Conservative Theology

October 12, 2008

Religion and Politics / Moral Accounting in the Culture of Life

Many people do not understand the moral accounting of pro-life politics.  By "moral accounting" I mean the way in which people decide whether or not a given policy is an overall good or bad policy.

Let's take the issue of condoms.  Many pro-choice proponents are completely unaware of why pro-life proponents are not in favor of condoms.  Pro-choice proponents see condoms as an easy way of preventing pregnancies among teenagers, and are confounded as to why pro-life proponents don't encourage them as well, since, at least according to pro-choice theory, this would reduce the overall birth rate.

The problem with this view is twofold.  One reason often given is that condoms don't decrease the incidence of pregnancy - the incidence of sex is usually increased with condom promotion so much that it negates any benefit. 

I don't know if that statistic is true or not, but that is not the real, underlying reason.

The real reason is that pro-life is part of a bigger worldview - what I will call the "culture of life".  The "culture of life" generally has the following set of views:

  • Abortion is bad - absolutely or nearly so
  • Babies are good - absolutely or nearly so
  • Sex outside of marriage is bad - absolutely
  • Sex inside of marriage is good - absolutely

Many (but not all) pro-choicers have a nearly-opposite set of views:

  • Abortion is not a moral absolute
  • Babies are good only if the parents want them and are in a social location to take care of them and are not in an overpopulated area
  • Because of the above, babies for teenagers are bad - absolutely or nearly so
  • Sex is always good provided everyone consents

So, let's look at the moral accounting that occurs with condoms and teenagers.

Situation 1: If teenager A has sex with teenager B outside of marriage without condoms, you get a baby.

Situation 2: If teenager A has sex with teenager B outside of marriage with condoms, you are less likely to get a baby.

For the pro-life proponent, situation 1 is clearly better.  They have sex outside of marriage (which is a negative) but they get a baby (which is a positive).  In situation 2, they have sex outside of marriage (which is negative) but it isn't offset by the positive of having a baby.  Therefore, pro-life proponents don't like funding condoms for teenagers, because, by pro-life moral accounting, it actually makes the situation worse - you get only the bad - no good. 

In addition, conservatives tend to view moral choices as independent, not situational.  Therefore, the moral choice of sex is independent of the moral choice of abortion.  Therefore, promoting or restricting condom use is independent of the choices about abortion - you only get into the sex morality. 

Therefore, condoms only promote the moral problems associated with sex outside of marriage, because they (a) encourage more of it, (b) remove the possible redemptive part of it [the baby], and (c) view it as an independent moral choice from abortion.

In addition, many with the "culture of life" worldview take the view that sex itself is a sacred institution.  Therefore condoms promote an additional problem in that, not only do they remove the good side of out-of-wedlock sex, they also cheapen the act of sex itself, and with it the institution of marriage.

Without condoms, and with a baby, even sex outside of marriage is much more likely to lead to marriage, thus redeeming the original act.  Promoting condom usage is likely to remove this redemption, and leave the ones having sex outside of marriage both without the either redeeming part of the equation.

Thus, while most pro-life proponents don't want to outlaw condoms, we aren't in favor of promoting them to unmarried teens, either.

October 04, 2008

History and Archaeology / Witherington on Early Church Organization


Ben Witherington just put up an excellent piece on the history of the Church hierarchy:

What conclusions should we draw from this important authentic early Christian document [he's talking about 1 Clement, esp. ch 42] from the first century A.D. written by a co-worker of Paul's?

Firstly, the notion that there was no leadership hierarchy in the earliest period of Christian history is an absolute myth. The evidence, both Biblical and extra-Biblical insofar as it discusses such a matter confirms this fact. Secondly, the notion that everyone was called to take up leadership roles in the early church is also a myth. No, there were specific persons called to do this. Thirdly, the hierarchy existed not only in general between the linked house churches, but within them as well, from what we can tell. This is definitely what Clement believes if you read 1 Clement carefully. Fourthly, this sort of structure should not be blamed on the growing pagan influence on the church as time went on. This too is absolutely false. Clement sees it rather as a continuation of the Jewish leadership structures both spoken of and prophesied in the OT. As an associate of both Peter and Paul, Clement was in a position to know what the mind of Peter and Paul was on the issue of leadership structures in a way that we certainly are not. 


September 21, 2008

The Bible / Be Perfect or You Will Be Perfect? - Matthew 5:48


UPDATE: I've made a few clarifications

In our Greek readings class we came across Matthew 5:48, which reads:

εσεσθε ουν υμεις τελειοι ωσπερ ο πατηρ υμων ο εν τοις ουρανοις τελεις εστιν

This is usually translated "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."  While this is a possible translation, the verb εσεσθε is actually morphologically a future tense verb.  This can be used in a jussive sense ("you shall be perfect" - simplified to "be perfect"), but I think the context may be indicating that we treat it just as a straight future.  In this case you might read it as "then [i.e. if you do this] you will be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."

I think the key to this is Matthew 5:45, which tells us that God "makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust".  This is in the middle of a whole description of action in which Jesus said that we aren't just to do good to those who do good to us, but to others as well.  Give to those who ask, even if they can't repay.  Love those who hate you.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Greet people who you don't know. 

It is obvious from the state of the world that bad people can have it good.  It sometimes seems that evil people are blessed by God.  In fact, it may so happen that they are!  As these verses indicate, part of God's perfection is that God blesses those who hate him.  God blesses those who are just and unjust.  God blesses those who use that blessing against Him.  It is part of His perfection to do this.

And so, at the end, Jesus is saying that if we treat others the way that God treats them, we will be perfect.

This solves for me a moral problem and a theological problem that I've wondered about for a while.

The moral problem:

  • If I sell products or services, should I sell them to evil people as well (provided it doesn't require me myself to do evil).  Answer: Yes - God gives to the good and evil, so should we.  For instance, it would be fine to be an accountant for an abortion facility.  It would not be fine to do the abortions.  Also, being their accountant would not mean that you are to be silent on the ethics of their operation, just that you wouldn't withold services on account of them practicing evil (interestingly, I am aware of one abortion doctor who was converted because of his accountant and then stopped doing abortions).  Now, especially for those in the services (as opposed to products) industries, there is the whole question of time allocation - since you, unlike God, cannot be in two places at once, perhaps you may choose to not render your services to some group or other.  I think that this is your own choice, and it depends on what God has called you to do.  However, I don't think we should necessarily withold our services when someone requesting them is corrupt or immoral.

The theological problem:

  • Why are there so many people who hate God but appear to have God's blessing?  Answer: Because God gives to the good and the evil

Now, the problem that it adds is whether or not those who have taken God's name and received His Holy Spirit also receive more than those who do not (by more I do not mean material possessions).  I think the answer is a qualified yes.  I think that by receiving God's spirit and submitting to God's will then our gifts will be used for God's glory, in consonance with God's purposes.  It also means that we know to ask God, while those who do not know God do not know to ask.  There is probably more here, too - this is not the whole story, it is only one part of the Bible.  But the point is that God does in fact give to both the righteous and the unrighteous (and takes aways, as well).

I think we need to stop translating this as a jussive/imperative and just make it future tense, because it makes better theological sense of what is going on.

September 20, 2008

History and Archaeology / Seal of Jezebel Possibly Found


See the story here.

September 17, 2008

Religion and Science / The UMC Clergy Letter Endorsement

I was disappointed to see that, among other things, the UMC (United Methodist Church) officially endorsed the Clergy Letter Project.

This is just a monumentally stupid thing to do.  I'm glad I am no longer officially associated with the Methodist Church.  Let's take a look at the letter:

"Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth."


"Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts."

Disagree.  Another purpose is also to show God's action within history.  To solely put scripture in the "transform hearts" category is to do it twice the injustice as treating it as a scientific textbook.

"believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist"

Somewhat agree.  The problem is that it is a blanket statement about science.  Which is somewhat stupid considering that (a) science has social and theological underpinnings, just like everything else, and (b) science is always changing.  To make a blanket endorsement all of science is idiotic - there's plenty of junk science going on.  But who is to distinguish?  Are theologians allowed to distinguish?  If so, then they have contradicted the purpose of their statement.  If not, then they have voluntarily let themselves be held hostage by a different authority which does not necessarily hold to their assumptions, which is a monumentally stupid mistake.

"We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests."

Which part of evolutionary theory?  Abiogenesis?  Descent from a common ancestor?  Lamarckianism?  Natural selection?  Their lack of specificity tells us either (a) they really don't know what they are talking about, and just want to "look scientific", or (b) they are being intentionally vague so as to not invite scrutiny.  If they just said, "many people in science use an evolutionary paradigm", well, that's obviously true.  But it isn't obviously true that it is foundational for any experimental science, or anything which forms the basis of engineering.  In fact, the opposite seems to be the case.

"To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children"

This is the real rough statement.  The problem with this is that it is the equivalent of the Church's teaching with regard to Gallileo.  The Church had made its peace with the science of the day - how dare someone try to oppose it!  It's one thing for a Church to allow, even explicitly allow, various views, but this actually calls people names.  I'm curious if they allowed a discussion of the evidence before making this, and invited opposing scientists to make their claims?  If not, then the Church is dealing more in scientific ignorance than the people they claim to be opposing, because it dismissed ideas without examining their merits.  Also, as was pointed out earlier, their vagueness regarding what part of evolutionary theory they are talking about makes this just a bunch of authoritarian garbage.

"We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought"


"the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator."

Somewhat agreed.  You could take this too far and say that everyone should be an academic.  I wouldn't agree with that.  I also don't believe in the academic culture's superiority-mindedness which thinks that those who aren't academics must simply take the word of the academics on all things.

What is left out of this discussion of mind, however, is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  What does it mean to love God?  For one thing, it means submission to Him, and recognition that He is loving, He is powerful, and that He is wise.  Our wisdom is foolishness in His sight.  Therefore, the life of our mind should be first characterized by submission to God, and not to submission to man.  There is certainly disagreement on what submitting my mind to God looks like, but the UMC wants me to submit my mind first to modern science.  Otherwise they would be making a theological case for evolution, not a scientific one.

"To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris."

No one in Creation is limitting God.  What we are doing is listening to what He has said about what He did.  It is the evolutionists who are limitting God, by only allowing God to work through secondary causes, no matter what He has said about how He works.

"We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."

If by "core component of human knowledge" it simply means "what most academics are thinking today", then I actually have no problem with this statement.  I think evolutionary theory should be taught to everyone.

"We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth."

The NOMA principle is simply false.  If Christianity says anything whatsoever about reality or history, then NOMA is invalid.  And, last I checked, Christianity was primarily rooted in the history of God's actions in Creation, and therefore is an invalid principle specifically regarding Christianity.  Many scientists who espouse NOMA know this, and just use NOMA to keep outsiders from asking too many pesky questions.

To show you how dumb the endorsement of the Clergy Letter Project by denominations is, let me show why the opposite would also be eggregiously dumb.  Let's say that a fundamentalist denomination wanted to support Creationism.  The worst theing they could possibly do is to point to the Creation Research Society, AiG, or some body of Creation Science knowledge, and declare this to be the standard that all Christians should believe.  I'm a member of CRS, I like AiG, and I contribute to the body of Creation Science knowledge.  Howver, the problem is that all of these are still man's opinions.  Our standard is Scripture, which leaves a lot of details out.  For a denomination to essentially mandate or endorse a set of non-Biblical details is horrendously foolish.  I teach Creation in churches.  But I think it would be foolhardy to elevate anything that I teach to the level that the UMC has raised evolutionary theory.

September 15, 2008

The Bible / Epistemology and the Canon


Michael Patton has a very interesting discussion about knowing with certainty versus knowing with probability, and how that affects the way we look at the Biblical Canon.

September 06, 2008

Religion and Science / The Theology of the Bacterial Flagellum


Many people think that science is done in a theological vacuum.  However, it is not.  Take for instance, a recent paper on the flagellum - Coordinating assembly of a macromolecular machine:

Finally, it seems that the bacterial flagellum is a structure of great complexity. In an attempt to understand why, it is not necessary to resort to intelligent designers, because surely a designer would have fashioned a simpler structure and gene regulation system. We only need to be reminded that evolution demands that changes occur on the existing structure — no starting from scratch. It is fair to say that we are at long last making a dent in our understanding of how this evolutionary process might have occurred for the reducibly complex bacterial flagellum and the beautiful result it has produced.

So, the reason we are not resorting to design is not because it doesn't evidence design, but rather because a designer would not have done it this way!  That is a statement of both theology and engineering that the authors have no grounds to say.

Here's an article on the flagellum:

Is the flagellar motor unique?

Yes and no. As a device that powers flagellar rotation, yes. As a device composed of rings, rods, and external filaments, no. There is a homologous structure, called the needle structure, assembled by the same kind of transport apparatus, used by pathogenic species (such as Salmonella) to inject virulence factors into eukaryotic cells. Some argue that the flagellar rotary motor evolved from the needle structure, but it was probably the other way around,
since flagellated bacteria existed long before their eukaryotic targets. Perhaps they evolved from a common ancestor. What was the rotary motor doing before the helical propeller was invented, if indeed that was the order of events? Serving as a secretory apparatus that acquired the ability to spin? Packaging polynucleic acids into virus heads? Food for thought.

 So now, not only is the flagellum IC, but even the supposed "precursor systems" don't make sense until long after the flagellum supposedly developed.  What we are finding, over and over, is that there is no such thing as a simple life form.  Therefore, we can conclude that those who view evolution as progressing from simple to complex are doing so because of theological commitments, not because of evidence.  I have no problem with people engaging in science from theological commitments (it's actually impossible not to), I just wish they would admit it.

September 05, 2008

Religion and Politics / Palin, Religion, War, and Teen Pregnancy


I don't know a lot about Palin.  I have a feeling I'm going to like her, but I haven't dug enough to know for sure.  However, there are two things that are in the media about her right now that I find absolutely outrageous.

1) Palin's view of the war in Iraq

This is probably one of the most misreported, prejudicial things that I've seen.  This is based on people who either (a) don't know English grammar, or (b) are so prejudiced against conservative Christians that they literally can't be rational around one.  Here is the text of the graduation address in question (from Huffington Post):

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God

The left-wing media is taking this as Palin saying that the war in Iraq is a mission from God.  But that actually isn't what the text says.  What she is praying is _that_ our leaders are sending the soldiers on a task that is from God.  She is not saying, "our foreign policy is the same as God's" - she is saying "pray that our leaders put their foreign policy under the sovereignty of God".  The former is the assumption that what's good for us must be what God wants, but the latter is a humble request that God lines up the hearts of our leaders with His heart.  I would hope every Christian would pray that prayer.

2) Palin's Pregnant Daughter

Many are painting Palin's pregnant daugher as being the epitomy of her own failed policies.  I, however, see it as the opposite.  Unlike others, I don't think that "teenage" pregnancy is a problem.  Your age has nothing to do with it.  The problem is sex without commitment (i.e. marriage) and babies being denied a family in order to not inconvenience a lazy father.

Did Bristol have a moral failing in getting pregnant before being married? Yes. But so what? Everyone has moral failings.  The question is, where do we go from here?  Bristol is marrying the father, and they are going to keep and raise the baby.  That's fantastic!  I can't see a better end to the story.  The morality which Palin is trying to instill is the morality of personal responsibility, and that is exactly what is being evidenced by her daughter.  She screwed up, and is taking responsibility for it by doing the right thing!

Palin's daughter is not evidence of her policies failing, but of them working.

September 04, 2008

The Bible / Biblical Studies Carnival XXXIII


Find it here.

August 28, 2008

Religion and Politics / Books on Religion and Politics


I've asked several friends to send me what they think are the best books on religion and politics.  Here are the responses I've gotten so far.  What are yours?

Here were some author references I received with no specific book titles attached: