Bambi, Evil and Unjustifiable Inferences

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1. The Problem

One of the most well-known arguments against the existence of God, from the existence of evil, is the one proposed by William Rowe in his paper, The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism. As a sort of springboard to the evidential argument from evil, Rowe’s paper and the response-papers that flowed from it, are instructive for apologists who are working through theodicies and defenses. Below then, is Rowe’s popular argument explained, followed by a particular response that many have found especially thoughtful.

To begin with, Rowe’s paper centers around the following syllogism: 1

i) There exists instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some great good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse

ii) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

iii) Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Now, premiss (ii) is relatively uncontroversial since Christian’s agree that God (an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly-good Being) will permit evil to occur only if He has sufficient reasons for doing so (i.e. to acheive a greater good, or prevent a worse evil). Thus, Rowe dedicates the bulk of his paper in support of premiss (i).

2. Bambi in the Fire

In support of premiss (i) Rowe offers the illustration of a fawn which has been horribly burnt in a forest fire and eventually dies after days of agony. Now, Rowe does concede that, “…if the intense suffering leads to some greater good, a good we could not have obtained without undergoing the suffering in question, we might conclude that the suffering is justified.” 2

However, Rowe argues, “So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good…the fawn’s suffering would require…” 3 Therefore, although one cannot definitively prove that (i) is true, Rowe believes that it is altogether reasonable to believe that (i) is a rational belief. 4

That is, since we cannot perceive any greater good that an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being could have for permitting the fawn’s suffering, Rowe concludes that we are “rationally justified” in believing that such a being does not exist; for if it did, then it would have prevented the fawn’s  suffering.

3. Rowe’s Unjustified Inference

Rowe’s entire argument is an inference from, “as far as we can see there is no greater good connected to the fawn’s suffering” to the conclusion, “we are rationally justified in believing that there is no greater good connected to the fawn’s suffering.” That is, “since we do not see a greater good, it is reasonable to believe that there is no greater good.”

This inference however, makes the assumption that if there were a greater good connected to the fawn’s suffering, then we would have known about it. But the question is, as Alvin Plantinga asked, “Why suppose that if God does have a reason for permitting evil, the theist [and/or the atheist] would be the first to know?” 5

a. Wykstra’s Response

Expanding on Plantinga, Stephen Wykstra argues that moving from “so far as we can tell, there is no greater good” to “there probably is no greater good” is only justifiable if one is confident that he has “epistemic access” to all the possible reasons God could have for permitting evil. 6 That is, we can argue from, “we see no X to “there is definitely no X” only if X has reasonable “seeability,” to use Wykstra’s words.

If, for example, Beth does not see any elephants in her kitchen, then she is certainly rational in inferring that there are indeed no elephants in her kitchen; for if there were, it is likely that she would see them. However, if she does not see a mosquito in her kitchen, is she equally as rational in inferring that there are no mosquitos in her kitchen? One wouldn’t think so. This is because mosquitos have low “seeability”.

4. Conclusion

Now, at its core, Rowe’s argument claims that one is rationally justified in believing that God does not exist in light of gratuitous (apparently pointless) evil. However, we have seen that this argument rests on an inference from “we see no possible reason that a God could have for allowing certain evils” to “there are no possible reasons that a God could have for allowing certain evils.” This inference however, is thoroughly unjustified for we are simply not in the epistemic position to make such an inferential leap.

It is certainly possible that God could have a whole host of reasons for permitting evils which lay outside the purview of mankind. Thus, given our epistemic limitations, we are by no means justified in believing that God does not exist in light of “apparently” pointless evils.

Although Rowe’s argument is commendable, all he has offered us in the end, is an autobiographical report of his epistemic limitations (“as far as I can tell”).


Notes:

  1. William L Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Oct., 1979): 335
  2. Ibid., 337
  3. Ibid., 337.
  4. Ibid., 338
  5. Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 165.
  6. Stephen J. Wykstra, “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of Appearance,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16, no. 2 (1984): 73-93.

On the Coherence of the Incarnation

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1. The Problem

According the the doctrine of the Incarnation (or the Hypostatic Union), Christ possesses both a divine and human nature. This however, seems to create a paradox; for to say that Christ is divine and human simultaneously, is to say that Christ possesses contradictory attributes. Thus, Christ would be weak and yet omnipotent – ignorant and yet omniscient – finite and yet infinite at the same time! This is surely counterintuitive and therefore many have charged the Incarnation as being a logically incoherent doctrine. John Hick writes, “…to say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that this circle drawn with a pencil is also square…” 1

2. The Solution

The charge of logical incoherence is a very serious one, for if it can be demonstrated that the Incarnation is a logically fallacious doctrine, then it must be false, necessarily. However, if a coherent model of the Incarnation can be offered – one which unites full deity and full humanity in the Person of Christ – then the charge of logical coherence fails. With the help of Millard Erickson, JP Moreland and William Lane Craig, I will sketch such a model using two planks: 1) The Logos was the rational soul of Jesus of Nazareth 2) The Logos always functioned within the limitations of His humanity.

a. The Logos as the Rational Soul of Christ

Genesis 1:27 states that man is made in the “image of God.” Although there is debate on what this means, I think Millard Erickson is correct when he argues that the image is, “…located within humans as a resident quality or capacity.” 2. That is, “the image” refers to all those qualities and capacities, in man, that directly reflect God’s own qualities and capacities.

Now if this is true, it follows that, prior to the Incarnation, the Logos (as a member of the Godhead) possessed all those properties which serve to constitute a complete human nature, lacking only physicality (i.e. a human body). Thus Moreland and Craig write, “…in assuming a hominid body the Logos brought to Christ’s animal nature just those properties that would serve to make it a complete human nature. Thus the human nature of Christ was complete precisely in virtue of the union of his flesh with the Logos.” 3

Now this model succeeds in uniting two complete natures in Christ – His divine nature being essential in virtue of His participation in the Godhead and His human nature being contingent, yet complete, in virtue of His union with flesh. Therefore, this first plank achieves precisely what it sought to do.

b. The Logos Functioning within the Limitations of His Humanity

If the Logos was indeed the rational of Christ, as proposed above, then the rest of the Incarnational puzzle seems to fall into place quite nicely. As Erickson writes, “By taking on a human nature, he [Christ] accepted certain limitations upon the functioning of his divine attributes…this should not be considered a reduction of the power and capabilities of the Second Person of the Trinity, but rather a circumstance-induced limitation on the exercise of his power and capabilities.” 4

So then, the incarnation is not really a matter of Christ “being” omnipotent and
weak simultaneously – the Logos remained omnipotent even after assuming flesh, but by doing so, He chose to operate with a very limited allotment of His divine capabilities. Thus, although He was inherently omniscient, Jesus could honestly say that He did not know the date of His return (Mark 13:32) since He chose to keep the scope of His knowledge within the confines of His human nature.

In short, Christ possessed the fullness of His divine attributes subsequent to the Incarnation, but by becoming man, He voluntarily chose to function within the limitations of humanity.

3. Conclusion

This model should not be taken as biblical certainty. It is merely a logically coherent model which demonstrates that the Incarnation is not in fact fallacious. If it is even possible that the 1) Logos assumed flesh 2) completed His human nature by doing so, and 3) Chose to function within the confines of humanity – then the charge of logical incoherence has failed and the Incarnation has been successfully defended.


Notes:

  1. John Hick, The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 178.
  2. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 523.
  3. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 598.
  4. Erickson, Christian Theology, 752

Some Insufficient Models of the Incarnation

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1. Introduction

Scripture reveals that, at the Incarnation, the Logos (the 2nd Person of the Trinity) became man. John writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 cf. 14). This does not imply the forfeiting of divinity, but the addition of a human nature to the Logos’ inherent divine nature.

During the first 4 ½ centuries of the church, many insufficient models of the Incarnation were constructed in order to explain this apparent paradox. Although none of these ancient models ultimately succeed, there is much value in studying them; for those who are ignorant of past failures may be susceptible to those failures themselves.

2. Nestorianism

Bishop of Antioch, Nestorius, took issue with the popular reference to Mary as Theotokos (mother of God) by arguing that a human woman could not have “generated a member of the Godhead.” 1 Mary, Nestorius contended, was merely the means by which God became man and therefore, Nestorius proposed the term Christotokos (mother of Christ) instead. 2 This lead to a long, complex, and aggressive dispute between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria, who accused Nestorius of teaching that there existed two separate persons in Christ. 3

Now, even though Nestorius denied ever teaching such a doctrine, he was indeed condemned as a heretic at the Council of Ephesus (431) for holding to the theory that there exists two persons (two distinct individuals) in Christ. Whether or not Nestorius himself was justly condemned, the Council of Ephesus was correct to condemn the theory that bore his name – Nestorianism. In the end, Nestorianism does not constitute a union of Christ’s natures, but simply juxtaposes the natures side by side while adorning the human nature with an entirely separate intellect. Wayne Grudem writes;

Nowhere in Scripture do we have an indication that the human nature of Christ, for example, is an independent person, deciding to do something contrary to the divine nature of Christ. Nowhere do we have an indication of the human and divine natures talking to each other or struggling within Christ, or any such thing. Rather, we have a consistent picture of a single person acting in wholeness and unity. 4

3. Monophysitism

The teaching known as Monophysitism (or Eutychianism) held that the human nature of Christ was absorbed into the divine nature, resulting in a third, composite nature (a God-man nature). 5 A good analogy of this view is to picture ink being dropped into a glass of water. As the ink spreads throughout the glass, the substance is no longer water, nor is it ink – it becomes a kind of third substance (ink-water). This reveals the problem with Monophysitism. To say that Christ has a composite, “God-man” nature, is to say that Christ is not genuinely divine or genuinely human! Thus, Monophysitism fails to offer a sufficient model of the incarnation as it assaults both the deity and humanity of Christ simultaneously.

4. Apollinarianism

Apollinarius was determined to maintain the unity of the Person of Christ as he sought to construct a Christological model that successfully united humanity and divinity. One of the keys to understanding Apollinarius’ model of the incarnation lay in his anthropology. 6 Apollinarius believed that every human being consists of three parts; a body (soma), an animal soul (psyche) and a rational soul (nous).  7

Now,  as J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig indicate, “The nous [the rational soul] was conceived to be the seat of the sinful instincts.” 8 So to say that Christ took on a full, tripartite human nature (including a rational soul) was absurd to Apollinarius as this would imply that Christ actually took on a depraved soul at the Incarnation! But, this could not be the case, since Christ was sinless and perfect.

Therefore, Apollinarius argued that Christ did not actually add another rational soul (nous) to Himself at His Incarnation, but only added a human body (soma) and animal soul (psyche) to Himself. 9 On this model, the human nous (soul) was simply substituted for the divine Logos, which resulted in Jesus being human physically, but not psychologically. 10

As ingenious as Apollinarius’ model was, it suffered from two deficiencies which his contemporaries saw as especially detrimental. Firstly, his model truncates humanity. That is, by merely assuming human body (soma) and animal soul (psyche), the Logos did not become entirely human because the nous (the rational soul) is an essential element of humanity 11 Secondly, if Christ lacked a human soul, then the human soul was not redeemed on the cross. The entire rationale behind the Incarnation was that in order to save humanity, Christ needed to become human – not semi-human. The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect…to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). As it stood then, Apollinarianism fails as a model of the Incarnation because it: 1) denies the full humanity of Christ, which 2) eliminated the efficacy of the cross.

5. Adoptionism

In its simplest form, Adoptionism is the theory that Jesus was a typical man who, at His baptism, was “adopted” by God, becoming His Son. The rationale behind this theory is largely defended by those verses that refer to the Son as “begotten.” The author of Hebrews for example, quotes Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” two times and applies it to Christ (Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). Adoptionists then, would not think of Jesus as divine in nature, but as someone who was uniquely empowered by God. 12

The problem with this theory is twofold. Firstly, Adoptionism is more the idea that a man became God. 13 However, Scripture clearly teaches the opposite. John tells us that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 cf. 1:14). Secondly, Adoptionism assaults the pre-existence of the Son. The divine Son did not have a beginning. This  is why Jesus could say, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; cf. Exodus 3:14). Therefore, Adoptionism fails to constitute a sufficient model of the Incarnation.


Notes:

  1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 729-730
  2. Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 92.
  3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 245.
  4. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 554.
  5. Ibid., 555.
  6. Ibid., 554.
  7. Ibid.,555
  8. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 598.
  9. Ibid.,599.
  10. Erickson, Christian Theology, 730.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 245.
  13. Erickson, Christian Theology, 747.