Inspiration and perspiration

Our commenter Hanan e-mailed me about the issue of scriptural inspiration. He’s been interacting with Dr. Michael S. Heiser, who has an interesting range of views, some of which I agree with, and others not. Although it’s not strictly on the blog’s main theme of creation, it’s an interesting topic. I won’t comment on all the issues Hanan discusses with Heiser – just too diverse a subject. I won’t even deal with all Hanan’s own concerns, as I see he’s had some extensive discussion on the subject on a BioLogos thread about Denis Lamoreux’s views about Scripture.

Instead, I’ll just pick up on two points Hanan makes that do focus the mind somewhat. First, he asks what was actually written on the stone tables placed in the ark, regarding the justification for the sabbath (which troubles him because it’s based on a 7-day creation, suggesting that Yahweh was a YEC, or  a deliberate misleader etc). The second is point is Jesus’s own strong reliance on OT Scripture (Hanan is Jewish, but assumes the divinity of Jesus for argument’s sake, at least, with Christian interlocutors).

Now Michael Heiser has a pretty high view of both Scripture and providence, but is anxious to avoid any suggestion of God’s dictating Scripture to passive “transcribers”. Instead, he proposes that God providentially prepared writers, editors, redactors or whoever was involved (given the possibility of complex textual history, late composition etc) so that they wrote what, in the end, he wanted written. Significantly he adds that God also prepared the people (Israel and the Christian Church) to receive the Scriptures as inspired.

Apart from avoiding a “dictation theory” of inspiration, I sense that he wants to leave some leeway for “human error” creeping into even the autograph text (as he readily concedes in the copying history) – but even if he doesn’t, there are many that would see it as inevitable in what, to outside observers, would appear a very human process.

Now, I agree substantially with much of this. Starting at the end, it can’t be too highly emphasised that the Bible is self-validating in the sense that believers of all ages have recognised its unique authority, and that is the case despite (a) presence or absence of an “offical” canonical process in both Jewish and Christian ages, (b) some differences in the actual range of the canon, or of the degree of authority of the books within it and (c) modern (and to a much lesser extent ancient) doubts about Scripture – even those counting themselves as liberal Jews and Christians at least pay lip service to the inspiration of Scripture.

Speaking purely personally, my regard for the Bible is a matter of spiritual testimony. I was converted in a context in which the Bible was central, so dutifully began to read it and even make notes on it. But it was a struggle, until a particular spiritual experience some 6 years later, after which the book (all of it) seemed to come alive to me, and to be clearly God’s own word to me. Even the dry notes I’d written suddenly seemed full of truth. I haven’t lost that feeling half a century later, despite increasing theological understanding, historical knowledge etc. So at least a big part of inspiration is in the Holy Spirit’s confirmation of its message to believers – if nobody actually believe it to be God’s word, its only purpose would be in final judgement.

Given that, the “providential” aspects of the actual writing are less problematic than they might be. Standard Evangelical wisdom has long been that God used the culture, thought and speech of human writers, so that one can (for example) get an idea of the different characters of Paul, Peter or James, or even Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos, from their books. More recently, it’s been (rightly, in my view) suggested that for God to speak at all through humans, he must “enculturate” the message, as our culture actually forms what we are. Maybe this answers one of Heiser’s points to Hanan – that the differences in Chronicles and Kings make no sense on a “dictation” theory of inspiration. Why, he says, would God give different messages about the same events, basing the later on the earlier text? Well, one answer is that he was speaking to a later culture. Another is that he was emphasising a complementary truth. A third is that the authors had different agendas. All could be true, yet none necessitates “disagreement” or “error.”

But the special cases Hanan raises do need more reflection. Michael Heiser seems to be saying that, although he believes in a possible Mosaic core to the Pentateuch, it is not vital as the factors given above mean that God would be speaking even if the Decalogue were written by some post-exilic scribe prepared by God. That is much more difficult, simply because the Ten Commandments are recognised as being the treaty stipulations of God’s covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai. The covenant was the basis on which God made them his people at all, and gave them the land, and the failure to keep the commandments was the basis on which they were judged and exiled. You simply can’t make covenants retrospectively, and the vassal party can’t put words into the mouth of the one who makes the covenant.

To make a direct comparison, you can’t claim a divorce settlement on the basis of a marriage contract you’ve concocted yourself long after a casual relationship ended. So in this case, at least, a version of “dictation” seems completely apt, if not mandatory, especially in the context of the narrative in which Moses, uniquely, speaks with God face to face. Incidentally, in the matter of the reason given for the sabbath I agree with Eddie’s Robinson’s BioLogos comment that the writer of Exodus (especially if it was Moses himself) could well have added that explanatory text, so that it wasn’t actually carved on the stone tablet. But that doesn’t mean it’s not “inspired”, nor that one can simply dismiss the “YEC error” as reflecting a human author’s ignorance. Personally I go with John Walton’s view that in functional terms, God’s creation was a literal seven-day job aptly commemorated in the Sabbath – neither Yahweh, nor Moses, nor Israel, was reading the text materially and empirically.

The example of Jesus is also instructive, if we once refuse to solve our problems by talking about Jesus having the limited and faulty knowledge of a first century Jew. He had written the book himself, for goodness sake, through the Spirit given him without measure. The authority he showed in interpretation, at which the Jews marvelled, was the authority of the divine author. And so it’s interesting how, like other NT characters, he sometimes hinges entire arguments on single words – even though the differences we now appreciate in textual traditions (especially the divergent Massoretic and Septuagint streams) were then well-known.

Even more interesting is how Jesus grants Moses (I’m not here insisting that Jesus assumed sole Mosaic authorship of torah) divine authority even when he re-interprets him. So in commenting on divorce, we can’t take his words that Moses gave his command “because of your hardness of heart” as a denial of inspiration at this point, because he immediately cites Genesis 2 as the primordial, definitive, concept of marriage. And it’s part of the same Mosaic torah. Indeed, it’s notable (as I said in a recent post) that the Bible nowhere negates its own authority, even where it is reinterpreted and reapplied by, especially, Jesus.

To draw this to a close, this leaves hanging tempting questions about what it means to be an inspired writer. Moses may at times have heard words direct from God: at other times decisions he made as the prophetic leader of Israel were enshrined in torah as being from God. The later prophets spoke the word (dabar) of God, actually sometimes distinguishing oracles from other prophetic utterances – and there’s no doubt that who they were, by the providence and grace of God, affected their message. But how much did they know they were writing “Scripture”? Other prophets spoke from God and yet did not make the canon, and not all the canonical prophets said is recorded either.

Did the writers of the histories, the psalms, the story of Ruth or the Song of Solomon have a sense of inspiration, or was it only the judgement of God’s people that turns “human” writings into divine writ? Speaking even as an ordinary writer, it’s hard to believe they had no sense of the Spirit’s moving. Especially in songwriting, there’s often a feeling of having snatched something pre-existing from the air: one is hoping to get the thing down right rather than being creative. Surely the writer of the “very oracles of God” senses no less?

But the truth is, we can’t know. Like men who’ve walked on the Moon, the canonical writers are a highly select bunch. They’re not available to ask, and Scripture is not being written now, to be capable of scientifically investigation. In the end, the judgement on inspiration can only be made by faith: we either perceive these writings to be from God, or we don’t. If we do, we stand with many million others over several thousand years. And you can’t say that about many books.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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45 Responses to Inspiration and perspiration

  1. GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I begin by saying that I have not considered the question of inspiration and the Bible in quite the same way. By this, I mean that I began with considering what I understood by the term, “God”, and why belief in God made sense. This approach leads one to reflect on attributes of God, and the way many, many, people have considered this over the length of human civilisation. Thus the subject is truly vast – it is after these contemplations, and reflections on what I as a human being believed was a human being, that I would venture to consider the Bible and its contents.

    This approach may appear analytical and ‘head based’, but I found it well worth the effort – simply put, the Bible made a lot more sense than I would have thought otherwise. Although I have been born into the Orthodox tradition, I was an extremely critical student, especially of Orthodoxy, and thus required a lot to convince me that the institution that proclaimed itself as the Church of God, set up by Christ and the Apostles, was indeed the same thing (in fact I ventured into what are now considered evangelical outlooks because they were critical of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, and not to mention examining claims by atheists). Be that as it may, a serious examination of these matters would, I feel, show even the extreme sceptic, of the inspiration (and how the Holy Spirit guides us while we freely examine all things) clearly present in the Bible.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi GD

      I’m sure all kinds of approaches are valid – I was really just bouncing off Hanan’s online discussion here. One other aspect I’ve considered before is the logic of revelation. If, from philosophical, experiential and other considerations one arrives at a transcendant personal God, it would be pretty odd if he didn’t wish to communicate with rational personal beings he had made.

      In other words, I’ve never quite seen the attraction that many scientists like Paul Davies, and maybe even Einstein, for a superintelligence that’s so aloof as not to interact with what it has made.

      Your last para is provocative, in the sense that many extreme skeptics deny utterly the inspirtaion of the Bible, though they have examined it. At the same time, other skeptics, for one reason or another being goaded to examine it for the first time, become convinced and converted by it.

      That, in Christian terms, is bound up with the bondage of human will and reason, and the gratuitousness of grace. In other words, neither the skeptic nor the believer is a blank page on which the evidence imprints itself impartially.

      • GD says:

        The doctrine of grace is a subject in its own right and I feel that Christians could be very well served by reflecting on this and perhaps obtaining a deeper appreciation. But I want to respond to your, “the logic of revelation”: I have taken the view that God is able to do what He wills, but what of human beings? Just how do we reconcile ‘cut of from God’ with the capacity to be ‘revealed unto’. After all, if sin is so serious that it required the Son of God to die so that He may negate the force of the Law, and grant forgiveness, how is it that we may understand revelation?

        This area may be useful to us, as it may lead to an understanding why God considers humanity worth saving – it is also imo the most compelling argument against the ‘odd’ theodicy arguments on why did God make an imperfect world, and even worse, us human beings. It emphasises the point that God made everything to be good (although we should not forget the bad guy Satan in all this). I am not sure where Darwin and his little semantic theory fits in all of this, but, well, so what?

        • Jon Garvey says:

          GD: Revelation before and after the fall may be different matters. As created, the logic I referred to applies straightforwardly: God makes us to relate to him, and responds in kind. He’s that kind of God, we’re that kind og being, and it’s that kind of cosmos.

          Since the fall, though, there would be an argument for God’s cutting off communication in judgement, and revealing himself sufficiently to leave us morally culpable for ignoring it, but effectively and savingly only by grace.

          Maybe 1 Corinthians 2 applies here.

          • GD says:

            1Cor2 speaks of the mature Christian who has received wisdom through the Grace of God and the Holy Spirit – I was referring to more basic matters that may be considered when we enter into the somewhat banal arguments with those who have difficulty understanding the Bible as the written testament for God’s people.

  2. Edward Robinson says:

    Hi, Jon.

    I agree that the covenant with Israel requires that at least the Ten Commandments (and maybe all the rest of the laws as well) were given to Israel through Moses. My view is that the Torah in the sense of law or instruction, and the Torah in the sense of “the Five Books of Moses” which tell the story of how Israel came to have that Law or instruction, are two different things (albeit the same Hebrew word is used for both). To me, it may be the case that Moses wrote up only the laws themselves, and not the Five Books as we now have them, with all their framing narration. That would not take away “inspiration” either from the laws themselves, or from the framing narration; it would just divide the inspiration between Moses (who set down the laws) and whatever later writer(s) told the story of Moses and the laws (and of Genesis as well). There is no reason why God cannot have inspired more than one writer to produce the Torah (meaning Five Books) as we have it. I realize that Jewish and early Christian tradition accepted Mosaic authorship of the Five Books and not just the laws, but I don’t see that this is required either by the books themselves (which don’t say who wrote them) or by any notion of divine inspiration (since God can inspire as many writers as he wants in order to get a text written, and can coordinate the inspiration so as to produce a seamless literary unity even if the parts were written 100 years apart).

    As for “dictation” the notion has never appealed to me, either historically or theologically. I don’t see what is gained by it. In the end, the heart decides whether or not to accept a text as revealed based on its contents, not based on one’s intellectual hypothesis about the psychic or literary relationship between God and the author. When I read the dialogue between Abraham and God over Sodom and Gomorrah, I don’t give a moment’s thought to whether God dictated this story to Moses, or whether Moses brought his own literary individuality into the story as he set down God’s inspired teaching for future generations. I just marvel at the power of the story. I can see why Hanan might be concerned to maintain the belief that the laws and commandments themselves were set down by Moses, in exactly the words God gave him, but I can’t see why he should care whether or not God dictated the narrative parts of the Torah. I don’t see what’s at stake if parts of the narration were written after Moses’s death. I don’t see why the whole Five Books couldn’t still be inspired if they were written twenty or fifty or 100 years after Sinai.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Eddie

      Yup, that’s roughly the point I was making – agreeing that, taken overall, there is a providential aspect to the inspiration of Scripture (but hinging on a strong doctrine of Providence). Hanan, however, usefully drew attention to specific instances that seem to require more. Indeed, on BioLogos I noticed he framed that in terms of the greater “authority” of torah over, say, the writings.

      But I was trying to put it on a more specific basis: the idea of covenant seems to require the idea of divine authorship in its very nature: “Here are my commitments, and these are yours – we’ll sign here, please.” Whereas Ezra, say, on whose 2nd chapter I’m preaching this morning (what one may glean from a long list of names!) is purportedly the journalistic record of returning exiles, including official non-Jewish archives, and yet is canonical. I’d say the authority is equal, but the intent differs.

      In relation to “dictation” I was suggesting that in some instances, the recording of divine speech audibly or mentally perceived might not be inappropriate, or crude, at all – outside of a naturalist approach, which we’re both denying.

      That, of course, would raise the interesting (and unanswerable) question of whether such “hearing” is a sensory phenomenon or a psychic one. Small example: on one occasion, wrestling with the meaning of a Scripture passage, I distinctly heard a mental voice say, “What did Paul actually ask?” – and when I considered that it solved the problem and gave me a new spiritual insight. Now, was that a mental leap actually arising from my own reason/intuition, or was it some spiritual experience from God? It’s a mundane example, and really doesn’t matter much. It’s much more important in the question of Scriptural inspiration, but there’s nobody around to ask who’s experienced it. But it doesn’t pay to be too pontifical in excluding some kind of “dictation” altogether (however defined) without that knowledge.

      • Edward Robinson says:

        Sure, I don’t deny that dictation could happen — and maybe the entire set of laws, not just the Ten Commandments, should be understood as dictated word for word (rather than simply given to Moses as a mass of commanded and forbidden things which God allowed him to word and organize in his own way when he wrote them up). Maybe entire prophetic books (which often consist largely of speeches inspired by God, with little narrative framing) can be understood as dictated — as God’s word coming direct through the mouth of the prophet, without an ounce of the prophet’s personality or historical situation being involved. I don’t think the reality of such particular cases alters my general point about the Bible as a whole, i.e., that you don’t have to maintain a view of universal dictation of the Bible to believe in the inspiration of the Bible. But I think we agree on that.

        And maybe Hanan even agrees on that, but he tells me that the Orthodox Jewish tradition believes that not just the laws themselves but the entire contents of the Five Books are dictated direct from God (i.e. Moses is not an “author” in the modern sense), and that it is this status as “dictated” which gives the Five Books a special “something” for the Orthodox Jew that the rest of the Hebrew Bible lacks. He doesn’t like the word “inspired” for the Five Books, I guess because he thinks that “inspired” is too weak a word to convey what the Orthodox Jewish tradition thinks of the Five Books. Maybe he would find “inspired” a legitimate word for the rest of the Biblical books.

        Whatever may be the case for some Biblical books, I find that “dictation” is too rigid a notion to capture the communicative styles employed by all Biblical books. It doesn’t ring true in many books –unless we imagine that God dictated words in a deceptive way so as to falsely convey the idea of personal authorship. E.g., the framing statements of John and Luke about what they are writing sure sound like what a human author would write if he were making personal choices about what to report about the life and teaching of Jesus. I can’t see what useful (or non-deceptive) purpose God could have in dictating words to Luke and John that simulate non-dictation. The natural way of way of reading such books is not as “dictated” books; though of course that does not imply any attack on the notion that they are inspired books.

  3. Hanan says:

    >I agree that the covenant with Israel requires that at least the Ten Commandments (and maybe all the rest of the laws as well) were given to Israel through Moses.

    And this is where I am lost in regards to Heiser. You can see here

    and here

    about his discussion in term of changes (contradiction?) in the law regarding where does one offer the passover sacrifice: the home or temple? Heiser says (convincingly I believe) the law was changed due to the different circumstances. Therefore, Heiser says, these are NOT contradictions. The problem is, the Torah is implying that God (via Moses) gave both these laws much earlier. Heiser will say that all this is inspired and that God “chose” the new lawgiver later on and “approved” it. How He chose the person to change the law he does not say. How God can approve of the new law – when deuteronomy warns not to change laws – Heiser does not say. But for some reason the new law was put into the mouth of Moses.

    That is why statements like how Jon described Heiser just irritate me.

    “Instead, he proposes that God providentially prepared writers, editors, redactors or whoever was involved (given the possibility of complex textual history, late composition etc) so that they wrote what, in the end, he wanted written.”

    This philosophy seems to me to hang on a thread (and I think that is too much as well). A Hindu can easily claim the same thing about his holy book. Heiser offers nothing of substance to support this idea. Now, don’t confuse what I am saying. There is a difference law giver and law writer. But Heiser does not seem to make any difference when it comes to the law either, as can be gleamed from his post on the Passover change. Heiser simply states “Hey, this new priest that changed the law was inspired to change it.” Also, I have no idea what Heiser would say in regards to what Jon said above in his post:

    “You simply can’t make covenants retrospectively, and the vassal party can’t put words into the mouth of the one who makes the covenant.”

    But Heiser is saying just that. Laws can be changed left and right, but all those changes are simply inspired. And the very fact that the priest was successful in changing something means God wanted it to be changed. I can’t think of a more unfalsifiable comment than that.

    • Edward Robinson says:


      You may be right about Heiser. It sounds as if he is arguing in an arbitrary manner. But I haven’t read him, and can’t take the time to read him now.

      My original point was that the laws could all be from God, and could all have been given originally through Moses, even if the five books that now house the laws (Genesis through Deuteronomy) were written much later than the time of the Exodus, and were written by someone other than Moses. I would still maintain that point. If Orthodox Judaism insists that you must believe that Moses wrote down, not only the laws themselves, but the five books (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we have them today, then I guess I could not be an Orthodox Jew. But if Orthodox Judaism does insist on that, I would argue that Orthodox Judaism is imposing an unnecessary faith burden on its followers and that such an unnecessary burden invites attacks by “higher criticism” and puts faith unnecessarily at risk. By simply dropping the unnecessary doctrine of Mosaic authorship of the books (as opposed to the laws themselves), Orthodox Judaism could spare itself many defections. But of course, it’s none of my business what Orthodox Jews do. I’m just giving a pragmatic analysis, which they can take or leave, as they see fit.

      Someone might say, “but doesn’t Jesus vouch for the Mosaic authorship of the books”? I’d say, yes and no. As a first-century Jew he doubtless believed that Moses wrote the books. But his employment of the books as authoritative teaching doesn’t logically require that belief. They could still be divinely inspired even if Moses did not write them. This can easily be seen if, wherever Jesus says, “Moses” we substitute “Torah” (or “nomos” or some other Greek rendering), or “the Scriptures”; the material point Jesus is making is never affected by such a substitution. Jesus’s appeal is to Holy Writ; “Moses” is the standard way of speaking of Holy Writ when the Five Books are in mind. That’s how Jesus would have referred to the Torah if he thought Moses wrote all of it, but it’s also how he would have referred to the Torah even if he personally thought that Moses didn’t write all of it, but knew that his fellow-Jews thought otherwise. (Would Jesus have stopped to tell the Jews of his day that there were actually three Isaiahs, even if he thought so? To ask the question, in light of what we know of Jesus’s pedagogy, is to know the answer.) Thus, I don’t think the Mosaic authorship of the text can be decisively established based on Jesus’s form of expression.

  4. Hanan says:

    If you want his views on inspiration, he has a whole section on it. Honestly, I really like Heiser. If one enjoys Waltons scholarship you will enjoy his as well. It’s just his theology that sounds so weak that I have issues with.

  5. GD says:

    Discussions on ‘inspiration’ in sacred text should consider meaning as it applies to us as human beings, and how we communicate this ‘meaning’ using language. I think it is erroneous to believe that words are synonymous with a meaning one may attach to them from time to time. Generally a person thinks and feels and this has meaning to him/her – when we try to communicate this to another human being, we may use language – often the other person may act as if he understood the meaning expressed, but at many times this meaning may not be understood. Thus what we believe and comprehend may or may not be conveyed to another – this is because these matters are mediated by language.

    These remarks are especially pertinent to spiritual matters and what is encapsulated by the term faith. Our belief is that the attributes of God includes total goodness and simplicity – to communicate these attributes however, would require a perfect language in which each and every term (word) is synonymous with the meaning of God and what a person may contain within self. Such a language does not exist amongst us human beings. But the meaning of God, provided by the Holy Spirit, is synonymous with the attributes of God – since God is the meaning itself.

    Once we begin to understand and comprehension revelation as meaningful in this way, the importance of particular words and sentences used by, say the Apostle Paul, are understood as mediating (or attempting to convey) the meaning that God is providing to us – the meaning itself however is provided by the Holy Spirit. This is one of the reasons why the Church agrees on the meaning of scripture, or gives it’s amen. Meaning as contained within words and sentences has been a subject discussed by philosophers and we should become familiar with these discussions – the simplest statement is that words are defined, or the meaning discussed, using additional words. Further insights would be obtained by understanding the history, culture, traditions, and also being a living person of the community that has developed the particular language of that community.

    • GD says:

      I should have mentioned Polanyi’s Guilford Lecture Notes on meaning in my remarks on language and meaning – I am still reading through his material, but even at this early stage, I think he makes some very useful comments on this subject matter.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Just to complicate matters, GD, I read an article recently (forgotten by whom, but good track record) on the apparent “poor” interpretation of OT passages in the new – say by Matthew (eg “Out of Egypt I have called my Son ” – clearly referencing Israel in original setting, but applied to Jesus by Matthew).

      The authopr traced the ancient Jewish mindset onm this, which is closely linked to inspiration. The gist was that there was a power in the words themselves that made it legitimate, under new circumstances and the Holy Spirit, to apply them in novel ways.

      That seems almost the opposite of what is usually held now – that behind words that might have less than optimal clarity there is the truth of “what we meant to say.” Instead, the Scriptural words themselves carry multiple levels of meaning which reveal themselves as God unfolds history.

      In reply to Eddie, with whose remarks I fully agree, this just emphasises how a richer idea of inspiration, fully incorporating the peronalities, vocabulary, thoughforms and human agendas of the authors still demands that we look at the text, in order to see behind it: if you like, it remains a window, not an obscuring mist as the “incarnational” guys are wont to teach nowadays. Or maybe, given multiple meanings, it’s more a TV monitor than a window…

      • GD says:

        I agree with the ‘richer’ understanding that we obtain by reading the text with a motivation for understanding, rather than the loss of meaning when trying to see why the language and expressions do not meet some criteria that a human being brings when examining the Bible, esp. in a quest to find so called errors. One thing that is conspicuous by an absence in these discussions, is the Bible is also what those called by God have testified; we fail to appreciate the notion that God was pleased by what Christ said and did, just as He was pleased by what Paul (and the rest of the Apostles said and did). It seems a type of “insanity” (mentioned in remarks made by those who study Polanyi) of modernity and esp. post modernity, that even thinking that God may enjoy something Paul had said, should not be considered inspired. The freedom the NT discusses is indeed profound and difficult for those without faith to comprehend.

  6. GD says:

    I am not making a direct comment to your discussion with Hanan – but I want to make this point in passing. The Law as I understand it is given to Israel by God as part of the covenant. I do not believe a priest can come along and change it at some other time. This view is exemplified by the NT, in which the Son of God instituted an addition (thereby making the Law perfect for us); this is clearly shown in the bread and wine – this was added as a fulfilment of the Passover. It takes God (in our case the Son of God) to make such a change, and to show us what that means. I do not think the Law was changed in any way, but fulfilled, yes.

    • Hanan says:

      Hi GD,

      So how would you reply to Heiser? How does he get to say that someone 1) changing the Law b) retroactively attributing it to Moses, is inspiration and God approved?

      • GD says:

        Hi Hanan,

        The subject matter may be dealt with as in the discussion in the Heiser blog, by considering each verse, in each book and from that come to a reasoned result – my initial response is that I do not think there are contradictions, but that we may regard the Law in the following three ways: (1) absolute, which is the ten commandments, (2) Our understanding of the will of God, which is based on one’s conscience and faith, and (3) the intent of the Law, which naturally I would see as ‘everything in Christ’.

        I suppose this does not directly address your concerns, but it does show I think, that the Law (and the Bible) are given for a purpose. It may well be that someone may show that various translations and/or copies have introduced minor errors, and this may give an appearance of differences, so that we question inspiration as God actually writing the text by using some human being. I do not believe it is this – the only account that states a direct communication with God (OT) is between God and Adam, and Moses on the mount, where the ten commandments (originally) were written by the finger of God, but Moses destroyed these and a second set had to be made.

        In the NT, Christ as the Son of God, has shown us the intent of the Law, and the power of the Law in that when we sin, we are cut of from God. So redemption and Christ as Saviour are the major themes – the inspiration that I see is in our understanding of this from reading the Bible. In that sense, Christ has destroyed the power of the Law – but he also fulfilled its intent and purpose, and also shows us that as an expression of God’s will, it is Sacred.

        I guess these remarks will have to do for the time being.

        • GD says:

          I should clarify one point (so difficult to say everything in one response) that all those called by God as His servants show a personal contact and experience with God, but these are often indirect (e.g. Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah, and so on. As the Letter to the Hebrews shows, God has now spoken to use directly, in that Christ was (is) amongst us.

  7. Jon Garvey says:


    If you’re still following, I’ve just read this interesting piece by Lydia McGrew which says pretty much what I’ve been thinking about Ed Feser’s opposition to God as designer, the reasons why it’s OK for the truly transcendant God to act in the world and … well, the substance of much of The Hump’s posts recently. I recommend it to all our readers…

    So far not especially to do with inspiration. But I do wonder if some similar thinking to Feser’s – that God doesn’t do intervention but works entirely through nature – might inform Heiser’s otherwise inexplicable aversion to even a whiff of dictation in Scriptural inspiration. You’ve read much of his stuff – does that seem possible to you?

    If so, it would be interesting to know how he interprets God’s answering Elijah by fire in the OT, or the voice of the Father to Jesus in the NT.

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks for pointing out the McGrew article, Jon. I wouldn’t have caught it otherwise. In the past, I’ve thought of McGrew as someone who turned against ID and was determined to destroy it, in the name of a “classical theism” like Feser’s; now I see there is discord within the house of “classical theism” and that McGrew has some reservations about Feser’s extreme position. My estimation of McGrew just went up considerably.

      I have some thoughts on “classical theism” — a term which I think that Feser and Beckwith misuse, for partisan purposes — perhaps I will write a column on this in a couple of weeks, after finishing my current real-life work.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        The distinction in the nature of God represented by “classical theism” and “theistic personalism” or “Neotheism” is, I think, real and important.

        But I think Feser (less familiar with Beckwith) build more upon it than is warranted – to the extent, it seems (if McGrew’s analysis is right) of denying some tenets of classical theism, like his direct involvement in historical events, including of course natural history. It surprises me how deaf he seems to some quite clear teaching of Aquinas on such things.

        • Edward Robinson says:


          I never heard the term “theistic personalism” until these recent internet discussions; I have no idea who coined the term (was it Feser?), and if it is a term that is actually used among academic theologians, I’m not sure that it means exactly what Feser means by it. So I can’t say much about “theistic personalism.” But if all that it means is that God has a personal aspect, then I don’t see how one can be a Christian or Jew at all without being a “theistic personalist”; otherwise theism would become pantheism, i.e., “theistic impersonalism.” Of course, the notion of “personal” in the case of God must be in some respects different from what it is in the case of human beings; but it couldn’t be completely different; otherwise, it would make no sense to speak of God as “personal” at all.

          Of course, if “theistic personalism” means that God is nothing but a bigger, stronger person, a sort of giant in the sky, one entity among all the rest, but as it happens the strongest and smartest, then that would indeed be a flawed theology. But no ID proponent believes in such a God; most ID proponents known to me are either Catholics or Calvinists of various varieties, and hold to the views of God in those traditions. And when they think of God as a designer, they NEVER mean that God is “nothing but a bigger and wiser designer.” Nor do they think that design arguments are necessary for belief in God, such that if design arguments failed, they would have to stop believing in God. They also accept metaphysical arguments such as the Five Ways, and they accept both revealed texts and religious experience as evidence of God.

          I think that Feser is laboring under a grand misconception about what ID-Christians believe and why they believe it. It is possible that his Catholicism, and his emotional and social estrangement from American Protestant culture (which is quite evident in his writings), causes him to misperceive the strong traditional Christian base out of which ID proponents mostly arise.

          My problem is that I think Feser’s definition of “classical theism” is heavily skewed toward “the God of the philosophers” and does not do justice to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And Feser is not the only modern Thomist who appears to be like this.

          I think that Vincent Torley did a marvellous job of taking on Feser and other Thomists of that sort in his massive article on Darwin and Aquinas a couple of years back. I’ve seen no satisfactory answer from any of them when it comes to the question of God’s historical actions in creation. For people who shout Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, all the time, they are strangely reluctant to deal with very precise statements that come straight from Thomas’s pen. It as if they would like to pretend that the non-Greek aspects of Thomas don’t exist.

          My own view is that Western Christian theology involves a careful and subtle interrelationship between Greek and Hebraic ideas, and that “classical theism” — Christian, Jewish, or Muslim (not sure how many of the Muslims Feser counts as “classical”) has to have a Biblical (or with adjustments, Koranic) element to it, not just Greek elements — even though I’m a big defender of the Greek elements. I’m no fan of the Greek-bashing (Alan Richardson, etc.) that took place in mid-twentieth-century British theology, or of the German arguments that lay behind that Greek-bashing; but at the same time, it appears to me that “Thomism-Aristotelianism” as Feser presents it contains very little specifically Biblical content. What impressed me about McGrew’s article was her perception that the arguments Feser uses against ID could be used against much of what is specifically Biblical in the Christian conception of God.

          Feser fails to see the difference between saying that God has all the abilities we associate with designers, and saying that God is nothing but a designer. Because he confuses these two things, he is reluctant to consider God as a designer; but then he runs afoul of Biblical language that plainly paints God as a designer. Confronted with such Biblical statements, his only recourse would be to say that the Bible was written for ignorant, unphilosophical people and therefore tells some little white lies about God for mass consumption, but that Thomist-Aristotelian professors know better. I don’t believe that such an elitist view (if it’s the one that Feser holds) was that of Thomas himself, and I don’t think it’s Christian, either.

          A key thing to note is that Feser has regularly pointed out the shortcomings of ID as theology; yet he has never pointed out the shortcomings of most forms of TE as theology, even though it is quite evident that much that has been written by BioLogos and by ASA people must be offensive to Feser’s Thomism. Why is Feser so selectively anti-ID? Why is only ID people, not TE people, who are so wrong about origins? Beckwith shows the same selectivity. It’s a funny sort of Catholic Thomist who is offended by a conservative Catholic writer like Mike Behe but is not offended by the folksy Protestant theology of a guitar-strumming scientist like Francis Collins, or the flirtations with Open Theism of Ken Miller, Dennis Venema, and Darrel Falk.

          Something about these “Thomist evolutionists” smells, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. In any case, I certainly don’t trust them as teachers of Christian theology. Nor are any of them licensed by Rome to teach Christian theology. They are scholars and philosophers who happen to be Catholic and Thomist, but they do not speak for Catholic orthodoxy. They speak for themselves, as lay interpreters of Christianity, speculating about God, evolution, etc. It is important to remember that fact, given the tone of pompousness and certainty which often accompanies their writings.

          • Jon Garvey says:


            “Theistic personalism”, in this context, was I believe coined by Catholic philosopher Brian Davies, and the equivalent term “Neotheism” by Evangelical apologist Norman Geisler. They both go along with your thumbnail description of seeing God as being like us, only more so – essentially a univocalist view. He is a supreme example of the category of “person”.

            The alternative (with its roots in Aquinas and others) is that God is only analogically personal – that we must not go too far in making him in our own image. So far I agree.

            The justification for TP/NT (to coin a gregorism) is that it is necessary in order to approach and relate to the highly personal biblical God (as you tend to suggest above). But to me that ignores the strong warnings against thinking we can comprehend God in the Bible itself, including the “no images” commandment – cf Lydia McGrew’s “Now I get it” introduction to her piece.

            TP leads you first to Rev Sawtelle and his complex and liberal deity, and then of course to Open Theism. “God would not…” “God ought not…” etc – but as my piece on Job suggests, God is not the kind of being you question in that way. “He is Yahweh – he will do what seems good to him.”

            Now, the question of any link to ID is a different matter, and I thoroughly agree with you that it is far commoner amongst TEs, though it is fair to say that it has become an unconscious norm of modern western Christianity, so it will be assumed by many rank-and-file IDers too.

            Frankly, the idea that “design” is beneath the true God seems nonsense to me. That said, the kind of remarks one occasionally hears on Uncommon Descent about the Designer having to experiment, making mistakes etc come straight from the limited deity of TP. And as I’ve already said, there seems no justification in classical theology to exclude divine “steering” of events – that is, indeed, the very basis of concurrentism, far and away the majority position in the tradition.

            • Edward Robinson says:

              Hi, Jon.

              I have no problem with analogical language. Of course, as you know, a good number of Protestant theologians — perhaps the majority of Protestant theologians in the 20th century — raged against analogical language in the name of the God of mystery, or in the name of the Hebraic as against the Greek God, etc. There can be no analogy between infinite and finite, etc. I’m glad you don’t share that reflexive rejection of the notion of analogy.

              If all that Feser were championing were analogical language, I’d have no problem with his position. But he uses the notion of analogical language to attack ID people, as if the idea that God designs the world is somehow offensive to the principle of analogical language. I think you and I agree that he goes too far in this.

              Regarding your point about no images of God in the Bible, I agree that the rejection of images must be maintained; but I see the Biblical language as often in tension with itself, not meaning that in the sense of filled with contradictions and errors, but in the sense of trying to say a number of things which need to be said, yet cannot be easily intellectually accommodated by logic-chopping minds. So yes, God is “other” and no image or concept can contain him; and yet — and yet — he is spoken of anthropopathically and even on occasion anthropomorphically (as when Moses gets to look at his hinder parts, or elsewhere where Moses is said to speak with God face to face — despite the warning elsewhere that no one can look at God and live). And sure, there have been all kinds of attempts by both Jewish and Christian theologians to explain away the anthropic language, but they frequently smack of a programmatic, systematic interest and sometimes lead to forced and unconvincing exegesis.

              I don’t conceive of God as personal in the sort of weepy, syrupy way that American popular evangelism conceives of him, but God is represented as “having faculties” (hard to find the right way to put it without violating the notions of one or another theologian) analogous to mind, to thinking, to planning, to willing, to reasoning; he is represented as repenting, regretting, angry, etc. And while I’d be the first to wish to read this language in a non-mythological manner, to distinguish God from Zeus, at the same time, even “demythologized” it points to something that is not pantheism, but theism in the proper modern sense. God is in some way personal. This is for me a metaphysical point, distilled from Scriptures, not some desire on my part to prove that there is a big Daddy in the sky who loves me. I’m trying to do justice to the Biblical descriptions, not to establish a source of personal comfort.

              So for me, “classic theism,” if it’s not merely an academic philosophical abstraction (i.e., all the references to God’s unity, ubiquity, eternity, omnipotence, etc. taken from all the philosophers and theologians and compiled into an official list of God’s properties), ought to be a summary of what lived and religious theism — in our case Biblical theism — stands for. And what it stands for is more than a God who is proved by the Five Ways, more than a God who is the ultimate source of being, etc., but a God who is in some sense personal, who directs “nature and history” (to use non-Biblical words) to ends that he chooses — not ends that are imposed upon him by some necessary impulse of his own nature that he can’t control.

              I would never dream of applying the term “theistic personalism” to cover this idea. I think of it as nothing more than “the Biblical conception of God” and I don’t see why that needs an “ism” to dignify it. But I believe that the idea that there is something personal in God has been held by every major Christian theologian and devotional writer since before the New Testament was set down in writing. Maybe a few of the mystics would dissent, but I’m speaking of mainstream belief here. And in any case, Feser is no mystic, and he believes himself to be standing up for theism rather than pantheism. But like so many Thomists, he keeps the Biblical basis of theism pretty much in the margins, and the philosophical basis is what dominates his discussion.

              I certainly don’t want to sound like Tertullian or even like Pascal — I’m partial to the “Greek” element in Christian theology. But a Christian theology that is just metaphysical propositions about oneness, omnipotence, eternity, etc. worked out to their logical conclusions isn’t genuine Christian theology. It’s philosophy with a Christian veneer. There has to be a noticeable Biblical element for a theology to be Christian. That’s why I like McGrew’s remarks. She remembers the Biblical side.

    • Hanan says:

      “But I do wonder if some similar thinking to Feser’s – that God doesn’t do intervention but works entirely through nature”

      What ultimately is the difference? 🙂

      In regard to Heiser, he would say it all happened, but the written word was written much later through inspiration. I don’t that is really a problem, but I don’t know how he squares off inspiration, with claiming later priests made up/changed laws and retroactively put into Moses’ mouth.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        What ultimately is the difference?

        I’m surprised you ask after being here for a while. Both, of course, are a far cry from “God doesn’t work at all.”

        • Hanan says:

          Exactly!, but ultimately Fesser DOES believe that God intervenes, but all of it is through natural occurrences. Let’s take this as an example: The six-day war. Was that God intervening? Many Jews believe the answer is yes. But were any natural rules broken? Not at all.

          • Edward Robinson says:


            Did you mean Feser or Heiser just above?

            Yes, one can interpret the six-day war as displaying the involvement of God, without the breaking of any natural laws. But what about the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, which also shows the involvement of God? Surely there is a qualitative difference in the type of involvement there? Is your Heiser denying that the Red Sea parted? Is he denying that the waters held apart just long enough for the Israelites to get through, and then crashed together at just the right time to get the entire Egyptian army, leaving no survivors? Or does he think the whole story was made up, was merely a literary expression of the sense of the miraculous that the Israelites felt upon being liberated from slavery?

            Or does he accept ancient miracles, but reject modern ones? That would make him a cessationist. But in the history of Protestantism, cessationism eventually led to Deism and skepticism, and there is no reason to think the outcome would be any different in Judaism (I presume Heiser is a Jew).

            The question of miracles keeps coming back. Are they possible today, or not? Were they ever possible? Compared to this question, the question of who wrote which Biblical books and when is trivial. Put another way: the damage that Wellhausen, Spinoza, etc. did with their
            Biblical criticism would not have been possible unless modern Western people had already acquiesced in the denial of miracles of Spinoza, Hume, etc. The metaphysical question is more important than the textual question. The question of Mosaic authorship is secondary to the question whether or not miracles are possible. If Heiser isn’t clear about whether or not miracles are possible, he won’t be clear on anything else.

            • Hanan says:

              >Did you mean Feser or Heiser just above?

              For that comment I was referring to Fesser.

              >But what about the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, which also shows the involvement of God?

              Right, so I am not sure how Fesser would reply to that. You probably know about Fesser than I do.

              >Is your Heiser denying that the Red Sea parted?

              No. I don’t think he would. I believe he believes in all the events.

              >I presume Heiser is a Jew

              No. He is a believing Christian. I REALLY think you would enjoy his writings. My angst with Heiser is his definition of “inspiration” which Jon basically summed up in his post.

              • Edward Robinson says:

                OK, Hanan, but the name is “Feser” with one s, and I wanted to make sure who we were talking about.

          • Jon Garvey says:

            Hanan – go back to the piece on concurrentism. The very concept of “intervention” is a capitulation to Enlightenment categories. God governed the outcome of the 6-day war not because he uniquely intervened, but because history is always in his hands. One may say that, as in the case of the wars of the Lord in Canaan or the conquest by Nebuchadnezzar, the people of Israel were under special consideration – but so were the Palestinians, in his wise government, and so were all the various nations in the two World Wars.

            Eddie is right to make the distinction not between natural and supernatural, but between “merely” providential and miraculous. The difference being more one of human perception than anything: a resurrection or a parted sea are miraculous. Maybe a victory in battle is providential. But what about a “natural” landslip blocking the Jordan just at the time Israel needs to cross?

            In the end, one needs to see God as behind everything, and no less when he works through secondary causes. With respect to science, it seems to me that one is looking for how God acts, not whether: and the adequacy of the secondary causes is a major factor.

            • Jon Garvey says:

              That was intended to be a reply to your previous post, Hanan.

            • Hanan says:

              >The difference being more one of human perception than anything: a resurrection or a parted sea are miraculous. Maybe a victory in battle is providential. But what about a “natural” landslip blocking the Jordan just at the time Israel needs to cross?

              Bingo. That is exactly what I am talking about. It’s seems all about perception. So then, what is the issue with Fesser?

              • Edward Robinson says:


                No, it isn’t “all about perception.”

                Some miraculous Biblical events may lend themselves to the sort of explanation you give here. Not all of them do. In fact, most of them don’t. And the Biblical narrator frequently makes clear that God is to be understood as acting in a special way, above and beyond what one would expect in the normal course of things.

                I don’t know how many of Feser’s columns you’ve read. I would suggest that you go to Uncommon Descent and find all the columns with Feser’s name in the title, and see what the debate between Feser and ID folks has been about. It is a battle with a long history, and can’t be explained in a short space. Basically, Feser is explicitly against ID as offering “bad theology” — i.e., an un-Christian conception of God; ID people have long rejected this charge. McGrew’s contribution is now to point out that the same charge of “bad theology” could be made against much of the Bible itself. I agree with McGrew. And I’ve long suspected that modern Thomists would prefer that a good number of Biblical statements simply were not in the text. It would make things so much easier for their nice, tidy Aristotelian system if God didn’t behave so crudely and mythologically sometimes.

  8. Hanan says:

    So many terms being thrown around; Classical theism, theistic personalism…. I think a good glossary post would be good now 😀

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Well, it is good to understand how different people use the various terms, but I myself prefer to avoid special terminology as much as possible. Augustine and Aquinas didn’t go around saying “I’m a classic theist” or “I hold to classic theism”; they called themselves Christians, believers in God, believers in the Bible, believers in the Trinity, etc. These terms are labels that modern scholars and systematizers put on things; and sometimes I find they are of little use. It is far more important, for example, to know that Maimonides was a Jew, Augustine a Christian, and Farabi a Muslim, than to be able to classify them all as “classic theists.” They didn’t think of themselves as “classic theists of a Christian type,” “classic theists of a Jewish type,” etc.

      Sure, all theists agree on certain points against non-theists; but how does “classical” help us to understand that? The term “classical” is vague in meaning and broad and loose in application. Unless I know what the writer means by “classical” I’m worse off than if he just said “theist,” because I already know what “theist” means. As soon as “classical” is added, I find myself asking, “Well, is there also then a “non-classical” kind of theism, and what does it look like? What does “non-classical theism” hold (or fail to hold) about God?”

      Indeed, from what I can tell, Feser would logically have to regard certain statements in the Bible (which probably capture exactly the intended meaning of their authors) as falling short of “classical theism” as he seems to mean it, because they speak too “univocally” about God and divine action, or, as he puts it elsewhere, are too “mythological” in form. But we are told by Feser that Christianity is part of “classic theism.” Well, if Christianity is based on the Bible, and the Bible contains statements that don’t fit with “classic theism,” how can Christianity be an example of “classic theism”?

      Similarly, “theistic personalist” doesn’t clarify anything for me. Augustine didn’t call himself a “theistic personalist,” though he prayed to a God he thought of as personal, and if he didn’t need the label, why do we? On the other hand, if “theistic personalist” means “someone with an overly human conception of God,” well, I understand that, but I knew the problem of overly human language about God long before I ever heard of “theistic personalism.” All that “theistic personalism” does is add another piece of jargon for me to memorize so that I can follow what people are talking about; but I don’t burden other people with jargon that I invent, so why should they get to burden me with theirs?

      I think it should be a rule that anyone who invents a new term should have to: (a) give a precise definition of the term, with examples; and (b) show that discussion can get along noticeably better with the term than without it.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        Hmm Eddie – methinks you protest too much. Go back to the Patristic days, and you’ll find plenty of one word descriptors of errant streams of that general “Christianity” – “Monophysitism”, “Adoptionism”, “Patripassarianism” etc.

        They all got coined as new problems arose, as a handle on which the susceptible believer could focus his critical faculties. That Sabellius bloke seems a really good speaker, and a nice guy too, until someone points out how he’s got his view of God badly wrong. Describe the error in a chapter or two, or a book, and most people will soon forget it, or glaze over before they’ve even read it. Slapping the “Modalism” handle on it helps label the box containing the error usefully. They make a conversation possible.

        In the case of “Neotheism” I would argue (as Geisler has) that, although I’ve traced some connections back to Scotus and his univocalism, which opposed Aquinas’s concept of God, nevertheless it is an essentially new position based on the modern concept of the “autonomous person”.

        How that differs from the biblical concept of personhood is subtle, so until someone labels it (and then defines it) then one doesn’t realise one is falling into it – since ones own concept of “person” is mostly formed by the modern society around. I sense that process of realisation in Lydia McGrew’s “Oh, I get it” line on Theistic Personalism. How long would it have taken her to see what Feser and others meant if there had been no short descriptive term of which she could say, “What is this theistic personalism thing they’re getting so exercised about?”

        That descriptors inevitable get used loosely, even if originally well defined, is a fact of life. Jaki (to cite a recent shared interest) points out how misleading the term “Renaissance” can be in lumping together an anti-scientific literary-philosophical movement with a later creation-led scientific movement. Yet if we lost the term “Renaissance” we’d need some other term to describe what was happening at the end of the Mediaeval period… and some other term to replace “Mediaeval” since that too gets misunderstood.

        Even Feser has argued at length that God is personal – but that the careful definition of “personal” is important if one wants to stay true to the biblical, as well as the traditional, understanding of God.

  9. Hanan says:

    Eddie, in regards to the Bible you are right. I would say most of the miracles employed are out of the ordinary in their expectations (not in most of their physical manifestations. After all, frogs are frogs and Locusts are locusts). Meaning, who would have thought a sea could split. That just isn’t something that happens, even though the Bible uses a sort of natural means to cause it to happen (“a strong wind that cam all night”). But something like a landslide happens all the time. Lighting occurs all the time. But what happens if, let’s say lightening strikes your enemies radio tower (or something like that)? Perception is all that can lead you to seeing the hand of God may have been there.

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Sure, for examples such as you give, one can see the hand of God acting through perfectly normal and natural causes. If you are rescued from a desert island by a ship that just happens to be sailing by, you can attribute that to the hand of God. Or if a rainstorm puts out the forest fire that is threatening your home, you can attribute that to the hand of God. In neither case is there any proof of any supernatural action. I have no problem with such usage.

      But here we are talking about people like Feser who want to believe that God created wholly through natural causes, even when his hero Aquinas explicitly says otherwise, and even when the Bible at least appears to say otherwise. If Feser doesn’t want to believe in supernatural causation, that is his business, and I don’t hold it against him, but I resent his trying to foist his metaphysical, Aristotelian prejudice upon me by treating it as necessary consequence of “classical theism” and implying that as a Christian I have to accept “classical theism.” Feser doesn’t get to define the essence of Christianity or the Christian God on the strength of the philosophical analysis of “theism” alone. He has to account for what the Bible says about things.

      Thomists continue to have trouble with the Bible. They just can’t deal with that Hebraic, uncontrollable, sometimes irrational Deity. They want to encase him in the intellectual framework of four causes, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, etc.; they want to tidy up his behavior so they can bring him to the philosopher’s club in a jacket and tie for dinner and not be embarrassed by the desert savage’s manners. The insipid notion of “classic theism” is a pathetic way of trying to rein in the desert savage, but it will not work. A “classic theism” that cannot do full justice to the freedom of God, including the freedom of God to act in, with, and even against nature at will, at his pleasure, is not a theism I’m interested in.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      That “perception” is a bit of a weasel word, much discussed in relation to biology. Along the history of the blog, I’ve suggested on a number of occasions that formally speaking, divine action can never be distinguished from chance.

      So a Jordan up-river landslip happens only one every three centuries (say) and this one happened just as the Israelites arrived according to God’s promise of enetering Canaan? So the probability of a self-replicating molecule occurring naturally is lower than the total number of events that ever happened in the Universe? You could even argue that an “impossible” event like the Red Sea parting has some probability value in terms of a local thermo-dynamic quirk. You don’t want God involved, you just call it chance – just as the first atomists did in Greek times, I believe.

      “Perception”, then, is a purely human quality that makes an, in the end, arbitrary decision that says that an apparent drug effect outside 3 standard deviations is counted as a chance association, not caused by the drug.

      In practice, in a universe as clearly ordered as ours (enabling science), we get a good sense of what is “likely”. At some point, it is the person who denies a purposive cause to the damming of the Jordan or the Resurrection – or perhaps the navigation system of the robin – is the one whose perception is severely disordered.

  10. Jon Garvey says:

    Ed Feser has replied to Lydia here. It may not convince you, Eddie, that he’s right about ID, but does as least clarify (again) his position on the difference between theistic personalism and his firm belief that God is personal.

    And I see that he uses “univocalism” in his account, and that Duns Scotus gets a mention in the discussion. So my former intuitive link between the problems in theistic evolution and univocalism seems vindicated (though Feser continues to dump on ID rather than the avowed Open Theists and Theodicists in the TE camp who deserve it more).

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks, Jon.

      Just read Feser’s reply. Overlooking his tiresome rhetorical pose (“if people have misunderstood me, it’s all their fault, because I’ve explained all this clearly before”) — tiresome because Lydia McGrew is not the only highly intelligent, philosophically educated person who has misunderstood Feser’s arguments even *after* reading them many times — I’m grateful for the clarification of the first part of his response. It is good to hear that he has not crowded out the Biblical God with the philosopher’s God.

      I’m also glad to hear his distinction between “God is personal” and “God is a person” — which is helpful — though I’m not as certain as he is that the theistic God cannot or must not be “a person.” Obviously the theistic God can’t be a person in the limited sense of a human person, because he is the source of all personhood whatever, not merely another thing with the quality of personhood; yet if God is not in some sense “a person” — a distinct, unique entity — it is very hard to prevent theism from slipping into pantheism or monism. The same problem arises in saying that God is not “a being” because he is “being itself”; I know what Feser means and I think he is in part right; at the same time, “being itself” cannot will, think, plan, or intend anything, any more than “heat itself” can burn down Chicago or “height itself” can produce Mt. Everest. “Being itself” can perhaps be thought of as producing “all that is”; but “being itself” cannot swallow up an Israelite rebel in an earthquake; a particular “being” must make that decision. And while we can grant that God is not a “being” in the same way that any created thing is, if god is not a (singular) being, then the notion that God makes choices, has a will, etc. becomes very difficult.

      I am not saying there are not ways of handling such difficulties, but Feser has an annoying habit of writing as if people who raise such objections just aren’t bright enough to do serious philosophy. It would help if he would adopt the tone of a fellow-inquirer rather than the tone of a master. He writes imperiously, like Kant or Hegel; I prefer teachers who are more in the manner of Socrates. He would probably have more influence than he does if he would learn to treat objectors as colleagues from whom he might possibly learn something rather than as fools, obstructionists, or freshmen. (His dismissive treatment of Jay Richards, a fellow Catholic who has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religion from one of the world’s greatest universities, is particularly irritating to me.)

      Anyhow, I am glad to hear that Feser does not deny but affirms the activist, Biblical portrait of God. I am not, however, convinced that the description of God in the Biblical stories can always be distinguished from the description of God that he attributes to Paley and ID. I have yet to see him cite a single passage of Paley, and it’s unclear to me that he has ever read the man, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that Paley does in some passages appear to hold the view of God that Feser says he does. Well, I would say that in some passages the portrait of God in the Bible is very univocal, to use Feser’s term.

      Sure, Feser can point to plenty of passages in the Bible which suggest that God is above all beings, that God is not like all beings, etc. I grant it; I’ve never contested it. But I think Feser is cherry-picking to ignore the passages in the Bible which sound pretty darned anthropomorphic, anthropopathic, and even at times dualist (as in the fragmentary references to an ancient combat in which God defeats a chaos-monster — something which only “a being” or “a person” [not “being itself”] could do.) The portrait of God, and of the world, is not “Thomist-Aristotelian” in the Bible; it’s questionable whether it’s even entirely compatible with “Thomist-Aristotelian” thinking. The Bible exemplifies Hebraic thinking, and that is not a kind of thinking which Feser (so far, anyway) has shown any natural “feel” for. When Aquinas (whom I greatly admire, much more than I admire Feser, or even truly masterful Thomists such as Gilson) decided to try to expound the God of the Hebraic scriptures in terms of the thought of Aristotle, he undertook a very difficult and arguably dangerous or unwise thing, and I do not take it for granted, as Feser and all Thomists appear to do, that the thing can be done successfully.

      As for his remarks on ID, I think Feser is being unfair again, but I will not go into detail here. I do think that a column on the carte blanche Feser has given the TEs of BioLogos etc. would be worth writing here; and I think I will eventually write one. He should be way, way more offended by the Arminianism and sometimes the Open Theism of the Protestant TEs than he is by an engineer-God (especially when plumb-lines are mentioned in connection with creation in the Bible). But as far as I can tell, he has raged against ID now for three, four, maybe five years, and said not a word against TE the whole time. And the same goes for his colleague Beckwith, who used the fortress of BioLogos a few years ago to attack ID people with impunity. Beckwith cannot possibly, as a Thomist, accept the theology of *any* of the founders or major columnists at BioLogos; yet it is Behe and Dembski who are treated as the great heretics, not Collins, Miller, etc. Something is rotten in Thomist-land, and it is worth publically discussing what it is.

      As for your own critique of theistic personalism, I never intended to challenge it and I am sorry if I made it sound as if that was my point. I guess I simply did not understand how to put together your critique of theistic personalism with the critique of TP by Feser; but now that Feser has clarified his own position — thanks to the prodding of McGrew — I am perhaps starting to see what you were talking about. Certainly I would agree with you and Feser that there are ways of talking about God as a personal being that are wrong or inadequate. But I have always thought that, and needed no help from Thomism of Feser to think it. Any Christian Platonist would be critical of too crude a description of the personal aspects of God.

      And in any case, I think Feser remains almost entirely wrong in his discussion of both Paley and ID. Making a design inference does not *automatically* commit one to the wrong kind of God, or a God incompatible with so-called classic theism or Catholicism. It *could* lead to such wrong thinking; but Feser makes out that it necessarily must; and he is dead wrong there. It is hard to know where to begin, though, with him, as he has his defenses all up and fully armed to repel attackers; he is not in the mood to listen (and never has been, for the two years I have been reading his blog). He is only the mood to correct, instruct, etc. I suspect that he will not become more intellectually flexible overnight. Thomists (unlike their master Aquinas) have rarely been noted for intellectual flexibility, and Feser is a particularly self-assured Thomist. Arguing with a committed Thomist is a bit like arguing with a committed Spinozan, Hegelian, or Kantian; you can never get anywhere, because not only are all the right answers laid out in advance; even all the right questions are laid out in advance, as are all the right methods. It is simply up to the slow student to get on board. There is no thought that maybe the Thomist (or Spinozan or Hegelian or Kantian) should meet the critic halfway.

      Anyhow, I think I will give a column (on why the Thomists are not harder on TEs) a shot, when I get my thoughts together, a few weeks down the road. But if you want to write one first, go ahead, and I will come in with another column as reinforcements.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        Ed – Your full reply needs none from me. Go ahead and write the article – we’re overdue one from you! BTW Lydia and Ed go head to head on Lydia’s blog, again helping clarify issues. There’s a link for McGrew’s comment on Feser’s blog.

        Just to drag the subject back to the OP’s theme of “inspiration”, one issue that seems underexposed is whether divine inspiration guarantees the metaphysics and philosophy of Scripture, as well as its strict theology.

        I’d say it does. To me, on a question like that we’ve just discussed, it’s utterly valid for a Christian (or a Jew, of course) to be asking, “Is the philosophy of Aquinas, or Scotus, or Plantinga or Descartes, faithful to Scripture?” It’s not valid for the same Christian to say, “The Hebrew view of free will (say) is incompatible with analytic philosopher X, and I prefer his approach.”

        The attempts by generations of theologians to present Scripture’s teaching in philosophical terms have led to the accusations of Greek thought displacing Hebrew, and so on – but I believe the attempts are valid and necessary, certainly for Gentiles. And largely successful, too, if only in giving categories (like A-Tism, for example) that can be compared with Scripture and critiqued rationally.

        I notice, incidentally, how much of the problem with Feser comes from his giving common terms (like “person”) more well-defined meanings. We grow up using “person” only of humans like ourselves, so need some kind of check to projecting what is purely human on to God. The analogies are necessary to prevent God’s becoming depersonalised, as you say (it’s so seldom that people realise he is supra-personal, not im-personal), and Scripture, like us, has to use them. But, in my view, qualifies them not by philosophical reasoning, but by counter-examples that keep the tension in place.

        I’ve just come across the same issue of language as raised by Jonathan Edwards in his excellent work on free-will. He points out that in common speech, “necessity” or “impossible” imply there are opposing forces which fail, whereas in philosophy they simply mean what is or is not. So God is a “necessary being” not because nobody could stop him, but because he just is (there was nobody else around even to conider the issue). Grace is irresistible not because it carries the day by main force but because, by its very nature, it is welcomed.

        And “Is it possible for God to do wrong?” though it is intelligible if God is “a” person, is nonsense if God is goodness itself – the question becomes a tautology as a statement: “Goodness can be evil.” Or “Omnipotence can be powerless.” Or “Truth can change its mind.”

        So I suppose the root of Feser’s objection to “personalism” is that having said God is the source of all personhood, it’s incoherent then to ask what kind of person he is. If the sun emits light of all frequencies, asking about its colour is crass.

        • Edward Robinson says:

          Thanks, Jon. I especially like this paragraph:

          “I notice, incidentally, how much of the problem with Feser comes from his giving common terms (like “person”) more well-defined meanings. We grow up using “person” only of humans like ourselves, so need some kind of check to projecting what is purely human on to God. The analogies are necessary to prevent God’s becoming depersonalised, as you say (it’s so seldom that people realise he is supra-personal, not im-personal), and Scripture, like us, has to use them. But, in my view, qualifies them not by philosophical reasoning, but by counter-examples that keep the tension in place.”

          Yes! As a philosopher, Feser wants to achieve some precision in language, and I don’t object to that in general. My point was that the Bible does not usually strive for that level of precision, but in fact uses the language of the farm and the marketplace and the shepherd and the merchant and the lover etc. And built into that language there is often a crude theory of “equivocation” whereby God is like us, only bigger, stronger, more powerful, smarter, with more means at his disposal, etc.

          As you say very nicely, Scripture makes use of counter-examples and keeps a tension in place. Thus, the God who is like us, only bigger and smarter and stronger, is sometimes replaced by the God who is nothing like us, whom we cannot know and cannot speak about in human language. In this differential presentation, the Bible gives us a God who is both accessible and remote, both understandable and mysterious, both human (after all, we alone are in his image and likeness) and something beyond human.

          But note that this is a different approach from saying: “Those who say that God is like us are wrong, and those who say he is nothing like us are right”; and the tendency of a certain type of philosopher (not just Feser and not just Thomists, but many philosophers) is to try to purge religion of the God who is anything like us, and to rewrite religion so that God becomes an abstract principle from which we could make deductions as one makes deductions from principles such as mass, energy, gravity, acceleration, equality, inequality, straight, curved, etc. The danger of this approach — attractive as it is to a Greek lover and philosophy lover such as myself — is that it loses something of the ambiguous Hebraic sense of divinity.

          On your final discussion about goodness and being and sunlight etc., I agree that Feser has things like that in mind, and again, I agree with part of what he says, but there are always nagging doubts. Yes, one can say that God is goodness itself, and identify goodness with being and evil with non-being (evil as privation; Augustine) and it all works out tidily. But then God says that he makes war and peace, good and evil. So evil becomes something positively made by God, not merely a privation of God’s goodness. The religious vision does not always lend itself to the philosopher’s desire to systematize and put everything in its place.

          I agree with you and Feser that philosophical exposition of religious thought is a good thing to attempt; indeed, the Christian theological tradition in many ways can be regarded as just that, as Christians tried to formulate their ideas in terms of bits of Stoicism, then later with a full-bodied Platonism, and later with an Aristotelianism, and then back to Platonism, etc. On the other hand, I always hold a bit of myself back from my enthusiasm for this project, not because I don’t love philosophy or the Greeks — I do, almost inordinately sometimes — but because I’m unconvinced (a) that any philosophical systematization can do justice to revelation, and (b) that one philosophical orientation — Thomism-Aristotelianism in the current discussion — has triumphed so decisively over all competitors in the sphere of philosophy that it can claim the right to be THE philosophy that gets to interpret revelation.

          It’s my work as a scholar of religion (ancient and Eastern as well as traditional Western religion) that has me worried on the first point, and my preference for Plato over Aristotle that accounts for my reserve on the second point.

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