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John Loftus on Calvin, Matthew Flannagan and Psalm 14

January 11th, 2010 by Matt

John Loftus from Debunking Christianity is at it again. In his recent post, When Psalm 14:1 Says Atheists Are “Fools” This Can Be Easily Refuted, he suggests he can easily refute the idea of biblical inerrancy and cites me to assist him in doing so! Unfortunately he makes several straight-forward mistakes. Given that he has decided to devote a blog post to elaborating these claims, I will devote one in response.

Loftus states his thesis clearly, “I claim Psalm 14:1 is about morality, that it claims an atheist is an immoral person, not an insane one. And I reject that was well. I also claim this correct interpretation is easily proven false.”

To demonstrate this thesis he cites my discussion with him on the meaning of the word “fool” and my Sunday Study Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part II. In that post I cited Psalm 14 and stated “A fool here is not someone who is imprudent but someone who is positively wicked. The text speaks of those who commit “abominable deeds;” the idea is that such a person is morally corrupt, someone who rejects doing good, someone who is committed to evil.”

Loftus’ response is as follows:

Thanks so much Matt.

You wrote:

“A fool here is not someone who is imprudent but someone who is positively wicked. The text speaks of those who commit “abominable deeds;” the idea is that such a person is morally corrupt, someone who rejects doing good, someone who is committed to evil.”

It’s about deeds is it not? It’s about immoral behavior.

…Then we’re agreed, Matt. Jim West is ignorant, and so was Calvin!

As to the immoral charge, do you think that’s true of atheists? You see, this is not about having a basis for morality. It’s a charge against the behavior of people who do not believe in God. It claims that we are in fact immoral people; that we do not live according to moral “wisdom.” This is about our behavior not beliefs.

I would think this discussion alone should end any pretensions about an inerrant Bible. One lone ethical atheist destroys such a notion, even if he does not believe, or even if he is inconsistent in his behavior, as you might want to claim….

…All it takes is one lone ethical atheist to upset the cart, correct?  I’ll put my behavior up to most Christian theists, okay?

Agreed?

Unfortunately John has made straight-forward errors here. I’ll make a few brief points in response.

1. Loftus thinks my discussion of the meaning of the word fool somehow provides a refutation of biblical inerrancy: he writes,

As to the immoral charge, do you think that’s true of atheists? You see, this is not about having a basis for morality. It’s a charge against the behavior of people who do not believe in God. It claims that we are in fact immoral people; that we do not live according to moral “wisdom.” This is about our behavior not beliefs.

I would think this discussion alone should end any pretensions about an inerrant Bible. One lone ethical atheist destroys such a notion, even if he does not believe, or even if he is inconsistent in his behavior, as you might want to claim.”

Three things here. First, as I said in to Loftus, I am not sure that the passage talks about atheists in the modern sense of the term. The NIV translates Psalm 14:1 as follows, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.” In English this appears to be talking about people who profess atheism, the philosophical position that God does not exist. However, as I noted in correspondence with Loftus, the words “there is” are not in the original Hebrew. They are rather an interpretation of the Hebrew added by many modern English bibles. The original Hebrew simply states “the fool says in his heart no God”. Many commentators interpret the phrase “no God” to mean “there is no God”, however, as I pointed out to Loftus, there is an alternative way of interpreting the phrase as someone who says no to God; someone who is aware of God’s existence and his commands and yet chooses to reject them.

It is worth noting that even commentators who interpret the phrase as “there is no God” do not think it refers to atheism as we understand the term today. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the phrase “no God” is used in Psalm 10:4. Here it refers to a person who “curses and renounces God”, acts as though God will not hold him or her accountable for his or her actions. The point is not that the person does not believe in God but that the person rejects God’s requirements to do what is right and does not consider him or herself to be accountable or responsible for what they do.

The second is that Psalm 14, in context, applies its criticism not to atheists per se but to all human beings, the majority of whom historically and today do believe in a deity of some sort. Note the second half of the verse,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.

The next verse states,

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.

This brings me to the third reason for doubting that the psalm refers to atheists as Loftus and I mean the term – someone who affirms that God does not exist – as the New Testament applies the judgment in this psalm to theists. In the opening chapters of Romans (verses 1-3) Paul identifies two groups specifically who fail under the criticism of this psalm; the first are Greeks who for the most past believe a deity exists, know what his requirements are and yet still reject them. The second are Jews who know that God exists, know what his requirements are in the Torah and yet refuse to follow them.

In Romans 3:12 Paul cites this Psalm to summarise the point he has made that both groups, who are theists, have rejected God. Clearly these groups are not atheists in the sense that Loftus and I use the term. The person who says “no God” is not the person who does not believe in God, rather, it is the person who rejects the demands that God places on their lives.

2. Suppose the passage does refer to the intellectual position of atheism and says “the fool says in his heart there is no God” Loftus seems to think that this means that all atheists are immoral. But this does not follow. The claim that fools are atheists does not entail that all atheists are fools, any more than the claim that all Buicks are cars entails that all cars are Buicks. This would commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

3. Suppose the text did affirm that all atheists are immoral. Loftus seems to think that this means that the text affirms that all theists are more moral than atheists. His response, “I’ll put my behavior up to most Christian theists, okay?”, implies that if one atheist is more moral than most theists then the Psalmists claim is refuted.

Now I could express my scepticism that Loftus knows enough about the character of most theists in the world to make this claim, not to mention the hubristic self-righteousness this comment displays, but these issues can be put aside because even if Loftus is a shining paragon of virtue, the claim that all atheists are immoral does not entail that all atheists are more immoral than all theists. It is possible that both atheists and theists could be immoral to a degree and that the degrees of each differ on an individual by individual basis.

4. John seems to believe that his citation of me, writing on the meaning of the word “fool” in Psalm 14, is in disagreement with Calvin’s exposition of the psalm. Further, that this commits me to saying that Calvin was ignorant. This is mistaken.

First, if one examines Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 14 it is not clear that he does disagree with what I have said. On the meaning of the word fool he states,

As the Hebrew word נבל, nabal, signifies not only a fool, but also a perverse, vile, and contemptible person, it would not have been unsuitable to have translated it so in this place; yet I am content to follow the more generally received interpretation, which is, that all profane persons, who have cast off all fear of God and abandoned themselves to iniquity, are convicted of madness. David does not bring against his enemies the charge of common foolishness, but rather inveighs against the folly and insane hardihood of those whom the world accounts eminent for their wisdom. We commonly see that those who, in the estimation both of themselves and of others, highly excel in sagacity and wisdom, employ their cunning in laying snares, and exercise the ingenuity of their minds in despising and mocking God. It is therefore important for us, in the first place, to know, that however much the world applaud these crafty and scoffing characters, who allow themselves to indulge to any extent in wickedness, yet the Holy Spirit condemns them as being fools; for there is no stupidity more brutish than forgetfulness of God. We ought, however, at the same time, carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity.[1]

It is clear that Calvin agrees with my point here; the word fool refers to a person of low moral character and not an intellectually sub-par person. Moreover, it also seems clear that Calvin’s reading of the use of the phrase “there is no God” in psalm 14, it is not a reference to people who profess the philosophical position of atheism. On the meaning of the phrase “there is not God” Calvin states,

Not that they maintain, by drawn out arguments or formal syllogisms, as they term them, that there is no God, (for to render them so much the more inexcusable, God from time to time causes even the most wicked of men to feel secret pangs of conscience, that they may be compelled to acknowledge his majesty and sovereign power;) but whatever right knowledge God instils into them they partly stifle it by their malice against him, and partly corrupt it, until religion in them becomes torpid, and at last dead. They may not plainly deny the existence of a God, but they imagine him to be shut up in heaven, and divested of his righteousness and power; and this is just to fashion an idol in the room of God. As if the time would never come when they will have to appear before him in judgment, they endeavor, in all the transactions and concerns of their life, to remove him to the greatest distance, and to efface from their minds all apprehension of his majesty. And when God is dragged from his throne, and divested of his character as judge, impiety has come to its utmost height; and, therefore, we must conclude that David has most certainly spoken according to truth, in declaring that those who give themselves liberty to commit all manner of wickedness, in the flattering hope of escaping with impunity, deny in their heart that there is a God.[2] [Emphasis added]

Here Calvin states that the issue is not so much the intellectual disbelief in God but rather the living of one’s life in a manner that rejects God’s laws and one’s own responsibility for following them.

5. Putting aside Loftus’ apparent misunderstanding of Calvin’s position (he did, afterall, confess to not having read Calvin after he wrote the post in question) let’s assume for the sake of argument that I did come to a conclusion different from Calvin, does it follow, as Loftus suggests, that Calvin was ignorant? I think this is a non-sequitur, if Loftus has Calvin correct (which he does not) and Calvin contends that a fool is someone who is intellectually or mentally sub-par, not a person with a bad character, then I would disagree with him – but it does not follow from this that Calvin is ignorant. I think it is quite possible (and common) for educated, informed people to disagree on a particular issue. The suggestion that unless someone agrees with me on everything then they are an ignoramus seems to me to make to big a leap.

Given points 1-5, I do not accept John Loftus’ claim that my comments on Psalm 14 force me, or anyone else, to conclude that Biblical inerrancy is false or that one of history’s greatest Biblical expositors and theologians was an ignoramus. Loftus’ claims to the contrary seem to be based on reading a comment I made, failing to grasp the issues in interpreting a Psalm, misunderstanding the position of Calvin and then making a series of unwarranted jumps in logic (all, I deduce, in an attempt to make me side with him in his attack on Jim West, whom I had not heard of until a few days and whose writings on the subject are no longer online).


[1] John Calvin Commentary on Psalms Psalm 14:1.
[2] Ibid.

RELATED POSTS:
Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part II
Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part I
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17 responses so far ↓

  • I cannot see how Loftus could possibly have actually checked what Calvin said about this Psalm and then declared that your view mkaes Calvin not merely wrong but ignorant.

    I’m calling Loftus’s hand on this one: I bet my hat that he never even read Calvin on this Psalm before commenting. Deny it, John.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Front Row Seats in Hell =-.

  • You’d be correct Glenn.

    Loftus confessed to not having read Calvin prior to posting “When Psalm 14:1 Says Atheists Are “Fools” This Can Be Easily Refuted” in the discussion he had with Matt on Joel’s blog here.

    Matt says:
    January 10, 2010 at 6:12 am

    John, have you read Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 14?

    John W. Loftus says:
    January 10, 2010 at 6:34 am

    No I have not, Matt. I’m taking the word of Jim West on it. Care to enlighten me?

    .-= My last blog-post ..John Loftus on Calvin, Matthew Flannagan and Psalm 14 =-.

  • I have a distinct impression that like most fundamentalist, Loftus has rarely read a commentary, finding that his view of Scripture to be the only correct on.
    .-= My last blog-post ..It’s not lying, it’s hyperbole =-.

  • [...] Anyway, go read Matt’s article: John Loftus on Calvin, Matthew Flannagan and Psalm 14 | MandM. [...]

  • Psalm 14 may or may not mean that atheists are “fools” but this particular atheist seems to have made himself look like an idiot, LOL.

  • The problem with Loftus, like ALL religious fundamentalists, is that he assumes that he is right all the time. It is pointless to debate him – pigs, mud, pearls, swine – because nothing you say or write will get it across to him. His response is less that original and I have no doubt that it was written simply by looking at a screen say, ‘I’ve got them now. I’ll destroy God and Christianity.’
    .-= My last blog-post ..Undeception is Not a Biblioblog =-.

  • Psalm 14:1 Again, This Time Responding to Dr. Matt Flannagan…

    the verse reads: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good.” Matt Flannagan chides me for this in a recent post. I don’t usually explain proper interpretatio…

  • I agree there is a logical error here. Though I think one should be careful with the genre of poetry, it can contain generalisations that there may be exceptions to.

    But the focus is on the fool, not the atheist. It is the immoral person that is being addressed. And the gist I think is he is denying acountability. “There is no God to whom I have to give an account.” Even if the fool is not saying there is no God that exists, he is saying in his heart (will, desire) that there is in-effect no God; that is, no God who will judge me.

    I don’t know whether your translation of “no to God” is legitimate, but it won’t be the first time all major translations have not chosen the most accurate translation. I can think of a couple of passages that they all may be somewhat suboptimal on (Ezra 6 and 1 Corintians 12).

    I will add that atheists are immoral in their denial of God. If God exists, and is their creator, and demands acknowledgement, then a refusal to do so would be an immoral act.

    Slightly related, my post on Character deficiency syndrome

    :)

  • January 2010 Screwballs PLUS Automatic and Special Platinums…

    Matt of MandM blog takes DJ to task for using his name in vain. http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/mandm…-psalm-14.html (Screwball to DJ for thinking Matt was agreeing with him and for his entire argument, Anti-screwball to Matt for the good work)…

  • Of course I’d like to see the statistical evidence that shows that atheists are as moral as Christians. Perhaps we could try comparing the proportion of those with “no religious belief” in prison with those with “no religious belief” in the general population?

    What would that show?

  • Actually Jason.. I think it would weigh in favor of the atheists. But this does not really show anything. There tends to be a disproportionate number of atheists in those who are economically advantaged – ie. those who are less likely to turn to crime. Also those who are better educated… but I won’t open that can of worms.

  • Actually Christians are under-represented in prison entrants, whilst those with no religious belief are over-represented.

    Of course the response of atheists is to that is to claim that “no religious belief” doesn’t actually mean “no religious belief.” It means “no great commitment to any particular religion.” At least when you’re talking prison numbers. They do say that “no religious belief” means atheist when they’re referring to the general population.

    You have to watch for the irenic interrogation, sometimes I ask questions when I already know the answers. ;-)

  • Thanks for the link Jason

    So, using the same criteria the atheists used to boost the number in general population, the atheists have actually boosted their number in NZ prison quite significantly.

    FAIL! LOL

  • I guess it comes down to debating who falls under “Atheist”/”Christian”… but interesting nonetheless.

  • Not really Troll, I’m perfectly happy to accept that the majority of people in the “no-religion” category wouldn’t describe themselves as atheist in either prison or the outside world.

    The objection I have is that atheists try to use the census poll to say their numbers are increasing yet refuse to accept that the same group are significantly more likely to end up in prison than Christians are.

    It’s intellectual dishonesty I don’t like. Equivocation and special pleading just set my teeth on edge.

    The difference between ignorance and stupidity is that ignorance can be fixed with a book, stupidity requires a rifle and a shovel.

  • Apart from your rather twisted violent imagery I agree.