Feedback archive → Feedback 2004, 2007

CMI answers philosophy/religion professor on biblical exegesis and the problem of evil

I am new to your web site; so I have had only limited time to explore its vast resources. Despite looking at some of the more controversial texts, I was unable to find any that addressed two of my main questions:

(1) in citing scriptural passages as proof texts, where is the rationale for holding some passages as authoritative and others as not? For example, Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality is authoritative but Jesus’ repeated condemnation of remarriage after divorce is not. (Examples from the Old Testament, such as Deut. 22:13-21 are more notorious, but not as difficult to dismiss.) There may be a rationale, but I would like to see your version of it.

(2) In your refutation of atheism, I could not find any reference to ‘the problem of evil,’ which is a main plank in the atheist’s reasons for denying the existence of God, or at least of a God who is worth worshipping. Appeals to ‘mystery,’ ‘scripture,’ or ‘faith’ are, of course, begging the question. The ‘free will defense’ is fine in the face of moral evil, but is irrelevant with regard to natural evils. I won’t take time or space here to unpack these statements, but I would be glad to do so if it would help.

Donald Keyworth
Dept. of Philosophy & Religion
Drake University
Des Moines

I am new to your web site; so I have had only limited time to explore its vast resources. Despite looking at some of the more controversial texts, I was unable to find any that addressed two of my main questions:

(1) in citing scriptural passages as proof texts, where is the rationale for holding some passages as authoritative and others as not?

Simply put, our bottom line is that the proper interpretation of Scripture is to take it ‘plainly’, meaning ‘as the author intended it to be understood by the original audience’. This incorporates a literal interpretation of a literal context, poetic interpretation of poetic context, etc. This is covered in depth in the article Should Genesis be taken literally?

E.g., with Genesis, we can tell it is meant to be historic narrative because it has all the grammatical features of Hebrew narrative, e.g., the first verb is a qatal (historic perfect), and the verbs that move the narrative forward are wayyiqtols (waw consecutives); it contains many ‘accusative particles’ that mark the objects of verbs; and terms are often carefully defined.

We must also see to whom the passage is addressed—e.g., some schools of thought would say that the Law of Moses is specifically for the Israelites from Moses up to the resurrection of Christ, so are not applicable today—see The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ. Certainly, some of the Levitical laws were clearly designed to keep the Jews separate from the pagans to keep the Messianic Line pure. Since the coming of Christ, the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been broken down (Ephesians 2:14), so both Jews and Gentiles can now become one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, Col. 3:11).

And in understanding how the author intended people to understand what he wrote, we must remember that the Bible was written in what anthropologists call a high-context society, as I wrote in Refuting Compromise p. 40, using information from Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, pp. 16 ff., Fortress, 1998:

That is, its members ‘presume a broadly shared, well-understood, or “high” knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing’. The authors wrote to intended readers with a certain background and expected them to be able to ‘fill in the gap’. There was no need to explain things in depth if they all had a shared, background knowledge. Conversely, we in the modern West are a ‘low-context’ society, and expect the context to be spelt out to us: ‘The obvious problem this creates for reading the biblical writings today is that low-context readers in the United States frequently mistake the biblical writings for low-context documents. They erroneously assume that the author has provided all of the contextual information needed to understand it.

This is very important for understanding the biblical questions you raise.

For example, Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality is authoritative …

Because Paul was chosen by Jesus Himself, and he was speaking to the church for all time, appealing to the created design, not simply to contemporary mores. Marriage is an ordinance from creation itself, not just for the Jews. Jesus Himself cited Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to teach that marriage was one man and one woman, the two becoming one flesh (Matthew 19:3–6, Mark 10:6–9). NB, this is precisely in the passages where Jesus ‘repeatedly condemns of remarriage after divorce’ as you put it below, so there is certainly no excuse for anyone to say ‘Jesus said nothing against homosexual behaviour’.

Also, even if the Levitical laws per se are not operative, they provide the background for the teachings of Paul (aka the Jew Sha’ul). This would have been clearly understood in the high-context society. And Paul’s teachings are binding for the church today for the reasons I stated.

Furthermore, these Levitical laws provide the background for the teachings of Paul (the Jew Sha’ul) on the issue. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul actually used a most unusual word, ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs, meaning ‘male who has coitus with a male’ (Greek ἄρσην arsēn = male). This was not the normal term from the Greek culture. But the Levitical law explains where Paul obtained his binding New Testament prohibition. In English, Leviticus 18:22 reads:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.

In the Greek Septuagint from which Paul often quoted, it reads:

καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν (kai meta arsenos ou koimēthēsē koitēn gunaikos bdelugma gar estin)

I fail to see how you could have missed our reasons, since searching for the words ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ would have found my response to a critic, Objections to homosexuality article, where I explained this. It’s not as if these words were hard to think of as keywords in a search for the topic. ;)

… but Jesus’ repeated condemnation of remarriage after divorce is not.

First, all of Jesus’ teaching is ‘repeated’—as New Testament scholar Tom Wright pointed out, as a 1st century Jewish teacher, whatever He taught, He taught hundreds of times with minor variations according to His audience. Different Gospel writers sometimes recorded different variants, which explains many of the alleged contradictions skeptics raise.

Second, Jesus nevertheless said to a Samaritan woman at a well, ‘you have had five husbands’ (John 4:18). This entails that these remarriages still resulted in a valid marriage, even though the circumstances of entering into these marriages may not have been ideal.

Third, Jesus clearly allowed for an exception for porneia (sexual immorality). Sometimes He spelt it out (Matthew 19:9), other times there was no need to (Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18) because it was already understood on all sides of the contemporary Jewish debate about marriage and divorce—again, think high context! See Jesus on Divorce.

(Examples from the Old Testament, such as Deut. 22:13–21 are more notorious, but not as difficult to dismiss.)

Nothing notorious about it, even though fundy atheist sites rant against such passages. The literary structure of Deuteronomy shows that it was intended to be a typical ANE suzerain-vassal treaty—this one between YHWH (the LORD) and Israel. This form was very common around the biblical time of Moses, but long obsolete when liberal theologians of the ludicrous documentary hypothesis school claim it was written.

Also, the conditions of the treaty were typical ANE case laws intended to be a guide to sensible judges—see Ancient Mores and Modern Moral Imposition and Exclusive and Hyperbolic Language in the Bible. It is thus wrong to treat the laws hyper-rigidly. Actually, there is much to be said for the ancient case law codes, whereas modern liberal lawyers cause two crazy extremes:

  1. Trying to find the tiniest loophole in the law, so legislators need to write reams of gobbledegook to try to spell out every single possibility to try to prevent lawyers weaselling out.

  2. Activist judges hallucinating an ‘emanation’ or ‘penumbra’ in the American Consitution to justifying the latest liberal cause. For example, abortion, gay marriage or throwing out all talk about God from public life, although the original framers intended no such thing. This is the nonsense of the claiming that the Constitution is a ‘living, breathing document’, which always seems to ‘evolve’ into the whims of the extreme left, never in the opposite direction.

Back to the passage you mention, these considerations should help. In fact, we don’t need to speculate about how the original readers would have understood it, because we have a record of how the Jews treated this rule:

‘Several rabbinic sources shed light on the legal aspects of the problem of virginity. In various cases brides are accused of having already lost their virginity but the sages invalidate the accusation. All these cases appear in two collections of baraitot, one in the Palestinian Talmud and the other in the Babylonian Talmud, and the sages who appear in them, with the exception of R. Ishmael b. R. Yose, are all from the house of the nasi. In the first story, in which the protagonist dates from the Second Temple period, a man went before Rabban Gamaliel the Elder and claimed that he failed to find the signs of virginity in his wife, but Rabban Gamaliel believed the wife, who claimed that she came from the Dorkti family, which was a family in which women were known not to bleed when they lose their virginity (bKet. 10b). The same claim was twice brought before Rabbi, who accepted the wife’s explanation and rejected the husband’s complaint in both cases: in the first, the wife attributed her failure to bleed to years of famine (Ibid.), and in the second the wife maintained that her hymen fell from the rigor of climbing the steps of her father’s house (yKet. 1.1, 25a). R. Ishmael b. R. Yose, when he heard the case of the woman “whose signs of virginity were no larger than a mustard seed,” ruled in her favor and even said a blessing over her…’ [Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine, pp. 98–99, Hendrickson, 1995; cited in Good question … are the laws in the OT about rape and virginity indicative of a God who is either unfair to women (or maybe even just unrealistic/ignorant)?]

Note that Rabban Gamaliel, the teacher of the Apostle Paul (Acts 22:3), was a leading Pharisee (Acts 5:34), and ‘Pharisee’ is today practically synonymous with rigidity and traditionalism (Mark 7:7). Yet here was a leading Pharisee showing that this rule was not intended to be applied with blind rigidity. And it’s likely, given historical records of Pharisaism, that Gamaliel was guided by older traditions.

There may be a rationale, but I would like to see your version of it.

I hope the above has explained it.

(2) In your refutation of atheism, I could not find any reference to ‘the problem of evil,’ which is a main plank in the atheist’s reasons for denying the existence of God, or at least of a God who is worth worshipping. Appeals to ‘mystery,’ ‘scripture,’ or ‘faith’ are, of course, begging the question.

Not ‘of course’ at all. Rather, someone in a university philosophy department should be well aware of: if someone tries to show that a certain philosophical system is incoherent, it is perfectly in order for a defender of this system to invoke certain aspects of this system to defend its coherence. So when an atheist attacks biblical theism, it is perfectly in order to cite propositions from the Bible to defend the integrity of this belief system.

The ‘free will defense’ is fine in the face of moral evil, but is irrelevant with regard to natural evils. I won’t take time or space here to unpack these statements, but I would be glad to do so if it would help.

Donald Keyworth
University Professor of Philosophy & Religion

A better idea would be to read Christian answers to these. It should be cause for concern that someone teaching university philosophy would be totally unaware of classic rebuttals such as Alvin Plantinga God, Freedom, and Evil, Eerdmans, 1977. After all, he is a leading modal logician, and is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nôtre Dame. Plantinga is not himself Catholic.

But then, many Western universities are bastions of gross intolerance of the biblical worldview—in the name of ‘tolerance’ of course. Another Orwellian trick is prohibiting all viewpoints apart from the politically correct one on such issues as gay rights—to do otherwise would inhibit ‘diversity’, you see. This is well documented in Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel: Confessions of a Conservative College Professor by a professor of criminal justice at University of North Carolina (UNC) at Wilmington and Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate Youth by Orthodox Jewish student Ben Shapiro. And three political science professors, Robert Lichter of George Mason University, Stanley Rothman of Smith College and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, surveyed 1,643 full-time faculty at 183 four-year schools, in their paper ‘Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty’, The Forum 3(1). They found that 72% of teachers describe themselves as liberal, but only 15% are conservative. Only 31% describe themselves as regular churchgoers (and that’s any sort of church). 84% are in favour of abortion rights, and 67% said homosexual behaviour is acceptable. The abstract says:

This article first examines the ideological composition of American university faculty and then tests whether ideological homogeneity has become self-reinforcing. A randomly based national survey of 1643 faculty members from 183 four-year colleges and universities finds that liberals and Democrats outnumber conservatives and Republicans by large margins, and the differences are not limited to elite universities or to the social sciences and humanities. A multivariate analysis finds that, even after taking into account the effects of professional accomplishment, along with many other individual characteristics, conservatives and Republicans teach at lower quality schools than do liberals and Democrats. This suggests that complaints of ideologically-based discrimination in academic advancement deserve serious consideration and further study. The analysis finds similar effects based on gender and religiosity, i.e., women and practicing Christians teach at lower quality schools than their professional accomplishments would predict.

Oh I nearly forgot, many universities censor out challenges to evolution from goo-to-you-via-the-zoo—because anti-evolutionists are closed-minded of course.

No wonder there are so many ‘intellectual morons’ who are darlings of the media and educational systems, but hold (or held) loopy, repugnant ideas and are ardent and consistent evolutionists [update: see also The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America by David Horowitz, 2006, or Yale's admission of a former Taliban ambassador, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi] For example:

  • Peter Singer, a supporter of infanticide and bestiality but rewarded with a bioethics chair by Princeton University;
  • Margaret Sanger, the eugenicist founder of the leading abortion and population-control organization Planned Parenthood;
  • Paul Ehrlich, doomsday (false) prophet, darling of the radical environmentalists;
  • Alfred Kinsey, whose specialty was gall wasps, but whose fault-ridden studies on human sexuality are the backbone of the ‘gay rights’ movement, which downplays his advocacy of sexual experimentation with children.
  • Alger Hiss, proven traitor and Soviet spy (but was merely unamimously convicted of perjury for denying it, because the statute of limitations for espionage had run out, so he received only a five-year prison term). But this didn’t stop Bard College honouring him with an ‘Alger Hiss Chair for Social Studies’—when his guilt was even further nailed by the VENONA transcripts of intercepted and decoded Soviet cables. We are waiting for the ‘Benedict Arnold chair of American History’ and the ‘Adolf Hitler chair of Hebraic Studies’.

Well, I am glad to help by unpacking Plantinga’s answer to the very question you claim is ignored. ;) He invoked the biblical teaching of the existence of demons, and argued that natural evil could be the result of the free will of such creatures (p. 58). I’m not saying that this is the answer I would use, but merely demonstrating that famous philosophers at respected universities have long addressed the issue.

Unfortunately, Plantinga is an old-earth compromiser, so can’t invoke the strongest answer: that is, all evil, including natural evil, is ultimately the result of Adam’s Fall. God told Adam that if he ate from the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam disobeyed, and God cursed him with physical death, which would return him to the dust (Genesis 3:19). God also cursed the ground, and as a result, the whole creation is groaning by the will of the one who subjected it. The ‘one’ was ‘most probably God’ according to leading New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce (1910–1990) in his definitive commentary on Romans (Romans, pp. 168­–174; in: Tasker, R.V.G., ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, Leicester, UK, 1963).

As we explain in our booklet Why is there Death and Suffering?, which one would think would be one of the first things you would consult to find out how we would handle your question:

God has removed His sustaining power—temporarily. At the same time that God judged sin with death, He withdrew some of His sustaining power. Romans 8:22 tells us that the whole of creation is groaning and travailing in pain.

Everything is running down because of sin. God has given us a taste of life without Him—a world full of violence, death, suffering and disease. If God withdrew all of His sustaining power, the creation would cease to exist. Colossians 1:16–17 tells us that all things are held together, right now, by the power of the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. However, in one sense He is not holding it together perfectly, as He is deliberately letting things fall apart to give us a taste of what life is like without God. In other words, God is allowing us to experience what we wanted—life without God (cf. Romans 1:18–32).

We also explained that individual sin does not always correlate with individual punishment, citing the biblical examples of Job, the man born blind (John 9:1-7) and the tragedy of the tower of Siloam collapse (Luke 13:4). However, none of us are truly innocent of sin—we all sinned in Adam (Romans 5:12–19) and individually (Romans 3:23) so all deserve God’s punishment of death (Romans 6:23).

Also, we also explained the Good News. God Himself is not aloof from suffering, but became a man and endured both suffering and a horrible death on man’s behalf. He not only sympathizes with our sorrows but provided the way out for eternity. He died on the cross for the sins of the world, and conquered death three days later. Eventually He will remove the Curse that caused all this death suffering, which will thus be no more (Revelation 21:4, 22:3). So the sceptic who raises the problem of evil is really interrupting God in mid-sentence—let Him finish before judging!

Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D.

Published: 26 November 2004; reposted and updated 2 June 2007 (GMT+10)
Published: 2 June 2007