We’ve all got babies to kill

September 27, 2014 § 145 Comments

I could be wrong, but in my understanding Augustine and Aquinas were primarily concerned with whether the Israelite conquest of Canaan was justifiable at all: with jus ad bellum. After all, on its face it was a war of conquest, and wars of conquest are morally wrong.

Just conduct during war, jus in bello, is clearly – and is formally recognized by the Church as – an entirely distinct subject.

At least one Church Father though has directly addressed accounts of killing infants in the Old Testament and how they are to be interpreted. Here is Origen on the “dashing of babies” in Psalm 137:

And in this way also the just give up to destruction all their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. In this sense we understand the language of Psalm 137 … For, “the little ones of Babylon” (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed. – Origen, Contra Celsum, translated by Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325, edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1989)

So according to Origen, Old Testament accounts of killing infants refer metaphorically to destroying heresy and vice in ourselves in its infancy; and the weapons of destruction are reason and truth.

In that sense, we should all be dashing the heads of infants against the rocks.

(UPDATE: Made a minor tweak to my post-citation commentary)

Literal insanity

September 13, 2014 § 227 Comments

Biblical inerrancy is one thing.  It means that there exists a true (corresponds to reality) and correct (corresponds with what the author intends to say about God and salvation) meaning or interpretation of Biblical texts.  That is really all that it means, which is not enough to solve the ‘problem’ of interpretation. That a true and correct interpretation exists doesn’t imply that some specific interpretation is true and correct.

Note that inerrant meaning is ascribed to the author of the text, not the characters and people who are the subjects of the text. That the sacred author’s meaning is inerrant does not imply that King Saul, in his actions and words, was infallible. A true and correct history of the words and deeds of Thomas Jefferson does not imply that the words and deeds of Thomas Jefferson were infallible. Furthermore Scripture gives no list of characters to whom infallibility is to be attributed nor any criteria for determining when their actions or words are infallible.

So when it comes to Scriptural inerrancy there is much less there than meets the positivist eye.

Biblical ‘literalism’ is another thing entirely. It assumes (incoherently) that Scriptural text in itself completely determines meaning, and asserts that the putative ‘literal’ interpretation is true.  This isn’t just wrong: it is rationally incoherent, because any text of sufficient complexity always underdetermines theories of what the text means.

Biblical literalism has a long pedigree, probably because the great majority of human beings throughout the great majority of history have not understood the limitations of text and meaning.  Text and meaning are just things we take for granted and don’t think much about in themselves. The longest lasting institution in all of history, the Roman Catholic Church, however, has always implicitly functioned on an understanding that literalism is incoherent. One might be tempted to attribute this to supernatural grace.

Attempting to interpret the Bible ‘literally’, then, is not something which I take particularly seriously, nor do I think anyone should take it particularly seriously. On the other hand, when talking to a whole society of people in the grip of a basic epistemological error you have to sometimes speak in terms that they can understand.

If I attempt to interpret the book of Deuteronomy like a literalist – and start at the beginning so that I am not pulling things out of context – I find that Moses attributes some things to the Lord and many more things to himself. He doesn’t explicitly assert any claims of infallibility for himself. Here is the first bit (Douay-Rheims), into which I have inserted the referent (Moses or the LORD) in [square brackets] in a number of places:

[1] These are the words, which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the plain wilderness, over against the Red Sea, between Pharan and Thophel and Laban and Haseroth, where there is very much gold: [2] Eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Cadesbarne. [3] In the fortieth year, the eleventh month, the first day of the month, Moses spoke to the children of Israel all that the Lord had commanded him to say to them: [4] After that he had slain Sehon king of the Amorrhites, who dwelt in Hesebon: and Og king of Basan who abode in Astaroth, and in Edrai, [5] Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab. And Moses began to expound the law, and to say:

[6] The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough in this mountain: [7] Turn you, and come to the mountain of the Amorrhites, and to the other places that are next to it, the plains and the hills and the vales towards the south, and by the sea shore, the land of the Chanaanites, and of Libanus, as far as the great river Euphrates. [8] Behold, said he, I [The LORD] have delivered it to you: go in and possess it, concerning which the Lord swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he would give it to them, and to their seed after them. [9] And I [Moses] said to you at that time: [10] I [Moses] alone am not able to bear you: for the Lord your God hath multiplied you, and you are this day as the stars of heaven, for multitude.

[11] (The Lord God of your fathers add to this number many thousands, and bless you as he hath spoken. [Moses speaks a blessing]) [12] I [Moses] alone am not able to bear your business, and the charge of you and your differences. [13] Let me have from among you wise and understanding men, and such whose conversation is approved among your tribes, that I [Moses] may appoint them your rulers. [14] Then you answered me: The thing is good which thou [Moses] meanest to do. [15] And I [Moses] took out of your tribes men wise and honourable, and appointed them rulers, tribunes, and centurions, and officers over fifties, and over tens, who might teach you all things.

[16] And I [Moses] commanded them, saying: Hear them, and judge that which is just: whether he be one of your country, or a stranger. [17] There shall be no difference of persons, you shall hear the little as well as the great: neither shall you respect any man’ s person, because it is the judgment of God. And if any thing seem hard to you, refer it to me [Moses], and I [Moses] will hear it. [18] And I [Moses] commanded you all things that you were to do. [19] And departing from Horeb, we passed through the terrible and vast wilderness, which you saw, by the way of the mountain of the Amorrhite, as the Lord our God had commanded us. And when we were come into Cadesbarne, [20] I [Moses] said to you: You are come to the mountain of the Amorrhite, which the Lord our God will give to us.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is like this, recounting the words and deeds of the man Moses, as spiritual and political leader of the Israelites, interspersed with specific things attributed by Moses to the LORD. We are given no recounting of how in particular the attribution is made, etc — whether it came in a dream or was recorded onto an SSD recorder at the site of the burning bush or whatever.

But in general it makes no sense in reading Deuteronomy to attribute things to God that Moses himself doesn’t attribute directly to God. (I am sure that God alone actually could ‘bear their business’ if He chose to).

Given that background we can look at the ‘offending’ passages in Deuteronomy 20 where Moses orders the genocide of the Canaanites.

[16] [Moses giving orders] But of those cities that shall be given thee, thou shalt suffer none at all to live: [17] But shalt kill them with the edge of the sword, to wit, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and the Chanaanite, the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: [After the colon, the command Moses attributes to the Lord] [18] Lest they teach you to do all the abominations which they have done to their gods: and you should sin against the Lord your God. [19] [Back to Moses giving orders] When thou hast besieged a city a long time, and hath compassed it with bulwarks to take it, thou shalt not cut down the trees that may be eaten of, neither shalt thou spoil the country round about with axes: for it is a tree, and not a man, neither can it increase the number of them that fight against thee. [20] But if there be any trees that are not fruitful, but wild, and fit for other uses, cut them down, and make engines, until thou take the city, which fighteth against thee.

As a literalist I had better not attribute things to God which are not explicitly attributed to Him.  The text doesn’t say that God was giving orders, it says that Moses was giving orders. This is clearly Moses speaking and commanding, much as he did when he told the Israelites that he (Moses) could not handle all the work of judging their disputes and appointed leaders to do that on his behalf.  God did not come down from the mountain and appoint the leaders, and it wasn’t God whose capacity to judge disputes was limited and required more manpower.  The thing Moses himself attributes to God is that the Israelites should not learn pagan ways and worship pagan gods. Moses himself doesn’t in any direct way attribute the means that he (Moses) chose to God.

Of course there are other ‘problemmatic’ passages which present different interpretive ‘difficulties’ for the literalist.

But if they are a problem for you, the problem arises not from Scripture or inerrancy but from the fact that you are a literalist.  A literalist is a kind of positivist, a person who is committed to the idea that text does not underdetermine meaning. But the way the world actually works, meaning actually is underdetermined by text.

So the thing to do isn’t to wrestle with conundrums like a literalist.  The thing to do is to stop being a literalist, because literalism rests on a false understanding of reality.

Hail Judas

September 8, 2014 § 17 Comments

Morality is the active aspect of holiness.

The resurrected Christ is Holy.

There had to be Good Friday in order for there to be Easter.

There had to be Judas and Pilate in order for there to be Good Friday.

There had to be Satan in the Garden in order for there to be Judas and Pilate.

Does it follow that Judas, Pilate, and Satan should be emulated as models of Christian holiness?

By their beheadings of children ye shall know them

September 5, 2014 § 32 Comments

The fruits of theological voluntarism as trump card over the natural law and the traditional understanding of the fifth commandment are on the front page.

“From this book, accordingly, we see that the religion of the Turks or Muhammad is far more splendid in ceremonies — and, I might almost say, in customs — than ours, even including that of the religious or all the clerics. The modesty and simplicity of their food, clothing, dwellings, and everything else, as well as the fasts, prayers, and common gatherings of the people that this book reveals are nowhere seen among us — or rather it is impossible for our people to be persuaded to them. Furthermore, which of our monks, be it a Carthusian (they who wish to appear the best) or a Benedictine, is not put to shame by the miraculous and wondrous abstinence and discipline among their religious? Our religious are mere shadows when compared to them, and our people clearly profane when compared to theirs. Not even true Christians, not Christ himself, not the apostles or prophets ever exhibited so great a display. This is the reason why many persons so easily depart from faith in Christ for Muhammadanism and adhere to it so tenaciously. I sincerely believe that no papist, monk, or cleric or their equal in faith would be able to remain in their faith if they should spend three days among the Turks. Here I mean those who seriously desire the faith of the pope and who are the best among them.”
– Martin Luther, preface to the Tract on the Religions and Customs of the Turks, published in 1530.

Everyone interprets Scripture in the light of the natural law

September 3, 2014 § 26 Comments

[2] You are our epistle, written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men: [3] Being manifested, that you are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, and written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart.

[15] But even until this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. – 2 Corinthians 3:2-3,15 (Rheims)

Consider two different people reading and interpreting Scripture. We know that incorrect interpretations of Scripture are possible. In fact incorrect interpretations probably outnumber correct interpretations by an order of magnitude, as attested by myriad conflicts over interpretation.

Suppose one reader is a sociopath and has no conception of moral right and wrong.

The other reader is a deeply moral person, a follower of Christ who participates in the life of the Church and the Sacraments.

Who do you think is more likely to propose false and incorrect interpretations?

The idea that interpreting Scripture in the light of the natural law, Christian tradition, and the teaching Magisterium places those things ahead of Scripture is risible.  It is as risible as proposing that understanding the meaning of words is placing the dictionary ahead of Scripture.

There are people who claim that they do not interpret Scripture in the light of their understanding of the natural law: that their approach to interpreting Scripture does not come with any metaphysical baggage. This claim is false. They do interpret Scripture in the light of their understanding of natural law.

But because they are unaware that they are doing so, their whole approach is sociopathic.

If you knew how to read, you would know that you are not God

September 1, 2014 § 58 Comments

There has been a bit of a hubbub lately about the Old Testament. Generally speaking there are two sides to the debate. One side considers it obvious that God directly ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites and other mass slaughter in the Old Testament, and concludes that therefore killing the innocent – persons not engaged in attacking behaviors and not being punished for specific deliberate crimes, infants being paradigmatic – cannot be always and intrinsically immoral. This side claims that the Old Testament cannot be inerrant unless their personal interpretations are correct.

The other side is not so stupid, unimaginative, and arrogant.

The inerrancy of the Bible doesn’t mean that your personal interpretation, or any particular interpretation, is true and correct.  It means that a true and correct interpretation exists.

Finite texts of sufficient complexity always underdetermine theories of meaning. If you have a theory of what a given text means, your personal theory is never the only possible theory of what the text means. This is built into the nature of symbols and meaning. In the context of interactive dialogue this becomes obscured, because interaction with the (presumed to be honest) speaker is possible to clarify meaning. But any ‘dead conversation’ is open to a multiplicity of interpretations.

The dilemma is falsely posed as pitting God “speaking directly” against the intrinsic immorality of murder. But that is just obviously nonsense. It is posed this way to beg the question: to invert the burden of proof.

When the Bible tells us that Samuel said “Thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts”, it is entirely possible that it is giving a literal account of words actually spoken by the actual prophet Samuel.  I rather expect that it is; although that is not the only possible interpretation, and inerrancy only really guarantees that true and accurate interpretations exist, it doesn’t guarantee that I have it right.

But Samuel saying those words as a formal preliminary to issuing commands doesn’t necessarily imply what folks think it implies. We know that, as Popes do now, prophets had authority from God. But the fact that Papal authority comes from God doesn’t imply that every word and deed of every Pope is tantamount to a literal act of God. In reality Papal infallibility is something very rarely invoked, and the use of a formal introduction for the words of a Prophet doesn’t convert those words into a set of axiomatic syllogisms from which a positivist theory of everything can be constructed. Samuel’s formalism could conceivably mean that God actually spoke those words from a burning bush; but in the full context of the OT that seems less than likely.  At best we can say that we don’t really know whether the formalism “thus sayeth the Lord of Hosts” is a formality – like the wearing of a crown – when the prophet gives orders.

What is being pitted against each other is some folks’ personal interpretations of the OT against the intrinsic immorality of murder. Understood this way the conclusion is manifest and immediate: those folks’ personal interpretations are wrong. Whatever the right interpretation might be, that particular interpretation is falsified. That you are wrong in how you interpret the Bible doesn’t threaten the Bible’s inerrancy: it threatens your personal world view. If that amounts to a “red pill” – perhaps the beginning of an understanding that positivism is modernist nonsense and that sola scriptura is positivist – then, in the words of the Prophet Morpheus, welcome to the real world.

If you read the Bible and come to the conclusion that a bedrock Christian doctrine such as the absolute prohibition of murder under the natural law is wrong, this doesn’t demonstrate a problem with bedrock Christian doctrine. It demonstrates a problem with you. If your reaction to this is some sort of outrage, some notion that you just must be right in your personal interpretations because God would never be so tricky as to construct a world in which positivism is a false and deceiving lie, then you’ve got some work to do.  But the work you have to do is on yourself.  Nobody ever guaranteed you a world in which positivism is a coherent epistemology.


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