Presuppositions and Public Discourse

When my students get a Latin test they make mistakes because they attempt to translate sentences according to what they think I would say. For instance, consider the following sentence:

vīnum virōs cōservat

The English translation is:

wine preserves men

However, nearly everyone in the class translated the sentence as:

the men preserve the wine

What explains the mistake? Presuppositions. Given that most of them know their Latin endings, they should be able to work out that 'wine' is a nominative singular and 'men' is accusative plural. It seems that the most likely explanation for their mistake is a presupposition. A presupposition in interpreting speech or writing is what we take to be assumed facts, norms, and cultural mores among a group of language users. We have all sorts of presuppositions about wine and its use. Wine is the kind of stuff that goes in cellars to be preserved for a special occasion. 'Preserve' is even a word associated with wine and conjures up an image of some French sommelier cracking open a 1973 Beaujolais. So, my students thought the sentence must be about the wine being preserved by men.

But ancient Rome is not the same as the modern west. Indeed, the Romans thought wine was a daily necessity, a healthy part of life for all people. So, wine was thought to preserve men.

Pressuppositions in language help explain misunderstanding. A missed presupposition leads to a misinterpretation because we interpret according to what we think someone would say if we were him. To correct a presupposition we have to do a little work - what else could he mean? What presuppositions can we discern about his group of language users?

Of course, historical divides can be as wide as cultural divides. In our present day, the presuppositions of competing cultural perspectives are very different. On many issues the divides are so great we cannot understand the other's perspective at all! What we have to do is interpret one another's speech according to the various presuppositions a particular group of language users have rather than assuming we share the same presuppositions. This helps with Latin translations. It will also help with public debate.

How To Tell What People Want

In a free market with multiple businesses and good economic conditions most people can get what they want even if they don't get every thing they want. If you like stainless steel appliances, it's easy (lots of people want them), but even if you want pink appliances you can get them. That's how a free market works. Choice tends to increase over time as economies and demand grows. The important point to note is that if someone has pink appliances, it is likely that they wanted them.

In other words, in a free market economy you can often tell what someone wants from what they in fact have.

However, what if the entire population of a town needed new appliances? But instead of going out and getting what they wanted--stainless steel, pink, red with purple spots, big, small, sleek and modern, traditional and retro--they decided to vote for a committee to figure out what appliances they should have.

Initially the primaries would offer people the full range. The pink retro party might have some initial success due to the novelty of the idea. Pretty soon, though, most people would decide that they couldn't stomach so much pink in their kitchen. Over a few months the town would probably elect the stainless steel modern party who narrowly beat the inexpensive white party by only a few votes.

The point: in that town you would be much less likely to be able to tell what appliances people wanted from what they in fact had.

On Meaningless Waffle

Waffle is speech or writing that appears thoughtful at first glance, but has no discernible content. The New Civics Statement is waffle:

The New Civics initiative starts with the assumption that a central aim of civic education is to prepare young people to act with civic purpose and to do so effectively and with good judgment. Like others, we presume that individuals must be educated for citizenship and that schools have a historic mandate to develop young people’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions for responsible citizenship. At the same time, we expand the scope of civic learning for civic action beyond the school; as community organizations, political parties, and many other groups have both the interest and the capacity to contribute to this critical aim. If the goal is to prepare young people to act in informed and mature ways, what civic knowledge, skills, dispositions, and attitudes do they need to learn or develop? How do young people learn these building blocks for civic participation? Broadly speaking, how can education, in whatever form it takes and wherever it occurs, contribute to more effective programs and practices to achieve this goal? 
The New Civics initiative area invites research proposals that ask critical questions about how education can more effectively contribute to the civic development of young people. As a start, we ask what experiences, environments, and contexts help young people, from all walks of life, develop the habits, skills, understandings, and dispositions that encourage informed participation in civic affairs. In so doing we seek to connect to a tradition of civic education inside schools, both to reassert its legitimacy as a primary aim of public schooling, and to reimagine what civic education might include. Yet civic development also occurs outside classrooms and schools, and we underscore our interest in research about civic action and learning in those contexts as well. Our ultimate aim is to contribute to educational improvement by supporting high-quality research studies that can lead to better-designed, more effective programs, policies, practices, and settings that prepare young people to act and to do so in informed and reasoned ways.

What are we to take from this broadside of babble? A simple sentence: The aim of civic education is to help people to be good citizens. It tells us nothing about what a civilization should be, nor which civilization it refers to, nor even what makes such an aim different from the aim of 'old' civics. And what is a good citizen as opposed to a bad one? It doesn't even say what civics is! It is vacuous waffle. And vacuous waffle does not a civilization make.


Christian theism is, at least in part, a set of statements or propositions believers take to be true. The study of the coherence of Christian theism is the consideration of the coherence of that set of statements. It is not a study of whether or not those statements are true but whether or not if they are true there is any explicit or implicit contradiction within or implied by that set of propositions.

A contradiction is a relationship between propositions such that if it is the case that p, then it cannot also be the case that ~p. It is commonly suggested that among the set of propositions Christian theists hold there are cases of contradictions. If so, then that set of propositions is inconsistent and at least some of them are not true.

One way to solve the problem is to say that though there is a set of propositions that are true, there is no adequate way to express any of them in natural languages because human beings are not sufficiently well equipped to grasp any of those propositions. Perhaps only God has the capacities to grasp what is true of his own nature and we human beings cannot. Consequently, though saying “God is wise” says something, it says nothing about God. In fact, on this view, there is nothing we can say about God at all, at least when it comes to natural languages of the human community. The most obvious problem with this view is that it implies we are able to grasp one proposition about God and express it adequately in natural language, namely, that God has the property of having true propositions about him that no human being can grasp.

Another way to solve the problem is to deny that a set of propositions is coherent only if it is consistent. Some advocates of alternative logics deny that consistency is a necessary condition for coherence. There are, in other words, true contradictions. This view, while perhaps appropriate to some religions (Buddhism perhaps), is not something many Christians embrace and so its relevance is somewhat limited in the present context.

I assume that the set of propositions that make up Christian theism are internally consistent. This does not mean we have got every detail right. In fact, there may be adjustments to be made in how we express what we think is true. Nor does this imply that human beings are able to grasp every proposition about God. Consequently, perhaps some apparent contradictions are just that: apparent. And while we can’t think of how they all might be true, God can. If so, then we can be justified in holding to propositions about God that contain or imply apparent contradictions. We are justified in holding to them only if (i) there is sufficient warrant for holding to them (perhaps because scripture explicitly states them or they can be inferred from explicit statements in scripture or because they are necessary truths the rejection of which leads to some absurdity or other) and (ii) we can come up with logically possible ways in which they can be consistent.

A good example of both (i) and (ii) is found in the solutions to the problem of apparent incoherence of the doctrine of the Trinity. The problem facing the doctrine of the Trinity is how it is possible that God is one divine being and that he is three divine beings. More precisely, how we are to understand the following claims:

(1) There is one God
(2) The Father is God
(3) The Son is God
(4) The Holy Spirit is God
(5) The Father is not the Son
(6) The Father is not the Holy Spirit
(7) The Son is not the Holy Spirit

All the above are standard and incontrovertible features of orthodox Nicene Christian doctrine. However, clearly there is a problem with coherence. If all the properties had by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are necessary and sufficient for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be God, then according to the indiscernibility of identicals, the Father is numerically identical to the Son, the Son is identical to the Holy Spirit. The dilemma is as follows: either reject classic orthodox doctrine or embrace incoherence. Since the former is out of the question, the latter appears to be the only option.

There are several proposed solutions to the problem. Here are four. First, one might deny the strict form of identity in play. Peter Geach suggested that we should deny that numerical identity is the only identity game in town. Geach argues for relative identity whereby the sameness of x and y depend on the answer to the question: same what? On this view, kinds are more fundamental than properties and so identity is kind dependent. We should ask, when we probe whether x is the same as y, as to whether x is the same kind of thing as y. So put, it renders the doctrine of the Trinity thusly: The Father is the same God as the Son but the Father is not the same person as the Son.

Second, perhaps the individuating factor is functional. Some have suggested that subordination in the economic Trinity is what we mean when we say, for example, the Father is not the Son. Though the Father and the Son are identical when it comes to essential properties, they do not share the same relational properties. The Son is subordinate to the Father and the Father is not subordinate to the Son. The most obvious objection to the subordination view is that if the property the Son has of being subordinate to the Father is an essential property or if it is necessarily true that the Son is subordinate to the Father, then the Father and the Son do not have the same nature. If they do not have the same nature, then monotheism is false.

Third, one might attempt to reformulate what we mean by “one.” Do we mean that God is a singular entity or that there is a unique kind of unity among the members of the Trinity? Social Trinitarians suggest that unity should be taken in the latter sense. Rather than the three members being one being, they are three beings who mutual inhere one another. To say that God is one is to say that there is a perfect harmony among the members of the Trinity. Here is one objection: If there are three distinct centers of consciousness and three distinct “minds” that contain thoughts, then how is it that each person is fully divine? For what are thoughts? If thoughts are concepts or objects, then they “exist” within a mind or are created by an agent. But which agent? There are three options: One member has or creates thoughts (read: propositions) or the three members share equally the having or creating of thoughts, or thoughts exist outside the divine nature.

A final way is to embrace a form of paradox but stop short of incoherence. If one can show that it is highly plausible that the contradiction is only apparent and that holding to a set of propositions that entails an apparent contradiction is warranted, then one might be justified in an appeal to mystery. James Anderson argues that revelation trumps intuition:

If God alone is in a position to know how some state of affairs X that strikes us as metaphysically impossible is nonetheless possible (and indeed actual) then only an implicit assurance from God to that effect could warrant the belief that X is a mystery rather than an absurdity. Only divine revelation has the epistemic authority to 'trump' our natural intuitions about what is metaphysically possible and what is not.[1]

This view entails that we conceive of the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of what I suggested above in (ii) There is no way for us to see how some propositions hold together but we have maximal warrant for thinking they do. Since scripture serves such a role and it explicitly claims (1) – (7), we are warranted in holding to them.

[1]James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 265-266.

Why Correct Answers Do Not Entail Knowledge

It is tempting to say the following:

S can answer a question correctly only if S knows the answer to the question. 

However, we should resist the temptation. Consider the following:

When I was about 11years old I was sitting in a classroom, my gaze fixed firmly on the cricket pitch outside and paying no attention to what my teacher was saying.

Then I heard my name.

"Ben, can you tell us where the ship sprung a leak?" my teacher asked.

Now everyone's gaze was fixed on me. "Hull" I said without a pause.

"Yes, well done Ben" my teacher replied and carried on talking.

Now the backstory: When the teacher asked me where the ship had sprung a leak, I had interpreted him to mean where on the ship a had hole appeared. Well, where else but the hull of the ship? So that's what I said. But the teacher was asking me a quite different question: in what location had the ship sunk? The answer was: the port city of Hull in northern England.

So, was I right?

On one hand, I used the correct word. And, like guessing and getting a multiple choice question right, I would get the points. On the other hand, I had no idea that a ship had recently sunk let alone in which port it had happened. So, I did not know the answer.

So, did I answer correctly? I say, yes. I gave the correct answer, but did not know the answer.

"That's not right" you may say. My view would entail that an answer to a question is correct if and only if the words used are the correct words. If someone asks me, "who was the teacher of Aristotle?" and I reply, "Plato", I would be correct even if I am thinking about my dog, Aristotle, and my local dog-trainer, Plato.

What if I sat my intro to philosophy exam without knowing anything about philosophy? Knowing that the exam is a multiple choice exam, I studied the words to all the questions. I don't know who or what Leibniz is, but I do know that when I see the words, "who came up with the theory of monads?" I will write the word "Leibniz."

Now, this might sound like a terrible conclusion. It would mean that it is possible to ace one's history of philosophy final and know nothing about the history of philosophy. This should be reason enough to abandon Scantrons as the means by which we test a student's knowledge.

So let's say, no. In order to get the answer correct you must know the answer. I have to know that the answer to the teacher's question is 'the ship sank in the port of the city of Hull.' Moreover, I have to know what those words mean. I can't just recite them as if I am reciting words in a language I don't know. To get the correct answer I have to know the answer.

Here is one problem that might follow: it is unclear, if we take this view, as to how much a person would have to know about the answer to get the answer right. More importantly, what are the criteria for determining what counts as knowing enough about the answer to be correct when saying it? How much do I need to know about Hull when I say "Hull" in answer to the question?

Furthermore, what if, having left the classroom, I still had no idea about any ship sinking in the port of Hull? (Perhaps upon correctly identifying the part of the ship that springs leaks I returned to gazing at the cricket pitch). After class, as I saunter along, a boy comes up to me and says, "did you hear about the ship that sunk?" "Yes" I reply, "it sprung a leak in the hull."

Now, though the boy knew that a ship had sunk, he had no idea where. But now he is under the impression that the ship had sunk in the port of Hull (because he thinks that is what I have just told him). Would it be right to say that he knows that the ship sunk in the port of Hull?

On a standard view of knowledge there must be a true belief that is somehow justified or warranted. What exactly warrants the boy's knowledge? It can't be my knowledge. I still have no idea that the ship sank in the port city of Hull. And the boys knowledge appears to be an accident, a co-incidence of a word being the same for two different things, a port and a part of a ship. It would be like glancing at a stopped clock and coming to believe the time it told and it actually being that time. In fact, if you asked the boy what reason he has for thinking the ship sunk in the port city of Hull, he would not have one (c.f. Dean Pettit, "Why Knowledge Is Unnecessary for Understanding Language")

If the boy's belief that the ship sunk in the port city of Hull is not justified (or warranted), then he does not know that the ship sunk in the port city of Hull. If the boy went to his friend and told him the the ship sunk in Hull, he would be as correct as me even though he has in mind the port and I have in mind a part of the ship.

There is one possible reply to all this. Perhaps the question is about what makes a correct answer. What exactly is a correct answer? At least it involves correct reference. I shall return to this topic in a later post to suggest that it is possible that I said the correct word--'hull'--but neither knew the answer nor answered correctly.

Does Speech Have Rules?

Elizabeth Warren has been silenced in the Senate for impugning a fellow Senator. The rule tells Senators that criticizing the motives of a fellow Senator on the floor of the Senate is not allowed. Under Rule 19, Senators are not allowed to "directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator."

Now, having a rule for speaking in the Sentate makes sense. Imagine if there were no rules in the Sentate! But, what about the rest of us? Do we have any rules to follow? Perhaps someone might think that what matters is what one does. What we say is only words after all. They aren't subject to moral norms. Maybe we think we can say what we want as long as we do what is right. We have freedom of speech after all.

So, are there any norms for speaking. Here are three plausible candidates suggested by Nicholas Wolterstorff's in his book, Divine Discourse: 

First, we should say what we mean. When we assert something we should believe what we say. When we make a promise we should intend to fulfill it. When we ask a question we should want to know the answer. This rule states that there should be some proper connection between the speaker's mental state and the sentences she is uttering (or inscribing). Perhaps the rule can be best stated as my dad used to put it: engage brain before operating mouth. 

Second, when we make assertions about the actual world, what we say should match the world accurately. Fake News is not merely a problem on the internet, it is an all pervasive consequence of human sin - we cheat on our tests, exaggerate our talents, and cover our tracks. If I told you assertively my house has six bedrooms I would be getting my facts wrong. What I have said bears an improper relationship to the world - it gets it wrong. When I get it wrong I have some obligation to amend my sentence to include the fact that there are four bedrooms in my house, not six.

Finally, we should speak according to our role in society. By our speech we sometimes give ourselves roles we don't have. We pronounce ourselves not guilty even though we are not a judge. Thieves promise to provide goods in the marketplace that they have no right to promise. We call the basketball game even though we are not the referees. Social norms are often stipulated as is the case on the Senate floor. The rule applies to Senators and only applies when they speak in the Senate.

All of these obligations are to other people. And they are enacted the moment we open our mouths to speak. As I write to you I enter into an obligatory relationship with you. I am under obligation to you to restrict my speech to what conforms to norms of speech. I am also aware that there is never a time when my speech goes unheard. God always hears me. God gave us speech for worship. And by our words he will judge us (Matt 12:37). 

Notes: Does God Have a Nature?

When we say that God is good or that he is all-powerful we are predicating something of a subject as we are when we say “Socrates is wise.” On a realist view, the predicate is a property that is instantiated by the particular. “Wise” is a property of Socrates and, as such, and given realism, the property of is what is referred to by the term “wise.” To say that God is wise, or good is to say that God has the property of wisdom or goodness. If there are such things, as realists suggest, then they must exist in order to be referred to. In common parlance, such things are called universals. They are eternally existent abstract objects. Properties should be distinguished from kinds and relations. Kinds are categories that entities belong to, whereas properties are things that are had by entities. Relations are exemplified by multiple entities in relation to one another such as being taller than or far from.

The problem of coherence facing any account of God’s properties is this: If properties are eternally existing entities, perhaps even existing necessarily and, if nothing that exists apart from God exists outside of God’s control, then in what sense are properties under God’s control? Surely if they are necessarily existing things, then there is nothing God can do about them. On the other hand, if God has control over them, then they could have been otherwise. But then what would it mean to say that God has any of these properties essentially? For to say that he has a property essentially is to say that if he didn’t have it, he wouldn’t be God.

There are numerous proposed solutions to this problem. Here are a few: First, and most traditionally, one might say that God’s properties are identical to God’s nature. Whereas you and I have properties, God is identical to his properties. This is called the simplicity doctrine. It is supposed that if God is identical with his properties then he neither has to created them nor are they independent of God. This view was held by Aquinas.

Another way to solve the problem would be to say that there are no such things as properties. Properties are useful fictions by which we mean merely something true about a particular thing. To say that God is wise is to say that it is true that God is wise. There need be no actual referent implied by the predicate. So, an entity, E, has a certain property, P, essentially iff it is necessarily true that E is P. So, rather than deciding whether or not God has the property of wisdom essentially and whether there is such a thing as wisdom to be had, one should parse out essentialism as equivalent to a necessary truth: “God is wise” is true in all possible worlds.

Plantinga points out that this won’t do the trick. For what is true of properties is true of truths. If it is necessarily true that God is wise, then it could not have been otherwise. But then there is something that God has no control over. He does not get to decide on what is true or not. If he does get to decide, then “God is wise” is not necessarily true. If one were to reply that it is true in virtue of the nature of God and God exists in all possible worlds, then we are back to thinking of essentialism in terms of essential properties.

Perhaps, then, God could have been other than what he is. He could have decided on another set of properties altogether but did not. Though this is possible, we should not be concerned since God is who he is even though it is possible that he be something else. To say this is to say that no properties are necessary even though they are eternal. Perhaps only eternal properties are what we need.

Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2007).

Sermon: Psalm 44

Have you ever had a winning streak? Squash player, Jahangir Khan, once had a 555 game winning streak. From 1981-1985 he never lost a single game! Once in 1982, he won the International Squash Players Association Championship without losing a single point.

When you are on a winning streak—everything seems to be going perfectly—you do everything you can to stay on it. Winning streaks are marked by attention to doing the same thing, an attempt not to jinx the outcome:

In this pursuit of perfection, nothing was ever left to chance - Borg's Wimbledon routine was the same every year: the same hotel in Hampstead, the same locker, the same chair, the same number of towels on Centre Court. The same abstinence from shaving and sex for the duration of the tournament. And the same result

When a winning streak ends, the player wonders what changed. What made him lose. After a six-game winning streak last year the Miami Dolphins were beaten by the Ravens in Baltimore. Listen to what one of them said:

"The last few weeks we’ve been doing everything we’re supposed to be doing and finding a way to win," defensive end Cameron Wake said. "Hopefully we figure out what it is (that went wrong) real quick…Exactly [what’s wrong] today is still a mystery, but we’ve got 36 hours to fix it and you’ve got to move forward and get ready for the next opponent."

Perhaps you too have experienced extended winning streaks, times when God seemed to be moving the world in accordance with your benefit. He provided you with a home, a wife, children, a good job, car, success! And perhaps you too have seen the winning streak come to an end. Perhaps abruptly: a job failure, an unfaithful friend or spouse, a decision that couldn’t have worked out worse. And you wonder: what changed, what ended the winning streak?

In Psalm 44 we have the same pondering: the writer looks back at the winning streak (vs 1-8), but then describes its terrible end (9-16). He wonders what has changed (17-22) and concludes that is not the people who have changed—they have kept their routine like Bjion Borg did—but it is God who has stopped giving them success. So, in the final verses, the psalmist appeals to God to awaken and deliver them, return them to success.

So, let me read the psalm pointing out to you the sections: First, the psalmist recounts past victories:

44:1 O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm,
and the light of your face,
for you delighted in them.

4 You are my King, O God;
ordain salvation for Jacob!
5 Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
6 For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes
and have put to shame those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever.

Notice that past victories are dependent on the work of God. God ‘perfoms the mighty deeds’ that he knows about from his fathers. God plants the people in the land, he sets them free from affliction, God won the land for them, God’s mighty arm—not their’s—saved them because God delights in his people. In God’s power the people were able to vanquish their foes and because of this the people have learned to trust in God’s power not their own.

But now he contrasts the winning of the past with the apparent defeat of the present:

9 But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You have made us turn back from the foe,
and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
16 at the sound of the taunter and reviler,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

Again, the psalmist places the credit where credit is due. It was not they that won in the past and it is not they who are to blame for their defeat in the present. It is God who has rejected, disgraced, scattered, and sold his people out. It is because of God that the people are defeated by their enemies, robbed of their possessions, sold into bondage, made a joke by their neighbors, mocked by the nations, and now feel endless shame.

But why? What changed? What ended the winning streak? The psalmist goes through the list:

17 All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way;
19 yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
and covered us with the shadow of death.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

As he lists the possibilities, the psalmist can’t find any change in the people. They have remembered the Lord, they have been faithful to the covenant, they have not followed after other gods, they have been obedient. If they had done any of these things, then failure would make sense. But they haven’t so it doesn’t. The people are broken, covered with the shadow of death, killed, and regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. But none of these things happen because they have done anything to deserve it.

So, what changed? There is only one conclusion: God stopped performing the mighty deeds of the past. He is asleep, immobile. So, the psalmist concludes with a plea for God to awaken and return to the task:

23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
26 Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

Now, you might have been through this same process. God has blessed you in the past, but now you are defeated. You ponder what went wrong. In some cases you come upon a sin of yours and you are dealing with its effects, the consequences of what you have done. But in some cases, your winning streak ended because what God was doing at one time he is not doing now. You remember the days of blessing and pray for God to do it again:

“God, restore my passion for you and your mission that I had when you blessed me on that mission trip all those years ago”

“Lord, restore my joy in salvation that I had when I was first saved.”

“God, return to me the financial success you gave me before.”

“Father, I was more mature in my faith ten years ago than I feel now. I thought this sanctification process was supposed to go forwards.”

“Lord, that sin over which we had such a victory a few years ago is back – with a vengeance.”

I want to offer you three encouragements. The first is one the psalmist provides in his closing appeal to God. The second is one that the psalmist implies in psalm 44 and elucidates in the next psalm, psalm 45. And the final one is is supplied by Paul when he quotes this psalm in Romans 8.

First, the psalmist seems to imply that God is done with his people. We have stayed the same, but you, God, are tired of us. You have ceased to love us. You are moving on to place you affections on another people. Perhaps our enemies will become the apple of your eye. But that is not what the psalmist concludes. Indeed, his appeal to God to act is not an appeal for him to choose them as his people. The psalmist says: because of your steadfast love come to our aid. The psalmist knows that the kind of love God has for his people could no more be given up than God not be God anymore. In other words, if God stops giving you life’s successes he has not stopped loving you.

Of all the reasons for the end of a winning streak there is one possibility that is ruled out form the get go: God has not stopped loving you. His love is unbending and changeless. Once he has set his affection on you it cannot be lost. Whatever reason God has for allowing you to go through a hard time, it's not because he stopped loving you.

Second, the psalmist is not praying for a vain hope that the Lord will come and deliver them. In fact, deliverance is linked to steadfast love: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” In the next psalm the writer will look forward to the coming king, the Messiah, who will deliver them from all their enemies.

This is our hope. And it is as sure as the love that motivates it. The redeemer has come, and he will come again. Though the first coming of the Messiah was a future hope for the psalmist his second coming is our future hope. And when he comes we will experience a full deliverance from all our troubles.

Finally, in Romans 8, Paul writes,

8:31What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Do you see the connection? Paul quotes Psalm 44 and suggests that in all these things—ALL THESE THINGS—we are more than conquerors. This means that the losing streak is actually not a losing streak at all. Why the win and not the loss? Because none of what you go through can beat the connection God has with his people. And that is the greatest victory on earth. It is not merely the longest winning streak in history, it is an eternal, unbreakable winning streak!

Your Rights: Acquired or Essential?

Do you acquire the rights associated with personhood or are they essential to you? Consider rights in general, the right to vote, for example. You didn't always have this right. You acquired it. So, perhaps personhood is like the right to vote. You acquired it at some point in your development.

The right to life goes along with being a person. If you are a person, anyone who kills you has committed a moral and legal wrong. Most pro-choice arguments talk about this right as if it is acquired at some point in the womb. Prior to counting as a person, however, it is morally justified to kill the entity in the womb.

Personhood, however, is not like the right to vote. A right to do some thing or have some social standing is parasitic on the more basic question of what kinds of things are things that can have those kinds of rights. The most obvious answer is that persons have rights. But if so, then the kind of thing you are is a person and it is in virtue of you being the kind of thing you are--a person--that you can acquire all sorts of other rights (the right to vote, for example). But notice: being a kind of thing is not something acquired; it is something you are. Nothing of any kind acquires the property of being of that kind. If so, then you always were what kind of thing you are now - a person. There was no point after your conception that you changed from one kind of thing into another kind of thing. Therefore, it is wrong to kill the person in the womb at any stage in its development.

John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 102. 

An Ordinary Language Argument for Children in the Womb

"You were always wriggling" mom says. "I could never get a nappy on you without a fight"

"I still can't stop fidgeting," the boy says.

"I know," chimes in dad, "I have to sit next to you at mealtimes!"

"Haha. You wriggled so much in my womb I couldn't sleep." Mom hugs her son. "During labor you you managed to get the cord wrapped round your neck and had to be pulled out extra quick."

"I'm glad you made it, son"

"Wait a minute," the abortionist interjects, "there was no "you" in the womb. "you" refers to a person, but you were not a person in the womb. You were once an it. In fact, my last sentence does not make sense. You did not exist so you couldn't be anything. You began to exist at some time when the object from which you are made became a person. So, strictly speaking, the object moved in the womb."

"Oh," says mom. "But didn't John leap with joy in Elizabeth's womb (Luke 1:44)? An impersonal object cannot move with joy. Only persons can have joy. Doesn't the Psalmist tell us that he was 'knitted together' in his mother's womb. Listen: You [God] knitted me together in my mother's womb (Psalm 139:13 cf. Job 31:15). The writer thinks nothing of referring to himself in the womb. It is quite ordinary to do so."

"Well, that's just the Bible. The authors back then didn't know what we know now."

"Yes, but we all talk about our children as being persons in the womb. It's very difficult not to. Even Hillary Clinton said, 'The unborn person does not have constitutional rights' and then referred to what you call 'it' as the 'child'. What you are trying to say is that we should be more precise with our language. But even those who agree with you have a hard time. Now, either ordinary language has got it wrong or the entity in the womb is a person, a child. And it's not just a matter of language. My son's wriggly personality that he has now is the same wriggly personality he displayed in the womb.

"What you're trying to get me to do is be a skeptic about what seems reasonable to believe: that the person I am hugging now is the same person who grew in my womb."