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Back from Baltimore

February 9th, 2014 by Matt

The following is a belated report of my recent trip to Baltimore. I began writing the post in December, but Christmas, New Year, the holidays, and various other things got in the way of me finally completing it.

On Tuesday 26 November 2013 I flew back to New Zealand having attended the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS), and Evangelical Philosophical Society Apologetics (Apologetics) conferences in Baltimore. My trip year was shorter than my month long tour the previous year and a lot more intense, but it was still very rewarding.

The first session I attended was a panel involving Micheal Bird, Al Mohler and Peter Enns and Van Hoozer on inerrancy. There were no surprises here. Al Mohler took the line that inerrancy, as defined by the Chicago statement, must be retained and that denying it was a kind of slippery slope to all sorts of doctrinal error. Peter Enns asserted a whole lot of alleged problems with inerrancy; he assumed that the issues he raised were a fait accompli, ignored any critical responses to them and dismissed theological arguments as a priori without engaging the premises. Van Hoozer spelt out his own position in terms of speech act theory.

Michael Bird was perhaps the exception in terms of stating the expected; he pointed out correctly, in my view, that the debate on inerrancy tended to presuppose a North American context. He argued that the kinds of cultural battles which contributed to the American debate had not played out the same way in evangelicalism outside the USA. This, I think, is entirely correct. Unfortunately there was little engagement between speakers. I would have liked to heard how each responded to the premises and arguments of their opponents.

The next session of note was David Baggett speaking on “the vices of virtue theory”. Baggett is working on a sequel to the book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality which he co-wrote with Jerry Walls. In this paper Baggett raised some trenchant criticisms of Philippa Foot’s book Natural Goodness. Foot defends a naturalistic account of goodness in terms of the natural flourishing of a species. The gist of Baggett’s criticism was that Foot is unable to really rise above amoral accounts of goodness, such as when we say that a good tiger tears apart its prey well.

In the afternoon I attended an interesting paper by Christian Milhut about whether resentment can be a virtue. Milhut was critical of the idea that our feelings of resentment and anger at perceived injustices are reliable. This paper elicited an interesting discussion about when such emotions are and are not appropriate in morality.

The evening saw the EPS reception, where Gary DeWeese gave a thoughtful address on the role of fellowship in Christian philosophy. This was followed by nibbles, socialising and mingling.

On the Wednesday I began at 8:30 am by attending a paper by Peter Payne on “Objectivity in debates over whether Ethics needs God”. This was followed by a paper by Harry Bunting entitled “Divine Authority A Kantian Perspective”. Bunting’s paper was excellent. He noted that while Immanuel Kant viewed morality’s content as dependent on reason, but maintained Kant believed the moral law was only obligatory on humans because God held human beings accountable to the standards reason laid down. Bunting brought this perspective of God’s authority being linked to him holding humans accountable into dialogue with Mark Murphy’s celebrated position on divine authority in “an essay on divine authority”. Bunting’s paper was extremely interesting and I hope to get a copy of this paper in the future as I want to digest his thoughts in more depth.

Next was Paul Copan sketching his position on the difference between the pre and post fall worlds and a talk by Angus Menuge on “information and the mind body problem.” Both were interesting and thought provoking.

In the afternoon, I saw a plenary session with Oxford professor Richard Swinburne. Swinburne presented an abridged version of the position he had defended in his book “Revelation” where he defends patristic methods of interpreting scripture and allegorical interpretations. While I don’t accept all Swinburne’s conclusions, I was disappointed in the response many new testament scholars proposed to his paper. Most of them simply assumed the position of contemporary biblical scholarship, which argues that the meaning of a text is what the author of the relevant pericope was uttering with it. Swinburne’s key point however is that a text’s meaning is determined by its context, and that when a text is incorporated as part of the Canon and is considered the word of God that changes the literary and cultural context of the original text as well as who the relevant author is. I would have loved to see new testament scholars address the arguments Swinburne made instead of dismiss them as “philosophical”.

Meeting and hearing Richard Swinburne was extremely interesting. Swinburne’s work in philosophy of religion has been significant. His books The Existence of God and The Coherence of Theism are justifiably considered some of the best works the topic that have been written in the last few centuries. Unlike some of the other speakers, Swinburne was not a charismatic speaker and at times appeared awkward but he quickly gained a fierce-some reputation at sessions he attended and participated in the Q&A. He was, to put it bluntly, brilliant, and often would ask a single pointed question that destroyed the entire argument of the presenter. In fact, another philosopher I spoke with that day coined the term “you have been Swinburned”, to playfully refer to people who had faced his critical questions in the Q&A and had to substantially alter their paper afterwards as a result.

Thursday was for me the most daunting of the days. I was scheduled to give 2 papers in the afternoon for the EPS. One at 1:00 and one at 3:30. I was extremely tired, my body had refused to accept it was night time the evening before and so I had barely slept.

Despite this my talks went well. The first was a paper called “Boonin on the Sentience Criterion a Critique”. In this paper I criticised David Boonin’s argument that a fetus does not acquire human moral status until its brain is developed to the point it attains sentience, rudimentary consciousness and the ability to feel pleasure and pain. Boonin’s argument for this position spring boards off a critique of a famous paper by Don Marquis that argues that feticide is homicide because killing a fetus deprives it of the same future that an adult loses when it is killed. Boonin attempts to modify Marquis’ account so that it is both (a) more plausible and (b) no longer has the implication that feticide is homicide prior to the attainment of sentience. I argued Boonin’s arguments in this regard fail. This paper was not as well attended as I would have liked, but it did receive very positive feedback and some engaging questions from the audience.

My second paper, was “Divine Commands and Biblical Authority, the Problem of Gen 22.” In the debate over divine command meta-ethics a common line of argument is that identifying moral obligations with God’s commands renders morality arbitrary: God could command anything at all, and so a divine command theory has the implausible consequence that any action at all could become right or wrong. The standard response, which I endorse, is to note that God, as understood in such discussions as essentially good. It is not possible for an essentially good God to command anything at all, in particularly an essentially good God cannot command abhorrent actions.

One problem, however, for a divine command theorist who accepts biblical authority, is a passage in Gen 22 where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Opponents argue that this passage shows that God can command the abhorrent.

My response in my paper was two-fold. First, I argued that the command in Genesis 22 occurs in a specific context where Abraham and the reader know that Isaac will survive the ordeal. If Isaac is killed he is not going to stay dead, but return down the mountain alive. Second, I drew a distinction between non negotiable and negotiable moral beliefs. The former are those moral beliefs so integral and central to our concept of goodness that one can’t deny them without giving up our concept of goodness all together. The latter are those moral beliefs which one can sensibly revise our opinions on and debate about and still be coherently discussing morality. Briefly, I argued that while one can’t attribute to God any commands that contradict our not negotiable moral beliefs, given human fallibility, it is likely he would command something contrary to our negotiable moral beliefs. Unless we are infallible many of our negotiable moral beliefs are mistaken. I suggested that when the context of Gen 22 is considered, it is clear that God’s command does not violate a non-negotiable belief, and hence, one could coherently attribute it to an essentially good God.

Unlike the previous paper this one was well attended, with several prominent philosophers in the audience. Perhaps the highlight for me came from Richard Swinburne. Swinburne and I had a back and forth exchange over various aspects of the problem. Despite his probing questions I manged to avoid being “Swinburned”. 

Thursday night brought the first night of the Apologetics conference and I was driven out to Fulton, where I as a speaker was given a complementary dinner before the conference began. I enjoyed this opportunity immensely. I had the privilege of travelling with several Christian philosophers I respect greatly, such as David Baggett, Angus Menuge and Mark Forman and Paul Copan. I had stimulating discussions and conversations with them during the trip and over dinner.

That evening I attended two lectures; one by Gary Habermas on the historical sources for the resurrection and another very interesting talk by Craig Keener. Keener presented his recent multi-volume study of miracle reports. Keener’s study is extremely interesting. He has followed up numerous reports of miracles across various different cultures, interviewing witnesses, medical professionals who had done diagnose and so on. Particularly interesting was how widespread such reports were even among educated people today and across cultures.

Friday saw me get a much needed rest, I went to bed at 11 pm and to my sufrprise did not wake till 10 the next morning. I dont think I have ever slept for 11 hours straight before in my life. Friday afternoon I drove out again to the Apologetics conference, I had dinner and a stimulating conversation with Angus Menuge, and then I attended a lecture by Sean McDowell, the son of popular apologetics writer Josh McDowell. Sean gave a useful reminder that intellectual rigor is not the be all and end all in Apologetics. He spoke of how the role of virtues like humility and treating others with respect were important. This of course does not really need saying but his talk was a useful reminder of the point.

After Sean’s talk I presented my lecture entitled “God’s Commands and Moral Obligations: Some Common Objections”. Here I had a very well attended session with people from all over the USA in attendance. My lecture consisted of an overview of what divine command theories are, some common misconstruels by secular philosophers and a response to four common objections.

The Q&A afterwards was very good and engaging. People raised questions about how you should respond to the fact that some people have appealed to God’s commands to justify atrocities. From the feedback I got afterwards, I think I was able to get across my response to this objection quite well. Which is, in part, that the existence of people who appeal to God to justify atrocities is no more a problem for religious ethics than the fact that some people appeal to human rights, or justice, or equality, or liberty, or moral duties, or the greater good, to justify atrocities calls into question any secular system of ethics. At the end of the day there is no alleged fact or moral claim that a fanatic cannot and will not appeal to justify atrocities. That fact tells us about the tenacity of various fanatic’s not the truth of the alleged fact or moral claim.

On Saturday morning I left for the apologetics conference early around 7:00 am and had breakfast followed by a discussion of my previous lecture the night before with Greg Koukl, whom I last spoke with at Compass in 2003. After this I watched some of the early morning lecturers on the big screen from the breakfast room. Around 11am Scott Smith from Talbot Theological seminary and I traveled to the airport to catch a flight to Dallas, to catch my link to LA. While waiting for our flights Scott Smith and I had some really good discussions about ethics, philosophy, and possible future publication projects. He gave me some advice on getting further publications.

Experiencing something of a de ja vu from Atlanta the plane on which I was scheduled to leave Dallas sustained damage to its fuel cap. Fortunately this was detected just before takeoff. I ended up delayed for 4 hours in Dallas. As a result missed my link from LA to Auckland, and so I spent Sunday holed up at the LAX Hilton, compliments of American Airlines, as I waited for the next flight to Auckland the following evening.

Needless to say I arrived home extremely tired but extremely grateful to everyone who supported me in making this trip possible. Again it was a very worthwhile experience being able to go.

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  • a talk by Angus Menuge on “information and the mind body problem.”

    This sounds interesting. Is the paper available? I would love to read it. Of course now that you’ve had dinner with him you could possibly convince him to post it on your blog. :)