Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Parable of the Flowerbed

A wife asked her husband to do something about the weeds in her flowerbed, so he got to work. When he finished pulling up all the weeds, she went out to inspect the flowerbed. She found that the weeds were gone, but to her dismay, all of the flowers were smashed and destroyed. “Honey, you’ve ruined my flowers!” she said. “What? I had absolutely no intention of doing that,” he responded. She replied, “Well, regardless of whether you intended to do it, that’s definitely what you did.”

To add a moral in the manner of the Greeks: Take away what is bad without taking away what is good, and dont think that good intentions alone will exonerate you from wrongdoing.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Brief: Papa Don’t Pope

Papa Don't Pope: Why I'm Not a Roman Catholic (and Why the Future Is Protestant)Papa Don't Pope: Why I'm Not a Roman Catholic by Douglas Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Plenty of good thoughts, which is no surprise; although lately Wilson’s books feel like blog post compilations, which I’m not crazy about. And adding to the bloggy flavor were an unusual number of typos.

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I’ll list a few of the typos/errors that I noticed, and these were just the ones that I marked. It seems that there were others earlier in the book that I didn’t mark. I’m not trying to make mountains out of mole hills or anything, but Canon Press usually doesn’t overlook these sorts of things. Wilson’s meaning is clear in all of these places, but when you regularly notice errors like this, it’s hard not to ask if the book was even proofed before going to print. In any case, it’s very clear that Canon Press should hire me as an editor. :)

pg. 87 – “And this is where I believe those who are consider adopting Roman Catholicism . . .”

pg. 95 – “Do covetous people pour over catalogs, full of desiderata? . . . A covetous woman pouring over a catalog is worshiping.” – It’s poring, not pouring.

pg. 98 – “Because of the presence of the calf, not because of the absence an invocation of YHWH.”

pg. 115 – “Not only does God warn the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4 to remember that they saw no form on the mountain (which would prevent them from trying to make an image of the true God), we also see in Aaron’s brief excursion into idolatry in the golden calf incident.” – This sentence seems to be missing something.

pg. 122 – “Then you have deal with them, and their arguments, along with taunts from the left ditch behind you.”

pg. 133 – “There is absolute no other way to get to the liberation of no condemnation.”

pg. 151 – “. . . a handful of kirkers (as we call them) have gone out there and (I say this with deep affection for every bone in their heads) and done some idiotic things.” – There’s an “and” on both sides of the parentheses.

pg. 155 – “To take one striking example, I really don’t really think that . . . .” – I really don’t really think there’s supposed to be two reallys there.

pg. 161 – “And we need to have a high view of that which of first importance . . .”

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Brief: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet LetterThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m sure I was supposed to have read this in high school at some point, but I probably didn’t. It’s a powerful story though, with lots of memorable lines and passages.

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“To the untrue man, the whole universe is false—it is impalpable—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.”

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

“Believe me, Hester, there are few things whether in the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought—few things hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery.” – Chillingworth

“Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle.”

“We men of study, whose heads are in our books, have need to be straightly looked after! We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.” – Chillingworth to Dimmesdale

“Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary things.”

“She thought of those long-past days in a distant land, when he used to emerge at eventide from the seclusion of his study and sit down in the firelight of their home, and in the light of her nuptial smile. He needed to bask himself in that smile, he said, in order that the chill of so many lonely hours among his books might be taken off the scholar’s heart.”

“Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognises me for what I am! Had I one friend—or were it my worst enemy!—to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me!” – Dimmesdale

“Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena that occurred with less regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as so many revelations from a supernatural source. Thus, a blazing spear, a sword of flame, a bow, or a sheaf of arrows seen in the midnight sky, prefigured Indian warfare. Pestilence was known to have been foreboded by a shower of crimson light. We doubt whether any marked event, for good or evil, ever befell New England, from its settlement down to revolutionary times, of which the inhabitants had not been previously warned by some spectacle of its nature. Not seldom, it had been seen by multitudes. Oftener, however, its credibility rested on the faith of some lonely eye-witness, who beheld the wonder through the coloured, magnifying, and distorted medium of his imagination, and shaped it more distinctly in his after-thought. It was, indeed, a majestic idea that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A scroll so wide might not be deemed too expensive for Providence to write a people’s doom upon. The belief was a favourite one with our forefathers, as betokening that their infant commonwealth was under a celestial guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness. But what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record. In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul’s history and fate.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

School Paper: “Faith and Reason” (Fall 2010)

This is a shoddy paper, I’m afraid. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything that I said here. The paper was just sloppily put together. I had taken an interest in presuppositional apologetics, and so this was an opportunity for me to float some of those ideas in the classroom and see what happened. But the topic is just way too large to try and cover in the space of four pages. Pascal was thrown in at the end, because he was technically the thinker I was supposed to be writing about. If memory serves me, this paper got a surprising A-minus.

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Faith and Reason
History of Ideas 3
December 8, 2010

The question of the proper relationship between faith and reason is one that Christendom has grappled with for centuries. Generally speaking, there are two polar extremes between which Christian thinkers have typically sought some kind of middle ground. These positions are rationalism, the view that human reason is the only source and final test for all truth1, and fideism, the view that faith is independent of (and perhaps even antagonistic toward) reason.2 The variously nuanced viewpoints between these two extremes are many, but all of them can be adequately subsumed under two basic views: 1) the view that faith is grounded on reason, and 2) the view that reason is grounded on faith. The latter of these, it will be argued, is the correct view.

The first view is the position of natural theology, that is, any theology that claims to rest its case on reason instead of revelation3. One famous expression of this view comes from the pen of Thomas Aquinas who writes, “reason in man is . . . like God in the world.”4 In other words, for Aquinas, reason assumes a kind of authority for the human being which reflects the absolute authority that God exercises in the world. Charles Hodge likewise concedes reason as the judicium contradictionis, granting to it “the prerogative of deciding whether a thing is possible or impossible”5. He adds that if reason judges a thing impossible, then no authority of any kind can obligate one to receive it as true.

The main problem with this view is that it does not reflect the Bible’s contention that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7, 9:10). The apostle Peter likewise understood knowledge as a supplementary attribute to be added to one’s faith (2 Pet. 1:5), and Paul insisted that all wisdom and knowledge is found in the person of Christ (Col. 2:2-4). Reason should not be viewed as an independent, “neutral” authority. From a biblical perspective, any laws of logic obtain only because Yahweh has determined that they obtain, and thus when Christians attempt to divorce reason from the presuppositions of a Christian worldview, they sever it from the very foundations that make it meaningful at all. Cornelius Van Til rightly argues that a purely rationalistic methodology not only fails to convince the unbeliever of the truth of Christian theism, but actually drives him farther away from it.6

Gordon Clark uniquely illustrates part of the difficulty in a “bare reason” approach to theistic arguments, ironically, by pointing out the fallacious nature of what many might view as one of reason’s great achievements. Clark deems the cosmological argument of Thomas Aquinas as “worse than useless” and adds that “Christians can be pleased at its failure.”7 As his principal critique, Clark points out that essentially the only reason Aquinas offers for the absurdity of an infinite regress of motion is that it would indeed rule out a first mover.8 Thus, according to Clark, Aquinas is guilty of using his conclusion as part of the premise. However, one will not quickly fault Aquinas. As John Frame argues in his defense of presuppositional apologetics, circularity is unavoidable in any worldview.9 Frame further elucidates this idea:

“God is the ultimate standard of meaning, truth, and rationality. For the philosophical rationalist, human reason is the ultimate standard. But how can the rationalist argue that position? He must, in the final analysis, say, ‘Reason is the ultimate standard because reason says so.’ . . . One cannot argue for an ultimate standard by appealing to a different standard. That would be inconsistent.”10

One interesting, dynamic, and extensively debated perspective on the relationship between faith and reason is found in the pensées (or thoughts) of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher. Peter Kreeft, in his commentary on the Pensées, insists that Christian fideists erroneously look to Pascal as a champion of their view.11 While Pascal is perhaps not a fideist in the truest sense of the word, he is much more fideistic than the Thomistic Kreeft would have him be.

Pascal clearly contends for the subjection of human reason to the “first principles” of faith (No. 282).12 He is also at least hesitant about the efficacy of the law of noncontradiction, arguing that “contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the want of contradiction a sign of truth” (No. 384). In fact, for Pascal, the doctrine of original sin is “against reason” even though he is thoroughly convinced of its truthfulness (No. 445). In what is arguably his most famous statement, Pascal insists that “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (No. 277). In Pascal’s understanding, faith, over and above reason, is the superior means by which to arrive at truth. Make no mistake, though, for Pascal readily admits the frustrations of nagging doubts and elusive certainty. Sage is the advice he offers to those who struggle likewise: “It is good to be tired and weary by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer” (No. 422).

The preceding discussion has sought to address some of the issues related to the debate surrounding the proper relationship of faith and reason. A second goal was to argue for the primacy of faith in the Christian’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge. By no means has the aim been to jettison reason entirely from the Christian worldview. Reason does indeed play a valuable, confirmatory role in the Christian’s intellectual life, and it would be a mistake to discard reason as if it were an enemy of faith. This discussion, however, is concerned with the question of ultimate starting points, and while a full treatment of these topics is beyond the scope of this paper, suffice it to say that Christians ought to, with Pascal, reject the modern rationalistic notion13 that the special treatment of God’s revelation is something it must deserve on the basis of reason.

1. Francis Aveling, “Rationalism,” Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12652a.htm (accessed December 6, 2010).
2. Richard Amesbury, “Fideism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fideism (accessed December 6, 2010).
3. William Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, 2d ed. (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1996), s.v. “Natural Theology.”
4. Thomas Aquinas, Philosophical Texts, ed. Thomas Gilby (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 236.
5. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1940), 51.
6. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), 119.
7. Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 2d ed. (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1986), 41.
8. Ibid., 36-7.
9. John Frame et al., Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 217.
10. Ibid.
11. Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 235.
12. Quotations and numbers are taken from the Brunschvicg edition.
13. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 81.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Sprinkled Conscience

“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Heb. 10:22)
I don’t know how I overlooked this text in making my case for the legitimacy of sprinkling as a mode of baptism (“On Modes of Baptism,” section titled “Washed in the Blood”). Actually, I did cite the verse parenthetically at one place, but I didn’t make use of it as effectively as I could have. It would have eliminated a step in the argument.

In the paper, I argued along these lines:
1. Baptism is our appeal to God for a cleansed conscience (1 Pet. 3:21).
2. The blood of Christ cleanses the conscience (Heb. 9:14).
3. The blood of Christ is applied by sprinkling (Heb. 12:22; 1 Pet. 1:2).
4. Therefore, baptism by sprinkling is theologically meaningful.
But Hebrews 10:22 allows for a more concise argument, like this:
1. Baptism is our appeal to God for a cleansed conscience (1 Pet. 3:21).
2. The conscience is cleansed by sprinkling (Heb. 10:22).
3. Therefore, baptism by sprinkling is theologically meaningful.
Although I suppose it doesn’t hurt to show how the blood of Christ is also a facet of the imagery.

Meandering Paul

Discussing the literary structure of the pastoral epistles, Kostenberger and company say this in The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown:
“R. van Neste summarized the state of scholarship on the Pastorals this way: ‘Until recently, one of the widely accepted tenets of modern scholarship regarding the Pastoral Epistles was that they lacked any significant, careful order or structure.’ This was not confined to liberal critics; even an otherwise conservative commentator such as D. Guthrie wrote, ‘There is a lack of studied order, some subjects being treated more than once in the same letter without apparent premeditation. . . . These letters are, therefore, far removed from literary exercises.’”
It seems like Christians who hold to a high view of Scripture typically bristle at this sort of claim, perhaps because it feels almost irreverent to suggest that some of Paul’s letters lack a careful organization or structure. But there really isn’t anything irreverent about this. There’s nothing wrong with a meandering personal letter, and a lack of structure doesn’t undermine inspiration. What Guthrie says is exactly right. Paul’s letters were not meant to be literary masterpieces.

But look at how the Cradle authors express surprise that “even” conservative commentators have said such things. That’s odd to me. I don’t understand why this particular question should be understood in terms of a liberal/conservative divide. It isn’t like inspiration is at stake here.

The Cradle authors continue:
“Against those who have argued against the literary unity and integrity of the Pastoral Epistles, van Neste demonstrated, in the most careful study of the topic to date, that there is ‘evidence of a high level of cohesion in each of the Pastoral Epistles’ . . . . they demonstrate signs of a coherent structure and of theological competence.”
I don’t see how the word “integrity” has any place in this conversation. A lack of definite structure doesn’t undermine the letter’s “integrity” (whatever that actually means). “Theological competence” is also an irrelevant category. A lack of definite structure doesn’t mean that the letter or its author lacks theological competence.

The indefinite structure of the pastoral epistles can be seen even from the outlines that the Cradle authors themselves present. Consider their outline of 1 Timothy, which I hope no one will mind me reproducing an image of here:

Note that the fourth major section is simply titled “Further Charges.” It’s titled in such a general way because the charges in it are so diverse. There isn’t some kind of unifying feature that ties them all together, other than the fact that they’re all “charges,” though there isn’t even really a charge to be found in the first sub-section on latter-day apostasy (4:1-5). Moreover, there was already a “charge” section earlier in the letter, according to this outline (1:3-20). So why didn’t the “Further Charges” just get combined with those earlier ones?

Furthermore, within the “Further Charges” is a sub-section titled “Further Congregational Matters.” But there was already a major section on congregational matters earlier in the letter, according to this outline (2:1-3:16). So why didn’t the “Further Congregational Matters” just get combined with those earlier ones?

The most realistic conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that Paul meanders. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In Cradle’s outline of 2 Timothy, there’s a section titled “Ministry Metaphors, Paul’s Gospel, and a Trustworthy Saying” (2:1-26). And those aren’t sub-sections within a major section; that’s the title of a major section. It’s pretty clear that a letter lacks definite structure when one of the main sections in the outline has to have three different ideas in its title.

Outlining a book doesn’t always demonstrate a definite structure. Some people seem to think that if they reduce a letter’s contents sequentially into concise phrases, and put numbers and letters beside those phrases, forming an outline, then they’ve somehow demonstrated a concrete structure. But sometimes an outline simply brings out the fact that the letter doesn’t have a clearly discernible structure.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Episkopos and Diakonos

The article on Philippians (written by Gerald Hawthorne) in IVP’s Dictionary of Paul and His Letters says this:
The terms “overseers” and “deacons” (1:1) occur here for the one and only time in Paul’s letters, but without any elaboration on what these people did or about what kind of authority they exercised within the church.
Unless I’m missing something, this is demonstrably false. “Overseer” is rendering the Greek episkopos, which also occurs in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7.  “Deacon” is rendering the Greek diakonos, which occurs frequently throughout Paul’s letters. Admittedly, Paul normally uses diakonos in a non-official sense, but he does sometimes use it to refer to the office of deacon (1 Tim. 3:8, 12). So what gives?

Does Hawthorne mean that this is the only time the terms occur in Paul’s ecclesial letters (i.e. his letters written to churches)? That would have been an easy thing to communicate. Does he assume that Paul didn’t write the pastoral epistles? That would be lame. Is Hawthorne working from an English translation that renders episkopos as “overseer” in Philippians 1:1 but as “bishop” elsewhere, and is that what he means? That wouldn’t seem in line with the scholarly standards of the dictionary as a whole. Does he mean that this is the only time in Paul’s letters that the two terms appear side by side? That may be true, but seems like an insignificant thing to note. Does Hawthorne mean that this is the only time the terms appear in the plural? That may be true (at least in the case of episkopos), but again seems like an insignificant thing to note.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Ultimate Unfortunate Event

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) made millions off A Series of Unfortunate Events, a story that promotes sympathy toward children who’ve had it rough. Then he publicly donated one of those millions to an organization that makes children victims of the ultimate unfortunate event. An organization that kills children by chopping them into little pieces. Planned Parenthood makes the wickedness of Count Olaf look tame.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Questions from NT Survey: 9.28.15

How do we harmonize John 5:31 with John 8:14?

Here are the two verses side-by-side:
“If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.” (John 5:31)
“Jesus answered, ‘Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.’” (John 8:14)
These statements initially seem to contradict each other, but in context, I don’t think they do. In 5:31, Jesus is alluding to the standard of the Old Testament law, which requires at least two witnesses for an accusation to be deemed trustworthy (Deut. 17:6). In 8:14, Jesus is specifically responding to an accusation thrown his way by the Jews, who had claimed that Jesus was in fact bearing witness about himself, and therefore his word has no authority. But in both verses, the point that Jesus is driving at is that he doesn’t need to rely on his own testimony about himself, because there’s another witness that testifies about him also.

In John 5:31, the additional witness is John the Baptist, as Jesus goes on to say: “There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved” (John 5:32–34). In other words, Jesus points to John the Baptist as a second witness, not because he actually needs to do so, but so that the Old Testament standard will be upheld for the sake of the Jews.

In John 8:14, the additional witness is none other than God the Father, as Jesus goes on to say: “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (John 8:15–16). So in effect, the Jews were saying to Jesus, “See, look! You’re bearing witness about yourself right now, and that means your word isn’t true” (John 8:13). To which Jesus responds with words to this effect: “Even if I am bearing witness about myself, my testimony is still true. Why? Again, because there’s another who bears witness about me, namely my Father in heaven.”

Notice that in 8:14, Jesus does not say “Even if I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is true.” That would make 8:14 contradict 5:31. But that’s just the point: Jesus is not alone. He is so united with his Father that there are always at least two bearing witness. And in truth, we know that there are actually three who bear witness.

Why did Jesus occasionally instruct his disciples and others not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (Matt. 16:20), or not to tell anyone about the miracles he did (Matt 8:4)?

Some point out that the title “Christ” would have carried political connotations, such that to announce Jesus as the Christ would give everyone the impression that Jesus would be the earthly king they were expecting. That could be the case, but I’m content with a more general answer: It just wasn’t time to tell everyone yet.

To draw an analogy, an author who’s writing a novel doesn’t want a half-finished manuscript to get leaked to the public. He wants the work to be completed first. Jesus’s hour had not yet come (John 2:4). His work wasn’t yet completed. He didn’t want word to get out until his redemptive work could be seen and understood in its fullness. Of course, this “messianic secret,” as it’s often called, was only a temporary policy. After Jesus was resurrected, his instructions became very different: Go tell everybody (Matt. 28:19).

School Paper: “Symbols in Dante’s Inferno” (Fall 2010)

The general fieriness of this short essay suits its subject matter, Dante’s Inferno. It’s the first time I really opened up and spoke frankly about what I felt were some annoying tendencies of literary scholarship. C. S. Lewis once said, “Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish I had thought of them myself.” Reading scholarly interpretations of the Inferno frequently made me wonder if Dante would have said the same thing.

I’m not sure how much my criticisms here are actually worth, but this was a fun paper to write nonetheless. The professor’s grader told me that it was excellent, but apparently the professor didn’t agree. It came back with a C.

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Symbols in Dante’s Inferno:
Examining Common Allegorical Interpretations
History of Ideas 3
November 2, 2010

Dante Alighieri applied to the text of Psalm 114 a fourfold manner of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.1 From this, George Santayana concludes that one can expect to find in the Commedia similarly layered stages of meaning.2 This conclusion is likely an attempt to justify heavily speculative and complicated allegorical interpretations of Dante’s principal work. While it cannot be denied that the Commedia has its share of unambiguously symbolic and allegorical features, the tendency of many scholars seems to be speculative excess rather than objective moderation.

John Ciardi, in his synopsis of the Inferno‘s eighteenth Canto, attempts to explain how the punishment of those residing in the Malebolge’s first bolgia (the panderers and seducers) is reflective of the lives they lived. He states that “in life these sinners goaded others on to serve their own foul purposes; so in Hell are they driven in their turn.”3 Ciardi also maintains that the oppressive demons of this bolgia represent the sinners’ own wicked natures and even suggests that the horns of the demons may symbolize cuckoldry and adultery.4

One will be hard pressed, however, to find any grounds within the Canto itself on which to base such conjecture. Let it be said that some sinners described in subsequent Cantos do suffer penalties that unequivocally correspond to the sins of which they are guilty, such as the fortune-tellers who have their heads reversed so that that they cannot view what is in front of them. In this particular case, Virgil himself identifies the imagery explicitly within the narrative.5 In such cases, emblematic postulations are not at all inappropriate or unfounded. When the symbolism is less clear, however, as in the earlier case of the panderers and seducers, there is no obligation on the reader’s part to strain parallelisms from the text.

Ciardi makes similar assertions in regard to the sinners who suffer in the fifth bolgia, namely, the grafters. He maintains that the boiling pitch which engulfs the grafters represents the “sticky fingers” with which they acquired illicit lucre in life.6 The pitch also hides the grafters from sight, which according to Ciardi, corresponds to their clandestine antemortem deeds.7

Though Ciardi seems well confident that his symbolic interpretation is accurate, it is by no means the consensus view. Vincent Hopper suggests that the boiling pitch of the fifth bolgia is symbolic of the Blacks of Florence8, a political faction to which Dante was opposed.9 Frederick Farrar, while in agreement with Ciardi’s “sticky fingers” symbolism, further adds that the boiling of the pitch corresponds to the bubbling sensation of gain and loss that the avaricious soul experiences in life.10 Indeed, one wonders if there are any limits at all to the possible symbolic construals offered by many scholars. Surely some discrimination is necessary. In all reality, none of the aforementioned interpretations are better than the others, as all of them are offered without any defense from the text itself. This lack of consensus exemplifies the subjective and conjectural nature of what commonly passes for scholarship.

One final and classic example of the notoriously far-reaching allegorical interpretations of many Dantean scholars is typically found in commentaries on the Commedia‘s first Canto wherein Dante encounters three vicious beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Commentators are all over the map as to the allegorical significance of these creatures, but one common interpretation is political. Santayana claims that the lion in particular represents the King of France.11 Edmund Gardner, however, argues that this “comparatively modern interpretation which would see in the beasts the three great Guelf powers [the lion being the royal house of France] . . . is now generally discarded.”12 This further illustrates the teeming deluge of symbolism in which scholars frequently drown when allegorical speculation is indulged in ways that the original author likely never intended.

Allan Gilbert keenly notes this overly allegorical tendency in his introduction to the Inferno where he describes what he calls “scholars’ allegory.”13 According to Gilbert, scholars have always found themselves in a predicament when it comes to writing about poetry. There is not very much to say about the literal sense of a poem such as the Commedia, and it thus becomes necessary to consult the limitless provision of allegory. Gilbert writes, “The manufacture of allegory offers to the ingenious but prosaic mind an opportunity to speak at length with the appearance of wisdom . . .”14

Gardner sympathizes with Gilbert as is clear from his own admission that allegorical interpretations of the Commedia have frequently been carried to excess.15 Gardner also warns, however, of the opposite extreme, namely, divorcing all allegorical material from Dante in order to focus on the beauty of his poetry alone. As mentioned above, it simply cannot be denied that there is legitimate room for allegorical analysis in a discussion of Dante’s Commedia. However, the question of the proper balance between the beauty of poetry and its underlying allegory is not an easy one to answer.

Perhaps the one most qualified to answer the question of the relationship between allegorical meaning and poetic beauty, particularly in the Commedia, would be the Florentine poet himself. In his Convivio, Dante makes it clear16 that very few will understand the hidden meaning of his principal work. However, he earnestly motivates his readers by encouraging them to appreciate the beauty of the work rather than its goodness (i.e. its meaning). Dante confidently maintains that his poem is beautiful in its composition, order, and rhythm, which concerns grammarians, rhetoricians, and musicians respectively. In other words, all allegorical considerations aside, the beauty of the poem itself is enough to garner the appreciation of academicians in a number of fields. The true and total meaning of the Commedia may never be known, but as Dante rightly states, the poem’s beauty of composition “can be perceived . . . by anyone who looks closely.”17


1. From Dante’s epistle to Lord Can Grande della Scala, http://www.danteonline.it/english/opere.asp?idope=7&idlang=OR (accessed October 23, 2010).

2. George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1910), 98.

3. John Ciardi, synopsis of Canto XVIII in “Inferno” in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 141.

4. Ibid.

5. Dante, Inferno, XX.38-9.

6. John Ciardi, synopsis of Canto XXI in “Inferno” in Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003), 165.

7. Ibid.

8. Vincent F. Hopper, A Simplified Approach To Dante: Detailed Analyses and Summaries (Great Neck: Barron’s Educational Series, 1964), 38.

9. Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, “Guelphs and Ghibellines – Who were they?”, http://www.dantealighieri.net/cambridge/guelphs.html (accessed October 23, 2010).

10. Frederick W. Farrar, Great Books (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, 1898), 160.

11. Santayana, 98.

12. Edmund G. Gardner, Dante (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1923), 115.

13. Allan Gilbert, introduction to Dante, Inferno, trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke University Press, 1969), xl.

14. Ibid.

15. Gardner, 108.

16. Dante, Convivio, II.11.

17. Ibid.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Boys and Girls

Whenever I substitute-teach at the local middle school, I have to make a note of which students are absent and then send their names to the front office. Usually I get a student to make the delivery for me, and today I was struck by the fact that I almost always choose a girl for this job.

Why do I do that? Well, I think it’s because girls tend to be more trustworthy when it comes to those sorts of things. You’re less likely to find them taking it as an opportunity to wander the halls or goof off. I send girls because they tend to be better for the job.

Now, is there anything sexist about that? No, I’m just paying attention to the way things are. Boys and girls are different. Boys are best suited for some tasks, and girls are best suited for others.

But let’s say my claim was that boys were more trustworthy than girls. I imagine that would be perceived as sexist. You can say that girls are better at certain things than boys, and nobody feels the need to get offended. But if you dare to say that boys are better at certain things than girls, then the egalitarian outrage ensues. But that’s sham egalitarianism. A real egalitarian would be just as offended regardless of which gender I claimed is more trustworthy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Leithart on the Gospels

Peter Leithart’s discussion of the so-called “synoptic problem” and the dating of the gospels is extremely refreshing. Here are some quotes from chapter 3 of his book The Four: A Survey of the Gospels.
“If the view of the church fathers explains the gospels, and does so fairly simply, why do scholars have to invent a complicated ‘synoptic problem’ and resolve it with a mythical document called ‘Q’? There are many answers to that question, but at base the answer is that much of modern New Testament scholarship is a Satanic attack on the truth and reliability of the gospel of Jesus. . . . This is not to say that New Testament scholars themselves are demonic. They aren’t. But New Testament scholarship is an arena of spiritual battle, where we fight not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and rulers of wickedness.” 
“Moreover, since the fall of Jerusalem proves that Jesus is a prophet, we would expect the writers of the New Testament to mention that event to defend themselves and their Master. The church fathers often mention the fall of Jerusalem in their arguments with Jews. But the apostles never do. Why not? The most likely reason is that Jerusalem was still standing. Wenham argues that the entire New Testament is finished before the fall of the temple. I agree.”

School Paper: “Denominational Identity Essay” (Fall 2010)

This was a paper in which we were required to defend our personal denominational tradition, whatever that may have been. I’m probably less passionate about “non-denominationalism” now than I was then, though I think some of the passion exhibited here had a lot to do with just giving the professor what I figured he was looking for.

In the early days of Bible college, I was obsessed with learning, and using, new vocabulary words, a number of which make an appearance here. Appellation. Delineate. Preclude. Predicate. Ostensible. Remonstrative. Also, the things I say here about the mode of baptism are pretty funny considering what I’ve written on that topic since then.

Denominational Identity Essay
Baptist History
November 6, 2010


I grew up in a non-denominational church atmosphere. As the name would imply, non-denominational simply means “unaffiliated with a denomination.” Contrary to common assumptions, the appellation is in no way intended to connote hostility or resentment toward denominational Christians, though many in the non-denominational camp have sadly made this a justifiable misconception. The general attitude of the people in my home church, however, has never been one of haughty superiority and I am thankful. Outside of our home congregation, my family regularly visited denominational churches of every kind. While we remained persuaded in our conviction that Christ did not want his Church to be divided, this never kept us from enjoying regular fellowship with our brothers and sisters affiliated with official denominations.


It seems appropriate to begin with a defense of what is clearly the most distinguishing mark of my ecclesiastical tradition, namely, our lack of denominational affiliation. I define the word denomination as a group of individual, like-minded congregations who join together under an official organizational structure for purposes such as financial support and the synergetic effect afforded by cooperation. While the motives of these denominational bodies are undoubtedly laudable, I argue that the formulation of such organizational entities is unbiblical and conducive to the disunity of Christ’s church.

Denominations are non-biblical in the sense that no scriptural evidence can be presented for the legitimacy of Christ’s people dividing themselves into organizations to the exclusion of other brothers and sisters in Christ. Non-denominational Christians maintain a strong conviction “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Denominations are also unbiblical in the sense that they actively work against the ideal prescribed for the Church in Scripture. Paul urged the Corinthian church to “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). He reprimands anyone who would seek to partition the body of Christ with an incisive rhetorical question: “Is Christ divided?” (1:13) Paul later contends that division betrays fleshly tendencies rather than spiritual maturity (3:1-5). The conviction of my church to be unaffiliated with an established denomination reflects our desire to promote the kind of unity for which Christ prayed on the night of his death: “I do not ask for these [twelve disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:20-21). The unity of those who follow Christ should portray the unity of the very triune Godhead; a portrayal that is difficult to achieve with a denominationally divided Church.

General Doctrine

Non-denominational churches have a poor reputation for doctrinal apathy. This, however, has thankfully not been my own experience as my home church has always stressed the importance of sound doctrine. A general and representative sampling of our theological convictions can be delineated in our doctrines of God, justification, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper.


My church has always firmly upheld an orthodox view on the triune nature of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that God is one and exists in three co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible, the idea signified by the word is found pervasively throughout Scripture.

The fundamental premise of the doctrine of the Trinity is Scripture’s clear revelation that God is one. In the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses announces to the people of Israel the statutes by which they are to live and begins with the proclamation that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). James identified the oneness of God as a fundamental axiom that even demons do not deny (Jas 2:19; cf. 1 Tim 2:5, Rom. 3:30). Arguably no other truth is more basic to the Christian faith than the truth that there is only one God.

In addition to this unambiguous teaching that God is one, the Bible also speaks of plurality in the Godhead. This is a truth that is revealed most clearly in the New Testament, but evidence for a plurality of divine persons can also be seen in the Old Testament. One example is found in the creation account of Genesis wherein God states, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26; cf. 3:22, 11:7). The use of the plural pronoun rather than the singular indicates a plurality of persons in God. This plurality at which the Old Testament merely hints is fully revealed in the New Testament as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Each of these distinct persons is equally God. The Father is God (1 Cor. 8:6), the Son is God (John 1:1, Col. 2:8-9), and the Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, John 3:5-6 with 1 John 4:7).

Justification By Faith

Justification is an act of God in which he declares as righteous those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that the sinner becomes intrinsically righteous or meritorious, but that the perfect merits of Christ are imputed to the one who trusts in Christ’s finished work. Paul spoke of this alien righteousness in his letter to the Philippian church: “that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:9). This doctrine is diametrically opposed to the idea of earning justification through works of the law. Paul clearly taught that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Justification is received through faith alone apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28).

At this point, the familiar reader of Scripture may stumble over the contention of James that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). James is here using the word justify in a different sense. As evidenced by the context (condemnation of faith that doesn’t evidence itself by works), James is using the term justify to mean something similar to the word verify. In other words, his argument is that the legitimacy of one’s faith is verified by works and not by a mere faith without works, which is dead (v. 17). We are declared righteous in the sight of God by faith alone, but we are seen to be righteous in the sight of men by the works which accompany true saving faith. James, rather than contradicting Paul, profoundly complements the teaching that we are justified by faith.


Baptism is the ordinance in which a new believer is immersed into water for the purpose of publicly identifying themselves with the body of Christ. The proper mode of baptism is not explicitly stated in Scripture, but immersion appears to best fit the biblical accounts of baptism. Mark’s gospel records that John the Baptist baptized “in the Jordan river” (Mark 1:5), which appears to preclude the notion of mere sprinkling as practiced in some Protestant traditions. In John’s gospel, we’re told that the reason John the Baptist baptized in a certain area was “because water was plentiful there.” Since neither sprinkling nor pouring requires much water, this lends support to the view that the proper mode of baptism is immersion.

Christians have also historically disagreed over the question of who should be baptized. The testimony of Scripture seems clear that only those who have exercised a conscious faith in Christ should be baptized. Luke records that “those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). Later, in light of a surge of new believers, Peter asks the question, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) These passages seem to indicate that baptism is predicated upon believing the gospel.

The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is the second ordinance of Christianity which, unlike baptism, is observed many times throughout the life of the believer. This ordinance corresponds to Christ’s ostensibly bizarre teaching in the sixth chapter of John: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). The institution of the Lord’s Supper is recorded in all of the synoptic gospels (Matt. 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:18-20).

The principal purpose of observing the Lord’s Supper is to remember the death of Christ. Jesus explained that the broken bread represented his body and the wine his blood (Matt. 26:26-28). When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are remembering Christ’s broken body and the blood he shed for our sins. Paul wrote that as we continually observe the Lord’s Supper, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). As believers, we take great joy in having the privilege to participate in this memorial supper as we wait for the return of our Savior.

Concluding Remarks

While maintaining a respect for my brothers and sisters in other denominations, I do not anticipate becoming part of another ecclesiastical tradition; at least not in the foreseeable future. I have always been suspicious of what I believe is an unhealthy emphasis of Pentecostal churches on miraculous gifts such as tongues and healing. Methodist denominations are pervasively Arminian, which is troublesome at best for a Calvinist such as me. While I deeply admire the Reformed traditions of Presbyterianism, I cannot in good conscience concede the legitimacy of infant baptism. I do, however, maintain much doctrinal agreement with Baptist denominations, and while I remain non-denominational at heart, I am currently active in a local Baptist congregation where I enjoy valuable fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

This class has been extremely helpful in forcing me to think critically about my ecclesiastical traditions and to understand them in light of the historic, organizational methods of the Baptist denomination. After the first class lecture, I had a fresh understanding of what it meant to be a Baptist and I realized that “baptistic” was a legitimately helpful way to describe my own non-denominational tradition. I am more thankful now for the work that God has done through Baptists over the past four centuries, and I have a deeper appreciation for those remonstrative Christians on whose shoulders I stand today.