Wednesday, December 28, 2011

John Frame on Cornelius Van Til

I recently finished reading John Frame's book, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. While I have read almost all of Gordon Clark's books, I have never sat down to read an entire volume of Van Til. The most exposure to Van Til that I've had is reading about half of Bahnsen's Van Til's Apologetic, which casts its focus more narrowly than Frame's book, but has the benefit of extensive quotations and readings from Van Til's works. Given my limited exposure to Van Til's thought, my comments here will be of a general character.

Frame's book is organized as follows: Part I, which includes three chapters (a general introduction, a biographical chapter, and a brief statement on his legacy); Part II, which examines Van Til's "Metaphysics of Knowledge" in eleven chapters (three on God's nature, two on knowledge [one of which is about the Clark-Van Til controversy]; and one each on Scripture, Presuppositions, Primacy of the Intellect, Logic, Analogical System, and Evidence); Part III, which looks at Antithesis, Common Grace, and Rationalism/Irrationalism dialectic in three chapters, respectively; Part IV, which analyzes Van Til's criticisms of traditional and contemporary apologetic methods as well as expositing Van Til's own method, with an example of it in practice (a total of seven chapters); Part V, three chapters on Van Til's criticisms of philosophical and theological positions past and present; Part VI, two concluding chapters; and two Appendixes, which include a criticism of "Ligonier Apologetic" by Frame and an essay on Van Til's preaching by Edmund Clowney.

Despite the wealth of information included in the volume, it is a fairly easy read for a philosophically oriented book. Frame has a congenial tone to his writing and his criticisms are predominantly focused upon providing the best possible reading of the individuals and seeking the clearest possible terms for engagement. If there is a general weakness, it is probably that Frame's desire to incorporate the best reading leads him to overlook the seriousness of some of the logical implications that will be commonly drawn from the confusing language that he finds in various authors.

The best part of Frame's book is his familiarity with Van Til and his comprehensive treatment of the various topics of Van Til's thought. Frame is not as acute as Bahnsen in his analysis, but Bahnsen's book is less comprehensive, and I think more biased in its analysis of Van Til's opponents; and especially of Gordon Clark. Frame actually gives a lot of ground to Clark in the controversy, but not enough to really bring out anything insightful into the ongoing issues between Clarkians and Van Tillians. Another strength of the book is Frame's appreciation for the effects of a "movement mentality" that arises around strong personalities such as Van Til. Even if Frame were exaggerating the effects of the movement mentality upon Van Til or his followers (and I have no reasons to suspect such exaggeration) it would still prove a sound warning for anyone investing their energy in so-called intellectual giants of a given time. I have sensed my own desire to defend my intellectual heroes beyond reasonable limits, in part because being found in error has less to do with the "glory" of the individual hero and more to do with the sense of loss on one's own investment in their program of thought. Of course, there is no real loss in discovering errors in any thought, since a discovery of error is a step toward truth--but psychologically, for those like me anyway, the first response to such errors isn't joy.

To speak more specifically about Van Til, the most intriguing aspect of his thought seems to be his ability to penetrate to the fundamental problems of a given philosophy or theological system. This certainly made Van Til unpopular with his contemporaries, since (think of the movement mentality again) few people respond well to having their poster-boy's philosophy deflated upon one or two points of critique, as opposed to the sort of nuance and caution that academics tend to employ in evaluating major players. Van Til's rejection of Barth is notable on this score, but also his ability to see that all forms of pagan philosophy necessarily presuppose truths derivable only from the God of Christianity. Admittedly, the sort of criticism lends itself to overstatement, since discerning logical presuppositions and/or implications are distinct from discerning the stated beliefs or entailments of a position. That is to say, all of us possess inconsistencies in our thought, which lead us to believe things about our position that contradict other aspects of which we are unaware. The incompatibilities of our own position are by definition "off the radar" until they are pointed out to us, and the most natural response is to defend our position until such inconsistencies have been fully demonstrated as valid and sound. Then, of course, there is the additional problem of unbelief, which is that unbelievers by nature have a true sense of God's existence and divine authority (Romans 1), but flee from it with all of their might unless God arrests their rebellion through His regenerative work.

Although it would be natural to go from here into the implications of Van Til's strongest contribution, I will leave it to my readers to investigate for themselves Frame's helpful book and Van Til's own writings. I would recommend Bahnsen's volume rather than a smattering of Van Til's own works. Bahnsen is far clearer than Van Til in his exposition of Van Til's own philosophy, if only for his more careful attention to the meanings of terms and his attention to translate technical terms into explicit statements or propositions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Must Read

Philosopher and Christian apologist James Anderson has just posted a link to a very interesting paper that proves the existence of God by proving the necessary existence of the laws of logic. It is highly stimulating, thoroughly argued, and a must read for anyone interested in apologetics or logic, or both!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Allison and the Magi's Star, again

The following is a presentation I gave this morning for our 2nd annual "Christmas Traditio Symposium," which involved the 9th through 12th graders listening, reflection upon, and enjoying several presentations, lectures, and artifacts presented by the teachers.

Haven’t you ever wondered what it would have been to see the burning bush with Moses? To watch the sun stop in the sky with Joshua? To taste the manna with the Israelites? Haven’t you ever wondered what it would have been to see the hand write the prophecy on Belshazzar’s wall? Or maybe you’ve thought further and wondered not only what it would have been to partake in these strange events, but to understand what actually occurred in them. Was it a real bush that was burning? What sort of fire burns without consuming? What sort of bush is fire-proof? What is manna made of? Is it a combination of dew and molecules from the air? Was it just honey-flavored coriander substitute that God made to appear? Did the earth stop spinning when the sun stood still in the sky? What would that have done to the winds or to the currents of the ocean? Who among us would doubt that God is able to do whatever He wills with what He has made, and to do it by whatever means He chooses? We all might say with Job,

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:2-3 ESV).

But granting our belief in God’s omnipotence, whence comes belief, seeking understanding? Is it not our proper place as the crown of God’s creation and as His vice-regents of what He has made to know God’s works in Creation and Redemption as well as we may? And surely God takes delight in our discovery of His manner and means for doing what He does so well, so unexpectedly, despite our bravest and wisest anticipations.
I’d like to propose for you today, a day where we are hearing, contemplating, and enjoying things related to the miracle of Christ’s incarnation, that every day of our lives, every moment of every day (though it seems an impossible goal) ought to be characterized by a holy wonder. A holy wonder that leads to a curious investigation of the works of God’s hands, which in turn cannot but well up inside of us a profound and profoundly humble thankfulness for God’s unbounded bounty. We live in a world made from nothing, nothing other than God’s pure pleasure in making it for Himself and for us. We’ve been given a story unlike any other, a story that doesn’t have an end, but has as many rabbit trails, nooks and crannies, and deeply moving subplots as we have inclination to follow. I want to use the time I have today to guide you along one of these trails, into one of these nooks and crannies of God’s uncommon kindness.
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, he tells us of a star that guided certain magi from the east. In verse two of chapter two, the magi proclaim that they’ve come to see the King of the Jews, whose star they have seen in the East. Later, in verses nine and ten, they depart from Herod and the star appears again, going before them, leading them to the house where Jesus was, where it stood over him. I don’t know how often you’ve stargazed. You ought to try sometime if you haven’t. I used to sit under the stars at night, out in the country where I grew up away from city lights and smoggy skies, and I would stare at the thousands of brilliant iridescent lights littering the heavens. I’ve seen many a shooting star. I’ve seen the large, glowing planets. I’ve even seen satellites, foreigners amongst their livelier counterparts. But I can tell you, and I’d wager you’d say the same, that I’ve never seen a star that appeared suddenly, moved across the sky, and stopped to descend out of the heavens, to rest over a spot down below, here on the earth. What sort of star does this? Is it really a star at all? Is it really possible for an orb of immense size and volatile heat to leave its solar system millions or billions of light years away to rest over a tiny house in the Middle East? Thankfully, we’re not the first to consider the question of what exactly was this star.
In the first chapter of his book, Studies in Matthew, Dale Allison examines the history of interpretation surrounding the star of the magi in Matthew’s gospel. Allison tells us that there are basically three modern views of the star: 1) it is a planetary conjunction (where two planetary bodies appear in the sky in close relation), 2) it is a comet, or 3) it is a supernova (a new star). Allison notes that none of these views comports well with Matthew’s account. None of the explanations fits with Matthew’s claim that the star “went before” the magi, nor with the detail that the star, “stopped over the place where the child was.” Conjunctions and supernovas don’t appear to move from the vantage point of earth, and although comets move, they do not stop over a specific location. Even ancient interpreters were aware of these difficulties in considering the star to be a planetary body like any other star. Allison cites Chrysostom, Theophylact, and the Protoevangelium of James (the earliest source, from the 2nd century), all of which assent to the impossibility that the star is any ordinary astronomical phenomenon. Many of the early church fathers believed that the star that guided the magi left the heavens and descended upon the place where Jesus was staying, some even that it rested over Jesus’ head. The strange occurrence of a star moving across the heavens and descending over a specific locale was the predominant view up through the medieval period of Christianity. Even as late as Calvin there is no belief that the manner of the star’s appearance is a naturally occurring event. The supernatural, uncanny, and inexplicable anomaly—words so hateful to modern science—was exactly that—a curiosity of God’s providence, that was worth considering on its own terms.
Allison remarks that the opinions of ancient pagan philosophers was that the stars were animate beings, living creatures, who interacted directly with the world of humanity below, even while exhibiting the mathematical “habits” so readily observable. Greeks, including Plato and the Stoics, as well as the Jewish Neo-Platonist Philo, all believed the stars to be living beings. Apparently non-Hellenistic Jews shared Philo’s belief as well, or at least something similar, as their interpretations of Judges 5:20, where the stars of heaven fought against the army of Sisera, acknowledged these heavenly bodies as animate cosmic forces. Accordingly, Allison does not believe it plausible, and nor should we, for Matthew’s view of stars to be presciently modern in contrast to the predominant view held by philosophers and other scientific-minded men of his own time.
Within the Jewish and Christian literary milieu several aspects of angels appear to be reasonable explanations for Matthew’s account of the star. Angels function as guides; for example, in Exodus 14:19 where the angel of God either went before Israel within the cloud, alongside it, or as the cloud itself. Several other extra-biblical Jewish and Christian sources attest to this characteristic of angels as well. Angels are also described as bright and as descending from the heavens. Matthew 28:3 describes the face of the Angel of the Lord to be “like lightning.” Paul calls Satan an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). In Genesis 28 angels ascend and descend in Jacob’s vision of the ladder, and Jesus uses the same language of ascending and descending in John 1:51. At the very least, Allison argues, Matthew’s description of the star’s behavior in guiding the magi and resting over where Jesus was is more indicative of angels than of astronomical objects. The assertion or plausibility of an angelic star is prominent throughout early Christian interpretation and artwork, as well.
At this point in the chapter Allison briefly offers his explanations for several variations in the history of Christian interpretation of the star. Origen’s association with pagan philosophy left a bad taste in later church fathers’ mouths to the extent that they self-consciously sought to purge all hints of syncretism between Neo-Platonism and Biblical exegesis. Since Origen and the ancient pagans believed in animate heavenly bodies, Jerome argued against the view, and the Second Council of Constantinople condemned the view as heresy. Despite this reservation, many fathers maintained a special circumstance regarding the star that led the magi. Rather, they argued, the star was not really a star at all, or, if it was a star that its nature was unique to itself. Modern astronomy also shook confidence from the view of an angelic star. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all denied the possibility of an animate heaven, while also recognizing (at least for Kepler) that Matthew’s star could not be what current science was describing as stars—burning orbs of fire fixed at the center of galaxies, millions and billions of miles away. Renaissance and post-Renaissance interpreters continued away from an angelic star. By the enlightenment and modern periods even the staunchest literalists, whose high view of Scripture was eclipsed by none, would conclude that Matthew’s account of the star was poetical, metaphorical, or otherwise a veiled perspective on what actually occurred.
Allison concludes the chapter by offering some tentative conclusions of his own. Was there an actual light? What sort of phenomenon could it have been? His own suspicion is that Matthew is recounting a haggadic-type legend for some purpose other than historical reporting. In other words, Matthew isn’t concerned with what actually occurred. As Allison says, the prejudices of interpreters for what is, or is not possible will ultimately determine what interpretation they are willing to accept.
Given Allison’s own recognition, we might also question the presuppositions under which he labors in his attribution of haggadic-type legend to Matthew’s account of the star. Why couldn’t the star, as the ancient Christians thought, be an angel of God? How often do we find in the Old Testament, an angel of the Lord appearing prior to, or in the in event of, a special circumstance? An angel of the Lord appeared to Abraham to confirm that the son of the promise would come in the following year. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joshua prior to his going down to destroy Jericho in the first battle within the Promised Land. Angels appeared to Daniel and to his companions in times where their lives were threated with death in a foreign land. Closer to the context of Jesus’ birth, if we look at the Synoptic accounts together, an angel of the Lord met with Joseph prior to Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1), one meets with Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1), we’re also told that the angel Gabriel tells Mary of Jesus’ birth-to-be (Luke 1), and finally an angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem to indicate the birth of Jesus (Luke 1). Each of the appearances occurs in the midst of the everyday activities of the individuals involved. Joseph gets a dream, Mary an unexpected visitor to her home, Zechariah as he ministers in the temple, and the shepherds as they herd their flocks. Given these manifold manifestations of angels to promote the birth of Christ (and John the Baptist as the coming of Elijah) it does not seem implausible that the magi from the east would be greeted in similar fashion by an Angel of the Lord, described by them as a star—something magi would find irresistibly interesting and common to their daily endeavors.
It does not seem, unless one is unwilling to take seriously the Bible’s way of expressing itself, that an angelic star is even the most out-of-sorts event. Clouds by day and pillars by night, parting bodies of water, food from the sky and water from rocks, the sun immovable, angelic hosts innumerable, fire from heaven consuming even the rocks on which the offering is laid—all of these and many other inexplicable activities of God and His ministers should give us pause, as God’s recounting to Job of His wondrous works gave Job pause. Our God defies all of our attempts to anticipate the lengths He is willing to go, the things He is willing to use, the things He is willing to say, and ways in which He is willing to accomplish His purposes. He is not like this because He wants to hide His true self from us. He is like this, because it is His true self. He is not simply an object of our knowledge. He is not the projection of our higher selves. He isn’t just the friend of sinners, or the man named Jesus, or the God who is there. He is the power and wisdom and person in whom we live and move and have our being. If considering His stranger ways cannot captivate our contemplation, cannot stagger our attention, cannot transform the way we walk in His world that He has made for us—in order that we might learn who He is—if these things cannot be our passion and pursuit—if questions about stars and angels and rivers and rocks and widows and wanderers cannot linger in our thoughts—then we ought to go back to the drawing board and figure out just what sort of people we think we are. And in seeking for ourselves in the revelations of Himself and His works that God has given to us for us to commune with Him, we might actually find what we’re looking for—no, more than we could have imagined!—for our God delights in giving gifts that surprise us right in the places where He has set us.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blessing and Cursing

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law. (Proverbs 29:18 ESV)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (Proverbs 29:18 KJV)

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6 ESV)

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou has rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou has forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children. (Hosea 4:6 KJV)

I have been told before by a beloved brother who believes in a form of Dispensationalism that Covenantalism wants to claim the blessings of the Covenant between God and Israel, but it refuses to accept the curses that God also attaches to the Covenant. It is, perhaps, the case that many who espouse Covenantal Theology (CT) fail to appreciate and reflect upon the stipulations and consequences of the Covenant between God and His people. In one sense, all of the requirements of the Covenant were fulfilled in Christ, and therefore His obedience has secured what our inevitable disobedience would have forfeited otherwise. Insofar as CT folks are proclaiming this truth, there is no imbalance as to recognizing that, ultimately, the curses were realized in Christ's crucifixion, and because of His innocence He also procured all of the blessings of the Covenant, as testified before the world in His resurrection.

However, there is another wrinkle to the Covenant relationship, because although Christ has procured all of the benefits of the Covenant for His people and has endured all of the penalty of the curse which we incurred by our sinful state and actual transgressions--although all of this is true--it is also true that God's dealings with His people in the present age are founded upon His revealed law, given to them as a means of life; or what Calvin called the third use of the law. Calvin also considered the third use of the law to be its most important use, for the ultimate purpose of God's people is to bring glory to His name, and the way to glorify God is to live as His character demands; i.e. by every word that proceeds from His mouth.

Therein lies the principle of the abiding validity of the law, which Jesus' sermon on the Mount assumes as the basis for the Christian life. Many folks get hung up on whether or not the civil and ceremonial laws continue under the present reign of Christ, but the principal fact to which all Christians ought to agree is that we are all bound to image the character of God as it is revealed in Christ. Christ broke none of God's laws , ergo neither should we. Only then does the question, "what laws of God continue to apply to us as they did for Jesus Christ?"

Putting aside that question for a moment, I wish to go back to the issue of God's Covenant. If Christ accomplished for us the procurement of blessing and the remission of guilt that would entail curses, what exactly is the relationship between the Christian and the law of God as it regards the Covenant of God with His people? Are Dispensationalists are right to charge with inconsistency those Covenantalists who do not accept the curses as part of their reality as God's people? I would argue that they are, for while the ultimate realization of blessings and cur sings have been finished once for all in the work of Christ, there remains the very much unrealized work of sanctification in the lives of God's people, the Church. CT folks do love to recognize that God's gracious Covenant extends to their children by virtue of God's promises to be faithful to those who are faithful to Him (i.e., those who are true believers) for generations to come. All CT folks recognize that this promise is conditional, that is, God retains the prerogative to refuse a child of the Covenant for His own heir and to abandon that child to Satan. However, His promises indicate the typical response of God that we can expect. We might remind ourselves that God often promises destruction that He sometimes withholds, which is a good thing. If He is free to show mercy upon whom He wishes, He is also free to withhold it from whom He wishes, and only His promise and His law guide us in how we are to think about God's character as a general principle of action.

Therefore, the stipulations of the Covenant that have always been basic -- love God, love neighbor, trust in God's character for one's claims to His kingdom and to sonship, and so forth -- these stipulations form the background for present day blessings and cur sings for the people of God. The upshot of this conclusion is that the people of God ought to always look to themselves in times of cultural decomposition. A little leaven leavens the whole lump, whereas widespread disobedience brings God's vengeance and discipline ever closer to hand. If people want to argue about why the Church in Europe has been dying, or why the Church in the USA is in decay, one need not point to the sins of abortion, or homosexuality, or feminism, or warmongering, or economic injustice. These are not causes of cultural decay in the West. They are consequences of cultural decay. They are symptoms of a Church in retreat from the law of God. They are curses upon a people who have failed to live up to the express image of God given to us in Christ. Many people rebuff at such a conclusion because it is a religious claim. However, if you took a garden and the predominant number of workers who made it what it was decided to stop tending it, who else would be to blame? And who could argue that those who have presently taken up the task to built it according to their own image are the cause of the loss? Add this to the fact that God has always promised to provide unassailable victory to His people when they abide in His character and commandments.

Christianity survived Rome because God was mighty to give victory to those who stood upon His name and His commands. It survived the schisms of the early Church and the Reformation because God was mighty to give victory to those who stood upon His name and His commands. Not because the people were inherently righteous, but because they knew that upon which their righteousness was founded and they, in their great gratitude, felt compelled to walk as He said they must walk before Him; not looking for a reward in this life, but recognizing that with each step of obedience they were advancing their King's reign over darkness and would hasten the day of His final triumph when death itself would be wrested of all its power. Only when the Church has abandon its true source of power -- the very simple, but often difficult trust and obey; the trust and obey that would take in the exposed Roman infants into their homes, the trust and obey that would not take advantage of another simply because it was possible to do so and the prevailing sentiment was to do so where one can, the trust and obey that would work hard without corruption while everyone else worked hard at corruption, the trust and obey that did not consider one's own rights and property worth shaming a brother or sister in public court trials, the trust and obey to remain faithful to a spouse in all circumstances, the trust and obey to raise children with one's own life rather than the accoutrements of monetary capital and prevailing pagan expertise.

Without the knowledge of God, without the vision of Christ's Kingdom pervading every step in the Christian walk, the people perish, they cast of restraint and run headlong into destruction. Blessed, happy is the man who keeps the law of God, who does not forget or forsake His ways.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared. Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life! (Psalm 119:33-40 ESV)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Neo-Aristotelian Analysis

The following is a summary of the basic components of Neo-Aristotelian analysis that I wrote up for my 10th and 12th graders. If you have any feedback to offer, I welcome it!

Historical Context
With the Pericles’ speech, it is of particular importance to pay attention to two details of the historical context: the occasion and the genre. The occasion is a funeral oration following the last battle of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. The battle was a loss for the Athenians. The fact that Athens lost and that this is the initial year of the war brings a lot of uncertainty into the situation for the speaker: what will be the audience’s opinion as to the wisdom of this war, the strength of Athens to win it, and the worthiness of cost of lives given the recent defeat? The genre is a eulogy, or a speech praising the dead. What sort of expectations does Thucydides tell us about how this sort of speech is typically given, and what sort of things it is supposed to say or accomplish? What does your own experience of eulogies in our own culture lead you to surmise about what they are to say and accomplish?

Invention has to do with both the means of persuasion, how it is that the speaker makes use of certain arguments, facts, details, etc. to make himself and his message more likely to accomplish whatever is his aim or aims for the particular audience. The first step is to identify what you think is the aim of the speaker. Only in proposing an aim can you evaluate what he is doing in the speech. Then comes the criteria for proofs that can be accomplished by the speaker: logos, ethos, pathos.

Logos has to do with the arguments or reasoning demonstrated by the speaker. Aristotle says that all arguments come by example or enthymeme. Examples have to be made or chosen, and so what the speaker uses as examples reflect his thoughts on what sort of audience he is dealing with, and how he wants them to be directed in terms of their thoughts. Examples also have elements of ethos and pathos, but to consider logos exclusively for a moment, one must ask how it is that the example is a means for persuasion, as opposed to saying something else, or nothing at all. What type of assumption is required for the example to be considered good? What values are made use of in offering the example as something good? For enthymemes, you are paying attention to the arguments or claims that are being made. How is it that the conclusion is being supported? What rationale is given or exhibited by the speaker? What values, presuppositions, or cultural capital does the speaker use to advance his claims?

Ethos has to do with the credibility the speaker is able to develop with the audience by virtue of his speaking. Certain credibility is had simply because of the reputation of the speaker, the occasion, etc., but these factors are only supports or potential problems that the speaker must work with in his actually speaking to the audience. Credibility is made or lost upon three fronts: competency, goodwill, and display of virtue. Competency has to do with the audience’s perception of the speaker’s knowledge on the subject matter, and his ability to put what he knows into common sense or easily to understand and accept language. Goodwill has to do with the audience’s perception of how well the speaker shows his concern for the audience’s well being and their interests. Display of virtue has to do with the audience’s perception of the speaker’s own moral character—does he impress with his ability to speak the right word at the right time, or does he handle difficulty with ease and appropriate respect, and so on. Aristotle says that ethos is the most important rhetorical proof, because people are more willing to accept a person whom they consider trustworthy than they are someone who is only good at argument or only good at stirring emotions.

Pathos has to do with the emotions the speaker is able to display and promote among the audience. The speaker may wish the audience to feel pity or to arouse their anger, and whatever emotions are sought, they are sought with a view toward bolstering an argument, avoiding an argument, raising the speaker’s credibility in the eyes of the audience, or driving home the action or mindset the speaker desires to elicit from the audience. Analyzing pathos is difficult because we don’t always have knowledge of how the audience responded to the speech during its delivery. Here is where we have to try and relive the speech while putting ourselves in the position of the audience. The better able we are to reconstruct for ourselves the potential emotions of the audience, the better will be our analysis of the speaker’s ability to use pathos as a means of persuasion. Generally speaking, a speaker must balance emotion Too little emotion and the audience with lose interest, respect, or lack compulsion at the speaker’s claims (for he seems too dispassionate himself about that which he speaks. Too much emotion and the audience will suspect dissimulation and grow skeptical of the speaker’s intentions. Both of these extremes impact the speaker’s ethos, and how his arguments are taken as well.

Arrangement has to do with the overarching structure of the speech as well as the internal divisions the speaker uses. The power of structure is manifold. It can allow the speaker to seem more competent, it can aid the audience in their ability to follow the speaker, it can enhance or detract from the arguments made, and it can be used to create emotive responses as well. The analysis of arrangement must be done in conjunction with ethos, pathos, and logos, for these are the means of persuasion for which the arrangement is crafted according to the speaker’s aim or aims. There is a measure of observational skill required to discern a speech’s structure, and several possible structures may emerge as possible. Analyzing the effects of that structure is more subtle, and more tenuous as well. How can we ensure that the audience was effected by the structure in such and such a way? Does it matter whether or not the audience was aware of the structure? Are there substructures or hidden elements of emphasis that result from the structure? There are some points of view (e.g. structuralists and post-structuralists) who place a great amount of emphasis on structure as it regards the means of persuasion, or even as a means of undermining the more explicitly attempted means of persuasion (such as arguments, emotions, etc.). Aristotle and his contemporaries often used very formulaic and intricate structures as a means for the speaker to easily remember claims and the progression of the speech. Others, like the Pythagoreans (including Plato), used structure to veil their essential doctrines that are otherwise apparent upon the surface of their speeches and writings. Structure is also an element that ties in closely with style, since a large part of style is how the elements of language are structured.

Style, like arrangement, considers the speech as a whole as well as in its parts. Low style is relatively free of ornate arrangements and figures of speech; clarity and plain terms of description characterize low style. Middle style incorporates more figures of speech and ornate patterns for the purpose of delighting the audience in addition to giving them clear understanding. High style engages with even more ornate figuration and purposes to arouse the audience to emotion and conviction that leads to action rather than understanding, delight, or contemplation alone. The figures of speech are as numberless as are the possible variations of language at the level of the word, the clause, the sentence, and so forth. Some figures play with the structure or arrangement of words while others seek to play with how words mean or symbolize; still others make use of sounds and rhythms for various purposes. Like arrangement, certain perspectives on style make it the primary aspect for the means of persuasion, and also like arrangement, the elements of style are intricately connected to the way arguments are made, understood, and received.

Delivery & Memory
Delivery consists of all of the non-verbal aspects of a speech: vocal level, quality, and variation; physical gesture, positioning, and expression; and all other potential uses of the body and its senses. It is a truism that 90% of communication is made through nonverbal aspects, but it is often difficult to reconstruct the delivery of speeches after the fact prior to video technologies. Furthermore, even the ability to detect these factors does not ensure that the audience’s response to them is easily predictable, as many such nonverbal cues go either unnoticed, or may be interpreted in various ways, despite the additional contextual aids of the message’s content, the structure, and so on. If delivery cannot be reconstructed by having actually witnessed or seen footage of the speech, it can in some cases be partially reconstructed by witness testimony. If no such testimony to the actual speech exists, testimony as to the normal delivery exhibited by the speaker may prove useful to generalize to the speech in question. If none of these aids exist, one’s analysis of delivery may need to be omitted with a note to the reader as to why. Memory has to do both with the means by which the speaker has committed the content of the speech to memory (whether entirely memorized, spoken from notes, completely extemporaneous, etc.), in which case it might be useful to examine drafts of speeches or structures within the speech that provide insight into this process. Memory also has to do with cultural memory, or the ability of the speaker to recall upon immediate needs the aspects of the audience’s cultural realities to aid him in his speaking. Sometimes memory is considered in terms of the audience, and how the speaker attempts to make memorable to them the contents of what he is saying.

Audience Effect
Perhaps the most contested area of analysis is the effects of a speech upon a given audience. What are the appropriate criteria for evaluating the effects of a speech? Is a speech effective only if it results in the audience taking some observable action? And if so, how long after the speech must the action take place for its purpose to be effective? Much of the value of analyzing the effects will result from properly identifying the speaker’s intentions, the constraints of the situation in which the speech is given, and the particular categories of effects that can be applied to the various types of people in the audience. For example, in a speech before an audience of wide-ranging demographics, the speaker may have multiple audiences, gearing different aspects of his speech in hopes of impacting each audience for very different goals—to bolster one’s allies while simultaneously inspiring fear in one’s enemies, and move those indifferent toward one or the other camp. Audience effect may also be considered apart from the speaker’s intentions, not only in the sense that certain effects were not met, but also in terms of unforeseen or unforeseeable effects that result from a speech. In this way a speech can function as a historical artifact, from which questions very different from “was it persuasive to audience X” are asked. Whether or not such questions continue to be proper to “rhetorical analysis” is open to question, but the key is to allow “effect” to be considered from various and sometimes opposing criteria.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Illumine, enlighten, vivify dark pools into which
you dive; dying to the outside world you thrive,
in a reception of colors divided, separated,
sundered from sun-orb's signal rays, yet you remain.
Remainders, retainers, entertainers of multiplicity;
through the one, many, through many, the one,
sent, seen, sheen-shorn, awash-over-worn space,
enervated to innervate and explicate a testimony:
reveling in revealing the real you have gathered,
as a question gathers thought,
as a thought gathers will,
as a will gathers emotion,
so your motions conjure communion,
world with body, body with soul,
these several in a unified whole.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Allison on the Magi's Star

I have been asked to give a brief presentation on a chapter from Dale Allison's Studies in Matthew. The opening chapter summarizes the early Christian interpretations of the star that guided the magi in Matthew's gospel. Over and against modern, or really post-renaissance exegesis, the earliest Christian exegetes believed that the star with either an angel, or some sort of unnatural star that literally descended and rested above the house of Jesus, or perhaps even above his very head.

Allison cites Chrysostom, Origin, Irenaeus, Theophylact, Augustine (who never made up his mind on the issue), Maldonatus, and even John Calvin as individuals who indicate their conviction that the star is not a natural star or regular astronomical phenomenon. With the advent of modern astronomy, exegetes were more inclined to offer interpretations that downplayed the supernatural, angelic, or even "animated being" view of the star (Allison notes that the predominant view among ancients in all traditions was that stars were animate beings). Allison points to those who hold a high view of Scripture's veracity, John Gill and J. Gresham Machen, as examples of those who consider Matthew's description of the star to be poetic (Machen) or reject without support the angelic interpretation (Gill).

Allison himself thinks that Matthew has incorporated a legend into his narrative, despite producing numerous texts that show the association of angels and stars. While these associations do not rule out a metaphorical interpretation of stars and the planetary bodies (in fact, some of the associations seems to be obviously metaphors), Matthew's description of the star is unlike any normal action of stars (the closest parallel, perhaps being in Judges, where the stars of heaven come down to destroy the army of Sisera).

Wherever one falls in interpreting the historical reality of the star, Allison's study should remind us of how inescapable presuppositions will determine the limits of what is "rational" or "scientific" or "believable" or "probable" in interpreting the oddities of Scripture.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Herem in Judges 9

During the wilderness sojourns in preparation for entry into the Promised Land, the Lord commanded the people to "devote to destruction" the cities of the Canaanites and to drive them out of the land. The meaning of Herem (devote to destruction) in this case is that of holy war--the Lord is taking vengeance upon the Canaanite peoples for their long history of sinfulness (cf. Gen. 15:16 where the Lord explicitly tells Abraham that He is waiting until the transgression of the Amorites is complete before He punishes them). The purposes of Herem are several, but perhaps most acutely is the testimony they are to serve to the people; that the Lord God's wrath and curse is upon those things "under the ban" (herem). It is a negative call to repentance from rebellion and re-alliance with the Lord God, as Rahab would recognize (Josh. 2), and even as the Gibeonites (Josh. 9) would recognize.

Interestingly, there seems to be a negative example of herem in Judges 9. Gideon, or Jerubbaal ("let Baal contend") has recently defeated the Midianites who were oppressing Israel, but in his weakness Gideon sets up idolatry in his hometown by making an ephod out of the spoils taken from the Midianite kings and princes. Gideon also multiplied wives, one of which was a Shechemite, who bore Gideon a son, whom he named Abimelech ("son of the king"). Abimelech wasn't a full Israelite, and since Gideon had seventy other sons, it would have been near impossible for him to have any hopes of kingship within the land. So he entices the Shechemites to slough off the yoke of Gideon's seventy sons and accept the rule of Abimelech, their brother (or rather, only half-brother, as Gaal son of Ebed, "worthless son of a slave," will later point out).

It is Abimelech's means for ridding himself of his brothers that seems reminiscent of herem. The Shechemites give him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith ("lord of the covenant"), which he uses to hire mercenaries to capture his brothers. Once captured, he seems to offer them as a sacrifice to Baal-Berith, for he slays them all on a rock at Ophrah--the same place where Gideon slew the kings of Midian as the Lord commanded, and where Gideon had set up his false religious worship. Then Abimelech is crowned king "beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem"--perhaps the same tree where God first appeared to Abram in Canaan and possibly where Jacob set up an altar to the Lord. So we have Abimelech resorting to the aid of a foreign god in order to destroy the sons of the Lord's anointed judge, and set himself up as the god's anointed king in place of YHWH of the Covenant. It would seem that there is a holy war between Baal-Berith and his people and YHWH-Berith and his people.

Of course the rest of the story plays out the fact that YWHW is the only one who has the power to accomplish His ends, as Abimelech destroys the temple of Baal-Berith in his destruction of the rebellious Shechemites, and then he is killed by a woman who drops an upper-millstone on his head at the tower in Thebez. Perhaps one reading of the narrative is that YHWH, the only true God and Holy One has the prerogative and power to enact herem on His enemies?

Thoughts on Plato's Phaedrus

I.               Prologue: Speaking of Eros (227a-230e)
II.             First Speech: Lysias’ encomium of the non-lover (231a-234c)
III.           First Interlude: Lysias’ argument good, but he lacks proper rhetorical form (234d-237a)
IV.           Second Speech: Socrates1‘ encomium of the non-lover (237b-241d)
V.             Second Interlude: Socrates rhetorical form good, but the god Eros will be offended (241e-243e)
VI.           Third Speech: Socrates2 ‘ encomium of the lover (Eros) (244a-257b)
VII.         Discussion 1: Proper Method of Communication: Dialectical v. Rhetorical (257c-274b)
VIII.       Discussion 2: Proper Mode of Communication: Oral v. Written (274b-277b)
IX.           Summary of Discussions 1 and 2 (277b-279c)

Socrates’ main burden is to persuade Phaedrus to acknowledge the superiority of philosophical discourse. In order to do this, he must convince Phaedrus that his present highest pursuit—rhetorical discourse—is inadequate. Lysias’ speech does not fulfill the epitome of rhetorical expression, though its basic argument fits the criteria for debating the weaker case. Socrates, in his second speech, adopts the argument of Lysias in order to show Phaedrus that he is more than competent to speak about rhetoric, since he is himself a consummate rhetorician. Socrates’ rhetorical expression is impeccable. Now that Phaedrus has been captivated by Socrates ethos, Socrates can move Phaedrus more capably than before.

Socrates repents of the argument of his first speech, acknowledging the ideal nature of eros, which is to stimulate the return of the soul to its primary being; union with the Forms. The second speech epitomizes Socrates’ goal for Phaedrus and demonstrates Socrates’ argument for rhetorical art in the following discussion: Socrates’ knows that Phaedrus’ soul is speech-loving, which is definitive of the philosophical, kingly or Zeus-loving soul. However, Phaedrus has been deceived by the appealing nature of rhetoric, thus Socrates must purify Phaedrus through dialectic—a process he can only arrive at through first winning the admiration of Phaedrus in his current state of confusion. Since Phaedrus’ soul is multi-faceted, Socrates presents the same idea through facets of speech (i.e., first something prettily formed, then something pretty-formed and true in content, then something formed for truth and true in content). The second speech is Socrates’ appeal to pathos, for it is meant to stir in Phaedrus a desire for the sort of Eros that leads to knowledge and the proper pursuit of knowledge.

Socrates proceeds from his second speech to discuss the true art of speaking, which is, of course, dialectical rather than rhetorical—or better yet, any rhetorical art necessarily presupposes dialectical discussion. The latter portion of the discussion, which evaluates written and oral discourse, is necessary (and so is the discussion of dialectic) due to Plato’s epistemology. Plato believes in a three-tiered reality; at the top, the unchanging and unified Forms; in the middle, the somewhat stable and unified intellectual reality of definitions; at the bottom the realm of appearances and bodily sensations, which are constantly in flux. The Forms are only understood through a divine intuition, which occurs through a gradual ascent from the realm of appearances up to the Forms. To recall Socrates’ second speech: beauty is visible in appearances, which can stimulate one to recollect the Form of Beauty, or not. The common response to erotic stimulus is to reproduce bodily desire: beautyàdesireàsexual intercourseàreproduction of a body. Another, uncommon response, is to reproduce knowledge of the Forms: beautyàdesireàintellectual intercourseàrecollection of the Form of Beauty. The orgasm resulting from sexual intercourse is, perhaps, analogous to the divine intuition of the Form resulting from intellectual intercourse.

The process of intellectual intercourse is properly dialectic, because it is able to extrapolate from appearances the more stable definitions of things in themselves, which prepares the soul to receive the divine intuition of the thing-in-itself, which is not reproducible discursively. Herein lies the division between the Forms and Intellectual Reality. Because intellectual reality depends upon discursive reasoning, it depends upon language. Language is highly codified, but it remains unstable because the names of things change or encompass more than one term, making even good definitions susceptible to confusion (cf. Plato’s Seventh Epistle).

The instability of language even in the realm of intellectual reality also reveals the greater incapacity of written discourse when compared to oral. In oral discourse there is greater assurance that the names we use correspond to the terms of the definition—the speaker is always free to correct his own or his interlocutor’s errors. In written discourse the non-present author cannot correct misconceptions of the names being used, therefore there is less stability even in the realm of definition. Oral discourse can also be directed to a specific audience, and preserved from foreign audiences for whom the discourse is not intended. Written discourse may be picked up an read by anyone, whether or not the individual’s “soul is fitted” to the discourse. Additionally, written discourse is a copy or image of the thoughts in the mind, which makes it metaphysically as well as epistemologically inferior to dialectical discussion within one’s own mind. At best writing functions as a reminder of what one already knows but has not had on the mind, or as a playful activity, or as a stimulus for those souls who will take up its discourse in their own search for eternal truths.

Rhetoric, oral or written, in Plato’s epistemology, is a propaedeutic to discourse on knowledge, or “mature” speech (contrast with Callicles’ view that dialectic is propaedeutic to rhetoric, or “mature” speech in Plato’s Gorgias). Furthermore, rhetoric is only helpful as a propaedeutic when it has been established upon the foundation of dialectical discourse—scientific knowledge grounds right opinion; so not only is episteme superior to doxa, but so too techne as Plato defines it.

Isaiah 4

In Isaiah 4 we have the end of a lengthy indictment of Israel for her sins, closing with a vivid depiction of the haughty women exchanging their finery for the clothing of lament, exile, and barrenness. Yet in the second verse there is a promise of renewal--the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious for those who escape the wrath of God's vengeance. Those whom God keeps from destruction shall be purified from the filth of sin, the blood of injustice, and the spirit of judgment--they will be holy (vv. 3-4).

Then verse five presents a powerful image of the Lord's glory and presence--the cloud of smoke by day and the shining fire by night--a clear reference to the cloud and fire that led Israel through the wilderness in their exodus from Egypt. The key difference to note, however, is that in this renewal of His presence, the Lord will not concentrate His glory in one place, say, the tabernacle or the tent of meeting; nor will His glory only cover the leaders of Israel such as Moses or Aaron the High Priest. Now the glory of the Lord will be over all of the assembly, over every household, to be a covering for the glory of the people of the Lord.

Not only is this portrait a testimony to the expansive nature of God's restoration of His people from the death of exile into the resurrection of the promised land (think new heavens and new earth), but it is also a testimony to fathers who are seeking to understand what they are to be for their family.

First and foremost, the father is to be holy and to keep his family holy. The purging of sin is the primary benefit that the Lord bestows upon His people. Second, the father is to cover the glory of his wife and children with his own. This means not only that he provides and protects them, but also that his own glory is made manifest in how well he has preserved the glory of his family. Father need to internalize that truth, for more often than not fathers seek their glory in their profession, in their career accomplishments or promotions, or by how smart, strong, or successful they are in the eyes of the world. However, God will judge fathers on how well they glorified their wives and children--how pure will the father present his bride and his children to their Heavenly Father? Truly this is a man's eternal glory, that he has covered his family as God covers His family--being to them a tabernacle for shade in the daytime and a place of refuge and shelter from storm and rain.

Friday, December 2, 2011

On Jonathan Edwards On Being

I ran across a reminder this morning of why one must always take great care in reading any particular author, but especially of those who are very careful in drawing distinctions. Jonathan Edwards is such an author, whose mind is at once so far-reaching and yet so close to the point before it that he is able to account for many distinctions that a lesser mind could not conceive. If there was one mind other than Christ's that I would seek to emulate, it would be a toss up between Augustine and Edwards.

Anyway, to the point. Here is a conclusion to a section from Edwards' philosophical notes On Being:

This infinite and omnipresent being cannot be solid. Let us see how contradictory it is to say that infinite being is solid. For solidity surely is nothing but resistance to other solidities. Space is this necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent being. We find that we can with ease conceive how all other beings should not be. We can remove them out of our minds and place some other in the room of them, but space is the very thing that we can never remove and conceive of its not being. If a man would imagine space anywhere to be divided so as there should be nothing between the divided parts, there remains space between, notwithstanding. And so the man contradicts himself. And it is self-evident, I believe, to every man that space is necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent. But I had as good speak plain. I have already said as much as that space is God. And it is indeed clear to me that all the space there is, not proper to body, all the space there is without the bounds of the creations, all the space there was before the creation, is God Himself. And nobody would in the least stick at it if it were not because of the gross conceptions we have of space.

Edwards' conclusion sounds controversial. Space is God. Historically, the Church has understood God to be "outside" or "beyond" both time and space. The reason for this restriction was because time and space have predominantly been conceived with respect to material bodies. But Edwards is careful to preface his conclusion with arguments that remove the problem of solidity (i.e. material bodies) from consideration. God (the infinite and omnipresent being) cannot be a solid, for He would have to be in resistance to some other solid or solids. He would not be the simple, self-existent, and eternally one God. There would be another or others that are not God against which God would be existent and defined. Thus, God is not a solid.

But here is where Edwards' brilliance shines. Our minds cannot conceive of anything irrespective of space. We need the concept or attribute of space as a basis for thought. The Biblical knowledge that Edwards' possesses provides the solution: space must be God, for what else but God is a necessary precondition of thought? He will later have to clarify what he means by distinguishing space proper to body and space within the bounds of creation, but all that space not so defined is an attribute of God. As Paul says, quoting a wise pagan, in God we live and move and have our being. He is our space, or maybe as Augustine would say, the home we inhabit. Is it any wonder that men, however much they might wish to deny God or escape Him, cannot, for their being that particular thing in the space of all that is, is their being in God. All souls are restless until they find their rest in God.

Here is where some might consider Edwards a full-blown pantheist. But for a thing exist within something else is not the same as for the something else to exist within a thing. I may inhabit a house without the house being in me. A thought may exist within my mind without being predicated of my essence. Pantheism only follows from a misconception of space, a misconception Edwards laments at the close of the passage.

I find that I, unlike Edwards, am too prejudiced a thinker. I too often want to have a party-line to play, a conclusion fixed by some other, more-reliable thinker, so that I may rest in his conclusion. But what if Edwards had not allowed himself the freedom of thought to examine space in ways hitherto neglected? Of course speculation has its dangers as well as does narrow=mindedness. But perhaps here is where the Anselmic, Athanasian, Augustinian dictum comes to our aid: believe in order to understand. There are basic truths that any child can understand about God, and indeed Christians all over the world teach their children to believe these things in order that they may understand; and also frequently repeat that they never be forgotten (even unto old age). But to mature we must also allow our minds to seek understanding that broadens the scope of our belief. If I may be permitted a physical analogy. In weightlifting, the muscles used to force the weights undergo microscopic tears in their fibers--there is a breakdown of their previous unity. But it is in these microscopic tears that the space necessary for muscle growth is opened up. With rest and good diet added to the weightlifting, the muscles grow into the spaces opened by the tearing down produced by the force exerted by the muscles. The growth of our understanding is similarly grown. When we force our minds to consider thoughts that are difficult, and may even cause spaces of doubt or the unknown to open, there is created space for the nourishment of recovery in the things we do know to grow into these spaces and increase our understanding.

Edwards pursues an observation about space that seems to contradict the common faith of Christianity -- space seems to be necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent, but we affirm that God is not bound by or contained by space. Instead of retreating he pursues the problem, drawing upon what he knows well already, in order to seek an understanding that reconciles the problem. The result is a conception of space that not only reconciles the problem, but opens up opportunities for developing more understanding on immaterial space.

I realize that I'm dramatizing a bit here. Edwards may or may not have undergone the sort of process I describe above. However, what troubles me in the current age is how quickly many in the Church are to censure the intellectual weightlifting that is essential to sanctified spiritual understanding. Yes, heresies abound. Yes, novelties can lead to great error. Yes, yes, yes, to a thousand other dangers that persist whether or not Christians pursue the exercise I here recommend. Augustine once said that rhetorical abilities should be pursued by Christians so that the truth would have a better expression in its defense against promoters of error who were already using eloquence. The same is true, I think, of intellectual inquiry. The thousand and one ways in which it can result in error to not negate the (at least) several ways in which it directs us to greater understanding of the truth.