Some Preliminary Notes on the Problem of Evil

I am putting together a large post on the problem of evil, where I intend to clearly and fully lay out my reasons for thinking that it is unsound. Before that, I want to outline some of the important ideas I will be drawing on. Since the main post is probably going to take a while.

I intend to put forward a positive skeptical theism, rather than a negative skeptical theism. Maybe a higher burden for me, but it is also compatible with some what I am thinking of as second order theodicies: reasons why God might want us to be skeptical theists.

Consider this principle: “An observation E is evidence of hypothesis H over the negation of H if H predicts E at a higher probability than the negation of H predicts E”

This is a straightforwardly Bayesian definition of evidence, but under this definition, it seems like the problem of evil fails. Since clearly, Christianity predicts the existence of horrors at some high probability, the existence of horrors can’t be evidence against Christianity.

The atheist here has a way to continue: Christianity doesn’t predict horrors a priori from some core principle, but instead slaps that prediction on to the world view in an ad hoc manner so that it won’t be defeated by evidence. Just like adding epicycles to geocentrism. Add enough epicycles and you can overcome and contrary evidence.

When it comes to predicting horrors a priori, I think we need to flesh that out more: neither you nor I can be said to really be making predictions here a priori at all. Both of us are embedded in long intellectual traditions which have evolved and developed in many ways because of the horrors that exist. Job might be the earliest Christian writing that exists, and you’re not willing to call it a priori. Maybe we treat this similarly to scientific advancement. I have an older theory which you claim has some ad hoc modifications to make my predictions true, while you have a newer theory which has no ad hoc modifications. I claim I have no ad hoc modifications, and that these predictions are really motivated by the belief. What we need to work out is whether my “ad hoc modifications” are epicycles or if they’re dark matter. I think that this doesn’t come down to “a priori” because that’s a mythical place neither of us can get to. I think it comes down to whether Christianity’s prediction of horrors (which you’ll definitely find in the scriptures) is consistent with the Christian worldview, or whether it’s an inconsistent or unmotivated concession to reality, to avoid rejecting Christianity entirely. And I think it’s easy enough to argue for that consistency.

Even if we take a very minimal Christianity to be the central motivating principle for our predictions, we have the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of all Christian theology. And the Gospel is that Christ came into a dark and evil world and rescued helpless, unworthy, and wretched sinners. So right there we have a motivated prediction of the existence of evil. We even possibly have a prediction for the greatest evil, the crucifixion of Christ. And not only the crucifixion, but the evil it takes to make the world dark enough, so that Christ is more glorious in incarnating. And the evil it takes to demonstrate us to be unworthy, or to make us unworthy. If we’ve predicted great evil, have we also predicted horrors? I think so. The only way we don’t predict horrors is if we also predict that we will have access to all of God’s reasons for each individual evil. But how would we have that access? Either God grants it to us via revelation, or we are able to plainly see it. But why should we expect either of those, given our wretched state and the transcendence of God? It’s very plausible that I can’t understand what an individual horror is doing any more than my cats can understand why I abandon them for hours every day. And it’s also plausible that God deliberately keeps such things hidden from us to remind us of our lowly state compared to Him, and to help build in us such qualities as trust and compassion. I don’t think it’s possible to truly develop compassion without being subjected to mysterious suffering, and I don’t think there’s any real trust if I always know precisely what God is doing.

If my wife says “trust me”, and I tell her “of course I trust you, I’ve got a hidden camera and microphone on your handbag”, maybe I don’t actually trust her. But if God wants us to trust Him (which He does under Christianity), then there must be some times of darkness where we cannot see what God is doing.

And there is one final strong argument here: some of the people who have experienced the worst horrors have remained theists, and indeed Christians, and have often said afterwards that they can see now what God was doing in them through the suffering and evil. The kinds of evil and suffering that they have experienced are not vastly qualitatively different to the kinds of evil you’re calling horrors and using to motivate your argument. But the people experiencing that evil are in a better place than you are to talk about whether it’s unjustified, and many of them say that it’s justified. Plausibly then, all such evil is justified. Does this argument work in reverse? Are those who don’t say it’s justified a problem for me? I don’t think so, I don’t think the observation is symmetrical. I think “I do see reasons, therefore reasons exist” is a lot stronger than “I don’t see reasons, therefore they don’t exist”. Seeing reasons is a very good reason for thinking that there are reasons, just like me seeing a chess tactic is a pretty good reason for thinking it exists: I’m wrong sometimes, but rarely. But when I don’t see a tactic, that is not a good reason to think that there is no tactic: I often miss tactics, much more often than I incorrectly see tactics. And I think also that the “I see reasons” often comes late in life, after a lot of reflection, and that puts it in a better epistemic position than “I do not see reasons”, which is often immediate and often supplanted by seeing reasons decades later. So by the fact that for any class of evil, some thoughtful, reflective people who have experienced that evil will eventually see reasons for it, I think we can plausibly say that there possibly exist reasons for any evil in that class. This undermines the atheist’s judgement that there are no reasons for some particular horror.

Saturday Links 2/11/19

Miracle arguments: Should we always prefer naturalistic explanations?

A common objection to arguments from miracles, such as the argument for the resurrection of Jesus, is that we should always prefer natural explanations (however improbable) to supernatural explanations. The conversation might go something like this:

Theist: “There is simply a ridiculous amount of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. We have the empty tomb, the testimony of the appearances to disciples who believed they would die for their testimony, the conversion of Paul, and the early objections to Christianity grant these evidences. The best explantion for all these facts is the resurrection”

Atheist: “I can agree with all of those facts, however the resurrection is a supernatural explanation, not a natural explanation, and so it must always be rejected. Therefore a better explanation for these facts is that Jesus was an alien hologram who merely appeared to live and die and rise again, and appear to many people. When Jesus interacted with objects, that was just the aliens using advanced technology to make it seem like there was a man. But really, it was all aliens who were messing with people for fun. This is extremely unlikely, it is very implausible, but it is still a better explanation than any supernatural explanation”.

So then we have a principle to investigate: natural explanations are always preferable to supernatural explanations. How could we justify, or alternatively defeat, this principle?

Here is one such way:

  1. We know (independently) that natural objects exist
  2. We do not know (independently) that non-natural objects exist
  3. We should always prefer explanations that use objects of a class we know independently to exist
  4. We should never use explanations that involve non-natural objects

But this doesn’t seem to be very good. It would restrict scientists from ever positing new kinds of objects, and so we’d never come to believe in things like quarks. What explains our observations about protons and neutrons? Maybe quarks, or maybe it’s a mistake in our observations. We know mistakes exist, we don’t know quarks exist, so we can’t ever use quarks, and we must just be wrong. But that’s a bad conclusion

So maybe it’s just something special about supernatural explanations. And maybe no justification at all is given from the atheist. If no justification is given, then we can dismiss it without any argument. But let’s be generous and go further, to not only point out that it’s unjustified, but to demonstrate it false.

How can we do that? Here’s a simple thought experiment: suppose we live in the world of the book series *Mistborn*, where supernatural magic is reasonably common, and most people will know someone or knows someone who knows someone with some supernatural ability.

In this world, the atheist’s principle is clearly false. In this world, supernatural explanations are clearly justified, and are commonplace and accepted.

So the truth or falsehood of the atheist’s principle depends on what possible world we are in. The important difference between our world and the world of Mistborn seems to be the existence of the supernatural. So the atheist’s principle becomes something like “In worlds where the supernatural does not exist, we should not appeal to supernatural explanations”. But now the atheist begs the question: we are presenting evidence that the supernatural does exist in our world, and they can’t presuppose that the world doesn’t contain the supernatural in order to refute that evidence. That would be a circular argument.

So it doesn’t seem like we can justify the principle “we should always prefer natural explanations”.

Calvinism, Hiddenness, and Skeptical Theism

When it comes to arguments against God, the two big ones are the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. I think that Reformed thinking holds important solutions to these problems for the theist.

Divine Hiddenness

The argument from hiddenness, famously defended by John Schellenberg, goes something like this:

  1. If God exists, God would have good reasons to desire a close, intimate, and open relationship with each person (content of Christian theology of God and love)
  2. If God wanted such a relationship, He would have one (content of Christian theology on omnipotence)
  3. God does not have such a relationship
  4. God does not exist

The argument seems valid, so we must attack some premises. 3 is pretty sturdy, few people would argue that everyone has that kind of relationship with God. 2 might be questionable on grounds of libertarian free will, though even if such libertarian free will existed I think those objections would ultimately fail. So we have to attack 1.

And clearly, the Calvinist would reject 1. Calvinism is an (at least) plausible take on theism under which God doesn’t desire such a relationship with all people in that way. While God with His moral will desires such a relationship, with His sovereign will He elects some for such a relationship and ordains that others will not obtain such a relationship.

While this may just seem like a “Nah!” to premise 1, the Calvinist has strong reasons for thinking that this is the case. These are grounded in exegesis of various passages of scripture, which we won’t really go into here, but suffice it to say that the Calvinists think that they have very good reasons to endorse a theology which entails that 1 is false.

Apart from any exegesis of important passages like Romans 9 and John 6 and Ephesians 1 and 2, we can give a priori theological reasons that make this view at least plausible. Monergism itself is quite plausible, because if God is primarily interested in glorifying Himself (again, a priori plausible, as the most valuable being it is right for Him to display His value), then God will make Himself the primary mover. If God is interested in redeeming a people, it seems to better display His unconditional love by redeeming people who had nothing good in them wholly by Himself, rather than redeeming only those who had enough innate goodness to choose Him in the first place. And if monergism is true, then God has three options:

  1. Save everyone
  2. Save no-one
  3. Save some people

God clearly won’t choose 2, as then God does not get to demonstrate His unconditional love. And God has good reasons to not choose 1, because then God does not get to demonstrate His perfect justice. But it seems like the world is better if it is a world in which God fully displays a wide range of His attributes. So plausibly, God chooses 3. And if God chooses 3, then there are some people who are not saved.

So the Calvinist can comfortably reject 1, and the problem of divine hiddenness fails against the Calvinist.

The Problem of Evil

The other big boy when it comes to these arguments is the problem of evil. Specifically in question here is an evidential problem of evil, which goes something like this:

  1. If God existed, there would not be unjustified evil in the world
  2. There is unjustified evil in the world
  3. God does not exist

The response I want to use here is the skeptical theist response. That is: the atheist has no reason to think that there are unjustified evils, because we have no way of telling which evils are justified or not. Indeed, we have good reasons to think that we wouldn’t be able to see these reasons that God has for allowing evil.

One way that the atheist responds to this is to argue that God, if He existed, would not keep such reasons hidden from us. And the main reason that it seems that God would not keep them hidden from us is that many people seem to lose their faith over God’s lack of transparency here. There are, as the atheist says, many people who have become atheists because they have seen evils for which they can’t see any reasons God might have for allowing that evil. And so in order to preserve the faith of these people, God ought not ordain the existence of evil without also making the reasons for that evil transparent.

The Calvinist can also respond here: God will preserve those who He has elected, and will cause their faith to not fail because He is the ultimate source of their faith anyway. And indeed, anyone who falls away was never truly one of the elect. So in this case, it doesn’t seem like God has this motivation for making His reason transparent.

In the end, I think both of these arguments fail, and I think the Reformed theologian is in a stronger position to respond to each of them than other schools of thought. Turns out that if we emphasize God’s sovereignty and God’s holiness, arguments that rely on premises like “God would do X” are not all that troubling.

Saturday Links 14/09/2019 – Youtube Edition

Looking for some new stuff to watch on youtube related to apologetics? I’ve got some links for you. The first one I found out about from Capturing Christianity (many more good videos there)

Christianity and Van Tillianism – Mathison

I regularly get questioned and criticised for my disagreement with presuppositional apologetics. The school of thought is quite popular among Reformed theologians, however, in my opinion, it is both novel (a red flag when it comes to theology) and insubstantial.

A recent thorough criticism comes from Keith A. Mathison on Tabletalk. I think many of these are good points, and I will briefly summarise here. This is largely a criticism of presuppositionalism as Van Til originally developed it, and therefore centres on problems with Van Til’s theology itself. But I will echo Mathison in pointing out that this is not at all an attack on Van Til’s character, nor a denial of all the brilliant work that he did do. We are all mature enough here to criticise an aspect of someone’s thought without throwing that person out of the Kingdom, or levelling accusations at their character.

First, Mathison points out that Van Til’s works are often light on exegesis, and so for a man who strongly emphasized the authority of scripture in apologetics (an emphasis we would all do well to heed!) this indicates a weakness in thought.

Second, Mathison claims that Van Til’s work is often hard to understand. This is partially due to him adopting and then modifying some technical terms from the secular philosophy of his day (terms like “limiting concept” and “concrete universal” from the popular Idealism that existed at the time), and partially due to his inconsistency. You can see this inconsistency on the question of whether unbelievers can know anything; at some points, he affirms that they can and at other times he denies that they can.

Third, Van Til at some points seems to espouse a heterodox view of the Trinity: “one person in three persons”. However Nicean Trinitarianism is “one being, three persons”, and Van Til is at best equivocating on “person” and at worst logically inconsistent. This is not surprising since Van Til rejects the epistemology of those who came to the Nicean creed.

Fourth, Van Til often misunderstands historical philosophers and theologians. Mathison gives examples of where Van Til interprets Augustine and Aquinas as saying the opposite of what they actually mean to say. Mathison claims he even gets Calvin wrong.

Fifth, Mathison levels the accusation that Van Til has a syncretic Christianity, with elements of the above-mentioned Idealism. Given that Van Til accuses mainstream Christian apologetics and much theology of being a syncretism of Christianity and Greek philosophy, this accusation is quite damning. If Aquinas is the bastard child of Christ and Aristotle, then Van Til is the descendant of Christ and Kant., or perhaps Christ and Hegel.

Sixth, Mathison claims that Van Til’s arguments surrounding the need to presuppose God and scripture are actually inconsistent, and his complaints of people presupposing reasons do not actually land.

Seventh and finally, Mathison criticises Van Til’s rejection of Reformed natural theology. Calvin certainly accepted the use of natural theology (see his commentary on Acts 17), and natural theology has been part of mainstream Reformed thought for as long as Reformed thought has existed.

Dating and Authorship of the Gospels – Mark and Luke

When discussing the use of the Bible as a historical source, or the primary source for knowledge about early Christianity, or its Apostolic origins, there is often much debate about who wrote the Gospels, and when. The Christian often assigns an early date and agrees with the traditional authors, while the sceptic often assigns a late date and says that we have no idea who wrote the texts. The sceptic will then use this fact in an argument for why we should not accept Christianity, either because we don’t really know anything about the early Christians, or because the texts lie about their origins, etc. Here, I intend to lay out systematically some arguments to assign an early date and traditional authors to the Gospels.

(I will also include Acts in Luke, and refer to Luke and Acts together as “Luke”, since Acts is written by the same person as Luke, and certainly written a short time after Luke.)

The order of the sections may seem a bit odd, but I think it better shows the flow of my argument, and the dependence that exists between the various facts here. We will only concern ourselves here with Mark and Luke, Matthew and John will come later.

Mark was not late

Much of the analysis of the Gospels depends on their inter-relationships. That is, if we know that Mark was first, and we know that Mark was after 70, then we know that the other Gospels must be some time after 70. And so the whole framework of the sceptical dating system really depends on one or two key arguments. But we can not only refute these one or two, we can also establish one or two key arguments from the other direction, and propose an earlier timing for each Gospel based on their inter-relationships.

The primary argument for a late Mark, a Mark written after 70, is the inclusion of Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple. As these scholars argue, Jesus can’t have known that the temple would soon be destroyed, so this prophecy is the work of a later author, writing after the event, inserting the prophecy into Jesus’ ministry.

In most circumstances, I would be on board with the methodological naturalism employed here. If you made the same argument regarding the text outside the context of a religious debate, I would accept it. However here, it is often circular. If we are going to make the assumption that Jesus is incapable of prophecy, conclude late Gospels, and then use that conclusion in an argument against Christianity, then that argument is a circular argument, as it includes the premise “Jesus is incapable of prophecy”.

Given our context of debating the truth or falsehood of Christianity, it seems most reasonable to not make this assumption of Jesus’ inability to prophecy. That assumption is simply the assumption that Christianity is false, and such assumptions are not useful to us when we are trying to determine whether Christianity actually is true. You can’t make an argument that Christianity is false if you assume as a premise that Christianity is false. Therefore in this context, we ought not use this argument for a late date of Mark.

And indeed, there are no other serious arguments for a late date of Mark. There are some very speculative arguments which I will discuss, but this is certainly the main one.

One of these speculative arguments is the argument that the legion of demons in Mark 5 would only be comprehensible to readers of Mark after the war in 70, because before this time the Roman military in the area was not legionary. I think this is a very poor argument for several reasons. First, it assumes that Mark was written to Judeans, not people more familiar with Roman legions. Second, it assumes that the Judeans would not be familiar with the concept of a “legion”, which I think is absurd. Roman legions had existed for centuries by this point, were the pride of the Roman nation, and had been instrumental in dozens of battles and wars. To say that the Judeans would have no idea what a “legion” is is absurd. In fact, it may make even more sense here, if they had only heard rumours of the legendary “legion”, an unparalleled military force, the demon’s use of this word would be far more intimidating.

Luke was not late

If we have no good reason to believe Mark was late, then we have one fewer reason to push the composition of Luke out to the end of the first century as many scholars do. However there are other arguments for a late Luke, and I would like to deal with those.

One such argument is the claim that the author of Luke used Josephus as a source, and that since Josephus only wrote by about 90 AD, Luke must be at least this late. There is only one real possible case where this happened: the references to Theudas and Judas in Acts 5 and Josephus’ Antiquities 20:97-99, 102. However Josephus and Luke do not agree precisely on the dates, so either they are referring to different events, or if Luke used Josephus as a source he didn’t trust Josephus’ timelime. In that case, why use him at all? And why are there not more similarities? Importantly, why did Luke not include an account of the martyrdom of James found in Josephus? James is very significant in Acts 15, if Luke knew of James’ martyrdom, it would certainly have been included. More on that later.

Luke was early

If Luke really was written by Luke, Paul’s travelling companion, then Luke and Acts must have been written during Luke’s lifetime. This makes a date as late as the end of the first century or the start of the second century unlikely. We do not know exactly when Luke died, but it is unlikely he lived that long.

However, this is my main argument: if Luke knew about the deaths of James, Peter, or Paul, he would have certainly included them. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians is a central theme of Acts, and Peter, Paul and James are central figures of Acts. And indeed, their deaths are some of the most significant events in first-century Christian history, outside the life of Jesus Himself. It is absurd to suggest that the meticulous Luke, concerned with persecution, concerned with the lives of Peter, Paul and James, and concerned with Christian history in general, would omit these events. Neither would it omit the more general persecution of Nero, or the destruction of the Temple (surely he would include that in order to validate Jesus’ prophecy).

James was martyred in 62, and the latest event recorded in Acts is in 62, so I think we can pretty accurately date acts to around 62: after the last recorded event, before the news of James had reached Luke.

Consider also the account of the events of Paul’s last missionary journey that Luke records. Unlike the earlier events from many years before this point, this journey is described in great detail. The details described are often somewhat irrelevant to the theological point that Luke is attempting to make, and seem to be included simply because they are true.

This phenomenon has been explained by critical scholars as the author of Luke, writing in the late first or early second centuries, adapting some previously written work and incorporating it into his. However, there is no reason to believe this other than their presupposition that Luke was not an eyewitness and Acts was written late. There is no change in the kind of language, no change in the themes of the work, nothing in the text that would indicate that it was another work incorporated into Luke. Instead the natural conclusion here is that Luke spends time on these events because they had just happened, and describes them in detail because he was there. Which leads us to…

Luke was written by Luke

This was the universal position of the early church, as far back as we have sources. And indeed, this is the testimony of the work of Acts itself. We know at what point in the narrative Luke joins Paul on his journey, and this is the same point at which the language switches from “they went” to “we went”. 

Of course many scholars dispute the “we” passages, since as Luke must have been written late, these cannot be genuinely written by a travelling companion of Paul. But I think their arguments are not very good. There seems to be no real textual evidence that the “we” passages are forgeries as Ehrman claims, or a stylistic choice that doesn’t indicate Lukan authorship as other scholars claim. Their claims are mere suggestions, without any textual evidence to support them. 

One such argument is given not on the basis of textual evidence, but on the basis of “irreconcilable” differences between how Luke presents Paul and how Paul presents himself in his epistles. However these differences are quite tiny, and Luke’s representation of Paul is compatible with Paul’s own description of himself in his epistles. 

There is more positive evidence of Luke being the author. The author was clearly someone very familiar with technical medical terminology, due to the technical medical terminology that appears several times throughout these works. The author was also familiar with the geography of first century Judea, therefore someone who likely had first hand knowledge of the area.

Mark was early

We have gone one direction and refuted some arguments for a late Mark. We should now go the other direction, and produce some arguments for an early Mark. The strongest argument is the date of Luke: if I am right and Luke was finished by 62 then Mark must have been completed some time earlier, since it seems like Mark drew on Luke.

Some other arguments include Mark’s use of Latinisms. Mark uses many Latin terms which he expects the reader to be familiar with. These show a certain affinity for Rome, rather than hostility, but we’d expect hostility towards Rome if the great persecution had begun, if Paul and Peter or even James had been executed etc. This along with the dating of Luke places Mark certainly before 64.

Some scholars have used the existence of these latinisms indicates that Mark is writing after the war in 70, when Roman occupation had caused the Judeans to become more familiar with these Roman concepts. However some scholars suggest an alternative: if Mark was written for a Roman audience while Peter was in Rome, as the early sources claim, then it makes perfect sense for Mark to include these Latinisms. Peter seems to have been in Rome in 42, so this suggests an early date for us.

Just how early was it? I think a compelling argument can be made that Mark was written in the late 30s or early 40s. I will not go into all of these arguments, as I think it is sufficient to push Mark earlier by pushing Luke earlier. But for anyone who wants to examine more arguments, these are good. Another similar argument is given for a date of 45, which is also worth investigating. Once we dispense with the prophecy argument, there are good reasons to put it as early as 40, and that is where I will place it also.

This early date does raise a question: why did Paul not make any mention of Mark in his epistles? I think the answer is simply: he didn’t need to. Paul rested on his authority as an Apostle in his writings, and had no need to cite a work written by a non-Apostle to justify himself, even if Mark contains Jesus’ words.

Conclusion

We have very briefly examined some of the reasons why Luke and Mark are dated to be quite late, and shown these reasons to not be good ones. We have also very briefly given some positive reasons for early dates of Mark and Luke, and traditional authorship of Luke. These arguments have, to the best of my ability, been based on objective reasoning which assumes neither the truth nor falsehood of Christianity, and simply engages with the historical evidence.

Further Reading:

The gift of Prophecy

What is the New Testament gift of prophecy? Since the birth of the charismatic movement, this question has been the catalyst for a great deal of debate among evangelicals, likely because our answers have such tangible practical implications. In his work “The Gift of Prophecy in The New Testament and Today”, Wayne Grudem argues for the existence of a prophetic gift which he defines as: “Speaking merely human words to report something that God brings to mind”. Practically, these prophecies are based on revelation from God and are given spontaneously as the church is gathered. Although based on divine revelation, the prophecies are muddied by the subjective experience and fallible reporting of the prophet. God does not provide erroneous promptings, but humans do report their revelations in earthly terms that may be in error. As such, prophecies should be weighed in order to sift the good from the bad.

This view comes from his sincere attempt to bring all the relevant biblical texts into theological harmony. I have great respect for many of his arguments and I am sympathetic towards many of his points, indeed my conclusions are somewhat like his. In this article, I will present a slightly different view of the relevant texts and draw some practical conclusions. The arguments surrounding this debate are quite complex, so I have kept things as short as possible and only addressed the issues that I find necessary.

Some Context

The book of Acts

In Acts, there are three ‘outpouring’ events. Many scholars observe that these events are not just incidental accounts that Luke throws in. Rather, they serve a purpose: To indicate that the commission of Jesus is being accomplished.

At the start of Acts, Jesus calls the disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The narrative of Acts goes on to tell us how this was accomplished. At each critical geographical turning point, there is a ‘Pentecost’ event. First, the disciples in Jerusalem receive the Spirit. Then, Peter witnesses the same phenomenon in the region of Samaria, and finally, Paul witnesses the phenomenon again in Ephesus.

These three key events are not arbitrary. They are big turning points of history as the Gospel breaks into a new sphere of humanity. As Carson states, each of these events is best understood as “a critical salvation-historical turning point, not a paradigm [for conversion]”.[1] With that in mind, let’s examine the specific cases.

Acts 2

In this passage, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and they “speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. This brings amazement to many, but some accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter, in response, points to a prophecy from the book of Joel. “They are not drunk”, he says, “but this is what was spoken of by Joel”. The text he refers to is from Joel 2, where God promises that he will “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh”. As a consequence, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

So the outpouring of the Spirit will lead to prophecy. But I have one question: who prophesied? Search the text and you will not find anyone prophesying (depending on your assumptions). This has led some commentators to conclude that tongues must be a form of prophecy[2]. But there is another, more likely, possibility. They did prophesy; and they did it when they “declared the wonders of God”.

As Grudem points out, the word prophetes had a wide range of meanings in the first century. It could indeed refer to supernaturally endowed knowledge, or could simply mean “spokesperson” or “proclaimer”. Paul himself uses the word in this way (Titus 1:12).[3] Thus, we must take great caution in our approach and be wary to give to the word more weight than is due.

In my view, the very act of declaring God’s wonders constituted prophecy. The disciples “proclaimed” God’s work. Piper says: “Prophecy, as it is used here… is primarily verbalising the great things you have seen of God”[4]. I couldn’t agree more. But is this consistent with the rest of the book of Acts?

Acts 10

In the second ‘outpouring’ event, Peter preaches the gospel to the household of Cornelius. As he speaks, the Holy Spirit “falls” on all who hear. Peter later describes this event: “the Holy Spirit came on them just as he had come on us”. This should give us a clue. What happened at the house of Cornelius is the same as what happened at Pentecost.

So then, note how it is that those present knew that the house of Cornelius had received the Spirit: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” Now if this is the same thing as Pentecost, I am led to believe that “Praising God” is also very closely related to (if not synonymous with) prophecy.

So to help us define prophecy, we now have two separate phrases in our repertoire: “Declaring the wonders of God” and “Praising God”. Perhaps the third and final ‘outpouring’ event will help us further.

Acts 19

Here, Paul finds some believing proselytes who have been baptized by John the Baptist, but have not heard the message of Christ. Paul gives them the good news and when he had laid hands on them, “The Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. This does not give us another phrase which to define prophecy, but it does serve to reinforce our earlier point: To declare God’s works and to Praise God is to prophecy. The reason prophetes is used here seems simple: we have already been told what those people who received the Spirit proceeded to do. Luke decides to be brief and just use one word. I think Luke uses these three expressions almost synonymously. They spoke in tongues and proclaimed, just like before.

Were these events ‘ecstatic’?

The answer depends on what you mean by ecstatic. But I do think there was a certain miraculous spontaneity that accompanied these ‘outpourings’. At Pentecost, over a hundred people spoke in languages they had never learned, and they probably spoke all at once. They were euphorically declaring great wonders and mysteries of God at the same time. If you call this ecstatic, I wouldn’t disagree. There had to be some reason why the surrounding people thought they were drunk.

Of course, because these events were special pivotal events in history, it would be unwise to attempt to emulate them. I will soon show that this was in fact the error of the Corinthians.

Corinthian Chaos

So we begin our examination of the critical text. First, some context. As Carson writes: “From chapter 7 on, Paul appears to be answering a series of questions put to him in a letter from the Corinthians”. This is integral to our understanding of the passage. Paul is not presenting some teaching by his own choice. Rather, he is responding to the Corinthians and dealing with their questions using their own terms. In fact, it appears that this discussion of tongues and prophecy was never a part of Paul’s original message to the churches. He never addresses it of his own accord; indeed no New Testament author does. That should give us some caution as we read the passage before us.

So what was happening in Corinth? We can learn something of their situation by inverting Paul’s rebukes. In each of Paul’s exhortations, it is safe to say that the Corinthians were doing the opposite. At the very least, then, we know that the Corinthians were all shouting in “unintelligible” speech, saying to each other “I have no need of you”, they were “thinking like children”, worshipping “without using the mind”, inciting outsiders to say they were “out of their minds”, failing to speak “one at a time”, stirring “disorder” and so on.

I take this to mean that the members of the church were obsessed with spiritual experiences. Surely this is what Paul means when he says that they are (literally) “zealots for spirits” (verse 12). They were trying to re-create what they thought were spiritual experiences, but were really ecstatic frenzies. They claimed that the Spirit was taking hold of them and that they couldn’t control themselves (which Paul dismantles in verses 31-32). They claimed that they were ‘in the Spirit’ and not in the mind (which Paul chides in verses 15-17). They were speaking in unintelligible language that would make it look like they were mad (which Paul rebukes in verses 9-11). They were shouting ‘prophecies’ all at once, so that no one could hear or learn (which Paul corrects in verses 29-30), and so on. This led them to disqualify their fellow brothers (which Paul exposes in chapter 12).

This conclusion is not new. MacArthur writes: “the Corinthians started to confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with the former ecstasies, frenzies, and bizarre practices they had known in the pagan religions from which they had been saved”[5]. But of particular interest is that the Corinthians seemed to be asking Paul specifically about tongues and prophecy[6]. Carson makes this observation: “That Paul should restrict the focus of discussion… to two [gifts], prophecy and tongues, strongly suggests that there was some dispute or uncertainty about these two in the Corinthians Church”[7]. Powers writes: “In these verses the one who speaks in a tongue and the one who prophesies are compared and contrasted”[8]. This is true for a large chuck of the text. Why were the Corinthians so interested in these two gifts?

I propose a reason: they had heard of the events of Pentecost and probably also the events at the house of Cornelius. They had been told of the outpouring of the Spirit and were trying to replicate the scenes they had heard about.

If this is the case, then the terms “praising God” and “declaring wonders of God” become directly relevant. So too the suggestion that “prophecy” could mean “heralder” or “proclaimer” in the first century. It seems to me that, as part of their disordered worship, the Corinthians were shouting praises and encouragements in a frantic, frenzied, chaotic way. The Spirit was revealing great truths to them, but they were more interested in boasting of their spirituality than in edifying others. I do not know exactly what words they used, but it may have been something as simple as “Jesus is Lord” (see chapter 12). This makes much more sense than any of Grudem’s examples. I don’t think the Corinthians were shouting “The Lord has put on my mind a tremendous concern for the believers in the Philippines”. Although I don’t deny that it is possible that the Spirit will give such a leading, this is not the kind of practical application I would make for a church setting. It doesn’t fit the text.

On the whole, it seems more appropriate to me to define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need”. I see this as primarily based on scripture. For example, “Hey everyone, I think the words of Peter might be applicable to this situation…”

Anomalous Agabus

Grudem points to the somewhat obscure character of Agabus (Acts 11 and 21) to support his position. He claims that two small mistakes (as he calls them) in the second prophecy of Agabus serve to back up his definition of prophecy as a fallible report of divine revelation. Agabus saw something from God, but said it wrong. He misinterpreted his vision. Thus prophecies need weighing.

But Grudem runs into a roadblock. Agabus’ use of the phrase “Thus says the Holy Spirit” gives him strong ties to the Old Testament Prophets (as this was a regularly repeated phrase in their infallible oracles). This is problematic for Grudem, and he struggles to find a solution, even suggesting that his words may be due to a “misunderstanding of his role”[9] as a prophet. That is, the gift had not been around long enough for Agabus to fully understand the lesser, fallible nature of New Testament prophecy.

I find this argument unconvincing. Much more likely is the notion that Agabus was a true Prophet in the Old Covenant sense. John MacArthur has described the book of Acts as an “incredible period of transition as the church was born”[10]. Luke records miraculous event and powerful demonstrations of the power of the gospel. I hardly think he would interrupt his miraculous narrative in order to detail a (partly) failed prophecy. If indeed the narrative describes a transition from “a body of Jewish believers to the body of the church”[11], then perhaps we may expect that some remnants of the old covenant would still exist. Even the symbolic mode of delivery (the use of the belt in 21:11) resonates with the sound of prophetic oracles of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

But there is an elephant in the room: The Agabus example is far divorced from Paul’s practical, ecclesiological guidelines to the Corinthians. Should the Corinthians sit down and predict who is going to die next, but do it “two or three at a time”? And if someone were to stand up and say “Beware, there is a famine coming!”, would this qualify as “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” for the whole church? Would we respond “gee, brother, I have really learned and been encouraged”? I think not. Grudem tries to squeeze Agabus into Corinthian categories, but he doesn’t fit. Agabus does not belong in Corinth.[12]

In fact, all of Grudem’s examples suffer from this same ecclesiological chasm. He refers to a prediction by John Knox (1514 – 1572) about the death of William Kirkaldy, and cites several other puritan and reformed writers that tell stories of “extraordinary men… receiving extraordinary revelations… foretelling diverse, strange and remarkable things”[13]. But these extraordinary examples are just that; extraordinary! None of them occurs in a church setting, let alone in an ordered and disciplined worship service, as part of the gathering. I don’t think this is what Paul has in mind when he says “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said”. The examples break down when applied to the church. Indeed, God can and does give revelations like these in extraordinary settings, but none of these examples actually helps Grudem’s point. I conclude that the Agabus events were unique. He was like an Old Testament prophet, and this form of prophecy did not continue in the church. Perhaps this is why Luke begins each Agabus narrative with “In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem…”

Any conclusions we make about New Testament prophecy, and any examples we use to support our position, must be consistent with the practices of the regular gathering of faithful believers. Grudem has not shown this.

Prophecy as teaching

Grudem insists that prophecy is different from teaching. He says that “teaching” or “teachers” generally refer to the regular, planned, expounding of the scripture in the church, whereas prophecy isn’t based primarily on scripture, but on spontaneous revelation[14]. You can see the false dichotomy here. I would say that prophecy can contain scripture, or be based on scripture, without being the same as planned, expository bible teaching. An unplanned encouragement based on God’s promises in Romans 8, for example, would not be called ‘Bible teaching’, but is still inextricably linked with God’s word. In my view, it would certainly be prophecy.

It seems to me that a person who prophecies is quite different from a teacher, but a prophecy will contain teaching. In the church, the teacher/preacher for the day will be appointed ahead of time. He will prepare his message and study the scripture intently. He will then address the church in a formal way from a pulpit for a set amount of time.

Someone who gives a prophecy, however, brings an encouragement that he felt was needed. It was an unplanned, spontaneous application of God’s truth. Prophecies contain teaching, after all, they are given so that “we can all learn”.

Prophecy as prediction

But doesn’t Paul refer to prophecy as a more predictive phenomenon in other letters? Perhaps. But we must remember, once again, that he is responding to the Corinthian practice, not describing his own. This famous passage is not a doctrinal treatise of Pauline theology; it is a response to Corinthian heresy using Corinthian terminology.

Now, Grudem rightly shows from the use of diakrino in verse 29 that prophecies are to be sifted for truth that may be mixed with error[15]. I submit to you that teaching can be weighed. Prediction can’t. Most of Grudem’s examples are un-weigh-able because they are un-test-able. There is nothing to test them against. But if prophecy is at least similar to teaching, then this exhortation to weigh prophecies makes sense. Remember, Paul places prophecy in the same category as teaching and knowledge (verse 6).

Furthermore, I struggle to see how predictions can comfort and edify. Paul says that the purpose of prophecy is “so we can all learn and be encouraged”. I believe that my definition of prophecy, as “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need” seems more appropriate.

Supporting Scripture

Acts 15:22 supports my view. Here we are told that “Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them”. Here, it seems, Luke makes a direct link between the fact that these two men were prophets and the fact that they exhorted and encouraged their brothers. If anything, this is further evidence for the wide semantic range of the word prophetes in the first century, for here surely it means “proclaimer” or perhaps even “encourager”.

Conclusion

Based on these reflections in scripture, I define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to believers in a time of need”.

Some Pastoral Reflections

What then shall we do? Carson, Grudem and MacArthur give some good pastoral reflections that we should all chew on. I won’t reinvent the wheel but I will make a few points alongside these great men.

1: While they may be sincere, people or churches that try to create spiritual experiences are not mature. Perhaps the clearest lesson from our passage is that emotional experiences are not a reliable indicator of mature spirituality or even true faith. Those who want to grow and exhibit true out workings of the Spirit should be seeking to “strengthen, encourage and comfort”. They should use their minds.

By extension, this means that order is a mark of the true church. In a mature gathering, all words and deeds will be done in good order, with a view to help encourage and exhort others. It is important to remember that Paul accused the church at Corinth of “remarkable childishness”[16]. They were babies as far as Paul was concerned. Their practices, then, were not those of mature Christians. Mature Christians are sober and use their minds. “Edification demands intelligible content”[17]

2: Excessive deliberation over the exact form of prophecies is actually contrary to Paul. In 1 Corinthians, Paul takes the focus off the form of the gifts and onto the content of the gifts.

Whatever you are doing, if it doesn’t encourage and extort others, it isn’t biblical prophecy. Likewise, whatever you are doing, if it does encourage and exhort others, you are fulfilling Paul’s directives. Indeed, you have discovered the heart of Paul in this passage. We might say, “encourage and console your fellow believers, and so fulfill the heart of prophecy”.

So what is prophecy? That’s the wrong question. The right question, which will be seen as such by the mature, is “What can I do to edify and help my brothers and sisters in this situation?”.  In other words, Paul doesn’t tell them to seek to prophesy without a purpose. He encouraged it for a reason. That reason? Edification and consolation. I submit that we should be pursuing the reason, not the phenomenon. This was the error of the Corinthians. Let us learn from their mistake.

Brothers and sisters, when we stand before the throne of judgement, there will be many who had prophesied that will hear those chilling words: “I never knew you”. But there will be no one who “consoled”, “encouraged”,” edified” who will hear those words. Christ also is not looking for a phenomenon, he is looking for the reason behind it. In both Paul and Jesus, that reason is love.

3: Nobody denies that the Holy Spirit is able to give impressions and guidance for believers today, especially with regards to illuminating the scriptures. God can do what he wants. Grudem’s historical examples show this.

There is a difference, however, between accepting what God can do and expecting what God ‘should do’. Setting up yourself and your church to expect the extraordinary is unwise. Christ has told us how to live. His word contains “all we need” for life and godliness. It is our calling to seek to follow God in the ordinary. If he gives the miraculous, rejoice! But be wary of trying to conjure it. Walk according to his word, and it will be well with you. MacArthur says it right: “[True] spirituality is simply receiving the living word daily from God, and then living out that word in a moment by moment walk in the Spirit”[18].


[1] [Source 2], pp. 112. See also [Source 3] pp.150 “Acts provides not a paradigm for individual Christian experience, but the account of the gospel’s outward movement geographically, racially and above all, theologically”.

[2] See [Source 2] pp. 141 “Prophecy is an expression that embraces tongues”

[3] [Source 1] pp. 39

[4] [Source 4]

[5] [Source 4] pp. 108

[6] See [Source 2] pp. 22 “Is it really true that spiritual manifestations constitute unfailing evidence of spiritual people?”

[7] [Source 2] pp. 100

[8] [Source 5] pp. 309

[9] [Source 1] pp. 83

[10] [Source 3] pp. 102

[11] [Source 3] pp. 85

[12] I don’t mean to deride Grudem here. He himself admits that the case of Agabus is “difficult to classify” [Source 1] pp. 83

[13] [Source 1] pp. 352

[14] [Source 1] pp. 118-120

[15] [Source 1] pp. 58

[16] [Source 3] pp. 108

[17] [Source 2] p. 103

[18] [Source 3] pp. 183


Sources

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, The gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (2000)

[2] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (1988)

[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (1978)

[4] John Piper, This is What Was Spoken by the Prophet Joel (1981) https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/this-is-what-was-spoken-by-the-prophet-joel

[5] B. Ward Powers, First Corinthians: An Exegetical And Explanatory Commentary (2008)

Are Apologists Fighting the Wrong Battle?

John McCray thinks so.

Earlier I said how intellectual atheism is not a significant threat to Christianity. The biggest threat atheism has posed in America has not been reasoned argumentation. Rather, bitter diatribes and emotional criticisms (usually following religiously infused catastrophes like 9/11) have been responsible for much of their success. Their books and speakers weren’t made famous due to carefully-crafted, logically sound arguments. Instead, their highly emotive statements resonated with the frustrations of those who already had issues with religion.

In my estimation, well over 80% of what the New Atheist authors and speakers say about Christianity are demonstrably false or misleading. But this raises the question: If their claims are false, why is it that Christians weren’t able to correct these falsities, shutting them up right away? Part of it is simply because of the brute force of their rhetoric. Another part is because Christians are largely illiterate about what it is that they claim to believe. Statistically speaking, most who claim to be Christian are either unable to articulate or flat out do not understand the basics of what they claim to believe. This has led Christians to be unequipped and unable to respond to such attacks.

I think that number is probably 100%, not 80%. But I also think that it matters that we engage with academic, intellectual atheism, not just the childish and illiterate new atheists. Because the new atheists can only be allowed to get away with their foolish rhetoric if the academy is already either complacent or atheist.