The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Richard Dawkins is Coming to New Zealand, and That’s Good News!

(From Canterbury Evangelism Network and Thinking Matters)

Who is Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science populariser. He is the former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He has written many books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and The God Delusion. He is a passionate rationalist who vigorously promotes science-based education, values and understanding. He is a staunch defender of atheism and a controversial critic of religious belief. He is well regarded by media and many academics as a top scientific thinker and a compelling public speaker.

Why is Richard Dawkins coming to New Zealand?

Dawkins is promoting his new book Science in the Soul in Auckland on May 10, 2018, and Christchurch on May 11, 2018. The book is a collection of 42 of his essays spanning three decades that proclaim the power and glory of science, the wonder of discovery, and the necessity of scientific thinking in diverse areas of society. He defends Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and the role of scientist as prophet. He responds to questions about whether science is itself a religion, the probability of alien life and the beauty and cruelty of life on Earth.

Why should the church be interested?

Dawkins has been identified as one of the New Atheists, a group that speaks critically against religion in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design and non-rational approaches to social policy. In The God Delusion, he argues that there is almost certainly no God and that religion is a delusion. He equates religious indoctrination of children with child abuse and offers the following description of God:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How is this “Good News”?

Dawkins has brought the discussion of religious belief back into the public arena and we can be grateful for that. No longer simply a “private faith”, Christians are being asked to think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it in light of his strong attacks on Christianity. St. Peter encourages Christians to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). The faith and witness of followers of Jesus Christ will grow and the Church will be strengthened when we seek answers and present them with humility and respect.

How should I think about the conflict of science vs. faith?

Is it always science or faith? Is it possible to be both? We enjoy many benefits that science has brought to our lives; modern medicine, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. We can find areas where we agree with Dawkins if we’re willing to listen carefully. We can learn to discern claims of verifiable facts from claims about the implications of those facts. Scientists, like all people, are just as susceptible to affirm or ignore evidence based on our view of the world. Remember that there are faithful, obedient Christians who believe in a young earth, an old earth and theistic evolution. Be gracious.

How can I engage my non-Christian friends and colleagues?

Pray to God with thankfulness. Dawkins’ visit is a gift that can open up conversations about Jesus. Listen carefully and genuinely seek to understand what others believe and why. Affirm areas of agreement with the Christian worldview. Resist a combative response, even if you feel defensive. If you don’t have solid answers to their questions, say so with humility. Offer to journey together to discover what is really true and whether it matters to our lives. Consider Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He quoted pagan philosophers and poets to build bridges that moved people towards Jesus. He ignored those who sneered at his faith and instead went with those who were genuinely interested in learning more. Get out there and do likewise. In addition, explore some of the articles on this website, you might find something that speaks to the subjects that either you or those you know struggle with.

How can I pray?

We urge you to pray for Richard Dawkins. This is an important opportunity. Instead of being prideful, defensive or argumentative, we can choose to bless him as one created in the image of God and to pray for his salvation and a destiny that he has yet to embrace. We would love to welcome him into God’s Kingdom here in New Zealand. We choose to pray for revelation of the living God. We choose to pray for dreams and visions of Christ to flow into his life. It has been prophesied that this city is a place where people will come and meet God and then take the good news back to the nations. It is in this spirit that we believe good things for Richard and want him to have the blessing of knowing Christ.

What a privilege to pray for a man God loves and wants to rescue and restore. God used Saul to become one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists. He can use Richard Dawkins the same way.

If you would like to share this information with your church, download the Richard Dawkins Brief in PDF, print copies to A4 and then cut them into A5 sized handouts.

How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 5)

Welcome back for Part 5 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i].


“Men don’t get pregnant, and therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a phrase sometimes used to silence men when speaking on abortion. To be candid, I’m surprised but pleased that this statement has yet to be directed at me. As with many popular arguments for abortion, it has some initial appeal. Nonetheless, when examined carefully, it proves to be significantly flawed in a number of ways. Before outlining two flaws lurking beneath the surface of this phrase, allow me to state the argument more clearly.


The Argument

Taken at face value, the statement “men don’t get pregnant, therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a poor argument, since the conclusion (abortion is a woman’s issue), doesn’t follow from the premise (men don’t get pregnant). In order to reach the desired conclusion, we must uncover and insert a couple of hidden premises. With some re-wording, we can state the argument as follows:

1: Men do not get pregnant.

2: Pregnancy is a necessary condition for having an abortion.

3: Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience.

Therefore,

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on abortion.

This, I believe, is the reasoning most people express when they argue that men shouldn’t have an opinion on abortion. A number of objections could be raised, but I’ll focus on two that are sufficient to defeat the argument.

  1. Gender is Irrelevant to Validity

Firstly, arguments don’t have genders—people do. When someone offers an argument for or against abortion, anyone who wishes to contest it needs to address the argument itself, not the person making it. This is because an argument’s validity does not depend on the presenter’s gender, nor any other attribute they may or may not possess. For example, imagine my wife were writing this article rather than me. Why should we think that the reasoning before you is sound when presented by her, but not when presented by me? Remember, in this hypothetical situation the content of the article and the arguments therein are identical. The answer: if the content of this article is sound, it’s sound regardless of whether my wife or I wrote it. In truth, a good argument is a good argument whether it’s presented by a man, a woman, a child, a Vulcan, or a talking lion (think Aslan). 

In philosophy, this type of move, when someone attacks the person presenting an argument rather than the argument itself, is known as the ad hominem fallacy. For example, if a smoker argued “smoking kills, so don’t smoke”, someone might reply “you’re just a hypocrite!” and disregard the argument. However, the fact that the smoker is a hypocrite has nothing to do with his reasoning—it’s true that smoking is bad for your health and often leads to death, and therefore if you wish to live a healthy life, you shouldn’t smoke. While it’s true that he’s a hypocrite, his reasoning is nonetheless sound. In the same way, when someone objects to a pro-life argument by saying “you’re a man!”, they are simply attacking the proponent of the argument rather than addressing the argument itself. It’s true that I’m a man, but that fact has no bearing on whether my arguments are sound. 

  1. A Problematic Premise

Although the first point is sufficient to defeat the argument in question, a pro-lifer might further buttress their case by making another point; namely, that premise 3 commits us to absurd notions, and therefore must be false. Premise 3 states that “Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience”. This, however, is clearly false. If it were true, then we’d have to conclude that women can’t have opinions on circumcision, or that no human being can have an opinion on the mistreatment of animals. In fact, if we were to be consistent in applying this premise, then, since no man can experience pregnancy, the conclusion would actually state:

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on pregnancy or abortion.

Clearly this conclusion is false, and, as such, we should reject premise 3. But, if we reject premise 3, then the argument collapses since the conclusion doesn’t follow from premises 1 and 2 alone.


With these two points in mind, it seems evident that men are entitled to have an opinion on abortion—whether that be for or against. In fact, when you think about it, abortion isn’t solely a woman’s issue. Every unborn child has a father, and it’s often men who contribute to child-rearing when a woman chooses not to abort. We might say, then, that abortion is ultimately a human issue. This is not to belittle the undeniably profound role that women play in bearing children through pregnancy and in raising them, but it is to say that we shouldn’t forget or marginalise the part that men should and do play. I may be preaching to the choir, but I encourage you, the reader, to carefully reflect upon the ethics of abortion and form an educated opinion— regardless of your gender.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Thoughts on the possible timeframes of hell…

When writing my previous blog post on the question, “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” I was aware that there would be more I would have to write on this topic in the future. It’s an incredibly tough subject and one I am not at all comfortable with and more a theological question than an apologetic one.

The associated question: “Why doesn’t God annihilate unbelievers at death?” is one I have often pondered. It is a question that requires in-depth biblical exegesis. However, I believe we can look at Scripture as a starting point of reference to at least begin to formulate an answer.

In this post I offer a some guidelines we can use when searching for the answers to this important question and others like it. In the footnotes, I will also give some follow up links for further study of the topic. 

 

Whichever doctrinal line we decide to ascribe to we need to remember that the authority of the Holy Scriptures are both our starting point and reference for any study on the topic and we should not interpret them according to what we want to find. It is too easy to find a verse or two that could be interpreted in the way that makes us more comfortable, rather than objectively looking at what the verse actually says in both it’s historical, grammatical and contextual state of being.

We also need to acknowledge that until we personally step into eternity ourselves we can only interpret what may be the answer where there are not definitive supporting scriptures.

To begin let us look at the two predominant thoughts about hell. Whether it is an eternal punishment or if it has an end point culminating in the complete annihilation of an unbeliever’s soul. 

There are many Scriptures that point to the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers, but there are also some Scriptures that seem to allude to a possible post-punishment termination point. 

The following is a small list of Scriptures often used to support a post-death annihilation of unbelievers (I have underlined the words pointing to these thoughts):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.” Matthew 7:13

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the Glory of His might,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (This verse is also used in support of an eternal torment).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” John 17:12

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –“ Romans 9:22-23

“and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” Philippians 1:28

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Hebrews 10:39

Although Matthew 10:28 appears convincing, I find these Scriptures unhelpful, as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally’; it again comes down to context and interpretation that warrant further study.

The following are verses that speak of an eternal punishment:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. “ Matthew 18:8

“The he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 45-46

“….where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:44-48

“..and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:29

“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Neither of these lists are exhaustive[1], yet as much as I would prefer annihilation to be the answer for those who choose Hell, I personally cannot find indisputable evidence in Scripture that this will be the case.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? Randy Alcorn[2]

We can and should continue to study this topic and there is a wealth of opinion, both scholarly and otherwise, out there to read and meditate through.[3] In the meantime, the reality of there being a hell – eternal or finite – should move us to do all we can to ensure that we get the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. We need to be careful that our study does not distract from the Great Commission. As I stated earlier we may only find clear answers to some of these difficult questions when we step into eternity ourselves.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12 ESV

Let us focus on the call God has placed upon all of us through Jesus and be inspired to action by Spurgeon, who said:

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay…If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[4]

We cannot allow our ‘feelings’ about the horror of hell and our very human desire for it to be a false doctrine paralyse, us into doing nothing. Let us err on the side of Hope and work hard to do all we can to stop the flow into hell whilst we continue the search for answers.

[1] For more Scriptures that support eternal punishment read: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/ten-foundational-verses-for-eternal-punishment-in-hell/

[2] https://www.epm.org/resources/2014/Jun/18/will-unbelievers-be-annihilated/ This is an excerpt from Randy Alcon’s book  If God Is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

[3] I suggest reading through some of the following Q & A’s by Dr William Lane Craig: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/bradley-on-hell – particularly Point 3. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/do-the-damned-in-hell-accrue-further-punishment

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0349.htm, as quoted in Randy Alcorns book If God is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

 

 

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 4)

Welcome back for Part 4 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i].


“Every child a wanted child”. This catchphrase has been in circulation for decades now, written on signs during protests, boldly printed on Planned Parenthood flyers. Short and pithy, it seems to express a noble sentiment—one which has found a new pop-culture platform via the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a number of women convicted of serious crimes and placed in prison. In one episode, an inmate mourns for several children whom she aborted earlier in life. However, she’s soon approached by another inmate, who captures the essence of “every child a wanted child” when she argues:

The abortions that occurred after [abortion was made legal]… these were children that weren’t wanted. Children who, if their mothers had been forced to have them, would have grown up poor, and neglected and abused. The three most important ingredients when one is making a felon[ii].

The implication is that since these children were unwanted, were going to live traumatic lives, and would wind up in prison, aborting them was the right decision. Therefore, the mourning inmate need not feel any more regret, as her children were spared suffering and life as a felon.

As with many popular arguments for abortion, this type of argument has great initial appeal, but once you begin to assess its logic and draw out its implications, it becomes less and less persuasive. In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline the argument more clearly, and then highlight three flaws that render it unsound.


The Argument

Though there are various ways to develop an argument from unwanted children, most reflect the following sentiments. A number of social problems, such as child abuse, unnecessary financial burden, and poverty are (at least partially) the result of families having to manage unwanted children. Legal abortion reduces the number of unwanted children, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, abortion should be legal. Additionally, unwanted children are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt for abortion.

  1. Begging the Question

Perhaps the most significant problem with popular arguments for abortion is that they beg the question. As I’ve argued in previous posts, question-begging plagues arguments from rape and the dangers of illegal abortions, and the argument here is no exception. For those of you unfamiliar with what “begging the question” is, it’s a form of circular reasoning in which someone assumes what they’re supposed to be proving[iii]. In this case, the proponent of the argument assumes that the unborn are not valuable human beings, which is what they need to prove in order to justify abortion.

To demonstrate how it begs the question, we can run a parallel argument that replaces every instance of “unwanted children” with “toddler”. Doing so results in the following:

A number of social problems are the result of families having to manage unwanted toddlers. Legal toddler-killing reduces the number of unwanted toddlers, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, toddler-killing should be legal. Additionally, unwanted toddlers are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt to kill her toddler.

Obviously, it’s wrong to kill unwanted toddlers. Why? Because they are valuable human beings. Similarly, if unborn human beings possess that same value, then it’s wrong to kill them simply because they are unwanted. The real question, then, is not whether children are wanted, but whether they are valuable. And, since the argument from unwanted children must assume they are not valuable in order to succeed, it begs the question.

One might object to this charge by contending that value is attributed to humans precisely because they are wanted. Whether or not one is wanted determines whether one has value, and thus to say that the unborn is unwanted entails that they have no value. On this reading, the argument doesn’t beg the question.

However, it is relatively easy to think of a counter-example to this notion. Imagine that everyone you know suddenly decided that they no longer like you, and no longer want you. Your family abandon you, your partner separates from you, your employer fires you, and your friends snub you. Does it follow from this that you have no value? I suspect that your intuitions tell you that, even in such circumstances, you still have value, and as such it would still be wrong for someone to kill you. But if this is the case, then your value resides in you, not in whether other people want you, which is simply to say that whether you are wanted or not is irrelevant to whether you have value.     

  1. Finding Solutions vs Eliminating Problems

Another problem with the argument from unwanted children is that it confuses the notion of finding a solution with that of eliminating a problem. For example, it’s possible to cure a headache by chopping off one’s head, or to drive out termites by burning down the house. These courses of action do, in a sense, eliminate problems. However, given that they violate certain unspoken criteria within which one seeks a solution (e.g. to cure a headache but to remain alive, or to drive out termites but retain a home, or to eliminate unwanted-ness without killing human beings), they aren’t really solutions. As Francis Beckwith writes of a similar example:

One can eliminate the problem of poverty by executing all poor people, but this would not really solve the problem, as it would directly conflict with our basic moral intuition that human persons should not be gratuitously exterminated for the sake of easing economic tension. This “solution” would undermine the very moral principles that ground our compassion for poor people – namely, that they are humans of great worth and should be treated with dignity regardless of their predicament.[iv]

Granted, aborting unwanted children does eliminate a problem, namely, that of children being unwanted. But is this really a solution? My contention is that, given that the unborn are valuable human beings (which I’ve argued here), solving the problem of unwanted children by killing them in the womb is comparable to eliminating poverty by killing impoverished people. In both cases society rids itself of a problem by ridding itself of the humans who have the problem. Unwanted-ness does not justify this “solution”.

  1. Killing vs Potential Suffering

Katharine Whitehorn, columnist for The Guardian, exemplifies the argument in question when she writes “there’s a lot to be said for preventing babies from being born who are going to be unwelcome and therefore have a rotten childhood”[v]. Take note of the reasoning here—since the child will be unwelcome she will have a rotten childhood, and since she will have a rotten childhood, it’s better to prevent her from being born (which is a euphemism for killing her). There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.

Firstly, Whitehorn’s argument hinges on the assumption that certain death is better for a child than potential suffering. But is this really true? Although unwanted children may suffer more than wanted children, there’s no guarantee that they will. Therefore, her claim must be that the probability that the child will suffer gratuitously is high enough that they’re better off dead. But how can we determine this probability? Given the countless variables in any individual’s life, it’s impossible. Furthermore, what level of suffering is sufficient to outweigh the drawbacks of death? An answer to this question depends on subjective considerations—how much suffering an individual can endure—and objective considerations which are hotly debated—e.g., what happens after death. It seems, then, that it’s simply too difficult to determine whether this assumption is true, and therefore it doesn’t provide a firm foundation for making life or death decisions.

Secondly, the idea that death is better than suffering is contrary to many of our intuitions about comparable situations. Take, for example, the following case. Someone at a warehouse climbs onto a shelf several metres above ground in order to remove a heavy, awkward item. In so doing, they fall from the shelf, landing on a hard concrete floor. They’re knocked unconscious, but a nearby First Aider rushes to the scene and determines that they’re breathing, despite having broken their spine and having suffered a deep gash to the head. To keep them alive, the First Aider rolls them onto their side to prevent their airways becoming blocked. By doing this, the First Aider has acted upon the assumption that it’s better for the injured person to remain alive and endure potentially lifelong suffering (i.e. paralysis, brain damage), rather than for them to die. Few people would approve of a First Aider who decided to let the patient suffocate because of the possibility of future suffering. This assumption, however, is contrary to the assumption underlying the argument from unwanted children. Although this example isn’t a knock-down argument in favour of keeping people alive despite suffering, at the very least it should prompt further reflection on the role that the potential suffering of a child might play in deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Is certain death the solution to potential suffering?


Recall that pithy catchphrase from earlier: “every child a wanted child”. It’s true that children fare better when they are loved and wanted.  It’s also true that abortion does provide a sort of “solution” to a profound problem. But is it the right solution? Does it take into account the value of human beings, and does it exemplify love and care for the unwanted? Allow me to make a bold suggestion: perhaps the problem is not that some children are unwanted. Perhaps the true problem is that we as individuals and as a society are not willing to love, care, and nurture those whom we don’t want. Perhaps we’d find that if we were willing to acknowledge the value of all human beings—even the unwanted ones—we’d eventually come to see that value ourselves, and our attitudes might be changed. The implications of this extend far beyond the abortion debate. My hope is that you’ll weigh and consider what is written in this post, and, if the reasoning is sound and the cause just, consider the implications for you, and for those around you. Perhaps, in time, every child can be a wanted child. 


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3

[ii] https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/katie-yoder/2015/06/13/oitnb-justifies-abortion-blessing-ending-miserable-fcking-lives

[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, pp. 97-98.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/13/no-baby-should-be-punished-for-their-mothers-unsuitable-behaviour

Please Persuade Me! The Role of Values

New Zealand readers will be well aware that we are in the thick of a political campaign. The campaign is fascinating for a bunch of reasons – the Maori Party and the Greens potentially both battling for survival while Labour surges ahead, the old legend Winston Peters resurfacing again like Poseidon from the deep poised ready to bestow the Prime Ministerial crown on his favourite. Or perhaps, waiting like a midwife at a birth ready to declare whether it is blue for a boy or red for a girl. Child poverty, abortion, climate change, housing, and many other issues have been raised, and all are important for Christians to consider.  

But, in this post let’s briefly consider the place of values more generally. Bill English said that Jacinda Ardern’s values won’t pay for the groceries – probably true, but if they can’t pay for shopping, what can values do? In our consumeristic world are they even useful anymore, and in our scientific world are they believable? The central task of values, I think, is to persuade. If they are to do anything useful, they should serve as reasons for action in one direction or another. Reasons, for instance, to pick the blue or red, or another, team to run the country.

We can all understand that scientific or economic facts can be reasons to act (or vote) one way or another. If consuming a particular substance is scientifically shown to be likely to harm me, or pursuing a particular course is likely to make me go broke, I will probably decide against it. But values, surely they’re more ephemeral, more abstract – perhaps not even necessary in an adequately scientific society? We have to go slowly here though. The choices made on the basis of science or economics (physical harm or going broke) were actually made on the basis of both empirical facts and values. Only if we wish to avoid harm, or avoid going broke, will the empirical facts be relevant to the decision we make. So, we need values in order to decide what to do, even when deciding on the basis of scientific claims.

In a political context, and many other areas of social interaction, we want values not just for working out what we want to do (our own preferences would be enough for this), but for convincing others that they should want the same thing. Values cannot be just preferences if they are to fulfil their function, as they are intended to control not just our actions, but others’ actions – and to shape their preferences. When a politician appeals to values, they are appealing to, not empirical facts, and not just preference, but a claim about the way the world should be – a claim which intends to hold true across people with very different preferences. Values, if these things are real and useful, apply to both the poor and the rich, those that will benefit from an action and those which will not. In other words, they transcend individuals and people groups.

We live in a world where moral reasoning makes sense. It not only makes sense, but it is absolutely crucial for us and our society. Much more attention should be paid to the question of how to make sense of values, as their foundations (if any) will affect how they work in the world. This is a question which the Christian intellectual tradition has a lot to say about, and one which has contributed to many thinkers being persuaded of the reality of the personal Foundation of values. Christians should welcome open political discussion of values, in the hope that more will be persuaded of what is true, beautiful, and good.  

The New Testament: Copies (Clarity of the Bible VII)

‘I will give a lolly,’ said Graeme, our lecturer, ‘to the person who copies out the most verses in three minutes.’

For the next 180 seconds, I frantically wrote out most of 1 Peter 1 by hand. Some of my classmates copied out more, so I did not get the lollipop.

Then we took the two longest copies and copied them out. (I didn’t win the lolly in that round either.)

Finally, we checked the printed Bible and marked all the mistakes.

‘If your handwritten copies were our only copies of 1 Peter 1,’ said Graeme, ‘How could we decide which variations were correct?’

It was pretty clear. We would prioritise older copies. We would think of what mistakes were likely to happen while the copies were being made (like writing a wrong word that looks similar to the right one, or repeating a word accidentally). It would help that we had several copies to check against each other. We also noticed that, in any place where there were two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, it hardly mattered. The differences were extremely trivial, and made no difference to doctrine.

This was the process of working out what the original said – an area of study called textual criticism (criticism in the sense of evaluation, not just objections).

Textual criticism is not only for the Bible, but for many other books, including Shakespeare’s plays. Textual criticism can achieve more with some books than with others. It depends on what copies can be found.

The original text of the Old Testament is remarkably well represented by the translations we have today. Perhaps the most spectacular event to confirm this was the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Among these scrolls were copies of most of the Old Testament close to 1,000 years older than the copies that had been available so far. These older manuscripts and the later ones agreed with stunning accuracy, bearing witness to the famous carefulness of the scribes who made copies.

The New Testament is even better off when it comes to textual criticism. For most books from the New Testament times, if they have survived at all, the earliest manuscripts available a good several centuries (sometimes over a millennium) after the time of writing, and we are lucky if they number over a dozen. Yet copying by hand is not such a transmission nightmare as some people imagine; textual critics and historians generally accept that what these authors said has successfully reached us.

But the New Testament is represented by literally thousands of manuscripts. The most important ones come from the fourth to sixth centuries A. D., very close to the time of original writing in the first century. Such a wealth of manuscripts really helps the process of checking variations to deduce the original words. The reasonable confidence of past Christians that the New Testament is being passed on intact through copies has been bolstered by a mountain of evidence – all we need and many times over!

And what we found with our copying activity in our class is also true for the Bible: when copies give us two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, the differences are trivial, and make no difference to doctrine. God has truly provided us with exceptional clarity in the Bible.

Besides Graeme Fleming’s lecture at Lake Learning (a Christian training camp), I have drawn on F. F. Bruce’s classic The Books and the Parchments for this post.

How should we then vote?

Once upon a time, there was a man who wasn’t thinking about politics. But it is not this day. Today, and seemingly for time eternal, politics. The End…? Please?

Yes, it is once again election time in New Zealand. Kiwis of different backgrounds and persuasions are beginning to think/not think about which boxes they will tick on September 23. For Christians, the results can be diverse. Conservative believers will often base their votes on one or more controversial issues concerning human dignity and the imago Dei (e.g. abortion, euthanasia) while avoiding the plagued parties who support these acts. Across the chasm, politically progressive believers identify with policies to free the captives and care for the least (oh, that’s what those passages mean) seeing the ‘other side’ as dispassionate and driven my Mammon. While the above examples are extremes, the crux is clear – we vote for the party that promises to tackle areas that we see as crucial. Emphasis on the promise.

The question then – which is the correct way? How should Christians vote? In essence, there is a simple answer.

Jesus

Forgive me for being incredibly cliched, but the answer is Jesus (and I never went to Sunday School). Look at these words that Jesus uttered during his earthly ministry:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

(John 18:33-36 ESV, emphasis added)

Mere hours before his life-giving death, Jesus spoke these words to give all believers an instruction manual on how to live in a world governed by interim rulers.

Dual citizenship

Jesus’ last words to those charged with continuing his mission – the apostles – didn’t contain three points of application on how to create a Christian society. We don’t vote to establish heaven in the here and now. We vote in good conscience who we think will best lead our respective cities and countries to the greatest common good. We are very much dual citizens, finding our homes in the City of Man and the City of God. Our ultimate allegiance is to the latter, but as long as the Lord wants us here, we are to strive to serve the interests of Babylon and it’s people. One of the most abused sections in the Old Testament – Jeremiah 29 – testifies to this fact as do the lives of Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Peter and Paul. If seeking the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) is the priority of the exiled Christian (that’s you), then the question of who to vote for becomes simple and complex – who best assists the City of Man to flourish and thrive? Different Christians will answer this question in different ways and that is alright. If you lean left, that is alright. If you lean right, that is alright. If you are disillusioned by it all and abstain, that is alright.

As we approach the 2017 General Election, remember politics is a grace (Romans 13) but not the grace. Good policy does not save souls. If we mix up politics and the Christian message, the bar is set too high for the common grace of politics, while the saving grace of Christ is minimised and diluted. By confusing the two kingdoms, we destroy them both.

If you are a Christian, you owe your allegiance to a kingdom that is not of this world. A kingdom that is far above petty bickering and broken promises. A kingdom built on an immovable Word and ruled by an impeccable King. A kingdom sprouting from a seed.

In this kingdom, you do not vote but are voted for, by the Right and Honourable King of elected rebels.

Praise His Name forever. Amen.

The New Testament (Clarity of the Bible VI)

Japan at first just used Chinese characters for all their own writing, which worked – barely. But both monks and nobles wanted something that worked well. Monks devised the katakana alphabet, so that Buddhist Scriptures could be read aloud easily in chants. Even more important was the alphabet of noblewomen, hiragana, which they used to write novels (arguably the world’s earliest) starting in the 10th century. Both alphabets have become standard elements of Japanese writing.

The New Testament also drove changes in the world of reading and writing. Simply put, the New Testament expanded this world as never before. Building on the tradition of synagogues, early churches encouraged broad study of the Scriptures. Oral teaching was huge, but it did not satisfy the demand; vast numbers of Christians were now motivated to read. It drove the shift from scrolls to codices, the earliest form of books.

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament engaged a huge audience on many topics. The genres indicate this. There are letters to churches. From early on, these were not even limited to one church: ‘Have [this letter] also read in the church of the Laodiceans,’ Paul tells the Colossians. As for the gospels, they might be called biography or ancient biography, but this does not mean writing about Jesus’ life as a private hobby. ‘These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,’ says John, and Luke writes in order ‘that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.’ says Luke. (Though Luke addresses an individual, Theophilus, he also says he is following in the footsteps of others – probably including Mark – who have written for many.) The exception is that some of the letters are written to individuals. Anyway, these letters also ended up shared around the early church, as quotes in other books show.

In fact, there are many signs of interaction with audiences. Luke, as I mentioned above, gives one example: he says he is joining in an established practice by writing a gospel. Paul’s wish that the Colossians share his letter is another example. The seven churches addressed in the Revelation to John are all meant to read it. Peter, in his second letter, says that a bunch Paul’s writings are shared around, and calls them Scripture. Speaking of second letters, they are very valuable. Reading two letters to the same church gives us a rich picture of its relationship with Paul. Paul can correct misunderstandings and refine his points in detail.

Again, there are a huge range of topics. Christ’s teaching and miracles revisit many Old Testament themes from kingship to holiness – and prophecy: he looks forward to the future as well. So do the letters and, of course, the Revelation to John. Christ’s use of stories, metaphors and debate combine with the more essay-like letters to spell out the same big, detailed picture of a reconciliation with God. The history in the Book of Acts and the instructions in the letters tell us about the effect of truths and teachings on the lives of all sorts of people, individually and together.

As with the Old Testament, this huge array of audiences and topics makes the New Testament amazingly clear. Having an audience, especially a big audience, pressures an author to be clear. A range of topics and genres means each point is made in several ways. Our misunderstandings from one passage are cleared up in others.

Yet (as I also said about the Old Testament) it is good to balance variety with common ground. Common ground makes it easier to see the authors’ relevance to each other. They can actually make useful comments about each other. For the New Testament authors, the common ground was being in the first-century church and being an apostle or having apostolic sources.

The next post will introduce the initial audiences of the New Testament from books outside the Bible and translations of the Bible.

The Josiah Conspiracy? (Clarity of the Bible V)

WYSIWYG is a technical term (in computer programming) with a simple meaning: what you see is what you get. Many liberal theologians believe that the Old Testament is not exactly WYSIWYG. They believe that it is in fact (to coin a new term) WYSITJC – what you see is the Josiah conspiracy.

The Josiah conspiracy theory looms so large for so many people that it deserves some attention before we move on to the clarity of the New Testament.

First, should we think that the Josiah conspiracy theory is a big deal? On one hand, much of the message of the Old Testament remains intact even if the conspiracy was real. Either way, most of the points made in my posts so far still stand. Either way, the voices of the authors and audiences still reach us today. These voices are varied enough to make a real conversation, connected enough for them to understand each other, and thorough enough to leave us clues to understand them. On the other hand, the King Josiah conspiracy is, well, a conspiracy. It makes the Old Testament a murky, underhanded business.

Conspiracy is my term. Christians who believe in it tend to refer to it with prettier terms, like documentary hypothesis, but I think Josiah conspiracy theory is simpler and more honest.

The theory is that, in the 7th century B.C., the court of King Josiah of Judah, needing to strengthen its authority, gave the clerics a mission: to dig up religious writings and legends from several Jewish and Israelite traditions and stitch them together. The court wanted everyone to believe that worship should be centred in their capital city. The clerics obeyed, producing the core of the Old Testament as we know it.

One of the biggest holes in the Josiah conspiracy theory is something I talked about in Part II: genre. Today, this hole in the theory is bigger than ever. Historians have found ancient covenant documents and compared them to the Books of Moses. Passages like Exodus 20 and most of the Book of Deuteronomy are clear examples of such treaties, in a style that belongs to centuries before Josiah. This discovery about Deuteronomy is an especial embarrassment to the conspiracy theorists, who had claimed it was an original forgery in Josiah’s time! Besides treaty format, there is a technique called chiastic structure. One of the biggest examples is the Flood narrative in Genesis (6:1-9:19). It is now clear that it is an elegant whole with several sections that make a pattern. Yet the conspiracy theorists had ventured to write elaborate descriptions of how Josiah’s clerics had messily stitched it together from competing sources!1 In the light of genre studies, their methods have suffered a huge loss of credibility.

So how did the flawed Josiah conspiracy theory come about? What biases were involved?

Just to be clear: simply being biased is not a sin, and everyone, including me, is biased. Pointing out the biases behind an idea does not prove that it is wrong, or that the people who hold that idea are bad. However, since there are serious flaws in the Josiah conspiracy theory, it is interesting to think of what biases were behind it.

The Josiah conspiracy theory has been (and still is) promoted by theologians and scholars of the liberal kind. They are biased towards believing that the books of the Bible were written later rather than earlier.

However, they have to accept that the Books of Moses, in pretty much their current form, are at least as old as King Josiah. This is because the Exile (shortly after King Josiah) has left us a lot of literature about the Books of Moses, both inside the Bible and outside it (see the previous post).

The Exile period was rich in Jewish literature (a) for religious reasons and (b) because it made the Jews a more international people, creating a need for the Greek translation, Aramaic commentary, etc.

So we have a period rich in literature which makes the existence of the Books of Moses undeniable, and then we have liberal scholars who would like the Books of Moses to be as late as possible. And we have a liberal-scholarship theory saying that the Books of Moses were concocted by conspiracy straight before that literature-rich period.

If the literature-rich period had come 500 years earlier or later, maybe modern scholars would have put forward different conspiracy theories! We can only speculate.

But, rather than holding to a conspiracy theory of exhumed texts stitched together in the dark for a king, it is reasonable to follow clues inside the Old Testament that point to very early audiences of complete books.

1Holding, J. P. (2005). Debunking the documentary hypothesis [Review]. Journal of Creation 19(3), 37-40.

OT Audiences: Beyond the Bible (Clarity of the Bible IV)

Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.

These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.

In Greek

Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.

‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.

Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.

This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)

In Aramaic

After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2

This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.

The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.

Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5

Other Books

In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.

Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.

So…

Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.

References

1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.

2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.

4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.