Trinity

Materialism and Mysteries

Bart EhrmanA friend brought this recent blog post by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to my attention. Since it intersects with several areas of interest to me, I thought it would be fun to write some commentary on it.

Dr. Ehrman makes four basic points in his post:

  1. He is a metaphysical materialist. He believes that everything that exists is material in nature.
  2. Materialism faces some “enormous conceptual problems.”
  3. Even so, that’s no reason for him to abandon materialism, because every belief-system has its mysteries. Every belief-system has conceptual problems that seem to defy explanation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unreasonable to hold on to that belief-system.
  4. Moreover, while every belief-system has its mysteries, it can still be the case that some belief-systems are more reasonable than others.

Let’s consider each point in turn.

1. Materialism

After some throat-clearing about not trying to “impose” one’s views on others, Dr. Ehrman writes:

Anyway, as probably fewer members know, I have been more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years. I do not believe there is such a thing as a non-material, supernatural realm. There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.

I used to think that we are (I am) made up of two things: a body and a mind/soul/spirit/whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that anymore.

But for now, I think I am made up of one thing. Matter. I’ve got (by my count) one body, eleven organ systems, 79 organs, roughly 37 trillion (count them!) cells, and god knows how many molecules. And nothing else. If some of those cells die – well they die all the time. If enough of them die in one place at one time, it could be a problem. If one of the organs goes kaput, it could be a very big problem. If one of the vital organs goes, as we used to say in high school, it’s cookies.

So Ehrman is clearly rejecting any version of dualism in favor of a clear-eyed, straight-talking, unabashed materialism. Everything that exists is entirely material in nature, including you and me. There is no soul distinct from the body. There is no mind distinct from the brain.

As I’ll explain shortly, I think this materialist position is demonstrably false, but I have to give Ehrman credit for being so direct and explicit about his position. No mincing words here! No side-stepping or fencing-sitting. I’ve encountered many unbelievers who are eager to criticize other people’s views without ever committing to any specific position themselves. They’re very eager to declare what they don’t believe (and why they don’t believe it) but very reluctant to tell us what they do believe (and why they believe it).

Bart Ehrman is not one of those unbelievers. Kudos to him for nailing his materialist colors firmly to the mast!

Anderson and Beall on Theological Paradoxes

Anyone interested in the topic of theological paradoxes will probably enjoy these two episodes from the freshly-minted Furthering Christendom podcast. In the first, I chat with Tyler McNabb and Mike DeVito about the model I develop and defend in my book Paradox in Christian Theology. In the second episode (recorded the very next day!) Tyler and Mike talk with philosopher JC Beall about his preferred approach to theological paradox.

Dr. Beall has some very kind things to say about my work, even though he ends up taking a different position. I want to preserve classical logic (specifically, the law of non-contradiction) and my model aims to do just that. Thus, on my view, theological paradoxes are merely apparent (not real) contradictions. Beall, on the other hand, wants to bite the bullet (or as he puts it, “knock on the door”!) and say that orthodox Christology is both true and contradictory, which requires one to accept a non-classical logic. (I should add that he thinks there are other, non-theological reasons for questioning classical logic.)

In my conversation with Tyler and Mike, I briefly explained why I prefer my approach over Beall’s, even though we largely agree on the parameters of the problem we’re both seeking to address. Although I didn’t know in advance that Dr. Beall would feature in the immediately following episode, it’s quite interesting to compare my motivations for preserving classical logic with his motivations for rejecting it.

I also found intriguing Dr. Beall’s comments on identity relations within the Trinity toward the end of the video (around the 57-minute mark). Beall expresses his view that logic as such doesn’t contain “an identity predicate” and “identity is not part of logical vocabulary.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I think identity is a substantive metaphysical concept rather than a purely logical one; what’s more, there are different kinds of identity and it’s not obvious which kind holds between the divine substance and each of the divine persons. I’ve suggested that it’s a sui generis kind of identity that has no analogue in the creation. (I’ve discussed this in my book and a few other places.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to reading Dr. Beall’s forthcoming book on the subject.

 

An Observation About the Tuggy-Brown Debate

Last week Dr. Dale Tuggy debated Dr. Michael Brown on the question, “Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?” (Tuggy affirmed; Brown denied.) The entire debate, including Q&A, can be viewed here. A print version of Tuggy’s opening statement can be found here. Brown’s opening statement can be read here.

Tuggy-Brown Debate

I thought it was a very useful, high-quality debate between two smart, serious people who stuck to the arguments and treated each other with respect. Tuggy and Brown are quite different in their skill sets, theological methodologies, and speaking styles, which made for an interesting match-up.

I have only one observation to make here, which I haven’t seen noted elsewhere. Throughout the debate, from his opening to his closing statement, Tuggy pressed the claims that the NT doesn’t reflect a trinitarian theology (as he defines it) and that Brown hadn’t offered an intelligible “Trinity theory” (or any Trinity theory at all, for that matter). But note the question that framed the debate:

Is the God of the Bible the Father alone?

Tuggy’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible is the Father alone. Brown’s task was to argue that the God of the Bible isn’t the Father alone. To win the debate, Brown didn’t have to defend trinitarianism or any particular theory of the Trinity. He only had to show that the God of the Bible is identified with someone other than the Father, such as the Son or the Spirit. In fact, Brown targeted nearly all of his ammunition on showing that the Bible identifies the Son with Yahweh and attributes to the Son things that imply his equality with the Father as to deity (the Son is eternal, creator of all things, shares the glory of the Father, receives the same worship as the Father, etc.). You can review Brown’s opening statement to confirm that this was his main emphasis.

Strange as it may sound, given the specific proposition being debated, Brown could have adopted a modalist position and still won the argument! (Interestingly, Tuggy suggested a few times that Brown was in fact expressing a form of modalism, albeit unwittingly. Even if Tuggy were right about that, it would have been beside the point in the context of the debate.) Brown’s task wasn’t to defend the specific claim that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons, still less to defend some metaphysical model for that claim. Indeed, he expressed reservations about adopting creedal language (“persons”) rather than biblical language. I don’t share those reservations, but again, that’s beside the point here.

All Brown had to do was argue that the Bible teaches the full deity of Christ, i.e., that the Son is divine in the same sense that the Father is divine. In my judgment Brown did argue that persuasively, and Tuggy’s alternative interpretations of the key texts seemed stretched (e.g., Heb. 1:10-12 and Col. 1:15-17 are really speaking about the new creation; the logos in John’s prologue is something like God’s eternal wisdom rather than the preexistent Son who became flesh). For that reason, even while admitting my own biases, I’d say Brown won this round.

Tuggy’s Triad and the Death of God

God's Not DeadDale Tuggy has recently been discussing at some length what he takes to be an inconsistent triad of claims:

1. Jesus died.

2. Jesus was fully divine.

3. No fully divine being has ever died.

He thinks that 1 is beyond dispute for Bible-believing Christians, and that 3 also finds strong support from the biblical affirmations of God’s immortality (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Tim. 6:16). He therefore concludes that 2 should be rejected for the sake of logical consistency. That would, of course, require one to reject one of the essential tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I’ve listened to several of Dale’s podcasts on the issue, but not all of them, so I may well be overlooking something here. Still, it seems to me that there’s a fairly straightforward way for a Trinitarian to affirm all three claims without inconsistency. I agree with Tuggy that there’s solid biblical support for 1 and 3, but as I see it there’s an equivocation on the term ‘died’. (I know that Dale has denied any such equivocation, but hear me out.)

Further Thoughts on Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has replied to my brief response to his challenge to “Jesus is God” apologists. In this follow-up post I’ll clarify the thrust of my earlier response and add some further thoughts.

Dale’s original challenge presented an argument, with premises he thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus “is not a god.”

I offered a parallel argument as a means of indicating where I think Dale’s challenge goes awry. Dale seems to think that I was arguing along these lines: Michael Rea’s view of material constitution is correct, therefore premise 4 in the parallel argument is false, and hence premise 4 in Dale’s original argument is false. To be fair, I can understand why he might have interpreted my response that way, but that wasn’t quite my point.

As it happens, I don’t endorse Rea’s position on material constitution. I think it’s plausible and defensible, but I recognize that there are some serious arguments against it. I have an open mind on the issue, because it’s a difficult one to resolve. There are competing metaphysics of material objects, each with its own virtues, and it’s a tough debate to adjudicate. And that’s my point — or at least part of it.

A Brief Response to Tuggy’s Challenge

Dale Tuggy has offered a challenge to those who claim that Jesus is God. The challenge takes the form of an argument, with premises that Tuggy thinks orthodox Christians should accept, to the conclusion that Jesus is not God (more precisely, that Jesus is not “a god”).

Here’s Tuggy’s argument:

  1. God and Jesus differ.
  2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical)
  3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (1, 2)
  4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. are numerically identical).
  5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (3, 4)
  6. There is only one god.
  7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (5, 6)
  8. God is a god.
  9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (7, 8)

So where does the argument go wrong?

Paradox in Theology

IVP’s New Dictionary of Theology is an outstanding reference work. (Just look at the original editorial team and you’ll see why!) So I was delighted not only to learn that a second edition is in the works but also to be invited to contribute an updated entry for ‘Paradox in Theology’. The editors of the new edition have kindly granted me permission to reproduce the article here.

Positive Mysterianism Undefeated

“Positive Mysterianism Undefeated: A Response to Dale Tuggy” is the paper I presented at the EPS Annual Meeting last November. It’s too long as it stands, and some of the arguments need further development (perhaps in separate papers), but I’m posting it online because a number of people have asked about it and I’d like to get more feedback on it. I’ve already received some valuable critical comments from several folk, including Dale. Comments welcome below or via email (contact details here).

Gordon Clark’s Paradoxical View of the Trinity

Some years ago I wrote a short article defending some of Van Til’s remarks on the Trinity and offering some criticisms of Gordon Clark’s view of the Trinity. In that article I noted a point of disagreement with Steve Hays. Whereas Steve had argued that Clark’s view reduces to modalism, I argued that his position is clearly a form of social trinitarianism (which I’ve contended elsewhere is not a form of monotheism and is thus unacceptable as an interpretation of orthodox trinitarian doctrine).

Well, after re-reading some of Clark’s writings on this issue, I’ve changed my mind. I’m happy to report that I no longer disagree with Steve. But that’s not to say I’ve abandoned my earlier conclusion. Rather, I now think we were both right (which is a much more agreeable position to take).

Response to Gary Crampton

The December 2009 issue of The Trinity Review featured a review of my book. The review, which is highly critical, was written by Gary Crampton. I’ve posted a response on my website. It’s lengthy and forthright; but given the serious deficiencies of the review, it had to be.

I have copied below the section on Gordon Clark’s treatments of the Trinity and the Incarnation, because it may be of wider interest.