Some Miscellaneous Reactions to Some of Robert Price’s Points in Favour of Mythicism

In a not so recent debate1 between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price the topic of whether Jesus of Nazareth historically existed was explored. This provides us with one of the first and few high-profile debates with at least one bona-fide scholar where the participants are directly arguing about mythicism. Unfortunately, the debate was a disappointment in several respects in that neither Ehrman nor Price gave performances of the quality many, who were anticipating an outstanding debate, were expecting. However, Price did say a few interesting things which I thought I’d pick up on and say a few words about. This is not intended to be a comprehensive dismantling of Price’s view (I have not the time to be so ambitious), but just intended to provide a registry of some of my miscellaneous reactions to various points.

Price, in his opening speech, provided at least three examples of evidence which may insinuate that one early objection to Christianity was that Jesus never existed. First, he cites a statement which Justin Martyr puts into the mouth of his interlocutor Trypho in his famous Dialogue with Trypho. Second, he cites a statement which Origen is at pains to refute from an anti-Christian polemicist of the second century, Celsus. Third, he calls into evidence the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18 as though they indicate an implicit awareness that there was an allegation already circulating within the first century that Jesus of Nazareth may not have existed at all.

Let us begin with the passage from the Dialogue with Trypho, according to which Trypho, (a Jewish intellectual who, in the dialogue, claims to have been a pupil of Corinthus the Socratic in Argos,2 and may possibly be the second century rabbi Tarfon,3 though that is not widely accepted) makes the following provocative charge:

But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.”4

Does this passage contain a veiled insinuation that Jesus did not exist? It doesn’t seem so. At very least we gather from the way Justin Martyr proceeds to respond to this comment that he doesn’t have that accusation in mind. Justin promises Trypho that “I will prove to you, here and now, that we do not believe in groundless myths nor in teachings not based on reason, but in doctrines that are inspired by the Divine Spirit, abundant with power, and teeming with grace.”5 However, Justin Martyr goes on to give argument after argument from prophecy to demonstrate that Jesus is a good ‘fit’ for the anticipated messiah of the Tanakh. He never goes on to argue that Jesus of Nazareth existed; he argues on the clear presumption that he and Trypho are agreed that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The likelihood is relatively high that Justin Martyr is writing a largely or entirely fictitious dialogue, but whether it was fictitious or not there is no way to read Trypho’s (alleged) statement as an insinuation that Jesus didn’t exist. That isn’t what Justin Martyr thought the statement insinuated, and it isn’t plausible that a historical Trypho intended to insinuate that the historical Jesus didn’t exist but just let that point drop entirely for the rest of the dialogue with Justin.

My verdict, therefore, is that this provides absolutely no evidence of any early anti-Christian polemic which insinuated that Jesus never existed.

What of Price’s second example, from the second century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus? Well, Price points out that Celsus says: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction.”6 However, to read this as a veiled charge that Jesus never existed is implausible for a variety of reasons. First, consider how the passage from Celsus continues: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have heard that some of your interpreters…are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”7 That is clearly an accusation of embellishment and selective redaction; it is clearly not an accusation of having invented the historical Jesus whole-cloth. Second, consider that Celsus elsewhere argues that Jesus is a bastard child; according to Origen in his Contra Celsus, “[Celsus was] speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.”89 Clearly, however, if Celsus thought that Jesus was born of illegitimate relations between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera, then Celsus could not have also believed that Jesus never existed. Those beliefs are so obviously logically incompatible that even an imbecile (as Origen thought) like Celsus could not plausibly have entertained both.

Finally, what of the words in 2 Peter 1:16-18? They read:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
(2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV).

I consider it obvious that the author gives us an indication of what the allegation of ‘cleverly devised myths’ comes to by the way he responds to the charge. Clearly, however, he spends all his time emphasizing not that he was an eyewitness (or that there were eyewitnesses) of Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was one of many eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ which was attested to and illustrated by miracles. It is the majesty and/or the miracles which the author believes are being alleged to be cleverly devised myths, not the historicity of the person, Jesus of Nazareth; we know this by inferring it from the way the author responds to the allegations he has in mind.

So, in my opinion, all three of these evidences of some early objection to Christianity to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth did not historically exist are completely bunk.

I want to end this reflection on some points brought out by Price in the debate with a few positive notes. There are some areas where I actually agree with Price over against the majority of New Testament scholars. For instance, Price maintains (and this came out in parts of the debate) that there is no more reason to think that Paul wrote Galatians than there is to think that Paul wrote 1st Timothy. Price’s conclusion is that we have reason to believe that Paul did not write any of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. My conclusion is that Paul plausibly wrote all of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. This was somewhat tangential to the debate, but it is a point of interesting qualified agreement nevertheless. More interesting still, Price argued that if we strip away all of the miraculous claims made about Christ, we are left with a first-century Jewish Rabbi about whom nothing would have been worth writing in the first place. He says, at one point, that if Clark Kent existed and superman didn’t, there would be no gradual embellishment of stories about Clark Kent because there would be no reason for anyone to remember any stories about Clark Kent in the first place. There either has to have been something about the Jesus of Nazareth of history which made him worth writing (talking, etc.) so much about in the first place, or else the stories about him were mythological from the beginning.

This, I think, is a very interesting point. If historians are intent on whittling down the Jesus of the Gospels to the point where he was an utterly unremarkable first century Jewish rabbi then there is no explanation for why he caused such a stir in the first place. Obviously most historians will respond, here, by conceding that Jesus claimed to be a miracle worker, and performed exorcism ceremonies in a way which presumed an immense and unprecedented amount of authority for himself. It was his innovative preaching along with what W.L. Craig has called the historical Jesus’ “unprecedented sense of divine authority,”10 which sufficiently explain why there were any stories about him in the first place. So, on the one hand, Price has, I think, failed to take inventory of what most New Testament scholars believe we can say with enormous confidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, though, Price does well to remind us that if scholars aren’t careful to preserve something remarkable and unique about the historical Jesus, if they reconstruct only a version of Jesus wholly sanitized by the presumption of naturalism, and about whom there was really nothing terribly special, they may be proverbially cutting the tree branch from which they hang.

 

1 Anyone interested can find the debate, at least currently, at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIxxDfkaXVY

2 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

3 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians,Fortress Press, 1994: 215.

4 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

5 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 9, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

6 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html

7 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html

8 Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 1, chapter 32. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04161.htm

9 I have written a little bit on this before, a long time ago. Those interested may see: https://thirdmillennialtemplar.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/celsus-attack-on-the-holy-mother/

10 http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-1

A Passage (not) About Rape

In the last several years I have shifted the focal point of my studies from broadly theological (including, but not limited to, Biblical studies), to specifically philosophical (through the avenue of philosophical theology). However, recently I was treated to a somewhat nostalgic experience: being called upon to act as an apologist for scripture. Although it is somewhat unfortunate that the question caught me unprepared, it did catalyze my interest in looking at the passage more carefully. In the end I found the problem to evaporate entirely upon closer inspection (as I have learnt from experience to expect). However, I also found that this verse is popularly used on the internet in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the claim that the Bible is a product of divine inspiration. So, I thought maybe I’d briefly address this alleged difficulty. This treatment will be a little more anecdotal and exploratory than academic, but whatever – it’s my blog and I’ll do whatever I want.

I was presented with a passage from Deuteronomy by two young women who had interpreted it as a justification for rape and a very peculiar kind of victim blaming. The passage read as follows:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”
(Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

They had reasoned that because the term ‘violated’ had been used this was a description of a man who had raped a virgin pledged to be married. They inferred, therefore, that the young woman who had been raped would be put to death because she did not scream for help. They then argued that in actual rape cases one is not always able to call out, nor is it always acceptably safe to do so. The passage had scandalized them and they turned to me to see what I might say in its defense. Having felt pressed for time I decided to assure them that although a passage like this may look bad at first blush, I have always found that upon closer inspection one finds that understanding more of the historical, legal and literary context mitigates the scandal we originally feel. With my dinner growing cold as it sat on the table, I asked if I could get back to them after having looked at the passage more carefully for myself – and that’s when one of them accused me of sounding like a Jehovah’s Witness (I happened to know that she had grown up in that community and had a bad experience ending in her departure – in fact, it was in excommunication). Being unable to tolerate the slight, I gave them my full attention, leaving my dinner to get cold. As I tried to balance reading the passage (along with the surrounding context, etc.) with keeping up in conversation with them over the phone as they jumped from one related issue to another, I noticed that they were trying to enunciate a general view of religion in line with that of the new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins; a view of religion particularly contagious to those who had a negative experience with a rather immature version of religion (usually found in cults like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).

Then, after several dozen minutes of discussion which began to trail further and further away from the original topic, I decided to read the passage again with fresh eyes, but this time my eyes seemed drawn to the very next verse:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die.”
(Deuteronomy 22:23-25).

Those words contextualized the passage in a way which I thought, and continue to think, makes it impervious to the objection that it engages in victim-blaming. Even though I was at the disadvantage of no longer having my preferred bible-study software (for my laptop had recently just died), I couldn’t help but notice that in the only clear instance of ‘rape’ here, not only was that term used in contrast to the term ‘violate,’ but the punishment was supposed to be meted out differently. There are, it seems, (at least) two ways to interpret this passage. Either it suggests that a woman who is raped in a city is at fault, while one raped in the country is not – or it suggests that the woman in the city is being put to death for being a willing participant in the crime of adultery (as indicated by the fact that she did not cry out for help in an urban area where she would presumably have been heard). The first reading seems pretty wild, even on the assumption that the text is merely an uninspired primitive catalogue of ancient near-eastern jurisprudence. On the second reading, however, the alleged problem just evaporates, for the woman, far from being a rape victim, is being punished for deciding to cheat. Now, while that doesn’t mollify us completely (and, as I will shortly argue, shouldn’t), it is quite a different thing from suggesting that being raped is a capital offense (or that being raped without crying for help is a capital offense).1 The passage states, instead, that cheating (here understood as adultery) is a capital offense – worthy of capital punishment. I have read (though I cannot strictly confirm) that the Talmud calls the sin of adultery ha’averah meaning something like ‘the paradigmatic sin.’2 Interestingly, however, the way adultery is used in the Torah, it is meant to indicate illicit sex between a woman married, or one pledged to be married, and some man other than her husband (or soon to be husband). It does not apply to sex between an unmarried woman (not pledged to be married) and any man, whether married or not.3

This is for at least two reasons, as far as I can make out; first, because the law was written in a time and place where culture was inexorably (and, importantly, incorrigibly) patriarchal. I have elsewhere written about the nature of law under less than ideal circumstances of justice, but to reiterate the idea briefly; I believe that some laws, even if good, would be unenforceable given the reality of less-than-ideal circumstances. To give a simple modern example, I believe that it should (ideally) be illegal to mistreat animals intended for consumption (where by mistreat I mean abuse, put into horrible conditions, made to live through a hellish existence, et cetera). I also believe that such a law would be literally unenforceable in our current society. We would need moral and cultural progress with respect to our understanding of animal rights for that law to be feasibly enforced. I am suggesting that something similar is true nearly across the board; realistically speaking, whether we like it or not, it seems as though reforming a patriarchal society in the blink of an eye by introducing laws which would, for them, completely reorganize their societal structure and be incomprehensible to them as a culture, is just infeasible. No appeal to omnipotence (omniscience and omnibenevolence) can help one circumambulate this problem unless some good argument is provided to think that God would either prefer, or be indifferent to, a culturally-coercive revelation, rather than a sort of ’embedded revelation’ designed to catalyze progress organically by working to reorient culture from within (note the parallel, here, to the doctrine of justification by infusion, rather than by imputation). I can think of no such argument. Moreover, given the destabilizing effects of changing culture too radically too suddenly (i.e., a sort of cultural whiplash), I just don’t see how it could be incumbent upon God to demand a people, as a culture, to live up to standards which would have been entirely incomprehensible to them (such that they would appear not just mysterious, but utterly baffling). Culture, after all, is largely a product of people’s collective free expression and (in my opinion) all noteworthy theodicies rightly presume that freedom is paramount.

Now, obviously this rationalization (a sort of attempt to harmonize primitive systems of justice with modernist temperaments and moral scruples) applies to civil rights more easily than it could to natural rights. However, if no natural rights are violated in principle by capital punishment (which, I maintain, is not a violation of natural rights in principle), and no natural rights are violated in principle by inequality under the law, rather than inequality of treatment under the same law (and, again, I maintain that no natural rights are violated by some inequality under the law, whether that’s ideal or not), then I think the difficulty here is largely emotional, rather than strictly intellectual.4

I also want to note that if I am right about the realistic constraints of less than ideal circumstances vis-à-vis justice, I would expect the law, were it inspired, to on the one hand navigate its way around violations of intrinsic natural human rights, and on the other hand set a trajectory towards the good society. I would expect to see the establishment of a jurisprudential tradition which would, given its initial conditions, aim naturally towards moral progress. Do we have any reason to think this is the case with Jewish law? Well, perhaps we do. For a start, I think there is good evidence that this Jewish law already set itself apart as morally outstanding in its own era. Consider the following observation from the analytic philosopher of religion Paul Copan:

Middle Assyrian laws punished not a rapist but a rapist’s wife and even allowed her to be gang-raped. In other ancient Near Eastern laws, men could freely whip their wives, pull out their hair, mutilate their ears, or strike them –a dramatic contrast to Israel’s laws, which gave no such permission.5

These laws were clearly steps in the right moral direction. I also cannot quite see how they would violate, strictly and in principle, natural rights. It is interesting to ponder whether these laws, though they appear primitive to us (their beneficiaries who have had several thousand years to build systems of law influenced by them), really do appear to lubricate the gears of progress insofar as they really do catalyze significant legal and moral progress. Notice that David Werner Amram, a reputed legal scholar in his time, argued that progress in the holistic interpretation, understanding and application of the Pentateuch’s law concerning adultery was already observable by the end of the first century (A.D.).

Under the Talmudic law the severity of the Mosaic code was in many instances modified, and the laws relating to Adultery came under the influence of a milder theory of the relation of crime and punishment. Indeed, the rabbis went so far as to declare that a woman could not be convicted of Adultery unless it had been affirmatively shown that she knew the law relating to it—a theory that resulted in the practical impossibility of convicting any adulteress. No harm was done by this new view, because the right of divorce which remained to the husband was sufficient to free him from the woman, who, although guilty of the crime, was not punishable by the law. Upon this mild view followed the entire abolition of the death penalty, in the year 40, before the destruction of the Second Temple (Sanh. 41a), when the Jewish courts, probably under pressure of the Roman authorities, relinquished their right to inflict capital punishment. Thereafter, the adulterer was scourged, and the husband of the adulteress was not allowed to condone her crime (Soṭah, vi. 1), but was compelled to divorce her, and she lost all her property rights under her marriage contract (Maimonides, “Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Ishut,” xxiv. 6); nor was the adulteress permitted to marry her paramour (Soṭah, v. 1); and if she married him, they were forced to separate.6

Perhaps the sample-size (of precisely one) and the viability of several alternative hypotheses for this apparent progress (conditioned on the implementation of this Jewish legal framework) makes such an argument appear overly ambitious. However, at least as far as the test-tube of history is concerned, the Pentateuch’s laws ostensibly showed themselves to be indisputably progressive, both for their time and in their orientation.

Second, I think the true tropological richness of the passage is filtered through its anagogical (i.e., eschatological) and allegorical senses. It is pretty clear that throughout their literature the Isrealites constantly return to one particularly popular way of conceptualizing their relationship with God, and this is in the form of a marriage covenant. For example:

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”
(Isaiah 54:5)

Israel’s sin and rejection of God, then, was often couched in the language of adultery:

“I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine… But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore; nothing like this has ever been or ever shall be. You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and my silver that I had given you, and made for yourself male images, and with them played the whore… Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord… I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy.”
(Ezekiel 16:8,15-17, 35, 38)

The New Testament obviously makes special use of this theme as well, in talking about the Church as the bride of Christ (the bridegroom); indeed, eschatology is ultimately expressed in the Bible using this imagery. So, with this allegorical trope in place, and the anagogical significance of adultery in place, one can see how the punishment for adultery may have been partially motivated by its archetypal significance for Israel within the context of its covenant relationship with God.

As an aside, it seems to me, at the risk of sounding a little cheeky, that the real injustice, if there is one, in the way this law was written seems to be that the man who sleeps with a woman pledged to be married is put to death, even if she seduced him and he had no knowledge that she was pledged to be married. There was obviously a presumption behind the law that men either were already aware of who was (pledged to be) married, or that they had a duty to verify that the person was not married or pledged to be married which it is reasonable to expect them to be able to do. However, just like all systems of law, this one allows for ambiguities, and this is why there are judges (and why jurisprudence develops in an organic way, much like tradition).

As a post-script, I want to acknowledge that there are, of course, other Biblical passages allegedly condoning or enjoining rape. Perhaps the most well known comes from Numbers:

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:17-18).

This is, I do not hesitate to say, a difficult passage, but it is largely difficult precisely because young women and girls are spared, while boys are all killed. I can understand the reasons for this; one would want to kill all the males because men are stronger than women, and they may grow up to not only resent the Israelites, but to rebel against them. The married women could be killed for the same reason, for even if they are the weaker sex (on average and in kind), their resentment and ability to rebel (by killing children, for instance, or poisoning men) cannot be ignored. Why, though, spare the young women? I think the idea was that they could be assimilated; in particular because they had obviously not participated in the immorality associated with Baal worship (due to their being demonstrably virginal). This is, however, apologetic speculation on my part. I raise the verse only to call attention to the fact that while Biblical passages can be difficult, no passages (no, not even this one) come close to enjoining rape. Although that seems a popular interpretation in the dark corners of the internet, a much more viable interpretation is that the passage recommends keeping every virgin girl alive and considering them eligible to marry the sons of Israel. In fact, I think that is the standard Jewish (and Christian) interpretation of this passage.

1 Although it is, of course, possible to be raped while being physically prevented from crying out, the law was obviously not written with this circumstance in mind. Rather, this just represents a more primitive standard for evidence establishing guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’

2 I cannot confirm that this traces back to the Talmud, since I have been unable to find any such reference in the Talmud, however, that may be due to my own incompetence or unfamiliarity with the Talmud. Where I read this about adultery, originally, was from Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs, in an online article here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/adultery/

3 Another interesting note: the law seems to apply even if the man were seduced by a woman pledged to be married and he had no knowledge that he was participating in adultery. Ironically, then, the law seems especially unjust, if it is unjust at all, to men. I would dispute, however, that this is genuinely unjust; it simply makes presumptions about the man involved in the crime (namely, that he did so with knowledge concerning the act’s adulterous nature, and that of this the judges could be sure beyond reasonable doubt).

4 Think here, for example, of the way the modern constitutional-democratic law treats children as ineligible voters, even though arguments could be made for allowing them to vote should they feel so inclined. Indeed, they arguably have a greater vested interest in politics than do senior citizens, but they are treated unequally under the law because we believe that most of them are unable to consent to the extent we reasonably expect voters to be able to consent. Consider, additionally, whether it intrinsically violates human rights to be able to forcefully conscript men into the military (in a time of desperation and war), but not forcefully conscript women into the military (perhaps allowing them to exercise freedom in joining the military under these conditions).

5 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 140.

6 David Werner Amram, “Adultery” in The Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/865-adultery

Grave Findings

The recent opening of the alleged tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has attracted worldwide attention as the marble slab overlaying the tomb has been removed exposing it for the first time since 1555 (A.D.). This historic event has served as an occasion for Christians to review or explore the strength of the case for identifying that tomb as the genuine burial place of Jesus. A thought which occurs to me, as I review the evidence for the authenticity of the site, is that the evidence is actually good enough to provide some very moderate but noteworthy evidence for the historicity of Christ.

The historicity of Christ is, of course, not hotly contested among professional historians or academics, but it has gained notable popularity on the Internet among many new-atheists who adopt the ‘mythicist’ view propounded (or defended) by folks like Dr. Robert Price and Dr. Richard Carrier. In fact, as recently as October 26th, Robert Price finally debated Bart Ehrman (Ehrman being one of the preeminent biblical scholars in the world, as well as a staunch agnostic and author of the book “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”) on the topic of whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. While I haven’t yet seen the debate (because the group uploading the content to youtube is currently still charging money to view it), initial reviews are a little disheartening. The conspiratorial views of the mythicists are a long way off from getting any serious foothold in mainstream academia, but they are (or, at least, seem to be) gaining more ground in the popular culture.

I do not presently have the time, the space, or even the inclination to take a comprehensive approach to dismantling the mythicist’s case, but I do note that, for what it’s worth, the mythicist hypothesis is regarded by academics as on a par with flat earthism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and young earth creationism (or, as it really ought to be called, young universe creationism). It is a hack conspiracy theory for which no reasonable case can be made (I would invite the skeptic to explore the case(s) presented by Price and Carrier and contrast that(/them) with Ehrman’s work, as well as the work of figures like N.T. Wright). It will be evident to the reasonable person’s satisfaction that there was clearly a historical figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Mythicism is of fleeting relevance, but the opening of the tomb in Jerusalem gives me an excuse to offer a thought about how the evidence for the veridicality of the site heaps even more evidence against the Mythicist.

As to the Tomb itself, the archaeological community considers it likely to be the burial place of Christ. It fits the description of (along with everything else we’ve learned about) a first-century Jewish tomb. The Biblical accounts say that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, a well respected and wealthy member of the Sanhedrin (the same council which had been instrumental in condemning Jesus). Some of the Gospels indicate that Joseph of Arimathea had become a disciple of Christ, though only in secret, and the Gospel of John indicates that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (another Jewish follower of Christ who kept his views secret) worked together to give Jesus a proper burial.

“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:38-40)

The tomb itself is an authentic first-century tomb with a disk-shaped rolling stone at its entrance. Although it is true that there were two kinds of tombs with a stone-slab covering the entrance (one kind with a rolling stone, and another with a roughly rectangular stone covering a doorway), and the disk-shaped stone covering is much rarer (and reserved for the wealthy), the Gospels indicate that the tomb of Jesus was found with its stone ‘rolled’ away (Luke 24:4), indicating that it was the rarer variety of tomb in Jerusalem. Some scholars doubt that the actual tomb of Christ had one of the rare disk-shaped stones covering the entrance; Urban C. von Wahlde, for instance, has written an article titled “Biblical Views: A Rolling Stone That Was Hard to Roll.”[1] Nevertheless, I think a stronger case can be made for the disk-shaped stone, especially in light of the case for the authenticity of the tomb safeguarded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Apart from this tomb matching the biblical description, the story of its discovery also lends it immense credibility.

The story of the tomb’s discovery is ancient history, but it is extremely interesting. William Lane Craig, speaking casually (and excitedly) on his podcast recently recounts the following:

“Scholars believe that the The Church of the holy Sepulchre has a very credible claim to be on the site of the actual tomb of Jesus, and this is based on a couple of very interesting facts about its discovery. In the year 326 (this is just one year following the council of Nicea that was convened by the emperor Constantine and then promulgated the famous Nicene creed – the following year) Constantine’s mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for the purpose of finding relics from the time of Christ and when Constantine’s mother came to Jerusalem she asked the residents of Jerusalem where the tomb of Jesus had been… The people in Jerusalem at that time pointed her to this site where a pagan temple now stood and they said the tomb of Jesus was on this site and this pagan temple was built over it. Well, Helena ordered the temple to be razed and the earth to be excavated [to] get rid of this pollution of paganism. Now, what was interesting about the site identified by the residents of Jerusalem at this time is that the site lay within the walls of Jerusalem. If you look at where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, it’s inside the city walls, but the Gospels state that Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls of the city; they would never allow a crucifixion site and burial of unclean corpses to be going on inside the Holy City, it had to be outside the walls, and so it was odd that the residents of Jerusalem would point Helena to a site inside the city walls. Well, as it turned out many centuries later archaeologists excavating the city discovered that the original walls of Jerusalem were more narrowly constrained in that the site that the residents of Jerusalem pointed Helena to actually lay outside the original walls of Jerusalem. They had been later expanded. … The second thing that’s interesting… is that when they began to excavate the site and remove the earth they dug down and… lo and behold they excavated a tomb exactly where the residents of Jerusalem said that it would be. Now what’s interesting is that this Pagan temple stood on that site since it was built by the emperor Hadrian in A.D. 110. Now, since Jesus was crucified around A.D. 30, that means that the memory of this temple being on the site of Jesus’ tomb goes back to within just 80 years of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, well within the time that historical memory might be preserved. And so there’s a very very good chance that this is the very tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea lay the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth.”[2]

The fact that the site originally identified was identified within the walls of Jerusalem (to the best of everyone’s knowledge), and that it came to light only centuries later through archaeological discovery that it was actually outside the original walls of Jerusalem, gives this site immense plausibility. Being originally inside the walls lowered the conditional probability of its being authentic (though the fact that there was a tomb there fitting the description of the biblical tomb and that it was identified by the residents of Jerusalem as the spot, raised the conditional probability of it being the authentic tomb). However, once it was discovered that this tomb was, in fact, outside of the walls of Jerusalem in place at the time of Jesus’ burial, that greatly raises the conditional probability of its being authentic. It is not merely that the tomb resides outside the original walls which is relevant for the conditional probability assessment here, it is that it was identified first as the tomb and was later discovered that it lay outside of the original walls of Jerusalem. That discovery raises the conditional probability tremendously. To formalize this a little bit:

Pr(A|B&W) < Pr(A|B&~W)

Pr(A|B&D&~W) >> Pr(A|B&~W)

Where A means the tomb is authentic, B stands for our background knowledge, W stands for ‘the site of the tomb is located within the city walls’ and D stands for ‘discovering after the fact that ~W.’ In the words of the archaeologist Dan Bahat, “we may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but… we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”[3] In fact, the discovery after the fact (in conjunction with the other properties which fit the description of the tomb from early sources) raises the probability of this being the authentic tomb highly enough that we can say it provides evidence that there was an authentic tomb. This entails that there was a place where the historical Jesus of Nazareth was buried, and so a historical figure, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’

Pr(J|B&D*) > Pr(~J|B&D*)

Where J stands for ‘Jesus of Nazareth existed,’ B stands, once again, for our background knowledge and Dstands for ‘the case for the authenticity of the tomb in light of the discovery that it lies outside of the original city walls.’

This case isn’t compelling. It’s just something to think about… Also worth thinking about, depending upon how strong you think the case for the Shroud of Turin is, is the following report from the U.K. branch of EWTN.[4] I leave that here, without endorsing any of it, for those of you who may be interested in a pretty far-fetched but provocative suggestion.

 

[1] http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=41&Issue=2&ArticleID=10

[2] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/opening-the-tomb-of-jesus

[3] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre/

[4] https://www.ewtn.co.uk/news/latest/astonishing-discovery-at-christ-s-tomb-supports-turin-shroud

Islam and the Trinity

There is a quote popularly (and falsely) attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo which runs as follows:

“If you deny the trinity you lose your soul, if you try to explain the trinity you shall lose your mind,”

Of course Augustine never said this (in fact, the earliest reference I can find to anybody saying it is in the mid 20th century,[1] and even this does not contain these words verbatim). Many well meaning Muslims, in engaging with Christians, have used this quotation (falsely attributing it to Augustine) when discussing the doctrine of the Trinity. Since I’m reviewing the doctrine for my upcoming exams, I thought I might take a moment to write a short post about why adopting this rhetoric is imprudent on the part of Muslims who wish to object responsibly to Christianity. Most Muslims disbelieve in the Trinity for two complementary reasons: (1) the doctrine is (allegedly) incompatible with monotheism (or, at least, those who believe it commit shirk), and (2) the Qur’an and sacred sources for Islamic doctrine (allegedly) explicitly reject, and/or are implicitly incompatible with, the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not think that either reason can stand up to serious scrutiny.

The first thing to note, in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, is that it is not flatly contradictory. Christians are careful to distinguish the predicates ‘being’ (or ‘essence’ or ‘nature’) and ‘person,’ and consistently affirm that God is one being, while being three persons. This distinction alone is enough to guarantee the narrowly-logical possibility of the doctrine (as opposed to the broadly-logical or ‘metaphysical’ possibility). To put it somewhat formally, ∼(Bx⊃∼Tx) where B stands for ‘is one being’ and T stands for ‘is three persons.’ There is no strict contradiction in affirming that x is multiple beings and one person, or in affirming that x is one being and one person, or in affirming that x is one being and multiple persons. In order to argue that the latter claim is metaphysically impossible one must do a bit more work than merely expressing one’s incredulity; it will, in fact, have to be established that ‘if x is one being, then x is at most one person.’ It is, however, hard to see how to establish this, and it is not philosophically impressive to merely appeal to raw intuitions (that’s not to say it’s philosophically illegitimate, but just that it isn’t likely to persuade Christians).

Can the Christian do any better than appealing to her intuitions, or, perhaps, eschewing some of her intuitions in the interest of preserving her faith? I think so. In fact, in order to support the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity the Christian can appeal to its conceptual possibility. In other words, in order to provide respectable grounds for affirming the metaphysical possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity it plausibly suffices to demonstrate its conceptual possibility, which will, in turn, be satisfied just in case there is a logically possible world in which a single being is more than one person. This, however, is trivially easy; some social Trinitarians, like William Lane Craig, use the example of Cerberus[2] (the three headed dog from Greek mythology standing guard at the gates of the underworld – or, for Harry Potter fans, Hagrid’s pet ‘Fluffy’ guarding the entrance to the world underneath Hogwarts). Clearly Cerberus exists in a logically possible world, and if his three centers of consciousness can (logically possibly) qualify as persons then Cerberus’ conceptual possibility is enough to justify inferring the metaphysical possibility of a single tri-personal being. I am not here endorsing Craig’s (or anyone’s) social trinitarianism, but borrowing his illustration to make a point about the conceptual possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity, which lends support to the belief that the doctrine is metaphysically possible.

Once it has been established that the Trinity does not strictly and logically entail tri-theism (or anything else logically incompatible with monotheism), Christians can justify their belief in the doctrine’s truth on a number of grounds. They can appeal to arguments for thinking that Christianity is true, or that the revelation in the Bible is trustworthy, and reasons like that. This is a tactic to which the Muslim should, I think, be sympathetic; after all, if the Qur’an taught the doctrine of the Trinity Muslims would (probably) faithfully believe it, precisely because they trust God, and they trust that the Qur’an is a reliable source of revelation. Thus, even if Christians are wrong about the Trinity, Muslims should be able to sympathize with their reasons for accepting that the Trinity is true.

Christians can go further than this, however, and follow the example of Tertullian in affirming that “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est” (roughly: “it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd”[3]). The idea here is that the doctrine of the Trinity is prima facie absurd, and it is absurd in precisely the way we would never expect of a man-made religious doctrine. Man-made religions are naturally made to be palatable to their original audiences (thus, to use Mormonism as an example, it is not very surprising that Mormonism democratizes divinity by distributing it among indefinitely many of us given that Mormonism came from a time and place where democracy was highly regarded). Christianity, coming from the bosom of first-century Judaism, and deeply acquainted with the world of Hellenistic philosophy since its nascency, had no impetus for manufacturing such a jarring doctrine, and plenty of impetus for rejecting it. There was, in fact, an incredible amount of pressure for the Church to reform her view, and many ways of explaining the Trinity have cropped up which looked philosophically consistent (eg. Sabellianism, Patripassianism, Adoptionism, etc.), but were nevertheless deemed heretical. Christianity’s insistence upon this counter-intuitive doctrine, especially while it regarded human reason as highly valuable, is extremely difficult to explain on the assumption that Christianity was (or became) a man-made credo. Moreover, Christians often argue that we should expect God’s nature, being so radically far removed from our own (or the nature of any created thing with which we are acquainted), to be hard or impossible for us to fully grasp (see Surah 23:92). We ought to expect God’s nature to be paradoxical, but not contradictory – and this balance is nowhere better achieved than in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the kind of thing anyone would have made up, it is precisely the kind of thing man naturally wants to break into comprehensible bits – and this is precisely what should have happened on the assumption that Christianity has evolved without the oversight of the Holy Spirit. The Christian can find, in these considerations, a solid basis on which to sensibly say credo quia absurdum.

The Christian could add to these reasons by appealing to epistemological accounts of warrant which might justify belief in the Trinity on the basis of its being properly basic, or they might try to give some a priori or a posteriori arguments for the Trinity (such as I’ve done elsewhere).[4] However, let’s not belabour this point – suffice it to say that Christians have some grounds for their belief in the Trinity to which Muslims ought to be sympathetic, regardless of whether they find those grounds entirely acceptable. Clearly belief in the Trinity is not incompatible with a commitment to monotheism; the Trinity does not entail the negation of monotheism, and belief in the Trinity does not psychologically commit one either to denying or failing to affirm monotheism.

Is it true that the Qur’an (or Hadith, or Sunnah) explicitly reject the Trinity? Not quite. Typically, the following passages are cited:

“They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.” (Surah 5:73, trans. Yusufali)

“Allah has not taken any son, nor has there ever been with Him any deity. [If there had been], then each deity would have taken what it created, and some of them would have sought to overcome others. Exalted is Allah above what they describe [concerning Him].” (Surah 23:91)

“People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’—stop, that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.” (Surah 4:171).

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.” (Surah 112:1-4).

It is imperative to keep in mind that while the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are joined at the hip in Christian theology, neither doctrine strictly logically implies the other. The Trinity could be true while the incarnation false, and vice-versa. Therefore, verses attacking the doctrine of the incarnation can be set to one side. Nevertheless, it still looks pretty damning for the doctrine of the Trinity, but here is a surprising reason to think it isn’t as bad as it appears; in Surah Al-Ma’idah we find the following passage:

“And behold! Allah will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah’?”…” (Surah 5:116)

This verse puts all of the other verses into sharper historical and theological perspective. It is the only place in the Qur’an where the doctrine of the trinity being condemned is actually outlined. Oddly, this doctrine looks nothing like the Catholic/orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in which Christians believe. One hypothesis invoked to explain this oddity appeals to the heretical beliefs of the Collyridians.[5] What we know about the Collyridians isn’t extensive, and comes exclusively from Epiphanius of Salamis. We do, however, know that they worshipped (rather than merely venerated) Mary, treating her as a goddess, and that they were chiefly located in the Arabian Peninsula. Although there is controversy about whether the group existed at the time of Muhammad (though we do know it existed in the 4th and 5th centuries), some have speculated that Muhammad became acquainted with their belief in the deity of Mary (either through immediate acquaintance, or through oral (or written) traditions he may have come in contact with). We do know that Muhammad had some familiarity with other gnostic groups and/or traditions (as evidenced, for instance, in the examples of the parallels between Surah 3:46-49, Surah 19:28-34, Surah 5:110, the Arabic ‘Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,’ and the ‘Gospel of Thomas the Israelite’[6]), so it is entirely possible that Muhammad was exposed to the Collyridian doctrine and, under its influence, misunderstood the doctrine of the trinity.

If the Collyridian worship of Mary is what led to this confusion in the Qur’an (i.e., that the trinity consists of ‘God, Jesus and Mary’) then the statements in the Qur’an condemning the trinity it refers to come nowhere near offering a condemnation for the authentically Christian doctrine. In fact, whatever led to the confusion, the trinity being imagined in the pages of the Qur’an is obviously nothing like the Christian doctrine. First, God cannot be part of the Trinity, for the whole Trinity is God. Second Mary is nowhere ever considered part of the Trinity in Catholic/orthodox doctrine, nor has she ever been at any time. So even if the Collyridian heretics aren’t to blame, the Qur’an’s view of the trinity is not even in the same neighborhood as the Christian doctrine.

Although some sources have argued that something like the doctrine of the Trinity is implied in the Qur’an (e.g., because Allah constantly uses the first person plural attributing a plurality to himself, and for other reasons),[7] I do not think that these arguments are very good. However, I do think that their very existence helps to reinforce the more general point that the Qur’an is not strictly opposed to the (Catholic) doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, even if the Qur’an doesn’t commit Muslims to anything like the Trinity, nothing about it is incompatible with the doctrine – indeed, strictly speaking, Islam and the (genuine) doctrine of the Trinity could both be true.

Finally, the Qur’an continually distinguishes Christians from polytheists, but this is difficult to make any sense of if the doctrine of the Trinity implies tri-theism. Christians are never even referred to as Mushrik or mušrikūn (مشركون)(those who commit the sin of Shirk) in the Qur’an. The Qur’an itself, therefore, assumes that Christians (people of the book, or ′Ahl al-Kitāb) are monotheists even though they believe in the Trinity, and thus that their form of Trinitarianism (even if wrong) is not, when properly understood, logically incompatible with monotheism.

Recall that Surah al-Ankabut says: “Do no argue with the people of the Book except in what is better… and say we believed in what was sent down to us and to you, and our God and your God is the same, is one” (Surah 29:46). Thus, the Christian doctrine of God (as trinity) is not so at odds with the teaching of Muhammad that he couldn’t declare the Christian God and the Muslim God to be the very same. Either the final words ‘is one’ mean ‘are both identical’ or it literally means that the Christian God ‘is [essentially] one,’ either of which vindicates (or excuses) the Trinitarian doctrine. Even on the assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity is wrong, if even the Qur’an excuses this belief, so too should Muslims.

In conclusion, taking all these points into consideration I think it is reasonable to maintain that Muslims ought to be more sympathetic towards the Christian belief in the Trinity than they typically are.

[1] Harold Lindsell and Charles J. Woodbridge, A Handbook of Christian Truth, (Westwood, NJ: F. H. Revell, 1953), pp. 51-52. I owe this reference to: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/who-said-the-trinity-try-to-understand-it-and-youll-lose-your-mind/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Toward a Tenable Social Trinitarianism,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 98.

[3] Tertullian, De Carne Christi, chapter 5. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0315.htm

[4] See: https://tylerjourneauxgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/three-trinitarian-theses/

[5] See: https://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/COLLYRID.TXT, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyridianism

[6] See: http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Sources/cradle.html

[7] See http://www.the-good-way.com/eng/books/7830/format-xml,

Two Too Simple Objections to Open Theism

First, let’s agree to reject dialetheic logics out of hand; it will be taken as a non-starter for me, and, I hope, for you, if any argument were to proceed on the assumption that a proposition can be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. It may be useful, at times, to proceed as though this were the case (I’m not denying the usefulness of paraconsistent logics), but it certainly cannot be literally correct. Such logical systems do not (and, by implication granting S5, cannot) describe the extra-mental structure of modality.  

Can God know the future on open theism? It is typically assumed that open theism involves a commitment to Presentism about time (according to which future events are not real, and so propositions about the future are not literally true). I am not sure that this is correct, since they may, perhaps, accept the growing-block theory of time instead, but that will land them in precisely the same predicament as Presentism will as far as my following objections are concerned. In any case, the open theist must accept some version of the A-theory other than the moving-spotlight theory of time (or other more esoteric theories of time which will allow for the reality of future events or states of affairs). God, on the open theist view, shouldn’t be able to know the future because there is no future to know.

It seems undeniable that if “P” is true, and if “P⊃Q” is true, then “Q” is true; that’s just good old Modus Ponens. Now, let’s take P to represent the tripartite conjunction: “the state of affairs S1 in the world will entail the subsequent state of affairs S2 just in case God does not intervene in the world at some time between S1 and S2 (inclusive of S1, not inclusive of S2) and God will not intervene in the world at any time between S1 and S2, and S1 describes the current state of affairs.” Let Q represent the proposition “in the future, S2 will be the case.”

Let us say that God knows P, and God knows that P⊃Q. Does God know Q? If not, He has a deficient grasp of logic. If so, then He knows at least some fact(s) about the future.

  1. If open theism is true, God cannot know the future.
  2. Possibly, God can know propositions like “P” and “P⊃Q.”
  3. If God can know propositions like “P&(P⊃Q),” then God can know propositions like Q.
  4. If God can know propositions like Q, then God can know propositions about the future.
  5. If God can know propositions about the future, then God can know the future.
  6. Therefore, open theism is false.

What will the open theist say? The most plausible response open to them, I think, is to deny premise 5. Generally we think of propositions about the future as having truth-makers which are future states of affairs, but it is conceivable that there be true propositions about the future which have, as their truth-makers, nothing beyond present truth-makers. Perhaps P is presently true, while Modus Ponens and P⊃Q are true presently (they may be timeless truths, so we avoid saying that they are ‘presently’ true, even if they are true presently). That might be a sufficient response. A second response might go like this: premise 1 should be restated as 1*: “if open theism is true, God cannot know the whole future,” and premise 5 should be restated as 5*: “If God can know propositions about the future, then God can know at least some of the future.” Obviously 6 does not logically follow from 1*-5*.

Here’s a second argument:

  1. If a proposition is meaningful, then it cannot fail to be true or false (where the ‘or’ is exclusive).
  2. There are meaningful propositions about the future which are not entailed by any presently available truths.
  3. Therefore, there are true propositions about the future which are not entailed by any presently available truths (they cannot all be false, for if P is false, then “P is false” is true).
  4. God is omniscient.
  5. A being is not omniscient if there are truths (i.e., meaningful true propositions) it fails to know.
  6. If open theism is true, there are meaningful true propositions about the future which God fails to know.
  7. Therefore, open theism is false.

The best responses to this argument which I have heard include (i) denying premise 2 altogether, or (ii) denying premise 1. The denial of premise 1 (given our assumed rejection of dialetheic logics) amounts to a rejection of the law of excluded middle (LEM), and that, my friends, is as good as a reductio against open theism. Rather, it is a reductio of open theism! Alternatively, to deny premise 2 (by denying the meaningfulness of propositions about future states of affairs not entailed by presently available truths), seems implausible given the fact that we all apprehend the meaning of sentences like “tomorrow Julie will eat worms in the playground again.” So, we have at least one relatively good, though simple, argument against open theism.

… Maybe there’s time for a quick third: suppose that epistemic justification means something like ‘true justified belief’ (and let’s, for the moment, ignore Gettier cases, just for simplicity). Now it looks like I can know propositions like P:”tomorrow I will finally propose to her,” even though it looks like God cannot know P! That’s another reductio ad absurdam to add to our growing list of reasons to reject open theism.

My mistake; obviously this last argument presupposes the ‘truth’ of propositions like P, but that’s the very object of contention, so my argument runs in, as they say, a circle of embarrassingly short diameter.

As to whether either of the former arguments will work, it seems to me that if the open theism is too deeply entrenched then the open theist will simply bite the bullet and accept the consequences of my arguments while maintaining open theism. However, at least the arguments can act as a warning to others to avoid the philosophical pit that is open theism.

 

Thomism is preferable to Molinism

Abstract: In this paper I will examine two competing theories of God’s providence, namely Molinism and Thomism, and argue that of the two Thomism is theologically preferable. I will show that Thomism can help itself to all the advantages of Molinism without inheriting its distinctive disadvantages. I will not have space to deal at length with the supposed disadvantages of Thomism, but I will suggest that the supposed disadvantages of the Thomistic view can be avoided or greatly mitigated, and that even if they could not Thomism would remain theologically preferable.

Molinism is the theological model, first put forward by the sixteenth century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, which attempts to preserve an extremely strong view of God’s providential control over the history and nature of the world while also maintaining that people have genuinely categorical, or ‘libertarian,’ freedom. The way Molina does this is to argue that in addition to God’s natural knowledge (of all necessary modal truths),[1] and his knowledge of contingent facts about the actual world, he has a ‘middle’ knowledge (scientia media) of what people would have freely done in any non-actual[2] metaphysically possible circumstance. God has access to the objects of his so-called middle knowledge logically/explanatorily prior to his choosing to create a world, and it is in light of these objects of his knowledge that he sets the world up precisely as he does, so as to bring about the best of all logically feasible[3] worlds. A world is logically feasible just in case it is both logically possible and, in addition, is possibly instantiated (by God’s creative activity) in light of the true contingent[4] subjunctive counterfactual conditionals of creaturely freedom (henceforth SCCs). The Molinist maintains that these SCCs are either entirely brute facts (contingent facts for which no sufficient explanation exists), or are grounded somehow in something other than God’s intentional assignment.

Molinism, it has been said, is “one of the most brilliant constructions in the history of philosophical theology,”[5] and has sweeping theological utility. It not only tidily explains how to put together genuine free will with God’s providential control over historical contingencies, but it also offers a stunning answer to the so-called problem of evil precisely because the morally sufficient reasons for evils in the world are grounded in objects of God’s knowledge which we have good reason to believe we are in no epistemic position to know, nor even in a position to guess! Molinism even provides an apparently promising way to defend the logical possibility of the classical doctrine of hell against objections to the effect that infinite (read here ‘everlasting’) punishment for finite crimes is incompatible with God’s justice.[6] All its notable advantages notwithstanding, Molinism also presents profound challenges to God’s sovereignty, His divine simplicity and to His impassivity. Moreover, Molinism is incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason, which provides a good reason for rejecting it. Where Molinism fails, however, Thomism can succeed.

The Thomist parts company with the Molinist on the question of the nature of God’s providence by stipulating that that SCCs must, somehow, be determined by God. Robert Koons explains that “the Thomist is supposed to believe that God knows… [subjunctive counterfactual conditionals] by having decided Himself what [they] should be.”[7] Some critics have complained that if God makes these counterfactuals true then people would not have the ‘power’ to do otherwise than they do,[8] but this objection seems confused. After all, supposing that SCCs are indeterministically assigned a truth-value, or that their truth value is in any case not the result of any deterministic process of truth-value assignment, no problem is supposed to arise for the Molinist. If our apparently free actions turned out to result from what, at bottom, can be described as a mindless indifferent unintentional indeterministic process[9] then they would be as unfree as if they were strictly causally determined by antecedent conditions entirely out of our control. However, the Molinist will deny that just because the SCCs (together with facts about what world God has elected to create) both logically entail that people will act precisely as they do and result from some unintentional indeterminism, the actions of creatures are not free. The Molinist can hold this consistently because they recognize that logical entailment is not to be confused with causal necessitation, and it is not true that if it is logically entailed that A do Y, then A is unfree with respect to Y.[10] The fact is that God does not cause a person to act as they do on either the Thomistic or the Molinist view, even if He sets up the world in such a way as to logically ensure that they act precisely as they do. This is a point to which we shall return.

In the first place among the many arguments against Molinism comes the argument from William Hasker, which was polished and improved upon by Robert Adams, and deserves special attention. Hasker’s argument was that Molinists need for the truth of SCC’s to be explanatorily prior to the existence of libertarian-free agents and their libertarian-free actions, but, Hasker thinks, Molinism will commit one to the belief that SCC’s are grounded in a libertarian-free agents free activity. He suggests that there is a contradiction between the claim that some free agent ‘A’ can freely bring Y about, and the claim that there is a ‘hard fact’ about the past history of the world, explanatorily prior to A’s bringing Y about, which broadly logically entails that Y be brought about by A. Hasker assumes that if A can freely bring Y about then A has the power to refrain from bringing Y about. For Hasker, “A [freely] brings it about that Y iff: For some X, A causes it to be the case that X, and (X & H) =>[11]Y, and ~(H =>Y), where ‘H’ represents the history of the world [causally] prior to its coming to be the case that X.”[12] Since it is a condition of A’s being free with respect to bringing Y about that H apart from X not logically entail that Y, if there is an SCC entailed by H which, in turn, entails Y, A cannot be free with respect to Y. The history of the world cannot include an SCC which entails that Y unless A is not free with respect to bringing it about that Y. Therefore, A’s bringing Y about freely requires that the SCC entailing that A bring Y about be grounded in A’s bringing X about, rather than grounded in H. To ground SCCs in the actions of libertarian free agents, however, would entirely undo Molinism as an explanation of God’s providential control over the free decisions of His creatures.

Unfortunately I am not convinced that this argument against Molinism is any good. In fact, I am convinced that it is no good. The trouble here is that for H to broadly logically entail Y does not seem (to me) to entail that A did not freely bring it about that Y, or that A couldn’t have refrained from bringing Y about in the relevant sense. A, to be free, need only be free in the sense that nothing in H causally necessitates Y. However, for H to broadly logically entail Y is not incompatible with A’s ability to freely bring Y about. Suppose, for instance, that the A-theory of time is true, and suppose further that the history of the world has included the fact that “at t (where t is some future time) A will freely do B.” If this fact is part of the makeup of facts true in the past history of the world (and presumably it would be, since it is future-tensed), then there would be facts in the past history of the world which would broadly logically entail that A do B, but this would do absolutely nothing to negate A’s freedom with respect to doing B. One should not confuse broadly logical entailment with causal determinism. Libertarian freedom and causal determinism[13] really are incompatible, but there’s no good reason to think that libertarian free will is incompatible with free choices being broadly logically entailed by facts which have no causal influence on the free choices they entail. A can be causally free to refrain from bringing Y about even if it is broadly logically entailed by some contingent fact H that A bring Y about.

Robert Adams has articulated a similar argument, but couches the key commitment to which he invites us in the language of explanatory priority. He suggests that “if I freely do A in C, no truth that is strictly inconsistent with my refraining from A in C is explanatorily prior to my choosing and acting as I do in C.”[14] His argument operates on the crucial assumptions that explanatory priority is (i) transitive, and (ii) asymmetrical. It must be transitive because Adams wants to say that SCC’s are explanatorily prior to our free choices (because they are explanatorily prior to our very existence, which is itself explanatorily prior to our free choices), and it must be asymmetrical because otherwise our free choices could be explanatorily prior to SCCs which are explanatorily prior to our free choices. Unfortunately Adams makes the very same mistake as Hasker made when he insists that “the truth of [an SCC] (which says that if I were in C then I would do A) is strictly inconsistent with my refraining from A in C.” [15] In addition, W.L. Craig has argued that the notion of explanatory priority used in Adam’s argument may be equivocal, and that, if it isn’t, “there is no reason to expect it to be transitive”[16] in the way required by the argument. Adam’s argument, therefore, seems plagued with difficulties.

There are, however, some genuine problems with Molinism. Problems to which Thomism seems immune. The first such problem is that Molinism seriously threatens God’s divine simplicity in a subtle but profound way. According to the doctrine of divine simplicity God’s knowing is (somehow) identical with His willing, which is (somehow) identical with His being. One of the chief motivations of the Thomistic view of providence is that it satisfies “a concern to preserve the doctrine of the simplicity of God,”[17] precisely because God’s knowing and his willing amount to the very same thing.[18] By contrast Molinism suggests that God is affected by the objects of his middle-knowledge in such a way that His knowing cannot amount to the same thing as His willing, and this presents a fundamental threat to the doctrine of divine simplicity. It also threatens the doctrine of God’s impassability, according to which “God’s relation to [the world][19] is always one of cause-to-effect and never effect-to-cause.”[20] If Molinism is true then God bears an effect-to-cause relation to SCCs, which are uncreated contingent features of the world.

Another difficulty with Molinism is that it may not only fail to provide a promising theodicy, but may present its own form of the problem of evil. According to a standard Molinist theodicy, God has minimized the evil and maximized the good in this world by creating the best of all logically feasible worlds in light of the SCCs which happen to obtain. For illustration, we can imagine that if two logically feasible worlds W and W’ are indistinguishable (mutatis mutandis) except insofar as W involves one more person than W’ coming to freely accept God, then W will be a better feasible world than W’. However, given the indeterminate nature of SCCs, it may be the case that there are two worlds W1 and W2, such that W1 and W2 are indistinguishable in all respects except (mutatis mutandis) that W1 involves the salvation of Susie and Jim, and the damnation of Thomas, whereas W2 involves the salvation of Thomas and Jim, but the damnation of Susie. Given this situation, it seems as though an omnibenevolent God would be stuck with a classic buridan’s ass paradox. In this case God would have to arbitrarily choose to create one world rather than the other (assuming He wouldn’t just create both), but this leaves God with no morally sufficient reason for allowing the damnation of Thomas/Susie (depending on the world selected, or for the damnation of Thomas1 and Susie2 if God created both worlds). Suppose further that there is no better logically feasible world than either W1 or W2. That would mean that there is no such thing as the best of all feasible worlds, in which case God has not created the best of all feasible worlds.

Perhaps the Molinist will argue that were SCCs to have presented God with such a dilemma (or trilemma, or quadrilemma, etc.), then God would have refrained from creating any world at all. The fact that God has created a world can, therefore, be taken as an indication that the SCCs were not set-up such that God could not have had morally sufficient reason for allowing any and all actual instances of evil. The trouble here is that if Molinism requires that SCCs not present this predicament to God, then Molinism may turn out to be intolerably unlikely to be true, for of all the possible ways the SCCs could have turned out, it seems immensely (perhaps infinitely) more probable that God be faced with just such a predicament than not. For any SCC-set1 which allows for a best of all feasible worlds, there is a set [SCC-set2, SCC-set3… SCC-setn] every member of which precludes there being a best of all feasible worlds and represents a ‘closer’ logically possible SCC-set to SCC-set1 than any SCC-setx which also allows for a(nother) best of all feasible worlds.

The Molinist may object that probabilities aren’t what they seem here, since one might naïvely assume that given a randomly selected number from the set of all numbers, one is more likely to get an even number than a prime, but this is demonstrably false.[21] However, the key here is the relative closeness of the SCC-sets which morally prohibit God’s creating any world at all. For every cluster of SCCs related by family resemblance, the majority of possible SCC-sets in the vicinity will be creation-prohibiting. Imagine throwing a dart from an infinite distance in the direction of an infinite set of floor tiles each of which had one minuscule red spot, and having the dart land precisely on one of those red spots; this is what it would be like for God to happen-upon an SCC-set which isn’t creation-prohibiting.[22]

Moreover, even if the possible ‘SCC’ sets made it no more likely than unlikely that a best of all logically feasible worlds is instantiable, the fact that Molinism in principle allows the set of SCCs to proscribe God’s creating the world means that the conditional probability of Molinism given that a world exists is (significantly?) less than the conditional probability of Thomism; Pr(M|World)<<Pr(T|World).

Molinism also fails to preserve as strong a notion of God’s sovereignty as Thomism because it suggests that there are contingent objects/elements in the world over which God has absolutely no control. God is, as it were, simply confronted with SCCs which are beyond his power to do anything about, and He must make due as best He can with them. God’s omnipotence is also apparently undermined (or unnecessarily restricted) for, on standard Molinism, if it is true that ‘S if placed in C would freely do A’ then “even God in His omnipotence cannot bring it about that S would freely refrain from A if he were placed in C.”[23] In an attempt to evade such difficulties thinkers like Kvanvig have defended what is referred to as ‘maverick Molinism,’ according to which “though counterfactuals of freedom have their truth-value logically prior to God’s acts of will, God could have so acted that these counterfactuals would have had a different truth value from that which they actually have.”[24] This view, however, retains the rest of the disadvantages of Molinism, along with inviting the disadvantages which are supposed to attach themselves to the Thomistic view, such as that God becomes the author of sin. So, the Molinist’s only way out of this objection turns out to be less attractive than abandoning Molinism altogether (and embracing Thomism).

Another problem with Molinism is that it seems incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), according to which for every true proposition there is available some sufficient explanation of why it is true. This principle has fallen into disrepute among many philosophers today, but there are very good reasons for being reluctant to abandon it. First, the PSR seems extremely plausible at first blush, and is even considered by many to be self-evident.[25] Second, no principle should be considered philosophically proscribed by a philosophical commitment with comparably less intuitive plausibility, but Molinism and its constitutive philosophical commitments seem less intuitively plausible than the PSR. Third, although the PSR faces some impressive philosophical challenges, none of these are insuperable.[26] Finally, Pruss has offered impressive arguments for thinking that if the PSR is rejected then this would undermine not only “the practice of science,”[27] but also philosophical argumentation itself.[28]

The inconsistency between Molinism and the PSR is that whereas the PSR entails that there exists some sufficient reason for the truth of the SCCs which God knows, Molinism seems to require[29] that these truths be without any sufficient explanation. The SCCs are not determined by God, nor can they be determined by the properties of the actual world, including properties of actual persons, since these counterfactuals are explanatorily prior to the existence of the actual created world and its denizens.

Perhaps the Molinist can offer some arguments here in response; the Molinist can say, for instance, that statements of the general form “had S been in circumstance C, S would freely have done A” seem meaningful, and, if meaningful, must be either true or false. Many have argued this way by appealing to a “subjunctive conditional law of excluded middle (SCLEM),”[30] though I think one can erect an equally good argument on the basis of the law of excluded middle (LEM) itself. Since any SCC statement about what libertarian free persons would do in non-actual circumstances is true or false if and only if it is meaningful (by LEM), one need only maintain that it is meaningful in order to draw out the conclusion that it is true or false. For any SCC*, and its negation ‘~SCC*’ at least one of them will be true, whether it has a sufficient reason or not. This method of argument attempts to offset the implausibility of rejecting the PSR with the implausibility of rejecting the LEM. Moreover the Molinist can perhaps hold to a weakened, and yet still intuitively plausible, version of the principle of sufficient reason. Timothy O’Connor suggests, for instance, that “one should seek explanation for every fact other than those for which there is an explanation of why there can be no explanation of those facts.[31] This weakened principle salvages some of the intuitive appeal of the PSR, but also allows wiggle-room for the Molinist to get away with positing brute facts, so long as the Molinist can come up with some plausible story about why there can be no explanation of a subjunctive counterfactual conditional’s truth.

Although this line of argument appears to allow the Molinist to eschew uncomfortable questions about what sufficient reason there could be for SCCs, in order to argue that this weakened principle will excuse the Molinist from having to explain why the true SCCs are true, the Molinist will have to provide some explanation of why the Thomistic alternative is not (broadly) logically possible. This is not merely a tall order, it is to all appearances hopeless. In fact, the Thomist can offer an argument from ‘LEM & PSR’ for Thomism by noting first that SCCs are meaningful, and that, if true, they must have an explanation (by PSR). Thomism offers an explanation for them in terms of God’s will, and Molinism offers no explanation for them at all. Because Thomism finds no obstacle in the PSR, it has this quintessential philosophical advantage over Molinism.

The most significant difficulties, and perhaps the only real difficulties, with the Thomistic view are (i) that it appears to make God the author of sin, along with (ii) making it difficult, at best, to use a free-will defense against the problem of evil. Let us note, before offering some brief remarks about how to possibly avoid these problems, that on balance one should prefer these two difficulties to the set of difficulties Molinism comes with. Thus, even if all the ways Thomists have proposed to deal with this fail (and even fail miserably) Thomism would still be on balance preferable to Molinism. Turning to the first problem, there may be hope for the Thomist to mitigate it if he maintains that “although there is coequal responsibility for the existence of sin [between God and creature], it does not follow that there is coequal blame for sin… [for] blame attaches to actions, and actions are characterized by intentions,”[32] but God and man perform intentionally different actions in bringing it about that X. Second, one can safeguard genuine freedom if “the truth-values of the conditionals are shaped by God’s activity of willing… and yet these truth-values not be “up to God” in the relevant sense[.]”[33] However, even if such problems cannot be solved, Thomism remains preferable, on balance, to Molinism.

[1] I am not sure if it makes sense to talk about ‘nearer’ or ‘farther’ logically impossible worlds, but if it does then I will want to say that God’s natural knowledge will include this as well, and that the nearness and farness of logically impossible worlds from each other, or from possible worlds, or from the actual world, will all be necessary truths to which God has unbridled access.

[2] I am here tacitly assuming a B-theory of time. A-theorists can rephrase as ‘neither actual, nor to be actual, nor previously actual.’

[3] The term is borrowed from William Lane Craig, who explains that some worlds, even if logically possible, are not feasible for God to create in light of the fact that the relevant subjunctive counterfactual conditionals effectively prohibit such a world from being actual. See William Lane Craig, “Yet Another Failed Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Molinism: The Contemporary Debate (2012): 144-62.

[4] I say contingent because there are clearly some logically necessary subjunctive counterfactual conditionals if (i) Theism is true and (ii) God has free will. For instance, consider: “If Tara had freely chosen to reject God, then God would have (freely) chosen to allow her to damn herself.

[5] Robert Merrihew Adams, “An Anti-Molinist argument,” in Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 345.

[6] See William Lane Craig’s debate with Ray Bradley, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/can-a-loving-god-send-people-to-hell-the-craig-bradley-debate#section_1

[7] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 3.

[8] See Jonathan L. Kvanvig, “On Behalf of Maverick Molinism,” in Faith and Philosophy 19, no. 3 (2002): 1.

[9] I will take it that if any stage in an explanatory sequence involves mindless unintentional indeterminism, and if it, in turn, strictly entails all the explanatorily posterior elements in that explanatory sequence, then the explanandum in that sequence can be said to result from a mindless unintentional indeterministic process.

[10] Which is just to say that free actions cannot be logically entailed.

[11] This symbol, for Hasker, indicates broadly logical entailment/necessitation.

[12] Thomas P. Flint, “A New Anti-Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Religious studies 35, no. 03 (1999): 299.

[13] Where by causal determinism I mean that for any event, either all subsequent events are causally necessitated by it, or it is causally necessitated by antecedent events.

[14] Robert Merrihew Adams, “An Anti-Molinist argument,” in Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 350.

[15] Robert Merrihew Adams, “An Anti-Molinist argument,” in Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 350.

[16] William Lane Craig, “Robert Adams’s New Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54, no. 4 (1994): 858.

[17] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 5.

[18] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 5.

[19] I replaced Koons’ “the creature” with “the world” because it seems wrong to say that SCCs are ‘creatures’ on the Molinist view, but the way Koons’ argument proceeds seems to treat SCCs as a threat to God’s impassibility for this reason (i.e., the reason cited in the quotation).

[20] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 6.

[21] I would have to confer with a mathematician, or a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of mathematics, in order to verify this, but to the best of my knowledge mathematicians can prove, and have proven, that the infinite set of even numbers and the infinite set of prime numbers can be bijected (without remainder) so that the probabilistic resources in either case is mathematically equivalent, and, therefore, the odds of getting either a prime number, or an even number, would be the same. Supposing I am wrong about this (and it’s entirely possible that I am), then the argument works in my favor (against Molinism) even more conspicuously, for there seem to necessarily be proportionally more SCC-sets which present God with a dilemma, trilemma, quadrilemma (etc.) than SCC-sets which do not.

[22] I don’t know if this is right, but I’m trying to suggest that the relative closeness of creation-prohibiting SCC-sets (as compared to the creation-permitting SCC-sets) gives us reason to think that the Molinist story is improbable. Also, note that if Intelligent Design theorists are right about our ability to make a rational inference to design on the basis of something like specified complexity, it seems reasonable to say that the apparent fine-tuning of the actually true SCC-set cries out for an explanation, but this explanation cannot be given by Molinism (though it can be provided by Thomism).

[23] William Lane Craig, “Yet Another Failed Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Molinism: The Contemporary Debate (2012): 127.

[24] Jonathan L. Kvanvig, “On Behalf of Maverick Molinism,” in Faith and Philosophy 19, no. 3 (2002): 1.

[25] Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009): 26-28.

[26] I do not have the space to argue this here, but I would refer readers to: Alexander R. Pruss The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[27] Alexander R. Pruss The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 255.

[28] Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009): 45.

[29] Flint does apparently argue that SCCs are within our volitional control. See Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 12. This is, perhaps, an exception to the rule, but it also seems convoluted for reasons Koons deals with in his paper.

[30] Alexander R. Pruss, “The subjunctive conditional law of excluded middle,” http://alexanderpruss.com/papers/SCLEM.html

[31] Timothy O’Connor, Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency. John Wiley & Sons, 2012: 84.

[32] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 23.

[33] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 7.

Putting Prayer to the Test

Empirical studies on the effects of prayer have been controversial since Francis Galton, in 1872, predicted that if intercessory prayer were efficacious then:

“members of the British Royal Family would live longer than average, given that thousands [of Anglicans] prayed for their well-being every Sunday.”[1]

Since that time a number of different studies have been performed to assess the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and most recently some of these studies have indicated that, on average, people who are prayed for are no better off than those who aren’t, and, surprisingly, are worse off if they know they are being prayed for. Take the now famous Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) for instance, the findings of which include that “Complications [after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery] occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28).”[2] It appears, according to the findings of this study, that although intercessory prayer had no effect on patients who were unaware they were being prayed for (52% faced complications) compared to patients who were not prayed for (51% faced complications), those who were knowingly receiving intercessory prayer were considerably worse off. This study seems to strongly disconfirm the hypothesis that intercessory prayer is efficacious.

Given the empirical disconfirmation of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, what can Christians (or others) offer by way of justification for retaining belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer? In this case what the Christian needs, it seems to me, is what epistemologists refer to as a defeater-defeater; in other words, they need to regard the empirical evidence as a prima facie defeater of their belief in the efficacy of prayer, and then offer some defeater of this defeater. There are two general strategies here which we might adopt. The first is to appeal to skeptical theism, and the second is to provide some plausible reason(s) for thinking that the study is flawed.

Appealing to skeptical theism need not commit one to the claim that STEP provides no evidence against the efficacy of intercessory prayer, but merely that it provides so little evidence as to be negligible. Here some philosophers make a distinction between (moderate) skeptical theism and extreme skeptical theism, where the extreme skeptical theist believes that evil provides absolutely no evidence against God’s existence, while the skeptical theist believes that evil provides only negligible evidence against God’s existence. I think that moderate skeptical theism is sensible, and if applied in the case at hand it would suggest that STEP provides negligible evidence against intercessory prayer. Why is the evidence negligible? There are a few reasons, including the sample size, problems with the methods used, and such-like. However, the more significant reasons for being skeptical of STEP’s conclusions may be theological in nature.

On some views of God there is reason to predict that intercessory prayer would be ineffective or at least that it would remain empirically undetectable by studies such as STEP. Clearly the Deistic view of God is no less likely given STEP. However, what about the Christian view of God? Does Christianity have internal resources for motivating the prediction that STEP would yield the results it does? I think so.

If we are observing a chemical reaction or animal behaviour it becomes very easy to remove ourselves from the equation and observe what would presumably have occurred even if we had not been observing it. We can, for instance, hide from the animal so that they are unaware of our presence and surveillance. We cannot do the same with God. Just as you might get different results when observing the activities of a human person depending on whether they are aware that they are being watched, so you can reasonably suppose that God might react differently in cases where we try to detect and measure His activity with His full awareness. Does the Christian have any reason to suspect that God would act differently in the case at hand (i.e., with respect to intercessory prayer put under the proverbial microscope)? Yes, I think so.

In Matthew 13:58 we read that Jesus was unable to do miracles in his hometown because of the lack of faith among the people there (see also Mark 6:5-6). Why would Jesus be unable to perform miracles because of a lack of faith in those around him? Let us bear in mind, as we ask this question, that on the Christian worldview God’s aim is ultimately to bring us into a right relationship with him through Christ. There is no guarantee, however, that witnessing a miracle, or even merely believing that God exists, will be conducive to this aim. Thus, on the Christian view of God it is to be expected that God will refrain from doing miracles if/when they would do more harm than good. After all, with greater evidence comes less excuse, and if a person’s heart would only be hardened by finding such evidence then God has every reason for keeping it out of their hands, like a good parent keeping a child’s hand away from a hot stovetop. If God knows the state of your heart well enough (as He surely does, on the Christian hypothesis) to know that this kind of ‘evidence’ is not going to help you (and/or others) to come into a relationship with Him then He seems likely to withhold it, as Jesus did in his hometown. After all, the God of the Bible is on record, through Moses, as commanding his people as follows:

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

STEP, if nothing else, seems to be putting God to the test, and that very fact gives us some reason to believe that those conducting the study don’t have their hearts in the right place to begin with.

Moreover, consider what it would mean for the spiritual welfare of believers if we knew that God did as requested in intercessory prayer only 34% of the time. This would plausibly dis-incentivize petitionary prayer, which could do real damage to indefinitely many people’s relationships with God. Further, suppose we found that intercessory prayer ‘worked’ 78% of the time. This would plausibly incentivize bargaining with God, or praying not in order to run into God’s arms, but just in order for God to do what we want Him to do (which would be to treat God as merely a means to an end). It might also induce in us a childish feeling of envy towards other people when we do not receive what we pray for, and resentment towards God for not giving us what we pray for even though most people get precisely what they want. These consequences are certainly non-trivial, and do give God morally justifying reasons for not making his activity known to us when we look for evidence of it by conducting studies like STEP.

Finally, even in the absence of such mitigating considerations, if Christians are right to think that God routinely hides Himself precisely for the sake of allowing us the free (un-coerced) choice of whether to believe in Him or not, then God may have a good reason for hiding Himself from us in this case. Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century Mathematician and provocative Christian thinker, once (allegedly) said:

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”[3]

In conclusion, Christians do have (theological) reasons for expecting the results of studies like STEP. If one objects that the reasoning I have presented is retrospective damage control (i.e., that the reasons presented for expecting the results of STEP aren’t strong enough to have motivated Christians to actually predict the results of studies like STEP), I don’t know if I can do better than to appeal to their common sense; the reasons certainly seem strong enough to me. Clearly, at very least, STEP comes as no surprise to the vast majority of Christians.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efficacy_of_prayer#Studies_on_the_efficacy_of_prayer

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567

[3] Although this quotation is attributed to him on seemingly every corner of the internet, it is possibly spurious. I looked hard for the precise citation and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I also thoroughly looked through the Pensées, and it certainly isn’t a quotation from there. See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm and/or http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/pensees.ii.html. So, just as Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake” and René Descartes never wrote the words “Cogito ergo sum” in the meditations (though he did write those words elsewhere), so Pascal may never have uttered/penned these words for which he is popularly remembered.