Evolving in Monkey Town

I guess I’ll have to subscribe to the blog until I can get around to the book, but June Griffin makes her first appearance in Chapter 2, so it is going to have to be read.

So… anyway… I’m looking forward to it. I imagine other Eastern Tennesseans will enjoy it as well. Matter of fact, I expect it will do well with the national audience it seems to be targeted to.

A Great Deal about Penal Substition and other Theories of Atonement

PST – Penal Substitution theory… When I was coming up, I don’t think I ever heard the term. Not that it wasn’t a current theory. Just that it was called by a different name: “God’s plan of Salvation”. At least PST was supposed to be an element within God’s plan. It was usually phrased in terms of Jesus having “died in our place” or “paid the price of our sins”. I oversimplify. Oftentimes a number of theories of atonement are conflated together, somewhat willy-nilly, all in support of the idea that Jesus died “for” us. Sometimes the ambiguity in that preposition “for” leaves us with a supporter of PST arguing in favor of it using reasoning that supports a different theory of atonement (I will discuss some of these other theories at the end of the post. Hang around, that’s an interesting topic). As such, it is not always clear that God’s Plan is indeed Penal Substitution. But if push comes to shove, around here, you define penal substitution and ask if that’s what God’s plan is and you’ll get a “yes” without hesitation*.

I don’t really remember how I related to this idea as a child. In one sense, I “knew” it. I was taught it, and I was pretty good at learning the things that I was taught. So, I knew it. But I don’t remember whether it made any sense to me at the time or not.

It doesn’t now. Hasn’t for a long time. As with most doctines about “God’s Will,” there is room for debate on whether this one is “Biblical” or not. (James McGrath says it is not, while Ken Pulliam thinks that, on balance, it is). Why is that important? Well, for some, whether it is “Biblical” or not determines whether it is “God’s Will” or not. For some, whether PST (assuming it is “the Biblical view”) is morally defensible or not determines whether Biblical fundamentalism is morally defensible. For others, it’s just an interesting question.

My view is that this is like any other doctrine. PST is both Biblical and un-Biblical, depending on which texts you focus on.

Furthermore, my view is that PST is non-sensical and morally indefensible.

Ken Pulliam, whose individual post is linke above on the issue of whether PST is “Biblical”, has written no less than fifty three detailed posts expositing his view that PST is morally indefensible. He argues against numerous modern and historical theologians who attempt to defend PST. To argue this forcefully against so many well-credentialed theologians, Ken Pulliam must be extremely clever, or he must be correct in his view. I am quite convinced that it is the latter (though I don’t doubt that he is clever). The articles he has archived under the PST category are spread over several pages (navigation is at the bottom), here. I believe this archive is likely among the most comprehensive (and persuasive) set of arguments against PST in existence. If you are interested in the Penal Substitution Theory, you could do worse than to spend a few days reading through it.

I offer the failings of the Penal Substitution Theory of atonement as an indictment of fundamentalism and as an invitation to consider healthier modes of thought about how humans can relate to what they hold sacred.

I have deliberately avoided defining PST. It is often difficult to distinguish from its cousin, “Satisfaction”, and its parent general “Substitution”. Virtually every criticism of PST applies to the broader spectrum of “punishment” and “substitution” theories.

An exception is the “ritual” subset of satisfaction/substitution models. These effectively take the ancient notion of sacrifice, strip them of the context (God’s wrath mollified by an obsequious gift), and leave only the ritual itself as the mode by which God is satisfied. (It is not always the case that the context is removed – sometimes the ancient concept of sacrifice is kept relatively intact). While most adherents of a satisfaction/substitution theory of punishment do not accept the “ritual” view, they sometimes will use its language, even in defense of the views they do espouse (citing, for instance, the necessity that Jesus be “perfect” in order for the sacrifice to be adequate).

Other orthodox or neo-orthodox ideas of atonement often come into the mix during discussions of atonement. Especially prevalent is the participation theory, that all who identify with Jesus participated mystically in his death and restoration, and have therefore have already been punished and restored. Arguments against PST have little force against the participatory model – one which (as McGrath points out is also Biblical). This model does less violence to ideals of justice and mercy but I personally still find it unsatisfying.

It seems odd to mention the Classic theory of atonement so late in a list, but it simply lacks clout these days. It often comes up, but rarely from anyone who accepts its primary efficacy. Under the Classic model, Jesus’ death and resurrection defeated Satan and Evil once and for all. As a theory unto itself, it has a feel of the mystical – this willing death of God, and his subsequent resurrection – for the very reason of their having happened – was the vehicle of atonement. They mystically about the defeat of Satan, evil, and death, and therefore wrought atonement. As a footstool to substitutionary theories, this view is merely a metaphor – it is because Jesus was punished as a substitute for us that Satan, evil, and death were robbed of their power. This is one area where some conservatives agree with some liberals – in symbologizing the Classic theory (though liberals are apt to do it sans the substitutionary doctrine).

Under the moral-influence model (which is rarely invoked by conservatives as a model of primary efficacy), upon understanding the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, people are moved to relinquish their sinful nature in favor of a Godly one. This, rather than a vicarious punishment, brings about atonement.

Under other Christian theories of atonement, the crucifixion is not directly responsible for the atonement at all. These are generally the most liberal theories, and include some Christian Humanist viewpoints. The most prevalent of these (and the only one I will mention) is that it is Jesus’ message that brings salvation. Under this view, crucifixion was the price Jesus had to pay for bringing his salvific message to humanity. I certainly understand the appeal of this view to liberals and to humanists. There are among the teachings imputed to Jesus some edifying lessons. And, the notion that Jesus would preach the message boldly even knowing it would mean his death is an edifying lesson in selflessness.

There was a stage during which I considered adopting a Christian-humanist viewpoint centered around the “saving message” and this view of atonement. The reason I didn’t is the same reason I don’t accept most other Christian doctrines – I don’t believe it is true. It is an admirable fiction, but a fiction none-the-less. First, I don’t especially believe that Jesus had any special foreknowledge of his death. It’s possible that he knew he was painting himself into a corner that would end in death – even crucifixion. But it’s just as likely that he was teaching what he thought was right without much appreciation for the danger in which it may have placed him. Second, I don’t think that it was his strong ethical teachings that got him crucified. I think it was his more likely his opposition to the practices current in the administration of the Jerusalem temple that did him in. Third, it’s hard to say what Jesus’ teachings really were. They likely didn’t include everything attributed to him in the New Testament. They likely did include things we don’t get to read about in the New Testament. Fourth, even among those attributed to him in the New Testament, only a few were especially strong ethical messages. Fifth, of those attributed to him which were strong ethical messages, most echoed ethical teachings already present in the Hebrew scriptures or elucidated by other teachers of his era – teachings which didn’t get anybody crucified. A person could do worse than to adopt the salvific message model of redemption and a humanistic Christianity, but it isn’t for me.

*These days more atonement-related ink is spilled on another controversy than on the general model of atonement. Unfortunate in my view, since the model itself needs some serious revision if it is to be held to a high standard of sense and sensibility. But I don’t get to decide what folks argue about, and the bigger discussion is over whether our sins were *infused* into Christ such that he somehow “became” guilty, or they were merely *imputed* to him, such that God was willing to act as though he were guilty of them. While Pulliam doesn’t often employ the language of imputation and infusion in his posts, he deals with both possibilities exhaustively.

Bible Podcasts

This post is a plug for two podcasts that have kept me entertained on a number of car-rides over the past few months. If you have any interest at all in the Bible or early Christianity, I can’t recommend them enough. There’s a fair amount of overlap on subject matter, at least where it concerns broad themes that you would expect to find in introductory level courses (many of the individual sessions come straight from introductory level lectures given at the respective universities of the two ‘casters).

Mark Goodacre is an associate professor in the department of Religion at Duke Univesity. His NT Pod is delivered with a British accent and a style that keeps (me, at least) awake and interested. He is very interested in the synoptic problem and ably defends the Farrer Hypothesis against the more commonly accepted two-source hypothesis (which argues for a Q source shared by Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). In fact, he argues it so ably, that I have become very sympathetic to this view. I still have questions, and I’m sure there are reasons why consensus still favors the two-source hypothesis, but Goodacre is exactly the kind of contrarian that keeps it interesting and fun. Goodacre also runs NT Blog, which I follow on Google Reader.

Philip Harland is an associate professor at York University in Ontario, Canada, teaching courses on early Christianity. He writes a blog called Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, and covers a range of topics that include and help to contextualize early Christianity. His podcast is housed along with the blog. I always look forward to new material from him. His Canuck accent is at least as much fun as Goodacre’s British one, especially when it hits you by surprise with an “oat” or “aboat” in the middle of a stream of regular old English.

I’m in the market for more podcasts with a similar focus. If you know a good one, let me know, too! And, if you have a mobile listening device, subscribe to these two and get ready to get a good education!

The first GW

George Washington by Horatio Greenoug, Photo by Claire Houck, Creative Commons licensed

Riding in the car the other day, I tuned in a segment on the radio that amounted to #1 a hagriography of George Washington, #2 an argument that he was a little-”o” orthodox and devout Christian, and #3 a lamentation that GW was written out of modern textbooks (and when mentioned his religion is given a revisionist treatment). It was from the author of George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Dr. Peter Lillback.

On point one… while remaining cognizant that hagriography isn’t proper history, I enjoyed this aspect of the segment. I like a good hagriography, and there’s hardly a better subject for it than the father of our country. King George is said to have remarked on George Washington’s plan to take a voluntary term limit and pass the presidency along democratically chosen lines that “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Considering that GW could have easily chosen to keep the position for life (and set an anti-democratic precedent), his decision to hand over power really does put him in a very good light. This and a number of forward-thinking actions make it difficult to think of GW as anything but great.

The second point was also interesting. It was very partisan (as one would expect on Moody radio), offering evidence for GW’s orthodoxy and devotion uncritically, while glossing over a number of sticky points. I believe that this is one of those cases where the center between two extremes really has a lot to recommend it as being closer to the truth. The evidence presented does in fact rule out the notion that GW was a partisan Deist, hostile toward orthodox Christianity. But, the evidence not presented does soften the notion that he was a devout and partisan orthodox Christian who opposed the spirit of separation of church and state as understood by Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. Nor was he hostile to orthodox religion in the mold of Thomas Paine. He might best be understood as a Christian Deist in the mold of Matthew Tindal – but there is plenty of room for debate and Orthodox Christianity is certainly within the realm of possibility.

The third point was mainly polemic. What Moody calls “historical revisionism” is probably a result of secular partisans playing up the evidence against Washington’s orthodoxy, and even of responsible historians treating the issue as difficult and contentious – denying the view that Washington was clearly and certainly orthodox. On the other hand I had to agree that the state of modern education, and the common disinterest in George Washington and the other founders is regrettable in the extreme. Should educators renew their interest in Washington, I hope they will present his whole life fairly and historically, even the unfortunate bits. And, I hope they will portray modern understanding of his religious views with the nuance responsibility requires.

I recommend the Wikipedia article on GW’s religion – at least as it currently stands. It includes a large segment on Lillback’s book, and helps see how the issue can be clouded by seemingly contradictory evidence.

A Good Debate

via James McGrath, a debate between Bart Ehrman, former fundamentalist who through Biblical scholarship became a very liberal skeptic, and Craig Evans, an evangelical Bible scholar. Oral debates are, in my view, more often counterproductive than helpful to the project of helping people get a better and deeper grasp on areas of study that are subject to controversy. The rare exception is a debate between people who hold varying views but are able to nonetheless present factual information responsibly. This is more often true when the “sides” are less polarized, when both participants have taken great pains to educate themselves responsibly, when both are cognizant of their own weaknesses and infallibility, and when both are making an effort to educate their audience with solid material that will be useful and beneficial to them.

This debate was among those rare exceptions. When one of those comes along, you don’t talk about who won or lost the debate, as much as what you learned from it. Unfortunately, Bart Ehrman is unskilled at oral debate and sounded uncomfortable and strident. In addition, he did not always argue as effectively as he could have. So, if we have to speak of a winner, it is the conservative, Craig Evans. But both were interesting, and both made a number of valid points. I’ll recap a couple. But right now, it’s time to watch the video. It’s just shy of an hour and a half, so watch it when you have some time.

First, some points about Evans. I really admired his closing statement which contrasted the humility of evangelical Christianity with the false confidence of fundamentalism. I believe that even fundamentalists hearing him defend conservative Christianity would appreciate his viewpoint (and might, without giving up the doctrines of hard inerrancy and other unfortunate aspects of fundamentalism, think of themselves as being closer kin with his view than with the view they have historically espoused).

Second, while his presentation on such issues as whether the gospels “contain” eye-witness testimony, whether we have sufficiently well-attested witnesses to the originals, where we can have a good deal of confidence about concerning the historical core of the gospels, and how the gospels can be and are used by historians and archaeologists, was relatively partisan, it was also essentially correct. In the case of how historians and archaeologists use the gospels, it was more correct than Ehrman’s contribution.

Third, for whatever reason, he left a number of points very conspicuously unanswered.

Fourth, he was in very questionable territory on a couple of items.

For his part, Ehrman was somewhat far afield in answering the question about how archaeologists might employ the gospels. He was not his usual professorial self (I’ve seen instructional videos in which his style is much more somber and reflective) – instead he did come across as strident and uncomfortable. In addition, apart from his answer on archaeology, his answers were essentially correct – but very partisan in presentation.

His strongest point – and one which did go unanswered – concerned the question of who Jesus said that he was. He is correct that John differs from the other gospels in that it portrays Jesus as being self-consciously Divine in terms of equality or near-equality with the Father. Before I go into more detail on this let me diverge for a moment.

Evans cites a short list of items that can be historically known about Jesus from the Gospels – including that he was known as a healer, that he was baptized by John, and that he preached the Rule or Kingdom of God, among other things. He also points out that he was received as a messiah-figure by (some, at least, among) his disciples and may have acknowledged such a designation himself. These are all important facts about Jesus that it would be foolish to discard lightly, and they attest to a certain amount of reliability of the gospels in terms of how they characterize Jesus life, and teachings. Ehrman probably agrees with most of those points, but treated them dismissively. As I said, his approach was partisan.

Significantly, this list of Evans correctly omits any notion that Jesus thought of himself as uniquely Divine. In fact, Evans would have been irresponsible to defend that notion as being anything like a historical certainty. Ehrman made the point that many evangelicals ask the question – is Jesus who he said he was? Ehrman, rightly in my view, made the point that these same evangelicals hold an unjustified assumption – that Jesus said he was God. In my view, he never believed that or thought it.

That isn’t to say that John invented the notion (or even held it in the same way modern Evangelicals do). Notions of the divinity of Jesus certainly predated John and showed up in the writings of Paul and even, obliquely, some of the synoptic gospels. John is simply the gospel that presents that notion least ambiguously and attributes it to Jesus himself. One of the most interesting fields of study I’ve recently run across is trying to understand in the context of first century Judaism what was meant by the notion of divinity, especially as it was applied to Jesus. If Evans had answered Ehrman’s challenge on the historical reliability of the notion that Jesus and his immediate followers conceived of him as co-equal with the Father, then the discussion would have inevitably become more technical and begun to explore some of those issues. I believe that Evans avoided that in part because he did not relish that discussion – knowing as he must that there is little support in the Bible or in the context of first century Judaism for the idea that Jesus was, thought he was, or was thought of as being “fully God”.

This is the biggest point of contention, I believe, between the liberal or secular student and the conservative one: the identity of Jesus. On this point, I think Ehrman’s position is stronger. The next biggest point of contention between the liberal or secular student and the conservative one is the nature of the Bible. On this point Evans does engage, and in some ways corrects Ehrman’s views which – presented from the partisan viewpoint of counter-apology – are a tad extreme. However, Ehrman is largely correct – there are good reasons to discount the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility. Evans, to the extent that he only corrects Ehrman’s occasional over-reach but does not answer his basic charges, seems to agree with Ehrman in spirit, even if he holds to a strong notion of Biblical reliability and considers it the authoritative word of God. He consistently defers the repeated question: does he finds in the Bible the same irreconcilable contradictions that others find. In short he does not base his “high” view of the scripture on the idea that there are no “errors” in the Bible, but rather on the idea that the Bible is generally reliable and tells a consistent and believable story.

Even when stated this way, I disagree with him. Yes, the New Testament is harmonious on certain matters central to Christian theology. Furthermore, there are no written testimonies to Christian views from the same early period that profoundly contradict the New Testament position on those matters (though there is ample evidence that such contradictory Christian views did exist in that early period – and there is reason to surmise and some limited evidence that in fact non-Christian views of Jesus from those in as good a position as Paul and the Evangelists to evaluate the stories was also at odds with the Christian narrative).

But even if we take the view on face value that the Bible is generally reliable concerning the life and teachings of Jesus, it is still quite a task to derive from that support for wide swaths of evangelical doctrine. As Ehrman pointed out, important doctrines (including the Trinity) are without Biblical foundation apart from layers of interpretation in light of doctrines unheard of at the time the New Testament was written. (Furthermore, taking into account the cultural context of New Testament writings, it might be said that the Bible is directly or indirectly at variance with, for instance, Trinitarianism as later conceived). This is one area where Evans may have overstated his case – in suggesting that issues which come up in textual variants are resolved by other, better-founded, texts – and including the Trinitarian formula of First John. He would be hard pressed to produce those texts and show how they are properly interpreted in light of the cultural context of their writing in support of the spurious formula of the Johannine comma. As Ehrman pointed out, a number of teachings historically (and currently, in many circles) held to be important and worth repeating and sermonizing over, are based on insecure variants. Not all are as clearly spurious as the Johannine comma, but quite a few are at least disputable. Taken together with ample evidence to doubt the absolute reliability of every statement in the New Testament, with good reason to read the Gospels as each expressing its own position, with an honest appreciation of the tension between their accounts, and mindfully of which are most representative of what the earliest followers of Jesus thought and believed about him, it follows that the weight of modern conservative theology, including doctrines about the Bible itself, is very insecure.

That said, I like Evans’ approach. While he still holds (unjustifiably in my view) to much of conservative theology and a traditionally high view of scripture, he divorces himself from fundamentalist absolutes both by leaving Ehrman’s strongest charges unanswered, and by – in his closing statement – positively pointing out the futility of an absolutist interpretation of the Bible. He acknowledges, rightly, that his views are contingent and debatable, and that while he holds to the authority of a traditional interpretation, that rejection of that tradition is also a valid and honest position. It is precisely this humility that separates the modern evangelical from the modern fundamentalist, and lends respectability to the conservative position.


A good friend is doing it. So are a couple of acquaintances.  But me, I wouldn’t do census work. As Doug points out, this is not about following the lead of Erick Erickson , himself as far as we know a chicken hawk in the global war against part-time government employees.

Selected Boogers Digest

Did I mention that these things pile up? Fast? No room to catch up all the boogers since a week ago, but some favorites follow:

Synthetic Genome+Natural Cell=New Life? | The Loom | Discover Magazine from

(Answer: not really… but an interesting release nonetheless.  And complete with a bunch of good links to Zimmer’s fantastic writing on the subject from the past)

Rekers and the Barbarism of Anti-Gay ‘Therapy’ from Dispatches from the Culture Wars

I’m not sure that anti-gay therapy these days is so barbaric, but the fact that this guy was not just tolerated but celebrated in the anti-gay right for so long speaks to a moral deficit of the highest order. That it would continue to be tolerated and celebrated if Reker’s rental boy vacation hadn’t come to light speaks further to this moral deficit. That Reker could have the career he had without his partner, James Dobson, figuring out that he was a raging closet case speaks to an intelligence deficit.

IOKIYNAM* from Obsidian Wings

It ‘s OK if you’re not a Muslim.

Hurt Locker producer: criticizing our lawsuits makes you a moron and a thief from Boing Boing

Charges Dropped Against British Preacher from Dispatches from the Culture Wars

The British preacher who was arrested for saying homosexuality is a sin in England has had the charges dropped after a public outcry that included gay rights activists:

Who You Gonna Call? from Improv Everywhere

Kagan’s Political Advice: Does Principle Matter? : Dispatches from the Culture Wars

Humanoid robot officiates human wedding

Cars can be hacked (!)

Why N. T. Wright would not be asked to speak at the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer event

Too much to excerpt – this one is a must read.

Learning from my Introductory Physics Class from Starts With A Bang

A must read for anyone interested in eductation, on either end of it.

Draw Wrong Mohammed Day

I screwed up. I thought it was Draw Mohammed Bouyeri Day. So, this is what I toiled away for:

Draw Mohammed Day

So… anyway… The best compilation is at Friendly Atheist.

I began disapproving of the project on the grounds that it’s wrong to poke millions of people in the eye to express disapproval of a couple hundred asshole extremists.

I’ve been known to criticize the perpetrators of CrackerGate on similar grounds.

On the other hand… a number of commentors are right.  This is a freedom of speech and freedom of religion issue.

Furthermore, anyone who is truly saddened or offended by someone outside their own religion violating their religious taboos in a harmless manner would be better off to re-think what’s worth getting saddened or offended.

What should sadden and offend is the idea that Draw Mohammed Day is done just to sadden and offend people who belong to that religion. To the extent that some of the actors are doing it for that very purpose, I commiserate, and I do not endorse the day.  But to the extent that it is done not to poke at Muslims but rather to poke at extremism and make social commentary about the importance of freedom, the inappropriateness of universalizing a cultural taboo, and the evil of enforcing cultural taboos through violence, I join whole-heartedly.  At least I would have if I hadn’t already drawn the wrong Mohammed.

ACLU – Hands off Miranda


So these two cases are very similar: both are suspected of terrorist acts, both are caught, questioned, and Mirandized, and most crucially, both cooperate with law enforcement authorities both before and after they were read their Miranda rights.

Which is why it’s completely befuddling that some politicians have used these attempted terrorist attacks to propose that we completely change the way we enforce the rule of law. Some have charged that it was mistake to Mirandize both Abdulmutallab and Shahzad, that they should have been interrogated more—some have even implied tortured—before they were read their rights. The Obama administration has caved to this naked fear-mongering: Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Judiciary Committee that the administration wants to “modernize” and “clarify” the public safety exception in terrorism cases.

Related… There is a saying about blind squirrels. But yes, credit where credit is due.

I’m filing this under “justice” instead of “politics” to keep from getting dumber. Praise to Glenn B for doing the same, and shame on Holder/Obama for filing under politics.

Not as good as Letterman

Another top ten list – (If that link doesn’t work, you can use this one, but then you get it split into three inconvenient pages).

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event. That’s true even for flashbulb memories, the ones that feel as though they’ve been burned into the brain:

I’m not sure how disturbing this is… I get a touch of vertigo when I think about it. I don’t like the tag-line. It isn’t that your mind isn’t your own. In my book, your mind is *you*. Or a big part there-of. The vertigo is that your mind isn’t what it feels like it is… not a happy servant of the ego, so to speak. Instead it is an unfathomable set of interactions between the environment and the molecular systems in your brain, some of which we experience as immediate consciousness, some of which we don’t. And that’s an oversimplification, too. But not as bad as “your mind is not your own”.

10. The universe is made of stuff we can barely begin to imagine.

Everything you probably think of when you think of the universe—planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, dust—makes up just 4 percent of whatever is out there. The rest comes in two flavors of “dark,” or unknown stuff: dark matter, at 23 percent of the universe, and dark energy, at a whopping 73 percent:

What’s your favorite?

Oh yeah… be sure to use that second / 3 page link to get a hoot at some of the comments there.