Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hyperbolic Paraboloids are Yummy

Megan recently had a lesson on hyperbolic paraboloids. So we looked them up. We found that they're really yummy. So now the children ask for them by name -- hyperbolic paraboloids. Yum!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Does God's Chariot-Eagle Really Eat Human Flesh?

None of the several commentaries I refer to when developing my classes on Revelation discuss in the context of Rev 19.17-18 that the birds that are assembled to eat the flesh of God's enemies are those that fly in "midheaven." Ignoring that, the commentators (correctly) point out that being food for the birds is a sign of the curse (see, e.g., Dt 28.26). This is pertinent given the traditional interpretation that Rev 19 teaches the unredemptive destruction of God's enemies.

But I wonder.

I see redemption in Rev 19 -- the harlot city of Rev 19.1-6 (and of Rev 17-18 & etc.) is transformed into the Lamb's bride in Rev 19.7-10 via the means identified in Rev 19.11-21. In particular, the Gentiles are redeemed by Jesus' Word in Rev 19.15, and the Jews are redeemed by Jesus' Word in Rev 19.21. Particularly the latter folk -- those who bear the mark of the beast (idolatrous Israel) -- are literally a part of the harlot city (Jerusalem), but nonetheless are redeemed by Christ's Word. (This is the Dt 28/30 pattern I discussed a few days ago.)

So the idea that the birds eating the flesh of God's enemies is a sign of a cursed judgment seems dissonant with the larger trajectory of redemption in the passage. Hence, my wonder whether commentators are getting the nature of the birds right here. That said, the Word has a double-sided effect -- its cut can convict unto redemption or unto the hardening of the heart. I don't contest that notion, but I do want to push a bit on the nature of the birds that do the eating in Rev 19, and push back a bit on the notion that the flesh-eating birds here are necessarily a sign of the curse.

Here's the text: "Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, 'Come, assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.'"

As I mentioned above, what makes me wonder is the additional detail that the birds feasting on the flesh are those that fly in "midheaven."

The Scriptures do discuss birds that fly in "midheaven." To wit, in Rev 8.13 we have this: "Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, 'Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!'"

This "eagle" here would seem to be one of the four beasts or faces on God's glory chariot -- Ez 1.10, 10.14, Rev 4.7. As we see below, God's chariot flies in the firmament between the heaven and the earth, i.e., in the "middle" heaven ("mid-heaven") between the highest heaven where God dwells and the lowest heaven where clouds float and ordinary birds fly.

So the one example we have of the type of bird that flies in midheaven is of a bird that talks and warns, even prophesies (Rev 8.13), and is a beast on God's glory-chariot (Rev 4.7, cf., Rev 12.14).

Without putting too fine a point on it, do we really believe that the beasts on God's glory-chariot eat human flesh? Or is it possible that these beasts eat flesh in the same way that the sword that comes out of Jesus' mouth in Rev 19.15, 19.21 or are "killed" by Jesus Word Sword? I.e., they are killed, and resurrected. So here, the mid-heaven birds consume the corrupt flesh of the harlot city, allowing the rebirth of the Harlot-City as the redeemed Bride-City.

More generally, recall that Paul writes about being caught up to the “third heaven” (2 Co 12.2), which implies the existence of a first and a second heaven. Scripture also often speaks of “highest heavens” Dt 10.14, 1 Kings 8.27, Ps 68.33.

The “first” heaven is, presumably, the earth’s air in which ordinary birds fly and rain clouds float (Gn 1.20, Ps 8.8, Dt 11.11).

The “third” or “highest” heaven, then, is presumably God’s throne room which is above/with the waters above the firmament (Ps 148.4).

The “second” heaven would appear to be the firmament itself (Gn 1.8), or mid-heaven. This is, presumably, the heaven through which Jesus penetrates and passes through in his ascension on his way to God’s throne room (Heb 4.14, Eph 4.10). This is also that heaven in which the beasts of the glory-chariot are set, including the Eagle. Ex 26.31, Ez 1.22, 26, 10.1. This is also where the cherubim are set -- recall that the veil in the tabernacle/temple had cherubim woven into it. It is through this that the high priest must pass when entering the holiest of holies, cf., the guardian cherubim in Gn 3.24 that hold flaming swords.

Like the work of the cherubim's flaming swords, Jesus' word is a sword that cuts (Heb 4.12, Acts 2.37, 5.33, 7.54) and is a fire that burns (Lk 24.32,Acts 2.3-4, cf., Jer 20.9). But it cuts and burns unto life. So I wonder if, like the cherubim in mid-heaven with their flaming swords that now do not simply kill but resurrect in Christ, the birds of mid-heaven not only kill in the eating, but resurrect the dead flesh as well.

If so, then we can take the birds of midheaven eating the flesh of those slain by the sword coming out of Christ’s mouth to mean that the flesh of the folks who were slain by the Word of God have died utterly, and a new man born from the corpse (cf., Ez 37).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Conservative Opposition to Health Care Leads them to Embrace Plebiscitary Democarcy

I oppose the current health-care bill, but a lot of conservative/Republican commentary over the bill is silly and annoying. One of the more annoying arguments in my book is the argument deployed by all stripes of conservative commentators about how the health care bill should not be enacted because polls show that a majority of Americans currently oppose the bill.

Well, shoot, as the old conservative adage used to go, "America is not a democracy, it's a republic." (In this context we should recall that Madison famously, if idiosyncratically, defined a "republic" to be a "representative democracy.") That is, a central political truth about the U.S. is that it is a representative democracy, and not a democracy in the pure sense of direct rule by the people. The Constitution's framers thought that was a good thing, not a bad thing. Ironically, it was the Progressive's who criticized representative government for blocking the will of the people. And now conservatives have adopted the Progressive's rhetoric of attacking constitutional principles to serve in a policy debate.

So now it's the conservative ox that is getting gored, and conservatives now discover that they love plebiscitary democracy. It's just nonsense. I think it's proper to attempt to leverage political opposition to the bill by pointing out to legislators that they may put their political careers at risk by voting for the bill. But that's a different argument than saying that Congress should not enact the bill today because over 50 percent of the American public opposes it, as if popular opposition to a bill had some sort of normative claim on what Congress can or should enact today. That claim -- now deployed by conservatives -- is one that undermines the theory underlying the U.S. constitutional system. Real conservatives do not employ that argument.

Spinal Tap -- Gimme Some Money

I played this once for Megan. Then she began going around the house singing the song. Then Jack picked it up also. It's a really funny song from Spinal Tap's "sixties" phase.

Even if "Deem and Pass" is Unconstitutional Does Not Mean that Courts would Strike Down the Health Care Bill

I think that there is a credible case that "deem and pass" enactment of the health care bill would be unconstitutional -- the procedure seems to require "contingent" passage of provisions in a bill , which a fair reading of the language in the Constitution (art. 1, sec. 7) doesn't seem to allow. But just because the enactment procedure would be unconstitutional, does not mean that courts would strike it down as unconstitutional.

There are two judicial doctrines that might prevent courts from ruling on the constitutionality of a law enacted (or purportedly enacted) via a "deem and pass" process.

First, there is something called the "enrolled bill" doctrine. This doctrine provides that once a law is enacted by the legislature and signed by the president or governor, courts will assume that the law was enacted following proper legislative procedures. The rule seems aimed largely to prevent laws from being struck down when passed in good faith, but some technicality in the legislative process was ignored. For example, the texts of a senate bill and a house bill have minor language variances and, therefore, are not technically the same bill.

That said, there are some questions about the application of the doctrine to "deem and pass." First, courts do not necessarily apply the doctrine absolutely; some courts say that the "enrolled bill" is only evidence of the bill, and are willing to push back behind the executive signature to look at the text of the bills the respective chambers enacted. (I don't know how much further beyond the chamber enactments courts have been willing to push, however, which would be important in this case.) There are also suggestions that the enrolled bill doctrine has less application in cases where constitutionally-required rules were ignored, relative to rules adopted by each chamber for its own governance, but are not constitutionally specified.

Another reason that, even if "deem and pass" is unconstitutional, a court would not strike it down, is the so-called "political questions" doctrine. Here, as a matter of another constitutional principle -- the separate of powers -- courts refuse to involve themselves in constitutional judgment dedicated to other branches of the government. E.g., federal courts have said that whether a state has a "republican form of government" (as required by art. 4, sec 4) is a judgment given for Congress to make rather than the courts. As a result, the courts would be usurping congressional prerogative by making that judgment, and therefore courts refuse to make the judgment. (Interestingly, the text of Article 4, however, does not state that this judgment is given exclusively to the Congress.) It seems possible that the courts would conclude that whether a bill has "passed" a legislative chamber is constitutionally committed to the chamber itself, or to Congress as a whole and that, therefore, the courts will not review the judgment out of separation-of-power concerns.

So simply concluding that "deem and pass" is unconstitutional does not resolve the matter of whether Congress and the president could nonetheless use the procedure to enact a law that the courts would allow to be implemented.

One final note -- folks today often think that judges are the primary enforcers of constitutional requirements against politicians who ignore those requirements. That position would have shocked the framers of the U.S. Constitution. While they recognized the need for auxiliary precautions against unconstitutional actions, the primary enforcers of constitutional principles was supposed to be the people themselves in the ballot box. It is a dereliction of the constitutional duty of the people for us to hand that responsibility over to judges.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

We're listening to "Spirit of the Century" by the Blind Boys of Alabama

The songs on the album are largely a bluesy-gospel sort of thing. Very nice. The show, "The Wire," used their version of "Way Down in the Hole" as its theme song in the show's second season. You can listen to the song here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Chiastic Argument for the Sufficiency of Scripture in Irenaeus's "Against Heresies"

Looking through some old posts I ran across this one, which I posted some time ago. I still like the argument, so I thought I'd repost.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, wrote Against Heresies toward the end of the second century, A.D. In book III of Against Heresies, Irenaeus advances an extended argument about the sources of truth for the heretic and the Christian. Roman Catholics often point to Irenaeus’s discussion as an early recognition of tradition as a source of authority independent from the Scriptures.

The funny thing is that, years and years ago, I read Against Heresies, as it were, as an innocent. I was simply interested in reading some of the early church fathers. A few years later, when I was in conversation with a pious, Roman Catholic academic, he appealed to Irenaeus's argument at the beginning of book III as establishing the independent authority of tradition, and the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the Christian church. That surprised me, because while I recalled that tradition and Rome were discussed there, I had actually taken the overall import of Irenaeus's argument in book III to be one in favor of the Scriptures as a sufficient authority for the Christian.

Just to be clear, let me underscore that I understood Irenaeus’s argument to be one of the sufficiency of the Scriptures for the Christian, not the necessity of the Scriptures for the Christian. Indeed, even in Protestant churches, unlearned people receive the Gospel orally from preachers rather than directly from the Scriptures themselves. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided what is orally communicated is consistent with what the Scriptures teach. Indeed, there really isn’t much of an alternative, as a practical matter (Ro 10.14).

But the thing is, in my reading, I never got the upshot of Irenaeus’s argument to be aimed at establishing tradition as an independent source of doctrine not taught by the Scriptures, nor that the Roman church had unique authority relative to other churches that were established by the apostles. It's of course possible that I misread Irenaeus's argument, but on revisiting it in my conversation it didn't seem to me that I had gotten it wrong, and my Roman Catholic discussant said that he agreed after all that the argument from that text wasn't as strong as he thought it had been.

I understood Irenaeus’s argument to have a chiastic structure that aims at vindicating the Scriptures (again, as sufficient authority, not as necessary authority). It seemed to me then, and seems to me today, that understanding the overall arc of Irenaeus’s argument requires understanding the chaistic structure of his argument in book III. Doing so seems to me to pretty much eliminate the idea that Irenaeus is arguing for tradition as an independent source of authority for doctrines not taught in the Scriptures.

I’ll sketch what I take to the Irenaeus’s chiastic structure in the early chapters of Book III, then I’ll copy part of the text (below). I encourage any interested reader to read the unedited text, which can be found in numerous books and on the web. My goal when I first read Irenaeus (not knowing the role it played in RC apologetics) was to give the text a sympathetic reading, and that continues to be my goal.

Anyway, here’s how I understand the structure of Irenaeus’s argument at the beginning of Book III:

A. (3.1.1-2) We learn salvation from what the apostles preached in public & “handed down to us in the Scriptures.”

B. (3.2.1) When confronted with Scripture, the heretics say that we need tradition in order to understand the Scriptures rightly. This is an oral tradition of doctrines not contained in the Scriptures.

C. (3.2.1) When confronted with orthodox tradition, the heretics reject tradition.

C’. (3.3.1-3) If you say you believe in tradition, you at least have to accept the tradition in the church of Rome because we can trace the succession of bishops there. The heretics can't point to any better candidate for authoritative tradition than that. (Nonetheless, the tradition is manifested in churches “throughout the whole world," but it would be "tedious" to reckon succession in all churches.)

B’. (3.4.1) Tradition confirms what the Scriptures teach.
i. “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings?”
ii. How else could illiterate people know the Gospel?

A’. (3.5.1.) Therefore, on the basis of their own argument, the heretics must accept arguments based by an appeal to the Scriptures. And so I will "revert" to appealing to Scripture as authoritative refutation of heretical doctrines.

Irenaeus goes on to use the authority of the Scriptures as the conclusion of reductio arguments against the heretics. For example, in 3.11.9, Irenaeus argues:

For if what [the Valentinians] have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, then that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth.

There only reason that he can advance this argument is that he thinks that he has already established that the Valentinians must accept the authority of the Scriptures. Hence, if he can show that their argument is inconsistent with Scriptures, then he's made his point, and the Valentinians must reject the disputed doctrine in favor of the orthodox affirmation.

There is lots to learn from Irenaeus that doesn’t concern modern disputes over the source(s) of authority for the church. Nonetheless, Irenaeus seems to me to teach us two things in the context of arguments between Rome and Wittenberg.

First, tradition is the best that people can do who do not have the Scriptures or who are illiterate. Indeed, if there were no Scriptures there would be no alternative to learning the Gospel from what was handed down orally. But in Irenaeus, tradition is a second-best alternative to the Scriptures. It would be used if we do not have the Scriptures or if we could not read the Scriptures. The Scriptures, by themselves, however, are a sufficiently complete expression of apostolic teaching. The Scriptures are, according to Irenaeus, “the ground and pillar of our faith” (3.1.1-2, cf., 1 Tm 3.15).

Secondly, Irenaeus’ argument for Rome and tradition is nested in this larger argument for Scriptural authority against the heretics. His argument from tradition is aimed at a group that says they do not accept the Scriptures, but accepts an oral tradition that teaches doctrines not taught in the Scriptures. Irenaeus raises the ante on tradition – arguing that if you want tradition you can’t do any better than the tradition in the churches founded by the apostles – and then uses that tradition to force the heretics, as it were, to accept the authority of the Scriptures.

Finally, Irenaeus’s argument is that the Roman church is a “preeminent authority” because, up to that time, she has “preserved continuously” the “apostolical tradition.” Remember Irenaeus’s argument: If you heretics want to appeal to tradition instead of the Scriptures, you can’t do any better than appealing to Rome (and the other apostolic churches). Irenaeus’s argument doesn't pertain to asserting tradition as a source of authority against those who accept and appeal to the Scriptures. Indeed, the irony is that affirming an unwritten, oral tradition of doctrines not also affirmed in the Scriptures is what Irenaeus criticizes the heretics for. It seems to me a real inversion of his argument for modern Roman Catholics then to appeal to it as evidence precisely for an unwritten, oral tradition of doctrines that are not taught in the Scriptures.

Irenaeus’s argument begins with the sufficiency of the Scriptures (3.1.1-2) and ends with the sufficiency of the Scriptures (3.5.1). Giving Irenaeus’s argument the most honest reading I am able, it does not establish tradition as an authority with any content distinct from the Scriptures, and it does not establish Rome as any authority independent of her faithfulness to the Scriptures. It seems to me that a reader can tease out an argument for an unwritten tradition that contains doctrines not taught in the Scriptures only by ignoring how Irenaeus's argument about tradition fits in the chiastic arc of his broader argument about the Scriptures.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Deuteronomy 28/30 Pattern in the Revelation to John

We’ve spent about a year so far in Sunday School going verse by verse through the Revelation to John. My main interpretive approach has been that we should read the book as we read the other prophetic books: Just as, say, the prophecies of Jeremiah had immediate application to Jeremiah’s day, and thus need to be read “preteristically” in order to be understood properly, so, also, Jeremiah is a book for the ages, to instruct God’s people in all times, and so needs to be read with that end in mind as well.

It is not entirely wrong to characterize the book as being "about" judgment on Israel for killing her king - who is now resurrected and ascended at the right hand of power. That the king she murdered is now resurrected and sitting at the right hand of power means that it is definitely "Oh, oh" time for Israel (Acts 2.36-37). But while not entirely inaccurate, it is not entirely accurate either. The pattern of judgment for Israel is not “merely” Deuteronomy 28. The pattern is instead what I call the Deuteronomy 28/30 pattern – judgment, then repentance and return. The restoration in Dt 30 is absolutely integral to understanding both the purpose and effect of the judgment detailed in Deuteronomy 28. The pattern of judgment, then restoration is integral to the entire witness of the Scriptures, both in God's dealings with corporate entities as well as with individuals (see, e.g., Ro 11.28-32, Heb 12.4-11, & etc.).

In connection with the Revelation to John, we see this pattern as well in the overthrowing of the Harlot-City (which is Jerusalem, Rev 11.8 & etc.). There is, to be sure, a physical quality to this overthrow in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman beast in 70 A.D. (Rev 17.16-18). But the greater defeat for Satan is not the physical annihilation of the Harlot City -- indeed, annihilation would in a sense be ultimate victory for Satan, as the Bride would destroyed, and so she could not be a consort for her Lord (which is why God created her in the first place). Rather, the greater defeat for Satan is the restoration and transformation of the Harlot into the Bride of the Lamb. This is the both/and nature of the Deuteronomy 28/30 pattern.

So here’s the movement that I see in Rev 19: The final defeat of the Harlot is described in vv. 1-4. Then, suggestively, the text immediately shifts in vv. 5-11 to describing the Bride of the Lamb, who is now prepared for the betrothal/wedding ceremony. Verses 12-21 then tell us how the Harlot is transformed into the Bride. (There is, obviously, a huge Hosea theme going on here.)

First, for Israel, while the demonic beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, the kings of the land of Israel, that is, those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image (counterfeits of the godly marks on forehead and hand, Rev 13.16, 14.9, cf., Rev 7.3, 9.4, 14.1, Ex 13.9. 16, Ex 28.38, Dt 6.8, 11.18) are “killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse” (Rev 19.21).

So, too, the Gentile nations are slain by the Rider in the same manner: “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter’” (Rev 19.15).

Now, of course, the “sword that comes out of the mouth of the rider of the horse” is the Word of God. Is 49.1-7 (esp. v. 2, cf. Is 11.4), Eph 6.17, Heb 4.12, Rev 2.12, 16. Acts 2.37, 5.33, 7.54 (cf., Lk 24.32). Of interest also is that the “rod of iron” by which the King disciplines and rules the nations directly (Ps 2.9 and Rev 12.5), and through his people (Rev 2.9), is the Word of God (cf., Mt 28.18-20). Christ's kingship is exercised by the preaching of the word; that is Christ's rulership over the nations.

But we already know that God conquers not merely by killing, but by killing and resurrecting – Ro 6.4, 6, 8, Gal 2.20, Col 2.20, 3.3, 2 Tim 2.11, 2 Co 5.14, 17. This is the Deuteronomy 28/30 pattern for Israel in general, but also for every Christian individually as well.

But back to the message of the Revelation, we would seem to see this restoration worked out in history as well. As the late Richard John Neuhaus observed in the February 2005 issue of “First Things”:

“Scholars generally agree that in the first century there were approximately six million Jews in the Roman Empire . . . That was about one tenth of the entire population. About one million were in Palestine, including today’s State of Israel, while those in the diaspora were very much part of the establishment in cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople. . . . Some scholars have noted that, by the fourth or fifth century, there were only a few hundred thousand, at most a million, people who identified themselves as Jews. What happened to the millions of others? The most likely answer, it is suggested, is that they became Christians.”

Judgment, then restoration. The Harlot-City of the “adulterous generation” that Jesus spoke to (Mt 12.39, 16.4) becomes the New Jerusalem of purity and glory. But the glory of the new is greater than mere restoration, for it encompasses both Jew and Gentile (Is 49.6).

Monday, March 08, 2010

A Couple of News Reports about Christians & Muslims in Indonesia & Nigeria

Indonesia here, and Nigeria here.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

ISI American Civics Quiz

Take the quiz -- if you dare. :-)

I've posted this link before. I think ISI revised parts of the quiz - I recall that some of the questions in the original quiz were poorly worded, and the questions here seemed pretty clear. (Although [insert embarassed cough here], I did score 100% on the original quiz, as well as on this version of the quiz). The question on Keynesianism is still somewhat poorly worded (but I won't say why so I don't spoil the question for you).

The Queen of the Night Aria from the "Magic Flute"

We've been listening to this quite a bit recently, and have the entire opera on CD to watch this weekend.

Bumper Sticker I Saw Today

A sort of funny bumper sticker I saw today -- "War never solved anything . . . except for slavery, facism, Nazism, and communism."