Pevensie Epistemology

3 December 2019

At the beginning of the Narnia series, in the opening chapters of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis uses the four Pevensie children to teach us an important lesson in how to behave in the face of varying degrees of uncertainty. Lucy has gone into the wardrobe, experienced Narnia, and met Mr. Tumnus. Edmund has also gone into the wardrobe. Peter and Susan, the older siblings, have not yet experienced Narnia.

Lucy is maintaining that her experience is real. Edmund is saying it was just make-believe. Peter and Susan don’t know what to do. Lucy doesn’t lie, and yet her story can’t be true. They all know Edmund is a liar, and yet his story is entirely plausible.

Were the roles reversed–Edmund talking about Narnia and Lucy saying it was make-believe–they would blow it off without a second thought. In fact, without Edmund’s contribution to the situation, it would be easy: perhaps Lucy dreamt the whole thing. This would be a promising line of reasoning, except for the fact that Edmund gives an alternate account. If Edmund said he didn’t know what she was talking about, that would be one thing. But since Edmund says they were playing together and made the whole thing up…no. It wasn’t a dream. They were both involved together in something. But what? How do we know?

The professor’s answer is simple: you know the people better than you know the world, so trust your knowledge of the people. The dishonest one is lying, and the honest one–however implausible her story–is somehow telling the truth.

Of course Peter and Susan are still unsure. Further events demonstrate the wisdom of the professor’s counsel, but I want to consider the question of everyone’s duty during that period of uncertainty. Obviously Edmund’s duty is to come clean. Obviously Lucy’s duty is to tell the truth, but we’ll come back to that.

What about Peter and Susan? They are wise enough to seek counsel, but that doesn’t really settle the matter in their minds. Their temptation would be to rush to judgment too soon, to make a premature decision about who is telling the truth and then declare the problem solved. Their job is to hang with the problem until there’s a real solution. They do–and the thing gets decisively settled. Eventually. In the meantime, everyone is profoundly uncomfortable.

That discomfort brings us back to Lucy’s duty. Doesn’t her continued insistence on her Narnian experience create tension and difficulty for everyone? Doesn’t Lucy also have a responsibility to family harmony? (Sure, so does Edmund, but everybody knows he doesn’t care, so the shortest road to family harmony is for Lucy–the dependable one, the one who cares about her duty–to change her story.)

In situations like this, there is a great temptation for the Peters and Susans of the world to put incredible pressure on Lucy to just cave. Change your story, admit that you mighta’ dreamt it, and everything can go back to normal. But let’s talk about this harmony that Lucy has a duty to help create: should that harmony be founded on truth, or on lies? On truth, of course–and so she has a duty to keep telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Suppose you were a servant at that wedding in Cana. You poured the water into the jars yourself, and then drew out the wine. You know what happened; you were there. What is your duty? Keep it to yourself? Or bear witness to what God has done?

To ask the question is to answer it. Of course you are responsible to bear witness.

The harder problem is the one confronting Peter and Susan. What do you do if you weren’t there? You didn’t see it for yourself, and now you have to decide what really happened–tricky business, that.

At one level, it’s a very easy question. The story can’t be true, it just can’t. Wardrobes have backs, not whole worlds secretly hidden in them. Water does not spontaneously turn into wine in a stone water jar. It just doesn’t happen. Besides, we all heard about that wedding–good wine, and lots of it. So much that the servants got into it and got a little confused, apparently. A couple drunk guys misjudging reality. It happens every day. Simple as that.

But Occam’s razor doesn’t apply to history. The real world is full of bizarre coincidences and baroque chains of causality, particularly where people are concerned. And especially where God is involved.


Lots of Little Fires

29 November 2019

Reading assignment: Numbers 10, Psalm 68, Ephesians 4. Then let’s discuss. I don’t have time right now to draw this out in detail, so I’m going to sketch some suggestive high points, and see where that takes us.

In Numbers 10, Moses’ liturgy for the movement of the camp tells Israel what it means that the pillar of cloud/fire is moving: Yahweh is invading the world, scattering His enemies before Him.

David begins Psalm 68 with that same liturgy. The psalm is an extended meditation on its meaning.

Ephesians 4:7-10 shows us how Jesus fulfills a portion of that meditation in His incarnation, resurrection, and ascension, rising to victory at the Father’s right hand, receiving as His due the spoils of victory, and distributing the gifts He’s received to His people. A Christian functioning in the gifts Christ gave is what the Tabernacle/pillar was: Yahweh invading the world. There is no longer one pillar of fire lighting the darkness: there are tongues of fire above every Spirit-baptized person’s head — and like Samson’s foxes running two by two through the Gentile fields, we set everything ablaze as we go.

The invasion continues….


Not Talking Past

26 November 2019

I first encountered the egalitarianism/complementarianism discussion when I was in college. I’ve been away from the conversation for nearly 20 years–having way too much fun enjoying my rich relationships to waste time theorizing about them–but of late it’s come up again. Naturally I have many friends who call themselves feminists, others who don’t prefer that label but will cop to ‘egalitarian,’ and a stolid few who know what a complementarian is, and admit to being one.

I’ve noticed that in these complementarian/egalitarian/feminist conversations — as is common with any highly charged issue — the two (or more) sides are regularly talking past each other. Here are a few key starting points that I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Ask “Was Paul right to give that instruction to that particular audience in that particular time and place, or was he wrong?” This question accomplishes two purposes. The first is to tell you what sort of discussion you are in. The “Paul was right, but he wasn’t speaking to our culture” conversation and the “Paul was wrong” conversation are two entirely different discussions. The former is an exegetical and pastoral conversation among Christians. The latter is an apologetic conversation between Christians and moderns who happen to take inspiration from parts of the Bible — entirely different religions, as Machen pointed out a while back. In the latter case, it’s a much wider discussion about epistemology and authority — there’s really not much sense in talking about the specifics of Ephesians 5 until the more foundational issues are settled.
The second purpose of this question is to regulate the exegetical conversation. Many (not all) proposed schemes for understanding the passages under discussion would imply that Paul made a mistake, if the principles were applied consistently (not that they will be…yet). If we are seeking to obey the Scriptures, rather than simply avoid parts of them that we don’t like, then it’s not enough to propose an interpretation/application that yields the results we’re hoping for, like medical researchers that work for tobacco companies. For the proposal to be viable, it has to address what we should be doing now, but it also has to account for what Paul told the original recipients to do then. (For example, a number of complementarian schemes for evading uncomfortable applications like head coverings fail to meet this standard.)

2. If you’re in an exegetical/pastoral discussion, talk about a specific passage, not about “those passages.” When we lump passages from 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and other books together, we are assuming that they all have the same basic things going on exegetically. That is a conclusion to be demonstrated, not a bit of groundwork to be assumed. Papering over the differences between specific books, passages and audiences is no way to exegete. Deal with the specifics of each passage; “those passages” may have less in common than you think. Or more—but you don’t find that out by assuming.

3. Meet serious exegetical discussion with serious exegetical discussion, and rhetorical tricks with rhetorical tricks. A serious wrestling with the application of that rough passage in 1 Timothy should be treated with respect. An attempt to dodge the Son’s submission to the Father through appeals to the immanent vs. economic trinity ought to be met with a proposal of immanent vs. economic gender relations. Likewise, a serious consideration of how to map NT categories onto present-day pastoral ordination (which has no obvious NT parallel) is well worth discussing, but a knee-jerk rejection of ordaining women under any circumstances ought to be met with a challenge to demonstrate that we should ordain anyone to the position of pastor, as we presently define it. There’s not much point being serious with people who refuse to be serious…might as well have some fun.


A Twisted Path

19 November 2019

As conservative Christians, we have badly misunderstood the way depravity works.

Depravity doesn’t just make you want to be wicked in the ordinary senses that people think of as wicked — stomping on kittens, say, or talking at the theater. Depravity can’t force you to stop having the good desires that God put within you, desires for love, community, respect and admiration, acceptance, peace.

Depravity is relational. It is a rebellion against the God who alone can make those God-given desires a reality. We crave good things — peace, joy, love, and so on — that’s the image of God in us, and we can’t get rid of it, no matter how hard we try. But we want all those things on our own terms and for their own sake, apart from God — and that’s depravity.

We were made to accept love, joy, and peace as good gifts from a loving Father. When we won’t accept them as gifts, we seek to wrest them from the world under our own power. Depravity is taking a twisted path, thinking it will lead to a good end. Of course it never works. But if we admit that it isn’t working, that we aren’t really finding the soul-rest that God made us to seek, then we have to admit that ignoring God is not working. Depravity doesn’t want to do that, so instead it makes us forget what we really want.

We crave joy, so we take the twisted path of getting rich, thinking it will lead to joy.  Along the way, we forget that we were aiming for joy, and just get preoccupied with getting rich. Even if we succeed, we remain profoundly unhappy–but our depravity has long since caused us to think of wealth as the goal. We often don’t realize how unhappy we are until some circumstance in life forces us to face it. Others find a different twisted path toward joy, with the same basic result: first we give up everything for the sake of the twisted path, and then the twisted path fails to deliver what it promised, and in the end it kills us.


The Freedom to be Wrong

12 November 2019

If you’re sleeping with someone else’s spouse, I do not need to inquire into the motives of your heart to know that you are in sin. God has specifically said this is a no-no. He has already told me that the motives of your heart are going to be a mess, and as a minister of the gospel it is my solemn duty to name your adultery for the sin it is and encourage you to go and sin no more. But when it comes to what you eat or abstain from, which holidays you celebrate, and so on, I may not tell you what to do (Romans 14:4-10), and you are not allowed to permit me (or anyone else) to pass judgment on you about that, or enforce regulations over you (Colossians 2:16-23).

These latter areas are what we call “areas of liberty.” Christian liberty does not mean that there are no wrong choices to make. It means that the nature of the issue is such that God does not allow us to pontificate on someone else’s correctness. Let’s illustrate with, say, hair color.

Now, whether we’re talking about a lady of a certain age unnaturally prolonging her days as a brunette, or the same lady going electric blue, hair dye has been a hot topic in certain times and places. Accusations of ‘worldliness’ abound (and are particularly funny when leveled by an unnatural brunette against someone else’s unnaturally electric blue hair, but never mind.)

When it comes to hair, Scripture says some things about ostentatious displays of wealth and leisure, but dye is so cheap anymore that’s not really a problem. Taking one thing with another, hair dye is among those things which perish with the using, and other believers do not have the right to tell you whether you may use it, or what colors you may or may not use. This is a matter that is within your liberty, and that means that you are to be permitted to do as you like, even though you may be dead wrong.

This wrongness can happen in two ways, and it’s important to grasp both.

In his discussion of ‘doubtful things’ in Romans 14, Paul takes sides on the issue of eating meat. Here we have one brother chowing down on a steak, and a vegetarian who thinks his carnivorous brother is flirting with deadly compromise. Paul does not say they’re both equally valid dietary choices; he pointedly describes the carnivore as the stronger Christian. The vegetarian, he says, has a weak conscience–and he is allowed to be wrong about this. The vegetarian may not pass judgment on the carnivore, nor the carnivore hold the vegetarian in contempt. So if you feel that pink hair is an abomination, you are allowed to avoid it. On these sorts of matters, you have the freedom to be wrong; let each one be fully convinced in his own mind, as Paul says.

There is also another way in which you can be wrong. The motives of your heart may, in fact, be drenched in worldliness. Your boyfriend’s ex dyed her hair pink last week, and he’s been looking longingly at her ever since, and there’s no way you’re going to let that skank show you up — who does she think she is, anyway? — and so you’re gonna get a dye job that can be seen from low earth orbit. Now as your pastoral counselor, or just your friend, I see a whole stack of issues worth addressing here, but the point for our conversation today is that I’m not allowed to tell you the dye job is sin. This is the kind of circumstance where God might call you to forget the pink hair, but that’s not because pink hair is sin, it’s because it would be a hindrance for you.

God may ultimately call you to forsake Crossfit, or rolex watches, or Starbucks coffee, or snazzy ties. God might call you to let your grey hair grow in, to mortify your vanity. He might call you to polish your shoes every Saturday night and wear a suit and tie to church, to mortify your sloth. Liberty does not mean that God can’t or won’t call you in a particular direction; the point is that nobody else can demand it. It’s between you and God.

So listen well.


Joel Is Not A Cessationist

5 November 2019

In Acts 2, Peter applies Joel 2 in an interesting way. Some people believe Peter is stating the direct fulfillment of Joel 2: Joel predicted this day, and here it is.

Most commentators, however, notice some end-of-the-world markers in Joel 2, and therefore feel that Joel’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. That being the case, they then say either that Peter was saying Joel 2 was partly fulfilled at Pentecost, or that Peter was just making an analogy.

What I’m about to say here would apply to partial fulfillment positions, but just for the moment let’s accept, for the sake of discussion, that Peter is making an analogical argument (This is like what Joel prophesied…”).

That means Peter is claiming that Pentecost has various points of contact with the Joel prophecy, but the events of Pentecost do not exhaust Joel 2; the actual fulfillment is yet future from Peter’s point of view (and from ours as well, yes?).

In turn, that means—follow me closely here—that all the favored cessation proof texts that are supposed to be telling us that revelation is over, finito, done with, the canon is closed, no fresh revelation, no more—every single one of those passages is in conflict with Joel 2, which pointedly tells us that in the future, our young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams, our sons and daughters will prophesy—in short, that there will be fresh revelation in the future.

If the fulfillment of Joel 2 is future, then prophecy has not yet ceased.


Hallucinating Your Ideology

29 October 2019

“A theory is a very dangerous thing to have.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the core ideas of Nassim Taleb’s work is that many small errors in a system are much safer than one big one. If you let individual grocery store managers handle their own ordering, sometimes they’re gonna screw it up, and a particular store will run out of potatoes. You can solve that problem by taking away local control, and hiring a handful of specialists at headquarters. But if you centrally control all ordering from corporate headquarters, when you make a mistake, all the stores west of the Mississippi run out of potatoes at the same time.

So yes, the store manager in Paducah is bad at ordering produce, but his errors don’t propagate to other stores, and someone from the produce department can always pop over to the next town and grab a few crates of potatoes to hold them over until the next shipment. Can’t do that when corporate makes a similar mistake, because the consequences are so much bigger. Centralized control prevents many small errors, then in a single blunder costs more than all the small errors put together.

And this why giving primacy to exegesis works better than giving primacy to an organizing theological concept.

Examples of that centralized, top-down approach abound–it’s far more common than not. Gordon Clark is a particularly good example, because he was very clear-eyed about what he was doing. Clark talked up the importance of starting points, and pointedly said that his starting point was the sovereignty of God, and he never wavered from it–and to my eye, he didn’t, even when that meant doing violence to a particular text of Scripture in service to his big idea. The truth is that everybody does this sometimes, and most theologians do it habitually; they just pretend they don’t.  Very few are as clear and honest about it as Clark was. God bless him for his clarity.

I’m not against Big Idea thinking; it’s a good lens to look through at times. You see some things you’d have missed otherwise. The danger is that if you look through the same lens all the time–if you allow the Big Idea to become your master rather than your tool–you can no longer see clearly. You see your Big Idea in everything, whether it’s there or not. And the corollary danger is that you miss things that are right in front of you, because you’re too busy hallucinating your ideology to notice what’s actually there.

Once you do that, you’re not doing exegesis anymore.