Adventures in Branch-Cutting

Here’s a remarkable paragraph from Graham Oppy’s Atheism and Agnosticism, which appears in a discussion of whether theism or naturalism better explains our mental faculties:

Some – e.g. Plantinga (2012) and Reppert (2009) – argue that our reasoning capacities could not be a socially moulded mix of evolutionary adaptations and exaptations. But those arguments assume the reliability of our reasoning capacities in domains in which it is obvious that our reasoning capacities are highly unreliable: philosophy, religion, politics, and the like. When we make a more accurate assessment of the reliability of our reasoning capacities, we see that that assessment supports the claim that our reasoning capacities are a socially moulded mix of evolutionary adaptations and exaptations. (p. 42)

I had to read these sentences several times to confirm that Oppy really was saying what he seemed to be saying. Note two claims being made here:

  1. Plantinga and Reppert’s arguments assume that our reasoning capacities are reliable in the domain of philosophy (among other domains).
  2. That assumption is false.

In fact, Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) does not make that assumption, except in the trivial sense that EAAN is a philosophical argument and thus we have to assume that our capacity for philosophical reasoning is generally reliable if we’re to understand and evaluate the argument (in the same way that we have to assume the general reliability of our sense faculties when reading Plantinga’s books and articles). Plantinga’s argument is this: if naturalism is true, there’s no reason to think that our reasoning capacities are reliably truth-directed in any domain. (Actually, that’s a crude summary of a much more subtle argument, but it will do for now.)

The same goes for Reppert’s various versions of the Argument from Reason. In none of Plantinga and Reppert’s arguments does this unavoidable assumption — that our capacity for philosophical reasoning is generally reliable — feature as an assumption distinctive to the arguments themselves (i.e., in a way that doesn’t apply to philosophical arguments in general).

But the real surprise is that Oppy apparently rejects the assumption. He says it’s obvious (!) that our reasoning capacities are “highly unreliable” in the domain of philosophy. Yet he makes this claim as part of a philosophical rebuttal of Plantinga and Reppert, in the course of a philosophical case for naturalism, in a philosophical book written by a professional philosopher. If our reasoning capacities are highly unreliable in the domain of philosophy, what on earth does Oppy think he’s doing? This isn’t so much cutting the branch you’re sitting on as felling the tree and grinding the stump.

It’s so odd that I feel I must be missing something important.

Still, Oppy’s right about one thing: if our cognitive faculties are the product of undirected naturalistic evolution — which is to say, if evolutionary naturalism is true — then it’s highly unlikely that those faculties are reliable when it comes to philosophical matters. That’s a big problem for philosophical naturalists like Oppy.

All that said, Atheism and Agnosticism is still a useful primer on the subject.

Scripture’s Self-Attestation

“Great Doctrines of the Reformed Faith” is the title of the 2018 Thornwell Lectures hosted by First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC.

2018 Thornwell Lectures

I was honored to be invited to contribute to this year’s lecture series and I spoke on the topic of Scripture’s Self-Attestation.

The entire series is available on sermonaudio.com. Previous speakers include my RTS colleagues Ligon Duncan, Guy Waters, and Kevin DeYoung. Lectures from earlier years, going back to 2012, are also available.

Exploring Islam Teaching Series

Exploring IslamLast year Ligonier Ministries invited me to work with them to produce a new teaching series on Islam. The final product, Exploring Islam, is now available.

Here’s the description from the DVD cover:

Speaking the Truth in Love

What do Muslims believe? With so much diversity in the Muslim world, it is common for people to hold uninformed opinions about Islam. In Exploring Islam, Dr. James Anderson prepares Christians to better witness to their Muslim neighbors with gentleness and respect, as he surveys the central tenets, history, and practices of the Islamic religion. This is a series to stir confidence in the gospel and equip you to speak the truth in love to the Muslims in your community.

The series consists of ten 23-minute presentations:

  1. Why Study Islam?
  2. The Basics of Islam
  3. The Prophet Muhammad
  4. An Introduction to the Qur’an
  5. The Teachings of the Qur’an
  6. Authority in Islam
  7. Diversity in Islam
  8. Christianity & Islam
  9. Contending for Christianity
  10. Sharing the Gospel with Muslims

The first in the series (“Why Study Islam?”) can be viewed for free on the product page.

Apparently the DVDs include Spanish dubbing and closed captioning.

The series should be useful for adult Sunday schools, small groups, campus ministries, church youth groups, and high-school classes. I’m convinced it’s more important than ever before that Christians understand the challenge of Islam and are equipped to engage with Muslims in a well-informed, gospel-centered way. I hope this series will be a helpful resource to that end.

On a personal note, it was a real pleasure to work with Ligonier on this series and to spend time with their team. Their hospitality and professionalism is second to none.

Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It)?

I’m delighted to report that the third volume in the Christian Focus series, The Big Ten: Critical Questions Answered, is now available: Why Is There Evil In The World (And So Much Of It)? by series co-editor Greg Welty.

Why Is There Evil In The World?Having been closely involved in the editing process, I’m thrilled to see this book finally in print. The title reflects what may be the most common reason people give for rejecting the Christian faith and doubting the existence of God. It is indeed a critical question that demands an answer.

But isn’t it one Christians have been answering for centuries? Yes, of course. There are many fine works already available on this issue, both ancient and modern, and Welty acknowledges his debt to them. But I think this book fills a particular niche at this time. So many contemporary books on the problem of evil fall down in one or more of the following areas:

  • They don’t pay close attention to what the Bible actually says about the nature and origin of evil and suffering in the world, and how they fit into God’s purposes for his creation.
  • They end up taking positions that aren’t theologically orthodox (e.g., denying God’s omnipotence or omniscience).
  • They engage in philosophical speculations that aren’t tethered to (and sometimes go against) the teachings of the Bible and the creeds of the Christian church.
  • They lack clarity and precision at the very points where clarity and precision are needed. They serve up a big fat waffle-burger instead of a lean filet.
  • They’re written by authors who lack theological and philosophical training, and who aren’t conversant with the vast scholarly literature on the problem of evil.
  • They’re preaching to the choir: helpful for those who already believe, but failing to grapple with real concerns of skeptics.
  • They’re either too long-winded to keep the reader’s attention or too cursory to satisfy the reader’s concerns.
  • They’re too dry and technical for the layperson.

Why Is There Evil In The World? avoids all these pitfalls. Moreover, Greg is ideally qualified to have written this book. He wasn’t raised in a Christian home, so he knows what it’s like to be a skeptical unbeliever. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of California, an MDiv degree from Westminster Seminary California, and MPhil and DPhil degrees in philosophical theology from the University of Oxford, and he has taught seminary courses in Christian apologetics and philosophy of religion for 15 years. He also serves as one of the pastors at Grace Baptist Church in Wake Forest, so he doesn’t live up in the ivory tower!

Here’s the table of contents for the book, which should give you a good idea of how Welty tackles the issue:

  • 1. What is the Problem of Evil?
  • 2. The Greater-Good Theodicy: A Threefold Argument for Three Biblical Themes
  • 3. Licensing the Greater-Good Theodicy: God’s Sovereignty over Evil
  • 4. Limiting the Greater-Good Theodicy: The Inscrutability of God’s Purposes
  • 5. Can Free Will or the Laws of Nature Solve the Problem of Evil?
  • 6. Objections
  • Appendix: Going Beyond Job, Joseph and Jesus for the Greater-Good Theodicy

The book has received endorsements from John Frame, Paul Helm, Scott Oliphint, David Robertson, and Mike Kruger, among others. So you don’t have to take it from me — it comes highly recommended! I really hope it will become the go-to book for ‘ordinary’ folk, both believers and skeptics, who are looking for a well-informed and well-argued response to this age-old question.

Bertrand Russell on Pragmatism

Pragmatism is the view that a belief or claim is ‘true’ not because it accurately represents the way things are, but because it has beneficial effects. Truth is what’s useful, what works, what gets results. Correspondingly, religious pragmatism is the view that religious beliefs should be deemed ‘true’ if and only if they have good effects. Obviously this is quite a departure from the commonsense view of religious beliefs and religious truth, according to which the statement “God exists” is true if and only if, as a matter of fact, God exists.

Bertrand Russell was no friend of orthodox religion, but his critique of William James’s religious pragmatism is both devastating (in my judgment) and a delight to read:

Bertrand RussellIn a chapter on pragmatism and religion he reaps the harvest. “We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.” “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” “We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.”

I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is “true” when its effects are good. If this definition is to be useful—and if not it is condemned by the pragmatist’s test—we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can know that anything is “true,” since it is only after we have decided that the effects of a belief are good that we have a right to call it “true.” The result is an incredible complication. Suppose you want to know whether Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. You must not, as other people do, look it up in a book. You must first inquire what are the effects of this belief, and how they differ from the effects of believing that he sailed in 1491 or 1493. This is difficult enough, but it is still more difficult to weigh the effects from an ethical point of view. You may say that obviously 1492 has the best effects, since it gives you higher grades in examinations. But your competitors, who would surpass you if you said 1491 or 1493, may consider your success instead of theirs ethically regrettable. Apart from examinations, I cannot think of any practical effects of the belief except in the case of a historian.

But this is not the end of the trouble. You must hold that your estimate of the consequences of a belief, both ethical and factual, is true, for if it is false your argument for the truth of your belief is mistaken. But to say that your belief as to consequences is true is, according to James, to say that it has good consequences, and this in turn is only true if it has good consequences, and so on ad infinitum. Obviously this won’t do.

There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus, every one will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood who lived 450 years ago—in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James’s definition, it might happen that “A exists” is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus “works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word”; therefore “Santa Claus exists” is true, although Santa Claus does not exist. James says (I repeat): “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” This simply omits as unimportant the question whether God really is in His heaven; if He is a useful hypothesis, that is enough. God the Architect of the Cosmos is forgotten; all that is remembered is belief in God, and its effects upon the creatures inhabiting our petty planet. No wonder the Pope condemned the pragmatic defence of religion.

We come here to a fundamental difference between James’s religious outlook and that of religious people in the past. James is interested in religion as a human phenomenon, but shows little interest in the objects which religion contemplates. He wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe in Him. This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy; it becomes philosophy when it is said that if the belief makes them happy it is “true.” To the man who desires an object of worship this is unsatisfactory. He is not concerned to say, “If I believed in God I should be happy”; he is concerned to say, “I believe in God and therefore I am happy.” And when he believes in God, he believes in Him as he believes in the existence of Roosevelt or Churchill or Hitler; God, for him, is an actual Being, not merely a human idea which has good effects. It is this genuine belief that has the good effects, not James’s emasculate substitute. It is obvious that if I say “Hitler exists” I do not mean “the effects of believing that Hitler exists are good.” And to the genuine believer the same is true of God.

James’s doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of scepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with scepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well. But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.

Indeed.

(Source: A History of Western Philosophy, 2007 ed., pp. 817-18)

Brian Abasciano on John 3:16

Dr. Brian Abasciano recently posted an article on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website in response to an “untenable grammatical argument” offered by (so he claims) James White, Guillaume Bignon, James A. Gibson, and yours truly. Dr. Abasciano generously describes me as a “respectable Calvinist philosopher” (who are the disreputable ones, I wonder?) even though he thinks I committed an “embarrassing mistake” (if so, at least I’m in good company).

Drs. Bignon and Gibson have replied here. Dr. White made some excellent comments in response on The Dividing Line (April 24 episode). I don’t have much to add to these, but I’ll make a few observations of my own.

Continue reading

John 3:16 Teaches Limited Atonement

Yes, it really does. Hear me out.

John 3:16 is commonly cited against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (LA).1 The argument is simple: LA teaches that Christ made atonement only for the elect, but this best-known verse in the Bible says that God so loved the world that he sent his Son. That implies a universal atonement, for all mankind, not one limited in its extent.

The WorldThat seems like a knockdown argument on the face of it, but on closer examination it turns out to be very weak. In John’s writings “the world” (ho kosmos) rarely if ever carries the sense of “all mankind” or “every human who ever lived.” It certainly doesn’t mean that in 3:16 because that would make nonsense of the immediately following verse. (Try replacing “the world” with “all mankind” in verse 17 to see the point.) Rather, “the world” typically means either (i) “the created universe” (as in John 17:24), (ii) something like “the fallen creation in rebellion against God” (e.g., John 3:19; 13:1; 15:19; 17:13-18; 1 John 2:15-17) or (iii) “all nations” as opposed to the Jewish people alone (as in John 4:42). Whatever the exact sense in 3:16, there’s nothing that conflicts with LA.

So John 3:16 doesn’t count against LA. Perhaps most Calvinists are content to leave it at that, but I think we can go further and argue that it actually supports LA.

Continue reading

  1. I prefer the labels ‘definite atonement’ and ‘particular redemption’ but I’m going to stick with the traditional label for this post.

Is There Only One Way of Salvation? (Tabletalk)

I see that my short article for Tabletalk magazine with the above title is now available online. The theme of the August 2017 issue was apologetics (“Giving an Answer”). The other articles from that issue are also available. Some good material here that could be used with a youth group or adult Sunday school, or shared with skeptical friends.

What Is Normal? What Is Natural?

Is homosexuality normal?

Is polyamory normal?

Is transgenderism normal?

Is left-handedness normal?

Is belief in God normal?

Is death normal?

Picture of a NormHow one answers such questions will hang on how one understands the term normal. The word ‘normal’ is etymologically related to ‘norm’ and ‘normative’. A norm is a standard or rule by which something is evaluated, by which it is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong. Thus the primary meaning of normal has to do with conformance to some norm. The claim that X is normal presupposes that there are norms for X (or for whatever kind of thing X is) and X conforms to those norms. The antonym of normal is abnormal, which implies some fault or failure to meet a standard: a deviation from the norm.

Accordingly the term normal, used in this primary sense, has a normative aspect to it; it involves some kind of evaluation or value judgment. A simple example of this usage would be if someone were to say, “It’s not normal to have three ears.” Evidently the speaker is taking for granted that there’s a proper form for human anatomy and having three ears is a deviation from that norm. Put simply, human beings shouldn’t have three ears.

There is a secondary sense of the term, however, which needs to be distinguished from the first. Normal can also be used to mean usual or typical. Understood that way, it merely reflects a statistical generalization and therefore doesn’t imply any value judgment. For example, if I were to say, “A high of 70 degrees is normal for Charlotte in April,” I’m only making a claim about the average temperature (or something along those lines). There’s no right or wrong about that temperature. It’s just a statistical fact for that geographical location. My statement was merely descriptive rather than normative or evaluative.

Continue reading

How Biblical is Molinism? (Part 6)

[This is the last in an n-part series, where n turned out to be 6.]

In a highly irregular series of posts, I’ve been considering the question, How well is Molinism supported by the Bible? As I explained in the first installment:

Molinism is a theory that purports to reconcile a robust doctrine of divine providence and foreknowledge with a libertarian view of free will by appealing to the notion of divine middle knowledge: God’s eternal knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, that is, contingent truths about what possible creatures would freely choose if they were created by God and placed in particular circumstances.

Luis de MolinaI noted that Molinism has been both defended and criticized on both theological and philosophical grounds, and that’s entirely appropriate since it’s a philosophical theory that seeks to reconcile certain theological claims. However, discussions of the purported virtues and vices of Molinism are often conducted at a safe distance from the text of Scripture. (I’ve observed elsewhere that this is a more general shortcoming among analytic/philosophical theologians.) So in this series I’ve endeavored to bring the discussion into closer contact with the more explicit and direct teachings of the Bible. My approach has been to evaluate Molinism alongside what is arguably its leading competitor among orthodox Christian theologians, Augustinianism,1 by considering which of the two views better fits some key “data points” provided by the Bible.2

Continue reading

  1. As I noted in the first post, I’m using the term Augustinianism simply as shorthand for causal divine determinism.
  2. See the first post for a brief discussion of what I mean by biblical “data points” and how they can be used to evaluate philosophical theories.