological sense, this is demonstrably false. Although there is some debate among biologists as to how to define life precisely, there exist several criteria which, if fulfilled, most scientists agree indicate that an organism is living. Intriguingly, the unborn entity fulfils those criteria from the moment of conception, and thus we can infer that human life begins at conception. These criteria are, minimally, threefold: an entity must be able to convert food to energy (metabolism), react to stimuli, and must be capable of cellular reproduction (growth)[iii]. The unborn, from the moment of conception, performs all three of these functions. Therefore, the unborn is alive.   

An additional consideration which lends support to the view that the unborn is alive is this: abortion kills something. Of course, everyone knows that an organism that has been killed must have been alive prior to its death. In other words, it’s impossible to kill something that isn’t alive. With these considerations in mind, it’s evident that the unborn is a living entity.

  • The unborn is biologically unique

When sperm and egg unite during fertilisation, each contribute twenty-three chromosomes to the formation of the new being. These chromosomes contain the genetic material that guides and directs its development over the course of its life, and they are relevant because they distinguish the unborn from every other cell in the mother’s body. While all the mother’s cells contain the forty-six chromosomes that she received at fertilisation, the cells of the unborn contain forty-six of its own distinct chromosomes. The unborn’s chromosomes consist of a unique combination of the mother’s and father’s chromosomal sequences. Since every cell in the mother’s body contains her unique chromosomal structure, and every cell in the unborn child’s body contains its unique chromosomal structure, the unborn is a distinct being; it is not merely a part of the woman’s body.

  • The unborn has the genetic constitution of a human being

In addition to having its own chromosomal makeup, the unborn has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings. Each of the unborn’s chromosomes contains a DNA molecule, which includes sequences called genes. These sequences make up the genome, which is a set of instructions for constructing an organism. Different types of organisms have different genomes, and thus it is possible to determine the type of being an organism is by examining its genome. Upon examination, it becomes clear that “the conceptus [unborn] is a new, although tiny, individual with a human genetic code”[iv].

  • The unborn functions as a whole

Another relevant fact is that the unborn, from conception, is a whole organism that directs its own internal growth and maturation. Unlike a dead body, which contains living cells but is unable to function as a coordinated whole, the unborn “is a whole organism, with certain capacities, powers, and properties, whose parts work in concert to bring the whole to maturity… the early embryo… behaves like a single organism with an intrinsic goal-directedness for which its cellular parts interact and communicate”[v]. There are several reasons to think this is the case, one of which is the fact that the embryo forms a natural protective coating for its own benefit and use prior to implantation. This coating, known as a zona pellucida, is not the mother’s organ, nor is it a tumour or some third organism[vi]. Rather, it is an organ of the embryo. Activities such as this, in which cells coordinate to produce organs for the benefit of the whole, are characteristic of whole organisms.


Drawing Conclusions

Now that the relevant facts have been outlined, all that remains is to see how they support or undermine the various answers offered as to the nature of the unborn. To recap, the unborn could be:

  1. A part of the woman’s body.
  2. A mere clump of cells that lacks the ability to function as a whole.
  3. A living non-human being, e.g. canine, bovine.
  4. A distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens.

This list is meant only to include the most common suggestions; it is not exhaustive.

Let’s begin by considering whether the unborn could be a part of the woman’s body. Upon first impression, the fact that the unborn is located within the woman’s body does provide some reason to think that it could be her body, or, rather, a part of it. Just as other internal organs, such as her heart and lungs, are both within and part of her body, the unborn could also be part of her body.

However, the fact that the unborn has a unique chromosomal structure from the moment of conception rules this option out. We know that if a cell is part of a woman’s body, then it will have the same chromosomes as every other cell in her body. Since the unborn does not have the same chromosomes, we can conclude that it’s not part of her body.

Alternatively, could the unborn be a mere clump of cells that lack the ability to function as a whole? A shaving of skin cells contains living human cells, but it would be a mistake to think that therefore those cells are a living human being. Similarly, it could be the case that the unborn is a clump of cells that doesn’t qualify as a human being.

Once again there are good grounds for rejecting this suggestion; namely the observation that the unborn, from conception, directs its own internal growth and maturation. In the words of Christopher Kaczor, “the human embryo is a whole, complete organism, a living individual human being whose cells work together in a coordinated effort of self-development towards maturity”[vii]. This observation demonstrates that the unborn is utterly unlike a shaving of skin cells.

Thirdly, it could be the case that the unborn is a living non-human being. There are innumerable other living organisms besides Homo sapiens, and given this, it may at face value seem reasonable to take this position. However, the genetic constitution of the unborn is conclusive evidence against this. If an entity has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, then it is a human being. The unborn has said genetic constitution, and therefore the unborn is not only a living being, but a living human being.

Of the offered alternatives, this leaves only one: the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being. We know the unborn is alive, as it fulfils the biological criteria for life. We know the unborn is a distinct entity because it has a unique chromosomal makeup. We know the unborn is human because it has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, and we know the unborn is a whole entity, as it directs its own internal growth and maturation. Hence, pro-choice advocate Peter Singer writes “there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being”[viii].

What is the unborn? It is a distinct, living, and whole human being. 

 


 

Citations:

[i] The Clarkson Academy. (2015, November 27). The ethics of abortion part 1 – Scott Klusendorf at The Clarkson Academy (session 1). [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mG6zulqxzlw&t=645s

[ii] I’m indebted to Zachary Arden for his help in writing this section; many thanks!

[iii] Klusendorf, S. (2009). The case for life: Equipping Christians to engage the culture, p. 37. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 67. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Benedict, A. & Moraczewski, A. (n.d.). Is the biological subject of human rights present from conception. The Fetal Tissue Issue: 33-60. As cited in Beckwith, F. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 80.

[vii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 113.

[viii] Singer, P. (2000). Writings on an ethical life. New York: Ecco Press, p. 127, as cited in Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 7.

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Fake News versus Good News

The best way to start this article is probably with an astonishing claim somehow related to political figures currently popular with the media – perhaps a new Russian edition of The Apprentice involving selling off former Soviet military, hosted by a Trump lookalike … But we’re all used to fake news and clickbait, and we actually need something better.

In a world with climate change, homelessness, disaster, politics, and the seemingly endless deaths of celebrities – and normal people – many are looking for good news. Some will go to the internet looking for it, and most will then, eventually, discover that a lot of the ‘news’ available is fake.

Followers of Jesus claim that he offers good news. But the internet, and the world around us, offer a multitude of claims, and many are false. Perhaps the majority of claims on the internet are false, or at least misleading. Living in an information age, we need a good filter to find the reliable information, and we either learn to be sceptical quickly or start believing a lot of nonsense. The central claims of the Christian faith are bits of information in a huge biosphere of alternatives. How to find the golden thread of truth amidst the blonde toupees of falsehood?

Two key steps in practice, I think, are to find sources we can generally trust, and set aside sources that are not trustworthy. So, tackling the challenge head on, what kind of news can we not trust? The main thing here is perhaps to try to weed out sources that are heavily motivated by something other than truth. They might still be true, but sources not typically directed towards the truth undercut the rational basis for holding what they say to be true. Fake news has a motivation of some kind, in our era often to do with money or political control. Sources that are never self-critical or open about their flaws are also suspect. Sources that limit the important claims to things that can’t be checked also raise questions. But, doesn’t everyone have selfish motives in some sense? Who can we trust? The scientific community, CNN, and the New York Times, are popular sources for many of the educated and thoughtful in our society. The feeling is that they’re rational, progressive, and open to new ideas, while also solid and reliable. Whatever you think of these particular sources, these organisations have huge communication power because they are trusted by hundreds of millions.

How does the Christian claim to be offering good news stand up in light of the two key steps? Christian claims are centrally claims about Jesus, a historical figure, so to make sense of it we need to zoom back to the early Church. I’ll leave you to do the research, you can check out many of the facts on this site. I believe that the early Christians were not motivated by money or power, as they gained neither, and exchanged what they had, including secure conservative religious beliefs (they weren’t motivated by, say,  fear of death), for risk and discomfort. They also make claims open to public examination, and the accounts are down to earth and honest about suffering and human failure. The central claims, unlike most worldviews, are about public reality, not private inner experience or an idealised future state. Jesus lived a human life, died a shockingly human death, and rose from the dead publicly. The claims lack features which fake news tends to have. Christian faith is also open to new information – the Spirit is still active, and, while it’s 500 years since the remarkable Protestant Reformation ‘officially’ began, the community of Jesus followers should be always reforming. Christianity, unlike ethically arid secular worldviews, provides a moral imperative for social progress, but the desire is grounded in an unchanging reality and a realism about human wilful brokenness and fallibility.

We’ve touched on two key steps, but there’s a third that probably should be added too. This is what I’ll grandly call the wisdom criterion. It goes something like this: “how important is this topic, anyway?” Most of the news swirling around crying out for attention can safely be set aside because it simply doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. Time is limited, and the opportunities in life are great for those who will take them. Jesus, as recounted by the redeemed formerly broken tax collector Matthew told a confronting story about ‘talents’, silver coins, left behind by their owner to be invested. We’ve all been given some.

New information will pop up on your Facebook feed or homepage any minute now. Is it important? Is it well-motivated? Is it up for public scrutiny or an implausible claim to secret knowledge? No matter how cynical, I think we’re all looking for good news – Jesus offers it, reliably.

difficult-questions

So you think I’m going to hell?

In our conversations with others about God – we will eventually encounter difficult questions like these:

“So you think I’m going to hell?”

“Do you think everyone who doesn’t believe like you are going to hell?”

“But why do I need Jesus?”

How do we answer such a pointed questions without sounding judgemental and bigoted?

Rather than being caught out – these questions are actually wonderful opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Check out this short clip where Greg Koukl outlines a tactical and gracious way you can answer these questions so you’re not caught out:

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The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 1)

In 2015, 13,155 abortions were performed in New Zealand[i]. Those figures account for 18 percent of pregnancies during that year, and, depending on one’s stance on abortion, represent either women’s rights to reproductive choice or a tragic loss of valuable human life. As a Christian, I’ve always adhered to the pro-life position, but it wasn’t until I was recently challenged in a discussion that I began to look into the philosophical and scientific facts regarding abortion. I was somewhat surprised to discover that, contrary to the impression given by the media, the pro-life case is strong, appealing to the best knowledge we have regarding embryology, and undergirded by sound philosophical reasoning. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to present what I believe to be a sound case against abortion by appealing to science and philosophy. Of course, one could offer a theological case, but since many people don’t believe in Scripture, it seems evident that the pro-life cause will be better served by appealing to facts that are held in common by both religious and non-religious persons. I’ll present the case over several posts, so be sure to check in regularly for more content.


Simplifying the Debate:

The first step towards productive discussions about abortion is to simplify the debate. Much public dispute stems from abortion’s apparent complexity. Often in conversations concerning abortion one or more parties will exclaim, “well, it’s a complicated issue”. On one hand, it’s easy to understand why this attitude prevails when one considers the plethora of issues that confront both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. For those unfamiliar with abortion terminology, “pro-choice” typically refers to those who are in favour of abortion, while “pro-life” refers to those who stand against it. A keyword search on stuff.co.nz reveals recent articles dealing with protests, demonstrations, parental consent, teen abortions, counselling and advice, secret abortion clinics and clandestine procedures, not to mention abortion laws and women’s rights. Taking all of this into account seems like an insurmountable task, and even if one could, making the opposing parties to see eye to eye seems equally if not more difficult. However, appearances can be deceiving. Although there are numerous issues surrounding abortion that warrant consideration, the moral issue rests predominantly on one question: what is the unborn?

Greg Koukl offers a helpful illustration to clarify this point[ii]. Imagine you are standing at your sink, scraping the remains of dinner from a stack of dirty plates and preparing to wash the dishes. Your 5-year old son enters the kitchen while your back is turned, and asks “Mum (or Dad), can I kill this?”. What’s the first thing you’ll say in response? “Sure, have at it”, or “No, leave it alone”? No—before you can answer the question directly, it’s necessary to determine what the thing in question is. If it’s a cockroach or spider, perhaps you’ll say yes. If it’s a cat or a dog, obviously not. If it’s a sibling or friend, definitely and unequivocally not.

Similarly, when we ask the question “can we abort the unborn?” we must first determine what the unborn is. If it is merely a clump of cells, then killing and removing said cells from the mother’s body is morally unproblematic. Just as one might remove a tumour or appendix without moral quandary, so one may expel the unborn. However, if the unborn is a human being who possesses a fundamental right to life, then abortion becomes, at face value, an egregious moral evil. As Christopher Kaczor writes, “If… [the unborn] is an innocent person, a being with a right to life, then having an abortion would seem to be wrong, for the right to life of one person entails the duty of others not to intentionally kill him or her”[iii]. To put it simply, if the unborn are human persons, abortion is most likely wrong. However, if they are not, abortion is morally unproblematic.


Begging the Question:

When approached from this angle, it becomes clear that some pro-choice arguments implicitly beg the question. In philosophy, to “beg the question” means to assume what one is meant to be proving. In this instance, the following arguments assume that the unborn are not human persons rather than proving it. I’ll deal with these in more detail in future posts, but consider the following examples:

  1. It’s okay to oppose abortion personally, but we shouldn’t force our views on others.
  2. If abortion is made illegal, women will be forced to get dangerous illegal abortions.

Regarding the first argument, no one would defend the view that although they’re personally against killing toddlers, they don’t want to force their views on others. If killing toddlers is truly wrong, then no one should be allowed to do so, even if they don’t think that it’s wrong. In the same way, if aborting unborn human persons is truly wrong, then no one should be allowed to do so (except perhaps in exceptional circumstances). So why is this argument sometimes offered in defence of killing the unborn? Because it is assumed that there is a fundamental difference between the unborn and the toddler, namely, that the unborn is not a human person. However, this is the very question that must be answered before drawing conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of abortion.

As for the second objection, it also assumes that the unborn are not human. Otherwise, as Scott Klusendorf aptly discerns, the advocate of abortion would be claiming that “because some people will die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so”[iv]. Such moral reasoning is clearly absurd. If, however, we assume that the unborn are not human, then the objection merely claims that because some people will die attempting to rid themselves of a non-human entity known as a foetus, the state should make it safe and legal to do so. This makes far more sense, but is based on a very contentious assumption. These two examples of question-begging arguments underscore the importance of determining what the unborn is before deciding whether or not it can be killed.


Note that so far no case has been offered to show that the unborn actually are human beings with a right to life. In this post, my aim has been only to sharpen our focus and tease out the underlying question that should play a significant role in determining one’s stance on this issue; namely, what is the unborn? Perhaps the unborn are not, in fact, human beings, and can therefore be killed without wrongdoing. We’ll take up that question in future posts.

 


 

Citations:

[i] Abortion statistics: Year ended December 2015. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/health/abortion/AbortionStatistics_HOTPYeDec15.aspx

[ii] Koukl, G., Klusendorf, S. (2006). Making abortion unthinkable. [MP3]. California, CA: Stand to Reason.

[iii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: Women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

[iv] Klusendorf, S. (2009). The case for life: Equipping Christians to engage the culture, p. 23. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.

Homosexuality and the Christian

Review: Homosexuality and the Christian

Homosexuality is undoubtedly one of the most controversial issues that the modern church faces, and contention exists on several planes for the twenty-first century Christian. Theologically, an increasing number of believers are questioning the stance that the church has historically taken, namely that homosexual behaviour is outside the bounds of what God intended for human sexuality. Socially, there is increasing pressure on believers to reject that stance, while practically, many Christians are uncertain how to respond to friends and family who reveal same-sex attractions. Mark Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends, sets out to address a number of questions regarding homosexuality, drawing upon the author’s experience as a psychologist, counsellor, and Christian to offer a wealth of wisdom.

The primary purposes of the book are, firstly, to honestly answer difficult questions regarding homosexuality, and, secondly, to stimulate conversation among Christians and suggest new ways of thinking, with the intent of better supporting same-sex attracted Christians. The book is predominantly targeted at Christians who either experience same-sex attraction, or are unsure of how to support others who do. However, a non-believer seeking to better understand the traditional Christian perspective on homosexuality would certainly benefit by reading and reflecting on the content.

It’s important to note that Yarhouse’s suggested changes in thinking don’t constitute an alternative morality that stands in opposition to biblical sexuality. Rather, what he suggests is a shift of emphasis from questions of causation and orientation-change to those of sexual and religious identity. Much of what Yarhouse suggests is based on his exposition of sexual identity, which I’ll unpack in the paragraphs below.

Homosexuality and the Christian is divided into three parts. Part One: The Big Picture, addresses questions such as “What does God think about homosexuality?”, “What causes homosexuality?” and “Is it possible to change sexual orientation?”. To answer such questions, Yarhouse draws from scripture, church tradition, and science and reason. Summarising and critiquing a number of major academic studies, he distils an immense quantity of information in such a way that it is easy to understand, even for those with no familiarity with the topic. He then brings together the threads of those studies to draw modest, reasonable conclusions.

In Part One Yarhouse also underlines the role and significance of sexual identity. Sexual identity, he writes, is how an individual labels themselves regarding their sexual preferences. A number of factors contribute to the shaping of a person’s sexual identity, including one’s sexual attractions and the beliefs and values that one holds regarding sexual attractions and behaviours. What he suggests is that, rather than focussing on the causes of sexuality and whether sexual orientation can change, Christians should consider the role that sexual identity plays in a person’s experience of same-sex attraction. Instead of crafting their identity around their sexual attractions, we should encourage believers to found their identity in Christ. This principle holds not just for Christians who experience same-sex attraction, but Christians in general.

Part Two: Honest Answers to Questions Facing Families, offers practical advice to families in which a member has revealed same-sex attraction. Yarhouse deals specifically with situations when a teen, adult child, and spouse announce same-sex attractions or orientations. His tone is gentle and compassionate throughout, and he emphasises the reality and significance of these situations by sharing stories of families and individuals he has counselled. Those stories underscore the fact that real people are dealing with these issues, and they should be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness, regardless of what conclusions they ultimately reach.

Part Three: Questions for the Church, challenges the church to adjust its thinking and to treat same-sex attracted individuals with respect and compassion. Yarhouse contends that this can be accomplished while also remaining faithful to the traditional view of sexuality. He also makes suggestions as to how the church can better respond to people who struggle with same-sex attraction over a long period of time. Part Three had the most impact on my own thinking; in particular, chapter eight, titled “Whose People Are We Talking About?”.

In chapter eight, Yarhouse speaks of how the Church, for the most part, does not treat believers who experience same-sex attraction as our people. He writes:

I don’t think Christians who are sexual minorities feel like they are part of “us”… [that is,] part of the Christian community. They often play the same tape over and over in their heads: they don’t belong; they aren’t good enough; people would reject them if they knew what was really going on… Few churches reach out to the Christian who is a sexual minority. (p. 158)

As a solution, he suggests that we emphasise that their first and primary obligation is to God, just like every other believer. This ties in with his emphasis on identity, and how we should form our identity around Christ:

What the Christian community can offer the Christian sexual minority is a vision for what it means to be Christlike. That vision places the Christian sexual minority squarely in the middle of the Christian community. They become us. We are all supposed to be working toward… Christlikeness. (p. 165)

When we think of Christian sexual minorities in this way, we include them in a process that all Christians, regardless of sexuality and attractions, are a part of. By making the focus Christ-likeness, rather than a change of orientation, abstinence, or whatever else it might be, we can recognise that all Christians are aiming for the same goal.

In conclusion, Homosexuality and the Christian is a book well worth reading, both for Christians and non-believers who wish to better understand homosexuality and the appropriate Christian response. If you recall, Yarhouse’s purpose in the book is twofold, firstly to answer difficult questions that many people have about homosexuality, and, secondly, to stimulate conversation among Christians and suggest new ways of thinking. The book fulfils both purposes, all while treating the topic with sensitivity and candour. Those who are searching for a theological tome that delves into exegesis and analysis of scripture will need to look elsewhere. But, for those who simply want candid answers, practical advice, and stimulus for thought with straightforward practical application, look no further than this book.

blur-old-antique-book

Foundations for interpretation

bible-08Some of mankind’s most enduring questions have been those surrounding the topic of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. What is true knowledge? Where does it come from and how do we obtain it? Are some forms of knowledge more authoritative than others? 

Throughout history, man has sought to understand reality (ontology) and how we can know this is so (epistemology). From the pre-Socratics to their namesake, from Plato to his infamous student, Aristotle, from Kant to Nietzsche – a major part of Western philosophy has been the question of, “How can we know what there is to know?” As we will see below, Christianity is no different.

A  primer in Christian epistemology

A distinctly Christian epistemology is grounded in revelation – God stopping down to our level to communicate truth to us. While modern philosophy believes that man possesses all that he needs (his autonomous reason) to scale the summit of reality, Christianity is a little more pessimistic about man’s ability to reason their way to Knowledge. Due to the noetic effects of sin, we are prone to bias and hubris in our philosophical pursuits. At risk of oversimplifying – we need a helping hand in our epistemology.

In Christian theology, there is a distinction between God’s two books –  general and special revelation. General revelation is the truth of God as revealed in creation and providence – his existence, wisdom, power, goodness, and righteousness perceived through the things around us (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p41). All man has access to this level of truth through a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. What we choose to do with these truths – suppress or embrace – is an entirely different matter.

Special revelation, or God’s second book, is his authoritative written Word as found in the Bible. This provides particular knowledge about God, salvation and the human condition that we attain through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, correcting our systematic distortion of general revelation at the same time (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p40).

An important question then arises – how do we, as fallible human beings, faithfully interpret what God is communicating to us through his Word? If God’s general revelation can in some ways be interpreted through reason and the scientific method, how should Christians approach his covenantal Word? To our detriment, various philosophical trends have attempted to answer this question for us and we may not have even noticed.

Philosophy check

The development of postmodern thought in the 20th century has lead to a form of linguistic reductionism where words are removed from their context and given an entirely different meaning from that of the original author. Rather than the locus of meaning being found in the author’s intent, it is now found in the interpretation of the reader. “What does this text mean to you?” becomes an all-to-frequent question at Bible studies.

Christians are naturally affronted by this turn of events and seek to reclaim the meaning of the author for interpreting texts. The reaction to this postmodern hermeneutic is often not balanced – instead of reclaiming ground via a convincing interpretive framework, the reaction to this textual twisting is to force texts through a grid of literalism that the Bible does not require. Passages containing clear figurative language are interpreted literally and much confusion abounds.

Think about your own experience – we use turns of phrase and figures of speech constantly. Do we ever interpret these with the same degree of literalism that we enforce on Scripture?. A few examples will suffice:

  • “Are you getting cold feet?”
  • “I’ve been kept in the dark on that one”
  • “Speak of the devil”
  • “She has a bubbly personality”
  • “You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”
  • “He let the cat out of the bag”

Why would we demand a literal interpretation of all biblical texts, regardless of form, if we don’t do this in our everyday use of language?

A more holistic approach is required – one that takes into consideration the original languages, literary features, historical context, redemptive-historical context, and theological truths to name a few. The Bible is definitely more than a text to be critically interpreted, but it is no less than this and so we should seek to interpret faithfully and in a way that does honour to author and Author alike.