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Monday, September 16, 2013

A flawed argument against contraception

This post arises from a discussion I've been having online with Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong. It began when Dave cited a passage from Calvin condemning contraception on the ground that it is a form of pre-emptive murder. As an offshoot of that discussion, Dave has posted a succinct statement of the "murder analogy" argument against contraception. The core argument goes as follows:

A) Contraception is a deliberate act of preventing the conception of Person X who would have been conceived had the persons been open to new life.

B ) Therefore, the goal or intention is to obliterate the (earthly) existence of Person X.

C) That is also the goal of a murder: to obliterate the (earthly) existence of Person X.

D) Therefore, in the deepest sense, contraception and murder are alike, and evil.

E) Contraception, however, takes it a step further and disallows even the *beginning* of Person X who might have been / would have been conceived, BUT for contraception.

F) Thus, it not only obliterates the earthly existence of Person X, but any existence whatsoever of the Person, in terms of having an eternal soul.

G) In that sense, contraception is even more anti-life than murder is.

H) Therefore, in a qualified, specific sense, contraception can almost be said to be as heinous and wicked as (and philosophically equal to) murder.
This argument doesn't work, because you can't commit a crime against a nonexistent entity. A hypothetical person who would have been conceived under some counterfactual circumstances or other is a nonsensical construct. I can prevent a particular sperm from making contact with a particular egg. But hypothetical people aren't people. I have no moral duties toward them whatsoever. Murder is wrong because it involves malice toward an existing person.

Step F makes the logical problems in the argument even more evident. You can't "obliterate" the existence of that which does not exist.

Furthermore, as someone pointed out when Dave originally posted this argument on his Facebook page, the argument proves too much, because a married couple who choose to go for a walk instead of having sex are also committing "murder" by this logic. If preventing the existence of "Person X" is akin to murder, then whether one does so by abstaining from sex or by engaging in non-procreative sex is irrelevant to the nature of the crime against Person X. You can't import other (much more solid) objections against contraception into _this_ argument, if the argument is to stand on its own two feet. Certainly _if_ non-procreative sex is wrong on other grounds _and_ preventing a person’s existence is wrong, then committing both sins together would be worse than committing only one of them. But if preventing a person’s existence is a crime against them, then it’s a crime no matter how innocent the thing-you’re-doing-instead-of-procreating would otherwise have been.

I can see two ways in which the argument might have some merit, logically:

1. If one could “mess with time” either through time-travel or foreknowledge. So, for instance, if you go back in time to prevent someone who does exist from being conceived, then you are motivated by malice against a specific person whom you know in your present. Of course, we don’t know if this is even possible. Perhaps prophecy could be seen as another example of “messing with time.” So when Merlin in That Hideous Strength tells Jane that she has failed to conceive a child who would have delivered Logres, that makes a certain amount of sense (though it may involve Molinist “middle knowledge,” which is a philosophically controversial concept), because Merlin is capable of prophecy. Even then, though, it makes no sense to say that she did so deliberately, since she did it before she heard the prophecy. Once she heard the prophecy, she could have intentions toward “the child prophesied.” I’m still not sure that it would make sense to say that she committed a crime against said child, though. Her crime, on Merlin’s premises, was rather against Logres.

2. More solidly, the “preformationist” theory to which Calvin and many other premoderns adhered allows you to talk about crimes against future people. If the "seed" is an incipient person or "potential person" then it makes sense to speak of preventing it from fulfilling its potential. Whether that's actually a crime against the future person is  a difficult philosophical issue, I think, but a case could be made that it is. And that's what I take Calvin to be arguing. Dave responded to my initial objections to the use he was making of the Calvin passage by saying that I was "failing to see the forest for the trees." On the contrary, I'm pointing out that the trees in this particular forest won't make the kind of lumber Dave needs. Without preformationism (or time travel) the “quasi-murder” argument fails utterly, because there’s no one to commit a crime against.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Christus Victor, Part II

According to Aulen, the "classic" view is superior to both the later Latin theories in part because it  preserves both "objective" and "subjective" elements, whereas the two Latin theories each stress one aspect at the expense of the other. Like the Anselmian/penal substitution approach, the "classic model" recognizes that there is something objectively alienating us from God, beyond our own subjective disposition. The classic view takes seriously the idea that Jesus' death is necessary in order for God to be able to forgive us. But whereas the Anselmian view sees the necessity as arising from the legal claims of God's honor, the classic view identifies the necessity with our subjection to the powers of evil and death. In conquering those powers, God is indeed satisfying His own justice, but in a richer and fuller and less legalistic way than that posited by the Anselmian theory.

Furthermore, Aulen argues that whereas the Latin theories see atonement as primarily the act of Jesus according to his human nature (offering the atoning sacrifice or serving as the perfect example), the "classic" view sees it as God's act of redemption. Yes, Jesus is the perfect atoning sacrifice, and His humanity is central to His sacrificial work. But for Aulen's "classic model," the role of the divine nature is far more decisive. This is one of Aulen's most interesting arguments, though it's open to a lot of dispute.  One can question whether Aulen's either/or is really necessary, and one can also perhaps question the Christology that lies behind it (does it perhaps downplay Jesus' humanity too much?). But whether he's entirely fair to Anselm and other classic Atonement theorists, it's certainly true that modern Christians tend to think of the Atonement as Jesus-the-man (or Jesus-the-loving-Son) propitiating the angry Father-God. And certainly this misinterpretation is harder to fall into with the Christus Victor theory.

Aulen's stress on divine action in the Atonement is important because of his final move. He argues that Martin Luther departs from the typical patterns of second-millennium Western theology and recovers the richness of the classic patristic model. Luther's doctrine of justification, Aulen argues, rests on a "Christus Victor" atonement theology in which Jesus' death frees us from the power of Satan, sin, death, hell--and the Law. Aulen suggests that for Luther the Law plays essentially the same role that Satan played in patristic theology. Certainly he's right that Luther tends to identify Satan with the Law--the Law's primary function is to accuse us, and so is Satan's. (One of the most hilarious, though annoying, bits of anti-Lutheran polemic I've come across is a 17th-century Catholic tract pointing out that Luther admitted having gotten his arguments against late medieval Catholic practices from Satan. This because in one of his writings Luther describes Satan interrogating him on the Scriptural basis for the practice of offering private masses, and claims to have been entirely unable to answer Satan's Scriptural arguments. The polemicist, of course, missed Luther's rhetorical point, which was that Satan torments our conscience and if we aren't firmly rooted in the Word by faith, we will fall into despair and be damned by his accusations.) Aulen sees Luther's view as even more profound than that of the Fathers, since it deals more adequately with the fact that Satan's claims against us are indeed rooted in God's justice, so that God is, in a sense, overcoming Himself. (One could put this down, of course, to Luther's being far more a product of typical "Western" atonement theology than Aulen is willing to admit.) Alas, says Aulen, later Lutherans failed to maintain Luther's position in its integrity, reverting to a more typical "Western" atonement theology.

I've described Aulen's arguments in some detail, because I think they have a lot of value for people who are looking for alternatives to the "traditional" penal substitution view. (Of course, you should really read Aulen and not just trust my summary, especially since I'm finishing this review quite a while after having read the book!) Aulen's version of "Christus Victor" (and bear in mind that he invented the phrase--the Fathers did not go around claiming to believe in something called "Christus Victor atonement theology") contains far more elements of "penal substitution" than most people realize. It is not simply about God "overcoming evil," as some banal summaries of Christus Victor imply. In Aulen's hands, Christus Victor _is_ a form of substitutionary atonement in which Jesus satisfies the claims of the Law. But He does so not through legal fiction or through passively bearing God's wrath, but through actively defeating the forces of evil, taking the full brunt of the assault of death's powers and swallowing them up in victory. 

I find Aulen's portrayal fundamentally persuasive, and I think that the patristic model as he describes it is substantially correct as a historical portrait of what the Fathers taught _and_ as the most adequate theological model available to us to describe the mystery of the Atonement. But there are some legitimate questions to be raised. As I said above, it's not clear that he's entirely fair to Anselm in particular. The Orthodox theologian David Hart has apparently argued that Anselm actually _did_ remain faithful to the patristic understanding of Satan's role in Atonement theology. That isn't my reading of Anselm, but I need to read Hart and see if he convinces me. A more serious objection, from my point of view, is Aulen's almost Marcionite reading of Luther, and for that matter of the Scriptures. (Marcion was the early Christian theologian who wanted to throw out the Old Testament.) Aulen repeatedly identifies the Western view with an Old Testament, "Jewish" understanding of God in fundamentally legal, vindictive terms. He thus interprets Luther's "Satanization" (my term, not Aulen's) of the Law as a rejection of this Old Testament understanding. This is wrong on several counts. For one thing, Luther did not identify the Law simply with the Old Testament. According to Luther, the Sermon on the Mount is the perfection of the Law--it does not belong to the Gospel. For another, I can't see anything like the Western theology of Atonement in the Old Testament. Yes, of course blood sacrifice is there, but not in the same context or with the same significance as in later Christian theology. It was a ritual act dealing with ritual pollution. The prophets, who focus on moral and spiritual offenses against God, tend to criticize ritual sacrifice and certainly don't present it as the way of dealing with such offenses (well, maybe Joel does). I'm not saying that later Christian interpretations, which harmonize Leviticus and Isaiah, are wrong--in fact, I think one of the strongest Christian arguments (if we want to engage in argument with Jews, which is generally a bad idea at this point in salvation history) is precisely that we can harmonize Leviticus and Isaiah seen through Christ's sacrifice. But this _is_ a later Christian interpretation, and it's historically wrong to read such interpretations back into Old Testament Judaism. Certainly post-Christian Jews find Christian Atonement theology, particularly penal substitution, to be weird at best. 

Even more fundamentally, Aulen repeats the typical mistake made by most Christian interpreters until recently, by ascribing to the Old Testament and to the Jewish tradition a belief in works righteousness. The consensus of most contemporary scholars is that this too is just wrong. Jews today do not tremble under God's wrath and desperately seek to justify themselves through the law. Nor is there any evidence that they did so in the first century. Whether Luther's understanding of the Law is right or wrong, it's radically different from the Jewish understanding. 

I don't think these objections are entirely irrelevant to contemporary discussions of atonement theology among "post-evangelicals." It's fatally easy for Christians to lapse into simplistic talk about the loving, gracious Jesus freeing us from the terrible burdens of Pharisaic Judaism, and then ascribe the supposed evils of first-century Judaism to contemporary forms of conservative Christianity. It's important, in the context of that temptation, to underline that Atonement theology is a Christian thing. Yes, it's rooted in Yom Kippur and blood sacrifice, but the connotations we read into those Old Testament practices are alien to Judaism. In fact, that's a major reason to _question_ penal substitution. It's so radically alien to our Jewish heritage that it's hard to see how it can be right. Christus Victor theology, to me, looks a lot more like a legitimate "development" of the Biblical tradition in light of the radical newness introduced by Jesus' saving work. Aulen really drops the ball here, in a way that weakens his argument. (In all fairness, though, his misreading of Judaism was common until recently and shouldn't be laid to his door in particular. Aulen helped promote a richer understanding of patristic theology among modern Christians, but the time for a similar revitalization of our understanding of Second Temple Judaism had not yet come.)

In spite of these weaknesses, Aulen's book is well worth reading. A lot of good books on the Atonement have been written since, but Aulen was the first Western Christian scholar I know of who questioned the Anselm/Abelard dichotomy and opened up the possibility that there might be a "third way," which was in fact none other than the genuinely "classic" view held by pretty much all Christian theologians of the first millennium.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Christus Victor

As I was writing about the Rob Bell controversy a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that one of the major issues raised by Bell's conservative critics is Atonement theology. One of the major examples of a doctrinal boundary that is extremely important to traditional evangelicals but not characteristic of the Christian tradition as a whole is the doctrine of penal substitution. For some conservative evangelicals, penal substitution is at the heart of the Gospel. And too often, the only alternative presented is a doctrine of "atonement" in which Jesus' death simply shows God's love or represents resistance to unjust political structures or something of that sort (wonderful as those things are, they don't do justice to the Biblical and historical themes of atonement and blood sacrifice).

Frequently, a third alternative is presented: "Christus Victor," in which Jesus redeems us by overcoming the powers of evil. This "theory" is generally ascribed to the Church Fathers. Unfortunately, I find that often people don't do justice to the richness of patristic atonement theology when they set up "Christus Victor" as an alternative to penal substitution. Defenders of penal substitution are right to point out that in fact substitutionary language is all over the Fathers. Early Christians did not simply believe that Jesus rescued us from evil, but that he offered Himself as a sacrifice to the Father and paid the penalty for our sins. This language is there in the early Church, and a "Christus Victor" theology that ignores it is a pale shadow of what the Fathers actually taught.

The use of the term "Christus Victor" to describe a type of atonement theology seems to derive from the English title of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustav Aulen's lectures on the subject, delivered at the University of Uppsala in 1930 and published in English the following year by the S.P.C.K., having been translated by A. G. Hebert. (I'm using the 1950 reprint.) Aulen contrasts both the "objective" and "subjective" views of the Atonement with what he calls the "classic" view found in the Fathers and Luther. Briefly, the first two views are contrasted thus:

The "objective" view, which Aulen finds first fully formed in Anselm, though prefigured in the Latin Fathers, holds that Jesus atones for our sins acting as a human being, paying on our behalf the debt we owed to God. This may take the form, as in Anselm, of Jesus paying the debt through His perfect obedience, or it may take the form of Jesus directly being punished for our sins (Aulen doesn't distinguish as sharply between these as I would like).

The "subjective" view, on the other hand, holds that Jesus saves us by his perfect obedience, which serves as an inspiration to us, changing our hearts rather than changing something objective about our relationship to God.

Aulen argues that these two views, while opposites, are two sides of the same coin. They share a number of features that distinguish them from the "classic" view. First of all, according to Aulen they are theories which attempt to explain the atonement through some sort of key idea, whereas the traditional view is a "model" but not a full-blown theory--it has room for a number of different emphases and permutations and allows for more mystery than the two later theories do. The most important feature common to these two theories, however, is that they see Atonement as something Jesus does primarily as a human being, rather than as something Jesus does as God. Atonement, while certainly God's work in the sense that God initiates the chain of events and in the sense that Jesus is 100% divine, is in a formal sense the activity of a perfect, sinless human being. Jesus' divinity allows the human being Jesus to atone for us--in the "objective" view by giving His sacrifice infinite value, and in the subjective view by making Jesus a perfect representation of the Father's love who had no inner alienation from God to content with on his own behalf. But in both theories, Jesus' humanity holds center stage, whereas in the "classic model" the Atonement is above all else the act of God Himself.

(To be continued)