Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Lord and My God: Grasping Equality With God

In the most recent episode of Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio, Dr. James White squared off against Sir Anthony Buzzard over the doctrine of the Trinity. The debate was concurrently both edifying and frustrating: the former because Dr. White is a powerful defender of the faith, and I always learn something from his appearances; the latter because, as I felt compelled to tweet in the midst of the show, "So frustrating listening to non-Trinitarians debate the Trinity, their arguments are so vapid!"

I highly encourage you to listen to the show, both in general and this episode in particular. You can listen at the link above, or subscribe to the podcast. I like to listen to the podcast on my way to and from work. I wish I was aware of something similar in the States so I could listen to these kinds of debates more often (and not quite so frequently fail to understand some of the cultural references; but I do enjoy the accents).

If you listen, you'll hear Dr. White and his opponent discuss the Septuagint's rendition of Psalm 102. You'll notice that the claim is made that whereas our Bibles, based on the Masoretic text, depict the psalmist as speaking to God in verses 23 and following, the Septuagint has the direction of speech reversed. Buzzard, denying the Trinity, claims this proves that God is calling someone else the eternal "Lord," a verse the author of Hebrews says was spoken of the Son. I felt compelled to email the host of the show, letting him know that Buzzard is wrong. If you're interested, check out my previous post in this series, "You, LORD, in the Beginning." (The host agreed to read my comments on the air next week--all the more reason for you to listen!)

Moving on, during the course of the debate Dr. White presented several texts which, I agree, prove that Jesus is God. These are pretty easy to present, and don't take a lot of time to write up. Since my blog posts have been fewer and farther between than in times past, I figured I'd try and bang out a few posts in an attempt to hold your interest--those few of you, if any, who read regularly :). Today, we're going to look at Philippians 2:3-9. In my preferred translation, this reads as follows:

(3) Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; (4) do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (5) Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, (6) who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, (7) but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. (8) Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (9) For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. (Philippians 2:3-9)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The View from the Fence: A Dichotomist's Journey to Uncertainty

As recently as a week ago, I held firmly and confidently to an understanding of the nature of man held by the vast majority of Christians throughout the history of the Church. Over the course of the past week or so, however, things have changed. I know sit atop the fence between this view and one seemingly held by very few Christians, and I thought I'd share with you my journey to the top of that fence and the view I now have therefrom. Additionally, I'll use this to introduce a new series, "O LORD What is Man?" (from Psalm 144:3).

Not all of my readers are as engaged in debates within the blogosphere as I am, and will be unfamiliar with some of the terms I'll use throughout this series. As such, let me start be defining some of these terms. I was once asked in a Bible study when I was going to start blogging in English. Well, I won't begin today. Instead, I'll give you a dictionary so you can speak the language yourself.


"Anthropology," philosophically and theologically speaking, is "the study of the nature and essence of humankind." In a systematic theology, it is included alongside discussions of bibliology, theology proper and the like. For example, in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, part one is "The Doctrine of the Word of God" (bibliology), part two is "The Doctrine of God" (theology proper), and part three is "The Doctrine of Man" (anthropology). Our goal as Christians when it comes to anthropology is to understand what the Bible says about what it is to be human.

"Dichotomy," anthropologically speaking, is "The view that man is made up of two parts (body and soul/spirit)," as explained by Wayne Grudem. He writes that "spirit" and "soul" are "used interchangeably in Scripture to talk about the immaterial part of man, the part that lives on after our bodies die" (Systematic Theology, p. 472). Some philosophers also use the word "Dualism" to describe this view, and though I don't particularly object to its use, many do (as I've discovered), and so I will stick with their preferred term, dichotomy.

The dichotomy view of human nature is most commonly contrasted with "trichotomy." Grudem writes, "Some people believe that in addition to 'body' and 'soul' we have a third part, a 'spirit' that most directly relates to God." They would say that "a man's soul includes his intellect, his emotions and his will...a man's spirit is a higher faculty in man that comes alive when a person becomes a Christian" (p. 472). Throughout the history of the Church, the vast majority of Christians have held to one of these two views.

However, there is another view, one which I did not know until recently was held by any genuine Bible-believing Christians. Called "physicalism," "materialism" or "monism"--but only insofar as it pertains to human nature--this view holds that "man cannot exist at all apart from a physical body, and therefore there can be no separate existence for any 'soul' after the body dies (although this view can allow for the resurrection of the whole person at some future time)" (Grudem, p. 472). Theological novice that I am, though I was aware that Jehovah's Witnesses believed in something called "soul sleep," I was dumbfounded when I discovered that some Christians hold this view.


Dichotomists and trichotomists certainly disagree in a number of ways, but in my mind they stand together in opposition to physicalists in affirming an immaterial aspect of human nature. If one were to envision two camps within the Church separated by a fence, I was until very recently firmly on the dichotomist's side of that fence, blissfully unaware of the physicalist camp on the other side. For example, in "The Bible and the Dead: Do Ghosts Exist?" I wrote, "When a man dies, he goes to a place where the dead are utterly separate from the living, awaiting the final resurrection and judgment throne of God." Speaking of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, I continued,

Jesus' parables were meant to reveal truth to His disciples, and if the pictures He painted were not rooted in reality, then how could one be assured of the truth of that which He intended to reveal? Therefore, we should probably assume that the story told is an accurate picture of the state of the dead.

Now, I was aware of non-Christians, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who held to a position called "soul sleep," but I really didn't know that there were any genuine Christians who did. And I was utterly ignorant that those who hold to this position don't believe man has any immaterial aspect to their existence at all (the "soul" or "spirit"). Thus, during the course of my 8-years-or-so-long Christian walk, I had lived in a comfy-cozy bubble thinking that man's "spirit" remaining conscious in Sheol after death was simply the Christian view. Ignorance is bliss.


This was three weeks ago, and I had just begun listening to a podcast called "Say Hello to My Little Friend." I was very impressed by some of what I heard, and as Dee Dee Warren has noted, the host's New Zealand accent makes his arguments seem all the more compelling. I first enjoyed an episode in which he, Glenn Peoples, played a recording of a sermon he had recently given on preterism. Another episode--well, three of them actually--discussed Alvin Plantinga and presuppositional apologetics, a presentation which greatly edified me.

At some point, I learned of the physicalist view Glenn holds, and two days after my "ghost post" I wrote this:

The Preterist Podcast recently turned me on to an awesome podcast called "Say Hello to my Little Friend," otherwise known as the "Beretta Cast" (and corresponding blog). As a disclaimer, I don't agree with everything I've come across at the blog; for example, I don't believe in "soul sleep," but rather that the immortal spirit is in some sense conscious in Sheol awaiting the resurrection--primarily because I don't believe Jesus' parables were rooted in fantasy. Nevertheless, I've enjoyed what I've listened to so far.

For some reason, it hadn't struck me yet. Here I had assumed that all Christians recognized that humans have immaterial spirits which remain conscious after death. And yet, Glenn's arguments in other areas seemed so well reasoned, so biblically sound. The seeming inconsistency hadn't struck me, and I intially thought nothing of it. But then, about a week later, Glenn wrote a post at a blog at which I write as a guest author, at which point my world began to be rocked.


Glenn's post was called, "Philosophy of Mind and the Hyperpreterist Controversy," in which he explained that if his physicalist position is correct, it adds to the weight of the evidence opposing the heresy of hyperpreterism. For better or for worse, it sparked a firestorm of a debate, but not about hyperpreterism. Other guest authors and I immediately began questioning the validity of his view from a biblical perspective. I'll get back to that in a moment, but I bring it up because it was this post and the ensuing debate that led me to begin to listen to his five-part podcast series called, "In Search of the Soul."

In the first four episodes in the series, Glenn refutes some of the philosophical reasons people insist that humans have an immaterial spirit that lives on after death. These episodes are not for everybody; I spoke on the phone today with one fellow blogger and podcaster, who shall go unnamed, who confessed that these episodes went over his or her head. I, however, thoroughly enjoyed them, and was impressed by Glenn's reasoning. I said as much early on in the debate that resulted from his post.

In the fifth episode, he discusses what the Bible has to say when it comes to anthropology. It was this episode to which I had really looked forward. As I said in the debate,

I just finished your 4th episode and enjoyed it. I think you’re right that philosophical objections to physicalism fall flat. I suspect philosophical arguments against [the dichotomy view]...would likewise fall flat. They both seem plausible theories given the physical evidence, and ultimately we’ll need to go to Scripture to see which is valid. As such, I’m super excited to hear the 5th episode in your series. I appreciate how carefully you’ve handled the debate in the series thus far; I hope you continue to do so in the final one.

But by the time I pressed play on my Zune to listen to this final episode in the series, something was beginning to dawn on me. Despite the heated debate which followed Glenn's post, very little compelling biblical evidence against his view had been presented. I was still holding on to a few passages which seemed difficult to explain from a physicalist's point of view, but nothing like what one would expect to be found in the Bible in order for the dichotomy view to be so ubiquitous within the Church. As I said in the debate after listening to the episode,

what dawned on me as I was listening to episode 5 in a way that perhaps it didn’t before was that it seems to me to be terribly difficult to make a positive case for the [dichotomy view]...As I’ve said before in this thread, I think biblical evidence in support of the majority view is very scant.


You see, I'm not a big fan of Christian "holy cows." Otherwise known as a "sacred cow," a holy cow is "an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so." In my short "career" as a Christian, I've seen a number of holy cows. These cherished beliefs are held uncritically by masses of Christians, and when these beliefs are challenged, the challenger is often met with disdain and disgust rather than with a reasoned argument.

I think the God of the Bible calls us to a higher standard. In human flesh He said to the woman at the well, "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). As such, I've endeavored to make absolutely certain that my world view is deeply rooted in Scripture, rather than held to simply because of tradition. That's not to say I'm immune from HCS (Holy Cow Syndrome); I'm certain that there are positions I hold today uncritically. Nevertheless, I've aimed for something better, and as a result, I've changed my position in a number of areas because the Bible was my leading me somewhere different.

So as it began to dawn on me that there seemed to be no strong positive biblical case to be made for the view I had held, that humans were comprised of both a material nature and an immaterial one which survived death, I started hearing alarm bells--or rather, cow bells. I could not in good conscience hold a position without warrant. I refuse to worship a holy cow. As I said to Glenn in the debate,

I’m going to be honest with you. Early on in the episode I noticed I was increasingly drawing nearer to the proverbial fence, though not for any arguments you were giving. Rather, I think it was because something dawned on me before you said it–or at least before it registered that you had said it: had the biblical authors intended to communicate this view that the majority holds, they could have easily done so. And now, having finished listening, I’m squarely on the fence.


Having taken my seat atop the fence, I can tell you that the view is daunting. My transition to preterism was a bit scary; after all, it almost goes without saying that if you talk to a Christian about the end times, you're going to hear about how the rapture is around the corner, immediately following which the world will experience a great tribulation involving the antichrist and so on and so forth. In other words, preterism is most definitely the minority position.

But I think I'd be accurate in saying that the percentage of Christians who hold the physicalist position is considerably smaller than that of preterists. To someone who values the work of the proverbial giants of the past upon whose shoulders I stand, the thought of adopting a position that goes so contrary to theirs is almost anathema. Nevertheless, as I said, I refuse to worship a holy cow.

Making things worse, faced with the vertigo resulting from the thought of parting ways with the majority of Christians throughout history, the view from the fence seems to offer little solace for the formerly certain dichotomist. Instead of a serious treatment of the arguments the physicalist has to offer in favor of his position, what I saw was, basically, schoolyard bullying. I wholeheartedly agreed with Glenn when I read these words:

this is why it’s so hard to engage with you - this and your constant stream of attacks...It has been a very long time since I have encountered the kind of rudeness and lack of self control from someone who regards himself as a Christian.

Eventually, the "constant stream of attacks" became too much for Glenn to handle. One of the dichotomists debating him said, "I guess this means you can’t from a reasoned approach make sense of what the text explicitly states coupled with the view you are attempting to foist upon the readers." My heart sank when I read those words, and I was less than surprised when I saw Glenn quote those words in signing off from the debate.


I could relate to Glenn's decision to bow out from the debate; I would have given up much sooner, I think. And then, in his absence, I tried to play the role of the devil's advocate, putting myself in the shoes of the physicalist, answering the objections my formerly-fellow dichotomists were stating. My brief walk in those shoes was jarring for two reasons.

First, what I discovered was that once one puts aside one's presupposition that humans have an immaterial spirit, one discovers that biblical passages thought to reference it no longer seem so obviously in favor of the dichotomist's position. That's not to say that physicalism seems obvious from the text; that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that in virtually every case, where the dichotomist clearly sees his position leaping from the text of Scripture, once one views those texts from a less biased position, one discovers that they are hardly the proof-texts they are thought to be. We'll get to these later as part of this series.

Second, in response to my meager attempts to present the physicalist argument, what I got was not serious attempts to address the position I was advocating, but circular arguments, bald assertions, unwarranted assumptions and an overall dismissive attitude. Arguably worse than that, I became the recipient of more subtle versions of the same kinds of attacks that caused Glenn to bow out of the debate. It was implied I was quoting from strange translation (I always quoted from the NASB). At one point I was told I was "not making any sense" and "straining credulity."

One dichotomist said to me that he was "positive the Dead Kennedy’s couldn’t get anyone to buy that, but there it is for all to see." For those as un-hip as I am, former Dead Kennedys member Jello Biafra apparently wrote a song called, "Those Dumb Punk Kids (Will Buy Anything)." The reference, then, must suggest that only "dumb punk kids" would "buy" the arguments I was making. Later, when I said I would try and dig up a physicalist's response to a difficult passage, the same dichotomist wrote, "Get ‘em, Chubby Checker," implying in advance that I was on a mission to twist the biblical text.


So, for someone who very recently firmly held to the dichotomy view of biblical anthropology, what is the view like from atop the fence between it and physicalism? Well, suffice it to say that my perch is a precarious one. Believe me, I want to believe what the majority of the Church has believed for the better part of two thousand years. I want to believe that every human is comprised of both a material body and an immaterial spirit that lives on in Sheol when the body dies.

But, like I said, I am not a fan of holy cows. My brief foray in the debate over biblical anthropology has left me unsatisfied with the majority view. If you were to ask me what evidence from Scripture I could marshal in defense of the dichotomy view, I'd with a certain amount of discomfort be able to proffer very little. On the other hand, if you were to ask me how the physicalist can explain any one of the typical arguments leveled against it, I suspect that it is likely I could capably give a defense.

On the other hand, the discomfort is tempered by a certain amount of excitement. Not long ago members of my then small group confessed that they found it somewhat difficult to do their Bible reading every week. I suggested that they look for controversy in the text, as that tends to get me interested. Well, this topic is fraught with controversy.

It is with some excitement, then, that I peer down precariously into the camps between which I am perched. I look forward to investigating this issue without presuming one position or the other. I have been freed from my bondage to a holy cow, and if I end up reaffirming the dichotomy view, it will be for the right reasons. On the other hand, if the Scripture leads me to adopt physicalism, I will be worshiping the Father in Truth. My request is that you, my readers, keep an open mind as we look at how the Bible answers the question, "O LORD What is Man?"