August 29, 2011

CALVINIST RHETORIC: Euphemism and Dysphemism
or "Poisoning the well while sweetening the pot"

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What I Mean By Euphemism and Dysphemism

Both euphemism and dysphemism are replacing words in order to make a point. With euphemism, you replace a word with another to make an idea sound better (often to be less offensive). With dysphemism, you replace a word with another to make an idea sound worse.

A great example of a rhetorical use of euphemism is the titles pro-life and pro-choice. Using the prefix 'pro' makes both of them sound like they are for something, instead of being against something. Additionally, it makes opposing the position sound bad (who wants to be against choice? Or life?). Therefore, naming your position can make your position sound better, while making the other position sound worse.

An example of dysphemism would be my calling unconditional election "arbitrary election". The word arbitrary makes the idea sound a lot worse (though I would argue that it is not inaccurate).
Euphemism and Dysphemism In Action

Probably the most obnoxious example of Calvinist euphemism is the term "Doctrines of Grace" which Calvinists use as a synonym for Calvinism. They do this because the word Calvinism is distasteful to some, and it sounds more like a label which isn't very chic. So they give it a new name to hide that it is a philosophical system, and to try and make it sound like they are only defending grace. It also is an attempt to try and own the word 'grace', as if that is a purely Calvinist concept (despite the fact that the defining doctrine in Calvinism is unconditional election while the defining doctrine of Arminianism is prevenient grace).

There are plenty of other examples: sovereign grace for irresistible grace, sovereignty for determinism, effectual atonement for limited atonement, etc...

There are lots of examples of dysphemism as well. For instance, the calumnious use of Pelagius wherever possible. Even the term Non-Calvinist is a bit of a dysphemism, since it paints Calvinism as the only solid idea (very far from the truth).

The End Result*

The end result is a lot of confusion, misdirection, and sometimes outright lies (though I will clarify the lie point at the end). What you usually have is what is known as poisoning the well. Poisoning the well is essentially creating a bias before any real conversation has taken place. For instance, the term "Doctrines of Grace" implies that other theologies don't really promote grace. While most Calvinists do believe this, by renaming Calvinism, one is now forcing the other side to argue against the "Doctrines of Grace" and making it sound as if the person is arguing against grace itself.

This isn't to say that Calvinists are being dishonest (though it has happened). What I am saying is that Arminians should be aware that when we allow this sort of language to happen, we allowing them to choose the battleground so to speak. We need to break much of this language apart, and not allow one side of the argument to own biblical words like sovereignty, grace, and even predestination. We need to understand how these terms relate to Arminianism itself, and keep hammering that home.

About what I said above about lying. There is nothing inherently deceitful about euphemism or dysphemism. Indeed, with the exception of the rampant dysphemistic use of 'pelagianism' or 'semipelagianism' I cannot think of a single example that is universally deceitful. However, it can be easily abused by those who do lie. There is a great article on SEA about Calvinism on the Sly regarding how many Calvinist pastors like to hide their theology until they gain a base, and then subvert the original leadership. This is not something I want to accuse all Calvinists of doing, or even most Calvinists, but it is interesting that it seems to be principally happening from the Calvinist camp right now. I think it is because the rampant use of euphemism and dysphemism by well meaning Calvinists give such power-mongers tools.

To Calvinists out there, I do ask you to be blantent about your speech. Some euphestic terms are of course very legitamate, but you should never use a term for your own belief which is implying something about the other side's belief. That is when you cross the line from honest discourse, into something else.


For series index, click here.
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* This last section I have changed significantly. Please look to the comments to see what was formally written, as well as the reasons for the changes.

August 23, 2011

CALVINIST RHETORIC: Idealistic Abstractions
Or “Plato: Imagination Taking Shape”*

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What I Mean by Idealistic Abstractions
To be abstract means to be “thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.” To put it more simply (at least for our purposes), something which is abstract is something which is not defined by our 5 senses. For instance, love, peace, faith, grace, sovereignty, etc… As we can see from the examples, abstraction is quite important for Christianity. Indeed, it is quite important for life since most subjects deal with abstractions, including science, politics, and even sports.

By idealistic abstractions, I mean the absolute “purest” sense of a particular idea. In practice, the “purest” sense of an idea ends up being the most extreme sense, where no qualification is allowed. Much of Calvinistic rhetoric, in fact, hinges on the idea that the “purest” sense of a particular attribute of God is the starting place for understanding who God is and what He is doing.

This shouldn’t be that surprising for those of us that know a bit about theological history. Calvin based a lot of his ideas off of Augustine, who in turn was highly and openly influenced by Plato, whose rhetoric was strongly based off of deduction from ideals. Here are some very telling quotes from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 1997) in regards to Plato:

“These doctrines are all based on a metaphysic… which contrasts the world of sense and everyday experience with a true and higher world of ‘Ideas’ (or better ‘Forms’).” (p. 1299)
“Of perhaps even greater moment for the history of the Christian theology was the fact that the thought of St. Augustine was radically influenced… by Platonic doctrines… Henceforward the Platonic Forms were regularly reinterpreted as the creative thoughts of God.” (p. 1300)
Now I am not saying that Calvinism is some form of Platonism. It’s not. Nor am I arguing that Calvinism is wrong because it was influenced by a pagan Greek philosopher. That would be a genetic fallacy, and somewhat hypocritical since most of Western philosophy has been influenced in part by Plato and Aristotle. Instead, I am merely saying is that Plato is indeed the source of this rhetorical style and is the reason why it is so prevalent in Calvinism especially.

Idealistic Abstractions in Action

It is difficult to not find a Calvinist argument or even belief which is not touched by a reliance on Idealistic Abstraction. It really is a foundation for a great many of their beliefs. For the sake of brevity I have chosen two examples to show what this looks like.

Sovereignty

I’ve chosen to use sovereignty here because it is a major part of Calvinists’ motivations and entire worldview. However, the Calvinist view of sovereignty is a very strong example of idealistic abstraction.

The word ‘sovereignty’ means that one rules over a particular domain. It does not, in of itself, describe how one rules; it just merely describes one as the ruler. Any argument which states that someone is not sovereign unless they rule in a very specific way is neither basing this on the definition of the word, nor on what the Bible says (which simply describes God as king). It is instead an argument based off of that person’s opinion of what perfect sovereignty should be.

This is how the logic works. You start with an assumption (in this case an erroneous one) that any attribute can be reduced down to some pure simple concept. In the case of sovereignty, we reduce the idea of lordship down to the simple idea of control. Sovereigns control things. Therefore, the purest form of sovereignty is absolute and complete control. We then treat this as the basic definition of the word, and then claim that it must be true of God.

This ignores the fact that no earthly sovereign in the history of the world has ever exacted this kind of control over their domain. It ignores the most common duties of a sovereign as part of the definition: creating a peaceful context in which citizens can live, protecting people from threats domestic and abroad, and exacting judgment between citizens and between the citizen and the state. It ignores that the Bible describes God’s interactions with Israel in precisely these terms throughout it. These are nothing more than “earthly particulars” which merely distract us from what sovereignty “should be.”

Aseity

Aseity means self-existence, or having no source or cause for one’s existence. It is one of those theological words that only describe God. God has always existed, and nothing comes before Him. He does not need anything to exist, and would still exist if nothing else did. This is what we mean by aseity.

The Calvinist argument from aseity is probably the most blatantly Platonic (that is deriving from Plato) argument in their arsenal. Plato and his philosophical descendants held to the belief that God was static: He was completely distant, and did not react in any way (including emotionally) to anything else. They argued that this must be true because any movement of God must either be a move from or toward perfection, and, since God is always perfect, no movement is thus possible for God. This, of course, contradicts the biblical narrative, erroneously attributes all attributes of God, such as emotion, to ontology (the study of existence), and doesn’t take into account movements within perfection.

The Calvinist argument from aseity is very similar. Now, I don’t reject God’s aseity (quite the opposite) in much of the same way that I don’t reject that God is perfect. However, I do reject the Platonic logic that Calvinists like to employ when trying to use it against Arminianism, especially since they make some similar mistakes.

Here is an example from Tim Prussic:
this Arminian notion makes God dependent upon creation for his knowledge. This aspect is exceptionally pernicious. One of God’s attributes is knowledge. This theory says (explicitly) that God knows because of us. We determine God’s knowledge. Don’t you see the impressive violence that does to the doctrine of God, his self-sufficiency, and possibly his immutability?
Josh Thibodaux does a pretty good job dismantling this argument at SEA, so I do not believe that it is necessary to do the same here. It is sufficient, for the purposes of this post, to point out how this argument is very similar to the Platonic argument that God has no emotions, especially in making the same mistake of attributing all attributes of God to ontology. Just like Plato arguing that God having an emotion causes a shift in His being, the Calvinist here is arguing that God’s knowledge is somehow ontologically tied to the thing known (as if my essence would increase as I gained knowledge, which might explain child obesity).

Like the Calvinist view of soveriegnty, this is taking an abstract concept and taking it to an extreme. While it is contradictory to general experience that the subject of a piece of knowledge impacts my capacity to know and be, the Calvinist ideal of what aseity should be apparently says that God can only know that which He causes. Personally, I see this as circular reasoning.

The End Result
There are two major effects that I believe this style of rhetoric has. First, it allows the Calvinist to propose very powerful sounding arguments without the need for things such as proof or evidence. After all, they are arguing from the idea, and as long as that idea can be articulated well, they are going to sound convincing.

Second, it gives the Calvinist a great deal of power in debate. I would say that Calvinism doesn’t hold up as well under long careful analysis as Arminianism does. However, in the middle of a debate, it is not the one who makes the better argument who wins, but the one whose argument can be simply articulated. Platonic rhetoric was designed for discussion (hence why he always wrote in dialogue). Therefore it is unsurprising that a theology steeped in it also tends to do well in similar formats.

As Arminians, we expose this rhetoric by demonstrating what these ideas would look like in real life. Most of these arguments fall on their face when confronted with the real world. And if they are saying that we are defining God based off of the world, correct them, and point out that the Bible speaks out of the real world as well. The biblical authors didn’t separate out God from their tangible experiences. Indeed, that is precisely the way that they came to know Him. If that is how the biblical authors sought to understand God, then how can we do otherwise?

For series index, click here.


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*This is the official slogan of Play-Doh©, from Hasbro. Hasbro does not endorse this post, nor does it encourage the flagrant use of its product’s name to make bad jokes about ancient philosophers, gods of death, former planets, and animated canines.

August 22, 2011

Calvinist Rhetoric: The Series

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This is the index page of a new series that I am planning on doing. As the series progresses, I'll be adding links here to each installment. What distinguishes this series from most of my other ones is that its length is not planned. I'll include new installments as I come up with them. The first installment will be up tomorrow, and will probably be the most philosophically based one.

This series will be engaging in what is known as presuppositional apologetics (or in this case polemics) where the underlying assumptions of a position are considered as opposed to looking at evidence or surface level arguments. While I will be talking about some arguments in particular, that will not be my objective. Instead, I will be trying to assess why Calvinists argue what they argue (even when it comes to decent arguments) based off of how Calvinists tend to argue.

My current posts in this series are:
Each post has three sections: What I Mean By _____(where I explain the rhetorical phenomenon I'm talking about), ____ In Action (where I discuss briefly some Calvinist arguments that use the rhetoric), and The End Result (where I talk about my analysis of rhetoric's effectiveness with Arminians, other Calvinists, and those without soteriological commitments). You may also notice that each post has two titles: one which is silly and one which is serious. This is because I enjoy torturing people with my bad sense of humor. Please indulge me.

This series is meant to be neither comprehensive in terms of discussing all aspects of Calvinist rhetoric, nor to be comprehensive in terms of each post applying to every single Calvinist. Instead, this series is indicative of my experience interacting with Calvinists and is meant to be representative of how, in general, Calvinism is being presented.

August 9, 2011

Harry Potter and the Lingering Controversy

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One of the things that I have often thought to write on is this controversy surrounding the Harry Potter books. I don't really know anyone that really shares my perspective on it so I think it is good to pen it somewhere. For the sake of full disclosure, I'll state the gist of my opinion first which is that the Harry Potter books do not represent real witchcraft on any level, but are quite worldly. While I do not agree with those who put a special ban on these books, I do believe that they should be read with caution and criticism from a Christian perspective.

Witches, Wizards, Warlocks, and Other W-words

The first thing to point out is that real witchcraft is a conglomeration of medieval superstition, pagan ritual, and anything that witches think sound cool. While there is certainly nothing universal about what witches and warlocks believe, in general the basic worldview behind witchcraft is that there are sentient intangible invisible forces which govern the ebb and flow of the natural order of things. Witchcraft religions are mostly a series of rituals to communicate with, barter with, make peace with, or sometimes outright control these forces.


Here is where I take issue with the vast majority of the criticism I hear about Harry Potter. Most complain that it teaches witchcraft: it doesn't. Yet many of these same people of no problem with other works of fantasy. WhileNarnia and Lord of the Rings are indeed legitimate exceptions, since they have no good witches in them and "magic" is understood in relation to an ultimate monotheistic deity, most of them have no problem with The Wizard of Oz or generic fairy tales (like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty). Now some do have an issue with all these works, and those people I respect. My principle complaint is hypocrisy here. If you are going to complain about the book in particular, you need to have complaints that are unique to that book.

Some Complaints That Are Unique to This Book

I personally rather enjoy the genre of fantasy, as does much of my family. Mostly I find the idea of alternate fictional realities to be fun, whether we are dealing with fantasy, science fiction, or comic books. Placing the human being in a completely different kind of context often makes fascinating studies in human nature. (And it's fun watching people turn into newts, and Jedis slicing through stuff with light-sabers)

So when the first Harry Potter book came out, my family was one of the first families to grab onto it. Most of my family, including me, had read the book before it started showing up in the general media. In fact, I had read the book twice before I started to hear Christian leaders telling people that they shouldn't. At the time, I laughed at it because their criticisms weren't based on anything that was true with the book.

As I got older, and especially as Harry got older, I started to notice some things that did bother me, as a Christian, in the books.

First, there is the general theme of rebellion throughout the books. I think that some people are too strict with rules, and when I first read the book, I read that attitude into them. However, I started to notice a general pattern that Harry not only often broke the rules, he seemed to have little regard for them at all. Indeed, they were often in his way of achieving his objectives.

Harry's role models didn't really help much either. In general, when breaking the rules resulted in something poor or wrong, he was generally punished by someone other than his role models. And when his role models did get involved, it was usually after he accomplished something quite good, and was thus only rewarded. This seemed to be justified by the idea of teaching Harry independence and bravery. However, it is also true that he rarely taught how to work within the system to accomplish his goals.

Second, there is certainly a general worldliness to the books. You can tell, especially in the latter books, that while this isn't true witchcraft, it most certainly isn't Christian. I don't think that we should only read things that are Christian, but considering that this is supposed to be children's literature, parents should be aware of what is in the books that their children are reading.

And this brings me to my third a last criticism (at least for this post). The books aren't really children's literature: it is teen literature. J. K. Rowlings supposedly set up the books so that it was targeting the age group that Harry was within that book. So in the first book he is 11, but in the last book he is 17.

That isn't really practical in real life. When a child finishes one book, they are going to want to read the next. And you can't say that we can just make them wait a year, because that is now turning it into a ritual, and I don't really feel comfortable doing something like that with these books. So I would never recommend the 1st book to someone who I don't think is ready to read the 7th.

Recommendations

So where does this leave me? Well, I think this is a matter of what an individual can handle. There are some that probably shouldn't read the books because they can't handle the themes that I mentioned. However, I think for most mature adults and even most teenagers, the books are fine, as long as they are read critically.

If you have a personal conviction against reading any fantasy or anything with magic, then don't read it. If you have a child who is too young to be able to read a book and be critical of that books message, then don't have them read it. If you are bothered by a story where the protagonist in constantly encouraged to break the rules, then don't read it. If you have a conviction not to read anything with worldly or secular themes, then don't read it. Otherwise: enjoy.