Friday, February 22, 2013

Response to Mike F.

Facebook users who believe that social networks are not legitimate venues for lengthy exchanges (dismissively, I have found, termed “walls of text”), or who are unable or unwilling to meticulously and charitably review opinions that run contrary to their own, are strongly advised against reading further. My complicated response is, in truth, a compliment to the original poster. For I have taken his remarks seriously enough to think about them at great length. And I have had respect enough for his efforts to take the time to formulate (the beginnings of) a reply. This reply, one may infer from the date and time stamp, was not fired off-the-cuff. I ask only that persons who, despite my advisory, decide to invest some of their very limited time on this earth reading my reply, will show me the same courtesy that I have shown for Mike. To be precise, I ask only that readers not go off half-cocked merely because they're put out that someone has dared to insinuate that Christianity is rationally defensible after all. I take my intellectual obligations seriously, and I expect the same from my interlocutors. 

“Where the reader is as certain as I am, he may accompany me; where, like me, he hesitates, he may question me; when he sees himself in error, he may follow me; where I go wrong, he may lead me back.” ~ St. Augustine, De Trinitate.


Three preliminary remarks are in order.

Firstly, I am sympathetic to several of your complaints. For example, I think that your suspicion is well-grounded that “...Jesus would abhor the lifestyles and behavior of most Americans, especially those who claim to be Christians.” Additionally, there is no love lost between me and moral subjectivism. Hence, I concur with your thought that the untutored and often capricious “opinions” of people regarding the Good are a woefully inadequate foundation on which to build a culture's moral superstructure. Furthermore, despite what may appear to be my rather severe verdict (following) on many of your assertions, nonetheless, I share your enthusiasm for the free exchange of ideas, I applaud your efforts to express your points by way of analogy and thought experiment, and I trust, both from past experience with you and from observation, that you realize that any attack on your statements is not tantamount to an attack on you, personally.

That said I note, secondly, that it is at times difficult (for me at least) to know precisely how to construe your text. To begin, greater care must be taken to avoid confusing readers (at best) or spewing nonsense (at worst). For example, as the text stands there is at least one logical contradiction [See: END NOTE #1 for a definition of “logical contradiction”], the presence of which throws a question mark behind the intelligibility of a crucial couple of paragraphs – to say nothing of the very coherence of the piece.

To be precise, in one place you appear to stipulate the following definition: “The definition of the word 'Christian' is one who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine son of the God of Abraham.” Let this be “S”: “A Christian is a person who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine son of the God of Abraham.” Further along, you write: “..Believing that Jesus was the son of God doesn't make you a Christian.” In variable assignment, this looks like it should be “not-S.” Now I am confused. First you stipulated that a Christian is a person who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine son of the God of Abraham, but now you take it all back. Hence, you say that it both is and is not the case that a Christian is a person who believes in Jesus of Nazareth in a particular way. To put it another way, you have asserted Both S and not-S. This is a contradiction.

Perhaps you meant to attribute “S” to your opponents without endorsing it yourself. Perhaps one sentence contains a typographical error (possibly). Probably, a bit more care during the editing process would have prevented this sort of rather egregious error. At the very least, however, you will have to address problems of this sort prior to expecting that you have laid down anything like even a minimal challenge to Christians (or to anyone else, for that matter), let alone said something “definitive.”

However, rectifying, excising, or otherwise setting aside this logical blunder, the text has a hasty feel to it, overall, and many of the assertions seem to have been shot from the hip.

To give just a few quick examples, I observe that you began one paragraph with an overheated claim about what “Most people who call themselves 'Christian' believe...”. I say “overheated” because, of course, even by the (arguably lax) standards of Wikipedia such a statement would be flagged due to inadequate evidence. From what sociological study do you draw these conclusions about what “most Christians” believe? Are you reckoning “Christians” according to your own (very idiosyncratic) definition, or according to some other, more neutral definition? And there are other questions besides.

Additionally, you give varying – and non-equivalent – accounts of a matter that is literally critical to your overall complaint (as nearly as I can follow it). To be specific, in one place you claim that to be a “Christian” (in your sense) one “must live by the tenets of Christianity”. Elsewhere, however, you put what looks like it was supposed to be the same point in different language, ostensibly claiming that being a “Christian” (again, presumably in your sense) requires that one “want to live by every tenet of [Christianity]”. We need to be quite clear that statements like “living according to x”, “necessarily living according to x”, and “wanting to live according to x” are making distinct claims. For example, the statement “living according to x” is, straightforwardly, a matter-of-fact claim about a particular way of living and does not involve matters of necessity (“must”) or desire (“wanting”). Hence, when you unceremoniously shift between statements your point becomes unclear. Moreover, the distinct claims are not obviously related to each other in any principled or predictable way. To give just a single illustration, a person could very well live according to some standard (x), in fact, without wanting to do so. Perhaps the person is forced to live that way, for instance, but despises it.

Furthermore, a number of your phrases are idiosyncratic, and could benefit greatly from a concerted clarification effort. For example, it isn't altogether obvious what you mean by constructions such as “comprehensively familiar with every word” or “Jesus did not subscribe to the concept of private property, but quite the opposite.” “Comprehensive familiarity” seems either oxymoronic or redundant. Given this possible duality of meaning, strictly speaking, your phrase is ambiguous and stands in need of disambiguation. In any case, in PART THREE I will take up the question of whether the Christian need take seriously the redundant sense (ignoring the possibility that the term is an oxymoron). [END NOTE # 2]

Moreover, it is not clear to me exactly how to take your mention of “the concept of private property” and its alleged “opposite”. For one thing, it seems very doubtful that there is much substance to the idea that there is one notion of “private property” such that that notion and only that notion answers to the definite description “THE concept of private property”. More seriously, the various modern notions of private property arose quite late in the history of philosophy. It is enormously anachronistic to attribute to first century Palestinian Jews opinions on a constellation of concepts that weren't even formulated until hundreds of years later.

Thirdly, it is worth underscoring that, insofar as some of your central points are assertions, they stand in need of adequate defense (to say nothing of clearer formulation) before readers (of any persuasion) are put under any rational obligation to respond.

Although I will try to frame my reply post in precise language, because of the unstructured nature of the text that I am addressing, my own response might sometimes read more like the various other “reactions” that have collected underneath of it than the tight arguments that I usually aim to produce. Moreover, given the wide ranging nature of your assertions, I will necessarily be selective about the points that I address, and I will be limited in terms of the depth with which I am able to excavate any given point. Surely, if you sharpen up your own text, I could do likewise with my response. And if you focus your points, we could achieve greater depth in the dialectic.

From here on I will ignore the more sensational difficulties (like the aforementioned contradiction), and I will try to highlight a few of (what I detect to be) the main conceptual difficulties in your presentation. Time limitations (of mine) and miscellaneous limitations (e.g., of readers' patience) will necessitate that I be brief (in my sense!). In what follows I will not attempt an exhaustive reply. For one thing, as I have said, in its present state your text is nowhere near complete (or coherent) enough to warrant such an effort. Instead, I will merely try to make a few issues salient and to give some indication of the complexity that you have neglected – intentionally or unintentionally. In the end, I am confident that you could retool your presentation and provide respectable defenses for many (but not quite all, I am afraid) of your points (if, again, I have rightly understood any of them in this embryonic form).

Understand: My reply represents quite an investment of time on my part. I would not have bothered with this endeavor at all if I did not respect your efforts.

The remainder of my text will be divided into three main parts. In part one, I will bring to your attention two confusions or conflations. In places, you arguably conflate accidental properties and essential properties; and, at times, you seem to confuse epistemological issues with metaphysical issues. In part two, I will address several areas where you oversimplify the issues in various respects. Specifically, I will focus on three particularly weighty oversimplifications: regarding issues of classification, regarding the provision of an adequate account of liberty, and regarding the function of, and need for, interpretation. In part three, I will issue a warning against the perennial debating error of attacking straw men. Straw man attacks may arise due to descriptions of the opposition that are stipulated, as many of yours seem to be, and ascribed to the opposition, without due consideration for the way the opposition describes itself. Finally, I will provide a few brief closing remarks.


Subsection A: The conflation of accidental properties and essential properties.

Let's establish the requisite terminology. “The essential properties of a thing...are those properties that it must have so long as it exists at all... The accidental properties of a thing, by contrast, are those properties that it could exist without.” [END NOTE # 3]

We can illustrate this distinction by modifying your remarks about birds.

You wrote: >>...Believing that Jesus was the son of God doesn't make you a Christian any more than believing you can fly makes you a bird. You must fly to be a bird.<<

The chief problem with your presentation of this example is that, arguably, in it you conflate the essential property/accidental property distinction. To be more exact, if being able to fly were an essential property of a bird – that is, a property without which an entity could not be a bird – then we should not have any sensible specimens of birds that do not fly. Yet, this is not the case.

In the first place, by the received view of taxonomy, there are several respectable varieties of flightless birds. Two examples would be penguins and ostriches. [END NOTE # 4]

Setting aside so-called flightless birds for a moment, there is yet another reason why the statement “You must fly to be a bird” is false. Consider a newly hatched baby bluebird. According to your principle (taken at face-value), it turns out that a newly hatched baby bluebird isn't a bird. For a newly hatched baby bluebird can't - actually - fly. But this is clearly (and I hope obviously) wrong.

However, one might immediately object that I am straining out gnats. Clearly your serious contrast is supposed to be between belief and reality. And with this distinction I have great sympathy.

Probably, you meant to write something more like that believing that one is a bird does not make one a bird. To be a bird an entity must be a bird, in fact; and not merely believe that one is a bird.

Notice, though, what happens to the illustration when this change is implemented. As long as we keep an eye on the distinction between essential properties and accidental properties, we see that an entity counts as a bird just in case a bird is what the entity *is*, not because of what the entity does or does not do, and certainly not because of what the entity believes or does not believe. (Possibly, a contrast could be developed along the lines of potentiality, however.)

Two further comments are in order.

Number one, observation of the essence/accident distinction provides the Christian with a reply to the thrust of your complaint, here. A Christian could maintain that, just as a flightless bird is still a bird (even if the bird is, in an important sense physically crippled, or if the thing only “feels like” a bird in some demoted sense of “bird”), in an analogous way, a “disobedient Christian” is still a Christian (even if the Christian is, in an important sense spiritually crippled, or if the Christian only “feels like” one in some demoted sense of “Christian”). I fail to see how you have even remotely foreclosed on this possible avenue of response.

Number two again, for all that you have said so far, a Christian could argue that birds and Christians are relevantly different such that, even if you could somehow remedy your analogy and press home your desired point, still, the Christian would incur no liability. Indeed, there is a straightforward way for the Christian to accomplish this. I will take up this second possible Christian line in the PART TWO, Subsection A.

Subsection B: The confusion of epistemological issues and metaphysical issues.

Epistemological questions” are questions having to do with how a person can know something. “Metaphsyical questions” are questions having to do with what something *is*. The asterisks around the “is” indicate that the word is to be read with suitable gravity in order to grasp the meaning.

On reflection, I think that it might be open to argue that your text is shot-through with this species of confusion. However, perhaps one of the more striking and obvious examples of the epistemic-metaphysic confusion is the following.

You wrote: >>The fact of the matter is, Christianity, and the teachings of Jesus, originate in the Bible.<<

Let me set up the criticism. A number of people – theists and non-theists alike – believe that Jesus was an actual, “historical” person who lived oh, say, from somewhere about 6 BC/AD 1 to about AD 26/AD 33 (or thereabouts). On the general surmise that there was a “historical Jesus” (which, as far as I can tell, you have not argued against), about 2,000 years ago Jesus would have walked about, eaten, said various things, and so on.

Straightforwardly, then, “the fact of the matter is” that Jesus' teachings, and the Church (Christianity) that he founded, “originate” with the person himself, i.e., Jesus. This is a metaphysical point. If Jesus did live and establish a church (and so on), then that church originated with him. It would still have originated with him even if that church had never been written about (e.g., in the Bible). Without the Bible, today we might not know that it existed (or that it had existed), but this is another matter an epistemic matter.

It may be your intention to say that most modern people come to know about Jesus through the Bible. This is an epistemic point. It may be true or not. (In fact, I think that quite a few people learn about Jesus through the Church or family, wholly apart from the Bible, but I will ignore this.) The key point, however, is that one must not confuse the Bible's being the origin for our (contemporary) knowledge about (early) Christianity with the Bible itself being the “origin” of Christianity itself or Jesus himself. Or, to use a bit of jargon, this would be to confuse epistemology with metaphysics.

One might be able to see this distinction more clearly with an example. What reply would predictably follow if, for example, I were to say, parroting your statement: “The fact of the matter is biological evolution through random mutation and natural selection, and the teachings of Darwin, originate in The Origin of Species.” Clearly, the predictable response is that, if biological evolution through random mutation and natural selection is a true account of the development of life on earth, such did not “originate” in The Origin of Species – or in any other book – even if it is true to say that we learned about it by reading that book. If true, it “originated” in the actual development of organisms over hundreds of millions of years of earth's history. If it is true, it's because, well, that's just what happened.

The moral of the story is that the origin of our knowledge of x is not necessarily the same thing as the origin of x itself.

Part two – Oversimplifications

Subsection A: Simplifications regarding issues of classification.

In your text you mention a number of examples having to do with classification. In general, by “classification” I mean some principled way of determining what counts as what. For example, following you, we might be concerned with whether some entity is a bird or not, some female is pregnant or isn't, some person is a Christian or not, or whether some law is Constitutional or unconstitutional.

On the subject of birds, let me pick up a strand from earlier. Previously, I indicated that one possible line of response to your bird analogy would be to simply label your original analogy faulty, redraw it, and show that on the redrawn analogy it actually makes good sense to suppose that some Christians fail to act as Christians ought.

However, I also hinted at a second line, which I will unpack presently. The second line begins, as I already noted, by maintaining that birds and Christians are relevantly different such that, even if you could somehow remedy your analogy and press home your desired point, still, the Christian would incur no liability. I further stated that the there was a well known way to establish this difference. That way involves the notion of “natural kinds.”

To be precise, the Christian could argue that “bird” is a natural kind term whereas “Christian” is not. Roughly, “natural kinds” are sometimes held to be groupings that divide reality “at its joints” – naturally, as it were.

Intuitively, the idea is to draw a distinction between divisions that are somehow fundamental – such as, paradigmatically, the atomic differences between gold and lead or, perhaps, the constellation of genetic differences between Homo sapiens and Australopithecus afarensis – and divisions that are somehow secondary – such, as differences between Indo-European peoples are Afro-Asiatic peoples. The former would be candidates for the title natural kinds.

On this sort of a view, the Christian could maintain that the property being a Christian (as opposed to being a non-Christian) is more like the property of being a speaker of an Indo-European language (instead of being a speaker of something else) than it is like the property of being a specimen of the genus Homo and the species sapiens (instead of belonging to some other genus and species). I take it that this is entirely plausible.

The point, here, is twofold. Number one, your original bird analogy is faulty. You have two options. On the one hand, you could correct the analogy. I myself suggested a correction. The problem for you is that the corrected analogy seems better suited to make a point diametrically opposed to the one that you wish to make. To put it differently, the corrected bird analogy seems to suggest that actions are inessential qualities and do not determine the essence of a thing. Hence, one might think that the bird analogy provides no support for the idea that Christians are “defined” by their actions.

On the other hand, you could abandon or replace the analogy. In this case, I have suggested one possible Christian reply in advance. It isn't at all clear that the membership (or “kind-ship”) conditions for (potential) natural kinds like “bird” will be relevantly similar to the conditions for non-natural sortals like “Christian.” You owe us an argument or a new analogy – or both.

Later, you assert: >>...being a Christian is like being pregnant - either you are, or you are not<<

On the face of it, the property of being pregnant seems perhaps to be a bit more promising for you than being a bird. For instance, being pregnant isn't likely to be mistaken for a natural kind – as though, amongst the furniture of reality, one encounters the elements, the electrons, and the pregnant. And it is agreed that the property of being pregnant is metaphysical – it obtains whether or not the female is aware of it – a point reinforced by those unlikely cases that crop up from time to time in the press where a woman who gives birth is alleged to have been surprised by the event.

Your case, however, has to have more to it than facts of physiology – however undeniable they may be. Your burden, after all, is to show that being Christian is a property that is instantiated in virtue of a set of obedience-oriented behavioral proclivities. This you have not argued for in the least. You merely lay it down as a beginning principle. I will have more to say about this stipulative habit of yours in PART THREE.

Presently, let me merely say that Christians of both Catholic and Protestant persuasions may happily accede to the point of the pregnancy analogy. Consider first Catholics. Catholics, we may say – too roughly for most serious purposes, but adequate for the time being – endorse a sort of view where being Christian is something of a synonym for being a member of the (Visible) Church. To the Catholic, this membership is as definite – metaphysically speaking – as is being pregnant. Hence, the Catholic could agree that “being a Christian is like being pregnant either you are, or you are not” and yet deny that this has anything whatever to do with “every tenet” of the Bible. And you have said not a word against this alternative account.

As for the Protestant, some indeed seem to cash out the property of being a Christian in a more epistemology-heavy way. To the Protestant – again, very roughly – Christians are also called “believers” who have membership (in virtue of their belief) in an invisible church, whose roster is known only to God. To say, though, that the conception is epistemology-heavy is not to say that it has no metaphysical “anchor.” After all, to the Protestant, a true believer will have a very definite belief in her mind. So, the Protestant could simply say, “Right. 'Being a Christian *is* like being pregnant - either you are, or you are not'” and yet still not agree that this amounts to something that involves “every tenet”, etc., etc. For the Protestant can simply say that whether the proper belief is found in a person's mind is itself, metaphysically, a matter-of-fact. And as far as I can see, nothing that you have said so far casts any doubt on this.

Finally, you raise the specter of “Constitutionality.” It isn't clear whether there is any point of analogy. One reason to think this is that it seems that the “Constitution” analogy redirects focus – again, unceremoniously – away from the individual (singularly); and not simply to the to the Church (collectively), but to the laws of the Church. You don't explain this redirection, or even admit to it. But it is plausibly there. After all, consider that individuals in a nation – that is, citizens of a country – are not themselves said to be “unconstitutional” or “constitutional.” (People don't seem to be the sorts of things that can be "unconstitutional," but people do seem to be the sorts of things that can be Christian. So, probably, the properties - un/Constitutional and un/Christian are relevantly dissimilar.) Even the government itself – contrary to your idiosyncratic usage – is not usually the bearer of these properties. Rather, it is the government's proposed laws (in the case of the legislature) or enforcement tactics (in the case of the executive) or decisions (in the case of the judiciary) that bear these properties. Why the shift? You don't say. Hence, it isn't clear to me that there is any obvious lesson to draw from musings about the Constitution. [For another set of concerns, see END NOTE # 5]

But in the interest of charity, here is what seems to me to be your argument.

1. If the Bible is the "constitution of Christianity," then a person must obey every tenet of it in order to count as "Christian."
2. The Bible is the "constitution of Christianity."
3. A person must obey every tenet of it in order to count as "Christian."

The argument, as I have represented it, is formally valid. To put it slightly differently, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true.

However, I think that the argument is unsound.

The most obvious place of attack is premise 2. Why think that "the Bible is the 'constitution of Christianity'"?

You have given very little by way of support of this premise, opining only that it seems to you that the Bible:

"...establishes and defines the tenets, requirements and the very existence of Christianity".

I have commented elsewhere that the notion that the Bible *establishes* "the very existence of Christianity" is simply a confusion of epistemic and metaphysical concerns. The Bible - specifically, the New Testament - may well be a "window" to the establishment of Christianity, that is, one of the means by which we have come to know about it. But the Bible (presumably, the New Testament is in focus) did not "establish" Christianity. Some of the creedal formulations quoted by Saint Paul (e.g., in I Corinthians 15), as early as they are, still date from several years after the crucifixion (say, ca. AD 35) and, as such, would post-date the nascent Christian movement. The earliest epistles (e.g., I & II Thessalonians and Galatians) probably date from between AD 45 - 50. By this time, the early Christians were already meeting regularly in one another's houses and, in fact, many were still attending synagogue services. The point is, the Christian movement was in full swing by the time the New Testament was fully set forth. But if Christianity preceded the New Testament, then the New Testament didn't “establish” Christianity. (QED)

Catholics in particular have absolutely no reason to accept your assertions, here. In the Catholic view, "Sacred Tradition" is a broad category that ranges over the Apostles' oral teachings, stemming from their lived experience with Jesus. To be sure, Catholics understand Holy Scripture to be an important and very special subset of this overall Sacred Tradition. However, for Catholics, Holy Scripture does not exhaust Sacred Tradition. Therefore, while it may be that some of the "tenets" and "requirements" of Christian "faith and practice" are set forth in the Scripture (Bible), there is no reason - antecedently - to suppose that this is exhaustive.

However, this sketch of a postive (Catholic-leaning) argument against premise 2 assumes a burden that need not be assumed. Again, you need to defend your premise if you wish for it to be accepted. You produce no quotations, citations, or even allusions to any Bible passages. You simply and baldly assert that the Bible is the "Constitution" of Christianity.

The Protestant, therefore (and the Catholic as well), can simply deny your premise with as much speed as you initially asserted it. There are enough differences between the Bible and the Constitution to make any sustained comparison highly suspect. [See, again, END NOTE # 5]

In any case, we needn't tarry on this discussion of premise 2. For in addition to denying premise 1, the Christian can - and in my opinion should - deny premise 1.

Actually, to be a bit more cautious, Premise 1 is ambiguous. To put it a different way, Premise 1 has more than one possible meaning. Let me show what two of these are.

Call the first disambiguation the "Electronic Counting Machine" premise:

1*. If the Bible is the "constitution of Christianity," then a person must robotically obey every single tenet, of every single era of "heilsgeschichte," in order to count as "Christian."

Call the second disambiguation the "Hand Counted" premise:

1**. If the Bible is the "constitution of Christianity," then a person must obey every tenet of it that is presently in force, in order to count as "Christian."

Both Protestants and Catholics can point out, for example, that certain passages in the New Testament plausibly abrogate various portions of the Old Testament (see, e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 9:17 // Mark 2:22; Hebrews Ch. 8, esp. vv. 7 & 13). In Protestant circles alone there are no fewer than five distinct conceptions of the relationship between testaments. [END NOTE # 6] But your facile treatment gives unfamiliar readers the impression that the matters are obvious. This is either naïve of you or misleading - or both. Contrary to your dismissive rhetoric, fastidious interpretation (that is, a sound and sober hermeneutic) is of the utmost importance. [See PART THREE, Subsection C]

In any case, the verdict should be this: Christians should deny premise 1*, but could - and I think ought to - accept premise 1** (well, that is, accept the consequent clause; the antecedent remains "iffy" - at best).

Subsection B: Simplifications regarding the provision of an adequate account of liberty.

Firstly, your apparent suggested definition of “liberty” is both highly contentious and arguably substandard.

You wrote: >> a Christian you are NOT at liberty at all...You cannot do as you please...<<

From the above excerpt it would appear as though you are suggesting that “liberty” be defined as being able to do as one pleases.

I note three things. Number one, you have not argued that this definition of “liberty” is superior to other contenders. Indeed, you have evinced no awareness that there are other contenders. You have merely laid it down that “liberty,” in the relevant sense, is being able to do as one pleases.

Clearly, we could mean this. But, number two, the notion is far too loose. I doubt that many people, if pressed, would accept this unqualified form. For example, suppose it would “please” me to able to jump from my roof and fly away. On your definition, then, I am arguably “...NOT at liberty at all [since I] cannot do as I please.” This is absurd, however. If this be (< - subjunctive) the definition, then “liberty” is an empty term and no one is at liberty.

This unhappy conclusion is, in any case, an unnecessary one as well. For, number three, there are numerous other candidate definitions. Your neglect of these alternatives not only generates absurd results (as above), it also does an injustice to the topic since you explicitly give readers the impression that Christians are simply helpless in the face of your criticism. In fact, this impression is defective.

Amongst the alternative candidate definitions, perhaps the option that is most obviously compatible with Christianity would be to construe “liberty” as the ability to choose the Good.

One might think that this definition is trivial, but this would be a mistake. Calvinists, for one thing, famously (or infamously, depending on one's point of view) deny that humans ARE at liberty without God's saving grace. To a Calvinist, recall, human beings are born into a condition termed total depravity. On this account, people are, therefore, unable to choose the Good unless and until God acts first on their wills (by way of bestowing “irresistible grace”) and enables them to choose the Good.

In any case, the point is that “liberty” as the ability to choose the Good is neither trivial nor obvious. More importantly, such a definition resolves your dilemma. Being “BOUND to the laws and will of God” simply entails that one is obliged to choose the Good. Since, on this account, having “liberty” means being able to choose the Good, there is no difficulty in the conjunction of being “bound” to God and having liberty. Nowhere have you foreclosed on this possibility.

A related, and to my mind no less viable, option is a definition of “liberty” very close to what you yourself offered – importantly qualified and augmented. For example, “liberty” could be construed as being able to act according to one's desires (within natural limits). Of course, now the Christian need only add that one's desires be conformed to the Good.

To show how this resolves the difficulty that you pose, consider the case of a person who actually desires the Good. A person who desires the Good can, in your turn of phrase, be “BOUND to the laws and will of God” without any sacrifice of liberty since, ex hypothesi, God “binds” the person to do what they would want to do anyway. Again, nothing that you have so far written precludes this option.

Subsection C: Simplifications regarding the function of, and need for, interpretation.

You wrote: >>Most [Christians?] do not [understand Christian doctrine and live by it]. These are the people that must "interpret" the Bible to mean what they want it to mean, or to adhere to the lives they live, rather than fully understanding the Bible and living by it - which would require a very comprehensive change in the way they live. ...Either you want to live by every tenet of the Bible and nothing more, or you do not. You do not "interpret" the tenets of the faith to fit your desired lifestyle. You desire the lifestyle that comes with those tenets.<<

Here it is important to get clear on terminology. In my lexicon, and in the area of literary studies, “interpret” simply means (something like) extract meaning out of (a text). So, if my sister sends me a card, then I will read the card and try to understand what she has written. I will try to extract her intended meaning out of the words that she used. Or, in short, I will interpret her card.

In this sense, we interpret constantly. We interpret newspaper articles, road signs, text messages, and so on. It is difficult, therefore (impractical, if not naturally impossible), to put aside the issue of interpretation (in this broad sense). In the matter at hand, I have to interpret your post and you have to interpret the replies that are posted.

Of course, in general, this sort of interpretation is nearly automatic. We seldom reflect on the process at all (still less frequently do we catalog the procedures) – unless, that is, something goes wrong. Hurt feelings may be our first sign that something has been misinterpreted.

To be sure, people may have psychological peculiarities that impede mutual understanding, and we each no doubt sometimes express ourselves in idiosyncratic ways. By and large, though, interpretation of one another's communications is pretty straightforward – in the sense of being an “everyday,” run-of-the-mill procedure.

There is an academic discipline called “hermenenutics," understood in the sense of some bundle of methods for interpreting texts. This discipline addresses itself to interpretive efforts that are not everyday events.

This is nothing about which to be alarmed. Hermeneutics is an important component of literature studies of all sorts. To give just a taste of this, intuitively, poetry and prose will be reviewed differently. So hermeneutics will set forth procedures for interpreting texts according to genre.

Since the Bible can be analyzed as literature, one can study biblical hermeneutics as well. The reason that one needs, self-consciously, to have a method for interpreting the Bible, but one can usually interpret one's birthday cards and newspaper articles without a conscious method, is (roughly) that the authors of the Bible did not share our “context” (broadly speaking). The biblical authors lived in quite different cultures, at quite different times, surrounded by quite different geographies. And, indeed, they spoke and wrote in quite different languages (from us and, sometimes, from each other). Extracting the intended meaning from texts produced in such different circumstances requires greater care, and a more deliberate approach.

However, you seem to use the word “interpret” quite differently. From your pen, “interpret” seems to carry the sense often conveyed in ordinary speech by locutions such as “explain away” or, perhaps, “re-interpret.” To try to be more precise, “explain away” seems to come down to (something like) all of the following: to extract the genuine meaning out of something, judge the meaning too sensitive, and try to obscure, “cover up,” or otherwise modify the meaning or the text itself in order to make the meaning more palatable.

To be sure, it is doubtless true that people may obscure, “cover up,” or otherwise modify particular meanings (or even various texts themselves) in order to make particular meanings (or texts) more palatable. However, this additional exercise of concealment is not part of “interpretation-simpliciter.”

So we have two ways to go, terminologically speaking.

Number one, we could follow the usual terminology. If we follow the usual terminology, then “interpret” will mean interpret-simpliciter, that is, simply to extract meaning from a text. We can then call the additional acts of “cover-up” and “explaining away” something like concealment.

On this way of speaking, when confronted with a text (for example, some passage of the Bible), the first step will be to read and interpret the text (which is sometimes no easy task). Once the genuine meaning has been extracted, that is, once the text has been properly interpreted, a reader then has a choice. And here, at least when dealing with some sort of didactic passage, the choice is indeed as you have put it. On the one hand, a person can look at the genuine interpretation and choose to conform his or her life to it, or a person could decline to so conform. This declination could take four forms (at least – the following terms are simply my suggestions):

- Simple rejection, where the reader, while acknowledging the true interpretation and not seeking to modify it, just flatly refuses to conform to it;
- Concealment (what you seem most concerned about), where the reader willfully and purposely distorts the acknowledged true interpretation for one reason or other;
- Agnostic suspension, where the reader professes, whether in good faith or not, to be unsure of the genuine interpretation and therefore unable to understand what conformity would involve; and
- Indifference, where the reader simply professes not to care one way or the other either what the text means, or what conformity would involve.

The key point is that, on my schema (which is standard in grammatical-historical hermeneutics), “interpretation” and “concealment” are distinct actions and should not be confused or conflated. The former is simply a name for the process of extracting the genuine meaning from a text (as well as a name for the genuine meaning so extracted), whereas the latter is a name for an act of willful defacement of the genuine interpretation.

Number two, we could follow your terminology. If we follow your terminology, then “(re-)interpret” itself will mean “explain away.” To translate: “(Re-)interpret” in your lexicon is “concealment” in mine. This difference appears to be verbal only and poses no problem PROVIDED THAT we carefully track whose lexicon we are following. But if we do follow you, we will find it useful to coin a term to refer to the initial act of extracting meaning from texts.

At this point, you might object that no term other than “read” is necessary. I think, however, that this is simply mistaken. Here are a few reasons and examples that may us help to see this.

First, if “reading” and “extracting genuine meaning” were identical actions, then it should be practically impossible to read a text without automatically extracting the correct meaning from it. However, this leaves no room for honest mistakes. If reading a text always elicited in the reader an apprehension of the genuine meaning, then any instance of “misinterpretation” would have to be the product of nefarious intent. This seems extreme, uncharitable, and simply wrongheaded. Despite the fact that intentional distortion of meanings surely does occur, still it seems obvious that there are innumerable instances of honest misunderstandings, to say nothing of misunderstandings that are neither honest nor dishonest (e.g., those due to laziness, negligence, or sheer stupidity).

Second, If both “reading” and “extracting genuine meaning” designate the same action, then there should be no texts that can be read without being understood. However, this seems more obviously false than did the notion that all “misinterpretations” are dishonorable.

For one thing, we are sometimes able to read passages that, if we are honest, we would say we had difficulty understanding. Consider these lines from Lewis Carroll's poem, Jabberwocky. “`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves | Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Perhaps intuitions differ, but my impulse is to say that while I can read the lines, I am hard pressed to make sense of them.

One might object that the trouble with Carroll's poem is that he employs neologisms that, were they familiar to the reader, would not impede meaning-extraction. I should resist this response, but if one is impressed by it, then consider a further illustration, which employs no neologisms: “For purposes of paragraph (3), an organization described in paragraph (2) shall be deemed to include an organization described in section 501(c)(4), (5), or (6) which would be described in paragraph (2) if it were an organization described in section 501(c)(3).” The Economist article titled “The hardest sentence in the tax code” notes that this “sentence is so infamous [that] Ronald Reagan cited it in his drive to pass the simplifying tax reform of 1986” (humorously, the offending sentence remained even after the supposed Reaganite “simplification”). This sentence contains only “regular” words of Standard American English. Yet, I should say that even availing oneself of the full text of the embedded references does little to make this sentence more comprehensible on its own.

Just for good measure, let me take one more stab at illustrating. Consider the statement, “John does not think that we should stop investing in companies that are not against gun control.” Assuming that “reading” and “meaning extraction” are the same event, one should not have to do anything more than read sentences like this in order to understand them. However, if you are like me in this, I find myself having to stop and analyze the sentence into components to be sure that I have understood it correctly. Reading the words appears to be one thing. I have no difficulty with any of the words, individually. Moreover, I can read the sequence of words without trouble. But when it comes to the question of what the sentence means, I find myself having to stop and do much more mental work than simply articulating words. [END NOTE # 7]

If all of this is correct – or even close to correct – then we need some way to mark off the task of extracting meaning from a text and distinguish it from the bare act of reading. If you wish to use the word “interpret” for what I have called “concealment,” then you need an alternative word to mark off what I have called “interpretation-simpliciter.” Suppose, just for the present, we select the word “elucidate.” Then, following you, step one would be to read and elucidate a particular text.

Once the genuine meaning of a text has been extracted, that is, once the text has been properly elucidated, a reader then has the same choice that I outlined, above. On the one hand, a person can look at the elucidation and choose to conform his or her life to it, or a person could decline to conform. And this takes the form of the same fourfold declination that I previously sketched, with one change. In place of the term “concealment” (which was my term), we use “(re-)interpret” (which was your term). So one could:

- Simply reject the elucidation, where the reader, while acknowledging the true elucidation and not seeking to modify it, just flatly refuses to conform to it;
- (Re-)Interpret the elucidation, where the reader willfully and purposely distorts the acknowledged true elucidation for one reason or other;
- Agnostically suspend action, where the reader professes, whether in good faith or not, to be unsure of the genuine elucidation and therefore unable to understand what conformity would involve; or
- Remain indifferent, where the reader simply professes not to care one way or the other either what the text means, or what conformity would involve.

The key point is that, seemingly even on your schema (which is idiosyncratic and, I think, not preferable, but still manageable), “elucidation” and “(re-)interpretation” should be understood to be distinct actions and should not be confused or conflated. The former is simply the name for the process of extracting the genuine meaning from a text (as well as a name for the genuine meaning so extracted), whereas the latter is a name for an act of willful defacement of the genuine elucidation.

However, once we have untangled the terminology, it should be clear that before one jumps into accusations of textual maleficence (whether understood to be “concealment” in my sense, or “(re-)interpretation” in yours), one needs to establish, by argument and exegesis, the genuine meaning of the text in question (the “interpretation” in my sense, or the “elucidation” in yours). [See END NOTE # 8]

This is not trivial. The Bible is often a very difficult – if profound – collection of documents. I should not think it even remotely plausible to hold that the genuine interpretations-elucidations are in any sense usually “transparent.” Even Protestants who hold to the “Perspicuity of Scripture,” generally hold that it is the guiding light of the Holy Spirit which renders the text clear – not, in the first place, the transparency of the text itself or, in the second place, the acumen of the reader. (It should be noted that the “Perspicuity of Scripture” is not a Catholic conception.) [END NOTE # 9]

Therefore, the point is that, as things stand there seem to be two possibilities. You might have a woefully naïve and inadequate view of hermeneutics – that is, if you really hold that the meaning of Bible passages is, on the whole or even on “average,” transparent or obvious. If this is the case, you need to do far more than simply assert that the meanings are obvious! You need to do some heavy lifting in order to actually evidence this opinion. One place to start would be to actually begin reproducing Scripture quotations, providing us with your proposed analyses of them.

Alternatively, you might have a view that, if you take on board my addition of the category of “elucidation,” comes down, in the end, to the same thing as “my” schema. In this case, elucidation precedes the choice of whether to conform to or conceal the true meaning of the text. We might then agree, procedurally at least. The project would then be one of trying to actually extract the correct meaning from a given passage. And, again, the obvious starting point would be to reproduce a Scripture passage and begin to analyze it. [See END NOTE # 8]


Recall that “[t]he 'straw man' fallacy is committed when an arguer distorts an opponent's argument for the purpose of more easily attacking it...[T]he kind of often an attempt to exaggerate...”. [END NOTE # 10]

One difficulty that pervades your text is that you repeatedly stipulate various “definitions” or “requirements” for being a Christian, but it is not at all clear why any Christian should accept them. [END NOTE # 11]

For example, your wrote: >>So, if you do not live by every tenet of the Bible, you are not a Christian.<<

Now, I acknowledge that you have given at least one argument. Above, I responded to my (I hope charitable and accurate) formalization of that argument by denying both of its premises. I do not want to needlessly lengthen this reply by repeating myself. What I wish to emphasize here is that your text reads like so much armchair speculation. This sort of exercise can be productive and, believe you me, my own chair is well-worn. But in matters such as historical controversies (in which, presently, we're up past our ears), speculation can only replace investigation at the expense of grave disservice to the topic.

You simply assert that the true criterion for being Christian is such-and-so. You provide no quotation from any of Christianity's historic creeds to buttress your claim, despite the fact that there is no shortage of creedal material. The eminent nineteenth century church historian Philip Schaff penned a three volume set titled The Creeds of Christendom (1884), running well over 2,000 pages, on just this very subject.

Additionally, you quote no Christain theologians and, indeed, show no awareness of Christianity's rich theological history. My shelves contain no fewer than 76 volumes solely from Church Fathers writing around the Council of Nicea. The collection of works in theology has only been expanded since that time with important contributions by such notables as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and, since even those luminaries, by innumerable lesser lights. And yet, you reproduce not a line of any of this text. You provide nothing by way of evidence that your proposed criterion has ever been seriously advanced by any serious Christian theologian – at any time – during the entire history of the Church.

Moreover, you do not even quote from the Bible, despite making the centerpiece of your proposal various claims about what, according to you, the Bible says or implies and what bad news this spells for Christians. Then, as a flourish, you assert that all of this is very transparent and easily discovered.

Furthermore, you seem to be unaware that there are massive debates over the very issues that you discuss – namely, in what does Christianity consist? This involves other issues in the vicinity such as what constitutes “salvation”? What is the relationship between the Testaments? What is the relationship between “Israel” and the Church? What are the natures of God's various covenants with men? And much else besides.

Insofar as you want or expect to be taken seriously, this unintentional ignorance or willful neglect of the vast ocean of Christian output concerning the topic about which you proclaim yourself occupied is nothing short of hubris. If, indeed, you are merely just tossing thoughts about willy nilly – perhaps not aiming to produce an argument based upon sound evidence (and succeeding), perhaps typing a “manifesto” of some sort – then, maybe, your ignorance or neglect are excusable. But in this case, it should be absolutely clear that neither Christians nor anyone else has even the slightest reason (evidentially speaking) to take you seriously.

Perhaps most outrageously, you seem indifferent to the fact that your entire presentation aims to speak for, and define, “Christianity” on a monumental scale and yet, you casually (and probably unconsciously) take sides in debates that have raged for hundreds of years (conservatively counted) without even so much as one scintilla of the evidence that one would expect of such serious judgments.

For example, you abruptly remark: >>...if it is not found in the Bible, it is not a command of God.<<

Amazingly, with a single statement you manage both to smuggle in unannounced the Protestant “formal principle” sola scriptura (over which Christianity split during the Reformation), as well as virtually take sides in an important point of contention between Lutherans and Calvinists – with Lutherans historically holding, as a so-called “Regulative Principle,” that “Whatever is not forbidden in Scripture is permissible” and Calvinists maintaining (perhaps closer to you) that “Whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden.” [END NOTE # 12]

What arguments do you advance for your semi-Calvinistic conclusions? What rebuttals do you provide for Lutherans? Do you have a revised Ordo Salutis for theologians to inspect? For these debates are situated in broader contexts.

One such contextual element is the host of Catholic-Protestant issues that you leave untouched. Your statement, both previously quoted and discussed, that: >>The Bible...establishes and defines the tenets, requirements and the very existence of Christianity...<< reads to me like a blunt endorsement of Sola Scriptura – the “...Reformation principle that Scripture – not Scripture plus church tradition – is the [sole] source of Christian revelation.” [END NOTE # 13]

I personally spent over two years – suspended between Catholicism and Protestantism – thinking about this one issue (before “reverting” back to Catholicism from Evangelicalism). I have more than 30 books, and countless articles, on the topic. In fact, if I continue on to do PhD work this is one possible topic that I would consider to be developable into a fruitful dissertation. And yet you ally yourself with the "Protestant side" almost as lightly and self-assuredly as if you were announcing that "grass is green."

The point – if I have not already belabored it – is that the questions that you are touching on are complex, subtle, deeply rooted in history, and not easily resolved.


As I said in my introduction, I am thrilled by your interest and I applaud your enthusiasm. But it would be a huge understatement to say that the sort of work which could make a contribution towards clarifying or tracing out – let alone untangling – even the thinnest thread in this dense tapestry would, minimally, be a meticulously constructed piece whose every phrase was carefully measured (probably measured twice). As much as I admire your energy and appreciate your indefatigable efforts to expose the dark goings on of crypto-politics, with all due respect, your (a)theological musings, while perhaps “Like-able" by some in a shallow, Facebook-ian sense, have nothing like the evidentiary depth of some of your political e-pamphleteering (which I have found edifying).

In six paragraphs, bereft of even the fainest hint of a citation, a conscientious reader may detect one logical contradiction, two category confusions/conflations, multiple oversimplifications, and contentious (at best) and spurious (at worst) attributions verging on the erection of a classic straw man.

The relevant themes are immense in their breadth. One either needs to immerse oneself in the relevant literature (much as you have begun to do with the Founders) or, frankly, leave the topic alone.
~ Matthew J. Bell, 23 February 2013


*** END NOTES ***

END NOTE #1 – “A logical contradiction is the conjunction of a statement [S] and it's denial [not-S]. … [For example,] I love you and I don't love you.” (Source: G. Randolph Mayes, "Logical Consistency and Contradiction," Sacramento State U, <>.)

END NOTE # 2 – Here I am having a few difficulties with the phrase “comprehensively familiar with every word”. Firstly, there seem to be two possible meanings for the word “familiar” and I am unsure which (if either) you had in mind. Breaking out my trusty dictionary, on the one hand I read that “familiar” can mean "commonly or generally known or seen". So for example, being a native St. Louisan, I have often driven on Highway 70. One could fairly say that, to me, Highway 70 is "commonly or generally known or seen". For all of my “common and general” familiarity with Highway 70, I should not pretend to be aware of “every” nook and cranny – or even of the “details” of all of it's main entrances and exits. Despite this, I think that I still count as being “familiar” with Highway 70. I would be hard pressed to accurately present a reasonably detailed map of even a small portion of the Highway. So, in a similar way, in “common and general” sense, I simply fail to see how “familiarity” with the Bible needs to consist of awareness of “every word.” This is to say that you might be confusing “familiarity” with (something like) exhaustive awareness. If so, it is not at all clear why a person has to have “exhaustive knowledge” of the Bible before that person could count as a Christian.

Maybe this is too quick, however. For there is another definition of the word “familiar.” Perhaps you intended this other definition. On the other hand, then, “familiar” can mean “Well known from long or close association". In this case, the idea of something's being “well known” is baked into the relevant definition. Thus, it seems that this second definition does conjoin “familiarity” with (at least something close to) “exhaustive awareness.” (Strictly, it seems very likely to me that “exhaustive awareness” is probably practically impossible to attain. But, one could think of something like very roughly like being “really aware” if not literally “exhaustively aware.”) Indeed, you don't just use the word “familiar” by itself. Instead, you coin the phrase “comprehensively familiar.” So it seems that I am now on the right track.

Two things should be said, however. Number one, if by “comprehensively familiar” you literally meant “exhaustive familiarity,” then your additional phrase “every word” is simply superfluous. For, it seems reasonably to think that one cannot be “comprehensively familiar” with a text, in the sense of being “exhaustively familiar” with it, unless one is “familiar” with “every word.” Hence, “every word” is built in to “comprehensive familiarity.” But maybe you were just being emphatic.

The far more serious difficulty with the conception of “comprehensive familiarity” is that you have given us to reason to accept this as a requirement for being a “true Christian.” Catholics (as well as Protestants who do not endorse the idea of a “gathered church”) would seemingly all hold that some children (e.g., those who have been Baptized) could be rightly be termed “Christians.” Clearly, very young children (e.g., infants) will have no familiarity with the Bible – let alone “comprehensive familiarity.”

Now some might say, “Well, yeah, exactly...but that's why children can't be 'Christians.'” However, my point is that you have given me, as a Catholic Christian, absolutely no reason to take your “requirement” seriously. You just assert that a Christian “must” be “comprehensively familiar” with the Bible. I await your defense of this “requirement.”

As it stands, I think that “comprehensive familiarity” is practically impossible for most people (with a document as large as the Bible). Furthermore, since I think that infants can be Christians (although, clearly not "advanced" or well-catechized ["discipled"] Christians), no sort of Bible “familiarity” is required at all for being a Christian. But then, if no familiarity is required for being a Christian, then (a fortiori) certainly “comprehensive familiarity” is not required.

You have seemingly confused being a Christian with being a Bible scholar.

END NOTE # 3 – James Van Cleve, “Essence/Accident,” Jaegwon Kim & Ernest Sosa, Eds., A Companion to Metaphysics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 136.

END NOTE # 4 – More more examples, see the Wikipedia article:

END NOTE # 5 – I have a few reservations about comparing the Bible to the U.S. Constitution.

For one thing, the U.S. Constitution is – very plausibly – a single, continuous document comprised of a single genre, namely, it is a work of positive law. (I still say “very plausibly” instead of “definitely” because, traditionally, the Preamble is not treated as positive law, but merely as introductory.) The Bible, on the other hand, is a collection of discreet books (66 in the Protestant canon) containing numerous, distinctive genres (e.g., historical narratives, didactic passages, positive law, poetry, proverbs, apocalyptic writing, etc.).

Moreover, the U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified over an approximately two year period (from 1787-1789) by 55 delegates (in attendance), which delegates shared much by way of common socio-cultural background, from 12 states (Rhode Island did not send delegates). By contrast (and bracketing issues relating to divine inspiration), the Bible had roughly 40 different human authors, who wrote over a period of at least 1,500 years, in various locations around the ancient near-eastern world, in 3 different languages (chiefly Hebrew and Greek but also, in portions, Aramaic).

Last, but certainly not least, we should hastily add that the U.S. Constitution was both drafted and consciously adopted to function as the legal framework for a new nation, whereas the Bible, although containing legal passages in parts (e.g., Deuteronomy), nevertheless neither was drafted to be (in toto) a legal document, nor was “adopted” (or in any clear way “ratified”) to serve as anything other than a guide to religious faith and practice.

Now these differences – to put it mildly – seem significant enough to justify suspicions about drawing tidy parallels between the U.S. Constitution and the Bible. Both are complex documents. But it is doubtful that this complexity is a broad enough base with which to connect them, or that they can be fairly or usefully considered to serve anything like “the same purposes.”

END NOTE # 6 – See, e.g., Greg L. Bahnsen, et. al., Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).

END NOTE # 7 – Another consideration in favor of the notion that simple “reading” and more complex “meaning-extraction” are distinct, is the observation that readers need training in skills such as “identifying main ideas” and so on – training that goes beyond bare literacy. This does not apply only to young readers. Mortimer J. Adler's classic work, How to Read a Book (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1940/1972), was written for general, adult audiences. It seems highly dubious that a work would achieve “classic” status (or anything remotely like it) if it's premise was entirely superfluous. Adler's premise, of course, is that correctly extracting meaning from a text involves more than merely correctly saying (out loud or to oneself) the words on the page.

END NOTE # 8 – One assumption that we both seem to share is that there IS a definite meaning to texts like (at least some) Bible passages and (at least some) lines of the U.S. Constitution. This is not an assumption shared by everyone. Some people believe that audiences can “create” meaning. In jargon, this is sometimes called “eisegesis” (reading meaningINTO a text), to distinguish it from “exegesis” (extracting meaning OUT OF a text).

END NOTE # 9 – “The clarity [perspicuity] of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God's help and being willing to follow it.” Source: Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 1994), p. 108.

END NOTE # 10 – Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, Sixth Ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997), p. 129.

END NOTE # 11 – One way to construe your “thesis” is that you seem to be suggesting that there can be no “bad Christians.” One either is a Christian, or isn't. Okay. But why should Christians accept this conception, as opposed to an alternative? In fact, I think that no Christian should accept your suggested “requirement.” There is a very clear reason for this, I think. It is one that is well familiar to students of law. To be more exact, one does not predicate a present determination of fact on a future, unfulfilled condition.

For example, in Catholicism, there are several preconditions for a “valid” Reconciliation (that is, the Sacrament during which a penitent confesses his or her sins to a priest in order to receive absolution). They are (roughly, as set forth by the Baltimore Catechism): The penitent: should have thoroughly examined his or her conscience; should be sincerely sorry for his or her sins; should be firmly committed to not committing those sins again; should honestly and completely confess his or her sins to the priest; and should be *willing to perform* the penance that the priest gives. Now I do not wish to complicate matters with irrelevant wrangling about Catholic sacraments. What I wish to draw attention to is this: The final condition for a valid Reconciliation is that the penitent be *willing to perform* his or her penance, not that the performance of the penance be fait accompli. This is not a license to fail to perform one's penance. Rather, it is further evidence of the fact that it is bad form to predicate present decisions of fact upon future unfulfilled conditions. Provided that all of the (present tenses) conditions are fulfilled, when the priest pronounces absolution, the penitent, is (present tense) absolved from his or her sins. Should the penitent die en route from his or her confession, before performing the penance, such does not invalidate the sacrament.

Or again, on the Catholic view, adultery does not invalidate marriage vows. Very generally, a marriage in valid insofar as the man and woman freely and sincerely, in sufficient knowledge, consent to be married. Future acts of infidelity are not ipso facto invalidating because, from the standpoint of the Sacrament of Matrimony, unless one party, during the wedding ceremony itself, intended to commit future acts of adultery, such acts represent nebulous future possibilities that cannot justifiably be included in the present tense evaluation (at the time of the Matrimony) as to whether or not a marital union has been created successfully.

So, you ask...what in the hell does this have to do with anything?

Well, consider our options. Think of a Boy Scout. There is the so-called “Scout Law,” expressed memorably (albeit roughly) by Bugs Bunny: “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and helps little old ladies across the street without expectation of recompense either.”

So here are two poles, on the one hand we could say that is a Scout is a person who successfully does all of those things throughout the entirety of his life. There are two problems, one metaphysical and one epistemic. In this case, it seems, we could only decide (epistemically) whether a person was, truly, a Scout or not after they had died. Before death the most one could say is, “Well, he seems to be a Scout so far, but who knows what he might do tomorrow?” Additionally, on this view, at best, a person could flip flop – perhaps daily – between being (metaphysically) a Scout and not or, at worst, a person couldn't count as a Scout at all until his entire life could be evaluated. Several difficulties arise. Firstly, it isn't clear who then could ever be counted as a Scout. Maybe some people are okay with such a result, however – this epistemic vagueness. Secondly, there is no such thing as a “bad scout” on this view. This seems to me quite counter-intuitive.

On the other hand, we might say that a Scout is a person who aims to do all of those things, but who, in fact, might mess up once – or repeatedly. Here, a person remains a Scout as long as he says that's what he is, and there can be both “good Scouts” and “bad Scouts.”

Christianity, I think, provides a similar set of options. You have given no reason to favor your conception. And the Christian has independent reasons to suspect that you're wrong. From the Bible it seems that there will be, so to speak, various degrees of reward in heaven and various degrees of punishment in hell. Now one might explain degrees of punishment by saying that not all ne'er do wells perform equally badly. But why, on your view, should there be degrees of reward in heaven? (E.g., Some will end up barely "...saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames" [1 Corinthians 3:15 NIV].)

END NOTE # 12 – Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), Chart # 42.

END NOTE # 13 – Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzski, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), p. 108.


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