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Divine Command Theory and Utilitarianism forgotten bedfellows? Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (part one)

January 16th, 2018 by Matt
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This post is adapted from a short essay I wrote on William Paley’s Ethics

In a widely used textbook, James Rachels refers to “revolution in ethics” which occurred in the 18-19th centuries.  Referring to upheavals such as the American Revolution, French Revolution, Rachel’s contends that people began to think differently about Ethics. There arose “A new conception of ethics” a conception we today call “utilitarianism”. Rachels states that this was a theory of ethics “proposed by David Hume (1711-1776) but given definitive formulation by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill ( 806-1873)”  Rachel’s continues:paley

Bentham’s argument for a new conception of ethics had a powerful influence. Morality, he [Bentham] urged is not a matter of pleasing God, nor is it about following abstract rules; Rather, morality is nothing more than the attempt to bring about as much happiness as possible into the world[1]

This picture of the history of moral thought seems to be widely held. Stephen Nathanson, for example, writes that utilitarians:

[R]eject moral codes or systems that consist of commands or taboos that are based on customs, traditions, or orders given by leaders or supernatural beings. Instead, utilitarians think that what makes a morality be true or justifiable is its positive contribution to human (and perhaps non-human) beings.[2]

The story draws a contrast between moral theories which based morality on divine commands or divine laws and those based on human happiness. The claim is that Utilitarianism was a new or novel theory of ethics proposed by secular thinkers such as Hume and Bentham in the late 18th century. This new happiness based conception was in contrast to and replaced the divine command conception. Utilitarianism is associated with social and political radicalism and the upheavals that followed the American revolution and French revolutions and so is seen not just as secular, but radical.

I maintain this story is untrue, manifestly untrue when one examines 18th-century moral thought. I can’t spell all the ins and outs here, so will focus on one book that this narrative fails to come to grips with. This is William Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (henceforth The Principles) which was first published in 1785, four years before Jeremy Bentham published An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Paley book is significant for three reasons: First, it is a clear presentation of the position known as Theological Utilitarianism: “a doctrine according to which we have a duty to promote the good of humanity because God, our universally benevolent creator, wants us to do so.” [3]   Second, theological utilitarianism was highly influential in the eighteenth century and represented a common way people thought about morality and politics which had dominated English moral thought for several decades. Third, given the rise of classical utilitarianism under Bentham and Mill and its dominance in contemporary moral thought today, utilitarianism is often viewed as a thoroughly secular, liberal and radical moral philosophy at odds with conservative religious and moral viewpoints. Paley’s book provides insight into an alternative conservative religious tradition of utilitarian thought which predates Bentham by several decades.

  1. Paley’s Theological Utilitarianism

 In The Principles Paley summarizes theological utilitarianism succinctly: “Virtue is ‘the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness.’[4]If we were to, anachronistically, expound Paley’s position in today’s philosophical categories, his summary offers an answer to three meta-ethical questions.

The first is the question of moral ontology: if moral requirements exist, what are they what is there nature? Paley proposes a divine command theory of meta-ethics whereby “the property of ethical wrongness is (identical) with the property of being contrary to God’ s command. ” [5]

The second, is the question “why be moral”? Sometimes doing my duty conflicts with my self-interest, or with goals I really want to achieve in such cases why should I follow duty and not prudence? Paley’s answer is to distinguish between “what we shall gain or lose in the present world”, and what “what we shall gain or lose in the world to come.” Because God is just and awards good behaviour with eternal life, it is never in our long-term best interests to disobey [6]

The third, question is:“what is the content of morality?” what types of actions do moral requirements supervene upon. Paley’s answer is that:

God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures. And this conclusion being once established, we are at liberty to go on with the rule built upon it, namely, “that the method of coming at the will of God, concerning any action, by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness.  [7]

An interesting feature of Paley’s answer is his appeal to rules. Contemporary moral philosophers distinguish between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarians hold that “we should perform the action that will create the greatest net utility.” [8]  The principle of utility is “applied on a case by case basis. The right action in any situation is the one that yields more utility (i.e. creates more well-being) than other available actions.” [9] By contrast rule utilitarians adopt a “two-part view… a) a specific action is morally justified if it conforms to a justified moral rule, and b) a moral rule is justified if its inclusion into our moral code would create more utility than other possible rules (or no rule at all).” [10]  In contemporary moral philosophy, this distinction “was not sharply drawn until the late 1950s when Richard Brandt and introduced this terminology”. [11].

The move from act to rule utilitarianism appears to have been motivated by problems which emerged in act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism seemed to imply that a doctor who could save five people from death by killing one healthy person and using that person’s organs for life-saving transplants, should do so. Rule utilitarianism avoids this: while more good would be done by killing the healthy patient in a specific individual case. Having a publically acknowledged and accepted general rule which permits doctors to kill patients whenever they perceive there is the need for organs arguably would have bad consequences.

Interestingly, Paley draws this distinction in 1785 he contrasts the particular and general consequences of performing an action. The particular consequences are the total consequences of performing an action itself. The general consequences, however, are those that would occur “if the same sort of actions were generally permitted.” Paley identifies himself in what today we would call the rule utilitarian position. Interesting he does so, in anticipation of the problems act utilitarianism would face. Paley forsees that act utilitarianism would have the kind of implications that critics would later press and stresses that utility attaches to the rule to avoid the problem.

In my next post in this series, I will look at the important influence theological utilitarianism had in the 18th century.


[1] James Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, (Random House: New York, 1993) 80

[2]  Stephen Nathanson “Act and Rule Utilitarianism” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/

[3] Matti Häyry “Passive Obedience and Berkeley’s Moral Philosophy” Berkeley Studies 23 (2012) 3

[4] William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy [1785] Book I chapter 7, available online at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/paley-the-principles-of-moral-and-political-philosophy accessed 25/8/2016

[5] This technical definition comes from Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 76.  Paley of course does not use this level of precision; I am attempting rather to interpret Paley’s answers in light of more recent technical discussions of the issues.

[6] William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy Bk II Chapter 3

[7] Ibid Book II Chapter 5

[8] Stephen Nathanson “Act and Rule Utilitarianism” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

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“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” THE TORAH AS A NORMATIVE AUTHORITY IN 1ST CORINTHIANS 5 (part two)

January 12th, 2018 by Matt
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Paul’s polemic against Judaizers in the Galatian correspondence, as well as his insistence in Romans that justification comes by faith (pistis) and not by works of the Torah, has led many interpreters to see Pauline ethics as thoroughly anti-nomian. In a previous post I  challenged this thesis by documenting Paul’s appeal to both the Torah and common rabbinic Halakha in the fifth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians

In that post, I examined  1 Corinthians Chapter 5. I  argued that Paul, (a) frames the problem in terms of obedience to the Torah’s commands regarding prohibited sexual relations, (b) responds by invoking the standard Halakha punishment of extirpation, and (c) justifies this by appealing to the Torah’s command to punish such offences. paul

To many, this conclusion seems odd. In the Galatian correspondence Paul engages in a passionate polemic against those who would demand that Gentiles get circumcised and obey the Torah, yet in 1 Corinthians he rebukes a Gentile congregation for violating a commandment in the Torah and appeals to the Torah’s normative authority. How can he do both of these things?

  1. Why does Paul Invoke the Torah?

I think the answer is ascertained by recognising a distinction in Jewish halakha. As early as the book of Jubilees, which was probably written around 200 BC, Jewish interpreters had come to recognise that while the Torah as a whole was given only to Israel, certain commands in the Torah applied to both Jews and Gentiles alike. Jewish exegesis distinguishes between what the Rabbis called the Noahide law and the Mosaic Law. The former are the commands God addresses to all humankind, both Jew and Gentile alike. Jewish tradition teaches that these laws were given first, during the time of Adam, to all Adam’s descendants and then again to Noah. The Mosaic Law, on the other hand, is a covenant between Jews and God. As the Jews are a subset of all people, many of the Noahide laws are repeated in the Mosaic Law. However, Israel is given a body of other laws which are binding on them in virtue of their special relationship to God.

There is evidence that early Christianity recognised this distinction.[1] The book of Acts records the Apostles gathering to discuss whether it was necessary to circumcise Gentile believers and “direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” (15) The decision is recorded as follows in Acts 15:28-29:

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:  that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.”

The Apostles decreed that Gentiles do not have to follow the Mosaic law, however, they are required to abstain from certain commandments in the Torah such as, sexual immorality, idolatry, “bloodshed” and consuming the “meat of strangled animals”. Western manuscripts omit the reference to “meat of strangled animals” and add the “golden rule” to the list. However, both agree that, sexual immorality (porneia), idolatry, and bloodshed were included. These are standard items in lists of the laws of Noah in Jewish halakah.[2]

What’s important is that both Jewish Halakah and the Apostolic decree recognised the commandments prohibiting porneia as part of the Noahide law. Tomson explains:

“The prohibition of certain types of sexual relationships both for Jews and Gentiles is considered fundamental in the various domains of ancient Jewish literature. Pharisaic-Rabbinic tradition includes [porneia] among the three commandments which Jews may never violate, even under threat of death. … According to a tradition as least as ancient as the book of Jubilees (7:20) it was a universal commandment conveyed by Noah to his children. In Rabbinic literature it is associated with the Genesis narrative. Stressing the universal implication of the word ‘man’ the Rabbis explain: ‘How do we know that Noahides are admonished for prohibited sexual relations like Israelites?’ “(Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and) cleaves to his wife” (Gen 2:24) — and not to another’s wife, a male, or a beast.”[3]

It is interesting that Gen 2:24 is the same passage Paul himself uses in 1 Corinthians 6 to ground a prohibition of prohibit “porneia”.  His argument, therefore, reflects this halakhaic tradition.

Consequently, in both early Christianity and in second temple Judaism, the claim that a Gentile was not required to be circumcised and not required to keep the law of Moses, did not entail, and would not have been understood to have entailed, that Gentiles did not have to obey that Halakah relating to commandments in the Torah, which were part of the Noahide law. And it certainly would not have been understood to have meant that Gentiles were not bound by Halakah relating to prohibited sexual relations. The fallacy here is the fallacy of division where one argues that because something is true of the whole its true of all of the parts. This would occur, for example, if someone reasoned that because the All Blacks score multiple tries in a game, it follows that every member of the All Blacks scores multiple tries in a game; or that because a particular wall is fragile and breakable, every single brick that makes up the wall is fragile and breakable. In this instance, the argument is that because the Mosaic law is not binding on Gentiles every single command in the law is not binding on Gentiles.Once the halakhic background distinction is appreciated, Paul’s stance in Corinthians is not inconsistent with that in Galatians.

Conclusion

Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 cites commandments in the Torah as authoritative for the Gentile congregation in Corinth. The problem is that they have disobeyed the Torah’s prohibition of porneia; his solution and justification both involve an appeal to the Torah and standard halakha.

This appeal to the Torah’s normative authority is not inconsistent with Paul’s position; it is affirmed elsewhere in the Pauline corpus that Gentile believers do not have to be circumcised and are free from the law of Moses.  Paul believed that a person did not have to convert to Judaism to become a member of the covenant community, he did, however, believe people had to follow the commandments of God.


[1] See for example, Tomson “Paul and the Jewish Law” also Marcus Bockmuehl Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Baker Academic, 2000).

[2] The list reflects Gen 9:1-5: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.”
Here God addresses Noah and his sons (i.e. the whole human race) he permits them to eat any kind of food, showing that. the kosher food laws are not binding on Gentiles antecedent to the Noahic covenant. However, the shedding of human blood (bloodshed), the eating of an animal with “lifeblood still in” (strangled animals) and the duty to be fruitful and multiply”, and hence to procreate (relating to sexual morality), does hold prior to the giving of the Torah.

[3] Thomson “Paul and the Jewish Law” 99.

 

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Update

January 11th, 2018 by Matt
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Last year I gave an address on Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers. This paper has now been published on the website of the Presbyterian Church schools resource office. Enjoy.

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“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” THE TORAH AS A NORMATIVE AUTHORITY IN 1ST CORINTHIANS 5 (Part One)

January 9th, 2018 by Matt
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This post is based on an essay I wrote for an undergraduate course on the history of religion I did a couple of years ago. I plan to expand upon it and publish it in the future. Feel free to add comments and thoughts on my admittedly controversial ideas.

Paul’s polemic against Judaizers in the Galatian correspondence, as well as his insistence in Romans that justification comes by faith (pistis) and not by works of the Torah, has led many interpreters to see Pauline ethics as thoroughly anti-nomian. In this and in future posts I  will challenge this thesis by documenting Paul’s appeal to both the Torah and common rabbinic Halakha in the fifth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians.[1]

In my first post, part 1, I will look at 1 Corinthians Chapter 5. I will argue that Paul, (a) frames the problem in terms of obedience to the Torah’s commands regarding prohibited sexual relations, (b) responds by invoking the standard Halakha punishment of extirpation, and (c) justifies this by appealing to the Torah’s command to punish such offences. Part 2 will offer a brief response to the objection that this is inconsistent with Paul’s position in Galatia.paul

  1. Paul’s Appeal to the Torah in 1st Corinthians 5

Paul’s appeal to the Torah’s normative authority over the Corinthian community is evidenced in at least three ways.

  1. Paul’s Problem: Disobedience to the Torah’s Commands regarding Porneia.

First, Paul addresses the problem of disobedience to some of the commandments in the Torah in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2.

“It is actually reported that there is immorality [porneia] among you, and immorality [porneia] of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.”[2]

The NASB uses the word “immorality” to translate the Greek word “porneia”. Ciampa and Rosner explain, “Porneia is a flexible term meaning prohibited sexual relationships”.[3] Paul uses the same term elsewhere in the Epistle to refer to sex with a prostitute (6:16-18) and extra marital sex (7:2). Matthew uses porneia to refer to adultery when narrating Jesus’ Halakha on divorce.[4] Jude uses the term to refer to homosexual rape of the messengers at Sodom.[5] Tomson argues that porneia is equivalent to the rabbinic term “uncovering the nakedness of”, a term used in the Torah to designate sexual relationships prohibited by the law.[6] For Paul in the passage at hand, failure to refrain from sexual relationships prohibited in the Torah appears to be the problem.

This is further reinforced by Paul’s description of the particular type of porneia being engaged in; Paul writes, “someone has his father’s wife.” [Hōste gynaika tina tou patros echein]

The language here is strongly reminiscent of the Septuagint (“LXX”) translation of the Torah, “A man shall not take his father’s wife” [Ou lempsetai anthropos ten gynaika tou patros autou (Deut 23:1 LXX)]. The book of Deuteronomy pronounced a curse on anyone who “sleeps with his father’s wife”.[7] “[S]leeping with one’s father’s wife” is listed as a capital offence in the book of Leviticus.[8]

The fact that porneia of this sort is both subjected to a curse and is a capital crime in the Torah is significant because, as we shall see, Paul both pronounces a curse on the man sleeping with his father’s wife (5:5) and appeals to the command to execute people who engage in certain forms of porneia (5:13). What is pertinent to note here is Paul’s concern is that someone in a Gentile congregation has disobeyed a commandment in the Torah prohibiting certain forms of sexual relationships.

The problem is not just that this has been done but, as Paul states, the church have not “mourned” over the fact someone has done this and have not expelled the person from their fellowship. (5:2) Paul sees these commands as authoritative over the conduct of the Corinthians.

Paul’s Verdict: Rabbinic Punishment for Consensual Incest.

Second, the course of action Paul takes is the course of action which, at least according to common Halakha of the time, the law commands to be taken. Paul responds in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5,

“For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.  In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

Paul, here, appears to be pronouncing a formal sentence in the name of the Lord Jesus when the assembly is present. The sentence is to “deliver” the person committing incest “over to satan” for “the destruction of the flesh”. The context suggests that this involves expulsion from congregation.

Previously Paul’s complaint (5:2) was that the congregation had not “removed the one who had done this deed” from their “midst” and he specified the penalty in terms of “not associating” with the person and “not eating with them”. (5:10-13) While many translations render this latter phrase as to “not even to eat with such a one” (5:13), Schwiebert points out, “the two commands are coordinate, that not eating with someone is parallel to, comparable to, and conceptually linked with not associating with someone”.[9] He explains that this is “ likely in view of the social significance of meals in the ancient world”. This is because,

“In first-century Mediterranean cultures, as in many non-Western cultures today, eating with someone is a form of social approval. For such cultures, the act of “eating with” (συνεσθίειν) does not so much symbolize as embody or enact common cause, kinship, acceptance, among other things. Refusing to eat with a certain person would embody the opposite: rejection or exclusion.”[10]

The “delivery over to satan”, therefore, in context refers to some form of expulsion and exclusion from the community. This seems odd given the language of “destruction of the flesh”. Tomson suggests this oddity is explained in terms of the Jewish practice of extirpation:

“It is interesting to compare Paul’s solemn judgement of with the category of punishment in ancient Jewish law called ‘death at the hands of Heaven’. In theory, as in biblical law, the principle cases of prohibited sexual relations were ultimatly punishable by execution. But in practice Jewish courts mostly delivered those convicted to ‘extirpation’  כָּרֵת; karet, explained as heavenly punishment in the form of an untimely death.”[11]

The karet or extirpation was a kind of punishment, often used in substitute for capital punishment.[12] The Torah required two or three witness to a crime before a death sentence could be handed down,[13] and the Rabbinic and Pharisaic requirements placed upon witnesses, such as requiring that the witnesses made repeated warnings to the offender and the offender persisted in the offence, meant capital punishment was difficult to administer in many cases. Further, both Jewish and Christian sources inform us that around 40 years before the destruction of the temple, the Roman authorities had monopolised the power to try capital cases.[14] In light of this, extirpation was, in practice, the normal punishment for capital offences.

Mario Philip notes that Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 5 has some parallels with ancient extirpation formulae; these often involved a formal curse, “curses where persons were devoted to the gods of the lower world. … These rites can be found in both Jewish and pagan texts, the only difference being that in Jewish setting Satan replaced the gods of the underworld”.[15] Philip cites a magical papyrus from the 4th century: “I say to demons of the dead, ‘this you are, if I will deliver to you him, how not he will do the deeds whether he receives.”[16]

Particularly striking are several texts that form part of the Dead sea scrolls:

“And the levites shall curse all the men of the lot of Behai. They shall begin to speak and shall say: ‘Accursed are you for all your wicked, blameworthy deeds. May God hand you over to terror by the hand of all those carrying out acts of vengeance. May he bring upon you destruction by the hand of all those who accomplish retributions. .. may he be cut off from the midst of all the sons of light because of his straying from following God on account of his idols and obstacle of his iniquity.”[17]

Similarly,

“All who enter the council of holiness of those walking in perfect behaviour as he commanded, anyone of them who breaks a word of the law of Moses impertinently or through carelessness will be banished from the Community council and shall not return again; none of the men of holiness should associate with his goods or his advice on any matter.”[18]

These examples illustrate a practice of issuing a “judgement under heaven”, where a person is formally cursed, handed over to God or Satan for punishment, and expelled from the community; the members refuse to associate with the offender any longer. The Mishna outlines “Thirty-six transgressions subject to extirpation are in the Torah”; tellingly, the second on the list is “He who has sexual relations with…his father’s wife”.[19]

Tomson concludes, “Paul is not arguing for capital punishment but for something like the lesser punishment of ‘extirpation’, and his verdict evidently relates to Pharisaic-Rabbinic criminal law”.[20] What Paul means is the man is expelled and that “heaven leaves the execution of extirpation to Satan”.[21]

Paul, therefore, cites disobedience to the Torah’s laws about prohibited sexual practices as being the problem and himself pronounces the sentence, which Jewish law required for such offences, in response to the problem.

Paul’s Justification of the Verdict: An Appeal to the Torah

Paul justifies the sentence by explicit appeal to the Torah. In 1 Corinthians 5:10-13 he writes:

“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within I But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” [Emphasis original]

Paul is using the word “judge” (krinein) here in the sense of passing a sentence or rendering a verdict. The passage continues on from Paul’s announcement only a few verses earlier, he had pronounced a formal sentence (kekrika) in the name of the Lord. And in the very next verse (6:1) Paul uses the word “judge” (krinien) in the context of a law suit before a Roman or ecclesiastical tribunal. Consequently, in v 12-13 Paul’s argument is about jurisdiction; he has a right to judge those within the church community but not those outside. To substantiate this he cites the phrase “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”

The phrase, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves”, comes from the LXX translation of Deuteronomy. In the LXX version the phrase occurs eight times in Deuteronomy in verses: 13:5, 17:7, 19:19, 21:20, 22:21, 21:22, 21:23 and 24:7. In each instance its use specifies the court’s right or duty to hand down a capital sentence for a particular crime; its use is often contextually linked with judicial procedure. Paul, in v 13, gives an almost verbatim citation of this phrase. Ciampa and Rosner note “the texts are identical, apart from the verb, changing from a singular future indicative to a plural aorist imperative presumably to suit the epistolary context”.[22]  That Paul cites this passage, having just handed down a sentence of “death at the hands of heaven”, to defend his right to judge those inside the church, and does so just before he proceeds to instruct the Corinthians to try their own disputes rather than go to Roman tribunals, can hardly be coincidental.

Equally hard to dismiss as coincidental is the influence of these same passages from the LXX upon Paul’s vice list in v 10-11. Paul mentions several classes of offenders that the church are: not to associate with or not eat with, offenders to whom the punishment of extirpation can be applied, those who are “immoral” (porneia), “covetous and swindlers”, “idolaters”  or who are “a reviler”, a “drunkard”. These are the same offenses that are condemned in Deuteronomy verses: 13:5, 17:7, 19:19, 21:20, 22:21, 21:22, 21:23 and 24:7 for which Moses’ command to Israel to “remove the wicked man from among yourselves” occurs. The table below illustrates:

1 Corinthians 5

“do not associate with”, “do not eat”

Deuteronomy (LXX): “remove the wicked man from among yourselves”
Prohibited sexual relations (Porneia) (11) Promiscuity, adultery (22:21-22,30)
Revilers (slanderer) (11) Malicious, false testimony (19:16-19)
Drunkards (11) Rebellious drunken son (21:18-21)
Idolaters (11) Idolatry (13:1-5, 17:2-7)
Covetous, swindlers (11) Kidnapping and selling into slavery (24:7)

The parallel between the first four offences in the table above is relatively obvious. Less obvious is the parallel between the last ones. Paul’s reference to “covetous and swindlers” does not appear to be a reference to “kidnapping and selling into slavery”. However, this lack of apparent match is deceptive. The categories of “covetous” and “swindler” are linked as a single category in v 11[23] but here  Paul  conjoins two words, “pleonektēs” (rendered “greedy” in the NASB) and “harpax” (rendered “swindler” in the NASB). The word “pleonektēs” refers to the attempt to seek unlawful gain, and the word “harpax”, carries the connotation of taking by force.[24] Now, obviously, kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery would be an extreme, though paradigmatic, example of taking something forcibly that did not belong to the taker; in fact, the language of the LXX bears this out. The LXX condemns kidnapping and enslaving as forms of theft; it literally refers to the enslaver as a “thief” who “steals a soul”. So, in fact, the categories of “covetous” and “swindler” does parallel the LXX category of a person who kidnaps and enslaves.[25]

The offences Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 5 match those warranting a capital sentence in Deuteronomy. This, again, is unlikely to be coincidental. Peter Zaas states there is usually very little overlap between any two vice lists in the Pauline corpus, nor is there any between Paul’s vice lists and any extant piece of ancient literature.[26] Yet in this case we have an overlap of every category; moreover, a very similar vice list is repeated again by Paul in 6:9-10.[27]

Paul justifies his right to judge those in the church who engage in incest (porneia), and the duty of the congregation to not associate with people from within the church who do so by appeal to the Torah. The Torah authorised Israel to set up courts and pass sentences of death upon members of their community for certain offences. In practice, particularly after Rome monopolised the right to administer capital crimes, this was substituted with the punishment of karet and extirpation, where the offender was expelled and “execution at the hands of heaven was” invoked. Paul was invoking this practice in Corinth; the porneia engaged in was of a type that carried a capital sentence; hence, the congregation of God’s people had the right to impose this penalty upon the transgressor.


[1] By “Pauls First Epistle to the Corinthians” I mean the Epistle designated 1 Corinthians in the New Testament Canon. Paul had written an earlier letter to the Corinthian church which is lost to history. Paul explicitly mentions this letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9.

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all scripture citations are from the New American Standard Version (NASB).

[3] Roy E Ciampa and Brian S Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary) (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010) 199.

 

[4] Matthew 19:9. Here I assume that Jesus is defending the divorce Halakah of the Shammite school against no fault divorce proposals of the Hillelite school. For a defence of this claim see David Instone Brewer Divorce and Re-Marriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[5] Jude 7.

[6] Peter J Tomson Paul and the Jewish Law (Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature) (Minneapolis: Brill Academic Pub, 1991).

[7] “‘Cursed is he who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’.” (Deuteronomy 27:23) The NASB renders “mother in law” where the LXX has the more literal “father’s wife”.

[8] Leviticus 18:8 “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.” Leviticus 20:11” If there is a man who lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”

[9] Jonathan Schwiebert “Table fellowship and the Translation of 1 Corinthians 5:11″ Journal of Biblical Literature 127:1 (2008) 162.

[10] Ibid. 162-163.

[11] Tomson Paul and the Jewish Law 101-102.

[12] Numerous scholars have argued, cogently in my opinion, that the capital sentences in the Torah specify the maximum sentence. Further that textual indications within the law itself, and also evidence from Cuneiform law of the same genre, suggests that in practice capital punishment was frequently substituted for a lesser punishment in lieu of execution. See Raymond Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1, ed. Raymond Westbrook (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003), 71-78. Finkelstein, “The Ox that Gored,” 35. Joe M Sprinkle, “The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 Lex Talionis and Abortion,” Westminster Theological Journal 55.2 (1993) 233-53. Walter Kaiser, “God’s Promise Plan and his Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35:3 (1992): 293. I summarise some of this evidence in my article, Matthew Flannagan “Feticide, the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint” Westminster Theological Journal 74:1 (2012) 59-85.

[13] Deuteronomy 17:6.

[14] Tomson documents a Jewish tradition that “40 years before the temple the power to judge capital cases was taken from Israel”. Peter J Tomson Paul and the Jewish Law 102. The Gospels also mention this; after the Sanhedrin find Jesus guilty of blasphemy instead of carrying out any punishment themselves they take him to Pilate to have him executed, this is because the Jewish authorities lacked the power to put anyone to death. See, for example, John 18: 29-31.

[15] Mario Philip “Delivery into the Hands of Satan—A Church in Apostasy and not Knowing it: An Exegetical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 5:5” Evangelical Review of Theology 39:1 (2015) 54.

[16] Idem.

[17] Ibid. 54-55.

[18] Ibid. 55.

[19] Idem.

[20] Tomson, 103.

[21] Idem.

[22] Ciampa and Rosner “The First Letter to the Corinthians” 220.

[23] Note the use of the conjunctive between the various vices and the conjunction of “covetous” and “swindler” into the same category; Paul writes, “I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters.”

[24]  Daniel Berchie “The Meaning of Harpax in 1 Cor 5:10” Ilorin Journal of Religious Studies 2: 2 (2012) 1-14.

[25] This also makes sense out of the differences between the otherwise very similar lists in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. Chapter 5 lists: “sexually immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler”, Chapter 6 lists: “neither fornicators (porneia), idolaters, nor adulterers, nor[effeminate, nor homosexuals, (arsenkoites, literally, men who go to bed with men) nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” The difference is that chapter six adds effeminate and arsenkoites, which appears to be an allusion to the LXX condemnation of same sex behaviour in Leviticus 18 and 20, both of which are categories of prohibited sexual relationships, and hence, a form of porneia. Similarly, chapter 6 adds the category of “thieves”, which as we have seen is synonymous with a person who is “covetous” or a “swindler” in chapter 5. The vice lists, therefore, become essentially the same; both cite a list of offences designated as potentially capital offences in the LXX.

[26] Peter S Zaas “Catalogues and Context: 1 Corinthians 5 and 6” New Testament Studies 34 (1988) 623.

[27] 1 Cor 6:9-10 “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”

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Annihilationism and the Infinity of Hell: Bawulski and the Disproportionality Argument

January 5th, 2018 by Matt
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This is part of a talk I gave at the Rethinking Hell Conference in Auckland earlier this year.

Evangelical Annihilationist’s such as John Stott, Edward Fudge, John Wenham, and various others challenge the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. They  contend that biblical language such as  “eternal fire,” “eternal destruction,” “death,” “perish,” “everlasting contempt,” “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire,” “second death,” “killing the body, “soul,” “lake of fire,” “the smoke of their torment rises forever,” “blackest darkness”  are better interpreted as signifying the permanent destruction of the wicked. Hell is eternal in the sense that the ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and never to be resurrected or reincarnated to live another life.JCJ_8086

Shawn Baluski contests this. In “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”  Baluski contends that, if Annihilationism is true, then punishment in Hell is finite in duration. He offers two arguments for this conclusion. In a previous post, I discussed one of these arguments. This post will look at his second argument, which I will call the disproportionality argument.

The Disproportionality Argument
In his dialogue with liberal theologian David Edwards John Stott, a well-known evangelical annihilationist, gave several exegetical arguments for annihilationism. [1] However, in addition to these exegetical arguments, Stott offered a moral objection to traditionalism:

Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? I do not minimise the gravity of sin as rebellion against God our Creator, and shall return to it shortly, but I question whether ‘eternal conscious torment’ is compatible with the biblical revelation of divine justice.[2]

Stott’s argument here is that annihilationism isn’t subject to a moral challenge which the traditionalism is.  Traditional conceptions of hell make the punishment disproportionate to the offence. Annihilationism doesn’t have this implication.

This argument by Stott serves as the backdrop to Bawulski’s response.  Bawulski argues that unless hell is finite, Annihilationism cannot answer the disproportionality problem. He offers two claims in support of this conclusion.

First, Bawulski argues;  if annihilation is an infinite or eternal punishment, then the only morally relevant difference between traditionalism annihilationism is that in the former the involves conscious existence and the latter does not.

If annihilation is an infinite punishment, then to resolve the disproportionality problem the annihilationist must argue that a certain type of infinite punishment (that which ends in annihilation) is a just sentence for a sin of finite seriousness despite the punishment being, in fact, infinite. Presumably, this will be done by attempting to link the disproportion to something other than the infinite nature of the punishment, and the most likely candidate is everlasting conscious existence.[3]

Second, Bawulski contends that the mere existence or absence of conscious existence makes no difference to the severity of the punishment.

If annihilation is an infinite punishment: it is not obvious that extinction is genuinely a lesser and more proportionate punishment than that of the traditional view. Assuming there is some validity to the analogy, there is no consensus as to which is more severe: life imprisonment or capital punishment. If annihilation is a lesser punishment the annihilationist needs to argue this point persuasively, and I have not encountered any argument to that effect.[4]

I will respond to each of these points below.

Is Conscious existence the only relevant difference?
Let’s look at the first claim,  Bawulski thinks that if that if both traditionalism and annihilationism involve infinite punishment, then, the only difference between them is that in the former the involves conscious existence and the latter does not. This seems to ignore an obvious issue.  The traditional view of hell involves not just conscious existence, but also the notion of eternal conscious torment.  And the presence or absence of torment is obviously relevant to assessing the severity of punishment.

And it is precisely this feature of traditionalism that Stott objects to. Consider Bawulski’s discussion of John Stott, only a few pages earlier:

Not surprisingly, annihilationists often cite their view’s supposed ability to dodge the traditionalist’s disproportionality problem as a great virtue. For example, in his defense of annihilationism, John Stott says, “Would there not, then, be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity? . . . no finite set of deeds that individual sinners have done could justify such an infinite sentence.”[5]

It’s clear that what Stott considers disproportionate is not just the infinite duration of the sentence or even the fact that the people are conscious. What is disproportionate are “sins consciously committed in time” and “torment consciously experienced throughout eternity”. (emphasis added)

Is Annihilation a less severe punishment?

This brings me to Bawulski’s second claim; that the mere existence of conscious existence isn’t morally relevant. Bawulski asks us to compare which is more severe: life imprisonment or capital punishment. But, the answer to that question depends crucially on the kind of prison being envisaged. If I were under house arrest at a beautiful Manson at Mount Maunganui, a life sentence would be less severe than capital punishment. But, that is not what’s being envisaged when hell is construed as eternal conscious torment. Here we are being asked to compare capital punishment with a life of torture. The analogy is someone imprisoned for life in the tower of London perpetually hooked up to a rack, or, being continually alive while they slowly experience searing and burning on hot coals.  I submit that, under these conditions, the claim that life imprisonment is less severe than capital punishment is implausible.

Jonathan Kvanvig objects that the kind of argument I offer here attacks a straw man.  He says that “our ordinary conceptions of punishment … view capital punishment as a far more severe kind than life imprisonment.” He grants that “ If the traditional view is embellished with vivid images of the sort that appear in Jesus’ parable of the Lazarus and Dives, or in Dante’s descriptions of hell, Annihilationism can be seen as preferable” But, “ the fundamental tenets of the traditional view do not involve these embellishments.”[6]

To foreclose this kind of response, I will simply point the reader to what Bawulski himself states a few pages later. In a footnote on p 69 he argues:

[A]nnihilationism has not accounted for the interconnectedness of texts like Matt.25:31-46, Rev. 14:9-11, and Rev. 20:9-15, all of which share the same referent-the place/state of eternal punishment. In this eternal fire the smoke of the torment of the condemned goes up forever and ever; the condemned will have no rest, day or night; Satan, the beast and the false prophet are “tormented day and night forever and ever.” In Rev. 20, the finally impenitent are cast into this place, and there is nothing to indicate that their experience there will be any different from that of the other beings who reside there (Satan and the demons): tormented day and night forever and ever. In fact, reading Rev. 20:9-15 in light of Rev. 14:9-11, Matt. 25:31-46[7]

Here Bawluski describes the difference between annihilationism and traditionalism not merely in terms of eternal conscious existence. But, conscious torment.[8] His interpretation of phrases such as “eternal fire” scripture doesn’t commit him merely to the view that the state of eternal punishment involves consciousness. It involves, people  “tormented day and night forever and ever” and he faults Annihilationism for not taking this feature of the imagery seriously. In light of this its hard to understand why he seems to think the only significant difference between annihilationism and traditionalism is conscious existence.

The line Kvanvig takes seems to me to undercut the exegetical case traditionalist make to support their doctrine. Consider the image of a lake of fire. I can understand how a person can interpret an image of fire as signifying destruction. Fire, after all, consumes and destroys, anything thrown into the fire would normally be consumed and destroyed. Similarly, I can understand how people can interpret this image as torment, being thrown in fire clearly would be painful. However, the suggestion that this metaphor signifies some nefarious conscious existence, analogous to simple incarceration in a high-quality western prison, stretches credibility.

I have looked at two arguments Bawulski gives for the conclusion that annihilationism entails the finitude of hell. The first contended that punishment must be experienced to count as punishment. I offered the example of capital punishment as a counter-example. His second argument, in my opinion, fares no better, only by ignoring the emphasis on eternal conscious torment does his argument have any merit.  However, seeing the exegetical case for traditionalism relies on interpreting specific images as signifying torment and conscious suffering. This is an unjustified omission.

[1] David L. Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: a liberal-evangelical dialogue (Hodder & Stoughton Religious: 1988) 312-329 available at https://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/judgement-hell.php#.Wk4HL1WWbIU

[2] Ibid

[3] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010) 66

[4] Ibid

[5] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010) 65

[6] Jonathan Kvanvig, “Heaven and Hell”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/heaven-hell/

[7] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010) 69.

[8] For an annihilationist response to Bawulski’s exegesis here see Ralph G. Bowles  “Does Revelation 14: 11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell” available at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/2001-1_021.pdf

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Annihilationism and the Infinity of Hell: Bawulski and the Experience Argument

October 25th, 2017 by Matt
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This is part of a talk I gave at the ReThinking Hell Conference in Auckland earlier this year.

The traditional conception of hell understands the punishment of the finally impenitent to be conscious eternal torment. The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense of it being of an unending duration, and it involves conscious torment.

Evangelical Annihilationist’s such as John Stott, Edward Fudge, John Wenham, and various others challenge the traditional view. They argue the traditional view is contrary to scripture. They contend that, in scripture, the punishment of hell is eternal destruction, which involves the total and irreversible destruction of the wicked. Hell is eternal in the sense that the ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and never to be resurrected or reincarnated to live another life.

Much of the debate over this in evangelical circles is exegetical. It focuses on the meanings of biblical phrases such as “eternal fire,” “eternal destruction,” “death,” “perish,” “everlasting contempt,” “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire,” “second death,” “killing the body, “soul,” “lake of fire,” “the smoke of their torment rises forever,” “blackest darkness [that] has been reserved forever,” “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and so on. Traditionalists take these passages to refer to eternal conscious torment.  Annihilationists argue that, in their contexts, they signify the permanent destruction of the wicked.

Sometimes, however, more philosophical considerations are raised. One example is Shawn Bawulski’s articleJCJ_8086  “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”  which argues that Annihilationism cannot answer particular moral and philosophical questions as well as the traditional view.

There is a lot in this article and space presents a detailed consideration of all the issues. Here I want to focus on one question. Central to Bawulski’s argument is the contention that if Annihilationism is true. Hell is not infinite in duration and hence finite. This implication Bawulski believes to be philosophically and theologically problematic.

I noted above that Annihilationists typically reject the claim that Hell involves finite punishment. They contend Hell involves the punishment of eternal destruction or eternal death. The ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and is never resurrected or reincarnated to live another life. Bawulski offers two arguments against this conclusion. This post will look at one of these arguments. This is what I will call the argument from conscious experience.


Punishment and Experience

A key argument Bawulski offers is that punishment must be experienced. For something to count as a punishment the person punished must experience it or be conscious of it. Bawulski illustrates this with the example Irreversible Coma:

 It is hard to see how we might punish an offender who is in a coma, especially if that coma were irreversible. We might be able to extract compensation from her estate, but we would normally consider this means of punishment to be a contingency-plan sentence in lieu of punishment that involved the offender’s knowledge and recognition of her wrongdoing.[1]

I tend to agree that it would be difficult to punish someone in already in an irreversible coma. However, I don’t think this fact shows that punishment must be experienced. To see this, imagine a different case.  John engages in a rape and murder spree and is shot by the police; he lies in the hospital in a temporary coma from which he will wake in three months.  While he is unconscious the court, on the basis of compelling evidence, sentences John to die and so before he wakes he is given a lethal injection. Has John been punished?

This is because John has in fact been deprived of something quite valuable:  the life he would have had he been left to wake in six months.  John has been executed, and his future life snuffed out.  Paradigmatically when someone is killed, they are harmed due to the fact they lose their life. But its obviously not their past life that is lost, nor is it the instantons present that is taken from them, what they lose is their future life. The life they would have lived and enjoyed had they not been killed.

It’s precisely the difficulty of envisaging any valuable or (even any conscious) future, from life in an irreversible coma that makes people reluctant to suggest it can be plausibly punished.  The situation envisaged by the Annihilationist, however,  is in stark contrasts.  Under an annihilationist conception of hell. The alternative to annihilation is eternal life. The alternatives are being destroyed or continued living forever in eternal bliss. Being killed therefore deprives one of a great good you otherwise would have had. A life of eternal bliss.

Hell must be experienced
Later  Bawulski suggests a more limited thesis: it’s not that punishment must be experienced, but rather,  that punishment, as it occurs in hell, needs to be experienced. “This, coupled with several biblical texts that describe the reprobate as aware of and experiencing their punishment, point to the conclusion that a criterion of the punishment of hell is that it be experienced.[2]

It’s difficult to understand however why the punishment envisaged by annihilationists wouldn’t be experienced. Annihilationists believe that the “wages of sin is death”, that God will destroy, i.e. kill, the body and soul in hell. Normally when we punish a person with death or kill him, they experience it. Suppose Tom is sentenced to die by electric chair, or by hanging or by firing squad. Is it plausible to suggest he doesn’t experience anything?
Its true once he is dead, he will experience nothing. But killing or executing someone usually involves a process, and that process can be experienced, it can be, and often is when carried out, been terrifying, and painful. So it beggars reality to suggest that sentencing someone to death means they don’t experience the punishment.

In fact, the existence of capital punishment, as a paradigmatic example of punishment seems to undermine both Bawulski’s arguments here. A person typically does experience the process of death involved in the execution, and the fact they die and lose consciousness when they are hanged or electrocuted doesn’t seem to lead us to conclude they not punished.

Bawulski’s response:
Bawulski seems loosely aware of this response and offers two responses to it. In a footnote, he states “the death sentence as retributive punishment is not a counterexample because the Christian doctrine of a final universal resurrection means that state implemented capital punishment is not personal annihilation, merely a penal ending of this life.”[3]

This, however, seems inadequate. True, the death penalty only involves the penal ending of this life. But it’s hard to see how this features of capital punishment make a difference in this context. Whether or not a person rises again at a resurrection after death makes no difference to whether a person who is executed experiences the punishment. Nor does it make a difference to whether or not we consider capital punishment to involve punishment.

The following example will illustrate this.  Suppose after being executed that God decided not to raise ted Bundy from the dead. Would it follow that Ted Bundy didn’t experience anything when he was executed, or that Gods refusal to resurrect meant Bundy hadn’t been punished? Obviously not. The facts remain, Bundy, was deprived of a future life; a life he would have lived, had he not been killed. And the act of killing Bundy involved a process which he experienced.

In the main body of the text, Bawulski offers a different response:

It must be noted that most annihilationist’s claim annihilation does not occur at physical death or even immediately after the final judgment, but posit a finite period of conscious punishment leading up to final annihilation. The problem then becomes this: the only penal aspect related to annihilation is the dreadful anticipation of the upcoming annihilation.  Yet if the antecedent period of punishment is finite and the anticipatory period of dread is finite, even if the annihilation is permanent and in that sense infinite in consequence, the punishment itself is finite. punishment.[4]

I find this line of argument, frankly, strange. Bawulski suggests that if in the process of being killed, the victim consciously experiences his punishment, then it follows that this is the only penal aspect involved.

But surely this is implausible, precisely for the reasons just mentioned,  Suppose someone is executed by lethal injection in their early 20’s, would we really suggest that, would anyone seriously suggest that only punishment this person received was a prick in the arm for a few seconds.  Or suppose a person is sentenced to death in the electric chair when this happens do we really think the only punishment administered is a few seconds of electric shocks.

Obviously, these are unpleasant aspects of the punishment, but the punishment is death. These aspects don’t stand alone from the punishment but are part of the process that death is brought about. If serial killers were just pricked in the arm and then got up and walked away, we wouldn’t consider the punishment of death to have been carried out. We would contend they had escaped their punishment.

This point was made by Augustine of Hippo. Augustine himself no friend of Annihilationism, stated:

Then as to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living? And just as the punishment of the first death cuts men off from this present mortal city, so does the punishment of the second death cut men off from that future immortal city. For as the laws of this present city do not provide for the executed criminal’s return to it, so neither is he who is condemned to the second death recalled again to life everlasting[5]

The death penalty is a paradigmatic example of a case where someone is punished. When a death penalty is inflicted the criminal usually experiences it, he experiences the shame, anticipation and even the pain involved in the process of killing. However, this while part of the punishment is not the whole of it, the punishment involves much more it involves cutting him off from the life we would have had and enjoyed. And this is a significant part of,  if not the most significant part of his punishment.  The fact the criminal doesn’t consciously experience these years doesn’t mean his being deprived of them isn’t a punishment.

Annihilationists understand the punishment of hell to literally involve a death sentence, one that is permanent and irreversible. If one wouldn’t contend that a person executed today isn’t punished, or that his punishment consisted only in unpleasant experiences he had prior to death and didn’t involve the loss of life itself; then one shouldn’t contend that annihilation of the finally impenitent involves these things.

[1] Shawn Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” Philosophia Christi 12.1(2010): 66

 [2]  Bawulski “Annihilationism, Traditionalism, and the Problem of Hell” 66

[3] Ibid 66

[4] Ibid

[5] Augustine City of God Bk 22 chapter 11

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Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Religious Studies: Part Four

October 23rd, 2017 by Matt
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This is a talk I gave to the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers annual conference at St Cutherberts College in September this year. Several people have asked me to make this talk available.

I have broken my talk up into four parts. Part One introduces what philosophy of religion. In part two I will outline two movements within analytic philosophy during the early to mid-century which I think resulted in religious beliefs not being taken very seriously within philosophy and philosophy of religion taking a fairly minor role. Part three will look at some responses to these movements offered in the late 20th century and how they changed the philosophical landscape. Part four will look at the question of “how to do philosophy of religion” comparing the methods used by two different atheist’s J L Mackie and Graham Oppy, and how this relates the National Certificate of Educational Achievement Standards. This post will contain part four.


How to do Philosophy of Religion: A tale of Two Religious Skeptics

I think the demise of verifications and the questioning of evidentialism then changed the landscape of philosophy of religion dramatically.  A good way of highlighting the change is to compare the work of two philosophers who probably have made the most rigorous cases for atheism in the last fifty years.

The first is J L Mackie’s work “The Miracle of Theism” published in 1982. Mackie’s work was for many years the definitive defence of atheism in Philosophy; I quoted Mackie above, let’s look again:

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted thatJohn_Leslie_Mackie they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments . . . [i]t [whether or not God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. (Mackie, Miracle of Theism, 4-6;)

The second, atheist I want to look at is Graham Oppy; Oppy is a philosopher at Monash University, his book Arguing about God, is rightly hailed as the best contemporary attack on the theistic arguments and he is, in my view, the leading defender of philosophical atheism writing today.  Here is what Oppy says in an article “What Derivations can do” published in 2015.

Philosophy of religion should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God’. Indeed, philosophy of God should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God’. In so far as philosophy of religion – or philosophy of God – is concerned with the clash between theistic and atheistic world-views, the proper way to proceed is: (1) to develop best theistic Oppyand atheistic theories; (2) to assess the liability of these best theories to internal defeat; and (3) to make an assessment of the comparative theoretical virtues of these best theories, paying attention to simplicity, fit with data, explanatory scope, predictive accuracy, and the like (  Oppy “What Derivations Cannot Do” Religious Studies (2015) 51, 328

The contrast between these two writers is illustrative.

Mackie focuses on the fact that the claim that God exists isn’t verifiable. He acknowledges the collapse of verificationism: despite not being directly verifiable the central assertions of theism are meaningful. However, he does think this lack of verifiability places a burden of proof on the Theist. The Theist is required to produce arguments for Gods existence. Deductive, abductive, inductive, arguments presumably from premises which ultimately are verifiable in this way.  Oppy, by contrast, doesn’t focus on whether the claim “God exists” is verifiable. His focus is on this belief, embedded in broader philosophical theories, verification, when it occurs, is applied to theories.

An even clearer contrast is over evidentialism.  Mackie affirms evidentialism. He contends that “any rational consideration” of the question of God’s existence depends on the Theist providing “deductive, abductive, inductive arguments for Gods existence. “Nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. Oppy however explicitly repudiates this he states Philosophy of religion should not be about the standard array of ‘arguments for and against the existence of God.”

Instead, Oppy suggests that the important question is what happens when people utilise theological assumptions in philosophy. Theists and atheists will reason from their prospective presuppositions and construct theories which attempt to answer important philosophical questions. Questions such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” “why are there and what are laws of nature”? “what are moral obligations” and so forth? Philosophy of religion is about how defensible these theories are. Can they be defended against objections, do they provide coherent answers to these questions, and how do the answers they give compare with each other.

Contemporary Philosophy of Religion and NCEA Achievement Standards.
You’ll probably guess my sympathies lie with Oppy, and it’s at this point that I think it’s interesting to look at the NCEA standards for Religious Studies

One barrier to doing Philosophy in secondary schools is the fact there are no nationally recognised qualifications for the subject. There is an absence of any standards for philosophy under NCEA. Many people in this organisation have been lobbying for the government to introduce philosophy as a NCEA subject and I support this cause.

However, I want to suggest that if one looks at the standards which already exist for NCEA religious studies. There is already in the curricula plenty of scope for doing contemporary Philosophy of religion. In fact, if you move away from an excessive focus on the arguments for and against Gods existence and ask about religious and secular theories, NCEA asks and requires students to engage in contemporary philosophy of religion. The most obvious is the final achievement standard for level 3 NCEA:

Analyse the key beliefs of a religious tradition and a secular worldview in relation to ultimate questions

This sounds very much like the method Oppy refers too. Here students are asked to look at secular and religious worldviews and the theories they offer in response to critical philosophical questions. They are told to analyse these views: to discern their key premises and assumptions. When one looks, however, at the Merit and Excellence criteria for this standard it asks students to do work out the implications of these different answers, and to evaluate them, that sounds very much like Contemporary Philosophy of Religion.

Similarly, in level Three, NCEA asks students to analyse a religious tradition(s) in Aotearoa New Zealand.  And analyse the response of a religious tradition to an ethical issue. Here, again, students are asked to analyse, to work out the assumptions and presumptions, assess the implications significance and evaluate the case for and against particular theories about right and wrong this is all contemporary philosophy of religion.

Of course, there are challenges to doing philosophy of religion under NCEA. NCEA classifies Religious Studies as a subset of the social sciences, and some moderators tend to interpret the words analyse or implications in more sociological senses. But, if we understand what it actually is to analysis a religious tradition or its response to an ethical issue or how it answers an ultimate question, then we are doing philosophy.

And I think this applies not just to level three religious studies where the standards require analysis. Consider the level two standard.  “Explain the key beliefs within two religious traditions in relation to a significant religious question.” This uses the word “explain” however the standard defines a significant religious question. As questions regarding ” life after death, the nature of God, the existence of suffering, good and evil, the nature of the human being.” To get an achieved they have to compare how traditions answer these questions. But For merit and excellence, they are asked to ask questions about the significance and what are the implications of these views. This is asking students to engage in philosophical reflection: its asking, if these answers were true what follows, what difference would it make why is it important and so on.

Even the more descriptive level 1 standards have this, level 1, for example, asks students to “Describe key beliefs of a religious tradition” this sounds purely descriptive however to gain a merit and excellence students are asked to think through the significance of these beliefs, to look at links between the beliefs and to ask questions about their implications. Done well, this has the potential to foster a lot of philosophical reflection on the beliefs in question.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, Philosophy of religion involves “the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions”. This has been done by assuming a default position of religious scepticism and examining the arguments for and against religious beliefs or asking if religious beliefs are verifiable and meaningful and the temptation is for this to be the modus operandi in philosophy courses in secondary school.

I am suggesting a different approach. Today Philosophy of religion is much broader; it involves looking at the answers religions have offered to some of the most profound philosophical answers, developing these as charitably and defensibly as possible and seeing if they can stand against objections. Finally, it involves asking whether religious views of the world answer these questions in a better and more plausible way than secular views do. Interestingly, as worded, this is the sort of questions  NCEA  Religious Studies achievement standards ask of students.

This means there is plenty of scope for doing Philosophy of religion as part of Religious Studies programs. It is my hope that those of us who want to see philosophy taken seriously in the secondary sector can, where appropriate, use the current NCEA   standards to develop religious studies programs, which ask students to take these questions seriously. To get them to understand clearly various religious perspectives on various issues, to wrestle with them, significance and implications, to compare them to alternative religious or secular theories, and to critically consider the answers given.

I think this is an important part of a general education. Today’s students grow up in a philosophically pluralistic society, moreover, at a certain point in anyone’s life they will be confronted with different answers to very pressing existential questions, questions which are unavoidable, people will want to know who they are and how they should live. Avoiding these questions or allowing people to be uninformed and ignorant of how others answer them isn’t education. To allow people to be informed about different question’s and to think through carefully and honestly what these answers are, there significance and implications, and to critically evaluate them is in my view what Philosophy at the secondary level should be all about. So, I suggest that Philosophy programs at secondary school start to take seriously religious studies and religious studies take seriously philosophy of religion.

 

 

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