Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Notes on Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil Chapter 3B

Okay, part 2 of my notes on chapter 3 from Boyd (see here for part 1). After going through some philosophical arguments to try to show that EDF (exhaustive definite foreknowledge) is incompatible with risk, Boyd then goes on to try to argue that Scripture supports the idea that God lacks EDF and takes risk with his creation. His main argument is that a lot of Scripture looks like it describes God as (a) being temporal, (b) lacking EDF, and (c) taking risks - and that if things were different God would have made them clearer. That is, the way Scripture is written is just what we would expect if all three of those things (a, b, and c) were true. However, it seems - taking at least just a and b for the moment - that if these things were not true, the way Scripture is written is also just what we would expect. That is, we would expect Scripture to be written the way it is regardless of whether a or b are true. Why is that? Well, assume an atemporal God with EDF. How would God's actions in history and revelations of himself look to a normal person? Exactly the way things get described in Scripture. And how would God express what he was like in human terms that would be understandable for almost everyone, terms that would allow people to get the main point of what God's character is like, even those who are unable to understand what it is to be atemporal or what that entails (a lack that Boyd apparently also shares, given a lot of his misconceptions about an atemporal God that show up in this book)? Exactly the way things get described in Scripture. So either way, things would get described this way and hence I see no reason to think that the Scriptures Boyd mentions automatically favors one view over another - it is open to more than one plausible interpretation. But we should get into the nitty gritty of Boyd's interpretations - let's go.

One thing Boyd says to get out of the problem of God needing EDF to give prophecies is that some prophecies are conditional - for instance, God may say "I'm going to destroy X" but this was really a mere threat to get them to do something, not a promise or forecast of what was definitely to come. So some prophecies reveal not God's foreknowledge but rather his conditional intentions about something. But Boyd thinks these sorts of things also support his view. But of course, they do not - or at least no or little more than the opposing view. After all, if God had an unconditional intention, say, to destroy Nineveh (see the book of Jonah), then not destroying it would have been a case of God changing his mind and would have been good evidence of a lack of EDF. But if Boyd is right and lots of these cases were really cases of conditional intentions - of something like a threat - then its perfectly compatible with this that God knew exactly what would come of his threat. After all, a parent may say threateningly, "I'm going to spank you!", and the child may as a result stop what they are doing and avoid the spanking - and all this is perfectly compatible with the parent knowing that the child would avoid the spanking by avoiding the bad behavior (in fact, that was probably precisely why the threat was given in the first place). So Boyd's own strategy to save and support his view seems to also save and support his opposition as well.

To give another example of this phenomenon, consider what Boyd says about II Kings 20:5-6/Isaiah 38:5-6, where as a result of his repentance God is said to heal Hezekiah of his terminal illness (God said he would die) and "add fifteen years to his life". To this, Boyd asks, "If the Lord didn't really change his mind, isn't Scripture misleading when it says the Lord added fifteen years to his life? Conversely, if God was truthful in declaring his intentions to end Hezekiah's life, and if God's later statement was also truthful, then must we not accept that God truly changed his mind?" Well, no and no. No to the first question because the Lord added 15 years to his life in the sense that he made sure Hezekiah would live 15 years longer than he would have had God not healed him of his disease. But that's perfectly compatible with God always from eternity intending to heal him and thus add those years. No to the second question because, as Boyd's already said, God's original statement was not an unconditional one. So this passage doesn't seem to necessarily teach what Boyd thinks it does. Most of the texts from Jeremiah that Boyd looks at are much in the same boat as this one from Kings.

In some passages, though, it does say that God "changed his mind" or "repented of what he had done". Does that mean that God did really change his mind? Or does it merely mean that the condition for the conditional intention was not fulfilled and hence God did otherwise? If the latter, which seems very plausible, then this is perfectly compatible with God having EDF. In the parent-child case above, a parent may have a conditional intention to spank their child, know that they won't because the condition won't be fulfilled, and then this all may come to pass and it will perfectly true in a very real sense that the parent "changed their mind" about the spanking in so far as they didn't carry out their threat and would have done so had the child acted otherwise than the parent knew they would. And we can say all of this and accept these texts at fairly close to their face value without hiding out in the "that's just an anthropomorphism" reply that some EDFers give to such texts. It just so happens that, as I said earlier, the Scriptures in these cases admit of more than one plausible interpretation (something which is actually fairly common with Hebrew styles of writing in general).

Even if we did go the "anthropomorphism" route, which isn't even necessary, many of Boyd's criticisms of that option still fall short. He speaks as if the anthropomorphic texts would be less accurate than others - but this, of course, is complete baloney. The fact that a text makes use of some kind of symbolism or anthropomorphism or whatever does not make it less accurate than a text that speaks literally - this is to automatically privilege literal philosophical styles of discourse over symbolic ones, a move which is surely illegitimate to say the least. What next, is Boyd going to claim that the Psalms or Prophets or other symbolic literature in the Bible are less accurate than, say, the Gospels? Clearly, this objection proves too much. In any case, Scripture isn't even intended to teach us about the exact, literal metaphysical nature of everything about God - Scripture is more interested in God's character and great acts in history rather than how he relates to time. So Boyd's claim that the anthropomorphic reply would make it the case that, contra Scripture, Moses didn't really know God that well misses the point - one can know someone really well without knowing specifics of their metaphysical nature and vice versa. I, for instance, know my wife better than probably any other human being outside the two of us, but I'm sure a lot of biologists or physicians or psychiatrists or whatever probably know more about her nature as a human than I do. But that's not what's most important in knowing someone. And that's something I think Boyd's missed here. (I won't even mention Boyd's discussion of Calvin here on this subject since his argument is one of the worst howlers I've seen and completely uncharitable to Calvin)

Most of the other passages Boyd considers are in pretty much the same boat as the ones discussed above. And many of them come from prophetic passages telling stories or otherwise symbolically talking about God's dealings with Israel. To just think that one can automatically take them as literally true and, not just that, literally true and this in an open theist sense like Boyd tends to do is a fine example of an implementation of the faulty Hermeneutic of the Literal (yes, it afflicts others - not just dispensationalists and their ilk). Other passages quite simply do not directly support an open theist interpretation (though they are certainly in harmony with it) over any other. In other places, Boyd seems to assume that knowledge of the future is incompatible with the future being open to influence (see, for instance, his discussion of God's use of 'may' or 'perhaps' in speaking of future events) - but, of course, an argument for this is still needed and hence cannot be used to force an open theist interpretation on the relevant passages. After all, for all Boyd's said, it may be the case that an actual future p is perfectly compatible with the possibility of an alternate future not-p. If that's the case, though, then Boyd's argument suffers. And I think it is the case.

So much for Boyd's arguments from Scripture. For more problems with open theism and scripture, see this post on Parableman. Next time in this series, I'll begin my discussion of chapter 4...

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