Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

Replying to a critique from ‘The Grand Book’ blog

Back in April, I posted “Why Factual Discrepencies in the Bible are a Barrier to Faith.”

Today, I received a reply that  responded to several points I made.

And, now, here’s my reply to the reply:

Thanks for your reply. I approved your comment on my blog (I have it set up so I have to approve all comments because I was getting a lot of junk in my comments sections).

Your lengthy reply deserves an adequate response.

In the first section, I quote things you’ve said and made replies. After that, I give examples of factual discrepencies.

“And on what basis is rationality unassailable?”

My argument was not that rationality is unassailable, but rather that rational arguments based on non-rational grounds don’t make sense.

“…nowhere in New Testament literature do I see the preeminence of Reason” Oddly enough, here you are making a rational or reason-based argument based on a lack of evidence in the New Testament texts.

“Isn’t it really just a reaction to the Enlightenent where humanity, in it’s arrogance (for it issued in the bloodiest Century EVER when it deified Reason) decides it has the right to place “God in the Dock” (on trial).”

Maybe I can just say that Thomas Aquinas would probably not make reason the bad guy, but rather the people who use it. Actually, I’m more likely to agree with you in one sense: David Hume said reason is and ought to be slave to the passions. So it always has been a tool of convictions and beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that one can just say “the Enlightenment and 20th Century were bad therefore reason is to blame.”

On lower-order and higher-order concerns, let me give a brief illustration: If my wife, children and I are traveling, and our car breaks down in a rural area, I will certainly talk to the first person who stops to help. However, if that person does quirky things and says unusual things and acts strangely (lower-order concerns) then I’m going to be wary of his offer to take all of us to a safe location (higher-order concern).

“And how does one get better information than these eyewitnesses (or those who received information from them) as an English-speaking American postmodern skeptic 2,000 years after the fact? Why would I accept the culture-bound skepticism of my generation over the testimony of 1st Century Middle Eastern eyewitnesses who both spoke the language (Aramaic) and were able to write in the “lingua Franca” of het day?”

I like most of this point, and especially agree about culture-bound skepticism. However, I’m pretty sure the Gospels were written in Greek. You’re right to say the disciples spoke Aramaic. Considering their class and education, they most likely couldn’t write in Greek. So who wrote the Gospels?

“If some facts do not line up as reported by different sources from different cities for different audiences with different intents that does not equal a lack of truthfulness. The author of this article may have been a journalist as I was myself, but the authors of the N.T. books (for example) are under now such social contract to deliver the daily news.”

OK, as long as we’re admitting that we’re divorcing factual accuracy from truthfulness. Maybe I am too “Greek” in my thinking but I smell relativism here. Then again, I love poetry so I’m actually quite cool with metaphors and the idea of getting to the “essence” of an experience rather than just the facts. Maybe I should read the Bible in more of a poetic way. Seriously, maybe I should and will.

“This is patently poor thinking. Having undermined scripture (without a single example) he now wants to base the Nicene Creed on it? Then he says that a Bible-study industry cannot reasonably supported by these same documents? What Bible-study industry?”

Well, you may have gotten the facts right, but you sure missed my intentions (which ironically is what you say I’m doing with the Bible). I transitioned from my previous points by saying, “Of course, it’s not that simple,” which is my way of admitting that there is fault in what I have said previously, and I’ve only given a simplistic overview. THEN, I proceed to make a point that you made earlier, which is that multiple witnesses provide good evidence in the areas in which they agree. To answer your question about the Bible study industry, I use your own words: “Christian bookstores now stay open not by selling serious theological or exegetical works…” Yes, very true, but many of those books are still labeled as Bible studies, and wherever I go, I can’t get away from books by Beth Moore and Kay Arthur and others. Maybe I should have said, “alleged Bible studies.”

“Okay. Cherry-picking.”

No, the exact opposite — looking for broad thematic unity within the canon. The opposite of cherry-picking.

Now, before I give examples factual discrepencies (which I had before in earlier blog posts because I consider all the posts to be part of one work), I will say that I’ve been watching video clips of Ben Witherington, D.A. Carson, and others making a case for the reliability of the New Testament. And this actually goes to your last point: specialists CAN explain differences between, for example, the geneologies at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. I’m not sure how someone could take the plain sense of the text and make the two geneologies work  together, but specialists in other fields can. But as I give these examples of discrepencies, I am acknowledging that some scholars might be able to shed genuine light on the related subjects. However, very few people I grew up with — both in the non-denominational charismatic churches and in the Independent Misisonary Baptist schools — even KNEW the phrase “ancient near East literature.”

But I am acknowledging that “plain sense” or “historical-grammatical” isn’t necessarily always the “right” way to read the ancient near East texts.

In what follows, I show examples of discrepencies in the “plain sense” or “historical-grammatical” reading of Scripture, the way my Christian schools and churches all approached the Scriptures.

To be concise, I’ll begin by quoting Michael J. Christensen, who at the beginning of his book “C.S. Lewis on Scripture” tries to give the background for why he is writing the book.

“There are historical problems. For example, how did Judas kill himself? Matthew 27:3 records that he threw his money at the feet of the priests and went out and hung himself. Acts 1:18 records that Judas bought a field with the money he received and there fell headlong on the ground, his body bursting open and his intestines spilling out. [[Burch’s note: he couldn’t have thrown the money at the feet of the priests and then bought a field with it, even if the stories of Judas’ death could be patched together.]]

“There are genealogical problems. The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 does not agree with the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3. Neither does the genealogy of Genesis 4 square with that of Genesis 5.

“There are factual problems. According to Matthew there was one angel at Jesus’ empty tomb. Mark says it was a young man sitting down. Luke says two men stood by the women and proclaimed the resurrection. And John says two angels sat where the body of Jesus had lain, and appeared only to Mary Magdalene.

“There are numerical problems. 2 Samuel 10:18 records that David slew the men of 700 Syrian chariots. 1 Chronicles 19:18, a parallel account, records that David slew the men of 7,000 Syrian chariots.

“There are major and minor inconsistencies. Who commanded King David to take a census of Israel — the Lord or Satan? 2 Samuel 24:1 claims ‘the Lord.’ 1 Chronicles 21:1 claims ‘Satan.’ Whom did the voice from heaven address at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew 3:16 reads, ‘THIS is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’Luke 3:22 reads, ‘THOU art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.'”

Now, some other observations:

Genesis 1:1-2:4 presents a much different order of creation than Genesis 2:5-2:25.

Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3, supposedly parallel accounts, differ on whether Jesus sent the disciples out with a walking stick or told them not to take one.

My Oxford edition of The New English Study Bible says, in its intro to 1 Thesalonians, that the account of Paul’s travels in Acts 17:1-18:5 does not seem to match up with the presuppositions of 1 Thes. 2:7-9 and Philippians 4:16. Admittedly, I’m not sure I fully understand this one, but I assume the folks behind the Oxford edition of a study Bible are sharp enough to consider.

Aquinas, idolatry, and the previous post

I would like to defend my use of an Aquinas quotation in my previous post (to which Thabiti Anyabwile graciously replied).

While I might be inferring or extrapolating to a degree, I think the quotation legitimately deals with the topics in yesterday’s post: idolatry and earthly affections.

The direct quotation, from Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, was, “Well-ordered self-love, whereby man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural; but it is inordinate self-love, leading to the contempt of God, that Augustine reckons to be the cause of sin.”

Prior to that quotation, but also in the concluding part of the same article, Aquinas writes, “…every sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good.”

That seems to be related to, if not precisely about, idolatry (“inordinate desire”) and earthly affections (“some temporal good”).

Shortly after the quotation I used in yesterday’s post, Aquinas writes, “…every sin arises either from inordinate desire for some good, or from inordinate avoidance of some evil.”

So from this section of Aquinas’s work, we could at least infer (1) there are good things in the created order, (2) liking or wanting those good things is well-ordered self-love, and (3) humans sin when their desires for those good things becomes inordinate.

All these quotations come from the latter half, or the concluding part, of the same article in Aquinas’s “Treatise on Habits” within Summa Theologica. See Second Part, Q. 77, Article 4 of the Summa.

Maybe I’m inferring or extrapolating to a degree. Even so, I think that article has something to teach us about idolatry and earthly affections.

How off-base am I? Please comment and explain.

Idolatry versus Earthly Affections, or Anyabwile versus Bonhoeffer and Aquinas

I feel a bit of exasperation after reading Thabiti Anyabwile’s post on desire for marriage, a post that is typical of the imbalanced rhetoric often heard in conservative Christian circles (but please see my Things to like about Thabiti Anyabwile).

I hasten to add that I believe in, and feel confident of, the spirit and intention I think lies behind the writing of the post, and its re-posting by a good friend of mine. My primary concern here is that it might be read or heard in a way that is inconsistent with the balancing, better threads of Christian tradition. Behind all this is a belief: In church circles, “obvious” is never really obvious — in our time, we cannot take our meanings for granted.

If you read Anyabwile’s post, we might balance his checklist with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation:

“We should love God eternally with our whole hearts, yet not so as to compromise or diminish our earthly affections, but as a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Earthly affection is one of these contrapuntal themes, a theme which enjoys autonomy of its own.”

I take “earthly affections” and “the other melodies of life” to mean our good creaturely experiences in God’s created order — playing, eating, drinking, singing, competing, falling in love, and so on.

Why set that quotation against Anyabwile’s checklist?

Because desires for marriage and sex are good and normal. In his post, Anyabwile quickly confuses those good desires with idolatry and never looks back. Bonhoeffer understood that one could desire human, natural things without rebelling against God.

Rather than trying to give us a powerful sense of rigor and zeal, Bonhoeffer gave us a sound sense of balance.

We might also balance Anyabwile’s post with Proverbs 18:22 – “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” (Finding a wife is a way of getting favor from the Lord? How did this verse survive the Reformation? – Oh, come on, that was funny.)

Imagine the guilt that an earnest young Christian who really wants to get married will feel after reading Anyabwile’s post — now only self-chastisement, and straining against God’s created order, are in his future.

His normal, “earthly affections” are now idols — they have been rendered as nothing but.

The excitement he had in this earthly endeavor of finding a spouse is now mere sin. His relationship with God is now a burden, a problem to be managed.

Rather than his cry of abba, Father, his relationship with God is now defined by kicking away idols.

No joy in the wonder and majesty of God.

Oddly enough, Reformed dogma assumes that we cannot have pure motives, at all, ever, which is why we need Christ’s atoning work. Yet about half of the Reformed people I hear keep kicking at others as if they might gain pure motives if their zeal and self-chastisement were only a bit stronger. What an exasperating circularity.

Anyway, to the guilt-ridden young man, I offer not Thabiti Anyabwile, but Thomas Aquinas (if we can see through the awkward language and consider what he’s trying to say):

“Well-ordered self-love, whereby man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural; but it is inordinate self-love, leading to the contempt of God, that Augustine reckons to be the cause of sin.”

Much-needed balance.

The young Christian should know that, according Proverbs 18:22, his desire for a wife and his desire for sex are ” fitting good(s)… right and natural.”

Degrading or uplifting the believer? Or, a few thoughts sprung from Aquinas and L’Abri Fellowship

A certain cast of mind in Protestantism insists on a dim view of humanity, and this view continues to apply to the redeemed believer. Having been exposed to that cast of mind quite a bit, I have had major struggles with it. In 2001, I read an article by Roger Kimball in The New Criterion. Kimball quoted Aquinas: “Well-ordered self-love, whereby a man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural.” I thought this orthodox Christian’s quotation scandalous, because it didn’t fit with the experiences and understandings layered into my mind from years of churches and Christian schools. The article appeared in 2001. More recently, it dawned on me that very few orthodox-Protestants-with-a-high-view-of-Scripture had ever demonstrated to me the attitude Aquinas demonstrates in that quotation — with the big exception of the folks at L’Abri Fellowship, which I had visited three years before Kimball’s article appeared. There, the scandal began with the mere title of a book by a close affiliate of Francis Schaeffer. Several well-worn copies of Udo Middelmann’s book Pro-Existence occupied the L’Abri library. With a rigorous, conservative affirmation of  Scripture, Middelmann endorsed humans being human. The only for-instance I have available to me at the moment is, “Only in creative activity do we externalize the identity we have as men made in the image of God. This then is the true basis for work.” I think I have better quotations from the book somewhere, but the essence of the book should be noticed: Humans beings are made in the image of God, and that’s part of their value. A friend once told me that Martin Luther thought the image of God had been replaced, in the unredeemed, after Christ’s death, with the image of the Devil, at least as far as God is concerned. I don’t think my friend accepts that point of view, which is good, because it’s worth noting the consequences of such a problematic thought: if you want to banish the image of the Devil on the earth, why not endorse a Holocaust? Why not abortion, euthanasia, death penalty? Why not more war? Well, I think history demonstrates that the worst and simplest translation of a thought gets the widest broadcast. The point is this: Somehow, Merely Human should mean neither Devil nor God. If culturally conscious Christians wonder why their fellow redeemed don’t seem to be on the cutting edge of arts or sciences, maybe they could start by asking how the individual believer assesses himself, as well as his own creative, entrepreneurial, and intellectual gifts. If a believer really assesses himself as merely a rotten sinner, not only does he deny the standing that New Testament says he has in Christ, he is also unlikely to see himself capable of using his gifts and talents in service of God and fellow humans.